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Loot Boxes, Supplemental

We already know that Star Wars: Battlefront 2 has loot boxes and that they’re bad, but we can always use more articles about them, right? In the comments of that Kotaku article though, someone questioned the author about what exactly the “moral issue” is when a company is trying to extract money from their consumer base. The author responded with some more general criticisms of capitalism as a whole and the conditions it creates, but when pressed by the commenter again, came back with this:

If you really want the “Heather isn’t fucking around version,” here it is:

Loot boxes are, ignoring the hair splitting of insufferable pedants like yourself, gambling. They are crafted, from probabilities to visual to their contents, to condition individuals and encourage repeated purchase and use. People with addiction problems will be funneled towards a system designed scientifically to exploit them. Kids will open the shiny boxes. They’ll do it with their parents credit cards without understanding the effect. Players frustrated with the grind will throw down money because that’s what the grind is designed for: to fuck you over and take your cash so some executive can take a vacation while the people in the trenches crunch.

If you don’t see what the problem is or if you somehow think this an acceptable state of affairs or what to talk about how it’s some God given providence of the rich to seek further profits at any cost, I don’t know what to tell you because I am so very tired and I just don’t know how to explain to you (or anyone anymore) that you should care about other people.

Yeah, that.

Pretty much the only thing I would add to that is how the rise of “recurrent consumer spending opportunities” has perverted the fundamental design of these games. SWBF2 doesn’t need loot boxes in order achieve some gameplay goal – progression from simply playing the game is more than sufficient to generate fun. The loot boxes exist to make money, and that’s it.

If you don’t care because you’re not going to be playing SWBF2, well… just wait a while. Guild Wars 2 introduced the Mount Adoption License as a method of randomly delivering 30 new Mount skins. Most of the outrage has understandably been directed towards the fact that it’s gambling, especially if you were only interested in a few of the skins (a few of which are for a mount you might not ever get). But here’s the real rub: 30 Mount skins were introduced into the game with zero gameplay elements. These aren’t spoils for defeating a boss, these aren’t the rewards for a long quest-line, these aren’t the goal at the end of a difficult achievement. Nope, they’re just item shop fodder. If each were attached to a task that took an hour to complete, that’s like a month of casual content removed from each individual player.

Do loot boxes make games better? Fundamentally, that’s the question you should be asking yourself every time. A raid boss dropping random gear on a weekly reset creates content by encouraging you to face that raid boss again. A loot box dropping random gear does… what? You do not have to care about other people – although you probably should – to care that loot boxes are fundamentally destroying elegant game design. Instead of developers focusing on tighter gameplay loops or additional content, they care more about monetization opportunities. Which used to be “sell more copies of the game,” but is now “sell random in-game content for cash.”

You know, I never thought we’d see something more abhorrent than on-disc DLC. But here we are.

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Hearthstone RNG and the Future

While he was not exactly a pillar of the Hearthstone streaming community, Lifecoach has effectively “quit” Hearthstone and moved to Gwent. The reason? RNG, of course. Here is a partial transcript:

Because you usually don’t lose that many games that you played perfectly, which is by the pretty much impossible. So, what I’m saying is the games you lose are the games where you blunder, where you did mistakes, which can definitely not be said about any game of Hearthstone. In Hearthstone, just today I have a direct comparison, you play really well, extremely well, and you can lose a lot of games, or you play very crappy and you win a lot of games.

In Gwent, you have nearly 90% that’s nearly unloseable, if you do the same in Hearthstone – 60%. But, the funny thing is, if you play extremely well, you might have 65%, and you if really, really play bad Hearthstone that day, it doesn’t matter, you still have 50-55%. I’m not even kidding here, yeah?

You can play like crap and you can still have 50%, it doesn’t even matter, it’s not even that important how you, it’s like coin flipping with a little bit of strategy. So, maybe how you rotate the coin so that it flies through the air at a specific angle so that you can have a 10% higher chance of having this head outcome or tail outcome.

While I cannot speak for Gwent, what he is saying about Hearthstone is 100% true. And I believe it’s pretty clear at this point that this is not a bug, but a feature.

