Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Game Informer Interview

I've received a lot of traffic over the last few days from people who read the interview with me in GameInformer. Welcome! Not to sound pretentious or anything, but I really didn't realize there were that many CRPG fans out there who didn't already know about me. I just wish all the extra visitors hadn't come at a time when I've had such limited opportunity to play and blog.

The interviewer, Phil Kollar, apparently decided that my profile was his crowning achievement as a game journalist, because he left the magazine mere moments after I submitted my final answers to his questions. Best of luck, Phil. Anyway, he asked a lot of questions that didn't appear in the final interview, and I wrote longer answers to some of the questions that did. I'm not sore about it or anything--that's what editing is all about--but I thought I'd offer the full text here as a quick one-off while I try to invest enough hours in Sentinel Worlds to generate another posting.

A lot of people love games or even love a specific genre of games, but that doesn't always correlate with a willingness to dive into the medium's history. What made you choose to begin this huge undertaking?

My first CRPG was Questron, which was pretty early in the history of the genre, so I don’t really see playing older games as primarily a historical undertaking. Games like Ultima IV and Might & Magic remain quite current to my mind.

I have a bit of an obsession about making lists. My wife and I have an ongoing project to eat at every restaurant on Route 1 between Boston and the New Hampshire border. I’ve made a list of all the cities in the United States with populations above 100,000, and I’m slowly working through them. I have a list of all major artists in jazz history, and I’m working through their catalogs. Making a list of all CRPGs and playing through them in order is very consistent with my personality. In a way, I guess it’s like a quest list in a CRPG, which is probably why the genre appeals to me.

It was only a chance comment on Reddit that made me start a blog.

Is there any reason that you've always been more interested in RPGs than any other genre of video game?

Great question, and I don’t have a clear answer. Part of it is the balance they strike: they’re a little more mature and cerebral than action games, but they require less patience than strategy games. But they also include more stuff than other genres. Take a look at my GIMLET scale: it has categories for things like NPC interaction, economy, equipment, character development, and so on. I don’t think any other genres have this variety of gameplay elements. One minute you’re tactically planning huge battles, and the next minute you’re managing your finances so you can buy a house. I’ve played games in other genres, like Doom and Star Wars: Battlefront and Half-Life, but there’s always a moment in those games in which I wish I could break the boundaries of the game. I want to be a single character in Battlefront. I want to actually have conversations with some of the NPCs in Half-Life. And it’s inevitably those moments that I quit those games and open up Morrowind.

Part of what I respect about your journey is that you always do your best to actually finish each game. Of the 80-some that you've played at this point, how many have you completed? How much time do you estimate that you've devoted to the task?

I’m a data guy, so I don’t have to estimate these things. Of the “winnable” CRPGs that I’ve played, my win rate is 47%. I try to keep it around half. As for time—I didn’t really want to know, but you asked. According to my spreadsheets, I’ve invested 1,017 hours since I started the project 25 months ago. That breaks down to about 10 hours a week. The variance is huge, though. Some weeks I don’t do anything, and others I do almost nothing but play games.

How do you decide when a game has just become too frustrating, boring, or time-consuming to be worth finishing?

I actually don’t have a very good system for this. This accounts for a lot of the gaps on my blog. I’m a professional in my 40s, so gaming is something I do when I probably should be doing something else. When a game is boring, frustrating, or too long, I find myself doing my actual job a lot more. Inevitably, I notice that I haven’t posted anything on my blog for a week and figure it’s time to move on. When a game is truly addicting, I never worry about finding time to play.

What has been the biggest surprise of your experiment so far? Any games you'd never played or heard of that you ended up falling in love with or games you fondly remembered that didn't hold up?

There have certainly been some wonderful surprises so far. I barely remembered the early Might & Magic games, and I was thrilled to rediscover them. Wasteland and Starflight are two games I never played back in the day. Everyone else knew how good they were, but I only discovered it recently.

Probably the best surprise has been a little-known 1988 roguelike called Omega, which has stores, joinable factions, and a very complex plotline. I had some corruption issues with the earliest edition, but it’s on my list to try again in the coming year.

Most of the games I remembered enjoying, I still enjoyed. Ultima IV and Ultima V still hold up, even if they are a bit shorter than I remembered from my youth. Pool of Radiance was an absolute joy. The only games to truly disappoint have been The Bard’s Tale series. I think most gamers of the 1980s remember these fondly, but I found them boring, repetitive, and devoid of any truly interesting elements. You couldn’t pay me to play them again.
What do you think separates computer RPGs from console RPGs? And with developers like BioWare and Bethesda now focusing just as much on consoles, do you think that distinction is disappearing?

This is one of those questions that every serious CRPG player ought to have an opinion about, but I just don’t. I scandalized my readers by purchasing Skyrim for the Xbox, but it just felt like a game that would be more fun to play from the couch on my big-screen TV. All I can say is that I’ve never been much impressed with games released only for consoles, and I’ve resisted attempts to add them to my list.

