Tuesday, 26 August 2014

And That's It for Blaugust From Me

I'm going to be rather short on private time and internet access until next Monday, so this'll be it for the month of daily posts. I jumped on Ale and co.'s attempts to coerce people into actually updating their web logs since I needed the practice at writing regularly. I've been pretty much writing stream of conscience so far just to get content up regardless of quality or consistency. Just writing at all was what I needed at the start of this month.

So where to from here? Here's what my writing needs next:
 - Heavy proofreading and editing.
 - More primary sources when possible (easier when I get my recording stuff back this weekend)
 - More verified sources for other arguments
 - An elaborate social media advertising campaign.

Some ideas over this month were pretty big stretches to get into more than 40 words. I've still got other ideas I floating around in my head that I want down in text form but need more fleshing out. I'll be aiming for at least one post a week after this.

So why can't I post over the next few days? I'm going to Melbourne's (and Australia's now I think of it) largest fighting game event Shadowloo Showdown. I've entered just Blazblue and KOF13 from memory. I'm not particularly interested in either tournament at this point though. The main reasons I'm going are:
 - I already booked this months ago
 - Travelling means I get to play the videogames I like with people besides the usual local airdash guys
 - I'll be writing about certain facets of communication and language used by people at the event for Uni. If I'm happy with that I might put up some excerpts as a post or two.

I have no idea what internet access will be like in the place we're staying. If it's good, I might be able to get some poverty stream going while there. I also intend to run a side tournament for Under Night In-Birth, so we'll see how that goes. I'm expecting this to happen to me a lot.

So thanks for reading so far. Feedback is always welcome.

Monday, 25 August 2014

On Sports as Videogames

A couple of months ago I had an interesting discussion with one of my Pals. The guy hates MOBAs/ARTS/Whatever insulting joke acronym you prefer for games like LoL, DOTA, Aeon of Strife, Awesomenauts and what have you. I too am not very fond of the genre, but I played devil's advocate for the next hour or so to see where it would lead. Discussion about esports as an institution, comparisons to existing team ball sports and general game theory ensued. The ultimate crux of my friend's argument was roughly this:

You've got a 5v5 game on a single map with a roster of characters to pick. There's just not enough stuff going on. This is a videogame, not Soccer.

The guy is a humongous Soccer fan for reference. When I suggested that simplicity is the best solution to make something enjoyable, his response was roughly:

Yeah, but that's because there's physical and logistic limitations with a ball sports. This is a game being played on computers. We could be making the game do anything! We could be providing options to reshape terrain and create additional cover and constructing new ways to move around. Character matchups aren't interesting enough on their own.

I'll let you take from this whatever you feel like. There's all sorts of interesting stuff you can construct from these ideas.

I sort of agree with him with regards to a single fact: videogames are not the same as physical sports. You aren't bound by the logistics of running a multi-million dollar event where people want to be entertained en masse, want their team/favourite athlete to win and want to yell at umpires. You don't have to prevent injuries, maintain blood rules or do checks for doping. Lots of rules exist in sports for the safety and enjoyment of everyone involved. This need not apply when it comes to playing a videogame with friends.

In other words, I think that videogames can be more enjoyable than sports by being simpler. Like, say, traditional videogame adaptations of existing sports. Take a game like Neo Geo Cup 98 or NBA Jam or Neo Turf Masters. You get the basic objectives of the sport like "put a ball in a gap of some sort", but the similarities often stop there. No people can get hurt or sued for assault, so the games often involve much more fierce rushes to the ball. Much dirtier offense. Much higher scores and much more yelling from the players. There's a certain simple charm in those sorts of videogames that are made just to be played by people.

Does that make something Windjammers or Neo Turf Masters a better competitive game than Starcraft 2? Probably not. Nevertheless, I think that any game should still be fun to play at any level, so having a fun base is a good start.

I cannot even remember what I wanted to write when I started typing. That was 4 hours ago and some silly Skype + Supercade happened in the middle for various reasons. More lucid thoughts tomorrow, methinks.

Sunday, 24 August 2014

Obligatory Breathe Deep Post

Another brief one today. Need to get my recording equipment back from the guy who's borrowed it. Also have a lot of work to do before I go to Melbourne for Shadowloo Showdown V.

I might as well toss in a spoiler warning for obvious reasons.

The nicest thing about the episode was seeing the Doctor use reason and wit to solve a problem. It wasn't a completely hard sci-fi solution, but it was a nice bridge from the borderline Magical Girl solutions Matt Smith ran with and a potentially more logic-driven show. Then again Moffat's still in charge so it's entirely possible that we'll wind up with a story arc that writes itself into a corner.

As far as I can tell, the actor who played what's credited as The Half-Faced Man hasn't been in much television. I'll assume he's got a strong theater background because he was a delight to watch. Stories about robots becoming human without realising it are an idea I'm fond of. Doubly so if they've taken on ideals that they now assume are part of their programming. Unless it actually was, in which case this is the most Twilight Zone-ish twist in a while.

I don't feel like doing a conventional review (or commentary about Moffat's love for gimmicks. Today's being to hold your breath), so I'll just mention one other thing before signing off for today. That is,some of the plot points in this episode. They included:
 - A dinosaur in London
 - A hidden spaceship
 - A desire by antagonists to go to The Promised Land

Yeah, we might as well just label this as a fancy-pants big budget Hollywoodified remake of the timeless Pertwee story Invasion of the Dinosaurs. Given how this show is I can definitely see that as being intentional. Cute wrapping for what was all-in-all a fun episode.

Saturday, 23 August 2014

What Makes a Good Grappler? Exhibit 4: Alpha 3 Zangief


"Oh, you jumped when I went for a throw? That's also the wrong move to make."

I hate you Alpha 3.

Real post when I'm not driving to Pt. Pirie and back in a day to do a play.

Friday, 22 August 2014

Some Day 1 Notes on Yatagarasu: Attack on Cataclysm

So the first public alpha for Yatagarasu's second revision was released to the Kickstarter backers today. Here's what I've noticed so far:

Kou and Shou
Appear to play the same. Haven't found any alterations to their previous combo theory (which is mostly cr.LK cr.LK uppercut xx super anyway). Their fireballs have been redrawn to be much larger. Hopefully the hitboxes are larger as well. Uppercuts also have fancy fire effects now. This might have increased hitbox size.

EX Scourge Impact (623+Punches, the projectile reflector) no longer combos into his antiair grab super. Heavy Scourge Impact might have more frame advantage. That or I just got the link into cr.HP perfectly every time.
So 623HP, cr.HP 623PP st.HP still does 20 000 damage. This alone is huge. cr.HP into EX dropkick still carries to the corner too.
Scourge Impact also has a cool new shockwave visual. Whoosh!

Still appears to work the same. You still have to do EX j.214Punch if you want the grimy command run crossunder/fake crossunder mixups.

Damage on her command grabs has been reduced. That's sad.

More importantly, there have been serious nerfs to all her light normals. st.LP no longer chains into itself or st.LK. cr.LK no longer chains into itself. cr.LP no longer chains into itself or cr.LK. None of these combo into Chun-li Super either. This is not only a serious nerf to her hitconfirms (now you can only do a single cr.LK into 214LK), but her pressure and mixup as well. She does less damage to your guard bar now. She can't adjust when she feels like teleporting to make it ambiguous which side she'll appear on. She probably deserved this, but seeing hefty nerfs in any game usually make me sad.

I haven't fiddled with the rest of the cast to find stuff yet. My Jet always sucked anyway. Instead let's talk about the nearly complete first additional character: Azure.

His normals don't have anything particularly exciting to mention, bar his lack of a beefy antiair. This doesn't matter much as we'll see.

First up, he has a 236K teleport. Doesn't appear to have any invincibility. EX is faster. They're like Hanzos but move further. Good for long-range tick throws. He has a grab super, so this is fine.

214K is like Elena's Wallet Smash or whatever it's called. Leaping kick that blows up lows. Only EX hits overhead. HK hits low. LK whiffs opponents, leading for a tick into super throw. Meterless ones can be used in juggle combos for air resets. EX knocks down on aerial opponents, but merely has frame advantage on hit (need to test on block) on grounded. You can certainly go for a throw after it. As far as I can tell, these are his only overheads besides the universal one.
cr.HK combos into Light Wallet Smash at max range.

236P is Geese Howard's Reppuken.  As far as I can tell, you cannot combo into it in any way. It's slow and janky, which is exactly what you want a fireball to be in a game with parries. Toss reppuken at full screen, advance and blow them up with the grab super or sweep if they parry it. You can also cancel the fireball startup into EX teleport, making for even better parry baiting.

214P appeared to be a counter to me at first. Then I set the dummy to jump and realised it was just a Makoto style antiair punch with a horrible horizontal reach. This thing juggles for a million years if it hits. EX has a better hitbox. Heavy is slower but more damaging. In the corner you can do three of these in a row, or two and then a Wallet Smash or super.
If the active part of the move makes contact with another grounded attack, it'll trade with the opponent getting launched like they were airborne. Timing's precise, but it's a nice thing to have.
I envision lots of tossing a fireball then dashing/teleporting and swatting people with this if they jump. Using the HP version to mess up their parry timing.

j.236P is Geese Howard's Shippuken.  HP is the usual 45 degree angle. EX is two fireballs, one at a shallow angle and another at a steep. LP is pretty unique for air fireballs in that it just moves horizontally. Sneaky way to catch people trying to neutral jump your regular ones.

