Category Archives: Philosophy

Hearthstone, and the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis

When it comes to Hearthstone, it seems you can’t win for losing.

The basic gist is that Trump, one of paragons of Hearthstone streaming, recently hit Legend rank (skip to 1:24 for the last game) with his F2P Warlock deck. This makes the 3rd class he has hit Legend with using the F2P deck concept; the prior two were Mage and Shaman. Back in February, Reynad piloted a F2P Warrior deck to Legend. Additionally, the #1 ranked player in both the NA and EU brackets, Kelento, uses a Hunter deck with six Rares. That’s right: zero Legendaries, zero Epics. With five out of the nine classes accounted for, forum-warriors and Bad Player Apologists alike continue with the narrative that Hearthstone is just another P2W cop-out. “Let’s see them hit Legend with Priest!” “Pfft, anyone can hit Legend after 180+ wins.”

Other than, you know, themselves.

As has been mentioned before though, they might not be wrong: everything hinges on how one defines Pay-2-Win. If one defines P2W as any game in which additional dollars confers any possible advantage, I suppose it could be said Hearthstone is P2W just like any given CCG. Then again, all of the F2P decks that hit Legendary rank were made using Dust and Gold given by quests and wins. In other words, zero actual dollars were utilized. Is such a broad measure of P2W even useful as a definition of anything? One can imagine a scenario in which someone paid a pro player to actually play his/her character for them, which would seemingly fit the definition of P2W even if the game itself was otherwise structured to be anti-P2W.

This sort of musing has led me to imagine something I’m calling the Infinite Dollar P2W Hypothesis. Namely, does having infinite money somehow confer infinite advantage? Under this rubric, there are a number of interesting conclusions. For example, we can safely state that games like Candy Crush Saga and even Dungeon Keeper are P2W; both games (seem to) have infinitely spammable features that make even the most difficult challenges irredeemably easy. For example, in Candy Crush Saga, you can buy extra attempts/turns on the same map along with Lollipop Hammers that break candy without taking up precious turns. Dungeon Keeper is a bit edgier of a case considering there is a hard time-limit of 3 minutes to assault a dungeon, but you can absolutely purchase infinite resources and instant build times with infinite gems.

In Hearthstone, a ~$600 purchase in booster packs guarantees you every card in the game. As mentioned above though, not only do you not need every card in the game to hit the highest of ranking, you often don’t even need anything other than cards any given player can acquire in less than a week of gameplay. But we’re talking about infinite dollars, right? In which case, all the instantly purchased/crafted Legendary cards in the world won’t save you from Kelento’s Hunter deck, by definition of he being #1 on two continents. Control-type decks seem to require a lot of Legendaries to be competitive, sure, but I think it’s difficult to argue that P2W equals “money improves poor performance” without that (indirectly at worst) applying to everything.

A P2W definition that restricts the advantage stemming from only cash purchases paints games like PlanetSide 2 as P2W (camouflage is SC only) whereas Hearthstone gets a free pass. And considering how “F2P” games like Candy Crush Saga and Dungeon Keeper are moving towards a random daily prize model (that either awards cash shop items directly or cash shop currency), suddenly we’re in a world in which the “obvious” P2W games aren’t actually P2W anymore.

Perhaps P2W is one of those nebulous concepts, like porn, relegated to the “I know it when I see it” category. Be that as it may, I think my own evolving opinion is settling on the Infinite Money Hypothesis. Because in a world where companies like Blizzard price things specifically to dissuade certain behavior (e.g. $25 server transfers), surely we can conclude that infinite money breaks whatever balance they believe they achieved through pricing. If everyone had infinite money, would the policy still work? If not, it is at best a blunt instrument. At worst, a cynical money grab.

All that being said, I’m willing to entertain counter-examples.

Dungeon Keeper App: A Study in Bad Game Design

Your first thought might be: “Obviously!”

No, not obviously. When the Dungeon Keeper (DK) app first came out, the entirety of the criticism revolved around EA and the bastardization of a beloved (?) franchise into a time-n-money sink exploitative F2P game. Here is the thing few people might know: DK is perhaps the best entry into this sub-genre. This might sound a little be like being called “the best STD,” but the game itself is surprisingly good.

At least, it was good.

My original design.

My original design.

