Tobold's Blog
Saturday, January 31, 2015
Plastic isn't easy

I am not a huge user of Kickstarter. Many people who promise to create the game of your dreams are either downright frauds, or they are kidding themselves on the complexity of such a project. Good game designers are quite frequently bad project managers, because those two skills require very different mindsets. So I tend to stay away from video game Kickstarter projects. After all, if the game succeeds, I can still buy it later.

The same isn't necessarily true with projects that involve physical objects. Last year I backed two projects: Tinker Gearcoins and Rollable 4-sided dice. As both of these are small private initiatives, it isn't obvious that one could buy these products later, at least not easily. Being a backer is sometimes even the only way to ever get that product.

Nevertheless the problem of project management doesn't go away if you deal in plastic instead of bits and bytes. The dice were funded in May last year, and had an estimated delivery date of September. The coins were funded in August, with an estimated delivery date of November. Guess what? I haven't received either yet. But the updates suggest that both projects are still advancing, they are just late, not stopped.

The real test will be whether the products, once they arrive, will be as good as promised. I'll keep you up to date on that when it happens.

Friday, January 30, 2015
Inexpensive content creation

A reader who was moved by the rumored closing of Joystiq (and by extension Massively), decided to "vote with his wallet" (his words) and send me a donation. I appreciate the sentiment, but the situation of my site and Joystiq isn't the same. Not only that, I might actually be part of the problem that sites like Joystiq have.

It used to be there was a huge barrier to entry to getting your opinion published. The internet removed that barrier to entry. While that did lead to the publishing of lots of opinions of the type "Lol, look at my funny cat photo!", it also led to some people who could actually write publishing some opinions worth reading. For free. Meanwhile gaming sites never found a good way to get a really good income, so much of the stuff they publish is basically a disguised press release. Which made some of their readers suspect that the opinions published on those sites, especially reviews, were paid for by the game companies.

Unless you *want* to read all the latest press releases that news sites offer, a well chosen collection of blogs can today offer you more honest opinions and better writing than many professional gaming sites. With less or no advertising. As a business it is hard to compete with that. As a blogger I can live perfectly well with a monthly revenue of zero (which is quite often the case). I write out of passion. Public, but principally for myself, like an online diary. That sort of content creation is very inexpensive.

While a specific sort of "gamer" is joyfully dancing on the not-quite-yet dug grave of Joystiq, one should notice that the game industry is heading towards the same sort of problem. Already mobile games are extremely cheap to produce. And some game mods surpass the quality of the original game. The more game engines become cheap and widely available, the more people will create games, and some of them will be good. When you discover that the $10 indie game from Steam is more fun than the $60 so-called triple-A game, that doesn't bode well for the financial future of the gaming industry.

The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 9

In the previous session we ended the year in the middle of a combat, which we now continued. The Favorites of Selune had investigated a murder and their transformation into svirfneblin, found evidence that the assassin was a certain Honrak who lived in a boarding house nearby, and had then decided to not yet act on that information. That gave Honrak the opportunity to react, and the assassin attacked them at night in their sleep in the tavern.

Now Honrak is a high-level assassin, but as he had so easily transformed them into svirfneblin earlier, Honrak wasn't aware that the group was also nearly as high level as him. That, plus the fact that this night the group had put up a guard, made the assassination less easy than he had thought. He did do some serious damage, especially in the first rounds when the group was still scrambling to get into their armor. But as the Favorites of Selune only had a single opponent in this fight, their concentrated fire was too much for Honrak, who went down after a few rounds of combat, not having killed a single group member. Honrak had used a flaming dagger, which the rogue of the group happily recovered.

Having learned that inactivity wasn't a good option, the Favorites of Selune then tackled their second clue in the morning, going the alchemist's guild. They had by then searched Honrak's room at the boarding house and found two poison darts, one apparently used to kill Belina, with instructions signed "Y.". That fit with their information that there was an alchemist named Yengo doing necromantic alchemy in the basement of the alchemist's guild. As they had talked to the head of the guild at the state dinner and gotten an invitation to visit, they now were able to take a tour of the guild. In the basement Yengo was behind a locked door and told the guildmaster to go away, but the guildmaster had the master key and opened the door. To everybody's surprise Yengo had created a flesh golem, and sicced it on the adventurers. The guildmaster fled, and the group was in their second fight of the day against Yengo and his golem.

