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7DTD: Alpha 16 Impressions

The experimental version of Alpha 16 for 7 Days to Die (7DTD) came out over the weekend, and I have sunk close to a dozen hours into it already. Much as I was hoping before, the changes have revitalized my interest in the game generally. However, some of the same changes exacerbate underlying design problems with character progression.

Character progression in 7DTD has never really been smooth. Starting from Stone tools, you eventually craft a bow, some arrows, and a wooden club for defense. From there, the next “tier” requires the creation of a Forge, which requires a Bellows, which requires Leather and a Short Iron Pipe. The Leather can be collected by skinning animals you kill or breaking down leather couches in buildings. The Short Iron Pipe though, is either found as random loot or crafted. In a Forge. That you are trying to build.

The game is actually riddled with these regressive, bootstrap requirements. The Workbench is a necessary structure to craft mid-to-late tier items, and requires a Wrench to be consumed in the construction. Meanwhile, the Wrench can only be constructed with Forged Steel, which is an endgame resource material that requires a high player level. Oh, and a Workbench. You need a Workbench to create a Wrench so you can craft a Workbench. But hey, sometimes you can find a Workbench out in the world, so you can dismantle it and place it back at your base… provided you have a Wrench.

[Fake Edit: Just kidding, Workbenches in the world can’t be dismantled anymore.]

These problems already existed in Alpha 15, but it’s kinda worse now. The devs introduced “Sleeper” zombies, which basically means they seeded every corner and basement of every building with zombies that can wake up while you’re trying to loot. This makes looting houses much more tense and exciting, for sure. However, they also reduced zombie loot without actually increasing it elsewhere. Ergo, you end up having to do more fighting with less rewards, while stuck with worse tools for longer.

Another example of regressive design? The devs reduced the amount of Wood gathered with Stone Axes, and eliminated the Last-Hit bonus (generally +20 Wood when a tree is finally felled). “Better tools result in better yields” makes sense, right? Sure, conceptually. The problem is that by the time you have a Forge up and running to craft an Iron Fireaxe, your need for Wood has considerably decreased. In fact, considering the rate that even a Stone Shovel gives you Small Stone and Clay, it’s actually easier to create a base out of Cobblestone than Wood.

Alpha is Alpha, of course. That said, I think there is a lot that the devs can do to bridge the progression gap and otherwise tighten up with the core gameplay loops. Some suggestions:

Introduce a Scrap Iron tier of weapons/tools.

The current progression path is Stone –> Forged Iron. That is quite the jump, especially with such considerable gaps in coverage in some areas. For example, your first knife is a Bone Shiv, and the next requires Forged Iron AND a Blueprint (Hunting Knife). You can craft Iron Arrowheads all day, no problem, but a sharp piece of a iron? Impossible.

I would also suggest making the Cooking Pot craftable with general Iron, rather than requiring a Forge. The Cooking Pot is just too integral to basic survival given that there are zero non-loot sources of fresh water in the game otherwise. Well, you can create Yucca Juice from harvesting cacti in a pinch, but you can’t cook/craft with that.

Perform a general sanity check on existing Blueprints

I am hoping that the current Blueprint system is a placeholder that eventually gets revisited, because it really makes zero sense sometimes. For example, the general progression of clubs is Wood Club, Iron Reinforced Club, and Spiked Club. You can craft the first two without Blueprints (although the Iron Reinforced Club requires a whopping 100 Iron), but the Spiked Club requires both Forged Iron and a specific Blueprint. For a piece of wood with spikes on it.

What makes the Spiked Club even more ridiculous is that you can craft Barbed Wire with simple Iron right from the beginning of the game. And Barbed Wire Fence for that matter. Barbed Wire + Wood is fine, but Barbed Wire wrapped around a piece of wood is way too complicated. Or using the Claw Hammer and some Nails on a piece of wood.

Reduce the Bootstrap Gating

I mean, I kinda get the thought process here. In crafting games like Terraria, Minecraft, and others, the limiting factor that gets you out the door of your base is resources: you need that Platinum/Diamond/Magic Ore/etc. Resources are needed in 7DTD too, but the overwhelming impetus to scavenge is the simple fact that you can’t just slowly work your way up the crafting tree. You need Short Iron Pipes to craft the Forge that makes Short Iron Pipes, and you need a Wrench to build a Workbench that can make Wrenches.

