Author Archives: Azuriel

Classic

At one point in time, I might have had an opinion or angle in talking about the pending (re?)release of WoW Classic. Something snarky about how damn near everyone is gravitating towards the classes that were actually functional back in the day – a tacit admission on how broken the design was back then – or general glee at the thought of rose-colored glasses being smashed with the brick of reality.

But you know what? You do you. Go have fun.

I didn’t have any fun three years ago, but I joined the WoW deathmarch in TBC, so maybe things would be different if… nah. What made WoW great for me was the time in which I played. Real life sucked, my IRL friends were scattered the four winds, and this virtual world offered the perfect escape vehicle to a kill an afternoon, a weekend, or entire years. I couldn’t tell you what else I was doing back in 2009, other than apparently uploading Naxx and Ulduar guild kill montages.

If you can log into Classic in 2019 and have the same fun you did more than a decade ago… well, I wish you the best. Much like Blizzard’s decision to actually go through with this release, I imagine that it will eventually be a Win-Win-Win for everyone. Whether it will keep veterans’ attention for years, or lead to nostalgic crashing and burning, or somewhere inbetween, at least the option exists.

That ain’t nothin’.

Epic: Bribe or Bust

You are probably aware of the Epic Game Store’s predilection towards bribing indie developers with fat stacks of cash to get them to sign one-year exclusivity deals, sometimes after Steam has been giving the same developers months of free advertising by being listed (and even preordered!) on the store. That can be considered an erosion of consumer surplus or clever use of game (business) mechanics, depending on how you feel about the taste of boots. What has hitherto been unmentioned is Epic’s stick on the other end of the carrot: declined exclusivity will keep you off the Epic store.

On July 27th (Saturday) I uploaded a new trailer anouncing Steam launch date. On July 30th (Tuesday) I was contacted by the Epic Store, proposing that I enter into an exclusivity agreement with them instead of releasing DARQ on Steam. They made it clear that releasing DARQ non-exclusively is not an option. I rejected their offer before we had a chance to talk about money.

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Now, maybe there is a less nefarious reason for why the Epic store “is not in a position yet to open the store up to games that simship.” Perhaps it is related to the reasons why a Shopping Cart or Wishlist are apparently impossible to implement even with bigdick Fortnite money in a digital game store in 2019. Maybe Tim Sweeney is just an odious asshole, celebrating a “multi-store future” with GOG – a competitor in financial trouble – but not with Steam, which would invite embarrassing comparisons.

The bottom line is that the developers of DARQ turned down Epic’s exclusivity deal and now they will not be able to sell their game on Epic. Because “reasons.” It makes me slightly more sympathetic to the (indie) developers of these games, as it was not just the ready cash, but also the threat of losing out on tens of millions of other eyeballs on other storefronts.

As a reminder, none of this exclusivity bullshit is necessary. Epic could simply undercut the Steam price by 5% forever AND grant developers a larger percentage of the cut, and I would buy all my games in the Epic store. I do some ridiculous shit to save $1-$2 after all. Maybe that’s Plan B for when they run out of exclusivity money?

Oh well. Let’s see how they spin this.

EVE and GW2

NoizyGamer has a post up contemplating the health of EVE. Before its sale to Pearl Abyss, the actual EVE revenue numbers were hard to get. Now they get reported every quarter like a lot of other (Korean) companies. NoizyGamer’s last paragraph concludes:

Yes, EVE only beats Aion in revenue for the first half of 2019. But I can’t help but think if CCP and NetEase had managed to get Serenity up and running in China again, EVE would actually beat Guild Wars 2’s performance. If anyone had said that, outside of China, EVE was performing financially as well as GW2, would anyone have believed that statement?

…Yes?

Within the context of the post, EVE is being compared to GW2 because a gaming journalist was observing the fact that a hardcore MMO and a casual MMO were making roughly equal amounts of money. That… somewhat deflects from what otherwise seems like an asinine comparison between a subscription MMO and a B2P fashion-endgame lootbox grinder. The journalist goes on to tweet:

Just as an FYI, my initial thought on this wasn’t to say “GW2 better than Eve lol” but to be a little confused over the “Casual games are all the rage, it’s all companies should make” vs. “Companies should make more hardcore games rather than appeal to casuals” dichotomy.