You can tiger knee the air fireball. This makes you superjump forward with a really shallow horizontal reach. In other words, you get SF4 Ibuki crossup kunai. This crosses up in the corner. Damn good tool.

I already mentioned his super grab. It's a grab that is super. HCBx2 and punch to do. Has a Raging Demon animation on successful hit. Not much else to say about it at this point.

His other super is QCFx2/236236 and Punch. Shoots out three reppukens like Grant's antiair fireball kick thing in Mark of the Wolves. Or perhaps Mina's 421A from Samurai Shodown 5S. They go up then land a certain distance away depending on the button you push. Sadly they hit mid.
The antiair punches combo into this in the corner. At midscreen though, AA punch xx Super will position the reppukens to land as a meaty on the opponent. Since this game has guard crush attacks, it means that AA punch leads to full damage on the arrows.
I tried doing tricks like sweep, super then meaty guard crush. The super is too slow for that, but if you're fighing someone with no reversals and who respects you too much, a couple of crouch jabs then the guard crush should work.
I think this tool is good without being overpowering. Like a weaker Aegis Reflector unblockable on a character with other options.

So to summarise, he's got a bunch of cool tricks that are good for blowing up parries (which is what you want someone in this game to have), but lacks a serious damage option on grounded opponents. You'll be doing a lot of swatting with HP and sweep.

EDIT: http://youtu.be/lOfY2f-MqDs
Guess we know who's going to be top tier for this patch at least.

Thursday, 21 August 2014

Yuri's Army: An Adventure Into Horrible RTS Imbalance

Yesterday I talked about the issues with C&C's metagame, map design and faction imbalance that made it an all too simplistic and ultimately unsatisfying multiplayer series. Today I want to talk in depth about the most overpowered faction they ever came up with: Yuri's Army from Red Alert 2's expansion. Let's dive into the madness.

1. His infantry are better than yours.
His basic soldier is the initiate. It costs the same as a GI and does double the damage. If they hunker down in a building (say, the one chokepoint approaching  your base), their damage per second is retarded. They mop up tanks in about half a second.
Instead of attack dogs he has Brutes. They can't sniff out spies (not that you'll see many of those), but they can punch tanks. They're basically grey The Hulks (not to be confused with Doomsday or Grey The Hulk). They can't be run over. They cost half the price of a tank.
For $700 he can make a sniper. The only other sniper in RA2 is the British Sniper, which costs $1000. Whenever this sniper (the Virus) kills a soldier, it leaves an AOE pool of gas that kills more soldiers if they run through it.
His only other infantry are Yuri clones and Yuri Himself. Well, that and engineers which are the same as any engineers.

2. His buildings are better than yours.
His power plant costs $600, the same as the Soviet Tesla Reactor. It gives the same power. However, you can place infantry inside and get gigantic boosts to power. While other players have to work in additional power while they're pumping out the refineries and war factories, he just makes one then sticks a bunch of infantry inside.
His radar dish tells him when you've started to make a move on his base.
His static defense structure is a pair of gigantic Gatling guns. They work on everything. The longer they shoot, the higher their damage per second.
His refinery is a unit. You can build it from War Factories or from the con yard. It consumes no power since it's a unit. It moves over to the ore, digs in and sends out infinitely respawning slaves to gather the ore. A full shipment from each slave has higher yield than Allied or Soviet miners. The slaves also walk like two metres back to the refinery instead of driving half a kilometer. Thus, he has the most efficient way of gaining finances.
He can build a cloning vat. It gives you a free infantry for every infantry you make. That means if he bothers to go to late game tech, he can get free Brutes. Or free Yuri Clones.
He also has the Grinder instead of a repair depot. I'll talk about that in the next section.

Superweapons aren't used very often in multiplayer due to the tank-based meta, but his are also better than yours. The Genetic Mutator turns any infantry in its reach into Brutes that work for him. These can wreak havoc on someone trying to make soldiers to stop your regular Brutes backing up your tank platoon. Or you could just use this on some slaves in an area without much ore and get free brutes. His other superweapon is the Psychic Dominator. It sets off a big-ass explosion like the nuclear missile, but also mind controls everything in the center of the blast. Sure hope you didn't have your tanks bunched up ever.

3. His navy only has two units. They're better than all of yours.
He has a hovercraft transport like the other two factions. At mid tech he gains the Boomer Submarine. It's $2000, the price of a capital ship. It does double the damage of the Soviet submarine. It has slightly less reach than the Soviet Dreadnought, but does more damage. It's available a full tech level before the other navies are allowed to start going.

4. Mind Control
The Soviet hero infantry unit in Vanilla was the Yuri Clone. A clone of Yuri that could control the mind of a single unit, but lost that control if they died or chose a different target. They cost $1200 each and were a late tech unit. Yuri's Yuri Clones cost $600. They are a mid tech unit.

Mind control wreaks havoc on tank platoons. For a unit that costs less than a tank he can mess with your platoon if you aren't micromanaging it. He can whittle down your forces with little risk to himself. He can also shove mind controlled infantry into his power plants (which frees up the Yuri Clone to steal something else). On top of that, he has a building called The Grinder. Any unit placed in the Grinder is, well, ground up and turned into money. He can turn your money into his own.

He also has a static defense structure version that can hold 3 units. He also has a mind controlling tank called the Mastermind. These are both good, but nowhere near as cost effective as the basic clones.

Did I mention that mind control units can all detect spies? Good luck trying to steal that money back.

5. The Flying Disc Exists
If he's toying with you and progressing to late game, he gains the Flying Disc. It's a flying disc that shoots lasers of reasonable damage. If you place it over a building, it does things. If  you place it over a static defense structure, it shuts the thing down. If you place the disc over a refinery, it starts stealing the money and sending it directly to you. If you place it over any power station, it shuts down that player's power. That means slower production, a halt on superweapon charge times and no minimap access.

6. He completely destroys C&C Meta in a whole other way.
This is the big one. This is the number one reason he destroys the game. Remember how I said C&C is all about efficiently pumping out tanks because they do everything? He has a way to stop this beyond brutes. Say hell to the Magnetron.
Need a little force?
The magnetron was intended to be Yuri's siege unit. It shoots magnetic blasts at buildings that damage them. It also picks up tanks and drags them towards himself to be mind controlled or pelted with gatling fire on the way since they're classed as airborne. Irritating, but possible to deal with, right?


Suppose a magnetron starts to lift up a tank, then switches target. As soon as the magnet beam hits, the tank has to go through the whole levitation animation, then the falling animation. It cannot do anything in this time. Suppose a magnetron keeps switching targets across the whole platoon. It means your 50 tanks are juggled up and down over and over while his tanks zip past and blow up your base. This technique was known as mag-juggling. More than anything else this got his faction banned in online play. Yuri had complete control of any territory, all with a single mid-tech unit that only cost $100 more than a Soviet tank. It was incredibly stupid.

So that's the rundown. I probably forgot other things along the way, but as you can see you could run with pretty much whatever build you wanted so long as you had a magnetron keeping you safe. Yuri was the zenith of Westwood's creativity with units, and for once they managed to make options so powerful that there were reasons to make them over the basic tank.

Wednesday, 20 August 2014

Some Retrospective Thoughts on Westwood's Command & Conquer

 Ah, Command and Conquer. The father of the RTS. The grandfathers were of course Dune 2, Herzog Zwei and Cannon Fodder. Nevertheless, C&C is one of the driving forces of the genre's popularity through the 90s. It had a mix of thumping soundtracks, great sound effects (who hasn't got the HEEEEY sound of 50 men burned alive playing in their memories) and outrageous weaponry. It had delightfully cheesy cutscenes that grew in camp as much as they did ambition over the years. They're an excellent example of good game feel. It feels good to build stuff, order stuff and watch people die. There's a strong atmosphere that really makes you feel like a heroic leader saving the world. Or perhaps a moustache-twirling supervillain enacting a plan to conquer it. But those happy things aren't what I want to talk about.

I want to talk about how goddamn bad the multiplayer of Command and Conquer was.

I played a ton of C&C 1 and RA1 at LANs. I played even more TibSun and RA2 online when ISDN was offered in our area for the first time. I learned a lot about how Command and Conquer works in practice, and even more about how terrible Westwood were at designing maps. I'd say that C&C is the RTS equivalent of Killer Instinct. Fun at first glance, but as soon as you sit down with a friend and actually open the pandora's box known as "deeper understanding" you realise how terrible things are. Let's open it up once more so we can lay the series to rest in a way EA will never let us.

The Basic Metagame is Incredibly Simple
To understand the meta we must first understand C&C's input scheme. Right click deselects units and cancels construction orders from the production bar. Left-click handles everything else. Want to move? Click anywhere. Want to attack? Click on the unit. Want to select a unit? That's click too. If you want to destroy terrain or remove specific units because they're in the way or what have you, you press ctrl+left click to force fire on that spot. If you want to force a unit to move anywhere, alt+click.  This last input is what starts to control C&C's meta.

Infantry do poor damage to vehicles, but often surprisingly well against buildings. Tanks are also good against buildings and other vehicles, but do poor damage to infantry for some abstract gameplay reason. However, if a tank runs over a soldier, in an interesting turn of events the soldier is run over and dies. Why is this important? Because I just mentioned alt+click. In other words, the way to kill a squad of infantry isn't to make infantry of your own or anti-personnel weapons. It's to make your tanks drive over them.

