Unreasonable expectations
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 September 2014, 12:53 pm
Right out of the "gamers are not very nice people" corner comes the Steam Review Watch, a blog where somebody collects the scathing critiques that games get on Steam together with the amount of time the reviewer spent playing that game. My favorite is the "Worst game I've every played" from the guy who played said game for 907 hours.

We have to consider two possibilities here. Either the people say the truth, or they lie. If they say the truth, and this really is the worst game ever, one has to wonder why it took that person 907 hours to find out. If he played the game for 20 hours per week, it took him nearly a year to realize that he hated the game! So the more likely explanation is that the reviewer lied. He did in fact have a lot of fun with this game, and played it every day for a long time because he liked it so much. And after 900 hours of the same game he kind of got bored. And he blamed the game for that, and decided to get revenge by posting a bad review. Lying is also quite likely the explanation for the review saying "2ez… finnished it in under 30mins" after spending 2,381 hours on the game.

I don't know how much these players paid for those game, but I don't see any games on Steam priced at a level where getting hundreds or thousands of hours of entertainment for your money wouldn't be a good investment. And if a game is really bad, I don't see how you couldn't notice after a relatively short time. Do these people really expect to be entertained for the rest of their lives for a $50 investment or so?
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 1
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 September 2014, 9:49 am
I'd like to start this post with a special thanks to Stubborn from Sheep the Diamond, without whose creative input this new adventure would not have been possible.

In the previous session we finished Madness at Gardmore Abbey. The Favorites of Selune had spent 18 sessions collecting the cards of the Deck of Many Things. And then the wizard decided to cut short the discussion about what to do with that deck by drawing a card from it, and promptly drew one of the two really bad cards in the deck, imprisoning his soul on a faraway plane and forcing the player to roll a new character. That event also gave the others the quest to go looking for the wizard's soul, which was a good starting point for this next adventure.

The temple of Selune in Fallcrest was able to determine by divination magic that the wizard's soul was somewhere on the plane of Feywild, a parallel dimension full of life, and origin of elves and faeries. For more detailed information the temple recommended to rather talk to somebody more attuned to nature, a druidess living nearby. The players had already met that druidess in the Harkenwold adventure and were on good terms. The druidess was able to localize the wizard's soul in Feywild and knew how to get there. Even better, her apprentice had been with her at that place, and would accompany the group to show them the way. (The druid apprentice being the new character of the player of the wizard)

The place in the Feywild where the Favorites of Selune had to go can be reached through a portal in the town of Moonstairs. Moonstairs is in the middle of the troll marshes, and is best reached by boat from the nearby town of Plumton. And Plumton is only a week's travel on foot away. So the group set off on that voyage, with the new druid group member casting a Create Campsite ritual in the evenings to make the travel more comfortable. On the way, between Fallcrest and Winterhaven, the group was ambushed by five kobolds. At the same location where they had been ambushed by five kobolds when they first took that road at level 1. By the same level 1 kobolds. :) The group now being level 9 dispatched those kobolds very quickly, a short warm-up fight to remind the players how far they had come since.

As the group approached Plumton, they met a merchant on a cart, who wanted to know whether the road to Winterhaven was safe. They were able to get some information about Plumton in return: Plumton is the capital of the Duchy of Faywyr, ruled by Duke Ruwan. The merchant was making good money by importing salt to Plumton, with the town being far from salt mines or the sea, and by exporting dried fruit, the Duchy's main product. While normally a sleepy place, currently the inhabitants are worried about a not further specified "Underdark menace", and security is tight.

Arriving at Plumton the Favorites of Selune found the gate closed, with an armed guarded sweating in the summer heat standing before it. The guard demanded them to leave their weapons at the gate, but with the help of some gold the group was able to persuade him that this wasn't practical, seeing how they planned to leave by boat and not go back out by this gate. Entering Plumton the heroes find a typical medieval city with mostly two-storey houses and narrow streets. Plumton is on a river and has a small inland harbor, but the river only connects it to two towns up and down the river, with rapids preventing connection to the sea. It being already evening the group then headed to the nearest inn, the Mad Cow.

In the inn the first thing they see is a very tall dwarf behind the bar (who then turns out to be walking on a walkway behind the bar to appear taller). This is the innkeeper, Falgrim, who calls out for the tavern wench Belina to serve the group. There are also some other customers, and a boy shining shoes. The group gets a common room and food, and Belina starts to flirt with the two human males in the group, the druid and the cleric. It turns out that she is a lady of negotiable virtue, and the cleric actually takes her up on her offer to go upstairs to a room for an hour for 10 gold. Afterwards he learns that she is an orphan, and that she supports her brother Irv, the shoeshine boy, by working both in the tavern and for the "seamstresses' guild". During the evening the group also learns more about the "Underdark menace": A month ago an earthquake caused a crack to appear in the mountains south of Plumton. Hunters exploring found that the crack led to a network of caves and tunnels, obviously the Underdark. They even spotted a dark-skinned gnome. Since then there has been an increasing panic about a possible invasion from dark-skinned creatures from below.

The group retires to their room, and nothing happens to them during the night, in spite of the windows being left open due to the oppressive summer heat. They go down to get breakfast, where the innkeeper is already behind the bar, but his shouts for Belina get no response. Finally Falgrim goes to fetch breakfast for the adventurers himself, but find the body of Belina in the cellar. The adventurers and Irv go down the ladder to the cellar, where Belina lies dead, her skin turned unnaturally grey, next to a big molehill in the earthen floor. Her body shows no visible wounds or cause of death. Falgrim sends Irv to fetch the guard, and the group's sorceress insists on accompanying him. The guard arrives, led by a young guard commander and a veteran sergeant called Zef. The young commander goes rather pale on seeing the body, and leaves the investigation to the sergeant. The sergeant finds Belina's guild insignia, a thimble, nodding knowingly. Her earnings from last night are also still there, so it wasn't a robbery. But Zef has no idea either how Belina died, is puzzled by the molehill, and asks the group some questions suggesting that he suspects them, them being strangers in town. He asks the group to come to give a formal statement at the palace in the afternoon, and takes off with the body.

Irv, who has been rather quiet in the presence of the group and refused to give the sorceress any information about special clients of his sister, also says that he must go. That raises the suspicions of the rogue, who secretly follows the boy and sees him going to the seamstresses' guild headquarters, a brothel in the shady part of town behind the palace. The rogue talks to the boy, and Irv reveals that he thinks his sister was killed by dark magic, and he suspects the sorceress. The other group members meanwhile search the cellar, where they find that the molehill is leading nowhere, it is just a hole dug a meter deep into the ground and made to look as if something had come up there. They also find a secret door and a tunnel to outside the city, which turns out to be the way that Falgrim gets his dwarven ale into the city without paying toll. But they can't make out how Belina died, or what exactly happened.

At this point the group reunites and considers their options. As usual somebody proposes to use the tunnel to run away, which isn't a good option because it basically means skipping the adventure that the DM prepared. There is some disagreement whether the visit to the guard headquarters in the afternoon is just a formality, or whether the group risks ending up in prison just because the guard can't find any other culprit. The sorceress wants to question Irv more about his sister's clients, but the boy is nowhere to be found. Finally the group decides to talk to the seamstresses' guild. But going there they are ambushed in a back alley by a scarred woman with an eye-patch with some ruffians. The women says that she is the muscle of the seamstresses' guild, and she wants the group to hand over their weapons and come with her to Madam Emerine, the guild mistress. Somewhat to my surprise the Favorites of Selune agree and hand over their weapons. Having thus avoided one optional combat encounter, we ended the session here.
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Hasta la Vista!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 September 2014, 3:56 am
I bought a new PC recently. The 3-year old PC I used before I gave to my wife. Which meant her old computer, a bit over 5 years old, was to give away. Now a computer tends to accumulate a lot of personal data over the years. I don't like to just uninstall stuff and then find out later that somewhere hidden the bowels of the operating system there were still a bunch of my passwords stored that are now available to the new owner of the computer (even if we tend to give the old computer to friends or family). So what I like to do is to format the hard drive and give the computer away with a fresh install. A "factory reset", so do say, although as I don't buy brand computers they tend not to have that as an actual option.

The only problem was that I didn't want to give away the operating system and installation disks of the computers I am still using. So I reinstalled the operating system that was on that computer: Windows Vista. Now Microsoft has a strange policy of alternating okay versions of Windows with really, really bad ones, and Vista is one of the bad ones. Plus it is now completely outdated.

