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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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.
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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.
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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!
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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.
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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



The downside of the network effect
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 January 2014, 3:19 am
Telephones, social networks, and MMORPGs profit from something called a "network effect": Any new user makes the service more useful for the existing users. If you have the choice between several rather similar games and all your friends play one specific one, it is better for you to play that one. What people tend to look at less often is that the same network effect also works in reverse: Any player quitting a game decreases the value of the game for the remaining players.

I think that there is very little doubt left that MMORPGs as a genre are in decline. Not just this or that game, but the genre as a whole. It is rather unlikely that they will die out completely. But as a result of the gold rush boom years of the genre we do have an oversupply of games, which doesn't mix well with the declining network effect. SOE shutting down four MMORPGs is just the beginning. Even the new releases of this year like TESO, Wildstar, or EQN are more likely to cause other games to die than they are to grow the market.

The survivors will be the biggest, more popular games, or those who somehow managed to keep costs down. People frequently discuss development costs in the hundreds of millions of dollars for MMORPGs, but forget that they are also rather expensive to just keep up and running. And under a certain number of players, the monthly revenue falls to below cost, and then the game is shut down. While that tends not to go down well with the generation of entitlement kids, it is just simple economics. No company has any sorts of obligation to keep a loss-making game up and running, although sometimes they do for PR reasons.

Of course the decline is not inevitable. MMORPGs could rise again if somebody invented a new secret sauce to make gameplay more interesting. But over the last decade evolution of the genre has been slow, and people are increasingly growing bored of playing through the same old, same old, with just a fresh coat of paint. Many other gaming trends have come and gone, that really isn't anything unusual. The only difference is that previous genres declined quietly, because their decline didn't involve somebody having to shut down a server.
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Happy Birthday, Dungeons & Dragons!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 26 January 2014, 3:55 am
In as far as such a day can be exactly determined, today is the 40th birthday of Dungeons & Dragons. People celebrate and remember the enormous social power of this game. I can attest to that, even across a language barrier I made friends through playing D&D when I emigrated to another country after finishing my studies.

But like many 40-year olds, Dungeons & Dragons is going through some sort of a mid-life crisis. It doesn't really know what it wants to be any more: The game was modernized with the 4th edition, only to then backpedal and revert to old flaws in the 5th edition. In the end nobody is really happy.

Ultimately it isn't the game itself that has changed so much, but the environment. Playing games together with real people around a table sometimes seems like a historical artifact by itself. Why make friends in your neighborhood and live with all their foibles and differing interests and time-schedules if you can find people to play with on the internet any time you like? By having a much larger pool to search through, you will always find somebody whose interests are closer aligned to yours and whose time-schedule fits perfectly. And those virtual friends are a lot easier to get rid off too when you don't need them any more! Once we moved the education system online, we won't need real friends at all any more!

While my sarcastic summary of modern gaming might be exaggerated, the trend against playing together locally sure is real. And it doesn't help that Dungeons & Dragons is more a complete hobby than just a game, you can't just play it here and there for half an hour. At it's birth, Dungeons & Dragons was still a very unique way to dive into a fantasy universe full of dragons and wizards. Today there are a lot of alternatives in computer games. While the quality of the stories hasn't gone up much, the graphical presentation sure beats miniatures and pieces of paper.

But what none of the computer games offer is the chance to really influence the fantasy world, and create an interactive story of your own with your friends. And in spite of all the drawbacks, that is sure something worth preserving. Regardless what edition of Dungeons & Dragons, or what other later pen & paper role-playing system, these games are still a tremendous source of creative energy. You just don't get that from canned content. So here is to you, Dungeons & Dragons, a happy 40th birthday, and may you still celebrate many more of them.
Tobold's Blog



30 carrying 10
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 January 2014, 7:29 am
Clockwork from Out of Beta is against 40-man raids in Wildstar. He says: "So raids tended to be fairly generous with things like DPS timers which leads to the oft lamented "30 carrying 10" feeling, the idea that the majority of players were having to pick up the slack for the lesser-skilled/geared members. This adds fuel to frustration fires and leads to finger pointing amongst the group.". I beg to differ. I have always considered "30 carrying 10" to be a desirable feature, not a disadvantage of vanilla WoW raids. And I believe that the reason for this difference of opinion reveals a deep difference in attitudes towards what exactly a guild is.

