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Tavern Brawl

Taking a cue from Syncaine, I want to talk about Hearthstone for a second.

For a long while there, I had largely stopped playing Hearthstone. For one, I had gotten back into WoW (for two months) and thus did not have room in the game rotation for it. Then when I stopped playing WoW, I wanted to dedicate more time to clearing out my Steam backlog. Even when I did feel the inclination to play, I stopped myself, as I lacked the necessary drive to see what the metagame was up to, updating my decks, and so on. It all just felt like a vicious circle that ensured I wouldn’t boot the game up again.

Enter the Tavern Brawl.

This game was over in a hurry.

Blizzard fixed Warsong Commander just in time.

Released a little over a month ago, the Tavern Brawl is an additional game mode for Hearthstone that largely evens the playing field between veterans and newbies, whales and F2Pers, all in one brilliant swoop. Each week there has been a new Tavern Brawl with new rules, and each one lasts from Wednesday to Monday before leaving forever. Here are the ones so far:

  • Ragnaros vs Nefarion
  • All creatures grant a Banana (random de/buff card) on death
  • Decks are 7 class spells + 23 Webspinners
  • Spells summon a random creature of the same mana cost

For the first and third Brawls, the cards in your collection did not matter in the slightest. The second and fourth Brawls did sorta rely on your specific selection of cards, but the structure was such that you generally wanted to play the game way differently than normal anyway. For example, while you could bring a standard Ladder deck to the Banana Brawl, you could also achieve success by flooding the board with small creatures and relying on the Bananas to buff later creatures enough to close out the game. Similarly, the most recent Great Summonner Brawl rewarded decks just stacking 30 spells and no creatures.

The above isn’t the brilliance of Tavern Brawl though. The brilliance is in the reward structure.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

Surprisingly (or not so surprisingly), I lost this one.

To generate interest, Blizzard is giving away a free booster pack for the first Brawl win for the week. That’s fine, whatever. The real genius is that Brawl matches count for your Daily Quest completion. Including, incidentally, the 10g for every 3 wins passive quest.

Up to this point, if you had a Daily Quest to win five games as a Warrior or Paladin, you had to complete them in Arena, Ranked mode, or the even tougher Casual mode (tougher because matchmaking is determined by MMR instead of Rank). That can be stressful, as Hearthstone suffers from the same thing that affects all CCGs: net-decks. Which means your goofy theme deck or whatever is going to be routinely trounced by someone piloting the same well-oiled killing machine they saw a Pro use to hit Legend two days ago. Not even Rank 20 is safe from net-decks, especially since some veterans will tank their Rank down to 20 for some easy wins to complete their own Daily Quests or grind wins (which gives golden character portraits at 500 wins).

Tavern Brawl removes any performance anxiety you might have in terms of completing Dailies. Sure, you still have to win games for most quests. Yeah, most of the Brawls come down to rolling dice. But here’s the thing: rolling dice is fun. Losing to Face Hunter or Freeze Mage is considerably less so. If you don’t care about your Ranking on the Ladder, why should you be matched up with people who do?

Tavern Brawl plugs that gameplay hole so well, you’d swear it had a spot in the Amigara Fault.

Overall, Tavern Brawl is a huge win on every front. It auto-generates news on HearthPwn every week; it offers a wildly different game experience to break up the static Ladder grind; it makes Dailies fun; and it’s rewarding for new players and old. If this is supposed to be the New Blizzard we’re disappointed with, well… they still seem capable of being pretty damn clever with their game design.

Dailies and Long-Term Engagement

In terms of creating an incentive to play, I believe that things like Daily Quests and other log-in rewards are extremely effective. That being said, I also believe it is an open question as to whether such incentives come at the expense of long-term engagement with the game. At least, those are my thoughts after reading the long thorough post by Torvald that is making the rounds.

Players are logging on, feel compelled to go through their Garrison chores, getting those rewards that are placed right in front of them… Even though that very content is not fun and drains their stamina for engaging in other content. It reduces their stamina for engaging in other activities that absolutely require large blocks of time to give a reasonable hope of success. And for activites that don’t absolutely require large blocks of time, so many of those lack structure that the player defaults to assigning them large blocks of time for what it would require to be “worth it” (i.e. very few players want to make a trip for an unstructured rep grind just to grind for 15 minutes).

