Saturday, December 31, 2011

Magic Find

A major feature of Diablo 2 was the Magic Find stat on gear.  Essentially what this did was increase your chance of finding magic items and finding higher quality items.  At launch this was very problematic because there were no diminishing returns on MF and eventually you could get enough MF to completely eliminate socketed gear from the loot tables which was a very undesirable result.  Pretty much everybody used a few standard pieces of gear to get their MF up to a reasonable level (Goldwrap and a 49% Tarnhelm!) but things really got silly in the various xpacs.  It was possible to get over 1000% MF at the end, though the diminishing returns at that point were so crippling that nobody could defend that sort of gearing as anything but silly even if you ignore that fact that a character so geared couldn't actually beat anything.  It ended up that you really wanted +200-300% MF on your gear but that more than that was usually wasteful.

Now in Diablo 3 MF is back.  There are tons of arguments on the forums about whether or not this is a good thing and in general I think it is fine but not a big deal either way.  The advantage to having MF on gear is that it really does give a completely separate dimension to figuring out gearsets.  Tweaking gear and figuring out what sort of gear would make the absolute best set was tremendous fun for me in D2 and it was always based around 3 axes of power:  MF, Survival, Power.  You need Power to kill monsters, you need Survival to live long enough to kill monsters and you need MF to make killing monsters worthwhile.  They all forward the main goal of getting stuff but based on character attibutes, player skill, style and party composition there are going to be all kinds of different decisions made on how to value each.  This situation means that there will be many different right answers for building a gearset and that there cannot be a simple spreadsheet that tells you exactly what gear to wear.  I like MF in that sense because I really enjoy working out the angles on how to maximize my gearset and I think it increases the complexity in an interesting way.

Some people have a lot of cognitive dissonance when they think about how they just look for MF gear to get more MF and aren't concerned much with Power which they see as the true end goal.  Given that gear simply isn't divided into categories like MF/Not MF but rather just has a selection of attributes I don't buy that argument.  As you get better gear you can figure out ways to either enhance MF, Power or Survival and all of them will grow in stuttering steps; the idea that you only look for better MF gear and everything else is static simply isn't reflective of reality.  I also don't see the inherent superiority of "I want more Power on my gear so I can get gear that is even more Powerful!" over "I want more MF on my gear so I can get gear that has even more MF!".

The real trouble with MF is that it can be very abusive.  In D2 you could get the person with stacked MF to get all the killing blows (or as many as possible, anyhow) to maximize loot for everyone.  In D3 currently you can join a party with a pure MF set and reap the best loot rewards while contributing almost nothing to actually beating the monsters.  Diablo is a game that is very much about collecting more powerful equipment for your character.  MF, when implemented well, is a perfectly reasonable element in such a game.  I hope Blizzard finds a good way to make sure that their system does not reward characters who hide in the back stacking MF to leech off of other players in groups and as long as they do that I think having MF in D3 is fine.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saboteur and party games

Over the holidays I played Saboteur with my family.  It is a pretty random card game where players are secretly put on teams and then the players either try to succeed at a goal or stop the others from succeeding depending on which team they were secretly assigned to.  It feels like a silly party game but after playing it I think it would be much better suited to being played by hard nosed strategy gamers.  I will talk about the five player version of the game but it can be played with many different numbers of players.  The strange thing about the setup is that there are six role cards which are shuffled up and dealt out to the players - two cards for Saboteur and four which are Good Guys.  This means that there teams are either 2-3 or 1-4.  Given that there are many cards in the deck which take people out of the game for somewhere between one turn and the entire game it should be clear that both versions cannot be balanced.  If the 2-3 game is reasonably winnable by either side then the 1-4 game is going to be a blowout nearly every time since as soon as the solo player is identified everyone else is going to gank them out of the game and go on to win.

Of course party games being extremely random is fine.  They aren't supposed to be particularly skill based, but the trick here is that the way the one person loses is really not much fun.  If they do things that are good for them they end up unable to play and just sit there discarding cards for much of the time.  I think that player elimination is a generally bad mechanic but I also find that player elimination without letting the player get out of the game is even worse.  In Monopoly you get knocked out of the game but at least that lets you go get a drink, join another game or read.  If you are forced to continue to play a game but lack the ability to do anything then you have the worst of both worlds - you don't get the fun of playing nor the chance to do something else.  Mechanics that put a player pretty much out of contention are fine (level of randomness permitting) as long as the player can continue to play the game and do their thing.  There is plenty of fun to be had in trying to get the best possible score given one's circumstances even if victory is out of reach.

Given how much backstabbing, lying and general tomfoolery there is going on in this game I think that it is actually much better suited to hardcore game geeks than casual party gamers.  When everyone is trying to present themselves in a particular way to deliberately fool their opponents there is much more to be done even if you cannot play cards temporarily.  Hardcore gamers are also a lot more likely to backstab their partners to attempt to steal all the points for themselves which naturally balances out any team size imbalances.  I suspect with a bunch of people like my brother and myself who are happy to shout out strategy and accuse people of being saboteurs (while lying through our teeth, of course) this game would be incredibly loud and hilarious.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tweaking the Tile Game (Dot)

I have been playing and tweaking my tile game that I posted about last week.  The initial design had a flaw that I felt would be easy to address:  The first player to take a turn had a noticeable disadvantage.  The problem is that generally you want to get two points from placing a tile and there are very few options for the first tile to achieve that while the second tile played has significantly more choices because they can score off of the first tile.  The second player seemed to have consistently more and better options throughout the game and also won by 1-2 points most of the time.  One solution I considered was to simply give the first player a bonus 1 or 2 points to begin the game but that seemed somewhat inelegant and also left the game playing very differently for the two players which I wasn't especially happy with.  

In the previous post I talked about having the players place 3 tokens on the board before the game starts each of which was worth 1 bonus point.  The idea of that was to give player 1 more places to play and some bonus points but it ended up working out badly; player 2 had ways to play that negated the advantage and still retained the upper hand.  My latest and best solution to this problem is to place 2 bonus points on the tiles that are located diagonally from the centre tile.  There are two ways to do this:  The first is to place 2 bonus points on all 4 of the tiles that are diagonal from the centre tile and the other is to place 2 bonus points on just 2 of those tiles instead.  

These 2 options produce very different boards and strategies.  With 4 different tiles with bonus points the play is all over the board at once and the game becomes largely about maximizing your personal point return with little regard for your opponent.  There are numerous places for each player to play to get 2 points on their turn so they just pick one of them.  When only 2 tiles have bonus points the game becomes much tighter with fewer options but it allows for more defensive play.  It is feasible to play extremely defensively trying to deny the opponent good plays while scoring few points yourself because your opponent does not have very many useful things they can do.

It feels a bit like Scrabble.  The 2 bonus tile game is like expert Scrabble - you spend a lot of time denying your opponent and trying to gum up the board and balancing personal gain vs. opponent's gain is crucial.  The 4 bonus tile game is a lot more like beginner Scrabble where everybody plays big words and there are endless options for playing your own things.  I am bad at Scrabble so I can't really play the expert game at all but I really like the idea of making tradeoffs between offence and defence so I am going with the 2 bonus tile game for now.

I have been really pleased with the reactions to the game so far.  Everyone who has played it has given positive feedback and the good reactions have come from both hardcore gamers and people who aren't particularly into games.  I think I need to squeeze in a little more variety in tile powers still before the game will be done but it is feeling really positive.  This is the sort of game that is much more marketable than FMB as it is simpler to learn and doesn't have the excess of pieces and tokens that drives prices up.  My current working name for the game is Dot, though I am very much open to better suggestions!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A puzzle

Randall Munroe (the writer of xkcd) posed an interesting problem on G+ a short while ago I thought I would share.  Quote:

You have a rectangular chocolate bar marked into m × n squares, and you wish to break up the bar into its constituent squares. At each step, you may pick up one piece and break it along any of its marked vertical or horizontal lines. Prove that every method finishes in the same number of steps.

From the author's comments:

This ridiculously easy puzzle has been known to stump some very high-powered mathematicians for as much as a full day, until the light finally dawns amid groans and beatings of heads against walls.

I thought to myself thought I, I am a dude who knows some math, I can figure this out!

Initially I assumed that a proof by induction would be the easiest way to solve the problem.  If we assume that a mxn chocolate bar always finishes in the same number of steps then can we prove that a mx(n+1) chocolate bar does the same?  

I won't be perfectly rigorous here, rather I will just outline the proof.

The mxn bar has a series of breaks that will separate it entirely.  This series of breaks, if performed on the mx(n+1) bar, will leave m pieces that are composed of precisely two squares each.  This means that we would need m additional breaks to completely break the new bar.  If there are some breaks along the line between the new squares and the old squares then for each such break we will separate q squares where q is between 1 and m of the new squares from the original bar.  In this case the q squares can be fully separated by q-1 breaks.  Any number of these breaks can occur but the total number of squares that can be separated in this way is equal to m.  Since each q squares require q breaks to separate regardless of the order of operations then the mx(n+1) bar always breaks in (the number of breaks required for mxn) + m.

