Beaten by Fallout

I’ve just finished Fallout: New Vegas. Finished as in stopped playing, not finished as in “got to the end”.

As usual, I’m a bit over a year behind with my gaming owing to life, children, work, et al, but I thought I’d discuss my impressions of FNV because it is, to borrow from Alan Kay, worth criticizing. If you’re interested, I also wrote about Fallout 3 after finishing it (for real) some time back. (I might note that none of the failings of Fallout 3 have been addressed in FNV, e.g. combat sucks just as bad as ever.)

The Fallout series, both the old 2d versions and the new Bethesda games, has been marked by the most sophisticated “quest” system ever seen in computer RPGs. From the very first game you had branching quests with real decision points that had real world impacts (if anything, the last part is much less a factor than it was in the earlier games, presumably because of the higher costs of asset production for modern AAA 3d games).

Of course, F3 and FNV are really not AAA games in terms of quality. Both the graphics and the software are actually incredibly shoddy. I’m willing to forgive this because these games have actual stories, good — sometimes even great — writing, a ridiculous amount of content, and often surprise me.

It’s a shame that, despite making bucketloads of money, Bethesda never seems to have managed to figure out how to write decent software.

The Good

Some of the quests are inspired, and left me with genuine moral quandaries. The setting is incredibly rich and sophisticated (the New California Republic, for example, is a basically good but deeply flawed nation, which is an obvious analog for a certain other powerful but often corrupt and stupid country we might be familiar with).

The writing is great, and the voice acting is usually good too. I enjoy a lot of the conversations, including some real laugh out loud moments. (The foul-mouthed cynical caravaneer is a particular favorite, and the entire gang of Elvis impersonators is awesome.)

I try to play Fallout games with a strict “no restore from backup” policy, so that I’m forced to live with my actions which frequently led to my putting off a decision while I tried to find a better alternative or simply get more information. (And, to its credit, there will often be an alternative and/or more information.) There’s no other RPG franchise which consistently achieves this level of immersion for me.

The Bad

Because the quests are so sophisticated and the game is so open, there are lots and lots of bugs. One quest lingered on after I completed it and kept spewing out a message that I needed to do something (even though I’d finished the quest), which led me to go do that thing (and kill a whole bunch of people as a result, which left me feeling a bit guilty).

More annoying, you’ll often find yourself doing a quest out of order which no longer makes sense. Some of these have been explicitly dealt with in a very elegant fashion (as in it’s built into the quest), some are hamfisted (as in you can turn in the quest immediately after being offered it), and some are just broken.

The buddy AI in FNV is horrible, broken, and has an interface that is both confusing and bad. To being with, you get a radial menu of options which toggle between two states (e.g. “Follow Me” vs. “Wait Here”). The problem is that each option goes from displaying its current state when not selected to displaying the state you will obtain by clicking when selected. So if your buddy is in “wait” mode and you select it (with a view to changing it, perhaps) it changes to showing “follow”, which changes to “wait” if you click it. It takes a while to figure this out because, as it turns out, a lot of the modes basically don’t work. The most egregious of these is “passive” (as in “don’t attack stuff randomly”) which appears not to do anything.

The quest mapping and in-game maps in general are terrible. In FNV, your in-game interface is a wrist-mounted “Pip-Boy” (which goes back to the original 2d games, and indeed looks pretty much the same). One of the useful innovations in recent games is that you get a lot more help figuring out where to go (which you really need). I’d have to say, though, that the way the map system works in FNV is infuriating, and I spent a huge amount of time chasing after misleading navigation hints. This is exacerbated by what is truly the single worst feature of FNV…

Loading times in FNV are horribly slow. Seriously, cut down the polygon counts and texture size and load the damn levels faster. This isn’t helped by ridiculous level and quest interaction where to perform a quest you need to “zone” dozens times to talk to five different people — and that’s assuming you don’t get horribly lost and confused. You know the loading is bad when you’re grateful to see a new “hint” or transition slide.

As far as I can tell “karma” has no effect — although it does actually change my behavior. (It seems to be independent of the faction system.) But it’s very odd to me that I can gain karma for killing someone but lose it for picking up his stuff afterwards. Perhaps the funniest bug in the whole karma system is that in some cases you can drop stuff on the floor and then get dinged karma for stealing when you pick it up. In the end, the karma system is probably a Good Thing despite not working and being stupid, for me, since it makes me think about stealing even if there are no real consequences.

