Horizontal Verticals

I am beginning to question the conventional wisdom that horizontal progression in MMOs is less vertical than, well, vertical progression. Or that horizontal progression is particularly good for anything.

In terms of MMO game design, horizontal progression means two things to me. First, it means that you either quickly or immediately gain all the necessary abilities to succeed at all levels of in-game combat. If you have to have ability X to reasonably kill a raid boss, and that ability costs Y currency over the course of Z hours to purchase, then I consider the game to have vertical progression up until you unlock X. Same with PvP skills.

The second, related aspect to horizontal progression is that it allows you to experience a feeling of progression without necessarily experiencing power gain. This ostensibly takes the pressure off of skill choice by creating a lot of options/experimentation.

In my playing of The Secret World however, neither seems to actually be the case.

As you may know, TSW features an Ability Wheel with nine weapons that unlock a staggering amount of individual abilities and passives that you can mix and match to your heart’s content. The only problem is that if you screw up your selection, either by picking weak weapons with no synergy or simply realizing that a given play-style is not for you… well, you’re screwed. Ability Points come fast and loose in the beginning before tapering off at 40k XP apiece; Skill Points are gained at the rate of 1 per 3 Ability Points. While it is completely possible to unlock every Ability/Skill in the game eventually, the reality is that by the mid-game you are excessively punished for changing your mind.

See, your hit rating and such for attacks is based largely on your Skill Points in that weapon, while enemies are balanced in a zone upon given SP assumptions. SP requirements go up linearly (level 1 costs 1, level 2 costs 2, etc), so it is relatively easy to get the first few tiers in whatever. But about the time you start getting in the SP5 and SP6 range, a single rank up to match the enemies you’re facing costs as much as getting a new weapon to SP1-4.

This is my scenario: I’m tired of Shotguns. My whole thought process up to this point had been to unlock a certain Shotgun passive in the outer ring, and then enjoy all the synergies. As it turns out, an even better passive is in the outer ring of Chaos. But I kinda want to try Assault Rifle or Elemental. Except I can’t realistically do any of that because I already have SP6 in Swords and SP5 in Shotguns while my talismans have been languishing at SP4. So while I can certainly spend my Ability Points to unlock things I can’t even use on the way to Passives that I can, I can’t actually turn around and try those very skills I’ve unlocked because most of my attacks will glance/be dodged/blocked/etc.

So what have I been doing? Farming quests. Specifically, logging on and playing for 30 minutes and completing the first few quests in the starter zones (all quests are repeatable after a cooldown) that offer the quickest, easiest XP per effort. Sure, I would likely level faster just progressing normally. Then again, I would be progressing against tough mobs with a gimped setup that I begun to despise ten hours ago.

This is not solely a Secret World problem, although it is less pronounced in, say, Guild Wars 2. It can still be a tough pill to swallow though, when you dump a lot of points into an ability that looked fun on paper but ended up being useless in practice. Basically, all the negatives of vertical progression without the presumed benefit of being able to respec. And consider the best case scenario in which you picked 100% of the correct abilities the first time around: what then? The rest of your “progression” is really the equivalent of unlocking achievements.

Hearthstone and other Game News

According to the Blues, Blizzard’s F2P “Free to download, optional in-game purchases” Hearthstone will be released for real in a matter of weeks:

How close to the end of the beta are we? Don’t need an exact date, because I know that would be horrendous, but is this a matter of days or weeks or months?
I can’t say exactly, but it is soon. Not months.

Although there are a number of annoying bugs still kicking around, I have largely considered the game to be ready for Prime Time since the closed beta. The level of polish when it comes to sound effects, the implied physicality of the game pieces, and everything else is pretty astounding considering the size of the development team. For a while there were rumors floating around that the game wouldn’t be released until the iPad version was up, but it seems like that might be referring to the planned single-player Adventure Mode.

Whatever the case, I am very much looking forward to the release and any potential card tweaks that might go along with it. To an extent, it’s easy to sit on the sidelines and call the release of new card sets/expansions as “greedy,” but goddamn does it get annoying after a while when you see the same dozen cards get played in game after game. The metagame is in a healthy state of flux, but the core staples of most every deck do not.

In news that I likely care about more than any possible reader, apparently there is a 4th (5th?) entry in the Deception series called Deception IV: Blood Ties and it’s being released this month. While it is obscure as hell, the Deception series was a set of rather groundbreaking PS1 games that were the precursor to games like Orcs Must Die. Essentially, you set up a number of nefarious traps in a mansion and then must lure trespassers to their doom by controlling an otherwise unarmed Gothic lady.