Well then. How do you beat tanks? The answers may seem to be aircraft and static base defense structures. However, tanks beat those as well for one simple reason: economic value. For the price of an anti-tank defense structure you could've made one and a half medium tanks. For the price of setting up airfields and their aircraft you could have made four or five tanks. Static structures are good, but tanks can move. Tanks don't chew up power.

So you see all these cool late-game tech units. You see teleporting lightning tanks or nuclear suicide trucks or laser towers or tanks that are pretending to be trees or men that can teleport and remove you from the space-time continuum. They all lose to your cost-effective medium tank. All of them. Even the bigger tanks lose because they cost more to you than the damage they deal to the opponent.

Thus, the metagame is simply this:
1. Get money
2. Build tanks
3. Build more war factories to build tanks faster
4. Build refineries then sell them instead of making harvesters. Making harvesters from the war factory means you aren't making tanks.
5. 50 tank platoon footsies!

Every Westwood game wound up like this if you wanted to win. Anything beyond that is horribly overpriced and purely for style.

2. Faction Imbalance
These games have atrocious imbalance for the most part. Often for pretty simple reasons. Here's how they go:
Command and Conquer: GDI gets the medium tanks. NOD gets invisible light tanks that stop being invisible when they shoot. GDI runs over NOD's rocket men with tanks.
Red Alert 1: Allies had Light and Medium tanks. Soviets' basic tank was the Heavy Tank. Do the math.
However, if you were playing on an island map it completely switched. Allies had a wide variety of naval units while the soviets only had sea-to-sea submarines. The Aftermath expansion gave them sea-to-land subs as well, but the Allied ships were more cost effective.
Tiberian Sun: Honestly, this is the most balanced the games ever got. Both tanks are pretty equal in power this time, so you can actually do more shenanigans. NOD had easier economy to protect though thanks to harvesters that dig.
Red Alert 2: Soviet harvesters brought in twice the money of their opponents per load. They had machine guns. Their tanks were slightly better. However an Allied player could make IFVs with engineers inside to repair. I'd say that the balance in Vanilla wasn't too bad for the most part.
Then Yuri's Revenge happened. I could write a whole piece just on how hilariously busted Yuri's army is. I think I'll do so tomorrow.
Emperor: Harkonnens could destroy your spice and force your enemies' harvesters into your land for easy pickings. They also had nuclear missiles. In the Dune universe. Goddamn.

3. Maps
If you ever played online, there were roughly two or three maps in each game played. The problem with most of Westwood's maps is that they simply didn't have enough money on them to fuel the furious pace the game is most enjoyable to play at. The build order in the games is:
and so on, with you selling each refinery so you got a discount harvester without choking up the tank production. Most campaign missions were designed assuming you'd have two or three harvesters at most. Multiplayer play assumed that you'd have anywhere between 5 and 15 depending on how long it went and how much money there was to grab.

Westwood needed more money on their maps, better regen options (Tiberium growth didn't happen in the Red Alert games since it was Ore, not Tiberium) or more alternative sources of income. Red Alert 2 made a step in the right direction with oil derricks, but didn't place enough of them on maps. The series works best when economics are about how fast you gain money rather than who controls the remaining money, and they just didn't click onto this fact.

Their map-making utilities were pretty bad to boot.

So that's the core of Command and Conquer multiplayer. The genre learned from some of the series' mistakes and improved itself. In other ways it tried so hard to not be at all similar that it lost a lot of the simple charm that made the games so fun. Perhaps I will go on a big grump about how bad Red Alert 3 is some time. That'll probably turn more into an analysis of comedy though.

Tuesday, 19 August 2014

This Show Aired A Decade Ago: Paranoia Agent

If you're a first year film student who's just heard the word "Auteur", Satoshi Kon is a man whose works you can have a ton of fun with. His films and single TV show he directed ooze with recurring visuals, techniques and storytelling. He often hired certain actors, and in some cases gave them similar relationships. It could be easy to describe the man as simply being a director of dark satire, but let's take a quick rundown of what the stories he told were:
Perfect Blue - Girl goes crazy
Millenium Actress - Guys interview old actress while filming a documentary about the studio she worked for.
Tokyo Godfathers - Homeless people looking for an abandoned baby's mother.
Paranoia Agent - Serial attacks by a kid with roller blades and a baseball bat.
Paprika - Final Fantasy: The Spirits Within.

Having watched the show again recently, I feel that Paranoia Agent is the middle ground of his works. Perfect Blue and Paprika sit on the pessimistic extreme of his ideas and stories. Millenium Actress and Tokyo Godfathers sit on the lighthearted optimistic end. Paranoia Agent is right in the middle.

Back when the show aired all I can recall people talking about is how strange, creepy and confusing the show seemed. Looking back, it's the most satirical, and possibly the most... flamboyant work he did. There's questions of the supernatural and the looming sense of inevitability to each attack by the kid doing the thumping, but it's used to create comedy as much as suspense. The irony of people using serious injury to resolve their own faults is a joke. The way that people poke fun of the attacks over time as they get more frequent is a joke. Suicidal people chase the attacker through towns trying to get him to kill them. Old housewives run competitions to see who best weave him into their daily gossip. People ignore murders if it means they can get a thrilling story or a completed cartoon production on time. Sometimes the joke will be delivered through straightforward visuals and an ironic situation. Sometimes a serious explanation will have goofy designs and silly palette choices. Sometimes the show becomes a videogame. It takes serious subject matter and makes fun it in whatever way will entertain best. It does what good satire should do.

The show's an excellent example of how to pace a weekly broadcast with a fixed episode count that is expected to have a beginning, middle and end. It establishes a formula. It runs with the formula long enough that it can make fun of it. It introduces new perspectives that change how you view the content. Then it rebuilds the formula from there, only to trash it another couple of episodes down the line again. The next episode previews are entertaining in their shameless obscurity.

There's a lot of things I could say about this show. There's a great deal of ways I could say it as well. I could talk about its shot composition and character designs that range from average attractiveness to ugly. I could talk about its themes. I could talk about its themes in relation to Kon's feature films. I could talk about its sound design. Its recurring images. I could do all that because all of those things are interesting aspects of the show. That's what it means for a text to actually have depth. It means there's ways to dive in and explore what's being presented for longer than 200 words.

In other words, the show is still great. Go watch it and enjoy a fun cartoon.

Monday, 18 August 2014

More Talk About Forums

Yesterday I talked about online forums using a language that on the surface is similar to spoken English but in practice has its own rules. Today I want to talk about a situation where I feel moderation staff can be prone to forcing down unnatural conversation rules that get in the way of ideas developing. I want to talk about that dreaded T word that rears its ugly head.

I want to talk about Topicality.

A couple of nights ago I drove a mate home as his car was having trouble. This was around 1am. At the start of the drive we were discussing how we felt the play we had performed a few hours before had gone. Two hours later when he finally got out of the car since we were both horribly tired we were discussing the incident in Ferguson. In between those two points had been discussion on matters of personal faith, economics, issues occurring amongst common friends, childhood memories, road rules and the 1970s live action Wonder Woman. This is what communicating ideas leads to. We construct labels to our knowledge in order to more clearly communicate concepts. This causes us to create connections between things for better mental sorting. This means that in presenting an idea we come up with other ideas that spawn different ideas and lead to more ideas. We then want to communicate those ideas to each other as well. Conversations flow in all sorts of strange ways.

Forum operators don't necessarily view the board as a medium for conventional conversations to take place in. There is a notion that all ideas must be neatly compartmentalised for reader convenience. You want to talk about politics? Use the politics board. Want to give an update on how translating the latest pornographic RPG/strategy hybrid game from Alicesoft is going? Use the translation board. Want to post fanfiction based on regulars in an IRC channel? Use the politics board. I've talked before about how a strength of forums is that we have a permanent record of ideas that we can refer back to when compiling the information elsewhere, so this seems a logical way to run things.

Heavily enforcing topicality breaks the natural flow of conversations. I don't like this. When people say things, there is always a chain of logic that led to what they said. If we are able to follow a freely moving logic chain, we can gain a greater sense of how and why people reached the conclusions they did. Sometimes a comment on how awful the latest Linkin Park album is might actually help us understand something about the management of a local festival. Sometimes we could learn something about the priorities of newcomer Guilty Gear players if they keep asking about which foods Sin likes to eat.

If we have a natural flow of talk, we learn things about the people who are speaking. We gain a greater sense of what attitudes are developing in a community. We might want a discussion board to be a place for specifics, but people are anything but that. Information trading posts are inevitably viewed as locations, and it's in locations that people create communities. Group identities grow. Cultures are created. Stamping our foot down just rains on everyone's parade and ultimately makes the world a bit more stale.

Sunday, 17 August 2014

Some Musings on Forum Speech Acts

Suppose I were to ask you to tell me the rules of English. What would you tell me about? You would probably tell me about starting sentences with capital letters and ending with full stops. You'd discuss past, present and future tenses. You might talk about the use of the letter u in words such as colour or armour if you speak and write Australian or British English. There's plenty of things we don't think about when asked to immediately think about our language. Concepts that we assume are inherently the same in all languages but can in practice differ wildly for all sorts of reasons. One such example is the concept of turn-taking in speech.

In English, there is an expectation that when you speak to someone, they face you and listen to what you are saying. When you give an appropriate indicator, they are expected to give a response. What response they give determines who has the next turn to speak and so on until the conversation ends. If in a group environment such as a dinner with friends, the expectation is usually that one person speak and the others listen, speaking once something needs clarifying or the initial speaker has left the floor open for someone else to take over. Not all languages work this way. For example in Italian, it is perfectly polite to have 3 different conversations occur at once in a group. In Japanese there is a practice known as Aisatsu or Active Listening. The polite way to listen to someone in Japanese is to frequently make remarks such as "yeah", "is that so?", "ah, I see" and so on. If you quietly wait for your turn, they think you're uninterested in what's being said or possibly snubbing them intentionally.

