A Rant About Winning

One of the stupidest things I’ve ever read about games was written by David Sirlin, a very smart game designer. He wrote it in a book that I picked up out of curiosity, and early on I encountered this quote.

I believe there is a great deal more of this “fun” to be had while playing to win than while only playing casually, but there is no use in entering that debate now.

David Sirlin

This was the quote where I put his book down, because it speaks to me of a fundamental misunderstanding about human beings. I’m going go through a fair number of anecdotes here, but I think every single one of them demonstrates that his point is wrong. They illustrate a variety of examples where Sirlin has completely ignored human behavior.

If you had board games or video games as a child, and had younger siblings, you likely had to play games with them. And if you did, you likely chose to throw games to keep them happy. Perhaps David Sirlin likes making his siblings cry. I didn’t. There’s no fun in crushing, or being crushed. This brings me to my second example.

In college, the dorm I lived in had Wii-U in the communal space, and it was used primarily for two things: Smash Bros and Just Dance. There was a set of two players who were simply much, much better at the game then everyone else present, and would often play against each other. At one point, one of them moved out, after which a funny thing happened: virtually no one wanted to play against that second player. The gap was simply too wide.

We often played Magic, AKA M:TG, in the dorm. Quite a few people played, and many had a variety of decks. One of the more popular formats was commander. I remember one particular game with 8 players, in which I got the following combo out.

For anyone keeping score at home: this combo destroys every single other card each player had in play, and would continue doing it every turn until someone stopped it.

Unsurprisingly, everyone scooped, and started a new game. I would not describe it as very “Fun”.

A few more quick ones: games like Diablo Immortal, where “Winning” is temporary, and based on spending cash. Playing games against newer players who you’re trying to introduce to the game.

There’s a reason that the Magic: The Gathering personas are Timmy, Jimmy, and Spike. Not every player is going to derive satisfaction from winning all the time. Sirlin’s thesis seems to be that “Every player should strive to be a Spike” which is one of the stupidest fucking things I’ve ever heard.

So why am ranting about this now? Sirlin’s book is 20 years old, there’s a zero percent chance anyone ever reads this post, and it’s not like any of this is relevant.

Well, I’m mostly ranting about this because of something someone said to me recently. I’ve been making Historic Brawl decks while trying to use every possible legal commander as a commander, and I got some feedback that I should make fewer decks, and more “good” decks. To this I have two responses.

First off, yes. Part of the reason I’m doing this is that it makes “easy” content. It’s much less effort to sit down, build a deck over a day or two, and then live stream myself playing it to YouTube 5 times a week than it is to spend a month tweaking and tuning a single good deck. Because guess what? I’ve spent two years writing things for this blog, doing interesting interviews, and here’s the sad truth: no one reads it.

I can play an entire fascinating indie game, spend a week doing a writeup, post it, tweet it, and it makes not GOD DAMN iota of difference. Nobody fucking wants good content. Everyone wants easy consistent content. We’d all rather have grey sludge every day than chocolate chip cookies once a week.

So yeah, if making shitty Magic decks every day and posting about them is what it takes to get an audience, I’ll do it. I started this blog so that I could avoid being shafted at conventions because I’m not an “influencer.” Don’t think for a second I’m not super passionate about games. If I wasn’t, I wouldn’t still be writing this.

My grey slurry is making historic brawl decks with cards that aren’t good historic brawl commanders.

And secondly, some cards are just BAD. I ranted about how much I hate Jaxis as a commander recently. I’m currently trying to make a deck with Korlessa, Scale Singer. Not counting Korlessa, there are 26 TOTAL dragon cards in green/blue/colorless. Of those 26, maybe 6 are actually worth playing as bombs in Historic Brawl. So congrats, you go make a “good” deck based around a commander that offers absolutely nothing except the ability to see the top card of your deck, and do nothing with it.

