My Time with Hacktag

Original Article on Fortiscore. Check it out here!

It often feels like co-op games are a dying breed. More and more often, we’re given games with PvP or extremely competitive situations where even cooperation is made in favor of smashing someone else’s team into the dirt. You can imagine my excitement when I was invited to test out Piece of Cake’s new game, Hacktag, at GDC.

Before I played, I briefly sat down with the CEO and Co-CEO of Hacktag to learn about their game. To them, there wasn’t really a game you could play with two people, especially a couples game. They wanted a challenging but co-op game for the both of them to enjoy (and even yell at each other about. Something I found both pretty funny and oddly adorable).

Thus was born Hacktag: A co-op game where two hackers are in charge in infiltrating organizations based on real-life corporations such as news stations and pharma companies. At a glance, everything is pretty stylized; Every agent and person in Hacktag is an anthropomorphic being based on some real-life creature. Wily cats, clever foxes and more are all represented here. You’ll be able to customize your character with a variety of clothes and races too. With the alpha, I slipped into the shoes of a cat-person with some pretty nifty clothing. Our target? Some valuable data in the corporation.

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Agent View…

Missions are divided into three types: A mass data-collection where you and your partner have to run around gathering a set amount of info, a mission type where you have to get to one major piece of info from a heavily guarded area, and finally a mission where you have to sabotage and hack your way through a series of tough challenges. You can customize special skills as well, though these are small benefits and won’t greatly impede new players versus old players. For the demo, we played a data-collection type twice…for a major reason.

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…and the Hacker view!

Hacktag is, interestingly enough, an asymmetrical co-op game. One player is the agent running through the real-world area of the corporation, ducking behind desks and quickly tapping computer screens. The other takes control of an agent hidden miles away behind a computer desk, hacking through the lines. It’s a fascinating change of pace and quite enjoyable, as the two play similarly enough to not get new players lost but enough to keep things fresh between the two modes.

Bérenger Dupré (The Co-CEO) and I played through the mission, with him tapping phones to distract guards while I’d run past and disable firewalls for him. Another major feature is that there is a slight element of competition in who can gather more data. It’s not enough to make you forsake your partner (as that’s a game-over for both of you) but it’s enough to make you pause and swipe some data before getting their door open.

The game uses hacking in a variety of minigames, where both players have to match lines, complete button sequences and rapidly tap. I was told there would be more to come in this department, so I can’t imagine these getting old anytime soon. Playing through both sides, I found myself greatly enjoying the world and gameplay as I helped my partner escape out of locked rooms, distracted guards and more while he disabled firewalls and bugged out security programs.

Of course, longevity is a questionable thing and boy does Piece of Cake have you covered. Hacktag will have online and couch co-op, along with a five-hour story campaign for each of the three corporations. In addition, there will be weekly challenges to beat the studio as well as a seed/procedural-generation system where you can share levels with your friends and foes.

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This only happened once or twice. Promise.

Perhaps the highest praise I can give this game is that, during my playtest, Bérenger took a moment to gather some data while I was being chased by an angry security system that caught me trying to sneak past it. “Ugh you JERK!” is what I said, but despite this, I still wanted to help. This wasn’t a co-op game where a partner acting selfish hurts you both and provokes spite. No, it made me think of smarmy, sarcastic hackers exchanging quips and one-liners while they had a love-hate relationship from movies and television shows. Piece of Cake Studios has done something amazing with this game and I really cannot wait to play it again with a friend of mine in the near future.

Hacktag is currently on Steam Greenlight, with PS4 and Xbox One support in the future. I highly recommend you give it a go, as co-op games of this caliber should be supported and loved. Even if you exchange some harsh words with your friend who skulked with data while you nervously paced in a prison cell.

All pictures credit to Piece of Cake Studios.

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Multiple Versions: Archaic Mechanic or Useful Expansion?

Since picking up Pokemon Sun for my trip next week, I started thinking about how some game companies still do multiple versions of a single game. I felt the need to dig into this and to further explore if this system is something archaic or something that is still necessary.

