The Power of Sound Effects

As someone who is a big fan of Subnautica, I often keep up with updates to the game, usually via various Youtubers who cover the game extensively.  Without spoiling too much, a huge portion of the end game is in development right now (when this article was written anyway).  Since it’s a key story point, it’s being tweaked to be as impactful as possible.  Animations, voice acting, textures, and tons of other aspects keep being overhauled to present the most satisfying moment that could be achieved.  However, in some of the more recent updates, one additive that added a ton of impact caught my eye: the sound effects.

Sound effects are one of those aspects of creative media that often get overlooked.  Whether the sound effects are audio or implied to with words, they make a huge difference despite being minor additives.  Unfortunately, in numerous indie industries, they can often be underused.  While certainly you run the risk of oversaturating a piece with sound effects, they are still an essential that should never be neglected.  To hammer in this point, let us examine why the sound effects make a difference in two industries: gaming and comics.

 

In the case of gaming, it is a very audio-centric media in most cases.  Though one could play games in complete silence, most people would concede the sounds make a difference.  Yet, as much as a background soundtrack adds to a game, so does the sound effects.  Take any game which involves swords or guns that you use to attack people.  Now, if you can, imagine if there were no sound effects.  No swosh or chink for those swords, no popping bullets, no anything; just imagine if you only had the animation, even if there’s a nice accompanying soundtrack.

Now ideally, if you can picture it, you’d realize how odd that’d be.  There would be a sense of emptiness to each attack.  Since in real life objects like this have sound effects, it is also something that would break immersion; the game is giving no feedback to the attack, so it feels unreal.

This being the key concept: sound effects in games provide feedback.

Let’s take a look for the moment at Dragon Age: Inquisition.  One key mechanic to the game is its search function.  Essentially, when a player presses a hotkey, a little circle fans out from the inquisitor and detects objects, whether it be resources, loot chests, or something hidden.  It is a pretty vital component if one wants to find the collectibles in the game as certain ones can only be found via this mechanic.  Now, of course, there are visual cues via the object highlighting, the mini map, and more.  Thus, one can still use the mechanic on visuals alone.  However, the sound effects for the mechanic make a big difference.  There are different sounds for finding nothing, finding a resource, or detecting a hidden object.  By consequence, one can put their eyes to more important things on the screen and let the sounds guide them.  Not only does this provide great feedback, but it streamlines the process of navigating.  In otherwords, one can run and scan rather than take those few moments to check if they found anything every moment.

There are a plethora of other ways sound effects play a role, whether it’s feedback from opening chests in The Legend of Zelda series or through loud thunderous sounds of dragons flying overhead in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  The sounds give a true sense of presence and aid in immersing someone into the world.  Like in real life, one expects sounds when objects interact, so providing them in key moments makes a huge difference.

 

Nevertheless, games are not the only medium in which sound effects make a difference.  Let’s now turn to comics, which out of the gate obviously lack the same audio component games do.  For comics, the sound effects are part of the visuals and come in varying styles.  Whether they say “Pow,” “Kablam,” or anything else, they are generally something present in a lot of comics.  That being said, some people may question whether they’re important, since these “sound” effects are visual instead audio.  Yet, much like games, they provide important feedback.

In a similar function to the last exercise, let’s put our imaginations to work.  Imagine any two characters you want in a fight, and one panel features one of the characters dramatically slapping the other.  Now, because imaginations are pretty robust, you surely imagined the slap sound that would occur in the moment.  For comics, the way this is conveyed is with the sound effect text, which depending on how its styled can have a different effect.  Instead, though, try to picture the image without that text.  All you have is a slap making contact, but no feedback on whether it hit.

In the end, the effect that occurred for games occurred here as well: without the sound effect, the moment felt empty and lacking impact.

Even when the sound effects are visually very small, they play a role in conveying the world and making it feel real.  Speaking personally, I barely even ever read what the sound effects say; at the same time, when they aren’t present, I take extreme notice of how silent a comic’s world consequently feels.  As a result I feel confident saying that even their presence alone is enough to convey that there is noise in the world, which makes a world of difference.

Of course, sound effects can be used to aid the story too in this case.  For instance, when the story wishes to have an eating scene, it’s not uncommon to have a panel where a characters stomach growls.  This is shown not only by a close up of the stomach, but through sound effects to emphasize the growling sound.  The reader is left with no confusion about what’s going on, so even without dialogue the visual and sound effect convey the character’s need.  This, in turn, helps immerse one more into the moment; like in real life, the visual clues and sound are all that’s needed to convey the unspoken message.  There are numerous other ways the visuals and “sound” effects in comics can be utilized in a more poignant matter, so they are not something to be discounted.

