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I’m in the market for a new smartphone. Sorta.

I originally bought a Google Nexus 4 about two years ago because it represented a convenient (and relatively inexpensive) consolidation of devices – I was carrying around both an iPod Touch and basically a flip phone, and wanted to have a camera again. Win-win-win, right?

And it was. Until Android update 5.0.

I don’t know what the hell happened in 5.0, but ever since then, my Nexus will randomly shut off. As in, total shutdown without warning, regardless having a full charge and/or having no apps running. In the past eight months or so, this has caused me to be late to work four times, as the alarms on my phone would not go off. Around the internet, the issue seems to be called “Black Screen (of Death)” and is otherwise a known issue. Unfortunately, none of the “solutions” I have found have worked.

Even more frustrating however, is how my Nexus will sometimes go weeks and weeks working fine, but then start acting up again for no reason. If the phone did this constantly, that’d be one thing. But it precisely because it works fine 98% of the time that it achieves maximum anguish.

Hope in reality is the worst of all evils because it prolongs the torments of man.
–Friedrich Nietzsche

I don’t want drop a ton of money on a brand new smartphone when I have one that works… most of the time. But if I get a similarly cheap replacement, how will I know the same thing won’t just happen again? And besides, this almost feels like one of those “expensive is cheaper in the long run” situations; a used, clunker car costs less upfront, but more over time.

In any case, I’m open to suggestions, and not just with specific models, but review sites too. My criteria is that it has to fit in my pocket (no phablets), have GSM capability, and ideally have at least the same specs as a Nexus 4 of two years ago while being sub-$300. Having a MicroSD would be gravy.

Not Sure About Fallout Shelter

[Blaugust Day 20]

Months after it lost almost all topical relevance, Fallout Shelter was finally released on Android systems. After quickly downloading it and playing it for the last two days or so, I’m not entirely sure whether it’s actually good or not.

That room is so busy that I'm not surprised it burst into flame.

That room was so busy that I’m not surprised it burst into flame.

In the broad genre that is time management games – in which I place all apps that feature activity timers – Fallout Shelter attempts to ride the line between time management and “normal” games. It features the construction of resource rooms and trying to maintain certain levels of supplies, but the timers themselves are generally incredibly short. A Gold Mine in Clash of Clans might take 12+ hours to fill to capacity, for example, but a fully-staffed room in Fallout Shelter might be ready to be clicked in four minutes or less. String enough of these events along – including tapping Dwellers to level them up, rearranging room makeups, planning ahead, etc – and you can legitimately play for 30 minutes or more at a time.

It is also entirely possible that you enter a depressing death spiral from which there hardly seems to be any escape.

My first Vault was a disaster. I did not think I was expanding too quickly, but my glee at having a one-man repopulation strategy (mainly because it amused me) backfired when six, resource-consuming kids suddenly materialized. As it turns out, bitches be thirsty. The lack of water led to widespread radiation poisoning, reducing all Dweller HP down to 50% and zeroing out their happiness.

It seemed like a good idea at the time...

It seemed like a good idea at the time…

At that point, I did not have enough Caps to build more Water Treatment rooms, and Caps themselves are a resource that is only gained from A) Wasteland exploring, B) selling items, C) Rushing rooms, or D) spontaneously when collecting other resources. Between the radiation and everything else, I did not have anyone to spare to send into the Wasteland, which subsequently meant I did not have any items to sell. Collecting resources provided no bonus Caps for the last dozen times I collected them. That left Rushing room, which carries a ~30% (and increasing) chance of failure.

Well, let me tell you something: 30% apparently means 99% in the Fallout world because I Rushed six different rooms and failed five times in a row. Each failure is an automatic Incident, which could be a fire or Radroach or even Mole Rat infestation. All of which lowers the HP of anyone in those rooms, by the way. At the end of things, so many of my Dwellers were inches from death that I considered it almost a mercy to wipe that saved game from existence.

Instead of deletion, I went ahead and took advantage of Shelter’s 3 save slots and just started a new Vault. Two of them, in fact. The second is probably the most advanced, but the third ended up netting me multiple Legendary (or at least super powerful) items and some extremely high-stat Dwellers from the half-dozen free cash shop “lunchboxes” every new Vault gets. A friend of mine told me he somehow got a level 30 Dweller complete with Power Armor and an AK-47 right from the start too. All of which makes me think the optimal strategy is creating multiple Vaults from the beginning and deleting the ones that don’t give you good loot.

