Capped Free-to-Play
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 8 April 2016, 10:20 am
I was reading an article on Pocket Tactics on the Free-to-Play model of the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game, soon to be released on iOS (a game I'm waiting for). The game gives you between 100 and 300 gold for beating a scenario, depending on difficulty level, plus very small amounts of gold for stuff you do in those scenarios (e.g. 1 gold for killing a monster). You can then use that gold to buy characters and adventures. There are 5 characters costing 2000 gold each, and 4 characters costing 4000 gold each. The first adventure costs 750 gold, but the other 5 cost 4000 gold each. So if you want to buy all characters and all adventures, that will cost you 46,750 gold. If we estimate generously that you'll make on average 250 gold per scenario played, you'll need to play 187 scenarios to buy everything.

Or you can get all characters and adventures for $25.

I find that a very interesting and fair business model. $25 for all the content in the game is probably something I am going to buy. Unlike other Free2Play games which can ask for endless amounts of money, the money cost of the game is capped at $25. On the one side you'll get people who "buy to own" Pathfinder Adventure Card Game for $25, and on the other side you'll get people who refuse to pay anything but can still unlock all the content by grinding a lot. Not sure what intermediate options there are going to be.

And this isn't the only game that works like that. Magic Duels just released the latest version on the iOS and added not one, but two expansions to the game: Oath of the Gatewatch and Shadows over Innistrad. If you decide to buy all cards instead of playing for them, you still can't spend much more than $50 per expansion to get all the virtual cards. That might seem expensive compared to other iOS games, but for the Magic player that sounds dirt cheap, as buying enough physical cards to get one expansions is easily 10 times that expensive. Personally I am using a mixed strategy here, I spent enough money so that with the gold I had already accumulated over the last months I got the complete Shadows over Innistrad, but I'll earn the cards from the other expansion by playing.

Right now I'm quite happy deckbuilding with all those new cards, doing a "vampire deck" and so on. Having access from cards from 4 expansions makes it easier to create theme decks that don't suck. I only wished that there were better filters, right now it is hard to find for example all cards containing the word vampire in the game without using external sources. But to come back to the business model, I am also quite happy with that, knowing that I did spend what I wanted to spend, and that the game isn't pushing me towards spending more.
Tobold's Blog

Rollable 4-sided dice
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 April 2016, 9:54 am
You might have heard me mention that I am not a huge fan of Kickstarter, as I consider it a platform where people who have no clue of project management can find funders who have no clue about the viability of the project proposed. Having said that, I did back some Kickstarter projects which seemed more realistic to me, especially when Kickstarter was the only way to get hold of the product. One of the projects I backed was for rollable 4-sided dice, back in 2014. While the project was late, I did eventually get my dice in 2015, and I am very happy with them.

Of course many of my readers won't even know what a 4-sided dice is, and why I would want one with a different shape than the classical one. These are random number generators pretty much exclusively used by people playing pen & paper role-playing games like Dungeons & Dragons. D&D uses 4-sided dice (d4) among many others: d6, d8, d10, d12, d20. Apart from the d10 and some exotic varieties like d30 which get little use, these dice are all platonic solids. The symmetry of the d6, d8, d10, d12, and d20 results in that when the dice land on a flat surface, there is a flat surface opposite showing up. Then there are numbers painted on that up side which give you the result. The 4-sided dice are the exception: When they land on a flat surface, a corner is pointing up. So to read the result you need to consult smaller numbers engraved on the edges. Furthermore the tetrahedron doesn't roll like the other dice, it just falls down when you throw it and sits there.

The rollable 4-sided dice solve both of these problems. While they are somewhat rounded and thus non-platonic solids, they can be rolled like dice and land with a number showing up. And now these rollable 4-sided dice are available on Shopify. Helpful if you missed the Kickstarter and want some of these. They offer both smaller quantities for personal use, and larger quantities in candy jars for resale in a games store. Recommended!
Tobold's Blog

A European perspective
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 April 2016, 10:36 am
The view that most Americans have of Hitler is very much conditioned by the 4 years between 1941 when America entered the war, and the end of the war in 1945. Americans think of Hitler as some sort of boss mob they defeated, a war enemy, top of the list of several crazy dictators that America freed the world of. Europeans, because they were closer to the action during the pre-war and early war years also remember Hitler as a populist extreme right-wing politician.

Ever since Vidal completely derailed Buckley with the comparison on live TV in 1968, it has been very clear that the Republican party doesn't see any parallel between their politics and Nazism. But from a European perspective the more extreme right-wing populist positions mentioned in the Republican primaries bear at least some resemblance to some of the Nazi politics. You take proposals like confiscating money from Mexicans to pay for keeping them out, or imposing travel restrictions on Muslims and change the words "Mexicans" / "Muslims" into "Jews", and the resemblance to laws issued by the Nazis between 1933 and 1941 becomes quite eerie and a bit frightening.

That is not to say that Donald Trump is a Nazi or comparable to Hitler. There is absolutely no indication that even if elected he would somehow turn America from a republic into a dictatorship. It isn't even very likely that any of his proposals would ever be enacted if he became president. He probably doesn't even believe in that stuff, he just knows that it is what certain people want to hear and says it because it could potentially get him the Republican nomination. But the resemblance to anti-semitic propaganda and laws does explain certain European reactions to Donald Trump.

Personally I see Donald Trump more as a symbol of the schism in the Republican party between the establishment Republicans and the anti-establishment Republicans. There is still a greater than zero chance that Trump will split the party like Theodore Roosevelt did in 1912. And while I do believe that there is no way that the party can work around that schism and win the presidential election this year, I consider it possible that a split would actually strengthen the Republicans in the long run. Right now nobody really knows what the Republican party stands for, and some of the more extreme opinions on that matter look rather ugly from over here.
Tobold's Blog

Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 04
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 April 2016, 3:20 am
In the previous session had planned an expedition to the haunted top of Cauldron Hill at the request of the dying skyseer Nevard Sechim. Mayor Reed Macbannin, the guardian of Cauldron Hill, had equipped them with amulets against dark magic, and kegs full of goat's blood to draw a circle around their camp. The idea was to have the spirits of Cauldron Hill follow that blood trail endlessly and hopefully ignore the group.

In this session the group reached the top of Cauldron Hill and set up camp. They heated stones to have a flameless source of heat, and built some cover against the wind. That was all very helpful when the temperature dropped sharply at nightfall. But with nightfall also came the spirits that haunted Cauldron Hill, a motley crew including a legless man, a hag, a serpent-maned lion, and an insubstantial phantom.

The group had previously undergone a ritual that shared their life force with Nevard, and as a consequence they were linked to him in a way that allowed them to share his visions of that night. At first they had a vision of Nilasa, the girl whose death had kicked off this adventure, appearing to warn them that the man who had killed her was coming. She described the man as being scarred so much that he was now wearing many faces as disguise. In a second vision they foresaw the factory of Heward Sechim, Nevard's nephew, burning down in the early hours of the next day.

Before they could decide on a further course of action, a dark figure matching the description of the person who had shot Nilasa appeared outside the camp and threw a grenade at the group. While the grenade did little damage, it did contain brightly burning magnesium. The combination of the noise of the explosion and the bright light completely shattered the plan to remain undetected by the spirits, and so the spirits now all attacked the group.

This was designed to be a hard fight, and so it turned out to be. There was a bunch of minor spirits, minions, that just had an aura doing small amounts of damage. The legless man had a powerful attack that grabbed Aria the sorceress, but she was able to push him away. The hag had an attack that could dominate a player character, but fortunately people were lucky with saving throws and the dominations all just lasted one turn. The paladin tanked the serpent-maned lion, who had poisonous attacks.