What made DK good (and still does) is the fostering of creativity and depth through constraint. As you might already know, DK is a downtime management game – you spend more time not doing things than actually doing them. The basic principal is to construct a dungeon filled with traps to safeguard your own stockpile of resources while raiding the dungeons of others. Everything takes time to complete: summoning minions, constructing traps, upgrading traps, excavating rock tiles to make room for traps, and so on. On release, the excavation was particularly lampooned in that the map was filled with tiles that took 4 hours and 24 hours apiece to dig out. Or, you know, you could spend Gems (an RMT currency) to dig them instantly.

Here’s the thing though: being time-locked forced you to construct novel dungeon designs with whatever you had available. Since everyone starts on the same map, we could imagine there being X variations of the perfect defensive layout had all the squares been filled with soft dirt (takes 3 seconds to dig). Instead, we have X * Y variations because different people are at different levels of excavation; some concentrate on digging out all the 4-hour tiles instead of the 24-hour ones, some are the opposite, and still others concentrate all their time on upgrading traps instead of excavation. Creativity through constraint. Yes, technically this also enables the designers to wheedle in-app purchases out of you. But! It’s a compelling gameplay mechanic nonetheless.

Somebody just got sent home.

Somebody just got sent home.

Before I move on, I also want to mention that the other end of the creativity came from watching the replays of your own dungeon getting sacked. Given how attacking players can use magic to bomb open your walls or remotely disable your traps, sometimes it feels like there is nothing you can do to stop attacks. But what you can do is make your dungeon punishing. Magic regenerates very slowly, such that a player looking for enough resources to purchase an upgrade are unlikely to blow their entire load just to sack your one dungeon when they could split it up inbetween juicier, less-defended targets. It is a particularly novel delight watching a replay of someone throwing 2+ hours of congealed time at your defenses and see them go home with nothing. It’s part of the reason why I have played DK for so long.

The problem(s) with DK really came with their Update #2 several weeks ago. There are other fundamental problems, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In short, Update #2 destroyed the in-game economy.

Prior to Update #2, you unlocked bomb-proof walls as you upgraded various rooms and the Dungeon Heart. The number of such walls you could place were extremely limited, so you really had to think about the best location to place them. Did you want to protect a particular room? Force minions down a particular corridor? Or did you want to prevent people from digging a tunnel from the South part of the map? What the Mythic devs decided was to up-end the entire mechanic: instead of bomb-proof, they made walls upgradable. Instead of 20 bomb-proof walls at the end, you could have 100 not-bomb-proof walls that could sustain various amounts of magic damage depending on level.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

For example, my current Bomb Wall spell deals 500 damage in a 3×3 square. A level 1 wall has 300 HP, and each level beyond that increases wall HP by +150. It costs 10k Stone to place a level 1 wall, 30k to upgrade to 2, 60k to 3, 120k for 4, and so on. As you might imagine, this whole “wall update” introduced a Stone sink on a massive scale. The game already had sinks of sorts – my current rooms now cost 2 million Stone apiece to upgrade – but I can imagine there may have been a need at the higher end. Or, perhaps more cynically, the devs wanted the DK Premium “subscription” (+40% resource gains from raiding) to be more appealing.

The Stone sink though has set off a cascade of fail throughout the game. The amount of resources that can be stolen from your dungeon is 30% of your stockpile (up to a maximum determined by your Dungeon heart level) + 10% of your unclaimed resources from quarries/mines around the map. Although there was always an incentive to “hide” your Stone in upgrading traps and such, there simply weren’t all that many locations; you can only have X number of Fire Traps and doors and such. Update #2 introduced 100 more to the pile, e.g. walls, and made it a high priority to upgrade them, e.g. to help prevent more Stone from being stolen via Bomb Wall spells. But since all the high-level players are now Stone deficient, the only people who have Stone laying around are… low-level players.

So the current “metagame” in DK is sandbagging, which means intentionally lowering your Trophy score (i.e. ELO) to get matched against noobs who either don’t know what they’re doing or have already abandoned the game and are simply letting their resources rot. Since they are low-level, it’s easier to steal their resources with your high-level minions given how their traps/layouts aren’t difficult. Since it’s not difficult to invade, you can send in less advanced troops that have quicker build times (e.g. 40-second Trolls instead of 20-minute Ghosts). Since you have quicker build times, you can raid more often and likely not need to use magic at all. Since you’re raiding more often, you are in-game for longer, which prevents your rapidly accumulating Stone reserves from being vulnerable to theft. And because of all of this, you are more likely to hit whatever Stone target you were going for and then spend said Stone, putting you back down to near-zero and safe to log off.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don't spawn inside the killbox.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don’t spawn inside the killbox.

