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Archive for the ‘Game Design’ Category

9 of 10

I didn’t realize it until I ran into this latest study/poll making the rounds, thanks to TAGN’s post on the same, but I’ve been kicking around in Azeroth for 9 of the 10 years that World of Warcraft has been live.  I’ve had a few accounts over the years, so I don’t know my total /played time, but I suspect it’s probably not much compared to most who have had as long of an association with the game.  Still, my first blog post here (aside from the “Hello World”) was about WoW, so it’s not like I’m a stranger to the game, either.

Tangentially, this was an interesting find, as I was perusing my archives.  Just in case you needed a little more navel gazing.

Dead Again: Five Year Old Noob

Anyway, for posterity’s sake, here are the study’s questions and my responses.  As I’ve noted elsewhere, I have a love/disgruntled relationship with WoW.  Great art direction, animation and world design, decent game design, lousy monetization.  It’s a game I keep coming back to, but then, I play a lot of games.  It’s never a place I could “hang my hat”, as it were.  I have too many other things to do than be tied to one game.  Still, I love the sense of place in the game, and I think on balance, I like it more than I dislike it.

Why did you start playing World of Warcraft? *

2005. I was interested when I saw the original magazine ads, but the subscription model kept me away. That is a recurring theme.

What was the first ever character you rolled? *

A Tauren Shaman. I loved Tauren in WarCraft 3, and was looking forward to playing one up close and personally, as it were. The Shaman looked flexible, so I figured I’d give it a shot. My main today is a Tauren Druid (er, that I just changed to a Worgen… still getting used to that), my only level capped character, but just below that is a Dwarven Shaman, and I love them both.

Which factors determined your faction choice in game? *

I started Horde because my friend was playing an Orc. Turns out it was pointless since he was level 58 or so, and we couldn’t even group up anyway since I was just on a trial account. Since then I’ve played both factions, though my core love is still the Tauren people. They are close to neutral philosophically in the Warcraft mythos, and I appreciate that. I don’t buy into the faction pride… contention… thing.

What has been your most memorable moment in Warcraft and why? *

Trying out Flight Form. There’s just nothing else like it in the game. My favorite place to explore is Northrend, but there are a great many beautiful places to explore in WoW, and flight form facilitates exploration in ways no other mechanic can. (And BASE jumping from Dalaran or other high spots, popping Flight Form at the last second, that just doesn’t get old.)

What is your favourite aspect of the game and has this always been the case? *

The world itself; always has been, always will be. I’ve always appreciated Blizzard’s art ability, and the world of WarCraft is what always interested me about the game. I enjoyed the WarCraft games, and really wanted to see what the world looked like from the ground. And in the air.

WoW might not have the highest resolution graphics or 3D meshes, but they make the most our of what they have with the strongest art direction in the industry. Others are catching up or edging ahead, most notably Guild Wars (albeit in a different style), EQLandmark and Wildstar, but Blizzard was there first and still manages to look great, even on low end machines (which is important).

Do you have an area in game that you always return to? *

I used to perch my Tauren Druid on the center totem of Thunder Bluff often, since capital cities allow me to conduct business and get rested. Now that he’s a level capped Worgen, he’s not really grounded, but I’m still fond of Northrend, especially Grizzly Hills.

How long have you /played and has that been continuous? *

The longest continuous streak I’ve played was two months. I’ve had a foot in WoW for about nine years, but I can’t stand the subscription model, so I just pop in on occasion when there’s something of note that I want to see.

Admit it: do you read quest text or not? *

The vast majority of the time, yes. Sometimes I’ll skip to the quest goals, but I read fast enough and like reading enough that I only do that if I’m feeling strongly pressured for time.

Are there any regrets from your time in game? *

Nothing strong. Sometimes I wish I’d played more, sometimes I wish I’d played less. I don’t regret spending time with the game, only money.

What effects has Warcraft had on your life outside gaming? *

It’s a significant component of why I bothered to start a blog, and I’ve met friends that way. The audience there also led to an audience that has given me a bit of a headstart on some Kickstarter successes, so that’s nice. Beyond that, it’s also been nice to know a bit about the game since I worked in the game industry and can talk intelligently about game design considerations based on the game. It’s an occasional cultural touchstone, too, which can be handy in some conversations.