The first problem was that Vista freshly installed didn't have any default drivers that would make the network card work. Fortunately I found the disk with all the drivers for the motherboard, including audio and network, so after installing that I could connect to the internet. Then I wanted to download the Nvidia graphics card drivers, but that required downloading a lot of other stuff, like Java and Visual C++.

Then I thought I just run Windows Update and that would put Vista in a decent state. No luck! There is a major bug in the original Vista which makes Windows Update freeze when you run it. I found out that I first needed to download and install service pack 1 to fix that bug, and while I was at it I also installed service pack 2. That wasn't all that obvious because the pre-installed Internet Explorer 7 was so old that even the Microsoft website refused to work with it. And the IE7 update function didn't work either. So I had to install a new browser, download and install the service packs, and then I finally could get Windows Update to run. Which promptly downloaded 150 urgent updates, taking hours to download and install.

Overall it took me all afternoon and evening to get Windows Vista installed in a state where I could give the computer away with a good conscience. I found that while the 5-year old hardware was still perfectly adequate, the 5-year old operating system was a huge problem. I'm glad to be finally rid of Windows Vista for good. Now all of the PCs in my house run Windows 7. Even the new one, as I didn't want Windows 8. I'd rather wait for the next decent OS from Microsoft, which on past form should be Windows 9.
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Ethical game journalism requires the journalist not to play games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 August 2014, 4:41 am
I tend to see the world not in black & white, but in scales of grey. So I can't give you a clear yes or no answer on the question whether I consider myself as a game journalist. Obviously my activity, writing opinions about games on my blog, resembles game journalism. I once ran around a Blizzard convention with a press pass around my neck. On the other hand that is not my job, but just a hobby. So it is somewhere in a grey area where I am in part a game journalist, and in part I am not. So the part of me that is somewhat a game journalist is interested in the issues of game journalism, and the ethics thereof. For example I do have a strict disclosure policy, where I disclose if the product I am reviewing was a free review copy.

Lately the ethical questions about game journalism got somewhat reversed: Before the question was usually whether a game company gave money or things of value to a game journalist. Today the question is in the other direction: Does the game journalist give money to the game designer? Because if he does, he could be said to have a special interest in the success of that game designer, and thus not be objective. This sort of consideration caused Kotaku to post a new policy prohibiting their game journalists from supporting game designers on Patreon.

Now people point out that Patreon is just a single platform on which a game journalist could financially support a game designer. What about other platforms, like Kickstarter, or Steam Early Access? And ultimately, what about a game journalist buying a game, in which case part of his money also goes to the game designer?

So if you are a game journalist and you get a game for free, you can't be objective. And if you buy the game, you can't be objective either. I assume stealing the game isn't part of an ethics policy either. Which means that an ethical game journalist cannot play the game he is reviewing. He has to rely on YouTube or Twitch to see other people play it (now that explains the recent interest if internet giants in Twitch). I must say that there are game journalists around that are apparently far more ethically advanced than I am. I've read a lot of game reviews that made it quite plausible that the author writing the review never played the game in question.

I'm afraid that my blog has an unethical policy: While I do sometimes comment on games that I haven't played (for example because they don't exist yet), I don't put the word "review" on a post unless I have played the game. And in the large majority of cases that means that I have bought the game in one form or another. I do accept donations from readers to finance buying those games. I wonder when that will be considered unethical.
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DM techniques for running D&D encounters faster
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 August 2014, 3:32 am
I talked this week about the dual role of the dungeon master (DM) in a game of Dungeons & Dragons or similar tabletop role-playing game: Prepare and improvise. In this post I'm going to talk exclusively about the preparation part. Advance warning, if you aren't planning to play a pen & paper role-playing game anytime soon, this post isn't going to be very interesting to you.

Me and my players love the tactical combat encounters of D&D 4th edition. We love having lots of options in each round of combat, and not just announcing basic attacks. And we love the tactical options that come from using figurines on a battlemap. For a combat to be tactical, it must last several rounds, so that the effect of tactics has more impact on the fight than lucky dice rolls. All that means that tactical combat takes a certain amount of time. But how much time it takes depends very much on DM preparation. If you hear from people who say it took them hours for a simple fight, you know that encounter was badly prepared. If you don't bring the tools to run tactical combat quickly, it is like digging a tunnel with a spoon. I recently watched Wizards of the Coast playing the first combat encounter of the 5th edition Starter Set on YouTube, and it took them 1 hour. I can play a 4E encounter of the same size in the same time, or faster, with the preparation I will list in this post.

So what is my secret weapon? Sorry, it isn't something fancy like a 3D printer. I am using a regular color laser printer. I prefer laser because the ink doesn't smudge when handling the paper, and the stuff I print for games gets handled a lot. And what I use a lot for the printed game material I use is thin cardboard, 210 g/m², which is thin enough to work with my printer, but thick enough to be a lot more resistant than regular paper.

The first tool for running encounters faster is printing all the powers and magic items the players have on little cards, the size of playing cards. I have to print those because I play in French, but at one point in time one could also buy power cards from WotC. What I also use is deck sleeves, the kind that players of Magic the Gathering or other trading card games use. So the at-will powers go into green sleeves, the encounter powers in red sleeves, and the daily powers in black sleeves, making it easier to find the power you need. I also have cards for action points and magic items, and each player gets a Deck Protector box with all the cards of his powers and stuff. The result is that nobody at my table needs to look up the details of his powers during combat, we basically never use the Player's Handbook during play unless there is a rules question we aren't sure about.

On the DM side I pack everything I need for one encounter into one clear sheet protector: Battlemap, monster stats, tokens, and initiative riders. I use Campaign Cartographer / Dungeon Designer software to print my battlemaps, unless I have a poster battlemap from a published adventure. For the characters of the players one of my players provided painted metal figurines. But for monsters I use 2-dimensional tokens. Some tokens I get from boxed adventures or the Monster Vault. But if I need my own I print them on 1" cardboard squares, which I stick on 1" square self-adhesive felt pads, the sort you can buy to stick under the legs of your chairs to not scratch your floor. Printed tokens have one advantage over figurines in that you can print numbers on them, which makes it easier to keep track of which orc got hit for how much damage or is suffering from which status effect. Speaking of which, I printed little rings on cardboard with status effects like ongoing damage and use them for both figurines and tokens on the battlemap. Finally I print 1" x 2" cardboard initiative riders, which I fold in half and place on the top of my DM screen, showing the order of initiative to both my players and me. By having the monster stats printed on paper I don't need to refer to pages of the Monster Manual or the printed adventure, and can also track health and status effects on that paper. With all that neatly packed together in one clear sheet protector, I can set up an encounter in a very short time without causing a huge pause in the narrative.

Outside encounters I use much less prepared material. I have Paizo Face Cards to represent my NPCs, because NPCs are more memorable if they have a face. I have the occasional handout, for example for quests, or to show images of a location. But most of the adventure information I have just stored in my brain, because things like NPC motivations and likely course of actions are just the basis for improvised role-playing, and not something you print and hand out.

All this preparation obviously takes some time. I don't mind, because while I prepare those encounters I can think about how to play them, which then helps me to run them better. Ultimately the goal is to make encounters interesting and memorable, and good preparation helps a lot there. You get a lot better immersion if your encounter isn't interrupted by organizational chaos or the DM having to look up stuff. Preparation not only cuts down the time spent on combat encounters, it also creates a smoother flow and better narrative.
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Investigative adventures in Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 August 2014, 4:07 am
I was reading this article on investigative adventures in D&D on Sly Flourish. Very interesting, especially to me right now, since in my campaign we will start an adventure like that next Monday. In the past, and with a different DM, we had adventures in which the players were supposed to investigate go wrong and stall, so this is kind of a danger zone for us. I think it helps to consider some human aspects here, starting with expectations.

We've all read or seen detective stories, from Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot to Inspector Colombo. Being familiar with the format evokes a certain set of expectations when you try to play through something similar. But the detective in such stories cheats. There is only one author who controls both the murderer and the detective, so the detective can't fail to find all the clues, in the right order, and to put together the pieces to come to the right conclusion. The moment that you turn that into an actual multi-player game, with the DM having set the scene, knowing who the killer is, and having set up the clues, while the players need to discover all that, there is a significant chance that the players won't end up as successful as a Hercule Poirot.

The first advice here, based on own experience, is that a played murder mystery has to be significantly less complicated than one from a book or TV show. There need to be less locations to investigate, and less witnesses to question. That is especially important for a group like ours, as we only play twice per month maximum. If it takes us 6 sessions to investigate all locations and speak to all witnesses, that means that by the time we finish with the last, we have already forgotten the clues from the first, which was 3 months ago.