 

Hopefully, at this point, I have conveyed why sound effects play a vital role.  With them, you can make something more immersive and impactful in both small and big ways.  Without them, you risk turning the consumer away from the product due to the world feeling empty and hollow.  In the end, even if it is a tedious aspect to consider, one should always try to include sound effects.  They can make or break a project sometimes, so to neglect them is to do your project a disservice.  The internet offers tons of sound effect resources, so there’s really no excuse not to use them.  So, go forth, and remember like the world, your work should have sounds.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioward, EA, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Link opening a chest from ZeldaDungeon.net.

DC Movies, Tone, and Why it Hurts

While I’m not a huge mainstream comic fan, I’m averagely familiar with Marvel’s and DC’s franchises.  Really, living in America, it’s hard not to be at least somewhat familiar with them.  They are fairly pervasive in the culture, and with the recent string of superhero movies, they are pretty well-known characters.  That being said, those familiar with the current state of movies know one thing: Marvel is doing better.  Not to say, of course, that Marvel always has masterpiece movies, but Marvel has had more successes in the past few years than DC.  In fact, outside of a few Batman movies, such as The Dark Knight, most DC flicks are forgettable or laugh worthy.

Why is this?  This is a pretty important question since Marvel has proven that superhero movies can be box office successes.  Though I’m sure certain fanboys/fangirls would say Marvel has better franchises, I would disagree considering Marvel and DC copy a lot of characters from each other.  This is not to mention that DC does have iconic characters like Batman and Superman, so the flaw in the movies more likely lies with their execution.

As I pondered this question, I also considered the fact that DC gets a ton of other great material in different media.  While Marvel has put most of its eggs in live action productions, DC still gets a lot more animated shows, video games, and so on.  Though there are certainly flops, a lot of these productions are successful.  Take for instance Young Justice who just got renewed for a third season because of the passionate fans.  Or, consider perhaps, Injustice 2 which just released and received high praise, in part for its writing and not just its game mechanics.  Heck, even consider, despite all the years that have passed, people still talk about Batman: The Animated Series because of how masterful of an animated show it was.  The point is, whether you personally like the productions or not, DC can succeed as shown by their success in other areas.

So, why are their movies so ill received?

Thus comes my personal opinion on the matter: DC movies are getting the tone entirely wrong.

Tone in stories can be subtle but very important.  Describing a rainstorm as “light and cascading” sets up a different tone than describing it as “an unforgiving torrent of water.”  Though movies are clearly more visual, the dialogue, music, light choices, and more all characterize what the tone of the movie will be.  Tones dictate everything even if one doesn’t understand them completely; they not only encourage consumers to a specific interpretation, but also help manipulate the emotional responses that will occur.

In the case of DC movies, there seems to be a common trend of making the tone as serious as possible.  The movies will focus on the darker sides of the DC characters, from Superman’s inherent threat from being so powerful to Batman’s broodiness and vengeful attitude towards stopping crime.  The conflicts they face will often have dark implications, and lighting choices will be fairly dark or have a gloomy atmosphere to them.  All in all, the choices in the movies set up a serious tone to remind the consumer that this is serious business with serious stakes and angst.

Unfortunately, this is inherently the problem with their tone.  Everything in the movies (with exception to a few specific movies) is meant to be taken seriously.  Consequently, all the joy and fun of superheroes is sucked out of the production.  These are, at the end, people running around in costume; to not have a little fun with that is to do the concept a bit of a disservice.

Now, that being said, I’m not saying the franchises shouldn’t be treated seriously.  After all, there are some DC movies who did the exact opposite, and were as poorly received as the serious ones.  However, what there should be is a balance of treating the franchise seriously and having fun with it.

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To example this, let’s take a quick look at the 2001 animated Justice League TV show, a generally well-received animated show for the time.  Now the show was definitely a serious one and the conflicts were treated seriously.  There was an episode about Diana/Wonder Woman being banished from her home, an episode where Superman was thought to have died, and so forth.  The show did not skirt around serious conflicts and made sure to convey some heavy emotions.  However, the tone was never overly serious, and the show added lots of light-hearted moments as well to keep the tone from being too heavy.  A lot of this actually came from Flash, who was depicted as a goofball with some funny lines, especially his failed pickup lines.  Overall, the best word to describe it is the show was relatively witty.

I could go on and on and analyze several incarnations in other media but lack the time for this post.  Regardless and suffice it to say, in my personal experience, the good DC productions all achieve this balance.  They are serious, but never forget to add some humor and wit at regular intervals.  When done well, it blends in seamlessly, and one gets to have fun even despite the heavy conflicts going on.

