Sunday, April 28, 2013

Pokéworld Problems

So I started playing Pokémon Sapphire again. It's not... bad, but it's not awesome either. And it reminded me of a lot of things that are wrong with the series. These largely split up in technical and story issues. I'll start with the first.

Reliance on Others

Pokémon games have always been designed to work in pairs. You either needed someone else or a second Game Boy to do certain things. There were Pokémon exclusive to either edition, and certain ones only evolved when traded. Sounds nice, as long as that particular generation of Pokémon games is being played by the people around you. After that? Screw you. Even though the games are technically backwards-compatible to a certain point, things keep changing from generation to generation. At least the spatial factor has been removed since the games got an online function.

And even if the games are being played by those around you... what's the main demographic for Pokémon? Kids. And kids can be pricks, especially to each other. And if you're not a kid and playing Pokémon... good luck finding other players in your non-gamer environment.

Another thing that bothers me is that there's more and more things that require another player. Since Sapphire's the last game I played, I can't talk much about the games after that, but my god, so much stuff. Sure, some of that stuff is purely for funsies, but that there's more and more things that actually give you advantages. No internet on your handheld console? No extra features for you!

Not to mention all these events where they handed out exclusive things. Pokémon has always been a sell-out franchise, but I feel like it has gotten worse.

It's a Secret to Everybody

Pokémon has tons of features, even if you never come into contact with any other instance of the game. Many have been introduced in Gold and Silver, as well a Ruby and Sapphire. Too bad that the game doesn't tell you. For an RPG (which it is), it's very secretive about the inner workings of stats, for example. There's tons of values that influence which stats are rising and which don't, like Effort Values and Internal Values. You'd never even find out about these if it wasn't for the internet. (My R/B/Y never said anything about that, so screw that.) I get keeping the exact inner workings of random events from the player, but stats? Stats are kind of important.
Aside from that whole EV/IV thing, there's just a metric f-ton of features introduced in Gold/Silver. Like shiny Pokémon. Which is explained to you, and you even get to see your story shinies. And then there's stuff like the Pokérus. Your Pokémon can randomly catch that and it doubles the EV they get. That's never mentioned, unless you catch it. Not even a throwaway line. And even if you catch that, the only thing you get is "when Pokémon have it, they grow faster." I'd accept the fourth wall as an excuse to not mention EV at that point, except that EXP (Experience Points) are mentioned everywhere. No, no, EV should stay a secret, even though everyone with internet can look them up. This is silly.

The World Is Dead

This is my main non-technical issue with the games. The world isn't really alive. The only time I've seen a world that static was in the game I kept using as an example in my other posts. But let's start with the beginning.

Generation 1: Okay, It'd be unfair to harp on the first two games, since they had enough problems fitting the thing onto one cartridge. But still... the majority of non-trainer NPCs is uninteresting. They talk about the gym, or the cave/forest/thingy that lies ahead... and occasionally, they give you stuff. Trainers just spout bad puns in relation to what kind of trainer they are. The only place where things get more specific is Lavender Town. And maybe the lab on Cinnabar Island, but for such a big story, that was really underplayed.
Generation 2: Gold and Silver got a bit better with their worldbuilding. I remember the town where Team Rocket tried to steal Slowpoke tails. Ew. Still, all that information came from a few key NPCs. The rest was still busy saying inane things and give me the occasional item. Since there were more features, they had more NPCs to explain these features, but other than that... eh.
Generation 3: The graphics got spiffier, and with that the text boxes. The dialogues got bigger, but I still can't get myself to talk to people.

Everything's a Feature
Let's have look... we've got instant healing sprays. We've got software to implant knowledge into sentient beings. We can transfer living creatures into energy/data and back without problems. We can clone creatures from either fresh or ancient material. We can build teleporters. And I'm pretty damn sure that there's at least one Pokémon out there whose natural abilities can be used to make faster than light travel possible.
But none of these things are really looked into. They're just there and contribute barely anything to the world. Sure, the TV series does more with them, but the games? Nope. All these things just casually exist. I mean, the evil teams of the respective games wouldn't even need their own gimmicky things to pursue. Tinkering with existing technologies would make a fine plot already. Instead, we get stuff like people making a ruckus over... Team Aqua turning off a volcano next to a village. It's a volcano that's active enough to be filled to the brim with lava. You should cheer for these people and throw Team Magma off the damn mountain.

