All posts filed under “Game Design

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Flinthook – Frustration & Game Design – 2

So in my last post I talked about the issues I have with the controls in Flinthook. No lets get to the other stuff.

Ships In Flinthook

Spikes and Cannons

I already mentioned how great the art in Flinthook is. Not all of it is used terribly well though. A major gripe are environmental hazards blending into the background. This is yet again very basic stuff. Any amateur game designer knows that interactive objects need to stand out. This goes doubly so for a skill based game like Flinthook. What I don’t understand is that the artists and designers were clearly aware of this principle. Enemies are bright and colorful. Purple is used to show that an enemy is invincible and champion enemies are bright green. So the only logical conclusion is that this was done on purpose. I can think of two possible reasons for this design decision.

The first is that it was purely the artists decision. That actually makes sense. If the ships are primarily brown and grey then cannons and spikes would have similar colors. This assumes that the artists are acting completely independent from the game designers though. This is a terrible way to develop games. At worst this issues should have been fixed after playtesting. But they weren’t.

Another possible reason would be a misguided attempt to make the game difficult. The problem with this thinking is that this doesn’t make for a satisfactory challenge. It isn’t really unfair, it just isn’t fun. Scanning every room when I enter it doesn’t make me feel like I’m getting better or playing more skillful. It makes me feel like the game is being stupid and me having to compensate for that.

 

Flinthook spikes original and edited to make more visible
Spikes? What spikes? Oh those….

 

Fixing this particular issue wouldn’t be too difficult. One could either make the hazards stand out more by using strong colors, or reduce the amount of objects in the background. The ideal solution might be somewhere in between. I’m not saying this solution would be great from a aesthetic perspective. I do believe that it would be more fun though.

Ship Design

There are other issues I have with the rooms in Flinthook. Unlike the problem with the spikes, which I believe to be a legitimate dealbreaker, these are more minor annoyances. Some rooms seem to be deliberately designed to fuck the player over for example. Spawning red shielded enemies around the platform the player is most likely standing on is kind of a dick move. Secret rooms being always the same is boring and I literally still don’t know what many ship variants do because they don’t seem to really make a difference. Some are pretty good though. During my research for this article I ran into a low gravity ship for the first time. That was pretty neat. Flinthook needed more of this kinda stuff.

 

Flinthook enemies around

 

The real issues lead back to the controls I examined in part one. The level design doesn’t seem to be done with the clunky controls in mind. This results in wildly different skill requirements room to room. I don’t know if Flinthook actually sorts possible rooms by progression. I assume it does. Yet it still happens way too often that a single room just isn’t worth doing because the layout feels much harder then any other room on the same ship. It doesn’t help that the chests usually aren’t really meaningful enough to care about them. All this sucks the fun out of the game. Flinthook just never feels like I’m getting something out of it. Which brings me to….

Upgrading, Sidegrading and Nograding

Making Progress

I should probably mention at this point that I’m not a huge fan of permanent upgrades in rogue-lite games. I’m not a big fan of Rogue Legacy for this very reason, although I give it some slack for being there before everyone and their dog started making these games. I did play the similar structured Dead Cells though and enjoyed it very much. In general I think that a game with strict permanent upgrades like health, damage and defense encourages bad play, since the player can just grind out upgrades until they eventually win.

One way around this is to rely on sidegrades instead of upgrades. Dead Cells did a great job here. All the fun stuff is unlocked relatively cheap and the strict upgrades are intentionally expensive so they serve mostly as  something to sink cells in when there isn’t anything else to unlock at the moment.

In Flinthook the vast majority of perks consist of strict upgrades. Pretty much every imaginable stat has a minor and major improvement perk. This isn’t fun. This doesn’t enhance gameplay or allows for different playstyles. It’s a grind. It’s not even that it’s impossible to use stats for fun improvements. The Binding of Isaac for example juxtaposes stats to great effect. Extremely high shotspeed but low damage or high health but low speed can make for interesting gameplay. Flinthook has a handful of perks that go in that direction, usually by punishing health for some benefit. But overall I would say that out of the almost 100 different perks there are maybe 10 which I would consider interesting. Most of those improve the movement options, like the dash ability.

Overall I’d say that boring perk design brings the entire progression loop down. The idea of slotting upgrades in and out before a run is cute, but if every run still feels the same there is hardly any point to it.

What Do I Get Out Of It?

Another aspect I want to examine is how Flinthook rewards players. Flinthook seems to think that the rewards it gives are better then they are. The relics are a great example of this. I’m the kind of guy who will reads the entire backstory of a game. I love scrolling through bestiaries for some flavor text. However, these things aren’t the reason I would play a game. They are a secondary reward. In Flinthook relics are treated like some sort of substantial unlock during a run. I didn’t care about it and none of the people I watched playing Flinthook cared about it. The lore is pushed in the foreground because Flinthook doesn’t have anything better to reward the player with.

In the same vein, getting more experience through perks and curses isn’t something anyone really gives a shit about either. I was baffled when I saw how many of those existed. The best reward for gameplay is more interesting and varied gameplay. It’s really as simple as that.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Flinthook – It could have been good – 1

Do you know the kind of game that could be so much more but just doesn’t work for some reason? Flinthook is one of those games. It got a pretty substantial period of hype when it came out. That hype died out very quickly though. The reason for that is that it’s just not very good.

