Tobold's Blog
Monday, October 19, 2020
Cheating at Solitaire

In a comment yesterday a reader remarked about Assassin's Creed that he "didn't cheat/buy anything because it would feel like cheating at solitaire". I found that remark puzzling. I would say the exact opposite: I would never cheat in a game, except for solitaire! Cheating in a multiplayer game hurts the social contract that allows us to play games together in the first place. But in a solitary game, no such social contract exists!

For me, any solitaire sport or game allows you to set your own win condition. The world record for running a marathon is just a sliver over 2 hours. But given how most people wouldn't even be able to go the distance, I certainly wouldn't blame somebody for saying that he wanted to run a marathon in under 4 hours today. If that is a reasonable challenge for him, why not?

I recently mentioned that I was playing The 7th Continent solo at the moment. I haven't reached the official loss condition, running out of action cards and then drawing a curse from the discard pile, yet. It takes a lot of hours to get to this loss condition. But when I reach it, would I really want to declare the game a loss, pack it up, and start over? With the game being about exploration, doing the same part of the continent again would certainly be less interesting. What I would probably do is to count "1 loss", and shuffle the discard pile back into the draw pile to continue. The win condition of the game would change from "reach the end without ever losing" to "reach the end with the lowest number of losses possible".

Win conditions in video games are often harder to change. Sometimes you can set a lower difficulty level. In other cases, like Assassin's Creed, you would need to use a hex editor like Cheat Engine to modify the game data. For some games, for example XCom 2, there are mods on Steam that modify the game, or you can edit the settings files on your hard drive. Some mods, for example the famous Long War, completely change the flow of the game. Isn't that great? Why would I consider the completely arbitrary win conditions the game came with as sacrosanct, and not modify the game so that it is more fun for me to play? I am not some sort of a gaming masochist, who would rather play a less fun "original" version!

A game is whatever we want it to be. And sometimes altering the win condition makes a game better. As I don't hurt anybody else, I feel absolutely no compunction for cheating at solitaire.

Sunday, October 18, 2020
A gloomy experiment

The 7th Citadel board game finished its Kickstarter Campaign with over 3 million Euro, over ten times the requested funds, and over twice what the 7th Continent Kickstarter brought in. Due to the similarity of the two projects, it is rather likely that the game will be successfully made and delivered. And with the experience from the first project, the creators now more conservatively estimated the project duration at nearly 2 years instead of 1. So 2022 it is. What am I going to do until then?

In fact I started playing The 7th Continent solo from time to time. I do like complex board games with exploration and story, which I can play solo or co-operatively with my wife. And while surfing the internet with that interest, I came upon Gloomhaven again, the top ranked board game at BoardGameGeek. I watched again a couple of video reviews and play-throughs, and decided that Gloomhaven fits my criteria. And I noticed that on Steam a digital adaptation of Gloomhaven is in Early Access.

So I decided to do a somewhat expensive experiment: Videogame vs. board game. I ordered the board game from Amazon, including some helpful additions like inserts, for €200. And I spent €25 for the Early Access version on Steam, and already started playing through the tutorial. My initial sneaking suspicion is that for occasional solo play, the computer version might be superior, as Gloomhaven has a lots of parts and cards, and the board game version takes a lot of time to set up. But playing coop across a table is probably more fun than on two screens.

Saturday, October 17, 2020
Turning fun into work

I started up Genshin Impact today, and then didn't feel like playing it. I'm not stuck anymore, I managed to kill the fire elite boss twice, which enabled two more of characters to reach level 50. So my favorite fire character, at level 50 with a level 50 weapon, has over 1,000 ATK when equipped with my best artifacts. I'm at adventure rank 28, and I think I could ascend the rest of my characters before reaching AR 30, where I can raise the level cap again. And I know exactly what I would have to do, day after day, to get to that point. I just don't want to. It's such a precisely laid out path, that it feels like a lot of work, not like fun.

