Gaming on a Timer

For Love of Retro – Discovering RetroAchievements

For Love of Retro revolves around retro gaming, from text adventures to NES-era platformers to early DOOM-esque shooters and everything in between. This week and inspired in part by my recent dabbling in the  RetroAchievements community, let’s talk about old favorites and how  they’ve been getting a new lease on life – with achievements.

To anyone following this site, it should come as no surprise that I’ve been heavily invested in the achievement hunting “hobby” – perhaps starting a bit late to the party, so to speak (as I’ve never owned the originator of the achievement craze, XBox 360 and its Live service) but still having been around for long enough to have seen its Steam and PSN counterparts bloom into their current forms.

RetroAchievements Logo.

Due to the popularity of these systems (which has even spread across other media and even in real-space in some cases), I was not surprised to find out that, for the last few years, even retro games have been given the achievement treatment – meetRetroAchievements, a community formed around a twin love of retro gaming and achievements with one goal: to give old games achievements and a healthy community built around earning them.

I found the whole process of setting up a RetroAchievements account and the necessary emulation software to be relatively painless – aside from a very brief account creation procedure, all that’s needed is downloading one of the “official” emulators (i.e. modified to be able to track and upload achievement statistics), loading up your game’s backup ROM file, logging into said account on the emulator and… that’s more or less it. Less than 10 minutes in, I was able to earn achievements for all of my favorite old school games (which I already own hard copies of, naturally).

RetroAchievements comes with a very handy overlay for tracking everything.

…well, that’s a bit of a lie though. In truth, since the achievement lists are implemented solely by the community themselves, “only” about 1,800 games have support for achievements so far. However, this number is rapidly growing and (even better) anyone with basic computer skills can create their own achievements for all their favorite games (while it requires knowledge of how memory works in emulation, the documentation and tutorials on RetroAchievements are quite instructive).

So, with that lengthy intro, let’s talk a bit about some of the games I’ve tried to complete through RetroAchievements (RA from here on out) – keep in mind that I had chosen a few smaller, “easier” games for testing purposes with the main factors being “having played them as a kid” and “owning a physical copy”, so while interesting to talk about, these aren’t necessary “good” games.

Ain’t Afraid Of No Ghost

For my first foray into the world of retro achievements, I chose a relatively easy one (achievement-wise) – Ghostbusters II for the Gameboy. Having been one of my very first owned games at the tender age of 6, I had fond memories of it, making it an excellent first choice to test RA with. The achievements list for this game is straightforward: there’s currently 16 achievements on RA, all of them associated with completing a specific level or boss fight in the game. So far, so standard – but how would the actual game hold up after around 25 years? Well, about that…

Ghostbusters II is a tie-in (or hype cash-in, if you’re being cynical) of the 1989 movie of the same name. As in the movie, the game follows the titular Ghostbusters in their attempts to foil the movie’s Big Bad, Vigo the Carpathian through three levels representing the movie’s major locations – the courthouse, sewers/metro line and art museum. Each level is further split down into several floors, and concludes in a boss fight (also mostly inspired by the “major” ghosts appearing in the movie).

Ain’t afraid of no ghost…

The game itself is quite simple, gameplay-wise – players choose two out of the four Ghostbusters, controlling the first one (beam) and being followed around by the second one (trap). As expected, each level is full of ghosts that need to be captured, by stunning them with the beam Ghostbuster before trapping them with the second character. Furthermore, levels are timed and can only be completed once all ghosts have been found and trapped.

…and this is where things kind of soured a bit for me. You see, while only being able to directly control the beam character, both beam and trap come with separate health bars (and depleting either leads to the Game Over screen), which means you constantly need to maneuver the beam Ghostbuster in a way that the trap one is also avoiding ghosts – all the while also trying to position both beam and trap in the right angles to stun and capture ghosts and also also trying to save as much time as possible since you’re on a tight time limit. Making things worse, due to the clutter present in most levels, the trapper tends to get stuck – a lot – in ways that often cost you a life point or two.

To add insult to injury, a lot of the levels have a certain trial-and-error aspect: especially in latter levels, ghosts won’t spawn in rooms until you’ve triggered their appearance by capturing other ghosts or visiting specific rooms. Coupled with the timer and labyrinthine layouts, you’ll most likely need to either know where to go or be very fast and lucky in order to avoid the timer running out.

…but crappy pathfinding and collision detection are a whole other story.

These minor gripes aside, the game is quite decent for an early 90’s release – the trap Ghostbuster has a sort of rudimentary AI routine where he’ll try to face any nearby stunned ghosts to ease the trapping process (though that doesn’t always work consistently), the power-ups are fun to use (with choices between a vacuum that automatically traps ghosts, a pickaxe for breaking down walls and creating impromptu shortcuts between rooms and a kind of… spray gun thing (?) which I suppose is meant to be the slime thrower from the movie, which instantly obliterates ghosts) and the music, while primitive (this is a Gameboy game, after all) has a certain charm to it.

From a nostalgia standpoint though, it seems that I was remembering this game being a lot better than it actually is – to be expected for sure, since 7-year-old me had neither the access nor experience in all those games that came after it, but still a bit funny to consider. I even remember liking the control scheme which, presently, got me killed a good amount of times (especially when ghosts with irregular movement patterns, such as the spinning one-eyed heads, were involved). Not accounting for the nostalgia factor, it was still a fun little distraction but certainly not the awesome game I remembered it as.

Speaking of fun distractions….

Gotta Snap ’em All!

The second game I revisited is also probably one of the oddest in the N64’s library, genre-wise, as well as one of the more unique Pokemon games out there: Pokemon Snap.

Pokemon Snap can be loosely described as a rail shooter – players ride Zero-One, a motorized pod vehicle following a predetermined path through the game’s seven levels (called “courses” in-game) and are tasked with taking photographs of the various Pokemon roaming in each course. Each photograph is graded, depending on variables such as the subject’s position, distance from the camera, pose, as well as unique situational modifiers (for example, a Pokemon using an attack or performing a special animation such as a dance) – this is the main progress mechanic of the game, with higher scores unlocking new courses and abilities for the player to use (and gain better score with).

Meet Todd, the intrepid hero of Pokemon Snap.

Not having played Pokemon Snap back in its heyday (mostly due to limited availability in my region, even if ours was firmly an N64 household at the time), I was surprised at how short it is – a full playthrough up until the final course, Rainbow Cloud, can easily be done in as little as two hours. However, upon further examination it became clear why this was the case: the designers have opted for replayability rather than sheer content volume.

Pokemon Snap is an excellent argument for the maxim “quality over quantity” – there might only be seven levels but each one is filled to the brim with hidden interactions and bonus content, permitting use of abilities unlocked through the aforementioned score progression system (such as the lure item, which can be used to guide Pokemon to nearby objects they can interact with) to encourage the player to make multiple passes through each.

A great example comes as early as the very first course, Beach, where the player meets one of the franchise’s more iconic monsters – a Pikachu – within the first few seconds. On its own it’s a mostly unremarkable encounter, with the creature simply standing and watching the player pass by – something also reflected in the relatively low score that can be awarded for taking its picture. Come back once you’ve acquired the lure item though, and things change – using the lure to guide the Pikachu towards a nearby surfboard unlocks a hidden interaction (the aptly-named Surfing Pikachu), which multiplies the score of any pictures taken of it significantly.

The points system can sometimes be a bit hard to decipher – size and pose specifically.

A lot of effort was also quite clearly put into making sure that the game portrays each course’s ecosystem in a fairly believable manner. Rivers are generally full of fish-type Pokemon, arid environments generally house rock and ground types, jungles and forests offer a wide selection of grass, poison and bug types to take pictures of and so on and so forth. This, along with the aforementioned “hidden” interactions (which include interactions between different species of Pokemon) really makes the game’s locale feel “alive”, in a manner of speaking.

This doesn’t mean the game is without its problems, though. As with most early-era fully 3D games, camera controls are something of an issue – while the game has certain mechanics that compensate for it, aiming the camera feels inaccurate a lot of the time — especially when fast movements are required to capture one of the monsters’ brief special animations. Aiming certain items is also a vastly imprecise affair for the same reason, with items often overshooting or undershooting their target due to the precision required (which controls cannot quite accommodate). Adding to that, the camera itself seems to have certain issues with focus and zoom, with photo subjects often appearing closer than they actually are (which affects a picture’s score, with distance-from-camera being one of the variables contributing to its grading).

Despite all of its problems, Pokemon Snap is a quite interesting experience – certainly unique, as it’s one of only a handful of games centered around photography (in fact, I can only think of one more series that uses it as its central theme, the Fatal Frame/Project Zero series where players exorcise ghosts and other paranormal phenomena by taking pictures of them) – as well as a very interesting case study in how to structure worlds and make a little content go a long way with proper focus on replayability.

On the other hand, figuring out the hidden interactions is so much fun!

Speaking of which, the game boasts a very decent achievement set on RetroAchievements. While primarily split between unlocking courses/tools and hitting specific score thresholds for each Pokemon species, the achievements are nevertheless quite fun to attempt, exactly because the scoring system itself relies on mastering the game’s many quirks and concepts. Snapping, for example, a picture of a Squirtle worth more than 4,000 points (one of the game’s achievements) requires good knowledge of its pattern through the level, as well as which interactions with your tools will produce the best poses for maximum point gains. Coupled with the use of RetroAchievements’ other feature, score leaderboards, the game quickly gains a ton of replayability as you try to compete for the highest-scoring photo.

