Monday, December 12, 2016

[CivVI] Warmongering over the Ages

I've rather enjoyed Civilization VI for the most part. There's a few things here and there that are a little annoying, or just things I have to get used to, but overall I quite like a lot of the more streamlined and changed systems. Districts in particular is fun, because now I'm looking at the terrain and city placement a lot more thinking about the future. Cities become more about planning than they were previously, and even late game you're thinking about it more than just setting a queue of 30 buildings and leaving the city for the rest of the game.

However, there is something that is distinctly unfun. Specifically, Diplomacy and Warmongering.


Defensive Warmongering

In a recent game, America (AI)--my formally declared best friend--started a Surprise War on me in 3000 BC. By 2000 BC I had wiped America off the face of the planet because I mean, really, if I didn't they were just going to backstab me again and again. Now, I turned down them suing for peace because well, backstabbers, so I got a huge warmongering penalty because captured cities/capital. Meh.

Everybody denounced me (or course), and I checked my diplomacy values. I had netted -112 to my reputation due to Warmongering! For a war that America started and I finished. Now the thing to keep in mind is that's not a static value. Those numbers? They represent how far your relationship meter moves per turn. So I was getting +3 per turn because we had open borders, and -112 per turn due to Warmongering.

-74 basically outweighs everything else ever for the rest of time.

All right, everyone hates me, great. Even worse, though, is the fact that number basically compounds over time because it's a per turn value. And that negative tapers off really slowly, regardless of time scale. What this means is that 3500 years later, my civilization still had a -74 Warmongering penalty to all civs, meaning any attempts at diplomacy were useless for the rest of the game. I still got denounced like clockwork every time their previous denunciations expired.

Yeah, okay, wiping somebody else out? That deserves some serious shrift from the other civs. Absolutely. But 3500 years and that's only halfway decayed? I mean, you look at a modern day example, Germany and World War II. They've basically managed to remove a real-world "warmongering" penalty in 80 years--so in Civ terms, given the time period, 80 turns, which in ancient times is 1600 years equivalent, so it's not even "realistic", let alone fun.


The Solution

Basically, the issue at hand is the warmongering penalty needs to decay based on time passed, not turns passed. A war in 2000 BC should have nearly 0 effect on diplomacy in 1500 AD. The Civ team tried to mimic that by reducing warmongering penalties in early history, but that's insufficient in my opinion.

It's also extremely unfun to be attacked and punished for defending myself. Yes, I could've just defended my territory and left America alone, but the issue is that I know the AI is just going to break their promises (again) and declare a surprise war (again) later. If I didn't nip them in the bud, I'd be in for a very rough game. So basically, I'm being punished by the AI for playing their game.

If this is some sort of punishment to get around the fact that the AI is very bad at waging war, so therefore they can't put up a decent fight, so therefore limit the player in some other fashion, well, I dislike it greatly. If it's just a way to get AIs to treat war more seriously, I still think it's extremely lopsided in favour of just shutting down diplomacy in general. Not having diplomacy as an option for 3500 years of game time is, frankly, silly.

I think my proposed tweak would be sufficient to make warmongering something people will still have to weigh--even if they keep the penalties skyhigh, it would take centuries to rebuild them from rock bottom--but this would still allow early wars to be devastating and history-altering without the silliness that is effectively infinite memory.
#GameDesign, #CivVI

Friday, December 2, 2016

Innocence and Game Development

Last weekend I was up in Vancouver hanging with some of my friends and coworkers. Some of these friends I've known literally since high school, and some of us work tightly together to create a game that we're all very passionate about. It's really awesome that I get to hang out with these folks, and I love 'em all to bits. We got together one evening after I had finished (successfully) apartment hunting, and out came the Jackbox Party Pack 3, and specifically, a game called Fakin' It.

The premise of Fakin' It is quite interesting. The game will send questions to everyone's phones, and depending on the type of game, at the buzzer everyone puts up either a number of fingers, raises their hand (or not), or points to another player. For example, a question we got was "How many times did you shower in the past week?" When the buzzer rang, everyone threw up as many fingers as showers they had.

