Gaming Drought, Gaming Rush, Gaming Reasons

I love video games, but lately I had a kind of “drought.” Nothing interested me or inspired me. Sure I might load up Team Fortress 2 for the usual (setting the opposing team on fire or blasting them with automated sentries), but I wasn’t, well, inspired. Occasionally there’d be a patch to Approaching Infinity to play, but that was it.

I even wondered if this hobby of decades was over for me. Maybe it just didn’t do it for me anymore, something went unfulfilled.

Then two games came out and I suddenly found myself playing them for hours.

The first was Cobalt Core. This was a Roguelike Deckbuilder – a game where your characters are represented by a deck of cards, and you play it repeatedly, unlocking more. It presented an interesting plot, plenty of card synergies and tricks to figure out, and lots to discover. There was something “moreish” and stimulating about it.

The second was the full release of Backpack Hero (well, after a few fast patches). This game crossed inventory management and dungeon-crawling, building a plot around a fantasy kingdom and a magical backpack. Tweaking what equipment was stored where, while rebuilding a pastoral town, was also compelling and fun. Someone made a game that was sort of work and geometry very engaging (and the actual plot didn’t hurt).

I played these for hours at a time – and as of this writing still am! I felt happier, satisfied, and engaged. So of course I analyzed why.

In gaming I seek both challenge and stimulation. I want to use my mind and reflexes, think and calculate – in short, be involved. I also want something that interests and stimulates me, with stories and new ideas, wild vistas and fascinating mechanics. I leave a game having been engaged – and coming out maybe more skilled and with some new ideas.

I think good games – indeed any media – have that level of, well, connection. There’s something that brings you in and makes you leave simulated, and sort of better. Even if it’s a good belly laugh and wondering “why that movie was so bad.”

Now that I knew what to look for, I’m curious to see where my gaming journey takes me. Plus maybe I understand why I enjoy blasting the enemy team in Team Fortress 2 a little better.

Steven Savage

Star Traders: Frontiers – A Game That Works

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

I know I rarely plug things here unless they’re cool – and because I’ve been playing an incredibly cool game, it’s time to not just plug it, but talk about what we can learn from it.

The game is Star Traders: Frontiers by Trese Brothers.  They’ve been building games in their own, detailed universe for awhile, and this is a successor to a mindbending mobile game from years back.  It’s an open-galaxy space adventure, but the description doesn’t quite do it justice.

What they’ve basically created is a Space Opera simulator.  Even in Early Access, it’s an impressive job.  I wanted to go over just why it succeeds so well at it’s goal.

The game starts with you picking (or creating) a template for your captain, their contacts, traits, and faction.  Depending on your setting the game will set things up for you, or you can extensively customize your starting crew.  This is the first sign the game is more than it seems – if you dive in with both feet, you’ll realize there’s a lot here as you ask about profession levels, skills, and even personality traits (each crew member has a unique personality).

The game itself has distinct mechanics that, separately, aren’t overly complicated.

