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Surplus Deficit

Last week, Keen blogged about a tweet that should be filed under “Things that make you go Hmm… not really”:

In a world of $5 lattes a game with 50 hours of content is worth $1,000. Instead, many won’t touch a game until some stupid Steam Sale. (source)

Wilhelm has already penned an exceptionally good take-down of the latte vs game comparison. What struck a cord in me the most, though, was this follow-up tweet:

The unwillingness to pay what a game is actually worth is why we have on disc DLC, F2P, micros for single player games, season passes, etc. (source)

This, my friends, is the embodiment of everything I warned about six years ago.

surplus1

We as consumers have been beaten down so often and for so long that the argument almost makes sense. It seems “fair” that someone gets paid a proportional amount for the benefit received. But the funny thing is that reasoning only ever seems to go in one direction. Price exceeds the amount it costs to create? Capitalism, working as intended. Benefit exceeds the price? Suddenly there’s a whole lot of hand-wringing and articles about Millennials killing functionally useless industries.

Fight for your own Consumer Surplus! The difference between how much you paid for something and the amount of enjoyment it provided is yours. That’s your profit, not the game company’s. These corporations will try to erode your consumer surplus with ever more novel monetization schemes, and other people might try to guilt you into “supporting the devs” or admonish your “unwillingness” to throw your hard-earned money in a hole for literally no reason. But the fact remains that it’s the game company‘s responsibility to effectively manage their own resources, to figure out what payment models they should utilize, etc. Not yours. Their business is not your responsibility.

Don’t settle for the precise intersection between Supply and Demand. Don’t let anyone make you feel guilty for getting a deal. If you want to donate extra money to random devs in some idealistic hope they generate future value, go for it. But understand this: the only person looking out for you, is you.

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Mobile Mindspace

The rise of the mobile gaming over the last couple of years has been covered rather extensively already. And up to this point, I would have argued too extensively. As a phenomenon, it is certainly interesting seeing a market emerge in real-time, but it never really seemed to impact me. The “gamer” population swelled with the ranks of people playing Candy Crush, which had little to do with any core gamers. Maybe a few well-known studios released a mobile app, whatever.

This past weekend ended up being pretty busy, but I still managed to squeeze in around 5-7 hours of gaming. And close to 100% of that time were spent in mobile games on my phone.

Granted, a few of those hours would have been dead time had I not had my phone with me. But close to half of the total was literally me sitting at my computer desk, dicking around with Clash Royale and similar “time wasters.” Part of it was undoubtedly post-game depression stemming from completing Mass Effect: Andromeda. It is always tough for me to mentally transition from 80+ hours of one title into a brand new game that promises similar hours required.

The other part, though? I am wondering whether it is due to my age that I am gravitating towards more instant gratification. Or maybe traditional game designers are getting worse at their jobs?

I spent approximately 20 minutes playing FFXIV over the weekend. I logged in, talked to some NPCs, teleported to some cities, talked some more, then had to take a minute Chocobo ride back to the main base camp to complete the quest. The main story quest, mind you. I had more fun in the 60 seconds of dead time on the Chocobo than I did in the entire 20 minutes playing overall, as I was able to boot up a mobile game, snag some rewards, and restart some locked chest timers.

Now, of course watching chests explode with goodies is a cheap, diversionary tactic at best; it is hardly fair to compare such things to the slow burn of a (supposedly) epic narrative. At the same time, those now-empty chest slots drew my eye to the 2v2 Battle button hovering just above, fat with the promise of compelling and amusing gameplay just a press away. And if I just get 6 more crowns from destroying enemy towers, I can unlock another chest with even more goodies. Hmmmmm.

Needless to say, I logged off FFXIV soon after getting off the Chocobo.

I guess what I’m getting at is the shift towards mobile is a multi-layered “problem.” There is the vapid dopamine rush from getting easy rewards, sure. There is also the front-loaded fun gameplay in quick gaming sessions. Then there is a whole class of game (MMOs) which are utterly reliant on back-loaded… everything. And it is not even that clear that such back-loaded fun is actually required to be back-loaded – that is simply how things have traditionally been done. Why doesn’t Waking Sands in FFXIV have a teleporter when just about every other town does? Is there a legit reason?

I am beginning to question everything. Opening a chest is a vapid reward. Is it more vapid than gaining levels in a traditional MMO? I am playing a Monk in FFXIV, and even after the revamped combat that came with the Stormblood expansion, I’m getting bored to tears with such a limited amount of abilities. I am stuck with limited abilities because the designers don’t want me to get all of them at the beginning because they are afraid I won’t feel rewarded enough in levels 20-60 after having received my full rotation. And they are right to be worried about that – it sounds awful.