Online communication has its own rules for turn taking that differ even from spoken English. Suppose I were to start a thread on a forum that uses English with a post like this.
 This is a perfectly normal way to use your first speaking turn in English. If you started a thread somewhere like a character matchup thread on a fighting game forum you'd be considered strange. You might be considered an advertising bot. The thread would likely be deleted, or locked and a moderator would leave a cautionary message scolding you for not following the board's topicality. Imagine trying to perform aisatsu in a place like 2chan. You can't because the asymmetrical flow of information delivery means that your "oh, I see" could be four posts below where you wanted it to be thanks to the time it took for the server to process your submitted post.

This language that I'll call Forum English has some other differences to spoken English with turn taking. If there is a moment of silence in a spoken conversation for more than a few seconds, the situation feels awkward. People cannot work out whose turn it is to speak, so someone will often break the silence with a joke or a different topic starter. In Forum English, a moment of silence can last anywhere from 2 seconds to years before the next remark is made. The permanency of text in a thread means that a conversation can be jumped into or left whenever a speaker involved feels like it.

There's no formality to leaving a thread either. Suppose that halfway through an argument on whether Guilty Gear Xrd Slayer is stronger than Guilty Gear XX Slash Slayer I had to leave to play cards with friends. I wouldn't need to say "sorry, we'll finish this up another time. Gotta go." I'd just not make a post until I had the time. This in turn is different to conversing over an instant messaging program. In that case I would be expected to give a farewell comparable to a spoken form of English.

So what I'm getting at here is that the internet has created and is still creating new languages that we aren't even aware are actually operating on rules that differ from something they appear to be identical to. They're also creating similarities between languages that previously had some stark differences. Forum English has similarities to Forum Japanese in turn taking that don't exist in spoken Australian English and Japanese.

Languages are weird.

Saturday, 16 August 2014

There's a Steam Sale During this Comiket

There isn't much to talk about this Comiket for upcoming game releases. You can watch Edelweiss' trailer compilation here if you haven't seen what's popping out of the doujin scene this month. However, the small group of publishers who've been striving to get the scene more foreign exposure have cooked up a little Steam sale to acknowledge Comiket 86. Let's talk about the cool games you can get from it!

Here is what's on offer, for reference.

Exceed Trilogy (buy the bundle!)
Exceed: Gun Bullet Children is a perfectly acceptable scrolling shooter. It's very much your run-of-the-mill Touhou-inspired game, but works fine. It's a bit old and does have some compatability issues.
Exceed 2: Vampire REX is an Ikaruga-inspired Touhou-inspired game. While it doesn't have the terrain shenanigans or rigid yet elaborate enemy placements of Ikaruga, that game's mechanics get copied for a reason. It can lead to very fun patterns to navigate.
Exceed 3: Jade Penetrate Black Package is a solid runner for best title in some time. This is by far my favourite of the three. It opts for a much more generic system of "get power ups, don't get hit", but has great attack patterns to make you not care that there aren't a million systems to be aware of. It has auto bombing on death, which is always a handy feature when learning a new shooter. It has great music. It has little girls. Play it.

Edelweiss have been going nutso on their visuals for a while. Ether Vapour  was a good example of that, but the game was somewhat weak mechancially. Astebreed is more fun to shoot things in, lets you slash stuff with a robot form and gives that cheesy action cartoon feeling that not enough games do. I'd be willing to call this the God of War of shooters; perhaps the Marlow Briggs of shooters since it's not  60-100 dollars.

Mitsurugi Kamui Hikae
  It's a good action game. So is

Though this one has some painfully Anime writing.

Eryi's Action
It's from the guy who made Syobon Action back in the day. Simple platformer built around learning what all the gimmicks are and how to resolve them. These things have a certain charm to them, and it's well designed if you're into that sort of thing.

La Mulana (Remake)
Intentionally obtuse exploration and puzzle game. The remake put a greater focus on combat and does some very fun manipulation of people who have played the original version. A memorable experience to say the least.

Fairy Bloom Freesia
2D Devil May Cry with a nature-loving theme. Badass.

Horizontal shooters are a bit of a rare breed these days. Particularly since Konami has no idea what to do with Gradius after Treasure beat them at their own game with Gradius V. This does what horis do best: obnoxious terrain movement and a slower pace to make you all the more miserable when you screw up.

So that's most of the list. The real question is: are there any games to not buy? The answer is yes. Two. Here they are:

Cherry Tree High Comedy Club
It's not very funny. Defeats the point of a comedy VN.

Vanguard Princess
I should probably write a post going into greater detail here, but let's summarise it for simplicity's sake. It's a freeware game. Eigomanga are charging for it. We're not sure if they even have the rights to do so, let alone are actually giving any money to the dev. They keep trying to cover up that it's made in 2D Fighter Maker and is a standalone title made with tools that will totally support robust netplay down the line. Honest. Please give us money. Buy our DLC save file hack as well.

 It's a shame, because Vanguard Princess is a great fighting game.

Friday, 15 August 2014

Understanding Blazblue Updates

So a couple of weeks ago, Arc System Works announced that they were adding two more characters to Blazblue ChronoPhantasma. Namely Celica A Mercury (time paradox ghost nun magician girl with robot buddy doing most of her attacks for her) and Lambda 11 (the most blatant art assets recycling ASW has done in quite some time). To accompany their additions, the game is getting a new patch, labelling the game as BBCP 2.0 (as opposed to the current version, which is BBCP 1.1). The changelog for the first location test last weekend was steadily nutted out through a combination of playtesting and ambiguous notes left by the devs for us to decrypt. From those we were able to get the impression that this is a full-fledged new revision, comparable to when Blazblue Continuum Shift was updated to Continuum Shift 2. There is a certain negativity in the community whenever a new revision of Blazblue is announced that contrasts with the usual excitement that a game update brings. To understand why, we need to understand what's different about Blazblue updates in comparison to just about any other fighter, and why they are done this way at all.

What's so different about Blazblue updates?
Suppose you've baited your opponent into doing something really stupid or risky like mashing uppercut. You go to punish them. Here is what Ryu does in each iteration of Street Fighter 4.
Forwards+Heavy Punch, Heavy Shoryuken, Focus Dash Cancel, Ultra 1. In AE2012 and Ultra I have to use Medium Shoryuken because the Heavy no longer can be FADC'd. As you can see though, it hurts a hell of a lot by itself to compensate.

Here is a set of bog standard combos Ragna used in the first Blazblue iteration.

And here is a set of his basic combos in the current.

Blazblue loves to completely rework its combo theory from the ground up each time. A lot of knowledge you've gained about what to do in certain situations, what's a good damage option vs one that carries further and so on get thrown out the window. The same goes for characters' tools in situations that have nothing to do with combos. In one game Jin can cancel his far-reaching 6C into a dash to do pressure with it. In another he loses it and Ragna gains it instead. One day Nu is a long-range character. The next day she's a close-range pressure character who happens to have projectiles. The next day she's a stance character. The next day she has the fastest standing overhead in the game. Don't get me started on how inconsistent they are with Tager. One day you don't want to hitconfirm with jabs because they'll scale the combo too much. The next they do nothing at all and may well be an optimal way to start combos. The next day they'll go back to reducing combo length, but only on some characters.

Whenever you get into Blazblue, the next iteration to come out might as well be a new game that happens to have some similar base system mechanics. That's assuming they didn't rework some of those as well.

Why do they do this?
 Arc System Works are fiercely dedicated to keeping Japanese arcades running. Their entire business model for fighting games is built around keeping money flowing into them as much as possible. Their current process for games releases is this:
1. Release a game in the arcades.
2. Maybe patch it if something's really busted (hello there Chie 5B causing fatal counter).
3. Release it on consoles a somewhere between 8 months and a year later.
4. Release a new game in the arcades at the same time.
5. Do the console release for that game.
6. Announce new update of the previous game. Release it at arcades.

It works excellently. There's always something fairly new to play in the arcades that you just can't experience at home. That doesn't quite explain why Blazblue revisions work the way they do in comparison to, say, Guilty Gear's though. So there must be another reason.

While GG and BB are both by ASW, they have different directors. Guilty Gear's early iterations were headed by Daisuke Ishiwatari, and taken over by lead programmer Pachi for Slash through to Accent Core +R. Both worked together on Xrd. Blazblue is headed by Toshimichi Mori, who is known to ignore others' feedback. So we can conclude that he has a certain business approach to how to keep arcades making money that differs a bit to the others at ASW.

You see, if people have to relearn a character's combos in a game that is only playable in arcades, it means they have to spend more money. Not only will they be spending their usual allotment of yen to play with others, but they need the extra lab time just to get their skill at the level they were two months before the new iteration came out. As well as giving a game a sense of new life and a more even playing field for newcomers, they're double dipping on the existing userbase. It makes perfect sense from a business standpoint.

 The game keeps trying to reinvent itself, so I think Mori may not be happy with the game's core. If a game needs to keep reinventing itself, it may well not be a very good game in the first place.

