Friday, October 19, 2012

Linearity, Freedom, and Dishonored

I'm a big fan of games that provide freedom, or at least certain types of freedom. My favourite type are open world games that allow you to explore and discover cool and interesting things. Games like Fallout 3, Skyrim, Assassin's Creed.

The next best type are games that have a linear level progression, but allow a lot of freedom in how you approach each level, and support different gameplay styles. This would be games like Deus Ex, Crysis, and the newly released Dishonored.

Dishonored is quite a good game, a brand new IP having appeared largely out of nowhere for most people, full of fun gameplay set in a beautifully realized world with an interesting story to pull you through. The gameplay options are genuinely interesting and encouraging of replay, while the game itself is of modest enough length that multiple playthroughs can reasonably be done by people that have jobs and shit to do.

Diana and I are halfway through our third playthrough at the moment, and we're still discovering new and cool things. The game has swordplay, gunplay, an assortment of different supernatural skills to unlock, and also supports the option to not kill a single person, which is quite interesting for a game based on assassinating people!

We did our first playthrough doing a blend of all of the gameplay options, sometimes stealthing, sometimes running around killing everything that moves, and generally getting a good sample of everything the game has to offer. Second time through was full stealth without killing anyone. And now we're playing it full action without using supernatural abilities.


The game is set across 9 missions, each with primary and optional objectives, often with objectives being changed or added during each mission. This is particularly true when going for the non-lethal approach, since you often have to discover the way to achieve the non-lethal outcome by talking to NPCs or overhearing guards' conversations. I really liked this approach, since it helped make exploration feel like a core part of the game, and not just something to do to find collectibles.

There is no game map, which helps encourage exploration and also makes the game feel more immersive. So that you don't feel too confused, some missions start with a boat ride that lets you get a big picture view of the level, and some sections actually have a simple map on a wall that can help you get your bearings. Generally you don't need this to figure a level out, though I sometimes found myself frustrated when trying to reach an objective marker but finding that the door to get there is quite distant, and that I've just carefully stealthed to a location for nothing.

Missions are of variable length, which is a nice touch, since it feels as though the designers have gone ahead and made each level contain just what they wanted it to have, without an obvious 'x minutes of gameplay' target in mind.


Magic abilities can be unlocked by finding runes in the world, and the skills you choose to unlock can have a very big impact on how you play. You are started with the Blink ability, which allows teleporting over short distances, and is surprisingly useful. You can move from cover to cover without being spotted, you can navigate the world, you can cover the distance to an enemy to make a surprise attack.

Possessing things is another very useful ability. When you possess something, your body disappears, and then reappears when the possession wears out. This allows you to use possession as a way to get from one place to another undetected. You can possess rats and fish to get through otherwise inaccessible tunnels, or possess a guard to get through a security point.

Other abilities are slowing down or freezing time, enhanced vision to see enemies or useful items through walls, creating a swarm of rats, and more run of the mill ones like increased health or movement ability.


The city of Dunwall has a Bioshock / Half Life 2 feel to it, with some 19th century British Empire thrown in. I really liked the combination, feeling both familiar yet clearly not part of our own timeline. The use of whale oil as the core energy commodity was different and interesting.

There is a richly realized world here that can be learned about via books that can be found throughout the game, kind of like the Elder Scrolls games. I admit that I didn't read many of these, but it was good to see the effort put in to making an immersive world.

The world changes based on the way you play it, with it becoming darker and more hostile the more people you kill. Through most of the game this just means more rats and weepers (infected zombie-like people), but the last couple of levels have more significant changes. The overall storyline remains the same, but the differences are noticeable and welcome.


The enemies are mostly human, with a nice variety of weaponry and skill levels. Some guards just have swords, while others have pistols and are often also more skilled with swords, dodging your own strikes and kicking you backwards. There are assassins with some of the same supernatural abilities that you have, and even a type of guard who can suppress all magic use in the area until you kill him.

There are good, simple readabilities to tell you of an enemy's alert state: a sound stinger plays when an enemy gets alerted, and icons above the head show the alert level. Guards will do basic patrol and search behaviours, but there are no real group behaviours. A guard can raise an alarm to bring in reinforcements, but they all tend to act independently.

One nice touch I noticed is that when you hack an electrified sentry and one guard sees another guard get killed by it, he will keep his distance and throw stuff at you instead.

