Category Archives: Commentary

Skill Punishment

I continue to play Clash Royale on my work breaks, and often inbetween games while at home. On the ladder, the start of the Challenger 1 tier is at 4000 trophies, and I fluctuate between that and about 4200. The next tier up requires 4300, but the end-of-season rewards aren’t that much better, especially for the nonsense that one has to put up with on the ladder. Specifically, players with less skill but higher-level cards they got either from grinding one specific deck, or using cash.

Usually the latter, honestly.

The problem – or, rather, Supercell’s money-making feature – is that new cards come out about once a month. Sometimes the card is OP, sometimes it’s junk, sometimes it just makes the gameplay more interesting. Trouble is, my skill level is such that I am actively punished for changing my deck.

This high in the ladder, anything less than a level 11 common or level 9 rare card is mostly garbage, with only a few exceptions. New cards come out at level 1, and require you to both collect the necessary amount of cards (which is not a given) and the necessary amount of gold to upgrade the cards. Going from a level 1 to level 11 common costs 35,625g; rares cost about the same, 35,600g, to get to level 9. The cost of upgrades is exponential, with the “hump” between level 10-11 common and level 8-9 rare being 20,000g by itself.

It is not inconceivable to accumulate the 20k gold by normal gameplay within the month, but 35k gold is really pushing it. Nevermind how all the gold is being funneled into upgrading a new card, rather than the cards in the actual deck grinding the gold. The next level tier above 11/9 costs 50,000g, for example, and might be enough to start winning you games that you should have lost. Or you could play with the new cards and probably be rolled.

The latest preview shows that there are 5 new cards to be released, including one Legendary card. Seeing this on my screen after grueling matches between either equally skilled opponents or P2W whales is demoralizing beyond belief. These new cards could be something cool, something to revitalize my flagging interest in the game. But I can’t afford to keep up.

This is absolutely a Red Queen scenario too, because while you might not be upgrading, everyone else is, and that makes your own cards weaker over time. For example, one of my favorite cards is the Furnace, as it spawns little Fire Spirits every 10 seconds; people typically don’t know how to deal with it, and often end up wasting Elixir trying to play around it. Trouble is, if your opponent has a higher level Princess Tower (e.g. one of the towers you need to destroy to win) than your Furnace, the Fire Spirits get one-shot for free versus forcing your opponent to respond or take gradual damage. For this reason, I poured a lot of resources into getting the Furnace to level 9 ASAP. Nowadays, half of my opponents are level 12, which means my Furnace is practically useless. Over time, this is just going to get worse, as more and more people continue leveling up.

Supercell has ways out of this death spiral, although I’m not entirely sure it’s enough. The various tournaments you can play in cap the levels of cards such that everything can be relatively balanced. More recently, they re-introduced the 2v2 mode and allowed you to play it while earning treasure chests and Crowns. The 2v2 mode actually uses your potentially over-leveled cards, but the introduction of a partner and the general chaos of the fights obfuscates the level disparity at worst, and sometimes negates it entirely at best. For the past week, I have opted to fight zero regular ladder games because 2v2 is immensely less frustrating to lose. And even when you do lose, you don’t actually go down in ranks.

That being said, the situation still feels pretty grim. Supercell recently changed the matching algorithms such that you can’t really sandbag your ranking anymore; even if you intentionally drop 500+ ranks, you end up facing other skilled players who have sandbagged themselves too, potentially trapping yourself at lower levels. And while the 2v2 mode is technically here, it also has an apparent time limit. Nevermind the fact that if the 2v2 mode actually sticks around and “resolves” my issue, that means Supercell forgoes the thumbscrew that is the ladder system.

The ideal gamer response seems to be… being mediocre at the game. That way, upgrading cards doesn’t take tens of thousands of gold, and thus you have more free gold to more easily try out newer cards as they are released. Plus, you know, you are less likely to be as invested in continuing to play the game, thus less tempted to throw down cash to stay competitive.