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Sometimes it’s hard for me to believe that it’s already been a month since I deleted Marvel Puzzle Quest from my smartphone.  I played the game for almost six months and had a decent roster of characters built up.  And yet… almost every single change that the developers made during the time I played the game made the game less appealing.  I finally reached the point where I just didn’t want to like it any more, and gave up.

The sad part is that the core gameplay is actually really solid.  The puzzle combat isn’t finely balanced, but I’m fine with that, as I don’t mind a bit of imbalance.  It is well crafted and adds some nice twists to the Puzzle Quest formula.  If the game can be taken purely on its combat, it’s a fine addition to the pedigree.

And yet, the progression scheme and monetization scheme (intricately tied together, but even without monetization, the progression would be awful) just kill the game in the long run.  Of course, that’s “kill the game for me”, since it’s apparently still live and gathering clients, but I would really love to see some numbers on what sort of churn they are seeing.  It is very much a “winners win more” game, with elements that skirt the dreaded “pay to win” area.  Some of the judgment on the latter depends on how you define the phrase, but for me, it’s clearly designed to give an edge to those who spend inordinate amounts of money on the game, in no small part because of how glacial the progression system is, and that you can pay to speed it up.

This is not anything new in the F2P arena, to be sure, and it’s less grievous than being able to flat out buy victories, but it does undermine what could be very satisfying PvP combat puzzling.

In the end, though, it wasn’t any single huge change that made me uninstall the game.  It was a death by degree.  The poor progression scheme.  Nothing worth spending money on (which saved me money, but it was still what I thought of as poor design).  New characters introduced fairly regularly… but predominantly at the rare tier, so recruiting them was a crapshoot with their slot machine sort of character acquisition.  (Almost everything in the game is tied to a random chance of acquisition or absurdly overpriced… sometimes both.)  The change in healing so that it was limited to the combat of the moment.  Damage persists after a fight, limiting the ability to play multiple rounds in succession unless you heal in the fight or pay for refills between fights.  You get a few free refills, but they don’t last long if you’re in a heated race to top the competition boards to get some character you’d like.  You can buy refills or wait for them to recharge, 1 every 35 minutes, and you can hold 5 at a time.  (With 3 characters in combat, that’s not a lot of healing to go around.)  Competition is mostly PvP of a sort (never against other players; the AI just takes their team and runs it), which isn’t terrible, but PvP really needs to be balanced to be fun, and when character levels can be as disparate as they are in the game, it gets old when you play a few successful rounds and then get matched with an overpowered team you have no chance of beating.  Normalized PvP (like Guild Wars) where skill and team composition rule would go a long way to making the game better… but that sort of level playing field is harder to monetize.

Playing the moment to moment combat was still good fun.  It’s just… everything else isn’t, and the combat alone isn’t enough to save the game.

On the other hand, there’s Slingshot Braves.  It’s sort of a weird mix of PS1-era graphics (so it still looks good; I’m playing on a phone for crying out loud), Squids and Angry Birds, with a gear upgrade system that feels a bit like Puzzle & Dragons (consume hundreds of little pieces of loot to level up your gear) and a newly introduced gem/slot system that is a bit like socketed gear in a Blizzard game, but you can also level up the gems by combining several of a kind, and you can move some gems around, so it has a slight FFVII flavor.  It’s simple, but the five weapons are fairly elegantly designed, each with its own niche.  Leveling gear is slow, and the only way to make your team stronger, but it feels just fast enough to be acceptable.  Marvel Puzzle Quest’s character leveling is very, very slow by comparison.

Acquiring gear is only done via very rare loot drops or by the “Gacha” system.  It’s effectively a gear slot machine.  This is a bit annoying, but the game provides you with enough “gems” (the currency you can buy directly or earn via play or the occasional promotion) to get the occasional new bit of gear in that system.  Gear is in four tiers (C, B, A, and S, increasing in value), and you’re guaranteed at least a B level bit of gear in the Gacha.  It’s a bit annoying in that the best gear seems to be in the Gacha gamble, but at the same time, you can level up your gear and evolve it to a higher tier with enough little loot drops, so you can grind into some good gear eventually.  It’s slow, and annoying to get great new gear that you then have to level up, but that’s the quirk that comes with leveling gear in general.  It’s still much faster than MPQ’s system, and less frustrating.

