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Lessons from 5 of the Best Games of 2013
by Robert Boyd on 12/17/13 01:16:00 pm   Expert Blogs   Featured Blogs

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


A look at five of the best (and most interestingly) designed games of 2013.

Path of Exile

First & foremost, Path of Exile deserves recognition as being one of the few examples of a game from a previously unknown developer that has managed to achieve great success through entirely non-manipulative form of freemium monetization. Whereas most successful freemium games have some sort of manipulation (like allowing the player to buy things with in-game currency but making it much more faster to use real money), Path of Exile avoids this problem entirely. All IAP are related to aesthetics (alternate equipment and ability visuals), guilds, or convenience (increasing the already high character slot & shared stash limits). Easy though it would be, there are no IAP relating directly to gameplay progression. You can get the full Path of Exile experience, devoid of any additional non-paying grind, for free.

But besides the exemplary monetization system, Path of Exile brings some other interesting systems to the table. There is no traditional money in-game - everything revolves around a barter system where forms of currency double as crafting tools. There are numerous forms of defense (HP, armor, evasion, energy shield, resist, endurance charges, and various special passives & abilities) making planning your character's defenses almost as interesting as planning their offense. And with a massive LV-Up tree (reminiscent of Final Fantasy X's sphere grid) and skill support gems (reminiscent of Final Fantasy VII's materia), the player has tremendous freedom to build a unique character.

Path of Exile is not perfect. Desynch & lag problems can ruin an otherwise fun session, the skill slot system makes finding high level upgrades for equipment more difficult than it should be, and despite all the various support gems, abilities just aren't as interesting as those that can be found in some other hack & slash RPGs. Still, the developer has been supporting Path of Exile with frequent content updates, so this is a game worth watching.

Lesson from Path of Exile: Non-manipulative freemium monetization can work with a game that respects the player, has frequent updates, and high levels of replayability.

Desktop Dungeons

Desktop Dungeons gained some recognition back in 2011 when it won the IGF Excellence in Design award, but sadly, its official release 2 years later has gone mostly unnoticed. This is a shame since Desktop Dungeons is easily one of the best games of the year.

Desktop Dungeons' genius is that it takes the traditional hardcore roguelike RPG experience and condenses it into a more accessible (but still difficult) bitesized puzzle game. There have been previous attempts at combining puzzle & RPGs - Puzzle Quest and Puzzle & Dragons being the two best known examples - but these combinations typically just take a traditional puzzle game and add RPG progression & story to the mix. In contrast, Desktop Dungeon turns the actual RPG experience into a puzzle. You need to figure out how best to defeat enemies with your various equipment & abilities so that you'll become powerful enough to defeat more difficult enemies and eventually defeat the boss (or bosses) of the dungeon. It's incredibly involving and a great example of how a turn-based game can be fast-paced and exciting.

Besides polishing up the mechanics and presentation values and adding a macro-game of improving your kingdom between runs (which in turn gives you more options & challenges), my favorite addition to the game since the original alpha are a collection of hand crafted puzzles (usually, the game just randomly generates a dungeon for you based on various criteria). Some of these puzzles can get to be devilishly difficult and the rush when you finally figure out the trick to beating them is incredible.

Lesson from Desktop Dungeons: Sometimes taking a traditional genre and then subverting those genre conventions can result in greatness.


Praised as being the best Playstation 4 launch exclusive from a number of reviewers, I'm afraid that Resogun's status as a launch game has discouraged many reviewers from really looking deeply into this game. Yes, it's a fun, fast-paced shmup with impressive visuals that showcases the PS4's new hardware well, but it's so much more.

Resogun's genius is how it takes common problems to past games in the genre and finds solutions to them. Take the well known classic, Defender. Most players find Defender to be a game that quickly becomes overwhelming. You need to shoot aliens while simultaneously defending your humans who are scattered across the stage from being abducted. If you fail to protect a human, they turn into a powerful enemy, frequently causing a chain reaction where one failure spirals into total failure.

