Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, April 01, 2015
April 1st

I hate blogging on April Fools' Day. Don't believe anything you read today, not even this message. :)

Tuesday, March 31, 2015
Global Netflix

A reader alerted me to a story about Netflix wanting to make Netflix global, by letting everybody access all Netflix content everywhere, with no geo-blocking or regional restrictions. Unfortunately that turned out to be not a real announcement, but an overly enthusiastic interpretation of a line taken out of context in an interview done when Netflix launched in Australia. The CEO of Netflix is basically saying that he isn't worried about VPN use of his service (as people pay for that), and that if one day Netflix goes global, the VPN issue would go away. That isn't the same as announcing a plan for a concrete Netflix Global service.

While the EU revealed a Digital Single Market Strategy without geo-blocking, that also is more a statement of intent, and not an announcement of anything happening anytime soon. Many European governments, especially the French, are worried about cultural imperialism, and the effect on global film and TV industries if everybody can freely watch American TV and films.

What Netflix is trying to do is telling their customers that it is okay to use VPN, while not being explicit enough about it to get them into legal trouble with the copyright holders. The people who sold the US rights to some TV series to Netflix would much prefer Netflix having to pay far more for global rights, while Netflix would like to gain more oversees customers with the possibility to watch that TV series via VPN without Netflix having to pay for it. Earlier this year The Guardian revealed that Netflix has 30 million customers in countries where Netflix isn't even available, so all of these *must* use VPN to access Netflix.

While legally in a grey zone, this strategy gives Netflix a competitive advantage. Other services are far more restrictive and require an US address and credit card before a customer can watch their TV on demand. That is a lot harder to get around, and it is safe to say that there aren't 30 million people doing it.

As an European living in Belgium, the most annoying TV on demand policy to me is that of Amazon. You can watch Amazon Instant Video in several European countries, like the UK, France, and Germany. But Belgium, which is smack right in the middle of those three, doesn't have access because Amazon Instant Video is only available in the large countries which have a local Amazon store. Parcels with books and DVDs can cross European borders, streamed TV shows can't. And I have a hard time imagining that the rights holder gave Amazon an European license which excludes all the small countries, so I don't believe that this particular case is a rights issue.

Monday, March 30, 2015
Pillars of Eternity - First Impressions

I've played Pillars of Eternity for 16 hours now, which is longer than some other games are long, but short on the time-scale of this game. I'm still in Act 1! So this isn't a review yet, but just some first impressions.

Pillars of Eternity is most definitively and old school game. Gameplay is very similar to Baldur's Gate, but the world and story is original, and not licensed from Dungeons & Dragons. There are a few modern comfort functions added, but mostly the game offers very little in terms of handholding or even just tutorials. You are supposed to find out things on your own.

Sometimes the modern touches clash with the old stuff. For example you have a modern 3D character creation tool where you can make your character look as you want him to look. But then you need to choose one of only 66 2D character portraits, and of course none of them even remotely fits the character you just created in 3D. You might as well not bother, as most of the time you only see the 2D portrait anyway, unless you zoom in a lot.

In Pillars of Eternity you control a party of up to 6 characters. You create one character at the start, the other 5 are companions which you can either pick up during the adventure, or create yourself if you have the money. *Spoiler* The first three companions you meet are a wizard, a fighter, and a priest, but you don't know that when you create your main character. What works very well is making a rogue as your main character, so you get your companions with their stories and have all the basic classes covered. If you insist on let's say making a wizard, you end up with two wizards in the group, or miss out on that free companion. Plus you have to spend money on hiring a rogue companion to open locks and disarm traps, and the created companions don't have a background story and have less dialogue and interaction.

Personally I like Pillars of Eternity a lot, but it is not the most accessible game, designed more for veterans than for new players. Combat takes a while to get the hang of, as it is in real-time, with optional pauses. You have various auto-pause settings, or can pause the game with the space bar whenever you want. What is very helpful in combat is the option to zoom in very close, as you need to be precise. The game allows friendly fire, and my rogue once managed to backstab one of his companions because that companion was too close to the enemy and I mis-clicked. Area effect spells are rather tricky, because combatants tend to move while the spell is cast, and you can easily burn your own party with a fireball. At least path-finding has much improved since Baldur's Gate, although sometimes characters still get stuck and can't find a way to melee the enemy.