The World Is a Stage

Similarly to my favorite example of doing it wrong, the world in Pokémon has always been a stage for all these features and sell-out things. Hence the point before. Adding more features won't change that if the worldbuilding itself isn't improved. I know that the games can't have the same story depth as you have in the non-interactive media, but you can, at least, try.

Breadth Growth

I like to think of games in terms of breadth and height, where breadth is the quantity and diversity of things, while height is the actual value these things add to the experience. Every generation of Pokémon games added things to the game, but to me, that's mostly breadth growth. More Pokémon in a battle (2-on-2 in Ruby/Sapphire, 3-on-3 in Black/White), more stats (friendship, natures...), more things happening in the game (contests, berries, a day/night cycle...)

Still, most of that feels like "yet another feature" to me. New stats mean more complexity in terms of balancing, but they don't really show to the casual player. As for added gameplay mechanics, contests were a good idea, but they still feel too much like battles, and yet you'd need a completely different set of Pokémon, considering that the best battle moves aren't always the best contest moves. And again, contests are just yet another feature.

Long Story Short

I'm okay with Pokémon. It's not bad, and it can be fun, but it lacks the depth other games have. I doubt that will change, since the games still sell, but hey, one can wish.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Publishing And NaNoWriMo Novels

It's still more than half a year until November and until NaNoWriMo. If you don't know it, it's a self-imposed challenge of writing a 50k words long novel. In a month. If you make it, you win. If you don't, you don't. If you cheat, you're only cheating yourself.

There's also people who can't stand NaNoWriMo because of those who think that what they wrote during it is ready for publishing. There's also talking about how publishers and agents are flooded with NaNovel queries in December. Since I'm neither, I don't know how true that is, but that's more of a problem with the writers. Because, and here comes the topic for this post:

Your NaNovel is not publishable.

I hear the sounds of bubbles being burst, but it is very, very, very unlikely that your NaNovel, as it is, is publishable. To those of you who point at Water for Elephants or any of the other titles that came from NaNoWriMo, I highly doubt that any of them were sent out the way they were. And even if one of them was, that's one (1) book, of who knows how many.

I'm not saying it's impossible, but there's a number of things in NaNovels that just don't work for publishing.

50,000 Words

Sure, there's longer ones, but the minimum for a winner NaNovel is 50,000 words. That's Middle Grade/Young Adult length. The shortest I've heard as the starting point for adult novels is 60k for mundane settings, and even more for Sci-Fi and Fantasy. Yes, that's a whopping 10,000 words more than you have. So from 1666.6... words per day, you go up to at least 2000. Or 2500, better.


NaNovels are full of :words: (or , as Something Awful puts it). They are what happens when it's 10 o'clock and you've still got a three-digit amount of words to write. You start to pad the thing like there was no tomorrow. :words: are the first thing that has to go in December editing. They don't do anything, except for said padding.

Word Count Tricks

Aside from just :words:ing around, there's a whole number of word count tricks. There is avoiding contractions, giving things overly long names and writing them out every single time, writing out things that are abbreviated in any other situation (like the Federal Bureau of Investigations), having characters talk in a really unnatural and stilted way, and also having them address other characters with their full overly long names. None of this is in any way good writing. It is just another way of padding and belongs to the thing you should edit out or, even better, leave out entirely.


NaNoWriMo likes to take Chandler's Law and turn it up to eleven. When in doubt, use ninjas. When in doubt, have the Traveling Shovel of Death show up. Throw in a new subplot. Do this, do that. While some of these techniques are relatively tame, some (NINJAS!) really aren't. If you attempt to write a publishable novel during NaNoWriMo, stay the hell away from these in(s)anities. Because while you can always edit out pointless side plots and happenings later on, these things are bigger. You might just end up cutting a lot and end up with even less useful plot.

