Fallout in Space

There’s a bit of hyper here.  Or maybe it’s hope.  Stars with an H anyways.

Obsidian Games is on my list of “must play” developers.  There’s something about their games that screams “we’re a small shop but big ideas”.  KOTOR2 and Fallout:New Vegas exemplify that.  Awesome ideas, a whole lotta bugs, some interesting cut content.

I’ve had my eye on Outer Worlds for about a year now.  The concept boils down to Fallout in Space.  You get the equivalent of a SPECIAL system, skill checks, melee/ranged attacks, a mini-VATS system, dialogue trees, companions, quests.  Combine that with a dry/sarcastic humour set as a spacer, and you can have my $$$.

I’m not going to pretend that this won’t launch without game breaking bugs.  I don’t recall any Obsidian game that ever has.  It’s also an Epic Store exclusive for the first year on PC (minus the Microsoft store… since Obsidian is owned by Microsoft).  I already have that client for Dauntless and Outer Wilds.  It isn’t as full featured as Steam, but it does offer cross play for Dauntless, has a lot of games, and has way less overlay than say, Origin.

Game launches on Oct 25.  I’ll have my Dauntless pass complete by then (level 41/50 now), and I’m guessing I’ll have some time set to pay this bad boy.

Thinking on Your Feet

Blizzcon is in 3 weeks.  Typically the “hate train” lasts only 2 weeks in the collective consciousness of the internet mob.  Interesting to see where this ends up, and who gets sucked into it.  (Related: I do believe in ethical purchased, but ethics are personal… so to each their own.)

I was at the rink the other day watching some kids take a practice, talking to another coach.  I also played a couple times this week (another tonight), then took a pint with the guys afterwards.  For anyone that’s played any sport at a competitive level, there are points of reference in a game where you know people understand the fundamentals, or they understand the meta.

I’ll use hockey here, but this applies to any sport.  There are rules that govern how the players participate – # of players, positions, timing, offsides, points, and so on.  Anyone can learn those rules.  Then there’s the skill level of the sport, how fast can you move, your level of agility, or reaction time.  Elite athletes spend 12 months a year on this, close to 6 days a week.  It’s a job, and there’s always someone hunting to take it from you, so some motivation!

Then we get to vision.  I’ll take a sidebar here and discuss chess.  The really good chess players have memorized key positions and plays, and they reference them with each turn, selecting the move they think best fits.  It isn’t just one chess piece, they are seeing 5-6 into the future, setting up their long term plays.    It may seem to be a long game, but most times you know who’s going to win after 10 moves and the rest is just playing out the game to it’s natural end.

Back to hockey (or any other group sport).  There are key positions and plays that exist, and the coaching staff has a preference for their team.  Some prefer a stretch pass game, where they beat on speed.  Others prefer a 2-1-2 game of passing for an open one-timer.  Dump and chase.  Drop passes.  The somewhat new 1-3-1 PP.  Then there’s the defensive structure to counter those plays.

Hockey (soccer/rugby/basketball too) are fluid games, in the sense that the amount of time you have to adapt to a play is very small.  This makes the game generally more dynamic, and inserts a level of randomness compared to something like US football.  For people who understand the sport at that level, they can see plays coming well in advance.  Not so much a goal (since the goalies have a say in that) but in the opportunity of scoring.  Without that understanding, people still have a sense of awe to what happened because a clean play transcends a sport.  Who doesn’t appreciate a long-ball alley-oop in basketball?

Gaming

A lot of games have this reactionary model.  It’s why team-based competitions focus so much on practice of plays, and paying attention to their opponents.  True, actions-per-minute have a dramatic impact on success, but the wisdom to read a play, adapt, and execute a counter is amazing to watch.  The hiccup here is that a game has a limited shelf-life, or for the longer-term ones, the rule sets change over time.  The level of expertise/wisdom for a game therefore only lasts a short window (LoL/DOTA are a different conversation.)

It’s hard to build a game with the level of depth required to stand out.  Battle-chess can never really stick around because it’s not player driven, and the strategies are extremely limited.  FPS games have inherent limitations due mainly to map memorization, they need more horizontal options to add that complexity (see Titanfall).

