Tobold's Blog
Friday, March 27, 2015

Just a quick mention of a software that helped me with a small problem: I had bought an alarm clock which wakes you up with your favorite song as mp3 file on an USB key or SD card. Unfortunately it turned out that the volume setting in alarm mode cannot be changed, and getting woken up by music blaring loudly wasn't especially nice. I thought about buying a different alarm clock, but then I had an idea: The volume of the music must be somewhere encoded on the mp3 file. If only there was a way to easily change the volume of a bunch of mp3 files!

Turns out, there is! MP3Gain lets you change the volume of a bunch of mp3 files to the same loudness. While mostly meant to normalize the songs on your mp3 player to have the same volume, it also worked beautifully for my purpose. 80 decibels is enough to wake me up without giving me a heart attack.

Thursday, March 26, 2015
Telling the future

Psychochild has written a great article explaining that "Peter Molyneux isn’t so much lying as being terrible at telling the future.". For me the problem is not the difficulty of telling the future, or any specific developer being bad at it, or any specific game failing to deliver on its promises. For me the problem is gamers and game media being more interested in the future than in the present. If you want you can do the following experiment: Go to the next newsstand and buy any one random games magazine. Now count the pages dealing with previews of upcoming games and count the pages dealing with reviews or other information about games that have already been released. The number of preview pages ALWAYS is bigger than the number of review pages, up to twice as many pages talking about the future than there are pages talking about the present.

The internet isn't any better. There is endless discussion of Kickstarter projects and all sorts of other games still in development. As soon as a game is released everybody is losing interest. The level of interest is also quite evident in pricing: Many developers will happily sell you alpha access to a buggy unfinished mess for $200, but the price of the game goes down to $60 on release day, and half a year later you can pick up the game for $20 in a Steam sale. People would be outraged if a game on release day had a $100 price tag, but Kickstarter projects for games frequently get an average of around $100 per backer.

Unfortunately everything Psychochild explains about Molyneux is also true for most other game developers. The greatest visionaries are often the least able to transform their visions into an actual product. Anybody remember the Warhammer Online hype, and the "bears, bears, bears" video? Lots of people got so excited that they started a great many number of blogs, most of which quickly died when the game was actually released.

I would much prefer if the visionaries would shut up and rather try to implement their vision than telling the world about it. Visions are incredibly cheap to produce compared to actual games. And I see more and more cases where it can be suspected that somebody noticed that the cheap vision sells better than the expensive to make game, and deliberately sets out to con people out of their money. Game developers aren't the only ones terrible at telling the future, gamers themselves are also incredibly bad at evaluating the visions that are being sold. Game design has a number of insolvable problems and inherent incompatibilities, and you can earn a lot more money by promising the impossible than by trying to work out a reasonable compromise and implementing it. That makes Kickstarter a paradise for con artists rather than a way to fund the games that people actually want.

Player agency and what they do with it

In the original Everquest, despite its name suggesting otherwise, players were not doing quests all the time. There weren't all that many quests. Most of the time a player had nobody who told him what to do, he was free to pursue whatever goal he wanted, wherever he wanted (as long as the zone was level appropriate). The consequence of that wasn't pretty, it led to what people called Evercamp: Players were most interested in gaining experience as efficiently as possible, and the most efficient method was to "camp" one location of monsters. The initial pull was the hardest, as afterwards the mobs respawned not as a group but one by one. So the most efficient way to gain experience and levels was to stay at the same spot and kill the same group of monsters over and over and over. As level gaining was much slower than in modern games, it wasn't unheard of a player staying at one spot for weeks, moving on only once he outleveled the monsters and needed a new spot.

When games like World of Warcraft moved to a system where players were always on a quest, and the quests made them move all over the zone instead of sticking to one spot, that was considered a big improvement. Only those "quests" weren't quests in the Wikipedia sense of the word. Sir Galahad is famous for having completed one quest in his lifetime, World of Warcraft has achievements for doing 3,000 quests, or worse 10,000 daily quests. Instead of finding the holy grail, a quest often doesn't involve more than walking 10 meters and clicking on something. At most you need to run to the other end of the zone and kill 10 monsters. So by now everybody is thoroughly bored of doing thousands of minor chores, and is clamoring for sandbox games.