Eroding and monetizing every inch of Consumer Surplus has always been the end-goal for these companies, but more and more I am understanding exactly how malicious it ends up feeling.

Delayed vs Rushed

Remember when I said I was pining for an update to 7 Days to Die? It’s finally happening.

Hopefully.

It has been over eight months since 7 Days to Die has been updated to Alpha 15. Reaction to the Alpha 16 update announcement has been… mixed, but mainly due to that very length. (And streamers getting first dibs for no reason.) The game is still in Early Access, still in Alpha, still missing every single Roadmap and timeline the developers have offered. That said, there is fairly routine forum interaction from at least one employee, there have been multiple Alpha 16 videos, and so on. Development for this zombie apocalypse game hasn’t, ahem, died.

My thoughts on this are somewhat conflicted. Shigeru Miyamoto of Mario (et tal) fame once said:

A delayed game is eventually good, but a rushed game is forever bad.

Within the context of traditional videogames, he is 100% correct. If you released a cartridge game and it was rushed, then it was forever rushed. There were no patches back in those days, bizarre Sega shenanigans notwithstanding.

Sonic3

The current gaming climate is completely different. Games will frequently be released broken, as in totally nonfunctional (see: Fallout New Vegas), and even the better ones often have hefty Day 1 patches measured in gigabytes. Even for single-player games, the norm these day are several content patches over the “life” of the title, and not just DLC either. Just look at Mass Effect (both trilogy and Andromeda) and FF15.

Early Access muddies the water even more. When is a game actually “released” anymore? When it goes Gold? When it starts charging money?

Regardless, I think the fundamental concern these days is Mission Creep and the anxiety surrounding whether the developers actually get around to… well, perhaps not finishing the game, but at least not abandoning it midway. Some Early Access games are more playable than others, but sometimes the developers decide to go off on a design tangent that leads to a forever incomplete game. For example, in 7 Day to Die, the developers spent a considerable amount of time on Alpha 16 incorporating the ability to “paint” blocks. It’s texture paint, so perhaps that will make future Points of Interest creation/modding easier. And there’s electricity/auto-turrets now too. Meanwhile, the zombie AI is still pretty dumb, zombies can’t dig downwards so bunker-bases just win you the game, and so on.

The ideal is always going to be Polished and On-Time. If one must choose between Delayed and Rushed however, I find myself leaning towards Rushed more and more these days. Rushed means bugs, usually, or imbalance in mechanics. But at least it is something, something real and tangible and able to take the edge off that burning desire for novelty. Delayed means “possibly never” and is often just as imbalanced and in need of additional updates anyway.

Steamy

I am not a frequent reader of Polygon, but their recent (hit) piece on Steam is interesting. There is a lot going on in the article, but these are the two thesis paragraphs:

This, then, is Good Guy Valve — a corporation which employs precision-engineered psychological tools to trick people into giving them money in exchange for goods they don’t legally own and may never actually use while profiting from a whole lot of unpaid labor and speculative work … but isn’t “evil.”

This is the Good Guy everyone seems too afraid to call out, the toxic friend who is so popular that upsetting him will just make things worse for you, so you convince yourself he’s really not that bad and that everyone else is over-reacting. Once the Good Guy illusion has disappeared, we’re left with the uncomfortable truth: Valve is nothing more than one of the new breed of digital rentiers, an unapologetic platform monopolist growing rich on its 30 percent cut of every purchase — and all the while abrogating every shred of corporate or moral responsibility under the Uber-esque pretense of simply being a “platform that connects gamers to creators.”

Basically, Valve conned us 13 years ago into believing they were the Good Guys, to the point that we unapologetically ascribe sins to Origin and UPlay that Valve themselves invented, and still perform where not prevented by EU law. Shkreli would give his left nut for the amount of free advertising that blasts over the internet for every Steam sale. All of this, all of this free money coming in, all this outrage over other corporations screwing over customers and employees alike… and we still eat it up for Valve.

