Star Trek Online, The Tomorrow Children, and Collectivism in Games

I want to tell you all about The Tomorrow Children, a strange online survival/exploration/building game from Q-Games (of PixelJunk fame) but I don’t know where to start with it. So I won’t. Instead, I’ll start with another game that came out of PS4 on the same day, Star Trek Online.

If Star Trek Online sounds familiar and old to you, that’s because it is. STO originally released in 2010. It came out in the same month as Heavy Rain, Deadly Premonition, and Bioshock 2. Like most video game properties, no one really knows how much money the initial launch of STO made, but it probably wasn’t enough. Less than two years later, it was re-released as a free-to-play title. To give an idea of how long ago that was, the STO re-launch happened a few weeks before the initial release of Crusader Kings II. That’s an eternity for games.

I have no idea why Star Trek Online suddenly came to PS4/Xbox One in TYOOL 2016. Maybe it was phenomenally successful as a free-to-play title, and finally decided to follow Neverwinter, DC Universe Online, and Warframe several years late. I have no idea! It’s quite frankly bizarre, and that’s part of the reason I downloaded it. For some reason, an MMO from 2010 was on consoles and I had to see what it was like.

I'm on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

I’m on the bridge of my own ship! This is awesome! And also looks like an early 360 game

Well I mostly have my answer. Star Trek Online is exactly what I should have expected. It is an MMO from 2010. Granted, there is a ton of content. This thing has been running for over half a decade. Just looking at the Starfleet “episodes”, there’s probably a hundred hours of single-player missions in this damn game. And there are two other factions you can choose to join (Klingon and Romulan which I guess are the best choices for a three-faction ST game). The only problem is that it is all MMO content. As far as I can tell, every mission is just a couple space battles and a couple away team missions (that always involve combat) stitched together in a different order.

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No Man’s Sky – A Game of Moments

My very first planet in No Man’s Sky was a frozen hellscape. During the day, it was too cold to venture outside my broken ship for long. The environmental protection in my exosuit ticked down at a steady rate. The night was even worse. This made the very first objective of the game–finding a specific resource five minutes away–unusually difficult. I was five minutes away from one of the resources I needed, which was a bit too long without finding some zinc along the way. There was enough, just enough, to make the run and return to my ship. Which made me feel like the section was scripted, even though that’s fundamentally impossible.

It’s impossible because the planets in No Man’s Sky are procedurally generated. No one crafted them. They are created by algorithm and seeded with outposts, life, and resources. From reading about the experiences of others, I had a particularly harsh go of it in the beginning. But everything turned out fine. I repaired my ship and departed the planet to explore new, more hospitable ones.

The next few planets I discovered were fairly dull. Very few animals, lots of plants, and a variety of harsh conditions that weren’t quite as brutal as my homeworld but still a hindrance to exploration. Then, in my second star system, I landed on a remarkable world. Every few minutes, it was battered with beautiful and toxic storms. The sky was full of long, dragon-like creatures and large insect-fish hybrids. Wherever I went, these creatures were dancing around in the clouds above me. I stayed on that planet for a long time, despite the toxic storms, finding seven separate exosuit upgrades (which were incredibly useful going forward) as well as some good deposits of Emeril that helped fund my first new ship purchase.

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An Open Letter to Steam Key E-mail Scammers

Dear [misspelled game site] at gmail dot com, 2gaui.ff at hotmail dot com, and especially you, Danny from GameReviewBomb:

Listen, I know it’s hard out there. We all have work to do. We all have to hustle. The world is cold and indifferent to our suffering, so sometimes we have to get creative to survive. For you, that means impersonating twitch streamers to get Steam keys from independent video game developers, then turning around and selling those keys on G2A. Do I approve? No, of course not. It’s fraud, and a kind of low-grade, unambitious fraud that most fraudsters would be ashamed to try. But you’re here. You’re doing it. You’re trying your scam me and countless other developers.

Quite frankly, you’re embarrassing yourself. Not just because of what you’re doing, but because of how bad you are at doing it. I don’t know why you’re so terrible at this. Maybe you’re new at scamming people, and this is your first rodeo. Or maybe you’re an old hand, and you are discouraged because five years ago you were pretending to be a Nigerian prince. Now you’re pretending to be a guy who yells at Minecraft.

I can’t let you continue. I feel bad for you, which is all kinds of messed up because you’re the ones trying to cheat me. So I’m going to lay this out: if you have to keep up this awful work, you need to do better. You need to make me angry with you, not pity you.

