Category Archives: Philosophy

Sense of Pride and Accomplishment

In addition to Hollow Knight, I have been playing a bunch of Dead Cells lately.

Because apparently I hate myself.

DeadCells_01

I definitely recommend letting traps do the heavy lifting.

Dead Cells is basically a roguelike Metroidvania that has more in common with Rogue Legacy and Binding of Isaac than, say, Hollow Knight. Defeating enemies occasionally gives you a currency (Cells) that you can spend at the end of each level to unlock permanent upgrades and blueprints of items that are then seeded into the item pool of future runs. Of course, that assumes you make it to the end of the level – die before then, and you lose everything you were carrying, and have to start over at the beginning of the game.

Of course, that’s how roguelikes work. It’s expected that you start over a bunch of times. And in this regard, I definitely felt less terrible after a death in Dead Cells than I did in Hollow Knight.

…up until The Hand of the King encounter, that is.

The final boss in Dead Cells is so absurdly more difficult than anything that comes before it. While its attacks are not inherently “unfair” beyond their massive power – they can be dodged just like everything else – most of them will prevent you from utilizing health potions, lest you get hit again mid-swig. Thus, you have very little opportunity to practice learning his moves, and dying here means it’ll take at least ~30 minutes of re-clearing everything else along the way to get another shot.

DeadCells_02

Amazing ranged synergy… what could go wrong? (Failed run)

Well, after 26 hours /played in Dead Cells, I finally killed the last boss.

According to conventional wisdom, I should be feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment. I died to this boss at least ten times, re-clearing the entirety of the game to get another chance each time. The fight itself is difficult, and difficult = rewarding. Permadeath confers a sense of risk, and overcoming risk = rewarding. Right?

I feel none of that. And it sorta makes you question the whole “difficulty” edifice.

To be fair, I did not expect to win on the particular run that I did. The items offered on each run are random, and while you can sometimes affect the odds by resetting shop items, the best gear drops from bosses and you don’t have many shots at those. I had strolled up to the final boss several times before with what seemed to be unassailable combos, only to die embarrassing deaths. On the winning run, I made a last minute substitution that basically had no particular synergy with anything – it simply offered an extra 30% damage reduction, which apparently was enough to get me over the finish line.

I have never particularly believed that difficulty was valuable in of itself. But the total emptiness of having beat Dead Cells makes me question why I ever tried to debate anyone on difficulty previously. It is often taken as a given that “log in, collect epix” is bad, and defeating the game on extreme permadeath Ironman mode (or whatever) is good. But I know for a fact that I would have enjoyed Dead Cells more had I beaten the last boss two runs earlier than I did two runs later. And that disappointment and dissatisfaction I felt at losing was not made up by eventually winning.

DeadCells_03

Successful run items. Ice Grenade was a late addition.

What makes the situation all the more absurd is that there is a lot more left to Dead Cells. Defeating the last boss unlocks “Boss Cells” which are essentially bonus modifiers you can apply to all enemies and bosses. Defeat the last boss on this new, higher difficulty and you unlock another Boss Cell slot. And so on, up to 4, which is the current limit. Ergo, the last boss could have been easier, and everyone else who craved a harder game could have been more than satisfied with four additional difficulty tiers.

I don’t know. Maybe I’m still just salty from winning when I didn’t expect to, and losing (several times) when I did. Perhaps that was the secret sauce all along – expecting to lose from the start led me to have lower anxiety levels during the fight. Or maybe I had seen the boss’s moves enough to commit them to muscle memory.

All that I know for certain is that difficulty, by itself, doesn’t particularly add anything meaningful to a game. In fact, it often can poison an entire experience. I’m not sure how you balance a game such that there are difficult moments without being frustrating, but Dead Cells ultimately did not get it right when it comes to the final boss. Which is a damn shame, because I otherwise had fun.

Ghost of Fun Past

Novelty is a finite resource. The best we can hope for in a game is that it ends before the novelty wears off. Too soon and the game feels like it missed its full potential (which it literal did). Too late, and well… we feel relief when the credits finally roll. Assuming we can bring ourselves to crawl across the finish line at all.

HollowKnight_2

Unless you like super hard games.

 

As mentioned previously, I have been playing Hollow Knight. It’s a decently fun game (with some reservations) with amazing music and visuals. It also has an almost tangible sense of novelty that you can feel slipping by, as sand through your fingers. Unfortunately, the last third of the game is the “gritty fingers” part of the experience.

Metroidvanias have a delicate balancing act. The hallmarks of the genre are exploration, boss fights, character progression, and backtracking. Specifically, you explore new areas, fight new bosses, unlock new powers and/or movement abilities, and then go back to previously unreachable areas to unlock new zones. Repeat until done.

The problem is when either the new zone or new power steps become exhausted and the game just continues on. This is what happens in the Hollow Knight. The base game “ended” around hour 15 but it took an additional 10 hours to finish.

