I'll Bet $27 On ARK: A Commentary On Early Access

So today I caved and I got myself an early access copy of ARK: Survival Evolved (Studio Wildcard, 2015). It’s Steam profile looked great, and I wanted to ride me a dinosaur!!!

I purchased, installed, ran… long story short: it took me 1 hour to adjust the graphics settings to something where I could actually play the game. Now, even on low-medium settings, I’m playing between 10 and 15 frames-per-second (with moments of 2 or 8 here and there). Now, I’m not a FPS junky. My monitor only has a 60 MHz refresh rate, and my computer boasts a modest Nvidia GeForce GT 740 graphics card backed up by an older quad core 2.90GHz AMD processor and 4GB RAM. It’s clear that I’m not looking for a 120 FPS experience; I’m happy with 25 to 30 FPS – the cinematic experience if you will. But anything below 24 FPS seams jagged and bad and on low settings I had hoped to get better performance.

ARK Trike
ARK: Survival Evolved — I ate a triceratops

But remember, this isn’t ARK‘s final release; I bought the early access version. This means that as a consumer/player I took a gamble and the question remains: was it a good gamble?

Well, that is yet to be determined. For the consumer/player the gamble is twofold: is the game enjoyable as it stands, and will the game be enjoyable in the future? Since the inception of Steam Refunds the risk for me is low; if I don’t like the game I can get a refund within two weeks of purchase. But this is Early Access and my purchase is going to change as it is developed. If I play the long game (pardon the pun) I might get a good return on my investment; ARK might turn into the best game I’ve ever played for all I know. Or I might not… It might turn into something awful. This is the gamble that we all play when we buy early access, but we’re not the only ones taking a gamble.

ARK Poop
ARK: Survival Evolved — There’s poop in this picture…

Developers and publishers are also taking a risk by releasing their unfinished work to the public. Just like meeting a person for the first time, a game’s first impression is the most important. If the player has a bad experience right off the bat the developer risks having to give customers a refund and also risks getting a bad reputation for having a broken product that may or may not get better. Studios are placing all their eggs in the “we’re gonna wait it out” basket. And in the long run, the game might not get better! There’s a level of uncertainty pertaining to whether or not the game will become what we envisioned it to be. But if we have a little faith, the payoff for the studios (and for us) can be immense. Not only are they getting cash up front to help further development, they receive free user testing, and often a dedicated user community providing their game with feedback, reviews, videos, and general evangelism. Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015) is a perfect example of the gamble paying off for both sides. Players formed tight knit and dedicated communities, feedback, and even user generated content.

So, what of ARK: Survival Evolved? For me, the jury is still out on whether my gamble has payed off; it’s honestly too early to tell. i will tell you I’ve been playing it all day. In regards to ARK as a game itself Studio Wildcard has done a great job in creating well rounded and robust health and crafting systems. Conceptually this game is awesome, and from what I can tell from my currently janky settings, the scenery and artwork is phenomenal. And dude, dinosaurs. If I get an optimization patch in the near future my gamble will have paid off.

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To Mod or Not To Mod? That Is The Question

Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
The Slings and Arrows of outrageous User Interfaces meant for consoles and not PCs,
Or to take Arms against a Sea of overlooked bugs,
And by modding, end them?

Okay, enough bastardising the bard’s (the Stratford one) works for my own gain.

What I’m trying to ask is: as players, should we add mods to what we play? And, as designers, should we design our games to be expanded by user generated content?

Downloadable Content and User Generated Content are an interesting and unique trait that games have that other mediums generally don’t; can we take advantage if that? I’m not aware of a publicly accepted method of adding viewer content into West Side Story, or Citizen Kane; or of communities of art gallery patrons developing their own optional additions or modifications to Starry Night to load into their digitally downloaded pieces. Yes, there are artists who mimic other artists in both games, art, film, and literature; but these are artistic homages rather than user generated content or DLC. But what if JJ Abrams allowed a mod for removing lense flares? Would Star Trek (Paramount Pictures, 2009) have been a better film?

I think mods are awesome; at least as a concept. Mods allow hobbyist and aspiring developers/designers to generate their own content for a pre-existing game and distribute it to other users. These mods can be anything, ranging from content mods like new quests or items to unofficial patches fixing numerous bugs.

