2018: A Year of Tactical Choices
Here’s my recounting of the year based on some of the games I’ve played.
I’ve never done a year-in-review or my top games of such and such, before in part because I’ve never blogged as consistently as I have this year. Nor have I played that many games that I could readily select from them those that stood out. So instead I offer an observation in the wake of 2018.
This year has been one of small, smart choices and changes. All at the service of longer-term goals. In essence I’ve been making tactical decisions that serve a strategic purpose. Something that’s been mirrored by the games I’ve played this year. Well, not Destiny 2. But we’ll come to that.
The strategic goal - a career being creative.
My daughter has been a great and probably the prime motivator this year for much of what I’ve done. In part because I was technically unemployed while at home on parental/paternity leave with her. That is before she started going to daycare. The decision to send her to that has been great for everyone. She’s grown in so many fantastic ways and is way ahead in her development. So we don’t regret that decision.
That left me with the ability to return to work. Or rather start my own business. And I decided to focus on what I’ve always been good at - writing. With an emphasis on game writing because I saw a niche in the market here in Finland. Of course I don’t do just game writing, I do copywriting and editing, comic books, short stories, novels and novellas, and scripts of all sorts. Some of that is personal some I get paid for. Regardless of which it is, my focus is firmly writing and storytelling.
In an effort to boost that and network I got a space at Games Factory, a new hub for game development in Helsinki. A very tactical choice as it placed me in and around others working in video games. At the same time I joined a team that was making a game, Critical Charm. The choice to do the latter was because I saw an opportunity to be more involved and have some ownership over a game while being a part of a team, and not just a contractor or consultant. More on that in a bit.
Through all of that and the rest of the year I’ve been playing games. A lot of them tactics games. Some of the most memorable this year are Slay The Spire, Into The Breach, Battletech, and Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden. And Destiny 2. Definitely more on the latter in a bit.
Slay The Spire
It’s been in early access the entire time and the sole reason I picked it up was the discussion on Three Moves Ahead. Normally I don’t like deck-building games. I don’t want to have to play through sections again and again because I’ve poorly constructed my deck, and as so often happens such games are bad at giving you feedback on what you need to do in order to improve. Slay The Spire is different because it’s a rogue-like/lite single player game. So in the dungeon crawl that makes up the game every run is different and so are my cards.
But there’s a very clear indicators as to what builds are possible for the three characters. With time you learn that a certain level of specialization is necessary to succeed. And so the deck building happens one card at a time. Which works for me. The limited offering in terms of choices is perfect because I’m not overwhelmed trying to balance strategic choices of the deck but have to make tactical choices based on the cards available and the strategy I’m aiming to implement.
As a game designer, cause I actually do that too and not just game writing, I learned a lot about communicating intent. Each playable class in Slay The Spire has a specific way of playing and in that are the possible builds. It provides a level of depth that isn’t immediately apparent when the majority of your time is spent slaying monsters by tossing out cards.
Into The Breach
The follow-up to FTL: Faster Than Light was always going to be something I played. I enjoyed the first game immensely. And the second was promising another adventure into a sci-fi realm that utilizes rogue-like/lite game features. Only this time those deaths have an effect on future playthroughs. In this case, you can take one of the three pilots you’re using in your mechs with you back in time. Oh by the way, you’re a time traveller and you’re controlling mechs in an effort to defeat giant bugs which are ravaging earth.
Sounds like fun, huh? Well it gets more complicated because it’s a turn-based tactics games, set on a limited board, with additional limits in terms of the number of spaces your mechs can move, what weapons they have available, health, etc. In essence it’s a new take on chess but in Into The Breach you have to balance taking enemy pieces, losing your own, as well as protecting infrastructure and occasionally accomplishing other tasks.
What makes it truly interesting and perfect for beginner tactics players is two things - 1) attacks always hit and 2) since you’re a time traveller you know what the enemy is going to do. Not everything they’re going to do but you know what attack they’re going to make next. And so you largely trying to prevent that from happening. But you don’t know how they’ll move after their attack. That’s where the randomness comes in, because while you may have a perfect round in that you take no damage, you could be poorly setup for the next.
It’s taught me a lot about randomness, luck and percentages. Namely in that it’s easier to accept certain types of randomness in games. I don’t feel cheated by the way the enemies move in Into The Breach, because I can react. Compare that to games like X-Com or Battletech, which I’ll talk about next, where your attacks are not guaranteed to hit and all of a sudden I’m cursing the randomness of one of my mechs not making a 90%-chance-to-hit strike.
I had no intention of getting into a game this big, nor one so complicated. But in watching the Waypoint streams I was convinced of the potential of it, so I bought it in a sale. And while I haven’t put as much time into it as others I’m still enjoying it.
Battletech is a more traditional turn-based tactics games, but with large mechs. So it’s another sci-fi jaunt for me. There’s a trend here. As a game it’s a more involved tactics game because there are strategic-level decisions I have to make in terms of my squads development, the mechs available and even what missions I take. It’s an added level of complexity compared to something like Into The Breach.
The game hasn’t taught me so much about game design, rather storytelling. Especially after having watched the streams from Waypoint where Austin and Rob essentially roleplayed their campaign and the characters. That level of interest and commitment made the game for me. So often in these games I’m not storytelling and playing it in such a manner but more concerned with the perfect run. Something that ultimately ruins the fun of the game and has me putting it down.
Mutant Year Zero: Road to Eden
I haven’t played much of Mutant Year Zero but I have learned one big lesson so far - I suck.
