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Hitting a Nerve

Tobold wants me off his lawn. He has a history of political posts that claim “centrism” despite being wrapped in the language of right-wing culture wars, and the recent Races are racist post is no exception. In it, he laments:

It is a sign of the times in which artists live in constant fear of being attacked for slights they never intended that Wizards of the Coast in the first playtest material for One D&D removes stat modifiers from races. In the new version of Dungeons & Dragons, choosing your race is mostly cosmetic. Orcs aren’t strong anymore, instead they “count as one Size larger when determining your carrying capacity and the weight you can push, drag, or lift.”. And to avoid comparative negative stat discrimination, positive stat bonuses are gone as well. The “2-3 feet tall” halflings are now just as strong as the “6-7 feet tall” orcs, in order to avoid racial discrimination. We will have gnomish barbarians and orc wizards.

Gnome barbarians and orc wizards, oh no!

Let’s take a moment to talk about the game design topic though.

This change just reflects what modern multiplayer game design figured out a decade ago: prescriptive racial modifiers only encourage min-maxing and otherwise limit design space. Look at the state of endgame World of Warcraft. Does anyone still think it is a good idea that the race you chose on the character select screen should have such an impact on raiding or M+ or PvP 15 years later? Maybe you say “yes.” Well, the end result of that is a faction imbalance so massive Blizzard finally buckled, and is making most activities of the game cross-faction in the upcoming Dragonflight expansion to prevent the entire edifice from collapsing.

Which is good idea, by the way, because factions are dumb too. “Let’s divide our playerbase and foster different and hostile identities.” Oh, now people are quitting in droves because they are stranded on dead servers/factions and none of our world PvP systems are viable. *Surprised Pikachu face*

Compare all that with, say, Guild Wars 2. I think technically each race has a special ability, but they are irrelevant at all stages of play, which allows players to pick a race based on aesthetics or fantasy. Want to be an Asuran Warrior instead of Charr or Norn? Go for it. One of my first characters 10 years ago was a Sylvari Engineer, because the thought of a plant-person running around with a flamethrower was hilarious to me. Still is, actually. If GW2 was more “traditional” fantasy surely I would have negative modifiers for being around flames, if I were allowed to be an Engineer at all.

Was any of that what Tobold really wanted to talk about? Nope:

I am not sure what purpose races serve in a fantasy role-playing game if there isn’t actually any difference between them. If they are all the same and lack profile, races have been effectively removed in order to appease the thought police. But races remain nominally in the game, because a much bigger part of the D&D customer base would be deeply offended if you’d just remove all fantasy races. It is a bad compromise that will make nobody happy. The thought police will still be triggered by the mere existence of the word “race” in the rulebook. And the players will have lost interesting options in character creation. Can’t we just admit that the real world is complicated, and be allowed some refuge in much simpler fantasy worlds?

You would think that a centrist is all for “bad compromises that make nobody happy,” but the follow-up comments demonstrate that is not the case. When I pointed out that, historically, CRPGs gave female characters Strength penalties for similarly dubious reasons, he replied with:

So you are saying that god is sexist, because (s)he made women less strong than men? I don’t understand your objection to a game rule that reflects reality.

Well, there it is. A Rogue can make a successful Reflex Save in a broom closet hit by a Fireball (which also sets nothing on fire) to avoid all damage, but it’s important for reasons that fantasy game rules reflect “reality.” But only certain “realities.” And those certain reflections of reality are more important to a game’s design than, I dunno, any consideration of what the design leads to, e.g. prescriptive race/class combos that force players to choose between their own fantasy and numerical success. Nevermind the extra social pressure to be helpful that inherently comes from being a part of a group.

While I had been trying to avoid the bait, the third time was not the charm. In an unnecessary paragraph, I threw in this at the end:

“Of course, that’s not the real issue here, is it? I guess you’ve traded your armchair game designer hat for an imitation MAGA one so you can fill your retirement with Boomer culture wars. Which… OK, I guess. Perhaps you can make a little safe space around the D&D table where you can’t get triggered when the “thought police” removes your +2 modifier.

In retrospect, not my proudest moment. However, it certainly hit a nerve, with Tobold going off quoting “They came for the socialists…” and how evil triumphs when good men do nothing.

