Sunday, April 23, 2017

SolForge - 20/20 hours

SolForge has the same problem as every other collectable-trading-card-based video game since the old Micropose Magic: the Gathering - not enough cards. I don't necessarily need or even want them all up-front, but as an ultimate goal "obtaining the whole set" should be achievable in a reasonable amount of time.

It's not that way with tabletop cards, sure, but honestly I wish it was. That's why I've been moving away from M:tG and towards expandable but limited games like Sentinels of the Multiverse and Ascension, or buying singles of select rare cards at the game shop. I like the collecting, but the uncertainty bugs the hell out of me.

I suppose SolForge is trying, in its own way, to tap into that tabletop collectable trading card business model, where people keep buying randomized packs of cards, hoping to get the exact one they want, making the best cards scarce, but insuring that any individual pack has a chance to strike gold. I've often called Magic: the Gathering booster packs "scratch tickets for nerds" and that was definitely the vibe I got from SolForge's cash shop.

I'll admit, I was almost tempted. And I had fun enough with the game (despite its mostly terrible single-player mode and competitive scene where every single person was better than me, and not just by a little bit) that tossing the makers a couple of bucks wouldn't have been so bad. However, the main thing that stopped me was the very thing that got me playing this game in the first place - I heard that it was going to shut down soon. My five bucks wasn't going to change that, and as nebulous a form of property as digital simulations of collectable trading cards might be, I'd be upset if they suddenly vanished into the ether.

Overall, I liked SolForge because it's a card game, but I enjoyed in spite of  its presentation. The campaign mode was interesting, but it didn't really teach me how to play the real game. Single player mode was more or less pointless, but I couldn't find multiplayer matches near my skill level. The cards were cool and I liked the art and the interactions between them, but without spending money in the cash shop, I wound up getting new ones at too slow a rate to really engage my curiosity.

So, to sum up, if there was ever a SolForge version of Shandalar, I would snatch that up in a heartbeat, but I don't think I'll ever again play the version I have now. It's just too rough, even for a free-to-play game.

Saturday, April 22, 2017

SolForge - 15/20 hours

Well, I'm in no danger of falling under the delusion that I'm good at this game, that's for sure. There was a point, after I beat the last two campaign missions, where I entertained the idea that I might be getting better, considering I beat both of them on my first try. However, I then lost an easy difficulty match against the PC and have since come to realize my 0-11 multiplayer record is no fluke.

Although, if I'm trying to salvage at least some of my pride, I could fall back on the excuse that I didn't make my own deck for the easy-mode loss. See, one of the things that bugs me about SolForge as a video game is that when you play single player, you can only play against your own constructed decks. Which is a real pain, because one of the things I like about playing a video-game version of a collectible card game is seeing different preconstructs, especially theme decks that use an implausibly large number of rare cards. It was my favorite thing about Magic 2014, for instance.

And I did play a few matches against my own decks for the sake of killing time, but it got kind of boring, because I knew what was coming. So what I did was have the computer auto-complete four decks, one of each faction. My plan was to play each of the sixteen possible matchups and get a feel for how the factions played against each other.

The first match went as I expected. I played the computer's Tempys deck and handily beat its Nekrium deck. Then I moved onto to Tempys vs Alloyin and got my ass handed to me, twice. I don't know if I just had bad luck with my draws, whether the rng just happened to spit out an especially good Alloyin deck, whether the factions are not balanced against each other, or whether the fault was entirely with me as a player. All I do know is that it is demoralizing as hell to lose to an easy-mode AI.

I will probably try the ill-fated matchup a couple more times, just to see if it's a consistent loss for me, and then move on to the rest of the combinations. My hope is that the either the Alloyin deck will prove to be unnaturally strong (I did draft that faction most often of the four) or that the Tempys deck will be noticeably weaker than the others. It would dismay me greatly to learn that I was still so bad at the game after so long (then again, I never did get good at chess, despite playing it off-and-on for years).

Friday, April 21, 2017

SolForge - 10/20 hours

Well, I'm 0-7 in multiplayer matches. Since five of those losses were in drafts, I'm feeling kind of demoralized. There was a part of me that thought I couldn't possibly be so bad at a card game that I wouldn't win at least 20% of my games purely by chance. I guess that's just how it goes, though.