I’d be in favor of arguing that Korlessa is just a worst version of Falco Spara, in both colors, statline, and abilities. There’s not even any REAL reason outside of flavor for Korelssa to be legendary. What are two copies gonna give you, two 1/4’s?

So when I encounter Korlessa, I have two choices. I can build a deck with those 26 dragons, and Maskwood Nexus/Whir of Invention, and I can try to do something interesting to show people.

Or I can build slurry. I can stuff the deck so full land ramp, return to hand, and counterspells that you could swap out commander to be Gretchen Titchwillow, and there would be literally no difference in playing the deck, except it would be better, because guess what, Gretchen Titchwillow is a better commander!

At which point, why bother? It’s not a Korlessa deck. It’s blue/green good stuff.

In conclusion: Winning is not always fun. Winning is not necessarily good content. David Sirlin is much smarter then me, a very good game designer, and his book reads like the 80 page manifesto at the end of Atlas Shrugged in terms of its relationship to a majority of the population.

Game genre names, or why I like ‘Auto-Chess’ more than ‘Auto-Battler’

Sometimes new game genres come up with names perfectly encapsulate the primary ideas and mechanics in a simple understandable way. When that happens, we get names like Battle Royale. Sometimes they don’t, and we get the holy war between the Roguelite and Roguelike people. And sometimes an entire genre gets invented more or less by accident and we end up with things like Soulslike or Auto-Chess.

This last category is annoying, because if you know the core elements that constitute the genre, the description is useful, and if you don’t, it’s absolutely worthless. But the reason defining genre is important to me is that I actively avoided a game called Super Auto Pets for a while, because its genre was miscommunicated.

When I first heard about Super Auto Pets, I was told it was an auto-battler. Having no context for this, and learning the game was available on mobile devices, I assumed it was some form of idle game, filled with the sort of traps most mobile trash is. It wasn’t until another friend downloaded it, played it, and described the mechanics that I went “Hold up, that’s an Auto-Chess game, a genre that I actually like”.

So, let’s talk about the concept of Auto-Chess as a genre real quick. As far as I’m aware, the first Auto-Chess game was a mod for Dota 2, called… Auto-Chess. It doesn’t actually have anything to do with Chess. Instead, each round you’re given gold to spend on buying units from a pool, or rerolling the pool. Buying three copies of the same units upgrades that unit into a single stronger copy. Get three upgraded units, and they combine into an even stronger unit.

There’s a board that you can place and move units on, with a cap of units that you can have on the board, and a bench of units you might have purchased, but don’t currently want to use. A timer ticks down, and when it hits zero, your board of units fight another player’s board of units. Whoever has units standing last wins, and gets gold, and the loser loses lives based on how many units were still alive at the end of the round.

The core gameplay, then, is mostly about spending your resources to make the most efficient board state possible. Since this was Dota 2, and the units you purchased were Dota 2 heroes, there was the small knowledge requirement of having to know how Dota 2 works.

Which is a monumental task. For example, how Dota 2 towers choose their target is a simple 6 step process. That guide might be out of date, it’s 8 years old.

Despite this, the mod became exceedingly popular, and quite a few things happened. Valve tried to make their own version of the game called Dota: Underlords, which kind of just died. The modders went and made their own full version of the game just called Auto-Chess that you can get on Epic. Riot pulled a Riot with their classic “Ctrl-C, Ctrl-V” of something popular that someone else made, and created Teamfight Tactics. Ed Note: I promise to stop making fun of Riot for doing things like this when they make their own game for once.

The big thing about all of these Auto-Chess games, though, is that they’re all still pretty obtuse, and require you to understand how MOBAs or RTS style games work in terms of damage types, abilities, aggro, armor, etc.

As a result, the interesting mechanical decisions end up hidden behind these other bizarre systems. Which is something Super Auto Pets arguably fixes, but more on that in a future writeup.