I mean… good luck making a new niche hardcore subscription-based MMO in 2019. Hell, good luck making any subscription-based MMO these days. That EVE made it as one of, what, three MMOs still with subs is textbook Survivorship Bias. Do we need to talk a stroll down Wildstar lane or Darkfall ditch to recall how many “hardcore” MMOs still exist?

GW2Revenue

Data pulled directly from NCSoft Quarterly reports

Even just looking at Guild Wars 2, the comparison is not particularly flattering. Revenue for GW2 has been stagnant or declining since 2016, with the business model mostly consisting of the fumes of stale farts locked away in lootboxes, along with a 0.1% chance to obtain the only thing the art department has been working on for six months. The B2P model and horizontal progression and endless grinding for the fashion endgame do indeed make GW2 among the most casual of casual games, but why make that comparison and not, I dunno, EVE vs FF14?

Incidentally, remember Blade & Soul? That NCSoft game has consistently done ~30% better than GW2 since at least the end of 2014.

This is not necessarily to scoff at numbers. Based on today’s conversion rates, GW2 made $65.9 million in 2018. The very worst quarter in GW2 history (2Q17) was still $11.1 million. There are plenty of game developers who would love to release a game that makes $11.1 million in a quarter. But when just the mobile version of Hearthstone pulls in $165 million in 2018, which is down significantly from 2017, the casual vs hardcore business model gets put in sharp relief.

Tension

Tension in gaming is an interesting experience.

Tension feels uncomfortable. Relieving tension feels satisfying. Ergo, the introduction of tension-producing elements in your game can naturally propel players through the gameplay loops necessary to remove the tension while also rewarding them for their efforts. This pathway is different than one that relies on the player seeking rewards; the designer is instead threatening the player’s status quo.

While elegant, tension comes with risk. If a player is unable to relieve the tension, e.g. fails the test, that failure state can be a permanent stopping point. Players can become discouraged. Even when successful, players can also burn out from being under stress all the time, feeling as though the satisfaction states are either too infrequent or too brief. Even players who thrive and seek out tension scenarios may burn out in the other direction, mastering the game systems enough such that even the tension that still exists isn’t enough to ring their bells.

I have been thinking about this lately as I continue to be engrossed with Oxygen Not Included (ONI). While it may not immediately look like it, or even feel like it, ONI is decidedly a survival game.

In the beginning, the tension is apparent. You start with three Dupes and they have nothing but a little bit of space and some air (starter oxygen is included after all). If bathrooms are not created within the first day, all three Dupes will pee all over the floor by the morning of the 2nd day. After that, you have a bit of a reprieve… but it’s kind of a trap too. The calories provided by the starter food will only ever dwindle, and I hope you didn’t build their beds where all the CO2 lingers.

Although I have over 90 hours in the game now, I nevertheless still fell into the mid-game trap regarding (mostly) non-renewable resources. I started a game on the Oceania map, which had an absolute abundance of Algae and Coal. Algae in particular is a finite* resource on the default Terra map and its scarcity often forces you into Electrolyzers early on, which forces you into taming Steam vents, etc etc. Conversely, having 21 tons of the stuff on my map allowed me to keep the early-game Oxygen-creating machines running longer. I was even good on Coal too, as I had a Hatch ranch going which was producing Coal at a good clip.

If those details sound ominous, they should. While my Coal reserves were fine for everyday use, I had been building a Metal Refinery to make refined metal for future projects. Simultaneously, I was setting up a Hatch ranch to breed regular Hatches into Stone Hatches into Smooth Hatches, the last of which eat metal and poop refined metal exclusively. Normal Hatches and Stone Hatch eat basically anything and poop Coal, so I didn’t think twice about crafting two Incubators to speed the process along. As it turns out, adding nearly 2000 kJ stress on my power grid will burn through Coal pretty quick, as will replacing normal Hatches with ones that don’t poop Coal.