I've seen a few reviewers who liked Genshin Impact more than they liked Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild. Instead of Breath's level-free game, with infrequent character progression, and constantly breaking weapons, Genshin Impact offers a much clearer progression path, which only ever goes upward. If you felt a bit lost in Hyrule and weren't too sure where to go, the world of Teyvat will give you more incentives to do this activity, or farm that resource. However, personally I liked the freedom of Breath of the Wild; I liked that I could do a lot of the game without having to engage in major execution-based challenges. Genshin Impact in comparison feels a lot less forgiving: You get blocked at certain points, for example at AR 25, where you have to solo a difficult dungeon before being able to continue to advance in adventure rank. But when doing that, you also increase the world level, and all the monsters in the world become harder to beat. In the end I felt like playing catch-up: I'm trying to get my characters more powerful in order to overcome the challenges, but that makes the challenges harder. There is no easy difficulty level for casual players, the game gets increasingly hardcore after adventure rank 25.

I also made the mistake of buying the battle pass. Don't get me wrong, the battle pass gives out pretty nice rewards for the cost (and you can play a free version for less reward). But that added a list of things I had to do every day to collect the points I needed to increase my battle pass level. So when playing casually for an hour or so, the whole session was filled with must-do chores. Instead of going and exploring to see what lay behind the next hill, I did the grind of commissions, domains, and collecting specific resources.

So I decided to stop doing that, and instead went to collect all Anemoculus, a task that made me explore pretty much every corner of Mondstadt, the first region in the game. After having done that I realized that there is only one more region left that I can explore like that until a third region gets patched in. And even with a third region, the number of hours I could possibly spend to explore everything is limited. Just like many MMORPGs, the game is filled with lots of repeatable chores you need to do for character advancement, in order to hide that the content is otherwise limited.

But somehow in Genshin Impact I don't feel good about character advancement. Not if the world just levels up at least as fast as I do, and I never really become powerful. Not if I do things like running the same domain 8 times in a day, to get both artifacts to level up my other artifacts, and points for my battle pass. I think I need to get off that particular train. I don't think I want to play Genshin Impact every day anymore. Maybe play it from time to time, do a couple of quests, explore a little, but don't concentrate on character advancement anymore. Genshin Impact started to feel like a MMORPG, and to me that was not a good thing.

Thursday, October 15, 2020
So how much does a 5-star character cost in Genshin Impact?

There have been numerous reports of people spending thousands on Genshin Impact, looking for their favorite 5-star character. With a 0.6% chance of finding "a" 5-star character or weapon, and there being eight 5-star characters and multiple 5-star weapons, you could theoretically spend a fortune on the game and never get the character you are looking for.

However, in order to be able to calculate something, let us assume a slightly easier case: That the 5-star character you want is the one currently advertised on the Limited Character Banner. That would be Venti, currently. So how much would it cost you to get Venti? Again, it's lootboxes, so theoretically you could find him in the first lootbox you open. But let's assume you have terrible luck. What's the most you could spend before finding one?

The good news is that Genshin Impact has a system in place that guarantees you a 5-star result every 90 attempts. On the limited banner, you have a 50% chance that this results in the advertised 5-star character. And as an additional fail-safe, if you don't get the advertised 5-star character on your first 5-star result, you have a 100% of getting him on the next 5-star result. In other words, the most you can spend before finding the advertised character is 180 lootboxes. Assuming that you buy the in-game currency in the largest possible bundle for 110 Euro per bundle, 180 lootboxes cost you €392.

So, *if* you want the currently advertised 5-star character, even with the worst of luck you are guaranteed to get him for four hundred Euro. To get all eight 5-star characters would thus cost you at most €3,200, if you have the patience to wait for them to appear on the Limited Character Banner. Is it worth it? Not for me! But hey, maybe you are rich enough to be able to afford spending thousands on a video game. Just don't try to get those characters when they are not on the Limited Character Banner, because that could potentially be much more costly.

Personally, the money I spent on Genshin Impact is mostly used to buy the weekly "resource bundles", which contain the materials needed to increase the level of your characters and weapons. Basically I pay instead of grinding those materials, and the exchange rate is pretty good, cents on the hour. I don't feel the need to get any specific 5-star character. I did some pulls on the Limited Character Banner, and luckily got Venti in 50 pulls, not 180. And I didn't have to pay for all of these pulls, as the game gives you a limited amount of in-game currency and free pulls as rewards for game activities. So, for me Genshin Impact still works as a "pay as much as you feel like" kind of game.

