Tobold's Blog
Monday, June 01, 2020
 
My Time at Portia

I mentioned some weeks ago that Animal Crossing left me unsatisfied, and I was looking for a better game of the same genre. I already mentioned My Time at Portia there, but I played it on the Switch in an early version, which had some loading time issues; I also found the controls not very satisfying. So when My Time at Portia went on sale on Steam for €12, I bought the PC version. And found it to be much better than the old Switch version (which probably got updated since, but I didn't try that again). And the controls with keyboard and mouse are great. Not only that, they are also largely identical with the controls of Borderlands 3, which is the other game I am currently playing. That helps!

My Time at Portia is a life simulation game, like Animal Crossing, only much, much better. The 3D mining / digging part of the game is brilliant in itself. And My Time at Portia has a lot of features that Animal Crossing doesn't, like earning xp, leveling up, a skill tree, and a far more extensive crafting system. You can even date and marry! Furthermore there is a better story, lots of side-quests, far more characters to interact with, and a larger and more interesting world. Much more game for a fraction of the price of Animal Crossing!

While "post-apocalyptic" isn't my favorite genre, My Time at Portia is post-post-apocalyptic. Colorful and sunny instead of a grim wasteland, but with the ruins of a previous civilization which bombed itself into bunkers for a long time. Now it is years after people have emerged back into the sun, but they lost a lot of knowledge about technology. So there is an interesting conflict between those who dig for relics and try to re-develop technology, and a church which preaches that technology leads to the next apocalypse. Quite interesting setup, and much friendlier than "zombie apocalypse" games (man, I hate those!).

Sunday, May 31, 2020
 
Death and Intelligence in Dungeons & Dragons

The rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons make it relatively unlikely that a character dies in regular combat, as long as there is some healing power in the group. My group in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage has two Aasimar, a race that comes with a once-per-day healing hands ability. Minor healing, but enough to revive a fallen comrade. One of them is also a paladin, with lay on hands and potential access to healing spells. And there is a druid as well, who likes to play the healbot of the group (I gave him a staff of healing, so that he doesn't use all his spell slots for healing only). Theoretically I could make death in combat more likely by having my monsters coup de grace fallen players, but I always considered that a bit mean and unfair. As a result there have been several fights in which several characters went down, and were revived again. That suits my playstyle just fine, it enforces the idea that combat is dangerous, without actually having somebody losing his character.

Actual death in this Dungeon of the Mad Mage campaign happened only once yet. On level 1 there is this evil magical heart magic item. If you attune to it, you die. I have no compunction about letting a character die like this, if he was aware that the heart was evil, radiates necromantic magic, and the player insists on trying to attune without casting identify. That *is* kind of asking for it. And I let the temple of Lathander in Waterdeep cast Raise Dead on credit, they only had to pay half of the 1,250 gold fee in advance, so the player didn't have to roll a new character.

Now I am debating with myself about using one common feature on the first few levels of the Dungeon of the Mad Mage: Intellect Devourers. Xanathar is using those frequently to control members of his thieves guild. So the group might come across a group of members of Xanathar's Guild, and a few of them carry an intellect devourer in their head. They can't be detected, and when the host creature dies, the intellect devourer teleports out, hiding somewhere using stealth. The intellect devourer then can mentally attack a player, which incapacitates that player. And the next round the intellect devourer can consume that characters brain, teleport into his head, and take over. That is pretty deadly. The rarely used spell Protection from Evil and Good protects somebody, but not knowing that the spell is unlikely to be used. And the eaten brain can only be restored by a wish.

Apart from the general question of how frequent I want character death to be in my campaign, this specific case touches on another issue: Intelligence, as a character stat, not a player characteristic. Not all stats are equally useful in Dungeons & Dragons, and Intelligence is probably the least useful one. Nobody minds if I tell them that the chance of them walking on a tightrope depends on their Dexterity stat; but they would complain if the player had a bright idea and I judged that their character was too stupid to have that idea. Thus player intelligence "overwrites" character Intelligence. The stat is only used for a knowledge skill checks and saving throws, and there are only a few Intelligence saving throws in the game. This makes it a typical dump stat. None of my player characters has an Intelligence above 10. And I kind of dislike that. I tried already to make knowledge checks more useful, but of course with their low Intelligence stat, the players didn't bite.