Pillars of Eternity is a very big game, and I can see myself spending many hours playing it through. Being an explorer at heart I'll probably just play it once, but if you want you can play through the game at different difficulties, including very hard settings with permadeath and reduced access to comfort functions like the stash. But there is also an easy setting with a reduced number of monsters for those who are mainly interested in playing through the story and exploring the world.

Sunday, March 29, 2015
The price of verbosity

I was following a link from a post from Bhagpuss about turning your blog into a pdf or ebook file. The software didn't work for my blog. So I googled for similar services and EVERY SINGLE ONE OF THEM failed to turn my complete blog into a book. None of the programs could handle my 4,985 posts with the 188 MB of data in XML format. Too bad, I would have liked to offer the pdf or ebook file to my readers for my upcoming 5,000th post.

Friday, March 27, 2015

Just a quick mention of a software that helped me with a small problem: I had bought an alarm clock which wakes you up with your favorite song as mp3 file on an USB key or SD card. Unfortunately it turned out that the volume setting in alarm mode cannot be changed, and getting woken up by music blaring loudly wasn't especially nice. I thought about buying a different alarm clock, but then I had an idea: The volume of the music must be somewhere encoded on the mp3 file. If only there was a way to easily change the volume of a bunch of mp3 files!

Turns out, there is! MP3Gain lets you change the volume of a bunch of mp3 files to the same loudness. While mostly meant to normalize the songs on your mp3 player to have the same volume, it also worked beautifully for my purpose. 80 decibels is enough to wake me up without giving me a heart attack.

Thursday, March 26, 2015
Telling the future

Psychochild has written a great article explaining that "Peter Molyneux isn’t so much lying as being terrible at telling the future.". For me the problem is not the difficulty of telling the future, or any specific developer being bad at it, or any specific game failing to deliver on its promises. For me the problem is gamers and game media being more interested in the future than in the present. If you want you can do the following experiment: Go to the next newsstand and buy any one random games magazine. Now count the pages dealing with previews of upcoming games and count the pages dealing with reviews or other information about games that have already been released. The number of preview pages ALWAYS is bigger than the number of review pages, up to twice as many pages talking about the future than there are pages talking about the present.

The internet isn't any better. There is endless discussion of Kickstarter projects and all sorts of other games still in development. As soon as a game is released everybody is losing interest. The level of interest is also quite evident in pricing: Many developers will happily sell you alpha access to a buggy unfinished mess for $200, but the price of the game goes down to $60 on release day, and half a year later you can pick up the game for $20 in a Steam sale. People would be outraged if a game on release day had a $100 price tag, but Kickstarter projects for games frequently get an average of around $100 per backer.

Unfortunately everything Psychochild explains about Molyneux is also true for most other game developers. The greatest visionaries are often the least able to transform their visions into an actual product. Anybody remember the Warhammer Online hype, and the "bears, bears, bears" video? Lots of people got so excited that they started a great many number of blogs, most of which quickly died when the game was actually released.

I would much prefer if the visionaries would shut up and rather try to implement their vision than telling the world about it. Visions are incredibly cheap to produce compared to actual games. And I see more and more cases where it can be suspected that somebody noticed that the cheap vision sells better than the expensive to make game, and deliberately sets out to con people out of their money. Game developers aren't the only ones terrible at telling the future, gamers themselves are also incredibly bad at evaluating the visions that are being sold. Game design has a number of insolvable problems and inherent incompatibilities, and you can earn a lot more money by promising the impossible than by trying to work out a reasonable compromise and implementing it. That makes Kickstarter a paradise for con artists rather than a way to fund the games that people actually want.

Player agency and what they do with it

In the original Everquest, despite its name suggesting otherwise, players were not doing quests all the time. There weren't all that many quests. Most of the time a player had nobody who told him what to do, he was free to pursue whatever goal he wanted, wherever he wanted (as long as the zone was level appropriate). The consequence of that wasn't pretty, it led to what people called Evercamp: Players were most interested in gaining experience as efficiently as possible, and the most efficient method was to "camp" one location of monsters. The initial pull was the hardest, as afterwards the mobs respawned not as a group but one by one. So the most efficient way to gain experience and levels was to stay at the same spot and kill the same group of monsters over and over and over. As level gaining was much slower than in modern games, it wasn't unheard of a player staying at one spot for weeks, moving on only once he outleveled the monsters and needed a new spot.