Players of other fighters, particularly the Capcom games tend to view airdash players as being a fickle bunch who jump from game to game as soon as a new one appears. Maybe it's because relearning Blazblue is in itself the same as learning any other game, so they're just trying to find one that's enjoyable enough to really stick with for ages. After all, the Melty Blood community stuck with its game from ReACT all the way through. It's just a shame Type-MOON tried so damn hard to prevent them doing so. That's for another time though.

Thursday, 14 August 2014

The King of Singleplayer Multiplayer Gaming: Ligretto

This is Ligretto.

Ligretto rot HauptbildIt is a game for two to four players. Each player is handed a deck with a unique back. They shuffle their decks and deal a 10 card high stack. Depending on how many players they also deal out somewhere between 5 and 2 cards next to the stack face up. The aim is to place the cards in stacks of their own colours (yellow, blue, green and red) in the order of the 1 on the bottom, going up to 10 at the highest. You obviously won't be able to do with the face-up cards in front of you, so you cycle through your remaining deck 3 cards at a time. In other words, this game is multiplayer Klondike.

Of course, Klondike isn't really a turn-based game as you're just playing with yourself to pass the time. Ligretto is thus not a turn-based card game either.

So let's go over that again: Place your cards in stacks in the middle, starting with 1 and finishing with 10. Get rid of the 10card stack to win. Use the rest of your deck to get the cards you need to get the openings needed to remove the 10card stack. When someone's done that, they yell LIGRETTO and you get a point for each card you'd gotten out on the field. You lose two points for each of your 10card stack that's still there. You do this all at once.

Did I mention that that's not the only box? There's this one too.

Ligretto blau Hauptbildand this one to boot.

Ligretto grĂ¼n HauptbildWhy the different coloured boxes? Why, because they have unique deck backs of their own! You can buy all three and support 12 player real time Klondike.

This is the Quake 3 of card games. Or perhaps the Timesplitters. This game is brutal.

Multiplayer tactics in this game aren't about reading what's in other people's hands, making feints with discards or trying to communicate to a partner what your assets are through how you play like most card games. Multiplayer tactics are much grimier than that. You employ the sorts of tricks that you learn playing physical games outside like Storm the Lantern or British Bulldogs.  Tricks like holding back certain cards until someone lets you place three cards in rapid succession. Using twitch reactions to place a card before someone else can place consecutives. Talking smack to distract people from you slipping cards of the wrong order into piles. Demanding everyone pause to fix up piles that have gotten horribly messy and perhaps have incorrect sequences so you can delay an opponent from placing that Yellow 9 you've had clogging up your 10cards all round.

There are few card games (or indeed board games in general) that can get the blood pumping quite the way Ligretto can. I've seen people pop off hard when they win a round or lose one midway through placing their final card. It's the chaotic action videogame that doesn't need a monitor. I love this game.

Wednesday, 13 August 2014

"So Pichy, What is that Avatar You Always Use?"


"It's mah jong... rummy...canasta... all rolled into one!" 
That's the Rummikub set our family owned. I wish I could tell the story of who on earth Hansa is, why their prints of the game used an altered name while keeping the joker or what their relation to the actual IP owners at Lemada Light Industries, but I can certainly talk about the game for anyone who's not very card game inclined.

It's an easy game to grasp. Everyone is dealt 14 tiles and have to get rid of them by constructing sets (groups of three tiles of the same number but different colours) and runs (groups of three or more tiles of the same colour but numeric sequence such as 1, 2 ,3. 1 can follow 13, but nothing after that.) Once sets are down, you can add appropriate tiles to them as much as you want, and take whatever you want away from them to make other sets and runs provided that everything is a set of three/four, or a run of at least three tiles in direct numeric order (so you can't leave things like 457).

The two complications are this: You cannot play around with what's on the table until you've put down 30 points (a tile's points are just the number it bears) in a single turn. There are also two jokers bearing the face I often use as my display picture. If you use a joker in a set to take the place of a tile you don't have, that set cannot have tiles taken away from it until the joker has been removed. You can add as many tiles as you want if it's a run. You remove the joker by simply placing the tile it's masquerading as with the right one from your own hand. You're then given the joker to use as you see fit, though it must be used on that shot.

The game is fun, though it's what I describe as a singleplayer multiplayer game. There are 3 or 4 (or twice that if it's an expanded set with extra tiles) players, but they don't actually interact with each other. You're all taking turns to manipulate what's in the field, but the decisions you make are based entirely on what's out there and in your own hand. There's no real indicator of what other people are holding, and even if you did know there's not much you can do about it. Once you understand how to work the tiles, you've learned optimal play. Any decision making past that point is just you gambling on whether you think you'll get rid of this low-value double you picked up in play sooner than this higher value tile by itself.

This is what annoys me about games like May I?, Frustration and Hand and Foot. You have a number of people playing a game, but they're not actually playing with each other. They're all just sitting in isolation, waiting for Lady Luck to smile upon them and let the game end. Even in Canasta you can gather a lot about what may be in your opponents' hands by what they're discarding, what they're not picking up and any faces they may be making when observing discards. You can even bait out the player who has to discard to you by discarding cards you have a triple in your hand of in order to take the pack with the remaining pair when they fall for it. When I'm playing a game with people, I want to be playing with the people. Games are at their best when there's room for self expression and intreaction with others, rather than performing a set of actions that are the same as everyone else's.

That said, tomorrow I'll bring up a Singleplayer Multiplayer Game that works really well for pretty distinct reasons.

Tuesday, 12 August 2014

This is Why Peer Review and the Editorial Process Exist

This was in one of my Uni readings this week. Even when you've been writing for decades and have a team of people checking, double-checking and triple-checking what you've typed. We're all human and all make silly mistakes. We need to work together to fix things because we're always going to let something slip some time.

I was going to use this to do a sweet segue about the militant opposition to any sort of editing that anime fans tend to have. It's been on my mind of late after seeing fierce anger towards NIS America's localisation of Gust's Mugen Souls and its sequel removing a few scenes filled with naked underage girls groping each other in hot springs. Anything I'll say will probably have been delivered better by the late Toren Smith in this piece he wrote nine years ago. We're now living in a post-Tokyopop world of japanese comic/cartoon releases, so it's fun to see what's changed since that post and what hasn't at all.

Monday, 11 August 2014

Sweet Christmas, ZUN Went and Did It

I've typed out and deleted about four drafts on this subject now, so I'll be brief today. Touhou 14 is getting a digital release. This is a significant moment in the history of doujin game development. Small publishers have been making deals with devs to release their games digitally and reach a wider audience, but ZUN was proving to be quite stubborn. It may seem like a no-brainer to just set up a digital store and sell the games, but he still refused to do so. Why is that?

We need to understand the mindset of the doujin scene, particularly the people who've been making games and selling them at events like Comiket since the 90s. Most doujin developers make their games in their spare time. They treat it as a hobby, and print the discs to sell as much because it's a part of their hobby's process as any other reason. Doujin game development's about self expression as much as it is constructing a robust video game. There's a lot of mix-and-match that goes on with game ideas, particularly with fangames and a great deal of messy experimentation that you don't see amongst the high profile Western indie devs. There's a prevailing sense of "make games because it's fun to make games, and hopefully learn what makes a game fun along the way".

ZUN is all about these sorts of attitudes. Touhou plots and characters draw from strange musings ZUN's had while testing out scoring systems and bullet patterns (or perhaps more likely his heavy alcohol consumption). I've gotten the impression in his interviews over the years that he didn't want to sell millions of copies because it would feel a bit like mass copy/pasting parts of himself out there.

ZUN's also very big on doing things himself. He designs the games, programs them, writes and records the music and draws the art, no matter how bad it may look. When the idea of foreign distribution comes to mind, he doesn't really care if there's already fan translations. It's not truly a Touhou release unless he's handled the localisation himself as well. This might well be what he's doing with Touhou 14. That might concern some, but I honestly don't think his translations would be any more coherent than when native speakers have gone through the bizarre dialogue that makes up each of his games.

ZUN is the most well known doujin developer, and has done the most interviews. When he makes comments about game design, philosophy or gives advice for making games, people listen. Him deciding to sell games online sends a big message to people. That it's okay to make games you find fun and take a punt seeing how many others enjoy the same thing. He's been making moves to encourage the growing Professional Indie Dev scene, and embracing digital sales is only going to help things grow in the long run.

I'm excited to see where things head with this release, not least of all because I really enjoyed 14. It's got a lot of ideas from Raizing shooters while still maintaining the good game feel that Touhou games have nailed since Perfect Cherry Blossom. Now we just need Double Spoiler on steam so I can gift people that bundle of ass-kicking misery.

There's another possible reason it's taken until the 14th game to get a digital release: ZUN lost the source code for 6-9 (the ones that introduced all the famous and popular characters) some time ago. That's not as fun to write about as mystical gamedev philosophy though.

Sunday, 10 August 2014

My Favourite Legend of Zelda title is PC Exclusive.

The Shareware Era was an interesting time for PC games. The computer mouse wasn't common enough to demand its presence in almost every game on the platform. Nor were joysticks, let alone decent gamepads. As a result, the games that emerged were an odd assortment of console-style action games, RPGs trying to recapture the magic of Wizardry, newly emerging genres such as the First Person Shooter and spreadsheet simulators. Travel to Japan and you'd have observed the steady transformation of the humble Detective Game into the modern dating sims, visual novels and nukige (unashamedly porn-oriented) products that keep so many artists employed. There still wasn't a set of rules determining what a game must be, nor had enough time passed since the 80s for people to intentionally be making callbacks to the games of their youth in their design.

