Friday, May 29, 2015

Interactive Friction: Season 3 Reveal!

It has been some time since our last season of Interactive Friction. After braving the dilweeds of Rook Island in Far Cry 3, we became born survivors in Tomb Raider (2013). Now, we enter a new chapter.

Rather than continue our island tour, Sam and I have decided to head back to civilization. Next stop: Chicagoland.

That's right, (script) kiddies, Interactive Friction plays Watch_Dogs. This promises to be an interesting season, mostly because both of us have huge problems with this game.

Our first episode will come out on Monday. We look forward to showing you what we've gotten ourselves into.

Wednesday, May 27, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 42: Game Player Haters

0:01:15 Gaming News.
Supergirl TV Show Trailer
As a whole, it piqued my interest in the show enough that I want to give it a chance. It has some parts that DC fans might not like, but there's enough done right that I think it can both bring some female attention to DC superheroes and get old fans to keep watching.

0:15:45 Garrett has played some Dying Light.
It's a game I have had my eye on for quite some time. Though zombies have begun to show their decay, it's nice to know that there are still some new and interesting things that can be done with them.
We also have a really good discussion on durability mechanics in video games in this segment.

0:28:45 I had a summer indie game adventure.
In particular, I played Flower, The Unfinished Swam, and Race the Sun.
They all have their strengths and weaknesses. At the same time, each one is worth spending time with just to see some of the other game design ideas.
Out of the three, I had the most fun with Race the Sun. Though it was the hardest, I was very engaged in trying to get as high of a score as I can.
At the same time, both Flower and The Unfinished Swam show how one can use non-violent mechanics to keep players interested.

0:38:45 I finished Demon's Souls.
But we're not talking about it until Sam gets back.

0:39:00 I played Bravely Default.
As a fan of the old-school Final Fantasy games, I am LOVING this game. The turn-manipulation mechanics at the core of the game give players more control over the pace of a battle. There are also enough difficulty options that any RPG fan should be able to get the kind of gameplay experience they want. Despite the classic (read: generic) Final Fantasy plot, there's enough going for Bravely Default to keep my interest.

0:51:30 Sam, Chris, my friend Ryu, and I played Friday Night FUSE!
And at this point, we are really only playing it so that we can get to the end. It's just a bland game.

0:59:30 Chris talks about his new move, and getting internet set up.
Here are the "Super Bitch" and "Asshole Brown" stories I talked about.

1:02:30 Chris binge watches Chappelle's Show.
Like I said, this is on my list of shows to watch. I will get to it at some point.

1:24:45 Wrapping Us.
Feel free to e-mail us at
Garrett's Twitch can be found here
My article on the popularity of Demon's Souls
And, of course, Interactive Friction.

Saturday, May 23, 2015

#90: Demon's Souls: Why Do So Many Like It?

Given how many people have asked me to try it, I find it surprising that it took me so long to play a Souls game. With an abundance of free time, I found myself enjoying my time with it. As I sit here, ruminating upon my new-found experiences with Demon's Souls, a question crossed my mind: Why exactly is Demon's Souls, and the Souls-series by extension, so popular and successful?

That might seem like a silly question to most, yet it makes no sense for Demon’s Souls to get so popular when one thinks about it. At the time of its release, the game had fierce competition from all sides. Batman: Arkham Asylum, Uncharted 2: Among Thieves, and Assassin's Creed 2 all came out in the holiday season of 2009, right when Demon's Souls first appeared on North American shores. These games are all remembered as some of the best in the console generation, especially for the PlayStation 3. A new IP with limited marketing from a fairly unknown developer, this stiff competition would make it theoretically difficult for Demon's Souls to gain footing in the hearts and minds of gamers.
Along those lines, Demon’s Souls’s unconventional design could have been considered a major obstacle in its success. Even now, it can be tough to tell non-Souls players why they work so well. Explaining this appeal when Demon’s Souls was new and not quite as popular would still have been even more so. This can be best demonstrated by the various claims that Demon's Souls is great because it is "hard". The punishing nature of its combat can make it seem “hard”, yet that is not truly the case. I will go into more detail later, but the game is only as punishing as it needs to be, and no more. Given the fact that so many people were introduced to the franchise on other such inaccurate explanations, it is logical to assume that they would avoid the franchise for fear of difficulty, as I did for a long time.

