Archive for December, 2011

Disclosure:  I don’t own a gun, but I fully support the Second Amendment to the U. S. Constitution.  I think it’s crucial as an equalizer between citizens and a check on runaway government statist tendencies.  If you want to debate that, well… this isn’t really the place, and I’ll moderate accordingly.  I mention it first so you can get your prejudicial reflexive responses out of your system and move on.  No, I’m not really talking politics, but there’s enough potential intersection that I wanted to get that out of the way.

I’m talking about PvP.

One of the things that bothers me most about PvP in most modern MMOs is the rather extreme power differential.  It’s absurd to have level capped characters be orders of magnitude more powerful than rookies.  Yes, PvP is all about exploiting imbalances and the whole Sun Tzu thing, but when you have a max level character who literally cannot be harmed by a newbie, and who can in return slaughter newbies by the score at whim, you’re not dealing with PvP any more, you’re dealing with bullying.  That’s what “ganking” is, pure bullying, something corrosive to a gaming community.

I actually don’t mind class imbalances or other world-based spatial tactical advantages.  That’s sort of the point of open world PvP.  It seems to me that the venerable Sun Tzu would be all for taking advantage of whatever you can find.  Still, I’m not convinced that he was imagining a world like we see in these fantasy games.

I’m not blaming players, either.  The notion of  “fair play” is a squishy one, as is “honorable combat”.  Players play with what they are given.  No, I’m arguing that designers really should make PvP most about player skill and minimize leveling, gear and other influences as much as possible.  Or maybe, just maybe… set up equalizers.

What about guns?  According to some, they are the great equalizer out here in monkeyspace.  Sure, a brute like Mike Tyson should be a clear winner in a PvP bout with a waif supermodel, but what if she’s packing heat?  A .22 slug to the brainpan should stop even a bull like Tyson.  As the old argument goes, “an armed society is a polite society”, and that’s even possible in a merely magical world, as I noted a while back.

How might that work in a game world?  It’s not like gankers would sit back and agree to let their marks have teeth.  That’s against their design.  Maybe it has to be reactive.  Maybe outclassed victims simply get a revenge mechanic.  Bullies can be haunted by players they bother, and may be “shot” into incompetence at the most inopportune times.  Maybe this means a root/snare, maybe it’s a nudge off a cliff, maybe it’s a stun that makes the bully drop to level 1 for a while in hostile territory.  Maybe make it automatic and persistent, but victim-defined, so that the bully can’t just log out and clear it.

Maybe players always fight at the same level, no matter what.  PvP fights are always based purely on class balance, and stats are normalized.  How to do that on the fly might be tricksy, true.

…or maybe, just maybe, make your power differential smaller to start with.  That’s what I’d do, but that’s really a “ground up” design, not something to adapt to midstream.

So why do I care about all of this?  Well, if the newest WoW expansion is going to make war between factions more personal, it may well be more relevant in that game.  For better or worse, as WoW goes, so goes a significant undercurrent of the MMO genre.  PvP is a niche pursuit at best, I think, but if the goal is to get more players involved, it has to make sense and not be a frustrating mess.  Open world PvP has the potential to make the world of an MMO interesting and exciting… but if it’s just a cycle of bullying, it’s really not much fun for anyone but the bullies.  I find that… unfortunate.

Edited to add this sweet post by Shamus over at Twenty Sided from a while back, just as a tangential bit of great writing and game design philosophy:

GM Advice: Guns and Dice

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I greatly enjoy playing volleyball.  I’m passingly good at it, though less because of sheer physical prowess and more because of good reflexes and situational awareness… and no small amount of tactical guile.  I’ve reached an odd plateau in the game, though.

I used to play with others who were better at the game than I am.  They inspired and taught me how to play better, and the most fun that I had playing was when I was learning new tricks.  Lately, just because of life’s various circumstances, I am almost always the best player in the groups I find myself in.  I’ve almost stopped learning… and the game simply isn’t as much fun any more.