The First Draft of Everything is Crap

I think Hemmingway said that. At least people say he did. And that's what your NaNovel is. A first draft. If it's clean enough to be sent out... uh, congratulations? Writing instantly usable first drafts does not get you anything other than time. Everything you do to your novel before you send it out doesn't matter. What matters is the thing you eventually do send out. Being able to write good stuff from the get-go is just as valid as being able to turn mediocre stuff into good stuff through editing.

Sometimes, it's Just Crap

Not everything can be turned into a great book that people will love. Some things just don't work. That doesn't mean you should give up immediately, but sometimes... yeah. Some things just don't get better. It's up to you to figure out if that's the case.

Be a Rebel

If you can't get past your 50,000 words a month quote, start earlier. Or stop earlier. NaNo means 50,000 words, written in a month, to form a lengthy work of fiction. No one hates you for being a rebel. They even have their own forums for that kind of thing, so why not try that?

After All That's Said...

Even though I said a lot of negative things about the novel you're going to write during November, I'm not saying you shouldn't try. A daily deadline is a great motivator. But remember that the things we write during NaNoWriMo are often less than stellar. Your job for December is to fix that.

Friday, April 12, 2013

Code and Design

These two are not the same. Well duh, one's code, and the other one's design. Except that it's not that easy. So let's talk game design.

There's Code, and Then There's Code

When people talk about code in the context of computer stuff, they think about this:
int doSomething() {
Or whatever your syntax looks like. But code, in this context, can mean everything that tells an engine what to do. RPG Maker event code counts, some engine's script language counts, everything counts.

Look at me, I know Java!

But there are people who think that code's strictly lines of keywords, characters and names that you stick into a compiler/interpreter. Everything else is below them, and they're somehow better because they know a programming language. I once encountered someone like that in an RPG Maker forum where he had presented his game. It was, in fact, coded in Java and looked hideous. He brushed off all criticism on the basis that he knew Java, and therefore his game was better than the others.

No. Even if it was the most beautiful, efficient and maintainable Java code ever, it still looked hideous. That has nothing to do with the framework/engine it's based on.

Also, I'm pretty sure that I know some people who never touched a programming language, but still have a better idea of how programming works than some programmers. Analogy of the day: Just because I don't speak your language, that doesn't mean I'm a bad writer.

Pretty Good Coder, But...

Now let's assume you let go of your programmer hubris. You're just good at whatever you use to code, and you go on to make your game. Since the main screen works, you build, let's say, a menu in beautiful code. You go to a related forum and post a screenshot, or maybe a short video. After an undefined time of F5ing your browser, you get a reply. It's full of how your menu just isn't good. But... but... it's flawless. It doesn't have a single bug. You considered every single thing that could occur.

Then your problem's not the code. It's the design. Design, much like the ability to make good code, transcends platforms. A crappy menu will always be crappy, no matter what it was made with. But still, both have hardly anything to do with each other. Just because you're good at one thing, that doesn't mean you're good at the other.

The Difference

Now, as I said in the beginning, code and design are different, even though they have a few things in common.

Visibility: Unless the player has been in programming long enough to turn into Neo, they will not see the code. Like all background mechanics, as long as the code works, it isn't noticed. The only time the player will actually see the code is when the game glitches up and throws an error message at them. That's another reason why the engine doesn't matter. People are, except for some telling things (e.g. RPG Maker 2000 splash screens) not able to tell what it was made with.
Usability: This has to do with visibility. Both code and design must be best usable for those who are going to work with it. For the code, it's the programmer, but for the design, it's the player. I've noticed that the creators of things are often very defensive of them and dismissive of their mistakes. "It's not a bug, it's a feature" comes to mind.