When games like World of Warcraft moved to a system where players were always on a quest, and the quests made them move all over the zone instead of sticking to one spot, that was considered a big improvement. Only those "quests" weren't quests in the Wikipedia sense of the word. Sir Galahad is famous for having completed one quest in his lifetime, World of Warcraft has achievements for doing 3,000 quests, or worse 10,000 daily quests. Instead of finding the holy grail, a quest often doesn't involve more than walking 10 meters and clicking on something. At most you need to run to the other end of the zone and kill 10 monsters. So by now everybody is thoroughly bored of doing thousands of minor chores, and is clamoring for sandbox games.

But the initial problem still hasn't been solved: If you give players a huge world filled with interesting stuff, how do you ensure that they actually go out adventuring and do dangerous and interesting stuff? A great majority of players is more interested in the rewards than in the adventure, and prefers the path of least resistance, even if that path is rather boring.

The problem isn't unique to MMORPGs. Besides the D&D campaign were I am the DM, I now found another group where I could play instead. But in the first session I felt the group was never in any situation of their own chosing, but was being led by the nose through a scripted story. Putting my DM hat back on, I am not sure my players don't feel the same about my game. For example in the latest session of my campaign my players came upon a troll shaman with a bear pet. They clearly had at least two options, ignoring him or fighting him, and they never thought of other possibilities like talking to him. But in any case the situation itself was one created by me, the DM (or the author of the adventure I was playing). Like a dungeon in World of Warcraft the dungeon in a D&D adventure is a collection of possible encounters, and the only freedom the players have is to choose their path through that collection, and how to deal with each situation. They rarely *create* the situation they need to deal with.

Just like with MMORPG players, people playing tabletop roleplaying games of clamor for sandbox games instead. I have a strong suspicion that those clamoring the loudest are those that don't actually play or lead a game, but talk out of a purely theoretical armchair position. The previous adventure of my D&D campaign before the current dungeon was a more sandboxy city adventure, and that ended with the group walking away and deciding not to confront the archvillain, in spite of having a strong possible motive of revenge. If as a DM you give players a strong motive to do something, they feel railroaded. If you don't give them a strong motive to do something, they won't do it. And most players you can't rely on to create their own strong motivation beyond gaining experience points and treasure. In a completely sandbox world of D&D, players would probably end up "camping" mobs. A generic fantasy world without DM-designed stories is a bland and boring place, but every story you do tell creates at least the impression of you leading the players.

I'm still experimenting with my tabletop roleplaying games, and I'm still waiting for a MMORPG to come up with a better solution. I'm not sure there is a perfect solution for either case, we might need to settle for the least bad compromise.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015
The Favorites of Selune - Trollhaunt - Session 3

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune fought their way into the troll warrens. This session started with them deciding to take a long rest, as they tend to do after every remotely challenging fight to recover their daily spells. Note to self: I need to have a mechanic like a time limit for every dungeon in the future to prevent this; respawning trolls would be another option, but then they'd just rest again. At least in this case they had found a good location for the rest, a neighboring cave in which human prisoners from Moonstairs and the prince's expedition were held. The prisoners were in no condition to fight, but were willing to keep guard while the group rested, in exchange for being freed and led out of the troll warren the next day.

Having entered the warrens via the river flowing out, I would have thought that the group might continue further into the warrens that way, which would have been an option. But they decided to do the more conventional thing and followed the tunnels instead. That led them to a cave where an elderly troll shaman was circling a mound of skulls on an elevated platform, with a giant bear pet at the foot of the stairs. Their first concern curiously was to find out whether the bear was actually a bear or a transformed troll druid. Nice idea, but in this case it really was just a bear. While observing the bear they were seen by it, but the bear was content gnawing some bones and didn't attack. A further incursion into the cave likewise didn't result in an attack, neither by the troll nor the bear. And one of the two exits was thus clearly possible to reach without a fight. That caused some discussion, with the rogue being in favor of leaving no troll alive, while the rest of the group preferred to preserve their strength.

The next cave was empty except for a portal with runes on it. The runes apparently were relatively fresh, and in the script that both dwarves and giant-kind uses. With a comprehend languages ritual the priest deciphered it as announcing this door to lead towards the troll king Skalmad, "nobody escapes his eye". The door had a lock, and the rogue was able to pick it, so the group could continue this way.

The next large cave was illuminated by patches of luminescent mushrooms, with an old woman tending a patch of those mushrooms in the middle of the room. From the ceiling hung cages containing troll skeletons. After their experience with the non-hostile troll, the group approached the women with little worry. Which was a mistake, because she transformed into her real form, a briar hag. There was a second hag in the back of the cave, and from the cages descended five troll skeletons and attacked.