Are there any elements of the CRPGs of the '80s and '90s that you find lacking in modern RPGs? Anything you wish would come back?

I get this question a lot. Many people seem to think I particularly like old games because that’s what I happen to be playing now, but that’s just a byproduct of going in chronological order. I don’t have any particular fetish for old games. I don’t see any raw purity in the minimalism of Wizardry or the ASCII graphics of NetHack, and I generally like the ways developers have made use of improved disk space, memory, and graphics and sound technology as the years progressed.

However, there are two modern trends that I’m not in love with, and that I think make modern gaming worse. The first is the obsession with total spoken dialogue. When you have a voice actor speak every line, it limits your dialogue options, and no NPC ever calls your character by his or her actual name. Baldur’s Gate and Morrowind had some spoken dialogue but left a lot of it to reading, and there was absolutely nothing wrong with this.

The second trend is expansion packs. I’d rather developers just released new games using the same engines. Why do the protagonists in Tribunal, Bloodmoon, Knights of the Nine, The Shivering Isles, and Awakenings have to be the same as the PC in the main game? It means that you’re playing hours and hours of extra content with an overpowered character, and it breaks the story.

In general, though, I find that modern CRPGs contain most of the elements of older games, plus more besides, so I’ve been happy with the genre’s overall evolution.

How many total CRPGs do you have on your master list at the moment?

Just shy of 1,000, but the list is really only complete up to about 2003. Now, a lot of them aren’t really CRPGs, and I’ll discover that when I get to them. A lot more, particularly starting in 1991, are obscure Japanese titles that I might not be able to find or understand. Still, we’re probably looking at at least 800. I haven’t even played 10% of them.

At the start of this year, you put your blog on hiatus for about a month before returning. Why did you feel the need to step away for a while, and what made you decide to come back?

The whole episode was stupid and embarrassing. I’m self-employed, so I really need to balance playing games (and doing other nonproductive things) with the work that my clients actually pay me for. Towards the end of the year, I was way overloaded on contracts, and instead of working on them, I spent most of the last two weeks of December playing Skyrim.

Round about mid-January, I was in a belated New-Year’s-resolutions kind-of mood. I was sitting in my office chair, looking at my overwhelming “to do” list, looking at a pile of unread professional journals, looking at the piano that I hadn’t touched in eight months, and I just thought “I can’t do this anymore. Spending another hour playing a game—any game—would be so irresponsible that it beggars belief.” So I composed a hasty goodbye to my readers and embarked on my new life of productivity and personal development.

What I soon found was that I needed a certain amount of downtime no matter what, and instead of playing CRPGs, I just ended up goofing around with other things. I did eventually catch up on my work (to some extent), but my psyche wasn’t going to just let me blithely abandon a pastime that has been part of my life since I was 11. Also, I really missed the blog. So I came back after less time than some of my previous unannounced breaks, and everything continued as before. I haven’t been enormously productive, but that’s a good thing: when my readers start seeing one posting per day, they know there’s a crash coming soon.

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Reboot: Sentinel Worlds I: Future Magic

I think we covered this last time, but this opening screen seems to tread on a lot of copyrights.

I cannot remember exactly what caused me to bail on Sentinel Worlds after only one posting, but I apparently didn't hate it enough to remove it from my roster entirely. I can barely remember the game (in my mind, I've conflated it with Star Command, which came just after), so I'm going to avoid re-reading my original posting to avoid prejudicing myself. I thus apologize if any of the material in this posting duplicates what I said many months ago

The game takes place in 2996, and humans have colonized several systems of planets. One of them, the Caldorre System, has recently come under attack by bands of raiders who, armed with swift ships and deadly energy weapons, are destroying trading ships but are mysteriously not salvaging the remains. Your party is one of eight that set out on a six-month journey from the Federation Central Base in new "Interceptor-class vessels." Upon arrival in the Caldorre system, your mission is to investigate and neutralize the raiders. The game manual suggests a large amount of freedom in how you do this: you can act as an escort for various transport ships, engage the raiders in battle, and hopefully board their ships, or you can search for intelligence on the various planets. Either way, we apparently cannot depend too much on Central Command. Because of "budget cuts," we will need to earn our own money and buy our own training and equipment.

The crew consists of a pilot, navigator, communications officer, engineer, and medic--just as in Starflight. The game automatically rolls these five positions for you and assigns their names, but you have the option (which of course I exercised) to go in and create party members from scratch. I decided to use the name generator that LordKarnov42 wrote for me in Python last year. Its products do tend to be worthy of sci-fi.

I'm thinking "Masher" is going to be my medic.