Do you have any old childhood favorites you’d like to revisit with the added incentive of achievements? Any retro recommendations you look back on with fondness? Share them in the comments section below!

If you find achievements in retro games interesting, you can check out at this link. Kind reminder: please refrain from discussing how to acquire ROM files illegally.

Attack of the Backlog! – December 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month.

There’s an unspoken expectation associated with holiday periods – spend time at home, eat lots of food and, in gaming circles, get in as much play time as possible (which would be good, from a backlog-reducing perspective) and get stuck into as many sales as possible (which would conversely be very bad). Naturally, this leads into some very interesting times for the old backlog (what with a certain reduction challenge going on), so let’s see how that went:

  • 65,25% average Steam achievement completion (+0,87% from November)
  • 231 Steam games in progress (with achievements)
  • 1180 Steam games unplayed, 471 of which come with no achievements
  • 207 Steam games at 100%
  • games added to account
    • FORCED Showdown
    • Sunset Overdrive
    • Sid Meier’s Civilization: Beyond Earth – Rising Tide
    • Access Denied
    • Finding Paradise
    • Songbringer
  • Steam games completed
    • Another World 20th Anniversary Edition
    • Who’s That Flying?!
    • Before the Echo
    • Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon
    • Shadows of the Vatican Act 1: Greed
  • 39,10% average PSN trophy completion (+1,26% from November)
  • 48 PSN games played overall
  • 864 unearned trophies
  • 3 PSN games completed
    • Zero Time Dilemma (PS Vita)
    • Another World (PS Vita)
    • Burly Men At Sea (PS Vita) 

Steam tracking courtesy of , PSN tracking courtesy of

Bloodstained, an excellent throwback to NES-era Castlevania games, intended as a prequel to Ritual of the Night.

First thing you’ll notice is numbers going up, a good thing overall – more games finished than November, higher completion %’s, good stuff overall. On the “adding new games” front, things didn’t quite work out as intended. While I hadn’t actively gone out and bought much during the sales (in fact, during Steam sales I had only picked up Access Denied, which looks to be a very interesting / affordable puzzle game), between several secret Santa events (FORCED, STARWHAL), an impulse buy (Sunset Overdrive which finally hit Steam earlier in December), some giveaway wins (Beyond Earth DLC) and some very unexpected gifts (Finding Paradise and Songbringer), we still end up with more games in than out, so I guess the second goal of the challenge didn’t quite pan out for December.

Console-wise, it was mostly a Vita-only month (with some small progress in a couple of Wii-U games, which I’ll probably discuss in future posts), as last month’s Exile’s End 100% got me playing more stuff on the old handheld. Unfortunately, not much to talk about in general – Zero Time Dilemma I’ve extensively discussed a while ago in July 2017 when I first played it on PC, and it’s really one of those experiences that can’t be freely discussed as their narrative hinges on lot of spoilers and dramatic reveals. Suffice it to say, if you like good mystery, decent puzzles and complex narrative structures, you need to get some Zero Escape (the series’ overarching title) in your life yesterday.

Second time round, Zero Time Dilemma took a lot less to complete (but the story was so worth it).

Burly Men At Sea is similarly a weird cookie, narrative-wise – the game follows the adventure of the titular burly, bearded men through a looping series of multiple-choice events which, when strung together, form a series of mini-adventures. There’s a lot of charm to be found here, especially in the writing and sound design, but (for trophy purposes) the whole system kind of loses its novelty at around the third or fourth time you have to go through the same events, in order to make different choices to unlock alternate “endings”. Thankfully, it’s at least a quite short game, with each story sequence taking roughly 5-15 minutes to read through and the entire thing lasting around 2-3 hours at most.

On the other hand, Another World (being a re-release of the 1991 Eric Chahi classic of the same name), rarely bothers with narrative, save for a few short, vague cutscenes – in its case, gameplay mostly revolves around dying. A lot. Another World is a good example of the trial-and-error design that was prevalent in the early days of the medium – the game itself can be completed in roughly an hour, but only if you know the exact sequence of steps needed to reach the end screen. If not, then be prepared for a few hours’ worth of restarts, with each death bringing much-needed insight into what the “safe” places and actions are in each screen. Disappointingly, the achievement/trophy list takes inspiration from this, with a “Die 50 times” achievement included – something that’d make some sense superficially (as the game relies on dying/restarting as a mechanic) but which ultimately penalizes better or more experienced players (which presumably died a lot less than 50 times during the game) with grinding deaths post-ending to earn this.

Which brings us to the PC games finished in December – a bit broader and more varied selection, although similarly to the Vita games I’ve finished, there’s very little to talk about in-depth. Aside from Another World (again), most of my time was taken up between Who’s That Flying?!, a somewhat… unique take on the sidescrolling shoot-em-up genre, and Before the Echo, which some might know better as Sequence (renamed due to some legal mumbo-jumbo back in 2015), an excellent RPG-rhythm game fusion which, unfortunately, gets rather marred by its over-reliance on grind to (presumably) pad out its runtime. Bringing up the rear were Bloodstained: Curse of the Moon – an 8bit platform throwback to Castlevania, meant as a tie-in to the upcoming Bloodstained: Ritual of the Night – and Shadows of the Vatican – Act 1: Greed, a rather basic point-and-click adventure game which I found wholly unremarkable (in fact, its most remarkable feature is that development of its most current act, 3, has been in production limbo for a few years now).

Before the Echo’s combat system is quite unique and a refreshing take on the genre.

Let’s have a closer look at Before the Echo though – aside from being a unique blend of rhythm-game mechanics and RPG progression systems, it’s also an excellent example of how to badly implement grind and randomness.

Before getting started, keep in mind that I loved this game. From a mechanical standpoint it is quite well-made, boasting a unique three-field note track (more on that below) instead of the usual one-field approach that other well-known rhythm games (such as Guitar Hero) have taken, which gives it a much more “tactical” or priority-based approach. Its story is functional, in a good way – not dense enough to distract from the game’s core focus but neither sparse enough to feel unsatisfying (although I’d love to see a game that explores this universe in more depth).

The song list is also excellent (especially considering that this is by no means a high-budget project), boasting quality over quantity (admittedly, the genre selection is limited to mostly electronica and rock but it works in this context), with a small handful of songs used throughout the game’s seven levels. Which, in turn, brings us to what is easily my favorite part of this game – the note track combat system. As mentioned previously, there are actually three distinct note fields which the player can rotate into at will. The three fields correspond to attack, defense and mana – red, green and blue respectively.

In Before The Echo, each song represents a fight against an enemy monster or boss and with each note matched in whichever field the player has active at the time, different actions are taken. Matching notes in the red attack field will cause damage to the enemy, while matching them in the green defense field will negate damage towards the player. Meanwhile, the blue mana field acts as a sort of in-between buffer zone, where players can accumulate resources for their attacks when attacking or defending isn’t an option.

Unfortunately, its’ RPG mechanics depend way too much on RNG and grinding…

Thus, with this simple RPG-esque variation on the standard rhythm game formula, the game immediately becomes centered more around planning and anticipation, rather than just reacting to note drops.

Unfortunately, this is also where the aforementioned problems appear – the RPG elements in Before the Echo also include a crafting and spell learning system (spells being the attacks you can launch via the red field, crafted items being equipment that increases the player’s damage and defense), which would be fine except that it depends on luck and grinding for experience. In order to learn spells and craft items, experience points must be expended (and therefore the player must grind experience in order to progress their level and acquire new abilities or items).

Meanwhile, the item crafting system works concurrently on a percentage system, where the base chance of succeeding in creating an item (50%) can be increased by further spending even more experience. This ends up forcing players into repeating fights to accumulate enough experience to craft items they need or new abilities (and keep in mind, some crafted items are required in order to progress through the story).

…as evidenced by the absurdly low chances (which force huge XP expenditures).

I’d assume this was done in order to increase the game’s length (as mentioned before, the selection of songs is limited and similarly, the story is quite short if all the grind is disregarded) but even so, I’d much rather have had half of the current runtime in order to reduce or even eliminate the tiresome repetition – but even so, I’d still recommend this game in a heartbeat, just for its unique take on the rhythm genre.

Which games did you play in December? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

Seasons’ Greetings!

Holidays are around once again and with them, a chance for much-needed rest – there will be no new blog posts for the next couple of weeks due to taking some much-needed rest from the various projects I’ve had running since the “re-launch” in September.

I’d like to wish everyone a very Merry Christmas or equivalent end-of-year holiday – thank you all so much for your continued support in taking time to read my random thoughts! I hope they are as entertaining to read through as they are to write and, perhaps, even thought-provoking at times.

Gaming on a Timer will be resuming regular weekly posts from Monday, January 7th 2019 so see you around then!

A Casual Glance – The Grind, And How To Implement It

In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week we’ll be talking about the concept of grinding in games and taking a look at a few examples of implementation, both good and bad.

During the last few days, there’s been a few discussions on grinding in games going on at the 100Pals Achievement Discord Server. While I’m not quite sure what inspired all of them, I can take some guesses: within the past couple of weeks, Capcom announced that their flagship title Monster Hunter World would be getting an expansion in Q3 2019 (Iceborne); Grinding Gears’ Path of Exile received its biggest expansion thus far (Betrayal); and on a more general note, the end-of-year festivities have brought a series of events in most (if not all) of the perpetual play games that people are into (anything from WoW to Warframe, though the subject of perpetual play itself is probably something best suited for a future post).

The common thread in all these games is their reliance on grinding as a reward mechanism, in one capacity or another. In the interest of clarity – and since the term itself is interpreted in various ways – let’s set a definition of what constitutes “grinding” in a gaming environment.

