Triple A games for the masses
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 September 2014, 3:12 am
The sales strategies for video games for different market segments appears to be pretty much set: On the one side we have expensive triple A games for a small hardcore market, and on the other side we have cheap or pseudo-free games that sell millions of copies to casual gamers. You only earn small amounts of money per game on those casual games, but as your production cost are low and you sell so many copies (or make money from a few whales among lots of free players), overall you make a profit. But what if you could have the best of both of these worlds: A game that sells for $60, which also sells millions of copies to not-so-hardcore average gamers. How could you get there?

Well, one thing to consider is that if you design games in a specific genre for a hardcore audience, you tend to add more and more features to it. That moves the game away from the average customer's needs. So if you want to make that triple A game for the masses, you will need to make the most generic version possible, one which appears to be rather bland and unexciting to the hardcore players. You will need to make the everygame for the everyman, a game that is clearly identifiable as being at the very core of a genre without adding anything new to it. A game that doesn't require familiarity with the genre to play, because most of your target audience is people who don't usually play such games.

Then of course you will need to market your game in a different way. You need a much bigger advertising budget. And you need to concentrate on advertising your game in places where regular people will see it, from bus stations to regular newspapers and TV ads. The specialized gaming press isn't your focus here, they'll write about your game anyway once everybody is talking about it.

If you look at this plan to make a triple A game for the masses, it might look somewhat familiar. Isn't there a Destiny advertisement at your bus station or in your newspaper? Haven't you just read some Destiny reviews calling the game generic and lacking innovation? Hasn't the game shipped $500 million worth of copies at launch anyway? Haven't you played the most generic MMORPG with millions of players and the most generic RTS with millions of players from exactly the same company?

I think that if you see the mediocre reviews of Destiny in specialized gaming magazines or on Metacritic, you might be getting a wrong impression of that game. Who needs a high Metacritic score when you target customers who don't know about Metacritic, but read the positive stories in the Washington Post instead? I don't think Activision Blizzard worries much about the bad opinion some core gamers have of their games as long as those games make millions of dollars. And they do. If there is one company that has understood the secret recipe to making extremely profitable triple A games for the masses, it is Activision Blizzard. If you hate their games, it is because you simply aren't their target audience. If their games appear well crafted, polished, but somewhat generic and inoffensive, that is by design. And the ultimate joke is that the core gamers are going to buy the games anyway, because they can't afford not to know the game everybody is talking about.
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Movement in video games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 September 2014, 3:46 am
Try a little exercise: Stand on one spot and try how fast you can turn a full 360°C. You'll find that it's not so fast (especially if there is friction on the ground and you can't spin on one foot), usually it would take over a second. I was reminded of that when I played Destiny on a console, where rotating around your axis with a gamepad takes about that realistic amount of time. It would also be the time it would take to rotate in many PC games if you use the keyboard to turn. Only if you use a mouse on a PC you can suddenly turn much faster, a fraction of a second, depending on your settings.

That made me wonder why developers don't put some mechanism in which makes such a movement the same speed regardless of which form of input you use. It certainly works in World of Tanks, where the speed with which you can turn depends on your tank, and not your mouse settings. But then again you also have an obvious advantage in a shooter game if aiming with a mouse instead of gamepad. I wondered if I was doing well in Destiny because the game *assumes* that I'll be slow targeting the enemies, as the gamepad is my only option. Do PC shooters require faster aiming, because faster aiming is possible?

With the army using video games for combat training, one has to wonder how realistic movement in video games actually is. Not just the speed of turning. But for example most games allow you to walk sideways at the same speed and ease as forwards. Try that is real life! I hope we aren't training our soldiers to do things like circle-strafing, because that wouldn't really work so well in reality.

Do you know of any video games with more realistic (and thus slower) movement? Does that work for a game?
Tobold's Blog



Destiny first impressions
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 September 2014, 7:03 am
Disclaimer: These impression are based on a free copy of Destiny for the PS3 that I received.

Reviews are frequently based on a comparison of the reviewer's expectations with the actual product. I didn't have any expectations for Destiny, which is why my impression of the game is generally a positive one. I've been playing a Titan up to level 10, through all content of Earth and some content on the moon. And as I don't play so many shooters, and especially not console shooters, if anything I was positively surprised how much fun Destiny is. Apparently the game was hyped a lot before release, and many reviewers correctly pointed out that the game isn't the second coming, but as I said, it depends on what expectations you have.

That is not only a problem for reviewers, but also for players. Destiny is a hybrid between a shooter, and a MMORPG, on a console. Which means it suffers from certain limitations of shooter games, of MMORPG games, and of console games. People very much involved with one genre tend to overlook the inherent limitations of that genre, but with a hybrid game the fans of each genre discover the flaws of the other genre, and that can grate. Plus if you usually play on a PC, the console brings some extra problems, like long loading times and fiddly controls.

The world of Destiny is a curious mix of MMORPG open world zones and linear shooter levels. That isn't just visually, but the rules actually change if you leave the open world and enter a shooter level: Suddenly your respawning is limited, and death brings you back to a checkpoint, resetting all events back up to there. But because it is an online game, there is no pause function. Too bad for you if your phone or doorbell rings, or there is some other real life intrusion. On the positive side your checkpoint is saved even if you log out, so you can resume the action at that point the next day. You can even first fly back to the central hub, The Tower, identify found items, buy some new gear, and then continue in the middle of the fight where you were. You can use that to get around the silly feature that if you die because you ran out of ammo, you'll respawn with still no ammo. Flying to the tower won't fix that, but the gunsmith there sells ammo refills which do.

