Friday, June 27, 2014

Game changing

The topic of changing a game is always a divisive one at best.  The standard arguments tend to boil down to 'this thing makes some choices so obvious that nobody will ever choose choice A and that is bad' vs. 'nothing ever needs to change because I played the game as it is and had fun.'  My natural instinct is to balance the hell out of everything and constantly update and alter any game I am playing as I find things within it that are broken.  This does lead me astray sometimes as I have an unfortunate tendency to alter the game prior to achieving mastery over it and sometimes I alter it incorrectly.

This becomes a much more serious question when rather than house rules we are talking about a big company putting out updates to a game used by many players.  DnD is a great example of this and the DnD Next blog post this week was on the topic of how Wizards intends to handle corrections and updates to Next after it is published and the inevitable problems crop up.  Their basic strategy isn't really a departure from the past since they intend to put out FAQs regularly but only make official balance changes once a year or so.

The trick of course is that many changes don't require changes to existing rules but instead are handled by adding on new things.  For example in 4th edition the basic game had a terrible flaw in the scaling that resulted in players hitting less and less often as they levelled up.  This was handled by putting in a bunch of extremely overpowered feats that gave scaling bonuses to hit that anyone who wanted to be decent had to take.  It would have been much better to put in some kind of actual correction into the basic math but admitting that the basic rules got flubbed that badly and fixing it properly was not the route they went.

So I tend to think that the things are outlined in the blog post are pretty irrelevant.  After all, they aren't going to wait a year to correct serious problems but will just solve them with kludges like outrageous feats instead of changing the core books.  Because apparently the core books being massively incomplete is okay, but having them be wrong is an issue.  It is really important to figure out what sorts of things really need correction and which balance issues are actually features.  To my mind the core things that need to be satisfied are:

1.  All of the options that people really expect to be reasonably balanced must be so.

It is fine to have a Hand Crossbows be total garbage compared to Longbows.  People don't have a strong expectation that every weapon will be equal.  However, if all caster classes are awesome and all thugs are terrible people will get bitter because they expect some kind of balance across classes.

2.  There should be a variety of 'best' builds and choices.

People tend to be frustrated if the only way to be good is to use a longsword, or be a wizard, or cast Invisibility.  They want to have a few different ways to play while feeling like they are effective and they want different people in their group to have different options that don't necessarily include being useless.

3.  There should be mediocre and also terrible choices.

It isn't much fun if all of your choices are equivalent.  Choices need to matter and putting together a good package of options is a big part of the fun.  Being powerful is fun but it isn't much fun if you can do absolutely anything and be good.  There must be a lot of stupid things you can do in order to make it interesting to strive to be good.

4.  Choices should come from small lists.

There are people out there who enjoy perusing lists of hundreds of things to find the overpowered stuff but they are the minority by far.  Most people find that sort of thing intimidating, tedious, or annoying.  Choosing from small lists where the consequence of the choice are reasonably obvious has the greatest broad appeal.

So the tricky part is what you do when you discover something that really breaks these guidelines.  I think the answer is that when you are really sure that there is a problem you fix it.  Waiting a year, putting out additive kludges, or hoping that everyone just houserules it in the meantime is just taking forever to pull off the bandaid.  Once you know there is a problem you deal with it right away and you don't try to pussyfoot around it.  Step up and say what you are trying to fix and then do it.

Of course this strategy is coming from the mouth of a compulsive balancer so most likely the course that Wizards is choosing to take is actually a middle road solution that will please as many people as possible.  They are after all in the business of making money rather than making beautiful games and that changes their priorities somewhat.

Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Get on the scaling

In my last post I talked some about how crazy Skyrim weapons scaling made my game silly.  The thing about weapons scaling is that from the early game to the late game my weapon increased damage by roughly 100x using crazy combinations of smithing, alchemy, and enchanting.  That sounds absurd but the game has difficulty levels for a reason and monsters do get more powerful too.  In a single player game it really isn't much of an issue if the player can tweak their way into being ridiculously powerful since they can just set the difficulty to Novice if they really want to blow stuff up with no effort.

The trouble with that theory is that scaling of things other than weapons doesn't quite work that way.  At low levels a character will be doing 8 damage per second with the Flames spell.  This is similar to a weapon attack but has some range and is easier to aim but costs magicka to cast.  Overall a totally reasonable choice.  Unfortunately in the endgame things don't work out quite so nicely.  The most powerful spammable single target spell will deal roughly 108 damage per cast and at most one cast per second is reasonable.  This is a big improvement in that it does 13x the damage of the low level spell and has much greater range.  

