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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?

H1Z1-fit

As you may or may not have heard, SOE is coming out with a zombie apocalypse MMO called DayZ Online H1Z1. This was, in fact, what Smedley was talking about vis-a-vis the MMO that SWG veterans “could come home to.” Because… crafting? Whatever.

By the way, I’m with Syp on pronouncing H1Z1 as “hizzy.” Because just with the Xbone before it, these companies need to take a little more thought with how they name their products.

The details of the game are sketchy. Not in the ambiguous sense, but rather in the “there’s no possible way that will work” sense. Right off the top, this is a F2P full-loot FFA PvP game. In fact, the Tweets (sigh) are suggesting that the current design is permadeath, but I have a hard time imagining rerolling an entirely new character each time. I mean, if your character’s facial features and other customizations are somehow saved, is that really permadeath? Another feature is player housing that exists in the world, and people can set it on fire, presumably even while you are offline. That sounds totally reasonable, amirite? There will also be “trading,” which I understand as a euphemism for looting things off the corpses of traders. There are also no levels, which combined with the F2P aspect, seems to indicate the potential for an infinite firebombing army to reduce all player-owned structures to cinder at 4am.

Now, conceivably, these are solvable problems. Smedley has mentioned the existence of different server types, some of which will likely be PvZ-only. Some might even offer player housing protection on by default ala Minecraft. I have little doubt that we’ll also see housing immunity (or at least insurance) for 2000 Station Cash. The question mark is whether they’ll sell items directly, which could become problematic with a full-loot PvP system. “Hah, I totally ganked that dude and stole his $10 golden revolver.” [Fake edit: you keep your customization]

As a PS2 player, I wouldn't put this past them.

As a PlanetSide 2 player, I wouldn’t put this past them.

Speaking of monetization, Smedley has a Reddit thread up right now asking for ideas. No, seriously, he does. Currently, he seems pretty adamant that A) they will not be selling weapons at all, and B) they have a “preference” to not selling anything that helps with survival. Everything else is conceivably on the table… other than just asking for a goddamn subscription or box purchase. Many of the ideas so far revolve around pets, animations, clothing, and in-game advertisements ala Battlefield 2142. To his credit, Smedley shot down that last one, although ironically that would be something that made complete sense in the context of the game.

As far as the map size goes, well, here is Smedley:

I’ve seen a bunch of people asking questions about the Map size. Forgelight is built to handle arbitrarily sized worlds. Our plan is simple – we’re building the core of “anywhere USA”. When we first open it up to users the map will be huge, but nowhere near as big as it’s going to be in short order. Our Map Editing system allows us to quickly add massive areas. We want to make sure we clearly understand how the players are playing the game before we do that. On Planetside 2 we made a mistake by making multiple continents before we had a strong enough idea of what worked and what didn’t. This game is different. We’re doing it smarter. [...]

So not to worry. Zombie Apocalypse isn’t going to be any fun if it’s like Disneyland on Spring Break and super crowded. We want remote.. haunting… being scared when you see someone. Your first instinct needs to be to hide. If there are 20 players in your view it’s not a very convincing Apocalypse :)

Ah. So… an MMO where actively avoiding other people is the only sane way to play. Hey, at least I already have a lot of practice doing just that.

This is the part of the post where I balance the negativity of the preceding paragraphs with some halfhearted praise. So… uh… well. I liked State of Decay? Using the PlanetSide 2 engine means they will have a quick development cycle, although it also means there won’t be any actual physics. The “play as a zombie” mode sounds like it could be fun. And… yeah. I feel kinda bad for The Forest guys, although maybe I shouldn’t – at least The Forest doesn’t feature full-loot PvP.

H1Z1 will be up on Steam’s Early Release program in 4-6 weeks for $20. Why are we paying money for the privledge of alpha-testing free-to-play games? Because fuck you, that’s why.

Beta Impressions: Hawken

In an effort to both delay poor decision-making and assuage the pain of not having purchased Titanfall for $48 via GMG, I decided to download and play Hawken this weekend. Apparently the game is still in open beta (since December 2012), even though I could have sworn it had been released already, but whatever.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Graphics are pretty decent.