First off, a little praise. Psychologists say that critique is better received when it is preceded by a compliment. Who are we to argue? I’m a game developer and you’re the internet equivalent of a grifter who is trying to hustle a pool hall on your first ever game of billiards. We should listen to the experts.

So I’ll begin by telling you one thing you’re doing right: you are pretending to be foreign journalists and streamers rather than folks from US/Canada/UK. This is an effective strategy for many reasons. First, your mastery of English isn’t doing you any favors and this gives you a reasonable explanation. You probably aren’t from the US/Canada/UK, though you’re not necessarily from the country you’re claiming as home (more on that later) so you roll with it. It’s also harder for us developers to verify whether you’re for real or not. You send out e-mails right as a developer releases a new game, and we’re simultaneously receiving legitimate requests for keys. It’s way easier for me to evaluate if an English speaking reviewer is legit because I can read their website. I can see if they usually cover games like my own. I can easily find their contact info and note that they use their own domain and not a random gmail address that ends in a string of numbers. Making me navigate a website in German is annoying. So bravo, that’s a good first step. But you can’t stop there.

If you’re going to claim to be an editor at the a prominent Greek website, at least give yourself a proper Greek name. Don’t just mash up a bunch of syllables that sound vaguely Greek. I’m talking specifically about you, Mr. Poskalelalos. There are dozens of websites out there that will generate an actual Greek name for you. If your job of spamming developers with the same e-mail over and over has left you so starved for creativity that you absolutely must make up your own fake name, then please at least Google it before your final decision. If there are literally no results, you probably need to go back to the drawing board.

While we’re on the subject, if you’re going to impersonate someone at a real gaming site, why not actually impersonate a real writer there? You’ve already sold your soul to the devil of the gray market. What’s a little lazy identity theft on top? Of course, make sure that your target’s actual e-mail isn’t somewhere accessible on the website. If the person you’ve chosen to name-jack is the editor-in-chief and his real address is the first thing on the “Contact Us” page, well, I’m gonna be suspicious about the hotmail account he’s suddenly decided to use.

Similarly–and I direct this to you, Danny from GameReviewBomb–please take some care in naming your completely fake website. Don’t throw together a site name that gives away the trick from the very beginning. Dude, I know you’re not with Giantbomb. Hell, I know you’re not even with the bizarre Russian knock-off of Giantbomb, Gamebomb.ru. Somehow you tried to split the difference between the real GB and Vladimir Putin’s shadow GB, and came up with GameReviewBomb: a staggering, weeping hybrid that can only beg for death. Run your idea by a friend. Or maybe don’t make up a completely fake website because literally your first google result is gonna be a developer and Austin Walker just clowning on you.

Incidentally, I don’t understand why Gamebomb.ru exists or if it’s legit, but it is hilarious and they can absolutely have a review copy of Echoes of the Fey if they want one.

Except, of course, we make English-language visual novels, so until we are successful enough to be able to hire someone to localize 120,000+ words into Russian, there’s probably not going to be a ton of interest from a site that is full of Cyrillic characters. That’s another thing you scammers need to pay attention to: what kind of games are you targeting? Who are the people you’re impersonating and is there any chance a developer would believe that person would have interest in their game? When a Turkish-language youtuber who plays nothing but CS:Go is asking for a key for a game that is almost entirely reading English, I’m going to hesitate.

That’s not to say that people who are in non-English speaking countries wouldn’t enjoy our game! Woodsy Studios’ last title had some decent sales in Asia on Steam and I’d be happy for anyone anywhere to play! I’m not going to automatically assume anything based purely on language. But at least find a Turkish youtuber who plays Telltale games or RPGs or something. Make sure I have some reason to believe that you are who you say you are. Or, y’know, stop wasting your time on Visual Novel developers.

While you’re at it, go back and check on the youtuber or twitch streamer you’ve decided to impersonate every so often. Has he stopped releasing videos? Is the last time she streamed back when Destiny came out? Is the top story on the website you “work at” about how the Xbox One will have to always be online? Maybe consider finding a new mark. Granted, abandoned accounts and sites are less likely to ever take issue with your impersonation… But you’re found out immediately.

Similarly, actually maintain the e-mail address that you are fishing with. The only time (that we know of, I suppose) one of you tricked us, it didn’t actually work because the e-mail bounced back. I ended up tweeting the person you were impersonating, finding out he didn’t write the e-mail, and promptly wondering what your endgame was. What did you hope to accomplish by putting in a non-existent e-mail address on our contact form?

