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.

 

The MOBA Scramble: Surviving Decline

If you saw Startale’s podcast which I frequent, you’ll have heard me talk about the “MOBA Decline” and how the genre has plateau’d. I feel this could use some background and why I feel this way, albeit some of this will be less raw and heavy facts and more so looking about to infer meaning.

King of the Ring

For just under a decade, MOBAs have been the most enormous and possibly profitable genre bubble to hit video games. League’s explosive success in 2009 followed by the arrival of DOTA2 and more caused a scramble to get into the MOBA industry. It harkens back to the days of World of Warcraft where the MMO caused the entire genre to explode, albeit nobody expected it to last forever. Just as the MMO slowly phased away, so too would MOBAs eventually die out.

Now, to their credit, MOBAs are a part of the free-to-play explosion that has rocked gaming harder than any scandal could. League of Legends still makes money hand-over-first despite being almost a decade old. In fact, the only game that comes close to it is…WoW. A game released in 2004. Granted, WoW has a subscription fee but the sheer money coming in still speaks volumes. Along with that, DOTA2 is still the most played Steam game of the year and regularly smashes the prize pool record from each previous international.

You’d assume that there is nowhere but up, right?

The Scramble

Well, not quite.

If I had to put it to a single thing, I’d say the advent of the “hero shooter” (A FPS game with MOBA-esque mechanics like abilities and ultimates) has caused the biggest alarm for this genre. A genre that erases some of the biggest complaints people have about MOBAs such as long match times, steep learning curves and painfully annoying “It’s everyones fault but my own” mentalities. Sure, some of these still exist in hero shooters, but not to any degree they do in MOBA-style games.

It’s difficult to gain actual data but compare Google Trends for how often League and DOTA have been searched for. Since their peak around 2013, the games have slowly been looked for less and less. Sure, there are major tournament spikes, but people have either found their game or avoided the genre. New blood isn’t really coming into these games and they hold a static playerbase save for the occasional investigative “taste test” of the genre. Interesting enough, when I looked at DOTA2’s Playercount, the number spiked to nearly 14 million unique players. Yet according to Steam Charts (While they don’t tell the whole story), the average player count has dropped since December’s big announcement. What was December’s big announcement?

A Triage Situation

I’ll be blunt: Both games are attempting to triage the situation in their own unique way. While you could argue they’re just trying to keep both games “fresh”, reading between the lines shows more factual information that neither company would truly care to admit.

On League’s side, they’ve basically been making good on promises they made years ago: Replays and Practice Tools have come out alongside a new client, as well as increased bans for pro play.

For DOTA2, the 7.0 update includes a far-cleaner HUD, visual updates for heroes who have desperately needed it, and new gameplay updates that speak more of more casual games than of DOTA2.

When you step back, the intentions are quite clear. League is pushing updates to entice their more hardcore fanbase while DOTA is making a push for the more casual fanbase. Both games are attempting to draw in fresh faces as well as re-incentivize those who may not have wanted to play the game.

But most of all, these updates come off the back of one major thing: Overwatch. Blizzard’s hero shooter has blasted all expectations and has become a worldwide phenomenon. For how long, nobody can say, but it’s more than a coincidence that this game explodes onto the scene and suddenly two industry titans suddenly make sweeping changes to appease the other side of the fence.

Death Knell?

For those who fear for the game you love: Relax. These aren’t going anywhere. MOBAs are far too large to up and die. It’s arguable that they won’t even truly die, just not be number one anymore. Building on this, it’s possible League/DOTA will forever exist as esports. Games we watch rather than play. They still pull in enormous numbers and both games are still considered the pinnacle of esport play along with Counter Strike.

But Overwatch was a wake-up call. They won’t be number one forever. You can’t get by with just what you have as your game gets older. There will be challengers to your playerbase and throne…and that has sparked a massive change-of-pace in both games. MOBAs still have plenty of life in them and we’re not going to see them rot away too fast…but the question is how long they’ll be at the top as time goes on.

And that? I have no idea of.

How Roleplay Helps You Write

When it comes to learning to write, I find there’s no better place than the roleplay community in MMOs. Be it World of Warcraft, Guild Wars 2 or any sort of massive congregation of people all playing a single video game, you can bet that there will be a large group of people hanging out at the tavern. How exactly does roleplay make you a better writer though? Well, there’s a little more to it than simply saying it gives you experience writing.

Roleplay and Language

This is likely the most no-brainer of the group but roleplay will quickly and surely hone your grammar and spelling skills when it comes to writing things. When I first started at the young age of twelve or so, my spelling and grammar were a mess. It’s to be expected however. I had never touched anything even remotely like roleplay and my previous writings were done on pen-and-paper with only the look over of my parents.

Not only will you learn through osmosis and interacting with others but you’ll quickly get critique about your writing be it verbal or non-verbal. Maybe your edgy demon hunter with the most tragic backstory filled with death, murder and spelling errors doesn’t get any play? Conversely, maybe your earnest-yet-bumbling dwarven shaman sees all manner of interaction and is routinely praised by others.

Roleplayers are a community and, like any community, you learn as you go. Sure nobody is going to start as a roleplayer in their prime but it’s something that everyone will pick up as they continue to roleplay. Don’t be intimidated! Even that verbose engineer started as someone putting emotes in their text.