Hawken is a F2P F2Download FPS mech PvP game. Considering it too has a 6v6 player limit, there are a lot of amusing parallels to Titanfall, actually. The mech combat feels legitimately like you are inside a mech – it takes time to get momentum going when moving, your turning speed is slow, and so on. That being said, your maneuverability is actually pretty good with the assistance of thrusters, allowing you limited ability to fly through the air, do quick dodges, and do a 180-spin. Some mechs have larger (regenerating) fuel reserves than others, and there are lighter mechs that can perform all sorts of mid-air acrobatics.

The shooting feels pretty good and the TTK (Time To Kill) seems reasonable; you frequently have enough time to register you are taking damage and get to cover without dropping past 50%. All mechs can repair themselves, but it leaves you insanely vulnerable for up to 10+ seconds, the first few of which do not repair you at all. There are a few other ways to get some repair action going (defeated mechs drop health orb things), but I actually like how “sticky” damage ends up being; the prevalence of cover-based firing plus regenerating HP in FPS games has led to an over-reliance of ultra-short TTK, in my opinion. In other words, in Hawken you can dance around cover taking potshots at enemies, but eventually you’ll have to give them the opportunity to rush your position.

Pretty badass, actually.

Pretty badass, actually.

Out of the very few games modes Hawken has, the most unique is probably Siege. Basically, each side attempts to gather power resources from either power stations or stealing it from downed mechs, and then deposit it back at their base. Once enough has been gathered, a capital ship appears and starts slowly flying towards the enemy base. At this point, the main goal is “capping” the AA turret in the middle of the map, as it will quickly destroy an opposing ship. If the ship gets within range of the enemy base, it will start damaging it, and your side wins when the base HP goes to zero. If both sides summon a capital ship, they will duke it out in the skies above.

Most interestingly though, your own mechs can fire at the capital ship and deal damage. There are exposed turrets that can be destroyed to significantly reduce the offensive power of a ship, and with enough time even a single mech can whittle the rest of the ship’s hull down with concentrated fire at the engines. All of which introduce neat little dilemmas throughout the battle: do you focus on gaining power, or slowing the enemy’s power gains? Do you bunker down on the AA and hope someone else on your team caps power? Do you assault the AA or do you spend time shooting the capital ships from the ground?

Having said all that, the main concern with these sorts of game are the progression/reward system. And it’s here that I feel Hawken flounders a bit.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, reevaluate your life choices.

If you have a $100 option in your F2P game, please reevaluate your life choices.

Pretty much every single thing is an unlock you purchase with Hawken Credits (HC) or with the RMT Meteor Credits (MC). While you start off with a rather large sum of HC, each subsequent battle adds maybe +250 HC at the top end. Sometimes you get as little as 70 HC. Other mech chassis start at 3800 HC and go up to 12,000+ HC. While it is tempting to not spend any HC until you hit that first tier of new mechs, you forgo equipable items and passive abilities (costing anywhere from 300 to 3500 HC apiece) in the process, making you that much weaker for longer. And by the way, each equipment unlock is specific for that mech. Spend 3k MC on regenerating armor on one mech, and you’ll have to spend another 3k to unlock the same item elsewhere.

Is there any P2W? Strictly speaking: no. However, Hawken absolutely features strictly-better upgrades and arguably strictly-better mech types such that you can easily get creamed by more advanced players (who might have spent money to get there). At the most basic level, for example, items have one charge per respawn; their Mk III versions allows three charges per respawn. Thus, even though we might be able to say that grenades or EMP blasts or whatever is balanced, having access to them as essentially a spammable ability (cooldown aside) is not at all balanced in comparison to someone with just a single charge.

Overall, the game is decent enough for a 3.5gb F2Download title. There aren’t a whole lot of maps (7-8ish) or game modes (5) or even opponents (6v6), but the action nevertheless feels quick, responsive, and generally cool as a mech pilot blowing shit up. Hell, each mech’s ability to hover and dodge and boost forward almost made it feel like Titanfall for like a whole second there. Not the fairest of comparisons, of course, but there it is.

