Alternative Clickbait Title: “You won’t believe which game was most impactful to this game designer!!!”
(Oh man am I late on this. I started it on January 12, but I figure I better finish it before the end of 2022, at least)
Another year, another time to review what games I played this year.
I have broken out games into 3 tiers of games played for fun by length, and games for research. At the bottom, I will declare my “Best,” “Most Fun,” and “Most Impactful” games.
Whenever someone asks “What type of games do you like to play?” I usually respond with “A lot of different stuff. What I’m playing RECENTLY is…”
Hopefully this list makes my eclectic genre interests clearer for anyone interested. I hope that you can find something fun in here, and perhaps support developers of a game you haven’t seen before.
Some of these games were also games I played last year. That page is here.
Games for Fun (Large Time Spent)
These are games I played for entertainment purposes where I spent more than 30 hours on the game.
Pokemon Unite (245 hours)
After I was disgusted by the way I was treated in League of Legends back in 2013, I swore I would never play another MOBA ever again. The sheer toxicity that MOBAs invoke in people, I considered, was never worth the payoff from having fun matches.
I watched CallMeKevin play Pokemon Unite, and decided to give it a try. The fact that the game does not have text chat was one of the best decisions they ever made in terms of their design.
I will say, the constant balance updates mean that it can be hard to keep up if you fall behind. There will be all sorts of changes since the last time you played.
…if anyone wants to team up for some matches, let me know. Here’s my mains.
Speedster: Talonflame Mid
Attacker: Sylveon Bot
All-rounder: Dragonite Bot
Defender: Slowbro Top
Support: Wigglytuff Bot
(Update, it is April 2022 now. The meta has probably shifted so far that none of these picks are relevant anymore. If anyone IS playing and wants me to jump back in for a few matches with them, I am totally game.)
Stellaris (240 hours)
I played this game on a free weekend. That first run…oh gosh I got slaughtered. I tried to follow the tutorial, but I had no idea what I was doing. Once I hit the midgame event and the marauders started invading, I saw that I had the option to surrender to them. So, I figured I would hit surrender and end my game and not bother with the game again.
…but it didn’t end. No, when you surrender, you get to keep playing as a tributary of their empire. And I was like…what? Wait, this can happen? At that point I was hooked. Then, the marauders died and I got my freedom (completely scripted events) and the thrill kept me going. Until the end-game, where I died. That first experience got me to buy the game and try some more runs.
This game completely ruined my sleeping habits. I was staying up until 4 to 5 AM multiple nights straight playing this game, in a way that was brutally unhealthy. Someone probably should have staged an intervention for me. The minute-to-minute gameplay of this game, combined with the long-term strategy elements, are incredibly engaging.
When I started, a run would take me 10-12 hours, but now I can get through a full game run in about 4. This is because I always have the game set on max speed, since I know what I’m doing and the decisions I’m making.
This game is complicated. It’s not for the faint of heart. But once you learn the systems, it is incredibly rewarding and keeps me diving in again and again. It fixes the mid/end-game problems of Civilization through scripted events, a fantastic concept I’m wondering why I didn’t see it in many other strategy games I played.
Banners of Ruin (115 hours)
Every time I went back to this game this year, there was more content for me to play. They added an extensive progression system, a bunch of new cards and events, and a final epic boss battle that is an absolute thrill every time I get there.
If you passed over this game last year when I talked about it, when I was 20 hours in, I don’t blame you. But at this point, if you like deckbuilding strategy games, you have no excuse not to try it out. It’s been polished to perfection at this point.
(See last year’s post for more info)
Surviving Mars (107 hours)
I bought this game after watching RTGame play it in a sponsored video (companies, those sponsored videos do actually work.) See, the thing is, I love the IDEA of real-time strategy games. I have a lot of fond memories of Age of Empires II and Empire Earth 2 and Dark Reign 2 and oh gosh why did I never play the original of anything. My problem with RTS games is that I’m really bad at them when it comes to competition.
