Saturday, February 6, 2016

Here kitty kitty

Sthenno linked me to a new kind of idle game that is a cross between cookie clicker and civilization.  It is a lot more interesting than most idle games because you actually have a lot of control over how you design your economy and there are so many kinds of resources and ways to convert them that figuring out the best use for all of your stuff is really pretty complicated.  The title of the game is Kittens Game, and it seems like somebody had a ridiculous idea for kittens and catnip and clicking and then spent months bolting on a complete civ style economy simulator on top of it.

However ridiculous that sounds, it is a pretty cool game.  One of the things I like a lot about it is that there are so many requirements for making new stuff that you really have to think a lot.  The obvious one is that new technologies require a certain amount of science to acquire.  That sounds easy enough, but you have both an amount of science in reserve and a science cap.  So if Theology costs 20K science, you have to not only accumulate 20K science but you have to build up to the cap so that you can actually store that much.

Because you have to pay attention to both your rate of acquisition and your cap it makes saving up for things a lot trickier.  You can't just decide to get Theology and wait till that happens - you have to figure out how much wood and minerals you are going to want to build all of the Libraries and Academies you will need to get your science cap up.  Then you have to consider how much iron you want to be making, because the iron you make costs wood and minerals.  Your wood and minerals come mostly from assigning your workers to chop trees or work in mines, but you can also get wood by farming it.  That is just the very tip of the iceberg too, there are so many options to think about.

And I am just learning about Theology!  There is so much game left, because apparently this game goes all the way through modern tech.  I can hardly imagine what kind of mess it is going to be once I have to manage another two dozen resource types.  But it is the loveliest kind of mess, one that consumes my brain as I desperately try to figure out how to make it beautiful.

Like most idle games, and unlike civ, Kittens Game is not one you can lose.  Your kittens keep on getting stuff, and once you have new techs and buildings they stay there.  It is purely an optimization game, one where all you do is try to more efficiently do the things you were already doing, and find new things to optimize.  There isn't a goal, as far as I can tell, just a constant stream of stuff to do.

Make numbers bigger.  Find new things to count.  Then make *those* numbers bigger.  Wheee!

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Follow the leader

Hearthstone is officially following in Magic's footsteps.  In Hearthstone there will be a new format called Standard consisting of just the most recent sets and the basic and Classic sets, and all old adventure and expansion cards will rotate out.  There will still be a format where anything goes called Wild, but competitive play will be focused around the new Standard format which will end up being reasonably doable for new players.

I said awhile ago that they would have to do this but of course I wasn't alone.  Everyone could see that the game would become impossible for a new player to get involved in unless they did something just like this.  It is a good change, I think, and will definitely set things up so that newer players have a chance to play without dropping a grand on their first day.  Honestly there isn't a lot of controversy over what I have said so far and people pretty much agree that the new format is at least necessary, if not particularly something they want.

The thing that has them all wrapped up in a bunch though is that the old adventures and expansions will no longer be purchasable from the store when they rotate out.  You will now be able to craft those cards though, and disenchant them, so you can still get the cards if you really desperately want to.  However, new players will never be able to play through the Naxxramas adventure because it will be gone forever, nor buy GvG packs hoping to get a Dr. Boom.  This has a lot of people pissed off.

Here is how the math on this works out:  If you are a new player and you wanted to get GvG cards it will cost you a lot more money to buy all kinds of new cards and disenchant them to get dust than it would if you could buy the GvG packs outright.  When GvG rotates out, the cost of completing the set will skyrocket.  What this will mean is that a new player who really wants to play with all the cards is going to have a hell of a time trying to establish a complete collection.  So is this just a money grab by Blizzard?

I don't think so.  The number of new players who walk in looking for a ton of old cards is going to be small.  Those people are going to play Standard, barring a few exceptions.  Blizzard isn't going to make more money by denying people the chance to pay for stuff, not directly, but what they will do is improve the new player experience for the average person.