ONI has a particular tendency to punish complacency, going from Comfortable to Colony Collapse within a matter of a few Cycles. If you are not creating enough Oxygen for your Dupes, the game will give you a notification with the exact discrepancy. If your Oxygen-creating infrastructure is entirely dependent on Algae and you’re about to run out though, you get no warning. Well, you will eventually get the “not creating enough Oxygen” notification, but by then you will have to be scrambling to Electrolyzers regardless of whether your infrastructure currently supports it.

In some respects, ONI feels like the ideal tension-based game. The tension of keeping all the survival balls in the air exists, driving you ever onward. But you can also engineer stable systems such that you solve (some) problems permanently. Or “permanently” until the rounding errors in your design round up to whole errors. It can be frustrating though, coming from other tension-based games where the tension is more immediately apparent.

ONI Goes Gold

Another Klei game has graduated Early Access, showing the world how Early Access should be done.

I had stopped playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) back in March, because I was getting a bit overwhelmed with my longest-running base, but didn’t want to start over with a fresh one because there were some pending updates. I continued holding off because the release date was going to happen soon, then it got delayed, so I waited some more. Booting up the launch version last night was satisfying, like slipping into a well-worn chair after a month-long vacation.

For the most part.

New biomes have been introduced, new machines, new elements, new critters, and a new selection of theme asteroids with random modifiers like “metal-rich” or “magma channels” or “frozen core.” There are trees now, in certain locations, and an entire engineering path in which you can burn trees for fuel, turn them into ethanol, and so on. There are also some major changes to heat deletion, specifically removing some of the cheesy methods and making it more of a hassle.

At the same time… the (optimal) early game is pretty much identical. Construct some Outhouses, dig out some 16×4 rooms, make your vertical shafts three tiles wide for airflow and future-proofing reasons, dig out a basement for your Carbon Dioxide to settle so the Dupes don’t smother in their sleep, and so on. The Research tree has been rearranged, Skills have undergone a third (final?) revision, but everything you learned about the first 50 cycles or so is pretty much the same.

The one thing that stays interesting is the placement and types of geysers that can spawn. In the beginning there were only Steam geysers and volcanoes and such, but now there are ~19 different varieties that can radically change the trajectory of your entire game. For example, having a nearby Natural Gas Vent (i.e. geyser) means you can rush an early Natural Gas Generator and otherwise skip Coal power entirely. A water geyser, in whatever form, is pretty much required for any kind of long-term survival, so it’s good to find an early one and get that concern out of the way.

In many ways, ONI reminds me of Civilization in this regard. Many of the steps you undertake are the same, although early environmental resource placement can cause you to switch strategies. By the mid-to-late game though, all roads lead to Rome and you end up doing the same sort of things, e.g. the one that work, as you coast to an inevitable conclusion.

Granted, I haven’t made it to the endgame in the released version of ONI – or in the beta for that matter – so maybe they changed things up. Hell, there are some asteroid options like Rime, wherein everything is basically frozen except for the starting biome, causing you to be very concerned about generating heat instead of having to worry about cooling everything down like normal.

In any case, Steam says I have played 80 hours of Oxygen Not Included already, so even if the release version doesn’t capture my long-term attention, it’s because I have already spent a long time enraptured in its systems. It is decidedly NOT Rimworld or Dwarf Fortress, but it is another fun game from Klei (makers of Don’t Starve). If you like failing miserably several times before becoming lord of the elements, I recommend the game.

Moving Targets

Syp has a post up about how Battle for Azeroth really isn’t that bad.

[…] I had left last October after burning out a couple months into the new expansion, feeling both overwhelmed at the grind and underwhelmed by the direction and features. I think I needed that, as I had been playing more or less nonstop for two-and-a-half years before that point.

And with a somewhat negative exit alongside of many others who were very vocal with expressing their displeasure over the expansion, it kind of got cemented into my mind that BFA is terrible. Coming back, I can’t say that’s the case, and while it’s trendy to bash BFA these days, I’m also seeing that it’s not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be. It’s no Cataclysm, and it’s not suffering the content drought of Draenor, that’s for sure.