I will admit that this article gave me pause.

It is a weird situation to find myself in, especially given that I am Pro-Consumer. Have you heard about Consumer Surplus? I invented that term. I will talk all day about how obscene it is for Blizzard to charge $25 for a character transfer, but spend zero time talking about how Valve takes a 75% cut of community-created DotA item/model sales.

That said, I’m not entirely sure there is a contradiction there, much less a cause for proletarian revolt.

Look, most of us grew up in the pre-Steam days. Do you remember what buying PC games was like? It was chaos. Sometimes you needed to keep the CD in the tray to play the game, sometimes you didn’t. Sometimes the publishers installed a rootkit on your machine, sometimes they didn’t. The first time I ever “pirated” a game was with Command & Conquer 3 because the disc I bought from the store wouldn’t play; there was either a scratch on the CD or some bug or something, but it instantly crashed on boot. Downloading a Day 1 crack on a game you just bought for $50 and couldn’t even return is pretty emblematic for that time period.

In short, Steam saved the PC gaming industry. It provided a framework in which the industry could grow, while simultaneously providing immense value to gamers. Steam sales actually were revolutionary at the time – the only times you ever got a discount elsewhere was when the game was in a bargain bin. Steam sales are disappointing these days, for sure, in a world of GreenManGaming, Amazon discounts, and all the other storefronts. Whom deliver Steam keys 99% of the time. Which is what most gamers want, considering the platform itself is immensely stable in comparison to oh, say, RockStar’s Social Club.

There are legitimate complaints regarding Steam. The Support sucks, so I have heard. It took them entirely too long to introduce Refunds, and I understand that that only came under threat of court orders. I’m also sure that the author’s claims regarding reimbursement percentages for selling character models is probably true.

But overall, I think the article is mostly attacking a straw man. There will be Valve fanboys, just as there are Apple fanboys. The difference is that Apple is a walled garden of overpriced, proprietary bullshit. Steam appears to be a near-monopoly… but based on what, exactly? Origin (or GOG, etc) might indeed be the better gaming platform these days… if it weren’t for the fact that they have an absurdly low (in comparison) library of available titles. Does Steam have exclusivity agreements that nobody knows about? If not, who is really responsible for its market share? No one is stopping anyone from opening a competing service that only takes 25% of the cut or whatever.

The bottom line is that nobody is being tricked here. Uber intentionally treating their entire workforce as contractors to avoid paying for health benefits or time off is not at all the same as “tricking” people into buying videogames over the internet. The damning “culture of cliques” at Valve is laughable; welcome to everywhere. Hell, if you want to see an abused workforce, take a gander over at Amazon warehouse for a moment.

“Good Guy Valve” is a marketing fiction, sure… but built on the back of a decade of actual value.

Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

CraftCraft

A few weeks ago, Gevlon had an interesting post on how crafting in MMOs is fundamentally broken:

If you fight monsters or players, you must constantly cast spells. If you gather, you must move between spawn points. Both needs you to sit at the computer and press buttons (unless botting). But to craft, you just press a button and maybe wait and you are done.

Basically, crafting is broken because all other options available to get in-game currency take keyboard effort (gathering, grinding mobs) whereas crafting does not. And, having reflected on that, it is 100% true. Just as in real life, the people making bank aren’t those doing the work, but the ones working the bank.

Gevlon concedes that there really isn’t a solution to this problem, mainly because “active crafting” would essentially be a grindy minigame. Well, he says the solution is to make it so that everyone can craft everything, thereby hopefully making the crafter-class irrelevant. I’m not so sure, considering how much gold people already make from selling vendor mats in WoW. Any knowledge gap is enough space for the Bourgeoisie to pop up like mushrooms.

Would a minigame really be that bad though?

Maybe. I remember getting pretty frustrated with Wildstar’s crafting system, which was essentially a lot of RNG and wasted mats. I did not spend a whole lot of time in FF14, but I recall a similar minigame there that required button presses for optimum results. Based on the comments on Gevlon’s blog post, it seems there might be other, older MMO examples as well.

