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All Over the Place

My gaming time, when I actually use it to game, is all over the place lately.

While the Currently Playing sidebar is technically correct, I find myself at the end of the day spending crazy amounts of time playing an Android game called Dungeon Raid. I think the problem is that my current gaming menu is full of open-ended loot games that lack otherwise meaningful progression. While I am genuinely interested in the Tiny Tina DLC storyline in Borderlands 2, for example, I have a hard time treating it like a “normal” game. Could I plow through the story missions and call it a day? Certainly. But… it’s DLC. Skipping the sidequests feels like a waste – especially when the sidequests in BL2 proper are usually hilarious/fun – and that goes double when they are DLC quests. I don’t feel the need to find all the secrets, but the sidequests? I need them all.

Of course, not all sidequests are created equal. Spending 15-20 minutes on some boring chores saps the motivation to go further. And while I largely solved the gun issue I had earlier, I am approaching the other side insofar as I suspect I should be playing this on Ultimate Vault Hunter Mode. Which means finding a Slag weapon. Which means more grinding. Sigh.

I thought I was done with Hearthstone, but I came slinking back in a moment of CCG weakness. Finally did an Arena as a Shaman. Went 0-3. And while I was mercilessly curb-stomped in all three games, on a certain level I just had to be impressed with the thoroughness. One of the games was against a Priest at 12 HP who Mind Controlled my 6/6 creature with Windfury one turn, and then followed up the next with a temporary Mind Control on my Taunt blocker and then cast a copy of Bloodlust from my own goddamn deck. I mean, Jesus Christ, man… good job. My secret Arena MMR must be setting me up against fucking top-decking wizards whereas I never even had an epic card available to pick from.

If that is really what’s going on – as opposed to a huge coincidence of pro players after 9pm – it’s definitely a strike against what I thought was an awesome innovation in Booster Draft gameplay. You always had “that guy” in your Magic Online drafting group, but there were at least even-odds that you’d face similar players first. Scrubbing out at 0-3 when you spent four days doing dailies to get enough gold to get it is demoralizing, to say the least. Is asynchronous Booster play worth it? I’m not so sure anymore.

Card Hunter is as it was (i.e. excellent), but I can’t seem to get any information as to whether the campaign is actually any longer than it was in the Beta. Because if it just sort of peters out at where it did, then I’m not sure purchasing the 30-day subscription/buying the Treasure campaigns is worth the $20 or whatever. And as both I and Tobold pointed out, you basically need to make that decision early on, as it decreases in value/usefulness pretty quickly.

Path of Exile is alright, but after wondering whether my minions build (think Diablo 2 Necromancer) would actually be useful at the higher levels – the boss battle I did a few days ago was an exercise in frustration when she one-shot my zombies and there were no more corpses to resurrect – I more or less metagamed a bit too deep. Once you see things like this, there is no going back. Which is somewhat literally true, since I already “wasted” a lot of my talent points and PoE is “old-school” when it comes to respecing. Even my more modest goal of acquiring a Summon Skeleton gem so my Witch isn’t left defenseless during bosses appears to be best achieved by rolling an alt and completing quests in Chapter 1.

So as I muse on which game I want to play that leaves me least hollow and empty on the inside, I fill the void with Dungeon Raid. Which is a roguelike akin to 10000000 minus the assured progression. But it’s shiny, it’s on my shiny phone, and it’s goddamn addicting in that Candy Crush way without microtransactions.

Yeah, I’m scared too.

Design Conundrums: 1 HP vs 0 HP

The difference between a character with 1 hit point and a character with no hit points remaining is immense. Obviously, right? But as I was musing on the extreme nature of the binary state, I started wondering if there was not some better way to handle the situation.

After some reflection, I am not sure that there is.

First, is there a problem at all with the conventional binary system? I’d suggest there is, at least enough of one to go through the thought exercise. One issue is that there isn’t much of difference between 1 HP and 100,000 HP – you are just as powerful and dangerous at one as the other. Some games might have “Execute” abilities that cause you to care about how many HP you have left, but all that is really doing is making the 1 HP “range” larger or simply making it more ambiguous as to your actual HP state.

