Tobold's Blog
Thursday, December 12, 2019
World of Tanks status

Holiday seasons are a big deal for games that make their money from purchases of in-game items. People play more, and feel more generous, so revenue tends to go up. So what is happening in World of Tanks, in general and specifically for me? Glad you asked!

Patch 1.7 just came out, and it was a non-event. It basically contained only two changes to the game, of which one (selling crew directives for credits) isn't really interesting for anybody, other than being another small brick in the Pay2Win wall. The other change is slightly more interesting, the anonymizer: In future you can play under a randomly assigned fake name, which makes it impossible for anybody else in the game to see whether you are a n00b or a veteran. As the new players were sometimes harassed in chat for being new players, and the best players were sometimes "trophy hunted", I can see why Wargaming would want to put that feature in. But of course it to some extent breaks the XVM mod everybody uses. And not all the uses of the anonymizer are really honorable, I've seen platoons of seal-clubbers hiding behind anonymity in low tier games. The really interesting change to the game, which unfortunately wasn't in the patch, is the complete change to hit points tanks have and damage that different types of ammo do, especially high explosive. Which, again, will break XVM as an unintended consequence. It remains to be seen if that mod can survive this double whammy of attacks. Right now the modders changed the mod so that if it detects that you have been using the anonymizer, you are blocked out from receiving data from XVM for 12 hours.

Somehow in the code of patch 1.7, but only starting this Friday, is the Holiday Ops event. That event does have parts where you can earn bonuses as a Free2Play player. However it also has lootboxes, which are only in the game during the holiday season. And unlike other games, lootboxes in World of Tanks have a rather high minimum content, 250 gold, which alone is worth about 1€. So if you buy a stack of lootboxes, you are pretty much guaranteed that the overall value of what you'll find will be worth more than what you paid. You still might be angry that you didn't get that one double-barreled tank you wanted, but it isn't like some games where you might spend a hundred bucks and receive nothing of value. Knowing that this would be coming, I didn't buy any gold recently, and will buy a stack of lootboxes. Some of the tanks that can be in them I already have, but in that case I'd get a rather generous compensation of over 10k gold. And I'm certainly not going to spend more than I want on the hope of getting one specific tank, I'm not much of a gambler.

The reason I re-started playing World of Tanks last Christmas was spending the holidays at my brother's house and realizing that he was still playing. As I will spend Christmas at his place again this year, I'm planning to bring my laptop and maybe we can play together while in the same room (we did play together in platoons sometimes over the year). Unfortunately that laptop is so old, it still had the original World of Tanks from 2011 on it, together with Windows 7. So I spent like two days to install Windows 10, update Windows 10, and to download and install World of Tanks. It now works, for small values of "works". With low resolution graphics and many graphics options turned way down, at least the game is running more or less smoothly. But it just doesn't feel the same on a 15" laptop screen in low resolution, compared to a 27" desktop screen at high resolution. But I'm not even sure it would look so great on a newer laptop, and I'm using the thing too seldom to be motivated to buy a new one.


Sunday, December 08, 2019
Phoenix Point

According to Steam, I played XCOM 2 for over 200 hours. Thus it would not be strange to think that I might want to play Phoenix Point. Because, to not put too fine a point on it, Phoenix Point is pretty much an XCOM clone. Which is fine by me, better a good copy than a badly designed innovative game. But I still didn't buy the game, because of the strangeness of modern game distribution.

You see, Phoenix Point is not available on Steam. I would probably have bought it, if it was. But Phoenix Point is an Epic Games Store exclusive, and I am still resisting installing the Epic Games Store software and opening an account. Somebody has to! If we all follow this new trend of splintering game distribution over many different distribution platforms, we will end up with an incredible mess. For games that you bought a while ago and haven't installed, the day you want to play it, you will need to remember on which of those 37 distribution platforms you bought it. At some point we will need software that manages all the different stores and launcher software on our PCs.