But, if I kill a bunch of people with no witnesses why does it ruin my rep? Am I assumed to be drunkenly boasting about it as I travel? The funny thing is, at least the way I play, I gain karma from killing and lose it from picking stuff up. Ah, the moral lessons we learn from computer games.

There are some “quests” in the game that aren’t handled by the quest interface. They’re essentially “missions” that are organic to the game content (dialog, events, etc.) but don’t appear in your quest log. This forces you to manually track and check them, which just makes the game unnecessarily tedious. The chief reason for this appears to be to avoid giving away the location of the thing you need to get rather than for any other reason — I’d prefer they implemented them as quests and not always provide waypoints. (One, in particular, involves finding a lost laser pistol — which I was never able to do.)

The Ugly

Because FNV has some really good writing and your decisions have consequences it’s very tempting to play it through and accept setbacks as organic to the story. (It’s also possible to get sucked into the story when things are running smoothly and forget to save.) The problem is that the biggest source of setbacks in Fallout is bugs, and the worst form of bug is the “faction glitch” whereby you get attacked by the wrong people for the wrong reason upon entering a new area (“zoning”). Here’s how it works:

  1. You don’t explicitly save a game for some time because you’re enjoying yourself.
  2. You go through a door or use long-distance travel or sleep.
  3. The game auto-saves.
  4. You suddenly get attacked by members of some faction you had no strong feelings about or perhaps it’s the NCR Army or maybe even New Vegas robot security.
  5. Your buddy or buddies immediately kill a bunch of people / ghouls / mutants / robots destroying your carefully won relationship with at least two major factions (my particular favorite is the sniper, who is generally awesome, who throws grenades around like candy and loves to pull out melee weapons and go to town despite (a) being a sniper, (b) claiming to suck at melee, and (c) being told to stand back, be passive, and stick to ranged weapons).
  6. This is pretty bad, but you could restore your auto-save if you didn’t, say, reflexively back out of the room (and fire off autosave again).

This sequence of events happens with sufficient frequency that it’s pretty much bound to bite you in the ass several times. (And it’s not like turning off auto-save would improve matters — at least auto-save stops you getting bitten in the ass most of the time.) By the time I got to the end-game, I was pretty thoroughly screwed almost entirely by problems inflicted on me by bugs in the game engine. For example (spoiler alert):

My relationship with the NCR (which was very good at the time) was destroyed because they saw me walking around with a mutant (minding our own business). They shot at me. OK, I returned fire (I basically decided, at that moment, that if the NCR were that racist then I wasn’t going to help them any more) except that the Vegas Strip security robots (which were supposed to be under my control at the time) opened fire on me because I was returning fire.

Earlier than that, I tried to visit Caesar* while carrying his safe conduct. One of his Praetorians actually explained to me that I was under his protection while launching an unprovoked attack at me. I was in the middle of his territory at the time (apparently his other people had gotten the message, or were fooled by the Centurion uniform I was wearing (its former owner not having much use for it any more). But then, I’d wiped out an entire town of his earlier that day because apparently my safe conduct didn’t work there either.

Let me add that the quest system apparently knew that the safe conduct was gone because it had closed off the relevant quest (to go meet Caesar) after I killed a few legionnaires during a random skirmish that, again, I did not initiate. I could easily have restored from backup at that point but I decided that it was stupid to even pretend that I would ever side with Caesar and to go with it.

* If you haven’t played FNV, there’s a seethingly bad guy who calls himself Caesar and has assembled Roman-style legions and — somehow — threatens the NCR’s hold on Hoover Dam, despite most of his soldiers being armed with spears and pissing off almost everyone they meet. There’s an interesting bit of dialog with one of your companions who argues some of the attractions of Caesar’s rule (basically, he makes the trains run on time), but it’s pretty hard to see someone like this having any shot against an organized, numerous, and technologically superior enemy.

What Ended the Game For Me

Having completed almost every quest I could find, I was down to recruiting a sexbot for a low-end casino (which I could never figure out how to do because of the broken map system), updating the codebooks for remote ranger stations (perhaps the single most stupid and time-consuming quest in the game, involving walking around mountains trying to find the way up — surely if they really wanted you to take codebooks to remote outposts they would tell you how to get there), and fixing an Elvis Impersonator’s robot dog.

