Tobold's Blog
Saturday, December 15, 2018
Game overload

Steam Calculator tells me that of the 355 games on Steam I own, 249 have never been played. My iPad has several pages full of icons for games that I downloaded, but never started either. But the more games I have, the less I play. I'm suffering from game overload. I find it very hard to find the energy to start a new game, and end up playing old games instead.

[EDIT:] I found a website that could help me find a game to play in my Steam library, called "What should I Steam?". You give it some simple search parameter, like "high ranked game" or "strategy game", and it proposes a random game from your library that corresponds to that.

Sunday, December 09, 2018

Barbearian is a game on Steam and iOS which features a barbarian who is a bear. You control this character on an isometric map in a fast-paced hack'n'slash indie game, which got quite good reviews on Metacritic. Which would be all I would have to say about this game, if it wasn't about the game's interesting approach to difficulty.

Difficulty in video games is mostly completely arbitrary. That is to say that they contain numerical parameters which when modified can make the same game anything from extremely easy to extremely difficult. Games that use reaction time of the player can be set to make you succeed only if you press a button exactly at the right split second, or they can give you a wide window in which to press that button to succeed, making the game much easier. Games with combat can give you more or less hit points, and make your or your enemies attacks deal more or less damage.

Now if you look at older games, before everything went online, you will often find that they have options for difficulty settings. Civilization games for example let you choose one of eight difficulty levels between the very easy Settler and the extremely difficult Deity. It is then up to the player to choose a level, let's say "King", which gives him an experience which is hard enough to be interesting, but easy enough to not be frustrating. Online games, for example MMORPGs like World of Warcraft, don't have such difficulty settings, although sometimes they offer the same dungeon content in different difficulty levels. And in such cases you frequently get less rewards if you choose a lower difficulty, to comply with some strange idea of virtual fairness. Some mobile games exploit difficulty by making games that get harder faster than you can increase your power if you play for free, effectively trying to force you into buying power.

Barbearian has a completely different philosophy. Of course it helps that it is a single-player game, and there are no monetization shenanigans. But the game gives you not just a selection of difficulty levels, but direct access to three numerical parameters that determine difficulty. You can modify game speed, received damage, and value of loot. And you can do that independently of each other, making the game both easier to play and making it give you twice the loot. Thus the whole idea of "you only reserve virtual rewards if you can beat the game at a certain difficulty" goes out of the window. Instead the game lets you choose the parameters to maximize your fun, in either direction. If you want maximum rewards for minimum effort, and play the game ultra-casually, you can. If you want to add to the challenge to make the game more interesting, you can. I find that a very good idea. And it makes me wonder why there aren't more games like that.

Saturday, December 08, 2018
Gaming as a job

I have a challenging and well-payed day job. Thus for me games are and have always been entertainment for fun and relaxation. The recent announcement from Wizards of the Coast that they want to turn Magic the Gathering into an esport with a $10 million prize pool isn't very attractive to me. I don't need another job. And I consider pursuing a career as a professional athlete in any discipline, electronic or real, to be not a very good idea: If you become an engineer and it turns out that you are not among the world's top performers, you'll still bring home a good salary. If you become an professional athlete and it turns out that you are not among the world's top performers, you will live a life of poverty and hardship. It's a bit like playing the lottery: A small chance of striking it big and a large chance of ending up a loser.

Now the idea behind giving away 10 million bucks in prizes for eSports is not just to attract aspiring professional athletes. You also hope that the top matches end up being seen by a wide audience on platforms like Twitch, and that this in turn attracts a lot more new players to your game, so you make your money back. I can see how that can work with games like Dota, Counterstrike, or Starcraft. These games have visual elements to them which make them interesting to watch, and even a non-player of these games can understand what is going on. But if I look at Magic the Gathering, I am not 100% convinced that it makes for a great spectator sport. Even with the added visual effects of Magic Arena, it remains a card game. If you don't understand the rules of the game, and those rules are rather complicated (much more so than in Hearthstone), it is hard for a spectator to follow what is going on. Some decks relying on combos or control might look extremely boring for most of the match, until the player suddenly wins, with only people who know about that type of deck seeing it coming.

