Tobold's Blog
Saturday, September 20, 2014
Your loss, Amazon!

I don't watch live TV. Having to be there at a specific time, and then sitting through the ads, not my cup of tea. But I do watch a lot of TV shows, either recorded with a hard drive recorder, or bought as a full season of one TV show on DVD. Usually from Amazon UK, because I prefer English with English sub-titles, that being the neutral ground between me and my wife. Obviously I would be interested in TV on demand, but here in Belgium that used to be extremely difficult: For example Amazon Instant Video is offered in three neighboring countries that have their own Amazon website, but you can't access any of them from Belgium due to rights issues. There are a few Belgian companies with streaming services, but they only have movies, and no TV shows. Not even Apple iTunes is selling TV shows in Belgium.

Yesterday that changed and the 21st century of TV finally arrived in Belgium: opened their doors. As you probably live in a civilized country that had Netflix for years, I don't need to tell you how great that is. Lots of TV shows and movies on offer. And a monthly flatrate that is less than half of what a single season of a single TV show costs on DVD. Which is great, because now I can try out TV shows I wasn't sure about without paying for a full season in advance.

I was especially impressed that Netflix works on so many devices. I can watch it on my TV screen either via the Apple TV box I have connected to it, or directly via the Smart TV application. My second TV is connected to a Playstation 3, and it works on that too. I could watch on my PC screen. Or I could go mobile and watch on my iPad. And in spite this being Belgium, I can get movies and TV shows in English, some even with English subtitles.

That means that an TV show I am interested in I will first check availability on Netflix. Only if Netflix doesn't have it would I consider buying the DVD from Amazon any more. Your loss, Amazon! You could have made Amazon Instant Video available here. If Netflix can do it, it obviously wasn't impossible.

Friday, September 19, 2014
Before and after

Watch Dogs: 77. The Sims 4: 70. Destiny: 77. These are some current average game review scores from Metacritic for some of the biggest game releases of this year. In a scoring system where a good game has a score of 90 or more (and developer's bonuses depend on having a score of 90 or more), those are rather disappointing numbers. So how about some other numbers? Watch Dogs sold 8 million copies until July. The Sims 4 sold 400,000 copies in the first week. Destiny shipped $500 million worth of copies to retailers on release and sold $325 million worth of those in the first week.

Apparently there isn't much correlation between review scores and sales numbers. Especially not for first week sales, which usually happen before anybody had time to read any reviews. People buy games in the first week based on the hype around those games. So I wanted to go and check on the same website (preferably by the same author) what a game site said about a game before and after release. It turned out that this wasn't really possible, because such sites typically only have 1 review of a game, but tons of previews. Polygon gave Destiny a horrible score of 6 out of 10, but if you search the site for articles on Destiny you find a whopping 307 of them! Most of them from before release. Not all of them positive (e.g. there is reporting of bad voice acting). But the previews in general are much more positive than the review is.

I hate previews.

There are lies, damn lies, and video game previews. A video game preview is fake journalism, it is a press release from the publisher thinly disguised as the opinion of a journalist. Either we say that before the game is finished it is impossible to judge it, in which case we don't need all of those previews. Or we say that the preview material can already give a good indication how good a game is, in which case we have to ask ourselves why we get so glowing previews for games that after release have such bad reviews.

Now some Gamergater will claim that video game journalists are corrupt, but why the heck are they only corrupt in their previews? If the industry had bought those journalists, they could well expect for their money the reviews to also be glowing. Why would a journalist lie in the preview and then write a honest review? I am puzzled by this difference in reporting of the same game before and after release.

Suspending player agency

The goal of Dungeons & Dragons is to create great stories by interactive story-telling. In a recent post I explained how important it was that the players felt that their destiny was in their hands, that it was their actions which determined the outcome of the story. But if you read this week's journal of my campaign, you might have noticed that player agency was clearly suspended at the end, when the whole group was without warning transformed into svirfneblin and had to flee the city. So let's talk about suspending player agency, and why it sometimes is necessary.