Now, technically I unlocked the ability to fight the end boss and achieve an ending before the map and/or powers were totally completed. The issue is that this would have been a Bad Ending, and who the hell wants that? So I continued on, capping my movement abilities, and essentially farming harder versions of bosses I already fought for a currency to unlock the Real Ending(s). And there were technically new areas to explore too… but they weren’t the same.

A lot of games work this way, but the latter half of Hollow Knight basically transforms from what it originally was… into Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls. The White Palace area straight-up abandons any pretext of grounded world-building and populates halls with floating buzzsaws and thrusting spears. I was fine with the platforming aspects earlier in the game, because the thorns and spikes made in-universe sense. But what lumber were these subterranean bugs cutting in the stone palace, exactly?

Why are we going to such extremes to begin with? Bosses and puzzles getting harder over time is Game Design 101. But at a certain point, an ever-higher ceiling turns your living room into an auditorium into a cathedral. The entire purpose of the room changes. In an MMO, the transition is necessary as you move from the solitary leveling game into a daily/weekly set of multiplayer chores in order to keep players subscribed. Single-player games have no such need. It’s certainly disappointing when the final boss is weaker than a prior boss – be it due to greater player skill or character power – but I’m not sure erring on the side of absurdity is much better.

I did end up defeating the “true boss” in the base game a few days ago. It was an incredibly frustrating experience, because each time you fail, you have to defeat the “fake boss” all over again just to get another shot. Rather than satisfaction at finally completing a difficult task, all I felt was relief that my toil was finally over.

Those who enjoy the Super Meat Boy/Dark Souls experience will likely be happy with endgame content, and happier still with all the extended DLC that supposedly ups the ante even further. Anyone else who fell in love with Hollow Knight’s first 15 hours of gameplay, on the other hand, can presumably go fuck themselves.

Formulaic

I am basically done with Subterrain. There is plenty of “game” left, but my completion of it is a forgone conclusion made evident by the full accounting of its remaining systems. In other words, it has become formulaic, and that formula has been solved – there are no possible surprises left. Much like many Civilization endgames, it is simply a matter of going through the remaining motions.

And ain’t nobody got time for that.

The whole situation got me thinking about the design of formulaic systems in gaming, and why designers lean on them so heavily. The only explanations I can come up with is either laziness or fear. There is probably a more legit reason out there, but I can’t imagine it, because it almost always makes the underlying game weaker, and why would you do that intentionally?

Let’s use the most common formula as an example: the four elements of Fire, Water, Air, and Earth. I have no particular idea why these elements exist in 99% of RPGs (and even non-RPGs) when the designers ensure that elements bring nothing to the table. Yes, some monsters are stronger against some elements and weaker to others. Congratulations, you have just optimized combat against the entire game’s monster lineup after playing a Nintendo game 20+ years ago. In practice, those elements are really just different colored numbers – they have no gameplay impact beyond exploiting arbitrary weaknesses.

Compare that with the way, say, Divinity: Original Sin plays out. There are still elements, and still strengths/weaknesses based on them, but those elements actually have secondary consequences. Having fire spells create a Damage over Time effects and Lightning stun people is pretty cliche, but there was a tertiary concern with interactions between the elements themselves, e.g. poison clouds exploding with fire, electricity stunning everyone standing in water, etc.

That is good, interesting design.

As I said before, I can only imagine that designers are either lazy or scared when they lean so hard on formulas. “Scared” in this context means potentially introducing an unbalanced aspect to the combat system. For example, Ice damage slowing the target is pretty cliche, but many designers don’t even go to that level because it’s possible that players could cheese certain encounters by slowing and kiting the boss around the room. But imagine a designer who looks at that possibility and then crafts a boss in which that strategy is basically required in order to succeed. That would be great… until you realize that all the other players might not have learned that spell/chosen that class/etc.

I’m not trying to imply that game design is easy, but… c’mon devs. Surprise us once in a while. Maybe don’t have a Fire/Water/Air/Earth Temple unlock mechanisms. Make the spells be something more than different colored damage numbers. Embrace asymmetry when it makes sense. Switch up the formula… until switching it up itself become formulaic. Then do something, anything else.

From Whence Fun?

The other day I was playing Words with Friends (aka Scrabble app) with my SO. She is not much of a gamer – although she did play WoW back in vanilla – but she enjoys board games, and word games the most. I play along with the word games mainly because it’s something we can do together, but… I don’t really enjoy it. Word games are not my forte, and it does not help that she is way better at words than I am. I have actually legit won on occasion, primarily on the back of a few critical plays when the tiles line up just right. For the most part though, she kicks my ass on the daily.

For those who don’t know, there are an abundance of Words with Friends “cheat” apps out there. What those will do is analyze your seven tiles and the board, and then list out the best possible scoring combinations via brute-force analysis. I have never played with any such apps, but I find the idea amusing simply because that is exactly what I try to do a lot in-game.