At the same time, the difference between finding a Wrench/Cooking Pot/etc on Day 1 and not finding anything for 7+ in-game days is enormous. Random loot is exciting, and there is absolutely still a place for that. But I think there should at least be the possibility of a bridge between Nothing and Everything. Perhaps a Crude Wrench, or Makeshift Cooking Pot. Make them have the chance for failure or ruined ingredients so that the Real Deal is still desirable, if no longer strictly required.

In any case, I still find the game to be quite entertaining, although I’m unlikely to derive the same 60+ hours of fun I did when everything was new. Which is likely good news to the people more interested in my potential thoughts on the upcoming FFXIV and Guild Wars 2 expansions.

Inflection Points

In Divinity: Original Sin, I have definitively hit an inflection point in terms of character power. And that is kind of a shame.

Basically, once you hit level 15 you can start learning “Master” level skills/spells. As one might expect, these can be extremely powerful. For example, one of them is Meteor Shower, which drops 30 little fireballs in a specific area, each of which can deal a few hundred points of damage apiece in addition to spread fire in the area. These powerful spells cost a lot of Action Points – generally meaning needing to wait around multiple turns to save up enough AP – and are limited to One-Per-Battle in terms of cooldowns.

The issue is that you can game the hell out of the system. The AP cost is entirely irrelevant if you happen to spot a group of enemies before engaging in combat, for example – AP only exists within combat, so go nuts for the alpha strike. Hell, I bring down the stars on even one dude, because why not? It’s always been powerful to initiate combat with a “free” spell, but up till now those spells didn’t necessarily gib your target.

Another of the Master level skills allows an Archer to fire 16 arrows in a 45-degree arc. Great for groups… or, you know, if you want to effectively one(16?)-shot bosses from point-blank range. Oh, and hey, there’s a low-level Ranged Power Shot skill that increases damage by 20% at the cost of accuracy. Which would normally be an issue if not for the fact that Arrow skills auto-hit as long as the target is in range.

MMO players will recognize this phenomenon as “Optimizing the fun out of the game.” As I have mentioned previously though, the optimizing process itself is what I find fun to begin with. And it has been pretty fun figuring this out. The problem is that the game is now “solved,” and I am in one of those positions at the end of a Civilization match where winning is a foregone conclusion, but for the long, tedious march to an official win condition.

I said this situation is a shame because I’m not so sure it was necessary. Up until this point, effective AoE in Divinity was actually decently limited. Yeah, there were combos and such that you could set up, e.g. dropping Oil in an area and then lighting it on fire. But none of it was enough to one-shot groups by itself. Hell, often those combos ended up being counter-productive. The Oil+Fire combo was good for setting people on fire, but the resulting smoke prevented targeted follow-up attacks until they moved out of the area.

This scenario sort of reminds me of Final Fantasy Tactics, when you are suddenly given an excessively OP party member (Orlandu) for basically no reason. The game was challenging up to that point, and considerably less so afterwards. Why? What was the designer reasoning?

Sometimes inflection points are inevitable. At the beginning of a game, your character’s options for skills and magic items are likely limited, so there might be less room for synergies. More options means more combos means more opportunities for OP results. Simply not giving anything new past a certain level isn’t a particularly good design, so the devs might actually be trapped in that regard.

And, hey, I’m not blind to the fact that it probably feels good, both as a player and as a designer, to reach the endgame and feel like a total badass. Every wizard dreams of the moment they go from shooting Magic Missiles into the darkness to altering the fabric of reality itself. This is why games like WoW end up giving you +5% upgrades each tier instead of a more measured 1% – anything less feels unrewarding.

The fundamental problem is that I found the Divinity combat system rewarding as-is. Even with good equipment, things felt dicey all the time. I’m sure that someone out there had a lot of fun going from dicey fights to forgone conclusion ones, but that person is not me. And I cannot help but wonder if it was necessary at all. If super-skills are necessary, do they need to be this particularly powerful? Why 30 meteors instead of, say, 10? That would still be a huge improvement over the standard Fireball spell.