I got suckered in by the great presentation of Flinthook. The art and sound is legitimately great. And it looks like a lot of fun. So watching people play it on Youtube I felt compelled to try it out myself. And I had fun with it for a short while. It is considered part of the course for rogue-lites to have a bit of a rough start so it’s natural for players to be forgiving to a new game. Unfortunately though, Flinthook never really got any better.

Flinthook

On a side note I’d like to point out that it sucks to see Let’s players trying to be “nice” when it is blatantly obvious they don’t enjoy their experience. I know we all like small indie studios. As a hobbyist developer I can very much relate to the hard work put into a game. But at the end of the day the next game can only be better if we are willing to criticise.

While I’m sincerely disappointed with Flinthook, that isn’t the reason for this post. I also bought it as a piece to study. Seeing how I’m developing a game in a similar genre  (because the world sure needs more rogue-lites right now) I wanted to see what I could learn from it. I don’t think Flinthook is particularly well designed. Unless I’m missing some genius underlying design that just didn’t shine through it seems that Flinthook gets even some of the most basic things wrong. It is rare to see a game with great presentation to be let down by its gamedesign. I find that interesting.

Controlling Flinthook

This is the big obvious one. Flinthook can be controlled with mouse and keyboard or a controller. As of the latest patch an additional controller configuration is available. All those control schemes have their own issues though.

Keyboard and Mouse

K&M has an inherit problem with analogue movement, so platforming becomes a bit of a challenge. Additionally the mouse pointer to shoot is locked to a circle around the character instead of allowing for free aiming across the screen. Still this is probably the best control scheme available. If I were to change it, I would unlock the mouse cursor and drastically reduce, if not outright remove, the auto-aim. There isn’t much that can be done about awkward platforming on a keyboard and it’s unfortunate to fail at a section that you know you would be able to do easily on a controller, but it is something people can get used to.

Default Controller

The default controller setup on the other hand is a complete failure. Movement and shooting is bound to the same analogue stick, combining what was strictly separated in the K&M controls. It is possible to aim without moving by holding down a button, but that just doesn’t make up for the lack of control. It feels incredibly restricted.

Pro Controller

That being said it is commendable that the developers listened to feedback and added an alternative control scheme. Shooting is now done with the right stick making it feel much better. Jumping has been moved to the right bumper though. On the surface that makes a lot of sense, since using the face buttons would require the player to get their fingers of the sticks. But the hook is mapped to the right trigger making jumping and hooking awkward. I think it’s generally a bad idea to have very similar actions next to each other on the controller. To fix this I would map the jump to when the left analog stick is pressed up.

Takeaway

I get that I’m no really explaining my issues properly and some people will be perfectly fine with the controls. I know however that I don’t even think about the controls in the vast majority of games that I play. Not being satisfied with any of the control schemes in Flinthook seems to indicate a deeper issue.

This is admittedly speculation on my part, but I don’t think the controls have been considered early in development. I believe Flinthooks moveset was designed in a vacuum. The question was “What can the player do?” and not “What can the player do and how can they do it?”. This attitude also shows itself in the level design. Everything might be possible by utilising the entire moveset, but the controls make some combinations of actions so hard to do that the result are the frustrating mess of what I would call the “fuck you rooms”. If you played Flinthook you probably have an idea of what I mean.

Ideally the controls would have been configured from the start. The only time this isn’t possible is when porting a game to another system. Even then the very least should be rebindable controls. I donÄt get why rebindable controls aren’t done for controllers in particular. It is very simple to do. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise.

What should have been different

These issues are also why I don’t think Flinthook can really be fixed now. Even the changes I proposed wouldn’t make the game feel great. To do that a redesign of the moveset would be necessary. Obviously this would have to come with a huge redesign of the rooms and therefore isn’t meant as practical advice.

One thing to change would be to drop the slowdown mechanic completely. It is quite superficial to begin with and dropping it would give everything else more room to shine, as well as remove pressure from the controls to fit every move in. Another, and in my opinion better, way would be to drop the jumping instead. Hooking is perfectly fine mechanic for moving around and it could easily carry the entire game. I don’t see a clear reason while jumping needed to be in the game as well. This also wouldn’t really make the game much easier, but it would provide some much needed focus.

Anyway this post turned out longer then anticipated. There are still many other things I want to talk about in Flinthook so I guess expect a second part very soon.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Localisation – A look at the past

Let’s try something different this time. I want to talk about localisation. Seeing all the drama around Fire Emblem Fates localisation, I find the topic intriguing. So instead of covering a specific game in full length I’ll take a look at what localisation means and how it should be done. Being German myself I lived most of my life with localised media. There were good, bad and non-localisations. These days I often find myself defaulting to the English version. Nevertheless examples are needed. I decided to talk about the Final Fantasy series German localisation during the PS1 and PS2 era.

Final Fantasy

Final Fantasy 6

But wait! Final Fantasy 6 came out on the SNES did it not? Well not in Germany. At least in continental Europe (not sure about the UK) FF7 was the first game in the series to be released. It was only after that initial success of 7,8 and 9 that the PS1 remake was released in Germany in 2002. But enough history, what was the localisation like?