As such, for me at least, it is the tone of the DC movies that is failing them.  If one looks at Marvel’s movies, they do not fall into this trap; rather, there is a lot of humor in Marvel’s movies.  Even when there’s a hole in the sky, there’s still time for some witty banter from Iron Man.  The movies are fun, so many flaws can be overlooked.  Since DC movies treat themselves so seriously in tone, though, their flaws don’t receive this benefit; people will judge the movies in a completely serious and unforgiving manner in the same spirit.

While, of course, I don’t expect this trend to change anytime soon, I thought this analysis might be insightful for some people asking this same question.  I’m sure other aspects also hurt the movies greatly, but for me, the tone is the truest culprit that changes what could be a fun depiction into an overly serious, nonsensical, travesty.

 

Mentioned Marvel franchises (Iron Man, The Avengers, etc.) are © to Marvel Entertainment LLC and affiliated parties.

Mentioned DC franchises (Batman, Superman, Justice League, etc.) are © to DC Entertainment and affiliated parties.

Image: Justice League (2001) animated show promotional image.

Side Quests: Making Interesting “Fetch Quests”

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age: Inquisition (specifically the Hinterlands).

 

The week before last I analyzed side quests and how you could make them more compelling than the generic fetch quests one might see in a grind-like MMORPG.  At the heart of the matter, I illustrated three ways one could make them interesting, namely: having side quests add to the story, having side quests with worthwhile loot, or having side quests with an enormous gameplay challenge.  In regards to story, I discussed certain aspects in Dragon Age II and how some of its side quests vastly change outcome of the story.  However, today I would like to expound on this point some more, and also tackle fetch quests which I didn’t talk about fully in that post.

Before we begin, let’s first discuss what will and will not be included when I say fetch quests.  For those unfamiliar, fetch quests are a specific type of quest that basically involves you getting an item to give an NPC.  An NPC may say they lost an object and need you to find and return it.  Some NPC may request you clear an area of spiders and bring their fangs as proof (i.e. kill a certain number of this creature).  A different NPC may ask you to collect so much of a specific herb that spawns in an area.  These are the sorts of quests will be discussed in this article, but I am also including similarly simple quests that don’t necessarily involve lots of fighting.  For instance, if you find an ancient scroll that tells you to go to a cave to find loot or fight a monster, those are close enough in simplicity that they will be included in my analysis.

With that established, one must wonder how such simple tasks could be interesting.  After all, in the last post even I acknowledged the criticism that these are what make MMORPGs a grind sometimes.  Certainly, my purpose here is not to say fetch quests are the most interesting of all, and I stand by my post that there are ways to make more interesting side quests.  That being said, fetch quests still have their place, if not for the sake of giving players an easy way to kill some time, take a breather, and still earn EXP and money.  Since they are most likely going to stay in gaming for a quite a while, it doesn’t hurt to try and make them more compelling.  This is where story and world-building comes in, which even fetch quests can tap into and enhance.  Even if they cannot change the story, there are two things fetch quests can do very well, very easily: enhance the tone and atmosphere of the story and add to the world lore.

To illustrate this, I am going to discuss Dragon Age: Inquisition, so spoilers ahead for those not familiar with the Dragon Age series.

Dragon_Age_Inquisition_Concept_Art_MR12_Confrontation

One manner in which fetch quests can aid a game’s story is by reinforcing the tone or the atmosphere.  One of the primary background problems in Dragon Age: Inquisition is, of course, the mage rebellion.  The fight with mages has progressed so badly that even the Templars have gone rogue and hunt mages at their leisure.  Unfortunately, innocent people have gotten caught in between the fights, and there are a lot of refugees as a result.  This background setup primarily comes into play in the Hinterlands, where the player experiences first-hand how devastating the mage rebellion has been.

This being the case, many of the fetch quests in this area help reinforce this sad devastation.  For instance, some of the starting quests involve you getting supplies for the refugees, specifically food and blankets which the refugees have none of.  Through the dialogue of the quests, the suffering of the refugees is emphasized, as how they have no food or warmth is discussed by people at length.  Though a subtle insert, it helps drive home how devastating and far spread the war is.  Another example quest is obtained by entering a house that is fairly in the middle of nowhere.  Upon entering, you can speak with a woman who asks you to retrieve a ring that Templars took after killing her husband, who they suspected was an Apostate (a rogue mage).  Though, again, the dialogue is simple, it revolves around the thoughtlessness of the Templars and mages at the devastation that is being wrought upon the civilians.

Though I could name many like this, what should be clear is these specific fetch quests help emphasis the tone of war in the area.  The quests often revolve around the setting of the mage rebellion, involving issues with helping the refugees and trying to repair the area from the rampant destruction.  This being the case, the player is immersed further into the setting, as these quests aren’t random happenstance.  Rather, they are used to reflect a cause and effect in the world, which allows it to feel more real.  The flavor text also showcases the expected emotions in such a case, such as sadness, desperation, and hopelessness.  Everything about these fetch quests has an overtone of the setting, so though simple, they allow the player to remain immersed in the world, rather than be reminded they are playing a game.

