Friday, October 23, 2020

Season Passes

2020 presented me with an unplanned and unique opportunity to complete four season passes in roughly a months time. Since this will likely not happen again, I decided I should document what I learned about the differences in the passes.

Season Passes are the current preferred monetization method in free-to-play games and some retail games are using them as continue monetization and player interactions over time. The consistent features of the passes seem to be a limited amount of time to earn rewards (usually new to the game and cosmetic) with free and paid tiers of rewards you unlock during the time the pass is active. While the free items are free to earn while the pass is active, the paid items require hard currency (currency you can buy with real money) to be paid to unlock them, and will often allow you to earn back the full purchase price of the pass if you earn a high level within the time frame the pass is active.

Below I will give a quick comparison of the four passes I was able to recently complete.

Rocket League:

What's Unique::
The Rocket Pass is the most generous with it's free content in my opinion. Once the pass is maxed it rolled random painted (pallet swapped) rewards from the pass and with repeat protection you don't run out of unique items until somewhere in the 300 level range (if my memory is correct) depending on the pass and how many items are painted with how many colors etc.

Normal Levels:
Rocket Pass goes to level 70 with 3 variations of the "hero car" from the pass and a variety of cosmetics for the hero car and many other popular cars. The majority of items aren't tied to a specific car and can be used on any of them. Cosmetics include: decals, paints, wheels, goal expulsions, boosts, etc.

Bonus Levels:
From level 71 on painted versions of most of the later level rewards will start dropping with some more currency for paid pass levels and random items for free players. If you keep leveling to around 100 I think you'll earn your currency back for unlocking the premium tiers.

The Rocket Pass is what I have the most experience with, I implemented most of the code driving the UI and have a very thorough understanding of at least the first season pass. I've completed all of the season passes so far, so it's kind of the measuring stick for me. At the time of writing: I am also currently employed at Epic Games' Psyonix Studios.


What's Unique:
If my memory is correct Fortnite and DotA 2 started the Season Pass idea and the Battle Pass hands down has the most content in any pass I've looked into. In the Marvel pass they have 8 characters, not to mention other cosmetic items like tools, backpacks, gliders etc. They also have an extensive challenge system that has random daily challenges, and curated weekly and event challenges that both help you make fast progress through the pass and unlock new content if you complete enough weekly content, including skins. The way the challenges are spaced out make the pass relevant for it's entire duration in a way I haven't seen any of the other's accomplish. A late unlock Wolverine skin that is unique requires eight and a half weeks worth of weekly challenges to be completed. Each pallet swap of the 8 main skins require the majority of a specific set of two week challenges to be completed, so even in the last two weeks when you're well past max level you're still doing weekly challenges to unlock variants. Also these weekly challenges aren't retired at the end of the week so if you're on vacation, buy the pass late, etc., they're all still there to complete. Battle Pass is a very player friendly design. My only complaint is I thought I was getting to the end a couple times and kept getting more content, but really that's just more to do!

Normal Levels:
Battle Pass goes to level 100, but there are alternate skins that are added as you do weekly challenges. The content varies per patch, but this one had 8 Marvel characters and all the accessories made for each of them.

Bonus Levels:
After level 100 the Battle Pass has a silver, gold, and multi-color version of each major skin and a few other accessories as well. There was also a completely alternate Wolverine skin that unlocked after doing enough weekly challenges, not technically past 100, but hidden until late pass. There could be more I'm not aware of as the pass keeps surprising me with new content.


What's Unique:
The Hunt Pass does feel a little light on content, but they had a bonus period at the end that increased the amount of XP earned to help make the last push to complete the pass easier. The cool unique thing here is the store that you get currency for as you level up. You get a small amount under 50, but past 50 you get a fair amount every level. I believe it lets you buy content from previous passes you may have missed out on with currency you earn leveling the current pass.

Normal Levels:
The Hunt Pass goes to level 50 and gives you 3 full armor sets as well as armor dyes, hair styles and colors, weapon skins, and other cosmetics and emotes, etc.

Bonus Levels:
Hunt Pass levels starting with 51 give you the special currency that you can use in the Hunt Pass store. The only down side is if you have purchased every pass do you already have all this content? Even if so they could easily add new content here too.