Grinding comes in many forms, from looking for specific monster sizes to raising hunter ranks…

In broad strokes, we’ll be working under the assumption that grinding is the act of replaying already cleared content in order to gain an in-game reward, either due to said reward being awarded randomly or by requiring incremental build-up to acquire. Some more generic examples are:

  • Defeating a specific enemy repeatedly to earn an item (most prevalent in MMORPG’s with respawning enemies and random item drop chances – most famously World of Warcraft’s entire loot system is built upon this cycle)
  • Completing specific quests/missions to earn advancement currency more efficiently (such as finishing repeatable quests to earn experience or “reputation” points – a prime example is Monster Hunter World’s Hunter Ranks, which accumulate through all completed content but have a much higher rate of accretion within certain event-only quests, thus making them highly desirable to anyone wanting to raise their Hunter Rank efficiently)
  • Repeating specific content in order to unlock other forms of empowerment/rewards (such as materials for crafting – Warframe is an excellent case study where certain materials that are needed to make bigger and stronger weapons are more likely to drop in specific missions)

A keen-eyed reader will also notice that, aside from repetition, the other key word used is specific – grinding only applies when having a clearly-defined goal, be it “gaining level 30” or “improving your equipment” or “unlocking a new reputation level” (in the case of more vague goals, design comes under a variety of headings, most notably “perpetual play”).

This very specific nature of grinding is also why it can often go horribly wrong in its implementation – games, at least partially, rely on offering a sense of uniqueness, discovery, wonderment or similar to get players to “buy into the fantasy”, so to speak and there is nothing that kills off that aspect faster than requiring constant repetition of the same content over and over again.

As always and with the above in mind, we’ll be having a look at some examples that manage to either work around or with the limitations of grind-based systems, whether by refining the systems themselves or by complementing them via other, interlocking systems.

Framing The Question

Digital Extremes’ Warframe is probably one of the more well-known free-to-play titles currently on the market – following a rough start during its initial launch semester, the game was slowly (but steadily) refined into a massive sleeper hit. 

In Warframe, players take control of the titular Warframes, biomechanical suits of armor with powerful abilities, which act as the game’s class system – each Warframe handles differently, comes with a set of four unique skills and one (or more) passive abilities, with some best suited for taking fire, dealing damage, hiding and eliminating enemies in a stealthy manner, and so on and so forth.

There’s a huge variety of different Frames…

Being a free-to-play title, one of the major gameplay elements is grinding for more or less everything – weapons, Warframes, companions, equipment – every single piece of gear needs to be earned through grinding, often by acquiring the blueprints and materials needed to craft it. Naturally, as a free-to-play title, this system is complemented by an extensive microtransaction store, where a player can pay real-world money in order to expedite acquisition of said gear.

Taking a look at the overall free-to-play market, one can see that the majority of F2P titles on offer mostly fail to strike a balance between the grind and microtransaction parts of the system – these games often come across as too grindy (sic), in turn making microtransactions feel forced or unfair – and yet… Warframe somehow manages to avoid such criticism (for the most part). Why is that?

I believe that a big part of why grinding works in Waframe is that the core gameplay has been built with grinding being a core concept, rather than added at a later stage. A mistake that F2P games often make is using grind as a means to either inflate game time or increase difficulty artificially (once again, a subject best left for a future post) – often with the goal of making microtransactions feel more enticing. This will in turn lead to player fatigue, resentment and eventually low retention rates.

Warframe takes two steps in its design in order to avoid this. Firstly, the grinding is kept down to small, discrete projects – for example, while crafting every single weapon in the game might require hundreds upon hundreds of hours, any single one of them can be gained in a much smaller time frame, ranging from a couple of hours to a few days. Thus, the player never feels overwhelmed, always has a goal to work towards and (more importantly, owing to the aforementioned uniqueness of each item or gear piece) provides a wide variety of different gameplay styles and alterations.

…and an even bigger selection of weapons.

Secondly, by way of level and gameplay design, the developers make heavy use of rogue-lite principles to lessen the repetition – levels are constructed out of pre-made room configurations, with a wide variety of unique setups and features (such as environmental hazards and enemy type availability), while the selection of different game modes and objectives further enhances the randomized nature of available content. In doing so, Digital Extremes achieve a player experience that feels fresh and interesting several hundreds of hours later, the majority of which is spent grinding for more content (even if the player in question doesn’t aim to experience everything on offer).

Therefore, we can observe that grinding  can be implemented in such a way that it not only improves, but rather supports and enhances the entire experience – mitigating the repetition by designing against it and by breaking it up in smaller, better-managed segments.

On that subject, let’s have a look at another game which leans on these design ideas, but this time from the AAA space.

Hunting For Fun And Profit

In a lot of ways, Monster Hunter World follows the exact same “recipe” as Warframe: a wide variety of weapons and equipment that offer wildly different gameplay styles, quasi-randomized content (called investigations and coming with a series of random modifiers that alter the mission’s parameters) and an emphasis on building the player’s gear up by progressively playing harder content.

Where it differs though, is its in focus – while Warframe takes a quantitative approach (as evidenced by its procedural-generation of levels, as well as the huge variety of items and gear on offer), Monster Hunter World focuses more on interactions –  specifically between players and monsters. 

The series in general is a great example of enemy design and implementation, with  a huge amount of work apparently going into the game to make each monster feel unique. From a creature’s diet, habits, nesting and feeding areas, to its general behavior and hierarchy in its native biome, the developers have taken great pains to simulate a consistent ecosystem with bottom feeders, apex predators, herbivores, carnivores, and a large amount of other variables.

With 14 different weapon types to play around with (each handling in a significantly different way), you’ll not feel the grind anytime soon.

By using such a high degree of complexity in their core enemy design, Capcom achieve a type of replayability which works incredibly well on a fundamental level when combined with a degree of randomness – in this case, by introducing the player into the aforementioned ecosystem. Players can (and are encouraged to) exploit monsters’ weaknesses, habits and characteristics in order to gain an advantage – any one of a monster’s unique attributes can become a tool against them.

This randomness does not stem from player skill alone, either. As mentioned above, the game offers a wide array of gear, weapons and armor with which to kit out a player’s hunter – aside from providing some much-needed mechanical variety, it’s important to note that most (if not all) of these items are carefully balanced, in order to not have any one given weapon or gear set outperform its equivalents ( it’s important to note that not all gear is equal, just that any item is a valid option within its own power tier). As a result, each hunter can and usually performs a lot differently than their peers, offering a good deal of replayability and experimentation space (design-wise).

Similar to Warframe, the aforementioned gear is also gained by grinding through content – in this case, utilizing a random drop table for each monster, which can be affected by exploiting a monster’s damage model (a system in where certain parts of each monster can be destroyed, which affects their available movesets and item drops, for example by cutting a tail off in order to prevent them from attacking with it and gaining an extra item chance from the cut appendage itself).

The ecosystem has some cool little intereactions you can find out, as hinted here.

Therefore, we can observe that in Monster Hunter’s case, the grind is tied directly to progression (since both a player’s knowledge and gear rank is increased with each successful hunt ) and can also be affected by said knowledge and skill (cutting/breaking of specific monster parts during combat, which results in better/more specific rewards).

As a final note, it’s interesting to note that in both game examples, the designers have taken steps to include the grinding aspect into the main gameplay design  – be it Warframe’s huge variety of  missions, enemies, weapons and frames or MHW’s more limited but better-balanced selection of monsters, weapons and gear, everything seems to be tuned to support, encourage and benefit from grinding, while actively taking steps against the traditional problems arising from its use (boredom and a heavy feeling of repetition).

Perhaps, this is the most important design hurdle to overcome: how to make the grind feel like less of one, while keeping its functionality and purpose intact? Hopefully, the games we’ve examined here can provide some insight into answering this question – and if not, then it at least makes for interesting observations.

What are your preferences when it comes to grinding in games? Do you enjoy the methodical approach to it? Do you prefer games that try to “mix it up”? Share your thoughts in the comments section below!

Attack of the Backlog! – November 2018 Round-Up

In Attack of the Backlog!, I’ll be discussing my attempts at tackling an ever-growing backlog of games, from both a campaign/story and an achievements completion point of view. For the sake of keeping track of things, I’m only going to mention games I’ve actually finished and/or completed that month.

So, another month, another bit skimmed off of the old backlog’s top – November saw slightly less activity than previous months, mostly due to a combination of workload and some general clean-up efforts in longer games, but overall I can happily say that most of the goals I set up on September were reached.

Without further ado, let’s have a look at some numbers for November – this time, with extra multiplatform goodness:

  • 64,38% average Steam achievement completion
  • 236 Steam games in progress (with achievements)
  • 1170 Steam games unplayed, 471 of which come with no achievements
  • 203 Steam games at 100%
  • Games added to account
    • Monster Hunter World
    • Sunless Skies
  • Steam games completed
    • Shank
    • Uncanny Valley
    • We Were Here
  • 37,84% average PSN trophy completion
  • 46 PSN games played overall
  • 848 unearned trophies
  • 2 PSN games completed
    • Exile’s End (PS Vita)
    • Grim Fandango Remastered (PS4) 
  • 1 3DS game completed
    • Radiohammer

Steam tracking courtesy of , PSN tracking courtesy of

Right off the bat, you’ll noticed that we’ve finally started making some progress on platforms other than PC – this mainly came as a result of weekend play, where consoles were a much “easier” alternative to booting up the PC (especially the handheld stuff, 3DS and Vita). Comparatively, this month saw the completion of six games and the acquisition of three, two of which (TSIOQUE and Sunless Skies) were respectively Kickstarter and Keymailer rewards (Keymailer is a streamer tool that allows developers to provide games for streaming purposes), leaving Monster Hunter World as the sole purchase of the month.