This is a single-player RTs game. You are not battling against an opponent, you are battling against the hostile elements of the world, trying to balance expansion and resource management and whatever disaster is now coming your way. This made it just my speed. Every time I played, I felt like I was learning how better to manage my colony and help it expand. I love single player RTS.
Hades (75 HOURS)
This game was the pinnacle of great rougelike design. I would say more, but Polygon has a video that summarizes my thoughts on it way better than I ever could.
Gunfire Reborn (75 hours)
Oh wow I really spend that much time on this. I was definitely on a Rougelike kick for 2022. It’s got a great progression loop, and matching with randoms is usually a good time. Every single run feels manageable, and I never feel like my losses are unfair, but I feel like my wins are totally earned. That’s a hard balance to manage, but they do it well.
Battletech (72 hours)
I continue to want to play this game, and yet continue to be disappointed by it, for some reason. My most recent disappointment was going to a location that was a mission that required two assault mechs and realizing I only had one. Sadness. I stopped playing after that. Maybe I’ll pick it up again sometime and keep going.
Cell to Singularity – Evolution Never Ends (61 hours)
Oh gosh why did I spend this much time on this. It’s an idle game. We talked about it in a class as an example of a “Serious” game, and I said “You know what, I have been looking for a new “mindless” game. I played it for a while, and I really, really wanted to buy something in it, per my rules of “If you play more than 40 hours of a free to play game, then support the devs by buying whatever look box equivalent they’re doing.” But whenever I tried to purchase the bonus currency, it wouldn’t work. So I gave up. If the free to play game doesn’t have a way to reliably let me purchase currency, then that’s their problem, not mine.
X-Com 2 (54 hours)
I fell back into the trap of wanting to play this again. XCOM is just too addictive for me. I didn’t even end up winning the campaign. I had a brief stint where I thought about trying to mod it, but it got too overwhelming.
Faeria (40 hours)
Another game that scratched by tactical itch. It’s a deckbuilder with a tactical gameboard gimmick, giving it more depth than some other deckbuilders. I gave up on the main campaign and just did the randomized arena mode for a while. I love trying to make a scrappy deck try to win against opponents.
Mount & Blade II: Bannerlord (32 hours)
I played so much Warband, and Bannerlord playing continued into this year. I started a new campaign where I tried to set up my own kingdom, but got kind of curb-stomped. For more of my thoughts on this game, see last year’s post.
Mechwarrior 5: Mercenaries (~30 hours)
I played this with my brother, since he got it for his Xbox and I played on PC. We did a sandbox campaign with the new Inner Sphere expansion. Honestly that worked really well. I did most of the mech maintenance work, and he did most of the battle strategy.
See the 2020 games played post for more detail here.
Games for Fun (Exploratory)
These are games I played for entertainment purposes where I spent less than 30 hours, but more than 5 hours.
Pokemon Quest (25 hours)
In other Free to play idle games I played this year, Pokemon Quest. It was a good game, but I hit a brick wall in my progression and I didn’t have the energy to get past it. Maybe I will play it again sometime.
Dicey Dungeons (22 hours)
I happen to know one of the content creators at Winterion Games Studios, so I decided to check out their series on Dicey Dungeons, since that was a game I had heard a lot about, but hadn’t actually played. I figured I could just watch a few videos in their series to get a feel for it.
…after watching about 5 minutes, I realized that this was not a game I should be watching while doing something else, I had to play this one. I got the game and started playing it, and it is a masterclass in creating a rougelike that is blatantly transparent in how it burns you with randomness but also giving the player the feeling that if they go again they would make different decisions that would enable them to win.
On top of that, it has an emerging narrative, incredibly sharp and witty writing, and a huge variety in its gameplay variations on a basic concept. If you want to see bare-minimum rougelike prototypes that are polished to absolute perfection, you have to try this out.