Magic the Gathering: Arena

What's Unique:
The Mastery pass was the lightest content wise and most interesting from a design perspective. This is the only pass that could be argued is pay-to-win because it comes with so many card packs as rewards, and the better the decks you can build the more likely you are to win matches. It also comes with tournament "entry tickets" that are "worth" whatever the entry fee is for those tournaments, and tournament rewards also contain packs of cards. There are very few cosmetics available in the game, and after you max the normal pass they also start giving out a lot of game currency to players who paid for the pass that could compound the pay-to-win feel? As a player you're given the most valuable items available, but there also aren't many options for purely cosmetic rewards in the game so it's hard to fault the developers. It's an interesting conundrum!

Also experience to level up seems very limited. There are daily challenges, that will cache up to 2 previous days to give you a total of 3 days worth of challenges to grind at a time, daily wins, and one other bucket I can't remember. After you complete these I don't believe there is a way to progress your pass until the next day. This is probably a design limitation to control the flooding of packs and currency by people rapidly completing a pass?

Normal levels:
The big item in these passes are the cosmetic pets you get a few variants as you progress in the pass and a player avatar. There are cosmetic card variants and card backs, but that's all the cosmetics in the game. Card packs show up throughout the game and the pet maxes at level 50, so we'll call this the cap even though it's harder to define in this pass.

Bonus Levels:
Above level 50 it's mostly currency rewards. You can see the pass up to 130, and then it's random cards to fill out your sets. The do have duplicate protection, so overall it's a great way to build decks, and since Magic sets are retired regularly passes are limited for how long these earned cards are useful, mitigating at least the amount of time you have an advantage from buying a pass. Also all the cards are available other ways, you just get them much faster buying a pass.

Sunday, April 15, 2018

Longshot - Madden NFL 18 It's Good! What?

I was pleasantly surprised with Madden NFL 18's Longshot. I rented the game to check out the use of the Frostbite engine and see the story mode I'd heard great things about. Even expecting it to be good I was still surprised with how good it actually is. I'll avoid plot spoilers so feel free to read without to much worry, if you're really interested you'll have played it by now anyway!

Frostbite doesn't relieve the main problem I always have with Madden games, the uncanny valley is massive! Time was obviously spent on the main characters to make their models the highest quality in the game to help. Wade and Cruise specifically got a lot of work while the other cast have a range of quality between these two and the coaches in game that look pretty bad. With the massive uncanny valley in Madden shockingly they were able to string a thin rickety rope bridge across the valley making you care about the story despite the massive valley looming below daring you to look down and break immersion with every step!

So the interesting thing to me is how they did this. One aspect was the better character models for story mode. Based on what I see in the game I think the story characters have translucency and specular masks where other models like coaches do not, and spectators don't even have lighting.

Story character's skin is done so much better than anything else in the game. Coaches and crowd are really a spot Madden's visuals break down. Also the voice acting was very good. There were only a couple of lines I can think of that didn't feel like they belonged in the situation, most of them were delivered well. The music in Madden is always very far from what seems fitting for an NFL game. Longshot takes place in a Texas town and has an appropriate country style soundtrack that fit far better than their normal game's soundtrack fits NFL football.

A couple of things I hope they change for next season are the quick-time-events. I'm never a fan, but these aren't normal Madden controls and don't fit in any way with the game. The ones where you move your floating ball cursor to the highlighted location and then have to quickly press whatever button prompt only shows up when you're already tracking correctly caused headaches especially the first couple times. Also as in Telltale games the conversation quick-selection is to fast. The game should take input immediately and keep going, but stop and wait for your input too if you need more time to pick, and the defaults aren't what you always want to pick. Quick-time-events can be failed easily even when you know the correct answer and what you're suppose to be doing.

Lastly, towards the end of the game there are a string of 5 challenges that don't save between each. That's just far to much content to have to repeat if you can't get through it in one sitting. I assumed at the completion of each it would save like a normal game and had to replay almost the entire thing.

