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MLB 11 The Show: The Franchise Woes

The plan was to post this long and drawn out examination of The Show’s franchise mode.

But I am not going to do that. Instead I’m going to tell you why I have finally raised the white flag…

There was a time, let’s call it from 1992 to 2009 that I railed, some would say endlessly, about franchise modes in sports games.

No mas. I’m done. You developers win. White flag of surrender.

Every year all of the major sports franchises which include a type of franchise mode has an AI that struggles to play its own game in one form or another. It’s sort of like Civ V but with home runs. The developers have limited time/resources to focus on certain areas of its game and while a very vocal part of the sports gaming community plays franchise mode because really — that’s the meat of a game’s longevity for many of us, money/time is usually spent in other areas.

Let’s take The Show 11 as an example.

Baseball, off the field, is an incredibly complicated animal.

So many rules: Rule 5 draft, arbitration, option years, budgets, 40-man rosters, minor leagues, waivers, free agency, and on and on. It’s a lot to ask for a videogame where the majority of the resources are put into on the field execution.

When you combine ALL that goes into playing a great baseball game franchise mode, you really can’t DO that on a console because the interface makes it a PAIN IN THE ASS. Managing minor leagues, contracts, etc. etc. — it’s just not worth the effort to do it. At least not for me. Not anymore. I am tired of fighting that fight.

The Show has all sorts of weird franchise issues that are easily spotted after playing around with it for 30 minutes. Player progression, budget oddities, great players rotting in the FA pool, great players under team control not being tendered offers and becoming free agents, and so on. “Arcade” sports games do this sort of thing all the time. And make no mistake, as realistic as The Show is, it’s an arcade sports game. Arcade isn’t a dirty word but when YOU tell Pujols when to swing — you’re playing an arcade game, almost by definition.

Anyway, for a franchise mode to really work it needs to dot all the i’s and cross all the t’s and The Show 11 doesn’t do that. If you read forums you’ll see highly dedicated users offering suggestions on how to “fix” some of these issues — like “users controlling all 30 teams” and things that no sane person should have to do to enjoy a game’s designed feature.

I’m not doing that. I am not fighting a console UI just so I can see a star player go unsigned in the FA pool for three seasons. I turned 39 last month; I graduated from that school of nuttiness — with honors.

For these games to accomplish something with its franchise mode I’d like to see ALL of the money stuff removed. Gone. Get rid of it. Trash canned.

Think of it this way — why do we PLAY a game’s franchise mode?

I play them because I enjoy creating my own sense of history — building a team over the years, watching my league ebb and flow and evolve over time. Watching a player who used to be a star, now an aged vet well past his prime and a young rookie offering a glimpse to the future of the franchise.

It’s NOT whether or not the Reds should take a ******* bus or fly to their game in Cleveland. Or whether a vendor has enough team jackets to sell.

I like seeing league evolution but I also like to do this with as little busy time as humanly possible. Scouting, training, week to week “recruiting” in a college game — no more. Done.

As for the finances, I am sick of worrying about player salary in games of this nature. If a game is not going to be able to HANDLE finances — remove them. Go back to Reserve Clause baseball when free agency was a unicorn and teams owned players and you had to build your club via trades and the draft. Wouldn’t that be easier on the developer and also provide gamers with what they want? Some roster turnover and the ability to play a game that actually…worked?

As for me, my franchise fix is covered by Out of the Park Baseball, as our online league kicks off its 6th year of existence, I am getting that ebb and flow and watching players come and go and loving it. I’m not fighting with The Show to get what that game already provides — in spades.

Dragon Age 2: The First 8 Hours

No High Scores

New DA2 screenshot! Yay! (Now Bill can ease up off my back about it.)

I’ve got about eight hours into Dragon Effect, excuse me, Dragon Age 2 (PC version), so it’s time to post some impressions. These are in no particular order, but represent a fair sampling of the good and bad so far…

– I’ve got a solid DX11 video card (Nvidia GTX460 from EVGA) and I cannot run on Very Hight detail with all environmental effects enabled. I can run at High detail, using the high-res textures Brandon posted about yesterday. It looks really, really good. That said, if the magnetic weapons across the back thing bothers you, that’s still there, and yes it looks silly when a character with a huge staff on their back can just sit down in a chair. Whatever, that doesn’t bother me near as much as Sheperd drinking his Mr. Coffee through his helmet. (There is an option to hide your PC’s helmet, unlike Mass Effect.)