As an Archaic Mechanic

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Perhaps the biggest criticism one can make about games with multiple versions is that they’re no different than the board game example I linked above: The same game sporting one-or-two unique features and a handful of cosmetic fluff that doesn’t warrant the price tag of an entirely new game.

Pokemon in particular is pretty bad with this; When you consider the differences between Sun and Moon, the most you can attest is that there are a handful of different pokemon in each. Sure, there are some mechanical nuances such as starter gender or otherwise, but the games are fundamentally the same.There are rarely unique mechanics that you can find in either that don’t carry over.

To further exacerbate this issue, these games are often sold at the same price. Meaning that sometimes if you want to catch an extra ten pokemon to complete your pokedex, you need to either find someone to trade with or drop another forty on the same game. It’s no fun to have to buy the same game twice for minute differences…

As a Useful Expansion

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When done correctly, different versions can serve as impressive expansions or differences that make the two games truly unique, even if they use the same mechanics. The perfect example would be the two fire emblem games. Despite having the same mechanics, each path is radically different.

Conquest is the more traditional, harder route. Tough maps, limited gold/experience and overall more traditional fantasy units. Birthright features easier maps, the ability to grind and units inspired by the nation of Hoshido, which in turn is heavily inspired by ancient Japan. These two games, while similar, offer radically different paths and gameplay despite using the same core gameplay.

But most importantly: The other edition won’t set you back by much. Each additional story path (including a third not pictured) will set you back only a fraction of the cost of the core game. Meaning that your initial purchase can remain your initial purchase. Any content you miss out on is merely an entirely different game with different rules, maps and units that you have to work with.

Earnestly, it strikes the feelings of an old RTS expansion pack: Additional content at a reduced price that radically changes the game.

My Take

In earnest, there are things you can’t really replicate. The necessity multiple versions creates where you have to find friends to trade and communicate with. The requirement that you’re going to have to step out of your game to finish everything, if you’re a completion. The need to check a list before your buy one version in case you’re missing something important only one copy provides.

When done well? I think it’s fantastic. But I do think that most versions these days are not really worth keeping around. Doubly so when games like Pokemon often create a third, “best” version that has everything you missed from the opposite version and more. Versions and editions are not something conducive to gameplay anymore, something that we don’t truly need to worry over.

While I’ll always have a soft spot in my heart for these games, take the two versions and slap them together. I’d feel far more confident buying “Pokemon: Eclipse” than I would buying either Sun or Moon.

How “Unhappy Reunion” in Fire Emblem: Conquest exemplifies the entire series.

Picking up Fates again after a long hiatus, I discovered something. In replaying the map “Unhappy Reunion”, I came to realize just how this single map compresses every aspect of Fire Emblem into a single map. Be warned: There are VERY slight spoilers but don’t worry too much. It’s only chapter ten so there won’t be any shocking reveals here.

The Premise

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“Unhappy Reunion” takes place in chapter ten of Fire Emblem: Conquest. In this map, you’re leaving to meet the rainbow sage before you encounter your blood brother, Takumi. As it turns out, he’s more than a bit upset that you sided with Nohr over your kingdom of birth. You’ll have to hold out and defend the town until backup arrives or else risk losing a valuable port town to Hoshido.

The map itself is a bunker-style map. Takumi sits in the lower left corner, sending waves of his troops to assault you while your meager party of ten hold out against what seem to be overwhelming odds. That said, there are turrets which can change the tide…but that’s getting ahead of the real glory of the mission.

How the Mission Proceeds

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Up to this point, Conquest has been stingy with good units. From an unlucky champion of justice to an frail, smarmy mage, good units are at a premium. Along with that, experience has been low for Conquest so every kill counts. Likely at this point, the player has been relying on Corrin to get by. Further still, it doesn’t help that there are houses you can visit to gain valuable items like gold, a dracoshield and more. Even worse, your fastest units are Elise (who is made of paper) and Silas (a tanky knight). Things seem stacked against you.