Less smiles, more crunches.

Less smiles, more crunches.

Incidentally, when I finally got back around to poking my head into the original disaster-Vault, everyone was still irradiated but back at 50% HP. I collected my resources and either hit the lottery or perhaps there is a timer-based failsafe on Caps collection. Plus, the six useless kids grew up to be rather useful Water Treatment slaves. The Vault turned around in a hurry, which leads me to believe that Shelter is leaning more towards the more traditional “play for 5 minutes every 5 hours” style.

Which would be nice… if not for the fact that Dwellers sent to explore the Wasteland continue exploring until they drop dead. You can revive them in the field for a (costly) fee, but the setup means they’ll die unless you log in every X hours. Or at least schedule yourself a log-in and send them a Recall signal. Which brings us closer to the “play in real-time spectrum.” Which is not useful for exploring, since the items you encounter are based on how many real-world minutes/hours your Dwellers are out in the wild.

The end result here is a bizarro game that is both fun and feels bad. Was my water death-spiral the result of poor decision-making on my part (probably), or an engineered trap to entice me to purchase lunchboxes (which always contains X Caps)? It’s nice that I can sometimes play for a longer period of time, but I also feel like I’m better off avoiding negative events by not playing for as long as possible. Except now I need to log in every X hours to retrieve my explorers.

Sigh. The things I do for love (of Fallout).

Payment Model Perspective

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and came across an article/review of a mobile game called Wayward Souls. Truthfully, I only read it because the byline mentioned Secret of Mana, which is relevant to my interests; it is, incidentally, probably my second-most played game of all time right behind A Link to the Past. Did you realize that SoM came out in the US 20 years ago this past October? Two decades.

Anyway, Wayward Souls is whatever – doesn’t seem to capture much of SoM’s magic beyond the pixel and music style based on the video alone. What was interesting to me though, was when they mentioned in the video that they’re going with the MineCraftian business model, e.g. selling it for $5 at first, and increasing the cost as time goes by. To me, this raises a number of interesting questions. First… is there a term for this payment model? I use MineCraft as perhaps the most well-known example, but surely it was tried beforehand.

Second, does it feel bad to anyone else?

I mean, I understand the logic behind it. Traditionally, game companies are going to want to charge full MSRP at release to capture the dollars of whom we now term “whales,” e.g. the people who would have paid $100 for the game, if they had charged that much. As time goes by, the price comes down via sales and whatnot to capture the players who would have bought it for less than MSRP. The MineCraft model seems like it should never work, but actually makes a lot of sense when you realize that the traditional model relies on a well-informed and excited playerbase for your game – in an ocean of crappy mobile games, you’re not going to have the whales spending money out of the game. This alternative model lets you build buzz somewhat organically, and then try and capture the big spenders as you ride the wave home. Plus, it sort of short-circuits the “wait until the Humble Bundle sale” strategy insofar as it will supposedly be more expensive the longer you wait (which ironically sorta is how Humble Bundles work).

Like I mentioned though, the MineCraft model doesn’t particularly work for me. It grates, like a piano out of tune. But I can’t fully articulate why though, especially when you consider nearly all games do this via cheaper preorders. Damn near everything is 20% off on GreenManGaming before it comes out. Sometimes a game will drop in price within the first three months (and sometimes faster these days, if they miss the forecasts), but it’s usually quite some time before it drops below the preorder price. So… what’s the difference, really? I can’t even claim that it’s because of psychological manipulation, because that’s pretty much behind all sales strategy. It just feels… bad, somehow. And causes me to mentally dig my heels in and wait for the Humble Bundle because screw you for defying the natural order of things. Or something.

Dungeon Keeper App: A Study in Bad Game Design

Your first thought might be: “Obviously!”

No, not obviously. When the Dungeon Keeper (DK) app first came out, the entirety of the criticism revolved around EA and the bastardization of a beloved (?) franchise into a time-n-money sink exploitative F2P game. Here is the thing few people might know: DK is perhaps the best entry into this sub-genre. This might sound a little be like being called “the best STD,” but the game itself is surprisingly good.

At least, it was good.

My original design.

My original design.