Even on normal, my characters nearly die and pretty much use all the grenades and medpacks every time I enter combat. I do really suck. Especially at games with this level of randomness. Yet I don’t struggle this way in Battletech. Maybe I just need to spend more time with it.
This is the game I can’t get away from. In part because it’s so easy to boot up and get something done in it. I don’t get to play much at home these days, all the previous games with the exception of Mutant Year Zero have been played at work - don’t judge me, it’s vital to play other games if you’re making games. So Destiny 2 fills those few moments I do get to play at home.
In part this because of the quest systems in the game, and ultimately the grind. The daily quests, bounties and patrols always leave me something to do. Generally something I can accomplish in 20 minutes. And it gives me a feeling of having done just that - accomplished something. Even as I’m not moving forward in my power level and instead stuck on the grind the game has so perfectly workified.
Seriously, every week everything resets and so I’m at it again. And because of my limited play-time the game is expanding and adding more stuff to do faster than I can access it. Which is both good and bad. Good because there’s stuff to do, bad because I miss out on it. But even when I take breaks, and sometimes they’re months long I do end up coming back to it. Even though I find myself wanting to play Halo 5 or Titanfall 2 instead, it’s that sense of progression and accomplishment that retain my interests as I complain about that very grind.
Star Wars: Edge of the Empire
This is not a video game. And is really the only non-video game I’ve played this year beyond the occasional game of scrabble with the Wife. Instead, it’s a table top roleplaying game or more accurately a pen and paper roleplaying game, because we’re not using miniatures, we don’t have a map and everything is happening in our imaginations.
Basically, I get to tell stories set in the Star Wars universe to a bunch of other people participating in that story and changing it based upon both their actions and the rolls of the dice. And it’s fantastic, it’s exactly what I’d hoped for.
I run the game, as game master (basically showrunner if this is a TV show), at Games Factory with four other game developers once a month. That decision was tactical - in part to socialize with others there and thus network, but also to demonstrate my storytelling abilities, as well as give me a monthly social outlet. Having a kid means limited social interactions for the moment.
The game, though, is great for storytelling because it’s not focused on defeating enemies by achieving higher dice rolls but reacting to the changing circumstances that result from success or failure. Mainly failure. It really gets that sense of adventure across as characters swiftly become like Han Solo charging through the Death Star chasing stormtroopers only to end up in a hangar bay full of them and have to turn and around and escape.
Playing this game as the GM means managing a lot of things - the story, the pacing, making sure everyone is involved, that each character has their own arc, and that it’s Star Wars enough for everyone. Maintaining the latter can be quite hard when players do unexpected things, like sticking their hands down a toilet in search of treasure. But you roll with it, pun intended, and make the most of the story potential they’re offering you.
It also has me acting. I have to voice all the non-player characters and maintaining a variety of accents and making them interesting while projecting clear motivations is difficult. I definitely struggle at times to get back into an Australian accent when I’ve been doing something else. The challenge is part of the fun. And if anything this is all about invoking some of the best rules or constraints from improv - not that I’ve ever taken any classes.
The whole idea is that you never say no. Instead you say “yes, but…” or “and then…” It allows the other players to have ownership over the game and participate in it without feeling like they’re just reacting to your whims as GM. They gain agency and can directly affect the story. From my side it means I have to have a plan but nothing so concrete that I can’t just make up something new as it’s called for. Which it is - a lot.
Two Podcast or Not Two Podcast
Come September I had three podcasts. The Writing Game, One Game Dad, and Video Game Sauna. Come December I only have two. I have retired One Game Dad in part because I’m getting to do more and thus don’t have the time. So focusing on the shows with more potential career-wise made sense. But with all that’s going on even the two I do have going haven’t had the greatest schedules.
In the new year I want to be more stringent on the release of them. To do that I need a schedule for Video Game Sauna since it has guests and that needs to be arranged in advanced. For The Writing Game, I need to figure out the format a bit more since it is ostensibly a YouTube series first. Namely I want to make it more relevant to writing and less an analysis of what works in other games, though that needs to be a part of it. I also need to figure out a way and a place to record. Ideally here at Games Factory.
#startthedaywrite - it’s a horrible little hashtag I use in the vain hope that others will pick it up and do the same. Namely, I now write everyday… well most days that aren’t weekends or holidays. I enjoy it immensely though. Every morning I’m writing something new. It’s never a complete work, but many of them show potential and they’re all different. And they all stem from different pieces of art I find online.
The only downside is that I haven’t committed to writing a longer piece in a while and feel the need to focus. But that’s what 2019 is for I guess. I’ve got an idea that’s solidifying in my brain at the moment. It just needs a little more clarity and then I know I’ve got it. Which leads me to…
A Creative Direction
I mentioned earlier in this post that I’m not just freelance, that I’m part of the Critical Charm team. That decision was made earlier in the year, as I wanted as many irons in the fire. And I still have a bunch I’m still doing freelance work. But with Critical Charm I’m also doing game design, marketing and general creative direction for the project.
I didn’t start in that role. I came aboard just to do narrative and writing. But as the months progressed I’ve taken on more at the company - some out of necessity, some out of desire. Largely because I want some control over a project to make sure it comes to completion. Game development like other media is strewn with discarded projects. None of which help you get future work, because all that matters is what gets published. And I’ve had numerous projects cancelled for no fault of my own. So having some ownership over one means I can push to make it happen.
It’s hard as a freelancer to keep going when things don’t work out. Getting more work isn’t a guarantee if you don’t have previous work to show. Even previous work may not be enough as it can be considered too old. So being part of Critical Charm is my way of mitigating this. But so is being at Games Factory as the only writer and narrative designer.