So in a way the Intellect Devourer, whose ability to kill a character depends very much on that characters Intelligence stat, would suit my purposes. At the very least it would make the players realize that having an Intelligence of 8 isn't anodyne. And if character death ensues, there are a bunch of good options on how to continue: The player could make a new character of the same level and xp, or I could offer them a cut-rate Reincarnation spell, which would most probably change the character's race. They could even continue playing their character with the Intellect Devourer controlling them, which would only kick in when they deal with Xanathar's Guild. There is a lesson I learned from playing Wildermyth: Messing with a character in unexpected ways is good for role-playing, even if it isn't initially welcome.

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Saturday, May 30, 2020
 
Making a mega-dungeon more memorable

My next Roll20 session of Dungeon of the Mad Mage is on Monday, and I am preparing level 2 of the dungeon. The general difficulty of having a memorable session in a mega-dungeon is breaking up the monotony of "open door, kill monster, loot treasure". That is made difficult by the design philosophy of 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, and the adventure module that very much follows this design: Lots of small encounters rather than a few large ones. In my opinion that was a bit of a design overreaction against 4th edition D&D, which made for great epic encounters. By trying to be "not 4E", 5E overdid encounter design towards an endless slog of boring fights.

As a DM preparing a level in a published dungeon, and not wanting to completely rewrite everything, I can do two things: I can make a few of the better encounters epic, by making them harder. And I can make some of the minor encounters less of a slog, by offering non-combat options more visibly. There are a bunch of "factions" on each level of the dungeon; the murderhobo way of dealing with these factions by simply killing them all is actually the least interesting option.

There are very many different styles of running Dungeons & Dragons as the Dungeon Master. And different DMs have different talents. While I am unable to do voice acting like Matt Mercer, and my narrative description of places and events is hobbled by me playing in French, which is only my third language, my strong point is staging epic fights. It takes a bit of preparation, you can't just start reading the Monster Manual when the group is already facing the monsters. But by using clever tactics for your monsters, using terrain, and preparing a surprise or two, any sufficiently hard fight can be made epic and memorable. You want your players to feel that they are in danger, and be proud of themselves for overcoming this challenge.

Preparation is also the key to the second part of the plan, pushing non-combat options for the factions in the dungeon. There are some elements you can use for that in the Dungeon of the Mad Mage book. Each faction is described in a paragraph at the start of each level chapter in the book. Usually the rooms that a faction occupies are all having the same number, and then are labeled with letters for each individual room. The necessary preparation is to read all the entries, e.g. 1a to 1f plus the faction description at the start of the chapter, to work out what should happen when the group approaches. Given that these factions are usually comprised of "monsters", e.g. goblins, wererats, or drow, you need to be prepared for two questions: Why do the monsters not attack the group on sight? And why should the group not attack the monsters on sight? For example in one spot the den of Xanathar's guild is guarded by two bugbears. The bugbears don't attack on sight, because they don't know whether the group belongs to the guild or not, so they first ask for a pass phrase. And as the players found that pass phrase in a previous encounter on a dead bugbear, they might well remember that, and give the right answer. And then they probably feel clever for having done so, which encourages them to not directly murder the bugbears.

The overall idea is to create a flow in the game that isn't always the same. There are easy fights, epic fights, puzzles, and role-playing encounters. Of course you need some cooperation of the players for that. In the last session they encountered a harpsichord made out of bones, and the idea was that they would play a tune on it to open a secret compartment with a treasure. That ended up with the paladin taking his maul to the harpsichord and destroying the treasure in the process.

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Tuesday, May 26, 2020
 
NPC adventurers in Dungeons & Dragons

Near the end of the first level of the Dungeons of the Mad Mage, my group picked up a new travel companion: A revenant, member of an evil adventuring party, who had been killed by his fellow adventurers and his corpse thrown into a pit. He revived as an undead bent on finding and killing his previous group. So far, so good, interesting enough story.

Now I am preparing level two, where his this evil adventuring party can be found. But in the WotC published adventures, NPC adventurers don't get their own character sheet. Instead they use standard NPC descriptions from the Monster Manual: The dwarven rogue is a "scout" (CR 1/2), the human priest is a "priest" (CR 2), and the human warrior is a champion (CR 9). That doesn't work for me at all! How would a group with such disparity in power ever have come together? And in a fight this really would just be a fight against the champion with two insignificant minions beside him.

