Tuesday, September 28

Left 4 Dead 2 Mutations

I've been playing Left 4 Dead 2 a lot recently, and quite enjoying it. Several months ago, Valve introduced a new game-mode called Mutation, a weekly-variegating modification of standard game types. There have been fourteen mutations thus far, an impressive count. And each offers a new perspective on the norm. Valve's mutations not only experiment with permutations of their game modes, but also revise and restate the emotional affect of a mode's gameplay by increasing the sense of impact, necessity, and intensity.

Two modes I've been exploring much of lately are Follow the Liter and Healthpackalypse.

Follow the Liter
Follow the Liter is a mutation of far-and-away my favorite game mode, Scavenge. In Scavenge, two teams of players take turns as the survivor team, collecting as many of sixteen available gas cans as possible, and, subsequently, preventing the opposing team from doing so as special infected. Follow the Liter more strictly narrows the objective by allowing only a certain patch of cans to be collected at a time. A new patch spawns for collection as soon as the current has been dumped.

In Scavenge, the survivor-team has the upper-hand. Survivors are equipped to fell infected easily, especially experienced players who know what to expect. The challenge for infected is communicating coordinated, timely assaults that can incapacitate the survivor team. The trouble is, with cans spread widely throughout a level, infected players often have difficulty predicting where the survivors will aim for next, excepting that they're eventually guaranteed to fuel the generator. Therefore, infected players must be constantly communicating to be one step ahead of the survivors and pull off a successful gank, a task only experienced teams can negotiate. To be fair, survivors must also communicate direction frequently lest one of their team wander off in the wrong direction.

Follow the Liter is an excellent riff on Scavenge and, in my opinion, a superior game mode. Follow the Liter punctuates the core emotional qualities of Scavenge, more strictly defining the gameplay experience. Because infected have guaranteed knowledge of a survivor's run for cans, they can better prepare for the advance and coordinate a joint-strike. The middle-man of maintaining rank becomes much easier to manage and more minute planning takes precedent. Survivors are funneled into a choke-point each run for cans, and infected can focus on simply timing their spawns and locating specific spawn locations for optimal attacks rather than foolishly chasing down survivors in frustration or spawning into a shotgun from feeling rushed. The crux of the matter is that Follow the Liter, as opposed to Scavenge, allows the infected team to feel more powerful, in control, and dominating, boons of the horror trade and the source of enjoyment as infected characters. The mutation accentuates what is already so good about Scavenge by more strictly tightening the rules. The mode creates pressure. And every impact as a result is energized and charged with greater force.

As survivors, Follow the Liter at the very least encourages unified formation rather than allowing players to assume their own pairs and venture on improvised paths. On one hand, this structure of sequenced singular goals incites teamwork and cohesion, especially since players know to expect more effective attacks, and where. On the other hand, though, allowing only one present objective arguably stunts creativity, barring surprising and diversified approaches to can retrieval. In fact, I would say this is Follow the Liter's comparatively greatest fault, negating the myriad of styles of can collection offered to survivors, for two reasons. First, standard Scavenge is creatively liberal, offering multiple approaches for survivors. Part of the fun of scavenge is discussing with your team members and attempting the most efficient or surprising strategy to collecting cans. Second, the level and objective design of standard scavenge is nearly begging survivors to split up and open themselves to vulnerability. Much like the cave of wonders scene in Disney's Aladdin when Abu can't help touching the ruby despite both his own and Aladdin’s best interests, Survivors often have trouble working as a unit. Scavenge is invitation for schism between survivors, an invitation readily gobbled by keen infected. Staying focused and communicative is the mark of a good Scavenge team, something Follow the Liter arguably somewhat negates.

The last things I would like to mention about Follow the Liter is that rounds are shorter than Scavenge, a good thing, and that rounds are potentially more balanced because each team is required to run the same gauntlet as the opposition. Furthermore, mistakes are more harshly punished. A failed gank on any single patch of cans means two to three guaranteed points for the survivors and an additional forty to sixty seconds on the clock. Likewise, destroying cans, either as spitter or by tricking survivors into shooting them, bears greatly increased consequences, as survivors are unable to switch tacks for new cans, but must wait in agony for the destroyed to respawn, time ticking away all the while.

