Sunday, June 26, 2011

Academagia: The Making of Mages - review

I haven't finished Academagia: The Making of Mages, but I've played enough to confirm many of my initial impressions of it. It's a great idea, and I'm sure there's a fun game in there somewhere, but interface and design mistakes really make it more tedious than fun.

I did play past the midterms, so let me tell you how that worked out. As I described previously, my character was basically a smart, studious magic nerd. I started with a high intelligence and high insight. Though the game suggests studying to level 5 in all of your classes by midterm, I studied to level 6 or 7. And my knowledge of each subject was at 7 or 8 (out of a maximum of 10). Not bad for halfway through the class, I figured. I even did extra credit for one class.

So how did I do? Well, I really don't know. I got a number grade in each class, but there was no indication of what that meant. Is a 60 high? I don't know. My number was higher than what most of the kids got (there were a large number of 40's), but many kids got much higher than that. Is that actually 60 out of a hundred? No idea.

No professor said anything about it, good, bad, or indifferent. No one praised us for doing well or complained that we hadn't. There were absolutely no consequences to the midterms, not as a group and not individually. As far as I can tell, those numbers - whatever they meant - didn't matter in the slightest.

The midterms took place over a matter of weeks, with a test from one class taking up a whole morning or afternoon period. Well, there are a lot of classes, and I was only taking six of them. I knew when a test would take place, but unfortunately, not what class it was. (Why not?) So it was hard to do clever little things like casting a spell to temporarily increase my knowledge. I tried anyway, but I couldn't see that it had any result at all. Come on, you can't even cast a spell to improve your grade?

The whole thing was a huge letdown. Midterms aren't ever going to be much fun, I suppose, even in a college of magic. But they're normally important, right? These didn't seem to be important to anyone.

I talked about the terrible interface - in particular, the tiny type - in my first post. So let me focus on the gameplay decisions in this one. I really like the huge number of options in this game - hundreds of skills, 17 possible classes to take, choices everywhere you go. Initially, I was struck by the fact that I didn't have a clue which choices to actually make. However, that could be OK, if you understood that almost any of them would work.

The bigger problem is that the game doesn't take advantage of the choices you do make. You choose to study 6 courses out of 17 available (two or three of them are required by your college, but you can choose which college to join), so you'd expect that your college experience would be greatly affected by that. One of my classes was in zoology, so wouldn't I expect weird and humorous experiences with magical creatures? (Yeah, I've clearly read Harry Potter.)

But no, that's not what happens. There are apparently 800 different random events that can happen, but they all happen at random, no matter what you've chosen to do. I had random accidents when stirring potions, but there isn't actually a "potions" class. There's chemistry, which might be close, but I wasn't taking that class. Really, none of my classes seemed to have anything to do with potions. So why was I getting random potion-stirring events?

And even when I didn't decide to explore the city, I'd have random events happen there. My character had almost no social or artistic skills, and certainly wasn't studying anything like that, yet I still had acting and singing random events. I ran into magical creatures, but not in my zoology class. Yes, I could often use my knowledge of zoology then, but I could use other skills, too. (There are normally several different skills you can use to succeed in a random event - out of hundreds of different skills available to learn. And they don't seem to be affected by anything but pure chance.)

The problem is that my choices - which classes to take, in particular - didn't seem to matter in the slightest. Those choices didn't affect my college experience, since the events were just random, and it didn't really matter which classes I chose, or which skills I trained, because it was just a matter of luck whether they'd be of use in any particular encounter.

Having 800 different random events is great, but they could have been tied to our choices - for example, different events depending on which classes we chose to take. Likewise, there are more than 80 other students at the school. But it's really hard to get to know anyone, when there are 80 different people encountered randomly. It was hard to even get to know the people in my own college.

I should have been having experiences in class with a subset of those kids. As I say, there are 17 different courses, but each student studies only six. My zoology class could have been an opportunity not just for events particular to that class, but for getting to know a few of my fellow students. Playing the game again, studying different courses, would then lead to a different experience - different events, different friends (and enemies), differences based on those choices I made.

Heck, why didn't I have a roommate? Why weren't there a small group of students I'd naturally encounter more often, either in class or in my living quarters? Think about your college experience. Did you know every student at the school equally well? Of course not! And why is that?

As it is, there are a lot of choices in this game, a lot of options, and a huge number of random events. But it's all kind of bloodless. It's all kind of... random. Yes, I can make a lot of choices, but those choices don't actually matter, because pretty much any choice will give you a similar random school-year.

I started a second game with a different kind of student, this one a very charming, very lucky rich boy. And I had him join a different college and take completely different classes. Since he was charming and lucky, it was natural for him to concentrate on different skills, too. Really, the variation in this game is impressive. But it still didn't really seem to matter. For both students, their experiences were random.