This summer the CEO of Hasbro talked on Jim Cramer's Mad Money about the importance of Twitch and eSports for both Dungeons & Dragons and Magic the Gathering. That caused some confusion, because he wasn't making a distinction, and most people couldn't imagine D&D as an eSports. But as the many YouTube, Twitch, and other channels showing people playing D&D prove, Dungeons & Dragons is a very watchable game. It is a game that plays on two levels, one about story-telling, and another about rules and game mechanics. You don't need to understand the rules to be able to follow the story, so Matt Mercer describing a dragon attack makes for good viewing even for people who don't know the rules at all. Magic the Gathering has always tried to evoke a similar sense of story by having lore and artwork, but pretty much failed to do so. Playing a card with a dragon on it in Magic just doesn't have the story impact of a dragon in D&D.

An even bigger problem for Hasbro might be the increasingly negative attitude of gamers towards heavily monetized games. Valve recently launched their own trading card game, Artifact, on their own Steam platform, and got ripped apart by their own community for the monetization. And Artifact is a *lot* cheaper than Magic the Gathering.

In summary I understand where Hasbro / Wizards of the Coast is trying to go with Magic Arena. But I still think they are making a mistake by focusing so much on the competitive aspects of the game, and neglecting the casual / new player experience. I believe even 10 million dollars can't buy you enough players to make Magic Arena a big success.

Wednesday, December 05, 2018
Decisions by default

A few weeks back I had a bad role-playing session at my local club, which degraded into a heated discussion, at the end of which one player left. The situation was that our group of 5 players met in some ruins we were exploring a group of 5 NPC, who weren't hostile. In true murder hobo style 2 of the players in my group wanted to kill and loot the NPCs, while the other 3 didn't want to. Instead of discussing this, one of the players who wanted to fight simply declared an attack. The 2 players in favor of the attack assumed that once combat had started, the other 3 players wouldn't have a choice and would have to join. Well, we didn't, which is why one of the players who wanted the attack ended up shouting at us as traitors and leaving the table.

This was somewhat unusual, because I have been in far more situations where a player who wanted to negotiate rather than fight was effectively silenced by somebody starting an attack and forcing the issue. Groups do not always have good mechanics for arriving at a common decision. So sometimes a decision is reached by somebody acting without the consent of his fellow players, and triggering a decision by default. I'm not a big fan of that method of play.

I was thinking about this decision by default mechanic while watching the news over the latest parliamentary debates in Britain regarding Brexit. While the Brexit negotiations theoretically are held between Britain and the EU, those negotiations are somewhat pointless, because any agreement has to be accepted by the British parliament. And as it looks now, there is no possible agreement that would get a parliamentary majority. And one of the reasons why the parliament can't agree on anything is that some people clearly speculate that by not agreeing they will get their preferred outcome as decision by default, which is the no-deal Brexit. So that now the opponents of a no-deal Brexit are trying to change the rules, so that the default option becomes something else, like a second referendum, or no Brexit at all.

It seems to me that both in games and in real life it is not a good idea if the default option is the most extreme one. That basically makes the job of any extremists too easy, they don't need to convince anybody, they just need to sabotage an agreement on any alternative.

Sunday, December 02, 2018
Virtual gamepads / joysticks

I read a good review about the iOS version of a classic RPG, Sega Shining Force, so I downloaded it. After 5 minutes of trying it out, before even getting to the first combat, I stopped and uninstalled it again. Because the review hadn't mentioned that the game was using a virtual gamepad control scheme; and I find those absolutely impossible to work with.

