Monday, June 29, 2015

The Gamer Identity

The whole "gamer" thing is making the rounds around the blogosphere again, as it is wont to do. Murf talks about his perspective in that being a gamer to him is, "you both love games and want to broaden that love." Ravanel over at Ravalations echoes this, and talks about adding the label "girl" to "gamer".

Whatever you believe "gamer" means, at the end of the day you're applying a label to yourself which you can easily describe part of your identity. Wikipedia describes Identity from a sociological/psychological bent thusly:
[I]dentity is a person's conception and expression of their own (self-identity) and others' individuality or group affiliations (such as national identity and cultural identity).
Identification of others and who/what you identify as are very important in human cultures. These labels allow you to quickly communicate to others what you believe makes you, well, you. Identity can be very much core to who you are; you can have many identities, and you can eschew identifying as something if you feel it doesn't apply or don't believe plays a large role in who you are, even if someone else believes it should.


If you're a male in a large family you may identify as a father, a husband, a son, and a brother simultaneously. You may also identify as a sports fan, a dancer, a gamer, and a knitter. When meeting someone, what identity you present first in that context would hint as to what you think the most important part of your identity is: at your daughter's ballgame, you'd likely introduce yourself as a father; at a hockey arena, you'd probably identify as a sports fan; on Kotaku's forums, you'd probably identify yourself as a gamer. You may not identify with all of your own labels equally, either. You may put more weight on being a programmer versus being a dancer, for example.

I grew up playing games of all sorts. We had an Atari--which I destroyed in my infinite 3 year old wisdom trying to put stuff in the cartridge slot because that's what my parents did to make it work--and shortly after a Nintendo. I grew up on Super Mario Brothers, Tetris, Duck Hunt, Dragon Warrior, Sonic the Hedgehog, Final Fantasy, and so on. Our household was big into games for the most part. In my teens I was massively into D&D and even wrote my own pen and paper RPG. As an adult, I play board games, video games, role-playing games, you name it.

As one may guess, I very strongly identify as a gamer. I love games. I love how expressive they can be, their interactivity, the stories they tell, the neat mechanics the can exhibit, and so on. I've devoted my education and career to making them, and my blog to writing about and dissecting them.

I also identify as other things. I'm a computer scientist by education and a software engineer by trade. I'm a friend, I'm a Canadian, I'm an uncle. Coincidentally I'm writing this blog post as the Seattle Pride parade goes by my window (it's been going 4 hours, for the record, so I figured I'd seen enough to do something else), and I identify as gay, or even "gaymer" or gay gamer. But gamer itself is probably most core to who I am and what drives me.

Identity Going Mainstream Feels Like It's Under Attack

Identity is a tricky beast, though, because it can be so core to who you are, whether you think about it consciously or subconsciously. When someone attacks your identity, you often can feel it personally. Especially if that label is by far your primary identity.

For gaming, an easy thing to bring up here is Jack Thompson's crusade against video games, trying to get them banned. As television news like FOX derided gaming and gamers as an identity, it was clear that something we loved was very much under attack. Thankfully, Mr. Thompson got himself disbarred.

When we look at the "Gamers are Dead" fiasco last year, a number of people felt attacked. While the articles themselves generally talked about how the stereotypical neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd (I say this as a neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd myself) isn't something the companies need to target specifically anymore because there are so many more people interested in games now--basically, what makes a "gamer" is a broader net than it was previously--the titles were a deliberate and direct attack on the "gamer" identity.

The push back on "SJW" values can also be viewed as a lashing out at something people feel is threatening their identity. The broadening of gaming culture to the mainstream means that gaming as a refuge becomes diluted in a sense. It was something that felt "ours" in the 80s and 90s, and now in the 2010s gaming "belongs" to everyone (assuming it could "belong" to anyone to begin with), and with that broadening comes new ideas and different sensibilities. Ideas and sensibilities that may not jive with the previous gamer demographic; they claim ownership of the term "gamer" and therefore ideas from outside of what they consider to be a gamer are treated as an outsider's point of view at best, and hostile at worst.

That expansion is akin to other privileges being broadened to apply to more people--like gender becoming irrelevant to being married. The privileged may feel threatened because they're no longer a unique or special group, even if they were pariahs like gamers used to be. You also actually see this within the LGBT community as well, as more letters get added to the acronym. You see folks deriding it as "alphabet soup".

