Category Archives: Games

Dungeons and Dragons at TfB

It all started with someone saying they had never played Dungeons and Dragons. It seems weird, working for a video game company that exists because of D&D, but many people didn’t get the opportunity to play growing up. I did. And I had even run games before, though for much less discerning players than a group of people who *make* games for a living.

4 years later, we have had two full campaigns and a short lived run through some Savage Worlds, but here we are, playing D&D again. I have played in some of it, but mostly I have been running games. Not just because it’s the easiest way to make sure we play and everyone is having fun, but more because this is what I find fun. Presenting a situation to players and watching them destroy it in the most beautiful ways.

I believe playing and running D&D games makes you a better game designer.

There are different kinds of DMs (dungeon masters) and different kinds of campaigns, but most of the players I have encountered agree that that whole point is to have fun. I have tried planning out everything meticulously and it rarely works. If I have a country road ambush, and I need the players to ride along a road at a specific time to have something specific happen, but I mention in passing while setting the scene that a monarch butterfly flits by – one of two things will happen – 1. The players will chase off after the butterfly certain that it is important because I mentioned it. Or 2. Turn around and ride the other direction because someone forgot to buy arrows or their cat is on fire back in town.

Over the years leading up to my career in video games I learned a great deal about D&D players. They might as well all be named Murphy. They will absolutely go the wrong way, do the wrong thing, at the absolute worst possible time. The job of the DM though, is to make sure they have fun doing so.

I learned to only vaguely plan what I wanted the session to be. It will always be shorter or longer than I imagine. They will have an easy time with extremely difficult monsters while dying to the fluffy bunnies of cuddles. They will bash down doors that weren’t locked, they will fall down shafts that have ladders, and they will drown in small ponds. They will also roll natural 20s (an automatic success) on unopenable chests, leap 40 foot crevasses, and drown bosses in pools of holy water without ever once touching him.

What makes D&D so much fun? What makes me enjoy running these games so much, despite it taking hours of my limited free time, excessive amounts of money for every book WotC prints, and so much mental preparation? Because I can always say YES to the player.

In video games, we are often limited by our tech or our scope. If the player in a game wants to go off the beaten path and chase down bunnies – they can’t always do that. And if we do let them do that, that takes time and money that could be spent on “more important things”. But in D&D – not only can the player do so, but I can twist the story and plan to make it so it’s important and what was intended ALL ALONG. There’s always an answer. Everything’s always connected even if it wasn’t intended to be that way.

To give a very immediate example – last night I presented my players with a room in a magical dungeon. The dungeon is magical because it creates challenges that are specific to THESE characters. This room was targeting towards our resident sorcerer, who’s day job is creating gaming supplies like cards and dice. The room was a handsomely appointed tavern room (yes, in a magical dungeon, it works because magic) with a single table and two chairs. The player immediately sat in the chair, while his party members stood back and watched, and a ghost appeared in the opposite chair to play him at a card game. As he spoke to the ghost he learned the specifics of this challenge. He had to win three bets against the ghost, before he lost 3. Of course, he lost 3 first. Now, I as the DM, didn’t have a concrete plan beyond – the ghost will attack him if he loses. That was it.

The ghost turns aggressive and attacks my player. Of course, his party members join the fray, but as they are level 1, and the ghost is quite challenging, they didn’t kill it. It however reduced my player to 0 hit points (in D&D this doesn’t mean he is dead yet, just knocked out and dying.) At this point, I could have the ghost start attacking the other players, they did after all attack the ghost. But that’s so… normal. So instead, the ghost reverts to its previous non-aggressive form and vanishes. I didn’t plan that. I thought of it in the moment.

As they revive the player, he once more sits down to play the ghost, who returns and acts as if nothing has happened and is willing to play again. They know they hadn’t beaten the room’s challenge and earned the reward. Only this time, the players change their tactics. They all start cheating like mad. Slight of hands, distractions, perception and insight rolls are flying around as they try to help the player win 3 rounds of poker. Of course, he succeeds this time – it was easy as he had 3 extra cards in his hand.

They successfully overcome the challenge and the ghost leaves, giving them access to a door that rewards them with a magical staff specifically made for the player. I didn’t plan most of it. I had exactly two words written down for this puzzle – “gambling game” and then a second note made later that said “v ghost.”

On the surface it seems like a really weird thing to have in a game. It’s not combat (well, it had combat, but it was solvable without combat.) It allowed them to fail and retry without “reloading” or sacrifice. It was still challenging, but not mindless. And yet, it’s exactly the kind of thing we frequently did in Skylanders (there was just a card game, and at times the players inexplicably had to beat them to proceed.) And mostly, the interactions, rolls, and events were generated on the fly to adjust to the players, their actions, their health and stats, and the general feel of the room.

Video game development is a weird beast. Very rarely does the plan set down at the beginning actually lead to the game at the end. Much like the adage about war, the battle plan never survives the encounter with the enemy. On the 4 Skylanders games I built levels for, never once did the order of levels survive 5 months without being changed. That’s not the first 5 months. That’s every 5 months. 5 months from CRC (the first attempt at a final build) at least one level would be moved forward or back to fix some weird issue with a story point, a mechanic, or a toy production issue. Being able to quickly think on your feet and improvise solutions using nothing but what is already in the game is a very valuable skill.

D&D is a group storytelling experience, in that the DM is taking all the threads of story being told by the players, weaving them together, then weaving them into a larger epic narrative. Many video game designers want to achieve this same goal. I have found these are generally the better designers in the game industry and often make exceptional games. They let the player affect the game, story, and experience, even if that means things break in unexpected and horribly broken ways. D&D makes me a better designer because experience DMing has taught me that saying yes to the player and allowing them to do ridiculous game breaking things often leads to the most interesting stories that get retold for years afterwards. It’s not my epic tale where I force them along a prescribed set of actions (that’s a book) it’s the group of us, working together to create hilarious adventures.