As I commented over there, I find it kind of glib to suggest that an expansion that has had almost 11 months worth of time to be fixed, including two major content patches, is “not as bad as some of the hysterics have made it out to be.” Indeed, the two initial points Syp brings up – overwhelming grind, underwhelming features – have not, to my knowledge, actually been fixed. We may not still be in the situation of needing to grind out Azerite Power to unlock abilities we already had before upgrading a piece of gear, but the very fact that Ion and the rest of the clownshow at Blizz HQ thought it deserved to make it off the whiteboard is embarrassing. Or how Titanforging makes it so that you are never actually done with gearing, ever, with zero possibility of being “complete” save for the sweet release of death (or subscription lapse). Or how you never gained anything from level from 110 to 120, and only grew weaker against the same mobs you had been fighting all along.

Suppose those things had been fixed though. I stopped playing mid-October of last year, so maybe they even have. Could that mean Beta for Azeroth was actually a good expansion?

The question seems nonsensical. It was clearly a terrible expansion for me and tens of thousands of others. It was a terrible expansion for Syp who identified the precise flaws and quit too. I can understand being able to “come back” and revisit the experience with a fresh pair of eyes and expectations. But is it even the same game? Is Syp playing it in the same way? Can an MMO expansion be “good” if the limited PvE content is fun, but everything else about its design suffocates long-term play?

Less than two months ago, I wrote a post called Bygones in which I talked about how holding game grudges doesn’t always make sense. If someone asks about Diablo 3 these days, bringing up the Real Money Auction House is basically a non sequitur. No Man’s Sky’s original release state might give you some perspective about its developers, but… actually, it wouldn’t, because the current difference is night and day.

Should Beta Battle for Azeroth receive the same courtesy?

Maybe. Perhaps some grudges take deeper root when it feels personal. The last time I played WoW was a whole baby ago, so maybe everything feels improved. Nevermind the fact that it does matter what sort of experience you are looking for in the first place – an endgame being crap shouldn’t concern a tourist just looking for leveling thrills and some plot.

And yet… nah. I won’t begrudge Syp’s fun anymore, but I do take BFA’s design almost personally. I wasn’t a big subscriber to the whole A Team vs B Team thing, but there isn’t a whole lot of explanation as for why BFA released in the state it did on the tail end of Legion, which got so many things right. When you look back, it goes BFA (bad), Legion (good), WoD (terrible), MoP (good), Cata (awful), Wrath (amazing), TBC (eh), vanilla (supposedly good). This probably bodes well for whatever comes after BFA.

Graveyard Keeper

In my still-limited free time, I have been playing Graveyard Keeper.

Even before I purchased the game – or got it through a bundle, I forget – Graveyard Keeper had been unfavorably compared to Stardew Valley. Specifically, how the game devolves into an inordinate grind. Having played the game now for about 25 hours, I have to agree. But it is not the grind that is the problem, but the overall disjointed experience.

As you might imagine from the name, the primary task is the maintenance of the graveyard and nearby chapel. Bodies will be delivered periodically, and interring them can not only improve the overall quality of the graveyard, but gives you a Burial Certificate which you can trade for coins. As things progress, you get the ability to perform autopsies to improve the “quality” of the bodies before burial – primarily by removing “sinful” organs – such that higher quality headstones and such can unlock the full potential of a buried corpse.

So, the gameplay loop starts relatively tight. You chop trees and mine stones/ore to build headstones and such to improve the graveyard. Improving the graveyard eventually allows you lead sermons that generate Faith resources, which allow you to research further technology.

Things fall apart in the mid to late game. The ultimate goal of the game is to collect six items from certain NPCs in town and spend 12g on a last item. 12g is 1200 silver and you get 1.5 silver for each buried/burned body. Thus, you need alternative means of making money. Which is fine, because the quests necessary to get the special items are long and involved and require you to do all sorts of tech-tree development, building dozens of workstations, and basically creating a little empire. However… you can’t specialize. The bartender will purchase the wine you make, for example, but each bottle sold will reduce the price of the next bottle, and prices only recover slowly over time. Which means you need to do all the things all the time, when there will never be enough of it to matter.

To me, that is not even the worst part. The worst part is that your time horizon is ever only seven in-game days. In Stardew Valley, you had seasons and yearly events to plan towards. Sometimes that was a massive pain and source of min-maxing, given that you could spend a lot of time on crops only to have them all die a day before harvesting because the calendar changed. But it also gave you a focus. Hell, you could focus on just a few things, e.g. fishing vs animals vs growing crops, depending on your mood. Graveyard Keeper requires a generalized approach of running around all day every day, never really getting a sense that you’re making progress on any particular thing.

