FFXIV: The good kind of difficult

July 6, 2015

One of the aspects that soured me on WoW post TBC (although even prior to WotLK this was already somewhat of a trend in the game, just much slower) was the decrease in challenge in the ‘normal’ game, with only special ‘hard mode’ versions of the same content being tuned to really push you. Especially in vanilla, there was plenty of content that would test you, even during the leveling game (elite quests, certain dungeons). This removal never made sense to me, because WoW never forced you to beat that content, and outside of max-level stuff, you always had the option to go back later if you wanted to see something.

FFXIV is a lot of fun in part because the content challenge doesn’t insult you with how trivial it is in spots. Yes, most random quests you pick up ARE very easy kill five of this or collect five of that tasks, but the dungeons you run as you level require some level of competence, and the main quest line (that isn’t optional) and class quests have some fairly challenging fights you must solo due to the Duty system (basically a private instance).

It’s these Duties that my wife struggles with at times (and sometimes I do as well), mainly because we always do them right as soon as they become available, and because our gear is limited to what we get from questing and running the dungeons once (no AH or crafting), and I think this challenge is a great thing overall. The smart thing about this design is you CAN come back to the Duty later when you are a bit stronger, but even then you can’t completely overpower it as the Duty will level-sync you should you be more than four levels above it (though four levels is a fairly significant amount of power).

The only consistent complain I’ve seen about FFXIV is that the main story is required to progress in the game, but I think the real complain is the challenge, because WoW has trained newer MMO players to not expect any. And again, this isn’t even older WoW, where if you wanted to see the main villain of the expansion (Illidan) you had to be a top-tier raider; this is simply required content you can’t completely faceroll to progress past, and yet a minority still complain.

As Rohan wrote, this overall helps FFXIV, as it weeds out the worst of the ‘WoW-kiddies’, meaning you don’t get randomly grouped with them during a dungeon, or have them running around spamming local chat, tagging mobs, and generally being WoW players. I’m glad SquareEnix ‘doubled down’ on this design by making the expansion content gated behind completing the original content, and hopefully they don’t make the mistake Blizzard made with WoW starting with WotLK.

Are Clash of Clans and Boom Beach MMOs?

June 30, 2015

This is mostly just food for thought, and spoiler answer: No, but its real close.

To really answer this question, you first have to ask yourself what you value most in an MMO, and how many of those factors does a game have to have before we can label it an MMO in the traditional sense.

Let’s start with the easy stuff.

Massive: A large number of players need to be around, more than a large FPS map or private Minecraft server of 64 or 128 players.

Multiplayer: Not only must a larger number of players be around, but that should mean something critical to the game. If you can get 90% or more of the experience without interacting with others, the game fails here.

Online: This one is interesting, because at first you think this is simply about connecting to a server, but does asynchronous activity count here? Or does ‘online’ mean two people are online and interacting in real time? A dungeon run is real-time, you selling something on an auction house is asynchronous. How much of the core gameplay needs to be real-time to count? Does it at all?

Let’s look at how I play CoC/BB. I run a ‘clan’ in both, the CoC one has 50 accounts, the BB around 30. In both games we have regular, guild-wide activities (Clan Wars and Operations), and in both of these activities we spend a solid amount of time helping each other out and working together to win. One is group-based PvP, the other is group-based PvE. Chat is very frequent and lively, and Reddit/YouTube is often referred for strategy or game updates.

Personal and guild-wide progression is a main focus of both games, and both games are frequently updated, often with content that adds more progression. Both games are played by millions in one ‘world’ (you can potentially interact with anyone playing), and minor solo PvE content aside, everything is multiplayer.

Basically, the way I play CoC/BB is more like playing an MMO than how I play FFXIV today with my wife, where we duo almost exclusively (random fate groups and dungeon runs aside). I’m more invested in CoC/BB, I’m more into the community of those games, and I do more massive, multiplayer, online gaming in those titles than in FFXIV.

Again, the biggest disconnect is the asynchronous difference, and the lack of a true ‘character’ to play in CoC/BB, although that last one I could argue is no different than flying a ship in EVE. In CoC/BB I’m the chief (pilot) of my village (ship), fighting against other chiefs (pilots) and their village (ship)*.

*Insert easy TiDi is asynchronous gameplay joke here.

Time Warp – D:OS thoughts

June 29, 2015

Welcome to the newest feature for the blog (which means this will be the only time it is used); where I blog about an older game you have either already played or have no interest in playing. Should be really riveting stuff, so get excited!

I want to like Divinity: Original Sin more than I do. Which isn’t to say I don’t like it, but at the same time I can’t play it for more than an hour, and while I’m overall interested in whats happening, the game works really hard to make me care less with its humor and immersion-breaking bits.

