Dragon’s Maze Pre-release Experience
Went to the Dragon’s Maze pre-release last weekend.
Actually I’ve never been to a local game shop even when I was playing MTG when I was in college. Anyway, googled a little bit and found the nearest spot was only 10 minutes from home.
It was surprising that over 30 people turned up for the event. The whole process was actually quite serious. Everybody got two guild packs and four Dragon’s Maze boosters. We are randomized into pairs and filled up the card list. Then after 40 minutes of deck construction, everybody need to submit their deck list as well. I got a Gruul/Selenya guild pack, and came up with a Red/White/Green aggro deck. After three hours and four rounds, the final score was 1-1-2, better than I expected. I should clarify that I got one win because my opponent was serious land screwed for both matches.
Overall, it was a very interesting experience. The new set was missing many critical cannon fillers so many matches turned into a race of who draw the bombs first race… However carefully constructed deck can mitigate that a lot. The mood in the shop was very casual and everybody tries to help the newbies. I would definitely goto another one for the upcoming sets.
Time-Tracker - Minimal time tracking menu item for OS X
People have been talking over and over that video game stories matter. However, as a player, I rarely feel myself to be a part of the story when playing AAA shooters. Even for games that label themselves as thought provoking or anti-violent, the experience itself still pretty carnal. I almost never feel empathy towards the death of the characters or the millions of enemies that I killed. Even when games are trying to tell a story, I can usually feel that they don’t really want to do that. One scene that repeats over and over is BOOM, your best friend is now dead! (or captured!), time to revenge! Another one also happens a lot: I’m speaking too fast so maybe you don’t fully understand but what I really want you stupid player to do is to fetch this thing in the end of the next level and bring it back here, ok, is the next level loaded? Still not ready? Insert a joke here.
Bioshock Infinite is different. That story is the core of the game. Without that story, the game doesn’t function. What’s even more impressive is that the story is told with incredible patience.
In the first 15 minutes, I’m thrown onto a boat with two total strangers, sailing to a light house. Everything seem to be full of riddles and I’m not entirely sure what I should expect… After a brief journey I’m slowly introduced to Columbia, the floating city of wonders… It was not until an hour into the game that I met the first enemy. Before that, I’m just a visitor in the city with my own pace. I’m lead into the city through an organic path and I can spend as much time exploring the details of the crowds as I want. And everything happens seamlessly, with no loading screen in the middle to break the flow.
And then I meet Elizabeth and there are twists and turns in the story. There are always a build up phase before the new thing happens. Many story elements and background information are shown instead of told. Even the elevator scenes are better made than regular games. There are always voxophone diaries or conversations in progress, and the next area is usually highlighted with clever animation sequences.
And finally there’s the ending. Like an onion skin, step by step, it unfolds. It showed us how video game can still tell a good story and leave you thinking.
Like many others, I also don’t fancy the combat too much. I even agree that without all the shooting and killing and stabbing, it might even be a better game. I had a hard time figuring out who is shooting me in the combat area bigger than a football field. So many attacks are shield depleting, so I spent half of the time ducking somewhere… Vigors do make me feel powerful, but the scenario is usually too chaotic to allow more strategic choices… However, everything aside, it’s the story that left me thinking.
Magic: the gathering
Well, it seems that collectible card games are hot again. All of a sudden everybody think it’s the perfect time to launch a computer based collectible card game.
We have the Kickstarter success of SolForge with the blessing of Richard Garfield. We have Card Hunter, which is in private beta from the ex-irrational crew. And last but not least, the all over the news HearthStone from Blizzard. All of them brought back some nostalgia for me, of Magic: the gathering.
I first got to know the game more than 10 years ago, in my high school. It was just being introduced into China, and published its first set, Portal: Three Kingdoms.1 As most first time players, I immediately got drawn into the world of card collecting, deck building, bluffing and defeats. The legends in Portal: Three Kingdoms were real legends from the original historical novel, which added a lot of flavor when we were playing.2 (I guess it should do well in Japan and Taiwan, as it’s a very popular topic there as well.)
Then in college, I got introduced to the Masquerade Set and the Invasion Set, and even built a fan-site for Magic. (Which is now lost in the abyss of internet.) Although I wasn’t a really hard core player, I followed the news and played casually with my classmates. At least until I got occupied by other stuff… (Later it turned out that I was playing during the dark ages of Magic. Masquerade was considered the weakest block of all times…)
Fast forward to today. I am now playing Duels of the Planeswalkers 2013 on my iPad and following the release of the latest block: GateCrash. What’s surprising to me is that after 20 years of development, the game hasn’t stalled. I used to think that it was an impossible task to keep adding new mechanics and abilities every year. (We can see from the various online games, new content usually means stats boosting, each block must be stronger than the previous one, otherwise it will just cease to work on the market.) Luckily Magic designers chose to add new ways for cards to work together, instead of relying on boosting existing values. Actually the game is even more varied and interesting than I last played 10 years ago.
