Tobold's Blog
Friday, November 21, 2014
 
The Ubisoft formula versus the Blizzard formula

This year there has been some discussion in gaming circles about the "Ubisoft formula" for making an open world game. It is basically a recipe that is shared by various Ubisoft games, from the Assassin's Creed series to Watch Dogs, and which has become so well-known that even open world games that aren't from Ubisoft, like Shadow of Mordor, have been shown to conform to that formula. Meanwhile a lot of pundits seemed somewhat confused about what to make of Blizzard's latest announcement of a new brand, Overwatch. Why is Blizzard making a multi-player shooter? Blizzard isn't know for making multi-player shooters, or even just shooters, so why Overwatch?

I do believe that Blizzard has a formula as well. And I would say that it is a much better formula than what Ubisoft has. While the Ubisoft formula allows you to churn out a large number of largely identical games with new coats of paints, the Blizzard formula leads a collection of very different games. Blizzard's formula is taking whatever genre is currently popular and then applying great craftsmanship to that genre, basically trying to make the best possible game of that genre.

That is the secret sauce that game companies making WoW clones for a decade never understood. World of Warcraft isn't successful because it is highly original or the first of its kind or has a specific set of features. World of Warcraft is successful (and currently growing by 3 million players again) because it took a known concept from games like Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot and simply perfected it. Everything just works in a Blizzard game, notwithstanding occasional errors of judgement like the Diablo 3 real-money AH. Blizzard removes barriers to entry and makes games more accessible for a larger audience. And as larger audience means larger income, they get filthy rich in the process.

The ability to look at existing games, find out what exactly makes them tick, find out what doesn't work, and produce a better version is what makes Blizzard so successful. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in MMORPGs, and not for example SOE or Mythic. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in online trading card games, and not Wizards of the Coast. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in real-time strategy games, and not Westwood Studios. And it is the reason why Riot Games should be nervous when Blizzard makes a MOBA, and Valve should be nervous when Blizzard makes a multi-player shooter. It is extremely likely that the Blizzard version of any game is better than the original, because it is SET OUT to be better than the original. Blizzard isn't making "me too" games, they are in the business of finding and polishing raw diamonds.

And who knows, maybe one day Blizzard will make an open-world game that makes Ubisoft look like amateurs.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014
 
State of the blog address

This used to be "Tobold's MMORPG Blog", but I dropped the "MMORPG" a good while ago. Nevertheless until this year I still considered myself somewhat as a MMORPG player. I don't know if it is just me or the state of the genre, but this year made me lose interest in MMORPGs in a big way. I found the Elder Scrolls Online (played beta) and Wildstar (played beta and release) hugely disappointing. Blizzard sent me 7 free days of WoW earlier this month, before WoD came out, I logged into the game, and found my guild screen saying that on a Saturday night I was the only character out of 586 guildies logged in. That killed the last bit of interest I had in maybe buying the expansion, so this will be the first WoW expansion I'm giving a miss. There is currently no MMORPG out or announced that I currently would want to play. When Wildstar today sent me 7 free days to explore their new "epic, multi-part story designed specifically for solo players", I just snickered and ignored the mail. I'm out!

Now as you might have noticed I am sometimes writing about Dungeons & Dragons. But I wouldn't consider this to be D&D or tabletop role-playing blog either. I mean, MMORPG bloggers are weird, but pen & paper RPG bloggers are a completely different league of weird. I can barely read some of those blogs, especially the so-called OSR blogs. There are endless arguments about how tabletop RPG rules should be "realistic simulations". And not just of real world things like swords and armor. No, people seriously discuss the "realism" of elven racial stats or wizard fireballs. Very few people care about things like whether the game mechanics work or are balanced. Instead most people waste endless time with pseudo-scientific arguments about why their preferred class would be much more realistic if it was a lot more powerful. Not a community I really want to engage in discussion with.