How many computer games have you played which started with your character being either dead or in prison? TESO actually managed to start your character being both dead *and* in prison. That sort of game start establishes a motivation for your character: You dislike the people who threw you in prison, while you like the powers that resurrected you from death. That works well at the beginning of a story, because you don't have to mess with player agency to get them into the death and/or imprisoned state. If you want to motivate your players in the middle of a campaign with either revenge or gratefulness, you first need to engineer a situation where outside forces do bad things to the players.

The problem is especially acute in episodic campaigns, where there isn't a strong loyalty of the players to somebody else. Game of Thrones tells strong stories because the characters have strong bonds to their respective houses. In a typical episodic campaign the player characters have little interaction with their family, if they have any at all. You can't just introduce a family member into the story only to use him five minutes later as a leverage, having him threatened or killed only so that the player is motivated.

Revenge can make for great stories, just think of the Count of Monte Cristo. For the player to be really motivated by that revenge, you need to do something to the player character. Which isn't all that easy if you think how D&D tends to be a series of events and encounters where the players emerge victorious pretty much all of the time. Engineering an encounter the players are bound to lose is already messing with player agency. And it tends to be protracted and chaotic. So if you want to suspend player agency and put players into a bad place from which a story of revenge, or a story of rescue and gratefulness can evolve, it is better to do so with a very short event.

In the example of my campaign there deliberately was no warning. The players had set up a guard, who saw a black cloud appear, but couldn't do anything to stop it or warn the others before everybody fell unconscious. There deliberately were no saving throws, or other rolls of the dice, or opportunities to act against the event. The transformation was quick and inevitable. And thus the suspension of player agency was short. The story moved on very quickly to how the players reacted to waking up in a room full of dark gnomes. And from there to the imminent threat of being a group of dark gnomes in a city which is already in a panic about an "Underdark threat". So after the transformation, player agency was quickly restored. The situation had changed fundamentally, but they were back in control of their actions to deal with that situation.

In summary, good stories evolve from the interaction of the players with unforeseen events and outside forces. For that it is sometimes necessary to suspend player agency while these events occur. The best is to keep that suspension short and give the reins back quickly to the players to deal with the new situation.

Thursday, September 18, 2014
Circumventing the quit wall in Destiny

Keen recently coined the phrase quit wall for the point in a game where "it’s a natural breaking point where [the developer] essentially gave players permission to quit their game if they couldn't climb over and reach the other side of the content.". In other words, players don't ask themselves the question whether they should quit a game when they are in the flow. If there is a break point in that flow, like a step-change in difficulty, or a big change in how the game plays, people are more likely to consider quitting.

I recently reached such a quit wall in Destiny. I did about 20 attempts to finish the last moon story mission, Chamber of Night, and failed every time. You get locked into a chamber where you have to withstand a constant barrage of waves and waves of monsters, and if you are alone a single mistake means you have to start from the beginning again. In a regular MMORPG there would be three possible solutions to that: Skip that piece of content to go elsewhere, find a group to help you with that content, or outlevel the content and come back. Skipping doesn't work because you need to finish Chamber of Night to open access to the next planet, Venus (I think). Finding a group didn't work because Destiny doesn't have decent group finding tools for story missions. If I join a strike mission (which are supposed to be harder than story missions), I get grouped with two random strangers, and up to now that always worked well (except if I get disconnected): Just by being present another player gives you the opportunity to respawn if you die, the scene only resets if ALL players are dead. But for the story missions there is no such automated group finder, and even by setting my fireteam option to public and waiting for an hour in front of the story mission dungeon I couldn't find a teammate. Story missions are solo or to play with already existing friends on your friends list. As I don't play console games very often, I didn't have any. And as there is no chat in Destiny, it is hard to meet people and make new friends.

I tried outleveling, but even at level 13 I still failed to finish Chamber of Night. So I considered quitting. But I do like playing Destiny, and I wondered what the alternatives to quitting were. If I could level up my character very quickly, and get good gear, then maybe I could finish that story mission and move on.