The Mythic devs have responded on the forums that Update #3 will fix all of this and punish the sandbaggers, but the preview we have gotten is woefully naive. Their “solution” is the introduction of PvP tiers of sorts based on ELO. The higher the tier, the more bonus Stone you receive for a win. At my hypothetical tier, I could see an additional… 35k Stone. For fighting someone tooth and nail as advanced as myself. Who isn’t likely to have 35k Stone laying around to begin with. Compare that to someone at a lower ELO would could easily have 200k sitting around just waiting to be stolen.

Needless to say, this is bad game design. It is not bad simply because I dislike it; it is bad because it will not accomplish what it set out to do, or worse, have the opposite outcome.

I am not especially surprised at this non-solution, as the devs have yet to address a similarly counter-intuitive decision vis-a-vis intentionally not opening mines/quarries. There are 8 mines along the outside of the map, and unlocking them means getting free resources each time you click them; at the highest levels, you can get 200k+ Stone every 32 hours or whatever. However, enemy Keepers use these same mines as spawn points. Thus, the more mines you open, the more vulnerable your dungeon. The less mines you open, the less vulnerable your dungeon (just stuff all your warehouses in the corner), the easier it is to keep resources you steal from others, and the better off you are in general. Also? You can’t close mines you have opened. Basically, if you’re like me and open all the mines, you’re just screwed, permanently.

This shit is so stupid.

There is close to zero downside to this.

There is a similarly counter-intuitive punishment mechanic in upgrading your Dungeon Heart. You gain access to more traps and rooms by upgrading the Heart, but each level increases the maximum amount of resources that can be stolen from you. Thus, the only sane strategy is to make the Heart the last possible thing to upgrade. If you upgrade early, whoops, permanently screwed with hardmode.

My solutions to these issues? Well, first, I’d levy a 20k (or 20%) penalty to resource gains for each mine you do not unlock, down to some minimum – if your raid would have resulted in 100k Stone, you actually only get 60k if you have three mines unopened. Considering how the only players worth attacking are those with 100k+ Stone up for grabs, this would hopefully encourage people to open their mines, making more targets available. On a related note, the second change is one’s ELO score should be commensurate with the amount of Stone that can be stolen, not Dungeon Heart rank. Thus, the sandbaggers can get “easy” Stone, but significantly less such that they might have been better going after equally-skilled players.

Third, mine/quarry resource gains should double, minimum. Fourth, flip the numbers: 30% of unclaimed Stone is vulnerable and only 10% of one’s stockpile, not vice versa. This encourages more periodic log-ins during the day and makes people feel safer in saving up their Stone rather than immediately sinking it into walls. There is nothing more demoralizing than logging on and seeing someone having stolen 100k Stone, knowing that you would have been better off upgrading a door or whatever.

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to an evil, bastardized mobile app, but… I think you’d be surprised. I have long since deleted Castle Clash and feel like another game in this sub-genre would have to get a lot of things right to surpass Dungeon Keeper in terms of fun and strategery. Is it annoying waiting all the time? Sure. Then again, a 4-hour excavation only takes 2 hours if you slap your imps, and thus each time I boot the game up during my breaks at work there is something new to do. I spent two hours (!!) “playing” last night (in 6-minute increments) trying to scrape up 500k Stone to hit 2 million without risking getting bled dry overnight. The app definitely has an expiration date at some point – the thought of trying to get 6 million Stone for an 8-day upgrade is just obscene – but the same could be said about a lot of games.

So, yeah. Dungeon Keeper. Didn’t see that coming, did you?

EVE is Real (Evil)

I don’t play EVE, but I have been following the developing story of Erotica 1 (E1) with a particular interest this past week. The drama itself is interesting enough, but the entire episode asks a lot of compelling questions on the nature of games, social interactions outside of the game but still concerning the game, and the role (if any) of the developers.

EVE, as you might already know, is just about the most hand-off MMO on the market. Scams, extortion, and piracy are not only allowed, they are encouraged. “Be the villain,” and all that. One such scammer took things to another level though. Basically, the deal was that E1 ran an ISK-doubling scam that actually did pay out occasionally, such that it was ambiguous as to whether you could make a bunch of money. After passing the first tests, there was a “Bonus Room” in which you could quintuple your winnings again. The catch? You had to hand over 100% of your in-game assets and then jump onto a Teamspeak server for hours (!) of recorded humiliation.