Indeed, sometimes it’s flatly painful.  I see players making bad mistakes and flagrantly ignoring rules of the game.  I think of myself when I was starting, and remember that I learned to mold myself to the rules and improve my abilities within their parameters.  When I learned how to play, you could only touch the ball with parts of your body above your waist.  Period.  These days, pretty much anything goes, and you can hit the ball with any part of your body.  Many players consequently wind up with lazy footwork and presence of mind, and simply kick the ball if it moves low, leading to weaker ball control.  Similarly, serves once were faults if they touched the net.  These days, if the ball hits the net on the way over, it’s still legal. The game is much sloppier as a result, and that’s the official play (college rules).  If it’s sloppy at higher levels, it’s perfectly natural to see sloppy play at lower levels.  Core rules like carrying and double hits are routinely ignored.  It’s… disheartening.

Sure, players are still having fun, but it’s just not the same game that I grew to love.

I miss seeing players who want to get better and really exert themselves to do so.  Too many are content to just play as an excuse to socialize instead of really strive for excellence.

…sound familiar, grumpy MMO veterans?

Of course, I find myself on the lower end of the skill curve in MMOs, especially running dungeons with groups.  I’m still learning the best way to approach things.  Thing is… I am still learning, still making the effort.  (At least, when I feel like playing an MMO with other people.)  That’s why I’ve started tanking a little bit in the F2P WoW, and will try a tank in RIFT.  I’m expanding my skillset, exploring the game mechanics.  I’m simply not content to just sit back and do the same old thing all the time.  My aspirations are higher than just getting by.  This is simply part of my psychological makeup.  I can’t coast for long, I have to keep trying to be better.

Sometimes my simple lack of skill can come across as a bad attitude, but they are not the same thing.  I’m not looking to coast or be carried, I’m looking to pull my own weight and then some.  The numbers don’t always tell the whole story, though, especially when situational awareness is important.  (Say, when I’m playing as a Hunter or Mage with enemy control/disruption tactics… my damage dealing can fall off as I attend to tactical problems, but if I don’t pay attention, well, bad things happen.)

I wonder if this sort of systemic gradual decay of skill is expected in any long-running endeavor.  …but then, I see the three point line extended in the NBA, and I think there’s some push for skill at higher levels, at least in that game.  I don’t think that descent into a morass of lazy play is inevitable, at least not institutionally.  Socially, however, in order to appeal to an ever-widening playerbase, some “wussification” of the ruleset is going to happen.

So it’s not really all that surprising to see the tension in MMO design; they want to be supremely social games, living or dying on their communities… but there will always be those who want to push the envelope and actually excel at something.  The two impulses are strongly opposed… and I don’t think we’ll ever really reconcile the two.  I actually don’t think we should try, either, because that lukewarm water in the middle just doesn’t make anyone happy.  Those who just want to coast don’t function on the same wavelength as those who want to push themselves.  Whether or not that’s healthy is perhaps a sociological debate, but in the meantime, I’m convinced that a game simply can’t cater to both groups with the same content or mechanics, and there need to be better ways to get people together based on playstyle and aspiration, rather than by level, loot or some other extrinsic motivation.

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My generous employer, Wahoo Studios/NinjaBee, gave each of us an OnLive miniconsole for Christmas and a coupon for a game.  They are one of those rare workplaces that actually wants its employees to play games… albeit not actually at work (QA crew excepted, of course) for sensible reasons.

I’m on record as being… unimpressed with the concept of OnLive.  I stand by my earlier reticence and my own preferences against online gaming in general.  (Yes, I play online games still.  They aren’t devoid of value, the pros just have to outweigh the cons.)  Still, one should never sniff a gift fish, so it was time to dive in and see how well this OnLive thing works out.

Turns out… well… partially fudge, partially onion, and the two don’t exactly mix.  (Apologies to the fudge-covered onion lovers out there.)


  • I got Arkham City for $1 thanks to a promotion for new accounts they were running.  Can’t argue much with that.  Probably a fluke of timing, but hey, maybe they will do that again.
  • A decent selection of older games for the $9.99/month subscription plan.  For that, you can play any game on the list as long as you’re subbed.  If you’re a fan of subscription services and games, it’s probably a pretty good deal.
  • Speaking of the library, A Kingdom for Keflings is part of the library as of very recently, so go check it out!  (I built many of the buildings for that game.)
  • Small footprint.  The games all run on remote servers, so the client is little and fast.
  • Digital library.  All the advantages and downsides of that, as with Steam and its ilk.  In a nutshell, they track and host the data for you, but your data is in their hands.
  • Nice tech crutch.  You really only need a good internet connection and a screen to play on.  The hard parts of staying on the cutting edge of gaming, the expensive hardware rigs, are covered by the OnLive guys.  This is a pretty cool idea.


