Friday, November 27, 2015

The things I can say

In Hearthstone player communication is strictly controlled.  The six things you can emote at your opponent are:  Greetings, Thank You, Ooops, Threaten, Well Played, and Sorry.  At first I was surprised that people couldn't talk to each other directly but after a few moment's thought I realized that allowing opponents to talk directly would be a disaster.  While there are definitely some conversations that would be fine, there would be far too much "You suck you lucky ass noob go kill yourself for playing that mindless deck" and far too little of "Hey, do you run 2 Brawls in that deck, or 1?  I can't seem to decide which is best."

The funny thing is that these basic emotes end up being used to mean all kinds of other things that might not be intuitive at first glance.  Greetings usually is used at the start of a match as a polite hello, but it also can be something like "Hey, check out that gigantic threat." from either side.

Thank You either means "Well, you sure did play into my trap there." or occasionally "My face got wrecked, so I might as well say thanks....?"

Oooops is a simple one since it just seems to mean Oooops.

Threaten I rarely see used, I suspect largely because the threaten emotes are pretty laughable.  Mostly it seems just to be there to pass the time.

Well Played though, now that has two extremely polarized meanings.  It is either used as a term of respect to mean "You played that match well, and deserve respect" or even a simpler "Good game."  However, just as often it means "You lucky bastard, you did NOT deserve that."

Sorry rarely means sorry.  It seems to be used to say "Well, I sure did have the right answer, so this is where you get blown out."  Occasionally it seems more like "I drew like a lucksack, so you lose.  That is how it works!"  or "Hah hah, RNJesus hates you."

It is odd how people seem to have consistently settled on both these alternate meanings and how often emoting is acceptable.  In all my games I have only met one person who emoted constantly and in an annoying fashion so I squelched them, but the great majority of people either don't emote or do so in a fashion that seems very appropriate.

Somehow even though these channels are very different from normal human communication we establish multiple meanings for things and social norms that percolate through the group very effectively.

It strikes me as a great solution, since Hearthstone really doesn't have a problem with people being gigantic assholes to each other and so many online games are absolutely plagued with that problem.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Culture shock

I spent a chunk of yesterday reading old roleplaying manuals. Partly this is a search for ideas for Heroes By Trade and partly it is just to stroke my ego when I look at the terrible design decisions made by the game designers of yore.

One of the things that really struck me when I was reading Heroes Unlimited (A Palladium RPG) was that they focused so heavily on lists rather than systems.  They have dozens of different guns in the book, pages and pages of rifles, shotguns, pistols, military grade machineguns, etc. and yet when I tried to figure out the mechanics of actually using one of those guns I came up empty.  You would think that if a book is going to devote several pages to listing all of the handguns in the world (keeping in mind that they mostly have identical stats except for the price tag) you would find space to tell me how to shoot one... or at least you would, in the modern day of gaming.

My theory is this:  Back in the seventies and eighties you didn't find out about RPGs and learn them from nowhere, you learned them from friends.  You didn't need much in the way of examples because the games were largely taught through a network and so it was reasonable to assume that players would simply ask the veteran how something worked.  This is especially true in a system like Palladium where somebody had probably played that same system in a different setting.  But you know what you do need?  Lists of handguns!  You can't just hop on the internet and type in 'list of handguns' and get 100 cool guns you can have your hero use.  That sort of information is tough to come by.

Fast forward to now, and having lists of guns in a roleplaying manual is kind of silly.  If they are all mechanically identical then I can simply Google handgun, pick something out, and go with it.  What I do need is really good examples of play so that if I just pick up the game from an online store or a recommendation on a website I can figure out how to play.  I certainly might learn the game from a friend, but there is a much greater chance that I stumble upon it randomly and don't have anyone to walk me through the basics.

So while I think it is pretty silly that old games so often had such problems with incomplete or unclear rules and such devotion to lists of gadgets I think that a big part of that really can be explained by cultural context instead of incompetence.  I know that in HBT I rarely bother with lists of things because I see little point in taking up valuable book real estate with such trivialities.  However, I make it a point to fill the book with examples after every rule so that people can easily see them in action.  If done right it can be both a way to establish clarity of the rules and also build in a bit of lore at the same time.

It is a bit like looking at a cylinder.  Look at it from the end and it seems like a circle.  Look at it from the side and it appears as a rectangle.  To my mind examples and rules are like looking at a cylinder from two different viewpoints so that you can fully understand the thing you are considering.  It is important to have *both* the clear statement of the rule to resolve cases in future that the example might not cover as well as the example so the obvious cases don't get misinterpreted.

