Tuesday, January 31, 2012

DnD next

Wizards has announced that it is working on big changes to DnD.  What isn't clear to me is the nature of the new thing that will come out; clearly it is big but I don't know if they are going whole hog with a new edition or simply going for DnD 4.5.  They have noticed that the DnD world has split into two very antagonistic factions, one of which adopted 4th ed. and one which is sticking with older editions.  This is particularly problematic for them because those people who stick with the older editions are mostly buying Pathfinder instead of Wizards products.  This happened with earlier edition changes but to a much lesser extent because the game changed much less in the transition to 2nd, 3rd, 3.5, etc.  It was fairly straightforward to bring an old character into the new edition until 4th hit the ground; at that point you pretty much had to give up and start anew.

If Wizards does opt for a 4.5 sort of target where they pretty much keep going with 4th edition but try to get more of the old rules into the game I think they are on target for failure.  Those people who stuck by the old editions aren't going to be satisfied with anything that is 4th edition compatible as it is just too far from the old ways and those who bought all their 4th edition books will be ticked off that they need to buy new material.  Going all in and starting a 5th edition would be a much wiser move to my mind, if they have to pick between the two.  Everybody would still be pissed about buying new books and such all over again but at least they could start fresh and do it right.  (Ha!  In my dreams...)

I started thinking about what I would do to try to build a new edition of DnD presuming I am not allowed to innovate as much as I do with SkyRPG.  I have some real reservations about the encounter power / daily power system but if given a choice between 3rd edition (Fighter hits the monster) and 4rd edition (Everybody has interesting options) I would go with 4th every time in that regard.  One thing I think I would do differently from 4th edition though is skills.  I don't like the 4th edition skills, in particular that there is minimal customization and you pretty much never make a choice again after level 1.  Pathfinder did skills much better than DnD ever did and I would go with their system for sure.  It is much simpler than the 3rd edition and much more customizable than 4th.

I would change some other things too, like the intense reliance on magic item acquisition for scaling.  It is very difficult to make a world feel right to me when every character can expect to go through 50+ magic items in their career, often more like 100.  How are those items going to feel special or unique, particularly when everybody uses powdered magic item residue as cash?  The system in 4th is built around the core concept of magic items being ubiquitous and I don't like that.  The pluses need to be toned down so that magic items aren't as necessary for proper scaling and so that high magic and low magic campaigns can both use the same monster and encounter designs.  If magic items change your core numbers less than you can much more easily vary the magic in the world as the DM without having to rewrite the whole system to accommodate.

Generally I think you could characterize my 'ideal but realistic' DnD Next wishes as 4th edition but with different magic items and different skills.  Most of the rest works well enough that I don't see a critical need for redesign.  Obviously individual things like Expertise feats and such need to be scrapped but that is the sort of thing that is included in the package of 'new edition' and getting the math right is clearly a priority this time around.

Thursday, January 26, 2012

Meta effects

In many games there are effects that are directly affect the game position and aren't really comprehensible outside of it; I call these regular effects.  There are often also effects that are a little more abstract in nature and are often shared between games; I call these meta effects.  Some examples from my game Dot:

Regular Effect:  Artist:  Rotate a red Tile to a new orientation.

Meta Effect:  General:  Take an extra turn after this one.

Meta effects can be fun but they often generate lots of problems.  A good example is early Magic:  The Gathering where effects like Time Walk (take another turn) and Ancestral Recall (draw three cards) dominated the game and eventually had to be removed to preserve any semblance of balance.  Ziggyny talked about a similar issue in the Campaign Manager game he played where you could build an 'infinite deck' using these meta effects and utterly dominate any deck trying to use regular effects.  I remember the CCG Rage having this issue too since you were generally supposed to fight using a five card hand but there was one card that allowed you to draw ~eight extra cards and made you more powerful to boot!  You know there are likely to be problems any time certain cards let you do multiple things or read "Draw three cards".  I am currently evaluating two meta effects for Dot.  The original incarnations are as follows:

Inventor:  Shuffle your hand and reserve pile together and draw a new hand.