But Demon's Souls did not fall into the shadows of obscurity as one might expect. On the contrary, it grew as From Software continued iterating and reiterating on the core mechanics, transforming the ideas behind it into the very successful franchise we know today. That raises the question of why exactly this series became so popular and successful when so many other, more readily accessible games did not?

The most obvious reason is that its metric for success was significantly lower than that of most other games. There are many classic stories of publishers whose sales predictions for their games were "optimistic" at best. From the expected 7 million copies sold of Resident Evil 6 to the 5-6 million units projected for the Tomb Raider reboot, gamers have become familiar with excessively high hopes from laughably naive publishers. Though both examples come years after Demon's Souls's release, they represent the mentality of the modern AAA gaming space.
By all accounts, Demon's Souls was subject to much more realistic and manageable sales goals. Almost one year after the game came out, in September 2010, it was announced that the first entry in the Souls series soul-ed over 500,000 units. In the eyes of the various publishers responsible for each territory, this figure “nearly quadrupled sales expectations”. For From Software, who developed the product, it was enough to keep working on similar games. Under a different development house these numbers could have easily been interpreted as a failure, so part of the success and popularity of Demon's Souls could be partially attributed to From Software’s more conservative measurement of “success”.

That said, a lowered bar for success is not enough to achieve it. Like any game, Demon's Souls lives and dies by its design. Even now, years after the initial release, the game represents a genuine effort to cater to an underserved niche. The same design elements that would intuitively lead to its demise could actually be credited for Demon’s Soul’s popularity. There exist many people who dislike various aspects of modern game design. These people may not necessarily enjoy having an objective marker telling them exactly how far away they are from where they are supposed to go. Linearity of both game and level design might not satisfy their urge to explore and discover. Combat in many games may require too much of a focus on reflex and speed. It is for these people from whom Demon's Souls was designed. That, in turn, is the largest contributor to its success.
The world of Demon's Souls is deliberately designed to counter many of the expectations in more modern game design. No objective marker is present. In order to figure out where to go and what to do next, players must pay attention to both the visual and audio cues throughout the environment. Guidance does exist, but it is not as readily apparent as it may be in other games. One has to use their own logic and intuition in order to not only figure out what they need to do, but how to do it.
All of the various hidden weapons, armor and trinkets also serve to encourage exploration. Entire essays could be written exclusively on the placement of items in Demon’s Souls. Not only are they just far enough off the beaten path that players will naturally want to wander around areas to look for them, but they are placed in areas where one could logically be expected to find them. For example, players can find the Graverobber’s Ring, which shields its bearer from the vision of evil spirits, on the body of a corpse in an old jail cell. Though the game never draws attention to it, this one item tells the story of a man who used the ring to protect himself from the vengeful spirits of the graves he defiled. Yet, he ultimately could not outrun the law, and died once the chaos that started the game broke out. Almost all of the items in the game tell such stories. Attentive players looking to explore will find themselves enjoying the act of piecing together Boletaria’s history in this manner.

As I mentioned earlier, while combat in Demon's Souls is routinely described as "hard," the truth is not quite as simple. It is a learning process, where players have to figure out how to defeat the foes standing in their way, and even the ones charging at them with reckless abandon. It is less about placing an arbitrary challenge before the player and more about rewarding them for properly analyzing the enemy and capitalizing on moments in their animations where they are made vulnerable. The damage players take is only as high as it is to draw attention to their own mistakes, that they might correct them. Because these windows of opportunity tend to be fairly large, precision timing is not as important. The emphasis is on recognizing both the chances enemies give to attack and those the player gives for foes to do the same. Tactics are at the forefront.
By using these principles in its game design, among others, Demon's Souls caters to audiences that many other games simply don't or won't. I posit that these oft-forgotten gamers are very loyal to both Demon's Souls and the Souls games because it is one of the few franchises that satisfy their specific needs. Of course no one would argue that modern game design conventions are bad. But the same design philosophies that appeal to the largest subset of all gamers are not the ones that scratch the same proverbial itches that Demon's Souls will. So while Demon's Souls is meant for a specific niche, my guess is that this niche is both wide enough and so generally unappeased by other franchises that they took what they could get and ran with it.