This is pretty much exactly the sort of decision Blizzard made with Diablo 3.  They barred people from playing offline because they didn't want to deal with the issues of mixing offline characters that are constantly hacked and online characters that are legit.  In D2 it was a constant problem that people would play offline, then go online to play with their friends, and discover that they either had to play with all the hacked characters or start again from scratch.  D3 forced people to play online so that everyone had a single experience and anyone that played with a friend could just use their regular character to do so.  It made the overall experience better even though it reduced people's options.  Some people who can't get online were pissed, no doubt, but I think they were greatly outnumbered by the people who didn't have to deal with the hassle of not being able to mix offline and online characters.

Same deal here.  Not being able to buy old packs and adventures is going to irritate a few people who walk in and want to compete in an old format with boatloads of cards they don't own... but those will be very few.  The newbies who wander in and buy random packs and adventures and are *forced* into playing the Standard format this way will be a lot better off because they won't end up making the mistake of trying to collect the entire game.  By pushing new players into Standard where they will be much better able to compete and by making sure their cards are Standard compatible Blizzard will push new players into the spot that is best for them.

People hate being pushed like this.  They yell loudly and fiercely that they want freedom to make their own mistakes and let the noobs suffer for their ineptitude.  However, the veterans that yell about this won't actually be significantly affected by it for the most part and I think it will be a better experience for new players overall.  In this move Blizzard is catering to the masses of casual players and people that join up without doing a bunch of research at the expense of the hardcore old timers.  While that is bad for me personally I think it is good for the health of the game going forward.  Bringing in new people and giving them the best possible experience in the early going is key, and this new structure seems likely to accomplish that.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A team effort

Initially I started playing this Diablo 3 season with the idea of running a pet build.  The strongest Witch Doctor build this time around is Helltooth Pets, which doesn't even have a spammable skill and relies purely on pets and cooldowns.  I liked the idea of that a lot, particularly because repetitive strain forced me to stop playing the last season and this build requires very little clicking.  Skill matters, certainly, but I don't have to keep clicking ten times a second to play well.

Recently though I have begun doing some four player rifts and have shifted to a support build instead.  Initially I was just doing my thing, letting my pets bash people, but rapidly found out that although I was a perfectly fine damage dealer there is no space for perfectly fine at the top of the heap.  I just don't have a way to become absurd, and absurd is required if you want to get into good groups.

The absurdity this time around is a wizard using a weapon that makes Energy Twister do 150% more damage for each Energy Twister that exists.  Normally Energy Twister wanders randomly, mostly missing the mobs, and normally it costs a lot of resources so you can't have many out at once.  However, when your entire group is devoted to filling the entire screen with monsters and shovelling resources to the wizard suddenly there are dozens of Energy Twisters all about, dealing 20x the damage they are supposed to, and all of them are hitting *something*.

I was kind of blown away by a strategy that involved running away from groups of ten enemies when all ten of them are badly injured, but it turns out the only way to win at the top is to only fight groups of fifty at a time.

If for some reason you get one hundred enemies on the screen the game locks up and you lose, so everything is dependent on fighting exactly the right number of monsters in a giant pile.  It is ... bizarre.

However, it does feel a lot more like old school fantasy RPGs.  Instead of four characters blasting away at the monsters, you actually have roles.  One character kills things, one tanks, one buffs, and one groups up enemies and supplies healing and resources.  These roles are so regimented at the top that the class breakdown for the top one hundred goes something like this:  25% wizard, 25% barbarian, 24.5% witch doctor, 24.5% monk, .5% demon hunter, .5% crusader.  Crusaders can't complain too much though, as they do dominate the single player ladder.  Demon hunters... have my condolences.

Having a specific role to play and maximizing it is kinda cool though, and a nice change of pace from the usual.  I am not used to setting myself up to help everyone else in a specific way, but it means I can play more of my favourite class while having something really new to do.  One of the best parts of this is that there are actually a lot of different things you can do as a support, while the damage builds tend to be utterly regimented.  My pet damage build uses the exact items everybody uses, with the exact skills everybody uses.  There is no variety without being bad.  While playing support though I have a bunch of different pieces of gear that all interact in interesting ways with my skills, and a lot of the tradeoffs are rather tricky to evaluate.  The top people have all kinds of interesting variation, which certainly means at my level (far from the top!) there is plenty of choice.  Of course sometimes you run into players who won't be involved with you unless you are a carbon copy of whatever build they think is broken, but that is true in nearly any cooperative situation I expect.