I’m not sure there’s much that offers good value for real money here, either, but at least progress in the game isn’t as tedious as is is in MPQ.  You can buy gems, which allow character renaming, larger loot libraries, Gacha “pulls” and stamina refills (each mission you play consumes stamina, which recharges slowly; a standard F2P throttle).  Still, it’s not necessary, and most importantly, buying gems doesn’t have a huge effect on your success or pace of progress.

Perhaps most importantly, though, the only multiplayer system is a cooperative one, so it’s OK if someone else is stronger than you.  You both win faster that way.  There is some light competition among scoring leaderboards on some events, but the majority of the time any reason you have to care about the gear other players have is in how much it helps you, not how hard it is to beat.  That’s a huge underlying shift in assumptions and goals, and it makes a world of difference.

…and is it telling that the progression scheme is the first thing I write about?  That’s really where these games live or die, since that’s where they monetize, usually.  It’s also where things get annoying, and where MPQ got worse as time went on, SB just keeps getting better.  Loot drops have been made more frequent, promotions give people more goods to work with, the gear Gacha was split into a weapon Gacha and an Armor Gacha (anything that increases player control over the slot machine is a Good Thing for players), and the new socketing system makes gear more flexible.

But how does it play, moment to moment?  Largely like Squids, where you fire your character in a direction and watch it bounce around the arena, beating on foes or careening off of your ally unit or the walls.  Maybe it’s just the billiards fan in me, but I love that a good eye for angles and thinking ahead pays off in the game.  It’s a simpler game than MPQ, but it still seems to reward player skill, and that’s one of the things that I appreciate most in games.

So, while Marvel Puzzle Quest’s fortunes in my library sank, Slingshot Braves has risen to be the game I most prefer to play at the moment on my phone.  Tiny Dice Dungeons is another great contender, but it hasn’t seen as many “live” changes.

I find it striking that MPQ made most of its changes to try to squeeze out more monetization, and it’s obvious.  SB wants more money too, certainly, but their changes have almost uniformly felt like they were improving the progression scheme, and occasionally the combat engine.  My visceral response to the two development teams couldn’t be more opposed.  The more I see each in action, the more I like SB, and the less I like MPQ.

In a world where games can mutate and adjust over time, I think it’s critical that the changes feel like they are making the game better, and that’s really the difference between these two when it comes to whether or not I play them and recommend them.

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OK, not so much “morbid” as… depressed, but that would have killed the alliteration.

For a little bit of context, I was laid off or downsized from the video game company I worked for just about two months ago.  It’s been… stressful.  Really stressful.  It’s part of why I haven’t posted here for a while.

For a bit more context, there’s this fellow’s insanely large video game collection that hit the news:

Guinness World Record video game collection

Anyway, there’s also this article from Kotaku that made the Facebook rounds recently:

Why Game Developers Keep Getting Laid Off

It’s a decent article, but I wanted to chase down a couple of implications that they didn’t get to, and tie a few things together.

As might be noted by the Kotaku article, or by speaking with veterans of the industry, there is a lot of churn in the video game production world.  Staffing woes aren’t uncommon in many industries, so it’s not like we’re super special snowflakes or anything, but it’s worth noting that the industry isn’t a stable one.  It’s a wildly profitable one on the whole, an entertainment medium that isn’t going away, but it’s not financially stable, nor is a career in the industry going to be a stable one.

I read an article a while back (though I can’t find it now), and this thread seems to echo the same thoughts, that careers in the video game industry are short on average.  As in, five years short, or about two big game dev cycles.  It’s true that we don’t live in a world where you get one job right out of college and stay at it until you retire or die, so again, this isn’t all that unusual, but it’s somewhat sobering.  Or it should be.

I’ve worked in the industry for eight years.  I’m an old hand at it, in some ways.  That’s… weird.  (Not as old of a hand as some, but still, it’s weird to think of myself as statistically over the hill, career wise.)

Anyway, this does have effects on the industry beyond what the Kotaku article notes.  Because companies are always fluctuating around, “redistributing assets” and such, there are convenient excuses to drop older, more expensive employees and pick up fresh meat from colleges.  The passion in these younger, unattached employees (mostly male) is exceptionally easy to exploit, as I’ve railed against before, and as the EA Spouse kerfluffle illustrated all too well.  Conditions haven’t improved much since then, though some managers do a good job.  Death marches and crunch might be the backbone of a production schedule, but they aren’t healthy.