The other manner in which fetch quests can be interesting is via their ability to add to the lore.  At least for fantasy and sci-fi set RPGs, the general rule of thumb is the better developed the world, the more immersive a setting you give the player to get into.  However, one never wants to dump too much lore at once, so adding and increasing the world lore must be done in small chunks.  This is something fetch quests can be very good at in the right hands, since they are short, simple quests that the player can have a low key commitment to do.

For instance, let’s take a look at the landmark quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition.  As the player travels throughout the various areas in the game, they can claim landmarks.  This is a simple matter that literally involves traveling to the area and pressing a key/button in the right spot.  However, when the player claims the landmarks, they receive a codex entry (a small collection of world information).  The player can, of course, choose to ignore it, which is perfectly fine.  Yet, if one chooses to read the codex entry, they find out interesting world information that is tied to the landmark.  Though it’s a small addition, the world can grow via these landmarks and they cease to be just polygons on a screen.  Rather, they begin to live up their titular title of landmarks.  As a whole, though, they help increase the lore of the story, but also keep it optional for the players who don’t care about lore.

 

While I could ramble on and on about other sorts of quests in Dragon Age: Inquisition, let alone some other games, these are a few examples of ways one can make fetch quests more interesting.  Though, of course, I still wouldn’t say they hold a candle to more in-depth quests, they can be handled in a manner that continues to immerse players.  For game development, at least for story heavy games, the last thing you want is for a player to be reminded they’re playing a game.  This is, sadly, where a lot of MMORPGs fail with their quest design, since they add so little the player is hyper aware they are playing a game.  In Dragon Age: Inquisition’s case, though, the quests are generally always designed with heavy world overtones.  So, even if they can be a grind sometimes, the story additions make it worthwhile to still complete them.

Regardless of what you’re designing your quests for, the key is to always give them purpose beyond EXP and virtual money.  Compel the player to complete the quest, even if their additions are optional flavor text that just add a smidgen of lore or atmosphere.  You ultimately shape the experience for the players, so even if it’s fetch quests, use them to bring out the very best of your game.

 

Dragon Age: Inquisition is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age Inquisition concept art from Concept Art World.

Tips for Writing Good Magic Systems

Magic is a tricky subject when it comes to any story.  Whether you’re writing an epic, medieval fantasy or a space opera, you have a high chance of creating characters who are capable of feats beyond our normal, mortal means.  Unfortunately for beginners, magic has a high risk of becoming too over-powered, too confusing, or too plot deviced.  There are a plethora of ways magic can go wrong, whether you’re writing it for a novel, game, or anything else.  It is not a topic for the faint of heart, as the saying goes.

That being said, however, there are certain mindsets that can help you create better magic systems for your stories.  In this article, I’ve chosen three tips that, at least for beginners, should be kept in mind while developing your world.  Before we begin, I will note that like most “rules” in writing, they can be broken.  These tips are not set in stone; rather, they should be used as guidelines to help you along the process.  With that out of the way now, let’s begin.

wizard-1456914_640

 

  1. Understand how your magic system works, and convey that to the reader.

One thing you definitely do not want to do with magic is make it up as you go.  Sure, for a while Wizard Boy can peacefully shoot fireballs, ice spikes, and grease, but eventually some reader is going to ask questions about how it works.  Why can Wizard Boy do magic and not Warrior Chick?  How does Wizard Boy do magic?  The moment these questions start being asked, the moment the world starts to crumble if you do not have a concrete answer.

Thankfully, there are a myriad of ways to handle this area.  You can use a mana based system (like what most RPGs use for magic) that involves pulling energy from the area or from inside yourself to turn it into some sort of magic.  You can have the magic be reliant on incantations instead of just a wave of a wand.  You can even have something more out there like with Mass Effect’s biotics (i.e. space magic), where humans have specific implants that allow them to use it.

There are just numerous ways for you to go about magic creatively, whether it’s something you make up yourself or something inspired from other fictional works.  The important part is to have a clear understanding of it.  In general, you want to know where the energy for the magic comes from, who can perform magic, how magic is performed (incantations, wands, sheer willpower, etc.), what magic can do, etc..  The more rules your magic has, the better you will find yourself able to utilize it in a story.

However, you must also make sure you can convey this information to the reader.  Now of course, you don’t want to info-dump a ten page monologue from Wizard Boy to deliver the information.  Dropping tidbits at appropriate moments, though, is something that should be strived for.  The better you can put the reader on the same page as you, the more immersed and real the world will feel to them.  It also creates a world where the reader won’t get distracted asking their questions that you cannot answer without a well-established system.  So, whether your magic system is shallow or immensely deep, make sure you have moments the reader can understand it as well.