This is something I wish I could have done in WOW, but the size of the raids really ended up making it impractical.  You get some interesting tradeoffs in D3 when you think about all the different sorts of builds you can use, but if you could bring a ton of people WOW would end up either having 15 paladins buffing everyone, one paladin bringing unique buffs, or none.  That doesn't work so well.  In the beginning when buffs were annoying and short I actually was a pure buffbot but those days are long in the past - now everybody gets to deliver the big numbers.

Not delivering the big numbers is turning out to be a really fun change.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Unsatisfying workarounds

My final edits on Camp Nightmare have been sent off, ready to be turned into a thing.  It took awhile because playing the game over the holidays revealed something to me that was bothersome - people found one particular mechanic very difficult to understand and remember.

The mechanic is an Action called Gear Up.  When you Gear Up you spend 1 Energy, then play a card.  When I first looked at it I thought it would be trivial but players really struggled with it.  They tried to pay Energy for other Actions, they forgot to pay Energy for Gear Up, and they couldn't figure out what to do when a card gave them Energy.  For example, you have to pay Energy to play Marshmallows, but once you play it you gain four Energy.  If you have a bunch of Energy on hand then you basically net three Energy, but that was a constant source of confusion.

When I looked at it I really was surprised at how much of a problem it was.  My hardcore gamer friends who are used to playing games that are easily ten times as complicated as Camp Nightmare had little difficulty but most other people, including gamers who I would describe more as social gamers, constantly struggled and got half of their turns wrong one way or another.

Fixing this issue is something I wrestled with a great deal.  Part of me was willing to just write it off, to accept that some people would never be able to get my game.  Any strategy game with a modicum of complexity has to make that cutoff at some point - there are players who can't deal with anything more difficult than War, after all, so *somebody* is finding the game too hard, no matter what the game is.  However, I figured if there was a way to take the edge off of it, to somehow reduce the confusion, then I ought to do that.

The thing I ended up finding was that people were most confused by cards that gave Energy.  The idea of paying Energy in, (which is important, because it means you have to have stockpiled an Energy from earlier) and then getting Energy back out was the most significant stumbling block.

I could have fixed all of this by just removing the requirement to pay Energy to play cards.  However, that ruined some of the basic ideas in the game, which is that you actually need all of the basic resources in order to get along.  You need Food to keep yourselves alive as time passes, you need Wood to start fires, and you need Energy to play cards.  Take away the necessity to pay Energy for cards and suddenly not only do I have to completely redo the balance of the game, I also have to figure out what Energy is going to be good for.

I ended up concluding that removing the Energy requirement entirely would both significantly reduce the strategic depth of the game as well as making it feel ugly.  Combine that with the need for a complete overhaul and the nuclear approach was a non starter.

My solution ended up being to simply alter the cards that give Energy to make things less tricky.  Most of the cards that gave Energy no longer do so.  The ones that do, which are few in number, do not require you to wonder if you have to pay for a card that gives you Energy afterwards.  One of them sets everyone's Energy total to four.  One of them lets you distribute Energy among other players.  What they don't do is just give you an Energy or two as part of their effect, which reduces the confusion considerably - I hope, at any rate.

It puts me in a weird place.  I look at other games I play like Le Havre or Agricola where the increase in difficulty is enormous and yet I am trying to strip out any possibility of misinterpreting my rules, which are drastically more simple and straightforward.

One part of my brain is yelling "If they can't figure this stuff out, then to hell with em'", but the other part yells back "But you are telling 90% of people to go to hell, that seems wrong!"

So I compromised.  Hopefully it was the right compromise.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

Focus less

I have been thinking about how game companies design games with too much focus on particular things, often losing out in other important ways.  Some examples:

In Skyrim, there are talent choices you can take that allow you to get critical hits.  Crits do fixed amounts of damage in the neighborhood of 10.  This is fine but not great when you get your first sword that does 25 damage in a swing, but becomes ridiculous when you fully upgrade and attack for 1000+ damage, with a chance to crit for 10 additional damage.