Back in the days where Ultima Online and Everquest where the dominant MMORPGs, there was no such thing as Facebook. One of the main attractions at the time was running around in a virtual world, meeting new people and making friends. Your guild was your "social network", and consisted of the people you would want to hang out with, your online friends. If you build a guild after that model, it is important that guild activities are inclusive. You want to be able to raid with Mr. Nice Guy, even if his DPS isn't top notch. You might also want to raid when only 35 people show up; or you might have one guy in the raid responsible for giving directions on Teamspeak, even if that activity takes away from his damage output. Performance is less important, because you raid to be able to do something with your guild.

The modern version of guilds resembles more a sports team: Your club is in a certain league, and you need to be absolutely certain that all your players are up to the standards of that league and able to win. That leads to constant change, as there is absolutely no loyalty between player and guild: If a player is worse than his guild mates, he'll get kicked or at least not invited to raids unless really nobody else is available. If a player is better than his guild, he'll leave for a better one. The people in your guild are not your friends, they are means to an end. You are in a guild to be able to raid.

The frustration and finger pointing is pretty much exclusive to people who tend to think of guilds as sports clubs. If you think of a guild as a social club, you have more understanding for somebody underperforming, or having a bad day. The social aspects of playing together are more important than "winning" or getting epics.

The only thing that is wrong with Wildstar's ideas of 20-man and 40-man raids is giving out better loot for the 40-man version. I would have made the two sorts of raids give out the same loot. That would give a better chance to both viable social guilds and sports team guilds to evolve.
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Repeatability of content
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 January 2014, 4:40 am
Imagine you had an incredibly accurate account of all the activities you ever did in a MMORPG like World of Warcraft. If you would then make a list of all the content you ever saw in the game and count how often you saw each bit of content, you would automatically end up with two very separate types of content: A long list of bits of content you only saw once or a few times, and a somewhat shorter list of bits of content you repeated quite a lot. To me that distribution suggests that there is some content which is "under-utilized", and other content which is "over-utilized".

Now to some extent there is a justification for that. The list of bits of content you only do rarely will have a lots of quests and other single-player content on it. The list of bits of content you repeat frequently will have more multi-player content like raids or heroic dungeons on it. That is the classical "level solo, play the end-game with your friends" model of World of Warcraft. But that only works to some extent. There are a lot of lower level dungeons, multi-player content, which is rarely used. And there are top-level daily quests that is single-player content which is repeated a lot.

This makes me wonder whether the solo-leveling, multi-player end-game is the optimum solution. How many players do actually follow that model? In a future where you can skip the first 89 levels for money and raid with a LFR system which doesn't require you to make friends, is it still justified to have a part of the game repeated a lot more frequently than the rest? To some extent Guild Wars 2 already addresses that issue by scaling your level to the content, making content you technically "out-leveled" still interesting to play through. You aren't limited to level-cap content if you want a minimum of challenge and rewards while playing your level-capped character.

But if adjusting your level to the content is the solution, do we actually still need levels in a MMORPG? Why not simply make all the content in the game equal, with minor variations to provide easier challenges for less rewards and more difficult challenges for higher rewards, but without the "hard" content becoming trivial as you level up? If everybody always was the same level, we would both maximize content utilization, and the availability of other players to play through multi-player content together.
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Guest Post: How do MMOs reach $200m budgets?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 January 2014, 12:14 pm
Guest post by Hugh Hancock:

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In 2009, I started making a World of Warcraft fanfilm, Death Knight Love Story, which I estimated would take 6 months to make. I just released the first part of it this morning. Total development time: 5 years. The budget for the project has gone the same way: from a few thousand dollars (perfectly reasonable for a project aimed at learning how to use motion capture) to ... let's just say "more".

