Stupid Tent

Where I spend most of my time hiding.

Top 10 Games of 2013

  1. Antichamber
  2. Hearthstone
  3. FEZ
  4. Device 6
  5. Stanley Parable, the Demo
  6. GTA 5
  7. Tomb Raider
  8. Bioshock Infinite
  9. Ridiculous Fishing
  10. Monaco

It’s been a wonderful year so far. Of course many others are still sitting in my steam backlog or on my wish list…waiting to be played. Let’s hope that 2014 can be even better.

DEVICE 6

Simogo is on a roll here. Year Walk was a little bit too scary for me. However Device 6 hit the sweet spot this time.

It’s quite hard to define what Device 6 is.

It’s an interactive novel with perfectly tuned parallax pictures. It’s also a puzzle adventure game, reminds me of older games like The 7th Guest. It also has the best audio design I’ve ever seen (heard?) on an iOS app. There are small touches all over the place and it kept surprising me the whole time I was playing through the game. Oh, and the 007 style intro and ending sequence were also perfect. Basically it’s the quality standard for serious games on iOS.

If you haven’t picked it up yet, you should. And here’s the link.

Hearthstone vs. Magic: the gathering

I finally laid my hands on Hearthstone last week. After fumbling around for several dozen matches, I found it to be highly entertaining. As an avid Magic: the gathering fan, naturally I can’t wait to compare the two games.

Lack of accessibility to new players has been one of the biggest challenges for Magic to attract new players. The design team has been walking on a fine line in its 20 years of history to introduce new mechanics while maintaining, even improving the learning curve. However, the last remaining obstacles are deep within the roots of the original design by Richard Garfield. There seems to be no way to fix them without offending everybody. And it’s very interesting to see how Hearthstone is doing things differently.

First of all, Hearthstone is using a health model that’s understood by everybody. A minion is summoned with a given amount of health, and it actually does not regenerate at the end of turn! Also the fact that the remaining amount of health is actually displayed on the board also helped things a little bit. Of course Magic was designed in this way to: 1. avoid book-keeping issues (Not fun to write the remaining HP on a paper somewhere every time a minion takes damage.), and 2. make balancing easier without numbers exploding like crazy (4/4 is actually a big creature in Magic!). However in Hearthstone’s case, being a digital game, it’s one less hurdle to jump.

Secondly, instead of the Color Pie in Magic, we have a class based deck archetypes and a simplified mana system. Color wheel was one of the fundamental design elements of Magic, and playing with the color pie spawned countless strategies and card synergies. With the class system and the class specific cards, the first benefit is that it made the card pool for a given class much smaller, which eased the learning curve for deck building. Also right now the theme that’s established by the class-specific cards and the hero ability made the available deck archetypes obvious and easy to understand. Unlike in magic, there’s always dozens of different deck archetypes populated by the community. In Hearthstone, with a more limited toolset given to the player, the designer actually have more control over the power level and general feeling of different classes. You can say that for high level players, it’s a more restrictive system, but it’s definitely easier to understand for new comers.

Separating the mana system from drawing has been done by many card games already. First very obvious benefit is that it eliminated the need for the deck builder to balance the number of land/energy card in the deck. Usually there are so many traps in that part of deck building already. You can find countless articles on the internet on that topic. Also it made drawing dead cards much less likely in the mid to late game. Imaging the frustration when you top deck a land card on your turn 11 when playing Magic. Also, one of the most frustrating experience when playing modern Magic is that even with a perfect deck, it’s still very likely that your starting hand doesn’t have enough land and you have to mulligan. Hearthstone is also a major improvement on that front, along with the help of a free mulligan. Even if my hand is full of 5 or 6 drops after mulligan, at least I could be competitive in Hearthstone.

The other major difference between Magic and Hearthstone is that there’s almost no interaction between the players, especially in your opponent’s turn. You could argue that it was one of the key features of Magic and where its charm came from, which is understandable as nothing is more spectacular than a Counter Spell war, or zapping your opponent’s creature while he’s trying to cast Giant Growth on it. However all these features came with a price. In order to solve all the edge cases, a lot of concepts needs to be introduced, ex: Instant, Stack, Activated Ability… the list goes on and on. You have to be educated for every single one of them before you can start appreciating the complexity. Instead, Hearthstone introduced the concept of Secrets as the sole mechanic that works on opponent’s turn, which I think is one of the most interesting ideas in Hearthstone and will be proven to be the key element in high level competitive play. The idea itself is very easy to understand, it’s a trigger based spell which will take effect when your opponents does a certain thing. The cool part is that every time you cast a secret, you are bluffing your opponent. He can try to analyze your deck composition and try to guess what was being cast. At the same time, you can also use that information and affect his play style, given that more Secret cards are introduced in the future.

Of course there are many other good things in Hearthstone. Like its highly polished UI, sound and animation, carefully selected keywords and their unique visual cues and of course the extra flavor brought in by lore from the Warcraft Universe. Frankly it’s quite impossible for Magic to catch up as a digital game purely from the mass appeal point of view. However it’s also quite impossible for Hearthstone to beat Magic in term of depth and interactivity at this moment, given its 20 years of constant tweaking and refinement. I can’t wait to see what both of them can offer us in the upcoming future.