Know what else sounds awful? Spending my time playing this game when I can play something else and be having fun right now.

Mobile gaming has not completely consumed my gaming mindspace, as evidenced by the fact that I spent 90 hours in Mass Effect just before this. But I am finding that the proverbial Fun Floor has risen dramatically over the last few months for me, more than it ever has before. Presumably, I am going to remember the twists and turns of FFXIV’s (later) story way beyond Quick Battle #4,872, and thereby justify the time investment.

But sometimes you just want to, you know, have fun when you play videogames. Right now.

Reroll

There is a fascinating game design conundrum that I have encountered twice now, which can summed up by “Reroll.” This is not rerolling in the MMO sense – although it is arguably an issue with WoW’s Legion expansion vis-a-vis Legendaries – but rather in the sense of creating new accounts to take advantage (or mitigate damage) of random rewards. It is a conundrum with no good solutions, and it’s harder still to even imagine which solution is least bad.

The first time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was with the mobile app Puzzle & Dragons. After spending 20-30 minutes going through the tutorial, the game gives you one free pull on the Crack Machine, aka Gashapon, aka Lockbox, aka et cetera. This always results in a super rare (or higher) monster from a wide list of such, and represents pretty much the only guaranteed way to get one of these super monsters as a F2P player before the heat death of the universe.

(You can earn cash-like currency for future pulls on this same machine, but they aren’t guaranteed to be as rare a result as the first pull.)

The problems are many, and there is a deep gradient of bad for all of them. First, you could get a weak monster. While any rare monster is better than the starter monsters you normally get, it’s a fact that some of the pulls are absolutely abysmal in comparison to what you could have received.

Second, in the worst case scenario, you could get an okay monster. This is the worst case because… what do you do? Settle immediately? Reroll? If a result is terrible, the course is pretty clear. When it is technically alright, but not great, it’s hard to justify any particular decision.

Now, imagine you get “best” result: a super rare, super strong monster. Congratulations! Now you get to enjoy not using it for 20+ hours. Each monster has a point cost associated with it, and stronger ones cost more points. The only way to increase the team point limit is to level up your account, which requires getting XP, which requires going through dungeons and such.

The very first time I played Puzzles & Dragons, I got a middling result and just kept it, not knowing any better. While it was a middling monster, it had a lower point cost, which meant that I could use it right away. And I did so for many, many gameplay hours. When I realized my “mistake” later on, I decided to reroll for a better result. After a few dozen rerolls, I finally got a fantastic pull… that I couldn’t use until much later. I ended up quitting the game altogether before I even got to the point at which I could even field the monster.

The second time I encountered the Reroll dilemma was here recently, after installing Shadowverse. I might do a larger post on Shadowverse later, but the short version is that the game is Hearthstone: Anime Boob edition. The relevant point though is that after an extremely quick tutorial mission (which you can even skip), Shadowverse rewards you with almost 30+ free packs of cards.

I think you can see where this might be going.

None of the packs you receive are guaranteed to have any particular rarity. That said, opening all your free packs usually results in around 4-5 Legendary cards, but you can technically get as many as 6-10. Like any other CCG, some Legendaries are better than others, and of course even the good class-specific ones might be “wasted” if you don’t like that class’s mechanics. And thus… reroll.

The sad part in Shadowverse’s case is that there is both a Steam and mobile version of the game. Rerolling on mobile is easy in the sense that you just have to delete some app data and you’re good. On Steam? No rerolling, as your account is linked to a Steam ID. Had I done some research ahead of time, I would have discovered you can reroll a bunch of times on mobile first, and then link your mobile data to Steam and basically be good to go. Instead, I am stuck with my poor Steam results, unless I want to only play Shadowverse on mobile from now on. Or create new Steam accounts for just Shadowverse.

Or perhaps it is better this way, e.g. no rerolling. If I could reroll, I would. Perhaps the designers are simply saving me from myself. On the other hand, getting a bad result is kind of demoralizing. And unlike with Puzzle & Dragons, Shadowverse is ultimately a competitive game where having weaker cards is a real disadvantage.

I am not really sure what the design solution is here. Fundamentally, the problem arises from the intersection of free (random) stuff for new players and ease of new account generation. Tying accounts to more permanent things such as Steam IDs (ala Shadowverse) is perhaps one way with resolving the latter issue, but A) limiting mobile is harder, and B) it doesn’t address the simple fact that random rewards can radically impact your power in these games.