Not to mention that having a regular group of people willing to stumble and bumble through mechanics and puzzles is a really great testing ground for level design. In addition, playing with people from work leads to really amazing friendships and the ability to work really well together even when not in dungeons.

Game Developer Barbie

“It’s really not that big of a deal.”

“FUCK YOU. IT’S A BIG FUCKING DEAL. It’s the BIGGEST FUCKING DEAL.”

I will admit, my response was probably not the most polite or appropriate for the situation. But I was not wrong. Mattel announced new Barbies today. And while the news of new body types (holy hell they added a curvy barbie!!!) was enough to draw me to the site, what made me gasp with joy was the Game Developer Barbie.

She’s got a computer accessory. She’s got long red hair, with headphones snugly in place. She’s wearing jeans, a t-shirt, and a light jacket. She’s got sneakers on her flat feet. She’s me. (Actually, if they made the curvy version it literally WOULD be me.)

She’s me. I’m a game developer, and this summer, I will have a Barbie doll that looks just like me, dresses just like me, and DOES MY JOB.

When I was in High School, I was one of the smartest kids in my class. They made us talk to a guidance counselor about what job we wanted so we could plan out our college path to get there. After 30 minutes of her trying to convince me to be a Doctor, Lawyer, or Teacher, I finally just said, “Look, I am gonna go to college, I will figure it out there.” I was steered away from being a writer (“You don’t want to be a starving artist do you?”) They pushed the Doctor and Lawyer hard – as expected for a poor area. But I didn’t want to do that. I wanted to do something amazing.

I went to college and my “plan” became Take as Many Classes as Possible, and Figure it Out Later. 4.5 years later, I was planning on being an English Teacher. Then I discovered the Guildhall and literally said “Wait, I can make games? They have schools for this kind of thing? I am going THERE.” And I did. But that moment struck me because no one – in all my years of playing video games, ever once said “Why don’t you try to make them?” I owned a computer, and worked on them, but never once thought – hey let’s make a game. Hell, I BUILT LEVELS for Heroes of Might and Magic and Neverwinter Nights, and never once thought, I should get paid to do this. Because no one ELSE did. Games were a “waste of time”. Always.

Barbie makes it so people WILL think about it. I remember thinking about careers like being a vet, a stewardess, a tv anchor, all because that was what Barbie did – AND I DIDN’T EVEN PLAY WITH THEM.

Further, I remember way back in 4th grade when we were asked what we wanted to be when we grow up. I said something weird and my teacher responded with “Pick something Barbie could be.” Yeah, it was a bit sexist because she didn’t say that to the boys, but her heart was in the right place trying to direct me towards real careers. I then switched to insisting I would be a mermaid, because I had an Ariel Barbie doll.

This is important. Very important for the next generation of girls. I wish I had had that vision when I was a kid. I would have been making games since I was 10.

TO THE SKIES!

In the tone of my last post about flying – here’s my response to the announcement about flying in Draenor today:

FUCK. YES.

Let’s break down why this is an EXCELLENT solution. In fact I would say it’s possible it’s a PERFECT solution.

How do we get flying? Getting the Loremaster of Draenor, Securing Draenor, 100 Treasures, Explore Draenor, and rep achievements.

It solves the exploration vs non-exploration issue.

Many people commented that they LIKED being forced to ride around while leveling. It gives them a better sense of the world. It helps them learn the zones. It makes it feel like they are exploring. The thing is – once we hit 100, our priorities change. We start wanting to go to specific spots. We try to bypass enemies. We WANT short cuts. But by requiring the Loremaster Achievement – it shows that the player who gets flying HAS done the story. They did the ground footwork to complete the zones.

It makes it so only level 100s can get it.

You have to be 100 to get the Securing Draenor achievement done. Bam. Locked out to level capped characters without it being just a “ding” bonus.

They aren’t charging gold for it.

It’s not a gold sink. (It could be though.) It doesn’t punish poor players or players who want to spend their gold elsewhere. More, it means that it’s not a thing that can be bought with real money.

It doesn’t allow players to cheat around the treasure hunting.

By requiring the 100 treasures achievement, players HAVE to get out there and find at least a large number of them. Maybe not all of them, maybe not all the annoying jumping puzzle ones, but a ton of them. Enough that you feel like you have done the work.

The rep grinds don’t seem to be THAT important, but hey, it means we have to put some work in. I don’t mind WORKING for a reward. Especially one as good as flying. It’s not easy. It’s not too hard. It focuses on getting the players through the content they want us to experience, the way they want us to experience it, but then opens the game up to how WE want to play afterward. And players are going to do it. I bet TONIGHT there will be a huge rush of people getting out into the world to get to work on these achievements.

I like this solution. I would go so far as to say I love it, it’s the correct way to do it, and they should do it this way in the future. Make us work for it. Not RNG or gold based, but achievement based. It’s a really great compromise between the two sides of players who want to fly and designers who want us to stop flying over their content.

I can’t wait to get back to the skies, archeology, and exploring the world.

 

Warlords of Draenor First Impressions

WoW is a big thing for me, so in preparation for the new expansion, I flew my mother out to watch my toddler, stocked the house with snacks and Coke Zero, and took Thursday and Friday off work.

Here we are, 5 days later and I have a level 100 warlock, a level 92 monk, and a level 90 priest in her garrison. What do I think of WoD?

Amazing

Garrisons. I have my laptop set up at work so I can pop over and check mine before work, during lunch, and during break. At 8am, a time no one in my guild ever plays, there were 7 people on, checking before going to work. I have been moving characters into Draenor just to get to the garrison and start stockpiling resources.