I still play a lot of other games, both on the iPad and on the PC. But I don't always feel the need to write about them. Many modern games, especially the so-called triple-A variety, have perfected the game experience to something almost cinematic. And it is the same cinematic experience for everybody. Even in a purportedly "open world" game the experience that two different players have of the game is very similar. Everything is broken down into very small, easily manageable tasks. When "Le Morte d'Arthur" was written, a "quest" was something you'd expected to last most of your life. Today a quest is "walk 10 meters and click on something, then come back for your reward". In the right situation that can be enjoyable to play, but it isn't really something to write about.

I am not a paid journalist or writer with a certain number of words to write for a certain deadline. I write when I have something to say. And right now I don't have much to say. So don't be surprised if this blog isn't updated daily any more. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 6

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune were on the way to a beholder's cave with a magical spring which would turn them back into their real form, but turned back after a fight with a troglodyte patrol. So in this session they made a second attempt and actually arrived at their destination. The cave was behind a chasm, with only a small ledge giving access. So the rogue passed the ledge, and silently sneaked forward to scout. He was lucky and didn't get detected, so he was able to describe the beholder's cave and its inhabitants to the others. The beholder had in fact created the cave with his disintegrate ray to fit his purposes, and was guarded by four troglodyte champions. While creating the cave he had struck the underground water stream of the magical source, and the water was coming down like a shower on the far side of the cave.

The rogue returned over the ledge, and to help the others arranged with the fighter that each of them would hold one end of a rope, the rogue would pass the ledge, and with two people holding the rope stretched it would be easier for the others to pass the ledge. However that plan was done hastily, and the rogue never told the fighter that he'd expect him to also use the rope to keep him safe while he traversed the ledge. So promptly the rogue failed his acrobatics check and fell into the chasm for significant damage, with the rope just being held loosely at the other end. At least it was easy to climb out again from that. :)

After a better second attempt the group made it across the chasm, and lined up in the tunnel to the cave according to a battle plan they had made. And that plan worked surprisingly well: The dwarven fighter went in first, using a power to pull all troglodytes around him, plus a daily power that damaged everybody starting his turn next to him. The priest burned the thus assembled troglodytes with a column of flame. And everybody else was concentrating their fire on the troglodytes before going for the beholder.

Now on paper the beholder fight was a lot tougher than the fight against the troglodyte patrol in the previous session. But the beholder was the creature from the chaos realm that the Favorites of Selune had unleashed on the world in a previous adventure. Being chaotic the beholder never concentrated his fire, but instead used two (later three) random eye rays on random targets. That was sometimes annoying, but ultimately too dispersed to really be a grave danger. The priest used an at-will power that gave additional saving throws, making the various status effects of the eye rays much less efficient. There was one dangerous moment where a sleep ray threatened to render the priest unconscious, but he used his divine chance power for a bonus and then managed to roll exactly as high as he needed to not fall asleep.

During combat the sorceress stepped under the magic spring shower and got transformed back into her real form. Just as in the previous transformation all her belongings changed size as well, except for the tabard that they had just received from the svirvneblin, and which now looked more like a bib. As the transformation had cost the sorceress a minor action (and messed up her plans for that round), nobody else went under the transformation shower voluntarily during the fight. But the priest who at some point stood close was pushed into the shower by an eye ray power of the beholder. And the priest was among those of the group who had freed the beholder previously. So the beholder offered them a truce, like the last time, which this time the heroes refused.

Once the troglodytes were dead, the beholder fell relatively quickly. The group found his treasure of gold and a magic bandanna, and they all transformed back into their human/elf/halfling form with the help of the magic spring. At this point we ended the session.

Saturday, November 15, 2014
 
The beginning of the end for sequels?

If you follow PC games news you probably heard about the bad reception that the latest Assassin's Creed sequel got. And I am beginning to feel as if that is part of a trend. The latest The Sims sequel, the latest Civilization sequel, the latest Borderlands sequel, the latest Call of Duty sequel, they all didn't get very high review scores. And the list this year goes on and on. Very few sequels this year were really greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. And even the best got remarks like being just more of the same of a still popular formula. Even some new games like Shadow of Mordor got some nasty remarks about being sequel-like and not really original.

In May of this year Steam was found to have already released more games in the first 5 months of 2014 than in the whole of 2013. Steam used to be more similar to a physical games store, with mostly triple-A games most prominently displayed on the limited shelf space. But this year the long tail has really come forward, and on some days the Steam sales charts are dominated by a $10 indie game, or a $20 JRPG which is a port of a 6-year old console game.