Unfortunately one of the main things the game allows in theory is a hybrid caster / weapon user and in the end game spells have scaled 13x to the weapon's 100x.  This is a problem because the hybrid character will either one shot everything with their sword and wonder why they even bother with spells or they will have a reasonable time with their sword and the spells won't even scratch the enemies.  Neither is particularly good.  It gets even more silly if you twink out harder and sneak attack the enemies - I got my dual sword damage up to around 30,000 for a single sneak attack which kills anything in the game pretty much and although setting up a sneak attack is much tougher than shooting fireballs from far away it is pretty hard to say no to doing 300x the damage.

What ends up shaking out of all of this is that Bethesda made some errors when scaling the various ways to attack.  It is actually very much like Diablo 2 in that weapons scaling off of many enormous % bonuses eventually eclipsed spells in damage and only Static Field let a sorceress compete.  Diablo 3 deliberately avoided this issue by not having spells do fixed damage but rather scaling them off of weapons just like weapon users.  People criticized this for having bad feel but seeing how badly things get messed up when you scale weapons multiplicatively and spells additively in Skyrim I am inclined to support the decision of the D3 designers.  (I supported it back in the beta days too!)

If in Skyrim the two styles were really independent then I wouldn't worry too much about it.  Unfortunately the game really is meant to accommodate hybrids and it ends up not doing so all that well.  Of course you don't have to twink out as hard as I did but even with just using the best weapon you find and drinking potions you find and putting points into the weapon trees it is clear that weapons rapidly make spells a futile venture.

I ended up wanting to up the difficulty level even beyond Legendary so I decided to simply refuse to use any potions that increase Enchanting or Smithing or any enchanted gear that increased Smithing or Alchemy.  This dropped my damage by 75% and forced me to actually pay attention to armour and resists so it brought some level of challenge back into the game.  I don't much like refusing to use all the options available to me but this does make the game feel a lot more reasonable.

Friday, June 20, 2014

I am prepared

Early on in my Skyrim career I wandered out of town towards a bandit camp and saw a big dude next to a gigantic fire.  Figuring he might have a quest for me I walked up to him and then he swung his club and me and I died.  Not just any death though!  The screen showed me rocketing up through the air into the sky, spinning and twitching in my final death throes.  It turns out that giants are angry sorts who bash you if you try to go near them.  I figured I would try to fight him again and ran up and bashed him in the face with my hammer - after all, he is right beside the starting town so he can't be *that* tough, right?  My hammer knocked off 5% of his health and he one shotted me again.

Oh, but I know how to deal with this.  When an enemy beats you up you level up and get better gear and then go back and bash their damn face in!  I ran from village to village buying ore and soul gems and picking flowers and powered my alchemy to maximum to make potions that improved my enchanting so I could enchant gear to improve my alchemy which made better enchanting potions which made better alchemy gear.  Then I capped my smithing and used my maxed out enchanted smithing gear and my maxed out smithing potion and built a hammer made of the heart of a god and tempered it and then it was time to go KILL THAT FUCKING GIANT.

I walked into the giant camp and swung my godhammer at the giant and he fell over dead.  His friend walked up behind me and thumped me with a giant club that took off 5% of my health.  I spun around and oneshotted that giant too.  Then an ancient dragon breathed fire on me as it landed and three gigantic mammoths who were friends of the giants ran in to attack.  An ancient dragon and three mammoths simultaneously?  Time to drink a "Do double damage" potion!  Four swings later every one of the enemies was dead, one attack each.

I may have prepared too much.  I knew I was doing more damage than before, but I figured it was something like 5 times as much damage or so since I hadn't paid any attention to just how big the numbers were, only that I had to make them as big as possible.  It turns out that originally I was swinging for about 21 damage and now I am swinging for about 4200.  So yeah, I am doing 200 times as much damage as before.  This would explain why the enemies were melting in ways that made no sense.  I am also about 20 times as tough and in addition to that I have endless stacks of healing potions I can use instantly should I be injured so aside from pure laziness there is no realistic scenario where the enemies kill me.  I could have easily waded into that camp if it had 30 giants in it and had no problems since the giants can only realistically attack me 2 or 3 at a time.

Obviously the game gets a lot less fun when you one shot ancient dragons and nothing can hurt you so I dialled the difficulty up to Legendary.  On that setting I do 25% of normal damage and the enemies do 3 times normal damage and that, it turns out, makes the game interesting again.  Dragons are pretty hard, giants are still easy, and I have to drink potions regularly to avoid dying.  Seems reasonable.  Honestly the simplest way to make Skyrim super challenging is to not craft.  Without my ridiculous crafted godhammer and absurd enchants I would be doing about 10% of my current damage and that would avoid the need for Legendary difficulty to have any kind of challenge.