Here’s the thing though: if you use the word “woke” as a pejorative and talk about the “thought police” being “triggered” while also apparently defending gender-based modifiers as being a justified reflection of (fantasy!) reality… you may want to take a moment and ponder on what “left of center” even is. This is not neutral language. Unless it was being used ironically in a way I did not detect, it hits about the same as Ron DeSantis’ victory speech wherein he used the word “woke” 5 times in 19 seconds:

“At the end of the day, we were not going to let this state be overrun by woke ideology,” DeSantis said. “We will fight the woke in the businesses, in government agencies, fight the woke in our schools, and never surrender to the woke agenda. Florida is the state where woke goes to die.”

Perhaps even pointing that out is ipso facto thought policing, in which case… weewoo weewoo, I guess.

I understand the desire to keep politics separate from one’s hobby. Although, that sort of presupposes politics weren’t already deeply ingrained from inception – art is usually a product of its time. What I do not understand is how or why this particular hill is the one to die on. Not only does it make no practical difference to the experience of D&D – you literally can make up whatever rules you wish or use any edition to run your game – it is not particularly interesting game design in the first place.

Indeed, here is a quote from the Principle Rules Designer for D&D, Jeremy Crawford:

“For quite some time, we have not liked how the choice of race in the game had often too much weight on the player’s choice of class,” Crawford admitted. “Fans often talk about this—that connection between race and class is not something we as designers actually desire. We want players to pick those two critical components of their character and choose the two that really sing to them so they don’t feel like they’re pigeonholed. [In Monsters of the Multiverse] people will get the floating bonuses we introduced in Tasha’s Cauldron. If somebody is making a character, and wants to recreate the bonuses that existed previously, the advantage of the floating bonus system is they can do exactly that.”

Here is another one:

“Contrary to what many people might think,” said Crawford, “those ability score increases that are in those different options, they’re not there for game balance purposes. They are there strictly to reinforce the different archetypes that have been in D&D going all the way back to the ’70s. […] It really has been just about archetype reinforcement, and because it’s not there for game balance reasons we give people the option in Tasha’s Cauldron to take whatever those bonuses are […] put them in any ability score you want.”

If you want a traditional, archetype-driven high-fantasy campaign wherein Orc babies light up when the Paladin casts Detect Evil, go right ahead. I personally ran D&D campaigns for six years that featured nary a dungeon nor a dragon. Do what you want!

But if you are insistent on being outraged by this change, irrespective of your ability to articulate a game design counter-argument, cloaked in the language of far-right cultural wars, maybe some introspection is in order. And if the notion of introspection itself feels like self-censorship to be fought with the strength of Niemöller… well, you kind of got your answer right there, eh?

[Cyberpunk 2077] Terrible Design

Cyberpunk 2077 has undergone a ton of changes since its disastrous launch. I was not keeping track of everything they fixed and tweaked, but suffice it to say, there was a lot. Some of which was immediately indicative of… well, idiot designers. That may sound harsh but let me give you an example: there is an early talent (Dagger Dealer) that allows you to throw your equipped knives. What was missing from the launch of the game until literally February of this year was any way to retrieve your thrown knives. Some designer thought this talent up and some programmer put it into a game where there are legendary knives, and no one thought that maybe losing them forever was a bad idea? Again, this was fixed in version 1.5 which I am currently playing. But the fact that it was even a thing outside of alpha is mind-boggling.

What I am coming to understand is that Dagger Dealer is a symptom of deeper issues.

Historical screenshot for the lols. In 1.5 they magically come back after a few seconds.

The overall leveling system is just a mess. You gain XP and gain character levels, which grant you Perk points and occasionally Attribute points. The latter are very important because they determine the maximum level of perk you can select within that Attribute. Additionally, each Attribute has multiple Skill Trees associated with it. So for example, the Reflexes Attribute contains the Assault, Blades, and Handguns trees, each of which contain 17-20 Perks that can have multiple tiers.

BUT WAIT, THERE’S MORE! Each Skill tree has its own XP meter that increases by utilizing that specific Skill in various ways. The more you use Handguns, the more Handgun XP you generate, and eventually you work your way down the reward track up to the limit of the Attribute. The rewards are usually little enhancements (Recoil reduction on Handguns, etc) but sometimes they are Perk points which you can actually assign anywhere. While that could lead to some interesting decisions wherein you start farming Blade XP to generate extra Perk points to put into Handguns or whatever, the emphasis should not deviate from the word “farm.” Because that is what it takes.

All of that may sound complicated, but none of it is particularly interesting.

