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Time is Fair

Tobold has a series of posts now in which he simultaneously blames players for the failure of F2P games and then denigrates everyone who, you know, plays RPGs for supporting/enjoying “Grind2Win.” Apparently it is unfair for someone who has played an RPG for longer than you to have any advantage whatsoever. I can only imagine what he thinks about XP as a concept.

In short: Tobold is against any form of progression that you can’t buy your way past; merely playing the game more is asking too much.

Perhaps I am being less charitable here, but I consider the entire “debate” to be, quite frankly, insane. If you spend more time reading a book than me, you will be further along in the story than I. That is… logic, working as intended. Meanwhile, time and money are not analogous; the former is distributed equally to all persons and the latter is not. Perhaps you could argue that more money allows for more day-to-day freedom (i.e. time), but that extra freedom still requires one to spend the same hours playing a game as anyone else.

There is literally no more fair a payment than time. Unless you are dying by mid-evening, everyone has the same 24 hours in their day and every single one of those hours is valuable. Conversely, money has a marginal utility such that $10 to one person is a rounding error and to someone else it’s food for the week.

One of Tobold’s complaints is that Grind2Win lessens the importance of skill. Well, yes and no. If two players of equal skill are fighting, the one who spent more time playing the game will probably win. And that’s… a terrible outcome, I guess? A great moral failing of design? I mean, how dare someone who spent more time in an activity have an advantage over someone who has not! A truly Just World would… have exactly that design.

In clashes of unequal skill however, the outcome is usually less clear-cut than what is being assumed here. Outside of level differences in RPGs and time-management games like Clash of Clans, it’s hard to say how big an advantage grinding gets you. Gevlon did demonstrate it was possible to clear an entire WoW raiding tier in blue gear. Indeed, the surprisingly large delta between skill and gear becomes obvious in most MMOs – squeezing in an extra attack per rotation (skill) will almost always trump a blanket 5/10/15% better DPS stats (time). In MMO PvP, 10% more health isn’t going to save you from being dismantled by a Pro Player.

So what Tobold seems to be really upset about is that small band of conflict between a mediocre player who plays a game often and the slightly-less mediocre player who doesn’t. Sorry, I can’t quite get worked up about the “inequity” of that situation. Not only is one’s time-advantage frequently capped – in MMOs via raiding tiers – it is not much to ask a player to… play the game. Even the most skilled Chess player in the world has to, you know, play a lot of Chess matches to move up the ladder.

All of this really ignores the fact that “Grind2Win” doesn’t even exist as a monetization strategy on its own. Without a cash shop bypass, “grind” really means “pacing” – you can complain about the pacing being off or too slow, but that’s about it. You can’t even argue that MMOs like WoW have weekly raid lockouts to milk subscriptions because it makes no sense. The world-first competition is over within a few resets, long before anyone can “grind” anything. And then the entire tier lasts six months or more, leaving plenty of time for anyone else that cares to get all the gear they want/need. The only scenario that one needs to be suspicious of is when a task is made arduous while there is a cash-based workaround.

The bottom line here is that Pay2Win and Grind2Win are not “equally unfair” and its insulting to even suggest it. I know it sucks to lose to a “no-lifer” who is really a human being that has spent more time playing a game than you, but it’s not even in the same league as someone buying their way to the endgame. A hundred dollars to a F2P whale is not of equal value to a hundred dollars from someone living paycheck to paycheck. Hours spent, though? That’s a direct correlation with how valuable a given activity is to you. And if you are unwilling to spend the time on something, what are you even complaining about?

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Peril of Subjectivity

As noted in the sidebar, I have been reading the Art of Game design. One part of an early paragraph sort of jumped out at me, and is kinda relevant to the topic of the usefulness of game reviews:

This peril is the peril of subjectivity, and a place where many designers fall into a trap: “I like playing this game, therefore it must be good.” And sometimes, this is right. But other times, this is very, very wrong. [Art of Game Design, pg 16]

Now, on the one hand, this is pretty straight-forward advice for a game designer. Just because you like the game you are creating doesn’t necessarily mean other people will. But it seems to me that there is a hidden edge to that sentiment, an implication that a well-designed game is one that most players enjoy.

