What do you think of 2014 in gaming?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 December 2014, 8:55 am
It's not even Christmas yet, and I've already seen several articles on the internet claiming that 2014 was the worst year in gaming ever. The evidence cited in those articles is a varying list of triple A games that failed to impress, or even failed to be playable on launch day. Seen from that point of view, the MMORPG genre isn't an exception: Both The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar, the two big triple A releases of 2014 failed to hold onto their subscribers. Somewhat surprisingly the one MMORPG triple A product of 2014 that earned both critical and commercial success was Warlords of Draenor, an expansion for a 10-year old game.

But what if we look at 2014 in a different way? Do triple A games really matter all that much?

Personally, for me as a gamer, what is important isn't the success or failure of any single game. What is important for me is whether I have a game to play, and whether I have fun playing that game. And looking back at 2014 with that in mind, I don't think the year was all that bad. I played lots of different games, and I had lots of fun with many of them. And the games I played weren't even very expensive!

I am wondering of those game journalists talking about a bad year are too much considering gaming from the point of view of the industry. Honestly, I wouldn't want to work in the gaming industry today, nor would I invest my money in it. As I see it we are in the middle of a huge glut of games, and that is driving down prices and profits. $60 games being a disappointment has a lot to do with there being $6 games which are just as much fun. I spent a good amount of gaming time this year with iPad games that cost only a tiny fraction of the cost of a $60 console game. And because the PC gaming industry is producing games much faster than I can play them, I can afford to wait and buy them in Steam sales for 50% to 90% off.

I would say that the "bad year" is still to come. We are in the glut phase of the videogames pork cycle. It might well be that after years of overproduction we will have some years of underproduction, until the industry is profitable again. Well, Steam will probably survive and I have a large library of games in reserve in case we see those 7 lean years.

How was 2014 in gaming for you? Did you buy a lot of disappointing games, or did you enjoy the consumer benefits of the surplus in supply?
Tobold's Blog



Breaking away from the Ubisoft formula
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 December 2014, 6:05 am
I am having great fun playing Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag, cruising my pirate ship through the Caribbean, exploring, and getting into naval battles. I'm pretty much ignoring the story mission at the moment, because pirating is so much more fun. And somewhere that is the problem with AC4: It is great fun *because* it doesn't play like the other Assassin's Creed games. I mean, yes, I climbed all the towers of Havana and visited all the points I found that way. But after one city like that I was free to do something a lot more interesting, and lead a pirate life instead of the life of a tower climber / parkour runner. The Ubisoft formula doesn't work all that well for me, and I'm happiest in the parts of AC4 which break away from that formula.

One problem I have with Assassin's Creed in general is that they aren't all that great as stealth games. I haven't played Unity yet, but up to there the AC games didn't even have a crouch button. In AC4 I can only "sneak" if there is a sugar field or similar brushwood around. So frequently when I am approaching a target from behind to assassinate it, my avatar is showing the same animation that he has when strolling through a city. Compared to other stealth games I played, like Deus Ex : Human Revolution, the stealth movement in Assassin's Creed is really weak.

Related to that is the fact that combat is somewhat easy. It takes a *lot* of enemies at the same time before they even start to cause you any trouble. In general you can just wait motionless until you see the little red icon of somebody attacking you, press the counter button followed by the attack button, and the enemy is dead. So in many cases I didn't bother with sneaking, because simply killing everybody was a lot easier.

Naval combat in AC4 on the other hand is really good. You have various weapons you can use, cannons, mortars, fire barrels. And as the enemy ships have different strengths and come in different numbers, and there are also interesting weather effects to consider, there is a lot of variety to naval combat. The only thing missing is wind direction and speed, the "sailing ship" in fact moves like a motor ship, with equal speed all the time and in every direction. Over a quarter of a century ago, Sid Meier's Pirates! had wind direction, but apparently Ubisoft judged that to be too complicated.

So the game I am mostly playing is labeled "Assassin's Creed", but the part of it that I am playing isn't actually part of the Assassin's Creed brand and series. If I play any other game of the series (not counting the mobile AC Pirates game), I won't be able to play the part of AC4 that I am having fun with. I don't know if any of the newer AC games even has much in the way of other gameplay elements than the classic tower climbing / parkour running / assassination Ubisoft formula.
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 8
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 December 2014, 9:01 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had returned to the Duchy of Faywyr as ambassadors for the svirfneblin, giving them the opportunity to investigate who had turned them into svirfneblin during their previous stay there.

This session was a mix of two main things: Their diplomatic negotiations, and their investigation. The group had to attend several official functions, like a cocktail party, a negotiations session, and a banquet in their honor. But they also had some time to roam the town of Plumton freely and investigate their two clues: The bellows they had found, and the dark grey powder which had been blown by the bellows into their room and caused their transformation.

The bellows had a maker's mark from leatherworker Master Dynrod, which they had previously encountered. So after some discussion they went to him with the bellows and with some story persuaded him to reveal who had bought it. That turned out to be not much of a problem, as Dynrod had sold the bellows to a stranger he didn't trust much, and had found out later that the stranger's name was Honrak, and that he lived in the pension of the widow Jocea. So the group got all the information on the buyer. Via the security guard of the seamstresses' guild they hired a few men to keep watch on the pension, but it turned out that Honrak was never seen leaving the premises and led a very secluded life.

At the various official functions they talked with members of the court, including Princess Taidra, which they had begun to suspect of involvement in the story. While the princess was only ever seen to be charming, the players suspected her of having a motive to bring down the prince with the assassination of his lover. While the Duchy didn't have a clear law of female primogeniture, the princess was the first-born, but the duke apparently favored the prince as his heir.

In the negotiations with Prince Ular and the other negotiators of the duchy, the players made progress in dispelling the safety concerns of the duchy, where there were still a lot of people afraid of a not clearly specified "Underdark menace". Only after the negotiations the sorceress in the group started to wonder whether those negotiations had been watched secretly by somebody. So under guise of a rendezvous with the minister she seduced, she searched the room during the banquet, found places where somebody *could* have hidden and listened, but no special secret door or listening devices.

As promised the high priest of the temple of Selune introduced the adventurers to the guildmaster of the alchemists' guild. That was an elderly man, with burn marks on his beard and clothing, but eager to praise the various capabilities of his guild to the "ambassadors". He told the group that his guild has several different faculties, from the alchemy of fire (his domain), to the preparation of love potions. He even mentioned that in the basement one alchemist named Yengo was working on necrotic alchemy, like trying to raise the dead. He invited the group to visit the guild the next morning.

After the banquet there was some discussion whether the group should watch the alchemists' guild inn order to prevent anybody who had seen them discussing with the guildmaster to intervene before their visit there. But in the end they decided to just go there early and go to bed. In fact their investigation had not gone unnoticed, but the response wasn't the one they had expected: Instead of intervening at the alchemists' guild, Honrak came to their room in the middle of the night in order to assassinate them. That put the group in a tactically worse situation than if they had gone after Honrak in his lodgings. Fortunately they had put up a guard, and it was the dwarfen fighter who stood guard when Honrak came through the window. But everybody else was in their beds, and not wearing armor.

