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Cake day: June 18th, 2023

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  • I’d say that if preventing boss cheese requires turning off the most basic core gameplay mechanic that the game is built around, then the entire design of the boss fight needs to be thrown out and rethought. Boss fights should make use of basic gameplay mechanics, not conflict with them. It’s not like this would’ve been rocket science for the Starbound devs. Terraria does it right, building suitable boss arenas is a major part of that game (the golem being the only exception, and even then only the first time you fight it). They could’ve just copied that like they copied so many other things. The lead dev of Starbound was one half of the original two-man team that created Terraria before founding his own company, so I’m really not sure how he managed to screw this up. He of all people should’ve known better.

    As for Starsector, I remember there was a back-and-forth between the players and the dev with respect to the solo playstyle. Some players liked to take a small, fast ship and just solo entire fleets by kiting them around, so the dev implemented combat readiness to put a stop to that, effectively putting a time limit on battles. Players responded by using larger ships with longer combat readiness and making them fast by stacking both speed-boosting hullmods (Unstable Injector and whatever the other one’s called), so the dev made those hullmods mutually exclusive. Every time players found a way to play the game in a way the dev didn’t like, he made changes to make such playstyles impossible, going so far as to implement entirely new systems and mechanics that serve no other purpose than to prevent playstyles he doens’t like. It’s become clear over the years that he simply doesn’t want players to be effective in the game in either combat or command capacity. He wants the game to be a tedious slog where you lose a chunk of your fleet in every battle without there being a damn thing you can do about it.

    The fact that combat is only a small part of the game and is all about fleet composition rather than fleet control is kinda the problem, that’s what I’m talking about when I say the game didn’t fulfill the expectations that its early versions created. Starfarer (as it was known back then before some copyright dispute) started out as just a list of battle scenarios, with no overworld map at all. It was all about ship and fleet control, fleet composition didn’t play a role at all because you couldn’t adjust it, you had to win each battle with whatever fleet the scenario gave you. Combat is what the game started with, it’s the core that everything else was built around. Unfortunately subsequent development saw basically no improvements to combat. Just about the only change I’d classify as an improvement was the command rework; in early versions you couldn’t even tell your ships where to move. Instead, the dev added more and more padding between battles, diluting the game to the point where combat is now only a small part of it and is mostly decided by fleet composition rather than the player’s piloting and tactics. The game has become the opposite of what it promised ten years ago.


  • I can’t agree with your recommendations of Starbound and Starsector. I spent a lot of time with these games trying to figure out why I wasn’t having a good time, and I think in both cases it boils down to the fact their development didn’t fulfill the expectations that the early versions created.

    Starbound has beautiful graphics and music and a charming atmosphere, but the gameplay is incredibly dull, the combat is awkward and clunky, your movement abilities are pathetic, etc., etc. For some reason the devs decided to implement a story, and it’s literally the dumbest shit I’ve ever heard. And even though this is a building game like Minecraft or Terraria, you can’t build your ship or any of the boss arenas, all bosses are fought in special levels that are protected from your mining/building tool with a magic forcefield. It’s like the devs didn’t even know what kind of game they were making.

    Starsector has the opposite problem, the dev knows exactly how he wants his game to play and implements mechanics specifically to prohibit other playstyles. You want to spend all your skill points on buffs for your piloted ship and play this like a space shooter? Too bad, your single ship will run out of combat readiness and explode. You want to sit back and just command your fleet without getting directly engaged? Too bad, every command you issue consumes a command point, and once you run out, you can’t give any more orders. Unfortunately the playstyle the dev enforces results in the player’s role diminishing as the game progresses and their fleet grows, until eventually the game mostly plays itself. The game is overengineered, bloated, and the development drags on. I’ve lost count of how many skill system reworks there have been in the last decade. The dev is just fiddling at this point, and a lot of the systems he’s been trying to balance for years could just be removed entirely without anything of value being lost (ECM, capture points & command points, combat readiness, etc.).



  • I think the idea is that this is the opposite of new, that trailer screams “screw all this weird new stuff, we’re going back to the roots”. As for whether that’s interesting… eh, maybe? I’m not convinced a horror film can work when you already know what the monster looks like and how it works. Aliens is a fantastic sequel precisely because its makers recognized that the alien wouldn’t be scary a second time, so they changed genres and made it an action flick instead. The next logical step would clearly be a slapstick comedy. This doesn’t look like that, but who knows, maybe the trailer is deceptive. ;-)





  • What about games that become less fun as their development goes along? That’s another thing I’ve noticed with some early-access games whose early versions were more… concentrated, for lack of a better term. If there’s progression involved, it tends to go pretty quickly in early versions. Development then doesn’t change how the game plays or where the progression begins and ends, instead it just adds padding between the fun bits and makes everything take longer. Ever encounter a game like that?


  • I’ve had a similar experience with a lot of early-access games. They always end up disappointing, and I’ve come to realize it’s because the fun comes not just from playing the game and watching it develop and improve but also in equal part from expectations. It’s easy to look at an unfinished game and imagine what it could be in the future, and those fantasies inevitably exceed what is actually feasible to put into the game. I try to steer clear of early-access games now.


  • Ah, thank you for your thoughtful response. I’ve tried to condense my thoughts as much as possible, but it’s still a giant wall of text. Sorry about that.

    I basically agree with most of what you said, there really is a lot to like about Oblivion. But I’ve always perceived a strange contrast in it between its excellent quest design and the way it treats the actual Elder Scrolls lore, and it has always bothered me. How could they put so much effort into one aspect of the game and so little into the other?

