How Blizzard tries to solve MOBA problems

I really didn't want to start playing Heroes of the Storm. For two reasons. One - I never had enough time to really enjoy playing any MOBA on a decent skill level. Two - whenever Blizzard releases a game there is a high chance it will be the only game I'll be playing for the next few months. I logged into the beta maybe a week ago and I'm amazed at what I've seen so far in terms of design.

Bear in mind that this article's purpose is to analyze how Blizzard has approached many problems that can be seen within MOBA games, especially on the entry level. For obvious reasons, I will be comparing it to the most popular two - LoL and DotA 2.

If MTV's Celebrity Deathmatch was still on,
I'm sure they would feature Drow Ranger vs. Ashe at some point.
Problem #1: Copying
The situation of the most popular MOBAs on the market is pretty ridiculous. Everything started with a Warcraft III mod, then LoL pretty much copied it, then Valve copied it (or "further developed"), and now the company that did the base for original, but not the original stepped into the picture. 

Battles between LoL and DotA 2 fans are almost equally amusing as the console fanboys throwing shit at each other while the "PC Master Race" is defending their 10% market share (mostly thanks to MOBAs). The differences between the two titles are cosmetic at best and are mostly on the visual side. Sure, the balancing is different, the difficulty is different, monetization is different, but the whole core design stayed untouched since what, 2003, when the first version of DotA saw the light?

Blizzard had to differentiate. Not only because the formula deserved a bit of a change, but mostly because with established fan bases of the 2 biggest titles, not even the legions of Blizzard fans would be interested in a third game that's exactly the same. What did they do?

They took the most static element of the puzzle - the map - and made a few variants of it, making the players not only push lanes and jungle, but also fight for the overpowered power-ups that can be complete game changers. From resurrecting bone golems through collecting doublons for a pirate to bomb enemy forts to letting players turn into a dragon. On top of that, the lanes are no longer defended by towers you can just walk by. They are fortified, with walls and gates. And lastly, the mobs in the jungle, instead of being just a source of experience, cash or buffs, became mercenaries that you can recruit once every 3 minutes if you defeat them first. This way, the map design alone is a very distinctive game changer. 

Like with almost everything done by Blizzard - not really a revolution, but evolution comparable to dogs growing wings overnight.

Problem #2: Accessibility
I couldn't really get into DotA 2. The item icons were so small I could barely see anything, The AI of towers was just confusing in the first few matches and the overall difficulty at the lowest levels, the confusing plethora of characters to choose from... Lost two games, won three games, changed the character, lost again and that was more or less it.

LoL is correcting quite a lot of these. The free champion rotation is obviously there as a part of the more aggressive monetization plan, but it also narrows the initial choice of characters down, which is a very good thing for beginners. The item icons are bigger and the player can actually see what they depicts. The suggested items for each character are also a great idea for those who just want to try and play without reading through a number of guides first. On the other hand, the multitude of items later on did force you to put hours into investigating every single champion or at least copy-pasting a working build from some website. Not even then you have a chance for a relatively even fight, as LoL has a system of runes and sigils and whatnot that literally lets the higher level players who farmed more (or paid more) get significant bonuses that help them dominate lower level players. Mixed with uneven matching alghoritms it's far from a noob-friendly environment. 

Heroes of the Storm eases us into it. There is only 5 heroes in the rotation at first and that's more than enough for new players. As you gain player levels, you unlock slots that give you some more heroes in the free rotation, but that happens after you are already familiar with the basics and are unlikely to get overwhelmed. The player level gives you no advantage in a single match. Learning your hero is also much more user-friendly. There's no items you have to worry about in the middle of the battle and all three basic skills are unlocked from the start. The only thing you have to manage is traits that you get every few levels. Traits give you additional skills or improve the existing ones. At level 10 you get the ultimate skill (R). Simple? Wait, it's been made even simpler! When you are starting with a new hero, you have only half of its traits unlocked, so you only have to choose between two each time something pops up. When you finish your match, your hero gets experience and levels up, which unlocks additional traits and an alternative ultimate skill. Sounds limiting at first, but as soon as you learn that in no more than 5 battles your hero gets all its traits unlocked, the limitation becomes nothing more than just a smoothened learning curve. Especially with dynamically adjusted difficulty level that seems to base on your player level. 

What's also interesting is that for every hero you take to level 5, you get some ingame currency to buy new heroes, so it encourages you to try new heroes instead of sticking to one or two you know.

Some might argue that the trait system is an insufficient replacement for the skill upgrading and item buying system of DotA 2 and LoL, but nobody in their right mind can claim it's less user-friendly. And again, it helps HotS differentiate itself from the two.

These guys are actually behaving better than DotA and LoL fanboys.
They only attack the opposite "team".