Sequels in games are what brands are in clothing. Given the risk of buying something of bad quality, people like buying stuff that carries a familiar name, because that way they think they know what they will be getting. Of course that only works as long as the sequel actually delivers the same quality as the earlier games of the same brand. And at some point playing always the same formulaic type of gameplay gets boring and people want something completely different. Between YouTube Let's Play videos and Steam curator lists recommending some much cheaper games, buying the latest $60 sequel isn't the only option with a pseudo-guarantee of quality any more.

Botching a sequel of a triple-A game can have serious financial consequences. There will always be sequels that earn millions, but it appears as if many series hit a point where the name on the box doesn't help sales all that much any more. Players are spoiled for choice, and there is only so much money and so much time for games around. Rushing a game out in time for the holiday sales and skipping quality control is not something you can still get away with. A brand name is a form of capital that shouldn't be wasted. Game companies better rethink their strategies for sequels before they do irreparable harm to their brand names and their finances.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
 
Rewards and consequences

I bought Valkyria Chronicles on Steam yesterday, a new PC release of an old console game. I like it, it is a good mix of tactical combat and strong storytelling. But after three or so battles I noticed something about the game mechanics that made me restart the game and play those battles again in a very different way. And I'm not sure that I am happy about that new way to play.

The problem is that in Valkyria Chronicles you get a HUGE amount of bonus xp and currency for finishing battles as quickly as possible. Not for killing all enemies or protecting your soldiers, no, for pure speed. Suicide rushes are the best possible tactic. And the rwards you get for that are a game changer. The xp bonus for finishing a mission in record time is twice the base xp, so by rushing you level up three times as fast than if you take it slow.

There are several points about this which make me think that this is bad game design. One is that by making one way to play clearly superior, you give players less options to play their way. The other is that you punish those who persist in trying to play their way. They slowly fall behind in levels until they are way behind the curve and face enemies that are too strong for them. I haven't seen any repeatable fights yet which would allow me to grind xp to catch up if I didn't do well in the earlier battles. Basically you are supposed to save your game before the battle, play it once badly and see the scripted events, then reload and play it better.

I'm all for achievements and badges that encourage you to play well in games. But in a long, linear game if instead of fluff rewards you give out rewards that make you significantly stronger for playing "well", or in a way the devs intended, you get a very perverse effect: You make the game easier for those already playing well, and you make the game harder for those who already have trouble. Shouldn't that be the other way around? Provide more challenge for the stronger players, and boost the weaker ones!

Friday, November 07, 2014
 
Exclusivity in massively multiplayer games

A new continent opened up in Archeage with lots of housing space. And presumably by hacking all the housing space was sold out within seconds. While there is a certain historical accuracy to having a large number of landless peasants and a tiny number of landed gentry, I think the concept isn't commercially viable. Imagine a player like me who has already played lots of MMORPGs full of mediocre quests, but who would be interested in trying a game like Archeage *because* of having a house and a farm. I'd first be pissed off because the subscription-free part of Archeage doesn't allow me to experience the part of the game I am interested in at all. And then I shell out money for a subscription and find that I still can't get any land? I'd be out of that game again in a heartbeat!

Imagine the same game with a different system: Instead of allowing hackers to grab all land and sell it for their profit, what if the game company sold the land for real money to the highest bidders? I'm pretty sure that would cause howls of outrage, even if the only thing that changes would be who received the money, the game company or the hackers. If we wouldn't be willing to accept a game in which a limited supply is sold for cash by the game company, why would we be willing to accept a game in which the same limited supply is sold for cash by hackers?

Back in the days where people trading virtual items for money was still a subject of intensive discussion on MMORPG blogs, I once pointed out that the problem is that only half of the interaction happens in the game: Player A transfers a virtual property to player B in the game. The other half of the transaction, player B gives money to player A, happens outside the game and is invisible to the game company. The game company can't know whether A gave virtual property to B for money, or because B is his girlfriend, or for some other reason. The only way to stop people from selling virtual property for real money would be to completely disallow the in-game transfer of virtual property.

