quarrel: (gaming)



Dire Wolf
The first physical board game designed by the video game studio that makes the digital CCGs Eternal and Elder Scrolls: Legends and is doing the digital port of the board game Lanterns. (In fact, they’re publishing Clank! through the company that published Lanterns. It’s sort of a mirror arrangement.)

It’s a deckbuilding game with a boardgame element. It’s the same general concept as Trains, although designed from the ground up rather than making shallow changes to Dominion and tacking a board game on. Players are thieves delving into a dungeon to skirt encounters, grab treasure, and get back out before the dragon kills them. They need to decide whether to build up their decks with movement, combat, gold, or VP depending on their approach to victory, which hallways they plan to take, how deep they’ll try to go, and what other players do. Some cards give you Clank! points, indicating that you made noise and attracted the dragon’s attention.

Supergiant Games
An upcoming RPG from the makers of Bastion and Transistor, with the same attention to art style and amazing sound design. Pyre makes an ambitious choice: the realtime conflict mechanic is closer to soccer than to swords or shootyguns. That’s daring considering how much of the video game-playing public prides itself on disliking sports.

Super Galaxy Squadron EX
A scrolling vertical schmup from a small indie company. Not innovative, but fun, with a difficulty and a control scheme that were tuned very well to my personal tastes (or maybe I simply picked a good ship option).


The American Dream
Samurai Punk
A tongue-in-cheek social commentary first-person shooter, chronicling the early childhood of a boy in 1950s America learning to grow up and use his guns for everything from eating to learning arithmetic.

Super Dungeon Tactics
A 1-player tactical game that’s a close implementation of the board game Super Dungeon Explore by Soda Pop Miniatures. 2D square-map-based fantasy skirmish combat, a la Krossmaster or Final Fantasy Tactics or the four D&D boardgames or… Nothing really new, but polished and colorful.

SIX (Seattle Indies Expo)


The standout title from SIX for me. It’s a simple, elegant, touchscreen-friendly puzzle game of the sort that epitomised the mobile platform when that hardware was still new. You have a 4x4 gridded field. Each square can hold one plant. You receive list after list of random plants and must plant them all, one per square. At the end of each list, you must reap one contiguous group of identical plants. Reaping a larger group scores more points and (more importantly) clears more room for additional planting. Complicating things further, each square has a color. Only groups that are all on one color can be reaped, and reaping cycles the land’s color. You play until you run out of room.

Bring Your Own Book
Do Better Games
Close runner-up for most promising game at SIX. A digital tool for playing their existing board game over the internet with the help of a mobile device. It’s not standalone — you still need a physical book. The app handles the random questions. Once you find an appropriate passage, you take a picture of it with the device’s camera and highlight the relevant phrase so player in the judge role for the round can read your entry from a single image rather than an audio feed.

Ghostlight Manor
Digital Future Lab
A puzzle game that takes the form of a turn-based shooting gallery. Ghostly forms follow a winding path down the screen in strict rank and file, while the player, in the form of a flashlight, takes actions illuminating a column of his choice. The first lighting reveals an enemy’s true form. The second one dispels it for points or some bonus effect. Skilled play comes from dispelling multiple foes in the same column.


Friday Night Bullet Arena
A competitive 2-player vertical-scrolling shmup. Both players fly on separate screens facing duplicate patterns of enemies. Performing well builds up combo points that you can spend to spawn extra obstacles on your opponent’s playfield or even temporarily morph into a boss that invades his screen and attacks him.

Stubborn Horse Studios
A 3D first-person puzzler involving time manipulation and sending multiple copies of yourself to do multiple tasks simultaneously.

Armour on the Wastes
Reluctant Koala Studios
A simple, top-down, 1-player tank combat sim. Combat against multiple AI tanks, with a basic story about trying to salvage the alien tech that’s crashed in enemy territory. Realtime, but old-school feel and grognardy.

quarrel: (gaming)

Given that A) Shaterri contributed to the Kickstarter fund for Paperback and B) another game designer friend of mine said he found it fun, I brought it to Game Night and played it with Orbus and Mufi. It’s essentially a word game version of Dominion. Rather than being able to play all your money cards plus one special action card, all cards have one or two letters, a money value, and a play effect, and you may play as many cards as you wish so long as they spell a single legal word. Some cards are wild, able to be used as any letter and contributing victory points to your final score but not worth any money when buying new cards.

It was disappointing. The core idea is sound, but the game was slow and frustrating. The biggest issue was that turns simply took too long. First, you need to figure out what word to spell, taking into account not only how much money it will be worth but also which letter cards you expressly want to spell it with. Not only does each have a distinct effect, but some vary based on where they appear in the word or what you buy that turn. Second, you need to decide what to buy from a set of 13 normal and 4 wild letter piles, and every single card in the normal piles has its own unique combination of letter, price, value, and effect to be considered. Also, it’s legal to buy multiple cheap cards rather than one expensive one, so you have to make that decision too (unlike Dominion), and since each purchase exposes a new, different card (also unlike Dominion), you need to stop and reconsider the rest of your purchases if you go the former route.

A less pressing but still noticeable issue was that the game lacked a feeling of progress. In Dominion, you can pursue a deliberate deck-tuning plan by purchasing multiples of specific action cards from known piles, and feel your plan come together as the game progresses and your combos start kicking in. Paperback lacked that. Part of it is that its random effect distribution defeats any long-term planning and restricts you to the occasional lucky opportunity. Part of it is that your average value per hand does not rise as fast as your deck’s average card value does, since higher values come on cards with trickier letters that are nigh-impossible to consistently use together. In other words, as the average value of your cards goes up, the average percentage of them that you can play goes down. (I realize this is a word game, so it makes sense for high-value letters to require dictionary skills, but that requirement has a downside here.) Part of it is that depleting piles of normal cards doesn't end the game, so players can run short on things to do without getting closer to finishing.

One factor I did like were the unbuyable reward letters that go to the first player to make a 7-, 8-, 9-, and 10-letter word — though it's odd that all players get to use them until they're claimed, and they're all worth the same VPs.

There’s a good game in Paperback not far below the surface, but it was printed before it got there.

Game #2 was a five-way of Ticket to Ride by unanimous decree. Two players were big fans and hadn’t played it in a while, and two others were brand new but strongly encouraged to give it a try for the experience since they are Game Night regulars now and it really is a modern classic.

I was ahead on rail-building points from my very first rail all the way to the end of the game, and, as I expected, came in third. (The two fans of the game are expert players and expert board gamers in general.) I also drew miserably for ticket destinations. Twice I drew extra tickets only to get two decent pairs I couldn’t complete and one worth a measly 4 points, linked purely by 2-car routes. Final scores were 129, 128, 105, 96-ish, and somewhere in the 50s.

quarrel: (gaming)

Blizzard released Hearthstone on iOS last week. It’s pretty much pounded the last nail into SolForge’s coffin for me.

