Wednesday, November 20, 2013

Solforge:OREIAN JUSTICAR incoming to shake up the meta

The meta in Solforge currently is centered on the Savant cycle cards (Flamehaper, Darkshaper, Lifeshaper, Steelshaper), but a nerf was already incoming for the cycle in the next patch. Beyond the Savants, the meta was looking to be shaped by powerful cards such as Zimus the Undying and Everflame Phoenix who rely heavily on being able to come back on the battlefield. They both are very hard cards to deal with, especially Zimus which has very few reliable counters that can keep it off the board. Queue the Oreian Justicar; a beefy Aloyin card that causes any creature entering the field to lose massive amounts of attack power if they were not played from your opponents hand. Have a 14/7 level 3 Zimus coming back on the field? It is now a 4/7 with a level 3 Justicar in play.

This is a great for Solforge and indicates that developer Stoneblade Entertainment (SBE) is on the right path for balance. This is very much a "counter the overpowered with a direct counter" instead of an outright nerf (though there are still situations like the Savant cycle which clearly scream the need for NERF, but thats OK for a pre-release product). The Justicar is an exciting card and I think will push the Steelforged Avatar decks up a notch to the cream of the crop of meta decks. However, Justicar can be splashed in many different decks to be effective and can even be used in a deck it is specifically meant to counter which offers players wielding powerful Zombie themed decks that rely on reappearing creatures an excellent counter in a mirror match.

Well done SBE, well done.

Sunday, November 17, 2013

Judged: Guild Wars 2

Better late than never. Right? Right? Tap tap… is this thing on. Ok, there we go.

After a few restarts, I’ve reached level 80 in Guild Wars 2. (pause for applause)

This push was with an Asuran Guardian and in less than 40 hours /played I was level 80. (pause for applause)

I enjoyed my trip to 80. Leveling in GW2 is a simple process. Every action a player takes, from harvesting to crafting to killing to exploring, results in experience that contributes towards leveling. Each zone is broken down into “hearts” and dynamic events that also result in experience bonuses when completed. Zones scale players to the level of zone allowing players to play in any level zone they choose. In combination this makes leveling in Guild Wars 2 very easy and players can feel rewarded, experience-wise, for everything they do no matter where they do it.

However, with the ease of leveling and being rewarded based on their actual level in any zone, the system erodes the motivation to explore the world. Once I hit Kessex Hills and Harathi Highlands I was completing events in chains and gaining 3-4 levels per play session. Plus the current live event, Tower of Nightmares, was centered in Kessex Hills which meant that the frequency with which the events in the zone completed was increased exponentially. At one point I was literally just running from spot to spot and collecting enough experience for 25% of a single level. It seemed crazy at the time that I would move away from that gravy train of experience since the leveling curve in GW2 is flat.

I leveled to 70+ by playing in the aforementioned zones which are meant only for level 15-35 players. In terms of world completion I only hit 19%. This is all possible because of the level down mechanic which balances the player’s level (and thus reduces their inherent strength) to match the content in the zone, but it continues to provide rewards consistent with the player’s actual level as the content is evenly matched by the downgraded player level. This was a refreshing mechanic considering how most MMOGs like GW2 are designed the complete opposite and aim to punish players that don’t play in the zones that are on the cutting edge of their level range.

Yet, even though I was generously rewarded for doing what I wanted, I found myself feeling cheated once I hit 80 and I started exploring many of the zones I had not visited during leveling. There were so many events and story lines I had missed and at level 80 the progression goes from vertical to horizontal so there was little incentive for me to go and visit.

Experience is still worth gaining as each level of experience after 80 generates a skill point (which in turn can be turned into skill unlocks or converted to other rewards). However, experience gain is not a driving force at level 80 and outside of gaining karma from unfinished hearts or going for world completion I found nothing to push me towards investigating the 80% of the world I had yet to visit.

