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

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

Humble Gamepedia Online Multiplayer Bundle

This seems well-targeted for our readership: the new Humble Bundle is online games and add-ons, including packs for WildStar ($1 level), Smite ($5 level), and Path of Exile ($12 level). I don’t see anything there that I need, but you might.

ETA: and on Steam the Make War Not Love 3 Prize Bundle 1 is free (Sega classics).
: Zubon

Dr. Langeskov, The Tiger, and The Terribly Cursed Emerald

Free, short, amusing. The game has 10-20 minutes of content and does not pad it, so it would take me longer to talk about the game than it would for you to play it. You’ll know whether it is for you within the first two rooms; the concept doesn’t really change, although it escalates. The Steam description alone gives you a sense. I would say I am avoiding spoilers, but this game is especially difficult to spoil. Due to a mix of role-playing and trolling, the discussion, guides, and even the official content is a mix of helpful and completely misleading. It is unclear whether people asking about subquests that do not exist are confused or playing along. It is unclear whether people who say the game itself does not exist are confused or playing along.

Spoilers are fair game in the comments.

Instead, I am going to talk abut how achievements can hurt enjoyment of your game, since I am usually very positive about them. This game has rather unfortunate achievements, a few standard “do the thing”s but mostly “do all the things”s. The descriptions of how to get the achievements are missing or misleading (“in-character”), and the “all the things” are of undisclosed number in hidden spots. It is a scavenger hunt without telling you what to hunt for. And every room has a closed door, so if you miss one thing, start the game over.

The game tries to fight the trend I noted about scavenger hunts, blocking achievement completion if you alt tab, bring up the Steam overlay, etc. so you cannot follow a guide. Actually, that might be a bug, and I don’t know if it’s worse for that to be intentional or not. If intentional, it is somewhat clever, except that most of us have smartphones now and can just bring up the guide on another device, so it is just an inconvenience. The inconvenience is compounded in that this apparently bugged out achievements completely for most of the time that the game has been live, making them unachievable. Players also report needing to uninstall and reinstall to clear whatever flag is set by alt-tabbing. The game is a quick download, so this is an annoying speed bump rather than a barrier. The line of aggravated and confused players starts over there, compounded by the confusion noted by trolling both in-game and out. The forums are surprisingly rollicking for a free 15-minute game.

So I’m saying: play the game and uninstall. Don’t go for the achievements.

Bonus points to the game for having Steam trading cards. Because it is a free game, you can never be awarded trading cards. A+ trolling. You can, however, craft cards with gems, so people have backdoored their way into a badge that is not achievable through in-game means. Well done, players.

: 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

10 vs 2

Last night I turned up the difficulty on a tower defense map and went for a higher difficulty achievement as well. It took a few tries, and I learned new things about how the game randomly changes some variables and can make the map much harder or easier. After more than 50 waves and 2000 enemies, I got it down to the last two and was carefully working down their hit points. Then Windows 10 forced an update and reboot. The Microsoft messages seem to imply that I should be happy about this.

: Zubon

Middle-earth: Shadow of Mordor

I finished Shadow of Mordor and have been enjoying the DRC as a dessert. The Arkham-style combat with better stealth (I should probably play Assassin’s Creed if it is like this) is just great. There is not a lot of variety in saying it, but I remarked many times, “The gameplay is so good.” It ranges nicely from stalking lone orcs to pit-fighting against dozens, with side dishes of giant monsters, packs of scavengers, and “try using this move!” side missions.

The central story is good. At a couple of points, when you see the obvious stand-ins for characters in The Lord of the Rings, I am torn between being annoyed at the Theoden expy and liking the idea of demonstrating that this is something Saruman does, not a one-time trick with Theoden. The side missions are also good, although the missions to free captive slaves are more or less the same. I briefly resented having weapon-based missions that tried to make me use one particular trick, but it made me get better at the game and I found myself much more effective when I used everything instead of just my favorite tricks.

The difficulty is low, although that is part of how I approached the game. Starting out binging on open world content is a lot like level grinding, so I was stronger than expected for most of the game. The structure of the game also fit quite nicely with how I wanted to play it, rewarding stealth and mobility more than “kick in the door.” Branding came at the perfect time for me, because I was tired of killing enemies only to have them keep respawning; making them permanently yours effectively gave me a progress bar as I took over most of the map. After a very easy Lord of the Hunt DLC, I am finding the Bright Lord DLC somewhat more challenging, as [spoiler] is not as tricked out as Talion.

This has been one of the best games I have played this year, if not the best. Strongly recommended. And oh look, the holiday Steam sales are on their way. Go for the Game of the Year pack.

: Zubon