Even if it were the case that the target audience was better served, the mechanics and design of Demon's Souls strongly encourage the creation of a community. The lack of hand-holding in the game almost forces players to collaborate and share their accumulated knowledge with others. Even without the aid of dedicated websites, the note system, where players can leave messages for others to take advice from, and the bloodstains that show where and how others died, both make it easy for people to aid one another indirectly. With these in-game tools, players are more likely to offer their knowledge to others that they have never, and will never, meet.
Even outside of the game’s systems, this spirit of cooperation exists in fans of Demon’s Souls. The moniker of a "wiki game," that expects one to look online for item information, character builds, and strategy, is often criticized. While I can definitely acknowledge that it is not a design that everyone will like, those that do will form healthy communities around them. As someone who invested 250+ hours into The Binding of Isaac, I know all too well how fun it can be to just talk and share advice with others. During my playthrough of Demon's Souls, the friends I knew who had played it previously were all too happy to offer tips whenever I asked. The community, and the loyalty born from it, are not accidents. They are logical consequences of the way the game was designed.

Seen in this light, what initially seemed like a freak accident could also be interpreted as an inevitable result of many interlocking circumstances. Given that Demon's Souls had such low expectations, served an undervalued niche, and encouraged this niche to work together and build a community, of course it would catch on with such fervor. It is counter-intuitive, yet the logic is there. As for me, now that I have acquired a taste for Souls, I plan to delve deeper into the Dark.

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 41: Parkour Hitman

Chris and Garrett both had important reasons they could not attend. This left Sam and I to hold the fort this week.

0:01:30 Gaming News
Assassin's Creed: Syndicate revealed:
There are some interesting ideas being floated about, but time will tell with this game. After all, it IS Ubisoft we're talking about. Speaking of...

Ubisoft no longer supporting PS3/360
Honestly, that's a long time coming. We all knew this would happening sooner or later, now that the new consoles are out.

0:11:05 Sam has been playing Project Cars.
And I don't have a whole lot to say about it. We do end up talking about steering wheel peripherals though.

0:16:30 Sam talks about his friend playing Bloodbourne.
And how annoying it can be to watch someone else play a Souls game when you're an expert at it.
Speaking of people being bad at Souls games...

0:18:45 I have been playing Demon's Souls
Much to Sam's excitement. It's been fun so far, and very interesting from a game design perspective.
(Note: At the time of recording, I was very new to Demon's Souls had not even looked at the wiki yet. When he's saying things like "World 1-2" and "World 2-1", I know what he means by that terminology as I write this. At the time, I had NO IDEA what he was talking about. Keep that in mind when you listen to this.)

0:33:30 I bitch about Rayman:Legend's lack of online co-op.
Because I really wanted to play with my friend. It's a shame he lives in a different state entirely.

0:37:30 I have finished Resonance of Fate
WARNING: We spoil a few things from 0:40:00 to 0:46:35 and from 0:49:50 to 0:52:45
Overall, I really like the game, but I understand why I didn't catch on. Considering how much of the game's plot is unresolved, it's a real shame that we will likely never get a sequel.

0:54:00 Wrapping Up.
Interactive Friction should have some new content coming out in the next week or so. In the meantime, feel free to watch our seasons on Far Cry 3 and Tomb Raider.

Friday, May 15, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 40: Infection Buddies

My apologies for the late posting. I have been busy for these past few days.

