Tuesday, October 6, 2015

Fired up, Inner style

I finally decided to give Blizzard some money.  I haven't done so in WOW for some time now as I can easily fund my play with tokens bought via in game gold but now they have collected money from me for Hearthstone.  They are going to get me one way or another, it seems.  Hearthstone's payment scheme is set up such that it is far more efficient to spend money on adventures that come with both cards and a bunch of single player challenges and then spend in game gold on drafting and buying packs.  I really wanted to get going with drafting as well as having all of the cards from adventures, so $25 got shipped off to Blizzard to purchase Blackrock Mountain.

Now that I have access to all the Blackrock Mountain bosses I have been grinding away at heroic modes.  In theory these are wildly variable puzzles that usually require figuring out which cards can beat a particularly challenging layout and then getting enough luck to win.  For many of the challenges that theory holds... but unfortunately a lot of the really challenging heroic modes are all solved the same way.  There is a two card combo that beats most of the hard stuff, and it looks like this:

So you get a minion with high health, double its health a couple times, then turn your 2/48 minion into a 48/48 minion and win the game.  Smash.  This technique bypasses all kinds of difficult situations and lets you ignore multi stage fights by simply killing the boss in one turn instead of letting them go through their stages based on how much health they have left.  This wouldn't be frustrating except that there are an awful lot of fights that depend on this single combo to beat them, so instead of a really tricky puzzle it just consists of using the combo deck over and over again because the AI doesn't have appropriate spells to deal with it and doesn't understand what is happening anyway.

The silly thing is that these spells are common but I don't own any of them so the encounters are nearly unwinnable for me.  Eventually I will get them, but for the moment is isn't really a matter of strategy but simply a matter of finding these particular cards and then blowing the enemies out.

Many times I have tried a heroic boss a number of different ways and come up short, having no idea what I could do to beat them with the cards I have.  Eventually I look up other people's ideas online and lo and behold, they are using cards I don't have to smash the encounter.  The cards I don't have are usually the common ones oddly enough and while most of the time it is Inner Fire I also could really use a Crazed Alchemist or two to beat heroic Thaurissan.  (Crazed Alchemist is also completely nuts vs. Razorgore, but I just beat that one without it.)

Overall the variety in the puzzles looks pretty big at first glance, but they do have the issue that most classes are completely hopeless at the puzzles.  The main thing is that the bosses start with a ton of health and usually have some crazy aggressive start so you simply cannot rush them down.  Doing 60 damage to an enemy with an aggressive deck isn't possible when you have 30 health and they are rushing you back and have some massive bonus stacked on top.  The only way to beat most of the heroic modes is to stabilize, clear their threats, and eventually find a way to win, and it is almost universally priest or mage that is ideal for doing that.  Mage for the fights where you aren't allowed to have minions, which is a common theme, and priest for everything else.

I don't know how feasible it would be to make a control oriented heroic mode that rewards rushing instead of controlling on the player's part.  Vaelestrasz is the closest to that model because he tries to blow you up by running you out of deck but he just wasn't that hard.  I put together a random deck with all the cheap junk I could click on and smashed him, so clearly it wasn't as hard as all that.  I certainly didn't need to reload over and over like I did on some bosses to get the perfect draw to keep myself alive against their starting brutality like Loatheb!

There is a lot of fun to be had working your way through heroic modes.  The general experience is good and I like it... but I do wish it wasn't quite so clear that there is one best way to beat a lot of the hardest encounters, particularly when those encounters are the endbosses and they have such interesting staged abilities.  I hope the next adventure contains a lot more fights like Baron Geddon and Vaelestrasz because I felt like I had to do some really cool stuff to deal with their abilities that wasn't just limited to a formula I had already figured out.

Friday, October 2, 2015

What is normal?