I will use Roll20's Charactermancer to re-create those three adventurers as level 7 characters, using the same rules that players would use to create such characters. And I will put them all together in one room, because splitting them up as written somewhat kills the climatic moment where the revenant meets his old fellows. And I must say that this is where 4th edition was somewhat superior to 5th edition: You rarely met exactly the same monster twice in 4E, because that edition made frequent use of monster stat modifications, and always strived to create the perfect monster stat block for each encounter. 5E is far more standardized, and prefers to use monsters as written in the Monster Manual, even if then the challenge rating isn't all that appropriate to the encounter.

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Monday, May 25, 2020
 
Dungeon of the Mad Mage - The Gameshow

On the narrative side Dungeon of the Mad Mage, like all mega-dungeons, has a problem: Why would anyone go through all the effort of building a 23-level dungeon with a thousand rooms, and keep restocking it after adventurers killed some of the denizens? So I am following a suggestion from the Dungeon of the Mad Mage Companion, and am running the whole thing as a derange gameshow. A bit like Borderlands 3 setting up the archvillains as social media influencers, the concept gives the main villain more opportunity for exposure. So Halaster Blackcloak is not waiting silently at the bottom level of the mega-dungeon, but appears at various occasions as the gameshow host, making snarky comments on the performance of the group. That gives great motivation to go and kill him, and provides opportunity to give the players some information they wouldn't otherwise have had.

I went and took images from an old TV show called Knightmare to create an encounter (room 27 on level 1) where the group sees a "wall of rectangular crystal balls" showing a younger Halaster commenting on previous "contestants".

Already when they entered the dungeon for the first time, I had Roll20 set up to play a gameshow theme music. At the start of session 2, Halaster appeared as a voice from the off with comments on the "previous episode", session 1. He invited the spectators to watch and find out whether somebody from the group would attune to the evil magic heart they had found at the end of the first episode. When the group got stuck with a puzzle on the gate in level 2 and wanted to walk away, he mocked them and gave a hint that told them that they could solve it without having to search for a key elsewhere.

Of course the gameshow concept is a deliberate anachronism and many aspect very much meta gaming. But in this context this works very well: The players understand the motivation of Halaster from their experience with the real world, while to their characters Halaster appears to be incomprehensible and completely mad. I didn't have to change much in the actual dungeon, just add some minor fluff like the manticore on level 1 asking a quiz question (again using Roll20 sounds to add a ticking clock and buzzer) and attacking after them giving a wrong answer. Which is obviously more interesting than a room with a manticore that just attacks on sight.

In a way, I, as the DM, am Halaster. Our motivations coincide to some agree. While Halaster is pushing the group towards bad decisions with his comments, I as the DM push the group to actually make those decisions instead of endlessly postponing them. With a thousand rooms in the dungeon, the players constantly come across things that *don't* mean anything, which teaches them to just ignore all sorts of stuff. That has the danger of them ignoring the actually interesting stuff as well, so "Halaster" steps in to make sure they don't.

This certainly worked in session 2, a 7-hour session we played yesterday. After Halaster asking whether a player would attune to the evil magic heart that they had detected a strong necromantic aura, one player actually did. And instantly died, so they had to leave the dungeon and get him resurrected. After Halaster encouraged them to solve the riddle that would open the gate in level 2, they did, and without resting or further preparation went through the gate. That landed them in level 4, designed for characters 2 levels higher than they are currently, and right into a fight with a group of drow. Instead of fleeing, they wanted to kill those drow, which nearly led to a total party kill. In the end a drow mage fled to call reinforcements, and the group fled before those arrived.

I don't really want to kill off my whole group. But Dungeons & Dragons is a better game if the players at least think that they could die any time. The 5E death save system makes it actually rather unlikely for a character to die, and there is always the possibility of resurrection. So it was good to establish in the story with the evil magic heart that if players act in a way that blatantly ignores obvious warning signs, instant death is part of the game. And the story with the gate showed them that the dungeon gets a lot more dangerous further down, and they don't win every fight easily like on level 1 (which is designed for level 5 characters, while the group is level 6).

