Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, August 20, 2014
 
Real gamers

Advance warning: If you consider yourself a "real gamer", you might not want to read this post.

Apparently there has been a heated discussion on Twitter and the games blogosphere about what defines a "real gamer". Basically there is a group of people out there who would like that to be some sort of exclusive label, some sort of badge of honor, some sort of true achievement. The discussion then starts because anybody who even wants to be included in the definition of "real gamer" then wants basically that his own level of skill/expertise/hardcoreness/dedication/whatever you want to call it is still included in the definition of what a "real gamer" is, while anybody who is slightly less skilled/expert/hardcore/dedicated/whatever should definitely be excluded and be branded a "fucking n00b" instead.

The whole exercise is so pathetic, it kinds of makes one sad. Just imagine it, there is somebody out there who is extremely proud that he beat some game at a higher difficulty level than you did. THAT is his greatest achievement in life, the thing he is most proud of, the defining feature of his self-worth, and how he sees himself. What kind of a loser does one have to be if the greatest thing one achieved in life is being good at a video game?

Social Identity Theory is full of this sort of behavior: A) We want to belong to a group, but B) we want to group to be exclusive and see it as being better than any other group. That already causes enough problems if the group is well defined, if by your passport, origin, or religion you can without doubt say to what group you belong or don't belong. But it gets completely silly if you need to apply fuzzy adjectives like "real" in your definition. Reminds me of an episode years ago where somebody in chat was looking for a group, but only wanted "serious" players with a gear score of at least 6,700. Guess what gear score he had. If everybody defines "real" or "serious" as "me, and everybody better than me", we never even get two people to agree on one definition of who is member of that group and who isn't.

Defining yourself as a "gamer" in the most general and most inclusive definition of the word can actually serve a purpose. There is market research that is quite interested in the question how many people would be interested in spending at least part of their disposable time playing games. The overall number of "gamers", if you define it as people who are willing to buy a game or otherwise spend money on one, is growing; and that has consequences: If there are more "gamer" potential customers, more games get produced. And yes, you can sub-divide that group of "gamers" into sub-groups that also make sense from a market point of view. How many "console gamers" are there? How many "mobile gamers"? How many "PC gamers"? Or even how man "first person shooter gamers"? If you have an answer to these questions and could track the evolution of these numbers somehow, you would have information useful in deciding what kind of game to develop.

In comparison to all that, a definition of what a "real gamer" is just serves no purpose at all other than stroking the ego of the person who twisted the definition to include himself in it. What kind of sensible game design or marketing decision can you make based on that definition? Sell T-shirts that say "I'm a real gamer, but you're a n00b!"? Being marginally better than somebody else in playing a specific videogame under specific conditions just serves no useful purpose at all in life. Everybody else who sees you in your "real gamer" T-shirt will only translate the term into "basement-dwelling no-life loser", even if that is obviously a crude simplification as well. The very idea that anybody could possibly look up to you because you are a "real gamer" and they are not is completely idiotic. On any scale people tend to despise the people above them at least as much as the people below them. "Real gamers" don't impress anybody.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Gardmore Abbey - Session 18

Before the summer break, in the previous session we stopped with a cliffhanger: The middle of a fight with a red dragon. The fight had the group somewhat worried, because the dragon had breathed on them already twice, and several rounds of concentrating fire hadn't even bloodied him. So in this session they changed tactics, and first attacked the kobolds. The kobold shaman, who had healed the dragon once already and cast buffs, died first. Then the kobold defenders went down. With only the dragon left, the fight then was a lot easier. The cleric pulled out all stoppers and cast some daily healing powers to keep everybody alive. And although the dragon got a third breath off when he was bloodied, he ultimately was overwhelmed.

The group found a lot of treasure in the dragon's hoard, including 3 more cards from the Deck of Many Things. They now had 20 out of 22 cards of that deck, and knew that Lord Padraig of Winterhaven had the remaining two. After a short rest they left the dungeon. And to their surprise Lord Padraig, with his court mage and a troop of soldiers was waiting for them upstairs. He had been informed that the group has cleansed the temple of Gardmore Abbey, and had come himself with his retinue to see whether the abbey had been completely cleared of monsters.

