Tobold's Blog
Thursday, September 19, 2019
 
Are lifestyle games unhealthy?

I have had what I would call healthy relationships with many different games: I get interested in the game, I install it, I play it, I have fun, until at some point I lose interest, I stop playing, and I remember the game fondly. Depending on the game that might be as little as 10 hours of gameplay, or as much as 100 hours. Sometimes I only play a game half through, sometimes I play through several times. But all of these games just hold my attention for a limited time.

And then there are the games that don't work like that. The games like World of Warcraft, or a few other MMORPGs in the past, and World of Tanks now. These are the games that somehow turn into a lifestyle for months or even years. The games I end up playing nearly every day. The games that sometimes I feel I play way beyond the point where I am having fun. The games that become a lifestyle. While I don't think that "addiction" is the right word to describe it, "habit forming" probably is.

Now of course this is not by accident. It is a whole business concept, "games as a service". If you get in the habit of playing those games, you usually pay a subscription fee, or regularly shell out some money for other virtual goods. Much cheaper for a game company to keep you playing by feeding you some new content occasionally than developing a whole new game would be.

The big advantage for me as a player is the comfort of familiarity. I don't have to learn a new game with a new control scheme and new strategy every few weeks. I don't have to make a decision on what I'll play next. But sometimes I feel that this relationship with those lifestyle games is less healthy. The moments where I play, don't have fun, but continue playing for some reward, or finishing some event. Like me currently playing the M41 Walker Bulldog in World of Tanks for the Top of the Tree event, although I don't enjoy playing that particular tank and it takes rather long to get to the next one. Sometimes these games can feel more like a job than like a game. And that is reflected in our choice of words, when we talk of things like "grinding" or "farming".

What do you think? Are lifestyle games unhealthy? Or are they just a different mode of gaming which is an equally valid way to spend your time?

Monday, September 09, 2019
 
Pintsized Realms

Unless you have a specific application in mind, you probably don't need a 3D printer. They are fun to fiddle around with, but in the long run you need to have a use for the stuff you print, otherwise you'll just make cheap decorative plastic nik-naks. Fortunately for me I have an application, 3D printing figurines and visual aids for tabletop roleplaying games. Obviously that is a bit of a niche thing. There are people out there doing the same thing, but it isn't a huge market. And because of that, one good place to find models to print is Kickstarter.

Now I have participated in several Kickstarter campaigns for 3D printable tabletop stuff. And I must say that up to now they all delivered. Sometimes a bit late, which is par for the course for Kickstarter, but not a single case of the campaign creator taking everybody's money and running off with it. However there is one Kickstarter campaign where I got the product and it ended up being of not much use to me: Pintsized Realms, a "3D printable kingdom".

Now I must immediately say that this isn't the fault of the creators. They delivered the core files I pledged for, and are still creating the files for the stretch goals. It is just that once I actually printed some wilderness tiles, I realized why this product isn't a good fit for me: I don't paint the stuff I print. Painting a figurine well takes a lot of time and some skill, and I have neither of those. A 28 mm scale figurine of a human takes just 2 to 3 grams of material, so with a 1 kg spool I can print whole armies. It would take me forever to paint all these. So I look for models that are recognizable unpainted. As long as you can see on the battle map who are the heroes, and who are the monsters, that is enough for my purpose.

All the pictures of the 3D printable kingdom on the Kickstarter page, except for the stretch goals, are in color and painted. A dirt path in the forest in the pictures is recognizable, because the ground has a different color than the trees, and the stones lining the path have yes another color. But printed and unpainted everything has the same color, the stones are tiny bumps you barely see, and it is really hard to make out where the path is. I printed a few tiles I put together to form a landscape, but the result is much worse than a map I would paint with an erasable marker on a battle map. I would need to paint the thing to make it even remotely useful.