Antichamber

I chuckled when the daunting 1 hour 30 minute count-down you saw at the beginning of the game stopped. It was among one of my most memorable gaming experience. And then I chuckled over and over again as I continue towards the end of the game, learning new tricks and discovering new rules.

Antichamber was the best puzzle game I’ve ever played, period. It’s pretty hard to describe the game without spoiling the experience, but I’ll try.

Show, don’t tell. Gradually new elements are introduced into the game. In the beginning, many tasks seems to be impossible. However when you pay enough attention to the visual clues provided by the game, usually the answer will be directly in front of you. And once you learn a new trick, you’ll be using it everywhere. The hint you see after solving each puzzle is a perfect reward for your persistency.

Never break the flow. There’s literally no menu, no loading screen. You jump in and out of levels instantly. Something feels wrong? Press escape and you’re back to the hub, allow you to continue from any spot of the game. There is no save system that you need to manage. Once you jump into the world, you’re in the world, away from all the distractions. This is perfectly in-line with the minimalistic presentation style of the game.

Consistency. There are handful of elements that are reused over and over through out the course of the game, and they always work in the same way. Sometimes you forgot the rules exists as it was introduced too long ago, but if you slow down for a while and recollect, what was non-obvious became obvious.

On top of all these virtues, the game showed extreme amount of depth. All those mind bogging challenges with just enough information to guide you through, it’s hard to imagine how much time the author has sinked into creating this experience.

And here, to him, I would say thank you. You made the world a better place.

Dragon’s Maze Pre-release Experience

Went to the Dragon’s Maze pre-release last weekend.

Actually I’ve never been to a local game shop even when I was playing MTG when I was in college. Anyway, googled a little bit and found the nearest spot was only 10 minutes from home.

It was surprising that over 30 people turned up for the event. The whole process was actually quite serious. Everybody got two guild packs and four Dragon’s Maze boosters. We are randomized into pairs and filled up the card list. Then after 40 minutes of deck construction, everybody need to submit their deck list as well. I got a Gruul/Selenya guild pack, and came up with a Red/White/Green aggro deck. After three hours and four rounds, the final score was 1-1-2, better than I expected. I should clarify that I got one win because my opponent was serious land screwed for both matches.

Overall, it was a very interesting experience. The new set was missing many critical cannon fillers so many matches turned into a race of who draw the bombs first race… However carefully constructed deck can mitigate that a lot. The mood in the shop was very casual and everybody tries to help the newbies. I would definitely goto another one for the upcoming sets.

Bioshock Infinite

People have been talking over and over that video game stories matter. However, as a player, I rarely feel myself to be a part of the story when playing AAA shooters. Even for games that label themselves as thought provoking or anti-violent, the experience itself still pretty carnal. I almost never feel empathy towards the death of the characters or the millions of enemies that I killed. Even when games are trying to tell a story, I can usually feel that they don’t really want to do that. One scene that repeats over and over is BOOM, your best friend is now dead! (or captured!), time to revenge! Another one also happens a lot: I’m speaking too fast so maybe you don’t fully understand but what I really want you stupid player to do is to fetch this thing in the end of the next level and bring it back here, ok, is the next level loaded? Still not ready? Insert a joke here.

Bioshock Infinite is different. That story is the core of the game. Without that story, the game doesn’t function. What’s even more impressive is that the story is told with incredible patience.

In the first 15 minutes, I’m thrown onto a boat with two total strangers, sailing to a light house. Everything seem to be full of riddles and I’m not entirely sure what I should expect… After a brief journey I’m slowly introduced to Columbia, the floating city of wonders… It was not until an hour into the game that I met the first enemy. Before that, I’m just a visitor in the city with my own pace. I’m lead into the city through an organic path and I can spend as much time exploring the details of the crowds as I want. And everything happens seamlessly, with no loading screen in the middle to break the flow.

And then I meet Elizabeth and there are twists and turns in the story. There are always a build up phase before the new thing happens. Many story elements and background information are shown instead of told. Even the elevator scenes are better made than regular games. There are always voxophone diaries or conversations in progress, and the next area is usually highlighted with clever animation sequences.

And finally there’s the ending. Like an onion skin, step by step, it unfolds. It showed us how video game can still tell a good story and leave you thinking.

Like many others, I also don’t fancy the combat too much. I even agree that without all the shooting and killing and stabbing, it might even be a better game. I had a hard time figuring out who is shooting me in the combat area bigger than a football field. So many attacks are shield depleting, so I spent half of the time ducking somewhere… Vigors do make me feel powerful, but the scenario is usually too chaotic to allow more strategic choices… However, everything aside, it’s the story that left me thinking.

Magic: the gathering

Well, it seems that collectible card games are hot again. All of a sudden everybody think it’s the perfect time to launch a computer based collectible card game.

