Losing in games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 February 2016, 7:50 am
I'm playing the just released XCOM 2 this weekend, and that made me think about the game mechanics of losing. To some degree that is an underdeveloped part of game design; there are about a million different rewards games hand out for winning, but only a single consequence for losing: You are forced to play some part of the game that you already did again. Losing is an essential part of games, as it increases the interest of winning. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong with loss conditions in games, and the XCOM series of games does have some examples of them.

One rather fundamental requirement for a good loss condition is that the game accurately tells you *that* you lost, and preferably gives you some information of *why* you lost. Games with a long campaign of many battles like XCOM or Heroes of Might & Magic even manage to fail the former sometimes: Either a decision you made that leads to inevitable doom will not give you any feedback at all, or worse you win a Pyrrhic victory and the game tells you that you won, while in reality you just sealed your loss.

One eternal problem with losing is how much it depends on randomness. I do think that randomness has its place in these games, and XCOM does it well by telling you exactly what your chances are for a shot. But an 80% chance isn't the same as certainty, and losing a soldier because you missed a shot with 80% chance can feel somewhat frustrating. But I do think that is more a problem of players not being good at risk assessment, and it gets better with practice.

If losing means having to replay part of the game, the obvious question is how much of the game. Console games frequently have "save points" visible or implicit, and a loss sends you back to the start of the level. As long as the level isn't too long, and you don't need to replay it 20 times before getting some jump pixel-perfect, that works quite well as a consequence of loss. Games like XCOM have loss consequences that are somewhat less transparent: If you lose a soldier, you need to recruit a rookie and train him back to that level. As the game doesn't necessarily give you the time to do that, you might actually lose the game while replenishing your losses, and then the penalty becomes a much harsher one of having to start the game over from the very beginning.

In many situations in XCOM, if you are reasonably clever you will know why a soldier of yours just died. He moved forward to quickly or otherwise exposed himself unwisely, most of the time. But there are situations where your soldier died because you come for the first time in contact with a new element or scripted part of the game. Traps you can easily circumvent the second time you meet them, but that are quite deadly the first time you see them, are rather bad loss conditions. They make people look up solutions on the internet instead of having fun trying things out. In a tactical game like XCOM you can learn a lot of general tactics by trying out, for example how close together you should keep your soldiers, or how fast they should advance. If that trial and error results in a minor wound, you learned your lesson. If it is insta-death and the error wasn't even obvious, that only gets frustrating.

The weirdest thing about XCOM and many other PC games is that you can frequently choose the consequence of losing. You aren't forced to accept the loss consequence the game just handed to you, but can opt for a different one instead by simply reloading a saved game from minutes ago. That leads to some perfectionists saving before every action and only accepting perfect outcomes, using the load function every time something didn't work perfectly. In some game the random number generator even gives different outcomes every time you reload, so you can reload until every attack is a perfect hit. Unlimited save options thus can completely negate the designed loss consequences, and make a game rather boring. XCOM fortunately has the ironman option to disable saving and reloading. I once recommended playing XCOM games on easy plus ironman, and I still think that is a good option to learn about consequences in the game. But the option most veterans will be use is an intelligent management of save game files to suit loss consequences to your personal preferences.
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Dungeon Boss and Retail Therapy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 February 2016, 1:50 am
With my interests in games and economy, I am naturally interested in the mechanics of Free2Play monetization. And my day job pays enough for me to be able to drop a couple of hundred bucks on such a game to explore that monetization without that hurting my finances. Last year I played League of Angels for 2 months. While I was able to get to the top spot on a server using real money, I didn't really like psychological lever that game used: Competitiveness, you'd end up paying money so that somebody else wouldn't get ahead of you. So currently I am trying a very different game, Dungeon Boss. That can be as expensive as League of Angels, but the psychology behind it is much more pleasant.

Because League of Angels *wants* a lot of people to be highly ranked on their server so as to make them pay money for the privilege, it has lots and lots of servers, with new ones opening every week. Dungeon Boss only has one server as far as I can tell. Which means that there is absolutely no chance for latecomers to rise to the top of the server. Which doesn't matter, because unlike League of Angels, Dungeon Boss has very little direct competition between players. Even the PvP system automatically just pairs you against people around your own strength, so it doesn't matter that there are people at the level cap while you aren't. Competitiveness is not a driving factor in this game. So how does it work?

Basically Dungeon Boss is related to the Pokemon series of games: You have a collection of up to 50 heroes in 5 different colors which you level up and use for combat. The colors represent elements, so your fire heroes are strong against plant heroes but weak against water heroes, etc. Each hero has a level (which is limited by your player level), between 2 and 4 skills with a level that is limited by the hero level, 3 degrees of ascension (which determines the number of skills), and between 1 and 6 stars, which increase power. So for each hero you need to collect xp to level up, "evos" to ascend, gold to level up skills, and tokens to get stars. Multiply by 50 heroes and there is a *lot* of stuff to collect. That puts you on a rather long progress curve from starting the game to the level cap.

Monetization in Dungeon Boss as a result is an extremely simple concept: You have absolute freedom to choose at which speed you want to progress. Want to get ahead on that completely individual curve? Pay some money! Usually quite a lot of it, a special bundle of stuff that improves one of your heroes can cost between $9.99 and $39.99, depending on the rarity of the hero. And that is just one ascension out of two possible, so for 50 heroes you would need to buy 100 such bundles. Plus a ton of money for gold and gems to use the portals to summon those heroes. On the other hand you can also play this game completely for free, and just progress much slower. It is up to you. The game doesn't threaten you with any negative effects if you refuse to pay, it just tries to seduce you into paying when you feel like it. Any payment also counts towards your VIP level, so if you paid at the start and then play for free you still get some permanent bonuses in addition to whatever you paid for. I've rarely seen a game that was so nice about trying to get money out of you; the carrot, not the stick.

I still don't believe that any single game can "addict" you into spending money. However I do believe that spending money can make you feel better about yourself, the so-called retail therapy. Whether you do that in the mall or in a mobile game is not fundamentally different. For every sob story about somebody spending all his money on a mobile game, there is an equivalent story about somebody spending all his money on the shopping TV channel. And to someone who is likely to have such problems, it doesn't even matter what game exactly he is playing. The process of trying to feel better by spending money is independent of what exactly you are spending that money on.
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Limiting monetization for fairness
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 January 2016, 7:53 am
When you hear talks on game developer conferences you might think that the concept of giving the player with the biggest wallet an advantage in a game is a recent invention from casual and mobile games. In reality the idea is over 20 years old (not counting gambling, where unlimited funds always were an advantage). Magic the Gathering is to a large degree "Pay2Win", and many people (me included) spent thousands of dollars on that game. So it comes to some surprise that the current combination of money-grabbing Magic the Gathering on a money-grabbing mobile platform in the form of Magic Duels isn't an unlimited money grab.

When back in the early 90's Magic the Gathering, was invented, you could read interviews from the developers like Richard Garfield on how they intended that game to be played. It turned out that they believed that people would only buy a limited amount of cards. Therefore a "rare" card, which was rare to find in a booster, would also be rarely found in a player's collection and thus be rarely played. The devs were then completely surprised by people buying cards by the box-load and stuffing their decks by 4 of each rare. It actually "broke" the game, as many of the early rares like the Black Lotus or the Mox artifacts were simply too good and too useful to allow 4 of them in each deck. They had to fix that by first restricting the use of those to 1 per deck, and later banning them. Over time "rare" cards in Magic evolved into being powerful, but highly specialized, so 4 of one rare basically determined the theme of the deck and couldn't be used in every deck. But the basic design flaw of "commonly played rares" remains until today, and has perpetuated into many other trading card games. Needing multiple copies of rare cards gives a huge advantage to players who bought large amounts of cards, the "Mr. Suitcase" syndrome.