I could live with all the overcomplicated shenanigans, but what I cannot stand is a Talent/Perk/Skill system with so few synergies. It is like the designers didn’t even try. I scoured the various trees and the closest thing to interesting that popped up was a Reflexes 8 Perk in the Blades tree called Stuck Pig that increases Bleed duration by 3/6/9 seconds. That is notable not because it’s actually any good, but because there is no “inflicted by a Blade” qualifier to it. Some things other than Blades inflict Bleed, so that would be an interesting choice and/or build to work towards if Bleeds were your thing. If instead you put any Perk points into Handguns, well, all of them turn off the moment you equip anything else.

And, Jesus Christ, don’t get me started on the crafting system. Because I’m going to anyway.

Crafting is governed by the Technical Ability Attribute and subsequent perks in the Crafting Skill tree. The most important ones are those Perks that unlock the crafting of Rare (5), Epic (12), and Legendary (18) items. In many games, there is always a tension between player crafting and found loot: A) if crafting is better, why search for loot, vs B) if loot is better, why engage with crafting at all. Cyberpunk kicks this up a notch with Iconic gear – these are weapons/armor with unique effects that you can continually upgrade… provided you dump a bunch of Attribute points into Technical Ability. If you don’t, those Iconic items might be good for a mission or two before trash drops start dealing more damage.

A bargain at no price.

Aside from that, crafting largely sucks. You need to purchase weapon/armor “specs” from vendors to unlock the ability to craft that item in that specific tier. Just because you can craft a Rare sniper rifle does not mean you can craft the Epic version of the same sniper rifle, even if you unlocked Epic crafting via Perks. Also, the spec for that Sniper Rifle costs 75,000 credits which is just about what it costs to just purchase the Legendary version of that Sniper Rifle from the same vendor. At a certain point you can farm practically infinite amounts of credits via crafting anyway (purchase components, craft X gun, sell to vendor, cycle vendors), but the point is that the system as a whole makes no fucking sense. What was the harm with a more reasonable weapon spec cost? Woohoo, I get a “cheap” Epic Sniper Rifle by dumping Attribute and Perk Points into a tree that does not otherwise enhance my ability to deal damage with said Sniper Rifle. Christ, I bet that I would deal more damage with a trash-tier Sniper Rifle and those points spent in Reflexes instead.

By the way, Cyberpunk does feature a Respec button. The hilarious thing – in a comedy of errors sort of way – is that it only refunds Perk points, not Attribute points. Thus even though I am 40 hours deep into the game and realize how terrible Crafting has been for me, none of it matters because I can’t shuffle many of those points elsewhere because I’m limited based on Attributes, not Perks. I guess there is an argument that people would game the system by switching to a full Crafting build, upgrade all their shit, get infinite money, and then swap back to a weapon-specific build, but come on.

Know what else is disappointing? The cyberware parts of Cyberpunk. The game is predicated on body enhancements and everyone certainly looks the part. But the thing you find out after browsing a few Ripperdocs is that all the enhancements are… just random buffs locked behind Attribute gates. Sometimes you will find a common-tier upgrade not locked behind such a gate, but the vast majority are tied to your character’s Body or Reflexes Attribute, which means a Technical Ability/Intelligence character (cough) doesn’t have much to gain by cyberware. Which is really fucking bizarre, right? Compare that to how Deus Ex handles things – augments grant gameplay-changing abilities and are otherwise a big deal. In Cyberpunk, they are non-choices.

One of the few “interesting” cyberwares, and it disables your ability to use grenades. Because reasons.

Ultimately, that is the biggest disappointment of all: everything in Cyberpunk (outside of dialog) feels like a non-choice. Can you “choose” to build your character around using Shotguns and Katanas for roleplaying purposes? Sure. Place your Attribute and Perk points in the corresponding slots. But none of that is interesting. And to me, there is no such thing as an uninteresting choice – there are choices and mere decisions. You decide to use Shotguns, and everything else follows. Notwithstanding the banality of having to decide on a specific weapon to use in the first place, there is no room for synergy choices within Skill trees or trying different strategies once Attribute points have been committed.

I am not certain this part of Cyberpunk 2077 is fixable. Being able to Respec Attribute points would help, or perhaps granting more Attribute points overall. Perks would have be radically reworked to introduce synergies though, and I’m not certain designers who had to wait a year and half to noodle on how to fix throwing knives is up to the task.