Character creation is somewhat limited, though. You can select from only eight portraits--some of which look stupid--you must select attributes within a range of 10-20, and the game automatically determines 2 of the 3 skills that you start with. Based on the manual's description that the comprehension score determines the number of skill points you get on each level, I decided to give everyone the max of 20 in that category and then spread out the others based on how I thought I'd most likely use them. Prompted by the manual, I gave a high charisma to the communications officer and a high dexterity to the medic.

Everybody gets "contact" and "edged" weapons automatically, even though I assume, like in Wasteland and BattleTech, these soon become obsolete.

The skills system seems not unlike that in Wasteland and some of the other CRPGs we've studied, with several combat and noncombat skills. Like Wasteland, I suspect some of them are going to turn out to be useless, but we'll see.

The intrepid crew. Yes, I went with a female captain. I'm progressive that way.

Once you assign your characters and name your ship (mine is the "FSS Storyville"), the game begins by dumping you in the Caldorre System, in the middle of combat, before you've had a chance to adequately check out the controls. It's not terribly difficult combat, though--several other interceptors are on scene--so while I was messing around trying to figure out what I was doing, everyone pretty much just flew away.

Determined to figure out combat, though, I squinted at the screen until I had a decent guess as to which of the little dots represented red ships (enemies) and headed towards them. When I got to them, I had just enough time to wave hello before I blew past them by several parsecs. Reducing thrusters, I turned around and crept back, finally engaging two of the raiders' ships and, with the help of other interceptors in the area, destroyed them. I didn't get any loot from the endeavor--that would have required doing something complicated like knocking out the engines and boarding--but I did seem to get some experience points.

Either there's too much going on on these screens, or I'm just getting too old for this.

My next step was to visit the nearest spaceport, which turned out to be Norjaenn. Here, you can buy fuel, sell minerals, get quests from the Science Foundation to deliver "science missions" (I got a quest to deliver a seismometer to a pair of coordinates). There's a recruitment center to replace dead party members, and while in spaceport you can visit your ship's armory. I'm glad I did, because it turned out I had a bunch of weapons and armor stuffed in there that I didn't know about.

This is the same planet I'm already on, so it ought to be an easy one.

Landing on a nearby planet, I attempted to search for minerals but couldn't find jack. Clearly, I'm missing some strategy here. According to the manual, mine deposits are distinguished from animals in that the former are "light blue" and the latter are "blue." The game is not forgiving to the color blind. After several attempts to mine cows, I gave up and headed for the nearest town. Note how detailed the ATV navigation screen is about the territory you're visiting.

I think cattle have undergone some genetic modifications since the 21st century.

I entered a bar and remembered how much I didn't like the weird combination of top-down and first-person navigation that the screen presents, although I found it a bit more tolerable if I just ignored the first-person part. There were a bunch of farmers in the tavern, mostly complaining about ranchers.

In its quasi-western theme, does this game anticipate Firefly? Or is that a common genre?

Two of the dots were different colors and represented unique people. All of them had a few interesting things to say but cut off their conversation after a few lines, at which point I had to wander around before they would talk to me again. Starflight was like this, too. I don't really see much purpose to it except to waste time.

The crew exchanges a few words with an NPC before she gets sick of them.

My major questions at this point are:

  • Where do I find minerals? (My mistake is probably expecting them to be as plentiful as in Starfllight.)
  • The long-range navigation window shows about four planets in the entire system. Is that all there is?
  • The manual suggests that I can "hack" my ship's various systems to improve them. What would be the disadvantage to doing this?
  • Are the tensions between the ranchers and farmers in this town supposed to resolve to some kind of quest?
  • I've got a couple of weird items in my ship's hold--a "arisian lens" and "holophones." The book doesn't mention anything about them, and I can't find a way to "use" them. What are they for?

I gave them to my doctor, because why not?

I still find the controls horribly non-responsive, and no matter how much I mess with the DOSBox CPU settings, I can't find a good balance with speed. If I set it too high, I whiz by the other ships; if I set it too low, they whiz by me. Perhaps this is intentional, though; after all, I am only Level 1.

I'm at that awkward stage I blogged about last year in which I'm intrigued by the game, but I haven't gotten comfortable enough to really enjoy it. The game has a lot of good features, I can tell, but it feels curiously inaccessible. I can't think of a better way to describe it.

I'm sure you've all noticed that my blogging has slowed a lot lately, which is infuriating to me. E-mails from some of you have suggested that you fear I've entered another funk like the one that drove me to a hiatus at the beginning of the year, but that's not it at all. I want to play games. I'm excited about making progress on this blog. I've just entered a period of a crushing workload accompanied by near non-stop travel.

If you're absolutely jonesing for more information about Sentinel Worlds until I can get out from under this pile, Amy Lunitari has a "let's play" on her YouTube channel, which I plan to watch in full as soon as I finish the game myself.

The crew has a goal.

My plan at this point is to try to make enough money through mining or Science Foundation deliveries that I can buy some decent weaponry. I'm also going to scan the comments from my previous posting on the game for hints, but feel free to offer them here, too.