Wednesday, 25 September 2013

Dungeon Hunter 4 and the Death of Innocence

When I was a young child my dad brought home a games console. This was before the days of the Atari 2600 and, to be honest he'd probably picked it up at a market, knowing him, but it played different varieties of pong and I loved it. My brother and I would spend hours laid out in front of our black and white telly, with rhythmic beeping and shouts of triumph providing a backdrop to many a Saturday afternoon. 

Fast forward 30+ years and, yes, I may have kids of my own and more responsibilities than I ever thought possible but I still play games whenever I can. I've championed them to my friends, defended them against their detractors and encouraged others to play them.  Games are joyous things in my opinion.  So much more involving than TV or film; they encourage participation, lay down challenges for their players to overcome
 and the best ones draw you in and make you a part of their story in a way that no other medium can achieve. 

And this, really, is why I get so supremely pissed off with things like Dungeon Hunter 4.

Dungeon Hunter 4 is an example of a genre which seems to occur in mobile gaming most of all - free to play. I have no idea why this is the case (although examples do appear on PC at times) but if I had to guess I would say that this payment model is seen as the perfect fit for an audience which tends to play in short bursts over extended periods, whilst travelling or during breaks at work. Free to play, as the name implies, means that you can play the game for free, usually with optional upgrades or equipment available to buy from an in-game shop for real life cash. This means that you can try it and then invest money in it later if you like - that's your choice. Sounds good, doesn't it?

The game itself is a top down action RPG. It reminds me a bit of Gauntlet, if you remember that. There are 4 classes - heavy warrior, light bouncy martial artist “son of the east” type warrior, a mage warrior and an archer... warrior. You are some kind of chosen one, obviously, and it's your job to fight the demons and save the world and all that usual stuff. You do this by travelling about killing things and getting gold and occasionally going to towns and having conversations with a series of stock fantasy game type characters. You can buy new equipment from local shopkeepers, as well as from a kind of over-arching ever-present cosmic uber shop which we'll talk about later; and you can craft new items or improve the ones you have by embedding charms in them. Similarly you can improve your character by gaining experience, levelling up and allocating points to skills in pretty standard RPG fashion.

And this, really, is my first problem with this game. It's like the designers had a checklist. "Crafting? Yeah, yeah, we got the crafting. Gems? Yeah man, gems are there. OK then, basic RPG mechanics? Don't insult me man! Who the hell doesn't have basic RPG mechanics these days? Sheesh! Basic RPG mechanics! What do you think I am, some kind of idiot?” To be honest my attitude to this may be coloured by my feelings about other parts of the game but it comes across as fantasy by numbers, as if they could just change a few variables and it would be set in the future, or any other milieu.

There are also some basic control issues. I played as a Sentinel (which is the archer warrior type) and my arrows would often fly out in exactly the opposite direction to what I intended. The game gives you two virtual thumbsticks with which to control your character and the movement works fine but attacking didn't for me - especially when things got a bit frantic.

However, my main problem with Dungeon Hunter 4 is the free to pay model that it uses. There are 2 types of currency in the game - gold and gems. You get gold in the usual way, by killing monsters and looting chests but gems must be bought with actual real money, or earned by completing challenges or advertising the game on social media.

Now I fully understand that people want to be paid for their work and I have absolutely no problem with that, but I find the free to pay (or freemium) thing problematic in lots of ways. I mean, it may be there as a response to piracy (in which case maybe think about this horror of a game the next time you look at your favourite torrent site), but it's quite obvious that lots of horrible people have done lots of horrible research and decided that this is the best way to market their horrible game. They wouldn't do it otherwise. People have said that gamers who object to freemium are being snobby, that 'casual gamers' (which is a pretty depressing term) are seen as mindless sheep being led to the next credit card transaction while the hardcore remain gloriously aloof. My mum plays Candy Crush and all I will say is that you have obviously never met her if you think that this model rings true. Anyway, it's not about 'casual' and 'hardcore', it's about a game being built entirely around advertising, it's about a game being bare-facedly after your cash, it's about the end of that glorious childhood obsession with fun and the sad realisation that this is what's left.