Tangentially, this explains a fair bit of the “boys’ club” mentality of the industry, for those of you who are up in arms about Blizzard’s recent public relations black eyes.  People who grow up (and actually mature, unlike the ESRB’s definition of the word) and want stable careers for their families don’t last long in the industry.

This is part of why the indie scene is important, as veteran developers try out new ideas that would never fit into the studio or megaentertainment company mentality.  Games are an important artistic medium, but they are hobbled by the realities of the industry.  Indies are opening up the scope of the medium, but like so many artistic avenues, it’s not really a solid career choice.

I could get bitter about this, but really, I’m just noting the realities of the industry as a voice of… not warning, exactly, since I still see great value in games.  It’s more of a voice of pragmatism.  The industry is not a place for long term stability (relevant to those who wish to make games), it’s not a place for actual maturity (relevant to devs and gamers), and it’s not going away.

I’ve been applying to studios around the world, but have no real leads.  I may well be out of the “official” video game world now, more or less “retired” by circumstance, and left to do indie games with friends on the side as I scramble for other work, whether freelance art or some other art position somewhere.  Again, this isn’t a desirable position to be in, but it’s not too surprising or unique.  I’m disappointed, but then, as I noted in that NBI article, I believe that a job or career is just something you do to pay the bills so you can afford to do what you really want to do in your spare time.  I don’t have anything yet, but even if I pick up a new video games job, I can’t really see myself in the industry for decades, just because of how it works.

I’ll work on indie games because they interest me.  I’ll make my Shapeways, Zazzle, Kickstarter and other projects because I just can’t stop creating.  I may well wind up with a completely irrelevant job, but games, art and creativity are something I will always be involved in.

But… yeah… I’m busier now than I ever have been, working hard on a lot of different things, but making very little money.  This blog, as great as it is to write here, isn’t my priority.  I’ll be here now and then again, still, I’m not closing shop, I’m just busy.  Really busy.  I’m updating my portfolio (seen over here), working on my own projects (novels, games, art, photography, all sorts of things) and looking for freelance opportunities.  If any of you have leads, I’d certainly love to hear about them.

See you around!

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With a new World of Warcraft expansion in the news cycle, it’s only inevitable that the Flying discussion cycles around again.

I make no secret of the fact that I love flying in games.  I am a Bartle Explorer, through and through.  Flying is perhaps my favorite activity in WoW.

So, when there’s a view that says “flying is bad“, I can’t help but think that they have a different perspective on what this World of Warcraft is.

(Caveat:  As I noted on Twitter in a comment to Big Bear Butt when he mentioned his article and that WoWInsider piece, I don’t mind waiting until the end of an expansion to be able to fly through it.  I think it’s a sledgehammer solution to the perceived problem, but I can live with it.)

One of the most repeated rationales for this worldview is that “flying makes the world smaller“.

To me, this is a completely alien way of looking at it, and completely backwards.

Yes, flying makes it possible to travel around quicker.  It makes it easier to plow through content.  It makes it easier for players to ignore enemies stuck on the ground and forces players to jump through the developer hoops and pacing.

(Aside:  When a game monetizes time, I consider it a cardinal sin for devs to waste my time, trying to find ways to slow me down.)

Also, from a technical standpoint, it does make something look smaller if you increase your distance from it, so flying up in the air will make something on the ground look smaller.

And yet, from my perspective, the ability to fly makes the World of WoW much, much bigger.  This is true for one simple reason:

I can explore more of it.

Flying opens up new camera angles, new places to go and see, and new ways for me to see how places relate to each other.  It’s a new perspective on what’s already there, a way to see things that I simply can’t get when I’m stuck to the ground.

It’s similar, in a way, to how I see the real world.  Yes, digital photography has allowed for more of the world to be captured and shared than ever before, and the internet makes it possible to “see” places around the world from the comfort of home.  In a way, it “made the world smaller” inasmuch as you don’t have to walk or ride out to see the sights yourself.

