Author Archives: Azuriel

Pebbles Can Still Ruin Your Day

Pebbles are small, but if one finds its way into your shoe and you can’t get it out, it can be enough to ruin your day. Or in this case, your gaming experience.

DOS2_Hidden

Another pebble: needing to walk around with Alt held down all the time

I started playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) recently, and it’s been fun thus far. There are a lot of interesting new design directions this time around, and I might talk about them in a different post. In this post though, we need to talk about a pebble: inventory management.

…actually, that might not be the root of the issue. This pebble has layers.

DOS2 and the series in general makes a big deal about the autonomy and uniqueness of each character. Characters have origin stories, personal quests, unique special abilities, and their own dialog options. Talk with one distraught woman as Ifan and she shouts “stay away from me you disgusting pig!” Talk with the same woman as Sebille, and you’ll hear her story. It’s immersive… to a point. It’s also awkward, considering you are a player controlling four unique beings, one of which is supposed to be the “main” character.

The awkwardness extends out into the game proper too. Some of the “Civil Abilities” you can put points into are Persuasion and Bartering. The former will let you overcome conversation checks, while also improving your discount with a vendor; the latter improves just the latter. That’s fine, right? It’s typical for CRPGs to essentially encourage specialization, such as you have someone really good at disarming traps, someone running interference for your wizards, and so on.

DOS2_Pebble

It’s 2% now, sure, but it’ll be higher later… and not even the point

The problem is when the “main” character isn’t the one with the Persuasion skills. I had been playing for about 5 hours and wanted to offload some goods at a local vendor, only to realize that the person with the biggest discount wasn’t carrying any of the merchandise. And there was zero way to move items around except one at a time. That’s the pebble. There’s a “workaround” where you stash everything inside a backpack that you can then pass around, but that still involves manually moving one item at a time into the backpack. Why isn’t there a “move all items” option?

My characters are like level 3, and the difference between the “main” character I had been controlling and scooping up all the loot with and the guy with the highest discount is 2%. No big deal, yeah? Also, there is apparently a magic mirror in Act 2 or whatever that allows you to freely respec all your characters any number of times, so I’ll be able to solve this Persuasion situation to make my “main” character also be the primary seller.

Like I said, it’s a pebble, not some bottomless chasm.

…at the same time, this little pebble is drawing my attention to the fact I’m walking on a trail full of them. With sandals. I made Ifan a Summoner, who is apparently going to need to be the most Persuasive out of the bunch if I want to be using him to click on treasure chests and dead bodies. Or I could keep the Red Prince as the sell-bot since he’s already the best at it, but that would mean I’ll need to be using him to pick up stuff and talk to people. That would mean I’ll miss out on Ifan’s dialog options though, so I’ll need Ifan to be the sell-bot. But he’s a Summoner, not a warrior, so my carrying capacity is lower. I guess I could move crafting material around to compensate…

DOS2_Dialog

Significantly more chatty than when I clicked on her with Ifan

By the way, there’s another Civil Ability called Lucky Charm that gives you a chance of finding special loot in every container you check. Originally, this proc’d only if the character who had the skill checked the container. It’s since been patched to be party-wide, which is nice. Because that is otherwise insane. Which is what is kinda feels like for the rest of these abilities.

All of the above because I noticed a 2% discount between characters. But try walking for 80+ hours with a pebble in your shoe and tell me it doesn’t become a big deal over time. And make you question why you can’t just take off your shoe for a second and get it the hell out.

Goblin’s End

Gevlon is calling it quits.

While some will undoubtedly be celebrating the end of his blogging, I will not. Certainly, we disagreed constantly, and I find his politics abhorrent generally. Nevertheless, his ironclad comment curation (and threat of a ban) forced me to file down my typical rhetoric and argue on the point. The ideal was to get down to an armor-piercing response, with zero distractions. Didn’t always work, but the challenge honed my craft.

As for the reason for his farewell post:

Players no longer need to be any good to progress. They just have to log in and open their wallets. The morons and slackers who couldn’t clear Karhazan back in the day, now clear all the content, because it’s tailored for their pathetic performance. They don’t have to learn anything to succeed, so learning became “tryhard”. They became the dominant culture in gaming. Being any good became “elitism”. “Gamers are dead” is the new slogan among developers. And don’t even get me started about mobile crap.

