Garroting an ooze
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 January 2014, 6:53 am
I very much recommend reading DMDavid's post on elegance and resolution transparency in Dungeons & Dragons rules. He very well explains the problem that you want pen & paper role-playing rules to BOTH "apply broadly so fewer rules can cover whatever happens in the game" and "produce outcomes that match what players expect in the game world". Which happens to be an impossible task. So while I very much agree with him that 4th edition covers the first point brilliantly, and is a much better system also in terms of game balance because a warrior works fundamentally the same as a wizard in 4E, I also agree with him that the downside is "the edition often fails to model the game world, creating a world where you can be on fire and freezing at the same time, where snakes get knocked prone, and where you can garrote an ooze".

In fact, while I didn't detail it in my campaign journal there was a situation in our last D&D session where a black pudding (an ooze-like monster) was "knocked prone" by a spell-effect. And when the players asked me whether that was possible, I preferred to stick to the rules even if they made no logical sense in that situation, than to create a case-by-case system of rules exceptions which would be impossible to manage.

I do consider that position a modern one, as opposed to what I would have ruled in the same situation 30 years ago. And one thing that changed in the meantime is computer games and MMORPGs. When we played 1st edition AD&D the idea that a fireball could burn only enemies while leaving allies untouched would have appeared completely foreign to us. Now I play 4E D&D with a group of players who all played World of Warcraft, and in WoW all area-effect spells selectively touch only enemies and there is not such thing as friendly fire. 4th edition has both kinds of area effects, selective or with friendly fire, and due to the experience with MMORPGs, players don't think that is strange in any way.

Having discussed the theory of games for over a decade on this blog, I think you will believe me if I say that I have a deep interest in that subject. I believe that rules systems are important, because they affect very much how we play, a theory which outside of gaming is an important part of behavioral economics. From my point of view, 4th edition was progress for Dungeons & Dragons, while 5th edition is a step back. It is not that I don't understand the appeal of "classic" D&D, or why some players would want a wizard to work with one sort of resource system (Vancian magic) and a warrior to work with a completely different one. It is just that by having played D&D for over 30 years with many different people and groups, I am very much aware of the problems that these classic rules cause. The "linear fighter, quadratic wizard" problem, or the "5-minute work day" problem were all things that 4th edition solved, and 5th edition brings back.

For me, in the end, Dungeons & Dragons is a collaborative multi-player game. So in my opinion it is more important that the rules apply broadly and thus create a system with automatic balance between classes. If that leads to somebody garroting an ooze, so be it.
Tobold's Blog

Significant figures
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 January 2014, 2:47 am
This post is about math.

(Now that should have made 99% of readers go away).

In a recent comment one of my readers remarked that I had quoted some number, that he wasn't sure about the precision of that number and that "numbers are pedantic". And I was under the impression that not everybody understands the precision of numbers in mathematical terms. Precision is very important in math and sciences, so there are well-established conventions which result in a number not only having a value, but also containing some information about the precision of that value.

The way this precision is expressed is by giving more or less significant figures. By convention, trailing zeroes are placeholders that indicate the scale of the number, and are not significant figures. So if I say that game X has 291,938 players, that is a pedantic number. It only has significant figures, and that basically claims that the number is exact. There are not 291,937 or 291,939 players in that game, there are EXACTLY 291,938.

But if I use trailing zeroes, and say that game X has 300,000 players, only the 3 is a significant figure, the five trailing zeroes aren't. Saying that a game has 300,000 players does not exclude the possibility of the game having some more or less players than that. Any mathematician would read that "300,000" as meaning "between 250,000 and 349,999". Because using all those trailing zeroes means that any number which would be rounded up or down to 300,000 is included. So "300,000" is not a very pedantic number, it is a number with a 16.7% error margin. Likewise if you express the number of players of a game in millions, you include the possibility of an error margin of plus or minus half a million.

These mathematical conventions about significant figures allow us to talk about numbers which are impossible to know exactly. Nobody knows EXACTLY how many inhabitants the United States of America has, and obviously the number changes every day through births, deaths, arrivals and departures. But mathematically it is perfectly okay to claim that the USA has 300 million inhabitants, because the implied error margin of that number is bigger than the probable error margin of a U.S. census. Saying that the 300 million number is wrong would mean saying that it is wrong by over 50 million.

Note that some player numbers expressed on blog posts are "wrong" or at least "disputable" by more than their error margin. To give the most quoted example, the number of World of Warcraft players, even if you express it in millions, varies by more than half a million depending on whether you count or don't count Chinese players in that number. The numbers of EVE Online vary by more than the implied error margin of 50,000 depending on whether you count Chinese players or not, and whether you count "accounts" or "players". And nobody agrees what should be counted for a Free2Play game, as the number of people who ever made an account is rather obviously inflated and not significant at all.
Tobold's Blog

Watching video content on the iPad
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 January 2014, 5:52 am
I am one of those weird people who rather pay for content than to steal it. So for me it is a real concern, and not just a lame excuse for stealing, when I have to remark that due to legal and contractual aspects the availability of content is lagging behind the availability of hardware in Europe. I bought myself just after Christmas the latest version of the iPad, the "Air". It is lighter, and thus easier to hold when you watch a video on it. And it now has stereo speakers instead of mono (although I wished they were placed left and right of the screen when holding it in landscape mode, which they aren't). Thus I am on par with the rest of the world in the latest hardware.

But the content is a completely different picture. I like watching TV series, for example CSI. And somebody living in America would have no problem at all to watch CSI on his iPad: There are numerous services like Netflix, Hulu, HBO GO, or Amazon Instant Video which offer all sorts of TV series on demand streamed for a small fee directly to your iPad. And none of them works in Europe. The only service I can get here is the BBC iPlayer, which is limited to BBC programs.

The only way I can legally buy video content like CSI is on DVD. Which is nice enough if I only want to watch it on my TV screen: I pop the DVD into my DVD player and even get various language options and subtitles. Thus I have a large collection of TV series on DVD at home. But if I want to watch them on my iPad, I'm out of luck.

It isn't as if video streaming from a computer to the iPad was difficult. Any video content I have on my computer can be streamed to the iPad using various applications like AirVideo. But none of those applications work for video content that is on a DVD in the drive of my computer. I would first need to "rip" the DVD to my computer's hard drive to be able to stream it. There appears to be a DVD Player app for the Mac, but I can't find one for Windows. I don't want to "rip" my DVDs. It takes a lot of time, and if the DVD is copy-protected, I would need to use illegal software to circumvent that protection. I just want to stream it directly from a DVD drive (in my computer or as external separate device) to my iPad.

I am one of those weird people who rather pay for content than to steal it. One would assume that the companies that are in the business of creating and selling content would love customers like me. I am banging at their door, begging them to sell me content they already sell to other people, so their cost of making it available to me should be minimal. So why won't they sell this content to me? Why would they want to force me to use illegal means like fake IP or DVD cracking software just to be allowed to watch content on a mobile screen?
Tobold's Blog

Letting somebody else write for me
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 January 2014, 10:38 am
I was planning to write a long response to a recent comment on this blog: People often mindlessly repeat the mantra that having a Free2Play business model always affects a game negatively, and I wanted to point out that EVERY possible business model can affect a game negatively, and that whether a game is exploitative or not doesn't depend on what business model it uses. Before I could finish writing that, Gamasutra published an article stating pretty much exactly that, and better researched than I could have done in the available time.