As I said, it's my own fault, I should have thought of that problem earlier and not be seduced by the colorful pictures. And maybe I can at least use the village and town tiles to make useful maps for my campaign. But Pintsized Realms remains the only Kickstarter project that I now regret backing.

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Sunday, September 08, 2019
 
Pseudo skill-based

If you are an average player like me in World of Tanks, you frequently run into a situation where you get outspotted and killed by an invisible enemy tank which you never even see. As the game tells you which player killed you, you can then frequently see that they have a very high win rate and WN8. Thus they are "skilled players" and outplayed you? Well, not so fast. To some extent they certainly play well, know all the good positions on all the maps, and don't make as many stupid mistakes as the lesser players do. But chances are that their tanks also simply have better stats.

There is equipment in the game which is bought with bonds, and unless you have been playing for years, you won't have any or much of it. Also crew experience accumulates rather slowly, so again having played for years and having a crew with several skills helps. Finally the player who already has all the tanks can play the best tanks in the game, while the newer player will often play a not-so-good tank, sometimes not fully researched, in order to climb up a tech tree.

Spotting in World of Tanks has relatively little to do with skill. A skilled player can certainly outplay me in a short-range brawl. But over a distance who sees whom depends solely on stats, view range and camouflage, modified by things like bushes. Some positions on some maps are simply impossible to assail if they are being held by a tank destroyer with high view range and camouflage stats. Not much skill required on the part of the tank destroyer player, he just sits in a bush and waits.

In terms of game design this isn't ideal. Basically it gives an advantage to the players who, being veterans to the game, already are more skilled. Newer players can't catch up; even if they are fast learners they can't get all the veteran reward advantages that fast. Given how the matchmaker doesn't even try to match higher skilled players against each other, and less experienced players against each other, the result is a game that isn't very friendly towards new players. And that is always a bad feature in an online multiplayer game.

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Thursday, September 05, 2019
 
I'm cured!

If you keep up with gaming news, streams, and videos, WoW Classic has become impossible to ignore. The first guy hit level 60 after only 79 hours of /played time, got accused of using layering to cheat, then deleted his character. Many people are playing, but most are still on their way to 60. And so I come across lots of gameplay videos and streams, watch other people play World of Warcraft, and realize: I am cured! I feel absolutely no desire to play World of Warcraft in any form, Classic or not.

In fact my typical reaction on watching somebody leveling in WoW Classic by doing some quest is "Oh my god is that boring!". I have a hard time understanding how I could have spent thousands of hours doing just that. I assume that at some point it was exciting because it was new, interesting to explore a virtual world. But now all these quests seem so terribly trivial to me. It isn't as if you needed any skill to do them.

Of course at level 60 a part of the game opens up that requires more skill. But that comes with a lot of baggage. Dragon Kill Points, guild drama, and all the joy of playing in a large raid group in which not everybody has the same level of skill, leading to endless sources of conflict. I don't have very fond memories of my time raiding, although I sure spent a lot of hours doing so.

But the saddest thing about WoW Classic is that it is such a poignant reminder of how little the whole genre has evolved in 15 years. A stream of WoW Battle for Azeroth doesn't look all that different from a WoW Classic stream. And there isn't any other game out there either that comes much closer to the initial promise of offering you a chance to live in a fantasy world. It turns out all these fantasy worlds are populated by NPCs and monsters stuck in a time loop that never goes anywhere. Which is why it is possible to redo a 15-year old game and it becomes the hottest MMORPG of the year. Sad!

Wednesday, September 04, 2019
 
Armor in games

There are quite a lot of games that simulate combat and include some notion of armor, whether it is the armor of a medieval knight or that of a World War II tank or that of a futuristic battlemech. And as these are games and in any case far removed from any reality simulation, the question arises how armor should work in a game in which your health is represented by a numerical value. Now clearly the idea is that somebody having more armor over the course of a longer battle should lose less health than somebody having little or no armor. But that can be achieved in two different ways: Making armor affect the chance that an attack is a hit or a miss, or by making armor affect the amount of damage by which the health pool is reduced on a hit.

