A Return to World of Warcraft

As anyone who’s listened to more than an episode or two of the Aggrochat podcast can verify, I have what you might call Strong Feelings about World of Warcraft. I’ve been all over the spectrum with the game, and have landed in a kind of complex position. Possibly worth mentioning, if the post title didn’t give it away: I’ve been playing WoW again, a little bit, and it’s given me some context and ability to articulate how I feel about the game. Maybe you feel similarly.

2016-09-21_2-47-40

A few major different thought bubbles form when WoW comes up:

First, and importantly (though it’s something that often gets dismissed so I can move onto the parts that I find more interesting), WoW is definitively an excellent game. There is a reason it is as successful as it is, and quite frankly any attempt to deny that it’s a great game is simply blindness. It isn’t without flaws, and there are other reasons to dislike it, but it’s the pinnacle of a certain type of game that competitors have tried to top for a decade and failed. It has more than ten years of evolution, to the point where it’s reached that magic MMO point of being multiple games all at the same time, all appealing to different people and bringing them all together into one place.

Second, WoW has a lot of history. It has, quite frankly, an unwieldy, overwhelming amount of history that is scattered throughout its playerbase. Some things have to give somewhere, and WoW has made it choices as far as what it wants to give up to make the game more focused and less crushed under its own weight. It knows it’s alienated some of its players with these choices, and it’s okay with that. I’m one of those players.

Third, WoW is dated. It felt dated when I last played in Pandaria, and four years later and many other games, coming back to WoW feels like installing an old, nostalgic title, even though it just released a new expansion. It’s the kind of thing that’s hard to see if you haven’t played many other, similar games, but there are a lot of little details and quirks that have become de rigeur in online games at this point that WoW feels very behind in. Movement is one of the biggest ones. Most online RPGs now have quick, dodgy movement as a core mechanic, and usually many, many other baseline, easy to use movement tools. Ground-targeted short-range teleports are standard, characters stick to the ground when they move, slow-falling (or removal/elimination of falling damage) is implemented in a wide variety of ways, gap-closers and gap-openers are commonplace, the list goes on. WoW has had very tight, very responsive-feeling controls since its creation, but it hasn’t kept up with movement options. Most interesting to me here is the Demon Hunter, a class that, for no extra cost, gets double-jump and a gliding ability, as well as multiple forward dashes, a backward dash, and at least one targeted teleport (albeit tied to another ability and on a lengthy cooldown). The Demon Hunter feels far more modern than any of the other classes, and it’s shocking to me that there wasn’t a similar revamping of movement for every class in the game, not just the one new one. Add onto that little quality-of-life things like a lack of one-button looting, no talk-to-NPC or quest-acceptance keybindings, and a constant need to click into the gameworld rather than letting smart-targeting handle that for you makes the UI feel clunky, even with (fundamentally required) addons.

As an offshoot of the game being dated, there are a lot of places where the fidelity is surprisingly low. Few if any characters move their mouths when they speak, animations are jerky and don’t flow into one another, most armor is just a texture painted on one of a small number of models, with a couple of exceptions (shoulders) that stand out and bear the weight of a character’s appearance. It’s a throwback to when games pushed the limits on hardware frequently, and WoW could play on virtually anything. As the desperate need to keep up PC upgrades just to play games have slowed down thanks to console gaming (which is pretty much a good thing for everyone, certainly PC gamers’ wallets), lots of games have caught up to a modern hardware standard, and WoW, despite touch-ups where it can, sits pretty far back as far as visual fidelity goes. Playing WoW, FFXIV, GW2, Blade and Soul, and ESO in rapid succession really makes the fidelity more apparent, which brings me to the next big thought.

Fourth, while graphics aren’t everything and fidelity doesn’t necessarily make or break a game, the lower fidelity and lack of ability to do subtle, nuanced graphical effects means that WoW has a very hard time being subtle. NPCs to talk to and objects to interact with stand out garishly and blatantly; the game basically shouts at you where to go and what to do. Not a problem when there’s a possible chance you might miss something, but considering the fairly few quest types in the game (kill X, click on X, talk to X) and how many of them you do (I’ve done at least a hundred quests just going from level 100 to level 106), it starts to feel like every quest is a tutorial.

It’s a big thing that bugs me about the play experience. In roughly the same timeframe I’ve been playing WoW, I’ve also been playing Guild Wars 2. I’ve gotten one WoW character from 98 to 102 (Demon Hunter), and one character from 100 to 106 (Monk). I’ve gotten two characters from 40 to 80 in GW2, quite a bit of progression on multiple others, and still had time to spend unlocking masteries and completing the lengthy main story on my existing level 80 character. One of the big things that WoW used to pummel older MMOs into the ground — its relatively quick, painless levelling — now feels slow and ponderous, and like I have very little freedom. The game feels like a slave to its own paradigm, adding ten levels because That Is What Expansions Do without making those ten levels meaningful in any real way. Indeed, everything scales to your level, so the levelling process feels even more meaningless and like a bizarre chore you have to do if you want to play with your friends. I don’t seem to be learning anything in the 10-level process to prepare me for endgame, either; I haven’t gotten any new abilities since level 100 (my Artifact weapon skill) and I haven’t seen any meaningful enemy mechanics to learn how to counter. In a four hour play session, I got my GW2 Thief from 62 to 80 and maxed out his crafting skill from 0 to 500, completed a map, and got a full set of level 80 gear to be going on with, while also doing some character hopping and some story quests. In the same four hour play session in WoW, I got from (the end of) 102 to 106… and I was a lot more focused in WoW.

