Adding more paid content to League of Legends

September 30, 2010

I saw a thread today on the LoL boards from Riot asking whether players would be ok with paying for additional features for the game. The thinking behind this was that if they are paid features, Riot can hire more people to create them rather than continuing as they are today and only having a staff supported by what they sell now. Unfortunately the post was vague in terms of WHAT those features were, and I’m guessing the reason I can’t find the link to it now is that it was deleted for exactly this reason. Well I saw it, and so here comes a post.

For starters, the idea of a donation box is a joke, and the only ones suggesting that idea are the cheap bastards who want to pay nothing and get AAA quality. You scum don’t count.

With that out of the way, I think there are a number of things Riot could introduce and sell that would still keep the core “you can’t buy power” design intact. The key is to not only design features that players would find attractive enough to pay for, but also something that would become a continues revenue stream rather than a one-time jolt. This is primarily an MMO blog, so I think you know where this is going.

Yup, subscription costs.

Be they tiered ($5, $10, $15) or not, subscriptions are by far the best way to generated repeat revenue, and so long as the price lines up with what is being offered, it would work. I’d start with a sub granting you access to the test server and a limited access test forum. This would allow those who pay to test out the latest patch, get an early look at new changes/features, and theoretically have a stronger influence on the game thanks to the test forum. Along those lines, I’d also create a subscriber-only forum viewable to all that would get increased coverage by Riot employees. Questions about balance, item design, theory, whatever; if you pay you are more likely (but not guaranteed) to get an answer directly from the source, plus less posts overall generally means higher total quality (basically any sub forum vs general).

I’d also discount skins and champions for subscribers, and perhaps have early access (as short as a week, as long as a month) to new skins as well. In addition, subscribers would get a monthly Riot Points bonus, so that even without spending MORE, you could still take advantage of the discount. Of course the idea is that once you start buying skins and such, you will be enticed enough to continue, and so subscribers would still buy additional Riot Points to feed the addiction, and this would not cap the amount any given player COULD spend on the game.

Finally I’d include side benefits like faster queue times, exclusive IRC dev chats, special forum and in-game icons, whatever ‘fluff’ to make the package more enticing without a massive dev effort.

Another area of potential similar to subs would be clans. Currently LoL has zero clan support, which is a very clear oversight in a game so dependant on playing with others, and while the current friends list is ‘good enough’, it could be so much more. A baseline clan (free) would just be a tag on your summoner name and a clan friends list. Those who pay a monthly “clan maintenance” fee could get additional benefits like clan vs clan matches (normal and ranked), clan statistics (similar to the current stats page for ranked games, but a cumulative one for everyone in the clan), member ranks and associated icons or colors, etc. Again whatever fluff that can be added to make it worthwhile but not require a massive effort. And the price would of course depend on how robust the features are and just what the market will accept. It could be as low as $3-$5 a month, or as high as $20 per clan, it depends on what’s added.

What can’t really be sold are things like maps, champions, runes, or anything else that is ‘core’ to the game or has a gameplay impact. Skins of course are just a visual, and clans, while helping a player OUTSIDE of a game, would do nothing a pre-made can’t do today. Many suggested downloadable solo player content, and while this would not in any way effect the ‘free’ game in terms of balance, it could potentially cost more to develop than it would be worth, especially since it would literally add NOTHING to those who don’t buy it. At least with clans and subs, the freeloaders can still see these things in-game and on the forums, which might motivate them to spend.

It’s definitely an interesting topic however, as the possibilities are many, and the chance for error great.

Chuck-o-the-day: Chuck Norris always has a smirk on his face when he watches the show I Didn’t Know I Was Pregnant.

Swing and a Miss: Dice or You?

September 29, 2010

The somewhat recent re-launch of EGM magazine has, so far, delivered. The new quarterly version contains more interviews and ‘blog-like’ content than just a slew of preview and review sales hype (though it still has some of that as well), and overall just comes across as an in-depth look at the current state of gaming and what direction key people are taking it in. It’s odd that someone like me, who already reads a ton of gaming coverage online, would need yet another source, but the new EGM manages to deliver unique and interesting content, and while the computer is fine for reading, physically having a magazine in your hand is a nice change of pace as well.