In order to make Magic Duels a more casual-player friendly game, they fixed that design flaw in this variant of Magic the Gathering by changing the deck-building rules. You can't put 4 of each rare in a Magic Duels deck. Rarity now doesn't just mean "rarely found in a booster", but also "rarely played". You can put 4 of each common into a deck, but only 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. And because cards are virtual the same restriction also apply to player's collections: You can't even *own* more than 4 of each common, 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. Of course you can still use that 1 legendary card you own in multiple decks, as you never play with more than 1 deck. Now while paper Magic the Gathering has boosters of 15 cards with 11 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare, Magic Duels has boosters of 6 cards with 3 commons, 2 uncommons, and 1 rare or legendary card. And the "complete set" of any expansion is a multiple of that, for example the complete set of the Origins base set is 72 boosters. 72 boosters gives you 216 commons, and there are 54 different commons in the set, so you will have exactly each common 4 times. 72 boosters contain 144 uncommons, which gives you each of the 48 uncommons 3 times. The same is true for the rares and legendaries, just that they share the same rarity slot in the boosters.

As a result opening a booster in Magic Duels does *not* give you a really random selection of cards. It gives you a random selection *of cards you don't own yet*. And after 72 boosters the game refuses to sell you any more boosters, as your collection is now complete. As you can buy a big bundle of 50 boosters for € 40 / $ 40 a complete set of any expansion doesn't cost you a fortune, or you can earn a complete set in about a month of regular play. So there are no "whales" in Magic Duels. The overall effect is a bit like that of a level cap in a MMORPG: People get to that level cap in a reasonable amount of time, and then everybody is equal. Huge advantage of perceived fairness, no more Mr. Suitcase. Buying a full expansion becomes like buying a "buy to own" game, there are no further costs.

It is for that reason that I have kind of forgiven Magic Duels the 2-month outage of last year, and gotten back to playing it regularly. I'm just 6 boosters away from having the full set of Zendikar, and while I bought the first set of boosters, I'll get to the full set just by playing and doing the "not-so-daily" quests that pop up every two days. Compared to another game I am currently playing, Dungeon Boss (/shakes fist angrily at Jeromai who mentioned the game to me) where it is far too easy to spend endless amounts of money for advantages, Magic Duels has a much more restrained and fair business model.

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Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 01
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 January 2016, 9:07 am
In the previous session the group reached the end of the first adventure of the Zeitgeist campaign, and level 2. In this session we started the second adventure, The Dying Skyseer. It is now 3 months later, and the constables have been occupied in Flint with a local affair: Hana "Gale" Soliogn, an eladrin woman with a history of being held captive as a trophy by a family of Danorans, has since her arrival in Flint turned her hatred against Danor into a hatred of all things industrial. A number of sabotages and murders have been attributed to her, and she is being wanted as a terrorist. Capture has been made difficult by the fact that Gale can fly, a magical ability that had been considered impossible by the rest of the world.

The adventure starts with the constables at the RHC headquarters doing paperwork, including filing newspaper articles on Gale, as they haven't got much more than that to go on. But then their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft arrives with news of a lead: A young woman has been killed at the Danoran consulate, jumping out of fourth floor window and being impaled by the fence around the compound. The interesting bit is that the fence is too far from the window to have been reached by a normal jump, and the woman deciding to flee through the window suggests she believed she could fly. That could be a connection to Gale!

The Danoran consulate is in North Shore, an hour travel by coach away from the RHC HQ. As it also took an hour for the report to reach the RHC due to lack of magical communication, the constables arrive at the scene two hours after the fall. A group of regular police has cordoned off the area, but the woman has been removed from the fence and moved inside the consulate. As the crowd of gawkers is already much thinned, the constables decide to first question witnesses outside. Then they meet the Danoran chief of security Julian LeBrix, who tells them that it was him who killed the woman. The woman, known to him as Nilasa Hume, was the girlfriend of one of the guards of the consulate. She had brought chocolates as breakfast to the staff of the consulate that morning, and had snuck upstairs while the staff was thus distracted. Julian LeBrix says he followed Nilasa and found her stealing golden forks and spoons and a valuable jeweled egg upstairs. He chased her, and fired his pistol into her leg. But she climbed on the window-sill and so he shot her again in the shoulder while she was jumping through the window.

By examining the body, the consulate, and talking to witnesses the constables could put together a somewhat different sequence of events. Speak with Dead resulted in Nilasa stating that she was killed by "a shadow", and a black figure had been seen by witnesses outside. That shadow had slashed Nilasa's face and also caused some necrotic damage to her head, but somebody had gone to some lengths to conceal that by healing the face wound magically postmortem. It also appears that Nilasa first flew out of the window and onto the fence and was shot afterwards.

A part of the story that the security chief had left out was that Nilasa had chatted at the reception area of the consulate with a foreign doctor, Dr. Wolfgang von Recklinghausen, who was in the consulate to get a visa for travel to Ber. When Nilasa later fell onto the fence, the doctor rushed to help. Apparently Nilasa said her dying words to him, gave him a bundle of papers, and then he also took her necklace and ran away. A coach driver reported picking Dr. von Recklinghausen up and driving him to the House of the Blue Birds hotel, where the doctor disappeared through the back door while the coach driver was waiting for him to come back. The constables were able to get the file the Danoran consulate had with the doctor's visa application.

Another possible lead was information about Nilasa from her boyfriend, who knew that she liked to hang out in the Thinking Man's Tavern and had friends there. He also knew that she was working at the Sechim's Alkahest and Alchemicals factory, and that she was sleeping there. He asked the constables to inform her boss and her friends of Nilasa's death. Nilasa apparently had other connections to alchemists, as a receipt for alchemical items for a large amount of money was found in her pocket, together with a bail certificate showing that she had been picked up in a raid against smugglers and released on bail, paid by Heward Sechim. Nilasa apparently had used an invisibility potion in the consulate, and the door of the consul's office showed marks of thieves tools. But the security chief wouldn't let the constables enter that office.

After taking Nilasa's body to the coroner's carriage, the group left the consulate and went to the House of the Blue Birds to look for the missing doctor. Curiously the hotel manager told them that another policeman with a thin mustache, calling himself Officer Roger Porter, had already been there and searched the doctor's room. As the doctor was nowhere to be seen and a search of his room didn't reveal any additional clues, the group decided to go to Sechim's factory next. At that point we ended the session. 
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RAW
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 January 2016, 4:32 am
If you are reading about pen & paper roleplaying games on various blogs and forums, you sometimes come across the expression RAW, which means "rules as written". Unlike a computer RPG, where most rules are hard-coded into the game and allow no interpretation at all, rules in a pen & paper game are far more flexible. You can play them "as written", or you can modify them if you feel the rules are contrary to common sense or you think the intended outcome of a rule is different from the literal interpretation. For example if your players fight a gelatinous cube and use a power that would trip an enemy and make him fall prone, do you apply that rule as written, or do you declare that the cube is immune to falling prone, because that makes more sense? There is no right or wrong answer to that, and the decision might well depend on the style of your game and the ruleset you use.

Now in my 4E campaign I came upon a different problem with rules as written: Wizards of the Coast sometimes issues errata to the printed rules. If you use the D&D Character Builder on their website, it uses the "rules as written including errata", but to the player the errata are very hard to find (especially now that 4E isn't the current edition any more), and basically invisible. And when those errata are basically a nerf to a character class, that can come as an unwelcome surprise to the player if the DM cites some new rule the player wasn't aware of.

One of my players is playing an Avenger. The Avenger starts out with cloth armor, and a special ability called Armor of Faith that gives him +3 to AC. He can take a talent that improves that bonus to +4, so even in cloth armor his armor class is already quite high for a melee dps. Now the rule as written for Armor of Faith is that this bonus applies as long as you don't wear heavy armor or use a shield. That opens up the possibility to take a talent that allows the Avenger to wear leather armor, and gain another +2 AC. But that turned out to be overpowered, so the errata "fixes" Armor of Faith to give the bonus only if no armor or cloth armor is worn.

The player in my campaign didn't know that and wanted to learn to wear leather armor. I noticed the problem when I tried to make the character sheet in the D&D Character Builder and the software used the errata'ed rules and didn't give the Armor of Faith bonus. Now I could have overruled the errata and house-ruled that in this case "rules as printed" apply. But then the Avenger would have ended up with the same armor class as the two tanks in the group, while dealing significantly more melee damage. So I went with the errata and told the player to forget about the leather armor and take a different talent. Ultimately my decision was based more on what would be more fun and balanced, than on legal niceties.
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Netflix VPN blocking
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 January 2016, 7:34 am
Shelves and shelves full of legally bought DVDs in my house demonstrate that I rather buy video content legally than to pirate it. On the other hand I *do* use a virtual private network service to rather watch US Netflix than my local version. Not only are there about twice as many films and episodes on US Netflix than on the local version; but also in the US I can always get English subtitles, while local Netflix frequently only offers the local language as subtitle, which isn't ideal for expats. Certain TV executives would thus consider me a "pirate", although philosophically speaking and using Kant's categorical imperative as measure for what is good or evil, I'm pretty certain that I'm not doing anything wrong.

