23 May 2011

D'you know what I mean?

There's a strange but wondrous current flowing through game design over the last five or so years that's slowly but surely changing the face of players' interaction with the medium; I'm not talking about motion-based control but intuitive emotional response.

Okay, so "intuitive emotional response" is a term that I've just made up... but as far as I can tell, that's exactly what these systems are supposed to be about. I'm speaking specifically about the Mass Effect (and Dragon Age 2) wheel and, most recently, L.A. Noire's "trust" system. These mechanics are designed to assign an emotional response from the player to an easy traffic light system of "Yes, maybe and no!". It's the easiest way of getting around the problematic issue of fully voicing games that have a lot of dialogue, providing both choice and depth. The problem with these early systems is one that psychologists and philosophers have wrestled with for many centuries... and it's basically that not everyone sees or interprets the world in the same manner.

Ideally, when people converse, we understand each other perfectly. I mean, we have words and numbers, facial expressions and body language. These are all tools that allow us to more effectively communicate how we feel and what we want. However, these tools are only useful when used in the right context and the right environment. Anyone who's been abroad to a foreign-speaking nation (and even those that have the same language, to a lesser extent) will know just what I mean here. Your "safe and known" context is thrown out the window in a culture that is different from your own. Humour is notoriously hard to translate because people's social constructs work differently between cultures. Gestures, specific words... jobs, gender roles, religion and history all play a part in how we are able to relate to the world of communication along with myriad others and they can't always easily be translated.

Moving back from that complex morass of detail, even to those people within our own culture, we see that communication and understanding of communication is not universal. So it is with this in mind that, although I think that these emerging IER systems are good, I say that I miss the old days of knowing exactly what it is I'm about to say.

There is nothing more frustrating in a game than when it mis-reads what you are trying to do. When you press jump near a wall and kick off of it, doing a back flip instead of reaching up and grabbing a ledge to climb.... it's annoying. So taking something like that, which can more often than not be repeated, and slicing it into an aspect of the game which is "permanent" because, unlike in most normal conversations, there's no take-backs or apologies in the defined conversing of game worlds (yet).... it's just asking for frustration to be aired. Granted, no game system is ever going to be per-... oh wait.... Text conversations were perfect, never mind.

Seriously though. If IER systems ever want to take off, designers need to realise that they need to tell players exactly what their choice will do and not just give them a vague set of rules that they don't appear to follow anyway. Perhaps some way of physically telegraphing your avatar's general mood when going to select the choice (e.g. during selection of conversation choices in Mass Effect) would go some way to avoid frustrating the player when an unexpected or completely disproportionate response is elicited from a seemingly innocuous choice.

The only bright spot in L.A. Noire is that you can go into a lie option and back out of it, without any consequences..... which basically means that you can usually eliminate one of the options based on your avatar's reaction, not on the reaction of the interviewee. However, this feels a lot like gaming the system since you cannot press for more when you pick truth or doubt and it's "that is all there is to say about that!" result. I also found that most of the items/pieces of evidence you use to convince people that they we know they are lying are too narrow. There were some cases in the game thus far where I knew the person was lying but that crucial circumstantial pieces of evidence that you could and would use in the real world for further information were useless. For example, a piece of rope used in many murders and an identical rope found outside of a suspect's house is useless because you cannot use it in your conversation with him.

For all of the technical wizardry that goes into making these games, I feel that perhaps designers are missing out on the psychological component that could make them more transparent and accessible to people who are used to using real-world logic instead of the twisted "you are eaten by a grue" game logic. Going forward, I would like to see games become more forgiving in their conversation systems - especially because the player is increasingly being given less control over what and how they interact in those conversations.

17 May 2011

Podcast! After Hours Episode 1

Surprise! We now have another podcast! Ever wonder what happens to all that stuff i cut out of the show? Like the coughs and sneezes..... the long, rambling diatribes and non-sequiturs? What's that you say? We already have them in the main podcast? Well, "EFF YOU" buddy! We're doing this anyway!

So, basically this is all the outtakes, cut and slashed bits of the conversation.... They are largely unedited and with no reference surrounding them. I'm trying this as an experiment so let me know how you think this has turned out. Also, i wrote a new theme tune.

Credit goes to juskiddink for the guiro sound i used in the ending theme tune licenced under the CC.

After Hours Episode 1

As a new treat, we also have a podcast-only RSS feed. I know that some of you have readers that don't filter out the other posts so this might help with that:

If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com

Podcast! The Easy Button Episode 17

Welcome back, campers! Welcome to our "second season" of The Easy Button. We're back and better than ever! I have a new microphone, Tboon has a clean office and I'm still failing at introductions.... well, we can't improve 100% now, can we?

