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Metagaming RPGs

It is becoming increasingly apparent that I am ruining RPGs for myself.

In the past two weeks or so, I have been playing Shadowrun Returns and, most recently, Dragon Age 2. In Shadowrun Returns, you can choose one of the six preset classes to play, or mix and match your own. Now, in some games of this type, I am more than fine with choosing something that simply sounds cool to play. For example, in Mass Effect the combo of a teleporting Shepard with a shotgun focus sounded fun. In WoW, I picked paladin because paladins.

With Shadowrun Returns though, none of the classes particularly jumped out at me. I was inclined to pick Decker (aka Matrix hacker) because that is sort of the whole schtick of the game, but it sounded rather boring to play in the case that there wasn’t a Matrix portal to hack into. And that is sort of where everything fell into place. The game clearly would not make hacking required, else they would force your character to be a Decker. And since the rest of your party are basically generic NPCs with no dialog that you pick from a vendor, you can safely cross out any class that is unlikely to get access to the best stuff. So… Mage it is.

And that worked. Perhaps too well. It reminded me a lot of my time with Fallout Tactics – or really any game where you can construct your own party – in that you can relegate certain party members to be experts in a niche specialty that you would never force your main character to do. There is no sense being a Rigger or Shaman, for example, because all that means is that your character’s purpose is to buff the nameless NPCs you take with you. This caused problem when I tried playing the subsequent Dragonfall “expansion” though, as I didn’t feel like playing a Mage again, but every other option felt bad. So I didn’t play it.

I am finding my metagaming even applies to more traditional RPGs though. In Dragon Age 2, your class choice is limited to warrior, mage, or rogue. Being a Bioware title, much of the draw of the game is going to be your interaction with your fellow party members, whom have classes of their own. Not all party members are created equally however, especially in terms of how interesting their dialog is, so you sort of have to tailor your class choice around what the more interesting party members bring to the table. For example, given how the existence of rogues at all signify there will be traps and locked chests, choosing to play as a rogue yourself allows you to replace the two rogue party member options in the event that neither are all that compelling to you. This logic does not apply to mages though, as  A) every class has an AoE spell, and B) healing spells can largely be replaced via potion use. In other words, precisely because there is no replacement for Lockpicking, playing a rogue makes for the optimal choice.

Unless, of course, you end up liking both rogue characters. In which case you are sort of screwed.

To be honest, I am not sure what it would take to defeat this circuitous thinking, beyond blunt force trauma. I suppose in both cases, there is an element of specialty that, if removed, would allow me to make the decision of which party members to bring based on how I liked them. Indeed, that was largely my experience in the Mass Effect trilogy – the special abilities weren’t all that special, and so pick who you like. Or I suppose I could simply forgo whatever goodies might be locked into the various in-game chests and simply lean upon the logic that none of the traps I encounter will one-shot my characters (because otherwise the designers would have forced you to bring a rogue). Hmm.

I don’t remember doing this throughout the Baldur’s Gate series. In fact, I was a monk throughout those games, which was about as close to useless as you can get. But since I loved having the rogue (Imoen), warrior (Minsc), and cleric (Jaheira) in my party all the time anyway, I didn’t feel deficient. Now that I think about it, weren’t those basically the only Good companions you could have anyway?

In any case, I am finding the trend of my agonizing on the character creation screen continuing for the foreseeable future.

On the Blizzard Front

Remember when I talked about Blizzard news? Seems like just… today.

The big Hearthstone news is that the pricing information for the upcoming mini-expansion, Curse of Naxxramas, was revealed supposed to be revealed today. Normally, snarky posts like mine are kind of the reason Blizzard isn’t more forthcoming with information and release dates… but, you know, Naxx is still (?) going to be released this month. While I can understand how bugs and other issues can delay something’s release, the delay on pricing strikes me as odd. Like… is there still some debate? What variables could possibly be involved?