In the mean time, I’m listening to the wonderful Drive to Work podcast from magic head designer: Mark Rosewater, which provided me a rare glimpse of the history and development process of Magic. And here are some of the findings:
- Most core elements of Magic are already in place when Richard Garfield had the first play test version
- Alpha and Beta version both sold out 6 months’ stock in a week
- Some of the early blocks are designed by external play testers…
- Design and Development are two deferent teams. Design for gameplay and mechanics and development for tuning and balancing
- Common cards are simple, rare cards are more complex but not necessarily more powerful
- Only 3 to 4 designers work on a Magic block
- Design is more an iterating process based on playtests. (I had a strange thought that it was based on lots of weights and formulas, I was totally wrong.)
Now looking back at the card list for Alpha, it’s amazing that so many things were done right in the first build. The mana system provided a non-linear value for different cards in different phases of the game.3 The color wheel provided iconic mechanic that goes along with the flavor.4 Combat calculation almost never exceeds single digit arithmetic. And most rules are written plainly on the card itself. Now in the computer age, our designers have way more tools at hand than Magic designers, but we often rely on over-complex systems and artificial progression barriers. And it’s almost impossible to design a collectible card game without the influence Magic.
My Favorite Game of 2012
Well, it’s Hotline Miami.
It’s kind of hard to describe the experience, and that’s the whole point. Music from the 80s? The glitchy aliased pixel graphic style? The feeling of adrenaline rush every time you kill? The animal masks? The dialogues? It’s a game full of characteristics, that’s for sure.
And back to its core, it’s a very well designed and balanced game. Each weapon feels distinct and realistic. You make decisions in a split second, but the game is always fair and you’re always free to experiment. And it’s only a R button press away from retrying.
And all the tiny details. I’ll never forget the lucky cat waving its hands in the Chinese noodle place… from top view…
And… Be sure to check out the Launch Trailer.
Now that I spend nearly an hour each day commuting to work by bus each day, listening to podcasts has become an essential part of my daily routine. And here are my favorites:
The Vergecast by the Verge crew. Usually informative and sometimes chaotic. I’m a big fan of Verge, this show provides me with details behind the news stories and interviews, and there are always a healthy amount of random and interesting topics.
The Besties by the Polygon crew. Four guys pick the best game of the week. I like it because of its sheer honesty, just personal preference and nothing else, which is becoming increasingly rare in the game press nowadays.
News broke this week that two of my favorite 5by5 shows are ending this year, Build & Analyze by Marco Arment and Hypercritical by John Siracusa. Marco is well known for the willingness of expressing his point of view, about Apple and everything else. John Siracusa is famous for his in-depth knowledge about… basically everything. They will be missed.
This American Life hosted by Ira Glass. It’s one of the most popular radio shows on the internet. My life is filled with too much “tech” news, TAL is here for a change. Each show is composed of several short stories, usually around a central topic, some are touching and some are weird. I always felt learning something new after every episode.
Right now I’m barely able to keep up with all the shows each week. Now that B&A and Hypercritical are ending their run, maybe it’s time to find something new. I’m thinking of short fictions.
Those Freemium Flops
Last time it was Gasketball and this time it’s Punch Quest. Both games I played and loved. They share the common trait of good iOS games, simplicity and great level of attention to the details. While both turned to the press to complaint about being a flop and utter finacial failure. In the case of Punch Quest, it has even been less than a week…
While it is painful to see your own well-crafted product not making as much money as you expected, especially when you see your user base growing to near a million, I do believe that the problem is with the games themselves, not the pricing model.
Let’s start with Gasketball. I downloaded the game soon after launch and completed the first world of the game. Got a taste of the teleporter, then hit the $2.99 paywall. Thinking the game as a basketball simulation, I immediately lost interest (who wants a basketball simulation with teleporters), until the press picked up the story of the guys homeless. And then the game changed. It showed me clearly the scope of the game after the unlock. Apparently there’s a split-screen multiplayer mode and a built your own level tranining mode. Also you get to try the later levels out for free. It then became clear to me that the unlock is a fairly good bargain and I want to support the guys.
Similar story with Punch Quest. For an infinite runner it’s actually quite good. But I’m not so much into paying to level up and the purchse button look too much similar to the coin bags in zynga games. Now that they know about the problem I believe that they’ll figure out how to create more content for guys like me to be a happy customer.
Actually I do believe that freemium will be the de-facto pricing model, at least on iOS, and both games will have a very bright future financially. Think of it this way, freemium is giving developer the freedom on pricing. You can design your pay wall around your audience and give them what they want. For core gamers who want to have a more clear deal on bang for the buck, the pay wall can be setup around content. Just pay two dollars to continue playing if you have enjoyed the game so far. For those who like vanity items and show off to their friends, you can also make that possible. You’re building the audience for future content updates. More importantly, you have the flexibilty to make changes around all the design on the fly.