Let me get this stuff out of the way first; The graphics are very good, sometimes amazing (standing on a cliff and looking at the area below is very well done), but I wish there was some in-game indicator for what the terrain is. Sometimes it can be hard to spot a pool of water, which is rather important when you are throwing around lighting spells. Sound is mostly good, although as mentioned the goofy voiced dialog can at times be distracting or a negative. No crashing, game loads up quickly, has mod support, etc, so all good on that end.

The combat is a lot of fun, although can be a bit taxing. I’m more than fine planning things out for a larger battle or a boss fight, but doing all of that for EVERY encounter can feel a bit much at times. There is also something a bit off with the numbers behind the action, as a lot of times I don’t take much damage at all, but then for some reason (crits, specific element damage, bad status effect) a character will just get trucked almost instantly. Resurrection scrolls seem to be rather plentiful, but still it would be nice if things were a bit smoother.

My main issue with the game however is the setting/humor. D:OS to me seems to be stuck in an awkward middle ground, where it has mostly serious content that fits the setting, but throws in just enough jokes or immersion-break self-references to pull you out of that setting anytime you start to really feel invested. Either go all-in on being a jokey RPG, or keep the meta-jokes down so they aren’t always so in your face.

Finally, while I can see where min/maxing characters could result in a lot of fun and powerful combinations, the game feels as though you almost HAVE TO min/max to get a lot out of it. Combat is clearly geared towards combos, so if you happen to run a party that can’t combo easily (or the combo you do have a certain enemy is immune to), its not only an uphill battle, but you feel like you are playing the game ‘wrong’. I think if every character had more access to elemental damage, but the overall impact was toned down a bit, the game would feel better. Right now a lot of the encounters feel more like a “do you have this combo” check than a strategic puzzle to figure out.

Again, I am enjoying the game overall, its a fun RPG with a lot going for it, but it’s not on the same level of Pillars of Eternity IMO. D:OS gets 80% right, where I felt PoE got 95%.

Who are these people spending money on Fallout Shelter?

June 24, 2015

Fallout Shelter is doing rather well. Actually, it’s doing amazingly well considering the game is fully, 100% playable for free, to the point that spending money on it is almost counter-productive. Not bad for a throw-in title to help everyone get in the mood for Fallout 4.

I’m still playing it, sitting around 110 people in my vault now, and still enjoy it. It takes FOREVER to load up initially once you have a large vault, but other than that it’s a nice-enough little title.

Speaking of mobile gaming, let’s give our finger a workout and try to find HS. Scrolling… scrolling… scrolling… #27, got it. Great job New Blizzard, nailed it!

Fun vs Reward

June 23, 2015

Designing MMO content is, IMO, far different than designing gaming content, primarily because MMO content has to last, while other gaming content has to be as fun as possible. It may sound odd, but I don’t think you should try and make all of your MMO content as fun as possible. Allow me to explain.

We generally play MMOs far longer than we do other games. If you get 30 hours out of a ‘normal’ game, that’s considered pretty good. If you only get 30 hours out of an MMO, you likely quit long before hitting the level cap or seeing the majority of the game, which in turn means you didn’t really like it. The business is built around this as well, especially the sub model. A happy customer who only played your sub MMO for 30 hours is not a good customer.

As MMO players, we are odd beasts. We will do things we don’t really like/love (dailies, farming, travel, etc) to allow us to do the stuff we do like/love (main quests, PvP, beating raid bosses, etc). Not only that, but we will continue to do this for far, far longer than we would tolerate in a normal game. Imagine if you had to hit rocks in an sRPG for 50 hours before you could craft a half-decent weapon? You would quit that game in short order, and it would get ridiculed in reviews. In MMOs though? 50 hours to level up a crafting skill/profession is considered rather short, and in many games that timeframe is orders of magnitude longer, with thousands and thousands of players participating and accomplishing that goal.

To return to not making your content fun, I believe MMO content should be designed on a scale. On one end you have rewards, and on the other end you have fun. The more fun said content, the less rewarding it should be, while the less fun something is, the more rewarding it needs to be to stay viable/relevant.

Some MMOs already do this well. PvP in EVE is considered the fun stuff, and not only is it not directly rewarding, it’s in fact neg-sum. Sticking with EVE, mining is perhaps one of the least fun things you can do in any game, let alone an MMO, but it’s highly rewarding (not just for the ISK earned, but also because the reward comes with so little effort). Travel in an MMO is generally not fun gameplay, but it’s again easy to do and the reward is easy to see (you arrive where you want to be). Raiding is hard work with little reward initially (but learning encounters and seeing new content is fun), while farming a raid isn’t all that fun, but it’s highly rewarding.

