Tuesday, September 29, 2015


Sometimes when building a game you have to add in extra complexity to make things easier to learn.  Generally of course you want to cut out anything that adds to the learning curve but which doesn't really improve the game, but on occasion you can bulk up the document while simultaneously making the game simpler to grasp for new players.

Right now I am doing just that while altering some Powers in Heroes By Trade.  Initially the game had two different ways to alter enemy movement - you could Slow them or Immobilize them.  When a ranged person like a Wizard Immobilizes an enemy it is obvious what the point of that is - you are trying to pin them in place while you run away!  However, melee classes also had Immobilize effects and people seemed to struggle to figure out how to use those.  Because ranged attacks have disadvantage if the attacker is threatened by a melee fighter there are two good reasons for melee to Immobilize someone.  Firstly it means the someone can't get away, and second it means the someone can't use ranged attacks effectively.

All of that made sense, but sometimes new players couldn't figure out why they would use an Immobilize attack.  The issue was in part caused by trying to figure out what was happening when such an attack occurred.  It is easy to see how a frostbolt from a Wizard freezes people to the ground, Immobilizing them, but what exactly is a brawler with a club *doing* when they Immobilize an enemy?  This was especially true since the brawler with a club could Immobilize a melee opponent, walk away, and the opponent would have no way of striking back because they were still pinned in place... by what, we don't know.

My solution to this was to add more rules.  First off I needed two classes of things that prevent movement - Immobilize, which is iconically a frostbolt freezing you to the ground, and Grab, which is a brawler grabbing you and pinning you.  Grab has the disadvantage that you can't walk away from the target and maintain it - if you leave, the target is now free to move.  However, Grab has the advantage that you can drag the target around with you if you want.  It feels a lot more like what a brawler would do to an enemy, and doesn't encourage melee people to pin each other in place and dance around.  Not that there is anything necessarily wrong with that, but such tactics felt bizarre given the descriptions and titles of the powers and I want the mechanics to line up with the flavour.

That doesn't mean that a melee class can't have an Immobilize... but it means that when I use that I can make sure that the feel of the Power in question really makes it clear what is happening and why it is that way.

While this means there are more rules to learn it also means that if anyone just starts reading Powers they will have a much clearer idea of what those Powers do and how they work.  In fact for Grab and Immobilize people would probably be able to guess what the effects of the Powers are quite regularly without even needing the rules text, which is obviously the ideal.

It isn't often that I feel good about adding extra rules to the game.  Extra content is great, extra rules, usually not.  But in this case I think the extra rules actually make the game simpler to learn, rather than more complex, which means I can include a steeper learning curve elsewhere when I feel I really need it.

Thursday, September 24, 2015

All figured out and nowhere to go

It has hit again - that malaise that comes to a WOW raider at the end of an expansion where logging in to bash bosses just seems pointless.  Partly I think it is the way the loot is structure at the moment, because I can get 695 gear in every slot just by doing random dailies, so bosses that drop 690, 695, and 700 loot are pretty unexciting.  Now I have nearly every piece of gear from normal modes that I might want barring one specific trinket so the loot isn't really getting me going.  Unfortunately the heroic modes we are going to be trying are only dropping ilvl 705 loot so while that is an upgrade it is still going to be vendor food for many slots.

It is really hard to get up motivation to look for new loot when the first time you kill a boss you end up vendoring most of what it drops!  Having such high ilvl items available from questing and missions and crafting is good in many ways, but it really does make an awful lot of the raid drops worthless.

Of course there are other things to get excited about that aren't loot.  New fights, new mechanics, new challenges.  However, now that I have my set complete and I know how to play it there won't be any new things to think about in terms of personal strategy for this xpac - I am done, it is all figured out.  Normally there would be strategic decisions to make but my guild is never going to attempt mythic modes and heroics are exactly the same as normal but with higher numbers.  Can I work up the desire to grind the same fights over again with slightly bigger values on my screen?

It seems I cannot.  I missed the raid last night because I was excitedly writing flavourful fluff and while I felt a bit guilty for leaving the guild in the lurch I was happier having done my creation than pushing buttons and making bosses die.

