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lightknight

A Professor's Review

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Working as I do in the halls of academia in real life, I was particularly happy to discover Academagia. The hard-working team which brought this project forth from the fertile fields of their collective imagination is responsible for no less than the resurrection of the text adventure genre in a new and glorious form. Playing this game brought me back to the many hours I whiled away reading "Choose Your Own Adventure" books, honing my imagination in the halcyon days of my youth, when Reagan ruled the Earth and Michael Jackson still appeared sane.

 

Far too few games these days call upon the player to assist in the creation of a world in their mind. Woody Allen in his classic film 'Radio Days' lamented that with the advent of television a collective blow was struck to the burgeoning abilities of children to truly use their imagination. Director Terry Gilliam stated the same, crediting his explosive imaginatory abilities (watch Time Bandits if you doubt that) to radio and the fact that the listener must use his or her own mind to envision the action. Although I teach young adults and not children, I would not have the least reservation in recommending Academagia to every child, and I will encourage my young nieces play this very game at every opportunity. I do not believe that it would be going too far for elementary schools to recommend it to parents as a matter of course, as the game's combination of time management, visualization, and reading skills are perfect for developing minds. This is all in addition to the simple fact that the game is an incredible amount of fun.

 

Apart from the nature of the game itself, several aspects of the game experience must be properly acknowledged. The producers of Academagia have assembled a truly fine team of writers with a seemingly inexhaustible store of wonderful events to share. Their styles are diverse, but the quality of the writing invariably ranges from 'good' to 'fantastic'. From lovingly-crafted adventures for every one of dozens of species of familiar to a hilarious send-up of the "Warhammer" gaming phenomenon (renamed "Battlemace") there is so much to see and do in this game that 100 hours seems a pleasure to spend for its sake. This really cannot be stressed enough; the game stands or falls on its writing, and in this case it not only stands... it pulls metaphorical somersaults.

 

The world lives and breathes, full of such diversity that it can barely be described. Thousands of locations, spells, actions and abilities make every adventure feel totally unique. The world's history is also very well done, although it seems a tragedy that the player cannot read just a few pages reciting the basic history of the world... the war with the dragons, the floating-islands setting, the major college founders, etc... before they begin play. As it stands, new players will not be able to understand the advantages they are choosing for their characters, not knowing what the dragons represent in this world, who the founders of the Colleges were or what an 'island' even means here. Perhaps the writers wanted this to come out in history class, but I am certain that everyone in that world has at least a very basic (say, three pages) grasp of the events of the draconic wars and who the greatest of heroes are, and knowing this will allow them to create their characters and choose their houses in a more satisfying manner.

 

The music is a very well-selected assortment of classical pieces which I felt myself humming along to merrily as I went on my adventures. I did wish for either a few more tracks or the ability to import my own, although as the game literally has no sound effects whatsoever I could simply put on Itunes in the background and play the game to my own soundtrack. Overall, however, the music seemed conducive to thought and relaxation, and so fulfilled its function admirably. (I'm a devoted fan of the Humming Chorus... kudos to the one responsible for its presence here. I personally recommend "Neptune" from Gustav Holst's "The Planets" suite for future years... mystical and engaging as well as very commonly recorded, so easy to locate copyright-free.)

 

Being such a departure from the mainstream, it is inevitable that Academagia would have its share of problems. Before mentioning them, great credit should immediately and explicitly be given to the forum administrator, the 'Legate of Mineta', who is perhaps the most responsive administrator in the business. Any reasonable query elicits a response from him (or her... I don't know the Legate's true identity) in record time, allowing players to feel as though their comments are truly being heard.

 

One issue lies in the editing. After seeing the end credits, I was struck by the fact that the game has a bevy of editors but only one official quality assurance employee. Having been a professional video game tester myself for years, I was somewhat shocked by this, and beg those with the power to do so to hire more core QA testers, hopefully a few with very solid copy editing skills as well as a lead who can construct intelligent playthrough plans for each of them so as to uncover the maximum number of bugs. Apart from this, the quality of the copy editing was wildly inconsistent. Some adventures were so plagued with typos that it seemed simply impossible for them to have received even a single pass of copy editing before being published. When I was told that the base material had received /eight/ passes, I was shocked. There must be at least a few editors from that long list who are lacking in copy editing skills. I apologize, because I know that sounds harsh, but there is simply no other explanation for it. I hope that the administration can learn which editors are suited for which tasks, and ensure that an excellent copy editor reviews each submission once or twice before publishing.

 

Another issue lies in the difficulty. Some others have spoken of this before, but it must be repeated, and I will add something new to the conversation. A short while ago, I was at a seminar with Sid Meier, who needs no introduction. He pointed out that the primary end of a video game is to encourage enjoyment. To this end, it is far more dangerous to make a game too hard than it is to make it too easy. To routinely have difficulty checks in the 20-30 range almost never fosters enjoyment... it merely brings an adventure chain to a screeching halt unnaturally, and sometimes permanently. I have heard rejoinders to the effects that a) the students are first-years, so challenges are supposed to be difficult for them, and B) one should use magical spells to aid one's successes.

