Time Investment

Phillip II: I can’t lose, Henry — I have time. Just look at you — great, heavy arms, but every year they get a little heavier. The sand goes pit-pat in the glass. I’m in no hurry, Henry. I’ve got time.
Henry II: Suppose I hurry things along. Suppose I say that England is at war with France.
Philip II: Then France surrenders. I don’t have to fight to win. Take all you want — this county, that one — you won’t keep it long.
The Lion in Winter

How do we feel about games whose competitive balance privilege the investment of time?

I do not mean games where you become better with experience. “Easy to learn, hard to master” is a classic design goal, and games without that learning curve often become dull quickly. Instead, I mean games where players can spend different amounts of time on the field, with points accruing to players/teams that invest more time. This includes bringing more players, playing for more time, or often both.

In contrast, think of a round of an RTS, FPS, MOBA, board game, or sporting event. The temporal bounds of the game are fixed, and the rounds are generally distinct. I can play as many games of StarCraft as I like, but I start each game fresh. If the other players are not there, I cannot keep rolling the dice in Monopoly to keep going around the board, nor can my football team show up at midnight to score unopposed while the other team is asleep.

Many computer-mediated games allow and even encourage this sort of play, especially where territorial control is involved, and the economics of the game may create this on a smaller basis if you can farm during off-hours to create an advantageous starting position. For example, your server’s score in GW2 WvW is largely driven by how many players you field over how much time, whereas GW2 sPvP at least tries to have equal players for equal time. EVE Online, Darkfall, Shadowbane, and Ingress are other games where bringing more players or continuing to play before/after the other team does allows you to win through superior time investment. You may be really good at the game, but you only have two hours per day to play, while the opposing guild might be college students who just finished finals (although you dominated during finals week).

On the one hand, it seems like something is wrong with such a game if superior time investment does not yield results. If you are trying to simulate a war, great ways to win a war include bringing more allies, bringing more economic resources, and sacking your enemies’ cities while their troops are elsewhere. On the other hand, now that I am long past the age where I have time to kill, why would I want to engage in competition where my competitors can score while I am not even playing?

: Zubon

To say nothing of the general MMO incentive to keep grinding.

[SC2] Verbally Raised Stakes

The cut scenes in StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm reminded me of Borderlands 2, and more particularly Yahtzee’s review of it. Every boss is a more powerful threat than you’ve ever faced. I apparently broke into the three most heavily defended locations in Dominion space and fought at least three beings who were more unimaginably powerful and/or cunning than any opponent I had ever faced. Of course, all the fights were easy, and almost all the bosses died in cut scenes. But hey, all the other cut scenes talk about how Kerrigan is now more powerful than the Queen of Blades ever was, than has even been witnessed, etc.

: Zubon

In the United States, every presidential campaign is The Most Important Election Of Our Lives.

[SC2] F2

I am playing StarCraft 2: Heart of the Swarm, and its user interface has the zerg-iest thing ever: F2 to select all combat units. When you get that button, the game gives you about 100 zerglings and tells you to have fun storming the castle. This is a horrible thing to teach players to use in a game that rewards skilled micromanagement of attack units, but it works just fine in normal difficulty of the campaign, and nothing is more zerg than just taking every unit on the map and throwing it at the enemy in a massive rush.

RP via interface: love it.

: Zubon

Premature Climax

Many of my multiplayer gaming frustrations can probably be attributed to the excessive deployment of high variance tactics. Gamers take outrageous risks where they would normally not be warranted. If the risks pay off, they win big and feel awesome. If the risks do not pay off, they lose quickly, call something OP, then get another round to try to win big. After all, the downside of losing an online game is not that huge, especially if you down-weight the negative.

If you are the sort of person who plays Civilization on settings like “epic” and “marathon,” the idea of “win big or lose fast” is probably anathema. Whatever game you are playing, you are planning to settle in, focus on the fundamentals, operate efficiently and perhaps aggressively, and build to a satisfying climax. And then this twerp decides to throw absolutely everything at his first attempt, either failing miserably and quitting (smack talk on exit optional) or winning and declaring himself the best player ever (smack talk required).

This is where I place the distinction in an RTS between “rush” and “cheese.” Continue reading Premature Climax

Of Three-Monthers

About a decade into the MMO genre, we have started seriously discussing MMO tourism and have settled on the idiom of a “three-monther,” which implies how long you will stick with that game. Of course, as in most online game blogging, Jessica Mulligan wrote about it years ago in Biting the Hand: the four-month point was where games either died or took off. I am wondering about Sturgeon’s Revelation: a game you can happily play for years is an outlier, and most games you play for a few months then move on.