The only loss that really upset me was my most recent one. My opponent had several opportunities to defeat me, but purposefully held back so they could stack buffing effects in order to get one of their creatures up to 25,000 damage. That's not a good feeling. I probably should have forfeited when I realized what was going on, but I had a slim hope that I might be able to surprise my opponent and make them regret their arrogance.

No such luck, though I did learn that the thing about newbies having no chance in the Constructed format was not an exaggeration (or maybe it is - it's hard for me to tell, considering how bad I am at the game).

The campaign missions are progressing fairly well, though. I'm not sure if I'm going to be able to finish, however. The latest mission has me completely stumped - you can only play one card per turn (instead of two) and I don't even know where to begin to solve that problem.

I think my goal for the next ten hours is to somehow learn to ignore the fact that I am not good at the game. If I can just enjoy myself on my own terms without having to compare myself to others, I think I may do all right. I will, however being playing at least six more online games, for the extra cards. And while I hope my future opponents are more generous in victory than my most recent one, I am just going to try and adopt an attitude of equanimity either way.

We'll see how well that works out in the long run.

Thursday, April 20, 2017

SolForge - 4/20 hours

I guess this game is pretty good, considering I've played for four hours already and it seemed like the time just flew by. Unfortunately, I think multiplayer is going to be a bust. I successfully connected for one match in a draft tournament (I hear the constructed format is pointless for newbies, given how essential having the best cards can be). I completely got my ass handed to me, which I should have anticipated, given I haven't played the game in years and had no clear idea about how to build an effective deck, but I enjoyed myself.

The only reason I do not anticipate participating in more online games is because of the frustrating connection issue I ran into in my second game. I had a match lined up, but then the game seemed to freeze in the middle of connecting. Apparently the tournament interpreted this as me forfeiting the match and I was bumped from it entirely (you're allowed to lose twice before you wash out).

I mean, I seriously underestimated the skill of my opposition in the first match, and would almost certainly have been eliminated anyway, but I would have liked to at least play the game one more time. Still, it wasn't a total waste. I got a booster pack and I got to keep the cards I drafted for my tournament deck. I will almost certainly join another draft tournament before the end of my twenty hours, for the cards if nothing else, though I will probably wait until I get a little more practice on single player (I'd get my practice in the tournaments, but each attempt costs you four "event tickets" and I only have eight, though as I was checking the price I found that they also accept a "draft coupon," which apparently I had without realizing it, so I'll be able to get at least one more tournament in as well).

Though I'm unlikely to have a great time with multiplayer, I don't think single player will be all that bad. I've been tackling the campaign and while the tutorial missions are trivial and the proving grounds missions are barely challenging for a novice, the mastery missions have so far been incredibly satisfying to beat (though sometimes demoralizing to play through).

Basically, there are four "factions" in the world of SolForge and each faction has its own strengths and weaknesses. The "mastery" matches are played against powerful enemy decks, but more than that, each one has an extremely unfair special ability that activates during the course of the match. Your foe in the Uterra Mastery mission spontaneously heals about 100 hit points (you start with 120) during the course of the match. In the Nekrium mission, every time your creature does damage to the enemy, it dies. Needless to say, these missions demanded my utmost problem solving abilities, and while I can't say I was always smiling when I played them, when they were over, I respected the puzzles they presented. I'm really looking forward to (slash-dreading) the last two missions.

All-in-all, I expect SolForge to be pretty diverting. My next move is to wash out of the tournament I accidentally entered myself into. Then I'll probably play random AI decks for awhile. Then I'll tackle the remainder of the campaign, and only then will I use up my last draft tournament entry.

I don't anticipate any great problems along the way, but there may be unpleasant wrinkles to the game I have not yet encountered. I've got my fingers crossed that this will go as smoothly as every other digital card game I've played so far.

SolForge - Initial Thoughts

About the Game (From the Steam Store Page)

 Designed by the creators of Magic: The Gathering and the Ascension Deckbuilding Game, SolForge is a free-to-play digital collectible game in which players construct their own decks to challenge their friends or battle against the computer. There are multiple modes of play, including tournaments, drafts, ranked play, campaign mode, and a variety of new events every week! Players can customize their decks with cards from their collection that they can earn through gameplay or purchase from the store. Try it now for free!