Problem #3: Community
It's no secret that the current MOBA communities (especially LoL) is full of harassment and misbehavior. Riot even introduced the Tribunal system to fight the offenders, but all this reporting and reviewing cases feels more like pitting the players against each other more than really solving the problem. 

Blizzard tries to root out the causes of the problems. I'm sure they won't be able to succeed completely, but there are some ideas that certainly help fight some of the aggression.

First one they decided to tackle was the competition within the team. There is no such thing as individual hero level in a match. The whole team gets a level. You can't steal a kill, as everyone that does damage gets the kill and the experience goes to the mutual pool anyway. There's no coins to buy items, so players don't have to compete over that too. Still, there are statistics that show who did more siege damage or who participated in more takedowns, but nobody gets ahead of the team with the level and nobody lags behind. You'd be amazed how much it cuts down the shit flying on the allied chat. 

Another common cause of rage is players quitting mid-game. LoL community even wrote an open letter to parents about that recently. Players quit, the rest of the team is doomed. How do you counteract that? It looks like there is a number of ways. First - if a player quits or has connection problems, the hero doesn't idle. Heroes of the Storm switches to a bot as a backup. When the player reconnects, he regains control of the hero. Sure, the bot might not be as good as the player, but at least is isn't just standing in the base. Second idea is the very length of the match. Many co-op vs. AI matches last between 10 and 15 minutes. PvP matches last around 30 minutes. That's approximately 50% of a standard LoL / DotA 2 match time. On top of that all, the matching system seems to be much more effective here than the team setups in LoL that can take half an hour.

Next step in MOBAs?
Since I've never played any of the titles on more professional level, it's hard for me to assess how much the simplification of gear/skill systems will affect the depth of gameplay, The matches do seem more varied when it comes to level-related tactics and it could actually be enough to make up for possible lacks in the character development depth. Not to mention the fact that number of systems or items doesn't necessarily increase depth.

From what I've seen so far, HotS is a much smoother experience for a starting player. Shorter matches, shorter setup times, more incentive to learn new heroes and much friendlier learning curve combined with more map variety can all be great attractors. It definitely does a great job standing out as a title without abandoning the 10-players-3-lanes core of the genre.

How successful will it prove to be? Time will tell. Right now, top 2 spots on Twitch don't seem to budge, but who knows? Maybe it's because more people are actually able to play HotS on a satisfactory level that they don't have to watch it.


Quickie: Piracy and voting

It's been boiling in my mind for quite some time now and I couldn't decide how to take a bite of this topic. I still don't know if this is the right way, but... Here goes:

Buying games is your voting right
Seriously. Not only the fact of buying it, but also the way you do it matters. You can preorder or buy a collector's edition, showing your strongest support. You can buy digital or day one version or any other full-price. You can also wait for a discount, buy it in a Humble Bundle, a used box or even get for free on some giveaway or from PlayStation Plus or XBL Gold. You can play a free-to-play title without spending a single dollar or you can finish the game and decide you want to pay - let's say $10 for it. What matters here is basically how much you spend on the game and how much of it returns to the developer.

You may not realize what great power we are all holding in our hands. With our money, we are encouraging or disencouraging studios to do certain stuff. When a studio plans a game, it always looks for references and it always looks at success stories. Whether you're an indie developer or a AAA company, you will always choose to go the way that made millions over the way that commercially failed. And that's actually the only sane business strategy, but it also smothers innovation.

Every E3 people are waiting for Sony to announce The Last Guardian will come out soon. We would all have The Last Guardian on our shelves for years now if ICO and Shadow of the Colossus sold a decent amount of copies. 

Everyone keeps getting back to Vampire: Bloodlines and Arcanum and remembering, what great games they were. So what they were great? Bloodlines sold less than 100k units and there's no Troika Games anymore. Who knows how many great RPGs we could have had if they were kept afloat? Instead us, gamers, gave our money to BioWare to recycle Baldur's Gate into two mediocre Icewind Dales.

I see a lot of people complaining that all the games are the same, that the AAA industry is just copying the same ideas over and over.  I am not gonna tell you how to spend your money, but if you want more innovative games, try buying games that are innovative. Not the same titles every year.

Oh yeah, piracy. Right. You, pirates, have no voice. Whatever you download, doesn't matter. Your choice doesn't matter. You're complaining the game isn't great? Who cares - it's not like you tried to support it in any way. You're complaining there's no game worth buying? Well who do you expect to develop it if nobody has your support?


"What should I study to become a game designer?"