So no Phoenix Point for me? Not so fast! Because, while there is some delay, Phoenix Point will be part of the Xbox Game Pass for PC. And I am still subscribed to that, for now €3.99 per month (the first month was just €1). At this price I can subscribe 10 months for what it would have cost me to buy Phoenix Point. And as Outer Worlds before and Phoenix Point now are not the only games I play on the Game Pass, this remains a great option. But companies aligning themselves into either the Steam camp or the anti-Steam camp leads to the curious situation that quite a lot of the games that are Epic Games Store exclusive and that would interest me end up being instead available to me for free on the Microsoft Game Pass. I can't help but think that the developers of Phoenix Point or Outer Worlds would have made more money of me if they had put their games on Steam.

Thursday, December 05, 2019

The difference between a toy and a game is that with a toy you decide yourself how you are going to play with it, while a game has things like rules and win conditions. However, in computer games there exists an in-between thing, often called a sandbox, which still has a bit more rules than a toy, but less than a game. And because some players feel a bit lost without the directing framework of a game, there is the concept of quests; they allow you to play more like a game by following the quests and getting the rewards, or you can ignore the quests and play more like a sandbox.

I have to say that I like quests in general, if they are well made. So it was a disappointment to me when Wizards of the Coast recently removed daily quests from Magic Duels, and abandoned all support for it. I still don’t like its successor, Magic Arena, because it has far too limited PvE. So, although I already had all the cards, I was still doing Magic Duels quests, even if I couldn’t actually use the gold those earned. I just found it more interesting to play towards a more specific goals, rather than playing whatever.

In World of Tanks I also tend to do missions, rather than playing whatever tank I feel like. While this month there is no Top of the Tree event, which I tended to do every month this year, there are lots of other holiday events. I finished my Renegade “half a challenge” early and am now doing the tank rewards missions every day, although these are particularly easy. Now Wizards of the Coast gave every player all the cards of Magic Duels before removing the daily quests. And I was thinking that if Wargaming gave me every tank in World of Tanks and removed all missions, I would probably stop playing. Without these little goals these games are simply less fun to me. How about you?

Friday, November 29, 2019
The Renegade Challenge

Today in World of Tanks the Renegade Challenge starts. That is a so-called mission marathon, where by doing a series of daily missions over 10 days you could receive a tier VIII premium tank for free. At first glance that looks like a fantastic offer for Free2Play players, as tier VIII premium tanks are the best money-makers in the game. However, as many people quickly remarked, the challenge to get this tank for free is basically impossible.

There are two versions of the challenge, one called "commitment", the other "mastery". For the "mastery" challenge you need to do things like being the top tank by experience earned, or similar achievements that generally only the top players can achieve. And even those very good players will have to grind, as the last mission for example requires them to be the best player in the team 25 times. That takes hours, even for the best World of Tanks players. For the "commitment" challenge you need to accumulate base experience points in tier VI - X tanks, while being among the top 10 of players in your team. That is doable even for mediocre players like me. However the amount of base experience you need is staggering: 251,000 overall, of which 50,000 alone on the last day. Getting 1,000 base xp in one game would be considered a great game, even by a good player. If you come in on 10th place in a game where your team loses, you might only get 100 base xp. My statistics say that I get 480 xp per game. Assuming that I can make top 10 in at least 2 out of 3 games, I would need over 1,500 games to get this much base xp, of which 150 games on the last day. If the average game lasts 7 minutes including queues, I would need to play for 90 hours over 10 days, of which 17.5 hours on the last day. That isn't going to happen.

So, is this Renegade Challenge absolutely useless? Only if you are a Free2Play player. Because in previous mission marathons, if you did for example 5 out of 10 missions, you had the option to buy that reward tank for 5 times 10% = 50% off. And because the missions get harder, I can do the "commitment" missions 1 to 5 in a quarter of the time that 1 to 10 would take me. And I don't need to finish a specific mission on a specific day, for example if I don't do mission 3 on day 3, my play time on day 4 will first finish mission 3 before starting mission 4. So the goal of doing half of the missions over the 10 days boils down to 17.5 hours overall, roughly 2 hours per day. And I don't need to do or achieve anything special, I just need to play World of Tanks with any tier VI or higher tank, and not completely suck.

So, I'm setting myself that as a "Half-Renegade Challenge". I'll try to reach at least 5 missions, and then buy that M54 Renegade tank for half price. Which is still a good deal for me, as the tank is pretty sweet, except for the big weakpoint on top.