As a result of all this, a small team called Adept Software (now Chaostorm) made a few interesting games. They made a puzzle platformer called Jetpack which they're currently constructing a sequel to, a traditional puzzle game called Squarez, and a 2D Legend of Zelda. That last one's want to talk about today. It's called...

As its title and artwork might well suggest, it is a game about our beloved Norse god of thunder Thor and his quest to vanquish Jormungandr, Nognir and Loki while collecting points items that serve no real purpose and dealing with sassy villagers along the way.

Gameplay is what you'd expect from a Zelda clone. Top down view, enter houses, do fetch quests, solve puzzles and fight enemies that either fire projectiles or nudge you to death. In place of a sword you naturally wield Mjolnir as a throwing weapon that returns (think a Zelda boomerang that can travel full screen) and an array of secondary items that cost magic. The game is a great deal more obviously linear than the sprawling world of most Zelda games, which is something I really like.

Why do I like less exploration if this is mimicking a series known as much for its sense of childish wonder and exploration of holes? Because it means the game is focused. As I said earlier, Adept Software were puzzle designers. Rather than finding items that open dungeons, this game spends a great deal of its time operating as a series of single-screen puzzles that one must solve in order to proceed. The first episode does a mighty fine job of introducing the various tools in steady succession, then starts putting them together to create screens that really do get your brain ticking. By episode 2 they're doing this while also making you contend with conventional enemy combat as well.

Here's an example of a puzzle in the first episode. There's about five or six components that could all make puzzles of their own being used here. It's a bastard.

Something else intriguing about this game's design is that its approach to death is light years ahead of the curve. If you die, there's no Game Over or lives. You simply restart the screen with the exact same resources you did when you first entered it. This game was doing modern checkpoints in 1993. If it were an easy game, this would feel rather dull. However, enemies can deal pretty high damage and there's a lot of instant-kill enemies worked into the puzzles. On top of that, you can simply press D on your keyboard to kill yourself if you've stuffed up a puzzle to the point where it's completely unsolvable.

The game's got a quirky personality. There's the occasional pop culture gag (mostly to either Marvel's Thor or Star Trek) and a fir number of self aware characters. There's a running theme of creepy old men playing with dolls, but most importantly there is a single villager in the first episode who has the most natural response to the hero barging into their house I have seen in a game. If you speak to him he simply exclaims "What are you doing in my house?" and punches you continually until you leave. Doubly funny is that it's one of the few houses in the village that's important to finishing the game.

So all in all, it's a fun game to pass a few days with and I should totally map out a speed run route for it some day. The developers released it as freeware a number of years ago, and you can acquire it here. It works fine with DOSBox and even supports SOUNDBLASTER!

Saturday, 9 August 2014

Rise of Incarnates Entered Open Beta Today

I've been driving a tractor and spraying things most of the day, so apologies if this piece is particularly messy.

Rise of Incarnates is basically Bamco's attempt at marketing the Gundam vs Gundam series to a mainstream Western audience. They're releasing it as a free to play game on PC. I played during the closed alpha and feel pretty much the same now as I did then. I won't talk about potential issues stemming from the free to play model for something aiming to be a competitive game. That's for another time. Instead I want to talk about issues about the game in its current playable form.

The crux of issues can be summarised as this: the game is not Gundam Extreme Vs. That might sound like a petty thing, but it runs pretty deep through the game. The Gundam vs Gundam series has had a solid six years of experimentation to get where it is. There's been subtle tweaks to mechanics, serious overhauls of the meta and a great deal of lessons learned about how to make the game fluid, reactionary yet tactical at the same time. I feel that it really culminated with the current iteration on consoles, Extreme Vs Full Boost, though I can understand why the current Arcade revision Maxi Boost reverted some of the ideas in FB, if only to make people die faster.

Gundam vs Gundam is a game all about making your opponent over reach. Whenever you touch the ground, there is a certain amount of time you cannot do anything until your Boost gauge has refilled. How long this recovery time is depends on how much boost gauge you have remaining. You want to goad people into spending all their boost dodging your covering fire or create a false opening so they'll charge right at you, make them land first and then punish them either either a melee combo if up close or 3 rifle shots when at a distance. You want to spend boost often because you can cancel just about every action in the game into boosting. Thus, a lot of the game's neutral involves moving in short bursts just outside of your lock-on range, then doing a quick dart in and seeing what your opponent does. It's a 2v2 game, so you need to make sure that while you're doing this to one opponent, the other isn't taking advantage of your time spent darting in and out to just shoot you in the back.

When you land in Rise of Incarnates, the time it takes to recover is the same no matter what. While this means people are more likely to over reach, there's also little incentive to make small moves to reposition. People just bang their heads against each other. On top of this, lock-on ranges are a great deal smaller, so ranged combat is weakened further. On top of that, the window for cancelling shots into dashing is a great deal smaller, so the ranged game is even weaker. On top of that, all the fun mobility tricks that GvG has developed over time haven't been replicated at all. This is things like double-tapping a direction then tapping the Boost button to dart in a direction while also gaining vertical height in an efficient way. Movement is clunky, firing shots is clunky.

The game's trying to push towards Melee, but GvG has tried that before in Next Plus. That game had a much more versatile combo system than Rise of Incarnates, and even that wasn't enough to keep the game satisfying for long. GvG has a pretty harsh learning curve, but this really isn't the way to try drawing people in.

A number of us wrote detailed feedback during the Alpha about why the game just isn't very fun, and this Beta has addressed none of it. Furthermore, here's some other problems with the game in bullet point form for your convenience.
 - The netcode is bad.
 - The matchmaking is bad. I still pretty much can't play with the group of friends who I usually play Gundam vs Gundam with. This is likely what's contributing to my low opinion of the netcode.
 - I still can't enable GvG-style secondary weapon inputs. In GvG secondary and tertiary etc. weapons are input with things like shot+melee, shot+boost and so on. In this game it's shot+superfluous button and melee+superfluous button. I get that they're assuming everyone is using a keyboard or 360 controller, but throwing a bone to the people who do have experience with the series would be appreciated.
 - Building a 2v2 game with a heavy focus on a block button is a bad, bad idea. Just look at Souls PvP sessions.
 - You can't play as Char Aznable

So all in all, I'll say to give the game a miss until Bamco decides that their Western Gundam vs Gundam game should actually apply the knowledge gained from the previous six years of game dev experience.

Friday, 8 August 2014

What Makes a Good Grappler? Exhibit 3: The King of Fighters

The last two times I've talked about grapplers, they've been characters whose high damage, reach and throws have been compensated for with poor mobility. With the King of Fighters series, SNK decided to try a different tack.

They let grapplers move exactly the same way everyone else can. In 94 and 95 they could sidestep the same as anyone else. From 96 onwards when everyone gained the ability to run and hop at half the regular jump height, the grapplers weren't exempt. Sure Daimon may not run as fast as Kyo, but the fact remains that he can play the neutral game the same way any other character lacking a fireball can.

Command throws (any throw with a special input) normally aren't a thing you combo into unless the game has some funky rules permitting it. For example, you can combo into throws in Street Fighter 4 if the opponent's in the crumple state from Focus Attacks. In Guilty Gear you can throw someone who's in a stagger state (which led to XX Slayer's notorious infinite thanks to some other rules about how throws worked). In KOF, you can combo into a command throw just like any other special move. Grapplers don't have to be given wonky special tools, or even really pay attention to what they're inputting. If you're pressuring someone in KOF with normals and land a hit, you throw them. If you're pressuring and they keep blocking, you can still throw them. Grapplers get to play by the same rules everyone else does.

So from this, there's pretty much two reasons that grapplers wind up top tier in a KOF. Let's take a look at what they are.

1. Like, half the cast are grapplers. No really. SNK are incredibly liberal with who they give throw specials to. You get characters with rushpunches like Shen Woo wielding them. You get mid-range pokes + high damage characters like Benimaru with them. Are you a pure zoner like Athena whose game is mostly about fireballs? Hell yeah you get a throw. Are you a main character's rival with a rekka for pressure, an uppercut for defense, a fireball for space control and some of the craziest crossup air normals? Damn straight you get a command throw as well. What's that?  You don't have a throw? Check your movelist - one of your supers might be a throw! When characters like Daimon wind up weaker than the rest in a KOF, it's because there's other grapplers who just happen to have even more tools than him.

2. SNK often gave characters really dumb specific things that push the pure grappler up there.
KOF games had barely any testing until Console 13, so all sorts of weird bugs and ideas popped up. As a non-grappler example, there's a stage in KOF95 where characters jump into a boxing ringe as the ROUND 1. READY... GO. starts. Characters have different jump heights and speeds, so they get to start playing at different times. This means that on this stage, Iori can perform an infinite on Chin at the start of the round with Chin having no way to escape yet since he hasn't actually got control of himself.

Sometimes grapplers got dumb things like that. In 98, Daimon's standing light kick (st.B or 5B) did about 8% of your life. In MAX mode (which cost a bar), it did 12%. That's about as much damage as a light piledriver from Zangief in Ultra Street Fighter 4.  This from a normal that reached really far and hit low. He could force you to respect this damn kick then run up and throw you. After he threw you, he would whiff his throw a bunch of times to gain enough meter to put him back in MAX mode or do a blowback should you manage to make him block.

In 98, Ralf's crouching heavy punch (cr.C or 2C) only had 2 frames of startup. That's the same speed as Chun-Li's super in SF3: Third Strike.

