Tobold's Blog
Friday, July 31, 2015
Concentrating on the core

I rarely play a game just for the story. Game stories rarely reach the quality of a good book, and if you play for the story the game doesn't have much replayability. So I am far more interested in gameplay. And most of all I am interested in the core gameplay mode, what I call the "basic repeating unit" of the game, the one thing you do over and over and over. In a MMORPG that would typically be combat. For me to like a role-playing game, I need to like the combat system. And if the combat system is flawed, I typically won't play the game for long.

One prime example for that is Lord of the Rings Online, for which I technically have a lifetime subscription, and where I absolutely love the setting. But I find the combat unresponsive and annoying, so I ended up not playing it much. In Wildstar I liked the combat for solo PvE, but felt that it broke down in all multiplayer situations, with far too many telegraphs everywhere. The Secret World I considered combat to be somewhat sluggish, you need to shoot a zombie in the head ten times before he falls over. And so on.

World of Warcraft for me has passed the test of time, I still like the combat system after a decade and thousands of hours played. But as combat is different for the different classes, I am getting more selective with what classes I play. I like classes that have varied and interactive combat, for example having abilities that you can use under certain circumstances, random chances to be able to use some bonus power, interrupts, and a mix of damage dealing and self-preservation powers. My fury warrior is quite good for that, and so is my frost mage, in a completely different way. I'm less happy about my other two level 100 characters: The demonology warlock is by far the most powerful, being able to beat elite mobs the other two can't, but at the cost of having an extremely boring combat; very slow spells, and a sure way to beat almost anything by simply keeping a voidwalker alive forever (Health Funnel + Drain Life) and waiting that the elite mob eventually drops dead. The shadow priest I like the least, he curiously has less self-preservation abilities than the others, and doesn't do well against multiple enemies. He has a basic spell rotation that deals good damage against single targets, but isn't very interactive.

Having basically "done" Tanaan Jungle already, including the achievement needed for flying, and getting bored of just doing garrison maintenance, I am looking for another character to level to 100. And how much fun combat is will be the prime selection criterion. I leveled a beast mastery hunter from level 1 to 34, but I feel he somewhat has the same problem as the warlock: Powerful, but boring. I fiddled a bit with a unholy death knight I had at level 80, but ended up not liking it much either for similar reasons: Huge damage output, but not very interactive combat style, you could program his spell rotation in a macro. So last night I played my level 86 retribution paladin, and liked that one much better. Abilities that you don't hit blindly, but which depend on the situation, and a good mix of damage and self-preservation abilities that you can adjust to many different combat situations.

I'm pretty certain that rogue is probably the most interactive class in WoW, but that one might be a bit too twitchy for me. Monk I only tried at low level, but it didn't click with me yet. I have a level 65 shaman as well, but I never liked the totem mechanic nailing your bonus to a specific location, and forcing you to recast them if you move. The one other character I have which I still might play in my moonkin druid, where I find the sun/moon mechanic quite fun.

What combat mechanics from which game or class do you like particularly? Which ones do you dislike?

Thursday, July 30, 2015
World of Warcraft : The Dark Prophet

On the World of Warcraft loading screen there is the announcement that there will be an announcement of the next expansion on August 6th. Personally I find those "we announce that we have something to announce" things a bit silly. Furthermore there is apparently a leak, which might or might not be complete fiction. I once made up the announcement for the second WoW expansion that I called The Freezing Jihad, and got a surprising amount of things right, from the new level cap to the ice theme. The monk I predicted got added later in Mists of Pandaria.

So for comparison with the real announcement, here is the "leaked" one:

The expansion will be called The Dark Prophet

New level cap will be 110

New class introduced, the Shadowstalker, a sort of magical ranger without pet

8 new zones with 2-3 new dungeons per zone

Location will be the South Seas, filled with trolls and naga

Instead of a garrison players will get a ship, which can travel around, and get a pirate crew

As you can see, the "leak" is full of relatively predictable stuff. Which doesn't make it less likely to be true, because who expects something really ground-breaking from Blizzard?

