You know, I used to look down on “mobile gamers.” Or rather, they just never figured into my headcanon for what a real gamer was. Your mom playing Candy Crush is not the same as you playing a MMO for a decade on a $1200 PC. Nevermind how both developers are technically under the same corporate umbrella these days.
This past week, I went three days in a row without playing games.
Some of that was due to literally not having the time. My window these days is precisely between 8:30pm and 10:30pm, which is after the baby goes to sleep the first time, and when he wakes up for another bottle right before I should be going to sleep. Two hours seems like a decent chunk of time, but that is also the time I have to burn to get chores done around the house. By the time my ass hits the computer chair, it’s 9:50pm and… what then? What am I meaningfully playing for 40 minutes?
Of course, I am not counting the time spent playing Clash Royale. Or sometimes Hearthstone (Adventures). Those ~12 minute increments add up throughout the day in ways they could not via any other games. But these are not real, substantial narrative experiences.
After a while though, I have to start asking myself if that is what I even want. Maybe not in 40-minute increments, but surely I could make time elsewhere, if it were that important to me? I certainly seem to default back to Reddit browsing and low-effort time-killing readily enough. Almost as though I’m enjoying myself.
Luckily enough, I got through the ennui by the end of that week. But it did get me to thinking about what kind of gaming experience I was looking for.
To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.
Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.
Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:
The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.
We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.
If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.
That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):
“We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].”
Oh, wait, no it’s not.
The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.
The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:
“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”
Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:
“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”
Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.
…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.
So, to summarize:
- Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
- Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
- Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
- Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
- Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
- Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung
Funny how that all works out.
In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.
The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.
No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.
NoizyGamer has a post up contemplating the health of EVE. Before its sale to Pearl Abyss, the actual EVE revenue numbers were hard to get. Now they get reported every quarter like a lot of other (Korean) companies. NoizyGamer’s last paragraph concludes:
Yes, EVE only beats Aion in revenue for the first half of 2019. But I can’t help but think if CCP and NetEase had managed to get Serenity up and running in China again, EVE would actually beat Guild Wars 2’s performance. If anyone had said that, outside of China, EVE was performing financially as well as GW2, would anyone have believed that statement?
Within the context of the post, EVE is being compared to GW2 because a gaming journalist was observing the fact that a hardcore MMO and a casual MMO were making roughly equal amounts of money. That… somewhat deflects from what otherwise seems like an asinine comparison between a subscription MMO and a B2P fashion-endgame lootbox grinder. The journalist goes on to tweet:
Just as an FYI, my initial thought on this wasn’t to say “GW2 better than Eve lol” but to be a little confused over the “Casual games are all the rage, it’s all companies should make” vs. “Companies should make more hardcore games rather than appeal to casuals” dichotomy.
I mean… good luck making a new niche hardcore subscription-based MMO in 2019. Hell, good luck making any subscription-based MMO these days. That EVE made it as one of, what, three MMOs still with subs is textbook Survivorship Bias. Do we need to talk a stroll down Wildstar lane or Darkfall ditch to recall how many “hardcore” MMOs still exist?
Even just looking at Guild Wars 2, the comparison is not particularly flattering. Revenue for GW2 has been stagnant or declining since 2016, with the business model mostly consisting of the fumes of stale farts locked away in lootboxes, along with a 0.1% chance to obtain the only thing the art department has been working on for six months. The B2P model and horizontal progression and endless grinding for the fashion endgame do indeed make GW2 among the most casual of casual games, but why make that comparison and not, I dunno, EVE vs FF14?
Incidentally, remember Blade & Soul? That NCSoft game has consistently done ~30% better than GW2 since at least the end of 2014.
This is not necessarily to scoff at numbers. Based on today’s conversion rates, GW2 made $65.9 million in 2018. The very worst quarter in GW2 history (2Q17) was still $11.1 million. There are plenty of game developers who would love to release a game that makes $11.1 million in a quarter. But when just the mobile version of Hearthstone pulls in $165 million in 2018, which is down significantly from 2017, the casual vs hardcore business model gets put in sharp relief.