And looking further into the horizontal progression model of level 80 GW2 I quickly realized that the “path of least resistance” was the dominant theme. This pushed me further away from visiting the higher level zones as I found out about min/max things such as the Queensland champion trains. Basically, one of the most efficient gold and karma gaining methods is for level 80 players to just repeatedly complete the event chains in the level 1-15 zone (this is possible because, again, the level down mechanic balances power levels while maintaining the level appropriate rewards regardless of zone level). This simply was not appealing to me even though I’ve been known now and again to get my farm on in many an MMOG.

Some experienced GW2 players may try to point out that it is actually dungeons where the real “time vs reward” battle is won and I would probably not argue with them. However, for my tastes, I found the dungeons in GW2 to be Boring with a capital B. For the most part dungeons come down to one mechanic and one mechanic only: damage per second. DPS is king in GW2. Group healing and tanking are replaced by individual player mechanics. Every class has its own self-heal and group-based heals are weak and ineffective in dungeons. Tanking is non-existent as damage mitigation is all reliant on dodging by each player individually.

On top of this the damage-focused combat, the dungeons have been min/maxed to the extreme and outside of the occasional group looking to complete the story modes, players are looking at speed runs aimed at knocking the dungeons out quickly for maximum gain. That means even further min/max to the damage per second making everyone, regardless of class, shooting for the same exact berserker based equipment. It is just a terrible model and depletes dungeons of any sense of awe or adventure. They are simply a numbers game.

Unfortunately the poor dungeons just highlight the underlying problem with GW2: the combat system. It is fun when playing solo and makes complete sense one on one versus a creature or another player. In fact, avoiding other players for the majority of my leveling (outside of the Kessex Hills events), was the key to me lasting until level 80 this time around because once more than a couple players show up the combat breaks down and becomes devoid of feedback to the players. The sheer number of times I’ve randomly died in a group of players without a single clue as to what was about to or actually hit me is insane. Throw in champion boss enemies that are all just about standing around and beating on them and you may as well just throw the action combat out the window because it’s pointless in a game meant for players to play together. I didn’t even bother to mention the completely insane over use of area of effect skills and spells.

Fortunately World vs World vs World saves everything. Right? The Wuv d Wuv, the WuvWuv, the WvWvW, the promise of Guild Wars 2! Wrong. It’s crap. It’s so crap that I hate to even waste time typing about it. The combat problems from PvE are simply multiplied out tenfold as even more players are crowded into even smaller areas where even more AoE can be dropped. Defense? Impossible. WvW is all about zerging from point A to B to C and hoping your zerg doesn’t meet a bigger zerg that will wipe it out. It’s more efficient to let a capture point be lost than it is to attempt and defend it. Even if a good defense is put up, the doors to the keep are going to fall in a couple minutes and the keep’s champion even faster. There is no hope for a smaller defensive force to prevail. If you aren’t in the zerg you are just wasting your time.

Now I’m just angry as I type about the aspects I don’t like about Guild Wars 2. I could continue on and break down the Trading Post that makes ZERO logical sense related to the game or I could bash the completely one-dimensional crafting system but that would just grind my gears even further. In conclusion the same things that caused me to stop playing GW2 the first few times around are the same reasons that I’ve stopped playing it again after finally reaching level 80 with a character. The “action combat” makes combat feel floaty and unpredictable. Horizontal progression is just a clever way of saying grind. The use of AoE is completely out of control.

The game is absolutely gorgeous from a world design perspective, but it does nothing to encourage the exploration of or use of that world on a regular basis. Over all, the concepts of GW2 are great on paper but they are all poor in execution. I would love, and would pay handsomely, to play the game that GW2 was on paper before it launched.

Monday, November 11, 2013

The 3 MMOs you should NOT have paid attention to and the 2 NEW games TO pay attention to

In a follow up to my post from May 2012, I wanted to point out the three MMOs that you probably really didn't need to pay any attention to.

First up there was Dominus which actually had shuttered its doors prior to me even posting it's name in my 2012 post.  This was clearly a game that didn't need any attention paid to it.

The next was Salem which closed its doors in June of 2013 before ever getting to a launch phase.  Amazing ideas wrapped up in a pretty terrible game.  Please look the other way.