As I pointed out in 2014 and 2015, the complaint Lifecoach is leveling here is the precise reason RNG exists. Without RNG, games become deterministic – the better player wins. On the face of it, that sounds exactly how things should go. And yet here we all are, not playing Chess 24/7.

Randomness is frustrating, but it can also be exciting, both for the players and also for the audience. Randomness can also lessen the sting from defeat, even if said defeat was inevitable. Especially when the defeat was inevitable, e.g. when facing a better opponent. Because that is really the second edge of the sword when it comes to games like Gwent (presumably) or other 90% skill games: nobody likes inevitable defeats.

Which is a problem if you are trying to cast a wide net and capture a big F2P audience.

For the record, I am not trying to disparage skill-based competitive games. I enjoy some of them, some of the time. Typically, they simply produce more anxiety than I feel like experiencing in my downtime; an anxiety that I do not feel when playing skill-based single-player games. I can lose in embarrassing ways in a roguelike all day, no problem. Losing against a human opponent though, triggers all sorts of monkey brain routines.

Incidentally, this is why I prefer games like the Battlefield series to, say, Counter-Strike. Skill matters a bit in the various Battlefield games, but you aren’t going to be single-handedly responsible for your team losing a match. Tank rolls by and blasts you. Oh well. Terrorist pops out and AWPs you. Rage.

Now, in regards to Hearthstone, I will admit that it is in its worst shape since the Goblins vs Gnomes expansion. As Lifecoach points out later on, Team 5 has gone on record as stating that they don’t like combo decks and are trying to tone down direct damage as well. The goal is to force more interaction with minions on the board, rather than One-Turn-Killing someone from your hand. But this is the same design team that thought Small-Time Buccaneer was balanced, and otherwise created an environment where dying on turn 5 is pretty much assured.

The real problem, IMO, is more fundamental: Team 5 is way too laissez-faire when it comes to balancing a digital card game. If there are cards and decks out there that are straight-up broken, Team 5 will wait to see if things balance themselves out. And if that doesn’t work out, they will wait until the next Adventure/Expansion to see if some new cards shift the metagame enough that the original problem goes away on its own. Only when the problem has been festering for months and turned into full-blown sepsis will they deign to nerf an absurdly powerful card. It’s maddening.

I get it. Sorta. Supercell has monthly balance patches for Clash Royale, in which they pick winners and losers based on usage and win rates. This works, but sometimes feels heavy-handed, as usually a buff means that particular unit becomes Flavor of the Month. Not that Team 5 would ever buff a card, because it’s way better to just create (and sell!) a new card instead. But we can imagine a scenario in which Pirates are too strong (they are), Team 5 nerfs a few pirates a month later, then has to nerf the ascendant Jade Druid a month after that, and so on.

At the same time, three months is too long. Especially since Blizzard doesn’t have to worry about errata, or reprinting physical cards, or anything of the sort. There are already proven mechanisms of reimbursement – full Arcane Dust for disenchanting – that can be further juiced if necessary. There is no good reason to wait so long, and every reason to act.

Because it doesn’t take all that long to ruin a good thing. Especially if it’s already borderline.

Legendary RNG

I have around 40 hours at the WoW endgame and have not gotten a legendary yet.

Yes, I understand how “entitled” that statement is. The problem is that this is the sort of endgame that Blizzard has designed.

Back in the day, Legendaries were extremely rare drops from the end bosses of high raiding tiers. This made them rare and cool, but effectively nonexistent for the majority of the playerbase and drama-laden for raiders besides. Sometimes the mainhand Warglaive never dropped. Sometimes the rogue got both Warglaives and then /gquit. Sometimes the warrior tank spent his accumulated DKP and “wasted” a Warglaive drop to look cool.

Around Wrath, the Legendary paradigm changed to make things a bit more organized. You had to collect 40 pieces of whatever, perhaps kill a specific boss, get a certain achievement, and then you got your Legendary. There was still a certain amount of coordination necessary though, as the Legendary pieces dropped for the whole raid, and thus had to be divvied up. In Mists and Warlords, the system was opened up further to the point where everyone could reasonably be expected to receive their own personal Legendary items. Drama around Legendaries was essentially removed, being solely a function of an individual’s willingness to grind past the gating mechanism.