The core mechanic in SolForge is leveling. Whenever you play a card, that card levels up into a new, more powerful version. As the game progresses, you level up, and gain access to your more powerful higher level cards. Some cards start off weak and level up into powerhouses, while others start off strong and don't improve much as they level, presenting strategic and tactical choices that will challenge even the most seasoned gaming veterans.

With hundreds of cards that each transform as you play, SolForge is a game unlike any other. Try it free today!

Previous Playtime

5 hours

What Was I Thinking When I Bought This

Well, it's a free-to-play, and in 2014 I was more naive about these things. However it wasn't just the price that attracted me. I was mostly hooked by the fact that it's a card game "designed by the creators of Magic: The Gathering." I was a huge M:tG fan from way back and the idea of a free Magic-like card game really appealed to me.

Expectations and Prior Experience

One thing I've discovered over the course of writing this blog is that it's entirely possible there is no digital card game I will not like. I've played four of them so far and every one is among my favorite games overall. It's been a long time since I played SolForge, but I don't anticipate it breaking the trend.

If I recall, it rather ingeniously uses the fact that it only exists in digital form to do things that would be impossible (or at least rather complicated and tedious) to do in a tabletop game. This appeals to me purely as game-design nerdery, and it would take a simply awful execution to turn me against the idea.

My big regret, though, is that I probably won't get a chance to play multiplayer. From what I understand, SolForge is a bit of a zombie game at this point. They were planning on shutting down the servers entirely, but then they somehow managed to keep a few of them open. In all likelihood, the multiplayer scene is pretty close to moribund.

I did once play this game online with my friend Daniel, but that experience was not a good one. The game was good and the company was great, but actually setting up the game to get two human players in the same game at the same time was a monumental chore. And while this is the part where I say I hope they've fixed it in the interim, it seems likely to me, given the overall state of the game itself, that they have not.

So here's how I see this going - I will play a large number of games against the AI, and be unreasonably delighted to do so, but I will never get the chance to see SolForge the way it was meant to be seen.

I'll try not to be too morose about it.

Neverwinter - 20/20 hours

Neverwinter does one really annoying thing that I'm sure I could forgive it for were I playing it over the course of months, but which is an unbearable roadblock when you're trying to play as much as possible over the course of two weeks - it makes you wait for stuff to happen. Like, there's a crafting system, and one part of that system is that you recruit these various non-adventuring experts to help you out. But once you press the recruit button, it makes you wait 18 real-world hours before that expert is successfully recruited.

I'm sure there's some sophisticated marketing/psychological reasoning behind this. Maybe the knowledge that there's a ticking clock they have to wait out will cause players to come back for session after session, just to collect the rewards that have been delayed. I, personally, have put off removing Neverwinter from my hard drive (and I really do need the space) because I want to finish a quest I started about six hours ago. I know I'm being played, but it's going to bug me otherwise.

Anyway, aside from that, and those damned treasure chests I kept picking up, I enjoyed Neverwinter a lot. I think I may have chosen the wrong class (I managed to be fairly self-sufficient as a character by recruiting a healer as an NPC companion, but every time the healer levels up, he leaves your service for a half-hour, and during one of those half-hours, I decided to try playing a Ranger, and I actually found that class to be more engaging than the great weapon fighter), but it was a minor issue at most.

Ironically, the thing that held me back most from enjoying this game is also its greatest draw - it's an MMO. I'm not super familiar with the genre, but after having played Neverwinter, Dungeons and Dragons Online, Warframe, Guild Wars 2, and EVE Online, I think I have a handle on its basic tropes and from what I've gathered, for a hermit like myself, there are much better options than playing solo content. However, there's always the promise of the MMO that I sometimes convince myself I'm going to realize - grouping together with friends, and making new ones through groups. Handling the hard content together and using your combined resources to make yourselves much richer and more powerful than you could ever be on your own.

The notion of this sort of MMO camaraderie really appeals to me, but for all that I've played these games, I've never actually been able to tap into their distinct cultures (except, perhaps, for EVE Online, if "tapping into its culture" means "accidentally wandering into PvP and having the other players make me cry.") Maybe it's something that takes more than 20 hours, or maybe it's that the quality of character that makes me well-suited to working a night-shift job where I can easily go four to six hours without even seeing another human being is one that also makes me reluctant to connect with my fellow gamers.