Monday, October 12, 2020
The Playwall

I still haven't hit a paywall in Genshin Impact. However, I hit something which I would call a playwall: Yesterday I killed my first elite monster in the game. That is a scripted, action-based, combat event, not unlike a raid boss in World of Warcraft. You need to do a "dance", avoid the boss in certain situations, attack him in others. At some point I paused the combat and looked up a step of the dance on YouTube, because the boss kept healing himself back up, and I hadn't noticed that I needed to jump into an updraft and collect the globes he healed himself with to prevent it. Once I knew how to do it, it was doable. But I hated every moment of it. This is exactly the sort of gameplay that I abandoned MMORPGs for.

The reason I attacked the elite monster in the first place was that I had hit adventure rank 25, which means that I can now "ascend" my characters to the next star level, which raises their level cap from 40 to 50. But, you guessed it, that needs materials that only the boss mobs drop. Assuming that I want to ascend all my characters, I'll be farming elite monsters for weeks. And I don't want to. I want to do other parts of the Genshin Impact gameplay, explore the map, hunt anemoculus, gather resources, and so on. But if I do that, I am stuck behind that playwall. Only by doing the dance I hate can my characters advance.

Weirdly enough Genshin Impact has a good co-op system in place for domains, which are small events in which you need to kill a number a monsters within a time limit. You go to the dungeon door, press the co-op button, and in no time you have a random group of up to 4 players, which makes the domain a lot easier. The elite monsters would be a lot easier too in co-op, but there is no co-op button for those. You can visit other player's worlds, or let them into your world, but there is no system in place to look for people who want to kill the same elite boss than you do. So I can ascend my weapons to 50, because the materials are found in domains, but not my characters, because their materials are found on elite monsters. It is frustrating!

Sunday, October 11, 2020
Baldur's Gate 3 - First Impressions

I played Baldur's Gate 3 for nearly 14 hours and "finished" the early access part. Well, I certainly haven't searched every nook and cranny, but I finished most quests to the point where the game wants me to move to the next region. And then of course the next region "is not yet available in early access". I also managed to get to level 5, which was a disappointment, because in early access you get stuck at the character features of level 4, and don't get for example level 3 spells. Very sad for my cleric of light, who normally would get the fireball spell at level 5.

In hindsight, I should have rolled a ranger. Not just because a ranger is very good at dealing damage in D&D, but also because a cleric is the first character you meet after the ship crashes. You can also pick up a fighter, a rogue, a wizard, and a warlock, but not a ranger. So to see all character classes, you need to pick a ranger as starting character.

Overall I was having a lot of fun. While a lot of quality of life functions are missing (sort inventory, sort hotbar, a better tutorial on key bindings, etc.), the game played without crashes for me, just the occasional graphical glitch. However in its current state the game is hard to the point of being unfair. Dungeons & Dragons 5th edition doesn't have a "taunt" mechanic, and so the enemies all just ignore your fighter and concentrate fire on your squishier spellcasters. And once those are down, they continue hitting them to make sure they are dead. Real DMs tend to not do that sort of stuff, as it makes players feel persecuted.

While combat is mostly D&D, it also a distinctive Larian Studios flavor of using the elements and terrain. Thus you can shoot exploding barrels, cast a grease spell and set it on fire, or electrify a puddle of water. A rarely used D&D spell like create water becomes a lot more useful in this game. There is also a very un-D&D combat aspect of height giving you an advantage. The annoying thing is that enemies are constantly running away from you, climbing up all sorts of ledges and towers, and fire arrows at you. The monsters in Baldur's Gate 3 are also a lot tougher, with higher armor class and hit points, than the same monster in the pen & paper game. So Baldur's Gate 3 is rather hard, even if you are an expert on D&D tactical combat. You'll do a *lot* of saving and reloading in this game.

Some of the saving and reloading you'll do because of the non-combat gameplay. You often have to make decisions, and sometimes you either don't know about the possible consequences, or the result ends up depending on a roll of a d20. You wanted to save the little girl, but failed the persuasion check, and now she is dead. Do you continue or reload? Obviously, for early access testing purposes, I also sometimes reloaded just to see what happened if I chose the other option. I wouldn't call the story very strong, there is a lack of connection between your goals and your activities. But by keeping it unclear which side in a conflict you should be fighting for, the game gives you both options. I like that more than a more linear story. On the other hand the openness also gives you the opportunity to make mistakes, so I did a whole dungeon with 3 characters, because I didn't know I was supposed to pick up a 4th one first.

