Friday, September 19, 2014

Do not believe

I have been having an entertaining time reading about review scores for games lately and comparing them to what actually came out the other end.  Tobold recently complained that previews are pretty much useless as they are just marketing from the game companies and that there are far more of them then there are reviews.  It is definitely true that the hype surrounding a game is an important predictor of sales but that promises contained in previews are pretty near worthless in terms of figuring out whether or not a game is worth buying.  I am reminded of the Bears, Bears, Bears speech promoting Warhammer Online that people got so excited about but which turned out to be complete rubbish (though I called it out as such at the time, go me!)

Certainly Tobold is right that previews are worthless in terms of promises, though you can likely glean some information from watching actual gameplay footage.  You just have to completely ignore anything anyone says and only look at what you see when someone is doing things in the game itself and you just can't get much out of that.  Sadly I don't think that reviews after the game is out are actually much better.  Unfortunately there is way too much of people who played a game for 100 hours in the first two weeks complaining that the game is the worst thing they have ever played and not worth the $50 they paid for it.  These are the same sorts of people who sit on forums for a game they have logged thousands of hours in and whine endlessly about how the game is garbage.

The real problem here is expectations.  When an indie game comes out with no expectations and little fanfare people who don't like it stop playing but they rarely go ballistic and post 1 star reviews.  Just another mediocre game, right?  But when it is a much anticipated big title things are very different and people invest huge amounts of their persona in being fans of that particular game.  Any disappointment in how the game turns out becomes a very personal attack against them and their judgement and they lash out.  It is much like interpersonal interactions in that if a stranger utters some nasty slur it is going to irritate me but it isn't going to wreck my day.  A friend who I have spent months telling my friends is a super sort of person who does the same thing is going to be a much bigger deal and my reaction will be much more vitriolic.

The only way to get useful reviews about a game is to only accept information from people who you trust to have similar tastes and judgement to your own.  Any sort of large scale system is going to be completely corrupted by marketing, whining from bittervets, and false hope.  Even if game quality were some sort of objectively measureable quality (Hint:  It isn't) then actually finding that information would still be a mess.  It seems like with the giant information collection device that the internet is that we could actually figure this stuff out but the systems that are in place right now are pretty lame at doing so.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Coop mode

Over the past little while I have been playing a fair number of coop board games, specifically Hanabi and Sentinels of the Multiverse.  I think these are two examples of very good coop board games because they avoid the two major issues coop games have:  One player playing the entire table or the game being very simple and random.  What I have been thinking is that my next board game creation endeavour should be to create a coop game that is superior to Sentinels of the Multiverse.  Hanabi is so simple and excellent that I don't think I can just sit down and build a better version.  Sentinels on the other hand does some things right but it also does a ton of things terribly wrong and I am confident I can build something similar but avoid many of the pitfalls of that game.

One of the things I wish Sentinels did better is limit game length.  While I have played quick games I find that things often begin to drag out in a fairly extreme way.  In the worst case you end up with a couple of players dead and the other players manage to stabilize and take hours to take down the villain a bit at a time.  That can be very frustrating especially from the perspective of a player who has been eliminated and thus has little to contribute.  Initially I liked the idea that a dead player could still do a single small thing from a short list but how it ends up working out is that the player does the exact same single thing each turn.  It ends up locking them into the game without actually letting them play properly, and though it tries to solve player elimination I think it solves that problem badly.  Keeping game length limited is a great idea both because it lets you actually play it when you don't have half a day to spare (are you listening Diplomacy?) and because people like to know what they are committing to when they sit down.

My idea is to make a game themed around going camping, which is certainly due to the challenges I experienced in my camping trip this weekend.  Of course the camping trip the players will experience is going to be much more complicated and tragic than the one I experienced myself.  I expect many bear attacks, hordes of mosquitoes, fights over the marshmallows, and tents that catch on fire.  The basic mechanic I envision is one where each player first either plays a card from their hand or chooses a basic role each turn, and then chooses a terrible event from a short list.  Something along the lines of "Okay, so I play a Marshmallow Stick which makes Marshmallows give +3 food.  Then I guess I have to choose between Raccoon Attack and Downpour."  I like the idea of players getting to choose the terrible things that happen because then they can plan around what is coming up and figure out what sorts of things they can handle at the moment and what simply has to be put off.