I am not convinced at all that having virtual property with limited supply in the game is a good idea at all. And I am absolutely certain that if a game has such a feature, it would need to put strong limits on such ownership: Every player being allowed only one plot of land, and no way to transfer that plot of land to another player. But I think it would be even better if for example small plots of land would be available in a quantity that even free players could have one, and only large plots of land would be in somewhat more limited supply. In the end you can't honestly advertise your game as having housing and farming if in practice it is unlikely for the average player to get there without a huge financial investment.

Thursday, November 06, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 5

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived in the Underdark and after a fight with some troglodytes were accepted into a clan of svirfneblin, having previously been transformed by sinister forces into svirfneblin form. In this session (which for real life reasons was a very short one) they set out from the svirfneblin clan towards a magical underground spring which they hope can transform them back. But they know that there are more troglodytes in the way, and the beholder they let loose onto the world in a previous adventure.

The strong point of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is tactical combat. Tactical combat is helped by interesting terrain, where the obstacles of the battlemap force players to make choices on how to place themselves. Having said that, "interesting" does not necessarily mean complicated. So what happened next to the group was an encounter in one of the simplest possible maps: A long, straight corridor. I made the passage 4 spaces wide, but included a 2x2 spaces large behemoth in the enemy group, plus 5 troglodytes of different types. So the players couldn't get past the behemoth without suffering from attacks of opportunity. And both sides were vulnerable to area attacks, as they couldn't very well disperse sideways.

Given those circumstances the group decided to concentrate fire on the behemoth. But the troglodytes had several powers that were quite powerful in confined spaces: They all had a stench aura around them making attackers suffer a -2 penalty to attacks. And the two spellcasters in the back had area attacks and a debilitating ray which caused weakness in targets already standing in a stench aura. So this turned out to be a tough fight, and the characters were forced to expend a lot of daily powers.

On the up side this fight established the Underdark as a dark and dangerous place. The downside was that with the penalty and weakness it took the players quite some time to finally beat down the troglodytes. And then they found themselves having expended many daily powers and were unwilling to face the beholder like that. So they turned around, went back to the svirfneblin, and spent another night there to recover. Of course having set out to kill a beholder and having returned a short while later because of a few troglodytes the group didn't really impress the svirfneblin, who could be heard snickering behind the adventurers back. Given the short time available this time, we ended the session there.

Monday, November 03, 2014
 
Do the players know best?

I have a mail in my inbox from Stubborn for a month to which I have trouble finding an adequate reply. I was discussing my next D&D campaign with him, and he replied among other things that "the prescriptive elements of it are definitely more your thing than mine". One the one side I know that he is right, the new campaign definitively *is* pushing my players into a style of gameplay they don't usually do. On the other side I believe that this *could* be a good thing. I'm just not 100% sure about it.

I believe that pen & paper roleplaying games are about interactive story-telling. Yes, there is also a large part of interesting turn-based tactical combat; but I can do turn-based tactical combat in a computer game, while human players are necessary for interactive story-telling. It is the "unique selling proposition" of tabletop role-playing games. Having said that, interactive story-telling isn't actually all that obvious. I have a whole book shelf full of D&D manuals, and there is very little written in those books about interactive story-telling. It is very easy to confuse role-playing with roll playing, and concentrating on the aspects of the game which are written on your character sheet and resolves with dice rolls.

I have in the past played occasionally with great role-players. I once was in a group that sneaked into a warehouse and was caught by a guard, and another player turned that into a brilliant scene where he convinced the guard that the group was there to conduct a secret safety inspection and commended him for having "caught" the group. If you have several such players, great interactive role-playing will happen in your campaign regardless of how you run it. My problem is that in my current group I'm not really getting the degree of role-playing I would like, and the players are very much concentrated on the more mechanic parts of the game.

So the question is whether as the DM I should conform to the predispositions of my players and run a campaign which is light on role-playing and strong on rolling dice. Or should I use "prescriptive elements" in my campaign that nudge players towards more interactive story-telling?

