Godus - A comparative review
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 14 August 2014, 10:07 am
This week I've been doing something weird: I played the same game in parallel on two platforms. The game is Godus, and while the Steam Early Access version has been available for months, the iOS version came out a week ago. That promptly caused some controversy, because PC gamers who had gotten the game as Kickstarter backers or by paying for it on Steam were apoplectic that the iOS version was Free2Play. They feared they had gotten a raw deal, a Free2Play game by design which isn't free. Facts rarely stop a good rant, so the fact that the PC version does not in fact have any possibility to spend money on it after the initial purchase went largely unnoticed.

Which made me wonder how this all works. Is the assumption that the business model determines game design wrong? How can the same game exist with two very different business models? And how does it work under the two models? Are there differences between the versions? Which version is better? So I decided to try it out by testing both.

While I will say much about the differences between the two versions of Godus, the two versions of the game are fundamentally identical. Nearly all features of the game are shared by the two versions, and thus the two version play mostly the same. There are differences in controls (obviously), and a few minor differences related to the business models. But if you played one of the two versions, the other will appear extremely familiar to you. Claims that one version is less finished than the other are bogus, the "beta" label of the PC version is just a label and has zero consequence in a difference of polish or anything like that. I expect both versions to be developed further in parallel, and both to be frequently patched/updated in the future.

Technically Godus is a resource-hungry game. That doesn't matter much on a gaming PC used to 3D graphics. But on the iPad, even the latest iPad Air, Godus is pushing the limits. Sometimes part of the screen lacks graphics because the iPad just can't manage the graphics any longer. Stutters and freezes happen. The PC version isn't completely immune to that, but on my computer mainly crashed when I was trying to quit the game, at which point it didn't matter much. The main technical difference between the two versions is that the PC version allows you to rotate the view (using "Q" and "E" on the keyboard), while the iOS version doesn't. That makes the PC version overall more enjoyable to play: Sculpting the landscape is the major activity you do in Godus; the PC version with the ability to rotate and the much more precise mouse control plays a lot better than the iOS version where control by touch is less precise, and you have to sculpt basically blind if you want to modify the back of a mountain. I only played on the iPad, but I've read that the game is basically unplayable on the iPhone due to your fingers remaining the same size, but the screen being a lot smaller. Even on the PC sculpting is not very precise, apparently there is some guessing going on by the software what you were trying to achieve with a stroke. And sometimes the guess is the opposite of what you were actually trying to do.

Differences in gameplay are mostly in time scales: Things happen faster on the PC. For example a field of wheat ripens in 90 minutes on the PC, but takes 6 hours on the iPad. Which sounds like a huge difference, but ends up not mattering that much: You don't usually start Godus on your PC every 90 minutes. More likely you come back from work, or play in the morning after sleeping at night, and your wheat is ripe on either platform. Curiously I found that the slower time scale worked to my advantage on the iPad in one case: The enemy tribe, the Astari, hold a festival every hour on the PC, but only every day on the iPad. As they hold the festival even if you are offline, gain a lot of happiness from that festival, and steal your followers if they are happier than you are, coming back after several hours of absence on the PC usually meant that I had lost lots of followers, a problem I didn't have on the iPad. The problem went away when I unleashed my divine wrath on the Astari and killed them all with strategically placed swamps on their festival ground and a few lightning bolts. Overall my iPad game is more advanced, because I can take my iPad with me during the day and play during lunch break, while my PC sits at home.

Unkind reviewers have compared Godus on the iOS to the many Free2Play village builder games available on that platform. But those other games all have a fixed landscape which you usually unlock block by block. Godus with its terraforming land sculpting results in a lot more flexibility of how to build your civilization. There are paths of least resistance, but if you set your mind to it, you can flatten mountains or raise the ocean floor to create new areas to populate. But the comparison also makes clear why Godus isn't your typical Free2Play game: Village/city building Free2Play games often make you buy resources for real money. While that is possible in Godus, the game is designed to let you produce exponentially more resources with time, and that design doesn't work at all with the item shop. Why should I buy 1,000 belief in the item shop if I have a single building producing 15,000 every few hours?

Which means that the Free2Play business model in Godus boils down to buying boosters full of stickers. Godus has a system in which you open up new technologies by growing, so you get more technology cards by getting more population, more wheat fields, more mines, etc.. But many of those cards need stickers to unlock. You get stickers from unearthing treasure chests and from playing a Lemmings-like mini-game (which I don't like very much). But generally stickers are in short supply. So you can buy them for gems, and on the iPad you can buy gems for money. On the PC you can't buy gems for money, but you can get them more easily from playing: Unlike the iPad version you have a temple where you can sacrifice your followers in exchange for gems. That absolutely kills your happiness, but after the Astari are dead that doesn't appear to matter at all any more. And you can always perform some more miracles to make your followers happy again. For a completely fair comparison I spent exactly the same amount of money on both games, buying gems on the iPad for the same amount that the Steam Early Access game had cost me. Up to now I'm ahead in technology and stickers on the iPad, but presumably in the long term the PC will catch up, while I will run out of bought gems on the iPad.

Overall the two versions of Godus have a lot more similarities than differences. I had fun on both platforms. The controls and camera are better on the PC, but the iPad is easier to carry around with me and play on the go. If you have both, I would recommend trying the iPad version first, because it is free. If you hate the game there, you probably won't like it on the PC either. If you like it on the iPad but the controls annoy you, you can still consider paying for the PC version.
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Ordered a new computer - 2014 edition
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2014, 1:27 pm
Time flies! I used to buy a new computer every 2 years, and now I realized my last purchase is already 3 years in the past. Is it just me or are PCs not aging as fast as they used to? Anyway, here are the specs of the machine I ordered:

An Intel Core i7-4790 (3600GHz) CPU
Vengeance 16 GB RAM (1866 MHz)
Asus Maximus Vi Hero Z87 motherboard
Geforce GTX 770 XLR8 OC PCI-E 2GB graphics card
2 x 250 GB MZ-7TE250BW SSD HD in Raid 0 as boot drive
A Western Digital 3 TB regular HD for data
DVD drive (rarely use them any more) SH-224DB/RSMS DVD/CD/R(W)
1000 W power supply
Corsair Graphite 730T Gaming Case
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

I should get it by end of next week, if everything goes okay. I haven't ordered a new screen yet, but that will probably be the next purchase after that. 22" is considered small these days. When I started this blog I had a 15" screen, 1024×768 resolution, Athlon XP 2000+ CPU, 512 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card. I have a faint suspicion that today my smart phone has more computing power than that. :)
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Being invested in games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 August 2014, 3:49 am
J3w3l is discussing being invested in games, and how it relates to difficulty. Quote: "the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to me really relates to my level of investment. The more I’m invested in a game the more I will go to extreme lengths in order to achieve something or complete it.". While I know the feeling, I couldn't help but think that there is a circular argument here somewhere. Because not only does the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to a player relate to his level of investment, the amount of investment in a game relates to whether he finds the game fun, which often depends on whether he finds it challenging.

Basically what you want from a game is a sweet spot of difficulty, where the game is neither trivial nor frustrating. Ideally there would be some sort of feedback from the game that told you that you are doing okay, but if you could just improve your performance a bit, you'd do better. Or that you failed by a tiny margin, and you could probably manage if you tried again. Unfortunately there are many game elements that get into the way of that:

  • Obvious "gotcha" traps, which are designed to make you fail and are nearly impossible to avoid without foreknowledge. Yes, you can beat that level if you try it again, but not because you somehow play better on the second attempt. You simply know where the stupid pitfall is.
  • Too much randomness. Typical example would be a game of Magic the Gathering where you lose because you never drew the second type of land, in spite of there being 12+ of them in the deck. Again, you'll probably do better on the second attempt, but again that isn't in any way related to you having gotten better at playing.
  • Fixed difficulty game design. Simple games like Tetris get difficulty right because you advance quickly to the level where you are challenged. Complicated games like Civilization or XCOM get difficulty right by letting you choose it at the start. Many MMORPGs get difficulty wrong because they neither have a natural smooth progression of difficulty, nor give you any choice about it. They force you to do stuff at trivial difficulty for hundreds of hours, and then have sudden steep steps up where with no prior training you are suddenly supposed to know how to play well in a team.
Some PvP game designs can get difficulty right if they have a good matchmaking and ladder system that succeeds in always finding you an opponent that is as good as you are. But then PvP games come with a host of social problems (which often lead to you hating your team more than you hate the enemy), and all kinds of cheating and ratings manipulation which negate all advantages of a matchmaking system.