Bad Things

There aren't that many things that bothered me with Dishonored, and they are mostly minor. You can buy stuff but you can't sell, which is a shame when you're playing in one gameplay style so you may have a full load of sleeping darts or crossbow bolts that you'd love to switch for something else, but are forced to just uselessly carry the whole game.

There are a small number of save slots, and once full, the game will always default to the most recent slot, rather than the oldest, which to me seems much more useful, rather than having to scroll to the bottom of the list every time I save.

They use some levels more than once, though with large changes to them. This isn't such a bad thing, since the familiarity can be useful, but with such a pretty and interesting world, I wanted to see more of it, not the same places!

Final Thoughts

I would definitely recommend Dishonored. It reminds me of so many other games in different aspects, which gives it a certain familiarity while also being new and unique at the same time. Lots of good ideas have been put together into a pretty, fun, and well polished package.

Saturday, October 6, 2012

Video Game Demographics 2012

The ESA (Entertainment Software Association) has released its report on sales and demographic data for games for 2012:

There were various statistics in the document that I found particularly interesting:

Women account for 47% of gamers.

We can basically say at this point that women play games as much as men do, given the roughly 1:1 ratio of men to women in the general population. This statistic doesn't take into account the amount of gaming done by each gender though, and personally I'd be surprised if women have the same average playing time per week as men, though I'd expect the gap to be closing.

There are more women gamers aged 18 and over than there are male gamers under 18.

It's well known that the games industry is heavily skewed towards making and marketing games for under 18 males. I think gamers in all other demographics generally lament this fact, and it's definitely shifting as more games are made for mature, adult gamers and also for younger female gamers. However, the fact that there are over 50% more female adult gamers than males gamers under 18 shows just how much the games industry may be missing out on marketing opportunities, and the chance to have a real audience for games that don't revolve around excessive violence and scantily clad women (the industry still can't quite handle the concept of nudity very well, for better or worse).

Puzzle and trivia type games account for over 40% of online and mobile games.

This probably isn't too surprising in the mobile space, since other genres like action/shooter games don't really translate as well to the mobile format, and also to the types of situations where mobiles games are played, which will favour short games or games that can be stopped and started frequently. Online and mobile games are an increasing category, so we can probably expect to continue seeing these kinds of games crowd out other game types.

Sports games account for nearly 15% of console games, but only 0.6% of computer games, while strategy games account for 27.6% of computer games, but only 2.8% of video games.

Now, to be fair, a large part of this is probably due to the fact that strategy games are generally best controlled with keyboard/mouse, while sports games work best with a gamepad. It still tends to confirm the stereotype that consoles are for jocks while PCs are for nerds!

The Sims titles account for 7 of the top 20 computer games sold in 2011.

This just strikes me as rather sad for the PC market, but also rather amazing. I've never actually met a person who plays The Sims, or at least admits to doing so, let alone buying 6 expansions packs! Who are all these people? Is this where the female gamers are spending their time, rather than playing the latest FPS? It seems quite odd to me that this game and its expansions seems to sit there racking up serious revenue without there ever being that much noise made about it. Or, more cynically given the current state of PC gaming, maybe there isn't much overlap between people who play The Sims and people who know how to pirate games!

Stats I'd like to see

I was a bit disappointed that there wasn't more breakdown of female vs male gaming habits, simply because I think females are still definitely treated as 'lesser' gamers by the industry. Though, admittedly, seeing what games females buy won't necessarily tell us what games they'd actually like to play, since they can only buy what someone has bothered to make.

I'd also like to see a breakdown of game types and gamer ages against the purchase price of games. These days we have a very broad spectrum of payment models for games: free, 'freemium' (free to play, but you have to pay to unlock certain features or make progression faster), low price 99c App Store type titles, then all the way up to full price AAA titles. You need a lot of people playing a 99c game to have the same financial impact as one person buying a premium title, and this could make an important difference to how we interpret the results. Puzzle and trivia games will generally be cheaper than action/shooter games, which means that they could represent a larger proportion of the games being played while still accounting for a smaller proportion of overall revenue.

Monday, October 1, 2012

Why Arkham City Left Us Underwhelmed

Note: This post contains plenty of spoilers for the game Batman Arkham City, so if you don't want it spoiled, it's really not safe to ready any of it!