– Leveling in this game is pretty darn quick. My player character, Crow (yes, Crow Hawke), leveled up after the first battle and again before I reached Flemeth and is already, I think, level six. I noted this in the demo, but I was kind of hoping it was just accelerated because it was a demo. One of the things I didn’t like in Origins is that you put so many points into character attributes that leveling up meant less and less as you went on. All sense of scale to the numbers are lost and leveling becomes a chore. Looks like that will be the case again this time around.

– Your sister’s breasts are bigger in the “make believe” version of the champion’s escape from Lothering than in the “actual” telling and they’re plenty generous in the actual telling. This is exactly what I don’t want to see from the “unreliable narrator.” Do something cool with it; don’t just use it as an excuse to be juvenile.

– I have real issues with some of the “streamlining” they’ve done with this game, but there is good streamlining here too. I like that health and mana/stamina potions have a permanent quick slot at the bottom right corner of the screen. In Origins, having to drag five healing potion variants to your taskbar for every single character was annoying. There’s also a new Junk category for inventory. Items you never actually use (gems, incompatible armor, etc.) and will only sell end up here automatically, but you can also assign other items to it that you no longer want. When you go to a merchant you can then click one “sell all” button to get rid of everything in the Junk category. Wonderful! This is simplifying gameplay in a good way.

EDIT: Mr. Brandon says Origins had a trash option on the 360 version. 95% sure, if that’s the case, it wasn’t there on the PC. Or I’m getting senile. Assuming I’m not, I’m glad to see it here for the PC now.

– Inventory items use icons and not art. Not a big deal, but it’s a bit of added, cool detail from Origins that is no longer here. (Or am I remembering this wrong? Suddenly, I’m not sure.)

– Friendly fire for area of effect spells and items (AoE) is only available on Nightmare difficulty. In Origins it was a part of Normal difficulty (half damage, I think) and above. This is crap. Crap, crap, crap. The game is really easy on Normal and very difficult on Hard. I don’t want any piece of Nightmare. Just because I don’t want all my adversaries to be damage soaking tanks doesn’t mean I don’t want to have to think tactically when dropping a meteor shower on them. Why is this not simply a check box you can enable or disable at any difficulty level? Let the user choose. Also, there’s a Dalish Elf Mage NPC that says about her magic, “I try not to hit anyone.” Does it matter? (Nitpicking I know, but this irritates me.)

– The loss of the overhead camera, as I said about the demo, is significant. You can pull back some and, if you stick to controlling just one character during combat, it’s not a huge loss. But if you, say, want to play on Hard or higher where you pretty much have to stop and control characters all the time, it really, really sucks. Switching the character resets the camera behind that character; sometimes it’s a convenience, sometimes it’s a real pain. Example: My melee guys are getting slaughtered while my mage hangs back from a safe distance. All I want to do is select her, fire off a spell in the middle of the group, and get back to my guy. Selecting her shifts the camera to her distant position away from the battle, a position completely unsuitable to actually targeting the right spot for the spell. I then have to reposition the camera as best I can (not easy from a distance), cast the spell, switch back to my guy, reposition the camera again and continue. Annoying.

– In Origins if a party member’s health hit zero they dropped unconscious and sustained an injury. There were a variety of different injuries and the effect varied based on what it was. One might affect health, another dexterity or damage. It was really cool, especially because you knew some injuries you could live with for awhile. Your mage loses some dex? Save the injury kit for someone who really needs it. Injuries would also stack and better injury kits could remove more ill effects. This is gameplay. Really good gameplay. Injuries in DA2 are now a straight reduction of max character health; I don’t think they stack, but it’s hard to tell since the character sheet doesn’t seem to tell you exactly the extent of the effect (there’s just a note on the main UI screen by their portrait).

– Did you kill Flemeth in Origins? Not sure what you’ll think of how they handle that. (I’m fine with it, but then, I didn’t kill her.)

– Threat reduction, the degree to which enemies focus on stopping a specific character, seems a much bigger deal in this game and there are more ways to manage it. I like this. Playing Origins on Normal, I didn’t have to worry that much about who was drawing the most aggro from enemies. The tanks could take it and the ranged characters I would just reposition. That’s harder here, even on Normal. You want to use your skills intelligently to keep your more vulnerable party members in relative safety. Good stuff!