But the initial problem still hasn't been solved: If you give players a huge world filled with interesting stuff, how do you ensure that they actually go out adventuring and do dangerous and interesting stuff? A great majority of players is more interested in the rewards than in the adventure, and prefers the path of least resistance, even if that path is rather boring.

The problem isn't unique to MMORPGs. Besides the D&D campaign were I am the DM, I now found another group where I could play instead. But in the first session I felt the group was never in any situation of their own chosing, but was being led by the nose through a scripted story. Putting my DM hat back on, I am not sure my players don't feel the same about my game. For example in the latest session of my campaign my players came upon a troll shaman with a bear pet. They clearly had at least two options, ignoring him or fighting him, and they never thought of other possibilities like talking to him. But in any case the situation itself was one created by me, the DM (or the author of the adventure I was playing). Like a dungeon in World of Warcraft the dungeon in a D&D adventure is a collection of possible encounters, and the only freedom the players have is to choose their path through that collection, and how to deal with each situation. They rarely *create* the situation they need to deal with.

Just like with MMORPG players, people playing tabletop roleplaying games of clamor for sandbox games instead. I have a strong suspicion that those clamoring the loudest are those that don't actually play or lead a game, but talk out of a purely theoretical armchair position. The previous adventure of my D&D campaign before the current dungeon was a more sandboxy city adventure, and that ended with the group walking away and deciding not to confront the archvillain, in spite of having a strong possible motive of revenge. If as a DM you give players a strong motive to do something, they feel railroaded. If you don't give them a strong motive to do something, they won't do it. And most players you can't rely on to create their own strong motivation beyond gaining experience points and treasure. In a completely sandbox world of D&D, players would probably end up "camping" mobs. A generic fantasy world without DM-designed stories is a bland and boring place, but every story you do tell creates at least the impression of you leading the players.

I'm still experimenting with my tabletop roleplaying games, and I'm still waiting for a MMORPG to come up with a better solution. I'm not sure there is a perfect solution for either case, we might need to settle for the least bad compromise.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
The Favorites of Selune - Trollhaunt - Session 3

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune fought their way into the troll warrens. This session started with them deciding to take a long rest, as they tend to do after every remotely challenging fight to recover their daily spells. Note to self: I need to have a mechanic like a time limit for every dungeon in the future to prevent this; respawning trolls would be another option, but then they'd just rest again. At least in this case they had found a good location for the rest, a neighboring cave in which human prisoners from Moonstairs and the prince's expedition were held. The prisoners were in no condition to fight, but were willing to keep guard while the group rested, in exchange for being freed and led out of the troll warren the next day.

Having entered the warrens via the river flowing out, I would have thought that the group might continue further into the warrens that way, which would have been an option. But they decided to do the more conventional thing and followed the tunnels instead. That led them to a cave where an elderly troll shaman was circling a mound of skulls on an elevated platform, with a giant bear pet at the foot of the stairs. Their first concern curiously was to find out whether the bear was actually a bear or a transformed troll druid. Nice idea, but in this case it really was just a bear. While observing the bear they were seen by it, but the bear was content gnawing some bones and didn't attack. A further incursion into the cave likewise didn't result in an attack, neither by the troll nor the bear. And one of the two exits was thus clearly possible to reach without a fight. That caused some discussion, with the rogue being in favor of leaving no troll alive, while the rest of the group preferred to preserve their strength.

The next cave was empty except for a portal with runes on it. The runes apparently were relatively fresh, and in the script that both dwarves and giant-kind uses. With a comprehend languages ritual the priest deciphered it as announcing this door to lead towards the troll king Skalmad, "nobody escapes his eye". The door had a lock, and the rogue was able to pick it, so the group could continue this way.

The next large cave was illuminated by patches of luminescent mushrooms, with an old woman tending a patch of those mushrooms in the middle of the room. From the ceiling hung cages containing troll skeletons. After their experience with the non-hostile troll, the group approached the women with little worry. Which was a mistake, because she transformed into her real form, a briar hag. There was a second hag in the back of the cave, and from the cages descended five troll skeletons and attacked.