The advice from Sly Flourish is related to that: The players don't usually know where the clues are, and might well investigate a location that you as the DM didn't foresee, or talk to an NPC that you hadn't considered in your murder mystery. If the adventure doesn't limit the number of locations and NPCs somehow (murder in an isolated location like the Orient Express, boat on the Nile, lone manor, etc.), but happens in the middle of a city, you could end up with way too many locations and people to handle. So the trick is to *not* first place all the clues, and then hope that the players find them. Instead just make a list of the clues as bits of information, and be flexible where those bits of information can be found. If the players have an idea to search a place or talk to somebody, and the idea is somewhat reasonable, just decide that the clue is there. That might feel a bit like cheating, but it ends up having a flow that corresponds to expectations: The TV detective doesn't lose endless time by searching the wrong places and talking to the wrong people either.

My final advice is in disagreement with the Sly Flourish article: Yes, "players want to feel like their decisions matter and their actions lead somewhere". But that doesn't mean that the game world and the villain NPC have to be passive and sit and wait for the players to work through all the clues. Instead the villain NPCs have to be handled like characters with their own motivation, goals, and means. The villain should react to the investigation of the players. Again that conforms to expectations, detective stories frequently have the murderer kill another victim because the detective came close to getting a vital clue from that person. Because this is D&D and not Agatha Christie, the villain NPC might have far more possibilities in a D&D adventure, up to and including attacks on the players.

I have this concept in mind of the "turn-based" approach to role-playing. Basically the risk in D&D sessions that are heavy on role-playing and light on combat is that certain players take the lead and go off on long solo performances, while the other players fall asleep and the story isn't moving forward. Thus I try to gently nudge the role-playing into a structure where I give turns to other players, and to NPCs. Thus if one player goes on endlessly negotiating with a merchant, I say to the next player "Okay, so while Bob's character is negotiating with the merchant, what do you do?". And once I've given every player the chance to act, I think what a reasonable response or action from the NPCs, especially the villain, would be. That concept is explained beautifully in the recent WotC adventures Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. The main advantage is that it kind of puts the adventure on a clock: The game world is alive and stuff happens, even if the players dawdle. Once the players realize that, it creates better drama, because they KNOW that they don't endless time to find the solution.

So the next adventure will be an experiment on how successfully me and my players can handle an investigative adventure in a city. If that doesn't work at all, I will have to rethink my idea for my next campaign, because the adventure path I have chosen has a lot of investigative parts as well. Dungeon crawls are comparatively easy, but I hope that we can do more than that.
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A gender-neutral thought
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 August 2014, 10:07 am
I totally get where this article on sexist video-gamers being terrorists is coming from. Nearly everything in that article is true. But I feel that there are two issues here, and mixing them up that way isn't all that helpful. One is sexism, which most certainly exists, and the other is video gamers behaving extremely badly under the cover of internet anonymity, which also most certainly exists. But if you drew a Venn Diagram of this, you would find that while there is a substantial overlap, the overlap isn't total.

For example the terrorist accusation has as example the bomb threat called in on a plane carrying SOE's John Smedley. Which is certainly an example of extreme video-gamer behavior, but not motivated by sexism. So is the example of the gamer calling a SWAT team to the house of his opponent after losing at Call of Duty. I mean in no way to excuse the abominable behavior recently shown by gamers that *are* based on sexism. But I think that it would be better to separate those two issues. If we would magically end sexism tomorrow, the problem of video gamers calling in bomb threats on video game executives would still remain.

Feminism is a broad church that is not speaking with one voice, but with millions of them. Many of those voices speak out against actual discrimination and are totally right to do so. But some other voices are fueled by hate against anybody with a Y-chromosome. And just like you can be a true Christian without supporting everything the extreme Christian Right says, you can be for gender equality without supporting everything the extreme feminists say. And in the above case it becomes very hard to stand up against video gamer hate if that means having to subscribe to feminist hate to do so. We could get a much broader support, especially from men feeling uncomfortable with some parts of some feminists' agenda, if we considered the two issues here separately. That doesn't mean you can't fight for both issues, but we should accept the two issues as different and quote sexism as an example instead of the underlying motivation for all video gamer hate. The kind of video gamers we are talking about really just hate about everything, not just women or feminists.

That brings me to the gender of the video gamer spewing hate on Twitter. Twitter has 271 million monthly active users. And increasingly the tweets are hateful in nature. There is something about the format that makes it easier to fire off a short hateful remark than a balanced, reasoned opinion. And sorry, but that isn't limited to male users of Twitter. Even on videogames you can find extremely nasty tweets written by women. While I am pretty much convinced that the majority of video gamers spewing hate is male, again it wouldn't be correct to paint that 100% as a gender issue. I am also pretty sure that the majority of the video gamers spewing hate is under 35 years of age, but it wouldn't be helpful to dress this discussion as a generational issue either.

We live in a civilization based on laws and certain rules of civilized behavior. Some people have discovered how internet anonymity can sometimes allow them to act outside of these laws and rules without consequences. The long-term effect of this will most certainly be that we will lose our right to remain anonymous on the internet. Everybody who uses that anonymity for a fake bomb threat or similar illegal activity makes it harder for the rest of us to insist on our right to privacy on the internet. As video gamers, regardless of gender, we need to speak out against the lawless sub-culture of video gamer hate. Because we don't want to mention at the water-cooler that we play video games and get a reply "Video gamers? Isn't that this terrorist outfit I hear so much about in the news?".
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On rose-tinted glasses
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 August 2014, 7:45 am
Telwyn is discussing his notion that most people in the MMO blogosphere have rose-tinted glasses and are "idolising the past". I'd like to point out that many of the "classic" MMORPGs like Ultima Online or the first Everquest are still around. The fact that not many people play them any more tells me that they don't compare that well to modern games. Having said that, everybody has his first MMORPG, and that one is likely to have a profound impact on the thinking of that player. Because every MMORPG after your first is a mix of new stuff with features you already know, and thus is somewhat less impressive.

Old MMORPGs serve one important purpose in the context of blog discussion: They tried out a lot of ideas that ultimately didn't work. The experience players and game companies had with this classic games had a strong influence on how later games were designed. If you played Ultima Online early on, you will have a very different understanding of why in modern games PvP is often so limited. If you played Everquest 1, you will have a very different understanding of why modern games have flight paths, teleports, and other forms of fast travel. Everquest 1 is also fundamental to understand the quest-driven gameplay of World of Warcraft and beyond. So it is not so much "idolising" past games as being able to quote them in the context of brilliant new ideas that were in fact already discarded a decade ago. If we don't remember the past, history repeats itself, "first as a tragedy, second as a farce".

But of course those rose-tinted glasses exist. People say the "remember" those old games, when in fact they have a curiously selective memory that blends out anything that doesn't fit in their world view. Thus instead of remembering how after the split of UO nobody wanted to play in Felucca any more and Trammel was overcrowded, they choose to remember how "great" unlimited player-killing was before the split. If only the devs hadn't allowed all the potential victims to escape to safety! Ignoring that if the devs hadn't done that, the game would have died, because those victims were already running away by quitting the game.

Curiously people also sometimes forget the things that did work. How often have you heard that "forced grouping" doesn't work? The developers of several quite successful games before WoW would beg to differ, it worked quite well at the time. The negative effect of lone wolves not wanting to play such a game is compensated by the positive effect of people enjoying to play with others and making friends. Social bonds are stronger if you actually *need* other people to progress yourself. You might get less players on day 1, but then you don't have two thirds of your players quitting the game on day 30, which overall might be healthier for the game.

Games can serve as huge social experiments, but that only works if you compare the game with itself, before and after a change. You can't take the fact that people tend to flock to a new game as proof that a specific feature of the new game is better than a specific feature of the old game. Even the fact that World of Warcraft had a peak subscriber number 30 times higher than the previous games doesn't mean that *every* feature and design decision of WoW was better than the equivalent of the older games. People tend to like game for the overall impression that game makes on them, it rarely boils down to one specific feature.
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D&D is only as good as the DM
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 August 2014, 4:22 am
I recently argued that pen & paper roleplaying had fallen out of favor because it is so much harder to organize a tabletop session than to organize some other game online. But the 5th edition starter set has resulted in a lot of podcasts and YouTube videos of different groups recording their session of playing the same adventure with the same rules. And one can't help but notice that the quality varies widely. So if you think of a hypothetical group of teenagers trying to get into D&D without outside help, just armed with the Starter Set and the Basic Rules pdf, there is an obvious pitfall: A DM who is new to both playing and leading a game is quite likely to be bad at it. And that might turn the whole group away from that hobby.