It’s an elegant game with several good points going for it. The overall mechanics are straightforward, and they’re introduced one by one in a detailed tutorial that has a ton of personality. There’s a great deal of tactical complexity in the totally free order of actions in a turn and the reliable presence of a Hero power. Low-cost cards remain relevant all game. I find it easy to notice play mistakes and learn from them (unlike in, say, SolForge, to bring up another digital CCG). Also unlike SolForge, the huge player base makes it easy to find opponents of your own skill level. (I have about a 60% win percentage in Hearthstone with almost no added cards, compared to under 10% in SolForge after over three dozen boosters.) Finally, it’s polished to a ridiculous degree, like everything Blizzard makes.

How does it work? In a nutshell, take Magic and:

  1. Remove mana colors and land cards. Instead, on round N you automatically have N mana to spend.
  2. Remove blocking. Let the active player directly attack either the opponent or his creatures.
  3. Remove the Attack Phase. Each creature attacks individually and at any time during the turn.
  4. Remove tapping. With no blocking and no activated abilities, it isn’t needed.
  5. Make creature damage persistent.

It features only synchronous play but it’s still designed for strict turns. You never do anything when your opponent is up — you don’t decide how to block, you never pick targets for her effects, and there are no reactions.

To fit it into the Warcraft universe, every deck must specify a Hero with a class-specific special ability that costs 2 mana and can be used once per turn. Decks must be exactly 30 cards and be comprised only of cards that match the Hero’s class or are classless.

You can field constructed decks against live players or an AI for free. You can also pay in-game currency or real money to enter a pseudo-draft tournament with varying rewards based on your win count. You don’t get to keep your draft deck, but you are guaranteed to get at least one booster as a prize no matter how poorly you fare.

One thing the game isn’t is “generous with free cards”. (Not that it necessarily should be, mind you — they have to make a profit somehow.) SolForge has a standard reward package of one random card or booster plus almost half a booster’s worth of in-game currency, and you can easily get three of these packages per day. In comparison, Hearthstone only gives out entire packs (or the currency equivalent) for a few one-time achievements. Accumulating one booster’s cost in Gold from repeatable actions requires completing two to three daily goals (each of which means playing multiple games, sometimes with specific decks) or winning thirty PvP matches. Particularly egregious is the fact that each Hero has five fundamental class-specific cards that can only be attained by repeatedly playing that Hero to raise its level. That’s roughly 15 games per Hero, multiplied by 9 Heroes… And you can’t get around this last bit with real money.

Other games I’ve dipped into lately:

  • Skulls of the Shogun: a game of troop-scale tactical combat with a highly stylized, cartoony Japanese feel.
  • Viscera Cleanup Detail. Imagine a raging firefight between Space Marines and Mutant Bio-Xenomorphs through a futuristic science facility. Imagine the poor schmuck who has to clean up the mess afterward. Guess what? It’s afterward. Here’s your mop. Don’t forget the ceiling.


Feb. 9th, 2014 07:03 pm
quarrel: (Default)

It’s taken me longer than I expected, but I’ve been looking into the free-to-play electronic CCGs that have been coming out in the past year, starting with Solforge.

The overall game structure is similar to Magic — hardly a surprise given that Richard Garfield was involved. You’re trying to reduce your opponent’s health to 0 by casting spells and attacking with summoned creatures. Creatures have an attack strength and a hit point count (not Toughness — creature damage is permanent), and they can’t attack or use activated powers on the turn they’re created. There are direct analogues of the Trample, Haste, Defender, and Deathtouch abilities.

But there are big differences too.

  • Creatures must be played into one of five battle lanes. Each lane holds only one creature from each player. Creatures can’t engage ones in other lanes and can’t avoid the one in their own. (There is no Flying analogue.)
  • Battle is mandatory every turn and causes all combat-ready creatures on both sides to attack whatever opposes them whether they want to or not. If nothing’s there, they damage the player opposite them. Your opponent’s creatures can hurt yours, and you, on your turn.
  • There is no mana or any other resource. Instead, players are simply limited to playing 2 cards a turn, each either before or after the mandatory battle.
  • You discard your unplayed cards and draw a fresh hand of 5 after every turn.

The good:

The distinguishing feature of the game, something that’s unique and clever and only possible since the game isn’t physical, is that every single card has three levels, each more powerful than the one before. All cards start the game at level 1. When a card is played for effect, it goes into the discard pile one level higher. Both players shuffle their discard piles back into their decks every four rounds, so these higher-level cards become available for play again in short order. Choosing which card to play on any given turn isn’t just a matter of what’s most effective at the moment. You must also consider which cards you want to draw better versions of later. This is a major strategic component of the game.

It’s designed with asynchronous play in mind. You never have to make decisions or provide input on the other player’s turn, so he can take his full turn even if you aren’t available. You can play timed games with 20 minute chess clocks, to enforce head-to-head live play, or untimed games where players have a couple of days to submit each move, for more of a play-by-mail pace.

The bad:

There is no trading and no singles market. This makes tuning a constructed deck expensive, time-consuming, or both, since your only source of cards is random booster packs and you’re at the mercy of luck getting the specific cards your deck needs. Until you spend well over $100 (one booster with a single guaranteed super-rare costs $12) or commit weeks to grinding out daily rewards, you won’t be able to make any deck you want and will be at a disadvantage versus players who have. (The only alternative to constructed matches is draft tournaments, and those require tickets to enter. You can win one per day by beating live players in random pick-up matches, or buy them for 50¢ each.)

Rarer cards are stronger.

quarrel: (gaming)

Once or twice, as a young kid, I played an old board game at my grandmother’s house. I recall very little about it except that it involved taxi cabs picking up little round passengers. Thanks to the magic of the internet, I was able to find out its name and discovered copies for sale on eBay. I contemplated buying one for nostalgia, then decided to go for it when I read the rules online and saw they weren’t half-bad. After watching prices for a couple of months, I got a copy at a decent price with a few pieces missing. Some Sculpey work took care of most of that problem.

The game is Cabby! It was originally released around 1938, though according to BoardGameGeek, most existing copies — including the one I have — are from the 1950s.

Players roll dice to move their own cab and police car around a city roadmap. Cabs pick up passengers and run them back to the depot. To expedite this, cabs may do “illegal” things like speed, go the wrong way on one-way streets, and pick up passengers from the wrong side of the road, though this puts them at risk of a rival cop landing on them and arresting them, which costs them all their passengers and sends them to a penalty space. Passengers are worth varying points depending on how far they start from the depot. The player who delivers the most points’ worth wins.

Everyone who played agreed it was a decent game for its era. It was a little slow-paced, and it dragged a bit at the end (neither of which was surprising), but the mechanics were a tight match to the theme and movement decisions were interesting. The squad cars felt a little weak, though I don’t know how much of that is because they have a hard time moving far and how much is because cabs near them simply choose not to break the law much. The latter isn’t necessarily a problem. I suspect a smaller, more interesting map would improve the game more than tweaking the movement rules.

All in all, all four of us enjoyed it. Thank you, Grandma.