The more salient problem with the 1 HP to 0 HP divide is what I’d term the Fail Cascade. Card Hunter (out of beta!) provides an especially stark example of this phenomenon. If one of your characters is reduced to 1 HP, they can still drawn 3 new cards each turn, can still attack at full strength, and can otherwise contribute meaningfully on the battlefield (limiting enemy mobility, being the target of spells, etc). Conversely, a dead character contributes nothing: all their cards are discarded, their body is removed from the battlefield, and you are left with potentially 10 cards to kill the remaining enemies instead of 15 cards. A character’s death is especially brutal in Card Hunter because the abilities you have access to are randomly determined from the cards in your deck. Instead of six chances of drawing an attack card to win the game, you are left with four.

Of course, sometimes the sacrifice of a character can turn out to be a winning strategy. In a 3v3 Arena game in WoW, it might be worth losing a DPS to take out the enemy’s healer in pursuit of an stalling game. In Card Hunter, taking out a Goblin Brute or other dangerous foe is worth it if the enemies remaining aren’t as immediately deadly in comparison. But under most circumstances in just about any other game (including the two mentioned), losing one character is an immediately 33% reduction in fighting capacity, and possibly more painful from a synergy point of view.

Is the alternative really that much better though? We could imagine a game where your health as a percentage is tied to your damage as a percentage; if you are are at 10% HP, your attacks only deal 10% of their normal damage. Personally, I recoiled at the very thought of such a system. Whereas the current design is a hard binary, it at least leaves open the possibility of a come-from-behind victory. If taking damage reduced your ability to deal damage in return, the outcome of most battles would be forgone conclusions within the first minutes of any engagement. Indeed, it is arguable whether we would be trading the binary at 1-to-0 HP for the same binary at the other end of the spectrum (whoever dealt damage first).

Now, I would be remiss if I did not mention the Downed State solution in games like Guild Wars 2 and Borderlands 2. Having played both for a while, I definitely appreciated the extra little window it offered between 1 HP and dead. It is certainly better than the alternatives we have currently.

At the same time though… how different is it really? I can still perform at peak capacity at 1 HP, so my HP totals are 1, 0, and -1 instead of just 1 and 0. The other issue is that I felt as though the Downed state started being an excuse for adding in more “sorta instant death” attacks. If a raid boss in WoW has a mechanic that kills you instantly, it has to give you reasonable warning given how powerful it is. Conversely, an attack that instantly sends you to a Downed State is common in both Borderlands 2 ¹ and GW2. It is a “safe” mechanic to use because it can (usually) be recovered from while still retaining a sense of awe/fear from the player.

Perhaps this isn’t even an issue at all, from a design perspective, as the devs rely on the player to gauge his/her own sense of danger. Personally, I don’t really glance at my HP bar until I start dipping below 80%; once at 50% or so, I start actively playing defensive and looking for ways to replenish HP; at 20% or below, I generally stop caring unless victory is in sight, as I see my demise as inevitable. Thus, my reaction is tailor-made for my play-style, rather than dictated by the devs who might want me to care at X% HP when I don’t, and vice versa.

I dunno. Realism rarely makes for more engaging gameplay, but I sometimes think HP is too abstract.

¹ Technically, there is “health gating” in BL2 which prevents any one attack from killing you instantly as long as you have 50% HP + 1. So, I suppose BL2 has both the tri-HP state plus an execute range.

Maybe not so indie after all…

One of the points I made yesterday regarding Card Hunter’s potential was:

1) Card Hunter is not being made by some large corporation (even if their F2P pricing is similar);

It occurred to me later though, that I never bothered to check on the actual game developers. Who are these guys and gals, and how were they able to create such a polished experience even in this Beta state? As it turns out… well, let’s just say that they have some experience in this regard:

  • Jonathan Chey – co-founder of Irrational Games, director of Bioshock, producer of System Shock 2.
  • Joe McDonagh – Production Director and Peggle Studio Franchise Director at PopCap Games.
  • Dorian Hart – Veteran at Irrational Games; worked on System Shock I and II, Thief and BioShock.
  • Tess Snider – from Trion Worlds, programmed Rift.
  • Kevin Kulp – DM/game designer, worked at Wizards of the Coast, Green Ronin, and other places.
  • Richard Garfield – Design consultant. Created Magic: The Gathering.
  • Skaff Elias – Design consultant. Magic designer and founder of the Magic pro-tour.

