Showing posts from July, 2012

Mists of Pandaria release date

So Mists of Pandaria finally got an official release date: September 25. That is actually faster than I thought, Blizzard usually needs until the end of the second year to release another expansion. Still, they aren't far off the 2-year cycle.

For the record, I do not believe in the usual release-date conspiracy nonsense. Whatever release date Blizzard would have chosen, some people would always have interpreted it as a conspiracy against Guild Wars 2. I think that Blizzard is well past the point of caring about the competition, especially since GW2 isn't subscription-based. If anything, the minimally accelerated release is a feeble response of Blizzard to Cataclysm having done not so well.

Releasing an expansion for World of Warcraft is still like printing money. It will sell 5 million copies in the first month (not 10, because the other 5 million players are in China, where it will be released later if ever). And it will increase subscription numbers by a million or two for a …

Combat encounters per adventure

I am working on a conversion of a classic Dungeons & Dragons adventure module to today's 4th edition D&D. And that conversion process really makes some of the changes from previous editions to 4th edition very clear, with the key factor being the number of combat encounters in the adventure. I have one old module with 54 combat encounters, and I am trying to condense that into a 4th edition adventure with about 10 combat encounters. While keeping the same amount of story and roleplaying.

Now I'm not saying that this is all due to 4th edition. There are significant personal factors at work here too. But 4th edition isn't really suited for having small and short fights which are over after a few dice rolls in 5 minutes. That means that I usually don't do more than 2 combat encounters in one session. And as I play only every other week, an adventure with 54 combat encounters would last over a year. I find that far too much for a single adventure with a single story…

Inside the Destruction of Curt Schillings' 38 Studios

Boston Magazine has a detailed great article on the failure of 38 Studios. For anybody who still thinks that Project Copernicus would have been a great game if only 38 Studios hadn't run out of money, I'd like to draw your attention to the following quote from Curt Schilling himself:
The ex-pitcher had a bigger concern. “The game wasn’t fun,” he says, unprompted, beside the softball field. “It was my biggest gripe for probably the past eight to 12 months.” Visually, Copernicus was stunning, but the actual things you could do in the game weren’t engaging enough. The combat aspects especially lagged. Schilling — who never wavered in his belief that the game would be great — says the MMO was improving, but after six years, it still wasn’t there. When Schilling walked around during lunch hour, he says, nobody was playing Copernicus’s internal demos. They were all on some other game.Endless optimism only ever gets you so far, it can neither create a great game, nor make a $150 mill…

Looking for iOS games

I've been playing some more on my iPod Touch lately. After that discussion on kingdom-building games here, I started playing Rule the Kingdom. It has some nice features, a combination of kingdom-building and adventuring, but also some disadvantages: The game is obviously designed for the iPad, with the UI being tiny on an iPod Touch, and there are quests you get stuck with unless you pay for items from the item store.

So I started looking for other games, preferably turn-based strategy and role-playing games. The app store itself isn't very helpful if you are looking for anything you don't know the name of. But Google is your friend, and there are quite a lot of sites which can help finding the app or game you want. I found Dungeon Crawlers, a turn-based dungeon game reminding me of HeroQuest, and I'll be playing that for a while now.

The only disadvantage of looking for iOS games outside the app store is that sometimes games are either not available any more, or not ava…

Does EA have lawyers?

I just had a short look at Zynga's latest Facebook game: The Ville. It is an utter and complete rip-off of EA's The Sims Social. Even the user interface looks like a Sims game. Now Zynga got away in the past with ripping off small indie game companies. But that was because Zynga was the big guys with the big lawyers. I can only assume that EA has somewhat more muscular defenses if some upstart is attacking one of their most valuable brands.