The trick comes in that one player didn't get the question: the faker just got told to try to fit in. Then everyone votes and asks questions to try to figure out as a group which player is the faker. If the group guesses correctly, then the group gets points, otherwise if the faker escapes they get points.


Fun and Games Until Someone Loses...

It was all fun and games until suddenly the question, "Have you ever donated blood?" came up. Now, many of you are probably thinking, that's a pretty innocent question. Most people donate blood unless they can't for some reason. And there's the rub.

You see, in North America, gay/bisexual men cannot donate blood. Specifically, men who've had intercourse with another male in the past year--it used to be since 1977, but was recently relaxed. Also included on the list are intravenous drug use, being HIV positive, or if you've recently gotten a tattoo, for example.

So I'm expected to justify my lowered hand or be outed as the faker (I wasn't, for the record). I could've lied about it, but I'm a terrible liar. Now, for me, the justification was pretty easy: I've been out for nearly 15 years, and the group all knew I was gay. So having another opportunity to complain that my dirty, gay blood wasn't allowed to be donated wasn't that bad. But there was a moment when everyone was looking at me with suspicion because I was an odd person out, thinking, why is his hand down, he must be the faker because most people donate blood. The only people accused in that round were folks with their hands down.

Suddenly the video game variant of "Never have I ever" became very political, regardless of whether we wanted it to be or not. I doubt the developer who added the question to the pile thought about any of that. I mean, many tech companies have the blood bus roll up outside every once in a while and everyone goes down to donate as groups, gathering people up and giving you questioning looks when you say, "I can't." I've been in that precise situation before. But for many, donating blood is an innocent, unquestionably morally good task.

That innocence--likely borne of the privilege of not being in one of the banned groups--allowed the question to slip through the QA and turned our game just a little awkward.


Consequence

For me, that question wasn't the end of the world. I had my discomfort. My friends got a little uncomfortable because I had to remind them that yes, gay and bisexual men cannot donate blood. We moved on and the rest of the game was a blast. But the incident--this story--was a good reminder to me that what some people perceive as innocent can sometimes be pernicious, and that even simple video games can be political without the game developers realizing it.

My friends will read this and probably be super apologetic--they'd be really upset that they may have hurt me in any way, because they're awesome, empathetic people. To them I'd say don't worry too much about it aside from just using the opportunity to reflect. This is a prime example of privilege making someone blind to another's experiences. Privilege isn't evil and it doesn't make you a bad person. It's just a lens from which we experience our world.

Heck, I make goofs about women from time to time because I'm not a woman and don't have the insight of living as a woman day to day. In a prior age, I think we'd categorize privilege as "innocence". Innocent of how the wider world works and ignorant of the painful experiences of others. The important part of recognizing it is expanding one's empathy to others' situations. Learn and move forward.

For the game developers, I know as a game dev myself I'd be horrified if my game hurt someone. I don't think anyone threw in the question to deliberately make anyone feel bad about themselves.

But when people try to tell me that video games are (or should be!) apolitical, my first reaction is to laugh at them. Even the most minor of decisions and scenarios have identity and circumstances tied to them. From deciding if your femme fatale should be wearing pumps or flats, to how beefy your male hero should be, to how rich is the neighbourhood your GTA character is running around in and the behaviours of various NPCs in said neighbourhood, to asking how often someone showers or donates blood; everything is a comment or consequence of the--sometimes very different--worlds we live in and the lenses in which we view those worlds.

Nobody really can be cognizant of every permutation of those worlds and lenses, and I'm not even necessarily saying don't put certain things in games. I'm just saying that every decision about content and mechanics has consequences and should be deliberate. But also, by incorporating more people from different viewpoints into our craft and becoming more aware ourselves, we can include those points of view into our games and make them more varied, strong, interesting, and empathetic. #GameDesign, #GameDev, #IndieDev

Thursday, November 24, 2016

[WoW] When is an Upgrade not an Upgrade?

Rohan at Blessing of Kings had a good post recently on what happens when you start piling on extra rules onto a system until they start contradicting each other. In his example, the personal loot system--which was introduced to reduce social friction--got subverted by adding trading if you don't need the item anymore, as addons can be used to call others out to hand over their loot to folks who could use the upgrade.