Nevertheless there is an ongoing discussion about Netflix blocking VPN access in the media. Despite the doubtful headline the Guardian regarding this possibility, I am in no doubt of the technical possibility, provided that Netflix is serious. While making the difference between somebody using a VPN and somebody actually traveling may be hard, you can always arrive at a perfect VPN block by simply restricting service to travelers. The competitors of Netflix will only show you the local content from your country of residence written on your credit card, so you'd need a far more complicated service creating a false address including credit card to for example watch HBO over here. Netflix could just do the same and give travelers either no service at all, or a very limited selection consisting of only films available both in the country of origin and in the country the traveler is now. I doubt many people would cancel their Netflix subscription just because it won't work any more when they are on holidays abroad.

Where Netflix really would lose a lot of business is with their over 30 million customers in whose country of residence there actually isn't any Netflix offered at all. It is a safe bet that these people all would unsubscribe from Netflix if they couldn't use VPN any more to watch, as that is actually their only option. The fact that Netflix lets you subscribe from a country with no Netflix service pretty much proves that they consider using a VPN to be acceptable behavior. With verifiable numbers like the use of BitTorrent dropping 14% in Australia the month Netflix launched in that country it is very obvious that there is a large population that are quite willing to pay for legal access to films and TV series and only pirate when there are no legal options. And even those TV executives complaining about "VPN piracy" are at the same time receiving licensing fees from Netflix from those people they just called pirates. They just believe that they would make a bit more money if they could use regional barriers to extort local TV companies. Something which in a globalized economy should be outlawed anyway.

Economically speaking, under the current system a Netflix with VPN option is more valuable than a Netflix without that option. That is not just a consumer surplus for those who use a VPN, but there are definitively a certain percentage of Netflix customers where this added VPN option is the deciding factor in whether they subscribe at all. So Netflix profits as well, especially since it gives them a competitive advantage over the many competitors who aren't as permissive. So maybe Netflix really is just trying to placate rights holders. A bit like Captain Renault in the film Casablance, Netflix says "I'm shocked, shocked to find that VPN use is going on in here!", while cashing in their winnings. They might even go as far as installing a completely ineffective "industry standard anti-VPN solution". But if they really wanted, they *could* stop VPN use completely, at the cost of millions of dollars to them. I would guess they would much rather arrive at the point where there are absolutely no regional differences between Netflix offers in different countries, because that must be both more profitable and a lot easier to manage for them.
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X-Mercs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 January 2016, 7:17 am
As I mentioned in a previous post I love games based on the UFO / XCOM heritage and am currently waiting for XCOM 2 to be released. But while I'm waiting I play a game on my iPad which is called X-Mercs, which is very, very similar. Up to the point where some of the abilities of your soldiers have exactly the same name and function as in the XCOM game, e.g. Lightning Reflexes. On the other hand the game adds a different background story and that results in your team not only fighting aliens, but also mutants and rival mercenaries / soldiers, so there is a bit more variety.

X-Mercs also has one of the weirdest business models I have seen, which doesn't differentiate between different currencies, e.g. a currency earned by playing and a currency bought for real money. There is only one currency which is both earned and spent in the basic gameplay, but can also be bought for real money, and be spent for advantages that look a lot like Pay2Win. That description suggests that you could play X-Mercs for free, but in my opinion that is not the case. Earning currency through playing is deliberately slow, and what you earn doesn't even cover some of the things that I would consider basics. For example you need a lot of currency to get a fourth and fifth soldier into your squad. So if you play for free you'd have to grind a very long time with just three soldiers in your squad, and as the game constantly raises the difficulty even of the side missions that is going to be increasingly unfeasible.

The overall result is that the game is not so much "Pay2Win", but rather "pay to make the game playable". Once you *did* pay something like $60+ and unlocked the must-have stuff, the game suddenly plays like a "buy once" game, and doesn't constantly push you towards further purchases. Yes, sometimes you get "special offers" to buy powerful consumables for cash, but you can ignore those. So compared with my experience from last year with League of Angels, X-Mercs is actually rather cheap. Of course not everybody would agree to spend $60+ on a mobile XCOM clone, but then the same can be said about any $60 console shooter.

What I also like more in X-Mercs than in League of Angels is that there is very little mandatory daily activity in X-Mercs. Yeah, you better collect the free money that accumulates in some of your buildings from time to time, and send out expeditions. But otherwise X-Mercs very much plays like a single-player XCOM, where the story only progresses when you have time to play. Then again the PvP part of X-Mercs appears to be more or less optional (I could get better beam weapons if I had a PvP rank, but up to now that hasn't blocked me in the PvE game), and maybe if I played the game more competitively I would be pushed more towards keeping up with the Joneses. On the other hand the free money you get over time, and resources from expeditions, mean that there is an advantage to take things slowly. If you wanted to progress much faster and play much more every day, you probably would be stopped by a lack of money and resources, and could then "unblock" your progress by paying even more real money. That is pretty much par for the course, most Free2Play games have additional ways for impatient people to pay more.

While the political correctness brigade would probably complain about the depiction of women in the game, the graphics of the game are otherwise okay, considering the platform. Not super-pretty PC graphics, but nice enough 3D graphics and okay animations for an iPad game. As a result X-Mercs takes up 2 GB on your iPad, compared with 3.3 GB for the iPad version of XCOM : Enemy Within. And you probably need at least an iPad Air to play it fluidly. I observed rare crashes to desktop, and even rarer a crash that erased the progress of the current mission so that I had to start over. No game-breaking bugs that I am aware of.

Overall I think that if you haven't played it yet, XCOM : Enemy Within for the iPad at now $9.99 (down from previously $19.99) is the better deal. If you already played many hours of XCOM and are just waiting for XCOM 2, X-Mercs is an option, but not really a cheap one. So I can't universally recommend it.
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Hunting aliens
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 January 2016, 4:25 am
I very much like most games of the UFO / XCOM franchise, especially those that remained true to the original MicroProse concept of the game. So while I generally don't pre-order games nor buy them at release, I did pre-order Firaxis' XCOM 2. So I was reading a number of previews like this one, all of which mentioned the extreme difficulty level of the game, and how much it hurts to lose characters you spent much time customizing and building up. That, and some discussion on my blog this week, made me think about difficulty in PvE games.

For me a game is first and foremost an area of liberty, where I can experiment with different things without having to fear serious consequences like in real life. Especially in strategy and tactical games much of the fun of the game to me is to try out different strategies and tactics, and see which ones work better and which ones don't work so good. A game where building up power is very slow, and any minor mistake or even just random bad luck can set you back by a lot or even make continuing the game impossible to me is simply not much fun. "High difficulty" in such a game means either following exactly the one best strategy and tactics and then praying for luck. If there are 20 ways to approach a problem and 19 of them don't work and punish you severely, trying out things becomes a rather painful exercise. You end up searching the internet for a guide or YouTube video telling you the one and only way that works. Which is pretty much why I gave up raiding in World of Warcraft.

I am pretty sure that when I get XCOM 2, I will start playing at the lowest possible difficulty level to try things out. Then I can only hope that the release version has options which make the easiest difficulty not as punishing as the preview versions that some journalists got to play. But if the easy mode then turns out to be actually easy, I'll dial it up for the next game until I reach a good balance between challenge and frustration. I don't like Telltale "you always win and just follow the story" games either. I want a game where I can use my creativity to develop clever strategies and tactics, and where severe punishment is reserved for stupid mistakes. A strategy that is just sub-optimal should result in slower progress and encourage you to keep trying; it shouldn't result in a loss of hours of gameplay or force you to completely restart from scratch.

