Tobold's Blog
Thursday, April 17, 2014
Wildstar beta weekend plans

I have a long weekend before me, 4-day Easter weekend. Which happens to coincide with a Wildstar beta weekend. Now I don't want to play the beta too much and then get bored on release. But I do want to use the beta weekends to make some decisions on my release main. The last beta weekend already helped me to decide to go warrior as a class, and this weekend I'm trying to decide on a path.

Now the path decision for me is between settler and explorer, after having tried all four paths in the low levels. The scientist path is for people who like to read all those lore books in games like Skyrim, but I was never that interested in game lore. Call me a snob, but in my experience the writing in games isn't all that great, even if you compare it to "pulp fiction" fantasy novels like Conan the Barbarian. And if you have to find the lore in bits and pieces, you're usually missing half of the picture. I also tried the soldier path, but the "extra" activity of the path was way too similar to what I was doing already all day long when questing.

In the low levels I did like the settler path, because it is a bit like a scavenger hunt with picking up resources everywhere. But at level 10 I realized I would want a resource gathering tradeskill, and so now I wonder if all that gathering isn't again going to be too much of the same. I was more skeptical of the explorer path at first, because I am not a huge fan of jumping puzzles in MMORPGs. But I played an explorer to level 10 and there were some cool parts like being able to run along specially marked explorer flags to get huge speed boosts. At least the flags were marked with an explorer symbol, so I assume other paths can't use those. I assume the trampoline mushrooms are useable by everybody.

So what I am going to do this weekend is mainly to play my level 10 warrior / settler some more, maybe up to where you get housing, and do all the settler path missions I come across. Then I'll see if there is a bit more variety there than just gathering resources for building buff stations. I hope that after a few more levels I will be able to decide whether settler is the path I really want to play in the long term.

Monday, April 14, 2014
Tyranny of Dragons in the marketing department

So 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons will be out this year, and a bit like a World of Warcraft pre-expansion patch there is a huge D&D marketing campaign in the build-up to the release, called Tyranny of Dragons. If you are playing D&D in any sort of "official" setting, you'll be fighting the Cult of the Dragon. So far, so good.

But if you want to see an example of how heavy-handed it can get if you want to move an existing campaign onto the current marketing train, you don't need to go further than PAX East, where Acquisitions Incorporated played their public D&D game. I found the introduction of the Cult of the Dragon rather badly done. The DM had to bend the rules quite a lot to give the enemies a surprise round, because the narrative didn't even talk of an immediate ambush. The heroes walk out of a tavern, there are guys standing there, so from that point on, if a combat breaks out, why would anybody have a surprise round? And don't tell me that the DM didn't fudge dice there to get to that neat situation where everybody but the group leader was down before anybody could act.

So, yes, I understand the requirements of the marketing department to introduce their new material. But they way they did it really wasn't elegant. It sure served the purpose of establishing the Cult as "the enemy", but as I player I would have felt railroaded there.

Saturday, April 12, 2014
Weekend recommendation

Blackguards is on sale on Steam for $19.99. I've been playing for several hours yesterday, and found the game quite interesting. Definitively not for everybody, because the turn-based hex tactical combat is hard, and character creation and development system is even harder. But every single battle in the game is carefully set up, and frequently has special conditions that make each fight quite unique. And the character system allows for any weird combination you can think of, for example my main character is an archer with healing spells and buffs.

Be warned that this is not a casual game. Also, depending on how you skill your characters you can easily end up with having taken too many abilities with too low scores, which will then make combat feel rather random, as you only hit half of the time. Concentrating on a few things fixes that. Overall an excellent game if you love turn-based tactical fantasy combat and don't mind having to think while you play.

Friday, April 11, 2014
How important is the character creation tool for you?

In a first-person view game, you don't see your character at all, or at best his arms. In a third-person view game your character is on the screen all the time, but you only see him from the back, and usually you are concentrated on what is in front of him. Only in more passively controlled games, like The Sims, do you really get a good look at your character. So when I was reading about the incredible character creation tool of Black Desert, a Korean MMORPG, I wondered whether that was really so important to MMORPG players. Yes, you can modify individual strands of hair of your avatar in that game, but isn't all that detail ultimately lost when playing the game? Have a look at the final characters in that video: After hours of creation you end up with a bunch of same-ish looking people.

That isn't to say that you can't make good character creation tools in MMORPGs. City of Heroes was exemplary in that you could make very different looking characters with the tools provided. But in that case the costume was part of the creation process, while in many other MMORPGs the look of your armor depends on the gear you found. As clothes make out a major part of your look, the character creation tool in those games is then often full of sliders which don't do much. Do you want your nose to be a centimeter longer, or your cheek bones a bit higher? Or do you simply not care, because once he is in the game, nobody is going to notice those minute details on your character?