When the group approached Lord Padraig, the magic of the Deck of Many Things artifact manifested itself. All the cards from everybody flew together, ripping through pockets, to reconstitute the full deck. The deck then floated in the air between the group and Lord Padraig, sending out a telepathic message to everybody, promising the possibility of great fortune if somebody would dare to draw a card. Lord Padraig stepped forward and pronounced his claim on the Deck of Many Things, for the defense of his town Winterhaven. But the sorceress of the group was quick to grab and pocket the deck.

That still left them all in a standoff situation. The group didn't especially want to attack Lord Padraig, nor did he want to attack them. The Favorites of Selune tried to convince Padraig that the artifact was chaotic and could well bring harm to Winterhaven. But Lord Padraig had searched for the artifact for a long time and was convinced that he would be able to use it responsibly, not drawing a card on a whim, but using it only if Winterhaven was in danger. He was willing to take a chance when a dire situation would require it, and didn't consider that as chaotic.

The cleric wanted to bring the deck to the temple of Selune in Fallcrest, but Lord Padraig didn't want other regional lords to get hold of that artifact [And I as the DM didn't want another NPC to tell the group what to do with the deck. They had spent a year to collect it, it was their decision whether to use it, give it to Padraig, or destroy it.]. He proposed that the group could leave the deck with him, and go to Fallcrest without it to ask advice, but of course the adventurers didn't want to let go of the deck so easily.

Unfortunately my players aren't really good at taking a decision together. Everybody had his own ideas and they couldn't agree on making a proposal to Lord Padraig that would have resolved the situation. So after some back and forth the wizard cast his mage hand, snatched the deck from the sorceress, and drew a card (without consent from the other players). Now the Gardmore Abbey version of the Deck of Many Things has more positive cards than negative cards, and of the negative cards only two are really catastrophic. Rely on our wizard to draw one of those: The Void, which captured his soul in a far away prison, left his body lifeless on the ground, and gave a quest to the other players to find back the lost soul.

Technically the wizard isn't dead. But for all practical purposes his character is out, and he has to roll a new character. Otherwise he wouldn't have a character to play while the Favorites of Selune quest for his lost soul. So I'm counting this as the second character death of the campaign. The player decided that he wants to reroll as a druid, and so I improvised the start of the quest for the wizard's soul: A divination from the temple of Selune leads the group to a druid they already met in Harkenwold. The druid can locate the soul of the wizard in the Feywild, and knows how to get to a portal in the troll marshes several weeks travel to the north. To show them the way he sends his young apprentice (which will be the new druid character) to accompany the group. At this point we ended the session, and the Madness at Gardmore Abbey adventure was concluded with the players leveling up to level 9. Onward to the next adventure!

Monday, August 18, 2014
 
Pregenerated characters

Whether it is tabletop RPGs or computer games, pregenerated characters have a bad reputation. A typical gamer, given the choice of using a pregenerated character or going through a complicated system of generating his own will usually prefer his own build. Pregenerated characters are frequently somewhat generic, and thus boring. And they are often accused of being sub-optimal, by people who like optimization. I toyed with the idea of starting out Divinity Original Sin with pregenerated characters until I understood what the game was about and could go back and build optimized characters; but then I rather used a build I found via Google. I still might start a second game with my own creations later, there are so many options.

But one game changed my perception of pregenerated characters: The Starter Set of the 5th edition of Dungeons & Dragons. First of all the starter set uses the basic rules, which don't have a huge number of options. Thus building let's say your own rogue is unlikely to result in a character that is dramatically different from the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set. Second, and maybe even more importantly, the pregenerated rogue in the Starter Set comes with a background story in which he learned his trade with a band of thieves that later tried to killed him; and then in the adventure that same band of thieves plays a prominent role in the story. So the pregenerated rogue has a strong personal link to the main story, while a rogue a player created on his own is unlikely to be as well integrated into the adventure.

