What Happened to Battleborn? Some Thoughts…

I’ll just start with this chart, of the peak players of Battleborn on Steam for the last month. (Note: Steam only, I don’t know if reliable console stats are available.)

The trend is pretty obvious. Courtesy of SteamDB
The trend is obvious and depressing for fans. Courtesy of SteamDB

Death Knell

If this were a single player game, that trend would be not ideal, but probably somewhat expected. People play those and gradually move on. Most importantly, other people not playing it doesn’t particularly harm my ability to play it. Battleborn, however, is a team based shooter (aka: multiplayer). Other players are required for most of the game to work, including matchmaking.

The impact on a multiplayer game of player numbers getting that low is that matchmaking stops working properly, and takes a very long time to find matches (and matches it does make start being suboptimal). Also remember that this is *peak* users, so some times of day will be significantly lower still. You can see the impact in the more recent Steam reviews, where they complain about matchmaking.

So, what happened? I obviously can’t say for certain, but there’s some things I do know…

Never Challenge Blizzard

The easiest answer is to say that this other game happened.

Overwatch box art
You’ve probably heard of it

Much like the old Klingon story about a warrior standing in the path of a storm and challenging it, only to get killed by it because “a storm doesn’t respect a fool”, releasing near a Blizzard game is something of a fool’s errand. Other developers in other genres have learned that. (Incidentally if you like strategy games, check Arcen’s stuff out!)

Overwatch pretty much eclipsed everything that happened around it, and Battleborn was only a couple of weeks before it… with a launch that just happened to be the same week as Overwatch’s public beta. Blizzard is a very cold entity, sometimes.

To be fair, Gearbox and 2k couldn’t have known the open beta would hit them. The timing of the whole launch and marketing is something that can be hard to change for a traditional publisher like 2k (things are planned well in advance for big budget games), so it’s questionable if it’s really their fault that it happened. It doesn’t matter, though.

They stood in the path of a storm, and the storm won.

Poor Design Decisions

While we’re on the subject of Overwatch… you know one of the things that makes Overwatch great? It’s no BS. You buy it, and they give you the game to play. There’s no locked characters, no “hey, now buy the seasons pass!” No “you must reach level 8 before we unlock multiplayer”.  The philosophy is to get you into the fun part as soon as possible.

Battleborn? Give or take, half the character roster is locked out of the box. On a $60, competitive game. Think about that for a second.

Gear is highly important to your effectiveness, but you don’t get loadouts until level 3. Oh, you have a level, and your characters also have levels, and gear. Finding good gear is important to being effective with a given character, so you’ll have to do it for characters you intend to use competitively or you’re at a disadvantage. Matchmaking also has to be able to take all this stuff into account, which only works with a very large player pool.

It seems in a lot of ways like they really leaned on all the progression stuff in Borderlands and thought they needed it all here too, except that was a single player RPG and this is a competitive team MOBA type thing. At some point, you need to set aside the need for tons of “progression”, and let people simply battle each other on a level playing field. Super leveled people with legendary gear fighting people with early (or no) gear isn’t competitive, it’s basically just ganking.

It probably also goes without saying that making a MOBA is a risky idea in general, considering how flooded that market is, how many of them are failing due to it bieng flooded, and how difficult it is to pry players away from League of Legends (one of the most successful games on the planet, by any measure), DOTA2 (nearly a million simultaneous players yesterday), and Heroes of the Storm (Blizzard, again). Back when they started, I’m sure they thought it was a good idea, but it wasn’t.

Marketing Fail

Battleborn’s marketing was… not great. Aside from the sheer number of people who think it’s the same as Overwatch, the marketing does a bad job of explaining what the game is. You see that mentioned in the Steam reviews as well – how they did a bunch of writing for single player and people don’t really know about it.

Personally, the marketing never connected with me at all. I follow Gearbox on Twitter, and I own all three Borderlands games… and I found the Battleborn marketing sufficiently annoying that I flat out muted it. I never found it did a good job of explaining what the game was. Rhiss is interested in it, and had to explain it to me in order to try and convince me to try it*. I know I’m not alone on that, there was a lot of confusion about it.

More recently, they responded to the weak sales initially by having a sale. That’s fine, except it was a 33% off sale, three weeks after launch. Lots of people were not amused, as it was a classic case of “pre-orders are for suckers”, to have a drop that large that quickly. It was necessary when they saw that they needed to get more players in, but not doing anything for the folks who paid full price wasn’t exactly a way to garner goodwill.

I think it also wasn’t helped by Gearbox itself. Gearbox has put out really great Borderlands games, some solid other stuff, and then some total garbage. (Exhibit A. Exhibit B. The Pre-Sequel could probably be Exhibit C in the writing department, but 2k Australia actually developed it)

They’re mostly known for Borderlands, though, and their last game was an obvious set up for Borderlands 3. Then they released not-Borderlands 3. It seems to be that Gearbox fans bought into Battleborn, but Borderlands-specific fans did not, because what they really wanted is Borderlands 3. (I am the latter, and I’m definitely waiting on news of Borderlands 3.)

* For the record, Rhiss succeeded at explaining what type of game it is to me, but failed at getting me interested in playing it. To be fair, Rhiss did manage to convince me to play Magic: The Gathering for the first time in 16 years during the same weekend, so it was still an impressive effort.

It’s Kind Of Sad

I have no interest in playing Battleborn, but Rhiss does, so I’d like it to be successful. It’s not. If the Steam trend line continues as is for much longer, it’ll drop down to the point where matchmaking flat out won’t work during much of the day, and that is what a dead multiplayer game looks like.

This is a cruel industry, in that sometimes things go wrong that are out of your control. Although I think they made some bad design decisions, I don’t think any of them are bad enough to have expected this outcome. It’s sad, because being primarily a multiplayer game, without players to keep it going, it dies entirely and even the fans can’t enjoy it anymore. That’s not to mention all the staff who worked on it.