Monday, July 27, 2015
Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch Tyranid Invasion

Competing today for the title of the game with the silliest long name is Warhammer 40,000 Deathwatch Tyranid Invasion, made by the same people who did Warhammer Quest, but currently on iOS only. Like Warhammer Quest, Deathwatch is a tactical turn-based game, in which you level up a squad by gaining experience points and gear from missions. But the similarity ends there. While Quest was fantasy and had random dungeons, Deathwatch is in the 40K universe with you playing a squadron of space marines fighting aliens in a series of 40 hand-made missions. More importantly the combat feels very different. While in Quest the enemies came in similar numbers and had similar abilities as your adventurer party, in Deathwatch you play powerful space marines frequently fighting off an endless stream of less powerful aliens. You rarely kill every monster on the map, but have victory conditions like surviving X turns, or reaching certain waypoints.

Combat is turn-based, with your space marines having only 4 action points per turn. Each space to move costs 1 AP, while firing a weapons costs between 1 and 3 AP, so you're not doing much each turn. However you can use unused AP to set your space marine to overwatch in one direction, and then he shoots during the enemy turn if aliens run into his target area. The feel of combat against the tyranid aliens is done rather well, and at its core the game is much fun.

Less fun however is the monetization. In addition to the $5 cost of the game, there are also in-app purchases of boosters. Each booster contains 3 cards, which can be space marines, weapons, or gear. One of those is guaranteed (or "guarenteed" as they spell it) to be tier 2 or better, out of 4 possible tiers. You get 1 booster for finishing each act of 4 missions for the first time, and 1 booster for 100 in-game currency, of which you get 6 for succeeding a mission in normal difficulty. Otherwise boosters cost between $1.23 and $1.49. My main problem with that is that if you don't buy boosters, you're going to play with bad tier 1 space marines for a while to earn boosters; then once you finally get some higher tier space marines, you'll have to start over to level those up again. Buying boosters at the start is a pretty massive power boost, even if the higher tier weapons won't be useful immediately, as they need higher level space marines with better accuracy to work properly. It isn't quite as bad as Warhammer Quest where you couldn't get different character classes, enemies, dungeons, and epic weapons without paying for them, but it still smells of Pay2Win.

Space marines in Deathwatch never die permanently, which might have to do with some people having paid to get those marines in the first place. But there is a death penalty: To unlock wargear slots, traits, and abilities you need far more experience points than you can earn in a single mission. But if you save them up and your space marine dies, you lose all saved experience. I think that is a pretty good system. I haven't finished those 40 missions yet, and apparently once you do you unlock higher difficulty levels "veteran" and "heroic". But I'm not sure how much longevity the game has, as even with the higher difficulty you'll be running through the same 40 missions over and over.

The weakest point of the game for me is that it runs rather slow, even on an iPad Air. There are very long loading screens, and the game takes forever to start up. Which is annoying as it apparently uses all of the memory, so if you switch to another application you need to restart the game and can't quickly swap back. On the upside the game looks rather good, using the Unreal 4 engine. Overall I am having fun (having bought some boosters), but I'm not giving out an unreserved recommendation. Be aware of the technical limitations and the monetization before you buy this!

Saturday, July 25, 2015

I originally wanted to write an article like this one about Heroforge, with photographs. But frankly I just don't have the photographic skills. And I still need to persuade one of my players to paint them. So I'll stick to my traditional medium of just the written word and refer you to the above linked article for photographic examples.

Heroforge is a service, launched via Kickstarter, that provides 3D printed figurines for tabletop roleplaying games. The website works a bit like a character generator from a MMORPG: You create a character in one of several different settings, choosing his race, gender, clothing/armor, weapon, and pose to create a 3D representation that corresponds to your character sheet. You can then have that character printed on standard 30 mm scale, or twice or four times as big. At the time I ordered my figurines a month ago, you could get them in either strong plastic or ultra-detail plastic for $15 and $25 per figurine. Now steel ($35) and bronze ($100) are also available as "beta materials".