See, Words with Friends will only allow valid plays. So, if you don’t know whether something is a word, you can drop tiles and get instant feedback. I have gotten a lot of points before basically dropping random tiles in key locations and making a word I had never heard of.

WordsWithFriends

I don’t even know what “Jeon” is, but I regretted playing it immediately.

The difference between my method and using an app to do it for me is… something.

I suppose it becomes less of a contest between two players’ knowledge when automation is involved, cheapening the experience. On the other hand, my SO plays word games a lot – she runs several concurrent games at a time, in fact – so she has memorized all the different Q words that don’t need a U, and so on, which is a pretty big advantage. And like I mentioned, I can do everything the cheat apps would do, if I was patient enough to do it myself. So, at some point, her overwhelming knowledge versus my very basic brute-force tactics becomes analogous to one or both of us facing two different kinds of bots.

That thought led me to another: what if we both used cheat apps? At that point, the game would probably come down to the random nature of tile distribution, and perhaps a few scenarios in which we had to choose between two same-point plays. Regardless, it doesn’t sound particularly fun, right? If we have automated things that far, we may as well automate the selection of the answer, and just have two bots play against each other forever.

So… from whence did the fun originate?

I think it is safe to say that certainty reduces fun in games. While I do not necessarily mean that randomness needs to exist in order for fun to occur, I do mean that the outcome needs to be unknown, or at least in contention. If one person has the cheating app and the other does not, it’s not likely to be a fun game. Even if no cheating was involved, one player having an overwhelming advantage – either knowledge or skill – and the outcome is probably the same.

But what does that really say about our games, and the way we play them? The better we are at a game, the less fun we likely will have. Having a little advantage is nice, and the process by which we get better (experimenting, practice, etc) is a lot of fun too. At a certain level though, it tapers off. What’s fun after that? Direct competition? Maybe. Part of that fun is likely tied into the whole “unknown level of skill from opponent” thing though. Because if we knew he/she was using a cheat program, that fun would evaporate pretty quickly.

Now, there is a sort of exception here: it can be fun to totally dominate your opponent(s). Be it ganking in MMOs, or aimbots in FPS games, the reason a person would do such a thing is precisely to “collect tears” by specifically ruining other peoples’ experience. At that point though, the medium is kinda immaterial; the bully is just using whatever is convenient and less personally risky.

In any case, I went ahead and shared my thoughts above with my SO and her response was interesting. For her, the “game” within Words with Friends is actually just challenging herself in finding the highest-scoring move each turn – she does not necessarily care about the ultimate outcome of the game. Which, to me, sounds like she should be playing against bots, but nevermind. And I actually understand that sentiment: whenever I was playing BGs in WoW, my goal is not necessarily to win at all costs (e.g. sitting on a flag 100% of the time), but to amuse myself on a micro level, even if I was grinding Honor.

Still, I suspect my SO will eventually tire of the wordplay over time, once her skills plateau. Or… maybe she won’t. After all, I somehow find it infinitely interesting to collect resources in Survival games despite having achieved maximum efficiency usually by clicking the button once. Which leads me back to my original question: from whence fun?

The Transitive Property (of Grinding)

Extremely recently, all my desire to play Warframe evaporated.

While there is (a lot of) grinding involved, I mentioned several times in the Warframe post that the game itself is very fun to play. And it is. Leaping from wall to wall as a space ninja terminator is an experience not commonly found in gaming today. But here I sit, looking at the icon, and feeling… nothing. At all.

While I was thinking about what might have changed, I realized that I had, moments before, been playing GW2 and grinding Winterberries. Each character on an account can collect around 50 of them a day, and you need 200-500 of them to purchase a piece of Ascended gear. I don’t need Ascended gear for anything in particular, but it’s character progression, and it’s something relatively mindless to do when I don’t feel like doing anything else in particular.

…oh, yeah. Sort of like what I was going in Warframe.

I had been playing both Warframe and GW2 in my gaming sessions up to this point without issue. The change was alluded to in this post, where I mentioned thinking about grinding LS3 maps for the Ascended trinkets. Before that, I grinded some Warframe, then completed some Story missions in GW2. Now that I’m grinding in GW2, I didn’t “need” to play Warframe anymore.

This also explains why my travels in No Man’s Sky met a similarly abrupt end. Well, the NMS gameplay at the point I stopped was more “leave the game running and check back in 30 minutes to harvest nodes” than grinding per se. But if I were looking to replicate the feeling of a slow accumulation of resources, I could do so as a space ninja terminator. So I did. And then I transferred that sensation to the other half of the MMO I was currently playing, closing the loop.

