Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Player 3 has joined the game!

A little late to the blog but my second son has joined the game world as of Jan 18th!  For the astute observers; yes that is 9+ years since player number two (i.e. my first son).

I probably should say "player 4" as my wife counts but couldn't find an applicable image!

Monday, January 07, 2019

What's wrong with Artifact?

It is no secret that Valve's new game, Artifact, is struggling; down from a peak player count of 60k at launch to just a bit over 5k a month later (a 90% drop).  The question is why? What's wrong with the game? 

Prior to the launch of the game the big areas of contention were around the business model; you have to buy the game, you have to buy tickets to play in prize modes, and there is a market to buy/sell cards.  The leading argument is that in a free-2-play world no one wants to pay up and thus Artifact is struggling. However, I would like to posit that maybe there is a different reason.  Maybe Artifact isn't any fun.

I defended Valve's approach to Artifact with a pay-up-front and pay-to-play model.  I still defend it.  I dropped $50 into Steam to spend on Artifact and early on I paid in happily for cards I wanted and tickets/packs I needed for game modes.  This was on top of paying $20 for the game to begin with!  As there are free modes for folks to play in the "buy an event ticket to enter" modes were just another option.  An option, in my opinion, that brought serious competition as no one was buying in without something on the line.  Combine that with the skill-heavy game that Artifact is and you have a recipe for a desirable competitive experience.

However, what I hadn't calculated in my early splurge of spending is that Artifact is, at it's core, not much fun to play. 

Cards represent actions and units within the game, but much of the rest is set up through the magic of a computer.  A paper version of this game would never exist. The sheer amount of random elements would bog a physical iteration of the game down to the point it would be unplayable and I have a hunch that any card game I wouldn't want to play in the real world is a card game I wouldn't want to play digitally.

A game of Artifact starts by a random placement of key cards on the battlefield.  Your three starting heroes are placed, at random, in a starting lane.  They are joined by randomly assigned creeps.  Your opponents heroes and creeps join the battlefield in the same random manner.  Then each hero and creep has a chance to randomly decide the direction of their attack if they are not opposite an opponents creep or hero.  Following this you are dealt a random hand of cards and a toss up on who goes first. 

The first act a player takes in a game is triage which I've found to put me immediately on edge. I had little say in getting to this stage outside of showing up with a deck.  There is no mulligan for the cards I drew and more importantly to me there is no mulligan to redo initial hero placement.  In most card games there are no cards that start on the board and the most random element is your starting hand which in most games allow for a mulligan to get a chance at a more favorable start.  Artifact is basically starting the players on turn six of any other card game with no chance of influencing how the game state was derived.

The game is only possible via the magic of a computer.  A paper version of this game would never exist. The sheer amount of random elements JUST TO START THE GAME would bog a physical iteration of the game down to the point it would be unplayable.  If this was a physical game it is very likely the game starts with a blank board state and the players drive each step of set up.  There is no reason not to take this approach in a digital game.  I cannot emphasize how NOT FUN it is to watch a game play itself before turning it back over to you as the player.

This would be recoverable if the game beyond the random set up offered some excitement, but the turns beyond that initial set up are equally sprinkled with randomness.  But at least in subsequent turns the player gets to decide the lane placement for heroes joining the fight!  Well excpet its still a random placement within the actual lane.  It may be a game winning drop into an open spot or it may be a flop into a death trap. 

The crazy thing is the random elements really don't feel game breaking or game deciding.  There is a ton of opportunity for player skill and it delivers a neat puzzle each turn which fires the thinking side of the brain. 

Unfortunately the options for solutions to those puzzles are not that interesting.  Item card (assuming you get past the random shop options); little impact when played and have to activate it later.  Modify a hero with a couple stat points?  That's anti-climatic.  Play a creep to fill a spot and watch it randomly decide a direction to attack (hope it was the one you wanted).  That creep may be useful.  Activate an ability on a hero that likely does nothing. 

About the only cards of substance are spells and only in the few cases where they actually have impact.  The majority are of little impact to play (like literally just change the direction of an attacker... which was randomly assigned in the first place).  The ones that are fun to play are pretty much no fun for your opponent and thus are what some may call "overpowered".  Take Annihilation for example; wipes an entire lane of all heroes and creeps,  That's fun!  Because once its not your turn you have no counter-play opportunity.  You just sit back and take whatever your opponent plays and if Annihilation was the play THEN THAT'S WHAT YOU GET.