Duh, right?

Well… doesn’t that mean Candy Crush Saga is one of the best games of all time? As of March of this year, 143 million people were playing it every day; the company’s revenue went from $164 million in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2013 almost entirely on the back of a single game. While the game’s popularity is declining (as is King’s stock price), the takeaway should be that perhaps the quality of a game’s design is not necessarily a function of it’s popularity. Good games can languish in obscurity and bad games can sell beyond all reason.

Which, really, should not come to a surprise to anyone who has ever turned on a television, read a book, or seen a movie.

Here is the Wikipedia link of the best-selling books of all time (minus religious/political works), for example. The top looks pretty good: A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Then you hit The Da Vinci Code and your eye might twitch. It’s only when you scroll down to the book series section when you realize that 50 Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies. I wasn’t able to find how many each individual book in the series sold, but if we assume 33 million apiece that means the original 50 Shades of Grey is “better” than To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or a whole swath of cultural brilliance.

You probably don’t even need to look at the highest-grossing movies listing to know it’s even worse. There is a Transformers movie at #7 and #11, for the record. And the one at #11 was released, oh, a week four months ago. As in literally seven days ago as of the time of this posting [Edit: I misinterpreted the Wikipedia note; the movie is still in theaters though] . I mean, it should really have been bad enough that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at #48, ahead of all its infinitely better predecessors.

I suppose my point is that, going back to Tobold’s post, it does not surprise me in the least that Destiny received a 76 Metacritic score and yet has 3.2 million daily players. Just as it shouldn’t be surprising to see how little overlap there is between RottenTomatos’ Top 100 movie list and highest-grossing movie one. I mean, Transformers: Dark of the Moon got a 36% score, and is #7 highest-grossing of all time with over $1.1 billion worldwide. That’s more than LotR: Return of the King (94% fresh) which clocks in at #8.

So, basically, no – game reviewers are no more irrelevant than reviewers of any kind of medium. I mean, unless you think movie reviewers are there for some other reason than to direct you towards movies worth watching… in which case they should have just said “Transformers,” apparently.

I cannot really comment on Destiny’s actual merits for two reasons: A) it wasn’t released on the PC, and B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. I do not consider the latter indicative of Ps2’s game design brilliance so much as a personal deficiency.

Parity as Entitlement

I wrote a post about Entitlement and the problems surrounding its (ab)use in gaming discussions back in 2012. Nothing has changed since then – I still consider anyone who uses it in a semi-serious way to essentially be Godwin’ing their own argument. What I did not expect to see two years later is “entitlement” to be even further warped as a pejorative to paint even those that desire parity in their games. Or presumably, by extension, anyone who has any desires whatsoever.

From Tobold’s blog:

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

The context of this quote comes from a larger discussion on the escalating price of “Founder’s Packs,” e.g. the extremely clever corporate jujitsu that resulted in people paying $150 for the “privilege” of alpha-testing even F2P games. Tobold’s larger points are that A) “too pricey” is subjective, and B) game companies are better off selling digital goods in their Collector’s Editions (as opposed to expensive physical goods) if it were not for the fact that “entitled” gamers don’t like that.

“Entitlement” clearly being a trigger word for me, I asked: “Is an expectation of parity now considered entitlement?” Tobold replied:

I have never met ANYBODY who expected or even wanted parity in a game. What people want is a system that is skewed towards their strong points. Thus the person who has more available time than money wants a game where you are King of the Hill if you spend the most time in the game. While the person who has more money than time would prefer if he could achieve things by buying them. Neither of the two wants parity.

The reason why expecting game companies to reward time more than money is entitlement thinking is because obviously the game company would much prefer your money over your time.

(That almost sounds like game companies feel entitled to my money, but nevermind.)

Now, it seems to me that he is making the accusation that people only like what games they are good at. Which… is a bad thing, I guess? There really cannot be any other possible explanation for your friends getting mad at you bringing real-world dollars into a game of Axis & Allies (or Chess, etc etc) other than taking away their advantage of more skillful play, right? Those entitled jerks… it’s all the same!