There are some pretty nice plot twists and what appears to be reuse of other Frostbite assets, but in a really cool way. I do wonder how much you can change the story by your choices such as Cruise's ending, I had to re-play a bit because of the bad save system, and it appears the story is pretty set, but you never know for sure. One character Ross is completely annoying until he has a scene with a hoverboard that just pushes him over the top and kinda made me like him after that.

It surprised me how good the story was from a game that hasn't had any in the past. I'm waiting for next year to see the next chapter of the story and see what Frostbite improvements they can make for year two! Madden is a game I normally buy one copy of per system, but the story mode might change that for me. The beginning of my play through from my Twitch stream is embedded below. Like this post it ends right before any major spoilers. And further into the game you get to use actual Madden controls and gameplay and it gets far better. Enjoy!

Tuesday, February 13, 2018

Blood, Sweat, and Pixels - Mini Review

So I did something I do less then I finish a game: I finished a book! I received this book from my wonderful wife for Christmas and 16 days into January I completed it with travels and all.

Who should read this book?
  • Everyone considering going into the game industry before spending considerable time, energy, and money on that pursuit. You should know what you're getting into! 
  • Anyone that has ever posted an angry complaint about a video game. Realize what went into the game before you rant. Chances are they are painfully aware of many more problems with the game than you are.
  • Anyone who loves games and wants a better appreciation or idea of how they are made.
  • Anyone already in the game industry could probably find something useful here. Either a pitfall to avoid, or just a realization that other studios have/are going though the same thing you are.
Jason seems to have a good grasp on the games industry. The introduction is about the most honest straight forward account I've read. Some of the chapters about larger studios are from an upper management point of view and so they glamorize and necessitate "crunch" as part of the process while talking only about high level issues, and filtering everything through their PR department. While these chapters are still interesting the best parts of the book are the less guarded chapters including examples of independent studios and a single developer telling his story.

From chapter 4 or 5 to the end the book shines with a "tell it how it is" feel. The book has an honest portrayal of what making a game alone or as a small team might be like. It shows how even "successful" studios are often only a single failure from closing their doors and some of the struggles and compromises they make to stay afloat. It looks at why some of the design choices may have been made and the struggle between developers and publishers that effect games more then most people realize.

It's a fairly short book at 279 pages with good sized print, but the thoughts are put together and presented well including footnotes. Many of the stories I knew something about, but each had more details than I knew before reading. If the studio has released multiple titles Jason also does a quick historical overview of relevant history to catch you up with the story he's telling. The games covered in this book are:

  • Pillars of Eternity
  • Uncharted 4
  • Stardew Valley
  • Diablo III
  • Halo Wars
  • Dragon Age: Inquisition
  • Shovel Knight
  • Destiny
  • The Witcher 3
  • Star Wars 1313

I have slight disagreements with his conclusions. I agree that it is a wonder any game ever gets made with everything that happens during the process, and crunch will always be a part of games, but i feel for another reason.

Games can and should be scheduled out to work within the studios budget and timeline, if crunch is required something went wrong and you need to hire for the work or move the date. It's illogical and probably illegal most of the crunch that happens in the industry. Planning for everything to take the maximum time you think it might seems to be working at studios I've worked for recently. This approach gives tasks that complete early to cover the ones that go long. At some point if you commit to a deadline you might need to put in a bit of extra time to make it, but there should never be long crunch phases, it's simply unsustainable.

So why did I say crunch will always be around? It is touched on a bit in this book. Game development attracts perfectionists and people will put in the time to do as good of a job as they can. If there is often "extra" time because of proper scheduling the level of polish will be higher with less bugs. If extra work is optional people will do it as passion project in a sustainable way.

Okay, sorry for the mini-tangent on the mini-review. Buy the book, it's a great read about the industry! If you're still on the fence Jason has posted a full chapter about Diablo III here:

Read it and pick up form favorite book store!

Thursday, January 18, 2018

Cut Mechanics That Don't Help Your Game

You could ask the question of many game mechanics: Why are they there? I've heard death in games just in general questioned... but in this post I'm specifically looking at Super Mario 3D World and why lives are still a part of the game?