And yet, from where I sit, if I could never see those places, they may as well not exist.  (At least as far as my own personal experience, anyway; I’m not arguing any sort of absurd anthropic “China doesn’t exist because I didn’t hear a tree falling there” or any such nonsense.)  Being able to see, even just a glimpse, of what’s out there doesn’t make our world smaller, it makes it much, much bigger.  There’s all this stuff out there.  The more I see, the more I want to see, and the more aware I am of just how much there is that is there to see.

This is the beauty and fascination of the National Geographic magazine, or the Cosmos series.  They help us open our eyes, just a little, to what’s out there.

And when I see that, the only thing that feels smaller is me.

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Last time I noted some of the great bits and a few of the bad bits of this fancy new Marvel Puzzle Quest.

It turns out that the game is still more or less in beta, and the developers are still monkeying around with the character balance, progression system and monetization.

And it turns out that most of those changes are making the game slower, harder and more expensive.

I’d still buy a single player offline version of the game, and I still recommend at least taking the game for a spin, but I cannot recommend spending money on it.  I had hoped that the continuing development would mean that the problems I highlighted last time would be alleviated.  It turns out that such a hope was, at least so far, merely a dream.  Almost every change I see on the developer forums over thisaway winds up being what I’d call Bad Design, sometimes even Twinkie Denial choices.

I actually don’t mind slower, more tactical battles on the whole, but PvP and PvE scoring races mean slower battles tilt the scales ever so slightly more in the favor of established players or those who spend more money.  With the overall “rich get richer” system in place, it’s really not a game to play if you want to make steady progress.  It’s a game to play because the core puzzle combat design is really good, and the progress side is something you can ignore.

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I loved Puzzle Quest.  I loved the sequel, PQ: Galactrix.  I really like Bret Airborne, though I found that I was a bit frustrated by the campaign’s limited “lives” (though the core of the game is really great).

So, when I caught wind of a new Puzzle Quest, I had to investigate.

Specifically, it’s Marvel Puzzle Quest.  It’s on Steam, but I’ve been playing on my phone thanks to Google Play.

It’s… different.  Some really good parts, some… less so.  At its heart, though, it’s still Puzzle Quest, and I do recommend it.  (For an entertaining video review, check out TotalBiscuit’s one over thisaway.)

Pros

It’s match three combat, with bonus abilities powered by matches.  That’s the heart of PQ, and it’s strong here.  There’s a twist or two, though:

It’s three-on-three combat, with each team fielding three units.  This is a nice expansion of the mechanics, as you can shuffle around your team by making matches strategically, allowing you to have a “tank” that keeps itself healthy and “DPS” units that hang back and use damaging abilities.  There are even healer units.  Yeah, it’s a weak trinity design in some ways, which can often be kind of trite, but it’s a nice expansion of the PQ systems.  Building around the trinity isn’t necessary, either, but it’s there if you want to use it.  Smart planning of overlapping abilities and specialties can make for a strong team, and figuring that out and then executing smart play is the heart of the game, I think.  That said, if your team isn’t all about at the same level, your weakest character may never actually step to the front of the team to take the hits.  That might be a good thing if that’s your damage dealer, but this isn’t always ideal.

It’s fast.  Faster than PQ has been before now, at least.  That may not be good for everyone, but I like it.  Every single match you make does damage.  There are no “skull” tiles that are alone in their ability to damage.  Every move you make helps you somehow, and that’s a Good Thing.  Certainly, making matches in colors you can use for abilities or that your characters do more damage with (usually the same thing, though not always) is usually the right decision, but even if you’re forced to make a subpar match for defense or to set up a combo, it will still help out a little.

It’s fairly pretty.  Yes, it’s a match-3 game, so it doesn’t need a lot to look good, compared to a Gears of War or Kingdom Hearts, but it has clean, readable UI and an overall good design.  Character portraits and action shots are static images that get a little Flash magic applied to them, and it works pretty well.  There’s a bit too much rim lighting for my taste, but that’s a rant for another day.  Overall, it’s a nicely presented product.