 

Personally, I find both of these responses to be somewhat flawed. Regarding a), to begin with, this would be reasonable if 1) the adventures became easier in future years and/or 2) the player could wait to have these adventures in year two. I'm certain that the team doesn't intend on making things easier in future years, and I am told that the adventures will not be playable in future years, so the design choice seems to come down to 'everything should be practically impossible because, by our own design choice, your character is too young for the game you're playing'. This is not a good policy, and it creates far, far more frustration than the satisfaction gained from any 'realism' of the situation. Regarding B), not only did I find late-adventure chain problems in the red with base skills at 12 and attributes at 20 /after/ spell buffing (which is simply irrational and frustrating) but the number of spells and phemes is so high that finding the appropriate spell to use for a given situation requires devoting over a half-hour to re-reading lists of literally hundreds of spells, phemes, actions and abilities. I have a proposed solution to this, which I shall come to later.

 

In essence, however, it is imperative that the game's designers understand how frustrating it is to not be able to continue on an adventure chain due to high difficulty. As a matter of policy, difficulty of actions within an adventure should be dictated solely on how difficult that actual action would be (and not on how late in the adventure chain it is) and, at this phase, a 20 should be the absolute maximum difficulty for any in-adventure task. When the player has spent all of the necessary time and effort training a skill or subskill to its maximum, they should be rewarded for it, not punished with a 'red' option despite their total mastery of the subject at hand. Lowering those difficulties across the board in the next installment would be an excellent choice. The few who whine (usually to boast) that the game is 'too easy' should /never/ be taken as seriously as those who complain that the game is too hard. The former group represents a (usually fabricated for the sake of wanting to appear skilled) preference... the second group represents people who are really not having fun. Please follow Sid Meier's advice.

 

One other point about the adventures; while the skill-check options are a crucial part of the game, it seems to me that the game would benefit greatly by including more choices which are just that: choices. Perhaps a riddle with several answers presented, forcing the player to actually think about the riddle at hand and choose the best answer; perhaps a moral choice between two gray areas which comes down to personal preference. An issue with the current system is that the player's options are limited to what they are skilled in, which does not draw in the player if there are no exceptions to this rule. I have, I regret to say, seen some play the game without even reading the adventure text; they simply look to the bottom of the screen and choose the skill option with which they have the highest probability of success rather than read the text. If you were merely to include a few adventures in which the player must remember what they were told in a previous adventure, players would read the text more carefully and give the exceptional writing the attention it deserves. Such options as riddles, moral decisions and remembering what has happened will also allow players to feel as though they themselves are having an impact on their characters' destinies, and not just their calendar management.

 

Finally, quest chain rewards were somewhat uneven. Sometimes I would be rewarded with two attribute increases, a very fair reward; sometimes, as in the House Un-Academagian Activities Committee quest chain for Aranaz players, I received... wait for it... absolutely nothing. Not a whit. Not a sausage. And that was for success, no less; failure was even more grim. In a few cases (see the final step of the Durand (the student, not the house) quest for an example of this) I was presented with all-purple options (unreasonably) with no way to back out and try again later, and when selecting one of these losing options, the quest came to a permanent 'bad' end, the student hated me, and I lost a permanent attribute point. I would call this frustrating, but I would be guilty of a massive understatement. One should never, never punish a player so humiliatingly harshly for going through a ten-step adventure just because they were not gifted with the pre-cognition to foresee precisely which impossible test they would be asked to take on as its final step. In general, the quests should be replayable until the player can succeed, and in the rare cases when this simply cannot be, the player /still/ deserves some reward for going all the way through a dozen trials and tribulations with the student in question; an increased relationship, perhaps, or an increase to Insight for lessons learned from failure. Irrevocable punishment should never be the order of the day.

 

The incredible diversity of locations, spells, actions, abilities, and phemes is a source of strength for the game, to be certain; one gets the feeling that one is involved in a living, breathing world while playing, with all of the undiscoverable diversity of a real-life nation. However, the selection quickly becomes so large that it will be impossible for any player to know what most of the options actually represent. Take phemes, for example; though a good idea in theory, I used them only a few paltry times during the course of my adventure. This was because I simply had no idea which Pheme boosted the skills I sought to boost. My only option was to read through the entire list of 100+ Phemes /every time/ I wanted to boost a spell. The same goes for wanting to train a skill, or use a location for a small bonus. This is simply not possible for a young player, or even a distinguished older player such as myself in the vast majority of cases. The solution is simple: cross-reference related locations, phemes, abilities and actions /in the skills screen/.