Imagine the story of the Lord of the Rings being played as a Dungeons & Dragons campaign with a group of people who don't know the story. The DM proposes a pregenerated character, Aragorn, son of Arathorn, a ranger of the north. If the player refuses to play that pregen, saying that rangers suck and that he wants to play a character created by himself, he is unknowingly missing out on a major chunk of story integration. If the player then creates a background story for his character that doesn't fit into the main story of Lord of the Rings, it will be a lot harder for the DM to integrate that character's background into the campaign.

I usually DM campaigns in which there is no pre-determined main story. The campaigns are rather episodic sequences of adventures, with a mix of adventures I write myself and various published material. In a campaign like that, I can take any idea my players have for a background and integrate it somewhere in one or more adventures. But the next campaign I want to play is a full "adventure path", a premade campaign where from the first adventure on the players are discovering things that lead to some grand campaign finale. Such a campaign has obvious advantages in appearing more like an epic story, and less than badly jointed episodes. But I wonder how I'll do with background stories to make sure the characters fit well into that campaign.

I don't think fully pregenerated characters are the answer here. Experienced players like to roll their own characters and make choices in the character creation. But I am thinking about preparing a bundle of ready-made character backgrounds that aren't too specific and can thus fit with various self-made characters. Furthermore I want to start my campaign by first spending a full session of explaining the campaign world to my players, before we even start rolling characters. So for those who prefer to make their own background story, I hope at least to get something that fits into the campaign world. That is a work in progress, I still have a lot of things to prepare for that campaign. Having an epic story to start with is one thing, making it actually feel epic during play is quite another.

Sunday, August 17, 2014
 
Resurrection failed

A MMORPG, compared to other games, requires a much bigger investment of time and money. Those two are related, because if you play a game for 100+ hours a month, the $15 price tag isn't going to stop you. In fact at the height of the World of Warcraft boom there was a slump of PC game sales, because people simply were too busy to play WoW for them to have time for other games. But once a player's interest in that sort of game diminishes, and he plays less, the cost of playing becomes more of an issue.

A year ago a lot of people were announcing the resurrection of the subscription business model for MMORPGs. A year later these people are surprisingly silent. The best numbers we have for the subscription games of 2014 are 772,374 peak subscribers for The Elder Scrolls Online, and 450,000 for Wildstar. And all anecdotal evidence points towards those numbers falling since release. With the exception of World of Warcraft, the list of popular MMORPGs is dominated by Free2Play titles like Guild Wars 2 and Star Wars: The Old Republic. If you add the number of subscribers of all subscription games today, including WoW, you get a smaller number than WoW alone at its peak.

2015 isn't going to change that. I got a mail from a website asking me to promote their list of Most Anticipated MMOs in 2015. Normally such mail goes right into the spam folder, but the list is so sad that I couldn't help but post it. Apart from Everquest Next it is basically a collection of indie hopes and dreams, financed by Kickstarter, and with very little hope of mass market success. And they are all either Free2Play or unlikely to revive the subscription business model. If anything, 2015 is more likely to see some of the subscription games of today switch to Free2Play.

As I said, that is related to the time investment that players today are willing to make. There are more MMOs out now, there are more games on more other platforms out today than on any previous point in time. The people who would still like to play some MMORPG are just not willing to play just one game the whole month long. And thus the monthly subscription looks decidedly unattractive. What we saw this year was the last hurrah, the charge of the light brigade, of the subscription business model. Requiescat in pace.

Friday, August 15, 2014
 
Wildstar had 450,000 players

A standard version of Wildstar costs $60, the Deluxe version $75. As Wildstar released on June 3rd, by end of June every player of Wildstar had paid something between $60 and $75, because the first subscription payment hadn't been collected. Assuming that most people took the standard version (the Deluxe version wasn't all that good), the average player paid a bit over $60.