On average, someone can earn 420g per week by doing a daily quest, er, daily. There was “leak” a few days ago on some French website that suggests 600g per wing was the pricepoint. Going by the date stamps, the leak occurred after the announcement that July 1st wasn’t going to be the price reveal, although I’m not sure whether that strengthens or weakens the conspiracy theory that Blizzard is doing some roundabout market research. I suppose things might get awkward if Blizzard ultimately revealed that the actual price was 1000g or whatever, but again, I’m not sure what a few more days gets them. Other than people stockpiling gold for a few more days and possibly using real monies to purchase packs. /tinfoil

As a note of possible interest, I pretty much stopped logging on to Hearthstone more than a month ago. While I would like to say that it was because of the current absurdly non-interactive metagame (Miracle Rogues and Freeze Mages and Control Warriors, oh my!), the truth is a bit more mundane. Specifically, I was getting tired of getting creamed by netdecks. I don’t have anything against netdecking per se – it’s largely inevitable regardless – but it sort of necessitates a specific counter-strategy I don’t find particularly compelling anymore. “Warlock daily? I guess I’m playing Zoo or Handlock.” Sure, I could skip those quests or play my own goofy deck. And I did, for a while. But 420g doesn’t seem all that much when you go 3-8 every day. So I stopped. And like any MMO, the cessation of daily log-ins heralds the end.

I’ll be back for Naxxramas though, assuming the gold price isn’t absurd.

Regression to the Mean

Tobold and others are fundamentally correct about Hearthstone’s metagame essentially being reduced to a small set of cards. The speed at which the metagame changes in response to pro-player feedback also approaches the speed of light; Argent Squire went from being something I never saw in the last three months to something I now see every game. In fact, if you want to win damn near every game you play, all you need to use are these cards:

  • 2x Novice Engineer
  • 2x Loot Hoarder
  • 2x Gnomish Inventor
  • 2x Shattered Sun Cleric
  • 2x Acidic Swamp Ooze
  • 2x Faerie Dragon
  • 2x Dark Iron Dwarf
  • 2x Chillwind Yeti
  • 2x Defender of Argus
  • 2x Argent Commander

I cannot begin to tell you how many games I have lost due to Defender of Argus. Some of these cards will be nerfed soon, but not all of them (including Defender of Argus), and I’m not even convinced the nerfs will hurt their inclusion in nearly every deck.

The funny thing though, is how simply using these cards does not necessarily mean you win automatically. They are strongest possible cards for their cost, no doubt, but what they do not do is tell you is who’s the beatdown. They do not tell you whether you should play the Faerie Dragon or the Loot Hoarder on turn 2. They do not tell you which class to play, which class cards to choose for the rest of the deck, and whether to spend mana on removal this turn or send everything to your opponent’s face. In short, they don’t tell you what to do in this scenario:

So many possibilities...

So many possibilities…

As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, sometimes Hearthstone can be played by a monkey. Sometimes you only have one rational move, and sometimes you will win no matter what you play because your opponent got screwed by RNG. And vice versa. But none of this should suggest there is not room for skill, acumen, and calculated risks. It’s not about seeing the same pieces day in and day out, it’s how those pieces interact with one another.

Hearthstone has its issues – Blizzard can’t pretend that Mage isn’t OP for too much longer – but a metagame revolving around X number of cards isn’t one of them. It would be better if more cards were viable, sure, but there is plenty of meat and marrow on these bones.

Card Hunter’s F2P, Multiplayer, and Potential

Let’s get started.

Multiplayer

As strong as the campaign mode is right now, Card Hunter’s multiplayer is probably going to provide the “long-tail” revenue for the game. Because by “multiplayer,” what they really mean is PvP. The basic setup is pretty simple: your three characters against their three characters in 20-minute matches. Every map I have seen thus far includes Victory Squares (+1 Victory Point per turn that you control it) as well, so the games do not necessarily devolve into simple death-match.

There are some pretty big incentives to give multiplayer a try, even if you aren’t necessarily into that sort of direct competition. Winning your first multiplayer match of the day grants you a chest that has a guaranteed Rare drop, for instance – plus another Rare item if you have a subscription. The reward path after that extends outwards to special Rare chests at 3rd, 7th, 12th, and finally an Epic chest at #20.

Pictured: Not Multiplayer, just a tactical genius at work.

Pictured: Not Multiplayer, just a tactical genius at work.

A particularly clever move on the dev’s part – aside from the subtle push into subscriptions to double your guaranteed rewards – is the fact that if no one is available to play against (at your MMR), you will automatically get into a match against the computer. Which, trust me on this, just as brutal in MP as it is in the normal campaign. Which is awesome.

The downside to multiplayer is the downside to multiplayer everywhere: other people. I have only faced one human opponent thus far and he/she was a perfect gentleman/lady, but the beta forums are awash with concern over how to handle players who intentionally drag out games in attempts to win via boredom. Since the queue time for games visibly increases based on MMR, this is a particularly apt concern. The solution seems to be heading towards a progressively shorter turn timer (2 min, 1 min, 30 seconds) based on a player hitting certain limits, but I’m not entirely sure the full scope of player metagame malevolence is being appreciated here. Unless the triggers are invisible, why not wait until [Trigger - 1 second] to play your card? You know, other than to avoid being an asshole?