That left the insubstantial phantom, mostly ignored by the group, which turned out to be the problem. The phantom always touched the character closest to him, leaving a mark and a small amount of automatic damage. Having one mark enabled a character to see the phantom even when it phased out for the others. A second mark enabled a character to do half damage to the phantom. At three or more marks the phantom was fully solid for that character, visibly wielding a big scythe, and taking full damage from that character's attacks.

It is one of the strengths of 4th edition to have the tools to create more complicated monsters with multiple powers that result in events more complex than a simple exchange of blows. Players can use knowledge skills to find out about those powers in order not to be surprised by them, but in the heat of the battle people often forget about that. And so it came that Eldion the invoker misjudged the danger of the phantom. Being not too worried about the small automatic damage round after round, the invoker basically "tanked" the phantom and chose not to move away. What he didn't realize was that the phantom had another attack which required three marks on the victim. And that attack, due to being so complicated to set up, dealt really substantial damage (5d12). So after dealing 5 damage per turn for three turns, the phantom hit Eldion for 27 points of damage with a scythe attack. That not only completely surprised him, but knocked him unconscious and even would have killed him if he hadn't had a 5 point resistance to necrotic damage. And that made the player extremely angry, claiming that this strong attack was "unfair" and threatening that he would quit the game if I killed his character.

Meanwhile the group had dealt with most of the other spirits, and by tanking the phantom with somebody who had high armor and hit points was able to defeat that one too. But with the player so angry, and me not being happy about his "meta-game blackmail the DM to survive" attempt, we ended the session on an unhappy note.
Tobold's Blog

RPG story complexity
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 3 April 2016, 6:26 am
I started playing pen & paper roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons (AD&D 1st edition) in the early 80's. The target audience for the game was clearly teenagers and young adults, with the D&D box saying "for age 10 and up". As a consequence the stories told by the adventures frequently had rather simple plots, like "go into the Tomb of Horrors and defeat the lich Acererak". Players were encouraged to play characters of good or neutral alignment, with the story frequently featuring an arch-villain of evil alignment. Even at higher levels the enemies just got more powerful, without acquiring a more complex personality. The challenge of the game consisted of beating the dungeon with its traps and monsters, not figuring out who was the bad guy. Even more complicated adventures like the original Ravenloft left very doubt who the arch-villain to beat was.

Compared to that, the Zeitgeist Adventure Path is far, far more complex. We are in the middle of the second adventure, and the group has no idea yet who the arch-villain is. Adventure one had "a" villain in the form of Duchess Ethelyn, the king's sister, but she was killed at the end of that adventure. Instead the campaign features a whole panoply of conflicts: Adventure one was about the conflict between those in Risur who like the king want to modernize the nation with technology against the conservatives in Risur who prefer to stick to old ways of druidic magic. It also features the conflict between Danor and Risur. These two conflicts still feature large in adventure two, but the group already got into a battle between different criminal gangs, and came across a social conflict between workers and industrialists. And as the adventure and the campaign progresses, the group will come into contact with more and more different factions and power groups and individuals.

I completely removed alignment from my Zeitgeist campaign, as it isn't really needed for the 4E ruleset, and isn't really adequate for the setting. You can't simply label one side in a conflict between conservationists and technologists as "good" or "evil". I insisted from the start that every player character needs to have a fundamental loyalty to the king and kingdom of Risur, but that doesn't mean they don't have leeway to navigate between the different power groups. They are currently gaining a favor with a skyseer who offered to broker a negotiation between them and the "eco-terrorist" they are tasked to arrest, but I have no idea what they will actually do once they encounter her. The campaign is designed to give the players the freedom to choose sides in various conflicts, without any of those choices leading to a standstill.

While the complexity, the maturity, and the freedom of choice have many obvious advantages, there are also a number of disadvantages. One is to get the group act as a whole, without a single player spoiling the freedom of choice of the others. For example the discussion already started in the previous session, and will have to continue in a future session of how the group should react when they encounter the eco-terrorist: Will they attack on sight, or ally with her, or at least hear her out and then choose? It is situations like these where one player saying "I attack on sight" can negate the choice of everybody else.

The other problem with complexity is remembering everything you learned about who is who. I don't know if you have the experience when for example watching the first episode of the next season of Game of Thrones, having watched the end of the previous season months ago. It always takes some time to remember all the plot-lines going on and how all the characters are connected. Even for me as the DM it is quite a task to know everybody in the story, and for the players who just play no more than twice per month and don't get to read all of the background information the complexity is even more daunting. I am currently playing as a character in another D&D campaign and I am experiencing the problem of being in the middle of a story I don't understand first-hand.

So right now I am wondering how much complexity I need for my campaign. Of course many of the factions and characters in the story are necessary for the campaign to make sense at all. But there are also a bunch of characters and locations that are pure fluff, designed as filler for the role-playing enthusiasts: Two-page descriptions of various characters in a location that the players will only visit once and that will only give them a minor clue towards the main story. I am very much tempted to cut out some of the fluff, seeing how many players in my group are more interested in the tactical wargaming aspects of D&D than in elaborate role-playing. In the end I need to tailor the campaign towards what is fun for the players, and getting them completely confused and lost isn't really the way to go there.
Tobold's Blog

Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 2 April 2016, 1:00 pm
Rugus wanted to know what I thought of Earthcore, so I gave it a try. I must say the game is unusual and gets points for originality. But otherwise I don't think I will play it much longer.

What Earthcore basically is, is a Free2Play version of Rock, Paper, Scissors. You get 4 cards, and you and your opponent play cards alternating on three different lanes. Then on each lane water beats fire, fire beats earth, and earth beats water. The most basic cards have a "risk" of 6, so if you lose a duel with that card on one lane, you lose 6 life. First player to run out of lives loses (and the lanes are handled left to right, so you can win by bringing your opponent to 0 lives on the left lane, even if the middle and right lane would have spelled your doom).

What makes Earthcore more interesting is that more risky cards have skills, like the ability to switch into a different lane. You can use one skill per turn, but so can your opponent. You can also "forge" hero cards by sacrificing other cards and giving their skill to a hero. I used that to give my hero the vampire ability, but the process ate all three of my vampire cards, so I'm kind of regretting that now. Heroes can have up to 3 skills, so they can be quite powerful, but of course also rather risky.

You can play Earthcore in PvP or against an AI through various chapters of various books. Each chapter has three rewards, one for winning, one for winning with a medium amount of health left, and one for winning with a lot of health left. So it is worth retrying the same chapter until you beat it overwhelmingly and get all rewards. Rewards are gold or cards, and the gold buys you boosters with cards. Of course you can also spend real money to buy gems that buy boosters, which works out at about a dollar per 7-card booster.  Cards come in 4 rarities, and rarer cards tend to be better, even if that might be attached to higher risk. So far, so normal for a Free2Play game.

The point that made me quit after being only half through the first chapter is that Earthcore after all those added features still inherits a terrible disadvantage from its ancestor Rock, Paper, Scissors: It quite frequently can feel very random. Using the same deck against the same AI deck I have won some games with maximum health left, and lost others with the enemy having maximum health left. As you only get 4 cards to play in the 3 lanes, and you can't discard cards other than before the first round, sometimes you just end up with a terrible hand. You can to some extent modify your deck to counter the frequently used skills of an opponent you've played against, but that option is still very limited. Sometimes you just don't have the element in your hand that you need, or a skill that turns the game around.