The session also established an important principle for mega-dungeons: Choose the dungeon level wisely, as a function of your strength. In the first session they were proceeding through level 1 in a completionist fashion, as if they wanted to explore every single room of every level of the dungeon. That isn't necessarily a good idea in a mega-dungeon. It just takes too damn long, and if the level is too easy, it isn't really interesting, nor rewarding enough. Now they skipped part of level 1, and started level 2, which is where we will continue in the next session.

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Saturday, May 23, 2020
 
Borderlands 3 cheating / modding

I recently started playing Borderlands 3. I played through the start of the story missions until I got to the Sanctuary. There I used the Cheat Engine software to edit my money (it's a 4 byte value, if you want to do it too), and bought a bunch of SDUs. So now I have a larger inventory, more bank slots, and can carry more ammo with me. On the one side this is definitively "cheating", which is what you'd expect from a software called Cheat Engine. On the other side the SDUs are just quality-of-life upgrades, they don't make me do more damage or be more resistant to damage or in other way affect my power. They simple let me play longer before having to fast travel back to base to empty my inventory. And if I have a favorite weapon (I'm playing Fl4k in sniper mode), I can do that for longer without running out of ammo. So I felt I was more like modding the game to a more player-friendly version.

I don't mind cheating in single-player games. However I tend to be careful with it, because one can basically destroy the game's fun with it. I am generally not so much interested in "god mode" cheats, or cheats that just kill every enemy on the press of a button. If in some game combat is too hard for me, I'd be more interested in for example giving me more health with a cheat or mod, rather than infinite health. But the cheats I am most interested in are those like the ones described above for Borderlands: The game having some stupid quality-of-life restrictions that could be lifted by cheating. Inventory slots are a prime example: They don't make your character stronger, but having not enough of them is typically rather annoying, and forces you to spend a lot of time running back and forth for no purpose other than inventory management.

Monday, May 18, 2020
 
Progression vs. Challenge

Since my previous post on my D&D campaign Dragon of Icespire Peak we managed to play 3 more sessions and finish the adventure. I played the final encounter as written, with the group of level 6 characters fighting the Young White Dragon on to of Icespire Hold. That ended up as somewhat of a damp squib, with the fight being far too easy. Especially the paladin with his divine smite can have a huge damage output in a very short time, especially when he crits. And the druid had cast earthbind on the dragon, preventing him from flying. So the dragon didn't have all of his tactical options, the whole group pounced on him, and took him down before he could do very much. In hindsight the fight needed some minions to make it more interesting, but the dragon in the adventure was never said to have any of those.

On the other hand, if the group had gone to attack the dragon let's say 2 levels earlier, it would have been a far tougher fight. In this adventure basically the final challenge is fixed, and the players progress from level 1 to maximum 6 before taking him on. Other challenges in the adventure scale with level or player number, but not the final one. That makes it susceptible to being outleveled.

This is a constant challenge in games with role-playing elements and character progression: How fast is the growth of power due to character progression, compared to the growth of challenge along the story. I am now 23 hours into the latest XCom game, Chimera Squad. Earlier this year I played Phoenix Point, another XCom clone. In both of these games, towards the end of the story, character progression stopped, while the challenge was still going up rapidly. In Phoenix Point I finally succeeded in the final combat, but it was a slog and not fun. Chimera Squad is a much more open software with accessible config files one can edit, so I managed to make the end less of a slog for me. Unfortunately not many games make modding to easy; often you can just set a difficulty level, and if character progression and challenge progression diverge, the difficulty setting that was great at the start isn't what you need later.

Of course that is only a problem as long as a game follows a fixed story. We already started the next D&D campaign after Dragon of Icespire Peak, and went with the same level 6 characters directly into the Dungeon of the Mad Mage, which is a mega-dungeon. The deeper you go, the higher the challenge, and every level has more than enough opportunity to gain xp to level up. Thus how fast you descend downwards to the more dangerous and lucrative levels depends on you. There are even magical gates that let you skip levels and instantly get much more deadly. But the group can always decide that a level is too hard, and go back up, clean up previously skipped content and earn xp and levels until they feel powerful enough. I always liked that option in previous generations of computer role-playing games. Too bad that this has a bit fallen out of favor, and monsters to kill are now often a limited resource, forcing you to progress even if you would quite like to farm some more xp first.