Now the good news is that D&D, even if some people would like you to think otherwise, is not *one* game but a million different ones. There is no such thing as the one true way to play Dungeons & Dragons, however much some people might preach their way. You can run a game with an adventure that has a predefined story with a beginning, middle, and end. You can also run a game which is more or less pure sandbox, with no story at all. And everything in between.

Those two extremes point towards two main qualities that a DM must have: To run an adventure with a fixed story and fixed encounters, he must know the adventure very well, know the rules, and come to the session well prepared. Especially if you play tactical encounters with figurines/tokens on a map, preparation makes a huge difference on how smooth and fast that is going to run. The second quality comes from the sandbox aspect of D&D: A DM must be good at improvising. Even if the players are supposed to follow a story, it is always possible that they make some unexpected decision that leads the events in a different direction. And the DM must be able to come up with a believable response of the game world to whatever action the players perform. You probably hadn't thought the wizard would use a fireball in the bar room brawl, so how does your city react to the tavern being on fire?

Every DM needs both of those qualities. Being good at improvisation doesn't absolve you from having to know the rules and your game world. Whatever you improvise today will be canon lore tomorrow, so you will have to remember what told your players about some NPC or location. And if you make an improvised rules decision, that better fit with the existing rules. Otherwise your overly generous bonus you gave a player for throwing sand in his enemies' eyes will become a new house rule that leads to every player carrying a bag of sand around.

In my eyes a computer usually makes not a great DM. A computer is good at consistency and speedy delivery of prepared rules and story. But a computer is lousy at improvisation. I'm currently playing Divinity: Original Sin, which makes a great effort to have the game world react in different ways to different approaches that you can take in any given situation. But you can't help but notice that things like destructible environment are frequently limited: You throw a fireball into a room and the chair gets destroyed, but the tapestry doesn't; the chair was programmed as possibly destructible object, the tapestry is just a texture on the wall and can't really be interacted with. Thus typical computer game problems of world-saving fantasy heroes being stopped by a knee-high fence.

But if you compare a computer game with a tabletop game, it is perfectly possible for the DM of a tabletop game to be worse than the computer. A human DM can be bad at *both* improvising and prepared content. In 30 years of tabletop roleplaying I certainly met my fair share of bad DMs that would have made me choose a computer instead if I had been given the option. A computer is some sort of baseline mediocre at running a good game, and many human DMs can do a lot better, which is why I prefer pen & paper roleplaying to the computer version. But I can just as well imagine a group of teenagers trying out D&D for the first time with a DM who is badly prepared and bad at improvising, and concluding that their computer games are better than that.
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Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 August 2014, 11:40 am
Strictly speaking a computer doesn't have any speed at all, as you measure speed in meters per second, and a desktop computer tends to be rather stationary. But of course you can measure the speed of a computer in many other ways, by setting him a task and timing how long he takes for that. There are units of measurement like megaFLOPS, but such units are more useful for scientific calculation speed than for the speed of a gaming PC.

Thus when I ordered a new computer, I invested some money in 3DMark, which is now available on Steam, which makes it a lot more user-friendly to install and handle. The result was that on my old computer the DirectX 11 Fire Strike benchmark had a score of just under 4,000. Today I received my new computer, and ran 3DMark again for comparison: 7,500 in the Fire Strike benchmark. Which means that my new computer is nearly twice as fast as the old one if it is graphics speed that concerns you most.

I have a sneaking suspicion that what will make more of a difference is that I have now a much larger SSD drive. On the previous computer I had 256 GB SSD, which was enough to have Windows and some favored applications run from that drive. But I couldn't put my whole Steam library on that, so some games I ran from the slower, regular hard drive. On the new computer the SSD is twice as big, with 512 GB. Which means that I can install most of my games on the SSD drive. And that should cut down loading screen times a lot. And ultimately a few seconds saved on each loading screen feels a lot faster than a higher framerate.
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Real gamers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 August 2014, 4:26 am
Advance warning: If you consider yourself a "real gamer", you might not want to read this post.

Apparently there has been a heated discussion on Twitter and the games blogosphere about what defines a "real gamer". Basically there is a group of people out there who would like that to be some sort of exclusive label, some sort of badge of honor, some sort of true achievement. The discussion then starts because anybody who even wants to be included in the definition of "real gamer" then wants basically that his own level of skill/expertise/hardcoreness/dedication/whatever you want to call it is still included in the definition of what a "real gamer" is, while anybody who is slightly less skilled/expert/hardcore/dedicated/whatever should definitely be excluded and be branded a "fucking n00b" instead.

The whole exercise is so pathetic, it kinds of makes one sad. Just imagine it, there is somebody out there who is extremely proud that he beat some game at a higher difficulty level than you did. THAT is his greatest achievement in life, the thing he is most proud of, the defining feature of his self-worth, and how he sees himself. What kind of a loser does one have to be if the greatest thing one achieved in life is being good at a video game?

Social Identity Theory is full of this sort of behavior: A) We want to belong to a group, but B) we want to group to be exclusive and see it as being better than any other group. That already causes enough problems if the group is well defined, if by your passport, origin, or religion you can without doubt say to what group you belong or don't belong. But it gets completely silly if you need to apply fuzzy adjectives like "real" in your definition. Reminds me of an episode years ago where somebody in chat was looking for a group, but only wanted "serious" players with a gear score of at least 6,700. Guess what gear score he had. If everybody defines "real" or "serious" as "me, and everybody better than me", we never even get two people to agree on one definition of who is member of that group and who isn't.

Defining yourself as a "gamer" in the most general and most inclusive definition of the word can actually serve a purpose. There is market research that is quite interested in the question how many people would be interested in spending at least part of their disposable time playing games. The overall number of "gamers", if you define it as people who are willing to buy a game or otherwise spend money on one, is growing; and that has consequences: If there are more "gamer" potential customers, more games get produced. And yes, you can sub-divide that group of "gamers" into sub-groups that also make sense from a market point of view. How many "console gamers" are there? How many "mobile gamers"? How many "PC gamers"? Or even how man "first person shooter gamers"? If you have an answer to these questions and could track the evolution of these numbers somehow, you would have information useful in deciding what kind of game to develop.

In comparison to all that, a definition of what a "real gamer" is just serves no purpose at all other than stroking the ego of the person who twisted the definition to include himself in it. What kind of sensible game design or marketing decision can you make based on that definition? Sell T-shirts that say "I'm a real gamer, but you're a n00b!"? Being marginally better than somebody else in playing a specific videogame under specific conditions just serves no useful purpose at all in life. Everybody else who sees you in your "real gamer" T-shirt will only translate the term into "basement-dwelling no-life loser", even if that is obviously a crude simplification as well. The very idea that anybody could possibly look up to you because you are a "real gamer" and they are not is completely idiotic. On any scale people tend to despise the people above them at least as much as the people below them. "Real gamers" don't impress anybody.
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An ailing hobby
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 August 2014, 2:37 am
In many ways a tabletop role-playing game is very social. You sit around a table with friends and interact a lot with each other during hours. In other ways however the hobby is somewhat insular: Your table is the virtual world, and that world does not necessarily have much connection with other virtual worlds or players out there. Even the companies making those pen & paper role-playing games aren't quite sure how many people are actually out there playing, as any given sold rules book could either be long lost in the garbage, or be the centerpiece of a group of several people. Having myself played tabletop RPGs, mostly various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, for over 30 years, I always considered this to be an active hobby with many other players out there, even if I didn't see them. I might have been wrong.

In a recent market study, the North American "hobby game market" was found to have hit $700 million at retail in 2013. But of those $700 million collectibles made $450 million, miniatures $125 million, board games $75 million, non-collectible card and dice games $35 million. What about tabletop role-playing games? Only $5 million. Wow! That is nothing! There are single Facebook games that earn more money than that!

While it is theoretically possible that people play on forever with old books, such low sales volume are indicative of an ailing hobby. With a game like World of Warcraft making over 100 times more money per year than all pen & paper role-playing games together it appears obvious that people interested in fantasy role-playing today are online, and not sitting around a table with friends. And if you look around for example for role-playing material on YouTube you'll find that the people there don't exactly look like teenagers; this is a hobby with not much fresh blood and a lot of 40+ year old players.

Obviously Wizards of the Coast hopes to revive the hobby with the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. I've seen several games stores reporting the new Player's Handbook having sold out on the first day. I went to a local games store yesterday and could only get hold of a Starter Set. There are a lot of things that make 5th edition quite suitable for people new to the tabletop role-playing hobby: The Starter Set is affordable, the Basic Rules are free, and while 110 pages of rules might still seem daunting to some people, that is already a lot less than previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder (and many of those pages are actually spell lists).