The worst thing, to me, is that games like this don’t typically get a second chance. If a competitive multiplayer game fails, turning it around is extremely hard. Even if they hypothetically make changes that would make it a much better game, it requires a player base already being there in order for newbies to come in and have a good experience. In effect, the lack of players creates a situation that causes a lack of players, and pulling out of that tailspin becomes increasingly difficult because it’s not under the developer’s control.

But… at least Borderlands 2 is still going strong, almost six years in?

Gearbox game usage in the last month
Borderlands 2 is incredibly resilient for it’s age. Courtesy of SteamDB again.

My Favorite NPC Lived, Thanks To System Mechanics

Last time, I talked about an NPC I fell in love with (Anneliese), and hoped the PCs wouldn’t kill. They didn’t kill her. Amusingly, they didn’t kill *anyone*, although they did beat a lot of people up quite significantly. The others escaped, but they left Anneliese behind because she was hobbled and the intelligence agent didn’t like her anyway.

So… the PCs gave her a ride back to town to get healing. Seriously. Now, obviously, the players themselves get credit for making fun RP decisions instead of killing everyone in sight. But, it’s not just them…

The System Itself Helped

This is where the fact that we were playing Fate Core and not D&D helped. One of the fundamental differences is that combat is a heavy focus of D&D, and lethal combat is the norm. You have to actively take steps to avoid killing your target, unless you just get lucky on damage rolls and put them into the disabled/bleeding out state (and with my Cleric slinging around Save or Die spells… yeah).

In Fate Core, killing people is not the norm. You “take them out” of combat, and it takes an active action after the fact to kill them. If people concede, typically they won’t die in that scene (otherwise they probably won’t concede). The difference between it being an extra step to kill, as opposed to an extra step to not kill. That distinction seems small, but the subtle change makes a major difference in how players approach it.

Another way the system helped is by shifting the focus. I had a player remark at the end of the night that Fate was quite good at encouraging storytelling out of the session. Storytelling tends to flow better if you’re not murdering everyone you meet, and this NPC had lots to say. We had a rather silly exchange on the way back to town after the fight, when two PCs were arguing over who to bring the crate they retrieved back to (one NPC wanted it back unopened, the other wanted to study it before returning it). Anneliese kept interjecting herself into this conversation, because she could, and it fueled things along really well. Can’t do that if she’s dead.

That exchange between the PCs ended in them having a contest of wills (rather than one of stabbing), and the player who lost it remarked afterward that she was okay with the outcome because it felt fair, and that she got to play her character out really well, so the outcome had some kind of narrative sense to it. That meant a lot to me, as the DM.

One of the reasons we get that storytelling focus is that the mechanics are much simpler, and don’t get in the way of telling a good story. In fact, one of Fate’s key rules literally is “Never let the rules get in the way of a good narrative.”

When Systems Hinder

One of the things that D&D does really well is give you that dungeon crashing heroic experience. What doesn’t it do well? Lots of other things.

D&D is a complex game, and 3.5 (the preferred version around here) is especially so (5e is a positive step away from excessive complexity). There’s rules and mechanics for almost everything you can do in combat. There’s tons of modifiers to things. Figuring out what you can do at high level and keeping track of all the math gets complicated, and it sucks up time and brain cycles.

Calculating attack at high level
You forgot the modifiers from Prayer, Shaken, Giantsbane, partial concealment, Fatigue, and Enlarge Person.

That weight tends to be a hindrance to simple storytelling, because I keep having to go look up exactly how grapples work to see if I can pin someone and put them into an arm bar, instead of just saying “I try to wrestle this guy down and put him into an arm bar” and doing the roll.

Don’t get me wrong. It’s certainly possible to do a narrative heavy game in D&D, it’s just harder. The system is not helping you with the crushing weight of rules it’s got, and doing it is making your job harder as opposed to a game designed for it.

Would I Use Fate Over D&D Again?

Short answer? Yes.

Long answer? It depends on the players. Some players really like the complexity in D&D and they feel they’re losing something in Fate, so they wouldn’t be as happy. If I’m DMing for that group, I’d use D&D.

Other players, especially the ones who don’t game a lot and/or have difficulties with math, LOVED the simplified mechanics and focus change that Fate brought. They were happier and more eager to do stuff, because they had an easier time translating what they wanted to do into game actions and understanding their likelihood of success.

We’re still trying to nail down exactly how we want magic to work in Fate (as Fate Core has no magic system built in, and magic is pretty key to the setting I’m using), but I think we’re pretty close there after trying a couple of different things. Overall it was a very positive experience, and I can definitely see mixing some Fate campaigns in between our D&D campaigns.

Uh Oh, I Got Attached To An NPC…

This weekend, I’m running another night in my “mini-campaign”. This is a bridging plot between my D&D campaign that ended last year, and the next one I’m hoping to run in the future. The mini-campaign happens when our Sunday DM can’t run his campaign, but people still want to play something.

As is normally the case when developing a storyline, I created some NPCs. Then… I got attached to one of them.

Rule 1: Don’t Get Attached

Getting attached to your NPCs is dangerous, because in a lot of games, the PCs can at any moment turn into murderhobos.

Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don't get angry about it.
Your only hope is to be worth no XP and pray they don’t get angry about it.

For those who don’t play a lot of D&D, a “murderhobo” is a homeless vagrant who wanders the world solving problems by murdering everything in their path, usually collecting loot along the way. This describes a shockingly large number of characters, although admittedly part of that is because the system itself focuses heavily on combat.

That means, lots of NPCs will die. Lots, and lots of NPCs. Sometimes, they’re meant specifically for that purpose (mooks, villains). With the fun ones, you inject some personality and details in them in the hope the PCs find those things out and maybe have a recurring plot dealing with that NPC, to make the final fight more interesting. But, you never know when a lucky crit or a failed save will end things earlier than you planned. So, you never get attached to those ones.