We have the Kickstarter success of SolForge with the blessing of Richard Garfield. We have Card Hunter, which is in private beta from the ex-irrational crew. And last but not least, the all over the news HearthStone from Blizzard. All of them brought back some nostalgia for me, of Magic: the gathering.

I first got to know the game more than 10 years ago, in my high school. It was just being introduced into China, and published its first set, Portal: Three Kingdoms.1 As most first time players, I immediately got drawn into the world of card collecting, deck building, bluffing and defeats. The legends in Portal: Three Kingdoms were real legends from the original historical novel, which added a lot of flavor when we were playing.2 (I guess it should do well in Japan and Taiwan, as it’s a very popular topic there as well.)

Then in college, I got introduced to the Masquerade Set and the Invasion Set, and even built a fan-site for Magic. (Which is now lost in the abyss of internet.) Although I wasn’t a really hard core player, I followed the news and played casually with my classmates. At least until I got occupied by other stuff… (Later it turned out that I was playing during the dark ages of Magic. Masquerade was considered the weakest block of all times…)

Fast forward to today. I am now playing Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 on my iPad and following the release of the latest block: GateCrash. What’s surprising to me is that after 20 years of development, the game hasn’t stalled. I used to think that it was an impossible task to keep adding new mechanics and abilities every year. (We can see from the various online games, new content usually means stats boosting, each block must be stronger than the previous one, otherwise it will just cease to work on the market.) Luckily Magic designers chose to add new ways for cards to work together, instead of relying on boosting existing values. Actually the game is even more varied and interesting than I last played 10 years ago.

In the mean time, I’m listening to the wonderful Drive to Work podcast from magic head designer: Mark Rosewater, which provided me a rare glimpse of the history and development process of Magic. And here are some of the findings:

  • Most core elements of Magic are already in place when Richard Garfield had the first play test version
  • Alpha and Beta version both sold out 6 months’ stock in a week
  • Some of the early blocks are designed by external play testers…
  • Design and Development are two deferent teams. Design for gameplay and mechanics and development for tuning and balancing
  • Common cards are simple, rare cards are more complex but not necessarily more powerful
  • Only 3 to 4 designers work on a Magic block
  • Design is more an iterating process based on playtests. (I had a strange thought that it was based on lots of weights and formulas, I was totally wrong.)

Now looking back at the card list for Alpha, it’s amazing that so many things were done right in the first build. The mana system provided a non-linear value for different cards in different phases of the game.3 The color wheel provided iconic mechanic that goes along with the flavor.4 Combat calculation almost never exceeds single digit arithmetic. And most rules are written plainly on the card itself. Now in the computer age, our designers have way more tools at hand than Magic designers, but we often rely on over-complex systems and artificial progression barriers. And it’s almost impossible to design a collectible card game without the influence Magic.


  1. Portal was the introductory product in the Magic product line, with simple rules and reduced card complexity to appeal to first time gamers. 

  2. Legend is a card type in Magic, usually representing a powerful hero in the plot. 

  3. Early in the game cards with less mana cost is more valuable. Later in the game it’s the other way around. 

  4. Which is similar to the consistency in settings and gameplay of different races in StarCraft. 

My Favorite Game of 2012

Well, it’s Hotline Miami.

It’s kind of hard to describe the experience, and that’s the whole point. Music from the 80s? The glitchy aliased pixel graphic style? The feeling of adrenaline rush every time you kill? The animal masks? The dialogues? It’s a game full of characteristics, that’s for sure.

And back to its core, it’s a very well designed and balanced game. Each weapon feels distinct and realistic. You make decisions in a split second, but the game is always fair and you’re always free to experiment. And it’s only a R button press away from retrying.

And all the tiny details. I’ll never forget the lucky cat waving its hands in the Chinese noodle place… from top view…

And… Be sure to check out the Launch Trailer.

Podcasts

Now that I spend nearly an hour each day commuting to work by bus each day, listening to podcasts has become an essential part of my daily routine. And here are my favorites:

The Vergecast by the Verge crew. Usually informative and sometimes chaotic. I’m a big fan of Verge, this show provides me with details behind the news stories and interviews, and there are always a healthy amount of random and interesting topics.

The Besties by the Polygon crew. Four guys pick the best game of the week. I like it because of its sheer honesty, just personal preference and nothing else, which is becoming increasingly rare in the game press nowadays.

News broke this week that two of my favorite 5by5 shows are ending this year, Build & Analyze by Marco Arment and Hypercritical by John Siracusa. Marco is well known for the willingness of expressing his point of view, about Apple and everything else. John Siracusa is famous for his in-depth knowledge about… basically everything. They will be missed.

This American Life hosted by Ira Glass. It’s one of the most popular radio shows on the internet. My life is filled with too much "tech" news, TAL is here for a change. Each show is composed of several short stories, usually around a central topic, some are touching and some are weird. I always felt learning something new after every episode.

Right now I’m barely able to keep up with all the shows each week. Now that B&A and Hypercritical are ending their run, maybe it’s time to find something new. I’m thinking of short fictions.