  • Characters in the game are a mix of professions or a profession (which provide bonuses to common abilities and skills over time), talents (unlocked by the professions), and personality traits (which can get pretty wild).  Nothing is overly complex, but these factors intereact . . .
  • Your ship is basically a pile of equipment.  Most of this is also straightforward – torpedoes with certain ranges, equipment gives you bonuses to finding things while exploring, and so on.  It’s just there’s a lot of it, and it can affect your characters, or their skills, or cargo capacity, or . . .
  • You can trade.  The trade engine is wonderfully clear and straightforward – certain kinds of worlds produce or want certain things, and with a keen eye and a bit of planning, you can make a tidy profit in a short time.  Though various skills and events may affect this . . .
  • You can explore planets, spy on worlds, patrol for trouble, and blockade an enemy.  These all use a simple card game where you get a hand of five cards, can use some skills to modify them, and one is randomly chosen as a result.  Nice and simple, though results vary with skills and location . . .
  • You of course have space battles.  Skills from characters, equipment on your ship, all come together to give you options in battle.  This is made easy to manage because you have three things you can do in battle at the same time – move, fire certain weapons, and use one crew skill.  The basics are easy, but as I said there are options . . .
  • You might even get into close combat.  There’s a simple party-of-four battle engine.  Equipment for characters is upgraded automatically unless you get a hold of specialist gear (buy a better weapons locker for your ship, everyone gets new gear).  There’s plenty of skills though, and many combat classes, so though it’s easy to play you have many options . . .
  • There’s also contacts – each of which is also unique.  You can get missions from them, get help, and even meet new people.  Much like your crew, most are randomly generated – and you don’t always know about them.  I had at least two cases where I later found out a valuable contact was a traitor . . .
  • Finally, there’s politics.  Each faction has unique abilities and as you play the factions ally, fight, and more – which can affect your game.  You can manage reputations with factions, and even get things like permits and ranks.  Their interactions add a richness to the game:  a simple trade during a trade war can destroy your reputation, an alliance may give you great opportunities.  Your contacts might send you on a mission that ends up starting a war.
  • All of this takes place in a well-designed universe.  These various parts mean something.

None of these systems is overly complicated – the ship building part is the most complicated and in the end a lot of that is “swapping stuff”.  But as you noticed they all interact, making a game that feels like it’s in a living setting.  This interaction is what makes the game truly work because any one element can affect – and be affected, by all the others.

I think this is a good lesson for game design.  Individual mechanics need to be clear and spelled out, and not too complex.  However the complexity of their interactions brings life to the game.  As almost any factor in the game can affect any other factor, but the individual parts must be clear and identifiable.

I’d also note that some of the in-game mechanics aren’t exactly what you’d expect in games.  The contact portion is more of LinkedIn in space.  The card game for various common actions is a nice way to simulate space adventure without getting too complex, but the card mechanism isn’t used elsehwere in the game.  It’s a bit like the mechanics are best-of-breed ideas – all working together.

The end result of all of this is that Star Traders: Frontiers is one of the most compelling games I’ve seen in a long time.  Every action is it’s own adventure.  Every choice alters the game.  Each little thing is easy to understand, but you have to consider it in part of the whole.

I’ll probably be learning even more as I play it – it’s Early Access, so I’m expecting there to be more lessons . . .

-Steven Savage

Playing Producer: An Overwatch RPG?

(This column is posted at and Steve’s Tumblr.  Find out more at my newsletter.)

Taking a break from my more dramatic posts to do a bit of game analysis here!

As people discuss Blizzard’s next projects, somewhere I saw a comment that maybe Blizzard’s next goal would be a Destiny-like Overwatch FPS RPG. You know the basic idea – something like Destiny and it’s sequels, Borderlands, and so on. That got me thinking – is this a viable idea?    Also feel free to use any of these ideas.

I won’t beat around the bush – if an Overwatch action RPG with MMO-like elements (or a pseudo-MMO) was considered, would I play it? Well, honestly probably yes – but I’m just one person. But would it be a viable product for more than “Steve” and how would it be done.

Since I always love analyzing these things, let’s make me a stand-in Product Owner and producer and ask if this’d work.  Hey, come on of course I’m going to bring this back to my love of processes, Agile, and organization . . .

Factor #1: Product Synergy

Product Synergy is important to Blizzard, as one can witness by everything from movies to game tie-ins to whatever the bizarre Heroes Of The Storm roster. So first up, does an Overwatch FPS RPG provide good product synergy?

That’s pretty obvious – yes. It ties into an existing propery. It parallels an existing product (Destiny 2). It’d be a genre not explored in “core” Blizzard properties.  There’s tons of media crossover potential to be tapped.

Plus with that much lore? An RPG would let peope go nuts.

Summary: Yes, there’s product synergy.

Factor #2: Market

Secondly is there a market for a FPS RPG? Blizzard, after all, is known for polishing existing ideas to a fine sheen. These have been done in various forms – in fact, with Destiny 2 they’re kinda doing it now. So is there a market for another FPS RPG or just an Overwatch RPG.

