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Marvel Puzzle Quest

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.

Design Notes: Geistflies

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

Seems I poked the ant nest a little, sparking a bit of a conversation with my last minipost.  Not that I’m claiming credit for anything but sparking some thoughts, though; these fine folk are doing the heavy lifting:

Syl

Rowan

Klepsacovic

I’ve commented at their places, so I’ll keep this short and hit something I haven’t touched on there, speaking of specialization and generalization.  (Since one of the tangential topics is about players and their approach to their characters, as well as how characters fit into MMO design.)

From Robert Heinlein:

A human being should be able to change a diaper, plan an invasion, butcher a hog, conn a ship, design a building, write a sonnet, balance accounts, build a wall, set a bone, comfort the dying, take orders, give orders, cooperate, act alone, solve equations, analyze a new problem, pitch manure, program a computer, cook a tasty meal, fight efficiently, die gallantly. Specialization is for insects.

Disclosure:  I work at a small gaming studio, where I’ve carved out a niche of being a multifaceted employee.  I’m primarily an artist, but I dabble in design, animation, even scripting.  I love that I can be a bit of a generalist, as it makes me valuable in more situations, and keeps things interesting.  I’m not as fine of a painter as my concept artist buddies, who paint all day every day, but I’m happy where I am.  This is also why I’m not a minor cog in a big studio like Disney or EA, where I would be a specialist.  I’ve been there, and I didn’t care for it.  That said, those specialist positions don’t threaten me… they just don’t interest me.

I also play a Druid character in World of Warcraft.  It’s the most flexible class, and I latched onto it precisely because it does allow the greatest variety in play.  And flight form.  I love that.

(Oh, and as I noted at Rowan’s place, I’d push it further and let passive and maybe even active abilities persist on the character, no matter the class.  I loved Final Fantasy Tactics for how I could build a strong character by pulling from a variety of jobs/classes.  I could keep a Ninja ability on my Knight, and it was great fun.  I’d love to see that in an MMO.)

It’s been a great 2013, with our two Kickstarter projects doing well, thank you everyone!  We’re still shipping out the Tinker Decks and the Tinker Dice, but we’re also looking forward to what else we may be able to do.  To that end, we’d like to get some feedback from those of you who might be interested in what we’re plotting.  (And if you’re one of the kind souls who come here for my other assorted posts about gaming, game design, art and photography, I’ll do more of those, too.  I’ve been itching to do some “regular” blogging.  Lots of ideas rattling around here.  This Kickstarter stuff might just be static, sorry, but we’ll get some more signal in here, too.)

So, first and foremost, we’re planning a new campaign just for the Gearchips that we offered in the Tinker Deck campaign.  We do have a few leftovers, but there is some interest in more.

These Gearchips are poker chip sized, ready for play with the decks… or whatever else.  My kids just love playing with little metal gears, and they can serve well as tokens in a variety of games.  They are 39mm, so they can even stand in as wreck markers in WarMachine for 40mm base units or the like.  We’ll fire that up in the next month or so, since a lot of the groundwork is ready to go.  We need to run a campaign because we still have to make sure we have enough interest to get a “print run” of the coins.  We’re not yet far enough ahead of the curve to just go get more coins and hope the demand happens later.

Secondly, we’re planning a set of Gearchip-like game coins.  Specifically, they will be gear-edged coins, all built to mesh with each other, no matter which denomination.  They will have square holes in the center for use either as driver gears with a square axle, or to be able to turn freely on a round axle.  They can function in any game or situation that calls for coins or chips of different denominations (say, 7 Wonders, Race for the Galaxy or Magic the Gathering), or as parts to a machine, albeit a simple, low powered one.  These won’t be highly hardened, tempered, true machine-ready gears, just toys.  Still, that’s enough to have fun with.

We have some questions on these, though.  What sort of metal finish?  How to simplify the sale of them in batches, while still allowing some customizability to allow for use in a variety of games and situations?  We’ve been very impressed with the Gearchip coins, and we want to see how we can riff on the idea.  If you’ve a moment, we’d love some answers to this survey or comments down below.  (For all the surveys, you can select more than one option if you wish.)

Third, we’re looking at producing another deck.  We had a lot of fun with the Tinker Deck, and have other ideas we’d like to experiment with, if it’s worth it.  We’re not at all sure that we’ll go with Bicycle as the printer again, though.  They do good work, no doubt, and they are really good people to work with, but the print run of 2500 or so decks is a significant monetary hurdle.  It’s not impossible, to be sure, but there are other options that we’re considering.  These, of course, don’t carry the brand name or the instant quality assurance and recognition, which can be a different sort of barrier.  If you’ve an opinion (or recommendation) on printers, please let us know.

Also, while we’re brainstorming, how about these options?

We’ve also considered making the Tinker pair of decks available in plastic, though that will definitely mean going with a different printer.  We’re not seriously looking at Kem custom cards, as their prices are prohibitive.  We’re looking at non-US printers for this (unless someone in the ‘States can compete).