That's a question that popped up a lot recently, on various occasions. It comes in all forms and flavors, really. Every other week on LinkedIn someone asks how and where he/she should start to pursue their career in game development.  We've lately even been asked that on twitch while we were presenting our game. Here's what the answer was:

And frankly... These 5% I mentioned were a big exaggeration. The real answer is "You don't need a degree at all". Let's even put aside the fact that a degree is pretty useless in most of the fields nowadays and that the education systems all over the world are so outdated it hurts. Think for a moment: how many great writers needed a degree in literature? How many rock stars have a solid musical education? A designer is more or less the same type of job. You learn it mostly by doing, not by attending lectures. You have to solve problems specific to your project and there's no universal solutions that could be just taught to a hundred students so that they can just go out and design. If these universal solutions existed, all games would be the same and that's exactly what the good designer is there to avoid.

Game industry is still young. So young that the people who started making the first commercial games are sometimes still in the business. And with the education lag we are facing nowadays, it takes long years until schools even realize they should teach something. That means only one thing - most of the people in the industry don't have the degree in anything game-related. So whenever you're applying for a job, the person interviewing you most likely never had any formal game education and therefore will not care whether you do.

When I met James Portnow on PAX Prime, a guy ran up to us and after a quite embarrassing display of worship, he started a rant about how he wants to be a game designer and how he's always wanted it and how he has been now studying for 4 (!) years at some design school. I did my research on the schools with gaming programs and there is maybe one or two in the whole US that can actually teach something valuable. That leaves the guy from PAX with a very high chance of wasting these 4 years completely, along with the money burnt into getting this "education".

I don't know if you've noticed, but formal education in general is for people who are not sure what they want to do. I myself went to my schools purely because I had no idea what I want to do with my life. Even though they were all among best schools available, I can't help feeling I've wasted a lot of my time. Because if you really want to learn something, you always have to invest your time in learning it. Teachers can accelerate the process, but at least equally often they will slow you down. And nowadays, with all online tutorials, all tools freely available, there really is so many ways to learn whatever you want without leaving your bed... Including game design.

So instead of paying some shady school and wasting 4 years, what do you do? First, check what a game designer really does and decide, if it's really what you are after. If yes:

Option one, for lone wolves: you download any free basic game making tool and start designing. If you get stuck, you check out tutorials. If some mechanics don't work as you wish, seek references. Your games will be simple. Your games will be ugly. Your gained experience will be incredibly helpful. You will learn designing, scripting, balancing, maybe a bit of coding and graphics. If you really put some time and heart into it, within a year you will build a decent portfolio that will get you so much further than any game design degree.

Option two, for online socializers: you find a modding forums or community for your favourite game and start getting to know the people there. Get involved, show that you want to help. Really help by getting your hands dirty, not give ideas. Someone will definitely give you the tools. Someone might help tutor you. Someone might take you in for a tiny project, after which you might help tackle a bigger one. If you have talent and are really active, within a year you'll be helping other noobs and doing crazy stuff like Oblivion Zelda mods, or even remaking Vampire: Bloodlines, who knows. Still, you'll be way more valuable to any company than after 4 years of attending design lectures.

Option three, for explorers: Study something else! Seriously. As a designer, you can always benefit from vast knowledge. Take up various classes - art, history, anything you can get your hands on and that sounds even remotely interesting. It will pay off. And instead of partying every night, try to spend some afternoons every week on including some design learning mentioned in option one and two. Otherwise you are just learing without a goal, which can be fun, but certainly not the point here.

Option four, for those who want in: start in QA! It's really not that hard to get in. It is hard to stay sane there, true, but you will learn a lot, being close to development. And testers get accepted as juniors for all other dev jobs, designers included. And you don't need to show anyone any degree, because they already know what you can do!

Oh, and for option one and two - prepare to get a job while you're learning. I know your parents would rather pay for your college instead of supporting you when you're "wasting your time on games". It might feel like it is slowing you down, but at least gives you some backup option in case you don't succeed as a designer of any kind. Play it smart - that's what designers do.

Of course, the designer is always on top of the list when people think of dream jobs in games. Let's not forget there are other ways to make games than just being a designer. If you'd like to check out the requirements for some of these jobs, just explore the jobs in gamedev label.


Jobs in gamedev: writer / narrative designer

Having finished my first game and being heavily involved in the story production for it, I now have a general idea what the job of writing for games requires. What's more, I've been neglecting the "Jobs in gamedev" series, so all the more reasons to bring you guys this article.

So you write stories...
Good for you! Unfortunately, it doesn't necessarily mean you will be able to write for games. There are hundreds of professional screenplay or novel writers that have failed miserably while trying to deliver a narrative for a game. And many of them weren't mediocre either. I'm talking awarded writers recognized for their achievements in movies or books. If they were so great, why did they fail in games? To explain that, I have to give you a brief tour, how the writing process for a game can turn into a nightmare, but first let's talk a bit how the narrative designer differs from a game writer.