If you believe that games which have upfront payment or a monthly subscription do not suffer from exploitative game design practices, you are deluding yourself.
Tobold's Blog

The subscription business model is alive and well
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 January 2014, 7:19 am
While I generally agree with Keen's sentiment: "Good games can be ruined by business models, but bad games can never be helped by them.", the reply of Ryan Dancey (developer of Pathfinder Online, a game with a subscription business model) to the Forbes article I discussed last week is worth reading. Ryan has a very nice table with numbers which show that in the Western hemisphere subscription games make about $100 million per month. That is give or take, based on some assumptions about numbers, but I don't want to nitpick on the details. Rather I would like to point out two major things from that table:

1) More than half of those $100 million is made by a single game, World of Warcraft. Every time WoW loses a million subscribers in the West, the number in that table goes down by $15 million as well. As many of the people who are cheering FOR the subscription business model are also cheering when WoW loses subscribers, this is worth pointing out.

2) Every game other than WoW and EVE in the list has two different numbers in the columns on "Estimated monthly players" and "Estimated subscribers". Or in other words, they are all games that do offer a subscription OPTION, but are otherwise Free2Play.

So in the end the whole discussion is one of semantics: What exactly is a "subscription business model game"? I very much agree with Ryan Dancey that IF you count every Free2Play game which has a subscription option as a subscription business model game, then the subscription business model is alive and well, and will still be continue to be so for many years to come. But then of course statements like "subscription games are more fair, because everybody pays the same" do not apply any more.

And I very much believe that the Forbes article didn't use that definition. Nobody believes that The Elder Scroll Online would be hurt by its business model if it had a Free2Play model with a subscription option. It is very much in question whether TESO can be successful if subscription is the ONLY option. But of course as Keen reminds us, TESO might simply fail for being a bad game, regardless of business model.
Tobold's Blog

Death penalties in D&D
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 January 2014, 3:50 am
Last week we had the first character death in my 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign. That is a good opportunity to talk about death and penalties in D&D, in comparison with other games. So, what is death in a role-playing game? Basically it is the game telling you that somebody made a mistake. Maybe that frontal assault on the red dragon wasn't the best possible tactic, or the group ran out of healing spells. It isn't necessarily the person who died who made the mistake, it might well be another player, or in D&D even the DM; but as long as we are in a cooperative multiplayer situation (and in D&D that includes the DM), the responsibility is somewhat shared, and the death of one character is to some extent a message to everybody.

And having that sort of message in the game is important. If you believe in Sid Meier's maxim that a good game is a series of interesting decisions, you need to realize that there is no success without the possibility of failure. I am not at all unhappy that a death occurred in my campaign. Due to the group having 6 players, of which 2 are healers, in a system that is designed for 5 players with 1 healer, it wasn't always easy to keep up the sense of danger necessary for a good game of adventure.

But if I say that this was the first death of the campaign after two years, I need to clarify that it wasn't the first time somebody was down and dying. 4E has basically three levels of death: You go from fully active to "dying" when you drop to 0 or less hit points. But then there is still a window of opportunity in which you can be saved as long as you succeed "death saves" and don't incur further damage. And the penalty for going into "dying" state is light as long as you get revived before dropping to "dead": You might miss a turn or two until somebody heals you, but then you are back up on your feet with no penalty.

If you don't get revived and drop to "dead", all is still not lost. D&D always had resurrection spells, and in 4th edition that spell is a level 8 ritual in a game of 30 levels, so not all that high. My level 7 group doesn't have it, but finding an NPC priest who can do it shouldn't be impossible. And the rules allow that resurrection to happen within 30 days, and even longer if a ritual of preservation is cast on the dead group member. Resurrection from an NPC costs gold, but not all that much; the group lost more money when they had two magic items eaten by a rust monster. And once resurrected the death penalty still is moderate: A -1 to dice rolls for the next 6 fights.

Sometimes a character can't be resurrected. Maybe he died somewhere where his companions couldn't recover even a part of his body. Maybe he got disintegrated or suffered some other unrecoverably fatal condition. Now obviously the player is still sitting at the table and you still want to play with him. So the death penalty in that case is that the player needs to roll a new character. At that point we are firmly in the domain of house rules. No D&D edition ever was very firm on rules for rolling a new character into an existing campaign. A few DMs insist on new characters being level 1, but in general large level differences in a group cause more problems than it is worth. In my campaign all characters always have the same level and the same xp, to stress the cooperative multiplayer part, and avoid somebody going off on his own to get ahead in experience points. So a re-roll character in my campaign would also have the same level and xp than the others. The death penalty for a re-roll would be handled by the magic items that I'd hand out to the new character, which would generally be common magic items and thus less interesting than the equipment the previous character had.

Of course changing your character also has lots of other effects, but I hesitate to classify those as "death penalties": You need to put some work into creating a new character, you lose story lines linked to the previous character, but gain new ones instead. Replacing an old character who died by a new one is as much an opportunity for a new start as it is a penalty. That is why in my campaign I don't insist that a character needs to be dead beyond the point of being resurrectable to allow a player to roll a new character. If somebody really had enough of his old character, he could even replace him without needing to die first.

And sometimes I wonder why computer roleplaying games don't have that option. Wouldn't that make for an interesting option to be able to reroll a character without losing progress in character power and/or story? On the other hand, computer games are often short enough that starting anew at level 1 isn't that much of a burden. In a way the next expansion of World of Warcraft is offering improved re-roll capabilities, with the possibility of skipping the first 90 levels. If you grew bored with your old character, or your guild / group needs a different class, why not?
Tobold's Blog

Down in the Dust
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 January 2014, 2:50 am
Exactly one year ago today a great MMO experiment was started: The PS3 shooter Dust 514 was linked to the PC MMORPG EVE Online. Whether you are a fan of EVE or not (and I sure ain't), one has to acknowledge the innovation and potential of the idea of a central virtual world in interaction with satellite games. So how did it work out?

Unfortunately it didn't. While EVE Online outside China has 30,000 daily peak concurrent users, Dust 514 only has 3,000. So there are ten times more pilots in space than troops on the ground. And with other console shooters having 300,000 daily peak concurrent users, it is safe to say that Dust 514 was a flop. Review scores were pretty bad, Metacritic shows an average of 59/100.

As far as I can tell the reason for the flop was that Dust 514 simply was a bad shooter game. It was not the idea of a link with an MMORPG that sunk the project, but the quality of execution. Thus I am still positive on the idea having potential. And not just with shooters: 16.5 million people bought an Animal Crossing game, 150 million people bought a The Sims game. Is it so outlandish to think of a MMORPG linked to games like these, where the players of the satellite game replace the NPCs of the MMORPG, playing the role of the peaceful villagers in need of heroes to do tasks for them?
Tobold's Blog

The Pay2Win Scale
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 January 2014, 3:44 am
If somebody on the internet doesn't like the business model of a specific game, he is likely to insult that game as being "Pay2Win". And if you ask for a precise definition of when a game is Pay2Win and when it isn't, you never get an answer. The inconvenient truth is that even if somebody rants against Pay2Win, he most likely loves another game in which progress and winning is also in some way depending on the amount of money spent. At best we can talk about a hypothetical scale of Pay2Win-iness on which all games could be placed; but there are very few games that are either 100% Pay2Win or 0% Pay2Win, and most games are somewhere in the middle of that scale.

I can't find a better example for an 100% Pay2Win game than an auction. While auctions aren't usually considered as "games", they do share some characteristics with games, like having strict rules and a win condition. And obviously winning an auction is pretty much 100% depending on how much money you're willing to spend.