In theory the deck of terrible things can be used to limit game length while also providing the challenges the players have to overcome.  The theme can essentially be that the players have to deal with all or at least some very large subset of the problems that exist before the camping trip can be declared over and the score tallied.  I am not entirely certain if it should be possible for the players to lose entirely but I think Hanabi actually works very well in that regard because it usually goes right to the end but there is a chance of losing if you really bone it up.  I am leaning that way at the moment, but until I actually build things more concretely I won't know for sure.  These things have a way of getting away from me and following their own path.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

The problem with proximity

I was talking earlier about issues with pets in Diablo 3.  They are the same issues other games face - pets either always live and are overpowered or always die and are useless.  People love pets though so I want to talk a bit about the real problems with pets and how we might go about fixing them.  The problem with pets is not that they do damage, or that they do too much damage.  Rather, it is that their toughness matters.  It is very easy to create a balanced class or ability based on a pet that beats up the monsters as you can simply balance it against whatever else you do to kill things.  The problem is that pets can completely invalidate the enemies' attacks and that wrecks everything.

One way to fix this is to have pets that are very short duration.  In this model pets are more like an extended nuke spell that run up to the enemies, bash for a bit, then vanish.  In theory this works just fine but in practice I think what players expect from a pet class is a bunch of pets that follow the character around.  If all the pets only appear when the player is spamming then a lot of the flavour is lost and flavour is really what we are after.  If we were after balance we would just shelve pets permanently because they are a neverending problem.

D3 is actually far worse in this regard that it has to be because pets are on long cooldowns.  If my Zombie Dogs required real resources to summon I could keep recasting them as they die and that would fix the all or nothing problem a lot.  I would have to choose between casting damage spells and resummoning pets and although my pets dying would suck at least I could continue to move forward.  With big cooldowns on pets though there is no middle ground.  Either the pets are immortal, or they die and I can't play and there is nothing in between.  I am not super familiar with Path of Exile but as I understand it that game did things a lot better because you can spend your time resummoning pets so you don't fall off the cliff quite so dramatically.

Really though if you want permanent pets I think the way to make them work better is to fix enemy aggro.  Right now in D3 and indeed most games of its ilk monsters operate purely on a proximity aggro system.  They happily stand and bash on the zombies and ignore the summoner in the background.  If the enemies ignored the pets and all went after the player then things would be much smoother since the player would have to be able to tank, kite, CC, or do whatever else to deal with the damage just like any other player would.  The pets could happily bash on the monsters and do the damage that they need to do without worrying much about their toughness.

This suggestion has the flavour issue that people really want a meatwall that makes them invincible.  I think though that the invincible meatwall desire intrinsically creates intractable problems.  In any case the meatwall is going to interfere with enemy movement and keep some of the enemies away from the player, it just won't be a complete defence.  With this sort of design pet toughness isn't much of an issue as long as they don't die to AOE effects but are still killable in extreme circumstances everything is fine.

In short, I think the best way to fix pets is to make them into weapons rather than armour.  You don't summon zombies to get punched, you summon them to do some punching!

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Falling off the cliff

Diablo 3 has just launched patch 2.1.  By and large the patch does a lot of good things but it is also illustrating some real problems that appear in nearly every RPG type game out there.  In particular there are always tremendous issues with pets and pet classes that constantly plague these sorts of games, mainly that either the enemies are capable of killing the pets in which case the pet class is nonfunctional or the enemies cannot kill the pets in which case the pet class is invincible.

Player toughness is not nearly so binary because players do things like crowd control enemies, position themselves so that only a few enemies can hit them, kite, use defensive buffs, etc.  Because of all the different tactics players can employ to trade off damage for survivability there is a wide range of monster damage that is workable.  Pets can't do any of those things.  They just stand there and get beat and either they are tough enough or they are not.

I am running into this issue with my Witch Doctor right now.  Generally speaking the changes in 2.1 were an outrageous buff to me - several bugs were fixed with the interaction between Fetish Sycophants and Fetish Army, pets occupy less space so they can swarm more easily, and Life On Hit was massively buffed which is insane because I was already stacking a lot of it.  I can safely say that my health and damage are both effectively doubled.  I can handle the highest base difficulty without much worry and I am collecting new gear and cash at a fantastic rate as all I need to do is follow around my swarm of evil and watch them maul the enemies.

However, when things go bad they go really bad indeed.  If the enemies can actually deliver enough damage to kill my dorks my army falls over very quickly and then I am left in a completely untenable position.  If I summon more dorks they die rapidly as they are outnumbered and building back up to a critical mass is extremely difficult.  I can potentially run back through the dungeon to hunt for weak enemies to farm to get my army back up to size but that isn't a very good strategy for a timed run, or indeed for any sort of efficiency.  Doing so also assumes I can survive a situation where I have to take hits in the face instead of relying on my meat shields.

It feels a bit like launch day of the original D3.  Pets were really excellent in the beginning, both tanking and beating down like champs.  As soon as the challenges ramped up a bit though they were utterly useless.  Right now pets are really good for the base game but as soon as I end up running through timed Greater Rifts which continually ramp up in challenge I am going to hit a pet wall where I simply can't keep them alive and no more progress can be made.  I haven't hit that wall yet but it is clear it is coming and there is nothing I can do about it.

