Growth Mindset

Yesterday I tossed something important in as a one-liner. Let’s unpack the concept a bit and apply it to gaming.

“Growth mindset” is the idea that your abilities are not fixed. Failure is not final, just an early step in learning. It is the difference between “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do that yet.” A fixed mindset leads to conservatively sticking with what you’re good at, because “what you’re good at” is fixed. A growth mindset embraces neuroplasticity.

Most games inherently encourage growth mindset. If you fail, you try again. You get better, face greater challenges, and save the world. At its best, gaming is a system of productive optimism.

Some gaming communities are toxic. They talk about “bad players” instead of people who are still learning. People are good or bad, in a way that reminds me of the Spanish distinction between “ser” and “estar.” Some games and communities make it hard to start and implicitly drive away new players. Some games are structured with painful learning curves that punish failure or create long-term costs for common learning mistakes.

Or am I exhibiting a fixed mindset to say the communities are toxic? Are they just not good communities yet? Riot has gone to great effort to reduce LoL community toxicity. Some games and forums seem to be moving as fast as they can in the other direction.

: Zubon

Shadow of Mordor Impressions

I like these open world games, like Assassin’s Creed (AC), where I am constantly being pulled away from the main story. They feel most MMO like to me, and I like that. I’ve noticed that in the last two AC games I’ve played (AC3 and AC4), I’ve burnt out mid-way. It seems that the glow of all the objectives is too strong, and it feels like I start pixel-bitching instead of playing. Run, run, run get the objective ad infinitum. The core of the AC games is either story missions or parkour “exploration”. There are some side missions too, of course, but when I am not in a story mission it feels like I’m just running around to the next glowy point.

The core of Shadow of Mordor (SoM) is much different. SoM definitely owes tribute to AC, and it does have a few glowy point objectives (herb gathering). However, my choices do not seem to be gathering herbs or doing story missions. The brilliance of SoM comes in the orcs. Continue reading

Best Player Wins?

A friend recently speculated that he was having trouble getting people to play Hyperborea because the best player tends to win. Hyperborea has some variability between games but a very small amount of uncontrolled randomness. It is not as pure a strategy game as chess or go, but it is far to that side of the continuum even for a Eurogame. If someone is significantly better than you, you lose.

I can see why that would not be fun. I frequently object to games where it is unknown whether victory is even possible. This is the opposite case: victory is known to be possible just exceedingly unlikely. All your decisions are meaningful, but the outcome is still pretty certain because you do not (yet – growth mindset!) know how to make better decisions. Instead of the frustration of an unavoidable loss that is out of your control, this is an unavoidable loss that is entirely your fault. You can still have Theory of Fun fun in learning to play better, but many people are not excited about diving into a lost cause.

This is a frequent theme in skill-based PvP games. In a fair fight, half the players will be below average, and the average skill of your opponent tends to increase as s/he plays more and the worse players quit. Even if everyone is friendly, polite, and supportive of you as a learning player rather than cursing you as a newb, the average player would rather be a wolf than a sheep.

For tabletop games, this is often less a worry because you are playing with your friends, which is usually the point of playing. Rivalry is friendly, and more casual players can use how much they lost by as a measure of progress (serious but poor players are harder to satisfy there). Another player I know counts herself as “not losing” so long as she is not in last place. In friendly games, the stronger player might take a handicap or provide advice to competitors.

Players want a chance to win. If that means devolving the game to almost pure chance, so be it. I am reminded of children who like to play ridiculous variations on existing games, partly because kids will try most anything as a game but partly because it nullifies others’ experience with the standard game. A work event at a bowling alley included three “fun frames” whose main purpose was to keep the serious bowlers from getting too far ahead; if you have trouble bowling 100, bowling between your legs or with your off-hand won’t make you do much worse, but it forces the pros down to the novice level again. Randomness helps the weaker party.

Personally, I find little satisfaction in winning through no merit of my own, although it can still be nice to win. I don’t have a reference handy, but I recall that many (most?) people would happily trade getting credit for their merits so long as they did not get blame for their faults. It seems an even easier trade to say you’d rather win through no merit than lose by your own fault.