Story. Holy cow. I really can’t say much without giving away spoilers but PALADIN TAUREN.

Good

Bonus objectives. The bonus objective areas are interesting and a clever way of having areas that are just “kill the things” without having those quests. I am a bit disappointed I can only do them once.

Rares and treasures. Once more we have brought back the MoP treasures idea and I really like it. It gives me a good reason to go poke my nose around in all the nooks and crannies of the expac.

Bad

Garrison dailies – the “strategic” ones. Could these be any LESS explanatory? They don’t give you any information about what you need to do. It turned into a cascade of people asking in guild what to do for the quest as the day went on.

Inn Quests – These are awesome, but it makes the inn feel very mandatory. As does the Stable. As does the Trading Post… In fact, it just feels like every building is fairly vital. Are they planning on expanding garrison? I deeply would like to have more of the buildings and I hate feeling like I have to choose between one content and another.

Outpost stuff – I was unaware how important some of those choices were. And now I find out it’s 10k gold to change them? OOF.

Ugly

No flight at 100. I decided to go do the daily in Spires of Arak yesterday and it took me 20 minutes to find my way there. Once I got there (after dying from fall damage) I was greeted by a few HUNDRED people all trying to do the same daily. 20 minutes later, I gave up and went back to my garrison, with 10% of the daily complete. This is NOT how I want to spend an hour of my game time.

Follower Mission Levels. These scale based on the player level, not the follower level. Which means my blitz to 100 has led to me having a ton of low level followers with no ability to level them. (Edit – they fixed this.)

Waiting to be a Hero

I didn’t get the chance to raid in Vanilla WoW. I wish I had. 40 man raids seemed like an insane and exciting thing to participate in. Pandemonium. That’s what I would expect. I did raid in a 25 man guild in Burning Crusade though, so I can imagine the headache of trying to get 25 people logged in, geared, and ready to go, scaled up to 40. OW.

In the 25 man guild I was in, we had about 30 raiders. (Or up to 35 at various other times.) There were 3 guild ranks, just for raiders. They were ranked, the highest being called Thunderfury. If you successfully posted above a certain amount of DPS or HPS you would earn that rank. When forming the raid, Thunderfuries were accepted first, then the middle rank (Sulfuras something) and Warglaive as the bottom rank. Anyone who had all blue/purple gear of the appropriate level could be a Warglaive. The problem was, once you were a Warglaive, the only way to advance your character was through raiding… so you had to wait for a night when not too many Thunderfuries showed up to raid to hopefully get in. If there were 6 spots, and 7 raiders waiting, then you had to roll against each other and hope you weren’t the lowest roll. The system mostly worked, except it was very hard to ensure you were always getting to raid unless you were very lucky or very dedicated.

When I left that guild and converted to Alliance, it was a bit different. I joined a guild as a tank, and eventually switched to healing. But we were a 10 man guild. This changed everything in that we had a fairly solid core of 9 raiders who were always present. Generally we could fill that final slot with any pug and do fairly well. However, over time we gained a few lost a few raiders, as always happens and started having issues with having 11-12 people showing up. When you can only take 10 raiders, this leads to the guildleader having to make very painful choices.

Do you take your friend? Do you take the high powered, but also very annoying person? Do you take the sweet, but oblivious person? Do you take the undergeared so they have a chance to get loot and improve or the overgeared so the raid has the easiest time of it? And oh goodness don’t take them, we already have four people fighting over cloth and no one to take the leather drops…

When I left that guild, I ended up in OLN, a 25 man guild that had about 35 raiders. So each night they would draw lots and split into 25/10 raid teams. That worked for Wrath, but Cataclysm was a different story. We lost some big players, had other players drift away, but couldn’t find *anyone* to recruit. I even talked about our insane solution to this event before. It was absurd. 16 raiders squished into a 10 man hole. By the time we hit Dragon Soul we were firmly down to 10 raiders. It was the end of that guild. We couldn’t recruit, we couldn’t bulk back up, we couldn’t get people who were willing to be on a waitlist just in case.

And that’s the problem with tightly tuned raids. When you can’t just carry one or two people, you have to have a finely tuned team to consistently show up to raid. When life happens, you lose a raider and it could be the beginning of the end for your team.

When I formed a guild with Misstorgo, recruiting was our first and main issue. We had to recruit people who wanted a casual experience, were willing to raid only 2 nights a week, and not cause drama. Through a series of lucky events, we ended up with several of my co-workers forming a core raid team. However, as we progressed through MoP we had several events that lead to losing a FEW raiders and not being able to replace them.

I think over the course of the expansion we changed more than half our raid team three times. More often than not, we would find interested people – but oh they couldn’t play without their two friends… Do you have any idea how awful it is being the 11th member of a 10 man raid team? You feel selfish if you say “No, I want to raid.” knowing it means someone else will have to sit out. You feel terrible not showing up because of course, that’s the one night that someone else can’t be there and then no one gets to raid.

But then, the Third Great Change came from Blizzard. Flex – the ability for the raid to scale based on the number of players – was implemented to all difficulty levels (except Mythic, which is fine because we aren’t hardcore like that) of raiding. 11 raiders? You’re good to go with all 11. 14? Yep. 19? YEP.

This literally changes the most painful and difficult part of running a guild into a non-issue. If we get down to around 12 players, easy, we just recruit a few more. No one has to sit, so there is no danger of them getting bored and finding another guild. The fights seem to actually be a bit easier with a few extra bodies. Missing a person? It’s fine, we have more. Your buddy who only plays a month or two then takes a 3 month break? We can bring him, when he decides to show up, and not worry about having to replace him.