So… yeah. Maybe this team isn’t so indie after all. I mean, when you have Richard fucking Garfield as a design consultant for your pseudo-TCG, that almost feels like cheating. Then again, I’m not particularly interested in having a hipster semantic war. Seven dudes with two consultants and no major publisher with suits to answer to? That passes the indie smell test for me.

P.S. For those just submitting their beta applications, it took me from May 11 to Jun 20 to get in.

Card Hunter’s F2P, Multiplayer, and Potential

Let’s get started.

Multiplayer

As strong as the campaign mode is right now, Card Hunter’s multiplayer is probably going to provide the “long-tail” revenue for the game. Because by “multiplayer,” what they really mean is PvP. The basic setup is pretty simple: your three characters against their three characters in 20-minute matches. Every map I have seen thus far includes Victory Squares (+1 Victory Point per turn that you control it) as well, so the games do not necessarily devolve into simple death-match.

There are some pretty big incentives to give multiplayer a try, even if you aren’t necessarily into that sort of direct competition. Winning your first multiplayer match of the day grants you a chest that has a guaranteed Rare drop, for instance – plus another Rare item if you have a subscription. The reward path after that extends outwards to special Rare chests at 3rd, 7th, 12th, and finally an Epic chest at #20.

Pictured: Not Multiplayer, just a tactical genius at work.

Pictured: Not Multiplayer, just a tactical genius at work.

A particularly clever move on the dev’s part – aside from the subtle push into subscriptions to double your guaranteed rewards – is the fact that if no one is available to play against (at your MMR), you will automatically get into a match against the computer. Which, trust me on this, just as brutal in MP as it is in the normal campaign. Which is awesome.

The downside to multiplayer is the downside to multiplayer everywhere: other people. I have only faced one human opponent thus far and he/she was a perfect gentleman/lady, but the beta forums are awash with concern over how to handle players who intentionally drag out games in attempts to win via boredom. Since the queue time for games visibly increases based on MMR, this is a particularly apt concern. The solution seems to be heading towards a progressively shorter turn timer (2 min, 1 min, 30 seconds) based on a player hitting certain limits, but I’m not entirely sure the full scope of player metagame malevolence is being appreciated here. Unless the triggers are invisible, why not wait until [Trigger – 1 second] to play your card? You know, other than to avoid being an asshole?

It is also worth mentioning that, given Card Hunter is a game about hunting for cards, you will also encounter other people with way better cards than you. The MMR should help with things a bit, but some of your matches are going to suck enormously when your mad tactical skillz are thwarted by a rich moron buoyed up to your MMR by the power of their cards. Speaking of which…

F2P

In talking about Card Hunter’s F2P scheme, there is really only two things to note.

First, my (beta) experience thus far as a non-paying customer has been fantastic. Based on what I have seen, I do not think there is really a paywall or some necessary purchase you cannot do without. Given the game’s incredible difficulty, you might feel tempted to purchase a few bonus chests or otherwise acquire more loot earlier in the game (when you are more restricted by random drops) though. While it is possible this could change as I enter the “endgame” (my party is level 11ish at the moment), it would very much surprise me.

The second thing is that just because you don’t have to spend money in a F2P to have fun, that doesn’t mean that you will get a good value for your money if you do spend. This is, unfortunately, the state I see Card Hunter’s cash shop in right now.

To illustrate the issue, let’s start with the cash shop currency page:

/sigh

/sigh

I will ignore, with difficulty, the fact that there is a $99 option for the cash shop currency. I mean, I guess a 12-month subscription to an MMO would run $180 before discounts and such. But seeing the “best value” option set at $99 tells me that the devs are either A) incredibly optimistic, or B) setting up the game to make make one hundred dollar purchases of things attractive to players.