A different example in WoW is the Protection Paladin's Avenger's Shield ability. The base variant of the spell is a multi-target holy damage that chains up to 3 enemies, and interrupts any spellcasts of the initial target. Now, the thing that's not mentioned in the tooltip is that this jump is a "smart" targeting system: it won't target enemies that have been CC'd at the time you cast the ability, which makes it an extremely effective AoE pulling tool for the Paladin.

In the Paladin's artifact weapon, one of the gold traits--Tyr's Enforcer--upgrades the power such that it explodes for damage within 5 yards upon every impact. This is a pretty awesome upgrade in a lot of cases, like extra DPS or snap threat on large groups. But it also suddenly makes Avenger's Shield useless for AoE pulling if you have to use CC. Like on Moroes in Karazahn.


The explosions work at cross purposes with the smart nature of the base ability, and for Moroes specifically I spent a lot of the fight cursing the upgrade because it also is my ranged interrupt. So in the Moroes fight I can't use it as an AoE pull and I can't use it as my ranged interrupt, because if I do, the explosions on impact will clear the CC on the other enemies. Basically, the upgrade rendered the original purposes of my ability moot, and turned it into primarily a DPS ability.

This is an example of adding complexity eventually reducing the situations that a tactic is useful in. Enough rules on the ability, and it makes it such that it's not really an upgrade anymore, but something that just alters the ability entirely, which suddenly makes me want to either have the ability to turn that upgrade on or off, or just be an entirely different ability, since the "upgrade" removed one of my tanking tools.

Then to add insult to injury, it's not smart enough to jump to enemies hit by my Blinding Light since that CC isn't affected by Holy damage, but that's a separate issue.

In Eon Altar, we actually had a slightly different scenario. In one case, an upgrade to an ability increased the range of the damage of the ability, both the minimum and the maximum. For an example, Rank 1 did 14 - 16 damage. Rank 2 did 13 - 18 damage. While the average damage went up, because many enemies at low levels had 14 health, the upgrade actually created situations where you'd sometimes not one-shot those enemies. So it became optimal to wait until you had enough resources to skip directly to Rank 3. To fix it, we just didn't decrease the lower bound, and that made the issue go away entirely.

Which is to say that when an upgrade isn't an actual upgrade and makes the ability worse in some situations, it feels bad as a player. If I, as a player, am performing what should be a direct upgrade--one that I don't really have a choice on, it's literally just direct progression--it should actually be an upgrade, or it should be obvious it's radically altering my ability. But losing tools feels bad, man. 
#WoW, #GameDesign

Monday, October 24, 2016

PAX DEV 2016 Talk: Mobile Enhanced--Designing for Multiple Simultaneous Screens

So I've been away from my blog for a while. We've been super busy with Eon Altar, including PAX West, shipping Episode 2, and I gave a talk at PAX DEV, which was super awesome (and well received).

So while I am still crazy busy (Episode 3's gotta get made!), I'm dropping by to let folks know hey, I have a legit game design talk that I wrote/hosted.


Sorry about the sound quality. I had recorded this with the thanks of OutOfBeta using my Lumia 1020 in a LEGO setup and it didn't pick the sound up super well :( So you'll have to crank the volume.

High Tech Recording Setup
#IndieDev, #EonAltar

Thursday, August 25, 2016

[IndieDev] The Aftermath of Launching Our Game

Okay, so it's been like 2 months since I've done a blog post, and it's not for the lack of wanting so much as the lack of time. But let's talk about the launch of Eon Altar, and where we're at today.


Launch and Beyond

Launch itself went relatively smoothly, if a little disappointingly quietly.

Only one major game breaking bug at launch that I had to hunt down, which actually only repro'd on specific devices on Android 4.4. It was bizarre to say the least, and I ended up buying two phones via Craigslist, and our Studio Manager drove down from Vancouver, BC to Seattle, WA to get a device that could repro the issue into my hands. It would've cost $300 to ship, apparently, so he and his fiancé made a day trip out of it. But I managed to use that to get a fix within 2 days of the bug being reported, so our customers really appreciated the responsiveness especially since the fix got pushed out on a Sunday evening. Instead of going to Seattle Pride I got to stay in and debug. Fun times, that. But such is the life of a developer.