In any case, I am continuing to play Divinity and hopefully wrap things up soon.

CraftCraft

A few weeks ago, Gevlon had an interesting post on how crafting in MMOs is fundamentally broken:

If you fight monsters or players, you must constantly cast spells. If you gather, you must move between spawn points. Both needs you to sit at the computer and press buttons (unless botting). But to craft, you just press a button and maybe wait and you are done.

Basically, crafting is broken because all other options available to get in-game currency take keyboard effort (gathering, grinding mobs) whereas crafting does not. And, having reflected on that, it is 100% true. Just as in real life, the people making bank aren’t those doing the work, but the ones working the bank.

Gevlon concedes that there really isn’t a solution to this problem, mainly because “active crafting” would essentially be a grindy minigame. Well, he says the solution is to make it so that everyone can craft everything, thereby hopefully making the crafter-class irrelevant. I’m not so sure, considering how much gold people already make from selling vendor mats in WoW. Any knowledge gap is enough space for the Bourgeoisie to pop up like mushrooms.

Would a minigame really be that bad though?

Maybe. I remember getting pretty frustrated with Wildstar’s crafting system, which was essentially a lot of RNG and wasted mats. I did not spend a whole lot of time in FF14, but I recall a similar minigame there that required button presses for optimum results. Based on the comments on Gevlon’s blog post, it seems there might be other, older MMO examples as well.

Still, I’m thinking that that pretty much has to be the “solution.” This is assuming that you believe there is a problem to begin with. But crafting has felt divorced from the general MMO gameplay experience for ages. Even Fishing in WoW feels more interactive than the normal sort of insane grind (or extreme automation via addons) that is, say, prospecting stacks of ore and/or creating Glyphs. Running around Herbing on a toon feels fun. Smelting ore and transmuting it does not. And yet one of those is much, much more lucrative than the other.

A more active crafting overhaul would require a fundamental rebalancing of the sort of boilerplate crafting experience though. Most crafting systems are predicated on you crafting hundreds of redundant items, for example. Skill-ups – assuming they still exist – would perhaps need to come from successful strikes on the anvil, rather than just one for the finished product. Or perhaps simply an offline system ala EVE.

In any case, I do feel like active crafting is the way forward. There would still be a goblin-esque master class, as I find it unlikely A) even an active system would be slower at gold generation than grinding mobs, and B) a good 80% of the player population is too lazy to craft their own gear. Maybe the right system hasn’t been found yet. Or perhaps the right system is trapped on an older MMO?

Inventory Junk

Sometimes it takes a game to start doing something mundane before you appreciate how every other game doesn’t bother you with that crap. Case in point: Divinity: Original Sin doesn’t automatically remove anything from your inventory.

Nothing. The answer is nothing.

In pretty much any other RPG ever made, introducing lock to key causes the key itself to disappear. It is not as though the key will work on any other lock, so why keep it around? “Why not?” muses the D:OS designers. “Because it’s dumb,” says I. My inventory is filled with keys (which you can’t sell), books that no longer serve a quest or skill gain purpose, and other kitchen drawer debris. There isn’t any special glowing inventory effects either, so sometimes it gets difficult to realize that you actually have picked up something worth clicking on.

Can I manually go through my whole inventory? Of course. But why exactly do I need to? What is the underlying gameplay purpose? As far as I can tell… well, I can’t. I don’t actually know if this is a “old-school” throwback, as I don’t remember if Baldur’s Gate had anything similar. Probably not.

In any case, I’m glad most modern games have moved on. Because ain’t nobody got time for that.

Fuzzy Rules

I have been play a bit of Divinity: Original Sin and continue to enjoy it. Mostly.

One thing that I strongly dislike in games though, are fuzzy rules. By “fuzzy” I mean that the parameters of the rules are either not consistent or not entirely clear within the game itself. Divinity has tons of them that were at first amusing, but now are a bit grating.

For example, sometimes when you attack a target, they bleed on the ground. Fine, right? Well… environment effects are super important in Divinity. There is a talent that actually heals you when standing in blood, for example. Blood puddles also apparently conduct electricity, as I discovered when two of my melee team members got stunned after a third one shot a Lightning Bolt.