Game 2: Cheapass’s Fish Cook. Players spend the first half of every turn buying fish and other ingredients from a dwindling market of ever-increasing prices, and in the second half they cook those items into seafood dishes for a profit. If you cook a recipe off your own menu, you get bonus money. If you cook one off another player’s recipe, they get the bonus but you might steal the recipe. Whoever has the most money after a fixed number of turns wins.

There was a bit of analysis paralysis on turn 1 as three new players took a long time planning what recipes to buy ingredients for. It’s not a clear game to develop a strategy for, in general, since profit margins are so tight, and this particular round had a weird mismatch of recipe requirements and available fish. Things kicked into gear after that, though.

I ended up winning this one with $211, $3 over another player I was expecting to surpass me. I’m chalking it up to successfully scoring a lot of end-of-game bonuses.

quarrel: (gaming)

We played only one game this week: a four-player round of Castle Dice. I Kickstarted it at the Print-and-Play level: enough to get a set of its custom dice but not the entire game. The rest required supplying my own tokens and printouts.

It’s a dice drafting game. Players select which custom dice to roll based on the resources they want that turn — brown dice produce varying quantities of wood, yellow dice make coins, red dice make iron, etc. Resources buy various Villagers (which help your production) and Buildings (which are mainly worth victory points). Dice might also produce livestock, which have inherent bonuses and can also be traded in for more cards, or barbarians, which steal resources. The drafting comes into play after the roll. Although players independently select which dice to roll, they don’t keep their rolls straight up. Rather, the dice are rolled into a community pool and the players take turns collecting them one at a time until none are left.

The final scores went 8-9-9-10, with me winning. Part of it was me being most familiar with the game, and part of it was luck: other players drawing too many expensive cards mid-game, me drawing Walls before drawing cards that work better based on your Wall count, me drawing the perfect combination of cards on the last turn to reach a bonus condition I’d been stymied on the turn before.

Overall, it’s not a very good game. It’s inelegant, with lots of small rules that feel tacked on and too many tiny phases to the turn. The card rules are overbearing. There are three decks of random cards (in a dice game!) You can hold a maximum of five cards, combined, from the first two, but any number of the third. (This was obviously done to prevent players from getting stuck with too many Villagers when they want Buildings, or vice versa, but it’s still a kludge.) Also, the variety of cards within each deck is low. Even though the game runs a fixed seven turns, it felt like it drug out. (Some of this was due to most of the players being new, but not all.) Two of the players complained there was too much luck involved, and a big part of that is the drafting: you might get unlucky and roll poorly, or you might roll well but have some of “your” dice drafted by other players who want the same resources you do. Several ideas for fixing the game got tossed around, but nothing conclusive.

In the line-up for future game nights: Trains, Hanabi, and a vintage board game from the late 1930s.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Since they became commonplace, free-to-play games have been criticized as unethical, greedy, manipulative, pathologically damaging…you name it. (And the more famous ones are.) It’s something that I’ve been dwelling on for months, given that for the last year and a half, my job has had me making exactly the sort of game that hits all the low notes: free to play initially, with the ability to pay real money to hasten progress or buy performance-enhancing items. If I didn’t quit my job over it, it’s mainly because I don’t know where else I’d apply and don’t think I could make a living wage as an independent.

But as kneejerk distasteful as I find several aspects of what I’ve been doing, nearly every time I focused on a specific marketing or monetization choice, I saw common sense behind it. Take this example: giving the player one or two free uses of an upgraded game feature that normally costs extra. It’s nothing more than an unscrupulous way to get players hooked, right? It’s like drug dealers do: “the first hit’s free”. Well, maybe, but it’s also unreasonable to expect a potential customer to buy anything from you when they don’t know what it is or what it will do. And the best way to teach that to the customer is to let him try the thing out. It’s certainly better than simply throwing it into your game’s store screen with a brief text description like “This totem pole produces an extra 2 Jujubees a minute” or whatever. If that’s unethical, what about test drives? Demo versions? 30-second song snippets on a music site? Samples at the cheese counter? How skeezy must all those be?

When it comes to making sure your game will make money, the conventional wisdom is that you are, at best, unsavory if you incorporate elements into it that have made other games profitable or that you know from personal testing will increase your own revenue. You are told to go by your internal sense of ethics and your personal expertise as a professional, and not place too much faith the objective measure of what customers pay the most money for because that measurement is so easily manipulated. The methods of hijacking human psychology are familiar, proven, and more widely understood by companies like Zynga every day. Companies are criticized soundly for retaining game elements that they know are used heavily rather than accommodate vocal minorities that call for their removal.

Yet when it comes to designing what players can do within the game rather than what they can buy about it, we find a parallel situation with opposite advice attached. Here, playtesting and player observation are king. The designer who produces a mechanic or a control scheme or a tutorial level purely from intuition invariably creates a bad game. What you think players will want or do is invariably less accurate than what they say they want or will do, which in turn is notoriously far off the mark of what they actually want and do.

Got that? When you’re designing a game, it’s smartest by far to base your decisions primarily off what players do, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best. But when you’re selling your game, following that exact plan — basing your decisions primarily off what players do pay for, and less so on what they say they want or what you think is best — makes you evil Evil EVIL!

I’m not sure why this is. Possibly it’s because human purchasing behavior is more susceptible to influence than play behavior is. At least, that might be a common first-order explanation. But consider:

  • The designer of Canabalt made the deliberate decision to allow the player to jump not only while his feet are on solid ground but also for a fraction of a second after running off the ledge of a building, when he’s technically in empty air and has already fallen a tiny amount. He did this as a result of so many test players mistiming their jumps and getting frustrated at the game for being oversensitive and unforgiving.
  • SounDodger and other “bullet hell” games have a convention where only the center point of your ship is vulnerable to collision, which leads to the satisfying feeling that you’re dodging death by the skin of your teeth as you sneak past enemies by mere pixels. (Actually, they’re so close that they’re overlapping you. It’s more like you’re clipping through them than sneaking by, but it still feels like skill.)
  • City of Heroes and at least a few installments of the Civilization series had custom random number generators to avoid outcomes that were mathematically valid but felt unintuitive or unfair to people, such as attempting something with a 75% success chance and failing twice in a row.

The common thread behind all these kludges is that players find games much more enjoyable when they blame themselves, not the game, for failing or losing or dying. Tweaks like the above are all accommodations to avoid the player feeling like the game is buggy, or arbitrary, or unpredictable, or too hard.

They’re also all psychological tricks.

So maybe designing games to be the most fun actually is precisely as unethical as selling them to make the most money. Maybe they’re both laudable. Maybe they’re both reprehensible. They certainly both can be more concerned with being believable than with being honest.

I don’t know. I just don’t. Every time I approach the issue rationally I get results that don’t match how I want to feel about it, and that’s a problem for someone like me who doesn’t want to believe things by fiat. I’m not sure how to evaluate this rationally. I can’t go by other people’s opinions because all possible opinions on the matter exist, and in effectively infinite (and therefore equal) numbers. If, ultimately, it comes down to me needing to decide for myself whether I’m ethical (as, you know, “one of those things no one else can do for you”), well, what’s to stop me from affirming myself the Dalai Lama from the get-go?