  • You need a really good internet connection.  As in, 3mbps minimum and low ping of 25ms or so.  Those are somewhat pricey beasts, and if you’re in a remote area with third rate ISPs, you’re just out of luck.  If you’re getting one just for gaming, the cost/value ratio changes a bit.
  • You need a HDTV-capable display.  I use my computer monitor since I don’t have a HDTV, and since it’s a plain old 4:3 screen, the widescreen HDTV content is bordered by black on top and bottom.  (The bars don’t actually bother me, but they might bug some players.)  Maybe you already have a spiffy HDTV, but if not, those are pricey beasts, too.
  • Because it really needs another bullet point, you need a really good internet connection.  Lagspikes will kill your gaming.  Low speeds will kill your gaming.  ISPs that are interruptable by phone calls will kill your gaming if anyone uses the phone.
  • Demos only last 30 minutes, but they are time-limited, not content limited, if you’re into that sort of thing.  I’m not, as I’ve noted before, so I list this as a con, tempered by the realization that you can play the demo over and over, it just resets your play.
  • Somewhat underwhelming library.  I suppose this will get better over time, so I can’t count this too harshly, but at the moment, they don’t seem to have a huge selection of games.  It’s decent, but it’s not comprehensive.


I got Dirt3 with my gift coupon.  It’s a solid, fun rally racing game, but about the only other one on the service that I even partially cared about.  OK, Bastion is on there, and I will get that someday, but I prefer to get it on the XBox, ditto with the LEGO Pirates of the Caribbean.  The library of games they offer isn’t very big at the moment, but I imagine it will get bigger.  Since I don’t buy or play M-rated games, that naturally cut me off from a quarter or so of what they offer, too, but that’s a limitation on my end, not theirs.

…but what about the performance?  How does it play?

Well… it’s geared to make the play more important than the visuals.  As in, if the lagmonster strikes and you lose some speed on your internet connection, the visuals degrade instead of the play response, at least, as much as possible.  You’ll see artifacting that you’d see in a JPG still frame or MPEG videos; blocky, blurry, smudgy visuals.  This will be flatly intolerable for some players, but I actually didn’t mind it as much as I thought I would.  This is partially because of how I play and the two games I have.

Y’see, Batman’s Arkham City is a grungy, dystopic place, beautiful in its decay in a terrible sort of way, not unlike the photos of Detroit’s urban decay that I noted a while back.  It’s great to just look at… but a lot of the gameplay of Arkham City is about moving from place to place and beating up thugs.  A fair chunk of it is played in “Detective Vision” as well.  As such, when I want to take a look at the scenery, I just stop and look.  The system doesn’t need as much processing or communication power when you’re stationary in the world, so the visuals improve when you stop to look around… which is a nice confluence of circumstances.  When I’m fighting, the important part is seeing the motion and UI cues for counters, and those are perfectly serviceable, even if the overall visuals degrade a bit.  When I’m soaring around town looking for stuff, I’m sure I’m missing some details, but for the most part, the sense of motion is key, and that translates pretty well unless there’s a very strong and/or protracted lagspike.

Dirt3 has similar quirks.  As in, the bulk of the play is in the middle third of the screen, and there’s a speed blur effect around the perimeter anyway.  It’s all about control, and as long as that stays tight, the game plays really well.  On the longer Rally races, you have a couple of assists in driving anyway, like automatic gearshifting, a radio caller to tell you what turns are coming up, and a ghostly green “optimal race line” overlaid on the track to follow.  Of course, these are optional, and I’m playing in Easy mode, so I’m not sure how well a purist hardcore gearhead (I use that term affectionately, not derogatorily) would like it.  For me, though, it plays about as smooth as slightly sugary butter, which is a key component of fudge, so I’m happy with it.  When I’ve missed a turn or botched a move, it always feels like my fault, not the game lagging on me.  (I’m still not really good at dirt track racing, and the Gymkhana thing, heavy on the drifting and precision control, is very cool, but beyond me at the moment.  It’s like trying to steer a cinder block on ice with turbo-powered hamster wheels.)