I ruled that it takes a full round to don armor, so the rogue and the druid, who both have melee attacks spent one round doing that, while the ranged and caster members didn't bother with armor. Unfortunately it was already rather late when we started that fight, so after the surprise round and two full rounds of combat we decided to stop the session and finish the fight next year.
Tobold's Blog



Companion apps
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 December 2014, 5:38 am
A lot of modern games are not very complicated, and don't require you to know or remember much stuff. The ultimate example of that are games with Quicktime events, where you don't even need to remember what button to push, the game will tell you. On the other end of the scale are simulations and open world games, where remembering where stuff was, or knowing the average price of a tradeable good is quite necessary for success. In the past I used a second screen on my PC where I could display such information. But today the more modern version of that concept are companion apps.

For example I recently picked up Assassin's Creed IV : Black Flag at a Steam sale. Nice game, except that is crashes to a black screen from time to time. Anyway, the game comes with a companion app which you can install on basically any tablet or smart phone. Once you synchronize the game with the app, you have a second screen for all sorts of information. Most useful is the tablet holding the map of the game, updating your position in real time; you can even select your next target on the tablet and get the marker beamed back into the game. You can also check the loads of information in your database about people, locations, documents, and so on which you found in the game, again updated in real time.

I know that other games have companion apps as well, for example Destiny or Titanfall. In the new World of Warcraft expansion, you can manage your garrison with a companion app. In that case the idea is that the WoD garrisons work a bit like mobile games, where you are supposed to do some small activity from time to time, and having access to that on a mobile platform is helpful. Watch Dogs has a companion app which lets you control the police and play against your friends who are on their PC/console. So there are a range of different concepts for companion apps, some more useful than others. But as there are less and less people out there without some mobile device, I can only presume that we will see a lot more companion apps for games in the future.
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Free speech and censorship
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 December 2014, 7:35 am
One Book Shelf is a company that allows indie tabletop game developers to self-publish their games as digital downloads. Somebody tried to self-publish the "Gamergate Card Game" there. Somebody else objected. One Book Shelf decided to pull the plug on that game. Some people are enraged about censorship. A different outrage about censorship recently occurred when two retailers in Australia refused to sell Grand Theft Auto V in their stores. So this might be a good moment to discuss freedom of speech and censorship.

First of all, freedom of speech is never absolute. In the United States of America, which have a strong constitutional protection of free speech in the first amendment, there is a long list of exceptions to freedom of speech recognized by the Supreme Court. Sorry Gamergaters, your death threats to women in gaming are not protected as free speech. The law recognizes that some forms of speech are likely to do so much harm, that it is better to not protect them.

But in the above cases the situation is a very different one. You could say that there is a clash of two different sides right of freedom of speech. If I owned a book shop for example, specialized in political books, I would be perfectly in my rights of freedom of speech to only carry books whose political opinions I agreed with. I would be perfectly in my rights to not sell books whose political opinions I disagree with. If I ran "The Capitalist Book Store", nobody could force me to sell Thomas Piketty's "Capital", or the version from Karl Marx.

Note that this isn't the same as a whole country banning a specific book. You can buy Grand Theft Auto V in Australia. GTA5 has not been "censored" or banned in Australia. There are just some shops which have decided that it would be better for their business not to sell this particular video game. That is a business decision, and a private business has every right to make decisions like that. If you would somehow put laws into place by which you could force a store to sell specific games, that law would effectively be censorship in itself, and hurt the right to freedom of speech of the business in question.

And it does not matter if the business making that sort of decision has a huge market share, and selling a product by different channels would be far more difficult. Steam can ban a game if the game's developers makes death threats to Gabe Newell. Yes, that makes it much more difficult to get hold of that game, but it still isn't censorship. It probably works as a business decision for Steam pour encourager les autres. Nobody is preventing the "Gamergate Card Game" to be published elsewhere, it is just one business that decided not to sell that product.

In short, your liberty to swing your fist ends where the next person's nose begins.
Tobold's Blog



Hell is other gamers
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 December 2014, 8:17 am
Liore from Herding Cats has an interesting blog post on alienation, which she ends with: "Hell, as it turns out, is other gamers.". I don't really want to discuss the Gamergate part of her post, because that movement kind of died after promoting their arch-enemy to national TV fame. But I was interested in Liore's tale of being insulted for playing badly in the alpha version of Heroes of the Storm. Because to me that shows that there isn't a localized problem of the players of any particular game being especially toxic, but that there is a fundamental problem with online cooperative multiplayer games.

I was born in the 60's. Which means my youth was spend without video games, but with more old-fashioned activities, like playing soccer with the neighborhood kids. And one of the fundamental rules of those kinds of games is that everybody is welcome to join. Yes, there is always the fat kid that gets picked last when establishing teams, even at that age and that long ago we kids already knew who was "performing" better than others. But anybody was still welcome to play, and there were elaborate picking schemes to make sure the two teams had about the same number of under-performers on the team and were evenly matched.

The difference that I see today is A) people don't want to be evenly matched any more, and B) given the larger population online the better players don't want to play with the under-performers any more. And I find that both stupid and sad. We have created a world in which people routinely hate the people on their own team much more than they hate the opposing team.

I quite like World of Tanks in that respect, even though I haven't played much this year. As long as you play just random battles in World of Tanks, you are likely to have a win:loss ratio of 50:50. Only if you play with pre-organized teams can you deviate much from that. A random matchmaking WoT battle is 15 vs. 15 players, and even if you performed one sigma or two above (or below) average, the overall win chance would still be very close to 50% due to you being only 3% of the players on the field.

In a 5 vs. 5 battle of a MOBA game a single over- or under-performer makes more of a difference. And there is an additional performance boost in all cooperative multiplayer online games if you play repeatedly with the same team. So if your team isn't big enough to fill all slots and you get a mix of people who are trained to play in that team and others who are new to the team, there can be a huge performance difference. That is true for MMORPG raiding as well.

What I very much dislike is the anger and expressed hate that frequently happens in those situations. I believe that in a team vs. team game a 50% win chance is the best possible outcome. If your chance to win is over 50% that means that the other team has a less than 50% chance to win, which isn't much fun for them (and might well lead to them quitting prematurely). And, perhaps even more importantly, two evenly matched teams leads to the maximum amount of challenge for both teams. One side walking over the other is not just no fun for the losers, but also kind of boring for the winners. So why do people hate being evenly matched so much?