Why would you be interested in this? Because one of the topics we end up debating a lot in the games blogging world is the way in which AAA games' budgets spiral out of control.

Just a week or so ago we heard that The Elder Scrolls Online may have spiralled up to $200m. Tobold has spent a lot of time looking at the economics of game business plans in the past, and how - and if - they'll make their money back. But one thing that I've rarely seen discussed is just how the hell budgets get that high in the first place.

The Death Knight Love Story experience has given me a solid insight into exactly how that happens. Death Knight Love Story is, in fact, very similar to an AAA game in many ways. he level of art quality is the same - including both the WoW art but also the original art I've had made for it. We worked with Hollywood actors to produce the voice for it, just like an AAA title. And Death Knight Love Story is such a huge opportunity for me and my movie-making that I couldn't afford to screw it up. Just like, after spending even $100m, the developers of TESO must have known they couldn't afford to screw it up.

Imagine you're the executive producer of TESO. You've got an early alpha version of the game, and you've sat your focus groups down to play through it. And the result comes in: it's not very fun. It's, you know, OK.

What do you do?

In the case of Death Knight Love Story, we actually threw nearly-finished versions of the film away three times over. If the opportunity hadn't been so big, I would have released a far earlier version and lived with the rough edges. But because I had managed to land such high-profile actors - Brian Blessed, Jack Davenport, Joanna Lumley and Anna Chancellor - I was very aware that I had to get the film just right.

For the TESO team, and particularly the heads of development, the pressure is even more intense. Games development works on an iterative process right from the start, so there's probably nothing in the game that hasn't been thrown away or at least heavily revised three times over. And the problem is that every time you do this, the stakes get higher. The game has now spent more money, so it's even more important that it be a hit. So the focus-testing becomes even more stringent and there's an even higher bar of fun to hit. And so on.

If you're trying anything sufficiently ambitious in the game or film world, this sort of scope creep is almost impossible to avoid. Why? Because if you're aiming to create a detailed 3D world of any kind, you are by definition attempting something hugely ambitious and massively complex - and worse, something that's fractal. The deeper in you go, the more complex it becomes.

Let's go back to our poor TESO developers.

The focus group results come in. The design team sits down to look at them. And the design lead says "Hmm, what we need here is a new settlement in Morrowind where the levelling curve can flatten out a bit.". Problem solved! The quests team go away, and they design the settlement in rough. It turns out that this will be a really key part of the game's progression, so they're going to need to introduce new art elements. So the concept artists come in and create drawings for the characters and buildings of the settlements. And the quest teams come in, and then the 3D art guys start adding things up.

Have you ever looked closely at the number of models in any World of Warcraft location? For example, much of Death Knight Love Story is set in the Ebon Hold in World of Warcraft, so I have the model to hand. The Ebon Hold is a reasonably simple two-floor structure, made of 6 main model parts. Six models for the building - not too bad. But that's just the main structure - walls, floor and so on. If you just use that model, it'll look very bare: in a 2001 or so game it might have been fine, but in 2014 we demand a lot more detail. So the Hold needs anvils, sacks of grain, forges, and so on.

The Ebon Hold model has 426 models for anvils, grain sacks, runeforges, etc, etc, etc. Each of which has at least one 3D texture - probably more. Each of those textures had to be drawn by an artist, taking a couple of hours, then each model had to be assembled, for another couple of hours, then it had to be reviewed to check that it fits with the art style. Some models had to be revised, maybe a couple of times. Then the models had to be processed into a form that the game engine can understand - a surprisingly non-trivial problem. Some of them will throw errors, and have to be fixed. Then a level designer came in and placed the models for each area. They probably realise they need a couple of models they don't have, so they submit a request for a new model, and that has to be approved, and concept art created, and so on. Then the gameplay designers come in, and design the gameplay for the area, necessitating a few thousand lines of scripting code.

Then the area is tested, and it turns out that some of the models break the AI pathing, or get in the way of the player's movement, so they have to go right back to the start, and...

Even a single building in a game like WoW is a massive work of art.