Things get real dumb though when you fight zombies. See, zombies are healed by poison effects. Guess what zombies bleed? Poison. So… yeah, hit zombies enough and they will bleed poison on the ground, which then heals them. I can kinda sorta maybe see the logic, if the designers were using this self-regeneration mechanic as an explanation for zombie resilience. But it’s far more likely that this is just sloppy game mechanics. Especially when you set zombies on fire, then the fire makes the poison explode, which ends up dealing fire and poison damage simultaneously, which sometimes cancels out the fire damage entirely.

Are there benefits to fuzzy rules? Sometimes. The real world is full of strange situations, so carrying over some of that uncertainty can make virtual worlds more realistic. Plus, fuzzy rules are a de facto increase in difficulty – if you’re not certain something is going to work, you have to be more cautious. Weird situations also make for good stories.

That said, I don’t like unclear rules very much. It’s tough to determine whether vague interactions are intentionally designed, or just designer incompetence. And when you end up failing because of said interactions, it’s difficult to know what you should have done differently. Did you lose to a dice roll? Strategic blunder? Not leveling up enough?

Growth requires not just knowing what went wrong, but what can be done to avoid it in the future. If the answer is “nothing,” there really isn’t any growth at all.

Shadowverse Gameplay

I have talked around Shadowverse quite a bit over the past month or two. The reason is that I haven’t bothered really playing the competitive aspects of the game; I have instead been clearing the “story” mode against the AI. Oh, and logging in every day, because of the rather generous log-in rewards.

Actually, let’s get that out of the way first: one of the biggest draws of Shadowverse is its generosity in the reward department. New accounts receive the same bonus card packs that were awarded to people when new expansions are released, which means you can expect to crack open 30+ packs right after signing in for the first time. On top of that, there are the aforementioned log-in rewards, which ends up being two free packs, a free Arena run, and increasing amounts of gold on 15-day basis. Maintenance at 3am? Have some more card packs. Then there are also Achievements that reward gold/dust. Oh, and three daily quests a day.

In short, there are a LOT of freebies. Especially compared to the misery Hearthstone.

For the most part though, the freebies are kinda required. Decks in Shadowverse are 40 cards, compared to Hearthstone’s 30. Additionally, instead of there being a 1 Legendary limit, Shadowverse lets you stuff three of the same kind of Legendary into a deck. And just as in Hearthstone, getting a Legendary to a class (or Craft, in this case) that you don’t care about is effectively wasted (you can still dust it though). This is why it is important to reroll, as I talked about before.

In terms of gameplay itself, things are remarkably similar to Hearthstone. Players gain 1 mana crystal per turn. There is no interaction on your opponent’s turn, and they can choose to attack you or your minions. There are 5 slots on the board for creatures/amulets (instead of 7). Creatures can have Taunt (Ward), Deathrattles (Last Word), Battlecry (Fanfare), and so on. One interesting wrinkle is Charge, which Shadowverse splits into Rush vs Storm. Rush allows a creature to attack other creatures (not players) as soon as its played, whereas Storm has no restrictions. Given how many issues Hearthstone has had over the years with OTK (one-turn kill) combos via Charge, I feel like Shadowverse’s dual take it superior.

A lot has been said online about how Shadowverse is a deeper game already than Hearthstone. In some ways this is accurate. Amulets are a type of card that can stick around on the game board (taking up a creature slot), having constant or triggered effects. We really haven’t see that design space explored in Hearthstone beyond Tavern Brawls. And while there are some random effects, there certainly aren’t nearly a fraction of the kind in Hearthstone.

Oh look, even the computer drops 8/8s on Turn 3.

One of the bigger deals in every Shadowverse match is Evolve. Starting around Turn 5/6, players can spend 1 Evolve point per turn to beef up a minion on the board and possibly trigger extra effects. The default bonus is giving the minion +2/+2 stats and Rush. Sometimes it’s those stats plus something else. Sometimes the minion doesn’t get buffed at all, and instead a powerful effect occurs. Regardless, knowing when you must Evolve and when to hold it is a tremendously important part of every game. And given that you can Evolve any creature, the dilemma comes up in each match.