In Legion, Legendaries are once again random drops. And there are dozens and dozens of them, for specific classes and even specific specs. The system, in effect, is a huge step backwards.

In principle, I actually like what they are doing with Legendaries, insofar as they are items that make you rethink your talent choices, skill rotation, and possibly even spec. Trinkets and Tier Set pieces traditionally function in this role, and their ability to “change the math” is precisely why getting them are exciting. One can stomach stat sticks only so far. In this sense, perhaps having “Legendary” items perform a similar role outside of Tier Sets and trinkets makes the piece of gear indeed “legendary.”

That said, we are now in a new Blizzard paradigm in which not only does Legendary gear drop from any content – including really dumb World Quests – but also one in which we can expect to see multiple pieces. Indeed, the last Class Hall upgrade for every class is the ability to equip two Legendary items at a time. Ergo, we should expect to have 2+ minimum. That said, there are tens of thousands of people right now with multiple Legendary pieces, and even more who have none. Supposedly there exists a “pity timer” which increases the odds of a Legendary drop the more one fails to receive one (such a mechanic exists in Hearthstone already), but nevermind.

Regardless, I really kinda hate this system. Sure, I see what Blizzard is doing: moving WoW towards a more Diablo 3 looting model, which makes completing otherwise dreary “kill 10 X” more exciting. But I actually enjoyed working towards items. Remember the old Badge system? There is a huge difference on an intellectual level between grinding 1000 mobs for 1000 points to buy a piece of gear, versus grinding 1000 mobs for a 1/1000 chance for a gear drop. I mean, I get it: filling some progress meter is a more defined endpoint than random drops. But for me personally, this level of randomness provides no meaningful sense of progression at all.

And by the way, this system seriously sucks for my situation in particular. I have been playing my Druid pretty much exclusively this expansion, with the understanding that I will need to be Balance if I ever wanted to raid later. However, questing as Guardian is so fucking amazing and quick that doing anything else is folly. And if I ever wanted to play some PvP, say, to capitalize on the Arena Skirmish bonus this past week? That’s either Feral or Resto. So, basically, no matter when or where a Legendary does finally drop (if it drops), I am guaranteed to not be able to meaningfully use it.

If I could work towards a specifically Legendary… but alas. GG Blizzard. GG.

Dungeon of the Endless

I was in a mood for a new roguelike for those times when you want to play something for 10 minutes (but end up spending 2 hours), so I picked up Dungeon of the Endless. After finally completing the first ship on Too Easy mode – having died a dozen times in frustrating ways on Easy mode (only two options at the start) – I’m not sure that I’m up to playing any more.

DotE_1.jpg

No, no there is not.

The core mechanics to this game are actually really novel and layered. The goal is to open new rooms until you find the exit, then move the crystal to said exit. Each time you open a door though, you trigger a Tower Defense-esque round where enemies may or may not pour from every unpowered room that you have discovered (unless characters are parked in those rooms). You can power and unpower rooms at will, but are limited to a certain number of powered rooms based on your Dust level. Dust is discovered by opening rooms and killing enemies.

Additionally, each door that gets opened gives you X amount of Industry, Science, and Food, which can be augmented by building components in powered rooms. Oh, and there are defenses you can place, new tech to research, items to equip, your characters can level up by using Food, and so on.

If it sounds complicated… it actually isn’t, amazingly. While you can order your characters (up to four) around, you can only tell them to go to given rooms; they attack automatically. Eventually you can unlock extra abilities, which generally last less than 10 seconds and thereafter take 2-3 rooms to recharge. You can sometimes get clever combos going, but it’s mostly panic button stuff.

What ends up being frustrating though, is how the game sorta becomes more of a Press Your Luck game than roguelike. Your accumulated resources carry over to each new floor, so there is always a tension between placing defenses (which cost Industry) to be extra safe, and/or just going for the exit, and/or opening a few more rooms to get some more resources/items. You can sometimes get screwed going the extra mile with Binding of Isaac or FTL encounters, but for the most part your twitch gameplay skills can save you. With Dungeon of the Endless though, there is a thin margin between being okay and getting slaughtered. Since everything is practically automated – you cannot choose which alien your characters shoot at – there isn’t much you can do when you get a gang of suicide enemies amongst cannon fodder or tanky enemies.

