Archive for category Analysis

The Turn of the Cards

During our initial play of World’s Fair: 1893, we noticed that getting Influential Figure cards was an important part of the strategy, because it let you place more tokens on spaces. And with area majority, being able to place more tokens is a big advantage. But we observed that some players had fewer opportunities to collect these special cards, and were at a disadvantage when it came time to score.  That observation initiated a discussion over how random card draws can have a big effect on the gameplay of some games. This is a really interesting type of randomness to study because it’s not simply an input or output randomizer. It has some far-reaching and subtle effects depending on how it is used in the game. Read the rest of this entry »

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Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and Me: Part 2

Part 1

Stardew Valley brings back a lot of what made the original Harvest Moon work so well, while picking up the best notes of the rest of the series. You have control over your farm on a square by square basis. Almost everything in the game is available early on, you just need to work to get there by making enough money and collecting enough resources. There are secrets to discover, events to trigger, and improvements to unlock. The town center and bulletin board give you achievement-like long and short term goals. But (possibly as a symptom of being designed by one person) there isn’t an overwhelming amount. At the start of my second year, I’ve done much of what I need to accomplish to feel successful.

There are some shortcomings. Fishing would be overly confusing without using an online guide. Seasonal transitions are abrupt and surprisingly disastrous for your farm. (“This whole area was clear yesterday!”) And to me the town feels lively, but artificial. It feels set up specifically for me, which is unsurprising, as it actually was set up for the player. That’s admittedly difficult as a designer because you want the player to feel like his presence matters, but too much and it feels like everything revolves around you. The crafting system feels mostly superfluous. A lot of items are locked behind having access to certain materials, which is good for progression. But it doesn’t add much to the game versus just having to buy items from a store.

The Community Center is a mixed bag. While it definitely guides the player to accomplish a variety of different tasks, it feels arbitrary, and locks parts of the game behind what is essentially a collection side-quest. There is a missed opportunity to make the town come alive by having specific events unlock these gradually. For comparison, the bridge repair in Harvest Moon 64 stands out to me. At a designated point, the carpenters ask you to help repair the broken bridge, and you can actually work for them, performing repairs. The end result is simply access to a new area, but it feels integrated in the game.

The thing that stands out most to me is that Stardew Valley can be a little too flexible for the player. Shops are open almost all the time. And while it’s annoying to not be able to buy something you need when a shop is closed, some of my favorite moments have been realizing that the shop I need is closed because everyone is at Tuesday Yoga. You need to plan ahead in order to make the most out of your schedule. I also miss the struggle over how to lay out your farm. That was what made the original Harvest Moon a game. You have limited time (in game and real life), money, space, and energy, that you were constantly trying to balance. And it’s all summed up in trying to arrange your crops.

crops

3×3 Crop Arrangments

Seeds used to come in bags that cover a 3×3 grid. Since they’re expensive, you want to get the most out as possible (optimizing your money item use). But if you plant 3×3, you can’t reach the crop in the middle. So you look at other options. A thin C shape gets you 7 of 9, and lets you reach all the spaces (optimizing time to water) but takes up more room. It’s also very efficient at watering/harvesting [1] A thick C uses 8 of 9, but is less efficient at watering. Rows is the least effective use of seeds, but is very fast. Interestingly, they all have the same space utilization—2 out of every 3 spaces is used in the repeating pattern—but they vary in time efficiency, seed efficiency, and energy efficiency. These things change if crops crops re-grow, allowing you to reach the central squares after harvesting.

To get more space, you need energy, to get more energy you need more time, to get more time, you need money to upgrade, and to get money, you need space, energy, and time. It’s a great feedback loop where the “best” plan depends on whether your time, money, energy, or space is the most important at any given moment. When you can simply walk over crops, the layout isn’t that important. Of course, Stardew Valley still creates a lot of other decisions on a moment to moment basis, but this one aspect is symbolic of the types of ambiguous decisions I want in the game.

Now, if it seems like this has been trending negative, that’s because I’m focusing on the aspects I miss in a farming game. Stardew Valley is a very good game in most regards, pretty clearly inspired by and an homage to Harvest Moon. And I think it shows that its creator is missing a lot of the same things about the older Harvest Moon games as I am.

One place it succeeds where the recent Harvest Moon games fail is that the energy, time, and money difficulty all scale well with respect to each other. Early on, you can’t clear everything to make space because you’ll run out of energy. You have foraging and fishing to bring in extra money, but those take lots of time. Crops bring plenty of money for a moderate amount of energy, but need the space and time, and money to buy seeds first. And space is somewhat limited by your tools and the amount of time you have.

It’s difficult to make that balance work so well for so long in the game. And it happens mostly invisibly, because as I progress I’m getting more efficient at doing more stuff, but it takes more money to keep up with the upgrades I need to move forward. I’m much more productive and efficient in my second year, but it feels like I have even less time than I did when I wasn’t as productive. And that’s part of what makes it so entertaining. It constantly feels like I can’t quite accomplish everything I need to, but in a good way. It’s a lot like the boardgame that got me hooked on boardgaming.