It didn’t have the censorship of the original NA version. No repainted sprites to make them less revealing, no renaming “Holy” to “Pearl” for religious reasons. It was quite the purist remake of Final Fantasy 6. Unfortunately it was also in English. Everywhere. It wasn’t until the Gameboy Advance remake-remake that an official German translation was created. Back then this was incredibly disappointing for me. There will always be purists who prefer no translation at all. I myself appreciate to have that option. Yet it should be obvious that this limits who is able to enjoy the game.

 

Localisation Final Fantasy 6
Like, how would I know what a GIRL is?

 

Additionally the PS1 remake also had a terrible PAL version. I won’t go into detail about what PAL and NTSC meant back then but rest assured that it generally meant PAL version would be strictly worse. Huge black bars on top and bottom and slowdowns were a common thing back then, but FF6 was ridiculously bad. If there is something to learn from this localisation I would say that the purist version isn’t always the best option and that localisation shouldn’t just mean translation, but also optimisation.

Final Fantasy 7

Oh what a train wreck that was. To be fair, this was pretty much the first attempt at localising a JRPG in multiple languages at once. It didn’t help that the PC and PS1 version for some reason got two different translations. This made it confusing to even talk about this game. For example Materia was translated to  Substanz (which means substance in case you didn’t know) in the PS1 version but not in the PC version. Add to that a multitude of grammar and spelling errors and occasionally not being able to display umlauts (Ä,Ö,Ü,ä,ö,ü,ß) and you get a huge mess. It is quite clear that they didn’t know what they were doing back then. The localisation made every rookie mistake in the book like translating everything without context (Level to “Ebene” being my favourite, the latter being more akin to layer or plane). Well not every mistake. I don’t think anything was cut or censored. It was all still there if one could read through the mess.

 

Localisation Final Fantasy 7
This may or may not be grammatically correct.
Final Fantasy 8

But they did learn from it. Final Fantasy 8’s translation was much better. In fact I have almost nothing to say about it. Some names were translated differently compared to the English version but either because they were closer to the Japanese (Artemesia instead of Ultimecia) or because they would look weird in German (Cifer instead of Seifer). Name changes should have a good reason but I don’t think that they should never happen. Using the original Japanese names in a setting that isn’t Japan would seem strangely out of place and might ruin the experience for some people. On the other hand each translation choosing their own names makes the work a bit of a clusterfuck and could remove intended symbolism. It’s a call the localisers have to make.

FF8 is also noteworthy for codifying the names of items and spells for the series. For example it introduced Feuer/Feura/Feuga (Fire,Fira,Firaga). These translations are used for the series to this day and are immediately recognisable for everyone. I find it interesting that an offhand translation might be used for a long time and it shows that when working with a series the past and future should be considered.

Final Fantasy 9

The German version is the best version of the game. Well maybe that statement is a bit controversial but it is still pretty damn good. Final Fantasy 9 was a really interesting game from a localisation point of view. There were a lot of call backs to previous games which were never released in Germany among other things. But the most amazing thing about FF9 is the use of dialects for so many characters. In the Japanese original many characters either speak a specific Japanese dialect or have verbal ticks. Obviously there is pretty much no way to translate this accurately.

 

Final Fantasy 9 Localisation
Easy

 

I don’t speak Japanese. I don’t think I would understand German spoken with a dialect from Osaka. Instead we got Cologne and Bavarian dialects for our characters and our own verbal ticks. This might seem weird but it gave the translation more wiggle room to convey the message in an appropriate way, making the dialogue more lively and relatable. The English version did essentially the same thing from my understanding. Final Fantasy 9 is a very strange game that can be drastically different depending on the version. Yet it works, since at least the German version of the game seems to respect the original and doesn’t try too hard to create its own identity. They expanded were the room was there but didn’t remove anything from the experience. I think this is the essence of a great localisation and it shows once more that localising a game is so much more then merely translating it.

On a side note I’d like to mention that there were some drastic name changes in FF9 as well. Salamander (JP)/Amarant(E) was renamed to Mahagon in the German version. Both Amarant and Mahagon were apparently chosen because Salamander couldn’t fit the character limit. Similarly Dagger was renamed to Lili in the German version because “Dolch” would have been a terribly name. The scene were she chooses the name didn’t change much it just happened to be a lily-dagger she was holding. I don’t mind those changes since they are consistent and still convey the intended meaning of Lili choosing the weapon as an alias and Mahagon having the color red as a theme.

Final Fantasy 10

I find it interesting that something like Final Fantasy 9 could have never worked in the age of voice acting. It’s worth noting that most longer games don’t get voice acting in German. Few exceptions I can think of are the main Kingdom Hearts titles and that is only because people have nostalgia for the Disney voices in their language. So for the most part we get English voice acting and German subtitles. So there is no way there could be some Texan voice with an east German subtitle.