Uncanny Valley, a quite promising horror title – but as with the genre itself, all is not what it seems.

Thus, 3 games completed at minimum – check. Ratio of six-to-one for finished/purchased games – check. Focus on multiple platforms – check. All goals met for November, the first month I managed to do so since starting this challenge in September. Needless to say, I was very pleased with how November turned out.

From the games completed, a few were interesting or enjoyable enough to sit through (Grim Fandango Remastered and We Were Here, the former of which indirectly inspired the “Fun With Remakes” post from a few weeks back, the latter being the focus of the “Asymmetrical Design” post).

The rest, however, were a bit less enjoyable for a variety of reasons. Radiohammer, a short rhythm game on the 3DS, lacked an interesting enough soundtrack – something that more often than not is the result of budgetary constraints but which is especially noticeable in this genre. Shank, a side-scrolling beat-em-up with a focus on visceral action, didn’t quite work for me (despite it being a quite well-made game) mainly due to a few design decisions regarding enemy and level design (especially in the highest difficulty, where dying means you’ll need to replay the entire level from the beginning. Finally, Exile’s End is an unremarkable side-scrolling exploration game (in the vein of Metroid or most post-SotN Castlevania games) with a somewhat interesting premise but let down by some control issues and a general lack of polish. As for Uncanny Valley…

Let’s have a closer look, as it allows for a very interesting look into horror game design.

Uncanny Valley is, in essence, a short horror game with a very old-school aesthetic and design. You control Tom, a recent hire as a security guard at a seeming-abandoned facility, who slowly comes to the realization that not all is as it seems with his surroundings. As the game progresses, the player is tasked with figuring out the facility’s dark past, as well as how to escape or otherwise reach one of several endings available.

If the above description seems a bit… lacking, it’s because a lot of the game’s effectiveness comes from exploration and discovery – though I ultimately didn’t enjoy it due to a few design decisions (more on that below), the overall experience is worth looking into, going in blind and putting up with its flaws –  thus, it is quite hard to describe without spoiling the reader.

Some parts are visually less interesting but at least it helps the pacing.

Aesthetically, the game is competently made, if perhaps a bit too low-fidelity to fully realize the setting’s potential. Visual design is always a big factor in horror, being the primary source of the player’s stimulus and in Uncanny Valley, it might perhaps have been better to go for a design that included more expressive faces (in the vein of fellow low-res horror games Distraint and Lone Survivor) – the impact of a few scenes involving character interactions often feels mild or flat, mainly due to the game relying solely on text to convey emotion.

Conversely, the environmental design is quite good, with the game’s handful of locations providing a great backdrop for all the events and happenings. A series of small touches, such as the clever use of light and dark areas; the juxtaposition of the rural, primitive forests surrounding the much more high-tech facility and living quarters; and the claustrophobic feel of the second half of the game – these are all very well done and invoke a feeling of dread and unease that is often missing from its contemporaries. The game’s side-scrolling nature is also used to great effect, with a lot of the level design exploiting and being enhanced by the player’s limited viewpoint, which in a way reminded me of the much-beloved SNES horror game, Clock Tower (albeit being much slower paced).

Similarly, the audio design is (mostly) implemented very well – from the game’s (admittedly limited) soundtrack to the sound effects and ambient noises, there is little left to be desired from it all. While there are not a lot of audio cue variants, they are very effectively used in conveying whatever mood the current scene requires (such as a certain chase sequence you’ll expect to hear a lot in the final parts of the game, and which never ceased to startle me even when I was expecting it). 

However, there is one major problem with Uncanny Valley that utterly destroyed the whole experience for me – its pacing. Pacing is, I’ve always felt, the most important part of a horror game. Proper pacing is what allows for the unease to build up, the incongruities  to start adding up, the tension to mount – humans are, for the most part, designed to tense up and feel less and less at ease as time passes, while also acclimating to it if exposed for long enough. Therefore, a badly-paced game is one that fails to find the proper balance of exposure – it either delivers the horror “payoff” too soon or too late. In the former case, tension will not have built up sufficiently, leading to a much less potent horror payoff. In the latter case, the unease slowly becomes familiar to the player and thus destroys all tension as they eventually grow accustomed to their surroundings.

Use of light and darkness is often used in a very clever way in this game (even if it leads to problems while taking screenshots)

In Uncanny Valley’s case, the pace tends to be all over the place. The first half of the game is one long session of build-up with not payoff – by itself, way too long and failing to actually induce any lasting tension or unease. The latter half, on the other hand, is a continuous sequence of non-stop action and stealth set-pieces, which results in the player quickly “getting used” to the danger and ruining the tension potential for the most part. Exacerbating the issue further, Tom’s movement speed is way too slow (and while a sprint ability is included, it lasts for way too long to be actually useful), making any mistakes on the player’s part often their last and, owing to a perma-death mechanic tied to the game’s endings and which is only apparent at the game’s end areas, often leading to frustration and repetition.

On a separate subject, achievements:  the game is mostly remarkable in that it requires a lot of playthroughs to complete, as most of them are tied to reaching specific endings – as mentioned above, the quasi-perma-death system used can complicate things, as the game is designed to delete the save file once any ending is reached (and with a few endings being tied to Tom dying, deaths often lead to a wiped save file and a need for starting from the very beginning). Thankfully the average playthrough will take less than a couple of hours (assuming a general familiarity with the game’s levels), but the aforementioned slow walking pace can make early parts feel like a chore to power through. The rest of the list is at least rounded out by more inventive achievements, such as discovering specific events or optional interactions – though the game seems to be a bit dodgy with achievement triggers, which once again only serves to highlight the problematic design choice of deleting a player’s save (something that I’m generally against, outside of specific genres such as roguelikes).

I feel that Uncanny Valley has a lot of untapped potential – the ideas, the mechanics, the audio designs are all solid, it’s mostly a matter of pacing and some specific design choices that make it all fall apart. Which is ultimately a shame – with a few more tweaks to the pacing, movement limitations and save game management, this could have been a quite memorable game. As it stands, it at least becomes an interesting example of how much influence pacing has over horror experiences – an example to avoid, perhaps, but still valuable as a postmortem.

Which games did you play in November? Got any backlog-related horror stories to share? Tips and tricks for keeping it in check? Share below in the comments section!

A Casual Glance – Achievements Vs. Gameplay

In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week  we’ll be looking into various cases of achievement implementation and how they interact with the gameplay aspect of a game, whether successfully or not. with examples from speedrun and no-death/low-death achievements.

As a subset of game design, achievements can be both a versatile and intriguing tool to use for guiding a player’s experience – from hinting at possible alternative or hidden actions (such as Dishonored‘s “Clean Hands” achievement, awarded for completing the game with no enemies or story targets killed) to providing incentives to engage more with specific parts of the game (i.e. any variation on the “Kill x number of enemies” ever), if implemented correctly, they can greatly boost the enjoyment and entertainment value of a given product.

LIMBO is a great  example of trial-and-error design….

What happens when achievements are not implemented correctly though? In a recent discussion I participated in at the 100Pals Achievement Discord server, the subject of speedrunning and no-death/low-death achievements was discussed, giving rise to some very interesting observations on the subject of poorly-implemented achievement design.

Firstly, let’s examine what a “speedrunning” and what a “no-death” achievement actually is, just to establish a baseline for our examples:

As the names suggest, a speedrun achievement is one that requires a distinct segment of the game to be completed within a rigid time limit – such achievements might revolve around a specific mini-game (such as Warframe‘s “Counter Intelligence” achievement, for completing any Cipher mini-game in under 5 seconds), a full level or extended set-piece (Legend of Grimrock‘s “Dungeon Runner”, granted for completing the dungeon’s first floor in under 4 minutes) or even the entire game (DLC Quest‘s “Man That’s Fast!” achievement, which unlocks upon completing the entire original campaign within 12 minutes).

…especially in some instant-death situations, where it becomes extremely punishing to newcomers.

No-Death or Low-Death achievements on the other hand (also colloquially called “hardcore mode”, “perma-death” or “deathless” achievements by the community) are achievements that are – predictably – awarded for completing certain segments of a game without the player character dying (or otherwise reaching the equivalent of that fail state). Good examples of these achievements are LIMBO‘s “No Point in Dying” (complete the game with five or less deaths in one sitting); or Hard Reset‘s “Resistant” (complete any level other than the first without dying (Normal difficulty)”. Note that, in this case, merely reaching a fail state wouldn’t be considered a “death” unless it requires either restoring a previous world state or otherwise significantly invalidates a player’s progress (which is why we don’t see deathless achievements in games with instant player respawns).

With that out of the way, let’s return to the actual discussion that prompted this post – the conversation began with the mention of LIMBO’s aforementioned “No Point in Dying” achievement and quickly went through a variety of other games containing no-death achievements, eventually proceeding to include speedrunning achievements as well, all with one major theme: Are these achievements fun to accomplish?

The people in favor of these achievement types argued that their major appeal lies within the challenge they offer – a way to show mastery over the game, skillful play and intimate knowledge of the game’s inner workings which would then be rewarded with an achievement. Meanwhile, people arguing against their use would focus on one common thread – it made a previously-enjoyable game “not fun” or similarly feeling more like a chore or a bore to play through. Both sides seemed to raise valid points and it got me thinking – as I might have mentioned in previous blog posts, one of the indicators I use in defining a badly-implemented achievement is the “fun” factor, i.e. does this make an otherwise fun game lose its appeal? 