 

  1. Keep in mind advantages and disadvantages

Another way to title this tip would be to say make sure the magic in your story has limitations.  This is a point I cannot emphasis enough and is often the point I see that’s most broken, even by professionals who have monumentally successful series.  When it comes to magic, there is nothing that opens up a plot hole faster than a magic system that is limitless.

For example, if you established that characters aren’t limited by something like mana or anything else to produce magic, everyone is going to start to wonder why Wizard Boy didn’t just magic them out of that dungeon.  It’s at this point that more introspection is triggered, and readers may come to dislike your story for not having enough balance as far as character power dynamics goes.

As such, it is extremely important you establish some limitations.  Perhaps, like in Baldur’s Gate, characters can only use spells a certain number of times per day.  Or, like in numerous RPGs, characters only have access to a certain amount of energy (i.e. mana) to cast their spells.  As you can guess from my analogies, I highly suggest taking a look at games and analyzing how they limited magic via the gameplay mechanics.  While not the easiest to translate over to pure writing, for gameplay mechanics putting limits on magic is extremely important to creating a balanced game.  Taking inspiration from their ideas may give you a better idea of aspects you could utilize to limit your own story’s magic system.

On the flip side, however, let’s briefly talk about advantages.  Now while I don’t see this point broken often, there are times where a story will make magic horribly weak (until the plot demands it fix something at least).  As important as it is to give magic limitations, one must also remember magic should have some advantages.  To example, the most common advantage magic has is range, and magic users are generally very powerful as long as they stay out of close combat.  This is something you can easily utilize in a story.  Either way, magic should have a point of being in the story, and not be so weak it’s worthless.

Balance is key when it comes to magic systems.  Pros and cons must both be present, but in so doing you will have magic using characters who fit into the world smoothly.

 

  1. Keep rules and lore consistent

The last tip I have for writing magic is to have consistent rules and lore.  One of my first posts on this blog was basically a rant about how Dragon Age: Inquisition’s magic system broke immense amounts of lore.  Fortunately in that game’s case, however, it could be overlooked because gameplay mechanics generally take precedence over good lore.

Unfortunately for the subject of this post, though, that is a huge no-no.

For a reader, breaking of the lore and/or rules sticks out like a sore thumb.  If you establish, for example, that only fire nymphs can use fire spells, don’t suddenly tell us Wizard Boy can somehow use them too even though he isn’t a fire nymph.  Breaking rules and/or lore will generally and immediately pull a reader out of the story.  They will question why this was broken, and unless you have a compelling reason for why, you’re risking it coming off as a poorly written plot device.

Once you establish your magic system, you should try to stick to it like glue.  While you can slowly throw wrenches into the system, the heart of it should continually remain the same.  The reasons for this are largely related to the reasons for the first tip: you want to give the reader something concrete to understand about the magic system.  If you start throwing in wrenches willy nilly, you destabilize the system you developed, and more or less wind up back at square one.  Do not create rules unless you intend to follow them, because it’s the consistency that will help ground your world.

 

Thus are my baseline tips for writing magic.  Magic can be a high risk endeavor, but the reward for its presence can be interesting as well.  It’s not something that should be thrown together on a whim; it should be given some deep thought to create a world that is logical to the reader.  Of course, practice makes perfect, so don’t be afraid to try magic out either.  Eventually, you will come to learn your own tricks of the trade for magic, and will create something that nobody else has before.

Before closing out this article, I would highly suggest checking out Avatar: The Last Airbender (the show, not the terrible movie).  This show pushes the boundaries on these tips I’ve given, but does so in a way that’s well-written.  As I mentioned at the beginning, these guidelines are just that: guidelines.  There are ways to push and pull at the guidelines and still create a well-written story; so, if you need an example, that is the show to check out in my opinion.

 

Image: Wizard from Pixabay by GraphicMama-team.

Side Quests: Interesting vs. Boring

Warning: Spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II and Kingdom Hearts.

 

Anyone who has played any sort of mission/quest based game is familiar with side quests.  They’re those pesky optional quests that the player can choose to complete or not.  Some are simple, such as delivering a package to the NPC in the next town.  Some are challenging, like cave diving for a treasure.  Then there’s also the invariably hard and cruel ones that have you defeat some optional boss that takes every ounce of your being to defeat.  In either case, side quests come in a variety of flavors and vastly help to buffer the gameplay time.