Lastly there was The Otherlands based on Tad Williams' novels of the same name.  This is still kicking around in Closed Beta and still has all the premise that it had last year.  However, Wildstar has pretty much come along to promise almost all the same features in a much more promising package.  I still am interested in The Otherlands, but doubt it will swing many heads it's direction when (and if) it ever launches.

Basically I suck at picking niche games that will make it big (though I still maintain I was an early adopter and fan of Minecraft before it exploded).  Instead I should probably focus my time on games that have broken out of that initial phase of skepticism and have begun proving themselves on the market.  So I present to you faithful reader the two games you should probably get up to speed on if you are not already.

Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone

If you have followed the gaming media over the past couple of weeks it would have been hard to miss the news coming out of BlizzCon 2013.  Not only was another World of Warcraft expansion announced, but Blizzard also put on display two of it's more niche titles: Heroes of the Storm and Hearthstone.

Hearthstone is a digital card game that has exploded exponentially since it's initial announcement.  The BlizzCon tournament was streamed to more than 100,000 peak concurrent watchers.  The game is only in early beta and is taking the digital card game scene by storm.  It absolutely puts to shame the focus on digital card games such as Solforge and Hex that were the Kickstarter darlings of this genre.  Hearthstone is poised to dominate and dominate quickly.  The Blizzard polish is present and the "easy to play, hard to master" mantra is on target.

Heroes of the Storm (HotS) is Blizzard's take on the MOBA genre.  They went back into the hopper with Blizzard DotA and out comes HotS which at first glance looks to be an amazing overhaul of a genre that has been, in my opinion, completely stale and unwilling to change.  League of Legends took a tiny step forward out of the hardcore insanity of what the original Defense of the Ancients was while DOTA2 from Valve copied it wholesale.  HotS is a giant leap from both.

The immediate draw to HotS is that it destroys the "learning wall" that is present in other MOBA games.  The game looks immediately approachable and understandable for the casual gamer.  Matches are on smaller maps with clear goals.  Different maps offer different ways to victory with some pretty neat graphical displays such as a ghost ship firing it's cannons to down one of the two sides defenses.

However, just as with Hearthstone, there is a very clear "easy to play, hard to master" vibe going on.  The Heroes all seemed simple enough to play without deep concerns about certain Heroes serving no purpose in a casual game.  At the same time there appears to be higher-level tactical decisions to be made.  Items and shops are gone in favor of decision trees after leveling up.

The presentation of the game also looks to be friendly and has the classic Blizzard polish.  The game is not even in a true beta form and it is being displayed and shoutcast live at BlizzCon.  This is classic Blizzard. This is why their games are amazing and leaders in their respective genres.  I've often said that World of Warcraft has spoiled me.  I have not played a game outside Minecraft, let alone an MMO, since World of Warcraft that can grab me within minutes.  I suspect both Hearthstone and HotS will be immediately familiar once my fingers set down on WASD.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

WAR, finally free 2 play

WAR is finally going free 2 play.  Unfortunately it is only until the game will be shutdown come December.
"To give Warhammer Online a proper sendoff we are opening the game to anyone free of charge that has or had an account in good standing starting October 31st, 2013," said the Warhammer team in an announcement on Friday.
I don't have much to comment on at this point.  I will probably have more to say once the game shuts it's doors for the final time.

Monday, September 23, 2013


Valve stole executed on my idea. In November 2007 I had a healthy conversation with Jeff Freeman (may he rest in peace) about an operating system (OS) completely dedicated to gaming.  At the time Fedora Core 8 was launching with it's derivative "re-spin" idea with the goal to allow anyone to use the core Linux technology to build their own OS geared for their needs.  A lot of people agreed that it was a good idea but that is sort of where the idea fizzled out as far as the core gaming scene is concerned.  Since then the Linux gaming scene has progressed slowly until today where it has now taken a step over the edge when Valve announced their Linux-derived SteamOS.

