Thursday, May 28, 2015

Pretty pictures

I finally got myself in gear and made an agreement to get art made for Camp Nightmare.  The artist is a friend of mine Nathan Nun who stumbled into it somewhat randomly - he played the game with me once and then was excited to work on the project.  Serendipity, that, especially because after seeing the first drafts of the cards he is designing for me I am really excited.  I was somewhat concerned about what this whole thing would cost as when I consulted another friend about what I would expect to pay he gave me a range of $1,000 to $250,000.  That is ... quite a range, and the top end is not exactly doable.

Heck, anything much above the absolute minimum is a bit worrisome!

At any rate, the aesthetic I was going for was not perfectly realistic artwork, but rather a bit of a cartoony, silly feel to go along with the flavour text and theme that is undeniably goofy.  Nathan described his idea for the Huge Backpack card, which was a small man struggling under the weight of a backpack three times his size.  That was exactly the thing I was imagining when I thought about that card so it sure seemed like we were on the same wavelength.  The first two samples Nathan sent to me are on the left side here.

I am really pleased with the results.  The pictures are evocative, the cards are organized the way my brain had imagined they would be, and they look appealing.  The look isn't exactly the way I would have built it, but that is why I got someone who knows about art and design to build it!  I know that there are a million things about this that I don't know and trying to learn it all is silly when there are other people that already understand it and can do it in a tenth of the time.  Moreover, I would almost certainly end up just getting irritated at the process and stop rather than spend the outrageous amount of time it would take to get it right.  This just in, specialization is fantastic.

The current theory is to have symbols on the Disaster cards to designate things like weather or critters.  Those symbols will appear where the ! symbol does on the lower card.  The Gear cards on the other hand get their own little text box to tell people how they work, like whether they are Equipment that sits in play or Single Use Items that are discarded right away.

Now I really have to get specifics from production companies so I make sure I don't waste time building pieces that aren't going to be necessary or wasting time on design that isn't quite right.  Designing a 20x20 board isn't much use if I end up having to order the board in a 24x16 size after all.

Tuesday, May 26, 2015

Go outside!

Blizzard is going to be pushing out the 6.2 patch in the reasonably near future and it seems clear to me that they are doing the gaming company equivalent of yelling at kids "Go outside and play!"  Right now there is very little incentive to leave your garrison once you hit max level as the garrison contains herbs, ore, crafting materials, cash, and plenty of things to do.  The only exception to this is the Barn, which requires you to go to one particular zone and kill some specific mobs for an hour every couple weeks.  This generates a ton of cash and crafting materials too, and with doing only that you can get absolutely everything you need.

A lot of people are complaining about this and want good reasons to get outside and play.  Rewarding exploration and socialization is perfectly fine and that seems to be what Blizzard is aiming at, having proved that player housing has all the issues that everybody thought it would.  Sitting around in your own personal house by yourself just isn't that fun it turns out.

The main thing Blizzard is doing is making the newest and best crafting resources come from gathering professions in the new zone.  Felblight is going to come from herb nodes, mining nodes, skinning, and fishing, and from nowhere else.  This means that players will be rushing out there to stand around in the new zone to grab all the shinies instead of sitting parked in their garrisons.  Blizzard is also reducing the relative importance of the garrison buildings by making it easier to get crafting resources just from personal cooldowns.  Also the Barn is going to drop massively in importance as people find new and more efficient ways to get Savage Blood.  (Both from Primal Spirits and Alchemy transmutes.)

At launch I expect the new zone to be absolutely jammed with people.  It might well get to the point where every herb and mining node has someone standing beside it, ready to grab it when it respawns.  I am sure fishing is going to be that way with people desperately trying to grab pools from one another.  On a PVP realm the new zone is going to be soaked in blood and tears for certain.  I think this is a fine thing, particularly because this new stuff isn't going to be mandatory.  You can always sit in your garrison and make money to buy the new crafting materials off the Auction Hall if you want to - it won't be the most efficient or exciting but it will be safe.