WoW is most fun when playing with friends and now it doesn’t ask you to rank your friends and boot the ones who don’t fit into a 10 man hole.

Screen Time

“So Joyia, how are you planning on limiting your kid’s video game time? How are you going to keep him from playing your M rated games?”

This was a question asked of me by a World of Warcraft guild mate.

He didn’t like my answer – “I’m not.”

When I was a kid, my mom never limited my game time. We had a computer and an NES. Both were in the living room. Game time was limited only by one factor – is someone else using it already. Actually no, two factors, that one, and “Is your homework done?” My mother took a firm stance on kids should be allowed to spend their time how they want to. She had her own hobbies (including playing games). She didn’t have time to police ours and see if they were “worthwhile”. Once I had finished my chores (which were criminally few now that I think about it) and homework, I could do whatever I wanted. Sometimes that was games. But just as often it was reading, or writing, or talking to friends on the phone.

At the very least, at least she always knew where we were right?

Yes, people can get really sucked into video games, but they can also be just as obsessed over many other things. I read dozens of books every year. I spent at least a 1/4th of my childhood with a nose in a book. I was the only kid in my class in elementary school who wasn’t allowed to have books at her desk. Not even text books. I would read them instead of listen. (Though, really, wasn’t that the POINT?)

Further, I remember a girl in my elementary school who took a flute out to recess every day. The teachers tried and tried to get her into playing with the other kids, and she refused. All she wanted to do was play the flute. They let her because she said she wanted to be a flutist one day. They wouldn’t let me read, which was exceptionally annoying, despite the fact I said I wanted to be a writer. Fifth grade and we were already being judged by our activities. Here’s the thing though. That girl? Full ride to college on a band scholarship. Later she ended up joining some ridiculously hard to get into symphony in New York. At 11, she knew what she wanted to do and she didn’t let anything get in her way, not even well meaning teachers or parents.

I didn’t want to be a game designer when I was 11. I knew I liked games. I knew I liked books. I knew I liked making up stories with my friends. I knew I liked making up games to play with my friends. I wanted to make Calvinball. But no one, in all those years, ever told me making games for a living was a thing I could do. So yeah, at the time the hours and hours I sunk into playing video games was a “waste”.

What about now?

So we’re working on SSA, and we’re discussing what happens when one player does something like steal all the treasure in an area. They start discussing various solutions we could do as designers to fix this. I immediately piped up with “But we shouldn’t. That’s a real life problem to solve.” A few blank looks and I clarified – “If your brother steals all the loot, you punch him. That’s the POINT of playing games in local multiplayer. But more, we shouldn’t change it because it allows the players to game the system. You can power level characters if one can collect all the loot and exp. It also makes the game more of a mad dash.”

In the end, we sat down and played the game, local multiplayer, just like kids would. It was less than 3 minutes to the first “Hey! THAT WAS MINE!” and about 5 minutes to one player letting the other one die to get loot. Within 15 minutes, a huge crowd had gathered around the two players with much good natured jokes and laughter. We didn’t change the system. Let them fight over loot.

I am not sure I would have thought this way, if not for the experiences of playing all those games with my brother. All those local multiplayer games with my friends. I was also the kind of kid who would hook up two controllers to cheese the system and give myself help. I have two WoW accounts NOW just for that purpose. I always buy both versions of each Pokemon game, so I can trade between them.

Well, that explains the time limits… as long as homework is done, I don’t care. Maybe it will be his passion. Maybe it won’t. But there is no reason to enforce my hobbies and desires on him. He’s his own person, let him spend his time how he wants.

But what about M rated games?

Again, my mother never limited the books I could read. If we had it in the house, I could read it. I remember picking up a Stephen King book at 12. I tried to read it. Oh man was it DULL. I also remember watching R rated movies. In the living room. That was the thing about having the tv/console/computer in the living room. You couldn’t do anything without everyone seeing. It was amazingly good at limiting what I would try to watch or play. My mom would come in and say something like “Oh that’s gross, I don’t want to see that.” And switch it to something else. There was never a “You can’t play that.” It was always, “This isn’t appropriate for the family room.” Then a few times we had candid discussions about sex, drugs, and such, so that she knew I knew what was safe, what wasn’t, and how to deal with those situations. At no point was the line between reality and media blurred.

Talking to a kid and interacting with them on a constant basis really helps. So I hope when my kid gets old enough to play games, he plays them with me. Skylanders is a great family game. So is Minecraft. (As an aside, I do not look forward to telling him that Creepers – aka Booms – are not fluffy little friends like he thinks right now.) If he wants to play a game like Skyrim, I will let him, where I can see, in the living room. There will likely be discussions and conversations about the difference between reality and fantasy, but I have faith in his ability to learn. Also kids tend to be very self limiting on “adult” things.

In the end, I think my biggest issue with saying “I will limit your access and time to games.” is that not only was mine not limited as a kid, but how hypocritical would it be for me to say, “Sorry you can only play for an hour each day,” when I will be playing for at least 2-3? Yes, I will probably do the same thing as my mom and say, “I don’t want to see that on the living room tv, so different game.” but otherwise, I don’t really think I have a leg to stand on about playing too many games. Do what you want, as long as you are responsible and take care of your chores/work, then your free time is your own.

Understanding the Other Self

I remember the first time I showed my dad WoW. He didn’t really get it. I explained that the green named people were other players. I explained that the game couldn’t be paused. I explained how we moved through the world and did quests, killing monsters. He never seemed to quite understand. He kept asking me, but what was my character’s name? Was I saving the princess? His understanding of games was narrow, and I didn’t know the correct words at the time to explain the difference.