Thursday, November 28, 2019
Resin 3D printing - Don't try this at home!

I rarely talk about my day job on this blog, because I usually consider it not to be relevant for the game or hobby subjects I discuss. But in this case, it is. I have a Ph.D. in Chemistry, and since more than 20 years I am working in a research center. While I don't work in the lab anymore, I did lab work for many years, and as the company I work for takes safety really seriously, I am still very much informed about safety issues in chemistry. In other words, when it comes to the subject of being knowledgeable about the safe handling of chemicals, I'm in the top 1%.

Now I would love to own a resin 3D printer. For my specific application of 3D printing, which is tabletop miniatures for role-playing, a resin 3D printer is much better than a fused deposition modeling printer. Resin printing generally produces higher resolution pieces, and works best for small pieces. A resin printed miniature is often semi-transparent, has a very smooth surface, and has much better detail than a FDM printed miniature.

But I don't buy a resin 3D printer, because I consider it to be too dangerous to use in my apartment. The acrylic resins used, according to a typical material safety data sheet, cause skin irritation, cause serious eye irritation, may cause an allergic skin reaction, may cause respiratory irritation, are are harmful to aquatic life with long-lasting effects. I would be perfectly happy to handle this sort of material in a laboratory, with the necessary safety equipment, and especially a fume hood. But I sure as hell don't want that stuff in my house! And, remember, this is an expert speaking.

If I had a house with a second kitchen, not used for food, I might consider installing a resin 3D printer under the kitchen hood, always wearing gloves while handling the resin and printed objects. Otherwise I really wouldn't recommend this sort of printer inside your house or apartment. You can't avoid the fumes, because the acrylic resin is sitting in an open tub. And while you can make the printed objects safe to handle by washing them, preferably in several steps, with isopropanol, that means that at some point in time you will have a container full of isopropanol saturated with acrylic resin. That is hazardous waste, you can't just pour that down your drain without doing serious damage to the environment.

A FDM 3D printer, especially if you print with spools of PLA, is much, much safer than a resin printer. The details on small pieces aren't as nice, but for larger pieces FDM is the better option anyway. And you don't slowly poison yourself and your family while doing it. So if you are tempted by the latest generation of resin 3D printers for under $300, please resist that temptation. It just isn't worth the risk!


Tuesday, November 26, 2019
How to choose a character class in Dungeons & Dragons

If you look at guides for character classes in computer role-playing games and MMORPGs, you will often find theorycrafting advice to optimize damage per second or similar parameters. In a tabletop role-playing game you could probably do something similar, but as fights are less frequent, less repetitive, and less predictable, the mathematical theorycrafting doesn't always work so well. And because your character will do other things than fighting, you'll also need to look for other aspects, like whether his class / race is interesting, or what non-combat skills he has.

But if you look mainly at combat, what makes a D&D character fun to play? The answer to that question is usually that a fun character to play has interesting and useful things to do in different situations. While you can't possibly plan for every conceivable situation, what you can do is to have a look at three relative common situations:

1) The all-out, alpha strike attack: This is when you don't care about conserving resources like spell slots, but want to bring down an enemy as quickly as possible. This would for example apply if you happened to come across a boss fight after having rested. So when you look at a character class or specific build, you need to ask yourself what you would do in this situation. Is there something you can do that will really stand out, like a very powerful spell or combination of spells and other tricks? I once encountered a dragon with my level 5 warlock, who had Hex already cast from before a short rest, in which he recovered both of his 2 spell slots. So I used my spell slots to cast Scorching Ray (from the Fiend Expanded Spell List). As I was casting all spells at level 3, I had 4 Scorching Rays instead of 3, and because of Hex they did 3d6 of damage instead of 2d6. So in two rounds I was able to cast spells for 24d6 of damage, which really contributed a lot to us vanquishing that dragon. This sort of gameplay is fun because it is flashy, but you can't do it very often.