You can read the full breakdown of what transpired in this particular Bonus Room on Jester’s Trek. In fact, the two hour, seventeen minute SoundCloud file is also linked. The victim has a speech impediment which is fully exploited, and when he finally snaps, E1 and his crew drive the victim’s wife (who showed up to ask what was going on) into a panic attack.

I doubt this is what CCP envisioned with their “EVE is real” campaign.

The reactions to this incident have ran the gamut. I was first made aware of it at all by this post on Greedy Goblin. Gevlon’s take? I’ll give you three guesses and the first two don’t count. Spoiler: Gevlon blames the victim. And in a certain light, it is something you can almost get behind – why didn’t the guy just turn the computer off? Well, for one thing, he had already given away 100% of his in-game assets at that point. And for another, it doesn’t fucking matter. The only truly relevant point (for CCP) is whether or not someone like E1 is worth having in your game.

And indeed, CCP, perhaps finally realizing the potential media shitstorm brewing, came out and issued a statement:

While the content of online interactions between players cannot realistically be gated within our game worlds, CCP strongly disapproves of clear and extraordinary levels of real life harassment against our players in the outside world.

CCP, in collaboration with the CSM, have agreed and would like to state in the strongest possible terms and in accordance with our existing Terms of Service and End User License Agreement, that real life harassment is morally reprehensible, and verifiable examples of such behavior will be met with disciplinary action against game accounts in accordance with our Terms of Service.

While they didn’t announce anything specific, we know from other sources that E1 was permanently banned. I don’t actually recommend going to that second link there unless you’re a fan of sadism, or want to see a rather frightening example of the sort of players EVE’s mostly hands-off policy attracts.

Still, I feel like there were some arguments surrounding this incident worth deconstructing. Gevlon and a lot of other commenters argue that this issue could be solved by not falling for the scam in the first place. Plus, they argue, what’s really the difference between a prank and a bully? Given how tomorrow is April Fools Day, it’s even somewhat topical.

My response would be: there really isn’t one. The difference between assault and a scuffle is someone filing a police report. The prank example that was offered was blocking someone’s door with phone books. Prank or bully? That’s two different questions. First, it’s entirely reasonable to suggest it wasn’t a prank at all, but rather harassment – again, with the difference being simply the victim’s decision. As to whether someone is a bully for doing that depends on their intentions. We can imagine a scenario in which a guy constantly “pranks” people who shrug it off when, in fact, he derives pleasure from the misery he creates. As I mentioned in the comments on his post, someone is a liar regardless of whether anyone believes them.¹

Gevlon then claims that we cannot prosecute people like E1 with intention-based arguments because no one can prove intention. Except the courts do it all the time via mens rea. There is a rather instructive scenario outlined in a related Wiki article:

For example, suppose that A, a jealous wife, discovers that her husband is having a sexual affair with B. Wishing only to drive B away from the neighbourhood, she goes to B’s house one night, pours petrol on and sets fire to the front door. B dies in the resulting fire. A is shocked and horrified. It did not occur to her that B might be physically in danger and there was no conscious plan in her mind to injure B when the fire began. But when A’s behaviour is analysed, B’s death must be intentional. If A had genuinely wished to avoid any possibility of injury to B, she would not have started the fire. Or, if verbally warning B to leave was not an option, she should have waited until B was seen to leave the house before starting the fire. As it was, she waited until night when it was more likely that B would be at home and there would be fewer people around to raise the alarm.

The Bonus Round victim could have turned off the computer at any time. So too could E1. And this is besides the point that there isn’t a jury in the world that would say the outcome was not exactly what E1 and company were intending to occur.

Where things get really amusing is when people argue that E1 can’t get punished because it’s not against the EULA. Except the EULA includes the ToS, of which the very first goddamn entry might be instructive. Or that E1 shouldn’t get punished because it sets a “chilling precedent.” Or the line is too ambiguous, as Gevlon states. Or it somehow would obligate CCP to start banning all such offenders. Or that it opens the doors to nefarious individuals impersonating people and getting others banned. And a number of similar armchair philosopher attempts at rules lawyering.