In the most recent issue EGM interviewed Todd Howard from Bethesda, and while overall an excellent interview, one part jumped out at me as being both so obvious and yet so critical. Todd was talking about the difference between The Elder Scrolls Morrowind and Oblivion, specifically the “to hit” dice roll that was used in Morrowind and removed in Oblivion. His point was that for core gamers, we accept a “to hit” dice roll, but for ‘casual’ gamers, it’s confusing to see your character swing a sword, the sword look like it connects, yet the result being that you just missed. He explains that the change was rather simple overall in terms of balance; in that they wanted to keep the overall length of combat the same, so they simply tuned down the amount of damage each swing deals in Oblivion to compensate for the fact that you can’t miss due to a bad dice roll.

In almost every MMO, the “to hit” dice roll exists, along with the stat to track it. In something like WoW it’s far easier to accept due to how static the combat is. You run up to a mob or it runs up to you, you both stand and exchange attacks, and either the mob or…. well the mob dies. The scrolling combat text will inform you of hits or misses, and the miss is needed to add at least some variety to an otherwise almost static and pre-determined sequence. Bonus points for having yet another stat to tack onto items and get players to chase.

In a game like DDO or Fallen Earth, missing is more difficult to accept, because although you can tab-target mobs, you are still required to run up to them to engage, positioning somewhat matters, and you can freely swing in the semi-active combat systems. It’s an odd mix, similar to what Morrowind had going for it. Looking at it after reading the interview, it’s almost like game designers feel compelled to include such dice rolls to keep the RPG-ishness of the game, when in fact such an inclusion seems to only detract from the experience.

Darkfall has no “to hit” stat or dice roll, and instead gives the player full control over whether they hit a mob/player or not. The advantage is greater reliance on player skill vs lucky dice, but this also means that the gap between the elite and the ‘average’ is very noticeable. In a game with auto-targeting, while hopefully player skill still factors in, even someone fairly inexperienced can target someone and deal some damage, contributing to the battle. In Darkfall, a highly skilled player (or mob) will run circles around you and ‘flawless’ you in combat, which can lead to frustration and a feeling of hopelessness.

In EVE, hit or miss is actually a deep (and very confusing) system that smart players will use to their advantage, because rather than a set “to hit” statistic or random dice roll, hitting in EVE is a complex calculation with variables that the player can, in part, control. Whether this is a step up or step down from straight dice rolls or all-aim systems depends on both the game and the player playing it. It’s fun to master a game and see improvement, but do you really want to be doing algorithmic calculations during your one hour of ‘downtime’?

It’s also important to note that like many current MMO system, part of the adoption of the “to hit” dice roll is due to early technology. When everyone was gaming on a 28.8k connection, it would have been impossible to ask a game to do complex collision detection calculations, and so the latency-friendly “stand and trade” system became popular. Technology has caught up however, and what was once difficult is now very possible, so the question remaining is do the players want the change?

As noted here before, exposing a player’s skill level is not something you always want to do, as most people highly overestimate just how good they really are, and when the illusion is shattered, many don’t take it well, especially when that skill level is directly compared to others. It’s one thing for Oblivion to ask you to aim, and punish you when you miss. You always have the option to turn the difficulty down, and no one will know you played the game on “lulznoob” level but you.

It’s entirely something else when you start getting kicked from a raid because you can’t hit a boss 95% of the time, or someone destroys you in PvP despite the fact that you have a superior character and gear. Even worse, what if the base PvE game is tuned to a certain level of skill, and you are just under that? Do we see the creation of an ‘easy’ server, with all that comes with it? Or do you simply drop the skill level to the lowest common denominator? If you can distract everyone with shinies, it might work, but if player skill is actually a core feature, what then?

PAX East 2011

September 29, 2010

PAX 2011 is still a few months away, but I picked up two 3 day passes yesterday just to ensure availability. I foolishly missed PAX 2010 and ended up regretting it, so that same mistake won’t be made in 2011. Considering the location is about 20 minutes from where I live, it’s really a no-brainer decision. The schedule for the event is not out yet, but considering how huge PAX is overall, and how well received the PAX East event was last year, I’m sure it will be a blast.