IGN had an interesting article this week, where they accused Metacritic of being the reason for boring games and endless sequels. Well, not Metacritic itself, but game studios in which the developers are paid according to the Metacritic score their games achieve. Which is a rather stupid measure, because it only loosely relates to sales numbers, which is what game developers' bonuses *should* depend on. As IGN says, if you target a high Metacritic score, you have to play it safe, as anything controversial can quickly result in a few negative reviews that mar your score.

The good news is that this sort of playing it safe only applies to the big budget games, and that indie games have gotten a lot better over the last couple of decades. With distribution platforms like Steam you can now actually find them, or buy them in cheap and cheerful bundles if you want to be surprised.

Metacritic also has another problem: Either fan groups or protests manipulating user review scores. For exampl…

Path of Exile

I'm not a huge fan of the action hack'n'slash genre, but I do play games like Diablo from time to time. This year's Diablo III was a disappointment, even many people who liked it at first ended up complaining about the grind in the endgame later. So I was interested when a reader wrote me about Path of Exile having solved the endgame problems of the genre: Instead of running through the same story again and again, Path of Exile has a system which allows you to craft instance maps.

I was wondering if the Free2Play business model makes game developers care more about the endgame. After all, the great majority of people playing Diablo III did spend a lot more money on buying the game than they will spend on auction house fees. Thus as long as the game is good at the start and Blizzard gets the sales in, the longevity doesn't matter all that much. In a Free2Play game like Path of Exile, players tend to only spend money once they have played for a while, so longevity is …

Ultima Forever

I like Paul Barnett, and continued to like him when he fell out of favor with the crowd. The man certainly has artistic vision, great enthusiasm, intelligence, and is great fun to watch. These qualities might not be matched by an ability to actually turn all that artistic vision into reality, but it would be unfair to put the whole blame for WAR not living up to its promise and "bears, bears, bears" only on Paul. So I think we should give the man another chance and see what he will make out of Ultima Forever. Already it can't possibly get worse than Lord of Ultima. And I'd rather see Paul Barnett trying to revive the Ultima brand than Richard Garriott.

Skeptics will point out that Ultima Forever will be Free2Play, and is already using stupid marketing tricks like a fancy official "U4E" abbreviation. Shouldn't that be "U4E4"? Anyway, for me this is a sign that U4E is an attempt to make a far more modern version of Ultima. Let's face it, beyo…

Barely a game?

Early this year there was a story going round of Zynga ripping off a 3-man indie game studio by cloning their hit game Tiny Tower. More recently I saw on some forums that somebody described both Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes, another game from the same indie studio, as being "barely a game". So, barely a game but successful enough that the big guys needed to clone it? Interesting enough for me to download both games for my iPod Touch (they are free) and have a look what the fuzz is about. I'm always interested in the question what games are, although I don't think that there is a unique answer to it;

After playing Tiny Tower and Pocket Planes for a few days, I can see where the "barely a game" description is coming from. First of all these certainly aren't "games for gamers"; you can't possibly play them for very long in one session. Instead they are designed to run in the background, with you looking after them once in a while. Pocket Plane…

Building an adventure

The law of the instrument states that "if all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail". In other words, the tools you have available very much influence how you approach any given task. That is very noticeable to me when creating adventures for Dungeons & Dragons. I used to be a DM in my first 15 years of roleplaying, then went 15 years as a player, and now I'm back to being a DM. And both technological progress and my financial situation have changed a lot in those 15 years. Which means that today I have a whole lot of different and more powerful tools at my disposal than in my first DMing period.