That’s when this mission throws you the first (and only) bone: Camilla, Beruka and Selena appear to aid you. While Selena is another useful swordswoman, Beruka and Camilla are likely your first flying units. Camilla is also the first “godly” unit you get. A flying powerhouse known as a malig-knight, Camilla can easily tank scores of units provided you don’t send her suicide diving into her weakness of archers.

Yet as the mission progresses, things become more dire. The units keep coming as you struggle to hold out. Walls break and new paths are open. Perhaps the biggest “Oh shit” moment comes when Takumi taps a dragon vein, evaporating the water and making it even easier to assault your position. It’s a hard map, especially on harder difficulties and even more so when you try to get out without a casualty and with all the items.

Exemplifying Fire Emblem

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Fire Emblem is a game series about strategy, choice and sacrifice. It’s a series built around taking risks and maximizing resources so you can hope to make it past the later stages where the difficulty ramps up significantly. You’re often given a powerful unit early but one that degrades in value as a handful of good units often outweighs one god-tier unit. This is where “Unhappy Reunion” truly shines:

  • You have to make tough calls. Do you bumrush Takumi so he can’t tap the dragon vein or do you turtle up so it’s harder to get to the tiles?
  • You can’t rely on godly units. Corrin and Camilla might be amazing but you need your team to strengthen for later maps.
  • Planning requires thinking ahead several turns. Can Niles hit the pegasus units if they get close enough? Can Odin hold down a choke-point despite being a mage?
  • Risk-taking is rewarded. In a mode where gold and items count for everything, can you afford to miss the gold? More importantly, would losing Felicia be worth that item?
  • It’s hard. Even on the easiest mode, the game will kick you in the teeth if you make even a slight mistake. Enjoy losing Mozu to the wrong crit at the wrong time.

All in all, this single eleven turn map puts the entirety of Fire Emblem, a series spanning decades, into a single scenario. It tapped into everything about the series, good and bad, to create a great encounter. Tropes, commonalities and even overarching strategies all culminate in a single, really amazing fight against your blood brother.

Regardless of how much you like the series, one has to admire the quality and skill it took to put the entire series down into a single map.

Fire Emblem Heroes: Flawed Yet Fun

Normally, I should hate something like Fire Emblem Heroes. I should despise the simplification, the gatchapon, the incessant demand to grind for your favorite characters. Yet here I am, still playing and with intention to continue playing well beyond the initial launch and into the foreseeable future. The question is…why?

Strategy Made Lite…

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Don’t expect anything groundbreaking going into Heroes. The story is about as basic as it gets; Warring kingdoms, plot twists you can see looming like skyscrapers in the distance and generic (but likeable!) characters. So what “does” it do well? As it turns out, the core gameplay.

Heroes has done an incredible job of boiling down the core Fire Emblem experience into an easy-to-digest mobile game with maps you can handle in the span of about five-to-ten minutes, depending on difficulty. The ever-present weapon triangle (Swords > Axes > Spears > Swords) is now more brutal than ever, with counters being damning if you flop on your face or bring the wrong party. In addition, limiting your squad to four heroes means every decision counts. While perma-death is absent, slamming your head against a wall is only going to waste stamina.

The Fire Emblem license also comes into play beautifully here. Old favorites like Lyn and Marth clash with the new hotness such as Lucina and Ryoma. A character roster spanning several games all appear, from the pot-wearing trainee Donnel to the hulking armored lord that is Hector to the busty and protective Camilla, any fan of FE can find their favorite hero. Each hero is lovingly made real with wonderful art ranging from a painted “Final Fantasy” style to a cartoony, heavy-brush style.

The story campaign is also quite robust. With around forty-five maps of varying difficulty and three difficulty levels, you’ll have some time to spend. In addition, expect seasonal maps, PvP, and maps to grind to raise your heroes from low-tier-trainees to high-tier-titans. By all accounts, Heroes could be the mobile game fans have been waiting for between 3DS releases, right?

