Balanced Forces

I love and fear asymmetric PvP. It is so hard to balance well and so good when it is done right.

There is something satisfying about being the big monster fighting several of your friends, or being that group of friends taking down a big monster we know to have a capable pilot. About pitting goblins against elves against dragons. About ninja and samurai, pirates and ninja, merchants and pirates. Symmetry is elegant and much easier to balance, but teams with different advantages and disadvantages add so much more color.

But it is so easy to get wrong, and if you mess it up, it may not be fixable. Or maybe the balance really is perfect, but not in your local gaming group, where one person is especially good with one strategy and makes all the other factions look like trash. It is hard to tell whether the im/balance is in your game or your gamers, and imbalanced gamers can lead to runaway differences in-game.

I see the latest thing on Kickstarter or Steam, and my interest is piqued, but it will take many hours of (hopefully someone else’s) play to see whether the game has the chops to make it work. A bit of randomness in the game can hide imbalances for a long time, and really for as many times as I am likely to play a game, “close enough” is probably good enough.

: Zubon

Evil Defenders

I finished playing through Evil Defenders. It is a tower defense game for PC or mobile; I played PC. It is somewhat entertaining, but either you like tower defense and have already played better or have not and should play better. If you liked Kingdom Rush and want more levels of a worse version, pick this up on a sale.

There are fifteen levels each at six difficulties. You will need to go through most of those because the upgrade costs were set with mobile microtransactions in mind, please buy more souls. But if you play through the assorted difficulties, the game is not especially difficult, as the upgrades come faster than the difficulty.

The game’s achievements are kind of bad, which is an outgrowth of the grindy mindset. I decided to play through the whole game, all difficulties, and like the person in the linked thread I have 3 achievements left that will take hours of repetitive play to complete. Their estimates are a little high, because you could “efficiently” grind a high-yield map, so I timed that and estimate it would take 15 hours of playing that one map 90 times to complete the last few achievements. No. Even getting 1 more achievement would take 3 hours. Still no. Global stats tell me that 2% of players have that last achievement, so I hope they were cheating rather than spending a literal day farming kills. If the game had an endurance mode, and I could leave it running overnight, that might be doable, but no.

Getting all the achievements is not the point so much as using the achievements as a guide to what the developers are thinking and doing. In this case, they made 15 levels and are trying for fake longevity by adding on repetition. Grind souls to get your upgrades, repeat the levels six times each, and if you want your 100% completion, play for another entire day.

: 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

GC:CS Thoughts

What happens in your brain as you play GemCraft: Chasing Shadows:

Okay, what gems do I get this time? That looks like a nice chokepoint. They’re coming from HOW MANY directions?

Okay, I’ll just put this tower here and … crap, reset, I’ll just put this tower here

Easy waves to start, I’ll just enrage a couple of times, the extra hit points won’t matter … but that extra armor will, crap crap…

All right, settling into a rhythm. Let’s build up some mana, level up that mana pool. Very nice. Enrage a few waves. That was easy, let’s enrage a bit more. Yeah, just pour those swarmlings into the meat grinder.

I have 20 more waves of this. *sigh* No problem. Let’s speed that up a bit. Quintuple enrage the next five waves…

Wait, that one was a giant wave. Crap. Okay, no problem, just stop enraging a bit… although I already enraged the waves before and after it…

There are reavers everywhere! Freeze! Curse! Bolt! Zap, boom! Ha ha, getting ahead again, all right, all ri — crap, that wave’s still going and I’m out of spells. That’s okay, I can leak a few.

Freeze the giant, make him blow up on the other monsters… Come on, 2 seconds left on that freeze spell. Come on come on come on crap. Well, he’s dead now anyway.

Okay, whew, made it through that. No problem. Let’s take it easy for a few waves, catch back up. Okay, maybe not that easy. Oops, okay, maybe that was one too many enrages. Just one enrage for the wave after.

Pew pew pew. Freeze the swarmlings. It’s fun to watch them explode in clumps. Ooh, shrine’s full, let’s pop that.

And just the giants left… and done. Hey, three achievements, nice.

You then vary between “I wonder how far I can go in endurance mode” and “Oh god, endurance mode, I already went through 50 waves.”

: Zubon

Fine Tuning

I have been playing GemCraft: Chasing Shadows, a tower defense game. A great thing about the game is the ability to fine tune your difficulty. You can unlock three levels of difficulty. You can unlock nine different “battle traits” that add enemy traits and waves. You can select talisman fragments that give xp instead of bonuses that help you in the fight. During the round, you can on a per-wave basis choose to “enrage” enemy waves, spending mana/gems to boost monsters, and you can spend many small gems for high numbers of enemies or a few larger gems for bigger enemy boosts (or both). Rewards scale accordingly; I went back to an early map with some difficulty sliders turned up and got a score 20,000 times as high. Oh, and then there are achievements for other self-imposed difficulties, usually not using part of your arsenal or doing something very quickly on a particular map.

The base difficulty of the game is fairly low, at least in the paid version. (The paid version is easier than the flash version without the “magician’s pouch” mainly because it unlocks “endurance mode,” continuing the map after beating it to keep racking up xp. Xp in GC:CS is your highest score on the map, so going back and getting a few levels with your new skills and difficulty sliders makes everything else easier.) With many ways to tune the difficulty, you can dial it up to exactly the sort you want. Just want to run through the game and see everything? Keep it at the minimum. Like fighting big targets? Dial up “Giant Domination.” You prefer crushing swarms of foes? You can enrage swarmling waves into the hundreds. Hardcore elite gamer? Turn all the dials all the way up and go for it.

Oh, and there is “Iron Wizard Mode,” which eliminates most of your ability to level grind away the difficulty. Steam says that less than 1% of players have beaten that.

: Zubon

Steam also says that 13.6% of players do not have the “kill a monster” achievement. I like Steam games to have that “have you even played?” achievement. It’s informative.