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.

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?

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.

Hearthstone P2W?

Gevlon had a post up last Friday about Hearthstone that claimed the following:

My problem isn’t that you must pay to be anything but a punching bag. I’ve played 5 years of World of Warcraft, paying 720 euros in the process. My EVE accounts are over 1000 Euros, luckily they’ve been paid by bad EVE players. It’s obvious that you have to pay to use a product and can only get a sample for free. However – unlike in subscription games – there is no fixed cost. If I pay the subscription, I can play EVE or WoW fully. If I pay even $1000 on Heartstone, there is absolutely no guarantee that I’ll be competitive against someone who paid $2000. Even worse, there is no guarantee that my wins are mine, and I’m not just stomping on better players with smaller wallets.

So no thanks, I keep away from Heartstone and the rest of the pay-to-win games.

It is worth noting at the start here that the math is off: on average, you’ll have every Hearthstone card after opening 512 packs, or spending roughly $640. Or it could be as few as 215 packs, for $213. Or you could end up like me, who has just about every card I could conceivably want (not a full set) after having spent 3+ months and $50.

Gevlon countered that there will be more expansions and thus cards later on, but I don’t find that particularly relevant because a dude named Reynard took a 5-day old account and navigated a completely F2P warrior deck to the Legendary Rank, all on Twitch. This wasn’t a guy who spammed Arena games 20 hours a day for every card in the game – this is a guy put us all to shame with his brass balls, mad skillz, and a deck with six Rares (no Epics, no Legendaries). Granted, he is about a pro-CCG player as a person can get. “Results not typical” and all that. But how much money or cards it takes “to be competitive” is not quite as descriptive or damning a statement as it sounds. Is it possible to prop one’s lack of skill with more powerful cards? Sure, probably. Where exactly are those goalposts though?

The larger question of whether Hearthstone is P2W obviously depends on your definition of the term. Is having more/better cards an advantage you can purchase your way into? Yes. However, you can also earn your way to those same rewards using in-game currency. In fact, the whole Dust and Crafting mechanic is something about Hearthstone that has significantly moved my original opinion of its apparent P2W tendencies.

See, I do consider card games like Magic to be P2W for a few specific reasons. First, the power level of the cards heavily and unapologetically skews towards the higher rarities. While there are some very nice Legendaries in Hearthstone, the vast majority of even the top tier decks consist of Basic class cards and Commons/Rares. Second, and more importantly, you have zero control over acquiring any specific card in games like Magic. Yes, you can absolutely buy cards off of other players, but that’s exactly where the P2W part comes in. Or, actually, it comes in at the very beginning, wherein you have zero cards in your collection and have to purchase some to play at all.

Crafting in Hearthstone, along with your ability to complete daily quests and purchase packs with in-game currency, shifts the focus away from paying for advantage to paying for time. Given time, you will have all the cards you could ever want, with zero dollars spent. Is paying for XP boosts in other games considered P2W? Not likely.

But if accelerating the grinding process constitutes a win one pays for, that by definition should encompass most all MMOs, WoW and EVE included. Gevlon thinks dropping $1,000 on PLEX and walking away with a 100m Skill Point pilot inside a Titan as a Day 1 player “doesn’t count” because those were player-made, and thus there was no net increase in power in the EVE universe. But isn’t all power relative anyway? That new player in a Titan is at a significant advantage over all his/her Day 1 peers, not to mention anyone not flying around in a Titan-hunting band.

Besides, what actual difference is there between purchasing currency directly from CCP, and simply siphoning the currency generated from thin air by 1,000 players completing 1,000 missions? Or even completed ships built from ores from the ether? Rate of in-game inflation? If one is P2W, surely the other is as well.

In any case, my opinion right now is that Hearthstone is not P2W, even though it otherwise has most of the trappings of decidedly P2W CCGs. Your early games with the default card selection will suck. There are a number of strictly-better cards at the same mana cost, and they’re usually more rare. A Legendary card dropping at the other end of the table is liable to ruin your day.

