Tobold's Blog
Thursday, February 20, 2020
Playing the game wrong

The comment of Random_Phobosis on my previous post probably necessitates a whole blog post. Random_Phobosis says that if you lose a game, it is the developers' way of telling you that you are playing it wrong. And there are so many levels on which I disagree with that statement. What the fuck does "playing it wrong" even mean?

"Playing", by definition, is doing something for fun. Having fun playing is important, winning however isn't. "Winning" is a completely different concept, more at home in the domain of sports and competition than in the domain of games and playing. Now for some forms of play, competition might still be an important part. But that necessitates certain conditions of balance and fairness, which is why Pay2Win tends to upset people. In most single-player games, the conditions of balance and fairness are not given. Basically AI is underdeveloped in most games, and then some sort of pseudo-balance is simulated by the computer cheating, or play just being completely asymmetrical. That can lead to a form of pseudo-competition, where winning depends on doing exactly what the developers arbitrarily scripted, regardless of whether that makes any sense.

Playing a game exactly like the developers intended is not necessarily the most fun. I remember a lot of fun I had in World of Warcraft when I had a new character on a new server making money by sneaking into far too high level zones and fishing. And sometimes, playing a game like the developers intended feels "wrong". I mentioned Valkyria Chronicles on this blog, where actually fighting a battle using all your units gives you a less good reward than abusing a single scout to bypass the battle. Or Phoenix Point, where accepting every opportunity of battle, e.g. scavenging missions, strengthens the aliens more than your team, making you lose the strategic game. It is pretty safe to assume that an average player who picks up a game like Valkyria Chronicles or Phoenix Point does so because he would like to play tactical battles. The idea that to win on the strategic level you need to avoid those tactical battles is counter-intuitive. Under the very narrow definition that "playing it wrong" means playing it in exactly the way that the developers want you to play, as weird as that might be, the typical player will automatically play certain games wrong. He would need to get information from other sources, like forums or Reddit or YouTube, that tells him what "playing it right" means under this narrow definition.

Me, I don't call that "playing it wrong", I call that "designed badly". Ideally a game should be playable intuitively. If for some specific reason something less intuitive is required of the player, the game should make that very clear to him. A game design in which the intuitive way to play is designed to lead the player astray, and the "right" way to play needs a lot of trial and error, or outside information, is just not a good game.

On the other side, I have played some very good games, which could be completed by playing them in the most obvious way, but also offered you the possibility to play them in more complicated and different ways, e.g. sneaking past enemies instead of killing them, and the game would still work. That is good game design. The more options work, the better. The people who like to optimize and discuss the very best strategy on the internet can still do so, but that one "secret optimal strategy" shouldn't be the only way you can achieve a positive ending in a game. Having to follow an invisible series of steps and being punished for not knowing those steps isn't fun, except for a bunch of masochist gamers. Being able to try different things and see how they all work in slightly different ways, without being punished for it, is fun.

Phoenix Point - The End

I finished a campaign for the first time in Phoenix Point yesterday. And then I immediately uninstalled the game, because the overall experience was so frustrating. On the easiest difficulty and having used some cheats, I barely made it through the final fight, as the aliens had infinite respawns, and I only had limited ammunition. This is not a game you can play "for fun".

Don't get me wrong, the individual battles in Phoenix Point are quite fun to play, most of the time. They do have this "one more turn" and then "one more battle" draw. As long as you are in a reasonably balanced battle, that is. And balance is certainly not the strength of Phoenix Point. If you compare Phoenix Point to the XCom series, in Phoenix Point the power progression of your soldiers is a lot flatter. You can reach their maximum level pretty quickly, their weapons and armor don't get so much better over the game from research, your squad size only goes up from 6 to 8, and your inventory size is limited and never goes up. Meanwhile the enemies, aliens and humans, go up in numbers and strength more than you do. You end up using cheesy tactics that exploit broken combos or flaws in the AI to win.