And how many of those are there? Well, let's put it this way: in Wrath of the Lich King, for example (an expansion, not a full game), the continent of Northrend alone is a grid of squares, 49 squares wide by 37 across. Each of those squares has been designed by hand. Almost all of those squares have at least some structures and some placed buildings in, as well as character spawning points, quest NPCs, special effects, and so on. So that makes a total of 1131 squares, within each of which there are probably a few hundred 3D models and a few thousand lines of code. That makes a grand total of somewhere in the order of 350,000 individually placed models, many of them unique, and literally millions of lines of quest scripting.

And that was just part of one expansion pack.

When I was making Death Knight Love Story, we'd frequently experience the fractal nature of 3D design. We'd come up with a simple-sounding change, like adding an additional small scene, and suddenly that would turn into weeks or months of work. We needed to create new characters, export a new location, update the textures, then total up all the animation needed by all the characters in the scene, organise a motion capture session, process the motion capture data, insert dozens of motion capture files into the scene... And all of this from one phrase casually spoken in one development meeting.

Of course, everyone on a AAA team will be aware that 3D products are complex. But when the pressure's on, and the game or film is clearly not as successful as it needs to be, it's very easy to say "well, if we just add this one thing...". And sometimes - often - you actually need to say that in order to make a great product. And it's impossible to tell whether the months of work you're authorising will be the months that make the project incredibly successful, or if they'll get to the next focus group round and then get discarded. I have entire scenes which took weeks or months to create which are just sitting on my hard drive now - the cost of making a great project.

In the course of revision-driven, throw-it-away-and-start-again hell, you genuinely have no idea whether what you're making will be a hit or a flop. All you know is that you're not at "good" yet, and the only way to get there is to keep going. The first Half-Life famously took years because Valve threw it away half-way through and started again. World of Warcraft's development started in 1999, with the game being released in 2005 - it's reasonable to assume that there were quite a few iterations and dark times during the process.

Unfortunately, AAA game development, just like movie development, is a very high-stakes game. The studios can spend $200m and they might still end up with a dud - but if they didn't do that, and released the game when their testers were saying it was terrible, they'd have even worse odds of making their money back.

As for my own experience with development hell - also 5 years, coincidentally enough - I'll leave it up to you to decide if it finally got to "good enough"! You can check it out at www.deathknightlovestory.com .
Tobold's Blog



The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 8
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 January 2014, 5:46 am
In the previous session we had the first character death of the campaign. So between sessions there was some discussion going on between me and the player who's character had died. He had a decision to make: Did he prefer his character to be resurrected, or would he rather make a new one? In the end made a new one, so I modified the story to fit with that decision.

We started the session with the Favorites of Selune carrying their dead dwarf companion out of the watchtower. After bringing the sword of his dead father to Berrian, the leader of the eladrin nearby (who couldn't help but remark that this was the second family member of his of which the heroes could only bring news of his death), the group set off to Fallcrest to look for somebody to cast the resurrection ritual. Entering the temple of Selune in Fallcrest, where they had previously spent a year in training, they found the high priest in earnest discussion with a beautiful gypsy woman. The high priest called a dwarven priest colleague for the raise dead ritual. But try as he might, the priest wasn't able to make contact with the soul of the departed. Although the body was clearly fresh, the soul seemed gone for ages.

Discussing this curious turn of events, the group explained the manner of their comrade's death. He had died in the watchtower while the tower was still stuck in time on the day of the fall of Gardmore Abbey, and in a different dimension. So technically he died over a century ago, which was why he couldn't be resurrected. Talking of their contact with the Far Realm, the high priest introduced the gypsy woman to the group. She had come to the temple because she was a follower of Selune, and had a connection to the Far Realm (she is of course the new character, a warlock with star pact and a Vistani heritage). At the time where the group returned the watchtower to the real world and time (and incidentally released a beholder), she felt a "disturbance in the force", so to say. And as the beings of the Far Realm are quite dangerous, she felt obliged to warn the authorities, or rather the temple, because the secular authorities wouldn't have listened. When introduced to the group, she and the character holding the cards of the group felt the familiar tug towards each other, indicating they both had cards from the Deck of Many Things. So to follow up on the Far Realm event and to find out more about that card she had held for some time, the warlock (or should I call her sorceress? Witch? Fortune Teller?) joined the group.