So… color me at least partially impressed with what the OnLive people have been able to do with the tech.  I do still think that the high speed internet requirement will make it a niche product, but with luck, as the tech gets better, it will be more useful to more people.  It’s not a perfect system, but it really is playable, which is more than I expected initially.

And hey, I’m playing a sweet driving game, Dirt3, and the so-far-phenomenal Arkham City, and I’ve only spent $1, not counting the computer or internet costs (I’m not using the miniconsole, though, without a HDTV… maybe I’ll come back and review that someday).  I can’t complain much about that, either.  Yes, there’s still that blasted internet tether, but for the price, I’m pretty happy.

I actually wish MMOs would take a page from the OnLive pipeline, too.  I don’t mind if the visuals compress a little bit as long as the play stays at peak.  I know, the tech is different, but I can’t help but wish that there were a similar on-the-fly tradeoff in MMOs to allow play to stay sharp, even if the data transfer rate isn’t constantly snappy.

… in a late-breaking bit of news, apparently OnLive works on tablets and smartphones.  At least, some of them.  That’s an interesting extension of the technology, though I’m not sure I’d want to play Arkham City with touch controls.  Dirt3 might work fine, and our A Kingdom for Keflings PC port was designed for single click use (so it should translate to touch nicely) but not every game can be converted well to the touch interface.  (Random plug for a pair of great articles that enumerates many reasons I don’t like touch tech… A Brief Rant and Jobs’ Legacy)

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Snowflakes are a seasonal craft around here.  Using my aforementioned Snowflake Seeds, my little family makes a variety of snowflakes to decorate our windows.  This year, I tried something a little different… a steampunk snowflake:

Steampunk Snowflake 1.0

I wasn’t sure that it would work… and I could do a lot more detail with a laser cutter… but for an experiment, I’m pretty happy with how it turned out.  I’m obviously cheating on the spans, and I’ll make one with better meshing teeth later.  It really should get the brass and grunge treatment, but the shape is what’s important for this initial test.  I’d really love to make one with working gears via Shapeways… maybe once I can carve out a bit more time.

Happy holidays!

Edited to add:  Now, with more sense!  This version of the Gearflake has one more gear at the center, and the shape is entirely gears, no support struts like the first one.  Way too much fun to make these, I tell you.  The great part is that they don’t need any weird laser cutting tools, you can do these just with paper and scissors.  All the cuts come in from the sides of the snowflake seed.  (I’ve got a picture around here somewhere of the folded/cut versions of these…)  Sure, the gears aren’t machine precise, and there are errors thanks to the paper folding thickness… but still, these are great to see take shape.

Gearflake 2.0

This is the pattern to make the Gearflake 2.0.  Once you have the snowflake seed wedge, you take this pattern (maybe fudging the teeth if you want it a little more precise) and cut out the dark parts.  Leave the blue-grey parts.

Thanks for stopping by, especially if you’re here from epbot.com.  Many thanks for the link!

Gearflake 2.0 Pattern

…aaand here’s version 3.0.  Each iteration comes with another layer of gears.  I’m running into cutting resolution issues and slight warping (though that can be cleaned up with iteration), so I’m not sure if I can go a layer deeper.  I guess we’ll find out.  The basics are simple enough, alternating sides for each successive gear arc when plotting them out on the ‘seed, as you might note on the 2.0 pattern.  I’m sure I could use Illustrator or even Photoshop to nail down some more precise gearwork… these have been just arcs I’m guesstimating by hand.

This is probably way more fun than it should be.  It’s just papercutting after all… but it’s also math, art and a little bit of whimsy.  I love playing in that space.  It’s a somewhat eclectic Venn intersection, but it’s satisfying to see things come together.  Left brain-right brain combinations and all that.

Gearflake 3.0

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I’ve written about most of the card by now, but I wanted to cover the other remaining bits and mention a few other things.  Once again, here’s the card:

Zomblob card Murmurer

And here are the other articles on it: Warming Up and Keeping Track.  There are other Zomblob articles, all tagged with the Zomblob label… I’ll make a comprehensive list when I post the beta ruleset and PDFs.  (This has been pushed back a little bit thanks to two other big projects that demanded immediate attention, but I want to get them before the 20th or so if at all possible.)