I do think that "one single difficulty" games are a design mistake. Different players enjoy different degrees of challenge. And in a game where the player is not up against other players, but only against the script and the AI, "difficulty" becomes a completely arbitrary concept. There *are* people buying and enjoying those Telltale games, because they really just want a sort of mildly interactive story with very little challenge. And there are others who like extremely punishing rogue-like games where even perfect tactics only give you a low chance of getting to the end of the game. The thing is that in a game like XCOM you can easily have both of those, by just fiddling with some numerical parameters. I especially liked version of the game where you could separately set the difficulty level of the strategy / economic base management game and the tactical combat against aliens game, because again different players have different preferences here. There really is no reason why people shouldn't be able to tune the difficulty level of a single-player game to their liking.
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Adventure conversion
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 January 2016, 2:46 am
The Zeitgeist campaign from EN Publishing that I am currently playing with my D&D group is available in both D&D 4th edition and Pathfinder versions. So I was recently wondering whether they'd also bring out a D&D 5th edition version. But just by toying with the idea I realized how difficult that would be. Even the Pathfinder version, which is inherently closer to earlier versions of D&D, and thus more compatible with 5th edition D&D than 4E is, would still be very difficult to convert into a 5E game.

My standard joke on roleplaying game editions is that to understand the difference you need to know how many arrows it takes to kill a level 1 mage. Of course that is a caricature, but like all caricatures there is a core of truth in it: A game in which your level 1 character can be killed by one single arrow feels inherently very different than a game where it takes half a dozen arrows to kill a level 1 character. And especially 4th edition and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are on opposite extremes of that scale: 5E is fast and deadly, 4E is more predictable and tactical.

The different "feel" of combat is based on simple mathematics. Imagine you have a character that deals 2d6 of damage, so his average damage is 7 points. If he has a 50% chance to hit something, then on average he deals 3.5 points per round of combat. Compare that to the hit points of his opponent, and you will find that it takes that character on average 3 turns to kill an opponent with 10 hit points, and 6 rounds to kill an opponent with 20 hit points. You can do the same calculation in the other direction, and that gives you a prediction of who will win the fight. If on average it takes the player 3 rounds to kill the monster, while on average the monster will take 5 rounds to kill the player, the player is likely to win that fight.

The peculiarity of 5th edition is two-fold: First damage numbers are high in 5E (e.g. a magic missile does more damage in 5E than in any other edition of D&D) and the hit points are more on the low side, half of what they are in 4E. So already here it becomes clear why combat in 5E is much faster. But second there is an additional factor, which is how likely the results are to deviate from the average. 5E has the most extreme deviations from the average, the above described character with his 50% chance of dealing 2d6 damage and an average damage per round on 3.5 can with a critical hit and maximum damage roll deal 24 points of damage, killing his 20 hit points opponent with a single stroke instead of needing 6 rounds. So combat in 5E is a lot less predictable than in 4E or Pathfinder, and to me sometimes even feels a bit random: Extreme dice rolls play a bigger role in determining the outcome than any tactical maneuvers. The slower pace of 4E is deliberate, as having more rounds of combat makes tactical choices more important, like the resource management part of the use of daily and encounter powers.

So if I wanted to convert the Zeitgeist adventure into 5th edition, the different feel and lack of predictability would cause me a problem. The campaign is rich in story, and there are some fights which for story reasons should be predictable, for example the very first fight in the campaign where the players as police are arresting some troublemakers, a fight which they are supposed to win without problems. Having an accidental player character death in that fight would be quite detrimental to the rest of the story. I could imagine other styles of campaign of a more sandboxy sort where the randomness of combat provides impulses to the improvised interactive story-telling. But for the campaign style of Zeitgeist 5E is a lot less suited. So I gave up on the idea.

In other news, we just did an "intermission" session to level up the characters of our Zeitgeist campaign to level 2, including kitting them out with more magic items from the RHC stores (another point where the Zeitgeist campaign differs from typical D&D campaigns in which you "find" magic items). Then I explained to the players the different quarters of the city of Flint, where the next adventure plays, and allowed them to freely invent two contacts from two different quarters. That is to encourage role-playing and fostering creative ideas for alternative routes in the next adventure by "using people you know" (for reference, the concept of "you are who you know" is very prominent in the Shadowrun pen & paper roleplaying game, but hey, one can always borrow good ideas from other systems).
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Hate blogs
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2016, 2:29 am
You might have noticed that I haven't been blogging much lately, and then mostly about D&D and not about MMORPGs. When considering why that is so, I come to the conclusion that it has much to do with the fact that I am not reading other MMORPG blogs any more. And to push the analysis further, the reason why I don't read MMORPG blogs is that I don't want to deal with the negativity any more.

It is hard to keep up a blog without having strong feelings on the subject of the blog. But those feelings can be positive or negative. I find that until the peak of the MMORPG blogosphere, just before WAR came out, there were a lot of people who blogged out of their love for the game. After the peak not only the numbers went down, but also the survivors turned increasingly sour. And these days I find a lot of sites which I would classify as hate blogs, as they seem to be nearly exclusively driven by hate, with rarely a post about the love for a game.

One large sub-group of the hate blogs is the people who hate change, the Luddites. Most of their blog is dedicated to complaining about anything new, be that new games or new patches of existing games. According to their narrative MMORPGs were great when they personally started playing, and since then game designers conspired to make every game worse by patches and only releasing worse and worse new games. It doesn't occur to them that they simply might have grown bored with the genre, so they think that if games only were designed like the original Everquest, Ultima Online, or vanilla World of Warcraft (or whatever their first game was), they would have fun again.

Another large sub-group of the hate blogs is bloggers that simply hate other players. Their blogs are full of stories that constantly insult and deride "bad players", horror stories of groups or guilds gone wrong, and pseudo-positive stories of how happy they were when they were somehow able to really hurt another player. These blogger frequently demand game design that makes games more exclusive and keeps out the Great Unwashed Masses of casual players. On the other hand they certainly don't want that exclusivity be based on money (where they would end up on the side of the Unwashed), but rather on weird and arbitrary notions of "leetness" that are designed to specifically make them part of the exclusive club, while keeping out most of the others.

While not exactly hate blogs, I also get annoyed by kind of blogs that aren't actually concerned with games, but rather are fueled by strong political feelings. Those can be left-wing or right-wing, and Gamergate has really increased that sort of blogging. Not only are political bloggers frequently complaining, which is why I group them with the other negativity blogs, but for me they are also perverting the original purpose of a game being a place away from the problems of real life.

I find it sad that so few people would like to discuss how we could make games better, how we could improve player behavior by better game design, or discuss other constructive thoughts. I don't enjoy reading hate blogs and hate posts, so given their prevalence I end up not reading MMORPG blogs at all any more.
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Turning D&D into a card game
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 January 2016, 2:34 am
If you have ever been at a convention or elsewhere watched people seriously playing some trading card game, you might have noticed that they put their cards into so-called deck sleeves, little plastic bags with a transparent front and colored back. The funny thing is that when I was playing Magic the Gathering I never used sleeves, but today I am using those same sleeves for a completely different game: Dungeons & Dragons in the pen & paper roleplaying version.

Why sleeves? Because if you print a card-sized piece of paper in a regular printer on regular paper, the result is a bit too thin to handle well. Add a sleeve and you can handle a deck of "floppy" cards. I also use different colored backs for different cards, as unlike a trading card game there is no shuffling and randomization involved in D&D.

The first use for the sleeves are the D&D 4th edition power cards. The one big selling point of 4E for me is that it does away with the rather unfair system of some characters having spells and other characters not having anything equivalent. In 4E every 1st level character has 2 at-will, 1 encounter, and 1 daily power, and these numbers increase with level. So quickly everybody has the equivalent of "a spellbook" full of options. Putting those options onto cards really helps the flow of the adventure.

But for my next adventure in the Zeitgeist campaign I am expanding on the use of cards. As I mentioned before it is an investigative adventure, and in the past we had problems with people forgetting clues between sessions, as we only play about twice per month. So when I was reading the adventure which starts with over 20 different clues in the first chapter, I knew I needed some sort of memory aid for this to work. So I took one of the programs you can get to create power cards, and modified the template to make clue cards. When a player investigates the right spot and/or succeeds the right skill check, he'll get the clue in the form of a card.