I enjoy parity in games. In fact, I expect it. Arguably the hallmark of any “game” is consistent rules that apply to every player equally (assuming the game isn’t based around asymmetry). If someone beats you in a fair game by virtue of better skill or strategy, who could legitimately complain? Even if they won by virtue of simply having spent more time playing the game, how could you object? Tobold and others may point out that some people have more time than money, but I do not know anyone who has 25 hours in their day. In contrast, the dollar amount anyone could have on hand is effectively unbounded. You could have $10, you could have $1,000,000.

Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”

I might be able to see where people could get angry about someone meeting or exceeding your own skillful play by simply repeating a low-skill activity for days and days. But even then, the results of your skill is self-evident: you achieved the result more quickly with less (wasted) time.

Bringing real-world money into a game is NOT analogous to either skill nor time. The amount of money any of us have is the result of an entirely different “game,” which operates on entirely different “rules.” It is like me getting an extra Queen in a game of Chess simply because I won a game of Checkers last year. Did that giant pile of real-world money give you the freedom to spend more time playing the game than me? That is both okay and irrelevant. The uber-rich guy, the 12-year old on summer break, the dropout college student, or the oil rig worker on his two weeks off all value the time spending playing the game equally for as long as they do.

Desiring parity in the games you play is not entitlement. Desiring that fewer companies tether their business model to the rules of the games they make is not entitlement. Desiring to play games you are good at is not entitlement. Desire is not entitlement. When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.

 

Subscriptions Are Dead; Long Live Subscriptions

Tobold has a post up talking about the fate of the subscription model. Namely, that while TESO and Wildstar devs are heroically trying to swim against the F2P current, the hard numbers and future MMO releases paint a different, more bleak picture. As somewhat hilariously pointed out by commenter Mike Andrade in that post, this sort of subscription analysis appears to be a Tobold yearly August tradition, but nevermind.

Both Gevlon in the comments and SynCaine in a post come out of the gate with a rather blistering one-two retort: 1) maybe recent sub games are floundering because the games themselves are bad, and 2) where are all the F2P successes then?

Granted, SynCaine moved the goal-posts a bit by specifying “day-1 F2P,” when the facts of the matter are (likely) that subscription games that have made the F2P transition are only still online because of said transition. In other words, SWTOR and LOTRO and Aion and DDO and STO and TSW (etc) are perfectly valid examples of F2P success stories by virtue of those games still being online and profitable. That all of them would prefer the giant piles of initial subscriber cash isn’t really saying anything about the long-term sustainability of the model itself. Why would any of them start off F2P if it’s possible to not leave that money on the table?

But if we’re looking ahead, I suppose ArchAge and SOE’s flagship EverQuest Next being F2P might be potential candidates day-1 F2P success (however that ends up being defined).

The subscription counter-example a lot of people have been using is FF14, which frankly shocked me in terms of subscriber numbers. Apparently there are 2 million of them? If legitimate, that would rocket it past all non-WoW MMOs to be one of the most successful subscription games of all time. Of course, it sells for $15 on Steam every three weeks, there’s a sizable console market for the game (something not many MMOs can achieve), and it technically got a do-over that allowed it to “launch” with years of content instead of the normal zero. But still! That’s impressive.

Okay, actually FF14 has two million “registered accounts,” which is sort of like subscribers in the same way F2P games are “free to play.” Still, subscriptions! 500,000 people log on at least once per day! For now, anyway.

Ultimately, I think a lot of the subscription game musing is sort of missing the point. While there are subtle pressures involved when you look at a subscription game – worrying about getting your money’s worth even if $15/month is pocket change normally – I agree with people like SynCaine that say if a game is worth it, you’ll pay the money… to a point. Because when you are talking about MMOs, the quality of the content itself is almost a tertiary concern to retention. Don’t believe me? Then tell me how a game like WoW can get away with having zero new content from September 2013 to today and “only” lose around ~10.5% of its population. It’s the people, stupid. Yeah, there’s an underlying game space that needs to be entertaining enough to collect everyone in one spot and having fun during downtime, but how long is anyone really subscribing to a single-player game? You can have the most entertaining base game in the world, but if nobody is making those sticky social connections – perhaps because they already have social networks elsewhere – then they are just going to leave in three months anyway.