So basically I would love a version of Phoenix Point where I could just play individual battles, selecting the number and strength of the enemies. Unfortunately my only option is playing through the campaign, which is pretty tedious, and I don't want to do that again. The next time I want to shoot some aliens in tactical, turn-based battles, I'll reinstall XCom 2.

Tuesday, February 18, 2020
D&D replayability

One of the reasons why I don't post all that frequently anymore is that the work load of my job has increased. That is not all bad news, as more responsibility came with a promotion. But obviously more time spent working means less time for hobbies. And that affects not just blogging, but also the time for games themselves.

In Dungeons & Dragons I have two groups I run as the DM. Having less time for preparation, I came up with a deceptively simple plan: Group A is now playing the campaign that group B played before, while group B is now playing the campaign that group A played before. Which means that a good part of the preparation is already done, battlemaps drawn, miniatures 3D-printed, etc. In terms of reducing my preparation work, the plan is a success.

However it turns out that the replayability of D&D campaigns isn't all that great. The players don't notice, because for them the campaigns are new. But for me as a DM, running the same campaign a second time turns out to be less fun. I had thought that the relatively open nature of pen & paper roleplaying would mean a very different experience when playing the same campaign again with a different group. But in fact it isn't all that different. There are a handful of occurrences where one group made a decision very different from the previous group. But more often than not the players just follow the story along predictable paths, and do more or less the same than the previous group. That is why for example I'm not blogging what happened in my D&D sessions anymore, as it isn't sufficiently different from what I blogged when I played the same campaign with the previous group.

Now one of these groups is meeting infrequently, and I'm okay running the old campaign with them. For the more active group in the Zeitgeist campaign, I will reach the end of the campaign in about 3 sessions. And then I'll try something new. Of which I'll blog more at a later date.


Wednesday, February 12, 2020
How to cheat at Phoenix Point to make it actually easy

As I mentioned previously, the "easy" difficulty setting of Phoenix Point isn't really easy, and you can easily run into a wall and be unable to progress any further. On the positive side, Phoenix Point is a single-player offline game, which means that it isn't protected against cheating. So how can you create a game of Phoenix Point which is easy, without being trivial?

What you neat is a software called Cheat Engine 7.0. It enables you to search for values in a game, and change them. There are three types of basic resources in Phoenix point, materials, tech, and food, and they are saved in "float" format. If you know that, you can for example search for the value of your current supply of materials, then spend some materials on manufacturing something, and do a second search within the search results of the first search for the new value. That usually turns up a single address, which you can then change, and presto, unlimited amounts of materials.

While that by itself obviously already makes the game easier, the real trick comes afterwards: The reason why you can easily get stuck in Phoenix Point is that the aliens evolve with every battle you fight against them. The more you fight, the stronger they get. Cheating your supply of materials, tech, and food means you can now skip the scavenging battles. Less battles against the aliens means easier to fight aliens. To make up for the lost xp, you build 3 training centers in your home base, and then you can actually get your soldiers stronger faster than the aliens get stronger.

Sunday, February 09, 2020
First impression Phoenix Point

I have played every single game in the XCom series. According to Steam I played the last two games, XCom: Enemy Unknown for 161 hours, and XCom 2 for 209 hours. So I know these type of games quite well, and usually play them well enough. In Phoenix Point I play at the lowest difficulty level, Rookie, and after a bit over one game month I find the game very challenging. That is to say that I have to savescum a lot just to survive. And I am not alone, a lot of people complain about how difficult Phoenix Point is, while the fans reply that you can counter the overpowered aliens by a few overpowered broken builds for your soldiers. I don't think that is good game design.

Don't get me wrong, I'm all for a game having hard and impossible difficulty levels. Sometimes I like a challenge, and some people will only play games that are very challenging. However if a game has a selection of difficulty levels at the start, the lowest difficulty level should be appropriate for players who are either new to the genre, or just want to play casually. Phoenix Point clearly fails in that respect.