Natural talent tends to be distributed in a normal (or Gaussian) distribution. Most people are around average, or to be more precise 68% of people are between plus 1 and minus 1 standard deviation from average. Only 5% of people are more than 2 standard deviations away from average. If you are exactly average, a random player paired with you has a 50% chance of being better or being worse than you. But if you are above average, most players are less good than you are. That is rather basic mathematics. So it is somewhat surprising that many people believe that A) they are better than average, and B) a matchmaking system should be able to always only group them with people who are at least as good as they are. Presumably all the less good players should magically be forced to enter the opposing team. You don't need to be a math genius to realize that this isn't possible. Being grouped with less good players is the normal state of affairs, and the better you play, the more likely that becomes. You should be *happy* if you are only grouped with people playing worse than you, because it means you are really good yourself.

The fundamental problem of this kind of games is that the number of people on one team is fixed. Any under-performer on a team blocks a spot onto which a better player would have contributed more to winning the game. Compare that to MMORPGs with PvP modes without restrictions, where everybody is welcome to join the zerg that is attacking that keep, because even the under-performers are better than no player at all.

I am wondering if 5 vs. 5 MOBA games are the worst possible design for an online multiplayer game. It appears to me that this setup maximizes hate between players on the same team. Maybe somebody needs to come up with a different format.
Tobold's Blog



Gutting a troll
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 December 2014, 3:44 am
I am not a huge fan of long dungeon crawls in tabletop roleplaying games. A sequence of "open door, kill monsters, loot" does not an interesting story make. You can have some fun moments with things like traps or interesting turns in combat, but the story-line tends to be somewhat simple. I always considered dungeon crawls to be tabletop roleplaying for beginners. In my adventures I keep them short, and intersperse them between more story-rich roleplaying encounters.

That sort of design served me well since we started our 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. 4th edition works much better with fewer, more epic fights than with lots of small fights. And a sequence of many long fights isn't a good option either. The adventure writers of Wizards of the Coast learned that over the years, and the later 4E adventures they make have exactly that mix of short dungeons and story encounters that works well. Unfortunately that is not true of the early 4E adventures, some of which are considered to be the worst adventure modules in 40 years of D&D history, and contributed much to the bad reputation of 4E.

In two or three sessions the current adventure of my campaign will end, and the idea was to also end the campaign there and start a new one. Then real life intervened: One of my players will not be able to play in the first quarter of next year. And as the start of the next campaign is crucial for the success of that campaign, I don't want to start without him. I offered to fill the gap with the 5th edition Starter Set, but my players weren't much interested in 5E (which isn't available in French). So we decided to play one more adventure of the old campaign. Which means playing at level 11, where the game changes from "heroic" to "paragon" paths, adding some extra rules.

I have the first official paragon adventure from WotC: P1 King of the Trollhaunt Warrens, both in English and French. So I decided to do that as the next adventure, so that I didn't have to start from scratch. But then of course this is one of the early 4E adventures with a long dungeon crawl: The Trollhaunt Warrens of the title have 24 rooms. Which not only risks to be a boring sequence of troll fights, but also would take too long for a "filler" adventure.

Having said that, King of the Trollhaunt Warrens has some interesting bits. The underlying story is usable, and there are a number of handouts and maps I might want to use. So what I am going to do over the Christmas holidays is to create a much shorter adventure using only the good bits of the published module. In a way the 4E encounter-centric design helps there: It is easy enough to reduce the number of rooms in a dungeon, as the game already treats them very much as being separate. I can even have some spare encounters to do or leave out in function of our progress. The Favorites of Selune will live on until April next year or so.
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Trust is easy for iPad game reviews
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 December 2014, 7:31 am
I saw a 5 out of 5 star review for BattleLore: Command on Pocket Tactics and immediately bought the game. In fact I buy most of the games which Pocket Tactics gives 5 stars to. But there is no PC game publication into which I put a similar degree of trust. Now on the one side that is because of the good quality of reviews on Pocket Tactics. But there are a lot of PC game publications that do good reviews too. The difference is rather that an iPad game usually costs under €10, and sometimes way under. So it is a simple matter of risk evaluation: I don't risk much by trusting the review, but I have a chance of gaining much fun. Easy!
Tobold's Blog



Back on Pandora
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 December 2014, 6:48 am
Steam tells me that I played Borderlands 2 for over 100 hours, while I played the original Borderlands for only 10 hours. I always had the feeling that I had messed up when playing the first Borderlands: I had experimented with various game modes early on, gotten into cooperative multiplayer at a relatively low level, and ended up being completely overpowered for the story mission. And of course if you already have epic weapons from multiplayer, the loot from lower level single-player missions isn't exactly exciting. But somehow I didn't want to start over at the time, and then simply drifted away, starting to play something else.

When I recently saw Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel on Steam, I remembered having fun with Borderlands 2. But hey, why spend 50 Euro on the pre-sequel if I haven't properly played the original Borderlands yet? So I put the pre-sequel on my wishlist for the next sale, and installed Borderlands 1 instead. I might end up playing the three games in reverse chronological order. Which is interesting in a way, for example in BL1 my choice of characters is among the main NPCs of BL2.

In single-player shooters I quite like sniper rifles. But I already played Mordecai the first time around. And sniper rifles are fun even if you don't have a character specialized in them. So this time I went for Roland. And I'll just play the single-player campaign and stay away from multiplayer.
Tobold's Blog



Use shovel with X
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 December 2014, 5:32 am
I pretty much stopped playing adventures somewhere in the 90's, after there had been some great games like The Secret of Monkey Island or Grim Fandango and the genre fell out of fashion. I know that with The Walking Dead from Telltale adventures are somewhat back in favor again. But I am not a fan of horror stories, and especially dislike the zombiecalypse scenario. I can never suspend my disbelief over something so silly. So I never tried The Walking Dead, and not even The Wolf Among Us. But this week Telltale released another episodic adventure on The Game of Thrones, which is much more up my alley. So I bought the game, which means paying for all episodes and only getting the first one yet. Short version of this blog post: I regretted that purchase.

Adventure games used to be about clever puzzles, and I guess some of the new ones still are. But apparently not the Telltale adventures. The gameplay consists nearly exclusively of dialogue choices and Quicktime events. Not expecting those I had problems at first in the prologue / tutorial: The tutorial taught me only mouse commands, so when suddenly an up arrow appeared on my screen I assumed I had to do some up movement with the mouse. Turns out I had to press the "W" key. But as the game hadn't used WASD movement before that point, that wasn't obvious, and would have been exactly the sort of stuff that I would expect a tutorial to be more explicit about. Once you know which button is which, the rest of the game becomes trivially easy. Press the right button when shown on the screen and win.

The dialogue choices weren't much more interesting. I experimented a bit with playing through scenes several times, but the scene always ends the same way, regardless of my dialogue choices. Stupidly the dialogue choices have a timer, and even more stupidly you can stop that timer by pressing space as pause key. So why put a timer in in the first place? So that you can leave the keyboard and the let the game play through the dialogues by itself? The game pretends that you dialogue choices have consequences, giving you messages like "Lord Forester will remember that". In fact Lord Forester will remember until the end of his life, which happens about one minute later. It is hard to believe that a dead man's memories will have a huge impact on the story later.