Going back on previous experiences, I realized something: speedrun and deathless achievements aren’t inherently boring or bad, but rather they are not a good fit for all game types. Consider a game like Braid – slow, ponderous at times, requiring a critical eye and some amount of lateral thinking in interpreting the designer’s puzzles in each level. In other words, a slow experience. Looking back on my time playing Braid, the only achievement I remember distinctly not liking was “Speed Run”, completing the entire game in under 45 minutes – mainly because it didn’t mesh well with the core design of the game (even if I hadn’t quite realized this at the time). In contrast, achievements in Mirror’s Edge I found to be a lot more enjoyable, even though a big part of the list is comprises of speedrunning achievements.

Braid’s slow pace runs contrary to any achievement design requiring speedrunning strategies.

Why was that? Because Mirror’s Edge, unlike Braid, is built to encourage and promote a “must go fast” mentality in the player – everything in that game, from the conservation of momentum in Faith’s movements to the level design which promotes vertical over lateral traversal, the entire game is designed to facilitate speed – something integral and expected in the process of speedrunning. Therefore, any achievements that do require completion of content under time constraints work with the game’s design and systems rather than against or despite it.

Similarly, no-death achievements are a lot less effective and enjoyable if the game in question relies on what is usually referred to trial-and-error design, in which the player is expected to have some form of prior knowledge of the game in order to complete it (most frequently through dying or retrying to learn the “proper” steps in traversing the game). A good example of this is the aforementioned LIMBO, where a few sections have nearly unavoidable deaths (not factoring the player’s luck in positioning correctly), which mean that a no-deaths (or in this case, five or fewer) achievement assumes the player has already gone through (and remembers) the game at least once in order to reliably be able to earn it.

This is a major issue with achievement implementation in general – a lot of examples can be made within games, in which achievement systems and  gameplay do not mesh well. Anything from having to kill a large amount of enemies in a game with limited enemy supply and/or long respawn timers, to collecting items that provide no actual gameplay enhancement, to performing in-game actions with no bearing or consequence during regular play (what I’d call meaningless actions, aside from unlocking an achievement) – all of these are generic examples that can be found in most any game with achievements or trophies.

As to why this keeps happening, I believe the reason is two-fold. Primarily, achievement systems are in a weird place at the moment – they are recent enough to not have been fully studied and explored, but established enough that they are one of the systems expected by players, i.e. a developer’s customers. Thus, from a developer’s point of view, games must include achievements (since their customers expect and even ask for them, and in all likelihood their competition already provides the same service) while still not having the proper “know-how” and experience to fully realize their potential as engagement tools.

Perhaps, one day all achievements will feel as good as this… sans the meatball-hair, of course.

At a lesser degree, I believe that the current fragmentation of the gaming community has contributed in the players themselves not having a clear idea of what they want out of an achievements system. This becomes apparent when considering that there are a multitude of different services and digital distribution platforms currently operating – Steam, Origin, GOG, uPlay, Playstation Network, Xbox Live, and so on and so forth, all of them vying for customer exclusivity and, more importantly for this topic, all of them coming with their own proprietary achievement/trophy systems. As a result, multiple communities – each with different goals and expectations – have formed around most of these platforms’ achievement systems which I suspect have made it extremely difficult to provide consistent and focused feedback towards designers and developers.

In writing this, I realize that a certain subset of the gaming community (or perhaps even the majority) will loudly proclaim that achievements are “useless” or “tacked-on” – in a sense, they are correct. However, I feel that this is more a problem of how they’re implemented, rather than an inherent flaw of the system itself. Achievements have the potential to engage and enrich an experience – a lot of recent advancements in gamification have shown that their real-life counterparts can and do offer tangible benefits when implemented correctly – as long as they are implemented in a thoughtful and precise manner, while complementing a game’s core design philosophy.

Unfortunately, aside from a few broad observations and recommendations, I don’t think this is a “problem” that can be easily solved. The fragmentation certainly cannot (although some communities have recently started branching out, with help of multi-platform tracker sites such as MetaGamerScore, which make it easier to track progress across various platforms), and the developer side is one of those things that needs to just run its course, so to speak. Certainly, as time passes and the achievement hunting community grows, the need for research into achievement systems and design will grow as well and, with it, a greater understanding into how to better engage and entertain a player. In the meantime, direct developer feedback is probably the best solution (where applicable) – telling developers how and why achievements work (or don’t) is more than likely the best approach to improving these systems for everyone.

As an afterword, I’d like to mention that I am by no means an expert in this field. Most, if not all of my experience is based on personal engagement in the subject and thus might be skewed or insufficient. Even so, I feel that it provides at minimum a good starting point for discussion, much like the Discord channel debate that sparked this article in the first place – perhaps, with a large enough pool of differing opinions, achievement implementation can reach its full potential and truly enrich a game’s experience.

Do you have any examples of properly-implemented achievements? Achievement design that clashes with the gameplay? Drop a comment below!

Fun With Friends – Asymmetrical Design (We Were Here)

In Fun With Friends, we’ll be taking a look at various co-op experiences, from action-packed sidescrolling shoot-em-ups to calmer, more methodical puzzle-solving games. This week, let’s have a look at how asymmetrical design improves upon a co-op experience with help and examples from “recent” F2P co-op puzzle game We Were Here.

Playing co-op games has always been one of my favorite multiplayer activities ever since my formative years, from Contra and Golden Axe‘s side-scrolling mayhem action to more methodical, slow burners such as Lost Vikings and (once co-op moved on from the realm of the side-scroller to other genres) several Infinity Engine games like Baldur’s Gate or Icewind Dale. For me, it was always much more than just the thrill of playing with other people – it was a sense of camaraderie, or perhaps knowing  that someone else just experienced the game in the same way as I just had, a joint sense of accomplishment.

Needless to say that, to this day, I always savor my co-op sessions – doubly so since nowadays tight schedules and real-life obligations limit said sessions more than ever.

The second puzzle in the game, from the librarian’s perspective…

Before diving into asymmetrical co-op design, let’s set a baseline for a what constitutes a co-op experience. As with most gaming-related terms (which have always been a bit nebulous and subjective) the “co-op” tag can be stretched to fit a lot of diverse examples. However, for the purpose of this discussion I’m considering a game as having co-op if it fulfills the following:

  1. The co-op portion of the game is played with two or more players (obviously)
  2. These players need to work within the game’s intended design to accomplish objectives, which in turn move the game forward (co-op must be implemented by design explicitly – as an example of incidental co-op, consider a PVP server in WoW where players of opposing factions help each other out instead of attacking, thus an unintended by-product of the players’ choosing).
  3. For this post, I’m also not considering games such as Dead By Daylight, since those are combinations of co-op (the survivor team needs to work together to escape) and player-versus-player (since as a team, they’re actively working against the killer player) and thus, while  excellent examples of asymmetrical design, are beyond the scope of this post.

Further to the above, we’ll also be looking specifically at asymmetrical co-op design – while asymmetry in games takes many forms, from map design to team balance and a multitude of other variables, we’ll be looking specifically at the two-player puzzle variant, which in essence works by limiting each player’s access to specific and exclusive sets of information and interactions, then making both sets necessary for completing the game.

With the above in mind, let’s have a look at a game I recently had the pleasure of going through – We Were Here, the free-to-play first entry of the titular series, with two games currently released and a third one slated for a 2019 release (We Were Here Too and We Were Here Together, respectively). 

In We Were Here, two players take the role of a pair of explorers taking refuge in an ominous castle during a snowstorm. Separated upon entry, players are tasked with navigating the castle’s various traps and puzzles, armed with only their wits and a walkie-talkie tuned into their companion’s frequency. From there, both players must communicate with one another, providing a back-and-forth of clues, questions and panicked exclamations while they try to guide one another to the exit.

…and the explorer’s side as well.

Upon creating a session, each player is assigned one of the two available  roles – explorer or librarian. These are more than fancy titles, though, as they determine which part of the castle each player will start in and are unique (meaning that you can’t have two explorers or librarians in the same session). As the librarian, the game is mostly limited to a single room, filled with a multitude of interactive props such as maps, books and valves, while the explorer has access to more extensive levels, with a large variety of indoors and outdoors locales, including mazes, gardens and crypts.

This is where the “asymmetrical” part of the design really kicks in – for the majority of the game, the librarian’s role is to rummage their limited surroundings for clues to feed to the explorer, who is doing the bulk of the legwork. As an example, in one of the early puzzles the explorer is tasked with navigating a maze of rooms and passages while finding a series of color-coded switches that toggle gate sets in said maze, of which the librarian has a map of. Thus, the librarian takes the role of navigator, trying to direct the explorer (always via walkie-talkie) towards the correct sequence of switches, while the explorer attempts to follow the instructions and provide accurate feedback.

What I find most interesting in this approach to asymmetry is the way the developers have given the game a sense of urgency, mainly by limiting player communication to the walkie-talkie system (essentially VOIP via Steam’s API) – a lot of the puzzles in We Were Here are built around the players’ ability to quickly and accurately provide information to one another. A good example of this is a flooding room encountered early in the explorer’s route – the librarian must be quickly provided with the correct color combination of valves to shut off, in order to halt the water flow to the explorer’s side. With just voice communication, this becomes inherently more stressful and (since it’s done correctly, i.e. a generous time limit is given for new players to realize what to do) incredibly fun, in an edge-of-your-seat kind of way.