Hell, I’ve played the game for 10 hours now and I don’t know what the suicide enemies look like. This is definitely one of the those “discover on your own look up everything in the Wiki” games.

I dunno. I may play a little bit more to see if I’m just not grokking the experience. With Binding of Isaac and especially FTL, getting that “Aha!” moment was both sudden and mind-blowing in terms of how much further I could go. I’m not sure the same is possible here, but we’ll see.

——-

Since writing the above, I played for another 5-10 hours and my conclusions are basically the same. I feel like I understand the essential essence of the game… but there isn’t anything I can do when things like this happen:

DotE_2

Oh, hey, I lost the dice roll four times in a row.

Opened 23 doors, still didn’t discover the randomly placed exit. GG. Since monster waves get worse and worse the more doors you open, there was literally nothing I could have done here. Other than chose to go south and west first, back when my map was blank.

Play perfectly and still get randomly screwed? Yeah, welcome to roguelikes. But in most other ones, I feel like you have room to improve your own skills. In this instance, my RNG was the only meaningful skill I was lacking.

This game is definitely going straight in my Steam graveyard category.

That JAB vs Trump Hearthstone Game

The Hearthstone Americas Champion tournament aired this past weekend, and one particular game stood out: JAB vs Trump, Game 5. Or more specifically, this game-deciding bit of RNG at the final moments:

Now, the first thing I’m going to say is this: listen to that crowd. They’re loving it. I was watching the stream live and even I was going “OoooOOOoooh!” For all the derogatory “coin-flipping” and RNG flak Hearthstone gets, I think it’s pretty clear that watching these games can still be pretty exciting. Certainly more exciting than watching a perfectly mechanical, zero RNG game in which the outcome is known by turn four.

But as someone who watched the entire match-up, what gets me is how everyone always boils the RNG down to the final sequence… but seemingly ignore everything that lead up to it. This the final match in its entirety:

There is a ton of RNG at the beginning of the match, including a lot of amazing top-decks that changed the tone of the game. If Trump didn’t draw that Big Game Hunter to answer Dr. Boom, if the Shredder outcomes were different, if some other combination of cards were drawn… and so on. It reminds me of sports like football or baseball when mistakes are made with the final field goal or bottom-of-the-ninth plays. Everyone always remembers that last failure, and not all the other equally critical failures that lead up to it.

That thought then brought me to the Reddit thread in which someone wrote this:

You missed the whole pont, people say Hearthstone can’t be an esport because RNG isn’t affected by skill (mostly), so it’s more like playing bingo than a real sport in which there is 0% luck like soccer, or an esport like StarCraft 2.

There is no question that there is a lot of RNG in Hearthstone. But it is also beyond absurd to not recognize how much random bullshit occurs in meatspace sports as well. It is like suggesting all these soccer goals were 100% intentional, including the one where the guy tries to headbutt the ball, misses, and it bounces off his hip into the goal. Is the fact that a literal random number generator is not involve somehow make those “1cm to the right and it’d have bounced off the pole” scores less random?

Point being: randomness is involved in every asymmetric game, up to and especially including real-life sports. Are soccer games determined by coin-flips? Not ones we can see, anyway. But how else would you describe a penalty kick-off in soccer? That goalie has to arbitrarily decide to jump left or right, pretty much instinctually and before they see where the ball is heading. Or going back to card games like Poker – which a lot of people take very seriously – the most skillful aspect of the game is… bluffing. But what is that? If you read someone perfectly, all that really tells you is “they like/don’t their hand.” It doesn’t tell you what cards they have, or if yours could beat theirs.

I dunno. I don’t play Hearthstone as much as I used to, but I still enjoy watching it quite a bit. To suggest it can’t be an esport due to it having RNG moments though, is just ridiculously wrong. The randomness in other games is just more well-hidden. Perhaps we can say Hearthstone has too much of some arbitrary amount of RNG to be successful in an esports sense, but… is that really the criteria? Or is it “this is fun and exciting to watch?”