On the positive side I didn't have the feeling that I could win if I just spent enough money on the game, which isn't uncommon for Free2Play games. On the negative side I had the impression that I would eventually beat any AI opponent if I just played against him frequently enough and would eventually get lucky. Somehow that didn't motivate me to continue.
Tobold's Blog

Coming late to the Cabals party
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 25 March 2016, 10:33 am
I discovered a nice game called Cabals, which combines trading card elements with a tactical board game. But unfortunately the game was released 5 years ago in 2011. So not a lot of people are still playing, and those who do have collected cards for years. So every time I start a PvP game, first I'm waiting for a long time for an opponent, and then that opponent is far, far more powerful than I am. And the daily quests appear to only count PvP games, so if I play solo games I get no influence to buy more cards with.

In a PvP game, players are the content for other players. So when a game ages and people drift away, the content they provided is gone as well. At some point a game becomes nearly unplayable for new players, as they have nobody of their level to play with. So they leave quickly, the game doesn't get any fresh blood any more, and the dying process accelerates. Of course that hits smaller games faster and harder than bigger games. Hearthstone isn't much at risk to run out of players for some time to come. But just like the smaller MMORPGs struggled compared to World of Warcraft, other card games struggle compared to Hearthstone.

For me the lesson in this is that developers shouldn't rely too much on the presence of other players as content in their game. They need to think how well their game still would work with very few players around. Is the game still interesting enough to make players want to spend money? Is there still decent progress possible for a new player when the few other players around are all veterans?

Failing that the developers need to take measures to get new players into the game, which isn't easy. Kyy Games is hopefully pulling it off for Cabals, by getting the game greenlit on Steam. I just hope the game can be played cross-platform.
Tobold's Blog

Just to let you know
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 March 2016, 10:27 am
While I do live in Brussels, I was not at the airport today, nor did I use the subway. Terrible times, but me and my family are safe for the moment.
Tobold's Blog

Not a murder simulator
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 21 March 2016, 5:33 am
I am not yet totally convinced that virtual reality devices are the future of gaming, and there are some serious challenges to overcome. But if we imagine that in a few years everybody is playing with VR goggles on instead of in front of a screen, what does that mean for the games that we play? If our experience with virtual worlds becomes "more real", do we still want the same virtual worlds and game mechanics that we have now?

Developers are starting to think about it. At the GDC 2016 there was a talk about the fact that sexual harassment becomes a lot worse when it happens in VR as opposed to on a screen. But personally I was thinking of something else: Even in the absences of perverts and griefers, what kind of virtual lives do people want to live?

I spent my weekend playing the excellent Stardew Valley, which is an indie game on Steam that resembles (and improves upon) the console game Harvest Moon. Not futuristic VR graphics, but pixelated 2D graphics. But what stood out most when playing the game was that I was never ever killing anything while playing it. In my huge Steam library there are very, very few games which don't involve killing enemies, be that AI-controlled "monsters" or other players. Sure, no actual blood is spilled, but do we really want all of our games to be murder simulators?

In real life some people use their holiday to go out and kill stuff. But that is a rather small percentage of all tourists. Most people prefer to travel to just see things and do different peaceful activities for the experience of it instead of killing things. A cynic might remark that this could be because hunting people is illegal in real life, and computer games thus offer an opportunity that you don't otherwise have. But if you look at all games having beautiful 3D virtual worlds you can visit, you'll find that the percentage of them which aren't murder simulators is tiny. Surely there must be a bigger demand for virtual experiences that aren't about killing!

And virtual reality might be the tipping point in a development towards more peaceful games. We know that soldiers, in spite of having trained for it, and in this day and age certainly having killed stuff in games, can suffer from PTSD when actually killing somebody for real for the first time. If VR makes the virtual experience more visceral, then maybe more people will to some degree feel uncomfortable with killing, especially killing virtual humans in a gory fashion. And that could give rise to totally new gameplay mechanics, e.g. a photo safari game where getting close to the animals without disturbing them is as important as the "aiming and shooting" part. We could have virtual world tours as time management games (comparable to 80 Days but in 3D VR). And there sure are lots of other ideas where the virtual reality can be used to create great experiences that don't involve killing. Murder simulators will always have their place in gaming, but not every game has to be one.
Tobold's Blog

Half-played games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 19 March 2016, 3:45 am
I'm doing spring cleaning in the "installed games" section of my Steam library. Maybe you just play one game at a time, up to the end, but I'm easily distracted and switch to a new game without necessarily finishing the game I had started before. So I end up with lots of games on my hard drive that I haven't played for months. And I find that different games are different in how easy it is to come back to them.

For example I didn't uninstall XCOM 2. I have set up an "endless" game with the help of a mod that messes with the Avatar timer, and so the game stopped rushing me towards the end. I have done nearly all research and have nearly fully developed soldiers, so whenever I want I can pop into the game, play a mission or two and then stop again. XCOM 2 being turn-based, and the UI being right there on the screen there isn't much risk of me forgetting how to play it. I managed to turn XCOM 2 into a "casual" game where I can play when I feel like it.

I did uninstall Shadow of Mordor, because of the controls. I was playing with a gamepad, and there are just too many different actions my character can perform, each of which requires pressing several buttons simultaneously. When you start a game you are taught all these button combinations one by one, and end up being competent in using them all. But there is no way I can remember all of them now. And I have never seen a game where you can play a tutorial that teaches you all the controls while you are in the middle of the game. So if I wanted to play Shadow of Mordor again, I would need to start over, and play the 30+ hours I already did again. Not going to happen.

A similar problem of memory made me uninstall Pillars of Eternity, last played a year ago. I simply forgot most of the story and whatever my plans were. The controls are easy to pick up again, but the story isn't. The hero who has forgotten everything is an old cliche in RPGs, but that only works at the start of the game, not in the middle of it.

I also uninstalled a couple of games that I remember perfectly well how to play. But those were basically endless games, like Thea: The Awakening, which I played through many times. Great game, but maybe the next time I feel like playing a fantasy 4X game I want to play a new game rather than a game that I have played many times before. It isn't as if my Steam library wasn't full of possible candidates!

There are so many new games around that I rarely pick up an old game again. However I did buy Final Fantasy IX on the iPad, having played it over a decade ago on the Playstation. Despite a hefty $20 price tag for an iOS game, I felt it was worth it. Everybody has their favorite Final Fantasy game, and mine was always number 9, because it had a more lighthearted story and less science fiction elements. And as luck would have it, it is the first Final Fantasy game which was given a complete UI overhaul to make it work better with the touch screen.

How about you? Do you often go back to old games? Is your hard drive full of half-played games? Do you eventually finish them, or do they end up getting uninstalled like mine?
Tobold's Blog

Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 03
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 17 March 2016, 9:14 am
In the previous session the constables had intervened in a battle between bandits and thieves, killing everybody but Morena, the bandit leader's wife who had been kidnapped by the thieves. In this session they continued their way through the Cloudwood and reached the camp of the dying skyseer Nevard. Nevard confirmed that he knew Gale, the "eco-terrorist" that the constables were looking for, and that he could arrange a meeting. However he wanted the group to do something for him first: Take him to the top of Cauldron Hill to watch the stars at night.

Cauldron Hill is the highest point in the city of Flint, but also a haunted location. At the top of the hill the connection to the parallel world of Shadowfell is strong, and a coven of witches used that fact long ago to terrorize Flint and hide in Shadowfell when somebody came after them. Finally they were vanquished, but Cauldron Hill remains full of dangerous dark magic, and the mayor of the Nettles quarter in which the hill is located is always a powerful mage skilled in the defense against the dark arts. Fortunately for the group their invoker Eldion had worked in the past for Mayor Reed Macbannin, so there was some chance that they could get a permit to climb the hill.