Why is that of interest? Because NCSoft released their second quarterly report for 2014, stating that they earned $28 million from Wildstar sales in the quarter ending June 30. So if we know the total revenue and the average revenue, we can easily calculate the number of players: In June 2014 Wildstar had about 450,000 players.

But what will be more interesting is the next two quarterly reports. Ideally NCSoft would sell more copies of Wildstar, plus collect $45 per existing player per quarter. So if the game would really take off, the third quarter revenues could even be higher than the second quarter results. On the other hand, if a lot of people quit, then the earnings from Wildstar will decrease over the next two quarters and then stabilize.

Thursday, August 14, 2014
 
Godus - A comparative review

This week I've been doing something weird: I played the same game in parallel on two platforms. The game is Godus, and while the Steam Early Access version has been available for months, the iOS version came out a week ago. That promptly caused some controversy, because PC gamers who had gotten the game as Kickstarter backers or by paying for it on Steam were apoplectic that the iOS version was Free2Play. They feared they had gotten a raw deal, a Free2Play game by design which isn't free. Facts rarely stop a good rant, so the fact that the PC version does not in fact have any possibility to spend money on it after the initial purchase went largely unnoticed.

Which made me wonder how this all works. Is the assumption that the business model determines game design wrong? How can the same game exist with two very different business models? And how does it work under the two models? Are there differences between the versions? Which version is better? So I decided to try it out by testing both.

While I will say much about the differences between the two versions of Godus, the two versions of the game are fundamentally identical. Nearly all features of the game are shared by the two versions, and thus the two version play mostly the same. There are differences in controls (obviously), and a few minor differences related to the business models. But if you played one of the two versions, the other will appear extremely familiar to you. Claims that one version is less finished than the other are bogus, the "beta" label of the PC version is just a label and has zero consequence in a difference of polish or anything like that. I expect both versions to be developed further in parallel, and both to be frequently patched/updated in the future.

Technically Godus is a resource-hungry game. That doesn't matter much on a gaming PC used to 3D graphics. But on the iPad, even the latest iPad Air, Godus is pushing the limits. Sometimes part of the screen lacks graphics because the iPad just can't manage the graphics any longer. Stutters and freezes happen. The PC version isn't completely immune to that, but on my computer mainly crashed when I was trying to quit the game, at which point it didn't matter much. The main technical difference between the two versions is that the PC version allows you to rotate the view (using "Q" and "E" on the keyboard), while the iOS version doesn't. That makes the PC version overall more enjoyable to play: Sculpting the landscape is the major activity you do in Godus; the PC version with the ability to rotate and the much more precise mouse control plays a lot better than the iOS version where control by touch is less precise, and you have to sculpt basically blind if you want to modify the back of a mountain. I only played on the iPad, but I've read that the game is basically unplayable on the iPhone due to your fingers remaining the same size, but the screen being a lot smaller. Even on the PC sculpting is not very precise, apparently there is some guessing going on by the software what you were trying to achieve with a stroke. And sometimes the guess is the opposite of what you were actually trying to do.

Differences in gameplay are mostly in time scales: Things happen faster on the PC. For example a field of wheat ripens in 90 minutes on the PC, but takes 6 hours on the iPad. Which sounds like a huge difference, but ends up not mattering that much: You don't usually start Godus on your PC every 90 minutes. More likely you come back from work, or play in the morning after sleeping at night, and your wheat is ripe on either platform. Curiously I found that the slower time scale worked to my advantage on the iPad in one case: The enemy tribe, the Astari, hold a festival every hour on the PC, but only every day on the iPad. As they hold the festival even if you are offline, gain a lot of happiness from that festival, and steal your followers if they are happier than you are, coming back after several hours of absence on the PC usually meant that I had lost lots of followers, a problem I didn't have on the iPad. The problem went away when I unleashed my divine wrath on the Astari and killed them all with strategically placed swamps on their festival ground and a few lightning bolts. Overall my iPad game is more advanced, because I can take my iPad with me during the day and play during lunch break, while my PC sits at home.