As I have begun my homebound tour of baby duty, I have a new appreciation for mobile gaming. Because it is the only gaming I can conceivably complete. While there are only three games in particular that I’m playing at the moment, I’m becoming well acquainted with the specific attributes of each one.
How long it takes from the moment you press the icon until you can start making selections. This probably shouldn’t matter as much because if you’re counting seconds you likely weren’t going to be having a lot of fun to begin with. That said, it became important to me once I realized that it takes Hearthstone 38 seconds to boot up.
Thirty. Eight. Seconds.
That’s just to get to the quest screen, by the way, not actually playing. In contrast, Clash Royale takes 17 seconds and Gems of War takes… huh, 32 seconds. For some reason, Hearthstone seemed more egregious.
How the game reacts to being minimized or otherwise losing focus. This attribute is a bit tough to precisely quantify because apparently it matters for how long the interruption lasts. Sometimes you can minimize to shoot off a text and be fine, and other times the app requires you to log back in.
Hearthstone used to be the worst at this, not only requiring a re-login, but also counting a Dungeon Run as a loss if you minimized in the middle of a boss instead of on the reward screen. As of some patch ago, you can safely minimize without losing progress.
Clash Royale is finicky, but even when there’s the equivalent of a re-log, it’s very brief. Things are significantly different if you are in the middle of a battle though. In some cases you can get back in, but you are generally penalized as “leaving the match.”
Gems of War, in my experience, doesn’t care and will be right back up instantly.
Can the game be played with one hand… if you know what I mean. Because you have a baby in the other hand.
Both Hearthstone and Gems of War are perfectly playable with one hand. Both games are basically turn-based, and even if you’re playing a human opponent in Hearthstone, you have a minute and a half to complete your turn.
Clash Royale on the other (one) hand is technically playable, but sometimes entire matches can be decided on pixel-perfect placement of troops at precisely the right moment. So in this respect, I’d say this isn’t a one-handed game.
They all have them.
Overall, I will say that Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run modes have been the MVP for me this far. When I said I had no desire to play Dalaran Heist anymore, that was before I got stuck watching a baby for 12+ hours a day. I’m already halfway through beating Chapter 1 heroic mode with every class, and being grateful I have something to do.
One of the most enjoyable things out of Hearthstone have been the roguelike deck-building modes (Dungeon Run) launched with each expansion since Kobolds and Catacombs. The exact formula has changed a bit each time, but the idea is that you start with a deck with only a few cards, and as you face off against increasingly tough bosses, you get to pick a “bucket” of three cards when you win, punctuated with the occasional passive effect or uber-powerful cards. This mode is something that could almost stand on its own, given how engaging it has been for me these past few weeks.
With the latest version though, Blizzard might have gone too far with the options.
The original Dungeon Run featured all nine classes to choose from, each with a simple starting deck. While it could be frustrating to lose over and over with the same class, knowing you would still have to deal with some subpar cards, the Treasures (passive abilities) and bosses you fought and the buckets of cards offered would quickly change how each run would go. Then came Monster Hunt, which featured four made-up classes with new Hero powers to play with. Then was a puzzle-mode interlude with the Boomsday Project. Then came Rastakhan’s Rumble, which featured “shrines” that did special things, but you otherwise used troll versions of the basic classes.
With Dalaran Heist, we are back to choosing one of the nine classes. However, you can also unlock two additional new Hero powers (per class!) by doing things like casting 25 elementals and other achievement-esque things. You can also unlock two additional starter decks (per class!) to shake up the early game. Finally, in addition to passive abilities and uber-cards, there are two sets of Tavern encounters which allow you to do a random assortment of things, like add new cards to your deck, increase your starting health, or even remove some cards.
In short, the whole thing is kinda nuts with the options.