Donkey Kong and later Super Mario Brothers released in the arcade and arcade games make money by accepting quarters, so 1 quarter for 3 lives and fairly robust systems to gain more lives was a good mechanic for arcades and I assume this is where the idea of lives started in the Mario series

In 2013 however, Super Mario 3D World only released on consoles. The game saves after EVERY level so as long as you complete a level no progression is ever lost. (a good thing) 3D World also gives you unlimited continues as it should, so the only thing lives do in single player is give you x number of tries from the level's mid-level flag checkpoint if you need them.

You might not see a problem, indeed lives are a pretty useless mechanic at this point except for personal goals like you only used one life, or didn't use a continue. The problem is playing multiplayer especially with players of unbalanced skill levels. Specifically I've been playing with my 3 year old son quite a bit, and if he is on a level with challenging platforming or avoidance he will go through all of our shared lives and won't be able to play while I either finish the level or give into his please to kill myself so he can play with me again. This is a needlessly frustrating co-op game mechanic. The game gives you an invulnerable raccoon/fox suite that completely breaks most of the game's mechanics, but limits you to 5 lives per continue? So why not simply give unlimited lives in a multiplayer game? This doesn't even break any other game mechanics.

My speculations as to why lives are in the game:

The advantages to having lives: Lives do artificially limit the game and I can see how equally competent players could like this either by making the game more challenging or allowing for competitive griefing. This could be retained by making standard or free-play an option for multiplayer. There is also the since of urgency if you are at the half-way checkpoint to make it through the level before running out of lives. Lives give coins and green mushrooms meaning. (ways to get more lives)

The disadvantages of lives: The loss of a collectible: no more green mushrooms or they would have to do something different. Green mushrooms are often placed in precarious situations making your risk death for another life. Coins would also be effected: collecting 100 coins wouldn't really matter anymore. Really though the only disadvantage that matters is that they break multiplayer... multiplayer isn't multiplayer anymore if you can't play together because one player is dead and you're out of lives. If you're playing with a kid (it is a Mario game after all) you have to listen to them ask "where am I?" "get me back!" "where did I go?" "daddy fix it!" If you're playing with older kids/adults, while less vocal it is the SAME problem, someone is waiting around holding a controller that does nothing while the others have fun without them.

Anyway, it's interesting to take a look at game mechanics that have out lived their usefulness and try to figure out why they weren't cut in development. My best guess is multiplayer is somewhat tagged on to a lot of games and I'm considering writing a post just on this topic.

Like I said at the start Super Mario 3D World is still a good game, having lives just makes multiplayer frustrating. I'm looking forward to Super Mario Oddasy coming out here in a few days! I've avoided as much as I can about the game since I know I will be playing it at some point, but I really hope they eliminate lives at least in multiplayer and REALLY hope they bring back Yoshi!

Note about this blog post: It was written right before Mario Oddasy was released, Miiverse was taken down so I lost the ability to take screen shots. Oddasy also has probably the worst multiplayer ever. I hope Super Mario 3D World is released on the Nintendo Switch without lives in multiplayer so more people can experience this lost gem!

Monday, September 11, 2017

Kids and Gaming - Personal Observations

I'm going to write about my observations of something I know little about and have read even less about. Kids and gaming. First off one thing I have learned is kids move at their own pace, and if yours is ahead or behind don't worry about it! He'll catch up, even out, or has other interests he'll pick up. My son was a super late walker and behind for about the first 18 months and we worried a bit, then he has been on track roughly since.

We'll start with a bit of background, I'm a game developer and my son is nearly 3 and a half years old. I've always known I wanted him to enjoy games, but wasn't sure when to get him into them. I'd mostly use them to keep him entertained when he was visiting me at work as pictured above. I'd setup Forza Horizon 3 or more recently Rocket League and let him push buttons and watch what was on screen. His brain didn't seem to be linking the on-screen action with what his hands on the controls were doing though.

Super Mario Run came out and I was slightly amused, being in the gaming industry I try to play as many games as I can and have time for, so it was downloaded and played it a little. One day my son needed to be entertained out and about and hey Run was on my phone.