Spy:  Opponent plays with their hand revealed until your next turn.

These presented problems.  The first was that Inventor made you shuffle.  I have always hated the requirement to do a properly randomized shuffle in the middle of a game and I can't imagine anybody thinks that is good design.  In a computer game this effect would be completely fine; it is useful to cycle away cards you don't want right at the moment and computers can shuffle instantly.  In a physical tile game though it seems poor because the interestingness of the effect does not justify the annoyance.  Spy was reasonable but seemed not compelling enough and I wanted it to do more.  The second iteration had a rules change which caused you to draw up to three Tiles in hand on your turn instead of always drawing one.

Inventor:  Draw three Tiles.

Spy:  Look at opponent's hand and force them to discard Tiles of your choice until they have two Tiles or less.

The Inventor in this iteration was good because you got greater selection for a few turns but it would certainly make it complicated to make decisions when you had five Tiles to choose from.  Playing the Spy right after your opponent had used Inventor was utterly brutal though because it gave you even more selection to pin them with the worst Tiles!  The other issue is this version of Spy causes a reshuffle, which hasn't magically become 'not crap' in the past paragraph.  The current working effects:

Inventor:  Your opponent may rotate this Tile to a new orientation.

Spy:  Look at opponent's hand and choose a Tile.  They may not play that Tile until your next turn.

Of course this version of Inventor doesn't sound much like an Inventor and isn't really a meta effect any more.  Maybe he needs to be named Turncoat instead.  He has swapped from being a relatively weird effect to a powerful bonus to a significant penalty.  Quite the journey.

Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Cinematics and voiceovers

I found a great article today about how we can think about the various ways in which parts of games interact.  It talks about the relationships between input, problems and feedback and the impacts of having too much of one thing or another on your game.  In particular the author talks about the issue of having too much feedback and not enough problem in your game; you end up with very little replayability.  He gives examples of games in which you have a trivial situation with only one solution but which is also filled with great cinematics.  An example of this is the final action you take in Portal 2 where you must simply aim your mouse at the moon and click.  It is followed by a long and enjoyable cinematic but that particular push and click is really nothing at all; certainly it isn't much of a challenge.  Fortunately for Portal 2 the immediately preceding portion of the game is all about mad clicking and problem solving so it doesn't get in the way.  However, if the whole game was just a few simple clicks with no skill or thought required followed by fancy graphics it would be a pretty terrible game.  You might enjoy it the first time but clearly it should be a movie, not a game.

This sort of situation is becoming more prevalent in the world of MMOs.  Most early MMOs were brutal and punished failure severely; they were certainly not a place where anybody who can click a mouse would just cruise through watching the pretty screen.  I would say they were too brutal, in fact, but you would not accuse EQ of having too much cinematic and not enough doing stuff.  Modern MMOs have swung pretty far the other way.  SWTOR marketed heavily their voice acting and cinematics and from all accounts those things actually went over very well.  They have a long story with lots of things to watch and experience but you know what is going to happen the second time through; players will hit Esc and get out of the cinematic to get to the next quest.  It is the same thing as the "you beat the Lich King!" cinematic in WOW.  The first time we downed him we all watched it all the way through and it was a fantastic moment but the second time he died we went straight to looting.

Cinematics and other narrative elements are great to have in a game but they aren't enough long term.  If people want a great movie experience they generally don't sit and watch the Godfather series over and over; they go on to other movies and other stories.  The same holds true in MMOs and other games.  If you want to hold people's attention long term you can't focus entirely on feedback and ignore the problems and input portions of the game.  For players to continue playing and to keep coming back you have to either have fresh new feedback (and that is quite clearly impossible as nobody can make enough cinematics and content as fast as players can consume it) or have interesting problems and input challenges.  Maybe your game is obvious strategically but difficult to execute like a car racing game or maybe it is a game where figuring out what to do in the first place is hard but actually doing it is easy like HOMM.  In either case you have much more chance of keeping the interest of the player than if you simply try to have your game be a movie with a few easy clicks in the middle.