While the story suggests that you if you don't hurry up, you will have a very bad fate, in reality there doesn't appear to be any time limit. Which means that nothing is keeping you from taking a long rest after every battle. That unfortunately "breaks" D&D to some extent. The warlock is pretty damn useless in an environment in which you take frequent long rests, and rarely a short rest. Which is probably why Larian Studios "balanced" the wizard by turning him into an eternal pincushion.

My biggest enemy in Baldur's Gate 3 was the UI. The lack of tutorial on basic stuff like camera movement made me miss some things. Only by going to the options, keybindings, did I find some functions. And I very much recommend to move the camera turning keys to Q and E, because on DEL and END they are not very accessible. A lot of functions in the game are well hidden. The game doesn't tell you that you can right-click NPCs with your rogue selected to pickpocket them. It doesn't tell you that the help function revives an unconscious character, or that the shove function used on a suspicious rock will reveal a treasure under it. But then you try to shove a bookcase, and can't make it work, because in that case you need to find a lever, which is only visible after destroying some crates. In short, often I knew what I wanted to do, but had to google what game function to use to actually do it. And some things, like jumping all your 4 characters across a gap, are fiddly even once you know how to do it.

I don't regret having paid 60 bucks for the early access game, because I certainly am going to play this more than once. However this is from the point of view of a big fan of Dungeons & Dragons, so a lot of the tactical combat mechanics and game world lore speaks more to me than to the average person. For somebody who isn't a fan of D&D, and not enthusiastic about turn-based combat, 60 bucks is a lot of money for a game that is still a bit short and unpolished. I wouldn't blame you if you decided to wait a bit longer before buying this.

Friday, October 09, 2020
Baldur's Gate 3

I rarely buy full-price PC games these days. I can get a lot of games for "free" via the Gamepass subscription, and with a lot of other games I can wait for a Steam sale. In spite of that, I bought Baldur's Gate 3 at full price for an early access version yesterday (downloaded it in the evening, haven't had the time to play it yet). That shows you how excited I am about this game.

This is not because the game carries the "Baldur's Gate" brand. In fact, I am not the biggest fan of the Baldur's Gate brand, which I think went downhill fast from the first game. I am, however, a fan of Larian Studios and their Divinity: Original Sin series of games. I love the idea that Baldur's Gate combat went from real-time to turn-based. And I am very excited that it is based on 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons. (I am also looking forward to the other 5th edition D&D videogame, Solasta: Crown of the Magister, which I pledged for at the Kickstarter).

While you can't really "roleplay" in a single-player videogame, I have always considered that the tactical rules of Dungeons & Dragons were solid enough to make a good computer game. While the 4th edition D&D rules are probably better compatible with computer games than 5th edition, 4E was kind of a flop, which led to nobody wanting to make a videogame out of it. 5E is a smash hit and all over the internet, so the commercial interest is higher.

So I will try out Baldur's Gate III this weekend, and probably post some first impressions afterwards. I am aware that the game is far from finished, but it still is big enough that I won't finish the existing content in one weekend. I am really interested how much it feels like 5E Dungeons & Dragons.

Thursday, October 08, 2020
The ethics of exploiting stupidity

Genshin Impact is both the most generous and the most exploitative free-to-play game out there. On the one side it has no paywall, and doesn't constantly shove monetization into your face when you are playing. You can play a game that is comparable in size and quality to Breath of the Wild completely for free. If you spend any reasonable amount of money on the game, you will get more characters and thus options how to play, as well as better weapons, and faster access to some resources which you'd otherwise have to grind.

On the other hand, Genshin Impact offers you a just 0.6% chance of finding "a" 5-star character or weapon in a lootbox that costs about $1.50. So if you get obsessed and absolutely want to find a *specific* 5-star character or item, you can easily spend thousands of dollars before finding that. That sounds pretty evil. If you watch several of those videos, you'll note that each of these whales is looking for a *different* 5-star character, which shows you how much that is personal preference, and not really necessary for anything in the game.