I won't trash on the developers for this situation though as the model for pets that D3 uses can't avoid this problem.  When pets are expected to be very durable and not die this is inevitable.  To get around the pet problem what we need is an entirely different vision for pets.  Pets need to be something you constantly summon because they are primarily an offensive force and they only last a short time.  They should not be so durable and numerous that their boss can ignore all enemies most of the time.  A zombie that runs over to the enemies, vomits acid on them for 3 seconds, and then disintegrates would be a fine example.

This situation actually extends to melee classes too.  At some point in progression it will definitely be the case that melee classes cannot keep up as nothing can survive in melee range and only range classes played like a bullet hell game will be capable of playing.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Are gamers really that bad?

Gamer culture on the internet gets a pretty bad rap.  Ziggyny talked about his own personal experience with it recently and concludes that the crap he had to deal with was brutal so it must be truly a mess for women in similar situations.  I definitely agree that there are a lot of crappy places out there but I know for sure that there are also some really decent places but that maintaining that decency requires a ton of time and effort.  I was always impressed with how decent Elitist Jerks was because they have punitive moderation policies in place and the discussions are quite reasonable as the trolls get banhammered very quickly.  I even got a few infractions there for things like quoting multiple people in a single post - the worst of the internet sure doesn't survive under those conditions.  The great majority of the internet is a pit of despair though and we can't clean it all.

The thing I have been considering is the question of whether or not gamers are actually worse than other people when it comes to hurling abuse on one another.  After thinking about the many places and social situations I have been in my life I concluded that gamers truly aren't worse, but they do tend to exist in a place that enables bad behaviour.  When I worked at a gas station as a teenager the difference between how things were when a woman was in the shop and when they were not was staggering.  As soon as it was just the boys the abuse that was heaped on pretty much everyone was dialled up to eleven.

The same story holds true pretty much everywhere I have been.  Bad behaviour has little to do with the hobbies of people and everything to do with anonymity.  As soon as people think nobody who can hear them will call them on their shit they suddenly turn into ravening monsters.  The Greater Internet Fuckwad Theory was developed after watching gamers misbehave but it rightly doesn't specifically distinguish them as the problem.  Targetting gamers as the source of online harassment problems is like saying that camouflage clothes are the primary source of violent atrocities.  The problem is that people in camo clothes spend a lot of time in foreign countries while holding weapons; dressing them in fluorescent spandex would not prevent soldiers killing people.  The problem is the guns / anonymity, not the personal details of people involved.

However, given that gamers do end up being really abusive because they are constantly in spaces where they can get away with it all of us have a real opportunity to improve things.  It isn't easy to constantly push back against crappy behaviour as there is a seemingly endless supply of jerks but there is no other way.  No government regulation will step in to save us.  There is no greater ruling authority of gamers that will come to its senses and suddenly fix the internet.  The way things will improve is for people to consistently speak out against anonymous abuse and to support with our voices and our dollars those companies, moderators, and policies that aim to clean up our virtual spaces.

Wednesday, August 27, 2014

Knowing you have won

I saw a quote from a recent Mark Rosewater column about Magic's new direction today that struck me as very important.

"I explain that if the game ends while the players are still invested they end the game excited and wishing to play it again.  If the game ends after they wanted to stop, though, it makes them leave the game with a negative impression, which decreases their chance of playing again."

This is, I suspect, a hugely important reason why the last few turns of my game Fantasy Monster Beatdown (FMB on the sidebar) haven't been as engaging as I would like.  The trouble is that the game is over when someone reaches 45 points and because the entire score a player has accumulated is visible at all times people give up when it becomes clear they can't win.  It is hard to be invested in a game when you know that the outcome is already decided regardless no matter if you are winning or losing.  Perfect knowledge of who is winning exists in plenty of other games but it is obscured by having complicated calculations to figure out the final score.

For example, you could easily count a player's entire score in Vegas Showdown to determine exactly where they will end up but people don't do this - they look at the points scored on the track, make a rough estimate as to how well the player seems to be doing on the board, and go with it.  Even though a player who is losing could be aware of that in theory they don't know it in practice and they can play without any certainty of the outcome.  This ensures that veteran players can have a very good sense of who is the front runner without explicit counting but newbies get the excitement of playing the last turn without knowing that they have already been defeated.

There are a few ways around this.  The usual one is to keep much of the scoring on the board and make it complicated to add up as Agricola, Le Havre, or Carcassone do.  New players just can't penetrate all of the scoring details so mystery remains.  There is also the solution employed in Puerto Rico where points that are scored are kept hidden so that newbies only have a vague sense of what a player has scored but in theory all point totals are accessible via memorization.  One of the requirements of any of these systems is that the game have a fixed end condition that is not dependent on the number of points scored and as it is currently designed FMB does not have that as an option.