Although outwardly similar to that classic game, Resogun takes a very different approach than Defender. Rather than having to defend all humans at all times, in Resogun, you only need to defend a handful of humans at once. And instead of having to defend those humans in perpetuity, you merely need to grab them and bring them to a rescue vessel before the enemy gets to them. Finally, failure results in missed opportunities for secondary power-ups rather than increased enemy difficulty. These various changes make Resogun much less overwhelming than Defender, but more importantly, it turns the game into an active one (defeat the jailors, grab the human, and deliver them to safety) rather than a passive one (prevent humans from being captured by enemies).

Even more interesting than Resogun's take on Defender, however, is how it evolves the twin-stick formula made popular in recent years with the Geometry Wars series. Geometry Wars is a fun, franctic shmup, but it lacks the clear sense of progression that you might find in a more traditional stage-based game like Gradius or R-Type. Resogun keeps the non-descript arena & spawning enemies of Geometry Wars, but it takes a note from classic stage-based shmups and instead of spawning new waves of enemies randomly, they spawn in set patterns. Essentially, Resogun manages to combine the best of both worlds - you get the chaos of a twin-stick shooter with the sense of progression of a traditional shmup.

Lesson from Resogun: Even classics have flaws. By figuring out those flaws and finding solutions to them, an even better game can be created.

Monaco: What's Yours is Mine

I wrote extensively on the genius of Monaco when it was new so rather than repeat myself, I'll refer you here.

Lesson from Monaco: Some classic ideas & games (in this case, Pac-Man) can still be evolved in exciting new ways.

The Legend of Zelda: A Link Between Worlds

The Legend of Zelda series has long been in a rut. Go to a dungeon, find a special item that acts as a key to the puzzles in that dungeon & also doubles as the dungeon boss's bane, and repeat until you eventually beat the game. It's a fun formula, expertly done as is Nintendo's wont, but after many games, it's gotten old. A Link Between Worlds breaks that rut.

Although Link Between Worlds is heavily based on Link to the Past (where the Zelda formula found in later games was first mastered), it also takes heavy inspiration from the original Zelda as well. The original Zelda was low on puzzles but strong on exploration and combat. By allowing the player to tackle the worlds in Link Between Worlds as they choose (thanks to the game's new item rental system), that sense of exploration has been brought back to the series. Similarly, by increasing the usefulness of items in combat & removing the need for ammo (items now use a magic bar that recharges after a short delay), combat has become much more interesting as well.

As an aside, I find it disappointing that in a year where Nintendo has revitalized both the Zelda & Pokemon series with some of their best and most innovative titles in years, the Mario series is rapidly falling into the frequent sequel trap. There's no denying that Super Mario 3D World and New Super Mario U are fun, well designed games, but they lack the wild abandon and creativity that we found in other system launching (and near launch) Mario titles like Super Mario World, Mario 64, Mario Sunshine, and Mario Galaxy.

Lesson from A Link Between Worlds: Too much of a good thing can grow tiresome. Even a quality series can use a shakeup every now and again.

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David Klingler
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Robert, do you happen to know the return on investment of Path of Exile and/or the percentage of paying players? I'm not trying to prove a point or argue, I was just wondering.

Robert Boyd
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I don't have any solid sales data on PoE but would love to see some if anyone has access to those figures.

Theresa Catalano
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So Path of Exile is receiving praise simply because it's monetization isn't intrusive, despite being such a shamelessly derivative game it's practically a copy? Meanwhile, Mario 3D World is too safe despite having a completely different style of gameplay from the usual 3D Mario? Huh, go figure.

Jeremy Helgevold
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Your statement clearly shows your lack of experience with Path of Exile, and possibly the ARPG genre.

Also, Mario 3D Land would like to have a word with you.

Theresa Catalano
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My "lack of experience?" I've played plenty of point and click dungeon crawlers thank you. I guess I'm not alone in my "lack of experience" because every single person I've talked to about Path of Exile calls it a "Diablo clone." Some people even use that as a basis to recommend it. The game obviously doesn't try to hide it's influences with it's near copy of Diablo's interface, and the similarities run much deeper than that.

Mario 3D Land is a portable game, 3D World is the first time this type of gameplay has been brought to a console. You don't see games with the style of gameplay that Mario 3D World brings very often, which has it's roots in isometric platformers. How many big isometric platformers do you see today? That's why Mario 3D World's gameplay feels fresh.