Blizzard recently nerfed a bunch of things in normal mode Hellfire Citadel, the last raid of the current  WOW xpac.  The previous model had been that Raid Finder mode was ridiculously easy and had many mechanics removed, normal and heroic mode were identical except for the numbers, and mythic mode was much more difficult both in terms of numbers and mechanics.  This xpac I never took part in mythic difficulty so I can't speak authoritatively on that point, but from everything I have read the mythic raiders were very impressed.

Throughout the xpac it felt weird to do normal and then heroic with no changes in strategy.  Aside from 'have better gear' and 'play tighter' there wasn't anything else to add.  It always felt a bit strange to have nothing more to learn, and honestly made heroic feel like a bit of a letdown.  I was always a lot less interested in heroic modes in Highmaul and Foundry and after seeing Hellfire Citadel through on normal I just had no interest left in pursuing heroic.

No however Blizzard has removed a bunch of mechanics, especially on the harder encounters, and I am sure people stuck on those encounters will rush through them now.  They defended the decision to remove mechanics entirely instead of simply nerfing damage by saying that it was silly to list mechanics that did so little there was no reason to pay attention to them.  Focus on a few things, make those things actually dangerous, and pull the rest out entirely.  I agree with that strategy completely.

I suspect I would have enjoyed raiding more this xpac if the entire thing had been done this way.  We would have proceeded more rapidly through normal mode for sure and the heroic modes would have felt interesting as new things would need to be incorporated into our strategy.  The fights always felt like a huge amount of information was incoming at the beginning and then to have nothing new arrive the second time around felt - off.  Certainly the numbers still have to go up, and the general tuning can be tougher, but adding a completely new thing to deal with would keep me interested I think, moreso than the old design.

In general going through the same content over and over again is going to have limited appeal.  Running the raid on Raid Finder, then normal, then heroic is a chore and burns it out quickly.  however, I really do think that ratcheting up both the complexity and the tuning for every difficulty setting is the right way to go.

Here's hoping they do this for the next xpac, whenever that is.

Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Sometimes when building a game you have to add in extra complexity to make things easier to learn.  Generally of course you want to cut out anything that adds to the learning curve but which doesn't really improve the game, but on occasion you can bulk up the document while simultaneously making the game simpler to grasp for new players.

Right now I am doing just that while altering some Powers in Heroes By Trade.  Initially the game had two different ways to alter enemy movement - you could Slow them or Immobilize them.  When a ranged person like a Wizard Immobilizes an enemy it is obvious what the point of that is - you are trying to pin them in place while you run away!  However, melee classes also had Immobilize effects and people seemed to struggle to figure out how to use those.  Because ranged attacks have disadvantage if the attacker is threatened by a melee fighter there are two good reasons for melee to Immobilize someone.  Firstly it means the someone can't get away, and second it means the someone can't use ranged attacks effectively.

All of that made sense, but sometimes new players couldn't figure out why they would use an Immobilize attack.  The issue was in part caused by trying to figure out what was happening when such an attack occurred.  It is easy to see how a frostbolt from a Wizard freezes people to the ground, Immobilizing them, but what exactly is a brawler with a club *doing* when they Immobilize an enemy?  This was especially true since the brawler with a club could Immobilize a melee opponent, walk away, and the opponent would have no way of striking back because they were still pinned in place... by what, we don't know.

My solution to this was to add more rules.  First off I needed two classes of things that prevent movement - Immobilize, which is iconically a frostbolt freezing you to the ground, and Grab, which is a brawler grabbing you and pinning you.  Grab has the disadvantage that you can't walk away from the target and maintain it - if you leave, the target is now free to move.  However, Grab has the advantage that you can drag the target around with you if you want.  It feels a lot more like what a brawler would do to an enemy, and doesn't encourage melee people to pin each other in place and dance around.  Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that, but such tactics felt bizarre given the descriptions and titles of the powers and I want the mechanics to line up with the flavour.

That doesn't mean that a melee class can't have an Immobilize... but it means that when I use that I can make sure that the feel of the Power in question really makes it clear what is happening and why it is that way.