Unkind reviewers have compared Godus on the iOS to the many Free2Play village builder games available on that platform. But those other games all have a fixed landscape which you usually unlock block by block. Godus with its terraforming land sculpting results in a lot more flexibility of how to build your civilization. There are paths of least resistance, but if you set your mind to it, you can flatten mountains or raise the ocean floor to create new areas to populate. But the comparison also makes clear why Godus isn't your typical Free2Play game: Village/city building Free2Play games often make you buy resources for real money. While that is possible in Godus, the game is designed to let you produce exponentially more resources with time, and that design doesn't work at all with the item shop. Why should I buy 1,000 belief in the item shop if I have a single building producing 15,000 every few hours?

Which means that the Free2Play business model in Godus boils down to buying boosters full of stickers. Godus has a system in which you open up new technologies by growing, so you get more technology cards by getting more population, more wheat fields, more mines, etc.. But many of those cards need stickers to unlock. You get stickers from unearthing treasure chests and from playing a Lemmings-like mini-game (which I don't like very much). But generally stickers are in short supply. So you can buy them for gems, and on the iPad you can buy gems for money. On the PC you can't buy gems for money, but you can get them more easily from playing: Unlike the iPad version you have a temple where you can sacrifice your followers in exchange for gems. That absolutely kills your happiness, but after the Astari are dead that doesn't appear to matter at all any more. And you can always perform some more miracles to make your followers happy again. For a completely fair comparison I spent exactly the same amount of money on both games, buying gems on the iPad for the same amount that the Steam Early Access game had cost me. Up to now I'm ahead in technology and stickers on the iPad, but presumably in the long term the PC will catch up, while I will run out of bought gems on the iPad.

Overall the two versions of Godus have a lot more similarities than differences. I had fun on both platforms. The controls and camera are better on the PC, but the iPad is easier to carry around with me and play on the go. If you have both, I would recommend trying the iPad version first, because it is free. If you hate the game there, you probably won't like it on the PC either. If you like it on the iPad but the controls annoy you, you can still consider paying for the PC version.

 
Calling a spade a spade

Dear Wizards of the Coast!

Thank you very much for releasing the Dungeon Master's Basic Rules for 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons, after having already given us a Basic Rules version of the player's handbook. But I think you made a mistake and published the wrong pdf file. What you *call* "DM Basic Rules" is actually a document in which 90% of the pages are stat blocks of monsters and explanations on how to read those stat blocks and how to make combat encounters with those monsters. Everybody else would call that a "Monster Manual".

Don't get me wrong, the Basic Rules definitively need a Monster Manual at this point. I just can't understand why you would put that misleading label on it which suggests it is a basic version of the DM's Guide.

The Starter Set plus Basic Rules Player's Handbook are an excellent resource for new players to start role-playing. And if somebody wants to turn the adventure from the Starter Set into a full-blown 5th edition basic rules campaign, he will be happy to have all those monster stats. But the fundamental danger of giving rules to new players is that they tend to play those rules as written. If you publish a DM Basic Rules that is only about designing and playing combat encounters, you will get new DMs which know all about designing and playing combat encounters. Which is exactly what happened with 4th edition: People played endless sequences of combat encounters because the rule books suggested that this was what the game was about. Experienced players who knew what a role-playing game is were able to play 4th edition as a proper role-playing game, and will be able to do so with 5th edition as well. But for new players this is a trap.

The PH Basic Rules and Starter Set make an excellent first step towards role-playing with the backgrounds, personality traits, and inspiration rules. Especially people who actually play the Starter Set with the pre-generated characters will find that their backgrounds are very well integrated in the adventure. What a DM Basic Rules book needs is more like that: How do you create adventures which not only mix combat encounters with exploration and role-playing, but also mix a "main story" that has a common goal for the whole group with all the individual background stories that give additional personal motivation for the players.