Games like World of Warcraft or Wildstar at least have a wide variety of very different looking races on offer. Nobody is going to confuse your pink pigtailed gnome with your troll, or your chua with your mechari. Other games, like Black Desert or The Elder Scrolls Online, stick to humans, and that limits how different two characters can look from each other. As long as your character isn't wearing a helmet, hair style and color is still quite a visible difference. But the length of your eyelashes or diameter of your biceps you took hours to plan in detail risks to be completely unnoticeable to the world.

What do you think about character creation tools in MMORPGs? Should we have a detailed one like Black Desert has in all of our games? Or would you rather have less options, but more visible differences between characters?

Thursday, April 10, 2014
Age of Wonders III

I've been playing the new Age of Wonders III for about 20 hours now, but my overall impression is one of disappointment. I feel that all the elements needed are there for a great 4X fantasy game, but the balance between them is so horrible that it spoils the experience.

Let's start with resources. As you would expect, there are a lot of them. There is gold, mana, production, knowledge, and happiness being produced in each city. And it quickly turns out that the only one you ever are short of is gold. Mana you always produce more than you can spend. Production you have enough to make production times not the limiting factor, you simply don't have the gold to pay to start production. Knowledge is for researching spells, of which you will have all long before you won. And happiness you increase to get more gold.

A similar lack of balance exists with the size of the typical map and the number and speed of your armies. While that is annoying enough for the player, the AI frequently can't deal with that. Using a flying army or underground path is far more effective than it should be, because you can frequently find undefended or just very lightly defended cities in the enemies' hinterland. Overall that makes the game lack defined frontiers, everything appears to be open to attacks from all sides.

One the one side Age of Wonders III has a very nice system for leveling your heroes with different abilities. On the other side I have rarely played a 4X fantasy game in which the heroes felt so useless in the campaign game. There are very few points on the map to explore where a hero in the army would be necessary to scoop up the loot. And most of the time you don't want to move most of your heroes in the campaign game, because some moron decided that it was a good idea to make you lose the game if any of your secondary heroes dies. The current primary hero of the map can die and will come back a few turns later, but if you lose a secondary hero, it is game over. So you can only ever send them out to do the safest of actions, for which of course you wouldn't have needed a hero in the first place.

By pure coincidence it turns out that today is the release day of Warlock 2. Not bad for a genre that was presumed to be dead, two major releases in a month. I might just have picked the wrong game.

Wednesday, April 09, 2014
Pen & paper campaign outlook

For the last two years I have been running a Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition campaign as a DM. As we only play every two weeks, we only made it to level 8 in that time, but as a DM I get additional "play time" out of the campaign by writing and preparing the adventures and encounters. Now one important thing to keep in mind (because very few other people will tell you), is that there is no one way to "do it right" when playing a role-playing game. There is a huge panoply of different opinions over what a role-playing game is about. And once you played different campaigns with different people in different circumstances you realize that what works best for your campaign depends on the people around the table. And it isn't as easy as asking them what they want to do, because they usually aren't very clear about it themselves. You just need to experiment a bit, try out different things, and see how your players react. If everybody had a good time at the end of the evening, you are on the right path.

What I have learned about my particular group is that 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is a very good system for them. They all played World of Warcraft, and the 4E powers system and class balance is very much suited for them. I try to get a balance between role-playing and combat in my adventures, but I do notice that if I do a session without combat my players get itchy, while they are perfectly happy to do a session with only combat. I still think that a certain balance between the two types of content is best, but I know not to overdo the role-playing requirements.

Now I have also been experimenting with different kinds of adventures, or adventure sources. Currently we are in Madness at Gardmore Abbey, which is a pre-made 4E mega-adventure which I am playing close to as it was written. The Reavers of Harkenwold was another adventure I ran like that. Other adventures I took and modified, for example the Keep on the Shadowfell, which I shortened to a "best of" version and rewrote the story. And then there were adventures which weren't originally 4E adventures, like the Standing Stones of Sundown or Ravenloft: In those cases I used the basic story of the adventure, and created a 4E-style encounter-based adventure myself based on original material. Finally my next adventure will be completely original, written with the help of a fellow blogger (/wave Stubborn).