For one main reason, I never played much Versus: I didn't feel as though my attempts as an infected had any impact on the survivors' progress. Versus is where the L4D elite go to play. Many players are so good at playing survivors, a less-than-perfect attack from an infected is swept easily aside. An infected team must perform flawless ganks to even remotely impact the opposing team.

Far more importantly, though, is the emotion derived from versus. As infected, a botched attack accomplishes nothing and is frustrating. One reason for this is because any damage dealt can be readily healed away with pills or a health pack. Suppose an infected player deals forty damage to a survivor before getting killed. The player may have even downed the survivor. No worries. The survivor just pops some pills or wraps up his wounds real fast. No harm done. All that effort, if not, in fact, wasted, feels wasted. Sure, that survivor wont be able to use his or health pack later on which may eventually cause trouble, but the present feeling of the infected is one of disappointment and failure. In my opinion, healing in Versus is a handicap, achieving not much more than to prolong deserved victory.

However, there is one reason I appreciate the presence of healing: the intellectual gamble of timely healing. People are greedy and arrogant. Players like to wait until the last moment to heal themselves because they want to horde their pills or health for as long as they are able. Unfortunately for them, their hubris is often their downfall, falling prey to infected before they “get the chance” to heal-up. Survivors acutely feel this balance of risk and reward because they do not want to use their health packs until they can receive the item's full benefits. Pills are a larger problem, in terms of game design, because they temporarily heal thirty health almost instantly, meaning they can be used at even 70% of full health and still receive the full benefit.

But I digress. Healthpackalypse is mutation of Versus, removing all health items from the game. No pills, no adrenaline shots, no health packs. Only a single health bar fast on it's way to depletion. Survivors can no longer heal-up and move on; any damage they sustain stays that way. This design has fascinating repercussions on the experience. Infected players have easier opportunity for more individual impact because even fifteen damage has an effect. It feels amazing to deal damage and relish the fact that your victims are unable to undo your efforts. However, for the very same reason, that any attack is damaging and has an impact, infected team-play is less essential. Teamwork and cooperation is still extremely effective, fun, and recommended, but the mutation lessens it's necessity.

Healthpackalypse for survivors, meanwhile, is a more tense, frightening, and suspenseful experience. Mistakes carry larger consequences because the Ctrl+Z function has been removed. Cooperation is vital. It is in a way the reverse of the affect upon the infected experience. Solo play is disastrous because healing is impossible. This incites unifying teamwork.

Valve's mutations are interesting revisions of their established game-types. As revisions, they offer different experiences, some positive, others negative. It's great to see a company still experimenting with what has been a proven success, stating that maybe there is room for improvement yet. Largely, I think at least these two mutations discussed help to accentuate the emotional qualities of the modes but dilute the intellectual qualities. And game design aside, as a marketing strategy, mutations are genius, hypothetically rejuvenating the established player-base while inspiring new customers. Especially when paired with Valve's approach to free DLC, like The Sacrifice coming October 5th, mutations are refreshing a game nearly a year into it's life, a long time for most video games.

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Wednesday, September 22

Player's Creed

So there I was, in my room, playing Assassin's Creed II. I'm about to assassinate some fool for purposes of vengeance, when I have to pause and leave my room for a moment. However, my ever-faithful golden doodle, Walnut, who had been resting on my bed, follows me out of my room and magically catches his hindquarters on the door, shutting it behind him."Wally," I say in dismay. He's a silly dog as it is without his clumsy mishaps. But oh no! What's this? I try to open the door, but it is stuck. You see, several tall paintings which have been forever lodged behind my door had toppled over amongst the clangor, wedging the door from the inside.

Ha! There was but one solution to this little puzzle: my second-floor window overlooking my roof. A parkourist, is what I needed to become. An enthusiast of the sport, I anticipated scaling my house wall. This was my chance to truly become Ezio or Altair and live the fantasy of roof-hopping, minus the murder.