Dungeons & Dragons uses the former concept. If an enemy has a 50% chance to hit you, and you by some means get two points more armor, the enemies chance to hit you drops to 40%. As long as the combat lasts long enough, the overall effect is taking 10% less damage. However any system that makes armor affect hit & miss chance can run into cases at both extreme ends of the scale, where armor either makes hitting something completely impossible, or where a bit more armor isn't enough to help you because the enemy has a 100% chance to hit you.

This is especially evident in World of Tanks, where being matched against tanks two tiers higher than you can result in some tanks that haven't very good penetration values being unable to frontally damage an enemy tank at all. That system makes the whole game somewhat static, because occupying a defensive position in which only the most heavily armored parts of your tank can be hit ends up being overly powerful. You move, you lose. Not a good recipe for a dynamic game.

But World of Tanks also has a different sort of ammunition, high explosive, that works in a different way: Even if you can't penetrate the enemy armor, you still deal some damage, which is reduced by the armor value. In that case armor affects damage, but is less likely to completely stop damage. That is relevant this month, because the two top tanks of the Top of the Tree American light tank line have optional guns with very good high explosive ammunition. In World of Tanks those guns are called "derp guns", a somewhat derogatory term used because of the notion that a very skilled player would rather use a more precise gun and aim for weak spots. However if you are face to face with a tank two tiers higher than you in a defensive position, a derp gun can be exactly what you need.

Unfortunately most guns on most tanks in World of Tanks can only fire high explosive ammunition with low penetration and damage values, which still is unable to damage a heavily armored tank frontally. I must say that being completely unable to hurt an enemy totally destroys the fun of the game. The second armor model, in which armor reduces damage instead of preventing it, makes the underdog feels somewhat less useless. Thus I wished that high explosive ammunition that is able to at least somewhat hurt tanks two tiers higher was more common in the game, and that high explosive ammo would be somewhat upgraded in upcoming ammo rebalancing.

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Saturday, August 31, 2019
 
A very meta post

Jimmy Kimmel once made a skit about video game streaming in which he extrapolated that idea and showed people watching a stream of somebody watching a stream. This is me writing a blog post about somebody streaming video games, so it's about the same level of meta.

Why the interest? First of all, while the medium is obviously somewhat different, making blog posts about video games and streaming video games is more or less the same line of work. I used to write more about blogging, but then of course blogging went out of fashion, and there isn't much more to say about it. Streaming is still comparatively young and evolving. The second reason for this post is that sometimes I see things coming and make "prophetic" blog posts, and it is fun to go back and compare what I wrote before to how it actually played out.

So three weeks ago I wrote about the difficulties of changing your content. Now QuickyBaby, the World of Tanks streamer that I am following, got hooked on World of Warcraft Classic. He went off his usual World of Tanks streaming schedule and didn't stream WoT on Tuesday or Thursday (except for a bit where he was playing WoT while stuck in a WoW queue). Instead he is streaming World of Warcraft Classic every day, in streams of up to 19 hours length. Now WoW is obviously a popular game, and we have here a streamer who now put out a lot more content than he used to. Nevertheless his viewership has gone way down. The recorded videos of his WoT streams tended to get like 10k viewers, his WoW videos get less than 1k.

I already mentioned in a previous post that I find WoW a less watchable game than WoT. But I think the main thing at work here is that if a streamer is well known for streaming one game, much of his audience he accumulated over time will be mostly interested in that one game. Except for the World in the title the two games don't have much in common, and only a fraction of the previous audience is interested in the new content. Now there might be a lot of other people interested in WoW Classic streams, but then there are already tons of WoW streamers, so somebody known for a different game might not be the preferred streamer for the new game.