Here's an example. When you start up Dungeon Hunter 4 you see an advert for an item to buy which will 'make your life easier'. Skip past that and choose 'continue' from the map and you see a loading screen, with another advert for another item. When that has finished loading the game tells you to 'touch the screen to continue' and THE ADVERT STARTS TO FLASH. As if that is the icon you need to press. Hours and hours of playing games, all of your conditioning, tells you that you need to press the flashing icon but you don't, it's just an advert. In fact you need to press anywhere else and this continues throughout. Every time you see a loading screen there's an advert. Every time you try to buy anything there are massively powerful items there on sale in exchange for real money and you can access the shop at any time, it has its own button. It's like trying to play Monopoly while a weird dog who has been fully trained in "closing out opportunities" and "maintaining his pipeline" is dry humping your leg. It even tells you you're missing out if you don't take it up on its fabulous offers. It's your loss! Buy this shit you fucking loser! Jesus Christ, I don’t play games to get told off.

I just want to be your friend.  And sell you stuff.
And it's not just the advertising. This need to get money from you even permeates the game's structure itself. This ranges from the incidental (taking charms out of equipment or merging them takes time and this can be skipped by paying some cash) through the important (healing potions replenish over time but can also, of course, be bought) to the absolutely fundamental (how can you, as a developer, optimise the difficulty of your game when half of your players will be using normal equipment and the other half will have spent money in order to get the best stuff?). A game shouldn't be designed like this, the way it actually works shouldn't be aimed specifically at parting the player from their cash and this is why freemium is so annoying. Games like this are not real. They're just a framework on which to hang a generic, formulaic skin with the sole target of making as much money as possible. Fun isn't the most important thing anymore; achievement, story, emotional engagement... all of these things aren't the prime focus of creating this game, this is all about taking your money from you as efficiently as possible.

And I find this so depressing. When my dad brought home that console this is not how I wanted things to turn out. I wanted endless Saturday afternoons laid in front of the telly, stretching away to infinity. Instead I've got this abomination masquerading as a game, thrusting its unmentionables at my leg whilst imploring me to take it up on its amazing deals. This isn’t gaming, this isn’t even a game – this is purely a marketing opportunity, a sales pitch, a soulless imitation of the real thing. And that is something pretty sad.

Saturday, 7 September 2013

Knights of Pen and Paper +1

 Knights of Pen and Paper + 1 is a game about a game.  A traditional pen and paper role playing game more specifically, with a dungeon master (or games master or whatever you want to call him) and 5 players exploring a fantasy world.  You control the players (and to some extent the DM) and move through a story full of in-jokes and knowing references, doing battle with lots of monsters and completing lots of quests.  It has a very set format but is also quite innovative in its structure - but is this enough to keep your interest to the end?

In KOPAP you choose your characters from 6 initial classes and these are all pretty standard fare.  There's a warrior, a druid, a cleric, a rogue, a mage and a paladin.  Nothing too remarkable.  However, each character also has an associated player, and these choices are a bit more unusual.  You can pick a rocker, a local school teacher or your little brother; your dad, your sister or even a wolfman and the neighbourhood alien.  All of these players come with different bonuses, and combining them with the various classes vastly increases the number of options available to you.  I guess that they fulfil the same role as races in a more traditional RPG.  You start by being able to only add a couple of characters, but this increases to 5 as you get more gold, and you can also unlock more classes during your adventures.  Unfortunately your party will probably already be full when you do this, but you can swap your characters at a tavern if you want to.

 Each character has 4 skills which they can use during combat, and these usually consist of a passive skill (so the rogue can poison his dagger to increase damage, for example) and 3 that can be used in a fight, and their weapons and armour can be upgraded along a linear path by a blacksmith found in towns and villages.  This adds various bonuses as it is improved such as increasing the health of a character or the amount of hit points they regenerate in a turn.  Your options are quite limited as there is only one possible upgrade, but each character can also equip up to 4 other items such as rings or clothing - which gives you a few more possibilities.

So, once you've created your party you are ready to begin the game.  You can see the room in which you are playing, but also the world that the DM is describing and different monsters will appear in different settings as you proceed.  And you can also use the gold you earn in the game (or buy with real cash) to get things like furniture for the “real world” room or pets, snacks and drinks which all confer different bonuses to your characters in the actual game.  This is kind of central to the whole thing, you are playing 5 people playing a game, so there are 2 levels of reality which can both be influenced by you.  It's all a bit “meta” and this is referenced throughout - with the lines between the different worlds often being blurred or crossed by the story.