Or, if you are Gary Gygax, you just put a Glaive-Guisarme into the rules, spend a good chunk of a page describing the history of it, and stick numbers on it so that it is never, ever used.  Either way.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

Raynor, one last time

I am interesting in acquiring the last installment to Starcraft 2, but hesitant.  The story in the second part of the trilogy was weak and I didn't like the game that much.  However, I absolutely loved Wings of Liberty, the first part of the trilogy, both in terms of story and gameplay.  Has anyone out there loved Wings, was meh about Swarm, and tried Legacy of the Void?  Did you love it?  Hate it?  Meh?  Let me know if I should buy it.

Reno's big swing

Reno Jackson is a crazy new Hearthstone card.  He works like this:  When cast, if you have at most one copy of each card in your deck, you heal to full.  You can have cards in hand, cards already used, whatever, those don't matter.  So the crazy thing about Reno is that he is a heal for a potential of 29, and also he comes with a decent body.  If you are playing against an aggro deck and get Reno to work, you probably just win.  However, you either need to run a deck with only 1 copy of each card or accept that sometimes Reno is a big bag of bad.  Neither is an ideal solution.

I have seen this firsthand - I was playing midrange hunter and my opponent managed to stall for 2 rounds by using Ice Block to be invulnerable and then dropped Reno going from 1 to 30.  I couldn't come back from that position and quickly lost.  It was irritating to see an opponent use a bunch of doubles of cards in her deck and then manage to get Reno to work anyhow, but sometimes you gamble big and win.

There are a lot of people trying to use Reno right now, and although occasionally they will see a huge win on that basis I think generally it is a bad play.  While building a deck around Reno can generate a few huge wins against aggro it will also make your deck bad in general.  Using a bunch of subpar cards with weak synergy just for the off chance at one big play will lose you more games than it wins you.  Reno is strong, but sometimes your opponent is setting up to kill you when you are at 18 life and he will only be a 12 point heal.  Sure that is good, but if your deck is inconsistent and full of subpar cards it won't be hard for the opponent to get that next 12 damage in and kill you anyhow.

But things change with time.  Just as Secrets get more and more powerful as the total card pool grows, so does Reno Jackson.  Wait a year when there are another ~300 cards in the pool and it will be a lot easier to fill a deck with really good cards without doubling anything.  Just look at things like Quick Shot and Bash - not that they are overpowered or anything, but when they got released they increased the total pool of damage spells available to their respective classes and made it easier for people to load up on those.  When there are twice as many cards out there Reno will be a real problem.  You will still cost yourself some consistency but not as much.

Of course Reno is self correcting to some extent.  He punishes full on aggro like face hunter the most, but the more control decks there are the worse Reno becomes and the less it is worth running a suboptimal deck just to fit him in.  You won't see 100% of decks running 1 ofs and Reno because in that format a deck with 2 ofs and no Reno will be more powerful.  It will mean though that control decks will have a singular win condition against aggro and they will be regularly running that win condition.  Overall I expect it to mean that aggro will slowly lose ground over time, especially if there are any other cards that fill a similar sort of function.

Whether or not Reno is worth running right now is a tricky question to answer.  However, I think it is abundantly clear that in a year Reno is going to be a star and will probably garner even more complaints than other established cards like Shredder or Dr. Boom.  It is an inevitable consequence of printing more cards, just like the increased prevalence of combo decks.

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Its good

Blizzard needed help.  They had a question that required an answer, and they wanted playtesters on the Diablo 3 PTR to find that answer.  The question was:

If a set makes players do 100 times as much damage as before, is that too much?

The answer was yes.

Doing 100 times as much damage is too much.  Now that they have an answer to their question, they have decided to make it 12 times as much damage instead.  This, one suspects, will actually get them into the right ballpark.

I won't complain about this change, in fact I think it is brilliant.  What Blizzard is doing is adding a set of two rings that have a set bonus of "If you are not benefitting from any other set bonus, gain 100% more damage and 4% damage reduction for every Ancient item you have on."  Ancient items take awhile to find so you won't start out with one in every slot by any means, but you will find them, and when you have a full set of them you can top out at 1300% damage bonus and 52% damage reduction.  The obvious great thing about this is it lets players build a character with all kinds of random items instead of being stuck using a single massive set.

That 100% bonus, by the way, was temporarily an 800% bonus.  Per item.  So yeah, that was too high, but 100% is going to be just fine.

This doesn't meant that sets in D3 will be obsolete when the 2.4 patch hits.  They will still be there, at the very least used as stepping stones into end game builds.  I suspect that some classes will use sets and some will use the ring set combined with a random mishmash of gear.  Maybe once people assemble the perfect set of ancient gear they will all use the ring set at endgame, but even then gearing will progress from random rares to random legendaries to set building to ring/ancient setups with a ton of farming required to actually get to the end of it all.