So overall Telltale's Game of Thrones is almost exclusively there to tell a story. The story isn't half bad. But the gameplay certainly is. It is some sort of pseudo-interactive story, where the player doesn't really have any agency, but the game tries to keep up the pretense that he has. I would have had more fun if the same story had been told in an additional episode of the HBO series. I think for a real adventure game I need to play something from Daedalic.
Tobold's Blog



The DM as game designer
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 December 2014, 5:43 am
Game design is a big subject on this blog. But my interest in it is not just that of a player of games. I am also a dungeon master (DM) of a Dungeons & Dragons pen & paper role-playing campaign. And part of that job is game design. Now some people will say that D&D has been designed by TSR / WotC and the DM is just some kind of referee running the game. But in reality Wizards of the Coast only sell some sort of tool kit, not a complete game. Even if you play all rules as written and only use published adventures, the DM needs to fill huge gaps either by preparation or improvisation. And thinking about game design helps to make the overall experience a better one for both the players and the DM.

One important question in that respect is one we discussed earlier this week with regards to Bioshock Infinite: In how far is the story of the adventure you are playing pre-determined? That is an open question, and the response depends very much on the group of people you are playing with. On the one hand, especially when using published adventures, there is a "main story" to each adventure, and sometimes even the whole campaign. On the other hand, theoretically at least, the players have unlimited freedom to follow the story or not. Some DMs go as far as not preparing any story at all, but just creating an open "sandbox" world for the players to interact with.

My philosophy is that the optimum is somewhere in the middle. I don't want to railroad my players into following a pre-determined story with a pre-determined outcome. But I don't want to just leave them in the middle of some generic fantasy kingdom in which nothing happens without them either. So the general idea for my adventures is that there is a story of which I know how it *would* develop if the players would not interact with it at all. For example (and now that I think of it it could actually be a rather cool adventure), I could have the players arriving in a castle in the middle of the plot of Hamlet. But the players would be able to interact with the various NPCs and change the course of the story in one way or another. Only if they behaved as passive observers would the story play out exactly as written by Shakespeare.

Related to that is another game design question about the balance between combat encounters and other activities. By nature, combat encounters are relatively straightforward from a story point of view. Once combat begins, the usual outcome is the players killing the monsters, and looting them. If you string many of such encounters together in a large dungeon, you can get a hack'n'slash adventure in which the story quickly becomes secondary. So I am always trying to not have more than two or three combat encounters in series, creating other events which necessitate more talking and less fighting, with more opportunities for the story to develop in different directions.

The big advantage and opportunity of tabletop role-playing compared to computer games is that the DM can add elements to the story on the fly. For example in this week's session of my D&D campaign I had prepared a clue leading to an alchemist in the alchemist's guild. But my players were reluctant to just enter that guild and confront the alchemist head on. So they devised a plan to find somebody in the town who they could trust and ask him about the guild. They proposed going to the temple of their god and ask the local high priest. The high priest told them that they could easily meet the guildmaster of the alchemist guild the next day at a banquet. Both the high priest and the guildmaster were invented by me on the spot, in response to the ideas of the players. The principle is to always say yes to the ideas of your players, and thus let them introduce new elements into your story. That way you can design a game that responds directly to the expressed wishes of your players.
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Online tools for Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 December 2014, 2:42 am
Before I started this blog I was writing a lot on the Magic the Gathering Online forums. Wizards of the Coast had contracted another company, Leaping Lizards, to create the MTGO software. The first version ran, but had issues. WotC then took over with in-house programmers, and things went rapidly downhill from there. Whether it was the Lizard's base program or the Wizards' update I can't say, but in any case Magic the Gathering Online never worked very well afterwards and never became such a big success as Blizzard's Hearthstone a decade later. (Apparently one has to have "izard" in the name to program an online trading card game).

Wizards of the Coast had acquired Dungeons & Dragons from TSR in 1997. TSR was well-known for having terrible online policies, going after people on Usenet that posted house rules and fan fiction in the early days of the internet. While WotC was a lot better with their Open Game License in 2000 allowing more participation of others in creating Dungeons & Dragons and exchanging stuff online, the D&D tools that WotC put online were always problematic. Frequently WotC promised great functionality and then barely delivered.

History is repeating itself with 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. Great online tools were promised, and then WotC kicked out he company developing those tools. Apparently the software developers and WotC had very different ideas on how to handle copyright and intellectual property.

I think games like Dungeons & Dragons have fundamental problems in their business model which makes taking them online difficult. There are unresolved issues between how WotC *thinks* their business works and how it really works. The business model on paper is that WotC sells rulebooks, adventures, and various source materials that players buy to play Dungeons & Dragons. The reality is more akin to that of a Free2Play game: Many people play Dungeons & Dragons for absolutely free. You don't even need a Player's Handbook to play D&D, you can borrow one from the player next to you, or use a photocopy. On the other side of the equation are "whales" like me, who bought every single 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons book (in my case even in two languages). Take that online and the clash between model and reality becomes evident: Online you *can* force every player to pay for a "Player's Handbook" or equivalent. Should you? I think that an online version of D&D in which every player is forced to pay non-trivial sums of money wouldn't work.

In addition to that WotC has a nice business of publishing official adventures, optional rules, and other game materials. And not all of that material is of really high quality. There are some gems, but there is a lot of rather average stuff. If you create a great online platform on which players can exchange their self-made adventures and game materials for free, a lot of that material will turn out to be better than the official fare.

In my opinion WotC is making an error to resist this online sharing culture. I believe a good online platform could draw a lot more players into the hobby. And even if they could play online for free and get free materials from other players, a good number of people would want to buy stuff from WotC just because they love the game. I can think of many intelligent ways where a D&D online platform could attract a lot of free players and then convert a good number of them into paying customers for various options. If they don't put good tools to play tabletop Dungeons & Dragons online, sooner or later somebody else will create a better competitor product. Do they really want another Hearthstone?
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 7
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 December 2014, 4:03 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune managed to reverse their transformation into svirfneblin, after liberating a magical spring from a beholder. So after two sessions of almost constant fighting, this session went without combat. The heroes returned to the king of the svirfneblin, Diamond Quirrit, who had a proposition for them: As the svirfneblin were peaceful, they didn't understand why the humans of the Duchy of Faywyr and the town of Plumton were so hostile and afraid of the "Underdark menace". With the murder of Belina and the transformation of the adventurers into svirfneblin it was obvious that some sinister forces were behind all this, and as Quirrit knew that the threat didn't come from the svirfneblin, he was sure that somebody from the Duchy must be responsible. So he proposed to the Favorites of Selune to act as his ambassadors to go to Plumton and negotiate peace and trade between the svirfneblin and the humans. They would be under diplomatic immunity and could at the same time do the negotiations and inquire discreetly who was behind their transformation and the murder.