It’s Marvel.  I like some of the Marvel characters, so their IP is a nice touch for me.  The characters have abilities that fit their theme as well, like Captain America’s tactical shield strikes that “boomerang” back to give you more power for a repeat strike, or Thor’s pure, unadulterated beatdown, with all three of his special abilities doing direct damage.  The flavor of the characters and mechanics going together is a nice touch, and in its way, more interesting than the generic fantasy abilities of the original PQ.  Yes, you had four classes in that game, but their unique abilities were often superseded by found abilities. That’s one of the strengths of that game, to be honest, but in this PQ, being limited to the three prebaked abilities (albeit of different power levels depending on your cover build) per character isn’t necessarily a bad thing, as it allows for more experiments to see which characters synergize best for your playstyle.  It’s not too far removed from the original game in that you’re effectively fielding a team with a handful of abilities, where in the older game, you’d have a single character with a handful of abilities.  Making smart choices of what to bring to the fight when you’re limited is a big part of the strategy of the game.  Limitations aren’t always a Bad Thing.  And yet…

Cons

The progression is… dumb.  (TotalBiscuit’s video covers it well, but I’ll also expand here.)  The experience system in previous PQ games was great, as you could build your character or skills just by playing (experience gems were part of the combat board).  This cover-and-ISO system is far too random and finding rarer covers (presently there are four levels of rarity) makes the rarer characters far less useful than common characters.  You’ll have a very difficult time acquiring all the characters and once you do, it’s going to be very hard to make them all competitive.  It may be exciting to get an Invisible Woman cover, as I did rather unexpectedly, but when she’s limited to level 30 until you get more covers, and your Uncommon team is nearly maxxed out at lv. 85, she’s a bit underwhelming for a character that should be special, because she’s rare.  (It’s a bit like Magic: The Gathering in that regard, if all the rares were big, splashy, overcosted creatures, except there’s no secondary market to take the edge off the sting, and the present Legendary characters all have big power costs, meaning quick Uncommon or Rare characters would make short work of them anyway while the Legendaries scrape together enough energy to use their abilities.)

Characters with two skill colors can max out their abilities.  Characters with three skill colors can only power up 13 out of a total 15 slots (five levels of each power).  I get that game devs think that “decisions should matter”, but this is inconsistent.  There is also no way to respec your character if you build it in a way that you don’t like.  If you don’t like your choices of those 13 (and there’s no way to look more than one power level ahead, so you must go to a wiki to properly plan ahead, a twinkie denial condition in my book), you have to just build the character all over again, with new covers and more ISO-8.  (Apparently, the devs are looking into a respec system, but this is the sort of thing that should have been designed better far earlier than now.)

ISO-8 is how you actually level up your characters.  The covers level up the powers and raise the character’s maximum level, and ISO-8 expenditure is how you actually have the character grow in their basic attack power and health.  ISO-8 is earned fairly easily from fights, events or redoing fights… but it seems to come at a slower pace than experience in older PQ games, and trying to grind out ISO-8 by replaying old missions is a VERY slow process.

Common, Uncommon, Rare and Legendary characters have disparate power levels… too disparate.  Beside the trouble of finding enough covers to fully realize the rarer characters, if you do happen to get one of each tier to their maximum level, you’re probably looking at a level 40 character, a level 85 character, a level 141 character and a level 230 character.  This difference in power is absurd.  I’d have made them all have the same power caps and let special ability and playstyle synergy keep things interesting.  As it is, if I were to have the two existing Legendary characters maxxed out and a Rare character at level max, there’s almost no way that any different team would be competitive against me.  The Rare character’s lower power would be so small a part of my team’s overall power that it almost doesn’t matter who is in that slot, aside from absurdly strong abilities that might be on offer, and a team of Rare characters would have a tough time beating the Legendaries, even with their slower powers, just because of the massive power difference in basic match attack power and health pools.

PvP is weird.  It’s not actually against other players, it’s against their team, but the AI is driving.  Since the AI is a little flaky (it plays too offensively, with too little defense or disruption, and doesn’t seem to see cascade opportunities or right angle “five” matches), it’s a less than satisfying proposition if you really want to test your skills.  The matchmaking system is rather annoying as well.  And the “progression” rewards for winning matches, well… they are more of a tease than anything to really aim for.  You’ll almost never get more than a few tiers in, just because of how the scoring system keeps pulling you back down when your AI-controlled team loses.