Part 3

(In the original Harvest Moon, you can water the 3×3 grid centered on you after you earn a sprinkler, while in HM64 you must upgrade your watering can before you can water an adjacent 3×3. In both, the reachable area changes during the game).[back]

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Harvest Moon, Stardew Valley, and Me: Part 1

I haven’t been writing very much in the last few months. Part of that is due to my putting time into preparing for and recovering after Unpub6, finalizing New Bedford for printing, and preparing some games for design contests. But another part is that I’ve been putting a lot of time into playing Stardew Valley, the recent smash hit indie video game about farming. There’s something about farming that really speaks to me as a game player and a game designer, and it’s probably safe to say that I wouldn’t be where I am without farming games.

My history with farming games goes back to Harvest Moon on the Super Nintendo. I don’t remember reading about it in Nintendo Power, but I enjoyed gardening with my grandfather and gave it a try. It was a completely new experience to me, and it was remarkably fun to simulate chores. The game was a constant balance between how to use your limited time, energy, and money, that somehow captured the feeling of country life. You want to keep playing because you see things change every day. It compresses the hope, excitement, and best aspects of changing seasons into an accessible package.

Looking back, the game was remarkably simple. For two of four seasons, there wasn’t a single crop to plant or harvest. Inventory management was severely limited. There was little customization, and barely any story. But maybe the biggest flaw was that time doesn’t pass after about 8 at night. You could repeatedly restore your energy at the hot spring, clear your entire farm on the first night. But the game still worked.

Harvest Moon 64 basically fixed all of those problems. [In my experience, the prevailing opinion is that HM64 was the pinnacle of the series.] I know consider it the It kept the formula that worked so well. But now you had an actual inventory (albeit a clunky one), there were more crops, more things to do, and lots of little secrets to discover. The townsfolk had their own troubles and lives, and your relationships with them invisibly influenced events, and  if you just focused on your farm, you might not even notice some of them. People would seem to arrive and depart randomly.

The next several iterations veered more towards being life simulator. A Wonderful Life focused more on building relationships and growing your family over time. Farming was a very limited aspect, and the game didn’t grab me (although the weather and seasonal transitions were amazing). Magical Melody turned the customization up to 11, and added people arriving or leaving based on what you shipped, with an “achievement” system to guide players with objectives while keeping a lot of the basic mechanics.

I skipped a number of the intermediate games because of lack of time and interest and poor reviews. But the latest games have really tried to be life simulators than farming games. Animal Parade had a lot of promise, but everything was locked behind friendship and scripted events, making it too mechanical. The 3DS games have have fallen victim to Minecraft, with a huge “crafting” system required to do anything. The last Harvest Moon title (Lost Valley) borrows very heavily from Minecraft. And the series has fractured with the developers now publishing under the Story of Seasons brand. Story of Seasons, like A New Beginning fail in playability. You constantly run out of energy too quickly, leaving you with nothing to do but forage for items, which you have to keep all of because you need everything for crafting.

The fracture in the series is symbolic of the fracture taking place within the game. Each one adds on more and more things that you have to do to play the game “right”. You can’t just own cows, you have to take them out to feed in the special place or they’ll never grow. You can’t just plant crops and harvest them, you need to unlock farming areas and compete for them. Mining is a wholly random process. As a result, the games seem disjointed into several game-like activities revolving around farming, without any of the joy of the original Harvest Moon games. The real goal seems to be forcing the player into specific curated events to tell a story, rather than letting the player create the story themselves, which is something I identify as the core of the Harvest Moon experience.

The original Harvest Moon took chores and made them fun. The recent games some how manage to take fun and make it a chore. The work itself used to be interesting. Now, I have to work as a player in order to do anything interesting. Farmville (and mobile gaming in general) has poisoned the whole concept, where the “game” is about filling your time between things happening. I’m still drawn to farming, but I want something that follows the original formula without all the extra baggage that the series has collected.

Enter: Stardew Valley.

Part 2

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Why We Can’t Have a Great Oregon Trail Boardgame

For a lot of people my age, the video game Oregon Trail is a piece of nostalgia. It brings back memories of sitting around a computer screen, bathed in its monochrome green light (or maybe a few more colors if you were lucky), watching your family members die off one by one as they attempt to cross the thousands of miles of American wilderness with a covered wagon and some oxen. It was a magical experience. Nowadays, there are a lot of video games and board games that draw on some of the same thematic elements of pioneering in the American west. There have been attempts made at recreating the experience of Oregon Trail, but few have been very successful. Clearly, the interest in the theme is there, but nobody seems to be able to capture the feeling just right. I think the reason is that the people had no idea how to play. Read the rest of this entry »

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Returning to Secret of Evermore

Secret of Evermore

In 1995, the makers of Final Fantasy released an experiment. They formed a group to develop a game with a distinctly western (American) feel, with the technical and artistic strengths typical of mid-1990s Japanese RPGs. The result was Secret of Evermore, a game that still holds a lot of allure after nearly 20 years. I recently returned to that world to examine what makes it so fascinating. Read the rest of this entry »

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