What I have observed in years of MMORPG playing is that what players do is not necessarily a good indication of what players actually want. And what players say they want is then yet another thing. For example I can honestly not tell you with certainty whether a majority of MMORPG players enjoys playing solo more than playing in a group, or whether it is just the grouping system and the incentives in modern games which turned the majority into solo players. Back in the days of the original Everquest the idea of a solo MMORPG appeared to be somewhat ridiculous. But in EQ playing solo was harder than playing in a group, and now it is the other way around. Are players simply following the path of least resistance to maximum rewards, or are there true preferences hidden underneath all that somewhere?

If in the case of my campaign players don't really have a strong preference, and just play the game as it is presented to them, it appears perfectly possible that by starting a new campaign in which the incentives and the framework are presented differently we can arrive at a different style of gaming and actually all enjoy it more. But if the way they play is because that is what they truly want, trying to push them out of their comfort zone might go down really badly.

What do you think? Do the players know best, or are they flexible and follow the incentives?

Friday, October 31, 2014
 
Predictability of games

Azuriel is talking about Civilization: Beyond Earth and complains that after an interesting start the end game becomes a formality, where you already know you won, but still need to play for hours to actually win. Meanwhile Zubon talks about a board game where the better player always wins. And Stubborn mentions: "Okay, most recently I’ve been playing X-Com (I haven’t fully rage-quit just yet, though I was close the other night when two 90% to hit rocket attacks missed their mark followed by an 88% sniper shot missing, causing one of my people to be killed the following round, but I held it together and played on).".

What do these posts have in common? They are all about predictability of games. Games tend to start out in a state of maximum unpredictability: You usually don't know who is winning before the game has developed a bit further. At some point it becomes very clear who is winning, but unless a player concedes (and an AI player frequently isn't programmed to do so), the game goes on in a very predictable manner. And then it comes down to the amount of randomness in the game whether the game becomes totally boring, or there is still a chance for a reversal of fortunes.

Having said that, a lot of people like knowing early that they are going to win. Not everybody is playing games in a competitive manner. Most people are quite happy for example doing quests in MMORPGs for hundreds of hours, where they always "win", and only rarely encounter minor setbacks. Other players manipulate, cheat, or pay money in order to make a game more predictably a win. Even mild-mannered Stubborn can get close to rage-quitting if his 90% win chance turns into a loss.

That poses a challenge to game design. Do we really want a "No Longer Delay the Inevitable button" as suggested by Azuriel? Or do we want games where up to the very end it isn't predictable who is winning? (There are actually a number of board games with hidden scoring systems that work like that). Do we want more randomness in games, so they become less predictable, or do we prefer less randomness and more predictability?

 
Steam key resellers

If somebody offers you a designer watch or handbag for a very low price, sold out of the boot of his car, you would be suspicious. Either the item is fake, or it is stolen. So obviously I was wondering the same when I bought the Civilization 5 complete edition from a Steam key reseller for 15 Euro, instead of paying Steam 40 Euro for the same item. There are fake and stolen keys around.

While I don't know a way to actually buy a Steam key I could mail to somebody else directly from Steam (is that possible?), I have in the past received Steam keys that were quite definitely legit. For example if you fund a game on Kickstarter and the funded game ends up on Steam, you might get one or several Steam keys as backer rewards. If you buy a game in physical form, a box with a DVD in it, there might be a Steam key in there as well. So it is very possible for somebody to end up with a "spare" Steam key which is neither fake nor stolen.

So unlike that designer handbag or watch this isn't necessarily a black market. But I can't shake the feeling that at the very least it is a grey one. The key I bought "works", as in it allowed me to install and play Civilization 5 on my computer. But I am not 100% sure if somewhere in the process something legally dodgy was going on, and the cheap price is somehow the result of a copyright violation or something similar. You getting a Steam key legitimately and you being allowed to resell that Steam key are two very different things.

A bit of research on the internet finds opinions divided: Some people don't buy anything directly from Steam any more, and only buy resold keys. Others report on the possibility that Steam could either remove a game you bought via key from your library, or even ban your whole account. So right now I'm not sure if getting that game for less than half price was actually a good deal.