    When people reminisce about the game, they always mention their favorite quests: The Dark Brotherhood quest line, the quest where you go into a painting, the one with a paranoid elf, the one with a backwater village full of Lovecraftian cultists, the one where all the people in a village got turned invisible, the one where a ship that’s being used as an inn gets hijacked by pirates and sailed out to sea while you’re sleeping in it, the one where an orc gladiator finds out that he’s the son of a vampire, the one were you help two brothers reclaim their family farm… And these really are some of the best and most memorable quests in any RPG ever.

    But, with the exception of the DB, can you see what these have in common? They’re not Elder Scrolls quests. They have absolutely nothing to do with the setting, they’re as generic as can be. You could lift them from Oblivion and drop them into any other fantasy game, and they’d work just fine with basically no adjustments needed.

    When the game does make contact with the Elder Scrolls universe, it almost always does so in the most halfhearted and perfunctory way possible. The examples that stick out most in my mind are Boethiah’s quest and Mankar Camoran’s speech in Paradise. What sinister task does the Prince of Plots, whose domain is deceit, conspiracy, secret plots, assassination, and treason, have for you? Go into an arena and kill some dudes one after the other. Like… really? That’s a Mehrunes Dagon or Molag Bal quest, not a Boethiah quest! And the baddie, a supposed expert on all things oblivion, gives you a speech near the end of the game, during which he rattles off the names of some daedric princes and the planes of oblivion they rule over. Except that he gets every single one of them wrong. The writer threw in some TES terminology with no regard for what it actually means in the same way that Star Trek writers throw in technobabble.

    These are just two examples, but you notice stuff like this all over the game if you keep your eyes open. Most of the people working on the game, with the exception of the DB quest line designer/writer and maybe a handful of others, clearly didn’t give one singular crap about its setting, avoiding it as much as possible and putting in the bare minimum effort otherwise.

    Now the revelation I’ve had is not that the game is like this, I’ve known that for almost twenty years. It’s why it’s like this. It finally clicked as a result of combining three ideas:

    One, I recently watched a video by Zaric Zhakaron in which he points out that the people who created The Elder Scrolls left the company decades ago. He argues that Starfield’s worldbuilding stinks in comparison to Bethesda’s previous games because it’s the first game in decades where the developers actually had to do some themselves, they couldn’t simply insert new quests and stories into a world that had been made by others and that they simply inherited (TES) or purchased (Fallout). And it turns out they suck at it. There was barely anyone left of the old Bethesda after Morrowind.

    Two, modern Bethesda has no balls. Old Bethesda made a variety of different games, some of which were highly innovative both in terms of technology and design (e.g. it was Terminator: Future Shock, not Quake, that pioneered 3D enemies and mouselook in first-person shooters). But then Morrowind became a huge hit, and the price of success was the company’s soul. It spent the next twenty years making the same game over and over with different coats of paint.

    And three, I had a brief discussion about Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag. It’s a game I like a lot, but whenever I talk about it, I tell people that it’s an excellent pirate game whose biggest flaw is that it sometimes forces you to leave your ship and play Assassin’s Creed. It’s pretty clear the developers wanted to make a pirate game, but they still had to contort it into the AC straitjacket for marketing reasons.

    I’m sure you can tell where this is going. You said Oblivion was made with passion, and that’s only half true. Yeah, the developers clearly did want to make a good game, and in many ways they succeeded, but they had no passion for The Elder Scrolls, because it wasn’t their setting. They hadn’t made it, it was just a leftover from some guys who no longer worked there, and as a result the new guys didn’t know or care very much about it. They still had to make a game in it, though, because that’s what the fans wanted. The result is a rather formulaic game that distances itself from its own setting whenever it can, yet is unable to develop its own identity because it would clash, and mangles it when it can’t.

    Maybe I’m just slow and this stuff was obvious to everyone twenty years ago, but I feel a strange sense of closure having figured it out. If you made it this far, thanks for reading.





  • I agree about the history thing. I’m old enough to remember a time when games were derided as mindless schlock and even stories considered laughable by modern standards were lauded as profoundly impressive. At most one could argue that emphasis on story in games has followed something of a bell curve over time, but I don’t think even that is really true.

    But I think your time frame of Bethesda lacking ambition and innovation is a bit too broad. 30 years would include things like first-person shooters with an official Terminator license and groundbreaking graphics and controls (3D enemies and mouselook, which people usually attribute to Quake, but that came later) or hyper-realistic racing games with extensive customization of the car’s drivetrain and suspension. It wasn’t until they hit it big with MW that Bethesda lost their balls and started just remaking the same game over and over with different coats of paint.


  • Eh, Bethesda flip-flop on that kind of stuff all the time. IIRC in Arena, the Imperial City was just in generic temperate woodland, then it was retconned in some in-game books to a jungle, then retconned again in Oblivion back to generic woodland. Same thing with the armor of imperial soldiers. Generic fantasy plate in early games, Roman in Morrowind, generic fantasy plate in Oblivion again, Roman again in Skyrim… They just can’t make up their minds.

    I will say this, though: It’s okay to retcon old lore, but only in order to make it more unique and interesting. Retconning stuff to make it more generic and bland is a high crime.


  • Morrowind is the reason I’m in the game industry and has impacted my life more than any other single piece of media. It’s been heartbreaking for me to see the treatment Elder Scrolls has gotten. I was so excited for Skyrim it was the only game I’ve ever preordered, it’s the reason I originally got a Steam account, and the whole game is a let down start to finish.

    I feel pretty much the same as you about those games, which makes me very curious what your opinion of Oblivion is. I’ve recently had a bit of a (belated) revelation about it, so I’m interested in other opinions and discussion.