No, I don't want to argue for "counter spell" in Artifact, but I do want to argue that there should be just as many fun and interesting options to react to the "overpowered" spells as there is in casting them in the first place.  Artifact is an asynchronous game with players passing turns back and forth with no interaction whatsoever with your opponents turn.  That is fine, but if the most boring of items, hero, or creature abilities are going to require two turns to realize and thus allow for maneuvers to get out of the way then the game-ending spells should also allow for some creative game play rather than just taking it up the butt each turn against mono-Blue decks.

Ultimately what I am trying to drive towards here is that Artifact is NOT fun because it never feels like you are in control of playing the game.  You are at best watching a series of events unfold and pulling some levers to control each scene.  Playing a card on a hope and dream it does what it is supposed to isn't much fun.  Sure; getting counter-spelled in other card games isn't any fun but at least I know what my cards will do if they make the table. 

Also most other digital card games represent things as cards.  Artifact can't even do that.  Cards turn into little flying discs if they are improvements and cards that are hero items disappear into little boxes on the hero cards they are played on.  Is it too much too ask to show cards as cards?

I hate that I don't find any fun in Artifact.  I've struggled this entire post not to mention another digital card game I am having a blast with even though it suffers from serious drawbacks in a digital best-of-1 game format.  I hate to compare the two but the game I am referring to delivers a very complex and synchronous gameplay experience in a clean digital package while Artifact totally avoids players interrupting each other's turns.  Throw in what feels like an eternity for a timer for your opponent to make a decision and I'd just as easily fall asleep as I would finish a game of Artifact at this point.

I am very worried that Valve will try the free 2 play route which won't address any of the less fun parts of the game which will do nothing more than speed the death of the game.   Valve; I never expected Artifact to be boring and no fun to play.  Please fix.


Monday, December 24, 2018

Happy Holidays 2018

Happy Holidays or whatever.

Saturday, December 01, 2018

Initial Thoughts: Artifact

Valve's new digital collectible game, Artifact, launched this past week.  I've had the chance to play a few games, craft a couple decks, and give the market a whirl.  Below are my initial thoughts on what I've experienced and where I would like to see the game improve.

When I first opened Artifact the game dropped me into a tutorial game against a bot.  The tutorial game advanced quickly and taught the basics.  Another tutorial game followed teaching more nuanced mechanics.  The tutorial did a good job of making me feel ready to play against other players.

After the tutorial I was dropped into a menu screen that was a bit confusing.  Having come from playing a good bit of MtG Arena lately it was a little bit of a shock to see so many options.  On top of collection/deck building options there was solo play (against bots), casual play (free modes), tournaments, social play, and a special event called "Call to Arms". 

I opted to jump into the casual constructed best of one queue.  I selected one of the pre-constructed decks given to new players who bought the game and a game was found within seconds.  The game started and after a couple turns it was obvious I was NOT ready to play against other players.  Effects were triggering, cards were being played, and I had no idea what was going on.  After following Artifact for the better part of a year, having watched endless streams, this came as a shock.

Artifact is a beautiful video game.  I emphasize video because Artifact has a lot going on visually.  This is not just a card game in a digital medium.  The board is an actual environment.  There are two animated imps that fly around carrying you and your opponent's deck and prompting you to take actions (or cringing/cheering at the action you just took). 

However, in this visual feast what is happening in the game is easily lost.  That card your opponent just played?  It disappeared and maybe you saw the animation on what it targeted.  It may not even have been a card; it could have been an activated ability or an item effect.  Add onto this confusion with a board that is really three boards (called lanes) and the fact that some actions occur in other lanes than the one you are focused on the player can lose track of what is going on.

This was the major wake up moment for me that Artifact was not just another card game.  As I continued to play and learn how to interpret actions that were occurring the more my thought on the game shifted from card game to strategy game.  After several rounds my mind was settled: Artifact is a strategy game that decided to use cards as a representation of units and actions in the game.

One could argue that Artifact is a card game taking full advantage of running on a digital medium.  There are a lot of random aspects; from random creep cards that spawn each turn with random directions they may attack to many cards with a percentage chance to do something.  These random actions happen seamlessly thanks to the power of a computer.  In a physical game this many random play elements would not work.