This week on The Easy Button: EU3, Victoria 2, Far Cry 2, Portal 2 (though not in much detail), Mass Effect 2 and Dragon Age 2. We also have a bit of a wander off talking about negative consequences in games and how they pretty much don't exist any more in modern game design.

We've also got a new idea coming up that i'll be posting about soon. So keep an eye out for that!

Here's a link to Spoiler Warning - the MST3K style show i've mentioned a few times on the podcast!

The Easy Button Episode 17

If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com

21 April 2011

Shapes in the Mass effect series...

Mass Effect is, in my opinion, a very strange beast as series go. It is a game series that is founded on no constant concept.... It's a bit like Final Fantasy in that regard. What am I talking about? Well, let me explain...


The universe of Mass effect was founded on curves. Curves in space, curves on ships... hell, even their weapons had curves!!

Mass Effect 2 either forgot this or there was some fundamental shift to a parallel universe where people can be magically resurrected after de-.... oh, wait. Does that explain the story of ME2? Anyway, the shape du jour in ME2 is the rhombohedral, specifically parallelograms. The world has it, Cerberus' insignia has it the ships have it... hell, even all the new weapons have it!

Mass Effect 3? A little too early to tell... but i'm going to go for hexagons.

Story type:

ME1: Save the universe at the cost you see fit. It's a classic pulp sci-fi endeavour complete with inspirational music and varied environments that are fantastical in nature. A bit like an entire series of Stargate or Star Trek rolled into one game.

ME2: Guns of the magnificent seven. The story of 2 is very simplified and actually doesn't make much sense if you let yourself stop and think about it for even a minute. The environments are more bland and similar with fewer types of area to visit... the art style is more utilitarian and less fantastical. The only mission that felt like Star Trek was for Jacob's loyalty, the rest? Bleh, Gears of War eat your heart out.

ME3: We'll see but i'm pretty sure it's Battle beyond the stars with smatterings of both the previous two games.

I'm sure there are more things that you can think of that trend to the untrendable for Mass Effect and its universe. Let me know via the comments or our email address: the.easiestbutton at gmail.com.

14 April 2011

The thing about the PS3 version of Portal 2...

Most places on the internet are focusing on two aspects of the Portal 2 release on PS3. The first is that Steam is now on PS3 and you can link your Steam and Playstation accounts - allowing you to play with and/or against your PC brethren if the game so allows. The second is that the PS3 version comes with a code for a free PC or Mac version on Steam, allowing you to enjoy the game on two/three platforms.

These are nice features to be sure, especially having a good/working friends list and community on the free-to-use Playstation Network that brings it in line (and possibly surpasses) with the 360 Gold accounts. But there are two other consequences that are far more important for me.

The first is that I will always have Portal 2. It is my game and i control when i play it (dependent on technology working) as opposed to being tied to Steam and the Steam DRM. This is an important aspect for me in being able to appreciate the longevity of the games i purchase - as the recent DA:O debacle has shown. If more publishers do this then i'll be a very happy, though poor, gamer as it presents the best of both worlds (the DRM and non-DRM) to my enjoyment and the publishers' pockets. Of course, being the pessimistic person i am, i doubt that publishers will see it this way and instead would see it as them losing a PC sale... which they would never have made in the first place.....

The second consequence is that Steam is DRM and a community and a matchmaking system. The recent hack of the PS3 has pretty much left it open to anything and everything. If i were a publisher i'd be worried about releasing games on the PS3 because of this and their likely propensity to be pirated more easily now. However, tying a game to Steam and introducing a free PC/Mac copy with a code included in the box hits two targets that the industry is trying to hit: gamers buying new and gamers buying used. This is appealing to the "buy-new" gamers because, hey, i get two copies of the game.... i can play with my PC friends or using my friends on Steam AND i get all the other features of Steam too. This increases the number of gamers who are willing to pay full or near-full price on these titles.... including myself; the person who hasn't bought a full price DRM game for a long time. Presumably, the PS3 game itself isn't locked to the account and so can be resold, if you wanted to, which is still really cool. (If that's not true then we get an addition to point two which is it stops reselling altogether.)

This appeals to the industry with regards to used sales because they don't have to make extra content to hold back (aka The Dragon Age/Mass Effect content that you need to register with their stupid networks to get working from the disc).... they can charge people money to enable the game on Steam by buying a new code.