What I found was that because of how loot drops and death in Destiny are handled, it is in fact very easy to level very fast and get loot very fast as soon as you reach the moon. The first moon story mission, the Dark Beyond, has somewhere in the middle a scene where you find a dead guardian in front of the Temple of Crota. At that point the temple door opens, and about 30 mobs of the Hive pour out. The standard way to beat that encounter, and that is suggested by your ghost, is to move back. But you can also stand right in front of the door and kill a lot of monsters within a minute in a blaze of glory, which ends with your death. O death, where is thy sting? There isn't one in Destiny other than you being set back to the latest checkpoint. Which in this situation is the door of the temple opening and the Hive pouring out. Which means that you can stand in front of the door again and die in a blaze of glory again. And again. And again. Each time you gain xp. The loot drops (other than ammo) don't reset when you die, so after a number of waves you pick them all up. If you play the mission on hard the mobs are level 9 and drop more loot. But in Destiny the level of the loot drops depends on YOUR level, not the level of the mobs.

So after doing that for one evening, I am suddenly level 19, with a full set of nice uncommon and rare level 18ish gear. Plus I learned a lot about how the Hive mobs AI works, and there are nearly the same mobs in the Chamber of Night. I think tonight I should be able to beat that mission and move onwards from the moon. It does feel a bit like cheating, but if playing as intended only gets me to the quit wall, I'll play as not intended to circumvent that wall.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 2

The previous session ended with the Favorites of Selune handing over their weapons peacefully to the ruffians guarding the euphemistically named seamstresses' guild (I had expected that they would be bored at that point and start a fight). So this session starts with them meeting Madame Emerine, the guild mistress (and brothel madam). They manage to convince her that it wasn't them who killed Belina, and get their weapons back. What Madame Emerine knows is that since recently Belina had a special secret client, whose identity she doesn't know. But Belina's brother Irv acted as a go-between and thus should have that information. Only problem is that Irv believes that the sorceress in the group is responsible for the dark magic that killed his sister. To help finding the boy and convincing him otherwise, the group hires Beatrice, the scarred woman who is the protectrice of the guild to escort them for three days.

They find Irv near the tavern at the market, but he is afraid of the group and tries to run away. [I handle that as a skill challenge. Not my favorite part of 4E, but at least players get to roll some dice in a session otherwise having only role-playing.] They catch Irv and with some sweets and diplomacy manage to persuade him that they only want to help finding Belina's killer. Irv reveals that Belina's lover is Prince Ular, commander of the guard, whom the group already met in the previous session. The prince even wanted to set Belina up as his mistress in a house somewhere.

The Favorites of Selune then interviewed some other potential witnesses: One couple that had dined in the tavern at the time they arrived, but as they hadn't stayed the night they knew nothing. So they visit another local couple, who had stayed the night due to renovation work in their home, Master Dynrod the leatherworker and his wife. They find Master Dynrod in his workshop where he is making a bellows, but he and his wife didn't hear anything that night either.

So finally the group goes to the palace, where they have an appointment to make a formal statement. They are treated not very friendly, left waiting for an hour before being led to the guard commander, Prince Ular. The prince clearly suspects them, and interviews them for a long time in a hostile tone. The group offers to use a raise dead ritual on the dead girl [something I hadn't planned for, so I improvised here], but the prince said that this ritual was already being cast, and that there would be a line-up tomorrow. While the interview is dragging on, the door opens and a guard announces the prince's sister, Princess Taidra. Taidra is a very beautiful woman with long blond hair, and very charming to the adventurers. She demands of her brother to let them go, as she is convinced that it was "the Underdark menace" who killed the tavern wench. As the prince only has suspicions and no evidence, he has to let the Favorites of Selune go.

So the group returns to the tavern, where in light of the events of the previous night they set up a guard rotation this night. In the early hours of the morning the guard suddenly sees a black cloud appearing in the room, but falls unconscious before he can raise an alarm. Waking up a bit later, each player [I took them aside one by one] sees the following: His friends are gone, and the character now finds himself alone in the room with five dark-skinned gnomes. In fact all six players have been transformed into svirfneblin, but don't realize their own transformation at first, only seeing the other five group members in that form. Having asked each player individually for his first reaction, we rolled initiative. I was lucky, the two players who *didn't* just call out rolled the highest initiative. So we got the hunter firing two arrows at the warrior, while the druid jumps out of the window while calling for help. [Very fun scene.]