The biggest obstacle to playing a tabletop role-playing game is organization. Already in MMORPGs it is only a small fraction of the players who meet online regularly for a continuous block of several hours to play together. A pen & paper game not only requires that block of hours, but also for people to physically travel to the same location, and you'll probably want some food and drink there as well. But as a reward you get a game which feels a lot less restrained by the limits of technology and the imagination of some game designer. Instead of meeting to kill the same boss mob for the tenth time, you get a fresh story every session, limited only by the collective imagination of all the players around the table. That is well worth the organizational effort. I hope that the role-playing hobby can recover from it's current low.
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Playing for challenge vs. playing to win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 August 2014, 3:24 am
In the "real gamer" discussion the proponents of the term linked it to challenge. Quote: "A real gamer then would be someone who sees games in general or even only a specific game not as something to just have fun with but as an actual challenge.". They see people who play for the challenge as real gamers, and those who play for fun, for the story, for exploration, for social contacts, or for a myriad of other reasons as not real gamers. But is that a useful distinction, players who care for the challenge and players who don't? One other commenter asked: "Would sombody who uses cheats on their games ... be considered a true gamer?". And that question reveals a whole other dimension of player behavior.

Obviously the player who cheats cares for the challenge. A casual player who just plays for fun, for the story, etc., doesn't cheat because that wouldn't align with his goals. But while the player who cheats thinks the challenge is important, he doesn't actually want to beat it. He just wants to win, have the status of a winner who beat the challenge, without actually having to go through all of the effort.

Google the name of you favorite game and "cheat", and you will find tons of offers helping you to cheat with the game. Many game companies running competitive multi-player games spend the majority of their operating expenses on anti-cheating measures. There is a constant arms race between people who program cheat software and people who program anti-cheat software. Video game cheating is a multi-million dollar business.

But in other games the distinction between people who play for the challenge and people who just want to win is a lot more subtle. Take MMORPGs for example: You would assume that somebody who plays for the challenge will try to increase the challenge. But the most frequently observed behavior is one of trying to diminish the challenge: Players want the best possible gear, they want to play with others only if those others are highly competent, and they want to raid only dungeons where everybody is well prepared and well trained for every encounter. Apart from Gevlon there aren't many people who say "I raid for the challenge, so I'll raid in blue gear". Nobody says "I raid for the challenge, so I am grateful for the other players in my raid that don't play so well and thus increase my challenge.". Few people raid for the challenge and go into the raid dungeon without having studied internet sites telling them how to beat the bosses. You will find guilds boasting about their "server first" raid achievement, without mentioning that this server first was carefully orchestrated and made easier by a month of training the raid on the test servers. It is very clear that all of these people play to win, and not because they enjoy an actual challenge.

People really just wanting to be seen as winners are also behind many of the social conflicts in MMORPGs, for example the endless discussion about welfare epics or easy mode dungeons. Playing for the challenge is a very personal thing, nobody else but yourself can tell you whether you deserve to be proud of having beaten a challenge. If you play for the challenge, you don't care what gear somebody else is wearing or what places he is allowed to visit. Playing for winning status symbols is a social thing: Epics are not just making the next win easier, they also serve as a social status symbol distinguishing the "winners" from the "losers". So other people being able to get those status symbols in a different manner is a big thing if you play to win, and not just for the challenge.

I believe that many of those who attach the silly label of "real gamer" to themselves are not actually playing for the challenge. They play for the status that comes with beating a challenge, even if they have to cheat or manipulate the circumstances in their favor to get the win without much of a challenge. Challenge is just an euphemism, and not a widely shared real value.
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Still playing Divinity Original Sin
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 August 2014, 3:35 am
I spent most of this weekend playing Divinity: Original Sin, and I'm still only half way through. This is a really epic game, and that suits me just fine. In fact I find myself continually making plans on how I would make a different build and setup of characters for a second playthrough. I've been playing this first game with a relatively simple and efficient build, based on the talents Lone Wolf, Zombie, and Leech. What that means is that I'm playing with a party of 2 and can't use additional companions (the more "usual" game would have you controlling 4 characters), I don't use regular healing, and I heal instead of taking damage from two of the more common sources of damage. Even after the recent nerf to Leech that is still on the overpowered side, with some undead simply unable to damage me at all.

While efficient, I can't help but ask myself how the game would play if I would use a more "normal" setup, not being immune to poison and bleeding, using regular healing, and playing with 4 characters instead of 2. I'd also would like to try a character with dexterity, using ranged weapons and backstabs instead of my classic sword and board melee fighter. I'm looking forward to trying all that out, but first I'd like to finish the first game. While the "normal" setup is probably less easy, I like the idea of having to approach the fights very differently. I figure the combat experience will be much different if I play through the game with a build without those three talents.

Having said that, I'm not sure I'll manage a complete second playthrough. Curiously enough in Divinity Original Sin combat is relatively rare. This is not like Diablo, with monsters behind every corner. You spend a lot of time exploring, clicking through various containers for loot, dealing with traps, crafting, or taking decisions in dialogue. While I would take the talent that allows me to talk to animals, thus opening more dialogue options, in the second game, I am afraid that the replayability of the exploration part of the game isn't as good as the replayability of the combat part. The sense of discovery is much diminished by experiencing the same story in the same environment a second time, even if you make some different choices and some random outcomes are different.

In Dungeons & Dragons there are a few adventures (Ravenloft, Madness at Gardmore Abbey) in which major aspects of the story are determined randomly at the start. A player who plays through the adventure twice might be surprised when the story is not the same the second time around. I haven't seen anything like that in a computer role-playing game, although there are some examples where the ending of the story is determined by the actions of the player, which is already something. Until then we need to live with that disadvantage of story-heavy role-playing games having a diminished replayability.
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The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 18
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 August 2014, 3:33 am
Before the summer break, in the previous session we stopped with a cliffhanger: The middle of a fight with a red dragon. The fight had the group somewhat worried, because the dragon had breathed on them already twice, and several rounds of concentrating fire hadn't even bloodied him. So in this session they changed tactics, and first attacked the kobolds. The kobold shaman, who had healed the dragon once already and cast buffs, died first. Then the kobold defenders went down. With only the dragon left, the fight then was a lot easier. The cleric pulled out all stoppers and cast some daily healing powers to keep everybody alive. And although the dragon got a third breath off when he was bloodied, he ultimately was overwhelmed.

The group found a lot of treasure in the dragon's hoard, including 3 more cards from the Deck of Many Things. They now had 20 out of 22 cards of that deck, and knew that Lord Padraig of Winterhaven had the remaining two. After a short rest they left the dungeon. And to their surprise Lord Padraig, with his court mage and a troop of soldiers was waiting for them upstairs. He had been informed that the group has cleansed the temple of Gardmore Abbey, and had come himself with his retinue to see whether the abbey had been completely cleared of monsters.

When the group approached Lord Padraig, the magic of the Deck of Many Things artifact manifested itself. All the cards from everybody flew together, ripping through pockets, to reconstitute the full deck. The deck then floated in the air between the group and Lord Padraig, sending out a telepathic message to everybody, promising the possibility of great fortune if somebody would dare to draw a card. Lord Padraig stepped forward and pronounced his claim on the Deck of Many Things, for the defense of his town Winterhaven. But the sorceress of the group was quick to grab and pocket the deck.

That still left them all in a standoff situation. The group didn't especially want to attack Lord Padraig, nor did he want to attack them. The Favorites of Selune tried to convince Padraig that the artifact was chaotic and could well bring harm to Winterhaven. But Lord Padraig had searched for the artifact for a long time and was convinced that he would be able to use it responsibly, not drawing a card on a whim, but using it only if Winterhaven was in danger. He was willing to take a chance when a dire situation would require it, and didn't consider that as chaotic.

The cleric wanted to bring the deck to the temple of Selune in Fallcrest, but Lord Padraig didn't want other regional lords to get hold of that artifact [And I as the DM didn't want another NPC to tell the group what to do with the deck. They had spent a year to collect it, it was their decision whether to use it, give it to Padraig, or destroy it.]. He proposed that the group could leave the deck with him, and go to Fallcrest without it to ask advice, but of course the adventurers didn't want to let go of the deck so easily.