So the Favorites of Selune set off with a mule loaded with salt, which is rare in Plumton, as present to Duke Ruwan. They carried a big official diplomatic banner and official letters of appointment, which should guarantee them diplomatic immunity and ambassador status. On the way they passed by the druid who had helped them find the magical source. Some hilarity ensued when they remembered that the druid had asked them to plug the underground leak of that source and restore the magical spring for his forest, and they had just plain forgot about that. Well, maybe next time. :)

Arriving at Plumton with their diplomatic banner they had no problems being recognized as official ambassadors. The town hastily organized a welcome committee, and treated them with all honors. They were led to the palace of Duke Ruwan, who acknowledged their ambassador status and named his son, Prince Ular, as chief negotiator. A series of negotiations on peace and trade were organized, as well as leisure activities like cocktails and state banquets, starting the next day. They were offered accommodations at the palace, but preferred to return to their old rooms at the Mad Cow tavern. During the official welcoming meeting and introductions at the palace the sorceress of the group started flirting with one of negotiators of the Duchy, the minister of defense. As Prince Ular was chief negotiator, and commander of the guard, the defense minister was pushed into secondary importance in these negotiations, and thus looked vulnerable. We did an opposed ability check to see how that would work out, and the minister was thrilled by the attention of the attractive young sorceress.

Back at the Mad Cow tavern the Favorites of Selune tried to find out what happened since. The "murdered" tavern wench Belina had been resurrected at the prince's order, and was now his exclusive mistress, not working for the "seamstresses' guild" any more. But unfortunately she didn't see who killed her, having been woken up by a needle prick in her sleep and died of poison before she could see anything. The investigations into her murder had stalled, and most people blamed the "Underdark menace". The innkeeper Falgrim, who was the only one having seen the group in their svirfneblin form, hadn't reported the incident to the authorities, as the group had escaped through his secret smuggling tunnel and Falgrim didn't want the authorities to find that one. So he was somewhat puzzled by the disappearance of the adventurers and the appearance of the svirfneblin in his inn. The adventurers just told him that they were as puzzled as he was, and pretended to have gone to bed in the inn and awoken outside the city. The gate guard, Achgar, was spreading the rumor that the adventurers certainly had been diplomats all the time, and had just entered the city incognito for their first visit.

The group still had in their possession the bellows with residue of a grey-black powder which they had found on the night of their transformation. While their wasn't enough powder left to transform anything, they suspected that it was this powder which has caused them to turn into svirfneblin. So they had two paths of inquiry: They knew the leatherworker Master Dynrod who had made the bellows from a previous encounter. And they suspected that some alchemist from the town's alchemists guild was responsible for creating the transformation powder. But in their usual habit to making simple things more complicated, the players did not want to approach these lines of inquiry directly. Instead they went to the Temple of Selune and asked about the alchemists. They found that the guild master of the alchemists would be present the next day at the state banquet in their honor, and the high priest of Selune offered to introduce them. At this point it was getting late both in game and in real life, and we ended the session. 
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Being played
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 December 2014, 3:17 am
I once played a game
Or should I say
It once played me
(with apologies to The Beatles)

This weekend I played Bioshock Infinite from start to finish. Only that I am not so sure that "play" is the right verb for this game. It felt more like "follow". If a game is a series of interesting decisions, Bioshock Infinite isn't a game. There aren't any decisions to take, everything is strictly linear. And when you get asked to make a decision (bird brooch or cage brooch?) it turns out to not affect anything but visuals. Even the first Bioshock had more relevant decisions.

This being a shooter one would assume that there are at least the usual decisions to take that generic shooters have: What weapons to carry, how to manage health and ammo, how to overcome enemies. But even there Bioshock Infinite manages to make your decisions not matter: You can't carry more than two weapons, and the weapon you need will be conveniently placed at the start of the encounter where you need it. No need to lug a sniper rifle around, a sniper rifle will be provided to you at any location where using a sniper rifle makes sense, and so on. You don't need to manage health and ammo, because your companion will create them out of thin air whenever you risk running low. And overcoming the enemies is just a matter of time, because if you beat half of them and die, you'll be revived, but the dead enemies stay dead, making it just a matter of time until you win.

Now I am not a literary critic. Personally I don't like the multiverse narrative device, because it is something of a cop out. But I did like the alternative history 1912 setting, and found Columbia a more interesting place than Rapture. Nevertheless in the end I felt I had watched a 2-hour movie being stretched out to 20 hours, with my participation being only perfunctory. Bioshock Infinite *is* it's story, the player isn't really relevant to the proceedings. Needless to say that I don't feel like starting over to try some other weapons or vigours.

I can see the interest of such a "game" for somebody playing a shooter for the very first time and needing all that hand-holding. But I wished this was done with some sort of optional switch, "hand-holding mode on", giving the more experienced players more weapons to carry around and more freedom to do things on his own. Overall Bioshock Infinite left me rather unsatisfied. It is neither an efficient way to tell a story, nor a satisfying gameplay experience. Good that I didn't pay full price for this.
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Only 33% rebate? No thanks!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 November 2014, 6:56 am
There is currently a big Steam sale going on. So I checked my Steam wishlist which games I could pick up for cheap. And I noticed that I automatically skipped over all sales that weren't at least 50%. Games that were on my wishlist and which had 33% rebate I just skipped over. You could say that is rather blasé from me. But then again I had cases where the same game later in the same sale had a bigger rebate. And there is always the next sale, and the older a game gets, the more it gets discounted.

How about you? Do you still buy full price games? How much does Steam have to discount a game you want for you to actually buy it?
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Only 5% of my neighbors are convicted criminals
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 November 2014, 2:28 am
Would you boast about only 5% of your neighbors being convicted criminals? Probably not. In fact such a rate of criminal behavior in your community would probably be enough to lower house prices and see many people packing. So I agree with Tremayne that it is somewhat curious that League of Legends is proud that 95% of their players haven't received official disciplinary action last year. Not only is 5% of people that are behaving so badly that they get various forms of bans far too much, but it also is indicative of a far greater number of jerks who simply aren't caught, or who behave badly but just under the degree that gets banned.

When the UK last month announced a new law giving 2 years of prison to internet trolls, people joked that their jails would be full after half an hour of League of Legends. LoL has become the poster child of games with a toxic community. And I wonder why that is so. I don't believe that it is related to the genre. Regardless of whether Blizzard's new Heroes of the Storm brings anything new to the genre, the one thing you can be sure about is that the community will be better policed and less toxic.

So why do you think League of Legends stands out for bad online behavior? And what could be done about it?
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Dungeons & Dragons edition 4.5
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 November 2014, 5:01 am
Disclaimer: The title is a joke and a deliberate exaggeration.

My current 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign is scheduled to end soon, after running for 3 years. I am planning on a big, new campaign which will also be basically 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, with some modifications from 5th edition, which is why I call it my 4.5E campaign. But maybe we might first run a few session of the 5E starter box, just to give everybody the chance of an informed view of which edition is most suitable for our group.