Hm. At my porch-awning, the lowest point of my roof, the beams were pretty slick. I arranged a chair, an improvised boost. Nope. I could see over the roof, but not quite climb without slipping. I replaced the chair in a more advantageous position. No go. I tried a windowsill: too low. This game was proving too difficult for my abilities. So I did the next best thing, grabbed a ladder like a reasoning human being and used an intuitive step approach. Victory.

Heh. Well, I guess I can't quite do in real life that which a game allows. But that's part of what makes games so exhilarating, experiences possible with only a controller and a screen. On the plus side, using my insane ladder skills allowed me to get back to the parkour I could actually accomplish. For now.

Monday, June 7

StarCraft II Beta Preview

StarCraft II is a dash for superiority. But depending on your skill level, "dash" may be better described as “scramble” or “strategic battle-plan.” Each match is a continual refinement of your game. Each mistake is an opportunity for lesson learned; likewise, each success.

Immediately when a match begins, go! No time to think, no time to blink, only do. The opening build is vital and demands exactness. Workers, more supply, a refinery: over the course of many matches, you will revise and whittle down these first dozen actions into a masterpiece of design. Even then, are you properly rallying your probes? Is your building placement ideal? There are always ways to improve. And all of it towards a specific object, each a milestone on the path to domination. That tiny edge is all you need to win. And you will need it.

Econ, macro, micro, tech, recon: each skill is essential, and your game is only as good as your lowest common denominator. All potential actions must be constantly considered and each given due attention. A finely-microed army will decimate an attack-move five days out of seven, though both this knowledge and the requisite reflexes come with practice. A floundering economy will be unable to fund an adequate army, and a poorly optimized economy will waste good resources that, contrarily, your opponent is likely applying. For recon though, there is no substitute. Scouting is unequivocally the most essential and mandatory skill in StarCraft II. Knowledge is power, as they say, a phrase which StarCraft II more than just practices, it requires.

In a recent match, I had finally decided to attack with Protoss ground-forces, and, quite easily, I demolished my opponent's base with little resistance. But something wasn't right; the base had no buildings other than a couple of pylons and refineries. Shifting my army to a fogged expansion, I realized to my horror that my Protoss opponent had not only early-expanded to a high-yield base, but that he'd also constructed his entire base there. My forces were torn apart by an abominable army, and promptly, I was destroyed. But all of this could have been prevented with a little scouting.

Awareness of your opponent's actions at all times is essential. Barring good scouting, you might win regardless, either by deductive prediction or simply black-mask-blind luck. Let your opponent get the upper hand, though, and you will certainly fail. While you may have a couple of starports reliably constructing banshees, and you're thinking your army is looking pretty good, your opponent may have three hatcheries out there, each with a queen, pumping out dozens of hydralisks every larvae cycle.
Somewhere on the spectrum between plan and reaction, there is a keen balance to be struck. Opening moves should guide you towards an initial or mid-game goal, but you must be willing to adapt to your opponent's strategies, and quickly. Fast-teching to tier three units like colossi or thors may sound like a good idea, but if you don't have the troops to defend yourself and injure your opponent's economy along the way, even a measly enemy force will topple your poor infrastructure.

StarCraft II is a glorious exercise in the learning process. At my skill-level, upper silver ladder, players are focusing on refining their macro, practicing new micro tricks, and just barely testing the waters of magic-casters. Mostly, we're simply massing two or three unit-types and, on occasion, sending forward a scout. Higher level players, meanwhile, are using magic-casters as a core function of their armies, are constantly aware of their opponent's movements and are frequently raiding mineral lines, and are employing more creative strategies, like baneling drops. These things come with experience. But Blizzard, in my opinion, has done an excellent job with their match-making system, and you'll almost always face opponents who are on the cusp of your skill level, just challenging enough without being impossible.