One way out of all this is to play games in which you are invested not because they challenge you, but because they are fun in other ways. Some games simply tell a great story in an interesting way. A game can also just be a social platform, where the social interaction with other players becomes far more important than "winning". Pen & paper role-playing games manage both story-telling and social interaction well. But then they have a DM who can adjust challenge level to be always be at the sweet spot. Computer games aren't all that good at that.
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DLC is like Free2Play
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 August 2014, 4:27 am
Azuriel hates Bioware for the pricing of their Mass Effect DLC. He calculates that there are $64 of DLC for a game that costs $14.99, and asks Bioware "to get their shit together". I'm afraid they already did that. The pricing isn't an accident, it is very deliberate. It follows exactly the same sales strategy as every Free2Play game: Offer the basic product for cheap/free, get people hooked, and then make them pay through the nose for all the bells and whistles.

The Free2Play business model requires an always-on, or at least frequently on, online mode to enable frequent payment of the customer to the game company. Preferably, especially on the PC, the game company also wants some of the virtual currency data to be server side, so that the customer can't just use a hex editor to hack himself the currency he is supposed to pay for. A game with DLCs instead of an item shop simplifies all that. You only need to be online to buy and install the DLC. The game company doesn't even need a payment system, they can sell the DLC via Steam and be done with it.

Most players don't finish games. But if a customer usually doesn't finish his games, he might be reluctant to pay $50+ for it. Thus the game company sells the basic game to more people by having Steam sales and the like. But other players play the heck out of their games. So the devs would very much like to transform that enthusiasm into money. DLCs target the most enthusiastic players. You won't buy the DLC if you didn't finish the game in the first place. But if you are already considering your third play-through, you would very much like to have some new content. So game companies can easily charge you for being a fan. Just like they can charge the player of a Free2Play game for additional stuff.

In the end, DLC is just another variation of variable pricing, and variable pricing achieves the best return for a sale. And ultimately there is a certain fairness to the system: Those who play a game the most end up paying the most.
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Divinity: Original Sin review
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 August 2014, 4:40 am
I received a free Steam key for Divinity: Original Sin from one of the Kickstarter backers, who asked me to review the game. After playing the game for a good number of hours, here are my thoughts.

Divinity: Original Sin is in many aspects a classical single-player role-playing game. You can presumably also play it cooperatively with two players, as there are two main characters. But the pace of the game is a lot slower than an action RPG, with combat being turn-based and there being a lot more exploration and dialogue; so I'm not sure how well this would work with two players without somebody getting bored. I haven't tried that.

Divinity has a certain old school feeling, which starts with you being presented a million options on how to build a character before you have any idea how the game works. Fortunately there are some presets, with one character in some sort of melee fighter role, and the other as a spell-caster. But it is likely that at some point you'll want to start over when you know what all those options actually do. Me, I looked up a build on the internet, and found that it worked quite well. Part of the old school charm is that the game isn't necessarily balanced, and you can go for some decidedly overpowered options like Zombie and Leech. And some skills, like invisibility (walk in shadows) are very hard to get in the game, so taking them at character creation is also very powerful. There are no fixed character classes, you can combine all sorts of skills and talents to an individual build, and develop it further as the game progresses.

As I said, combat is turn-based. You start with a certain number of action points, and each spell or attack costs action points. There is no mana, the game doesn't really make a difference between a fighter special attack and a wizard spell. In that respect Divinity resembles 4th edition D&D. Combat is very tactical, with a lot of environmental effects. Elements react with each other: You can electrify water, or ignite a poison cloud. As there are barrels or water, oil, and other stuff conveniently placed pretty much everywhere, you can toy around. It is very satisfying to sneak up on a group of enemies and cast a fire spell on the oil barrel next to them, starting the fight with them already half burned to crisp.

Then again in the first part of the game there isn't actually all that much combat, at least not if you are a completionist and feel you have to explore every nook and cranny of the city of Cyseal. You came to town to solve a murder, so you have a lot of people to talk to, and evidence to find. Items and containers in the game are either free for the taking, or they belong to somebody. But if they belong to somebody you can still take them, as long as nobody sees you doing it. Really. You can steal the paintings of the painter in the market place while invisible, and then sell them back to him without problem. You only get in trouble if your sneaking or invisibility fails just when you are taking the item. The same thing is true for murder, you can do it as long as nobody sees you. Invisibility is great for grabbing just about everything, especially every single painting on every wall in Cyseal. But searching everything takes many hours, and a lot of the things you find are not very valuable. Some locations are hard to reach, requiring you to find keys (which you can find by pressing ALT), secret switches, or other ways of entry. For one location I had to use a smokescreen arrow to enable me to sneak and then pickpocket a key. Other locations are trapped, and you need to find out how to avoid the traps. Overall you will run around a lot, but there are some waypoints to which you can teleport.

The inventory system has one good side, in that it doesn't appear to be limited at all in the number of items you can carry. Only the weight limits you. But of course that means that your inventory quickly becomes very messy, and the sort options aren't all that great. Especially annoying is that if you want to sell something you need to open a trade window to an NPC, and that is unsorted, regardless how you arranged your inventory before. Trade is part barter, so you can get that skill book you want in exchange for a bunch of paintings. Not every NPC has money, and the amount of money is limited, so you sometimes need to sell loots all over town if you prefer cash. You can also combine items in your inventory to craft things. But that is mostly trial and error, although you can find books that give hints on recipes. Other items are useful for other actions, for example a shovel enables you to dig, which is quite useful. Most things you find are random, and the content of chests is determined only when you open them. Which can be abused for some cheating if you save your game before opening the big valuable treasure chest to assure that you get items you can actually use.

During dialogues you sometimes need to make decisions. This has been designed for a cooperative two-person game, so both characters state their opinion on how to proceed, and if they don't agree they have to play a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide. Which is a bit annoying if you are playing solo and end up holding dialogue with yourself. Interestingly decisions frequently result in a trait point on various scales. For example you can be either compassionate or heartless. Either one gives you a bonus, but a different one, so your dialogue decisions have some effect on you. The overall story is told in bits and pieces through the various dialogues and written documents you find. I'm not going to spoiler the story, but let me say that I did like the more regular fantasy part of it, and didn't like the end of time part so much. But I guess I'm more of a fan of low fantasy than of the universe saving high fantasy kind.

Overall I am enjoying Divinity: Original Sin quite a lot. The game sure has its rough edges, as you would expect from a Kickstarter-financed indie game. But there are also a lot of innovative and fun ideas. And I especially like the tactical combat, which makes me want to experiment with various character builds and such. Recommended!
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How not to be a god
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 10 August 2014, 4:27 am
The so-called core gamers on the internet have always been a notoriously whiny bunch of entitlement kids. But their latest complaint surprised even me. They whine that the PC game Godus, which is a pay-to-own game with no item store, looks remotely like a Free2Play game if you hold your head at an angle and squint.

In Godus you play a god whose main power is terraforming. The world consists of layers, and you push and pull those layers around to create flat surfaces for your followers to build houses on. The followers then create "belief", and that belief allows you to do more terraforming and to perform some other miracles. And, horror of horrors, the game actually expects you to WAIT for followers to build houses and create belief. Belief creation is neither immediate, nor do you have unlimited amounts of belief. There is obviously an evil, money-grabbing Free2Play strategy at work here! Even if the game isn't free, nor has any way to spend money. If you have to wait for anything in a game to happen, that game is obviously a Farmville clone!

What the whiners don't realize is that if you HAD unlimited belief, there would be no game. Any god game is always a game of resource management. Playing a god that would be actually omnipotent with not limits would be extremely boring, you'd just push on the button that is labeled "YOU WIN!".