Borrowed Power, Borrowed Time

The Blizzard devs have been on a bit of a interview circuit since the reveal of the next WoW expansion. Some of the tidbits have been interesting, like this particular summary (emphasis mine):

  • Borrowed Power
    • The team reflected on the borrowed power systems of the past few expansions and admit that giving players power and then taking it away at the end didn’t feel good.
    • As they thought of a way to move forward without borrowed power systems, they realized that the only talent system used to fill those gaps by giving you something new every expansion that would not be taken away at the end.
    • The goal of the new talent system is to grow on it in further expansions with more layers and rows.
    • They want the new talent system to be sustainable for at least a few expansions and what to do at that point is an issue to solve then.

In other words, Blizzard recognized the failings of the “borrowed power” system – after three expansions! – and decided to bring back talent trees as a replacement. All while acknowledging the reasons why talent trees failed in the first place… and simply saying the equivalent of “we’ll jump off that bridge when we come to it.”

You know, I’m actually going to transcript that part from Ion Hazzikostas for posterity:

And I think we’ve built this system… you know, I mean, could we sustain that for 20 years? Probably not. But we don’t realistically… we think of, you know, there’s a – there a horizon of sorts where you want to make sure this will work for two or three expansions and then beyond that it’s sort of a future us problem. Where so much will have changed between now and then we can’t… it’s not really responsible for us to like, you know, make plant firm stakes in the ground. And if we’re compromising the excitement of our designs because of we’re not sure how they’re going to scale eight years from now… we’re doing a disservice to players today and eight years from now won’t matter if we’re not making an amazing game for players today.

I don’t technically disagree. When you have a MMORPG with character progression and abilities that accumulate over time… at some point it becomes very unwieldy to maintain every system introduced. Not impossible, just unwieldy. It reminds me of when CCGs like Hearthstone or Magic: the Gathering start segmenting older card sets away from “Standard” and into “Legacy” sets. Want to play with the most broken cards from every set ever released? Sure, go have fun over there in that box. Everyone else can have fun with a smaller set of more (potentially) balanced cards over here.

Having said that… is it really an insurmountable design problem?

My first instinct was to look at Guild Wars 2, which recently released its third expansion. The game is a bit of an outlier from the get-go considering that there is no gear progression at the level cap – if you have Ascended/Legendary Berserker gear from 10+ years ago, it is still Best-in-Slot today (assuming your class/spec wasn’t nerfed). That horizontal progression philosophy bleeds over into character skills and talent-equivalents too: whatever spec you are playing, you are limited to 5 combat skills based on your weapon(s) and 5 utility skills picked from a list. You pick three talent trees, but those trees don’t “expand” or get additional nodes. The only power accumulation in GW2 is in the Mastery system… which is largely borrowed-power-esque, now that I think about it.

So GW2 is doing well in the ability/feature creep department. For now. Because that’s the rub: ArenaNet is on expansion #3. WoW is on expansion #9. Are we prepared for six more Elite Specs per class? Outside of it being a balance nightmare – which is hardly ever ArenaNet’s apparent concern – I could easily see more Elite Specs being slapped onto the UI and nothing else of note changing. So the problem is “solved” by never granting meaningfully new abilities to older specs.

And… that’s basically the extent of my knowledge of non-WoW MMOs. Surely EverQuest 1 & 2 have encountered this same issue, for example. What did they do? I think FF14 is accumulating character abilities but not yet hitting the limit of reasonableness. EVE is EVE. What else is out there that has been around long enough to run into this? Runescape?

Regardless, it’s an interesting conundrum whereby the choices appear to be A) not grant new abilities with each expansion, B) have Borrowed Power systems, or C) periodically “reset” and prune character abilities before reintroducing them.

Fallout Worlds

Bethesda recently removed the Nuclear Winter battle royale mode from Fallout 76, and replaced it with Fallout Worlds. This new feature is intended to satisfy the promise of modding within Fallout 76.

Essentially, it allows you to spin up your own Private World (a feature that already exists) but then tweak a large number of “developer” settings. For example, you can remove building restrictions, remove crafting restrictions (i.e. infinite materials), give yourself infinite ammo, crank up/down NPC damage and a number of other settings. Access to this feature does require a “Fallout 1st” subscription, same as normal Private Worlds, although there is a free “community” version that is intended to… something. Advertise the feature? Give bored people something else to do?

There is a catch though: while you can clone your character over to Worlds, they cannot come back.

A large number of people in the Fallout 76 community consider Worlds a waste of developer time. Originally, I did too. What’s the point? Why spend developer time on a feature that has no progression? All of the time you spend in Worlds doing whatever is isolated to Worlds alone, even if the only thing you tweak is goofy things like exaggerated ragdoll effects or more frequent rad storms. I suppose it might also be nice for those people who want to test out certain Legendary builds without needing to track down/grind out specific weapons.