In this situation, Torvald is talking about WoW players who say “there’s nothing to do” despite there arguably being more things to do than ever before. A player feels like they have to complete the Garrison stuff immediately, lest they forever lose the reward and fall behind. And that is a sentiment that I 100% can relate to in expansions past. Remember the Tournament dailies in Wrath of the Lich King? Or Jewelcrafting dailies? The end goal required X amount of days to reach with few (or no) catch-up mechanisms, so each day you skipped doing them added that much more time to completion.

There is absolutely no question that I logged onto WoW some days solely to do daily quests. Similarly, there is no question that on the days where I logged on just to do dailies that I sometimes ended up hanging out with friends. So, in essence, the daily quests worked in making social situations possible. After all, the death knell of any MMO starts ringing when you no longer feel compelled to log on.

But I can totally feel the other side of this too. When you think about MMO burnout, what is the image in your mind? Did it come from the activities you found fun in the moment? Or did it come from the sense of crushing obligation? If you are having fun every time you play, is burnout even possible?

I hesitate to say that dailies are not fun generally, as I personally find satisfaction in the completion of even mundane tasks. I also enjoy the sense of character progression and the working towards a long-term goal. That said, dailies do in fact take up a non-inconsequential amount of limited play time. If you spend “just” 30 minutes on chores, how much time do you have left for other activities? And how do you avoid the sense of loss (i.e. opportunity cost) that derives from not completing dailies and letting those easy rewards go?

I do not know if there is a solution. The one offered by Torvald is to essentially reduce the number of Garrison chores directly, and then make the remaining ones take longer than a day (e.g. Weekly quests). I did enjoy when WoW experimented with allowing you to complete a full week’s worth of dungeon dailies in a single session, as that allowed you the freedom to either work on other projects guilt-free or only to log on the weekends and still remain somewhat competitive. Then again, I’m not entirely sure how healthy plowing through that many dungeon dailies on Reset Day really was.

It might be cute to suggest “no dailies” but I’m not sure we can really go back. At a minimum, other games will have daily quests and I know people who log onto them to get those easy rewards before logging off and playing the game without dailies. That scenario “drains your stamina” just the same as if the daily-less game had them.

I’m not sure there is a solution here other than the one I’m currently employing: not playing MMOs. Of course, Dragon Age: Inquisition has War Table timer-based quests now too. You just can’t escape.

Unsubscribing, Take Two

I may have reached the end of my second run of WoW.

As was the case last time, there was no clear death knell, no final straw, no slap in the proverbial face. Forensic evidence would probably suggest that my decline in activity can be traced back to the 5.2 announcement. At that point, I stopped bothering with LFR, knowing that I could endure the same long queues for 20+ better ilevel gear in a few weeks. I was also pretty much geared in all 483s anyway, much to the chagrin of my less fortunate guild survivors.

5.2 reinvigorated several things for me, including reaching some of the reputation milestones on alts that I would have dismissed out of hand as ridiculous previously. There were some underlying truths about myself I started to realize however:

  • A healthy variety of dailies is 100% meaningless. Blizzard seems to think that 15 dailies out of a pool of 90 is somehow more palatable than the same 15 over and over. But… dailies are dailies. Unless a certain daily quest is particularly odious, such as having to kill a hard elite solo (the Pyrestar Demolisher), all daily quests blur together into a gray slurry of virtual obligation.
  • Between the lack of interesting Black Market Auction House wares (which has admittedly improved in 5.2) and the BoP-crafting material economy, it is difficult to maintain interest in even lucrative AH shenanigans. As I continued canceling and re-listing cut gems and other goods day in and day out, I asked myself what exactly I imagine myself doing with this almost 400k gold. Buy something… but buy what? The lack of 476+ BoE weapons particularly was annoying. Yes, I could run LFR a bunch of times or even Honor farm, but all this gold was supposed to save me time, at least theoretically. If time = money, then money = time, does it not?
  • I continued playing long after I no longer experienced any fun because of the possibility that things might change in the future. Which is quite a bizarre feat of circular reasoning, if you think about it. I have 76 pieces of Imperial Silk, for example, because if I suddenly developed a resurgence in interest, my future self would have more fun with all these accumulated mats (which you cannot really get any other way). It reminded me of how I behaved in my Middle School history course: the teacher handed out a week’s worth of worksheets on Monday, and I always completed them that very evening so I could slack off the rest of the week.
  • The Legendary quest backfired big time, at least for me. By the time 5.2 came out, I had 2 Sigils of Power and 14 Sigils of Wisdom. With an average ilevel of 491, I was faced with the prospect of slogging through half a dozen or more DPS queues for the starter LFR raids, getting 476 vendor trash… if I was lucky! And then what? 6000 Valor? The questline might not have been “required” for anything I was doing, but it certainly felt more in-your-face “you are falling behind” than I ever felt before about, say, a raid-only reputation or heroic valor gear, by the very virtue of its accessibility.
  • Once I got over the initial trepidation of skipping a day’s worth of cooldowns and AH re-listings, it actually became more difficult to convince myself to log back on at all. I had already “lost a day” that I would never get back. So… why bother? I skipped logging in one Saturday, and suddenly half the week is gone with nary a fuck given.