– Character equipment is seriously class-limited now. I know Bioware wanted to more clearly define the classes, but this goes a bit far. I’ve got a rogue, for example. I can dual wield daggers or use a bow. Done. No sword. No shields. Just done. Maybe there’s some other options later, like a short sword? Not sure. This is overly restrictive and limits the how you can build your character in ways that I think are completely unnecessary. Also, you cannot apply armor for your NPCs unless it is specifically for that NPC (something I haven’t found yet). Found a bad ass new set of plate for your warrior? Too bad, it’s only for Hawke. Wait. Your Hawke is a mage, you say? Ah well. Guess you’ll have to sell it. Lost. Gameplay.

– I mentioned before I see no character skills that don’t relate specifically to combat maneuvers. No dedicated skills for: tactics, speech, crafting, survivalism (or whatever it was), etc. More lost gameplay. (I sense a theme here.) You can argue the systems didn’t work well enough in Origins. That’s fine. Then improve the systems. Bioware school of design lately is retreat, retreat, retreat. I can’t tell you one new system they’ve added. They’ve replaced (in good ways) and taken away. That’s it. Stop assuming your players are too stupid to figure things out or at least muddle through and still be happy. Origins was a game first and a movie second. Don’t run from that. Challenge us.

– Again, several spell effects sound and even look like laser blasts. This just sets absolutely the wrong tone for the game. But there’s other stuff I don’t care for either in terms of how abilities are reflected. Again, I’m playing a rogue. I have a backstab skill. I was fine with the days where I had to actually position my rogue to execute a backstab. Bioware wants to do this for me as soon as I click the button. Fine, I can live with that. But do it in a way that makes sense. You could show my rogue charge and backflip over a guy to stab. You could show him deftly swirl around a guy, lashing out with a backhand swing to the back. I’m sure there are other things that would look both cool and physically possible (reasonably so). Instead, my rogue literally sinks into the ground and then rises back up behind the target. What am I? The Mole Man? C’mon. You simply cannot insist you’re not making Dragon Effect and do stuff like this.

EDIT: Brandon also indicated to me your character is using a smoke bomb to disappear from the screen when backstabbing. I went back and looked closer -the combat is really frenetic, so it’s hard to see- and he’s right. The rogue doesn’t sink so much as kneel and disappear. But then, to disappear right in front of somebody is bizarre to me too; a thought I already had about the stealth skill. Must be magic stealth, I suppose.

Now, all that bellyaching said, if you’re okay with playing Dragon Effect, you absolutely are going to like this game. The production value is outstanding. The voice work is very good. I like the story so far. I like the characters. These are all things that will keep me playing and enjoying the game. If you liked Mass Effect more than Origins, there’s a real good chance this game is for you. I’m upset because, although I liked Mass Effect 2, I thought Origins was the superior game. Origins showed there’s room in the market for a fair marriage of so-called old-school sensibilities with modern day design concepts and technology and Bioware has run from it. I really don’t know why that is and it’s disappointing.

It also doesn’t help that the PC version is $60, which only adds salt to the wound, especially in combination with the Day 1 “DLC” extortion tax they’re levying against anyone who didn’t pre-order the game two full months ago. I bought the DLC because I want to see how much it feels like core content, something cut out so that EA/Bioware could specifically charge extra. I’ll let you know what I think when I get to that point. Note too that this is different than Stone Prisoner in Origins. That was core content to be sure. If you didn’t bring Shale to the Deep Roads, you totally missed out. It was fine, though, because Stone Prisoner specifically incentivized buying new instead of used. You bought new you got the content. Period. There’s some fairness to that notion I can understand. This is something else entirely. People want to drink what EA and Bioware are selling, but the companies are poisoning their own well with stuff like this (the DLC, not the streamlining). I drove home from the store angry about purchasing the game. I’ve never experienced that and were I not reviewing it, I likely would have left it on the shelf. I hope they turn back from this path, and soon.

PlayStation Plus Sends in the Clouds

No High Scores

If you’re a PlayStation Plus subscriber, tomorrow is your lucky day as cloud based saving comes to the PS3. Starting tomorrow you’ll be able to save up to 1000 save games, or 150 MB worth of space. Additionally, you can restore said saves once every 24 hours if you’re the kind of person that has some strange desire to play on a new PS3 every day. Be warned though, if your PlayStation Plus subscription lapses, no online save retrieval for you. Instead, they send you your saves, one bloody byte at a time. I seem to remember Sony saying that the cloud will also work with the upcoming NGP and the Xperia play, but rather than just checking your Uncharted 3 progress on the go, I’m not sure how. Cloud based saving will arrive in yet another PS3 update, so make sure you plan ahead lest you spend your gaming time staring at Jimmy O’ProgressBar, everyone’s favorite free time waster.