On the customer’s side, there’s no risk to try. At the end of the day, it’s the quality of the product that really matters, not the pricing model. Right now because of the $1 mentality, most of the games are built around short bursts of fun and extremely shallow game mechanics. Many of them are relflex based and you rarely feel that you’re learning anything throughout the whole experience. As time goes by I think there will be games like FTL or Hotline Miami on the iOS. Not necessarily complex, but unique and make you feel better at the game as you play more. Also right now there are too much grinding and too little actual content or game mechanics. We definitely need more of both.
Age of Empires III
I was surprised to find Age of Empires III during the Steam Summer Sale. I always thought that the last AoE game was AoE II, and I spent a great deal of time playing it in the old days. After checking on Wikipedia, actually it was released on 2005. Maybe I was playing too much console game at that time, or playing Warcraft III… (And there are actually many like me who has never heard of the game, after asking around in the office.)
After going through the first chapter of the single player campaign, I kind of understands why it was not appealing to more people:
The Control Feels Stiff
It’s surprising to me that the control feels so dated. First of all, the default AI stance is really awkward. After issuing a move command, several units just stand there and ignore the fact that some Musketeers are damaging some of them. After killing one wolf guarding the treasures, it takes 3 seconds for my troops to understand that they need to kill the other one attacking them. Using the Attach Move command will make my troops to regroup, reformat and march in the slowest speed to the target instead of just go there and kill the enemies. Many small details taken for granted was not there, so I ended up micro-managing every small encounter.
The Scope Was Not There
The timeline was condensed to a mere several years, making one of the original concept: civilizations advance through the time pointless. The campaign setting itself was way less interesting and epic than the historical campaigns in AoE II. Even playing skirmish, I feels like there’s actually just one Age, and three major unlocks to decorate the Tech Tree. A creep system feels more like chore instead of reward. (I spent too much time clicking around, figuring out where precisely the wolf is. And the animation for picking up the loot was so long…) The Home City meta-game concept was mostly OK, but just feels like another artificial barrier I need get across.
Of course there are upsides as well. The core gameplay was still solid. The AoE art style was timeless. The water reflection was so beautiful, one of the best uses I’ve seen in a game. And the use of physics did bring life into all the havoc and destructions. All in all, it reminds me that RTS as a mature genre has such a high bar of entry, even veterans like Ensemble couldn’t get things right at that time.
The Daily Quests
I’ve been playing Mist of Pandaria for the last week or so. Leveling up my priest to level 90 and queuing up for the heroic dungeons, being a model citizen as Blizzard wants us to be. However, the mandatory daily quest reputation grind is really turning me off.
Basically the loop is kind of like this:
- To buy epic gear for Raids, you’ll need to max out the reputations first
- To max out the reputations, you’ll need to do several recycled quests everyday (conveniently called the daily quests)
- There are eight new factions in the game, so it’ll take one or two hours each day
In short, in order to reach the high level PvE content, you’ll need to spend two hours everyday, working on some recycled quests.
As I said before, as a rational, aged gamer, I hate all kinds of grindings. I wanted the bang for the bucks. I wanted the most fun I can find in my limited play time. So that I can spend the rest of my time with my family and doing other chores in my real life.
And I really hate grinding in the form of a series of randomly recycled daily quests.
- There’s no challenge, by no means today’s spiders are more difficult than yesterday’s.
- There’s no progression, nothing new or exciting will ever happen.
- And most of all, it shows the laziness of the developers. Now that people will do whatever we ask them to do, why not just throw them a few bones and call it a day.
Now probably you would say, why bother playing an MMO at all, because MMO is all about grinding, isn’t it? You’re either grinding for level up, or grinding for gears. what difference does it make.
Well, actually I would argue that in term of player experience vs. time, it is a good bargain to play a WoW expansion. It takes a huge effort to build the new world and populate it with lore, quests and encounters. It also takes a long time to ship the dungeons and raid content and balancing them to a challenging and fun experience. And it’s interesting to recollect all the iterative changes they have made on the game systems over the years.
However, as the fun/time ratio sharply going downwards, there’s no point for me to continue. And yes, never expect me to do any daily quests.
Just finished reading Michael Lewis’s Boomerang, a book about the aftermath of the economic crysis based on the author’s trips to Iceland, Greek, Ireland, Germany and… California. Just like many of Michael’s books before this one, it’s a very interesting read. There’s a very nice balance between jokes and serious materials. (That will be around one joke every two paragraphs.) All the statistics are explained in a non-intimidating way, so that I can pretend that I understand a little bit what actually happened.
Now looking back at China, I suddenly felt a sense of uneasiness.
- Big government, high salary and benefit for public servants, just like Greek. Check.
- Booming investment banking industry and over borrowing, just like Iceland. Check.
- Hot money and tons of real estate that no one affords or is willing to buy, just like Ireland. Check.
- People blindly following status quo of rules and afraid of changes, just like Germany. Check.
- Stalling legistration and slow to react policies, just like California. Check.
On the top of it, as our government and statistics are actually not trustworthy, the whole thing may have already been worse than it appears to be now. (Although you can say that on the bright side, we have a dictating government that can just collect more tax and solve all the problems without hearing people complain…)
Now just wait until the snakes bite ourselves.