Fifth and finally, tied to that last paragraph above, I’m intensely frustrated by what WoW represents in the gaming space. In achieving a stranglehold on the market, it’s had a severe chilling effect on everything else in the genre. What was once a widely varied, highly experimental genre is now… much less so. If I want to play an RPG with some progression and some group mechanics and actually have anyone to play with, I’m playing WoW. I’ve wanted to give group content in other games a shot basically since I picked them back up and haven’t been able to, but the sheer number of people playing WoW means I’ve wound up in groups virtually every time I’ve logged in. I feel like I’m renting friends on a monthly basis, where if I don’t pay up and log in, I don’t get to play games with my friends, and I better enjoy the game they’re all playing or I don’t get to play along. I haven’t decided which feels lonelier: playing a game I enjoy with just too few people to be able to do the more interesting stuff or playing a game that everyone else seems to like and I don’t. Currently I’m doing both, in the hopes that together I can fill the hole that neither one can fill separately.

For now, I’m playing WoW. I’m legitimately enjoying some parts of it, but the shine is wearing off. I can predict the stories, I can see the shape of the systems, I feel like I’m well past being surprised. Maybe I’m wrong, and I think it’s important for me to brush up on games that are relevant even if I don’t personally enjoy them. As was true in Pandaria, the storylines that don’t involve the Alliance or the Horde are often very good, and there are plenty of cute jokes littered throughout. Class mechanics have become far less unwieldy (FFXIV could learn something about button efficiency) and there are plenty of nostalgic nods to previous eras of WoW.

I’m just not as invested as everyone else is, and I know how that story ends. I’ve seen it happen enough times by now. I’m already on the edge of it now– I know I’m going to check out when the game asks more of me than I’m invested enough to give, and then doesn’t let me play meaningfully with my friends if I don’t do whatever it takes, be that a gear grind or a rep grind or whatever. I’m already behind in that regard, simply by dint of not being max level and able to do whatever they call max-level dungeons now, and it’s hard to work up the wherewithal to grind more quests to get there. In a move I find personally extremely frustrating, it became incredibly easy to run normal-mode dungeons with higher-level friends, but the exp gain from those is pretty paltry, so levelling through dungeons is infeasible. So, I grind for now, trying to catch up, so I can play with people I know and like and don’t get to play often enough with.

I just wish this didn’t feel like the only choice I have if I want to play games with some of my friends.

How Many Songs Need To Be Good?

I had an off-the-cuff thought during the podcast this weekend that keeps resurfacing in my head. We were talking about music, and I asked how many songs off of an album needed to be good for that album to feel like it was worth it. Pretty much universally, the answer was “about three”. It’s been sitting with me ever since.

CDs

I’ve been looking at media in general, and how much of it I have to really like to stay engaged. There’s a song on an album I own that’s three minutes and fifteen seconds long. At about the 2:45 mark, it cuts into a different vocalist for a segment that I really dislike. It’s jarring and ruins the track for me. I now skip that track entirely, even though I like the first two and a half minutes of it. In the same vein, I haven’t played MGSV in days for a relatively banal reason. It’s not any of the objectionable things in the game, it’s that I have a mission where the drop off point is way too far away, and I just can’t be bothered to go through the hassle.

So, I need about 25% of a music album to feel like it’s worth it, but if the last thirty seconds of a track isn’t to my liking, I skip it. I am willing, and in fact expect, to sit through the first few episodes of an anime before making a decision, yet if a game hits a lull, it becomes harder and harder for me to come back to it (see also: grinding of any kind). My tolerance for parts I don’t like varies widely from medium to medium, and sometimes wildly within the same medium.

For any given bit of entertainment, there’s a threshold where the parts I don’t like outweigh the parts I do, and I check out. It seems simple and obvious, but it’s also something that’s gone entirely unevaluated. What are the exceptions? Can I predict this? I feel like if I can understand what the mix is like, I can better understand both myself and the media I consume.

Trying to pin it down is frustratingly elusive, though. When I try to analyze my thoughts across media, I find myself immediately making excuses, about how one thing is different in some specific way. I know enough about psychology to know that there’s almost certainly a pattern I’m not seeing– or more likely, not letting myself see– but knowing it’s there and trying to make sense of it are two very different things.

I say a lot that good design is about knowing what people haven’t yet realized they like. The real magic of good design is being able to elicit a positive, wholly unexpected reaction from someone, and I feel like if I could tap into my own mental hangups and processes, I could start to get a handle on how to better approach design. If I could precisely (or even roughly) pinpoint where people check out, where a piece of media loses people, I could develop better intuition for how to avoid those pain points.

I am opposed, fundamentally, to the idea of “I’ll know it when I see it” design. It asks a designer to magically intuit something that the requester can’t even articulate. It’s like telling a chef to “make some food, I’ll know if I like it once I try it”. It’s why I started taking notes on the things that I loved and didn’t expect to, and the places where I find myself checking out of something. I’ve tried to get better at articulating precisely why I like or dislike something, because it’s from those evaluations that I learn and grow, and can tell other people what I like and don’t like. It’s meant I need to have a constant mental cycle active, monitoring my own reactions as they happen, and drawing connections. When I talk about my “designer brain” always being on, that’s what I’m referring to. It’s comforting at the same time as it keeps me from ever fully engaging with something.

I’ve gotten so used to that background process running smoothly that it’s jarring when it runs into something it can’t or won’t process. I’m still mulling over the idea from before– how much of something can be bad or uninteresting before I stop caring? Why and how does it change across media, even across different entries in the same medium? Why do I get frustrated at stretches of fruitless-feeling running around in MGSV and, in that frustration, switch over to trying fruitlessly to solve challenge puzzles in The Witness?