 

Localisation Final Fantasy 10
This picture has nothing to do with the topic. Yet I feel it is obligatory

 

Voice acting brought more problems with it. The German subtitles of FF10 were based on the original Japanese version and much more closer to the original then the English spoken dialogue. This resulted in awkward moments when the dialogue just didn’t match the subtitles at all. The most infamous  one being when Yuna said “I love you”. You may have to brace yourself now if you only played the English version. That never happened in the Japanese version. In fact the German subtitle displayed a simple “Danke” meaning “Thank you”. This really shows that you can’t just mix together two different translations and expect the end result to be a valid localised version. If I would replay Final Fantasy 10 these days I would probably set my PS2 to English. While I would get a localisation that’s a bit on the weird side, it would at least be consistent.

Conclusion

Well that’s it. I won’t talk about FF11 and 12 since 11 never really came out in Germany and 12 didn’t really do anything remarkable (it was decent). Looking at these examples I can think of some guidelines to make a decent localisation:

  • Options are great. Let people choose language or even depth of translation when possible.
  • Technical optimisation should be considered as part of the localisation.
  • Purist localisations only work for certain titles. Should a visual novel set in Japan keep name suffixes? Probably. Should Dark Souls use them? It’s a Japanese game but that would feel weird.
  • Expand were appropriate. If something can not be adequately translated then there is room to write something new which conveys the same message.
  • Do not reduce or unnecessary expand characters or story bits.
  • Consider past and future of the franchise.
  • Match the voice acting.

Looking at this I too am not happy with the Fire Emblem localisation decisions. They clearly turned characters into something they were not intended to be, removed valuable dialogue with no proper replacement and flat out cut features. I find it incredibly disrespectful to the original work and I’m truly disappointed.

 

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Darkest Dungeon – A slow and insidious killer

Introduction

After my look a Hearthstone last time, I figured It’s only appropriate to cover a game next where randomness really does screw you over. Enter the Darkest Dungeon. I’ll only give a brief introduction to the game. For more information I recommend watching the various Let’s Plays of the game. It’s funny to watch people suffer.

 

Darkest Dungeon Title screen

 

Darkest Dungeon is of the rogue-lite breed. While actual rogue-likes aren’t really made all that often these days, there has been an abundance of rogue-lites in recent years. Rogue-lite usually really means three things. Permanent death, a lot of random nonsense and high difficulty. By this definition XCOM is a rogue-lite as well. Huh.

The gameplay of Darkest Dungeon consists of two parts. First there is what one might call the base building, where heroes can be recruited, relieved of stress and upgraded. Buildings may also be upgraded permanently. The other part is going into dungeons with four hero’s at a time to bring back loot and kill bosses. That is basically it. It is the wide variety of classes, trinkets and quirks that make the game.

I mentioned relieving stress. It is of course important to understand that Darkest Dungeon is inspired by the works of H. P. Lovecraft.

Theming

Specifically it transferred the idea of cosmic horrors to a medieval setting. If I had to give a reason why Darkest Dungeon is as successful as it is it would probably be it’s theming. And not just the chosen theme itself, although it is quite imaginative, but rather the way the game is designed around it.

The inclusion of a stress meter is only the most obvious example of this. What the cosmic horrors are fundamentally about is despair and the realization of ones own lack of control and insignificance. This is something Darkest Dungeon reflects wonderfully in its gameplay. Which is why the game shouldn’t really be played with the same mindset as most other games.

So how does the game incorporate the theme in the design? First there are the critical strikes and misses/dodges. This isn’t a new thing by itself. Lots of games have those. But here they are tuned up to eleven. Enemies have very real chances to hit critically, often resulting in a character being close to death immediately. Enemy crits also stress out characters, while player crits heal stress. This creates massive swings in a battle. Even worse, the game is balanced in a way where a fight is already challenging when everything goes right. An unlucky hit from an enemy and the game is flat out unfair. I’m not complaining. It is part of the point. The player is never completely in control. And they are not supposed to. And indeed, sometimes a high level hero will be hit critically by four of the damn spiders before I can do anything. But that’s despair for you.

This isn’t an universal excuse though. If there were a large number of players who don’t “get it” I’d argue that the game doesn’t do enough to communicate it’s theme. This isn’t the case though. And sometimes we as consumers should be able to take a step back and realize that some things just aren’t for us. Just like a horror game can get away with bad combat, so does Darkest Dungeon get away with huge swings and setbacks. It is not an excuse for bad design in other fields though.

If a game banks on its theme as much as Darkest Dungeon does, consistency becomes very important. And for the most part it is consistent. There is just one mechanic which makes absolutely no sense in the game. I’m speaking of course of veteran and champion level heroes refusing to go into lower level dungeons.

 

Darkest Dungeon Base

 

Imagine a game with the same mechanics as Darkest Dungeon. Image that instead of fighting an unknown horror it is about leading an adventurers guild. Imagine sending a champion, slayer of orcs and rescuer of damsels, to kill rats in the taverns cellar. It makes sense that this champion would refuse to do so. This is thematically consistent. However in Darkest Dungeon it is not. The stress mechanic implies every character to be close to their breaking point in every run. There is no way anyone would feel like some tasks were too easy for them. It shatters immersion by contradicting the theme.