As a result, any kind of good information is rejected and actively hated. When I found how to get to the toplist of PUBG, all I got were downvotes and hate from the “community”, for ruining their “fun” of mindlessly killing each other. When I disproved the bizarre conspiracy theory that baddies made up in World of Warships to explain their defeats, I got banned from the game’s subreddit. And let’s not even mention CCP Falcon and his antics.

There is no more point in trying to play well, so there is no point writing about it. […]

In short: a decline in social validation.

Gevlon argues that games no longer require skillful play, thus no one appreciates “good information” that challenges their assumptions anymore. But what asocial scientist cares about the appreciation of an audience? Beating Ulduar in blue gear or getting to the top of the PUBG toplist by a verifiable and repeatable method is a validation by reality. There is no greater an arbiter for one who derives truth by experimentation.

To be sure, the difference between a blog and a journal is an audience – some measure of recognition is required to be the former instead of the latter. A casual stroll through Gevlon’s comment section though, will reveal plenty of fans. Just… not as many as in his heyday. And in an ironic twist, his unnecessary lurch into right-wing politics not only reduced his potential audience, it left him with precisely the sort of readers who care little about facts and truth in the first place.

Some games have indeed become more accessible to players of varying skill levels. Lootboxes and exploitative game design are definitely a thing. But WoW still has difficult raiding at the top levels, same as always. Dark Souls and “git gud” is still a prevailing culture in many corners of the internet. In fact, when is the last time anyone has remarked that so-and-so is elitist? That title is pretty much exclusively used on scientists trying to avert disasters and improve peoples’ lives.

Hey, wait a minute…

Ah, well. Gevlon has been blogging damn near daily for a decade, and likely inspired thousands of people to improve themselves, one way or another. He certainly inspired thousands of blog posts at a minimum, including this one. So… thank you for the content. Enjoy your retirement.

Transition Gap

Sometimes gaming progress does not happen smoothly. Instead of one thing immediately leading into another, there is a sort of gap that must be leapt across. While not insurmountable, this break in progress can become a source of resistance to continuing to play a game at all.

ONI_IronVolcano

Oh, an Iron Volcano in my Ice biome. That’s gonna be a Future-Me problem.

I am playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) again. As I have described before, the game is deceptively easy at the start, but there are disasters looming in every detail. Some things are obvious, like your Dupes running out of Oxygen. Other things are much less so, like the fact that your Dupes just dug out a section of rock – which you told them to do – and then placed the 40°C (!!) rock in a storage container in the middle of your base, and now everything is heating up. Oops.

For the most part, it is generally easier to start a new game with a new map than it is to try and fix a disaster in progress. Plus, it’s fun seeing what goodies the RNG fairies might deliver to you. Cold biome nearby? Natural Gas Geyser ready to be tapped? Awesome.

Nevertheless, there is a specific transition gap that I inevitably reach and often quit playing rather than make the jump. In ONI, that gap is the Electrolyzer. This is a device that turns water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, and is pretty much the solution for breathable air for the rest of any ONI run.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

Up to this point, you make air by burning Algae, and it’s relatively straight-forward. With the Electrolyzer, you have to worry about piping the Hydrogen somewhere else, as otherwise it will clog the ceiling of whatever room you are in.

ONI_SPOM

Pictured: mythical SPOM

In ONI-land, there is the mythical SPOM, or Self-Powering Oxygen Module. This is a solved solution for creating an effectively infinite air source with no maintenance or upkeep aside from water; a Hydrogen Power station powers the Electrolyzer, which supplies the station with fuel.

Despite there being a ready-made solution to the problem, or perhaps in spite of this fact, I typically end my ONI runs here. The SPOM is not particularly intuitive, so I basically need to copy it part-by-part from a Youtube guide. Even if I don’t create the SPOM specifically, the Electrolyzer still necessitates your base to account for mixed gases. Ignore the problem long enough, and it’ll be even more a pain in the ass later.

Finally, even with a cut-and-paste SPOM, you still need a ton of water at the ready to feed the beast. Where will all that water come from? Typically, the only long-term solution is to find a Steam Geyser somewhere on the map, but that could take a while, and possibly be nowhere close to you. If you set up a functioning plumbing system, you can technically harvest some additional H20 via that route. Of course, that will also require extensive planning of your base, and how you’ll be handling the hot water that comes out of a Water Sieve.

