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Tuesday, December 2, 2014

What Is League of Legends (LoL) ?

I have been spending... some non-specific amount of time and energy playing League of Legends by Riot Games.  It is a deep, strategic, tactical, and enjoyable game.  I plan on posting a series of articles about different aspects of the game.  Unfortunately, not everyone knows what the heck League of Legends even is, so this is the article I'm going to point them towards to get the basics.

MOBA, No Duh

LoL is classified as a MOBA, a Multiplayer Online Battle Arena.  There are quite a few such games these days--DoTA 2, Smite, Heroes of the Storm, etc.  You can look 'em up if you're interested, but they're CLEARLY inferior to League of Legends, otherwise I'd be writing the article about them.  MOBAs also have the moniker "action real-time strategy games," which is awesome not just because "ARTS games" are now thing (hah!), but because it's a pretty apt description.

MOBA games are team-based real-time action games--there's no waiting for your opponent's turn to finish.  The clock is always ticking, and if you're not accomplishing anything useful, the enemy team is likely gaining an advantage.  Each player controls a single character with a limited set of abilities.  Together, teammates must coordinate to destroy the enemy base before the enemy team destroys their base.

There are plenty of game modes within most MOBAs, but the basic game mode is 5v5 on a map like the one above.  The two blue corners represent the bases that need to be destroyed.  The yellow bars represent paths or "lanes."

Each base regularly spawns minions that march down the three lanes.  These minions (also known as "creep") do not respond to commands from any of the players; they just march down their lanes and automatically attack any enemies they see.  If they encounter an enemy structure, they will attack it until it is destroyed.

The blue dots on the map represent towers or turrets that defend the lanes.  Any enemies (including minions) that come in range will be attacked by these towers.  The towers also give vision of the map, which makes it very difficult to sneak into the enemy base without being noticed.

The green area is the jungle.  This has a lot of twisting paths through which players can travel from lane to lane.  There are also neutral monsters in the jungle that players can attack to gain extra gold and experience.

Since there are typically 5 players on a team and only 3 lanes, players will usually take up specific positions in the early game.  In League of Legends, one player will take the top lane, one in the mid lane, two in the bottom lane (one of which is usually a support character), and one in the jungle who roams between the lanes and helps alleviate pressure.

Build It Up, Tear It Down

League of Legends  steadily ramps up towards a very intense end game.  Players' characters or "champions" start with a small amount of gold and no experience points.  As they kill minions and enemies and destroy objectives, they acquire more gold (which they can use to purchase items at their base) and more experience (which allows them to level up their abilities or gain new abilities).

In the early game, players will jockey for gold by "farming" minions.  This means dealing the killing blow to a minion and gaining the gold for the kill.  Simply being nearby when a minion dies will gain a player experience, but gold is only won by the person who deals the final blow.  This is also called "creeping" and is an important skill to learn.

In the early game, farming is key.  Many players will practically ignore enemy champions during the first few minutes of the game in favor of farming.  (Of course, this can leave a player open to early ganks if they're not careful.  If you're taking damage in order to kill creep, the opponent could jump in and finish you off.  You can't farm when you're dead!)

Baron Nashor, an important objective in the jungle, halfway between the mid and top lanes.

As players gain more gold, buy more items, and level up their abilities, they will become more powerful.  Additionally, they will push the waves of minions up to the towers and take the towers down, breaking apart the enemy defenses.  During the mid game, players will start to roam into other lanes and apply targeted pressure.  They will take key objectives, such as: the dragon, which gives a global stat boost to every player on the team; Baron Nashor, who is a tough mofo, but gives a powerful temporary boost to every living player on the team; enemy towers; and inhibitors.  Inhibitors are defenseless structures in the enemy base that sit behind the third tier of towers.  When your team destroys an enemy inhibitor, your base begins spawning super minions, which are tougher and deal more damage.

This is an inhibitor, yo.
As a team takes objectives and gains power and momentum, they can push into the late game, where the teams group up and fight to destroy the final defenses and destroy the enemy nexus.

Blue side's nexus, guarded by two towers to ward off attacks by the filthy purple team.

First to destroy the nexus wins, every time.  Doesn't matter how many kills you get; if you don't level up, buy items, take objectives, and destroy the nexus, you lose.