WOW can offer me a lot of things.  It can make me think, it can make me plan for the future, and it can surprise me with new stuff.  Right now there is nothing more to think about, no future to consider, and no new stuff to experience.

So I think I am done with Warlords of Draenor, and will await the next expansion to begin again.  It was fun, and now I am done.

Tuesday, September 22, 2015

The fluff

I am in the middle of fluff.

Not literally, of course.

More like I am busy writing fluff for a couple games.  It is weird for me because though I can sometimes get excited by fluff and flavour it doesn't grab me like mechanics and numbers do.  Right now I am working on getting flavour text for Camp Nightmare working better, and that is a really tough call because humour is hard!  

There are a few good jokes in the game already because some of them came easily but to look at a concept and a set of mechanics and to have to come up with a joke so often stymies me.  It isn't like numbers where I can always just resolve to build a spreadsheet and make it work... if the joke doesn't come I don't have a place to look for it.  I just have to sit and wait for it to exist.  The game is silly and given that lighthearted theme I really need to keep the hits rolling, which ends up being a lot of starting at a screen hoping for inspiration and not getting any.

Some current pictures and stuff for Camp Nightmare are up on Facebook here if you want to check them out!

In other fluff news I am trying to sort out Backgrounds for Heroes By Trade.  I keep twisting around on myself on this one trying to sort out how I should structure people's history and connections to the world.  Initially I just had people select two Assets and two Problems and go from there, but it was big and without much in the way of guidelines.  Trouble with that is it is probably overwhelming to new players and veterans will just ignore it anyway... which means that it doesn't really serve a purpose.

My current design that I am fleshing out (which hopefully won't get scrapped like all the others) is to divide all kinds of Background into categories and make people pick one Asset and one Problem from each category.  For example, you have to pick one area of competence, which could be something like a trade skill, a knack for holding your breath, or even extra training in languages.  Then you have to pick an area of incompetence, which might mean that you have no idea how to deal with money, are illiterate, or are flat out hopeless with tools of any sort.

Currently I am planning these sections to contain Competence, Connections, Possessions, Goals / Committments, Personality, and Unique and Magical Stuff.  So your character might have:

Skill in Blacksmithing
Hopeless in Cities
A mayor who is your mentor
A sister in law who is your nemesis
Have a magic item
Be desperately poor
The desire to cleanse the world of demons
The inability to leave people to their fate
Inspiring speechgiver
Fear of water
Eyes that glow red
Cause dogs to run in fear

Heck, that might even be too much stuff to inflict on every new character.  At any rate it will definitely give people some things to choose and some places to start their roleplaying, even if some of it never really sees the light of day.

Saturday, September 19, 2015

Dead, dead, dead

I got to play DnD 5th edition for the first time today.  While I was pretty bullish on the game prior to trying it I found a lot of things that grated when I actually waded in and got to see it in action.  Part of that was just the module that we played which was originally published for DnD 3rd edition and was updated for 5th.  The module basically tossed us into a magical dungeon at first level and then sent incredibly lethal fights at us, the second of which killed us off.  Whoever designed the Whispering Cairn for DnD 5th really had no idea what they were doing in terms of difficulty as we determined afterwards that our balanced party with reasonable builds and stats was absolutely rated to lose the encounter, no question about it.

We were a group with HP values of 8, 9, 10, and 12.  We were injured from a previous fight, but not grievously, and if we had had our full complement of HP our total would have gone to 46, but as it was we had only 39.  The enemies had a total HP between the two of them of 54.  The enemies having more HP than us looks bad, but here is the total set of stats:

Us (Mage / Druid / Ranger / Barbarian):

HP:  39
Damage:  5.5 / 8.5 / 10 / 13
Hit:  5, 6, 6, 6
AC:  13, 15, 15, 12

Monsters (Swarm of Beetles and Giant Spider Thing):