Not every writer is a designer... and that's fine.
There is a huge difference between a writer and a narrative designer. Basically, a writer is the guy who deals with words. There are lots of game elements that require only that and the writer doesn't have to get concerned about how these words affect the game mechanics. These elements are the static pages in the menu, like bestiaries or equipment descriptions, stuff like that. Sure, the writer has to be careful to make sure they fit the general theme of the game, but these flavor texts won't really break the game or heavily interact with the gameplay. Dialogues and quest descriptions are a bit more complicated, as you have to know what's going on at a certain point of the game. What dialogue options need to be included and what information the dialogue or description needs to give to the player. That's still quite easily manageable if you are a writer, not a designer. As a writer, you have to be great with words. Your sentences have to be brilliant and snappy, your dialogues need great pacing.

The narrative designer kind of needs a higher awareness level than the writer. He has to take into account all these elements the writer doesn't worry about. He needs to make sure all the tools are being used, especially the gameplay, to tell a compelling story. The narrative designer needs to help guard the concept of the game, make sure all quests are in line with the story, all dialogues serve their purpose, all characters have their place. Paradoxically, the narrative designer doesn't necessarily have to be a brilliant writer when it comes to the use of words, although it is very often expected of him/her. Especially in smaller studios, the role of narrative designer is either held by the writer or by creative director or lead game designer. Also in bigger studios, there are many cases where the writer never designs a story, he/she just puts it into words. Let's get back to our story of a potential story development nightmare.

Image stolen from theiddm.wordpress.com

Step 1: World creation and preproduction.
This is the step where the general idea shapes up. Art style is chosen. The development team decides or learns whether they will be doing a game about pirates or ponies. Based on this, further decisions are rapidly being made - all the guys on the team have to start with their work. Concept artists are drawing characters and enemies, 3D artists are starting on the blocking of the locations, game designers are inventing game mechanics. And very often, they are doing it completely independently, exploring on their own based on their individual understanding of the theme. They do coordinate, but mostly on the most "gamey" things. For example, game design coordinates with level design on the metrics used in the game, but they do not talk about how the game mechanics work with the mood of the locations to deliver a story to the player. Of course, the "right way" to do it would be to have a creative director who would make sure every person does his/her work according to the same core esthetic and sometimes this "right way" actually occurs. Still, majority of creative directors focus more on the gameplay than on the story and we see results of that even in big titles.

At this stage, there's usually some kind of problem with a writer. In some cases there's no writer at all and all these assets are just being produced because the team knows the theme and knows there's supposed to be some enemies and some NPCs. In other cases, there is a designated writer, but he/she doesn't really deliver or delivers a first draft of the story that the dev team just keeps filed "for later" while doing their thing. In yet other cases, there are some guys on the dev team that have some story ideas put together in a more or less chaotic document. You as a writer, more often than not, are not present at this stage. 

Step 2: "But our story sucks!" also known as production.
This is the moment when the prototype has been done and accepted. The gameplay is shaping up, the locations are being produced, there's a few characters implemented, maybe some dummy dialogues or even a prosthesis of a tutorial. It's the moment when the general player's path is being decided on and suddenly, the dev team wakes up. They either pull out the story document someone created and realize it has an army of holes and irrationalities in it, that the current gameplay ideas have evolved way beyond the script, that one of the locations has been cut. That a key NPC won't be produced. That there's been a side quest system implemented or that there will be no more side quests. If there was a writer that was hired from outside of the game industry, this is usually the moment he quits, because "the dev team is unable to execute his vision".

The prototype is approved, the deadline for alpha is not far away, and in most cases, the team has no writer and only some general premise of the story. This is the moment when the writer is hired. It might be a full-time position. It might be an oversea freelance. It might be some person within the team stepping up with hopes of doing a decent job.

Whatever your origins are, the writing task before you is not trivial. There's already a lot of things that have been decided without consulting them with you. If you got in early, it's just going to be about getting into the theme and getting around some things, like having a fixed moment when the peak happens or having to meet some character sooner or later. The longer the team waits with bringing you in however, the more things like that get included. Suddenly you have a character that's in a specified place, having to go the specified route and very soon, what could have been a straight walk in the park with going around some trees once in a while, becomes a crawl through a tropical jungle with a rusty machete. Instead of creating a story, you end up creating justifications for what's happening on the screen. And then, whenever you fix the problems of NPCs appearing out of nowhere and doing things that are completely out of of their character, the dev team just comes up with another idea for something that doesn't fit the story no matter how you slice it.

With a bit of persistence and luck, you end up with a satisfactory story that makes sense.