That sort of nonsense might work on religions and in college electives, but it doesn’t pass muster in the real world. Items #25 and #26 in the ToS give CCP carte blanche to permaban anyone for any reason. Arguments towards precedent and a nebulous obligation to do a full crusade sort of remind me of the Buridan’s ass paradox. On paper, it “makes sense” that a donkey inbetween two equally distant piles of food would starve to death because it can’t decide between them. In the actual real world, people have the ability to make arbitrary decisions and judgment calls. Just because E1 is banned does not necessarily mean CCP has to, by some mysterious logical mechanism, ban the EVE guild that threatens to blow your ship up unless you sing to them on their chat channel. So very few people understand the Slippery Slope is actually a fallacy; it’s entirely possibly to (subjectively!) determine that one is a more egregious example than the other and stop on the slope.

Then again, hey, that singing extortion thing is pretty fucking weird and exploitative and maybe they shouldn’t be doing that either. If these are the sort of examples people point to concerning how “EVE is real,” perhaps it’s time to re-examine whether that tagline actually relates a positive quality. We don’t have to abandon every game in which someone’s feelings might get hurt, but how about we aim for, as Jester points out, the ballpark figure of “your mother can listen to this without thinking you’re a psychopath.”

______________________________

¹ Gevlon’s counter-argument to this is that a liar no one believes is an actor or comedian. Err… no. Those professions do not rely on untruth to scam or exploit out of wealth, power, or security; the intent is to amuse, surprise, and entertain. It’s a nonsensical argument akin to suggesting a torturer and a dentist are similar because they both hurt you.

Need-Based Socialization

Keen has a rather curious post asking “Should Everyone Craft Everything?” The premise of his argument is that specialization is the root of socialization, and as such, a proper MMO would not allow everyone to craft everything. In fact, anyone who suggests that they should be allowed to have some level of self-sufficiency is “an entitled xenophobe” better left to single-player games, and the catering to whom is a “dumbing down” of a MMO to the “lowest common denominator.”

Which, along with the Free Space, is a full Bitter MMO Vet Bingo.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, and Tobold for the inspiration.

Special thanks to Keen, SynCaine, Tobold, and their commenters for the inspiration.

The fig leaf proffered is that perhaps everyone can make all the basic recipes, but that only specialists can make the best items. However, the whole notion is ridiculous, for a number of reasons.

First, you cannot “force” specialization in any game that allows alts. It wasn’t even much of a commitment on my part to develop a full stable of crafting alts in WoW because I wanted the ability to switch up my endgame play-style anyway. Even if you imagine that your perfect MMO limited you solely to one character per account, people could bypass the restriction via multiple accounts. That is, after all, exactly what EVE players do when they circumnavigate the restrictions of real-time skill gains (itself a way of forcing specialization). I suppose on the plus side, this makes your subscriber numbers look pretty peachy.

Second, you don’t actually need mutually-exclusive specializations in order to have a robust economy, as Keen claims. Within the beginning chapters of every Economics 101 textbook is an explanation of comparative advantage. The simple version is that two villages can produce both rice and fish, but at differing ratios: Island A can produce 10 units of rice or 5 units of fish in a day, and Island B can produce 10 units of fish or 5 units of rice. The ideal proposition is for Island A to produce rice, Island B to produce fish, and then trade half for half with one another, leaving both the richer for it. In fact, an economy between the two islands works even if Island A can produce everything more efficiently than Island B.

Or, perhaps more simply put, there is an opportunity cost to every action, regardless of whether or not you can do everything yourself. Any in-game economy will continue humming at full speed as long as one person is willing to mine ore and another more willing to farm gold than ore. Even though I could make everything myself in WoW, I still bought huge sums of materials and even finished goods because it was faster than doing it myself. Indeed, the existence of an AH at all will typically create entire economies by itself (barring ghost town populations).

Finally, there is a curious sort of bluntness to the dispassionate thought that people need to be forced to interact with one another via extreme limitations. Don’t get me wrong, I am someone who is thoroughly behind the idea of Divine Trinity and other forms of implicit specialization. But I feel like these sort of roles should be arrived at organically, rather than at the character select screen. I am a tank because I enjoy being a tank, not because I happened to pick “Paladin” in 2008. If I had stuck with Warlock, my first WoW character, how much less value would I have brought to the game, to the friends I made, and to my own game experience? As WoW has proven time and again, and even in the largely role-less GW2, just because everyone can be a tank (or tank-like), doesn’t mean they are willing to step into that role. So what possible good can come from shackling a potential tank to a dreary DPS-only experience? “So specialization matters”?