The biggest thing I haven’t covered yet is the combat resolution.  It works like HeroScape (which I still haven’t played, sadly, though I’ve researched it) or the WoW Miniatures game.  Each attack uses either WILL or POW, and the number cited is the number of six-sided dice you roll.  (So a POW 5 attack would have you rolling 5 dice.)  This number may be modified by a few things, so you may be rolling a few more or less.  The defending unit rolls dice as well, dictated by the attack.  Ranged attacks will have the defender rolling as many dice as the RDEF value lists, defense against melee attacks use the MDEF value, and defense against WILL attacks use the WILL value.  (If you’re using an Action on one of your own units, ignore the WILL values.)  A die showing 3, 4, 5, or 6 is a “success”, either in attack or defense.  A POW-based attack will deal damage equal to how many successes the attacker rolls, minus the number of successes the defender rolls.  A WILL-based attack is binary; if the attacker rolls more successes than the defender, the attack succeeds.

It’s worth noting that the base values for these attributes will range from 1 to 6.  They might be modified by game effects, but they shouldn’t wind up too big.

Example 1:  A Banshee Feral Ranged unit uses a ranged attack with POW 4 against our hapless Murmurer up there.  The Murmurer is a Support unit, generally hiding behind the front lines, so it has a decent RDEF of 4.  Both players roll 4 dice.  The attacking player rolls 3 successes, and the defending player unluckily rolls 1 success.  The Murmurer takes 2 damage (loses 2 Health points) because it only defended against one of the 3 attack points.

Example 2:  An Interceptor Aspirant Melee unit uses a WILL attack (WILL 6) to try to lock the Murmurer in place for a turn.  The Murmurer is a stubborn unit, as its WILL value of 5 attests.  The attacking player rolls 6 dice and gets 4 successes.  The defending player rolls 5 dice and gets 4 successes.  The Murmerer thus defends against the WILL attack and does not suffer the lockdown.

Example 3:  The Murmerer then uses its own Action that prevents a unit from moving (the second one in the list up there), targeting a rapidly approaching Rhino Feral Melee unit to stall its charge.  The Rhino has a WILL of 5, just as stubborn as the Murmurer, but it has melee attacks with POW of 5 and 6.  The Murmurer doesn’t want to defend against that with its measly 2 MDEF, so keeping the Rhino away is a good idea at the moment.  Both players roll 5 dice.  The attacking player (the Murmerer’s controller) rolls 4 successes and the defending player rolls 2 successes.  The lockdown attack succeeds, but there are no other effects due to the 2 successes that were not defended against.

I chose this method instead of the WarHammer/WarMachine method of only the attacker rolling dice for a couple of reasons.  One is that I simply prefer it.  Two, it’s more interactive.  Klaus Teuber, the designer behind Settlers of Catan, suggested in an interview (that I can’t find at present, sorry for the lack of citation) that games that allow all players to act, no matter whose turn it is, tend to be more interesting and socially involving.  This might be why I prefer the technique.  It seems like the people I’ve played the WoW Minis game with have more fun, too, as they are actively participating in their defense, not just sitting back hoping their opponent doesn’t roll well.

It’s a subtle psychological trick, perhaps, but I think it’s important, especially when you’re dealing with a small group instead of big, impersonal armies.  Rolling your own defense simply makes it more personal and tactile.  It might also make it more annoying to keep track, to be sure, which is one reason why I’m trying to keep the numbers relatively low.  Sure, it’s possible to make an attack have 11 POW or something even bigger, but that winds up to be a lot of dice.  6 feels like a good baseline top end to me, but this is one of those things that really needs a good playtesting shakedown.

Other than that, the card shows a few other things.  One is the “unit specials” box under the unit type line.  Each unit will have something here, some personal quirk, though some may have the same quirks.  The Murmurer is a fairly strong support unit with decent defense (at range, anyway) and a pair of useful defensive abilities:

“may not be delayed” means the Murmurer cannot be given TP by any other unit.  (Time Points that delay its next action, as described in the Keeping Track article.)

“may not be flanked” means the unit does not lose RDEF or MDEF when it’s attacked from its back arc, which is what Flanking usually does.  (An defender loses 1 to MDEF and RDEF against attacks against its back arc.)

Other units might have “(unit) gains +1 POW against Feral units” or “(unit) can draw LOS through any units” or the like.  I’m hoping to make all of these fairly simple and self-explanatory, but useful and/or powerful enough to make each unit valuable and interesting.