Thursday, January 19, 2012

Economics of Diablo 3

Tobold made a post recently talking about how the Real Money AH (RMAH) in D3 is tantamount to cheating. It allows people to defeat things they have no business defeating and ruin the experience for others because they know that other people have cheated to get to where they are.  Tobold would much rather simply enter a cheat code and beat the game that way rather than having to insert real money into the game to cheat. To consider a new player buying expensive equipment 'cheating' you pretty much have to consider cheating to include things like trading equipment with other players, trading equipment between your own characters or perhaps even getting lucky and finding a fantastic drop with a very low drop chance.  Anything that appeared on the RMAH could just as easily be sold via the gold AH and the player could have bought it by simply farming up a lot of gold, so are we to consider the AH in its entirety 'cheating'?

Blizzard is being extremely careful to not have anything for sale except that which is generated by players.  The fact of the matter is that people want to pay real money for in game items, which you can plainly see by the plethora of D2 sites that sell gear.  Blizzard is simply making sure that when these trades between people occur they don't get players ripped off and they don't get accounts stolen.  They are making an alternative trading mechanism that *will be used* secure and safe.  If you can't stomach a new player buying an item you must find the idea of a veteran player giving a new player a gift unacceptable too since either way the new player has not 'earned' it.  Certainly some people would rather that there be no trading of items at all to preserve their single player experience but I say faugh to that.  You can ignore the AH entirely if you want and those players who do use it have absolutely no effect on your play whatsoever.

One other thing that Blizzard is doing masterfully is making sure that the economy will never be saturated with the best possible items.  Virtually every item in the game is distinctly random and even those with names have variable properties.  The Grandfather (a named two handed sword) might be hell on wheels but can you really tolerate a Grandfather with 25 Precision when some copies of the Grandfather have up to 28 Precision?  This was very cleanly illustrated back in vanilla D2 with the Tarnhelm.  Tarnhelm had a Magic Find that ranged from 25 to 49% and 49% Tarnhelms were literally seven times as valuable as 44% Tarnhelms while Tarnhelms below 35% were perhaps a quarter of the 44% versions.  No matter how good your gear is you will always have something to improve upon and there will be a great variety of things to buy and upgrade.  This ensures that the market never gets stagnant as there is a huge amount of granularity leading up to the best possible items.   I also really like the fact that so many of the best items have many random stat types and values - there will be no 'best' set but rather a complex equation to solve based on what you have on hand.

Tuesday, January 17, 2012

A mistake in design

Last night I went to Snakes and Lattes' Game Designers Night again.  I brought Dot to test and was really pleased with the results:  Everyone who played it enjoyed it and thought the game felt polished and complete though there were a few small suggestions for minor tweaks.  This is a lot better than last time where FMB was played and the reception was not so hot.  I got to see a lot of other people's games there too and I was stunned (again) by how much production and economics goes on in games where the fundamental mechanics aren't even sorted out.  When I don't know what is going on with my games the furthest I get is paper, plasticine and beads but the other folks there had figurines carved by goldsmiths, ingraved metal coins and all kinds of other interesting bits for games where the play style was still totally up in the air.  Lots of comments were made about the feel of the pieces and the boards, on the importance of flexible cards vs. solid and other such details that I naturally overlook.

The biggest example was the last game I played on the night which had the hand carved pieces and for which the creator already had manufacturers and distributors lined up; publishing was set to commence in a month.  Despite this there was a major rules revision just prior to the visit to Snakes and Lattes and the new rules had never been tested before.  I played the game once and at the end I was quite certain that there was a very important flaw:  The game was scored over five rounds and the winner of the last round was nearly guaranteed victory.  This was borne out in our test game where the person in last who had done nothing of note throughout the entire game won the last round by getting a single lucky die roll and consequently defeated everyone else.  I can't imagine this mechanic working out well in the long run since the game is obviously intended to have a lot of long term strategy and what decisions you make seem like they *should* matter but they do not.  I am quite confident in a four player game you could use the algorithm of "Never do anything, if forced to take an action choose randomly" until the fifth round and maintain a solid 24% win rate.  Your decisions in the fifth round are also mostly irrelevant too, though on the last couple rolls there is a "whoever gets the die roll they need and flips over their card first" mechanic to decide the victor in which planning and reflexes do matter.