While lots of people like to whine about Blizzard 'forcing' them to play a particular way it is clear that Blizzard can't just stand aside.  Whatever activity generates the most stuff / hour will draw everybody in so Blizzard has to sit down and figure out what will create the best experience.  Clearly at the start of Warlords Blizzard wanted to build player housing and give players lots to do in their houses and that worked... and now they are changing course.

It is good to accept when you tried something and it didn't work out perfectly.  Garrisons are pretty decent but the inclusion of herbs and ore in particular made it silly to ever leave and that is an issue.  The changes currently slated look like they will set things back on a more even course and I think doing so is the right direction for the game.

Go outside kids, and get some exercise.

And by that I mean sit at your computer but look at slightly different background scenery and click on different sparkly things.

Thursday, May 21, 2015

Illusory choices

I am polishing up the final version of Camp Nightmare in preparation for artwork being built.  One of the things I am focusing on in this last push is getting rid of mechanics that add complexity but don't add significant strategic options.  For example, one of the main ways to do well in the game is to get out a Roasting Stick and roast Marshmallows.  The old version of the cards looked like this:

Requires a Fire

Gain 3 Food.

Roasting Stick

When you cook Marshmallows gain 2 extra Energy and 1 Fun.

It was totally possible to play Marshmallows without a Roasting Stick in play just for the 3 Food but doing so was almost universally terrible.  At best it was a way to recover from a disastrous situation and try to improve on a weak score and at worst it was just a trap for newbies who were unaware that Roasting Stick existed.  There was a choice there, but it was an illusory choice and I don't think that is worth maintaining.  The new cards look like this:

Requires a Fire and a Roasting Stick

Gain 4 Energy and 2 Fun.

Roasting Stick

Allows cooking of Marshmallows.

The new version makes sure that new players can figure out how the game works just by viewing either card in the combo.  It also simplifies the resolution of Marshmallows by having all of the gains written in one place on one card.  This does technically reduce the strategic options available to players because they are no longer allowed to cook Marshmallows without a stick, but the improvement in the experience for first time players is definitely worth it.

The other thing I have been doing is trimming out some of the extreme outliers in game variance.  There is a good chunk of luck in the game, which is fine, but I found that there was a single combination of cards that dominated the scoring.  If you set it up you blew the score out of the water, and no other combination came close.  The combo was the following 3 cards:

Cooking Grate

Players can cook Food for free at any time without using an Action.

Spice Jar

Cooking Food gives an extra Fun.

Battered Pot

Cooking Food gives +5 Energy.

Getting all three of these into play meant that players could just sit there drawing cards as fast as possible because every Food card was an absolute bonanza of resources.  A normal game consists of generating something like 150 resources and this combo could easily make 120 resources in just a couple of turns.  Big combos are fun but this one was so big that you could screw up the entire rest of the game and still do well just by dropping this one combo into play.

The new versions of the cards are re-themed to some extent and also reduce the blowout potential of the combination.  They are still good, and you really want to pair them, but they don't make the rest of the game feel irrelevant.

Cooking Grate

Each turn the active player can play one Food card for free without using an Action.


Cooking Food gives +5 Energy.  Cannot be combined with Drink Crystals.

Drink Crystals

Cooking Food gives an extra Fun.  Cannot be combined with Coffee.

The idea thematically is that you can only drink one thing alongside your Food.  Also the Cooking Grate is a little less insane in this version, though I think it is still a fantastic piece of Gear.  The insane case of these cards is much reduced, but it is still very much worthwhile to dig for them to try to get the Cooking Grate to combine with one of the other two cards.  I think there is actually more thought involved in this version because you have to consider when to play your gear and which ones to play instead of just windmill slamming them down all together and winning.

It is a good thing that I finally have a bit of a deadline to hit, otherwise I suspect I would just keep on slowly iterating on the game for years to come.  Now I am under pressure to actually get it done and that is getting the ideas flowing quickly and smoothly.