Lots of games have real-time waiting elements in them. In World of Warcraft you need to wait for raid lockouts, or for your vegetables on your farm to grow. These waiting elements are a core gameplay element for all casual games, whether they are on Facebook or on a mobile platform. If a game would require uninterrupted multi-hour blocks of concentrated gaming, it obviously wouldn't be casual. And it would be pretty much unplayable on a tablet or smart phone. That Godus has these elements is because it is also a mobile game, not because the iOS/Android version is Free2Play. If you object to the Free2Play version, you can always pay $19.99 on Steam for the PC version which, as I said, has no additional monetization at all (and even makes jokes about that fact).
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Excluded from Amazon Prime
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 August 2014, 10:24 am
Oh the joys of living in the European Community! The EU has 28 member states. In five of them Amazon.com has a national subsidiary: Germany, Spain, France, Italy, and the UK. Now for getting a book that is no problem: If you live in one of the other 23 member states without their own Amazon site, you can freely order books or DVDs or most other goods across borders. But now that Amazon is pushing more and more into the video streaming business, cracks begin to appear in the system: For license reasons any Amazon site can only stream videos in the national territory where it is located.

I wrote to both the UK and the German Amazon site, and got the same response: The Amazon Prime service, with the offer of Amazon Instant Video streaming of films and TV series, is not available outside their national borders. And because I live in Belgium and there is no Amazon.be, I am effectively excluded from that service. So is everybody else in Europe who doesn't live in one of the five represented countries. Needless to say the same license restrictions prevent me from getting Netflix, Hulu, or any other major video streaming service. The only exception is the BBC iPlayer, but only the iOS version of it.

I have a hard time understanding why Amazon is rolling out a service in Europe and then excludes half of the continent from accessing it. Film and TV licensing rights are a global mess!
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Longevity of games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 August 2014, 3:14 am
There has been quite a lot of discussion on the quick hype-to-decline cycle of MMORPGs recently, here and elsewhere, after that cycle was again demonstrated for both The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar. Even the already derogatory term "three-monther" is sometimes too optimistic. Not many people are still willing to invest years of their lives in a new MMORPG. But is that even surprising?

I've been playing games for over 40 years now. I'm old enough to have grown up with board games instead of video games. I have played many thousands of games over the years. How many games do you think did I play for more than 2 years of my life? It was only three: Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and World of Warcraft. And of these the only one I'm still playing (after 30 years!) is Dungeons & Dragons. Playing any game for years is the exception. Playing a game for a while until I get bored and move on is the normal situation.

According to Raph Koster's Theory of Fun, we have fun while learning to master a game. Once the learning period is over, that part of the fun disappears. The more games you play, the faster you understand new games, especially if they heavily borrow features from previous games. As complex as a modern MMORPG is, much of that complexity is borrowed from the past. You don't need to learn again what an aggro radius is, or how mobs respawn always at the same locations, because this works in the games of 2014 exactly like it worked in MMORPGs a decade ago.

I was asking myself why Dungeons & Dragons has so much more longevity than other games for me. The answer is relatively simple: With Dungeons & Dragons you never arrive at the point where what happens next is completely predictable. What happens next isn't determined by rules or algorithms, but by humans making playful decisions. And that creates a truly endless variety of possible outcomes. In a computer game human ingenuity is boxed in by the limited actions the game allows you to take, so even a multi-player computer game never reaches the same variety of possible outcomes than a tabletop roleplaying game.

If you wished you had a game that you can play for the next decades to come, I can only very much recommend trying out pen & paper roleplaying games. Now might be a good time to start playing Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition, if you never played D&D before. For less than $20 for the Starter Set plus free Basic Rules pdf you could set yourself up for a hobby for a lifetime. And in between you'll still have enough time to flutter like a butterfly from one computer game to the next.
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Population management
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 August 2014, 4:20 am
I fully agree with Jeromai that you don't need a million players in a MMORPG for it to feel populated. Having said that, I think we need to look at the problem a bit closer to explain why people are perceiving tumbleweeds in a shrinking game. The first factor here is personal. Yes, you only have a "Dunbar number" of a hundred people you know in that game; but if let's say half of the players of a game leave, there is a good chance that also about half of the people you know leave. It is that personal loss of 50 people that affects you more, logging into the game and finding nobody in guild chat, not whatever thousands of people left the game overall. The overall number can be of importance to bloggers and game journalists, because it somewhat determines the size of your audience. It is easier to discuss a game that millions of people play than to discuss a game with a population of 10,000.

The second factor of perceived decline is technical. Too many games still run with a fixed server model. If half of the players of a game leave, you remain at least for some time with the same number of servers as during the peak, with each server having half of the players. Games with mega-servers, which simply produce less copies of each zone when less players are around, feel less empty after a decline. Unfortunately server mergers have come to stand for an admission of failure for a MMORPG, so game companies don't do them as much as they should.

The third, and largely unknown factor is financial. MMORPGs have high fixed costs and low variable costs, so they are much more profitable with more players. When player numbers decline, the economics of the game pass two thresholds: One where the profit of the game becomes lower than the cost of capital, and a second where the profit of the game passes zero and the game actually makes a loss. Different companies bail out at different moments of that process, for example NCSoft killed City of Heroes / Villains when it was still making money, just not enough of it. Most of the time it is impossible to know how many players a game needs to remain profitable, the makers of WAR once said they needed half a million players for that. But if you make with much lower development cost, you can presumably run it with much fewer players. There are even examples of companies like Aventurine who make more money from government grants and subsidies for producing a game in a poor region than they make from actual players.

If we consider 100,000 players for a MMORPG the new normal, we could certainly design games which can live with that number financially. But both the social structures in a MMORPG and the technical infrastructure of many games don't deal well with decline and change of population. So we would need to think how to handle that better. Mega-servers certainly seem like a better approach on the technical side. I wonder if we could come up with something similar on the social side. Imagine for example cities with 50 houses in the virtual world, forming virtual cities. There could be social structures like elections for major and collaborative city projects for the inhabitants to work together, just like a guild. But the number of cities would be limited, and players who quit would lose their place, so their house would be quickly snatched up by somebody else. In such a model you end up with a guild-like social structure of a fixed and stable number of participants. That is just one corner-of-an-envelope design proposal, I'm sure there can be others and even better one.

I do believe that game design can have answers to deal with decline and negative network effects in MMORPGs. If we admit that half or more players will leave in the first three months, we can design the game to deal with that. Right now many MMORPGs still appear to be designed for a World of Warcraft like growth over 5 years, but that doesn't seem to be very realistic any more.
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Cybercrime & Punishment
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 August 2014, 2:56 am
Imagine somebody hacks your bank account, emptying it. When you go to the police they tell you that sorry, they are only interested in physical theft, they don't occupy themselves with theft of bits and bytes. That wouldn't be acceptable. After all those bits and bytes on your bank account represent real value, and their theft should be treated like the theft of physical money. Now a UK politician makes the same argument for the theft of virtual property in online games. Quote: “people who steal online items in video games with a real-world monetary value receive the same sentences as criminals who steal real-world items of the same monetary value”. So how about that? Other countries already do this, for example just last year some Chinese hackers got sent to prison for hacking World of Warcraft accounts.

The tricky issue here is that game companies are against recognizing virtual property. If virtual items were recognized as having a monetary value and being "property", all sorts of legal protections would kick in which would be good for the customers but bad for the game companies. They could be held liable if stuff gets lost or stolen. The game companies argue that everything in an online game is the intellectual property of the game company, and players only acquire a license to use those bits and bytes. Now this argument made sense back in the days of Everquest, where any trade of money against currency was done on a black market. But it would be extremely difficult to persuade a judge that a CREDD/PLEX is not an item of monetary value. Why should the law treat somebody who hacked a bank account for $1,000 any differently than somebody who hacked an EVE account for $1,000 in PLEX?