I just can't fathom having a game in that state and being ready to ship to a publisher.  I can much more readily imagine having a game that has been tested and tweaked and smoothed to near perfection years ago and never publishing it at all which may well show that I am the fool in this scenario since nothing of mine is going to hit a publisher at the rate I am going.  For many people the art and flavour of the pieces, pictures and cards is critical while for me the important part of the game is the mathematics.  I am perfectly content playing with scrap paper and cardboard if the game is awesome and completely uninterested in a beautiful game with a great feel if the gameplay is weak.  The regular gamer is probably somewhere between the two extremes.  Gameplay matters and presentation matters too; if you have neither you get nowhere and if you want a smash hit you must have both.

Thursday, January 12, 2012

Hostile Takeover

In patch 4.3 Blizzard introduced an automated system that allowed guild members of guilds whose leadership no longer played to take over their guilds.  The way it works is that if your guild leader has not logged in within the last month anyone of the highest guild rank that has anyone who has logged in within the last month can take over the guild.  There are plenty of folks complaining about this of course because they spend years building up their guilds, recruiting, raiding, etc. and after taking a long absence they have discovered that some random.dood has taken over their guild.  I don't have much sympathy for them to be honest.  The system isn't set up badly at all - if you have trustworthy friends still playing you can simply promote them to the second rank and nobody but them can take over the guild if you take some time off.  The only way the guild falls into the wrong hands is if you stop playing and have absolutely nobody in the guild that you trust that you can trust to log in that you can put into the second spot.  Even then you can always guarantee your guild by booting everyone out if you really want!

This happened to 'my' guild OGT.  Pretty near all of the officers stopped playing completely earlier this year and one of our longtime WOW friends logged in and was handed the guild.  He had no intention of staying on playing for very long though and so in another couple of months the guild will be up for grabs once again.  This doesn't much bother me really as I don't intend on going back but also because if I don't use a thing I don't see why it should be kept for my use alone.  I put as much work into running OGT as anyone and for years it was my home away from home but I don't feel like there is any reason that I should own it forever.  OGT was a community space that we worked hard to make a great place to hang out but that great place was a combination of people and ideas, not a name.  If all of my friends decided to start playing all over again we could create a new guild and get everything back in no time, excepting of course the guild perks that we would have to earn once again.

I think guild leaders have a sense that they own a guild in the same way they own a shirt.  That just isn't an accurate representation of the situation though because so much of what the guild is is a function of all of the members.  The leader is very important of course because they have a lot of power and can set the tone of the place but in the end a guild is a place with many members all of whom contribute.  A guild can become completely nonfunctional if there is no one in charge to set permissions, organize ranks, invite/boot people etc. so it is important that such abilities are available to someone who can use them.

If a former guild leader comes back and wants their old position back the simplest thing to do is to earn it.  *Be* the guild leader.  Do everything that a guild leader does aside from have the title and have the power and either you will get back into a position of power once again or you shouldn't be a in a position of power once again.  That might be because the new members don't want you there or because the new leadership doesn't trust you but either way if you can't become the leader by being the leader then either accept the new position or move on.

This is a simple case of wanting to have your cake and eat it too.  You can just remove people from the guild and remove inviting privileges to prevent people from taking over - no one is going to take over my alt's banking guild!  What you can't do is maintain a thriving community that you can come back to as the emperor any time you want.  Either give up the guild or be part of the guild, one or the other.

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

More dot, more dot, more dot.