The dwarven priest of the temple of Selune offered to organize a dwarven burial for the dead warlord. That caused some tension because the priest wanted to bury the dead with his weapons and armor, and the dwarven fighter in the group wanted to keep the magical equipment. In the end the fighter handed over the lesser items and kept only the best stuff for himself, burying his comrade with non-magical weapons. They bought a barrel of beer and celebrated a wake, and that was the end of the story for that particular character.

Next the group returned not to the abbey, but to Winterhaven, from where they had received the quest to liberate the watchtower. Lord Padraig was happy to hear those good news, and said he would send 50 soldiers with them as an occupation force for the watchtower, which should hinder the orcs from making further raids. But ideally he would like to see the orcs gone from the abbey, so he suggested that the heroes kill the orc chieftain. The court mage Valthrun had recently received information from a merchant who was held for ransom by the orcs and then liberated for a large sum of money. The merchant was part of Valthrun's network of informers, and had used the opportunity to spy on the defenses. He reported that the main gate was only lightly guarded, and held stocks of the hooded cloaks the orcs wore. It seemed possible to capture the main gate, which was a good way apart from the village, without raising an alarm.

[This was basically an attempt by me to rescue two or three encounters of the adventure. But the players didn't bite. I wonder if any group playing this adventure ever did the main gate encounter, it appears so bloody obvious that there are so many better ways to get into the abbey.]

The group traveled back to the abbey and instead of approaching the main gate went back with the soldiers to the watchtower, and crossed the Feygrove from there to get to the back of the keep. They had learned from the eladrin that the orc chieftain was in that keep, but that in front of the back entrance there was a garden full of giant spiders, which the eladrin didn't want to disturb. The group had less qualms about that, especially since they remembered a secret the nymphs had told them, about a magical sword lost in that garden which was a key for a building in the village.

Arriving at the garden it became clear that some of players thought that there had been too much role-playing and not enough fighting going on. Seeing webbed nests in the trees the cleric deliberately threw sticks at it to provoke a fight with a spider. The spider was killed quickly, and the players found a cocoon in the webs, which contained a skeleton and a gleaming sword. Their new fortune teller group member used a ritual to make sure that this was the magical sword they were looking for. The rogue experimented with cutting the webs and discovered that if done skillfully the group could cut their way through the garden without disturbing all the spiders. They found the best path to try that and proceeded towards the back door of the keep. The rogue could completely disable one spider web "alarm system", but two others only partially. And in both cases the other party members passing failed to do so quietly enough, resulting in two more mini-fights against spiders.

Having arrived at the back door of the keep, the rogue examined the door, found no traps, and was able to unlock the door. Listening at the door he heard sounds he thought were big dogs. On opening the door and then banging against the door to attract the dogs, the resulting howling was identified by the ranger as rather belonging to giant wolves. The players tried to lure them out, but then saw that the wolves were mounted by orc riders, who refused to be tricked that easily. So the players decided to go in and attack before the orcs could raise reinforcements. As it was late and that fight would take more time than the small skirmishes against the spiders, we decided to stop there.

The repeated tactic of the players to rather stay outside of doors and hope to attract monsters instead of going into a room to fight them is messing with my encounter maps. Half of the fighting we do happens outside the boundaries of the battle map. I wonder how other DMs handle that. I sure ain't going to let every monster rush into that sort of trap.
Tobold's Blog



When the rules are not the game
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 January 2014, 10:40 am
It is very difficult to get an idea how popular pen & paper roleplaying games are today. Sometimes you can get some limited sales numbers, but nobody knows how many people are still playing with old books or using downloaded pdf files of rulebooks. It is said that Dungeons & Dragons is in decline and that Pathfinder is the new top dog, but given how much longer D&D has been around it is impossible to say how many people are playing some version of it. Anecdotal evidence suggests that game stores selling role-playing material aren't doing as well as they did 20 years ago. And certainly pen & paper roleplaying game lost a substantial part of their potential player-base to computer games over the last three decades.