Here’s a video from Kagero: Deception 2, which is the sort of foundation of the series:

The graphics were pretty hideous even by the time the 3rd game was released, and the plot was Japanese nonsense, but the gameplay? Equal parts brilliant and hilarious. A large part of the game revolved around chaining trap combos, both because traps had cooldowns and because getting the bonus currency was required to unlock more traps/upgrade existing ones (and there was no farming). A fairly simple chain would go like this:

  • Bear Trap at bottom of stairs.
  • Giant Boulder crashes down stairs, knocks target into back wall.
  • Push Wall knocks target back onto Bear Trap.
  • Repeat.

Sounds quaint, right? Well, it should, considering Deception started doing it in 1996 and Kagero in 1998. Those were good years – FF7 was 1997, FFT was 1998 as was Xenogears.

…all of which happened almost 20 years ago. Sigh.

No Such Thing as F2P Anywhere…?

The comments to yesterday’s post about a EU regulatory body’s intention to crack down on the use of “free” in game descriptions were rather illuminating.

As you may or may not have known through prior posts, I vastly prefer the “B2P” model (e.g. the default) to F2P because the latter is associated with (IMO) compromised gameplay mechanics that serve no intention beyond the enforcement of the payment model. Plus, I cannot turn off the parsimonious part of my brain when it comes to purchasing things, thus frequently leading me to extreme and, frankly, insane behavior to save a literal handful of dollars that would have been eagerly frittered away en mass in other contexts.

That said, both eyebrows were fully cocked at what I was reading yesterday:

Saying you can play LoL for free is like saying Spaghetti Bolognese is a vegetable meal because you can just choose to not eat the meat part. I’m sure the EU doesn’t allow you to label Spaghetti Bolognese as a vegetable meal.

F2P has become a buzzword added to everything, completely useless in providing information as if you can really play for free, so it’s not that bad if they force producers into labeling their games into something more informative.

No for-profit product or service should ever be generically described as “Free”. It breaks the language.

“Where is the confusion”, you ask. Lawyers are very good at finding the confusion. Leaving the definition to be argued in court would be sure to burden games players and EU taxpayers with the very expensive costs of both sides of such a court case.

Regarding that last one, it is indeed true that Apple ended up settling their court case with the FTC for $32.5 million this year over in-app purchases (IAP). I suppose there is something to be said about “kids games” having IAP and potentially targeting children specifically, but I can’t help but wonder if companies other than Apple are being held accountable for the children of parents who hand them credit cards unsupervised. And to what degree court cases like this justifies the UK banning of porn. It just sorta seems like a concession that adults are incapable of being responsible parents by default; I mean, you’re either not monitoring their phone/game usage, or you’re not utilizing both Apple’s and Google’s ample parental controls before you hand over the small supercomputer to a seven year-old.

Let’s dial the politics back a bit though, as I want to focus on F2P. Or rather, how it apparently does not exist.

It was Bhagpuss that quipped that second to last quote, regarding how the term F2P “breaks the language” because it has free in the description when you can’t actually play for free. Or you can, but since the company is for-profit, it’s misleading. Just like those “free samples” in grocery stores. Or my anti-virus program. Or, I suppose anything at all from any for-profit company as we can assume they’re making money somewhere along the line. To be charitable, Bhagpuss suggests that the way games are labeled will be changed to accommodate the new rules, by making them say “Free to download, IAP optional.” Which they pretty much already do:

Just picking a game at random.

Just picking a game at random.

My question from the prior post still stands though: where are the EU-approved (no-IAP of any kind) free games? I poked around the Google Play store for a bit before running into an old stand-by that pretty much highlights the gaping holes in the EU commission’s logic: Where’s My Water?

It's worth getting the full version.

It’s worth getting the full version.

Hey, look! No IAP at all! EU 1, Disney 0. Of course, scrolling down a bit, we see…

Sneaky, sneaky.

Sneaky, sneaky.

I’m actually pretty sure that I’ve seen these sort of “free trials” or demos for game apps long before IAP were ever implemented, so there’s a certain symmetry to companies circling back to what worked before. Because, let’s face it, if in-app advertisements are fine, advertisements for the full version of the game you’re playing (and others) are fine too.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

Feels almost like those old Shareware games.

As you might expect, the completely and totally free version of Where’s My Water? is a severely truncated mess that plays full-screen video advertisements every 2-3 stages you complete, followed by level selector that ends with a link to a paid app and the Where’s My Water? 2 sequel. At least they’re not selling gems though, right? Sure. But there’s no reason to suggest that they couldn’t advertise the full, “Try Now!” version that is also free to download with all its microtransactions intact. Considering that even a child will burn through these IAP-removed “free” games within 20 minutes, and they can still navigate to the app store via handy in-app advertisements to purchase the “full” IAP game within moments, I have to start wondering if the language is worth saving. Seriously, I was three clicks away from purchasing either a new game or the unlocked version of the one I was playing.