Now there’s a ceiling and a floor for this concept.  The floor is the minimum understanding required to participate.  Games with incredible complexity often require a serious amount of player knowledge to even play (most CCG, EvE, or P&P RPG).  That limits the potential playerbase.  The ceiling is the point at which good players are separated from amazing players.  The closer that spread, the shorter the ceiling.  There aren’t a whole lot of games out there with low floors and high ceilings, which would cast the largest potential net of players and spectators.  Say what you want about Fortnite, but the floor/ceiling in that game is a WIDE spread, and adaptive play is essential for people to success (without aim bots).

Game design is hard.  Great game design is a rare event, that requires a spectacular team and vision.  And like a great sports play, by playing a great game you just know from a quick look that it’s going to be a good time.

Incentivizing Play

This topic has been stirring in my head for a very long time, and at the end of the day way more complicated than this post will do justice.  Attempts will be made!

Design of any consumable service follows the same general themes.  You want the majority of people to take a specific path, allow for some variance, and put in guardrails for the lead chip lovers.  I keep thinking of Lemmings in that sense… rarely will you hit 100%, and most realistic goals are to hit 80%.

In the game design space, this applies in the general sense, then again at the activity level.  You want people to participate along a designed path and reach a designed end point.  You build mechanisms to re-enforce that message, and try to keep people in the same general line.  You launch and use various metrics to measure the success of those mechanisms.  Then re-adjust, launch more mechanisms, and analyze FOREVER.

The trick here is the mechanisms, which typically fall into the carrot/stick archetypes.  Reward good actions and punish bad ones.  The scope of those impact the % of people who follow the line.  Most of the time.  In some games the end point is so poorly planned that players reach it early/late/never and the whole thing falls to pieces.  I can’t say I’m surprised at how quickly Ragnaros dropped in WoW Classic, but I can say I’m  disappointed that people thought that was the actual goal.

Good design has a linear path, appropriate ramps to get people on/off that path, and an end goal that players understand early on.  It appears achievable, and is desirable.  E.g. a car race and you want to be in 1st.

Great design has a non-linear path, and intersects with other systems.  It has layered goals, that are not necessarily linear in structure, but have inter-dependencies.  There’s a continuous feedback loop, and a gradual feeling of progress.  e.g. pretty much any PnP RPG is built on this model.

Content vs Consumption

A big problem as games have become services.  It always takes longer to build something than to break it down.  4 hours of baking and 15 minutes of eating.  Years of research and writing, read in a half day.  Where the wins come is from volume.  If it’s 4 hours of baking, and 20 people take 15 minutes, well that’s a decent exchange.  Sell 10,000 books, ok.  Design for 6 months and 6,000 people play it… uh, maybe not?

Game designers have learned to depend on time-gating mechanics.  Sure, the original reason was to slow down the locusts that broke other systems (gold faucet/sink economies are fragile in that respect) but as time went on, this started applying to everyone.  The fatigue mechanic in nearly all F2P games is a good example, where the drive in monetization (and in a capitalistic sense, reasonable).

The fatigue mechanic in a system that cannot be bypassed… that gets irritating.  Especially if you’re gating a high-volume/fun activity.  But how do you know if that activity is viewed as fun, rather than simply rewarding?  LFR in WoW is free epics, while the original goal was simply to expose raiding design investment to more of the population.  Take out the epics and see how many people do LFR.  I mean really, take out the epics and remove the raid lockout restrictions – see what happens.

Dauntless

It’s F2P and the monetization system is based on 2 streams: battle passes and cosmetics.  From a financial perspective, they want people to take the battle pass, so the pricing structure clearly favors that, rather than 1-off customization options.  But the design of the game is predicated almost entirely on group-based combat, so they need a lot of people to make it attractive.

So they made the battle pass work for both free players and paid players.  Paid players get extra bonuses on that track, and a miniscule amount of extra drops in a fight (you get more if you don’t get knocked out).  Progress on this bar is through 3 methods:

  1. Daily collections in town (for 100 pts)
  2. Random drops from hunts (really random…)
  3. Completing tasks (20, 40 or 100pts)

Tasks used to be assigned with 1 weekly and 3 dailies.  They could be anything – hunt with repeaters, collect flowers, stun 5 times, attack with fire.  If you got bad rolls, then you may end up with objectives you didn’t want to do.  I dislike Pikes, and I really disliked any task that deal with Pikes.  Not to mention the need to actually build a decent Pike first.