The counter-argument that got me though was this: who says you have to come back?

Almost three years ago, I made the argument that Fallout 76 was a survival game. And, well, I sure as hell ain’t playing ARK on default settings. There isn’t anything approaching the ridiculousness of dino babysitting for literal real-world hours in Fallout 76, but there is an argument to be made that some elements of the experience diminish fun rather than facilitate. Things like grinding out multiple Daily Ops just for the free ammo to feed your minigun so you can use it in Public Events. Infinite ammo would cut out a significant possible gameplay loop, but again, some loops are better than others.

There is also the fact that a solo world is what many people have been asking for all along. Private Worlds already exist as a feature under the subscription, and has the bonus of allowing you to preserve your unified character progress in Adventure Mode. But what is that really? You also level up in custom Worlds, possibly at a faster rate. The two things you miss are the sort of Season rewards – most of which can be boiled down to resource gifts – and… other people. You can invite others to your own Custom Worlds, and they can even rejoin that specific Custom World without you having to be online, but there is otherwise no random people drifting in.

And that’s the real downside, not the forked progression. Other people have certainly been distracting during story progression, but Show & Tell is a strong motivator for emergent gameplay. I can’t tell you how many times I have strolled into a random person’s CAMP just looking to browse their vendor wares and then end up shamed how great their camp looks compared to my Oscar the Grouch roleplay (or at least that’s what I keep telling myself). I have built elaborate nonsense in ARK and Valheim and similar games before with full knowledge that none would witness its greatness. It’s easier in those games though, because other people never existed to me. Here, it’s different.

Having said all that, I have no particular desire to fork over subscription money to access Fallout Worlds. I now understand the appeal though, even if it’s not directly appealing to me. I happen to enjoy rummaging through literal post-apocalypse garbage and slowly accumulating all the things.

If you don’t, well, Bethesda has you covered now.

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.

Pre-Burnout

I decided to start playing Borderlands: The Pre-Sequel (BLPS), as one of the literal 124 games in my Epic library that I did not pay for. No, really, I just counted one-hundred and twenty-four. Minus one, as I did end up purchasing Outward way back in the day:

Anyway. Borderlands: Pre-Sequel!

…yeah, it sucks. I give myself about a 40% chance of uninstalling it the next time I play.

There are a lot of people who don’t, but I for one actually do appreciate the Borderlands writing style. The humor doesn’t always land, but there simply aren’t many people out there writing, well, out there. Most games have utterly boring dialog and take their generic plots very seriously. So when you have a game series that does the exact opposite, amusing things can happen.

That’s not the problem though. The problem is the gameplay.

Back in the day (Jesus Christ, 2013?!), I talked about getting burned out on Borderlands 2. At the time, I was talking about the absurdity that occurs when you get to the level cap and end up facing enemies with tens of millions of HP. Some of that is impacting me even at the beginning of BLPS, as I start wondering whether I am going to just plow through the story missions or play this “for real.” See, nothing you do matters in a Normal playthrough. And on the next playthrough, you have to plow through the story again until the level-cap, doing zero side-quests, lest the unique side-quest rewards roll stats at your non-level-cap level. Which would make them instantly useless.

The other part though, is just how the gameplay design doesn’t fit the design of the game. For example, for such a kinetic gunplay experience, Borderlands has these awkward moments of intense inventory management. Bosses and enemies can explode in a fountain of epic loot… and you have to meticulously look at each one to analyze its stats, see if you have enough inventory space to pick it up, and so on. BLPS takes this to a whole new level considering the game takes place on a low-gravity moon. Which means you can be in an intense firefight and killing enemies with jetpacks, only to watch in horror as potentially good loot goes flying off in all sorts of directions.

Speaking of low-gravity, BLPS adds the element of gliding and slamming as attacking maneuvers. Which is fine. But it really highlights the fact that there isn’t much that the game is asking you to do that is actually supported in the game. This isn’t a cover-based shooter, for example, but the game does expect you to take cover/crouch to avoid damage while waiting for your shields to recharge. Arial acrobatics and butt-stomps are nice and all, but good luck surviving long enough to do any damage as you are literally floating out in open vacuum. Most of the encounters I face are either trivial or overwhelmingly difficult, depending on the availability of cover and whether enemies are randomly equipped with shocking guns (which melts shields).