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

Jonathan Blow (Braid) and Markus “Notch” Persson (Minecraft) conspired to bring some game freakonomics to Twitter.

Take two hypothetical games. They’re identical except for how they’re supported. Game A doesn’t cost any money to play, and there’s nothing to buy within it either, but it includes ads. Game B has no ads, but you have to buy it to play it. It costs $10 up front.

If you were to play only one of these games, which would result in you spending more money on average?

According to Blow and Persson, it’s Game A.

I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking this is mathematically impossible. How can the average of a bunch of zeroes be greater than the average of a bunch of tens?

But re-read the question. I didn’t ask how much you’ll spend on the game. I asked how much you’ll spend. Period. On anything.

The only rational reason Game A’s creator would monetize it via ads is if some ad company offered a deal comparable to what Game B is expected to make. And the main reason when that happens is that said ad company thinks it’ll be able to sell that ad space for even more money to outside businesses. And the main reason for those businesses to be willing to pay that much is that they expect the ads in question to generate an even larger increase in revenue than what they cost.

Now, sure, not all marketing campaigns result in a company bringing in more than $X of additional revenue for every $X it spent. Also, some expenses are like car insurance: people will have them regardless, and an ad will only change how they spend their money, not whether they spend. But as a general trend, advertising works. We know this because companies use it, and have for centuries.

So the safe bet is that, for Game A, a mathematically significant number of players really, truly will be influenced by ads to buy things they wouldn’t have bought if they hadn’t played this totally free game — so much so that the average ad-inspired expenditure across all players will likely average out to more than $10 a head.

A couple days later, Blow went on to tweet:

Sitting at a cafe overhearing a random person…try to explain tower defense games to his friend. It turns out the point was to explain how it seems lame to pay-to-win in an f2p game. I give this business model 1.5 more years. We need to make a "pay up front, no microtransactions, no ads" seal of quality that games can display or stick in their icons. (Also: this game will not ask you to rate it, or send push notifications of any kind, or refer you to other games).

He’s still pounding his “games should be honest about how much they’ll cost” drum, citing integrity and “non-lameness” as justification and alluding, once again, to the mathematical fact that any game that costs $X to acquire (for X ≥ 0) but also tries to get you to buy other things (whether it be by mentioning other games, popping up Coke ads, or offering more stuff for itself as In-App Purchases) will end up costing its players more than $X on average — and that makes the $X price tag a lie.

So could Mr. Blow’s pipe dream of unscrupulously ethical pricing pan out? Would his ambitions for non-deceptive up-front pricing in games survive contact with actual customers? Personally, I doubt it.

In February 2012, J.C. Penny shifted cold-turkey to a “Fair and Square” pricing strategy that got rid of all the seasonal sales, secretive discounts, web deals, preferred customer coupons, hidden surcharges, and so on — something that the CEO at the time called “fake pricing” due to how the price on the tag was almost never what the customer paid — and simply made prices much lower on average for everyone all the time. It failed so badly that the board of directors kicked that CEO out. The customers who used to seek out deals and only bought, say, a $20 shirt when it was on sale for $8 didn’t bother buying it now that it was always $9 because they didn’t feel like they were saving money anymore, and the impulse buyers who bought shirts regardless of price were now generating half as much revenue.

Distimo, an app metrics developer, stated that as of February, for every $1 spent to buy an app, $3 was spent to buy something from inside one. Giordano Contestabile, a business-type guy who’s worked for Popcap and ArenaNet, cited proprietary sources to update those figures to $1 and $19 as of August. In other words, these days only 5% of all revenue from apps is from people buying the app itself.

In light of all this, game developers are pretty much locked out of irreproachable levels of pricing integrity if they want to stay in business.

(to be continued)

quarrel: (gaming)

TSR originally made Dragon Dice back in 1995, in the midst of a collectible-things-that-aren’t-cards-game wave that followed in the wake of Magic: The Gathering. Wizards of the Coast acquired the game when they bought TSR, then later, on the verge of discontinuing the game, sold the license and backstock to a tiny company in Evanston, IL which has kept it alive ever since. I played a demo of it at PAX and finally decided to pick up a starter box — if nothing else, it’s one more game to look at in my Quixotic quest to find the perfect dice game.

The game makes heavy use of — you guessed it — custom-printed dice. Dice of various sizes and sides represent military units and their magic items. Depending on the custom symbols marking its faces, each die might generate points for manipulating Terrains, causing melee damage, causing ranged damage, preventing incoming damage, or casting spells. The symbol mix varies from die to die. Designing your armies to have specific mixes and using them to maximum situational benefit is the core of the game.

The object is to either eliminate your opponent or capture two of the three Terrains. Each Terrain has a state that determines which attack action can be used by armies there. An army can try to change its Terrain’s state, either to make a new action available for its own use or to deny the old action to the opponent (or both). Changing a Terrain all the way to its final state also captures it. Players distribute their units among the Terrains in any arrangement during setup, and can move them more or less freely during the game.

The Good

The good points are few but strong.

The game is about rolling lots of dice. Brilliant!

The core mechanics are elegant. Plenty of dynamic decisions naturally arise from Terrain adjustments and army movements. Should you focus all your Maneuver-heavy units on a location to keep control of it, or would it be wiser to mix in some heavy armor, thus sacrificing some Maneuver potential for more damage Saves? Should you work a Terrain toward its final state to capture it or leave it on an intermediate value so your archers can keep shooting from it? Should you pull more units into your reserves to cast stronger defensive spells, or will that leave your front lines so thin that your opponent walks right over them?

The Bad

The iconography is confusing. Not only does each race have their own symbols for standard results, but some races have multiple symbols for the same thing. For example, Undead cavalry show a horseshoe for Maneuvers, but Undead infantry use a bony human footprint. Also, on some die faces, each icon is worth one point of whatever it stands for, while others have a single icon worth a number of points equal to the die’s value.

It’s a collectible game. Playing with the contents of a single starter kit is like playing sealed Magic theme decks: it’s okay for scratching the surface, but the full depth of the game requires owning multiples of everything and lots of experimentation.

Lots of funky promo dice with special rules have been produced & discontinued over the years.

There are no explicit and few implicit restrictions on mixing different races in your army, leading to a lot of patchwork min-maxing. Imagine how much more “customizable” Magic decks would be if you could use any color mana for anything. It’s a little like that. (Hint: That’s not an improvement.)

Some dice colors are confusing. Many dice are two colors speckled together. It is difficult to tell whether dice are blue/green, blue/yellow, or green/yellow, especially if you don’t look at them side by side. The fact that different shades of plastic have been used in different production runs over the years makes things worse.