Impression: the Witcher 3

The Witcher 3 is weird.

…what? You need more? Haven’t you played this game for 100+ hours already?

The weirdness comes from the juxtaposition of Witcher 3 (W3) getting some things outrageously, fantastically good, all while mired in mediocrity and out-right immersion-breaking shenanigans otherwise.

For example, the environment, the gritty, dirty, pustule side of medieval fantasy life is back with a vengeance and already a highlight of my Witcher experience yet again. When you walk around hearing peasants cough with genuine phlegm, it reminds you this isn’t Disneyland, this is real (fantasy) life. People lived in the muck, practically nobody has windows, of course they’d be walking around like diseased shit-bags. The entire Witcher series has always gotten this feeling down so well that every other medieval setting I have encountered since has felt like college freshmen at the Renaissance Festival in comparison.

Then you walk into an Inn and the barkeep is selling bottled water for 42g apiece:

Brought to you by Nestle.

Brought to you by Nestle.

In the panoply of absurd gameisms out there – having access to world-ending magical powers but being unable to open locked doors, etc – it might seem disingenuous to pick on W3’s Nestle-style gouging as immersion-breaking. But it is precisely the confluence of W3’s fantasy realism and its absurd gamey bits that make little details like this so prominent.

Playing on the next step above Normal-mode difficulty means that Geralt no longer gets healed by Meditating. Whereas you might have just chain-chugged Swallow potions in prior titles to beef up your passive regeneration, W3 has opted for the Skyrim-esque “scarf fifteen pieces of raw meat in the middle of combat” HP management system. Different consumables heal X amounts in Y amounts of time, so you typically need the best to survive.

And one of the best? You guessed it: plain ole H2O.

I haven’t cared more about water in any game since Fallout: New Vegas hardcore mode. Every time I rummage through a peasant hovel, stealing everything not bolted down, I do a fist pump every time I see a bottle of water. “Silver candle stick. Old bear hide. Ruby dust. Water… score! Time to fuck up some demons!”

I’m only halfway kidding.

Please live up to this.

Please live up to this.

Truly though, W3’s combat system reminds me of Blizzard’s game design philosophy between expansions: instead of simply fixing what was broken, CD Projekt RED decided to veer completely in a different direction… again.

The combat itself is fine, for the most part. What is different (again) this time around is consumable use. Potions are no longer limited by toxicity (Witcher 1) or preparation (Witcher 2), but rather by what amounts to “per encounter charges.” Craft the Swallow potion one time and you get 3 charges of it, which are automatically replenished by strong alcohol whenever you meditate for at least 1 hour. Craft every potion once, use them all in five minutes, and they all come back after meditation. I’m not really even convinced that any alcohol is actually being consumed to replenish the stock of potions.

While toxicity still exists, it is largely window-dressing considering how a single Swallow potion’s toxicity drops to zero before the potion’s effects even have time to wear off. And while the toxicity meter limits your ability to stack potion effects I guess, the Quick Use menu is limited to two items anyway (presumably to not blow the minds of unwashed console peasants). Decoctions represent longer-term buffs that fully use up your toxicity meter, but I’m not entirely convinced this move towards the trivialization of preparation was worth it. Witcher 2 went way, way too far the other direction – forcing you to use potions before you even knew combat was coming – but why the crazy swing the other direction? Pretty sad how much better the original Witcher feels in comparison.

In fact, that’s precisely where I am mentally every time I boot up the game. It looks amazing, sounds amazing, and generally feels amazing when playing in the moment. If you slow down a bit at all however, and the high-speed blur turns into a mishmash slurry of disparate game mechanics. I’m hoarding herbs and potions out of Witcher 1 habit while throwing back Honeycombs and Wolf Livers by the pound. I’m looting every building and outhouse in sight for crafting materials so I can craft low-level items outclassed by bandit drops so I can kill skull-level monsters guarding swords five levels below me. Random loot is random, but there comes a time when the designers need to put in some goddamn sanity checks, yeah? Sitting on the recipe for Enhanced Beast Oil for 10 hours while Googling where the hell regular Beast Oil is supposed to spawn is not my idea of good game design. Especially when the answer is a shrug.