Diana and I played Arkham City over the weekend, and while we thought it was a good game, we didn't think it was a great game. I know that this is contrary to the opinion of most of the gaming world, and I don't think it's a case of "We're right, everyone else is wrong", so I thought it would be worth gathering my thoughts on why we were left a bit disappointed. I'd love to hear insights from others to explain things we might have misunderstood or that might help us look at it differently.

First let me be clear that we are not comic book or superhero fans. Most people probably approach a game like Arkham City, or a movie like The Avengers, with the thought, "I hope they finally do justice to my beloved characters/story/etc". However, for us we tend to approach from the opposite side of things: "I hope they've made a movie/game that appeals to a person who is not already a fan of this character."

I think Arkham City is probably a pretty good game if you're a Batman fan, but if your not, I don't think it's going to make you one. It certainly didn't for us. Keep in mind that we played Arkham Asylum previously, and again we thought it was good but not great. Overall I think I liked that game more that Arkham City, but I was concerned that the various things that bothered me with it would exist in Arkham City too, and that's why we haven't played the game until now.

The superhero genre

One major issue is about the very nature of the superhero genre. We're not at all fans of it! Some superhero stories work better than others, but on the whole, it always tends to feel a bit silly and juvenile to me. When I say juvenile, I don't mean that only a child should enjoy it, but rather that it tends to have an outlook on the world and the nature of good and evil that is closer to how a child views the world than a mature adult.

Vigilantism in itself isn't a problem. Going out and dealing with petty criminals because law enforcement isn't doing it can be a reasonable concept to work with. But no one wants to watch Batman or Superman or Spiderman just beat up purse snatchers constantly. So instead comics need to invent supervillians and criminal masterminds that are challenge for them, and more entertaining for the reader. Superheroes only work in a world where the biggest problem is supervillians.

But this is far removed from the real world. Major problems can rarely be boiled down to a single evil figure. They're usually much more complicated than that. But even when you can identify individuals who can pull a lot of strings on their own, they tend to be boring people in business suits that occupy a lot of legal grey area, rather than someone like, say, Hitler. Having Batman walk into a Goldman Sachs boardroom and punch Lloyd Blankfein in the face isn't going to be a very satisfying story, and it doesn't restore the pension funds that his company helped to wipe out in the global financial crisis, so there's no real sense of justice. Beating up the heads of Union Carbide over the Bhopal gas leak disaster doesn't really feel like it actually achieves justice.

Being nonlethal

I get particularly bothered by Batman not using guns or other highly effective weapons to take down criminals. In the context of a game like Arkham City where he is frequently having to deal with multiple enemies who all have guns and are actively trying to kill him, it just feels silly to have him try to take them out one by one with his fists and other nonlethal means. Action bubbles in the game need to be set up carefully to allow this to be a viable tactic, and this becomes obvious and as a result it bothers me and pulls me out of the game. I end up thinking, "Wow, lucky this room has all of these convenient high perches for Batman to sit on, otherwise he'd be screwed."

It also doesn't make much sense from a legal point of view. In reality, if Bruce Wayne were ever caught and exposed, he would be going to jail for the rest of his life for the thousands of assaults he's committed and various other laws he's broken. The fact that he doesn't kill people isn't going to help much. And when he constantly leaves supervillains alive knowing that they're going to become free again, and that they will then go and kill others shows a reckless disregard for those inevitable victims that makes him almost culpable for their deaths. In a world where violent insane people cannot be successfully imprisoned, letting them live is reckless and irresponsible.

General issues with the game world

Back to the game itself. We were excited by the concept of having an open world to explore, since we both tend to be big fans of open world games. However, in the case of Arkham City, the world was very samey and uninteresting, and exploration didn't seem to be much of a reward for its own sake. Everything was just dark and run down, and there's nothing really interesting to find, or at least if there is, we didn't come across it. Sure, there's Riddler puzzles, but a really good open world will be a joy to travel around just to see the sights. And excellent ones, like Fallout 3 and Skyrim reward exploration by having all sorts of interesting quests to come across, people to meet, and locations with enough detail that you can piece together a story of what happened there in the past. I didn't get any of this from Arkham City.

I also found navigation to often be tedious, particularly on timed challenges. When gliding around and using the grapple to propel Batman I would sometimes end up heading in the wrong direction and having to try and correct it before slamming into something. It reminded me of the original Assassin's Creed, where you felt like you were fighting the controls too much.