The races of StarCraft II bear plenty of differences, both in unit make-up and strategy. As well, each race requires a tailored counter-strategy, making for a good number of unique matches. Terran units are split into three classes: biological, mech, and air. Trying to build all three may make for a diversified, yet anemic, army. Focusing on two classes is generally advised as many units have supporting roles. The medivac can heal biological units, a popular strategy, and hellions can defend close-range assaults on siege tanks. The reaper, a fun, fast unit, can jump cliffs, perfect for raiding gatherers and sniping undefended buildings. Their use, however, is fairly limited beyond this early-game function. Terran have plenty of variety for experimenting with different army builds. And though I've played with them least, I find that they require the greatest macro of all the races, if only because they require significantly more buildings than the other races.
The Zerg are limited early game, particularly because they have no anti-air until tier 2.5, but mid-way through a match, they hit this sweet spot where they can churn out swathes of units extremely quickly. There has been a lot of discussion about the over-simplicity of the Zerg, unfortunately; and I must say that I agree. At least at my skill-level, there is little reason to produce anything but hydralisks. Or if you feel like going air, mutalisks. It is as if the Zerg's innate ability to easily mass units, either actually or perceptually, invites watered-down strategies, since massing one or two unit-types is often a clear path to an overwhelming dominance. That said, satisficing is really no fun. So if you can break the mold of the narrow-minded overmind, you'll find plenty of cool units to play with. The roach, despite its constantly in-flux usefulness, is still an awesome unit. Burrow-sneaking right into enemy bases is a ton of fun when you can pull it off, and its ability to rapidly regenerate health while burrowed is extremely useful. The brood lord is another fantastic unit. Morphed from the air-to-air corrupter, the brood lord exclusively attacks ground with tiny, clawing broodlings. Its range, means of distracting enemy fire, and sheer damage output make it an essential late-game member of any Zerg army.

The Protoss are fascinating to play. Their range of units offer excellent diversity and they have plenty of opportunity for creative strategy. Zealots are excellent throughout a game's duration. Immortals are pure beast; they perfectly counter heavy-fire enemies such as siege tanks. Void rays are unquestionably the most cited unit by the StarCraft II community as being over-powered, but they've been balanced out with a number of patches, and their unique (and effective) attack-style and aesthetics are remarkably enjoyable. The stalker, a tier two ground-to-air unit, in my opinion, is the most useful unit in the entire game. And it can blink past base defenses. The Protoss's first spell-caster is also an integral part of a good army and easily the most accessible spell-caster of any in the game.

StarCraft II is the very definition of an addictive game. Losing inspires me to improve, and winning emboldens further victory. Aside from this, the game is simply fun, lots of fun. There are still plenty of balance issues to be found, but the beta ironed out the most heinous, and Blizzard still has a month and a half before the have to pay the dues. Its sad to see the beta go, but on the bright side, I'll hopefully start being a bit more productive with its absence.

Retroactive Haitus

Hey there! Long time no see.

If you're a regular reader of Invisible Studio, you may have been wondering where I've been for so long. Well, the story goes that this winter, around early February, I decided that I didn't want to sit around my house all Spring; I needed to get out and do something different for a while So, using a heinous sum of my funds, I traveled to Peru for seven weeks, to the city of Cuzco, and volunteered. I taught English to students in a low-income elementary school, took Spanish classes for myself, and on the weekends, I went hiking. It went alright. I met some awesome people, learned some things about teaching a foreign language, and saw some of the most gorgeous scenery Gaia has to offer. But now I'm back; well, temporarily.

For the past couple of weeks and for this next week, I am interning at the University of Tennessee Press in Knoxville, learning all about the publicity side of the publishing business. More or less, I'm mailing out letters and review copies of books, writing press releases, and converting book descriptions into short copy (150 words). It's a good time. Come June 16th, however, I'll be traveling up to Ann Arbor, Michigan to act as Lead Instructor at a technology camp, third year running (though my first time at the Michigan location). At camp, I'll be working no less than sixteen hours a day, so I might disappear for more or less, precisely, seven weeks, but I'll try to drop in for a post or two when I get the chance. That said, I've yet to finish my Warcraft III mod, Manifest, and I'll likely take what free time I can garner to work on finishing up that. Pre-Peru, I was running into some pretty darn tough road-blocks that I'll have to deduce some means of overcoming sooner or later.