Saw this posted on a friend's Facebook page.
Gaming isn't the only thing to go mainstream. What gamers see today has occurred to grunge, rock and roll, fantasy literature, EDM, and so on.

Hybrid Identities

I talked about being a gay gamer. Ravanel talked about being a girl gamer. Folks talk about being American versus 2nd Generation Chinese-American. For those who express hybrid identities, neither really takes precedence. Being a girl and being a gamer are both important aspects of Ravanel, as expressed by her. Someone who states they are Chinese-American as opposed to just Chinese, or just American, is communicating they believe both aspects of themselves are important in that context.

Bhagpuss left a comment on Ravanel's blog (emphasis mine):
Nope, I think these labels are odd and unhelpful. I much prefer "I play games" to "I am a gamer". The term "girl gamer" however, has a completely different set of values attached, I think. I always see that as a feminist statement, part of the long tradition of reclaiming, owning and subverting negative stereotypes. I'd say calling yourself a "girl gamer" is an overtly political act the way just calling yourself a "gamer" probably wouldn't be, although the hobby of gaming itself seems to be developing its own political infrastructure so maybe even that distinction won't hold for long.
You hear that kind of sentiment all the time. Why segregate yourselves? Why say Black Lives Matter, don't all lives matter? Why do gay people need a Pride festival specifically for them? Why can't we all just be gamers?

Keeping everything else I wrote above in mind, calling oneself a girl gamer isn't any more a political statement than calling oneself a gamer is. At least, it shouldn't be. It's simply a statement that you identify as a girl and a gamer relatively equally in that context. But we don't hear folks identifying themselves as straight gamers, or boy gamers, so why identify as gay or girl along with gamer?

Because--and you'll probably know I'll say this before I say it--male and straight is the default, especially in gaming. When someone says "gamer" the stereotype of the neck-bearded basement-dwelling nerd still comes up in popular culture, despite the fact that it's not representative of the gaming populace as a whole (though there are some of us that do fit that image, and that's not a bad thing). So by using a hybrid identity, you are distancing yourself from that default, and that isn't a bad thing either. Gamers aren't some unified ideological bloc, nor should they be.

But let's get one thing clear: identifying as a gamer is a political statement, as much as identifying as a girl or gay gamer is, or as a Chinese-American, or Christian or Atheist. When you say you're a gamer, you're communicating that gaming and the culture that surrounds gaming is important to you. That when you're acting as a consumer in the market, you'll likely lean in a certain direction financially (generally, towards games). That when you're acting as a voter, you'll likely lean in the direction that enables games in society, or that gaming and gaming-related policies will be of great interest to you. You might not be out actively crusading for it, but you're making a statement nonetheless.

So for those who do call themselves gamers (which I note to ensure no confusion, Bhagpuss very much did not), to say that adding "girl", "gay", "black", "trans", whatever to gamer is a political statement is a grossly hypocritical statement. They likely don't realize they're being hypocritical, as they clearly don't realize that even identifying as a gamer is a political statement (to be fair, I doubt any identity label isn't a political statement), but nonetheless, they're applying a different set of rules to others by doing so.

And also note, gamer itself as a label isn't a default in society, either. So to those outside the gaming community, "gamer" is something that may come off as a self-segregation, exactly the thing that hybrid gamer identities get accused of by many gamers. At the end of the day, they're both just labels.


Some folks claim they hate labels. To pick on Bhagpuss a little more (sorry!), while he clearly doesn't identify with "gamer" (totally okay!) and he believes such a label to be "odd and unhelpful", he likely uses other labels in his life. I'd honestly be shocked to find a human that isn't using a label to identify themselves in one way or another.

Yes, you need to be careful about generalizing based on labels, and you need to be even more careful about applying your own labels on others rather than taking what identities they espouse. But like any other tool, such identification can be useful when used judiciously

So yeah, I identify as a gamer, among many other things. But gaming is core to what I love, and therefore it's good enough for me. #Gamer, #Sociology

Monday, June 22, 2015

[FFXIV] Flying Through Heavensward

Having opted into the Heavensward Early Access, the past weekend has been super fun binging on excellent MMO content. Well, when you can beat the lobby login boss, anyhow. My Paladin is 58, 20% away from 59 (max is 60), and I've been having a blast following the story, getting flight in each zone, and running dungeons and trials. 

Lots of screens ahead, so putting in a jump!