Great, so I have a proof that isn't super rigorous but certainly works.  I believe it was Barrel Plug who always told me to try a proof by induction first; you can do an end run around all kinds of tricky problems with induction.  It's like cheating!

Then I began to think about it for real and hit my 'groan and smash head' moment.

So the chocolate bar has 1 piece.  Each time we break it we add 1 to the number of pieces.  We must get m*n pieces, so no matter how we break it we must perform exactly m*n-1 breaks.  Oy.  So this is in fact a truly simple proof that relies on no mathematical training at all but which can be solved in much more complex ways if you want to.

I like this problem.  Easy solution that everyone can understand but which most people will never think of because they approach it the wrong way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is it worth it to have something really hard?

Gevlon recently has been having a series of tantrums about the 'dance' element of WOW.  He talks about how Cataclysm overly emphasized the dance over performance and wants the game to get back to some vanilla ideal of requiring performance without dancing.  I think he is viewing the past with rose tinted glasses here but he may end up having a really good point about catering to the top 1%.

I recall raiding in vanilla and boy howdy was it easy compared to modern raiding.  I look at what my guild Hounds of War did back then and think that if my last ten man group copied ourselves 3 times and then walked into old dungeons like Molten Core or BWL for the first time that we would finish the entire dungeon in a couple hours.  They were so incredibly forgiving and easy that it is hard to say that they had a difficult dance or performance benchmark.  I recall watching thirty seven people die to Shazzrah one time and the only three folks alive were Wendy, myself and The Warrior.  The entire guild sighed and talked about how we would have to do it again but the three of us just played well and spent ten minutes beating Shazzrah down for the last four percent of his health on single warrior DPS.  No modern fight is that easy, not even Raid Finder facerolls - if you are down to 7% of your raid alive you LOSE.

The thing that made everything work was that the fights were easy and the players were terrible.  We could play with just about anyone (and we did!) and beat things.  Any group of people skilled enough to do modern hardmode fights when they first launch would find the entire raid scene a joke back in vanilla but I would be hard pressed to confirm that people are having more fun in general.  It is clear that there are people who want to be the best in the world and to challenge them you need ludicrously hard fights.  Should Blizzard care about what those people want since there are so few of them relatively speaking?

If WOW just had easy raids then I would be happy raiding with my buddies once or twice a week.  We wouldn't need to raid heavily and we wouldn't need to practice too hard because we could easily beat all the content before the next patch came out on an easy schedule.  There would be no pressure to get hardcore because there was nothing to get hardcore about.  I suspect that as long as WOW (or any other MMO for that matter) has hardmode fights myself and my friends would always be doing those fights as we wouldn't be particularly satisfied with not doing the hardest thing.  If the hardest thing was still pretty easy we could just invite people we liked playing with and beat stuff up at some reasonable pace; if only 9 people log in, we go with 9 and beat the fights a little bit slower.

Some people really enjoy being extremely hardcore though and they would have basically nothing to do once they beat all the fights in the first week of a patch.  Maybe that isn't such a big deal though as all the masses of mediocre players would be able to raid with a much greater variety of people and wouldn't be concerned about being behind the curve.  I suspect a lot of people like Gevlon tend to romanticize the period when they first started raiding.  They remember the excitement of first boss kills and new raids just like anyone does in their first few times doing a new activity and they forget about the terrible parts.  I remember being the raid leader, recruiter, banker and cheerleader for a forty person guild and it was *hell*.  Playing was fun though!

WOW has strongly diverged from its initial roots.  The levelling and questing game has gone from 'impossible to fail but moderately challenging to optimize' to 'trivial' and the raiding game has gone from 'laughably easy' to 'soul crushing difficulty'.  I think it is time for some convergence.  Get some hard back into levelling and some easy back into raiding.  Hell, Blizzard even sent me a free week promo email so I can wander back into the World of World of Warcraft and give it a spin for a short time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I had a dream

This past Friday I had a dream about a game.  I woke up at three in the morning with a full set of rules in my head and determined that I would remember them upon waking.  As soon as I got up in the morning I began to draw on paper and make little cut outs and voila, a new game appeared.  I have never done this before as all of the games I have built have been products of long iteration and conscious design rather than simply writing down what appeared to me in a dream.

The thing that I am most pleased with is that the initial design seems to need almost no tweaking to work.  That isn't to say that no improvements can be made but rather that no improvements need to be made for the game to be exactly what I was hoping:  Extremely fast to explain (1-2 minutes), fast to play (10 minutes) and deep strategically.  Even after playing a bunch of games I was still struggling to figure out the best strategies and sort out exactly what I should do given particular choices but after getting a number of people to test the game with me it was obvious that the player with the most experience and talent won consistently.  I wanted a game that was as simple to explain as chess, played much more quickly and had the same sort of strategic depth while retaining just a little randomness.

The idea is that this is a simple 12 turn game.  On each turn you play one tile and score points for each side of your tile that has more dots on it than the adjacent tile or edge - you can only score points from enemy tiles or edges.  These comparisons are called attacks.  Tiles can have special rules which you see on the sheet in the picture.  Each player has 12 tiles which are identical but you draw 3 of them at random to start the game and then draw a new one each time you play one.  This means the games will be different each time but that each player will have the same quality of tiles over the match.  The final wrinkle is that before the match starts three tokens are placed on the board on squares.  Whoever places a tile in that square claims the token and each token is worth 1 point.  The first player places a token, then the second player, then first again.  After this they play through their 12 tiles with the first player going first again.

That's it.  Thematically of course the tiles could be all kinds of things and have all kinds of powers.  They could be fantasy monsters, foods, spaceships or whatever else fit the theme of the game (which I haven't yet settled on).  Numbers first, then set dressing!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A request for information - board games

I have been volunteering at Elli's school for the board games club and I need to draw on the considerable experience of my gaming community to help with new board game purchases.  I need help finding board games that are:

Fast to play
Easy to teach
Do not have too many fiddly pieces
Are playable if kids lose a piece or two
Quick to set up and put away

What suggestions do you have?  The school has a bazillion copies of Monopoly (probably the worst game possible) and a few that really work like Connect Four and Checkers.  I was thinking of Carcassone and Quoridor as good options as well as Blockus (which they already have).  What other games out there would fit my criteria and be good ones for kids ages 7-12?

Back to the drawing board

Glitch has gone back to beta.  I haven't played the game since the day I quit cold turkey (Isn't 'cold turkey' a truly outrageous expression?  How the hell does 'cold turkey' have anything to do with quitting something instantly?) but I have been telling the game to learn new skills for me every few days with the assumption that I would cap out my skills roughly by the start of January.  Maybe I will play some more, maybe I won't, but getting more powerful with so few clicks is hard to resist!

I am not especially surprised by this change because for a short while most of my friends were playing Glitch like maniacs, logging in during the night to do daily donations and putting in tremendous hours and then fairly suddenly everybody stopped.  I think many of us hit the same wall where we had most of the skills, had explored everywhere that was interesting, bought the biggest house and found that the remaining goals were really uninspiring.  There needs to be something big and creative at the end of the initial exploration phase (which for me lasted until I got all 11 Icons) and hopefully the creators of Glitch can make that happen.

The reasons given for sending the game back to beta, which is a gutsy move, are that player housing and player control of the world were not working out.  I completely agree with that assessment.  The game was marketed as one in which players could design the world and the community would drastically influence how the world evolved but that wasn't remotely true.  Players could poison trees and then plant new trees to replace them but there were only 6 kinds of trees and any given tree plot could usually only take 1-3 kinds.  Being able to replace a single terrain feature with a single other, functionally identical terrain feature is not dynamic content creation.  Minecraft has certainly set a new bar for player created content and although Glitch is a lot of fun it isn't going to scratch the 'I can make the world be whatever I want!' itch that players wanted and which the company promised.

Housing was a similar disappointment.  In particular there were issues at launch that gathering enough money to buy the most expensive house was easy, the supply of houses was small and all the top end houses were identical and located in the same place.  This created a huge mess in that people who liked the look of the cheap houses (treefort house!) couldn't get the advantages of the expensive house (modern condo) and people were stockpiling cash without anything to buy.  What was needed, I think, was the ability for players to spend massive quantities of resources designing their own houses.  It doesn't have to be practical at all as there really isn't any penalty to having other players have spectacular mansions they spent bazillions of hours creating so the players need to be let loose to build furniture, create gardens and do other such things.

Of course designing frameworks where players can build their own houses, furnishings and designs is a big undertaking.  Even bigger is the challenge of letting players design the world itself, which is made far more challenging by the issue of players griefing one another for profit or pure malice.  Doing these things is going to be very hard and not at all quick so I think Glitch rightly should be back in beta where they can justify all kinds of downtime and small bugs while pounding out big changes.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Companions and bots

Tobold talked a little bit about the companions from the new Star Wars MMO.  He believes that it would be relatively easy to create a bot that could be a better player than any player and let these bots sub in for player roles.  The idea is that although companies could easily create bots that could smash encounters in MMOs they do not because it would make players feel bad that the bots were so much better than them.  Hogwash I say.

