The Problem With Achievement Points

I’ll admit it that even though I have a pathetically low gamerscore, I’m looking forward to collecting more achievements while playing games on my XBOX 360.  However, some achievements are not even worth the effort, as this post from GameLemon demonstrates.

All the cheering and joy was suffice it to say, instantly diminished, when we saw what was a remarkably small number of points awarded for investing so much time in a game. Here’s the thing, I understand there are1000 points to dole out for an Xbox360 game and somebody somewhere has to determine what they’re going to be, how many you’ll get for offline play and how many you’ll get for multiplayer, yatta yatta yatta. But for us 360 folk the issue is that there is an amazing amount of imbalance with this system.

Is grinding painful or therapuetic?

Generally, when we think of “grind”, we often hear it in terms of the “daily grind,” the necessary, but not always enjoyable effort that we have to earn a paycheck, perform our responsibilities, and just get to the day.  In Role Playing Games (RPGs), the word grind is used to define the process of playing your character through the game in order to level him up, or make him stronger. In many rpgs, the narrative of the game must often be placed on the backburner while the player levels his character, through repetitive grinding, in order to get strong enough to progress to the next level.    Paul and I have both been playing Strategy RPGs (SRPGs), and we’ve been comparing our thoughts quite a bit.  Here’s what Paul sums up in a recent post:

It is not the game’s narrative that held me in the game’s world, it was my emotional connection with the individual characters. Like many role-playing experiences, the enjoyment is derived from the expanded story and characterization created by the player. Grinding has built up a camaraderie between the game characters and myself.While the game’s attempt at developing relationships has slowed as I’ve continued to grind, my emotional investment with the characters has continued to grow.

As I develop a personal investment in the characters, my commitment to the game and the success of each character grows. This isn’t a unique experience for video games. And the debate over which is more engaging: an open ended user created narrative vs. a tightly channeled game narrative is one that fills message boards on a regular basis.There is clearly a place for both. And some games find a balance between the two (the 12 million playing WOW’s new Lich King expansion are an example).

Is one narrative experience more valuable than other?

On July 21, my wife gave me my first SRPG, Disagea:Afternoon of Darkness.  Since then, I’ve put almost 50 hours into the game, and I’m currently about 80% finished with the game’s narrative.  In the game, after the completion of each Episode (generally a collection of 4 levels), the player receives a pretty substantial piece of the continuing narrative, which is delivered via cinematic cutscenes.  The player works through the levels (often playing and failing levels multiple times) in order to clear the episode and receive more of the story.  The story is the carrot that keeps the player involved in the game.  Up until Episode 11 (out of 13) in the game, I’ve been pretty much able to breeze through  most levels on the first or second try.  A a result, I have been able to receive the carrots fairly frequently.  However, my progress has come to a grinding halt (pun intended) in Episode 11.

In Episode 11, I have now faced a greater challenge than I have come across in previous levels.  The particular level that I am on has stronger enemies and more challenging level design.  After playing and failing to beat the level many times, I finally became aware that the team of characters that I crafted over the previous eleven levels would not be sufficient to clear the level, much less finish the game.  If this was any other game genre (action, adventure, shooter, etc) I would likely give up on the game at this point.  However, because SRPGs allow the player to truly control his experience with character creation and customization, I realized that this was part of the game.  Since I did not have the right mix of characters in my team, I would have to create new characters that would provide more balance to my party.

Unfortunately, you cannot just create new characters from scratch and throw them into battle in the 11th Episode of a game.  If you do, the new characters would likely be crushed instantly in battle.  In order to get your newly created characters ready, you have to return to previously finished levels with weaker enemies in order to level-up the characters. As the new characters defeat enemies, they get experience points, which contribute to their overall levels.  As they get more experience, the will be able to defeat tougher enemies.  In order for me to get past Episdode 11, I have created several Mages (magicians who can attack at a distance) and a few Clerics (magicians who can heal team members with magic).  Prior to getting stuck in the current Episode, I did not need these characters, and saw no need to create them.  However, once I got to Episode 11, I found that my Brawlers, Warriors, and Scouts (all traditional weapon wielders with swords, guns, and axes) would not cut it.  As result, I’ve spent the last 5 hours in the game leveling up my new Mages and Clerics.

Now going back to the drawing board here might really frustrate some gamers, particularly after the amount of time invested in the game.  Going back to a beginning level may seem pointlessly redundant, and I could easily become frustrated that I did not create the right characters in the first place.  Some may find that leveling up can be a ridiculously boring process, since you simply play previous levels in order to strengthen the weaker characters.  I initially thought I would feel the same, but I’m actually enjoying the process of level grinding.  And believe me, it is a process.

While playing the game in the early stages, I was so wrapped up in the story narrative that I did not pay much attention to the development of my characters. Sure, I added armor and new weapons to each character as I acquired them, but my main goal was to strive for the next piece of the narrative.  In the past five hours of the game, my primary goal has switched to the sole purpose of strengthening a handful of characters, not in progressing the story.  This has changed how I’ve played the game.  Before, when I was more concerned about the story, I would use my strongest characters the most in battle while avoiding the weaker ones.  Now that strategy has flipped, as I am now trying to get the weaker characters as strong as the most powerful ones.  Because I am now playing the beginning levels of the game with different characters, I have to employ different strategies than I did before, as each character plays differently. As such, I’m seeing and learning things about the game, and about myself as a player, a bit differently.