Still, I’m thinking that that pretty much has to be the “solution.” This is assuming that you believe there is a problem to begin with. But crafting has felt divorced from the general MMO gameplay experience for ages. Even Fishing in WoW feels more interactive than the normal sort of insane grind (or extreme automation via addons) that is, say, prospecting stacks of ore and/or creating Glyphs. Running around Herbing on a toon feels fun. Smelting ore and transmuting it does not. And yet one of those is much, much more lucrative than the other.

A more active crafting overhaul would require a fundamental rebalancing of the sort of boilerplate crafting experience though. Most crafting systems are predicated on you crafting hundreds of redundant items, for example. Skill-ups – assuming they still exist – would perhaps need to come from successful strikes on the anvil, rather than just one for the finished product. Or perhaps simply an offline system ala EVE.

In any case, I do feel like active crafting is the way forward. There would still be a goblin-esque master class, as I find it unlikely A) even an active system would be slower at gold generation than grinding mobs, and B) a good 80% of the player population is too lazy to craft their own gear. Maybe the right system hasn’t been found yet. Or perhaps the right system is trapped on an older MMO?

Inventory Junk

Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.

Nothing. The answer is nothing.

In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.

Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.

In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

Funslope

I have been musing a lot about Hearthstone and Clash Royale lately.

In Hearthstone, I bought around 22 packs of the latest expansion with accumulated gold and… things didn’t feel particular satisfying. A lot of duplicate commons, and only one Legendary (the hunter quest). I kinda screwed myself over inadvertently though, as I opened a pack reward from the Tavern Brawl, which ended up being Carine, a duplicate Legendary of mine, thus removing my pity timer.

According to Reddit, the latest expansion will cost you about $400 to get all the cards. Let that sink in a moment. $50 will get you 40 packs, and I opened about half that and got hot garbage. Spending enough money to buy a AAA videogame on release will likely not even get you remotely competitive in a F2P game.

This sort of begs the question though: how much should it cost to be competitive in a(ny) game?

On the one hand, I think cost analyses for an entire expansion are a bit ridiculous. Out of the 135 cards available, how many are actually any good? Cutting out the terrible Legendaries will reduce Dust cost by 1600 apiece, for example. Then there is the consideration of whether you really need all the cards on Day 1. There are going to be weeks and weeks of Un’goro, during which you can accumulate more packs naturally. Granted, if you are still buying Un’Goro packs a month before the next expansion’s release, you won’t have any buffer there.

On the other hand… well, it’s all terrible. A bunch of cards just rotated out, so if you aren’t rolling in the latest expansion cards you may as well just give up. Or go play Pirate Warrior and hope the other guy doesn’t have one of a thousand new taunts.

Clash Royale is a different F2P game, but I am encountering similar breakpoints. Specifically, I had a deck that I focused all my in-game resources on, the meta shifted, and now my deck gets hard-countered very easily. You can switch your cards out, but leveling cards takes increasing amounts of gold, and thus I can only field under-leveled cards against people with focused decks.

How easy should it be to max out your stuff though?

Personally, I feel that answer should be “immediately” for competitive PvP games. What is the point of a ladder in these games if you can buy your way to the top? It honestly reminds me of the gacha games, which have “VIP Levels” that unlock as you spend more money buying diamond currency. Well, except these gacha VIP levels are permanent and don’t reset each time new cards come out.

Alas, this is not the case.

What is worse is the simple fact that these games also do not have logical endpoints. They are fun. Then, gradually, they are less so. At what point on the Fun Gradient can you draw a line? I suppose games like Hearthstone are little more cut-and-dry since expansions are released, cycle out, and otherwise contain clear demarcations on the calendar. Clash Royale, meanwhile, does not. I am having less fun than I did a few months ago, but still more fun than either nothing or another game. So I continue to play, with internal injuries accumulating from the dissonance.