Certainly bots have advantages over humans.  They can process data like "I am in a fire" and arrive at the conclusion "Gotta move" within .01 seconds.  They can maintain a rotation of casting spells with 100% of normal efficiency while moving and they are never distracted by their kid crying, a hiccup in connectivity or being hungry.  The problem with bots of course is that they are dumb as hell in ways that are mission critical.  When the boss is casting a gigantic attack the bot is going to die because it doesn't know that 50% of the map is a death zone.  When the group strategy is to clump up on command the bot doesn't understand that - or it takes a single tick of fire damage and wanders in the wrong direction.

The point is that if you program a simple bot to cast spells efficiently and not stand in a simple fire it can beat a terrible player quite handily.  However, if you want that same bot to react effectively to complex or innovative encounters the bot must be programmed with all the strategies ahead of time.  This would be utterly disastrous as it would mean that all the players could simply follow the bot and do exactly what it does - this has to be successful or the bot isn't functional!  There is no possible way to write a bot that can react to interesting situations in useful ways unless you think that the bot can die and then learn to play better next time.  Unfortunately this is simply not possible with the current state of technology - if you think a computer can look at an encounter and devise effective strategy alterations to deal with it then I challenge you to take the World of Logs code from any WOW raid wipe and devise a program that can analyze it and tell you effectively what went wrong with the group's strategy.  You will fail.

The reason bots are bad at playing MMOs is that in order to be effective against anything but the most simple and repetitive challenges they need to have knowledge of the encounter ahead of time.  Screwing up any part of that encounter programming would make the bot useless though and even if you were successful it would really kick immersion in the nuts; players would wonder why their bots were psychic ninjas and anticipated every boss ability on the first try.

That isn't to say that there is no place at all for bots in MMO play.  Finding groups for things can be challenging and having a bot that tries to get out of fire and follows the player around casting healing spells can be great.  Having a tanking bot that just attacks any nearby monster and fights to the death has its place.  These mechanics could make filling 5 man groups or doing quests easier and give people options when their friends are offline but they don't want to play with randoms (or can't find randoms who want to play with them!).  The idea that somehow these bots will be better at playing than the best humans is laughable though.  We can see this in Starcraft 2, where the computer playing as best it can is a suitable challenge for beginners but extremely quickly becomes easy to defeat and is a complete joke to experts even though that game is so dependent on click speed and multitasking.  These bots will only be useful for trivial tasks however as once an encounter really requires strategy or practice the bots will be useless.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Battlemat - DnD PvP

I have been thinking that I should restart an old tradition - the battlemat.  Years ago we played a lot of games of DnD 3.0 where we all built characters and then landed on a complicated bit of terrain to fight to the death.  Because DnD 3.0 is incredibly lethal we often spent eight hours building a character only to die in the first round to a 'save or die' attack or in the second round to an incredibly deadly full attack from a martial character.  There were definitely some interesting battles where things went back and forth but by and large death was swift.  The funny thing is that I had more fun by far building the characters than playing.  I would tweak and tweak and rewrite over and over trying to find the perfect mix of items and feats to be INVINCIBLE and there was a real sense that I could perfect a build but when the actual battle started it became very random.  If two people gank you, you lose.  Even if you have completely monstrous saving throws you still die when you roll a one on your save.

Of course we didn't play unmodified 3.0.  Doing so would have led everybody to be flying, invisible spellcasters and nobody being able to actually do anything useful.  We had to ban all kinds of magic items like Daern's Instant Fortress so that characters didn't simply hide in an impenetrable vault waiting for everybody outside to die.  The list of banned spells and abilities was really quite extensive and pretty much all based around the idea that 'Fighter With a GreatSword' must be able to find and defeat you.  If you do anything that means that FWGS cannot win then it is banned.

DnD 3.0 really isn't meant to be a PvP game.  At low level FWGS just one shots anybody and casters generally have spells that guarantee death that work 2/3 of the time.  At high level things are a little different of course since wizards presumably retreat to their custom demi plane and scry on their opponents to ascertain their weaknesses before plane shifting back with an army of arch demons at their command.  Of course if the fighter with a bow goes first he kills the wizard before the wizard can take an action so it is relatively fair.  Basically doing PvP in DnD 3.0 involves huge amounts of creation and calculation and then rolling initiative to see who wins because everybody dies in one attack.  This leaves little room for tactics and decision making once the game starts so I don't think it is a particularly good format for PvP.

I think 4th edition is actually a pretty good PvP format though.  Character stats are drastically more controlled so nobody is going to get their defenses so high that they are unhittable nor so low that they are unmissable.  Permanent invisibility or flying isn't available because the designers really seemed to want a random ogre with a club to be a viable opponent so they designed the character abilities around that.  This works well for PvP because it means that FWGS can fight anybody.  There are some problems still but they are generally really easy to work around.  Daily attack powers are totally absurd in a format where you only expect to do one fight so they probably should be banned.  Whether or not daily utilities and item powers are okay is unclear to me.  Action points are nutty too since all they do is ensure that the first round is an utter bloodbath.  You probably need some kind of rule to prevent people just sitting in a corner using Stealth waiting for everybody else to die too I expect.  That is all that should be necessary to keep the game interesting I would think.  The game still works with action points and daily powers allowed but it would be ridiculously fast and deadly and it seems quite possible that the person with the lowest initiative simply doesn't get to take a turn at all - hardly the ideal result.  The end result is still going to be fairly random I would think since attacks will miss half the time and people will gang up but overall it should be a fun time.

What I wonder is what sort of character people would bring.  Leaders seem exceptionally powerful because they get to heal themselves so much - that might end up being a real balance problem.  If other classes were allowed to multiclass into leader types and use their daily heal ability it would be okay though as the advantage would be mitigated.  It is possible I suppose that leaders are so bad at killing that they *need* that massive hp advantage to be playable at all.  Hard to say.  Defenders look to be fairly strong in many cases since they have massive hp and defenses so they are a pretty hard target.  Their defender type abilities are generally going to be bad but just being super tough is a big plus.

The last thing I would think about is the victory condition.  It could be a simple last man standing resolution or I could go with a points system.  I was thinking about rating people on three scales - damage/healing done, death order and total kills.  Rate the players in reverse order and assign them points equal to their ranking - highest total points wins.  This rewards a combination of survival, sniping people off and just doing a lot of damage which hopefully gives a good spectrum of rewards.

Friday, November 25, 2011

A world that makes sense

In fantasy worlds there is a always a strange mishmash of feudal culture and feats of magic and heroism.  Sometimes it works and makes sense and other times ... not so much.  There are plenty of troubles with the classic DnD world organization but most of them tend to revolve around just how big a shift high level adventurers must cause in culture, warfare and politics.

It is generally relatively easy for a high level party to meet up with a 10,000 person army and utterly demolish it.  The wizard ends up flying above the massed enemy while invisible and massacres them by throwing enormous fireballs around willy nilly.  We should keep in mind that historically very few armies actually fought until they were destroyed; by and large a small percentage of the people involved would die and one side would break and run.  I can't help but think that it would take only a few random explosions in the ranks to completely break an army, especially when they have no idea of the source.  Not only that, but how would you protect a ruler?  The king or queen is likely to be a normal person with 10 HP (or less!) so at any time a group could teleport in, massacre the ruler and teleport or fly back out at will.  That of course assumes that they *need* to leave and don't just kill everyone in the castle and raze it to the ground, which they usually could.

So how can we construct a society that has incredibly powerful people (I will call them Heroes) in it that makes sense?  One way is to simply restrict the number of Heroes around.  Building a world where only the PCs are Heroes is possible but it does mean that the PCs can overthrow nations at will and cannot face any Hero opponents which I am not sure is a good idea.  This strategy also entails that the PCs be unique and epic which does fit a lot of storylines but certainly not all.  It also means that once the main storyline is complete your world is probably unusable since the PCs presumably can rearrange the entire world to suit their liking.  I like a world that is a little more durable than that and which doesn't rely on the PCs being so very unique.

Regularly the way DnD worlds are constructed to avoid this is assigning hereditary monarchs tons of bonus HP or character levels for no reason or simply layering magical protection over the ruling family and/or class.  This doesn't solve the problem of army combat not making any sense though and it requires all kinds of additional spells and effects to achieve that aren't in the books since the baseline rules don't allow for protecting people sufficiently to avoid teleport bombs.

The idea I am leaning towards for my next world is one that rewrites military conflict very substantially, making it much more like modern conflict than medieval battles.  In modern society you have security guards, police and other enforcers who keep people in line in times of peace but when a tank or bomber shows up the security guards don't get together in a big group to fight them, rather they wait for the army to do something about it.  I imagine a fantasy world the same way where regular guards and soldiers who are not Heroes are fine and well for guarding shops, fighting bandits and other such tasks but when real war comes the kingdom calls on its Heroes to do the actual battle since they are the tanks and bombers of their world.  These Heroes would also end up being the rulers of their world since hereditary monarchies of normal people would be so fragile.  I see groups of Heroes ruling nations with structures varying from benevolent ruling councils to iron fisted dictatorships where the most powerful and ruthless Hero is a terrible despot.  This might even have a strong mitigating effect on warfare since if you have to go out and actually fight the enemies yourself and risk being fireballed to death there is a real incentive to not declare war on another nation.