I always did work better under pressure.  Or perhaps I should say I really only worked well under pressure and just procrastinated otherwise...

Wednesday, May 20, 2015

What to kill

Patch 6.2 is coming fairly soon for WOW and my guild is faced with some tricky choices.  We don't know exactly how long we have but it is clear that we won't have time to clear all of the content in our tier so we have to figure out what we want to kill.  As is often the case we are stuck between killing things for gear and killing things for prestige.

Blackrock Foundry has 10 bosses in it, with the final boss being Blackhand.  Blackhand is tremendously more difficult than the rest of the zone, to the extent that many guilds who are recruiting advertise that they are 9/10 normal difficulty, and also 9/10 heroic.  The fact that they can down 9 heroic fights but not Blackhand on normal shows that he is a tremendous step up in challenge, but this situation is exacerbated by the fact that normal Blackhand still drops normal quality loot.  It is common for people to want to do the easier heroic fights to get 685 loot rather than working on Blackhand for 670 loot, and by the time you have all of your 685 gear there are likely no useful drops on Blackhand normal... so why kill him at all?

Of course you want to kill the final boss for achievements, bragging rights, and plain old fun.  Usually though challenges come with commensurate rewards and a lot of people are going where the easy gear is and then not pushing through the most difficult fight at all.

Realistically my guild is never going to down Blackhand on heroic before the next patch comes with the new raid.  We could quite plausibly kill him on normal and we could also work on the three other heroic fights that we haven't downed yet.  Both challenges will require wiping and practice to beat but Blackhand normal has almost no useful loot for us.  If we are focused on going into the next tier of raiding at maximum potential we should work on heroic fights to gear up, and if we are focused on getting achievements and doing tricky new things we should just go for Blackhand.  We have enough gear to beat him now, we just need to get better.

Deciding what to kill next is one of the big challenges for being a guild or raid leader.  Some guilds just don't care about loot and want to do the hard stuff - my old guild OGT was definitely like that.  We were much more interested in finding difficult things to do than finding easy ways to farm higher level gear.  You need a certain amount of gear to accomplish your goals of course but we went for 10 man strict challenges instead of farming 25 man raids with noobs and I never regretted that choice for a moment.  Some guilds, mostly very casual guilds, focus almost entirely on farming loot the easiest way possible to beat fights with pure item level instead of skill and practice.  Right now my guild is in the middle ground between these two extremes.

If I were in charge I would definitely lean towards bashing on Blackhand until he dies.  The loot from heroic modes just isn't going to last very long in the new tier and I would much rather to interesting new fights instead of the same thing over again but with bigger numbers.  I won't be bitter regardless of what gets chosen though, as the most important thing is doing hard stuff and all of the options involve me needing to play at my best to beat fights we haven't beat yet.

I can't decide if it is a good thing to be a random dork in the guild who doesn't have to make the decisions or if I would rather be the one calling the shots.  It is definitely more relaxing to not have people concerned about my every decision... but I would like to tell people that we are going to kill Blackhand and damn the cost.  Command has its upsides, but it also has its costs.

Thursday, May 7, 2015

Roll dem dice

I found an article today that described some people testing dice to figure out how random they actually are.  The people writing the article rolled two different d20s made by different manufacturers to see if one manufacturers claims of better randomness were actually warranted.  Unlike many gamers I know they did not use a sample size of four to decide if a die is fair or not - they rolled the dice 10,000 times and recorded the results.  It turns out that the d20s they tested were quite biased, with many numbers showing up 20% too often or too little, which is extraordinarily unlikely in a sample set that large if the die was indeed truly random.  The die with the more grandoise claims to true randomness was generally better distributed except that the number 14 was extremely underrepresented due to a bump on the opposite side of the die.  One would assume that if that bump were shaved off expertly then it would in fact be the better randomization engine.