We were in the Top Sellers for Newly Released Games on Steam for over a week, though, and even made #1 in the Popular New Releases for a brief period of time, which was pretty cool. Sadly we haven't been able to keep that many eyeballs on the game since, which is a little worrying. However, hopefully with PAX West upcoming we'll be able to remedy that a bit!

Taken August 23rd, 2016
The game itself has been absolutely gangbusters as far as Steam reviews go. We're at 92% lifetime, and 95% recent. At one point we were at 100% recent, but someone left a negative review because our game won't work on a publicly-run network that blocks UDP and P2P network traffic, which I mean, yeah, that sucks and is true, but feels bad that there's pretty close to nothing I can do about it. That said, given at launch we started at 88% lifetime from Early Access, our review score going up is frankly massive success as far as I'm concerned.


Post-Launch Development and Marketing

We've managed to put out an update at least once a month since a few months before launch, and even the past couple months as well post-launch, which is great for players. Content fixes and bug squashing continue apace!


But even more, we've been extremely hard at work on Episode 2: Whispers in the Catacombs. Our teaser trailer for that launched just a few hours ago, which you can see above. We're hard at work on a new Combat Arena of sorts for Episode 2, which is less an arena and more just a standalone scenario that takes shades of the Arkham Horror board game mechanically. We've done plenty of streaming every Thursday at 1 PM PST showing off us in active development, including design work, programming, and testing. And of course, can't forget the next part of the campaign, either!

Add to that what we call "dev confessionals", which is basically a micro-vlog of sorts where we talk about what we did that week and what we're excited about. These have proven moderately popular, though we missed last week's because PAX madness upcoming.



PAX West 2016

Speaking of PAX, once again we'll have a booth, and it's going to be our biggest booth yet. This is it, we've launched, we're well on our way to delivering our first piece of DLC, so we'll have lots to show (including a working Combat Arena from Episode 2!), and lots of folks at the booth to show off the game and answer questions (and give out sweet buttons). If you're going to PAX West this year, check us out on the 6th floor of the Expo Hall, booth 6909.

I'll be doing a panel at PAX Dev as well: "Mobile Enhanced: Designing for Multiple Simultaneous Screens". The talk is basically what it says on the tin, but I'm super excited. Our Lead Designer/Art guy also made me a cool social media poster, so come check that out if you're interested. I'm hoping to have it recorded, but logistics have eluded me so far.


We'll also have some folks on another panel during the convention proper, "AAA to Indie; The Struggle is Real" which will be pretty awesome. Sadly I'll be at the booth so I won't get to watch it, but it should be great, so check that out too!



Full Steam Ahead

Last year PAX West was absolutely exhausting, and frankly, I expect this one will be as well. We're going to miss the boat on an August update to the live game because PAX and marketing is pretty much all-encompassing as far as developer time goes right now. The perils of a tiny team, unfortunately.

Immediately after we're back to the grindstone to get Episode 2 done and dusted and out the door, so no rest for the wicked. I'll fully admit I'm going to need a vacation, and probably soon. My blogging will likely also continue to take a backseat until I have a few more hours in the day to myself. We're definitely crunching, and crunching hard, but there's little we can do about that. We don't have infinite money to take the extra time we'd like.

But at the same time, I'm extremely excited that we're doing as well as we are, and I can only hope that we get the eyeballs we need so we can continue doing this post Season 1, because I think we have something pretty amazing here, and based on our reviews, the folks who've played it think so too. #IndieDev, #EonAltar

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

5 Beginner Pokémon GO Tips

Okay, so you're playing Pokémon GO, and the game just throws you into the deep end of the pool with almost no explanations, and the UI is basically a whole lot of symbols that could mean just about anything. What do?

I've played about 4 hours of the game today now that it's out in the US, and here's some info I've gleaned from playing that isn't obvious. At all. But should help folks get started.