Technology has a way of becoming so ubiquitous that many people can't remember how life was before some technology arrived. When I created my first dungeons 30 years ago, my computer was a ZX81 with 16k of memory, and there was no internet. I drew my dungeons by hand on graph paper, and wrote notes on monsters and treasures by hand. Later I had an Amiga with …

Building a kingdom

The internet is full of Free2Play games that let you build a kingdom. Unfortunately about 99% of them then have free-for-all PvP in which the kingdom you built is inevitably destroyed by some big alliance you don't stand a chance against. Games in which you just build a kingdom, period, and there either is no PvP at all, or the PvP takes place on a neutral battleground and doesn't destroy what you built are extremely rare. That tells you something about how nice a place the internet is. But I'd rather talk about the few exceptions.
I am not currently playing The Settlers Online any more, but that is mostly because I have already been playing it for a long time, since it was in beta and only available in German. Very nice game, and one of the more fair Free2Play models: The first money you spend has the biggest effect on your kingdom, then diminishing returns make overspending less attractive and thus less likely. The Settlers Online has PvE, first to conquer your island for…

Status markers for 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons

One thing I very much liked when watching people play 4E with virtual tabletops is that you could add status markers to tokens to keep track of who was currently marked, or poisoned, or prone, or whatever. In my pen & paper game with miniatures that is something which I hadn't solved well yet, with the risk of players and me forgetting who is suffering or profiting from what status effect. As I mentioned in an earlier post, I was considering using washers to mark status effects. But now I came up with something better.

A friend of mine is building figurines and models of just about everything, and he lent me his OLFA compass circle cutter. So I used PowerPoint to draw circles with curved writing on the edge stating what the status effect was, like "Marked", "Quarry", "Damage", or "Bonus", on circles of different colors. I printed that on 210 g/m² cardboard with my color laser printer. And then I used the circle cutter to first cut out the…

How much does setting matter for you?

When I was playing the open beta of The Secret World, I was killing zombies in Kingsmouth in exactly the same mindset as I was killing zombies around Brill in World of Warcraft years ago. And whether I'm killing monsters in some cave with my troll fighter in WoW or with a jedi knight in SWTOR isn't any different to me. But I know for others the setting of a game is of bigger importance.

I was thinking about that because I came on the reverse problem: Same setting with very different games. As I'm currently having a lot of fun with Dungeons & Dragons, I thought I'd try Dungeons & Dragons Online again. That turned out to be a disappointment, because what I like about 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is *not* the setting, but the gameplay: I like turn-based tactical games with miniatures/tokens on a grid. D&DO doesn't offer that. In spite of having a lot in common with pen & paper D&D in terminology and settings, D&DO is a very different game …

D&D Virtual Table and Character Builder

After looking at MapTools and Fantasy Grounds, a reader recommended that I check out the official D&D Virtual Table. I haven't really gotten anywhere with it yet, beyond entering my player's character sheets into the D&D Insider Character Builder. And it seems that now it is too late, as I just received a mail from WotC stating:
I wanted to inform you all about an important decision that Wizards has made regarding the D&D Virtual Table and Virtual Table Beta. While we appreciate the enthusiasm and participation in the Beta phase, we were unable to generate enough support for the tool to launch a full version to the public. Effective July 30, 2012 the D&D Virtual Table Beta will be coming to an end and the VT will be closed.I just hope that isn't a sign of things to come, with online D&D support being shut down due to D&D Next being less rules-based.

But then I wasn't completely happy with the results of the Character Builder either. The reason I…

4th edition D&D is for advanced players

When I started playing Dungeons & Dragons, there were two different versions: The basic D&D, and the first edition of "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons". We played the latter, because it had "advanced" rules like different weapons actually doing different amounts of damage. But that was an age where you still needed to explain to new players that they were "playing a character", and not moving a game piece like in Monopoly. Today children grow up playing characters in video games, and while that doesn't involve "in character" role-playing, everybody is at least familiar with the basic concept of controlling an avatar. Thus even a basic version of Dungeons & Dragons can be more complex than it was in the 80's. But I would say that beyond such a basic version, there is need for an "Advanced Dungeons & Dragons". And to me, 4th edition is just that.