As the group had advanced into the cave, and not kept rank, the fight didn't have a clear frontline, and there were skeletons or hags all around and between the characters. While that has obvious tactical disadvantages, at least it made the area effect of the briar hags, who grew patches of briar to entangle the adventurers, less effective. Being right in the middle the cleric used a great combination of turn undead after an area effect spell which allowed him a total of 10 attacks where he needed only to roll a 10 or more on a d20. To general amusement he managed to miss 9 of those attacks. After this bad start the fight was a rather tough one, with lots of healing and use of daily powers needed to survive. The troll skeletons hit hard, and the hags had ranged spells to immobilize adventurers. With the adventurers being dispersed and hindered in movement, they were unable to concentrate their attacks well, which led to several rounds of combat with no monster dying. But then the skeletons started to fall, and so did the first hag. The second hag tried to get to the door to the next room, but was slowed down by some attack, and never made it.

After the fight the group found some treasure, and we ended the session there.

Tuesday, March 24, 2015
Players to backers ratio

The Crowfall Kickstarter is coming to an end this week, having reached its goal. Around 15,000 backers funded the project to the tune of 1.5 million dollars, about $100 average per backer. One of the advantages of crowdfunding frequently mentioned is that it allows to demonstrate public interest in a project. Which leads me to the question of how many backers would be sufficient for that.

In today's market a MMORPG with 15,000 players would be considered incredibly niche. But we have to assume that the number of people willing to buy a game is larger than the number of Kickstarter backers. After all, spending $100 on a game that hasn't been developed yet is obviously a risky proposition and a lot of people would rather wait for the game to be out before making a purchase decision. On the other hand the MMORPG genre is full of "tourists", people who are quite willing to buy a new game and try it for a while, but who tend to be gone after a month or three, and who don't contribute to the long-term health of a game.

We don't have a lot of data on the players to backers ratio of kickstarted MMORPGs for the simple reason that we don't have many successfully kickstarted MMORPGs. Crowfall has about the same number of backers as for example Camelot Unchained, but less than Shroud of the Avatar, and only about half of the number of backers of Star Citizen. The obvious problem is that the development time for MMORPGs tends be rather long, so none of these games have come out yet. We don't even know *if* they will all come out.

The other fundamental problem is that a Kickstarter backer is essentially buying a dream, while a player who buys the game after release is buying a more or less finished product. Between public beta tests, YouTube videos, and game reviews the person waiting for release is far better informed about the actual quality of the final game than the Kickstarter backer. Godus, which technically is still in beta and also got over 15,000 backers, presumably would have a hard time to attract a lot of new players if it ever gets "released". While theoretically a company could be better at making a game than a pitching it on Kickstarter, the general tendency is for actual products not living up to all the dreams and promises.

In the end I have a hard time imaging a players to backers ratio of higher than 10 on release, less after the tourists came and went. I don't think any of the MMORPGs on Kickstarter will reach a million players. The Double Fine Adventure Broken Age sold 70,947 copies in the first three months, which isn't all that much compared to the 87,142 backers, suggesting a players to backers ratio of around 2 for the second most successful Kickstarter game ever. What do you think?

Sunday, March 22, 2015
Bhagpuss mode

While technically I had unsubscribed from World of Warcraft, I continued playing for free the low-level characters that the "veteran edition" allows you to play. In what I call Bhagpuss mode, playing for relaxation without worrying about efficiency or trying to achieve much. World of Warcraft is a good game to play like that if you're tired after a day at work, it doesn't require much effort for the basic questing and similar solo gameplay. I first leveled a human hunter to 20, noticing by the way that I hadn't played the post-Cataclysm Alliance zones yet. Then I started a gnome monk. But at that point I got a bit annoyed at the free version not allowing me to do pet battles, which is also a nice relaxation mode of WoW. And so I ended up subscribing again.

One added advantage of subscribing of course is that it reactivated my higher level characters, specifically those with garrisons. I plan for them to continue to do work orders with the profession buildings, hoarding the materials needed to craft epics and upgrades. My thinking on that is that when the WoW token gets introduced, this will lead to a lot more gold flowing into the economy from currently inactive accounts, leading to more AH activity and inflation. The people buying gold for tokens will want to spend that gold on something, after all. As I can produce epics by just keeping my garrison production running with very little effort, I should be able to make a lot of gold, and translate that into free months of subscription.