You play one of three character classes, Titan, Hunter, or Warlock, a weird mix of SciFi and Fantasy. I'd love to tell you what the difference between the classes is, but I can't. Because if you start a new character and play him through the intro up to level 2 and the Tower, the three classes play pretty much the same. You attack is determined by your weapon, which is the same in the intro for the three classes. There are differences in the stats, the grenade, and the melee attack, but these differences are small compared to a MMORPG, where you would expect a warrior and a warlock to play very differently. When gaining levels, you gain class abilities, so later there is presumably more difference between the classes, but I didn't play several classes to higher level to find out.

Combat plays mostly like in a shooter game, but with a weird system for weapons: Unlike in a MMORPG, a higher level weapon does not necessarily deal more damage. Instead the weapon has an attack value, which basically determines up to what level of enemies you can damage with it. How much damage it deals is determined by the weapon's impact stat. So if you exchange a low attack value, high impact weapon for a high attack value, low impact weapon, you will do *less* damage to lower level enemies, and only starting from a certain enemy level the change makes sense. This also explains why you can get high level weapons by doing low level missions: The higher level of the weapon doesn't really make a difference in a low level mission. There are weapons with low impact and high fire rate, and vice versa. It might be just me, but I think the high impact weapons are better, because enemies move very fast into cover and thus you don't necessarily always have the opportunity to spray them with many bullets. A boss mob with a regenerating shield can be a tough nut to crack with a machine pistol, but get one-shotted by a sniper rifle headshot.

Destiny's biggest weakness is it's limits to interacting with strangers. In the open world you kind of auto-group with anybody close to you. But in the darkness zones of the story missions you are alone unless you invite up to two other people into your fireteam. Which only works well if these people are already on your friends list. As there is not keyboard there is no typed chat, and the voice chat only works inside a fireteam, so you can't use it to find a team either. Fortunately the strike missions don't have that problem, there you'll automatically be grouped with other random players if you didn't bring your own friends.

Overall Destiny isn't the world's best shooter, nor the world's best MMORPG. But the weird hybrid kind of works, so it isn't a bad game either. One certainly can have hours of fun with it, even if one isn't an expert in console shooters. Having hit level 10 in less than one weekend, of a level cap of 20, Destiny apparently follows the MMORPG convention of short leveling, long endgame. And I can't say yet how engaging that is going to be. As neither "raids" nor PvP interest me much, I might not even play the endgame very much.
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If you have GMail, check this tool!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 September 2014, 3:01 pm
A list of 5 million GMail addresses was published, together with *a* hacked password for each. According to Google those passwords must have come from somewhere else, because mostly they weren't GMail passwords. If you used that somewhere else password for GMail too, you have been notified by Google already. If you haven't been notified, you can use this tool to see if your address has been compromised.

Unfortunately it doesn't tell you WHICH of your passwords from somewhere else has been compromised. So it could be one of many gaming sites that have been hacked over the years where you used your GMail address as UserID.

For me that was the opportunity for some drastic action: I made a list of all the games and sites that I have an account on, and changed them ALL. That took hours, but because I used a list of freshly created strong passwords, all my accounts should now be secure. Some of them already had extra protection, e.g. the authenticator from Battle.net and some other 2-step verification systems, but I changed their passwords anyway.

So how do I store all those passwords? Old style, written down in a book hidden in my library. It would need a weird combination of burglar/hacker to get that list. And because it is hand-written with no trace on a computer, the list itself can't be hacked. I prefer that system to Password Manager software. If you have a password manager on your home PC, what do you do if your hard drive crashes and all your passwords are irretrievably lost? Sorry, I trust paper more than I trust software.
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Selling out
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 September 2014, 4:41 am
In the interest of full disclosure I'd like to report that I received a code for a free copy of Destiny yesterday. Given recent events, that of course made me think: Will I get death threats from Woody or other people who consider free games for bloggers to be corruption? I thought it might be time to repeat a previous message of mine on the subject of selling out.

I believe that everybody has a price. Mojang is currently selling out, but for $2 billion, who can blame him? Me, I have a standing offer that you can buy my complete blog for just $100,000. I never even adjusted that for inflation or the Euro/Dollar exchange rate. If you pay me $100,000, I'll sign over the blog and the Tobold identity to you, and you can market your game with fake reviews and recommendations under that name as much as you like.

Having stated my price, I would also like to point out that I am not corruptible for less. And I very much assume that this also the case for most game writers, whether blogger or professional journalists. Yeah sure, we will take your free game, we will take your swag bag, and if you want to give us a tablet, we will take that too. Just don't expect us to change our opinion because of that.

A free copy of Destiny means that I will play that game, which I might not have done if I hadn't received it for free. This *will* increase the chance that I write about the game. It will *not* change what I write about the game. My review of a hypothetical bought copy of a game and a free copy of the same game would always be identical. Now there are small indie games where me mentioning or reviewing a game could possibly make a difference, as exposure is more important for an indie game than what exactly the review says. But for an AAA game like Destiny there is already a huge exposure, and the handful of readers of my blog won't make any difference. I received the free copy with no obligation attached or mentioned, just "Hey, I like your blog, do you want a free copy of my latest game?" from a game developer.

Everybody has a price, but most people aren't cheap. It is not as easy to buy a favorable opinion as you might think. Unless, of course, if you are prepared to pay those $100,000.
Tobold's Blog



Refining the question
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 September 2014, 9:30 am
Syp is asking whether special editions are getting too pricey. I don't like that sort of question, because the word "too" is always a judgement. And whether something is "too pricey" is not only subjective, but also depends very much on personal disposable income. I'm sure there isn't a special edition anywhere which would be "too pricey" for Bill Gates.

But let's refine that question. Whether a special edition is too pricey depends among other things on what exactly you get for your money. And that quickly gets us to the related question of what game developers can put into a special edition without pissing off the customers of the regular version. Syp mentioned how the $100 Imperial Edition of the Elder Scrolls Online came with a race that regular players couldn't play, which caused some controversy. Imagine the regular edition of a MMORPG came without raid content, and you would need to upgrade to a twice as expensive edition in order for you to be able to participate in the raid content. Good idea on paper, but I doubt it would go down well.

Things that do not provoke any protest are usually physical items, not in-game items. Collectors editions containing CDs with the soundtrack, or books with artwork, are not very controversial. But those items actually cost money to make, so much of the extra income from the collectors edition is then eaten up by the cost of producing that edition. Which is why increasingly the main selling point of special editions is in-game stuff, which is cheap to produce. That stuff is then valuable to the customer *because* the other players in the game don't have it.

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

So basically game companies have two option: Either they limit the in-game stuff content of special editions, in which case they will also have to limit the price. Or think of some really great in-game stuff they could pack into special editions (also available as upgrade to the regular edition you bought), and hope that the additional profit is higher than the loss of sales from people who won't play a game like that. My guess is that we will see at least some attempts of the latter.
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Player agency, death, and battlemaps
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 September 2014, 3:35 am
One of the more important concepts in how to run a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons is player agency: The concept that the players should feel that their destiny is in their hands, that they have choices, and that the outcome depends on their choices. Some people believe that to mean that you can't prepare adventures and only ever should run completely improvised sandbox games, but that is not true. I would even say that to make meaningful choices there have to be a number of certainties in the game world, and NPCs with their own agency working against the players. But in this post I would rather talk about two details of running a D&D game, and how they relate to player agency.

The first thing is character death. If you play a MMORPG, you usually have a way of determining how difficult a combat will be before you start it, some indication of the level of the monster or whether it is an especially difficult boss mob. Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have anything like that, except in the form of player experience: With time you get a general idea how strong certain common monsters are. But ultimately how hard any combat is lies in the hands of the Dungeon Master. There is no such thing as built-in balance in the system. If a DM *wants* to kill the characters of his players, that would be extremely easy, he just has to bring some monsters the players don't know and which are impossible to beat, and then create a situation where they can't flee.

The ideal combat is one where the players have agency because the fight is balanced in a way that if they play well, they succeed, and if they play badly, bad things will happen to them. But as things rarely are predictable in a game of D&D, one has to take into account the inherent randomness of dice rolls. Which is different in the different editions of D&D: Randomness is more likely to kill you in a system with low health pools and high damage, like the new 5th edition. Now some people suggest removing that problem by the DM fudging dice. But in a discussion of player agency it should be rather obvious that the DM fudging dice to achieve a desired outcome is just the opposite of player agency.

One way around that problem is one that is common to both 4th and 5th edition: Character death with a strong safety net. The rules for character health and dying are set up in a way that it is likely enough to reach 0 health and fall unconscious, but from there to "your character is irretrievably death and you need to reroll" there is a very long way. There are several rounds of death saving throws with opportunities for the other players in the group to save you. And, already present in previous editions, there is the possibility to raise the death. It is this safety net system that resulted in there having been only 2 character deaths in 3 years of my campaign. The advantage of the system is that you get all the drama of clear and present danger in combat, without losing the player agency of death being a consequence of player choices.

The other important point in having player agency in your game is whether you run combat as a theater of the mind style or with figurines on a battlemap. Many DMs prefer the theater of the mind style because it demands a lot less preparation and gives them a great deal of control. But if you look at this control under the aspect of player agency, you realize that the control the DM has is because the players have less agency in a theater of the mind than on a battlemap. Communication between DM and players is always imperfect, theater of the mind never creates the exact same image of a situation in the mind of the DM and in the mind of each player. Thus every action of the player is subject to a veto of the DM, the "Mother may I?" style of play. On a battlemap not only has everybody got the same information, it is also undisputed whether a monster is in the range of your attack, or which characters and monsters are going to be affected by an area effect spell.

That brings me to one important aspect: The DM is a player too. It is only logical that he wants "player agency" too. And there are ways to run a good campaign in which both the DM and the players have sufficient agency to make the game fun for everybody. But there are situations where the DM agency is directly opposed to the player agency. And I believe that in those situations it is best if the DM lets go, and transfers a maximum of agency to his players. Which for me includes using battlemaps, not fudging dice, and going for combat encounters where the actions of the players determine the outcome.
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Gameplay vs. Story
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 September 2014, 4:47 am
I'm in the middle of my second playthrough of Divinity: Original Sin, and I'll probably stop playing there. On my first playthrough I used the Lone Wolf talent on both characters, which meant that they couldn't have henchmen and I played through the whole game controlling just two characters, buffed with additional health and ability points. On the second run I didn't use that talent, so now I control 4 characters, each of them having less health and ability points. That makes a nice change to gameplay, so combat remains interesting. But there is a large other half to Divinity: Original Sin, in the form of story and exploration. There are no random encounters, everything is scripted, and playing through the game a second time means having the same dialogues again, following the same story, and running through the same scripted encounters. Which gets boring fast. As it took me around 100 hours to finish the game once I would still very much recommend Divinity: Original Sin, but compared to let's say a less story heavy game with more random elements like Diablo, Divinity has less replay value.

On the one side you could say that the story is getting into the way of gameplay in this situation. On the other side I don't think I would have enjoyed the game so much if it hadn't had a story. The exploration of the world and the story contributed a lot to the entertainment. I get bored quickly of so-called rogue-like games where all you get is a random dungeon and gameplay with no story. And I tend to play through Diablo games only once (which isn't what that game is designed for).

That isn't to say that games can't be great fun if they have only gameplay and no story. Nobody ever complained about the lack of story in Tetris or Pac-Man. Even many modern casual games get along nicely without much of a story: Farmville, Candy Crush Saga, Clash of Clans, they all are nearly exclusively about gameplay, not story. But once we get into more cinematic games on the PC or console, newer games get increasingly story-heavy. Assassin's Creed, Far Cry, Tomb Raider, Grand Theft Auto, The Last of Us, Batman Arkham series, Skyrim, Mass Effect, Bioshock, Deus Ex, there are a lot of AAA games out there which are essentially about story. And that can be problematic.

One problem I already mentioned is replayability. Often a game only has ONE possible story, with maybe a few minor variations or alternative endings. Playing a story-heavy game twice ends up feeling like reading a book twice, at the very least you wouldn't want to do it without a lengthy pause between.

The other big problem is that if the game has a story, there is a possibility that you don't like the story, even if you like the gameplay. My wife and me bought The Last of Us together, and tried to play it. But she didn't like the gameplay, and I didn't like the story, so after a short trial we both abandoned the game. There are a lot of zombiecalypse and horror games that I don't play because I don't enjoy horror stories (I might be too rational for them). I am also more likely to enjoy a historical or fantasy game than a science-fiction or superhero game. Everybody has preferences, and if a game is heavy on story, that story might not coincide with your preferences, even if you would like the gameplay.

Related to that is that the more cinematic games become, the more realistic the stories get, the more people might come into a situation where the story of the game clashes with their view of the world. And I'm not just talking feminists here, but for example there were a lot of people who objected to the world view of the Grand Theft Auto games. Russia rated The Sims 4 as 18+ game and "harmful", because characters in that game can be gay. And the Call of Duty airport scene caused a lot of discussion about video game brutality. I've even seen discussions about World War II war games which pondered whether these games should allow the Nazis to win. Dungeons & Dragons was accused of leading teenagers towards satanism.

Of course that is a problem that books and movies have always had. But the combination of story and gameplay is often thought to have a bigger impact on people than just reading a book or watching a movie. You often get into situations where because the game is scripted that way or because it makes it is advantageous from the gameplay side, you as the player commit actions that you would consider unethical or even evil in real life. And that is just in the game, there have been a lot of stories how then unethical or evil behavior swapped over from a multiplayer game into the real world. There is a fine line between considering your opponents avatar as your enemy in a multiplayer game and actually wishing the player behind that avatar harm. Although in the case of multiplayer games you could say that this has less to do with the setting and the story of the game than with the adversarial gameplay.

There is certainly a movement which thinks that games can be art, and as such could be used to tell more difficult stories and more difficult themes. And just like every form of art, that can result in a work of art as an expression from the artist which many people can't understand. I must admit I am somewhat puzzled for example by Mountain. There have been a number of games where there has been a discussion whether that software actually *is* a game, because they very much lacked gameplay.

In the end nearly all games contain some elements of story or setting and some elements of gameplay. Which is one of the reasons why games are so hard to review: Was it the story you liked or didn't like or the gameplay? But the interaction between the two is one of the factors that makes games special compared to other more passive media.
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A very limited answer to a very limited question
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 September 2014, 7:46 am
I was reading Syl's post on Where all the Hate comes from, and while I agree with most of what is said there, I did stumble upon this question of hers on why some people attack so-called social justice warriors: "If you consider this briefly, it is a pretty horrible state to be in, to fight against social progress or those that speak for more inclusion and equality. How can anyone be against that?". And I would like to answer that question.

I am very much for more inclusion and equality. Having said that, I believe there are wide differences of opinion what exactly constitutes "inclusion" and what exactly constitutes "equality". Take one extreme hypothetical example: In a painting of the last supper, I would expect the twelve apostles to be white males. If I would read somebody loudly accusing Leonardo Da Vinci of being a racist, sexist pig because his twelve apostles aren't 50% female and have no minority representation, I would very much disagree. And even if an image is not strictly historical, I would believe that an artist's freedom of expression to show a group of bloodthirsty warlords as being male beats the feminist demand for equal representation absolutely everywhere.

In other words, I am *for* the large majority of the inclusion and equality that SJWs demand, and *against* the often outrageous demands of the extremist fringe of the movement. For me inclusion and equality for example mean that jobs and promotions go to the person who is most qualified, regardless of that person's gender, race, sexuality, or religion. Which means I am *against* "affirmative action" or "positive discrimination", because even positive discrimination *is* discrimination, and thus against the principle of equality. Two wrongs don't make a right.

There is not one party, movement, religion, or ideology in the world where I agree with 100% of the creed. I think of myself as a moderate, and we moderates are often left alone in this world, while the fringes enjoy very strong representation. Even moderate women have expressed their criticism of radical feminism, it is not a "male chauvinist thing".

Reading gaming blogs and sites, I do come across feminist ideas that I don't agree with. I very much understand women's objection against "booth babes" paid by game companies to attract young, male gamers. But I have seen feminists arguing that women who want to go to conventions dressed in sexy cosplay outfits should be banned, even if those women freely choose their outfit and aren't paid or otherwise encouraged to dress like that. Telling a women what she is allowed to wear to me appears an extremely sexist thing to do, even if the person doing so is a feminist and not a conservative male muslim cleric.

So in answer to Syl, I see how it is possible for people to be against some social justice warriors. A large majority of moderate people is very much for inclusion and equality, without necessarily being for every single demand of the feminist or leftist fringe. That doesn't explain the Hate, which is why I said that this is a very limited answer. The Anita Sarkeesian video certainly wasn't an extremist feminist view, in fact I considered it quite moderate. There certainly are a bunch of misogynist jerks out there in gamer land, and it is right to speak out against them (and I have). But you also can't demand a blank check from everybody for every single viewpoint every single social justice warrior might have.
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Verified identities on Twitter?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 September 2014, 5:49 am
Being signed up to various sites on the internet, I regularly get mails of the type "our Terms of Service have changed". Like everybody else on the internet I never read any ToS in the first place, so those mails are usually ignored. But today I got a mail from Twitter announcing changes to their Terms of Service and Privacy policy where I wondered whether there was something bigger behind it. The announced purpose of the changes is "to reflect new features we're testing (starting in the U.S.) to allow you to buy merchandise from some of the most popular names on Twitter, without leaving the Twitter experience". And the first of the changes is that "we may request additional account information to help us prevent spam, fraud or abuse".

That might be nothing. Or it might be a move towards verified identities on Twitter. In the recent culture wars there was talk about lots of fake Twitter accounts being created to give one person multiple voices and make a movement appear bigger than it is, because bigger movements then attract more followers. I don't know in how far Twitter would be worried about that. But if those fake accounts start buying merchandise with the new Twitter features, they sure would have a problem very quickly. It would not be unreasonable for a service where your account is able to buy stuff to require you proving your identity. And that would be a huge change to the way that Twitter operates today.

I am a bit torn here. On the one side I very much hated Facebook deleting my "Tobold" account due to that not being the name printed in my passport. On the other side I believe in John Gabriel's G.I.F.T. theory of online disinhibition. I would have no problem at all with a site where to the public I could be "Tobold", but the company running the site would have my verified identity, as long as that identity could only be used for law enforcement reasons, and not for example for marketing. I would have no problem at all with somebody who is making death threats on Twitter not being protected by anonymity. Obviously I would have problems with somebody making regime critical remarks on Twitter being shot at dawn, so the issue isn't as easy as that. But it would certainly be a debate worth having.
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Love, hate, and professionalism
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 September 2014, 4:43 am
I was reading an article about recruitment at Blizzard, which talks about how lousy an industry this is to work for: Low job security, long hours, low pay. Not just the people who make games, but also the attached industries, for example the people who talk or write about games. And the official numbers just cover those who "made it", that is who have a job contract with a game company or news outlet. That is just the tip of the iceberg: There are many more people who either make games or report on games without having a contract.

An economists view of the situation is very simple: There are far too many people who would love a job related to games, and far too few jobs on offer. The reason there aren't more jobs is that we are already in a situation of oversupply of the market, there are too many games around. So the laws of supply and demand drive down the prices for games, and then drive down what the industry can pay to the people making games. There are people who love games so much that they are perfectly willing to work a game-related job or perform a job-like activity for free. Me for example. My income from donations to this blog in 2014? $25.14. I'm clearly not doing this for the money.

There is a word for people who work out of love, from the Latin word for lover, "amator". They are called amateurs. The word has both positive and negative connotations. If I work out of love, unpaid, and not in any way controlled by an organization, my standards might be not as high as those who work for money, the "professionals". On the other hand in other aspects my standards might be higher, because I am not worried about the commercial impact of my decisions. An amateur creating a game out of love would have the freedom to make the game he thinks is best, and not be pushed towards the middle of the road by some marketing types. An amateur reviewing a game doesn't have to worry losing advertising income from the game company.

I don't believe in things being black & white. Almost always everything is somewhere on a grayscale. I'm not 100% an amateur, because I have those $25 income from donations. And many of the people making games or reporting on games are part amateur, part professionals as well, being either low paid, or part-time employed, or freelancing.

Now there has been a lot of hate going around lately, accusing many of the people involved in making games or reporting about games of having a lack of professional standards. There has been talk of corruption. And just like so much else in this industry, even the corruption appears to be somewhat amateurish. The sums being discussed are one extreme case of $200 Nexus tablets, more commonly swag bags of under $50 value, and $10/month Patreon donations. Even a Nigerian minor border official makes more corrupt money than that.

Now personally I get e-mails every week asking me to put up some advertising or to promote some product in exchange for some money. And I always say no, there are no advertisements or paid-for promotions on my blog. The only deal I accept is reviewing a free copy of a game or product, and even there I only agree if I already had some interest in the product in the first place. If I would never buy a game, I wouldn't review it either, even if I got the review copy for free. Now I am very much on the amateur end of the scale, but I've been to a Blizzard convention with a press pass around my neck and went home with a swag bag. Actually I went home with THREE swag bags, because my wife and me had first bought tickets to the convention before getting a free ticket, and each ticket gave you the right to one of those swag bags. And you could say that these bags had some value, because there was a code inside for a WoW pet, and those codes sold for some money on EBay. Me and my wife used ours and gave away the third code to a friend.

Because ultimately, if you do something out of love, you aren't all that interested in the money. I cherished the press pass as a symbol of recognition of my work, but I didn't give a damn about the monetary value of the free ticket and swag bag. And so if I hear the story of the indie game developer who is flat mate with a freelance game journalist, I don't see corruption. I see two adults who earn so little money that they have to share a flat, who both love games, and who share a certain enthusiasm about games. If would be extremely weird if in that situation the guy who is programming a game at home because his company can't afford an office ISN'T showing his game to his flatmate.

While I am not 100% convinced that an adversarial relation between game developers and game writers would even be a good thing, I am pretty certain of the way we could get there: Pay both of them a decent salary. Which isn't going to happen as long as there are so many people who love games so much that they are willing to work for free or for peanuts. To me it seems somewhat mean to first pay somebody less than a living wage and then to complain about his lack of professionalism. On the other hand we might well be on our way towards more professionalism, because all that hate is going to drive away a lot of the people who work mostly for the love of games. If we continue that hate campaign, we could see less people interested in working for free, leading to higher salaries and more professional attitudes. Just don't complain if games cost $100 then. 
Tobold's Blog



Dungeonscape
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 September 2014, 6:42 am
Dungeonscape is the official software for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, a "digital companion app" for those who want to play D&D with the help of computers, tablets, or smartphones instead of using books. I am a big fan of the 4th edition tools, and I'm happy WotC is still keeping those running. For 5th edition I'm not so sure whether they are that much needed, as 5th edition is much simplified. But what I found more interesting was when WotC started discussing how that would be sold. One big difference between playing with a book and playing with software is that nobody has yet found a way to prevent people from sharing books. Software on the other hand ...

So it looks as if a group which wants to play 5E using Dungeonscape will require every player to make some sort of purchase. Maybe not the whole thing, Mike Mearls talks of things like a "Fighter packet", or "Wizard spell collection".

I have a huge collection of 4th edition books. Pretty much everyone there is, in both English and French, with some extra copies of the Player's Handbook (now wishing I had bought more copies of the PH2 and PH3 in French). But several of my players didn't buy anything from Wizards of the Coast, as I provide them with the character sheets and information about powers and magic items that they need.

I wonder how well the new tool is going to sell if every player has to pay.
Tobold's Blog



The downside of exclusivity
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 September 2014, 10:22 am
Am I a "gamer"?

It is kind of weird that this is an actual question under debate. Not about me personally, but certainly about "people like me". I did a rough estimate of how much of my life I did spend playing games, and came up with a number of around 40,000 hours. Apart from sleeping, playing games is probably the activity which I did most in my life. These days in a typical week I do more working than playing games, but I started playing games much earlier in life, so my work hours haven't caught up to my play hours yet. I also spent over a decade writing nearly 5,000 blog posts about games. The "15 minutes of fame" in my life are certainly related to that activity. I play games pretty much every day. It would be weird to have a definition of gamer that excludes me.

But that definition that makes me not a gamer not only exists, but is widely used by people on two different sides of an argument.

It started with a certain group (I usually call the "core gamers" or "hardcore") expressing their belief that people who do not satisfy certain criteria are not gamers, or at least not "real" gamers. You don't play game X at the hardest difficulty? You're not a gamer! You don't like free-for-all PvP? You're not a gamer! Basically these people didn't like the fact that these days pretty much everybody plays games, and they wanted a definition of gamer that is far more exclusive, and limited to people with a specific attitude towards games.

Now your attitude towards games is not to 100% determined by your sex, age, or race. But there are strong correlations. There isn't much demographic overlap between the people playing Battlefield and the people playing Kim Kardashian: Hollywood. If you define "gamer" as "everybody who at least occasionally plays games", you get rather broad demographics. If you use the proposed very narrow, very exclusive definition of what a gamer is, the demographic is also a lot narrower: It is more male, younger, and whiter.

This is why I wasn't in the least bothered by the recent spate of articles that "gamers are over", "dead", or "extinct". They obviously weren't talking about me. Some even said so: "Note they’re not talking about everyone who plays games, or who self-identifies as a “gamer”, as being the worst. It’s being used in these cases as short-hand, a catch-all term for the type of reactionary holdouts that feel so threatened by gaming’s widening horizons. If you call yourself a “gamer” and are a cool person, keep on being a cool person.". And because I write, I also clearly understand the use of hyperbole. Gamers, even by the narrowest possible definition of the term, are neither dead nor in any danger of going extinct. The authors use those words as substitutes for "less relevant".

There is an obvious downside to defining yourself as belonging to a very exclusive club: By definition there aren't very many of you. And at some point the others will turn up with a sign saying "We are the 99%" and be right about it. And unlike the 1% of richest people against which the 99% of less rich people protested in the Occupy Wall Street movement, the 1% of most hardcore gamers wield a lot less influence. Okay, they wield more than 1% influence, because they hold key positions in the game industry. But in the end games are a consumer product subject to market forces, and the 1% are far from spending the most money on games. The 1% have fought an endless battle for example for game developers of MMORPGs to keep making mostly content exclusively for them, and they have lost that battle. The 1% have fought against Free2Play games, and they have lost that battle. The 1% have fought against casual games, and they have lost that battle. And today the 1% are fighting against political correctness in gaming culture, and they are losing that battle as well.

I am a gamer. I would even go as far as to say that I am a voice in gaming. But only if you define gamer as everybody who plays games. I am not part of some elite club of core gamers, nor do I want to be. Because that sort of "gamer" is if not dead then at the very least becoming increasingly irrelevant. They are just one small market segment whose wishes is being considered amongst the wishes of other market segments. If they cry out because they feel left behind by the gaming industry or by gaming journalism it is because they increasingly are. That is the downside of exclusivity, you can't be both exclusive and the majority. It is easy enough to have an exclusive club of people who collect pink garden gnomes, but you can't expect the rest of the world to give special consideration to that club. The more people you exclude from your definition of what you are, the more lonely you become.
Tobold's Blog



Absolute power corrupts absolutely
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 September 2014, 2:55 am
In 1887 John Emerich Edward Dalberg Acton wrote "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.", making a link between power and corruption. In the past weeks all game journalists as a group have been accused of absolute corruption. So I couldn't help but ask myself the question whether they actually hold the absolute power that would be needed for that.

In my opinion, being a journalist in 2014 sucks. If you work for a regular newspaper, you get your news from a news agency, and then just put in some minor editorial effort in to fit those news onto your page. Read the same story in several newspapers and you'll see how much these stories are the same, and how little input the respective journalists had. Game journalism is even worse. A lot of the "stories" are actually press releases or "media kits", and the job of the journalist again is just to fit those to the pages of his magazine.

As a result, if you buy a games print magazine or browse a typical games website, there is far more reporting about games that haven't yet been released than actual reviews where somebody sat down, played a game, and reports his honest opinion. The whole "game journalism" machine is mainly occupied in creating hype in advance of the release of games, so as to increase the sales of those games. And again, because everybody gets the same press release and media kit, if you read the preview of game X in two different magazines, you will see the same phrases repeated, and see the same screenshots. Not to mention that those screenshots are often staged and do not necessarily correspond to anything you'll be able to see on your screen once you buy the game. Me, personally, I have long ago stopped to consider game previews as a useful form of information. I sometimes get sent the same media kits, and just ignore them together with the articles that have been written elsewhere based on those media kits. The publisher thinking that his next game will be the best game ever is just not useful information.

But with journalism, and especially game journalism, being reduced to presenting the material that has been handed to you, I would not use the term "corrupt" to describe game journalism. I feel kind of sorry for people who with some enthusiasm and idealism went for a career as "journalist", with some vague ideas based on what journalism was in a bygone age. And now they find themselves in a job as glorified layout setter for game press releases. I don't consider them as "corrupt", because they don't have any power. No gamer in his right mind makes a game purchase decision based on the shiny bullshit previews in a games print magazine or website. Even for the reviews people rather look at Metacritic than believing any single game journalism source.

People simply don't get their news from newspapers any more. And they don't get their information about games from games journalists anymore either. Why bother reading a long preview of a game with no useful content, or a review which even without influence from the game industry would be subjective, if you can watch the game played on Twitch or YouTube and get a much better impression of whether it is something you would like? Why believe a "game journalist" if you can read the opinions of thousands of other players on so many blogs, game forums, and sites like Metacritic or even Amazon? Game journalism can't be corrupt, because for corruption you need power, and game journalism today doesn't have any. Players have long ago eliminated the middle man and just talk to each other to get information about games. Game journalists have very little influence.

Power tends to corrupt, and little power corrupts little.
Tobold's Blog



Rebels against the mass market
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 September 2014, 3:04 am
I have seen the Gamergate story explained as a gender issue, and I have seen it described as a culture war. But being a strong believer in behavioral economics I do believe that ultimately the whole uproar is caused by changes to the gaming hobby which are due to market forces. The underlying issue is one of gaming moving from being a niche market for teenage boys playing on consoles to a much broader mass market. The prime minister of the UK boasts of having beaten Angry Birds, and a demographic that is older and has more women is making games like Candy Crush Saga the top selling games. Many game developers got into the business because they were those teenage boys on consoles before, and that makes change somewhat slow. But those market forces are strong, and slowly but surely games adjust to become a better fit to the changed audience. And the old audience is unhappy with those changes.

The problem is not some female game developer sleeping with a game journalist to get better reviews (which was just a fake story that revealed more about the utter lack of understanding of women by the people who made that story up than about any real issue). The problem is modern game developers, some of which are women, making games like Depression Quest or Portal, in which a headshot is not the optimal solution to every problem any more. And game journalists, who dream of being taking seriously, welcoming those grown up games to the annoyance of those who would prefer another sequel of Call of Duty instead. Even into sequels sometimes more complicated stories sneak in and are rejected by the old guard: They wouldn't have complained about the Mass Effect 3 ending if that ending had just been Shepherd violently killing some huge space alien.