One would think this would be a good thing. “Lots of replayability there!” But too much of a good thing is a problem. I finally cleared the Heist on Heroic mode and I am beyond done. Not because I only needed to beat it once, but because there is too much to contemplate. I beat Act 5 (Heroic) with Paladin, Boon of Light Hero power, and Old Hero starting deck. I could try and do the same with all the same settings but changing the starting deck to Adventure. Or Holy Flames. Or use the default Hero power and Old Hero starting deck. Or any of the five other permutations. Nine total combinations across nine classes on two separate difficulty levels.
[Fake Edit] I knew there was a Random Deck option too, but I thought that meant it would randomly pick between the three starter decks. I have just now read that it actually gives you a purely random set of cards as your starter deck. Not only does that add another three permutations, it arguably adds a quasi-infinite variety of starting positions.
Oh, and have I mentioned there are Anomalies you can activate too? Stuff like “After a player casts 3 spells in a turn, that player summons a 5/5 dragon.” I don’t know how many of those effects there are (Edit: Fifteen! 1-5!), but that would again layer on additional RNG and permutations.
Like, Jesus Christ, Blizzard. You guys crammed pretty much every possible idea on the whiteboard and put it into one game mode. I’m actively wondering if this might be the last Dungeon Run-esque version we get for a while. Where could they go from here?
While this came as somewhat of a shock, it was not due to any sort of issue with Hearthstone itself. Indeed, as Wilhelm points out, Hearthstone is the only Blizzard game still on the Top 10 PC revenue list (per SuperData). The issue appears to be a “strategic” change by the owners, e.g Curse / Fandom:
Fandom/Curse employee throwaway account here.
It’s a decision from higher ups/Perkins Miller (new CEO from Stubhub) to focus the company on the Wikis and D&D Beyond because money. They want the community to move to the gamepedia wiki, they’re the same sites in their head (source)
The spiritual successor site is… OutOf.Cards. As in, Out of dot Cards. Not wanting to be pigeonholed into just Hearthstone is fine, but… “dot Cards?” I guess…
There are probably much better Hearthstone content sites out in the world even before HearthPwn’s closure, but this sort of thing still brings me pause. We are constantly told that “the internet is forever,” but that’s not quite as true as it seems. Sites close all the time, for sometimes entirely random reasons, and while they might still technically exist like my first-ever Angelfire website created over 15 years ago, information often has an expiration date.
Watching it expire right in front of you though, is… uncomfortable.
Based on my blog roll, this seems like a Thing To Do, so let’s discuss what’s on the docket this year.
To Be Played
I am currently playing Far Cry 5. While the overall experience is similar to Far Cry 4 (which was similar to Far Cry 3), the exact formula has been broken up a bit. Instead of running around trying to skin Honey Badgers for a larger wallet, for example, most character progression is based around achievements and finding prepper caches. It’s subtle, but it does change my focus a bit. A more detailed impression will need to wait for later.
Other games recently purchased on sale:
- Final Fantasy XV
- Dishonored DLC (Knife of Dunwall; Witches of Brigmore)
- Dishonored 2
- Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice
My Dishonored kick might seem a bit out of nowhere… and it kinda is. My criticism from way back 2012 still hold thus far in the first DLC: the game is almost painfully easy even at the highest difficulty. Well, at least so far on the first level. That’s more a stealth game thing than a Dishonored game thing specifically. Nevertheless, I kept reading praise for the DLC specifically, so I snagged it on sale and here we are.
The rest of that list is basically a rehash of what I had been keeping an eye on since Black Friday.
Might Be Played
I have not booted up Fallout 76 in several weeks now. While it has been trashed up and down the internet – for some legit, and some not so legit reasons – the primary reason for my disconnect might be silly: Rifle schematics. Specifically, my character is focused on Rifles, and the two best kinds of Rifles in the game (Homemade Rifle, Lever-Action Rifle) can only be crafted after snagging their schematics from a vendor’s random inventory. The “correct” way to get them is to check the vendor, and then log off and back on again to be shunted to a new server, and then checking the vendor again. Some people report doing this for hours. No thanks. If that nonsense gets fixed or some new content appears, then I might be back.
