Fluff and Crunch

rock titan The online CCG Spellstone includes the ability “invisibility,” which makes enemy skills miss. In addition to using it for assassins and illusionists, the game applies the same skill to represent carapaces that make attacks deflect, like turtles. This leads to the pictured Rock Titan, a huge pile of stone whose toes tower over horses, with a giant spotlight for its eye, which is very sneaky.

: Zubon

Pathfinder Adventure Card Game

At Tobold’s suggestion, I have tried a bit of the Pathfinder Adventure Card game (on Android). I always seem to have a digital CCG of some sort going, and this seems to be a pretty good one.

I had intended to try the paper version, but I do not have a regular gaming group with which to play. This falls between a CCG and a tabletop RPG; the decks are characters, which change and level up through adventuring, but there is not quite the story feel of an RPG. If you want the mechanical part of the game, this is an efficient way to go about getting it without needing another play to sit out as GM.

I do not know how long this will stay in my playing rotation. The fixed adventures and the random quests are really about the same, in that you face some semi-random group of cards, most of which you will quickly come to recognize. I suppose they are better themed in the story adventure chain? I was finding it just as satisfying to run random quests. Given the minimal story, that’s about the same gameplay. The lack of cloud save is a negative.

The game’s model is F2P with microtransaction and “box” options. The “box” here is paying $25 for full access to all the modules and characters, as if you bought the box of cards. The microtransactions are for smaller quantities of gold, which you can use to buy the box cards, but there is quite a bit of grinding to be had to earn that gold. Personally, I found no hardship in beating 15 quests to unlock a second hero because that’s the game. At the lowest difficulty, the game is entirely playable with just the two free characters, and I will see how it does with three or more.

: Zubon

Dressing Room

a screenshot from the game Farm For Your Life showing the character customization screen The game Farm For Your Life has a simple feature that I have not seen elsewhere: on the character customization screen, put a mirror behind the character so you can see how that hair, jacket, whatever looks from behind. Yes, you can usually spin the character around to look, but is a mirror that hard? (Probably, yeah.)

In many game genres, you mostly see your character from behind anyway. Maybe the point of view should start behind the character, like in a barber shop or hair salon, with you the customizer as the hairdresser. And spend less time customizing the exact shape of a nose you can’t see 95% of the time.

: Zubon

Evolution and Enshrinement of a Feature

The first time I encountered an MMO with a confectioner trade to make muffins that buff people, I was enchanted. It is a simple and slightly silly idea with roots in developers learning what players like.

Hunger, thirst, and other biological functions are not common features in MMOs these days, apart from surprisingly common quests to make you clean up poop. Early RPGs commonly had hunger and sometimes thirst, reflecting the intuitive notion that you will starve to death if you never eat. This meant players needed to acquire food (and sometimes water) and eat regularly or else suffer a hunger debuff that might stack unto death.

Players generally hated that. It was the sort of bookkeeping that most people ignore in pencil and paper roleplaying games, like encumbrance. Yes, there are survival games where finding food is a core mechanic, but most of us are happy to assume it happens in the background. More importantly, players hate debuffs, they hate feeling like something is being taken from them, and they hate being reminded of costs over time.

It feels like a tax on playing the game. Continue reading Evolution and Enshrinement of a Feature

Unplayed Steam Games

I have many unplayed Steam games, largely due to buying packs of games where I am interested in a few of the ten. Then there is the Steam sale effect where you see a game you are kind of interested in playing at 75% off, so you pick it up now for potential play later.

I am thinking that Borderlands 2 has quite a bit of the latter. Looking at Steam achievements for Borderlands 2, 27% of people have not gotten as far as picking up the first gun. More than a quarter of people who own this game have not played it. 27% have completed the game’s storyline, which makes for nice symmetry. And 2.7% have been to all the named locations on the map.

I have no great insight here, just an observation. More than a quarter of sales of a AAA game did not lead to playing.

: Zubon

Casual Bites

Long-time readers know that I am an immoderate person. I binge, I commit fully. I mentioned that I was reading Worm; I went through 1,680,000 words in 17 days. So I don’t drink and I am careful about getting invested in things. I am coming down from that Worm binge and am once again (still?) wanting games I could play casually even if I likely won’t. The metaphor still holds: sometimes you won’t commit to watching a 90 minute movie but you will watch 5 TV episodes in a row.

One thing I liked about the MMO genre was the ability to make small units of progress. Hop in, get a few easy objectives in 15-30 minutes, go on to whatever else you’re doing. Beyond coasting, it combines the casual game spirit of low investment play with the long term perspective that these little units add up. There are plenty of single-player games that are similar, which are mostly what I am seeking in my Steam library as I have given up on MMOs.

There are lots of games that I want to play but do not feel up to committing the time necessary to give them a fair shot. I have some 4Xs but it is not quite satisfying to pop into one of those for a few turns. I have Banished installed but my only visit to its tutorial reminded me of The Witcher 2, not in difficulty but in that its interface turned me off so much that by the time I can get over that feeling I also forget what I was supposed to have learned. Before I completed the first tutorial it seemed that building a basic settlement involved going 2 or 3 levels deep in each of several menus for each of several steps, requiring roughly a paragraph of explanation each. Banished has a rather good (if harsh) reputation, but I don’t know if I’m up to that kind of commitment just to learn the interface.