…Grinding Made Heavy

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For the unaware, Heroes uses a “gatchapon” system of unlocking. By paying orbs (Five for an initial unlock with a cost up to twenty if you unlock every orb on your screen), you can fish for new heroes to find your favorite character. Each orb is color coded depending on the triangle so you can semi-hone your search. Unfortunately, this doesn’t take away the grindy RNG aspect of trying to get your favorite hero. Don’t let my picture fool you: I’m a lucky S.O.B. for pulling a Roy and Lucina in the same pack. Doubly lucky they’re both five stars, as you can get major heroes in lower star variants.

In additon, the rarity system takes forever to grind. Feathers can be acquired by daily log-in and arena bonuses. That’s not to say it’s impossible to get your three-star Robin to a five-star. It’s just going to take ages. There was a bandage fix released that gave a ton of feathers for players recently but in the long term, the grind will increasingly turn players off. Especially when you’re only allotted three PvP battles a day and have a fairly draconian energy meter.

Speaking of the arena and PvP, balance is a tad off at the moment and there are some real standout heroes. Takumi in particular is a colorless (and neigh-counterless) bowmaster who will shred anyone who comes within two spaces, all the while boasting good stats. Expect to see a LOT of Takumi, either from lucky people or those who were grinding hardcore. Thus we get to the other problem: Getting orbs post-campaign is impossible, meaning if you want a new hero you’re -going- to have to shell out money. While fun, Heroes will burn out quickly and go the way of Pokemon: Go if it doesn’t receive a steady stream of updates.

The Verdict

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As with many mobile games, Heroes shows promise. In a perfect world they’d lower the grinding, make orbs better available (albeit no replacement for microtransactions) and add more maps and heroes. It could very well be the perfect starter game for someone who wants to try Fire Emblem and lead into a new age for a franchise brought back from the brink of death.

In the opposite world, Heroes could expand the grinding, break balance even further and release updates that favor paying users over the standard, casual player. It would die a slow and painful death while draining a bit more money from whales in the short term rather than bank on long term success. It’d also greatly damage the Emblem brand, hurting sales for future games as this is the first forray into the fantasy worlds of Fire Emblem.

Only time will tell. For now? I recommend you try it. It’s a fun, free strategy game. Just don’t spend too long playing it otherwise you’ll burn through content like midnight oil.

TL;DR: A fun, enjoyable strategy game with a Fire Emblem skin that is somewhat bogged down by free-to-play mobile issues.

Politics and Video Games

With the changing landscape of politics in the US, for better or worse, there is talk going around about the place of video games and how they affect things. No media is truly apolitical; regardless of how you think or feel, the feelings of an author, artist or designer will always shine through and show just what their true intentions are.

Directly Political Games

It’s not uncommon for a political or questionable game to turn heads. Often these take the form of faux documentaries that outline a story that perhaps hasn’t been told. Ironically, for all the things we have related to World War II, very little of those same shooters cover a multitude of angles. D-Day, the capture of Berlin, and more are tread and retread over and over. We don’t cover the conflict in Africa. We don’t talk about the preceding time with Germany slowly overtaking Europe. Perhaps most crucially we don’t speak of the Holocaust and the millions it affected.

Games have begun to shift however. We now see more games dedicated to telling hard-hitting stories and more about those who haven’t had their voices heard. Marginalized groups getting their voices heard are important but the real change is how games are perceived. Games have evolved beyond being mere entertainment tools. We don’t think games are out of line for addressing political topics and we don’t argue that games are stepping out of line because they’re covering a mature, serious topic.

Indirectly Political Games

Of course, as I said in the opening, not every game is directly political. One doesn’t have to look far to find parallels when it comes to games and political climate. A game could be a forewarning from someone who fled a war-torn country, a coping mechanism about how they survived in such a harsh world. A game discussing the ramifications of religion and the battle between the factual nature of science versus the spiritual nature of religion could have parallels to the world we live in today.