That being said… it’s been proven that one can be competitive with a six-Rare deck. You will end up with all of the cards in the game if you keep playing (for free!) long enough. Hell, it’s not even one of those “you can technically get everything but it takes 10,000 hours” F2P payslopes. Other CCGs have allowed players to buy packs using in-game currency, but Blizzard’s willingness to allow Hearthstone players to craft the exact card they want should close the P2W debate once and for all.

At least, for now. We’ll see what the future brings with expansions.

To Pay, or Not to Pay (for Hearthstone)

I have been flirting with the idea of dropping $49.99 on Hearthstone to purchase 40 boosters. That is, strictly speaking, directly against the advice I have and will continue to espouse. It is absolutely unnecessary in order to advance in Ranked Play – a good player can navigate the Basic Mage deck to Masters level with little apparent trouble. (Watch this video, especially the 2nd game.) In fact, that thought led me to an interesting question: exactly what cards am I missing?

The surprising answer? “Not much.”

Look at all these... bad cards I don't have.

Look at all these… bad cards I don’t have. And some I do.

Heading into Crafting Mode allows you to see ghost images of all the cards missing in your collection. When looked at from this angle, the amount seems daunting. Yes, you can legitimately play for free. Yes, I have been actually gaining gold from playing Arena lately. But 3-11 games games per Arena entry is starting to grate on me a bit when you get stuck with a sub-par selection of cards. Like when you pick warrior and can’t pick up any weapons. Or a Warlock without demons (I actually went 5-3, but I had 3 Hellfires so…). As I have mentioned in the past, my favorite part of Magic: the Gathering was building decks. So each time I go do a daily and end up using the same generic cards I’ve been using for the last two months, I die a little on the inside.

But then I found the weird thing: not all the Epics were good. In fact, a lot of them were outright bad. There are basically 3 Epics per class and 10 Neutral ones, compared to Rares with 5/class + 36 Neutral. And when you really just sit down and look at the card selection, it becomes pretty clear that the Rare cards (and Commons!) are the backbone of most of the classes.

You know, Rares, the card guaranteed to be in every booster pack.

There are a few notable exceptions in Epics being better than Rares, of course. Brawl for Warriors, for example. Hunters pretty much have to use Bestial Wrath in every deck, and Snake Trap combos well with the rest of the kit. But when I look at some of these others, I just start scratching my head. It looks like Blizzard was including some “metagame” cards to perhaps hedge their bets against every possible deck contingency. But, honestly, you can (and will) beat someone’s face in with relentless vanilla cards all day long. Chillwind Yeti is a bitch to deal with no matter what Rares/Epics you are packing, and it costs 4 mana while easily slotting into every deck.

So… now I’m not sure about buying boosters any more. If I’m honest, my primary impetus towards doing so was efficiency: if I spend some of my 600 Dust crafting a given card, I’d hate to then open up duplicates of said card later. Plus, which class would I focus on, at the expense of the others? Besides, I’m already 1/3rd of the way to straight-up crafting a Legendary. In large part due to, by the way, cracking open and immediately Disenchanting the legendary Millhouse Manastorm. Because clearly Blizzard feels it necessary to follow in the M:tG tradition of printing junk cards in the highest rarities. But, hey, 400 Dust from a single card ain’t bad.

And he's not even technically the worst Legendary.

And he’s not even technically the worst Legendary.

By the way, according to this write-up, I may have made a huge error in Disenchanting him. And I realize now that, either way, I certainly lost a ton of comedy potential in putting him in every deck and simply seeing the mayhem.

Anyway, the fact that I am even going through this thought process at all is a clear win for Blizzard. I have said before that Hearthstone can be played legitimately for free as long as it is not your primary, go-to game. The best method, as explained indirectly by Wilhelm in a brilliant post this summer, is to treat it as you would Candy Crush Saga: something you play until you “run out of lives,” and then come back to tomorrow. Becoming more invested in the game leads to, well, investment. Of the monetary kind. Which is… bad. Because it’s free. Or something.

Have I mentioned that I hate F2P due to how it warps my mind? Yes, I believe I have.