After he was hooked on the game for a while I decided to support Nintendo and dropped the $10 to unlock the game as my son had played through the starting 4-5 levels, but figured it would get to hard for him. Within a few weeks though he'd unlocked all the levels through mostly the games "easy mode" that allows unlimited time and deaths.

He was at the last level and there is no easy mode so he started asking for help. Since I hadn't played the game in a while I played the last level figured out the kick the bomb into Bowser mechanic and showed/explained it to him. For a couple days every chance he got to play he kept trying to finish this level on "normal" mode and failing continuously.

His persistence surprised me and sure enough after a week or so he'd beaten the level himself multiple times!

During this time he'd also developed a bit of an obsession with Yoshi as Blue Yoshi is the first unlockable character in the game and I'd found a wind-up walking Red Yoshi at a local comic book store. He's obsession was now "unlock Red Yoshi on daddy's phone!" This is no small task and appears to be the "you have no live" achievement for the game, so I started looking for alternatives.

Knowing the Wii U hadn't sold well and expecting games to be hard to find now that it's discontinued I have a small library of games I'd like to play "some day" for the system. In that library is Yoshi's Woolly World. This had 2 things: Yoshi, and it was the closest most accessible game to Super Mario Brothers I could think of. Super Mario Brothers was my first real post Atari 2600 gaming experience and seemed like a good next progression for my son.

Mechanically in fact it's almost identical. The only new major mechanic is yarn throwing and a there are a few smaller things like double jumps, ground slams, etc that came to the Mario series later on.

I was going to let him watch me play as we'd done with a few other games, but he immediately wanted to play himself, so I thought that was a good sign, but quickly thought this was a mistake as he couldn't move and jump a the same time, and I got an almost constant demand for "daddy help me" this went on that entire play session and the start of the next, but he never wanted to just watch, or stop playing. A few minutes into the next session I needed to leave and left him playing without help figuring it wouldn't last long, but I came back about 15 minutes later and he was still playing on his own. Progress was still very slow involving him sitting in an underworld area eating and spitting bad guys into each other for a long time, but practicing using the mechanics.

I had the entire 1-1 world memorized and it seemed he wasn't mechanically going to be able to get through it yet. He was moving and jumping though and now was having questions about how to progress... things we take for granted like down to go down pipes, up to open doors, and the level was requiring more accurate yarn throwing and assuming you would throw at an empty circle of gems to "find" the flower spawner you needed to complete the level. After a coupe days of showing him mechanics and how they are used I hear a sequel of joy quickly followed by "daddy I did it!" He'd finished the level on his own and within the next hour or less he was at the first boss having finished 4 more levels. And I watched him amazed how much better he was playing in only 3-4 days!

Both Yoshi's Woolly World and Super Mario Run have some really great "easy mode" features and considerations for kids/non gamers that I didn't have starting out, but I'm still shocked how quickly he was able to pickup and get good at both of them. While the transition wasn't fast enough for me to think it was going to work initially, looking back on it there was so much progress made in a short time!

I don't know what advantages this might have, but I'm excited to see his persistence even though it's hard at times! He's got some eye-hand coordination and incredible problem solving skills showing. He's having to prioritize what he wants to do with his limited "screen time" and hopefully this will all transfer to life skill. Who knows if he'll keep gaming, but it's cool to share something that is a big part of my life with him.

Next game? We have a vacation coming up, the Switch controllers are nice and kid sized, and they added some good driving assists to the Switch version of Mario Kart 8!

Sunday, July 30, 2017

Why I'm Looking Forward to Monster Hunter World

Fans seem to be very split about Monster Hunter World. I understand a lot of the concerns, but thought I would write a post about why I'm so excited for it. Monster Hunter World was the major surprise from this year's E3 and literally got me giddy like a teenage girl!

Capcom makes good games, but their releases are often underwhelming. What they call sequels MMOs or any "games as a service" product would simply call patches or expansions not entirely new games. Monster Hunter hasn't had a significant re-working in years. While I am a relatively new fan I've gone back and played many of the older games as well as importing Japanese only titles and playing the Chinese only Monster Hunter Online. The original Playstation 2 entry was fairly unique (I never tried importing Monster Hunter 2). After these first two Playstation games was the Freedom series. Freedom Unite was the only one of the series I played, but my understanding is this was a cumulative update. Since Freedom Unite Monster Hunter has basically been the same. Yes there have been new weapons, quality of life improvements, much needed hit-box fixes and graphical and mechanical improvements, but you can play anything from Freedom Unite to Generations and it basically plays the same.