This does intersect a little bit with what I’m calling Auras (one of the elements that the Murmurer doesn’t display), which are static abilities that allow a unit to affect the battlefield at all times (the Special box is something that only affects the unit itself instead of a space on the battlefield).  An Aura will take the place of one of a unit’s Actions, but it need not be activated, it’s simply always “on”.  These will usually affect the stats of nearby units, either buffing allies or annoying enemies, though there will be some “utility” Auras with quirky effects, like the Interceptor’s movement-impairing aura that affects every nearby unit.

Then there’s the Value box in the lower right.  This is the point value of the unit, relevant for army building and scoring.  I’ll initially be offering a six-unit team for each breed, balanced by this number.  There’s room for customization, though, and handicapping, which is where this Value will be useful.

There’s also the Absorption mechanic, which is why the last Action has a gold border.  Any unit may absorb an Inert blob.  (A blob that has lost all of its Health is rendered Inert, which means it stays on the battlefield, just a lump of goo that gets in the way.)  If a unit absorbs another unit, it learns its last Action for the duration of the match.  You’d place the absorbed unit’s card under the absorber’s unit card, showing that last Action.  That Rhino Feral unit might wind up with the Murmurer’s ability to delay and heat up a target unit via absorption.  This might also be a big deal in campaigns, where absorbed Actions carry over to the next fight.

…I’m playing with fire a little bit there, potentially giving units “off-breed” abilities (which is one other reason why that last Murmurer Action is a multipurpose tool instead of a stronger simpler one).  I’m not sure that it will work out well, but it fits the flavor of blobs so well that I really want to make it work.  We’ll see, I guess.  There’s just something delightfully appealing about the ability to take the enemy’s resources and bend them to your ends.  I love this about BattleTech and salvaging units, something that was really fun in MechCommander 2, so I’m hoping to capture a bit of that fun with the biological mutability of the ‘blobs.  It might be a “win more” mechanic, but those have value too, in speeding up the endgame.  Absorption is a universal Action, too, so you’d be trading the opportunity to do a native Action for your turn for the potential of a new tool in future turns.  This will require playtesting and experimentation.

Does all of this make sense so far?  I don’t have the rules completely written down yet, and I need to find the best way to explain them concisely, so I’m hoping that these concepts aren’t too crazy.  I’m spending a lot of words here describing what I think are relatively simple mechanics… but sometimes something makes sense in my mind and then doesn’t translate all that well onto the page.  I’d love to hear what you think of any of this.


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I’m a gamer.  I define that as “a guy who plays games for fun”.  Some might define it as “I play video games for a living”, or “video games are my hobby” or “I simulate wars with little action figures and dice” or “my life is meaningless without video games” or even “I spend all my welfare check on slot machines”.  It’s a very fluid term.  For me, games are something I play in my few bits of free time, just one option among many ways to spend my time.  There are a lot of different reasons to play, though.

Sometimes I want to be intellectually challenged.  This is when I’ll play a Professor Layton game, Brain Age, Portal, Cogs or Safecracker… something in that vein.  I enjoy a mental workout and the joy that comes with figuring something out.

Sometimes I merely want to be entertained.  This is when I’ll play LEGO Batman with my kids, Arkham Asylum/City, Audiosurf, Rock of Ages, A World of Keflings, or World of Goo (or maybe an Uncharted if I had a PS3).

Sometimes I just want to mindlessly plow through bad guys and collect loot.  This is when I’ll play Torchlight, a DIKU MMO, Kingdom Hearts or even a JRPG like Chrono Trigger or a Final Fantasy.  (The bulk of which really does tend to be “grinding” and killing tons of baddies for cash and experience.)

Sometimes I want to explore and take screenshots.  I love WoW for this, but Allods Online, LOTRO, RIFT, Portal 2 and many others are great, too.  (This is one big problem I have with console gaming; I can’t take screenshots.  Yes, it’s possible, I just don’t have the tech.)

Sometimes I want to smash digital stuff.  This is when I’ll play Burnout Revenge or Boom Blox, TMNT 2: Turtles in Time or Super Dodgeball… or maybe fire up a fighting game like Soul Calibur, Super Smash Brothers or Marvel vs. Capcom 2, or even River City Ransom as a weird sort of hybrid game.