 

For instance: let us say that I want to boost my Infiltration skill for an action in an upcoming adventure. At the bottom of the Infiltration skill screen, after its dominant Attribute identification, have "Related Locations:" "Related Phemes:" "Related Abilities:" etc. appear. This small addition will /completely change the game/ for all players, particularly in the late game when they are adrift in a sea of information. It would be so easy for you to do... the programming of it would take literally twenty seconds per location/pheme/etc., and would still present an enormous amount of choice and challenge to the player while giving them the index they need to make good choices. By choosing to list Phemes, spells etc. by their idiosyncratic name, one never knows what to choose, and cannot be reasonably asked to read hundreds of entries in tiny text at high resolution (I understand this tiny text issue will be fixed in the future) to find the perfect Pheme/etc. for the single unusual situation at hand. Please, please think about making this most important change. (Also, on a very minor note, please consider having the alphabetizer ignore the 'The' in the beginning of things like place names. Looking all around for the Great Hall only to find it under 'T' for 'THE Great Hall' confuses many.) I ended up creating separate sheets of paper to be my proper index, listing effects by skill instead of by name; I did not enjoy the hours it took for me to write those lists, and wish that the above solution had made it unnecessary.

 

A brief word here about shopping: I created a rich, privileged noble character for my first playthrough because I wanted the benefit of money as well as to explore the shopping system my first time out. I'm sad to say that I bought absolutely nothing (I hope that the money carries over into future years) because of the nature of the 'shop' action. Because simply viewing a single catalog page or visiting a single store to see what it has takes an entire precious time segment and the vast majority of them had nothing I wished to buy, I could not stomach the horrible feeling of waste, squandering an afternoon just to look at a catalog page and decide that I didn't want anything. It is not realistic to punish characters just for looking; spending the pims should be the limiting factor here, not spending the time. Two things might fix this: 1) the 'shop' action should allow the player to choose multiple... say, three... shops/catalog pages to browse. This would be realistic... after all, in three hours, one could read an /entire catalog/ (or two or three) and visit half a dozen shops without rushing in the least. The better option, I feel, would be 2) to allow players to view the content of the catalog pages from the inventory screen, and only have to spend the 'shop' time to actually order something. I feel as though it is a shame that I never felt at liberty to spend any of my pims, and it also made quests with monetary rewards seem entirely meaningless. I hope that the shop function may be streamlined in the future.

 

Finally, we come to the game's ending. As I finished, I wanted nothing more than a lovely screen detailing my character as I had lovingly created her over a 50-hour year; her abilities, statistics, and accomplishments for me to cherish as I waited for the new year. Alas, I was given nothing; no sound, sight, or record. I have heard it said that this was a design choice because the designers wish the transition to Year 2 to be 'seamless'. I think you know in your heart that this is not the case. Cutscenes, reward screens, and records are presented in nearly every game at the end of each stage, and it does not hurt continuity in the least; on the contrary, it is at the heart of player enjoyment and reward. Having one beautifully-drawn piece of art... perhaps something different for each college, to increase replayability, and a nice screen showing the final statistics... is really not too much to ask by way of reward for playing all the way through the game, and I know not a single player would say that this hurts continuity.

 

It is the unfortunate nature of criticism that more time must be spent on the negatives than on the positives, as the negatives require clarification and suggestion to be truly constructive. I hope that the reader will find this to have been a constructive criticism, and apologize for the lengthy nature of it. I hope that very length stands as a testament to how much I have come to care about this beautiful gem of a game, and hope with all my heart that it will continue to grow and change and become the vessel of imagination and exploration which it is becoming even now. My deepest thanks to the designers, administrators, moderators, and writers who have brought us to the hallowed halls of Academagia. If you continue to strive for the good of imagination, you will find the support from the community which you require.

 

Your devoted servant,

Professor L.

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lightknight;

 

Thanks for the thought and criticism- in the main, we agree with your assessment, and I personally think you'll be happy with the changes we're making in Year 2. :)

 

Without delving too deeply in every point, we plan on UI improvements (especially for purchasing and Pheme select) which will make things much easier, mostly through contextual organization. For your point about Difficulty, we plan in the sequel to make the current range of Difficulties more immediately obvious to the Player, so that you can tell at the outset how much preparation, buffing and training will be necessary to succeed. Likewise, we also plan to make it easier see what you need to do to improve success so that you do not necessarily feel lost when confronted with high difficulties. That said, we do feel that some Adventures should be more difficult than others- but...hopefully more enjoyably so. :)

 

For testing, your criticism actually falls on the editors here, who do the review of the content. The test team (which included most of the staff, besides the one person credited), was responsible for game systems and did not pay too much attention to the writing. Typos have long been our bane, and we do our best to scrub them out as we are able- if you find any, please report them. :)

 

One last point: BattleMace was not a creation of the Academagia team, but instead a user submitted event that we became inspired by. Glad you enjoyed it. :)

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Thank you very much for your responses. It's good to feel heard.

 

Any thoughts on including a few more 'decision'- or 'player thought'-type adventure choices to go along with the ubiquitous skill checks? I felt as though that would really help add an additional dimension of player interaction as well as encourage the player to read more thoughtfully. Any opinion on that?

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lightknight;

 

Well, our unanimous opinion is that it's a highly desirable play experience- but I'm cautious about saying too much more on this topic until our implementation is set. :)

 

I should note that some Adventures already have morality paths (although still gated behind Skills)- but this could be used more widely, or be more apparent.

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