Frankly, the biggest issue with subscriptions are companies whom vastly overestimate their own popularity, and otherwise set themselves up for failure. If you budget your MMO such that you need 500,000 people paying $15/month just to survive, you’re going to have a bad time. The lower that floor is, the more space you will have to grow the audience later. Or, hell, just maintain the people you have currently.

So while I do not believe the subscription model itself is going anywhere, I do think that it’s only going to be particularly sustainable to those games which have tightly-wounded social pockets. Creating said pockets out of thin air is incredibly tough, but that’s not going to stop games like TESO and Wildstar from at least capitalizing on 6-12 months of bonus revenue they would not have otherwise had if they went with B2P and/or F2P.

Regression to the Mean

Tobold and others are fundamentally correct about Hearthstone’s metagame essentially being reduced to a small set of cards. The speed at which the metagame changes in response to pro-player feedback also approaches the speed of light; Argent Squire went from being something I never saw in the last three months to something I now see every game. In fact, if you want to win damn near every game you play, all you need to use are these cards:

  • 2x Novice Engineer
  • 2x Loot Hoarder
  • 2x Gnomish Inventor
  • 2x Shattered Sun Cleric
  • 2x Acidic Swamp Ooze
  • 2x Faerie Dragon
  • 2x Dark Iron Dwarf
  • 2x Chillwind Yeti
  • 2x Defender of Argus
  • 2x Argent Commander

I cannot begin to tell you how many games I have lost due to Defender of Argus. Some of these cards will be nerfed soon, but not all of them (including Defender of Argus), and I’m not even convinced the nerfs will hurt their inclusion in nearly every deck.

The funny thing though, is how simply using these cards does not necessarily mean you win automatically. They are strongest possible cards for their cost, no doubt, but what they do not do is tell you is who’s the beatdown. They do not tell you whether you should play the Faerie Dragon or the Loot Hoarder on turn 2. They do not tell you which class to play, which class cards to choose for the rest of the deck, and whether to spend mana on removal this turn or send everything to your opponent’s face. In short, they don’t tell you what to do in this scenario:

So many possibilities...

So many possibilities…

As I have said before and will undoubtedly say again, sometimes Hearthstone can be played by a monkey. Sometimes you only have one rational move, and sometimes you will win no matter what you play because your opponent got screwed by RNG. And vice versa. But none of this should suggest there is not room for skill, acumen, and calculated risks. It’s not about seeing the same pieces day in and day out, it’s how those pieces interact with one another.

Hearthstone has its issues – Blizzard can’t pretend that Mage isn’t OP for too much longer – but a metagame revolving around X number of cards isn’t one of them. It would be better if more cards were viable, sure, but there is plenty of meat and marrow on these bones.

Going Home Again

Tobold is by no means the first person to point out that Warlords of Draenor’s free level 90 character is a “doubling-down” on vertical progression. I mean, I don’t see why anyone would claim that even vanilla WoW was anything other than vertical progression given how you couldn’t grind your way to max level via the Westfall boars, South Park-style, but whatever. The thing that profoundly bothers me in these sort of debates though, is this sort of nonsense:

So we are being told that when the expansion comes out, World of Warcraft will be all about levels 90 to 100. You will play nearly exclusively on the new continent, maybe sometimes visit the capital cities for some features, but will have no reason whatsoever to enter over 90% of the zones of World of Warcraft. If by some server glitch the old zones ceased to exist, most players wouldn’t even notice. I find that rather sad, so much wasted space and potential.

I literally cannot understand this line of reasoning. I understand what is attempting to be said here, but it seems so far removed from reality as to be unintelligible.

