Category Archives: Video Games

What’s the point of randomness in Diablo?

The inimitable Matt Wilson has posted some fascinating observations about how Diablo IV might benefit from the application of specific principles from the tabletop RPG world. He mentions, among other things, the game’s struggle to wed a largely linear gameplay experience with procedurally-generated content. 

I’ve been playing Diablo games since the playable demo of the first Diablo game appeared (at the time, I was snobby enough to consider it a shallow ripoff of Nethack. You had to be there!). And here is a question I’ve never been able to answer: 

Why does Diablo bother with randomizing content at all? 

(I should note that I’m not sure whether the proper term to use here is “randomization,” “procedural generation,” or something else. I’ll use “randomization” and those of you who know better can just mentally translate that into the correct term.) 

Randomized content has long been an integral feature of the Diablo series. Randomness in Diablo is used primarily to do (at least) three things: 

  • Randomize the layout of the dungeons and areas you explore 
  • Randomize the architectural features and interactable objects in these areas 
  • Randomize the monsters you encounter as you explore these areas 

(There is another major way that randomization is used—in the distribution of loot and equipment acquired from defeated enemies—but that feels less like procedurally-generated content and more like a carefully-tuned slot machine; while it’s not the type of randomness I’m talking about above, it’s perhaps the only random feature that delivers on its gameplay goals.) 

The problem is that for all these presumably complex systems that randomly generate content and gameplay elements, the randomness has a negligible impact on the experience of playing the game. 

The random layout of the dungeons has little effect on your game experience, as Matt notes: “Oh, they use a lot of art, turns, s-curves, etc. to try to disguise this from you, but every dungeon I saw was either a literal line or a line with one or two small offshoots.” Exactly. Slight tweaks to the ways that identical-looking hallways are connected do not make for a unique experience. 

The random placement of architectural features and interactable objects similarly has little effect on your experience. Diablo dungeons are littered with randomly-placed objects that seem like they might turn the tide of a battle—a collapsible pillar, an explodable barrel, a drop-able chandelier—but they don’t actually do anything meaningful. They never do enough damage, or sufficiently affect the environment, to be worth interacting with instead of just standing there and mashing your attack buttons. 

And likewise, the randomly-placed monsters almost never result in meaningfully different combat experiences. Diablo battles are fast and furious; they’re often so frantic that simply keeping track of what is happening is difficult. Different Diablo monsters might have different powers and weaknesses, but those differences rarely, if ever, prompt you to approach one fight differently from another. In almost all cases, your best strategy is to rush forward while firing your various attacks and spells as rapidly as you can. 

What this all amounts to is that two different people playing through Diablo will never have meaningfully different stories about what they’ve experienced, despite all that randomness. None of the random elements are given enough scope to change your experience of the game, or for the narrow uniqueness of your playthrough experience to even register. 

See? Just like Diablo! (Screenshot from Nethack: Legacy on Steam.)

Contrast this to Diablo’s ancient roguelike ancestor NetHack; in NetHack, two players traveling through level 5 of the same dungeon would have massively different stories to tell about the experience. One player might have been pursued through a maze of twisty passages by a single relentless foe, using spells to survive until they could find the staircase to escape the level; while the other player might have had to dig his way through walls while avoiding hidden traps and fighting off hordes of tiny replicating enemies. Both players had an experience that was recognizably NetHack—they can relate to each other’s experience—but each player has a unique story about what they experienced (as well as a great incentive to replay dungeon level 5 to experience more fresh content). By contrast, two players who fight their way through the Halls of Agony in Diablo 3 would struggle to differentiate their experiences in any meaningful way; the dungeon layouts were different only in a very technical sense, and the fights were all a blur of button-mashing. 

I should note that I don’t exactly mean to criticize Diablo for this. Diablo has its thing that it’s trying to do and it clearly works, since we’re still playing this series a quarter-century after its inception. It’s more that it simply baffles me: why build a complex system of interlocking randomness generators if, at every turn, you restrict the type of experience that randomness can create to a single flatly repetitive gameplay loop? If Diablo’s systems are meant to homogenize the gameplay experience and make it predictable, then the presence of all that randomness feels like a vestigial limb left over from a very different, 25-year-old vision of what Diablo might have been. 

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The dungeon mapper’s lament

In the olden days, mapping a dungeon meant breaking out a stack of graph paper and painstakingly documenting each 10×10′ block. This was true both for paper-and-pencil Dungeons and Dragons games and for early computer RPGs—today most computer games provide in-game maps that track your exploration progress, but back in the First Age you had to play Bard’s Tale with a mapping pencil in hand.

Enter Legend of Grimrock, a throwback computer RPG released this year. Reproducing as it does the gameplay of early computer dungeon crawls, it gives you the option of an “old school” game mode, in which the automatic mapper is disabled and you’re forced to map out your progress on your own.