Background and friendly NPCs are a bit different, but even then, you don’t know what will happen to them. Maybe the PCs accidentally (or deliberately, given the evil/selfish nature of our regular Sunday night party) set loose something that wipes a town out, or they cause someone important to get killed. Bad things happen to good NPCs.

The World Shouldn’t React To Your Attachments

Here’s the thing. When the PCs are doing stuff, the world should react to what they do. That’s what makes a fun campaign. But, that should happen if the DM cares about the NPC or not. If they kill most of my other NPCs? I can handle it in a detached way, because they were disposable.

This one, though? If this NPC gets killed, I’ll be pretty unhappy. It’ll take some extra effort to not let that cloud how the game progresses, because I certainly don’t want to punish the PCs just because they killed someone I like as opposed to someone I don’t.

My mistake here is that when I was adding details to this NPC, I inadvertently made a character that I wanted to play as a PC myself. I love what I came up with too much. That was an accident, but you know.

(You might also note that I’m being deliberately vague about this NPC. I don’t want to tip the PCs off as to which one it is, because I don’t want them to react differently in case any of them read this.)

It’s Happened Before

This has happened to me before, in the last campaign. Meet Lylandria, star prodigy and assistant librarian of the Arcane College (sadly I can’t remember where I found this image, because I’d love to credit the artist).

Lylandria
Any similarity to Twilight Sparkle is entirely deliberate.

Lylandria started off the last campaign being a resource for the PCs, because she’s usually in the library and has access to lots of information. When they need to know something about an obscure monster or legend, she can help them find it.  As the game went on, she got involved more often, at one point helping cast a spell for the PCs to resolve a plot line.

Towards the end, the PCs had a door they couldn’t open in the dungeon, and reason to believe she could. So, she came with them. Her mentor gave her an Archmage’s Runestaff so she could defend herself in there.

The PCs then found out there was a battle in this area of the dungeon between three Undead Lords, all trying to wake up and control some ancient evil thing. They ended up siding with a Lich in that battle. When it turned out nobody could conrol the ancient evil thing and it was going to kill everyone, the Lich offered a deal: I’ll help you stop it, if you give me the girl’s staff.

Lylandria, naturally, declined. The PCs argued about it for a while, and looked like they weren’t going to do it. Then the party Rogue simply attacked her, took the staff, and handed it over. Everyone else ended up going along with that, and poor Lylandria has never been the same.

I mean, at least she survived it, but between that and being used to open the door (which helped an evil NPC ascend to godhood), she’s been rather traumatized.

Technically, part of the blame for all those events lies on me as the DM, for playing the Lich and the other evil NPC who set the whole thing up, but the PCs didn’t have to go along with it. It took me a while to forgive them for beating up my poor teenage librarian NPC. 😉

Discord – When Business Model Keeps Me Away

Seems everyone is on the Discord bandwagon lately, including Belghast, who made a post about it. I installed it a while ago, fiddled with it a bit, and haven’t touched it since. There’s a couple of reasons for that.

One of them is simply that without external pressure like a raid group switching forcing me, I have inertia keeping me on Vent. It works fine for what I need, so why change? That’s not a slam on Discord as a product at all; I used it a bit and it worked really well.

The big reason?

The Business Model Confuses Me

Admittedly, I’m old school: I think a business should have a plan to make money when the business is created. That plan may take years to implement and turn profitable, but there should be one. Tech companies are notorious for going years with no plan to make money. Twitter only finally started making money this year, and it’s not an impressive amount for a company of its size. Venture capitalists hand out money to tech companies based on the idea that it might get huge, and that’ll somehow translate into profit.

Discord is one of those. The business model is to not charge for the service. There’s no ads. Their privacy policy is pretty good in terms of not selling info. The plan to charge for skins and stickers “eventually”, but there’s no indication of when that will be and there’s nothing at all now. This is a business that is making no attempt whatsoever to make money. Lots of people are fine with that. Belghast said this, in particular:

However deep down inside… I know that someone out there is having to foot the bill for our fun… and it kinda bothers me

 

The opposite is what bothers me. We seem to have become conditioned to things online being free, to the point of paying for stuff “bothering people”. But, someone has to pay for it in order for it to exist. Servers, developers, and related things aren’t free. This same thing came up in my previous post about Wildstar, with the idea that developers would work because of “passion”.

You know what’s better than passion? Paying the mortgage. Discord at least seems to have VC money, so I doubt people are working for free, but still. There’s a fundamental, huge problem here, that a lot of tech companies have faced:

If you train users that your service has no value, how do you charge them for it later?

Discord will face that problem at some point. When they do, they will either sink or swim. If they sink, I don’t want to have to switch again when what I had before Discord worked just fine for a pretty modest fee.

Free Is Not Really Free

Facebook's business model
“Free” typically isn’t

Facebook’s business model is also “free” to the people using it, but it makes sense. They have a clear plan to make money, they sell something, and it works. The catch? It’s not actually free. It costs $0. There’s a difference. You pay with personal information and with advertising. Given that I use Facebook quite a lot, that’s not a judgement on what you should or shouldn’t do. Just noting that it’s still not free.

F2P games are “free”, in the sense that they’re often built around exploitation of addiction, and the “free” users are being paid for by the money and misery suffered by the addicted users. You pay by being complacent in that exploitation, as the games are helped by having lots of players to keep the addicts interested and spending.

B2P games are not free, of course.  This is clearest model when it comes to making money, in that you’re selling something straight up. You might sell more things later, of course, but those are straightforward transactions.

Although something of value is changing hands here, the “free” ones tend to be crappy in comparison to the paid one. When I buy a new bed, they don’t ask to track what I do online or show up at my house with extra ads. It’s a straightforward transaction, after which they leave me alone. Same thing with something like a Vent server or my domain name. I pay them, they give it to me, we leave each other alone and go about our business.