I don’t imagine that “grinding is grinding” is an especially grand epiphany to anyone reading this. Indeed, chances are you are intimately aware of this relationship if you find grinding to be tiresome and hate it in your games. But in all these years, I never quite realized how… transitive the property is. Like, for a moment, I had considered installing Black Desert Online again to give it another shot, but then realized that its entire economy relies on AFK accumulation of resources. Which is a feeling easily replicated in No Man’s Sky, which has a much more coherent narrative (which isn’t saying much). Which is replaceable with Warframe. Which is currently replaceable with GW2.

In a sense, this is a good situation for me. I am getting all my gaming “needs” met in a singular title. This is a terrible situation for other games, however, because I am able to get all my gaming needs met in a singular title. Why would I play something else? This helps explain why zombie MMOs exist, and how it can be difficult to dislodge a market leader once they achieve a critical mass (beyond the fact that a large audience becomes a draw all by itself).

That said, it’s a bit precarious for ArenaNet in my personal situation, because while I am satisfied at the moment, any upset would send me smoothly into the arms of the next title with some sort of grinding elements. And a not-insignificant part of me feels like bouncing from game to game is a more ideal scenario in the first place, as it exposes me to more novel experiences in the non-grinding portions. For now though, GW2 is satisfying enough. Emphasis on “for now.”

Meatspace2Win

Pete over at Dragonchasers gave a few parting shots concerning the Star Wars: Battlefront 2 loot boxes a few weeks ago. Who still cares, right? I do. Not just because I feel someone is wrong on the internet, but because it highlights one’s entire constellation of opinions on gaming, fairness, and life in general. And that sort of thing is interesting to me.

During our back and forth in the comments, the following argument was floated:

Even if [loot boxes = god mode] was true, there’s always going to be someone better than you, whether it is because they supported on-going development of the game, or because they live in their mom’s basement and play 8 hours a day, or just because they’re naturally a better gamer. Online gaming is never going to be an even playing ground. That’s what match making is suppose to solve, though it rarely does.

First, it should go without saying, but the better-skilled player winning a game is basically the axiom of fairness. So there really should be no possible complaints about losing to a “naturally better gamer” aside from the possible lack of fun if one is constantly matched against superior opponents. It is hardly sporting for anyone to have a Chess novice play against a Grandmaster, after all. But if the game is testing skill in some way, it is achieving its purpose if the better-skilled player is winning.

Second, there is no distinction between natural skill and skill derived from time spent. It boggles my mind any time someone tries bringing up the “unfairness” of those who “play 8 hours a day in their mom’s basement.” Are they more skilled than you, yes or no? If yes, they deserve the win. How is it unfair that someone who dedicates more time to something achieves greater results? Is practice itself unfair?

Even in the scenarios in which one can accumulate advantage via time-spent – perhaps by grinding levels or gear – I find it difficult to imagine the unfairness. Is it unfair that those who read more pages in a book are further in the story than we are? There are certainly long-term game design concerns if the game is set up with insurmountable advantages, but the concept itself is fine.

What we’re left with is the “supported on-going development of the game” to get an advantage.

Really, just repeat that sentence to yourself out loud. You became more competitive in a game because you paid money to the people who made the game. The difference between that and bribing referees in traditional sports is… what, exactly? And just like in traditional bribery, its mere existence suddenly makes everything suspect. Was that bad call because you didn’t pay, or was it legit? We just cannot ever know.

All of this sort of presupposes that fairness is possible. Pete certainly doesn’t think so:

If I give you $100,000 so you can quit your job for a year and devote yourself to playing a game full time, how is that not pay to win? Silly example, I know. But time = Money, Money = Time. Paying cash for an advantage or having the luxury to be able to spend significantly more time playing… either way one person has something others don’t. There’s zero difference in my mind. For that matter, on PC the person who can afford the rig to run at the best frame rate and has the fastest internet connection has paid to win over the person who has a modest PC and lives somewhere that broadband is still very slow. There’s dozens of ways one player has an advantage over another.

So, for the first part, that isn’t P2W considering they are practicing to win. That’s legit. Whether they have that time to dedicate to practicing is because they were given $100K or because they’re unemployed or they’re a student or a retiree or whatever, is irrelevant. They put in the time, they put in the effort. If that is unfair, show me your rubric in which fairness as a concept has any meaning.

Now, the second part is a little tricky. As even Raph Koster points out:

Pretty much every physical sport uses pay to win. You buy a better tennis racket, better sneakers, better racecar, better golf clubs, because you think it will get you an advantage. We just don’t like it in videogames because digital in theory frees us of that unfairness. Though of course, we cheerfully buy Alienware computers and Razer gaming keyboards… ahem. Anyway, pay to win is basically one of those things that people are, shall we say, deeply contextual in their disapproval (though they will deny it until the cows come home). There are lines where it’s excessive, but defining them is hard.

If you pay the money for a high-end PC with a 144 Hz monitor and fast internet, you absolutely have an advantage over someone who doesn’t in FPS (etc) games. By strict definition, that is indeed P2W.