First of all, the post-Cataclysm world still exists. Even if we are going to assume that there will be a lot of brand new WoW players coming into the expansion – which we have no reason to believe there will be, at least in comparison to returning players – the fact remains that the world and all of its quests will still be there for that new player’s alts, at a minimum. Assuming, of course, that this hypothetical new person even enjoys questing in the first place. And if they do, there is nothing stopping them from questing from level 1 to 100 while saving the instant 90 for some other purpose. Meanwhile, the returning veterans who quit in the middle of an expansion they presumably didn’t like are being asked to… what? Spend a few dozen hours slogging through 2+ year old content to get to the stuff they were actually excited enough to resubscribe to see?

Secondly, how can the old content ever be considered “wasted?” All of those zones and quests have been utilized, extensively, by millions of players for years. How much more utilized does it need to be? And how? And why? Even in horizontal progression MMOs, where do you find people? Where the new things are. The odds of you finding someone running around the mid-level zones in Guild Wars 2 is approximately zero, unless there happens to be some kind of 2-week patch dragon dropping off a treasure chest every three hours. You’re not going to find an EVE veteran mining Veldspar even if Veldspar remains a critical component of crafting spaceships.

Content obsoletes itself. That is not a problem, that’s linear time working as intended. Novelty only ever decreases, at least in terms of crafted content. Hell, how long can you experience interest in even procedurally-generated content like in Minecraft? At a certain point, even the weirdest terrain formation is reduced to its constituent parts at a glance – it sure as hell isn’t as impressive as the first time you laid eyes on your future mountain fortress location.

Time marches on. Just because you don’t hang out at the playground or swing from monkey bars anymore does not mean they are now wasted content, even if no one else ever uses them again. They existed in a time and a place and served their purpose well. Is that not enough? Were you not entertained?

It always seems the greatest irony in MMOs are those players who wish for living, breathing virtual worlds that never change.

The Limits of Procedure

In a recent post, Tobold says:

After Everquest Next announced dynamic spawns with an ecosystem, destructible environment, and open world player housing, several people dismissed these claims as unrealistic with the argument that Ultima Online tried that and failed: Players kill mobs faster than they can reproduce, gather resources so fast that whole forests are turned into deserts, and build houses everywhere until no more flat surface is left. While that history is correct, the conclusion isn’t. As a counter-example look at Star Wars Galaxies, where open world housing clearly worked a lot better than in Ultima Online. So what is the difference, and how can a virtual world with a stable ecosystem be created without players destroying everything? The answer is simply in the size of the world, and the scale of the ecosystem.

Two paragraphs later though, he sort of undermines his own argument a bit (emphasis mine):

The Ultima Online ecosystem failed due to its small size and technical limitations of the time. But a procedurally generated world can be much bigger, even infinite. People don’t run out of world to modify in Minecraft. And if the world is big enough, you can put in enough mobs so that players can’t possibly make them extinct.

Er… if players cannot possibly make the mobs extinct, what’s the point in having an “ecosystem” in the first place?

But, never mind that. What I really wanted to talk about is the Minecraft bit. Because sometimes I get the feeling that “procedurally-generated” as a concept is being elevated as some paragon virtue of game design – a silver-bullet to boredom – when it is really nothing of the sort.

A procedurally-generated game solves exactly one problem: metagaming. That is not quite the correct word I want to use though, as you can still technically metagame a procedurally-generated world in several ways. Namely, by knowing its procedures. For example, no matter what Minecraft world is created (mods aside), diamond only spawns in layer 19 and below. Indeed, there is a whole bunch of Minecraft constants to consider (accurate circa 2010 anyway). All the Minecraft map being procedurally-generated does is prevent you from following a guide telling you to move North a hundred steps and then walk East to find a nice batch of Iron Ore near the surface. Avoiding those scenarios is certainly useful, and it’s always fun running into the truly bizarre and whimsical creations of the RNG gods.

The problem arises in treating the procedurally-generated whatever as “endless content,” when it is really not anything of the sort. As I talked about before, your knowledge of a game’s systems really only ever increases as you play; novelty has diminishing returns within the same game. Each Minecraft world generated may be completely different, but you are going to be doing the same sort of things each time: punch wood, make tools, make structure, dig for ore, etc. Different starting locations and details can spice up the gameplay for a time, but your “build order” is unlikely to change much no matter where you are.