However, not all side quests were created equal.  In fact, some can be outright snore fests.  Take, for instance, pretty much any optional quest in an MMORPG.  In general, these fall into one of a few categories: kill a certain number of creatures, collect certain ingredients/items, or deliver something to an NPC.  MMORPGs are very formulaic when it comes to this matter.  While these side quests do earn you experience points (exp) and virtual money, they have little else to offer the player.  They are, essentially, what makes a lot of MMORPGs grind-fests as it were.  Single player games can often be guilty of the same thing, especially for the RPG genre in general.

That being said, it is quite possible to make interesting side quests.  There are a variety of routes to go with this, but let’s examine three types of side quests that can actually be interesting.  These are namely side quests that add to the story, side quests that offer worthwhile loot, and side quests that offer an enormous challenge to test the player’s skill.  As a last note before we begin, for the purposes of this article we are defining side quests as any sort of optional task or fight that can be completed.

In regards to the first one, and personally my favorite, are the side quests that add to the story.  To example this, let us examine Dragon Age II.  Quests in this game are divided into several categories, namely “Main Plot,” “Secondary,” “Side Quests,” and “Companion.”  Despite the titles, the latter three can all be considered side quests for our purposes, since no quest in them absolutely needs to be done.  “Side Quests” in Dragon Age II offer the generic set of fetch quests, though they are useful for gold in Act 1 of the game.  However, “Secondary” and “Companion” quests are more than that; rather, they are sequences that add to the story.  For example, each party character has a personal story arc, such as Isabela’s attempts to find a relic she lost at the beginning of the game.  At the end of Act 2 when tensions are hitting their climax, the player receives the option to do a personal quest for her to retrieve the relic.  During this quest, the player learns that this so-called relic is the sacred Tome of Koslun, the entire cause for why the Qunari are in Kirkwall causing trouble.  Whether or not the player does this quest largely influences the main quest.  If the player chose to help Isabela and has a strong relationship with her, she will return with the tome, giving the player a different way to solve the main questline.  If not, the player is stuck with only two real options, both which involve a difficult fight.

As you can see in this example, the side quest can vastly affect the outcome in the story.  That being the case, the side quest becomes worthwhile, whether you do it or not in this case.  Particularly for story heavy RPGs, any quest that can tie into the story, even it’s just about developing the player’s relationship with a character, can increase their emotional involvement in the story.  This makes the game far more compelling to play, even to the point that sometimes you can overlook poorly implemented mechanics to continue the story.  Thus, the quest is interesting, because it can have tangible effects and doesn’t just fade into memory.

Another sort of interesting side quest is one that has worthwhile loot.  In this case, we will look again at Dragon Age II.  During Act 3, the player has the option to slay a High Dragon.  Though I wouldn’t personally say it’s the most difficult fight in the game, it is one that is a challenge and requires quite a bit of micro-managing to succeed.  However, what makes this fight worthwhile to do is that the dragon drops one of the main components for the “Mantle of the Champion” armor set.  Not only is this set extremely good as far as stats, but it’s also probably the most badass looking armor in the game.  Frankly, I could not imagine completing the end game without wearing that armor.  It would just feel too odd and make the end game even more difficult.

Regardless, it is the loot in this example that offers the interesting facet.  In more boring side quests, though the player may get money or loot, it is generally not anything game changing.  In this example, however, the game adds value to the player’s time spent doing the quest.  The rewards, despite the pains in doing the battle, are worthwhile and give the player a greater edge during the last parts of the game.  In that case, then, though the quest itself is straight-forward, the reward creates a side quest that is compelling for the player to complete.

HighDragonDAII

Lastly, let us discuss the final type: side quests that offer the player a challenge for their skills.  In this case, I’m going to switch series and look at something more classic.  Namely, we’re going to examine the optional boss fight with Sephiroth in Kingdom Hearts.  For those not familiar with this fight, let me start off by saying the following: Sephiroth can one-shot you right at the start of the battle.  This fact alone should give you a hint at how hard this boss fight is.  Not only are Sephiroth’s attacks powerful, but his long sword gives him an immense range.  Even if you spend the hours it takes to create the best Keyblade, the fight is still extremely difficult.  One must have honed their skills and strategy in the game for several hours to even dream of taking Sephiroth on, and even then the fight would still be a challenge.

However, that is what makes that “quest” interesting.  The difficulty of the battle is like nothing else offered in the game.  It taxes the player’s time, skills, and reflexes and may even require training to complete.  The consequence, though, is that being able to defeat Sephiroth offers a sense of pride that other fights do not.  The player knows that it is because of their skill that they were able to beat this boss, so they can take satisfaction in that.  In a sense, what makes this type of side quest compelling is the potential bragging rights.  By doing this quest, you join a special club of people (metaphorically) who were actually able to complete it.  All in all, it is these factors that make the optional quest captivating to complete, despite the huge spike in difficulty.