The rules are often imprecise and unintuitive. The game’s new stewards have spent a lot of effort balancing the game and collecting accumulated rulings, but little on fundamental rewordings or systemic redesign. For example, summoned dragons will fight each other instead of your armies if there are more than one and they’re different colors. But other than their breath, which they have only a 1/12 chance of using, all dragon attacks are worded to apply against armies only. Read strictly, the rules say that most of the time dragons just have harmless slapfights with each other. The interactions of multiple modifiers are likewise a mess of patchwork rulings and balance kludges. Let’s say you’re playing Coral Elves, who can count Maneuvers as extra Saves. A spell that doubles your Maneuvers can produce more Saves for you, but a spell that gives you +5 Maneuvers won’t. That’s because you process all multiplications first, then all racial powers, then all additions.

quarrel: (prinny)

I’m still poking around with Farming Simulator 2013. I’ve imported a few simple Blender-created models, and that’s probably where I’ll draw the line. Reverse-engineering its animation system so I can create an actual vehicle with moving parts looks to be too steep a challenge, so I’m checking out other players’ creations.

Mods have addressed the game’s tedious amounts of equipment-driving. One mod plots out perfect rows for you and keeps you tracking straight lines across your field, overriding the natural slight drift of manual steering. Another makes hired hands skip rows so you can run multiple workers in offset formation on really big fields. There’s a complicated mod that lets you assign arbitrary paths and behavior triggers to AI drivers. Tell your harvester to go to spot X and empty itself into a cart when full; and tell your cart to wait at spot X until it’s full, then go to the silo, unload, and return for more. Or arrange for a backhoe to shift a huge load of silage from point A to point B one shovelful at a time.

The most interesting mod I’ve found simply changes the nighttime light level to a realistical pitch black. It gave the game a spooky, Slender vibe, but more to the point, it added a deep and realistic challenge to the game. Zig-zagging between barns at maximum speed is no longer an option when I can only see what’s in my headlights. Needing to place lights around my property so I could actually do work after nightfall would have added an interesting and organic challenge to the game — an advancement with an immediate, practical, natural benefit (though it would only have added so much to the game, since the bulk of your playtime is tending fields, and fields are much too large for artificial lighting). Alas, unless you install even more mods, there are no lights to buy. They aren’t needed. The default night view is no darker than a cloudy day.

Part of what’s still driving me is the stubborn desire to get somewhere in the game without cheating. The financial pacing of the game isn’t very good. You start with one small field that produces about $4k revenue per harvest and the requisite equipment to sow & reap three of the game’s six crops. As far as expenses go, new fields and new equipment cost $50k–$100k each, plus you start the game with $50k of debt, which accrues interest until you pay it off. So you’re stuck with your initial setup for an annoyingly long time. And since the game’s crops all grow in comparable time with comparable work and sell for comparable profit, branching out into other crops only lets you cover all the bases and ensure you always have the desired good on hand when market demand randomly spikes. You don’t get to do anything new or different with those other seeds.

So if new crops don’t mean new things to do, what about livestock? There, it’s feast or famine. Chickens are dirt simple. Sheep are almost as simple, but force you to transport the wool using a QWOP-ishly unruly forklift. Then cows swing the other direction. You could just feed them hay, but they’ll only make half the milk they could. Getting full production requires growing three different crops, two of which require special equipment, then mixing them in a special blender which you also need to buy.

Is the game educational? Not really. I now know what a windrower and a tedder are, and that farmers compress silage by driving tractors over it (and why), but the game is more a simulation of farm equipment than of farming. Crops grow in a day. There’s no soil quality, no rotation, and no irrigation. There are no pests or pesticide. There are no seasons. There is weather, but its only effect is that you can’t tend fields while it’s inclement — crops are unaffected by temperature or rainfall. Livestock don’t breed and have no health issues, and if you don’t feed them, they simply produce almost nothing rather than dying.

Naturally, I find myself constantly thinking of ways this could be made a more interesting and more widely-accessible game — reduce the tedium, ramp the complexity well, etc. — only to realize it’ll pretty much never be broadly appealing until the gameplay is simplified to FarmVille levels and the 3D and modding are driven out completely.

quarrel: Engraving of Thoth from the Luxor Temple. (thoth)

There’s a line in the action movie Parker delivered by the eponymous main character: “I don’t hurt anyone who doesn’t deserve it.” Here’s the problem with that: he’s also the person deciding who deserves it. With no balance to this check, Parker’s assurance is meaningless. He can hurt anyone at any time because he can arbitrarily decide at any time that any given person deserves to be hurt.

Indie game developer Jason Rohrer stirred up controversy with his latest game, Castle Doctrine. It’s a competitive multiplayer game in which you take the role of a husband with a wife, a kid, and a house full of valuables. If you don’t equip your house with state-of-the-art anti-burglary defenses, burglars will break in, kill your family, and steal your valuables. To afford those defenses, you must break into other people’s houses, kill their families, and steal their valuables.

You might be tempted to think of this as reverse psychology — an artistic treatment of the subject that’s supposed to repulse you to get its point across, namely that the preemptive strike approach to personal safety ultimately results in everyone being far less safe and “the only winning move is not to play”. It's a lesson that real AIs in a real game actually learned when someone left a first-person shooter running for four years with robot players and peace broke out.

But Rohrer says that wasn’t his intent. He says he made a game based on his actual worldview, in particular, that anyone who enters your house without permission no longer deserves to live. “For me, as soon as you stick your foot across my windowsill I just feel like that’s it. You’ve violated the contract, right. I’m not sticking my foot across your windowsill.” He developed this philosophy after neighbors were robbed and a dog attacked his wife.

This stirred vigorous backlash in certain corners of the game development community.

How okay Jason Rohrer is [with] murdering animals and people makes me extremely uncomfortable. How do I have a contract with someone I’ve met twice? Where is the contract? Can I read it? What else can I get killed for?
They objected to the notion that one single person can unilaterally determine when other humans do and do not deserve to live, irrespective of law or society. They proposed that Rohrer’s conclusions are the result not of reason, but of an emotional overreaction to a situation that his privileged social status isolated him from until recently. Cameron Kunzelman writes an analysis of Rohrer’s game and his interview statements about it, arguing that self defense is totally justifiable as a general concept but that Rohrer’s attitude about it exceeds the bounds of reason. Cameron points out that in Castle Doctrine, nearly 100% of all home burglaries end in murder, but in Rohrer’s real life city as of two years ago, the number of murders total was only about 1% the number of burglaries (and, implicitly, that the number of specifically burglary-related murders was a mere fraction of that), thus indicating that Rohrer’s view of crime and criminals — and thus what constitutes an appropriate response to them — isn’t grounded in reality.

There’s an article I read recently called “Schrödinger’s Rapist” that exposed me to a very different world view. In the intervening time, I’ve leaned heavily toward the attitude that you don’t get to determine other people’s feelings about you. You don’t decide whether you’re threatening to other people. Only other people possess that authority. Likewise, you don’t decide whether you are offensive, or insulting, or fun to be around. Other people, and only other people, get to decide those things. You may not intend to be threatening. You may even want and try and hope to be unthreatening. But if other people feel threatened, then you have threatened them. Really. They didn’t make it up just to get you in trouble. They may have poor reasons for their feelings, like their parents/society have taught them that Your Kind is dangerous, but their feelings are no less legitimate.