On the website it said that 3D printing could take up to a month, and then I thought the figurines would get shipped from the USA to Europe, which could take some weeks as well. But instead of waiting 6 weeks I was positively surprised that I got the figurines just 6 days after ordering. Turns out they have manufacturing facilities in the Netherlands. I took the ultra-detail plastic ones, because they were said to be more suitable for painting. The figurines are very nicely detailed, in clear, frosty plastic. But I need to handle them with care, as apparently they are prone to breaking. And they are a lot lighter than the usual lead figurines.

I like Heroforge because getting commercial figurines that exactly fit your characters is difficult. For example I had a halfling ranger in my previous campaign, and could never find a fitting figurine in our local games store. My new campaign is even more difficult, because it uses traditional 4E D&D classes, but a Renaissance setting with some Steam Punk elements. The group is playing a squadron of musketeers, and where do you find a figurine of a wizard with a musket? Heroforge allowed me to switch between genres when making the figurines, so all the characters I made have a gun on their back. Okay, the gun looks more like a Winchester than a musket, but let's not be picky to that degree of detail. One character, who is playing a tank with a background of being second generation policeman, is even wearing a Victorian policeman's helmet. So I got myself some truly unique figurines for my campaign that exactly fit the character sheets.

6 figurines in ultra-detail plastic, plus shipping, isn't exactly cheap. But I think they are worth it. I'd love the bronze ones, but that would really get too expensive for the whole group. I could however imagine players wanting to print their favorite character like that. I'm looking forward to show the figurines to my group when we start the campaign (only did a warm-up session up to now). I think they will be thrilled!

Friday, July 24, 2015
Player interaction

Ravious and Bhagpuss kicked of an interesting series of discussions about player interactions in MMORPGs. Bhagpuss states "There's nothing amazing any more in joining with dozens of people of all ages and races and genders and religions separated by thousands of miles and an infinity of experiences, coming together to imagine killing a giant dragon or a destroying a titanic spacecraft. Happens all the time.", while Ravious thinks we prefer to play alone, but in a crowd.

While I do think that Bhagpuss is onto something when he thinks that familiarity breeds contempt, I do wonder in how far game design is to blame for our desire to play alone rather than with other people in a MMORPG or other online world. To me it appears as if most game design inadvertently makes us hate our fellow players. Either because that other player is actively trying to kill us, or because cooperative play is designed in a way that a weak player can ruin our experience. As I mentioned previously, I haven't been running dungeons in the current expansion of WoW; I mean, who needs the hassle? Even if many runs might just end up being totally silent and anonymous, there is a too high chance of getting grouped with somebody really annoying. The chance of a real bad experience ruins multiplayer for me. But I totally realize that in most of these cases the other player didn't ruin the fun for everybody on purpose, but is a victim himself of game design. The system puts together players with different goals, strengths, and attitudes in a challenge that would only work if the group was far more homogeneous in purpose and strength.

On the other hand I'm frequently in the so-called premade groups in WoW. They nearly always work well, because the purpose is more narrowly defined, and the design is in a way that adding another player is always helpful, even if he isn't superman. But premade groups have a short duration. I wished that guilds would work more like a permanent form of a premade group than like a permanent form of a dungeon group. It would be better game designs if guild members could contribute on a daily basis to the progress of the guild, regardless of playstyle and strength, instead of the guild purpose being so narrowly defined by raiding, or reduced to a chat channel.

I must say that the best player interaction I experienced, with and without guilds, was in A Tale in the Desert. And that was through game design, with people being able to cooperate, and everybody being able to contribute. I also think that the original Asheron's Call had a superior social system with new players being vassals to veteran players, with each contributing to the success of the other. Unfortunately I didn't play that at the time, and much later it becomes difficult to join any social system. There is a reason why ATITD resets every now and then and starts over fresh.

Anyhow I do think that new MMORPGs should experiment more with social structures. There was more variety a decade ago, with games like Star Wars Galaxies and others I mentioned. Today there is only the raiding guild model left, and that is a shame.