I think this is an interesting direction for the industry and holds a lot of promise and, for once, my pessimistic granite stone heart has a pulse of optimism. Lets see what the industry does going forward, shall we?

11 April 2011

Musings on Mass Effect 3....

Now, this may be obvious to some people who've not been on a media-blackout of ME3 but i've been playing through ME2 and it dawned on me that this whole time they're setting up the third game to be a standard Seven Samurai/Magnificent Seven style story.

::Spoilers ahead!!::

So, i've met Liara, i've met Wrex and also Ashley (i got rid of stupid Kaiidan in my ME1 playthrough).... These people are "saved" for the third game through me not being able to recruit them. What ALSO struck me was that other choices i made in the first game, and presumably this one, will coalesce into a saving grace in the third. It was actually the brief little salute from the Rachni Queen in ME2 that put me on this line of thinking.... and all of a sudden i realised that Bioware are essentially making "Battle Beyond the Stars: Mass Effect Edition".

While i'm having some fun with ME2.... it's not all that i thought was in the promise given from ME1..... Now, seeing that ME3 is a "round-up and save them" quest in the making, i can see why they've gone the route that they have.... though i don't really understand why they essentially have used the same formula in ME2 just with a different focus... It's more like "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" than "The Magnificent Seven".

27 March 2011

HD offerings... part deux!

And on to Warrior Within.

This game fares better than The Sands of Time mainly because it's newer and had both PC and Xbox versions out of the gate. Unfortunately, this game also suffers from the half-assedness of TSoT HD version, however, luckily there are no problems with balancing issues for the sound!! Prosit!!

On the other hand, the game is blatantly just upscaled. There are no new textures and even the menus and menu fonts are pixelated due to the stretch to an HD resolution. It's pretty pathetic to see the textures on the characters (apart from the prince) being so blocky and low-resolution. I'm also realising now that TSoT version on this Blu-ray is probably cribbed from the PC version and any improvement in texture and resolution i was seeing was from that version (which i didn't play).

I'm guessing that Two Thrones will tell a similar tale and to be honest it's quite dissapointing. There's nothing new or extra for this release, and the poor implementation of this HD/3D version means that none of these games have been treated with the respect they deserve or respect for the customer at the price at which they've been released. Myself and Tboon talked about HD re-releases not long ago on the podcast and one of the things that came up as a positive was allowing new fans to come to the series and experience good games. I'm not sure, if i didn't have nostalgia to help me along, that i'd want to play or buy these games that look so much worse than anything current gen in just a less-muddy resolution.

This is not the way to do an HD update.

However, there are some franchises i would love to see in an HD offering. I would love to see Silicon Knights and Crystal Dynamics revive and release their Soul Reaver/Legacy of Kain series. I loved those games back in the day and would love to see Soul reaver 1, 2 and Defiance and possibly also the two Blood Omen games in one package on the PS3.

26 March 2011

HD offerings...

I'm a big fan of the Prince of Persia series and, having been given some vouchers for my birthday, I decided to get the Prince of Persia Trilogy HD collection on PS3. If this is the way that companies re-hash old classics to make them into HD offerings then i won't be buying any more.

The Sands of Time:

First off, it's a lazy port. Seriously, the sound during cutscenes is so quiet that you struggle to hear it and the voices aren't tied to the "voices volume" but instead to the music volume, meaning that you can't improve the situation because if you manually crank up the volume on the TV set, the music drowns out all the important dialogue regardless.

Secondly, the "HD textures" are pretty limited. Most of the environment has been updated texture-wise but the textures on the character models of the prince and Farah are poorly done. Whenever the prince opens his mouth and i see a bright red, flat surface in there it pulls me right out of any immersion i might have had. Similarly, when i see the inside of Farah's eye sockets for whatever reason (i'm assuming that there's some conflict with the way the port renders on the PS3) i'm wondering why i'm not playing this on my Gamecube where these weren't issues. Flat, monochrome textures should have no place in an HD update, this isn't the N64 we're talking about here....

Finally, if they're going to do an HD update of a classic game, at least make SOME effort. Remake the character models in higher poly-counts - as long as you keep the same dimensions you can just tie them into the same animations. It would be nice if they also didn't mess up the sound levels in the game as well... Yeah, it would be nice to be able to appreciate these classics as i once did.

As it stands, i really can't recommend anyone buy any HD classic remakes unless they hear good things about them.... I'm really disappointed in the quality of this release.


