Category Archives: Commentary

Love/Hate the Meta

Metas are interesting things.

In Hearthstone, the latest expansion (Knights of the Frozen Throne) just recently came out. New expansions and nerfs and such destabilize the meta in CCGs pretty well, and this expansion more than most. Whereas the previous Hearthstone meta was all about Pirate Warrior and aggro, the new one is more Control-oriented. Well, that and Jades. And Murlocs. So, basically, Druids and Paladins are 60% of the entire field until people get done experimenting and deck lists get more refined.

I so, so hate this transition period in Hearthstone. Because honestly? Hearthstone isn’t a CCG I especially like to experiment with. I like when the meta is stable, and I have a pretty good idea of which cards my opponent could be playing on any given turn. About to be Turn 7 against a Mage? Better watch out, because he’ll deal 4 damage to my creatures by playing Flamestrike (as a somewhat dated example). In other words, having some knowledge about common net decks allows you the ability to constructively play around cards. When people are throwing everything against the wall to see what sticks, you either have to play around cards they don’t have (and get wrecked), or not play around cards they do have (and get wrecked).

And, to be fair, some of my acrimony is based on the fact that I have so few of the new cards. Crafting Legendaries without a stable meta is extremely risky, as the value of any particular one is dependent on what rises to the top of the heap over time. Craft the “wrong” Legendary and it will take ages to get enough Dust to craft the actually useful one.

Thus, I like a well-seasoned Hearthstone meta over this period of chaos.

Meanwhile, the Clash Royale meta has been stale for almost half a year now, and it’s driving me nuts. Supercell had a balance patch in the last few weeks, and it has definitely caused some cards to go from Hot to Not pretty damn quick (e.g. Night Witch). Some of these changes have had noticeable ripple effects – nerfing Night Witch means that Executioner is less necessary as a hard counter, which then lets cards that were countered by Executioner to flourish, and so on.

…but ultimately the meta is still stale as shit. Win conditions are still Hog Rider, Royal Giant, Golem/Giant beatdown, LavaLoon, Splashyard, and Siege. About the most interesting development in the past few months has been the Bridge Spam strategy, 3 Musketeers + Heal, and maybe Miner + Poison. Now, perhaps nine different win conditions sounds like a lot, but the problem is that these strategies are so oppressive if one doesn’t actively “hate” against them, that you end up needing to use cookie-cutter counters for half (or more) of your deck.

For example, you’re going to need something to deal with Beatdown, which consists of stacking a bunch of glass cannons behind a slow-moving tank. Most people go with Inferno Tower, which can melt tanks after a charge-up period. Beatdown decks have counters to this, of course, which often reset the charging, if not blowing the tower up entirely (e.g. Lightning spell). So, you’ll probably need two strategies to counter… but that second strategy can’t be something like the Mini P.E.K.K.A, because Lightning blows him up too. Often, the strategy then becomes to ignore the tank and rush the opposite lane, hoping that the other player drops his glass cannons there instead of behind the tank.

So, in practice, there are really only three kind of decks, not 9+: Beatdown, Cycle, and Chip Damage. Personally, I have always enjoyed Chip Damage decks, as my favorite card in the game is Furnace, which spawns suiciding Fire Spirits every couple of seconds. It’s definitely out of meta, but that hasn’t bothered me too much, up until Beatdown/Cycle decks became refined enough to counter Chip Damage decks by accident.

“Just adapt.” Of course… except in the 4000+ bracket, if your cards aren’t at par (or over-leveled) with everyone else’s, you are at an incredible disadvantage. A level 9 Fireball (4-mana) will one-shot a level 8 Wizard (5-mana), and likely deal some tower damage at the same time; a level 9 Wizard will survive with a sliver of health. These sort of unit interactions are critically important in guiding your strategy, and will make or break games. Thus, I couldn’t change strategies if I tried – unless I wanted to drop down the ladder for months until I scrounged up enough gold to level other cards.

Hmm.

Originally, I thought there was a contradiction between how I felt about the Hearthstone and Clash Royale metas. In Hearthstone, I hated the fluidity of the early expansion meta, whereas in Clash Royale I hated the opposite. But thinking about it, the common denominator is how onerous it is to adapt to either meta. I can’t experiment in either game because I’m not willing to spend more cash. Without cash, my mobility is extremely limited. With low mobility, I cannot adapt to changing metas, which means I effectively get shunted off the playing board when my cards get hard-countered.

It sucks, man. The more you like these “F2P” games, the more punished you get.

Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

End of Mass Effect

So it is looking more and more like the Mass Effect series is done. Latest word is that Mass Effect: Andromeda will not be getting any single-player DLC. While I do not normally care for DLC – much less story-based DLC – this is not a particularly good sign for the health of the series.

And that’s a damn shame.