Beyond that though… I’m not actually certain how much deeper Shadowverse’s gameplay actually is in practice. There are certainly way more mechanics than Hearthstone already, including ones that would be “too confusing” for people unable to handle more than 9 deck slots. But when you look at the top meta decks in Shadowverse as of 3rd week of March

  • Daria Tempo Rune 9.54%
  • Midrange Sword 9.15%
  • D-Shift Rune 7.37%
  • Face/Aggro Sword 6.45%
  • Aggro Blood 6.28%

Runecraft decks account for nearly 17% of the meta, with Swordcraft bringing up 15.6% (technically 20% in top 10). In other words, nearly a third of the meta consists of two classes, just looking at the top 5 decks. Looking at the top 10, nearly 30% of the meta is made up as aggro/tempo. Is that worse than Hearthstone’s current Pirate meta? Nope. But when you look at these top decks, it is not as though there are particularly deep interactions going on with convoluted cards. Even with D-Shift Rune, you are basically stalling the game long enough to drop a 7/7 and a few “take another turn after this one” spells. The average Renolock in Hearthstone has more turn-to-turn decisions to make.

What you can give credit to the Shadowverse devs for is their dedication to relative balance. Three weeks ago, Daria Tempo Rune was a whopping 19.31% of the entire meta by itself. Roach Tempo Forest was 10.59% by itself. Key cards in those decks were nerfed, and the meta shifted over the past few weeks to its current situation. Compare that to Hearthstone, where Ben Brode and company sit on their asses in the hope that the problem goes away on its own, or that the next expansion (months from now) fixes it. Because… reasons.

In any case, we’ll see how things go. Shadowverse is apparently the #2 digital CCG on the market out there, although it is facing competition from Gwent, the Elder Scrolls one, and other such games. I haven’t played those others, but I will say that at a minimum, Shadowverse is about 1000x times better than Hearthstone on mobile. Which makes sense, as Shadowverse was originally a mobile game that was brought to PC, whereas Hearthstone is the opposite. If you’re just looking for a CCG to play on PC though…

…well, let’s see where Journey to Un’goro goes. If the meta is still pirates/Jade, we’ll have issues.

Cold Open

There have been two games I played recently that have started with a cold open, e.g. one with no tutorial that just sort of throws you into the game. The first was The Long Dark, and the second is a space-sim called Hellion; both are in Early Access and both are survival-based games. So, in a sense, it’s difficult to determine whether either one intentionally set out to have cold opens, or if this simply reflects their current, unfinished states.

Hellion-Oops

Pictured: falling out of the airlock into open space.

 

There is a lot to be said regarding the power of cold opens. In an age of 24/7 information coming from every angle, it is refreshing to be thrust into an unknown environment without any sort of hand-holding. It absolutely appeals to Explorer-types, and also those looking for more difficulty in their games. Plus, many times it makes thematic sense, say, if you just woke from cryo-sleep in an otherwise abandoned life pod.

Personally, I find cold opens to be exceptionally difficult to pull off well.

The fundamental issue I have is the dissonance between what the player expects and what the designers intend. What ends up happening is that players must essentially “metagame” how the designers actually intended the game to be played.

For example, in Hellion you awake from cryo-sleep inside a life pod without functioning Life Support. While there are a few tablets on the ground which give you a general idea of steps to take, that is basically all the guidance you are given. I searched the area and did not find enough items onboard to repair the Life Support. I found a jetpack without fuel, and supposedly a charging station for said jetpack, but could not determine a way to refuel.

So… what now? Did I miss an item in the search of the ship? Am I supposed to try and space walk without a jetpack? Is it a bug that there weren’t enough items to repair the Life Support? I have mentioned before that I am fine with tough puzzles, as long as I understand where the pieces are. What I absolutely despise is not knowing whether my failures are due to not performing correctly, or because I didn’t trip some programming flag from 10 minutes ago, or some other nonsense.

LongDark_GL

Somewhat more literal cold open.