With World, the biggest legitimate complaints is the fact it's not on hand held. While I personally can't wait to play an HD big screen experience (This is the main reason I played Online), I have grown to enjoy the ability to bring my 3DS to work and simply sit next to 3 other people at lunch and play. Local multiplayer will be severely lacking in World, but we get the trade off of the best graphics I've seen in Monster Hunter to date.

Also I do hope the Monster Hunter XX (Double Cross) does actually release in English on the Switch. The base game (Generations) has already been localized so only G rank content would need to be localized and this would give us the mechanically definitive version of this Monster Hunter time frame (Freedom-Generations) in the West. It really makes no since for Capcom to not release XX in the West based on the very little effort it would take to localize and the fact the game would stand alone in the Action-RPG space on the Switch. Capcom also recent said they were surprised by the sales of Street Fighter II on Switch and are considering more Switch releases. I think I would be in the camp that argues 4 Ultimate is actually a better over-all game (balance, progression curve, story), but a 60 fps 1080p Monster Hunter on Switch with the mechanical improvements made on Generations would be a great game we should get to play in North America!

Okay back to World... with the recent weapons videos I think it's much more clear this is a Monster Hunter game, I was actually hoping for a bit more re-tooling, but as long as they fix things like being able to change directions mid-combo to make following monsters/avoiding hits possible and make canceling out of combos easier I'll be happy with the HD upgrade we are getting. Having all the favorite weapons return is a good thing and while many of the monsters appear new this isn't a bad thing. I hope the Artificial Inelegance re-vamps are real! Not cheesing zone lines should help the immersion and using environments looks limited at the moment, but full of potential! For the first time ever in the series the North America and Japanese versions are releasing at the same time! The last question I have that I haven't heard an answer on is will we get G rank? Playing Portable 3rd and now Generations, Monster Hunter isn't really Monster Hunter until you hit that difficulty curve in G rank that requires you to put effort into your hunts. Fingers crossed, but Yes I am more excited for Monster Hunter World then I've been for any other title I can think of in the last few years!

-PC version!!!!! /mic drop

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Doom Modding was my First Taste of Game Development!

Recently I was asked something to the effect of: “What was the one game that got you into game development?” At the time I couldn’t come up with an answer, but since I can never shut my brain off the next morning in the shower I came up with the answer, and figured it was worth a blog post. It brought back such great early memories of gaming.
The answer is Doom. It was the first game I modded and had great support for packaging and distributing content in WAD packs compatible with anyone who had the game. If I remember right you could do a single image or level swap to a full game overhaul and it was always contained in the single .wad file no matter how simple or complex.

The most memorable Doom mod was taking the German Shepherd sprites from Wolfenstein 3D and replacing the pink demon in Doom with the dog. I packaged the enemy swap with a half dozen or so levels that started with normal run and gun levels, had a puzzle level that teleported you into a room full of enemies if you failed, and was at a difficulty that still challenged me after hours of play. By the time I completed the levels I could clear them fairly regularly, but everyone else I watched try them struggled with the difficulty. It was great watching other people enjoy something I’d created even if it was on par with some of the overly difficult Mario Maker levels.

The main thing I remember about the level editor was the limitation of only being able to have one play space in the up (z?) axis. I wanted to create an underpass type of situation, but level editor couldn’t ever create it correctly in game. I think it was actually an engine limitation, but even way back then working around limitations was an interesting problem to solve. Doom was a game that pushed PC Gaming forward and the great mod support was my first early taste of game development, I was hooked!

After writing this I'm going to look through my drawer/boxes for the last few remaining floppy disks I have and see if I can find one labeled "Doom WAD." I keep a Windows XP laptop solely because it's the last hardware I have capable of reading 3.5 floppies. If I can find those levels I'd like to play them again!