: Zubon

[GW2] Living on the Edge

How is gameplay in the Edge of the Mists these days? My experience was a distillation of the WvW experience to almost pure karma-training.

There are three zergs of random sizes, each capturing objectives in a spiral, with the occasional overlap or intersection that leads to a one-off fight. There is little to no incentive to defend beyond the free points of catching unaware opponents from behind. I have never seen anyone care about the reward for having the higest score, and I do not even know what it is.

GW2 players were asking for more permanent PvE zones. I do not know if the developers meant to create one in WvW or if that is just a statement on the GW2 playerbase. But hey, it’s been a while, so maybe things have changed since my last visit.

: Zubon

[TT] Tiny Epic Kingdoms

Having played only a few games, Tiny Epic Kingdoms strikes me as Hyperborea writ small: tiny box, fewer pieces, fewer mechanics, shorter playing time, but still a game of building and territorial control with a strong strategic element. I could never play Hyperborea with my non-gamer wife, but she would be happy to play TEK again, and I can happily play it with gamer friends.

In TEK, each player gets a faction (race) and a home territory card. The factions differ only in their tech tree: “magic” you unlock by spending the mana resource, so constructs are stronger in the mountains while merfolk are stronger around water. Each territory card has five territories, and you have frequent opportunities to move around your board or send meeples (pawns) to other boards. There are three resources (food, mana, ore) and four ways to score points (food -> more meeples, mana -> more magic, ore -> tower, meeples -> territorial control). Each turn you choose one of six actions from a board, everyone else either does that or collects resources (based on territorial control), and you cannot repeat actions until the action board resets (after five have been chosen). Battle is handled by sealed bids, high bid wins. There are no random elements beyond selecting territories, but there are unpredictable elements as multiple players are making choices on the same battlefield.

There is some strategic depth in this simple game. You have three methods of building, one of which helps you build faster, one of which gives you more abilities, and one that is worth more points. You are juggling development and expansion, attacking or defending against enemies, and preparing for a late game that starts early. The territories do not seem to affect strategy much (a few details around the edges), but your race does affect your strategy. Things get more complicated with more players because one strong attack or defense leaves you vulnerable to everyone else on the table.

With 16 factions, I would be shocked if the game were really balanced. Some are obviously better with more or fewer players, such as the halflings’ bonuses to alliances (no alliances in the 2-player game) or the goblins’ ability go gain food whenever anyone gets a new meeple. But with 16 factions, there is probably at least one that fits your playstyle, which is often more important than precise balance, because that mathematical advantage does not help you much if you don’t have the playstyle to use it.

Pretty easy to teach with variety and a bit of depth. It’s a nice, small package.

[CoX] Bouncing Here and There and Everywhere

Back when City of Heroes was live, my supergroup made an alternate guild on another server. Everyone used the huge model, as small as possible, dressed to look pudgy, with animal ears, and in a bright color. Everyone took super jump. Everyone had a name with some variation on “gummy bear.”

Oh, the joys of silly theme days in-game, remembering that it is a game. High adventure that’s beyond compare.

: Zubon

Kickfinish

I was enthusiastic about Kickstarter projects a while ago, but I have recently been seeing fewer that excite me. What has been exciting recently is the arrival of things I backed a while ago. My Tinker Dice arrived last week (the d6s look especially good, but I now covet the copper ones, having seen how they came out). Tiny Epic Kingdoms arrived yesterday (quick review Tuesday; it plays like a pocket-sized Hyperborea). Kingdom Builder is shipping now. After a lengthy drought, I am being flooded with tabletop games.

I hadn’t realized how long Kickstarter has been around. It has had some great, successful releases and some games still under development “Estimated delivery: Oct 2012.” Developers may not always be the best project managers, which is I suppose why I have a job.

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: Diablo Clones

Do we have a term like “MOBA” for Diablo clones yet? “Action RPG” feels too broad. I think we’ve settled on “Diablo clones,” even if that is a bit pejorative. There are quite a few games like Titan Quest, Torchlight, or Marvel Heroes that are Diablo II plus or minus x percent. Personally, after Diablo II and Torchlight I, I feel tired of the genre. I have tried others and seen improvements to the formula, but the difference is not enough to give me anything that feels new or fresh, so I guess I’m comfortable with “Diablo clone.” Despite that, I tried a couple that looked promising this week. One thumbs up, one thumbs down.