Battlefield V is another trashed title, but I have been resisting purchasing it even at a $30 price-point simply because I know what’s going to happen. Specifically, it will probably consume my free-time for a few weeks, and I will eventually awaken from a fugue state, realizing that I had not “accomplished” anything meaningful. I mean, games are games, but there’s a difference (IMO) between seeing the ending credits of three games vs spending that same amount of time seeing the End of Match report of a shooter. I’m not here to just kill time with my gaming anymore.
On Their Way Out
My time with Hearthstone is approaching its end, if it has not already snuck up on me. It’s not so much the mechanics or the meta or the card grinding so much as it is… exhaustion. I have never had a particular desire to compete on the ladder; my goal had been to complete the Dailies and other low-hanging fruit. But that still requires you to put a deck together, research the meta, and otherwise go through the motions. Or I could just turn on Twitch and watch other people play Hearthstone, and experience roughly 85% of the joy that I derive from the game.
On a similar note, WoW is definitely on ice for the foreseeable future.
My gaming purchasing decisions go through two processing stages:
- Is the game discounted from MSRP?
- Do I anticipate more fun spending X on this game, than X on Y game(s)?
That second step really stops the vast majority of my purchases, especially since the advent of Humble sales and similar bundles. Ironically though, I often don’t end up purchasing those cheaper, great (indie) games because they get caught in the same filter, creating a sort of recursive loop that prevents all purchases.
You will note that my backlog of games shamefully has no impact on my purchasing decision.
Last night was the final day that I could preorder 70 packs of Hearthstone’s latest expansion, Witchwood. I sat looking at the purchase screen for a long, long time. I would not say that Hearthstone is necessarily a must-play game for me, but it is something I have been playing off-and-on for… how long? Jesus Christ, five years?! Wow. How is that even possible?
What was I talking about again?
The preorder for Witchwood was $49.99. For a game I have been playing for 5 (!!!) years, that doesn’t seem like a lot. But you know what else is $49.99, listed in the same Battle.net launcher? WoW’s next expansion, Battle for Azeroth. I’m not super excited for the next expansion, but I do have $70 in BlizzBucks on my account (from selling my Legion stockpile of gold) and a New Year’s resolution to fund my Blizzard gaming using it. Between the two, WoW is absolutely going to give me more bang for my BlizzBucks.
There is also the more salient point that $50 can get you a LOT of gaming these days. An absurd amount, honestly. The current Strategy Bundle at HB will net you Endless Legends and Endless Space 2 for $12. There is a complete edition for Civ 5 which is like $15. There is something to be said about fun depth probably being better than simply time spent (e.g. just because you spend 500 hours playing Civ, doesn’t mean it’s your favorite game ever), the fact remains that you can get a lot of value for your dollar these days and games are largely fungible.
Of course, what ends up happening far too often with me is that I get in the mood to play a particular type of game, and everything that isn’t that specific game becomes less fun to play. Which means I am generally better off buying games on sale, even when I have a ridiculous backlog, in the off-chance that my hankering is satisfied with something I already bought.
Or, sometimes, I just end up playing the same damn game over and over for a long-ass time, until my mood shifts again. Have I mentioned I have 70 hours in RimWorld now? The only thing that could bring me out of this Survival kick is an update to 7 Days to Die or me deleting enough games to make room for Ark again (100+ GB, ugh).
Or until the winds change again, I suppose.
There is a lot to be said about the RNG inherent to Hearthstone. A lot of the games can be decided by coinflips, outrageous Discovery choices, and all sorts of random nonsense.
You know what’s infinitely worse IMO? Not drawing your cards.
Jesus Christ, I have had some insanely bad luck in the last four games I played. We’re talking getting to the last 7 cards in my deck, which consisted of four mana-ramping cards, the Malfurion DK Hero, Ultimate Infestation, and Jade Idol. As in, I somehow held on and dug through my deck that far, but not far enough for it to matter. If any of those had been closer to the top of the deck, I might have had a fighting chance. Switched decks to Spiteful Priest, then faced the mirror match wherein my opponent hit both his Spiteful Summoners on Turn 6 & 7, but mine were nowhere to be found.