As the group had advanced into the cave, and not kept rank, the fight didn't have a clear frontline, and there were skeletons or hags all around and between the characters. While that has obvious tactical disadvantages, at least it made the area effect of the briar hags, who grew patches of briar to entangle the adventurers, less effective. Being right in the middle the cleric used a great combination of turn undead after an area effect spell which allowed him a total of 10 attacks where he needed only to roll a 10 or more on a d20. To general amusement he managed to miss 9 of those attacks. After this bad start the fight was a rather tough one, with lots of healing and use of daily powers needed to survive. The troll skeletons hit hard, and the hags had ranged spells to immobilize adventurers. With the adventurers being dispersed and hindered in movement, they were unable to concentrate their attacks well, which led to several rounds of combat with no monster dying. But then the skeletons started to fall, and so did the first hag. The second hag tried to get to the door to the next room, but was slowed down by some attack, and never made it.

After the fight the group found some treasure, and we ended the session there.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Players to backers ratio

The Crowfall Kickstarter is coming to an end this week, having reached its goal. Around 15,000 backers funded the project to the tune of 1.5 million dollars, about $100 average per backer. One of the advantages of crowdfunding frequently mentioned is that it allows to demonstrate public interest in a project. Which leads me to the question of how many backers would be sufficient for that.

In today's market a MMORPG with 15,000 players would be considered incredibly niche. But we have to assume that the number of people willing to buy a game is larger than the number of Kickstarter backers. After all, spending $100 on a game that hasn't been developed yet is obviously a risky proposition and a lot of people would rather wait for the game to be out before making a purchase decision. On the other hand the MMORPG genre is full of "tourists", people who are quite willing to buy a new game and try it for a while, but who tend to be gone after a month or three, and who don't contribute to the long-term health of a game.

We don't have a lot of data on the players to backers ratio of kickstarted MMORPGs for the simple reason that we don't have many successfully kickstarted MMORPGs. Crowfall has about the same number of backers as for example Camelot Unchained, but less than Shroud of the Avatar, and only about half of the number of backers of Star Citizen. The obvious problem is that the development time for MMORPGs tends be rather long, so none of these games have come out yet. We don't even know *if* they will all come out.

The other fundamental problem is that a Kickstarter backer is essentially buying a dream, while a player who buys the game after release is buying a more or less finished product. Between public beta tests, YouTube videos, and game reviews the person waiting for release is far better informed about the actual quality of the final game than the Kickstarter backer. Godus, which technically is still in beta and also got over 15,000 backers, presumably would have a hard time to attract a lot of new players if it ever gets "released". While theoretically a company could be better at making a game than a pitching it on Kickstarter, the general tendency is for actual products not living up to all the dreams and promises.

In the end I have a hard time imaging a players to backers ratio of higher than 10 on release, less after the tourists came and went. I don't think any of the MMORPGs on Kickstarter will reach a million players. The Double Fine Adventure Broken Age sold 70,947 copies in the first three months, which isn't all that much compared to the 87,142 backers, suggesting a players to backers ratio of around 2 for the second most successful Kickstarter game ever. What do you think?

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Bhagpuss mode

While technically I had unsubscribed from World of Warcraft, I continued playing for free the low-level characters that the "veteran edition" allows you to play. In what I call Bhagpuss mode, playing for relaxation without worrying about efficiency or trying to achieve much. World of Warcraft is a good game to play like that if you're tired after a day at work, it doesn't require much effort for the basic questing and similar solo gameplay. I first leveled a human hunter to 20, noticing by the way that I hadn't played the post-Cataclysm Alliance zones yet. Then I started a gnome monk. But at that point I got a bit annoyed at the free version not allowing me to do pet battles, which is also a nice relaxation mode of WoW. And so I ended up subscribing again.

One added advantage of subscribing of course is that it reactivated my higher level characters, specifically those with garrisons. I plan for them to continue to do work orders with the profession buildings, hoarding the materials needed to craft epics and upgrades. My thinking on that is that when the WoW token gets introduced, this will lead to a lot more gold flowing into the economy from currently inactive accounts, leading to more AH activity and inflation. The people buying gold for tokens will want to spend that gold on something, after all. As I can produce epics by just keeping my garrison production running with very little effort, I should be able to make a lot of gold, and translate that into free months of subscription.