Wendy and I played a game of the newest version of Dot last night.  The original game was very simple to learn but the options you had on any given play weren't all that large so recently I added in more stuff to do to try to make things more complicated to figure out.  Instead of simply having a large number of tiles that are nothing but squares with one to eight dots on each edge every tile has a special ability.  Some of those special abilities are more impactful than others of course, as "Take another turn" is a lot more strategically important than "Shuffle up your tiles and draw a new hand".

I like the new version a lot.  There are only 12 turns in the game so you don't actually do very many things but deciding which thing to do can be very tricky.  You hold 3 tiles in your hand and must pick a location, an orientation and sometimes how to use a special ability on each turn and that is it - the number of decisions is on the same order of magnitude as chess but of course there is an element of luck involved.  The strangest thing about the game to me is how close the scores are.  While I have managed to blow out one person 27-18 it was a really incredible fluke and normally I would expect a game between a veteran and a new player to be more like 20-24 and two veterans would rarely have more than a 2 point spread between their final scores.  I am used to games where people who are losing get half the points of the winner but nothing like that is ever going to happen here.  If you got to a very serious level of play I would expect that at least half the games would be either ties or decided by a single point.

Pictures first, files afterwards:

The picture below is the new board, the the caveat that the text describing the various tile abilities is messed up in this picture for reasons that are complicated and annoying.

This is the picture of the new tiles.

And the full rules (Really short!):

Rules for Dot

The ruler of the City of Dot has died and the race for succession is on.  You are a contender to become the new leader and you must deploy your followers throughout the City of Dot to try to gather more influence than your opponent.  The game is played by placing Tiles that represent each player’s followers on the board to score points. The player with the highest point total at the end of the game is the winner and is declared the new leader of the City of Dot.


To set up the game each player selects a colour and takes all the Tiles and the scoring marker of that colour.  Next each player flips all of their Tiles facedown and draws three Tiles at random to form their starting hand.  Each player’s hand is kept secret from their opponent.  The players randomly determine who will go first after which they alternate turns.  Each player has twelve Tiles and they will play all of those Tiles over twelve turns.  Points are kept track of by moving scoring markers along the scoring track on the board.

Turn Order

1. Play a Tile.  You must choose a Tile from your hand and play it on any empty space on the board.  You may not place a Tile on the middle space.

2. Use Tile Special Ability.  You must use the special ability on the Tile you played.  If it is impossible to obey a special ability it is ignored.  Note that a Tile is adjacent to another Tile if they share a side.  If two Tiles they are diagonal from one another they are not adjacent.

3. Make Attacks.  To attack you check each side of the Tile you played to see if it has more dots than the edge of the board or enemy Tile it is adjacent to.  You may not attack your own Tiles or empty spaces.  For each attack where you have more dots you score one point.  If your Tile is on a space with a Star(+2) in it you score two extra points.

4. Draw a Tile.  You draw a Tile from your reserve if there are any left and pass the turn to your opponent.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Making the AI work in CiV

I am doing more modding on Civ 5 lately.  I have a lot of things worked out well now but the real issue that I am ramming my head into is my inability to tell the AI how to use its resources.  The trouble spot is aircraft largely on the basis that using aircraft requires a lot more thought and strategy than other unit types.  If I make a bunch of Swordsmen and just keep pushing them towards your city attacking any units I see along the way then nothing too much can go wrong.  The real problem comes when the AI makes air units and then tries to figure out what to do with them because they don't work the way other units do.  In particular they are ranged units that take damage when they attack whereas normal ranged units do not.  Fighter jets also have a really low attack strength which means that the AI looks at its jets, thinks that they will ranged strike for very little damage and has them attack.  Because the jets are very weak in combat though they die instantly when they attack the enemies instead of the 'projected combat result' of them just doing a little bit of damage.  What the AI should do is use jets to attack incoming planes but it is actually pretty challenging to figure out where to place them and how to use them effectively.