Now all of these adventure sources worked. But the experimenting and stitching together of different adventures did have one negative side-effect: My campaign isn't much of a campaign. It is a series of adventures with links between them, but no over-arching story. And as we didn't know where we were going from the start, we also did fairly little in the area of character backgrounds and personal stories, which to some extent explains the lack of interest in role-playing. I feel we could do better than that. But probably not in the current campaign with the current characters.

So my idea is to still play two more adventures after Gardmore Abbey in this campaign, to get players to the paragon tier of the game. And then we will do a complete reset and start a new campaign, still 4E D&D, from level 1 up. But this time I will use adventure material which is designed for a full campaign, not a mix of adventures from different sources. So I will be able to explain the campaign world to the players first, including the general role of the group in that world, before they choose which characters to play. And I will borrow some rules from other systems, like 13th Age "One Unique Thing" to create with each player a background story which fits into that campaign world. So hopefully the overall result will be somewhat more coherent than my current campaign, and lead to better identification of the players with their characters.

Sunday, April 06, 2014
Choosing a class in Wildstar

I pre-ordered Wildstar, and as a result I have beta access during special beta weekends before release in June, or rather headstart end of May. So what does one do in beta, when one knows that the characters are going to be wiped, and the purchase decision is already done? Well, choosing a class for example. I first tried out all the classes through the first two zones, to level 6. That eliminated engineers from the choice, as I still don't like pet classes. And the two classes I liked the most were medic and warrior.

Now at first I thought I would go medic. The medic's combat mechanic is front-loaded, that is you start with full resources and get to cast your most powerful spells right away. Only once you depleted your resources do you need to fill them up again with a different spell, which can be either a small damage spell, or a small healing spell. As a result easy fights go very fast. But playing the medic a bit longer, to level 10, revealed that this wasn't actually all that good. The resource recovery actions are quite weak and slow, so whenever a fight is harder you spend a lot of time just recharging.

The warrior works the other way around: Starts with no resources and needs to charge resources first before he can use his more powerful spells. But in practice to level 10 that actually worked better than the medic: The resource charging action is fast and not so weak as the medic's one, so a few hits with that and than a finisher works fast enough on easier mobs, and much better than the medic on harder mobs. The warrior also deals with multiple enemies much better, as his attack have a wider arc.

What finally made me decide to go for the warrior on release was crafting. The warrior wears heavy armor, so a good crafting combination for him would be armorer and miner. Weaponsmith and miner would also work. I like that, because I like node-based resource gathering. The medic wears medium armor, which would require survivalist, skinning leather from creatures. I like that less well. So I tried something else with the medic, relic hunter plus technologist, but I found the potions he made not half as useful as crafting armor.

Are you going to play Wildstar on release? What class will you play?

Friday, April 04, 2014
Fifty Shades of Grey Online

I hope you didn't get too excited about the title, because there is no such thing as a massively multiplayer online game called Fifty Shades of Grey Online. I am just using that example to discuss the curious fact that Fifty Shades of Grey, the novel, sold 100 million copies and most people considered that to be okay, but you can't make a video game with the same sort of content. As Ben Kuchera recently remarked in Polygon, if you would offer a person the opportunity to go anywhere in time and space and have any sort of encounter, they would be more likely to choose something sexual than an encounter where they kill other people. But video games, which *do* give us the opportunity to go anywhere in time and space, in many cases only allow us to kill stuff.

One frequently cited reason for the absence of sex in video games is that games are for children. As an European I always had trouble understanding why extreme violence would be okay for children, while even mildly erotic stuff wouldn't. But there are even stronger arguments that tell me that games aren't really for children any more: Polygon reports that over 90% of mobile games have in-app purchases, and those require an adult understanding of the value of money. Children accidentally spending money in games because they can't understand the limits between game and reality, or the value of money, is not okay. And companies like Apple or Google need to do more to prevent those "accidents" from happening, e.g. with better parental restriction options in the iOS and Android operating systems specifically aimed at in-app purchases.

But the average video gamer is not a child. And just like it is okay to have books for adults, it should be okay to have games for adults. And I don't just mean sex. I would consider it far more important for games to grow up and cover a wider range of human interaction than just shooting each other. If we can manage to protect children from content in books and videos that they are too young for, we should be able to protect them from content in games that they are too young for. And then we can make games that have a greater appeal to adults, or have business models that are more suited to adults.

Thursday, April 03, 2014
The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 12

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune had entered the tower of the wizard Vandomar, looking for information on how the fall of Gardmore Abbey might be connected to the chaotic Far Realm. They know that Vandomar was in love with a paladin, Elaida, who was killed during the siege. They had found and fought a flesh golem with Elaida's head. Now, after a rest, they headed up the stairs of the wizard tower. There they found a door which was frozen shut, but the dwarven warrior opened that door with his shoulder without problem.