Thursday, July 23, 2015
iLvl 681

Just to give a short status of my World of Warcraft experience, the average item level of my main character (fury warrior) is now 681. Besides some iLvl 670 items from follower missions, and iLvl 685 items from ship missions, he is mainly wearing items coming from baleful tokens found in Tanaan Jungle. These tokens most of the time give just a iLvl 650 blue item, but sometimes result in a iLvl 675 epic. As you find enough of those tokens, you get chances for such an epic frequently enough. In addition there are upgrade items that upgrade either of those baleful items to iLvl 695. You get one upgrade item for finishing the 6th campaign quest series, or you buy the upgrades for 20,000 apexis crystals. Which isn't all that much any more, since apexis crystals now come in at a much faster rate.

My three alts (frost mage, shadow priest, demonology warlock) are a bit behind that, but not too much. With the warlock I made a costly mistake: Bought two baleful trinkets and upgraded them to iLvl 695 for a grand total of 50,000 apexis crystal. Turns out that half of that was totally wasted, as the trinket is "unique equipped" and you can't wear two. And you can't get refund on upgrade items you already used. Ouch!

What I'm not wearing at all is gear from raiding, as I neither raid nor run dungeons. One exception was doing a LFR raid with each character to get some blueprints for the shipyard. What I am also not wearing is crafted gear, which is a conscious decision to not spend that much gold. Each character could wear 3 crafted items, and fully upgraded each item could be iLvl 715. But that costs 60k+ gold per item, which times 12 would eat up most of my funds. And really, what would I need such a high iLvl for as long as I don't do raids nor dungeons?

However I was thinking of leveling another character, either a moonkin druid, unholy death knight, or retribution paladin. I'm accumulating a second sort of baleful tokens, which are limited to a specific class of armor, but only bound to account. So you can send a new character a bunch of those tokens and insta-equip him at level 100. Even weirder those iLvl 715 items have a minimum level of only 91, and I was thinking that at least an iLvl 715 weapon would be a good investment for a new character. But as the three characters mentioned are only level 80 to 86, I'll first have to decide which one to play and get that far.

Monday, July 20, 2015
Mercenary mode

Factions in World of Warcraft are a curious thing, since the beginning. Some people chose a PvP server and consider this to be a game about the struggle between Horde and Alliance. Others chose a PvE server at which point the factions become pretty much meaningless. And Horde and Alliance have never been really balanced in terms of numbers of players. That causes problems for specific PvP content which is Horde vs. Alliance, because the side with more players ends up in long queues.

So Blizzard decided to "fix" that with the announced mercenary mode: The players from the more numerous side can simply fight for the *other* side, thus removing queues. If you always thought that Horde vs. Alliance made no sense at all, it doesn't matter which side you are fighting on, does it? But of course those who liked factions are complaining that this makes factions meaningless. Well, more like another nail in the coffin, the stories of the expansions were more "Horde and Alliance fight together against some new menace" than a faction war.

I don't think Blizzard will ever completely eliminate factions, but the borders could be made even more porous: Cross-faction chat, cross-faction groups, guilds, and raids, and so on. We already have cross-faction auction houses. Somehow WoW never lived up to the original premise of Warcraft : Orcs vs. Humans, and if anything factions will become ever more unimportant.

Saturday, July 18, 2015
Magic Duels : Origins

Magic the Gathering, the granddaddy of trading card games, has over the last years been experimenting with how to get the game out to computers and especially mobile platforms. As the card game has new sets of cards every year, they decided on making a new computer game every year. So there is a Magic 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2015. That started out with you being only able to play premade decks to which you added more cards you gained by playing. But every version had a bit more freedom, and the 2015 Magic had a full deckbuilder for your own decks and the possibility to buy cards. At which point it turned out that a new game every year doesn't mix well with buying virtual cards which you can't transfer to the next game. So Wizards of the Coast changed their strategy and is now making a new game without a year in the name: Magic Duels : Origins. It is already out for iOS, and will come to PC and XBox later.