That also solves nicely the fundamental problem of investigative adventures. The detective stories of literature or TV frequently rely on a brilliant detective coming to a conclusion that nobody else saw. That doesn't work well for a tabletop role-playing game, as there is a strong likelihood that nobody has such a stroke of brilliance and the investigation gets stuck. Gameplay of pen & paper roleplaying is better suited to an approach where the players follow up every clue and methodically gather more and more information until the solution becomes rather obvious. By having the clues as handouts on cards, that approach is much helped. And in a fantasy world, following up on clues can lead to adventure and dangerous encounters instead of boring house-to-house inquiries.
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Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 07
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 December 2015, 11:31 am
In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary captured Axis Island from the duchess's forces in their mission to give it back to Danor and prevent a war. But on one of the ships a high-level eladrin warrior had hidden, who had his own plans for the duchess. Having chased that eladrin, Asrabey Varal, to the hedge maze around the central tower, this session began with an encounter with Gillie Dhu, the guardian of the hedge maze.

As their first attempt to persuade Gillie Dhu to let them pass failed, the group engaged in combat. That was complicated by the hedge, through which Gillie Dhu could pass freely, but the players needed to push through, climb over, or go around. That made the fight a bit more interesting, because otherwise fighting with six players against a single opponent would have been far too easy. The different players chose different ways to deal with the hedge, with the sorceress using area attack fire spells to set it aflame, seeing how that distracted their opponent. And then in one round several players landed critical hits, and the fight was suddenly over.

So the constables reached the central tower, decided against trying to climb it, and instead found that the door had already been kicked open by Asrabey. At the top of the tower they came to a door which was slightly open and were able to overhear the discussion of Asrabey with the duchess and Nathan Jierre after Asrabey had beaten the duchess in combat. It turned out that Asrabey had been sent by the Unseen Court, the government of the faerie, in order to send a strong signal on which side in this civil war they were by killing the duchess. They also discovered that Nathan Jierre, which they were supposed to bring back to his cousin Lya Jierre, minister of outsiders for Danor, was in fact a traitor to Danor. Nathan had discovered that Danor was constructing industry and weapons on Axis Island, and had contacted the duchess because he thought that could prevent a war between Danor and Risur. It was Nathan who had provided the duchess with the key to the teleportation ring, although he mentioned that it has been Kasravina Varal who had constructed it; Nathan asked Asrabey whether that was a relation of his, but didn't get a clear answer. Persuaded that Nathan had valuable information, Asrabey then checked his escape route and found the group.

From the previous events it was rather clear that Asrabey was very high level, although he was obviously seriously wounded by now. Nevertheless the players didn't want to fight him, but rather negotiated. Asrabey wanted them to tell the king that the Unseen Court had sent him as a sign of support. He demanded a ship with an unarmed crew. He offered to go with the group to that ship and there leave the duchess to them, while keeping Nathan with him. After some discussion the group agreed, although they could sense that the eladrin wasn't entirely honest. They decided to foil his plan by closing the sea gate, but that didn't work out. On the way to the port Asrabey suddenly attacked the duchess (who was already at 0 hit points and thus unable to resist) and decapitated her with his flaming sword. Apart from the sorceress who summoned the spirit of the duchess to unsuccessfully attack Asrabey, the other players still didn't want to mess with that high-level character. So he grabbed Nathan, and escaped towards the teleportation circle (which the players could have guessed because they had seen him make preparations there in the previous session).

So the constables were left with just the corpse of the duchess, which they returned to the king. But first they formally handed Axis Island over to Lya Jierre, claiming that they hadn't found her cousin while conquering the island. As this meant their main mission was a success they reached level 2, and the end of this adventure.
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I hide behind the priest
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 December 2015, 7:04 am
The title of this post was a running joke in my previous D&D campaign, where we had only one tank, one rogue, and 4 caster / ranged characters. The general tendency in combat was one of moving away from the fight. And frequently the mages ended up "hiding behind the priest", in the hope that any ranged attacks or moving enemies would attack the person in front of them first. Some funny moments, but overall it was rather annoying and not very heroic. The current campaign is better, having 2 tanks, and the other characters having mostly short range attacks and spells, giving the whole thing a more forward motion.

I was thinking of that because I am currently playing World of Warships, and I am frequently getting annoyed by the behavior of the other players. Many players just try to "hide behind the priest", that is generally moving *away* from the enemy and hoping that the enemy is firing on the closer allies first. Even if the victory conditions clearly would favor a push forward to capture a zone, players are more concerned about their own survival than about winning.

Somewhere that is a problem of game design, because the current rules are an encoded tragedy of the commons, quote Wikipedia "a situation where individuals acting independently and rationally according to each's self-interest behave contrary to the best interests of the whole". It also has to do with the history of warfare, which was a constant arms race between aggressive and defensive new methods. The periods in which defensive tactics were stronger than aggressive ones frequently led to stalemates and big losses of human life, for example in World War I. That doesn't make for good gameplay, which is why there are about a million WWII games, and few WWI ones.

The problems can easily be overcome by coordination between players. If you have the equivalent of a "guild", with Teamspeak, you can organize a great battle plan, with the battleships in the back, the cruisers around them to protect from enemy destroyers, and the destroyers in the outer most circle for scouting and firing torpedos. But that opens up a completely different can of worms: If you play in this organized way, somebody needs to organize, and others need to obey orders. That maximized your chance of winning, but turns World of Warships from a casual game where you do battles when you want with whatever ship you want for how long you want into something far more resembling work: Having to be at a specific time online, with the ship the guild needs you to play, and for as long as the group wants to play. Not everybody's cup of tea, that.

I think such multiplayer games should strive by game design, by the incentives that reward certain behaviors, that an uncoordinated group doesn't become victim of the tragedy of the commons. The game design must reward individual behavior in such a way that everybody's self-interest becomes aligned with the best interest of the whole group, even if that whole group is one of random strangers who aren't talking to each other.
Tobold's Blog



Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 December 2015, 3:19 pm
I love my iPad because it is so versatile. I play games on it, I watch Netflix or other videos, I use it for D&D adventure notes and documents, and sometimes I even do work stuff on it. And it is far more mobile than a laptop, I can even use it as a city map which shows me where I am. But of course in all that versatility, there are some compromises, just like any multi-purpose tool has to make. Especially since I use it more and more at home to watch Netflix, the screen of the iPad is a bit on the small side, and unless I use headphones (which I don't like to wear for long), the sound is lousy. The iPad doesn't have stereo speakers, and if held in landscape mode, as you would for watching video, the speakers are not up or down, but to one side. Half a stereo, so to say.

So I am very happy about the Lenovo Yoga Tablet 2 Pro my wife gave me for Christmas. A lot more affordable than an iPad, especially since the 3 Pro is already out. 13.3" inch screen, compared to the 9.7" of my iPad Air. And stereo speakers at the bottom. Or the top, if you turn it by 180°; and yes, I tested it, when you do turn the screen the speakers inverse and the right side sound stays on your right side. Nifty! There is even a rear subwoofer, so the sound is great for a tablet. And the battery life while watching videos is really impressive, over 10 hours.

The Yoga tablet has one more gimmick, which I don't think I'll use much: A built-in projector. Neither the resolution nor the brightness are really great (apparently the 3 Pro has a better projector). But apart from projecting a D&D battle map on a white table, I don't really have a use for a projector anyway. And that plan would require fixing the tablet above the table somehow, so I don't think it is very realistic.

I am not a fanatic of this or that operating system, Windows vs. Mac OS, Android vs. iOS, or anything. I find the iOS frequently more intuitive to use, but I do like the widgets on Android, for example to show weather or stock information on the main screen without having to open an app for it. However I do think I'll use the Yoga nearly exclusively for watching videos while at home, and keep playing games and do other stuff on the iPad. With the size of the Yoga tablet comes a certain weight, and while that is fine at home, I wouldn't want to carry it around much. Plus my iPad has a 4G data connection, and the Yoga only has WiFi. But as a home media tablet, I really like the Yoga tablet.
Tobold's Blog



Virtual reality doesn't have to be the same for all observers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 December 2015, 4:07 am
World of Warships announced an upcoming feature in which they partner up with a japanese anime called Arpeggio of Blue Steel -Ars Nova- to optionally show players their warships in an anime look. So if you like anime or that specific anime series, you can select to have your ships look like in that anime, with neon runes all over them, and a rather futuristic look. If you don't like that, you can keep the historical World War II look. But the kicker is that you'll see everybody else's ships in the look that *you* chose. The historical players will only see historical ships, the anime players will only see anime ships. The exactly same battle scene will look very different to two players having chosen a different look. And nobody sees an ugly mix of different styles.