The core rules of D&D Next, as far as we know them, appear to me …

Designing adventures with Evernote

My Dungeons & Dragons campaign is using a mix of pre-made and self-designed adventures. Writing an adventure is fun, but involves a lot of work: You need to have a story, probably revolving around a main adversary. You need NPCs and monsters. You need story encounters, combat encounters, and other encounters (like traps or skill challenges). And you need maps and handouts. Furthermore you are unlikely to create all of this in a linear order. Instead creativity flows in bits and pieces, sometimes having you writing down short ideas, at other points you're working on the details. That process is likely to leave you with a mess of notes, both scribbled down and printed out. Getting it all together into one adventure at the end isn't always easy. Fortunately I discovered a great tool to help me designing adventures: Evernote.

Evernote is a note-taking software which runs on various platforms, including PC, on browsers, and iOS. Besides writing notes you can also draw them, crea…

Adventures with Google Translate

As I mentioned in a previous post, I am looking for a way to mark status effects on miniatures during Dungeons & Dragons 4th edition battles. Lots of cheap gaming supply can be found in regular hardware stores. So I thought of using the kind of thin disks with a hole in the middle used to put under a screw to distribute load. I knew the German word for it, "Unterlegscheibe" (German is a very precise language). But that wouldn't help me a lot in a Belgian hardware store, so I used Google Translate to find the translation into Dutch. Big surprise: Google Translate translates the word from German to Dutch as "wasmachine". Now I don't speak much Dutch, but that is clearly a washing machine, and not the piece I want. How can Google Translate be so wrong?

Well, after experimenting a bit, the truth about how Google Translate works dawned on me. Google Translate does not in fact translate from German to Dutch. It translates from German to English, and then from …

D&D session preparation

I just bought and started reading Never Unprepared: The Complete Game Master’s Guide to Session Prep by Phil Vecchione. In the introduction he states: "The end result is that many GMs hate to prepare their session notes. I have yet to encounter a GM who is excited to prepare their notes—at best, they have made some kind of uneasy truce when it comes to getting their prep work done." Apparently I am not a typical GM, because for me preparing a D&D session is already half of the fun. I prepare session notes, create maps and tokens when needed, make initiative riders to sit on top of my GM screen, make index cards for monsters, and even sometimes play through the upcoming battles to familiarize myself with the powers the monsters have.

What I don't prepare is a detailed campaign background or the various roleplaying aspects of Dungeons & Dragons. My campaign outline is a two-page document, basically just listing the adventures I want to run, and how they are connecte…

Getting fed up with Google shutting down applications

My homepage on every browser I use is set to iGoogle. Thus whenever I open a browser, I get a quick overview of news, weather, time & date, my GMail inbox, and the stock quotes relevant to me. Now Google is telling me that they will stop that service in November of next year. I think that is the most recent in a string of similar bad decisions.

Google, while having a near-monopoly in search engines, is obviously struggling to compete with Facebook in the field of social spaces, and with Apple in mobile platforms and services. In my opinion that leads to Google trying too hard to come up with the next big thing; in the process they are coming up with lots of different applications, only to abandon them after a few years. Google Buzz is already dead, Google Wave was stillborn, and now they are closing iGoogle.

I think that strategy is flawed, because it only leads to me worrying about all the other Google applications I'm using. What if Google shuts down Blogger, or GMail, or Goog…

How do you feel about guns in MMORPGs?

From Errol Flynn movies to watching the fencing events at the Olympics we all have an idea of how a sword fight "should" look, even if medieval sword combat probably looked a whole lot different. And from action and science fiction movies we have an idea of how combat with guns or blasters should look. If we compare that to what we see in our MMORPGs, sword combat isn't doing that badly. It isn't looking exactly like in a Hollywood movie, but it isn't all that far from it. Gun combat on the other hand just looks wrong in a MMORPG, because it looks very much like sword combat: Opponents standing toe to toe and exchanging blows for quite some time. Doesn't look like any movie scene at all. Nor does it look like what we are used to from shooter games.