But first the group held a lively discussion on what to tell their superiors about their progress in the case. James, with his background as second generation constable, wanted to report everything and just follow orders. Eldion, the politician, was a lot more skeptical about whether their bosses had told them everything and whether Gale was really culpable of everything she is accused of; so he wanted to not tell their bosses about the potential meeting with Gale, to keep his options open in case he didn't believe her to be guilty. In the end they told their boss that they wanted to do this favor for Nevard to get "information about" Gale, without going into details. Their boss, Stover Delft, was okay with that, and commended them for having killed the bandit leader. He also was very interested in the criminal contacts of Nilasa, and asked that after helping Nevard the constables should look into where Nilasa apparently bought illegal goods for the terrorists.

On visiting the manor of Mayor Macbannin, a haughty butler made the constables wait while the mayor was still receiving a courier. Then the courier came out of the manor, smoked a cigarette and chatted a bit with the group before the butler called them in. Mayor Macbannin immediately recognized and welcomed Eldion, telling him that he had taken an interest in his career since Eldion left the Mayor's service to advance his political career with a stint in the constabulary. While he normally didn't let anybody visit Cauldron Hill, in this case the Mayor was willing to make an exception for Eldion, as that would make great training in fighting against dark magic. He even hinted that he was looking for a successor one day, and Eldion might just be the right candidate.

So the group got a carriage and went back to Nevard. A shaman in Nevard's entourage used a scroll of dubious origin on the group which shared their health with Nevard; that allowed the old man to travel in spite of his frailty, and even protected him against damage at the cost of the health of the constables. Back again at the Mayor's manor, Macbannin instructed them how to keep safe against the dark magic of Cauldron Hill: They had to wear special iron amulets to prevent being cursed, and he provided them with four kegs of goat's blood with which to make a ring of blood around their camp. The shadow monsters that were likely to come over from the Shadowfell to Cauldron Hill at night usually weren't very bright and would follow a trail of blood in the hope to find a wounded animal, even if that trail led them in an endless circle. However the constables were warned that this protection wasn't perfect; they needed to keep still and hide the light of their fire with stones.

As it was getting late and the encounter on Cauldron Hill risked to take some time, we ended the session at this point.
Tobold's Blog

A boring contest
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 16 March 2016, 6:32 am
At this point in time all the even remotely likely scenarios end up with Hilary Clinton as the next president of the United States. And the Republican party is 100% responsible for that. It was their election to lose, and they completely lost it in a spectacular fashion.
Tobold's Blog

Everquest Next predictably cancelled
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 13 March 2016, 3:20 am
Everquest Next was cancelled this week. I'm not sure anybody was really surprised by that news. The constant series of changes to the company and personnel movements didn't bode well. For me the game had pretty much died when they announced to kick out StoryBricks. Daybreak will still release Landmark, but I guess they'll just slap a "released" label on the unfinished mess they have so that they won't have to refund all those $99.99 founder's packs.
Tobold's Blog

Clash Royale sucks
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 12 March 2016, 3:06 am
Unlike many other people on the internet, the fact that game companies want my money doesn't make me angry. I know there are a lot of Free2Play games out there which I can play reasonably well either for free, or for a limited amount of money which roughly corresponds to what I would have bought the game for. I know other games require tons of money, and unless I want to experiment with that concept, I just stay away from them. But what still makes me angry is when these games have bad game design. Thus I'm writing about Clash Royale, the latest SuperCell game with a huge advertising budget.

First things first: Battles in Clash Royale are fun. It's PvP without the toxicity, that is chat only has predefined phrases and emoticons. Basically Clash Royale is a 2-player version of DOTA / MOBA games, with two lanes. Every player slowly accumulates elixir, and can spend that elixir to play cards with units, which then automatically trundle down those lanes and attack the enemy and his towers. The player who destroys more towers during the 3-minute battles wins. There are enough different units with enough different properties so that choosing which unit to play when and where really makes a difference. And then the design breaks down between games.

Many people hate the typical energy system of a Free2Play game with a passion: You know, the system where after playing several games you need to either wait for hours for your energy to recover, or to pay to play on. Clash Royale manages to make that system worse: Every win gains you a chest, and chests take at least 3 hours to open, better chests even 8 or 24 hours. And you can only have 4 chests in your inventory. So while you *can* play on after 4 wins, you can't get any chest rewards for winning any more. You still can win and earn trophies. And if you do that, the full horror of bad game design becomes apparent: Clash Royale punishes you mightily for winning games!

Every win earns you trophies. I don't know how the system works at higher levels, but at the start a win gives you like 30 trophies, while a loss only costs you 10, so you don't need to be winning very often to accumulate trophies. And for about every 400 trophies you earn, you get "promoted" to the next higher arena. Each higher arena adds 6 news cards to the card pool. Chests from higher level arenas don't contain more cards, but a wider variety of cards. But you can only take 8 cards into battle. And cards level up by accumulation: If you found one knight card he is level 1, find another and he becomes level 2, find 4 more and he becomes level 3, find 10 more and he becomes level 4, etc. So getting more different cards means you will have lots of low level troops. A wider card pool is not an advantage, but rather an obstacle to leveling your troops up.

I just started a battle in Clash Royale, but I'm not even watching the screen, I'm writing this paragraph instead. My goal is to lose trophies repeatedly and get back to arena 1. Then when I have space for more chests I can a) easily win because the other players in arena 1 have lower level troops than I have, and b) get chests with a random selection from a smaller pool of cards, thus more likely to improve my troops. And it doesn't take a genius to figure out that throwing games like this is an optimal strategy for Clash Royale. Arena 1 is easier to win and gives better rewards than higher arenas. I've already met other high level players in arena 1 not playing a single troop, and I guess that will become more and more common. Why go for trophies, if the game punishes you for having them? Now that is bad game design!

If that doesn't convince you yet that Clash Royale sucks, I might mention that of course you can open chests for money, and you can even buy chests for money without having to win games. $15 gets you a "Super Magical Chest" with 180 cards, of which 6 are guaranteed to be epic, and 36 guaranteed to be rare. That's a lot compared to the typical silver chest you win in a battle, which takes 3 hours to open and just has 3 cards with no guaranteed rarity. Buy a "Mountain of Gems" for $99.99 (and no, I didn't), and you'll get 1,500 cards, so you'll easily smash those free players who would need 1,500 hours to get that many cards and then still end up with less good ones. And there is a "TV Royale" showing the matches of the top ranked players already showing them playing with level 12 cards, which cumulatively required over 8,000 cards to level up. They must already have spent thousands of dollars to get there. Purest Pay2Win! I am sure that this is another game that will earn SuperCell millions.
Tobold's Blog

A decade late
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 11 March 2016, 8:23 am
I was reading an article about time-sucking video games in which the author complains that the games he is playing have become bigger and bigger, requiring near endless amounts of time, and going on for years. I checked my calendar, and it still said 2016, so at first I was a bit puzzled of why the author realized this a decade later than the rest of us. But then I realized that he probably had never played MMORPGs, and the MMORPGification of other game genres like shooters was really a new experience for him.

The MMORPG is dead, long live the MMORPG! There is actually nothing in the definition that says that a MMORPG needs to have a series of abilities with cooldowns on hotkeys unleashed upon auto-targeted enemies. MMORPGs just used to be like that because of ping and server response times. These days any sort of combat system is possible for a massively multiplayer online game, from shooter to martial arts. That leaves us with a lots of games in which lots of players are running around simultaneously, and some of them are advertised as being MMORPGs, while others are being advertised as being shooter games, or whatever else.