In summary, there are a variety of ways you can make a side quest interesting.  Whether it’s by story, loot, or challenge, each of the mentioned examples above adds value to the player’s time.  In a sense, these quests feel like they have purpose in the game, more than just making the player feel like the game is longer than it is.  They offer compelling experiences that serve to immerse players more, rather than remind them that they are playing a game.  Though fetch quests and other similar low maintenance side quests have their place, one must not forget these should not be the sole form of optional quests.  Players are devoting their time to the game, so one should respect that time given.  Though no simple task design wise to be sure, it is something I hope aspiring developers will consider when developing their games.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Kingdom Hearts is © Square Enix, Disney Interactive Studios, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II screenshot of the High Dragon.  Obtained from the Dragon Age Wiki.

Comics and Diversifying Your Platforms

“Don’t put all your eggs into one basket.”

This is a common saying that gets passed around, but I think too few people actually stop to think about what this concept means.  Particularly for indie creators, whether they’re creating games, comics, or otherwise, there seems to be a general trust that goes towards third party businesses as far as making your content available.  Unfortunately, the risk for betrayal is somewhat high and may catch the more naïve off-guard.  Today, I would like to analyze this statement a bit, particularly as it pertains to comics.  Why comics?  Well, I will tell you why.

For those not heavily part of the indie comic scene, Tapas (formerly branded as Tapastic) is one of the most popular hosting sites available right now.  It offers content creators an easy to use platform to post their works, receive feedback, and generally do all the things one would expect a host to be able to do.  Over the past year or so, Tapas has changed focus to their mobile app and its premium content.  In the last few days, Tapas went a step further and redesigned their site.  Their initial choices in the design were to push the premium related content to the top of the page, and forcing the entirely free content to the bottom.  While criticism and feedback have since prompted them to change this, I think it is important one stops to think about this.

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First off, at the end of the day, one must remember Tapas is a business whose goal is one thing: to make money.  As such, it is hard to fault them for wanting to push their premium content.  After all, even if they were a non-profit business, employees, servers, and the like all cost money to maintain.  One also cannot fault the premium content creators either, as they are putting their heart and souls into their projects just as much as any other indie creator.

However, when one considers this in the larger picture, it becomes clear Tapas is pushing an antithesis of what the comic community generally wants: more visibility for indie creators.  Instead of promoting a wide variety of comics, the promotion goes to the most successful and who will make the company money.  Again, while no crime, for the average creator this probably defeats the purpose of why they joined the site.

This is not to mention that, while possibly unintentional on Tapas’ part, their wording choices for how they now view creators is a bit telling of their future business model.  In a post from April 17th, 2017 regarding their updated terms and policies, Tapas said the following:

“Many of the terms introduced along with the Tapas app concern purchases and content we’ve published, versus the self-published, user-generated content we previously focused on almost exclusively. Self-publishing and UGC are not going away, and we remain dedicated to supporting independent creators – we’re simply expanding to offer more professional titles as well.”

In this statement, Tapas makes a clear distinction between self-published creators and “professional” creators; in other words, creators who don’t make them money and creators who do.  This, combined with their initial choices for the redesign, clearly demonstrates that Tapas not only wishes to offer more “professional” titles, but probably promote it imminently more than the “self-published” creators too.  Though certainly a sound business decision, this does leave a lot of indie creators at an impasse.

Thus, let us turn back to the original idea: not putting all your eggs in one basket.  For those who have been using Tapas as their main and only site for their comic, this change suddenly threatens their presence and ability to gain an audience.  Though they may work just as hard as premium content creators, there is a large chance that their work will get buried by these creators simply because of how the business will choose to market.  In the end, this makes it harder for newer creators to even get their foot in the door, let alone have hopes of becoming well-known at some point.

Consequently and in retrospect, diversifying where and how you deliver your content as a creator is extremely important.  For comics, there are numerous other hosting choices such as LINE Webtoon or Smackjeeves, where a creator can try to gain footing.  There is also the option of hosting the comic on your own website, whether it be professionally designed or an impromptu hosting site using blog rolls.  There a ton of options for creators, and there is no real one right choice.  What is important, though, is that you make your comic available in more than one location.  In this way, you will always be protected when a company makes business decisions that aren’t beneficial to your content.  Yes, it is admittedly a lot of work to manage multiple mirrors.  However, the safety net it provides is one that will save stress later, such as in this recent incident with Tapas.

This, of course, applies to other creative mediums as well.  In your love and passion for your content, always remember that it is partially a business.  It is almost always a wiser decision to diversify yourself to protect from an unknown future, and it isn’t a crime to remember using a third party shouldn’t be only beneficial to the third party.  So please post in lots of places and try numerous different things.  One day those third parties you rely on may not be there, and you will have to deal with that future.