Sometimes I want grand adventure, and only a journey to Hyrule can scratch the itch.

Sometimes I want a great story with simple game elements, so I’ll dig into something quirky like Ghost Trick (a fantastic little game with a very well-wrought story) or a Phoenix Wright game, or fire up an old Sierra or LucasArts adventure game (currently playing through The Dig, then the Indiana Jones games).

Sometimes I really want to get creative and tinker, so The Incredible Machine or Minecraft are the best.

Sometimes I want a good card game, so I’ll play Magic the Gathering, the WoW TCG, Rook, Rage, SET, the Monopoly card game or even UNO.

Sometimes a board game is best, so I’ll play Ticket to Ride, Settlers of Catan, Chess, Mancala, or my new favorite, Blokus.

…and with all of these, there are at least dozens of other games that easily come to mind, but I’m trying to keep it somewhat concise.

There is some overlap, to be sure.  The Portal games are both mentally interesting and entertaining.  JRPGs sometimes have great stories too.  RockSteady’s Batman games are great for exploration, story and fun brawler combat.  Blokus is great for flexing puzzle thinking and having fun with my kids.

Still, even with this wide variety, sometimes I just want to play something I’ve played before, that I know I’m good at.  This is the “fuzzy slippers gaming” from the title.  It’s like that old dog-eared worn out copy of I, Jedi that I read every few years because it’s one of my favorite books.  Sometimes, I just want a familiar game to go play for a while, maybe because it’s about revisiting old, cherished memories that are tied to the game.  Maybe it’s because I won’t have to think too much.  Maybe it’s because I want to share the game with my kids.  There’s something valuable about a game that is worth playing again and again.

So, that Star Wars invocation isn’t an accident.  What of Star Wars: The Old Republic and the familiarity that it’s perhaps trying to invoke?  As Brian Green and others have noted, it’s largely “more of the same”, and can fill that niche of “familiar” for a lot of players.  I think there’s value in that, to be sure.  Not enough for me to pay anything more than $10 for an always-online game, and certainly not enough for me to pay a subscription for.  Also, there’s a distinction between gameplay and the game itself.  I’d happily accept a new Miles Edgeworth or Phoenix Wright game because of how they play; that scratches the “familiar” itch while still providing a new story to enjoy.  Ditto for a new Professor Layton.  Still… I’d get them on sale, simply because if I just wanted the nostalgia, I’d play the older game I already own for free.

Of course, sometimes there are other motivations.  I’d buy an English release of Seiken Densetsu 3 because I loved Secret of Mana and want to tell Square that SD3 is a worthy successor.  I’d buy a new Chrono game because they dropped the ball by stopping with Chrono Cross and Chrono Trigger is incredible.  (It was the first game I wanted to make a direct sequel to, and even wrote up some design documents for it.)  Sometimes I do want to tell companies that their trendlines are good and to keep up the good work, though with a side order of “keep this trend, but keep experimenting around the edges”.  That can be a hard message to send sometimes.

All in all, though, I value innovation and new experiences.  That’s why I play a lot of different games instead of welding myself to a monogamous MMO.  (Even beside the annoyance I have with the subscription model.)  There’s value in familiarity, but if I have to keep paying for it, well… that’s usually something I’m not interested in doing.  Tangentially, this is a great article on Frozen Synapse and their business model; my favorite “single pay” model.

Ultimately, I have other games to scratch that itch for familiar gaming, so I’m not going to buy into a new game that does the same old things but asks a premium for it.

This is also why I strongly resist games that require me to be online to play.  I don’t trust that they will always be available, or that I’ll always have a usable internet connection.   If the idea is to make me want to go back to play the game, I need to be able to do that on a whim.  Similarly, this is why portable games are so great; the low overhead of the DS version of Chrono Trigger means I’ll play it more than my old SNES version or PS1 version, and I played those a lot.  The easier it is to just get in and play, the better, if you’re trying to get me to put your game in that “familiarity” slot.  Otherwise, I’m going elsewhere.