Of course we have to assume that the reporting on these excessive spending is skewed: Much of it is done on Twitch or YouTube, where sensational behavior is rewarded by donations. For some more successful streamers, pulling a $2,000 stunt like that might actually earn them more money than what they just spent. We don't know how many "whales" there actually are in Genshin Impact, and how many of those are people who can actually easily afford that sort of spending behavior. But with millions of players, it is obvious that there must be some people who are spending more than they can afford, and the game clearly lets them do that.

In the end we need to debate in how far this is an evil ploy, or simply a reflection of the world of growing inequality in which we live in. A business model in which everything from free to thousands of dollars is possible works because there are people who can afford nothing, and others who can afford to spend thousands.

Saturday, October 03, 2020
Pay for Power

I have been playing a lot of mobile games that were very openly Pay2Win: You go through a linear series of challenges, which become harder and harder, getting rewards that make your heroes stronger and stronger. However this is deliberately designed in a way that if you play for free, your heroes get stronger slower than the challenges get harder, and at some point you become blocked by what is known as the "paywall". So you pay to get stronger faster, which advances you further in the game, until you hit the next paywall, ad infinitum.

Genshin Impact is very weird in the monetization aspect. On the one side you can clearly pay large amounts of money to get strong 5-star heroes and weapons. On the other side, either there is no paywall, or the paywall comes a lot later. At launch, Genshin Impact has 2 regions, out of a final 7. But those 2 regions are estimated to already have 60 hours worth of content in them, and the third region might be coming as early as the next patch in a few weeks. You can play those 60 hours of current content using just the heroes the game gives you for free. And as that is as much content as you might get when buying a triple-A game on a console, getting this much content without a paywall is rather generous.

So how can this possibly work? It works because gamers *always* want to be stronger, regardless of whether a stronger hero is really required or not. You can get gamers to pay for power, even if that power isn't required to win, and isn't strictly speaking pay to win. It also works because the notion that games are for children, and children don't have much disposable income, is now completely outdated. The average mobile gamer is 36 years old and female. And this population is increasingly encroaching onto the "male teen" territory of console gaming, with console games like Animal Crossing or Genshin Impact. Adults not only have more disposable income, they are also quite used to spending larger amounts of that on their leisure activities. Spending $600 on Genshin Impact may seem a lot, if compared to the cost of a video game; but it isn't all that excessive if you compare it to the cost of let's say a skiing trip. I'm pretty certain that the makers of Genshin Impact are raking in a lot of cash, even if there isn't a paywall in the game (yet).

Friday, October 02, 2020
Weird internet connection problem

This morning a weird problem with my internet connection manifested itself: I lost access to about half of the internet. That is to say, there were a lot of sites that I could still connect to normally (Google, Netflix, ...), and a bunch of other sites (Amazon, Reddit, Steam, ...) where I would always get a ER_CONNECTION_TIMED_OUT connection error. But that happened only on my PC, while my other devices that link by Wifi to exactly the same router had no problems at all.

I concluded that the problem must be somewhere with the PC. After trying various software resets and similar stuff for my network card, which is integrated in my Gigabyte Z390 Gaming SLI motherboard, I finally decided I needed a hardware solution. So I bought a PCI-e network card for 20 bucks in a local store, and that completely solved the problem.

I assume that some connection on my old network card broke. I just don't understand how that can result in the problem I had, that part of the internet was still working fine, and another wasn't working at all. I would have thought a broken network card to just not work at all anymore.

As it took me some hours to figure out the problem and solve it, and my PC couldn't connect to the Genshin Impact servers anymore, I ended up playing a bit of Genshin Impact on my iPad. And I was thoroughly impressed: Apart from the different controls, you couldn't tell the difference between the PC version and the iOS version. I still prefer the PC version, because controlling your character and the camera at the same time is easier with mouse and keyboard than with on-screen controls. But while Genshin Impact is of decent graphical / gameplay quality for a PC game, it just blows any other mobile game away in comparison. You'd think you are playing on a console and not a tablet.