Next up, if you’re trying to get me to send keys to you because you (claim to) moderate a Steam Community and want keys to give away, I have a hot tip for you. I feel like this should go without saying, but please don’t also send me a link to your profile on a site where you are clearly selling Steam Keys. I know! I know you are proud of the handful of grifts you’ve pulled. You want to show off how you are a prolific trader of Steam Keys. But when you just said you want five keys to give away to your members, you’re introducing a certain level of doubt that I should trust anything you say.

Finally, stop using the scam form e-mails you downloaded from pastebin. When I get the exact same request, down to the word, in multiple messages, it throws up a red flag. Yes, Brazilian youtuber, I accept your apology for your bad grammar because English is not your first language. But the identical, poorly-parsed apology I received from the Swedish youtuber three hours later rang a little false. At least you, Danny from GameReview Bomb, wrote your own unique pitch. Unfortunately, you send it verbatim to every single developer, typos and all, as evidenced above. As a result, we’re not too “trilled” to send you a key.

That’s it. That’s all I’ve got for you. Except maybe that you should reconsider the whole fraud thing. It’s pretty scummy.

Sincerely,

Malcolm

 

 

 

 

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail out NOW on Steam

Hey everyone! Just a quick post to let you know that my latest game, Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail released today on Steam! Go check it out here!

If you haven’t seen any of my other posts, Echoes of the Fey is a visual novel that blends a high fantasy setting with the mysteries of an old-school detective series. It’s an idea I’ve had for a long time–mashing up two genres that don’t often get paired together, in order to explore a part of fantasy worlds you don’t usually get to see. Our protagonist, Sofya Rykov, might have magical powers. But she’s not a hero, a queen, or a Machiavellian schemer. She’s an outcast from her family, scraping by in a small town on the border as a private investigator. As such, Echoes of the Fey will tell more personal, character-driven stories and less fate-of-the-world fare that you typically see in high fantasy.

The Fox’s Trail is the first episode of the series, but in the tradition of Sherlock Holmes and other famous detectives, each episode is a stand-alone tale. This time around, Sofya is hired to find a missing Leshin who was presumed dead during the long war between Humans and Leshin. To solve this case, Sofya will have to use her unstable magic power–in this episode, she can transform into a cat–to find the truth.

Get Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail on Steam

We’re WHEN Now? – Zero Time Dilemma and Narrative Pacing

This week, I finished Zero Time Dilemma, the third and presumably final game in the Zero Escape series, and it got me thinking about one of my favorite subjects: the difficulty of pacing in games. Zero Escape isn’t the most niche series, but it’s fairly obscure so I’ll go through a brief introduction.

The ZE games are often classified as adventure games because they feature puzzle rooms, but fans know the truth. They’re visual novels. In fact, the core mechanic that sets the ZE series apart from other adventure games is a play on the core visual novel mechanic of branching story lines.

The core story of every ZE game is the same: nine people are abducted by a hidden figured named “Zero” and forced to play a game to survive. They are trapped in various rooms with various other team members and must solve a puzzle to survive or escape the room. Occasionally they are forced to either turn against each other or risk betrayal to stay loyal. Think Saw. Someone in Japan really liked Saw and decided the conceit needed time travel and telepathy.

Like most visual novels, ZE games multiple paths and multiple endings. Most paths lead to death, and it is impossible to get the good ending (where most people live and the mystery is solved) on your first or even second, third, or fourth playthrough. The reason for this is the central conceit of ZE–your character needs information from multiple time lines to fully unravel the mystery. ZE protagonists all have the ability to either “SHIFT” or send information through the “morphogenetic field.” These are two different things in-game, but they both amount to the same idea–once you see the events of one ending, your character knows it when you re-play the game or go back and make a different decision to try and get another ending.

To give an example, your decisions may end up with your character trying to defuse a bomb. The bomb requires a password, which you don’t know (you as the character or you as the player, the game actually does both). Your character dies. You go back and make new decisions to get a better ending. You still get a bad ending–everyone gets sick with a time-accelerating disease–but along the way you learn the password to the bomb. You then go back to the timeline with the bomb, defuse it, and advance the story.

This happens a lot, especially in the second game, Virtue’s Last Reward, which introduces a flowchart that allows you to jump around to all the different decision points you’ve reached and skip dialog you’ve already heard. It plays faster than it sounds.