While this means there are more rules to learn it also means that if anyone just starts reading Powers they will have a much clearer idea of what those Powers do and how they work.  In fact for Grab and Immobilize people would probably be able to guess what the effects of the Powers are quite regularly without even needing the rules text, which is obviously the ideal.

It isn't often that I feel good about adding extra rules to the game.  Extra content is great, extra rules, usually not.  But in this case I think the extra rules actually make the game simpler to learn, rather than more complex, which means I can include a steeper learning curve elsewhere when I feel I really need it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

All figured out and nowhere to go

It has hit again - that malaise that comes to a WOW raider at the end of an expansion where logging in to bash bosses just seems pointless.  Partly I think it is the way the loot is structure at the moment, because I can get 695 gear in every slot just by doing random dailies, so bosses that drop 690, 695, and 700 loot are pretty unexciting.  Now I have nearly every piece of gear from normal modes that I might want barring one specific trinket so the loot isn't really getting me going.  Unfortunately the heroic modes we are going to be trying are only dropping ilvl 705 loot so while that is an upgrade it is still going to be vendor food for many slots.

It is really hard to get up motivation to look for new loot when the first time you kill a boss you end up vendoring most of what it drops!  Having such high ilvl items available from questing and missions and crafting is good in many ways, but it really does make an awful lot of the raid drops worthless.

Of course there are other things to get excited about that aren't loot.  New fights, new mechanics, new challenges.  However, now that I have my set complete and I know how to play it there won't be any new things to think about in terms of personal strategy for this xpac - I am done, it is all figured out.  Normally there would be strategic decisions to make but my guild is never going to attempt mythic modes and heroics are exactly the same as normal but with higher numbers.  Can I work up the desire to grind the same fights over again with slightly bigger values on my screen?

It seems I cannot.  I missed the raid last night because I was excitedly writing flavourful fluff and while I felt a bit guilty for leaving the guild in the lurch I was happier having done my creation than pushing buttons and making bosses die.

WOW can offer me a lot of things.  It can make me think, it can make me plan for the future, and it can surprise me with new stuff.  Right now there is nothing more to think about, no future to consider, and no new stuff to experience.

So I think I am done with Warlords of Draenor, and will await the next expansion to begin again.  It was fun, and now I am done.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The fluff

I am in the middle of fluff.

Not literally, of course.

More like I am busy writing fluff for a couple games.  It is weird for me because though I can sometimes get excited by fluff and flavour it doesn't grab me like mechanics and numbers do.  Right now I am working on getting flavour text for Camp Nightmare working better, and that is a really tough call because humour is hard!  

There are a few good jokes in the game already because some of them came easily but to look at a concept and a set of mechanics and to have to come up with a joke so often stymies me.  It isn't like numbers where I can always just resolve to build a spreadsheet and make it work... if the joke doesn't come I don't have a place to look for it.  I just have to sit and wait for it to exist.  The game is silly and given that lighthearted theme I really need to keep the hits rolling, which ends up being a lot of starting at a screen hoping for inspiration and not getting any.

Some current pictures and stuff for Camp Nightmare are up on Facebook here if you want to check them out!

In other fluff news I am trying to sort out Backgrounds for Heroes By Trade.  I keep twisting around on myself on this one trying to sort out how I should structure people's history and connections to the world.  Initially I just had people select two Assets and two Problems and go from there, but it was big and without much in the way of guidelines.  Trouble with that is it is probably overwhelming to new players and veterans will just ignore it anyway... which means that it doesn't really serve a purpose.

My current design that I am fleshing out (which hopefully won't get scrapped like all the others) is to divide all kinds of Background into categories and make people pick one Asset and one Problem from each category.  For example, you have to pick one area of competence, which could be something like a trade skill, a knack for holding your breath, or even extra training in languages.  Then you have to pick an area of incompetence, which might mean that you have no idea how to deal with money, are illiterate, or are flat out hopeless with tools of any sort.