I couldn’t resist. I’m old-school, right? I’m hardcore. I broke out the graph paper. And I started mapping.

Now, as any old-timer knows, choosing where on the page to start your map is important and tricky. You don’t know which direction the dungeon’s going to extend. So, because my first glimpse of Dungeon Level 1 suggested that it seemed to be oriented in a northerly direction, I started my map in the bottom-center of my sheet of graph paper.

It went well for a few minutes. Then, what’s this? Dangit, the dungeon’s turned east and is headed straight toward the edge of the graph paper sheet.

The star in the large chamber is my starting location.

Sigh. OK, I can deal with this. I’m a seasoned veteran. If the dungeon’s headed east, I’ll skip over to the west side of the page and continue my map from there. It’s not like the dungeon is going to… going to turn back around and head west. NOOOOOOO!

Exactly five squares into this new map section, I got a bad feeling about it.

Now there’s only one place on the page to which I can move the map, since I’ve used the bottom third of the page for notes. Ladies and gentlemen, may I present to you the worst dungeon map ever created?

At least this should get me out of party mapping duty in all future D&D games.

I’ve got to believe that level 2 is going to go better than this.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

That’s impossible! Oh, wait, never mind.

There must be a specialized term (hopefully a ten-syllable German one) to refer to this phenomenon of video gaming:

You spend hours trying in vain to get past a difficult spot in a video game, dying and reloading countless times, and finally quit in frustration—swearing by the Implementors that the game is simply impossible and the game’s creators are sadists.

Then, a few days or months later, you fire up the game again and get past the difficult spot on your first try.

This used to happen to me all the time with Infocom games back in The Day. It happened so frequently that, upon encountering an excruciatingly difficult spot in a game, I’d purposely take a week/month off, knowing that when I did return, the solution would seem trivially easy.

And it doesn’t just happen with insanely difficult Infocom games. Just this week, playing an action shooty game, I got stuck in a battle of such ludicrous difficulty that I actually wondered if it was mathematically possible for the player to survive. I died at least a dozen times before calling it quits. And the next day, I fired it up and breezed through it instantly, easily, on the first try.

I know it’s happened to you too.

So, what do we call it when that happens?

P.S. You want to know one gaming puzzle for which this did not happen? That abominable Royal Puzzle maze in Zork 3. Somebody’s going to burn in the afterlife for that one.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

“We’ll have to destroy them ship-to-ship. Get the crews to their fighters.”

I like library used-book shops, because you never know what you’ll find in them. Usually they’re little more than a closet full of James Patterson novels selling for $.25 each. But the library shop in my parents’ hometown is a good one where my family has made many an unusual discovery over the years.

That trend continued over the holidays; while visiting my parents, we stopped by the library shop and I picked up these two treasures (still shrinkwrapped) for a buck apiece:

Those are two of the most fondly-remembered space simulators in videogame history: X-Wing and TIE Fighter. They came out during the heyday of LucasFilm’s (now LucasArts) game development, before they decided to stop making interesting games and make only mediocre Star Wars titles.

X-Wing and TIE Fighter were, obviously, Star Wars titles, but they weren’t mediocre. Their roots lie in Lawrence Holland’s World War 2 flight simulators, one of which (Their Finest Hour) absorbed many an evening on my Amiga. (Their Finest Hour even came with a 200-page history of the Battle of Britain that I used as the primary source for a high school paper. Hey, it was better than anything in the school library….)

There are plenty of space simulators out there today, but they seem to have slid into a niche below the radar of most gamers. X-Wing and TIE Fighter hearken back to bygone days when, for a glorious stretch of years starting with Wing Commander and (probably) ending with Freespace 2, space combat simulators were the kings of gaming.

So I hope to relive those halcyon days with these two gems. That is, assuming I can find a computer with a floppy disk drive:

What about you? Were you gaming during the Great Space/Flight Simulator glory days? What ships did you pilot to victory?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Punch Out!! retrospective

Linking without commentary to an Onion article is probably not a characteristic of brilliant blogging. But I enjoyed this Onion article too much not to do my part to spread it around the web: New Mike Tyson Documentary Features Exclusive Interviews With Super Macho Man, King Hippo.

From the article:

“Tyson was the toughest fighter in the boxing game at the time, but he was also the first fighter to pay attention to patterns and warning signals,” Yoneyama said. “Before he came on the scene, no one realized that opponents sometimes raise their eyebrows or twinkle the gem in the middle of their turban immediately before throwing a punch.”

Tyson himself admits that it was his incessant blinking—the only time he showed any weakness in the ring—that ultimately lead to his demise.

Is there any male in my age bracket—let’s say 25-40—who doesn’t have fond memories of that game?Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Sudden death and the Super Mario Bros.