Step 3: Story implementation.
If you were hired as a freelance writer, this is very likely the step you won't be involved in. If you worked closer with the dev team, you are likely to stick around and be able to prevent a shitload of things that can go wrong at this point. Dialogues that you've written might not exhaust all the gameplay options and game designers will try to fill the holes with so-called "designer art". Some tired designers will implement the dialogue trees all wrong and suddenly they will make no sense at all. There will be another change in the game scope and a key character will be cut out, making the current story pointless. Casting for the VO (voice acting) will be done by a deaf person and every character in the game will sound the same or lines of an old man will be played by a young girl. The VO script will be poorly prepared and the actors will read their lines completely out of context. The cutscene that was supposed to deliver the backstory will never be produced. Someone will add equipment descriptions that do not match your story or your world. The letter that was supposed to give clarity after the story twist will be accessible way before it, spoiling everything. The character animations will break and in the middle of a serious, heartbreaking dialogue, one arm of an NPC will start a pop & lock dance. And these are just some of the possibilities.

If you are still with the project at this point, this is the moment where the real video game writing skills get tested. This is where you see how your story holds up its limbs get cut off. How well the rest of the team understands it and how much they feel and agree with your vision of the story. This is where you find out whether you are able to solve the problems that pop out on the fly without generating too much additional cost and workload. This is where you really see the difference between writing for games and for any other medium.

"But I will do it right"
Of course you will. What I described was an extreme case where everything gets out of control, but don't fool yourself - it's not a domain of small and inexperienced studios. If you take a closer look at the stories of big titles with 80+ metascore you will easily find story holes, ridiculous moments, terrible execution and many, many more. It ranges from high-level absurds like going hunting to enlarge your wallet instead of rushing to free your friends in Far Cry 3 to choices between "No", "Not now" and "Not really" in Mass Effect. Most of the games have their narrative sins and most of them aren't necessarily the writer's fault. No matter how good or bad the writer is, it's not the writer that makes all the decisions. A game can be still pretty decent with a crappy writer and it can be a disaster with even the greatest writer in the world.

"So what do I do?"
First of all, the poetic lone wolf writer approach will get you nowhere. You have to be a team player and accept the fact that the dev team is not there to execute your vision. You are to support the vision of the team with your excellent storytelling skills. You have to get invested in the project. You have to be as close to the development team as possible and support them as much as you can. There's no other way to see your script really come to life than to help implement it. Your job will never really be done until the game ships. You can't just assume what you have written is enough and leave it in the hands of others. You have to remember, that the game narrative is way more than words. Gameplay tells a lot of the story too. You can't just write the words completely independently from the rest of the team and then just hope the game mechanics will tell the same story as your words.

Be prepared for changes. Lots of them. Game production is iterative. That means your script will have iterations as well. It will have to be adjusted many, many times. Sometimes for better, sometimes for worse, but you will have to accept it. In the end, the gap between the early draft of the script and what gets shown in the game will be extreme. Way, way bigger than in any other medium. You have to know that from the very beginning.

Oh, and one more fun bonus: you will never be the author of the game, like you would be an author of the book. Your name won't be on the cover. It won't even be the first name in the long list of credits. You won't be able to say "this is my game". Or "this is a game I've written". Or even "I wrote the story for this game". A lot of people will chip in to the extent of making your story not yours. All you will be able to say is "I have worked on the story of this game". If that is not enough for you as a writer, I can't blame you. This is one of the reasons so many traditional writers don't write for games. This is also the reason why good game writers are so rare and so highly valued. If you are able to harness all the chaos that comes with making games to tell your story, the impact your game will have will leave millions of people on their knees. Even, if they don't even realize it was thanks to the writer.

Image stolen from writerscabal.wordpress.com
"So how do I get the job?"
This is actually a very hard question, because writing for games is one of the most blurry areas of the industry. A lot of teams still live by the outdated story = words definition. In other teams, having someone hired as a writer seems like a waste of office space. Games that require vast amounts of words are actually in a minority and the narrative designers often derive from the team of game designers. So here's the first problem. Writer or narrative designer is not a position like a coder or a concept artist: not every studio needs one.

Another thing I have mentioned before is that just being a good writer doesn't necessarily mean you will be a good games writer. There are some personal traits that might help you in succeeding. Like being a team player, being open to feedback and being able to scratch or tweak your ideas according to the requirements of the project. All the time you have to remember you are the writer or designer for the game, not its author.

As for how to break into the industry as a writer, keep a portfolio of your writings. Preferably short, brilliant stories that show off a lot of your skill in a short period of time. Get published in some literature magazines, win a contest or five. If you have already published a novel, that's all the better. In general - have some relatively objective proof that you're far from illiterate. When you have all that, start spamming the companies with your portfolio, but do it wisely. Studios like Telltale or Bethesda are way more likely to need writers than Riot Games.

There's of course a lot of different ways to get your hands dirty with game writing. I'm working as a producer, but still had my chance to work on the story a lot more than the producer's job description requires. Game or quest designers with a knack for storytelling can move to the narrative section of their team quite easily too. And as always, there's QA, from where you can jump to anywhere in the game industry, if you are good and persistent enough.