I find that concept rather interesting, at it could be applied to lots of other multiplayer games. I frequently hear discussions where some people like or dislike the art style of a specific game. Why not make the art style a matter of player choice? Of course that would have limitations, as you can only change the "skins" or texture, it would cost too much if the animations would change. But it could also solve some political problems, like the endless discussions between people who rather like scantily dressed girls in their games and those people who find that offensive. Why not offer everybody the look he wants?
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Patents vs. Trademarks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 December 2015, 4:39 am
I was looking at the game X-Mercs on iOS and quickly realized that it was a complete rip-off clone of XCOM, with some Pay2Win nonsense thrown in. Others have noticed that as well. But apparently there is no legal mechanism to protect games from being cloned. You can protect the *name* of a game with a trademark, which leads to nonsense like the Elder Scrolls vs. Scrolls and Candy Crush Saga vs. Banner Saga lawsuits. You can sue somebody for making a game that is completely different than yours, but you can't sue him for making a game which is nearly the same.

Other areas of intellectual property laws don't work like that. If you have a patent on a machine or an industrial process or a drug, it is your idea that is protected. Nobody can put a functionally identical or very similar machine, process, or drug on the market just using a different name. At the very least somebody wanting to copy your idea will have to pay you royalty fees. The general idea behind patents is that such protection encourages innovation, because you don't have to worry that you spend all that development cost only to get underbid on the market by a cheap clone.

Of course no idea is perfect, and patents have been accused of suppressing competition and leading to price gouging. There is some value in having lots of very similar games around, because it improves the chances of one of them being to your liking. And if you run out of content in one game, you can switch to a functionally identical one with different content. On the other hand game companies display a certain degree of laziness, and at the moment tend to rather produce lots of clones instead of going to bother with coming up with new ideas.

So I do think at least *some* idea protection for games would be good. You shouldn't be able to get a patent that gives you a monopoly on all shooter games, but you should be able to fight blatant clones other than with sarcasm. Reallly, there are enough similar games around that encouraging a bit of innovation in game design instead of lazy cloning would be worthwhile.
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Tobold's Game of the Year Awards
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 December 2015, 9:40 am
In some recent discussion a fanboi, enraged by the fact that bigger media outlets thought his favorite game was kind of crap, argued that all "Game of the Year" awards are equal, and thus everybody can make his favorite game "Game of the Year" by simply handing out such an award himself. In the spirit of that, I am hereby announcing Tobold's Game of the Year awards:

Game of the Year: Thea - The Awakening
This game really stood out for me in an ocean of triple-A sequels and buggy indie games. While somewhat reminiscent of Civilization, Thea - The Awakening is a completely original game, combining genres like Civ's 4X with Rogue-like and trading card games. Priced like an indie game on Steam, Thea nevertheless has very high production values and no significant bugs.
Honorable mention: Armello, another good quality, original indie game

MMORPG of the Year: There were no MMORPGs in 2015
Honorable mention: World of Warcraft, for this year's introduction of the WoW token

Sequel of the Year: World of Warships
For me World of Warships is showing the way how sequels should be done: The game clearly is a sequel to World of Tanks (and the not-so-successful World of Warplanes) and functions with the same backbone of tiers, tech trees, and modules. But it is also clearly a very different game, because ships play very differently than tanks. It's the best of both world, the familiarity of a sequel combined with the novelty of a new game.

Biggest Disappointment: Magic Duels
At some point I considered this the best computer version of Magic the Gathering since Microprose. Then the game developed a bug which made it completely unplayable on the iPad. And it took WotC nearly 2 months to fix that bug, during which time the game remained dead weight, and it wasn't even certain that I'd recover my card collection afterwards (fortunately I did). While the game is playable again now, and has an expansion, I now have understandable trust issues. Not good for a game that finances by selling you cards.

Best Pen & Paper Roleplaying Product: Heroforge
People who believe that 3D printing is the future of manufacturing are deluded and haven't understood the economics of mass production. However 3D printing most certainly is the solution for very individual products where price doesn't matter so much. Like figurines for your pen & paper roleplaying game. I was especially impressed by the "steel" figurines, which are very solid and look good even unpainted. If you play a game using figurines, why not create a figurine *exactly* like the character you described on your character sheet?
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Read-out text in D&D adventures
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 December 2015, 10:21 am
If you are following my journal of the Zeitgeist campaign I am DM'ing in D&D 4th edition, you will be aware that the players are currently chasing an eladrin named Asrabey, while on a mission to arrest the duchess, sister to the king of Risur, and to find Nathan Jierre, cousin to the foreign minister of Danor. As Asrabey was last seen heading right for the central keep where the duchess and Nathan are said to be, it isn't much of a spoiler to reveal that the players will come upon a scene involving those three characters talking to each other. And for me that is a problem: There are nearly 40 lines of dialogue (trialogue?) in the adventure that I'm supposed to read out loud.

Of course a session of a pen & paper role-playing game is made to tell a story. But that story should be interactive, not read from a book. Read-out text reminds me a bit of the quest text in World of Warcraft, the one that nobody reads and clicks through quickly. It takes the storytelling out of the hands of the DM and the players, and only lets the writer of the adventure talk for a while. By having been written in advance the read-out text doesn't take unexpected situations caused by player actions into account. The dialogue happens regardless what the players did up to that point.

As an additional and very specific problem for my campaign the Zeitgeist adventure I am using is in English, but half of my group only speaks French. So if I really wanted to use that read-out text, I would have to translate it before. I did that with some key lines of text in previous sessions, but not with half a page full of dialogue. The only possible advantage of read-out text is that it is potentially better written than what a DM can improvise, but my French translation would probably lose that advantage, because my French isn't good enough for literary writing.

So I think I'll paraphrase the dialogue instead of reading it out in whatever language. But in addition to that I might prepare a few bullet points as a summary of the key points that the players are supposed to learn from listening to the dialogue. What do you think?
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It's a kind of Magic!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 December 2015, 3:12 am
Not one, but two bits of news about Magic the Gathering on iOS. First of all the iOS client for Magic Duels has finally been updated, adding the Zendikar expansion, and solving the connection problem that made it impossible for many iOS players to play the game for several months. I was even able to recover my card collection from the cloud, in spite of having uninstalled and re-installed the game in an attempt to fix it. This good news is somewhat mitigated by the fact that of course Magic Duels lost most of its iOS players during the long outage. Even as a Magic enthusiast I am personally reluctant to spend money on Zendikar cards after the experience of not being able to use the Origins cards I paid for during such a long time.

So maybe the second piece of news is actually better: Another game with the Magic license launched this week on iOS, Magic: The Gathering - Puzzle Quest. That is a rather interesting implementation, which of course is far away from regular Magic rules. But you do have a deck with creatures and spells powered by mana, only that the mana is coming from a Puzzle Quest match-3 gameplay. The genre mix actually works quite well. My only niggle is that I find the software somewhat buggy and clunky, for example when trying to switch between different planewalkers. Elements in the game that were lifted from previous Puzzle Quest games, like the button to attribute xp points to level up heroes from Marvel Puzzle Quest, work less well in this version, not reacting at all sometimes, or with lots of lag.

But apart from the rather fundamental question why Wizards of the Coast only ever licenses software that is very buggy, I have a reasonable hope that I will be able to play Magic in two different forms on my iPad over the holidays. And that would be something to look forward to!
Tobold's Blog



Zeitgeist: The Island at the Axis of the World - Session 06
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 December 2015, 8:42 am
In the previous session the musketeers of the Royal Homeland Constabulary succeeded to capture the lighthouse on Axis Island and open the sea gate to allow the Risuri navy to invade the fortress. But as it would take the armada ten minutes to arrive, they now needed to hold the lighthouse for that time against the forces of the duchess trying to take it back.