Then I read this article by the large, black, male drummer for a Grammy-winning hip-hop group, talking about how all his life he’s scared people by being a large, black male. Talking about how putting other people’s fearful thoughts of him above his own thoughts of himself has harmed and dehumanized him. And suddenly I was seeing the other side of the story. It sure as hell didn’t sound like the usual, unconvincing counterargument, the one scummy Men’s Rights Activists use about how they shouldn’t have to stop hitting on a girl who “just wants to be left alone” because they’re only trying to be friendly and she’s objectively wrong to view the attention as anything other than a compliment…the argument that your intended meaning is the only thing that matters, and if they read you wrong, it’s entirely their problem (and probably intentional anyway).

So now I’m back to not really knowing.

quarrel: (prinny)

Utopia Engine. A solitaire board game about locating and assembling an ancient artifact to prevent doomsday. It features several variations on the general mechanic of rolling dice two at a time to fill in multi-digit numbers piecemeal, then getting either good or bad outcomes based on how high or low the difference is.

Seven Grand Steps demo. An indie video board game (which is a real term as of right now) about advancing a family line through civilization. At its core, you have a single or two married adult pawns on a constantly-advancing track. You must spend tokens to move forward and stay ahead of death. If you move wisely, you collect tokens that advance civilization and grant powerful bonuses. The complications are twofold: your only way of getting more tokens moves you backward, and you need to ration your tokens between advancing the parents and training the children so they survive to adulthood and carry on the family line. Every now and then, you break for a choose-your-own-ending-style episode where you answer a single roleplaying question to determine a piece of family history and, perhaps, gain some mechanical benefit as well.

Gratuitous Space Battles demo. It’s a spaceship construction and combat simulator. There is no campaign and no storyline — in fact, it bills those as selling points. The main conceit is that you only prepare for the fight. You design your ships, arrange your fleet, and set some preferred behavior for each ship’s AI, but the battle itself is fully automated. Ultimately I found the game too shallow to be worth buying. There isn’t enough qualitative difference between different weapons or equipment. There are no complexities like firing arcs. Neither maneuverability nor orders matter much since the AI generally just drives your ships straight toward the enemy’s until one’s in range, then stops and shoots until it’s dead and repeats the process with the next one.

Nexus: The Jupiter Incident. Another capital ship space combat game, though this one does have a story to it and a bit of an RPG progression aspect. I did buy the whole game. It’s…unexceptional. There’s a bit of a fleet feel to the fights, but the game gives you very little clue what each battle will be against, so equipping your fleet properly requires going in blind, probably failing, then retrying the mission from the beginning once you know what to expect. Ship reconfiguring itself is cumbersome as well, as you cannot undo single changes and you cannot rearrange components once you put them on a ship.

Androminion. A free, open-source implementation of the Dominion card game for Android devices. It supports one human player against up to five AIs. The UI is spartan but everything important is there. I’ve been spending a lot of time with this one, trying out various strategies to see whether they work and, if not, why not and what beats them. (Answer: Big Money.) It’s unlicensed and will eventually cease-and-desist, so if you want it, get it now.

Card Hunter. A web-based free-to-play tactical game that’s still in invite-only beta. Imagine a D&D tactical board game crossed with RoboRally. You control a small fantasy RPG team delving dungeons. Each can perform only five actions per round, determined randomly based on their equipment. It’s challenging, interesting, quite polished, and they’ve given the art a strong nostalgic bend based on oldschool Basic D&D modules. If they can avoid making the PvP part of it pay-to-win, this’ll be a good one.

System Shock 2. A classic title from 1999. I played it in pirated form years ago but never finished. Now that it’s on Steam, I decided to play it “for real”.


Apr. 30th, 2013 12:43 am
quarrel: (prinny)

Sexism and racism — or, at least, their elements — are prevalent everywhere, even in places that aren’t immediately obvious.

Pac-Man was designed around an eating theme (and given colorful, non-threatening graphics) because the designer was trying to appeal to female players, who were an untapped market at the time. He couldn’t come up with a good game idea about dressing up or dating, but he knew girls liked to eat desserts.

I’ve already covered how EverQuest is endemically racist by having black people and humans as separate races, just like how Huck Finn thought the real world worked until Jim bled red.

Portal and Portal 2 are both lessened by multiple instances of the antagonist insulting the main character about her weight. This kind of talk is, at its heart, objectifying, as it is founded on the harmful notion that the main responsibility of women is to be physically attractive.

Someone threw up a red flag at the racism in Ridiculous Fishing. In that game, upgrades are bought from a boat merchant in a coolie and robes. In a brief blog exchange, the lead artist defended his decision by stating he thought boat merchants fit the game and were neat in general, and that image-searching showed Vietnamese boat merchants still wear that getup (especially the hats, which are quite functional). Other posters with more first-hand experience in that region begged to differ on the robes. They also pointed out that regardless of whether that attire is accurate in isolated instances, it perpetuates an unflattering stereotype, and thus the mature thing to do would be to realize the error, apologize, and change the art in the next patch, not defend it.

Then there’s Antichamber, a sexist first-person shooter. “Wait, no,” you say. “Antichamber isn’t sexist at all. It’s an abstract 3D puzzle game. There aren’t even any people in it!” To which I reply, a) it’s done in first-person view, b) you shoot out (and draw in) puzzle cubes with your puzzle cube gun, and c) look at this spoiler-free compilation of most of the wall signs you encounter in the game:

So there are people in it. Lots of them. And notice how nearly every time the designer wanted to depict a human, he drew a man? That mentality — that men=people and women are exclusively women — lies at the heart of a lot of sexual inequality. Oh, and it sure doesn’t help that the only situation with a clearly female character involves physically rejecting flirtatious advances at a singles bar until being mollified with flowers.

Of course, if those examples feel too contrived for you, or you feel I’m more of a kook or a radical than someone with a legitimate reason to believe what I believe, I could pick the low-hanging fruit that’s lighting flamewars right now: Dragon’s Crown, and how all the oversensitive feminists are making a big deal out of one character being exaggerated in sexual ways in a game where all characters are exaggerated in some way or other and the art overall has an undeniably high quality.

I mean, in any creative act, there is exactly one entity in the whole universe who has even the slightest iota of legitimate input into what gets created or how, and that’s the creator. Anything else is censorship, right? Art exists to say what the artist wants to say, not what the viewer wants to hear. It doesn’t matter whether X hurts you; it’s still wrong to say, “Hey, maybe people shouldn’t do X so much.”