0:01:33 Gaming News
Batman: Arkham Knight Season Pass (Costs $40)
I don't know whether I should have been surprised to see this or not. This is the logical extension of the pre-order/season pass system. It was bound to happen, and giving Warner Bros. awful history in its short time as a well-known publisher, they were going to be one of the ones to push as far as they did.
It is interesting how publishers don't seem to realize that this system subtly encourages consumers to just wait for the collector's edition, with all of the DLC content included. Playing the launch day-edition is almost a fool's proposition, unless you are extremely sure that you'll enjoy the content.

PT has been completely removed from the PS Store.
Even worse, all active copies now have an expiration date. It's less a condemnation of Konami, but more of an acknowledgement of the consequences of the brave, new world of digital gaming.
As an addendum: Since the time of record, SuperBunnyHop's video on Konami temporarily received a takedown notice, but Konami failed to file it correctly.

0:24:20 Sam bought a new gaming monitor.
This one specifically, or a similar model.
Sam spends the rest of this segment talking nerdy to us. And we also talk about how it's changed his gaming habits.

0:40:10 Sam purchased the New 3DS.
Ignoring the confusing name, Nintendo is terrible about the transfer process. At least the customer support was good enough.

0:51:30 Sam beat Dark Souls 2: Scholars of the First Sin
And we talk about it's differences with the base game.

0:57:35 Garrett is sick as a dog.
And a title was born.
Here is the hot kool-aid video he was talking about.

1:02:35 Garrett talks League of Legends.

1:08:55 I played Resonance of Fate
To get an idea of what kind of hilarity is in this game: Here are both the raisins scene and the hand slap scene.
Though the combat is extremely difficult to explain, it's really fun to play. There's a ton of strategy involved and it looks really stylish.
Side note: You can hear the South in Sam's voice when he pronounced "naked" as "nekkid".

1:24:50 I finished up Drakengard 3.
As we said before, this series and the world it takes place it is so very rich and fascinating. In a way, it's basically a giant criticism of video games, fantasy worlds, and the people who enjoy them. It's undeniably dark, and I love it for precisely that reason.
I also wrote a piece about how the game lampshades its mechanics. It can be found here.

1:38:35 We played more FUSE together.
The only reason parts of this game are fun and/or funny is because the rest of the game is so bland, monotonous, and boring that any sort of mildly interesting stimuli causes some sort of reaction. Those parts are less amusing in and of themselves and more interesting in light of the fact that everything else is so boring.

1:47:50 Chris has been playing Splatoon's Global Test Fire.
Sounds pretty fun.

1:59:00 Wrapping Up
Once again, my Drakengard 3 article here.
Sam's site.
Garrett's Twitch Channel.
And of course, you can e-mail us at

Saturday, May 9, 2015

#89: What Drakengard 3 Teaches Us About Lampshade Hanging

The longer I play video games, and the more I continue to look at them critically, the more I begin to see ideas and concepts that crop up repeatedly. Though they come and go, most reappear often enough that they can almost always be worth discussing. After playing through Drakengard 3, a sequel to one the craziest, darkest games I played as a teenager, I noticed that there was one otherwise minor element that only grew irritating because it occurred several times over the course of the game.

Drakengard 3 seemed to love having its cast of characters acknowledge its own problematic game design in their dialogue. The practice, known as lampshade hanging, is about as old as fiction itself. In all other forms of media, from books to TV and movies, it is commonly used to point out and diffuse narrative tension by pointing out imperfections in the logic and/or internal mechanics of a story. However, the differences between gaming and other forms of media make this practice less tolerable.