Thursday, June 19, 2014

Paring back those choices

Recently Blizzard announced some changes for Diablo 3.  There are a bunch of things in there, but the key thing that jumped out at me was that they are removing the necessity for unique crafting reagents to create crafted set pieces.  It used to be that in order to make the crafted sets you needed to hunt very particular monsters to get their drops and now you will just be able to make them without any farming.  Their reasons for this change were twofold:  First, finding the materials for crafted gear encouraged rapid game flipping which was not fun and also hard on server resources.  Second it took too long and people ended up not being able to use crafting because in the time it took to farm up the unique materials they could have just found better gear otherwise.

I find this response baffling.  It seems to me that the fundamental issue with farming up these materials is that they only drop from a few particular mobs.  This encourages rapidly opening and closing games in order to hunt for that single monster and also means that the time required to complete the sets is high.  To fix this why not just make the materials drop from many mobs instead?  Rather than the Aughild's reagents only dropping from four particular ghosts why not have every ghost have a chance to drop them?  The unique ghosts could have a larger chance but if we all had an incentive to find areas with a high concentration of ghosts and then clean those areas out the game flipping issue would vanish instantly and people would have more fun to boot!

The other thing that Blizzard seems to be concerned about is the amount of time and effort involved in crafting gear versus the likely reward.  They have continually increased the availability of the endgame class sets and this has meant that the usefulness of the stepping stones towards that goal have continued to decrease.  The cost of crafted sets no longer makes sense given the limited amount of time they will be used.  The solution to this is not to eliminate unique material drops but rather to increase their drop rate and to lower the other costs for crafting gear.  If crafted gear isn't going to be used for long then simply make it cheaper to build.

The thing is that the endgame of D3 has become a very repetitive running of rifts over and over.  Rifts aren't that interesting in and of themselves and thus having an alternate path to gearing is very useful.  Different people like doing different things and nearly everyone finds it fun to figure out how to get a particular thing they want and then go and chase it down.  This is especially true when Blizzard did a pretty nice job on the unique crafting materials using lore to give us clues as to where to find the things we want.  Nearly everyone just Googles it of course but you don't *need* to!  The stories of where the materials come from and how they exist is a nice touch and just blowing that out of the game unnecessarily seems like a real waste.

Sometimes lore must be sacrificed for gameplay or the other way around.  It seems like in this case Blizzard has decided to toss both lore and gameplay out the window together and for no good reason.  Neither server usage nor progression justify removing an entire chunk of the game when simple solutions that require trivial resources to implement are available.

Sidenote:  The damage of Monkey King's Garb was increased from 100% to 1600% and people still seem to think it isn't very good.  Seriously 16x damage isn't enough?  Come on Blizzard, you gotta test this stuff better than that!

Friday, June 13, 2014

The big time

DnD Next is really can't decide if it is taking aim at expansion or just trying to recover the players who used to be.  I find their overall strategy somewhat bizarre because when reading their strategy it is super clear they are trying to expand the game and make it easier to get into.  Old DnD was really tough to get started on unless someone else introduced you to the game because it was extremely complex and expensive to begin, not to mention being somewhat incomprehensible to most people who haven't seen it in action.  Next is going to have a really simple starter edition and free online materials in an attempt to make it simpler to recruit new folks into the game.

The marketing is clear:  Get more people involved and make DnD Next into a mainstream game.  They don't want to just be for nerds anymore and they know that they are competing with MMOs and other computer games that really weren't competition a couple decades ago.  The landscape is very different these days and the company that runs DnD is focused on being really aggressive in setting themselves up to succeed, which I don't recall TSR ever doing effectively.  The new strategy really seems to be to create a new market rather than simply to service a market that exists.

All that is true until you look at the game mechanics themselves.  The game isn't a new one, designed to appeal to a new generation.  It is the old game with a big facelift.  Now most of the changes that were made to the old game were good ones so at least that is right.  Spellcasters don't get totally ridiculous at high levels, the amount of system mastery required to be a good character is much less, and things are laid out in ways that keep people on the straight and narrow in a lot of ways.  There is plenty of freedom to be terrible as always but it feels like the balance is much better.

Unfortunately it is still too much of the old game.  The magic system is a bizarre reimagining of Vancian casting that nobody wants except that it is kinda like the way it always has been.  Many classes have choices that are far too few in number and end up with no way to change a character that isn't feeling quite right.  Thugs are still super trivial in strategy and design while casters have constant streams of interesting choices.  The designers obviously felt that they were shackled to the expectations of the old fans.

So the marketing department is going off to brand new and exciting places while the game design team is mired in supporting the nostalgia of the grognards.  Running off frantically in two different directions is not the way I would like things to be going if I were directing them from the top.  Pick a thing and be good at it - either rebuild the old game and package it for the old players or build something new and great and sell it to the masses.  Doing both at once seems like a recipe for disaster to me.