The above issues are not unique to BLPS, of course. In 2021 though, the standards to what nonsense I am willing to endure have been raised.

Finally, I just have to say there are extremely early parts of BLPS that is just frustratingly bad. Like when you just start playing the game and are facing multiple rooms full of hostiles before you get your very first shield. Was that a thing in BL2? I don’t remember. But there’s also an area after unlocking the first vehicle where you are expected to make a jump while boosting… and I fell into the pit like six times in a row. I was boosting, I was hitting the obvious ramp, and down in the pit I went. Almost uninstalled that night. The deaths were irrelevant – the percentage of wealth penalty is trivial at that level – but it indicated to me that either the game was going to be that janky, or that I no longer understood what the game was asking me to do.

So far, the answer seems to be “both.”

Still No Man’s Sky

Right as my interest in My Time at Portia was ending – sadly, before the end of the game proper – I started hearing about a major update to No Man’s Sky. Called Origins, this particular update seemed mainly focused on reseeding the universe with new planets with more extreme terrain/plant/animal possibilities. Having missed the past couple of other major updates, I decided to go ahead and jump back in with a fresh character.

Some 40-odd hours later, I have hit that same existential wall the last time around.

Almost all of the particulars of the game have been improved. Base-building restrictions have been lifted across the board. The once-ubiquitous Sentinels are now just policing fun on certain planets. The UI has been improved… to an extent. The various avenues to raise cash have been widened. The Nexus has been made into a multiplayer hub of sorts, and its vendors allow you to bypass quest-restricted tech if you wish.

And yet… it’s still missing something. And it might be something dumb like “challenge.”

Some games are not meant to be challenging. No one is going to play My Time at Portia while looking for a Dark Souls experience. In this regard, No Man’s Sky is very obviously tilted towards a chill, Explorer player-type. Sentinels are robots that used to patrol every planet and turn aggressive when you started mining resources in front of them. As mentioned, they no longer exist in every world. For the vast majority of your gameplay, the weather is going to be your biggest foe – one defeated by pressing two buttons every few minutes, consuming resources you can buy in bulk at nearly every space station. 

Which, again, fine. Whatever. It’s a chill, exploring game. 

But things get a little crazy once you start flying around in space. At some point, your ship will be scanned by hostile pirates, who will disable your ability to escape and start trying to blow you up. While you can again survive just about anything by recharging your shields with elements purchased by the thousands, you can also equip your ship with missiles, laser beams, a space shotgun, and all manners of similar things. Regardless, this is decidedly a less chill, exploring experience.

After a while, the dissonance in the game between space combat and terrestrial combat became too great for me. See, your Multi-Tool can also receive a number of upgrades to add a shotgun, laser cannon, a grenade launcher, and so on. But when would you ever use it? Attacking Sentinels is periodically required to progress the storyline, and bigger and meaner ones do end up showing up. But under all other normal circumstances, there is no challenge whatsoever once you are on a planet. 

Where are the pirates or mercenaries on the ground? Where are all the hostile wildlife? You will see the same half-dozen varieties of hostile plants on every planet across the entire universe. But nothing in the way of meaningful challenge. About the closest you get is “the Swarm,” which puts up a decent fight when you try stealing their eggs. Facing them on every planet would be silly, but that kind of thing might justify having anything more than the same unupgraded rifle you build from a quest 50 hours prior.

Again, No Man’s Sky doesn’t have to head that direction.

The problem for me though is the existential crisis that hits mid-game, in which you question what it’s all for. In my fresh save, my character has 45 million Units and a B-class ship with about 28 slots. The normal drive would be to search for an A-class or S-class ship to buy, and then upgrading those further while simultaneously upgrading my own suit and Multi-Tool. There are several mechanics in the game now that allow you to pursue those goals in measured (read: grind) fashion.

But… why? I mean, sure, “why do anything in a videogame?” In No Man’s Sky though, progression is basically bag space. Can you equip weapon mods that increase damage or clip size? Yes. Do they have 5 rarities and slightly randomized number ranges? Also yes. Does any of it matter at all? Absolutely not. You can go 50+ hours without shooting a damn thing, even accidentally. Oh, unless you’re flying through space, in which case we’re actually playing X-Wing sometimes.

I think the devs might eventually get there. Last time I played, all the alien NPCs stood or sat in the same spot, never moving. Now they move around and make the space stations feel, well, actually populated. Slap some helmets on them and give them guns and maybe shoot me planetside on occasion and we’re in business. Or ramp up the aggressiveness of hostile fauna on some of the planets. Think ARK. At least on some planets, anyway.