It is also worth mentioning that, given Card Hunter is a game about hunting for cards, you will also encounter other people with way better cards than you. The MMR should help with things a bit, but some of your matches are going to suck enormously when your mad tactical skillz are thwarted by a rich moron buoyed up to your MMR by the power of their cards. Speaking of which…

F2P

In talking about Card Hunter’s F2P scheme, there is really only two things to note.

First, my (beta) experience thus far as a non-paying customer has been fantastic. Based on what I have seen, I do not think there is really a paywall or some necessary purchase you cannot do without. Given the game’s incredible difficulty, you might feel tempted to purchase a few bonus chests or otherwise acquire more loot earlier in the game (when you are more restricted by random drops) though. While it is possible this could change as I enter the “endgame” (my party is level 11ish at the moment), it would very much surprise me.

The second thing is that just because you don’t have to spend money in a F2P to have fun, that doesn’t mean that you will get a good value for your money if you do spend. This is, unfortunately, the state I see Card Hunter’s cash shop in right now.

To illustrate the issue, let’s start with the cash shop currency page:

/sigh

/sigh

I will ignore, with difficulty, the fact that there is a $99 option for the cash shop currency. I mean, I guess a 12-month subscription to an MMO would run $180 before discounts and such. But seeing the “best value” option set at $99 tells me that the devs are either A) incredibly optimistic, or B) setting up the game to make make one hundred dollar purchases of things attractive to players.

Gut reactions aside, a better metric of the F2P Evilness Scale is to look at the lower end of things. The minimum buy-in is $5, for example, which raises an eyebrow. What exactly can I purchase with $5? Well…

/doublesigh

/double-sigh

So we have “cosmetic” options which are really just new figurines altogether. Do note though, that purchasing these new figures is the only way to access the other gender options for your race/class. You can purchase new Multiplayer Starter kits, which is the equivalent of a sort of theme deck in a TCG. While you can use your campaign characters in multiplayer – everyone is scaled to the same max level – the huge difference would be the quality of your starting items. There are “treasure hunt” maps which are dungeons that reward guaranteed epic items that you can purchase either individually or collectively with a discount. It wouldn’t be a F2P game without some ($5) lockboxes, of course. You can also straight-up convert leftover pizza into gold at a 5:1 ratio.

I saved the “best” for last, though. Card Hunter has a subscription option whose benefit is receiving one additional item any time you open a treasure chest. You will know about this functionality from the first map onward, because the game will show you exactly what bonus loot you are missing out on every single time. I… suppose that that is alright, in the scheme of things. It doesn’t necessary feel like cash-shop-in-your-face as some other games, even though it technically is.

*twitch*

*twitch*

How much do the subs costs? Basically it will be $10/month (with +30 pizza), or you can get the 3-month subscription for… err… hold on, let me break out the calculator. 850 pizza means $20 (690 pizza) + $5 (150 pizza), which leaves us 10 pizza short.

…excuse me for a second…

Are you fucking kidding me? Ten of your goddamn tokens? Don’t try and tell me that was an accident. This is some Microsoft Points level of intentionally asinine corporate bullshit. Jesus Christ, this is the sort of malicious “trick the customer” design that poisons the entire concept of F2P. If you want to charge me $23.62 for your 3-month subscription, fine, charge it. This ten-hotdogs-eight-buns nonsense has got to go.

Ahem. Where was I?

If you buy the $20 and $10 tiers, you can get the 3-month subscription with 170 pizza left over. That is enough overflow to then pick up one of the epic lockboxes (-150 pizza) and then you are left with 20 pizza… which is, of course, ten pizza away from purchasing the 30 pizza lockbox. About the only scenario that doesn’t leave you with leftover arcade tokens pizza is the $20 buy-in with the 1-month subscription + unlock of the Treasure maps + 3 of the Rare lockboxes. Which is probably alright.

Potential

With Card Hunter as it exists now, I believe most people will likely consume all that they wish to within a month, provided they play on an MMO time-scale. A month is not a bad amount of time at all, especially for how much entertainment value you get at the $0.00 price-point for a game that runs in your browser. Multiplayer might satisfy for a bit longer, but it’s tough imagining that it will provide months and months more content even for those that enjoy tactical games. After all, you will eventually get the strongest items in the game, and that will be that – it’s tough to transition from a state of eagerly anticipating a rare drop to simply having fun playing within the same game, in my experience.