In a way this is another step towards the internet growing up. In the past law enforcement simply couldn't keep up with the technology, which meant that cyberspace was often lawless. Cyber law enforcement is catching up everywhere, whether it is cyber theft, cyber bullying, libel in cyberspace, or whatever other crime. Cyberspace as a modern form of lawless Wild West is slowly coming to an end.
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I wonder what went wrong
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 August 2014, 11:17 am
It is always tempting to make a "survey of one" and extrapolate one's own opinion to everybody. So in spite of reading lots of "I quit Wildstar" blog posts and having quit myself, I was at first resisting temptation to comment further on that. But now I've seen some additional data from the Nosy Gamer which suggest that it isn't just me: The big MMORPGs of 2014, The Elder Scrolls Online and Wildstar, are doing quite badly. In his XFire ranking, flawed as it may be, they now rank on 12th and 8th place, behind games like Tera and Aion.

Which makes me wonder what went wrong. Neither of the two games is actually bad. Both games were extensively marketed, and TESO had brand recognition from millions of Skyrim players. Neither launch was a big catastrophic mess, albeit TESO having more problems with bugs than Wildstar. But in the end the two triple-A MMORPGs of the year appear to have failed just months after release, and we didn't even get to the next WoW expansion yet!

My favorite theory, but that might again be an extrapolation from one, is that the MMORPGs of 2014 had to fail because the genre failed to attract many new people. The people who played TESO and Wildstar were mostly people who played other MMORPGs before. So they got bored fast, because the new games were just like the old games, just with a fresh coat of paint on.

Another theory would be that the overall market for gaming has evolved since World of Warcraft: We are spoiled for choice. Between the classic gaming platforms and the new mobile gaming platforms we now have so many games to choose from, and often at so low prices, that a classic MMORPG which wants lots of our time and lots of our money just appears like a dinosaur today.

The worry of course is that with every failure it becomes less probable that somebody else decides to make yet another triple-A MMORPG. Archage apparently already resigned itself to a Darkfall-sized niche market. Everquest Next seems further away than ever. And Blizzard appears to be more occupied with other kinds of games than with a next generation MMORPG. Is Titan still actually a thing? They might just be happy to milk their remaining 6.8 million WoW players (presumably going temporarily up by a few millions by the end of this year) until the lights go out. This doesn't look like a great year for MMORPGs.
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Combat math
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 August 2014, 5:38 am
A surprisingly large variety of very different games of the general role-playing genre use the same basic approach to combat: The combatants exchange blows, each blow has a certain chance to hit, and if it hits it does a certain numerical value of "damage". The damage per se doesn't do anything, but if you accumulate more damage than you have "health", you fall unconscious or die. This description covers games from pen & paper Dungeons & Dragons, over single-player computer RPGs, to the latest MMORPGs. What varies is the probability to hit, how damage is determined, and how much health the combatants have.

Now imagine the most simple version of this system: Whether you hit is determined by flipping a coin, and the damage you deal is equal to the health of the enemy. It would work; with some minor modifications (each hit deals 1 hitpoint of damage, but combatants have more than 1 health) you could actually play an improvised tabletop RPG with your kids if you got stuck somewhere without dice or electronic entertainment. The reason you would have to modify it is that the extreme "1 hit you die" version isn't much fun. It will appear to the participants to be very random. And in a group vs. group combat the people eliminated in the first round will sit around bored while the others continue playing.

On the other extreme of the combat math are MMORPGs: In a MMORPG your chance to hit is very close to 100%, attacks rarely miss completely. The amount of damage from each attack is small compared to the health pools, and the random variation of damage is small. In games like World of Warcraft the damage doesn't even depend on the actions of the adversary, so you can fight against a training dummy and determine your "dps", your damage per second. At that point the math becomes rather predictable: If two combatants try to kill each other, you just have to divide their health by the dps of the opponent, and see who of the two will kill the other first. And then the game has to introduce other factors, like a "dance" of evasion moves around a boss mob, because if it was just that simple math, just tank & spank, the fight wouldn't be all that interesting either.

Tabletop role-playing games tend to work with hit chances around 50%. What differs a lot between different systems, and even between different editions of Dungeons & Dragons, is how many hits it typically takes to bring down an opponent. Some situations in 5th edition resemble a bit my coin-flip basic model: A duel between two level 1 wizards would be decided by the initiative roll, because a wizard at that level has between 6 and 8 hit points, and his magic missile does 3d4+3 damage without any attack roll or saving throw. So unless you roll only 1s, the first magic missile going off pretty much certainly kills the other wizard. 4th edition is pretty much the other extreme among the D&D systems: It it pretty much impossible for any character to kill a mirror image of himself in just 1 round.

High damage compared to health makes combat faster, because it doesn't take so many rounds before one side is dead. For people who don't want to spend too much time in combat, that is definitively an advantage. But in a high damage system questions like who gets to strike first suddenly become very important. An ambush, where one side strikes before being detected by the other and possibly with some advantage is a lot more lethal in a high damage system than in a system where damage is lower compared to health pools. Like in the coin-flipping combat example, high damage combat risks feeling somewhat random, because if combat only takes very few rounds, every low roll or high roll has a huge impact.

Low damage systems are inherently slower, which is not to everybody's liking. But fundamentally they are more predictable: Because there are more rounds of combat, there are more dice rolls for hits and damage, and then statistics kicks in and averages things out. For a dungeon master it is a lot easier to design interesting fights without constantly being close to an accidental total party kill for no good reason. But a tabletop system will never have as many blows per combat exchanged as a real-time MMORPG does, so you won't find your tabletop players calculating their dps anytime soon. There is still random variation, and you can still die from a series of bad rolls, but it doesn't come down a single bad roll any more. In a low damage system factors like who gets to strike first are less important, and people even sometimes voluntarily forego initiative because other factors like tactical positioning become more important. So low damage system work better for people who like tactical combat.

Because all of these systems use the rather unrealistic assumption that damage doesn't matter unless it kills you, the combat math also tells you what tactics to use. For example if a group of players fights against a group of monsters, it is always better to concentrate fire on a single enemy. Half your enemies dead is a lot better than all of your enemies half dead. The same of course is true in the other direction, which gives the DM a subtle tool to influence combat by letting his monsters concentrate fire or not. Monsters spreading their damage can appear a lot scarier than they actually are. And if you consider that creating dramatic combat situations is one of the goals of many pen & paper roleplaying systems, while constantly killing all players usually isn't, that can become quite a useful trick in the DM's dramatic arsenal.

In any case, the combat math has a profound effect on how combat feels to the players. Therefore it is worth knowing a bit about it, and being aware of the advantages and disadvantages of different parameters.
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Recommending 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 5 August 2014, 3:38 am
The new 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons is a weird beast. On the one side it profits from lots of "lessons learned" by the developers, making some things better than in previous editions. On the other side it contains a lot of bad relics from the past, put in out of pure nostalgia for players who complained that they didn't want the innovation of 4th edition. So who should be playing 5E?

In my opinion 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is the best D&D edition for new players who have not played D&D or other tabletop roleplaying games before. Between the $20 Starter Set and the free Basic Rules pdf a group of new players gets a very complete game for a low investment. And this version does a far better job to introduce new players to actual roleplaying than any previous edition. If you play the Starter Set with the pre-generated characters with their pre-generated backgrounds which are carefully integrated into the the Starter Set adventure, you get the start of a very good roleplaying campaign. There is a good balance between personal goals and group roles, so that anybody who makes just a tiny bit of effort to see his character as more than a bundle of stats will certainly have a great roleplaying experience. If, as I hope, the first Tyranny of Dragons adventures are designed in a way to be playable directly after the Starter Set adventure, a new group of players would be well on their way to a great first D&D experience.

For experienced players, 5E is a lot more problematic. Most experienced players will want to create their own characters instead of using the pre-generated characters. That leads on the one side to them losing the integration of their background story into the adventure, and on the other side they will quickly feel that the basic rules are too limited for character creation. Only four classes, only four races, only five backgrounds, no feats yet, it is actually hard with the basic rules to create characters that are significantly different from the pre-generated ones. So experienced players will want more options, which means buying the Player's Handbook, Dungeon Master's Guide, and Monster Manual: Full D&D 5E is a lot more expensive than Basic D&D 5E.