One added advantage is that patch 6.1 increased the xp you get from mining and herb collecting in your garrison. So the characters I don't really want to play, like my level 96 shadow priest, are still slowly moving towards level 100 and a better garrison. On the silly side my level 100 characters are accumulating epic gear up to iLevel 670 just from missions, without even leaving the garrison.

But most of my time I'm spending on the gnome monk, collecting pets through pet battles, or tinkering around with cooking and leatherworking. Monk doesn't appear to be a very popular class for leveling, but if by level 20 I see that he doesn't work out, I can still switch to the hunter I already leveled to 20.

Thursday, March 19, 2015
Rogue redux

I've been playing some Card Crawl on my iPad. As the "crawl" in the name suggests there is a faint relation to a rogue-like dungeon crawl game. Only there is no dungeon. Instead the experience is simulated by going through a deck of 54 cards, roughly half of which are monsters that cost you health, and the other half being equipment items that prevent health loss or heal you. Only 5 cards in the deck are variable, and over time you get a selection of cards which you can put into those 5 slots. The game is played by the dealer revealing the top 4 cards of the deck, and you having to deal with 3 of them before he deals the next cards. You have 3 slots on your character where you can store positive cards, or you can sell them for gold, but negative cards need to be neutralized with positive cards or you need to take the health loss.

I'm not quite sure why the game got so good reviews. To me the optimal strategy of the game became quite obvious rather early. And once you got the strategy, whether you win or lose is simply a matter of luck. If you get good and bad cards more or less in alternation, you win. If you get a cluster of bad cards (you can lose first turn by drawing 4 non-trivial monsters) you lose. If you get a cluster of good cards, you run out of storage slots for them, need to sell them, and the fine balance of the game means that then you'll inevitably get too many bad cards later and lose. The most interesting thing about that is that there are actually rogue-like dungeon crawl games which work basically on the same principle: There are random events which can be either good or bad, and if you get by pure chance a cluster of bad events, you lose. So Card Crawl is a game of rogue redux.

I am not opposed to randomness in games. I play tabletop role-playing games where throwing dice is an essential part of playing. But a good DM would never have a situation in a game of D&D where a bad roll of the dice means everybody loses and goes home. The fun of randomness is that it adds an element of uncertainty to your strategy / tactics with which the players have to deal. But the macroscopic success or failure should rest on the decisions that the players make, and not be simply a matter of luck. This is also why I prefer the longer fights of 4th edition Dungeon & Dragon, where you roll a lot of dice in each fight and deal with the ups and downs, to the new 5th edition D&D combat where you can die from a single critical hit before you even acted once.

An important aspect there is what the penalty for bad luck is. If bad luck can cause you a minor setback, I don't mind. If by bad luck and no fault of your own you lose a game where the only option is to start over from the very beginning, I find that annoying. I prefer games where good luck or bad luck is a random factor that determines what the optimal strategy / tactic is, forcing me to adjust to events. If it's "bad luck, you lose, start over", then I'm not all that interested.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Bartle types, gender, and game design

I stumbled upon an infographic on percentage of women playing various different video games, which shows that for some type of games there are more women than men playing, while League of Legends only has 10% women playing, and EVE Online even just 4%. And I was thinking that this is a matter of measuring what is easily measurable and then reducing a far more complex issue to a simple gender issue. EVE Online is not a sexist game, doesn't feature overly sexualized or victimized female NPCs, or limits you to playing male characters. If you took the typical list of "how to make games more gender equal", they clearly don't apply to this case.

That is because the underlying more complex issue is one of Bartle types. EVE Online and League of Legends are clearly games that nearly exclusively cater to the Killer Bartle type. People use words like "toxic community" and "cutthroat" to describe these games. That is only a gender issue insofar as women are more likely to prefer Explorer and Socializer Bartle type gameplay. Men who are Explorers / Socializers are as much repelled by these Killer games as women are.

I'm not sure whether anything can be done to for example make MOBA games more accessible to other Bartle types and thus increase the female participation rate as well as widening the male audience. Even Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm appears to me to not offer much content for Bartle types other than Killers.