On the other end of the scale we already get into an argument about what money we are counting when we talk about Pay2Win. Because if we talk about computer games, most of them require some money to be spent to play. You need to buy a computer or console, and you need to buy the game. So you could say that you can't "win" such a game without "paying". On the other hand the cost is more or less fixed. You might have a tiny advantage in a PC multiplayer game if your computer is much more powerful than the computer of your opponents, but that effect is small enough to be neglected. Paying for let's say a second copy of the game wouldn't give you any added progress or chance to win. So we might as well bundle all games that are "buy once, play forever" at or near the 0% end of the Pay2Win scale.

If we now look at a typical MMORPG, and what game could be more typical than World of Warcraft, we find that it is surprisingly far from the 0% end of the Pay2Win scale. Just ask yourself how much money YOU spent on World of Warcraft or whatever other subscription MMORPG you played for several years. For me that is well over $1,000 spent on World of Warcraft alone. And that expenditure isn't independent of progress in the game: Since I don't pay for WoW any more, my progress has stopped. We talked yesterday about how getting to the level cap in World of Warcraft and even getting epic gear was possible without ever doing any challenging cooperative multiplayer content. But what it does take is time. And if you are just a normal person with a job / studies / family / friends / food / sleep occupying most of your time, it takes months to get a new character to full epic gear at level cap. Months which you have to pay for in subscription fees. That is even more extreme in some other games, e.g. skill progress in EVE is done in real time, offline, and thus solely depends on how much money you spend on the game. Which is why many EVE players pay for multiple accounts. The more you pay in a subscription game, the more you advance, so it isn't 0% Pay2Win.

The games most likely to be accused of being Pay2Win are those which are free to play and then have an "item shop" or something which allows faster progress or other in-game advantages in exchange for money. If you want to place those on our Pay2Win scale, you'll notice something weird: For many of these games it is extremely hard to correlate progress with the amount of money spent. In most of the cases it is a matter of "you COULD pay to win", which doesn't automatically mean that somebody who has progressed more than others is automatically the person who paid most. In many cases it is possible to arrive at the exact same point in the game by either spending more time or more money, or even by being more skilled. If you look at forums for games like World of Tanks, you'll always see people who are adamant that somebody who landed a good hit on them must have been using money for "gold ammo" to do so; but if you study the game mechanics a bit you'll realize that it is very possible to one-shot another player by simply being very good at aiming with a tank and equipment you can easily get for no money at all. The Pay2Win argument often looks like a lame excuse for players to explain why they have lost or didn't progress that much. It is easier to claim somebody else is a "wallet warrior" than admitting that he might just be better at that game than you are.

So I think that on the Pay2Win scale those games shouldn't be represented by a single point, but rather by a range: How much money do HAVE TO spend to progress in the game? And how far could you get if you played badly but spent a lot of money. For some games those bars could cover most of the scale, with both playing your way to a win less money spent than for a "buy once, play forever" game and paying your way to a win being possible.
Tobold's Blog

Competition or virtual life simulation?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 January 2014, 2:58 am
Blizzard sent out a survey to some players asking how much they would be willing to pay for a level 90 character, beyond the one free they get in the next expansion. That caused the expected wailing and gnashing of teeth, including some original suggestions like forcing those new level 90 characters to play through the proving grounds in order to demonstrate that the player is sufficiently skilled in playing his class. To me such suggestions reveal a deep rift in the player base between the players who believe that MMORPGs are competitions in which you level and/or gear score are an indicator of your skill in playing the game and other players who believe that MMORPGs are virtual worlds in which players lead pretend virtual lives full of adventure.

The source of that rift is that the games themselves aren't really clear about what they want to be. On the one side the hardest content requiring the most skill is clearly concentrated at the level cap, and usually has some sort of gear requirement. On the other side it is today possible for a new player to start a new character in World of Warcraft and get to level 90 with full epic gear without ever doing any multiplayer activity, and without having learned how to play his character in a multiplayer environment. You can get to that point as a warrior without ever touching the Taunt button, or as a mage by only using your 1st level spells. So as somebody who is getting to level 90 by standard leveling doesn't need to prove his ability to be able to play his class, it would be somewhat ridiculous to demand it from those who accelerate the process by paying.

Now it may appear weird that somebody who is not playing World of Warcraft competitively would even want to pay for a level 90 character. But if you look closely, even the most peaceful activities of living a virtual life in the virtual world of Azeroth are locked behind level requirements. You need to be high level to gather resources for crafting, growing vegetables on a farm happens in a high-level zone and occasionally requires fighting high-level mobs, and I would be very much surprised if the new player housing would be accessible to low-level players.

I could very well imagine a very different type of MMORPG in which both competitive adventuring and leading peaceful virtual lives co-exist in better harmony. If you look at a pen & paper roleplaying game, you have the player adventurers interacting with NPC civilians who craft or farm or fish or do other things. Why not create a MMORPG where you can lead a virtual life of crafting and farming and fishing and whatever without any level requirements if you are inclined to do so? A bit like Ultimate Online or Star Wars Galaxies, where certain players were famous for being the best blacksmith on the server instead of for being a server-first raider. It should be possible to create an interesting player economy between adventuring and non-adventuring players. And there wouldn't even have to be a strict separation between the two: A farmer could always take up his sword when the mood strikes him and do some quests, while a high-level adventurer could always spend some time off fishing.

To me it appears that the decline of the MMORPG genre has very much to do with the trend towards massively single-player adventuring along a linear progression path. By adding more different options on how to live a virtual life and by adding more different interactions between players, it would be a lot easier to persuade people to play a multi-player online game with extra cost instead of a single-player game.
Tobold's Blog

The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 7
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 January 2014, 3:45 am
The session started where the previous session had left off: The Favorites of Selune are standing in front of the watchtower in Gardmore Abbey, wondering how to get in. There is clearly something strange going on, with the tower apparently extending into another world, and impossible to enter by normal means. But the group is still searching for the cards of the Deck of Many Things, and the cards they have show a "pull" towards the watchtower, indicating that there are cards inside. After some unsuccessful attempts, the cleric has the idea of touching the wall of the watchtower with one of their cards, which causes a portal to inside to open.

Stepping inside the heroes find themselves in scene right out of a Lovecraft horror book, a warped room resembling the expected inside of a watchtower, but with non-Euclidean geometry, and a rubbery floor slowly "flowing" towards a crevice in the middle of the circular room. Two cards form a bridge over the crevice, while a third card creates a door on the other side of that crevice. At the bottom of the crevice is a sort a black lake, from which globules float up from time to time, and out through the door.

So the rogue attaches himself with a rope to the warlord, and crosses the bridge. Unfortunately the two "cards" that make up the bridge are in reality mimics, who attack as soon as the rogue is on the other side. And the moving floor causes the warlord to fall into the crevice, where he lands softly, but on a black pudding that also attacks. Some of the floating globules also join the fight. The confined space with the floor moving towards the crevice and the two halves of the room not connected by a bridge any more makes this a difficult fight. Both the mimics and the black pudding have attacks where they grab a character with tentacles or pseudo-pods, and then deal automatic damage if the hold isn't broken. But the warlord manages to climb out of the crevice, using the rope he is still attached to. And the warrior scores an early critical hit on the mimic on his side of the bridge, bloodying it with a single strike, so that it is killed early.

The black pudding crawls out of the crevice, attacking the side with the larger number of heroes, but using an area attack that manages to grab characters on both sides. With the minions having dies early, that leaves the mimic on the side of the warlord and rogue, and the black pudding on the side with the other 4 group members. Perceiving the black pudding to be the greater threat, the rogue jumps over the crevice, leaving the warlord alone. But the warlord fails his escape roll from the grab of the black pudding pseudo-pod, then receives a critical hit from the mimic, and goes down.