I think the problem is two-fold. The first is that a real gamepad is designed to be held with the center of gravity between your hands, and the thumbsticks and buttons easily reached with your fingers. Most tablets are much bigger than most gamepads, and the center of gravity is further away from you if you hold the tablet at the two bottom corners, where the virtual buttons and thumbsticks are in many of these games. That makes holding the thing and using the buttons a lot more awkward than a real gamepad.

The second problem is that a gamepad gives you haptic feedback. You know whether your thumb is right on the thumbstick or besides it, you feel the buttons. No such feedback with a virtual gamepad, if you don't watch your fingers, you might well place them a bit to the side of where they are supposed to be, and mess up your control.

When recently there was all this anger about Diablo Immortal, the only part of the news that told me that this might not be the game for me was that it was said that the game worked with a virtual joystick. I haven't found that single game on my iPad yet that works well with a virtual gamepad / joystick controls. I suspect that this control scheme has inherent fundamental problems that will always make "point-and-click" work better on a tablet. With the Nintendo Switch of course being the notable exception, as it gives you a real gamepad feel, even if you have the joycons attached to the side of the console.

Saturday, December 01, 2018
Meaningful choices in story-based games

Real life is full of meaningful choices. Decisions on whether to stay in school, whether to go to college, what profession to choose, whether to marry, or whether to have children have an obvious and strong impact for many years after that decision is taken. Games frequently try to use the importance of choices to be more interesting. But I feel that modern, story-based games largely fail to present meaningful choices, and often end up boring me with hollow ones.

The fundamental reason for that is that the meaningful choices already have been made before the game even begins. You can't play a Tomb Raider game and choose another profession than archeologist for Lara Croft, she doesn't get the choice to be become a school teacher, marry, and have children. Even if you play the stereotypical blank slate protagonist with amnesia in a game, most of the path that character will take from beginning of the game to the end is already determined. In some instances, like Mass Effect 3, the ending is one that many of the players disliked, but whether they like it or not their Shepard ends up that way. I think it would simply be far too expensive to make a game with a story in which there are many very different story branches and possible endings.

Games without a story can sometimes do better, if they allow players to fail. In a game of Civilization you can make meaningful choices, but that necessarily includes the option to make wrong choices and finding out after 50 or 100 turns that you have lost the game. But if you play Red Dead Redemption, or Pokemon Let's Go, or Assassin's Creed, or Destiny, losing the game half-way through isn't an option. Which means that any choices you are given all lead back to either the same end, or at maximum a small number of slightly different alternative endings. Many major plot points will happen regardless of what decisions you take over the course of the game.

Knowing that, I am sometimes happier with games that don't pretend. I happily played through the rather linear Pokemon Let's Go to the end without missing those meaningless dialogue choices of other games. While in Thronebreaker: The Witcher Tales I ended up uninstalling the game half way through, because I got fed up with constantly having to make decisions that were presented as being important and hard moral choices, but which ultimately had only very minor consequences, involving a small amount of resources.

Monday, November 26, 2018
Cannibalistic games

If you imagine a perfectly fair and balanced PvP game with perfect matchmaking, the result would be something looking like World Chess Championship, in which every game is a draw; or, if the rules make draws less or not possible, every player would have a perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio. That is a bit of a problem for game developers: While some of them arrive at near perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio for most players (e.g. World of Tanks), this often results in some players being unhappy about losing half the time. Other games got around the problem by faking PvP, making players play against an AI using the name tag and the armies of an existing, but unaware player. If you don't even know that an AI with your name lost to another player, that loss is not a problem to you. But then a good AI is expensive and hard to program, and real PvP is much cheaper. So I see more and more games being based on cannibalism.

All players are not created equal. Especially not in Free2Play games, where there are the free riders and the paying customers. So from a game company point of view it makes perfect sense to exploit the free players as a resource for their paying customers. "If you aren't the customer, you are the product / content". So what we get is pure Pay2Win: The paying customers pay to effectively achieve a win:loss of above 50:50, while the free players end up losing a lot more than half of their games. It is simple math, you *must* have frequent losers if you want to have frequent winners.