Building a Bushido Board (Part 4: The Best Laid Plans…)

So, it took a while to actually get all of the pieces I needed for this board. Specifically, I last posted about this board almost two months ago and it’s taken me this long to finally obtain everything. This weekend was a lot of painting and adaptation work, but I’m pretty happy with the end result:

13939524_10100941046751568_3146829479885209600_n

You’ll notice a few things at a glance, first and foremost how my measurements were off. I’d originally planned a short piece, a long piece, and a gate on each side. The actual measurements of the pieces put a section of wall perilously close to (and for a short distance, inside) the stream. What looked like reasonable measurements on paper turned out not to fit in reality.

SO! Back to the drawing board as far as layout goes. I had a few games with friends over the weekend and played around with some board layouts. I knew I was going to need this iteration step anyway to get to a good place with the board, and since all of my original preplanning went kind of out the window, more thought was going to need to go into layout before I finalized anything.

The layout above, as it turns out, is a disaster. The whole map bottlenecks around a single gate, and players starting inside the walls have a huge advantage in most scenarios, while starting in opposite corners makes for a lot of really awkward positioning and very few compelling decision points.

Kodra helped me work out an alternate layout, suitable for at least trying:

14095785_10100942888510668_2792243510842982805_n

It shortens the wall and opens up that quarter of the board a bit more. This is a shot taken after some more work has been done, so there are trees on the board, but you can see the rough similarities to my original design. One wall piece goes unused, but the space works a lot better.

In the first iteration, the larger building on the left was swapped with the small tiled-roof building in the bottom-center, but we quickly found that that made for a significant bottleneck problem between the wall and that building.

One major thing that came out of it over the course of three games was that different lists would approach the space differently, which is exactly what I want, and there were multiple ways to set up; both sets of opposite corners are interesting and compelling (also good). A big takeaway is that the side of the river opposite the main walled complex needed something to make it more defensible– it’s wide open with no cover, making it a fairly poor starting location and vulnerable to ranged attackers. It made movement on that side fairly predictable– deploy as far forward as possible, run to use the big wall as cover because you have no other options. It made an inordinate amount of play happen right around the wall corner, which isn’t bad (bottlenecks aren’t automatically awful), but would really cut into the replay value of the board.

14068155_10100942888505678_32415168692802026_n

Looking at the board from a different angle yields a better result, though we didn’t play on this layout.

A couple of physical takeaways on the board– while I’d hoped that the roof slats would make it reasonable to perch a model on the roof, it was more precarious than I would’ve liked. C’est la vie. More annoying was the smooth surface of the board tiles made for models sliding around pretty easily, which isn’t ideal. Luckily I’d picked up some grass flock and spray adhesive, and you can see patches of darker grass breaking up the simply painted board surface. This is more for traction than anything. I also noted that the stream was VERY shallow, and tended to make it awkward to put models in there. Making it deeper became a goal, just for more flat surface for mini placement.

I’m pretty happy with the layout above, but I also don’t think I’m in a place where I can call it permanent. This is a bit touchy, since I want to also place down foliage and there’s no good way to do that and still have the foliage move around. However, there are some predictable terrain needs that almost don’t care what the wall/building layout is:

1.) The riverbanks need cover; the stream area is too open in general.

2.) The opposite bank is way too open, and needs some kind of cover.

There’s virtually no building placement that changes these; the biggest thing is putting a building on the opposite bank which breaks up the space but doesn’t provide a lot of playable cover, just a dead space that blocks line of sight. I have a bunch of bamboo trees which work really nicely for terrain (because they’re essentially just sticks, meaning it’s easy to maneuver minis around them) which are going to pretty much all go into service of making the opposite riverbank a bamboo forest. In addition, I have a number of cat-tails to plant on the riverbanks, so the non-building side of the river will ultimately have a lot of usable cover, probably more than the building space itself.

14051724_10100943109792218_8591199832558276874_n

I like this because my biggest issue has always been the building-side having a clear advantage. Now the river-side is really appealing as well, perhaps more so.

I’ve also placed four trees on the board. While these are static elements, I can still move and rotate the tiles and change up the board layout pretty easily even though the trees aren’t movable. For now, I don’t want to make any other elements static, because I’m still reworking the concept of static terrain.

One of my goals for building a static terrain board is that I can make it really look great and purposeful if I place everything in specific places. I’m finding that even without a static board, I can achieve surprisingly high quality visuals, even without significant pieces in place, like this:

14022212_10100943109857088_553845856070996661_n

This approach really needs a road to look “right”, but even without one, it looks acceptable. It’s not the highest possible fidelity, but I’m starting to look closely at the tradeoff I’d be making for that level of fidelity and wondering if it’s worth it. In carefully choosing certain low-impact static elements (the trees), I can still have a highly modular board without necessarily giving up appearance.

What I expect is that as I play more on the board, I’ll place more and more static terrain pieces, iterating on the design and determining which pieces move around a lot and which don’t. If I can, at any point, lock down a wall layout, I almost don’t need anything else to be static because I can simply put down roads and let the buildings sort themselves out. What I suspect, however, is that the walls are going to prove to be the most influential part of the board as far as play, and so they’ll have the most iteration before something is settled on.

14022261_10100943109807188_9149549147678796909_n

In the meantime, I’m surprised at how well the whole thing has turned out, since I’ve never before built a board or even really worked on terrain. It’s a gorgeous board thus far, and I’m really happy with the results, even if it’s not the static board I was shooting for.