The story, and how the player affects the story via seeing other time lines, is the core appeal of the ZE series. Everything else is a bit underwhelming. Each game has a few characters that are underwritten or dull. In general, the cast pales in comparison to the very adjacent Danganronpa games. The delivery of the (otherwise good) story is bogged down by pseudoscientific tangents that would make Hideo Kojima blush. It’s fun the first time someone waxes on about how the brain could be like a computer terminal tied to a central server, but these tangents are often repeated ad naseum and there’s no way to skip dialog you haven’t heard–even if you just heard another character saying the same exact ideas. And the puzzles range from stupid easy to bizarrely obscure. What really makes the ZE games work is the narrative and the way it plays with the visual novel convention of the branching path.

This brings me to the conceit of Zero Time Dilemma and why it ended up something of a disappointment.

Don’t get me wrong. ZTD is good as the third game in the ZE series. It was a game we absolutely needed after Virtue’s Last Reward and does an admiral job of tying up a ton of the series’ mysteries. A lot more was resolved in the story line than I expected, and better than I expected. The only problem was how it was delivered.

In 999, the first ZE game, every new playthrough was just that–a new playthrough. Once you got an ending, you had to start all the way over and do it again, making different choices along the way. You could speed through dialog you already saw, but it was a tedious process. Virtue’s Last Reward added the flowchart mentioned above.  You could go back to any decision point in the game you already reached and replay from there.

Zero Time Dilemma takes it one step further. The nine abductees are divided into three teams and from the start you can choose who to jump to. You can also choose when to jump to. Multiple scenes with each team, scattered across the various timelines on the flow chart, are available from the start.

How does this make sense in the story? Well, at the end of every segment, all the characters are injected with a drug that makes them forget the events of the segment. So it doesn’t matter what order you play in. Each time they wake up, the last thing they remember is the end of the first segment. They don’t know what (if anything) happened in the interim. Each section plays out like its own little episode, and you as the player have to piece together how they all fit in each respective timeline.

If this all sounds confusing, I’ll boil it down simply: outside of the very beginning and the last ~sixth or so of the game, the player decides the order in which the story is presented. And the game goes out of its way to obfuscate when (and on which timeline) each segment takes place, almost as if to prevent you from playing in any particular order.

It’s a bold move. I loved it at first, for audacity if nothing else. But then I started to get annoyed. The format basically prevented any character development. Scenes were robbed of drama because I didn’t understand what was happening or what had happened before. That confusion was intentional. It just sucked.

The biggest problem games face as a storytelling medium (outside of developers writing with no experience) is pacing. I know I’ve written about this before, but controlling pace is nearly impossible in games for a writer or developer. And controlling the player’s focus is almost as hard.

My go-to example of a pacing problem is The Last of Us, in my opinion an excellent game that manages to have an excellent narrative despite itself. The story in TLoU is broken up with various enemy encounters with a wide range of difficulties. There are a handful of encounters that are serious difficulty spikes, which can lead to several deaths and forcing the player to repeat the same bit of game play over and over again. This completely strips the narrative of momentum and the repetition of a sequence can sour any emotional response evoked by the story surrounding it.

Uncontrolled focus can also ruin pacing. Optional objectives and gameplay freedom will destroy any sense of immediacy or drama unless tightly controlled. At the end of Final Fantasy VII, a giant comet is about to smash into the world and Cloud is the only person who can stop it. However, I managed to breed several generations of Chocobos in that time, which took several real-world hours and presumably at least an in-world decade. That’s an extreme example, but illustrative of a problem any kind of game can have, as long as that game allows players to decide where to go next.

Visual novels typically eschew giving so much control to the player that pacing and focus aren’t a huge problem. On one hand, Zero Time Dilemma is relentless in this effort in-game, giving players no way to even skip through dialog if they read faster than the voice acting. On the other hand, the whole ZE series interjects a bit of pacing concern with its puzzle rooms. A frustrating puzzle or riddle can stop momentum just like a frustrating action sequence. But that is completely overshadowed by the way ZTD in particular gives up control of its pacing and focus with the extra layer of non-linearity I described above.

For a game that entirely relies on its story, this is a problem. The game gives no indication of how long each sequence is, how important it is, or where it fits into the narrative. You can stumble into an important, dramatic scene. Or you can run into a whole stretch of disjointed sequences. Outside of choices that lead to immediate death within a sequence, you rarely get to see the consequences of your actions unless you happen to pick two sequences that happen in the same timeline.