Thursday, October 30, 2014
 
Civilized pricing

I bought and played pretty much every version of Civilization there is, from the very first to Civ 5, including spin-offs like Colonization or Alpha Centauri, and even Civilization Revolution. So of course I was considering buying Civilization: Beyond Earth as well. But I haven't. After looking at both written and video reviews of Beyond Earth, I can't see a compelling reason to buy it. Most of the engine is still Civ 5, the Sci-Fi scenario seems to be less interesting than the historical one, and the new game appears to be suffering from feature overload and unnecessary complications.

Now in cases like this I tend to get price sensitive. There are games where I have doubts (e.g. Civilization: Beyond Earth or Shadow of Mordor) which make me unwilling to pay full price for the game, but I put them on my Steam wishlist anyway. If at the next holiday sale I can get the game for half price or less, I'll reconsider.

In this specific case I also had another idea: I only played Civilization 5 when it came out, and haven't touched it since. So I never bought the two expansions of the game. And I hear that Civ 5 with the expansion is much better than the new Beyond Earth, so that might well be worth trying. But as I was still in price sensitive mode, I was somewhat shocked to find out that each expansion on Steam costs 30 Euro. Hey, I'm not saving 50 Euro on buying Beyond Earth just to spend 60 Euro on two expansions for the older game. If I wanted *all* DLC for Civ 5, I would even have to pay 100 Euro! But only if I bought them individually. Curiously enough I can't buy a bundle of all DLCs for a better price. But I *can* buy Civilization 5 a second time in the "complete edition" and that will get me all DLCs. And that would only cost me 40 Euros.

I haven't made a final decision yet, but if I feel the urge to play a Civilization game, I would probably buy the complete edition. Somehow it annoys me that this means I will have to buy a second copy of the original game. I have a sneaking suspicion that Steam won't even show me owning the game twice, they would just quietly take my money and only put the new DLCs in my library, and not a second copy of Civ 5. After all, there is no way to use two digital copies of the same game on a Steam account. It would be a lot nicer if I had the option for example to gift the second copy to somebody.

[PS.: Following a reader's advice I bought the complete edition for 15 Euro from a key reseller site.]

Sunday, October 26, 2014
 
The next goal

I've been playing Destiny quite casually in the last few weeks. Log on, take a bounty to do some patrol missions, do the patrols, log off again. That was the kind of relaxed gameplay I liked, and I had a specific goal in mind: Reach Vanguard rank 2. I just reached that goal today, and now I can buy epic gear for Vanguard marks. It turned out that for most of my slots that meant replacing some Light +15 item by a Light +18 item, which isn't really worth it. But fortunately I still had some crappy Light +6 gloves, and upgrading those to +18 got me to ding level 24.

The problem with reaching a goal in any persistent online game is that then you have to look for your next goal. And right now in Destiny the goals that are left aren't a good fit to my play preferences. Basically I reached the point where soloing doesn't make sense any more. It isn't impossible, Destiny has a tiny, tiny chance of epic drops from any mob you kill, so theoretically if I soloed thousands of mobs I could still sometimes get an upgrade. But practically if I want to level beyond 24 I would need to play strikes, which are pickup group dungeons. Not the casual content I am looking for.

Of course I could just play an alt. But gameplay in Destiny is 90% independent of your class, so playing a different class (especially solo up to level 20) isn't really much different from the first play through. So somehow I have run out of goals that I'd like to achieve in Destiny, and I think that means game over for me.

There is nothing wrong with playing in groups. There are a lot of games where I enjoy cooperative multiplayer more than I enjoy solo play, especially if playing in a group has tactical options that don't exist in solo play. But I have to question the wisdom of game design where your level of advancement in the game determines whether you should play solo or play group. Wouldn't it be best if at any given level you could choose between solo and group play and still advance? Rate of advancement might need to be a bit faster in groups, to make up for the possibility of landing in a bad group and not advancing much at all. But I do think that is just a matter of balancing incentives. Why do we get so many games where soloing is far superior to grouping up to a certain point, and then the situation reverses? To me that looks like a recipe to get people to quit when their next goal doesn't align with their play style any more.

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