There are mods to remove this. But they miss the point as well. By removing the limitation altogether they break the on-the-edge difficulty of the game. Which is an even bigger deal. From a pure game design perspective the mechanic makes sense. Blocking of characters forces to experiment with new parties and keeps every aspect of the game challenging. I’ve seen suggestions to delevel the characters for the dungeon. But that only solves half the problem as well. Part of the reason this mechanic exists in the first place is that it shouldn’t be possible to go through the game with the same one or two teams, forcing the player to try something unfamiliar (again being consistent with the theme).

Grind

Darkest Dungeon also has a lot of grind in it. Grind being loosely defined as repetitive tasks in gameplay with various distinctions like “it’s only grind if it is not fun”. Personally  I disagree. I think grinding can be perfectly fun and it is also fair to like a game despite or even because of the grind. I propose a definition of grind in video games as “A factor correlating to the amount of time the game goes on without expanding its possibility space“. This probably sounds very technical. But what I mean is if nothing new is happening in the game it becomes a grind. These new things things can be anything from introducing new game mechanics (skills, classes, enemy types) to story or purely visual additions.

 

Darkest Dungeon combat

 

From this perspective Darkest Dungeon is very front-loaded in its approach. In the beginning of the game there are new classes to try out, new buildings get unlocked and the different dungeon types to be explored. Around the time the player has killed the level 1 bosses though, most of the possibility space has been explored. A handful of new enemies and changed up attacks are all we get until the very end of the game. This isn’t to say that this is necessary a good or bad thing. In fact I very much dislike the way games use game mechanics like breadcrumbs because the designers feared players would immediately stop playing if nothing new happened every ten minutes. Darkest Dungeon isn’t on the roller coaster side when it comes to these things. But it is very much the other extreme.

It doesn’t help of course that the grind is mostly artificial. The afore mentioned blocking of characters is one thing, but the most egregious example of this is found in the endgame. The Darkest Dungeon has four floors. Every character can only finish one of those. Meaning we need 4 * 4 = 16 unique high level heroes to finish the game.

I get the reason for it. Taking your A-Team through all four levels would be too easy. The solution is just as bad though. If I have let’s say eight level six heroes I’ve already proven that I can beat the high level dungeons. There is no need to prove it again. This is what I call you-did-it-now-do-it-again-syndrome, where a game refuses to end properly and instead forces the player to grind just that little bit more. This is by far the most annoying part of the game. The Darkest Dungeon itself is a perfectly good last challenge. It’s just all the preparation before it that feels unnecessary. Darkest Dungeon is one of those rare cases where being a shorter game would have benefited it.

 

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Hearthstone – Game modes to win – 2

In the previous part I talked about Hearthstone’s design from the point of view of an isolated game. In this article I want to look at the influence different game modes and long term goals have on the experience. I will however focus on the multiplayer modes, excluding Adventures for now.

Game Modes

Arena

Lets talk about the Arena mode first. Personally I love the Arena. It accomplishes so much. In this mode the player picks one class out of three offered, then proceeds to pick one out of three cards until they have a full deck. Then the player is matched with other players until they either win twelve games, or loose three. It’s a draft mode. Those existed before in other games but it works really well.  So what sets the Arena apart from other modes of play? Well for once it has a very well defined goal. Getting those twelve wins for the first time is extremely satisfying. Sure Ranked mode (I’ll get to that) has the legend rank but that requires a huge amount of games to be played while getting twelve wins can be done in two or three hours on a Sunday afternoon. It’s a goal just close enough to be motivating.

 

Arena draft
Drafting a deck

 

Then there is the drafting itself.  Drafting an arena deck requires an entirely different skill set then just playing the game. Evaluating a card on the fly isn’t at all like building an entire deck from your cards. Risk and reward of picking cards which require synergies, keeping an eye on your mana curve and just being generally aware that a good arena card doesn’t have to be good in constructed and vice versa. There are many small things to consider and improve upon here which makes for a nice learning curve. Of course drafting has a random element to it. But just like the discover mechanic, having three choices tends to average out alright. This isn’t to say that there aren’t good or bad arena decks. But getting as far as you can even with a bad deck is part of the fun of the game.

The most important thing about the Arena is that is a complete equalizer though. The card collection and by extent the amount of money spend on the game don’t matter. Every possible card is available to everyone. This is really important. Free to Play games, even the “fair” ones, don’t often have a part of the game where everyone is completely equal. The arena isn’t free though. One has to pay either with ingame gold or real money to start a run. But since every card in the game is available in this mode there has to be a reason to play the other parts of the game. it is also interesting that it’s  this paywall which allows the arena to have a much higher reward structure then for example Ranked. A good arena player will often come out ahead without paying real money at all. I like free stuff as much as everyone else, but I can’t really disagree with this. Not to mention that an investment makes it all the more exciting.

Tavern Brawl

Another interesting game mode is the Tavern Brawl. This one is a lot harder to explain though. Every week a new brawl will be released with a certain change to the game rules. This can be anything from premade decks with interesting cards to completely unique heroes or more subtle changes to how mana or spells work. The fact that anything might be changed is the beauty of it. It allows the developers to prototype new mechanics and immediately get feedback from the players in an isolated environment. That’s one of the best communication between developer and player base I’ve seen.