4th edition DnD actually has many less problems this way than 3rd edition.  Wizards can't just fly around invisible blasting people because everyone's combat abilities are strongly restricted and things like teleportation are much less convenient.  A 4th edition DnD party can beat up a lot of bad guys but they simply can't fight 10,000 guys with bows; they get turned into very dead pincushions on round 1.  For this I have to give 4th a lot of credit, you don't need to make up your own political structures and military designs from scratch and can just modify historical ones slightly to fit.  There are really powerful and dangerous people around but normal people can be leaders and survive and armies make sense.  Somehow though I desperately want to play in a 3rd edition / Pathfinder world; perhaps it is only nostalgia but it is there nonetheless.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Blizzard is ruining my fun

A month ago or so I went to the Diablo 3 site to look at the material there.  I found all kinds of stuff that looked bad and worried that Blizzard wasn't going to get the game into decent shape.   Abilities that increase your damage dealt by 160% are not reasonable (Zombie Dog + Zombie Dog passive + Zombie Dog Explosion!) and they had a bunch of abilities that did fixed damage totals rather than scaling with gear.  I had hopes that Blizzard would rectify these errors before launch and avoid shipping a game with awful scaling issues like Diablo 2 and WOW had.  Despite that I had great fun using the character builder to create a hideously overpowered Witch Doctor and figured that this is what I would use as my starting character.  After all, who doesn't want to summon a horde of hideous mutant dogs that explode on command?  (Mostly I wanted the 160% damage increase; I am a numbers junkie)

I went back to the site today and was both saddened and gladdened by what I saw.  Gone are the fixed damage abilities, huzzah!  My faith in Blizzard not being a pile of idiots is vindicated.  Much to my dismay though my ridiculous Witch Doctor combo is deader than the hideous abominations he was intended to summon; the Zombie Dog combination is now granting 32% more damage rather than 160%.  I can't help but feel that although 32% more is better than 0% more it isn't going to let me crush my enemies like ants in the way I had hoped.  In the early version of the game it was easy to figure out what ability combinations to use because there were obvious loopholes and balance issues despite the vagueness of "Hits an area for X damage" ability descriptions.  I could tell what the best builds were without even knowing how big an area that was!  Now all the numbers seem to be massaged into place and I can no longer determine the optimal way to play the game without having played the game.

Sadly(?) I will have to actually play the game to master the game.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The acid test

Last night I went out to Snakes and Lattes to show off FMB at the board game designers night.  I really had no idea if there would be any other designers there initially.   I don't know anybody else who actually tries to build real prototypes though I have collaborated on making tons of games with people.  It turns out there are a lot of people that build these things and there were all kinds of new games to play.  FMB got a real test run because I got four volunteers to play the game straight from the rules without me telling them anything.

That was HARD!

I had to sit there desperately fighting the urge to correct things, step in and clarify rules and generally be a busybody.  I know that I can teach them more quickly than they can learn by just reading but finding out whether or not they could play the game just from the rules I outlined is critical.  Thankfully I passed the test; there were a few things that really need to be written better but they played through just fine.  I got really good reactions and people seemed to enjoy the design and the gameplay a lot, though there were the usual complaints.  The first time people play through the game they complain that either the team that goes first or the team that goes second can't win (both the complaints and the winners seem unrelated to who went first) or they complain that they can't win because their opponent's Artifact is unbalanced (and then proceed to play their own Artifact and watch their opponents make the same claim).

It feels good to know that at least the complaints always follow the same pattern and that it doesn't matter who goes first or what Artifact people choose - everything is always unfair.  That is in fact the goal!  Things need to be awesome and powerful so that they change the nature of the game and make people feel like they are being effective but of course the numbers need to be balanced behind the scenes.  I want everyone to feel like the things they can do are awesome but have it be tricky to figure out exactly which awesome they want to do.

I was also intrigued by the difference in process for other game designers.  I played Stormlands which is a game that has better production quality and polish than FMB but yet doesn't have the victory conditions finalized.  The game creator built the game and is still sorting out the broad strokes of how it is played while doing some cool stuff to make it look great.  This is essentially the opposite of what I did.  I refused to do anything resembling production until I had played immense amounts of games and got the gameplay polished to my liking.  After I did make something of production quality I have continued to innovate but the ordering in my mind was completely clear:  Make the rules and numbers work, then make the physical game.  This is probably why I have more than a half dozen fantasy tabletop RPGs in some degree built and none ever really put together and why FMB idled for 8 years until it was ripe.  The numbers, they must be perfect.

Monday, November 21, 2011

FMB game night

I am heading out to Snakes and Lattes in Toronto tonight to go to their game developer night.  If you want to come by and play some FMB on the newest set I just finished, we are there from 7-10.  There might even be some other game designers there with new stuff, who knows!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Danger Sense

In DnD 4th edition there are several feats that increase your initiative.  The way it works is everyone rolls a d20 and adds their initiative bonus and then takes their turns in order, highest going first.  In the case of a tie the person with the highest initiative bonus wins the tie.  The two feats in we care about are:

Improved Initiative:  +4 to initiative.
Danger Sense:  When you roll initiative you can roll twice and take the best roll.

So which is better?  Initially I figured out that Danger Sense increases the average of your final initiative value by ~3.5 and so I used that value but it turns out the formula is actually much more complicated.  The reason this is so is that if one character has a drastically different value than the other then rolling several times is often irrelevant while adding +4 can make victory guaranteed (or make success possible).  The other thing that is interesting is that tiebreakers are huge.  If the +4 gets you above the other guy's bonus rather than below you effectively gain +5 instead so the breakpoints for how good Danger Sense is become pretty interesting.

You can see the little chart below which tells you how much + to initiative Danger Sense is worth depending how much you are ahead or behind your opponent in current bonus to initiative.  The bottom axis is borked though because it should read from -10 to +10.  The dip in the middle is because Danger Sense doesn't get you over the tiebreaker hump like actual bonuses to initiative do.  Essentially this tells us that if your initiative bonus is low you want Improve Initiative but if you initiative bonus is high (higher than the enemies the majority of the time) you want Danger Sense.

I like math and I just can't lie.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

When it sucks to be a fighter

My Pathfinder game has unfortunately run into the problem of distinct power level differences between classes. This is a long running issue with DnD where you come upon a complex problem and the fighter comes up with a tricky, risky plan using the party's skills, fighting prowess and moxie and proposes it to the group... and the wizard says "Sure, yeah, or I could just use Rock to Mud to demolish the castle walls, Fireball all the guards to death and Teleport the princess to safety."  The fighter says "Sure, yeah... that sounds good.  How can I help?"  Inevitably the wizard replies "Well, um, I guess you can guard the rear in case we get ambushed?  Thanks for being on the team!"  This does not so much create party unity or make anyone but the wizard feel good.

In our last session our characters were fighting a shambling horde of zombies.  They were not difficult at all to fight except that when they died they exploded, delivering a massive amount of damage to all enemies adjacent to them.  This meant of course that our melee characters got butchered and eventually we had to run.  That is, the other characters had to run.  As is traditional in DnD my cleric has absurd undead killing powers but since I have the travel domain I am also able to cast Fly.  I held off the horde of zombies and yelled at the rest of the party to flee and when they finally did I simply flew up in the air over the zombies and annihilated them while they sat there staring helplessly at the flying cleric.

This was tremendous fun for me but not much fun at all for the rest of the characters.  The trouble with this whole situation is that everybody else wonders why they don't just have the flying cleric demolish all the encounters with undead while the rest of the group hangs out in town.  The problem is always the spells that don't have direct combat applications.  If I couldn't fly I would still be strong against undead but at least we would all be playing the same game.  As I level up I am going to be able to Teleport to anywhere in the world as well as having tremendous healing and great combat options.  If this is a problem now, how are the rest of the characters going to feel when I get really powerful and get access to all my high level spells?  If we compare attack routines and "who can do the most damage to the fire giant" contests I won't be anything special but when it comes to using spells to completely ignore campaign challenges I will be exceedingly overpowered.

Castle walls?  Knock em down.  Long distances to travel?  Just Teleport there.  Terrible curses on the party?  Cure them.  At higher levels it becomes harder and harder to deal with these things when you have one of the top tier characters around.  I found a good link talking about this subject, though the class lists there are Pathfinder specific.  I can avoid this by just not using my abilities but I honestly don't like playing the game when I have a list of things I can creatively use to solve problems and I am arbitrarily not using half of them for some reason.  If I were playing a fighter I would use all my cunning and resources to solve problems like a fighter can - scale the wall, ride a horse fast, find a powerful NPC to cure my curse.  It is unfortunate that classes are so badly balanced when it comes to out of combat capabilities but there is no easy way around that in Pathfinder or any DnD version before 4.0 aside from simply not playing the powerful classes.  Maybe I should do just that... I have a great idea for a paladin and there is nobody accusing them of being too good!

