Keyboard Geniuses

The Amazing Spider-Man

Trickle-Down Gameonomics

Highlights from the week’s comment threads.

By Matt Gerardi • June 29, 2012

Keyboard Geniuses is our weekly glance at a few intriguing, witty, or otherwise notable posts from the Gameological discussion threads. Comments have been excerpted and edited here for grammar, length, and/or clarity. You can follow the links to see the full threads.

Taking It Easy

In his review of The Amazing Spider-Man, Scott Jones bemoaned the game’s overuse of cinematic moments that reduce the action to a series of button prompts. This sparked a conversation about the delicate balancing act of keeping players moving while still offering a satisfying challenge. Mike Ferraro gave his view on the economics of difficulty in modern games:

Designers err on the side of being too easy, usually because the producers hammer on them for it. Nobody wants to ship a game with a difficulty dead-end in it for a significant portion of players. Outside of Japan, anyway. A lot of games that are too hard when they ship were considered too easy by the designers, who didn’t realize that their two years playing the game as experts is not an accurate gauge of how the target audience is going to find it. Which is why you want to constantly playtest the game with fresh players. It’s very sobering.

It’s no small feat to make a game that can challenge the designers but is also beatable by their wife or young kid. The only way to not piss the player off is if he knows that it’s his own choice that something is too difficult, and could scale it back or just give up on trying to get the 100-percent perfect ranking and come back later after he’s gotten better at the game (or his character is better developed).
Difficulty settings are the primitive solution, user-chosen goals and challenges are a much more organic approach. Project Gotham 2 had you wager on each race the max difficulty you thought you could win at. Mario Kart has the different speed/difficulty classes, but also special rewards above the gold medal for coming in first every race, etc. Angry Birds has the star rankings that don’t affect advancement. That’s where games excel, when the player understands his performance level and has a reason to challenge himself on a replay.

Elsewhere, Effigy_Power brought up the tension that comes from the constant threat of permanent death, something that is missing in most modern games:

It’s an interesting evolution in gaming. In the comment section of a game a few days ago, we talked about how perma-death is a thing of the past, due to the desire of developers to keep people playing and minimize frustration. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that; there were, after all, plenty of games that were teeth-gnashingly difficult and made you replay huge chunks only to artificially keep the game time up.
Mind you, the loss of perma-death also made games a lot less scary and engaging. Knowing that you can quick-save at any time or that a level is studded with checkpoints can certainly take the challenge out of it. Fable went so far as to punish you with nothing more than the loss of some experience points and a few (later removable) scars.
Now, holding the players hand to such an extend that even mistakes are white-washed with cool maneuvers is a bit like the policy to not fail students anymore for bombing on tests. It may feel great to effortlessly zip through something, always in style and always successful, but it is a hollow experience, because without challenge nothing is achieved.

And ToddG respectfully disagreed:

I respectfully disagree. A game can be both punishingly difficult and keep you playing, and many modern games accomplish both with ease. It’s just a matter of localizing the challenge and ensuring that, once the player bests a particular challenge, they don’t have to do it again. This is what checkpoints and regenerating health are designed to do; they ensure that a “just good enough” performance in one section of a game doesn’t punish you in the next, and most games will compensate for this by making the individual sections more difficult. I understand that some game enthusiasts prefer the Homeworld method of never knowing if your performance on a level is good enough to be able to complete the next, but I’ve never understood it. Anyway, all this to say that, in my experience, if a game is easy, it’s usually just because it’s easy, not because of the mechanisms it uses.

Spec Ops: The Line

For Gus Mastrapa, Spec Ops: The Line failed to fulfill its promise of taking a serious look at the horrors of war through the lens of a military shooter. Vervack penned an eloquent counterpoint:

I’ve actually been waiting for this game since the first news of it appeared back in 2010 (it went into hibernation for a while), so I am more than a little biased in its favor. My thoughts are a little scattershot right now because I just got finished playing it a few hours ago, but I do have a few thoughts.