Chuck-o-the-day: Jesus follows Chuck Norris on Twitter.

Civilization V : The flaws

September 28, 2010

As I said before, Civilization V is a phenomenal improvement to an already incredible series, and any fan of TBS games should already have it. But with that said, it’s by no means perfect, and outright lacking in some areas that have me both confused and a little worried.

One of the things that jumps out at me as unfinished or missing is the lack of end-game replay or extensive history information. In previous games you could watch a mini-review of the game you just played, seeing city placement and growth, wars and conquest, and major events like wonders being created or great people being born. I loved this not only for a chance to ‘relive’ the game I just played, but as a learning tool on how to improve. This is simply missing from Civ V, and for me really takes away from the joy of finishing the game. On top of this, the ‘ending’ is just one picture based on your victory type (or loss), and aside from one demographics table, that’s it.

Now I’m hoping a future patch simply adds the replay function to the game, and perhaps gives some extra bang to victory. My fear is that this might be part of some $5-$10-$15 DLC ‘bundle’. I won’t mind having the option to buy different civilizations, units, or technologies, but selling what I would consider core features as extras won’t sit well with me.

Another area that really could use some work is knowing exactly what the AI is thinking. Currently it’s simply too difficult to tell whether someone is buddy buddy with you or getting ready to drop a nuke. It’s also difficult to see the effects of not accepting a deal, of giving someone a resource, or from making demands. One would assume making demands makes people angry, or that giving them a resource makes them happy, but it would be nice to get a little more feedback here. I’m not asking for a +1 Rep! ding to pop up or to see a + – table next to a leader, but I do feel SOMETHING is missing here.

The saddest part about this is that finally you have more diplomatic options in Civ V, like the ability to show your displeasure about another civ settling in ‘your’ area, or the ability to work against another civ without declaring outright war. These and others are great additions, but they are somewhat muted by the fact that you can’t really tell their full effect.

Finally, the AI could use a few lessons in the art of war. While I don’t feel the AI is as bad as some make it out to be, it’s always a little disheartening when you see an enemy charging you with cannons, his infantry a few hexes behind. Or outright frustrating when your city-state ally prefers to bomb spearmen in a jungle two hexes away when the city has three units of knights right next to it ready to overtake it in the following turn.

So far most of my wars have not really been much of a challenge, and when they are it’s because the AI outguns me by a large margin. Watching a war between two AI opponents is at times like watching a cripple fight (no offense to my normal-life-function-challenge readers (that’s the current PC term for the handicapped, right?)). My guess here is that a future patch will have some AI improvements, but hopefully it arrives sooner rather than later.

I’m not going to address multiplayer myself as I’ve yet to try it, but Paragus has a good Civ V review up that raises some issues on that topic. Again, it just sounds like Civ V got shipped a little early, and some of the final polish is still missing. The MMO gamer in me accept it and can look past it for now, but I’m wondering how many ‘normal’ gamers are feeling a little down right now. I’ll lay the blame firmly on the city that declared the release date “Civ Day”, that’s a lot of hype to live up to and you can’t really delay once that’s happened, now can you?

Removing player skill crits you for 1.034%

September 28, 2010

Put this one under “accessible” benefits please.

WoW dev Ghostcrawler is wondering why the meta game in WoW includes (or excludes, depending on who you ask) a large section of the player base, and more or less defines the culture of the game. What’s funny/sad about this is not just that a dev himself can’t see the answer, but other bloggers are missing it as well.

The reason you chase/enforce getting every last % of optimization out of your players is because that’s the only thing separating them. When you have removed all player skill from your game to make it more ‘accessible’, the only thing left as a challenge is number crunching, learning the pattern, and repeating what you just watched on YouTube. And when you in turn tune your game to that assumption, why in the world would you wonder why your players are playing it that way? ESPECIALLY when you (to mask the lack of actual content being added) yourself gave them even ‘better’ tools (achievements, gear score) to sort through the thousands of empty number husks you call players.