The new Bounty system provides 4 slots of tasks.  You need a token (get some per week, as battle pass reward, or random drops) and that gives a random set of 3 tasks to pick from.  In the 50 or so times I’ve done this, only once has there been 3 options I didn’t like – and it made me play the game in a fashion I disliked even more.  In 75% of the cases, it had no impact at all since it mapped to my preferred playstyle. In the rest, it was a minor tweak (e.g. swap to a fire weapon, or focus on stunning rather than breaking) that made the fight marginally more interesting.

Now, clearly there are heatmaps and metrics and data sets that will come from this.  I can’t imagine anyone purposefully selecting “collect 40 rocks” unless the other 2 options were more painful (e.g. use a grenade to stun).  There’s some tweaking that’s left.   Yet, the system itself does work.  It lets you keep playing the way you want, but opens up alternatives that you may not have considered.  It also means that multiple playstyles can all work to the same overall goal – so that a lowly Pike player can get success just as much as an Axe fanatic.

There is however a gap once people complete the battle pass.  Since there’s no real hard time gating (a bit of RNG for extra token drops), entirely possible that people get it all done in a few days of hardcore grinding.  But there’s still the long term mastery system goals, and the weekly time trials to keep folks going.  Whether those two goals are actual things people want… another discussion, for another time.

Politics and Life

I rarely post anything political here.  There’s just so much complexity on the topic, and a significant portion is impacted by your local culture.  A person only an hour’s drive away may have a completely different set of motivating factors, let alone someone half-way across my country.

I don’t begrudge any political view, but I do take note when views are so entrenched that they can’t stand up to any form of discussion or debate.  If your point of view is so fragile that it can’t take a couple knocks, then there’s no real point, is there?  I’ve lucked in that my family and I have realms of similarity, but differences in specific points.  I can have a conversation about immigration with my grandfather, and we both come out the better for it.

Canada generally has a tame political sphere.  We’re often seen as being polite to a fault.  This electoral cycle is fraying my sense of own.  We’re a multi-partied country, and the parties themselves move along the social/financial axis as they seem fit.  Often it’s to chase more votes, and to stay in power.  The alternative is that parties start looking really similar.  And when things get a little to similar, then the differentiation becomes qualitative – which our US cousins exemplify in name calling & attack ads.  A bit of irony there, since their policies are often so diametrically opposed.  I digress.

There’s some batshit crazy stuff going on around the world right now.  Or perhaps it’s best said that there’s more light shone on the stuff.  People are taking some really interesting stances, in nearly all cases financially motivated.  China is, by simple definition, a dictatorship (absolute authority) regardless of the window dressing.  It’s a hell of a lot more complex than that summary statement, but the point remains that any voice that conflicts with government wishes is crushed.  Any voice – regardless of where it takes place.  The NBA and Blizzard are the latest two to get caught in this trap of ethics vs. finances.  It’s interesting to see how each has taken their stance on the subject.

In Blizzard’s case, does that really matter?  Is anyone on this side of the Firewall going to stop giving money to Blizzard because of this ethical stance?  Should they?  China has 20% of the world’s population.  (India will pass then in ~10 yrs due to the 1 child policy and aftershock effects – see, complicated!)

As with most political discourse, there’s no answers, just a discussion.  It’s just not possible to please everyone, and even pleasing the majority is something that only seems to happen every 10 years or more.  More food for thought.

Group Complexity

There are so many adages when it comes to group play – more than the sum of its parts, there’s no I in team, and do it for the team.  Thematically, they focus on everyone working together for a greater goal.

Frankly, this is the goal of group play.  That some mass of people can complement each other enough to shore up any weakness and strengthen the group.  There’s a fundamental piece here that makes this work – communication.  In sports, that’s basic.  You’re usually right next to the person.  In hockey, I’m always talking.  Incoming pressure, open lanes, double teams, and so on.  You need to quickly adapt.

In games, this is harder.  Older games, you were at a LAN and it was “easy” to shout out some commands.  Then MMOs come around (which were effectively glorified chat boxes) and the games were so slow you could type stuff out.  I mean, who didn’t have debates during Plane of Fear?  I won’t dismiss that getting to these group events was a challenge in itself.  Getting to Scholomance in vanilla WoW was a trek and a half.  You were conscious of the effort.