While asymmetrical design isn’t a new thing in gaming (with games such as Unreal Tournament experimenting with asymmetrical modes like Assault as early as 1999 or games with character stats eventually evolving into the class-based MP FPS sub-genre, Team Fortress being a good example), it is interesting to note that the puzzle co-op variant is relatively new in mainstream appeal – in fact, aside from We Were Here and its sequel(s), I can only thing of one more example in this genre, Keep Talking And Nobody Explodes which, in the same vein has one player defusing elaborate bomb setups while the other guides them through the process by providing specific info from a bomb-disposal manual.

So, what makes a goo asymmetrical co-op puzzle game? Using We Were Here as an example (as I’d consider it an excellent, if slightly too short game) we can extract a few good examples:

The game’s visual design is interesting, but not to the point of distracting from the puzzle design.
  1. Communication between players must be facilitated in a precise, functional manner. In our sessions, we found this to be of the utmost importance, as the explorer would often need to convey concise information to the librarian as they would often be in immediate danger of dying (and would thus need info on how to escape fast.)
  2. Puzzle design must be simple enough to describe over the communication channel, yet complex enough to feel like an accomplishment once the puzzle is solved. In We Were Here, this is mostly achieved by using modular puzzle design, where each puzzle is made up of smaller individual segments that are simple in design (and thus easy to communicate to the other player). In doing so, the developers allow players to easily and precisely describe each element to their companion (see point #1), while also building said elements into a larger, more complex (and therefore more satisfying) puzzle.
  3. If possible, recycle as few puzzle assets as possible and vary segment design. A lot of the puzzles in We Were Here feel “fresh”, mainly because the developers take enough care to provide variety in their design. While the puzzles are few in number (around five or so “main” puzzle rooms to get through), there are significant changes in what each puzzle’s solution calls on (be it spatial awareness, lateral thinking, logic, riddle-solving, and so on) which helps each room feel unique and interesting to work through.
  4. Allow for moments of tension, as well as moments of calm – use the two to keep the pacing interesting and variable. We Were Here performs admirably in this, with pacing alternating between tense, life-or-death moments and calm, logical ones. I feel that, had it leaned towards either one of the two more heavily, it would have suffered by either becoming too tense (and taxing to play through) or too slow (and boring or annoying to experience).
  5. Make sure that each player’s role is sufficiently different to the other’s. Again, the game is quite good at conveying this from the get-go, as it’s made very clear by the level design of the initial rooms that each player’s role is distinctly different – the explorer does most of the legwork and faces most of the danger, while the librarian handles the information-gathering and guidance aspects.

As an overall experience, We Were Here is interesting and highly enjoyable – perhaps a bit shorter than it should be (though I suspect this is intentional, as this first game is free to play and probably intended as a “demo” or introduction to the series, meant to draw players in) but still quite substantial and efficient in how it spends the players’ time.  If nothing else, it certainly made me and my co-op partner interested in the series as a whole.

For the record, a full playthrough (in which each player experiences both sides of the team) takes around 2 to 3 hours – I find this to be an excellent length of time for what the game sets out to do, being long enough to provide ample opportunity for observation but short enough to allow both players to fully experience it in a single session.

Have you played any co-op games recently? Any good examples of asymmetrical design you’d like to see discussed in this blog or with other readers? Drop us a line in the comments section!

A Casual Glance – Backtracking in Gaming

In A Casual Glance we’ll be having a look at various aspects of game design from the perspective of a casual observer (i.e. no hands-on experience in the games industry or professionally working on covering them, just as a player experiencing them) – this week we’ll be talking about how games implement backtracking with a few examples of how to best incorporate it and/or work around it.

For anyone that has been in gaming for any significant amount of time, the following scenario should be familiar: you have reached the end of an area (often a dungeon or military base or similar self-contained environment) and it is finally time to complete your objective – activate the self-destruct sequence, collect the Thing of Ultimate Power®, kill that pesky boss that’s been terrorizing the village… it doesn’t quite matter what the goal du jour is, just that you’re about to complete it. Once you do, a little popup appears – “Quest Updated: Return to town”.

And this is what backtracking usually boils down to.

Put simply, backtracking is what happens when a game asks the player to traverse previously-explored territory to return to its entrance point – often as soon as they have reached the other end. Trekking back to those quest-givers in World of Warcraft’s Barrens Crossroads to let them know you’ve killed 10 kobolds? That’s backtracking. Escaping the Ceres Space Colony after the self-destruct sequence is initiated in Super Metroid? Also backtracking. All that business with the shape memory alloy cards in Metal Gear Solid? Backtracking and more backtracking (and a very special example of what I call “Kojima Design”, but I digress).

It’s important to note that backtracking is a term (almost) exclusive to linear design (since open-world/non-linear content is by definition designed to allow for multiple options in traversing it) – so while the player might, for example, have to pass by the same settlement in Just Cause 2‘s Panau Island multiple times, the game flow is not specifically designed to force or encourage that and thus it would not be considered backtracking.

One of my most fondly-remembered games of its time, and one where backtracking is readily apparent.

Backtracking is a useful design in a some cases: implemented correctly, it gives a sense of structure and verisimilitude (since it “makes sense” that, for example, buildings have the same opening act as both entrance and exit in most cases) while it also doubles down as a time-saver in regards to content (since it effectively doubles any given game real estate in size by having the player traverse it twice). Unfortunately, this is also where care must be taken, as any failure in masking its existence often leads to player fatigue and, in extreme cases, boredom.

I recently replayed Grim Fandango in its most recent, remastered iteration – it being one of my favorite games of its day, I had played it enough times in the past to remember all of the steps needed to solve the majority of puzzles in the game. This in turn led to a mostly linear experience – I was already familiar with what needed to be done to progress at any given point and thus could effectively avoid the illusion of open-ended design that first-time players would experience.

Unsurprisingly, when played as a linear experience, it quickly becomes apparent just how much Grim Fandango’s design relies on backtracking to increase the game’s run time. Before we proceed, I should clarify that I don’t consider backtracking to be inherently bad or even implemented solely as a padding mechanism – as stated, it’s a great way to keep up the illusion of a more believable game world and I’m sure the team behind Grim Fandango intended it as such, at least partially (adventure games of that era were notoriously short on actual content, so it’s easy to assume that padding was in part a developer goal).

That being said, Grim Fandango is a very good example of backtracking overload. Playing it with a clear idea of where I was headed and what I needed to do, I would still be forced to traverse the same scenes three or more times over the course of puzzles. An early example of this (spoilers, beware) can be seen in Year 2: Rubacava, where one of the main objectives is to gain the Sea Bee “Official” tools for Glottis, which in turn allows you to board the last ship out of town. This involves inciting the Sea Bees to riot, which in turn requires getting their leader out of jail, which ultimately involves a city-wide hunt for a missing photograph.

Visual aid for the below mental exercise.

Sound straightforward? In theory, it is – distilled to its simplest, it’s a case of going from Point A to Point B to Point C, or rather, get clue 1 > get clue 2 > locate photograph > blackmail lawyer > get Sea Bee leader released > get tools from now-on-strike Sea Bees. The problem is that, due to how these objectives have been placed, a lot of back-and-forth is involved. In this example, you need to:

  1. Talk to Nick, the lawyer, until you can distract him and steal his cigar case. (VIP Lounge)
  2. Go to Carla and have the cigar case blown open to get the key to the lighthouse. (Security Checkpoint)
  3. Head to the Lighthouse and witness Lola’s death, get clue #1 – a tile. (Lighthouse)
  4. Head to Calavera Cafe and get the coat with the tile you found at the Lighthouse. (Calavera Cafe)
  5. Using the coat to gain clue #2 – a tattoo catalog design, head to the tattoo parlor (and solve a small puzzle) to check the specific design (Tattoo Parlor).
  6. Head to the Cat Tracks, solve a puzzle using clues obtained during the quest and produce a fake ticket stub, which can then be traded for an incriminating picture of Nick. (Cat Tracks)
  7. Head back to Nick, who agrees to help you free Terry, the Sea Bee leader, in return for the picture. (VIP Lounge)

Using the chart above, try following these steps and you’ll quickly notice that a lot of the time, due to how areas are linked, you’ll be traversing the same areas over and over and over again.

The problem is that, aside from becoming annoying busywork for older players, this also causes disorientation (in Grim Fandango’s case, also partially due to the badly-implemented combination of “tank” controls and fixed camera angles, although the remaster at least included a more traditional mouse control scheme) and in a few cases destroys any pacing the game had – after all, it doesn’t really feel like you’re racing against time when you are forced to go through the same crossroads five times in a row, right?

One of the ways this could’ve been fixed was dynamic actor placement, a fancy term for teleporting the protagonist closer to their objective once certain conditions are met (usually via cutscene or even just a plain fade to black). Amusingly, Grim Fandango already does this in certain places – the above example of a puzzle ends with game protagonist Manny Calavera and lawyer Nick being spawned outside the police station where Terry’s being kept, through a cutscene – which reinforces the belief that the rest of the backtrack-heavy sequences were indeed left in as a means of increasing gametime artificially.

So, how can a game “properly” implement backtracking, as I mentioned at the start of this post? Let’s have a look at some examples:

Dark Souls: Prepare to… unlock a shortcut?

The Souls series is a very good first example of how backtracking can be a positive inclusion if accounted for during initial design. From Software’s breakout meta-series has always relied on retreading old ground, whether it is a result of player deaths or general level layout. As far as I can see, this works for one simple reason: the level design takes the backtracking aspect into consideration on a very fundamental level.

