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


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.


We know that Heroes of the Storm went through multiple names over the course of its development, and those were just the ones mentioned in public. How does a company have both “Heart of the Swarm” and “Heroes of the Storm” in the development pipeline at the same time without someone stopping that? I type at least one thing wrong every time I spell out either name now.

: Zubon

Accumulating Dailies

We have previously discussed the differing needs of people who play an hour every day versus one big weekend binge. Heroes of the Storm gives you a semi-random daily quest rather than a first win of the day bonus, and your daily quest sticks around between days if you do not finish it today. You do not even need to log in to refresh this. If you have not played in three days, when you go back, you will have a full quest log.

: Zubon

Heroes of the Storm: Gazlowe

Ravious mentions playing HotS as an assassin. My experience has been completely different because I have mostly been playing Gazlowe, an anti-NPC specialist. This isn’t LoL, it does not play like LoL, and if I am going with it I am going with it.

I picked up Gazlowe because I got a daily quest to play three games as a specialist, with no specialists available in the free rotation unless I gained a bunch of levels (poor design). Gazlowe was the cheapest, and he sounded interesting. Melee is not my strength, but he is a melee with Heimerdinger’s skills and anti-structure talents. I’m in.

I get that some people manage to be bad at Heroes of the Storm, but either Gazlowe is top tier or I’m just rather good with him. I do 30-40% of our team’s siege damage, sometimes more. There are games where I have top score for siege and hero damage and xp contribution. In a MOBA that focuses more on NPCs than killing other players, Gazlowe focuses on NPCs. You could build him another way, but why?

I take the passive for Gazlowe’s R: +150% damage against minions, mercenaries, and structures. Turrets do a bit of tanking, and Gazlowe chops down the towers. You can even upgrade him to melee the ammo out of towers, although I prefer more mana for more turrets. Against minions, he starts with two AE attacks, and you can upgrade his turrets and basic attack to hit multiple targets and then add a damage aura. Late game, it takes me longer to get back on my horse than to clear a wave of minions.

It is making the game pall for me the way that cultural victories did in Civ V. Players are what provide the variety in MOBAs, and Heroes of the Storm makes the other players less important. Gazlowe can make them irrelevant. And he wins.

: Zubon

Heroes of the Storm Non-Impressions

I have been trying Heroes of the Storm. It is kind of like League of Legends for people who don’t like the “fight the opposing champions” part very much, more of competitive PvE with some chance to kill your opponent. Old Blizzard refined the best of a genre into a polished project; New Blizzard seems to simplify a genre in search of an accessible product.

I kind of want to review it in pieces, because there are interesting design decisions being made, including some very nice pieces of polish. I think that will miss the overall point, though, because the gameplay is less compelling due to a combination of factors and missing factors, not something that will be apparent from one design choice in particular. I’ll probably go on to discuss a few details anyway.

If you always wanted a MOBA where the players were more of generals shepherding their forces than assassins fighting around them, this could be for you, or you might be able to find someone still playing Demigod.

: Zubon