At this point I need to pause the narrative and make a remark about Dungeons & Dragons and similar tabletop role-playing games: They are designed for short combat with a small number of enemies. Ten minutes in D&D is equivalent to 100 combat rounds, and the forces of the duchess were nearly 40 men strong. While one *could* play that out using regular D&D rules, it would just take forever, even if we were playing a different edition of D&D. A hundred combat rounds with a group of several players, each needing to state his action for each combat round, and potentially roll some dice just isn't feasible from a gameplay point of view, even if the story calls for it.

So what we did was to follow the suggestion to play the defense of the lighthouse as a sort of skill challenge, condensing 100 combat rounds into 10 rounds of 1 minute, and using a simplified and more abstract system for combat which didn't require dice rolls. The terrain was split into three locations, the lighthouse, the area outside the lighthouse, and the sea wall. Players and enemies were simply said to be in one of those three locations without specifying exactly where or looking at things like cover or line of sight. Any attack of a player killed one, two, or three enemies, depending on whether they used an at-will, encounter, or daily power. The enemy attacks all did 3 points of damage ranged, 6 points of damage in melee, also without rolling attack dice. In addition to combat the players also had opportunity to do athletics skill checks to build barricades, represented by a d20 counting points of barricades. And the enemies could just remove one point of barricades instead of attacking.

Using that system we managed to do the defense of the lighthouse in less than one hour. Overall the fight was maybe a bit too easy, but that mostly was a result of the players not having raised an alarm in the fortress in the previous session, so they kind of deserved that. The other factor in the player's favor was the story element that I had added to the campaign, having turned the group of constables into a group of musketeers. That resulted in every player having at least one good ranged option, even the character classes that otherwise only had melee powers. So the first wave of 6 enemies was mowed down by fire from 6 muskets, and some of the players continued to use their muskets even after that. The fight ended when after 10 minutes the Risuri armada entered the harbor and chased the remaining troops of the duchess away.

The players were met by Captain Smith on the Impossible, the ship that brought them to the island. He congratulated them of having succeeded in their primary mission, as now the armada should have no problem taking the island back in time to hand it back to Danor and prevent another war. What remained was the secondary missions of bringing the duchess back alive to her brother the king, and finding Nathan Jierre, the cousin of the Danoran ambassador, who had been captured by the duchess. The captain reminded them that while the armada would do the heavy work of getting through the outer and inner fortress walls to the central keep, it was up to the constables to conduct any negotiations with the duchess. They would also have to hand over the island officially to Danor before sunset. Captain Smith also provided the constables with a military escort, one soldier per player, armed with sword and pistol.

While the group waited for the cannons from the armada to break open the outer wall gates, something happened: On another ship on the other side of the harbor there was a commotion, followed by fire and explosion. A single humanoid figure emerged from the ship, setting the fire, and killing everybody standing on his way getting off the boat. A series of perception, history, and arcane checks revealed further information: The humanoid was clearly an eladrin, armed with a fire sword that sometimes transformed into a fire whip, and wielding also a large shield in the shape of a lion's head. The shield could fly from the eladrin and maul an opponent. This description fitted an eladrin warrior who appeared in history books of the first Yerasol war, two hundred years ago, where he had intervened to liberate an eladrin woman from a Danoran general, without being really allied to Risur. The name of that eladrin in the history books was Asrabey Varal, and it was said that he was a Vekeshi Mystic, an assassin for the Unseen Court. Being too far away the group could only watch how Asrabey took some supernatural leaps to the shore, onto a catapult, and from there over the wall into the fortress, killing both loyalist and duchess troops standing in his way.

A while later the armada managed to crack open the outer wall gates, and the troops of the duchess retreated onto the inner wall. A messenger came to the constables alerting them that the troops had found a prison full of Danorans, including a dozen thieflings. Hoping to find Nathan Jierre there, the group went to that prison, while the loyalist troops laid siege to the inner fortress. The Danorans in the prison turned out to be mostly non-combatants, led by a wounded lieutenant, who wasn't in a mood to cooperate. The lieutenant demanded that the Danorans would be freed and armed before talking to the constables. Surprisingly the group agreed to those demands, which mellowed the behavior of the lieutenant. He said that Nathan Jierre wasn't among them, but was presumed to have been captured by the duchess and kept in the inner fortress. The lieutenant also could provide a key for the roof door of the central tower, but had no idea how to easily get onto that roof. He reported that after the duchess had installed herself in that tower, a magical hedge maze had sprung up around it from fey magic. He was also able to tell the group that the invasion by the duchess's troops had come into the fortress via a building that contained a teleportation circle. But that meant that somebody in the fortress was a traitor and had provided the duchess with a magical key to that teleportation circle.

As the loyalist troops were still busy assaulting the inner wall, the constables went and checked out the building with the teleportation circle. Apparently the duchess had set up a defensive mechanism out of gold-lined blades that could cut any eventual Danorans trying to use the same way into the fortress. But recently somebody had destroyed these defenses. The signs of recent fiery destruction, the corpses outside, and the general direction into which Asrabey had headed into the fortress in a straight line towards this building suggested that this was the work of the eladrin.

Suddenly the group saw Asrabey jumping away from the roof of the teleportation circle building, where he had apparently hid on the group's arrival. The eladrin jumped quickly with supernatural steps from roof to roof towards the inner wall, with the constables in slower pursuit. Near the wall Asrabey pulled out a magical globe which exploded in a flash and created a zone in which the reality of this world was "overwritten" by other worlds. The wall was replaced by woodland, with the soldiers standing on the wall suddenly not having anything under their feet any more and falling to their deaths. Parts of other worlds could be seen as well, like the swamp with the blue sun and the purple frogs that the players had seen before. Through the thus created breach in the wall Asrabey sprinted towards the hedge maze. As the reality distortion was visibly starting to shrink, the group decided spontaneously to go after the eladrin and managed to get past the wall before it reformed. At this point we ended the session in front of the hedge maze.
Tobold's Blog



Civilizing multiplayer games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 December 2015, 4:15 am
There are a range of different theories about how humanity arrived to develop civilized society instead of living in anarchy and people bashing each others heads in on a whim. The general idea is that humanity discovered that civilization has big advantages, and that these advantages more than make up for the disadvantage of having to live by the rules. Unfortunately in many multiplayer games this process of civilization hasn't taken place yet, and there is still a lot of anarchy. Anonymity, the lack of history, and the short-term nature of most interactions makes civilized behavior in a multiplayer game less advantageous than it is in real life.

Three days after having stopped to play League of Angels I checked out my character and found he had been kicked from his guild. Then I checked Shop Heroes, which I had quit a month ago, and found my character was still in his guild. It is unlikely that the population of one mobile game is inherently nicer and more social than that of another. Thus the difference clearly lies in the game design:

In League of Angels my value to my guild is purely in the *future* contribution. My past contribution to the guild doesn't count. Any low level new player who is moderately active is of higher value to the guild than a long-standing player who stopped playing. It is better to kick everybody out ruthlessly after a few days of inactivity than to hope that they'll come back.

In Shop Heroes my value to my guild is both in past and future contributions. There is a record of my past contribution in the form of my past investment into the guild city. If I leave or get kicked out, I take my past contribution with me, and the guild loses it. Thus a guild leader would need to be rather confident of a new player that his overall lifetime contribution would be higher than mine before it becomes advantageous to kick me out and replace me.

It is easy to see that the Shop Heroes model resembles more closely real life. Your boss doesn't fire you because you fall sick for a week. Depending on where you are you have more or less legal protection against that; but even without it your boss would be aware of your experience and invested training and time in you, so that replacing you by a new guy after just a few days doesn't make business sense.

In short, in Shop Heroes and real life you have a history that matters, while in many other multiplayer games you don't. And I think that the quality of interaction in multiplayer games would make great strides forward if having a history would be the default system. Civilization doesn't work without a record.
Tobold's Blog



Fallout 4 isn't game of the year 2015
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 December 2015, 11:47 am
Syncaine recently posted on this blog that "if F4 isn't game of the year on PC for 2015, there is some serious corrupt voting". Guess what? Fallout 4 not only isn't game of the year, but in fact didn't win in any of the categories it was nominated in. Turned out that my guess for game of the year, Witcher 3, was correct. So how did I or the devs of Witcher 3 "corrupt" the voting?