I don’t have any problem with nonlinear storytelling in general. And I also don’t mind games that let you switch between teams or characters with interwoven stories. But combining the two–and not even curating the nonlinear order at which players see each team’s sequences–abandons far too much control over the story, especially when there are sequences that are less interesting, and sequences that go nowhere without a password from another sequence.

Most of the time, I am loathe to use movies to explain games because I think that’s a disservice to both mediums. But I can’t help myself. Imagine if Pulp Fiction’s sequence order wasn’t curated? If you could accidentally start with Butch and Marcellus’s imprisonment at the gun shop? That section of the film barely works as is, but without the context behind how the two characters ended up together (and the time we’ve spent with the more interesting characters) powers us through.

I understand what ZTD was trying to do. I’m always trying to think of ways to merge interactivity and storytelling, and the ZE series has been pushing that forward with each iteration. But unfortunately, this newest elaboration undoes a lot of the pleasure of the series. Not only do plot points lose impact because they aren’t deliberately paced or sequenced, but the fun of experiencing the branches and changes in the story are gone because early ones are robbed of context.

The memory wiping of all characters between sequences also frustrates any character development. This exacerbates the series’ long-running problem with the non-central team members being rather dull. Even the interesting characters (the protagonists of 999 and VLR) aren’t allowed to develop further. All of this put together makes the early-middle portion of the game feel rather meaningless, even if you know by the end you’ll have enough to piece the story together.

In the end, I still enjoyed my time with Zero Time Dilemma but mostly because of the final portions of the game that (by necessity) are intentionally sequenced. Characters don’t lose their memories between sequences because one (or more) is shifting between timelines intentionally. The story gets wrapped up, there’s the usual insane viewpoint twist, and all the right pieces fall into place. But I can’t really recommend ZTD. Why? Because if you’re already into the series, you’ve already played ZTD or you’re going to play it no matter what. You need to play it. You need to see how the strange stuff at the end of VLR ties back together.

If you aren’t committed to the ZE series? Zero Time Dilemma is going to make literally no sense. It completely assumes you’ve played the other two games. In fact, context from the other games is especially necessary because of the nonlinear gimmick described above. Without that context, all the characters will seem like boring ciphers for the first part of the game rather than just a few of them. I don’t think I would have made it past the the long stretch of out-0f-order sequences if I didn’t already have a reason to care about what happens to Sigma, Phi, Junpei, Akane, and Diana.

The good news, though, is now I can fully endorse picking up the series, because (outside of the iffy puzzle design) my only real caveat on suggesting it was the lack of an ending. VLR ends with way too many mysteries for a game that didn’t definitely have a sequel in the works. Fortunately, for all its problems, ZTD provides a satisfying conclusion that wraps up almost everything in the series.

 

 

Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail Releases Today!

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Today we pushed the big red “publish” button for Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail! (Disclaimer: the button was neither big nor red, it was more of a salmon color.)

If you haven’t seen any of my other posts about Echoes of the Fey, it is a visual novel that blends the mystery of detective fiction with a high fantasy world. Missing people! Elves! Conspiracies! Spells! A bleak post-war world! A bleak post-war world that also has the occasional sirin! (That’s a bird with the face of a person). Depending on how deep you get in the sidequests, it’s anywhere between 4-6 hours long, with a 2o+ song soundtrack and multiple ending variations depending on how you perform your investigation. The central mystery of the episode is wrapped up, but The Fox’s Trail kicks off a multi-part story that will be continued in future episodes.

Head on over to our itch.io storefront to purchase the game! You’ll get a Steam key when we release on that platform and a DRM free version now. Or check out the first two parts of the prequel novella over on the Woodsy Studio blog!

Echoes of the Fey Out TOMORROW! (And new trailer)

We’re just one day away from the release of my first visual novel in fully collaboration with Woodsy Studio, Echoes of the Fey: The Fox’s Trail. So today we have a release trailer, inspired by classic noir detective films.

If you’re interested in the world of Echoes of the Fey, check out the Woodsy Studio blog, where I’ve been publishing (in installments) a short story/novella that takes place before The Fox’s Trail. This story introduces a number of characters that will be important in the first two Echoes of the Fey visual novels.

You’ll be able to buy The Fox’s Trail tomorrow at woodsy-studio.itch.io, which will get you a steam key when we release on steam (with trading cards and achievements) as soon as we’re through Greenlight!