As for why this is important when I’m not a continuing stream of obvious revenue via a sub, well, I do occasionally buy DLC, and I do talk about and cheerlead for games that I love.  I strongly recommend Chrono Trigger, Minecraft, Frozen Synapse, X-Com, Professor Layton, Recettear, Ghost Trick, World of Goo, Cogs and a whole bunch of other great games.  Other people have purchased games I’ve recommended.  I’ve purchased games other people recommend.  If I didn’t have that positive experience with the games, then that free advertising goes away.  Maybe it’s hard to quantify that, but there’s value there, and trying to mine it with RealID shenanigans or subs will make it evaporate instantly.

The last thing I want when I go for familiar gaming, my mental Fuzzy Slippers of Comfort +5, is to be hit up for money or a need to login to a server.

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I’ve written about this a little bit before, in my Losing Control article, and I previewed it a little bit in my card preview in the Keeping Track article.  One of the key mechanics of my Zomblobs! game is the Heat mechanic.

Once again, here’s the preview card:

zomblob card murmurer

Of note for the Heat system (which I suppose could use a more snappy name, but hey, “Heat” worked for BattleTech, and this is inspired in big ways by that game, so I can’t be too picky) are the three key values in the lower left corner, and the Heat values in each Action Tile.  Action Tiles are the largest visual elements on the card, the stack of pink and blue rectangles on the right side.  They define what the unit can do for its Action each turn.

A unit’s options are limited by its present Heat value.  Heat is a scale from 1 to 12 (easily tracked with a D12, 2 D6s or pen and paper) which every unit needs to track.  The Norm value is where the unit starts along the scale in any given battle.  The Coma value is where the unit slips into a comatose state, unable to move, and only able to use the universal Recover Action instead of any of its other Actions.  The Fever value is where the unit crosses the threshold between cool and warm.  This is really where each breed (Aspirant, Feral or Zomblob) most strongly differs.

The card above shows a Zomblob unit, which starts in the warm section of the gauge.  While it’s there, it can only use Actions that have the pink “warm” background (and the standard Actions, Recover and Absorb).  These actions will make the unit’s Heat go down by the number noted in the costs section of the ‘Tile.  Zomblobs prefer to be hot and fevered, and when they cool down, they start malfunctioning.  This is reflected in the blue Action Tile; when in its non-Norm phase (cool, in this case), a Zomblob unit can only use the Actions with blue backgrounds, and as can be noted, the Murmurer’s cool Action isn’t quite as desirable as its warm ones (though it may be useful in mirror matches… otherwise, it’s going to be attacking its teammates).

Aspirant units, on the other hand, start off in the cool section of the gauge and melt down into mania if they get too hot, and their available Actions will reflect this.  Feral blobs are perhaps the most quirky here, as they are about as effective warm as they are cool, just in different ways.  A unit that specializes in fast melee single target strikes while cool might settle into slower strong Area of Effect or Swipe (arc) attacks while warm.  Ferals don’t particularly mind being warm or cool, they just function differently (and unlike the other two, they may use the Recover and Absorb Actions while in their “non-Norm” state).

This dance between heat states is one of the most important things to track in the game.  Sure, Health is important and the Time system is key to some tactics, but Heat will dictate what Actions you have available on any given turn, and that can make all the difference.

Consequently, one of the most crucial aspects of Support units in the game is the way they can help other units manage heat (or inflict heat troubles on opponents).  Notice the last Action Tile on the sample card up there.  The Murmurer can make a target unit gain heat (and time).  This is a multifaceted tool, usable on *any* target.  Sometimes it might be advisable to heat up your own unit, even if it does mean a time delay (though I might just reduce or omit that to make the Action more useful).  Sometimes it’s best to heat up an opposing unit to throw their tactical options off.  It might even be useful against an opposing Zomblob, purely for the delay.

Each unit also (often) has access to the universal Recover Action, which costs 2 Time Points but heals 2 Health Points and moves the unit’s Heat 2 units towards its Norm.  Sometimes it’s best to stop and take a breather.  (Though the healing part of that might be too strong… playtesting will be key to nailing down the magnitudes of these functions.)

This will probably make more sense with more cards to compare, but that’s the core idea behind the Heat system.  It’s a way to modify the tactics of combat, and a way to make choices and timing more important.  Do you go for the big attack that will put your unit in its “off” state, or do you play it safe and Recover or use a cheaper Action?  I think it’s these choices, and their concurrent risk and reward, that make this sort of game most interesting.

What think you?

Oh, and I’ll write more about the combat system next time.  That’s really important, too, I’m just trying to break these articles up into concepts.

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