Monday, June 9, 2014

What is the game anyway

Skyrim may be one of the most unbalanced games of all time.  Initially I did what any normal adventurer with a heartful of bloodlust and a save button would do - I charged off into monster infested ruins and hauled loot out of dungeons.  After awhile I decided I should figure out how the various crafting professions actually worked and so I began to read on the internet.

This may have been a mistake.

I learned that I have been a serious sucker.  Instead of paying people to train me and then going back to the dungeon for more cash I should have been training up my pickpocketing so I can just steal the money I spent on training right back.  Instead of combining all the ingredients I find into random potions and selling them I should have been using my enchanting to make my alchemy more powerful and my alchemy to make my enchanting more powerful and after a whirling dance of absurdity I could simply craft a single potion that would level me to the cap and sell for more money than the vendor had on hand.

Of course I *could* just bash zombies in the face and vendor their rusted swords but after getting 15 levels in 30 hours the that way and 15 levels in 2 hours by stealing from people I am feeling kinda bad about that whole zombie bashing thing.  It feels pretty obvious to me how the designers intended people to play the game - I kind of doubt they really designed it around people with absurdly powerful weapons and armour built by stacking crazy profession bonuses on top of one another - and it is clear that the intended way is terribly inefficient.

In their attempt to make the world realistic they have made the world ridiculous.  Playing a heroic fantasy game by standing behind a vendor alternately handing over 1500 gold for training and stealing that 1500 gold back without ever moving just strikes me as wrong somehow.  Invincible vendors with infinite gold on hand to buy whatever you haul out of the dungeon aren't exactly realistic but I think they generate behaviour that feels more reasonable for the genre.  It is very nice that vendors have limited gold and are only interested in certain sorts of goods but the inventory micromanaging that such things entail is a bit extreme.

The big issue here is my desire to optimize.  If I was perfectly content to just rampage through the game with a big hammer then none of the absurdities would matter - this is a single player game with multiple difficulty settings after all.  The trouble is that I have a desperate need to play correctly and optimally and doing so involves doing a bunch of things I don't really want to do.  I know that I can just play a big ole paladin and bash my way through but if that is terrible then I feel silly doing that.  The world is big enough that there are a million ways to win, and if you are willing to turn the difficulty down to Novice then you can win with any strategy no matter how idiotic.  The designers left space for everyone from the "Imma punch all the enemies to death with my fists lol" rube to the "So obviously you pickpocketed the awesome ring from the hermit in the hidden crag, right?  Doesn't everyone?" optimizers, and yet what I want isn't exactly there.

What this does tell me though is that balance is completely unnecessary in the context of a single player game.  It needs to be reasonable for the people who just brute force through to win but if you let people do ridiculous things to break the game they will do it and love doing it.  All you need to do is include ludicrous challenges and high difficulty levels for the lunatics so they have something to hurl themselves against and all is well.

Tuesday, June 3, 2014

Pop the bubble

I read a great post about the market for video games that talked about how things are headed for a meltdown for many game creators.  The basic premise is that there are so many games out there available for so little money that anyone hoping to build a game has two options - tiny production with no budget or massive advertising from an established brand.  Middle range options with some budget just have no place because they can't demand $60 for their product and they can't compete with the $2 options, much less all the free stuff out there.  People either tend to be hunting for a specific game they have heard about, in which case they are willing to pay, or they are randomly looking for deals, in which case they want the dollar store options.

I think the real challenge here is for game companies that want to make the leap from some person creating games in their spare time to the big leagues with real employees and an HR department and such.  You need a ton of funding to be able to build blockbuster games and getting that funding is rough when there isn't any sort of progression between flappy bird and Call Of Duty.  There are outliers there who could probably get a bunch of investors together for a big project, like the guy who built Minecraft, but they are very few and far between.  I suspect in the long run this is going to mean that big companies who are already established and companies that do other things are going to be making all the games that cost more than a couple bucks.

While this is going to make things harder for game creators in many ways I don't think it will be bad for the average gamer at all.  The availability of cheap, good games is increasing at a fantastic rate and there is nothing suggesting that it is going to slow down.  Our ability to search for games that push our very specific buttons is increasing and the competition between so many different vendors and products is going to lead to people making ever better games.  Even if the game creators don't learn anything at all the sheer volume of product out there will lead to gems being found by pure luck if nothing else.

So I think the future is a pretty tough one for game creators.  The competition is going to be ever fiercer, not least because there are so many people in the market who make games just for love and will do so for starvation wages.  The dream of working at a games company is too common for it to be lucrative but at least the products made from such labours of love will give joy to those of us that consume them.