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

How much does gear matter?

Since I play a big variety of fantasy games (boardgames, MMOs, tabletop RPG, single player computer, etc.) I get to see a huge variety of different takes on the question "How much should gear matter?"  Generally I am not talking about whether gear should matter at all, because I think logically and thematically it should, but rather whether or not gear becomes more important than the character wearing it.

There are extremes, like comparing a level 43 WOW character to a level 85 WOW character, where the level 43 has 2,000 HP and the level 85 has 80,000 HP.  Regardless of gear the level 43 will die to the first attack the level 85 uses and the level 85 is nigh invulnerable.  There are other games like Diablo 2, for example, where a level 40 with amazing gear could play comfortably but a level 80 with nonmagical gear simply couldn't play at all.

The precise comparison we decided to look at a few years ago was a 3rd edition DnD fighter at level 10 with appropriate magic gear for his level vs. a level 20 fighter with only gear you could buy at the store.  (The store doesn't sell magic items.)  We figured that a level 10 could beat up ogres all day and was comfortable facing a small dragon or a bunch of giants but a level 20 was a legendary hero who fought back waves of demon princes and terrifying great wyrm dragons - surely the level 20 should win.  But 20 loses to 10 quite convincingly.  It turns out that the layers and layers of magical protection that 10 gets to put on are simply too powerful.  10 gets too much AC, HP and stats for 20 to be able to compete.  In short, fighters get better because they find better gear and not so much because they level up.  Note this never held true for casters since a 20 caster can explode a 10 caster with ease, no gear required.

I tried this again with 4rd edition DnD by building up a Slayer called Ten and a Slayer called Twenty (guess what level they were!) to see how the battle shakes out.  Ten gets normal magic gear for his level and Twenty gets just regular equipment you could buy at the store. Twenty hits for 79 with his first attack, 63 on his second and third attack and 50 thereafter.  He hits on a 2 or better on a d20.  Twenty also goes first 90% of the time.  Ten has 85 HP, so Ten dies without getting an action a fair bit of the time and nearly always is dead on the second round.  Ten, on the other hand, has to work through 155 HP and is hitting on 14 or more on a d20.  He gets a few big hits in to start but then has to rely on 28 damage a swing to finish things off - it ends up taking him 17 rounds in total to kill Twenty.  In short Twenty kills Ten without taking a single point of damage in the great majority of cases and simply cannot lose.

I think this is a much better balance of power.  I like the idea of magic equipment mattering, and it is clear that magic items, weapons in particular, make a significant difference.  That said, if Kord the Magnificent who defeated the Lich King, the Demon Horde and the Titans of Corruption somehow loses his gear and has to use a totally regular sword you could buy at the store he is still going to massacre Kord the Pretty Good who killed a bunch of kobolds and ogres and has a pretty awesome magic sword.  It feels like a DM could actually have the players get captured and lose their gear and still have the adventure make sense, whereas in 3rd edition DnD you couldn't beat anything at all without your gear. The major innovations are the following:

1.  Casters get gear that substantially affects their output.  Everybody needs gear relatively equally so brawler types aren't so castrated by losing their gear compared to casters.  That is, unless the wizard loses his spell book and actually can do *nothing*... which is also removed.

2.  Defenses scale with a single piece of gear.  No more Shield + 5, Armour + 5, Ring + 5, Amulet + 5 where you get 20 AC just from the magic pluses on your equipment.  Now your AC scales from a single piece of equipment so the total bonus you can miss out on is much smaller.

3.  No more stat increasing gear.  Having your magic weapon vanish is bad enough but when your stats also drop by 6 due to losing your belt of Massive Stat Gain the level of punishment is too high.  Inherent stat increases instead of stacking on even more magic items is a good idea.

In the end what I really want is a character that matters.  I don't want to just be a vehicle for my gear to defeat bosses but rather I want gear to augment my abilities and make things easier and less dangerous.  We don't write the story of The Awesome Suit of Armour and its bearer Kord, so lets have the mechanics reflect that.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Pirates and Ultimatums

Earlier this week Ziggyny posted about a logic puzzle where there were 5 logical pirates dividing treasure and the captain had to propose a division of their loot.  It turns out the optimal division is 98 pieces of gold for the captain, 1 each for 2 of the other pirates and 0 each for the last 2 pirates.  Of course in any 'real' situation where 5 bloodthirsty individuals were dividing up loot the guy who seriously proposed to take 98% of the money and leave 2 of the others with nothing will get murdered.  Figuring out these sorts of puzzles when you start with the stipulation that the pirates are all extremely logical and want to maximize their earnings above all else is all fine and good but of course in real life nothing works like this.

In real life if you play the Ultimatum Game (one person divides the spoils and the other either accepts the division or decides that nobody gets anything) people tend to offer fair splits in North America.  While it might seem illogical to turn down an 80/20 split and get nothing that is exactly what happens and in fact it makes perfect sense that people behave this way.  If you live your life accepting 80/20 splits you will get treated like a doormat forever but if you are willing to hurt yourself to get revenge then everyone will know they have to treat you fairly.  I know this is true in games because I have seen it firsthand:  I watched a game of Settlers where one player consistently bargained too hard and chiseled people and after a few rounds he suddenly found everybody was screwing him over any time they could.  He ate the Robber Baron every time it came up and his settlement spots were taken from him for spite.  He certainly profited initially but in the long run he lost the game because everyone decided that he was being a jerk.  I have also seen games where a player made a few generous trades early on and spent the whole game being chiseled by the other players; they wouldn't accept a fair trade knowing that their target was weak and willing to give in.

Now it is absolutely true that there is nothing wrong with asking for a favourable trade in Settlers and hoping it works; the only crime is irritating people.  The trouble with this is it is so far removed from the pure logic puzzle of the 5 pirates.  There are people out there who play Settlers extremely hard, negotiate like bastards, and drive everybody crazy (Not that *I* would do that, I am innocent, seriously!) but manage to do so while being charming and without making enemies.  There are also people who play less hard but aren't sufficiently charming or perhaps can't tell when they need to back off to preserve a good trading relationship and who end up with enemies aplenty.  There is definitely a correlation between being a hard negotiator and being considered a jerk but it is not a causal relationship at all.  You do not want to be the patsy nor the jerk in a trading game, the best reputation is tough but fair.

Ziggyny and I get into this nearly every time we play together.

"Get Sky, he's winning."

"No, look at my position, I have no chance, get Ziggyny, he is going to get the Theatre and win."

"Don't listen to him, unless you gank Sky he is going to buy the Guild Hall next turn and crush us."

"Ziggyny is going to get a *second* frigging Steel Ship unless you get into the Shipyard, you gotta stop him!"

I don't know if it is good or bad that so much of multiplayer games revolves around who can browbeat the other players more efficiently but there is no denying it is true.  It also makes any logical evaluation of games like the Pirate scenario with real people completely impossible.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

The pressure is on

I got an invitation a short while ago to a game designer's night at the local Snakes and Lattes (A coffee shop with 1500 board games designed to be a hangout for gamers).  This sort of thing really gets me in gear working on FMB and trying to get it polished and ready to go.  Obviously one of the really important things that you can do when building a game is to get it into the hands of new players and see how they play, learn and react.  There will always be things that veterans think are obvious and which new players stumble over and if you can find those and polish them or add clearer rules explanations then you can drastically improve your game's broad appeal without necessarily needing to change the rules at all.  This is something that old video games tended to be really bad about and which is generally improving a lot in new games.  Sometimes of course you get real conflicts in design like in WOW where raiding was made drastically more accessible and catch up mechanisms were put in place to let everyone see all the raid dungeons - this is the sort of thing where you get real conflict between the people that want the game to cater to the hardcore and the people that want it to cater to the casual.

You can't please everyone.  If you make your game require intense devotion of time and skill to make any progress then you end up with only the most skilled and hardcore players being willing to play while if you make it too trivial then you lose those players.  There has been a decided trend in video games, particularly MMOs, towards making the entire game accessible to people who aren't especially skilled and don't necessarily have a lot of time to devote.  This is a great idea from a profit perspective of course because the casual gamers outnumber the hardcore gamers by an large margin.

Sometimes though you can improve things for one side or the other without costing yourself anything.  Take 4th Edition DnD for example:  Abilities have keywords.  A power might have the keywords Weapon, Martial, Thunder, Fear and now it is extremely easy to determine how exactly it works.  No particular expertise is required to figure out whether or not someone with a bonus vs. Fear attacks gets to use their bonus in this case.  Magic:  The Gathering did the same sort of thing.  Initially cards in the game were really randomly worded and it was tricky to figure out how many things worked.  Pros spent a lot of time and effort learning all the various errata and rules about interactions and were able to use that to leverage victories while newbies continually asked "How does this work again?"  Modern Magic cards are much better.  The wording is extremely clear and keywords are explained so that everyone can see exactly how various card interactions are supposed to work.  In both cases there is tremendous room for expertise and innovation but a new player can step in and figure out how to play much more easily than they could in the past.  It is great to have depth of strategy and innovation to give the hardcore players more things to do and enjoy but it is important to let the new folks step in and know what they are doing instead of forcing them to either be clueless or spend countless hours reading errata and explanations for things that could be very simple.