The key difference, of course, is that your payment is not contributing to the perversion of the game’s underlying design. When you bought that GTX 1080ti, the developers didn’t transition all of the best-looking gear into the cash shop. That Razor keyboard didn’t pay the bonus of the asshole who turned progression into loot boxes. In other words, there wasn’t any impact to the game itself, its rules, and/or the closed system it represents. Your consumer surplus is not under assault when someone buys a fancy keyboard.

So even if you believe “P2W is P2W regardless of form,” or that natural skill and practice are inherently unfair, you cannot deny how only one form of possible advantage adversely affects the game’s fundamental design. Hint: it’s the one where you are bribing “supporting” the game designers beyond purchasing the game that they designed.

Temporary EAnity

EA has temporarily removed the loot boxes from Star Wars: Battlefront 2, right before the official launch of the game:

We hear you loud and clear, so we’re turning off all in-game purchases. We will now spend more time listening, adjusting, balancing and tuning. This means that the option to purchase crystals in the game is now offline, and all progression will be earned through gameplay. The ability to purchase crystals in-game will become available at a later date, only after we’ve made changes to the game. We’ll share more details as we work through this.

I am honestly quite surprised. The negative press surrounding GTA Online’s Shark Cards or Shadows of War’s single-player loot boxes affected zero change, but here we have EA, of all people, turning off the cash spigot right before the water main gets connected. Then again, EA did get mentioned in half a dozen news article for having the most-downvoted comment in Reddit history (-676,000 at the time of this writing). Not exactly the narrative you want to be having right before the game’s release.

It’s tempting to pat ourselves on the back, at least those of us who actually care about game design and our fellow human beings. But the victory feels… well, like EA says, “temporary.” They did the right thing… under withering criticism. It’s like a politician apologizing for a decades-old scandal – an apology is more than we can expect these days, but it would have been nice if they had apologized before it was news. Or, you know, never did the action in the first place.

Alas, here we are.

It will be interesting indeed to see under what conditions the microtransactions return in SWBF2, and what possible new permutations they might take in other EA games. Will Battlefield Whatever’s design be impacted by this learning experience? Is this a learning experience at all, or simply an unfortunately-timed (for EA stockholders) zeitgeist?

We already know that the suits from TakeTwo don’t give a shit:

It appears that the GTA Online/MyCareer model is going to be the standard for big Take-Two Games going forward. People have expected a GTA Online type environment for Red Dead Redemption 2, which launches next year, though Rockstar has not announced what its online features will be.

“One of the things we’ve learned is if we create a robust opportunity, and a robust world, in which people can play delightfully in a bigger and bigger way, that they will keep coming back,” Zelnick told investors. “They will engage. And there is an opportunity to monetize that engagement.”

And that sort of underscores the vice gamers are put in to begin with. SynCaine pointed out that anyone buying SWBF2 is complicit with its monetization scheme, even if they don’t spend cash on loot boxes. That is technically accurate. But by that same token so is anyone who bought GTA V, given the Shark Card shenanigans. Do we really need to commit to never touching Red Dead Redemption 2 or the inevitable GTA VI?

I dunno. On the one hand, I am obviously an idealist when it comes to the purity of elegant game design. When the pieces fit together, when the various game systems synergize so perfectly… it’s orgasmic. Microtransactions have literally no place in any such gaming schema, any more than the concession stand does for the symphony performance. The symphony or game might rely on outside money in order to exist originally (artists have to eat), but once created, the art does (and should) exist independently.

Also, Consumer Surplus. It’s a thing.

On the other hand, we live in an absurd universe in which any sort of meaning or value is surprising. Thus, EA’s capitulation here, however temporary, is something to be celebrated. I certainly don’t think any of us expected it, especially given the likelihood that whales would have justified the PR hit by buying thousands of dollars of loot boxes on Day 1. And even if EA hadn’t backed down, if it’s possible for you to enjoy playing the game, what particular sense does it make to deny oneself? They’re microtransactions, not blood diamonds. Go have fun – nothing matters anyway.

All things considered though, I do think I’m giving SWBF2 a pass for now. Who is buying a game at full MSRP a literal week before Black Friday? Wait a month or two, save some cash, play your thirty other Steam games, and see how it all plays out. At least, that’s my plan. You do you.

Persistence

In a recent debate with Gevlon, he replied with the following:

You still don’t realize how obsoleting content is against the defining feature of the MMO genre: persistent world, defined as “previous gaming sessions significantly affect the current”. It’s a genre. It’s not for everyone. But if you throw it away, you are competing with MOBAs and I think LoL is a better MOBAs than WOW.

Now, the topic was at hand was a criticism of catch-up mechanisms. I, of course, disagree that there is anything wrong with the “End Game Content” model, but that is neither here nor there.