1. Random Encounters are Based on Trainer Level

Like actual Pokémon games, to find an encounter you'll want to go searching for those blasts of leaves and grass, but note that if the Pokémon is too high level for you, nothing will appear. At Trainer Level 1, you're pretty much relegated to Pidgey and Rattata, and there's not actually that many out there. At least, not in Downtown Seattle. You'll more likely get to Level 3ish using mostly Pokéstops if you're in a dense urban core. The higher your Trainer level, the more varieties of Pokémon you will encounter.

If you see a Pokémon on your screen, get it inside your trainer's circle, and then tap it to engage.


2. Capture By Flicking Your Pokéball

Once in "combat", you actually capture the Pokémon by pressing the Pokéball at the bottom of the screen and flicking it towards the critter. I've found lining the creature up near the bottom of your screen helps with the capture. It's hard to judge because there's no real angle you can view to get a good notion of depth.

When you press and hold the pokéball, you'll see a coloured circle that slowly shrinks. The colour indicates the difficulty of the capture--green is easy, yellow is mid-level, red is difficult. Godspeed to those who are red/green colourblind. If you time your capture for when the circle is at its largest, you seem to get a "Nice!" capture bonus more often.

Zubat in my room, the green concentric circle shrinks then reappears. Time your throw to start when the circle is at its largest

3. Pokéstops Give You Stuff

Pokéstops, like portals in Ingress, are generally based on popular locations or pieces of art. A fancy manhole cover; a local park bench with a plaque; a church bell. Those sorts of things. They tend to be dense in urban areas, and apparently suburban areas they're few and far between, leaving you with few options except to purchase pokéballs and other items with cold hard cash.

For the uninitiated, Pokéstops look like blue squares from afar, and when you're close enough to interact with one, it unfurls into a pokéball shape.

Blue squares are Pokéstops. The circle to the lower right if my character is a Pokéstop I can interact with.

4. Capture Everything

Even if you already have a specific Pokémon, capturing more will net you more Trainer XP, more Stardust (for upgrading Pokémon), and more Candies (for upgrading and for evolving). If you have like 30 Zubat, keep the highest CP (Combat Point) version, and then Transfer (using the button at the very bottom of the Pokémon's status screen) the rest to Professor Willow. You'll get an extra Candy for each one you transfer.


5. Pokémon Availability is Location and Time of Day

The inner core of Seattle seems to have a lot of Poison types. Down by the beach/park on the piers I found more variety, including grass, fire, and flying types. Zubat started appearing after 7PM local time, and I didn't see a Ghastly until about 10 PM local time.

Basically, Pokémon have similar "habits" to real life animals in terms of when and where they are active.

This Nidoran really wanted some Taco Bell.

#PokemonGO

Tuesday, June 14, 2016

[IndieDev] My Game Eon Altar Gets a Release Date!


So for folks who've been following my blog, I've been doing the indie dev thing for nearly 2 years now--will be 2 years as of July 1st. Eon Altar has been my baby, and what a baby it's been! But eventually children leave the nest, and we'll be pushing Eon Altar into the light, blinking and disoriented, Thursday, June 23rd.

Our announcement is here, but I wanted to talk a little about our decision making process on my blog. Some behind the scenes, if you will.


Early Access

First of all, let's chat Early Access. We've been in Early Access since August 29th, 2015. Just under 10 months. That's a decent chunk of time, but we've also had to contend with folks having other full time jobs, contract work, and losing some employees because indie and keeping the lights on is hard.

But that being said, I think slowing down a bit and getting a lot of feedback and bake time has been amazing for the game. We were nowhere near ready for release on our original launch trajectory, which would've been around May of 2015. We needed that extra year. Turns out making an RPG is hard! Who knew?

But our Early Access response has been amazing. Not as many folks as we may have hoped, but the folks who helped us out were absolutely fantastic, going the extra mile to help us narrow down bug repros, get us logs, and be patient with some of our quirks and issues. Being candid about the state of the game, what's working, and what wasn't also helped. Without their feedback, our game would be in a much worse state today.

Which led to the discussion of somehow rewarding our Early Access customers. Luke--our financial dude/lore guy/streamer/tester/other things because I'm bad at titles and indie is a lot of hats--had this really cool idea. We ran with it, of course.