Good times. Or, maybe not so much.

ONI_Base2019

Made the leap, not sure I’m enjoying the other side.

I have bridged the the Electrolyzer gap before. It’s not an insurmountable problem, especially considering the ubiquitous of the SPOM design in guides. It just takes a lot of mental headspace at a very specific moment in an hitherto casual colony management sim. Or rather, it is at this moment that Oxygen Not Included reveals itself to be a more complicated beast than you have imagined.

Many games have these transition gaps. The best designed among them either shorten the gap, or get you in the habit of hopping long before you reach the gap that matters. Otherwise, the devs risk players landing on their face. Or perhaps worse: practicing to make the leap, doing so, and then being bored on the other side.

Prey in Conclusion

I completed Prey over the weekend, after about 35 hours.

Prey_Material

I could craft 870 rounds of ammo, if I wanted. Or if it mattered.

The majority of my concerns were comically overblown. Prey does tally up your behavior during play, but it only merits a single line of commentary at the end, and didn’t tip the scales in any case. I got the “best” ending doing the sort of things one would expect to merit a best ending, and that was that. Feel free to take all the special powers you want, unless you are specifically going for the achievement for not doing so.

How do I feel overall? Disappointed.

There are parts of Prey that are amazing. The GLOO Gun is an amazing tool that remains useful for 99% of the game. You can spend a lot of Neuromods to augment your jumping capabilities… or you can create your own path pretty much wherever, and whenever you want. At the same time, the GLOO Gun “platforms” are just tricky enough to utilize that you never think that it’s required to progress. In other words, it feels like the designers threw it into the game as a toy to play with, rather than a central mechanic (e.g. Gravity Gun in Half-Life 2), and thus you feel clever every time you use it to bypass obstacles.

The set pieces and overall level design are top-notch as well. The environment is cohesive and dense, making you feel as though you are exploring a real place. There is a ton of backtracking, which gets pretty annoying by the end of the game, but it also doesn’t necessarily feel artificial. Yes, if you want to track Volunteers, go to the Volunteer terminal. Yes, if you want to do something with Neuromods, go to the Neuromod area (again).

Prey_Psychoscope

At least it’s not sepia-toned, but still… ugh.

Where the weakness starts creeping in is two-fold. First, the designers fell into the same design hole as Dishonored vis-a-vis “detective vision.” One of the marquee enemies you face in Prey are Mimics, which are capable of perfectly disguising themselves as chairs, coffee mugs, etc. After a few hours of exploring, you get a Psychoscope that will allow you to scan for Mimics. At this point, the rest of your gameplay experience will tunneled down a blurry circle, with buzzing in your ears.

Do you have to use the Psychoscope 24/7? No. It’s possible to pop it on to quickly glance through a room for Mimics, then turn it off. Hell, by the mid-game you likely have so many supplies and weapons that it won’t matter if you get ambushed by half a dozen at once. Nevertheless, you aren’t overtly punished for Psychoscoping the whole time… other than ruining the ambiance for yourself. Which, IMO, the is dev’s fault.

The other disappointing element is the ending.

Spoilers are below, but let me go ahead and create some more buffer.

Spoiler-Alert-Red

Last chance… okay.

This is basically Bioshock Infinite all over again. Not specifically with Alternate Universes, but in the fact that the devs thought they could take another of the most reviled, cliche plot devices in history and polish that turd till it gleamed.

Nope. Even a polished turd is still a turd.

The ending actually failed on multiple levels for me. First, it was essentially spoiled in-game around halfway through by completing a quest. I expected a bad ending for trying to bail from the station via escape pod without even doing anything, but wanted to “get it out of the way” so I could continue the correct way. What I wasn’t expecting was Alex’s words after the fade-to-black. Whoops!

Prey_Ending

Yeah, actually, that’s exactly what I’m thinking.

The second level of failure was using the “it’s all a dream” cliche, period. I have read some arguments that state this implementation actually made your simulated in-game actions matter, given the extra-special reveal. Nope, still doesn’t work for me. Just because I’m being evaluated on my simulated actions, doesn’t mean I view simulated actions with any particular regard – none of it actually happened. Maybe it’s “based on a true story” when it comes to Morgan, but if all my actions can be rebooted with the flick of a switch, I’d rather them not have occurred in the first place.