2) The other extreme is what you do when you have run out of resources. There are two things to consider here: How likely is it to run out of resources, and what can you still do when it happens? Low level spellcasters are quite likely to run out of spells, and warlocks have that problem even at higher levels. But then a warlock has the best cantrip in the game, and if he still has Hex up, and has the Agonizing Blast invocation (which he usually should), his Eldritch Blast is powerful enough to not feel boring. The most bored I ever got with a character class was with a lore bard, who tended to cast only one powerful, concentration-based spell, and then had to cast Vicious Mockery every turn for 1d4 damage, because his other spells needed concentration as well and would have broken the first spell. Melee combat characters usually are comparatively good in fighting without special resources, and thus can go on and on.

3) The third situation is the regular combat, in between the first two situations. You want to conserve some resources, but you want to do some interesting stuff. A spellcaster might for example use lower level spells. A barbarian might decide that he has enough rages per day to use one for a standard encounter, but won't be using Reckless Attack. For some classes there isn't much room between all-out and no resources left, because they only have so few resources to work with. For other classes, like higher level wizards, there are still quite a lot of different options.

So when I have to choose a character class for a new campaign, and look at some class that I might be interested in, I do try to imagine the above three situations. Do I have actions available in each situation which are at least somewhat interesting and powerful? What constitutes interesting might of course vary from one person to another, which is why I won't make a list of "best character classes". But if you have a plan for heroic fights, very long fights, and standard fights, chances are that you will have fun with that character.


Wednesday, November 20, 2019
Mediocre games

In 2018, 9,300 games were added to Steam. It's probably over 10k in 2019. Whenever you have such a large number of data points, rules of statistics apply. So I am pretty certain that if you listed all of these games by let's say Metacritic score, you would get very few excellent games with scores over 90, very few really bad games with scores under 50, and a huge number of mediocre games with scores around 70.

Now one of the strange problems of the market for games is that there is very little correlation between a game's quality and its price. Many of the mediocre games cost the same as those excellent games, and some good games are indies that cost less than some mediocre or bad games. So normally, if you buy a game and it turns out to be mediocre, you are cursing because you could have gotten something better for the same money. Which is why some people really, really hate mediocre games.

However, mediocre often means that the game is flawed in some aspects, but good in others. Playing a mediocre game for a few hours and then moving on can be fun enough. Which makes me think that a game subscription service could actually change the way we play games. I mean, if you can get a game without any additional cost because you are subscribed to some game subscription service, does every game you download have to be excellent? If you download something, play it for a few hours, then think that the replayability isn't great, and you uninstall it again, you haven't lost anything and you still had some hours of entertainment. At least I feel a lot less negative about playing a mediocre game on a subscription service.

Monday, November 18, 2019
Surviving Mars

Surviving Mars is a "hardcore survival city-builder", according to its publisher Paradox. But I must say that compared to some other Paradox games, Surviving Mars is a bit less hardcore, and more approachable. Especially now that they added a tutorial, which apparently was missing on release. Surviving Mars is also one of a few Paradox games available on the Xbox Game Pass for PC, and so I played it this weekend without having to buy the game. Which was good, because I liked it enough to spend some hours with, but not enough that I would have been happy to buy the game.

As you can imagine, Surviving Mars is a game about building a colony on Mars and surviving there. At first you start with RC drones and build some basic infrastructure. Once you have "domes" in place with living space, electricity, water, and oxygen, you can enter the next phase of the game and have human colonists. The humans serve as work-force for more complicated resource generation and manufacturing options.

The "hardcore survival" part kicks in when your carefully planned colony is struck by one of various disasters, like a dust storm or meteor strike. There have been city-builder games with disasters before, but in Surviving Mars they are not optional, but core parts of the gameplay. You basically don't just have to design your colony to be self-sufficient under normal conditions, but need to build in enough redundancy that it can still survive under disaster conditions. Needless to say that this won't always succeed. So while I didn't mind the Mars scenario as opposed to a village/city on Earth, I tend to play city-builder games casually, not hardcore. So I enjoyed Surviving Mars when I was building up my colony, and then didn't enjoy seeing it struck by disaster, even if that didn't wipe out my colony.

While you can play the game at different difficulty levels by choosing a different "sponsor", and there is a selection of different starting advantages, and chains of events, I didn't feel that the game has much replayability. Even within one game you spend a lot of time building the same type of infrastructure (like arrays of solar panels with accumulators and power cables) repeatedly. So after one weekend of playing this, I think I have seen enough and can uninstall it again. Next!