It also gives players a reason to come back every week and earn a free pack for the first win, which is just another tiny thing to help those new players out. It is a shame though that the brawls cycle in an unpredictable manner and there is no way to replay them independently of this timing. Some tavern brawls have quickly become fan favorites and I’d love a way to play them at least with friends. Overall it is great addition with its own purpose though. There is absolutely no competitive side to the brawls, since there are no rewards beyond the first win. It exists  just for the enjoyment of it. Which means Tavern Brawls pretty much replaced….

 

Example Tavern Brawl
Apparentely there is a new set of crazy rules every week!

 

Casual

Oh how pointless this mode is. Casual should be the counterpoint to Ranked. It was supposed to be the mode where winning didn’t matter. And it doesn’t. Every three wins the player is rewarded with ten gold. Which is a small bonus at best. So the idea is to have a game mode where people would play classes and decks they’re not familiar with and do so without the pressure of loosing a rank.

The problem is that Casual absolutely does have a rank. It’s just hidden. Casual is the only game mode which uses a Matchmaking Rating (MMR) to match the players. Think of it of assigning a number to each player corresponding to how good they are matching close numbers. This isn’t bad in theory. After all matchmaking should do its best to let players of equal skill compete against each other. In reality people’s MMR seems to be either way too high or too low most of the time. I can’t try out my silly Mill Rogue deck if everyone I compete against in Casual is legendary rank. What is annoying is that new players often fall into the trap of playing Casual when Ranked would be the fairer experience. What is even more annoying is that I don’t know how to make this mode better other then improving the MMR system. Casual does have a place. It just doesn’t work right now.

Ranked

Saving the most played mode for last here. Well, it’s a ladder. Win games, increase rank. Every month there is a reset and a reward dependent on the highest achieved rank in addition to the usual three wins for ten gold. These rewards aren’t that amazing, the most relevant one being a cosmetic card back. It is nice though that the card back for every month is unique, allowing players to show off a little by using those from the early days.

 

Hearthstone_Cardbacks
Me showing off card backs from the early days

 

Ranked is pretty much the main mode of Hearthstone for most players. What I dislike about it is that it doesn’t really complement Hearthstone’s design all that well. A Game designed  to be played in short bursts probably shouldn’t have a carrot on a stick dangling in front of the player for a month. It seems that one has to either commit a lot or shouldn’t bother at all. I’m not saying there shouldn’t be a competitive mode to Hearthstone. I’m a competitive player myself. But Arena isn’t free, Tavern Brawl isn’t always available and of variable quality and casual is broken. The result is that the more casual audience is forced into ranked mode. Which isn’t great for anyone. I was lying when I said Casual was the only mode with an MMR. At rank 0, better known as Legendary, all Legend players are matched with an MMR. I don’t really have to say much about the Legendary rank. It serves as a goal to players and has its own ladder to compete for the number one to provide a new goal to those reaching it consistently.

Pay and Win

I will again preface this by saying that I’m aware of changes coming to the game soon. They are not implemented yet though. With that out of the way lets talk business…model. Hearthstone is a Free to Play game. You can pay for card packs, playing in the Arena and for optional hero skins. The first two things can also be purchased with ingame currency, which is acquired relatively easily.

Personally I didn’t pay for much in the game, but that is because I play the game since its official release, before there were any expansions. From a perspective of a new player right now, the business model probably seems a lot less fair. Particular the adventures are major gates, simply because they have to be unlocked in a specific order. So if I want to unlock a card from the fifth wing of Naxxramas I need to buy the entire adventure for 3500 ingame gold. Bundle prices also only apply if payed with real money, creating a barrier to entry for new players not willing to immediately spend anything. Yes the adventures also have additional content besides the cards, but that is not the point. Additionally all the worthwhile gold giving quest require you to win games, which can be a significant time investment for a newer player. Changing the quests to games played would require an internal timer to make sure the games are real, but it would help a lot to make the new player experience less frustrating. Honestly I don’t think I could get into the game at all if I started it today. The Arena mode and Tavern Brawls even this out a bit, but it is a shame that one need to invest so much to play the regular game. It quickly becomes a grind.

I’d like to address the issue of Pay to Win. I don’t think paying for card packs really helps you win more games. Only up to a point, really. There are always cheap decks that are competitive, and player skill has more impact than any particular legendary card. All that said, I believe Pay To Win is a matter of perspective. Simply because winning isn’t necessarily the same thing for everyone. If you read this far you probably have an idea on what kind of player I am. I like to play a one on one game competitively, have some nostalgia for Warcraft and like CCG’s in general. This isn’t true for every other Hearthstone player out there however. To distinguish different kinds of people who use a product it is useful to create a persona for each of them. These are fictional people who desire certain features in the product. Sandra the office worker might want an interface similar to the software she already uses, while steve the system administrator would like a command line interface for configuration. This is commonly used in Software Devolopment. Games aren’t any different then that. And while the distinction between casual and hardcore players is pretty useless, a better look at their players and what they want out of the game can be of great help. Here are some definitions of “winning” which I can think of in Hearthstone.