Health packs are… not cool.  Damage your characters take is persistent between matches, and while your characters do heal naturally over time, it’s very sloooooow.  Health packs are consumables that restore a character to full health, but they are throttled over time as well.  I’m not sure if there’s a limit to how many you can carry (I think the limit is ten, but I haven’t verified that), and they regenerate over time as well, but they are slow to regenerate (35 minutes or so each), and if you spend all of yours, the natural regeneration only regrows so many.  You’ll usually only have the five that the automatic regeneration gets you (you can pick up extras as rewards).  It seems designed for mobile gaming, with long breaks between play sessions, but it’s a troublesome throttle.  It’s a monetization vector, but it’s one of the more annoying ones.

Finding covers is a gamble.  You win or buy “recruitment tokens” that are an awful lot like coins.  You then put those in a sort of slot machine and hope you get something useful out of it.  You’ll get a cover each time, but most of the time it will be something that you don’t want, and have to sell for a pittance in ISO-8.  This is better than a box full of useless Magic: The Gathering commons, but only barely.  (Check out these two videos for more fun in this vein.)  I’m decidedly not a fan of this sort of thing in general (though I love MTG drafting), and it only exacerbates the problems with the cover progression system.  There is no cover trading, no way to trade a red Wolverine cover for a yellow one, so you wind up with a lot of useless junk.

Oddments

It’s Free to Play.  This kind of annoys me, actually, since I think it’s tied to the cover system.  I don’t begrudge them the Hero Point system, at least not the way I’ve used it.  I just use the Hero Points to expand my roster, allowing for me to collect more characters.  It’s like buying character slots in a F2P MMO, and I’m OK with that.  The other uses of Hero Points, though, from shields to protect PvP score to buying recruit tokens… those are closer to “pay to win” and “lockbox” purchases that I’m not fond of.  And yet… it’s free.  You can download it and just start playing.  You can do a lot without spending money, and that’s pretty cool.

Still, I really wish I could just get the game via a single purchase and play it single player.  I suspect this would allow for the hero levels and rarities to be normalized, quicker and more even progression (single player games don’t have to worry about keeping up with the Joneses), and ultimately, more exploration of character synergies.

…in sum, I do have a lot of little complaints with the game, but they are almost entirely on the progression side.  The core gameplay is really good, and I wish that the progression side would facilitate that better.  I’d have done that with a very flat level curve (no inherent advantage given to rarer characters) and drop the cover system, but you can’t win them all, I suppose.  It’s definitely possible to just play and have fun with whatever team you can scrape together, you just won’t have a great deal of success in PvP or PvE races without some luck in the progression scheme getting covers you want, and enough ISO-8 to make your team stronger.

I’ve been lucky to get a max level Thor and Captain America, as well as a midlevel Hulk, Hawkeye and Wolverine, and they have carried me to a fair bit of success.  I placed in the top ten (out of 1000+ players) of the most recent week-long PvE competition, scoring in the top 50 in half the two-day overlapping mini phases, in the top 10 in most of the others, and top 2 in one of them.  I didn’t get the top spot, but I wasn’t far behind.  It took a fair bit of time overall, but it was fun to play, so it worked out.  The way that the scoring opportunities “regenerate” during events means playing every 8 hours or so… but it doesn’t take a lot of time in each play session to scrape out a handful of high-scoring matches and stay ahead of the curve.

I’ve been able to have a fair bit of success in the game without spending anything other than time.  I count that as a successful game… though I’d still really like to get a single player single purchase version with some of the more annoying F2P barnacles scraped off.

…and yes, I think F2P can be done well.  I’m just not all that happy with this implementation.  You really can do a lot without spending money in the game, but I find myself stubbornly refusing to spend money, wishing rather for the ability to spend on the game the way I’d prefer to.

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One of the things I do when I have a minute to spare, but can’t do much but think, say, while waiting at a traffic light, is to ponder a fictional setting that I’ve been puttering around with for years.  I think about pieces of that world, characters in it, historical events, magical mechanics, whatever seems most interesting at the moment.  I’ve written some of it down, and I’ve structured some of it into a series of stories I’d like to tell, and a lot of art I’d like to do.

Sometimes I find it helpful to share my creative process, if only because it forces me to think about it, and possibly refine it.  If you all can get something out of my meanderings, hey, that’s a bonus.

This time, I want to write about Geistflies.