Which… they didn’t.

Finally, the ending actually ruined a lot of the nuance I had hitherto been impressed with. For the majority of the game, your one directive was blowing up the space station. Given that, the still-living crew were effective dead already… so why bother helping them out? Was it not more cruel to give them hope before killing them all? At the same time, I felt better easing their more immediate suffering, so they could relax and eventually accept their fate when the time came.

Oh, but hey! Now we have a sudden third solution that magically makes everything better, revealed in the final act! Those dilemmas aren’t really dilemmas anymore. And they never were anything but contrived, simulated scenarios in the first place to judge your empathy. Congrats on playing through the trolley problem – not metaphorically, but literally. Woo!

I’m sure the ending worked for some people, just as there are people who feel Bioshock Infinite is a real deep narrative instead of the total bullshit cop-out it is. The special, second reveal at the end of Prey was indeed surprising, and I guess novel in the scheme of things. Nevertheless, I did not feel any better about how none of what occurred actually did, nor did it apparently matter to the people of Earth. Hell, we still don’t even know what happened, or if anything is real. It could be simulations all the way down.

And that’s why the plot device is such bullshit. A sequel, assuming one ever exists, would have to have a radically different tone or go through a lot of effort to convince the player they weren’t being duped again. But I guess we won’t be seeing a sequel so none of it really matters.

Sort of like any of your actions in the game.

Too Much Cheese

I have always had mixed feelings when it comes to Early Access games, but not always for the same reasons as everyone else. For example, one of the biggest dangers is getting hooked on a game that just never gets completed. Money dries up, development stops, you never get any sort of conclusion. I’ve never been too worried about that – either the game was fun when you played it, or it wasn’t.

No, my biggest concern is when the game gets better or more balanced… but I’m already done.

Oxygen Not Included (ONI) is a colony-management game from Klei that I started playing last year and it has gotten significant updates on the regular. Some new buildings, some new creatures, a sort of end-goal to strive for, and so on. Other things have not changed over the year, and it’s questionable whether they ever will. And that bothers me because some of the things that haven’t changed are broken mechanics.

One of the mid-to-late game threats in ONI is heat. In the beginning, you’re worried about Oxygen (hence the name), so you burn algae for air. Then you run out of algae. Switching to an Electrolyser allows you to turn water into Oxygen + Hydrogen, so you focus on getting clean water to burn, while finding a use for all the unbreathable Hydrogen (generally via Hydrogen Generator to power to the Electrolyser). This is another trap though, because the “free” Oxygen getting piped out is hot, and as your base heats up, your crops will fail. Thus, cooling things becomes a top priority.

While there are a number of “legit” ways to cool things down, the Water Sieve method is straight-up broken. Water Sieves are used to turn Polluted Water into normal Water, for use in bathrooms and such. The supposed downside of this is that the Sieve itself outputs relatively hot water at 40°C, which will gradually heat up your base and ruin your crops (which typically stop growing at 30-35°C). The real issue though is that the Water Sieve always outputs 40°C water… even if the Polluted Water was at a much higher temperature. Thus you get physics-bending/game-breaking (IMO) solutions like piping your clean water out of a Water Sieve and into an Aquatuner (which cools liquid down at the expense of heating itself up)… which is being liquid-cooled in a tank of Polluted Water… that you are piping to the Water Sieve.

Clever use of game mechanics, indeed.

Along the same lines, I have a 100% zombie-proof base in 7 Days to Die. It’s a tower with a nearby ramp and fence, along with a half-block on the other side of the fence. To the zombie AI, this half-block would allow them to jump again and land on the tower and start eating my face. In reality, once they hop over the fence, they miss the half-block, and plummet to the ground, taking damage. From there, they run back up the ramp and try again until they die again. I still try and kill them myself for the XP, but I have all the time in the world to line up the shots or try again if I miss. The devs have added a “tantrum” mechanic whenever a zombie tries to run a path and fails, but that just means the zombie will wail on a bunch of iron spikes.

There are two “easy” solutions to my “problems”:

  1. Don’t use these mechanics, and/or
  2. Don’t play these games yet

To which I would say:

  1. Handicapping myself via willpower alone isn’t fun, and
  2. These are precisely the type of games I want to be playing at the moment

If you have a list of non-Early Access survival/crafting games that I haven’t already played, by all means, let me know. Otherwise, I’m going to be over here stuffing my face with delicious cheese, and paying for it later.