Now I had a problem, because I knew that one player had an object that could have helped the warlord. But as the player wasn't thinking of that, I felt I shouldn't intervene. So even with the warlord succeeding his first death save, he is then crushed by the black pudding pseudo-pod before the others could kill the pudding. First character death of the campaign! Now if somebody dies in my campaign he can either make a new character of the same level, or try to get a resurrect with the help of the other group members. The player of the warlord wants to keep his character, and so the others carry his corpse into the next encounters.

After having killed the remaining monsters, the Favorites of Selune manage to leave the moving floor room through the door, and find themselves one "floor" up in the tower. The wizard is trying to leave the tower by touching the walls first with one card, then with two and all three cards they have. Using more cards clearly has a bigger effect, but apparently the number of cards they have isn't sufficient to open a portal back to the real world. So they have to continue onward through the watchtower. Everything in the second room seems to be flowing upwards, from the globules still floating through the door to the walls itself. But chaotic influences attack the characters, which at first they are able to resist with endurance checks. What follows is technically a "skill challenge", a series of skill checks based on the player's actions. But whenever they fail, they accumulate a "chaos point", which comes with some mutation like an extra limb, sprouting tentacles, or a melting face. The skill challenge has three stages, in which the heroes manage to get to an exit, traveling through various psychedelic scenes. Fortunately for them they each remain under 3 chaos points, so their mutations disappear.

But getting to the exit of this chaos is jumping out of the frying pan and into the fire: Behind the exit is a room which apparently previously was the top of the watchtower, and is now inhabited by a beholder and his mutated minions. One of the minions is recognizable by his sword and harness as the missing father of Berrian, the leader of the eladrin. The beholder is offering to let the heroes live if they help him to get out of the watchtower, in which he is as trapped as they are. The wizard remembers his earlier attempts to escape which ended with the conclusion that they would need more cards to do so. Feeling a pull of their cards towards the beholder, they ask him whether he has cards of the Deck of Many Things, and the beholder is willing to give them the three cards he holds. Touching the walls with all six cards together works, and moves the whole watchtower back from that Far Realm into the real world. Only problem: The beholder now also is in the real world, and free from his pocket dimension prison. So he keeps his word and doesn't bother with attacking the players, but yells "I'm free" and escapes floating through the roof.

As the mutated minions have crumbled to dust, the Favorites of Selune find themselves on the top floor of a now rather ordinary watchtower. They collect the sword and harness to give news of his father to Berrian, and leave the tower by means of a now normal staircase and door, still carrying the body of their dead comrade. At this point we ended the session.
Tobold's Blog

Predicting disaster
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 January 2014, 5:38 am
I was talking yesterday about how we tend to towards playing the same game, sequels, or games of the same genre until we get completely bored and want something very different. While of course not everybody works like that, data on the success of sequels supports that theory. Furthermore what is true for individual cases might well also be true in the aggregate: Whole genres of games being very successful for years, and then fading. In that context I found an article in Forbes rather interesting, predicting The Elder Scrolls Online to be the biggest video game disaster of 2014.

I can't really say I disagree. If you *had to* predict a "biggest video game disaster of the upcoming year", MMORPGs in general are a good bet: They tend to have large budgets, and their launches are notoriously tricky. Some of the biggest video game disasters of the last decade were MMORPGs who flopped on release, or shortly after, if they even got that far (Project Copernicus). Furthermore the article has some good arguments, like Skyrim being a great single-player game for which the advantages of going massively multiplayer aren't really obvious.

But I do think the clincher is a combination of the "genre fatigue" discussed above and the economic argument. If we have become less enthusiastic about MMORPGs in general, and TESO isn't radically new, then the number of people willing to pay over $200 for a year of TESO is likely to be limited. There are some perfectly good alternatives that are either Free2Play, or "buy once, no subscription". In addition to that, MMORPGs have a strong history of deflation: Very many games that started out with a $60 price tag and a $15 per month subscription are now considerably cheaper and/or have changed their business model completely. An expectation of deflation can reduce demand, due to people waiting and seeing. That can quickly turn into a self-fulfilling prophecy, because a lack of early success can cause a rethink of the business model, and also can cause other potential players to be less interested in that "flopped" game.

I do believe that it has become nearly impossible to launch "yet another MMORPG" with a monthly subscription successfully. To succeed with a subscription model these days, one would have to offer something which at least appears to be very different from the usual fare. Maybe Wildstar can do it, but I am not sure. TESO could very well end up being perceived as an inferior version of Skyrim with a much higher price tag. Predicting a disaster for The Elder Scrolls Online is a reasonable bet.
Tobold's Blog

Predicting fun
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 January 2014, 5:03 am
Unless he plays the same game every day, a gamer frequently needs to make a prediction of fun. He will have to choose which game of his library to play next, and sometimes he might want to choose a new game for his collection. And the question of "will that game be fun?" is obviously an important criterion of choice. But how can we predict whether we will have fun playing some game today or tomorrow?

I think the main difficulty in this choice is whether to go for the old or for the new. If I played game A yesterday and had fun, it is rather natural choice to play game A again today. But we all know that this strategy has its limits: At some point we feel we have "finished" game A, be it because we reached the end of the game or because we simply grew bored of it. So we want to play something else. That still leaves us with a choice between old and new: We frequently predict that because we had fun with game A, we will also have fun with the sequel of game A. I don't know if you saw some of the lists of the best-selling video-games of 2013, but whatever version of it you believe in, it is most certainly dominated by sequels: GTA 5, Pokemon X/Y, Fifa 14, Battlefield 4, a Call of Duty sequel, Assassin's Creed 4, Bioshock Infinite, etc.

And it isn't just sequels: We also tend to stick to games of the same genre. If we grew bored of playing online multiplayer shooter Call of Duty and there isn't another sequel around, we'd rather try the latest Battlefield than to go for something completely different and play let's say a Pokemon game or The Sims. And because game companies know that, they have a tendency to produce games that are rather similar to whatever is selling well at the moment.

That gamer strategy of choosing the tried and tested genre of course also has its limits. Basically it is a problem of diminishing returns: If you switch from game A to game B, and game B is very similar to game A, your learning curve will be a lot shorter, but you are also likely to grow bored with the game faster. According to Raph Koster, the two are very much related, learning something new in a game is an important element of fun.

So one alternative strategy of predicting fun is to go for "something completely different", as Monty Python would have said. If your previous game was a multiplayer shooter, play a point-and-click adventure next, or a puzzle game, or a turn-based strategy game! The basic prediction of fun in that case is "I grew bored with this genre, I'll have more with something else.". But ultimately of course that is more of a shot in the dark than a prediction.

This is where game reviews and recommendations come in: If you are a huge fan of the Assassin's Creed series of games, you are likely to buy the next sequel regardless of what its Metacritic score is. But if you want to try something very different from what you usually play, going for a game that either has consistently high review scores, or is recommended by somebody you believe has similar tastes as you, improves your chance of having fun with a new game. It is still a matter of probability, as you might find that you simply don't like a particular genre of games and even playing the best of that lot isn't fun to you. But if you want for example to try a survival horror game for the first time, chances are you'll like The Last of Us (Metacritic score of 95) better than BlackSoul (Metacritic score of 25). Personally I tried The Last of Us this year, and found I simply don't like that genre, which isn't all that surprising, as I don't like horror movies either. But by going for the best of the lot, at least I'm reasonably sure that it is the genre I dislike, and not just that particular game.