My current need is gaming in bite-sized increments with intuitive gameplay. Being me, I am likely to leap into and consume something in mass volume, but I need that intuitive gameplay to get me past the commitment conundrum of needing to invest in learning a game before I am able to enjoy it. I want the game to meet me at least half way in terms of interface, when many of our gamer games seem to pride themselves on requiring large time investments to learn their mechanics.

: Zubon

Testing

I am gradually playing through Tiny Tina’s Assault on Dragon Keep in Borderlands 2, and I have come to wonder if the game was playtested solo and/or with the Mechromancer. I assume it must have been, so either the design team did not listen to those testers or they decided these were good design decisions. Part of the point of the DLC’s story is that Tiny Tina is a lousy GM with little concept of balance, fairness, or sanity, but that is not something you really want to inflict on your players.

For example, there are a fair number of enemies with one-shot (or nearly so) attacks. Borderlands 2 comes with one-shot protection, kind of like how City of Heroes prevented you from dying due to falling damage: you would be left at minimal hit points but not dead. This DLC keeps that rule, but has some of those heavy attacks be DoTs, have elemental effects with DoTs, or come as a multi-hit beam rather than a technical one-shot. It is a weird state of affairs when you build a mechanic into a game to prevent a problem, then design around that mechanic to make sure that problem still happens. This is mostly a problem for solo players, because in a multi-player game anyone can revive.

There are also several points at which Tina arbitrarily smites you because that’s how she wants the story to go. She usually gets talked out of it, but there are occasional scripted deaths where it is just a free trip to the rez point. (Not sure if some are whole-group and some just the mission owner/closest person, since I’m playing solo; if the latter, this works much better in group play.) As I have mentioned, this sort of thing is a major momentum breaker for the Mechromancer. When your class’s core mechanic is building up a buff over time, nothing ruins the play session quite like arbitrarily resetting that buff.

I’m amused by the metagamey story and the occasional rainbows and unicorns when Tina forgets she is telling a dark and brooding story. The gameplay mechanics of the DLC are shaky.

: Zubon

AlphaGo

While I have been reading instead of playing, the most exciting news in computer gaming has been Go. Chess-playing computer programs have gradually moved from “plays a standard game pretty well” to “almost competitive with a good human” to “consistently beats world champions,” reaching the end of that progression about a decade ago. Go, contrarily, has long been held out as a game at which computers will have trouble making gains because the search space is huge for a 19×19 board, moves have long-term consequences that make evaluating individual moves difficult, and play has generally been seen as more intuitive and so less open to computational brute force.

A year ago, the best Go program was competitive against a good amateur player. In the last six months, Google Deepmind’s AlphaGo has leaped to “best in the world,” beating the European champion 5-0 and now beating the world champion 3-0 with two games to go.

frame from a manga. two young men face a computer. one says, "but they say it'll be another hundred years before a computer can beat a human at go." the one at the keyboard replies, "I don't need a hundred years." There are three things I would like to note here. First, the speed of that jump is ridiculous. Go has long been one of those “at least a decade away” computing problems, like the ones that have been forecast as “20-30 years away” for the last 20-30 years and are still 20-30 years away today. AlphaGo is the first computer program to beat a professional player without a handicap, and then it went on to beat the world champion. That is going from “can’t beat a professional player” to “beats the top professional player” in one step. This is not the gradual progress we saw with computers and chess over decades, this is an escalation in power levels that would make anime blush.

Second, this is not simply a matter of Google having massive computing power to throw at the problem. The chess world champions play on supercomputers and evaluation trillions of positions per second. The world champion version of AlphaGo uses a distributed computing network, but they also have a single-computer version that beats the distributed version about a quarter of the time. We will see if the human world champion gets one win in the series, but this suggests that a much less powerful version of AlphaGo would still be a top player.

What I find most interesting is that humans seem to be fairly bad at evaluating how AlphaGo is doing. AlphaGo optimizes for probability of winning, not its current score or a projected score at the end. So the human analysts are commenting on how the computer seems to be making mistakes, that it is not capturing territory, and oh look gg the computer has somehow gotten itself into an unassailable position. One of the reasons computers have been bad at Go is that a single move now can have subtle implications 50 moves later; AlphaGo has made the jump to where its subtle moves look like mistakes to observers until it wins. It is probably not the case that the computer was playing a close game and pulled ahead in the late game. It seems more likely that the computer was steadily pulling ahead but in a way that is not obvious until the late game. Here is Eliezer Yudkowsky exploring this point at length. Bonus thought: human commentators were probably assuming that AlphaGo would lose, so odd-looking moves were probably mistakes rather than subtle brilliance; in light of consistent wins, I am curious if the human commentators will now look more closely at its moves for hidden strengths, rather than starting with the frame “this is another lousy computer Go program.”

: Zubon

Bonus thought 2: when I see Eliezer referencing “Path to Victory” in that post, I cannot help but see him referencing Worm, which he has read and commented on before.

Pathfinder Magical Girls

I have not been gaming for the past couple of weeks because I have been binge-reading Worm, which is both good and lengthy.

To tide you over, Pathfinder (the spiritual successor to D&D, don’t really know what official D&D is doing with 5th edition) will soon have, well:

The magical child archetype covers the “magical girl” trope, with a transformation sequence ability (faster switch between identities, but with flashy lights and music), summoner spells, and an otherworldly buddy.

I’m not sure if Pathfinder’s warlock is like D&D’s, but I think a warlock pact with Kyuubey would multiclass nicely to make a magical girl.

: Zubon