Sovereign Tea (21 hours)
…it wouldn’t be me if I didn’t end the year binging on some indie game. Last year it was Angels with Scaly Wings, and this year it was Sovereign Tea.
Full disclosure, I heard about this game at IGDA DC. I was taken in by the charming idea, and the fact that it was a tactical strategy game, a genre we tried to make in The Girl Who Sees. After hearing about it, I thought “Huh, this is the type of game I like,” so I bought it but didn’t play it for a few months.
On December 25th, I decided to pick it up and give it a try. From Saturday to Monday, I played the game for 20 hours to beat the entire game. It has a great story, and well-put together strategy concepts. For me, it’s a little on the easy side though, I was able to make it through the entire game never losing one battle (though one time I quit in the middle when things looked even just because I had to leave.) The second Masala Chai level was AMAZING though, so it’s worth it to get to that point just to be able to play that.
If you liked Advance Wars and wished the combat was more deep, and are okay with always being outmatched by massive hordes of enemies you have to overcome, you’ll like this. It may make you crave tea/coffee though, so fair warning.
Monster Hunter Stories 2 (20 hours)
My brother convinced me to pick this up. He was a huge fan of the original Monster Hunter Stories, and was super excited to play the sequel.
I had my own reservations, but decided to play the demo when it came out. Oh gosh, I played way more of that demo than was healthy, I milked every single thing I could do out of it. When the game came out, I was hooked.
After a bunch of hours in, I sort of hit a wall where the story wasn’t doing it for me anymore, and the gameplay wasn’t doing it for me anymore either. Maybe someday I’ll get back to finish it.
Ohshape (~20 hours)
I’ve played 2-3 rounds of BeatSaber. For some reason it didn’t sit well with me. I tried OhShape and realized what it was missing. BeatSaber is all about wrist-based flicking precision, while what I really wanted was something more DDR-like. Ohshape is great, and I’ve used their editor to make some custom songs layouts, which have been super fun (I used 2 songs from Ikenfell, they’re good because they have good beats and are fairly short.)
As marathon training, I use OhShape to count for my “Cross-training” days.
Angels with Scaly Wings (18.4 hours)
I ended last year with this game, and gosh darn it I began 2021 with it too.
After I finished the main game, doing every achievement but the “make sure everyone dies ending”, I looked around and saw a mod which added an additional character to the game. It was very impressive, and honestly more fully featured than the original character interactions in the game, including 2 minigames, a full-blown trust development system that was very deep, and some pretty good writing too.
New Pokemon Snap (15 hours)
My first exposure to Pokemon Snap was…I think the Wii U edition? My brother had gotten it but never played it, and I asked if I could try it to see what it was like. I finished it in two sittings, as it is a very short game. This new Pokemon snap game is much more fully featured, and gives you lots of incentive to play the maps again, as there are numerous variations in how the map ranks up after doing it a couple times.
Ikenfell (13.4 hours)
I bought the soundtrack for this game on Bandcamp long before I played it. All I needed to hear was that the composer worked on Steven Universe to be hooked.
This game is hard. I really struggled with the battles, but couldn’t bring myself to drop the difficulty rating. I want to get to the end of the story, so I probably should have.
…for all that I’ve listened to the Them’s Fighting Herds soundtrack, I should probably get around to playing that too…
Mario Party Superstars (~6 hours)
I played this with my brother after watching many, many, many youtube streamers play it. It’s got all the classics, and it was fun.
Warioware: Get it together (5 hours)
Played this with my brother. It was fun for a spell. I think the introduction of different characters offering different ways to play the small stages was an amazing touch. I feel very sorry for the designers of this game, it must have been a logistical NIGHTMARE to get the characters to be able to play in each stage.
Games for Fun (Trial)
These are games I played for entertainment purposes where I spent less than 5 hours.