I’m not looking for challenge challenge, at least not in No Man’s Sky. Actually, I would love a 3D Terraria/Starbound experience if I’m being real. That might not have been what everyone signed up for in this game though. Perhaps add another game mode? But it should be Game Design 101 that if you add a Chekhov Shotgun, you should craft encounters in which a shotgun is necessary.

How to Lose Friends and Mismanage People

The r/ClashRoyale subreddit was going through a revolt over the “Clan Wars 2” update, and the Community Manager was, uh, not managing well. In one of the early threads that highlighted the fact that small clans are stuck facing the same large clans for five weeks in a row, Drew said:

to play devils advocate here (i know the sub won’t like this opinion) but shouldn’t the solution here lie with the clan themselves?

if you have an inactive clan maybe the clan needs a shake up and more active members?

just asking some hard questions that i would like some opinions on!

Do you even need context to understand how monumentally stupid this was to say?

Context makes it worse. The old Clan War design made it so that the people who did Collection Battles were the ones that needed to do attacks on War Day. The system was opt-in and every clan you were competing with had the same number of attacks. The new design just gives everyone in the clan four attacks per day and matches you against clans of varying population. This leads to situations where you can be in a 20-person clan with the highest-skilled players in the world who win every battle, and still lose every race for five weeks in a row to a 41-person clan filled with people who AFK lose every battle (losses still award some progress).

So while Drew tried to back-peddle with the “just playing Devil’s Advocate!” card, it’s hard to read the Clan Wars change as anything other than what it appears to be: a concerted effort to destroy small clans in favor of zerg clans. Drew all but confirming that with his “question” did not help anything.

Know what it reminded me of? Guild Leveling in WoW. Remember that? If not, here’s a post from six years ago when Blizzard finally removed the “feature” that was the death knell of my own tight-knit guild. Like this Clash Royale update, it essentially penalized smaller guilds and rewarded large ones, as if that is something that ever needs additional encouragement. “Everyone can earn rewards… eventually! Just choose between getting them immediately, or hanging with your friends while knowing everyone is paying an objective, tangible price for being together.”

Don’t worry though, Drew has the easy solution: get a better bigger clan!

To be entirely fair, Drew released a new Reddit post titled “Quick Update from the Dev Team” on the subject as I was typing this out. It’s not a roadmap, but he does highlight just about every complaint from the community that Supercell received in the past week, e.g. since the update, along with some potential fixes. The relevant section:

SMALL CLANS NOT BEING CONSIDERED IN MATCHMAKING

WHY IS IT BAD? (COMMUNITY FEEDBACK)

  • Small Clans can’t finish the race
  • Small Clans getting outmatched by bigger Clans
  • Small Clans matched against maxed Clans
  • Small Clans not getting rewards so can’t level
  • Not fair/equal footingvDamages close knit small Clans/family & friend Clans/IRL Clans

WHAT CAN WE DO?

  • Introduce “small Clan Wars”?
  • Have smaller rewards but also smaller Fame thresholds
  • Matchmake based on Clan Size
  • Introduce new Clan creation stats (10/25/50 member clans with different rewards and leaderboards) and make separate system & leaderboard for them (like boom beach task forces)
  • Give extra War Deck resets for players (like extra attacks in Clan Wars 1)

Hmm… yep, that’s a pretty accurate assessment of how terrible the update has been.

None of this is particularly relevant to me anymore, as I left my clan and uninstalled Clash Royale already. Do I miss it? Eh… not really. As with most things in life, holes get filled in with random crap if you let it. I find myself on Reddit more, or lowering the bar even further for random trashy manga via Tachiyomi. It’s not as though I got any extra time in the day after I left WoW either.

Nevertheless, I do find it infinitely amusing (and annoying) about how Time is a Flat Circle when it comes to developers making the same sort of mistakes, over and over, forever. When the forums are in revolt, don’t play Devil’s Advocate. Maybe never play Devil’s Advocate at all. Don’t go out of your way to reward big zerg guilds, as they almost always have an advantage already. And when you inevitably lurch away from an immensely dumb design decision, take a look around the table and see if there wasn’t anyone who was warning you about how dumb the idea was at the time.

If there wasn’t someone there at the table, well, maybe you need to add a few more chairs, eh?

Generic Elements Got to Go

Is there anything more boring than Fire/Ice/Lightning/Earth damage?