  • Win a game in constructed
  • Achieving legendary rank
  • Achieving top legendary rank
  • Own every card
  • Have your favorite deck in shiny gold cards
  • Own every non-monthly card back

Now the whole Pay to Win thing gets more complicated. If “winning” for you is to own every card, and you can pay a few 100$ to get them. it somewhat becomes Pay to Win. If your goal is to get every card back available, you flat out have to pay for the ridiculously overpriced hero portraits. To be fair, looking at it from this perspective pretty much every Free to Play business model out there falls flat. To be fair again though, pretty much all of them are bad. I will admit that the most important aspect is whether paying money directly allows a player to win more games, since this is also where two players interact with each other. My answer to that is still no. And no one should care if someone else pays for something and now feels good about it because they own every card. It becomes an Issue though when some long term goals require payment. This is why I disagree with the idea that having to pay for cosmetics is always fine. If some card backs are in the game as rewards for certain achievements then the game directly encourages players to see them as a goal. If other card backs are only available for money however, then what’s the point? I think it is important to realize that a competitive player and a player interested in aesthetics aren’t the same and to value both their experiences and expectations.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com

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Hearthstone – Baby’s first RNG simulator? – 1

Introduction

This post contains my thoughts on the game design in Hearthstone. Since this is about an ever changing online game it is important to note that I’m writing this as the League of Explorers adventure is the newest content available and wild and standard have just been announced as a change to the format. It is quite likely that the game might have changed significantly in the future – for better or worse.

So what is Hearthstone? It is an Online Collectible Card Game (or CCG) made by Blizzard Entertainment. It is similar to traditional Trading Card Games like Magic: The Gathering or Yu-gi-oh, but in Video Game Format. For context I recommend to either play it before reading (it’s free to play) or at least watch a video of someone playing it. But in summary: 2 players; play cards; attack opponent; win. Good stuff. And simple enough.

An Image of a game of Hearthstone
A Warrior against a Mage

Simplicity

Which brings me to my first point. Hearthstone is well known for being a really really simple game. There are certainly several reasons for that. First the win condition isn’t particularly complicated – you just reduce the health of your opponents hero to zero. The resource management is almost completely removed compared to games like Magic, since mana automatically increments every turn up to a total of 10. Similarly, the game doesn’t split each turn into different phases like other CCG’s tend to do. There are no interruptions and you can play your cards and do your attacks in whatever order you want, making it rather straightforward.

But I think the biggest reason it is so simple and easy to pick up is due to its nature of being a video game. Hearthstone does a great job of using visual aids to guide the player. Cards have a green border when they can be played, even changing the color of the border when a specific condition is fulfilled. There is also no need for a lot of card text, since the players don’t have to resolve the effects themselves. Just play a card and see what happens. The card text only needs to give the player an idea of what’s going to happen. The game is also paced quite fast with relatively low health totals so games are over quickly.

Visual aids
Green: Cards that can be played. Yellow: A condition is fulfilled for the effect (in this case a mech is on the board)

 

That being said there is a trade off to be made here. Hearthstone games just don’t feel as large or impactful as playing a card game in real life. Think of a card that deals 3 random damage to any character (Mad Bomber) for example. To play a card like this in real life you would need to assign a number to each occupied slot on the board, and throw a dice with these numbers three times to get the effect resolved. And while doing this over and over would be quite a hassle, it would also make playing mad bomber a more meaningful experience in the game. The developers do try to recreate this effect by making the animations of the game very physical and they really do a pretty good job there. In the end the quick card resolution accelerates the games even further, resulting in hearthstone being a game designed to be played in short sessions in between.

Depth

So since Hearthstone is basically baby’s first CCG it must be lacking depth in its gameplay right? Well yes and no. Lacking some features like different phases certainly limit depth to a degree. It is worth noting however that depth does not necessarily equal complexity. A game can be quite easy to play but still have a huge depth. Just look at go for an example. It is however true that complexity is one way to create depth. If a game is hard to pick up to begin with, it will always have a high skill ceiling. I’m looking at you Europa Universalis 4.

Hearthstone introduces depth with several mechanics. First there are the classes. Every class has different class cards as well as its own underlying concept. Shamans and Druids actually do have a form of resource management with their overload and ramp mechanics. Rogues on the other hand have to be aware of how many cards they have in hand since they depend on playing multiple cards on the same turn. Splitting these mechanics into the different classes allows the game to have decent depth without sacrificing its simplicity for it. Since the pool of cards has to be split among the 9 classes though, this can sometimes make the options feel limited.

Another reason why Hearthstone is a rather deep game isn’t really due to good design though. The game just flat out doesn’t tell you its full rule set. While I praised how the game doesn’t use much card text, because really seeing LORD JARAXXUS – EREDAR LORD OF THE BURING LEGION played once is usually enough to understand the card, some things just aren’t that easy. I’m speaking of the so called “hidden rules” of Hearthstone. To give a few examples:

  • Buffs can be silenced, Transformation effects can not. Cards do not specify which effect they use.
  • When two or more minions with a deathrattle die, the effects will be resolved in the order they entered the board.
  • A Hero can only have a maximum of 5 secrets in play at the same time.
  • A minion at zero health can still trigger its effect.
Card inconsistencies
Left: a transformation. Right: a buff

 

The problem is this information can not be found in the game. In general the game follows a depth-first approach to resolving plays. These things might seem a bit obscure, but as someone who played the game quite a bit I can say they really are not. Not to mention that some of these rules have exceptions; simply because the cards have been coded differently. I believe a rulebook accessible from within the game for these kind of things would help a lot. As it stands, Hearthstone gains depth by forcing some trial and error out of its playerbase, which really isn’t ideal.