I had a similar issue in The Long Dark, of which I played about an hour before turning off. It takes 30 game minutes to break a stick into pieces by hand? Okay, fine. But having found a shelter and tools, I saw no particular way to locate food, or reconcile my exhaustion meter with my temperature meter with the time of day, e.g. how was I to sleep and keep warm in the middle of the day and still survive the night? I understand that perhaps the intention is for the player to be constantly on edge in the quest for survival, but again, I’m not even sure how food really even works in this game yet. I have not seen any flora or fauna beyond sticks and snow.

Flailing around in the darkness is not my idea of quality game time.

I’m not saying game designers should go full Ocarina of Time and have Navi pester you for hours. Minecraft has (had?) a cold open that was relatively straightforward once you got over the intellectual hump of punching trees. Don’t Starve is a much better example of how to do a cold open – there isn’t much of an explanation of anything, but I still felt a sense of agency in being able to interact with things.

And maybe that’s just it: I might not be doing the right things, but being able to do something is important.

I dunno. I think the best compromise would be to have cold opens with a fairly robust PDA/AI Assistant/Crafting Menu. Those that want to wander around blindly can, but those who want to know what they can do… well, can.

I am (Not) Ironman

With my dead 970 graphics card just now reaching the RMA warehouse, I am having to seriously sort through my gaming library for titles that will boot up on a 560ti. WoW runs fine, for example, but 7 Days to Die maybe pushes 20 fps if there isn’t anything going on.

Enter XCOM 2, which I purchased for $12 whole dollars in a recent Humble Monthly Bundle.

I started my first game on “normal” difficulty with Ironman enabled, as I did with the prior title almost four year ago. A few hours later, I abandoned that game and started anew without Ironman.

On the one hand, the decision was easy. XCOM 2 is filled with such crazy amounts of bullshit that I didn’t even feel bad for opening the door to save scumming. The third enemy type you face in the game, a Sectoid, has the ability to Mind Control your units through walls. And create zombie troops from dead bodies. Which is great when your squad consists of only 4 people and you lose one of them to Mind Control off the bat, and that one ends up killing another (who then turns into a zombie). Killing the Sectoid breaks the Mind Control and (re)kills the zombie troops, but that gets a little difficult when one of your guys is Mind Controlled.

Or how about that mission with the Faceless ones? Rescue six civilians… oh wait, one of them morphs into a putty creature with claws and you just ended your turn in melee range. Hey, six damage to your 6 HP dude, that’s convenient. Then you have the snake creatures that can move, then grab a sniper off the top of a train 30 feet away with their tongue, then instantly coil around them, permastunning them and dealing 2 damage per turn. I mean, I suppose I should be grateful there isn’t a chance I could shoot my own coiled guy when I shoot the snake, but I was absolutely expecting that to be a thing. Because fuck you.

None of these things are insurmountable. They just happen to be inane, “gotcha!” bullshit that artificially increases the difficulty of Ironman games. And not even permanently, as once you (the player) know about the existence of these abilities, you can play around them in the future. Which is the point, of course, but I see no reason to structure a game this way while also punishing you long-term for these same blind pitfalls.

On the other hand, after playing a few more hours in non-Ironman mode, I started to wonder about the philosophical ramifications of Save Anywhere.

Fundamentally, a Save Anywhere feature makes eventual success a forgone conclusion. Even in extremely skill-intensive or luck-intensive sections of gameplay, any incremental progress is permanent progress. Some tactical games have RNG protection, e.g. all dice rolls are determined in advance, to dissuade save scumming a 15% chance attack into a critical hit, but that doesn’t prevent you from simply coming in from a different angle or using a different ability.

The other problems with Save Anywhere are the player behavior ramifications. If you can save the game at any time, there is an advantage to doing so, which means there is an incentive to. Tapping F5 is not onerous, but I consider the mental tax of “needing” to remember to do so… well, taxing. It’s not that saving after every attack ruins the game (it does), it’s that I now have to devote constant attention to an out-of-game mechanic. Is there anything worse than thinking you hit Save before turning the corner, but realizing later on that you didn’t, and now you’re stuck with a poor outcome “unnecessarily?” Feels completely different than if the designers make that decision for you.

I feel like there is a middle way, especially in games like XCOM. Specifically: saving inbetween missions. This lets you avert complete disasters like the mission that eventually scuttled my Ironman attempt – a total squad wipe one square from the extraction point – while still disincentivizing save scumming inside each mission. At least then you can weigh the option of losing an elite soldier to some bullshit versus 30-40 minutes of your time.