Roleplay and Storytelling

On a less obvious note, roleplay will teach you basic storytelling. Sure, it’s not to the caliber of something like the Odyssey or the Iliad but you’ll learn to pace yourself. Storytelling requires all manner of parts, from softer and quiet moments to character developing moments to tragic events and somber realizations. If you spend all your time roleplaying with your girlfriend about how much you love each other, nothing gets accomplished now does it?

You might argue that this is obvious even in storytelling but it becomes exacerbated when it comes to roleplaying with another person. You notice patterns, you notice repeats and you’ll notice when things don’t seem to move. Static characters are something most-often avoided and these small things will add up over time.

Roleplay is great at teaching you the basics of character building and making coherent stories, as well as showing you faults and errors in your own writing that others can help you fix or correct. Speaking of others in roleplay…

Roleplay and Community

Unlike writing your own work or writing in a completely unique world, roleplay will teach you how to work with others and the finer points of creating writing in an existing world. This is especially useful if you want to write for video games, as nine-out-of-ten times you’ll be working with a setting you yourself didn’t create and characters that you either didn’t create or had worked with others to create.

Other roleplayers aren’t readers. They’re not passive critics who will read what you wrote. They, for all purposes, will be part of your story for the majority of it. This means that you’ve got to pay finer care to your audience and those around you. Sure, every writer writes for themselves on some level, but that doesn’t mean you’re exempt from criticism. If you suddenly start railroading (forcing others on a track) another person’s character? You WILL get a slap on the wrist from that person!

On the same note, writing in a world you didn’t make is far different than making your own work. You have to adhere to rules, you have to be careful about new inclusions and most of all? You have to be wary about the things and creations you put out there. Does that mean you shouldn’t make new things? Of course not. But it’ll be easier for someone to believe you’re another foot soldier than Logan Thackery’s son who is even stronger than he is.

Roleplay Overall

These are just some small, general things that roleplay will help without being big enough for a whole point:

  • Aesthetic design of your character.
  • Creating storyhooks from things you have. (Such as a hunter’s pet!)
  • Matching character tone with other roleplayers.
  • How to approach and interact with others.
  • Dealing with “dead end” stories.
  • Correct drama vs. Incorrect drama.

I wouldn’t say roleplay is for everyone. After all, roleplay servers can often come off as elitist and annoying. Yet it’s important to give it a try at least once. Being able to play as your character and discovering the story behind what you assumed to be a simple one-off nobody can be far more enlightening to yourself than you’d initially give it credit for.

Just be sure to use the right name. Nobody is going to take Hunters4Jesus78 of Stormwind as a serious person.

Do I Play Roguelikes Wrong?

Enter The Gungeon was one of the games I picked up during the Steam winter sale. And I enjoy it! The problem, however, comes from how I play the game. Roguelikes or Roguelites, however you classify them, are all about throwing your head at a brick wall so many times that you eventually get past. In recent times, things seem to have shifted to be less about progression, more about…er, progression.

Building An Arsenal

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Me realizing I didn’t get the new upgrade to make my run easier.

With new roguelike games, one of the biggest hooks is the idea of progression outside of each run. While you won’t get far in every single run, perhaps you finally earn enough currency to buy a new item for the gungeon? Perhaps you’ve dumped enough coins to get that new class in Rogue Legacy? Maybe you finally killed that one tough boss and died right after, getting you the new weapon that’ll make some Isaac runs easier?

Roguelikes were always about minuscule progression. Getting good to the point where you can finally get past one brick wall and start throwing yourself at another. Yet to me it feels like the progression outside of each run isn’t specifically about honing my skills. Rather it feels like I’m trying hard to get a secondary goal done to make my next run easier by design, not by skill.

I realized this during my Gungeon run when I couldn’t buy more items from the in-game shop with the secondary currency. I was worried I had hit a point where I couldn’t improve the gungeon by proxy, NOT by my own talents and skills.

Throwing Spaghetti at a Wall

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“Good luck with this run.”

That said, this seems to be where roguelike games have evolved. Take for example one of the early ones, FTL. FTL didn’t have much in the way of outside progression. You could unlock more ships and designs, sure, but these never completely buffed your gameplay. They just offered a new way to play. It was ok but it wasn’t the hit game that Binding of Isaac would be.

Comparatively Binding of Isaac was still a roguelike. Yet achievements and more could unlock stronger weapons, buffing the variance but overall being a net-positive gain. Nobody is going to argue that “+1 Heart” is anywhere near as good as “All your tears are targeted bombs”. It was a hit because there was ALWAYS a sense of progression, even if you instantly died the moment you stepped down the cellar door.

Enter the Gungeon and Rogue Legacy both seem to have taken cues from the former but not entirely. Gungeon guns are strict upgrades, some are just…ok. Different but not directly better. There are some things that’ll give you direct upgrades such as fixing the elevator but not to the degree that some upgrades in Isaac will. Rogue Legacy also gives you flat stat bonuses but not so much in the idea that you’re getting a raw buff. It’s minuscule and probably hard to notice.

I’m not sure if this kills the spirit of the roguelike. If this persistent system of upgrades is making me play the game wrong, worrying less about my skill and worrying more about the side buff to fill out my arsenal. While I’m by no means awful, I still can’t help but wonder if this system of the sidegrade and the empty armory is making me care more about what happens after the run, not during.