As I have been playing video games for over 30 years now, I arrived at a mixed prediction of fun strategy: I rarely try completely new genres, as frankly new genres aren't arriving all that often. But I frequently change between genres I know I like. And to mix it up a little, I also sometimes play genres I'm indifferent about, but know I don't hate. How do you choose your next game to play or buy?
Tobold's Blog

Happy New Year!
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 31 December 2013, 6:21 pm
I wish all my readers a happy new year and a great 2014!
Tobold's Blog

I don't get Clash of Clans
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 December 2013, 8:46 am
There are games I play because I am personally interested in them. And there are other games I try just because I want to know what the fuzz is about. So since it is Free2Play and one of the most profitable games on the iPad, I decided to try out Clash of Clans. Only problem is, I still don't understand what the fuzz is about. I don't remember ever having played a game with so few available actions per session. I log on, collect my gold and elixir, build or upgrade two buildings, and that's it most of the time. Once in a while I have an army ready for a short attack, but there I just place my units around the enemy village and the battle then runs on automatic. But that seems to be awfully little gameplay compared to hours of waiting for your next building to be ready.

I can only imagine that the people who like the game are not in it for the gameplay, but for the meta-game: Joining clans, inter-clan politics, clan warfare and the like. A bit like the board game Diplomacy or the MMORPG EVE Online, where the political interaction between real humans is a lot more interesting than the observable gameplay. But even if I had the time to invest in a long, political game, I would want that game to be a little more complicated than Clash of Clans appears to be. And in consequence I would want gameplay sessions to be longer between waiting periods.

But then, I'm not likely to ever find a "multiplayer strategy" game I like. I tend to get annoyed at the sheer randomness of whether I am or I am not being attacked by others. And in games like Clash of Clans I am not happy about the rather blatant Pay2Win aspects: For example the reason I can only build or upgrade 2 buildings at a time is because I didn't spend $5 on a third builder, $10 for a fourth, or $20 for a fifth. Put enough money in the game and you don't ever have to wait for things to get built or upgraded, and you can get all the resources you need. While there is apparently some skill involved in designing the layout of your defenses (if you don't copy them from somewhere) and placing your attackers, Clash of Clans appears mostly to be about gathering resources. So if you buy those resources you win easily.

So I can't really understand why Clash of Clans has 4.5 million daily players. Supercell's other big hit game, Hay Day, is equally profitable, but as it is a more elaborate and less annoying version of Farmville, I can understand that more easily. But I can't understand the guy spending $7,000 a month of Clash of Clans. The fact that you *can* win the game by using money makes winning the game unattractive to me. I would like to play a strategy game, and not Clash of Bank Statements.
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A rose by any other name would smell as sweet
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 December 2013, 2:21 pm
MMORPGs frequently resemble each other in terms of gameplay, so that you'll hear that this or that game is a "WoW clone". But if you actually play those games one after the other, you'll notice lots of differences; for example the user interface is often different, even if it follows genre conventions. If you want to see *actual* cloned games, you need to look at Asian games. I recently got an advertisement from Perfect World Entertainment to try out Elemental Kingdoms. And as I kind of liked the game and started to look into it, I stumbled upon two other games: Lies of Astaroth from iFree Studio, and Elves Realm from eFun. Now I have no idea how these three companies are connected, but the three games are complete gameplay clones of each other. Basically it is exactly the same collectible card game with exactly the same user interface down to identical tips on the loading screen, but with three different sets of trading cards in different styles.

Both Lies of Astaroth and Elemental Kingdoms run on my iPad, and I tried both to see what they were about. LoA has more cutesy graphics, while EK has more of a high fantasy style. Cards names and images are different, and so are the maps and other images in the game. But apart from that graphical difference, the games clearly work on the same game engine, with every single UI element being exactly in the same position and doing exactly the same thing in those games. I couldn't check Elves Realm, as it apparently is only available in some Asian iTunes stores, and the Google Play version isn't compatible with my smart phone (presumably it needs an Android tablet). But as far as I could see from a YouTube video, it actually is exactly the same game with exactly the same cards and graphics as Lies of Astaroth.

Apart from the clone weirdness, I kind of like Elemental Kingdoms. A collectible card game consists of a deckbuilding part and a playing part. Both were equally important and challenging in Magic the Gathering, which I liked a lot. In Hearthstone the deckbuilding was much less important than the playing, and I couldn't warm up to that. In Elemental Kingdoms and the clones, deckbuilding is far more important than playing. In fact you can do most battles by pressing the prominent Autoplay button. But the deckbuilding is important, as you get very few cards in a deck, start with only 1 card in hand, and draw only 1 per round. While the random order in which you thus draw the cards can make a difference, it is extremely important to have built the best possible deck for the situation, especially if you want to beat the special conditions of the harder difficulties.

Other than that the games suffer from the same problem as every other collectible card game: It is kind of pay to win. Yes, you probably could get all cards from playing endlessly, but the temptation to spend money on boosters full of cards is great. But if you can live with that, Elemental Kingdoms is fun enough for a free to play mobile game. If you want to try it out, you can use my invitation code of 44vhwv (you enter that when you choose the name for your character).
Tobold's Blog

Is chess a game of skill?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 December 2013, 8:25 am
The answer to the headline question appears to be rather obvious: Of course chess is a game of skill, where your success against an opponent is very much determined by your respective skills in the game. But the reason I am asking the question is that in the context of video games, it is a lot less obvious what people mean when they talk about skill. Basically there are two parts to an action in a video game: Making the right move, and executing the move right. And more and more people apply the term "skill" only to the second part of this.

The reason for that is that the execution part is often the only demanding part of a video game. It is not an intellectual challenge to know where to jump in a platformer game, to know where to shoot the enemy in a shooter game, or to know not to stand in the fire in a MMORPG raid encounter. The challenge in all of these games is to execute it right, which is mostly a question of reaction time, sometimes targeting, and frequently of remembering some button combination or sequence. Even in strategy games the focus of the game has moved away from being a better strategist to being able to click faster and switch faster between different parts of the battlefield. If you watch any so-called "e-sports" event, you will see a lot of hectic clicking and button-pressing, and very few people in a quiet thinker's pose like in a chess tournament.

As a consequence, when video gamers speak of their "leet skillz", they are almost exclusively talking about their skills of execution. In that view, chess is not a game of skill, because the execution of a move takes no skill at all. In fact, if you did it wrong and placed your chess piece badly, your opponent or a judge would correct you.

This attitude to skill was also very much in evidence in the discussion thread of my previous post, where several people mentioned that artificial intelligence is deliberately dumbed down, because it otherwise would just crush every player. Which is correct as long as you only talk about the ability of the computer to execute video game moves right. Of course a computer can "click" much faster than a human, target with 100% accuracy, and have perfect timing in his moves.

But if you play a game that doesn't completely rely on skills of execution, but where the game is to figure out the best move, it turns out that artificial intelligence isn't actually all that great. If you play a game like Total War: Rome II, you will see the computer opponent attack heavily fortified cities with tiny armies that have visibly no chance to achieve anything; or you'll see units get lost in battle, standing around not knowing where to go. While a computer is relatively good at chess, that is because chess is a very structured game, with a limited number of pieces, each of with having only a limited number of possible moves. Even that takes already a lot of number crunching. But a less structured strategy game, with far more units and far more possibilities, is often more than an AI can handle.
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How long are games relevant?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 18 December 2013, 3:40 am
There was a side-discussion in yesterday's thread whether my negative impression of Assassin's Creed 1 was mostly due to the game being "old". With "old" being 6 years in this case. The argument is that computers and their associated technologies change so fast, that after 6 years a game simply isn't relevant any more. I have two objections to that argument, a minor and a major one.

The minor objection is that change in PC games technology has slowed down considerably in the last few years. I used to buy a new PC every two years, but the computer I bought two-and-a-half years ago is still able to play the latest games at the highest resolution of my 22" screen with all settings to maximum quality. Yes, a 2013 game looks nicer than a game from 2007, but the difference isn't as striking as let's say between 2007 and 2001.