Finally the adventurers realize what happened, and they also are immediately aware that with all that talk of the Underdark menace, they wouldn't be very welcome in the city, and risk being attacked on sight. They call back the fleeing druid, and while looking out of the window find a bellows outside, with its nozzle pointing inside the room through a hole in the wall. They take that bellows, and find a maker's mark from Master Dyson, and residue of a greyish powder. As the druid already called for help, they hurry to grab their things and flee through the tunnel they discovered in the previous session in the cellar, leading out of town. Having been awoken by the druid's call for help, the innkeeper is awake downstairs. He adds to the chaos by now also calling for help, shouting that there is "an invasion from the Underdark". The group reaches the cellar, and flees town before any guards arrive.

The druid of the group remembers that there is a higher level druid living in a forest to the south of the city. And as druids know about transformations, they decide to head there. When the sun goes up they notice that as dark gnomes the sun hurts their eyes. They also have lost many of their racial abilities, them having been replaced by the racial abilities of svirfneblin. Reaching the shade of the forest is better for their eyes, but after a while in the forest they come across a group of kobold shepherds with the flock of drakes, who immediately attack. As it was getting late, we decided to do that combat in the next session.

Triple A games for the masses

The sales strategies for video games for different market segments appears to be pretty much set: On the one side we have expensive triple A games for a small hardcore market, and on the other side we have cheap or pseudo-free games that sell millions of copies to casual gamers. You only earn small amounts of money per game on those casual games, but as your production cost are low and you sell so many copies (or make money from a few whales among lots of free players), overall you make a profit. But what if you could have the best of both of these worlds: A game that sells for $60, which also sells millions of copies to not-so-hardcore average gamers. How could you get there?

Well, one thing to consider is that if you design games in a specific genre for a hardcore audience, you tend to add more and more features to it. That moves the game away from the average customer's needs. So if you want to make that triple A game for the masses, you will need to make the most generic version possible, one which appears to be rather bland and unexciting to the hardcore players. You will need to make the everygame for the everyman, a game that is clearly identifiable as being at the very core of a genre without adding anything new to it. A game that doesn't require familiarity with the genre to play, because most of your target audience is people who don't usually play such games.

Then of course you will need to market your game in a different way. You need a much bigger advertising budget. And you need to concentrate on advertising your game in places where regular people will see it, from bus stations to regular newspapers and TV ads. The specialized gaming press isn't your focus here, they'll write about your game anyway once everybody is talking about it.

If you look at this plan to make a triple A game for the masses, it might look somewhat familiar. Isn't there a Destiny advertisement at your bus station or in your newspaper? Haven't you just read some Destiny reviews calling the game generic and lacking innovation? Hasn't the game shipped $500 million worth of copies at launch anyway? Haven't you played the most generic MMORPG with millions of players and the most generic RTS with millions of players from exactly the same company?

I think that if you see the mediocre reviews of Destiny in specialized gaming magazines or on Metacritic, you might be getting a wrong impression of that game. Who needs a high Metacritic score when you target customers who don't know about Metacritic, but read the positive stories in the Washington Post instead? I don't think Activision Blizzard worries much about the bad opinion some core gamers have of their games as long as those games make millions of dollars. And they do. If there is one company that has understood the secret recipe to making extremely profitable triple A games for the masses, it is Activision Blizzard. If you hate their games, it is because you simply aren't their target audience. If their games appear well crafted, polished, but somewhat generic and inoffensive, that is by design. And the ultimate joke is that the core gamers are going to buy the games anyway, because they can't afford not to know the game everybody is talking about.

Monday, September 15, 2014
Movement in video games

Try a little exercise: Stand on one spot and try how fast you can turn a full 360°C. You'll find that it's not so fast (especially if there is friction on the ground and you can't spin on one foot), usually it would take over a second. I was reminded of that when I played Destiny on a console, where rotating around your axis with a gamepad takes about that realistic amount of time. It would also be the time it would take to rotate in many PC games if you use the keyboard to turn. Only if you use a mouse on a PC you can suddenly turn much faster, a fraction of a second, depending on your settings.

That made me wonder why developers don't put some mechanism in which makes such a movement the same speed regardless of which form of input you use. It certainly works in World of Tanks, where the speed with which you can turn depends on your tank, and not your mouse settings. But then again you also have an obvious advantage in a shooter game if aiming with a mouse instead of gamepad. I wondered if I was doing well in Destiny because the game *assumes* that I'll be slow targeting the enemies, as the gamepad is my only option. Do PC shooters require faster aiming, because faster aiming is possible?