SteamOS is the first foray for Valve into the operating system realm, but it should come as no surprise considering the leaps that their flagship digital distribution platform, Steam, has taken over the years.  Steam has grown to a dominant place in the market and has continued to evolve.  Everything from community hub pages to an active marketplace is included in Steam.  It was growing into far more than a simple software platform and it now only seems logical that an operating system was the next step.

And here we are.  SteamOS is real.  Core gaming via Linux is here (and has been here to a degree for a couple years now).  This is an exciting time for the PC gaming market.  It marks the first shot fired in a war for not only the foundation of PC gaming, but for the concept of video gaming in its entirety.  Valve is gunning for the living room where a PC makes just as much sense as an Xbox One.  PC gaming is a concept more than it is a platform and it is one that the gaming market was well past due to recognize.  SteamOS will proudly carry the banner into the trenches.

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Everquest Next

My pants are wet and no, I did not spill my coffee. Everquest Next was announced and shown at SOE Live 2013. To say SOE blew many pundits away is an understatement. SOE single-handedly re-invigorated the core MMO community. Everquest Next is everything a next-generation MMO should be. It is a game changer. Everquest Next, if executed to the presentation and glimpses given, will redefine the MMO genre for the forseeable future.

It is hard, really hard, for me to congratulate SOE on anything. After all, they still have my heart locked up in some backroom safe and only bring it out every once and a while to tread over it while wearing Star Wars Galaxies promo shirts. SOE has a track record of playing second fiddle to the rest of the market. Everquest 2 was destroyed by WoW. Planetside 2, while an OK game, is a game for five years ago. Star Wars Galaxies was shelved when The Old Republic was released. SOE seemed content with simply making sequels that didn’t advance anything other than the bottom line.

With Everquest Next, SOE is looking to shed the persona of comfortable. Everquest Next does not simply feature a single game changing idea; it features several. Every pillar of what makes modern MMOs is being touched.

Everquest Next starts with the very fundamentals with a game changing voxel-based engine which allows the entire world to be torn apart and remolded on the fly. This engine is not simply a gimmick. Alongside the voxel engine being used to generate the game world, SOE is launching a tool called Landmark which will allow players to build their own pieces of the world. Objects and buildings and are all possible. To top it off, player’s can sell their creations to fellow players and earn a profit. Crafting is now an entirely new ballgame.

The best voxel-based engine still does not make for a great game. Sure it’s great that a player can dig a hole to the middle of the earth or erect their own private castle, but what drives players to explore? What pulls players together? What makes this an actual MMOG and not just a giant box of legos? The answer is again in SOE’s willingness to step outside of the norm.

The first item is the Rallying Calls which are an evolution of Public Quests from other MMOs such as WAR and Guild Wars 2. With the voxel-based engine these can take on an entire new meaning. The world can be permanently changed on the fly by the developers or the players or the AI. These changes can be different across multiple groups of players and a player starting today is going to have a completely different experience than one that started a year ago. There will be real story telling and world building at the hands of the players.

Next is emergent AI. Gone are the monster camps of dumb monsters standing around waiting to be killed and in their place are actual functioning groups of enemies with a purpose and goal. Bandits may realize a town is not frequented by players so makes the perfect place to raid and plunder. As time goes on the Bandits build up their camp nearby and take over the town until players come and kick them out. During rallying calls the players may be building a city and goblins may start appearing in the woods. If the players don’t take care of the goblins they may raid the fledgling city and set it back or destroy it outright.

There is a danger though. These ideas have been tried before. Ultima Online tried emergent AI over a decade ago and it didn’t work due to players simply killing everything in sight and it has not been tried since. The infamous “time until penis” phenomenon has plagued any and all user-generated content games. The MMO genre is famous for promises that fall flat in the face of yet another WoW-clone launching. The disappointment I have met in the MMO genre is epic and SOE was at one point the center of that disappointment. If there is any MMO developer that can fuck a good thing up it is SOE.

However, with that said, SOE has clearly listened and paid attention to the gaming scene (not just the MMO scene). They have taken innovative ideas from Team Fortress 2 (players selling assets to each other) and Minecraft (voxel-based engine and world) and brought them to a genre that no one expected to see them in: MMOs.