The golem was doing serious damage with a rampage attack. That was an attack with a recharge dice roll, and due to luck the golem could use that twice in a row. Meanwhile Yengo was throwing various bottles with alchemical attacks. The priest was caught in the crossfire and went down, but the druid revived him. The Favorites of Selune cleverly concentrated their fire on the alchemist, basically ignoring the golem. That worked out well, as the golem stopped functioning when his master was dead.

Meanwhile the guildmaster had alerted the authorities and Prince Ular came with a squadron of guards. Searching the room the prince found an unsigned letter to Yengo instructing Yengo to provide Honrak with the transformation powder to get rid of the Favorites of Selune. The prince recognized the handwriting as that of his sister, Princess Taidra. But as the letter wasn't signed, he didn't think that to be proof enough to persuade his father, Duke Ruwan. That left the players to decide what exactly they wanted to do to conclude this adventure in the next session.

Monday, January 26, 2015
Dog eat dog games

Stabs is playing Magic the Gathering Online, and says: "Of course the thing about pecking order games is that those at the top become very invested while those at the bottom tend to leave so it's always a pool of players that are refining themselves by success. But dog eat dog is kinda fun, nothing like seeing people rage when they lose :)". His statement of "Magic is an extreme of competitive gaming, the game is built around redistributing assets from unsuccessful players to successful ones." is a good description of why I left. Not that I was completely unsuccessful, but the whole atmosphere of the game was too much like swimming in a tank full of sharks to be enjoyable.

Of course there are still ways to have fun in such games, especially by subverting them. For example MtGO has a format called "draft", in which players each open a booster, pick the best card for their deck, and pass the rest to the next player, in a circle. The player who picks the best deck that way will then probably win the draft tournament and get more boosters as reward than he needs to continue playing. If you are good enough, you can endlessly play for free, while the unsuccessful players pay for boosters and entrance fee and go home empty, except for the cards they picked. The way to subvert a draft is to rare pick, that is not taking the cards that win the tournament, but taking the cards that are worth most to other players. As rare cards rarely are the best to build a winning deck, a good player passing you his leftover cards means he probably didn't pick the rare of his pack. Of course rare drafting messes with the draft tournament, as the rare drafter nearly automatically loses, giving a free win to his lucky opponent. But it is a great way to redistribute assets from successful players to unsuccessful ones, in reverse of the normal situation.

By definition half of the players in any game are worse than average (median, to be precise). More modern and more successful online games have managed to keep those less successful players playing, by having a reward structure where there are only winners. You don't actually "lose" a game of World of Tanks, you just "win less". Note that the reward structure is external to the rules of the game, Magic the Gathering Online could just as well have used such a reward structure which doesn't overly punish the losers. As a result the most successful physical card trading game in history managed only a disappointing online success, with just a fraction of the number of players that for example Hearthstone has.

"Seeing people rage when they lose" might be fun for Stabs. But I believe that as a business model it is inherently self-destructive. Successful competitive games make life easy for the losers, because you just can't run a game without them.

Friday, January 23, 2015
Recognizing the traps

A commenter this week said he was "burned by ArcheAge" and asked "How how much time and resource do you waste on a Free2Play game before you realise its Pay2Win?". My answer to that question is that this depends very much on your familiarity with Free2Play concepts. Whatever semantics you want to use, but Free2Play games definitively do want to seduce / trick / trap you into spending more than you intended. If you can avoid those traps, you can actually get more game for less money than in a Buy2Own business model. If you fall into those traps, you can get burned.

My recommendation would be to download a large number of "free" games on whatever mobile platform you have, phone or tablet, Apple or Android. As the games are not very elaborate or deep, you can easily play several of them in sequence. And you'll quickly learn how the same traps to incite you to spend money appear over and over in different guises. You can also learn a lot of those tricks by just watching some relevant YouTube videos like this one.

Once you are trained to recognize the traps, it becomes a matter of routine to avoid them. And you'll easily be able to recognize the same traps in more elaborate PC or console games.