I mean, what, will the EU disable click-through advertisements next? If they did, that would actually be pretty amazing. They won’t though, because they can’t, and since this entire concern is predicated on children being able to circumvent their parent’s (likely nonexistent) IAP prevention measures, it won’t stop kids from buying the entire App store.

In which case we’ve come full circle, minus the word “Free,” while doubling the number of ad-riddled Shareware in App stores. So… success? Or maybe they could have simply mandated that IAP (and ad-supported) filters be more prominently displayed, so that reckless parents have one last chance at sanity before they download just anything and let it babysit their child for hours.

No Such Thing as F2P in EU

The European Commission is in the beginning stages of passing down a mandate on F2P games, with the following as perhaps one of the definitions:

“The use of the word ‘free’ (or similar unequivocal terms) as such, and without any appropriate qualifications, should only be allowed for games which are indeed free in their entirety, or in other words which contain no possibility of making in-app purchases, not even on an optional basis,” they wrote.

Now, I am about as pro-consumer as you can possibly get, but this… seems a bit off.

For one thing, where is the confusion? It’s called Free-to-Play and all these games – even the one with really manipulative, coercive business models – are literally free to play. It seems like kids being lured into purchasing in-game items is the thrust of the legislation, but I’m not entirely sure what about that gets solved by labeling these games as “Freemium” or whatever marketing term fills the gap. They will still be free to download, parents will still be dumb and leave their credit card info auto-filled in or account signed on, and kids will still be manipulated to do things.

In fact, I’m kinda curious as to what possible games truly fall under the “unequivocally free” category. In-app purchases will disqualify you, but the game designers are getting paid somehow, so… what? Rampant and misleading in-game advertisements are okay? Maybe affiliate links to Amazon pages with one-push purchasing of an Angry Birds plushie? Do donate buttons count as in-app purchases? I mean, little Johnny might get confused and push the Donate $20 button a few times in a fit of youthful exuberance.

While I do not like the implicit design channels that F2P inevitably inform (payslopes, time walls, extra grinding, etc), I’m completely fine with the term itself. And it seems somewhat dishonest to put League of Legends into the same category as Clash of Clan derivatives, just because the former happens to have cosmetic purchases. Have a special “IAP-supported” filter criteria if you must, although I’m not sure if those searches will turn up anything these days. I mean, the last time I saw any truly free freeware was either on 3.5″ floppy disks or a random CD in my Captain Crunch cereal.

Dry Watercooler

The latest Dev Watercooler is out concerning major changes in the upcoming WoW expansion, and yet it is one of the most content-free ones I have ever read. I’d say it was all bones and no meat, but you can usually suck some marrow out of bones. But this? This tells us nothing. And so we’re going to have to fill in the blanks with our own rampant speculation.

Stat Squish

There is but one new morsel concerning the Stat Squish (emphasis added):

It’s important to understand that this isn’t a nerf—in effect, you’ll still be just as powerful, but the numbers that you see will be easier to comprehend. This also won’t reduce your ability to solo old content. In fact, to provide some additional peace of mind, we’re implementing further scaling of your power against lower-level targets so that earlier content will be even more accessible than it is now.

That is just about the only possible concern there was with the Squish, so I’m glad it’s taken care of.

Racial Traits

To keep racials more in line with one another, we’ve decided to bring down the couple high outliers, then establish a fair baseline and bring everyone else up to that. We’re accomplishing this by improving old passives, replacing obsolete ones, and adding a few new ones where necessary. Ultimately, our goal is to achieve much better parity among races.

Know what would be really nice? What they consider a fair baseline.

I almost wonder though, if I am parsing that paragraph correctly: is anyone else getting the sense that perhaps activated racials are being left alone? Blizzard did mention Berserking (a Troll racial) as being “extremely powerful,” but I find it difficult to imagine how, say, Every Man for Himself could be redesigned to be equivalent. Unless maybe every race is getting some kind of PvP-ish active racial and then the passives will be the PvE knob. All I can say is that I’m happy this is getting looked at, as I have regretted rolling my paladin as a Draenei since pretty much the beginning – Gift of the Naaru has consistently been the most useless active racial in the game.

Ability Pruning

For Warlords of Draenor, we decided that we needed to pare down the number of abilities available to each class and spec in order to remove some of that unnecessary complexity. That means restricting some abilities to certain specs that really need them instead of being class-wide, and outright removing some other abilities. [...]

One type of ability that we focused on removing is temporary power buffs (aka “cooldowns”). Removing these also helps achieve one of our other goals, which is to reduce the amount of cooldown stacking in the game. In cases where a class or spec has multiple cooldowns that typically end up getting used together (often in a single macro), we merged them, or removed some of them entirely.