Currency systems in RPGs

Whenever you hear "RPG" you instantly think of a handful of elements that are almost always present. Like a leveling system or a robust story. A character customization in western RPGs and turn-based combat in jRPGs. And a currency used to buy and sell stuff in the game. Especially the ability to buy stuff from shops seems to be present in every little subgenre of RPGs, but lately I'm observing that more and more games could easily be just as great without it.

I understand the compulsion the designers have when they are introducing the currency in their RPGs. The players expect it. That's great, but we should ask ourselves a question: why do we need it? Let me give you a few examples of good games where the currency makes little sense.

The Witcher series. I don't know about the third installment, but in first two games I went through the game saving up all my money to be able to buy something cool. Some endgame gear. I often saw a vendor that had a sword maybe 5-10% better than what I was currently having, but it did cost like 90% of my money, so I have always decided against buying it. Before I knew it, I either found a better sword, or the game ended. What made matters worse, the reward for most sub-quests was... money. Money that gave a short term feeling of accomplishment, but in the end, when I was finishing my game with a few thousand orens that I had nothing to do with, left me feeling tricked at best.

Allright, US. It's your turn. Diablo. In the first game, money was more or less useless, as you found the coolest stuff as drops anyway. The only thing the cash was good for was repairs (that's more of a pain than a gain for a player anyway). In the sequel, they introduced the gambling mechanics. What for? To finally give the player a way to get rid of all the useless coins... and get useless overpriced stuff that was still inferior to what dropped from the mobs. And in Diablo III the Auction House and coins pretty much broke the game, resulting in millions of Asians farming cash to sell it to thousands of Americans, Blizzard closing the AH and by doing so, openly admitting it was a really bad idea.

Let's get out of Europe and US and visit Japan. Zelda series. You find rupees everywhere. Literally everywhere. You always have enough of them. Finding blue, red, silver or golden rupees is fun, but in the end, they are nothing else than a shiny thing that you pick up. You never really have to manage your currency, as you will be able to buy everything you currently need as you discover it anyway. Rupees are so commonly useless, that Ocarina of Time had to introduce the bigger wallets to keep you from buying all the coolest stuff at the very start of the game. One has to sit down and think though... Maybe instead of having currency that's useless and wallet that has to keep you from becoming a billionaire just by cutting grass and breaking jars... Just give the player all the basic stuff as soon as he reaches some town and let the player find the rest in the dungeons.

There's definitely more examples of games that have greatly misused the idea of currency. Games with useless vendors that have nothing interesting to sell. Games, where the amount of gold can be translated to number of repairs or arrows. No wonder that the modern design is starting to look at the currency from a different perspective. Souls series have souls that act as both exp and currency - this way you always have something to do with your currency. In Lords of the Fallen, we've gone one step further. We simply didn't introduce currency at all. An RPG without currency and vendors? Every time a journalist asked me this, I just replied that we didn't need them. Because why would the player want to buy crappy stuff from vendors, when he/she can just get the cool stuff from enemies and bosses.

Currencies make much more sense in MMO games, where they have a similar purpose to real life - to give a common denominator for goods so that the players can trade them more easily. Here, what gives the currency the reason to exist is the economy. It isn't there to keep the player from getting some stuff too fast or to give him a dull reward for a quest or to create an illusion he gets something for all the loot he got rid of at the vendor.

To be honest, currency and ingame economy was the first thing that has drawn me to the RPG genre. It wasn't the story, because all the games were in English or Japanese back then and I was maybe 7 years old. It wasn't the gameplay or skill, as I couldn't really appreciate it either. It was the fact that a game did let me earn money and then buy a cool sword. I have spent hours in Oblivion just to make money to buy a house and a horse. I wasted hours in Gothic forging swords to sell them with some small profit. I have played Merchant/Blacksmith class in Ragnarok Online and a Dwarf Artisan in Lineage II. And the experience was extremely rewarding as long as the money was actually worth something (yeah, Gothic, I'm looking at you and your useless money).

So even though I love having the currency in my RPGs, I much less enjoy having money that is worthless. I really wish developers who start a new RPG took more than a minute to think whether they are introducing currency, because they need it or because it's the "genre must". Really, it is relatively easy (compared to other systems) to get it right. You just need to give the player something of value that can be bought with the money at every stage of the game - basic equipment, mid-game potions for stats boosts, endgame trinkets... If you can't think of a system like this, don't worry - there's dozens of ideas how to make a game without your standard currency. Don't put it in just for the sake of having it.


Narrowing your audience: Zelda vs. Ni no Kuni

Yeah, I know these two games don't have much in common at first glance, but bear with me, as these titles are excellent edge examples of a lot of elements can make or break the game for audiences. Especially for the kids.

Ni no Kuni is just beautiful. The world is perfectly crafted. The locations are breathtaking. The characters... well, all Ghibli characters look the same and Olivier (main character) is just a generic Ghibli boy, but that doesn't bother me. I just won't say they are as awesome as the rest of the world. The story, when you follow it, is also very nice. So what it's basically a Japanese version of Harry Potter. The world you get to explore is original, interesting and full of life.