“Free” never does that. Except for Discord, of course, which is truly free right now, except for the VCs paying the bills. That state of affairs can’t last, as it’s against the fundamental reasons that a business exists: to make profit for shareholders.

I’d rather they be more active about that part, and it would increase me interest in using their product. Right now, it’s really just taking advantage until they alter the terms of the deal, and praying they don’t alter them too badly.

I’d rather not get overly invested, spend effort, and then need to do it again if it turns out the new arrangement is worse than what I already have with Vent.

If NCSoft is going to kill Wildstar, they should do it now

Pretty terrible news for Wildstar fans on the bad news dumping ground day of Friday, with massive layoffs and the cancellation of the Chinese release. Everyone who has ever lost a job knows how much it sucks, and I hope everyone can bounce back quickly from it.

The worst news was probably the unconfirmed part. Although management gave the usual PR talk about being “committed to the game”, the scuttlebutt is that the game’s fate is sealed and sunset will happen in a couple months.

If we assume that’s true…

If You’re Killing It, Do It Now, FFS!

There is absolutely no reason to string people along if things are already decided. Don’t give your fans the PR crap. Don’t give your employees the PR crap. Just be honest about it.

I mean, what does anyone gain by deception at this point except a few dollars? The layoffs are so drastic, and include so many key, senior, public facing people, that major damage has been done to Wildstar’s ability to recruit and hold players. The die hards will stick around no matter what, but someone looking for a new MMO to try is not all that likely to try the one that looks like it’s about to get shut down. At best, Carbine and NCSoft are going to pull in a few bucks from people sticking it out and hoping things work out, or those who won’t leave until the lights go out (and even Pathfinder Online has a few of those, who are literally keeping the lights on).

It sucks the most for people who are still there though, because of the uncertainty. Should they look for new jobs? If they don’t, will they be gone in 3 months anyway? If they bail out now, are they abandoning the people still there? There’s no way to win in this situation, for staff. If the end date is put out into the open, they know for sure and can start the process of moving on.

As for fans? Well, they need time to mourn. Literally. If you look at the reactions, that’s how the fans feel.

There’s the people in denial, the people who are angry , the people who want to see the game sold/spun off, and so on. The uncertainty is bad for them too.

NCSoft <Slayer of MMOs>

There’s also the issue of NCSoft’s reputation, which is already not great because of how many games they’ve killed off. Now, except for City of Heroes, I tend to find that reputation unfair. In this case, especially, people are blaming NCSoft for a rumored shutdown as if they’re killing their baby without giving it a chance. They’re upset, and I get that, so I’m not trying to pick on them.

Rationally? NCSoft funded Wildstar in the first place. NCSoft kept paying the bills when the launch didn’t go well and revenue sank, severely. They kept paying during the F2P transition, which led to a bump (though apparently not a large enough one).

Here’s the thing. Wildstar came out in 2014. AFAIK, it’s never turned a profit. Sales were down to numbers that make it 1% of NCSoft’s business. If the F2P transition also failed to turn things around, exactly what is NCSoft at fault for, here?

NCSoft is a publicly traded corporation. It’s a business. It exists to make a profit. Indeed, profit (positive cash flow, to be more specific) is a requirement if you want to do things like pay employees on a continuing basis. At some point, it doesn’t make sense for NCSoft to keep funding a game that can’t make money, as that’s just taking money away from other games that can, or potentially could, if they fund a new development.

Is that cold? Yep. It’s business. If the market shows it doesn’t want something, someone has to justify to shareholders why it makes sense to keep dumping money into it.

All that said… stringing people along on the future is also bad for NCSoft’s reputation. If they intend to keep supporting it, they need to come out with a credible plan for how they intend to do that. Anything else won’t work, and just furthers the impression that they’re trying to pull some more money out of people by stringing them along on the future before dropping the axe.

They already have the somewhat unfair reputation as a remorseless MMO killing machine, but they really don’t need to add to it by this kind of shady practice.

Money Matters

In the end, money matters. Profit matters. A lot of upset fans have been preaching things like this:

And the same guy who, on a lifestream, said that the reason you make games is to make money. Apparently forgot that actual developers, unlike corporate henchmen, often also make games cause they are passionate about games and play games.

 

The worst is, his position is secure. He gets to keep his job. Passionate developers get fired. Olivar is right. This industry is sick. Then again people play right into their hands by supporting exploitative ftp models and dismissing sub models, the later which actually focusses on selling a game, instead of a manipulative cash shop.

Once again, not picking on anyone, as people are hurting. That said… no. To paraphrase Quark: “Passion and an empty sack is worth the sack.” (Also, The Oatmeal on Exposure.)

Data center owners and network uplink providers don’t take passion as currency. Landlords don’t take it either. Grocery stores don’t take it. It takes money to keep things going. That’s how business works. If Wildstar can’t make money, how does it stick around? “Passionate developers” get laid off because there’s no money to pay them, and expecting them to work for free because passion is exploitative and ridiculous.

Spinning it off to another studio (as some have suggested) doesn’t solve the problem. Who pays the bills for development and maintenance, if NCSoft isn’t doing it? What the game would actually need is a new publisher, and given the western MMO market landscape, who is going to do that for a game that didn’t find a big enough audience in a year and a half? How many MMOs have come back from this type of thing, aside from FFXIV? Any? I can’t see very many publishers being interested in picking up the bills, and who can blame them?

If you love Wildstar? You have my sympathies. Play it like there’s no tomorrow, because there probably won’t be. Also, here’s art I had made back when I was playing, because Engineer robots are adorable.

A commission I had done of Adith and Rhiss, my (and Rhiss') characters in Wildstar
A commission I had done of Adith and Rhiss, my (and Rhiss’) characters in Wildstar

I tried a new game system. I liked it. Now I have a problem.

This is a story in three parts.