What made DK good (and still does) is the fostering of creativity and depth through constraint. As you might already know, DK is a downtime management game – you spend more time not doing things than actually doing them. The basic principal is to construct a dungeon filled with traps to safeguard your own stockpile of resources while raiding the dungeons of others. Everything takes time to complete: summoning minions, constructing traps, upgrading traps, excavating rock tiles to make room for traps, and so on. On release, the excavation was particularly lampooned in that the map was filled with tiles that took 4 hours and 24 hours apiece to dig out. Or, you know, you could spend Gems (an RMT currency) to dig them instantly.

Here’s the thing though: being time-locked forced you to construct novel dungeon designs with whatever you had available. Since everyone starts on the same map, we could imagine there being X variations of the perfect defensive layout had all the squares been filled with soft dirt (takes 3 seconds to dig). Instead, we have X * Y variations because different people are at different levels of excavation; some concentrate on digging out all the 4-hour tiles instead of the 24-hour ones, some are the opposite, and still others concentrate all their time on upgrading traps instead of excavation. Creativity through constraint. Yes, technically this also enables the designers to wheedle in-app purchases out of you. But! It’s a compelling gameplay mechanic nonetheless.

Somebody just got sent home.

Somebody just got sent home.

Before I move on, I also want to mention that the other end of the creativity came from watching the replays of your own dungeon getting sacked. Given how attacking players can use magic to bomb open your walls or remotely disable your traps, sometimes it feels like there is nothing you can do to stop attacks. But what you can do is make your dungeon punishing. Magic regenerates very slowly, such that a player looking for enough resources to purchase an upgrade are unlikely to blow their entire load just to sack your one dungeon when they could split it up inbetween juicier, less-defended targets. It is a particularly novel delight watching a replay of someone throwing 2+ hours of congealed time at your defenses and see them go home with nothing. It’s part of the reason why I have played DK for so long.

The problem(s) with DK really came with their Update #2 several weeks ago. There are other fundamental problems, but I’ll get to that in a bit. In short, Update #2 destroyed the in-game economy.

Prior to Update #2, you unlocked bomb-proof walls as you upgraded various rooms and the Dungeon Heart. The number of such walls you could place were extremely limited, so you really had to think about the best location to place them. Did you want to protect a particular room? Force minions down a particular corridor? Or did you want to prevent people from digging a tunnel from the South part of the map? What the Mythic devs decided was to up-end the entire mechanic: instead of bomb-proof, they made walls upgradable. Instead of 20 bomb-proof walls at the end, you could have 100 not-bomb-proof walls that could sustain various amounts of magic damage depending on level.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

Seriously, watching people fail on your dungeon never gets old.

For example, my current Bomb Wall spell deals 500 damage in a 3×3 square. A level 1 wall has 300 HP, and each level beyond that increases wall HP by +150. It costs 10k Stone to place a level 1 wall, 30k to upgrade to 2, 60k to 3, 120k for 4, and so on. As you might imagine, this whole “wall update” introduced a Stone sink on a massive scale. The game already had sinks of sorts – my current rooms now cost 2 million Stone apiece to upgrade – but I can imagine there may have been a need at the higher end. Or, perhaps more cynically, the devs wanted the DK Premium “subscription” (+40% resource gains from raiding) to be more appealing.

The Stone sink though has set off a cascade of fail throughout the game. The amount of resources that can be stolen from your dungeon is 30% of your stockpile (up to a maximum determined by your Dungeon heart level) + 10% of your unclaimed resources from quarries/mines around the map. Although there was always an incentive to “hide” your Stone in upgrading traps and such, there simply weren’t all that many locations; you can only have X number of Fire Traps and doors and such. Update #2 introduced 100 more to the pile, e.g. walls, and made it a high priority to upgrade them, e.g. to help prevent more Stone from being stolen via Bomb Wall spells. But since all the high-level players are now Stone deficient, the only people who have Stone laying around are… low-level players.

So the current “metagame” in DK is sandbagging, which means intentionally lowering your Trophy score (i.e. ELO) to get matched against noobs who either don’t know what they’re doing or have already abandoned the game and are simply letting their resources rot. Since they are low-level, it’s easier to steal their resources with your high-level minions given how their traps/layouts aren’t difficult. Since it’s not difficult to invade, you can send in less advanced troops that have quicker build times (e.g. 40-second Trolls instead of 20-minute Ghosts). Since you have quicker build times, you can raid more often and likely not need to use magic at all. Since you’re raiding more often, you are in-game for longer, which prevents your rapidly accumulating Stone reserves from being vulnerable to theft. And because of all of this, you are more likely to hit whatever Stone target you were going for and then spend said Stone, putting you back down to near-zero and safe to log off.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don't spawn inside the killbox.