For people who enjoyed 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, 5E will prove to be downright unplayable. Melee characters will sorely miss their powers. Healers will be shocked to find out that their healing spells aren't free bonus spells they get in addition to other more fun spells any more. Wizards will be delighted at first at how completely overpowered they are now, until everybody else quits the game in disgust and they find that they can't well play without anybody willing to play the underpowered classes. And sooner or later everybody will run into a situation where the "bounded accuracy" combined with high damage and low health will lead to combat results that feel extremely random and luck-based.

As a side note, Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition is also the first edition since a long time that doesn't support any foreign languages. As teenagers in other countries don't necessarily speak English well enough for a roleplaying game, there are huge markets that are downright excluded from 5E.

My recommendation for anyone speaking English and wanting to try out a pen & paper roleplaying game for the first time would be to pick up the 5E Starter Set and Basic Rules, playing with the pre-generated characters. For anybody who already played previous editions of Dungeons & Dragons or Pathfinder in English my recommendation would be to try to forget everything and *also* play the 5E Starter Set with the pre-generated characters. Or stick to whatever you were playing before.
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Adventure Era
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 4 August 2014, 9:23 am
Different types of games are suitable for different platforms, and then often proliferate on the platform they are most suitable for. Mobile platforms like tablets favor games that do not require large blocks of uninterrupted concentration. So slow city-building economic simulation games, where you only need to see after your city for a few minutes once in a while are quite common on iOS and Android platforms. Finding a good one is often not obvious because there are too many of them on offer. And it is not only the quality of the game itself that varies, but as most of them are Free2Play, there are also huge variations between how well the game plays with no or little payment.

I am currently playing Adventure Era (from Game Insight / Krivorukoff) on my iPad, and found it to be one of the better games of this type, both in gameplay and business model. In gameplay you could compare it to games like The Tribez on iOS, or The Settlers or the Anno series on the PC, but as I said, mobile games are usually designed for slower gameplay. You build up a village over weeks and months, not hours. While you can speed up everything to instant completion paying real money, that would definitively not be the recommended way to play these games. Rather the idea is to give commands to your workers, log off, and check back a while later. The speed of your progress depends a lot on how often per day you can log in, but personally I don't mind for example progressing slowly during the week where I only play mornings and evenings, and faster on the weekends where I have more opportunities to play.

The basic concept of Adventure Era is simple: You first build houses to have workers. Then you build production buildings in which to employ those workers to collect various resources, like food, wood, or stone. With the resources you then build more advanced buildings, level up your buildings, or pay for research into new technologies. Soon you find out how to transform your wood into planks or your stone into slabs, progressing you to new buildings and new technologies. So you have a whole economy running, with taxes and buildings that make gold to finance the cost of the resource production.

What makes Adventure Era stand out from a large number of similar Free2Play games is both the quality (nice graphics and animations, good balance of the economy), and the unobtrusive monetization. Apart from being shown the option in the tutorial, you aren't constantly pushed towards accelerating your economy with real money. And if you pay money it is actually better spent on buildings that provide additional workers or income, which helps you in the long term instead of just speeding up something you could have waited for. And playing without paying is also totally viable. Personally I don't mind paying minor sums for games I like, and found the additional worker and income buildings a good investment.
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If you grind, it is time to stop playing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 August 2014, 4:34 am
I was reading a negative review of Magic 2015 where the author complained that he had to "grind" or pay to get all the cards. I found that a curious remark. For me the game of Magic 2015 consists of playing against all the different computer decks with my own creations. Magic 2015 is so much better than previous incarnations because it allows me to play with decks I made myself. I don't see a grind. If anything I am worried that I am already in the middle of world 4 out of 5, and once I have finished the last world there will be no more new cards to gain when playing. I'll probably keep playing new decks against the computer anyway, but it is always nicer if you get a reward for winning.

Then I was playing Wildstar. I did a shiphand mission I hadn't done before, and that is usually the type of content I like the most. But this time it felt like a grind, in spite of me even gaining a level. So did questing, playing the AH, and everything else I had planned. And then I realized that the only difference between "playing" and "grinding" is whether you are having fun or not. Magic 2015 isn't feeling like a grind to me, because I am having fun. Wildstar has stopped being fun, and now it feels like a grind to me. So I unsubscribed from Wildstar, luckily it was the last day of my second month in the game and I could cancel my subscription before paying for a third month.

For me, MMORPGs are under pressure from two sides: One side is that there is very limited innovation, so even a new game has only a few months of really new stuff before I am back to the same sort of questing or other activity that I already did in many games before. From the other side my time is under pressure from the seemingly endless number of games around. For example besides Magic 2015 on the iPad I am also playing a new and very nice village builder game on the iPad called Adventure Era. A reader sent me a Steam code for Divinity: Original Sin for review. I still have those 71% of unplayed games in my Steam library. And there are games I would love to try out, but haven't even bought the platform on which they are running, like Bravely Default on the 3DS.

MMORPGs are more time-intensive than other games. Which is great if you have lots of time and not much else to do. But if there is lots of other entertainment available, a game has to be special to be able to justify so much attention. The current batch isn't.
Tobold's Blog

Is swinging from the chandelier role-playing?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 August 2014, 10:21 am
Although they have been around for much longer, tabletop role-playing games are far more difficult to discuss on the internet than computer role-playing games. The fundamental reason for that is that if you and me both play Divinity - Original Sin, we will have a rather similar experience. If you and me both play the fifth edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set with friends, we will have a very different experience. That is we will have some part of the experience which will be similar, the one covered by the written adventure story and the rules of 5th edition, and a part of the experience which will be very different, because our your friends will act differently to the situations in that adventure than my friends will. Most people consider that different part, the reaction of the players, to be the "role-playing" part of the game. But nobody agrees on what exactly role-playing is.

Fact is that in a tabletop role-playing game session you are sitting around a table with friends and you talk a lot. A good amount of that talk might not be related to the game at all, but to other stuff going on in your lives, because friends tend to talk even in the absence of a game. Of the talk pertaining to the game, a lot will be said that is from the perspective of the player: People complaining about bad dice rolls, for example. That also leads to meta-gaming: The rogue of the party tells the others that there is no trap on the door, but as everybody saw him roll a 1 on the check, nobody wants to open that door normally. If we think of "role-playing" being necessarily from the point of view of the character, and not the player, all of the above isn't really role-playing.

What most people agree is role-playing is the playing announcing an action for his character that isn't necessarily in his best interest, but is coming from the background and personality of the character. If the rogue wants to torture the evil henchman to get information about the main villain, but the paladin intervenes and lets no harm be done to the prisoner, that is role-playing. A bit cliché maybe, but certainly role-playing. There are tabletop RPG games that mostly live of such interaction of people playing characters with different backgrounds and motivations, leading to something resembling improv theater. Even Dungeons & Dragons campaigns can gain a lot if besides the main story of the campaign there are side-stories related to the personal quests of the various characters.

Where the definition gets trickier is when a player announces an action for his character which is both fitting to the character's background AND designed to give the player some advantage within the mechanics of the game. The rogue announces that he wants to swing from the chandelier to get behind the enemy and backstab him. Now that clearly fits with the image of the swashbuckler. But the intention is frequently quite visibly one of trying to gain an advantage, not one of trying to tell a better story together. That is not to say that a DM should ever block such attempts, the first rule of DMing is to say yes to what the players propose, but then make the possible advantage conditional to an adequate skill check or similar roll. But I am wondering whether a player who is using such improvised combat moves a lot is a great role-player or just great at gaming the combat mechanics to his advantage.

What do you think? Is the player with the rogue trying to swing from the chandelier to get a combat advantage role-playing, or is role-playing much more than that?
Tobold's Blog

Our players are so unpleasant, we charge you not to play them
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 30 July 2014, 11:11 am
Blizzard sent me a mail telling me that I'm about to miss the free Arachnid wing of the Naxxramas expansion for Hearthstone. I don't mind, I'm not a big fan of Hearthstone. Although Hearthstone has the better interface, I still prefer the more complex Magic 2015 to the dumbed down Blizzard version. But what caught my attention about Curse of Naxxramas was the business model: PvP is free, but each wing of Naxxramas costs 700 gold or $6.99, or $19.99 for the 4 wings you can't get for free. Which is pretty steep if you consider that "Naxxramas" in Hearthstone is just a series of 15 decks you have to play against in two difficulty levels, and not some fancy animated 3D environment. People will do it to get the 30 special Naxxramas cards, but on the surface we have a game where PvE costs money and PvP is free.