In Diablo 3 there is a talent called Gargantuan that summons a dork that blocks enemies and attacks them.  It does about as much damage as your character can do spamming your best spells nonstop.  In the endgame this ends up being okay because the extremely high powered sets make it possible to have builds with or without Gargantuan, but when levelling up it is ridiculous.  How does it make any sense for me to be a caster when I can summon a random dude who does more damage by himself than my casting?

In DnD 5th edition there are a bunch of save or suck spells.  One of them is Levitate, and it is a lot more powerful than the others because the enemy only gets a single save against it.  However, when you are in a dungeon with a low ceiling Levitate often does nothing.  But when you are outside, Levitate is regularly a save or die spell.  You lift the enemy up, kill their friends, then leisurely shoot them with fire until they die.  Balanced in a tiny hallway, ridiculous out of doors.

In Mass Effect 3, biotic explosions were based on the health of the enemy.  They worked fine on lower difficulties, but on higher difficulties they were insane against the really high health enemies.  They made other abilities with fixed damage ranges seem terrible.

There is no denying that it is hard to look at all of the possible situations a given ability can be used in and make them all balanced.  Heck, perfect balance isn't even the goal as far as I am concerned - choosing Levitate when you are going to be fighting outdoors is an interesting tactical choice... we like those!  The problem is when an ability is so out of whack in some situations that the gameplay becomes absurd if you don't make the 'correct' choice.  Talents that have no measureable effect are not well designed.  It is fine if they are niche, or largely there for flavour, but if all a talent is doing is pumping out numbers then it really needs to have numbers that work.

For example, there is a weapon in Diablo 3 that occasionally summons a bunch of cows with halberds to murder your enemies.  The weapon is not good.  It finds its way into zero endgame builds.  However, that is fine because that weapon is fulfilling its role as giving people a few giggles when they equip it just to see what the heck it does.  Nothing wrong with having some of those, in fact I quite like it when I game has that.

Similarly, there are talents like Angry Chicken that aren't good.  But they don't have to be, because they turn you into a chicken, you run super fast, and then you blow people up.  Badly.  Which is okay, because you aren't using Angry Chicken to be good, you are using it to be a chicken.  But when a talent like Gargantuan is so overpowered that you feel like an idiot for not using it, that is a problem.

When creating a mechanic all game designers should consider all of the ways in which it will be used.  It is fine for a mechanic to be better in some circumstances, but it should do *something* in any circumstance where the player has reason to believe it will be effective.  Games feel best, and have the biggest following, when there are choices to be made about numbers but those choices generally should jibe with the feel and the lore that the game has.  When I am a summoner/nuker class, a single summon should not be more powerful than all my nukes combined.   When a talent says that it makes a thing do more damage, that thing should do more damage in a noticeable way.

This sort of thing doesn't generally impact the super hardcore players very much as they will research the optimal builds and choices and go with them no matter how silly they seem.  However, it has a huge effect on whether or not the average player enjoys the game and feels good about their choices in the game, and that is something that too often goes overlooked.

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Slop

A new Diablo 3 season has started, and I am enjoying playing it again.  I think Blizzard has done a lot of good things in terms of minor tweaks, and they added in some new and fun challenges in the form of Set Dungeons to give more content for people to work through.

Sometimes though I can't fathom what they are doing.  I am not one to be overly critical of Blizzard's designs - for example, the Auction House ended up being a real mess and made the game worse, but seeing exactly how that would shake out was difficult.  Sometimes you have to try things and sometimes those things go wrong.

On the other hand, some changes just reflect unbelievably sloppy work.  Gargantuan is a Witch Doctor ability that summons a dork who follows you around beating down the enemies.  It used to be that the basic dork swung for 100.  One rune made it swing for 130 and cleave to hit multiple targets.  Another rune made it swing for 575 and hit multiple targets, but it was only available 1/4 of the time.  That is a reasonable trade off, and although mostly people took the 575 version you could definitely make arguments for either one.  Blizzard decided to upgrade Gargantuan because it was pretty bad, so they changed the numbers a lot.