Two interesting bits here. The first is a sort of roll-back of the “bring the class, not the spec” theme of the last two expansions. It’s possible that they’re not talking about the sort of active/passive raid buffs that made it easier to get a 10m raid together, but it’s a bit hard to imagine how else it would work in practice. I mean, are we talking about removing Heroic Strike? Slice N’ Dice? Only letting Frost DKs have Dark Simulacrum while Unholy DKs get Necrotic Strike? This is way too vague. But my point is that if these currently-class-wide abilities have any utility at all, only allowing one of the specs have them is going to create a demand for that specific spec. Which is fine in the abstract, I suppose, but it’s definitely a movement away from specs being more of a play-style decision than a mechanical one (outliers aside).

The second part about cooldowns is both welcome and terrifying simultaneously. Some cooldowns are simple macro-bait, but others… well. I hate to fall back on sacred cow terms like “iconic” and “class defining” but some actually are. I don’t think Blizzard would remove Avenging Wrath, for example, but that is almost always paired with Guardian of Ancient Kings. In fact, that’s pretty much the most classic (and visible) example of cooldown stacking I can think of. Perhaps both will stay in the game, but Ardent Defender/Divine Protection will be removed or rolled into Prot’s version of GoAK. What of the many Hand spells though? Lay on Hands? Could we see Devotion Aura go the way of the rest of the Aura spells? I could see Devotion Aura absorbing Divine Protection pretty easily…

At some point though, this is definitely something that can end up hurting.

Crowd Control and Diminishing Returns

The diminishing returns list up to this point has been a study in Rules Lawyering gone amok. “No, no, no. That’s not a Fear, that’s a Horror. And Controlled Stuns are nothing like Random Stuns.” All in all, there are 11 categories and 2 additional abilities that only DR with themselves. Which is not to say that the various categories didn’t serve an important function – making a wider variety of class/spec combinations viable in Arena – but the prospect of being locked in a CC chain almost indefinitely is a high price to pay.

Here is the shakedown according to the post:

  • Removed Silence effects from interrupts. Silence effects still exist, but are never attached to an interrupt.
  • Removed all Disarms.
  • Reduced the number of Diminishing Returns (DR) categories.
  • All Roots now share the same DR category.
    • Exception: Roots on Charge-type abilities have no DR category, but have a very short duration instead.
  • All Stuns now share the same DR category.
  • All Incapacitate (sometimes called “mesmerize”) effects now share the same DR category and have been merged with the Horror DR category.
  • Removed the ability to make cast-time CC spells instant with a cooldown.
  • Removed many CC spells entirely, and increased the cooldowns and restrictions on others.
    • Pet-cast CC is more limited, and in many cases has been removed.
    • Cyclone can now be dispelled by immunities and Mass Dispel.
    • PvP trinkets now grant immunity to reapplication of an effect from the same spell cast when they break abilities with persistent effects, like Solar Beam.
    • Long fears are now shorter in PvP due to the added benefit of a fear changing the players position.

It’s difficult to get a read on how the DR merge will play out right now, especially considering we’ll supposedly see CC get cut altogether from certain classes/specs. At a glance, I can say that melee classes are likely getting the bigger end of the stick here with the removal of Disarm effects + ranged class CC nerfs. The Druid vs Paladin match-up won’t be so one-sided now that we can bubble out of Cyclone. Hunters are getting screwed with Scatter Shot + Freezing Trap being on the same DR. Warlocks are getting especially hosed with their panic-button instant-cast Horror effects diminishing the follow-up Fear, which is itself getting nerfed again anyway. What is that, 10 years of Fear nerfs in a row?

In any case, that’s about all the blood I could squeeze out of that Dev Watercooler stone. I appreciate birds-eye dev articles as much as the next guy (and probably a bit more), but I felt this one was really lacking in specifics. I suppose we’ll start connecting the dots once everything is data-mined on MMO Champ, although by then it’s likely everything will have changed again.

Edit:

Words cannot describe my disappointment.

Instant 90s, cont.

In a rather topical turn of events, Blizzard has confirmed both that the level-90 boost will be $60 for real, and that it’s priced that way for your own good.

“In terms of the pricing, honestly a big part of that is not wanting to devalue the accomplishment of leveling,” Hazzikostas said.

“If our goal here was to sell as many boosts as possible, we could halve the price or more than that – make it $10 or something. And then hardly anyone would ever level a character again.

“But leveling is something that takes dozens if not over 100 hours in many cases and people have put serious time and effort into that, and we don’t want to diminish that.”