So. Like I said: weird. Good, but weird.

But hey, Gwent is pretty cool. It’d be cooler if they actually let me have enough cards to make more than one faction deck after 25 hours, but it’s still fun.

Hearthstone Dilemmas

[Blaugust Day 24]

For all the the derision Hearthstone might get for being coin-flips and “dumbed down” and such, sometimes you end up facing a straight-up agonizing dilemma. For example, this game from the other day:

Embarrassment of choices.

Embarrassment of choices.

My choices were the following:

  • Coin + Harrison Jones. This was my first instinct, as it was cute and probably the only value I would have time to enjoy against Eboladin (e.g. Aggro Paladin). The play drops a 5/4 creature on my board, destroys my opponent’s weapon, and draws me three cards.
  • Mind-Control Tech. This will cause me to randomly gain one of my opponent’s minions. There’s a 25% chance of nabbing the 2/2 with Divine Shield, and leaves me with a 3/3, which is a huge swing. It unfortunately wastes 1 mana unless I Coin into Hero Power, and has a 75% of just nabbing a 1/1.
  • Mind-Control Tech + Coin + Wrath/Hero Power. As the above, but spending the Coin will allow me to cast Wrath (choosing the “Deal 1 damage + draw a card” option) or Hero Power, to pop the Divine Shield on the 2/2 in case I didn’t steal it.
  • Coin + Sludge Belcher. Drops a 3/5 creatures with Taunt on the field, which summons a 1/2 creature with Taunt when it dies. Theoretically, my opponent would need to run all his creatures and his weapon into the Belcher to kill it. Of course, my opponent would also have 4 mana in which to respond to the Belcher as well.
  • Swipe face. It’s a YOLO sort of play that deals 4 damage to my opponent and 1 damage to all his creatures. Meaning it will kill his three 1/1 creatures and pop the other’s Divine Shield. My opponent would still have his 1-damage weapon, a 2/2, four mana to spend, and me with an empty board.

So, which one would you do? If my deck matters, it’s Ramp (Ysera) Druid without combo.

…did you pick a course of action yet?

…okay. Like I mentioned, I went with Coin + Harrison Jones. On the opponent’s turn, he cast Blessing of Might on the 2/2, turning it into a 5/2, summoned another 1/1 dude with Hero Power, and went face with everything. On my turn, I committed such an egregiously bad misplay that I’m legitimately embarrassed to type it out. What should have occurred was my Swiping the opponent’s face, destroying all his 1/1 dudes plus popping the Divine Shield, followed by trading my Harrison into the 5/2. Instead, I did that backwards. So, really, it was so bad that it was two misplays, as I could have recovered by Swiping the 5/2 directly at least. But nope.

Needless to say, I lost that game.

And actually, I probably would have lost the game regardless. The remaining sequence of the game was him casting Charge creatures and going face every time – the extra 5 damage taken unnecessarily would not have made much of a difference when you’re sitting at 5 HP to his 30. The only healing in my deck are two Ancient of Lores, and drawing those before getting Arcane Golem’d or Consecrated and such would itself be a coin-toss.

The funny thing to me is how, even in Magic: the Gathering, the best play is the one that gives you a chance to win. If you just play based on the cards in your hand and the ones on the board, you can lose sight of the Window of Victory as it slowly slides shut. If your best chance to win is to commit to a costly attack and top-deck a burn spell the next turn… then do that. If you draw something else, oh well, you were going to lose at that point anyway.

My best play for the above game would have been MC Tech and hope I get the 25% chance to nab the 2/2. Perhaps my opponent would have played different cards the following turn, but I’d have two decent minions and Swipe for the next. Or Belcher. Or Harrison. Or, at that point, dropping a 5/10 Taunt creature on turn 7, sealing the game until and unless my opponent draws into an Equality (assuming Eboladin even runs that). In this scenario, I was not avoiding the risky play that could backfire, I was making the same risky play and choosing the 0% chance to win option.