“Syn, why not just make content rewarding AND fun?”

Content has to be balanced, in that it all should be viable to the average player. If one bit of content is ‘the best’, it not only ruins the other stuff but also gets your players into bad patterns and ultimately sees them out the door quicker. As a designer it’s important to remember that one of the worst enemies of your game are the players themselves, and it’s your job to protect them, even if that means being the adult and telling the child that he can’t have yet another candybar.

Take FATES in FFXIV for example. Many players will form groups and grind nothing but FATES. This is because fundamentally, FATES aren’t well balanced. They are a bit too rewarding for what they are; decently fun group content. It would be hard to tone down the fun of FATES (I guess you could make them longer/more grindy), but lowering the rewards would be easy. But why would SquareEnix want to do this? Because you have a lot of other great content, and the more you can spread people out, the longer it will take for someone to get bored of your game, and keeping people around is what the model is all about.

Note that this only applies to content which is expected to last. A one-off piece of content, like a story quest or special event, should be as fun as possible, and so long as the rewards don’t spoil the rest of the game (like giving you the best weapon or a massive amount of gold), all good. Those little bits of content should be highlights for the player, something to look forward to and further motivate you; a bit of long-term ‘reward’ let’s say.

Far too many MMOs get this all wrong IMO, where a lot of developer resources are spend on imbalanced content, and one or two pieces are left unchecked that everyone rushes to, consumes, looks around, and leaves because everything else seems to lacking in comparison.

CoC: TH9 Tactics

June 22, 2015

(Write-up by Delpez)

Our recent wars have shown something quite clearly: Clash of Clans is a game of skill, and the gap between skilled and unskilled is large. Two weeks ago we warred in a complete mismatch. Our opponents had more high level bases and those bases were also more advanced. Some of their TH10’s were completely maxed out, even the walls. However, from their achievements it was clear that they didn’t actually play much – those maxed bases were bought. The result was a pretty easy victory for us; they did not have the skills to complement their high level bases. It showed that buying your way to a max base is a trap. You can call it pay-to-advance, but it’s definitely not pay-to-win. In fact, because of the way the matchmaker works it’s more like pay-to-lose.

Contrast that with our most recent loss against one of the Clashheads clans. It was a decent matchup – we had more high level bases, but their bases were more advanced. Now we’re not exactly a pushover clan – we win around 80% of the time and are usually victorious in closely matched wars. They took us apart. Clashheads really showed how big a role skill plays in this game, with good attack selection and great execution. One advantage of a beating is that you can learn a lot. For instance, they showed that it is possible to 3-star almost any TH9 base. This write-up aims to list some of the tactics and trends I’ve noticed from their attacks against our TH9 bases, and hopefully it will help us improve our own TH9 attacks.

Some context first: they 3-starred every TH9 base except for Syncaine’s (a 90% 2-star). And I didn’t see a single Pekka! In fact, the serious war clans don’t recommend GoWiPe at TH9 – apparently it’s a safe 2-star but a hard 3-star, and they’re after 3-stars. So how did they attack? The following table summarizes the main attacks used against our TH9 bases. Note that many of the attacks were hybrids – hog attacks often used balloons or vice versa to take out key defenses or pull the clan troops – what I show here is the main attack after clan troops and the queen were taken care of:

Main Attack

Nr of Attacks





Mass Witches


That mass witch attack against Tirn was really cool, but besides that it was hogs, lava hounds and balloons all the way. The next question is how they dealt with clan troops. Every attack except one dealt with clan troops before releasing the main attack. Troops were usually pulled with balloons or hogs, taking out a defensive structure in the process. So if the main attack is balloons, they’ll use some hogs to clear an exposed air defense. If the main attack is hogs, they’ll use some balloons to destroy a couple of ground defenses. After clan troops were pulled, the next order of business is to deal with those troops and the archer queen. The following table shows how clan troops were taken care of:

Kill CC

Nr of Attacks





Minions + Queen


Killsquad refers to a couple of barbarians, two witches, two wizards and the queen. Shattered is two golems (one in the castle), some wizards, wallbreakers and the king. Basically, all the hog attacks used Killsquad for the clan troops and Shattered for the queen (only one golem then), while all the lavaloon attacks used Shattered to deal with both clan troops and the queen. Jump spells were almost always used to core into the queen, and/or to destroy some key defenses.