Gut reactions aside, a better metric of the F2P Evilness Scale is to look at the lower end of things. The minimum buy-in is $5, for example, which raises an eyebrow. What exactly can I purchase with $5? Well…

/doublesigh

/double-sigh

So we have “cosmetic” options which are really just new figurines altogether. Do note though, that purchasing these new figures is the only way to access the other gender options for your race/class. You can purchase new Multiplayer Starter kits, which is the equivalent of a sort of theme deck in a TCG. While you can use your campaign characters in multiplayer – everyone is scaled to the same max level – the huge difference would be the quality of your starting items. There are “treasure hunt” maps which are dungeons that reward guaranteed epic items that you can purchase either individually or collectively with a discount. It wouldn’t be a F2P game without some ($5) lockboxes, of course. You can also straight-up convert leftover pizza into gold at a 5:1 ratio.

I saved the “best” for last, though. Card Hunter has a subscription option whose benefit is receiving one additional item any time you open a treasure chest. You will know about this functionality from the first map onward, because the game will show you exactly what bonus loot you are missing out on every single time. I… suppose that that is alright, in the scheme of things. It doesn’t necessary feel like cash-shop-in-your-face as some other games, even though it technically is.

*twitch*

*twitch*

How much do the subs costs? Basically it will be $10/month (with +30 pizza), or you can get the 3-month subscription for… err… hold on, let me break out the calculator. 850 pizza means $20 (690 pizza) + $5 (150 pizza), which leaves us 10 pizza short.

…excuse me for a second…

Are you fucking kidding me? Ten of your goddamn tokens? Don’t try and tell me that was an accident. This is some Microsoft Points level of intentionally asinine corporate bullshit. Jesus Christ, this is the sort of malicious “trick the customer” design that poisons the entire concept of F2P. If you want to charge me $23.62 for your 3-month subscription, fine, charge it. This ten-hotdogs-eight-buns nonsense has got to go.

Ahem. Where was I?

If you buy the $20 and $10 tiers, you can get the 3-month subscription with 170 pizza left over. That is enough overflow to then pick up one of the epic lockboxes (-150 pizza) and then you are left with 20 pizza… which is, of course, ten pizza away from purchasing the 30 pizza lockbox. About the only scenario that doesn’t leave you with leftover arcade tokens pizza is the $20 buy-in with the 1-month subscription + unlock of the Treasure maps + 3 of the Rare lockboxes. Which is probably alright.

Potential

With Card Hunter as it exists now, I believe most people will likely consume all that they wish to within a month, provided they play on an MMO time-scale. A month is not a bad amount of time at all, especially for how much entertainment value you get at the $0.00 price-point for a game that runs in your browser. Multiplayer might satisfy for a bit longer, but it’s tough imagining that it will provide months and months more content even for those that enjoy tactical games. After all, you will eventually get the strongest items in the game, and that will be that – it’s tough to transition from a state of eagerly anticipating a rare drop to simply having fun playing within the same game, in my experience.

Where things could get potentially crazy is with the Custom game feature. You can, right at this moment in beta, create your own encounters for other players to try. This includes “drawing” your own map and placing monsters. I have not had a chance to dabble with it, but if anything, this is the feature that could spiral Card Hunter out (further) into a class of its own. Imagine creating your own 3-5 battle modules, complete with the sort of D&D sheet in front and pre/post-game writeups. Imagine being able to string several of those along in sequence.

*evil cackle*

*evil cackle*

Or how about going even crazier? Like instead of multiplayer being two people using their parties against each other, imagine one side controlling the monsters. Or allowing multiple players to control the same side, e.g. 3-person teams. All of a sudden, the game stops being a tactical mock-up of old-school D&D and starts being an online version of D&D.

If you are wondering why I see all this potential in Card Hunter and not in other games, the answer is pretty simple: it’s possible. Let me break it down:

  1. Card Hunter is not being made by some large corporation (even if their F2P pricing is similar);
  2. Multiplayer and custom games are already implemented;
  3. The graphical overhead is nil and no voice acting, making additions easy to implement;
  4. The game devs clearly like D&D enough to play such a great homage to it;
  5. Free content that players will likely pay for the privilege to make.

Make DM tools/campaign creation available with a subscription, allow user ratings to separate the wheat from the chaff, pay the successful module creators in Monopoly money pizza currency, and watch the real dollars roll in.

Bam! You’re welcome.

First Impressions: Card Hunter (beta)

I got into the Card Hunter beta last Thursday.