Further, the days in which I am inclined to make new friends out of perfect virtual strangers is largely in the past, and no amount of cumbersome game mechanics will get me back to that place. Even if extreme specialization is for the next generation of MMO player’s sake, I’m rather skeptical that such methods would at all work out the way people imagine they would. As Tobold recently pointed out, our generation of gamers were playing MMOs before the advent of Facebook and other social media – our games were our social media, our place to meet like-minded individuals. MMOs these days are 3-monthers not because they lack in content or design, but because we’re unwilling or unable to invest the social capital necessary to maintain our interest. And why would we? Either we brought along all the friends we already have, or they didn’t make the jump with us. In both cases, we’re full-up on social interaction, thanks.

So, essentially, I say let people do what they want, and they will sort themselves out according to their predilections.

Language of Action

This amusing comparison was posted on Reddit the other day under “Morrowind vs Skyrim vs Dark Souls”:

/slowclap

/slowclap

The implication here is (presumably) that games these days are being dumbed down, or at least are not being made as challenging as their predecessors (Dark Souls aside). This sort of “hand holding” is pretty much the de facto standard in MMOs as well, in the form of highlighting of the questing areas and the like. ¹

To which I say: “Good.”

If there is one particular scenario I despise more than anything else in videogames, it is when I sit down to play one and then can’t. I do not mean that I try and fail and am unable to progress – that part is good! It’s gameplay, it’s doing things, it’s actively engaging my faculties. Rather, I mean when the game is not even allowing me to try anything because I am missing something and don’t even know it. Or maybe I am not missing anything and the game is at fault. Indeed, whenever I get stuck in a game, these are the usual possibilities:

  1. I cannot solve the puzzle.
  2. I missed an invisible quest trigger.
  3. I cannot locate the quest objective.
  4. I do not know where to go next.

In all those scenarios aside from #1, we can entertain the possibility that it is the game designer’s fault. And that’s the problem! Sure, occasionally it is my own damn fault for not reading the quest text correctly or I didn’t pan the camera 110° to the right or whatever. But after 20+ years of playing videogames, I can assure you that my default assumption is not that these designers do everything on purpose. Games are art, but if you set out to evoke a particular emotion with a piece and it generates the exact opposite, we can say that that piece of art failed in its goal. Sometimes mistakes can make a game better (like… Gandhi in Civilization), but an equal or greater amount of time they are simply mistakes.

Things can go too far the other way, of course. In the opening scenes of The Witcher 2, as you approach the ominously empty bridge, you get a prompt telling you which buttons to press to avoid dragon fire. “What dragon? Oh.” Quests in Skyrim which ask you to find the artifact that has been hidden for centuries… and there’s a very visible quest marker that appears directly over it. I can concede that something like this other Reddit picture is too much:

I hated Navi anyway.

I hated Navi anyway.

At the end of the day, though? I am playing videogames to do things. I do not consider walking around a room pressing the Interact button every few steps as doing something. There is a place for games in which the “doing” is figuring out where to go or what to do next. And that place is “Pile of Games I’m (Literally) Not Playing.”

¹ I still remember the river of tears that resulted from WoW adding quest givers to the minimap back in Patch 2.3. Yes, seriously, tears.

Gaming Verisimilitude

On Thursday, I popped The Last of Us (TLoU) into the PS3 just to see if I needed to do some sort of lengthy install, but ended up playing for 5 hours straight. The game, simply put, is quite amazing thus far. However, I am experiencing some game design tropes that are grating on me to a higher degree than normal, perhaps precisely because everything else is so good.

Early on, you are basically told that while you can treat the game like a cover-based shooter to some extent, sneaking around is likely the best method given the chronic lack of supplies. That’s fine, sure. What is less fine is when you silently take down an entire warehouse full of guys very clearly armed with guns, and only happen to scrounge up 3 bullets of ammo from nearly a dozen corpses. Were the guns just for show? The last two guys were fine with shooting the conveniently-placed, waist-high obstruction I was hiding behind for almost a full minute, but in a moment of extreme bad luck, must have been killed right after they fired their last bullet.

I understand that this is One of Those Things in gaming in which we are supposed to suspend disbelief. I remember running a D&D campaign a few years ago in which I decided early on that I was going to rebel against gaming tropes and having the party’s human opponents drop everything they were carrying. In retrospect, it ended up being a perfectly foretold disaster: the party became understandably obsessed with looting each body clean and making frequent trips to Ye Olde Item Shoppe to peddle their warez. If I were able to loot full clips of ammo from each enemy I downed in TLoU, it would likely ruin the resource-tight mood by the end of the first hour of gameplay.