But where I see a big opportunity for improvement is in sandbox virtual world games. Currently many of them are far less successful than they could be because the Killers have been given free reign, and they are driving out anybody else. It is a mistake in a game like DayZ to give players lots of tools to kill or torture each other, but not enough tools to cooperate or socialize. A survival sandbox game based around cooperation being more efficient than lone wolves would not just be much more realistic in terms of early human history, it would also attract a larger and more diverse crowd.

Sunday, March 15, 2015
Featuritis and Sid Meier's Starships

Any genre of PC game accumulated features over time. If you make a new game you are expected to have all the features of the classic games of that genre, and then some. As a consequence modern games often suffer from featuritis, with too many features making the game overly complicated and susceptible to bugs. Less sometimes would be more.

I am playing Sid Meier's Starships on my iPad. It is a fun little 4X space conquest game which has been seriously slimmed down of features compared to classics like Masters of Orion. As a consequence the PC version of the game got a horrible Metacritic score of 71. The iOS version of the game, which is identical and costs the same, got a great Metacritic score of 93. Basically the PC version got unfairly downgraded for not having all the features of a genre which is well established on PCs, while on the iOS Sid Meier's Starships is basically now the reference for the 4X space genre.

I believe that Sid Meier's Starships is a better game than a hypothetical new 4X game with far more features and all the bells and whistles of the whole history of the 4X genre. It is more likely to attract new players to the genre, and more adapted to the needs of people who don't have all day to play games. And I can think of several other genres who might well need a similar "reset" of going back to basics and less features. Which is why I am finding myself more and more playing mobile games or indie games. And there is the financial advantage of a simpler $15 game often being more bang for your bucks than a $60 triple A game.

Friday, March 13, 2015
Pornography and the right to sexist games

I am a liberal in the Europeans sense of the word, that is I believe that society should strive towards maximum freedom, whilst taking into account that my freedom to swing my fist ends where your nose begins. That is not an easy position, because more often than not two different freedoms clash on specific issues. I am for sexual freedom as well as religious freedom, but then you get into those questions where you can have only either one or the other, and not both. And one of these difficult issues where different freedoms clash is the question of sexism in games.

I totally agree with Anita Sarkeesian that sexism in games exists, albeit often at a relatively low level. But I don't agree that this means that we need to do something in order to guarantee that every single game is absolutely free of sexism. Using Zite I randomly stumbled about the story of a sexist Japanese game that people want to censor or ban. And would consider such a ban a greater imposition on freedom than the existence of that game.

The parallel that I am drawing is with pornography. Pornography is sexist. But it is also a multi-billion dollar industry that enjoys a legal or even constitutional protection in many countries. Lots of people consider 50 Shades of Grey to be sexist, and it is one of the highest grossing films of this year, having already earned $550 million since Valentine. One of the most successful TV shows there is, Game of Thrones, while having some strong female characters is also full of gratuitous sex scenes, and has also been accused of being both racist and sexist. For me all these examples establish that there is something like a right to consume sexist media content. And I don't see why games should be excluded from that right.

That is not to say that there shouldn't be games with strong female characters or feminist messages. I'm just saying that in the interest of liberty, all sorts of content should be on offer. People who are offended by either feminist games or sexist games have the right to choose a different game. But in a free market in a free society, both should exist. Of course with the appropriate ESRB rating and labeling. But telling an adult that he can consume porn, but he isn't allowed to play a game just because there is a busty anime character covered in chocolate in it doesn't make sense to me. Personally I think that the ultra-violence of games is a far bigger problem than their sexism, but an informed consumer should even have the right to play such an ultra-violent game. Unless in the process of content creation somebody is actually hurt (e.g. child pornography, snuff movies), nobody should have the right to tell somebody else what content he may consume.

Making readers think

Some days ago somebody tagged me with the Liebster award, which is a kind of chain letter currently making the round in gaming blogs. I ignored it. But then I thought that I should at least explain why I would not want to participate, and then my thoughts quickly turned onto a wider issue. MMORPG bloggers and blog readers are probably familiar with the concept of the Bartle types, the idea that different people play the same game for very different reasons. There is a lot less discussion about the fact that different people also blog for very different reasons. The Liebster award is like an invitation to a MMORPG event which only appeals to a specific Bartle type.