A real D&D 4.5 taking a 50-50 mix of the best of the two editions in my opinion isn't possible. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are largely incompatible where combat and stats are concerned. 4th edition has more levels, and your various numbers (e.g. attack and defense stats) go up by a lot. From level 1 to max level in 4E your attack goes up by AT LEAST +15, which is the "half your level" bonus, and not counting stat increases and the assumption that you'll wield magic weapons. The equivalent increase in attack for 5E is only +6; That is deliberate, a concept called "bounded accuracy", and makes it easier to use for example monsters over a wider range of levels. An orc in 5E doesn't become trivial just because you gained 3 levels. So 4E and 5E have an incompatibility based on very simple math, and you can't easily use combat rules or monsters or magic items from one system in the other. There is no such thing as a compromise, a real 4.5 edition which would be somewhere half way between the two. The math just doesn't allow it. Given this incompatibility, I believe that my group much prefers the more tactical combat of 4th edition over the somewhat more random combat of 5E, and so if I have to choose one combat system of the two, I believe that 4th edition for this specific group is the better choice.

That doesn't make 5E a bad system, and in fact it probably is a better system for new players. But one of the disadvantages of 4E is that it is hard to learn (and consequently slow if you haven't learned it well), and my group is already past that stage, so this isn't much of a problem for us any more. That brings me to another disadvantage of 4th edition, which is on the role-playing side. 4E rules are very focused on what your character does in tactical combat, and aren' all that explicit on the role-playing aspects between encounters. That is most visible in character creation, where a 4E character is a basically just a bunch of stats and powers, while a 5E character is far more fleshed out from the personality side.

Fortunately role-playing isn't based on math. Which makes the 5E personality creation system compatible with 4th edition. What I jokingly call D&D 4.5 thus is 4E with characters created using a modified 5E personality traits system. And I'm throwing in a bit of 13th Age in for good measure.

In 5th edition a character has personality traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws. For my system I'm taking the bonds, ideals, and flaws, and replace the generic 5E personality traits by 13th Age's "one unique thing". I am also using a system of backgrounds which will be a mix of 4E "themes" and 5E "backgrounds". And finally I am going to use the inspiration rules from 5E, giving players a bonus roll reward for good role-playing of their personality.

The "one unique thing" is a concept where you ask each player to come up with something which is more or less unique to them. That can range from classical fantasy "I'm the lost heir to the throne of XXX" to weird stuff like "I have a clockwork heart". The player can propose pretty much anything, but it is up to the DM to translate that into rules. For example if a player tried "I am invincible" as his unique thing, I would rule that he *believes* himself to be invincible, without actually having any immunity to damage. The one unique thing should add a lot of flavor to a character, but not really change his power level. I like this one unique thing concept more than I like the more generic personality traits of 5E (example from the starter set: "My flattery makes those I talk to feel wonderful and important. Also, I don't like to get dirty, and I won't be caught dead in unsuitable accommodations.").

For bonds I am slightly expanding the concept from what is described in the 5E rulebooks. It remains a description of what organization the character has a bond to, for example like the "houses" in Game of Thrones, or a location like a home town. But in the campaign I want to play there will also be moments where the players have to talk to connections, people they know, people who owe them a favor or whom their owe a favor. So I'm adding those connections to the bonds category, and that is something that can grow over the campaign.

The ideals and flaws concept I'm taking straight from the 5E rules. What does the character believe in? Where is he vulnerable or at least not perfect. The flaws are the one personality aspect which is the most likely to be rewarded with an inspiration bonus if role-played, because it doesn't come easy to everybody to play a flawed character. The inspiration rule is also straight from 5E: You can only have one inspiration bonus, and can't gain another until you used the one you have. Using the bonus means *in advance* of an important dice roll saying that you want to use your inspiration, and then roll two dice instead of one and take the better roll.

My planned "4.5E" campaign will be one with a big campaign story. That necessitates a certain amount of willingness by the players to follow the given story. But obviously I don't want to turn that into some sort of cinema in which the players are spectators. By encouraging them to freely choose different aspects of the personality of their characters I hope to get lots of interesting personal side stories, as well as adventure hooks. At least that's the theory, I'll have to see how that eventually works out.
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Innovation through core-shell design
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 November 2014, 1:54 am
I have in the past repeatedly talked about my general model for modern games: A core gameplay that is frequently repeated (e.g. combat), with a shell of other activities (e.g. quests, story) binding those core gameplay elements together. One of the interesting things of this model is that if you look at many different games, you'll notice that the core and the shell are not very strongly connected; you can switch out just one of them to get to a new game, while keeping the other identical. One example would be MMORPGs which generally work like World of Warcraft, but which substituted the WoW core combat by some sort of action combat.

That can lead to quite innovative games if you look far beyond typical game elements for a specific genre, and substitute either the core or the shell of a game by something from a very different genre. This weekend I played Rollers of the Realm, a game with a traditional fantasy shell in which the core combat gameplay has been replaced by a pinball game: Your characters are pinballs of different sizes and attributes. Your healer heals the flippers by bumping into mana, your knight damages enemies by bumping into them, your rogue deals more damage if he bumps into the enemy from behind, and so on. It is not a very huge game, I've completed it in 10 hours, but as it only costs 8 Euros ($10?) that is quite okay. At least it was a very new and unique gameplay experience, and we don't get very many of those any more these days.

Usually it is easier to take a game and replace the core gameplay. But some combinations of core and shell have become so traditional that switching to a different shell can also work. Another game I played this weekend is the somewhat mediocre Battle of Littledom, a fantasy game with core combat gameplay similar to the Final Fantasy series. But instead of a more traditional questing and character management shell, the devs used the shell gameplay from games like Puzzle & Dragons, where you collect characters, fuse them together to gain more levels, and evolve them into stronger characters. Puzzle & Dragons uses this shell with a core match-3 gameplay, but there are games that use the same shell for a trading card game (Elemental Kingdoms) core, or even a carnival coin dozer core (Dragon Coins).

I think there could be more innovative games with unusual combinations of already existing core and shell game elements. I'm still waiting for somebody to make my 10-year old Shandalar project come true, a MMORPG using trading cards for combat.
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The Ubisoft formula versus the Blizzard formula
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 November 2014, 4:02 am
This year there has been some discussion in gaming circles about the "Ubisoft formula" for making an open world game. It is basically a recipe that is shared by various Ubisoft games, from the Assassin's Creed series to Watch Dogs, and which has become so well-known that even open world games that aren't from Ubisoft, like Shadow of Mordor, have been shown to conform to that formula. Meanwhile a lot of pundits seemed somewhat confused about what to make of Blizzard's latest announcement of a new brand, Overwatch. Why is Blizzard making a multi-player shooter? Blizzard isn't know for making multi-player shooters, or even just shooters, so why Overwatch?

I do believe that Blizzard has a formula as well. And I would say that it is a much better formula than what Ubisoft has. While the Ubisoft formula allows you to churn out a large number of largely identical games with new coats of paints, the Blizzard formula leads a collection of very different games. Blizzard's formula is taking whatever genre is currently popular and then applying great craftsmanship to that genre, basically trying to make the best possible game of that genre.