Simply removing the free stuff “resolves” the whole issue, but then you lose out on the “first hit of crack” lockbox effect and generally make the new player experience arguably worse with no catch-up mechanisms. Removing the random element might also “work,” but just changes the baseline and removes any sense of excitement.

So… yeah. dilemma.

Royale Plateau

I am nearing my end with Clash Royale. And not by choice.

One thing to note about Clash Royale is that it, like many games, is very rewarding right away. You get free treasure chests every four hours, with a maximum stack of two. Every eight hours, you can request cards from your clan. You have four slots for treasure chests from winning games. Every X hours, you have a Crown Chest that you unlock by accumulating 10 crowns (from destroying towers). My play pattern basically means I’m opening 1-2 chests every time I boot up the game.

The problem is you run into a very real payslope eventually.

I have been “stuck” in the Royal Arena 7 for going on a month now (or more). My highest trophy count is 2575, which is still pretty far from hitting the last Arena level. But for the most part… I don’t care about that, since nothing new unlocks at Arena 8.

In the meantime, day after day, I open chests and get the same rares/common cards. Upgrading from level 8 commons/level 6 rares to the next higher level is something that takes weeks-worth of gold, for only very marginal gains comparatively.

But it’s not even about that either. My progression is stuck. Here is my setup:

ClashRoyale_Deck

The Baby Dragon slot fluctuates between Barbarians and/or Mini PEKKA.

It is essentially a Judo deck – a reactive deck that relies on countering my opponent’s push and then winning via superior plays. It lacks the sheer ridiculous power of some other deck openers, but it is decently resilient, as evidenced by my trophy levels. Could I use other cards? Maybe. My only level 3 epics though are Freeze, Crossbow, and Mirror. Meanwhile, everyone I face seems to have level 3+ relevant epics and legendary cards. I keep thinking that if I were to get Prince up to level 3 or Balloon or something, that would provide enough of an incentive for me to change my deck.

Then I realized that my little skeleton bomber is a strictly worse Princess or Ice Wizard. All cost 3 elixir, all fill similar roles, but the latter two are (of course) legendary cards that could change the course of games all by themselves. This is a poisonous sort of knowledge though, as each and every chest I open that doesn’t contain a replacement legendary is a waste of time. The expectation that such a legendary will be opened is fallacious, of course, as the odds were remote in the first place, much less that this particular chest will contain one.

And so, here I am.

Most people would say “at least you got 2+ months of entertainment from a mobile app.” That is true. But in experiencing these last MMO-esque gasps yet again… well, it makes me long for the mercy of a quick, definitive end of gameplay. You know, to finish a game before you’re done with it.

Royale with Cheese

Like with many bloggers, I have been playing Clash Royale for quite a bit lately. It has been an interesting experience – my feelings on the gameplay, the payment structure, and overall package has oscillated wildly, sometimes several times within the same day.

The basic structure of the game is dropping troops to go destroy towers, MOBA creep style. Resource parity (1 elixir per second) and the random nature of “deck” draws (4 cards out of 8) makes for an often nail-biting experience. While I hesitate to use the term CCG, considering there are nearly 50 different cards, Clash Royale does have that seductive element of deck-building and metagame strategy that makes the genre difficult to put down.

ClashRoyale1

I love waiting arbitrary amounts of time.

The game is not without its cheese, however. The reward mechanism are Chests, which are time-released and tied to the general Arena rank you were when you earned them. There are four empty Chest slots to fill, and the shortest timer is 3 hours; you can cap out your Chests in four matches, which can be done in 10 minutes. You can open these chests early with the cash shop currency, of course, or spend dollars buying gold, which is necessary to level up your cards. Cards, incidentally, which are randomly opened from chests.

The random card distribution mechanism is the source of most of my ire these days. There are card rarities, of course, and the Epic cards are some of the most powerful. It isn’t that they are impossible to counter, but rather they need to be countered somewhat immediately. The difference between not having a given Epic card and having one is immense. Getting a 2nd copy will let you level it up to level 2, which is a 10% stat gain. So not only is it possible that you won’t get a powerful Epic troop, you might be facing someone with one that will always win against your own even if you do get one.