Intense Tactical Discussion

Pricing

Early Access was priced extremely cheap because for us, getting our name and game out there was more important at the time than trying to wring dollars out of our (relatively few) customers. $4.99 USD is a steal for what we delivered in Early Access--Combat Arena plus about 4 hours of quality co-op RPG game play. We've had a number of reviews mention price seemed really low for what we delivered.

But for our Early Access customers we decided that we'd give them the entirety of Season 1 (Episodes 1-3) for their $4.99 USD they already gave us. It was a great way to reward them for helping us and supporting us. Folks who come in to buy Season 1 now will pay $14.99 USD (or $6.99 USD per episode if you want piecemeal).

Still damn cheap given the entirety of Season 1 runs about 12 - 15 hours of game play, plus Combat Arenas which are technically endless (a massive hit at Dreamhack and PAX East), and you can play with up to 4 players at the same time on a single copy. But we're also an unknown company, so we're cognizant that if we price ourselves too high, people won't want to take the risk. On the other hand, if we don't make money soon, continuing development becomes an issue.


Quality

We're polished enough that I'm confident in our game, even if we have a few issues remaining. Pro-tip, you'll never actually hit zero bugs in software development. Ever. Seriously.

I had 120 bugs on my plate as of two months ago, half of those blockers or criticals (versus major or minor). I've bounced between 30 and 45 I think six times now over the past three weeks? Mind you, I'm down to a total of 8 criticals and 0 blockers, so the quality is still going up; many of the bugs being logged now are major at worst, which for our definitions is not great, but shippable.

My point being is we could be here forever fixing bugs. Perfection is unattainable, despite the fact that I really, really, really, really want it to be perfect. Like the child analogy earlier, eventually you need to let them out into the daylight and hope you gave them the skills and qualities to survive and thrive.

That's not to say we won't continue releasing fixes and patches. The reality of software development--especially games--is that you're never really done. Look at Stardew Valley, continuing to make major additions and fixes after ship. But the base game is awesome and still totally worth the $15 I paid for it. But again, need to eat and keep the lights on, and our build is in fact very stable, so to release we go.



Timing

A few months back we pegged June 1st, 2016 as our release date. Thankfully we were bright enough (this time) not to promise anything too early, so when we realized we had a few more things to do, and timing-wise it was kind of crappy, so we could push the date. E3 of course is a huge blackout period. Other timings I can't discuss also nudged the date here or there, until we settled on June 23rd. Unfortunately, it's Luke's anniversary with his fiancé, but turns out our tertiary date would've been his birthday, so he couldn't win either way.

Summer in general also keeps us out of harm's way of major blockbusters, at the risk of yeah, it's summer. But being a local co-op game, maybe being summer will work for us as people want to hang out? I'm not so certain of my reasoning there.

Ideally we'll have Episode 2 out soonish after. I won't commit to a timing,but I will say if it's like 6 months after Episode 1, I will be an extremely sad panda.


Excitement and Terror

I am beyond excited for our release. Eon Altar has been my life basically for 2 years. My dream job of making a game, an RPG, and making a game that plays like no other video game that exists today. We're pushing game play, UI, and form factor boundaries that very few developers have even tried, let alone shipped.

And yeah, I've had my doubts along the way; I've had total imposter syndrome moments. Other times I've had moments where I'm like, "this is crazy, it'll never fly." But watching people play our game on Twitch, on YouTube, at PAX, Dreamhack, Casual Connect, and even in person at play tests in my apartment, I know, empirically, that we have something unique and awesome.

I'm also terrified. What if we hit it big and something horrible happens and things break? What if we never get the eyeballs we need and we fade into obscurity--which, to be brutally honest, is the more likely of the two scenarios because marketing budget and indie dev. What if, despite all evidence so far to the contrary, people just don't get it? What if people don't read my troubleshooting instructions and I just drown in debugging people's networks over forum post?

Putting the game out there to be judged on its own merits as a shipped product is a lot of pressure. And when I look at it from an analytical perspective, I'm confident we're ready for this. But that visceral, emotional reaction is still there.

9 days.#IndieDev, #EonAltar