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Ever come back from an extended videogame break – be it vacation, work project, family thing, etc – and just have no interest in anything whatsoever? Or perhaps more paradoxically, have so many conflicting interests that you end up spending your entire free time with procrastinating activities? I have just blown a solid three hours that could have been more productively used progressing through any number of games. Instead, I’m talking to you guys and playing Dungeon Keeper. You know, that almost universally reviled app from the studio that no longer exists?

I’m actually kinda a big deal in that game. The highest ELO bracket is 3200 and I’m 3500+. I don’t actually know where that puts me rank-wise, especially because the designers were dumb and allowed people to farm rank at super-low levels for several months, but at least I’m legit.

I don't know why either.

I don’t know why either.

In any case, this post was not an elaborate ploy to humble-brag about my Dungeon Keeper prowess. Rather, how do you guys bootstrap yourself out of a post-break gaming slump?

I logged into Planetside 2 for long enough to remember why I hate-love that game (fun gunplay followed by 10+ minutes of camping empty bases) and my Wildstar log-in didn’t last much longer because, hey, Medics still feel terrible. Do you pick a game at random and just plow forward? Do you have an old standby? Or do you just give in to the ennui and take a nap or whatever?

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?

Dungeon Keeper

Heard about that Dungeon Keeper controversy? You’d be forgiven for thinking that EA must have cooked up some particularly nefarious innovation in the mobile wallet extraction app market, but the reality is that this game is merely another straw on a camel-back-breaking pile. From the article:

Whenever you write about this phenomenon, the common complaint from people making the games in question is that not all of them are bad. As Thomas Baekdal realised though, the problem is definition. When your free-to-play game is all economy mechanics rather than game mechanics, when your game is all business design rather than game design, you’re not actually making a game – you’re constructing a scam, whether you realise it or not. If you’re doing it knowingly, you’re just a high-tech gangster.

If we get right down to it, I almost agree with him.

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

It is not a particularly robust defense to say that Dungeon Keeper isn’t doing anything worse than what other games have done before. Tobold compared it to Clash of Clans, which I haven’t played, but I have played Castle Clash which I assume to be similar. And between Dungeon Keeper and Castle Clash, there are a lot similarities, mechanics-wise: building troops (which takes time), harvesting resources (which takes time), removing obstacles on the game map (which takes time), attacking other players’ maps and stealing their resources (which is kinda fun). Indeed, about the only real difference between the flavors is how quickly you can reach the sticker-shock of needing to waiting 24+ hours for an action to complete; Dungeon Keeper immediately requires a day to dig a particular type of dirt block along the edges of the map (but there’s plenty of inner-map space), whereas Castle Clash took a while before revealing building upgrades would eventually start taking 7-10+ days.

In fact, as I type this, I have 5 days to go to upgrade my Gold Mine to level 16, 2 days and 10 hours for my Barracks to hit level 14, and it’d take 15 days, 7 hours, and 24 minutes if I queued up the level 3 training to improve my Ornithopter troops. As near as I can tell, it’d cost roughly $1 in gems to knock off one full day of one timer.

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

The trick about these games is sort of the trick about Hearthstone: as long as it isn’t your primary source of entertainment, the restrictions are mostly irrelevant. I “play” Castle Clash maybe 3-5 times a day, for about five minutes at a time. Under this schedule, there really is no difference between an action that takes 10 minutes and one that takes 3 hours, as I’m either done with my break at work or whatever loading screen I was waiting on for my PC game has finished. If you only play Hearthstone every 2-3 days, then you will have enough gold to pretty much do whatever you want in each play session. You generally only really get into trouble with F2P games when you feel compelled to play them every day for hours.

Of course, that’s kind of the rub. Tobold is challenging people to think up a better alternative to the wait mechanic that doesn’t result in finishing the game in an hour, but it does sort of strike me as profoundly cynical to engineer a game where not playing is a game mechanic, especially when you offer money to bypass it. I don’t think it’s “entitlement” to ask for a game I can reasonably play for more than 10 minutes at a time, if I have need to. I have zero complaints for having spent a few bucks apiece for Angry Birds, Plants vs Zombies, Dungeon Raid, 10000000, Where’s My Water, and so on, so the admonition of “game devs need to eat” rings hollow. Especially when it’s suggested that dropping $20 on Dungeon Keeper for more imps – which will allow you to run twice as many 24+ hour queues at a time, but still otherwise constrict you to 10-minute play sessions – is considered “reasonable.”

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

Not optimized by any means, but you get the idea.

All that being said though, I have officially added Dungeon Keeper to my game app rotation. I’m not a fan of it’s constant up-selling in terms of ringtones/wallpapers and such, or the badgering for me to log onto my Google+ account (which I silenced by creating a fake profile), but it’s otherwise a perfectly serviceable Progress Quest-style game for those who derive pleasure from time-management multitasking. Between Dungeon Keeper, Castle Clash, and Candy Crush Saga, I can have an almost uninterrupted 30 minutes (!) of gameplay.

Which is a pretty sad thing to get excited about, don’t get me wrong. But there’s only so much you can do when you’ve beaten all the other mobile games you’ve paid for.