And just to be clear: these games are engineered this way. Payslopes? More like Funslopes. And at the bottom of this slope is just a money-pit that you fill with cash to try and make a softer landing.

Reroll

There is a fascinating game design conundrum that I have encountered twice now, which can summed up by “Reroll.” This is not rerolling in the MMO sense – although it is arguably an issue with WoW’s Legion expansion vis-a-vis Legendaries – but rather in the sense of creating new accounts to take advantage (or mitigate damage) of random rewards. It is a conundrum with no good solutions, and it’s harder still to even imagine which solution is least bad.

The first time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was with the mobile app Puzzle & Dragons. After spending 20-30 minutes going through the tutorial, the game gives you one free pull on the Crack Machine, aka Gashapon, aka Lockbox, aka et cetera. This always results in a super rare (or higher) monster from a wide list of such, and represents pretty much the only guaranteed way to get one of these super monsters as a F2P player before the heat death of the universe.

(You can earn cash-like currency for future pulls on this same machine, but they aren’t guaranteed to be as rare a result as the first pull.)

The problems are many, and there is a deep gradient of bad for all of them. First, you could get a weak monster. While any rare monster is better than the starter monsters you normally get, it’s a fact that some of the pulls are absolutely abysmal in comparison to what you could have received.

Second, in the worst case scenario, you could get an okay monster. This is the worst case because… what do you do? Settle immediately? Reroll? If a result is terrible, the course is pretty clear. When it is technically alright, but not great, it’s hard to justify any particular decision.

Now, imagine you get “best” result: a super rare, super strong monster. Congratulations! Now you get to enjoy not using it for 20+ hours. Each monster has a point cost associated with it, and stronger ones cost more points. The only way to increase the team point limit is to level up your account, which requires getting XP, which requires going through dungeons and such.

The very first time I played Puzzles & Dragons, I got a middling result and just kept it, not knowing any better. While it was a middling monster, it had a lower point cost, which meant that I could use it right away. And I did so for many, many gameplay hours. When I realized my “mistake” later on, I decided to reroll for a better result. After a few dozen rerolls, I finally got a fantastic pull… that I couldn’t use until much later. I ended up quitting the game altogether before I even got to the point at which I could even field the monster.

The second time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was here recently, after installing Shadowverse. I might do a larger post on Shadowverse later, but the short version is that the game is Hearthstone: Anime Boob edition. The relevant point though is that after an extremely quick tutorial mission (which you can even skip), Shadowverse rewards you with almost 30+ free packs of cards.

I think you can see where this might be going.

None of the packs you receive are guaranteed to have any particular rarity. That said, opening all your free packs usually results in around 4-5 Legendary cards, but you can technically get as many as 6-10. Like any other CCG, some Legendaries are better than others, and of course even the good class-specific ones might be “wasted” if you don’t like that class’s mechanics. And thus… reroll.

The sad part in Shadowverse’s case is that there is both a Steam and mobile version of the game. Rerolling on mobile is easy in the sense that you just have to delete some app data and you’re good. On Steam? No rerolling, as your account is linked to a Steam ID. Had I done some research ahead of time, I would have discovered you can reroll a bunch of times on mobile first, and then link your mobile data to Steam and basically be good to go. Instead, I am stuck with my poor Steam results, unless I want to only play Shadowverse on mobile from now on. Or create new Steam accounts for just Shadowverse.

Or perhaps it is better this way, e.g. no rerolling. If I could reroll, I would. Perhaps the designers are simply saving me from myself. On the other hand, getting a bad result is kind of demoralizing. And unlike with Puzzle & Dragons, Shadowverse is ultimately a competitive game where having weaker cards is a real disadvantage.

I am not really sure what the design solution is here. Fundamentally, the problem arises from the intersection of free (random) stuff for new players and ease of new account generation. Tying accounts to more permanent things such as Steam IDs (ala Shadowverse) is perhaps one way with resolving the latter issue, but A) limiting mobile is harder, and B) it doesn’t address the simple fact that random rewards can radically impact your power in these games.