Tuesday, September 29, 2020
Genshin Impact - First Impressions

I've been playing Genshin Impact for several hours yesterday, on release day. That went smoother than I thought, probably because I pre-downloaded and pre-registered. Some people reported downloading and registering today wasn't going so well, but once you were in, the game played very smoothly. Now first things first, Genshin Impact is a good game. It is fun to play, taking some of the best gameplay elements of Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild and combining them with elements from more typical JRPG. I had a lot of fun, and I'll be playing this for a while.

On the downside, this is a gacha game. It is financed like a mobile gacha game, by players buying loot boxes that contain weapons and characters. I would not recommend this for completionists or people with a gambling addiction, as somebody calculated that it would take $20,000 to get all 18 characters and all 5-star weapons. Most of the content of the lootboxes is 3-star weapons, which you will accumulate pretty quickly if you start spending money. You basically need to do the 10 wish at a time method to get a guaranteed 4- or 5-star, and that gets expensive pretty quickly. Having said that, I spent $100 to get the introductory double currency offer, and I got one 5-star character (Venti) and a selection of good 4-star characters and weapons. And I was able to buy the resource pack of character and weapon xp, that allowed me to actually boost all those characters and make them playable. So the good news is that I have lots of options in party composition now. And as I am not interested in getting any specific character, I don't need to spend more money now. You can play Genshin Impact for free, especially with all the current bonuses you get for the 10 million pre-registration celebration, but it means having fewer options and being a bit weaker. This is clearly Pay2Win.

The main problem with mobile gacha games is that normally there isn't much gameplay involved other than collecting characters: Battles run in auto-mode, or are so boring that you *want* them to run in auto-mode, and the map is usually just linear. So the one thing one really needs to credit Genshin Impact for is to make a gacha game with full triple-A JRPG gameplay. Open world exploration, including climbing and para-gliding. Large maps full of interesting spots, with monster camps, resources, challenges and puzzles. The only other gacha game I currently play is Assassin's Creed Rebellion (because it has *some* gameplay), and Genshin Impact is clearly in a much higher league. I was also impressed on how good Genshin Impact runs on a iPad, with basically the same graphics, although I am not fond of the on-screen joystick for movement.

So even if you'd never spend money on a game like this, I would absolutely recommend trying Genshin Impact for free. Especially if you either loved Breath of the Wild, or you haven't got a Switch and always wondered why everybody was so crazy about Breath of the Wild. Getting this for free on a PC, PS4, or tablet is great!

On my first day, I played until Adventure Rank 13 (which is the real "level" of the game, and can't be bought). That was good, because at Adventure Rank 12 the daily commission system opens up. There is a reward for getting to Adventure Rank 20 before patch 1.1, in 4 weeks or so, but that seems relatively easy. I still have tons of places to explore, and lots of quests to do. The action-based combat is not overly complicated or difficult to execute, so I am doing okay with that. However there are optional hero trial challenges, which I can't seem to beat. I don't see me doing really difficult endgame boss content. But up to now, there is no need for that, and I am having a lot of fun.

Saturday, September 26, 2020
The 7th Continent / Citadel like videogame?

As I said in my previous post, I pledged for The 7th Citadel, an upcoming boardgame, because I like its predecessor, The 7th Continent. That makes me want to play The 7th Continent again, but I’m not at the place where I got that stored this week. So I was wondering whether I could play a computer game or mobile game, which plays in a similar fashion. But I can’t really think of one. The closest I can think of would be a mobile adaptation of a “choose your own adventure” game, like Warlock of Firetop Mountain. But The 7th Continent is more than that: It combines exploration of tiles with a lot of decision-making gameplay. You constantly need to decide what to do next, or how to approach a given problem with the resources at hand. Sometimes that resembles the gameplay of a point-and-click adventure, but the game mechanics are more intricate than “combine lighter with hairspray”. It is a pretty unique game.

In a board game, success or failure is determined usually by chance, modified by game choices. You chose to pick up that rope, and it increases your chances in that climbing challenge. Most videogames have an added dimension, where you need to get the execution of a move right, pressing buttons at the right moment. There aren’t many games in which you don’t have constant action or movement, but rather a constantly changing list of decisions you could take. Or maybe there are, and I just don’t know these games. There are so many games on the app store that it is pretty much impossible to find anything you don’t know the name of. You can’t easily search for “decision-based exploration game”.

If you have any recommendation for such a game, I would be grateful.


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