On the one side Magic Duels : Origins is free. You get the game and the full story mode for free, which gives you the same guided experiences as previous versions: In 5 stories you play an increasingly complex mono-colored deck against premade AI decks to learn the basics of each color. But while doing that you also earn coins. And the game gives you a free starter set for deckbuilding. The coins buy you boosters, and then you can create your own decks to play either against AI opponents of various difficulty or against other people in duels or even two-headed giant mode.

Magic Duels : Origins thus nearly replaces the aging Magic the Gathering : Online, and is a lot closer to playing the card game than the annual version were. And that comes with a big warning: Magic the Gathering is the game that invented the Pay2Win principle. On paper you can get all the cards for free by playing, but a 6-card booster costs 150 gold, and you only gain 5 to 15 gold from a win against the AI and 20 from a win against another player. So there is a strong temptation to buy coins for money. Magic Duels : Origins has the steepest rebate scheme for such purchases that I have ever seen: $20 buys you one booster, 20 times $2 doesn't buy you 20 boosters but 50. Which means you absolutely shouldn't make small purchases in this game. Play for free, then if you decide you have enough fun to justify spending money, spend directly $40 for those 50 boosters. That still doesn't get you every card in the game, but already a much bigger base from which to builds decks from. With the big purchase rebate the virtual cards cost less than the paper version.

Personally I made that $40 purchase, because I love the complexity of Magic and find Hearthstone far too simple for my tastes. But I'd say that for most people the simpler and cheaper Hearthstone is probably the better option, and Magic Duels : Origins is the niche option for the veteran geek. I'll get my fun out of those $40, but that is because I love building decks.

Friday, July 17, 2015
Undercutting so that it hurts

In World of Warcraft trade chat as well as on various forums and blogs you will frequently find somebody complaining about people who undercut auction houses by a lot. You are being told that the only "correct" way to undercut is by 1 copper: That basically makes you sell the item at the same price as your competitor, but technically cheaper, and so in all likelihood your item gets sold first. If you undercut by more, so you are being told, you are playing it wrong. Of course that is just a jedi mind trick: The 1-copper undercut strategy favors a certain type of player, so that type of player wants to assure that you play by his rules. I'm here to tell you of the alternative: Undercutting by a lot.

Imagine a price war between two or more players wanting to sell the same item. Both undercut always by 1 copper. Who wins? It is pretty obvious that the "cost" of the 1-copper undercut is staying in front of the AH and reacting to the competition's every move. Perfect strategy for the unemployed basement dweller, but a guaranteed loss for anybody who either wants to spend his time outside of the game, or inside the game actually playing instead of camping the AH. The 1-copper undercut game can go on forever and the player with the longest breath wins.

So if you aren't willing to camp the AH all day, consider the alternative: Undercut by a significant amount of money, like 10%. If the competition undercuts by 1 copper, you undercut by another 10%, and so on. It is pretty clear that this *can't* go on forever. The heavy undercutting reduces the profit margin. So at one point one of several things will happen: The competition gives up, not willing to sell as cheap as you do; or the competition thinks you are too cheap and buys you out; or the competition undercuts your too cheap price by 1 copper and you buy them out. All of which scenarios are infinitely better than you never selling anything because you're always being undercut by 1 copper.

The 1-copper undercut is an artifact of WoW's badly designed auction house system. Other games show past sell prices and not exactly the prices the sellers are willing to accept, so you can't undercut by 1 copper. Undercutting by a significant amount is closer to real life economics: You win market share because for some reason you can actually sell cheaper than the competition, by being more efficient or by accepting a lower profit margin. There is no cheap trick that can beat that. Which is why significant undercutting is the way to go if you want to sell stuff in a competitive market.

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I always feel a bit cheated when I buy a $50 game and it is over in 10 hours. That isn't to say that 10-hour games can't be fun, just the price has to be right. Like Trulon for example, which costs $5 and is available for iOS and Android. And no, before you ask, there are no additional in-app purchases.

Trulon is a role-playing game with combat based on cards. So each of your characters has a deck of cards with various tactics, you start combat with a random hand of them, and draw a fresh one every turn. If you run out of cards, you can always do a basic attack, or use a "wildcard" randomly selected from all characters' decks. The system works pretty well and gives a nicely tactical combat without being too dependent from luck.