Incentives

I have been playing Clash Royale for much longer than I ever really expected to. In fact, near as I can tell, it’s been almost a year. Pretty good for an ostensibly F2P game… that I’ve probably dropped $30 into over that time period.

As Syncaine points outpoints out, Supercell has come a long way in fixing what were some unquestionably amateurish mistakes in the engagement department. The initial rollout of Tournaments, for example, were a total disaster – hundreds of thousands of people spam-clicking on the refresh button to try and sneak into one of the 50-player tournaments, which required other players to pay to host them. Like, what?

Tournaments are now a totally legit game path akin to Hearthstone (or any number of other games’) Arena matches where you pay a nominal gem fee and fight other people at your win count. Twelve wins (max rewards) or three losses and you’re out. Supercell has further expanded tournaments to help introduce new cards too, forcing people to have decks using said new card, but granting access to 100% of all cards, including Legendaries, inside the tournament. So not only do you have the ability to playtest the new cards, but more casual players can even play around with the Legendaries that might not ever see.

As always, the first hit of crack tournament is free to everyone.

However, I am finding Supercell’s other attempt at engagement incentives to be less thought-through. Specifically, they introduced Clan Chests, which is basically a chest that gets stuffed with more free goodies the more Crowns that your clan racks up before the deadline. Crowns are basically tower kills, and everyone earns them by playing ladder games.

[Note: Crowns aren’t consumed. Each one gained will fill all Crown meters.]

On the one hand, it’s a good incentive for social engagement. Since a 10/10 chest grants guaranteed epics and thousands of gold, everyone wants the maximum award. Said maximum requires 1600 Crowns in about 3 days, which comes out to be around 32 Crowns per member in a 50-member clan. Since Crown chests are opened after 10 Crowns collected and reset on a daily basis, the general idea is that it will take just a few extra games more than normal, assuming that you are unlocking the Crown chest on the daily anyway.

On the other hand… it really weeds out the casuals. Anyone can see any clan member’s contribution to the Clan Chest. The clan I’m in has already stated that any member with less than 30 Crowns during the Clan Chest will be kicked. Which is fine, whatever, I’m not in a family clan or anything. But it bears mentioning that getting even 10+ a day to unlock the normal Crown Chest results in more (winning) games than you have spots for chests.

Effectively, not only does opening the Clan Chest require one to “waste” chests (or pay Supercell money to open them faster), it arguably “wastes” surplus Crown Chest Crowns too. It ends up being a flurry of obligatory activity just to stay in the same spot.

Worst of all, though, is how the system pretty much perverts the upper brackets. There are 10 brackets currently, with the top starting at 3000 trophies. Each bracket makes the chests you earn contain more stuff, so there is no particular incentive to tank your trophies to a lower bracket. That said, there is zero difference between 3000 and 4000 trophies (where I am), and all Crowns are worth the same for the Clan Chest. Ergo, the optimal play would be to fill up my chest slots (which happens really quickly), and then tank my trophies by intentionally losing until I get less advanced opponents, then start 3-Crowning them with overleveled troops.

I haven’t gone full asshole yet – usually tanking down to 3500 trophies is enough – but I have absolutely encountered people with maxed troops nowhere near where they should be on ladder, just to cheese the system. And it’s pretty clear that the overachievers in my clan who are racking up 100+ Crowns within the 3-day period are not doing so at their “proper” place on ladder.

I mean, I kinda get it, from Supercell’s side. There is an elegance for all Crowns being equal. And then there’s… err… uh… hrm. Actually, I can’t imagine why else Supercell isn’t fixing this issue by perhaps making top-bracket Crowns count for more. Or giving people above 3000 any reason to care what occurs beyond that number. So what if high-ranked clans get to complete the Clan Chest faster than anyone else? Those last troop upgrades take forever and a day already.

The only reason I can think of is perhaps Supercell needs high-ranked players to be playing more to make the matchmaker work better at the upper end, but that’s not really what’s happening here anyway. The smart players are giving free wins to dozens of people on the way down in order to 3-star newer players on the way back up. This does not make for compelling gameplay for anyone.