Unfortunately my players aren't really good at taking a decision together. Everybody had his own ideas and they couldn't agree on making a proposal to Lord Padraig that would have resolved the situation. So after some back and forth the wizard cast his mage hand, snatched the deck from the sorceress, and drew a card (without consent from the other players). Now the Gardmore Abbey version of the Deck of Many Things has more positive cards than negative cards, and of the negative cards only two are really catastrophic. Rely on our wizard to draw one of those: The Void, which captured his soul in a far away prison, left his body lifeless on the ground, and gave a quest to the other players to find back the lost soul.

Technically the wizard isn't dead. But for all practical purposes his character is out, and he has to roll a new character. Otherwise he wouldn't have a character to play while the Favorites of Selune quest for his lost soul. So I'm counting this as the second character death of the campaign. The player decided that he wants to reroll as a druid, and so I improvised the start of the quest for the wizard's soul: A divination from the temple of Selune leads the group to a druid they already met in Harkenwold. The druid can locate the soul of the wizard in the Feywild, and knows how to get to a portal in the troll marshes several weeks travel to the north. To show them the way he sends his young apprentice (which will be the new druid character) to accompany the group. At this point we ended the session, and the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure was concluded with the players leveling up to level 9. Onward to the next adventure!
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Pregenerated characters
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 August 2014, 3:26 am
Whether it is tabletop RPGs or computer games, pregenerated characters have a bad reputation. A typical gamer, given the choice of using a pregenerated character or going through a complicated system of generating his own will usually prefer his own build. Pregenerated characters are frequently somewhat generic, and thus boring. And they are often accused of being sub-optimal, by people who like optimization. I toyed with the idea of starting out Divinity Original Sin with pregenerated characters until I understood what the game was about and could go back and build optimized characters; but then I rather used a build I found via Google. I still might start a second game with my own creations later, there are so many options.

But one game changed my perception of pregenerated characters: The Starter Set of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. First of all the starter set uses the basic rules, which don't have a huge number of options. Thus building let's say your own rogue is unlikely to result in a character that is dramatically different from the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set. Second, and maybe even more importantly, the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set comes with a background story in which he learned his trade with a band of thieves that later tried to killed him; and then in the adventure that same band of thieves plays a prominent role in the story. So the pregenerated rogue has a strong personal link to the main story, while a rogue a player created on his own is unlikely to be as well integrated into the adventure.

Imagine the story of the Lord of the Rings being played as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a group of people who don't know the story. The DM proposes a pregenerated character, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a ranger of the north. If the player refuses to play that pregen, saying that rangers suck and that he wants to play a character created by himself, he is unknowingly missing out on a major chunk of story integration. If the player then creates a background story for his character that doesn't fit into the main story of Lord of the Rings, it will be a lot harder for the DM to integrate that character's background into the campaign.

I usually DM campaigns in which there is no pre-determined main story. The campaigns are rather episodic sequences of adventures, with a mix of adventures I write myself and various published material. In a campaign like that, I can take any idea my players have for a background and integrate it somewhere in one or more adventures. But the next campaign I want to play is a full "adventure path", a premade campaign where from the first adventure on the players are discovering things that lead to some grand campaign finale. Such a campaign has obvious advantages in appearing more like an epic story, and less than badly jointed episodes. But I wonder how I'll do with background stories to make sure the characters fit well into that campaign.

I don't think fully pregenerated characters are the answer here. Experienced players like to roll their own characters and make choices in the character creation. But I am thinking about preparing a bundle of ready-made character backgrounds that aren't too specific and can thus fit with various self-made characters. Furthermore I want to start my campaign by first spending a full session of explaining the campaign world to my players, before we even start rolling characters. So for those who prefer to make their own background story, I hope at least to get something that fits into the campaign world. That is a work in progress, I still have a lot of things to prepare for that campaign. Having an epic story to start with is one thing, making it actually feel epic during play is quite another.
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Resurrection failed
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 August 2014, 4:10 am
A MMORPG, compared to other games, requires a much bigger investment of time and money. Those two are related, because if you play a game for 100+ hours a month, the $15 price tag isn't going to stop you. In fact at the height of the World of Warcraft boom there was a slump of PC game sales, because people simply were too busy to play WoW for them to have time for other games. But once a player's interest in that sort of game diminishes, and he plays less, the cost of playing becomes more of an issue.

A year ago a lot of people were announcing the resurrection of the subscription business model for MMORPGs. A year later these people are surprisingly silent. The best numbers we have for the subscription games of 2014 are 772,374 peak subscribers for The Elder Scrolls Online, and 450,000 for Wildstar. And all anecdotal evidence points towards those numbers falling since release. With the exception of World of Warcraft, the list of popular MMORPGs is dominated by Free2Play titles like Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you add the number of subscribers of all subscription games today, including WoW, you get a smaller number than WoW alone at its peak.

2015 isn't going to change that. I got a mail from a website asking me to promote their list of Most Anticipated MMOs in 2015. Normally such mail goes right into the spam folder, but the list is so sad that I couldn't help but post it. Apart from Everquest Next it is basically a collection of indie hopes and dreams, financed by Kickstarter, and with very little hope of mass market success. And they are all either Free2Play or unlikely to revive the subscription business model. If anything, 2015 is more likely to see some of the subscription games of today switch to Free2Play.

As I said, that is related to the time investment that players today are willing to make. There are more MMOs out now, there are more games on more other platforms out today than on any previous point in time. The people who would still like to play some MMORPG are just not willing to play just one game the whole month long. And thus the monthly subscription looks decidedly unattractive. What we saw this year was the last hurrah, the charge of the light brigade, of the subscription business model. Requiescat in pace.
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Wildstar had 450,000 players
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 August 2014, 2:03 am
A standard version of Wildstar costs $60, the Deluxe version $75. As Wildstar released on June 3rd, by end of June every player of Wildstar had paid something between $60 and $75, because the first subscription payment hadn't been collected. Assuming that most people took the standard version (the Deluxe version wasn't all that good), the average player paid a bit over $60.

Why is that of interest? Because NCSoft released their second quarterly report for 2014, stating that they earned $28 million from Wildstar sales in the quarter ending June 30. So if we know the total revenue and the average revenue, we can easily calculate the number of players: In June 2014 Wildstar had about 450,000 players.

But what will be more interesting is the next two quarterly reports. Ideally NCSoft would sell more copies of Wildstar, plus collect $45 per existing player per quarter. So if the game would really take off, the third quarter revenues could even be higher than the second quarter results. On the other hand, if a lot of people quit, then the earnings from Wildstar will decrease over the next two quarters and then stabilize.
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Calling a spade a spade
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 August 2014, 3:05 am
Dear Wizards of the Coast!

Thank you very much for releasing the Dungeon Master's Basic Rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, after having already given us a Basic Rules version of the player's handbook. But I think you made a mistake and published the wrong pdf file. What you *call* "DM Basic Rules" is actually a document in which 90% of the pages are stat blocks of monsters and explanations on how to read those stat blocks and how to make combat encounters with those monsters. Everybody else would call that a "Monster Manual".

Don't get me wrong, the Basic Rules definitively need a Monster Manual at this point. I just can't understand why you would put that misleading label on it which suggests it is a basic version of the DM's Guide.

The Starter Set plus Basic Rules Player's Handbook are an excellent resource for new players to start role-playing. And if somebody wants to turn the adventure from the Starter Set into a full-blown 5th edition basic rules campaign, he will be happy to have all those monster stats. But the fundamental danger of giving rules to new players is that they tend to play those rules as written. If you publish a DM Basic Rules that is only about designing and playing combat encounters, you will get new DMs which know all about designing and playing combat encounters. Which is exactly what happened with 4th edition: People played endless sequences of combat encounters because the rule books suggested that this was what the game was about. Experienced players who knew what a role-playing game is were able to play 4th edition as a proper role-playing game, and will be able to do so with 5th edition as well. But for new players this is a trap.

The PH Basic Rules and Starter Set make an excellent first step towards role-playing with the backgrounds, personality traits, and inspiration rules. Especially people who actually play the Starter Set with the pre-generated characters will find that their backgrounds are very well integrated in the adventure. What a DM Basic Rules book needs is more like that: How do you create adventures which not only mix combat encounters with exploration and role-playing, but also mix a "main story" that has a common goal for the whole group with all the individual background stories that give additional personal motivation for the players.