Now of course the headline is a bit sarcastic. Hearthstone has extremely limited player communication, which very much limits how unpleasant you can be to your opponent. You can stall, or spam emotes, but during the match that is pretty much it. But somehow it appears strange to me that you would have to pay to escape from playing against real players and play against the AI instead. And I don't really see the advantage of that system over making Naxxramas free and selling the cards in boosters. After all, if the cards are any good in PvP, the PvP players will complain about Pay2Win anyway, as they'll have to pay for Naxxramas to get them.
Tobold's Blog

Landmark sale on Steam
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 29 July 2014, 4:07 am
For another 9 hours the Landmark founder's sets are on sale on Steam with a 66% reduction. I decided the game has enough potential for me to spend €6.79 on it. Not sure I will play it much before they add the monsters though.
Tobold's Blog

The use of game analysis
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 July 2014, 12:14 pm
A lot of the posts on this blog are about game design: What makes a game fun? What motivates players to act in certain ways? How can good game design make a game better? Of course if we talk about video games and MMORPGs all that game design discussion remains rather theoretical. I don't have illusions of grandeur believing that game designers are reading my blog and will implement my suggestions for improvements to their games. But when we move into the domain of pen & paper role-playing games that changes the situation dramatically. Here, if you can find the strong and weak points of various systems, you can actually make changes to your game and put together the best elements of different systems for your own table.

One thing that few people realize when discussing pen & paper rules systems is that no two table play the same game. Just look at the various videos I linked to earlier this week, with different groups playing the 5th edition starter set, and you will notice how different the different versions of the same adventure in the same rules system are. The result of that is that is that not all criticism of for example an edition in the edition wars is true for all groups playing that edition. I've read a lot of people saying that 4th edition has no role-playing and the fights are extremely slow, and then I watch those 5E videos and have to say that on MY 4E table there is more role-playing and faster combat than shown in most of those 5E videos. That is why I tend to focus my game system criticism on the rules and the maths behind the rules.

Having said that, you can also approach a rules system from the point of view of a hypothetical newbie group playing the system as written. And there it is clear that for example 4th edition is a more balanced and less random system of tactical combat, but has clear weaknesses in not having systems in place which encourage or reward role-playing. 5th edition has a far superior character creation system which not only pushes players to create better backgrounds, but also encourages role-playing your flaws by handing out inspiration bonuses; but then 5E isn't good for tactical combat at all, because its high damage versus low hit points and little healing makes combat very random, and there are fewer tactical options based on positioning.

The solution is to make my own Dungeons & Dragons Edition 4.5 for my table. Which isn't just selecting the best bits from every edition, but also tailors them to the individual needs of my players. What is "best" for my table isn't necessarily best for a different group. In my group role-playing already happens, but much of it is a bit stereotypical (e.g. elf vs. dwarf rivalry), and only one player made a really good background (sorceress who is a Vistani soothsayer). So the 5E character creation system with the personality traits, the inspiration system, and a better background (including the "one unique thing" rule from 13th Age) would surely improve role-playing at my table. But as the players very much enjoy tactical combat, and most of them would not enjoy playing a minor role in a campaign ultimately dominated by wizards, for my table it is very much preferable to stick to 4th edition powers and combat rules. That also has the added advantage that we can keep playing with the existing 4th edition books and their existing French translations, and not switch to a system that only exists in English and doesn't have translations announced yet. It is a lot quicker to just translate rules for background and personality trait creation than to translate all the rules regarding combat, including all spells.

Where our group is somewhat wary of extensive role-playing is because of previous experience where typical role-playing scenarios ("Here is a mystery in a city, go out and solve it by role-playing!") led to the game getting bogged down in role-playing the details of everyday life and not much happening which actually advanced the story. With the particular situation of my group, which only meets twice per month, the overall result was that three months later we still weren't anywhere near having a clue regarding that mystery. Furthermore, with role-playing usually being a lot less structured than combat, the more extroverted players tended to dominate the sessions, while others just sat back and didn't contribute much at all. But I believe I have found a solution to those problems in recent multi-system adventures like Murder in Baldur's Gate or Legacy of the Crystal Shard. The idea is to give somewhat more structure to role-playing when it is supposed to drive a story forward by introducing "turn-based" elements into it. Which means that the DM makes sure that every player gets his chance to contribute his ideas, and then also gives "turns" to the NPCs, especially the villains. Which means that stuff always happens, villains act after some time, and the way the story progresses depends on whether the players did anything which affected the villain's plan or not.

That will need some practice, so I'm planning on a last adventure of the current campaign in which I will try to make a city adventure that doesn't stall. And if that works well, we should be ready to start a new campaign, starting with an improved character creation. Technically it will still be 4th edition, but with none of the flaws that people believe that edition has. Because the flaws of 4th edition are mostly flaws of omission, and those can be more easily fixed by just adding the stuff that isn't done so well in the books.
Tobold's Blog

Less fun jobs in a group
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 July 2014, 9:11 am
In the second part of RPGMP3 video playthrough of the Lost Mine of Phandelver, the fighter in view of rather bad odds is resorting to a tactic which is probably optimal for a 5E level 1 fighter: He stops trying to hit things, but instead uses the dodge action every round. Which in addition to his protection fighting style results in every attack on him or anybody next to him being at disadvantage, taking the lower of two d20 rolls. That doesn't exactly speed up the game, the group takes 4 hours for two fights, but it results in there being no combat deaths. As advantage/disadvantage is such a huge bonus equivalent of up to +5, and 1st level characters in 5E don't survive more than one or two hits, the fighter using dodge is keeping everybody alive by making the monsters keep missing.

The cleric in this group, and in all other groups I watched playing this, is not playing optimally. The optimal play for a level 1 cleric in 5E is to reserve his two level 1 spell slots for healing, because that is all the group gets. So casting another level 1 spell like bless or shield of faith is suboptimal to casting cure wounds or healing word on a fallen comrade and instantly reviving him and getting him back into action.

The reason why the optimally playing fighter is so remarkable, and the suboptimally playing cleric is so common, is that the optimum in both cases isn't much fun. Dodging, which involves not even rolling any dice, is a lot less fun than hitting monsters. And casting only healing spells instead of your full range of spells isn't fun either. It is a bit like in World of Warcraft, where tanks and healers are constantly in short supply, because dealing damage is just more fun than healing or being a meat shield.

Of course that depends on the system. In 4E the tank protects his group by "marking" an enemy, and that is done by doing an attack on that enemy. The 4E healers get 2 heals per encounter a bonus spells that aren't substracting from the number of other spells they can cast. So with Wizards of the Coast obviously being aware of the problem, it is kind of sad that they went back to a situation where fighters and clerics basically get the choice between unfun or suboptimal.
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Lost Mine of Phandelver videos
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 23 July 2014, 2:18 am
As I want to buy it at my local gaming store and not online, I still haven't got the 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons Starter Set. But I did find that several people, Wizards of the Coast included, put videos of themselves playing the starter set adventure Lost Mine of Phandelver on YouTube. *Spoiler alert* Don't watch those videos or read my comments if you plan to play the Starter Set as a player. As watching different groups actually play the game can give a more precise impression of the Starter Set than just reading it, I ended up spending hours on YouTube that way. Here are my impressions.

Let's first list the videos I watched. First of all there is the official version, WotC playing their own Starter Set, with one completely new player. The videos I liked the most were the ones from RPGMP3: Dungeon ON! Also quite well done is the video from Quill18, but after the end of part 4 it appears as if that was just a temporary group and they don't plan to play through the rest of the adventure. Table Top Gaming has a playlist with already 23 half-hour videos, but with apparently experienced players who don't really care that they are playing 5th edition, and a DM taking lots of shortcuts. The lowest quality video is the one from Caffeinated Conquests, where you don't see anything and the music makes it hard to understand what the players are saying.