Seen on the PS3 blog.

LittleBigClass Volume 5 – Job Searching

As someone who finished grad school and entered the frenzied world of “hey, I’m overeducated and want a job in a specific creative field!” not too long ago, I’m very serious about trying to give my students as much ammo as possible for their own career planning. In that light, week nine was all about the job search – finding out what various companies are looking for, how to build particular skills, and how to effectively search for opportunities.

I gathered a few design-specific postings – from Blizzard (they’re seeking a designer for Diablo 3), Gameloft (looking for a general game designer), and Irrational (for both level design and systems design positions). I tried to go for variety (both in terms of genre and scope), and let everyone go wild on the Gamasutra job board if none of the pre-selected positions suited their fancy. Then, I tasked them with writing cover letters for their job of choice, listing all of their design experience and portfolio-worthy work (including everything we’ve done in class, and an “aspirational” project – a full mobile game – that they expect to graduate with).

The point, of course, is to get them familiar with what’s out there, what will be required of them, and what they should have in their portfolios come game day. We chatted about the value of knowing a given company’s line of games (and the ability to speak critically about specific design decisions), and the importance of having an absolutely stellar portfolio. Studios want to see that you have the skill and the determination to put together strong, coherent work – so levels and mods and well-thought-out design docs are a must.

Check out the “requirements” section for the Blizzard/Diablo position:

• A minimum of 2 years game design experience on a shipped product
• Excellent written and verbal communications skills
• Absolute passion for playing and making computer games
• Able to work well in a team environment

• Bachelor’s degree or equivalent experience
• Experienced in designing, playing role-playing games (RPG’s) and action games
• Experience developing rule sets (pen and paper or electronic, character classes, enemies, skill systems, etc.)
• Experiencing running pen and paper RPG campaigns

And the Irrational Level Designer:

Required Experience and Skills:
This position requires a high degree of creativity. You will be required to work with the team to form a “vision” of your levels and use that vision to inform your design decisions.

An important part of the role is communicating that vision clearly and concisely to the rest of the team and ensuring that they have a clear and specific mandate for their work. You must also provide a receptive ear so that other team members can provide input on the game design.

Above all we are looking for somebody with enthusiasm, passion and the desire to create levels that are going to amaze gamers.

We’re also planning to hit the career-related panels at PAX East this Friday – so if you’re hitting up the IGDA dev center for “Resumes That Rock” or “Portfolios and Demos that Rock” – feel free to come say hello!

The second half of class was spent on building exercises in LittleBigPlanet. After a few weeks spent primarily on design discussions, job searching, and mechanical analysis of existing games, we’re back in the LBP saddle for the rest of class, building two-stage “games” for the final project.

It was a simple assignment. If you like, take a gander:

In your groups, build a very simple stage that contains at least TWO of the following features:

1. An elevator
2. Suspended platforms
3. A vehicle
4. A “dangerous” obstacle (such as a pit, fire, poison gas, etc.)
5. A character with dialogue

This is an exercise in very rudimentary building, LBP toolset use, and problem solving. Do not worry about aesthetics. You’ll have 90 minutes to build and present your work to the rest of the class.

Not to leave anyone high and dry, I supplied a few youtube tutorials (in fact, tutorials I’ve used in building my own levels) for good measure and let them have at it. Once everything was up and running, I floated around the room, watching the magic happen. One group put together a sensor-enabled elevator that connected to a zipline (which ended with a sackboy-skewering pit of spikes), while the other worked on a tiny fleet of retro-looking cars.

It’s awesome to see these kinds of “it has guidelines, but feel free to create what you want” exercises work. It’s always a balance between giving clear, concise instructions and letting the creative juices flow freely, but I think we hit a nice middle point with this one. As always, the most fun part of this job is to sit back and watch the wacky stuff that comes out, and its always gratifying to see the “aha!” moments alight when a student starts seeing the potential in his/her fiddling.

Check out every installment of LittleBigClass here!