Strange Symmetra: Accretive Design in Overwatch

Symmetra_Overwatch_001Symmetra is the most strangely-designed character in Blizzard’s Overwatch. In a game where most heroes’ roles can be summed up in a few words (“fast flanker,” “mobile area-denial tank,” “AOE healer,” “slowing defender”) and their story concepts naturally arise from their roles (“time-traveling jet pilot,” “leaping electric gorilla,” “portable DJ,” “cute ice Satan”1), Symmetra makes little sense.

She builds many tiny sentries, gives minor shields to allies, builds teleporters, and can attack with either a short-range cumulative auto-aim beam or a slow-moving death orb. This is explained by her being a combination architect and sci-fi construction worker, shaping solid forms out of light. She is the only character with “photonic” technology, and it is not explained how being able to project physical holograms also lets you bend space and time to craft a teleportation portal.

I have no special insight into the Overwatch design process, but I can speculate with some confidence about how it proceeded. Symmetra (and indeed all the heroes) were not designed from the ground up. They were assembled using an accretive process, where abilities were assembled piecemeal and then unified with a story-based concept.
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  1. I find Mei infuriating to play against.

Audacious Compassion Podcast

My partner Melissa and I have started a new project: a monthly podcast called Audacious Compassion about how to demonstrate empathy in difficult everyday situations. The first episode, “Go Buy a Caddy,” is up and you can subscribe via RSS or iTunes. You can even rate us five stars on iTunes if you like!
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Challenge is a Calibration

I’ve read one too many “git gud” posts arguing that challenge is essential to games and that including an easy mode on, say, Dark Souls would ruin it; if you don’t want a hard game, don’t play Dark Souls. They’re wrong. Firstly, challenge isn’t an inherent aspect of games: it’s just one way of evoking certain player responses. Challenge is partly a personal preference thing: some people want a smooth experience and I do think that Dark Souls is a poor choice for that, and that experiencing Dark Souls as a cake walk won’t let you understand Dark Souls.

But that’s not the point. My perspective was summarized pretty eloquently by Rob Fearon but I feel like it can be distilled even further. The argument: what is hard for you might not be hard for me.

Look at it this way.

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The Transformative Power of Good Writing – Wolfenstein: The New Order

Wolfenstein: The New Order, developed by MachineGames and published by Bethesda, should have been awful. If you’d asked me before release, I’d have predicted that the ninth game in a franchise, an alternate-history game set in the 1960s where the Nazis won World War II, featuring B.J. Blazkowicz as a recovered locked-in veteran, would only be good for a few hot takes and maybe some mediocre shooting with nose firmly held.

Instead, this game is one of the best I’ve played. It’s not just great, it’s well-crafted. That is to say that, beyond the things that appeal to my personal preferences (alternate history, cool sci-fi, a diverse cast, a dark tone, a considered pace) it shows great skill in how it executes what it sets out to do.

The credit for this success belongs to various factors—the expressive visual art, the excellent voice acting, and the well-polished rule systems—but more than anything, it’s thanks to the excellent writing.

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Ossuary in Steam Summer Sale 2016

Our 2013 game Ossuary is currently on sale for $7.49 on Steam!

Blog Summer Sale 2016 Offer

I wrote all of Ossuary and released it with my partner as the first project of Future Proof Games. It’s a little game that’s pixelly and funny and strange. You’re a newcomer to a macabre philosophical underworld, and to escape you have to solve conversation-based puzzles and use sins as inventory items. I used it to explore a lot of Discordian concepts and perspectives, so in a sense it’s a religious work for me.

It’s weird looking back on Ossuary. I’m really proud of how it turned out, although it’s never had real financial success. We’ve sold maybe a couple thousand copies. For now it’s paying Future Proof’s monthly expenses for servers and such, but it’s certainly not making enough to provide us with paychecks. Each sale on Steam helps a bit, though, so if you haven’t picked up the game, check it out! It’s cheap! (And hey, if you know someone you think will like Ossuary, you can always get it for them as a gift!)

And a final request: if you have played Ossuary, please do leave a Steam review. Our 17 reviews are 94% positive, but Steam won’t list them as “Very Positive” or “Overwhelmingly Positive” until we have enough of them. Anecdotal evidence strongly suggests that these categories make folks more likely to check out an otherwise-unknown game.

Thank you for reading!

A Stillness of Mind, Skill Honed Sharp – Hyper Light Drifter

Screenshot of Hyper Light Drifter from Steam user 芊一.
Screenshot of Hyper Light Drifter from Steam user 芊一.
Hyper Light Drifter, from Heart Machine1, is an inscrutable game: one which presents you with various mysteries and challenges, inviting you to overcome them, but doesn’t bother guiding you along that path. It’s part of a new trend in so-called “retro-inspired” games that recontextualizes the challenge and low fidelity of console game from the 1980s as intentional, stylistic choices. Because of these choices, it has limited accessibility but provides a specific mood and emotional journey that would be difficult to evoke in a more populist game.

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  1. A company with whom I feel a sort of kinship, as their logo has some strong similarities with that of my company, Future Proof Games.

Family and Communication – Atlanta Poly Weekend 2016

I’m polyamorous, and for the past four years I’ve attended Atlanta Poly Weekend, a great education and activism conference all about ethical nonmonogamy. I’ve seen an interesting transition in my relationship to the conference over the years, one that I think is completely natural. In earlier years, I found the most value in the things I learned; in later years, I’ve found more and more value in the things I’ve taught.
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Ludus Novus 025: Idle, Incremental

In this episode of the Ludus Novus podcast, I discuss incremental games, also known as idle games or clickers. How did a formula that started as satirical jokes from people like Ian Bogost yield things like A Dark Room? Games discussed: Cow Clicker, Progress Quest, Candy Box, Cookie Clicker, A Dark Room.

The Ludus Novus podcast is supported by my patrons. To help, please visit my Patreon. The theme music is “A Foolish Game (Vox Harmony Adds)” by Snowflake, Admiral Bob, and Sackjo22, available on ccMixter.

Hopping Numbers in Pocket Frogs

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I love it when games wear their math on their sleeves. I also like when games are based on real-life systems, even when those systems are twisted or simplified for the purposes of smoother design. Pandemic is a good example of the former: the way the Infection deck is constructed and manipulated makes it clear how the game’s randomness works and why the same cities keep breaking out in more and more disease. Spacechem is a good example of the latter: it takes the concept of chemical bonds and process engineering and turns it into a brain-twisting puzzler.

Pocket Frogs, by Nimblebit, does both of these things. It takes the concept of genetic inheritance and uses it to make a sort of gambling game where the math is always visible and calculable.

It’s a game where you breed frogs, trying to produce certain special collections. But let’s pretend it’s not.

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