I won’t say that LFG tools broke this.  I’d argue the opposite actually, in that LFG removed so much spam from the game that I could start to enjoy it again.  What broke the model was a pile of things, though notably three strong ones:

  • Auto-summons to group location.  This is a mindset issue.  DPS queues have always been notoriously long.  Auto-summon lets you stay in the world and play that mode while the other is chugging away.  When you do group, no time lost, you just plop, show up where you need to be.  Odds are in the wrong gear, and wrong skills. There’s a general lack of focus.  (There’s a strong analogy to warm-ups before a sporting event – those are mental warm-ups much more than physical.)
  • Speed mechanics & strobe lights.  I am not advocating a return to tank & spank.  What I am saying is that dungeon builds used to be focused on the trash as much as the bosses, meaning that the path through was a thoughtful one.  Enemy placement & group triggers were with purpose.  Learning which spawns were mandatory was key (Stratholme anyone?).  The game’s focus away from thoughtful play, to reactive play has dropped the skill floor to faceroll levels.  Coincidentally, it’s created a larger gap between dungeons and raids.  The go-go-go mentality (and design) means less overall thinking.
  • Lack of social reward/accountability.  The LFG tool and LFG chat are fundamentally the same, the difference is in the pool of available players.  Many LFG tools nowdays pull from the entire game, not the server, meaning you could go years without seeing the same person again.  Trolls and ninjas used to be blacklisted, and they knew about it.  Healers made friends lists and didn’t even need an LFG tool – they fought through /invite spam.  FF14 has an interesting reward system, where the group votes for best performer.  Not perfect, but it does allow for positive messaging.

Dauntless

Dauntless is at its core an action-RPG.  There are things you have to do in combat to succeed, and you get things that increase numbers, making the next attempt slightly easier.  As a general rule, you should be able to solo a behemoth before taking it on in a group – that way you know you can carry your weight.  The game doesn’t force it, in fact, it allows hunters to progress without a hard measure.  If you can manage to leech (enter a fight and do nothing) your way through the main questline, you’ll be a fly in a hurricane later on.

Behemoths scale in health the more hunters are present.  Every leech is an increase in difficulty for the others.  Every under-powered hunter is an increase in difficulty.  Every under-trained hunter is an increase in difficulty.  Anecdotally, every 5 or so fights, I’ll get a hunter who really should not be there – they die in 1-2 hits, and need a revive within the first 30 seconds.  Every 5 or so fights, I get the complete opposite, and everyone knows what to do and the behemoth is down in 90 seconds or less.

From the points I mentioned earlier – auto-summon, fast mechanics, and accountability – Dauntless has only 2 of them.  Since all you do is hunt, the summon part actually works well enough.  The game even gives you a pre-hunt lobby to swap out gear for the specific behemoth, and suggests what you should use.

It does however require both reflexes to avoid attacks, and memory to remember patterns per behemoth.  There is a world of difference between a Shrike and a Shroud – even if they had similar damage and HP, the Shroud would still be a dozen mechanics more than the Shrike.  I don’t particularly see this part of the game changing much – though some mechanics are much more frustrating than others (Valomyr especially).  This requirement on speed makes it that communication is all but impossible without voice chat.  And if you do manage to type something out, there’s so much going on the screen that no one can actually pause to read it.

The only social construct present is guilds and friend lists, which mechanically are pretty much the same thing.  The toolset doesn’t allow you to easily blacklist someone else – not that it would matter much given the large pool of players.  It also doesn’t allow you to recognise good behaviour.  It’s just a bunch of random faces, that are never going to see each other again.

I will stress that Monster Hunter has these same issues.  The slight difference is that battles are slower and longer.  That gives hunters more time to think, rather than react.  It’s also incredibly hard to leech in that game.

I’m happy to say that this is not a frustrating part of the game.  The occurrence is infrequent, and even when things go really poorly you still get some bits out of it.  Reading a few of the dev posts, they are looking at better tools for social interactions… how that comes about is going to be interesting to see.

New Job

Been a bit hectic here lately.  Fall is always busy, sure enough, but this year feels a whole lot of a healthier kind of busy.  It used to feel like a firefighter, with non stop crises going on.  This year just seems like there’s just a lot to do…and enough actual time to do it.  So either I am getting better at time management, better at those tasks, or simply enjoying it more.  No matter… feels good!