Zelda, on the other hand, recycles the same story for the… I think it’s 17th time or so. The whole environment is built with repetitive assets that look like stock mobile game models you can buy in packs for 5 bucks. To make sure that the player notices that, everything is placed on a square grid, because gods forbid any of these destructible jars was standing out of line. But all that is perfectly fine, because the grid-based world works perfectly for the gameplay. And in the end, the story is mostly about you figuring out how to use new tools to beat the new dungeons, not about Link rescuing Zelda for the hundredth time.

Both games theoretically have a huge potential to be titles for everyone. Not only graphics, but also themes are quite children-friendly. At the same time, there's enough depth to keep older audiences interested. And both titles had a great chance to reach a very wide demographic. Now let’s see how various tiny things drove the games apart in that regard.


What makes or breaks these two games is how they are introduced to the player. In Ni no Kuni you start by watching a cutscene that is followed by a cutscene, that's followed by a dialogue, after which you get another dialogue and then you get to run down the street to watch another cutscene. In Zelda, Link wakes up and you're free to run around. Sure, you have to run to a few places close by, but by the time Olivier manages to get out of his house, Link already has a sword and is cutting grass and breaking jars! In the first moments of the game one of the games has already managed to filter out the short-tempered gamers from their audience.

Tutorials and Pacing

Three minutes into A Link Between Worlds I knew all the controls I needed, I had no problems going through the consecutive sections of the game. Whenever a new mechanic or new item was introduced, there was a whole dungeon designed to let me use it and learn all the possibilities that came with my new tool. Each of these items comes with an extremely short description. Bow: "Arrows fly straight to take down enemies! You can also move while aiming!" All I need to know in two sentences, followed by a dungeon letting me figure out all I can do with this bow. Six hours into the game and I still get new mechanics, still have fun experimenting with new things and haven't been confused or bored for a second. On my way to new dungeons I found mini-games, a collectable quest and a bunch of secret areas to keep my explorer and achiever sides happy. Every half an hour or so I feel rewarded with something: a piece of heart, a new secret, a new dungeon, a new quest item, a new mechanic...

Even though Zelda series are famous for their nagging navi, Ni no Kuni has somehow
managed to make its sidekick, Drippy, even more annoying.

Three hours into Ni no Kuni and I still felt I am in the tutorial. Still felt I didn't really know anything about this game. My weird sidekick still kept bugging me with long and overstylized dialogues explaining new mechanics, menus, options, equipment, spells. I have been fed at least a dozen tutorials and I have still been waiting to actually do something cool. Trying out new things limited itself to the sidekick telling you "Now, select the new spell you acquired". You then had to  select it (and most of the time it is the only spell you can use anyway) and the game progressed to another dialogue. Sure, I levelled up a few times, I bought a sword for my Pokemon, err... Familiar and I met some fat cat, but somehow, three hours into it, I still felt like I haven't accomplished anything in this game.

Narrative and language

Writers in Ni no Kuni had a lot of work. Dialogues are chasing dialogues, characters are very diverse and each has their own little way of speaking. We have a classic purry cat, we have an owl that’s having a hoot, our sidekick, our main hero, everyone is speaking just a little bit different. And they are all talking a lot. This attention to diversity and details is very pleasing to all the dialogue-driven game nerds (myself included), but what does that mean for the accessibility? The complexity of the dialogues makes them unsuitable for youngest children. Also, since the game only comes in Japanese and English, non-natives without at least upper intermediate knowledge of one of these languages, will have little idea what is going on in the game.

Zelda doesn’t bother much with the story. There’s a world, there’s another world, we play as Link and he’s the link between these worlds… Link is the link, get it? And there’s Zelda and she’s obviously to be rescued and there’s Ganon that’s obviously to be defeated. And there’s a Triforce and Seven Sages and all that stuff that we’ve seen already so many times. Dialogues and descriptions are short, simple and to the point and even without reading them we can figure out how to progress somehow. I am fairly certain I would have been able to beat the game if it was in some language that’s exotic for me. Swahili… or even worse, Hungarian ;) A Link Between Worlds manages to remain accessible to pretty much anyone with opposing thumbs, but of course, there’s a cost – it won’t really satisfy those in need of a deep, dialogue-driven story.


The type of gameplay is very different in both games and the only comparable thing is the amount of pure gameplay. Ni no Kuni is much more dialogue-driven while Zelda is almost purely gameplay-driven. Obviously it’s a matter of preference here, so the gameplay section of this article is here mostly to tell the nitpickers I didn’t forget about it :)

Who are these games for?