Supercell has proven to be pretty nimble when it comes to changes, and have also demonstrated the ability to eat crow over incredibly obvious bad ideas (e.g. the lack of an emote squelch), so I’m hoping that they change this system at some point. As it is, it just creates all the wrong incentives for all the wrong people.

Lockboxes

Tyler over at MMOBro makes the case for “getting over” lockboxes in games. I found the post interesting for several reasons, which I will get into in a bit. However, I do want to point out in the beginning that I agree with the premise: lockboxes aren’t going anywhere.

Even though they should. Specifically, into the garbage bin of bad game design.

One of the first of Tyler’s points is that lockboxes don’t literally destroy games. To which I would reply: not directly. Was the first iteration of Diablo 3 unplayable? Nope. Plenty of people were able to play the game just fine… for given amounts of fine.

From my perspective, the game was essentially broken in half. ARPGs in general (and especially Diablo) revolve around killing crowds of bad guys and hoping for good loot to drop, and the dopamine feedback loop simply didn’t exist when you could straight-up buy way better gear from the in-game AH. I was killing monsters hoping to get gold to buy better gear, rather than having any illusion that a monster might drop gear for me.

Perhaps even more problematic in Diablo 3’s case were the endgame difficulties. Since players could shop around and directly buy the best possible gear from a million other players’ drops, the endgame was balanced around Resistances and other stats that would be all but impossible to get within your own game sans AH. In other words, since you could buy good gear, the game designers had to create challenges that required that gear for it to be worthwhile, thereby creating cash-required progression.

Now, you might say that Diablo 3’s system wasn’t technically lockboxes at all. Semantics, I say. The point is that if you can buy power for cash, the player incentives in the game change, as do developers’ ultimate design goals.

But what about non-power purchases? Tyler starts out in the post by saying:

It can be a little irritating to see some gorgeous mount or awesome costume that you’ll never get unless you dump a small fortune into gambling boxes, but how much impact is that having on your moment to moment gameplay, really?

Later on, however, he gets to this part:

I also don’t think we should give up the fight to keep direct purchases part of MMO business models. Something I find frustrating about SW:TOR’s lock[box] obsession is not so much the boxes themselves, but the fact that almost nothing good ever gets added to the cash shop for direct sale.

That is precisely why this business model is so pernicious. As Tyler notes, there are plenty of MMOs out there which have survived just fine almost entirely on the backs of their lockbox revenue. Tyler was making that point in context of refuting lockboxes as short-term cash grabs, but the fact that they are in fact long-term revenue streams is more damning, IMO.

Lockboxes are long-term revenue streams because designers devote significant time to adding more stuff in them at direct expense to the rest of the game. Which makes perfect, rational sense. Under a traditional Buy-2-Play model, you get more money by making a better game. Under anything else, you get more of that game-adjacent thing, which NEVER improves the gameplay experience itself. Because it is never a part of the actual game.

Later, game designers get this defense:

And let’s stop demonizing developers for adding lockboxes to games. […] They’re just trying to turn a profit and earn a living, like everyone else in our capitalist society.

I mean… that kind of justifies anything, right? Mylan was just trying to turn a profit with the EpiPen hike in this capitalist society, Martin Shkreli was just trying to turn a profit with that AIDS drug gouge, and so on. Nothing nefarious about that; it’s all just business. “Business” being defined here as consequence-free personal enrichment and erosion of all consumer surplus, of course.

As I mentioned at the beginning, lockboxes aren’t going anywhere in spite of their abhorrent, exploitative, design-destroying influences, precisely because they work. And to be clear, lockboxes work the same way that cigarettes “work,” with similar (metaphorical) long-term effects. Lockboxes never, in any way, ADD anything of value to the game design itself; all of those cool mounts and skins could have been added for achievements, as rewards for skill, at the end of a long quest chain, or anywhere at all that reinforces the core gameplay loop.

At best, lockboxes funds game development in a roundabout way. Which sort of begs the question as to why these designers don’t just go full Konami and get into the Pachinko business to which they clearly aspire. Or, you know, perhaps make a product worth purchasing on its own merits.