My current options both are unpalatable.  Firstly I could just remove fighter jets entirely.  If they aren't there, the AI can't build them stupidly and throw them away for no benefit.  The trouble with this is it really messes up all the other balance and backstory surrounding the way bombers work - bombers are supposed to be weak to defensive fighters which is tricky when defensive fighters don't exist.  The other problem is that planes are ideal for the AI because they allow it to avoid chokepoints and unit clog and as such I really want the AI using planes.  In the endgame it is really problematic when the AI just creates ground units because it can support so many of them.  It ends up completely unable to get its units to useful places and is quite flummoxed by mountain passes.  The second option is to make fighter jets good at smashing cities and ground units.  There wouldn't be much difference between jets and bombers at that point but at least the AI would be able to use its jets to bash away on things usefully and it wouldn't be such a chump.  Of course one might question how exactly a squadron of fighter jets attacks a city in any useful way, and rightly so, so this option is clearly not much better in terms of flavour and backstory than the other.

The answer I would really like is 'Sky can fix the AI' so that it would build sensible comps of units and use them properly.  I don't expect miracles of course but having some way to tell the AI to spread out its fighters and use them for scouting and anti air defence would be nice.  An interface improvement that tells the AI that attacking with its fighters will kill them would also be a good idea - the computer is already quite competent at not attacking with units that will just die when it *knows* they will die.

I will say though that the CiV AI (and the game in general, really) is hugely better than it was at launch.  There are all kinds of idiotic things it used to do that it doesn't do anymore and many of the really huge abuses have been fixed.  That said, there are still some problems that need fixing and I won't stop until all the ones that can be fixed on my end are quite squashed.  If that requires me to play hundreds of games of CiV to test out then so be it:  I will make the sacrifice for the greater good.

Tuesday, January 3, 2012

Back in WOW, very temporarily

Blizzard sent me an email with a "Come back to WOW, 1 week for free!" offer.  I sat on it for December but on the 31st I figured I should cash it in since it was about to expire.  After a remarkably quick patching process, aided by the fact that I am patching several months after everybody else, I hopped back into the game to see all the new shinies.  The moment I did so I was greeted by a few old friends who I raided with back in TBC and got immediately invited to a heroic group.  This sounds good, thought I, I would enjoy doing one of the new heroics with some folks!

Unfortunately when I actually got into the heroic I realized that I had no idea how to swap to the spec I said I would play, no idea how to get into the appropriate gear and very little idea of how my new spells and talents worked.  After trying for a minute to reorient myself I had to ditch on them to get my mods working, read my talents and cast some spells on myself in town to get myself sorted out.  It felt really strange being in a game that was so incredibly familiar and yet so utterly foreign at the same time.  I have the raiding subroutines still in my brain and avoiding fire and monitoring health bars is still something I can do by reflex but I have lost all the particulars.  I saw buffs appearing on my character and had no idea what they meant and I looked at the new graphics for my old abilities and was confused.  Thankfully when I did get into another heroic with my old friends my old skillset of watching the screen, watching health bars and casting either a big heal or a small heal was sufficient to win the day.

I like the new features of Void Storage (long term storage for old item sets and seasonal gear) and Transmogrification (making your gear look like any gear you own) a lot.  It was great to be able to do real content in any particular look and having a ton of extra storage is always good.  The new instances were fun and after only a few runs I was almost ready to go try out Looking For Raid to see just how bad or good a pickup group doing the final raid of the expansion would be.  The trouble with doing that is I have no real desire to do go and do it.  Sure, I find it odd that there are fights I have not done and there is content I am not familiar with but I just don't care to get back in there again even when I can do it so casually.  It isn't particularly different than the old days; the dungeons were fun and well done and there was plenty to do but somehow I have no desire to go back even though it is free.

I often wondered what it was like when people quit WOW.  Often they quit screaming mad about some feature or other or complained that the game was too easy, too gimmicky, too different or too much the same but regardless I always wondered why they didn't want to do more.  If you like doing dungeons once, don't you like doing dungeons again?  Now I am one of those who has quit and won't go back and since I have little enough to complain about I wonder what it is that has changed.  I am not so different, WOW is not so different.  I find myself wondering how I could have made that same choice and yet not fully understand what it is that has made the choice so certain and so final.