I am finding myself less sympathetic towards two other semi-related aspects that are not exactly TLoU’s fault but nevertheless somewhat jarring. First, the game is not and has never appeared to be an open-world sandbox or anything of the sort, which is fine. However, I feel subtly punished for exploring when the designers take the time to add in secret caches of goods in off-the-path locations. See, the issue is that I do not ever know if this “secret” door I’m opening isn’t actually the trigger for a cutscene or the path to the next area. I want to explore every nook and cranny of the game world! And yet I feel like I can’t, because I’m paranoid about inadvertently moving the story forward and being unable to backtrack. I’m seriously starting to miss the “Chrono Footsteps” feature from Singularity which highlighted the exact path you should take, so you know for certain which areas you could explore safely.

Compounding this issue is when I’m in the opposite scenario in which the game is clearly telling me where those story triggers are. “Oh, you want me to hurry up and walk over to that door? Good, now I know I can explore this whole half of the city instead.” The game is not Fallout, has never pretended to be Fallout, but I simply can’t help myself from treating every open building as an opportunity to scavenge for supplies. It’s the post-apocalypse! Let me spend hours combing the area for scrap metal and duct tape! I do this shit for fun.

Finally, Naughty Dog, really? I have a hunting rifle, shotgun, bow, two pistols, three Med Kits, a metal pipe with scissors taped to the end, three Molotov cocktails, a few proximity mine-like explosives, and a goddamn brick in my backpack… but I can’t carry more than 7 rifle rounds? Or more than four pairs of scissors? Inventory management is one thing, but limiting ammo to this degree is so overtly gamey that it sucks me right out of the narrative and back into optimization mode. “Hmm, if I use the shotgun to clear this next room instead of sneaking through, I can double-back and pick up those shells I left behind.”

Although I am complaining quite a bit, I need you to understand that it is only because these (ultimately minor) issues stand out in brilliant contrast to an otherwise amazing game. This isn’t so much a fly in the ointment as it is a hangnail the day after a big promotion. You know, minor, almost trivial annoyances that you nevertheless can’t quite stop thinking about.

Going Home Again

Tobold is by no means the first person to point out that Warlords of Draenor’s free level 90 character is a “doubling-down” on vertical progression. I mean, I don’t see why anyone would claim that even vanilla WoW was anything other than vertical progression given how you couldn’t grind your way to max level via the Westfall boars, South Park-style, but whatever. The thing that profoundly bothers me in these sort of debates though, is this sort of nonsense:

So we are being told that when the expansion comes out, World of Warcraft will be all about levels 90 to 100. You will play nearly exclusively on the new continent, maybe sometimes visit the capital cities for some features, but will have no reason whatsoever to enter over 90% of the zones of World of Warcraft. If by some server glitch the old zones ceased to exist, most players wouldn’t even notice. I find that rather sad, so much wasted space and potential.

I literally cannot understand this line of reasoning. I understand what is attempting to be said here, but it seems so far removed from reality as to be unintelligible.

First of all, the post-Cataclysm world still exists. Even if we are going to assume that there will be a lot of brand new WoW players coming into the expansion – which we have no reason to believe there will be, at least in comparison to returning players – the fact remains that the world and all of its quests will still be there for that new player’s alts, at a minimum. Assuming, of course, that this hypothetical new person even enjoys questing in the first place. And if they do, there is nothing stopping them from questing from level 1 to 100 while saving the instant 90 for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the returning veterans who quit in the middle of an expansion they presumably didn’t like are being asked to… what? Spend a few dozen hours slogging through 2+ year old content to get to the stuff they were actually excited enough to resubscribe to see?

Secondly, how can the old content ever be considered “wasted?” All of those zones and quests have been utilized, extensively, by millions of players for years. How much more utilized does it need to be? And how? And why? Even in horizontal progression MMOs, where do you find people? Where the new things are. The odds of you finding someone running around the mid-level zones in Guild Wars 2 is approximately zero, unless there happens to be some kind of 2-week patch dragon dropping off a treasure chest every three hours. You’re not going to find an EVE veteran mining Veldspar even if Veldspar remains a critical component of crafting spaceships.