I even have some zombies now to assist in automating resource collection, and I still never have time to do all the things I need to do to feel satisfied on my progress. At one point, I just abandoned the whole corpse part of the game for several in-game weeks because I couldn’t be bothered. I was trying to unlock the second-tier Alchemy Bench so that I could actually start using the Embalming techniques I had unlocked 10 hours beforehand, but the convoluted tech tree and components meant I couldn’t do much of anything. Even when there are interesting choices to make, such as removing more organs than necessary to turn them into alchemical ingredients at the cost of corpse quality, all it becomes is just another chore to do on the path to something else.

It is difficult to discern why I still like playing this game. Well, perhaps not too difficult: it’s a game that encourages planning and thinking even when not actively playing. Same with Fallout 76, really, in that even at work I am strategizing on what I plan to do in-game when I get home. But this chronic tension and sense of never making particular headway is also exhausting, and the last thing I need more of in my life.

Do Nothing, Save Money

It’s amazing the value of doing nothing.

Recent Steam sale? Bought nothing. There are like 30 items on my wishlist, but none of them are particularly… buyable? For example, I have Sekiro on there but A) it’s a newer game that won’t see a deep discount, and more importantly B) I have no means of playing. I’m actually coming up on the end of my 4-week baby probationary period (i.e. paternity leave), but that just means a new reality of daily babysitting and the same lack of any ability to do much of anything after work still.

Recent Amazon Prime Day? Well, I did buy some house stuff because I’m a bleeding heart liberal that nevertheless enjoys next-day delivery of… let me check… 100 ft extension cords, razors, fish food, and USB chargers. More importantly though, I did not buy that PS4 Pro $300 bundle despite the fact that I was actually browsing Amazon right when it went up.

If I’m honest, it was less willpower and more dithering. “Surely I would play it! Totally different scenario from the PS3 I have hooked up next to the monitor I’m currently typing on.” “If I’m buying a console for no reason, why not a Switch instead? There are fewer Playstation exclusives I’m interested in, plus it’s portable when watching the baby!” “Yeah… but Final Fantasy 7: Remake.”

“…aaaaaaand it’s gone.jpeg.” “Success baby.jpeg.”

I have talked in the past about my digital hoarding predilections, insofar as it is more centered around avoiding paying MSRP. A good deal on a game that I want to play eventually is very enticing, because when the mood strikes, it strikes hard and turns any other game into ash in my mouth. This used to be a big problem.

Now? I have accepted my fate. I play phone games and browse Reddit for nine hours, then maybe play something equally mindless, like Fallout 76 or now Graveyard Keeper when off baby duty. Could I jump back into Divinity: Original Sin 2? Not really. I mean, I could play it, but I’d probably be interrupted every 30 minutes or so, and only have about two total hours in any case. When that becomes your gaming time horizon, your tastes shift.

I am hoping that things will eventually settle down. My child doesn’t sleep through the night, or even in a crib for longer than 15 minutes yet. I think babies are supposed to though? I have no idea. All I do know is that sometimes doing nothing is the correct answer, which just so happens to correspond to my existence at the moment.

Christ, I just want to sleep. And play videogames.

Vote with Your (Whale) Wallet

There was an interesting, albeit depressing, exchange on Reddit concerning the release of Dr. Mario World, Nintendo’s latest foray into mobile nihilism. Basically, it’s Dr. Mario meets Candy Crush (e.g. stamina meters) with a dash of gacha game lootboxes. Which is a little weird, considering Nintendo seems to make a point about not being too greedy with their monetization strategies. What changed?

$$$$$$

Five years ago, I made the point that “voting with your wallet” was a losing strategy, in comparison to complaining about things and thereby possibly voting with other peoples’ wallets. That sentiment seems almost quaint these days. The current reality we inhabit is one in which the mere existence of people willing to drop $100 (or $1000) in a sitting dictates how mobile games are developed.

I would like to believe there is some kind of silver lining in all this. And maybe there is. If you are just looking for something to do on your phone, there are tens of thousands of options available for free. Not all of them are even horrible. Hell, go play Dr. Mario World if you want!