P.S. While the Elder Scrolls Online is not going "free" to play, it will make the subscription optional from March 17th on. "Optional subscription" means that subscribers get virtual items and services that non-subscribers don't get automatically. So there will be a shop for virtual items and services, designed in a way that somebody might consider continuing to pay a subscription to get them. Which means ESO will have the same sort of seduction / tricks / traps as a Free2Play game. Buyers beware!

Thursday, January 22, 2015
Buying blindly

One reason why I am okay with the Free2Play business model is because I trust myself to handle it intelligently. I'm never going to spend thousands on a game, and if I end up paying as much for a "free" game as a full-price game would cost it was because I got as much enjoyment out of the game, or even more than I get from a full-price game. My buing decisions are informed, and commensurate to what I am getting out of the game. The key point is that I can start playing for free, and see whether I like the game, and gain a good estimate of the value of any virtual goods or services before I buy them.

Via the launcher I received yesterday an offer by Blizzard to buy the $40 founder's pack for Heroes of the Storm. This is exactly the opposite of what I am describing above: I need to pay first to get beta access to the game, and I have absolutely no idea of the in-game value of the heroes, skins, and gold that is contained in the pack. I don't even know if I will like the game.

The best I can say about this offer is that it isn't quite as outrageously priced as some other founder's packs I have seen, and that I have more confidence in Blizzard to actually deliver a polished game in the end than I have in some of the other companies offering those deals. Some people already spent hundreds of dollars on Star Citizen. If that game fails to deliver on the hype, which given the high level of hype is nearly certain, some people will be severely disappointed and regretful.

Pre-purchase plans are bad enough, paying before the game comes out and you could read the reviews. But at least I've seen many pre-purchase offers on Steam where you could either get a discount for pre-purchasing or some other added value. In the case of Heroes of the Storm I am asked to pay $40 now for a game that will be free on release. I much prefer playing the game on release, when it is also in a more finished state. I'd rather miss out of some "exclusive" skin, or pay a bit more later, after having made sure that what is on offer is exactly what I need. I think buying games blindly is a bad idea, and buying virtual goods and services of a Free2Play game blindly without having first played the game is an even worse idea.

Wednesday, January 21, 2015
10 minutes, twice a day

Over the years I have been subscribed to various MMORPGs for a long time, but that doesn't necessarily mean that I have played them every day during that subscription period. If you don't have much time, starting up a MMORPG usually doesn't make much sense. These aren't games that usually play well in chunks of 10 minutes, as they are designed to be relatively time-consuming. Warlords of Draenor is a big change in that respect: On a day where I don't have the time to play World of Warcraft, I would still log in for 10 minutes, twice a day.

The reason for that is the garrison sub-game, which is principally based on real time, not play time. You have a garrison cache which slowly accumulates up to 500 garrison resources, at a rate of 1 resource per 10 minutes. You have various building where you can give 7 work orders per level of the building, and each work order takes 4 hours. And you are sending followers on missions which last from 30 minutes to 10 hours. If you don't log on at all for several days, first your followers are all unemployed, then after about 3 and a half days your garrison cache reaches its cap and all the work orders of even level 3 buildings are done. At that point your garrison stops producing anything useful until you log on, send out your followers again, empty your cache, and start new work orders. Oh, and in addition your mine and herb garden spawn resources once per day.

If the reason that you don't have time is that you are working long hours with no access to a gaming computer, which is a likely scenario for an adult, you can still log in once before work and once after work and get pretty much everything set up again in 10 minutes each, shorter if you don't have alts. At this rate your garrison resource production is always at maximum, and by preferring long duration missions even your followers are productive for most of the day.

As I said, MMORPGs are generally designed to be time-consuming. At the level cap you usually need to put in quite some time to achieve some reward that is still useful for you. Compared to that the reward payout of a garrison per hour of play time invested is pretty fantastic. The downside is that by playing more, you can't advance much faster. For example it takes 1,200 resources to upgrade a barracks to level 3. With the garrison cache, lumber mill, and trading post you'll get those resources in around 3 days of just waiting around. But if you decided to get those resources by farming rare spawns, you'll get only around 15 per rare killed, and would pretty much need to kill every rare spawn in the game for one upgrade. Add all the treasures and quests that give resources and you'll have another building upgraded, and have run out of options.