What remains true for the companies is that a multiplayer online game account is harder to pirate than a single-player game that comes on a disc, and that a player who is hooked by your game for a long period can be made to pay more money over a long time instead of buying the game just once. So the economic advantages are still there. But so is the economic risk: Making a game like Destiny or The Division costs millions of dollars, so a flop can be costly. And because these games require so much time-investment from the players, players can't play all that many of those games in a year. I never spent less money on games than during the first years of World of Warcraft, where WoW just basically ate up all of my time. That is great for the few games that end up being mega-winners, but it leaves a lot of others in the dust.

The author of the article in The Verge claims that time-consuming games are bad for the players as well. I'm sure that some aspects can be, but there are also aspects where the players have an advantage. For example even an "expensive" subscription-based MMORPG costs you less to play for a year than buying a new console game every month. And playing the same game for a long time means you don't constantly have to learn new control schemes and game mechanics. On the other hand you could play a different mobile game on your tablet every day for free or pocket change and not run out of games for years. It is very hard to say what ends up being more fun, lots of inexpensive games or a single multi-million dollar game you play for a long time. How about you?
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What took them so long?
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 9 March 2016, 2:44 am
While I don't claim to have a complete overview of all the new Free2Play games coming out, I did notice a kind of a trend: More and more "free" games on various platforms are using game elements coming from trading card games like Magic the Gathering. Many then combine classical Free2Play elements like leveling troops or fusing them with the trading card method of finding cards of various rarities in random boosters. As the potential as money pit of random boosters has been known since the 90's, I'm just wondering what took them so long. A completionist wanting every most rare card fully upgraded can spend thousands of dollars on such a game, so the attraction to the game company is obvious.

What is less obvious is that the system isn't actually all that bad for the players either. There is always a limit to how many cards you can take into a battle, so having twice as many cards doesn't make a richer player twice as strong. Frequently there are even other resource elements in the game, so the more powerful rare card is costing more resources, which somewhat balances them out. Yes, to some degree this is Pay2Win, but it isn't as blatant and unbalancing as other systems where money buys you a linear increase of power.

You know trading cards are main stream when Supercell releases a game that has them, called Clash Royale. Supercell tends to make highly popular "free" games that earn them millions of dollars per day. Having said that, I find Clash Royale not a very good game. The basic premise of playing a single-player MOBA / tower defense game with trading card troops has promise; but every win rewards you with a chest, and you either need to wait hours for a chest to open or pay to open it. As you only have 4 chest slots and even a simple silver chest takes 3 hours to open, you quickly get to the point where you are informed that you won't get any reward for winning any more, because you have no room for those chests.

So I'm sticking with Gems of War, which has trading card games in a Puzzle Quest type of game, and which doesn't push me all the time to spend money. And my level, currently 65, depends on games played, not on money spent. Spending money on cards is more like spending money on added content, as it allows me to build different decks and try out different strategies.
Tobold's Blog

XCOM 2 pacing
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 6 March 2016, 9:00 am
After over a hundred hours played, I have to agree with the reviewer who said that XCOM 2 has a pacing problem. The strategic game isn't as fun as it could be because it doesn't give you enough control over the tactical game. To see what I mean, compare XCOM 2 with games like the Total War series or the Heroes of Might & Magic series: In these game your moves on the strategic map initiate tactical combat, and you have some control when you want to attack and whether you want to attack the enemies main force or just do an easy fight for a few resources. XCOM 2 doesn't have any of that. There are 4 story missions and the occasional Avatar facility that you can attack whenever you want, but all the other missions in the game just pop up at some point and you need to do them *now*, or deal with serious negative consequences. That isn't just sometimes annoying to get frequently interrupted in some strategic map action, but also can have you waiting around for a mission when you want to attack and there isn't a mission on offer.

The source of the problem of course is that XCOM 2 copied the pacing more or less from the first XCOM. There UFOs would pop up from time to time, and it made perfect sense that you couldn't fight the aliens when none of them were in sight. But the background story in XCOM 2 is reversed, the aliens are in control of earth, and you are playing guerrilla rebel fighters. If the aliens are everywhere, why wouldn't there be a location for me to attack at any given point? Why can I only attack the aliens if they allow me to?

In the over thousand mods that XCOM 2 now has, I haven't found a single one that gives you the option to attack aliens when you want. However I did find a number of mods that mess in one way or another with the Avatar timer, and thus allow me to play a longer game. To me that is more fun, because I can play more games against the harder aliens with soldiers that have more options, instead of having to rush to the final mission and finish the game. But I would be interested in either an XCOM 2 expansion or an XCOM 3 with a different pacing, and lots of options to attack different points on the strategic map for different rewards, instead of having to "scan and wait" for those rewards.
Tobold's Blog

Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 02
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 February 2016, 4:47 am
In the previous session the Royal Homeland Constabulary investigated the death of a young woman who had tried to fly out of an upper floor window of the Danoran consulate when caught stealing there and ended up impaled on the fence. While nobody is really interested in the death of a thief, the fact that the woman flew further than a simple jump could have achieved links her to a known terrorist called "Gale", who is the only person known to have powers of flight.

In this session the group went to the district of Parity Lake, where the city's industry is located. They had two clues leading them there, one being a bail certificate from the Parity Lake police station, and the other the address of Nilasa, the dead woman, who worked and lived at Seward's Alkahest & Etchings factory. They passed quickly by the police station and picked up Nilasa's criminal record file, showing she had been picked up during a raid in the company of two known criminals and released on bail, paid by Heward Sechim.

Visiting Sechim's factory it quickly became clear that the factory was somewhat special: While other factories in the same street were being protested for bad work conditions, Sechim was treating his workers far more fairly (compared to the standards of a world in an early industrial revolution). Talking which Heward Sechim revealed that he had received money from his uncle, a well-known and respected skyseer, with the challenge of balancing the needs of industry with the needs of the workers. Nilasa had been one of the first workers, and had been treated like an adopted daughter by Heward, who let her live in a factory store room because she had nowhere else to go.

The constables searched Nilasa's room, but didn't find anything more special than a lesson book to learn Elvish. Being informed about government regulations regarding the acids that the factory made, which were considered goods of strategic importance and subject to government control of sales, the constables wondered whether Nilasa was in the factory for some sinister purpose, but couldn't find any evidence of that. Heward insisted that his inventory was in order and offered to show them his stocks. Asked about suspicious events regarding his acids, he could only tell them that he had been approached by people wanting to make an unregistered purchase, and had received threats when refusing to do so.

The players clearly weren't practiced in interrogating witnesses, so that I ended up having to play Heward Sechim as being extremely forthcoming with information linking Nilasa to Gale, as the constables didn't ask any questions in that direction. Heward told them that his uncle, Nevard, knows Gale and, being a moderate, might be able to organize a meeting between the constables and Gale. But they would have to hurry, as Nevard lay dying in his camp of followers in Cloudwood.

So off the group went to Cloudwood, a high-altitude sub-tropical forest at the edge of the city of Flint. Following a road up to a height were the clouds were touching the mountains, they encountered a panicked horse galloping past them, with an arrow in its flank and a snapped carriage harness trailing behind it. Moving forward they saw a now horseless carriage slowly rolling towards a precipice, with cries from a woman coming out of it. The coachman was dead with an arrow in his chest, and three other people from the carriage were shooting pistols at the archers attacking them. Crying out "Stop! Police!" didn't stop the fight, and so the group engaged in the fight.