League of Legends is completely free to play.  Seriously.  You don't have to spend any money to enjoy every aspect of the game.  You can acquire every champion and play every game mode without spending a dime.  Playing a match earns you IP, which can be used to purchase champions as well as "runes" which give you slight stat boosts during a game.  

There are more than 120 champions in League of Legends, each with their own unique abilities and advantages.  There are close-range tanks that soak up damage and do annoying things to draw enemy fire.  There are ranged marksmen that dish out a lot of damage, but have to avoid TAKING damage because they are mighty squishy.  There are spellcasters and healers and assassins and a Koopa turtle with a spin move that looks like Sonic the Hedgehog.  Also robots and ponies and pirates and cowboys and a scarecrow.  And tiny little people called yordles with adorable chubbly cheeks.

Really, no matter your tastes, you're going to find champions that connect with you.

There are always 10 champions available without having to purchase them.  Those free champions rotate each week, so you can always try new champions.  Riot Games does a good job of giving players a good variety within the free champs--there's always at least one good champion for each of the five major roles, with a diversity of play styles and themes.  If you jump into the game, just try a few of the free champs and see what you like!

Once you've found characters that you like, you can purchase them in the store using the IP you've gathered from playing the game!

IP lets you buy everything in the game, with one exception.  Skins.

Skins.  Why did it have to be skins?

I know what you're thinking.  "Psh, why would I want to pay real money so that my fake digital character can wear different clothes?"


Why would you want your champion to look like this:

This is your Blitzcrank

When you could look like this:

This is your Blitzcrank on AWESOME

Would you really prefer this:

Say hello to Teemo
Over this:
Say hello to Teemo... IN SPACE

As much as I love this champion:

Oh, Anivia.  How I love you
I have to admit she looks much better like this:

I guess I can kinda see why some people would have trouble choosing between this:

Miss Fortune
And this:


Here's the thing about champion skins:  They don't JUST change how the character looks, although frankly that alone is pretty awesome.  They also add new or different phrases the champion will say--entirely new voice work for your character!  AND the animations are different, which doesn't just look cool, but can actually have a minor effect on the game.  If your opponent is used to your attack looking a particular way, then changing the animation can actually throw off their ability to dodge.  Which means that skins aren't just awesome, they can actually help you win!

But you can only acquire them by purchasing RP, which costs real dollars.  And let me tell you, plenty of people are shelling out, because Riot Games makes approximately ALL THE MONEY each quarter.  The League of Legends World Championship took place recently and had a prize pool of $2 million.

Still, you can thoroughly enjoy the game without ever spending any money at all.  And I really do think you'll enjoy it.

Download the game here.

Saturday, August 2, 2014

J-AWE Dropping Design

Andreas Propst, famed designer of such indie board game hits as Elemental Clash, Space Clash, and Biomechanical Dino Battles, is at it again.

Andi has a strong track record of taking solid game ideas and evolving them into polished products that are easy to learn, but with plenty of depth and strategy, and most of all, fun.  Now he has launched a Kickstarter campaign for his latest creation:  AWE - Antediluvian Wars: Extermination!

Check out the Kickstarter campaign here!

AWE on KS fb

AWE is exactly the kind of game I always wanted to design--an expandable, compact, two-player competitive card game in which each card can be used in multiple ways.  The versatility of the cards gives players a lot of interesting tactical decisions throughout the game.

As you can see in the example card below, each card can be used in three main ways.  Played right-side up, it is a creature that will stay on the board and fight for your cause until it is killed or you win the game.  Played upside-down, it is a one-shot event that will have an effect and then be discarded.  Played sideways, the card acts as a resource, allowing you to play more cards to bring your opponent to his or her knees.

Hyperborean Heavy Cavalry Sample
And check out that stellar art!

There's even a handy diagram to explain the concept:

How to play a card
Simple mechanic, tons of depth.  Each card immediately presents the player with three different decisions, and the choice the player makes will lead to further decisions.  When do I attack?  What do I target?  How do I allocate my resources?

In AWE, each player takes on the role of a God of one of four unique factions:  Mu, Lemuria, Atlantis, and Hyperborea.  Each God has two unique abilities that will give players an edge throughout the game.  Each faction has a different flavor and unique emphases.