There's a similar problem with the "adventures." Apparently, there are more than 100 different adventures in the game, of which a random assortment are available for each character. These are like the random events, except that I choose when to experience each one and they're all multi-part experiences that can't be completed in just one time-slot.

I never actually completed one, myself. The thing is, they get more difficult as you continue. If you fail at any point, you can just choose to try again later. But there's a very limited amount of time available in this game, and there are always a lot of things you need to do. Also, if you succeed in using a skill, in a random event or an adventure, you get better at it. If you fail, you often gain the chance to study a new skill - which, again, takes up your precious time - but you sometimes lose a skill point, too.

So when it comes to adventures, it only makes sense to do the beginning parts of all of them, before moving on to the tougher parts. After all, you're unskilled at first, so there's no way you can actually complete one. And succeeding in the first parts of them will make you better able to tackle the later parts. There's really no other rational way to do it. Unfortunately, this breaks the whole "adventure" experience, since, when you come back to an adventure weeks later, you often can't even remember what happened previously. So you lose the narrative, and that's just not much fun.

A better design choice would be to give characters one adventure at a time, at steadily increasing difficulty levels. So you'd start with a very easy adventure, something any beginning student could expect to complete. (Admittedly, to do that, they'd have to be linked to your skills or your classes, at least to some extent.) And once you were successful with that, you'd get another that was slightly harder. You could still have a hundred different adventures, so that no two characters would see the same ones, but they'd be designed so that each one, taken individually, would seem like a real adventure. (And it would be nice if they had real consequences for the rest of the school-year, too.)

There are a lot of things in the game like this, where the game could use our choices - and random events - to give us a personalized experience. As it is, most of our choices seem meaningless. I've got a familiar, but I don't know why. I don't know what good it is. Is it just because wizards have familiars? I can train my familiar, but that takes up the time I could use to train myself, instead. So why would I do that? I've no idea.

I have trained my familiar, but I don't know what that did for me. It seems to be another of those options that don't mean anything.

I've learned "phemes," too - tons and tons of them. Supposedly, phemes are the building blocks of magical spells. I can add them to a spell when I cast it, but... I almost never have a reason to deliberately cast a spell, I seem to have no reason at all to add a pheme to them, and it's tedious in the extreme to search painstakingly though a long list of phemes - in tiny type - to find one I might want to add. Yeah, partly this is an interface problem (again), but mostly... it's just not any fun.

Clearly, a lot of work went into constructing these phemes. I mean, there seem to be hundreds of them. But why? What was the point? I could see automatically learning new spells when you discovered the phemes for them. I mean, spells are at least fun, right? Well, except that you don't really cast spells, except in random events - and in those cases, the result isn't personalized to what your character knows.

Here's how the Academagia website describes the game:
In your first year, you'll attend classes, build skills, compete for the glory of your College, and explore the history and powers of an ancient world of flying islands and fallen empires. What you choose to do - whether it be to create a new magical item, to butter up your instructors, or to duel with your bitterest rivals - will ultimately determine how your character evolves throughout the school year. With many secret skills to uncover and hundreds of unique actions to learn and bonuses to collect, character specialization is unprecedented in its breadth. You can explore the campus, research in the many libraries, help your friends, visit exotic merchants or cast powerful spells: the choice is yours!

It sounds great, doesn't it? And it really is a great idea. There are so many great possibilities in this game. Unfortunately, the execution is lacking. It's not nearly as much fun as it sounds. Indeed, it's rather tedious.

But I love the idea behind it. I really hope that they continue with Year 2, but make my choices matter. When I take a particular class, I need to have fun things happen there - things directly related to taking that class. And I need to experience these things with a small subset of those 80-some students - and nearly 20 different instructors - at the school.

I need to have my choices make a real difference in my experiences. Yes, pretty much any choices will work. Any kind of character will work, and any choice of classes will work. But your experience should be different depending on those choices. Random events for all characters, no matter what choices they've made, just makes those choices immaterial. My choices should clearly affect what random events I see.

Above all, studying at a university of magic should be fun. It shouldn't be like studying to be an accountant. (OK, maybe I'm slandering accounting professors here. If so, I apologize.) This game is just tedious. If I choose to go on an adventure, I want to enjoy it. I want to see that adventure through - beginning, middle, and end - before I start a new adventure (think mini-RPG adventures, each one a different module).

I want wild and crazy things to happen in class (the class I've chosen to take), and I want the results to affect my relations with that particular professor and with those (relatively few) students who are in the class with me. And I want this particular narrative to continue throughout the whole year.

I want the midterms and the final exams to be important, or at least seem to be important. I want the professor to be happy or unhappy with the results - for the whole class and individually, too. I want to know if I did poorly or if I did well, and I want to know why.

Academagia is almost exactly like the Harry Potter books, except that the Harry Potter books were fun. You might think that a game about attending a school like Hogwarts would have to be fun, but you'd be wrong. This game really has a lot of promise, but I can't recommend it right now.

No comments: