The difference between games and toys
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 February 2014, 3:12 am
Syl is writing about an admin mode in EQN Landmark: "It is also safe to say that without a creative mode (meaning flying and unlimited resources without gathering), many of these wonderful servers simply wouldn’t exist. It’s not realistic for an individual player or just a small group to manage the sheer volume of growing, harvesting and gathering required. And that’s not considering the time spent on planning and coordination. More importantly, it would be considerably less fun and less motivating an endeavor for the more productively inclined." I find that discussion interesting, because for me the difference between admin mode and not admin mode is the difference between a toy and a game.

Lego is a toy. Given enough Lego bricks, you can build whatever you want within the limits of the physics of blocks and your imagination. Make those blocks virtual, and the limits change, but the result remains a toy: There is no real goal, no gameplay. It is a great expression of creativity, just like you can express your creativity with writing, painting, or composing. But it doesn't have the structured play which is the definition of a game.

But if you add gathering, suddenly a game emerges. Playing now has a structure, of planning what you want to build, gathering the necessary materials, and executing the building. Where Syl complains about the "sheer volume of growing, harvesting and gathering required" and the "planning and coordination", I see a great cooperative multi-player game in the making. To me it makes total sense if a single player could build a house, but it would require a guild to build a city or large castle. And we could have materials that are safe to gather, while others would be dangerous to gather, at the bottom of monster-infested mines. Then you get emergent gameplay between the gatherers/crafters and the adventurers protecting them and receiving gear for that.

In admin mode, Landmark would not only be not a game, there would also be no reason to run it in multi-player. Lego doesn't make for good multi-player, the different creative visions tend to come into conflict. But if there is a big gathering effort required for making a castle, not only does it make sense for the gathering to be done by multiple players. You also get a strong social interaction, as the group will have to work out how to make compromises with the artistic vision of each participant. Again we can add more gameplay features to that: Minecraft and related games usually have monster attacks at night, so your castle does not only have an aesthetic function but also a practical one.

SOE could always sell "Landmark - The single-player toy" as a separate product, with admin mode as standard, for people who just want to build without limits. But I think for Everquest Next with Landmark, as massively multi-player online games, gathering is absolutely required.
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What are these other players doing in my game?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 February 2014, 4:28 am
It is said that developers make the games they personally would like to play. I don't know if that is true. But I did observe that apparently many MMORPGs are designed from the perspective of the single player. Game companies strive to create games where you being the only player on the server would work perfectly well. In fact many games actually have features which work BETTER if you are the only player on the server, like timed monster-killing challenges which other players in the area would mess up. But if I would be as well off, or even happier, as the only player on the server, then why would I want to play this game as a multi-player title in the first place? Give me an offline, single-player game and I would have to pay less and have less trouble with login queues and the like. So if developers are making massively multi-player games, why aren't they designing them for a multi-player experience from the ground up?

Note that this doesn't only apply to quest-based MMORPGs. Whenever I see those beautiful screenshots of wonderful buildings created in EQN Landmark, I ask myself: And what now? How do these buildings play a meaningful role in a massively multiplayer online role-playing game? How are they integrated into gameplay? I have trouble imagining players in a MMORPG just running around as tourists to look at player-created buildings around the virtual world. So where is the multi-player experience of such a sandbox game?

As an article on Massively recently remarked, developers often have very limited imagination of how multi-player interaction in a virtual world could look like. After giving players the ability to kill each other, the devs run out of ideas. I recently read some blog posts about DayZ, and couldn't help but remark that in any realistic simulation of a post-apocalyptic world, many people would work together against the outside dangers. But if you make a game in which there are simply no or too few options for players to help each other, but there is a fully functional combat system, then players will end up killing each other. Simply because there isn't much else to do.

But even non-violent actions can become problematic in a multi-player game. I am currently playing an indie sandbox game called Craft the World, a mix of Terraria (2D Minecraft) and Dwarf Fortress. Great fun! But I'm not sure I'd like to have another player around me in that sort of sandbox game: Hacking down trees or digging mines has consequences, and in a multi-player environment the other players' actions are likely to have consequences for me. In a sandbox MMO the game would need to make sure that players can't deplete resources in a way which would make the game impossible to play for their neighbors.

The only sandbox MMORPG I know which is not about people killing each other and which gets many multi-player interactions right is A Tale in the Desert. And that isn't exactly a triple-A title, and is missing the whole adventuring side of the game. I would very much like a game in which there is some sort of player economy / ecosystem which supports both adventuring heroes killing monsters and other players just building stuff and living meaningful virtual lives. EQ Next might promise some of that, but I am far from sure that it will actually deliver.

I do believe the key approach is first to design the way in which players interact, before even thinking about the single-player experience. First make sure that people will WANT to have other players around them in that new virtual world, and not just as victims for killing. If it is clear from the start how the game is built up on the interaction between players, the single-player experience will follow naturally. If you can't do that, design a single-player game instead and don't slap a monthly online subscription on it.
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Can you change a brand?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 February 2014, 2:43 am
In yesterday's thread, Woody remarked:
"It seems that TESO has become the game that is cool/trendy to hate on. Amongst the more rational and balanced of observers there are two theories as to what is going on here. The first is that a number of ES fans went into the beta expecting Skyrim 2 and having never played an MMORPG before got something they were not expecting/wanting. Many of the criticisms I have read could have been applied to any MMORPG on the market. Indeed for the life of me I absolutely cannot see why people are complaining about the start of TESO when compared to other MMO's."
I found that funny insofar as it completely summarizes a previous discussion on this blog: Replace "Skyrim / TESO" with "Dungeon Keeper" and "MMORPG" by "mobile multiplayer strategy game", and you have exactly the discussion from two weeks ago here. It isn't as if the new game was an exceptionally bad incarnation of the new genre, but it receives a ton of hate because it switched genres. The majority of complaints are about features that are inherent to the new genre. And thus to the other fans, the fans of the new genre, the complaints sound rather silly.

One problem here is that it wouldn't even necessarily help if the developers would choose a different name for their new game. Zenimax could have called their MMORPG "Blobfitz" and people would still have expected a spiritual successor to Skyrim. If Rockstar would announce tomorrow a MMORPG about gangsters stealing cars, it wouldn't matter whether they called it "Grand Theft Auto Online" or something else, the expectations would be the same. If you have a history of making games of a certain brand, people expect the next game to be true to the spirit of the series.

Curiously enough this doesn't appear to happen every time. I don't remember ever reading anybody complaining that World of Warcraft was not a real-time-strategy game any more. Many long-standing series of games started out as single-player games and acquired multi-player game characteristics over the years. That didn't always work out well (think SimCity), but in general that sort of change doesn't get disputed so much. It isn't really obvious why switching from single-player role-playing game to massively multi-player role-playing game is so problematic.

In a way that is rather sad. I kind of like game studios making different sorts of games instead of an endless series of sequels. I think it is great if a company like Blizzard can decide to make a trading card game instead of a sequel of one of their existing series. But the cases of Dungeon Keeper and The Elder Scrolls Online show that it isn't just a few rabid fans, but also many so-called game journalists which are willing to give a game a bad review just because it isn't a sequel. And with bonuses tied to Metacritic scores, that sort of behavior might well end us in a world where nothing but sequels is ever produced. Do we really want that?
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The ESO tutorial controversy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 February 2014, 3:23 am
I haven't played The Elder Scroll Online yet. But my newsreader is overflowing with people fighting over the game on various blogs since the NDA dropped. Basically a lot of people played the game for an afternoon, didn't like it, and said so. And then the fans got into an angry rage at all those negative reviews and started shouting at the reviewers that they hadn't tested the game long enough. Apparently the tutorial of The Elder Scrolls Online is very long and significantly different from the rest of the game. And the fans and devs apparently don't understand why that is a problem.

Now to some extent you could say the same thing about every MMORPG. If for example you believe that the *real* World of Warcraft is endgame raids, it obviously is impossible for a new player to get a realistic experience of the game through a few hours of testing. On the other hand, the raiding endgame is only used by a minority of players. And your first day in World of Warcraft will look pretty much like your second. And third. And fourth, etc., so the tutorial can well be said to be representative of the main part of the game.

If there is a discontinuity between how the game plays in the tutorial and how the main game plays, that is far more of a problem. The Elder Scrolls Online is an expensive game which you will normally need to buy before playing, and then pay for a subscription on top of that. So a great number of people will use the beta as a free sneak preview to make a purchase decision. If what you'll see in the first few hours of that sneak preview doesn't correspond to how the game really plays, people end up making the wrong decision: Those who don't like the style of the tutorial won't buy the game although they might have liked the real game. Those who like the style of the tutorial buy the game, but then quit after the free month when they found out that the rest of the game isn't like that. The whole story reminds me a lot of Age of Conan. That game had a level-limited beta, and the experience in that part accessible in the beta was significantly different from the rest. I bought the game because I liked the beta, and then quit as soon as I found out that the rest of the game didn't work like that.

What is missing from most MMORPGs is an option to skip the tutorial. That would help a lot with a beta / preview experience. People like to try out different classes or races in a beta, and if they have to play through the same or similar experience every time, that isn't much fun. And then they are being told that the part they played through repeatedly doesn't resemble the actual game at all.
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Rails and memories
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 February 2014, 3:09 am
I played a perfectly good new MMORPG in beta this weekend. But after trying 4 classes with 4 races and 4 paths in 2 factions, I was already bored with the game. Like in nearly every other MMORPG released in the last decade, everything was on rails: You get a quest right after character creation, and then its quest, quest, quest, until you reach the next zone, where it all starts over again. Ad infinitum, ad nauseam. Or presumably ad raideam, which isn't much better.

And it struck me that when I think back on all the MMORPGs I played, that my memories are never about those stories on rails. The things I remember are rather those moments of emergent gameplay, the kindness of strangers, doing stuff you aren't supposed to do at that level, and all that. The canned quest stories are most of the time trite and not very memorable. People remember Mankrik's wife not because of the quest story, but because of the effect it had on Barren's chat.

What I find even worse is that modern MMORPGs appear to be designed to minimize social interaction. Every class is completely independent and needs nobody until the level cap. In fact over the weekend I was sometimes annoyed to see other players, because there were challenges that required you to kill a certain number of monsters within a time limit, and those only worked well if you were alone without other players killing "your" spawns. That independence does funny stuff to class balance: As your ability to level pretty much depends solely on your damage output, a healer or tank these days has the same damage output as a dps class, making the latter somewhat nonsensical.

While the game I played was perfectly crafted and well executed, I believe that like most modern MMORPGs this playing on rails contains the seeds of its own destruction. Even if you add side-activities like crafting, housing, or jumping mini-games to the MMORPG, there are only so many quests a person can do before becoming bored. And it isn't as if there was a huge difference between doing quests in one game or another, there is just a handful of quest types, most of them involving killing X mobs or clicking on Y glowing spots. Even if the game is new, the combat system is somewhat different, and the game looks different, you find yourself in the same old sequence of running around and killing mobs day after day after day. The large majority of players will be bored with any of the new games that work like that after 3 months. And then the shrinkage of player numbers creates a negative network effect and economic problems. A while later the game goes Free2Play, then you hear of layoffs a few years later, and ultimately the game closes down.

While I learned not to trust too much in Smed when it comes to actual delivery, I do believe that he is right when he says that the future of MMORPGs is in sandbox games with more emergent gameplay. In the end, that is what memories are made of. The rails will be forgotten.
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The foolishness of the crowd
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 February 2014, 2:54 am
Steam introduced a new system which lets gamers "tag" Steam games. So you could for example tag games as being "trading-card" or "tactical shooter" or whatever else you think would be a helpful description of the game, enabling other people to find the games they like more easily. Alternatively you could tag a game with spoilers, insults, or racist remarks. Guess which one actually happened.

Of course much of that can be explained by the G.I.F.T.. If somebody is anonymous and doesn't need to fear any consequences, then he can express even a mild annoyance he might have with a game in the most extreme terms. And if a big company decides to give him a big audience for even his vilest thoughts, that actively encourages him to write all sorts of offensive stuff. The more offensive, the better, because it attracts an even bigger audience.

Part of the problem is that the internet is full of opportunities to express your opinion. And most people don't want to spend all day writing what they think about a product on dozens of different sites. So while a game might sell a million copies, only a few hundred people will bother giving it a review score or tag on any given site. That makes those "user reviews" and tag systems extremely vulnerable to attacks by small groups. A single person with good writing skills on a popular gaming forum can organize a review attack on a game for any minor perceived failing or just for fun.

Now Valve probably imagined that by allowing users to tag games on Steam, they had found a cheaper solution than to hire some people to give tags to games. I think they are wrong. Sooner or later they will be forced to introduce a system of reporting for inappropriate tags and tag moderation. Which in the end probably takes up more man-hours than coming up with their own tagging system. The internet is an evil place full of jerks and idiots. You just can't give them uncontrolled freedom of expression.
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Pricing games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 February 2014, 6:02 am
Derek Smart is a game developer who achieved the unlikely feat of being more famous for the flame wars he produced over the years on the internet than for the games he made. His latest game Line of Defense Tactics - Tactical Advantage just came out on Steam and iOS / Android. On Steam the game costs $24.99 with 25% off for a limited time. On iOS and Android the exactly same game is Free2Play: Download for free, play the first three missions, then buy the rest of the campaign for $4.99, plus there are other options in the shop. This difference in pricing has made some people very upset. And Derek Smart being Derek Smart replied to that with a sarcastic calculation on how you get from the mobile game price to the Steam price:
Base game campaign on mobile: $4.99
Skirmish NightBridge mode: $1.99
1000 CEP: $3.99
Advanced Weapons Pack: $4.99
All the above bundled into the Steam release: $15.96
+ PC forums (like this) pain and suffering rider: $4.99
+ because it's PC and we don't care about Linux: $2.00
+ just because we can (due to the inevitable Gold rush): $2.04
Grand Total (without tax): $24.99
And, get this, for a limited time only, you get it for 25% off!!! So what on Earth are you complaining about?
Sarcasm doesn't travel well on the internet. So now there is another flame war ongoing about this.

What I found most interesting is that apart from the snarky remarks the story proves that you just can't please people. If you release a game with a Free2Play business model, you will get attacked for that display of greed, and everybody says that the game should have a single price. But if they hear that single price, they all are even more unhappy.
Tobold's Blog



Maybe we aren't complaining about the right thing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 February 2014, 9:59 am
Over the last few weeks I've read a lot of blog posts on The Elder Scrolls Online in my newsreader. I've repeatedly seen mentioned that the game cost $200 million to make, a number that I consider to be unconfirmed. I've seen multiple people complaining about the monetization of the game, for example the collector's edition, or having both a subscription and an item shop. And from some people breaking the NDA I've read comments that the game isn't actually all that good, or at least nothing special. Overall all those comments don't affect me at all, other than reminding me that pretty much the same was said about many other MMORPGs before: They cost too much to make, are too expensive for the players, and aren't all that good. And I was wondering if there isn't a common link behind all those complaints, other than that this is the internet and people always rant on the internet.

As I mentioned before, a game needs to create revenue which is greater than the sum of the development cost and the running cost. And while pretty much every number you've ever read about the development cost of a MMORPG is disputed, we do know that making MMORPGs is rather expensive. If you make a game that costs over $100 million to make in development cost alone, and add the cost to run the game and do customer support, you need a lot of players paying a lot of money for a long time before that pays out economically.

Now I never ran a game studio or developed a game myself, and I am well aware that it isn't easy. But from various stories one hears, especially when a studio goes belly-up, there is a lot of bad project management going on in game development. There is feature creep, stuff being added to the game before the core is even finished. There are sudden changes of direction, with lots of work being thrown away. And there is a lot of bad communication, turning potential customers off from the game before it is released.

I wonder if we should start complaining about bad project management instead of complaining about the symptoms of bad project management. If a game isn't all that good, but did cost so much to make that the devs are forced to squeeze the last nickel and dime out of every player, that to me appears to be just a consequence of bad project management. If games were better planned and made, they result would be better games that cost less to make and can thus be cheaper. Maybe competence is more important in a game developer than just passion.
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The difference between Dungeons & Dragons editions
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 February 2014, 6:03 am
Yesterday a reader asked: "As a Pathfinder player (which I've read was based on Edition 3.5), I often wonder how much of a difference there is between these various editions. Is it powers that classes have? Strength of NPCs?". I couldn't resist that question, could I? Let's start the discussion by saying that of course there are myriad of small differences in the details between all editions. I once saw a "video review" on YouTube in which the reviewer spent most of the time ranting about how he didn't like what sub-races of elves the new edition offered. This is not the level of detail I am going to concern myself with in this post. Sub-races of elves would be something that I'd just house-rule in as needed. What I am going to talk about is major game systems.

So if you look at the editions of Dungeons & Dragons from this rather zoomed out view, looking at how the major game systems work, the first thing you realize is that 1st edition, 2nd edition, 3rd edition, edition 3.5, and Pathfinder are very much an evolutionary continuum. 4th edition is a break in that continuum, a revolution rather than evolution, with many major game systems completely changed. D&D Next to some extent goes back trying to be an evolution of 3.5 with some elements of 4E thrown in. The major break in how basic rules work between 4th edition and the editions before and after it explain much of the edition wars.

So how did Dungeons & Dragons work before 4th edition? I think the main point is that in earlier editions (and D&D Next), different classes worked using very different rules systems. The example that is always cited is the difference between a fighter and a wizard, but of course you could make similar comparisons between a rogue and a druid or another pair of non-spellcaster and spellcaster. The difference is that the fighter gets a rather basic rule system which consists of a few numbers: How many times per round he can hit something with his weapon, what his chance to hit something with his weapon is, and how much damage he will deal. Thus when standing in front of a monster, when the DM asks the fighter of these earlier editions what he is going to do, the fighter will most likely answer that he tries to hit that monster with his weapon. Now of course the player can always invent stuff of how he tries to swing from the candelabra to jump on the monster's back, but that is role-playing. The rules system by itself doesn't offer the fighter of 1st to 3rd edition D&D many options other than swinging his weapon. A wizard in the same previous editions works fundamentally different: While he could use the same rules system as the fighter to swing a weapon, his stats are such that this wouldn't do much. But he gets a completely separate rules system for casting spells. So the wizard, when asked what to do, will most likely respond that he wants to cast a spell.

Now let's have a look at the same fighter and the same wizard in 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons. The major difference is that now both of them work with exactly the same rules system. Both the fighter and the wizard are unlikely to make a basic attack, because they BOTH have spells. Only that they aren't called spells. They both have "powers". At the same level they both have exactly the same number of powers, for example at level 1 they both have 2 at-will powers, 1 encounter power, and 1 daily power. The "at-will", "encounter", and "daily" part is what is known to MMORPG players as a cooldown. The description of the different powers will be different, the fighter will have powers that involve weapon swinging, while the wizard will have powers that work like spells, for example magic missile. But the important difference between 4th edition and other editions of Dungeons & Dragons is that in 4E every class works with that same basic rules system for powers. Different classes have different sets of powers, making them play differently. But they have the same number of options. And MMORPG players will recognize that this is how pretty much every fantasy MMORPG works as well: Different classes have different powers, but the same number of them at the same level.

Whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion. Having played different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, I did consider wizards to be problematic in earlier editions of the game: Their power progression is so very different from that of a fighter. That is known as the "linear fighter, quadratic wizard" problem: The fighter gets linearly better with level, by improving the numbers that determine how much damage he can deal with his weapon every round. The wizard with each level gets not only more spells, but also spells of a higher level. So at level 1 a wizard is extremely weak, in some systems can only cast a single minor spell per day, and is killed by a single stray arrow. At the highest level a wizard can cast spells like Wish or instant death spells, and has a huge variety of spells to choose from. Meanwhile the life of the fighter doesn't change much over the levels, he just hits more often for more damage. The wizard also causes problems with other classes, for example a rogue who has the ability to sneak or open locks is overshadowed by a wizard with fly, invisibility, and knock spells. There is an argument to be made that the advantage of these earlier editions is that it offered players the choice between "easier" and "more complicated" classes. But if you play repeatedly with the same people, sooner or later nobody wants to play the "easy" classes any more, because they offer so much less options and less fun than the spellcasters. Furthermore, because in the earlier systems the different classes work on different rules systems, they also work on different resources. The fighter never runs out of the ability to hit things, so as long as he has hitpoints his performance is constant. The wizard has a limited number of spells, and will want to "rest" after they have been used up. In 4th edition you still get players wanting to rest after each fight, but that isn't necessarily the spellcasters any more, everybody uses and regains resources the same way.

While I consider the use of different or the same basic rule system for each class to be the major difference between the different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, it of course is not the only one. I once joked that you could learn a lot about an edition by asking "how many arrows does it take to kill a level 1 wizard?". All role-playing combat systems work fundamentally the same way: Each side has a pool of "health", and each side deals "damage" to the other side, subtracting from that pool of health. The length of combat thus depends on the balance between damage and health. In a turn-based combat system like Dungeons & Dragons, assuming a combat which the players win, the number of turns that each combat will take is equal to the total amount of health of the monsters divided by the average amount of damage the players deal each round. This average number of turns per standard combat is different for each edition of Dungeons & Dragons, and covers a wide range. But 4th edition clearly stands out for having the most turns per combat. Which is by design, and a direct consequence of each player in 4E having more options, more powers, than in the other editions. 4E combat having more turns enables each player to use a wider range of his options, and results in more tactical movement. Again, whether that is good or bad is a matter of opinion, some people like fights to be over in a turn or two and not needing a tactical map, others enjoy the tactical options of 4E. But one thing that has to be remarked is that even if each combat takes more turns and thus longer, it does not follow that in each adventure more time is spent in combat. If combat is shorter, you can simply have more fights and end up with the same ratio of time spent in combat and out of combat.

And that touches on something very important with which I would like to conclude this post: We need to distinguish between the difference between the rules systems of the various editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and the difference between different people applying those rule systems. A game of Dungeons & Dragons is only partially determined by the rules system; another big part of it comes from how the DM and the players run the game, how the adventure is designed, and how the players around the table interact with each other. If you take a group of fans of tactical wargaming to play with the same edition of Dungeons & Dragons as another group of fans of improvised theater, you will get two very different games. It would be fair to say that 4th edition supports the tactical wargaming crowd better, while maybe the shorter fights of other editions are better for a group that wants to spend most of its time role-playing. But if you want a balanced mix of combat and role-playing, you can in fact arrive there from any edition of Dungeons & Dragons.
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An open letter to WotC
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 February 2014, 4:23 am
Dear Wizards of the Coast,

I am a customer of your company for many years, and have spent quite a lot of money on your products. I am also currently a subscriber of your D&D Insider service, providing you with a continuous stream of income. Recently I bought two of your latest adventure modules, Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard. Although they were principally designed for D&D Next, which I don't plan to buy, I bought the adventures because you included conversions for older game systems. Now you sent me an advertisement for the adventure Scourge of the Sword Coast. Imagine my disappointment when I found out that in spite of announcements to the contrary, that new adventure did not offer conversions for older editions of D&D. Therefore I didn't buy it.

I do not want to fight the edition wars here. Let's just say that the editions of Dungeons & Dragons are sufficiently different from each other to each appeal to a different group of potential customers. To me it would appear obvious that serving all of those potential customers would be in your best interest. But Scourge of the Sword Coast now has me worried that you are planning to abandon support for previous editions. I am particularly anxious that you might stop supporting the tools for 4th edition on the D&D Insider website. I use the monster builder and character builder and compendium a lot, and they are the reasons why I am subscribed to D&D Insider. I would cancel my subscription if those tools were to disappear and be replaced by D&D Next tools.

I consider 4th edition a brave experiment to drag Dungeons & Dragons into a new millennium. It created a game which is very different from previous editions, and very different from D&D Next. While not everybody might like that different game, there sure are also many people who prefer that version over the others. Surely the cost of adding a few pages of conversion to your adventure modules, or keeping 4E tools running on your website, are rather small compared to the added revenue from 4E fans!

Now you might think that you can "convert" the fans of 4th edition to D&D Next by force, by offering them "D&D Next or nothing". You added some token elements from 4th edition to D&D Next so that you could claim that D&D Next is for everybody. But I can assure you that very few 4E fans were fooled by that. By offering us all beta playtest access to D&D Next, we are very well aware that D&D Next is mostly reversing the changes that made 4th edition different. If we wanted a game with old school rules, we would have plenty of options even without D&D Next. If you cut off support to 4th edition, you only create the market for the next "Pathfinder", a third party product for the customers you left behind, for example "13th Age". You simply do not have the monopoly power any more to force everybody to play the same system.

So I would urge you to realize that making ONE D&D that pleases everybody is completely impossible at this point in time. You would keep far more customers and make far more money if you supported many different editions, kept 4E tools on the website, and made adventures usable for different systems.

Regards,

Tobold
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Cloud save
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 February 2014, 3:48 am
I grew up with computers that had a command line interface, where typing "dir" with the right parameters would tell you everything you wanted to know about the file system. And when we switched to graphical user interfaces, I was still very much aware of what a file is, and what for example the difference between an executable and a data file is. For example copying or deleting a game save file is something I always considered something rather obvious. But that was when those game save files still were on the computer I was playing on. They aren't necessarily any more.

One advantage of games that are very cheap or free is that one might get them for multiple devices. For example I bought Skulls of the Shogun on Steam, but then bought it again for a pittance when it came out on the iPad, as I considered the game to work better with a touch screen. And if you consider Free2Play games with game elements where you need to gather resources or build something every 4 hours, it is obviously an advantage if you can do so during your lunch break on your smart phone. So if you can play the same game on several platforms, you might want to use the same save game for all of them. And ideally that save game is "in the cloud", so you don't need to manually transfer any files. My experience with such cloud saves is a mixed bag.

With some games the cloud save works rather well even cross-platform. Skulls of the Shogun has a "Skulls anywhere" option, so I can play with the same save game on the PC and the iPad. But it's optional, so if I wanted I could also run two completely separate games on the two platforms. That isn't always the case. My wife plays some games on her iPad, which uses the same Apple ID as mine, and as those games have automatic mandatory cloud saves, I can't play the same game without messing her game up. Other games have no cloud save, so I lost save games when I bought a new iPad. Manual transfer of save games from one device to the other sometimes works, but is a hassle, as iOS keeps its file system hidden and you need special applications to dig in. As the files aren't meant to be visible, programmers frequently don't label them very clearly, so finding the right files to copy isn't obvious. And some games have cloud saves that are platform-specific, so you can't use the same save game on iOS and Android for example.

Another problem I had with cloud saves is that sometimes you are unable to delete save games. For example I like the city building game Pixel People on the iPad, which uses an optional Facebook cloud save. But when I wanted to start over, I could only do that locally by uninstalling, reinstalling, and not connecting to Facebook again. In spite of me deleting the game from my Facebook account, it appears that the cloud save is stored somewhere, so when I tried to connect the new game to Facebook again, it just overwrote my new game with the old cloud save.

What I would like all games to have is a cloud save system which is platform-independent, optional, and which allows some basic save game management like deleting unwanted save games. Very few games offer all that right now. First world problem, for sure, but one can always dream of things getting better.
Tobold's Blog



Building a better persistent Dungeon Keeper
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 February 2014, 2:47 am
My commenters are providing me with more and more links to reviews and videos that express outrage about the new Dungeon Keeper. And in every single one of them the reviewer complains that it takes hours to carve out the space for a new room in the new Dungeon Keeper. So let's forget the monetary aspects for a second and talk about time aspects. How would we build a massively multiplayer online PvP Dungeon Keeper better?

The first thing to remark is that of course the videos and reviews are lying. Or rather, they are being a bit selective with the truth. The new Dungeon Keeper has three sorts of stone blocks, soft, medium, and hard. The soft blocks take 5 seconds to dig out, and the whole center of the dungeon is full of them, so all the rooms of your starting dungeon can be dug out inside of a minute or two. The medium blocks state that they take 4 hours to dig out, but if you slap your imps they work at double speed, so it takes only 2 hours. And the hard blocks take 24 hours, but only occur at the outer edge of your dungeon.

So, why is that sort of feature in the game? Why do lots of other mobile or social games that allow you to build other things, like a city or kingdom, have building times that range up to a week? Is in ONLY to "force" people to pay to speed up those times? Of course not! There are even games which force you to wait for hours or days for something without giving you the option to pay to speed up.

Instead the slow building is in the game to prevent you from finishing the game in a single session. If you could build your complete dungeon in Dungeon Keeper in under an hour, fill all the space the map has, and add all the features the game offers to your dungeon, then why would you ever come back to it? Why would you be proud about the advanced level of your dungeon, if everybody is at the level cap?

Look at it from a MMORPG perspective: World of Warcraft clearly is not designed as a Free2Play game. Leveling up a character even in the very first version of it took hundreds of hours. Blizzard never made leveling slower, they only ever made it faster to keep up with the number of levels. This year Blizzard will introduce the option to skip leveling and go right to level 90 for a real money payment. Are you really going to say that a decade of World of Warcraft design was done ONLY to force people to pay to skip the slow leveling process? Or is the slow leveling process the natural state of the game, and skipping it for money is just an option for the extremely impatient?

The original Dungeon Keeper was a single-player game. With some difficulty you could set it up to play in a LAN. But even then it was never a persistent multi-player game. So here is my challenge to you: How would you build a massively multiplayer online Dungeon Keeper with persistent dungeons *without* having any timer for building or gathering resources? If you can't think of a way that a persistent game works without delays, then you can't complain that those delays are in the game!
Tobold's Blog



Money and value-loss PvP
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 February 2014, 3:42 am
Now this is going to be a difficult post to write, because however carefully I'll choose my words I'll be accused of just having an anti-EVE bias. But what I want to talk about is actually a post from a pro-EVE blog looking at the losses at B-R5RB. The facts are that there was a huge space battle recently in EVE Online. In that battle a large number of very expensive ships were destroyed. In EVE Online one can if one is inclined to do so buy those very expensive ships for real world cash, via an intermediate of game time cards. So it is possible to express the value of the destroyed ships in real world currency numbers. And while there is some confusion about the exact number, the battle at B-R5RB is said to have destroyed $300,000 (give or take a hundred thousand).

Now the Nosy Gamer suggests a different "currency", time. If you express all that value lost in PLEX and don't count the dollar value of the PLEX but the time value, you get about 1,500 years of subscription to EVE. But all that are just attempts to quantify the scale of the losses. In reality the losses were a mix of lost time and lost money: People paid for months of subscription, played the game, and suffered losses that set them back X months of progress and virtual earnings. As during those X months they also had some amount of fun (hopefully) and gained some amount of skill points that they didn't lose, you can't even say they completely lost those X months. But however you turn the calculation, obviously *something* was lost during the battle.

Regardless of which game you play, and regardless of which business model a game uses, there is a large number of games out there where if you play them for some time you will at the end have spent some combination of time and money for some amount of virtual progress and virtual wealth. People attach a value to that virtual progress and virtual wealth. They don't just consider the fun they had playing as sufficient return for their investment of time and money. They tend to get upset when they lose virtual progress and/or virtual wealth. And the clearer the link is between having paid real money for that virtual progress and wealth, the more problematic it becomes when losses occur. For example Marvel Puzzle Quest recently nerfed some characters that the developers considered overpowered. Normally one would think that this is a pretty normal part of a developer's role in maintaining a game. But as people had spent a mix of time and money to attain those characters, and sometimes a lot of money instead of a lot of time, there was quite an uproar.

Now there are many different forms of PvP. And in some of those forms there is never any significant loss of virtual progress or wealth. For example in World of Tanks even the losers usually make more money than their repairs cost, and everybody gets xp, just that the winners get more than the losers. But there are other games in which PvP destroys a lot of value, or even allows one player to capture value from another player. And the more players attach monetary value to virtual progress and wealth in their minds, the more problematic the destruction or theft of that virtual wealth by other players becomes. If other players could for example destroy or steal the sparkly ponies one can buy in World of Warcraft, Blizzard would presumably sell a lot less of those. If players pay big bucks for the right to build virtual castles in EQ Next, it would be foolish to have game elements which then allow other players to burn down or capture those castles.

Therefore I believe that the future of PvP is loss-free versions of PvP in which no or little virtual value is destroyed. Most game companies would shy away from headlines proclaiming that players lost $300,000 in a battle. That sort of news only attracts a certain niche kind of players and isn't really suitable if you are trying to go for a mass market.
Tobold's Blog



Putting game payments into perspective
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 February 2014, 5:36 am
In the 90's, before I started playing MMORPGs, I played a lot of Magic the Gathering. I won some local tournaments, but then decided that I preferred a more casual approach. I remained attached to the tournament scene as a DCI certified judge, and even participated in a World Championship as referee for side-events. I had a great time. And, looking back at that time, I spent a crazy amount of money on that game. When I stopped playing I estimated that I had spent about $10,000 on my card collection over a decade, not counting other costs like other card sleeves/albums, or travel costs. And at the time I was still a student, and had a lot less disposable income than today.

If I consider my whole gaming history and the cost involved in perspective, I must say that I never had access to so many so cheap games as today. Instead of paying $1,000 per year on Magic cards, I then spent around $200 per year on World of Warcraft. Today they are even cheaper, I can play MMORPGs for free, and buy some additional comfort or faster advancement for less than the cost of a monthly subscription in most games. Instead of buying PC and console games for $50, I buy iOS and Android games for $5 or less, and they aren't even worse than the PC or console games I bought decades ago. And many games I can either play for free, or at least try for free and then decide whether and how much money I want to spend on them.

I am not a huge fan of EA, and only faintly interested in their latest mobile game Dungeon Keeper. But I must say that they are getting an unjustified amount of flak for that game being Free2Play. I don't know under which rock some people lived for the past couple of years, but I am astonished to read all those rants full of outrage that a game that can be downloaded for free then has payment options. To be absolutely crystal clear: EA's Dungeon Keeper is a blatant copy of the successful Clash of Clans, and also copies that game's business model. The "imps" you can buy for real money in Dungeon Keeper are practically identical in function to the builder's huts you can buy for real money in Clash of Clans. Every option to speed up play in Dungeon Keeper has an equivalent in Clash of Clans. Claiming the EA invented a particularly greedy game is just showing your ignorance of the games that already run for years and make big money (which is why EA copies them).

Now in theory it is possible to put unlimited amounts of money in Clash of Clans or Dungeon Keeper, if you want everything always immediately and can never wait. That would be a rather stupid way to play those games, and not really relevant to most people, as we aren't made out of money. So rather we should consider two cases: What part of a game can you play for free? And what part of a game can you play for a moderate investment, let's say $20? On both counts Clash of Clans and Dungeon Keeper aren't doing too badly: You do get two builder's huts / imps for free, and by playing the game for free you'll earn over time slowly enough special currency to get a third and fourth builder's hut or imp. Or you can spend $20 and get those third and fourth builder's huts / imps right away. As these are permanent and then require no further payment, I would consider that as an acceptable payment option. I've certainly seen far worse.

What I really can't understand is the permanent outrage of the entitlement kids when games cost money or try out new revenue streams. Players frequently act as if game developers drive around in golden Rolls Royces, when even a cursory glance at gaming news every day reveals that game developer is an extremely lousy job, badly paid for long hours, and constantly threatened by layoffs and studio closures. In the end a game is a product like many others, and the economics are rather simple: The number of players multiplied with the average revenue per player needs to be more than the cost of making and running the game. If we want games with fancy, and thus expensive, graphics and lots of content, we either need to accept that they have to be created for a mass market and accessible to millions of players, or we need to accept that each player has to put in a good amount of money to finance such a game. We can't have expensive games for free and catering to a small niche.

Ultimately game development is Darwinian. We can have bubbles when optimistic people invest money in games that then are commercial failures. But ultimately only financially viable games and business models survive. In the end each individual player has to decide what each individual game is worth to him, and the aggregate decision of all players on one game will decide whether that game thrives or fails. If you are pushing for a future in which no player ever pays anything, you are advocating a future with no commercial games at all. And that would be a great loss to all of us.
Tobold's Blog



Leveling up my game
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 February 2014, 4:18 am
Gnome Stew recently had two articles on the different levels of play in a pen & paper roleplaying game. And I must say that I am not completely happy with on what level we play in my D&D campaign. To some extent I blame video games: Computer role-playing games teach us that it is important to min/max your character, to create a dwarven warrior with optimal strength instead of trying a halfling warrior with cunning. If you tried to make a more interesting but sub-optimal character, people would tell you to learn2play. So now I have a pen & paper campaign in which cookie-cutter characters are using video-game tactics like trying to kite monsters. And if I run a session without combat, some of my players are getting antsy, because their characters aren't built for actual role-playing.

Now our previous DM, who is now a player, tried having adventures that were light on combat and heavy on role-playing interaction. That doesn't really work if the players aren't all that interested. Murder mystery city adventures are hard to run even under the best of conditions, and if the players would rather do dungeon crawling they get downright impossible. So my idea is to keep a necessary degree of combat action up to keep the players interested, but to intersperse that with enough role-playing interaction and story to somewhat raise the level of my campaign.

That might require techniques like those used in the recently published D&D Sundering adventures, where the story doesn't stop if the players don't advance it. Basically the players are repeatedly brought into contact with possible role-playing and story interactions, but if they refuse to bite some default story happens and drives the overall adventure forward. In a pen & paper game, the world can be a lot more dynamic than in a video game. As a DM I have to use that advantage.
Tobold's Blog



Claiming a spot
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 February 2014, 4:51 am
I was reading with interest Bhagpuss' journal of his experience with Everquest Next Landmark. For example he wrote: "Under the pitiless desert sun I built something that vaguely resembled the first level of a mock-medieval multistory car park. I built it out of dirt. When I logged back in later both my eyesore and my claim had vanished, the former healed by the land, the latter, presumably, lost to a bug. My attempt to reclaim the same spot was firmly rebuffed and I couldn't find anywhere else so that was that.". I'm not too much bothered by the fact that EQNL has bugs, that is to expected at this state of the game. I do however find the idea that he couldn't find a spot to claim to build something problematic.

If you don't count LPMUDs, my first MMORPG was Ultima Online. I don't remember the details, but at some point on the server I was playing on, claiming spots for houses was enabled at a specific time. I logged out my character on a flat ice plane full of walruses. When I logged back on the next day, I was in the middle of a city, with walruses in the streets. There was no spot to be found for my house. I searched for a housing spot for a full two weeks, and then bought a house on EBay, because claiming a spot by myself was clearly impossible.

Another game I remembered when reading Bhagpuss' story is A Tale in the Desert. I think Bhagpuss would love that one, because it already does a lot of what EQNL is trying to do. The big advantage of ATITD is that the land is huge. There is enough land for everybody. But of course some spots are better than others, and certain areas do become crowded. And then you observe something over time: Everybody who plays the game wants to claim a spot in the world. But not everybody wants to maintain that spot for a prolonged period of time. Thus over time you get accumulations of abandoned buildings. In ATITD, where players can make game rules by organizing a vote, every single incarnation of the game had some laws made enabling players to destroy abandoned buildings so as to liberate good spots for building.

ATITD and other games with housing, like Star Wars Galaxies, also taught me another thing about MMORPG housing: Of a 24-hour day, a typical player only plays 2 to 4 hours. And of those hours spent in the game, he only spends a small fraction in his house, because most of the adventure is elsewhere. So even if you built a house surrounded by houses of active other players, you rarely meet your neighbors. Virtual cities appear less lived in than real cities, because we don't spend 24 hours a day in the virtual world, and don't spend 12 hours a day at our virtual homes.

A MMORPG that wants to offer a great player housing experience will have to wrestle with all of those problems: It will need to offer enough space to build on for everybody who wants to build a house. It will need to deal with abandoned buildings. And it will need to deal with trying to create alive player cities in spite of most players only spending minutes each day in their virtual homes. Maybe there is a good technical solution for that, but I have yet to see it. I do think that using houses for crafting and as virtual shops is a good approach, but only if there is no auction house and players are actually forced to visit shops to browse for wares. And I'm not sure that sort of inconvenience is still acceptable in this day and age.
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 9
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 February 2014, 5:54 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived at the back door of the keep in Gardmore Abbey in which the orc chieftain Bakrosh resides. The keep is a three-floor building, but the intermediate floor is just a gallery over the ground floor, so the whole keep basically has just two rooms. Which to nobody's surprise were full of orcs, meaning we mostly did combat in this session.

Now previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons had lots of "vanilla" monsters, having just a number of hit points, an armor class, a THAC0 (to hit chance) and damage. Combat in 4th edition has a lot more variety, because every monster has some sort of special attack. And there isn't just one "orc" entry in the Monster Manual any more, but there are different sorts of orcs with different levels and different special attacks. Meaning two fights against "orcs" will be notably different, which is good. The downside being that fights take more time in 4E. In the context of interactive story-telling, the clash between the powers of the group and the powers of the monsters tend to give each fight a very individual flavor.

Now the Favorites of Selune recently lost a warlord (tank/healer hybrid) and that player is now playing a witch (dps). Already before that change "I hide behind the priest" was a running gag in our campaign. But now the group has just one tank, one melee rogue, and four characters trying to stand behind and launching spells or arrows. That is already not an ideal distribution, and in the first fight the special power of the orcs involved by pure chance was one which wreaked havoc with that party setup: The orc rampagers had a power to shift three spaces and attack everybody in their path, going on rampage while swinging their heavy flails.

I asked everybody where they wanted to stand at the start of the fight, and most characters stood outside, around the corner from the door. One consequence of that was that when the fight started and the players drew a card from the deck of many things, the effect appeared next to one player around the corner, with no enemy in range. I think if they keep playing overly cautious like this, this will happen a lot, with them not benefiting from the card effects. The orcs weren't coming out of the keep, so eventually the group had to go in.

So the heroes entered the first room and found four orc rampagers on the ground floor, of which two were riding dire wolves. The warrior engaged two orcs and one wolf, the rogue the other two orcs and wolf. The other four characters stood behind and threw spells and arrows. Then another orc appeared on the gallery: An orc shaman launching an area spell into the group's spellcasters. The wizard was able to take out the shaman temporarily with a sleep spell, but the casters had to move out of the way of the shaman's summoned storm spell effect. And then the orcs started rampaging, repeatedly running past the group members trying to hide in the back and damaging them. Fortunately the orcs and wolves were lower level than the player characters. The new witch showed off a couple of nice moves which provided a certain degree of crowd control. But overall a lot of time was spent with characters scampering away, being chased around by orcs. Although the players managed to kill the wolves and orcs, except for the shaman who wind walked through a hole in the ceiling up to the next level, the overall effect of the fight was that the players were scared of the orcs.

That showed when after a short rest the group headed through a door on the gallery level, behind which were two stairs leading left and right into the same big room on top of the keep, where the orc chieftain with his companion and bodyguards resided. Nobody wanted to go into that room. Using either two move actions and a minor action, or by expending an action point for a second move, the characters ran up to the room, launched some attack, and ran back down the stairs immediately. They then tried to wait there, behind a corner, readying attacks to hit the orcs with if they came down the stairs. But the orcs didn't immediately follow. So now the players are afraid that the next character looking around the corner into the room of the orcs will get the readied attacks from the orcs, and are even more afraid to go up the stairs. It is a kind of a standoff, and because all this was taking a lot of time, we decided to leave the resolution of the standoff to the next session. Somehow the whole concept of storming a keep in defensive mode isn't working so well. I'd advise a change of strategy, but I'm just the DM and can't tell the players how to play their characters.
Tobold's Blog



Dungeon Keeper
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2014, 7:31 am
Pocket Tactics has a long rant about why EA's new Free2Play Dungeon Keeper is doomed. There is a lot of truth in saying that the sort of people interested in Free2Play massively multiplayer "strategy" games of today probably aren't the same people who loved the old Dungeon Keeper from the previous millennium. But I'm not convinced that this "dooms" Dungeon Keeper. It only says that old PC gamers are irrelevant to EA's marketing strategy.

As it was free and I wanted to know what the fuzz was about, I tried out Dungeon Keeper. And I think it is fair to say that it is very much a clone of Clash of Clans. Which the Pocket Tactics article shows being the 3rd biggest global mobile game by revenue of 2013. Now I am not a huge fan of Clash of Clans, but I would say that if I had to choose, I'd rather play Dungeon Keeper. It is funnier, and I prefer the dungeon setting to the village setting. Your mileage may vary.

In any case it wasn't obvious to me why somebody who likes Clash of Clans wouldn't like Dungeon Keeper as well. Some people might figure that they have a better chance to become a big cheese in a newer game, as it is practically impossible to catch up to the veterans in Clash of Clans now. Others might just like me prefer the dungeon setting. And in the mobile games market being a clone of another game isn't necessarily hurting popularity or sales.

In short, the new Dungeon Keeper is probably not a good choice for hardcore fans of the previous Dungeon Keeper games. But that doesn't mean there is no chance for the game to be financially successful. Given how many more potential customers there are for the mobile version, it might even do better financially than the original. Just because a game isn't for you doesn't mean it is doomed!
Tobold's Blog



Patience is a virtue
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 February 2014, 5:59 am
There are a number of interesting MMORPGs currently in development: Everquest Next, Wildstar, The Elder Scrolls Online. Of those at least EQN and Wildstar are games that I will definitively try out, while I'm not yet quite decided on TESO. So why aren't you reading alpha/beta playtest reports on this site? EQN Landmark doesn't even have an NDA! Well, the thing is that I have tested a lot of MMORPGs in beta, and realized that the testing experience has its downsides.

One more recent development which contributed to me not doing beta tests any more is game companies charging people money for beta tests. Why would I want to pay up to $100 to play an alpha version of an editor of a MMORPG? Betas used to be an opportunity to test a game for free, now they being sold as some sort of advance access in "founder's packs" and the like. Being the first in means you pay before you even get other people's opinion on the game. In this day and age, the longer you wait before you buy a game, the cheaper it gets. There is even a good chance of all of these games being eventually Free2Play, although I might not wait that long.

But the main reason I don't want to do betas any more is that they tend to be full of bugs. Well, I did play some betas like Card Hunter which were already at production quality. But MMORPGs are notoriously difficult to run, and server outages and game-crippling bugs are to be expected. Especially if the official state of the software is alpha. And of course the game won't be feature-complete yet. So even if by playing the beta I can get some impression of what the game is about, it would be hard to form a final opinion of the game before release. Anybody who ever complained about something in a beta will know that the standard response to that is "but it is just the beta!", although I would say that if a game is really bad you notice that long before it is finished.

So I decided to be patient and just wait until those games are at least released. Life is too short to spend time and money on buggy betas.
Tobold's Blog



Photoshopping the world
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 February 2014, 4:19 pm
I hadn't planned it that way. But the day after writing my previous post with the title "Changing the world", I did some campaign preparation which ended up including a very literal world-changing event: I photoshopped a map of the Forgotten Realms. As that is another nice example of adapting the world to your campaign, let me tell you more about it.

As a rules system, 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons can work with many different campaign worlds, from the self-made to commercial products like Forgotten Realms or Eberron. But 4E also comes with a "sample community" described in the Dungeon Master's Guide and used in several printed 4e adventure modules: The Nentir Vale, with the city of Fallcrest in the middle. All of my campaign played in the Nentir Vale up to now. But as a campaign world, the Nentir Vale has its limits: It must be one of the smallest campaign worlds ever created. You can get from one end to another in a week's travel. So at one point in the future my players will leave the Nentir Vale, and then I need a bigger world around it.

Now I have used the Forgotten Realms in previous campaigns, and due to computer games and other WotC licensed products my players are somewhat familiar with that campaign world. So I had decided earlier in the campaign that the world around the Nentir Vale would be the Forgotten Realms. Following advice from some WotC forums, I placed the Nentir Vale into the north-eastern part of Amn. The Nentir Vale is shown as having a forest to its north, and moutains to its north-west. So I imagined it fitting on the map of Amn where the Snakewood meets the Cloud Peaks.

But as I was preparing the first adventure outside of Nentir Vale, I needed to create a local area map. And to make that map fit, I had to make a campaign map. So I took the official WotC map of the Forgotten Realms, cropped it to the part between The Moonsea and Calimshan, and then started modifying it. I'm not a great artist, and only use simple tools, in this case MS Paint. But that works well enough to modify a small bit of a world map.

Fortunately the Forgotten Realms are huge. And even after decades of releasing books and material for this campaign world there are big stretches of the world which even Ed Greenwood barely remembers having put in. And to some degree the less described bits are there by design: Many DMs need space to put their own creations on the map for their individual campaign version of the Forgotten Realms. It gives the DMs the best of both worlds: Not having to create a huge campaign world by themselves, but still having room for smaller bits of creativity.

So the message is still the one from the previous post: Don't be afraid to use printed material, but don't be afraid to change it around either. You and your friends are creating your campaign world in your heads through collaborative story-telling. It is inevitable that your version of a known fantasy world will differ from the versions at other game tables. Embrace that. Make that world fit your campaign, and not the other way around.
Tobold's Blog



Changing the world
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 February 2014, 8:31 am
If you follow the journal of my D&D campaign "The Favorites of Selune", you will know that we are currently playing the mega-adventure Madness at Gardmore Abbey. But if you already played through the same adventure as a player or DM, you will sometimes come across details in my journal where you'll think "but that isn't how it went with my group" or even "but that isn't how it is written in the adventure". To just give an example, the previous session ended with the group opening the back door to the keep in which the orc chieftain resides. Only that in the adventure there is no back door. I added it. In small details like that my version of this adventure will be different from any other version other people play through. And in this post I'm going to talk about why I do that.

Dungeons & Dragons is primarily a game of interactive story-telling, mixed with a strong second part of tactical turn-based combat. Players enjoy the two different parts to different degrees, and we do have sessions which are mostly about combat. But overall I am trying for everything to combine to a strong and interesting story, which means I have to strive for verisimilitude, making things appear realistic and logical, even in a world full of wizards and dragons. Now when we play an adventure, the story creates itself out of two major parts: A planned part, which is either invented by me in advance or written in the adventure module, and an unplanned part that happens in reaction to what the players decide to do. Now one could be excused to think that the written part of the adventure was fixed, and doesn't need changing. But in practice it happens that the actions of the players move the story in a direction where some modification of the written adventure improves verisimilitude.

To come back to the example in my campaign, the keep in Gardmore Abbey has three floors. The lower two floors form one map with a 3-dimensional fight involving a balcony level. The door on the balcony level then leads to the third floor on the other map. But if you imagine the whole thing in three dimensions, you realize that the maps don't fit. The map of the upper story encounter is 100' long, while the lower part of the keep is only 80' long. The doors on the two plans don't line up, even after turning the upper map by 180 degree. And if you consider the surroundings of the keep, the main map clearly shows the keep having a front courtyard and a back garden. But there is no access to the back garden other than walking out of the front door and around the keep. Basically the designers mainly took care to create two interesting encounter maps, and didn't worry much about how the two maps together would form a realistic keep.

Having scouted the layout of the abbey from the top, and thus having access to the player map of Gardmore Abbey, my players had decided to approach the keep from the back, through the garden. There is even an encounter foreseen in the garden, involving a skill challenge and giant spiders. So once they got through that and reached the keep, I realized that telling them that there was no back door was kind of stupid. Who builds a garden behind his house with no way to access it? For the encounter in the keep it didn't matter from which side the players came. And while by adding the back door there is now a chance that they will never see the encounter in front of the main gate, to me it seemed that for my version of the adventure it would make more sense if there was a back door.

I had mentioned before that many encounter maps in Madness at Gardmore Abbey are supposed to be built using the official D&D Dungeon Tiles. I'm not a fan of tiles, they are ugly to start with, take time to set up, and are prone to shift in relation to each other when played upon. So I rather create and print my own maps with Campaign Cartographer / Dungeon Designer 3. Now fortunately we ended the previous session just as the players had opened the back door, before I showed the battle map. So between sessions I now could add the back door to the encounter map. And as I was already at changing that map, I decided that I'd fix the other problems of the keep at the same time. So now the lower floors of the keep not only have a back door, but are also the same size as the upper floor, and the doors between the floors line up.

That is just one example of changing my campaign. I also did some bigger changes, like removing a defensive large scale battle against the orcs, which would have been too similar to the defensive large scale battle my players had in a previous adventure, Reavers of Harkenwold. I found it more logical and better for the flow of the adventure to give them a quest to kill the orc chieftain in the keep instead. By not sticking too strictly to the adventure as written, I hope that I can make our individual version of this adventure more coherent and fun. And as the world of a D&D campaign only exists in the heads of the players (aided by maps and handouts), sometimes it is easier to change to world to fit the story than the other way around.
Tobold's Blog



MMORPG action combat
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 January 2014, 8:50 am
How many percent of players do you believe are worse at playing MMORPGs than you are? Obviously a trick question, because most people will overestimate their abilities when answering a question like that. But even if we take the mathematically median player, by definition 50% of other players are worse than him. If you ever ran a damage meter in a raid or dungeon, or saw damage meter statistics reported elsewhere, you will be aware that there is a huge range of differing damage outputs, based on a combination of gear and skill. But how does that matter for game design?

Telwyn is discussing action combat in MMOs, looking for the happy medium between too much and too little action. Everybody would like to have combat which is challenging and interesting, without becoming either frustrating or boring. The problem is that with different people playing the game differently well, there is no such thing as an optimum. If we take the above mentioned median player and design combat in a way that it is challenging for him, it will be frustrating for a good part of the 50% of players who is worse than him, and boringly trivial for a good part of the 50% of players better than him.

Now in principle role-playing games do have an answer to that problem: They can offer opponents of different levels, with different rewards. So the best players can go after higher level mobs, while the worst players stick to "green" difficulty quests. Unfortunately in practice MMORPGs never handled that well. Harder combat takes more time, and the rewards never really scaled well in any MMORPG. Thus even for a good player trying to maximize rewards per hour, "farming" mobs just under his level is better than going for a challenge.

How many percent of players do you believe are worse at playing MMORPGs than you are? Now imagine your dream game with a difficulty level tuned exactly to your liking. And all those players you believe are worse than you won't be able to play, because combat is too hard for them. The game fails to get a sufficient number of subscribers and is closed down after a while. Obviously not an ideal situation. Which is why I think that adding action combat to a MMORPG as a feature is inherently harmful. Either it keeps people from playing, or it is tuned down enough to allow everybody to succeed, in which case even the average player considers it as a kind of boring button-mashing exercise. I have a hard time imagining a system which works for everybody.
Tobold's Blog



What is fair Free2Play?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 January 2014, 10:42 am
For anybody worried about unfair practices in Free2Play games, this report from the UK Office of Fair Trading is a must-read. It lists very clearly the principles of what is fair in Free2Play games (especially with regards to them being played by children), and what are deceptive practices. It even has long lists of hypothetical examples!
Tobold's Blog



Free2Play vs. Subscription - The Data
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 January 2014, 1:10 am
There is not much more to be said about the relative advantages and disadvantages of the Free2Play business model versus the subscription business model. But one argument that pops up again and again is that of the relative health of the two business models. And often the data provided are anecdotal. So how well is Free2Play really doing in a western market versus subscription? Fortunately there are good data available on the US digital games market:

In 2013 Free2Play games in the US made $2.9 billion, up 45% from $2.0 billion in 2012. Subscription games in the same period made $1.1 billion, down 21% from $1.4 billion. The biggest market share went to mobile games, with $3.1 billion, growing 29%, while social games (Facebook etc.) are down 22% to $1.8 billion. Note that the table includes DLC sales, but not buy-to-own game sales for PC and consoles. PC DLCs made $2.1 billion in 2013, up 11%, so selling games slice by slice definitively seems to be working.

World of Warcraft alone made $213 million in microtransactions, not counting income from subscriptions, while SWTOR made $139 million. Which actually isn't that bad for SWTOR, whatever number you believe the game cost. Of course we don't know what the cost to run the game are, but profit margins tend to be high once you get past a certain threshold of player numbers.
Tobold's Blog



Might & Magic X : Legacy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 January 2014, 5:26 am
Normally one would be well advised to not look at the title of a game too closely if one wants to know what the game is about. Titles like "Metal Gear Solid" or "Call of Duty" don't really tell you much about gameplay. Might & Magic X : Legacy (MMXL) is an exception here, because the "Legacy" part is very much the one-word description of the whole game: MMXL is a time-machine back into the 90's. It ditches at least 15 years of technical and gameplay development that happened since, and goes right back to the state of Might & Magic VI, with a few graphical improvements. And that is deliberate.

In consequence I've seen a lot of reviews that just don't get MMXL, complaining about the grid-based movement with 90° turns, or other antiquated game features. But the thing is that if you prefer modern real-time role-playing games, you are simply not the target audience for MMXL. This isn't even a full-price game, it is a game with a smaller budget and smaller price for a well defined niche of players who spent hundreds of hours playing turn-based role-playing games in the 90's and now want that experience back. I certainly do. And you can sign me up for a new version of Pool of Radiance and the other gold box games right away.

As a legacy game, MMXL is quite enjoyable. Yeah, there isn't much of a story, and there ain't many comfort functions either. But in return you get a lot of the stuff back that has been lost since, for example the ability to create a non-standard party and have a very different experience of the game (up to and including unplayable if you totally gimp yourself). If you believe that good games are series of interesting decisions instead of long lists of trivial tasks, Might & Magic X : Legacy is the game for you.
Tobold's Blog



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