He added: “I am not an economist, I’m not the one setting the dollar value myself, but it’s not the profit maximizing price. That was not our aim here.”

You know, because anything less than $60 devalues your leveling accomplishments from years ago. Aside from everyone getting a free 90 with the expansion. And aside from those free level 80s via the Scroll of Resurrection (RIP). And aside from getting triple XP for putting a character on /follow for $12.50. And aside from the people cajoling their friends for power-leveling AoE dungeon runs while wearing full heirlooms. And, of course, aside from the inevitable XP reduction that comes with each expansion.

What’s extra interesting to me now though (and with Wilhelm too), is what Blizzard is going to do when the price of the expansion inevitably drops. I ended up buying Mists of Pandaria for $20 over Christmas a few years ago. Will the $60 character boost go down in tandem with the box price? Or will their stomach for the “unwieldy” buy-extra-expansion-copies suddenly steel up?

_______________

My post yesterday came across to Tobold as an admonition of in-game purchases or whatever. While I do not expect people to maintain a full inventory of my opinions, I do hope that I am occasionally afforded the benefit of a doubt. Just so we’re clear though, here are my thoughts.

Way back in July 2011, I posted The Problem with F2P and Microtransactions. Over the years (!), I have come to concede the point that microtransactions are not going away. However, I have and will always continue to fight to slow the steady erosion of consumer surplus whenever I can. To me, there is no inconsistency with being okay with DLC in general, but not being okay with on-disc or Day 1 DLC. Similarly, there is good F2P and bad F2P, the latter of which can be summarized in Green Armadillo’s “To Vote Against Monetizing Nuisance” post. I’ve spent real dollars on PlanetSide 2 and Hearthstone, but would never spend anything on Dungeon Keeper or Candy Crush Saga, even though I have nothing against playing those latter games.

In fact, I talked about games like Dungeon Keeper just about two weeks ago. Their business models suck and they are emblematic of the wrong way to take game design, but if you treat their nuisance as an extra layer of challenge, you can re-extract the consumer surplus you inevitably lost somewhere else. Plus, paying in time management games is an extremely bad trade of value. Getting extra imps or builders or whatever usually results in maybe an extra minute or two of gameplay if you’re lucky – you will be able to take a few extra actions but will otherwise still be required to put the game down for an arbitrary period of time. Compare that with Don’t Starve or Terraria or whatever full-fledged indie game you could have bought with those same dollars.

In any case, circling back to Blizzard, I hope it’s clear that I’m not against all in-game purchases. I’ve used both the Scroll of Resurrection and dual-boxed a RAF account in the past (that’s the origin of my Priest named Freexp). My opposition to the $60 instant-90 is precisely the dollar amount, on top of the bullshit PR logic used to justify it. I have always had a problem with the $25 character transfer service too, which really came to a head when they dropped the price for a week. These services are priced so absurdly compared to what other pieces of entertainment you could be buying because, quote, it’s to discourage their use. Yeah, okay. Tell that to the thousands of people left duped and abandoned on no-pop “Recommended” servers that Blizzard left to rot for 6+ years. To those people, it was “pay $25 on top of the subscription to continue playing the game.”

Sixty Dollar Boosts

A lot of people have already weighed in on the $60 cost for instant-level 90 WoW characters, but let’s tackle this topic a week late and a dollar short. The funny thing is some people were actually surprised the price was so low. After all, the reasoning goes, it would cost more to buy another boxed set + expansion + character transfer to your main account.

Personally, the discussion regarding the “reasonableness” merely cements in my mind how completely unmoored from reality one can get in the midst of an infatuation. I mean, in the context of a game with $25 mounts and $25 to have your character transferred to different servers (in a completely automated fashion), sure, $60 sounds kind of like par for the course.

At the appropriate distance, on the other hand, it’s fucking absurd. That’s an entirely new AAA game. With the current Steam sale, that’s FFXIV plus four months of playtime. Hell, that’s four months of WoW game time. It’s the same sort of logic that considers it reasonable to suggest “investing” $20 into a F2P app like Dungeon Keeper.

Nevermind that Blizzard was giving away level 80 characters for free almost exactly two years ago. But hey, what a happy coincidence that the Scroll of Resurrection “ran out of chargeson the exact day of the $60 purchase leak.

The value of anything is subjective, true. Different people have different levels of disposable income, tastes, desires, and sees their gameplay time as more or less important. That being said, the fundamental constant in all this is opportunity cost. Sixty dollars here is sixty dollars not over there. Blizzard is banking (perhaps literally) on players not thinking their options through. I could give you a dozen game suggestions, any one of which could provide more entertainment per dollar than this exchange, even if you play WoW for 4+ hours a day.