HP:  54
Damage:  10 / 8.5 / 8.5
Hit:  3, 5, 5
AC:  13, 14

So while the enemies have more HP than us we have one more attack and better hit values.  That looks fairly balanced, but the problem is that our HP was spread way out and theirs was not.  The two opponents had 32 HP and 22 HP but the 22 HP opponent was resistant to almost all of our attacks.  Taking out any one enemy was a major endeavour that required roughly 4 successful hits, so probably 2 rounds of focus fire.  Unfortunately we had several ranged units that lacked the ability to break contact with the enemy so focusing fire wasn't really an option.  The other big problem was that our HP pools were so small it was easy for the enemies to take us out before we could pose any kind of threat.  We lost the 8 and 9 HP targets on the first turn, which isn't particularly unlikely, and then by round 3 we had a TPK (Total Party Kill).

It is an enormous advantage to be able to eliminate targets quickly and reduce the enemy's ability to fight back and in this case the monsters were able to use that to easily destroy us.  Players usually use this to whittle monster groups down to size and reduce their ability to deal damage but it works both ways.

This particular encounter was definitely rated to kill us but the previous one was also extremely dangerous.  We won it, but I am pretty sure we had at least a 33% chance to die to that one too as the monsters again had more HP than us and similar quality attacks but lacked spells to burn to swing the fight like we had.

Even though this might seem like an aberration it really can't be terribly unusual.  Even a fight against a few goblins can be deadly - the goblins can easily 1 shot squishier characters and 2 shot tanks so all they have to do is roll good initiative, land a couple attacks that are roughly 50/50 propositions, and the fight is all but over.  Sure, the characters win fights against four goblins 95% of the time, but you have to win a lot of those fights to level up!  It really seems like 5th edition goes back to the assumption that low level characters are disposable and die constantly and you should only get invested in them once they get past the death zone that is level 1-2.  As In The Hat pointed out, it is sort of like some cultures that only name children once they get past a certain age and are then likely to actually survive!

I was also kind of frustrated at my options when building a character.  I wanted to have a few particular skills but I was stuck with a small list from my class and background and getting more seemed like an awfully long trek, which in any case required me to give up really powerful combat bonuses.  I also felt like being good at a skill hardly mattered, because being superb at something meant I was about 6 better on a d20 vs. a totally random dork.  It seemed basically like we were just rolling looking for high numbers and it wasn't really possible to be actually good at anything, as somebody else could just as easily roll an 18 and be far better.

5th edition is certainly better balanced between classes and races than older editions of DnD and they obviously put a lot of work into the fluff components of the game which I do appreciate.  Unfortunately some of the numbers really grate on me, and I am trapped between wanting two different things:  An interesting combat game where I try to figure out strategy, and roleplaying where I build a character will all kinds of history and cool stuff going on and make it really neat.  I can't really do much in terms of interesting combat because I just attack for 1d10 every turn or just die immediately without having made a choice.  Making a cool character and putting lots of thought and time into it seems silly when I am so likely to die right away without having done anything of note or made any mistake that caused it.

Probably higher level play would be a lot more rewarding.  I expect I would have more options in any given situation and would be less likely to just die.  We may get to test that out over the next little while - assuming the next group can survive the rigors of level 1, that is.

That all makes it sound like I didn't have any fun but that isn't true.  The group had a good time, but it was in spite of the system, rather than because of it.

Thursday, September 17, 2015

No way out

Hearthstone is facing down difficult problems and has no perfect solutions in the offing.  Much like Magic did in years gone past Hearthstone has the difficulty that the game inevitably becomes more and more difficult to get into for new players and that will eventually erode the playerbase.  You can't get your friends to join up and have fun if they need five thousand bucks worth of cards to even really play the game.  Hearthstone isn't that bad yet, but it will be with time unless something big changes.

One of the people designing Hearthstone, Ben Brode, posted a video talking about this issue.  I do like that he talked about how the team is really aware that releasing more paid content over time will eventually destroy their ability to recruit new players but sadly he wasn't willing to admit that the only solution is known, and will make a lot of people angry.  There was a lot of wishful thinking in the video and a serious lack of answers, and that makes sense because he is really stuck between two equally unappealing options:

1.  Screw the newbies.  Keep releasing content over time.  Let new people pay for it, or not, but don't worry too much about it.  This means that being competitive has a ever increasing cost and that is going to eventually dry up the supply of new blood.