Building a Bushido Board (Part 3: How We’re Using The Space)

Adding missions or scenarios to any kind of competitive game helps solidify gameplay and encourage movement and disruption. It’s great for the health of a game– if you’ve ever played a game that’s simply deathmatching, it gets a bit boring unless it’s got a really, REALLY excellent combat system and levels to play in. Most minis games devolve into all-out brawls without missions, and become kind of samey. Missions help break that up, so for this Bushido board project, we’re going to look at how we’re actually going to use the board.

13501791_10100889763543528_4042279847920009098_n

Bushido has three types of scenario layouts, each with two scenarios that are played on them. This makes it fairly easy to look at the positioning of objectives and get an idea of how you’ll interact with them, as well as what kind of boards they’re looking at.

Mission Type 1: Opposite Corners

The layout of this kind of objective is really simple: deployment is on opposite corners of the table and there are no special objects placed on the board. It looks like this:

IMG_1845

The pictured mission is called “The Envoy”, and it’s conceptually fairly straightforward. Your opponent nominates one of your units as a Very Important Model (VIM), and you nominate one of theirs. You score if your VIM has received fewer wounds than your opponent’s, you score if you draw first blood on your opponent’s VIM, and you score if your VIM is closer to the opponent’s deployment zone than your opponent’s VIM is to yours.

This is a neat scenario that promotes motion across the table. A really great board for this mission will put you directly in the path of your opponent while also providing alternate paths to try to sneak your VIM around.

The other scenario using this layout is called “The Messenger”. In The Messenger, you secretly choose one of your own units to be the Messenger. You score if your Messenger is the only one still alive at the end of the game, you score if you kill your opponent’s VIM on a turn yours is still alive, and you score if you get your VIM to the opponent’s deployment zone and reveal it before your opponent has done the same.

It’s a similar concept with a bit more opportunity for mind games. You’re still encouraged to move through the space, and the same kind of design tenets that make for a good Envoy board also make for a good Messenger board.

Both of these make me favor the square-walled board:

testterrain

The two roughly equivalent gates make for interesting movement through the space. The river can be a serious spoiler to these missions, by putting the player behind the river far behind if the river impedes movement. It’s a serious enough problem for that side that I think the river winds up needing to just be decorative, rather than an explicit terrain element. Alternately, it may need PLENTY of crossing points or it just becomes super punitive.

With that in mind, though, I do really like the square-walled board for both of those scenarios. The long-walled layout isn’t bad, but it’s less interesting, because you’re just going to get into a big fight in the center, and unless you have special movement abilities, you’re going to get stuck in and around the one gate that both players have to use.

Let’s look at the other scenario layouts.

Mission Type 2: Three Center-Line Objectives

This is a slightly more complex setup, in that it requires some objectives (usually markers of some kind, urns or graves or altars or whatever) to be placed in specific places on the board. It looks like this:

IMG_1847

The pictured scenario is called “Seigyo” (制御, “control”). It has three objectives along the center line,  two that are six inches from the sides and one twelve inches from both sides, in the center of the board. The scenario goes on for 6 turns, and at the ends of turns 2, 4, and 6 the player controlling the most objectives scores. The objectives start as Neutral and can be shifted one degree per action: Friendly <-> Neutral <-> Enemy. Each shift will move it one degree closer to Friendly.

This scenario leads to fighting along the centerline, at each of the objectives. It’s fairly resource-intensive to shift objectives, so you’re not going to deviate much from that center line except with dedicated flanking units. Most likely the action is going to be focused on the dead center of the board, while the outlying two objectives are held by opposite players.

The other scenario using this layout is called “The Idols”. It is also six turns long and involves taking control of three centerline objectives, and scores at the ends of turns 2, 4, and 6. The difference between this and Seigyo is subtle: Every time a player scores, their opponent chooses one of the objectives controlled by the scoring player to remove. This means that not only are there fewer objectives every other turn (assuming anyone scores), it also means that the player who scored loses their lead.

Rather than take-and-hold, this scenario is much more dynamic and mobile, but it’s still operating along that center line. Most of the play is going to focus around those center three objectives, but unlike Seigyo, it’s probably going to shift rather than focus on the center objective.

Looking at the board layouts I have, the player behind the walls in the square-walled layout has a distinct advantage, with two of the centerline objectives within “their” walls. That having been said, the center objective winds up right between the two gates, which is where fighting naturally occurs anyway. I’d want to ensure that the left-side objective favors the player starting on the river side of the board, either by providing advantageous cover or a blocking building or something.

On the other hand, there’s the long-walls layout:

testterrain2

The small house would have to move in this layout, but it’s mostly okay, though it favors the river-side player who can go straight for all three objectives, while the player behind the walls has to maneuver around the gates. This could theoretically be fixed to some extent by putting the two gates next to one another, but that creates an awkward dead area around the upper left corner. It goes from being a slight advantage for the walls player on the square-walled layout to a HEAVY advantage to the river-side player on the long-walled layout.

Two more scenarios to look at:

Mission Type 3: Six Objectives in a Centered Hexagon

By far the most complex setup for scenarios in Bushido, these scenarios have both a more complex layout with six objectives AND more complex mechanics than “interact with objective” or “move to area”. Here’s what it looks like:

IMG_1846

The pictured scenario is “Depletion”, and it’s a bit complex. First, six objectives, placed as shown. The two closest to you are “Friendly”, the two in the middle are “Neutral”, and the two furthest from you are “Enemy”. Scoring is simply “who has the most Scenario Points”, which requires that you understand the “Prayer (5)” interaction.