My contention will be that Artifact could have represented all components of the game via 3D models.  The game board could have been a top down battlefield map without a "board game" feel.  Units could have been 3D models.  And the game would likely feel exactly the same!  Why it was made as a card game I don't know and I'm not sure if it helps or hurts in the long run.  Thus far I am not convinced that Artifact should be treated as a digital card game or compared to games like MtG Arena.  It is much more comparable to it's source, DOTA2, than MtG Arena.

One thing I can say though is I'd love to see some key UI concepts lifted for MtG Arena and applied to Artifact.  MtG Arena does a masterful job of distilling a complex rules set from paper MtG into an understandable user experience that doesn't require years of MtG experience to understand.  One of the best features when playing MtG Arena is that every card or effect that is triggered does two things very well. 

1) It stays open for long enough for the opposing player to register and allows for the player to acknowledge the action (or respond if applicable)

2) The game displays arrows that show what card/effect targets what.  If there are multiple targets/sources then there are multiple arrows.

While the arrows and stack of actions can grow large and complex it helps newer players navigate a very complex game with little trouble.  In fact; I'd say it makes MtG look like a very simple game.  Over time as a player grows comfortable with MtG Arena they can skip through most of the actions.  Plus there is the option to flip into a full control mode whereby every small action is taken manually which allows for advanced players to execute some of MtG's more complex plays.

Artifact really needs some sort of equivalent.  When a card or effect is played the game should pause, show the player what initiated the action, draw arrows between targets and initiators, and then let players click to allow the game to proceed.  While there is no ability for an opposing player to "interrupt" an action as there is in MtG there is still the need to allow the opposing player to process what just occurred.  Especially as a digital game where the player can't point or indicate what they are doing.  The player is completely reliant on the UI and the current state of Artifact's UI is mixed.

On top of needing to improve the UI to show interactions better the games iconography could use some polish.  As mentioned above; Artifact is very much a video game.  The eye popping visuals, voice acting (every card's lore snippet can be voiced out loud), and 3D board are very well done.  But many times that comes at the expense of being able to quickly ascertain what is what.

The biggest "huh?" of this category are the Improvements cards.  These cards, once played, establish a permanent effect for a single lane on the board.  However, instead of representing the played improvement as a card it is instead converted into a TINY (relative to the rest of the game elements) floating disc with very hard to distinguish symbol.  The disc then fires out, visually, it's effect (if applicable).  As many of these effects happen at the start of the turn in the lane right after the sweeping camera pans over the board they can be easily missed.  And good luck new player if you don't have initiative and your opponent drops a card or triggers an effect right away; you will have a heck of a time trying to figure out that improvement. 

Improvements should be represented as cards in a second row next to the tower in the lane.  Period.  Get rid of the floating discs.

Also of concern is the icons on cards that indicate what card type they are.  With the almost full-art approach of the cards (art takes up majority of what you see of a card) the icon can quickly get lost in the background.  Especially item cards where you are trying to determine what slot they go onto heroes (fortunately the game warns you if you are about to accidentally play one item over another slotted item).  I'll also briefly mention the color of the rarity symbols on some COMMON cards make them look exactly like the RARE color.

Artifact needs to improve the user experience.  Not only for the players playing, but for streaming (which is now a key piece for games of this nature).  As I mentioned I watched a lot of streamers play before the game released.  I am shocked (baffled even) how many core concepts I missed because they simply don't come across on a stream.  Having played now there is so much more that I understand about streams but still have a hard time actually tracking either in game or in a stream.

Underneath the UI is a decent game.  I've enjoyed the matches I have played thus far and Artifact is the first "card game" where I've felt I am not directly reliant on the draw of cards.  The game offers so many other decisions to make that whether you drew the right card to play or not is not as impactful.  This is helped by each lane of the board having its own resource pool (mana) which eliminates the need to draw basic "land" cards. 

One area I was nervous about going into the game was the random elements, but after playing matches the random elements don't sway the game very much.  For cards with percentage base effects I never felt like they were priced (in regards to in game resources) in a manner where they felt broken.  Yes, there are times where Cheating Death (arguably the most disputed "random effect" card) is going to result in a "really!?" moment, but if you look at the cost to play and the set up required to benefit there is no other way I see the card existing.  If the card was changed to a more specific effect it would either be completely useless or so expensive to play that it becomes a fringe card.