Since I basically came into the game having ignored most of the marketing, I didn’t know what to expect. I’d been initially attracted by the references to Heart Of Darkness and Apocalypse Now, but I full well know expecting a game with the power of either of those works would be way too optimistic. I suppose what I was expecting was a shooter that would take on the absurdity, the violence, and the terror of those works to create a horror that draws you in rather than repels, and in this, Spec Ops succeeded.

I was looking forward to the absurdity, since the absurd moments in Apocalypse Now were some of my favorite parts of the film—I remember watching the USO Playboy bunny show on the lake for the first time and wondering why none of the soldiers in the movie realized how insane the whole thing is—and the setting of Dubai just brings that out. To describe Dubai briefly, imagine your hometown/city, save with every building built before 1980 removed and with 8,000x the amount of money. There’s large parts of the game where you’re wandering through these amazing opulent skyscraper lobbies and penthouses owned by people who spend more on an afternoon of shopping than any of us make in a month. It also drives how just how much stuff society generates these days, and how it accumulates. (Honestly, one of the strangest parts of the game came for me at the 3/4 mark, when I was in a firefight in a shopping mall and I literally ran through an abandoned Games Workshop outlet. I’m still trying to digest that one.)

I’m still mulling over the game’s use of violence, but I would suggest that it would be a mistake to view the relationship between the beauty and the horror of violence as a dichotomy. From my perspective, they are merely two elements of the same entity. Violence and destruction can be, in their ways, deeply beautiful acts. It’s not a problem of video games; it’s a problem of life. To sum up this giant mass of words, it’s a modestly ambitious game, and one I felt that succeeded in its ambitions.

EA Searchlight?
Jonatan "Cactus" Soderstrom

This week, we took a look at the works of Jonatan “Cactus” Söderström, an indie developer known for churning out exceedingly short and strange games. Down in the comments, The_Misanthrope pitched an idea for indie imprints that the mega-publishers out there might want to look into:

Thanks for covering Cactus! I just wish I could get more of his games to run on my PC! Even more to the point, thank you for making an indie auteur the focus of a Dossier article.

When I see a big studio head going into his “End Times For The Games Industry” schtick (with used games being the current bête noire) or a bored consumer complaining about the lack of inventive games on store shelves, I enter into a state of apoplexy and point to people like Gregory Weir, Auntie Pixelante/Miss Anthropy, Jonas Kratzes, etc. and I say “Look! It seems there’s a thriving, creative game scene just over there!” They may not all be refined or polished affairs, but they are, for the most part, free (or at least super cheap). Yes, Sturgeon’s Law still applies and there will be a fairly sizable percentage of shitty or just boring games among the teeming masses, but when you find that diamond in the rough, it makes the search well worth it.

I am also going to reiterate my idea that the doom-foretelling big game publishers should think about opening up “indie” imprints, much like Hollywood does for its prestige imprints. Granted, you could argue that publishers already do that when they snatch up [indie games] to dump onto digital distribution platforms, but I think they can do more to foster this talent. Compared to the bloated budgets of AAA titles (for useful comparison, see also blockbuster season), these smaller imprints would be able to operate at a relatively lower cost, so a game can suffer failure (or even just modest success) without shareholders calling for heads on a pike.

Funny Games
Al Lowe

This week also saw the start of a new Special Topics In Gameology series, talking with a few icons of video game comedy. The first subject was Al Lowe, creator of the late-’80s/early-’90s adventure-game series Leisure Suit Larry. Prompted by Lowe’s thoughts on brawny heroes making for poor comedy, the comments turned into a exploration of what made Larry work so well. feisto had this to say:

I think part of Larry’s appeal, if I remember correctly (based just on playing the first game), is that the humor is pretty genial, and this really comes through in the interview. I was maybe a few years younger than the intended audience for the game, but I don’t remember being put off or confused by anything; it seemed like the kind of sex farce written by a self-effacing guy who’s more interested in trying his darnedest to get a chuckle out of the audience than showing a lot of T&A. And more often than not, it worked.