A DM's Guide need not only teach a new DM how to create a campaign with multiple threads of common and individual stories, but also how to create believable NPCs with proper motivations that perform actions that drive the adventure and campaign forward. Especially the villains need to be more than the static boss mob waiting patiently in the last room of the dungeon. A DM's guide needs to talk about how to role-play all those NPCs, and how to handle exploration, not just combat. If you want 5th edition to be a new start for pen & paper RPGs that brings lots of new players to the tabletop role-playing hobby, you need to do better than a list of monsters.

Wednesday, August 13, 2014
 
Ordered a new computer - 2014 edition

Time flies! I used to buy a new computer every 2 years, and now I realized my last purchase is already 3 years in the past. Is it just me or are PCs not aging as fast as they used to? Anyway, here are the specs of the machine I ordered:

An Intel Core i7-4790 (3600GHz) CPU
Vengeance 16 GB RAM (1866 MHz)
Asus Maximus Vi Hero Z87 motherboard
Geforce GTX 770 XLR8 OC PCI-E 2GB graphics card
2 x 250 GB MZ-7TE250BW SSD HD in Raid 0 as boot drive
A Western Digital 3 TB regular HD for data
DVD drive (rarely use them any more) SH-224DB/RSMS DVD/CD/R(W)
1000 W power supply
Corsair Graphite 730T Gaming Case
Windows 7 Home Premium 64-bit

I should get it by end of next week, if everything goes okay. I haven't ordered a new screen yet, but that will probably be the next purchase after that. 22" is considered small these days. When I started this blog I had a 15" screen, 1024×768 resolution, Athlon XP 2000+ CPU, 512 MB RAM, ATI Radeon 9600 Pro graphics card. I have a faint suspicion that today my smart phone has more computing power than that. :)

 
Being invested in games

J3w3l is discussing being invested in games, and how it relates to difficulty. Quote: "the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to me really relates to my level of investment. The more I’m invested in a game the more I will go to extreme lengths in order to achieve something or complete it.". While I know the feeling, I couldn't help but think that there is a circular argument here somewhere. Because not only does the amount of difficulty that is acceptable to a player relate to his level of investment, the amount of investment in a game relates to whether he finds the game fun, which often depends on whether he finds it challenging.

Basically what you want from a game is a sweet spot of difficulty, where the game is neither trivial nor frustrating. Ideally there would be some sort of feedback from the game that told you that you are doing okay, but if you could just improve your performance a bit, you'd do better. Or that you failed by a tiny margin, and you could probably manage if you tried again. Unfortunately there are many game elements that get into the way of that:

  • Obvious "gotcha" traps, which are designed to make you fail and are nearly impossible to avoid without foreknowledge. Yes, you can beat that level if you try it again, but not because you somehow play better on the second attempt. You simply know where the stupid pitfall is.
  • Too much randomness. Typical example would be a game of Magic the Gathering where you lose because you never drew the second type of land, in spite of there being 12+ of them in the deck. Again, you'll probably do better on the second attempt, but again that isn't in any way related to you having gotten better at playing.
  • Fixed difficulty game design. Simple games like Tetris get difficulty right because you advance quickly to the level where you are challenged. Complicated games like Civilization or XCOM get difficulty right by letting you choose it at the start. Many MMORPGs get difficulty wrong because they neither have a natural smooth progression of difficulty, nor give you any choice about it. They force you to do stuff at trivial difficulty for hundreds of hours, and then have sudden steep steps up where with no prior training you are suddenly supposed to know how to play well in a team.
Some PvP game designs can get difficulty right if they have a good matchmaking and ladder system that succeeds in always finding you an opponent that is as good as you are. But then PvP games come with a host of social problems (which often lead to you hating your team more than you hate the enemy), and all kinds of cheating and ratings manipulation which negate all advantages of a matchmaking system.

One way out of all this is to play games in which you are invested not because they challenge you, but because they are fun in other ways. Some games simply tell a great story in an interesting way. A game can also just be a social platform, where the social interaction with other players becomes far more important than "winning". Pen & paper role-playing games manage both story-telling and social interaction well. But then they have a DM who can adjust challenge level to be always be at the sweet spot. Computer games aren't all that good at that.