My major objection is that when I talked about Assassin's Creed 1, I mostly talked about gameplay issues, not technical issues. And on the gameplay side I have problems seeing much technological development at all. One could for example think that better computers would enable better artificial intelligence. But if you compare let's say Rome: Total War from 2004 with it's Rome 2 sequel of 2013, the AI doesn't seem to have evolved at all. The only recent "solution" to the computer being so bad at playing computer games that involve strategy or tactics was making every game multi-player online these days to avoid the need for an AI. And the only game I played this year with a gameplay I had never seen before was Card Hunter.

I do believe that computer games can remain relevant for much longer than 6 years. For example Elite from 1984 is still very much an inspiration for one of the biggest currently ongoing game development projects, Star Citizen. As is Wing Commander from 1990. In fact, Kickstarter is full of successfully funded projects for remakes of games from the 80's and 90's. There are even remakes that keep the original graphics, like the iOS remake of another 1984 classic, Lords of Midnight. Others modernize graphics and gameplay while staying true to the spirit of the original, like the new XCOM: Enemy Unknown / Enemy Within.

I think the games that are forgotten or dismissed after a few years are those who were developed with a focus on graphics instead of gameplay. The classics that people are trying to remake a quarter of a century later are those where the gameplay stood out from the crowd.
Tobold's Blog

Is the Assassin's Creed series improving?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 December 2013, 2:49 am
Ubisoft sent me advertisements for Assassin's Creed IV several times, reminding me that I never played any game of that series. But I do have Assassin's Creed 1, 2, and 3 in my Steam library, having picked them up in impulse buys very cheap at some sale. Always a bad idea that. So this weekend I decided I should at least check out the first Assassin's Creed. And I wasn't impressed.

It started with a rare experience: A Steam game that wouldn't start. It turned out that Steam automatically launches the DirectX 10 version of the game, and although I have a computer which is newer than the game is and has a DirectX 11 graphics card, the DirectX 10 version just crashed repeatedly during the loading screen. The DirectX 9 version didn't crash, but I had to rename files to persuade Steam to launch the game in that mode. After some more fiddling to change controls from keyboard/mouse to XBox 360 gamepad, I was finally ready to play.

Now one disadvantage of having a degree in science is that the pseudo-science of games can get on my nerves. The memories of my ancestors encoded in my DNA? Yeah, right, that would cause my DNA to change every day and make DNA testing rather useless. So after a few minutes of that nonsense I just wanted to skip those cut scenes playing in modern time. And found out that I couldn't. Bleh!

Once I was allowed to start playing, I enjoyed Assassin's Creed for a few hours. Controls were easy and intuitive enough on the gamepad, the historical story was much better than the modern part, graphics were nice (except for the strange horse gallop animation), the cities seemed alive, and everything was rosy. I was told I had to do two investigation missions in the first city, but could do up to six for added advantages. And I was told I could save citizens for them to help me. So I climbed every tower in the first city, did all the investigations, saved all the citizens, and then did my first of nine assassinations with no problem.

Now maybe it was a mistake to not try the assassination after only two investigations to see what the difference would be. But I received very little feedback from the game regarding the effect of me having done the additional missions and saving the citizens. And all character progress is just linked to the scripted story, so I was left with the feeling that I did the "side quests" for nothing.

No matter. I continued playing and arrived at the second city. And half way through that I realized that apart from a few minor differences (more soldiers on roofs than in the first city), the second city played exactly like the first one. So I checked some reviews of Assassin's Creed and learned that ALL cities play the same. Now the gameplay of Assassin's Creed isn't especially challenging. Many of the view point towers are the same, and very few of them require any thought to climb them. Usually pressing the up button is enough, with a few sideway movements at obvious points. You need to be really pushing the wrong buttons to fall off. Combat is only slightly harder. And the "stealth" part is a joke compared to games like Deux Ex: Human Revolution (which I played through twice) or Dishonored. So by the end of the second city I was already bored of Assassin's Creed and deleted the game. Pretty enough, but too repetitive for my taste.

Now I'm wondering if I should try Assassin's Creed 2 and 3. Does the series get any better? Which game of the series would you consider to be the best, and why?
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Degree of involvement of the players in the story
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 December 2013, 4:01 am
I talked about the two D&D Sundering adventures Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard recently. Without giving away too much of the plot, the two adventures share a common structure: The adventure is divided into 10 stages, and in each stage the players can be involved in one or more of multiple events. This is deliberately designed in a way that they can't take part in every event that happens, and there are even instructions on what happens if they don't get involved in any event of a given stage. In short: There is a story that happens, and the players can influence that story by their action, but the story will progress even if they don't.

While I don't plan on using these adventures anytime soon, I might want to use that structure in some variation. The more classic form of adventure has a story that doesn't progress if the players don't act: Like in a video game the NPCs of a scene are frozen in time and space, and the scene involving them only takes place once the players arrive. You never arrive at the altar of the evil god to find that the virgin has been sacrificed an hour ago. Well, at least that is never part of the written adventure, although a DM annoyed with his group taking a full night of rest after every combat might improvise some consequences for tardiness into the story. The "open door, action happens" style of story-telling works reasonably well with the classic dungeon crawl adventure, but tends to work less well with city adventures.

I consider the typical city murder mystery / intrigue adventure to be difficult to run. Of course that depends on your players and your circumstances. But my group only plays twice a month, and a story that relies on the players remembering lots of hints and clues often fails because the players simply forget stuff over the months that the adventure runs. Thus a structure where the story advances whether the players push it forward or not has definitive advantages.

I am, however, also acutely aware of the disadvantages: If the story happens without the players, the players might not become very involved in that story. Dungeons & Dragons after all is supposed to be heroic fantasy, with the players as the movers and shakers. In Murder in Baldur's Gate it will not be obvious to most players how their actions influenced the eventual outcome, as the DM is instructed to secretly count points for three different factions, depending on for which faction the players intervene with what degree of success. There is a risk that at the end of the adventure the players only remember that "stuff happened", and can't say what their role in that was.

If I am going to make an adventure like that, I think I will stick to a much simpler story, which is easier to remember, and where the consequences of the players actions are much more obvious. Even if the players didn't plan the outcome of something like it then happened, it should at least be logical and clear how their actions caused or influenced whatever eventually happened.
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Did iPad Air production planning go wrong?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 December 2013, 5:20 am
I have a 64GB iPad 3. Since I have a lot of games installed on it, the biggest of which is 2GB, plus 8GB of music, lots roleplaying material in pdf format, and other media, I only have 8GB of memory left. Which really isn't that surprising if you look at the typical size of a PC hard drive full of media. Now a full solid state hard drive on an iPad is annoying: There is no way to increase it, and even just managing what is on it is a hassle, because you need to use iTunes on your PC for much of that. Now since I installed iOS7, the iPad 3 is also a bit slow. So I decided that I could use a new iPad Air 128GB, which would not only solve my storage and speed problems, but also be lighter to hold when watching videos, and have stereo speakers. Only problem: Nobody wants to sell me one.

I visited quite a lot of stores that sell iPads, and the story is always the same: They have piles of unsold iPad Air 16GB, but the 128GB is sold out and they have no idea when its coming back, and can't promise one before Christmas. Apple simply completely misjudged which version of the new iPad people would want to buy, and produced far too many of the entry models and not enough of the top of the range model. So why do more customers than expected prefer the most expensive iPad Air?