The puzzles in the game were generally quite good and I enjoyed that element of the gameplay. However, they did a bad job of introducing all of the different gadgets. Unless you played linearly through the first few story missions without exploring you weren't introduced to each gadget, and without playing the previous game you would not easily know it was there. I got caught early on in a Riddler puzzle that had me stuck in a closed room, until I realized that I had explosive gel already and could use it to blow open the floor.

The other problem is that you start with a bunch of gadgets, but you then also get other ones during the game. This means, though, that when you encounter something like a Riddler puzzle, you can waste a lot of time trying to figure out if you just can't work the puzzle out, or if you don't yet have the magic gadget required to solve it. It's bad design for a game with puzzles to not make it clear if you're in a position to solve that puzzle or not.

General Gameplay

 The gameplay is mostly good and I understand why people enjoy it. There is good use of gadgets and detective mode is very cool. The melee system is good, but I found fighting got dull and repetitive after a while. They introduced some new weapons and enemy behaviours as the game progressed, but it just wasn't enough to keep me interested. Having recently played Sleeping Dogs, I think we were spoiled by what is probably a similar but better melee system. But Sleeping Dogs also had the advantage of both melee and gun based combat, with the game very nicely transitioning from mostly melee in the first half to mostly guns towards the end, which kept the fighting interesting.

The checkpoint system tended to bug me a bit, particularly when you'd traverse a large part of the open world to reach a location for the next objective, but then get killed fighting enemies before you can get into the objective. This would then require you to re-traverse the world all over again. It was particularly annoying as Catwoman, who generally took longer to travel large distances.

I also found it annoying when you finished at a location (usually with a boss fight of some sort), and then it wasn't clear where you had to go next to get out. Had a new exit opened up nearby, or did you have to do a whole lot of backtracking? Both of those cases happened at various times, and in general I found myself consulting the internet more often than I would have liked to figure out where to go next without wasting a bunch of time because I didn't stumble across the one linear option the game had decided on.


Overall I found the AI to be good but unremarkable. Since I play a lot of AAA titles I tend to have a pretty high bar for a game to do something with the AI to impress me, and I can't think of anything that really stood out in this game. All the enemy readabilities were fairly nicely done and you could get a good sense of what they were thinking, but again this should be considered standard for a AAA title.

I was disappointed by the lack of group behaviour. Enemies would communicate with each other, but their behaviours were all pretty independent, other than spacing out nicely around you during melee combat. I blame this mainly on the gameplay constraints imposed by Batman's limited combat abilities (in the gunplay sections). Batman can generally only take on armed opponents by singling them out one at a time, so in these action bubbles, while it would make a lot more sense for them to stick together and cover each other, they tend to just go patrolling on their own even when they know Batman is there, like teenagers in a bad horror movie.


In the end, I think it was various aspects of the story that disengaged me from the game the most. Batman seemed to make bafflingly stupid decisions that just made me stop caring about the story at all. It sometimes felt like he was the main character from Memento, not remembering what had just happened 2 minutes before hand. I'll briefly list the ones that bugged me the most:
  • He leaves Harvey Dent hanging in the courthouse in the beginning to get rescued by his buddies, so Catwoman ends up having to deal with him again later on. Why not at least lock him in the empty cell in the very basement of that building? (of course he should just kill him, but we've been over that already)
  • Repeatedly helping and sparing the life of the Joker despite the constant threat he presents.
  • Hearing a big sob story from Mr Freeze and agreeing to go and rescue his wife literally seconds after having Freeze turn on him and try his hardest to kill him. Batman appears to have bipolar disorder the way he switches between being friends and enemies with some of these characters.
  • Not becoming the head of the League of Shadows, which could have let him discover earlier that they were behind everything, and would also allow him, as head of the organization, to stop them and thus remove them as a threat. Other than wiping them all out (which he won't do because he doesn't kill), what better way to remove their threat than by becoming their leader? Not to mention having the added possibility of near immortality, something that might be just slightly handy in Batman's line of work!

Final Thoughts

This review is far more negative sounding than I would have liked, since for the most part I enjoyed the game. I guess I wanted to point out all of these issues because there is such high praise for this game everywhere else and so I didn't really need to go over the positive points so much. In the end I mainly want to explain why I think that Arkham City is still just a game for fans, and I don't believe it's the transcendent gaming experience that will please everyone, which is what many people have tried to claim. Hopefully I've made a reasonable case for that, and not just come across as a hater!