I decided to fix the dog (one of the most memorable companions in the original Fallout was a dog, so the cyborg dog is a nice homage). This involved walking a long way and doing very little (except killing some very weak enemies, an indication that I was expected to have done this earlier) whereupon I reached a new “quest hub”. I only found a couple of simple things to do, did them, got a new companion (a cross-dressing somewhat insane super mutant), and headed back to New Vegas whereupon everything went pear-shaped. My faction standings were damaged (by the NCR firing on my mutant buddy) and I realized that the only way to fix it was to load a three hour old backup.

So I decided to give up on the NCR but keep relations as good as possible. But that turns out not to be viable, so I started having to kill a lot of NCR people. Because, despite my still being on pretty good terms with them (“smiling troublemaker”), they appeared to prefer shooting me to Caesar’s soldiers. (Caesar’s soldiers were inexplicably continuing to attack the NCR despite my having wiped out their main city and two of their biggest settlements and killed all their commanders including Caesar, and despite various NPCs acknowledging the fact I had done this.)

Oh, and did I mention that FNV simply crashes a lot? It’s hard to tell because sometimes it just takes a ridiculous amount of time to load a new area. Anyway, then FNV started crashing. A lot.

Bethesda: you suck. Again.

I thought you’d gotten over the period when you wrote the barely playable Daggerfall, followed by the broken Redguard, and the utterly broken Battlespire. You seemed to have at least figured out how to ship a working app. Sure, Fallout 3 had some rough edges, but this is ridiculous.

Order & Chaos

Order & Chaos (first gen iPad)
Order & Chaos (first gen iPad)

Rosanna and I have been playing Order & Chaos for about a couple of weeks now. I first found out about it thanks to Penny Arcade, showed the post to Rosanna and she simply bought the game on the spot. (The App Store reviews didn’t hurt.)

Is it a World of Warcraft clone? Sure, but then WoW was a Dark Age of Camelot clone, and DAoC was an EverQuest clone. The question is, is it a good WoW clone, or merely a cheap knockoff?

World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (Macbook Pro 2010)
World of Warcraft: Cataclysm (Macbook Pro 2010)

Rosanna and I both lost interest in WoW a little while after getting to 85. (Oh, and we didn’t have nearly enough spare time to deal with the “end-game”.) The latest expansion felt too much like the previous expansion with a new skin (complete with new time sinks copied from the old time sinks). Similarly, we lost interest in Pocket Legends shortly after quests were added to the game.

Here’s a quick list of things O&C does that WoW could learn from:

  • Warriors can solo and appear not to suck.
  • Tradeskills are driven by their own experience pools. Making something gives you points in the tradeskill which can be spent on new recipes.
  • Anyone can cook … I mean gather.
  • No arbitrary class/race restrictions. All races can be all classes.
  • There seems to be no race-determines-morality assumption. You can be a nice orc or an evil human.
  • More convoluted quests are implemented as series of simple quests, which also tends to provide more rewards for quests involving a lot of running around.
  • The world actually feels big. You can run around and not see a quest giver for several minutes. (It’s possible that the necessarily short clipping distance helps in this regard.) This is aided by the game having no concept of “binding” and the only “teleports” being the equivalent of WoW’s flight masters. Places can be far away and there are no real shortcuts. (Even the teleports will only follow one link and, relative to WoW, are quite costly.) In one instance I trudged an enormous distance with one of my toons to discover that an area I had hoped to find quests in was way too dangerous. In WoW I could have “stoned” back to an inn, but in O&C I had to trudge back again. This may all prove too “hard core” in the long term and get “care-beared” out of the game.
  • You can quit from any place and when you relaunch the game, it syncs to the server and voila, there you are again — same toon, same place, no log-in sequence.
  • Spawn rates appear to be dynamic. If an area is heavily camped the spawn rate increases, leading to pretty hectic play.
  • So far there are no instances and this doesn’t seem to be a problem. (Perhaps because of dynamic spawn rates, above.) I even heard a player accused of spawn camping in global chat. Instances have become such a cliche in MMOs that it’s probably worth mentioning that they are an elegant hack solution to a technical problem (overloading of servers) and not desirable in and of themselves. (Why should it be a Good Thing that I can walk into a building immediately behind you and end up in a different copy of the building?) It will be interesting to see if O&C persists in eschewing the “instancing everything” approach everyone else is taking.

