Thursday, July 2, 2015

Equilibrium

Tobold made a post today about how Blizzard could go about fixing the queue times for dps in WOW.  His idea is that in a 25 man raid instead of having 5 healers, 2 tanks, and 18 dps there could be 23 dps, 1 healer, and 1 tank.  This is a nice theory and all but it ignores the fundamental problem - people are willing to wait 30 minutes to queue as dps.  That means that if you do things to incentivize people playing tanks and healers or make less tanks and healers necessary you will still see people signing up to dps with a 30 minute queue.  There isn't much you can do when a big chunk of the population would rather wait 30 mins than tank.  You can perhaps increase the number of raids that go out, which is nice, but you won't change the queue time.

This solution also has the problem that it makes absolutely no sense.  Without tanks swaps or multiple tank roles tanking has to be dead simple... and boring.  With only one healer who presumably takes a number of spells to get a single person from nearly dead to full nothing can do any significant damage.  If the whole raid lost half their health, the healer probably wouldn't be able to heal it up during the course of the entire fight!  A single healer is so ineffectual that you might as well not even have one and just let the dps who stand in fire for minutes at a time die.  In order for the current model of the game to work at all there must be multiple healers and multiple tanks and I can't see how completely redoing the entire game design just to alter the ratios in Looking For Raid is sensible.

If somehow we could have 1/3 tanks, 1/3 healers, and 1/3 dps it would be better.  Then if a single tank or healer is totally useless it doesn't matter and you just keep on going anyway.  The pressure isn't there anymore.  Unfortunately that is terrible raid design so the players would try to get around it and run more dps, and the spec spread in the game wouldn't support it anyway.

People want to dps and they especially want the lack of responsibility that doing so entails.  They are willing to wait 30 minutes in line to do that.  There isn't a whole lot we can do to fix the problem.  It is much like building a new freeway to provide better access into a city - traffic just increases to choke the new road as much as the old ones because if traffic improves, more people drive and any gains are lost.

The dps queue is 30 minutes and that is just the way it is going to be.

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

The puzzle balance

In reading over a lot of RPGs I have begun thinking about crunch and fluff in new ways.  The paradigm I am using at the moment is to think of RPGs as having a puzzle value.  That is, the ratio between how much of the game is focused around the players trying to think their way out of situations with concrete rules and how much is them just making cinematic decisions and the GM making something up.

Combat is the easiest venue for making these comparisons but it isn't limited to that.  Some games have the players making decisions in a matrix of rules and numbers such that they could actually play out combats by themselves without a GM.  DnD is definitely like this, as is Heroes By Trade.  There are surprises much of the time but it would certainly be possible to list exactly how the fight will go and what the enemies will attempt to do and run it as a player quite comfortably.  Whereas I remember a description from Numenera where the players were fighting a giant robot and due to something the players did the giant robot suddenly got a flamethrower.  It didn't have one before, and that result wasn't planned... the GM just made it up.

Personally I find the puzzle aspect of such a thing completely lacking.  If I have no idea what my actions will accomplish and encounters just go along until the GM arbitrarily decides they are over there is no optimization.  I often take a sub optimal route of course, because once I know what I should do in the puzzle I need to figure out if that is what my character would do and often those are not the same thing.  Without concrete rules to follow though the joy I get in sorting out a puzzle and finding the perfect solution isn't there.  Heroes By Trade has a very high puzzle value in combat, possibly the highest I have seen, and certainly higher than most of the new wave of fantasy RPGs that focus on fluff more extensively.

That actually applies throughout RPGs including things like exploration and negotiation.  I know the GM has to make everything up as they go but I want them to craft a world and then let me cut loose in it rather than have a blank slate.  I like the idea of exploring the dread forest to find out what is there rather than the story simply happening no matter what it is I choose to do.  Clearly the world isn't fully built when I step into it but I want to feel as though it is; I want a simulation as well as a narrative arc.

