Tuesday, March 1, 2016

100,000 Blood Souls

I came to Bloodborne very, very late. But here I am now, using YouTube to help guide my way. Because here's the dirty truth I've had to admit to myself often: I'm not very good at videogames.

Part of this is merely a function of time: Mine is limited, therefore my ability to explore as many options as I can to success is limited. Part of this is about who I am: I like to work with people on problems. Otherwise, I generally blunt force my way through an issue in a videogame-enough weapons, enough rankings, I'll make it through, right?

Bloodborne doesn't work like that. You either learn or you die. So I've been schooling at YouTube to get better. However, even that doesn't always work, sometimes I just have to grind my lessons into my fingers.

I was exploring a new area, getting some tips from the internet so I wouldn't miss anything and I was doing quite well. I had 100,000 Blood Souls-which is the name for currency in the game-the most I had ever had. I was feeling pretty confident about my progress but I knew I needed to find a checkpoint soon so I could translate my money into levels. In Bloodborne, if you die, you lose all your money and you have one chance to get it back. Miss that chance and it's gone forever.

Long story short: I died. And then I missed that chance. No reboot, no extra saves, no nothing. Everything I earned: gone. Sooooo, shit happens, right?

Right. The question is: Why do I keep going back to this game that is punishing me? Because the punishments are brutal. Yet I shrugged this failure off and started again, no problem.

The answer is twofold and I believe one relies on the other. First, the game feels fair. Mistakes that are made are inevitably the fault of the player-I can almost immediately identify, when I die, where I went wrong. (Where I went wrong is almost always the result of overconfidence).

Second, the design of the game is impeccable. As gloomy and foreboding as the atmosphere in Bloodborne is, they provide opportunities for players to solve problems. The design is there in service to the game, not the other way around. Once that basic design is there, all the additional flourishes that make the world one that looks lived in (or really, died in) become much easier to lego on. I've been able to figure out ways to handle enemies or explore areas on my own working out my own paths that when I read or watch other players' experiences, do not mirror theirs. Sometimes, sure. But not always.

The design of the game is such that it feels fair and it feeling fair all the time means that the design of the game allows it to have such a high bar of difficulty. I don't lose because the game tricked me, I lose because I didn't execute properly.

However, that's why I keep playing. The reason it works is because of the design of the game. Bloodborne's environment is one of Victorian Gothic inside a Chuthlu shell. The gameplay, however, could be dropped into any visual environment and still work. When I speak of the design here I'm talking about the mechanical structures that give people the tools to work in whatever world they are dropped in to as players.

Now, there are some real problems with Bloodborne, specifically the lack of an instruction manual. I know, there's a digital copy but navigating that via the PS4 interface is a massive pain in the ass that nobody should have to put up with just to play a game.

So, what does this have to do with Magic, really?

The same thing it might have to do with anything: Excellent fundamental mechanics show.

When Wizards produces really interesting mechanics, those allow players to explore the game and do things people aren't expecting.

When they adhere too closely to archetypes for draft, players are presented with solved problems and solved problems are boring. When they fail to provide interesting cards for Constructed formats at rarities that everyone can afford, they are channeling players into a mindset that says that A) Rares are always the best thing and B) you need to pay to play, which solves problems and solved problems are boring.

That isn't to say that Magic design is easy. Designing anything is difficult and when that design succeeds, most people don't even notice. "The Draft environment for Battle for Zendikar is great!" but why? That goes unnoticed. "Modern Constructed with Oath of the Gatewatch is screwed!" and why? Because there wasn't enough testing of the design of those cards with Modern in mind.

Now, WotC has repeatedly said that their focus is on having a dynamic Standard environment (which hasn't happened with the new block), so it's a little unfair to blame them for cards that perform much better when allowed to access a bigger card pool.

Except. This is possibly the biggest board game in the world. There are game stores that exist because of Magic and subsist on that game and nothing else. Design and testing of their product-the foundation upon which the game exists-should be the thing they are always, always doing.

Yet we get sets like Modern Masters 2, which was an awful draft environment. Or we get sets like Battle for Zendikar, which did nothing to change the Standard constructed environment.

Maybe the shift to two set blocks took more of a toll than the public realized? Perhaps things will stabilize out and we'll see some improved design with the new Innistrad block or the next Conspiracy set.

And, I'll probably talk about Bloodborne at least once more. 

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