Question of the Week: Most Punishing, But Fun?

In the latest episode (107b), we talk about the way that games punish players for certain behaviors, what kinds of behaviors are punished, and what exactly punishment is in the context of a game. No one would say they like being punished, and that’s basically the point: it’s not enjoyable, and it’s meant to steer you away from doing certain things in games

For the most part, punishments are meant to split your attention. You have certain things in the game you are trying to accomplish, towards which you need to put resources. In some games, that’s specific in-game resources like “food” or money that must be spent on upkeep, in others it’s just a more vague sense of time and effort. It’s loss that you must account for or avoid, because loss is visceral in a way that gain is not, even if it is mathematically equivalent. It’s more important to avoid losing points in Agricola for not feeding your family than it would be if it were simply extra points for making sure you did.

Avoiding punishments, figuring out how to split your resources to either get ahead of the loss or avoid it altogether, is a fun element of many games. And last week, I asked if you prefer to have games where you need to avoid punishment, or if it was more fun to not have that worry. I prefer it, because the extra tension is enjoyable, and for me, overcoming tension is a major part of what I enjoy in games in general. But this week, I’m curious about more specific examples!

What is the most punishing game you have played that you enjoyed? Why was it good?

Because for me, there is an upper limit, even as I enjoy punishing games. It was an essential and enjoyable part of getting “good” in Through the Ages to avoid the pitfalls of the economy and not get punished, but the problems you face in The Capitals and Food Chain Magnate are so brutal that they are games I have a hard time recommending to everyone. The setbacks for failure in Dark Souls and Transistor are fairly significant, and they can be more frustrating than fun, and in the case of the latter, were enough to put me off from the cool mechanics.

We spent a lot of time talking about what makes things kinds of mechanisms in games important and enjoyable, despite the counterintuitive nature of “wanting” penalties and costs in games. But I want to hear from you, because of how counterintuitive it is: send us an email to let us know what punishing games you’ve enjoyed, and we can talk about them on the show!

Whatever you want to tell us, email us at thedieispodcast@gmail.com. We’ll respond and discuss, I promise!

Question of the Week: Punishing games or not?

In the upcoming episode (107b), Brandon and I talk about “punishment” in games, specifically there being mechanics in games that will penalize you in some way unless you can avoid them. In almost every game, the point is to win, be it through killing the bad guys, scoring lots of points, capturing a spawn point, or rescuing the hostages. In many of these, that’s all you do; in competition with the other players, you simply try to “win better.” But games that feature punishment ask you to split your time and resources on another task: don’t take this penalty.

I kind of enjoy games that do this, possibly more than games without it. There is a challenge in always just trying to get a higher score than everyone else, being efficient in actions or movement, knowing every map forwards and backwards, whatever it may be. I recently have talked about The Castles of Burgundy: The Card Game, which is exactly that: you get the same actions and same access to cards as the other players, and you must use your turns to grab the best stuff and block your opponents from doing the same. It’s fun…

But the addition of a penalty for not covering certain bases, for failing to run away in the face of being overwhelmed, of not splitting your resources right and falling short of a payment you must make, that really provides a visceral enjoyment that I don’t get from just trying to score lots of points, or finish levels, or whatever else it might be.

I have talked to a lot of people about this topic, and often I find they are surprised when I say avoiding a punishment in a game can be as much a part of the fun as trying to succeed. So, the question of the week is this:

In addition to the goal of succeeding in a game, would you rather have a punishment to avoid or not? And, more importantly, why?

For me, it’s about the depth of a challenge. Agricola and Through the Ages are both games where you expand your population to achieve more throughout the game, but as your resources expand, you must make sure that some portion of them are dedicated to producing food. There is an economic maintenance that forms the basis for both of the games; you can’t just improve, because every improvement requires additional costs! You have to expand your economic prowess as well as your point-production. This tension, along with many ways to approach relieving it, opens these games up far beyond what they would be without it.

But avoiding punishment in games not for everybody, and it certainly doesn’t always work for me… the Dark Souls games come to mind. But I don’t want to repeat too much from the podcast!

Think about our question of the week, and send your thoughts to thedieispodcast@gmail.com. We would love to discuss what our listeners think on air.

Video Game Review: Crashlands

I don’t know where or when the “survival” sub-genre of video games originated, but some days it seems like they have taken over the entire hobby. Every indie designer with access to Unity and Steam seems to think they have a unique idea for a video game where you start with nothing, gather and build items and tools over time, build up a base, farm resources, fight against hunger, darkness, dangerous creatures, and try to last as long as possible… and these features are even creeping into massive, mainstream triple-A games. Don’t get me wrong, there are some really great survival games, going back to Minecraft or even further. And some of these mechanisms are inherently interesting. Things like inventory management, resource conservation, exploration, and avoiding unexpected dangers are combined into the survival sub-genre, and some of the games have unusual twists that make them worth playing even if you don’t enjoy the survival aspects.

Some people would call Crashlands, from Butterscotch Shenanigans, a survival game. It presents itself as such, in a way: you start with very little, and you must gather resources from around the map, build them into tools, farm, fight monsters… you see where I’m going. It’s a top-down interpretation of the genre, in the vein of Minecraft or Terraria, but it’s easier, more accessible, and “mission-driven” in ways that many other survival games are not.

I’ve been playing Crashlands on my iPad, and the controls are easy to manage. Everything works as you would expect. While the on-screen display is minimal, it communicates what it needs to clearly, so moving, fighting, and using your items is straightforward. In fact, people used to the more complicated dance of tool-swapping might be a little underwhelmed: almost everything you do in the game is context-based. There is only really one action button. When you are near a tree, you automatically switch to your tree chopper. When you are near an enemy, you switch to your monster chopper. Next to a workbench? The building screen comes up. It streamlines a process that, for some, is an important part of playing well, but for me, has always just been another hassle.