The simple thing we can take away from this is that cheaply made dice with numbers carved into them are not as random as we would like when rolled by humans.  They *are* loaded.  But they *aren't* loaded in the way people tend to complain about.  The results were scattered about without any particular tendency to high rolling or low rolling.  Neither of the dice were especially good or bad, and they definitely weren't good or bad enough that anyone could have been sure about it without hundreds or thousands of carefully recorded rolls.

Thing is though, we don't actually care very much how good the randomization quality actually is.  People buy dice because they are pretty, feel good, and are easy to read.  I am a numbers geek and still if you offered me the die with bigger claims to true randomness I would turn it down.  It has sharp corners, numbers that are hard to read, and doesn't look as nice.  I am rolling dice in part because I want a random number generator, and in part because I like the experience.  I could use an app to generate much better random numbers and I do not do that - in fact I don't even consider it.

I want to roll dem dice!

There would certainly be a point where a die was simply too unfair for me to be willing to use it.  A die that generated 10% 20s, 0% 1s, and was otherwise fair would be far too loaded for me to be willing to use it, even though it would be to my advantage to do so.  That said, if a die isn't actually really loaded towards being good or bad then I don't much care if all the results are equally likely.

If I wanted perfection I would use an algorithm.  I want to toss sparkly, colourful bits of plastic around and use that to decide my results, and so that is what I do.

Tuesday, May 5, 2015

Too much pinging

I am in the final furious flurry of design for Camp Nightmare before I arrange to have art made for it.  Playtesting is going really well and people are enjoying the game but I am still fussing away at the fine details.  One of the things I am trying to sort out is how ongoing effects should work.  Two examples of the previous design:


At the start of each turn the active player discards 1 card.



At the start of each turn the active player trashes all of their Equipment.  They may pay 1 Energy to ignore this effect.


I like both of these cards thematically.  Hail falls down randomly breaking your stuff, and wind tries to blow all of your gear away so you have to spend time and energy tying everything down to keep it from vanishing.

The trouble with these effects is that people kept on forgetting about them and when they did remember there was a lot of deliberation over what to do.  Hail in particular slowed the game down brutally as every turn someone had to agonize over which card to discard.  Usually people just paid the Energy for Windy so it wasn't as hard on processing power but there were still constant issues with forgetting that it existed.

There are plenty of cards that change the game but which don't cause analysis paralysis like these:

Eerie Stillness

Lose 1 Fun any time a player Rummages.



No one may take the Start Fire Action.


In both cases these cards just lock out a particular Action, which doesn't require constant decisions and is fairly easy to process every round.  Nothing needs to change so forgetting about it is usually not an issue.

My new strategy for Hail and Windy is to try to remove the necessity to process them on every single turn.  I want people to figure out what effect they will have and to have to deal with them only a limited number of times.  Currently they look like this:


At the start of each turn if the active player has 5 or more cards they discard 3 cards.



Players must pay 1 Energy each time they put a piece of Equipment into play.


Both of these effects are strategically different but thematically similar to their predecessors.  Hail is absolutely crippling if you have a ton of cards but when it drops into play it will generally only need to be processed once.  It is unlikely people will choose Hail if they have gigantic mitts full of cards, after all.  Also it is noteworthy that the new version pushes people to have small hand sizes to avoid the effect while the old one rewarded large hand sizes to give maximum selection.

Windy is nice in that you probably only have to check it out once or twice during a cycle and once you get your Equipment down you can bring it out without having to check on it constantly.  You still need to keep it in mind but the constant need to check each turn if a piece of Equipment is blowing up or not is unnecessary.

In both cases I feel like I have reduced the maintenance requirement of the cards without making them strategically uninteresting.  Hail is actually more interesting now I think, while the new version of Windy is a little less so.  However, the new version of Windy is *much* clearer and easily for new players to understand so that is a big plus.

I really need to get this stuff nailed down hard, and soon.  I don't want to be going back to the drawing board in terms of art just because I can't stop iterating on my design, after all.