On a personal level, QuickyBaby has my fullest understanding. He wasn't all that happy in his World of Tanks streams lately, due to the disappointment of the British light tanks new content being so terrible. And getting hooked on World of Warcraft? Been there, done that, so I understand. Getting disenchanted with one game and starting another is a regular occurrence in my gaming life. But if I start blogging about something else, nobody cares, because the blog (and blogging in general) is half dead anyway. It doesn't have any financial impact on me, because my blog isn't monetized.

So the interesting thing to watch with QuickyBaby is how this evolves in the future. He is level 20 after 60 hours of streaming, so it is safe to say that he won't be "finished" with WoW Classic anytime soon. So will he continue streaming only WoW and leave WoT behind? If he does that, will he manage to get his viewer numbers up again? Or will there be a point when his heart tells him to play WoW, but his wallet tells him to play WoT, as streaming is his full-time job? Can he find some sort of hybrid solution, streaming both? Knowing both games that seems somewhat difficult, WoW has a certain tendency to kill your other gaming activities.

So, my apologies for this very meta blog post. But I must say that I find the idea of creating content about video games on the internet as a full-time job very risky. It is like the pinnacle of the gig economy. With my personal interest in both content creation and economy, this is a fascinating case for me.

Thursday, August 29, 2019
 
An unsolved problem

If you bought a mobile phone in 2004, chances are that is was a Nokia with a shape and functionality that looks primitive in 2019. The first iPhone wasn't even released yet in 2004. 15 years is a long time in technology. Yet if we look at World of Warcraft Classic in 2019, it is still plagued with the same technical problems as original WoW in 2004: When a lot of people want to play, servers get overloaded, disconnects happen, people have to wait in queues. But adding more servers isn't a solution either, because inevitably some people who want to have a look at WoW Classic in August 2019 will be gone by Christmas. The fundamental architecture of MMORPGs being played on named servers just doesn't scale very well, neither up nor down.

This isn't to bash WoW Classic. I think that WoW Classic is a good idea, even if I am personally not interested in playing World of Warcraft again, vanilla or any other taste. I think that over the years I mentioned several times on my blog that while free-to-play MMORPGs count everybody who ever made an account in their "player numbers", subscription-based games only count people with an active subscription. There are far more ex-WoW players than current WoW players. The potential pool of customers for WoW Classic is huge, and many of them feel some sort of nostalgia for the early days of the game. Even if the average player just subscribes for 3 months before leaving again, that is a huge pile of money for Blizzard.

However one has to think that vanilla WoW still was the growth phase of World of Warcraft. There were more new players coming in every month than there were players leaving. It is unlikely that this will reproduce with WoW Classic. It is far more likely that in three months the population on the WoW Classic servers will start to shrink. And that brings us back to the server scalability.

It has to be pointed out that this problem is particular to open world MMORPGs. Multi-player games like World of Tanks, League of Legends, or Fortnite don't have that problem, because the actual gameplay happens on small maps with a limited amount of people for a limited amount of time. Servers just need to be able to create a sufficient number of instances, and that scales up or down rather well. It is MMORPGs in which the first thing you do when creating a character is to select a named server that don't scale well.

I don't think the problem is unsolvable. There must be some sort of solution that combines the advantages of being able to meet your friends in game with the flexibility of instanced games. But WoW Classic certainly doesn't offer a solution at this point in time, and the negative consequences of that are foreseeable.

Wednesday, August 28, 2019
 
WoW Classic and watchability

One of the few streamers I watch on Twitch is Quickybaby. He is an excellent World of Tanks player, and I found that watching a live stream (or recorded video of that live stream) of a World of Tanks game in which sometimes things just go wrong teaches me more than watching an edited video of that one perfect game on YouTube. But sometimes QB plays other games, and recently he has started playing WoW Classic. Let's say that it isn't going well.