I started a new job this week.  It’s in line with my career goals and interests.  Took about a year to sort it all out.  The details don’t matter a whole lot (or really interest most people outside of my monkeysphere) but the main points are that my team, budget, scope, and user base has grown by an exponential number.

This week has been all drinking from the firehose in terms of learning.  I’m usually pretty quick on the upswing here, absorb/adapt as we go, and the field is somewhat known.  The biggest hurdle is the culture.

So let’s tie this back to gaming a bit.  Way back when I had time on my hands, I ran or helped run various gaming guilds.  I’m a coder by training, so building DKP engines was part of that in the EQ/WoW days.  Setting up rules, running raids, organising chaos.  Heck, I turned my personal notes into a decent income of writing gaming guides.   In that sense, I’ve got WAY more experience in leadership/management than my resume gives credit.

Think about all the times you may have wiped on a raid, looked at what worked and what didn’t, tried something new, and eventually succeeded.  That mindset… of allowing for failure, but learning from it as a group, that’s the foundation of a successful career.  There are plenty of folks who instead are super risk averse and afraid to admit mistakes.  Own up to it, learn from it, don’t repeat it.  It’s when a mistake happens and people try to hide it… that stuff festers.  When it does come to light, and it WILL, things are going to go sideways real quick.

The group I’m now working with does not have that mindset.  Some do!  But the culture is not one I’d consider positive or forward moving – more of a “this is the way we’ve always done it”.  So now I need to find the influencers in the group and figure out how to get a new vision bought.  I’m actually pretty good at that, but it’s a whole lot of effort.  Does mean that I don’t have to do it for everyone… those influencers will do it all naturally.

In my downtime… Dauntless is some good bite sized gaming (<5m sessions).

Return to Dauntless

A fair chunk of the spring was spent in Dauntless‘ Open Beta.  I opined then that the game had come a tremendously long way from close beta, and that the last “kitchen sink” patch had done a serious job on the systems within the game.  The downside with adding systems is that you have to explain them (*cough*Warframe*cough*).

In early summer Dauntless hit the Epic Game Store.  Chief benefit here is cross-play.  And after a few days of teaming for some runs, I have to say that is entirely a positive.  Anecdotally, there’s a fair share of players from PC, XBOX and PS4 playing at any given time, making hunt matching making go ultra fast.  I can recall quite a few fights in beta where you may wait 5 minutes for a solo fight… not the case here at all.  The game is based around playing with people after all.

On Sept 12, the game fully launched (1.0).  Launch brought a few more tweaks to the game.  Fist weapons were added, and the rest of the weapons were all re-balanced.  Where Hammer was king and guns were trash, the meta order seems to be fists –> guns –> dual blades –> swords –> axes –> hammers.  This is almost entirely due to behemoth attack speed; enemies here are about double the speed seen in something like Monster Hunter.  Slow weapons get the short end of the stick.  Balancing is always a tough one, but there still is a whole lot of build variety. Certainly more balanced than in the spring.

Launch also came with some essential guidepost information.  Every hunt now clearly lists what you should have in terms of offence/defence, the resistances, effects, and drop rates.  No more having to alt-tab to the wiki to remember it all.  It also brought load outs, making gear swaps a much better experience.  Rebuilding a fire-resistant set was a massive pain, but also required to hunt something like a Hellion.

Battle pass is still there (99% cosmetic, gives a single extra drop per hunt).  Still some daily hunts that cycle through.  The main quest line is now ultra obvious.  The town has a better layout.  Interface is generally cleaner.  Bounties get rid of the daily quests (e.g. kill with warpike) and allow more flexibility for the same rewards.  Long and short of it, the game feels like a final release.

I’ll admit I was really unsure if Dauntless could deliver a workable and quality game, based on what I saw last fall.  It was a cool prototype but there’s been a wide gap between that and release that mars a ton of “early access” titles.  I’m rather astounded at what’s delivered here.  Very easy to pick up and play.  The incremental grind that people are always chasing.  An active development team that is liked and respected by the community.  A F2P model that feels both fair and transparent.  I’ll be keeping this on my active play list for a long while…