Procedurally-generated content definitely has a place in gaming, usually in the context of roguelikes, but it will not solve any of EQN or any other MMO’s problems. Not that its application in MMOs made much sense in the first place – one of the defining characteristics of an MMO is a persistent world, which is incongruent with procedural generation. Even if it was just one world of infinite size (expanding at the edges), the amount of space surrounding objects of player interest would remain finite. And that’s assuming players would be willing to trudge out very far from their starting location in the first place.

No, just adding more space isn’t going to solve the issue. If anyone claims that an MMO’s world cannot be too big, simply point them at any given low-pop server of any game anywhere.

Worst of All Worlds

A few days ago Tobold made what seemed to be a reasonable argument that F2P games are just like cell phone plans – some plans work better than others depending on how much you use the phone. That seems fine, until you realize that phone carriers typically give you a choice between subscriptions and buying minutes, even for the same phone model. But more than that, what I want to talk about is how/why I feel that F2P is always bad for me as a player.

I’m one of those people that derive pleasure from “optimizing the fun out of games.” Of course, I don’t actually see it as fun reduction at all; if anything, I get the most entertainment possible when I can lever the whole of my mind in opposition to the game designer. It is not that I want to discover the ultimate ability/gear combo to make the game trivial (most games have cheat codes, Save file hacks, etc), it is that I want the game to be difficult or deep enough to drive me to discover it using the tools the designer gave me. The optimization part is simply the nominal destination of a thoroughly engaging and fun journey getting there.

This brings me (back) to the topic of F2P. One of the common defenses of F2P is that it evens the playing field between the time-rich and the people with limited time. Frankly, I feel that is bullshit right off the bat. One of the hallmarks of a fair game is everyone playing by consistent rules – if I have to kill 1000 boars, everyone has to kill 1000 boars. If killing that many boars takes 15 hours, then yes, someone who can spent 15 hours a day playing the game will have an “advantage” over someone who can only play two hours.¹ Then again, a particularly skillful player might be able to figure out how to kill the required number of boars in only 10 hours, perhaps by optimizing his/her equipment, farming strategy, and/or ability rotation. The “time-rich” player might still have the “advantage,” but their brute-force approach is inefficient.

The typical F2P experience is thus the worst of all possible worlds for players like myself. I am both time and money “rich” (i.e. I have disposable income), which already presents uncomfortable gaming decisions on a daily basis. If you have no money or no time, the solution to any F2P problem is pretty obvious: grind it out or pay to skip the grind. Conversely, those of us who can do both are stuck rationalizing every possible decision all the time. “Do I grind for another 2 hours, or do I just spend the $5?” Maybe the default should be pay-to-skip in that scenario, but what about all the other games you could be purchasing with that same $5? Is “saving” two hours in one game worth purchasing a different game that could last you 20 hours by itself?

The real kicker though is the fact that F2P more or less invalidates any real sense of optimization. All of us already know that the most efficient move in a F2P game is to load up on XP potions, convert cash into in-game currency to clean out the AH, and open lockboxes all day until we have everything of any value. There is no possible way to beat that. “Just figure out the most efficient path without spending money.” Playing with an artificial handicap is simply not as engaging to me. You can technically increase the difficulty of a FPS by decreasing your mouse sensitivity, but that will never feel as satisfying as having more intelligent opponents.

Where I agree with Tobold is that F2P is here to stay. Outside of the CoDs and Battlefields and Counter-Strikes of the world, I’m not sure many multiplayer games could exist on their own in sustainable numbers. Astute readers will also know that I have been playing PlanetSide 2 for 230+ hours now and that’s a F2P game. Then again, I also spent over $100 in Ps2 thus far, including being “subscribed” for the last six consecutive months (efficiency, yo). Not to mention how I bought helmets and camo for my characters almost entirely because of the extremely slight advantage that they bring (arguably P2W).

I am not against F2P games on principal, it’s just that they quite literally cannot be as fun to me as they could be. I play these games to submerge myself in their fiction. Being constantly reminded that for the low, low price of $4.99 I could have X, Y, and Z not only breaks the immersion and puts a price tag on my hitherto priceless time, it also serves as a reminder that the solution to every problem is just a credit card away.