In the upper floor room of the wizard tower they found several blocks of ice with creatures inside, one of which contained a card of the Deck of Many Things. There were also four tables with frozen mummies on them, and finally Vandomar himself, who was moving around but also looked quite frozen. Vandomar invited them in, talking about his desire to preserve everything in time. He also wanted to preserve this encounter in time, and with a wave of his snow-globe staff shut and refroze the door (with the ranger still outside, forcing her to spend a round to break the door open again).

Having rolled good initiatives, the heroes attacked Vandomar before he could cast any spells. But then of course the four frozen mummies animated and joined combat. Now Vandomar and the mummies had lots of powers to slow or immobilize people. But with the Favorites of Selune being strong on ranged damage, that tactic wasn't all that effective. The warrior used a power to pull two mummies and Vandomar next to him, and most heroes concentrated their fire on the wizard, who thus died quickly. The mummies took a bit more time, but overall it was a quite successful combat for the group.

So they got another card for their Deck of Many Things, got the snow-globe magic staff from Vandomar, and found a book of Vandomar's notes which appeared to contain the information they had come for here. They also got enough experience to make it to level 8. So we decided to make this a short session and do the leveling-up between sessions.

Friday, March 28, 2014
Not warming up towards Landmark

If you work for a company in Europe, you'll most likely have a lot of holidays, anything from 4 to 8 weeks per year. Americans tend to have a lot less. For me that is the explanation for a curious design feature of EQN Landmark, now in closed beta and not actually having Everquest Next as part of the name any more: You lose your claim and everything you built if for some reason you don't log in for 5 days. So a week of holidays without a laptop, and you're wiped out.

While I was considering the Landmark closed beta, because it has more features and is much cheaper than the alpha, I am not going to play a game which doesn't allow me to leave for a week. If that stays in for the release version, I can't see me playing this for long, or paying money for it. Maybe SOE is planning to sell claim protection for real money, but otherwise I have a hard time to understand this short claim period. 

Wednesday, March 26, 2014
Playing evil

I was reading an article in the New Statesman about how horribly players behave to each other in the sandbox game DayZ. And that got me wondering whether bad behavior is inherent to all sandbox games, or whether certain game design elements push it.

History shows that the default human behavior in face of a threat (like a zombie apocalypse) is to cooperate and work together against that threat. And that can happen in a MMORPG too, for example players regularly worked together against the harsh game environment of the original Everquest. But many sandbox games are famous for their especially sadistic and cruel player base. Which isn't exactly helping in making sandbox games more popular.

What do these people think when they do such evil things in a game. Is it them just playing at evil, or do they have evil streaks in their character for which they have no other outlet? Or are they just bored and try out every single one of the options the game gives them, without thinking that their victim is another human being, a player behind that avatar they are torturing? Because if it was just that, then maybe such games should simply be programmed with more options for positive, collaborative behavior, and less options for cruelty.

What do you think?

Monday, March 24, 2014
A tale of two user interfaces

I received an invitation to participate in the beta of World of Tanks: Blitz, the iOS version of a game I played a lot on the PC. But I decided to look at a gameplay video on YouTube first, because I was worried about the UI and controls. And it turned out that Blitz is using the same controls as other iOS tank games: Virtual thumbsticks. You hold your iPad in both hands and use your thumbs in the lower left and right corners for control. Of course you can also put the iPad down and use other fingers. But the virtual stick control remains the same. And I can't play anything with those controls. Unlike real thumbsticks you don't get any tactile feedback, so the experience is very different to that of a gamepad. I ended up not playing Blitz at all because I hated the controls.

What I was playing instead was The Collectables from Crytek, although I'm not exactly a valued Crytek customer. I played none of their Crysis games on PC. And there is a lot about The Collectables that you might dislike: It is Free2Play with cards that come from random boosters, plus it uses an annoying energy mechanic, where after 7 games you run out of energy and need to wait hours (or pay) to play again. But the controls are brilliant! The Collectables is a tactical third-person shooter and it is astounding how well that works with just a few taps. Your squad moves where you tap on the screen. Only if you want to be in cover you need to drag and drop individual soldiers, and honestly, to me it seemed the cover wasn't doing much. In addition you can easily drag and drop action cards onto the battlefield, for example to heal your soldiers or to throw a grenade.

I much prefer the Free2Play business model of World of Tanks to that of The Collectables, but in the end it was the controls of those games that decided which one I ended playing.


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