As someone who loves the purity of elegant game design though… I’m fucked. I could vow to never play these games again, convince thousands more to join the boycott, and it wouldn’t matter. When 90% of the playerbase is already not paying for anything, and the average lifetime value of paying customers is single digits, one $99 purchase justifies a lot of nonsense. Not just in one game, but every game. There will be exceptions, but they exist as deliberate acts, fighting the ocean current.

When money is speech, the richest speak the loudest.

…er, when did we decide that was a good idea, again?

Subscription Pass

When the videogame historians look back on this particular monetization strata, it will undoubtedly be the Season Pass era. Or perhaps the Microtransaction era more generally, to include loot boxes, but with legislators and science slowly turning against loot boxes, I feel like more and more games will be making a hard turn into the Season Pass model.

To be clear, I am not referring to the Season Passes of yore, in which you essentially pre-ordered DLC. The new hotness is basically a month-to-month subscription. This most recently slapped me in the face in Clash Royale:

Clash-Royale-Update-Pass-royale-1147670

The new troop doesn’t even officially get released until Season 2…

Someone on Reddit wrote up all the incentives that your $5 will purchase, and the list is somewhat enticing. None of them are technically P2W, which is itself a moot point because you could drop $99 on shit from basically day 1 in Clash Royale anyway. Indeed, if you look at the package in comparison to what your hard-earned cash could buy normally, you’re effectively getting 10x-11x the normal value. Five dollars will get you 500 gems, which can convert to 10,000g or two emotes or two Lightning Chests… or basically give you 40,000+ gold, 800 more cards (including 60+ Epics) and a bunch of other stuff.

Of course, Supercell doesn’t want it to be an either/or scenario. You can do both. Having an exceptionally generous Season Pass can lure F2P players into making their first purchase, after which it is easy to make another. One of the “perks” of the one in Clash Royale is an auto-announcement in Clan chat that you purchased the pass, and thereafter your name shows up in gold coloring in chat and battling. Turns out that adding gold leaf to a scarlet letter makes it rather desirable.

The dilemma I face is the same as always: I am caught in eye of the monetization storm.

ClashRoyale_AlmostMax.jpg

Could I be any more off-meta?

As the screenshot shows, I am one Miner card away from having a fully-maxed deck. I am sorely tempted to purchase the Season Pass entirely to get that last Miner card. It would normally not be too difficult to trade for it within my current clan, but there are at least three other members currently asking for Miners themselves, and none seem keen to trust me in giving up one of their so I can max the card and satisfy an effectively infinite number of trades thereafter.

After that though… what then? I have dozens of technically maxed cards that I cannot actually max out because I lack the gold to upgrade them all. Not that I would need to max them out in the first place, considering I don’t use them in decks. The deck I have is the one I enjoy the most. The last two slots are technically flex slots, but I have tried a bunch of alternatives and found them lacking.

Would the new Fisherman legendary card be a good fit? Completely irrelevant. New legendaries may as well not exist, because I would need literal dozens of them to get them anywhere near usable levels where I’m sitting on the ladder (~5800 last season) and in 2v2. Granted, the Fisherman has some utility outside of his base HP and damage – the ability to hook and pull troops around like Roadhog from Overwatch – but I’m still not bringing that to match that matters.

In any event, the Season Pass model gives me pause. In the context of cash purchases within Clash Royale, it’s a great deal. Would I pay a $5/month subscription to Clash Royale though? Nope. It’s not a subscription though, as there are no reoccurring payments. “Cancel any time!” And yet there will be tens of thousands who do re-up every month, for the rewards or the conveniences lost.

Technically this should be positive Consumer Surplus territory… so why do I feel so dirty?

Possibly because I felt the hook twitch. Supercell isn’t reeling in the line yet, but it’s there. Subscription versus Season Pass is a distinction without a difference, and yet those who would riot about the former in their game are praising the latter. It is a trick of psychology, a stark reminder we can be tricked, and evidence that we face amoral corporations that have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to trick us out of as much money as possible.

For however bad loot boxes may seem, never forget that loot boxes are apparently not enough.