It is a tricky balancing act.  In a pure simulation of course I would end up dead, eaten by direwolves in the dread forest.  Either that or wander for days finding nothing of note!  However, games that have too low a puzzle coefficient end up feeling pointless and contrived, like my decisions don't matter and thinking about things is irrelevant.  I want the sense that the GM is simply letting me know what happens rather than that they are making it all up on the fly.  I need the puzzle value to be high even when I do get a few nudges in the direction of something interesting.

I am by no means the extreme outlier in this.  Naked Man is constantly pushing for poison tables, weather tables, and precise counting of coins.  He wants to note that he has fourteen silver shillings, two golden dragons from the Free Counties, 87 brass pennies from Traevas, a ruby worth 80 silver shillings, and a golden statue of unknown value.  For me this is simply too much because we never ever do it properly.  If we were actually playing an economics simulation I would happily record gold and silver and such but we always end up fudging the cost of stays at the tavern or bribing the guards.  Inevitably we spend time haggling over utterly trivial sums and hauling daggers from slain foes to sell for pennies, or we simply ignore the small expenditures and lose the simulation feel anyway.  I have many times found a wonderful simulation feel for combat, for exploration, for discussion, but never have I found money to actually work that way.

Heroes By Trade is the game you would expect from me.  It is crunchy in combat and has lots of interesting tactical decisions.  It does not have a concrete money system and instead plays that fast and loose.  It controls player magic and abilities reasonably tightly and does not simply let people make up things on the fly and hope the GM is generous.  I want to have a list of resources in front of me and a problem to tackle.  I want that puzzle to solve.

Friday, June 26, 2015

Figuring out Steam

Several game blogs I follow have talked about how they seem to have too many Steam games.  They buy a ton of games on big Steam sales but never end up playing them.  The usual story is that they have a library of one hundred Steam games but only play about five new games a year... and they are still buying twenty five new games a year because they look cool and for five bucks how can you go wrong?

My Steam library has seven games in it and all have dozens to hundreds of hours.  Sales, they don't so much work on me.

Tobold thinks this is a widespread phenomenon and that this is going to lead to some kind of massive game industry crash as people notice that they are paying for games they don't use.  Eventually people will catch on and just stop buying games at all until they have played through all of the games they have.  If we assume everyone is a perfectly logical actor and that money is extremely tight then this makes sense, but neither of those things is true.

Just look at the garment industry.  That new sweater that you bought even though you already have six sweaters?  A total waste, but what a bargain at half off!  It would be a waste of money *not* to buy it!  50% off sales still generate massive amounts of buying even though people have had awhile to try to learn that 50% isn't really 50%.  Like ten or twenty thousand years, at least.  I am pretty sure it took about fifteen minutes after the first person traded berries for a hunk of meat for someone to figure out that offering meat for ten berries then dropping the price to five berries would get people interested.  Fact is, we know that people continue to accumulate far beyond their needs, even far beyond their ability to use the thing they are buying at all.

There is every reason to think that this will apply to games in the same way.  People are going to continue to buy new shiny things at big discounts and then not have time to play them.  The people that are clever enough not to do that already aren't doing that, and last I heard Steam was making a bajillion dollars.  All those people supplying the bajillion dollars are going to keep on doing that.

You can't go too far wrong assuming everyone is going to buy crap they don't need, and Steam is assuming that in a big way.  The smart money is on that working well into the future.

Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Crunchy, but in an icky way

I have been reading 13th Age, a roleplaying game built on the d20 open gaming licence.  It is clearly a DnD clone that sits somewhere between 3rd and 4th edition incorporating elements of both.  That isn't all though as it certainly brings lots of new things of its own to the table, but you can't ignore the origin of the thing.  It was pitched to me as a crunchy game with a lot of combat tactics and that seems true but I don't much like the way it does things.