A DM's Guide need not only teach a new DM how to create a campaign with multiple threads of common and individual stories, but also how to create believable NPCs with proper motivations that perform actions that drive the adventure and campaign forward. Especially the villains need to be more than the static boss mob waiting patiently in the last room of the dungeon. A DM's guide needs to talk about how to role-play all those NPCs, and how to handle exploration, not just combat. If you want 5th edition to be a new start for pen & paper RPGs that brings lots of new players to the tabletop role-playing hobby, you need to do better than a list of monsters.
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Godus - A comparative review
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 August 2014, 10:07 am
This week I've been doing something weird: I played the same game in parallel on two platforms. The game is Godus, and while the Steam Early Access version has been available for months, the iOS version came out a week ago. That promptly caused some controversy, because PC gamers who had gotten the game as Kickstarter backers or by paying for it on Steam were apoplectic that the iOS version was Free2Play. They feared they had gotten a raw deal, a Free2Play game by design which isn't free. Facts rarely stop a good rant, so the fact that the PC version does not in fact have any possibility to spend money on it after the initial purchase went largely unnoticed.

Which made me wonder how this all works. Is the assumption that the business model determines game design wrong? How can the same game exist with two very different business models? And how does it work under the two models? Are there differences between the versions? Which version is better? So I decided to try it out by testing both.

While I will say much about the differences between the two versions of Godus, the two versions of the game are fundamentally identical. Nearly all features of the game are shared by the two versions, and thus the two version play mostly the same. There are differences in controls (obviously), and a few minor differences related to the business models. But if you played one of the two versions, the other will appear extremely familiar to you. Claims that one version is less finished than the other are bogus, the "beta" label of the PC version is just a label and has zero consequence in a difference of polish or anything like that. I expect both versions to be developed further in parallel, and both to be frequently patched/updated in the future.

Technically Godus is a resource-hungry game. That doesn't matter much on a gaming PC used to 3D graphics. But on the iPad, even the latest iPad Air, Godus is pushing the limits. Sometimes part of the screen lacks graphics because the iPad just can't manage the graphics any longer. Stutters and freezes happen. The PC version isn't completely immune to that, but on my computer mainly crashed when I was trying to quit the game, at which point it didn't matter much. The main technical difference between the two versions is that the PC version allows you to rotate the view (using "Q" and "E" on the keyboard), while the iOS version doesn't. That makes the PC version overall more enjoyable to play: Sculpting the landscape is the major activity you do in Godus; the PC version with the ability to rotate and the much more precise mouse control plays a lot better than the iOS version where control by touch is less precise, and you have to sculpt basically blind if you want to modify the back of a mountain. I only played on the iPad, but I've read that the game is basically unplayable on the iPhone due to your fingers remaining the same size, but the screen being a lot smaller. Even on the PC sculpting is not very precise, apparently there is some guessing going on by the software what you were trying to achieve with a stroke. And sometimes the guess is the opposite of what you were actually trying to do.

Differences in gameplay are mostly in time scales: Things happen faster on the PC. For example a field of wheat ripens in 90 minutes on the PC, but takes 6 hours on the iPad. Which sounds like a huge difference, but ends up not mattering that much: You don't usually start Godus on your PC every 90 minutes. More likely you come back from work, or play in the morning after sleeping at night, and your wheat is ripe on either platform. Curiously I found that the slower time scale worked to my advantage on the iPad in one case: The enemy tribe, the Astari, hold a festival every hour on the PC, but only every day on the iPad. As they hold the festival even if you are offline, gain a lot of happiness from that festival, and steal your followers if they are happier than you are, coming back after several hours of absence on the PC usually meant that I had lost lots of followers, a problem I didn't have on the iPad. The problem went away when I unleashed my divine wrath on the Astari and killed them all with strategically placed swamps on their festival ground and a few lightning bolts. Overall my iPad game is more advanced, because I can take my iPad with me during the day and play during lunch break, while my PC sits at home.

Unkind reviewers have compared Godus on the iOS to the many Free2Play village builder games available on that platform. But those other games all have a fixed landscape which you usually unlock block by block. Godus with its terraforming land sculpting results in a lot more flexibility of how to build your civilization. There are paths of least resistance, but if you set your mind to it, you can flatten mountains or raise the ocean floor to create new areas to populate. But the comparison also makes clear why Godus isn't your typical Free2Play game: Village/city building Free2Play games often make you buy resources for real money. While that is possible in Godus, the game is designed to let you produce exponentially more resources with time, and that design doesn't work at all with the item shop. Why should I buy 1,000 belief in the item shop if I have a single building producing 15,000 every few hours?

Which means that the Free2Play business model in Godus boils down to buying boosters full of stickers. Godus has a system in which you open up new technologies by growing, so you get more technology cards by getting more population, more wheat fields, more mines, etc.. But many of those cards need stickers to unlock. You get stickers from unearthing treasure chests and from playing a Lemmings-like mini-game (which I don't like very much). But generally stickers are in short supply. So you can buy them for gems, and on the iPad you can buy gems for money. On the PC you can't buy gems for money, but you can get them more easily from playing: Unlike the iPad version you have a temple where you can sacrifice your followers in exchange for gems. That absolutely kills your happiness, but after the Astari are dead that doesn't appear to matter at all any more. And you can always perform some more miracles to make your followers happy again. For a completely fair comparison I spent exactly the same amount of money on both games, buying gems on the iPad for the same amount that the Steam Early Access game had cost me. Up to now I'm ahead in technology and stickers on the iPad, but presumably in the long term the PC will catch up, while I will run out of bought gems on the iPad.

Overall the two versions of Godus have a lot more similarities than differences. I had fun on both platforms. The controls and camera are better on the PC, but the iPad is easier to carry around with me and play on the go. If you have both, I would recommend trying the iPad version first, because it is free. If you hate the game there, you probably won't like it on the PC either. If you like it on the iPad but the controls annoy you, you can still consider paying for the PC version.
Tobold's Blog

Ordered a new computer - 2014 edition
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2014, 1:27 pm
Time flies! I used to buy a new computer every 2 years, and now I realized my last purchase is already 3 years in the past. Is it just me or are PCs not aging as fast as they used to? Anyway, here are the specs of the machine I ordered:

An Intel Core i7-4790 (3600GHz) CPU
Vengeance 16 GB RAM (1866 MHz)
Asus Maximus Vi Hero Z87 motherboard
Geforce GTX 770 XLR8 OC PCI-E 2GB graphics card
2 x 250 GB MZ-7TE250BW SSD HD in Raid 0 as boot drive
A Western Digital 3 TB regular HD for data
DVD drive (rarely use them any more) SH-224DB/RSMS DVD/CD/R(W)
1000 W power supply
Corsair Graphite 730T Gaming Case
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

I should get it by end of next week, if everything goes okay. I haven't ordered a new screen yet, but that will probably be the next purchase after that. 22" is considered small these days. When I started this blog I had a 15" screen, 1024×768 resolution, Athlon XP 2000+ CPU, 512 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card. I have a faint suspicion that today my smart phone has more computing power than that. :)
Tobold's Blog

Being invested in games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2014, 3:49 am
J3w3l is discussing being invested in games, and how it relates to difficulty. Quote: "the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to me really relates to my level of investment. The more I’m invested in a game the more I will go to extreme lengths in order to achieve something or complete it.". While I know the feeling, I couldn't help but think that there is a circular argument here somewhere. Because not only does the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to a player relate to his level of investment, the amount of investment in a game relates to whether he finds the game fun, which often depends on whether he finds it challenging.

Basically what you want from a game is a sweet spot of difficulty, where the game is neither trivial nor frustrating. Ideally there would be some sort of feedback from the game that told you that you are doing okay, but if you could just improve your performance a bit, you'd do better. Or that you failed by a tiny margin, and you could probably manage if you tried again. Unfortunately there are many game elements that get into the way of that:

  • Obvious "gotcha" traps, which are designed to make you fail and are nearly impossible to avoid without foreknowledge. Yes, you can beat that level if you try it again, but not because you somehow play better on the second attempt. You simply know where the stupid pitfall is.
  • Too much randomness. Typical example would be a game of Magic the Gathering where you lose because you never drew the second type of land, in spite of there being 12+ of them in the deck. Again, you'll probably do better on the second attempt, but again that isn't in any way related to you having gotten better at playing.
  • Fixed difficulty game design. Simple games like Tetris get difficulty right because you advance quickly to the level where you are challenged. Complicated games like Civilization or XCOM get difficulty right by letting you choose it at the start. Many MMORPGs get difficulty wrong because they neither have a natural smooth progression of difficulty, nor give you any choice about it. They force you to do stuff at trivial difficulty for hundreds of hours, and then have sudden steep steps up where with no prior training you are suddenly supposed to know how to play well in a team.
Some PvP game designs can get difficulty right if they have a good matchmaking and ladder system that succeeds in always finding you an opponent that is as good as you are. But then PvP games come with a host of social problems (which often lead to you hating your team more than you hate the enemy), and all kinds of cheating and ratings manipulation which negate all advantages of a matchmaking system.