I am not a sociologist, so I won't try to categorize blogger types. But I would like to point out two families of blogs that I am not particularly interested in. The first is blogs where the author is principally motivated by writing about himself, which would be the kind of blog that would be most interested in a Liebster award. The thing is I don't think that I am a very interesting person. You might be interested what I say about games because you care about games, but that doesn't mean you care about me, especially not about the boring details of my private life. I never understood the idea of posting what you had for breakfast on Facebook, I mean who could possibly care?

The second type of blog that I am not interested in are echo chambers, the Fox News of game blogs. I've been called "controversial" or other less polite forms of the same concept, but the thing is that if you read a blog post of mine and think "I totally agree, this is exactly what I was thinking myself", you and me both wasted our time. There are certain blogs I don't read not because I disagree with them, but because I know *exactly* what they are going to say about any given piece of gaming news. Those blogs are like trying to discuss American politics at a tea party convention: You already know what everybody is going to say, there is little hope of any original thought that challenges preconceptions, and the participants aren't open to different thoughts. I am not interested in the creation of "facts" by group think, an opinion doesn't become a fact by lots of people chanting it.

Personally I write with two goals. One is to archive my thoughts and my gaming history for myself. And the other is to make my readers think, to challenge their preconceptions, to come at a news story everybody is talking about at a different angle. I'm aware that this can make for less comfortable reading, or be perceived as "weird". But I think, therefore I am. If I express ideas that do not require thinking, I cease to be as a blogger.

Thursday, March 12, 2015
The Favorites of Selune - Trollhaunt - Session 2

Let me start this post with an advance warning: I am writing these journals of the sessions of my D&D campaign in order to have an archive of them for myself. I have played and mastered several great campaigns over the last 35 years, and now find that the memory of them is fading. I lost most written traces of those campaigns as well. So this is an attempt of conserving at least the history of my current campaign. Having said that, not every session in a campaign tells a great story. This session was void of interesting story decisions, but filled mostly with tactical stuff. We had a really great combat encounter, but the fun of that is very hard to put into words for an audience that wasn't there. In fact the whole adventure is more about rolling dice than role-play, as this is planned to be the end of the current campaign. So the following post might be short and boring.

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune came to Moonstairs and discovered that a new troll king called Skalmad is in the process of recreating the old troll kingdom that had existed in the surrounding marshes over a hundred years ago. And the center of Skalmad's kingdom is just the cave system with the portal to the Feywild that the group is looking for. [As I said, this isn't a very subtle adventure.] So the adventurers are leaving town and travel through the swamplands with the help of a rough map in order to find the troll warrens.

Arriving at the troll warrens they found that the trolls have built a door at the entrance. Next to that door is a stream flowing out of the caves, with stalagmites forming a sort of natural barrier to entrance. But as the adventurers are a lot smaller and thinner than trolls, they decide to squeeze through that barrier instead of knocking at (or knocking down) the door. The rogue of the party sneaks ahead of the group to the point upstream where the walls give way to a tunnel in the cave, with a big log serving as bridge over the stream. Trying to look into the entrance cave the rogue rolls low on his stealth check, and is seen by one of the trolls in the cave. Combat ensues.

The front line fighters of the group place themselves on the side of the stream that goes towards the troll cave, while the others place themselves on the other side of the bridge, away from the trolls. As the tunnel only allows two trolls to attack in melee combat, that keeps the trolls from swarming the group. There are 3 regular trolls of the kind the group has fought before, and 4 war trolls with weapons and armor, that are tougher. The trolls not in melee can still throw rocks and do some damage, but with less effect than their melee attacks. So two of the war trolls go out of the entrance cave by the door, and start breaking down the stalagmites at the stream entrance to come at the players from a different side. They succeed in that two rounds later, come up the stream, and now are between the front line fighters and the rest of the group. Fortunately the sorceress manages to pull off a spell that pushes one of the trolls down the stream, and the front line fighters manage to retreat over the bridge and reunite with the rest of the group.

Having learned about the importance of fire against trolls to prevent regeneration, the group manages to beat the trolls down. But the fight wasn't easy, and the players made some good moves to overcome this challenge. As that took some time, we ended the session after this fight.


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