I’m having a hard time buying that, though. Maybe I’m not educated enough?

quarrel: (prinny)

I've posted my notes for some interesting GDC panels I attended. The only one of general interest would be the one on addressing the scapegoating of video games in the media, so that one's first.

notes in a Google Doc


Apr. 6th, 2013 08:35 pm
quarrel: (prinny)

I spent most of the last week of March in San Francisco for the 2013 Game Developers Conference. Three coworkers and I flew out Sunday morning, early enough that I had the alarm set to 4:15 am. The flight was uneventful.

Our hotel was several blocks from the convention center, and about a third the cost of a closer one. There’s a good reason for that. We were near the Tenderloin, a famously dirty and dangerous low-rent neighborhood. It didn’t help that San Francisco has long city blocks.

Sunday was a tourist day. After an ersatz dim sum breakfast in Chinatown, we walked toward the waterfront. Two of us broke away from there to head toward pre-convention meetups, while my boss and I headed toward Fisherman’s Wharf another mile or two away. Although the views of Alcatraz and the sunning sea lions were enjoyable, Pier 39 — which is where Google Maps sent us — is ridiculously tourist-trappy, to the point where it doesn’t even have water fountains so you’re forced to buy a $4 soda. Thankfully, my boss’s sister and her boyfriend were able to join us briefly and show us more of the wharf, including a vintage arcade and nickelodeon museum. The night ended with a pre-event dinner at The Stinking Rose. True to its name, every main dish and appetizer was chock full of garlic. (Two thumbs up. Would do again.)

Monday was a lightweight day. The conference was open, but our booth’s room was open only Tuesday through Thursday, so our agenda for the day consisted of just registration and panels. The next three days were much the same as each other: wake, gather, eat breakfast, staff at least two people at the booth at all times from 10:00 to 6:00 while the others eat, rest, or attend panels, then break for dinner and afterward try to get into meaningful networking parties.

As it was a work trip, my panel attendance wasn’t as open or as free-range as I might have liked. After all, this is one of the premier annual professional conventions in my trade, and this is the first time I’d been to one. If I’d been there on my own time, I could see myself sitting in on three times as many and not focusing so much on how to make or sell free-to-play games. I’d have actually gotten to play a few of the International Game Developer Association award entries and tried one or two of the board games designed by video game designers. (Alas, Armada d6 was not one of them.) I did get to see the panel Ian Bogost helped give on the popular public view of video games and their scapegoating for violent behavior, but missed what turned out to be a powerful talk on the state of the games industry in regards to women.

Friday was another oh-dark-thirty ride to the airport for the flight back, equally early and equally straightforward. Light rail took us back to our downtown office in time for lunch, but we didn’t stay long after that. We were all bushed and ready to head home.

quarrel: (prinny)

Last night’s gaming night was mainly social. It was just me, the host, and two rare visitors.

Game #1 was Puzzle Strike: Shadows. I fared better than I did my first time, ultimately placing second after a game that ran into a satisfying early end stage with conservative play from everyone. I’m ambivalent about my performance. On the one hand, I kept my damage down, and I had a shot at winning in the late midgame, which I took (as I should have), but my intended target had the countermeasure that I figured he had about a 50%-66% chance of having. On the other, I still focused too much on special actions over basic ones, and I didn’t leverage my starting character’s special abilities particularly well. (Two of the three went unplayed all game.) Oh, and I bought a 4-gold gem early, and although I felt like it wasn’t showing up often enough, I didn’t consciously realize I was never drawing it. I found it stuck in a deep fold in my shuffling bag after the game ended.

Game #2 was King of Tokyo, which Orbus bought for himself after enjoying my copy so much. The winner snuck up on victory points while everyone else was busy trying to knock people out.

Game #2.5 was an experimental game of Strut between me and Orbus after the other two guests left. It’s a Slapjack-style pattern-matching dice game I picked up a while ago. I didn’t expect it to be great, but it has a matching mechanic I wanted to see in practice and it was on sale. Every person has a hand of cards with dice combinations on them, like “three-of-a-kind” or “two 1s and two 6s”. Each turn, the active player rerolls exactly two dice, and the first player to play a card with a matching pattern scores it. Whoever empties his hand first wins. The core element is being first to recognize that one of your desired patterns is hidden in the roll somewhere, with a minor dose of deciding which dice to reroll for the best chance of getting a match. Those two elements seemed pretty solid. There are also reaction cards you can play against another player’s scoring, but they seem overpowered and add little to the game but chaos. The scoring system is problematic as well. It does two useful things — it allows players to have a manageable hand size of three without winning after playing only three cards, and it makes easy matches worth less toward winning than hard matches are — but it feels tacked on, and it’s strange to track points when having the most doesn’t make you win.

fuzzy dice

Mar. 18th, 2013 10:30 pm
quarrel: (gaming)

I briefly considered reorganizing my RPG shelf Sunday. The only thing that came of it was a brief perusal of the Jadeclaw book I own. I haven’t browsed it in years and I wondered if its dice mechanic was as bad as I remember it.

It was.

In brief, to test whether your character succeeds at some effort, you gather a die for each of his or her relevant skills, traits, training, and base stats (possibly 4-, 6-, 8-, 10-, or 12-sided, depending on how high the attribute is), roll them all, take whichever one die rolled highest, and compare this single number to a similarly-generated number that the GM rolled for the opposition. The side with the higher number succeeds and the other fails. If the difference is 5 or greater, it’s a critical success and failure.

That’s simple enough. Here’s where things start getting janky.

If both sides roll the same number, it’s a tie…unless one side has a higher “Quality” in the relevant skill. Then that side wins.

Rolling all 1s is an extra-critical failure. It may or may not be worse than a standard critical failure. An extra-critical failure does not automatically grant the other side a critical success. Both sides may extra-critically fail, which may be a double disaster or an ordinary tie depending on GM arbitration.

If you’re trying to do something related to a narrow field of your character’s expertise, you can reroll a single 1 for free.

Here’s more complexity: damage rolls work differently. The attacker still rolls several assorted dice based on stats, skills, gear, and training, as does the defender, but this time both sides keep all their dice and pair them off highest to highest, next-highest to next-highest, and so on. (If there are more attack dice, pair the excess with imaginary 1s.) Each attack die that exceeds its counterpart produces one hit, or two if it exceeds by 5 or greater. If the defender rolls an extra-critical failure, the attacker deals one extra hit.

There are also special rules for extra-lethal and nonlethal damage.

But here’s the worst part.

As in pretty much any RPG, rolls can have bonuses and penalties. Their effects in Jadeclaw are complex and not symmetric. Fortunately, bonuses and penalties cancel each other out; you apply only uncancelled ones. That simplifies things, but there’s a lot more that isn’t simple.

Each bonus increases all your dice by one size before you roll. d12s can’t increase, so increase the largest other die instead, or add another d4 if all your dice are d12s.

On damage rolls, each penalty removes your smallest die before you roll. On skill rolls, each penalty forces you to make a complete additional roll, and in the end you use only the worst final number.