It is rare anymore for me to spend a lengthy amount of time playing the same game. Game developers these days front-load their daily bonuses in such a way that the most “efficient” way to maximize your playtime is to switch between 3-4 titles. And yet I spent ten hours playing Card Hunter on Saturday, and another six on Sunday. So, spoiler alert: I really like this game.

Card Hunter grabbed me from the word Go. In essence, this F2P browser-based game is a tactical, turn-based RPG where your abilities come in the form of random cards. Instead of building an entire deck on your own, a character’s game deck is actually the sum total of the cards associated with that character’s equipped items. This might sound complicated, but it is the exact opposite – after about 5 minutes of looking at the screen, the system becomes immediately grokkable and engaging. For example, here is a character sheet:

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

I have an immediate urge to go play right now.

All of the cards along the bottom are the sum total of the deck. When you look at a specific item…

Kinda funny how it's pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

Kinda funny how it’s pretty much always going to be purple = epic from now on.

…you can see what cards it contributes to the overall deck. As you might imagine, weapons usually contribute attack cards, armor contributes armor cards, and so on. Occasionally though, you will have some items that contribute cards from outside their “theme.” Most items are limited to certain classes, of which there are three: fighter, cleric, and wizard. You can have either human, elf, or dwarf versions of any of those classes, with the differences being the typical D&D tropes; elves have low HP and fast movement, dwarves have the opposite, and humans are in the middle.

How does the game play? Fabulously.

Yes. YES!

Yes. YES!

As you can see, the “setting/lore” of the game is retro-D&D, and it is adhered to from start to finish. All characters are represented with those figurines, and all the maps are exactly like this one (with different terrain and such, of course). The game’s F2P currency are slices of pizza, the battles are all prefaced with D&D-module write-ups, and there is clearly some tension going on inbetween the new DM Gary and his rules-lawyer brother Melvin in campaign mode – not to mention Gary’s awkward crush on the pizza delivery girl. Change some names around, add in two more teenagers, and Card Hunter could have described my high school D&D experience to a T.

As far as the game flow goes, it is pretty intuitive. You and your opponent take turns playing one card from any of your characters’ hands. You don’t have to alternate which character’s cards you play – if your warrior has 3 attack cards and someone within reach during each of his/her turns, you can wail on them 3 times. When you and your opponent pass turns in sequence, the Round ends, everyone discards down to two cards, three cards are drawn (one of which is always a movement card), and any Round triggers fire (e.g. players starting their turn in lava take 10 damage, etc).

The strategic brilliance of this combat system simply cannot be praised enough. Yes, the card-based nature of abilities can lead to immensely frustrating, if not outright impossible scenarios. In the screenshot above, for example, my elven mage has drawn all movement cards, severely crippling any initial attack I could muster. Defeat can (and will) be drawn from the jaws of victory even if you are careful. Here was a moment I exclaimed “You have got to be shitting me” out loud:

I mean, come on!

I mean, come on!

The above screenshot was taken from the dreaded Compass of Fucking Xorr level, right from where you might imagine is an insurmountable advantage. The armored dogs are dead, I have the last mercenary backed into a corner with 5 HP, and all my dudes are (barely) alive. It’s a new Round, my turn, and… look at the bottom. Don’t see many red cards, do you?

In fact, I drew exactly one attack card, and it only deals 3 damage. That larger card in the screenshot is a “seen” card that I know is in the merc’s hand, and it’s a doozy. Basically, any time you would deal damage to the merc, he rolls a d6: on a 4 or higher, the damage is reduced by 3. Like many Armor cards, it also has the Keep quality, which means it stays in his hand after triggering, ready for the next reduction in damage. And from fighting this guy, let me just tell you that his attack cards all deal 6+ damage from two squares away.

I did kill the merc on the turn after this one, as he just happened to draw a “drawback” card that caused him to discard all his armor cards. But it was a close one either way.

In any event, I am having a blast with Card Hunter thus far. That might sound strange after I just dedicated a few paragraphs to describing what could have been a terrible RNG-based wipe, but that kinda goes with the TCG territory. Who hasn’t been mana-screwed in Magic: the Gathering before? Part of tactical thinking should include the possibility of things going wrong – if games like Frozen Synapse taught me anything, it would be that. If nothing else, it keeps you on your toes.

I’ll go over the other elements of Card Hunter, including the ever-important F2P bits, next time.