It felt a lot more honest than the kind of humor I see in a lot of adventure games today, where the writer clearly thinks they’re hilarious and go out of their way to employ humor even when it’s inappropriate (which is what turned me off The Broken Sword, for example).

Also, I totally learned what a prophylactic was.

As always, thanks for reading, commenting, and being an intelligent and respectful band of Internet denizens. We’ll see y’all next week.

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890 Responses to “Trickle-Down Gameonomics”

  1. PugsMalone says:

    This isn’t related to any of these comments, but when are we getting our AVQ&A equivalent?

    • EnderTZero says:

       Also: Inventories. They’re probably my favorite part of AV Club, aside from Todd’s writing.

      • Merve says:

        They did inventories for Mother’s Day and Father’s Day here, but I’d love to see them more often, if possible. I know that they’re “just lists,” but they spark a lot of great discussion.

    • John Teti says:

      Sometime soon. I’m glad you’re still excited for it! Since I’m the only full-timer around these Gameological parts, it takes a while to get new features up to speed. I wish I could move faster, and I’m training new help to take care of some of the day-to-day logistics. That way I won’t be working such insane hours anymore and I’ll have the time/energy to develop more of the coverage I’d like to do here. (Not that I’m not proud of everything we’ve put out so far; I am very proud. We’re also eager to try a bunch of stuff you haven’t seen yet.)

      Q&A and Inventory are two of the most time-consuming features to edit, which is why we haven’t been able to post them as often as we’d like. That said, we do have two Inventories in the works that will be running in the coming weeks. And I would like to get the Q&A up and running in July, as well. Thanks for your patience in the meantime.

  2. HobbesMkii says:

    Obviously Comment Cat couldn’t know, but Fyodor Douchetoevsky finally got us into a Gameological TF2 Night. Four of us invaded some clan’s server and played a couple maps. I got some screenshots of us here:

    • John Teti says:

      This is so awesome; I’m getting misty. I’m pretty sure that Comment Cat will take notice next week.

      • George_Liquor says:

        Big kudos to you & Douchetoevsky for putting this together. I hope you guys do it again soon.

        • HobbesMkii says:

           I think probably if we pick a time and night and stick to it on a regular schedule, it’ll grow.

        • Xtracurlyfries says:

          Count me in!

        • Effigy_Power says:

           Yeah, what the hell. I am not terribly grand at it and I don’t feel like paying for premium items, but sure as shoot’n’ could peek in there once or twice.
          That, btw, was as non-committal as I can possibly get.

    • ShrikeTheAvatar says:

      I’ll have to make it out for some TF2.  All my items are very old at this point… I still have the Cheater’s Lament.  

    • X_the_Anonymous_Man_or_Woman says:

       Awww… you took pictures of me after I viciously filled you full of holes. How sweet!

      • HobbesMkii says:

         I have a lot of those. I also have a picture of after you riddled me with holes while still afire from my Pyro.

    • BarbleBapkins says:

      Quite a fun time! (I am CitizenSniiiips!!!! on Steam if my avatar didn’t give me away)

      I think I am getting dumber as time goes by, because that new gamemode/map took me forever to figure out.

      • HobbesMkii says:

        Really? You defended that rocket extremely well, then, even if you didn’t know why you were doing it.

      • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

        I had played that map the day before, and I was still kinda confused on it. I figured it out eventually, but I’m more of a payload man myself. It seemed like the matches could be dragged out for a long time. I was frustrated.

        • HobbesMkii says:

          Payload’s definitely the best. I had the game auto-select a payload server for me (which put me into a game with Barple there seemingly by accident). Of course, it was only payload for that one round, as we discovered.

        • BarbleBapkins says:

          Haha, I had actually just checked the group page to see if anyone had started playing and saw you were the only one in game, Hobbes, so I just hopped into the server you were on. Payload is pretty fun, especially Badwater, so it was too bad the server changed maps so quickly.

          As for the new mode, once I actually got close enough to see that there was a timer that reset the intelligence it made much more sense. I thought both teams could pick it up at any time, so until I saw that, I had no idea how one team managed to keep it for so long!