I think so – this area has seen a number of successes in various formats and settings. The big worry would be doing it in a way that stood out. Fortunately Overwatch already stands out, but this is no sure bet.

I’d also add that maybe an FPS RPG isn’t the best idea depending on how accessible you want it to audiences.

Summary: Probably a market, but I’m not as sure.

Factor #3: Would It Compete With Destiny 2?

OK yes it probably would, let’s not lie. I’m not sure if it’d be a problem as Destiny fans are pretty dedicated, though I could see this producing bad blood.

However I don’t know what Destiny 2’s lifespan will be like – and I’m not sure it’s lore and peripheral elements lead to a larger mindshare over time. Competition would lesson over time – and I expect Destiny 2 to fade in time.

Still there’d have to be some awareness of this. Even if you could do it, say, this year, you shouldn’t.  Give it time.

Summary: It would complete with Destiny 2, and that has to be taken into account.

Factor #4: Could it stand out?

Well, bluntly, yes. Though it’s easy to compare Overwatch to Team Fortress 2 and other “people with guns” games, it’s really a superhero FPS. In turn an RPG would be more like a Superhero RPG with a unique take – and though we’ve had them in various forms, the best survivors I’ve seen were tie-ins.  Overwatch could forge ahead with a semi-superhero RPG as its own thing.

On top of this, Overwatch also has a very strong lore to build on. An Overwatch FPS RPG that *delivered* on the world, letting people immerse themselves in a setting, would definitely stand out. I’d wager a well done Overwatch FPS RPG would set a new standard for immersion of done right.

Summary: Yes, it’d stand out.

Factor #5: What about the economy?

Does the economy have room for Blizzard to drop a big property?

Here’s where there’s an issue – I’m not sure about the state of the economy right now. We’ve got political instability and the long slow recovery from the Great Recession may be the longest period of sustained growth, but not everyone recovered. Also, we’re probably due a recession.

In addition there is the potential competition with Destiny 2 and other action RPG games (say, Warframe).  The market is also saturated with Battle Royale type stuff.  Probably not the best time.

So launching anything like this wouldn’t be something to try to rush out or get out in 2 years. I don’t think it’d be viable until 2021 or 2022.

Summary: In the next few years this probably isn’t the best time.  3-4 years is probably a better timeframe

Factor #6: Will it detract from Overwatch’s interest?

I see two factors here:

  1. First, it well could, especially if it’s “Overwatch with some RPG” bolted on. Imagine if you could play Overwatch with some bits and bobs, and if it’d distract you from the core game (for me, yes).  You can’t make “Overwatch Fortress 2” with some customization elements and expect it not to compete.
  2. Secondly, it might increase its lifespan of Overwatch if done right. I’ve found myself loosing interest (indeed, Overwatch took me away from TF2, which I was losing interest in), and am not sure my own interest will sustain much beyond another year. But a new way to experience Overwatch (and some tie-ins) could keep me there.

So if an Overwatch RPG can synergize with the game but not detract from it, then I think it’s not just viable but may keep people involved. However, this may mean it’s more viable as a regular RPG so there’s less competition mechanics-wise. In other words, it might not be an FPS, though I’d preferr it.

I’d also note my above statement it might not be viable for a few years could let it refresh Overwatch if/when it sags.

As I analyze, I’ll proceed with the idea of an Overwatch RPG that would probably be FPS – but am not sure.

Summary: An Overwatch RPG has to stand out distinct from Overwatch while building interest.  That means it may not be an FPS, and would have to be both distinct and related to the starter property.

BONUS ROUND: Pen And Paper Tie-In?

One way to judge interest in an MMO would be to release a pen-and-paper tie-in related to any future game system to check buy in, gain synergy, and of course make money and build buzz.

Moving On

So next up, I’ll discuss just what an Overwatch RPG might be like.

And I’m sort of enjoying playing Product Manager . . .

– Steve