The problem of that model is one of longevity. While winning only half of the time may bother some people, losing most of the time bothers many people. You can keep a stream of naive losers via advertising, but that only works so long. We live in a world of an oversupply in games, and if you keep losing it's easy to just quit and play something else. The cannibalistic model eats its new players until there are none left. And it doesn't stop there; the same game mechanics than leave the players who spent only a little in the role of the permanent losers. Until they quit the game, and the next layer of customers finds itself in that bottom spot. Ultimately the game eats itself, because it drives people to quit. Thus more and more we see online PvP games shutting down after a year or two.

I don't think the "free players as content model" is economically viable in the long term. If a game isn't fun to play for free, the conversion of a free player to a paying customer will never happen. I prefer the perfect 50:50 win:loss ratio, or playing against an AI.

Sunday, November 25, 2018
How to break Pokemon: Let's Go

I haven't played many Pokemon games, as I didn't own most of the handheld consoles on which these games appeared, like the Nintendo 2DS or 3DS. Thus as a non-expert I am actually the target audience of Pokemon: Let's Go. And as I had some time on my hand, I bought the Pikachu version on the game, and played it through to "the end" (you can continue afterwards) in 45 hours. On the plus side I like JRPG, and turn-based battle systems, so this was great for me. After some practice I got used to the virtual Pokeball catching mechanic. So the only thing I really disliked is how terribly linear the game is.

Now different people play games for different reasons. I am an explorer at heart, so one of my reasons is always finding out how the game system works, how it is balanced, and how you can break it. That turned out to be not so easy. You can't grind fights to become stronger, as all the fights are in fixed locations and happen only once. You can grind catching Pokemon, but that doesn't give you any money, and then you run out of Pokeballs and can't afford new ones. Fortunately there is a way around that: In several caves there is a man who will give you 10 free Pokeballs if you have less than 10 in your bag. Thus in a reasonable radius around him, you can catch Pokemon forever without running out of Pokeballs.

The way to really break that system is provided by the catch combo bonus: The more often you catch the same Pokemon without interruption (no catching other Pokemons, no Pokemons running away, no stopping the game and reloading), the higher the catch combo bonus gets. That provides you with more experience points, but more importantly more candy. Get your catch combo bonus ridiculously high, above 50, and you start seeing candy with the Pokemon's name on it. And these name candies are ridiculously overpowered if you collect them in large numbers.

So what I did was to use the first guy to give you those free Pokeballs to catch a large number of Geodude Pokemon. I got the catch combo bonus to over 70, and had nearly a hundred of Geodude candy. Now one name candy gives +1 to every stat, which is about the effect of half a level. I also got a lot of toughness candy. So I first used the toughness candy (and quickness candy I got from catching lots of Rattata), and then all the Geodude candy. That ended me up with a Geodude (later Graveller) who was far more powerful than his level would suggest. And having one ultra-powerful Pokemon is then helping a lot with the rest of the game.

Would I recommend this system? Maybe not. If your Pokemon are just barely winning against the trainers you meet, you end up using more different Pokemon and more different moves. You also need to walk back to heal more often, but overall the game is more exciting and fun. Creating an overpowered Pokemon gets you through the game much faster, but you'll have a lot of boring identical fights. I still like to have one powerful Pokemon like that around, for cases where you'd otherwise be stuck against a too powerful opponent.

Saturday, November 17, 2018
Pokemon: Let's Go Ballistic

As I have a Nintendo Switch, I am watching the most talked about releases on that platform. This week that would be Pokemon: Let's Go. And if you go to a site like Metacritic, you find that opinions on that game are very much split: There are a lot of user reviews giving it a high score, and a slightly higher number of user reviews giving it a very low score, with very few in the middle.