Andromeda is not remotely close to being as good as any of the original trilogy titles. But… it’s not bad, either. Animations are still wonky, especially when compared to what came before. At the same time, the actual graphics and alien vistas are phenomenal. Combat too is probably the best it has ever been, in terms of cadence and action. While there are still waist-high barriers around in most areas, it certainly doesn’t feel as forced as it did in prior titles. The side crew can’t hold a candle to the OG team from the Milky Way, but perhaps they could have caught up in the next few games.

The problem seems to have been development run amok. I have seen a lot of people decry those derisive animation memes as the reason for the game’s poor reception, but few people examine why the animations were poor to begin with. Despite being in development for 5 years, the game only really coalesced a year and a half before launch. It boggles my mind that the designers were thinking a No Man’s Sky approach to Mass Effect was ever a good idea, e.g. thousand of procedurally generated random planets. This is a flagship franchise – if you want to screw around with the formula, do it with another property!

To date, I still have not completed the main story in Andromeda. As is custom, I got to a stage in which I felt like the endgame was approaching, so I quickly veered off into sidequest territory. I even completed that stupid sidequest that required 16 mineral readings from every crag of the ass end of the universe. Not because it’s fun, but because I’m cruising around with fun company. I mentioned it elsewhere, but I could listen to Peebee and Drak shoot the shit for hours. And I have.

I will be sad when it is over.

While I am a big believer in finding meaning and purpose in every action one takes, I also hate unfinished stories (Kingkiller Chronicles much?). You can certainly have fun with Andromeda, as I have thus far. But I am weary of encouraging anyone being sucked into an orphaned narrative.

Regression Towards the Mean

I’m sure that 7 Days to Die (7DTD) is a rather niche topic of interest to most people here, much less discussion about experimental Alpha builds of an Early Access titles, but I feel like the things going on with its development are applicable more generally.

When the first Alpha 16 (A16) experimental build arrived, it was transformative. Sleeper zombies seems like a minor change, but it fundamentally changed how you interacted with buildings. Prior to A16, you knew pretty much instantly how many zombies were inside a given structure, and once you killed all of them banging on the doors trying to get out, you were free to loot the place in peace. That is no longer the case – now you must actively sweep each room, and double-tap each body on the floor to ensure it stays where it is. There are still some bugs with these Sleepers suddenly spawning right behind you, but the overall effect is that nowhere is safe until you make it so.

Then came the balance changes.

First, since the Sleeper zombie system necessarily increases the amount of zombies one faces, zombie loot was decreased across the board. This makes sense, as if prior loot rates stayed the same, you might end up getting more loot from the zombies inside a building than the building itself.

In practice though, reducing zombie loot makes fighting zombies considerably less fun, especially on Horde nights. Zombies essentially become resource drains, to be avoided if possible. Which… maybe makes sense. Games like Dying Light featured that model, with zombies that functioned as speed bumps and possible death traps, nothing else. The problem is that Dying Light also featured impenetrable home bases, whereas even a few ignored zombies in 7DTD can bring down the strongest base in time.

Another change? Resource gains were reduced significantly. Up to this point, there was a “last hit” bonus drop of resources when you finally cut down a tree or smashed a boulder. Not only were the bonus resources great, but it was also viscerally satisfying getting that last burst of stuff concurrent with destroying the object you were mining. Apparently it made the early game too easy for the devs’ tastes however, so they got rid of it. Now when you fell a tree, you get the same 2-3 pieces of wood you got from whacking it the first 30 times.

More recently, the devs have also messed around with Stamina gains and losses. Stamina has always been a bit weird in 7DTD. There are a lot of Perks that correspond with Stamina gains – from making Sprinting cost less, to making Stamina recharge faster, and everything inbetween – but none of them really felt necessary. There was even Coffee and Beer items one could craft to recharge Stamina faster, but why bother? You could get into trouble being chased by a bear after cutting down a tree, but Stamina otherwise served the purpose of preventing you from Sprinting across the map 24/7.

Now? Iron/Steel tools will pretty much instantly drain all of your Stamina. Setting aside the more realistic concern of whether a steel shovel would make digging a hole easier than a stone shovel, the change seems rather ham-fisted. Yes, by making it virtually impossible to complete any tasks without Stamina Perks, the devs have made Stamina Perks relevant. But I’m not sure any thought was spared regarding whether Stamina Perks were a good idea to begin with.

Waiting around for Stamina to recharge is boring gameplay. It is literally no gameplay. Even if the idea is for the early game to be more “dangerous” or difficult, even if the goal is to tangibly demonstrate how improved your character gets over time, this is NOT the way to do it. Having Sleeper zombies haunt every house already shoots the difficulty of the early game through the roof. Reduced Wood gain has made crafting your own base impractical for the first few in-game weeks. Making early lucky finds like an Iron Pickaxe practically pointless until well after the point at which you could create one yourself? Mind-bogglingly stupid.