I like the change for two reasons.  First off, it will be nice to have more selection.  Being locked into a 6 piece set means that you have few choices remaining and this will make it feasible to run a build with a bazillion choices, and introduce interesting choices between one more ancient piece that isn't optimal and the perfect piece that isn't ancient.  I guarantee you will see a lot more variety at the top end.

The second reason to like this change is that it will make a lot of old stuff relevant again.  When everyone is using a set that gives 1000% more damage to a single skill, all other sources of damage are irrelevant.  Why would I use an item that whacks an enemy for 700% when my main attack is doing 40,000%?  However, when I have the option to multiply all of my damage then lots of currently useless items could potentially be worked into a build.  Some will be better than others, naturally, but we will still see a much greater number of items in rotation than before.

I am definitely going to be taking another run at D3 when the next season starts.  There will be so much more to collect and so much more to puzzle through when it comes to builds and gearing, and I love tinkering away at that stuff.

Thursday, November 12, 2015


The newest Hearthstone expansion called The League of Explorers has landed, and the primary new mechanic in it is something called Discover.  The ways these cards work is they give you 3 cards to choose from and you put the chosen one into your hand.  As an example:

Now people seem to be modeling this ability off of the baseline 'Draw one card' ability and presuming that they are similar.  I think that doing so is a mistake and seriously undervalues the power of Discover as a mechanic.

One of the things about Hearthstone is that hitting a really good curve and not missing drops is key to success.  Drawing a card is helpful in that it gives you more choices but Discover lets you find a card that will fit your curve much more precisely.  If you drop the Museum Curator above you can find the hole in your curve, or just look for a card that works really well against the particular matchup you are facing at the time.

If your hand happens to be loaded with cards that cost 4+ then drawing a card has a modest shot of giving you a good play on turn 3, but Discover is going to be a *lot* more effective at that.  Also there are many cards that are strong but which are situational and Discover is good at letting you sometimes use those deadly silver bullets.

It isn't all good though.  Combo decks almost certainly prefer raw card draw because they don't want random decent cards, they want to find their combo pieces.  However, a midrange or control deck that mostly just wants value will love the selection that Discover grants, and it also doesn't deplete your deck if things do end up coming down to a fatigue war at the end.

My suspicion is that the Museum Curator above is never going to be a power card, but it strikes me as really good.  It can kill 1 drops, be a speed bump, and help you find a card to fill in your curve.  It means that you have something decent to do on turn 2 and many priest decks struggle with that.

There are lots of other cards with Discover and some of them are of course pretty weak, but I think people are really underselling the power of choice.  One of the best examples of that choice is Dark Peddler.

The Peddler doesn't look exciting but he is effectively a 1 drop for 2 mana, which gives you another 1 drop for 1 mana.  However, you get an extra card and that extra card really only costs you 1 mana and that is a really good deal.  That extra 1 drop is a lot more powerful than it seems because although Goldshire Footman is not a good card, sometimes he is *exactly* what you need.  Being able to choose to grab a taunt minion for a single mana is great.  You don't want to be locked in to playing a taunt minion for 1, but there are so many times when that is the thing that will swing the game your way.  Maybe it will just give you 5 health, maybe it will protect your Knife Juggler for a critical turn, but being able to choose between that and other options is fantastic.

Discover gives you the power of choice, and there are so many cards that are generally meh but situationally powerful that I think people will really come around on Discover once they start seeing it in action.  If nothing else there will be tons of stories of people being in a losing situation and then Discovering the only card that can save them and those sorts of saves will stick in people's memories I think.  That will take time though.

So there is my bet for League of Explorers.  Discover cards will be underrated initially but will end up showing themselves to be powerful ways for good players to extricate themselves from bad situations.  Choice is extremely important, and can make up for a lot of raw power.

Saturday, November 7, 2015

For the men

There is a lot of (totally justified) complaining out there that gaming is targetted far too much at men.  Gamergate has become a mainstream thing, and indeed is still a raging conflict in many places on the internet.  It would be easy to imagine that things are terrible and getting worse, but I think it is important to realize that although there are a lot of problems that need to be addressed there has been progress made.

Today I was looking through my first roleplaying manual, Warhammer Fantasy Roleplay.  The game has a careers system where players can be a Rat Catcher, Bawd, Judicial Champion, Wizard, or even a mighty Labourer.  Each career has a picture associated with it, and I noticed that there were an awful lot of pictures of men and not so many women, so I went through and counted to see just how lopsided it really was.