Currently I am planning these sections to contain Competence, Connections, Possessions, Goals / Committments, Personality, and Unique and Magical Stuff.  So your character might have:

Skill in Blacksmithing
Hopeless in Cities
A mayor who is your mentor
A sister in law who is your nemesis
Have a magic item
Be desperately poor
The desire to cleanse the world of demons
The inability to leave people to their fate
Inspiring speechgiver
Fear of water
Eyes that glow red
Cause dogs to run in fear

Heck, that might even be too much stuff to inflict on every new character.  At any rate it will definitely give people some things to choose and some places to start their roleplaying, even if some of it never really sees the light of day.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dead, dead, dead

I got to play DnD 5th edition for the first time today.  While I was pretty bullish on the game prior to trying it I found a lot of things that grated when I actually waded in and got to see it in action.  Part of that was just the module that we played which was originally published for DnD 3rd edition and was updated for 5th.  The module basically tossed us into a magical dungeon at first level and then sent incredibly lethal fights at us, the second of which killed us off.  Whoever designed the Whispering Cairn for DnD 5th really had no idea what they were doing in terms of difficulty as we determined afterwards that our balanced party with reasonable builds and stats was absolutely rated to lose the encounter, no question about it.

We were a group with HP values of 8, 9, 10, and 12.  We were injured from a previous fight, but not grievously, and if we had had our full complement of HP our total would have gone to 46, but as it was we had only 39.  The enemies had a total HP between the two of them of 54.  The enemies having more HP than us looks bad, but here is the total set of stats:

Us (Mage / Druid / Ranger / Barbarian):

HP:  39
Damage:  5.5 / 8.5 / 10 / 13
Hit:  5, 6, 6, 6
AC:  13, 15, 15, 12

Monsters (Swarm of Beetles and Giant Spider Thing):

HP:  54
Damage:  10 / 8.5 / 8.5
Hit:  3, 5, 5
AC:  13, 14

So while the enemies have more HP than us we have one more attack and better hit values.  That looks fairly balanced, but the problem is that our HP was spread way out and theirs was not.  The two opponents had 32 HP and 22 HP but the 22 HP opponent was resistant to almost all of our attacks.  Taking out any one enemy was a major endeavour that required roughly 4 successful hits, so probably 2 rounds of focus fire.  Unfortunately we had several ranged units that lacked the ability to break contact with the enemy so focusing fire wasn't really an option.  The other big problem was that our HP pools were so small it was easy for the enemies to take us out before we could pose any kind of threat.  We lost the 8 and 9 HP targets on the first turn, which isn't particularly unlikely, and then by round 3 we had a TPK (Total Party Kill).

It is an enormous advantage to be able to eliminate targets quickly and reduce the enemy's ability to fight back and in this case the monsters were able to use that to easily destroy us.  Players usually use this to whittle monster groups down to size and reduce their ability to deal damage but it works both ways.

This particular encounter was definitely rated to kill us but the previous one was also extremely dangerous.  We won it, but I am pretty sure we had at least a 33% chance to die to that one too as the monsters again had more HP than us and similar quality attacks but lacked spells to burn to swing the fight like we had.

Even though this might seem like an aberration it really can't be terribly unusual.  Even a fight against a few goblins can be deadly - the goblins can easily 1 shot squishier characters and 2 shot tanks so all they have to do is roll good initiative, land a couple attacks that are roughly 50/50 propositions, and the fight is all but over.  Sure, the characters win fights against four goblins 95% of the time, but you have to win a lot of those fights to level up!  It really seems like 5th edition goes back to the assumption that low level characters are disposable and die constantly and you should only get invested in them once they get past the death zone that is level 1-2.  As In The Hat pointed out, it is sort of like some cultures that only name children once they get past a certain age and are then likely to actually survive!

