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

Retrospective

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

Anticlimax

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

Breakthrough

I had the realization that I am playing GemCraft: Chasing Shadows the wrong way. I have been carefully ratcheting up difficulty and consistently playing at the most challenging difficulty I can reliably overcome. This has kept me above the xp curve, usually playing at 400%xp to keep getting further ahead. With the levels from that xp, I have been consistently pushing levels to the 150 wave range, which makes for the very long games I have mentioned.

This is silly. I do not have all the resources yet, so there will be more reward for sprinting to get all the skills and going back to get mad xp if I need it. I got a huge effectiveness boost when I got the critical hit gem skill, and I have mentioned in the comments that I needed the chain hit gem kill to round out my effectiveness.

Last night I ran through a series of levels as quickly as I could and found my way to the one where I could unlock the chain hit gem skill. I then went back to re-try an early level and see how it raised my effectiveness. My score on that level went from about 200,000 to about 950,000,000. One level, on my first time trying out a real mana trap farm, did not just give me more xp than all the hours carefully working through levels — it nearly tripled my level. I set another one of those up and went to bed, and it went on to farm into nine digits, bringing my level above 1000.

It’s kind of like that scene in a book or movie where the protagonist finds out the real scale of the conflict and looks back with wonder on the struggle that seemed so important five minutes ago. It is Ender talking to children still back a level or Neo looking around the Matrix where he used to live. It is as if Gandalf said, “Now that you mention it, Frodo, the eagles would totally have flown us in at the beginning if we’d asked.”

I suddenly got a lot of sympathy for the impatient players who want to be accelerated to the end game. Why kill monsters for coppers when you could do the same actions for gold? I remember joining WoW at the end of the WotLK era and making that jump from the vanilla lategame to the first Burning Crusade map. “So you guys farmed that for a couple of years, and I’m getting stronger gear from green boars?”

: Zubon

Bottlenecks

I am still playing GemCraft: Chasing Shadows. There are a lot of levels, and when you start going past wave 100 every time, a level or two is an evening’s gaming.

What with more than 100 levels, the map is large and sprawling. There are, however, bottlenecks through which you must pass. At some point, your next level must be X. There are probably more of these than I realized; if you happen to go the way that is required, you probably did not notice it was required, whereas crashing into the wall in the other direction sends you back this way.

There are several points at which unlocking the next hex requires a particular skill. The game is nice enough to very explicitly say that you need skill Y from field Z1, and it will not let you start a level you cannot complete. I should note that you really cannot complete some maps without particular skills, not that it’s just really hard, although that comes from the arbitrary difficulty of the wizard towers. You must unlock the tower by using up some resources, either tower attacks or spells, effectively a handicap on the level.

These chokepoints also tend to serve as story units. There is a tale of The Forgotten going through GemCraft, and you follow it across the map. It is not the world’s strongest story, but you can retrace the ruins of previous battles fought, which gives the game a bit of mystique and an aura of doom. When you look up from your shiny gems that are blowing up monsters by the dozen.

: Zubon

Restricted Difficulty

The GemCraft thoughts come from trying to ride the bleeding edge of difficulty. Sometimes we look for greater challenge because easy is boring, but the leveling system in GemCraft also encourages you to push yourself as hard as you can. You cannot grind the same map repeatedly to level up. Instead, your experience point total is the sum of your highest score on each map. You can go back and repeat a level, but unless you up the difficulty and therefore your score, it will not contribute to progress.

So add more difficulty modifiers, add more waves, boost the waves, and summon them early: anything to up your score, because if you go easy this time, you’re probably coming back to re-do the level for a higher score (for more levels, to do better in the late game). And who wants to re-do 40 waves of defense when you don’t have to? Only now you’ve dialed it up to 50 waves and are trying to keep boosting that difficulty mid-level, eek out a little more and keep things interesting. Of course, if you overshoot the difficulty, you’ll probably find out all at once, and now you’re starting those 50 levels over. I have several times ended levels because I boosted several waves of difficulty without noticing their different speeds, so they all reached the critical point at the exact same time. Hurts.

GemCraft: Chasing Shadows also comes with “Iron Wizard Mode.” No xp, no levels, no shadow cores, no talismans, no difficulty dials: just 5 skill points per completed map and that is your total advancement. There is no way to lower your difficulty by re-completing levels with higher difficulty. There is no benefit to increasing your difficulty, unless making one part of a map harder makes another part easier. There is no bonus for completing the level quickly, well, or with perfect defense: just win at all. This is remarkably freeing. Making the whole thing pass/fail takes a lot of pressure off, even if the fixed difficulty can be a challenge to re-adapt to after having lots of levels in the main game. Also, I am now seeing the first levels again, with their few waves, rather than the 50+ wave maps I am seeing 80+ maps in. The simpler game is soothing. I can choose to have fewer choices.

: Zubon