In other words, I had gotten quite comfortable with how I was playing the game.  The game shocked me out of my comfort zone at Episode 11, which caused me to stop, re-evlaulate, and play the game in a different way.  I’m now beginning to experience the game at a deeper level than before, and becoming stronger at different elements of the gameplay.   It’s almost like the game recognized my strengths and weaknesses as a player, and in Episode 11, it required that I become stronger in my weaker areas in order to proceed to the next level.  By exploring the game in a different way, I’m learning to master the game in totally different ways.  In the process of grinding, I have found the game to be more therapuetic than I thought it would be.  Kind of ironic, but I guess I’m escaping the “daily grind” by grinding.  However, in the game, I can see immediate results of my grind, while similar results don’t easily manifest themselves in the real world.

Update:  Paul discusses these concepts even deeper at Vs. Mode: Level Grinding in SRPGs as a Research Process.

Games, Research, and Hidden Evidence

This week I had the pleasure of finishing Syphon Filter:  Logan’s Shadow on my PSP.  I’ve had the game about a month, and with off-and-on play times, I was able to finish it relatively quickly.  It generally takes me forever to finish games, but the game had a pretty good story that I wanted to see through to the end.   A couple of days after the fact, I’m very pleased to have finished the game, and am longing for the next chapter of the game.  This is my second Syphon Filter game that I’ve completed on the PSP.  I’m already looking forward to the gameplay of the next Syphon Filter game, but I also want to see where the story goes next.   While ultimately fulfilled with the game and its challenges, I longed for a deeper understanding of the characters, their histories, and their futures.

My buddy Paul Waelchli writes extensively about the game’s narrative and how he was initially looking for more in the game’s story.   He and I agreed that there was a lot lacking in the story compared to previous Syphon Filter titles.  However, after investigating the game further, as any good gamer should, he discovered that much more of the game’s story was revealed in the hidden evidence files that he collected throughout the game.   Ultimately, after reading the hidden files, he’s come away from the game completely satisfied with the game’s resolution.  After reading his post, I’m looking forward to going home tonight and reading the hidden files myself so I, too, can dig a bit deeper into the story.

After some reflection, I’ve wondered why the game designers didn’t just put the entire narrative out there so that everyone could see it.  The answer to this relies in one of the core fundamentals of gameplay.  Playing games is all about choice. While Syphon Filter is a fairly linear game, the player can choose to play the game however he wants to.  He can fly through the levels, blasting everyone in his path and causing a huge ruckus, or he can try to sneak around and use stealth to complete a mission. The player can take time to explore every nook and cranny in the game to uncover hidden evidence files and other secrets, or he can simply stick to the well-defined path.  The player can choose which weapons to use and how to use them.  There are even incentives built into the game that encourage the player to play the game in different ways.  For example, as a player I get medals (which unlock more guns and other goodies) for using my knife more, for using the environment more, for using my sniper rifle more, and for simply surviving a level.  Basically the game rewards players for playing how they are most comfortable, while offering incentives to play the game in an entirely different way.  By offering the hidden evidence (which unlocks more story elements) and the medals (which unlocks more guns and additional game content), the game designers are encouraging gamers to not only play how they are comfortable, but to test themselves with new ways of play.   The player is rewarded for trying something new, for stepping outside of his comfort zone.

What’s important here is that the game didn’t force any of this down our throats.  As players in the game, Paul and I could choose how we wanted to play. We both finished the game within a day of each other, and we both really enjoyed our experiences.  However, we both likely played the game in very different ways.  He may have opted to use his knife more, I might have chosen to use my tazer gun more.  Nevertheless, after finishing the game, we both reached the same conclusion.  Also, since the game encourages replay with all of the unlockable content, we’re both very likely to return to the game in the future and try to play the game in differnt way (harder difficulties, with different weapons, more exploration, etc) in order to unlock more content.  We were rewarded for our mastery of the game,  the game will continue to reward us when we master the game at a new level.

So how can I take what I have learned about this game and about myself and apply it to my daily life as a librarian?  Here are a few initial thoughts:

1.  Recognize that research is a game.  The goal may be a dissertation, an address of a long-lost-friend, or a statistic for a speech.  Trial and error helps the researcher unlock the information that they need, and each researcher may approach the process differently.

2.  Recognize the need of the patron.  Like the game, we need to realize that not every single researcher wants spend enormous time to unlock every single nugget of content.  Sometimes they just want three articles.  And that’s it.

3.  Wait for users to drive the research process.  If after showing the patron how to find three articles, and he asks “how do I know which one is good?”, then you can show him how to evaluate the resources.  We should not expect that all users will want to master research in the same way.  Just like the example from Syphon Filter, if they are left wanting more, they’ll let you know if they need more hidden evidence.