I don’t personally use mods very often. The only games I’ve really installed third-party content on is Microsoft Flight Simulator: X (ACES Studio/Microsoft Studios, 2006), Kerbal Space Program (Squad, 2015), and Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011). It’s not because of a moral opposition to mods though; not a lot of mods really appeal too much to me as a player. I’ve used things like SkyUI, or added non-stock planes and parts to FSX and KSP respectively.

For many players, mods genuinely enhance player experience; and often not from a disdain for the vanilla systems but as a display of love for the games. Not only do players want to play the game, they want to keep playing and contributing and playing and loving. In reality, if a game is comprehensively poor who would contribute to it at all?

In summary, I think its important for us as game designers to remember that games are for the player, and developing and adding mods extend their experience; often for better, some times for worse. My suggestion for players: don’t dismiss the vanilla versions; it might be your favourite flavour.

Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

Mommy, Where Do Characters Come From?

I really like Role Playing Games. RPGs, and most video games for that matter, tell stories in a much different way than other mediums like movies or literature. Although games can be compared to both movies and books, RPGs just have a way of immersing me into their worlds, involving me with their characters, and engaging my brain in a much different way. The main difference between books/movies is involvement. In the case of an RPG I am not only watching a story unfold I am also manipulating the story in a diegetic context. This is to say that my participation in the story comes through my embodiment of a character within that story, and my actions affect the world of the game from within the world of the game. This is opposed to grand-strategy type games where players assume a more omnipresent type role. [side note]

Almost invariably RPGs tell the story of the player character. After spending some time playing I started to wonder where these characters come from and the context of that character’s origin and life as it pertains to the game’s diegesis. How do they effect the game-world/narrative and what’s the game-world/narrative’s affect on them?

What’s going on with the player character prior to the my intervention in the game’s narrative? Did they exist before I showed up? Where did they come from? What’s my role in their lives? What was/is their role in the world?

After some time I realized that there are really only three (well, two and a half) categories for the characters that we play in our RPGs. Sometimes these characters already existed with their own past and attributes, sometimes they are injected into the world generated with our input, and other times they’re a bit of both. I like to refer to these categories as thespians, newcomers, and divinely created characters.

Thespian Player Characters

Thespian Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate strictly from within the game’s diegesis and the player assumes this role as an actor.

As a thespian the player comes to the game as a character who already exists in the world of the game. These characters have a predetermined history, a set of predetermined abilities, and a predetermined identity. In short, the player has litte to no control over the stats of this character, or this character’s place in the story, and simply takes control at the beginning of the game.

Many adventure-RPGs have thespian player characters: The Witcher (CD Projekt Red, 2007) “tells the story of Geralt of Rivia, who is a witcher – a genetically enhanced and trained human with special powers” where the player acts as Geralt; in The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time (Nintendo EAD, 1998) players act as Link, an orphan boy raised by a tree in the Kokiri Forest and destined to save Hyrule; and in To The Moon (Freebird Games, 2011) players act as Dr Rosalene and Dr. Watts who are “tasked with fulfilling the lifelong dream of the dying Johnny Wyles.” In each of these cases the character’s identities and lives have been pre-defined within the game world and the player simply assumes this role like the great William Shatner assumes the role of Shakespeare’s King Henry V.

However, unlike Bill Shatner’s amazingness, the future or destiny of Thespian Characters is not always written in stone. The qualities of a Thespian Character are generally predefined up to the point where the player enters the game world. Depending on how each game works characters can progress and affect the story according to the player’s action. In cases where there are level progression systems or divergent storylines the development of the character is up to the player.

Newcomer Player Characters

The Newcomer Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis and are usually created through some sort of character creation system prior to, or during the early parts, of a game’s narrative.

The character’s back-story and current place in the game’s world is generally as a traveller or passerby or some other type of newcomer with little to no personal ties in the game-world. This serves as a narrative device used to easily inject the character into the world. Here the player comes to the game as a newly generated character who, up to this point, did not exist in the game world.

In The Elder Scrolls V: Skyrim (Bethesda Game Studios, 2011) and Pillars of Eternity (Obsidian Entertainment, 2015) player characters follow the traveller trope. In these games the player character is simply an outsider/foreigner who is passing through a region and is somehow thrust into the main conflict of the narrative (in Skyrim you are arrested; in Pillars of Eternity you fall mystically ill). In both cases the player selects a very vague history for their character by selecting their sex and race. Pillars of Eternity takes it further by allowing the player to not only select their race but also their sub-race, a class, a culture, and a background.