1. I tried a new game system.

Our regular Sunday D&D 3.5 game took a couple of weeks off due to march break holidays and work schedules. Rather than do nothing, I decided to run a little “mini-campaign” (a two session story) in the same world as my previous 3.5 campaign had taken place in.

Only, I didn’t use 3.5. I decided to use Fate Core instead. Why? Mostly, because I’d heard about the system elsewhere, was curious, and figured the best way to learn was to go ahead and try playing it.

Also, though, it’s because for something that short, 3.5 is a pain.

  • Character creation for characters beyond level 1 is time consuming even if you know how to do it, and some of my players don’t.
  • People who had them wanted to use their characters from the previous game, and I thought that was great, but they’re 17th level. You can’t slot new people in and have them be useful unless they’re also high level, at which point no mundane story is going to challenge them.
  • Plus, there’s a lot of prep required with monster stats, loot, and such.

Switching systems eliminated a lot of that.

  • Fate Characters have a lot fewer statistics, and are thus easier to create. Getting your Aspects right is the hardest part, and that can (and should) be done as a group activity, so everybody could help everybody really easily. It didn’t require looking up class definitions or splatbook feats to do.
  • The power curve in Fate is much less steep than in 3.5, so those already existing people could be stronger than the newer folks without breaking the game. That said, making a new character gave me a chance to also remake those characters, giving them something extra for being already existing but bringing them somewhat back in line. (Playing D&D 5e would have also let me do this, because the power curve is somewhat flatter there too, especially with skills.)
  • Although there was extra prep work created by the system change as I tried to learn it, I wanted to do that anyway. Actually statting NPCs and monsters is easier, as the system is less complicated and meant to be run more quickly.

For those who are not familar, a Fate Core character doesn’t have stats like Strength. You have five “Aspects”, that are phrases that describe something about you. Deadpool’s description as the “Merc with the mouth” could be an aspect. You can use an aspect to give you a boost when it can help you (when being a mouthy merc would come in handy) by spending a fate point, and it can also be used by the DM to make your life more complicated/difficult (which earns you a fate point).

2. I liked it.

We’ve done one session so far, with another to go. That session went really well. I mean, none of us really knew what we were doing, but the system by design has people working together to determine outcomes and shape the story, rather than everything being dictated by the rules and the DM.

For example, you can “concede” a fight, effectively losing the battle. If you do so, the table then decides what that means. Did you run away? Were you knocked out cold? Did you roll down the open sewer grate and get swept off by smelly sewer water? Were you taken prisoner?

Everyone gets to help decide the outcome of that action, and that’s the direction the story takes. For those who have played games like D&D, you know that’s not typically how it works. You try and do something, roll the dice, and the DM tells you what happens.

The difference made for a very fun evening of storytelling. It also caused new things I’d never thought of to keep on appearing, as players started adding their own ideas, and coming up with explanations for why they could accept or reject a compel, do something in a given situation, or use a skill in a way I’d never thought of.

I mean, it wasn’t flawless. In particular, the setting I’m using was made for D&D, and is a super magical city based on D&D style Vancian magic. Fate Core has no magic system built in at all. So, we had to come up with something during character creation that would make spellcasting characters exist and work without totally overpowering everyone else (which they do in D&D 3.5, why repeat that mistake?). We did come up with something that’s worked so far, but it isn’t always that easy to understand.

Overall, though, the response was really positive and people seemed to be having fun. I know I did, and I’m eager to see how it goes this week when we have a larger group.

3. Now I have a problem.

Nothing I’ve said so far sounds like a problem, does it? Tried a new system, liked it, yay!

Except, I want to run another long campaign in the future. It’d be a continuation of the one I did before, because the actions of the PCs made some major, world changing things happen. A new group dealing with that would be very interesting.

The problem? I’m suddenly not sure what system I want to run it in.

Before this, there was really no doubt. It’d either be D&D 3.5 (or maybe Pathfinder, which is extremely similar to D&D 3.5, given it’s origins as a direct descendant). The new campaign is mostly/entirely the same players. They know the system already. The world was based on the rules of that system.

After this little experiment, I’m not so sure. I don’t really miss having to have a giant pile of stats for all kinds of characters in D&D, having to remember how everything works in 15 different source books (made worse with D&D tools shut down yet again), having to constantly look up the grapple rules because nobody can remember them, and all the other baggage that comes with it.

I didn’t really have any of those problems with Fate. We spent more time discussing what was happening in the world and less time discussing the rules, and that was despite us not knowing the rules very well. For the kind of game I want to run, it may just work out better to use a comparatively rules light system and let everyone tell a cool story, rather than another rules heavy system like I did last time.

Don’t get me wrong, I still love D&D. Sundays will go back to normal D&D time soon, and I have a biweekly Friday Pathfinder game that I also enjoy tremendously. The systems have served me very well. It’s just that until now, I hadn’t really thought about if another system would serve me better, and now I am.

That leaves me with a problem to solve before I can actually develop that campaign.

“Vigilo Confido, Commander!” XCOM 2 Does So Much Right

I just finished my first successful XCOM 2 campaign. Loading times and a couple of glitches aside, I loved it. Lets talk about what it does right, with screenshots. Spoilers for the campaign in some of these. You’ve been warned.

Soldier Customization

They said that customization would be dramatically improved. They were telling the truth. I didn’t even make much use of it yet, but here’s my end game squad.

End Game XCOM 2 Squad
Yes, I really do use all those grenades.

I may tweak the squad composition next time around in terms of classes, and I’ll play more with custom options. But even with the little I did, I love the personality on display here. There’s the general color theme that my core team has, who I carried through the entire game. There’s the firebrand Psi Op who came in late and looks like an outsider, becuase she really was, to this squad. The other five were my core team for the entire game. My poor Ranger in the corner is wounded, but this is for the final mission and you can take wounded soldiers with you. I wouldn’t go without my frontline badass swordswoman.

The really cool thing is that I can put these people I love so much into the character pool, and they may appear again in future games. They all have different voices and accents, and it’s delightful.