With the army using video games for combat training, one has to wonder how realistic movement in video games actually is. Not just the speed of turning. But for example most games allow you to walk sideways at the same speed and ease as forwards. Try that is real life! I hope we aren't training our soldiers to do things like circle-strafing, because that wouldn't really work so well in reality.

Do you know of any video games with more realistic (and thus slower) movement? Does that work for a game?

Sunday, September 14, 2014
Destiny first impressions

Disclaimer: These impression are based on a free copy of Destiny for the PS3 that I received.

Reviews are frequently based on a comparison of the reviewer's expectations with the actual product. I didn't have any expectations for Destiny, which is why my impression of the game is generally a positive one. I've been playing a Titan up to level 10, through all content of Earth and some content on the moon. And as I don't play so many shooters, and especially not console shooters, if anything I was positively surprised how much fun Destiny is. Apparently the game was hyped a lot before release, and many reviewers correctly pointed out that the game isn't the second coming, but as I said, it depends on what expectations you have.

That is not only a problem for reviewers, but also for players. Destiny is a hybrid between a shooter, and a MMORPG, on a console. Which means it suffers from certain limitations of shooter games, of MMORPG games, and of console games. People very much involved with one genre tend to overlook the inherent limitations of that genre, but with a hybrid game the fans of each genre discover the flaws of the other genre, and that can grate. Plus if you usually play on a PC, the console brings some extra problems, like long loading times and fiddly controls.

The world of Destiny is a curious mix of MMORPG open world zones and linear shooter levels. That isn't just visually, but the rules actually change if you leave the open world and enter a shooter level: Suddenly your respawning is limited, and death brings you back to a checkpoint, resetting all events back up to there. But because it is an online game, there is no pause function. Too bad for you if your phone or doorbell rings, or there is some other real life intrusion. On the positive side your checkpoint is saved even if you log out, so you can resume the action at that point the next day. You can even first fly back to the central hub, The Tower, identify found items, buy some new gear, and then continue in the middle of the fight where you were. You can use that to get around the silly feature that if you die because you ran out of ammo, you'll respawn with still no ammo. Flying to the tower won't fix that, but the gunsmith there sells ammo refills which do.

You play one of three character classes, Titan, Hunter, or Warlock, a weird mix of SciFi and Fantasy. I'd love to tell you what the difference between the classes is, but I can't. Because if you start a new character and play him through the intro up to level 2 and the Tower, the three classes play pretty much the same. You attack is determined by your weapon, which is the same in the intro for the three classes. There are differences in the stats, the grenade, and the melee attack, but these differences are small compared to a MMORPG, where you would expect a warrior and a warlock to play very differently. When gaining levels, you gain class abilities, so later there is presumably more difference between the classes, but I didn't play several classes to higher level to find out.

Combat plays mostly like in a shooter game, but with a weird system for weapons: Unlike in a MMORPG, a higher level weapon does not necessarily deal more damage. Instead the weapon has an attack value, which basically determines up to what level of enemies you can damage with it. How much damage it deals is determined by the weapon's impact stat. So if you exchange a low attack value, high impact weapon for a high attack value, low impact weapon, you will do *less* damage to lower level enemies, and only starting from a certain enemy level the change makes sense. This also explains why you can get high level weapons by doing low level missions: The higher level of the weapon doesn't really make a difference in a low level mission. There are weapons with low impact and high fire rate, and vice versa. It might be just me, but I think the high impact weapons are better, because enemies move very fast into cover and thus you don't necessarily always have the opportunity to spray them with many bullets. A boss mob with a regenerating shield can be a tough nut to crack with a machine pistol, but get one-shotted by a sniper rifle headshot.

Destiny's biggest weakness is it's limits to interacting with strangers. In the open world you kind of auto-group with anybody close to you. But in the darkness zones of the story missions you are alone unless you invite up to two other people into your fireteam. Which only works well if these people are already on your friends list. As there is not keyboard there is no typed chat, and the voice chat only works inside a fireteam, so you can't use it to find a team either. Fortunately the strike missions don't have that problem, there you'll automatically be grouped with other random players if you didn't bring your own friends.

