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Fighting the Game Mechanics

I just completed Orwell, a sort of Papers, Please-style game that demonstrates the dangers of mass surveillance. As an Investigator, your job is to comb through a few suspects’ Facebook pages, text threads, and anything else you can get your hands on (including medical records) to glean info and connect dots to stop further terrorist attacks.

The game is actually pretty slick in an AR sense, and reminded me of that one old (2012 is old, right?) Youtube video, Welcome to Life. There is no fourth wall – you the player agree to terms and conditions and your participation as an outside observer is intended.

Overall, the game was decent entertainment across the six hours I spent playing. The frustrating part though was how often I ended up having to fight against the game mechanics.

One of the central conceits of the game is that you have to upload information to the Orwell system as “Datachunks.” Sometimes this is straight-forward factual information, like phone numbers or email addresses. Other times you have to exercise judgment and restraint based on context. If someone says they live in “Wonderland, on the other side of the rainbow” or whatever, uploading that will actually make that their address in the system. That example is benign, but as this is a game with multiple endings, you can actually screw things up depending on what you submit and what you don’t.

Yeah, maybe don’t imply that they engage in torture.

The problem I faced rather early on though is that Orwell is a videogame. And as a videogame, progression is based on “flags” which must be tripped before you can continue. There were at least four instances in which I could not progress until I uploaded a specific Datachunk that was not otherwise immediately obvious as being necessary. Once I did so, there would be a totally unrelated phone call or whatever I could listen in on to get more information and continue onwards. But as I mentioned, the game makes it clear that you shouldn’t just upload ALL of the Datachunks lest you pollute the profiles and/or possibly implicate an innocent person.

There is no option to just end the day, or move forward with the information you already have. I suppose it would be more frustrating to basically soft-lock you out of finishing the game at all if you end up missing a crucial bit of information. Nevertheless, Orwell felt like it existed between a visual novel and a Hidden Object game, the latter being a hypothetical one in which you could “lose” by clicking on the wrong thing.

I don’t have a solution to this problem; the Orwell devs don’t either. It’s a shame that an otherwise delightful experience could encounter so much friction in execution based on game mechanics.

Years Late, $20 Short

Hearthstone is jumping on the Season Pass bandwagon… in perhaps the dumbest way possible.

Earn More Rewards with the Darkmoon Faire Tavern Pass!
The Darkmoon Faire Tavern Pass unlocks the potential to earn even more rewards on the Rewards Track! With the Tavern Pass you can earn Hearthstone’s first-ever Cosmetic Coin, the Annhylde Warrior Alternate Hero and card back, three Jaina Mage Hero skins, three Thrall Shaman Hero skins, and experience boosts of up to 20% on the Rewards Track. Once you purchase the Tavern Pass, you will unlock the Silas Darkmoon golden Legendary minion and a 10% experience boost immediately!

In case you missed it, Blizzard did a big overhaul on Hearthstone rewards in conjunction with this Tavern Pass. Previously, the reward system was very straight-forward: you get daily quests (up to 3) that reward primarily gold, and 10g for every three wins. The new system is that there are now both daily and weekly quests that award XP, and you receive rewards as you level up along a track (which includes gold and other things). If you pay for the Tavern Pass though, you get the normal rewards plus a few cosmetics along a parallel track, plus a general 10-20% boost in XP gain.

Throughout the process leading up to the change, the Hearthstone devs repeatedly stated that this new system would not result in less gold rewards. But it does.

And the real kick in the teeth? The Tavern Pass costs $20.

Last year, I was gushing about Supercell introducing a Season Pass in Clash Royale. A large part of why was because of the value. Clash Royale has a cash shop that is borderline absurd/predatory, which made the $5 asking price seem downright beneficent in comparison. That’s… likely not an accident. Be that as it may, the amount of extra stuff you walked away with for $5 made it worth it for me.

When I look at Hearthstone in comparison, I don’t even recognize the company anymore. Literally, what is this shit? Paying $20 was always borderline for me when it came to the mini-expansions and the Dungeon Runs, but I put down the cash and largely walked away with what I considered some value. Dalaran Heist single-handedly got me through hundreds of hours of my son’s larval stage.

With the Tavern Pass though, the dissonance is getting too real. Hearthstone is not a premium game worthy of a $20 Season Pass. Seeing expansion sets with $80 “mega” bundles being advertised everywhere is sickening. And we just learned that in addition to the new normal of three expansions per year, Blizzard is adding another mini-expansion. Which would be fine, if the game were not so goddamn expensive already.