That is the secret sauce that game companies making WoW clones for a decade never understood. World of Warcraft isn't successful because it is highly original or the first of its kind or has a specific set of features. World of Warcraft is successful (and currently growing by 3 million players again) because it took a known concept from games like Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot and simply perfected it. Everything just works in a Blizzard game, notwithstanding occasional errors of judgement like the Diablo 3 real-money AH. Blizzard removes barriers to entry and makes games more accessible for a larger audience. And as larger audience means larger income, they get filthy rich in the process.

The ability to look at existing games, find out what exactly makes them tick, find out what doesn't work, and produce a better version is what makes Blizzard so successful. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in MMORPGs, and not for example SOE or Mythic. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in online trading card games, and not Wizards of the Coast. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in real-time strategy games, and not Westwood Studios. And it is the reason why Riot Games should be nervous when Blizzard makes a MOBA, and Valve should be nervous when Blizzard makes a multi-player shooter. It is extremely likely that the Blizzard version of any game is better than the original, because it is SET OUT to be better than the original. Blizzard isn't making "me too" games, they are in the business of finding and polishing raw diamonds.

And who knows, maybe one day Blizzard will make an open-world game that makes Ubisoft look like amateurs.
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State of the blog address
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 November 2014, 3:29 am
This used to be "Tobold's MMORPG Blog", but I dropped the "MMORPG" a good while ago. Nevertheless until this year I still considered myself somewhat as a MMORPG player. I don't know if it is just me or the state of the genre, but this year made me lose interest in MMORPGs in a big way. I found the Elder Scrolls Online (played beta) and Wildstar (played beta and release) hugely disappointing. Blizzard sent me 7 free days of WoW earlier this month, before WoD came out, I logged into the game, and found my guild screen saying that on a Saturday night I was the only character out of 586 guildies logged in. That killed the last bit of interest I had in maybe buying the expansion, so this will be the first WoW expansion I'm giving a miss. There is currently no MMORPG out or announced that I currently would want to play. When Wildstar today sent me 7 free days to explore their new "epic, multi-part story designed specifically for solo players", I just snickered and ignored the mail. I'm out!

Now as you might have noticed I am sometimes writing about Dungeons & Dragons. But I wouldn't consider this to be D&D or tabletop role-playing blog either. I mean, MMORPG bloggers are weird, but pen & paper RPG bloggers are a completely different league of weird. I can barely read some of those blogs, especially the so-called OSR blogs. There are endless arguments about how tabletop RPG rules should be "realistic simulations". And not just of real world things like swords and armor. No, people seriously discuss the "realism" of elven racial stats or wizard fireballs. Very few people care about things like whether the game mechanics work or are balanced. Instead most people waste endless time with pseudo-scientific arguments about why their preferred class would be much more realistic if it was a lot more powerful. Not a community I really want to engage in discussion with.

I still play a lot of other games, both on the iPad and on the PC. But I don't always feel the need to write about them. Many modern games, especially the so-called triple-A variety, have perfected the game experience to something almost cinematic. And it is the same cinematic experience for everybody. Even in a purportedly "open world" game the experience that two different players have of the game is very similar. Everything is broken down into very small, easily manageable tasks. When "Le Morte d'Arthur" was written, a "quest" was something you'd expected to last most of your life. Today a quest is "walk 10 meters and click on something, then come back for your reward". In the right situation that can be enjoyable to play, but it isn't really something to write about.

I am not a paid journalist or writer with a certain number of words to write for a certain deadline. I write when I have something to say. And right now I don't have much to say. So don't be surprised if this blog isn't updated daily any more. 
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The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 6
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 November 2014, 10:27 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune were on the way to a beholder's cave with a magical spring which would turn them back into their real form, but turned back after a fight with a troglodyte patrol. So in this session they made a second attempt and actually arrived at their destination. The cave was behind a chasm, with only a small ledge giving access. So the rogue passed the ledge, and silently sneaked forward to scout. He was lucky and didn't get detected, so he was able to describe the beholder's cave and its inhabitants to the others. The beholder had in fact created the cave with his disintegrate ray to fit his purposes, and was guarded by four troglodyte champions. While creating the cave he had struck the underground water stream of the magical source, and the water was coming down like a shower on the far side of the cave.

The rogue returned over the ledge, and to help the others arranged with the fighter that each of them would hold one end of a rope, the rogue would pass the ledge, and with two people holding the rope stretched it would be easier for the others to pass the ledge. However that plan was done hastily, and the rogue never told the fighter that he'd expect him to also use the rope to keep him safe while he traversed the ledge. So promptly the rogue failed his acrobatics check and fell into the chasm for significant damage, with the rope just being held loosely at the other end. At least it was easy to climb out again from that. :)

After a better second attempt the group made it across the chasm, and lined up in the tunnel to the cave according to a battle plan they had made. And that plan worked surprisingly well: The dwarven fighter went in first, using a power to pull all troglodytes around him, plus a daily power that damaged everybody starting his turn next to him. The priest burned the thus assembled troglodytes with a column of flame. And everybody else was concentrating their fire on the troglodytes before going for the beholder.

Now on paper the beholder fight was a lot tougher than the fight against the troglodyte patrol in the previous session. But the beholder was the creature from the chaos realm that the Favorites of Selune had unleashed on the world in a previous adventure. Being chaotic the beholder never concentrated his fire, but instead used two (later three) random eye rays on random targets. That was sometimes annoying, but ultimately too dispersed to really be a grave danger. The priest used an at-will power that gave additional saving throws, making the various status effects of the eye rays much less efficient. There was one dangerous moment where a sleep ray threatened to render the priest unconscious, but he used his divine chance power for a bonus and then managed to roll exactly as high as he needed to not fall asleep.

During combat the sorceress stepped under the magic spring shower and got transformed back into her real form. Just as in the previous transformation all her belongings changed size as well, except for the tabard that they had just received from the svirvneblin, and which now looked more like a bib. As the transformation had cost the sorceress a minor action (and messed up her plans for that round), nobody else went under the transformation shower voluntarily during the fight. But the priest who at some point stood close was pushed into the shower by an eye ray power of the beholder. And the priest was among those of the group who had freed the beholder previously. So the beholder offered them a truce, like the last time, which this time the heroes refused.

Once the troglodytes were dead, the beholder fell relatively quickly. The group found his treasure of gold and a magic bandanna, and they all transformed back into their human/elf/halfling form with the help of the magic spring. At this point we ended the session.
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The beginning of the end for sequels?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 November 2014, 2:44 am
If you follow PC games news you probably heard about the bad reception that the latest Assassin's Creed sequel got. And I am beginning to feel as if that is part of a trend. The latest The Sims sequel, the latest Civilization sequel, the latest Borderlands sequel, the latest Call of Duty sequel, they all didn't get very high review scores. And the list this year goes on and on. Very few sequels this year were really greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. And even the best got remarks like being just more of the same of a still popular formula. Even some new games like Shadow of Mordor got some nasty remarks about being sequel-like and not really original.