It should be noted that these don’t affect the game-world in any way. These selections simply mould the character towards a player’s playing style and affect the character and the character alone. In general the character is injected into the game world in isolation from it.

It should also be noted that many party-based RPGs such as Pillars of Eternity and Baldur’s Gate (Bioware, 1998) contain both thespians and newcomers in their game-play.

But, like most game design concepts, there are exceptions to the rule and of course characters can exist somewhere between being a Thespian or a Newcomer!

Divinely Created Player Characters

The Divinely Created Player Character is a player character who’s identity, personality, qualities, and attributes originate outside of the game diegesis but who are assumed to have existed inside the games diegesis prior to the player’s involvement and therefore can have a complex history, pre-existing relationships, and pre-determined personality.

These characters are like thespian characters in that they exist in the game-world prior to the player’s arrival. Unlike Thespian characters their attributes originate outside the game-world; they are set by the player during a character creation phase at the beginning of the game like a Newcomer character.

An interesting example of a divinely created player character is in Dragon Age: Origins (Bioware, 2009). Here, the player customizes their character by choosing their sex, race, and class but the player also selects an “origin story” for their character. Unlike Skyrim or Pillars of Eternity the generated characters in Dragon Age have histories that are entwined into the game’s diegesis. Not only is their background story already part of the game-world but it drastically affects the player’s (and their character’s) experience at the beginning of the game.

In all these categories the player is embodying a character, immersed into a new world full of adventure and intrigue. Wherever these characters come from; whether we are playing as a thespian, or as a newcomer, or if we are devinely created isn’t always important. It’s not always about where we come from. What really matters of course is where our characters go from here.


Seriously, RPGs are awesome! Do you prefer to play a thespian character? Or maybe you like the newcomer characters? Either way let me know in the comments here or hit me up on Twitter: @adamthegameguy

Disclaimer: I was not paid to mention any of the games in this post. I just really like RPGs!

As a side note: there are instances where the omnipresent player is assumed to exist in the world of the game. XCOM: Enemy Unknown (Firaxis Games, 2012) players assume the role of XCOM’s new Commander and from that role players manage assets and coordinate missions. Similarly in Medieval II: Total War (Creative Assembly Ltd., 2006) you assume the role of a nation’s nobility. However, in both these cases the player has an omnipresent perspective where they control characters and elements outside of their own in-world existence. For example: in XCOM all the characters are directed by the player, but not embodied by the player. As the commander, I cannot put on an armour suit and join the squad in battle, nor can I navigate through the world as the embodied commander. In these cases, Commander and King serve as narrative devices connecting the player’s actions to the game world. [back to top]

My Experiences With Anxiety And Games

Last week here in Canada it was Mental Health Awareness Week, and it’s Mental Health Awareness Week in the UK this week. And to be completely honest with you all, I am having trouble starting to write this blogpost. This is because I have an anxiety disorder: more specifically a Social Anxiety Disorder. The Canadian Mental Health Association describes Social Anxiety Disorder as:

“[involving an] intense fear of being embarrassed or evaluated negatively by others. As a result, people avoid social situations. This is more than shyness. It can have a big impact on work or school performance and relationships.”

In my life this has affected my work life and my social life. Indeed, not only does having an anxiety problem affect my personal relationships with other people, including relationships with loved ones, it also has a profound effect on my personal relationship with myself: how I see myself, how I think about myself, and more importantly how I think others see and think about me. To be truthful it can be pretty debilitating (I have the doctor’s notes to prove it).

The Mental Health Foundation in the UK gives us a pretty good idea about the psychological impact of anxiety:

  • Trouble sleeping
  • Lack of concentration
  • Feeling irritable
  • Feeling depressed
  • Loss of self-confidence

“It can be hard to break this cycle, but you can learn to feel less worried and to cope with your anxiety so it doesn’t stop you enjoying life.” 

I can attest to what the MHF says here: I most often struggle with the first and last points.

What I needed to realize was that I am awesome, and that my lack of self-confidence was internal and generally unfounded. Upon reflection there was no reason to doubt myself, and that through striving to improve myself, for myself, I am able to achieve anything I set my mind to.