My son, by virtue of being a game developer’s kid, has been exposed to games from the very beginning. Before he was even a year old, he watched me play things like Skylanders on our living room TV. At around 11 months, he realized for the first time that putting something on the portal of power caused the TV to change. He did this for hours. Skylanders on and off, looking up at the TV to watch the change.

The next, the real magic happened. Tiny Pittman took the portal off the coffee table, set it on the floor, then carefully stepped up on it. He looked at the TV. Of course, nothing happened. Despite the fact that I call him a Skylander, he isn’t actually. He tried a few more times, even testing the portal with Skylanders, but he couldn’t get the TV to change when he stepped on the portal. He seemed disappointed. His understanding was that anything placed on the portal appeared on the screen. Our magic for Skylanders is limited, but it wasn’t in his head.

The next time he really began to interact with games was several months later, while he sat on my lap while I played WoW. I mounted up on a flying dragon and Tiny pointed at it, then loudly exclaimed “Birdy!” I laughed and replied, yes, that was Mommy’s birdy. I kept playing, and he reached out and pressed the space bar. My character reacted by jumping in the air. His response: “WHOA!” He began pressing the space bar repeatedly. Watching intently as my character jumped around Azeroth. Finally, I zoomed in on my character, and he said “Mommy!” Yes, my character is a red headed human, so it makes sense he would recognize her as me. I nodded, and agreed. Yes, that was Mommy.

What really got me was watching him completely understand and accept, not only that my online avatar was me, but that I was also in control of her. At 1 year, and 8 months, Tiny understood that the characters on the screen were merely extensions of the people behind the keyboard.

I look forward to seeing him grow and discover virtual worlds. I also wonder what kind of expectations this will create in him. What things will he understand that will be outside of my grasp? What will those virtual worlds look like when he gets there?

Design and Nostalgia

To start, I didn’t play the original Dungeon Keeper. I get the design brief though. A player builds a dungeon with traps and monsters and then the ai let’s loose adventurers that try to get to the treasure in the dungeon. It’s a neat idea. When EA announced they were doing a new one, for iPad, people got excited, until they heard the word micro transactions, then it all went to hell very quickly.

When the game finally hit, it was universally panned on gaming sites, and my twitter exploded with vitriol at EA. I decided, for science, to download it and play it. If it was really that awful, I wanted to know. I wanted to see why everyone was so upset.

If anyone has a right to be upset, it’s SuperCell. The new Dungeon Keeper is effectively a direct lift of Clash of Clans (CoC). But here’s the funny thing. The same day I started playing Dungeon Keeper (DK), I also fired up my CoC again, despite not having played for months. Here I am, a month later, and I am still enjoying DK, and still hating CoC.

I am going to pick apart the design a bit, but here’s why, despite being the same general kind of game, DK is a superior design to CoC. Why I won’t be playing CoC, but will likely keep playing DK for a good long while.

Both games have the player building a base, then raiding other bases for materials with units. In CoC, the base area is a wide open space, filled with trees and such, but it takes a relatively short time to clear, after which the player can arrange things how they wish. When attacked by another player, that player can drop their units anywhere in open space. There is no way to build the village at the back of the area and effectively “narrow” the access. So the player has to build their base with a 360 defense in mind. Walls can be broken down, and archers can shoot over them. In truth, the village is never very secure, and it only takes a single fallen wall to lead to a complete destruction.

In DK though, every tile of the dungeon must be carved out. The raiding enemies can *only* appear at resource collectors, and taken over rooms. Theoretically, a player could force the enemy to meander around a maze of traps before gaining access to the dungeon heart. It allows for strategy that is lost in CoC because of the 360 requirements.

People complain about the time it takes to dig out corridors, but I am thankful for it. In CoC I dropped a bit of money on gems to buy more builders. Within a day I had one of my builders just sitting around. My money had been wasted because I wasn’t able to gather resources fast enough to keep up with building. By the time I quit playing the first time, all 4 builders were just sitting about. I have slowly built up to 4 imps and I seriously think I will never have them just sitting around!  Any time I have a free imp, I have at least 5 different choices of where to send him.

This next argument is a bit “anecdotal” as I do not have firm numbers on the production curves and gathering stats on each game. I have reached the point in CoC where I have cleared all the single player raids, and can do nothing but raid other players. As a result, I only get resources from my gatherers, not from playing the game. When I get raided, I lose resources, both from my stores and my gathering buildings. The amount I lose is often MORE than the amount I earn over the time period. If I don’t get a shield, I could be raided several times in a row. The people who can raid me are people who are “within” range of me as determined by trophies. So high level players will intentionally LOSE raids to lower their trophies, to be able to attack weaker players. I have a negative income of resources unless I spend money on shields. When I do queue to attack other players, I have to cheese the system to find players I can even think about attacking.

In DK though, I earn far far more resources than I lose in a raid. I don’t know how it decides who can raid me in DK, but so far, none of them have had a huge force that is significantly stronger than what I would be able to amass. And even when they completely demolish my dungeon, they make off with fewer resources than I could get in an hour or so, and I get a 12 hour protection spell! I am usually only attacked every few days or so as well, as opposed to CoC where I will be attacked within 30 minutes of my shield coming down, without fail.

CoC has become a game of watching how slowly my resources are taken from me while in DK, it’s still exciting, even now, figuring out what I am going to focus on next.

It comes down to the balance of the two games. CoC was clearly not balanced for the numbers of users it has. The ability to cheese the trophy system and fight noob players need to be patched out (though it hasn’t in the year I have been playing). DK has a better matching system and doesn’t punish the player for having lost to a raid nearly as much.

I am certain some of my ability to enjoy DK comes from NOT having the nostalgia over the original game. I feel like this is yet another case where the company would have been better served not using the old name, but giving it a new one. I understand they want to use old IPs, but when the old IP has so much baggage like this (or XCOM) it’s just unwise to try to overwrite it.