The other major random components are the creeps that spawn in the lanes each round and how placement occurs for those creeps as well as heroes.  Players select what lane a hero enters but not what specific spot they enter in.  They could be placed against the opposing players best hero, placed against a creep, or land in an open slot with a free shot at the opposing tower.  This can result in some frustrating moments where a player's hero is put in a no-win situation, but more often than not the placement just changes the way the player will approach their turn.  It really becomes a strategic component for better players to adapt to the environment. 

Also randomly assigned is the direction a creep or hero attacks.  It may be straight ahead or to the left or right.  This means a player could play a strong creep into an open lane only to have it randomly attack left and miss an opportunity to hit the opponent's tower for damage.  Frustrating when it happens, yes, but it is also part of the strategy in each lane and rewards strategies designed to go wide and push out creeps/heroes so they have no other option than a straightforward attack (the random attack direction doesn't apply if there is no other target).

Randomness is part of Artifact and it's neatly woven into the strategy and tactics of the game.  It will bite a player every once and a while, but if player's focus on the right decisions rather than banking on random results they will win out in the long run.

The game being split into three lanes also opens the door for creative planning.  Players have to win two lanes by destroying the tower in each or win a single lane twice by first destroying a tower and then beating a stronger tower (called an ancient).  I have now played in enough games to know there is legitimate opportunity to build decks and play in ways that either prioritize the first lanes or focus on the last lane in some regards. 

Just last night I had a game where I gave up on the last lane knowing that if I could win the first two lanes I could beat win before my opponent won twice in the last lane. That was not my strategy going into the game but my switch to a focus on the first two lanes paid off as I ended up with just enough damage to finish the middle lane and win.  The key moment was on hero re-deployment my opponent chose to double down on the last lane to finish the game while I opted to not defend and risk being able to take the first two lanes.

That game made me feel good.  It made me feel like I outplayed my opponent.  At no point was I waiting to draw the right card.  My opponent made a choice and played towards it.  I took a risk and played towards it.  Looking back at the game I realize what felt like a risk at the time was actually the right play.  With what I had I had a good chance of winning the first two lanes.  My opponent had a guarantee to win the game in the third lane and likely had plans to deal with any defense I threw in.  That win still feels good a day later.

And that is the magic I've found with Artifact at this point.  That game was with a deck I constructed myself from cards I got from packs and a few I bought off the market because I thought they'd be fun to try out.  Playing the game and realizing my choices during the game matter as much as my deck construction is a good place for a game to be at.  I can get past the poor UI experience if the underlying gameplay is rewarding.  Throw in the other game modes I've not tried yet and I think Valve has a solid game on their hands.  It won't be for everyone, but for those that enjoy tense gameplay with rewarding decision making then this is the game.

I feel remiss if I don't mention the monetization model for the game.  The game costs $20 to get in the door and then the competitive modes cost tickets ($1 each) to play in.  The keeper draft modes cost tickets plus the purchase price of packs.  Players can also buy and sell cards on the market (top end cards are going for $20+).  There are free versions of all modes to get players comfortable before committing to spending event tickets.  None of the free versions reward cards or resources and are just for practice purposes.  There is also a special event (and assumed to be more) where players can play with decks they don't own. 

Ultimately the core gamers that stick with Artifact will end up paying to play and I think most will feel validated with the experience they have in the game.  There will be a subset of card game players who don't adapt well to Artifact's more-strategy-game-than-card-game approach and thus will feel jilted by having to pay to play in some modes, but those folks wouldn't likely stick around in a free-2-play model either.  Either you will like Artifact or you won't.  If you do you can play the free modes or you can pay to play wherever you want to be at.  The market will give those that want to the ability to buy the deck they want to play. The market will also give players ways to pull value (in the form of Steam wallet cash) if they are winning more than losing (event ticket modes pay the winners in packs which can result in excess copies of cards to sell on the market).

I need more time in Artifact to determine where it fits in the long-term (I'm still really, really liking MtG Arena), but right now I've found myself enjoying the game and feeling good paying up for some cards I wanted.

Things I want to try next:
1. Draft (casual phantom first; then keeper)
2. Competitive constructed
3. Play more Call to Arms to see how different deck types play out (without having to source the cards)

Tuesday, November 27, 2018

Types of gamers

This article title over at PC Gamer caught my eye today:  "Destiny 2's mysterious Black Armory expansion doubles down on putting 'hobby' players first." Specifically the term hobby player.  This prompted me to think of the way I classify gamers as I'd never considered "hobby" as a type of gamer.  Gaming itself is a hobby, but classifying a gamer as a "hobby" gamer?  I am not sure that makes sense.  In my view gamers come in three main types.