Looking back on it now, this actually seems to be how we got the modern roguelite. The core structure of “Try, fail, learn, try again, get a bit farther” was initially locked into dungeon crawlers. Then someone finally went “Wait, what if we took this formula and applied it to something that comes with less baggage and is less brain melting?” and now every other indie game has roguelite elements.

I don’t have too much else to say on this. Most of the writing in this post comes from an article about Super Auto Pets that I started, and then wrote a nine-paragraph tangent. Good writers kill their darlings, but I’m not a good writer. I’m more of a gardener of words. So I tended the ramblings and then moved them somewhere else to grow.

I guess really what I want to say is that defining genres is important. Not because it’s critical for us to box games into specific categories like we’re pinning butterflies, but because they let us quickly communicate to other people what a game is like, and give an idea of whether they’ll like it.

Elden Ring Pre-Review Views Review

A rant about Elden Ring, and the bits I don’t like very much.

I haven’t actually finished Elden Ring yet. When I do, I’ll probably do another writeup on the game. Right now, I’ve played about 70~ hours across various characters, and also a bit of the Seemless Co-Op Mod. My furthest character has about 44 hours on them, just around level 80.

I’m mentioning all of this to give a bit of context. Usually I don’t do writeups until one of three things happens:
1. I finish the game.
2. I quit the game with no intention to return.
3. The game doesn’t have an end/win condition, and is multiplayer, and I feel like I’ve played enough to give an opinion.

None of these situations are true for Elden Ring. I fully intend to complete the game, and despite bits feeling like bullshit, I haven’t quit. In addition, as the game is a single player RPG, it has an end. So why am I writing about it now?

Well, it’s mostly to get my thoughts into writing, and also provide a different opinion on the game than I see most places. The usual take seems to be that Elden Ring is a perfect masterpiece. I don’t think Elden Ring is bad, but I do think that the game feels uneven in tone, and while some parts of it are incredible, others… simply are not.

Bugs, frame drops, and crashes, oh my!

Let’s start with the easiest one to quantify. Performance, bugs, and crashes. On release, Elden Ring was plagued with a massive number of issues. After several performance patches, it is now only plagued with a large number of problems. Playing offline, the game still crashes a ridiculous amount. I was streaming my playthrough for a while. Quite a few of those streams ended when the game crashed, and I couldn’t be bothered to restart it.

If you’re wondering “How bad can it be?” here’s a horror story from a friend. He had beaten most of the game, and gotten to the gate instead of the final boss. He also recently had a kid, and decided to be a responsible parent, and do the last fight later. He went to bed, woke up the next, and found that whenever he tried to load his 60 hour save file, the game would instantly crash.

A patch did eventually fix this, but still.

Content Re-Use

When From Software makes games, they re-use assets from their previous games. This can include enemies, weapons, textures, what have you. And it’s fine, and not what I’m about to complain about here.

What I’m complaining about here is specifically the parts of the game that re-use the EXACT same boss fights. While I’ve generally tried to avoid spoilers, a large portion of the game focuses around reaching and taking down 5 larger enemies. Of these 5, four are incredible experiences, with incredible design and weight to them.

The 5th is a reskin/remix of an earlier boss in the game. It’s an incredible build-up for a massive let down.

And it’s not the only area guilty of this. There’s one mini-boss I’ve seen 3 times so far, and while the area you fight it in changes, it still feels fairly dull to reach the pinnacle of a brand new area, and see something you’ve found before. In general, I’d say the mid game area feels much weaker in this respect.

A Winding Circular Pattern

The last thing I want to quickly cover, because I’m not sure I’ll get to it in my actual Elden Ring writeup, is the general flow of the game. Having Elden Ring be open world is an interesting choice. On the one hand, it means that if you find yourself smashing your head into a wall, it’s possible to explore and find other objectives, or do something else.

On the other hand, it makes it much easier to get lost, or fail to find a particular location. The in-game map is beautiful and clever, but also not always the easiest to read. And when you do get stuck, it’s hard to tell if you need to Git Gud, or Git Going somewhere else.