For a mission with Prayer (X), you get X prayer tokens. A model can take a Prayer action while touching one of the objectives and spends one of the Prayer tokens, and you immediately score a number of points based on the objective– 1 for Friendly, 2 for Neutral, and 3 for Enemy. Basically, you have 5 shots at maximizing your score. As a final twist, whichever the most often used objective was gets removed each time VPs are scored, forcing you to scramble around to find a new objective.

It’s less complicated than it seems once you know what’s up, but this scenario takes you all over the board. You’re probably going to be switching strategies every turn, just based on what happened. Let’s look at the other one.

The other scenario is “Keii” (敬意, or “respect”). It’s functionally the same as “Depletion”, except that instead of an objective vanishing every other turn, on turns 3 and 5 both players’ scores are reset. Whereas Depletion forces you to move around a lot, Keii is more about take-and-hold. Otherwise, it’s the same set of mechanics.

These two are interesting as far as boards go. I REALLY dislike the long-walled layout for these. It puts four objectives where the river-side player can easily reach them (very rough placement, just for visuals):

testterrain2hexobjectives

On top of that, one of the objectives inside the walls is basically right on top of the gate. This board hugely favors the river-side player for these objectives, with the two by the river and the one by the small house being pretty much free grabs, whereas the wall-side player has a nasty uphill battle to reach objectives other than the ones behind their wall and is looking at splitting their force pretty unpleasantly.

Let’s see if the other layout is better:

testterrainhexobjectives

Okay, that’s interesting. Four objectives outside the wall, two inside the wall. The samurai house location is kind of a problem, note for later. Still, there are interesting deployment options for both players and a roughly even spread of accessible objectives. Importantly, that small house is a problem again, favoring the wall-side player more than the river-side player. Will need to address that, same as the three-centerline-objective layout.

One Final Test

We’ve looked at all of these for one orientation. I already don’t like the alternate orientation of the long-walled layout, but I should look at the alternate orientation of the square-walled layout to see if it works. Red for the centerline objectives, white for the hexagon ones:

testterrainaltlayout

The alternate-corners approach is actually much more interesting, going from the bottom left to the upper right. You get some interesting choices of taking the river side or the building side, but neither player really “controls” the walled area.

The three-centerline-objectives layout is about as functional in this orientation as in the other one, which is fine. Some effort would have to be made to make the rightmost objective favor the bottom-side player here, but otherwise it’s pretty reasonable. A note for later, to make sure the overall layout works both ways. The impact shouldn’t be large.

The six-hexagonal-objectives layout is actually rather nice in this layout. Same two-in/four-out setup, though my very rough layouts don’t make that entirely clear (and the picture isn’t perfect anyway), but it offers a very similar experience in both orientations. My inclination is that the two would play roughly evenly, which is great. I almost like this orientation better than the other for this mission, just for the interesting flanking opportunities.

After looking at the scenarios, I am much happier with the square-walled layout. Here’s my list of tweaks to it:

–Small house needs to be moved or replaced to favor the river-side player, has little effect on alternate orientation.

–Right-side objective needs to favor non-walled-side player in alternate orientation.

–Samurai House needs to move to accommodate objective placement.

Pretty small number of changes, all things considered.

Building a Bushido Board (Part 2: Stage 1 Iteration)

Yesterday I talked about how I was working on a miniatures game table, but trying to apply video game style level design tenets to it. I want to delve a bit more into that today. Here’s the board again, what I’m going to call “version 1.0”:

testterrain

I’ll see if I can lay out how I got to this design. The first part is the tiles– they mostly dictate the landscape, because they come from a particular retailer and I can’t change the ones I get. So, we’re looking at two mostly flat grassy tiles and two tiles with a stream running through them.

Bushido is a primarily melee-oriented game, but there are ranged attacks. On an open, flat table, battles tend to occur exclusively around objectives or, depending on the scenario, in the middle of the board. You get a pretty standard scrum right on the center line, because that’s how action flows. Ranged attacks are inordinately powerful in this kind of scenario, because there’s nowhere to hide and no cover.

The first piece, for me, is the wall. It cuts the board, broadly, into thirds and makes it slightly asymmetric. The player starting behind the walls is in a more defensible position, but the player starting outside of the walls has more maneuvering room and better board control. The front corner of the wall extends past the center point of the board because if it didn’t, we’d just get a center-board scrum again. The natural flow of the board means that fighting will happen right around the gates– both players have to travel a roughly equivalent distance to reach them, and they’re natural choke points. I like this both because it splits that center scrum into two (flanking is a real thing in Bushido, so you don’t want to commit your whole force to one gate only to get flanked through the other) and also because it thematically makes sense that a battle over a walled building would focus on the entry points.

It’s important to remember that Bushido has two types of deployment: corners, marked on the map, but also along opposite edges. Any board I create has to support both types of deployment at a minimum, and ideally can support any opposite-corner or opposite-side deployment.

There’s an alternate wall layout, using the same pieces:

testterrain2

We’ll call this 1.1, or “long wall” versus “square wall”. The long wall can only be oriented as seen above or in a mirrored orientation; the buildings and bridge are also movable and I’ve just placed them in more or less sensible places. We can tweak these as we go to improve the board.

It does a couple of things better than the first revision, and a few things less well. Deployment is a lot more even; being behind the walls isn’t as much of an advantage anymore. There’s also no real choice for the player behind the walls to deploy partly outside of the walls if not deploying in the corners. The board is a lot more open, and the walled area is still defensible but largely less relevant.

There are a bunch of things I don’t like about this layout. The first is that the only relevant gate is the one right near the corner deployment area. The gate in the corner is doing no one any favors, and might as well just be dead space. Unless there are scenarios with objectives in areas opposite the deployment areas (spoiler: there aren’t) that space is basically going to be dead space.