Geistflies

These little guys, to be precise, or at least, a fictional variant:

Fireflies

(Photos by Tsuneaki Hiramatsu)

Fireflies (or lightning bugs, as some call them) are mostly harmless, but have a certain visual charm on dark nights where their lights show up.  As with so many other weird phenomena, they are ripe for fictional explanations.  We know today that fireflies glow thanks to chemical reactions, but a less informed populace might invent other reasons for the glow.  Sometimes these reasons are based in evidence and observation, sometimes they are pure whimsy.  Often, there’s a bit of both involved, especially if location is important and patterns show up.

And as is so often the case, reality can be weirder than fiction anyway.  Take, for example, the weird story of the “Angel’s Glow” from the U.S. Civil War.  Some Civil War soldiers had wounds that glowed in the dark.  Weird, crazy stuff.  That article is just outlining a theory still, but a reasonable one.  And yet, to a delirious soldier in the field, would bioluminescent hitchhiker bacteria be the first thought?

Anyway, I designed that Geistfly Swarm card for some friends a couple years back (which actually is why I started digging into card design, which led to the Tinker Decks and Tinker Dice).  I just used a photo from a quick online search and ran with it to mock up graphic design concepts.  The text is really just official looking gibberish I made up so it looked like a card from an actual game, and I did the rest of the graphic design, experimenting with visuals.  The title of the card, “Geistfly Swarm” was just part of this creative tinkering… but it’s a name that has stuck in my mind since then.  It was just an experiment with making an interesting sounding name, sort of like my mild fascination with alliteration, but there’s something interesting happening there.

One, it rolls off the tongue well, with a pair of vowel sounds that echo each other in the two syllables.  There’s a lyrical quality to the term.  This lyricism can inform the genesis of the term, culturally speaking, and how it’s applied in society in the novel setting.  Perhaps the whimsy involved means that it’s largely used as a children’s story term.  Perhaps, though, like the Grimm Brothers stories, there’s a dark secret at its heart, and it’s been candy coated by the pretty sounds over the years.

Two, it’s a mishmash of two languages, German and English.  What sort of culture would use such a mix?  Would anyone try to be more grammatically correct and call them “ghostflies”?  What effect would that have?

Three, what if there are two species involved?  Regular fireflies, where the term is used much as we would today, and then the geistflies?  What would differentiate the species?  Color?  Behavior?  Location?  Mechanics?

…and so I decided that geistflies are an offshoot of normal fireflies.  They live in my world that has magic, sometimes wild and powerful, sometimes regimented and almost baked down to a science.  This particular bug, the geistfly, doesn’t light up for the same reasons as the firefly.  No, these geistflies react to magic and light up purely as a matter of physiology and its reaction and proximity to magic.

That relatively simple idea sparks a new series of questions, then:

Can they be used as detectors?  Do they have different reactions to different “flavors” of magic?  Where do they live?  Can they be domesticated?  What is their life cycle, and are they only sensitive to magic when they are adults?  Do they feed on magic?  How do they interact with magic users or “spells”?

Where does their energy come from to light up?  

That one spawns even more questions, like “if they tap into the surrounding magic, how would that affect their behavior?” or “if lighting up drains their own energy, would that mean they avoid magic instinctively purely as a survival mechanism?”, and answers to those would modify the answers to other questions, like using them as detectors.

Or maybe this one:  Why are they called geistflies?  Have they been linked to ghosts?  Are they most prevalent around battlefields, creepy old buildings or graveyards?  They aren’t exactly pyreflies, but maybe there are echoes in there somewhere?

I haven’t decided on answers to all of these, and really, it’s possible to dive down the rabbit hole and chase a lot of different aspects of these questions and their implications.  To me, that’s one of the great parts of creative writing and worldbuilding.  I love asking and answering those questions, and finding out how different ideas play off of each other.

This is also why I love games, where some of that incredible potential can be given to players, making for all sorts of interesting effects.

I’ll work geistflies into the stories somehow.  Even little things like this, the details that aren’t the spine of adventure, but rather the spice, are sometimes extremely useful and even important.

P.S. I just ran into this today:

http://www.thisiscolossal.com/2014/01/bioluminescent-beach-maldives/

There’s a lot you can pull from real life weirdness for fictional worldbuilding.

bio-beach2

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