The pistoleers were outnumbered by archers and bandits with hand axes, and the constables started by attacking the archers. Due to them being well armed with muskets, they quickly took out the first archer (who happened to be the bandit leader). The other two archers had some druidic powers and summoned swarms of hummingbirds to attack the pistoleers. With the pistoleers busy fighting the hummingbirds, and the bandits mostly attacking the pistoleers, the constables only took very few hits. The only serious injury was to the avenger who got hit by two special arrow attacks causing ongoing bleeding damage. By the time the archers and bandits had finished the pistoleers, the constables had already killed half of the ambushers, and quickly wiped up the rest.

During the fight they had temporarily stopped the carriage from rolling forward by summoning a wall in front of it, and after the fight they were able to pull out the bound woman from inside the carriage before the carriage went over the edge. But it turned out that this hadn't been a simple case of bandits ambushing travelers. The pistoleers were members of Lorcan Kell's thieves guild, who had tried to gain territory in Cloudwood by kidnapping the bandit leader's wife. The bandit leader had tried to free his wife, and that was the fight the constables had intervened in, ending with everybody but the wife being dead. Morena, the bandit leader's wife, understandably wasn't happy. But she was willing to accompany them to Nevard's camp. At this point we ended the session.

DM's note: The fight wasn't designed to be much of a challenge, with the player's being the third party to it. With a bit more effort they could have found out what was going on and allied with the bandits instead of trying to help the pistoleers, but killing the bandit leader on the first turn kind of removed that option. It is the beauty of the Zeitgeist campaign that there isn't a clear good vs. evil, and the players have the freedom to make the choice with whom to ally and whom to kill. Killing bandits will earn them a commendation from their boss, but won't make them more popular with Gale or Nevard, the dying skyseer.
Tobold's Blog

Even nicer Pay2Win
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 22 February 2016, 9:32 am
Sometimes I feel that I started my exploration of Pay2Win games at the deep end with League of Angels, which makes you pay in order to not lose your position. My second attempt, Dungeon Boss, was already a lot nicer, as you basically competed against yourself. But now I have been trying another game a reader recommended, Gems of War, and it turns out to be even nicer.

Gems of War is a game based very much on the Puzzle Quest series of games, but with a collectible card aspect. The match-3 gameplay is a lot more interesting than the combat systems of the other two games I mentioned, as it involves player skill. Thus potentially more longevity. And the collection system is the nicest Pay2Win you could imagine: Buying "keys" to open chests with random cards quickly isn't about a gaining power any more, but rather about new content, getting more different options of cards to play with. This is helped by getting more and more team slots while leveling, so you can play around with different options without always disbanding your old builds.

What all three Pay2Win games have in common is a VIP system. Basically the game sums up all the money you spent on it (displaying it as points, not as money, as that would probably hurt), and gives you a VIP level in function of that money spent. And the VIP level gives you various free daily goodies, for example glory keys in Gems of War. A typical case of "the rich getting richer": If you don't spend money you won't open all that many glory chests, but if you do spend money, you are given free keys for them every day.

Gems of War has a solution to the problem of random cards risking to give you the same card in multiple copies: Once you have 6 of the same card, you can sacrifice 5 of them and turn the remaining card into a higher rarity version. The next level costs 10 cards to sacrifice, and so on. If you end up with the highest possible rarity, you can still sacrifice cards for souls, which are used to level up other cards. Of course money is a much faster way to high rarity level cards.

What I like about Gems of War is that all the money you spend results in something permanent, or even like the VIP status in a gift that keeps on giving. There is no system of energy or stamina or something which runs out and asks you to spend money if you want to play more right now. All purchases go towards more cards, stronger cards, or the power of your kingdoms (which also result in gold and tribute every day). Playing Gems of War completely for free appears difficult to me, as even with good cards this is by no means a trivially easy game. But Gems of War certainly is a game where you could spend a fixed amount of money once, preferably at the start (some of the starting pack offers are really nice), and then keep enjoying the game without further spending.
Tobold's Blog

Mods and cheats for XCOM 2
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 15 February 2016, 3:16 am
I've been playing a lot of XCOM 2 since it came out. The first couple of games all ended in failure because I had taken wrong economic decisions in the "outer" game that connects the various battles. While XCOM 2 lets you select a difficulty level, the choice isn't very detailed, and if you want harder battles, you also get a harder resource management game with it. That isn't exactly what I want, I don't like if the resources in a game are so tight that there is only one possible sequence of decisions which doesn't lead to disaster. But for the battles I like them to be a bit more challenging. In the previous XCOM game I solved the problem with a cheat program which gave me more money at the start. In XCOM 2 it turns out that cheats are now called "mods" and are very well integrated in the game interface.

On the very first screen of XCOM 2 you can instead of pressing the "play" button go to the Steam Workshop instead. And already there are hundreds of mods you can find there. Once you download a mod, the same start screen allows you to select which mods you want to have active, and which ones you don't, similar to the addon selection screen of World of Warcraft. The whole exercise of downloading and using mods is rather painless, with the most difficult part being finding the right mods for you in the Steam Workshop (which really could use better sorting options).

Of course some of the mods are cosmetic. But a good number of them directly address all the points any player ever complained about. You don't like turn limits in missions? There is a mod to turn them off (I didn't download that one). For my problem of resource management there are several mods that increase starting resources, including a very useful one that gives you a single scientist and engineer at the start because you can derail your whole game if you don't get enough of them early, especially the engineers. I went for a mod which changed the starting resources via an .ini file that I can edit, because I don't want the resource management game to be *too* easy either. I just want a bit more wiggle room to be able to buy a fancy toy on offer without that causing me to lose the game ten hours later. There are also a number of mods that modify the loot tables, or increase the usefullness of the looted weapon mods (they *are* a bit weak in the original).

While some mods can also make the game harder, like doubling the number of aliens, many of the mods make the game easier. Which, strictly speaking, would qualify them as "cheats". But as this is a single-player game, the purpose isn't so much cheating, but rather modifying the game to fit your individual preferences. The previous XCOM game, especially after the expansion, had a lot more options to individualize gameplay in the new game menu. XCOM 2 replaces that with the mods system, which is infinitely more flexible. The only downside of that is that people don't play the same game any more. Bragging rights for beating the game at high difficulty go out of the window if you could have used mods that made the game a lot easier in reality. But the upside is that a system that enables you to get rid of any game element that frustrated you personally makes the game far more accessible to everybody.
Tobold's Blog

Losing in games
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 7 February 2016, 7:50 am
I'm playing the just released XCOM 2 this weekend, and that made me think about the game mechanics of losing. To some degree that is an underdeveloped part of game design; there are about a million different rewards games hand out for winning, but only a single consequence for losing: You are forced to play some part of the game that you already did again. Losing is an essential part of games, as it increases the interest of winning. But there are a lot of things that can go wrong with loss conditions in games, and the XCOM series of games does have some examples of them.

One rather fundamental requirement for a good loss condition is that the game accurately tells you *that* you lost, and preferably gives you some information of *why* you lost. Games with a long campaign of many battles like XCOM or Heroes of Might & Magic even manage to fail the former sometimes: Either a decision you made that leads to inevitable doom will not give you any feedback at all, or worse you win a Pyrrhic victory and the game tells you that you won, while in reality you just sealed your loss.

One eternal problem with losing is how much it depends on randomness. I do think that randomness has its place in these games, and XCOM does it well by telling you exactly what your chances are for a shot. But an 80% chance isn't the same as certainty, and losing a soldier because you missed a shot with 80% chance can feel somewhat frustrating. But I do think that is more a problem of players not being good at risk assessment, and it gets better with practice.

If losing means having to replay part of the game, the obvious question is how much of the game. Console games frequently have "save points" visible or implicit, and a loss sends you back to the start of the level. As long as the level isn't too long, and you don't need to replay it 20 times before getting some jump pixel-perfect, that works quite well as a consequence of loss. Games like XCOM have loss consequences that are somewhat less transparent: If you lose a soldier, you need to recruit a rookie and train him back to that level. As the game doesn't necessarily give you the time to do that, you might actually lose the game while replenishing your losses, and then the penalty becomes a much harsher one of having to start the game over from the very beginning.