Sunday, November 17, 2019
Slight change of plan

I haven't changed my mind on the principal content of my recent "consumer advice" post, that is to say that I recommend very much to not subscribe to more than 1 game subscription service at a time. However I thought I would soon unsubscribe from the Xbox Game Pass for PC, and subscribe to Google Stadia instead. That isn't going to happen.

First of all I simply misunderstood Google Stadia. While I was aware of the streaming aspect of the system, I thought that otherwise it was a game subscription service like the others. It isn't. From the already thin starting line-up of Google Stadia, only a single game is playable for the $129 it costs to get the hardware and 3 months of subscription. The other games, like Red Dead Redemption 2, which I would have loved to play, require an additional full price purchase. At this point in time the offer for me was equivalent to playing Red Dead Redemption 2 for $200. So I cancelled my order. I already have a gaming PC that can run even resource-hungry games, so for me there is no advantage in the Google Stadia service whatsoever.

On the Xbox Game Pass for PC side, the news are better: New games are coming to the service. That includes games that I would like to play, like some of the Final Fantasy games. So my plan has changed to sticking with that service for a while longer before trying anything else.

Saturday, November 16, 2019
XP Fever

In World of Tanks one of the recurring XP Fever events started today. Among other benefits during this event you can also exchange excess xp and gold for free xp, which can be used on any tank to research modules or the next tank in the tree, at a better rate. I just exchanged 10,000 gold for 400,000 xp, and that is a lot. It is also unconventional, if you would go and ask for advice on the forums or elsewhere, people would tell you not to do it. So why do I?

In real terms, 10,000 gold can be bought for 35 Euro. The real life equivalence of 400,000 xp is very hard to express, as the amount of xp you get in one battle can vary widely from as low as 100 xp to as high as 10,000 xp. But for the latter you not only need to win a game with a great personal performance, you also need a bunch of special circumstances like xp multiplier bonuses from events and missions. If you play a regular tank repeatedly, the amount of xp you get per battle is, order of magnitude, somewhere around 1,000. So 400,000 xp is about 400 battles, a battle is about 5 minutes on average, so this is 2000 minutes, or nearly 35 hours. In other words, I exchanged 35 Euros for 35 hours of my time.

Of course that is not quite correct, as I want to play 35 hours of World of Tanks anyway. But the way I use my free xp is never to research any tanks with it (researching a top tier tank is around 200,000 xp), but rather to use it to research all the most important modules on a new tank. In other words, instead of playing tanks that are underpowered because they aren't fully equipped for 35 hours, I paid 35 Euros to play those tanks at full strength for 35 hours.

You can call that Pay2Win. On the other hand World of Tanks is an old game, with a bad treatment and thus retention of new players, so most of the players you meet are veterans of the game. With my 12k games, I still count as a noob. Players that have been playing for much longer than me not only have their tanks fully equipped, they also tend to play the more powerful tanks, while I am handicapped in having to play the tanks that get me up the tech tree. If I would be playing stock tanks with stock modules instead of spending free xp to get the better modules, I would just further gimp myself against an opposition which has all the advantages. It is the MMORPG equivalent of trying to play PvP with a character that just hit the level cap against other players which have been at the level cap for a long time and not only know have played a lot more PvP than you, but are also decked out in full epic gear. World of Tanks is basically a World of Warcraft in which the level cap is still the same as in vanilla, and there were never any stat/gear resets.

If somebody made an identical copy of World of Tanks, and attracted an equal number of players, but everybody had to start afresh, that curiously would be a much better game. It is the curse of a progression-based game, that without resets the progress accumulates to a point where veterans are not just more skillful, but also have huge stat/gear advantages over newer players. But of course as World of Tanks is in the business of selling progress in the game, they can't do a reset. They are stuck with a game in which the veteran population destroys their chance to attract new players. Something went very wrong with that concept.


Friday, November 15, 2019
Consumer advice on subscriptions

In a recent thread some readers suggested I should play The Division 2. The game is not on Steam, but I do have UPlay installed, and so I checked it out there. I could buy that game for €60. Or, for just €14.99 a month, I could subscribe to UPlay+, and play not only The Division 2, but a hundred other Ubisoft games as well. Now I'm not saying that I won't do that; but I would like to give some consumer advice on subscriptions.