But apart from server disconnects and waiting queues perfectly replicating the World of Warcraft classic experience of 2004, I noticed something when watching that stream on Twitch: Not every game is equally watchable. Even if on a relative scale WoW Classic is more "hardcore" than modern WoW, on an absolute scale the leveling up gameplay of World of Warcraft through "kill 10 boars" quests is utterly trivial. When I watch QB in World of Tanks I learn something, like which positions he takes in what type of tank on which map. Watching him play World of Warcraft leveling up a low-level Tauren warrior in Mulgore teaches me absolutely nothing. I can already do that in my sleep. There isn't much visible difference in performance of that task between a great WoW player and an average WoW player.

The second problem is that if I watch QB doing some quest, I know in advance how it will go and what the outcome is going to be. There is no "will he win?" excitement of an uncertain outcome. The only entertaining part of the stream is the display of emotions when he gets disconnected and finds himself in a 3-hour queue. World of Warcraft is a scripted game, much of which is running on rails. Once you know what rail somebody has chosen, you can accurately predict what will happen next. If you played the same quest yourself, the experience would be nearly identical. I can assure you than in World of Tanks my experience with the same tank on the same map is far from identical from the experience QB has on his stream. It isn't even the same experience if I myself happen to play the same map with the same tank twice.

In short, watching a Twitch stream of WoW Classic is about as exciting as watching a stream of somebody washing the dishes. Maybe a raid would be more interesting to watch, but the leveling experience sure isn't.

Tuesday, August 27, 2019
 
PvP vs. PvP

So I tried out the new Tanknite (aka Steel Hunter) mode of World of Tanks yesterday, and it turned out that I absolutely hate it. And when I was pondering why I don't like it, I realized it is because it is a form of free-for-all PvP. Which is somewhat curious. How can somebody be opposed to PvP in a game that is exclusively PvP? But not all PvP is created equal, and for me there is an important distinction between organized team vs. team PvP and chaotic free-for-all PvP. I can live with the former, but I hate the latter. I never even considered playing Fortnite (although I watched my nephew play it and have a pretty good idea how it works), so I shouldn't be surprised that I don't like Tanknite.

Come to think of it, society makes a similar distinction in real life. If you are a soldier and kill a lot of people in war, you get a medal. If you kill a lot of people just randomly, you are a serial killer, and society will revile you. In games too there must be lots of other players with a preference for organized PvP. In many PvP MMORPG games both developers and players have tried to make PvP about more than just randomly killing strangers. But in the end organized PvP is easier to set up if you have a gameplay of time-limited battles than in open worlds that are running 24/7. Even a game like Fortnite would be a lot less popular if it didn't have the time limit of the shrinking map, if the island was just there all the time and up to 100 players could continually respawn or log off and log on.

Fortunately for me in World of Tanks it turns out that the Steel Hunter game mode doesn't really give any rewards that I would consider must-have. There was a bunch of nice stuff easily attainable at rank 2. But besides bonds the rewards for higher ranks are mostly badges and decals, and there is only one camo that I might have wanted to have. I'll be missing out on tickets for dog tags, but as those go away at the end of the tank festival, I don't mind.

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Monday, August 26, 2019
 
Tanknite

The standard gameplay mode of World of Tanks is the 15 vs. 15 random battle. But over the years many other modes have been offered, some only for a limited time in events. For example this year for one week every month you can play a game mode called Frontline, which borrow heavily from MOBA games: Battle takes place in three lanes, and if you die, you respawn. Starting today and going on for 3 weeks is another new game mode called Steel Hunter, or as I like to call it, Tanknite: It borrows heavily from Fortnite in that it is a battle royal type of game in which you try to be the last tank standing on a shrinking map.

Now these new game modes are a bit of hit-and-miss. The recent Homefront PvE game mode was unfortunately terribly repetitive and boring. The fundamental problem is often that the new game modes do not integrate very well with the overall progress system of World of Tanks. Random battles give you immediate rewards in terms of credits and experience points for your tech trees. The new modes all have some separate system, in which your battle successes give you some new sort of points and ranks, and at the end those ranks translate into a reward which is usable for the main game. And these new point and rank and reward systems tend to have strongly diminishing returns: If you play the new game mode a bit, you get some minor reward with little effort; but to get the top reward of the event, you need to grind quite a bit.