Design 101

Since this is basically a rant blog, I'll go and rant a bit on things I have encountered in terms of design flaws.

(Anti-)aliasing: Anti-aliasing is smoothing out edges by blurring them a little bit. I'm sure you have all seen it. I'm not definitely for or against it. It just depends on the context. If the rest of the game fits, why not? If you're going for retro and everything else's is in clear pixels, please don't. The reason I'm bringing this up is that anti-aliasing is often used for scaling images and drawing text in engines/frameworks. Either turn it off, or turn it on, but don't do both. If you can't turn it off, work around it. What? Good design requires effort.
Menu additions: This is a thing I keep seeing in RPG Maker games, mostly because the engine already has a UI. If there's one thing I learned, then it's that UIs across the game should be uniformed. They should look and behave the same, and feel like they have always belonged to the engine. Photoshop gradient Times New Roman/Arial is not what they look like.
More clicks than your average download: Again, this is mostly a menu thing, but translates to everything that requires player input. Giant mazes of sub-menus, often with different reactions to the same key, don't make good UIs. Stop trying to be so goddamn fancy and keep your stuff simple. Because, as mentioned above, you're not making these interfaces for your ego, you're making them for your players.

Of course, there's more than that, but these were three I remember seeing quite often.

In General...

Of course, this stuff doesn't just apply to game design. You could probably replace "player" with "user" and have it still make sense. That's how important good design is. I'm not saying that good code isn't, but just because one thing is good, that doesn't mean the other one is too. Rant end.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Friday, April 5, 2013

Help, my Fiction's Unrealistic!

Once upon a time, I wanted to write a blog post. But then I forgot about the thing I wanted to write about in the first time and let it be. Today, however, I stumbled, through some weird mental leaps, over something I keep hearing.

"Science Fiction is Bull!"

Now, I get that not everybody likes every genre. I like science fiction, but romance just doesn't appeal to me. So if you tell me that you're just not into sci-fi because, yeah, it's not your thing, I'm okay with it. But if you tell me that you don't like it because it's so unrealistic, I'll call counter-bull on you. Because I'm pretty sure that the books you like have their fair share of unrealistic stuff too. Going back to romance here, I'm pretty sure that, if you look at the plausibility of the things happening in their respective settings, I'm sure that both have things in it that are not likely to happen.

Now, I said sci-fi here, but I'm sure that pretty much every genre gets this from one side or another. And I have to agree. In some sense, all fiction is unrealistic. Because it's fiction. If you want your things to be all real, there's such a thing as non-fiction.

"It's Fantasy, it Doesn't Need to Make Sense!"

Hey, hey, just because I said that all fiction's unrealistic to some degree, that doesn't mean that it shouldn't make sense. One thing that really helps or hinders immersion is how well it fits together and if it makes sense. If your story constantly breaks its own rules, I'm going to call bull. If your story runs by the rules of our world and breaks them later on, I'm going to call bull too. But I'm not going to call bull on something because it has dragons. Mostly because dragons are cool.

Again, that's for all genres. But having a genre that's often called unrealistic does not mean that it shouldn't have its own logic. Have it and stick to it. If you want to break the rules, think about it. If it's worth it, go for it, but you have to be sure it is.

Logic vs. Realism

Both of the above statements deal with this. When they say that something's unrealistic, what many people mean is that it's illogical. Because, as I said above, fiction's not reality, and can take a few breaks from it. It's based on the fact that people can suspend their disbelief. They can believe that a man can fly, so to say, even if it's just for the duration of the story. Especially in genres like science fiction and fantasy, the world the stories are set in is not ours. It might be based on ours, but there are differences. The key is to have it all make sense.

Okay, I'm not saying that you can't point out how silly a concept is. But you have to look at the context too? Does it work? Does it fit into the world? Is it just so goddamn stupid you're laughing at it whenever it's mentioned? Well, most of that is subjective. If you can't get over faster than light travel, soft sci-fi's just not your thing. But that doesn't mean that it doesn't make sense in context.