2.  Screw the veterans.  There are two ways to approach this but they end up in the same place.  Either you have big discounts on old sets and keep the investment required to get into the game the same or you rotate out old content so that older cards simply aren't usable anymore, or aren't usable in most standard formats.  In either case people who paid in at the beginning will be really angry that their investment is worthless or you discourage people from buying anything because they know the price will drop.  Both are bad for business.

So what is hearthstone going to do?

I suspect they will do something like what Magic does and try to have a hybrid.  That is, they will let people play any cards they want in games against the AI, in Brawls, and in random games against other players.  However, they will have a separate Anything Goes! bracket and a New Sets Only bracket for competitive pvp play, which will be analogous to Classic and Standard for Magic players.  The new players won't be able to be successful in Anything Goes! without a massive investment but they can be competitive in New Sets Only.

This strategy also means that anyone who wants to continue to be able to play at any kind of high level has to buy every single set as it comes out.  You can't skip them because the New Sets Only venue will only have a couple sets in it and you will need them all to be competitive.  Ideally you want players to pay to play, but you also want some people who contribute minimally to the bottom line if they can recruit other people.  Getting people to play games is very much about the number of their friends that already play, so you really want to have everyone play even if they refuse to invest real cash.

I suspect the people running Hearthstone are going to hold fast to the 'we will come up with some kind of magic solution' line as long as is humanly possible.  They don't want to admit that their current structure is unmaintainable because that might suppress card sales in the short term.

Eventually though they are going to have to admit that there isn't a perfect solution but there is a passable solution and Magic already figured it out.

Thursday, September 10, 2015


I was reading some comments on a thread about Diablo 3 Witch Doctor builds that illustrated how much the average person misunderstands games.  The commenter was complaining about how the best possible Witch Doctor build had become widely known and that there were no creative ways to improve it.  Essentially the best build is using the Helltooth Harness set, doing half of your damage with Wall of Death - Firewall and half with either Zombie Bears or Acid Cloud.  What this commenter, and presumably a lot of other people, wanted was a bunch of tricky ways to make the build even better that the top players were not already using.

For example, I had thought about using the Corpse Bomb rune instead of the Slow Burn rune that everybody at the top is running.  Corpse Bomb does 700% damage up front, while Slow Burn does 300% up front, then 720% over time.  While Slow Burn does more overall, the damage comes in slower and the damage type of Corpse Bomb is more favourable, so there seemed to be a really good argument for doing something different.  After doing some research though, I discovered that Slow Burn puts three puddles on the ground that do that 720% damage, but a monster standing directly in the middle takes damage from all three puddles, ratcheting up the damage over time to 2160%.  This was discovered by people taking videos of a monster taking Slow Burn damage and then watching them on super slow speed to see every tick of damage that landed.  It doesn't matter that much when nuking down a big group of mobs but it is huge when killing a singular boss like a Rift Guardian.

Those people, the ones who will watch videos of their spells at 1 frame per second, are out there.  They are testing absolutely everything to find out how it works, and what strange or buggy behaviour is happening that you could not possibly anticipate from looking at tooltips.  Any normal person is never going to be able to 'discover' some new way of playing that the hardcore people don't.  It can't happen.  There simply aren't enough ways to play.  The number crunchers and video makers and 16 hours a day players will find out everything within a few days and all the casuals (like me, in this case) will just see that all the top players are doing exactly the same thing and wonder why.

I wondered why everyone used Slow Burn when it seemed that I could alter the build a bit to run a Corpse Bomb fire build and be better.  Turns out they weren't all just sheep, or foolish, but rather they were better informed than me.  Some of them were informed by numbers, and some were informed by the fact that when they tried Slow Burn they were able to push one level higher than before.  They didn't care why, they only cared that it worked.