The simple answer is that there wasn't any corruption at all, the Witcher 3 is simply the better game. It isn't just one game of the year award, but the Witcher 3 received better review scores pretty much everywhere, and ended 9 points ahead of Fallout 4 on Metacritic. More importantly the user scores for Witcher 3 were 4,213 positive to 327 negative, while for Fallout 4 there were 2,515 users giving a good review and 2,483 gave a bad one. I think the explanation is that Fallout 4 is only attractive to true fans of the series. And even the fans will admit that it isn't the best sequel of the lot. That isn't to say that it is a bad game, but obviously it appeals a lot less to people who are new to the series, or whom the previous sequels left indifferent.

The curious thing about games selling on the strength of the brand is that the sales figures of any sequel reflect not so much the quality of the game itself, but the quality of the predecessor. I'm pretty sure The Witcher 4 will sell like hotcakes, even if it would happen to be just an average game. There aren't demo versions any more, people don't trust reviews, and so buying the game and playing it becomes the only way to really finding out whether you like the game or not. And that than influences your buying behavior of the sequel.
Tobold's Blog



League of Angels after action report
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 December 2015, 8:01 am
It is rare that I write about a game that I have stopped playing. I tend to write about the things that interest me most, and of course a current game is always more interesting than a past one. But as with League of Angels I did an additional "experiment" on the life of a whale in a Free2Play game, I thought it might be interesting to give an after action report.

The first thing to say is that becoming the highest ranked player or at least a player ranked in the top 10 is neither very hard nor very expensive compared with other hobbies (or vices, e.g. a 2-pack a day smoking habit). On any given server there are only a handful of players who spend any money at all. With some planning and a strategy of spending smaller amounts regularly instead of spending big amounts in one splurge, getting to the top is rather easy. Make no mistake, this is certainly something akin to retail therapy, spending money to make yourself feel good. But compared to a Gucci handbag, League of Angels is downright cheap. Whether a top rank in a game makes you feel better or not as good as buying a Gucci handbag is a very personal decision on which I won't make any judgment.

As a game, with or without spending, League of Angels certainly has its merits. There is more variety and more need for tactical decisions than in many other Free2Play games. Unfortunately, like many other level-based games, it somewhat breaks down at higher levels. For me in this particular game that is starting somewhere after level 60, but your mileage may vary. The particular problem I have with League of Angels is that you get resources on a daily basis and those resources only allow you to level up some of your heroes; but you do get new heroes all the time, which are low level. So while theoretically it would be fun to switch out heroes you have grown bored with against a new hero, the resource system makes that exercise difficult, if not impossible. Above level 60 you'll need a huge pile of resources just to bring one new hero up to the level of your top team, and that will reduce your overall power. So you are kind of stuck with the heroes you got at low and mid-level. The higher your main level rises, the more stuck you become with the team you have, and the less options you have, and that is a pity which reduces the game's longevity.

Another disadvantage of League of Angels is the already reported strong need to keep up with the Joneses. Whether you spend money or not, you need to log in every day and do a certain range of activities to keep up. A typical guild will kick you after a few days of inactivity. So the game is not all that casual. That can quickly evolve into feeling like work.

So there you have it. My plan to play as a whale at the top of the game meant I didn't really have the option to play casually when I wanted to. And the design of the game resulted in less variety and options at the higher levels. I moved on to other games, like Shadow of Mordor and Thea : The Awakening. League of Angels was fun while it lasted, but isn't a game for the long term for me.
Tobold's Blog



Thea: The Awakening
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 November 2015, 2:20 am
When playing Civilization, I always liked the early phases the most, when you are still exploring the surroundings of your starting city. In the later phases you have too many cities and too many armies, and that somewhat bogs the game down. So what if somebody made a game where you only ever had one city and a very limited number of armies? Maybe fantasy rather than historical. That would be a rather cool game, wouldn't it? It turns out that somebody made that game. It is called Thea: The Awakening, and it only costs $16 on Steam during the autumn sale. Which is a great price for a game that compares well with some other hex-based fantasy world exploration games that come at full price.

At the core of Thea is an innovative combat game which has you playing cards in turn with your opponent. Each card represents one of your characters, or the monsters the opponent controls, and has values for health and damage. Half of your cards are for direct combat, the other half can optionally be played for various effects that manipulate other cards. Overall that gives great tactical gameplay and is much fun. And because your characters don't just have combat values but also other skills, for example social skills, the same system is used for skill challenges. And if you don't want to bother playing that card game for some insignificant opponent, there is an auto resolve button too. Just don't use it for the hard fights, because you can do better manually.

You characters come in different character classes: Warriors, medics, gatherers, and crafters. You will leave some of them in your village (there are no settlers to found more villages), while others you send out in "expeditions". You might send out adventuring types to do quests or explore ruins, while you might send out a gathering party to collect some resources you need. Everybody needs food and fuel to keep warm, and lots of monsters wander the world and can attack your village and expeditions. So you need to be careful and try to get your economy going in order to survive. Thea is billed as a survival game, and with the limited number of characters you get, you really don't want to lose many.

Your characters get stronger with time, and you will find a lot of resources and gear. Crafting can create more gear, and there is a sort of tech tree for researching materials, crafted items, and buildings. The crafting system is quite interesting, because recipes aren't totally fixed: You can use various alternative materials, and depending on the quality of the resources the quality of the crafted item improves. You can also salvage unused items back into materials.

All of this plays on a procedurally created world. But that world also contains various story elements and encounters. Often you need to make a decision, and what decisions are available depend on the skills of the characters involved. So although you might come across the same story elements again on your next playthrough, there is a lot of replayability. That is also helped by a system where your progress in a game makes the god you chose at the start stronger, so if you didn't manage to survive you can try again with a few more powers.

It has been a long time since I last got into that "one more turn" fascination of a game like this. Thea: The Awakening is really one of the better and more innovative games of this genre. You get a full-price value game for the cost of an indie title. Recommended!
Tobold's Blog



Shelf-life
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 November 2015, 12:56 pm
Syp of Bio Break has a retro gaming column in which he plays 20 year old games again and makes a journal of his experiences with those games. Personally I rarely play games more than a few years old, but somehow it is good to know that I could, even if I have to solve a few technical difficulties first. That contrasts sharply with an observation Cam did yesterday in the comments, where he stated that: "Multiplayer-only games have no shelf-life. No longevity.".

I'm not saying that his observation is an absolute truth, you can still play Meridian 59 from 1996 or even LPMud. But just like the WoW subscription curve, the number of players of a multi-player game rises for a while, and then declines. Depending on the game mechanics a decline can have more or less serious negative impact on the remaining players: Longer waiting times in queues to get a number of players together, for example. And then there is the danger of the servers being switched off, and the game becoming totally unplayable. MMORPG.com lists 260 dead MMORPGs, and the list gets a lot bigger if you include other types of multiplayer games.

As Cam says: "Everyone's playing Battlefront now, so who's playing Splatoon, Rocket League, Titanfall, Evolve, Brink, or any of the literally HUNDREDS of indie 2D arena-battlers who are all languishing in the 'mostly negative' reviews bin with the predominant complaint being: "Empty servers."". The advantage of MMORPGs is that there is still a lot of game left if you were the only player on the server. Those arena-battlers or other types of multiplayer PvP only games simply become unplayable if there are not enough players online to form even one game.

"Games as a service" has replaced "Games as a product" because developers couldn't find a better idea to combat piracy. As a result even some games which are from gameplay fundamentally single-player experiences now only work after you've logged into a server online. The day the company goes bankrupt or closes down the server because the cost outstrips the revenue, you can't play that game any more. Which means that any game that uses servers has no guarantee that you can still play it 20 years later, and might die much faster than that.

Part of the problem is the over-supply of games these days. There are so many games of any given genre coming out every year now that it is simply mathematically impossible for each of them to hold their players for long. Of course some blockbuster games will last for decades, but not many games can achieve that any more in such a crowded field. As much as I like to pick up games on Steam for cheap a year later, I must agree with Cam that with multiplayer-only games the months or year after release can become the only opportunity to play the game at all before it withers and dies.

Which multiplayer game of 2015 do you think will still be around in 2035?
Tobold's Blog



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