Overall Destiny isn't the world's best shooter, nor the world's best MMORPG. But the weird hybrid kind of works, so it isn't a bad game either. One certainly can have hours of fun with it, even if one isn't an expert in console shooters. Having hit level 10 in less than one weekend, of a level cap of 20, Destiny apparently follows the MMORPG convention of short leveling, long endgame. And I can't say yet how engaging that is going to be. As neither "raids" nor PvP interest me much, I might not even play the endgame very much.

Friday, September 12, 2014
If you have GMail, check this tool!

A list of 5 million GMail addresses was published, together with *a* hacked password for each. According to Google those passwords must have come from somewhere else, because mostly they weren't GMail passwords. If you used that somewhere else password for GMail too, you have been notified by Google already. If you haven't been notified, you can use this tool to see if your address has been compromised.

Unfortunately it doesn't tell you WHICH of your passwords from somewhere else has been compromised. So it could be one of many gaming sites that have been hacked over the years where you used your GMail address as UserID.

For me that was the opportunity for some drastic action: I made a list of all the games and sites that I have an account on, and changed them ALL. That took hours, but because I used a list of freshly created strong passwords, all my accounts should now be secure. Some of them already had extra protection, e.g. the authenticator from and some other 2-step verification systems, but I changed their passwords anyway.

So how do I store all those passwords? Old style, written down in a book hidden in my library. It would need a weird combination of burglar/hacker to get that list. And because it is hand-written with no trace on a computer, the list itself can't be hacked. I prefer that system to Password Manager software. If you have a password manager on your home PC, what do you do if your hard drive crashes and all your passwords are irretrievably lost? Sorry, I trust paper more than I trust software.

Selling out

In the interest of full disclosure I'd like to report that I received a code for a free copy of Destiny yesterday. Given recent events, that of course made me think: Will I get death threats from Woody or other people who consider free games for bloggers to be corruption? I thought it might be time to repeat a previous message of mine on the subject of selling out.

I believe that everybody has a price. Mojang is currently selling out, but for $2 billion, who can blame him? Me, I have a standing offer that you can buy my complete blog for just $100,000. I never even adjusted that for inflation or the Euro/Dollar exchange rate. If you pay me $100,000, I'll sign over the blog and the Tobold identity to you, and you can market your game with fake reviews and recommendations under that name as much as you like.

Having stated my price, I would also like to point out that I am not corruptible for less. And I very much assume that this also the case for most game writers, whether blogger or professional journalists. Yeah sure, we will take your free game, we will take your swag bag, and if you want to give us a tablet, we will take that too. Just don't expect us to change our opinion because of that.

A free copy of Destiny means that I will play that game, which I might not have done if I hadn't received it for free. This *will* increase the chance that I write about the game. It will *not* change what I write about the game. My review of a hypothetical bought copy of a game and a free copy of the same game would always be identical. Now there are small indie games where me mentioning or reviewing a game could possibly make a difference, as exposure is more important for an indie game than what exactly the review says. But for an AAA game like Destiny there is already a huge exposure, and the handful of readers of my blog won't make any difference. I received the free copy with no obligation attached or mentioned, just "Hey, I like your blog, do you want a free copy of my latest game?" from a game developer.

Everybody has a price, but most people aren't cheap. It is not as easy to buy a favorable opinion as you might think. Unless, of course, if you are prepared to pay those $100,000.

Thursday, September 11, 2014
Refining the question

Syp is asking whether special editions are getting too pricey. I don't like that sort of question, because the word "too" is always a judgement. And whether something is "too pricey" is not only subjective, but also depends very much on personal disposable income. I'm sure there isn't a special edition anywhere which would be "too pricey" for Bill Gates.

But let's refine that question. Whether a special edition is too pricey depends among other things on what exactly you get for your money. And that quickly gets us to the related question of what game developers can put into a special edition without pissing off the customers of the regular version. Syp mentioned how the $100 Imperial Edition of the Elder Scrolls Online came with a race that regular players couldn't play, which caused some controversy. Imagine the regular edition of a MMORPG came without raid content, and you would need to upgrade to a twice as expensive edition in order for you to be able to participate in the raid content. Good idea on paper, but I doubt it would go down well.