Speaking of reprints, we did order some extras of the Tinker Dice, but if there’s enough demand, we may well do another campaign for those to get another batch going… though we’d spice it up a bit by offering new finishes.  We’d simplify the ordering scheme, though, since it was overly complex this last time.

We’re also seriously considering rebooting the initial, failed, plastic Tinker Dice campaign, though we acknowledge that metal dice just seem to fit the theme better… and are in some ways, just plain cooler.  Still, plastic dice have their charms, and are less likely to destroy your gaming table.  They would be less costly, too.

There’s also a temptation to do some sort of token set for wargaming… but we need to figure out the best approach for that.  Some of those templates are big, and might get prohibitively expensive to do in metal.

So thanks for chiming in, and for your support thus far!

…and we’ll get back to a game design post here in a little bit.  There’s this one on worldbuilding I’ve had in mind for a while now…

Tribes, Factions and War

So… PAX is ruffling feathers with their “diversity” panel.  Seems like comments around the web range from outraged to offended to offensive to dismissive.  Coincidentally, a few days earlier, I made a comment on diversity in literature over at tor.com (#7) that pretty much covers what I think about diversity and how I’m fond of MLK’s dream, and ran into a person (comment #8) who espouses a position that I find… baffling.  I suppose that their position is where Affirmative Action comes from, though, and I’ve always thought that to be deeply flawed.

It seems that a lot of it comes down to what I think of as tribalism.  You know, the human reflex to want to associate with those who are like you, or who are perceived as like you, and shun those that are not.  That “other” guy isn’t part of the tribe, so he isn’t to be trusted.  It filters into everything, from politics to gaming.  World of Warcraft is one easy example to point to, with their strict divide between factions, even to the point of enforcing it on otherwise genial Pandaran characters.  It’s an easy thing to leverage in game design (and psychology); whip up some fury against the Other, and the emotional argument can stay ahead of logic and evidence.

For the Horde!  Go, go, Alliance!  …or whatever.  (And ultimate victory goes to the cabal pulling the strings or jockeying for money or power, never the people doing the fighting.)

The whole core of “diversity” as a concept enhances the subconscious categorization of tribes, since everyone gets tagged and filed away in neat little categories.  It fosters continued contention as factions jockey for position and prominence.  It has always seemed to me to be Sisyphian, or perhaps Schroedingerish, where the “cure” perpetuates and even creates the problem.

When it comes to games, though, there’s an extra wrinkle.  Some people play games and imagine themselves in the game, and want their game avatars to represent them.  They want to connect with the characters on a personal identity level.  This isn’t how I play games or read books, but it’s an understandable approach.

In fiction, this is less of an issue since books aren’t assumed to have a high level of interactability.  Games, though, bank on giving players some level of autonomy, so it makes sense that players would also want their identity to be a part of that.  I don’t care about it as a player, but it’s something game designers should keep in mind because some players do care.

For a point of reference, two of my favorite books in my teens were The Blue Sword and Sabriel, despite being neither a necromancer nor a kelar-gifted horseback warrior.  I loved the heroines of those stories for what they did, and their gender and other “diversity” flags didn’t matter.  (In fact, to this day, it sticks out to me that there’s a bit in Sabriel where the lead character thinks a bit about her period.  It just seemed shoehorned in to show she missed her mother and to bracket her age… and that she’s a she.)  Rather, they were fascinating characters with interesting choices in intriguing scenarios, and I learned about life seeing them grow, even though I didn’t really identify myself with either of them.  I didn’t need to.  To quote Dumbledore, “It is our choices, Harry, that show what we truly are, far more than our abilities.

In games, we are given the ability to make choices.  I think this is crucial to the whole point of making a game in the first place.  It seems to me that choices are the best vector to really look at diversity.  I do love a Final Fantasy and its plucky band of teenagers and token minority characters out to save the world via weird leveling up schemes and oddball weapons, but it’s trite storytelling sometimes.

So… it’s not something that really bugs me, this push for diversity, except that I think it embraces the wrong priority.  I think that a greater diversity of motivations, choices, conundrums and consequences are the far more important direction for creators to address.  With luck, as the medium matures, this will happen naturally… though given the PAX kerfluffle and that quota-based mindset evinced in the tor.com article, I’m not sure that it will happen significantly quickly or profoundly.

I thought this worth noting:

Allods Online is experimenting with letting players change the class of their character.

I endorse this game design, though their implementation is timid, expensive, and extremely limited.  I’d love to see this as a crack in the MMO design gestalt.  It’s a simple little thing, but it could create some interesting ripples.

Tinker Dice in hand!

We now have the Tinker Dice in hand!  We’ll be shipping them out to those who ordered only Tinker Dice.  The Gearpunk Dice are still in processing (I emailed the company again last night to get a timetable and photos… we’ll pass along what we learn), so we’ll send those out later, along with the Tinker Dice for anyone who ordered some of each.

Thanks for your patience!

IMG_2644 IMG_2645 IMG_2646 IMG_2647

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