Second, deploying in that corner with the second gate SUCKS. You’re really badly boxed in while your opponent basically has the run of the board, and you don’t even have the advantage of being in a defensible starting position.

On the other hand, this could work better for certain scenarios. There are a couple of layouts, but before we can refine them, we’ll need to see what kinds of scenarios we might play. That’ll be next.

Building a Bushido Board (Part 1: Cross-Media Level Design)

Lately I’m working on a table for a new miniatures game I’m trying, called Bushido. It’s an interesting accompaniment to Infinity– whereas Infinity is futuristic black ops and a huge emphasis on ranged combat, Bushido is more mythic Japan and has a very strong emphasis on melee combat. Notably, it’s also played on a board a quarter of the size of an Infinity table, making things much more close-quarters.

madoko_banner

More on Bushido later (probably). What I’m really thinking about is level design. I come from a video game design background, a world of de_dust, Blood Gulch, Facing Worlds, Summoner’s Rift, Lost Temple, Warsong Gulch, and a variety of other famous maps. These maps are carefully designed, usually iterated on thousands of times, and are meant to stand up to repeated play. Summoner’s Rift is largely the same map as it was when League of Legends first launched– certain things have been tweaked over the years but the overall layout is almost entirely unchanged. You can play in that space five, ten, a hundred times and have different experiences. Team composition, strategy, adaptation, all of these change the experience on the map.

So, a Bushido board. Bushido is a miniatures game, and even the most terrain-heavy miniatures games tend to be built to be modular, and change every single game. I’ve been playing miniatures games for over a decade now and I can say with a reasonable amount of confidence that I’ve never played on the same table twice. This is considered normal. From the perspective of the video game level designer, this is kind of madness. Modularity is considered the most important thing for a set of minis game terrain– people tend to talk about “sets of terrain”, not actual boards themselves, because you just take all the pieces and assemble them on the fly into a board that you then play on once or twice and disassemble.

wargaming_table_4x4_square_tabletop_terrain_set_modular

I’ve unconsciously slipped into the same thought processes when I’ve helped out with minis terrain or built my own. You can see the usual sort of result in the above picture– it’s a textured map with distinct “objects” placed on it. Individual elements are internally themed and look good on their own, but the whole table is kind of just a space where terrain elements are placed, rather than something designed. It’s a system that’s very vulnerable to bad design– tables that are unbalanced and don’t really get improved because they don’t get any iteration. Instead you get a kind of tribal knowledge of “what makes a good table” that isn’t really universally agreed upon. Some games lean into this, suggesting that tables are laid out by the players beforehand, alternately placing terrain elements until there are “enough” on the table.

As I build my own Bushido table, I’m dissatisfied with both the non-specificity of table design in minis games but also the overall look. Minis tables are rarely beautiful, even if they contain beautiful pieces. The house in the center of the above picture looks fantastic, but it’s just plopped into the middle of the table. Now, look at Hanamura, from Overwatch:

hanamura-medkits

Just viewing it from above looks pretty nice, no? It looks like a believable space, but it’s still nuanced and playable. When you’re on the ground, you can see stuff like this:

Hanamura_001

It’s a GORGEOUS shot, and that’s entirely playable space. Everything there is serving a purpose and contributing to that portion of the level while also being aesthetically satisfying. It’s what you lose out on when you do procedural spaces. Diablo recognizes this, peppering its procedurally generated levels with “set pieces”, key areas that are laid out a specific way to accomplish a goal, but it’s still possible to see the seams; it lacks the aesthetic appeal of something totally crafted.

It makes me wonder: why can’t the same thing be done with a minis game? Shouldn’t it be possible to develop a board that’s less like randomly generated dungeons and more like Hanamura? (Note: I’m not saying that Hanamura is necessarily a pinnacle of perfect level design, but it is a fun map and it looks fantastic, and I’m not bored of playing on it repeatedly.)

Here’s what I’m starting with:

13501791_10100889763543528_4042279847920009098_n

Excuse the vertical cell phone shot, it’s bad and I feel bad. I’m considering how to design this space to be a map that’s fun to play on multiple times, and that while I may very slightly tweak it, will look mostly the same for months or years. This mostly-static design lets me make all of the terrain elements look intentional, not plopped down, really make the whole think look like an intentional space.

I need a more complete understanding of the game to accomplish this, but I don’t think it’s impossible. The fidelity of a minis game is lower than a video game, which makes the overall project easier. What I need is a good understanding of the various scenarios and how they interact with the game board. With luck, a single board will accommodate all of them, but we’ll see. I may be able to iterate on this in this space.

Here’s the layout I’m currently envisioning, with black boxes for structures (darker portions are the size of corner deployment zones):

testterrain

It’s a start. We’ll see where I end up.

Overwatch Part 1: Why Casual Is Better

Overwatch is Kind Of A Big Deal right now. Blizzard is breaking into a new IP and new genre with its super-stylized team shooter, and it’s a rather good game. It’s not a game for everyone, but I think it’s a game worth trying, because it does a bunch of things *just* differently enough to be compelling.

maxresdefault (1)

Let me cut to the chase: Overwatch is Team Fortress 2 as done by Blizzard. Same bright colour palette, same stylized art, same overall sense of winking fun while also being a tight, well-tuned shooter. The main thing it adds to Team Fortress 2 is movement, which is significant. Lots of shooters have been playing with the idea of movement as a significant verb, and Overwatch is no exception– different characters move differently and this is extremely significant. I’ve talked before about how important new verbs are to games, and while certainly a newer game, Overwatch is more fun out the gate than TF2 was, and a huge part of that is that it adds that verb. Indeed, a lot of the gunplay in Overwatch is LESS satisfying than TF2, but it matters a lot less because there are other things going on.