Gaming is like a cinema that only used to play films like Dirty Harry, Rambo, and Die Hard, and is now starting to also show films like Titanic, Avatar, romantic comedies, and even Akira Kurosawa films. The old customers don't like not being the center of attention any more, they don't like that now an increasing part of the product on offer is for different demographics.

Games like they used to be have a problem in today's market. Many of the core themes are not acceptable to a wider audience. It isn't just as Anita Sarkeesian complains how women are shown as victims in the background decoration of games like Hitman. It is that games like Hitman which are exclusively about violence aren't as appealing to a wider market than they were to the old core audience. Game developers are still struggling to get the formula right, but they are trying with games like Tomb Raider to move the focus away from gratuitous violence and towards more difficult stuff like how the adventure has an emotional impact on the hero. Multiplayer games are changing towards rule sets and moderation that don't allow free-for-all PvP and griefing any more. Even the business models of games are changing, because Free2Play models which limit how much time you can play are a lot more acceptable to the modern audience than to the old core audience.

Games are growing up. Game journalism is growing up too. And some journalists are looking at the reaction of the people who didn't grow up with the medium and compare it to a grocery store tantrum of the kid who is angry about not being the center of attention any more because he now got a little brother or sister. They now consider the old gamer culture as kind of embarrassing. And of course that causes even more of a tantrum, because the core gamers feel left behind by both the game industry and the game journalists. Which is where the silly stories of a huge conspiracy between game industry and game journalists against core gamers are coming from.

There is a limit to how many consoles and $60 games you can sell to a teenage boy. The game industry can't afford to ignore the rest of the growing market. That means games that appeal to other demographics both in content and in business models. That doesn't mean that $60 console games full of gratuitous violence will go away, they are still a profitable part of the market. But they stopped being the WHOLE market. Today you can't just pick up any random game and be sure that it was designed for you specifically. And that hurts, like every growing up process hurts. But market forces make this growing up inevitable. Deal with it!
Tobold's Blog



Marginal cost and the cost of jerks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 September 2014, 3:04 am
Economics has a concept called marginal cost. That doesn't mean "insignificant cost", but instead is the cost of producing one more unit of anything. The cost of making something is the marginal cost plus the fixed cost (development, factory, etc.) divided by the number of items produced. So if the number of items produced is large, the overall cost trends towards the marginal cost. Sell enough of something, and you can sell it for little more than that marginal cost and still make a profit.

That is relevant in the context of game development because the marginal cost of games is very, very low. These days you don't even have the cost for the disc, box, and manual any more if you sell the game online. If you sell enough copies of a game, you can sell it very, very cheap and still not make a loss. Especially if the development was quick and not costly. There have been recent stories of successful mobile games spawning multiple clones within a day. If somebody can see a game, program a clone within a day and put it on the app store, he can make money if he sells that game for under $1.

Game developers tend to be creative types with no clue of economics (or project management, unfortunately). So developer Caspian "Cas" Prince from Puppy Games wrote a long rant on their site in which he complained how Steam and Humble Bundle ruined the prices of games, and that individual customers are now "worthless" to an indie game company. Which if he had studied a bit of economics wouldn't have come as a surprise to him. Development costs of an indie game aren't huge, so if we move indie games from being niche and selling a handful of copies to being nearly mass market and selling thousands of copies on Steam or per Humble Bundle, the drop in prices is inevitable. Sorry to burst anyone's bubble, but even indie games are often very derivative, so if you can make the hundredth 8-bit graphics rogue-like dungeon crawler, so can anybody else. You can't sell such a game for much money, because there isn't much of a barrier of entry to other people making a very similar game and selling it closer to the marginal cost.

So if Cas states that single customers are now "worthless" and flips a bird at anyone threatening to never buy a game from him again, he is right. It is the same concept that Damion Schubert explains in relation to the history of Ultima Online: "His [Gordon Walton] contribution was simple: he was able to convince every level of the organization that change was necessary – and possible. He did so with the single most succinct definition of a griefer I’ve ever heard: A griefer is someone who, through his social actions, costs you more money than he gives you. Well, when you say it like that, we all felt pretty stupid for letting these jackasses hang around for so long.".

Even in a MMORPG at $15 per month it is easy enough for a jackass to drive away more than $15 worth of customers per month. In a game like League of Legends, with an average revenue per user of just over $1, any single player is worth so little, that you can easily afford to ban as many as necessary to keep the game pleasant to everybody else. With many more players in the game the effect of a griefer can still be large, while the money he brings is insignificant. One of the consequences of that is that the worst people have congregated at certain independent forums and sites. Because game companies can't afford these people on the official forums any more and wielding a hefty ban-hammer.

In all the recent discussion about horrible video gamers, this is maybe the light at the end of the tunnel. More and more companies involved with games will realize the economic cost of jerks and step up. Not because it is the right thing to do, but because it is too expensive not to. In a world where there are many more gamers and prices trend towards the marginal cost of production, each individual player is practically worthless and can be banned or treated sternly enough to make him leave without that costing more than the damage he caused by being a jerk.
Tobold's Blog



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?
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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?".
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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.
Tobold's Blog



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