Skill and Luck

I do consider Hearthstone to be a rather skillful game. Not everyone would agree though. A lot of this comes due to the very type of game it is. If you’d ask someone if they think chess is a game of skill the vast majority of people would probably say yes. If you’d ask the same for poker however the answers get much more varied. Poker players with a lot of games would say yes, while there will be a decent amount of people saying its all luck.

From a game theory perspective Hearthstone is a zero-sum game with imperfect information. Zero-sum means for every player who wins, another one has to loose. Imperfect information means a player doesn’t know everything about the current gamestate. In Hearthstone the hand of the player and the opponent, the board and the remaining cards in both decks make up the gamestate. Only the players hand, the board and the amount of cards the other player has are the visible gamestate however. The thing about these kind of games is that their skill isn’t perceived so easily. In a game with perfect information like chess, the better player will win every single game unless he makes a mistake. With imperfect information however, the better player will just have won more after a certain amount of games, since making an educated guess about the hidden information just isn’t as reliable as knowing everything. This is obviously simplifying game theory a bit but that’s the gist of it.

What this means is that tournaments with a best of three format are kind of silly in my opinion. It’s like having poker players play 5 hands before deciding who won.

Hearthstone however, further complicates this by introducing a large number of cards with random effects on top of the inherit randomness of the imperfect information. I’d like to talk about what I think these random cards add to the game, before I actually judge their impact on the level of skill the game allows for.

The first thing that comes to mind for me is, funnily enough, the increased skill ceiling. A Random effect creates a branching path of possible outcomes for which the player has to account for. Similarly the game can be manipulated to make the random effect work in your favor every time. Cards like Crackle and Bomb Lobber are good examples for cards like this. Bomb Lobber in particular is 100% reliable if the opponent only has one minion on board. Learning how to use cards like this effectively is part of the challenge and the game would be worse without them.

Crackle and Bomb Lobber
Randomness which can be made predictable is good randomness

 

Then there is the increased design space if a card game allows for random effects. Simply stated: a random card can have a higher power level since it has some potentially bad outcomes. Ysera is a good example of this. Ysera gives the player one of a specific set of dream cards at the end of their turn. All these cards are powerful, but some are more useful then others. If the player was allowed to choose a specific card, Ysera simply couldn’t exist even if the cards were to be nerfed.

Next random cards exist to keep the simplicity of the game intact. Imagine playing Knife Juggler, a card that deals one damage randomly whenever the player summons a minion, but with his ability being targeted. Play a minion, choose where to deal one damage, play another, choose where to deal one damage. This would make the interface cluttered. This is probably why there are no targetable persistent abilities in the game right now. And while I certainly hope targeted minionabilities get implemented one day I can see why this wouldn’t work with some interesting cards.

The last thing here are “player stories”. Blizzard keeps bringing this up when talking about randomness so I might as well. This means that randomness can make for memorable games. True enough, a lot of wacky things can happen in Hearthstone. While I had these games and I can see why the designers would want the players to experience this, personally I think it potentially sacrifices the consistent enjoyment of the game for the occasional spike of enjoyment.

So randomness isn’t really a bad thing. It makes it harder to perceive skill, but can also increase the real skill required on top of many other positive effects. That being said, there a couple of cards which take randomness too far and become problematic. And yes I’m aware we are (sort of) rid of most of them very soon. That doesn’t make it less useful to talk about them for future reference.

Unstable portal

Unstable Portal

This card is probably the embodiment of the “player stories” philosophy. It can be great fun but it is completely independent from any player skill. Creating any minion in the game is just too much of a variance to be able to plan ahead. It’s a card that you play and hope it benefits you.

Shredders …and a raptor

shredders

These cards have the same problem but to a lesser degree. Since battlecry effects get taken out of the equation for their summons they are a lot more predictable. The problem they suffer though is that they, as well as unstable portal, will constantly get stealth buffed/nerfed when new cards get introduced. Cards that interact strongly with a huge chunk of the card pool are unpredictable three expansions down the line.

Boom bot

boom

This is just dumb. I’m sorry but it is. Stacking two random effects on top of each other is just bad design, and having to see them resolved twice each time Dr. Boom gets played is just asking for trouble. The variance on this is just through the roof.

So the problem really isn’t randomness, it’s variance. Random effects are perfectly fine as long as they have a level of predictability. The good news is that blizzard seems to have found a nice middle ground to this. The at the time of writing newest adventure of the game (The League of Explorers) introduced the discover mechanic, which lets you pick one out of 3 random cards of a specific type. These cards do have huge variance but they even out in the end. 3 bad cards will always have one more useful then the other, while you can still only pick 1 out of 3 great cards. Furthermore these cards go to your hand without any cost reduction so they remove the tempo of unstable portal and shredder. This allows players to play with unusual cards, while still including players choice. It is a great mechanic and I hope future high variance cards will learn a lesson from it.

In the next part I will talk about the various game modes as well as the business model and whatever else I can think of.

Please feel free to give feedback either by posting a comment or by mail at contact@gamedesignthoughts.com