I was also kind of frustrated at my options when building a character.  I wanted to have a few particular skills but I was stuck with a small list from my class and background and getting more seemed like an awfully long trek, which in any case required me to give up really powerful combat bonuses.  I also felt like being good at a skill hardly mattered, because being superb at something meant I was about 6 better on a d20 vs. a totally random dork.  It seemed basically like we were just rolling looking for high numbers and it wasn't really possible to be actually good at anything, as somebody else could just as easily roll an 18 and be far better.

5th edition is certainly better balanced between classes and races than older editions of DnD and they obviously put a lot of work into the fluff components of the game which I do appreciate.  Unfortunately some of the numbers really grate on me, and I am trapped between wanting two different things:  An interesting combat game where I try to figure out strategy, and roleplaying where I build a character will all kinds of history and cool stuff going on and make it really neat.  I can't really do much in terms of interesting combat because I just attack for 1d10 every turn or just die immediately without having made a choice.  Making a cool character and putting lots of thought and time into it seems silly when I am so likely to die right away without having done anything of note or made any mistake that caused it.

Probably higher level play would be a lot more rewarding.  I expect I would have more options in any given situation and would be less likely to just die.  We may get to test that out over the next little while - assuming the next group can survive the rigors of level 1, that is.

That all makes it sound like I didn't have any fun but that isn't true.  The group had a good time, but it was in spite of the system, rather than because of it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No way out

Hearthstone is facing down difficult problems and has no perfect solutions in the offing.  Much like Magic did in years gone past Hearthstone has the difficulty that the game inevitably becomes more and more difficult to get into for new players and that will eventually erode the playerbase.  You can't get your friends to join up and have fun if they need five thousand bucks worth of cards to even really play the game.  Hearthstone isn't that bad yet, but it will be with time unless something big changes.

One of the people designing Hearthstone, Ben Brode, posted a video talking about this issue.  I do like that he talked about how the team is really aware that releasing more paid content over time will eventually destroy their ability to recruit new players but sadly he wasn't willing to admit that the only solution is known, and will make a lot of people angry.  There was a lot of wishful thinking in the video and a serious lack of answers, and that makes sense because he is really stuck between two equally unappealing options:

1.  Screw the newbies.  Keep releasing content over time.  Let new people pay for it, or not, but don't worry too much about it.  This means that being competitive has a ever increasing cost and that is going to eventually dry up the supply of new blood.

2.  Screw the veterans.  There are two ways to approach this but they end up in the same place.  Either you have big discounts on old sets and keep the investment required to get into the game the same or you rotate out old content so that older cards simply aren't usable anymore, or aren't usable in most standard formats.  In either case people who paid in at the beginning will be really angry that their investment is worthless or you discourage people from buying anything because they know the price will drop.  Both are bad for business.

So what is hearthstone going to do?

I suspect they will do something like what Magic does and try to have a hybrid.  That is, they will let people play any cards they want in games against the AI, in Brawls, and in random games against other players.  However, they will have a separate Anything Goes! bracket and a New Sets Only bracket for competitive pvp play, which will be analogous to Classic and Standard for Magic players.  The new players won't be able to be successful in Anything Goes! without a massive investment but they can be competitive in New Sets Only.

This strategy also means that anyone who wants to continue to be able to play at any kind of high level has to buy every single set as it comes out.  You can't skip them because the New Sets Only venue will only have a couple sets in it and you will need them all to be competitive.  Ideally you want players to pay to play, but you also want some people who contribute minimally to the bottom line if they can recruit other people.  Getting people to play games is very much about the number of their friends that already play, so you really want to have everyone play even if they refuse to invest real cash.

I suspect the people running Hearthstone are going to hold fast to the 'we will come up with some kind of magic solution' line as long as is humanly possible.  They don't want to admit that their current structure is unmaintainable because that might suppress card sales in the short term.

Eventually though they are going to have to admit that there isn't a perfect solution but there is a passable solution and Magic already figured it out.