I am not advocating for either side. The important thing is to remember that every game and every story has meaning in its own right. Perhaps most importantly is that these games can serve as subtle defiance against what the world is today comparatively to what it could be. As an example, compare America’s political climate to the beginning of Fable III: You take control of a prince who fights against a corrupt system and eventually overthrows it to restore order in his own way. Regardless of how you feel politically, both liberals and conservatives can find common ground in how they feel about politics today: overthrowing a system they see as morally corrupt.

These stories are fairly common throughout fiction and games are no exception. Perhaps most importantly of all is the fact that they place you, the player, in the conflict. Be it as the one who is leading the charge or perhaps as a bystander watching the events unfold out of your control? You’re going to be the one who is there watching this.

The Importance of Games

Just as I said that media has covered this before, my point that they serve as a personal journey rather than something written on paper is the greatest edge games have over other forms of media. A political movie might move your heart but you’re still watching a story unfold. A book about politics may “open your eyes” to the truths of the world but you’re only studying the information given to you.

Games, however, teach you to go beyond. Games put you in this conflict and give you emotional attachment to those who are there and the things you encounter. When your son dies in Papers, Please? He’s not the protagonist’s son, he’s YOUR son. Perhaps I’m overestimating the impact games have on people’s emotions. Maybe I’m just being a starry-eyed idealist who thinks that games can be a powerful form of media that explores an entirely new spectrum of emotions that people before didn’t have the means to experience.

In this trying political time for many, it is important to remember that games can serve as a fresh, new experience for people to think about politics and how these stories can shape our world and how we think. No matter what, games are just like any other form of media. And like any other form of media, we have to account for the political impact they can have in our world.

Should Games Balance Around Pro or PUBs?

(Credit to David Maletz for the header!)

A common argument I see among gamers, be it in League of Legends most commonly, is the divide between balancing for pro play or the highest tier of play vs. balancing around PUB play or the majority player. Both have merit but I wanted to dive more into this because of how common it is.

The Case for Pro Play

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When it comes to quality gameplay and the sheer mechanics of the game, nobody knows it better than the highest echelon of players. The 6k MMR people. The Challengers. The guys playing for teams like Fnatic, Na’vi and TSM. Balancing around these guys does make sense. After all, they understand the game better than anyone else. More importantly, it creates a better environment for pro play and esports. Why wouldn’t you want to have a thrilling show of the best players playing a game designed around them?

Along with this, pro play often has a “trickle down” way of things happening. People mimic what the pros do for better or worse. This means that they’ll pick up strategies, characters and more that don’t make total sense to them but they do it anyways. By balancing around pro play, you tell players that they too can be the mechanical gods they see on Twitch. It’s important for your game to have a highest echelon so that they can see where the true greatness is.

Pros make your game thrive. Why WOULDN’T you balance around them?

The Case for Casual Play

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Because pros make up less than one percent of your playerbase.

When it comes to games, the casuals will always outnumber the pros. It’s a fact of life. Not everyone has the reflexes, skills or mechanical know-how to rise above. These people will still play your game, sure, but there is a sense that these are your main consumers. Often, these people don’t have time to “git gud”. They’re hardworking employees, studious students or just parents who only have time for a single game a night before it’s time to put the kids to bed.

Casuals also make up your core monetary base and care more about the visually flashy and interesting than the esports related things. Even at their peaks, League and DOTA pull in around ten-to-forty percent of their playerbase to watch esports. There’s a market for it, yes, but people would often rather play the game itself. Casuals are often the ones who become “whales” as well, despite the cringe-inducing term applied to people who spend a lot. In pure economics, it makes absolute sense to balance for the ninety-nine who play your game once a day rather than the one who dedicates his life to it.

My Take

I’ve always been an advocate for the pros. I’m also a strong believer in learning to get better at a game rather than demanding a company tone down whatever is hurting my experience. The game where the developer doesn’t hold your hand and teaches you to move on from what killed you before often ends up with a smarter, stronger, less babied community. So, in essence, balancing around pros is the smart thing to do for your game.