I do have one big annoyance and a handful of minor annoyances. First the big one:

Micro Transactions. Aside from subscriptions you can buy runes or gold (both are $0.99 each or less in bulk). Runes let you buy advantages such as extra character slots or increased experience rewards. Gold is the in-game currency, so it just saves you time. Once you hit level 20 or so, gold comes fast enough that it’s hard to imagine many players spending much on gold. I’ll give the developers the benefit of the doubt and assume that this is just a placeholder for more interesting stuff (e.g. access to more content) later, but it’s painful that you can easily land in the store (which is slow to load) while navigating in-game menus. Ugly and stupid.

The big ugly blue arrow. Your minimap shows yellow arrows indicating quest rewards and blue arrows showing party members, but a giant, ugly cyan arrow floats in front of your character’s feet indicating the direction of your next quest objective (you pick which of up to twelve quests is your “current” quest). First, this arrow is freaking ugly. Second, it’s often impossible to see when you’re running on hills or swimming. I’d prefer another arrow on the minimap just for aesthetic reasons, but I also find having a big 3d arrow floating in the world to be irksome on a visceral level.

Text. In general, all the text in the game is too big and in poorly chosen fonts. Indeed, the UI seems to have been designed primarily for the iPhone and then adapted to the iPad by sticking it against a piece of wood and banging nails through it. Even so, on an iPhone the text is often a bit small to read easily, in large part because of the chosen typeface. Meanwhile the text is huge on the iPad and annoying to deal with — quest text is buried three layers deep in the UI and then usually has to be scrolled for several pages. Worst of all, the chat interface takes up a ridiculous amount of space and can only display about six lines.

Text Entry
The way text entry is "integrated" into the UI leaves much to be desired

Text Entry: Every place where you need to enter text (e.g. when sending in-game mail, or using the chat interface) is a horrible, horrible kludge. Perhaps the worst case is in-game mail where the the input manager changes the spelling of your intended recipient’s name with depressing regularity, and the text entry field is a horrible white rectangle (of the wrong size) overlaid on an otherwise-quite-attractive UI.

Chat interface
This is the expanded chat interface which manages to display a whole six lines of text.

Chat. Unsurprisingly, global chat is like an interactive version of YouTube comments, but while the game lets you mute channels (yay!) it forgets which channels you muted when you log off. Worse, whenever someone in the world says something in global the UI appears covering a goodly portion of the screen for a few seconds.

Content. The content isn’t bad, but it’s very generic (and very clearly “inspired” by WoW). As far as I can tell this is a game largely produced by Chinese artists and programmers with a small core of Europeans in design positions. The whole thing seems very “cranked out”. It’s solid enough (and probably has fewer typos in it than WoW did at launch) but it’s not terribly interesting or inspiring, and you won’t find little jokes and easter eggs tucked into every nook and cranny the way you do with WoW.

Bugs. Every escort quest seems to be flaky. It’s also not clear that the game realizes you’ve failed one and if so whether or how it can be re-attempted. (I’d be fine with escort quests being impossible to retry, but I’d like the game to actually cope with it properly.)

Probably the worst/scariest thing about O&C is it’s the first game I’ve ever played on my iPhone4 that made it run hot. And I’m not alone in this — I saw comments in global chat along the same lines. (And there’s no similar problem on our first generation iPads.)

Another big difference from WoW is in the level of spoon-feeding. In WoW you can basically go from start to finish by simply taking any quest you see offered and doing the quests you’ve been given. As of recent expansions there’s even in-game support for telling you where to go and what to do (if you target a mob, for example, you’ll be told if it’s something you need to kill or loot for one of the quests in your journal). O&C provides much less hand-holding, to the point where entire quest hubs need to be discovered by exploration with no real prompting. Players who like exploring maps will be rewarded.

tl;dr

The short version is that Order & Chaos looks good, plays well, the touch UI is generally well-done, there’s plenty of content, and the price is right ($6.99 for the game with a long trial subscription, then very cheap ($0.99 per month or less) for ongoing “premium” access.

O&C doesn’t break any new ground. At best, it’s an attractive and competent MMORPG that runs on very modest hardware. But did anyone expect risk-taking from Gameloft?

Overall, this is a very impressive achievement. Producing a competent WoW-clone is something many game studios have tried and failed to do, yet O&C was developed using a cadre of European and American content leads and a small army of Chinese artists and programmers. O&C would be a pretty impressive game running on a desktop or console, it’s simply breathtaking on an iPhone4 or iPad. Even where the game has necessarily been “cut down” to deal with the limitations of the platform, it has been done gracefully.