At this point I think I’m already able to answer that somewhat accurately. With Zelda: A Link Between Worlds I have no problems stating that the game can be for anyone that likes good gameplay and isn't repelled by cute, cartoony and well, straightforward childish graphics. The depth of mechanics paired with excellent tutorials make the game extremely easy to get a hang on and entertaining and engaging enough to stick with it till the end. Story geeks that are not Zelda fans will definitely not be satisfied here though.

Ni no Kuni has much more restrictions. People who didn’t accept Zelda for art direction, most probably won’t like Ni no Kuni either. Long and boring tutorials are definitely not suitable for anyone with short attention span. Sparsely distributed save points make it a game difficult to play when you might be yelled at by your parents to stop playing already. Tons of dialogues, written in a very stylized way, will make it hard to understand the game for children who are not Japanese or native English speakers. The topics in the story place the game in a very good position. There's both lots of joy and depth and even though it reeks of a Japanese Harry Potter, it is quite bearable even for adults. Unfortunately, with the dialogue chains going on and on with little interactive elements in between and then long dungeons with repetitive fights, the game feels very, very tedious pretty much all the time. So if we put together all these elements, we see that Ni no Kuni is actually suitable for a very narrow group of cartoony graphics-loving, native-speaker level people that have a lot of patience to go through a ridiculously boring tutorial and then several dozens of hours of similarly boring gameplay just to read/hear more of the story. But… Wouldn’t any Studio Ghibli anime be a more engaging pick for them?


PAX Prime 2014 - personal highlights

Hello guys and gals! With jetlag out of my way I can now focus enough to bring you some info on this year's PAX Prime. Being freshly after the GamesCom 2014, I can tell you - it is really different!

I guess a lot of these differences are because of the venue. Washington State Convention Center is both confusing and cosy. Confusing, as everything is happening on various floors and even hotels across the street. Still, getting from one place to another was way faster than drowning in the crowds that visit Cologne's Messe. Cosy, because there were no giant halls that overwhelm you. Companies didn't buy out spaces that could fit a football stadium. The floors of the corridors next to the escalators were littered with giant pillows for people to hang out on. The parties in the evenings take place in clubs and hotels around the place. Whichever hotel in the vincinity you entered, people were sitting around on the floors, playing their handhelds or board games and everything was just way more relaxed. If anyone tried to play a board game on the floor on GamesCom, he would catch a cold from the freezing surface at best, but most probably just get trampled by thousands of people trying to get from one hall to the other.

Just as on GamesCom, I didn't get to see much - I spent most of the time in our media suite in the hotel, showing off our game. We also had a booth in the public area, where we let people try their best against a boss, gave away t-shirts and showcased the incredibly cool hammer that was a prize in a facebook contest.

Highlights of Friday would involve the ScrewAttack live stream and Angry Joe so overwhelmed with our game that he forgot his wallet. On Saturday I had bit more time, so I went gift hunting. The selection was much smaller than on GamesCom, but it was somehow more attractive. Instead of studio-branded toys and tons of anime merchandise, there's way more custom t-shirts, jewelry and plushies. Also, lots of board games, retro video games like N64, NES and PS1 titles and tabletop game figures. I managed to find super cool earrings for my girl:

Right after that we headed for the Twitch booth, where we hosted a spontaneous first ever streamed hands-on of our game, Lords of the Fallen. You can check it out here. Overall, the reception of the game was really good and we were very happy with how things went. My job on PAX was done.

It was time for the party with the Extra Credits crew. It was way off-site, but it finally let us meet in person. We have exchanged so many e-mails that we found out gmail has a limited number of messages in a single conversation. Here is me and the boss of them all, the sweet Soraya.

If anyone thinks James Portnow is the boss in Extra Credits, think again. It's thiss blue-haired girl! :P

The party was quite intimate with maybe around 30-40 people. People played Portal 2 co-op and Divekick on the beamer while the rest scattered around the tables to have some board game fun or to just socialize. I had a lovely time chatting with Carrie, the clips editor, and then, if we're to believe the Cards Against Humanity game we played, me and Dan Floyd were the least funny guys at the table, scoring last with 0 points. Of course we don't believe the game. We're both hillarious.

Around midnight James and a bunch of other guys started a design analysis of the new Deus Ex. Since I personally find the Human Revolution incredibly boring, I didn't want to be the asshole that just sits there, trolling, A bunch of us have left to get some sleep. A final photo got taken somewhere in the tunnel of the Washington State Convention Center:

From the left: Daniel Floyd (narrator), Carrie Floyd (editor), Games Making Noob (translator), Scott DeWitt (artist)

The next day I took off before noon to get to the airport. Spent another 15 hours to get to my own bed, exhausted. It was all great fun. Many thanks to all Bandai Namco folks, to the Extra Credits crew, Twitch guys, everyone who visited the media room and the public booth to see Lords of the Fallen. Thanks for making it not just work, but a great experience!