Yet if I was looking at it from a business standpoint, I’d argue for the counter. Casuals should enjoy my game even if I have to tweak it for their enjoyment. Does this mean I forsake pros? Hopefully not but it does mean something to me that the pros can excel above and beyond the core playerbase. I don’t want to see my game suffer and die even with a vibrant pro scene. Casuals make you money and in truth, money will foster a better game experience for everyone.

This is a delicate question with no easy answer. Should we aim for fifty-fifty? Should we completely dedicate ourselves to one? Which game and which balancing methodology truly leans toward the “right” path? Maybe it’s something that is entirely dependent on the genre? Could casual play evolve into pro play as a game matures?

Either way, the divide will always exist. The question is just how big the gap is.

The Expansion of the Loot Crate

Remember back when you could just buy what you wanted? Yeah, I do too.

It was a short while ago in around 2009 that Team Fortress 2 introduced the concept of the loot crate. A box you could unlock with real-world money to get some rare items. Since then, almost every game worth its salt has a loot system. Be it a free-to-play mobile game to a cosmetic churning machine like Overwatch. Earnest and honestly: This sort of thing has to stop.

A Disguised Purpose
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The concept of the loot crate inherently isn’t a bad one: A gatchapon of gear that you unlock for all sorts of random goodies. Perhaps you get that rare item you wanted. Perhaps you get wrecked and get a pretty meh item. It’s a roll of the dice every time. In idea, you’d think it’s a cool thing! Wow, free cosmetics for playing the game! Boy oh boy it’s just what I wanted…that said, in practice it’s never truly worth it.

When you consider loot boxes in games, they very rarely are for giving you exclusive, free loot. They’re a revenue generation device. People LOVE to gamble and video games are no exception. It’s why CS:GO gambling became such a big deal. The worst part about this is people hold up the excuse that this is a free system for a (usually) free game that gives you free loot…but you rarely get exactly what you want.

A perhaps sinister way to look at things, the “loot box” system is a way out for companies. It’s a tool they can point to and go “See, we give you free stuff all the time!” when it actually doesn’t change your income of loot items all that much.

Competitive Games and Loot
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Perhaps worse yet is “competitive” games reliant on loot. I decided to give Clash Royal a try and see what the fuss was about…and frankly, it often feels awful. Having card-based unlocks and “items” makes the game either painfully one-sided or a slugfest between people with wet noodles. This feels like a TCG except you can upgrade cards and make them more powerful. Imagine if you could get between a two damage, four health Brann Bronzebeard or a ten damage, thirty health Brann Bronzebeard.

While I don’t like the loot systems in other games, THIS deserves a special note because of how it’s made. It’s made to force money out of you to win, as are many mobile games, and it feels truly awful.

Can the System be Fixed?
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No idea.

Alright alright, let me go further: This system is honestly far deeper and far more complex than I can earnestly say. There’s a fine balance to be had between “giving free items” and “giving so much free stuff nobody pays for your game”. Too much in one direction, you lose money. Too much in the other direction and…you lose money because people feel like you’re greedy and money-hungry.

Overwatch is likely the closest the system has come to work in a paid game while League/DOTA continue to work the best with other games. That doesn’t mean these systems are perfect: DOTA and League still have a tendency to lock time-based loot behind holidays and have confusing metrics for what a holiday box offers. Overwatch jacks up the prices for their timed loot to be three times as pricey as a normal item while only giving the base amount of coins.

Companies would need to take a fine line stance on these things. But perhaps the customer’s greatest hope is that competition breeds better environment for customers. League and DOTA have improved their boxes because of competition. Hopefully when someone steps up to Overwatch’s throne and provides better content for a fairer experience, Blizzard will have to change the way they look at things.

As it is now? This is a system with a lot of problems I’m not entirely sure can be fixed.