¹ Advantage is in scare-quotes because I don’t recognize an advantage as being “playing the same game more.”

My Mod/DLC Dilemma

I started playing Torchlight 2 a few weeks ago, and I am having some issues. Now, I did not like the original game all that much, but picking up the sequel for $5 during one of those crazy Steam sales seemed safe enough. And so far, I am not experiencing the same acute symptoms of frustration as in the first game. Except… now I kinda am.

My biggest gripe with the original game was that the loot system was broken. Specifically, there was no real sense of gear progression in a hack-n-slash Diablo-clone genre that is based entirely on gear progression – I used the same “legendary” level 3 necklace all the way into the endgame, never finding an upgrade. While I have not ran into this problem as much in Torchlight 2, the contours of the issue remain in place. For example, I ran into this gearing decision the other day:

We're back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 7, I guess.

We’re back to getting Best-in-Slot at level 3, I guess.

Maybe “higher level = better” is too simplistic a progression design, but… is it really?

The more pressing concern in Torchlight 2 though, is how a lot of things that should be rewarding are really not. Each main area map has a Locked Golden Chest which contains, as you might imagine, a lot of loot. The key to this chest can drop randomly from any mob on that particular map, or from a specific fairy mob 100% of the time.

Compelling design, right? It would be, if these chests dropped something more than vendor trash.

Random loot is random, but after spending more time than strictly necessary opening these chests up and walking away with nothing of any value, I am finding myself souring on game in general. Indeed, even the extra-large treasure chests at the end of boss encounters reveals greys and greens more often than not. Why should I be fighting bosses when smashing pottery is clearly the more profitable activity?

Par for the course.

Par for the course.

In Torchlight 2’s case though, there is a “solution”: mods. In fact, the #1 highest-rated mod in the Steam Workshop is one that tweaks Golden Chests (and boss chests) to always drop a Unique item. That’s not as broken as it sounds – items are still random, scaled to your level, and sometimes class-specifc – and does a lot to fix what I otherwise consider a problem. There are mods for all sorts of things, in fact, including Skill tweaks, doubling the amount of gold drops, Respec potions (base game only allows reshuffling of last 3 Skills), improving game textures, increasing view distance, and even additional whole classes. Indeed, one of the big selling points of Torchlight 2 was its modability in comparison to Diablo 3.

Thing is, I don’t like using mods on my initial play-through of a game. Hell, I usually don’t even like loading in DLC that affects the core game, even when I’m playing the Game of the Year version that bundles it all together.

My situation is a bit unique (and self-inflicted) insofar as I fancy myself a game reviewer. But even before this website, I preferred going in vanilla and raw. Not all my friends had the extra spending money for the expansions and whatnot, so telling them Diablo 2 was better with Lords of Chaos installed really just means “the base game is deficient.” Well, perhaps not deficient in D2’s case, but you understand my meaning.

Good game design is supposed to be good out of the box. If developers are stumbling around for the first several months from release, that stumbling needs to remain part of the overall narrative. I failed to mention in my Fallout: New Vegas review that the game was literally unplayable for the first two weeks without downloading a crack that fixed the DirectX issues; it’s an important detail to know for when the next Fallout game is released, lest it too require Day 0 patching from players to fix what the devs rushed to production.

I suppose some of this harkens back to that debate over whether MMOs (etc) are toys vs games. There is no wrong way to play with a toy, no real rules to govern your interaction with them. In this sense, mods are sort of like adding salt to your meal – some chefs might see that as an insult, but perhaps your individual taste skews more salty than the others sharing the meal. Ergo, developers letting mods fix any subjective “problem” only makes sense. Keep the vanilla pure, and let players add the chocolate and sprinkles as they wish.