What I want to ponder on though, aside from the question of whether WoW has a persistent world, is whether a persistent world is actually a feature of MMOs, should be a feature, or ever really works as a feature. As I see it, there are three elements of persistence: Space, Consequences, and Advantage.

Persistent Space

In strict, technical terms I do believe that a “persistent” world is a defining feature of MMOs. Specifically, that the world exists. The alternative to a persistent world is a lobby-based world featured in a lot of otherwise throwaway action RPGs – the world exists as little arenas, created on demand, which disappear when you exit the stage. In WoW, Goldshire exists independently of whether or not you are to witness the shenanigans which transpire in the Inn. In fact, that shenanigans can transpire at all is because the world is persistent, e.g. meeting other people in virtual space.

At the same time… phasing and shard technology exists. Can we really say that Goldshire is a part of a persistent world if there exists Goldshire 1, Goldshire 2, etc? I am even conceding that Goldshire on Server 1 counts despite there being another Goldshire on Server 2. But these days, the Cross-Realm technology is almost a strict “Channel” system which (albeit seamlessly) drops you in a shared instance of the world, rather than “the” world. Does it really matter that there exists a Goldshire Prime somewhere that doesn’t turn off when you leave, considering you’ve never been there? So, arguably, we’re kinda already in a lobby-based experience, and it’s only shared insofar as other people get dropped in our lobby.

I’m not so much trying to argue against the notion that WoW’s world is persistent, but rather that the distinction is kind of moot these days. I do find that Azeroth is more overtly contiguous than many other MMOs, like FFXIV and GW2, which feature hard breaks at their borders. Cramming thousands of people into a singular space doesn’t exactly improve the gameplay experience, so I’m not sure what benefit that is supposed to provide in the first place. As long as people can naturally congregate and interact at will, I believe that’s enough to count as persistence.

Persistent Consequences

Way back in 2011, I pointed out the following:

One of the hallmarks of the MMO genre is a notion of a persistent world, but that persistence is always in tension with the fact that other players exist. Players say they want a world where consequences matter, that if a town gets burned down it stays burned down. But do they really want a world in which the choice of saving the town is never given to them because some noob 4 years ago logged off in the middle of the quest to put the fire out and the town burned down?

Persistence, on a more metaphorical level, means lasting consequences and mutual exclusivity. The town cannot be both burned down to you and not burned down to me, and still be considered persistent.  However, what is the desirability or utility of that persistence in the first place?

On the one hand, it can be used to good effect in games like EVE. If some Corp muscles into your star system, blows up your space station and then places their own… well, you’re out. That star system is now theirs, until the same thing happens to them at some point in the future. There are tangible consequences to game world actions, which persist beyond you switching accounts or logging off. There being finite space to fight over also underpins the gameplay loop of full-loot PvP – you care about moon goo because your ship blowing up tangibly reduces your wealth, so you need to control wealth-generating resources.

On the other hand, look at the player housing situation in FFXIV. The housing plots are finite and exclusive – if someone bought the plot you want, well, tough shit. The developers’ goals appear to be for these “neighborhoods” to feel real, and anchored into the game world. You aren’t just buying a house, but this particular house, situated in this particular location, exclusively.

And that’s dumb. Unimaginably dumb.

In FFXIV, it’s dumb because it serves no gameplay purpose. Getting a housing plot is a matter of having the money and clicking faster. After that, you simply continue paying the upkeep fee and that’s it. There are no gameplay elements to the neighborhood around you, and no homeless player is going to walk around gawking at your decorations. There is no reason to be there, specifically there, even for the homeowner themselves. Absolutely nothing changes if housing were instanced.

So, the only time persistent consequences makes sense is in player-directed ways, underpinning core game mechanics. And, as the term implies, the only way for persistence to make sense is for it to be consistent. Nothing else about the FFXIV world is exclusive or provides lasting consequences. So why have it?

Persistent Advantage

The final element of persistence is really an off-shoot of the previous one: persistent advantage. I’m not going to spend a lot of time on it because, conceptually, it does nothing good for any game. I mean, I guess it could be argued that in EVE it’s nice to be able to log into the game years later and fly around a reasonable ship. But I would argue that that is not so much because one’s advantage has been maintained than there being a low barrier to (re)entry. Sort of like, I dunno, logging into WoW and breezing your way back up to the current level cap and snagging some easy gear from a vendor.

The truest form of persistent advantage is essentially the attunement. And it’s terrible for all the same reasons it was in 2012 and earlier. It gates content arbitrarily, based not on skill or merit, but seniority. It squeezes out the middle class gamer, who either gets into a guild that carries them through the attunement, or they forgo whatever is gated behind it. In this case – and in all cases, really – the “challenge” is one of logistics. It’s difficult enough corralling 10/20/40 people into one place at the same time, much less adding pointless bureaucracy on top of it.