Will you play as the Lemurians, dark-skinned masters of long-lost technologies such as flying warships and Thunderrods?

Perhaps you are more drawn to Hyperboreans, stout northerners who ride woolly rhinos and mammoths into battle to destroy their enemies with gunpowder and steam-powered weaponry?

Maybe you feel a connection with the sea-faring Atlanteans and their well-organized and well-trained infantry and cavalry--not to mention their ability to summon mighty sea serpents to do battle alongside them.

Or do the shamanistic Muans appeal to you with their powerful and versatile magic and their deep connection with nature?

Whatever you choose, you won't be wrong!

AWE Warrior Concepts
Unless of course you choose the Atlanteans.  Those guys are chumps!

Want to make sure this is your kind of game?  You can read the full game rules here.

The Kickstarter has already broken $1100 and is on its way to making the game a reality.  If this game sounds AWEsome to you, please consider backing it!  I already have, and I'm excited to get the game into my hands and the hands of my friends and family.  

If you're strapped for funds, please feel free to help spread the word by sharing the project on Facebook, Twitter, or on your blog.

Thanks for reading!

Thursday, February 6, 2014

Dead Space Mobile: Lessons in Porting/Designing for Mobile Devices

I am currently on my second playthrough of Dead Space Mobile on my Motorola Photon Q.  (My wife and I treated ourselves to fancy new smartphones for Christmas.  I have to say, smartphones are amazing.)  The first two Dead Space games on PS3 were two of the best survival horror games I have ever played. Dead Space 3 was awful, and I will eventually write a post on why it was so bad, but for now, suffice to say that it's not even worth playing.

Dead Space Mobile does an exceptionally good job of translating the mechanics and feeling of the Dead Space franchise to a mobile platform.


Dead Space Mobile takes a break from Isaac Clark's story to give us a peek at another corner of the Dead Space universe.  You play as Vandal, a recent convert to Unitology tasked with sabotaging mining operation on Titan Station.  Within the first few minutes of the game, though, your efforts prove to be part of a Unitology plot to release Necromorphs on the station.  Unitologists, as has been established in other Dead Space works, are a crazy cult that believes that humanity must ascend to a higher form by dying and being reshaped into horrible clawed space zombies.  These Necromorphs don't die easy; rather than taking off their heads, as in most zombie lore, you must surgically severe their limbs.  Otherwise, they'll just keep coming at you.

Space zombies just want hugs.

Left for dead on the station, it is up to you to repair the damage and prevent a catastrophe from destroying the station and all survivors of the Necromorph attacks.  You proceed through a series of levels, often with a short tram ride in between, dismembering monsters, acquiring new weapons, and repairing vital systems on your way to a massive and intense boss fight in the final chapter.  Oh, and Vandal is gradually going insane the whole time, so there's that.

This isn't the final boss, but it is a big jerk that soaks up tons of your precious ammo.

The plot doesn't offer many twists or surprises, but the setting and characters are interesting, and the tension builds well to a satisfying climax.  I also enjoyed the nod to Metroid at the end of the game.  There are some great jump-scares, too.  The designers definitely know how to build suspense and terror, which is just what you want from a Dead Space game.


Smartphone games are a challenge to design.  The screen is small, and the user input is limited to the touchscreen interface and the phone's tilt controls.  I was subsequently nervous about how Visceral Games was going to map Playstation controls onto a phone.  It turns out that it works surprisingly well.

Left thumb to move, right thumb to look around, just like a Playstation controller.

As in the console Dead Space games, Dead Space Mobile gives the player an over-the-shoulder view of our armored protagonist.  Vandal is on the left side of the screen.  Placing your left thumb on Vandal allows you to move forward, backward, or side-to-side.  Placing your right thumb on the right side of the screen allows you to change the camera angle, turn to the right or left, and aim your weapons.  Movement and aiming are very smooth on my phone, as long as I keep the screen clean.  I did have to occasionally wipe the screen to allow for uninhibited aiming, particularly during really tense fights, when my hands would get a little sweaty.