4. Understand that it takes time to hold the controller correctly.  When I first picked up a PlayStation controller, it took me forever to figure out where all the buttons were.  For each game, the buttons are assigned to different purposes.  However, gamers eventually figure out which buttons do what.  Likewise, we need to understand that each interface (Google, OPAC, Ebsco, etc) are likely to have the same buttons, but perhaps slightly different functions.

5.  Encourage mastery.  This may be as simple as saying, “If you need more help or get stuck, come back and see me.”  As librarians, we hold the key to unlockable content that can help complete the researcher’s story.  It’s our job to let them know we are available to be their guide.

Not all gamers are alike

This is a sweeping generalization, but I found this commment to be fairly descriptive and funny:

Social gaming is big in Europe, and FPS and Action games are big in the US. Japan likes gimmicky tamogotchi-like games with fuzzy creatures and characters with hairdos that defy gravity.

For the record, I’m currently playing one of those gimmcky games from Japan, and I’m liking it.

My Gaming Backlog

I’ve got a hefty backlog of games that I want to play. Many gamers refer to this backlog as a “pile of shame,” as they are often games that they’ve been meaning to get around to for quite some time. There’s quite a few games out there for my current systems, the PS2 and the PSP, and many of these great games are available at very cheap prices (around 20 bucks or less). With those low prices, it’s quite easy to pick up a game for a good deal periodically. Unfortunately, each game you get for a good deal can make the pile of shame grow even larger. I’ve done my best to limit my purchases to games that have been highly rated (generally 8/10 or above) or that happen to be on one of the many greatest games lists.  In this way my gaming dollar and gaming time is only spent on the higher-quality titles.  Nevertheless, in picking up great games at a bargain, my backlog had gotten quite large.   In an effort to attack my pile, here’s a list of games that I am working on.

I’ve been chipping away gradually at this backlog.  I’ve tried to limit myself to only playing one game on my PSP and one game on my PS2.  I recently finished Ratchet&Clank:Size Matters on my PSP, but rather than moving on to another PSP title, I may try to spend some time unlocking additional items in Ratchet, Syphon Filter, or other games that I have finished in an effort to complete the games.

Here’s a list of games that I have finished in the last 6 months.  Unless otherwise noted, the games are PS2 titles.

  • Ratchet & Clank:Going Commando
  • Ratchet & Clank: Up Your Arsenal
  • Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty
  • Daxter (PSP)
  • Syphon Filter: Dark Mirror (PSP)
  • this one).
  • Ratchet & Clank: Size Matters (PSP) (just finished last night)

Here’s the list of Games in Progress under my TV:

  • Metal Gear Solid 3 (currently about 60% (~12 hours) of the way through this one).
  • Ratchet & Clank (currently on the last level. As this is the first in the series, I don’t know if I’ll complete this one.  )
  • Kingdom Hearts  (stuck on Ursula in the little mermaid level.  I go back and forth if I really want to beat this one.  I currently have about 25 hours invested in the game, and am likely 75% complete.)
  • Bully (approximately 75% (~20 hours) finished with the story, but only 54% complete with the game. )
  • Shadow of the Colossus (I’ve beaten the first two Colossi, but haven’t picked the game up in a couple of months.  Likely I will delete my saved game file and start this one over.)
  • James Bond: Everything or Nothing (I’m approximately 60% finished with this game, although the difficulty has ramped up significantly and may prevent me from returning.)
  • DIsgaea: Afternoon of Darkness (PSP)  (just got started with this one)

Finally, here’s what is sitting on my shelf:

  • Resident Evil 4 (played about 5 hours into this one.  I love the game, but put it down for too long.  I have since deleted my save file, as I will start from the beginning again)
  • God of War (same as RE4 above)
  • Jak 3
  • Ico (I played about 2 hours into this in one sitting.  I’m not sure why I dropped it, but I’m definitely looking to get back in to this one. )
  • Psychonauts
  • Dragon Quest VIII  ( I really want to play this one, but I am a bit concerned about the amount of time needed to finish this enormous role playing game).
  • Tomb Raider: Anniversary (I beat the original Tomb Raider on PS1a long time ago, but I’m looking forward to reliving the experience).
  • Prince of Persia:  Sands of Time  ( I got to the first real boss and put it down for a while.  I’ve since deleted the saved game in hopes of returning to it again.)
  • Dead Head Fred (PSP)
  • Metal Gear Solid (PS1) ( I played through this one until you had to swap to the second cd.  My PSOne would not switch to the 2nd disc for some reason.  I got the game back from a friend, who had it for about 5 years.  Even with dated graphics, I’m looking to play this one again.)

In addition to these two lists, I also have a list of games to be on the lookout for that I’d like to play but do not own.  However, I’ve resolved to not purchase any more PS2 games.  I figure by the time I’ve finished or played all my PS2 games to satisfaction, the PS3 will actually be within reach of my budget.  On the other hand, I’m spending more time with my PSP these days, and there are quite a few titles on my to-get list.