    • Fyodor Douchetoevsky says:

      Good idea on the screenshots! I’ll have to remember that next time. Fun times were had, despite my magnificent lack of organizational skills. I’d love to make it a regular thing though! If anyone wants to help out I can add some more mods to the Steam group so more people could post announcements and events and things. I know hardly anyone uses the group chats on steam, but that would be a great way to get some pick up games going of whatever. I usually check to see if anyone’s in there, but I’ll trying to remember to idle in there if I want to play something with people.

      Also, if anyone knows of a server that could host us regularly, that would be ridiculously awesome! 

      Thanks again to everyone who played!

    • EmperorNortonI says:

      I’d be down for that.  I’m not sure if the time difference will ever make it possible, living in Japan and all, but if it is, I’d be interested. Also may pick up the new Magic DotP, and would be interested in some multi should that happen.

  3. Effigy_Power says:

    Chosen for a comment that is neither funny nor ironic…
    Don’t tell me friends.
    Also I am starting to agree @ToddG:disqus when it comes to the point, so the comment is also a little less correct from my standpoint.
    Oh the shame, oh the shame.

    • ToddG says:

      Nah, no shame.  I mean, “difficulty” really is a subjective thing, and comes in a variety of forms, as you alluded to.  It just seems that whenever game enthusiasts want to complain about how easy they feel games have become as compared to 10 or 20 years ago, they also feel compelled to point out mechanics or trends to back up their statements, when frankly I don’t think it’s necessary or, often, accurate.  Sometimes a game is easy simply because it is not hard.  Our internet-honed debate instincts tend to react to that as if it were a reductionist argument, but I don’t think it is.

      Also, I would like to offer joint congratulations to ourselves for drawing the comment cat’s attention!

  4. The_Misanthrope says:

    Two-peat!  Do you believe in miracles?  Don’t call it a comeback!  Other sports cliches!

    • Effigy_Power says:

       It has all the makings of a heart-warming British underdog story. Trailing by half-time and playing cheating Germans and everything.

      • The_Misanthrope says:

        Or an American one where the guy can only win after learning an important life-lesson. The trailer will signal the shift in tone with a record-needle scratch, of course.

  5. Merve says:

    For those of you interested in Spec Ops: The Line, it’s reportedly getting a 50% price cut on Amazon for the next two weeks, starting Sunday:

    I might actually pick this one up, depending on how much money the Steam summer sale robs from my wallet.

    • HobbesMkii says:

       *GASP* They’re doing the plentiful Paradox package again. And it starts on my birthday! Since I already have CK2, I can give the code to my twin brother as a gift.

    • lokanoth says:

      Thanks for the heads up! Are these all PC games? Any PS3?

      • Merve says:

        I think they’re all PC download deals. Amazon does them pretty often. I was able to pick up Mass Effect 2 and L.A. Noire from them for $5 apiece.

    • Enkidum says:

      Hoooolllly shiiit. I was looking at how broke I am, and deciding I just couldn’t do CKII at the moment, and then it’s like 80% off there. Now just gotta find someone with a US address I can use…

      • HobbesMkii says:

         Are you still looking for this? My brother decided he only wanted a GamersGate CK2, so I’d be willing to give the CK2 code to someone.

        • Enkidum says:

          Hell, yeah, if you’re willing to do that I’d be really grateful! I’ve sent you a friend request on Steam (I’m assuming just plain “Hobbes” in the Gameological Society group is you?) so you can pm me any details…

          Man, this website is full of nice people. I wish I was nice too!

        • HobbesMkii says:

          Apparently Steam doesn’t do PM, so hit me with a Chat when you come online, Enkidum.

      • HobbesMkii says:

         Whoops. I posted my comment below to the wrong tier comment, so you won’t get a red alert if I don’t post this here (thanks Disqus!).

  6. Mr. Glitch says:

    Hi everybody, Mr. Glitch here with another classic game review!

