Category Archives: General

General

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

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

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

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

Roguelikes

I have been trying some roguelikes and games with roguelike elements.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of a difficulty curve. They tend to have difficulty cliffs. Start, maybe a tutorial, good luck. And you know I’m all about the new player experience; creating an unwelcoming experience for new players is just poisoning your game, making sure it dies except for a dozen grognards who populate the last forum about the game and curse out new players looking for help as lazy idiots who should go play Angry Birds because they’re not willing to put in the time to learn how to play properly. Some roguelikes have heard about difficulty levels, but those tend be levels, not curves; either it adjusts the height of the cliff or makes it a plain. And too many games think that adjusting the numbers is an interesting way to scale difficulty.

Roguelikes seem shaky on the concept of balance. Players enthusiastic about roguelikes seem to be of the opinion that it is okay for difficulty to randomly vary between “doable” and “not even theoretically possible” because it is random. That’s the full justification: yes, you have effectively been given a 1000-piece puzzle with only 998 pieces, but you never know how many pieces are in the box until you put them together, and you’re not supposed to be able to put every puzzle together, so just keep reloading until you get a puzzle that does have all the pieces. I have seen advocates of balance via save scumming. I rather find it a large design problem if you can make all the right decisions and still lose. Which is to say, there was no “right” decision, so you had no meaningful decisions to make. But people like slot machines, too.

This is certainly not all roguelikes. Sturgeon’s Revelation still applies: 90% of everything is crud. But roguelikes that fail often tend to fail hard and do so in ways that are not immediately obvious whether the game has hidden depths or is just broken. I’m perfectly happy to invest small amounts of time in the face of randomization, but then you find creatively horrible ideas like “how about a 4X with roguelike elements?”

: Zubon

Quit Curves

The corner of a difficulty curve often becomes a quitting point, partly because it is a change in the game, partly in the way an extreme one feels like a betrayal of the relationship the game had been establishing, and sometimes because it indicates the developers are not very good. While Portal perhaps goes too far in making the first half+ of the game a gradual tutorial, it does have that transition into “and here are some harder puzzles, and now you’re on your own.” Do you have a favorite example of a game that says, “here are some tutorials, and now we’re jumping straight to the highest difficulty”? The Witcher 2 is notable for making that jump before completing the tutorial. Either the developers did not recognize that they turned the dial from 2 to 8 or they thought that was a good progression, and neither implies, “these people probably made good design decisions in other areas.”

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: PC Ports

Another weekend of “meh” from Humble Bundles.

Deadlight is a side-scrolling zombie survival platformer. Run away from the zombies, sometimes shoot or chop them, climb walls, and jump from ladder to ledge to avoid the electrified ground. The atmosphere is nice, and I found any plot incoherence appropriate given that people make bad decisions in crises. I played the first third of the game but stopped there due to dodgy controls. I presume it works better on a controller; someone must have tested the PC port but been ignored when they explained that it is a horrible idea to have a move that requires left-shift, left-control, and A or D. Also having different keys for opening visually indistinguishable types of doors, unnecessarily many moves because parkour, and some generally bugginess or finickiness in navigating obstacles. Not bad if you can get past some dodgy controls, but a basic requirement of a platformer is not to have dodgy controls.

Smallworld 2 I stopped before even starting the game. I may try again due to recalling some acclaim for the board game, but from the first screen the interface is horrid. I can see how it might work better on a tablet, but it misses things you would want on a PC like labels, flipping through the main menu without loading times, and a coherent display of information. Something about “Watch the Tutorial” rather than “Play the Tutorial” immediately put me on my guard, probably because of having seen the next note before it.

AdVenture Capitalist (not from the Humble Bundle) had a recent major update. The developers took a while between updates because they realized there could be money in this thing and made a mobile version, then replaced the PC version with a port of the mobile version. This reduced functionality, again with lousy menus, and any visual improvements were offset by new visual problems. They quickly walked back some of the visual problems, yielding an interface that is slightly prettier and significantly less functional than it was before the update. I have said that a rule of thumb for shipping the update is, “Does it make some things better and no things worse?” They took the opposite path.

On the non-PC port front, I played through The Blackwell Legacy, which was a sufficiently enjoyable point-and-click adventure game, and I say that as someone who has long since stopped liking point-and-click adventure games. The developer commentary is harder on himself than I was as a player in terms of exposition dumps and absurd adventure game puzzles. I only had one real guide dang it moment, in that to get the best ending you must stop and look at your notebook during the climax of the game. Borderlands players will remember that as “wow, the game is really starting to click here, I better stop and look at my inventory.” Setting, characters, and story are pretty good, enough that I will try a sequel.

: Zubon

Don’t Explain the Joke

There comes that moment in the game where you have crossed some threshold or achieved something notable, and you want to tell someone about it. And you realize that your non-gamer friends, family, and/or significant other would not understand what you are talking about; that it would take so long to explain to them that you would probably lose the emotional high from trying to explain its significance; and that they would still probably comprehend at the level of “he did a good game thing.” And then, in some games, where you would still need to explain a bit to your gamer friends, and then they would probably ask, “why are you playing that?”

But just so I can say it: I did a good game thing. Thank you.

: Zubon

Quick Reviews: Quest of Dungeons and Scribblenauts Unmasked

I tried two new games on Sunday.

Quest of Dungeons is a turn-based rogue-like dungeon crawl. If you like that kind of thing, you will probably like this kind of thing. I did not see anything to distinguish it from others except for its adjustable difficulty. Based on the global Steam achievements, most players had the same thought as me and said, “take the archer class.” The game might be a bit more strategic without the ability to kill most enemies without taking any damage. I did not feel motivated to play through at higher difficulty, although I could be convinced if the different difficulties mean something other than “everything has x% more hit points” or “health potions no longer drop, good luck lol.” But then, I’m not a fan of the genre, so feel free to weigh in with your expertise. It is in the current Humble Bundle, if you’re interested.

Scribblenauts Unmasked is the latest Scribblenauts game, this time crossing over with DC Comics. I like Scribblenauts games, despite the difficulty’s seeming tuned to the vocabulary of a small child. This has a bit more of a story arc than Scribblenauts Unlimited, with the bonus of more “random events” you can have appear on maps for some variety. Of course, you can still solve almost all problems either very directly (apply the adjective “clean” to the dirty thing) or with your favorite few words (“flying,” “bazooka,” and “fire-breathing” do wonders for me). Either the developers recognized those or pick up how often I use them, which was pretty cool when a flying, fireproof, fire-breathing enemy appeared for a boss fight. The game encourages variety by cutting points for re-using words on a map and with challenges like “no weapons” or “no flying,” so the same answer could be worth half or double points.

I can’t go quite so far as to recommend Scribblenauts Unmasked because it does not seem to bring much to the table. If you want a bit more Scribblenauts, absolutely, get it. This is a retread of things you know, plus some comic book stuff. It’s a lot of comic book stuff, so you have more than a page of Robins from the various editions of Batman. Comic book folks would like it mostly for the range of things included like C-list DC villains (Kite Man!) and more than 100 Green Lanterns, although New 52 is the order of the day, which might be less thrilling.

A couple of “meh” games. They’re not bad, I just do not see a lot to recommend them when there are better games. But if you’ve already played the better games of those types, go for it.

: Zubon