Marshmallow Test

I really wish game developers would just let us eat the damn marshmallows already.

If you have never heard of the test before:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.[1] In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (Wiki)

I have been playing Prey lately, and noticed it does something similar. Over the course of gameplay, you accumulate a number of Neuromods, which are essentially skill points. At the beginning, you can only assign these points in “traditional” skills, such as hacking, increased weapon damage, more inventory space, and so on. A few more hours of gameplay later, you will be able to invest points in “alien” skills, like Kinetic Blast, short-term mind control, flame traps, etc. The game warns you though, that if you start gaining alien skills, the security system (e.g. turrets) in the space station will start registering you as an alien. It might also affect which ending you receive, although I have resisted looking at spoilers for that.

That is basically the marshmallow test. You can either be rewarded with fun new toys now… or you can abstain and be “rewarded” with a better ending later.

Prey is nowhere near the worst offender here. I have also been playing through the DLC of Dishonored off and on, and it’s a thousand times worse. In Dishonored, killing people (instead of knocking them out) increases the “chaos” of the city, which not only leads to a bad ending, it also makes the game harder by spawning swarms of rats that attack you on sight (and are immune to typical assassination skills). Which would be somewhat fine, if it were not for the fact that damn near 95% of the abilities and skills you unlock through gameplay revolve around killing people.

Life is full of delayed gratification. Most of us spend ~40 hours a week doing something we’d prefer not doing, in order to receive money weeks from now to finance the things we actually do want to do. Delaying our already-delayed gratification is some Inception-style nonsense.

Now, I do not necessarily have an issue with the best endings being difficult to achieve, or the existence of Achievements, or even just choice in general. What I have an issue with is a game that gives you a carrot and then beats you with a stick for eating it. The original Deus Ex made you choose between invisibility to humans and invisibility to robots. That’s a good choice! Note how the designers didn’t give you access to invisibility and then tell you there would be dire consequences to using it. That would be dumb.

Do not make your players choose between Fun and No Fun. Because some of them are dumb enough to choose No Fun, even when they hate marshmallows. Save us from ourselves.

Impression: Prey

Perhaps the most interesting thing about Prey is how much of its cleverness is wasted on me.

Prey_Mimic1

There’s a Mimic in here.

I knew from prior reporting that this game was different than standard games. I had heard of tales of fancy solutions to seemingly impossible situations. That “cheesing” encounters might even be necessary to survive. What I had not considered though, is how tunnel-visioned I had become on rote, formulaic solutions to cliched problems such that I had not even considered the possibility of trying something else.

The very first weapon you pick up is a wrench, which is about as tropy as you get. Then you get the GLOO gun. This is a weapon that deals no damage, but spits out expanding foam balls that can immobilize enemies, put out fires, seal flaming pipes, temporarily block arcing electrical panels, and become climbable platforms when it dries. The silenced pistol comes an hour or two later, and by then you will have encountered quite a few of the stronger enemy types with just a wrench and GLOO gun. The designers were very clearly trying to educate the player on all the myriad solutions to the problems they want you to solve.

Trouble is, I’ve been “trained” too well over the years.

It’s only well after the fact that I realize a better solution existed. For example, I walked into a room, and saw the windows sealed with GLOO foam. A note on the counter read “I sealed two Mimics in there, but there are casualties, so as many as eight.” I wrenched the foam out of the way, and used a combination of Wrench, Silenced Pistol, bullet-time, and panic to kill the half-dozen or so Mimics that popped out of the window.

Prey_Mimic2

As it turns out, no Mimic in here.

After searching the now enemy-less room, I realized a few things. First, there was a broken turret in the hallway before this room. I could have repaired it, then set up the turret to cover the window. Second, there was a flammable oxygen pipe that run just under the window – which could have been shot to spray a jet of flame across the opening, catching the Mimics on fire. Third, I have Recycler Grenades, and could have just blown them all up. Instead, I chose the dumbest, most caveman solution possible and wasn’t overly punished for it.