But I was wondering whether apart from these factors, the decline of pen & paper roleplaying games also has to do with a change in attitudes towards games. Games as a whole have developed from something which was considered to be "for children", over something which was part of geek culture, to something everybody does. The current prime minister of the UK mentioned playing Angry Birds in an interview, and it is hard to imagine Margaret Thatcher talking about playing a game for relaxation. Technology has made computers ubiquitous, and that in turn has made games ubiquitous. Get into a bus or subway today, and you are basically guaranteed to see somebody playing Candy Crush Saga or something similar.

Now computer games have a lot of advantages, primarily that they allow you to play when other players are either not available at all, or available only in distant locations. But computer games also have disadvantages; and when I read some modern comments or blogs on Dungeons & Dragons today, I sometimes wonder whether younger people who grew up with computer games maybe sometimes fail to understand some aspects of pen & paper roleplaying games which are radically different from computer games.

The main limitation of a computer game is that in the game only that is possible that has been foreseen by whoever developed the game. If the devs haven't foreseen you going in some direction, you will hit an invisible wall when you try. And only what is allowed in the rules is possible, the rules are the game. To "cheat" a computer game, you need to change the rules by modifying the code. Or you cheat with a cheat code, at which point you are back to doing only what the devs allow you to do. If you play a lot of computer games, it is easy to think that this could be true for every form of game, that the rules are the game. And approaching pen & paper roleplaying games with that attitude results in a rather inferior game experience.

The rules of a pen & paper roleplaying game cover at most half of the game, and it is the more technical and less creative half. You *can* play a game of Dungeons & Dragons doing only things that are listed in the rules, and I am very much afraid that is what some people do. But then you get series of combat encounters and skill checks, resolving every situation by the rules, which usually call for rolling some dice. Roll-play instead of role-play. I've seen comments on 4E adventures where somebody said "I played it, and it was just a series of combat encounters". And I think that was just a case of inexperienced players and an inexperienced dungeon master trying to play the game completely inside of what is printed in the rule-books and the adventure modules.

For me the combat encounter gameplay, which is the part best described by the rules and thus also the part that differs most from one rule-system to the next, is held together by the "glue" of actual role-playing. And this role-playing is not covered by rules at all. In a printed adventure module the role-playing is covered by text describing for example the motivation of the arch-villain, but there are usually no detailed descriptions on how to translate those motivations into actual game-play.

Contrary to popular belief, 4th edition D&D does not in fact have less instructions on how to role-play, or is otherwise preventing people from role-playing. The "problem" of 4E is having a well-balanced and rather complete set of rules for combat encounters plus some selective non-combat situations (skill challenges). It is thus relatively easy to fall into that trap of believing that the 4E rules are all there is to a game of 4E Dungeons & Dragons. Earlier editions had less complete rules where improvisation was more obviously necessary.

While I would think that the 4E rules would make for a rather good computer role-playing game, my personal experience with 4E is the same as with previous editions: The part not written in the rules is more important and more memorable than the part that is written in the rules. My current adventure in my current campaign is all about how the players over time come to think of the artifact they are collecting piece by piece, and what they will in consequence do with it. It is a grand interactive story with a very open end. The two booklets full of combat and skill encounters set the scene and are fun by themselves, but they aren't what this adventure is about. If we did just the encounters without the role-playing in between, the adventure would be rather boring, and I'd probably rather play a turn-based tactical computer game. But because in Dungeons & Dragons the rules are NOT the game, and there is so much more to it, the game is so much better than that.
Tobold's Blog



Feedly made me smile
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 January 2014, 3:33 am
Since the Google Reader was killed, I use Feedly for reading blog feeds. And while reading the feed from Bio Break, Feedly made some suggestions to me what other sites I might like. Made me smile:
Tobold's Blog



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