There are a few things that Phoenix Point does better than XCom. For example the Geoscape is a lot more lively, with more stuff to do. For XCom 2 I actually used a mod that added more stuff to do to the Geoscape, because otherwise sometimes you just had to wait for something to happen. Flying around and exploring in Phoenix Point is fun. The reticle targeting system is less frustrating than the percentage display in XCom, when you miss those 90% shots. The class system in which at level 4 you can add a second class to your soldier is fun too, because it allows for some very nice combos. I have a lot of Assault-Snipers, because the Dash and Return Fire abilities of the Assault class are very good, but many aliens are nearly impossible to hit or damage with assault rifles. On the downside the system isn't very balanced, and apparently allows for some completely overpowered combos at level 7. Or, as Reddit advised: "Build 3 training centers in your home base, don't do any missions until all your soldiers are level 7, then use this build and stomp the aliens". Again, I don't think that is good game design.

Most of the rest of the game of Phoenix Point isn't quite as good as the XCom games. Research often results in just a few resources, or a sidegrade, it takes forever for research to result in you actually getting better equipment. In XCom the research was definitely more fun. The soldier recruiting system is tedious and somewhat random. There aren't all that many different types of aliens. And while the vehicles are a good insurance against ambush missions, they aren't as useful as the three soldiers they block the place of in other missions. Also, on the technical side, Phoenix Point has a lot more bugs than the games of the XCom series had after release.

Now, a lot of these flaws could still be addressed in future patches or DLCs. Although, seeing already 3 DLCs announced when you start a game makes me feel as if some of the flaws or lack of content is deliberate, to make more money. And while I would recommend XCom 2 to anybody who hasn't played this sort of game yet, Phoenix Point is obviously a good option for people who like me have already played a lot of the XCom games, and are looking for something new. Nevertheless, I am happy that I didn't pay for this game, I got it as part of Xbox Game Pass for PC subscription.

Friday, February 07, 2020
Phoenix Point and game fungibility

I've been playing some hours of Phoenix Point now, about to start a new game because I lost too many soldiers which turn out to be very hard to replace. But apart from such minor differences as how hard it is to recruit soldiers, or how exactly the tech tree looks like, Phoenix Point is essentially the same game as XCom 2. The basic game flow is the same, a geoscape with resource management, and turn-based tactical fights against aliens. In detail there are things I like better in XCom 2, and other features which I like better in Phoenix Point. But for somebody who hasn't played either, it doesn't make much of a difference which of these two games to pick up.

That leads to interesting subject of fungibility of games: In how far can I replace game A by game B of the same genre without it making much of a difference? Steam alone has over 30,000 games on it, and it is safe to say that there are far less different genres of games. Depending on how narrow or wide you define genre, you can find dozens or even hundreds of games of the same genre.

I am currently downloading Final Fantasy XV from the Xbox game pass for PC. If I consider Final Fantasy XV to be a very different game from let's say Dragon Quest XI, the Xbox game pass cannot provide me with all possible games. But if I am okay to just play any reasonably recent and good JRPG, a service like Xbox game pass for PC is maybe all I ever need. If I feel the desire to play a JRPG, and I have access to FFXV as part of an ongoing 4€/month subscription, do I really need to go to Steam and buy Dragon Quest XI for €60 anymore? If I want to play a shooter, should I bother with installing Blizzard's and pay €60 for the latest Call of Duty, or am I equally well off if I just play Gears 5?

The fans will always insist that game A is much better than game B of the same genre. But of course you'll also find the fans of game B, who claim that it is much better than game A. The more casual a gamer you are, the less of a difference it makes which of these games you play. And then the convenience of a single platform with a single and relatively low monthly cost compared to individual game purchases is a big advantage. The monthly service doesn't have to offer 30,000 games in order to compete with Steam, it only has to offer enough games to cover a variety of different genres.

Wednesday, February 05, 2020
Black Market

World of Tanks today had the first of seven "black market" sales. At exactly 5 pm CET every day for a week a limited number of one rare tank go on sale, some for gold, some for credits. For example today you could buy a Lansen C for 8.5 million credits. If you were there at exactly 5 pm, because at 5:02 the 12,000 copies were sold out. And I don't think this is a good idea.