    Legend has it that some time in the early 80s, an Atari game designer by the name of Dave Theurer dreamt he was being attacked by beings that crawled at him from the center of the Earth. Instead of seeking intense psychotherapy, he did what any great game designer would do: He turned his freaky nightmare into the fast-paced, addictive arcade classic, Tempest. Years later, Atari set out to recreate the magic of the original with the Jaguar game, Tempest 2000.

    Tempest 2000 retains the original’s basic game design and aesthetics: You’re a yellow claw-shaped polygon that slides across the edge of a 3D polygonal playfield, shooting enemies as they move toward you. The Fuseballs, Spikers, and Flippers all make an appearance, along with a few new enemies and more playing field variations. The biggest change in game play comes in the form of power-ups that increase your firepower, add a computer-controlled ally, allow you to jump to avoid enemies, or give you access to a bonus stage. Unfortunately, you lose those power-ups at the end of each stage.

    Tempest arcade machines used an analog spinner to give players fast and precise control over their yellow space claw. Good Tempest players could dart from side to side in an instant, picking off enemies with incredible speed and precision. Tempest 2000 does a credible job of bringing back some of that frenetic action, but it’s hampered by the Jaguar’s simple, digital D-pad, which just doesn’t provide the same level of accuracy and feeling of perfect control. Perhaps to overcome the control issues, Tempest 2000’s difficulty ramps up very slowly and 1-ups come frequently. A marathon session could easily last an hour or more, which would be better news if Tempest 2000 had more variety to it. The two-player co-op mode is really the best way to play the game, as it dramatically ratchets up the difficulty, making for a hell of a challenge.

    Tempest 2000 retains the basic look of the original while adding a psychedelic color scheme and a few nifty graphical flourishes. However, those flourishes sometimes stack up and obscure the view, and, as is often the case with Jaguar games, too much eye-candy on screen slows the game to a crawl. The soundtrack is an enjoyable (if repetitive) up-tempo techno beat that sounds quite good coming from the Jaguar. It’s possibly Tempest 2000’s most memorable feature, and it was good enough to earn it’s own CD release.

    Tempest 2000 aimed to be more than just a fresh coat of paint on an old game, and for the most part it succeeded. Though it has its flaws, it’s definitely a must-own for any Jaguar collection. Its influence can clearly be felt in later arcade-style shooters, like Geometry Wars and Tempest Evolved. It even outlived the Jaguar, earning a later release on Saturn, Playstation and MS-DOS.

    Thanks for reading my review! Next week, we lighten forces with Lightening Force!

  7. lokanoth says:

    After reading the comment about Spec Ops I got the demo, and found myself feeling like I was playing Mass Effect 3 again, so I have to agree with the review, it has very derivative gameplay, not helped by hearing Uncharted’s staggering stewbum. I still like the comment, and am interested in the Heart of Darkness theme, but will wait for a massive price drop, (as I am for just about all games nowadays).

  8. feisto says:

    I’m just a humble, semi-occasional commenter who doesn’t even have an avatar, but this really made my day. Thanks, Comment Cat!

  9. Gwilym Wogan says:

    In a pleasant little convergence, I found Spec Ops’ tonal problems fade at least to a certain extent when you put it on Hard mode. When the combat is that much more deadly and desperate, the moments of ultra-violence seem less like the game having its cake and eating it too and more like a result of everyone being really, really scared.

    I’m enjoying it. I think it’s a good game so far, though I’m not sure how far that is yet. And yes, obviously I was thrown for a massive loop when despite the supposed aims of the game I’d been forced to single-handedly mow down about 200 enemies in the first half-hour – who wouldn’t be? –  but in a perverse way this has made the game’s distinctions even more distinct. It really does come across feeling incredibly close to a Call of Duty game, and it’s when compared to Call of Duty games that its social awareness shines the most. I mean, you don’t get these sorts of themes in this sort of game. The disconnect between the two will always be problematic, but I’m willing to believe it’s both deliberate and well thought out. It’s a Trojan horse.