One added advantage is that patch 6.1 increased the xp you get from mining and herb collecting in your garrison. So the characters I don't really want to play, like my level 96 shadow priest, are still slowly moving towards level 100 and a better garrison. On the silly side my level 100 characters are accumulating epic gear up to iLevel 670 just from missions, without even leaving the garrison.

But most of my time I'm spending on the gnome monk, collecting pets through pet battles, or tinkering around with cooking and leatherworking. Monk doesn't appear to be a very popular class for leveling, but if by level 20 I see that he doesn't work out, I can still switch to the hunter I already leveled to 20.

Thursday, March 19, 2015
Rogue redux

I've been playing some Card Crawl on my iPad. As the "crawl" in the name suggests there is a faint relation to a rogue-like dungeon crawl game. Only there is no dungeon. Instead the experience is simulated by going through a deck of 54 cards, roughly half of which are monsters that cost you health, and the other half being equipment items that prevent health loss or heal you. Only 5 cards in the deck are variable, and over time you get a selection of cards which you can put into those 5 slots. The game is played by the dealer revealing the top 4 cards of the deck, and you having to deal with 3 of them before he deals the next cards. You have 3 slots on your character where you can store positive cards, or you can sell them for gold, but negative cards need to be neutralized with positive cards or you need to take the health loss.

I'm not quite sure why the game got so good reviews. To me the optimal strategy of the game became quite obvious rather early. And once you got the strategy, whether you win or lose is simply a matter of luck. If you get good and bad cards more or less in alternation, you win. If you get a cluster of bad cards (you can lose first turn by drawing 4 non-trivial monsters) you lose. If you get a cluster of good cards, you run out of storage slots for them, need to sell them, and the fine balance of the game means that then you'll inevitably get too many bad cards later and lose. The most interesting thing about that is that there are actually rogue-like dungeon crawl games which work basically on the same principle: There are random events which can be either good or bad, and if you get by pure chance a cluster of bad events, you lose. So Card Crawl is a game of rogue redux.

I am not opposed to randomness in games. I play tabletop role-playing games where throwing dice is an essential part of playing. But a good DM would never have a situation in a game of D&D where a bad roll of the dice means everybody loses and goes home. The fun of randomness is that it adds an element of uncertainty to your strategy / tactics with which the players have to deal. But the macroscopic success or failure should rest on the decisions that the players make, and not be simply a matter of luck. This is also why I prefer the longer fights of 4th edition Dungeon & Dragon, where you roll a lot of dice in each fight and deal with the ups and downs, to the new 5th edition D&D combat where you can die from a single critical hit before you even acted once.

An important aspect there is what the penalty for bad luck is. If bad luck can cause you a minor setback, I don't mind. If by bad luck and no fault of your own you lose a game where the only option is to start over from the very beginning, I find that annoying. I prefer games where good luck or bad luck is a random factor that determines what the optimal strategy / tactic is, forcing me to adjust to events. If it's "bad luck, you lose, start over", then I'm not all that interested.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015
Bartle types, gender, and game design

I stumbled upon an infographic on percentage of women playing various different video games, which shows that for some type of games there are more women than men playing, while League of Legends only has 10% women playing, and EVE Online even just 4%. And I was thinking that this is a matter of measuring what is easily measurable and then reducing a far more complex issue to a simple gender issue. EVE Online is not a sexist game, doesn't feature overly sexualized or victimized female NPCs, or limits you to playing male characters. If you took the typical list of "how to make games more gender equal", they clearly don't apply to this case.

That is because the underlying more complex issue is one of Bartle types. EVE Online and League of Legends are clearly games that nearly exclusively cater to the Killer Bartle type. People use words like "toxic community" and "cutthroat" to describe these games. That is only a gender issue insofar as women are more likely to prefer Explorer and Socializer Bartle type gameplay. Men who are Explorers / Socializers are as much repelled by these Killer games as women are.

I'm not sure whether anything can be done to for example make MOBA games more accessible to other Bartle types and thus increase the female participation rate as well as widening the male audience. Even Blizzard's Heroes of the Storm appears to me to not offer much content for Bartle types other than Killers.

But where I see a big opportunity for improvement is in sandbox virtual world games. Currently many of them are far less successful than they could be because the Killers have been given free reign, and they are driving out anybody else. It is a mistake in a game like DayZ to give players lots of tools to kill or torture each other, but not enough tools to cooperate or socialize. A survival sandbox game based around cooperation being more efficient than lone wolves would not just be much more realistic in terms of early human history, it would also attract a larger and more diverse crowd.


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