Monday, June 15, 2015

[E3] I Don't Want a Straight-Up Remake of Final Fantasy VII

So one of the biggest jaw-dropping, pant-shitting moments of E3 so far has been Sony's announcement that an FF7 remake is finally on the way. Here's the trailer from YouTube if you haven't seen it:

Chills, right? The right music, the right visuals, the right levels of suspense, and the reveal at the end make the child inside me scream in joy and weep in anticipation. FF7 was released over 18 years ago. 18! There are adults out there who are younger than this game.

The thing that made FF7 for me was the music, the characters, and the story. To be brutally honest, the gameplay is kinda dull. It's very classic Squaresoft JRPG, and don't get me wrong, I actually rather enjoyed the trappings of the Materia system. Hell, I managed to nail Ruby and Emerald Weapons to the floor with Cloud sporting 12 fully leveled Counter Attack Materia, along with a couple HP Plus and Cover, which meant anytime someone attacked, Cloud would counter for 12x9999ish damage. I broke that system inside-out.

But the system is quite simple. Combat is mostly just holding down the Confirm button and letting your party auto-attack its way to victory. Swapping out Materia sets was annoying. Having a 200 Materia limit was archaic. Aside from gysahl greens, elixirs, and maybe an ether or two, your inventory was largely ignorable.

I think the game has some solid underpinnings, but the execution of combat just wasn't that great or exciting to be perfectly frank. FFX's combat system is a bajillion times more engaging and complex than FF7.

So here's my hope: that Square Enix takes a few liberties. Don't screw with the characters or the story, aside from redoing the translation (Final Fantasy Tactics shows a redone translation can heighten the game story from Great to Magnificent). Make the art all pretty, fully 3D zones to explore rather than the pre-painted areas (though even FFXIII had some areas that may as well have been hand-painted, so perhaps they won't change that too much).

But combat? Jazz it up. Modernize it. The sacred cow of FF7's combat in my opinion is the Materia system. Keep it, expand upon it, modify it. Don't just leave it as is.

We see remake upon remake, but what I want from FF7 isn't just a remake, but a re-imagining from a game design perspective. I think there's just so much that can be done here, and it'd be a shame to just deliver the exact same game with better art.
#FF7, #E3

Wednesday, June 10, 2015

[Final Fantasy Record Keeper] Exploit Softens Terrible Game Design

For the past 3 months I've played a lot of Final Fantasy Record Keeper. It's a mobile game where you end up having to save the Final Fantasy worlds by battling it out with their enemies/bosses brought to life. It's a bit of nonsense story-wise, but the game itself is...well, somewhat fun generally with moments of great fun, but mostly satisfying I guess?

What is FFRK?

The gist is you collect characters from FF games, gather gear to wear and upgrade, collect orbs to build and upgrade abilities, to take on more and more difficult challenges. It plays (preys?) upon nostalgia quite effectively, as everyone has been given the sprite treatment (if they hadn't been sprites already) and backgrounds, music, victory music, enemies, bosses, and gear are from the Final Fantasy games.

Where the collecting is interesting is it's easy to get characters, collecting orbs for abilities just takes time, and gear is where they use the gacha-style shop to pay for pulls. But they're pretty free with the currency to make pulls all around. I've made 4 11-pulls so far with their currency, Mythril, which if I had paid for it would've cost me $120. But characters and gear are more powerful when you're fighting in the realm they're from. Example: you want to fight an FF6 boss, so bring along Terra and she basically has +10 levels worth of stats. Equip Tidus from FFX with an FF6 piece of armor, and the armor would provide a lot more defense.

Items with Record Synergy for the realm you're in are highlight blue, and characters have a blue aura.
This Realm Synergy makes collecting highly satisfying, because it allows you to take on challenges more difficult than you would be able to otherwise. But almost more important than stats are the abilities. Each character can bring along two abilities, based on that character (ie: Celes can bring Spellblade and lower level Black Magic, whereas Locke can bring Thievery and some lower level Combat abilites), so boss fights become a puzzle. Should I bring elemental magic? Should I bring status effects? Defensive abilities?

Terrible Game Design Choices

This sounds like the basis of a somewhat interesting game, and indeed, FFRK is at its best when it's giving you those puzzle elements. However, the game as a whole is marred extremely by massive difficulty spikes and horrendous RNG. Because of how stats work, and how Realm Synergy plays into things, there's a limited window of opportunity where "difficulty" is meaningfully encountered.