The main attack was usually deployed in a surgical way. In other words, only a couple of hogs or balloons were dropped per defense. Two of the attacks used a swarm deployment, where the hogs or balloons were deployed in a line. Not a single hog attack dropped all the hogs in one or two spots, like we are prone to do. Some other observations:

Any defensive structure that is not covered by an air defense will be taken out by balloons at the start of the attack. This usually pulled the clan troops as well.

High level heroes is extremely important. A number of those 3-star attacks would not have succeeded with mid-level heroes. I’m not sure where the threshold is, but it seems to be around level 20.

Just having double bomb spots are not enough to deal with hogs. The bomb spots should be difficult to access and ideally between two defenses, so the hogs would have to run through the bombs. Some of the attacks cleared double bomb areas with balloons first, to prevent the hogs from ever having to go there.

The closer the clan castle and queen is to each other, the easier it is to kill both with Shattered. Some base designs don’t allow for this, but try and have the clan castle and queen as far apart as possible, while still central enough to make a pull difficult. Same goes for air defenses – having one next to the queen is an invitation to take out both with the Shattered tactic.

A number of hog attacks dropped a giant to pull fire, and then two or three hogs per defense. The giant absorbs enough fire to allow the hogs to clear the outer defenses with minimal casualties, before joining in the center to clean up the base. In this way four giants and twenty hogs can clear all the outer defenses.

Finally – Onehive Raids have some amazing videos describing these attacks in detail. Especially those covering surgical hogs and The GoWiPe Rut (making the case why GoWiPe sucks!) Just on that, I believe GoWiPe is still viable as a safe 2-star option until your troops and heroes are high enough to start attempting 3-stars. It can also be quite devastating against anti-dragon TH8 bases.

Darkest Dungeon Review

June 19, 2015

Darkest Dungeon is kicking my ass. A lot of games are billed as being brutally hard or difficult, but few make that experience as enjoyable as this game. I’ve said before I’m not a huge rogue-like fan, and while DD is certainly that at heart, it’s also so so much more.

The key to my enjoyment so far has been the mix of long-term planning, short-term tactics, and the role luck plays in both. It also helps that the setting/mood are amazing; the graphics are fantastic and fit, and the sound is some of the best in any recent game in terms of pulling you in. Just hearing “A small victory, yet a victory non-the-less” as you sit on the edge of madness with one battle to go is the stuff that drives you insane in real life, as you watch your party die from fear in-game.

Speaking of fear, its a key mechanic, a sort of ‘second HP bar’ that doesn’t automatically heal after each dungeon run, and something that forces you to use many different characters as others are sent to the tavern or church to recover. What’s brutal about fear is its both a slow bleed (each hit you take generally increases it, as does simply being in the dungeon over time) and a potential chain collapse mechanic (going into a panic lowers your stats, raises the fear gain of others around you, which in turn might tip them into a panic). And unlike HP, where there is always a chance of survival even at zero, once the fear bar is full, you die, which in its own way fits the ‘creeping death’ theme perfectly.

The large range of character classes, each with its own selection of eight skills (you can have four active), plus the fact that each skill can only be used from certain positions, against certain other positions, makes creating a part of four always interesting. This is where the long-term planning is important; you never know who is going to make it out of a dungeon run, or who will be ready for the next one, so just putting together one group of four isn’t nearly enough. Often you are left throwing together a ragtag group, just praying they survive and get you to the next ‘turn’ in the game.

There is a TON of randomness in DD. Crit hits are huge; both when you score them (in addition to the bonus damage, they also reduce your fear) and when you get hit by one (more damage and fear). Who you can recruit each turn is random, sometimes frustratingly so, as are the starting skills and bonus/negative traits. Item drops and dungeon run rewards; random. Whether a character goes into a panic or lowers their fear and gets a bonus; random. What kind of dungeon runs you can select; random.

Yet I never feel truly out of control in the game, which is why its so brilliant. A wide range of class combinations can work, you just have to tinker with their skills and set something good up. Healing and curing characters can get expensive, but you also have a lot of non-random ways to manage your gold, both in how much you bring in (full clear a dungeon or leave as soon as you can?) and how much you spend (how much food you bring, how aggressively you cure/heal your characters). Combat randomness happens, but how you react to it is incredibly important, especially during boss fights, which themselves are both terrifying and incredibly rewarding.

A bit of caution; expect to fail and ‘not get it’ for a bit. The learning curve for the game is deceptively steep, and initially it can feel like the game is overly random. It’s not, but you first have to get a feel for everything and get your feet planted before you make any serious progress. It’s worth it though, as the game will continue to reward your mastery with new layers of challenge and surprise. Very highly recommended.

Edit: The game is early access, but I’ve yet to run into a single bug, and the amount of content and completeness right now beats a lot of fully released games, so don’t let that tag scare you off.


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