As with the last time I unsubscribed, I do not begrudge Blizzard and crew anything in particular. Well, maybe for the shit-hole of a no-pop server that they continue to allow to exist, to the detriment of all the lost souls trapped in Auchindoun-US’s hellish purgatory. But beyond that, most everything else I see as an improvement over prior design. Heroic scenarios sound like a great feature, and would have been custom-made for the 2-3 of my friends that actually managed to log on these past few weeks. Similarly, I am/was looking forward to being able to choose which spec to gear up in LFR, regardless of current role.

But… well. I could quite literally be playing any one of a hundred other videogames right now; games already purchased and with no subscription fee. More than the money though, I am looking forward to having the mental space back. It’s… liberating, in a way that cannot be described to someone whom has not had that same sort of mental real estate spoken for and suddenly vacated.

The Wages of F2P

I finally buckled-down and purchased a 3-month subscription to PlanetSide 2 last night. I say “finally” because I had been waffling back and forth for quite some time on the decision, all of which has resulted in me losing out on +35% XP gains (which translates into faster Cert gains, which translates into character/weapon upgrades) for the duration of the indecision. I have been playing this game 1-2 hours a day for the past several months, so it is not a trivial amount of potential lost progress.

One machine I don't mind being a cog in.

One machine I don’t mind being a cog in.

But still, even with credit card in hand, I felt like I was getting suckered. Since Steam, I never pay full price for anything. And this is a F2P game, right? I know things are designed to part me from my cash. I could technically get everything (non-cosmetic) from gameplay, so why purchase anything? Or, you know, bide my time until the next double/triple Station Cash sale at least.

But… you guys have no idea how much fun I’ve been having with, say, that underbarrel grenade launcher. Or rocket pods on the jets. At what point does it become silly to intentionally have less fun for a long duration for a reward at the end, versus spending that same amount of time having fun with the reward?

Actually, the former sounds like… erhm… daily quests.

By the way, this means, to date, I have spent ~$85 (x3 SC cards, 3 month sub) on a F2P game. Mission fucking Accomplished, SOE.

Blue Balls

I debated titling this “Diablo’s Blue Balls,” but [spoiler] Diablo doesn’t have balls.

To the ongoing amazement of all (including myself), I have continued to play Diablo 3. You know, the game that I quit twice? In fairness, “playing” consists of 40-60 minute circuits of Act 1 Inferno with 177% Magic Find as I farm random items to sell on the AH for gold to purchase actual items, so that some semblance of progression can be squeezed from the rock that is Act 3 Inferno.

After three days of putting off another progression attempt like one does a dental appointment or a particularly difficult bowel movement, I finally sat on the chair and grit my teeth while awaiting the verdict. It was worse than I imagined. The “awesome” 1.5 million gold weapon I purchased actually decreased my DPS and survivability. In a panic, I scoured the AH for other upgrades… upgrades which helped in the sense of elongating the amount of time it took my face to collapse from the champion pack curb-stomp.

Up until now, I have been treating Diablo 3 as I treated daily quests in WoW: a not entirely joyless task in service of the greater goal of progression. The allure of rare items netting real money certainly added spice to the stew, but the endpoint always was taking down the titular Diablo on Inferno. As has become increasingly clear, that goal is no longer entirely reasonable.

Mike Morhaime has some words to say about Diablo 3 at this two-month mark, although you have to swim through six paragraphs of PR bullshit to find any:

You’ve seen some of that work already in patch 1.0.3, and you’ll see additional improvements with patch 1.0.4. On the game balance front, this update will contain changes designed to further deliver on the team’s goal of promoting “build diversity,” with buffs to many rarely used, underpowered class abilities. Another topic we’ve seen actively discussed is the fact that better, more distinct Legendary items are needed. We agree. Patch 1.0.4 will also include new and improved Legendary items that are more interesting, more powerful, and more epic in ways you probably won’t be expecting.