The end result that my Elden Ring playthrough has a pattern to it:

  1. Get to a new area.
  2. Run into a hard boss, or be unclear on how to progress.
  3. Explore more, trying to find a way to go forward.
  4. Find more roadblocks.
  5. Thrash around with multiple deaths to either hard boss, or roadblocks.
  6. Get frustrated, and stop having fun.
  7. Start trying random garbage, or run to random places.
  8. Finally figure out a way forward, or a way to beat a boss.
  9. Go back and clear areas/places from step 4.
  10. Get to a new area.

    This has happened to me about 4 times so far. But perhaps more importantly, Step 6 in this process can be a few hours long, and it’s incredibly non-enjoyable.

In Conclusion

Elden Ring is good. But I don’t like how the game seems to get near universal acclaim when there a quite a few spots that could be heavily improved. I’m willing to cut From Software some slack on things like their open world design, as it is their first open world game. But the incredibly poor technical performance, and boss-reuse? Not so much. This isn’t an inexperienced indie studio. Elden Ring is a synthesis of years of design and planning, and a literal synthesis in some cases of old ideas, and cut content from their previous games. It’s good, it’s worth playing, but it could be better.

Lost Ark has a Customer Support Problem

Customer support is the Satan’s asshole of white collar jobs, along with any job prefixed or suffixed by “Quality Assurance.” I want to lead with this statement because I want to make it clear who I’m pissed at when I write this, in case some bigwig at Amazon reads this.

Lets be clear Mr. or Ms. Imaginary Bigwig: the problem is not your customer support “team members” or their leadership. Your customer support does not need additional morale support, or to all be fired and replaced. What they need is something that only you, upper management, can give them, and that is tools to actually be able to do their fucking job.

And I am pissed at you, the upper management, for not fucking doing that.

Let’s back up for a moment. I’ve been playing a shit ton of Lost Ark recently, and one incredibly frustrating thing that I’ve encountered at least twice is the game mishandling instance clears and loot rewards. There are multiple things in the game that use an MMO reward system, where you can only clear them once a day/week. And if you crash after clearing one of these events, but BEFORE getting the loot, you’re just straight up locked out, because you already racked up a clear.

And if you try to contact Lost Ark support, be it via Amazon’s own customer support service, or via a forum ticket, you will be told albeit in a slightly more polite tone, to pound sand.

The thing about customer support, and the Customer Support Representatives who have honor of serving as a combination punching bag and mouthpiece for whatever cosmic horror corporation they work for in exchange for a barely living wage, is that they don’t have much ability to help you outside of the prescribed boundaries that have been set for them.

Ed Note: this is also why you shouldn’t be a dick to CSR’s. They have nothing to do with whatever inane policy has you frothing at the mouth when you try to contact them. Being polite and patient with someone is far more likely to result in them trying to see what tools they have at their disposal to assist you. Being a dick means they’ll feel no guilt about maliciously complying down the path of least resistance, which is canned emails and deflecting responses.

Thing is though, right now it seems like Lost Ark customer support doesn’t have any tools whatsoever. It should not be difficult for a gamemaster to look at a player’s gameplay logs from less than 24 hours ago, check the state of an event, and then check if loot was acquired. If it wasn’t, run a script that grants the appropriate loot for said event.

Ed Note 2: Okay, so maybe actual RNG drops and stuff would be a bit much to ask T1 support to generate, but I’m talking specifically here about an event that gives out ONLY event specific currency, and the exact amount of it each time. Adding 200 Winter Coins to a player’s inventory IS something your support team should be able to do.

Being told “We’re sorry the game broke” is frustrating in most games. Maybe I’d tolerate in a fresh release MMO, but this isn’t a brand new game. It’s a four year old game that Amazon imported to publish and localize. It’s also a game where progression to new content in the late game is heavily time gated behind limited run content. It should be obvious that things like this would occur, and they should have had a plan in place to resolve them.