Tuesday, August 12, 2014
 
DLC is like Free2Play

Azuriel hates Bioware for the pricing of their Mass Effect DLC. He calculates that there are $64 of DLC for a game that costs $14.99, and asks Bioware "to get their shit together". I'm afraid they already did that. The pricing isn't an accident, it is very deliberate. It follows exactly the same sales strategy as every Free2Play game: Offer the basic product for cheap/free, get people hooked, and then make them pay through the nose for all the bells and whistles.

The Free2Play business model requires an always-on, or at least frequently on, online mode to enable frequent payment of the customer to the game company. Preferably, especially on the PC, the game company also wants some of the virtual currency data to be server side, so that the customer can't just use a hex editor to hack himself the currency he is supposed to pay for. A game with DLCs instead of an item shop simplifies all that. You only need to be online to buy and install the DLC. The game company doesn't even need a payment system, they can sell the DLC via Steam and be done with it.

Most players don't finish games. But if a customer usually doesn't finish his games, he might be reluctant to pay $50+ for it. Thus the game company sells the basic game to more people by having Steam sales and the like. But other players play the heck out of their games. So the devs would very much like to transform that enthusiasm into money. DLCs target the most enthusiastic players. You won't buy the DLC if you didn't finish the game in the first place. But if you are already considering your third play-through, you would very much like to have some new content. So game companies can easily charge you for being a fan. Just like they can charge the player of a Free2Play game for additional stuff.

In the end, DLC is just another variation of variable pricing, and variable pricing achieves the best return for a sale. And ultimately there is a certain fairness to the system: Those who play a game the most end up paying the most.

Monday, August 11, 2014
 
Divinity: Original Sin review

I received a free Steam key for Divinity: Original Sin from one of the Kickstarter backers, who asked me to review the game. After playing the game for a good number of hours, here are my thoughts.

Divinity: Original Sin is in many aspects a classical single-player role-playing game. You can presumably also play it cooperatively with two players, as there are two main characters. But the pace of the game is a lot slower than an action RPG, with combat being turn-based and there being a lot more exploration and dialogue; so I'm not sure how well this would work with two players without somebody getting bored. I haven't tried that.

Divinity has a certain old school feeling, which starts with you being presented a million options on how to build a character before you have any idea how the game works. Fortunately there are some presets, with one character in some sort of melee fighter role, and the other as a spell-caster. But it is likely that at some point you'll want to start over when you know what all those options actually do. Me, I looked up a build on the internet, and found that it worked quite well. Part of the old school charm is that the game isn't necessarily balanced, and you can go for some decidedly overpowered options like Zombie and Leech. And some skills, like invisibility (walk in shadows) are very hard to get in the game, so taking them at character creation is also very powerful. There are no fixed character classes, you can combine all sorts of skills and talents to an individual build, and develop it further as the game progresses.

As I said, combat is turn-based. You start with a certain number of action points, and each spell or attack costs action points. There is no mana, the game doesn't really make a difference between a fighter special attack and a wizard spell. In that respect Divinity resembles 4th edition D&D. Combat is very tactical, with a lot of environmental effects. Elements react with each other: You can electrify water, or ignite a poison cloud. As there are barrels or water, oil, and other stuff conveniently placed pretty much everywhere, you can toy around. It is very satisfying to sneak up on a group of enemies and cast a fire spell on the oil barrel next to them, starting the fight with them already half burned to crisp.

Then again in the first part of the game there isn't actually all that much combat, at least not if you are a completionist and feel you have to explore every nook and cranny of the city of Cyseal. You came to town to solve a murder, so you have a lot of people to talk to, and evidence to find. Items and containers in the game are either free for the taking, or they belong to somebody. But if they belong to somebody you can still take them, as long as nobody sees you doing it. Really. You can steal the paintings of the painter in the market place while invisible, and then sell them back to him without problem. You only get in trouble if your sneaking or invisibility fails just when you are taking the item. The same thing is true for murder, you can do it as long as nobody sees you. Invisibility is great for grabbing just about everything, especially every single painting on every wall in Cyseal. But searching everything takes many hours, and a lot of the things you find are not very valuable. Some locations are hard to reach, requiring you to find keys (which you can find by pressing ALT), secret switches, or other ways of entry. For one location I had to use a smokescreen arrow to enable me to sneak and then pickpocket a key. Other locations are trapped, and you need to find out how to avoid the traps. Overall you will run around a lot, but there are some waypoints to which you can teleport.