One of the issues 13th Age has is that it relies on rapidly scaling Armour Class to improve character power.  Overall from level 1 to level 10, which is the max, character AC rises something like 13 points.  That means at higher levels weak enemies simply cannot affect you, and moreover that you go from being hittable to being invulnerable in one big chunk.  The problem here is that the die simply isn't big enough.  When people are rolling a d20 to hit that first 2 points of AC might reduce the enemy to hitting you on 13 instead of 11, but that last 2 points of AC means that instead of hitting on 19 they cannot do anything at all.  13th Age tries to deal with this by controlling hit bonuses and AC very tightly.  Items provide +1 to +3 bonuses based on level, stats all start and end at the same values, and everybody gets the same bonuses from level.  The system is so fragile that they box every character into a corner and keep them all the same in order to keep the numbers from breaking.  This means that everyone is on a magic item treadmill, their stats are basically locked up with no flexibility, and they all have the same bonuses.  Boring!

They also imported a lot of things from 4th edition that I really dislike - things like having multiple stats determine the bonus to a particular defence based on which is highest.  That isn't a balance complaint, but just a feeling that raising my Constitution should have a consistent effect, rather than "Well, if I Constitution is my middle stat of Strength, Dexterity, Constitution then it does this thing, but if it is my low or high stat, it does nothing."  That just feels bizarre to me, an example of someone trying to balance things so hard that the system feels wrong.

One thing that they do in this game which I really like is the idea of failing not actually being about failure but rather complication.  If for example you fail a Diplomacy check you still succeed in what you were trying but something weird happens.  The queen might agree to pay you to slay the monster, but she decides to send another group too and give the money to whoever gets the critter first.  I feel like utterly failing should be a real possibility but this does give me an idea for how to handle most failures in a more entertaining fashion.

In Heroes By Trade people roll 1d8 and add their bonus to perform a Skill Check.  My theory is that I could add the rule that if you attempt something and fail you will have a choice:  Either accept failure and move on, or roll an additional 1d8 and add it to the roll.  If that higher check succeeds then you do what you intended but regardless something bad happens.  Basically you are taking risks and being reckless, which is a problem, but might allow a stunning success.  Maybe you pick the lock but you make a ton of noise doing it, or you leap the chasm but your weapon falls off halfway across and is lost.  It feels like this would give the GM a lot of opportunities for hilarity and make it possible to set up really difficult checks that the players can fail at in ways that forward the plot and add interesting twists.

This might even be a good replacement for Fate Points, as I haven't been entirely pleased with them in testing recently.  Using them just doesn't have the visceral impact that I want and they don't feel good in combat particularly - plus stocking up on them makes players feel invincible.  The main thing I really liked in terms of Fate Point use was coming up with crazy ways to succeed at very difficult tasks and taking a complication to achieve something super heroic strikes me as a much better way to approach it.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

Flexing

Patch 6.2 for WOW is dropping on Tuesday.  I am excited about this primarily because I am sick of the current dungeon and am thoroughly ready for something new and exciting.  New monsters, new story, new stuff!

Of course the *really* interesting part of it is the math.

My new set bonuses look simple enough at the outset but they are designed to reward clever play.  Right now I have a buff called Avenging Wrath (AW) that gives me a 20% damage bonus and allows me to use a nasty attack for 20 seconds.  It has a 2 minute cooldown.  My new set bonuses read as follows:

1:  AW now has 3 charges.  (This means that I can use it 3 times and I get a new usage every 2 minutes.  I can also store those uses up, with a cap of 3.)

2:  After AW ends gain 6% extra damage every second for 10 seconds. (I model this as 30% damage for 10 seconds, which is hopefully the way it works out but I won't know for sure until I see it.)

These two things in combination are fairly easy to math out.  This new set is absolutely amazing in a short fight of course, because you just get 2 extra uses of a big cooldown right away.  The longer the fight goes the worse that effect is, but it still matters.  However, the key to the bit is that now I will have flexibility about *when* I cast AW and that is very hard to math out.