Simply removing the free stuff “resolves” the whole issue, but then you lose out on the “first hit of crack” lockbox effect and generally make the new player experience arguably worse with no catch-up mechanisms. Removing the random element might also “work,” but just changes the baseline and removes any sense of excitement.

So… yeah. dilemma.

Incentives

I have been playing Clash Royale for much longer than I ever really expected to. In fact, near as I can tell, it’s been almost a year. Pretty good for an ostensibly F2P game… that I’ve probably dropped $30 into over that time period.

As Syncaine points outpoints out, Supercell has come a long way in fixing what were some unquestionably amateurish mistakes in the engagement department. The initial rollout of Tournaments, for example, were a total disaster – hundreds of thousands of people spam-clicking on the refresh button to try and sneak into one of the 50-player tournaments, which required other players to pay to host them. Like, what?

Tournaments are now a totally legit game path akin to Hearthstone (or any number of other games’) Arena matches where you pay a nominal gem fee and fight other people at your win count. Twelve wins (max rewards) or three losses and you’re out. Supercell has further expanded tournaments to help introduce new cards too, forcing people to have decks using said new card, but granting access to 100% of all cards, including Legendaries, inside the tournament. So not only do you have the ability to playtest the new cards, but more casual players can even play around with the Legendaries that might not ever see.

As always, the first hit of crack tournament is free to everyone.

However, I am finding Supercell’s other attempt at engagement incentives to be less thought-through. Specifically, they introduced Clan Chests, which is basically a chest that gets stuffed with more free goodies the more Crowns that your clan racks up before the deadline. Crowns are basically tower kills, and everyone earns them by playing ladder games.

[Note: Crowns aren’t consumed. Each one gained will fill all Crown meters.]

On the one hand, it’s a good incentive for social engagement. Since a 10/10 chest grants guaranteed epics and thousands of gold, everyone wants the maximum award. Said maximum requires 1600 Crowns in about 3 days, which comes out to be around 32 Crowns per member in a 50-member clan. Since Crown chests are opened after 10 Crowns collected and reset on a daily basis, the general idea is that it will take just a few extra games more than normal, assuming that you are unlocking the Crown chest on the daily anyway.

On the other hand… it really weeds out the casuals. Anyone can see any clan member’s contribution to the Clan Chest. The clan I’m in has already stated that any member with less than 30 Crowns during the Clan Chest will be kicked. Which is fine, whatever, I’m not in a family clan or anything. But it bears mentioning that getting even 10+ a day to unlock the normal Crown Chest results in more (winning) games than you have spots for chests.

Effectively, not only does opening the Clan Chest require one to “waste” chests (or pay Supercell money to open them faster), it arguably “wastes” surplus Crown Chest Crowns too. It ends up being a flurry of obligatory activity just to stay in the same spot.

Worst of all, though, is how the system pretty much perverts the upper brackets. There are 10 brackets currently, with the top starting at 3000 trophies. Each bracket makes the chests you earn contain more stuff, so there is no particular incentive to tank your trophies to a lower bracket. That said, there is zero difference between 3000 and 4000 trophies (where I am), and all Crowns are worth the same for the Clan Chest. Ergo, the optimal play would be to fill up my chest slots (which happens really quickly), and then tank my trophies by intentionally losing until I get less advanced opponents, then start 3-Crowning them with overleveled troops.

I haven’t gone full asshole yet – usually tanking down to 3500 trophies is enough – but I have absolutely encountered people with maxed troops nowhere near where they should be on ladder, just to cheese the system. And it’s pretty clear that the overachievers in my clan who are racking up 100+ Crowns within the 3-day period are not doing so at their “proper” place on ladder.