Where things could get potentially crazy is with the Custom game feature. You can, right at this moment in beta, create your own encounters for other players to try. This includes “drawing” your own map and placing monsters. I have not had a chance to dabble with it, but if anything, this is the feature that could spiral Card Hunter out (further) into a class of its own. Imagine creating your own 3-5 battle modules, complete with the sort of D&D sheet in front and pre/post-game writeups. Imagine being able to string several of those along in sequence.

*evil cackle*

*evil cackle*

Or how about going even crazier? Like instead of multiplayer being two people using their parties against each other, imagine one side controlling the monsters. Or allowing multiple players to control the same side, e.g. 3-person teams. All of a sudden, the game stops being a tactical mock-up of old-school D&D and starts being an online version of D&D.

If you are wondering why I see all this potential in Card Hunter and not in other games, the answer is pretty simple: it’s possible. Let me break it down:

  1. Card Hunter is not being made by some large corporation (even if their F2P pricing is similar);
  2. Multiplayer and custom games are already implemented;
  3. The graphical overhead is nil and no voice acting, making additions easy to implement;
  4. The game devs clearly like D&D enough to play such a great homage to it;
  5. Free content that players will likely pay for the privilege to make.

Make DM tools/campaign creation available with a subscription, allow user ratings to separate the wheat from the chaff, pay the successful module creators in Monopoly money pizza currency, and watch the real dollars roll in.

Bam! You’re welcome.

Siren Song of the Crown

God damned Crown.

For those not in the know, The Crown in PlanetSide 2 is one of the most insidiously designed base complexes in the history of gaming. You can read an evocative rendition of its many contours on TheMittani.com here. While it is prominently located in the center of the default log-in map, The Crown has exceedingly little strategic value.

It’s psychological value however, is another story.

Pictured: What happens on any day ending with a "Y."

Pictured: the Red team clearly winning.

I can easily log into Ps2, look at the map, and spend my entire playtime bleeding my way up Hamburger Hill. While it is almost always a futile endeavor attempting to take The Crown, you end up getting enough miscellaneous kills that it is almost worth your time slogging through all the anonymous damage. Of course, the only times that my boots are on the ground is when I’m waiting out the timer on my ESF (Empire Specific Fighter) – otherwise, I am doing increasingly bold strafing runs on The Crown defenders. Because, hey, I know people are there.

All this said though, I can definitely sympathize with those saying The Crown is bad for the game. Every quixotic minute I spend tilting at the royal bloody windmill is a minute every other base on the map (let alone the other two continents) goes uncontested. For however much fun I feel getting an especially juicy kill streak against entrenched defenders, I inevitably feel empty at the end of the play session. There is no lasting metagame in Ps2, no real personal gain in capping bases… but some measure of fake progress is better than logging out two hours later knowing you achieved nothing. Even failed last stands at Tech Bases prove more satisfying than the Crown meatgrinder; at least with the former, you get the ability to be annoying.

Part of the problem, I think, is how little it is communicated where the action might be. When I log into Ps2, I want to shoot things. While there are Instant Action buttons, hexes that flash to indicate enemy presence, and flashes of blue/red to show heated exchanges of fire, more often than not it is ephemeral. You cannot just respawn anywhere – it is proximity-based – which means the Instant Action buttons and their 15 minute cooldown must be reserved for movement. Even when you do land somewhere where fighting is taking place, it’s likely in the middle of a rout (for either side).

A lot of game design time is dedicated to the notion of “stopping points,” and there is no better example of one than a successful (!) base capture in Ps2. Unless you are already in an Outfit or part of some larger convoy of tanks, momentum has a way of grinding to a halt in the face of the immense travel distances. You can always build an ATV at every base to get around more quickly… but go where? There is nothing worse than assaulting an empty base other than, perhaps, absurdly defending an empty base.

And so… The Crown.

As perhaps a related aside, this particular issue might be one of server population. In this sense, The Crown is not a cause, but rather a symptom. I bring this up because John Smedley actually came out and said that Server Merges were coming before Server Transfers:

Server merges soon. Info coming by Monday. No server transfers coming till after that’s done. Wouldn’t be right doing it other way around

If only Blizzard were more concerned about the player experience on no-pop realms than gouging the refugees. Alas.