The inventory system has one good side, in that it doesn't appear to be limited at all in the number of items you can carry. Only the weight limits you. But of course that means that your inventory quickly becomes very messy, and the sort options aren't all that great. Especially annoying is that if you want to sell something you need to open a trade window to an NPC, and that is unsorted, regardless how you arranged your inventory before. Trade is part barter, so you can get that skill book you want in exchange for a bunch of paintings. Not every NPC has money, and the amount of money is limited, so you sometimes need to sell loots all over town if you prefer cash. You can also combine items in your inventory to craft things. But that is mostly trial and error, although you can find books that give hints on recipes. Other items are useful for other actions, for example a shovel enables you to dig, which is quite useful. Most things you find are random, and the content of chests is determined only when you open them. Which can be abused for some cheating if you save your game before opening the big valuable treasure chest to assure that you get items you can actually use.

During dialogues you sometimes need to make decisions. This has been designed for a cooperative two-person game, so both characters state their opinion on how to proceed, and if they don't agree they have to play a game of rock-paper-scissors to decide. Which is a bit annoying if you are playing solo and end up holding dialogue with yourself. Interestingly decisions frequently result in a trait point on various scales. For example you can be either compassionate or heartless. Either one gives you a bonus, but a different one, so your dialogue decisions have some effect on you. The overall story is told in bits and pieces through the various dialogues and written documents you find. I'm not going to spoiler the story, but let me say that I did like the more regular fantasy part of it, and didn't like the end of time part so much. But I guess I'm more of a fan of low fantasy than of the universe saving high fantasy kind.

Overall I am enjoying Divinity: Original Sin quite a lot. The game sure has its rough edges, as you would expect from a Kickstarter-financed indie game. But there are also a lot of innovative and fun ideas. And I especially like the tactical combat, which makes me want to experiment with various character builds and such. Recommended!

Sunday, August 10, 2014
 
How not to be a god

The so-called core gamers on the internet have always been a notoriously whiny bunch of entitlement kids. But their latest complaint surprised even me. They whine that the PC game Godus, which is a pay-to-own game with no item store, looks remotely like a Free2Play game if you hold your head at an angle and squint.

In Godus you play a god whose main power is terraforming. The world consists of layers, and you push and pull those layers around to create flat surfaces for your followers to build houses on. The followers then create "belief", and that belief allows you to do more terraforming and to perform some other miracles. And, horror of horrors, the game actually expects you to WAIT for followers to build houses and create belief. Belief creation is neither immediate, nor do you have unlimited amounts of belief. There is obviously an evil, money-grabbing Free2Play strategy at work here! Even if the game isn't free, nor has any way to spend money. If you have to wait for anything in a game to happen, that game is obviously a Farmville clone!

What the whiners don't realize is that if you HAD unlimited belief, there would be no game. Any god game is always a game of resource management. Playing a god that would be actually omnipotent with not limits would be extremely boring, you'd just push on the button that is labeled "YOU WIN!".

Lots of games have real-time waiting elements in them. In World of Warcraft you need to wait for raid lockouts, or for your vegetables on your farm to grow. These waiting elements are a core gameplay element for all casual games, whether they are on Facebook or on a mobile platform. If a game would require uninterrupted multi-hour blocks of concentrated gaming, it obviously wouldn't be casual. And it would be pretty much unplayable on a tablet or smart phone. That Godus has these elements is because it is also a mobile game, not because the iOS/Android version is Free2Play. If you object to the Free2Play version, you can always pay $19.99 on Steam for the PC version which, as I said, has no additional monetization at all (and even makes jokes about that fact).

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