There are probably deeper games out there than Hearthstone. Games in which you can encounter these scenarios without the coin-flips being so naked obvious. But just because there are coin-flips, doesn’t mean there is nothing one can do to maximize their chances at success.

TL;DR: when in doubt, MC Tech.

Non-Customization

I don’t know if you’ve been following the new ground the developers of Rust have been breaking, but it’s both interesting and hilarious. The short version is that instead of customizing your character, all of your character’s physical attributes are randomly assigned and permanently tied to your Steam ID. This includes race, penis size, and now gender.

As you might imagine, some corners of the internet are melting down.

There are multiple layers of this design which are fascinating to me. The first is the sheer amount of free PR this generates. I mean, when was the last time you actually heard news about Rust that wasn’t about the size, color, and/or existence of the male sexual organ? Last thing I remember reading was from what feels like years ago, when Rust removed zombies… and people were crafting C4 to break into peoples’ shacks? It’s still a crafting survival game, right? I wouldn’t know.

Philosophically, the intended inability to choose your avatar’s features is also interesting. The money quote from the devs is this one:

To clear up some confusion, when we it does go live you won’t get a choice of whether you’re female or male. We’re not “taking the choice away” from you. You never had a choice. A man’s voice coming out of a woman’s body is no more weird than an 8 year-old boy’s voice coming out of a man’s body.

Some of the criticism is coming from people who don’t want to feel restricted in their character creation, or people who want their avatar to look like them (for RP purposes or otherwise). But in a sense… is this any different from, say, Witcher 3 or any other game with fixed player assets? As the dev mentioned, you never actually had a choice at character creation, so nothing is being taken away. Is it about historical gametype precedent? Or about the fact that the devs could have added customization options but have clearly decided not to?

In any case, I like the cut of this dev team’s jib. They are doing bold things that could go horribly wrong, which is the heart of soul of R&D. Plus, listen to this bit:

“We wanted to lock people to an identity so they could be possibly recognized for their misdeeds, just from their avatar,” he explained. “The idea being that eventually we’d take away player names, and emergent stuff could happen like mistaking someone for a friend, impersonations, etc.”

That sort of “reputation” is asinine in a multi-server scenario IMO, but good for them for going for it. And removing character names altogether? That’s a pretty brilliant social experiment.

I’m not invested in the outcome of Rust, but damned if I don’t feel a tiny bit compelled to see what kind of character gets rolled for me. Not going to lie: if I end up getting stuck as generic white dude #476, I’ll be pretty disappointed.

Good RNG, Bad RNG

I feel kinda bad for having sung the praises for Hearthstone’s Tavern Brawl mode right as they released perhaps the worst iteration of it possible. This past week’s Brawl is “Encounter at the Crossroads,” and follows the (intentional?) pattern of every other week’s Brawl giving you a deck to play with. Instead of being filled with Webspinners, your deck is filled with completely random garbage cards, and up to three Legendaries. It ends up being 15 Neutral cards and 15 Class cards, for the record, and they are completely random – Mad Scientists in decks without Secrets, cards that trigger off of dragons without a single dragon in the deck, and so on.

My utter disgust with this week’s Brawl got me thinking: what’s the big deal? There is RNG everywhere, so why hate this kind? What’s so worse about this RNG as compared to the Webspinner Brawl or the spell one the week before?

I think my biggest problem is that this was Blind, Lingering RNG. Last week, you didn’t know what kind of creature you would summon… other than that it’d be an X mana cost one, it would come before the spell resolved, and you knew what was in the rest of your deck. You knew how much removal you were packing, you knew what synergies existed, you kinda knew what to expect from your opponent.

With a Crossroads deck, you know nothing Jon Snow. You didn’t even know whether to mulligan your shitty opening hand; if you threw anything back, chances are you’d get something even worse.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

Spoiler alert: I lost this game.

One of the benefits to RNG is the very thing that people often complain about: RNG can determine games. Yes, there will be games that you lose to coin flips. Yes, it feels awful when you’re winning to suddenly fall behind through no fault of your own.