Once you sorted it out, the picture becomes quite clear. Pokemon: Let's Go is in itself quite a good game and does what it sets out to do: Introduce new players to the Pokemon universe. If you haven't played any Pokemon games on Nintendo handheld consoles previously, there is a high chance that you will enjoy Pokemon: Let's Go. If you are a veteran gamer who has already "caught them all" over hundreds of hours in several different versions of Pokemon games, you will hate Pokemon: Let's Go. Because the game hasn't been done for you, and is too easy for veterans.

Now personally I think that this sort of problem can be diffused by having more than one difficulty in a game. People are literally complaining that they earn xp too fast, that should be easy enough to fix in a hard mode. But I can't help but see the irony of old gamers complaining that Nintendo making a Pokemon game that is more suitable for children than for them. How dare they! A children's game that is actually casual and easy and doesn't require grinding! When we were young we had to walk to school fifteen miles in the snow! Barefoot! Uphill! Both ways! And we liked it fine that way!

It isn't even as if Nintendo marketed this game wrong. They clearly said that they are going to do a game for a younger audience and new players now, and another, more hardcore Pokemon game next year. No audience has been neglected. So review bombing the game that just isn't for you is rather immature. The entitlement culture of gamers is getting worse and worse every year.

Friday, November 16, 2018
Magic Arena solves a hardcore problem

While I am not playing the game, I keep up with the news on Magic Arena, hoping that one day game modes that would actually interest me could be added to the game. But the latest news doesn't suggest that this is a focus of the developers. Instead they announced that they will solve a problem which is seriously affecting people who have spent hundreds of dollars on the game: The Vault. The problem is what is known as the "5th card problem": You can only have 4 copies of any card in Magic Arena. And in case you didn't know, Magic Arena is a trading card game in which you can't trade cards, so pulling a 5th copy of anything doesn't enable you to trade it with somebody who has the card you want. Instead the 5th card in Magic Arena just vaporizes and adds to your "Vault" score, which then gives you wildcards which you can exchange for the cards you want. However vault progress is extremely slow, so that getting a 5th copy of a mythic card gains you just 1.1% progress for a card that in physical form might be worth $20. Changing the Vault system to a system where you get a card you didn't have yet instead of a 5th copy is obviously much better for players.

But it only solves a problem that very few people have. If you really want all the (current) cards in Magic Arena with the vault system, a guy tested that you need to buy 1260 packs, for $1,400. Even if the news system cuts that down to half (the new system is in planning, so we don't know the details yet), this would still be some serious money to be competitive.

And there is the *real* problem of Magic Arena: You *need* to be competitive. If you are a new player and get just some theme decks, the thing you can do without paying money is losing every game you play, while fulfilling some quest conditions like "play X red cards". You get a few free theme decks, but there is no way to get paired against other people who also use themed decks. There is no mode in which you play an AI of various difficulty levels. You can only play competitive modes in which you will lose to people having far more cards than you do. Magic the Gathering has been Pay2Win since before mobile games were even invented, but people invented game modes that allowed new or poor players with small card pools to have fun. Magic Arena has none of those game modes.

I see a lot of advertising for Magic Arena lately. I think the open beta isn't as successful as Wizards of the Coast had hoped. And I don't think the Vault changes will improve that. The people who spent hundreds of dollars on Magic Arena will like it, but with their sunk cost they weren't the most likely to quit anyway. The problem of Magic Arena is somebody downloading the free client, playing a few games, and being mercilessly crushed every single time, until he just uninstalls the game. A free game that doesn't succeed to convert free players into paying players fails. I feel worst of all for people who after failing on free spend $20 on the game for some packs and find out that this doesn't really improve their chances of winning by a measurable amount. Magic Arena only works for the people who spend hundreds of dollars, and I don't think there are enough of them out there to make this game viable. If anything the Vault changes decreases the chance of financial success of Magic Arena, because it further caps the maximum amount a "whale" can spend on the game. We end up with a game that has neither mega whales nor small time spenders, how could that ever work out financially?