For a while, I’ve lamented that MMO game design has been co-opted by virtually every other genre out there while apparently learning nothing from the advances elsewhere in the industry. It’s not super surprising to me, then, that a game made by the company that basically defined MMOs for the last decade draws heavily on MMO design ethos. Overwatch feels more like a team PvP match in WoW than it does a more ‘traditional’ shooter. Working together is always important, but in Overwatch this is accomplished through abilities that work together in intuitive ways. Overwatch breaks its characters down into MMO-style roles, and even if the abilities and armaments of a given character aren’t immediately apparent, by seeing what role they’re labeled as, you can get a sense of how to play them. It’s very MOBA-esque, although significantly more intuitive than most MOBAs.

What really sets Overwatch apart, though, is the same thing that sets Heroes of the Storm apart: accessibility. Team shooters are hugely inaccessible games for the most part: an exercise in new player frustration as they die and lose repeatedly without a good sense of why or how to improve. This kind of frustrating experience is really bad for a game’s health, however much a certain player mentality really likes to say “oh, you gotta get your lumps in at first”. Trying to sell someone on something “fun” but telling them they’re going to have to suffer before they get to “the good part” is a fairly outdated mentality at this point, and Overwatch does everything it can to eliminate it.

Overwatch pops up helpful player tips constantly. It will give you tips on how to fight the character who just killed you, it will suggest team compositions, and it draws lines through the map at the start of the game so you know where you’re going. Map knowledge is important for playing the game well, but playing competently doesn’t require that you memorize every map before jumping in. Adding to this, the way maps connect together is intuitive– there aren’t a lot of obscure passageways to hunt down in order to reach hidden snipers.

Adding to this, the characters are simple but deep. There’s no ironsights aiming, virtually no weapon switching, very few complex weapon interactions, no difficult comparisons between similar weapons– what you see is what you get, and this helps the game a LOT. The nuance in each character comes naturally as you play them, not in complex pre-planning. Making a character shine often requires good teamwork, and it’s apparent how to make that happen. One character has a gigantic forward-facing shield that blocks incoming fire. It’s great for protecting an advance, since your allies can shoot through it but your enemies can’t. It leaves you open at the sides and back, though, so your team needs to cover your flanks. This is REALLY OBVIOUS the second you see this character in action, and doesn’t require some deep knowledge of the ability to function.

The sense of accessibility permeates through every level of the game’s design. The game is chock-full of positive feedback, and eliminates a LOT of standard first-person shooter tropes, especially in the UI, in order to promote teamwork and prevent the kind of statistical comparisons that create toxicity between players. There’s no kill feed, except in spectator mode, and if you pull up the scoreboard, it will show you your statistics and the current top statistics in the game, but not EVERYONE’s statistics. There’s no distinction between kills and assists. The game operates at the team level, and when it displays the top players, it shows off almost entirely random-seeming stats. If you’re losing, or failing with a given character, you can swap out during a match, in your base, rather than being stuck until the end of the match. All of this promotes as much of a positive upward spiral as possible, and keeps the game fun and intuitive.

d_va___overwatch_by_plank_69-d9gi2wo

At the same time, it’s a surprisingly deep game. Very simple characters offer a lot of nuance, especially in a group. One of my favorite characters is D. Va, a mecha pilot tank-type. Her mechanics are really simple: she has rapid-firing shotguns that are strong in close, she’s got a forward conal shield that will block incoming fire, and while her base movement is somewhat slow (slower while shooting), she has a rocket boost that lets her fly around very briefly at pretty high speed. When her mech takes fatal damage, she’s ejected and becomes a much smaller, much faster target with a surprisingly powerful and accurate sidearm– survive long enough in this form and she can resummon a new mech. Her ultimate sets off the self-destruct in her mech, creating an enormous, super-damaging explosion that will kill virtually anyone it hits (including you, if you’re too close). In practice, this creates a really slippery tank class that can absorb a shocking amount of punishment between deaths, and is a really strong flanking tank that can hit an enemy from unexpected angles and (with her ult) is great at cracking dug-in enemies. She’s a lot of fun to play because you can stay in the fight for an incredibly long time, and you’re doing very different things while in the mech vs out of it. Working together with teammates means you can push harder than other tanks, since if you go down you’re still contributing to the team on foot, and then can fairly quickly get back into a new mech at top form. Right as you break through an enemy blockade, you can swap to flanking mode and make sure your team can lock their position. Alternately, you can blow up your mech in a group of enemies as the spearhead to a big push, especially if you have another more standard tank to help out.

My initial question when I started seeing Overwatch stuff was “why would I not just play TF2?”, and over the past few days I’ve gotten a really clear answer. It’s a fun, accessible game that adds movement as a fun new dimension to an otherwise lighthearted, casual experience.

Back After A Break (Or: When The Game Stops Being Fun)

It’s been a while since I posted last, mostly because there hasn’t been a lot I really feel like saying. It turns out it helps me to take a break from posting every so often to clear my head. I hadn’t really considered this previously, because my breaks from this have coincided with fairly major life events, so it’s seemed reasonable to just stop posting for a while. This time, it was more burnout than anything.

confusion

While not posting, especially when I’ve had an unbroken string of posts for a while, there’s this weight of obligation, this feeling like I need to post something, need to write something, just to fill up space. It’s the same sense of feeling obligated to log into an MMO every day, just to “check in”. I hadn’t really connected the two before now.