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So, taken together, the desirability of persistence is vastly overstated, honestly. Persistence is a tool to achieve a specific effect, not some ideal or higher calling. WoW and all the rest are still MMOs by any reasonable definition of the term, in spite of allowing you to actually quest and explore locations without having it all be destroyed by a failed Deathwing raid years ago.

Matchmaker, Matchmaker

Often unnoticed, but never unfelt, matchmaking in multiplayer games forms the invisible core of our gaming experience. In the old days, happenstance determined the characteristics of our neighbors. Maybe one server was labeled “Recommended,” but for the most part players were left to their own devices. If you were lucky, you might discover that mythical “Good Server” which featured players with similar skill levels as yourself. If not, perhaps there was some means of at least balancing the teams occasionally, by forced shuffling or similar. Otherwise, players were left to “self-deport.”

Automated matchmaking has been around for a long time now; long enough to demonstrate both its virtues and its vices. The virtue is, of course, being intelligently matched based on a whole raft of heuristics. The vice meanwhile… is being maliciously matched based on those same heuristics. Gevlon has long warned about overt rigging of games for monetary profit, but we have truly crossed the Rubicon when Activision itself has submitted (in 2015) a patent specific to that purpose.

And it was granted a few weeks ago. Feel free to read the whole patent yourself.

Granted, it isn’t entirely an engine of evil. The patent covers a process in which matches are made on a variety of characteristics. For example:

In another example, if a player has been performing poorly (e.g., getting killed at a rate higher than the player’s historical rate), the scoring engine may dynamically adjust one or more coefficients to match the player in a game that will improve the player’s performance. For example, the player may be matched with easier opponents, matched with better teammates, and/or placed in a game that is more tailored to the player’s preferences (e.g., players that play in games more closely aligned with their preferences tend to perform better).

This sort of balancing matchmaking is not hypothetical – Supercell, makers of Clash Royale – have already admitted in a Reddit AMA last month that there is indeed a “losing streak” pool in which you are placed after X numbers of losses. Why Supercell thinks this is a particularly good idea in 2v2, I do not know. For every person who just happened to statistically fall into a losing streak (e.g. 50% win rate), there are many more who are losing because they are tilted, trying out new decks they have no experience with, and so on. Grouping people this way is a sure-fire method of condemning players to ELO Hell, until and unless they happen to be paired up with truly abysmal opponents. So, in this regard, I prefer Activision’s method of “correcting” winrates.

Of course, the problem with picking winners and losers is when you are selected to be the loser. For every time you are gifted strong teammates to help you out of a losing streak, your opponents are punished by withholding of the same. We all want fair fights, being matched not just on skill levels but progression level too. It’s cruel to have new Hearthstone players face people with dozens of Legendary cards, even if the impartial ladder states they are equivalent players. Actively sabotaging games, though? We want fair fights, but not like this.

That is not even the most nefarious part of this engine, though. The true evil arises in plain text, in an approved US patent application:

In one implementation, the microtransaction engine may target particular players to make game-related purchases based on their interests. For example, the microtransaction engine may identify a junior player to match with a marquee player based on a player profile of the junior player. In a particular example, the junior player may wish to become an expert sniper in a game (e.g., as determined from the player profile). The microtransaction engine may match the junior player with a player that is a highly skilled sniper in the game. In this manner, the junior player may be encouraged to make game-related purchases such as a rifle or other item used by the marquee player.

“Matched” in this case, largely reads as matched against. In other words, the matchmaking system will notice you choosing the sniper role, then placing a more-skilled sniper opponent with a P2W rifle on the other side, for the express purpose of “encouraging” you to also purchase the rifle. It is bad enough having P2W elements in a game generally, but here we have a mechanism by which it can specifically be rubbed in your face. On purpose. To get you to buy shit.

This level of evil is not Google reading your email and popping up ads for dandruff shampoo. This is Google sending Fabio to your workplace to specifically call out the dandruff on your shirt, in front of your coworkers.

Could things get any worse with this patent? Activision is asking you to hold their beer:

In one implementation, when a player makes a game-related purchase, the microtransaction engine may encourage future purchases by matching the player (e.g., using matchmaking described herein) in a gameplay session that will utilize the game-related purchase. Doing so may enhance a level of enjoyment by the player for the game-related purchase, which may encourage future purchases. For example, if the player purchased a particular weapon, the microtransaction engine may match the player in a gameplay session in which the particular weapon is highly effective, giving the player an impression that the particular weapon was a good purchase. This may encourage the player to make future purchases to achieve similar gameplay results.

There it is, ladies and gentlemen. Activision settled the debate. Because now even in scenarios in which in-game purchases don’t directly increase one’s power (e.g. naked P2W), it’s quite likely that a matchmaking engine engineers a scenario in which you are more likely to win. For having paid. So even “purely cosmetic” purchases can end up becoming de facto P2W.