Content obsoletes itself. That is not a problem, that’s linear time working as intended. Novelty only ever decreases, at least in terms of crafted content. Hell, how long can you experience interest in even procedurally-generated content like in Minecraft? At a certain point, even the weirdest terrain formation is reduced to its constituent parts at a glance – it sure as hell isn’t as impressive as the first time you laid eyes on your future mountain fortress location.

Time marches on. Just because you don’t hang out at the playground or swing from monkey bars anymore does not mean they are now wasted content, even if no one else ever uses them again. They existed in a time and a place and served their purpose well. Is that not enough? Were you not entertained?

It always seems the greatest irony in MMOs are those players who wish for living, breathing virtual worlds that never change.

There And Back Again?

I came across a thread on Reddit which was a pining for the “old days” of MMOs when you either grouped up or didn’t get to actually play the game. Which, now that I think about it, is a scenario not all that different from empty FPS servers. Anyway, the top-rated comment concluded with this:

The truth of the matter is, those of us that grew up on the hardcore MMOs, we’ve already done it. Most of us just don’t want to do it again. I don’t want to play a MMO that takes over a year to hit the level cap. I don’t want to play a MMO where I have to stand around for hours before I get to play. I don’t want to play a MMO where I can permanently lose everything I’ve done in the last few hours. I’ve already done that; I don’t want to do it again. The novelty of the MMO is gone. There are better ways to enjoy my time.

There is a nuance to this argument that I don’t see all that often, and I’d be interested in what other veteran MMO players have to say about it. It’s one thing to say that once some auto-grouping functions are released, like LFD or LFR, that there is no removing them. But put those aside for a moment and ask yourself: how many times do I feel like I could start over in a “pure” MMO (whatever you define that as)?

Maybe the question is nonsensical, considering we technically “start over” each time we play a new game. On the other hand, I’m not entirely convinced another MMO could bribe me enough to get back into raiding as a full-time job again. Even if your game of choice was EVE, how willing would you be to starting over in a completely new game with similar time-investment requirements? Still willing to spend 1-2 years of real-time building up a skill set? Or do these sort of investment mechanics have diminishing returns regardless of “dumbing down” or other streamlining that might go on?

Sandbox Quests

Tobold made a post the other day that got me thinking about the more philosophical angle of the differences between themepark and sandbox games. In the post, Tobold relates the common DM nightmare of players striking off on their own, plundering the crypt/castle/ruins before technically getting the quest to do so. While one solution is the Warhammer-esque “Bears bears bears” method (retroactive credit), Tobold went with “All roads lead to Rome” where he simply moved the quest-giver to where the players were going. As I mentioned in the comments to his post, the latter is not particularly innovative; WoW has had the occasional mid-quest updates since Cataclysm, and GW2′s Hearts are all location-based and automatic rather than relying on quest-givers.

The thought that struck me though, was this: at what point does a sandbox become a themepark?

Take, for instance, Darkfall. I don’t think anyone would claim that Darkfall is anything other than a sandbox. But it also has what amounts to “quests” in any other game: Feats. I suppose these are more similar to achievements than quests per se, but they are basically “Do X, Receive Y” activities that drive player behavior. Would having Feats tied to NPCs in a town or camp change Darkfall into a themepark? I don’t see why they would.

It seems clear to me that the difference between sandboxes and themeparks are the difference between player-motivated actions and developer-motivated actions. Do what you want in Darkfall, do Siege of Orgrimmar/Timeless Isle/LDR/etc in WoW. But I am starting to think that that line is a bit fuzzier than it is typically portrayed. “Do what you want in Darkfall, but farming X over in Y is more rewarding than Z.” How different is that really than themeparks? And isn’t it possible for someone to treat a traditional themepark MMO as a sandbox?

So, now I’m thinking that the line between these two paradigms really comes down to developer attitude regarding content. If the developers feel that they have to create the content themselves, it’s a themepark; if the developers let players amuse themselves, it’s a sandbox. Am I missing something critical? I mean, player housing and non-instanced dungeons are prototypical sandbox qualities, but a Darkfall without either is still a sandbox, right? And clearly the line is not drawn at the mere existence of quests or directed player activity either.

Are these themepark/sandbox distinctions more arbitrary than we have been led to believe?

Design Conundrums: 1 HP vs 0 HP

The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.

After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.

First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.

The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.

Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.

Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).

Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.

At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.

Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.

I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.

¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.