In many situations in XCOM, if you are reasonably clever you will know why a soldier of yours just died. He moved forward to quickly or otherwise exposed himself unwisely, most of the time. But there are situations where your soldier died because you come for the first time in contact with a new element or scripted part of the game. Traps you can easily circumvent the second time you meet them, but that are quite deadly the first time you see them, are rather bad loss conditions. They make people look up solutions on the internet instead of having fun trying things out. In a tactical game like XCOM you can learn a lot of general tactics by trying out, for example how close together you should keep your soldiers, or how fast they should advance. If that trial and error results in a minor wound, you learned your lesson. If it is insta-death and the error wasn't even obvious, that only gets frustrating.

The weirdest thing about XCOM and many other PC games is that you can frequently choose the consequence of losing. You aren't forced to accept the loss consequence the game just handed to you, but can opt for a different one instead by simply reloading a saved game from minutes ago. That leads to some perfectionists saving before every action and only accepting perfect outcomes, using the load function every time something didn't work perfectly. In some game the random number generator even gives different outcomes every time you reload, so you can reload until every attack is a perfect hit. Unlimited save options thus can completely negate the designed loss consequences, and make a game rather boring. XCOM fortunately has the ironman option to disable saving and reloading. I once recommended playing XCOM games on easy plus ironman, and I still think that is a good option to learn about consequences in the game. But the option most veterans will be use is an intelligent management of save game files to suit loss consequences to your personal preferences.
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Dungeon Boss and Retail Therapy
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 1 February 2016, 1:50 am
With my interests in games and economy, I am naturally interested in the mechanics of Free2Play monetization. And my day job pays enough for me to be able to drop a couple of hundred bucks on such a game to explore that monetization without that hurting my finances. Last year I played League of Angels for 2 months. While I was able to get to the top spot on a server using real money, I didn't really like psychological lever that game used: Competitiveness, you'd end up paying money so that somebody else wouldn't get ahead of you. So currently I am trying a very different game, Dungeon Boss. That can be as expensive as League of Angels, but the psychology behind it is much more pleasant.

Because League of Angels *wants* a lot of people to be highly ranked on their server so as to make them pay money for the privilege, it has lots and lots of servers, with new ones opening every week. Dungeon Boss only has one server as far as I can tell. Which means that there is absolutely no chance for latecomers to rise to the top of the server. Which doesn't matter, because unlike League of Angels, Dungeon Boss has very little direct competition between players. Even the PvP system automatically just pairs you against people around your own strength, so it doesn't matter that there are people at the level cap while you aren't. Competitiveness is not a driving factor in this game. So how does it work?

Basically Dungeon Boss is related to the Pokemon series of games: You have a collection of up to 50 heroes in 5 different colors which you level up and use for combat. The colors represent elements, so your fire heroes are strong against plant heroes but weak against water heroes, etc. Each hero has a level (which is limited by your player level), between 2 and 4 skills with a level that is limited by the hero level, 3 degrees of ascension (which determines the number of skills), and between 1 and 6 stars, which increase power. So for each hero you need to collect xp to level up, "evos" to ascend, gold to level up skills, and tokens to get stars. Multiply by 50 heroes and there is a *lot* of stuff to collect. That puts you on a rather long progress curve from starting the game to the level cap.

Monetization in Dungeon Boss as a result is an extremely simple concept: You have absolute freedom to choose at which speed you want to progress. Want to get ahead on that completely individual curve? Pay some money! Usually quite a lot of it, a special bundle of stuff that improves one of your heroes can cost between $9.99 and $39.99, depending on the rarity of the hero. And that is just one ascension out of two possible, so for 50 heroes you would need to buy 100 such bundles. Plus a ton of money for gold and gems to use the portals to summon those heroes. On the other hand you can also play this game completely for free, and just progress much slower. It is up to you. The game doesn't threaten you with any negative effects if you refuse to pay, it just tries to seduce you into paying when you feel like it. Any payment also counts towards your VIP level, so if you paid at the start and then play for free you still get some permanent bonuses in addition to whatever you paid for. I've rarely seen a game that was so nice about trying to get money out of you; the carrot, not the stick.

I still don't believe that any single game can "addict" you into spending money. However I do believe that spending money can make you feel better about yourself, the so-called retail therapy. Whether you do that in the mall or in a mobile game is not fundamentally different. For every sob story about somebody spending all his money on a mobile game, there is an equivalent story about somebody spending all his money on the shopping TV channel. And to someone who is likely to have such problems, it doesn't even matter what game exactly he is playing. The process of trying to feel better by spending money is independent of what exactly you are spending that money on.
Tobold's Blog

Limiting monetization for fairness
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 28 January 2016, 7:53 am
When you hear talks on game developer conferences you might think that the concept of giving the player with the biggest wallet an advantage in a game is a recent invention from casual and mobile games. In reality the idea is over 20 years old (not counting gambling, where unlimited funds always were an advantage). Magic the Gathering is to a large degree "Pay2Win", and many people (me included) spent thousands of dollars on that game. So it comes to some surprise that the current combination of money-grabbing Magic the Gathering on a money-grabbing mobile platform in the form of Magic Duels isn't an unlimited money grab.

When back in the early 90's Magic the Gathering, was invented, you could read interviews from the developers like Richard Garfield on how they intended that game to be played. It turned out that they believed that people would only buy a limited amount of cards. Therefore a "rare" card, which was rare to find in a booster, would also be rarely found in a player's collection and thus be rarely played. The devs were then completely surprised by people buying cards by the box-load and stuffing their decks by 4 of each rare. It actually "broke" the game, as many of the early rares like the Black Lotus or the Mox artifacts were simply too good and too useful to allow 4 of them in each deck. They had to fix that by first restricting the use of those to 1 per deck, and later banning them. Over time "rare" cards in Magic evolved into being powerful, but highly specialized, so 4 of one rare basically determined the theme of the deck and couldn't be used in every deck. But the basic design flaw of "commonly played rares" remains until today, and has perpetuated into many other trading card games. Needing multiple copies of rare cards gives a huge advantage to players who bought large amounts of cards, the "Mr. Suitcase" syndrome.

In order to make Magic Duels a more casual-player friendly game, they fixed that design flaw in this variant of Magic the Gathering by changing the deck-building rules. You can't put 4 of each rare in a Magic Duels deck. Rarity now doesn't just mean "rarely found in a booster", but also "rarely played". You can put 4 of each common into a deck, but only 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. And because cards are virtual the same restriction also apply to player's collections: You can't even *own* more than 4 of each common, 3 of each uncommon, 2 of each rare, and 1 of each legendary. Of course you can still use that 1 legendary card you own in multiple decks, as you never play with more than 1 deck. Now while paper Magic the Gathering has boosters of 15 cards with 11 commons, 3 uncommons, and 1 rare, Magic Duels has boosters of 6 cards with 3 commons, 2 uncommons, and 1 rare or legendary card. And the "complete set" of any expansion is a multiple of that, for example the complete set of the Origins base set is 72 boosters. 72 boosters gives you 216 commons, and there are 54 different commons in the set, so you will have exactly each common 4 times. 72 boosters contain 144 uncommons, which gives you each of the 48 uncommons 3 times. The same is true for the rares and legendaries, just that they share the same rarity slot in the boosters.