Before we get to my three types of gamers I want to get the concept of "hobby" gamer out of the way.  The article never explicitly defines the term but quotes from the Destiny 2 developer help frame the use: "...people who live and breathe their hobby playing a videogame..." and "...a community that wants a hobby more than something that comes and goes over the space of one week..."  Based on that context my take is "hobby" = hardcore.  Now on to my types.

My three types are Casual, Core, and Hardcore gamers.  A quick description of each:

The Casual gamer
  • Plays occasionally; contrary to popular belief they don't make up a large segment of any game's population with the exception of mobile games
  • Plays mainstream games; especially free 2 play
  • Not likely to monetarily invest in games unless it buys their way ahead in the game
The Core gamer

  • Plays daily; makes up the bulk of a game's players
  • Plays mainstream games and willing to dabble in non-mainstream games
  • Likely to monetarily invest in games they like

The Hardcore gamer

  • "Plays" doesn't begin to describe what these gamers are doing; they are "living and breathing" their games day in and day out (hence my association to the hobby term in the article)
  • Plays any game, any time, any where if it piques their interest
  • Invests monetarily in games (likely to pre-order and buy special editions of games)
  • At the same time they are willing to invest in games they are the most likely group to grind out free 2 play games to avoid paying

I don't think there is much discussion to be had around the hardcore gamer type.  They are easy to pick out of a crowd and there is no doubt about who they are when playing an online game.  This is a desirable audience for every game to attract as they become the word of mouth that carries games into popularity or helps stem the tides of negativity when the plebeians rise up against a game.

Of more value is discussing Casual vs Core gamers as I feel they get confused as one and the same.  And more importantly is how often developers miscalculate these gamers and that is exactly what I read-between-the-lines in the PC Gamer article that prompted this post.

From my outside observer point of view; Destiny 2 missed for many Core gamers but the game carried forward a key Hardcore audience from the Destiny 1.  In the article the discussion of satisfying "hobby" gamers is placed against a message of "disappointed about the financial results of past Destiny 2 expansions".  Those messages conflict when you take into consideration that the Hardcore (aka hobby) gamers aren't what drive population in a game.  Core gamers are the key in that regard.

Core gamers are gamers like me.  I used to be hardcore (and then I got married, got a job, and had a kid).  I get confused as still hardcore (duh, I have a gaming blog!) because I can talk to the talk and on release of a new game I may indulge myself a little bit (staying up to 2 am a couple nights in a row isn't that hardcore).  I generally play games daily and am willing to part with money for the experience.

As a Core gamer I am looking for simplicity in my gaming choices; how do I get in and make the most of my time.  Games that deliver on that are likely to attract my attention.  This is why I am enjoying MtG Arena and looking forward to Artifact.  MtG Arena is a generous free 2 play game where I don't have to invest money while Artifact is a mostly pay-to-play game.  Both of them actually end up getting into my wallet for the same amount.  Neither one is out there looking to please the "hobby" gamer.  In fact; they really hit Core gamers pretty spot on.  MtG Arena through the free 2 play generosity and Artifact through the no-shame fact they are charging players to play the game and will allow players to buy to exactly the spot they want to be at.

That is where it feels like Destiny 2 misses.  Just reading the article and hearing about expansions and free seasonal updates and then paying for season passes; my Core gaming mind is gone to other games.  I was almost pulled in when Destiny 2 was free on Battle.net, but it was so confusing to know what I was getting into.  Like; do I need to buy expansions or not?  Do I need the pass?  Was this a Guild Wars 2 type experience where I can buy once and jump back in whenever I want for no cost?  Or was this something else where I was going to have to tap that pass each time?

Ultimately what I am getting at is that as far as types of gamers go Core gamers get confused to one side or the other and in that light its easy to see a developer to miss us.  I probably would have picked up Destiny 2 if the updates/expansions made any sense to me and it was clear how I could play the game with or without paying (again, as a Core gamer I'm not opposed to paying).  But reading an update going towards the "hobby" player makes me turn away.  I don't plan to live and breath any game anytime soon.  I am sure the Hardcore Destiny 2 players have already paid up and will keep paying up but no doubt we'll keep seeing the "disappointed in Destiny 2 financials" as the Core gamers are missed.




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