One way out of all this is to play games in which you are invested not because they challenge you, but because they are fun in other ways. Some games simply tell a great story in an interesting way. A game can also just be a social platform, where the social interaction with other players becomes far more important than "winning". Pen & paper role-playing games manage both story-telling and social interaction well. But then they have a DM who can adjust challenge level to be always be at the sweet spot. Computer games aren't all that good at that.
Tobold's Blog

DLC is like Free2Play
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2014, 4:27 am
Azuriel hates Bioware for the pricing of their Mass Effect DLC. He calculates that there are $64 of DLC for a game that costs $14.99, and asks Bioware "to get their shit together". I'm afraid they already did that. The pricing isn't an accident, it is very deliberate. It follows exactly the same sales strategy as every Free2Play game: Offer the basic product for cheap/free, get people hooked, and then make them pay through the nose for all the bells and whistles.

The Free2Play business model requires an always-on, or at least frequently on, online mode to enable frequent payment of the customer to the game company. Preferably, especially on the PC, the game company also wants some of the virtual currency data to be server side, so that the customer can't just use a hex editor to hack himself the currency he is supposed to pay for. A game with DLCs instead of an item shop simplifies all that. You only need to be online to buy and install the DLC. The game company doesn't even need a payment system, they can sell the DLC via Steam and be done with it.

Most players don't finish games. But if a customer usually doesn't finish his games, he might be reluctant to pay $50+ for it. Thus the game company sells the basic game to more people by having Steam sales and the like. But other players play the heck out of their games. So the devs would very much like to transform that enthusiasm into money. DLCs target the most enthusiastic players. You won't buy the DLC if you didn't finish the game in the first place. But if you are already considering your third play-through, you would very much like to have some new content. So game companies can easily charge you for being a fan. Just like they can charge the player of a Free2Play game for additional stuff.

In the end, DLC is just another variation of variable pricing, and variable pricing achieves the best return for a sale. And ultimately there is a certain fairness to the system: Those who play a game the most end up paying the most.
Tobold's Blog

Divinity: Original Sin review
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 August 2014, 4:40 am
I received a free Steam key for Divinity: Original Sin from one of the Kickstarter backers, who asked me to review the game. After playing the game for a good number of hours, here are my thoughts.

Divinity: Original Sin is in many aspects a classical single-player role-playing game. You can presumably also play it cooperatively with two players, as there are two main characters. But the pace of the game is a lot slower than an action RPG, with combat being turn-based and there being a lot more exploration and dialogue; so I'm not sure how well this would work with two players without somebody getting bored. I haven't tried that.

Divinity has a certain old school feeling, which starts with you being presented a million options on how to build a character before you have any idea how the game works. Fortunately there are some presets, with one character in some sort of melee fighter role, and the other as a spell-caster. But it is likely that at some point you'll want to start over when you know what all those options actually do. Me, I looked up a build on the internet, and found that it worked quite well. Part of the old school charm is that the game isn't necessarily balanced, and you can go for some decidedly overpowered options like Zombie and Leech. And some skills, like invisibility (walk in shadows) are very hard to get in the game, so taking them at character creation is also very powerful. There are no fixed character classes, you can combine all sorts of skills and talents to an individual build, and develop it further as the game progresses.

As I said, combat is turn-based. You start with a certain number of action points, and each spell or attack costs action points. There is no mana, the game doesn't really make a difference between a fighter special attack and a wizard spell. In that respect Divinity resembles 4th edition D&D. Combat is very tactical, with a lot of environmental effects. Elements react with each other: You can electrify water, or ignite a poison cloud. As there are barrels or water, oil, and other stuff conveniently placed pretty much everywhere, you can toy around. It is very satisfying to sneak up on a group of enemies and cast a fire spell on the oil barrel next to them, starting the fight with them already half burned to crisp.

Then again in the first part of the game there isn't actually all that much combat, at least not if you are a completionist and feel you have to explore every nook and cranny of the city of Cyseal. You came to town to solve a murder, so you have a lot of people to talk to, and evidence to find. Items and containers in the game are either free for the taking, or they belong to somebody. But if they belong to somebody you can still take them, as long as nobody sees you doing it. Really. You can steal the paintings of the painter in the market place while invisible, and then sell them back to him without problem. You only get in trouble if your sneaking or invisibility fails just when you are taking the item. The same thing is true for murder, you can do it as long as nobody sees you. Invisibility is great for grabbing just about everything, especially every single painting on every wall in Cyseal. But searching everything takes many hours, and a lot of the things you find are not very valuable. Some locations are hard to reach, requiring you to find keys (which you can find by pressing ALT), secret switches, or other ways of entry. For one location I had to use a smokescreen arrow to enable me to sneak and then pickpocket a key. Other locations are trapped, and you need to find out how to avoid the traps. Overall you will run around a lot, but there are some waypoints to which you can teleport.

The inventory system has one good side, in that it doesn't appear to be limited at all in the number of items you can carry. Only the weight limits you. But of course that means that your inventory quickly becomes very messy, and the sort options aren't all that great. Especially annoying is that if you want to sell something you need to open a trade window to an NPC, and that is unsorted, regardless how you arranged your inventory before. Trade is part barter, so you can get that skill book you want in exchange for a bunch of paintings. Not every NPC has money, and the amount of money is limited, so you sometimes need to sell loots all over town if you prefer cash. You can also combine items in your inventory to craft things. But that is mostly trial and error, although you can find books that give hints on recipes. Other items are useful for other actions, for example a shovel enables you to dig, which is quite useful. Most things you find are random, and the content of chests is determined only when you open them. Which can be abused for some cheating if you save your game before opening the big valuable treasure chest to assure that you get items you can actually use.

During dialogues you sometimes need to make decisions. This has been designed for a cooperative two-person game, so both characters state their opinion on how to proceed, and if they don't agree they have to play a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide. Which is a bit annoying if you are playing solo and end up holding dialogue with yourself. Interestingly decisions frequently result in a trait point on various scales. For example you can be either compassionate or heartless. Either one gives you a bonus, but a different one, so your dialogue decisions have some effect on you. The overall story is told in bits and pieces through the various dialogues and written documents you find. I'm not going to spoiler the story, but let me say that I did like the more regular fantasy part of it, and didn't like the end of time part so much. But I guess I'm more of a fan of low fantasy than of the universe saving high fantasy kind.

Overall I am enjoying Divinity: Original Sin quite a lot. The game sure has its rough edges, as you would expect from a Kickstarter-financed indie game. But there are also a lot of innovative and fun ideas. And I especially like the tactical combat, which makes me want to experiment with various character builds and such. Recommended!
Tobold's Blog

How not to be a god
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 August 2014, 4:27 am
The so-called core gamers on the internet have always been a notoriously whiny bunch of entitlement kids. But their latest complaint surprised even me. They whine that the PC game Godus, which is a pay-to-own game with no item store, looks remotely like a Free2Play game if you hold your head at an angle and squint.

In Godus you play a god whose main power is terraforming. The world consists of layers, and you push and pull those layers around to create flat surfaces for your followers to build houses on. The followers then create "belief", and that belief allows you to do more terraforming and to perform some other miracles. And, horror of horrors, the game actually expects you to WAIT for followers to build houses and create belief. Belief creation is neither immediate, nor do you have unlimited amounts of belief. There is obviously an evil, money-grabbing Free2Play strategy at work here! Even if the game isn't free, nor has any way to spend money. If you have to wait for anything in a game to happen, that game is obviously a Farmville clone!

What the whiners don't realize is that if you HAD unlimited belief, there would be no game. Any god game is always a game of resource management. Playing a god that would be actually omnipotent with not limits would be extremely boring, you'd just push on the button that is labeled "YOU WIN!".

Lots of games have real-time waiting elements in them. In World of Warcraft you need to wait for raid lockouts, or for your vegetables on your farm to grow. These waiting elements are a core gameplay element for all casual games, whether they are on Facebook or on a mobile platform. If a game would require uninterrupted multi-hour blocks of concentrated gaming, it obviously wouldn't be casual. And it would be pretty much unplayable on a tablet or smart phone. That Godus has these elements is because it is also a mobile game, not because the iOS/Android version is Free2Play. If you object to the Free2Play version, you can always pay $19.99 on Steam for the PC version which, as I said, has no additional monetization at all (and even makes jokes about that fact).
Tobold's Blog

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