Path of Exile is best known for its talent tree, “a vast web of 1350 skills that provide passive bonuses to your character.” Customization, great! Starting out felt very Diablo II, except everything looked darker. The graphic were better than they were back in 2000, but the game is clearly a Diablo clone. When I got to start on that talent tree, all I could see was the prospect of grinding for hours on a loot and level treadmill, plus the expected effects of having a cash shop, plus the community that comes with a F2P game. I played a few zones and uninstalled. This is not so much a fair review as a reasonable expectation of grinding and grinding, one 3% passive improvement at a time. I did like the use of scrolls as a standard currency.

The Incredible Adventures of Van Helsing was another Humble Bundle acquisition, the first in a while that I would recommend. It bought a lot of benefit of the doubt by not having those same expectations. It is a small scale Diablo clone, a single player game where you buy the box. It has on the order of 10 hours of gameplay for 100% completion of the base story (I have not tried anything else in it), so it has little of the fake longevity garbage you have come to expect from Diablo clones. It is more of a Torchlight clone for its “remove the annoying bits” take on the formula. You start with your “pet,” a sassy ghost who can tank or shoot, can be specced to fight or buff you, and who will even do the Torchlight “go sell my trash loot” trick. “Town Portal” and “Identify” are not scrolls but rather skills you start with. I’m spending most of my time here talking about what Van Helsing isn’t, because that is what was so refreshing to me: not having the things that annoy me about Diablo clones. The Quarter to Three review is pretty fair (there have been some improvements since initial release), except that most things he counts as negatives about the game, I count as positives. No, I don’t want to play through Nightmare 10 times to try to complete a set. And oh look, I completed three sets during one playthrough of Van Helsing.

So what is TIAoVan Helsing? Diablo clone, leaning Torchlight in its details, in a steampunk setting. It mixes dark and humor. Katarina, your ghost assistant, is one of the better bits of that; the final boss leans a bit silly for my taste. You do all the standard things of fighting/stabbing monsters and running quests from people with exclamation points over their heads. The game rewards a bit of exploration with non-obvious quests that announce themselves as you stumble upon them or gradually assemble them over the course of the game. The gameplay is a bit easy, particularly with the practically no death penalty (outside the hardcore mode). The gameplay is on the good side of standard. It borrows liberally from other games, from the Torchlight bits above (including a fame rank for defeating champion enemies) and a “glory” system like Borderlands 2’s badass points. The content is not quite varied enough for its length; you will notice maps repeating, including one particularly egregious re-use of a large map. Still, it rarely pretends to be what it is not, and I strongly prefer a game that does pretty well in 10 hours what most games stretch to painfulness over 40.

: Zubon

[GW2] Orange Halloween

A wash of orange and green has taken over ruined Lion’s Arch. Accents of the Bloody Prince’s red also sparkle here and there. The content is pretty much the same as last year. Yet, you’d think the Easter Bunny had a hand here because the biggest change to this year’s Guild Wars 2 Halloween festival is the amount of carrots. There are so many carrots to chase now, and the market is reacting naturally. Continue reading

Selective Quoting

Featured review on the Steam page for Eador: Masters of the Broken World: “Eador’s design is worth your time – a testament to its strength.” If you follow the link to the review, you see that is the second half of a sentence. “Despite its often-disastrous implementation…”

It seems like a fair assessment. The ideas underlying the game are great. The implementation is poor, from the frustrating controls to the useless battle difficulty estimates to the strong randomness that can swamp strategy and leads many players to recommend save scumming.

“Worth your time” seems somewhat dodgy based on the amount of time you are willing to spend. Playing through the whole campaign will take hundreds of hours, with most of those replaying the early game enough times to unlock late game options, the same thing that drove me from Reus. But perhaps skipping the campaign and playing a one-map game would be more interesting.

: Zubon