In May of this year Steam was found to have already released more games in the first 5 months of 2014 than in the whole of 2013. Steam used to be more similar to a physical games store, with mostly triple-A games most prominently displayed on the limited shelf space. But this year the long tail has really come forward, and on some days the Steam sales charts are dominated by a $10 indie game, or a $20 JRPG which is a port of a 6-year old console game.

Sequels in games are what brands are in clothing. Given the risk of buying something of bad quality, people like buying stuff that carries a familiar name, because that way they think they know what they will be getting. Of course that only works as long as the sequel actually delivers the same quality as the earlier games of the same brand. And at some point playing always the same formulaic type of gameplay gets boring and people want something completely different. Between YouTube Let's Play videos and Steam curator lists recommending some much cheaper games, buying the latest $60 sequel isn't the only option with a pseudo-guarantee of quality any more.

Botching a sequel of a triple-A game can have serious financial consequences. There will always be sequels that earn millions, but it appears as if many series hit a point where the name on the box doesn't help sales all that much any more. Players are spoiled for choice, and there is only so much money and so much time for games around. Rushing a game out in time for the holiday sales and skipping quality control is not something you can still get away with. A brand name is a form of capital that shouldn't be wasted. Game companies better rethink their strategies for sequels before they do irreparable harm to their brand names and their finances.
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Rewards and consequences
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 November 2014, 2:26 am
I bought Valkyria Chronicles on Steam yesterday, a new PC release of an old console game. I like it, it is a good mix of tactical combat and strong storytelling. But after three or so battles I noticed something about the game mechanics that made me restart the game and play those battles again in a very different way. And I'm not sure that I am happy about that new way to play.

The problem is that in Valkyria Chronicles you get a HUGE amount of bonus xp and currency for finishing battles as quickly as possible. Not for killing all enemies or protecting your soldiers, no, for pure speed. Suicide rushes are the best possible tactic. And the rwards you get for that are a game changer. The xp bonus for finishing a mission in record time is twice the base xp, so by rushing you level up three times as fast than if you take it slow.

There are several points about this which make me think that this is bad game design. One is that by making one way to play clearly superior, you give players less options to play their way. The other is that you punish those who persist in trying to play their way. They slowly fall behind in levels until they are way behind the curve and face enemies that are too strong for them. I haven't seen any repeatable fights yet which would allow me to grind xp to catch up if I didn't do well in the earlier battles. Basically you are supposed to save your game before the battle, play it once badly and see the scripted events, then reload and play it better.

I'm all for achievements and badges that encourage you to play well in games. But in a long, linear game if instead of fluff rewards you give out rewards that make you significantly stronger for playing "well", or in a way the devs intended, you get a very perverse effect: You make the game easier for those already playing well, and you make the game harder for those who already have trouble. Shouldn't that be the other way around? Provide more challenge for the stronger players, and boost the weaker ones!
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Exclusivity in massively multiplayer games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 November 2014, 2:47 am
A new continent opened up in Archeage with lots of housing space. And presumably by hacking all the housing space was sold out within seconds. While there is a certain historical accuracy to having a large number of landless peasants and a tiny number of landed gentry, I think the concept isn't commercially viable. Imagine a player like me who has already played lots of MMORPGs full of mediocre quests, but who would be interested in trying a game like Archeage *because* of having a house and a farm. I'd first be pissed off because the subscription-free part of Archeage doesn't allow me to experience the part of the game I am interested in at all. And then I shell out money for a subscription and find that I still can't get any land? I'd be out of that game again in a heartbeat!

Imagine the same game with a different system: Instead of allowing hackers to grab all land and sell it for their profit, what if the game company sold the land for real money to the highest bidders? I'm pretty sure that would cause howls of outrage, even if the only thing that changes would be who received the money, the game company or the hackers. If we wouldn't be willing to accept a game in which a limited supply is sold for cash by the game company, why would we be willing to accept a game in which the same limited supply is sold for cash by hackers?

Back in the days where people trading virtual items for money was still a subject of intensive discussion on MMORPG blogs, I once pointed out that the problem is that only half of the interaction happens in the game: Player A transfers a virtual property to player B in the game. The other half of the transaction, player B gives money to player A, happens outside the game and is invisible to the game company. The game company can't know whether A gave virtual property to B for money, or because B is his girlfriend, or for some other reason. The only way to stop people from selling virtual property for real money would be to completely disallow the in-game transfer of virtual property.

I am not convinced at all that having virtual property with limited supply in the game is a good idea at all. And I am absolutely certain that if a game has such a feature, it would need to put strong limits on such ownership: Every player being allowed only one plot of land, and no way to transfer that plot of land to another player. But I think it would be even better if for example small plots of land would be available in a quantity that even free players could have one, and only large plots of land would be in somewhat more limited supply. In the end you can't honestly advertise your game as having housing and farming if in practice it is unlikely for the average player to get there without a huge financial investment.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 5
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 November 2014, 2:38 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived in the Underdark and after a fight with some troglodytes were accepted into a clan of svirfneblin, having previously been transformed by sinister forces into svirfneblin form. In this session (which for real life reasons was a very short one) they set out from the svirfneblin clan towards a magical underground spring which they hope can transform them back. But they know that there are more troglodytes in the way, and the beholder they let loose onto the world in a previous adventure.

The strong point of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is tactical combat. Tactical combat is helped by interesting terrain, where the obstacles of the battlemap force players to make choices on how to place themselves. Having said that, "interesting" does not necessarily mean complicated. So what happened next to the group was an encounter in one of the simplest possible maps: A long, straight corridor. I made the passage 4 spaces wide, but included a 2x2 spaces large behemoth in the enemy group, plus 5 troglodytes of different types. So the players couldn't get past the behemoth without suffering from attacks of opportunity. And both sides were vulnerable to area attacks, as they couldn't very well disperse sideways.

Given those circumstances the group decided to concentrate fire on the behemoth. But the troglodytes had several powers that were quite powerful in confined spaces: They all had a stench aura around them making attackers suffer a -2 penalty to attacks. And the two spellcasters in the back had area attacks and a debilitating ray which caused weakness in targets already standing in a stench aura. So this turned out to be a tough fight, and the characters were forced to expend a lot of daily powers.

On the up side this fight established the Underdark as a dark and dangerous place. The downside was that with the penalty and weakness it took the players quite some time to finally beat down the troglodytes. And then they found themselves having expended many daily powers and were unwilling to face the beholder like that. So they turned around, went back to the svirfneblin, and spent another night there to recover. Of course having set out to kill a beholder and having returned a short while later because of a few troglodytes the group didn't really impress the svirfneblin, who could be heard snickering behind the adventurers back. Given the short time available this time, we ended the session there.
Tobold's Blog



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