The Outer Worlds
…I couldn’t get past the intro section. There is a decision where you have to decide whether you are going to support a town with a corrupt mayor, or the people rebelling against him and creating a community outside the town.
I thought it would be simple, that I could just support the rebels and get the good ending. But the writing in this game knows how to stab you where it hurts. At the start of your journey, you are given a companion, a woman who is trying her best but struggling. You grow to appreciate her as a companion as you’re doing quests around the intro area, flaws and all.
Right before you get to make your decision, she offers her opinion. She says that while the rebels have their reasons, she knows that the town won’t survive if you support them, and there are a lot of good people in the town, and then she proceeds to apologize for interrupting you and tells you to decide whatever you want to decide.
How dare you drop this bomb on me in the final decision. I couldn’t do it. I turned the game off and haven’t played it since. Ouch.
Divinity: Dragon Commander
By all accounts, I should have liked this game. I was coming off my angels with scaly wings dragon kick and looking around for more dragon content (did I mention that I re-read through the entire Wings of Fire series…again…) and saw this. It’s a multi-tiered architecture combination of strategy, RPG, base-building, with the core focus Real-time-strategy. But I could not get my head around what to do for the real-time-strategy elements. RTS games…scare me.
The Wratch’s Den
I bought this on impulse because I was feeling reminiscent about Dungeon Keeper 2, a game that I played when I was younger because I liked the concept.
I was NOT ready for the lore of this game to get so intense. Underneath the interesting game design context exterior is some really intense writing.
Farmageddon: A Cattle Royale
I played this game because it was made by a IGDA DC member, and they mentioned it in a meeting. It’s an asynchronous multiplayer top-down shooter, which is a really cool concept. The networking of this type of game is hard to put together, and it has a fun game loop. I haven’t replayed it since my first time, but I should give it another shot, since it has had some updates since when I played it.
Games for Research Purposes
These are games I played for research purposes, as preparation for a presentation or doing specific research into the game type.
Skyrim Special Edition (17.6 hours)
I decided to give this a try with the release of the tenth anniversary edition, simply because I wanted to try out the creation engine modding kit. I wanted to learn how it worked.
…oh gosh getting that set up was a process. I got through building one dungeon and then felt a little overwhelmed.
Anyway, in the game, I decided to go with the survival mode. It’s…fun? No fast-travel, so you have to plan your expeditions better, and you have to eat and sleep as well. Survival mechanics like this can be a mixed bag. It’s all a matter of asking: is the extra planning that survival mode requires fun? Planning your team drop in XCom is fun. But it’s hard to advocate for “pay attention to your bars” when you’re just trying to slay an evil wizard is actually fun.
The one element of survival I do like is the freezing mechanic. The reason is that it means you have to be laser-focused in planning your expeditions when you’re in the colder areas of the map, otherwise things go south fast.
…I had to chuckle when I played the fishing mechanic. I love the setting around the fishing mechanic, the additional quests and such. But when it came to the actual mechanic, I realized that this is literally the most basic fishing mechanic possible. It’s so basic that I teach a class where I teach how to build this exact mechanic in Unity in 60 minutes. It follows a precise loop of: 1. Cast rod, 2. wait for animation, 3. press button when animation plays. If you pull too soon, or too late, you get told that you failed.
I think this feature is interesting because it is such an obvious stress test of the development pipeline. It’s a feature that requires you to add a tiny bit of code for the mechanic, but it also tests adding to the quest system, adding a new tool to interact with, and adding new setting elements to the world for it, sound elements, interactions with inventory, animations, and managing state systems inside the engine. As a feature that doesn’t require redesign of any of the other elements of the game, it’s a fantastic way of testing how sturdy the engine is and how it can take new content.
Signs of the Sojourner (4.4 hours)
I got this game when I was doing some playtest analysis with a friend. She was thinking of putting together a game with deckbuilding mechanics, and I’ve heard about this game for a while.