Well, having played through three hours of this classic game, i'm starting to appreciate how much the sound and conversation in games (and specifically this one) makes a huge difference in how much enjoyment you get out of th experience. Whoever did this port to the PS3 HD version really messed up the sound. The talking is too quiet so you miss half to three quarters of the conversations and quips; removing character and character development between the two protagonists.... The effects noises are completely out of whack with the rest of the game world, with knocks and plods from the nearby enemies overwhelming other sounds. Specifically, directional sound is broken, i find, as when you run around, things that Farah says are lost in the background noise compared to the originals.

The worst part is that the only tools the user has to balance these things are pretty useless. Reducing the music level also reduces in-cutscene dialogue (as i mentioned above)... so you need that high.... but leaving that high means that you can't hear the talking.... so you need that option set to high as well.... but, ideally higher than the music.... but then you can't hear the talking during the cutscenes..... and then there's the sound effects which are quiet as well.... except for those enemy noises when you're not in combat.

It's probably the most frustrating sound-balancing/design that i've ever encountered in a game..... and doubly so because it was perfect in the PS2 and GC versions of this game.

15 March 2011

More complaining?

Well, i was going to write up some more saddening thoughts about Dragon Age 2 but, really, the fine professional writers over at RPS have done that so well, that i figured i should just point to their article and do away with my own diatribe.

The only difference between his viewpoint and mine is that, i actually quite like the game, despite the complete and total creative mess it is. I like the exploration and running around whacking things (it's an action RPG at normal difficulty) and the mindlessness of the whole enterprise. It fills that hole that i've been looking at in my gaming experiences for a while.

One thing i would like to mention is that he is spot on about the lack of ability to roleplay in this game. Having the choice between goody-two-shoes, flippantly unfunnily rude and evil "i'll cut your eyes out and gut you" is not good. The only time you get to exercise any sort of interesting dialogue trickery is when you have an appropriate squadmate present to intervene on your behalf. No more jedi mind tricks or verbal trickery at high intelligence or wisdom levels.

One thing the RPS article doesn't mention is how the stats system is now pointless. There is no reason to have "strength, dexterity, magic, cunning, willpower and constitution" because each class only really utilises two of them and, if you don't put your points into those two attributes when you get them, you end up with a nerfed character who either can't wield a good enough weapon or can't wear the right armour for your level.
I don't necessarily mind that they've done it this way, but for gods' sake, take out the attributes if they're essentially meaningless. Instead make armour and weapons dependent on your skill and class choices. Let's face it, there's no reason why a fighter (who was in the army) would be unable to wear a piece of plate mail that is level 1 or level 20.... the weight should be the same (or even lighter for the higher level and better quality item). So just do away with the increased, Dragonball Z-esque, strength requirements and instead tie them to skills you purchase with points or to the level of the character. Especially if my putting points into the "dodge" skill makes me unable to wield a weapon for a few levels because i'm always playing catch up DPS...

The illusion of choice in the game is pretty claustrophobic and means that the game is pretty shallow.... sorry, i meant 'streamlined'.

12 March 2011

Dragon Age 2: The complainening....

Now, it may surprise some of you that i got this game, having not played the original.... It may also surprise some of you that i'm complaining about something..... But while this game has been okay so far, so much of it smacks of sloppy writing or game-design. So, below you'll find some random, unfiltered thoughts as i play through the game:

1. Sidequests: There is SO little exposition for sidequests, sometimes i'm accidentally turning in sidequests and not understanding the point of the quest or why it was needed in the first place just by "using" everything and everyone that i can use. I found a stone toe - i thought, i'll read the journal entry later - and then found the person it belonged to in the next area. The guy was so happy he said "Haha, thanks! Well, that'll teach me for doing that!" Or some such non-committal nonsense. What was he doing? Why was he doing it?! Nothing! Was he hiding in the wardrobe because some angry lover burst into the room he was sharing with a whore? What was going on?
Also, how does he KNOW i have a stone toe? Am i going around, showing it to everyone?! Or do i wear it on a string around my neck like a trophy? It's hackneyed and stupid and previous journal entries are replaced with the latest bit of info so you don't have any clue. "What was it about that toe i just gave away? Let's read the journal - Oh! quest completed, guy has his toe back! Hooray!". Very informative.

2. I keep running into groups of armed guys surrounding an empty spot with some sort of leader in their midst that i can talk to. These guys aren't doing anything and if you talk to the leader he just tells you to piss off. I haven't triggered it yet but i KNOW that they are just there to wait for me to stand in their center after being given a quest to talk to the guy and then let them "ambush" me. Stupid, stupid, stupid STUPID!!!