Obviously some of the demand for black market tanks comes from their rarity, so the very limited number of copies sold is part of the appeal. But if they are sold out in under 2 minutes, the demand obviously far exceeded the supply. Wargaming could easily have sold two times or five times more, without exhausting demand. And even if they would have sold an unlimited quantity the whole day long, but just that one day, it wouldn't have affected the "rarity" much. So it seems to me they left a lot of money on the table.

I didn't buy the Lansen C, although I easily could have. For a Free2Play player who doesn't want to spend any real money, the offer was interesting, because there aren't many ways to get premium tanks without money. And the Lansen C is a decent enough tier 8 premium, which makes good credits, because the shells are cheap and deal good alpha damage. But as somebody who regularly spends money on World of Tanks, I already had better tier 8 premium medium tanks. In fact there aren't many premium tanks left in World of Tanks which I really would want to buy. The E25 maybe, but what are the chances that I will get one?

This brings me to the point which I really dislike about the black market: People were complaining about the luck involved when buying lootboxes for Christmas (World of Tanks doesn't have lootboxes during the rest of the year). But the lootbox event went on for a month, and the rarest tanks had an about 1% drop chance. So the largest available bundle of 75 lootboxes for €100 was far more likely than not to contain all the rare tanks. Seeing how the average content of those lootboxes was worth easily twice the cost, I didn't even consider this "gambling". It's more like buying a raffle ticket at the church fete with a guaranteed prize; the prize might be not exactly the one you were after, but you don't go home empty-handed. Getting a tank from the black market to me seems far more luck-based than the lootboxes. It was lucky that I was actually home at 5 pm, often I would still be at work at that time. And quite a lot of people who wanted that tank ended up not getting one, because of either technical problems, or being short of credits and the offer gone before they could sell another tank to get the money. It seems to me that a lot more people are coming out empty-handed from the black market event than from the lootbox event. If by chance Wargaming sold the exact same rare tanks from the lootbox event in the black market, the average player's chance to get one from the black market would be far lower than from the lootboxes.

Combined with the uncertainty of which tank will be sold when, my chances of getting the tank that I want are pretty slim. Maybe it won't be on offer at all. And if it was, I would need to be there at 5 pm, and then everything would need to go exactly right for me to be one of the lucky few who could buy it. That to me seems to be a pretty shitty way to sell virtual goods.


Sunday, February 02, 2020
My gaming plans for 2020

I finished Dragon Quest XI. That is to say I finished the main story and killed the boss; I didn't continue in the "post-game" content to level up to 99. It took me 60 hours to reach the end, and I was level 57, and that was enough for me. Somehow it was important to me to finish this, although there are a lot of aspects of the game I dislike: The crafting system that is based on you searching every shelf for recipe books, the combat system in which you have half a dozen spells to counter status ailments, but then the boss hits you with half a dozen status ailments that there are no counter spells available for, the very linear story. But getting to the end boss gave me some sense of closure, of having finished this successfully. So, what next?

I am still playing World of Tanks. But I do think I will play this less intensively in 2020 than I did in 2019. Apart from the constant intrinsic "get better" goal, there are only so many extrinsic goals available in any game; and in World of Tanks I feel that I reached most of the goals I was actually interested in. That is mostly due to the failure of the game to attract many new players. It leads to the tier X "end game" filled with veterans that have every advantage you can earn in the game, and know every trick in the book. Having a life, I just can't compete at that level, which means that getting tank tech trees up above tier 8 isn't all that interesting.

So my idea for 2020 is to play more different games. And I have a huge amount of choice there, between my large library of unplayed Steam games, and services like the Xbox game pass for PC. One thing I realized is that I need to be less ambivalent about games: Either I need to stick with them and play them, or I need to uninstall them. I just uninstalled Assassin's Creed: Origin, because I played it a bit (until the end of Siwa, the first large zone), and then decided to play something else and come back to it later. Bad idea! If a game has a combat system that is based on a large number of complicated button combinations on the gamepad, which you learn by playing through the early part of the game where they are explained, you can't really make a long pause without unlearning all that. And then there is no way to get back into the game without starting over, as there is no way to play through the controls tutorial again otherwise.