My current dungeon noobgrinder. Hint: don’t spawn inside the killbox.

The Mythic devs have responded on the forums that Update #3 will fix all of this and punish the sandbaggers, but the preview we have gotten is woefully naive. Their “solution” is the introduction of PvP tiers of sorts based on ELO. The higher the tier, the more bonus Stone you receive for a win. At my hypothetical tier, I could see an additional… 35k Stone. For fighting someone tooth and nail as advanced as myself. Who isn’t likely to have 35k Stone laying around to begin with. Compare that to someone at a lower ELO would could easily have 200k sitting around just waiting to be stolen.

Needless to say, this is bad game design. It is not bad simply because I dislike it; it is bad because it will not accomplish what it set out to do, or worse, have the opposite outcome.

I am not especially surprised at this non-solution, as the devs have yet to address a similarly counter-intuitive decision vis-a-vis intentionally not opening mines/quarries. There are 8 mines along the outside of the map, and unlocking them means getting free resources each time you click them; at the highest levels, you can get 200k+ Stone every 32 hours or whatever. However, enemy Keepers use these same mines as spawn points. Thus, the more mines you open, the more vulnerable your dungeon. The less mines you open, the less vulnerable your dungeon (just stuff all your warehouses in the corner), the easier it is to keep resources you steal from others, and the better off you are in general. Also? You can’t close mines you have opened. Basically, if you’re like me and open all the mines, you’re just screwed, permanently.

This shit is so stupid.

There is close to zero downside to this.

There is a similarly counter-intuitive punishment mechanic in upgrading your Dungeon Heart. You gain access to more traps and rooms by upgrading the Heart, but each level increases the maximum amount of resources that can be stolen from you. Thus, the only sane strategy is to make the Heart the last possible thing to upgrade. If you upgrade early, whoops, permanently screwed with hardmode.

My solutions to these issues? Well, first, I’d levy a 20k (or 20%) penalty to resource gains for each mine you do not unlock, down to some minimum – if your raid would have resulted in 100k Stone, you actually only get 60k if you have three mines unopened. Considering how the only players worth attacking are those with 100k+ Stone up for grabs, this would hopefully encourage people to open their mines, making more targets available. On a related note, the second change is one’s ELO score should be commensurate with the amount of Stone that can be stolen, not Dungeon Heart rank. Thus, the sandbaggers can get “easy” Stone, but significantly less such that they might have been better going after equally-skilled players.

Third, mine/quarry resource gains should double, minimum. Fourth, flip the numbers: 30% of unclaimed Stone is vulnerable and only 10% of one’s stockpile, not vice versa. This encourages more periodic log-ins during the day and makes people feel safer in saving up their Stone rather than immediately sinking it into walls. There is nothing more demoralizing than logging on and seeing someone having stolen 100k Stone, knowing that you would have been better off upgrading a door or whatever.

This may seem like a lot of words to devote to an evil, bastardized mobile app, but… I think you’d be surprised. I have long since deleted Castle Clash and feel like another game in this sub-genre would have to get a lot of things right to surpass Dungeon Keeper in terms of fun and strategery. Is it annoying waiting all the time? Sure. Then again, a 4-hour excavation only takes 2 hours if you slap your imps, and thus each time I boot the game up during my breaks at work there is something new to do. I spent two hours (!!) “playing” last night (in 6-minute increments) trying to scrape up 500k Stone to hit 2 million without risking getting bled dry overnight. The app definitely has an expiration date at some point – the thought of trying to get 6 million Stone for an 8-day upgrade is just obscene – but the same could be said about a lot of games.

So, yeah. Dungeon Keeper. Didn’t see that coming, did you?


So I may or may not be writing this from a Nexus 4 (hint: I am). While these sort of updates aren’t going to be common, it’s worth mentioning because I barely know what I’m doing. In fact, this is my first smart phone. Prior to this I just had my “dumb” phone and iPod Touch.

So, basically, if you have any advice or recommendations for apps to get or things to do, let me know in the comments. So far, I just have SwiftKey and Reddit and obviously this somewhat annoying WordPress app.

P.S. I find it amusing that the swipe text feature refuses to recognise “iPod”.