Gun And Loadout Customization

Gun customization is also a thing now. Both in looks and name, but also in terms of function. Enemies will sometimes drop loot, and if you collect it, you’ll find things like gun mods and Elerium Cores, used to do research on new items.

My sniper, for example, had a gun with a scope for boosted aim, and a superior auto-loader so that he could get 3 reloads without costing an action. That is very important to a Sharpshooter, as you can’t fire your Sniper Rifle if you take another action. Free actions don’t count.

My Ranger’s gun is instead focused on more critical hit chance with a laser scope, increased ammo for fewer reloads (no time for that in the thick of it!), and a stock so that missed shots still do some damage. They’re very different guns for very different purposes.

Loadout options also feature different kinds of grenades like gas (organic troop poison), EMP (robotic troop disable/damage), Flashbang (disorient), Smoke (defensive), various kinds of ammo modifications, armor vests (more health/HP regen/reflected damage on melee/terrain hazard immunity), and in the case of the heavy armor my Ranger is wearing: mounted weapons like the Plasma Cannon. That’s all on top of the character skill tree, which itself has some highly varied options.

There’s a lot of room to customize to suit your style and the mission requirements, here.

Use More Grenades

Grenades were somewhat underutilized in XCOM:Enemy Unknown. The main reason is that they destroyed corpses, and you needed those to do research and upgrades.

That can still happen in XCOM 2, but it’s much less frequent in my experience. In addition, some missions you can’t recover corpses anyway because you have to Evac out. In that case, grenades carry no real downside.

It’s a good idea to use them liberally, because blowing up enemy cover and shredding off enemy armor makes them much easier targets for everyone else in the squad. This is where Grenadiers really shine as a class: that grenade launcher is worth every resource I spent on upgrading it. Plus they can carry two (or three with a skill) grenades.

Finally, falling damage is a thing. If you blow up the floor something is standing on, it falls and takes damage. You can kill enemies using this trick, and it’s incredibly useful. Even if they don’t die, they’re now on ground level and easier pickings for your troops.

XCOM 2 wanted sign
Hey, I see myself, next to that car ad! Now throw a grenade at it!

Lots Of Things Worth Doing and Buying

The strategy layer also got an update here, and logically it just works better. It was always unclear in previous XCOM games why you had such a tight budget and so few people, given you’re funded by the richest nations on Earth as their most elite defence force.

Now? You’re a resistance force. You scrounge up whatever you can use. The limits all make sense now, and it makes things just work better. There are many options for things to collect on the strategy map, but there isn’t time to do them all and stop the Avatar project. Sometimes, you will have to ignore that battlefield full of alien metals because you just have more important things to do.

The new base building layer is now the inside of your ship (the Avenger), and it also got some tweaks. Gone are the days of building several engineering workshops and getting everything in the game for half off. Workshops now give you more engineers to slot into buildings, which is useful, but not as overpowered. You can choose to build a defensive building to help you when your ship is attacked, or not. You can retrain soldiers. You can upgrade rooms to make them more powerful, if you have the supplies, or not. I never did upgrade my Psi Lab to train more than one person at a time, but that’s an option.

There’s also weapon upgrades to buy (like new gun levels, which everyone gets automatically), and experimental things to do in the Proving Grounds, where you get one of a thing each time you do it. Until the very end of the campaign, I had more stuff I desperately needed than I could afford, and had to make tough choices. Even at the end I didn’t have everything unlocked, but I had everything I needed, finally.

Glitches

In the last mission, when I blew up some terrain, this happened.

Glitched graphics
Wow that’s glitchy!

Sufficed to say that it made targeting area effect abilities very difficult, and I had to save and reload to clear it. That was the worst glitch I saw, and none of the others were enough to diminish my enjoyment at all.

Load times are slow, and I hope they improve that in a patch. I’m not really sure what it’s even doing during those waits.

Mission Load Screen
I like the screen, music, and character mannerisms… but could stand to see less of it.

On 60fps minimum, and the things I do (and don’t) care about

I was reading a preview of XCOM 2 recently, and although I can’t find it now, a mention came up that it wasn’t running in 60fps on the hardware in question. The comments were largely focused on that fact, and how awful it is.

My reaction was mostly surprise that people care so much about a turn based strategy game running at 60fps vs 42fps, or whatever you happen to get.

60fps? I Just Don’t Care

Maybe it’s a function of the type of games I play, or my set up, or my eyesight, but this just isn’t something I care about. If a game is running over 30fps, I tend to not even notice if the numbers go higher. At one point I played WoW on a computer so old that shortly after launch (when the zones were insanely crowded), 20fps was a good day. It didn’t detract from the fun I was having.

Movies run at 24fps, and people flipped out when The Hobbit increased that number. TV runs at 30. So I find the idea that a game is broken if it can’t run at 60 to be pretty odd.

Resolution Support? I Do Care

On the other hand, there’s resolution. Games will pull tricks to get 60fps locked by lowering the resolution they actually run at, such that my 1080p PS4 output is actually 900p. They’re trading resolution for framerate, and since I don’t care about the extra framerate, I don’t find that a very good trade. (Here’s a list of games that do that.)

An even bigger issue is with my 4k monitor. Some games don’t support it at all, and I have to play them at 1080p or 1440p instead. Those tend to work fine, in that case. The worst offenders are games like Civilization: Beyond Earth, which claims it can run at 4k but doesn’t have a UI built to deal with it. The result is illegibly small text and icons, which make the game unplayable. It’s too bad in a strategy game, because the extra pixels should let me see more of the world at once, which is something I really want.

“Open World”? Don’t Care

This one is a function of me being old, and needing to spend more time doing responsible adult things. I have less time to game than I used to. One of the side effects is that I want the gaming time I do have to be as good as possible. Thus, my loathing of filler content and mindless grinding.