Something I see a lot, and have talked to a lot of people about over the years, is burnout. It’s a huge issue in game development, and it’s a constant cycle in MMO raiding, two spheres where I’ve spent a lot of time. There’s a pervasive sense that you need to keep going, keep doing the Fun Thing, because if it’s not a Fun Thing, why did you spend so much time in it? It’s often compared to the business semi-equivalent, the concept of sunk costs, but I feel like it’s a poor comparison. Just because I’m not having fun with something *now* doesn’t mean it wasn’t fun *before*. We change, situations change, and it’s not (always) the game’s fault.

I haven’t logged into FFXIV in months now. I haven’t stopped liking that game; it’s still one of my favorite games, I just don’t feel like playing it right now. The most fun I have, the most invested I get in that game, is when there’s a nice big backlog of content to go through and get a bunch of story all at once. Getting the story in drips and drabs just gets me to lose the thread, especially when they come months apart. I’m excited about the next big thing they’re putting together, their procedurally-generated dungeon, and I’ll wait to play until that’s out and I have a bunch of stuff to catch up on.

Starting to post here again is kind of the same thing. I feel like I have things to say and comments to make, and I’ve played enough games in the interim to have more food for thought.

Feeling Out Of Things To Say

Lately my pace on this blog has slowed. I don’t know what (if any) regular readers I have who’ve noticed this, but I figured I’d at least mention it. I’ve done five days a week for a little over a year and dropped to four, then three, than now once or twice a week. Part of this is that work and class picked up and it was hard enough to juggle both while still writing weekly, but part of it is also that I feel like I don’t have a lot to say.

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

via twolittlefruits on Etsy

I’ve mentioned this before, but I don’t really like talking unless I feel like there’s something valuable for me to say, something someone else might hear or read and either think about or disagree with me or be inspired by or understand something better or whatever. I’m similar in person– I generally don’t talk unless I have something to say. Most of my posts (though not all!) have been essentially semi-academic-style essays about various topics, just more opinion-leaning than cited, credible sources. It makes me feel like I’m contributing rather than just talking.

Lately, I’ve been busy with class and haven’t been playing a lot of games– or I haven’t had a lot of Big Ideas about the ones I have been playing. I don’t have anything deep or insightful to say about Stardew Valley or Mini Metro, other than both are really great games and I enjoy them a lot.

I guess a big part of it is that I don’t know what people like to read. If you are reading this, what DO you like to read about? What makes you check this space? I’m honestly curious, because I don’t really know.

Incremental Progress

I’m playing Bloodborne with Kodra, which is a kind of self-flagellation that I generally reserve for your more serious sort of monastery rather than my living room. Still, losing this badly to a video game is an experience best shared, and to our credit we’re making slow but steady progress.

bloodborne cover

Like its Souls predecessors, Bloodborne is brutal, unrelenting, and utterly fair. It’s satisfying in a way that few games are, because you genuinely feel like some of the things you fight are impossible until you beat them and realize they’re beatable. I rarely feel like I’m fighting the controls in the game, and the enemies are numerous and varied but all message pretty well. It makes me pay attention to things I normally leave to the UI– watching the angle of attacks, watching enemy animations, watching the game, rather than a hotbar or an addon or a warning message or what have you. You run into these big, hulking person-shaped monsters pretty early on, and while the first time we ran into them we died horribly, the second time I was able to pay attention to their movements and figure out how to simply not be where they were striking.

It genuinely feels like I’m developing skill as I play the game, and part of it is perception, which I like a lot. I can get better at the game just by watching how enemies fight, so even if I lose, I learn– and I lose a lot. It’s worth noting that we’ve played for probably ten or twelve hours at this point and we haven’t beaten any bosses. We’re not great at this game, and neither of us have played much of the previous ones.

It’s still a great couch co-op game, in the sense that we trade off each time we die, or (more recently) sometimes when we’re looking at an enemy that one of us is better at fighting than the other. With our powers combined, we’re almost a single competent player, it’s awesome. One thing I’ve noticed is that the game rewards boldness a lot more than the previous ones. My previous experience with Demon’s Souls was hiding behind a shield and moving through the world in fear, very defensively. Bloodborne rewards me for acting boldly, dashing through that group of enemies and going back into the fight when I take a hit rather than hiding in a corner to lick my wounds and heal.

I also really like the little notes that are left around. Seeing other players try to string together warnings with the limited word/phrase selection is fantastic, and we’ve gotten quite a number of handy hints from them. It makes the whole game feel like a shared experience, and the blend of pre-emptively helpful (“reeks of trap!” and “remember hidden path”) and post-tragedy frustration (“vile crows” and “alas, ambush”) messages are often really funny. I think my favorite so far is, at the edge of a fatal-looking drop, simply “time for common sense”.

There’s something I love about people getting creative with heavily constrained communication. The ‘helpful’ messages littered throughout Bloodborne and the Souls games would be nowhere near as fun if players could simply type things out. Instead, the strict, limited word selection and short length makes for some delightful moments, especially when you run into a note that you know is trying to tell you something important, but you have no idea what it’s trying to say. Sometimes messages are just trolling you, but you’re not sure how until later.

The best note I’ve seen isn’t actually in Bloodborne– it was in Demon’s Souls. At the center of a bridge, filled with enemies and that a dragon would continually fly over and breathe fire on, there was a note. It wasn’t reachable for ages– you had to kill the dragon or otherwise be rid of it before you could stand on the part of the bridge where the note was, and I remember running past it but not being able to stop and read it maybe twenty times before finally getting a chance. I finally defeated the dragon, made the long trip back to that one bridge, fought all the enemies on it, and, curiosity burning, went to check the note that it had taken me nearly a week to reach and reveal.

It read, bright and cheerfully, “Hi!”