And much like loot box reward odds, companies will obfuscate the inner workings of their matchmaking systems such that it will be impossible to know either way. Are we to just trust their word that no matchmaking shenanigans are taking place, when they otherwise have every possible economic incentive to do so? Activision is just the first company openly patenting the process, not the first company to use these methods. Who would actually go on record to admit it?

Patent

Actual diagram from the Activision patent.

Do you see now? Do you see it? This is precisely why you should be caring about Consumer Surplus; this is why you should be up in arms about gambling loot boxes; this is why you never act as an Apologist to a game (or any) company. There is a straight fucking line between Oblivion’s infamous horse armor and Activision (et al) literally patenting the rigging of games for cash. And that line is still going lower, and will continue to do so, until acted upon by an outside force.

We are nowhere close to bottom.

The days in which game companies made their money by selling more copies – and thus had every incentive to make the best possible game – is over. Voting with your wallet isn’t going to bring it back either; in the US, where money is speech, the voice of the guy spending $15,000 on Mass Effect 3 multiplayer loot boxes drowns out everyone else.

“You need to understand the amount of money that’s at play with microtransactions. I’m not allowed to say the number but I can tell you that when Mass Effect 3 multiplayer came out, those card packs we were selling, the amount of money we made just off those card packs was so significant that’s the reason Dragon Age has multiplayer, that’s the reason other EA products started getting multiplayer that hadn’t really had them before, because we nailed it and brought in a ton of money. It’s repeatable income versus one-time income.

“I’ve seen people literally spend $15,000 on Mass Effect multiplayer cards.”

When every economic incentive is directed towards Consumer Surplus extraction instead of, you know, improving the gameplay experience… this is what we get. Always-online multiplayer in every game, single-player game studios getting shut down, loot boxes everywhere.

Play stupid games, (pay to) win stupid prizes.

Ark de Solo

In the comments for my last post, SynCaine questioned my decision to play Ark solo:

I’m not sure I’d understand the point of solo ARK. Say you push past the initial curve and get to the point where you have a base that dinos can’t mess with, you are near max level (so all blueprints you would want you have), and you have some low-mid range dinos tamed. What then?

In solo, again after the initial challenge, there is zero risk of another player causing problems, or of working together with a tribe on something bigger. So it’s just a slow grind that doesn’t have an end (you can’t ‘win’ in ARK), and gets slower and less rewarding as you go (taming a t-rex takes longer than a raptor, but what does the t-rex really give you over the raptor?).

The “what then?” is the same answer as any survival game: play until you get bored.

Ark_NormalDay

Meet Pinky. He’s basically a jet ski that flies occasionally.

I’ve been playing Ark pretty much the exclusion of anything else since the beginning of September. This past weekend’s project was shepherding an Ankylo up a mountain and setting up a metal refinement base at the top. Big improvement over riding a train of dinos to a now-depleted smaller hill along the coast. It was not until just yesterday that I got my first node of Obsidian, which was up a completely different mountain, near a full day’s flight (on my slow bird) away.

My next project is to try and snag Dung Beetles from somewhere – possibly a cave – so I can have easier access to oil, as I want to avoid underwater shenanigans if possible. Then I was looking at taming one of those snails, which requires the vegetable cake, which requires Sap, which requires a high-cost collection piece most easily inserted on top of an extremely high-cost tree structure, then you can’t forget Giant Bee Honey… and so on and so forth.

Until yesterday, I hadn’t even left the SE corner of the map. I’ve seen the Redwood Forests, but haven’t actually been inside yet. Much less anything North or West of that. Steam says I’ve been playing for 60 hours.

Ark_Hours

Actually kind of impressive.

Sure, exploring and exploiting shit is only going to get faster from here. I’m way more confident in my ability to handle (or avoid) hostile dinos than before. But the game is still interesting to me, still dangerous, and I still have things I’d like to do. Maybe try out some of the caves, maybe see how far along the tech tree I can get before things get too annoying. I don’t know how much more novelty the game necessarily has – could be another 60 hours playing solo, maybe only 20. At my current rate, I’m leaning more towards the former.

If I do get bored, I can try a fresh character in a different starting zone, for a different experience. Or perhaps on a different map entirely, e.g. the Center, or Ragnarok. There is already one paid DLC map on top of that, with another on the way. There is even apparently a procedural generated map option, or custom maps.

What I don’t need is other people to make my gameplay meaningful. I’ve gotten 200 hours out of 7 Days to Die so far, and who knows how much time in Minecraft. All solo. If I want the experience of social obligation and responsibility again, there are plenty of MMOs to fill that non-existent void. Personally, I’m still enjoying the ability to close games without having to apologize for leaving, or doing exactly what I want to be doing in that moment without asking for permission.

Is Ark more fun with friends? Possibly. It is also completely, 100% fine by yourself too. There is enough sand in the box to make for a good time either way. At least alone, you avoid getting sand into your shorts and hair from other people mucking about. These days, I’m good, thanks.