FMB has all the same quandaries.  How much replayability do I need?  How complex do I want the strategy to be?  These aren't easy questions because there are definite tradeoffs either way.  I can just make the game automatically better though by making sure I always use clear language and make specific terms mean very specific things.  I need to use Hit to mean a very particular thing and capitalize it so it is clear that this is a special word.  I need to continually edit my sentences so that I convey all the information needed in the simplest and shortest way possible.  I am sure that working on making the game simple to pick up is a much bigger factor in the game's success than the fine balance of game mechanics.  Settlers has all kinds of problems in gameplay but it is easy to learn and fast to play.  This has made it a massive smash success even though a game like Agricola (not at all well known) is an arguably better game from a hardcore player's perspective.  Agricola takes a half hour to explain and even then the first turn is completely overwhelming for a new player - you have a tons of action choices, a zillion rules to remember and 14 unique cards in your hand which alter your strategy.

The ideal game of course fits in with Blizzard's mantra:  Easy to learn, difficult to master.  You need a game that can be explained in a few minutes and which has a few simple choices at the beginning but which has tremendous depth of strategy at the end.  Tremendous depth of strategy can be very challenging to create but it is shocking how often it is emphasized over the relatively easy goal of making everything clear and simple whenever possible.

Thursday, November 3, 2011

Glitch over man, Glitch over

I have been playing Glitch like a lunatic for some time now.  It was a lot of fun doing so but I think I need to be done as gameplay has devolved into a pure timesink.  Initially I spent a lot of time exploring, trying to do quests and sorting out game mechanics but that is pretty much all over by this point:  I am reasonably high level, collected all 11 Icons and have the majority of the skills completed so getting anything new is starting to be a rare occurrence.  Even when I do get something new to do (like learning to use the Cocktail Shaker, which will occur soon) I have resources such that I can completely exhaust the new recipes and quests in a matter of minutes.  Really the only thing left to do is log in every four hours when the game day resets and do all the things that are limited by game days.  I can continue levelling up like this but any moments of interest will be few and far between - the great majority of my time will be either mindless clicking on things to farm up stuff or sitting staring at my monitor while my character cooks 40 Awesome Stews in a row.

Note that I have played an truckload of games where there was an awful lot of repetitive clicking in the past; that certainly is no great barrier for me.  The trick though is that the clicking needs to either have some other purpose I am working towards or be challenging.  In Glitch there aren't really a lot of obvious goals aside from getting to maximum level or learning all the skills, both of which require stupendous amounts of time.  There certainly isn't anything to prepare for as once I get to maximum level or have all the skills I will be doing exactly the same thing I did before.  There also isn't any challenge to the game at all aside from optimizing your gathering / cooking / selling / donating economies and I have got that down pretty near perfectly.  There are other skills to learn but I don't think there is actually anything that will change my current set of strategies for maximizing my income and progression.  This reminds me in a way of the way WOW levelling is right now in that here is nothing to learn and no challenge whatsoever.

Moreover I think that I need to get other parts of my life going again.  I should do more work on FMB to get it polished and ready to publish (though I still don't know that I will ever actually attempt publishing it) and I have a tabletop RPG to write.  I also plan on doing more volunteering and maybe taking up some sort of exercise regimen and although I would be willing to put those things aside for a really compelling game I don't see much reason to rank them below making numbers bigger in Glitch.  The game is certainly highly addictive and in the beginning the world is a huge and wondrous place with all kinds of neat nooks and crannies to explore but eventually it just wears thin.   If that weren't enough reason I should probably get the rest of my life in order before I fall hopelessly down the rabbit hole of Diablo 3.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

More On Mists of Pandaria - I Love It

We have more details on how the major mechanics changes are going to work for Mists of Pandaria and I like it more every time I find something new.  The old style of talents is going away completely in favour of 6 talent choices.  Each 15 levels you will get the option to pick one of three abilities and the choices are nearly all interesting utility options with very little to no raw output options available.  I think this is a fantastic way to go.  Ever since vanilla WOW players have been all taking the same choices and very rarely has there been much to play with in the trees if you want to maximize your performance.  You take every passive +10% to this and +1% chance to that you can and some classes ended up with a few "Do whatever with this" points at the end and some didn't even have that.  The new system looks like it will really give players tons of great options to customize their play.  After looking at the various choices I was rarely able to decide quickly on what I wanted since few of the choices are really designed for one spec or the other.  Nearly all of the choices looked appealing and they would certainly be worth changing around based on what encounters or situations you expected to face.

Of course some people were going with the line that there will always be one optimal build and everyone will just do that build but I don't buy that at all.  Even today when specs on Elitist Jerks are very standardized there are still plenty of cases where the leftover utility points really are noted as "Up to personal preference" because it is hard to say which sorts of utility will be most useful.  These abilities are carefully chosen so that there will often be a correct choice for a particular role in a particular fight but over the course of a week I can see great uses for nearly everything.  I think we will actually see plenty of successful raiders that have no talent choices in common with raiders of exactly the same class and spec.  This is a great change as I really don't see much value in putting one more talent point into "This attack does 5% more damage." every few levels as it really doesn't change gameplay at all.  Adding something big and exciting every so often seems like a lot more fun.

This system of customization feels a lot more like Diablo 3 than current WOW.  Making a few choices that really influence gameplay seems like a much better way to run talents than a huge number of choices that hardly affect gameplay at all.  In Diablo 3 you need to pick a few defensive abilities, a few AOE abilities, a single target ability, a mobility ability and regeneration and utility abilities.  You only get 6 choices though so you have a lot of tough choices to make but the number of different builds is immense.  The new WOW is the same way in that even if 1 of your 3 choices at each tier is inferior you still have 2^6 = 64 distinct builds to work with.  Lots of choices but each choice is very simple and discrete, there are absolutely no situations where you think "This choice is irrelevant".  For a new player it is easy to get into because you just make a few choices where the effects are very obvious but the potential for an expert to maximize their abilities remains really large.

The addition of more difficulty levels in dungeons and raids is also welcome.  I have talked before about how we need a Storymode setting for raids where people who just want to see the raid and do some low key fights can walk in and beat up some big baddies and now it will be there.  This will make raiding accessible to casuals and people who don't like guild structure and is a great thing.  Adding in a setting to let 5 man dungeons have really hard content is also fantastic, especially the feature that removes gear scaling from the equation.  I like the idea of good players who are somewhat casual in playtime having really rough challenges they can attempt without having to round up a big group.  Just like casual raiding this opens up opportunities for people to try things on a different schedule from what has been necessary in the past.

The more I read about Mists of Pandaria the more I think I might resub to WOW for it.  The new race and class are fine, the mechanics changes and structure changes to the game are fantastic and all the details I have seen look really promising.  I probably won't get back into the hardcore raiding mode I was in before but a group of people who want to run raids here and there and do 5 man challenges seems like something I could really get into.  We will see how Diablo 3 is holding out when Mists of Pandaria launches!

Thursday, October 27, 2011

Adding more options

Power creep is a seemingly inevitable consequence of game development.  No matter whether it is a tabletop RPG, an MMORPG or even a RL sports team there is a constant trend upward in power.  In an MMORPG the reasoning behind this is obvious:  Much of the incentive to do anything for characters is increasing their power and the increases need to continuously ramp up to keep people's interest.  Doing 1 more damage is pretty great when I am doing 12 damage but when I am doing 12,000 damage I need to do 1,000 more for it to feel significant.

WOW illustrated this just as all its predecessors did; characters using the most current gear would utterly demolish any challenge that appeared years ago.  It isn't all gear of course as you can easily see by looking at WOW's addition of profession perks, glyphs, reforging and dualspeccing.  Even though all of these were added in to either fix imbalances or create new and interesting decisions they all drastically ratcheted up the power level of characters.  Every time something new and impactful comes along everybody gets better.  This is really obvious when looking at level grinding in WOW at the moment:  Characters have good talent trees and reasonable resource mechanics, get many more abilities at lower levels, have glyphs and have heirloom gear.  All of these things (perhaps save heirlooms) were added in to improve the experience and make characters more fun but they really powered everyone up.  It is true that hunters using mana and paladins not having any way to attack the enemies were stupid mechanics but removing them has raised the bar forever.

DnD 4th is no exception here.  My group has been exploring using the online character generator and the extent to which our characters are better than the basic Player's Handbook characters is astounding.  First off there are lots of feats that don't suck!  Instead of running out of things to take at level 6 as a caster I will have constant and interesting tradeoffs to make right up to level 30.  Everything I take will be good and there will always be a reasonable alternative.  This is great of course but it sure does make me more powerful.  There are also Backgrounds and Themes which are completely new aspects to characters that add ridiculous powers.  A Background will only either add a skill to your class skill list or give a +2 to a skill but that is still a straight up buff with no penalty whatsoever.  You can't balance numerical buffs with 'roleplaying challenges'.  One ridiculous Theme even lets you increase an ally's attack roll by 1d4+2 as an encounter power.  The silly thing is this isn't any sort of tradeoff since you just add that power to your list.  Even if you had the option to trade in this power for something else it would be a buff because of increased choice but to just get it for nothing is ridiculous.