SOE is not making a WoW-killer with Everquest Next and I don’t get the feeling that massive success is on their mind. They are making a true MMOG with a living and breathing world aimed at the core gamers that have stuck with them as a company over the past 14+ years. This is a game that they as developers and gamers actually want to play. This is a game that I want to play. I am excited beyond words to see what Everquest Next can accomplish. I applaud SOE for taking a bold step into the minefield that is new ideas.

Thursday, August 08, 2013

First Look: Solforge

I jumped into the early access for Solforge recently on Steam. I followed it’s kickstarter campaign but did not donate to the project (I’m kind of silly like that… wanting something for the money I spend). Solforge is a digital collectible card game (CCG) that takes advantage of the digital form via cards that level as the game is played (a mechanic that would be difficult to pull off in paper form). Cards are played onto a field that contains five different lanes (sections of play that allow a creature to attack a player). Opposing players take asynchronous turns battling each other until the first player is reduced from a life total of 100 to 0. Players can play spells which impact play or other cards in various ways or they can play creatures which occupy a lane and then can attack the other player directly or end up doing battle with the opponents creature that occupies the same lane.

Solforge is unique in that it features both deck building (think Magic the Gathering) and a “build your deck as you play” mechanic (think Dominion). Solforge decks consist of 30 pre-chosen cards to start. Decks can be built from the card pools of two of the four factions (Utteran, Nekrium, Tempys, and Alloyin). As cards are played during a game they are leveled up (levels 1 thru 3). When the card is played the higher level version (or a clone if it’s already level 3) is added to the player’s discard pile. Leveled up versions of cards are more powerful. As the game progresses, the player then levels up (aka player levels referred to as P1, P2, P3, etc.) and their discard pile is shuffled into their draw deck allowing them to potentially draw the next higher level cards. This leads to big moments on turns every 4th round as the next level of cards may come into play.

The leveling system is key to Solforge and ensures that games escalate towards a conclusion. There is always a mounting sense of destruction looming over each game and when the level 3 versions of cards start hitting the board the real fireworks start going off. The leveling system also ensures that the most powerful cards are not played until after turn 8 (when P3 is reached). This allows even weak cards to have a purpose in the game during the early turns and some of those weak cards turn into much stronger level 2 and 3 versions.

Overall I really enjoy Solforge even though it has a very limited card pool currently (~60 cards) and there are some balance issues (I’m looking at you Packmaster and Hellion!). Also currently we have access to all of the cards so can build any deck as needed. In the future, cards will have to be purchased via digital booster packs or traded for from other players (both of those features are not yet in the game). Over the next week the game will see the release of the first full set of cards (most likely to be named the Alpha set). It is expected to be over 200 cards. This will significantly increase the variety the game has to offer to the early access testers.

If you are looking for a solid online CCG that will is multi-platform then Solforge is an excellent choice. Due to its asynchronous nature it makes a perfect mobile game that can be played a turn at a time and games can be stretched over a long period of time (I have games that took over a week to complete). Solforge is currently only available on PC via the Steam early access, but it will be released on iOS and Android in the future.

Thursday, August 01, 2013

Solforge deck building guide

I've played a lot of Solforge over the past few days.  Solforge is an online collectible card game that is currently in it's early access phase via Steam.  The game is a combination of build your deck as you play games such as Dominion and traditional deck building as seen in Magic the Gathering.  It features asynchronous play in turns between two players who can play spells or creatures each turn while battling it out in five "lanes" on the playing board.  Inside the industry this type of game is often referred to as a "laner".  Solforge is a good game and I want to take a minute to help out any interested new players.

Currently. there is a limited number of cards in early access and there are two well known, completely broken decks that dominate a lot of games.  However, what I'm about to talk about should apply later down the line when more cards are available to shake up the scene.