 

Tapas/Tapastic is © to Tapas Media, Inc.

Image: Screenshot- From Tapas’ front page showcasing the premium content rolls.

Another Argument for Mechanic Transparency: Dragon Age II Edition

Warning: Semi spoilers ahead for Dragon Age II.

 

Enemy waves are no new concept to video games.  They have been around for years and will probably remain for as long as they offer value to players.  While from my experience their existence can be a bit polarizing, it’s hard to discount them completely given the numerous amounts of players that like the challenge.  That being said, there are cases in which its execution is flawed at best.  One such instance that I wish to discuss today appears in Dragon Age II, where a lack of transparency makes the experience somewhat infuriating.

Before I delve into the brief discussion, let’s first define what I mean by waves of enemies.  In this case, I am talking about games that have their enemies appear in large groups or “waves.”  Regardless of whether the initial wave is visible at the start, enemies will continue to show up in a group at specified intervals.  These intervals can be dependent on time, amount of enemies left, or other factors, as long as a clear, identifiable separator between groups can be determined with observation.  The size of the groups is also irrelevant for the sake of this discussion; all that matters is the game’s enemy mechanics are based on several groups/waves of enemies showing up before full completion of a combat sequence (whether for a temporary sequence or the entire game).

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With that established, let us turn to Dragon Age II.  Unlike its predecessor, Dragon Age: Origins, where most of the combat has all enemies on the screen, Dragon Age II relies on waves of enemies to save on processing power amongst other things.  The various waves show up usually dependent on health and amount of enemies left on screen.  While in some cases the player can escape and get out of the combat sequence (though generally this requires a lot of stubbornness to achieve), in most cases the player is stuck in the combat sequence until all waves are defeated.

Of course, this sounds fairly standard for a “waves of enemies” mechanic, so at what point do I think the game went astray?  As I stated, this has a lot to do with a lack of transparency.  In a lot of games, when it implements waves of enemies, it will have information on the screen for the player.  Generally, this is information such as number of waves that the player will have to face, number of enemies the player has to defeat, or a combination of both.  In either case, these sorts of games make it clear to the player how long they will be fighting.  As such, the player can strategize appropriately.  Especially in games where inventory may be limited, this allows players to choose appropriate moments to use items, or to know when their best opportunity to prepare a trap is.  There are numerous instances where such information can be handy, and for players it makes the experience more satisfying.  Additionally, if a player fails, they know better at what point, and can appropriately adjust their strategy for the next try.  In the end, this results in a more fulfilling experience, since the game is delivering enough information to allow the players to apply their skills appropriately.

Unfortunately, Dragon Age II does not feature this simple information.  Rather, the player is left in a void of uncertainty on how many waves they will face.  While some can be guessed because of certain questlines having consistency, more often than not the player will have to have played the game before to know.  This makes good strategizing near impossible, sadly.  You could be struggling to save a mana potion, only to find out you were on the last wave and could’ve ended the fight quicker if you had taken it.  Another scenario: you went through most of your health potions, used the last one thinking you’re at the end, only to discover there are two more waves.  Numerous situations like this come about, all because the game chooses not to inform the player more clearly about what situations they will be facing.  While some would argue that this makes it so players have to be prepared, there is a point where preparation and strategy must work in conjunction.  Unfortunately, Dragon Age II’s transparency issue makes it so the preparation and strategy are not able to work together.

This lack of transparency results in one simple thing: the combat becomes tedious and somewhat unenjoyable.  The end goal is fairly undefined outside of kill everyone and don’t die.  By consequence, once the player wins there is almost of a sense of anti-climax, since there was no way to identify that would be the end point.  In similar fashion, when the player fails, they feel less like it was their fault; the game feels like it is unfairly throwing enemy after enemy at you, so it was more the fault of a badly designed game than the skill of the player.  Whether that is true or not, players who come away from combat feeling that will not be inspired to continue playing the game.  In the end, a lot of fun is ruined in Dragon Age II, simply from choosing not to be transparent about its game mechanics.

While I do like Dragon Age II just fine, I can identify its combat has this fairly noticeable flaw.  Though many others would point out the terrible, over-used level designs, I think the very nature of its combat exasperates that problem as well.  Had the developers chosen to be clearer about the enemies faced, whether it be by wave number, enemy number, or something else, the game may have had a more robust feeling combat that was skill based.  As it stands, though, the experience can be frustrating.

Overall, I hope this analysis serves as a cautionary tale to indie developers.  Even if the information seems minuscule, sometimes it is better to mention than not mention a piece of information, lest you wind up damaging the player’s experience by leaving out too much.

 

Dragon Age II is © to Bioware, Electronic Arts, and all affiliated parties.

Image: Dragon Age II promotional game screen.  Obtained from PC Gamer.