Things that do not provoke any protest are usually physical items, not in-game items. Collectors editions containing CDs with the soundtrack, or books with artwork, are not very controversial. But those items actually cost money to make, so much of the extra income from the collectors edition is then eaten up by the cost of producing that edition. Which is why increasingly the main selling point of special editions is in-game stuff, which is cheap to produce. That stuff is then valuable to the customer *because* the other players in the game don't have it.

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

So basically game companies have two option: Either they limit the in-game stuff content of special editions, in which case they will also have to limit the price. Or think of some really great in-game stuff they could pack into special editions (also available as upgrade to the regular edition you bought), and hope that the additional profit is higher than the loss of sales from people who won't play a game like that. My guess is that we will see at least some attempts of the latter.

Player agency, death, and battlemaps

One of the more important concepts in how to run a tabletop roleplaying game like Dungeons & Dragons is player agency: The concept that the players should feel that their destiny is in their hands, that they have choices, and that the outcome depends on their choices. Some people believe that to mean that you can't prepare adventures and only ever should run completely improvised sandbox games, but that is not true. I would even say that to make meaningful choices there have to be a number of certainties in the game world, and NPCs with their own agency working against the players. But in this post I would rather talk about two details of running a D&D game, and how they relate to player agency.

The first thing is character death. If you play a MMORPG, you usually have a way of determining how difficult a combat will be before you start it, some indication of the level of the monster or whether it is an especially difficult boss mob. Dungeons & Dragons doesn't have anything like that, except in the form of player experience: With time you get a general idea how strong certain common monsters are. But ultimately how hard any combat is lies in the hands of the Dungeon Master. There is no such thing as built-in balance in the system. If a DM *wants* to kill the characters of his players, that would be extremely easy, he just has to bring some monsters the players don't know and which are impossible to beat, and then create a situation where they can't flee.

The ideal combat is one where the players have agency because the fight is balanced in a way that if they play well, they succeed, and if they play badly, bad things will happen to them. But as things rarely are predictable in a game of D&D, one has to take into account the inherent randomness of dice rolls. Which is different in the different editions of D&D: Randomness is more likely to kill you in a system with low health pools and high damage, like the new 5th edition. Now some people suggest removing that problem by the DM fudging dice. But in a discussion of player agency it should be rather obvious that the DM fudging dice to achieve a desired outcome is just the opposite of player agency.

One way around that problem is one that is common to both 4th and 5th edition: Character death with a strong safety net. The rules for character health and dying are set up in a way that it is likely enough to reach 0 health and fall unconscious, but from there to "your character is irretrievably death and you need to reroll" there is a very long way. There are several rounds of death saving throws with opportunities for the other players in the group to save you. And, already present in previous editions, there is the possibility to raise the death. It is this safety net system that resulted in there having been only 2 character deaths in 3 years of my campaign. The advantage of the system is that you get all the drama of clear and present danger in combat, without losing the player agency of death being a consequence of player choices.

The other important point in having player agency in your game is whether you run combat as a theater of the mind style or with figurines on a battlemap. Many DMs prefer the theater of the mind style because it demands a lot less preparation and gives them a great deal of control. But if you look at this control under the aspect of player agency, you realize that the control the DM has is because the players have less agency in a theater of the mind than on a battlemap. Communication between DM and players is always imperfect, theater of the mind never creates the exact same image of a situation in the mind of the DM and in the mind of each player. Thus every action of the player is subject to a veto of the DM, the "Mother may I?" style of play. On a battlemap not only has everybody got the same information, it is also undisputed whether a monster is in the range of your attack, or which characters and monsters are going to be affected by an area effect spell.

That brings me to one important aspect: The DM is a player too. It is only logical that he wants "player agency" too. And there are ways to run a good campaign in which both the DM and the players have sufficient agency to make the game fun for everybody. But there are situations where the DM agency is directly opposed to the player agency. And I believe that in those situations it is best if the DM lets go, and transfers a maximum of agency to his players. Which for me includes using battlemaps, not fudging dice, and going for combat encounters where the actions of the players determine the outcome.


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