There is a reason good Darkfall players don’t obsess over ‘maxing out’, while people who constantly find themselves bleeding on the ground complain about the grind. There is a reason a ‘vet’ can roll a new character and in less than one month put up a PvP video showing how he wrecks ‘vets’ in PvP. It’s also the same reason you will see people with beastly characters still boring themselves to tears grinding out a 4th melee mastery to 100 in order to ‘catch up’. In Darkfall player skill matters, far more than chasing some silly 1% of X, and so the ‘meta’ game is spell combos and group PvP tactics rather than where to spend every last talent point or acquiring this exact gear loadout.

It’s also the reason Twitch in League of Legends, a champion generally considered not ‘top tier’ gets banned in one of the biggest LoL tournaments to date; the guy who could have potentially played him is so skilled with that particular champion that it made sense to ban him. Now if you theorycraft the numbers out, Twitch is not the absolute best champion, and so if LoL was WoW he would have been ‘gearchecked’ out of the match. But like Darkfall, League of Legends is more about player skill than YouTube memorization, and so things like that happen (and often).

So if you want to ‘fix’ this problem in WoW, don’t tweak the talent trees to balance them, you don’t make encounters not gear dependent in a game all about chasing gear, and you don’t add yet another bar to fill up to qualify; you just add player skill into the equation.

Of course, then it might not be as ‘accessible’ to the walking number husks, or the ugly fact that not everyone is a ‘hero’ in terms of player skill will come out. I wonder which direction Bobby will go…

Chuck-o-the-day: Even Switzerland supports Chuck Norris.

Civilization V : City States

September 24, 2010

City States are one of the major additions to Civilization V, and during my initial playthrough I found them to be slightly more than gimmicks used to ‘populate’ the world. In my current game they are invaluable, and really add a huge new element to the game. They also fit well with how Civ V truly splits economy, culture, and science, rather than having them all interdependent like in previous games.

I’ll start with my first game. In that game I played Civ V like I played Civ IV, focusing on getting ahead in technology in order to get better units to eventually crush my enemies. In Civ IV that meant keeping your science slider as close to 100% as possible, and your bank account at a constant minimum. This resulted in everything gold-related being minimized, at least for the most part. You could still do goofy stuff like, for just a few turns, go 100% income and get a massive amount of gold, then immediately switch back to science.

So in my first Civ V game, I had very limited gold, which meant I could not give the various city states gifts to keep them friendly or allied. And when I finally did have the 250 gold needed, I would only be able to bump one city state to friendly for a few turns before it went back to neutral, which seemed rather pointless to me. After all, I could just conquer the city if I wanted its land and resources. So in that game city states were just blobs of ‘useless’ terrain, or something for my enemies to use as an additional source of trouble. They never heavily factored into anything I was doing directly (this was on Prince difficulty), and I never noticed them being major factors between the other AI-controlled civilizations.

In my current game (King difficulty), I set out to better control the economic side of things, which meant only getting the buildings I truly needed in each city, not going crazy with infrastructure, and focusing more on trading posts to generate extra gold per hex, all to keep the gold flowing. In this game I’ve managed to have a steady income of around 40 gold per turn, which made paying the 250 gold to get on good terms with a city state much easier. I also more actively completed various missions for them, the result of which sometimes put me at 150+ favor with them, meaning they would stay allied for a long, long time without further investment.

The current result is that I occasionally get free military units from some city states, get increased food production in my cities (especially the capital, which is huge for my Roman civ), and my culture rate is increasing much faster than in the previous game, allowing me to pick up civics earlier (and by spending some of those points in the Piety tree, I get even better results from city states). It’s a very rewarding snowball effect overall, plus seeing my allied city states join in against my enemies is a nice bonus, and at times very helpful to the overall war effort.

City States highlight the fundamental shift in Civ V, that although on the surface it’s a ‘simpler’ game, the actual decisions you make are not only more profound, but lead to a wide variety of strategies. It’s perfectly viable to ignore City States, just like it’s perfectly viable to focus on them and propel your civilization through them. I get the feeling the same can be said for focusing on economy, science, or culture. I’ve yet to try it, but I also suspect that growing the absolute biggest empire is also no longer the only viable strategy, as a smaller, hyper-focused empire could work thanks to the various systems and civics.