[…] On the flipside, we are also committed to ensuring you have a great experience with Diablo III without feeling like the auction house is mandatory, which was never our intention. Thank you for all the feedback about that.

[…] We’re also working on a gameplay system that will provide players who have max-level, high-powered characters new goals to strive for as an alternative to the “item hunt.” We’re not ready to get into specifics just yet, but I can say that we’re actively taking your feedback into account as we plan out the future of the game.

After thoroughly washing my hands, what I got from all that was: nothing.

To suggest that the designers never intended the AH to be mandatory is simply ludicrous. I do not mean that in a “greedy corporation cash shop” sense, I mean that in a “did these morons ever do any projection analysis of what the hardest difficulties require in their own goddamn game” sense. It matters not that a pro player can cheaply gear themselves well enough to go through Act 2 when all that budget gear came from other players. Was the design really that a player would spend 2+ months farming an Act for upgrades to progress to the next one when that is eight times as long as it took to get there in the first place? And, please, spare me the Diablo 2 anecdotes unless it involves the necessity of specific gear to finish the final boss.

…that is kind of the rub though, right?

As a player, I want both the fun to never end and the satisfaction of a completed experience. Meanwhile, the designers of MMOs and cash shop games want to delay the gratification for as long as possible while still retaining player interest. If the tacit tension between both parties is maintained successfully, both profit. After all, a game that abruptly ends before the player wants it to is just as bad as an unfinished game drained down to the curdled dregs at the bottom of an otherwise bone-dry barrel of fun.

…except that is wrong. The latter is worse than the former, and you do not even really need balls to appreciate that fact. Simply examine every unsatisfying ending to any game you have played – the one quality they will all have in common is lack of closure. Of release.

If Inferno was easier, there is little doubt that I would have completed it and shelved Diablo weeks ago. Many could argue that Blizzard was doing me a favor by setting forth this Sisyphean task, as those are (presumably) weeks of fun I would not have otherwise had. But that is not what happens. What happens is I sit here, without even the satisfaction of a logical endpoint, miserably looking back on those weeks of “fun” with a jaundiced eye and two blue balls.

And what I see is time spent playing Diablo 3 when I could have had more fun playing damn near anything else.

Dailies and “Bad Design”

There is a fascinating conversation going on in the General Forums right now with Daxxarri concerning daily quests and how they are “bad design.” This exchange in particular piqued my interest:

This is just a bad design. A game should not ask for daily commitment to enjoy what it has to offer.

[…] I get concerned when I see players throwing out words like ‘bad design’. Perhaps an individual dislikes a design choice, and that’s fine. We do our best, but World of Warcraft can’t be all things to all people, all the time. That said, making a value judgment about whether the design is ‘bad’ or not is not only un-constructive, but in the vast majority of the cases I’ve seen, such an assessment reveals that the design was not well understood to begin with.

Followed up later with:

That being said, why are you harping on the OP’s use of the term “bad design”?

Because language is important, and also, because it’s often used in the phrase, “That’s just bad design.” to justify why a mechanic or feature is undesirable to the poster in question. It presupposes the correctness of an opinion which may not, in fact, be correct. It also tells me nothing useful, except “I don’t like it”, but it makes, “I don’t like it.” sound more erudite, knowledgeable and sophisticated. It still boils down to, “I don’t like it.”, which isn’t particularly useful without a context.

Point taken, Daxxarri. I have deployed the “bad design” argument here and in comments elsewhere, using it as short-hand for “this feature isn’t catering to me.” It is an open question of whether I should be catered to, and at whose expense. Personally though, I vote for being catered to 100% of the time, everywhere.

This does raise the question of “What can be considered good design?” It would seem to me that we need to know the intention of a design before it could be judged good or bad. Without designers coming out and explaining intentions though, is there any real way to know? Are subscriptions and profit margins the only metrics that matter?

And the further complication for subscription-based MMOs, for me, is that I cannot trust the designers to not include time-sinking as one of the principle intentions of everything they do. Do patches really come out 8 months apart because it takes that long to polish… or because that extra month means millions more dollars at little extra cost? Did Blizzard really feel Molten Front was best paced at 35 straight days of dailies? Why not, say, 25 days?

All that aside, I do want to highlight the original statement again for your consideration:

A game should not ask for daily commitment to enjoy what it has to offer.

To be clear, the poster is talking about World of Warcraft, a Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Game. And you know what? I think I agree with him.

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