You can follow the main story and do side-quests, but if you feel weak you can also just run around until you run into random monsters and beat some of those for additional xp and cards. The story isn't all that special, but an okay heroic fantasy / steampunk mix. The whole thing is over in 10 hours, but those 10 hours are good fun, and priced right. Recommended!

Thursday, July 09, 2015
Oil crisis

At the start of Warlords of Draenor I leveled up 4 characters to 100 and then went into a routine where I logged on all of them every day to do garrison stuff like follower missions and work orders. Most days I didn't have time for much else. Patch 6.2 started with me actually playing those 4 characters again, doing quests in the Tanaan Jungle to unlock stuff for the shipyard. And then I thought I could go back to my previous regime of maintenance mode.

Turns out that I was wrong. I can't just log on a character and do naval missions every day. Those missions cost oil, and the oil you can get from followers missions doesn't cover the requirements. In order to keep naval missions running, I need to do at the very least the daily apexis quest, which gives 600 or 750 oil. When I'm short on oil I also need to farm the 4 Hellbane rares, because besides a chance for a medallion or a mount they always drop 100 oil.

The situation should improve slightly once I am revered with the main faction in Tanaan Jungle on all characters, because that unlocks the oil rig naval missions which give 400 oil. But I doubt that will be sufficient. Naval missions, unlike follower missions, appear to be designed to be not really viable for an alt who is just doing that without going adventuring. And while going adventuring with one character is okay, it gets too much if you want to do it with 4 characters.

While that is somewhat annoying, it doesn't mean that WoD has become less alt-friendly. In spite of various nerfs a level 100 alt with a level 3 garrison is still making a rather large passive income with very little effort. Four characters pay for a subscription in WoW tokens twice over with no problem. The problem is that if they don't do the new naval missions, they are stuck in the pre-patch routine, which already got rather boring.

So I think that after the holidays I'll do some other projects in World of Warcraft. I still have that level 34 hunter visiting all zones of the game and collecting all the pets. And then I was thinking of trying out a few other character classes and find which ones are fun to play in the current conditions. Right now I have two fun characters, the fury warrior and the frost mage, and two that are much less fun to play, the shadow priest and the demonology warlock. The priest is underpowered, while the warlock is strong, but boring, having too slow basic spells.

Wednesday, July 08, 2015
Cash cows and moving on

There has been much discussion about a recent announcement that there will be no more major content added to Warlords of Draenor, thus presumably leaving it with only minor content patches until the next expansion which based on previous form should be out in Q4 2016. That is a long time with no added content, and will certainly lead to new lows in subscription numbers for World of Warcraft. Why wouldn't Blizzard want to keep up subscriber numbers by adding more content?

The answer to that question is relatively basic economic theory of any business venture. After an initial phase where you spend more on development than you get in revenue, and a phase of peak popularity where you pump less money into the project and get a maximum out of it, there is a third phase that is generally called the cash cow phase where the business venture produces cash with very little maintenance. World of Warcraft is in this cash cow phase, where Blizzard considers it as a low-maintenance venture that will produce cash without requiring major investment.

That is not some heartless or stupid decision. Fact is that a good part of the decline in popularity is natural, and that it would cost increasing amounts of money to keep up subscription numbers. If you tried, you'd end up with costs higher than revenue, and an expensive but unprofitable business. The wiser decision is recognizing that the peak of popularity has been passed, and using the cash that WoW produces to finance other projects that haven't reached peak popularity yet.

Blizzard basically has moved on, and at least mentally so should we. We can enjoy WoW in its current stage with a decade worth of content in the game, but we shouldn't expect an increase in the future speed of content creation. The subscription peak of WoD was in some respects an anomaly, it should have been smaller, but was more a reflection of the lack of success of WoW's competitors to create games that remain popular for more than three months. The most interesting thing about it is that if WoW loses 3 million subscribers, you don't see those 3 million people turn up elsewhere.


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