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Sunday, May 17, 2020
 
Alternative facts about Hollywood

When I was still in high school, I did a major in history. I believe that history is important, because we can learn from it. However, that also opens up some more sinister concepts, like George Orwells idea from the book "1984": "Who controls the past controls the future: who controls the present controls the past." If you control the present enough to be able to lie about the past, you can manipulate the lessons learned from history. Because of this, I am not a huge fan of alternative history for entertainment purposes, at least not if it isn't labeled as such. Someone can get away with lying about the past by making changes that people don't immediately recognize as not being true, and try to manipulate people's opinions that way.

So, I watched the mini-series "Hollywood" on Netflix, and immediately felt manipulated. While otherwise entertaining enough, the series clearly has a very "woke" message about equal rights for gays, women, and minorities, and pushes that message by telling lies about the past of Hollywood. So we see the first Oscar going to an African American lead actress in 1948 instead of 2001. We see Rock Hudson coming out as gay in 1948. And none of that happened. Not only did it not happen, but I am pretty certain that it couldn't possibly have happened in 1948. Because the world, and the USA, in 1948 were not that "woke". And much of the history of the next half century, including the history of the civil rights movement, would be hard to explain if you believe in the fairy 1948 that the series shows. You can't understand cultural changes if you pretend that culture already was in the evolved state 50 years earlier.

Saturday, May 16, 2020
 
I can't drive a virtual car

In the real world I am a decent enough driver, haven't had an accident for years. But that real world driving skill doesn't translate at all into a skill of driving a car in a video game. I don't play racing games at all; and in games like GTA, I find the driving parts much harder than the shooting parts.

I am currently trying out a bunch of different games. Between my 70% unplayed Steam library, free games in the Epic games store, and the XBox game pass for PC, I am spoilt for choice. So I was trying out Watchdogs yesterday. The game didn't really speak to me; but what made me stop playing was having to drive a car around town to escape police and finding the controls very difficult.

I once read somewhere that the problem might be that in a real car the controls are analog. You don't just have the choice between gas and no gas, brake or no brake, you can use the pedals gently. With buttons on a keyboard or gamepad you don't have the choice. So instead of pressing the gas pedal gently and keeping it at that position for a constant speed, you need to press and release the acceleration button constantly. And you never end up driving at constant speed that way.

Well, I guess I have a lifetime of preference for fantasy games to thank for my lack of skill. I just don't play games that play in a world that has cars all that often. But it always struck me in the discussion whether violent video games turn people violent, that the bigger danger might be fast racing games turning people into reckless drivers. I mean, how often do you hold a Kalashnikov in real life, compared to a steering wheel? If there is any danger of confusing virtual activities with real world activities, wouldn't it be more dangerous when doing things in a game that resemble real life more closely?

Wednesday, May 13, 2020
 
Why can't games be adjusted for reaction time?

Imagine a very simple "game". You have a black screen. Sometimes a letter flashes on that screen, either A, B, or C. When that letter flashes, you need to press the corresponding key on your keyboard within a fraction of a second. Pressing the right letter within the time limit gives you a point, pressing the wrong letter or being late is a miss. After 100 letter flashes, your score is shown.

What can we say about this game? Obviously it is very easy to understand. Everybody would be able to play it. But how difficult is it? It is pretty clear that this mostly depends on how many milliseconds you have to press the right letter. How would your score in this game improve after playing it for 1 hour, 10 hours, 100 hours, or 1,000 hours? Probably not very much; especially if you are already a gamer and play games in which reaction time is important, playing another game like that isn't really likely to improve that particular "skill" very much. On the other hand, your score in the game is very likely to be affected by your age. Your reaction time slows down by about half a millisecond per year. The average age of a top athlete in e-sports is significantly younger than in regular sports.

While our imaginary game doesn't exist like this, different version of it exist in a large percentage of video games. Pretty much every game that isn't turn-based but real time has elements in which you see something on the screen (e.g. your virtual enemy raising his weapon) and have to press a key on your gamepad (e.g. press B to block) within a fraction of a second. Because there are probably more than 3 keys involved, the stimuli are more complex than a simple letter flashing, and there are things like key combos involved, real games are a bit more complex than my imaginary game, and would need slightly more practice to master. However the two basic truths of the imaginary game still apply: The game would be a lot easier if you had more time to press the button, and your reaction time (and thus age) has a huge influence on how well you will be able to play.