To somebody familiar with city building / village building / farm building games on mobile platforms like The Tribez or Hay Day, that 10 minutes, twice a day mode of gameplay will be very familiar. But then these games don't have a subscription. While I would consider having to wait for hours for progress to be better than having to grind trivial content for hours for progress, the question is nevertheless how good this model works for World of Warcraft. 10 minutes, twice a day, makes 10 hours per month, which at $15 per month seems pricey. So the garrison is unlikely to be the sole reason for anybody to keep on playing. Even if you can get epic gear and other rewards for your character, those rewards aren't doing you any good if you don't play that character. But for a "weekend adventurer" with little time during the work week, the garrison is certainly a big plus.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015
Keeping the lights on

Clockwork from Out of Beta is talking about commercialization of games. Quote: "I think it comes down to the intention of the developers when they are making the choice as to whether or not include a piece of content. If the developer is genuinely out of money to dedicate and needs to release, I see no problem with cutting content that they simply can't pay for. ... However, if the developer has already finished the majority of the content piece and will have it ready for release soon after and hold it back purely to sell it for more later, then I start to get a little annoyed."

Basically Clockwork wants game studios to only make as much money as is needed to keep the lights on. Which is a rather bad idea, I'd even go as far as calling it dangerous. What we need is spectacularly successful games where the game companies make money by the boatload. And selling more content over time is one valid strategy to get there.

The reason why we need those blockbuster games is the reality that so many games fail financially. If a company sets out to make a game, they are aware that there is a very real possibility that the game will never even pay for the development cost. If the best they could hope for was to break even, why would they even bother? The reason why we have such a big choice between many different MMORPGs to play today is that Blizzard at one point made a billion dollars of profit per year. If the financially most successful MMORPG in the world would just have kept the lights of the development studio on, many of today's games simply wouldn't exist.

To make a game you need capital from investors, and you need manpower. Investing in a business like games or movies is a high risk venture. The reason why you risk your money in that instead of buying treasury bonds is that there is a chance to get filthy rich. And the reason why developers program games instead of software for a bank is because they too dream of becoming famous for having created a blockbuster title or even rich.

I am opposed to a culture of entitlement where players want games and more content, but do not want to pay for all that. Let game companies pursue whatever commercialization strategy they want. If a game comes out at a certain price with a certain amount of content, you should decide whether that content is worth that price. Whether the development studio is profitable or not should not figure in that decision.

Monday, January 19, 2015
What is difficulty?

2014 was a good year for indie games, there were literally thousands of them released for PC and / or mobile platforms. In several cases the reviews or even the advertisement of the game itself praised the game for being "difficult", an attractive proposition for game veterans tired of trivial games. But my experience with those "difficult" games was a disappointing one; apparently I have a different definition of what "difficult" means.

In my definition a person who is more intelligent or more skilled in gaming would do better on the first try in a difficult game than a person who is less able. I found remarkably few games to which that description would fit, although for example some puzzle games certainly qualified. But in the overwhelming number of cases I found games in which the basic gameplay was exactly as trivial as in mainstream games; and then the game hit you with an unfair surprise you couldn't possibly have foreseen, and then put a harsh penalty for failing on that. The so-called "difficulty" then is remembering the unfair traps the next time.

I have no problem with for example the difficulty of a jump-and-run sequence being that you need to jump at exactly the right point in time, with a very narrow window of opportunity. That is difficult. If the game then forces me to replay the 15 minutes up to that jump before I can try again, that is not difficult. It is just annoying. Jump-and-run sequences are also a good example of the game giving you good feedback: You usually can tell if you fail whether you jumped too early or too late. Far too many games have failure modes which don't give you much or any feedback. You fail, but you don't know why, so other than random trial and error you can't improve.

I like difficult games. I don't necessarily like unforgiving ones. And I certainly don't like having to replay the same trivial shit over and over, just because there is one unforgiving bit at the end of it.

Sunday, January 18, 2015
WoW status report

My current "main" character, a fury warrior, reached level 100 this weekend. I had the resources to upgrade my garrison to level 3 and fill the new slots, but not yet to upgrade the buildings. You can get resources from rare spawns or treasures, but that is rather limited, so the main way to get the resources for your garrison is just waiting in real time. I have a level 2 lumber yard and a trading post, both of which produce resources, but still I'll have to wait quite a while until everything is level 3.