The results were depressing.  It wasn't that there were few women, it is that there were 108 portraits of careers and 108 men.  Now, a few of those pictures are not 100% clear, so we could charitably say 100 men, 8 not clear, and 0 women.  Here is the worst part though:  There was a woman portrayed in the careers section.  She was a slave, being sold by a male slaver.  Because you can be a slaver, you see, as part of your career progression.  Needless to say, everyone in the book is white.

Now that is a wretched state of affairs right there.

In Dungeons and Dragons 5th edition, released recently, there was an explicit passage explaining that characters can have any gender, including nonbinary identities.  They were clear that you could make your character have any sexual orientation you desire.  Diversity in pictures and examples was a public goal, and as far as I understand it, it happened.  (I don't own all books, can't confirm.)

These books were both efforts by big publishers on large budgets with real quality control.  They both had established brand names to protect.  The difference is that one was published in 1986 and one was published in 2014.  The improvement over time is real.

Which isn't to say we should rest on our laurels.  Quite the contrary!  My point is this:  Trying to raise awareness of the extremes of sexism and racism in gaming over the years *is working*.  Things are indeed getting better, and they are getting better because people are putting pressure on companies that produce the games to keep these things in mind when designing.  They are improving because people continue to point out the unconscious and conscious biases people have in game design.

Games are being made to better reflect the world in which we live and that helps them become more accessible to people that aren't straight white men.  Let's all keep it up... there is yet more to do.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

A corner

Blizzard has written themselves into a bit of a difficult spot with regards to Secrets in Hearthstone.  Secrets are cards that you put into play but which only do something on a specific set of conditions during your opponents' turn.  Secrets are a great innovation in the abstract because it means that there are plenty of cool tactical choices to make when a Secret is in play and only one player knows what it will do.  This lets players 'do stuff' on their opponents turn without having the clunky mechanic of waiting to see if an opponent will interrupt you that Magic has.  All that is great, and I like it.

The problem is that Secrets are bad, so other cards were published to make them good, which means Secrets need to always be bad.

If you look at Secrets it seems obvious to me that they were balanced around the opponent having no idea what was going on.  That is, if you actually play around them properly they end up being really poor spells that few people want to play.  This isn't just true in constructed, but even in draft Secrets are generally poor cards you don't want in your deck.
Take Mirror Entity.  If you know that this is a possibility, you play your cheap, bad minion first to trigger it.  Or you play a minion that has a powerful Battlecry which the copy won't have access to.  Or you just play spells that don't trigger it.

No matter how you handle it Mirror Entity ends up being weaker than most other cards.  While there are circumstances where drawing it is amazing, there are far more circumstances where you desperately need to do something active and end up drawing dead into Mirror Entity, or you end up with a small, weak minion.

The solution would of course be to either buff Secrets or just produce better ones later, either of which could work.  Unfortunately, Blizzard instead went the route of making Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger which make secrets awesome because you don't have to actually draw the bad Secret - it just happens for free.

Putting two Mad Scientists in your deck and 2-3 Secrets means that you mulligan away the secrets, play them when you have to, and the Mad Scientist gets you insane value.  This has managed to make the Secrets playable, in the sense that they are overpowered when they pop out of a Scientist and weak when you actually draw them.

Here is the problem though - going forward Blizzard has to keep on making Secrets janky.  If they actually make Secrets good on their own these Secret synergy cards will become even more bonkers than they already are.  That will end up being a problem, as those synergy cards are already among the most complained about cards in the game just due to raw power level.

So what do you do in such a situation?  I think going forward it is a problem to have Secrets rely almost entirely on overpowered synergy cards and be bad in and of themselves.  Ideally I would like Secrets to be decent cards to play, or at least for some of them to be decent and others to occasionally wreck people because they weren't expecting the slightly subpar Secret.  That sounds like a great environment!

In order for that to work the two powerful Secret enablers (Mad Scientist and Mysterious Challenger) need to be reined in.  There are other Secret enablers but they are all pretty much garbage - if Secrets were just a bit better though they could see play.  The two offensive ones though would both be strong enough to play if they cost 1 more mana, but both would suddenly become a lot less brutal.  They would still be fantastic cards in decks that have Secrets, but there would actually be a reason to play lots of Secrets instead of just enough of them for your enablers to fetch for free.

As it is Blizzard has really put themselves into a bind where they can't make new Secrets that are worth playing and that seems like a really poor spot to be for a type of card that has so much promise.  There is one ray of hope though, if they ignore my opinion on this:  The more Secrets that exist, the better they become.  It is really easy to play around 3 Secrets when only 1 is good, but really hard to play around 12 Secrets when 3 are good.  The more there are, the better each becomes as they become more and more Secret and less and less "I know what that is!"