I will likely keep playing Dungeon Keeper for a good long while. I don’t think I will persist in Clash though, as I am so frustrated at the designer’s lack of desire to fix the problems in their game. At least DK has the potential to get better.

New Game Smell

I have many thoughts about Warlords of Draenor. I think there should be more women in the marketing. I think there is a noticeable lack of characters we can find heroic. I think their healing blog on the changes has me not wanting to heal.

When pre-orders went up for WoD though, I didn’t blink, I paid my $70 for the Digital Deluxe Version, and immediately started thinking about who I wanted to boost to 90. Today a Breakfast Topic on WI discussed the pricing of WoD. It’s the fifth WoW expansion, all previous expansions were $40, but WoD is $50.

The more cynical people think it’s “charging” $10 for the “free” level 90 boost. The more economics knowledgeable people point to inflation. But I am a game developer, so my first thought was – Yep, that price sounds about right, for a WoW expansion. But I was astonished at several responses, but none as much as this one “$50? That’s almost the price of a new game!” (Some used the CE pricing and said it was as much as a new game.) This was followed by claims of less content, subscriptions funding the expansion development, and comparisons to new games.

I am baffled by how many people commenting seemed to have no knowledge of game development, or even WoW’s development.

So here’s some food for thought, on why a mere expansion should cost the same as a “new” game.

First, I want to bring issue with the term expansion and the belief that our subs fund the development of expansions. Expansion is a word that is used to describe additions to a game that require the base game to play. Expansion does NOT necessarily indicate the number of hours of play added or the amount of content. There also seems to be some misconception about subs being used to support development, and while it’s possible they do, they are also used to pay for servers (and any upgrades over the years), server power, GMs, CMs, Customer Service, and all those other pesky things that come from running a massive live game like WoW. Then, any left over money likely gets split between investors and Blizzard, with a larger cut going to investors. (I heard rumors back in 2008 from a good source that indicated that the original deal of how sub fees got split actually meant Blizzard got very very little from it, but that is probably outdated now as those kinds of thing are occasionally renegotiated.) Regardless, that money doesn’t necessarily get spent on the development of expansions. Nor is Blizzard under any obligation to do so. Read the ToS. It says nothing about Subscription Fees or where they will be spent. You are paying for access, and nothing else. (Although the more I think about it, the more I expect that our sub does pay for the content we receive in patches, while the expansion price is paying for the huge drop of leveling content at the start.)

Second, the cost of everything rises and games are no exception. I remember when the price on console games went from 50 to 60, and everyone threw a fit. But it stuck, and eventually everyone accepted it. Even at the time, the developer response to the cost increase was art. I am a game developer and I have shipped 4 titles, in addition to knowing dozens of game developers from games of all sizes. One universal truth is – art is expensive. Exponentially so. The higher the fidelity, the higher the cost. Artists make up more than half of the company at every company I have worked at. Creating a single environmental object for a game, like a tombstone or barrel, can take 8 hours, based on the complexity of the model, the detail in the texture, how long it takes to unwrap, etc. Then every piece of art has to be reviewed and approved. Things like characters can take several WEEKS to model and texture, then a few more to rig and animate. Once a piece of art is finished, it has to go to programmers or designers to be implemented and placed in the game.

So from Skylanders, here’s how it goes with a SINGLE destructible item. I needed a barrel for the Darklight Crypt level. That was 4 hours of an artist’s time. Then he sent the barrel model and the models for the 5 pieces of it that show up when it breaks. It takes me about an hour to get them loaded into a destructible level, with proper collision and that’s AFTER a great deal of development time spent setting up the “pipeline” so I just have to plug stuff in, as opposed to scripting it up by hand. But then depending on the item I might have to do more special case scripting on top. Let’s say I don’t, so now it’s up to 5 hours. Then I send an email to vfx, so they can add particles when it explodes that match the item exploding. They spend about 2-4 hours doing that. (A barrel is likely 2.) Then sound has to go in and add explosion sounds and adjust those for the specific item. (About an hour.) And here we are, a barrel, in the game exploding, right at about 8 hours. Oh, but this was Darklight Crypt… and there is a world swapping mechanic, so I need that same barrel, only for the other world, so it’s going to need to look different… Two days, minimum of four employees, for TWO art assets that are as simple as it gets in games. Imagine doing hundreds of these. How many different barrels and crates have you seen in WoW?

As the items get bigger and more complex, they take more time. Oh and on a game like WoW, where they are updating the graphics engine with each expansion they have to go back and re-do art to make it look better and fit with the new graphics. Otherwise you have the problem all over the game that you can see by simply standing a human next to a panda. Not to mention that graphics engine that got updated probably had a few programmers working on it. (I would bet Blizzard has between 5-10 at least.) I know how many people work on Skylanders (although, that’s JUST TfB, technically people at Beenox and Vicarious Visions are working on it too…) so I can just imagine WoW’s team must be at least 150-200 people – JUST for development. Do you realize how much MONEY it takes to PAY that many people? And these aren’t minimum wage employees either. These are highly specialized, talented people. If Blizzard isn’t paying them well, someone else will, and they will lose their talent. Game Career Guide does a salary survey every year. Programmers with 6+ years of experience get ~106k. Artists – 76K. Designers – 82K. Producers 66K. Audio – 93K. So if we average that, we get (round down) 84k. 84k x 200 people… That’s over 17 MILLION a year – JUST on salaries. And I am positive that number is low. Really low. Because that’s not taking into account leads, people with 10+ years of experience, or things like QA. Obviously, if we had more data, we would have a more accurate picture, but making games is expensive! (Here’s another post on this exact same thing.)