In fact I think the Witch Doctor Helltooth build is actually in a pretty good place in terms of variability.  There are two main nukes you can use with the build and I see top players running both of them.  There are a couple of different primary skills (Pyrogeist, Blazing Spiders) and a pair of different utility skills (Pirahnado, Jinx) you can use depending on your style.  There are nine passives or so that see play depending on your gear and skill choices.

The gear for the spec is pretty much locked in, with only two different weapons, a couple of weapon cube options, and the amulet being flexible.

We all have to face the fact that when there are hundreds of thousands (millions?) of players trying to do the same thing, trying to optimize the same relatively straightforward problem, a very small number of best solutions will arise.  You can't just walk in and expect that you, in your very unique and special snowflakey way, will be able to do something all those other people were not.  Unless you are one of those people who live and breathe that singular thing you really might as well just accept the answers they have derived.

Which does not mean you have to do what they say!  You can play a Corpse Bomb fire build.  It will be fine, and you will totally blow up the enemies with exploding corpses.  But you will only clear level 56 when you could have cleared level 57 if you used the slightly more optimal Slow Burn.  Kill demons with exploding corpses, have fun, but don't get all grumpy when you find that your custom build isn't as good as the build that all of the madmen have discovered.  Thankfully, it doesn't need to be.

(I am totally going to run a Corpse Bomb fire build, btw!)

Tuesday, September 8, 2015

Really bad cards

One of my posts last week was about the struggles inherent in balancing new and bizarre effects really bad in games.  The prime example was Sideshow Spelleater, who is absolute junk and will not be played.  Except, I suppose, by some reluctant players who get him in Arena and have two other even more wretched options at their disposal.

Naked Man dropped a comment on the post asking about why I felt this way about bad cards.  He sent a link to an old Making Magic post by Mark Rosewater outlining why bad cards exist and why they *must* exist.

This is a good point, but isn't exactly what I meant to convey.  Bad cards have to exist.  For one, having variability in card power is important for the company's bottom line and collectability.  For two, this actually allows better players to win matches more easily.  If cards were all balanced on a razor's edge the game would be a lot more random and that isn't necessarily a good thing.

However!  There is a difference between a bad card made with little resources, and a bad card that takes a lot to build and gives nothing in return.  As an example, Magma Rager is a terrible card.

This card is SO bad.  But it cost very little to make.  There is no possibility of it generating buggy behaviour, the coding required to make it functional once the game is working is nonexistent, and it does not confuse players.  It is easy to make and so it being bad isn't really costing much.  It is actually a great example of a card that might well look fantastic to a new player (It beats down *really* hard!) but eventually people realize that a 3 drop that is trivially killed by any 1 or 2 drop and also dies to hero powers and AOE is TERRIBLE.  This card is a nice addition to the learning curve and aside from the art costs virtually nothing to make.

Sideshow Spelleater isn't like that.  It is in an expansion so people will be getting it as a card from packs they bought.  It is obviously bad, which can be fine if there is something deeper to it, but on further inspection it is still just bad.  The cost of making a unique ability in a computer game is a lot of coding and rewiring and bug checking and problems (plenty of people are or did complain about it being buggy and not working properly) and that is a waste if it could have been used on a card that actually would see play.  This issue of buggy behaviour is less of a problem in Magic because people can usually just read cards and figure them out and even if a card does something totally new it doesn't require much effort to write that down.

It isn't that bad cards shouldn't exist, it is that if a company is going to be a lot of development time into a concept and sink coding hours into making a new thing work smoothly they ought to make sure that it is actually going to be used and that there will be a good return on investment for that effort.  The players appreciate it when their interesting cards are usable and the games are more fun.  People aren't sad that their Magma Ragers are staying benched forever, but when they open a new pack to an exciting card with an effect that they have never used before and immediately ignore it that is a real lost opportunity.

Saturday, September 5, 2015

Incremental improvement

I am furiously playing Diablo 3 to make my Witch Doctor more powerful.  It is a testament to the power creep in the game that my new Witch Doctor was higher level after 1 week of play than my old one was after about a year and a half.  I am definitely slowing down in my progression now that I am level 400 and I have all of my gear in place, but there is still plenty of progress to be made.