Here it is, the most frustrating Super Mario Bros. level ever. I can’t stop laughing–it’s sadistic level design at its best. Every time the player (who must have the patience of a saint) gets past one hurdle, he’s rewarded with sudden and unavoidable death from another angle.

It actually reminds me of one of the less enjoyable aspects of many early text and graphic adventure games. It wasn’t uncommon in some adventure games to be killed without warning by a trap or enemy that you had no way of anticipating or avoiding. The only way to avoid death was to reload the game (you did save your game, right?) after having been killed and steer clear of whatever room or activity resulted in instant death. While the threat of unannounced death did add a certain tension to the gaming experience, it wasn’t fun at all to be killed without receiving any advance warning that your character was in danger.

The manuals for these games were filled with exhortations to save your game often to minimize the rage you would feel upon having to replay giant chunks of the game after an unexpected death. As adventure games became more sophisticated, designers got better at providing advance warning (sometimes subtle, but any warning was better than none) that your character was in mortal danger. It was much easier to accept your character’s death if you at least felt that you had been given a fair shot at avoiding it.

These days, most games have some form of auto-save mechanic that saves your progress for you as you advance, reducing the need to continually save the game manually. But back in the old days, when we had to walk uphill to school both ways and there was only enough space for eight saved games on an Infocom disk and death could come at any time for any reason… well, I guess I’m glad we’ve moved beyond that particular aspect of the Good Old Days.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Best. games. ever?

OK, maybe not the best games, but the most important games. A panel of game industry luminaries has put together a list of the ten most important games of all time. The games are:

Spacewar! (1962), Star Raiders (1979), Zork (1980), Tetris (1985), SimCity (1989), Super Mario Bros. 3 (1990), Civilization I/II (1991), Doom (1993), Warcraft series (beginning 1994) and Sensible World of Soccer (1994).

Seems like a pretty reasonable list–it’s interesting to try and identify games that were really important in advancing new gameplay ideas, as opposed to just ranking them based on popularity or nostalgia. (Although obviously most of the important games also happened to be popular ones.)

I see two possible holes in the list, however. One is that there really isn’t a full-blown computer RPG represented on the list–you could say that RPGs grew out of the adventure genre, but the computer RPG genre of the mid-80s and later really evolved into something unique. I’d nominate Ultima IV for the list–not only was it an enormously important RPG, but it was also one of the first games to successfully incorporate a coherent moral worldview into gameplay.

Secondly, and more debatably, I wonder if there shouldn’t be a graphic adventure game on that list somewhere. Granted, they evolved out of text adventures as did RPGs, but their use of graphics to enhance otherwise typical adventure gameplay had a big impact on later games and genres. I’d probably nominate King’s Quest I for that honor.

(But then, I guess nobody really asked me, did they?)Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather

Violence and bloodshed and videogames, oh my

Good and thorough thoughts on video games and real-life violence over at the Empires of Steel developer’s diary. (A week or two ago, I was privileged to discuss this very topic with Mr. EoS Developer over a cup of coffee.) He’s tracked down some statistics about murder and other violent crime rates since Doom and its ilk kicked off the “violent video game” genre–go check it out. As they say, it’s hard to argue with the facts.

Video game violence and its relationship to real-world violence is a topic I feel strongly about, but I’ve resisted the urge to get on the soapbox here about it. This is a topic where I genuinely feel that people on both sides of the argument have something worthwhile to say–the relationship between game violence and real-life violence is correlative at best, but on the other hand there really is some disturbingly anti-social behavior depicted in games and I find it hard to believe that doesn’t affect our cultural soul, if not our crime rates.

But for over a decade now, the entire debate has been mired in the increasingly ridiculous debate over whether games “cause” real-life violence. Until we can get past this overly-simple idea, we’ll never have a meaningful discussion about the questions we should be asking, and which have a hope of leading to productive answers.

Why does gaming culture purchase and sometimes even celebrate games with extreme violence and anti-social content? Why does the gaming media often promote and review ultra-violent games without asking serious questions about their social value? What can the game community do to draw more attention to the many, many non-disturbingly-violent games out there? Can, and should, the game industry/community encourage developers to consider the social value of their games before making them? If gamers are willing to buy ultra-violent games, does mean that it’s morally acceptable to make those games, since developers are just meeting market demand? If parents are seemingly failing to perform due diligance when it comes to the violent video games their kids are playing, is it reasonable to ask the government to intervene? If violent video games do not cause crime, do they have any other negative societal impact?

Those are questions I’d like to see asked. But in the public/political sphere, at least, everybody seems to be content to have the same old “Video games turn your kids into killers!” “No they don’t!” “Yes they do!” argument. Wake me up in twenty years, when video games are either illegal, or we’ve progressed past this pointless bickering.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedinmailby feather