Do I care that his summoned a 7/14 creature that I had no clean way to counter? Nope. RNG is RNG.
What I care about vastly more is how badly my deck(s) have bricked the last half dozen of games. Your opponent top-decking the exact answer they need, or having a God-Hand that kills you on turn 4 is not something you can really do anything about. Your own deck not giving you anything – literally against all odds – is something else entirely. Give me those 50/50 losses over an improbable streak of 10% failures that leave you with no options.
Except, it’s worse than 10%. Seriously though, look at this:
I ended up 14 cards deep into my deck before drawing my first dragon, when there is eight of them in there. According to this Hearthstone calculator, the odds that I should have had at least one in my hand by then is 99.5%. That doesn’t even account for the fact that I mulliganed two cards.
Statistically, 0.5% days happen. But when multiple of them happen in a row, when you only play ~20 games a week… yeah. Let me play against my opponents and lose due to a bad matchup or poor trades. Don’t let me lose to the equivalent of Mana Screw in Magic: the Gathering. That is way worse than losing coin flips, IMO.
Slay the Spire is basically a deck-building roguelike in the vein of Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run with a splash of Dominion. While still in Early Access, damn near everything about the game was compelling enough to grab my attention for 20+ hours immediately after purchasing.
The basic gameplay cadence is to pick one of two classes, and then complete encounters on your way up the Spire. At the start, you have 10 cards in your deck, and three energy to spend each turn. After each turn, cards you played (and any you didn’t) go to the discard pile and you draw 5 more cards. When you run out of cards, the discard pile is shuffled into a new draw pile, repeat ad infinitum.
Your beginning deck is basically filled with 1-energy Attack (deal 6 damage) and Defend (gain 5 block) cards. As you defeat enemies, you get a choice of one of three cards to add to your deck. Some of these are strict upgrades to your basic cards (Deal 5 damage AND gain 5 block), but many of them are completely different mechanically (discard your entire hand, draw that many cards). Adding these new cards to your deck makes it more powerful, but just as with Dominion, a deck with 30+ cards is not as powerful as a deck with 15 cards – you are simply less likely to get the combo pieces you need when you need them.
This is where the brilliance of Slay the Spire comes in. For one thing, it allows you to forgo getting new cards if you wish. Additionally, in shops and certain non-combat encounters, you can choose to remove cards from your deck. This is good both for thinning the lower-impact cards from your deck, and also removing Curse cards (usually just a dead draw) you might have inadvertently picked up. In addition to cards, you can also get one-use potions, and gain Relics, which are typically passive abilities that augment your run in some way.
All of this is on top of a robust buff/debuff system, a dozen or so different enemy types with their own behaviors, a bunch of bosses/elite encounters, some non-combat events, Shops that let you purchase new cards, one-use potions with nice effects, and so on and so forth.
Oh, and have I mentioned that the two available classes have different card pools?
Since purchasing the game last week, I have beaten the final encounter a couple of times with both classes, using (by necessity) several different methods based on which relics I managed to pick up. For example, one relic gives you 3 Block each time you discard a card. Suddenly, Calculated Gamble (Discard your hand, draw that many cards, costs zero) becomes the best defense card in the game, while simultaneously moving you closer to a your win condition cards. Other games required playing and fetching the same two cards as many times as possible. Still other games saw me die to the first elite encounter I faced, three moves into a run.
Roguelikes sometimes dislike rogues, know what I’m sayin’?
In any case, if you were looking for something less RNG than Hearthstone’s Dungeon Run, or enjoy deckbuilding in general, I highly recommend Slay the Spire. It is in Early Access, so technically it could get better or worse, but they would have to essentially gut the entire game at this point to make it not worth the $13 (on sale) I already paid. Buy it, or keep it on your radar once it releases for real.