The point of all this is to fool the audience really.  Everyone wants to see their characters / favourite athletes / toons get better but if a flat out +2 to everything is announced it would be roundly booed.  Instead companies need to increase the power level of the game by slipping in changes that seem at a glance to be innocuous but end up being really impactful.  Football players need better equipment and training, WOW characters need to be able to glyph their abilities to be better and DnD characters need 'themes' that flat out make them kill monsters better.  It is an unfortunate but it works so it is unlikely to stop any time soon.

Tuesday, October 25, 2011

Kung Fu Pandas

Blizzard just announced the next WOW expansion - the continent of Pandaria, containing the Pandarens, which are of course Pandas.  Honestly they could have been just a *tad* more original in their naming schemes.  Much of the internet is convinced that this is a sign of the apocalypse and Blizzard has decided to finally throw in the towel on 'real gaming' and just pander to the 12 year olds who want to play a Kung Fu Panda.  Those people can safely be dismissed as bittervets.  WOW has always pandered to 12 year olds, this is nothing new.  Us old folk can recall quest chains revolving around collecting animal poop from every expansion, often several times an expansion even.  Nothing has changed:  Dwarf quests are still all about getting drunk, elves are still designed to be masturbatory fantasies for tweens, goblins are still futuristic mad scientists and undead are icky.

Whether or not the very noticeable decline in WOW subscriptions is reversed or halted in Mists of Pandaria is not going to rest on whether the jokes are sophisticated or not as that is already decided.  I also doubt the trend will be significantly affected by endgame raiding balance.  WOW was plenty popular back when balance was a joke and the really fine adjustments they make these days aren't even particularly relevant to the vast majority of the playerbase.  There is a large pool of people out there who raid a little and a small pool who raid a lot and only the really hardcore players are affected by one class being 5% better than another.

What *will* determine the sub rate in WOW is how the casual experience changes.  Right now the questing experience has a big story to tell, has plenty to do and is utterly trivial.  Levelling in WOW was never hard but these days there is simply nothing you can do to get yourself killed aside from literally going afk and that I think is a bad thing.  I also feel like the dungeon experience both during levelling and at endgame isn't working out well with the current Cataclysm design.  Dungeons are just as trivial as soloing and there is no strategy, thought or feeling of accomplishment in beating a dungeon.  Generally nobody even knows what abilities the monsters have because it simply doesn't matter.  When a player arrives at endgame they are suddenly faced with normal dungeons that reward absolutely rubbish gear (compared to rep gear, Justice Point gear, etc.) and to kill things that drop loot you want requires a totally new skill set - heroic dungeons will kill you if you don't get out of the fire.

Cataclysm quests were much better than previous quests at providing 'raid training' to players and there were actual solo bossfights that I really liked.  However, the contrast between the 1- 80 game and the 81+ game is far too stark.  If Blizzard really wants to improve the game I think they need to take a lot of the quests off the rails and let people do them in whatever order they want and turn up the challenge on soloing and dungeons.  Whether or not that stuff is going to happen in Mists of Pandaria is entirely unclear at this point, and although the new Monk class and Pandaren race are fine additions they don't say anything about how WOW will fare going forward.

Thursday, October 20, 2011

Tragedy of the Piggy Commons

I have become a Glitch player.  Unlike most games where I am the trailblazer in my family I ended up getting into the game well after Wendy and even after Elli.  In the past it has always been my role to provide advice (Go over there, climb that thing, kill that guy), strategy (Here is the best build for you) and cash (Sky, can I have enough gold to buy myself an epic mount for my 3rd alt please?) in game to support Wendy and Elli but this time I am the noob.  Wendy shipped me a ton of money to let me buy big bags for my Glitch character so I could play properly - a deep part of my mind wants to gather that much money again and ship it back to balance the books (because I am insane) but the other half is just happy clicking on things and levelling up.

I like Glitch.  It doesn't take anything resembling dexterity but it does encourage the creation of enormous spreadsheets, which is a feature I like in a game.  Unlike WOW, where 99%+ of all crafting recipes are utterly useless in Glitch all the recipes are good.  There are some that are more efficient that others of course which is why you "need" a big ass spreadsheet to tell you what the best stuff to make is but if you just sit down and cook / alchemize / tinker randomly you are always improving and making better stuff.

The really neat feature of Glitch is that everyone is in a single world and you can influence that world by knocking down trees, stealing pigs, adding new creatures or otherwise altering the features of the streets that comprise the Glitch world.  One thing that slipped by the development team is that Piggies, when captured, can be sold for a huge sum of money.  The trouble with this is that this removes Piggies from the supply chain and wrecks other people's attempts to create or move them and rewards that behaviour.  In this sort of player generated world it is okay if one person moves Piggies to one location and someone else moves them back - eventually somebody gives up but either way it is okay for the rest of us.  When you attach a huge cash reward to *destroying* content though even players who feel no interest in the location of Piggies run around capturing them to get money to buy things.  The rest of the game is about collecting, managing and building and this one feature was about destroying things for profit - hardly a good match.  Yesterday the developers patched this out of the game and you can no longer sell Piggies at all, only move them from place to place.

The other amusing thing about Glitch and my psychology is the Better Learning tree.  There are lots of skills and they rank up in real time.  The early skills in each tree take 30 mins or an hour but the later ones can take a long damn time - like Better Learning 5, which takes more than 5 days.  My brain constantly screams at me to just keep taking the skills that make me learn other skills faster because that is how you get twinky in the long run but in this game it is obviously wrong to do so.  You need to pick other skills up first so you can actually do things in the game; Better Learning is something you need to do but you need to balance how much of it you do.  Well, you *should* balance it.  I ramped straight up though and the rest of the skills be damned.  Learn faster!

Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Monster Manual scaling

I remember playing DnD 2nd back in the good old days.  Ahh, Mages that rolled 1d4 / level for HP and which cast Fireball to hit an enormous area for 1d6 / level damage... good times.  And by that I mean what the hell were you idiots thinking?!?  The funny thing is that Fireball was hideously overpowered back then because when cast against a reasonable encounter it would often take off 70% of the HP the enemies have in total but now it isn't nearly so problematic because players and monsters have scaled so much.  Instead of Mages having 2.5 HP / level the standard these days is 8 HP / level and suddenly you can take a fireball and expect everyone in the group to be hurt but still very much in the fight.  Other things have changed too since Rogues actually do real damage, all brawler types have access to much higher hit and damage bonuses from feats and class features and magic items that boost up stats are much more widely available.  Of course along with these buffs came monsters of increased power - you can't just use a 2nd edition monster against a Pathfinder party because it will die in 1 round and accomplish nothing.

This creates some weird scaling issues though.  It used to be that you had a choice between casting fireball (which very nearly wins the fight on its own) or summon monster 3 (which summons a really crappy monster with 3 hit dice).  After all these new editions and changes though fireball is still the same as it ever was but summoned monsters got massive stat and hit dice boosts and incredible specials like the Bison which got Trample.  As far as I can tell from the rules the way Trample works is the creature walks over as many enemies as it wants in the turn doing 19 damage to each of them and knocking them down - they can take half damage with a really difficult save.  This is more powerful than Fireball but the Bison is going to stick around for 7 turns and do this disgusting AOE attack every round.  Trample needs a big nerf.

This is the same sort of issue 3rd edition ran into with Polymorph.  3rd edition monsters were so much more powerful than previous editions that the ability to turn into whichever one you want became completely insane and let casters turn into Stone Giants / Dire Bears or whatever happened to have the appropriate mix of necessary stats and destroy people.  This also gave a huge power boost to anyone who happened to have more Monster Manuals around since they could find more interesting things to turn into.  It also meant that any time a new monster was published there were really nasty design constraints because players were so happy to turn into anything that had high physical stats or AC or other extraordinary powers.  Of course this might be a minor concern because once you had the option to turn into a Stone Giant a new entry would have to be truly stupendous to be even more broken.  Pathfinder fixed this problem by making all the polymorph spells give fixed stat and AC bonuses and their system works pretty well I think but they really missed the progression problems with animal summons.

I will say though it is really nice to have summons be a decent option.  Having casters always default to massive AOE damage to attack isn't very interesting compared to choosing an appropriate animal to summon for the moment.  If I want to lock one target down I summon a Crocodile and it can grapple and Death Roll! the target.  If I want pure beatdown I summon a Cheetah and my lower level options include Giant Toads and Eagles depending on what sort of problem I am having.  This means that characters and the enemies are involved in melee combat dealing with grappling, tripping and positioning instead of just waiting for the massive AOE to land.  I like that style of combat a lot more, though I will admit it was outrageous fun to Fireball the enemies to oblivion in the old days.  It wasn't as great when we got Fireballed in return though, which is why the new system is a lot better.

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Attack - Miss - Done.