Other than the garrison I'm not really enchanted by the possible activities at the level cap. I still haven't done a single dungeon, which tells you how low my interest in group PvE is. And other than that there isn't much. I can do a daily slow grind for Apexis crystals, and get an epic after nearly 3 weeks. This and similar game design elements suggest to me that everything is designed with having in mind that the next expansion is 2 years away. Progress slowed to a crawl, I'm not all that interested.

My other two characters are level 95, because I had decided they both needed a level 2 lumber mill. The frost mage is fun to play, the shadow priest not so much. Sometimes I'm doing the same content with all three characters, like getting a specific follower, and the shadow priest definitively is weakest in solo combat. He is also the only one who is really waiting for cooldowns, doing ineffective Mind Flays while waiting for the decent spells to be active again. In comparison the other two classes constantly have their hotkeys light up to show yet another bonus spell / power they now can do instantly and without resource cost. Resource cost is a joke anyway for the spellcasters, I have never seen my mana bar other than 100% full on either caster. Anyway, both level 95 characters now also got their barracks to level 2, and the bodyguard certainly will help that shadow priest. The bodyguard is kind of overkill for the other two.

While I did the same quests in the first zone with all three characters (which you kind of have to for your garrison), after that there are enough quests for at least 2 different paths to level 100. By choosing different outpost buildings you get different quests, so there isn't too much overlap. While questing I also gather timber, treasures, and rare spawns, so there is a good deal of variety. Overall I'm having fun, but mostly with the leveling part. Not sure how long I will keep playing once all three characters are at the level cap.

Friday, January 16, 2015
Veteran rewards

Apparently Blizzard is sending out real world packages with a physical object as reward to people who started playing World of Warcraft within the first 60 days and then never unsubscribed. Unsurprisingly that causes a controversy. Quote: "There is certainly merit to a company like Blizzard wanting to thank players who have given them somewhere around $1800 in subscription fees and $200-$300 in box purchases. That's a damn loyal customer. At the same time, however, this can tacitly sending a message to newer players that they just aren't quite as special or held in as high of esteem as the older ones. There's a tough balance to be struck".

No, it isn't.

If you give somebody $2,000 you *are* special to him and held in high regard. If you used the donate button on my blog today to give me $2,000, you would be special to me, and I would have no problem sending you a parcel with a gift, assuming the gift plus shipping costs me less than $50 and I get to keep the remaining $1,950. Seems like a no-brainer to me.

A comment on the 5th edition Dungeon Master's Guide

As I said before I will not be able to play any 5th edition D&D in the foreseeable future, because that edition only exists in English, and half the players in my group only speak French. I proposed to run the Starter Set with them anyway, but they preferred sticking to 4E. Okay, but I got the 5E Player's Handbook and Dungeon Master's Guide for Christmas anyway, more out of a theoretical interest in where D&D is going. I understand 5E is selling very well, and I assume that this is because it is effectively a much better edition for new players than previous editions were. Less math, less rules, more imagination, and that without most of the silliness that OSR offers.

But one thing struck me as rather strange in the Dungeon Master's Guide: If you open a page at random, chances are that there will be a table on that page with instructions on how to produce a random result from that table by dice rolls. Do you need a NPC villain for your game? Roll one up randomly from a series of tables! Need a complete dungeon? We have random tables for that too! And for the monsters you'll meet, the treasures you'll find, the diseases you will contract, or what objects you'll find flushed down in the toilet.

I hate random tables. They result in a play experience for the players that is not very coherent, for example by creating a dungeon full of random monsters where it is hard to explain why they would live together in this form, waiting for the players to arrive. Random collections of rooms with monsters and treasures do not form any sort of sensible ecosystem. And if the content of the next room is random, players don't need to think or plan ahead.

Of course you'll tell me that rolling randomly on these tables is optional, and selecting NPC traits on purpose instead of rolling a dice is still possible. But because the table exists in the DMG, people will use it instead of using their own imagination. Ultimately a game like that could better be played with a computer as dungeon master, as the system eliminates the need for the DM to create a story. Random tables work directly AGAINST the main advantage of a tabletop RPG over a computer RPG.


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