My college gamer friends almost perfectly followed that pattern. Single-player games you typically played through once and put away, and multiplayer games lasted almost exactly three months. An expansion pack could buy you another three months, so there were two three-month stretches for the original StarCraft. Asheron’s Call? Three months. Several Age of Empires games? Three months each. I think one of the Monster Rancher games was stretched to three months as people experimented with builds, strategies, and CDs that yielded special monsters. Our group skewed RTS, but I think that speaks to the consistency of the time frame.

The longest lasting game was Settlers of Catan. That never gets old, even with multiple games per night: extreme outlier. We played some pen and paper games. How often did we shake up campaigns or change game masters? Every three months or so.

The structure of American academic life lends itself towards that, and the large number of student gamers contributes to trends. Semesters last about four months, so you have a couple weeks to settle in, your group plays, and then you have a large break for exams and vacation. It is a natural stopping point; your momentum is spent, so switching to something new is easier. If you are not a student, you might be a parent to students, and their schedules affect yours. If neither, there is probably still some seasonal variability to your life, peaks of business or of outdoor activity. Our planet is conducive to three-monthers.

: Zubon

Languished Thoughts

I am withering away waiting for the next Guild Wars 2 beta event. I have dreams of a dagger-charged necromancer or elementalist that I can’t wait to realize. Yet, the gaming world seems to be darkening as the light of the last Guild Wars 2 beta weekend event is receding. I am trying to shake the feeling as best as I can with Steam sales, and the like. Then I hear what is going on in the news.

Scarlet “MMO”

Except for the aforesaid exception, the MMO genre seems to be bleakening. With a gracious nod to Beau Hindman, I would say that this only seems to be the case for so-called “AAA” titles as F2P titles seem to flood across the land like a scute mob. Continue reading Languished Thoughts

Tech and Talent Trees

One sort of “RPG elements” that never felt like a grind was the StarCraft 2 armory. This gave a real sense of progress in that you upgraded a building and it stayed upgraded. Contrarily, you still needed to go through upgrading your vehicles every mission at the armory building. I get that the campaign armory and research were effectively talent trees, but it felt like there really was some continuity and meaningful advancement as a part of the campaign, rather than just starting over with a Command Center and a few SCVs every time. Because sometimes you get tired of learning Bronze Working every game of Civ.

I thought Age of Empires Online was doing that, but it turns out that you are unlocking the ability to train Wheelbarrows every time you play rather than simply learning Wheelbarrows. There are some permanent upgrades down at the bottom of the tech tree.

: Zubon

Peaceful Expansion

I have an irrational affinity for claiming land on the map. Civilization IV and V expand your empire’s borders through culture, somewhat like Zerg creep except that it just keeps going. Civ V took away the dueling culture aspect, whereby empire borders would fluctuate as one culture overpowered another on a tile. This makes the Great Artist’s culture bomb much less impressive, although more permanent; it also takes away the immensely satisfying culture conquest of cities, whereby cities in other nations riot and defect because you are just that awesome.

Expanding your cultural borders is an effective defense. The further away enemy units must stay without either your permission or a declaration of war, the more time you have to marshal your defenses when that war happens. It also lets you claim some nice tiles beyond your cities’ borders, because whether or not you can use them, you do not want anyone else to have them. You can also block major travel routes so that those not in your favor must go decades out of their way.

I’m sure this is some primal mammalian urge, the digital equivalent of peeing on trees to mark your territory. It is still enormously gratifying to see the entire continent in your color while the numbers on the meters at the top of the screen keep going up.

: Zubon

Age of Empires Online

It’s Age of Empires, with fewer civilizations and you need to both pay $20 and level grind to get full access each civilization. That is for each civilization, not $20 for the game. I can see where this business model would be great for Microsoft except for the “why would you pay for this rather than just buying an RTS?” part. They may have missed the “micro” bit of “microtransactions” with a $20 starting price point.

They are swinging for the home run, though, coming out of the gate with a $100 “season one pass.” They dream big, and MMOs are not the only ones asking you to drop multiples of a box cost for the promise of future content development.

Playing a little further, I met my first item that was no-drop, no-sell, “premium civilization” only. (Storage space is also strictly limited under F2P.) I think my exit point was meeting the Hetairoi, which are basically battering ram cavalry you can access with a “premium civilization.” I think the intent is “look at how awesome the paying customers’ toys are,” but the affect is “pay to win.”

: Zubon