I had been playing Fell Seal: Arbiter’s Mark, and it’s a pretty boilerplate Final Fantasy Tactics clone. Which is fine! But what I am getting immensely tired of is how all these RPGs just copy/paste generic Elemental damage into their games. It’s a tad egregious in Fell Seal because the Wizard class actually unlocks different elements as you move down the class tree, as if Thunder 1 did anything different than the Fire 1 you unlocked earlier. It’s literally the same damage. No frills, no multiplier, no nothing. Sure, you will be sad when you face lava zombies or whatever, but there is nothing else special about any of it.

Contrast that with Divinity: Original Sin 2. Fire spells can… light things on fire. Ignite oil slicks, explode poison clouds, inflict targets with a damage over time effect. Ice spells can slow/freeze enemies, create slippery ice on the ground, and so on. You will still have a bad day when your Pyro-centric character encounters lava zombies, but at least that’s a thematic choice that has consequences beyond the different colored numbers. It’s tough fighting indoors with a Pyro, for example.

The other frustrating aspect in copy/paste elements games is that there is a hidden “best choice.” In Fell Seal, all the different elemental weapons I have access to are the same price in the shop. But, on average, how many fire-themed enemies am I going to face versus something else? It’s not even as though I have a particular idea of what’s coming up. “Next stop is big desert theme area… let’s not pick Fire weapons.” That would be lame, but at least it’s something. Nope, just all blind choices.

It’s awful, it’s lazy, and it’s a “choice” that developers keep putting into games that actively reduces the meaningful options a player has. Go bold with your elements or go home.

Purposeful Obtuseness

The topic of purposeful obtuseness in game design is tricky. Limitations can actually spark creativity, whereas definitive answers typically cannot. But sometimes I think game designers try to be more “clever” than they should.

The most recent example I have experienced is in playing Factorio. There are Conveyor Belts, which move items along them. Each Conveyor Belt tile actually has two tracks: Left and Right. There are robotic arms which can transfer items from wherever and place them on the Conveyor Belt. These same robotic arms can pull items off the Conveyor Belt from either track. However, the robotic arm will only set items onto the Conveyor Belt on the far side. 

My question: why? No, seriously, why the fuck can’t we choose which side to set things on?

There are convoluted “solutions” out there for methods on how to move all items from, say, the Left track to the Right track. There are also solutions on how to construct paths such that a multi-track line is then later split off. None of these solutions involve, you know, telling robotic arms to place items on specific tracks. Maybe there is some huge programming reason why each robotic arm cannot be told to place on one track versus another. But you could certainly add a “near-side robotic arm” machine to the game and call it a day. 

Or perhaps the devs are being obtuse on purpose.

Oxygen Not Included is not immune to shenanigans. There is a Tepidizer in the game that you can use to heat up water. There is an limit to how hot it can get the water though, presumably because it would be too easy to create Steam systems otherwise. So the solution is to create an Aquatuner – a machine that cools down liquid and heats up itself – and then have the extremely hot Aquatuner boil water into Steam, which then will cool down the Aquatuner in the process. It’s “clever” and involves more steps/physics than simply heating up water via Tepidizer but it’s arbitrary as hell.

Drawing that line would be difficult indeed. But I do think there is a noticeable line somewhere. People have done some ludicrous, literal programming in Minecraft using the Redstone switches and such. That programming would be a lot easier with blocks that automatically did X or whatever. The difference, I think, is that the Redstone system is “simple.” It has the basest of building blocks. In Oxygen Not Included you already have the Tepidizer. In Factorio you already have robotic arms that place items on the far side of Conveyor Belts but are capable of grabbing items from both sides. No one can say Notch or whomever didn’t add something to the Redstone system to limit it on purpose.

Incidentally, other examples of purposeful obtuseness is when a game will feature crosshairs for everything other than weapons in which it would be OP. For example, the bow in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. An arrow to the face pretty much kills anyone but the balancing mechanism is apparently taking away the crosshair so you have to learn the trajectory by muscle memory. Or download a mod. Or dangle a piece of string down your computer monitor. Balanced!

So maybe the line is artificial limitations. I’m willing to accept no bow crosshairs if there were no crosshairs for anything else in the game. Similarly, I’d accept no easy Steam generators if the Tepidizer (or Aquatuner) didn’t exist. And finally, I’d accept lack of granularity with robotic arms and Conveyor Belts in Factorio if robotic arms could only retrieve items from the far side of the belt. 

But they don’t, so I don’t.