For example, my guild is currently bashing on Heroic Blast Furnace.  I really want to have AW available for every Channeler but exactly when we will have a Channeler up is not clear.  They also don't come on predictable 2 minute timers.  This means that with my current setup I either use AW every two minutes and often don't have it available for a Channeler or when it comes up I save it for a Channeler.  I have to choose between using it as often as possible and using it at the exact time I want but wasting possible uses.

With the new set bonus I won't have to face that choice.  I can just save up a couple AW uses and hit it as soon as I am about to get my 3rd use back.  Every time a Channeler comes up I will have AW to hit no matter if they come up 90 seconds apart, 3 minutes apart, or some other time.  The ability to save up charges and use them intelligently is difficult to evaluate in terms of raw damage done but it is considerable.  Even on a fight where there are no mechanics to force particular cooldown usage I can save up my AW uses for when I get a big buff from a trinket or Heroism.

The math I did suggests that the raw dps benefit of these set bonuses is roughly 8%.  That was modeled on a 9 minute fight with no consideration given to timing of AW nor syncing it with trinket procs, though I did assume Heroism cast at the start of the fight.  With the ability to stack up to 70 seconds of massively improved damage at once or to spread that damage out as necessity dictates I am certain the benefit will be drastically larger than that in practice.  (The 70 seconds can be 100 seconds with a particular talent, which I expect to be using when I get my 4p together.)

My feeling is that I can probably squeeze at least another 5% effective damage out of using AW intelligently with the new set bonus.  There won't be pressure to use it in suboptimal situations and I will always be able to line it up with phases that demand extra burst.  Even the ability to wait a few seconds to pop it to max out my Holy Power first without wasting any cooldown time is huge.

I am really looking forward to trying it out.  My current set bonus is powerful enough and required tinkering with my mod to optimize it but once that was done I pretty much ignored it.  This new one will really let me flex my brain to crush the enemies in the face and I ready to rise to the challenge.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Something's gotta happen

I had an interesting conversation this past week about the way I am designing Heroes By Trade.  The person I was talking to is much more a roleplayer than a rollplayer - he likes systems like Dungeon World where it is common to make a single roll for the turn and then the GM narrates what happens in response.  For example, it is possible to get a result where you are successful in your stated action but there is a consequence and the GM might decide that the consequence is that you fall down, break your weapon, lose your torch, or some other difficulty.  In Heroes By Trade that sort of thing isn't written into the rules at all - the GM is going to have to make calls at times but mostly you can predict the results of your actions easily.  Hit or miss, damage or not, dead or alive, you might not know *which* will happen, but you know that these are the options.

One thing that was pointed out to me was that the systems that have a lot more making it up in them have the advantage that something happens every turn.  You don't have turns going by with "I miss.  I miss too.  Okay, the monster attacks... and misses.  Back to the top of the order."  In a game like Dungeon World the fight changes each time people do something, but how it changes is often very unclear.  I don't like the unclear part for my games but I do find the idea of something happening every time appealing.

People don't like to miss.  They don't like whiffing completely and wasting their turn.  So the question I have been mulling over is whether or not I should try to find a way for that to happen in Heroes By Trade.  There are some half measures I could employ like simply reducing the base value for people's Dodge and letting attacks hit more often generally - this doesn't guarantee a hit but does make turns where nothing happens much less likely.  This really mucks with the balance of the game though because if players are already hitting a lot they will avoid hit bonuses and go for damage instead, reversing much of the gains.  Hit bonuses simply can't be that valuable in a system where you start out hitting the great majority of the time and in which the die being rolled is fairly large.

I was also considering the idea of letting people spend Focus to turn misses into hits.  This would mean that every attack would hit, but if you roll badly you end up having to spend some of your resources to make it land.  That is a possibility, but involves another step in every Hit Roll bogs combat down.  That doesn't rule this idea out, but it is a significant penalty to trying it.