Now, to my biggest bone of contention, and the one comment that made my teeth grind. “But it’s almost as much as a WHOLE NEW GAME!”

How do you know?

We haven’t seen all of Draenor yet. We don’t know how big the space is. We don’t know how many “skins” the garrison has. (Blizzard calls them kits.) We don’t know how many quests there are. We don’t know the number of new pets, mounts, armor, etc. We only know the number of dungeons and raid bosses. We don’t know the time it will take to get to 100. You are speculating on content size without having seen it! Okay, fine, let’s make the assumption it is as big as Pandaria. (With equal numbers of quests, dungeons, etc etc.)

Alright – but how big are new games? People like comparing it to ESO or WildStar, but those games aren’t out yet either. (I would like to cut the speculation down as much as possible.) I didn’t play SWTOR, so I can’t speak to it either. So let’s look at some new games I did play. Dishonored! Great game, I highly recommend it. It took me 15 hours to beat. Content wise though, it has about the equivalent of Jade Forest. What about Skyrim, another excellent game I highly recommend? (Thank you Reddit dudes for actually timing this.) It takes about 30 minutes to run from one end to the other. So if we run from one end of Pandaria to the other… and it takes about 30 minutes (on the ground, not flying or flight paths). Hum.

Okay okay, what about GAMEPLAY. That’s what’s important right? So Skyrim, I played for ~300 hours. My /played in Pandaria (since you can see how long it has been at this level) is… 22 DAYS? Honestly I expected more. I have 5 other characters at 90 too. Quests! Skyrim has ~300 quests. Here they are – all listed on one page. Pandaria has 1551. (I am skipping dungeons as they don’t really compare easily – Skyrim has over 100, but they are significantly shorter, use modular art, and do not generally have boss fights for all of them.) How many animals? Mounts? Pets? Buildings? All of these take time to make and then implement. You can’t just reuse assets either, or players complain, or it just looks silly. You can’t use regular mailboxes in Pandaria, they have to match the aesthetic of the world.

In the game industry, you will often hear the saying “Good, Fast, or Cheap. Pick two.” This is why Skyrim took ~5 years to make. It’s a great game. It’s a big game. It took a long time. (I’d bet money it wasn’t cheap either.) Pandaria, as a stand alone game, has just as much as Skyrim in terms of content, gameplay, and awesomeness. But took 3 less years to make and cost $20 less. That kind of turn around is not cheap. That means overtime. That means more people. That means talented people who cost more but do the work right the first time. Consider that Vanilla took at least 4 years to make. And yet they are churning out MORE content in the expansions than they did in Vanilla.

I also see people saying because there isn’t a new race or class, it’s not as “much” as before. UH. You’re getting effectively 5 races this expansion. When they “rework” models, they aren’t faster and easier because they have been done before. You have to start fresh and the new ones are so much more complex. And goodness, who actually wants a new class? I don’t have time to play the ones we HAVE! Monks are still a fraction of the player base as compared to the older classes. So logically, why would Blizzard spend 100s of hours making and balancing a new class when it’s not going to be played? Many decisions made in game development change based on how much something costs to do versus how many players actually do it. (Why 100s of hours? Well first you have to think it up, then implement it – which could take a month or so, then art it just enough to figure out if it works/is fun/feels like WoW, then iteration to make it GOOD, then more art to make it LOOK good, then more iteration to make it balanced… so much TIME! Wouldn’t that time be better spent on things people who don’t want alts can also play with? Like… Garrisons? :))

So is WoD worth the extra $10? Is it comparable to a new game? Of course it is. It has far more content and gameplay than most games. The comparable games, like Skyrim, are known for being “massive” among gamers. Honestly, Blizzard could be charging $60 for it. We call it an expansion because it builds on WoW, but in terms of scope, it’s bigger than most new games.

If you take into account the time spent in the game, the “return on investment” says they could be charging even more, and it would still be worth it. I paid $60 for Dishonored and got 15 hours out of it (that’s about $4 an hour, not bad). I paid $120 (two copies, xbox and pc) for Skyrim and got 300 hours out of it (40 cents per hour, really great return). My time in WoW though… $60 for Vanilla, $40 for BC/Wrath/Cata/MoP each (really $70 because I get the CEs), plus $13/month since August 2005… ($340 for the games, $13×103 months = $1339, grand total – $1679) with a /played across my account (we’re going to ignore the SECOND account I also have that has been subbed continuously since 2007) of 432+ days. That’s over 10k hours. It ends up being… about 15 cents PER HOUR of enjoyment in WoW. Is WoD worth it?

If making games were easy, everyone would do it. If making money making games was easy, you wouldn’t see things like studio closures. If making GOOD games like Blizzard does was easy, you wouldn’t see games with sub 80 scores on Metacritic. $50 for a game the size/quality of Pandaria is a bargain. It’s possible the sales of the expansion alone won’t even cover the full development costs (especially if the game is purchased as a physical copy over the digital versions – Blizzard likely gets 100% on the digital sales, but about 50% on sales through retailers). The people developing this game (all of them from Metzen down to QA dude #300) don’t work for free. They deserve to get paid. Game sales, mounts, pets, services, and subs make sure they get paid and the game keeps getting worked on. In the end, game companies are trying to make money which means charging enough to make more than they spent on their specialized product.

Just like every other creative art product, if you want the artist to keep producing new stuff, you have to buy the old stuff. It’s why I buy albums, movies, books, and games from people who’s work I love. It’s why I buy books on my iPad AND physical copies. It’s why I buy tv shows on DVD. I want the people who make these things to make more, and that means supporting them now. I want to be playing WoW when I am 80, and if that means paying $50 over $40 for an expansion now, shut up and take my money Blizzard.

Proving Your Way to … Rares?!?!