Tonight, though! Tonight, I have for you a brand new article, a preview of StarCraft II from my copious, over-zealous time spent with the beta. *Sniff* A beta that ends tonight. But all is well, because now I'll have more time to play Shattered Horizon and the awesome new content Futuremark has released for the title. Within a couple of days here, I'll have an updated review of Shattered Horizon. Look for it. Great to be back. Thanks for reading.

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Tuesday, January 26

Manifest Blog on ModDB

In addition to my Edge blog, I have also begun a development blog for Manifest on ModDB, in an attempt to gain more visibility. Once the ModDB blog is approved, you may view it here. In addition to daily posts, I will also be hosting images and videos on ModDB.

Monday, January 25

Manifest Development Blog

Hello, you may have noticed that my posts are...sparse. I have a couple of reasons for that: 1. Addiction to TF2 and L4D2. And 2. I'm developing a mod for Warcraft III: The Frozen Throne. I have used the Warcraft III World Editor for many years now, but none of my games have ever truly progressed past prototypes. I figured it was about time to change that and actually complete a game. Why? Because I want to be a game designer, professionally. And there's no better way to get noticed in this industry, or even to be considered legitimate, then to make a game of your own. For the record, I also intend to be a professional games journalist as well, but I need to complete this game to act as a portfolio and to prove to myself that yes, I can actually finish what I begin.

Fortunately, the game's awesome. It's called Manifest, and it's a competitive, two-player, turn-based strategy game. I'm developing it alone and spending exorbitant amounts of time doing so. In a few weeks, I intend to have an open beta, after-which I'll be releasing the game for free for all to enjoy. I love Warcraft III mods; I truly do. I feel that the completion of this mod is my way bringing closure to a pivotal aspect of my life. Warcraft III made up much of my teenage years, and the editor itself allowed me to realize that I wanted to be a game designer in the first place. I'm having an excellent time making Manifest, and the game has finally progressed to a point where I can begin showing it to people. With that in mind, I have begun another (gasp!) blog chronicling the development of Manifest on Edge. "Another blog!" you say, "but you have a perfectly good blog right here." You're points are legitimate, but I wanted to keep this dev blog separate, as I see Invisible Studio as focusing on my opinions on game design and game commentary. Also, I wanted my development blog to have the opportunity to be viewed by lots of people, something I didn't see as feasible with this blog. I'll continue to update this blog with all issues of design and commentary, but I'll also be updating the Manifest blog each day on features of the game and the development process. Check out the Manifest blog here. And thanks for your continued support.

Monday, January 18

Left 4 Dead 2 Pipe Bomb Trick

Yesterday, I opened up Left 4 Dead 2 for my habitual Scavenge round and joined a Motel server. First thing that happens when I join, this Ellis goes: "Hey, you guys want to see something awesome? Check this out." We watch as he grabs a pipe bomb and jump-chucks it through the air towards the signs. We're all like, "I don't get it," until, moments later, the pipe bomb explodes, sending three gas canisters hurtling towards us. "Hol.y. Crap," I say, "that was the coolest thing I've ever seen." And the best part: Spitters still can't blow up the cans because they haven't been touched yet.

For rounds following, we each take turns trying to peg the canisters, usually with mild success. But, today, I joined another round at the Motel and, lo and behold, more people were trying the Pipe Bomb Trick. It went freaking viral. Fortunately, I was prepared, armed with my trusty WeGame recorder for just such occasions. I managed to catch on tape many successful pegs, as well as some failures. I used Pinnacle Video Spin 2 to splice the videos together along with some editing.

Check it out.

Source: Left 4 Dead 2 Pipe Bomb Trick

Tuesday, December 8

The Role of Interpretation in Prince of Persia

Today, I've published an article on GameCareerGuide examining the role of interpretation in Ubisoft's 2008 Prince of Persia. This is my first professionally published essay, and I am pleased with how it turned out. I would like to thank my parents for never giving me a ride to school, and the GameCareerGuide editor who took a chance on an unknown kid. Read the essay at GameCareerGuide.

I would love any comments on the essay. Feel free to leave a comment under this post or to email me at finnhaverkamp@gmail.com