The idea I am toying with right now is making every attack hit by default but having the roll determine if the target's Armour applies or not.  (The current version has Armour apply to all hits.) The idea is that you always bash on them a little, but on a good roll you can apply your debuffs and ignore their Armour to really lay on an extra beating.  This would require some adjustments to the game as damage values would have to drop substantially since people are taking damage each and every swing.  It would have a really pleasant side effect though in that it would eliminate stacking all Dodge or all Armour as a broken strategy.  Having a massive Dodge value would mean that every hit would have to go through Armour... but that means you need a good Armour value to leverage it!  Each point of Armour or Dodge makes the other one more valuable, which means that stacking a single stat doesn't get you to invulnerability.

It also means that I can actually give some monsters truly preposterous Armour or Dodge values if I want without breaking things.  Pixies may have 40 Dodge so you can't land a full strength blow on them, but their Armour probably isn't good so you can still beat them down.  Same goes for Dragons and other dangerous critters - I can give them enough Armour to be essentially immune to dorks with arrows if I want to as long as their Dodge is something that powerful heroes can deal with.

I don't know if I want to do the quantity of rewriting that would be necessary to balance that but it really does have some appeal.  Every turn does something, a few nasty edge cases get fixed neatly, and I think people end up having more fun.  Worth exploring, at any rate.

Thursday, June 11, 2015

That thing we all love to hate

Last night I went to a games night where I got to show off Camp Nightmare and ended up talking a lot about Heroes By Trade.  Pretty much I spent my evening defending and promoting the games I am pouring my time into to a new audience, and that was an enlightening experience.  The Camp Nightmare feedback was useful and fairly typical as it was divided into two types:  Firstly there were a couple card interactions that could be interpreted several ways based on the current wording and I can rewrite those to make them tighter.  Much of the rest of the feedback was of the second type though, which mostly amounts to wanting ways around the constraints the game imposes - essentially making the game easier.

Camp Nightmare isn't a brutally difficult game by any means - mostly people don't win but winning is quite possible, even for people on their first playthrough.  The goal isn't necessarily to achieve total victory but rather to do as well as possible.  People often see a way to do something powerful that the rules don't allow and ask for the rules to change to accommodate that.  For example, people usually end up drawing far too many cards and end up being grumpy that they have all these wonderful cards and they can't play them all.  Veteran gamers are actually by far the most likely to do this, for the record, so it isn't just people who have no clue when it comes to games.  I have received endless suggestions that all amount to the same thing - people want to just play all of their cards instead of picking and choosing the best ones.

Trouble is, not only would letting people play more cards require a redesign from the ground up, it wouldn't make the game more fun.  If players with 8 good cards could just play them all, even if there was a cost associated, they would do so.  No thought required, no sacrifices needed.  Just play everything!  kaboom!

But that is fun once.

The second time it is boring because you don't have to make a careful choice, plan ahead, or weigh your options.  You just do everything and win.  That isn't an interesting choice and it has little replay value.  The trick to the game is that you have to balance drawing cards to generate more possibilities with taking actions to generate more resources right away.  That sense that you just can't quite do everything you want to is frustrating in the moment but that feeling is what brings people back.  If Pandemic normally resolved by everyone handily curing every disease and the players declaring victory people would stop playing.  The reason people continue to play is that being in dire straits, desperately trying to eke out every tiny advantage from a perilous situation, is the part that is actually fun.  They might fuss about not being able to move quite far enough to get to the city that they really want to cure but if you gave them more actions the game wouldn't be more fun - it would be boring.

It is, I suspect, an offshoot of gamers' desire to optimize.  They want to push for every advantage, see every angle.  Those gamers constantly struggle against the constraints that games impose and curse the rules that prevent them from accomplishing their goals.  What is critical to recognize though is that such struggle is exactly what generates the flow, the enjoyment, and the eventual thrill of victory.

We want to do more stuff.  We want to go harder, faster, bigger, more.  That striving for more has to give that feeling of railing against an unyielding force in order for the greatest joy to be had at the end.

Like this guy, who is having a blast, according to me.


Pic from:  http://urbancliq.com/news_article_readmore.php?nid=16042