Speaking of Recycler Grenades, these are items that basically convert everything within a certain radius into blocks of materials. And I do mean everything, furniture and enemies included. You can spend a lot of Neuromods (e.g. skill points) unlocking the ability to to lift ever-heavier items out of the way – and there are quite a few early rooms barricaded with heavy objects – or you can… just toss a Recycler Grenade at the obstruction and clear it instantly plus get some materials to make more grenades. This was not my own discovery, I had to read about it. It’s entirely possibly that I would not have even ever tried. That’s some goddamn 1984 doublethink shit, where you lack the language to even acknowledge your oppression.

Prey_Clever

At least four ways into this locked room, and I always choose the dumbest.

To be clearer in my own language here, I am praising Prey. It’s just blowing my mind a bit that years of other, less clever games could essentially atrophy any out-of-the-box thinking. I even played Deus Ex back in the day, and I enjoyed all the sequels too. Part of me feels like Prey should punish more mundane gunplay more, or just forgo guns altogether.

At that point though, perhaps forced cleverness isn’t really cleverness at all.

Anyway, six hours in, Prey is an exceedingly unique experience with some really inventive scenarios. The existence of Mimic enemies cause you to really examine all the debris in a room, which can sometimes (and sometimes not, apparently) lead you to realize alternative solutions to an otherwise straight-forward enemy situation. The GLOO gun is pretty much the closest thing to the Gravity Gun from Half-Life 2 that I have seen a game introduce in a decade. And damn near everything else is similarly polished and grokkable in surprising ways.

Pick this game up when you can. On sale, of course, but on the next one.

Impressions: Sundered

Pretty much everything you need to know about Sundered is encapsulated in this picture:

Oh my

That’s the first boss.

The premise of the game is that you are a human (?) adventurer who gets sucked into a desert temple by some tentacles, and are tasked with defeating some monstrosities by the Shining Trapezohedron. If that sounds Lovecraftian, it is. In fact, that being in particular is straight-up from a Lovecraft book, and the rest of the game takes heavy, sometimes direct, direction from the genre.

Indeed, the eerie disquietness of the game proper has been a wholly unique experience for me. I have seen tentacled monsters with teeth and eyes in all the wrong places in games before. That’s common.

Pictured: tentacle monster with teeth and eyes in wrong places.

What I never really experienced is a sense of trepidation regarding a gorgeous, hand-drawn background that features nary a monster or blood stain, but simply a construction completely out of human scale. The whole time, you are immersed in an environment very clearly not made for you. Hell, even the Sanctuary – the place where you spend Shards to increase your stats – feels “off” due to the massive, smooth stone in the background. It reminds me of looking up at a skyscraper from the street, and feeling as though the whole thing is moments away from falling on me.

The weakness of Sundered comes from its gameplay direction. It plays as a semi-modern Metroidvania, akin to Hollow Knight or Ori and the Blind Forest. However, the map features no pre-set monster spawns, and has randomly-generated sections that change upon your death. You will be randomly beset upon by “hordes,” which are essentially a dozen or so enemies at a time. Defeating them sometimes grant you Shards, which is a currency used to purchase your way through a FFX/Path of Exile-esque ability grid.

Ah, yes, just make a right at the corner of Ehshkht’aetag’ling and Kytag’yeh.

The gameplay loop itself doesn’t necessarily feel bad, and the horde spawning mechanic does allow you to take in the environment more than if there were set spawns in specific locations every time. But it does end up feeling… weird. And not the Lovecraftian weird, but the sort of “okay, here we go again” weird. Also the “weird” in which you might find yourself overwhelmed and possibly dead due to what feels like random chance. For example, you might have been able to easily handle a specific horde composition if you were not “ambushed” in a tight corridor with spikes everywhere.

In any case, if you can persist through the first hour or so of the game, before you have unlocked any interesting abilities or encountered tricky enemies, you will possibly come out the other side… changed, as I did. I have not quite played a game that made me feel this way, not even The Forest or other traditional survival horror games.

In those games, the monsters were the invaders. In Sundered, it is you who doesn’t belong.

Ascension

As you may have heard, I continue to play Slay the Spire.