Chief among them is the inherent difference between a passive medium and an interactive one. When watching a movie or a TV show, the audience is not actively participating in the events of the narrative. Rather, the characters on screen are dealing with problems, with viewers merely acting as outside observers. Therefore, whenever some event enters the story that requires the hanging of a lampshade, it is the characters in the story that are affected, not those watching it unfold from the comfort of their living room.
In an active medium like games, this is no longer the case. Video games have their players actively take part in the events in question, changing the dynamic at play. Whenever a sufficiently “immersion-breaking” mechanic appears, then it is the player who will ultimately need to deal with it. This is the difference between Spider-man getting amnesia and losing his combat prowess in a comic book versus doing the same in a video game. In a comic book, the reader, as an outside entity, can look forward to seeing how he and any accompanying characters deal with this problem. Players of a video game attempting that same trope will need to be the ones who handle getting through this problem as the amnesiac superhero. This does not necessarily have to be bad, as it could serve as a good excuse to use the game's systems in new, refreshing, and interesting way.

Drakengard 3 shows an example of what happens when this goes wrong. Over the course of the adventure, protagonist Zero will encounter floating platforms that she will need to traverse in order to progress to the next area, in a game where most of the time is spent killing enemies in a Devil May Cry-style beat'em up. After the first few occasions, she and her companions begin to point out these sections by stating things like “I'm not a fan of all this precision jumping.” and “More jumping? Whose is the asshole who designed this place.” While it seems to be another of the many gags the game uses to balance out the otherwise dark nature of its plot, the act of highlighting how dumb and annoying the floating platforms are is meant to add humor, much like Far Cry 3: Blood Dragon attempted to do with its tutorial. What both of these examples fail to realize is that although they acknowledge the inferiority of these mechanics, as a player, one still has to go through the sections in order to progress. Seen in that respect, the gag quickly goes from funny to irritating.

Yet, this is not the only reason why lampshade hanging is a more tenuous prospect in video games. When a developer feels that need to point out that one of their mechanics is “bad,” or at least annoying, it implies that they are aware of how irksome said mechanics are. Otherwise, they would not have been able to bring it to the player's attention. On its own, that fact may be insignificant. It is the conclusions that one can draw from that statement, and the questions it raises, that make it so damning. If the developers have this knowledge, then why would they not alter these mechanics so that they are not as bothersome as they are? Alternatively, why include them at all? Plausible and rational answers to these inquiries do exist, but to raise the question in a player's mind is unwise, because it seeds doubt in the designers'a ability, eroding the willing suspension of disbelief. Again, this is only true because of the interactive nature of video games. Other mediums don’t require any work or input on the part of their audience.

The same precision jumping example from before can just as easily be used to represent this point, but Drakengard 3 has other examples that illustrate it just as well. In one of the missions towards the middle of the game, the player, as Zero, is attacked by a Cerberus mini-boss. Once that enemy is defeated, and Zero attempts to move on to the next section of the level, the door remains sealed and another Cerberus enemy appears. One of Zero's allies reacts by saying, “I fear they've discovered Lady Zero's weakness, a dislike for repeating the same task over and over again.” This is meant to point out how silly it is to participate in the same battle two times in a row against the same exact mini-boss. Despite this, it made me question the game designer's reason for making the choice to have two back-to-back Cerberus fights. Was the whole point to just set up that one punchline? Were they also attempting to pad out the section with some filler content? The fact that characters point out this little problem make it obvious that it was not an accident, so what was the point?

Now, I do not mean to insinuate that Drakengard 3 is a bad game. Instead, it is emblematic of a tendency games have when trying to inject a little levity. In these circumstances, it is extremely tempting for designers to intentionally include ill-fitting mechanics that are common to its contemporaries, then point them out for a laugh. Tempting as it may be, this is a mistake. Attempting to make jokes in this manner will often serve merely to bother the player, rather than make them laugh.

Wednesday, May 6, 2015

The Texture Pop: Episode 39: 200cc Omen

Hosts: Chris, Brandon, Garrett

0:02:05 Gaming News
Steam no longer supports paid mods in Skyrim
Thank goodness. I'm no against modders getting paid, but there was no way this was going to work. Here's Shamus's take, as promised.

What the fuck, Konami?
Clearly, they don't even care anymore.

0:21:15 Viewer Questions
"Is there anyone in the film or television field that you'd like to get involved in game design?"
This question was clearly inspired by Silent Hills. It was interesting to ruminate.