In the early days, the prices justified themselves in comparison to Magic: the Gathering and other paper CCGs. It isn’t 2014 anymore though – Blizzard is now competing in a world in which gamers can get things like Genshin Impact for free and the Xbox Game Pass for $10/month. Those obviously are not CCGs, but the world is moving on.

Blizzard has been keeping things fresh, like when they introduced Hearthstone Battlegrounds, which has been a relatively large success in spite of the fact that it’s even more crazy RNG nonsense. But that very innovation casts the rest of their monetization strategy into sharp relief. Battlegrounds Perk is another tier of paid advantage that expands the random selection of heros at the beginning of each match. Then there is Duels, another new game mode which seems poised to cannibalize the Dungeon Run roguelikes by replacing bosses with human opponents.

Also, Duels is directly tied to your card collection because fuck you.

What $en$e doe$ thi$ make?

SynCaine used to say that Hearthstone was a garbage P2W mobile game ported to PC, which never made much sense at the time (it released on PC first), but seems to retroactively becoming true. Except Hearthstone as an app is pretty garbage by itself – the app takes 40+ seconds to load, there are frequent disconnects, and it takes up a huge amount of space. So, basically, the monetization of a P2W app without the optimization.

I really don’t understand what Blizzard is doing. And, likely, neither do they.

[Fake Edit] As I was typing up this post, Blizzard released an official announcement:

We have been listening to your feedback regarding the Rewards Track and it’s clear we missed the mark both in how we communicated and implemented the full functionality of this first version of our rewards system.

We apologize for the confusion and disappointment we have caused.

During the natural progression of the rewards cycle, our intention was, and still is, to give out extra XP over time through a variety of ways. The aim is to help players get through the Rewards Track, or catch-up if they join later in an expansion phase, ultimately ensuring players earn more rewards. […]

In addition, you’ve provided us with a wealth of feedback, and we agree that the pack rewards at the end of the track don’t feel appropriate for the effort it takes to get them. We’re going to adjust these rewards in the later stages of the track, swapping six packs for a total of 1350 gold that players can spend as they see fit. If any players reach this milestone before we implement these changes, they will be retroactively compensated.

https://www.hearthpwn.com/news/7783-rewards-track-update-official-blizzard-statement

Amusingly, they appear to be following the same script as Bethesda with Fallout 76: release a reward track that mathematically requires hundreds of hours of grinding (unless you pay!), ignore the people that warn about the math prior to release, then release it on a population that instantly revolts, and then “remember” that you forgot to mention the hastily thrown-together events that give bonus XP.

Sounds legit.

This is the part of the post in which I make a token effort to give Blizzard the benefit of the doubt. “They’re changing the 6 pack reward with 1350g, which is a big improvement!” But this capitulation was foreseen on Reddit for the past week: “2 greedy steps forward, 1 greedy step back” And seeing it play out in real-time is a bit nauseating… because it’s true.

Great, they fixed patched a very obviously broken reward system. And yet here we still are with a $20 Season Pass, with a new game mode dependent on having X epics in your collection, which means you can’t dust them to craft new expansion Legendaries that single-handedly win games on the spot. And Battlegrounds Perks is another whole layer of season pass-ness that exists for no rea$on.

Disgusting is the word that keeps coming to mind. Not exploitative, not greedy, but disgusting. Charging for MMO hotbars or lootboxes with 0.6% rewards are terrible, pernicious things to game design. But Blizzard’s Hearthstone “strategy” feels like strange hands slipping into pockets, groping about, feeling for loose change. What the fuck, Blizzard. This is a CCG, just sell some packs, Jesus Christ.

The Outer Hype, part 2

When I started playing The Outer Worlds back in December, I was not impressed. Having just completed the game yesterday, I can report that the game did not particularly redeem itself.

Dystopian dark humor only works when the rest of the game is dystopian, guys.

To be clear, the game may have been rigged from the start, so to speak. This was Obsidian, makers of Fallout: New Vegas! With a brand new IP! Like some kind of Mass Effect x Fallout space western! Except it wasn’t. At all. Like not even remotely close.

Was that Obsidian’s fault? Probably not, but they suffer the consequences of the hype just the same.

Parvati made most things bearable.