I think my next game will be Phoenix Point. I only played that for a few hours before getting distracted, so its not a problem to restart and relearn.

Tuesday, January 28, 2020
Low energy games

If you noticed a lack of posting beyond the usual state of affairs, it was because I am ill. The doctor thinks it's an ulcer bleeding into my stomach, unpleasant but not life threatening. So I was at home with all the time in the world, and at first I didn't play any games at all. I just didn't have the energy. And when I was feeling a bit better, I thought about continuing to play World of Tanks, and decided against it. That seemed to require far too much effort to play. I needed something far more low energy, so I ended up advancing quite a lot further in Dragon Quest XI.

Now I have to say there is a lot I don't like about Dragon Quest XI. Unlike other JRPG, which tend to start with a lot of explanations at the start but at some point let you play far more freely, in Dragon Quest XI the railroading and endless cut scenes never stops. And the combat doesn't require enough tactical finesse for my taste. On the up side I really like the graphics and the monsters built around bad puns. So in the end the whole thing plays a bit like an interactive story book, which apparently is a good thing if you are at home, sick.

It would probably be possible for me to play World of Tanks. But I don't think I would enjoy it much. My enjoyment from playing World of Tanks comes from the fact that it is complicated, but uses skills that are not outside my reach. Which means that even after 1 year of having restarted World of Tanks, I am still learning and getting better. The various websites you can use to show your player statistics have either graphs or compare your stats of the last 30 days to your overall stats; and according to those I have been pretty much constantly improving my gameplay. There aren't many games that both allow that, and that I would consider worth investing that much time in. But the downside clearly is that when I think that I am not in a shape to play well, I don't want to play at all.

Monday, January 20, 2020
Spool holder

I now tested my new Flashforge Adventurer 3 with ABS. Although the temperature of the extruder is limited to 240°C, this is just sufficient to make good prints. The bed temperature of up to 100°C and the full enclosure result in little or no warping. I only needed to solve one problem: The spool holder.

The printer has an internal spool holder, but that one holds only 0.5 kg spools. The ABS I had on hand was on a larger 1 kg spool, which are far more common. So what I needed to do was construct an external spool holder, and set it next to the printer. Fortunately there are other printers out there that need external spool holders, so the problem is a known one in the community.

One low-tech solution is to use the cardboard box the spool came in. Just remove the plastic and pull the spool out from the box by a bit, I'd say by a quarter of its diameter. Then stick a pencil through the box at the place where the middle hole is, and use that as the axis. Or, if you are feeling fancy, you can print the axis.

Me, I went for a slightly fancier solution. I still had in stock a number of 608 bearings, which I had used in the past for self-printed fidget spinners. Using 4 of those and 4 relatively small printed parts, I built an Ultimate Spool Holder. Not sure I would have called it ultimate, but I can see the advantage of supporting the two "wheels" of the spool separately. It fits pretty much any spool I can think of, has nearly no friction at all, and doesn't have to be disassembled to change the spool. So I printed the spool holder with the PLA that came with the printer, and was ready to switch to a roll of ABS next. Worked like a charm.


Tuesday, January 14, 2020
Kickstarter credit card declined

Heroforge has a new Kickstarter project for Full-color 3D printed custom miniatures. While I don't necessarily want a $40 full-color printed plastic figurine, one of the pledge levels allowed to pledge $50 for downloading 10 STL files for printing at home, which is $30 less than the usual price ($7.99 per download). Only my pledge didn't work, I got a "credit card declined for unknown reason" error message, although I had used that same card on that same site before. Removing the card and entering the information again didn't help.