Wednesday, November 14, 2018
Gacha in Belgium

I was trying out Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia on my iPad. It is one of many "gacha" games on iOS, which are games in which you have a collection of heroes with which to fight. The heroes are acquired more or less randomly via loot boxes, and then you level them up, equip them, evolve them, etc. You get some loot boxes for free, but if you want more, you need to spend money on them. And because I live in Belgium, I will soon not be able to play the game any more. Due to Belgium considering loot boxes as a form of gambling, Dissidia Final Fantasy Opera Omnia, and a bunch of other gacha games will be inaccessible from Belgium.

That is weird to some extent because gambling is regulated, but not illegal in Belgium. There are Belgian casinos, online casinos, and sports betting shops. But because following regulations costs money and is a hassle, some companies prefer to simply remove their loot box games from the Belgian market instead of following the regulations that would protect their customers.

As I have stated repeatedly in the past, I am not totally against games with in-game purchases. There are a number of games which I started for free and then decided to spend modest amounts on loot boxes and other in-game advantages on. As long as you stay reasonable in your purchases, that is an okay business model. Of course if you spend more money than you would have spent on a full price game, or even hundreds or thousands of dollars because you became addicted, that is a different problem. And I can totally see the need to restrict that legally. Which, in my opinion, should then be done in the form of spending caps. Not by simply removing the games from the Belgian market.

Of course this removal from the Belgian market only works because Belgium is a small country. There is a chance that Belgium succeeds in making their case to the other countries in the European Union, and loot boxes will be banned all over Europe. I would imagine that in that case game companies would come up with a way to still sell games in Europe, even if that game had a loot box mechanic in other countries.

Tuesday, November 13, 2018
Yonder the Cloud Catcher Chronicles

I finished the main quest in Yonder the Cloud Catcher Chronicles yesterday, after 11 hours of overall played time. I guess I'd need about the same time again to finish all the side quests and get all the achievements, but I'm probably not going to do all of that. So I would say that Yonder is a short game. Nevertheless, for the €14 I paid for it in some Steam sale it was well worth it. The console versions on PS4 and Switch are a bit more expensive, but still less than half of the price of a "full" game. And for that you get a nice game, which feels a bit like a "lite" version of Zelda: Breath of the Wild: You are running around exploring a much smaller continent, gathering resources, finding secrets, solving puzzles, farm, and craft.

What you don't do is somewhat remarkable: There is no combat in Yonder. In fact, there really isn't any challenge at all. Days pass in game, but nothing bad happens if you take your time and go flower picking. Yonder is one of the most peaceful and relaxed games I have been playing for a while. Obviously that isn't for everyone. But as games in which you don't kill others are harder to find than games in which you do, I thought I give Yonder a mention.

What I really liked about the crafting system was that there is a trade part to it. There is no currency, all trades are barter only. But if you want something from a trader, you can give him items from your inventory that you have a lot of in exchange; each item has a value indicated, and the trader is willing to barter if you offer at least as much value as the stuff you want from him. There is even an element of supply and demand here: In the town with all the tailors, clothing is very cheap. So you can trade for clothing there, and later exchange that clothing at a higher value in another town. You even get NPCs telling you what towns currently have a surplus or demand of what types of goods.

Some of the stuff you can buy, craft, or find is just cosmetic, like different clothing or shampoo to color your hair. But you can also craft various farm buildings, and even machines like a butter churner. You can capture animals and they will produce various goods if you house them in a stable. You can also grow various crops, and even trees on your farms. The whole system is not very complicated or difficult, but it is fun enough to explore for a while.

Exploration is slightly more limited than in Zelda, due to the fact that you can jump, but not climb. If you fall, you automatically deploy an umbrella to glide slowly downwards. You can't really "die", you don't even have a health bar, but if you sink under water for several seconds, you are teleported back to where you came. Of course Zelda is a much bigger and better game, but it comes with a higher price tag and is only available on the Switch. Yonder is not only the version more suitable for kids, but also has wider availability and a lower price tag. So if you are ever looking for a very peaceful game and aren't feeling up for something challenging, you might want to give Yonder a try.


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