In 2000 there were assists. Joe's assist picked opponents up off the ground and forced them back into a standing position. This meant that if Clark had spare assists stocked and landed a throw, he'd take off a good 80% of your life before he'd even tacked on a super at the end.

In Arcade KOF13, Raiden didn't even care about his throw. He had a dropkick performed by holding a kick button then releasing it after enough time had passed. At its max power (holding for 16) seconds, it knocked away half your guard bar on block, was completely invincible, unpunishable, and comboed from everything. It dealt about 45% of your life. He could charge two of these. You had 16 seconds to take down Raiden before he just flat-out killed you.

Clark is scary in KOF13 because he can option select his jumping C with his airthrow, leading to safe jumps on knocked down opponents that also prevent wakeup uppercuts and jumping away. That guy can stay on top of you in ways 98 Ralf could only dream of.

Of course, plenty of throw-less characters wound up strong over the years. Nevertheless, part of the reason that Mr. Karate and Iori are considered two of the best characters in Console KOF13 is because their already impressive array of pressure, damage, high/low guessing games and setups are accompanied with the looming threat of their command grabs.

So what's the lesson? Perhaps it's that the lumbering giant with the spinning piledriver is an outdate way of thinking about who whould be allowed to throw people. I haven't even started talking about how literally the entire cast of the Vampire series has command grabs...

Thursday, 7 August 2014

I bought a AAA game this year for a dollar in a Steam sale

It was this game.
Box art of the video game Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death.jpg(image shamelessly copied from Wikipedia)

Its regular price is somewhere between 5 and 10 dollars. Why would I say it's a AAA game then? Why, because it has all the trappings of one!
 - The gameplay is pretty much God of War
 - There's fancy explosions and terrain effects happening to make sections look like they have more action than they really do
 - It's published by Microsoft
 - According to Steam I spent 5 hours on the game, which is more than the average run of Kane & Lynch 2: Dog Days
 - Messages popping up all the goddamn time telling you exactly what to do
 - Quick Time Events!
 - A boss that was essentially one long string of quick time events!
 - EXP system that adds nothing to the game's learning curve
 - You get to hear the same five or so one-liners repeated ad nauseum!

God of War irritates me as a series. When I play a hack 'n slash game I like there to be a bit more substance to not just how I deal attacks, but how to defend as well. Itsuno's Devil May Cry games were big on funky tricks like exploiting the invulnerability jumps had in addition to the Royal Guard and clash systems. Bayonetta was big on letting you find your preferred ways to initiate Witch Time beyond mashing sidestep. Souls games and Monster Hunter set limits on rolling and blocking with stamina gauges, as well as enormous recovery times so you have to commit to decisions.

Nevertheless, I enjoyed Marlow Briggs and the Mask of Death. Far more than I had God of War 1-3. Why's that? There's a few reasons:
1) I spent a dollar on this game. In Australian prices, the AAA games cost about a hundred dollars at launch. I got the same gameplay experience for a literal hundredth of the price.
2) The cast. You are a black man who fights a chinese man to rescue your hispanic girlfriend, all with the help of Aku Aku. The plot is simple and dumb, but it manages to have more racial diversity in a more downplayed way than any super high budget game, and with no detriment to my male power fantasies to boot. Hell, the Chinese villain spends half his time talking like a British Bond villain anyhow. Take note of his delightfully rolled r sounds.
3) The obvious budget cuts at certain spots were endearing. The game clearly had either been rushed through production or just didn't have enough money to make every cutscene. Thus, half of them (including most of your powerup demonstrations) are instead series of still images vaguely illustrating uses for the ability. They'd have been less endearing if the music playing in each of them wasn't so melodramatic.
4) Minigames. This game had minigames pop up in the guise of challenges to gain extra EXP. At a couple of points however, they turned the game into a top-down shooter with enemy and bullet placements that felt like a Toaplan game. It was a cute touch that showed the devs still have some soul and like to make videogames.
5) The Credits were also a minigame. They were also far and away the hardest part of the entire game. Goddamn. You'll understand when you reach them.
6) At one point the camera freaked out, spun around and floated a million miles in the air. I had to restart back to the checkpoint (which meant I lost about a minute of game progress), but this impressed me for two reasons. First, it was the only bug I encountered the entire game. Second, when I saw that the wall I was climbing had absolutely zero data behind or above it I realised that the devs had the sense to only put in as many art assets in any location as was necessary. They kept things efficient, and the framerate never slowed down as a result. Stable framerate is one of my greatest priorities for the visuals of a videogame.

All in all, it's a fun game that I would pay full price for. I wouldn't say the same if it had been given the full AAA treatment and charged 100bux with store-specific preorder bonuses, Day 1 DLC and all the other junk that gets in the way of a videogame being a memorable and enjoyable standalone product. When was the last time a game pleasantly surprised you?

Wednesday, 6 August 2014

The economics of Timtams and Wii Sports

 Last Saturday, Arnott's released a new variety of Timtam. Peanut Butter flavour. The things taste like any American-style peanut butter with chocolate product. That is to say, I find them too dry and sugary, rather than the peanut-heavy varieties of peanut butter I prefer. They also signed an exclusivity deal on the product with Coles. Neither party were interested in setting up elaborate promotion stalls, taste samples or gigantic advertising campaigns. They just put the things in the chocolate biscuit section along with all their friends. By Monday, this is what every single Coles in the state has looked like.

Photo credits to my boy Colin "Miraclemilk" Clyne.

This is the classic supply choke strategy. Introduce a new product with massive pedigree (for any foreigners who happen to read this, Timtams are very much a national icon to Australians and the definitive chocolate biscuit/cookie. These things are to us what Oreos are to Americans) to small fanfare and release barely any of it. Get everyone talking about what they tasted like, or wonder as to the taste since they've been completely unable to get their hands on it. Create a sense of worth and mystery to a new product, so when you open the floodgates, the product flies out of your warehouse and is replaced with more money that you expected if you'd done a costly marketing campaign.

Arranging this as an exclusivity deal makes things even sweeter. From Arnott's end they've got an even narrower supply to let the word of mouth spread. From Coles' end, they have a Timtam that can only be bought from them. They can draw in people who would normally be shopping at fellow Supermarket giant Woolworths, or those who still support the smaller local chopping chains. This sort of tactic is probably going to be ever more popular in the next few years as Australia's two supermarket empires do everything they can to try crushing Aldi's expansions throughout the states.

You know who else loves to use this sort of tactic? Video game console manufacturers. Nintendo employed this to immense success with the Wii and so everybody has wanted a piece of the pie. The PS3 was undersupplied at launch. So was the Vita, the PS4 and the Xbox One. The Vita is a good demonstration of how the tactic can backfire. If you undersupply but then fail to sell through the meagre stock, your product gains a reputation as a failure. Still, everybody wants to talk up launch sales and get the install base going on a new device, so they all try to use this trick. But there's two reasons it worked for the Wii and these Peanut Butter Timtams. Let's take a gander what what they are.

1. Brand name recognition/Killer app
If Coles had organised to sell something like Griffins' Peanut Butter Afghans or Paradise Cottage Style Peanut Cookies then this strategy wouldn't work. This isn't just a peanut butter and chocolate biscuit. It's a new Timtam. Like I said before, Timtams are a national icon. There's official names for doing things like biting off the ends and drinking milk through the things. If you're making a chocolate biscuit, you try to give it a name similar to Timtam like Dick Smith's Temptin's to catch idiots. When you're going for a supply choke at launch, it needs to be something that people are familiar with and have enough love for that they'd have bought the thing anyway.

On top of Nintendo's prestige as a company who makes fun videogames (particularly since the Wii launched off of the back of their stellar videogames throughout the Gamecube's life), they were bundling the console with Wii Sports. This was a videogame that you could get anyone and everyone to grab a white stick, wave around a bunch and be amazed as a creepy fake-person whacked tennis balls and played golf. The word of how simple and fun it was spread faster than anyone could've imagined a year before. Remember, Nintendo in 2006 was selling stuff like Yuu Saito's Odama.

This is one of the problems of their competitors' launches. The 360's big name launch titles were Kameo: The Elements of Power and Perfect Dark Zero. Rareware fans were still bitter about the buyout. Modern shooter fans had no interest in Perfect Dark. They wanted a new Halo, and they were just going to keep playing Halo 2 on their existing console until 3 launched. The PS3's biggest launch title was Resistance: Fall of Man. Shooters are popular, but one without any pedigree like that was just to pass the time. The PS4 launched with, erm, Resogun and some ports of existing games, along with a contender for worst game of 2013. All of these consoles certainly picked up once they got games (360 got Halo 3 and Idolmaster in Japan, PS3 gained a steady line of solid RPGs, From Software titles and other oddities, Xbox One got Titanfall). They got the sales down the line, but not the bottled lightning that a supply choke is gunning for.

2. Nintendo didn't supply choke the Wii itself
In that fateful Holiday 2007 period, I recall people were mostly able to acquire Wiis. At the very least, their friends had Wiis. Every Wii came with Wii Sports. So where was the supply choke? It's simple. You could play Baseball, Bowling and Golf with a single Wii remote. Those took a bit of effort to learn though compared to Tennis. Tennis needed four remotes to get the full family experience. Boxing needed the nunchuk to (barely) function. So Nintendo only slight choked the supply of Wii Sports in order to get the game out there. But if you wanted that full experience, you needed more Wii remotes. 

This is the beauty of the Wii's launch: Nintendo choked the supply of the additional Wii remotes. People would ask their friends to bring controllers around to show the grandparents or what have you that Tennis game on the TV. People would get excited about this new future for videogames, and they'd be even more excited about being able to do it in their own home. But they had to wait. They had to wait for months to get their Wii remotes.