I remember playing DnD 2nd edition for many years back when I was younger.  One of the features of that game was that spellcasters got to make interesting, complicated choices on their turns and fighting classes were boring as all hell.  Most fighter turns would go "Attack, Miss, Done." or "Attack, Hit, 12 damage, Done."  Hardly the stuff of legends.  In 3rd edition things got a lot better with the introduction of feats since there were a lot more options for customizing a character.  Brawlers actually had choices like Spring Attack, Whirlwind, Cleave and others.  Unfortunately there weren't nearly enough feats for high level play and if your stats weren't arranged to make certain prerequisite feats available you could easily run out of things to do at level 6.

The big exception was two weapon fighting.  For some reason the designers wanted anyone fighting with two weapons to have to sink tons and tons of feats in to do so reasonably.  Unfortunately none of those feats did anything interesting at all, they were all simply "Attack MOAR."  Not only that but they were all utterly useless unless you got to full attack standing next to the enemy.  If you weren't next to the enemy at the start of your turn you were back to "Attack, Miss, Done."  This is exactly the sort of thing feats shouldn't do - they should give you options or customize one particular type of play rather than be 'always on' bonuses.

Pathfinder (Dnd 3.75) did a lot of good things in this regard.  First, they added on way more feats and made sure to have lots of high level ones that you could look forward to.  The high level feats were also quite powerful and that meant that at any given level there were interesting choices to make and yet still things to lust over.  (Boy, when I get to level 11 I am going to MURDER people!)  Another great improvement is the addition of lots of 'single attack' feats.  These feats let you cleave multiple enemies, make single big attacks, debuff the enemies or take additional movement along with an attack.  This means that for one brawlers have lots of choices to make about what they want to do in a turn and also that they aren't so brutally dependent on starting their turn next to the enemy.  Full attack is still generally the best option but there are lots of things that are close to as good that can be done with single strikes after a move.  I always hated that any time the monster was highly mobile the brawlers were absolute junk; they don't need to be good at everything but there should be options for them to improve in that regard.

Pathfinder also did some really dumb things.  They decided to keep the utterly bloated Two Weapon Fighting chain of feats and even added in a bunch more Two Weapon Fighting with Shield Bashes so that someone using this style can easily sink 19 feats into this style and the basic damage buffs.  That is bad design because with all those feats it is savagely overpowered when they do get to full attack someone and when they cannot they are terrible.  They really need to just make Two Weapon Fighting one feat and find some mechanics that make it work - my feeling is that they should have made it so that any time you attack with a weapon you can attack with both weapons instead with some appropriate penalty.

There is still a lack of variety in feats for casters compared to brawlers.  Casters have tons of selection in their spells and they can spend their feats taking a few of their limited options and then dump the rest into item creation, utility or defensive choices.  Although some casters might want more things to do I feel like overall their flexibility and choice is plenty high enough so having limited feat choices is fine.

The more of Pathfinder I read the more I am impressed with the balance and testing they have put into it.  It isn't perfect by any stretch but it feels a lot more like DnD 4th edition in many ways because although there are dumb ways to build your character you can just take any class, take stats that the book tells you are important for your class, pick abilities that look good and be just fine (a 'normal' character).  The optimized character is going to have an edge, to be sure, but two normal characters should beat a twink handily unlike in 3.0 where it wasn't hard to build a character that could smash three or more normal characters easily.  Having ways to be powerful is good but the difference between a super optimized twink and a normal character should be 50% not 300%.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Spell Progression

I took a look at cleric spells today to figure out what they are going to do as I level up in my Pathfinder (DnD 3.75) game.  Here is the list of how much healing single target spells do at the level you get them.

1.  5.5
2.  12
3.  18.5
4.  25
5.  31.5 + extras
6.  *110* + extras

Now here is the list for AOE heals.

5.  13.5
6.  20
7.  26.5
8.  33
9.  *170* + extras

What the *hell* are those 110 and 170 numbers doing in there?  Note that +extras is normally *really* powerful stuff, enough that a very trivial amount of healing tacked on would make the spell really excellent.  In all the cases where +extras is used if the spell healed for 1/5th of the amount it does it would still be a very powerful, attractive spell.  The funny thing is that the 110 and 170 numbers are actually huge nerfs from the old 3.0 edition where they were both infinity instead.  Pathfinder decided that infinity was a big problem so they nerfed them, but instead of doing so to put them in line with other healing they just made the fixed number completely absurd.

The problem with all this is that clerics scale in ridiculous ways.  At early levels my spells are actually really bad compared to my Channel Energy power (1d6 per two levels AOE heal) and I should avoid using spells for healing except when it is really necessary.  I have better armour, weapons, base attack and saves than a wizard and I have incredible healing so presumably my spells should be pretty crap - and they are.  Unfortunately once I get to high levels I still have all those benefits (though base attack and weapon cease to be significant) but my spells go from 'meh' to 'SUPERMAN'.  I have fantastic 'save or die' attacks, great buffs, overpowered heals and even good AOE spells - the only thing I lack is some utility like teleport.

This doesn't make sense no matter which way you look at it.  If cleric spells are supposed to be bad because they have such great healing then they should be bad all the way up, not bad and then amazing.  If they are supposed to have great spells and great healing then their early spells need a massive boost and clearly clerics would be the best class by far.  The solution as I see it is to keep the interesting extras tacked onto these spells but bust their healing amounts down a lot.  Instead of 10 healing / level it should be more like 5 / level.  In both the single target and AOE cases that puts the numbers a lot more in line with the rest of the progression list and means that you might actually consider using a lower level heal instead of them being utterly irrelevant.

Thursday, October 6, 2011

I agree with Gevlon, a rare thing

Gevlon and Tobold both just posted about their problems with WOW.  Normally I dismiss most of what Gevlon says as sociopathic nonsense designed to prop up his self esteem but this time I actually liked what he had to say.  In both cases these articles talked about their dislike of the raiding game and their dislike of the levelling game and how these two games make no sense together.  Whether or not an individual likes either the raiding or levelling game I don't think it can be argued that in their current incarnations they are a very silly and annoying hybridization.  If someone likes the raiding game they are looking for a game that requires practice, good reflexes, teamwork and organization to say nothing of substantial time commitment.  In order to start this up they have to level up for hours and hours doing things that require no skill, practice, reflexes, teamwork, organization or time commitment.  Of course the other side is true too and anyone who loves levelling can hardly be expected to enjoy raiding when they get there.

I remember levelling up various characters and doing so was interesting in the old days.  I recall levelling up my rogue and hunter in particular and having to use traps, stealth, and cooldown management to beat pulls with more than one enemy in them.  If I pulled too many enemies or missed too many attacks I had to run away so it was always important for me to watch what I was doing.  Playing better and being clever *mattered*.  Of course there were also levelling abominations like my paladin where I had no abilities that did anything so I just sat there waiting for enemies to die, healed myself and walked to the next one.  There were plenty of incredibly stupid things about levelling too, like the lack of quests, quests that sent you all over the world for trivial rewards and elite areas that you couldn't find a group for.  Some of the solutions to these issues were done really well in recent years like adding more quests, giving all classes interesting mechanics and flattening the monster levels in each zone but some were disastrous like making all monsters trivial in difficulty or making an entire zone a linear questing experience.

I like the idea of having lots of things to do.  I also like the idea of quests and monsters being *hard* and requiring thought and planning to some extent.  Even the old quests that sent me all around the world didn't necessarily need to be removed forever, as long as the rewards were increased such that it actually made sense to complete them.  If you want me to fly across two continents then I should get a big XP bonus at the end to make it feel like it was worth it.  Even the endless complaints about outdoor zones with elite monsters didn't necessarily need to be dealt with by removing all of them but rather just by making them optional.  If there were quests to kill elite monsters that required a group but there were also sufficient solo quests that you could avoid the elite ones as necessary then people would have the option to dial up their difficulty for big rewards if they were interested.

In the new levelling scheme there is no feeling of accomplishment at getting to max level.  Any monkey that can hit one button and accept quests could be nearly as efficient as I was at getting there.  In order to really have fun you need a challenge and there needs to be a difference between how fast a pro and a fool can get things done.  Since you can always go back and do easy, underlevel zones there is no risk of people getting stuck but with no challenge at all there is no accomplishment.

I got to thinking about what it would take for me to be interested in resubbing to WOW to level some characters again, and here are my initial thoughts:

1.  Nerf heirloom gear by ~30%.  Make it good enough that it is better than greens but worse than blues.  I say this even though I have pretty much a complete set of heirlooms for all toons.

2.  Buff monster health by 60% and damage by 90%.  Combined with the heirloom changes this should mean that monsters take roughly twice as long to die and do double their current damage for heirloomed characters.

3.  Add in a bunch of dangerous stuff.  Wandering patrols of 3 monsters, elites that have 4x the health and 2x the damage of regular monsters and enemies that pull in groups of 2-3 would be a start.  Ideally I would like monsters with more dangerous abilities and spells as well as some Elite areas but that would require a lot more work.

These sorts of changes get me kind of excited - I think I might actually resub and play some WOW to tool around on random characters and see all the new Cataclysm levelling content.