My credit card getting declined always makes me nervous. I had several instances in the past where this was due to my credit card having been automatically deactivated because somebody had tried to defraud me. Never lost any money, but the bank never tells you that this has happened, and you need to go and find out, and order a new credit card, which takes a while. So my first concern was how to find out whether my credit card was still valid and active. That is surprisingly difficult, there is no easy way to check it online. In the end I decided to donate $10 to charity online, and as that payment went through without a problem, I knew that my credit card was still okay.

So I called the company that is handling my credit card transactions, which is *not* my bank, but a large French company called Atos Worldline. They handle credit card transactions for many different European banks. I had found out over the years that calling my bank to ask about a credit card transaction was useless, you have to call Atos directly. So after the usual safety questions I got an answer to my question: Atos had recently decided that Kickstarter was not safe, and is now systematically blocking all payments to them. Fortunately there was an option to ask them to unblock the site for my credit card, I just have to wait 24 hours for that to get processed.

Searching the internet I found out that I am not the only one with that problem. A number of banks and credit card handlers have blacklisted Kickstarter as a safety risk; presumably because there are a high number of customers demanding chargebacks. The very nature of the Kickstarter business model makes buyer's remorse more likely than buying something on another website. Scams are all too frequent on Kickstarter, and even honest projects are often late or under-deliver on their promises. No wonder sometimes customers try to get their money back!

Sunday, January 12, 2020

In World of Tanks there is currently a "Tankrewards" event going on. These events are slightly different, and weirdly so, from the usual events in that you gain points in the game but then need to visit a website to redeem the rewards for these points. In the EU the external site is called Tankrewards.EU. You can probably figure out the name of the site for the other servers. :)

The event gives you a bit over 3 weeks to collect points, and gives you up to 4 tiers of rewards if you reach 3,000 points over this period. Tier 3 is at 2,000 points, and as you can get 100 points per day for just playing a battle, tier 3 can be reached with very little effort, as long as you play every day. Tier 4 is not so much more difficult, but you will have to do other missions to achieve it: There are 9 missions every day, asking you to win a game and be in the top 10 with a tank from each tier from 2 to 10. Tier 2 to 7 missions give 10 points each, tier 8 to 10 missions give 20 points each, for a daily maximum of 220 points.

Not wanting to overoptimize this, I just tried to get as many points per day as my playtime allowed me, up to now. I just reached tier 3, and with over 10 days to go I can get tier 4 just by playing a single battle every day. But the exercise of going through all tiers to try to win a battle in the top 10 really drove home the point of how different the game is at the different tiers. It is a lot easier for me to win a battle in the top 10 at lower tiers, and quite hard to do so at tier 10.

Now statistically 10 players out of the 30 players in a battle are in the top 10 of the winning side; so on average you need to play 3 games per tier to fulfil the mission condition. However that assumes a player that is completely average at every tier. In reality an average player like me has a slightly higher winrate at lower tiers, and a much better chance to be in the top 10 of his team, so at low tiers I need on average maybe 2 games to do the mission. At the top tier my winrate is slightly lower, but my chance to be in the top 10 is much reduced, so I need on average maybe 5 games to do the mission.

The most frustrating part is the impression that I have very little influence on whether a battle is won or lost. Now top players like Quickybaby argue that it is up to you whether you win or lose. However Quickybaby has a winrate of 60%. That to me suggests that he didn't influence the 40% of games that he lost. And a very bad players (and in one notable exercise a player who just went afk in every game for testing purposes) have a winrate of 40%, I would think that another 40% of Quickybaby's game would have been won with or without him. So a great player has a positive influence in only 20% of his games. And an extremely bad player has a negative influence on 20% of his games. If you draw a curve between those two extremes it becomes obvious that anybody in between influences fewer of his games. Even if every game had one player "carrying" it for his team, that would be only 3.3%, one player out of 30. Even if I imagine I "carried" every game in which my team won and I came top on experience and damage, that is not more than those 3.3%. Thus the frustration when I play well, and my team loses anyway, and I can't get my mission done because of it. Fortunately the event doesn't require me to get full points every day.



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