The world of pen and paper itself is made up of a series of locations, each containing a number of quests for the party to complete.  Travelling between locations costs gold and takes time and also opens the party up to that eternal favourite of old school RPGs - the random encounter.  Every time the party moves the game rolls a dice and, if the result is too low, then monsters appear and attack.  Combat is pretty simple - initiative is assigned and then characters and monsters take turns to attack, heal or use their different abilities.  You can pick which enemy to target, but there's no positioning or other tactics.  There's not even a chance to miss - every attack and spell hits - so it's very much a numbers game.

And, in fact, combat is one of the game's main problems, which is unfortunate as it is also one of its main activities.  It's just too simple.  I found that I was using the same abilities over and over again as it didn't make sense to do it any other way, and this made fights very boring very quickly.  I mean, yes, occasionally I might have to heal somebody and I found some stuff useful that I initially disregarded but, 9 times out of 10, I would work my way through my opponents one at a time until they were all gone.  It became a process, almost work and certainly a grind, which wasn't helped by how similar all the enemies were.  They might look different, they might even have different resistances to various attacks, but the process of actually defeating them was pretty much always exactly the same.  Oh and, while we're here, you can kill a phoenix with fire in this game.  Uhuh, a magical bird made entirely out of fire, who makes its nest in an effing volcano can be hurt by fire.  Go figure.

So, combat is annoying, and this is made worse by how often the game forces you to fight.  I'm going to give it the benefit of the doubt and say that the quests are an ironic nod to the inanity of traditional RPGs but there's a lot of fetching, escorting and killing x number of monsters.  And, quite apart from this, every time you travel whilst escorting or protecting you fight an encounter at each stage of the journey.  Every. Time.  And any fight cancels your selected quest, so you have to re-select your destination from the map (until it is cancelled again on the next move).  AND it does this even if you're massively overpowered for that area.  So you can be taking somebody back to their village or whatever and be constantly confronted by packs of 2 giant rats which you kill by breathing heavily on them.  It's ridiculous and annoying and unnecessary.

However, this is not to say that the game is devoid of challenge, some of the dungeons in particular can be quite tricky until you (sob) grind for a bit to increase your level, but that the challenge is so uneven that it makes the Himalayas look like the Norfolk Broads.  Well, I say "challenge".  What I mean is "loads more hit points and a bit more damage" because this is the other really standard trap that this game falls into.  To be fair to the developers combat is so simple that I'm not sure what other options are available to them but the amount of damage that monsters can absorb increases exponentially throughout.  This is not an uncommon problem, it is even a bit understandable within the restrictions of this game but it makes an already tedious encounter system almost unbearable.

KOPAP manages to combine bad things from old style games (like random encounters) with bad things from the new (like an aggro system and rogues who have had all of their subtlety removed and are there purely as a damage outputter).  It limits your  characters to 4 set abilities and their armour and weapon choices to a purely linear upgrade path.  It sets you inane tasks and makes you jump through needless hoops to complete them and it made me question, seriously, what I was doing with my life as I sat there tapping a touchscreen repeatedly in order to kill a monster; knowing that I was going to have to do exactly the same thing again as soon as this one was dead.  There's not even any decent loot.

So why did I finish it?  I'm a grown man, I'm able to make my own decisions.. what happened?  To be honest I don't know.  The graphics are quite nice if, you know, you're not totally sick of that whole "retro 8 bit" thing by now.  It doesn't take itself very seriously, which is good.  The story is OK and there are lots of references to things which are important to geeks - they’re not especially funny but it's something I suppose.  I think that maybe it just appeals to the lizard part of your brain that appreciates repetitive tasks, or maybe I just wanted to see what happened at the end.  Whatever, I did finish it, but that isn't something I'm especially proud of.  It’s not a total disaster, and it has a certain charm, but it’s a pretty sad indictment that I just want to get this review done so I never have to think about it again. 

Knights of Pen & Paper is definitely available on PC and Android.  Probably on iOS too, but I can’t be bothered to check.