The game involves exploring the land around where your spaceship crashed in order to find the necessary components to fix it and get on with a special delivery you were making. Along the way, you meet any number of native creatures of the planet on which you crashed, and they not only give you quests (which are mostly either killing other inhabitants of the planet or gathering components and building something), but they actually have a bit of a personality, and the story, although not compelling, is competent and sometimes humorous. So, if you play Crashlands, you are going to spend a lot of time wandering around the map and gathering, interspersed with some silliness and groan-worthy puns. Does this work as a game?

Sort of. There are a lot of things to gather and build, seemingly countless tiers of quality for each type of component, which you then use to make armor, weapons, and equipable or one-use items. You can construct and decorate bases, grow farms, and hatch and raise combat pets, all using components you find from hacking around the map and killing monsters. You start with wood and grass, and soon the cycle repeats with slightly different items using stone, and it repeats again, and again, and again, each time providing you new basic elements to build with, a new crafting table, and a new set of monsters to grind… The progression of the game, both mission-driven and personal goal-driven, began as a fun diversion, but quickly, the repetition set in harder than any other survival game I have played.

Let me address the “survival” aspect for a moment: in Crashlands, you are unconcerned about food, or water, or shelter, any of the traditional dangers you might want to avoid. Your items don’t degrade, you never feel “short” on anything you need, and past the initial wonder of starting up the game, you rarely feel endangered by anything. You do have to be aware of the monsters than creep slowly around the map as you explore, and there are some really frustrating moments where a giant, high-level version of a firefly or bat just destroys you… but even when you die, you don’t feel the tension of loss. Death sends you back to your home, and you simply need to wander back to where you died to gather the components you were carrying that you lost. It is less a survival game than it is a low-difficulty adventure game in the clothing of survival.

And that’s a shame.

I discovered Crashlands looking for a game that was going to reward long-term commitment, and feature lots of content to discover as I played, but the fact is that breadth is substituted for depth in almost every circumstance, and heavy-handed direction in the form of missions is substituted for a genuine feeling of discovery. Here’s an example: there are tons of different suits of armor you can construct, but they are randomly generated and relatively indistinct in play… I played the same tactics and approaches without regard for the armor I carried and it didn’t seem to affect my success. And you basically have to build all of the stuff that is available, checking the items off like a list, so there aren’t many meaningful decisions there either. Do I do X or do I do Y? Well, your either only have X as a choice, or the game is going to ask you to do both X and Y as part of a quest.

Despite the ease and humor of the game, the promise that there would be any sort of challenge is, at best, misdirection. Sure, you can screw up in a fight, dodge wrong and bite it. But outside of that? You grind. Then the numbers get bigger, and you grind again. Everything becomes an indistinct amalgam of surface-level features from other games that are actually challenging, surprising, and fun. But Crashlands, in my experience, never reached that height.

Cool Stuff: Cloth Map

If you have never seen anything produced by Drew Scanlon, you should go Google some of it now. He’s a creative guy with loads of experience in video production, and he has a passion for games. Why does this matter? Because I’m about to endorse something of his, and I want you to understand why.

With The Die is Podcast’s new site, I want to post actual reviews of games (something we haven’t done a lot of in the past), but I also want to post about cool things in the world of video games, board games, and RPGs. In my meandering through gaming fora, listening to podcasts, scrolling through Twitter, and research for the show, I sometimes come across game-related things that I think are really cool. It could be news, a kickstarter, an upcoming event, or a non-game creation that just really makes me think more people should know about it. In order to keep the actual podcast focused on the games we play and the discussion topics we have, we have normally either discussed these things in an abbreviated way, or simply set the information aside entirely.

But our new and improved site is a lot more flexible!

So, back to Drew Scanlon. I first came across him because of the Giant Bombcast, where he was one of several contributors for discussions of video games, both as a hobby and as an industry. He struck me as a very insightful person, with particularly eclectic tastes in video games, and every once in a while, he would bring up board games (such as the Resistance or Twilight Struggle) on the podcast.

It turns out that his interest in non-video games runs as deep as it does for video games, and that’s saying a lot for a guy who was involved with a video games as a career for such a long time. How do I know the depth of his interest? Well, he recently left the Giant Bomb crew to take a chance at creating something that combines his skill with video production with his love of all kinds of games. It’s called “Cloth Map,” presumably in reference to the maps that sometimes came with video games in the past.

Here’s how he describes the project:

“Cloth Map is a video series that explores how games impact the lives of people around the world. Games are a universal concept, but can take drastically different forms from culture to culture. By exploring these differences, I hope to not only expand our definition of “games,” but also remind ourselves that no matter our background, everyone on Earth loves having a good time.”

Now, I don’t know Drew Scanlon, but clearly he and I agree on the importance of games to the human experience, and even though I’ve been all over the world and played games with lots of people who don’t come from my cultural background, I’m very interested to see where this project goes. His work in the past has been really great, and I have every expectation that this will be right up my alley, combining the travel and culture of Anthony Bourdain’s food shows, but with a focus on my great interest, games.

If you want to find out more, or even potentially be involved, Drew is running a Patreon for the project. You can send some money his way to gain direct access to him and the production of the show as it is created, which seems really cool. It’s really the first Patreon I’ve more than just considered donating to. It’s a great idea, and it’s exactly the kind of thing crowd-funding should be used for: moving from concept to execution for niche interests that otherwise just wouldn’t succeed.

Here’s the link: https://www.patreon.com/clothmap