Hell, the more you play WoW, the less sense $60 makes; heirlooms and guild mates could power-level you in a weekend. Recruit-a-Friend makes it so you could do it solo even faster, at a fraction of the cost (not to mention netting you three high-level characters). Seriously, do the math: the base warchest is $12.50 on Amazon and includes a free month, but the next month is also free since the veteran account gets it as well, just in case your casual dual-boxing takes a bit longer. So you get one level 85 and 42 bonus levels on whatever character for $12.50. Or you can purchase a second level 85 for an additional $25. Or take all of it over two months for $42.50.

Or, you know, $60 for one dude, I guess.

Trouble is that Blizzard put themselves in somewhat of an awkward scenario here. I would have suggested $25 as being an appropriate price for instant level 90 – the equivalent of a server transfer without destroying the original – but as with anything RMT, its mere existence instantly puts a price on everyone’s gameplay. Even now, there are people straining to control their incredulity regarding my suggestion that it cost $25. “Oh, $40 is the least it should cost!” “They’d be justified in pricing it at $100!” All of which is silly, because I just told you the price of a may-as-well-be-instant level 85 is $12.50 on Amazon.

Time will eventually tell whether the price of the character boost will be $60 or something else. Perhaps it will debut at that price to make the preorder of the next expansion seem like such a good deal, and then eventually get discounted. What isn’t particularly up for debate is that something was necessary. WoW has been hemorrhaging subscribers for years, and even though the flow has been staunched for now, the largest potential growth market continues to be ex-WoW players and not new ones.

I am not particularly convinced, however, luring ex-players into the Draenor expansion is going to make them consider $60 to boost their alts out of Cataclysm hell to be reasonable. After all, it is only after you unsubscribe that you realize the fragility of the “$15/month is cheaper than anything” argument. It may actually still be cheaper than many alternatives, but if you at any point deviate from that narrow path onto character transfer-land or RMT mounts, a single Humble Bundle or Steam sale can demolish you in dollar per fun. I played Terraria and Don’t Starve for 60 hours apiece. A subscription might get you 80 hours for the same price, but it’s the wrong comparison. How does 60 hours stack up against a name change? Or that shiny new mount?

On Randomness

As you may or may not be aware, there was a bit of RNG controversy in a recent Hearthstone tournament. Heading into the tie-breaking Final match, the following occurred:

But as the match started, something immediately went quite awry. During the first turn of the first game, Doge House coined out a Nat Pagle. And so the scene was set for the most RNG-dependent series Hearthstone had ever seen. [...] The final tabulation of RNG is shown below with perhaps the most staggering statistic being the Nat Pagle procs. Throughout the series, Doge House received eight out of a possible eleven cards from Nat Pagle while Liquid Value received only one card out of a possible seven.

The suspects.

The suspects.

You can watch the offending match here. The RNG of Pagle was set in particularly harsh relief considering both players played one in the opening turns of the game, but only one side seemed to draw any cards off the ability. That prompted a rather lengthy, if compelling post by @TL_Monk detailing the negatives of RNG generally. Indeed, the case becomes even more reasonable when he compares Blizzard’s somewhat sophomoric (in comparison) responses thus far with those of Mark Rosewater, head developer of Magic: the Gathering.

So, RNG is bad right? Well… maybe. It’s worth noting that despite the final tournament game being a blowout in terms of coinflips, the Mage still could have won by a single top-decked Fireball. Had his own Pagle had a comparable draw-rate as his opponent, he would have won easily. And that’s sorta the thing.

This is the counter-point post on Reddit, talking about randomness and the overall RNG aspect of certain cards/situations in Hearthstone. The post itself essentially states that RNG is good for the game for precisely the reason why people think it’s bad: it allows a chance for weaker players to win. Without RNG, the outcome of every encounter is based on the skill of the players which, while fair, ultimately means you will never have a shot at beating someone better than you. The post goes on to assert that another card game tried the no-RNG approach and was never able to reach critical mass because it chased all the middle-tier (and lower) players away.

As an aside, Nat Pagle’s meteoric rise in use is perhaps the best possible demonstration of unintended consequences, as it was a card virtually unknown before the nerf of Novice Engineer (which used to be a 1/2 creature). Of course, Pagle was also previously bugged so that the card draw only occurred 25% of the time instead of 50%, so perhaps that had something to do with it as well.

How I feel about the subject is mixed. As someone who has some small measure of confidence in my gaming abilities, I dislike RNG. Then again, I also believe that a component of skill is being able to take RNG into account when making strategic decisions. The sensible line between good RNG and bad RNG people usually take is when the entire outcome of a match comes down to a single coin-flip. I agree that that is exceedingly lame, but… well, what is a card game if not already a series of coin flips?