There is no cap on levels, though of course levelling speed does drop off pretty rapidly, and I can slowly work my way upwards over time.  Right now I am still getting several levels per greater rift and that is eventually going to stop as my progression slows over time.

Gear is similar in that I have all of my pieces together but they can all get upgraded.  Not only can each piece just roll with higher stats but it can also be ancient, which raises the caps on all the stats.  Then I can get pieces that have better stat distributions and gain incrementally more benefits there.  Each individual improvement takes a lot longer than the previous ones and provides less return but I can still see a long path of getting better.

I love the cube in terms of gearing characters up.  The new cube allows people to target specific items and pour tons of resources into finding just the right piece of gear.  It both allows people to assemble the bits they want right away to make their spec work and also means that people can farm for their improvements long term without just relying on totally random drops to make their stuff better.  It feels better to be able to save up a bunch of materials and then pour then all into making a bunch of legendary scrimshaws to hopefully get a really awesome one than it does to just massacre mobs and hope that whatever drops happens to be my thing.

Targetting drops like this also means that people actually get their own stuff together without building every spec in the game automatically.  With totally random drops you inevitably end up with gear for all the specs, and the cube allows me to crush my useless junk into chances for stuff for me.  I can just collect all the things, or squeeze those things into more stuff for my main, and that is an optimization problem I enjoy greatly.

In short, playing D3 again, levelling up, having a blast.

Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Time well spent

When designing new components for a game there is a real struggle to balance new effects that are weird and new.  There are good reasons to underpower them deliberately at the outset just in case something comes up that you aren't prepared for and they end up being a lot better than anticipated.  People react much better to buffs for underused effects than they do nerfs to their favourite stuff.  However, when you devote a bunch of coding time to a new thing it is a bit of a waste to make it so weak that nobody uses it and your effort is pointless.  For example:

The Spelleater is neat but awful.  She gets rid of your current Hero Power and you get your opponent's Hero Power instead.  That is a cool ability but since you don't know what your opponent's Power will be and it rates to be about as good as yours this is usually a disadvantage, not a benefit.  The problem with the card is that there is a basic card that is a 6/7 for 6 mana, which is similar to the Spelleater but with 2 more toughness and it is hard to imagine when the Spelleater would even be as good as the old one, much less better.

Even if you managed to engineer a situation where you knew that your opponent had a Power you wanted (which seems impossible) and that your Power was weak if you cast the Spelleater on turn 6 you are still near the end of the game and are barely even going to get any use out of the Power you steal.  This special ability is so bad that the Spelleater shouldn't be *worse* than the base unit, it should be flat out better!  If this lady were a 6/8 instead of 6/5 it would be fine because her special ability is random and usually not great so her being slightly better than a card that is good in Arena but useless in constructed is no problem.

So Blizzard spent time and development resources to create a new and interesting effect that will pretty much never see play.  No one is going to build a deck around it because they have no idea what it will do.  No one is going to run it in some obscure combo.  It is just a waste of a slot, which isn't a big deal if the effect in question is super simple, but it is a silly thing to do when you have to put a bunch of effort into making it.

Diablo 3 has a huge number of similar sorts of issues.  Many of the most interesting and intensive effects that legendary items have are junk and never get used.  A classic example of this was Grin Reaper which summoned several copies of you to cast your spells.  It takes a bunch of coding to set up new units with new AIs that have all kinds of things they can do, and originally the Grin Reaper was just trash.  You had the choice of a few different helmets that doubled your damage in various ways, or you could put on the Grin Reaper and have a couple of dorks that flailed away uselessly for you.  No choice at all, that.  However, this one has a happy ending because Blizzard finally made the Grin Reaper powerful enough that it has a solid place in a number of nuker builds and the resources they put into making it function are now actually being worthwhile.

I do respect that as a game maker you don't want new and weird stuff to come in totally over the top, but in the case of the Spelleater in particular I think blizzard really messed up.  In Diablo 3 people expect items to get changed and buffed all the time so if you bone it up you can always buff later.  That isn't the way hearthstone works though so I suspect the Spelleater is going to be a total waste of virtual cardboard forever.