Robert Boyd
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As mentioned in the article, Path of Exile isn't receiving praise just because of the monetization system. More than perhaps any game in the genre, Path of Exile allows the player tremendous freedom in how you develop your character. Where other games have set classes, Path of Exile has a massive skill tree with thousands of interconnecting nodes - - and then you add the skill support gem system & equipment crafting and the amount of customization is unparalleled.

And Super Mario 3D World is hardly the first time this type of gameplay has been brought to a console. You can see linear 3D isometric platforming way back in parts of Super Mario Sunshine.

Anyway, if you actually give Path of Exile a try, you'll see it has several interesting ideas in it and is not just another Diablo clone. And hey, thanks to its respectful monetization system, giving it a try only requires a bit of downloading. :)

Theresa Catalano
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I have tried it, and although I suppose it's somewhat creative to take a Diablo clone and paste FF7's materia system into it, it still shares some of Diablo's biggest flaws in my mind. It's just way too repetitive and soulless an experience for me. If you like it, that's fine, we all have different tastes.

Jeremy Helgevold
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When someone says a Diablo clone, they invariably mean Diablo 2 as that is THE action RPG genre defining title. You will find that only people that haven't spent much time with Path of Exile think its a Diablo clone. In fact 'Diablo clone' has become synonymous with 'action rpg' regardless of how similar any title may be to Diablo. Regardless, considering PoE as derivative or 'just another Diablo clone' is incredibly uninformed.

I somewhat agree with you on Mario 3D World. I was just referencing 3D Land as an example of pretty much the exact same game that Nintendo very recently delivered with Mario. The platform I don't believe matters in the context of the comment you responded to.

Jeremy Helgevold
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You're using the ARPG genre's defining characteristics and using them as a reason that PoE is a clone of Diablo. Whats next? You don't like it because you have to create a character, JUST like you have to do in Diablo?

This comment yet again proves you've spent no more than 5 minutes with the game if you think copy/pasting the materia system is what makes it different from Diablo.

"This comment" refers to your last response post.

In addition, this will be my last response to this post. I just want to point out how uninformed and how big of a disservice you do to the developers to refer to this game as a Diablo clone.

Theresa Catalano
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Agree to disagree. "Action RPG" is a very broad term, it could refer to games like Skyrim. Path of Exile plays nothing like Skyrim and almost exactly like Diablo. The interface is also extremely similar, right down to the identical "health" and "mana" globes. The graphical style looks similar. The point of view is idenitical. There are also various little similarities in the structure of both games, like the three difficulty modes, the reliance on potions to keep you alive. This game could have been released as Diablo 4 and no one would have batted an eye, it feels like it fits right in with the series.

But that's just my opinion, if you don't think so then fine.

Maxim Zogheib
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I know I'm a bit late to this party, but I'd like to comment on the "allows the player tremendous freedom in how you develop your character" bit.

It doesn't. Not really. Not in any meaningful way in terms of power optimization anyway. What it DOES is give the players half a dozen universally overpowered "ultimate" builds and hundreds of thousands of ways to shoot yourself in the foot by making a crappy build.

Which, if you've been following the game closely, is the de facto situation atm.

On the other hand, it provides players with millions of hours of collective play to actually discover those builds due to sheer volume of options on offer. AND it allows for actual, true roleplaying, if the player doesn't mind not possessing maximum horsepower on her avatar.

Put it like this: it's a praiseworthy system too, but not for the reasons you outline in the comment. And it's exactly this feature, that makes the progression system in PoE so different from other ARPGs.

Frank Cirimeli
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While I admire Resogun and think it does bring progress to its genre, I think you're giving it too much credit.

Geometry Wars itself may have lacked progression, but its successors both had forms of it. Geometry Wars Galaxies was completely built around the progression of unlocking new worlds and upgrading your drone. Geometry Wars 2 has Sequence Mode, which was a clear progression through mini-levels and had a distinct ending.

Other games in the genre, like the very recent Snyder Arcade, take the progression even further, with an actual narrative stringing the levels together.

So while Resogun does manage to combine the progression of a shmup with the chaos of an arena shooter, it isn't the first game to do so, nor is it necessarily even the best example.