Sometimes RNG just makes you miserable.

Example of bad RNG.

I was watching one of Trump’s streams where he had two creatures out against a Hunter who just played Ragnaros; if the Ragnaros hit Trump’s face next turn, it’s likely he would lose. Between a Fireball and creatures on the board, Trump could have outright killed Ragnaros, but he instead chose to dump his hand of creatures to reduce the odds of Ragnaros’ random 8 damage attack of hitting him in the face. Trump went on to win the next turn once Ragnaros hit a random minion, but would the game have been less strategic if it killed Trump instead? I might suggest that that particular game would have been less strategic without the RNG factor, because the correct moves would be more obvious. In this sense, the RNG is simply another manifestation of risk and dealing with imperfect information, just like when playing creatures when your opponent might have a board clear in hand.

If you want to see some of Trump’s RNG surfing, it’s tough to go wrong with this one.

When it comes to Nat Pagle specifically, I do sorta agree with the detractors: it’s a boring card. I have one, and it’s a no-brainer card that goes into just about every deck. Worst case scenario, Pagle draws nothing and is a 2-mana 0/4 taunt that trades with removal. Best case? It’s ridiculous. Indeed, it reminds me of the “good design on paper, bad design in practice” card Fact or Fiction in Magic: the Gathering. There was never any reason to not use it in every deck that could support the mana cost – so much so, that it was banned/restricted in the older formats for over nine years.

Seems almost quaint, more than a decade later.

Seems almost quaint, more than a decade later.

For the time being, my opinion on RNG remains mixed. Randomness provides variance that would not otherwise exist, pretty much by definition. Random loot extends the life of a gearing game. Random layouts and outcomes are a fundamental principal of rougelikes. All (?) card games feature randomness in terms of what cards are drawn and in what order. And I’m still largely fine with people rolling the dice with a Ragnaros attack. At the same time, I do feel sheepishly guilty whenever I drop a Mad Bomber that manages to kill their 3/2 (or 2/3!), because damn that sucks for them.

At this point, I play this card solely for the stories.

At this point, I play this card solely for the stories.

#AllSkill #Outplayed

#AllSkill #Outplayed

I suppose in the final analysis, it really comes down to the sort of tone the designers are attempts to set. There were a number of coin flip cards in Magic’s history, some extremely important ones in fact, but they never really felt “right” for the game. As pointed out in the Reddit thread, that most likely was because Magic already had a randomness factor of whether you drew a good amount of lands when you needed to vs getting mana-screwed/flooded. In Hearthstone, there simply isn’t any RNG beyond what cards you draw, and what the cards do themselves. Having a lot of cards with random effects thus provides that sense of variance instead of inevitability in Hearthstone, even when it occasionally feels worse.

Do cards like Pagle make Hearthstone a worse e-sport? Possibly. But consider this interview with the senior e-sports manager at Blizzard, Kim Phan. Most sites focused in on the news about there being a Spectator Mode in Hearthstone’s future, but I was most struck by the fact that, prior to BlizzCon, the senior e-sports manager had zero understanding that Hearthstone would develop into a credible e-sport in its own right. In fact, she even downplayed it a bit in that interview, despite Hearthstone tournaments being played in the background. So, basically, it’s entirely possible that we’ll see less RNG cards going forward if Blizzard decides e-sports is a path it wants to go down with Hearthstone. Or, potentially, we could see a doubling-down on the “for fun!” casual mechanics that get so much ire in competitive play.

I’d say there’s a 50-50 chance of it going one way or the other.

Why I Still Read Penny Arcade

Basically for Tycho’s wordsmithing:

People like games for all kinds of reasons.  Perhaps they are flattered by them somehow, told what they want to be told about themselves and vile, unnamed others.  Oh!  And occasionally games are fun.  Even if they don’t model class tensions for some reason.  Obviously, they would be better if they did!

You can also be surprised by a game, have it come outta nowhere and create for itself some immaculate mental foyer in your…  brain house.  Just run with it.  It’s much trickier when a game is known to you.  But what if a game is not just as good as you wanted, but was as good as they said?  The annals of gaming yournalism are lined on each side with the crucifixions of perfectly good, even great games that simply didn’t conform to the narratives that they themselves created.  But it actually happened this time.  You know?  They weren’t retroactively made a heap of fucking liars.  Let ‘em ride that shit around for a bit.

He’s referring to Titanfall, so it’s somewhat topical to boot.

Beta Impression: Titanfall

Let me just put it out there that this abbreviated Beta Impression should by no means be indicative of anything. Titanfall had me by the nucleus accumbens before I even got out of the goddamn tutorial. I can sum up why in one hyphenated word: wall-running.

Run for about 30 meters or so...