Personally though, I am much more interested in the game portion of things, or more specifically: experiences. Show me the genius of your rulesets, the compelling nature of your narratives, the excellence of your craft. Anyone can imagine a stick into a lightsaber, just as anyone can turn a crappy game good with tweaks. I am interested in what you can do, Mr(s) Game Man Person, not mod developer XYZ. I want to be excited that you are releasing another game, not that the modding community has another opportunity to fix a deficient product. And besides, only one of those two parties is getting paid. Hint: it’s not the person/people improving the game.

It may not be entirely rational, but there it is. Odds are that I will keep trucking along in vanilla Torchlight 2 so that I can give an accurate report on its (so far) many failings. It is worth noting that while you can import your vanilla save into the “game + mods” version of the game, you cannot thereafter go back – neither your character nor your gear will appear under the default game any more. While that probably has little meaning beyond the people interested in Steam achievements, it sort of highlights how even the developers believe a segregation between the two ought to exist.

In which case, I shall play their game and complain about it, rather than fix things myself.

Interesting Choices

Tobold put up a rather cringe-inducing critique of Mass Effect 3 the other day, prefaced by the Sid Meier quote of “good games are a series of interesting choices.” From there, Tobold argued that ME3 was not a good game, because the story choices being presented did not lead to gameplay changes. Indeed, he goes so far as to say in the comments:

My point is that this is supposed to be a GAME, and not just some interactive story. Choices that only affect the story, but change nothing in gameplay shouldn’t be in a game. Otherwise I might as well wait for “Mass Effect – The Movie”, and not bother playing at all.

First, that argument is so absurdly cliche that I started questioning whether he was simply trolling us at that point.

Secondly, in point of fact, you could not simply wait for Mass Effect: the Movie because any such film could not encompass the varied plot choices you can make over the course of the game. Characters can die in Mass Effect 1 & 2 and thus not show up in Mass Effect 3, cutting out entire swaths of character arcs. Who makes it through the Suicide Mission? Would the film feature a male Shepard or FemShep? Would the choices be primarily Paragon or Renegade? Which races get the shaft? Would the conclusion be the Red, Blue, or Green Cupcake?

The green one. Always the green one.

The green one. Always the green one.

Third, I believe Tobold’s stance is exceedingly pernicious to the maturation of gaming as a medium. It simply boggles my mind that a self-professed lover of D&D would twist “interactive story” into a pejorative; are non-interactive stories supposed to be preferable?

Individual agency has a way of submerging players into a narrative in a way that traditional storytelling does not. Just look at the mind-bending (at the time) twist in the original Bioshock and the narrative arc in Far Cry 2. Even if you were not particularly impressed with the depth of these narratives, those story mechanisms simply cannot be replicated in book or movie form. Reducing games to their mere mechanical components would be an incredible tragedy of potential.

What the exchange highlighted to me though, was how squishy the venerable Sid Meier quote actually is.¹ To me, the choice between curing the Krogan genophage or deciding not to was interesting. In fact, I spent ten minutes or so agonizing over it when the dialog wheel was presented. Was it fair of us to cripple an entire species because we feared their hardiness and breeding speed? At first, I was worried about that hypothetical. Once the Reapers were gone, who is to say that the Krogans don’t simply out-breed and out-muscle the rest of us out of the universe? Then I thought: wait a minute, is this not the same sort of argument used against inter-racial marriages in the past, and even concerns about Islam today?

In contrast, Tobold simply picked whatever gave him the most War Assets.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

This was meaningful to me, god damn you.

I do agree that a good game is full of interesting choices. But what should be obvious to anyone spending more than a minute thinking about it, is that what is interesting to one person can be boring/irrelevant/pointless to someone else. “Interesting” is not an objective term; Sid Meier may as well quipped “Good games are full of fun” for all the sage wisdom it contains.

¹ The full quote is actually: “According to Sid Meier, a [good] game is a series of interesting choices. In an interesting choice, no single option is clearly better than the other options, the options are not equally attractive, and the player must be able to make an informed choice.” (Rollings & Morris 2000, p. 38.) This does not meaningfully change my objections, as whether an option is “clearly better” and/or “equally attractive” is necessarily subjective. For example, I almost always prefer passive abilities to active ones, to the point that most of the WoW talent tree levels have only a single rational (to me) option.