Experimental builds are experimental, and all this could be reverted tomorrow. Still, it remains concerning to me that the devs are placing such a high premium on “older” ideas rather than iterating on what actually feels fun about the game currently. Half a dozen Stamina Perks do not feel fun, nor does funneling skill points into them. They seem committed to keeping them simply because they had them already, in some weird Sunk Cost Fallacy manner.

Hopefully, things will change – if not soon, then by the beta.

On Sidequests

Syp over at Biobreak recently suggested a bold move: killing the MMO sidequest.

While I can certainly defend main story quests — such as zone/planet-wide chains or a personal story arc that goes through most of the game — side missions lack positive qualities that make them desirable. Let’s call them for what they really are: busy work. Side quests are small tasks that offer no real story, no significant reward, and only serve to pad out your quest log and allow dev teams to be able to boast ridiculously high quest tallies for patches and expansions (“200 new quests! Of which only 15 are memorable in any way!”).

[…]

Let’s think about it. If your favorite MMO one day yanked all of its side quests, leaving only factional, zone, dungeon, and overarching story arcs intact, would it really suffer for it? Would you bemoan their loss? Players are forever asking to be able to just play through the main storylines without all of these diversions down rabbit trails, so why not give it to them? Just increase XP for the main quests and work on providing other forms of much more meaningful content that can serve as a focus for players’ time.

Following the post, there were a dozen or so commenters who were in favor of the proposal. Which got me thinking… are they on to something?

Not really.

Sidequests are vitally important to any MMO, or single-player RPG for that matter. Or, at least, they should be. See, one of the primary purposes of sidequests is pacing. Which is absolutely different from filler. Filler is the pointless busywork that a designer adds to pad the game’s playtime. I am all for the death of filler, which is bad pretty much by definition.

Pacing, meanwhile, is all about enhancing the main story. How do you enhance a story? By fleshing it out. Giving context to its development. Allowing breathing room in which to digest the latest narrative bombshell. Bringing the world in which the story exists to life.

For example, Lord of the Rings is a 1178-page story about [spoiler alert] destroying a magic ring. Frodo’s travails towards and around Mount Doom are the Main Story Quest (MSQ). Hell, I’ll even concede that all that business with Aragorn and Helm’s Deep and the throne of Gondor and all of those pitched battles are a part of that same MSQ, despite them being a literal distraction so that Frodo could complete the only quest that actually mattered.

Having said that, the reason why we care about Frodo destroying the ring in the first place is because of the rest of it. We care about the supporting characters, we care about the Shire, we care about the world in which these people inhabit. MSQs are good at driving action forward, but they are terrible at world-building. That is sort of by design: there is an expectation that details included in a MSQ will be relevant to the future of the MSQ, Chekhov Gun-style. You cannot have the MSQ examine the life of an average farmer toiling under the weight of an oppressive regime without expecting said farmer eventually being executed/liberated in a later chapter.

Sidequests are the mechanism by which imaginary worlds are built. Bad, filler sidequests do not tell you anything about the world other than its inability to kill ten rats. Good sidequests create minor characters and story hooks and introduce you to the world which you are trying to save… even if you are still killing ten rats to do so. The MSQ asks you to save the world, and sidequests tell you why.

Then there are the mechanical, game design aspects of sidequests. In an MMO, there is often considerably more physical world built than strictly necessary to drive the MSQ forward. Indeed, a MSQ that somehow forced you to explore every inch of every zone in sequence would feel forced and arbitrary (see: FF14). Sidequests, meanwhile, provide optional incentives to explore all four corners of the map, to face different enemy types in different areas, and so on. Well, “optional” unless the XP from sidequests are required in order to level up enough to fight in the next zone. However, again, that would be an example of bad sidequests.

About two months ago, I was less bullish on sidequests than this post. At the time, I was playing FF14, which is exceptionally bad in the boring, vapid sidequest department. In fact, FF14 is exceptionally bad in the MSQ department, with nearly everyone stating that the story really starts getting good… once you reach the original endgame. In the meantime, I suppose I’m just expected to endure these pointless, trivial tasks like flying around to the various capitals and deliver letters?

On the other hand, I have also been playing Mass Effect: Andromeda. While not as good as the original trilogy, Andromeda absolutely has engaged me in even the most repetitive of sidequests. Why? Because I like it there. I like the world Bioware has created, I like the characters and the amusing banter they get involved in. I could listen to Peebee and Drack talk about shit all day. In fact, I have, inbetween sidequests to scan minerals and other “busy work.” Work that required me to explore every corner of each planet and have an “excuse” to engage in one of the best iterations of a Mass Effect combat system yet.

If you do not care about the game world, or do not care for the combat system, then yes, there isn’t much distinguishing legit sidequests from filler. But in a well-crafted game, the sidequests shouldn’t be mandatory to begin with. In which case, there isn’t a reason to kill them; just ignore them and move on with the story.

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?