One factor is probably that this is the 5th generation of iPad already, so most customers either already have an iPad or another Apple product like an iPhone or iPod Touch. If you are aware of the inability to upgrade the solid state hard drive, the hassle of managing content via iTunes, and the typical size of media and other content, you know to stay away from the 16GB model. The 16GB model still outsells the bigger models, but not by as much as expected. It is perfectly fine if you don't plan on using it to store media and just have small selection of apps, but if you want to do everything with your tablet, 16GB is quite limiting.

But more importantly the market for tablets is split up, like many other markets for consumer goods: The stuff that sells well is either very cheap or very expensive, while there is not much demand for the middle of the range stuff. So if you are looking for good value for money in a tablet, you're going to buy an Android tablet for half the price of the cheapest iPad. And if are looking for a luxury tablet, you don't bother with the entry model iPad, but want a better one.

Fortunately I'm buying the iPad Air for myself, so I'm not bound by an artificial Christmas deadline. I assume even Apple is clever enough to read their sales figures and produce the models most in demand. So by next year the supply should have stabilized. Given the low cost of solid state memory, I'd sure hope that the next generation of iPads comes with more of it.
Tobold's Blog

D&D Multi-Edition Adventures
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 December 2013, 7:29 am
Dungeons & Dragons lost the Edition Wars: At the end of the public beta test of D&D Next it has become rather obvious that the fifth edition is not going to heal the rift between the fans of the different editions; it is more likely to just create yet another sub-group of fans who love that edition and violently hate all the others. Imagine you could still play World of Warcraft at any state of the game you liked, from vanilla to patch 5.4: People already disagree today at which point in time WoW was best, and if it was actually possible to play all those versions the player base would be hopelessly split as well.

The 4th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is already on life-support. The D&D Insider tools are still working, but no new material is coming out. And role-playing games stores are winding down their inventory of 4E products. So when Wizards of the Coast released two new adventures, Murder in Baldur's Gate and Legacy of the Crystal Shard, that supposedly still support 4th edition, I bought them. But these aren't 4E adventures; these are multi-edition adventures that supposedly run in 3.5, 4, or D&D Next. So how does that work?

In short, it works by removing pretty much every technical detail from the adventures. If you actually need technical details, like the powers of monsters in 4th edition, you need to download them from the website. They aren't provided with the printed product. Which also means you don't get any of the useful stuff, like battle maps. If you have a combat, the DM will need to improvise everything. On the one side that makes the adventures pretty much universal, they could be perfectly well run in Pathfinder or even any fantasy RPG system. On the other side, if you bought a pre-made adventure to avoid having to do everything yourself, you're out of luck.

Especially the Murder in Baldur's Gate adventure could not only be played with any fantasy pen & paper system, it could also be played at any level you want. In fact the level it is officially is probably the worst possible choice: Would you make a world-shattering adventure about murdering gods a level 1 adventure? If you are involved in big city intrigues, it is hard to explain why all of your adversaries and their henchmen are so low level. Apart from the fact that at high levels most editions of D&D break down, the adventure could perfectly well be played at a higher level.

The good news is that once you get around all the complications of editions and levels, the adventures by themselves are rather good. Or rather, the material provided gives you a very nice sandbox to play in. There is more "adventure" in Murder in Baldur's Gate, but the Legacy of the Crystal Shard pretty much only provides that sandbox. There are a lot of nice touches, like each adventure coming with its own DM screen with useful adventure-specific maps on it. And the production value is high. Actually too high for some, because the nice quality comes with a hefty $35 price tag, a fact which many people complained about.

Now 4th edition was kicked off with Keep on the Shadowfell, a rather flawed adventure that contributed much to the negative image of 4E. Somebody who starts playing D&D Next with Murder in Baldur's Gate is likely to get a much more positive impression of 5E, provided he has a good DM. But there are two things wrong with that: First of all the multi-edition adventures only show that you can run the same good adventure in any edition or system you like, so it isn't really an advertisement for D&D Next. And second this nice material would be very much wasted if put it in the hands of really new players; if you tried to DM your very first game of Dungeons & Dragons using any of these multi-edition adventures, you would most probably flounder and fail miserably.

As somebody with an ongoing 4E D&D campaign, the two adventures have a rather different problem: They are very specifically involved with The Sundering, a major cataclysm of the Forgotten Realms world. I'm not sure I want to use The Sundering now, because it would very much change my campaign world and make much of the material I have about the Forgotten Realms useless. It is as if Wizards of the Coast was deliberately breaking the Forgotten Realms to then sell you new source material. And I can't even be sure the future source material will be any good, or compatible with 4E.

From a marketing point of view, all this makes perfect sense. Of course WotC makes products that work well for experienced players who are willing to throw all their old material and campaigns overboard to plunge headlong into D&D Next. But I sure hope this isn't supposed to be the only starting point for D&D Next: Not making an adventure that would be suitable for new players and DMs is a rather defeatist move. They already had to correct their strategy for 4th edition, releasing the more new player friendly "Essentials" two years after the initial release of 4E. I would have hoped they would have learned from that, and started D&D Next with material that would be playable right out of the box for new players. But the multi-edition adventures aren't that, and reveal a regrettable focus on the impossible task of getting old players back instead of winning new ones.
Tobold's Blog

A theory of relativity of money
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 December 2013, 3:54 am
Chris is posting about the value of games, based on a post by Syl. In a world where we have everything from Free2Play games that can actually be played for free up to Kickstarter and founder packages where you can pay hundreds of dollars for a game that isn't even released yet, the question what games are worth appears to be worth asking. But then I have an even more difficult question: What is $1 worth?

Absolute poverty used to be defined as living on less than $1 per day (this has gone up to between $1.25 and $2.50), and over 3 billion people live on less than $2.50 a day. The US poverty line is around $10 per day. On the other side of the scale there are over 5 million households in the US that are millionaires. Now take any number you like for the cost of a game, be it a $60 console game, a $15 monthly subscription, or a $25 sparkle pony. The conclusion will always be the same: Games are too expensive for somebody who lives on $10 per day, but extremely cheap for a millionaire.

I do not think that anybody can really have a neutral perspective on that, because we all have varying incomes and savings (or debts) and thus all value money in different ways. Most of us are somewhere in the middle between the poverty line and the millionaires. But I must personally admit of considering the idea to buy a new iPad Air for $1,000, just to replace a slightly slower and slightly heavier iPad 3. So buying something in an item shop for $10 is not much of a hurdle for me, because that isn't "rent money" or "food money" I'm spending.

I consider the value of money to be relative. It depends on where you are in Maslow's hierarchy of needs. If you are high enough up, you'd consider statements like "Can't buy me love" to be truths. If the price of a game doesn't add or subtract from your ability to fulfill your needs, and that game fulfills a need of yours, the game is well worth it. If the price of a game means not being able to afford a more basic need in the hierarchy, then the game is too expensive.
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A conspiracy theory
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 December 2013, 4:42 am
The internet is full of conspiracy theories. And reality, with its various news of government spying on us, is fueling those theories nicely. Only that we saw too many movies like Men in Black or The Matrix or whatever and assume that government is some sort of sinister organization full of sinister people. But try to look at it under a different angle: What if YOU got a job at the NSA, were given nearly unlimited resources, and very little supervision. What would you do? After doing a bit of spying on that neighbor you don't like or trying to focus that million-dollar satellite camera on a topless beach in the south of France, you'd probably get bored of spying rather quickly. And, given the lack of supervision and the availability of good computers, you'd start doing something more fun. Like playing World of Warcraft. You could always say that you were watching for terrorists in the game.