Then Nintendo had an even better idea: bundle the Wii remotes with another game. They tied a vital component of their experience into additional software purchases. Then they supply choked that game as well. Now not only were people excited about controllers, they were excited about this mediocre bundle of minigames because it meant they could get the full experience and more games. And the best game in that pack required the nunchuk to boot. And it was two player. So not only did you want four remotes, you wanted at least two nunchuks. Maybe even four of those as well, because who knows what exciting things are coming down the line?

If you want to build hype at the launch of a device, you can't just choke the supply. You have to find other ways to push the demand along so the lack of supply will serve as a catalyst for your demand instead of an obstacle.

I'd also like to say that in retrospect the Wii was a bit sugary and dry as well. At least it blessed us with Castlevania Judgment.

Tuesday, 5 August 2014

Thoughts on Consumption of Cartoons

There was a Sunday morning when I was seven that I fell sick. As was the custom when myself or my sister fell ill, Dad let me lie in the parents' bedroom and hooked up the VCR to the TV that was in there. He then pulled out a box of recently acquired tapes, placed the first in the machine and said "give a shout if you want to see the next one. I think you will. Get well soon."

It was Star Blazers.

As well as spending a day watching a great show about humanity's last hope flying through space firing inexplicably powerful lasers at blue-skinned nazis, there were a couple of concepts I was introduced to:
1) That television shows can be written with a beginning, middle and end
2) There's more japanese cartoons that have conclusions than Western ones
3) Marathoning a show can be really fun.

A term that modern film critics and analysts are using to describe the way a lot of people watch shows like HBO's juggernaut Game of Thrones and AMC's Breaking Bad is binge viewing. There's lots of study going on at Netflix on how to best deliver content to people and much contemplation on what it means for how shows should be written.

For fans of japanese animation, we don't call it binge viewing. We call it watching a show. While my introduction to the world was a bit different from the norm 20 years ago, Western anime culture is still very much steeped in watching content in clumps. Early fansubbers would try to fit as many episodes of a show on a VHS as possible. The early digital fansubbers would cram awful RMVBs onto CDs to pass to their friends. Mid-2000s fansubbers were extremely early adopters of batch torrents, and the decreasing costs of DVD burners and players made it all the easier to hand out full shows to people. We are extremely used to scrambling for as much content as we can find and just getting immersed in it in one fell swoop.

But things are changing.

While the mainstream media analysis is all about observing how digital distribution and the incredibly cheap costs of television shows on DVDs allow for greater amounts of binge viewing, anime viewers are currently experiencing the opposite situation. Almost every show broadcast each season is being simultaneously screened on live streaming services as a legitimate enterprise through organisations such as Crunchyroll and the websites of the distributors who are still functioning. What this means is that people are being introduced to a whole new way of perceiving their cartoons.

What's this newfangled realisation? That we have to watch shows one episode per week.

Anime fans are quite often not used to watching shows once a week. They're not used to shows written this way. For people who love to watch the big action serials like Naruto, Dragon Ball Z, One Piece or what have you, they don't think in terms of weekly problems. They're used to thinking of drawn out story arcs. They're used to three flashbacks an episode. They're used to referring to anything not related to fighting the current villain as the dreaded filler. Sitting down once a week and catching up on your friends and what adventures await isn't a way that anime fans usually look at the stories they fall in love with.

So what does this all mean? When I see people complain about shows like Stardust Crusaders spending each week fighting strange gimmicky fools because Jotaro hasn't punched Dio a million times in that internet-famous scene, I think it's because people just aren't used to watching this sort of show. They've forgotten that a lot of shows are adapting comics that are published a week or a month at a time and made to provide some entertainment while on the train to work or school each day. People are used to treating pulp fiction like high art, and now the distribution is changing they need to come to terms with what the medium they've fallen in love with is.

So, anybody up for rewatching Cowboy Bebop?

Monday, 4 August 2014

Let's Learn Fighting Games! Featuring Fritz

I considered writing about Studio Ghibli's apparent closure today, but I think I'll wait for more details to unfold before opening that can of worms.

The question of how to teach a fighting game to someone is one that's forever on players hungry for new blood in their scenes' minds. It's one that we still don't really have an answer for still, or else I wouldn't be writing this post. I could write a big spiel about needing mental fortitude and humility to accept that you're going to lose a ton, but there's already entire books on it. I could write about how experience in any competitive realm is just as important as hitting the training grounds. Instead though, I want to entertain an idea about what to do with people who need to learn from the ground up. I want to suggest that we provide a simple game with obvious flaws, and try to structure the information in a way that makes the flaws appear and get resolved one at a time.

What I propose we do is get two newbies at once, and get them to play a game. I suggest Akatsuki Blitzkampf since it runs on just about any PC, is easily acquired through piracy (or legit purchases on  Melonbooks!) and doesn't have 0f throws. I'm going to use Fritz for this as he's an extremely simple character who does pretty much everything you could want a fighting game character to do for a tutorial with pretty much zero execution requirements. Here's his entire set of combos for you.
Step 1: Introduce Rock, Paper, Scissors and Footsies
First up, let's lay down what the players can use to begin with. Crouching normals, throws and instruct them not to block by holding back, but by holding downback. No special moves, no parry, absolutely no jump or even standing normals. Getting the habit of blocking low and reacting to highs is vital for 2D fighters. Then, we explain the essential rock/paper/scissors that is the very central core of the genre's mindgames.

Rock is performing attacks. It loses to
Paper, which is blocking. That in turn loses to
Scissors, also known as throwing. That in turn loses to getting punched in the face.

All of these can cause ties as well. If both people hit an attack, it'll probably trade. If they both blocking, nothing happens. If they both throw, a throwtech occurs.

At the same time, I think that starting with just this should lead to people figuring out on their own that there's an additional rule: if the other guy misplaces their rock/paper/scissors, you get to throw a rock at them. Since we've removed a lot of the complexities, there should be a more natural inclination to think about this as a thing to watch out for.

With Fritz we can also teach them a combo in this base game. 2B chains into 2C, but doesn't reach as far. 2A will stuff most throw attempts, but doesn't lead to a combo so you need to think about what to do after you're pushed away from mashing it.

After a good 5-10 games they'll probably complain that the game's too simple, and that it's way too hard to land hits because the other guy just keeps blocking and teching throws. In that situation, we make our first introduction.

Step 2: Standing overheads
Tell them that they can now use standing normals. This gives us another combo in the form of 5B chaining to 5C, as well the almighty raw 5C and 4C, both of which are overheads. These are fast enough that they won't be blocking the things immediately, but slow enough that they're certainly reactable. After a bunch of games with these new tools, we introduce a new way to increase damage.

Step 3: Jump-ins can hurt like hell. They also hit high.
Now that they're used to reacting to standing overheads, we introduce the notion of responding to jump arcs. This gives people a new way to position themselves, throw in more mixups and deal big damage. Fritz's j.C is a good move for just working in another overhead, but his j.B gives us another new combo! One that uses meter!

Jump B, crouching A, A+B+C (the super) Is a combo! Make sure that they only use the super for this purpose at this point, as we'll talk about Fritz's super later.

Hopefully they'll start saying "he's jumping all the time, how do I stop it?" Perhaps they might have prior asked "what does this stupid upward slash I get when I'm walking backwards and hit B do?" Either way, now we can introduce solid anti-air normals. There's no invincibility on Fritz's 4B so you need to be on point with how you time it. The thing's also got a million years of recovery if you whiff with it, so it reinforces reactions and whiff punishes.

So now we have established all the basics of how to move and swat people, as well as how to defend. What do we do next?

Step 4: Special moves can change the dynamic of the game
Fritz only has two special moves: teleport forwards and teleport backwards. He has fake versions of both. With this they should be able to see that adjusting your approach speed and feinting can bait people into hitting buttons foolishly. Then they can punish with a beefy normal.

The EX versions of his teleports are fully invincible, but do nothing else. They teach that sometimes characters will be able to expend resources to escape nasty situations, but that this doesn't always mean you can immediately hit buttons. When you teleport with Fritz, you're probably going to want to block next. So is there anything else after this beyond applying the knowledge to things like fireballs? There's one more important lesson to teach with this fellow.

Step 5: Fighting games are videogames, and sometimes they have really silly stuff.
Fritz's level 3 super is a move where he dashes forward then does an unblockable strike that takes half your life. This teaches a couple of things:
1) Different metered moves have different uses
2) Sometimes videogames have really dumb things in them that will catch you by surprise. Keeping calm and working out a solution is a very good skill to develop.
3) This is pretty much what Zangief wants to do to you all the time. Jump away from the unblockable attack then punish.

I think it's an ample replacement for learning what to do about command grabs, and how having such an option available can make you jump when you don't really want to and get swatted.

By this point if you've been spending a good 10 games on each step, or however many it takes for the newcomer to get comfortable, then you should be on your way to getting them to start thinking for themself and working out how they like to use the rules to make their own form of expression.

Of course there's more to ABK thanks to its parry system, and there's going to be plenty of game-specific things for whatever game you have on hand that a newcomer's really interested in playing. I still think that breaking things down from the ground up so they don't get hit with an information overload is the way to go about things.

Tune in next time, when I might talk about something that isn't fighting games! Or perhaps I'll talk about how frustrating Blazblue is to teach to absolute newcomers for reasons related to what I've laid out here.