The first thought when building a deck is to decide on two factions as you can only pool cards from a max of two of the four factions in the game: Tempys, Utteran, Nekrium, and Alloyin.  To compare them to Magic the Gathering colors and play styles:

Tempys = red = quick and direct damage and DRAGON
Utteran = green = lots of big meanies
Nekrium = black = lots of creature removal
Alloyin = white/artifacts = defense, defense, and buffs

This is just a general outline, but it holds pretty true for the set of cards we have as of today.
Popular combinations currently are Nekrium/Utteran, Tempys/Nekrium, Alloyin/Utteran, Tempys/Utteran.

The next step is to decide whether you want the deck to be more spell heavy or creature heavy.  While it may be possible to go all spells, it is not recommended.  At some point, creatures will be needed on the board.  Really only the Nekrium/Tempys combination can get away with heavy spell usage.

Once a balance is decided between spells and creatures, the next step is to look at the three different versions of each card.  Each comes in a level 1,2, and 3 version.  Cards level up everytime they are played.  Example: player A plays a level 1 Death Seeker.  A level 2 Death Seeker is added to his discard pile.  When he levels up to level 2 as a player after turn 4, the player now has a chance to draw the level 2 cards that they have leveled.  Its an odd concept but it boils down to this: the cards you play determine your deck later on.

With this knowledge in hand, it is wise to look for combos that can be followed through the various levels.  Some cards may not have an ability at level 1, but their level 2 version does.  Some cards are not useful by themselves, but when combined with other cards they become key to victory.  And really the combos are where the game is won so keep your eyes out for synergistic cards.  A good example combo is Corpse Crawler and Death Seeker.  Corpse Crawler comes into play and Death Seeker is sacrificed to pay for Corpse Crawler.  This in turn triggers Death Seekers ability to return a 5/5 creature to the board in it's place. Add this into the Grimgaunt Devourer who receives + to attack and defense anytime a creature dies and a player can quickly build up a combo engine to dominate the field.

The end goal is build a deck around a solid combo engine.  The over all deck size is 30 cards.  At 30 cards total, it is very likely that in the first few turns the required cards for the combo engine will come up together.  After that engine is established it is all about support and escalation.

Due to the nature of the leveling of cards, Solforge matches quickly escalate into slug fests which brings games to a finish relatively quickly compared to other card games where stall tactics can be used to drag games out.  With this tidbit to mull over, players need to consider what exterior cards from their core combo engine benefit the most from that engine as well as provide the late game strength needed to push for a victory.  If a player finds themselves losing right as level 3 cards start to appear in hand, then chances are the deck lacks sufficient level 2 strength.  If the deck ends up in a level 3 slug fest with multiple rounds of level 3 cards facing off, then chances are the deck lacks a finisher.

Play testing is key.  There is no easy tip to give when a deck fails to even get to the level 3 cards.  Evaluating how a deck played and where it struggled in the flow of the game is critical.  Sometimes looking back on a game log shows where a wrong play was made or maybe where a creature was left on the board at 1 life and a slight deck adjustment may mean next time that creature won't be hanging around with 1 life.  There are a lot of variables to consider so play a lot of games.  Bad decks will generally fail at the same phase of play.

With all of this said, here is what I have been playtesting for over 7 hours of Solforge gameplay:

3x Cull the weak
3x Lightning Spark
3x Death Seeker
3x Ashuran Mystic
3x Uranti Bolt
3x Corpse Crawler
3x Magma Hound
3x Epidemic
3x Firestorm
3x Grimgaunt Devourer

The theme is control and the main combo engine is centered on feeding Grimgaunt Devourer plenty of deaths; both your own troops and your opponents.  Complimenting this are plenty of removal cards that help keep the lanes clear for beefed up Grimgaunt's later in the game.  I've also bred in some balance to handle a few unique situations that are popular in the current meta game.  The deck so far is at about a 40% win rate (keep in mind, there are just flat out broken decks currently because of the limited card pool and they get played all.. the... freaking...time).  Against the hard AI, I enjoy more around a 75% win rate (again losing to the problematic decks).

EDIT: Corrected guide to reflect that deck size remains at 30 throughout the game.