As a result opening a booster in Magic Duels does *not* give you a really random selection of cards. It gives you a random selection *of cards you don't own yet*. And after 72 boosters the game refuses to sell you any more boosters, as your collection is now complete. As you can buy a big bundle of 50 boosters for € 40 / $ 40 a complete set of any expansion doesn't cost you a fortune, or you can earn a complete set in about a month of regular play. So there are no "whales" in Magic Duels. The overall effect is a bit like that of a level cap in a MMORPG: People get to that level cap in a reasonable amount of time, and then everybody is equal. Huge advantage of perceived fairness, no more Mr. Suitcase. Buying a full expansion becomes like buying a "buy to own" game, there are no further costs.

It is for that reason that I have kind of forgiven Magic Duels the 2-month outage of last year, and gotten back to playing it regularly. I'm just 6 boosters away from having the full set of Zendikar, and while I bought the first set of boosters, I'll get to the full set just by playing and doing the "not-so-daily" quests that pop up every two days. Compared to another game I am currently playing, Dungeon Boss (/shakes fist angrily at Jeromai who mentioned the game to me) where it is far too easy to spend endless amounts of money for advantages, Magic Duels has a much more restrained and fair business model.

Tobold's Blog

Zeitgeist: The Dying Skyseer - Session 01
Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 27 January 2016, 9:07 am
In the previous session the group reached the end of the first adventure of the Zeitgeist campaign, and level 2. In this session we started the second adventure, The Dying Skyseer. It is now 3 months later, and the constables have been occupied in Flint with a local affair: Hana "Gale" Soliogn, an eladrin woman with a history of being held captive as a trophy by a family of Danorans, has since her arrival in Flint turned her hatred against Danor into a hatred of all things industrial. A number of sabotages and murders have been attributed to her, and she is being wanted as a terrorist. Capture has been made difficult by the fact that Gale can fly, a magical ability that had been considered impossible by the rest of the world.

The adventure starts with the constables at the RHC headquarters doing paperwork, including filing newspaper articles on Gale, as they haven't got much more than that to go on. But then their boss, Assistant Chief Inspector Stover Delft arrives with news of a lead: A young woman has been killed at the Danoran consulate, jumping out of fourth floor window and being impaled by the fence around the compound. The interesting bit is that the fence is too far from the window to have been reached by a normal jump, and the woman deciding to flee through the window suggests she believed she could fly. That could be a connection to Gale!

The Danoran consulate is in North Shore, an hour travel by coach away from the RHC HQ. As it also took an hour for the report to reach the RHC due to lack of magical communication, the constables arrive at the scene two hours after the fall. A group of regular police has cordoned off the area, but the woman has been removed from the fence and moved inside the consulate. As the crowd of gawkers is already much thinned, the constables decide to first question witnesses outside. Then they meet the Danoran chief of security Julian LeBrix, who tells them that it was him who killed the woman. The woman, known to him as Nilasa Hume, was the girlfriend of one of the guards of the consulate. She had brought chocolates as breakfast to the staff of the consulate that morning, and had snuck upstairs while the staff was thus distracted. Julian LeBrix says he followed Nilasa and found her stealing golden forks and spoons and a valuable jeweled egg upstairs. He chased her, and fired his pistol into her leg. But she climbed on the window-sill and so he shot her again in the shoulder while she was jumping through the window.

By examining the body, the consulate, and talking to witnesses the constables could put together a somewhat different sequence of events. Speak with Dead resulted in Nilasa stating that she was killed by "a shadow", and a black figure had been seen by witnesses outside. That shadow had slashed Nilasa's face and also caused some necrotic damage to her head, but somebody had gone to some lengths to conceal that by healing the face wound magically postmortem. It also appears that Nilasa first flew out of the window and onto the fence and was shot afterwards.

A part of the story that the security chief had left out was that Nilasa had chatted at the reception area of the consulate with a foreign doctor, Dr. Wolfgang von Recklinghausen, who was in the consulate to get a visa for travel to Ber. When Nilasa later fell onto the fence, the doctor rushed to help. Apparently Nilasa said her dying words to him, gave him a bundle of papers, and then he also took her necklace and ran away. A coach driver reported picking Dr. von Recklinghausen up and driving him to the House of the Blue Birds hotel, where the doctor disappeared through the back door while the coach driver was waiting for him to come back. The constables were able to get the file the Danoran consulate had with the doctor's visa application.

Another possible lead was information about Nilasa from her boyfriend, who knew that she liked to hang out in the Thinking Man's Tavern and had friends there. He also knew that she was working at the Sechim's Alkahest and Alchemicals factory, and that she was sleeping there. He asked the constables to inform her boss and her friends of Nilasa's death. Nilasa apparently had other connections to alchemists, as a receipt for alchemical items for a large amount of money was found in her pocket, together with a bail certificate showing that she had been picked up in a raid against smugglers and released on bail, paid by Heward Sechim. Nilasa apparently had used an invisibility potion in the consulate, and the door of the consul's office showed marks of thieves tools. But the security chief wouldn't let the constables enter that office.

After taking Nilasa's body to the coroner's carriage, the group left the consulate and went to the House of the Blue Birds to look for the missing doctor. Curiously the hotel manager told them that another policeman with a thin mustache, calling himself Officer Roger Porter, had already been there and searched the doctor's room. As the doctor was nowhere to be seen and a search of his room didn't reveal any additional clues, the group decided to go to Sechim's factory next. At that point we ended the session. 
Tobold's Blog

Posted by Tobold's Blog [HTML][XML][PERM][FULL] on 24 January 2016, 4:32 am
If you are reading about pen & paper roleplaying games on various blogs and forums, you sometimes come across the expression RAW, which means "rules as written". Unlike a computer RPG, where most rules are hard-coded into the game and allow no interpretation at all, rules in a pen & paper game are far more flexible. You can play them "as written", or you can modify them if you feel the rules are contrary to common sense or you think the intended outcome of a rule is different from the literal interpretation. For example if your players fight a gelatinous cube and use a power that would trip an enemy and make him fall prone, do you apply that rule as written, or do you declare that the cube is immune to falling prone, because that makes more sense? There is no right or wrong answer to that, and the decision might well depend on the style of your game and the ruleset you use.

Now in my 4E campaign I came upon a different problem with rules as written: Wizards of the Coast sometimes issues errata to the printed rules. If you use the D&D Character Builder on their website, it uses the "rules as written including errata", but to the player the errata are very hard to find (especially now that 4E isn't the current edition any more), and basically invisible. And when those errata are basically a nerf to a character class, that can come as an unwelcome surprise to the player if the DM cites some new rule the player wasn't aware of.

One of my players is playing an Avenger. The Avenger starts out with cloth armor, and a special ability called Armor of Faith that gives him +3 to AC. He can take a talent that improves that bonus to +4, so even in cloth armor his armor class is already quite high for a melee dps. Now the rule as written for Armor of Faith is that this bonus applies as long as you don't wear heavy armor or use a shield. That opens up the possibility to take a talent that allows the Avenger to wear leather armor, and gain another +2 AC. But that turned out to be overpowered, so the errata "fixes" Armor of Faith to give the bonus only if no armor or cloth armor is worn.

The player in my campaign didn't know that and wanted to learn to wear leather armor. I noticed the problem when I tried to make the character sheet in the D&D Character Builder and the software used the errata'ed rules and didn't give the Armor of Faith bonus. Now I could have overruled the errata and house-ruled that in this case "rules as printed" apply. But then the Avenger would have ended up with the same armor class as the two tanks in the group, while dealing significantly more melee damage. So I went with the errata and told the player to forget about the leather armor and take a different talent. Ultimately my decision was based more on what would be more fun and balanced, than on legal niceties.
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