I did one run. I have mixed feelings about it. It is not an easy game. You will lose individual conversations, a lot, not your fault at all, just because you haven’t put together a deck that will allow you to succeed. The gimmick of the game is that your deck is constantly changing, and so if you enter a town where people talk differently from you, you will “lose” conversations and people will not be interested in talking with you further.
I think I got the bad ending? I’m not sure. There is a great amount of worldbuilding here, but I can’t bring myself to dive in again knowing I’m going to lose a bunch of conversations and feel bad about it. But that’s conversation in real life, isn’t it?
This game gives you a lot to think about. It’s worth a look, even if it’s just somebody streaming it, maybe.
Cookout (~5 hours)
A co-op style VR cooking game. I played this one to see what their customer service mechanics were like, as research for Give the People What They Want.
Going Under (~5 hours)
A rouge-like that focuses on failed startups. I played this to learn more about “corporate malaise” aesthetic, it was very helpful in that regard. I found it funny that it goes the exact OPPOSITE direction of Hades in terms of its design. In Hades, you form bonds with your weapon that grow over time as you learn to wield them and they grow more powerful. In Going Under, every weapon you use gets destroyed in 3-10 hits, so you constantly have to swap your strategy. It’s fun to see completely opposite directions of weapon-based mechanics used to such interesting juxtaposing effect.
THE ROBLOX SECTION
…as part of a job, I was doing some tutorial writing for Roblox, so I decided to dive in and see what was on Roblox. These are some games that I played in that platform.
Creatures of Sonoria (~ 5 hours)
This is a creature-based game where you can select a dragon-like creature and raise it, then you unlock others through Gacha mechanics. I wasn’t so into the social side of it, but I think that if I found someone else to play with it would be fun.
It looks like a LOT of work went into the different creature designs. They are very well done, and I was baffled by the level of detail the Roblox engine gave to its developers to let them make something like this.
Mall Tycoon (~1 hour)
More Roblox research, it’s an idle-style game where you buy stores, attract customers and money, to buy more stores, etc. It’s a basic game loop, but it’s functional.
It’s time for my awards section!
Best Game: Stellaris
The amount of detail that went into Stellaris was incredible. It does not get into the most fun category, because any game that completely disrupts my sleep schedule is excluded from that category. Games that are addictive to toxic levels are not allowed there.
Most Fun Game: Pokemon Unite
I’m sorry, I’m addicted to Pokemon Unite. I know it will get boring at some point, but it’s just so fun to play.
(Update for 2022: I am now over my Pokemon Unite craze, and have moved on. For 2021 though, it definitely deserves this award.)
Most Impactful Game Category
This is a strange category. This category is about the game that had the biggest impact on me as a designer. It doesn’t mean the most fun, or spent the most time in, it’s about what changed my mindset as a designer.
Runner-up 1: Hades
Hades inspired me to completely drop the linear-based design approach I was using for Give the People and go with a randomized stage approach, that way people could experience all the content. I would say that’s influential.
Runner-up 2: Stellaris
This game’s logical writing structure straight up inspired me to write a draft of a book. The story structure it uses is just that powerful. The complex interplay of mechanics is astounding, and has already started to make my mind spin on the level of design complexity and architectural instincts required to make a game like this.
The winner is…
Most Impactful Game: Creatures of Sonoria
I didn’t actually play this game that much. But I was weirdly blown away by it. It showed me the weird, wild power of Roblox, beyond the gameplay footage I’d seen that was weird lego figures interacting in jank environments. It was still jank, but it showed me that Roblox is a game engine to be reckoned with, on par or surpassing Unity and Unreal and other major game engines. Maybe not in terms of standardized visual fidelity, but the whole development model of Roblox is new and innovative, and I think will radically transform game development as other engine creators will try to keep up.
…I should get some more practice in developing for Roblox, just in case.
See you next year! (oh gosh my posting schedule really is that bad.)
Total Time Played: Over 1300 hours