3. Where everybody knows your name. Seriously. You're in this city for a year's worth of servitude - but NOOOOO. Bioware didn't make it into a quest or playable intro so you just skip ahead a year and "poof" you're free - no blurb to tell of your exploits, nothing. The problem with this is that EVERYONE knows you. You've got people coming up to you telling you to stay safe and how Athenril (or whatever the rogue choice's name is) really did well with you.... or they give you something for old-time's sake. I mean... who the fuck are these people? Did Bioware think having people who you've never met recognise you is a cool thing? You know what people call it when that happens in real life? Creepy..... or possibly amnesia... But you get the picture!

Minor Complaint: A - No first person camera. There's this beautiful, detailed world and you're restricted to a camera distance that doesn't let you see it properly. It's actually quite annoying for me.
More soon!

1 March 2011

Podcast! The Easy Button Episode 16

Happy anniversary! This week, Taylor talks about Crusader Kings, i moan a bit about Test Drive Unlimited 2 and we think about things over our first year of podcasting together.

The Easy Button Episode 16

If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com

21 February 2011

Test Drove me doolally 2...

Test Drive Unlimited 2 is a game i *really* want to love... It's a game i already like, despite my pure hatred of its mechanics, where there are rich vistas you can skirt along as you thump towards the horizon in a car of your favourite make with a half-decent sound track blaring over the speakers. It's just a shame that their "from scratch" driving model just doesn't work.

I mean, seriously! How many super cars do you know that will uncontrollably spin off the road at speeds of less than 60 mph because you nudged the wheel slightly? Sure, there are super cars like that which exist in the real world.... but would a Subaru Impreza spring to mind in this scenario? Not to me it wouldn't. This car, this beast that is pretty much designed for road-holding both on tarmac and in the rough should be more than up to the task of sticking on a wide road with minimal bends.... but it can't - or at least not without some serious handling from the driver.

It's incredibly frustrating then, to drive the cars in this game in any of the races and time trials where, in comparison to the one-off missions that pop up around the map from time to time, the bar is set so high.
Even worse is how the AI and you interact. That is to say, if you bump into the AI you go flying.... if the AI bumps into you, you also go flying! Just watching the AI during and after some of these interactions makes me question the weightiness of my car and of the sanity of the developers. The AI appears to be able to right their car with the minimum of ease from a spin or fishtail without travelling great distances.... Compare this to myself where i've travelled 20-50 m off the road before i've managed to bring my heap of steaming shit to a stop (if some physical barrier hasn't already done this for me). It feels (though it's not) impossible to make the AI crash in such a way as to actually set them appreciably back in a race.

The sad thing is that this so-called driving model was built from the ground up to accommodate the all-terrain mentality of this sequel when it appears as if no lessons, or even ideas, were learnt from the first game.

Sadly, the in-game radio stations are a bit limited and you are unable to create your own or play your own playlist within the game from your library of games..... when in the first you were perfectly able to do so.

Finally, what really irks me is the whole licence system. In the original you started off with modest cars and learnt the driving model through cars that weren't so fast as to be uncontrollable. You had restrictions on certain races but you could do one at any time. Now, they've taken away those races and events and made them random and instead require you to achieve licences to be able to partake in championship races. They also start you off in the "classic" car side of things... which unforunately is not conducive to learning the controls when, in theory, you're driving cars that take more effort to drive (not that the 'difficulty' indicator would have you believe it!).

What they should have done was do something similar to the original - have you work your way up from the lower class cars but also provide you with fixed events that you are able to enter in an amateur manner, allowing you to win money and also hone your skills.

There's also a lot of complaining about the broken multiplayer side of things, but since i don't use MP, i'll not mention those!

Unfortunately, TDU2 is a game that could have been a classic.... instead it's relegated to the sideline because of its rather blatant flaws.

14 February 2011

Podcast! The Easy Button Episode 15

Hey everybody! Here's a new show to brighten your week! We're back to the usual format this week with some talk of the recent(ish) news, games we've been playing and even a topic! We talk about our comfort games.... so download or listen in your browser and maybe send us some of your comfort games to our email below.

The Easy Button Episode 15

If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com

5 January 2011

Podcast! The Easy Button Episode 14d

And so it comes to an end..... our best and worst games of all time.... to date..... that we have played! No further qualification is needed so step inside and lend an ear to hear our mutterings, ramblings and complaints about these terrible titles.

Also, i mess up the intro again - but this time it's funny! :D

The Easy Button Episode 14d

If you want to contact us please feel free to email us with comments, shout-outs, suggestions or questions at: the.easiestbutton AT gmail.com