Ready to kill

Tapping the right side of the screen once will ready your weapon.  Tapping again will fire the weapon.  As in the other Dead Space games, all weapons in Dead Space Mobile have two firing modes.  The basic Plasma Cutter, for example, can fire either horizontally or vertically, allowing for precise severing of Necromorph limbs.  The Line Gun either fires a broad and powerful horizontal shot, or dispatches a timed mine.  To switch between firing modes, just tilt the phone to one side briefly.  To reload, tap the ammo readout about the weapon.

If any enemy is standing close to Vandal, you can slash it with a new weapon, the Plasma Saw, which requires no ammo.  An arrow pointing upwards will appear on the left side of the screen whenever Vandal can use this attack.  Simple swipe your left thumb upwards along the arrow to perform the attack

Similarly, when standing over enemies or breakable boxes, an arrow pointing downwards will appear on the left side of the screen to indicate that Vandal can stomp on them.

As in the console games, you gain the ability to temporarily freeze enemies or objects with Stasis.  To do so, aim your weapon at the target and press the Stasis button on Vandal's back.

Vandal can also move heavy objects from a distance using Kinesis.  If an item can be manipulated with Kinesis, an icon will appear above it.  Simply tap the icon, and Vandal will grab it with Kinesis.  Tap the screen again to throw the item.

There are doors, lockers, and boxes that Vandal can open.  An icon appears on such objects; just tap the icon to open it.  The same icon will also indicate when you can interact with the store (where you can buy and sell useful items) or with a bench (where you can use Power Nodes to upgrade your weapons, armor, and Stasis module).

Useful items such as ammo and Power Nodes can be found throughout the game.  Simply approach them.  When you are standing close to them, an image of the item will float above the item itself.  Tap the image to collect the item.

There are a few zero-gravity areas in the game.  These are treated the same way as they are handled in the first Dead Space game; you are magnetically rooted to the floor, but can jump across the room to new locations.  To do so in Dead Space Mobile, aim at the location to which you would like to jump and shake the phone up and down.  Once usually does it.


The game manages to translate the movement, the frantic surgical shooting, and the desperate search for ammo found in the console games.  It even has the spectacular "Stasis-punch" combo, wherein you use Stasis to freeze an enemy, then run up to it and use your Plasma saw to shred it without using up your ammunition.  The game's action is tense as you scramble to get some distance between yourself and the Necromorphs so you can shoot off their limbs.  It is not uncommon to have to run around a room looking for ammo and hoping to heal while several enemies try to trap you in a corner and eat your face.  Despite a linear plot and some rather uninspired level design, the game manages to be exciting, engaging, and fun.

However, there are some interesting differences between the mobile and the console games.  In the console Dead Space games, the player must manage an inventory of items, occasionally dropping useful items to make room for necessary ones.  In the mobile game, there is no inventory; Vandal can carry a virtually unlimited amount of ammo.  This design choice was made to save on screen real estate.  An inventory button did not need to be mapped to the touch screen.

One of the reasons that the inventory was unnecessary was that Dead Space Mobile does away with health packs.  Instead of needing to collect items to heal damage, Vandal heals gradually over time.  This, again, was a deliberate design choice that was made to accommodate the restrictions of the mobile platform.  Changing the heal mechanic for the mobile game allowed the designers to remove the need for the player to have a button or series of button presses in order to heal.  I applaud this innovation, although this did allow me to occasionally "game the system" by completely ignoring slobbering monsters and just running around healing until I was ready to fight them.

None of this.

Dead Space Mobile acknowledges that it is likely to be played in shorter chunks than the console games by discarding the save point system.  Instead, it uses a series of checkpoints to save the game.  Whenever you accomplish something--move to a new location, complete a battle, gain a new weapon, even use a bench or the store--a save icon will briefly appear in the lower right corner of the screen.  Once it disappears, your game is safe, and you can close out the game without fear of losing your progress.  The checkpoints are spaced close enough to each other that gamers on the go can feel free to play for just a few minutes and still progress through the game.

The game includes several instances of zero-gravity, and a few areas without atmosphere, wherein you must rely on your O2 tank and maybe a refill station to get through.  However, those sections were few and far between, and did nothing to really play with the zero-G or oxygen mechanics.  They were just very basic "now you have to make a few space jumps to get to the next door" or "now you have to pay attention to your oxygen level on the way to the next door" type of levels.