Put simply, the levels are built from the ground up to allow for interesting traversal with multiple options even if the path itself is somewhat linear. In addition, the combat system itself accounts for this, offering a variety of options and encounters to keep things interesting over multiple runs through the same area. Finally, special care has been taken with shortcuts, special paths that can be unlocked once the player has progressed far enough into an area and which, once activated, provide an easy way to skip content that the player has already mastered (by virtue of managing to reach the shortcut in the first place).

Of course, there are several reward mechanics other than shortcuts in Dark Souls…

The interesting thing here is that, as the level design and combat systems support the design choice to include backtracking, so does it in turn support the risk vs. reward mechanics – reaching one of the aforementioned shortcuts is designed to feel immensely rewarding, as they often provide immediate access to safe areas such as bonfires or vendor shops and act as a sort of impromptu checkpoint from where progress can be regained in the event of death.

But then, not all games are (or should be) built around the idea of dying all the time, so how would a more “traditional” experience handle backtracking? Enter… Skyrim.

Dungeons and Dragonborn

At the start of this post, I noted that backtracking is a design aspect that is mostly, if not exclusively, found in linear games, so how can Skyrim, one of the poster children for open-world design, possibly have any? Easily, as it turns out – while non-linearity forms the majority of Skyrim’s design, there is one exception: dungeons.

Dungeons in Skyrim (especially optional ones) are primarily linear affairs – one entrance/exit, a long trek from start to finish with some traps/monsters/treasure to interact with, an objective at the very end – and due to their level design, should require a large amount of backtracking to exit once fully cleared. Whether it’s a nefarious vampire lord hiding out in the deepest part of his lair, a Dragon Wall built at the very far end of a temple or a Dwemer ruin hidden at the bottom of a sprawling cave system, you should invariably be heading through it all in the opposite direction once you’ve completed them.

With a reported 340+ locations to discover and explore in Skyrim’s mountainous landscape, it seem like backtracking would become a big problem and yet it doesn’t – mostly because, once again, special care is taken to properly incorporate and even take advantage of it in level design.

Quite amusing how an open-world game does linear content (and manages backtracking) better than many of its peers.

In this case, the game’s developers have made sure to include a “return path” to the majority of the game’s non-story dungeons – in essence, an extra bit of the level which bridges the end-point to the entrance and, more importantly, is only accessible once the player has reached the end of the dungeon. A barely-hidden path behind a movable wall; a door that can only be unlocked from the endpoint of the dungeon; a jump-off point which deposits you in the lake at the base base of a waterfall once you’re done climbing – no matter how, there’s almost always a way to quickly return to the entrance of a dungeon (and by proxy, the overworld and the rest of your sandbox adventures).

As with the Dark Souls example, Skyrim’s solution to backtracking allows it to extend the experience but counteracts the inherent annoyance and eliminates the tedium associated with it, as these return paths are previously-unexplored content that might also contain rewards of their own, as well as feeling a lot more natural than a forced teleport cutscene. An elegant solution overall, though in this case it comes at the cost of diminishing the verisimilitude of the world – after all, after finding the 20th or so return path you’re starting to wonder just how uncannily lucky the Dragonborn seems to be, if they’re discovering so many shortcuts everywhere they explore.

Even so, I find this to be an acceptable sacrifice – perhaps a more elegant solution can be reached in a more linear or less content-heavy game, but at least this method is a good starting point and an excellent example for future games.

Have you ever played any games that require excessive backtracking? Got any examples of your favorite games handling it in an interesting way? Share below in the comments!


Idle Thoughts – Fun With Remakes

Up until a few months ago, I’ve never really been a fan of podcasts for various reasons (mostly a lack of investment and interest in most “traditional” topics covered). Lately, though, I’ve taken to listening to the Retronauts one – headed by Jeremy Parish and Bob Mackey and featuring a variety of co-hosts in each episode, it’s billed as an “exploration of the history of video games” (with a specific focus on retro gaming). Needless to say, it’s a series I’d recommend wholeheartedly.

One of their most recent episodes revolved around a discussion on remastered/rebooted/remade games – including some very handy definitions of each – and it got me thinking. Looking back at the last six or so months, I realized that a lot of what I’ve been playing comes under one of these three categories – surprisingly in some cases, it’s also games that I never got to experience during their prime (i.e. the remake or remaster would be my very first direct contact with said game).

With that being said, let’s have a look at some examples, specifically of remakes, that I’ve played recently, either from a newcomer or an old timer’s perspective (depending on whether I’ve played a particular game’s previous iterations).

Striking Gold – Persona 4: The Golden

One of my biggest regrets in gaming is never having owned a Playstation 2 – partly due to low availability of units locally as well as a lack of funds at the time, I somehow managed to miss one of the biggest (and most influential) video game libraries of its time, much to my dismay. Although I eventually got an XBox and a Gamecube (the former second-hand and the latter at a severely discounted price) and was thus covered where multiplatform games were concerned, a PS2 and its huge list of exclusives would elude me for years.

That is, until the present culture of remakes/remasters emerged.

Among the many titles I had missed, one of my most wanted was the latter incarnations of the Persona series – Persona 3 and 4. Widely considered as some of the top JRPG’s of their time, mainly due to the unique blend of traditional JRPG systems and combat with a school life simulator, these two games were high on my list of “must-haves” – and with good reason.

Persona 3 initially received a remake for the PSP, titled Persona 3: Portable – a cut-down version of the original 2007 release (rather than the improved FES version from 2008) that removed exploration of the non-dungeon parts due to the limitations of the PSP, but with additional options, such as an option to play as a female protagonist and more direct combat control (where the original only allowed direct control of the protagonist in combat, where allies were AI-driven).

Image courtesy of Playstation Store US.

This set the stage for Persona 4: The Golden, which released for the PSVita in 2013, this time a fully realized and improved upon version of the original 2009 release. Needless to say, I was very excited about P4G – to the point that it was the reason I got a PSVita in the first place (and that decision was totally worth it, by the way).

While I’m no newcomer to the series, having played the first three games in various PSN re-releases during the PS3/PSP’s lifetime, I was definitely feeling like one for P4G – the first three games (Persona, Persona 2: Innocent Sin, Persona 2: Eternal Punishment) are quite different in terms of structure, systems and focus, taking on a more traditional JRPG form (albeit still within the series’ distinct “contemporary Japanese teen” theme), while from Persona 3 onwards we begin to see the now-familiar addition of everyday life simulation elements being added and slowly refined.

This made Persona 4: The Golden a very different experience for me. While I can’t really comment or compare the differences between versions (not having played the original PS2 title), I can wholeheartedly say that P4G was one of my standout JRPG experiences of the last few years – one that was only edged out by the even more amazing Persona 5 (which built and iterated on its predecessor’s already-refined formula). From the lovable cast of high school misfits to the lighthearted tone (which admittedly sometimes dives a bit deeper into darker places) to the excellent soundtrack, the deep and engaging combat and persona systems, the amazing voice acting (something that a lot of JRPG localizations often struggle with) – P4G was an exemplary experience in almost every aspect.

In Persona 4, as is typical of the series post-Persona 3, you take the role of a high-school student recently transferred to an unfamiliar town – Inaba, a small rural Japanese town, in this game’s case – where you are given one in-game year in order to resolve the game’s conflict. During the first couple of  weeks, a series of bizarre murders forces you to recruit your fellow students into a ragtag bunch dubbed the Investigation Team, with the goal of solving the mystery behind these crimes.

Image courtesy of Playstation Store US.

While I could go on for several paragraphs extolling P4G’s virtues (and there are a lot of those), in the interest of brevity (and covering other games as well) I’ll just limit myself to this: while most of the game’s design ranges from great to stellar, special mention must be given to the character development and design. It’s a rare game that makes me feel like I’m invested in (and maybe bonded with) any characters, and an even rarer one that does so with the entire cast. Indeed, around 90 hours of playtime later, I can easily name most, if not all, of the game’s main cast, as well as several of the supporting cast (dubbed Social Links), as well as their backstories, character traits, speech patterns and mannerisms and so on and so forth.

Persona 4 Golden is an incredible accomplishment, a must-play JRPG that, going by fan reactions, managed to improve upon an already excellent base – with many additions, improvements and streamlined content, an excellent example of a remake done right.

On the very flip-side of Persona 4: Golden, let’s have a look at a game I’ve played the original release but had never managed to experience the remake of, until modern re-releases enabled me to do thus…

Travels in Time – Journeyman Project: Pegasus Prime

The Journeyman Project (subtitled Turbo, after several performance-enhancing fixes were made) is a first-person point-n-click adventure game in the vein of Myst, but with a decidedly more sci-fi feel to it. First released in 1994 (with original, non-Turbo version launching a year prior), it was one of the first 3D games I ever played – even if said 3D consisted primarily of pre-rendered objects and backgrounds with chroma-keyed actors overlaid – and one I immediately fell in love with.

I’ve always attributed my wide love of gaming genres to my initial experiences – in close succession, I had been exposed at a very young age to the faster-paced platform action of Super Mario Land (on a friend’s Gameboy before getting one of my own), as well as the more logic-oriented slow pace of text adventures such as Zork and Enchanter (well past their prime but part of the very small pool of available games for a 486 running DOS). In Journeyman Project Turbo, I probably found for the first time a meeting of the two worlds, with the urgency of an action game conveyed by the game’s story, fused expertly with the slow, methodical mechanics of an adventure game – which is presumably why I was so taken in by it.