This also expands to “open world” games. Yes, it’s lovely if you can have 2000 square km of area for me to explore in game… but I’m not going to do that. I don’t have that kind of time. I’m going to go where the story takes me, and wander off a bit occasionally if I see something interesting. I’m not going to clear out all that area, because lets be honest: a lot of it is either empty or filler content. I don’t have time for that stuff anymore.

This isn’t to say that I want a fully linear game. There’s a fairly significant happy gap between a Bethesda game like Skyrim, and the corridor simulator shitshow that was Final Fantasy XIII.

“300 hours of gameplay!” Ugh…

How good is it?

That’s all that matters to me here. If you can actually deliver 300 hours of top notch gameplay, great! That rarely happens, though, with story driven games. You get a number that high with padding, filler, and grinding.

If you only have 10 hours of great content, that’s fine. Give me that. Don’t give me that interspersed in 90 hours of filler. Please, respect my time. I’m older now, and I’m paying you to be entertained.

“Immersive Dialogue choices!” Yay!

One of the things I like in Pillars of Eternity is that people react differently to you based on your reputation, and this opens up dialogue choices. As in a lot of other games, some of those are just fluff, in that they’ll say something different but the plot doesn’t really change.

Other ones? Not so much. Occasionally my reputation lets me actually complete a quest differently than if I didn’t have it. Or, an option that I could use to easily solve something becomes difficult for me to use, entirely because I don’t want to ruin my reputation. My character has been so honest that it’s a defining trait, which makes those “Lie” dialogue options much harder for me to choose. It gets especially painful when lying would save someone from bad news, which is a kind thing to do sometimes.

The game does this really well. Even in cases where the dialogue option or reaction is fluffy rather than substantial, it’s good fluff. It’s set things up such that immersing myself and becoming my character is really easy.

If you compare to a game like Borderlands 2, where there is character dialogue but you have no influence over it, the impact is readily apparent. I know lots of people don’t care about this stuff at all, but it adds a lot to a game for me.

“Addictive!” Oh Hell No…

I do care about this one, negatively. Games that are advertised as “addictive” tend to be mostly F2P treadmill games, where the “game” is a thinly veiled skinner box designed to extract cash from people with personalities susceptible to it. I find that both boring and repulsive, and it’s an automatic turn off.

Episodic Big Budget Games – Maybe It’ll Be Okay?

The news that the new Hitman game is going episodic initially annoyed me. It reminded me a lot of the Final Fantasy VII remake doing the same thing, and how that reaction went. This time, however, I thought about it some more and turned around on it. Most of the credit for that probably goes to Captain Codfish for giving me a prompt to articulate just what I was so unhappy about.

Turns out the answer was a lot of fear that it might suck, more than that it actually does suck. And to be clear, it could suck quite a lot. The news that they’re selling all the episodes upfront for a normal AAA game price suggests that maybe it won’t, though. Even still, Square-Enix is taking a lot of flak for trying to do it. There must be an upside to them, right?

Breaking The Layoff Cycle

Aside from crunch, one of the things that can suck about game development is that it has a cycle of layoffs. This especially plagues smaller studios, but even larger ones can suffer from it.

The core problem is that you need differing amounts of staff at different stages of development, and unless you’re big enough to keep the other staff busy, you’re paying people to be idle. A lot of studios can’t afford to do that, so we get layoffs, and then hiring later when they have to staff up again. This is espcially true after a big development push, when the next set of content (or next game) is at the early stages. Consider:

  • Early on in design and development, you may not be sure just where you’re going yet. You don’t need 50 developers and a large QA staff.
  • For a while, you will need to make tons of assets  (art, voice over work, cutscenes). You can’t do some of those until after writing is done, and once it is, what do the writers do?
  • Once the assets are done and the game has moved into being closer to release, what do the artists do?
  • You need a big development and testing staff closer to release, but once you get there, those people will have a lot less to do.

DLC partially alleviates this, by having more content in the pipeline, so that you can keep people busy. Episodic games are a refinement of the model.

In an episodic game? Episode 3 can be in the design and writing stage while episode 2 is in the asset creation and development stages, while episode 1 is in the final push to release stage. You have the same people as before, only now everyone constantly has work. This starts to look something like a manufacturing operation, for good reason: manufacturing operations are very good at utilizing capacity.

The stability this model generates if it works helps companies keep staff, and gives staff some stability. That’s good for everyone, as experienced staff don’t make mistakes that new recruits make.

Cash Flow & Cutting Losses

In a traditional development cycle, someone (like a publisher) puts up the budget up front. The game gets made. The game gets sold. If it does well, great! If it does poorly, you just lost a ton of money.

The biggest problem with this model is that genres that publishers won’t bet on get undeserved, because making games is expensive. Early access and kickstarter came about to deal with that, by getting developers money for only a partial game, they can have cash flow and keep developing without needing the entire budget up front.

Early access suffers from a lot of games that go into it being unpolished and not ready for prime time, which cuts off a lot of the audience before you start. Episodic gaming could do it even better:

  1. By putting out only a piece of the game, you cut costs, development time, and can get that piece out on a lower budget.
  2. By focusing on less stuff, you can actually polish it, and avoid the biggest pitfall of early access.
  3. If it sells, you have cash flow to make the next episode.
  4. If it doesn’t sell, the market told you that it’s not interested and you cut your losses without building a bunch more game that also won’t sell.

Telltale Games does this to a T, and we get the very highly praised Tales From The Borderlands series out of it. Telltale’s business likely wouldn’t work without the ability to release in episodes.

What About Gamers?

I’ve talked a lot about why it’s good for the business end, but is it good for gamers? Maybe.

A lot depends on how the model is used. Square is clearly trying to alleviate price increase fears with Hitman by offering an upfront package that contains all the episodes, meaning you buy at “full game” price and you get the full game. For diehard Hitman fans, that’s likely the way to go.