The funny thing about Civ V is that although the real core of the game is similar to Civ IV, enough has been changed to really make it a completely different game in terms of the decisions you make, and that ultimately is what makes it brilliant.

Chuck-o-the-day: Chuck Norris can kill two stones with one bird.

Civilization V Review

September 23, 2010

Is the sun up already? And what day is it…

This review is based on having played 800 or so turns over roughly 12-15 hours. In other words, a lifetime++ in EuroGamer years. In that time I’ve finished one game to 2050AD and taken a few others into various stages. The 2050AD game was with Japan (randomed), but I’ve also played as the Romans and the Greeks.

Civilization V is the best version of Civ yet. That alone should make it an instant buy for basically anyone who has every enjoyed or believe they might enjoy a turn based game, but as that would make for a short review, I’ll keep going.

The move to hexes is one of those things that initially feels a little odd, but after about an hour or so it becomes tough to imagine what the game is like without them. Same goes for only being able to have one combat unit on a hex; at first I was making countless mistakes in positioning and movement, but again after about an hour it not only feels ‘right’, it adds an amazing level of depth and strategy.

Speaking of depth, on the surface Civ V seems like a simplified version of IV, with many of the more complex systems (pollution, city-based unrest, religion, fewer techs overall) gone. Yet again you soon realize that it’s not about the number of systems, but how they are implemented and what decisions they force you to make. Take resources for example: in IV once you had iron, you could pump out as many iron-based units as you wanted. In V, one source of iron will only allow you to make a limited number of iron-based units or buildings. That’s huge in a number of ways. For starters, it means even if you DO have the resources, your military is still likely to include a variety of units due to resource limits. Secondly, it means that even if you have access to an iron resource, you can still trade for more, or provide someone else with yours even if they also already have some. Finally, cutting off an enemies resource means they not only lose the ability to make those units, their current units get a huge combat penalty until they regain it. And that’s just one example of the changes, but as you can see, it’s a little change that has a huge impact, while also feeling ‘natural’ in many ways. It was completely unrealistic before that one single iron mine could supple an entire nation, and Civ V ‘fixes’ that issue.

Graphically the game is stunning. Not in a Crysis “zomg look at the fog!1!” kind of way, but more in the “hey it all just looks right” style. Everything fits, looks very polished, and small details abound that not only look good, but provide information as well. For the first time, a unit of spearmen is finally a unit of 10 soldiers, and as they ‘take damage’, some of them die and the unit gets smaller. You still have a health bar, but a quick glance at the actual graphic will show you what you are looking for. This change also means combat looks a lot better, as a 10 vs 10 battle between spearmen and swordsman is a lot cooler looking than a single spearmen icon moving over a single swordsman icon (or the simplified combat animations in Civ IV). By far the coolest combat animation? The most powerful unit, the giant death robot, with its swarm of missile and laser fire. It just has that “yea, you can’t stop me” thing going for it (and actually looks a lot cooler in-game than in that picture).

Combat itself is a lot more entertaining in Civ V as well, and not only from the hex and single-unit-per-spot changes. If two units are somewhat evenly matched, the result will most likely leave both damaged but not defeated, which is a huge change from the one-and-done style of previous games. Ranged combat is also a new addition that adds an important layer of strategy, as finally you actually have to protect weaker units and use the terrain for more than just a single defense bonus, and units like archers are valuable not because they are outright stronger than warriors (they lose to them in melee), but thanks to the ranged fire they provide. Other changes I’m really enjoying include naval combat being a much slower exchange of fire rather than one-and-done ‘melee’ style, and that ships and planes can actually kill units rather than just weaken them like in IV. This makes having a strong navy and things like aircraft carriers not just a nice-to-have, but critical when attempting to make landfall on an enemy island or continent.

I’ll wrap things up here for now, but expect some more Civ V related posts in the near future, most likely breaking down certain systems and the game design theory behind them. As I said at the start though, if you are even a remote fan of strategy games, Civ V is about as good as it gets.


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