The Movie Game


Daniel Solis has posed an interesting challenge. Design a game simple and compelling enough to survive a thousand years. The examples he gives are chess, tag, or card games. I think tag is probably a good example. Chess isn’t. Card games might qualify as a whole, but few card games have survived unaltered for even fifty years — if we’re going to allow a broad class like that we might allow “board games”. If I were going to try to pick a good example I’d start with Go.)

With an incredibly small number of exceptions (Go, and…) almost any game that’s been around for hundreds of years has evolved constantly over time — chess, tag, and card games all being great examples of this. Indeed, if you reduce chess to a level of abstraction more equal to ‘tag” and “card games” then it’s a “board game”.

In my opinion, the greatest innovation in games in recent times is the role-playing game. Clearly, role-playing games derive from childhood games of “let’s pretend” such as “Cowboys and Indians”, but the formalization of this idea (generally credited to Dave Arneson) has influenced almost all popular game design because it informs the design of almost any game.

(Back in college, I used to get into arguments with my friends in which I took the view that all games (at least those that weren’t completely abstract) were to some extent “role-playing games”, e.g. in Monopoly you’re “role-playing” a property tycoon, and that most games were more fun if explicitly viewed that way.)

The Movie Game (or The World-Playing Game)

So, with all this in mind, here’s my suggestion for a thousand year game, the Movie Game or, to be more explicit as to what I’m doing, the World-Playing Game. In a sense, it’s just a variation of the role-playing game and thus not new, but the idea is to turn the concept of a role-playing game inside out.

You take any number of players, but two or more are probably best. (In order for a game to be a thousand year game, I think it should work well for two players and preferably any number — Chess and Go work for two, Cards works for any number including one, and Tag tends to work well for three or more. Role-playing games themselves tend to work poorly for fewer than three players.)

You devise a character or group of characters and describe them in as much or as little detail as you like (using rules of some kind or not). Similarly you devise a world and a situation for them to deal with.

This is highly analogous to the requirements for a role-playing game however, unlike a role-playing game, it is much more amenable to working with shorthand — e.g. if you and your friends had all just seen a movie, or knew a movie well, you could take as your starting point the characters and conditions and the beginning of the movie, at the end, or at any time during. Hence the title “the movie game”.

The Movie Game can start as simply as “It’s the end of Pride and Prejudice. Go.”

One player takes the part of the protagonist(s) and the other players take the part of the world and any other notable characters. You progress the story just as in a role-playing game (world players describe the situation, character player describes what the character(s) do). At any time by general agreement control of character(s) can rotate to another player. (If you wish to formally resolve the outcomes of events, any acceptable set of role-playing game rules can be used.)

Play ends whenever (e.g. when the pub closes). The overall conditions can be reset or altered by general agreement.

Just as with role-playing games, I posit this as a game that has informally existed all these many years. It is a somewhat formalized version of the kind of conversation a group of people will tend to have in a bar or coffee house after seeing a movie together. It can also be thought of as a gentler way of introducing the concept of formalized role-playing games to new players.

That’s it.

Note: I suggest that this game can even make watching The Phantom Menace enjoyable.

Nintendo 3ds

I’ve now played with the 3ds on two occasions (once in a GameStop and once in a Best Buy) and the second was worse than the first. In essence, the new display looks great if your head is in a very narrowly defined “sweet spot” (your head needs to be horizontal and straight back from the display about 12 inches — I’m guesstimating the distance). Slip more than a few inches outside the spot or tilt your head* and the display shows visible banding and/or simply looks like a dim 2d display.

* I don’t know about you, but I tend to lean a lot when playing first person or third person games, and this is going to suck monumentally on the 3ds.

It’s better than 3d glasses or the 3d displays that use layers of LCDs (we saw one at a Siggraph in 2004 or 2005, and my wife’s VR lab ended up buying one) but that’s not saying much. In the end, it’s a gimmick, we’re told not to let kids use it (!), and it causes me eyestrain within a few seconds.

The best thing about the 3ds is its analog stick.

Tiny Wings

Ting Wings

Tiny Wings is my new favorite iPhone game. I mean iOS game. Actually I just mean game. I may be done with it in a day or two, but since I’ve already drained a full-charged iPad battery playing it, I think it’s safe to say it was damn good value at $0.99.

It’s wonderful (and a bit depressing!) to see that a single developer can produce a perfect little game like this (indeed he did the code, art, sound, and music).