I mean, I kinda get it, from Supercell’s side. There is an elegance for all Crowns being equal. And then there’s… err… uh… hrm. Actually, I can’t imagine why else Supercell isn’t fixing this issue by perhaps making top-bracket Crowns count for more. Or giving people above 3000 any reason to care what occurs beyond that number. So what if high-ranked clans get to complete the Clan Chest faster than anyone else? Those last troop upgrades take forever and a day already.

The only reason I can think of is perhaps Supercell needs high-ranked players to be playing more to make the matchmaker work better at the upper end, but that’s not really what’s happening here anyway. The smart players are giving free wins to dozens of people on the way down in order to 3-star newer players on the way back up. This does not make for compelling gameplay for anyone.

Supercell has proven to be pretty nimble when it comes to changes, and have also demonstrated the ability to eat crow over incredibly obvious bad ideas (e.g. the lack of an emote squelch), so I’m hoping that they change this system at some point. As it is, it just creates all the wrong incentives for all the wrong people.

Lockboxes

Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games. I found the post interesting for several reasons, which I will get into in a bit. However, I do want to point out in the beginning that I agree with the premise: lockboxes aren’t going anywhere.

Even though they should. Specifically, into the garbage bin of bad game design.

One of the first of Tyler’s points is that lockboxes don’t literally destroy games. To which I would reply: not directly. Was the first iteration of Diablo 3 unplayable? Nope. Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.

From my perspective, the game was essentially broken in half. ARPGs in general (and especially Diablo) revolve around killing crowds of bad guys and hoping for good loot to drop, and the dopamine feedback loop simply didn’t exist when you could straight-up buy way better gear from the in-game AH. I was killing monsters hoping to get gold to buy better gear, rather than having any illusion that a monster might drop gear for me.

Perhaps even more problematic in Diablo 3’s case were the endgame difficulties. Since players could shop around and directly buy the best possible gear from a million other players’ drops, the endgame was balanced around Resistances and other stats that would be all but impossible to get within your own game sans AH. In other words, since you could buy good gear, the game designers had to create challenges that required that gear for it to be worthwhile, thereby creating cash-required progression.

Now, you might say that Diablo 3’s system wasn’t technically lockboxes at all. Semantics, I say. The point is that if you can buy power for cash, the player incentives in the game change, as do developers’ ultimate design goals.

But what about non-power purchases? Tyler starts out in the post by saying:

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Later on, however, he gets to this part:

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lock[box] obsession is not so much the boxes themselves, but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale.

That is precisely why this business model is so pernicious. As Tyler notes, there are plenty of MMOs out there which have survived just fine almost entirely on the backs of their lockbox revenue. Tyler was making that point in context of refuting lockboxes as short-term cash grabs, but the fact that they are in fact long-term revenue streams is more damning, IMO.

Lockboxes are long-term revenue streams because designers devote significant time to adding more stuff in them at direct expense to the rest of the game. Which makes perfect, rational sense. Under a traditional Buy-2-Play model, you get more money by making a better game. Under anything else, you get more of that game-adjacent thing, which NEVER improves the gameplay experience itself. Because it is never a part of the actual game.

Later, game designers get this defense:

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. […] They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.

I mean… that kind of justifies anything, right? Mylan was just trying to turn a profit with the EpiPen hike in this capitalist society, Martin Shkreli was just trying to turn a profit with that AIDS drug gouge, and so on. Nothing nefarious about that; it’s all just business. “Business” being defined here as consequence-free personal enrichment and erosion of all consumer surplus, of course.

As I mentioned at the beginning, lockboxes aren’t going anywhere in spite of their abhorrent, exploitative, design-destroying influences, precisely because they work. And to be clear, lockboxes work the same way that cigarettes “work,” with similar (metaphorical) long-term effects. Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself; all of those cool mounts and skins could have been added for achievements, as rewards for skill, at the end of a long quest chain, or anywhere at all that reinforces the core gameplay loop.

At best, lockboxes funds game development in a roundabout way. Which sort of begs the question as to why these designers don’t just go full Konami and get into the Pachinko business to which they clearly aspire. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.