Orders of Magnitude

Balance is easy to recognize by a feeling of indecision. If you have several options that are more or less equally attractive, and they are still equally attractive if you are fully informed, that is a well-balanced design.

In the idle game Realm Grinder, you can get a bonus for watching an ad. They are not mutually exclusive, so you can keep watching ads, but the balance between them is interesting. During an event, one is a very slow stream of the event currency, which is nice. Most of the time, what you want is doubling your production for 4 hours. That is orders of magnitude better than the next option: +10% mana for 10 minutes. There are a few points in the game when that +10% is the difference between being able to complete a combo, but it effectively means that you get 1 minute’s worth of mana. Compared to doubling your production for 4 hours.

The last option is faction coins, which scales with your production. Ever so slightly. I clicked the button for an ad, and if I pick faction coins, I get 3500. I need 2.655*10^18 faction coins to get my next spell tier, and that is after using rewards to cut its cost. My costs are expressed in scientific notation, and the ad reward is 3500. Assuming 30 second ads, I would need to watch more than 721 million years of ads. Wait, no, there are 8 types of faction coins, and I need that many coins from two factions, so the number is a but below 3 billion years of ads.

Sometimes we say that an optional activity in a game is effectively required. These ads are very much not required.

: Zubon

Thousand-Dollar Decks

Spellstone is still my go-to online CCG, because I always seem to have one going. I have been playing long enough that I now have a top-thousand deck, and I am increasingly meeting the players who pay for the servers to stay up. I used to mentally refer to them as “hundred-dollar decks,” but looking at some of these top decks I run into, no, these are definitely thousand-dollar decks.

Spellstone always has a couple of premium card “boxes” running, and buying one out completely costs $300-$400, depending on how you buy your RMT currency. The reason to buy one out is to get 4 copies of each premium legendary, because you upgrade and combine them into one quad legendary. You can get 4-6 quads out of a full box, limited to 4 copies of the same legendary. I see decks that have three copies of the same quad premium legendary, meaning these folks had to buy out at least three boxes, and those are for recent cards so these folks are paying ~$1000 for that deck and will need to do so every two months or so to keep up with the P2W curve and shifting environment.

I know in principle that people spend this much on virtual card games, but I did not really get it until I saw the fight in the P2W ranks of the game. I should know this because I played Magic: the Gathering when it first came out, but it is still surprising to see, and I wonder about things like stolen credit cards.

twitter screenshot referring to the Magic the Gathering 'power nine' as part of an investment portfolio

: Zubon

Flavor of the Month: Tastes Like Burning

Spellstone is still rolling as my current online card game. For some reason I always have one going. “Flavor of the month” is part of its design with “battleground effects.” Battleground effects last two months, and they give a boost to all cards from a particular race, faction, whatever. This is a not-horrible way to keep decks changing and to encourage people to spend money on new cards and upgrading cards. Unsurprisingly, the cash shop cards follow the flavor of the month, including introducing new high-end cards for that faction.

This month is an elemental defensive effect: elementals get a flaming aura based on their hit points, and anyone attacking them gets set on fire. “Scorch” burns out after two turns, except that if you get a new source of scorch it stacks and starts the two-turn counter over. All elementals have a scorch aura for two months, and a fair number of creatures have a scorch effect on their attack.

There is an event every weekend, usually an asynchronous PvP tournament. NPCs do not change their decks to follow the flavor of the month, but players do, and this is the first time to fight a large number of players who have switched over to elementals. PvP this month is just running around shouting, “my frogs are on fire and my dragon is on fire and the fire is on fire and everything is burning, aaaugh!”

: Zubon

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


I got a month’s worth of play out of GemCraft: Chasing Shadows, which is about as strong an endorsement as you can give a $2.49 game. I dare say you’d get your money’s worth at full price, if you are the sort that likes tower defense enough to play through 100+ levels of it. Looking at my Steam friends list, I am a far far outlier in terms of how much this was worth to me.

graphic shows xp total increasing from 12,056 to 3,644,724,749 Having played previous versions of GemCraft as a flash game, the big takeaway for me was the magnitude of the breakthrough reminding me that reaching a higher level is more significant than optimizing lower levels. I would like to thank the GC:CS players in the reading audience who did not pat me on the head condescendingly when I was proud of getting past wave 100, when that is still the early game. The image to the right expresses the change in magnitude, and that 3 billion xp came from a map where I went AFK and just let it run for a while.

Getting ahead of the xp curve was valuable, but the hour I spent carefully maximizing a level in the middle of the map would have been much better spent zipping across the map to get to the point where I had all the skills and difficulty dials. Getting one million xp is helpful, but it took an hour to do it around level 200; once you get your full suite of options, you leap to level 2000 and can earn more than a million xp in a second. Water finds its level, and you profit more by finding your level than by trying to perfect each level along the way. Granted, being really good at one level is usually how you reach the next one, and we gamers have a long history of optimizing the fun out of our games, so I am open to counter-arguments here.

There are only 3 achievements left that are not “defeat level X with a self-imposed handicap” achievements, so I may take a victory lap through those levels and see if I can pick up the 2 non-level-specific achievements along the way. The last achievement challenge is Iron Wizard mode, re-doing the game without being able to out-level the difficulty curve (although also with no reason to perfect levels beyond “just finish”). I don’t know if that sounds like fun or drudgery. I do not think I will be joining the players at the “extreme end game,” even though I am reaching that level 3000 range where it opens up. At that point, you’re just seeing how much you can abuse the math behind the game, which sounds fun but I’ve served my time.

: Zubon


I accidentally beat GemCraft: Chasing Shadows last week. “Accidentally” in that I was pursuing my new playstyle of sprinting through levels in search of all abilities when it turned out that one of them was the official end of the story. I’m not sure how much I can spoil a story that fits on one page or how much the story of a tower defense game matters; it ends with the same tone as the first game.

The story-ending level does combine a few mechanics we’ve seen across the game, rather than being a standard level. So that was kind of interesting. Something seems wrong with being able to beat a game on accident, especially given how this series makes beating the game a loss.

There are epilogue levels, plus all the levels you didn’t play or can play again for more waves and at higher difficulty. For tower defense, like FPS, the play is the thing, so it’s a matter of for how long the gameplay stays interesting (and you still have a sense of achievement). And then there’s Iron Wizard mode, beat the game again without being able to out-level the difficulty curve.

: Zubon