Hints, a major addition to Pegasus Prime and one that is essential in introducing the game to new audiences.

You take the role of Gage Blackwood and it’s the near future – a future where time travel is not only available but also heavily regulated. Gage is part of the TSA, the Temporal Security Annex, a government organization tasked with policing time itself… until everything goes wrong. Narrowly managing to escape temporal catastrophe, Gage must now locate where (and more importantly, when) it all went wrong, then travel back in time in order to change the past and save the future.

As far as game mechanics go, Journeyman Project is a more or less standard adventure game – solve puzzles and collect items to access new areas, repeat until end of game. As with many of its time, where it shines is in atmosphere, presentation and story beats. The time-travel angle is explored in sufficient depth – not too jargon-laden, but not glossed over either – and the whole “choose which order to play the levels/locations in” approach was unique for adventure games at the time (even if in actuality it’s a fairly linear game) and further worked to reinforce the temporal themes.

As mentioned before, I had only played the original (Turbo) release back when I was younger – the 1997 remake was a Mac-exclusive title up until a few years ago, where it made a surprising appearance on PC’s via GOG and Steam – so going into Pegasus Prime was quite the interesting experience.

The first thing that drew my attention was the redesigned UI. While both the Turbo and Pegasus Prime versions have comparatively tiny viewports from which players can see the world, PP’s one is decidedly less intrusive, enlarged and higher resolution. Adding to that a much more smoothly animated inventory/chip system meant that the game as a whole felt smoother and slicker than I had remembered.

Hard to believe but the view-port was even smaller in the original release.

Additionally, with Pegasus Prime, the developers would go on and re-film actors and locations, giving the visuals a much-needed upgrade with protagonist Gage Blackwood in particular now having a fully-animated (filmed) presence in-game, as opposed to static portrait photos in the original. Additionally, where in the original Gage was pretty much the only person to be seen physically in the world, Pegasus Prime adds a couple new actors to the mix, one of which ties to later games in the series – which made a small nod to continuity possible and got a chuckle out of series fans such as myself.

The improvements didn’t stop there, though. Several systems were revamped, with movement in particular being smoother and feeling more animated – no doubt thanks to higher resolution imagery used – while the score system was now more descriptive and comprehensive (as with many adventure games of the time, there is a score system – see further examples in any Sierra game of that time, where a completed game did not necessarily award full points unless optional actions and interactions were found).

Finally, the biggest change was the expansion and, in some cases, total overhaul of certain areas in the game – mostly quality-of-life improvements such as shortcuts being added and areas being rendered with slightly different layouts to better indicate interactions, but also changes in some puzzles to eliminate a kind of “leap in logic” style of gameplay that was sadly prevalent in adventure games of the time (which is not to say that Journeyman Project is totally free of those puzzles, but it fares a lot better than most of its contemporaries).

Note the score system, now categorized by area and bonus type (something not present in the original release).

While the game (in both incarnations) has aged poorly – understandably so, since Turbo came out in ’93 and Pegasus Prime in ’97 – I’d still hold it as one of the best examples of how to remake a game: adding functionality, accenting strengths and correcting weaknesses in the design, with the aim of bringing the product up to spec for a more modern audience and more capable hardware. Indeed, where most other games would try to reinvent the wheel, so to speak, Journeyman Project took the much better route of refining what was already there – thus making it a memorable experience and one of the more refined first-person adventure games of its time that I’ve ever played.

In Conclusion…

Looking back at this article, I haven’t even began to scratch the surface of  all my favorite remakes and when also considering remasters and reboots, the topic seems to stretch infinitely – between ensemble collections like Kingdom Hearts, former genre juggernauts such as Baldur’s Gate and oddball remakes like Chronicles of Riddick, there is just so much more to discuss. Perhaps, in time, we’ll take another look…

Do you enjoy remakes and remasters? Ever played one? Have a story to share about your most or least favorite remakes of old classics? Perhaps you hate the entire idea of them and want to talk about it? Drop a line in the comments and let me know!

Midweek Musings – The “Clear My Backlog” Challenge

Midweek Musings is a series of one-off posts where we’ll be taking a look at topics that don’t merit or can’t carry a full-length post on their own. This week I’ll be discussing a neat little way to clear your backlog a bit faster by making a meta-game out of it.

As everyone who’s ever heard me talk about my backlog knows, I have an extremely bad habit of starting games, getting bored or annoyed and more or less giving up. Maybe the game in question is a slow burner (i.e. extremely slow pacing for the first few hours – looking at you Tales of Zestiria); perhaps some minor design flaw made it tedious to play through (excessive menu usage is a good – and common – example here); or even just because of not being in the mood for that particular genre (but only realized after a few minutes of playing).

No matter why, it slowly becomes a vicious cycle which ends with an overly bloated backlog of “I need to get round to playing these” games – and if (like me) you’re also interested in achievement completion, this often leads to a mountain of stuff that needs doing and no damn idea of where to even start from.

Well, I’ve been trying out a way to make a sort of meta-game out of it the last few months, and…. it seems to be working?

Method to the madness

Given my general involvement in achievement “hunting”, I am no stranger to meta-gaming (in this context, making a game out of a process, which also overlaps with the concept of gamification) – indeed, the achievement hunting community often makes a game out of keeping track of metrics, such as average percentage ratio of completed achievements or completing “sets” (for example, “All of the Batman games on Steam” or “Every game made by Wadjet Eye Studios”).

Quite often, these “meta” accomplishments are done in a competitive manner, which led me to the idea of using a sort of co-op implementation to help me out in combating my ever-growing backlog. Followers of this blog might remember that, in my very first Attack of the Backlog post, I put out a few guidelines to help me out:

  1. Complete at least three games per month – “completion” in this context being either “seeing all main story content” or “completing that platform’s achievement list” – there are certain games where the time commitment is too big for a realistic 100% achievements completion, so in those cases I’ll count completing the main story as sufficient.
  2. Only buy games at a ratio of one new game per six completed ones. This was chosen to limit my backlog growth, help me prioritize my purchases and still allow me to get any games I truly felt were must-haves.
  3. Work on as many platforms as possible. This goal was more loosely defined as, at time of writing, my backlog spreads across multiple consoles – the PS3, PS4 and Vita; XBox 360; Nintendo 3DS and Wii U; and of course, PC (which is divided between several digital retailers such as Steam, GOG etc.).

That was step one – stopping the excessive bloat in its tracks.

As for step two, actually getting me to actively reduce it…

Playing the meta-game

With the help of friend and fellow achievement hunter Rooks, I set out to make a small event out of finishing backlogged games. The initial idea was this: “If I can’t decide on which to play, I’ll just have someone else do it for me“. You see, I’d already have seen the concept of playing achievements H-O-R-S-E in action and figured that a co-operative version of that would work nicely in a non-competitive environment.

(In essence, H-O-R-S-E is a competitive challenge where one player earns a specific achievement and then all the other participants must also do the same; if any participant fails to do so in a specific time limit, they earn a letter from the word “HORSE”, starting with H and ending with E; once that is done, the second player in a pre-defined order earns another achievement and the rest of the players once again try to also earn it in the specified time limit; and so on and so forth. Any players that complete the word HORSE – and thus have failed to follow the achievement-setting player 5 times – are eliminated and this goes on until only one player remains as the winner.It’s quite fun with 4 or more participants, so try it! If you don’t have enough players, a shorter version using the word P-I-G instead of H-O-R-S-E can be used, or even any other word of the players’ choosing.)

After a bit of discussion and back-and-forth of ideas, we ended up with the following guidelines:

(Note: This is best done with just two players, as it becomes harder to track with multiple participants. For the sake of accuracy, I’ll call these imaginary participants and B)

  1. Participant A should select 1-3 games from Participant B’s backlog.  Participant B has one month from the date of selection to complete at least one of these games at the 100% mark.
  2. Participant A can only select games (from B’s backlog) that fulfill these conditions:
    • Must be a game in which at least one achievement was already earned by B.
    • Must be a game that is under 20-25 hours in overall duration (tracker sites are useful for providing such estimates).
    • Must be a game that can be completed solo (so you don’t need to rely on other players for co-op/multiplayer achievements).
    • Must be a game that can be reasonably completed in that given month (so that seasonal achievements, such as “Play this game on Christmas day” etc. do not limit completion).
    • (Optional) Should be a game that A has at least some vague idea about and/or have played themselves.
  3. At the end of the 30-day period from day of selecting, B should have completed at least one of the three proposed games.
  4. Participant B follows the exact same guidelines to provide 1-3 games from Participant A’s backlog for them to attempt completing.

Naturally, a lot of variation can be added to make the game more interesting / challenging / competitive – adding a score for each game completed (based on time needed to complete); upping the selection to 5 games per month or lowering it to 1 but selecting one that requires at least 50 hours to complete; or even changing the time window from one month to more/less, as needed.

Results, results, results

We began this experiment on October 1st, with my selections for the month being Castle of Illusion and Toki Tori and I am very pleased to say that it worked out wonderfully as a motivating factor – one month later, Castle of Illusion sits at a cool 100% completion rate and Toki Tori is being worked on in small steps (we went for two  games per month, of which we should complete at least one, just to keep things simple). November’s selection for me includes Shank and Organ Trail which, thus far, seem to be progressing nicely. Stay tuned for November’s Backlog Cleanup for my impressions.

Overall, I found this an interesting way to stop backlog clearing from feeling like a chore – if you like this method, please use it and drop us a line in the comments, as I’d be very interested in seeing how it performs!