The Prince in particular is one I have harped on elsewhere. He costs 5 elixir to deploy and can easily be swarmed with low-HP, high-volume units, sure. But if he isn’t, he deals double-damage on the first hit on your tower, and will often completely destroy it before you can even drop more troops… unless you are specifically pooling elixir to directly counter this strategy. The Giant can also destroy a tower if left alone, but his ponderous gait and inability to deal minion damage means 1-2 skeletons can finish the job. It’s hard to even say that the Prince is a high-risk strategy though, because even if he can be countered by being swarmed, he’s still, you know, a high-damage troop. One that you have to plan around in every single match lest you be taken unawares.

ClashRoyale2

Current deck. Would not recommend this setup.

I continue to play Clash Royale though for a reason that’s somewhat surprising: I can. I still boot up Clash of Clans periodically, but my play is limited to ~3 minutes every 1.5 hours due to the structure of the game. I was originally playing Clash Royale the same way, mentally declaring it a toilet game, e.g. something you only play once you have empty chests available. But… you don’t have to. As Syncaine notes, you can still play and get rewarded with trophies for wins, which eventually pushes you to the next Arena rank, which makes the chests you acquire contain more and better goodies.

After a particularly brutal series of humiliating defeats dropped me out of the Arena 4 bracket though, I realized that hey, it’s actually kinda fun just playing the game and trying different things. You’ll encounter bullshit matches against vastly superior troops, sure. The leveling system structure even means you’ll face opponents who have towers with more HP and damage than your own. But… but! There is literally nothing stopping you from pressing the Battle button again. There is no Energy gauge to limit your screen time to some arbitrary, cash shop optimized level. Getting zero progress rewards does suck and makes my eye twitch with the inefficiency of it all… but, hey, I’m pushing buttons and playing a game.

Which is surprisingly and embarrassingly uncommon for phone games of any genre.

So I say give it a shot, if it sounds interesting to you. The early game experience is kinda terrible I’ll admit – people running around with Princes in Arena 1 and Arena 2 are terrible people – but once you get a handful of epics, the game opens up considerably. Well, as considerable as a two-lane MOBA-esque quasi-CCG can.

Payment Model Perspective

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and came across an article/review of a mobile game called Wayward Souls. Truthfully, I only read it because the byline mentioned Secret of Mana, which is relevant to my interests; it is, incidentally, probably my second-most played game of all time right behind A Link to the Past. Did you realize that SoM came out in the US 20 years ago this past October? Two decades.

Anyway, Wayward Souls is whatever – doesn’t seem to capture much of SoM’s magic beyond the pixel and music style based on the video alone. What was interesting to me though, was when they mentioned in the video that they’re going with the MineCraftian business model, e.g. selling it for $5 at first, and increasing the cost as time goes by. To me, this raises a number of interesting questions. First… is there a term for this payment model? I use MineCraft as perhaps the most well-known example, but surely it was tried beforehand.

Second, does it feel bad to anyone else?

I mean, I understand the logic behind it. Traditionally, game companies are going to want to charge full MSRP at release to capture the dollars of whom we now term “whales,” e.g. the people who would have paid $100 for the game, if they had charged that much. As time goes by, the price comes down via sales and whatnot to capture the players who would have bought it for less than MSRP. The MineCraft model seems like it should never work, but actually makes a lot of sense when you realize that the traditional model relies on a well-informed and excited playerbase for your game – in an ocean of crappy mobile games, you’re not going to have the whales spending money out of the game. This alternative model lets you build buzz somewhat organically, and then try and capture the big spenders as you ride the wave home. Plus, it sort of short-circuits the “wait until the Humble Bundle sale” strategy insofar as it will supposedly be more expensive the longer you wait (which ironically sorta is how Humble Bundles work).

Like I mentioned though, the MineCraft model doesn’t particularly work for me. It grates, like a piano out of tune. But I can’t fully articulate why though, especially when you consider nearly all games do this via cheaper preorders. Damn near everything is 20% off on GreenManGaming before it comes out. Sometimes a game will drop in price within the first three months (and sometimes faster these days, if they miss the forecasts), but it’s usually quite some time before it drops below the preorder price. So… what’s the difference, really? I can’t even claim that it’s because of psychological manipulation, because that’s pretty much behind all sales strategy. It just feels… bad, somehow. And causes me to mentally dig my heels in and wait for the Humble Bundle because screw you for defying the natural order of things. Or something.

Dungeon Keeper

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

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

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

Yeah, no thanks.

Yeah, no thanks.

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

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

This design is more effective than you'd think.

This design is more effective than you’d think.

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

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

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

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

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

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