I want to break here for a moment to say that I am not a doctor, psychiatrist, or therapist; I’m just a dude with a laptop and a blog, and as such I cannot (nor will I) attempt to recommend any single therapy for dealing with an anxiety disorder. I can only tell you what has worked for me in the past, and what is working for me now (at this very moment as I am writing it is this Spotify Playlist; Bach is pretty great. I can also recommend my favourite composer Beethoven, who coincidently suffered from an intense case of depression; but I digress). If you feel like you are struggling with an anxiety disorder, or any other mental health issues, I urge you to seek out medical advice from a doctor who can recommend therapies; both medicinal and behavioural.

On that note, I have done both. In the beginning of my journey I was prescribed an anti-anxiety medication to use as a milestone between crippling anxiety and seeking a therapist. And I did seek a therapist for something called cognitive-bahavioural therapy.

I am happy to say to you that I can enjoy life! Anxiety is both manageable and treatable and it is absolutely possible to do great things!

So at this point I am sure you’re asking “Adam, this is a blog about games and game design; what does this have to do with that?” Well Dear Reader, I do sometimes talk about other stuff. But this has much to do with games and game design.

Many people seek out video games as a form of coping with anxiety; myself included. I happened to take it a step further and try to channel my anxiety into my game design work and my game design blogging. Often, playing a game for a little while helps distract me from my anxious mind, allows me to calm down by thinking critically about something else, and return to the task at hand refreshed and relaxed. However, video games can easily switch from a healthy coping mechanism to an unhealthy one.

It’s important for us to recognize the difference between using games as a coping mechanism; as a method of working out an internal struggle, and a dependance on games for self assurance, self-esteem, and self-confidence. In one of my first posts here titles What Do Games Do? I say that “Games can provide an escape” and that A game can provide an opportunity to be somebody else, or be the person you really want to be.” In general, these aren’t unhealthy things to seek out; it seems to me to be part of the reason we have things like books, movies, music, and theatre. They provide a respite from the stresses of work and life and as I mentioned above allows us to step back to somewhere else to unwind and return refreshed. This is the case for pretty much any coping mechanism. But what if you are always trying to ‘escape’?

There may come a point where one finds that games are the only things that make them happy for one reason or another. At that point one might begin to turn away from things like work, play, and social interactions by retreating into virtual worlds where they are in control. Not only can one turn their back on the world and on others they can begin to turn their back on themselves by neglecting their personal health, their personal hygiene, their self care, and their self worth. When this happens a person may only feel any self worth or self esteem inside a game. Games at this point have transitioned from constructive coping to detrimental dependancy. And if you can relate to the above; if you feel like your only happiness comes from a game, and that you have turned away from everything else, I once again urge you to seek out medical advice and therapy to help bring you back to health.

Remember that you are more than what you are in a game: you are a problem solver, you are driven, you are passionate, you are awesome.

I want to ask my fellow game designers to take these type of issues into consideration when we create. I think by including things like natural yet regular pauses in games we can allow our players to step away from our games for a time, but still desire to return later. I feel like it’s our responsibility as designers and developers to create not only compelling content, but healthy methods of play; sort of like our own little Hippocratic Oath:

I hereby swear to create games that are fun and compelling, yet who’s methods of play are both safe and healthy for my players; I swear this for the good of the player and the good of the game.


 

Anxiety, depression, and mental illness do not discriminate and are often invisible to those close to the people that suffer from them. If you think you or anyone you know are a victim of mental illness please do not be silent. Talk to your DOCTOR and a COUNSELLOR, right now.

If you or anyone you know are thinking about attempting or plan to attempt suicide, call 911 (or your regional emergency line) IMMEDIATELY! Stop reading this and call right now!

If you or a loved one are in crisis right now you can call:

IN ONTARIO, CANADA:

Kids Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868
Ontario Mental Health Helpline at 1-866-531-2600
Or go to https://ontario.cmha.ca/mental-health/services-and-support/crisis-support/ for more.

NOT IN ONTARIO, CANADA:

USA: National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-TALK (1-800-273-8255)

UK: The Samaritans at 08457 90 90 90

I got help, you can too.

I know it is difficult to ask for help because that means admitting that there is something wrong; and the stigma around mental health issues makes that even harder. But I will tell you verily that it can help.

Remember that you are awesome, we are awesome, and we can do it; whatever it is!