How about people who are new to the franchise and not sure if they’d like it? That first episode is going to cost significantly less than a full game. Unlike waiting for a Steam sale, you can buy it cheap on day one. If you like it, great! You now have more to look forward to. If you don’t? You’ve lost considerably less money.

What about people who want the complete game so they can play it all in one go? Those people feel upset that they have to wait. But, they’d have to wait anyway. Without episodes, nothing would come out until the full game is done. It takes longer to make the full game than it does to make an episode, obviously. They do now have to wait while other people are playing and they’re not, but that’s the definition of a first world problem.

Improvements to the lives of game developers should also be welcome by gamers. Developers are people too, and having them have something resembling a sane working environment is good for everyone. You don’t get top quality work out of people who are applying somewhere else because they expect to be laid off after development finishes.

A Lot Depends on Square-Enix

While smaller companies like Telltale have been doing this for a while, Square-Enix is on a much larger scale. Hitman’s budget is on a scale far beyond most episodic games, and Final Fantasy VII is going to be one of the largest releases of the year when it comes out.

How well Square-Enix does with using this model will have a major impact on what other companies do. If they handle it well and customers buy in? Expect others to follow suit.

Quitting Disgaea 5, Currency rates & game pre-purchases, Toddler Games, and Social Gaming without MMOs

Bit of a mismash of thoughts today, as 2016 gets going.

Originally, my plan for January was to keep going with Disgaea 5, and finish the post game. At this point, I’m convinced that isn’t going to happen. Why? There’s two reasons. The first is that I’m at the point in the post game where the grind level goes way up, just to make numbers bigger. With highly limited gaming time, grinding holds very little appeal over a game that offers a more well rounded experience (like Disgaea 5 did before getting this far into the post game). That resulted in it starting to feel like a slog rather than fun, and at this point I’m too old and too busy to play something that isn’t fun.

The other reason? I got Pillars of Eternity as a Christmas present.

It sunk it’s teeth into me and will not let go. Grinding out XP can’t compete with a whole new world to explore. I’m sure I’ll have more to say later as I get farther into it, but so far it’s a gem that I missed when it launched.

Countdown to XCOM 2 Day

The big difficulty Pillars of Eternity has for me is that I pretty much need to finish it before XCOM 2 is out. I loved XCOM: Enemy Within, and the way they’ve inverted things in XCOM 2 with you now being a resistence group willl really mix things up. I expect that to completely monopolize my single player gaming time once it’s out.

The biggest downside to XCOM 2 is price, and that’s a global game pricing issue. I’m in Canada, and unlike places like Australia, Canada tends to pay the US price in games. For the last few years that had been working out pretty well, even when Steam shifted recently to doing transactions in Canadian dollars (until a year or two ago, all transactions were in US dollars).

Then, the oil market tanked and the Canadian dollar tanked with it. Here’s a five year chart vs USD, from XE.com:

CAD vs USD 5 year
Oow pain.

As recently ago as the middle of 2014, $1 CAD was worth around $0.95 USD, which meant prices were more or less at parity. It went downhill fast from there, and games that were $50 became $60. Then $70. The fancy edition of XCOM 2 on Steam is pushing up towards $100, and it’s not getting any cheaper. This is a perverse incentive to pre-purchase, because the longer I wait to pay, the more expensive the game gets. Steam hasn’t adjusted their price again recently, but there is now talk of the dollar dropping below $0.70 USD, in which case they’d almost certainly have to.

This is also affecting things like imported food products, and, well, imported everything. Other people have it even worse, like Brazilian gamers, as they’re facing a steeper currency devaluation. It’s just one of those things that American gamers don’t have to think about, as games are priced in USD and stay the same price no matter what the US Dollar does. In other countries, gamers on a budget benefit from keeping an eye on future trends in foreign exchange rates.

Toddler Gaming

I have a two year old son. He obviously likes to play, but he doesn’t care for things like rules. This was most apparent when I showed him my new box of Formula D, which is a F1 racing board game.

He loves the board, because it’s a race track. He loves the pieces, which are race cars and dice. He has no interest in the rules whatsoever, as he plays his own version. His version is: roll the dice, cheer at the number you got, then do whatever you want. Also, if daddy’s winning, his car suddenly has super glue and can stop daddy’s car. Or crash it off the road. Or make it go sit on a boat in the Monaco harbour for a while.

Board games are pretty ideal to introduce him to gaming, because they’re physical and easy to manipulate. They also don’t care if you invent your own rules, which gives a version that he likes. The first thing he asked when he woke up today is if he could play race cars again. It was pretty awesome.

Social Gaming, sans MMO

I’m fairly sour on MMOs right now, for the reasons I’ve stated numerous times before. That leaves a bit of a gap because while I love my single player games, I also like gaming as a social experience.

I’ve been getting the social aspect a few other ways:

  1. Board Games. We have a board game cafe in town, which is a delightful way to go out for an evening and try a new game. You pay a cover, grab a game off their rather expansive shelf, and start playing. They also have food and drink available if you want it.
  2. Pen & Paper RPGs. I’m in a D&D game and a Pathfinder game, and when those are running it’s a highly social event.
  3. Artemis Starship Bridge Simulator. I bought a copy of Artemis and have most of the hardware needed to run it, so when people come over with laptops, we set it up and play. I have a game setup for this Saturday, and someone in town asked if they could play from their house. I turned them down, because the experience just isn’t the same when the Helmsman is somewhere else and talking over voice chat, as compared to everyone being in the same room.

The social aspect is pretty important to me for these games, as it’s something I can’t get elsewhere. MMOs used to fill that need as well, but as the developers have moved towards making everything single player and “random people you never talk to again” dungeon finder oriented, I just wasn’t getting what I wanted out of them.

Not to mention how expensive subscriptions are getting with the dollar’s decline, and how F2P games have a tendency of turning into exercises in “pay us to make this annoying nonsense go away” or flat out pay to win schemes.