It takes a little luck with equipment, but it's relatively easy to overpower lower encounters to the point where the gameplay is simply where you choose to spend your stamina. Otherwise, auto-battle it out (made even easier by a recent change to give you battle speed, which is a nice convenience function). Mind you, you can choose lower level characters to give you a challenge and them some experience points, but since equipment and abilities can be moved pretty easily, that's tempered rather quickly.

Later on, the difficulty spikes immensely. Random battles become a herculean task unto themselves, where you will be cursing your Black Mage for getting two attacks in a row that you couldn't think of countering and watching him die. Oh, and you get penalized for taking too much damage or too many deaths by getting less experience at the end. That being said, having some difficulty isn't a bad thing. There are definitely cases where I'm clearly attempting to bat above my weight class, and that's okay that I'm getting demolished. Smart usage of abilities mitigates that quite a bit.

But the RNG, holy cow. I realize that DeNA wants to push people to use money on battles, but some of the RNG is absolutely stupid. Enemy AI isn't terribly bright. The grand majority have a list of attacks, and each attack effectively has a percentage chance to activate each turn. Many of them are entirely unfair, with absolutely no way to counter it.

One such ability, until recently, was insta-kill attacks. Oh sure, you could resurrect the character, but your performance was penalized severely for an attack you literally could do nothing about. Thankfully DeNA has softened that stance recently and only penalize you for dead characters at the end of combat, allowing you to react to the damage at least.

Another such insanity were some enemies that cast an ability called "Gale". Gale is an AoE attack that reduced your entire party to 5% of their maximum health, regardless of how much health you had. Often, another enemy on screen would attack just after and kill a character. Outside of a single character's Soul Break (like Limit Breaks), there are no AoE heals in FFRK. Oh, and one of the things you were penalized for is total damage taken, which a single use of this attack would reduce your performance score to zilch on that count.

Gale is unadulterated bullshit.
A second example was a level where random enemies had a 75% chance to spam Tsunami, and often times two of them would do it, taking out half your party's health and there was nothing you could do about it because you didn't have a chance to set up defenses.

So in the face of such enemy "tactics" alone I'd have given up in frustration long ago. You start battles with your ATB bars filled at random, so sometimes enemies could kill you off before you had a chance to react and set up defenses. Sometimes enemies had unfair attacks period. Combined, there were fights that made me want to throw my iPad through a wall in frustration.

Exploiting a Feature to "Fix" the Game Design

But there is a workaround! To keep people from losing stamina when internet cut out or the app crashed, or someone had to walk away, the game stores the state at the beginning of each individual combat on the server. However, if you cut out in the middle of a given combat, and the app reloaded, you'd be back at the beginning of that combat. The FFRK Reddit community calls this the Save/Load Exploit (or S/L for short). Basically, this allows you to restart any given individual combat without eating your limited stamina, working around bullshit starts (or mistakes).

Enemies killed your Black Mage before you could act? S/L. Gale? S/L. Missed Blinding the boss 4 times in a row because the stupid ability only has a 10% activation rate? S/L. You still need to complete the puzzle aspect, because you can't just waltz into a difficult boss with any combination of gear, characters, or abilities, but if the game didn't have this exploit? I'd have probably stopped playing long ago.

I've spent some money, $30, for a single 11-pull, because I felt I had enough enjoyment to do so. The nostalgia factor with the music, the bosses, and the characters has been very satisfying. I enjoy the puzzle aspect of many of the bosses. I'm okay with some aspect of P2W with pulling gear, especially since they're quite generous with handing out currency as you complete content. And the fact that abilities are just a factor of time and digging up the right orbs is great, meaning even free-to-play accounts can do quite a bit--the Reddit community has a number of strict F2P players who've managed to complete the hardest content in the game, so kudos to them.

But the sheer RNG and some enemy ability bullshit factors are frustrating in the extreme, and the widespread usage of the S/L exploit to combat it tells me that it's not good game design, but likely a way to milk players. Thankfully, DeNA probably won't be able to "fix" this exploit without screwing over legitimate disconnects and the like, so I don't see it changing anytime soon. I would prefer, however, that DeNA fix some of the egregious terrible combat issues instead. A little judicious use of better AI would certainly help, as would just not designing bullshit "AI wins!" abilities. Until then, I'll keep using S/L so I can enjoy the rest of the game. #FFRK, #GameDesign, #Exploits