I think that, in general, the level design of the game was rather lackluster.  There were few puzzles, none of which were tremendously brain-burning, and the levels were usually quite linear.  Stasis and Kinesis, two mechanics that are crucial for solving puzzles in the console games, are hardly ever used to progress through the levels, beyond freezing some malfunctioning doors or clearing away some large boxes to get through a corridor.  That's not to say the levels are uninteresting, merely unimaginative.

Astute readers may have noticed that many of the preceding paragraphs sound a little disparaging.  My apologies for this.  I don't want people to think that the game is BAD.  It's good.  Solid.  It just doesn't innovate upon the Dead Space formula.  It cuts out some of the console mechanics and doesn't add anything groundbreaking.  That being said, it's a fine Dead Space game which I thoroughly enjoyed.


So what can we learn from this console-to-mobile port?

1. Distill

Console games have several advantages over mobile games.  They have controllers with, just, a TON of buttons and thumbsticks.  They're played on nice big screen televisions, which are occasionally HD, I hear.  (Sigh.)  They have some absolutely KICK ASS games.  But for all their good points, they're also tied to the living room.  (Bedroom.  Basement.  Wherever you keep your game systems; I'm not here to judge.)

Gotta work with the space you have.  I get it.

If you want games on the go, you have to make some sacrifices.  That means trimming the fat.  Boil down the essence of your IP.  What is it that players most enjoy about your games?  Translate THOSE experiences and THOSE mechanics to the phone.  Leave out or simplify everything else.  This was something that Dead Space Mobile did well.

2. Utilize Your Mechanics

If it's in the game, make sure you put it to good use.  Say you have a sweet cover system for your shooter.  Make sure you place a good amount of cover in each area for the player to use!  Even better, give the player interesting ways to interact with cover throughout the game; break up the rhythm that the player will inevitably develop of ducking, popping up, shooting, and going back into cover.  Maybe some pieces of cover disintegrate quickly under fire, or certain types of enemies can shoot through certain types of cover, or certain enemies will rush at your cover, leap over it, and hack at you with machetes.  You know, mix things up.  Play with your game mechanics.

Nintendo games, for example, tend to play the HELL out of very basic yet fun mechanics, such as running and jumping in Mario games.

Dead Space Mobile doesn't do this QUITE as well.  Stasis is great for combat, so I don't fault them for not using it in very many puzzles.  On the other hand, the designers could have found more interesting things to do with Kinesis.  There are a couple of puzzles were you have to use Kinesis to carry powered batteries to open doors, and they managed to make some of those puzzles interesting--forcing you to juggle carrying something with fighting monsters, for example, or having to toss it through a set of malfunctioning doors that are slamming open and closed.  Still, the mechanic seems underused compared to the work the designers got out of it in the console games.

Much more egregious in my mind, though, was the game's use of zero-G.  Their uses are so bland and unimaginative it actually made me sad when I reached the final boss.  "Is that really all the zero-G jumping I get to do?" I though.  I love the zero-G areas in Dead Space.  They're so much fun!  I didn't get nearly enough of them in Dead Space Mobile.

As for O2, there is exactly one fight in an area without atmosphere.  And I'll admit, it was intense, balancing the need to move to a better position and shoot Necromorphs with the need to reach an O2 station to stave off asphyxiation.  But that was a single battle in what I would guess was a seven-hour game.  It was under-utilized, and that is highly unfortunate.  It's a good mechanic that can add a time element to any battle or puzzle that would normally be straightforward.  That's a great way to add tension.  It should have been used more.

3. Design for Mobile Gaming

I don't JUST mean that you have to design controls that work on a phone, although that certainly important.  You also have to design your game with mobile gaming habits in mind.  Most mobile gaming is done in short chunks of time.  Make sure your players can make progress and have fun every couple of minutes.  Keep your cutscenes short and sweet.  Make it very easy to save the game and quit.  Dead Space does this quite well.  It also had some surprisingly good controls for a phone game, which I applaud.


If you're a fan of the Dead Space franchise, you'll almost certainly appreciate this game.  If you like survival horror games, you'll probably like this game.  If you want a good sci fi shooter on your phone, give this a shot.

Dead Space Mobile is available for iOS for $6.99 and Android for the same price.