Regardless, the game did not improve. I was playing on Hard difficulty and the combat was just a mess from start to finish. Companion AI is tough to get right in any game, but here they are glorified abilities that you press once per combat, as they typically die immediately after they use them. Exploration was pointless, rewarding trash consumables or weapon mods you never have need of using. The whole Tinker/Upgrade system for level-based gear starts out as a promising way of keeping unique weapons (etc) relevant, but the escalating cost of doing so spirals out of control. When it’s easier and cheaper to just buy guns from a vending machine rather than try to upgrade the super-special gear you spent time exploring/questing for, you know things have fallen off the rails.

Quest-wise, things did not improve either. If you treat the game overall as a comedy, things might play out better from a tone perspective. And indeed there is some witty dialog to be had. Aside from that though, there was precisely one moment towards the end of the game in which I was surprised at the visual impact of a particular decision. Arguably though, it was surprising precisely because nothing else was ever taken seriously.

Kind of like this game, amirite?

Overall… well, I was going to suggest to give this game a pass, but I myself played it for a whole dollar via the Game Pass, so… do what you want. If you get past the first planet and aren’t feeling it though, don’t feel bad about moving on. It’s not going to scratch a Fallout itch, a Mass Effect itch, a BioShock itch, or any itch beyond a bizarre one for BBB Unreal engine comedy games.

And if you have one of those, you might want to see a dermatologist instead.

The Outer Hype

I have been playing The Outer Worlds via the Xbox Game Pass lately. And… I am not impressed.

People have been gushing about how this is Obsidian’s return to form, how it is a non-Fallout Fallout game, and so on. From what I have seen thus far though, having completed the first major area? It’s a slap-stick snooze-fest generic Unreal Engine title. That might be a controversial impression, so let me unpack it a bit.

First, it’s slap-stick due to the comically evil corporations in charge. One of the very first side-quests you get is to collect the grave fees from the families of those workers who have died. No payment, no continued burial. Another NPC mentioned how one of their workers committed suicide, and if anyone found out, the family would be fined for destruction of company property. All the words were there to evoke a sense of capitalist dystopian hellscape… but the tone wasn’t.

Every single quest or conversation is accompanied by a wink and/or eyebrow waggle. This isn’t Deus Ex or Syndicate or Blade Runner, this is Rick and Morty-level irreverence. And while there are certainly outlandish elements to the Fallout lore and in-jokes aplenty, the actual post-apocalypse piece is taken seriously. That isn’t the case with the Outer Worlds. I don’t know if that was done intentionally or not, or if perhaps things get more serious later on. I just know that when I completed a recent quest in which a NPC was sold as an indentured servant to pay off her debts instead of being assassinated, it did not even remotely register as a moral quandary.

Second, the snooze-fest piece refers both to combat and the non-combat pieces of the game. Having heard that Normal difficulty was actually quite easy, I went ahead and chose the next level up on the slider. And while I have indeed died several times in routine combat, there was never a sense that it was due to skill or anything. “Oops, there was a melee guy there, and he deals increased damage because the difficulty level is higher.” Indeed, combat feels disjointed most of the time, especially when you have companions who essentially teleport around when you trigger their special abilities.

Outside of combat, things are so formulaic that I don’t even know why Obsidian bothered with exploration elements at all. There are three ammo types for all guns (light, heavy, energy); there are multiple damage types (physical, corrosive, etc) but they map 1:1 in a cookie-cutter resistance way; 99% of everything you find is either currency, unnecessary food, and more copies of generic guns/armor to break down for generic parts to repair the guns you chosen to use; mods for guns/armor sound important but are again generic nonsense (your melee weapon deals plasma damage now!) that just ticks the customization 101 box. Even the Perks are boring.

Finally, when I said “generic Unreal Engine title,” you probably know what I mean. NPCs look basically the same, enemies look the same, you can look at a room and immediately understand where you might be able to go and how you might interact with the space. For all the bugs and shortcomings with the Gamebryo/Creation engine that Bethesda uses, going from that to this game is like going from an Erector Set to Mega Bloks.

Like I said, I’m only past the first planet so maybe things turn around. I have heard from basically everyone on the internet already that the game doesn’t though, and it’s only a 20-hour trip besides.

Suffice it to say, I’m not impressed. And I’m starting to think Fallout had more to do with Obsidian’s success than the other way around.