Running a live-service game is more than just (poorly) localizing game text, hiring a few voice actors, spinning up an AWS instance and raking in the money. They need customer support teams, and gamemasters that can take action to address problems. They need to empower those folks to be able to address problems.

Amazon as a company has a reputation for stellar customer service with their online shopping, and it’s surprising to see that they do not seem to value it in their games division.

Or maybe not all that surprising. I mean, of their games, we’ve had one cancelled, one released then unreleased, and then a MMO that lost most of its player base over duping bugs and and economy that was mostly currency sink. We’ll see if Lost Ark has staying power, or if Amazon Games just sucks at making and managing games.

So you’ve never played a Pokémon game and you want to know what all the fuss is about.

One of the challenges in writing about games is that it’s often easiest to compare them to other games. The problem is that this is useless to readers that don’t have similar lived experience to you, and so you probably end up subjecting a non-zero portion of readers to this:

Never Seen Star Wars
Credit: Randall Monroe of XKCD, a webcomic that’s much funnier than my blog. Used under Attribution-NonCommercial 2.5 Generic license. I think I’m doing this right, please don’t sue me Randall.

In this situation there are two options: Option 1, which is much easier, is to just sort of roll with it and everyone who doesn’t like and experience the things you like can suck it. Option 2 is try to add to your writing some sort of intro or explanation, or at least an easy gateway to the subject at hand.

This writeup exists because I realized I was doing that exact thing in my Pokémon Legends: Arceus review earlier. Instead of adding several extraneous paragraphs to that review, we have this post.

Anyway, Pokémon games! I’m a big believer that the best way to understand a game is to play it, so if you’ve never played a Pokemon game before, and you’re not sure where to start, here’re my suggestions on how to enjoy the series.

Go buy a Nintendo DS or 3DS, and a copy of HeartGold or SoulSilver, and play through that. The console will cost you between $90-120 bucks, and the game will cost you between $100 and $1200 dollars.

Gametrodon Alternate Option: If you want to avoid spending more on the game than the console, I personally recommend you pick up Alpha Sapphire or Omega Ruby instead, but you will need a 3DS for those ones.

As video game piracy is a very serious crime, I under no circumstances advise you to download a pirated ROM of the game, and load into something like DeSmuME or another emulator of your choice. Emulation is bad, bad, bad, and it’s your fault for wanting to play a 13 year old game whose price has skyrocketed to ridiculous levels because there’s no digital download or alternate purchase options available, you filthy consumer you.

In any case theoretical fictitious person, now that you’ve finished that playthrough, congratulations! You’ve played what is generally considered the best mainline game in the series. Every meaningful and primary mechanic that has been introduced over 25 years is present in that game. Cool!

Perhaps you don’t want to do that. Perhaps you have other things to do with your time or money. Perhaps you think trying to figure out which torrent is the game, and which one is just a 30 gig WEBM of muppets fucking while Ram Ranch blares out of your speakers is not a fun time. In that case, here’s a very brief summary of the Pokémon series.

A Very Brief Summary of the Pokémon Series

Pokémon is a 25 year old game series. In it, the player takes on the role of a child who wants to become a Pokémon trainer. Pokémon are, for lack of a better way of putting it, magic animals that can be caught in small spherical capsules called Pokeballs. The player is generally given a single starting Pokémon, but must catch all future Pokémon by battling and catching them.

Pokémon have several traits for battling, invluding their species, typing, stats, and moves. Species is the type Pokémon, i.e. Pikachu or Squirtle. Typing is an elemental affinity that gets used as part of damage calculation, both when attacking, or being attacked, like Electric or Water. Stats are also used as both part of damage calculation, and determine action order in combat. Moves are actions a Pokémon can take in combat. A Pokémon can know up to 4 moves at any point in time. Move effects can vary heavily, from simply dealing damage, to inflicting status effects, to temporarily changing stats or other features. There are a variety of other mechanical systems that can differentiate two Pokémon of the same species that might at first glance appear to be identical. They won’t be covered here.