I'm old enough to remember door-to-door salesmen peddling subscriptions to magazines. The subscription price seems low compared to having to buy those magazines one by one, plus you get the convenience of having them delivered. So why do companies want to sell you that subscription? Because it makes buying their magazine or whatever the default option, and it makes not buying the more complicated option that requires more effort. Getting you to go to the newsstand every single month to buy a monthly magazine is hard, selling you a subscription once is a lot easier. You can usually count on people being lazy and not thinking deep enough, so they just let their subscriptions run far beyond the point where they would have stopped buying the goods one by one.

So, what's the danger? Surely I can afford €14.99 every month for UPlay+, can't I? Well, the danger, now as back then with the magazines, is getting persuaded to buy more than one subscription. If I subscribe to the Xbox Game Pass for PC, UPlay+, Apple Arcade, Origin Access, and Google Stadia, the subscription fees add up to €50 a month, and that is if I don't take the premium versions of the subscriptions, which can be up to €30 for a subscription. And I would have access to more games than I could actually find the time to play, so some of those subscriptions would remain unused every month. Also I would probably still have to buy some other games, as all of these services combined have only a few hundred games all together, while Steam now has 30,000 games.

So my consumer advice would be to subscribe, but only to one service at a time. Play all the games that interest you, then unsubscribe and subscribe to the next service. I am currently on the Xbox Game Pass for PC, but I will unsubscribe that one to try out Google Stadia for three months. Then I'll unsubscribe from that one, and try either UPlay+ or Origin Access, and so on. I might sometimes have a bit of overlap, but the idea is to be most of the time subscribed to only one service, and never to more than two.

For the record, I am subscribed to both Netflix and Amazon Prime Video, but no third video streaming service. And Amazon Prime doesn't really count, because I order parcels from Amazon frequently enough that the free delivery pays for the cost of the whole service, and Amazon Prime Video is just an extra.

Thursday, November 14, 2019
Winning for your team

I have been playing World of Tanks nearly every day since the start of this year. Unsurprisingly that has resulted me becoming better at it. I only have detailed statistics for the last 6 weeks, but during that time my WN8 rating went up every week, by an average of 4. As the WN8 is an average over all your battles, and I have 12k battles, the increase is slow. But the fact that it is going up steadily means that I am now pretty consistently playing better than I was before.

However I noticed that there is no correlation with my win percentage. I have been between 48% and 49% win rate since I started playing in 2011 (it's not 50:50, because a draw is basically a loss for both sides). In the World of Tanks community there is an everlasting discussion whether one should play to win, or whether it is better to play for your personal score, e.g. WN8. Quickybaby, probably the game's best known Twitch streamer, once took the time during a stream where people wanted to look at World of Tanks gameplay to show with an Excel table that the very best players have an average win rate of up to 70%, and the very worst players down to 30%; for him that proved that your skill had an impact on your winrate. Which at the extremes is certainly true.

But if you look at Quickybaby's own win rate of just over 60%, with him being quite good at the game, and playing to win, how many of his games did he actually influence? 60% win rate to me suggests that he didn't have enough influence to turn the other 40% of games into wins. And it would appear logical to me that this also means that of his wins, 40% would have been wins even without him trying. Only in 20% of his games, 1 in 5, did he have enough influence to affect the outcome.

Mathematically speaking, if the very best players have a positive influence on their win rate, and the worst players have a negative influence on their win rate, somewhere in between the curve must hit zero. And because skill is probably a Gaussian distribution, I would say that a vast majority of players are simply too mediocre to influence the win chance of their team in either direction. Me included. Playing to try to improve my personal score is the better option for me, because I have proven that I can do that. I am not convinced that I could play random battles without forming a platoon in a way where my win rate would be measurably higher.

Skill *does* have a marked effect on win probability, but mostly in the aggregate. There are mods that show you the sum of WN8 ratings of the players on each side. If one side has a significantly higher sum of WN8 ratings, it usually wins. But if the matchmaker puts you on the side with the lower skill, as a regular player you simply can't "carry the game" hard enough to make a difference. 



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