The basic dork went from 100 to 450.
The first rune went from 130 to 585.

Great upgrades!

The version where the Gargantuan is temporary went from 575 to ... 575.

So as it is now I have the choice between a dork that swings for 585 all the time, or a dork that swings for 575 and only exists 1/4 of the time.  Wut?

It isn't as though this somehow snuck by them because nobody noticed.  I visited the forums every couple of weeks and even then I saw people talking about how they obviously needed to update all the runes.  Because you can't take two options which are reasonably competitive, multiple one of them by 4.5, and just walk away thinking everything will be fine.  Doing so is just sloppy.  It isn't a design choice, it isn't providing people with the option to figure things out, it just means you have done poor quality work.

I am perfectly fine with situations where competitive players all end up taking one particular choice.  As long as the average player can look at the choices and needs to spend some time figuring out what is what, then all is well.  Figuring out which things are best is fun!

But figuring out if 585 permanent or 575 temporary is better isn't fun.  It isn't a thing you test, or a choice you make.  It is just a waste of space.

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

Fwoosh

Fireball is a problem.

It is always a problem.  It was a problem in old school DnD when it trivialized combats against multiple opponents, and it is a problem in Heroes By Trade... though for very different reasons.  Fireball in HBT is balanced by the numbers but it creates some real problems in terms of feel and theme.

In HBT there are several kinds of magic.  One kind is Rituals, which are slow to use and restricted by the damage you take from casting them so they are not generally useful in combat.  The other main kind is Powers, which are quick to use, do not require you to take damage, and are primarily suited for combat.  The problem I am having right now is that some classes fit into this dichotomy fairly nicely and others do not.

For example, Channelers are martial artists who use their Powers to mash their enemies.  They punch and poke and break bones.  The fact that their martial arts aren't especially useful outside of combat makes sense because they are built around the idea of mystically disrupting their enemies and that doesn't necessarily work on doors, walls, or other structures.  It feels natural.

Wizards, on the other hand, cast Fireball.  It envelops a large area in fire and burns enemies, which has obvious applications outside of combat.  Pretty clearly you can use this to start fires, destroy property, create light, and maybe even more exotic things like melt some objects.  It feels kind of bizarre that performing a relatively simple Ritual costs time and health but blowing up a huge area with fire doesn't.  Fireball clearly isn't the only offender here because Meteor, Eruption, and Inferno are just as troubling.  I am not entirely certain that this is a critical problem but it is definitely a chunk of the fluff that doesn't quite fit as well as I would like so I have been mulling over ways that I could fix it.

The easiest solution is to simply remove Wizards as a class.  Get rid of magical nukers that blast people with fire from range.  I don't particularly want to do that though, as the idea of a class that uses magical attacks from range is something I want to include.

The more complicated solution is to alter the Wizard theme in such a way that it doesn't feel out of place.  One thing I was considering was changing Wizards to have a musical theme and call them Bards or Songstitchers or something like that.  Instead of blasting people with Fireballs they would instead attack with various songs and sounds that deal psychic damage instead of fire / cold / lightning.  This feels a lot more in line with the other classes since their Powers would be more obviously useful in combat because they are attacking other people's minds directly instead of blowing everything up.  Another thematic option for them is some kind of psionics sort of thing, where Fireball is Mind Blast instead.  The last possibility rolling about in my brain is a light themed class, one that burns people in a way that isn't about setting the world on fire, but more about creating beams of light that do not harm friendly targets or furniture but which burn the evil critters.  Evil, in this case, is of course from the caster's point of view.

I already have a class that focuses on shadow and corruption so retheming a class to be all about light has some appeal.  It might take some work to rebuild all of the fluff surrounding each Power because there are only so many synonyms for light but it would fit into the rest of the world lore fairly seamlessly I think.

See, this is the rough stuff because there are no right answers.  When it comes to numbers there are right answers.  It is either 3 or 4, Area 2 or Area 5.  I can actually figure it out.  Fluff though, that stuff is slippery!