"What do you predict that Kojima's next project will be?"
I legitimately wonder this. I would assume that either way, he'll want to take some time off to recharge after what Konami did.

0:35:00 Garrett's Week

0:44:25 I player Unrest
It's a good RPG, but sadly that's all I have to say about it. I wish I had more meaningful commentary than that, and I wish the game left a bigger impression on me.

0:47:30 I played The Banner Saga
Though I played on Easy, I really enjoyed the game. Every part of it feeds into the overall tone the developers were trying for.
If you want to know more about the combat, I wrote an article about it.

0:55:40 I watched Serenity
That basically ends my Joss Whedon marathon. I've seen everything I need to know.

0:57:55 Chris played some Nintendo-DLC
In particular, we spent most of the conversation on Mario Kart DLC.

1:07:00 Wrapping Up

Sunday, May 3, 2015

#88: The Banner Saga: Building on an Idea

Every once in a while, I play a game that challenges some basic notions of game design. Usually, these do not turn out to be very good, as these notions exist for a reason. On the other hand, they sometimes open up new possibilities for what game developers can do. The Banner Saga is an example of the latter. A hybrid of the Oregon Trail and classic RPGs, The Banner Saga takes place in a setting heavily inspired by classic Nordic myths. What I want to focus on is a single choice that the developers made regarding the combat. This choice informed the rest of the combat mechanics, and restructured the game in a way that I have certainly never seen before.

In The Banner Saga, the developers made the decision that Health and Damage output would be governed by the same stat. Each fighter has two major stats: Strength and Armor. When attacking another unit, one can either chip away at their Armor, or deliver damage to their Strength. The exact amount of Strength damage is equal to the aggressor's Strength, minus the Armor of the assaulted party. If Strength reaches 0, then the unit will be incapacitated, unable to participate any further in the battle. In other words, whenever somebody is attacked, not only are they that much closer to defeat, but their offensive capability is reduced. This one change to the usual RPG dynamic has a noticeable impact on the rest of combat.

The first of these changes is that players are encouraged to avoid outright killing targets in favor of crippling them and moving on to the next one. While fighting, player and enemy turns are interleaved. Players can determine the order in which their units act, but after every ally action, the enemy moves one of their units, followed by the next ally unit, and so on and so forth. Enemies with low Strength are less likely to be to do any significant damage, especially when friendlies still have Armor. As a result, leaving a weak foe alive means that units with more Strength will take longer to act, since the game still needs to cycle through the weakened enemies first. This extra breathing room makes it much easier to focus on other units, until it is finally time to start cleaning house and removing opposition. I used this very thought process myself on many large enemies, including the game's final boss. By leaving his subordinates low on Strength, I could keep him at bay long enough to finish him before he had the chance to take out too many of my own forces.

The other behavioral shift I noticed during my time with The Banner Saga is that I played a noticeably more defensive game than I typically do. Whenever a party member of mine had taken Strength damage, I always winced because I knew that the fight would be made that much more difficult with their reduced damage output. Because of this, I found myself often grouping my forces together, concentrating all of their attacks on a single unit at a time, keeping them out of range of other units. This allowed my party to maintain their strong offensive capabilities for most of a fight. Though this strategy might be seen as slower and less skillful in other tactical RPGs, The Banner Saga makes it one of the fastest and most effective tactics. Enemies do have AoE attacks, but the risk of spreading units apart too much is always there. Unless some degree of caution is taken, units can crippled just with a few well aimed Strength attacks. Given that the plot is about a group of people trying to stay alive against all odds, this appears to be intentional and a nice way to immerse players into the atmosphere of the game.

\The Banner Saga takes a lot from well known tactical RPGs. However, the choice to take health and damage output, and merge them into the same statistic is one that I have personally never seen before. Of course, there are many other ways in which the game stands out, making its worth known, but this is the one that stood out to me as something that other designers might be able to gain inspiration from. I would definitely recommend taking a look at The Banner Saga is you are looking for something different in your strategy RPGs.