The player can also battle other trainers’ teams of Pokémon. The battle system is one of the games’ two main systems. While it has received a variety of tweaks throughout the years that have changed the strategies and tactics available, the general base has remained the same. The player can bring up to six Pokémon into a battle, and opposing NPC’s or human players can do the same. Battles are turn based, and each round each player chooses an attack from a menu. There are several factors that can play into which attack gets executed first, but the primary one is whichever Pokémon has a higher speed stat. When an attack hits and would do damage, the amount of damage is modified by several factors including the type of the attacking Pokémon, the type of the move, and the type of defending Pokémon.

For example: fire does extra damage to grass, grass does extra damage to water, water does extra damage to fire. There are also secondary mechanics that can modify/nullify move damage, such as Pokémon abilities. When a Pokémon runs out of HP, it can no longer fight. The player’s Pokémon gain experience points for knocking out opposing Pokémon, both in trainer battles, and wild battles, and level up when they gain a certain threshold of experience points. Whichever trainer runs out of Pokémon that can still fight first is the loser. When the player loses a fight, they lose a small amount of money, and are then returned to the last Pokémon center they visited, with no other penalty.

While exploring the world, the player will end up in random encounters and can attempt to capture wild Pokémon. Doing so requires using a consumable item called a Pokeball, or one of its variants. Different variants have different success rates, but generally speaking, lowering a wild Pokémon’s HP increases the chance of the attempt being successful, and inflicting it with various status conditions can also increase the chance of success. While the player can catch a massive number of Pokémon, only 6 can be carried with them at any point.

In terms of story and game progression, the player is given a hard goal, and a soft goal. The hard goal is generally to complete a series of battles with challenging trainers, almost always called gym leaders, and the soft goal is to catch at least one of each species of Pokémon in the game. The hard goal is what dictates actual progression between areas, with the player being unable to progress past a given point without defeating a specific enemy trainer. The form of these blockcades can be both organic, i.e. defeating that trainer gives the ability to cut down a small tree, and the player’s path forward is blocked by a tree, or inorganic, such as the NPC simply refusing to let the player past until they have been defeated.

The game worlds tend to be made up of towns populated by shops, small points of interests, and the gyms mentioned above, and are separated by various paths and small dungeons. Almost all towns have a Pokémon Center, where the player can restore their Pokémon to full health, and also change out the Pokémon they’ve caught with the ones currently on their team. Almost all games in the series are fairly linear in requiring the player to move through towns and challenges in a specific order. That said, almost every area is able to be revisited later once the player gains the ability to travel quickly to or between towns via flying Pokémon at some point in the game.

After collecting all the badges from the gym leaders, the games then generally have a final challenge in the form of a harder dungeon, followed by an area called the Pokémon League—several more difficult trainers in a row. Usually once the player enters this zone, they cannot back out until they either defeat all the trainers, or lose.

After this goal is completed, the player is often given free reign to explore the map at their leisure. This portion of the game tends to be referred to as the post-game, and what it contains can vary quite heavily between individual entries in the series. Some games contain bonus continents, while others simply add a few additional dungeons, with most falling somewhere in between.

Games tend to be released in pairs, with each given pair offering basically the same story and gameplay experience, but with some minor differences as to which Pokémon are available to be caught. Many games have some form of connectivity with other games, allowing Pokémon caught in older games to be transferred to newer ones, but usually only after the player completes the post-game.

And this concludes a brief summary of the mechanics of Pokémon games. The games have plenty of other features, some of which are common to many of the games, and others that only appear in one or two. But the core elements between the games—exploring, battling, training, and catching—are present in all of them. Anyway, I’m going to finish writing the actual review of the new game now.