Of those five video sources, the first and the last are playing theater of the mind style, while the other three are using the Roll20 virtual online table-top. Whatever you think about using battlemaps and miniatures in Dungeons & Dragons, it has to be said that if you want to turn it into a spectator sport these are very much needed. A video showing people sitting around a table and rolling dice just isn't all that visually interesting. Furthermore it turns out by comparing the same fight done by everybody that theater of the mind isn't the fastest version, with even WotC taking one hour for the first fight against 4 goblins. Part of that is of course people still learning the rules, but one does notice a lot of "where exactly is my character standing? Where are the monsters exactly?" type of questions in the theater of the mind versions, and that takes time.

WotC is playing the adventure using the pre-generated characters and they make a great effort to stress the new role-playing rules elements of 5th edition, like characters now having bonds and flaws, or getting "inspiration" advantage for role-playing to those flaws. It is very noticeable that everybody else does not, mostly using characters created using the basic rules. As much as I can understand a dislike of pre-rolled characters in D&D, the pre-gens do have specific background stories, objectives, and bonds to items, places, and people appearing in the adventure, and that gets lost if you create your own characters. So for once I would recommend playing Lost Mine of Phandelver with the pre-generated characters. It isn't as if with the basic rules you could actually make VERY different characters than the pre-gens. As I do consider the personality and background rules for character creation to be one of the strong points of this edition it is somewhat worrying to see them not used so much in actual play videos.

As previously remarked the lethality and randomness is very much on display in these videos. There are several cases of players getting one-shotted from full health to unconsciousness. One fighter, previously wounded, dies outright and instantly from a large critical hit. Quill18 ended up visibly cheating and allowing an unconscious player to use second wind to prevent a total party kill at the end. Some people like lethal games, but somehow I can't help thinking that it isn't a great feature for a Starter Set. If your first impression of Dungeons & Dragons was being the one guy at the table who actually "lost" the game, would you want to play again? I'll have to check, but I don't think the Starter Set even has any instructions on how to replace a dead character, as there are only as many pre-gens as there are supposed to be players.

Speaking of which, WotC had the situation that one player wasn't available for the second session, and "solved" that by presenting that character as having gone elsewhere, instead of somebody else playing that character. Then another character fell unconscious, and the group ended split up with two characters still exploring and one character tending the unconscious fellow. Really? In my opinion the DM should have stepped in and prevented the party from splitting that way, because it sets a rather bad example in the official video of the Starter Set.

5E at its game core is very much a game of resource management. Not every group, and especially not the WotC group, was good at that. The limiting factor appears generally to be healing: There are no healing cantrips, so the two spell slots of the cleric are the only sources of magical healing, and the only way to quickly revive an unconscious character. That is so important that low-level cleric basically should only ever cast cantrips and healing spells. In any case, the level 1 cleric spells other than healing are extremely weak, especially if you compare them to the level 1 wizard spells which do 3d6 area attack damage or splittable 3d4+3 damage with no attack roll or saving throw. Somewhat unfairly the wizard can get spell slots back during a short rest, but the cleric can't. As cure light wounds can heal for a LOT of hit points, it is even debatable whether a cleric should always wait for a character to go down before healing him. On the one side a wounded character can die instantly from a crit, but on the other hand the cleric doesn't really have the luxury of healing every wounded character.

Rogues are actually quite good in this edition. They get their sneak attack even on ranged attacks if they have advantage or, more frequently, when another ally is standing next to the target. And the dual wield rules are rather powerful: If you wield a light weapon like a dagger or shortsword, you get a second attack with your off-hand weapon, albeit only the base damage without attribute bonus. With the bonus attack not being limited to the same target, and moves being splittable in 5E, you can stab a monster to death, move and then stab another monster with your off-hand. In the Starter Set adventure with the level 1 groups against goblins, the rogue and the wizard were the only classes that could potentially kill more than 1 goblin per round.

The Lost Mine of Phandelver appears to be a rather generic adventure, but that is probably a good thing for a Starter Set. It also is a lot longer than the adventures in previous starter boxes, and could potentially be the start of a whole campaign. Given how the basic rules are somewhat incomplete and insufficient to start a game by themselves, the $20 Starter Set looks like a good investment for people who want to play 5th edition without paying $150 for the core books right away. And new DMs can always see how to play that adventure by watching those YouTube videos.
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The least balanced of all D&D editions
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 July 2014, 5:28 am
I now had time to study the basic rules of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons in more detail. And I discovered something which surprised me: By combining rules from unbalanced earlier editions with rules from the very balanced 4th edition, WotC has managed to create the least balanced of all D&D editions. They basically removed most of the disadvantages of lower level spell-casters without toning down their high level advantages. So the previous deal, where the fighter was stronger at lower levels and the wizard became stronger at higher levels is gone: Now the wizard is nearly as good as a fighter at level 1, and then becomes quadratically more powerful with level by gaining both more spells and more powerful spells. The fighter still has his linear progression where he hits harder and is harder to kill with every level, but doesn't gain much in additional options. All the stuff he does gain with level again just makes him hit harder or harder to kill. Whatever his level is, if he stands in front of a monster and the DM asks the fighter what he wants to do, his answer will be "I hit the monster with my weapon", because that is basically his only reasonable option for 20 levels of play.

Spell-casters like wizards and clerics have become far more powerful at lower levels. That starts with the level 1 wizard now having 6 + constitution bonus of hit points, instead of 1d4 or 4 plus constitution bonus. You don't have to choose which spells to cast in advance any more, you can use your spell slots for any spells you have prepared, even multiple times. Then in 5th edition the cantrips are now more powerful than 1st level spells were previously. Do you remember the level 1 wizard who was only able to cast 1 magic missile per day, doing 1d4+1 damage? Well, now he has a cantrip which he can cast every round and do 1d10 damage. Plus several spells slots for level 1 spells, with which he could for example cast a magic missile which does THREE TIMES 1d4+1 damage. Even the cleric has a cantrip with a ranged attack that does 1d8 damage. Although I would argue that the cleric is screwed somewhat in 5th edition by the lack of combat healing, so he'll probably end up using all his spell slots for healing spells (there are no healing cantrips except one that stabilizes a dying player).

At higher levels the spell-casters still get all the spells that made them problematic in earlier editions. Why play a sneaky rogue to scout out the enemies if there are spells like invisibility and fly in the game? Why lockpick if there is a knock spell? Why play a fighter who can hit a monster really, really hard if there are spells like Power Word: Kill? But even more importantly, a high level fighter or rogue is simply lacking options. They don't even have something like a kick power. The most they can do is maneuver themselves into a position where they get advantage and roll two d20 instead of one, or do some extra damage by a sneak attack. But that is it, roll one or more attack rolls and deal a lot of damage. Meanwhile the high-level casters get up to 27 spells per day, of which 5 are cantrips and can be cast repeatedly. Plus you get to "recover" up to 10 levels worth of spell slots once per day.

5th edition Dungeons & Dragons is probably okay for people who never role-played playing through the Starter Set. They will have a lot of fun, especially since the Starter Set ends at level 5. If you start 5E with experienced players, and especially with people who previously played 4th edition, you sooner or later will run into the situation that nobody wants to play a fighter or rogue any more. If you want to play with non-spellcasters in the group, I hope you have a few friends who are somewhat simple-minded and don't object to being constantly outshone by the casters. In the group I'm playing with, nobody would play a simple class like that. They simply are too boring, and have too few options. Being able to attack several times in a round doesn't make up for not having the multitude of options that a spellcaster has. And with the previous disadvantages removed from the caster classes, those will become even more popular than before. Without the powers they had in 4th edition, the fighters and rogues in 5E now just plain suck in comparison. More than ever before.
Tobold's Blog

Core-shell model of Dungeons & Dragons
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 20 July 2014, 2:57 am
I have a very simple model of games in general: They usually have one core activity that is frequently repeated, and then some shell around it that gives structure to the sequence of core activities. In role-playing games, both on paper and on the computer, the core activity is usually combat. The shell is then the virtual world with its lore and quests turning an otherwise dreary sequence of combats into something more. But the same model also applies to very different games, like World of Tanks, where there is also a combat core activity, and a shell around it about researching, buying, and equipping tanks.