The reason of cause is that for the MMORPG a gun isn't handled all that much differently than a sword: Whether you hit and how much damage you deal is mostly determined by your stats, and in most games there isn…

I am not a lawyer

... but I find the recent ruling by the Court of Justice of the European Union which states that Europeans have a right to resell their used software very interesting. Quote: “an author of software cannot oppose the resale of his ‘used’ licences allowing the use of his programs downloaded from the internet”. That has enormous consequences both for MMORPGs and for digital distribution platforms like Steam or Origin. If I wanted to sell my World of Warcraft account in the EU, Blizzard isn't allowed to stop me.

Of course the devil is in the details. If Blizzard can charge you for server transfers, they might charge you for "transfer of your license to a different owner" as well. The court only says Blizzard isn't allowed to oppose the sale, they aren't obliged to make that transfer easy or free. The same probably would be true for sales of Steam games. It isn't even clear whether Steam must allow you to sell individual games, as opposed to your whole account.


D&D and trash mobs

The Id DM is writing about combat speed in D&D Next, which is a good topic. I admit I never felt the need to use a stopwatch to time combat, but during a playtest that sounds reasonable. So he is doing a 4-hour session in which his group fights:
7 Orcs3 Orcs2 Centipedes6 Kobolds6 Goblins1 OgreSix fights for a total of 94.5 minutes, with the other two thirds of the session being taken up with roleplaying and exploration. He enjoys that each fight is on average just 15 minutes, compared to 4th edition fights which on average are three times as long. I fail to see why that would be a problem. Because the very structure of combat in 4th edition is different. Basically the same session in 4th edition would have looked like this:
One fight against 7 Orc minions, 3 Orc soldiers, and 2 CentipedesOne fight against 6 Kobold minions, 6 Goblin archers, and 1 OgreFor a total of 94.5 minutes for the two fights, leaving the other two thirds of the session for roleplaying and exploration. As an add…

Making your dream MMORPG

Wolfshead recently wrote that "Most game designer have a secret video game project that they guard in their heart of hearts; designing a MMO was mine.", and sees that dream shattered by the failure of 38 Studios. I don't share his regret for the passing of Copernicus, as I have trouble believing that a company that badly managed could actually have produced a good game. But I do think that he is right that many people have a video game or MMORPG project in their head. Not just game designers, but also players and bloggers.

Everybody knows what he likes and doesn't like. From there to believing that you know what makes a good game is just a small step. If only you had a $100 million to realize it! I think the lesson of 38 Studios is that even with $150 million you could well fail to turn your dream into a dream game. Even if your idea is solid, managing a multi-million dollar project is extremely difficult, which is why the people who can do it are so well paid.

Of cour…

Ryan Perez vs. Felicia Day

I do think that Ryan Perez could have looked up Felicia Day on Wikipedia before getting fired over questioning her contribution to the industry. I also do think that he shouldn't have put sexist remarks in his Twitter bio. Nevertheless I feel that over all the outcry some core point of his question has been lost: Would Felicia Day be as famous as she is if she wasn't that good-looking? To what degree is her fame based on creative contribution as script writer and producer to the industry, and to what degree is it based on male teenagers' hormones going wild when seeing her in the sexy Do You Want to Date my Avatar? music video?

Playing D&D with myself

It is impossible to "roleplay" with yourself, as the interactive storytelling requires at least two people. However Dungeons & Dragons, especially 4th edition, is both a roleplaying game and a tactical combat game. And it is totally possible to play the tactical combat part against yourself. As a DM that has two purposes: Plain fun of exploring tactical options (although it isn't quite as much fun as playing with others), and preparation of your next adventure. You want every fight to be interesting, so testing that it isn't trivial or impossible under normal circumstances is a good idea. There might still be surprises if the players come up with exceptionally brilliant (or exceptionally stupid) ideas, but a combat try-out assures that the base line is okay.

One idea I had after watching people play on virtual tables was to use a virtual table software to run these fights against myself. There is MapTools, available for free, and the commercial software Fantasy Gr…