I have beaten the “normal” game dozens of times with all three default characters, and have unlocked all the cards and relics. When you defeat everything with all three characters, you can unlock a fourth stage with a super-secret boss, and you also unlock Ascension Mode. Each character has their own Ascension Mode tracker, and defeating the standard final boss will increment the Ascension Mode up one digit, to a maximum of 20. What happens on each level is the following:

  1. Elites spawn more often.
  2. Normal enemies are deadlier.
  3. Elites are deadlier.
  4. Bosses are deadlier.
  5. Heal less after Boss battles (75% of missing health)
  6. Start each run damaged (-10% health)
  7. Normal enemies are tougher.
  8. Elites are tougher.
  9. Bosses are tougher.
  10. Ascender’s Bane
  11. Start each run with 1 less potion slot.
  12. Upgraded cards appear less often. (50% less)
  13. Bosses drop less gold. (25% less)
  14. Lower max HP. (-5 for Ironclad, -4 for Silent and Defect)
  15. Unfavorable events.
  16. Shops are more costly. (10% more)
  17. Normal enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  18. Elite enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  19. Boss enemies have more challenging movesets and abilities.
  20. Fight 2 bosses at the end of Act 3.

I have been focusing on playing the Silent, the 2nd character, and achieved Ascension 15.

Also, I am so done with this game.

This particular Ascension mode design is rather brilliant in a lot of ways. Many games have harder difficulties, including roguelikes, but most of them are not as granular as this. The first “downside” of more Elites, for example, is not technically a downside for someone skilled with the game – each Elite enemy killed will result in a Relic, which can substantially improve the rest of a run. It’s often advised to target as many Elites as possible in the first Stage, to either wash out a weak deck early, or load up on goodies when the risk to your time is low.

Plus, there is the more mundane benefit to the fact that even if you are a super pro player from the start, you still need to play through and beat the game 20 times before you reach the hardest difficulty. Per character! That’s a lot of gameplay. Or grinding, depending.

I lasted way longer than I thought I would at the beginning (Ascension 15, remember), but the fundamental truth is that each time I succeeded, each subsequent game became less fun. By design. Well, presumably I am supposed to become more and more proud of my ability to overcome challenges, but that doesn’t really happen in practice. Especially in Slay the Spire’s case, where after a while things become more and more RNG-based as the margin for success shrinks.

This is probably for the best. I prefer the discrete finality of a rolling credits screen to the ashes of burning out, but an ending is an ending. Now maybe I can move on to something else.

Epic Shenanigans

In case you haven’t seen the news, the Epic Store has poached another timed-exclusive game release: Metro Exodus. The wrinkle this time is that rather than being planned from the start, Deep Silver must have been given a fat stack of secret cash because the game was already available on pre-order from Steam (which are still being honored, until removed from the Steam store). And, you know, the game was all set out to be released in 2.5 weeks.

I mentioned “fat stack of secret cash” because while the revenue split is more generous in the Epic Store, they are actually doing the only thing I said would matter in the competition space: Metro Exodus had its MSRP lowered from $60 (on Steam) to $50. Which means the gross revenue from this game would be:

  • Steam = $60 * 0.7 = $42
  • Epic = $50 * 0.88 = $44

That calculation demonstrates how a developer could still make a higher profit on the Epic store by dropping the price to $50, but here’s the thing: they are going to be losing a non-trivial amount of sales for not being on the PC’s largest storefront. Enough to matter? Remains to be seen. The Metro Redux (aka remasters) of the first two games sold 1.5 million copies back in 2016. That would be $3 million more in Deep Silver’s pocket if they sold the same amount of games… at full price… as the remasters of the last two games combined.

That $2 difference between revenue is 4.5%. If Deep Silver sells 4.5% fewer copies due to not being on Steam, then they lose almost $3 million. I mean, without even doing much calculations, you gotta know that for every Steam sale lost, they have to sell 22 copies in the Epic Store to break even. Ergo, I suspect that Epic was waving something more than simply the 88% cut in Deep Silver’s face.

And that’s kinda the baffling thing about all this. I’m not opposed to competition between companies, especially when it results in a gain in consumer surplus. Competing on price is a huge deal, and I’m sincerely amazed that Deep Silver pulled that trigger to sell at $50. But… why then yank the title from Steam as a “timed-exclusive release”? That isn’t consumer friendly or useful to anyone at all. Why not let the same title be purchasable on both platforms, and allow nature to run its course?

We’ll have to see how things shake out a year from now, when the game is finally released on Steam… presumably at a huge discount because it will have been a whole year.