At the same time… randomness can make things interesting. Randomness can challenge you, present you with scenarios you’ve never encountered before, and allow you to overcome defeat through judicious use of probability. Do you play around that 10% chance that the Piloted Shredder pops out something that destroys your strategy, or do you play it safe? That sort of thing is (or can be) an interesting decision, and different people have different thresholds of comfort when it comes to percentages.

I mean, imagine the opposite case with no RNG. Losing from your opening hand. Or at least your only hope being that your opponent has as bad a hand as you do. It feels bad, man.

This is what this Brawl has felt like all weekend long – inevitable lingering losses. I played in the neighborhood of twenty games to complete my dailies, and I was never blessed with those same insane, on-curve openings that I would routinely experience the sharp end of. In most of the games, I would have been better off conceding in the first two turns. Could you imagine someone feeling the same in the Spell-Minion or Webspinner Brawl? Don’t get me wrong, you could get way screwed out of nowhere in those Brawls. But that’s the thing: it’s immediate. It’s more fun, even on the receiving end. At least in comparison to being behind, with nothing good to play this turn, and knowing you have a 99% chance of drawing into even more garbage the next turn.

There’s RNG and then there’s RNG. This is the latter, it sucks, and I hope Blizzard never does it again.

On Randomness, Again

A little over a year ago, I talked about randomness in Hearthstone. Since that time, the amount of RNG cards has only increased. In fact, the Goblin vs Gnomes expansion added a full 24 cards with the word “random” on it, some of which have gone on to be staple cards in many decks:

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

The one of the left is an auto-include in every deck.

At the time of the article, I mentioned that Blizzard’s stance on RNG was possibly at a turning point given how Hearthstone’s nascent e-Sports scene was starting to take off, much to the surprise of Blizzard itself. As we well know today however, Blizzard has stuck with their RNGuns and doubled-down on wild board swings.

And… I think I can appreciate what they’re doing.

The downsides to randomness are rather apparent to most people, insofar as you can go from winning to losing by virtue of a coin-flip. Watching Pro Players losing tournaments on the back of a 1% chance (or even less) of bad luck makes the game look like amateur hour sometimes.

On the flip side (har har), an element of randomness allows one to stage surprising comebacks. Top-decking just the right card to win a game has always been a staple of even the highest levels of the Magic: the Gathering professional scene. Since Hearthstone has less than half as many cards as Magic (and no land cards to gum up the works), Hearthstone arguably needs the extra randomness just to be less deterministic. Nobody likes playing unwinnable matches.

The real upside to Hearthstone’s randomness though? The stories.

If you were the other guy playing this match, you would probably be justifiably upset about how utterly screwed you got from that Piloted Shredder outcome. Or would you be justified? As I mentioned before, randomness is just another consideration that skilled players need to account for in their strategies. Getting Lorewalker Cho out of a Piloted Shredder as Oil Rogue is bad, but there was always a 1.5% chance of it happening in every game; if you don’t want to sometimes lose to the randomness of your own card, take it out of your deck. About 70% of the time, Piloted Shredder summons a better-than-expected minion, which is why so many people run it.

But as I was saying, that match went from “just another video demonstrating a deck” to “high-class entertainment” in my eyes. You can see the gears whirling in the streamer’s head as soon as Cho hit the board; it was unexpected, and the unexpected is much more fun for the viewers at home. Even if I were playing that game though, I think I’d be alright with it. Nobody really cares that you won yet another game as Oil Rogue or whatever is Flavor of the Week. Winning in spite of Cho? That would be epic. And even though the other rogue loss due to Cho, he/she now has the option to mentally blame bad luck instead of being outplayed. That attitude can prevent new players from improving of course, but it can also prevent new players from simply giving up in the face of veterans.

The next Hearthstone Adventure set, Blackrock Mountain, is due to be released sometimes in April. We haven’t seen nearly all the cards yet, but we already know about a reverse-Shredder card called Hungry Dragon, which summons a random 1-mana minion for your opponent. So at this point, I believe it safe to say that randomness is here to stay. Time will tell if Hearthstone in general does the same.

(I give it a 92% chance.)