Run for about 30 meters or so and then jump…

...wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the 2nd window.

…wall-run, leap off, double-jump (!), and then pull yourself into the window.

If I had to use an un-hyphenated word, it’d be “mobility.” Take away the guns and giant death machines raining down from sky, and Titanfall is everything that you loved about Mirror’s Edge. I mean, double-jumps! I haven’t had this much fun simply moving around since… well, Mirror’s Edge and maybe Tenchu. I’m spending so much time belaboring this point because I had a big stupid grin the whole time I was Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon-ing every single match. Goddamn is it fun to run around.

Now, Titanfall has some problems. And I don’t mean graphical problems (I had 50+ fps at high everything) or beta-esque problems like bugs or whatever. I mean, some pretty structural problems, or at least issues to keep in mind. First, the guns are a bit ridiculous. There is your standard assault rifle, sniper rifle, submachine gun and shotgun that is a one-hit kill (sigh). Then there is also the “Smart Pistol.” What does it do? Oh, it locks onto players and instantly kills them when you get three locks.

Titanfall's version of the noob-tube.

Titanfall’s version of the noob-tube. Except worse than that, really.

That screenshot is from the kill cam I watched after wondering how I instantly died. You might notice that the guy is cloaked. Actually, every player has a cloaking device by default, although the Smart Pistol can defeat it (taking a few seconds longer to lock on). You might also notice how the line curves a bit towards the end. Yeah, Smart Pistol bullets can bend around in mid-air. You don’t have to lead your target or even aim directly at them – as long as they’re within the blue box on your screen, you’ll get your locks, and just pull the trigger.

Look at that Pro Skill.

Look at that Pro Skill, killing me in midair at a full sprint.

Now, this gun is also tremendously fun to use, especially when you use it to kill the NPC fodder running around as they die in one lock. But every time you die to it, you’ll be thinking “Bullshit.” Doubly so when you’re dueling some guy who’s dancing around the sky and instantly kills you because he doesn’t have to aim.

About the biggest, most important thing I can talk about is the 6v6 limit to matches. I mean, I filter out anything that isn’t 24v24 or higher in Battlefield 3 & 4. While I was playing though, I have to admit: the environments felt pretty busy. Admittedly, this is entirely because the devs seed the battlefield with NPC fodder troops that you can kill for XP and to accelerate your Titan timer. As some other bloggers mentioned, I didn’t entirely notice all that much damage coming from them either, but it’s possible that is a beta thing. Still, it’s usually worth shooting them to get your goodies faster. Plus, they definitely add to the sort of manic ambiance with their shouts, gunfire, and even random quips.

How are the Titans themselves?

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

It feels all Warhammer 40k up in here.

The Titans are fantastic. You get to call one in every 4 minutes, and the timer speeds up by 15 seconds every time you kill a Pilot. They feel powerful without feeling omnipotent, and it’s sometimes correct to call one in and not pilot it – letting the AI engage with the enemy is a great distraction as you cap a strategic point. Every player has an anti-Titan weapon by default, so it never devolves into that depressing Battlefield scenario when a tank rolls by and you can do nothing about it. Plus, if shooting rockets at a Titan doesn’t sound badass enough, you can run up to and “Rodeo” (in-game term) one yourself, which involves scrambling on top and shooting your weapon into the circuitry.

Despite being positively juiced about this game, I still want to make sure you come away with a wet blanket firmly wrapped around your shoulders. Because for how amazingly fun and slick it feels – I let out an audible groan of pleasure when my Titan snatched me out of the air and deposited me inside the cockpit like a goddamn anime – I cannot help but worry this is one of those wirehead moments. In other words, I worry it’s all surface-level pleasure without deeper substance.

I guess it’s arguable as to what substance Battlefield or the latest Call of Duty have, but I feel with Battlefield at least that there is a good variance in map experience precisely because there are 32 different enemy players to run across. While getting matched against 6 clan members isn’t a total shut-out here necessarily (you can still kills NPCs), matches last less than 10 minutes and you can get stomped even faster than that.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

They absolutely nailed the sound effects.

Supposedly the PC version of the beta is going to be opened to the public soon, so I recommend trying it out for yourself if you can. My interest in the game went from around ~20 to over 9,000 based on playing it all day Sunday, but I don’t know if I’m willing to pull the trigger on even the discounted pre-order price of $48. I have over 250 hours in PlanetSide 2, over 100 for BF3, and only about 38 hours in BF4. Will Titanfall meet or exceed any of those? Hard to say. There are unlocks, achievements, XP, and all the “normal” FPS trappings. I just… sigh, I just don’t know how long the honeymoon will last, you know?

Until it does end, I suppose I should be getting back to getting busy while I can.