I will play Tanknite for the first time this evening. I'll see how it goes, and what rank I would need to achieve for what reward. But I am already pretty sure that my casual "play 2 hours of World of Tanks after coming home from work" style will not be compatible with the requirements for the top rewards. So I'll see whether there is something nice to get at some intermediate level. Otherwise I'll just play it as long as the new game mode is new and fun. There is only one map, and only three different tanks to try on that map. I'll have to see how fast that gets boring.

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Sunday, August 25, 2019
 
Long term design flaw

There is a billion dollar pro sports industry based on the idea that watching somebody really professional excelling at a game is more fun to watch than watching some local kids playing the same game. While I still play World of Tanks regularly, I'm pondering why the game isn't more fun. And I do think that one of the design flaws the game has is that it gets less interesting at higher levels. Watching good players in high tier battles is far more boring than low tier battles full of noobs. A game of World of Tanks in which everybody is playing as professionally as possible is going to be a boring draw, because defending is more often than not more efficient than attacking. All the action the game has comes from people who either don't know better, or are just plain impatient and attack anyway. And sometimes they get lucky and attack where the defense was weakest, and then they win.

My problem with that is that the who progress and reward structure pushes me to higher tiers. I should pursue tank lines to tier X. I should farm credits in tier VIII premium tanks, as they give the most credits per battle. Instead I am playing lower tier regular tanks, where I would have to pay gold to convert the experience points I make with them, and earn a lot less credits. Many of the missions either can't be done with lower tier tanks at all, or are just far more difficult, e.g. if you have to deal a specific minimum amount of damage.

On the positive side, if you opt out of the whole tech tree climbing thing, World of Tanks can easily be played for free.

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Wednesday, August 21, 2019
 
Fire Emblem: Harry Potter

Hmmm, there seems to be a small typo in the title of my post. :) The game is actually called Fire Emblem: Three Houses, on the Nintendo Switch. But as the game mainly plays in a school, which teaches magic among other things, there is a certain Harry Potter vibe to the game. At the core this is a game of the Fire Emblem series, with a solid turn-based tactical combat system. Around this core system is constructed a story in which you teach a class of students of one of three possible "houses" of the school. The students are then your units in battle, and so there is a whole art around selecting what skills to teach them, because those in turn unlock various character classes.

And then there is another layer built around that, one in which you manage relations between your avatar and the students, as well as between students. Improve relations and your units will support each other better in battle, but also you'll get to see a cut scene of the interaction between the two characters, which reveals a part of their individual story. Thus a good amount of time is spent running through the school and talking to people, doing minor quests, and following the many different story threads.

The advantage of that system is that it improves replayability. Just choose a different house next time around, and you will have a base set of different characters, which will have different interactions and cutscenes with each other. The first part of the main story will remain the same, but the house story and side stories will be different. However right now I am not very worried about replayability, because this is not a short game. I'm 25 hours in, and because I am not rushing it I am only in chapter 8 out of 21. Apparently you can get through just the main story in 40 hours if you don't do extras, but why would I want to? While I haven't seen it myself yet, there is apparently a New Game Plus mode in which you can play a different house the second time around without completely losing everything from your first game.

I very much like the combat system of Fire Emblem: Three Houses. And I like the training system. I do find the way to tell a story by dialogues between the different characters interesting; but I have to admit that at some point where I had done a lot of battles in series and thus improved a lot of relations between my students, sitting through dozens of cutscenes got a bit tedious. And while you can travel within the school by fast travel, I am not a big fan of the fact that one has to explore every corner of the school manually every month to find hidden items and books that improve your professor level.

Overall however I find that Fire Emblem: Three Houses is a very good game, and I can recommend it.

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