Now these basic truths could easily be used for better game design. Not all gamers are teenagers. I am in my mid-50's, and there are a lot of gamers my age, because video games appeared when we were teenagers. There are even older gamers, who picked up the hobby later in life. But there are quite a lot of games out there that don't sell to us older gamers. Not that we wouldn't want to play them, but because some developer somewhere put a completely arbitrary reaction time limit on a game mechanic which results in the game being perfectly balanced for a teenager, and nearly impossible to beat for a guy 40 years older than that. Why can't we just have a slower version of the same game for us older gamers?

Many games have difficulty settings, but I don't know of a single game in which these settings simply slow down the reaction time sequences of the game. That would be so simple to implement, and it would open up quite a lot of games to an older and slower audience. Why has nobody thought of that before?

Monday, May 11, 2020
 
Multiplier to Berlin

After reaching stage IV of the Road of Berlin event, I thought about stopping. It took a bit over 20,000 points to get there, and a victory at tier III only gave around 66 points. The only reason I had gotten to stage IV was that there were multiplier bonuses x10 in the bundle I had bought. But I had run out of those, and getting another 15,000 points without a multiplier seemed too much of a grind.

This weekend the 4th map and final map of the event was released, Berlin itself. And it was announced that this map would in patch 1.9.1 be added to the regular game, random battles, which made it more interesting to look at. In addition they gave me five x15 multipliers for the event, one for each tank. And I had managed to pick up some tokens for more x15 multipliers by playing missions with tier VII+ tanks in random battles.

So I started the first game, got lucky that I immediately got on the Berlin map, got lucky that I was in a good team, and achieved a victory. So the Berlin map gives twice as many points as the other maps, times 15 for the multiplier, times 66 points, and suddenly I was looking at 2k points towards the 15k for stage V. Suddenly it didn't look so impossible anymore! So I played some more over the weekend, and in fact ended up finishing stage V and getting the Bounty Ventilation reward and a useless medal. Event completed, grats to me!

From a game design point of view, I found this interesting. One *could* have grinded the event without multipliers, and it would have taken bloody forever. But between the multipliers I bought in the bundle at the start of the event, the multipliers I got for free, the multipliers I earned as mission rewards in random battles, and the additional double points on the Berlin map, the event wasn't grindy at all. I only played as long as the event was fun for, not longer.

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Friday, May 08, 2020
 
Game design by algorithm - The curious case of Hero Wars

There are so many browser and mobile games out there, it is very hard to get noticed. So these games hire advertising companies to attract new players. The advertising companies get paid by the number of people who download the mobile app / start playing as a result of their ad. So the advertising companies design different types of ads, and then use algorithms to measure which ads are the most successful ones. And because players *staying* in the game is not a requirement, the algorithm quickly learns that the best way to attract new players is to lie. The number of mobile game ads in which the gameplay shown in the ad can't be found in the actual game is staggering.

Now of course many of those ads lie by exaggeration. What is a boring click fest in the real game becomes an epic combat sequence in the ad. But some advertising companies went further: They put completely different gameplay in the ads, gameplay that had absolutely nothing to do with the game in question. By the time the player interested in that ad gameplay has downloaded and played the game and finds out that the game is something very different, the advertising company has already got the money.

One of the games that got advertised with completely misleading gameplay is Hero Wars, which is yet another boring "collect heroes and auto-combat monsters" mobile game. For quite a long time this game has been advertised with ads showing a puzzle gameplay, in which the player needs to pull levers in the right order to "defeat the goblin". In the ad, the player always gets it wrong, which encourages the viewer to think "I can do this better!" and download the game. Only that, until December, those puzzles weren't in the game at all. But over time Hero Wars attracted so many players who wanted to play these puzzles, and kept complaining about those not being in the game, that since end of last year some of those puzzles got actually added to the game.

Now this must be the weirdest way to design a game I ever heard: You design gameplay A, advertise it by showing gameplay B, have an algorithm tell you that B is more fun than A, and then add a diminished version of B into your A gameplay.

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