Maybe They Were Trying To Help

When I was in college (the computer-science time, not the music time) I worked as a Java developer at an applied research centre who’s purpose was to develop an open-sourced EMR solution. Long story short, the code base was a mess, the workflow was a mess, the documentation was a mess; the whole damn thing was just a mess. Lots of components doing repetitive or redundant tasks unnecessarily adding to the complexity of the solution. One day, I came up with a way to simplify the software. I spent a lot of time planning and designing and had a little report ready to show my boss with eager excitement. However, my boss wasn’t up for change. My well thought out idea was shot down; and he wasn’t even nice about it. I felt awfully small, and I went back to my cubicle; tail betwixt my legs with an “I was just trying to help” tear welling up in my eye.

I think that’s how Valve and Bethesda must feel today.

It was a whirlwind of a weekend for them. Bethesda and Valve attempted to implement a marketplace for players to give pay for game mods and user generated content. The introduction of a paid mods system did not hit the community well; the backlash was insane. A seemingly innocent attempt at improving the modding community by pumping some cash into it was shot down like a clay pigeon. It turned from an idea and a new marketplace into the gamers demanding to talk to who was responsible for some heinous crime.

And yesterday the people responsible attempted to explain themselves:

//platform.twitter.com/widgets.jsTwo hours later they threw in the towel:

 

Their model made sense, at least to me. In the past, applying this type of model to user generated content actually improved the output quality and made it better and easier to contribute. To their credit, they did their research and the data showed that this could be a great idea. Sure, there was a bit of revenue sharing between the content creator, Steam, and Bethesda. But as they mentioned in their blog this is a standard practice, and again was a model that proved successful in the past.

Standard or not, we were having none of it.

I can’t imagine that Bethesda was attempting something harmful or malicious to their customers. Again, in their blog they show that income from Steam is only 1% of their revenue stream. In their eyes the past indicated a way for them to make their games, their mods, and their mod developers successful. It seemed to me that they wanted to give a platform for mod-developers to turn their efforts into a revenue stream and become “indie developers.”

But if the past is an indication of anything, we are resistant to change. As the old adage seams to go: if it ain’t broke and you try to fix it, and we’ll run you out on a rail. Even if you are just trying to help.


What do you think about paid mods? Good idea? Bad idea? Was Valve and Bethesda just trying to make a quick buck? Comment here or tweet me on Twitter: @adamthegameguy

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A short post about perma-death and heartbreak

The concept of perma-death has been permeating its way through games these days. Mostly seen in rogue-like or squad based tactical combat titles, perma-death can be defined as:

a situation in which player characters die permanently and are removed from the game.

In a generalized sense, players are provided one go around with their character(s). If they die, they have to start from the beginning. One life, one death, roll credits.

In games that have a single player-character relationship, such as Don’t Starve (Klei Entertainment, 2013), you can save your progress as you go along. This extends playtime with your character, often forming an emotional connection to that character. But, once the intrepid gentleman scientist Wilson gets trampled by a moosegoose, that save file is deleted and Pancake Wilson is no more. In some cases you can prevent the deletion of this file with some item or spell, but generally speaking death = dead. And the death of Wilson can be heartbreaking! You helped him through cold nights, made him a home, helped him grow a majestic wilderness beard; why didn’t you run away Wilson? Whyyyyyyyyyy????

Some squad based tactical games will have perma-death in an “iron man” mode. This mode will override a single save file every turn, giving the decisions you make even more gravity than before; and again, long play times provide an opportunity for emotional connections to be made. When playing Ironman mode in the X-COM successor Xenonauts (Goldhawk Interactive, 2014) the death of a squad member will persist for the rest of the game. This can be devastating if you have brought that Captain; who won a Crimson Heart, Survival Medal, and Long Service Medal (seriously, this dude has seen some stuff) up from a wee private. This calls your judgement into question; “oh God where did I go wrong??? Why did I let Captain Timmy walk bast that unreasonably huge alien???” and often leads to the player (at least me anyway) wishing they could bring that person back.

Perma-death is meant to add a sense of realism to play; and by spending time with these characters we form some emotional connections, taking care to keep them out of harms way because we love them, and we want them to stick around. Like the perviously mentioned titles, in the real game of life we only get one go around; death is pretty much permanent.

I’m so sorry Wilson!


 

Did you suffer a perm-death heartbreak? Let me know in the comments here, or tweet me: @adamthegameguy

I’m participating in the AdventureJam Game Jam (should I include perm-death???)! Over the next two weeks I’ll be posting updates here, on my GameJolt account, and on my twitter so check in there!

Disclaimer: I was not paid to say these things, I legit love these games.