Therein lies a big problem with the game’s dice system: bonuses and penalties have complex, opaque, inconsistent effects on the characters’ chance of success. Let’s say you want to sneak into the warlord’s camp. How much more likely are you to avoid capture if you wait for nightfall? If you don’t have a custom-made Monte Carlo simulator at your elbow, you have no idea. It might matter a lot, or it might not, and your best estimate will be a wild guess. Not what I’d call a good system.

I understand that the game’s predecessor, Ironclaw, has been revised to address this. In the new edition, a bonus gives you an extra die to roll, and a penalty gives your opponent an extra die.

quarrel: (gaming)

I did a small amount of gaming at FC, though not with anyone new. There was a round of Quiddler with Shaterri, which I won by a large margin almost entirely due to luck. We both agreed there was very little he could have done in any round to achieve more points. Then I taught him Roll Through the Ages, which I ended up losing despite being slightly ahead most of the game. I let too many bad skull rolls slide and accumulated negative points for them, and my plan to build lots of monuments and get the advancement that gives bonus points for them fell through when I only managed to build one before the game ended.

Last night was the resumption of a friend’s regular biweekly gaming night. First up was a four-player game of Pandemic to playtest a house rule that added anti-vaccination propaganda to the game. Pandemic is a cooperative game: either everyone wins or everyone loses. It’s a hard game to begin with and this add-on makes it harder. The idea is that healthy cities can accumulate anti-vaccination activism tokens, and if the city ever gets infected, those tokens make it worse. The game was hard-fought from beginning to end and came down to a coin flip even with good play. On the turn before we could make the winning move, we were one outbreak from losing and had two cities that might suffer one at the end of the turn. The next-to-last player could treat one of them but not both. With no way of knowing which (if either) was about to break out, he treated one arbitrarily, and it turned out he guessed right. Afterward we discussed the new rule. Most of us thought it added a novel and fair amount of additional difficulty. One player disliked how the rules for propaganda spreading encouraged players to leave cities partially infected, which is not something actual disease control specialists would do when fighting a worldwide epidemic, so we brainstormed alternatives a bit.

After such a tense game, we unwound with a round the 2012 re-issue of the non-serious, beer-and-pretzels Dungeon!, which goes back to 1975 originally. And it shows. The rules are lightweight with lots of randomness. Orbus ended up winning. I was on my way back with enough treasure, but I had at least three turns and a tough fight between me and victory. The third player may or may have not been right behind Orbus, and the fourth had virtually nothing, having lost it all getting beat up by monsters (which I subsequently killed and took).

quarrel: (gaming)

Some explanation on my last post. It’s a bit of a rant about how mainstream game design has become so rote in the wake of Zynga’s social “game” experiments. As someone who designs games for a living, I find less and less of my time on a project is associated with designing the game and more of it is in managing the integrated marketing factors. Some of that is to be expected at a company as small as mine, where the designer on any project is also the producer. But the other side of the coin is that an increasing percentage of my job is just going down a checklists of best practices. Not that there’s anything wrong with best practices. It’s nifty that people before me have tried different things, discovered what worked well and what didn’t, and recorded their findings for others to use. But going down a checklist doesn’t take a whole lot of skill and it isn’t satisfying, and there’s only so much time I can spend on a project.

quarrel: (gaming)

How to make a single-player premium PC game circa 1990:

  • Make a fun game.
  • Put it in a box.
  • Pick a price.
  • Set it on a shelf.
  • Advertise it in magazines.

How to make a single-player free-to-play mobile game circa 2012:


Make a fun game.

Storage and Recording

Provide cloud-based savegame storage & retrieval. Allow identity to be based on Facebook, Apple Game Center, or email account, at the player’s choice.

Have Achievements. Track them on a global server.

Track the player’s top score on a global leaderboard.

Include one-button shortcuts on the title screen for players to send email, SMS messages, Facebook posts, and Tweets that they’re playing your game.


Monitor and record all following events, including their exact times and the player’s level at that moment. Upload this data every few minutes. If no data connection is available, accumulate this data until one is.

  • game installation, including which advertising affiliate’s link was followed to the game’s download page
  • each time the game is launched
  • each time the game is closed (or a per-minute heartbeat if this cannot be captured)
  • all button presses
  • each tutorial message presented, and how long before it’s dismissed
  • each achievement earned
  • each goal/quest/mission completed
  • each level won, lost, or abandoned, including score (and cause of failure, if applicable)
  • each ship upgrade / character level-up / item purchase
  • each real money transaction

Allow in-app purchases (IAPs).

Allow purchases of $50, $100, or more. Their existence makes players more likely to make intermediate-value purchases such as $10 or $20, and it enables the rare player who wants to spend triple-digit amounts to do so easily.

Highlight one item as “most popular”, “hot choice”, or some other phrase that implies other players purchase that item significantly more often than others. (This claim need not be factual.)

Make larger purchases more cost-efficient. Express this fact explicitly. Do so in terms of how much additional goods the customer will receive and not how much money he’ll save.

  • Bad: $1 buys 100 Chips. $10 buys 1,000 Chips.
  • Good: $1 buys 100 Chips. $10 buys 1,250 Chips.
  • Better: $1 buys 100 Chips. $10 buys 1,250 Chips — you save $2.50!
  • Best: $1 buys 100 Chips. $10 buys 1,000 Chips + 250 Chips FREE!

Separate the expenditure of real money from the resulting game benefits by as many conceptual steps as possible.

  • Bad: Spend $1 for 10 extra lives.
  • Good: Spend $1 for X microtransaction points. Spend X/10 microtransaction points for an extra life.
  • Better: Spend $1 for X microtransaction points. Spend X/2 microtransaction points for a pack of 5 shield charges. Spend a shield charge for an extra life.

Do not use the word “buy”. Instead use words like “get”, “gain”, “unlock”, etc.

Do not show prices anywhere but the purchase screen.

Make it possible to get to the “spend real money” page in a single click from anywhere.

Do not disable game options that the player cannot currently afford. Instead, let the player attempt to use them, then take the player to the “spend real money” page to make up the difference.

Make bundles of IAP items available for discounted purchase. Include at least the following bundle types:

  • A new player bundle, available only while the player is low-level.
  • A daily or weekly bundle, available in a predictable repeating cycle.
  • An encouragement bundle, available to players who have never made an IAP or who have stopped playing the game regularly.

In all cases, make it clear that the bundle is only available for a limited time. In all cases, include an exclusive item available nowhere except in that bundle.

Marketing & Notifications

Include ads for your company’s other games. Use information gathered from the player’s Facebook registration and that of his friends to tailor which ads you show.

Send the player emails about sales in this game, about your other games, and about new game launches. Encourage players to provide you with email info by offering rewards for doing so.

Remind players to rate your app. Have a button in your game that leads directly to the rating page. If not prohibited by market policy, reward players who give the maximum rating.

Have the ability to put some IAP items on sale for specific subsets of player, as well as the ability to notify just them of the deal. You must have the ability to select these players based on metrics.

Add temporary holiday-related seasonal bonus content.


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