One interesting option that comes from a game the name of which escapes me at the moment is having scoring be slightly random.  Each time a player scores they get a token which has either a 1, 2, or 3 on it indicating how much it is worth but the number stays hidden.  That way a player who performs better overall almost always has the higher total but you can't actually be sure just what each player's hidden total is.  This does introduce additional randomness into the game but it also functions to keep people who are just a few points behind in expected value interested because with a little luck they could still claim victory.

I can't change FMB to have a scoring system where a lot of the points rest on the board because it just isn't that sort of game.  I also don't like the partially hidden mechanic that Puerto Rico uses in this case because people would feel obligated to try to memorize their opponent's scores and that is tedious and not fun.  Making the optimal way to play also a fun way to play is a key component in good game design.  What I do like is the idea of knowing how many point tokens an opponent has but not knowing the exact score they have as a result.  It would be pretty easy to change the scoring system such that every point scored is a chip with a value of (1,2,3), (0,1,2), or (1,2) without changing any other mechanics and I could neatly avoid a lot of the issues the current game has at endgame.

There would be some small issues that need resolving - I would need to establish the game end conditions based on the game turn rather than point total but that is very trivial since the game tracks the game turn passively anyway.  There would also need to be consideration of how to balance going first vs. going second but I have a few easy dials to turn in that regard like preventing the first player from picking up spells or an artifact card on their first turn.

The thing I like most about this solution is it changes the actual tactics and gameplay very little aside from the last turn.  The game always had a situation where the last turn or two involved crazy maneuvers to gain points while surrendering territory and this changes that just a little but in a way such that anyone who is already good at the game will remain so.

Tuesday, August 26, 2014

And let the dice fall as they may

There is always GM interference in the fate of the players in an RPG.  The GM *could* drop an asteroid on the group at any given time and they need to actively intervene to avoid that circumstance... the question is, what sort of interference makes it more fun for everyone?

When I run monsters as the GM I try to play them according to their intelligence and view that as my challenge.  Sometimes the enemies are very coordinated and clever and will try to focus fire characters down and use other scary tactics but I am also perfectly happy to run boneheaded zombies that just zerg the closest thing no matter how foolish that might be.  I want the monsters to scare the players, to make them work for it, but I don't actually want to beat them.  To achieve this I don't particularly need a crunchy system and could be happy with something like Dungeon World which has combat resolution along the lines of 

Roll High:  You succeed.
Roll Medium:  You kinda succeed, but something goes wrong.  The GM makes it up!
Roll Low:  You fail.

I am fine running with this sort of system as it gives me the flexibility to amp up the challenge of a fight in the middle or tone it down by making things up in the ways I want.

On the other side of the screen as a player I want a tactical fight that lets me work as hard as possible to win.  I want hardcore crunch and I want the monsters to do their damndest to murder my ass while I do the same in return.  I definitely don't want any deus ex machina rescues nor 'make it up as you go along' fights.  What I crave is a scenario where I face a terrifying foe and I have to use all the resources at my disposal to defeat them.  Obviously the GM sets the initial fight conditions but once those are laid down I want the dice and my skill to determine if I live or die.  

I am happy to roleplay in combat to an extent - some characters are cowards, or foolhardy, or will try to defend a particular other character who is in danger even if that isn't optimal.  That can be a lot of fun and add interesting twists when other players freak out at poor strategic choices (right Naked Man?) and that sort of high drama in the middle of a life or death battle is the stuff of great memories and stories told for years afterward.

As a player I am not particularly satisfied by combat in crunch light systems like Dungeon World.  I would rather go full bore roleplaying and not bother with complicated dice chucking in that sort of system as it doesn't really grab me the same way.  When my strategic choices are inevitably lost in the vagaries of random GM decisions and random dicing I just don't feel the urge to put in the time and effort working the numbers.  Not that it is bad in principle necessarily, but it holds no appeal for me.

For me Heroes By Trade is ideally set up to play since it works very well with the idea that fights are predictable tactical problems the players can try to 'win'.  You don't have to play with an emphasis on tactics if you don't want it but it is certainly a big focus of the game rules.  As a GM it is about as good as any other game I think since I have fun running games in pretty much any system at all.  (Largely because I am going to hack them to pieces to suit the campaign and my mood anyway.)

When it comes to new players though I think the right balance is a game that provides clear answers to what happens and doesn't expect the GM to constantly come up with rulings on every roll.  Not everyone is up to that challenge and I believe that making an RPG that makes it easier to GM for people without strong improvisational talent is a really useful goal.  One of the things 4th edition DnD did right was make it straightforward to build appropriate fights and run them as tactical challenges.  I want to achieve much of the same thing in terms of making it easy on new GMs without all of the issues that plagued 4th ed.