Now how much emphasis is on the core part and how much emphasis is on the shell part varies from game to game. Some pen & paper role-players will happily play only the shell part of the game for several sessions, doing mostly role-playing with very little combat. The game I like to call D&D Tactics, but which WotC calls D&D 4th edition is more towards the other extreme, being very focused on the core combat tactical game and not all that helpful with the shell part. That is very evident in the official adventures, where you usually get a booklet with a series of encounters, and need to put in quite some work yourself to fill the part between encounters.

For example my current 4E campaign is near the end of the Madness at Gardmore Abbey boxed adventure. A great adventure with a great story, but the presentation leaves a lot to be desired. You get two booklets full of encounters, but the encounters aren't all that memorable. The fun is in exploring the sandbox that is the abbey freely and piecing together the puzzle of what happened to the abbey, and make decisions about what to do about it. But that requires the DM to piece together that puzzle himself first, and the story is distributed over the other two booklets, plus told in sidebars or descriptive text of the various encounters. And because the story isn't linear, you also need to piece together the various quests and story parts with the map locations. I think I did a good job of that for my campaign, but that involved many hours of preparation, even making lists of quests, secrets, and locations, and flow-charts of the quests and the locations. While I would recommend Madness at Gardmore Abbey for experienced DMs, I can also easily see how an inexperienced DM could make a complete mess out of this. Just by themselves the series of encounters makes no sense, and the adventure would suffer a lot if one only plays the core game of combat without the shell game of slowly revealing what is going on.

Having said that, this isn't a unique flaw of 4th edition. I have played through all editions of Dungeons & Dragons, and I have encountered my fair share of bad DMs. Early editions had lots of adventures that consisted only of dungeons with room after room full of monsters and traps, with little more in the way of a story than there being an evil villain at the end. Even the 5th edition starter set begins with a story that reads "You are hired as caravan guards. The caravan gets ambushed.", which must be one of the most generic stories in the history of role-playing games. 5th edition makes a better job than previous editions in encouraging role-playing by having things like flaws and bonds in the character generation system. But in the end none of the D&D rule books ever did a good job of teaching people how to role-play. Rule books are more concentrated on the core game, the story shell remains to the players and the DM to create.

I am currently preparing the next adventure in my campaign, and the challenge I have set for myself there is to make an adventure in which the shell of the story carries itself even with less of the core combat elements at time. If all goes well there should be sessions with no combat at all. And some fights are optional and can be replaced by role-playing if the players so choose. The difficulty in that is to keep the game interesting to all the players, because many players quite like combat, rolling dice, and using their combat powers. Combat is turn-based, and everybody gets his turn to shine. Role-playing is less structured, which can lead to the most eager players to dominate, while others aren't so engaged. But this will be the last adventure of this campaign, and the next campaign is far more story-centric. So I'd better start demonstrating that ultimately the shell part of the game is in the hands of the DM, and can work regardless what edition is being played.
Tobold's Blog

The economics of CREDD/PLEX
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 July 2014, 8:22 am
Recently neowolf2 commented here in a discussion about how much money Wildstar is making, saying "I'm wondering how the CREDD system is affecting this. I'm seeing reports that people can just farm and vendor stuff to get enough gold to buy all the CREDD they need. If Carbine screwed this up they'll effectively have a grindy B2P game.". So, what are CREDD in Wildstar or PLEX in EVE all about?

Different people enjoy different activities in a MMORPG. Furthermore different people also have different amounts of available time and different tolerances to grind. The result of that is that some people either enjoy very specific gold-making activities like trading, or don't mind farming gold, or if they hate both sometimes are willing to buy virtual gold for real money. Thus there are third parties selling gold, and that trade can cause a lot of trouble if the sellers hack accounts or use bots to farm their merchandise.

Now the easiest way to kill third party gold trade would be for the game company to sell gold at half the going rate. As they can create that gold out of thin air and don't need to hack or bot to get it, they could always be cheaper than any Chinese sweatshop and quickly take them out of business. But some players, especially the hardcore variety, object strongly against game companies selling gold. Miraculously the same hardcore players suddenly find gold selling not unfair any more if it is them who profit. Thus CREDD or PLEX are primarily a way to introduce a legal gold trade into the game without the hardcore players protesting.

If you ask the people who sell gold that way, they will pretend that this is all positive for the game company. The gold buyer basically pays for two subscriptions and the gold seller plays for free, so overall for the game company that works out as if they had two players buying subscriptions. What that calculation ignores is the alternative of the game company selling gold directly: In that case the gold buyer is still spending the same amount of real money and gets the same amount of subscription time plus virtual gold. But the other player who previously financed his subscription with gold would now either have to pay money to keep playing, or stop playing and stop using resources of the game company. So selling gold directly instead of via CREDD or PLEX is clearly more profitable for the game company. As the people who object to that are those who are basically freeloaders in the CREDD/PLEX system, them protesting against direct gold sales is not actually a financial impact on the game company.

Now some people will tell you that direct gold sales from the game company, of gold created out of nothing would lead to inflation. That is a strawman argument. It is obvious that ALL gold in a MMORPG is created out of nothing; various sources in the game either hand out gold directly, or hand out items or resources that can be sold to a vendor for gold. And all those mob drops or vendor sales create gold out of thin air. If you have a CREDD/PLEX system, more people are busy creating more gold that way, and that causes pretty much the same inflation as if the game companies sold the gold directly. In any case you have to balance the virtual economy with gold sinks, like the expensive housing decor in Wildstar or exploding spaceships in EVE.

So how much is a CREDD/PLEX worth in virtual gold? In Wildstar, where gold is easy to make if you know how, the price of CREDDs is going constantly up. On my server a CREDD used to go for under 4 plat, and now it is already 9 plat. Basically the price balances out at a dollar vs. hour rate at which the money-poor but time-rich player is willing to spend time to get his subscription, and the money-rich but time-poor player is willing to spend dollars to get his gold. Unfortunately that balance means that if somebody has a more effective way to make gold, for example a sweatshop, a bot program, or account hacks, he can sell gold cheaper than the player who farms gold to pay for his subscription. As a result for that neither Wildstar nor EVE managed to eliminate illicit gold trade.

Even a standard subscription game without a CREDD/PLEX system already has the casual players (who play less for the same money) subsidize the hardcore players (who play more, and thus pay less per hour). Adding a CREDD/PLEX system allows some people to play completely for free, freeloaders who live of the money of other players. Game companies would be better advised to just sell gold directly, and by that way get rid of the freeloaders and the gold traders at the same time.
Tobold's Blog

Magic 2015
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 July 2014, 11:59 am
I've been playing Magic 2015 on my iPad for a few days, and it will be released on Steam later this week. At first one wonders why the game is 10€ on Steam and "free" on the iPad, but obviously the later isn't real: You only get the tutorial plus 4 games before the free game ends and you need to pay 9€ to unlock the main game. Both platforms also allow you to buy the 30€ complete bundle instead, but that only unlocks all the cards you would otherwise unlock by playing, so I don't recommend it. Complete bundle or manual unlock, there are cards that you can't get either way, and you need to buy those in 1.79€ boosters of 15 cards if you want them. Well, Magic the Gathering was never a cheap game.

The interface is quite well done. Instead of stopping every second to ask you whether you want to cast an instant or interrupt, there is a stop timer, and you need to act quickly if you want to do anything, otherwise the game progresses. Also some decisions like damage distribution are automated by default, but you can turn that off in the settings. The AI is playing reasonably well, although in the campaign the difficulty is more about the computer having the better decks. The game is divided into several planes, each with a series of fixed encounters and a set of random exploration encounters you can play once you beat the fixed games. The first time you beat a fixed game and every time you beat a random encounter, you earn a booster full of cards. But you can get only cards from that plane, so after you got all from one plane, you need to move on.

With all cards unlocked if you pay more at the start, plus the premium boosters with cards you can't get by playing, Magic the Gathering is definitively a Pay2Win game. Which is why I didn't even try multiplayer. But the campaign is fun enough and decently priced, so I'll be having fun with this for a while.
Tobold's Blog

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