And this is how we get to things like today's news, where the National Security Agency was revealed to have had lots of agents "spying" on World of Warcraft. Not by forcing Blizzard to hand over all chat data, or by doing any sophisticated hacking of data streams. No, the NSA agents said they were looking for terrorists by playing World of Warcraft and listening to general chat. :) Way to go, NSA agents! I wish I would work at a place where I could play MMORPGs during office hours and pass that activity off as actual work.

The NSA presumably doesn't hire stupid people. And it is evident to anybody with half a brain that watching Barrens chat for hidden terrorist messages is an enormous waste of time. Even if terrorists ever used a MMORPG as communication network, they would obviously use group or private chat instead of public chat channels. Even if you really believed that WoW was full of terrorists, you wouldn't plan to find them by playing the game. So this isn't a conspiracy to spy illegally on domestic targets or anything. It is a conspiracy to bullshit your boss into letting you play World of Warcraft at work. And not just you, but all your colleagues as well, because this is such a "target-rich communication network". You just write a memo explaining why playing WoW is really what you should be doing at work, and until the day Edward Snowden publishes that memo, everything is fine.

Isn't this exactly what we would have done if we had been in the same position?
Tobold's Blog

The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 6
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 December 2013, 3:04 am
In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had arrived at the Fountain of Oghma in the Feygrove part of Gardmore Abbey. They had met the eladrin noble Berrian Velfarren, and informed him of the death of his sister. This session starts with good news: The players have gained a level, are now level 7, and can choose a new encounter power. For that they have to do a long rest at the fountain with the elves.

Now Berrian wants the heroes to do a task for him: Recovering some documents from the cottage of the groundskeeper. Berrian thinks the documents will show the part of the eladrin in planting the Feygrove, and give him a rightful claim to this part of Gardmore Abbey. But the cottage is currently inhabited by two owlbears, and the eladrin don't want to kill them. Now during the conversation the players notice the familiar pull of their cards of the Deck of Many Things, indicating that Berrian has found a card as well. Asked about the card he replies that this is just a small magical trinket he found around here, and offers it as reward for recovering the documents. Having learned that owlbears fear displacer beasts, the group returns before nightfall at the bell tower where they killed two displacer beasts in the previous session, and recover the skins and olfactory glands, planning to use them the next day to scare the owlbears away.

In the evening the players enjoy the hospitality of the eladrin, who treat them to a meal accompanied by feywine. When the full moon comes up, the eladrin tell them that the Fountain of Oghma grants a vision of the past in the form of a dream to anybody drinking from it at full moon. Everybody decides to do so, and they all dream of various scenes of Gardmore Abbey in the past: How it was built, daily life, and how it fell to a combined assault of orcs from outside and undead from inside.

The next day they set off for the groundskeeper's cottage. The warrior and rogue approach the cottage draped in displacer beast skin, and smeared with the smell of the beasts. The wizard contributes a magically enhanced displacer beast roar. With a combination of playing that out and various skill checks the adventurers manage to scare the owlbears away, and recover the documents without a fight. The documents do in fact show that Berrians father helped plant the Feygrove.

Back with the eladrin the group learns that Berrian has gone to the nymphs (as they suggested to him earlier) to ask the nymphs about the secret of his father's whereabouts. The nymphs confirm that his father was here up to the fall of the abbey, and reveal that he was last seen at the watchtower during that battle, and never since. While Berrian is grateful for the contribution of the Favorites of Selune to his search, he is at a loss about what to do next, stating that he already explored the watchtower and couldn't even find an entrance to it. As the group is here to forge an alliance between the eladrin and Lord Padraig, Berrian suggests the players negotiate his claim to the Feygrove with the found documents as condition for the alliance. The adventures return to Winterhaven, where they stay for a day of rest and recuperation, and get a signed document from Lord Padraig recognizing Berrian's claim, and concluding the alliance. Lord Padraig is also interested in the watchtower, as a starting point for driving out the orcs from the abbey.

The Favorites of Selune then return to the Feygrove, and receive the Knight card of the Deck of Many Things from Berrian as reward. With both Lord Padraig and Berrian having an interest in the watchtower, which is close to the eladrin camp, the group heads there next. At first, from a distance, it is hard to understand where Berrian's problem with the watchtower was: The entrance is clearly visible, and the tower looks rather normal, even in better shape than the rest of the abbey. But on trying to enter the tower, it turns out that nothing is as it seems. Although from a higher vantage points one can even see a guardsman from the Templar in the tower, nobody in the tower reacts to anything the players do. And instead of feeling a wooden door and a stone wall, it is as if the tower was encased in a layer of hard glass, not allowing entry by by door or window.

At this point the dwarven warrior decides to use a traditional dwarven method to open the door: Hitting it with his axe. But the result is somewhat unexpected: The tower starts bleeding a black ooze, which forms into 15 black pudding spawn, which attach the players. Due to a good initiative roll, the spawn does some serious damage before getting killed quickly (they are all just 1 hit point minions). The tower isn't visibly damaged by the attempt, so force doesn't appear to be the right solution.

At this point we run into one typical problem of sandbox adventures: If there are lots of different things to do, without a prescribed order of doing things, players have a tendency to give up on the first sign of difficulty. "Don't know how to access the watchtower? Why bother, we just do something else!". Of course that is a valid option, but for the overall sense of adventure and progress of the story it isn't really a good one. You end up with a long list of stuff you started but never finished, and basically do the tour of the adventure twice. So we end the session here, with the opportunity for the players to think more about possible ways to enter the watchtower during the holiday break, and a suggestion to use a Hand of Fate ritual to get some guidance from Selune.
Tobold's Blog

Solving game problems
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 December 2013, 2:41 am
In 1913 French mathematician Émile Borel proposed the infinite monkey theorem: A monkey hitting keys at random on a typewriter keyboard for an infinite amount of time will almost surely type a given text, such as the complete works of William Shakespeare. Now while there is a certain resemblance to the internet :), collective problem solving on the internet works in fact much better than randomly hitting keys. While an individual player might be solving a problem in a game by trial and error, he can then exchange the results with others via various internet platforms, either in written or video form. With many people collaborating to solve a game problem by exchanging what works and doesn't work, the speed of problem solving becomes a lot faster than infinite.

That does has repercussions on game design. If you have a puzzle in your game, you not only need to think about how different players might have different skills to solve your puzzle, but also take into account that some will tend to try to solve it alone, while others will look up the solution before even having seen the puzzle. But even more striking is the effect of collaborative problem solving on game balance: If your game has an optimum path, players will find it through collaboration.

I was thinking about it when reading various blog posts about Hearthstone. I played a lot of Magic the Gathering in paper and online form in its time, and Magic the Gathering was reasonably well balanced: While at any given expansion a certain deck might be found to be "the best" of a specific play style, there was always a stone-paper-scissors meta-game in which one play style would do well against another, but lose against a third. And I am not certain that Hearthstone has that stone-paper-scissors meta-game, because the little I played of it made it seem a much simpler game than Magic.

Now of course it is hard to judge from excited blog posts about one deck being completely overpowered to judge the actual state of the game. But to me it seems that Hearthstone is more likely to "get solved", that is an optimum deck found for any given set of cards. While every expansion or nerf then changes that optimum, once the fundamentals are understood, the collective problem solving will find the new optimum while the changes are still on the test server. It is quite likely that the release version of Hearthstone will "get solved" before even leaving the beta. And that will affect the game's longevity.

At the very least some cards will be found to be better than other cards. So while the game pretends to have a certain number of different cards, those in the know will work with a much smaller card pool. And those who absolutely want to win will have to spend more money to get sufficient numbers of that smaller, better card pool, because suboptimal cards keep popping up in the booster packs they open. I wonder how all that will work out in the long run.
Tobold's Blog

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