Blizzard added Proving Grounds in MoP. These were solo battles intended to prove your skill with a specific role. But very few people used them. They awarded you nothing other than an achievement, which is not a carrot most people care about.

The progression of leveling/loot currently goes like this:

Level -> Normal Dungeons -> Heroic Dungeons -> LFR -> Flex Raids -> Normal Raids -> Heroic Raids.

Each of the stages up through Flex raids requires an item level to queue unless you are running with a pre-made group. The purpose of the item level requirement is to check that you are geared and prepared for the dungeon/raid you are about to go in. Does this work? Not really. Dungeons, after the first two months of the expac or so, people outgear them, so even a terrible player will just be carried through on the backs of their group. The same goes for LFR. In a group of 25, there are usually up to about 5 or so people who are just completely worthless and they get carried through.

Does this create frustrating or difficult times? Yes. Should Blizzard be attempting to fix it? Yes.

Well now, Blizzard has announced that Proving Ground will be REQUIRED to queue for Heroic Dungeons in WoD as a fix for the above problem. And I think it is not only the wrong fix, but also shows a lack of understanding as to the problem.

My experience with Proving grounds was I walked in, tried the Bronze, one shot it. Cool. I tried Silver. I got to the final wave (10) and was overwhelmed. So I checked WoWhead, and sure enough, as a Warlock, I *have* to spec into certain skills to be able to succeed. Because you can’t out-gear the encounter, you are literally LOCKED into certain skills and talents. I didn’t have tomes, and I didn’t care enough, so I left.

Two other times in WoW I have been in a similar position – The Legendary Nexus quest in Cata and the Legendary Cloak quest in MoP. I was trying a thing, I couldn’t have help, and I needed to literally change the way my character played to succeed. Both times it was annoying, frustrating, and felt like Blizzard was telling me “We gave you all these choices of ways to play your character, but haha, most of those were wrong and this is the only way to play.” Both times it took me several hours of frustration that I was being forced to SOLO extremely difficult content when I had a GUILD full of people willing and wishing they could help. (It’s especially odd when for the Legendary staff, I literally COULD NOT have done the entire rest of the questline without a guild.)

The problem with random groups is not specifically that people don’t know how to play their class, but rather with the ways of gaming the ilevel system. First off, items in the bags count, meaning many people are queuing based on their off spec gear or pvp pieces they have their bag. Or just flat out wearing pvp pieces. Or they will game the system and queue wearing gear that has no business being worn in that instance. (I am not even kidding, I had a tank in LFR one time who was wearing a GREEN 432 weapon – when the ilvl to queue was over 520 – and no one was willing to kick him because of how long it took to find tanks, so we struggled through a 3 hour LFR instead.)

Further this, the kick timers and troll prevention are needlessly obfuscated, and the punishment timer goes on the person doing the kicking and not the idiot getting kicked. In a 5 man it’s actually not hard to kick people. In an LFR it is. I was in an LFR where we had TWO dps who were in tank spec, one of whom was actively taunting off the tanks and throwing off the rotations. We couldn’t kick both, just one, because the people willing to do something all had timers. Another time I was healing, and the death knight tank was THIRD on the healing list. The other people were just farting around. It had ZERO to do with skill and more to do with them not giving a shit.

See why requiring a proving grounds medal does this not actually address the problem?

There are also other reasons, like: people don’t play solo the way they would in a random dungeon or lfr. Proving grounds is also not balanced for all classes and specs. If it’s not an account wide thing, it means people will have to do it over and over again on their alts.

It’s gatekeeping. This has been proven to be a POOR choice every single time it has been used in WoW. Attunement quest chains? Discovering the instance portal? Even the item level thing has not worked out as intended.

What did work? 1. Luck of the Draw. 2. Determination. 3. Bonus Bags.

So what would I do?

First – require all dungeons be completed in normal IN THE ROLE YOU QUEUE FOR. So with this requirement, it’s like the achievement requirements for LFR. First off, it solves the issue of group play vs solo play. A guild can carry someone through. Even if you are running with your guild, if you are healing, you learn a bit about healing the fights. If I want to queue for heroic dungeons as a healer, I have to heal all the dungeons in normal first. To me, this upholds the pillar of multiplayer, allows for help from a guild, and also allows a path for people who play less seriously to get there without the frustration of gear scaling/spec changing.

Second – WoD’s gear “adaptation” is already going to fix *some* of the ilvl gaming going on. But I honestly feel unless an item is equipped, it shouldn’t count. This comes from someone who has BOUGHT blue pvp gear, held it in my bags just long enough to queue, gotten a drop or two, then re-sold it on the AH. Never equipped, but used for the purpose of queuing.

Third – Change the vote kicking system. You should be able to know if you have a timer because of “too many vote kicks initiated”.  For every completed instance, you should get the ability to vote kick without messing up this timer. For every wipe, you should get to vtk without affecting this timer. In LFR, it should take more than 5 kicks in a single LFR to affect this timer. If you are the person kicked, you should get a 30 minute debuff JUST LIKE THE DESERTERS.

 

There are other small tweaks that could be done, but these are big ones. Also, does anyone else notice, this whole thing seems to be “fixing” heroic dungeons when the real problem is LFR, WHICH IS NOT GOING TO REQUIRE SILVER? What are they even thinking? Is LFR going to be removed from the gearing steps? If so, it will have to be the same gear as drops in Heroics, in which case, people will just stop outright, as LFR takes far longer, and you have a greater chance of getting asshats. Not to mention, Heroics drop RARE items… RARES. We have to do jump through how many crazy hoops to get RARES?!? Why? At least in LFR it’s epics! Heroics, even Stonecore, was only awful for the first two months of the expac or so, then the number of people who outgeared it had hit critical mass and it became fairly easy.