It's probably best not to get too into self-reflection here. Let's just say that MMOs aren't a perfect fit for everyone, and I'm probably never going to get very deep into them. That's all right. Not everyone likes tedious strategy games either, but that didn't stop me from playing 75+ hours of Stellaris over the course of blogging about Neverwinter (not to say that Stellaris is tedious, just that some might fin my pacifist way of playing it so).

So, thank you, Neverwinter. By requiring a reliable internet connection and not allowing me to pause, you enabled me to finally get a chance to dig deep into one of my new favorite strategy games without having to simultaneously blog about it. Sure, that's a back-handed compliment, but my sincere praise would also be somewhat tepid. Your gameplay is more exciting than a point-and-click rpg, but not quite smooth enough to match a top-shelf action game and you kept putting the breaks on me for economic, rather than legitimate gameplay, reasons. I'd rate you "good, but not great" - a decent way to waste some time, if, for some reason, wasting time became difficult all of a sudden.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Neverwinter - 15/20 hours

Free-to-play games are always tricky beasts to evaluate. I've generally liked all the ones I've played so far, but only one, Path of Exile, really managed to make me forget I was playing a free game (it is probably not a coincidence that it's also the only one, so far, I've spent real money on, but if I could figure out the psychology behind that, I'd probably have a lucrative career in the game marketing business waiting for me).

This isn't a problem, per se. All of those people who made the game need to get paid for their work and the premium services are how that happens. However, as someone who is going into this tentative and uncommitted, I can't help feeling like a bit of an interloper. This is, of course, silly. They wouldn't have made the game free-to-play if they didn't want people playing for free. Yet, when I see people riding around on their fancy mounts, there's an irrational part of me that feels like, for lack of a better word, a peasant.

I think part of it might have to do with Neverwinter's inexplicable pricing structure. It's a good enough game that I wouldn't feel bad about dropping 10 bucks on some of its real-money currency and unlocking a few pieces of premium content. However, 10 bucks will by you approximately squat. Okay, there's a wolf companion for 8 bucks that sounds pretty cool, but most mounts cost between 20 and 35 dollars and unlocking a new race costs 60 bucks for Moon Elves and 75 for Dragonborn. Call me old-fashioned, but I think if the prices were a tenth of what they are now, they'd sound pretty reasonable.

I guess that's why they're prestige items, though. You buy yourself a gelatinous cube to ride around on to prove you're a Neverwinter super-fan. Fair enough, even if it does trigger my class envy. What's truly aggravating, though, are the functional uses of real money. Look, I won't say that I'm not intrigued by the dozens of enchanted chests I've picked up in my travels, but there's no way I'm paying $1.25 each to open them.

Now, don't get me wrong. I'm not the sort to object to spending $75 on a video game. And in theory, I understand the argument that you're not really paying 35 bucks for a mount or 20 bucks for a demon to follow you around, you're really voluntarily paying $55 for the whole game, most of which you were generously allowed to preview for free. However, there is some inflexible part of my gaming psychology that just can't come to terms with this. I'd much rather just pay an fixed cost upfront and then play the game without being confronted by any extra-textual gatekeepers.

Call me spoiled, if you must, but I live in a world where I can buy the Fallout 3 Game of the Year edition for five dollars.  From an economic perspective, there is very little room to offer a better value than that. In fact, I'm not sure that it's actually possible. Even if Neverwinter was cleared of all of its cash-shop annoyances and everything was attainable with the gold you find from random monsters, it would not be as good a game as Fallout 3. It wouldn't even be five dollars less good. Aside from already owning it on every platform you regularly play, there's no situation where someone coming around and saying "you know, instead of Neverwinter you can get Fallout 3 for just five dollars more" would not be a tempting offer.

Which I know seems like a harsh assessment of Neverwinter, but truthfully I just meant it as an example of today's over-saturated video game market. Maybe you think I'm being too generous with my assessment of Fallout 3, but I could say the same thing about Borderlands 2, Civilization IV, or Super Mario World. It's something that still continues to blow my mind. If I had picked up the hypothetical feature-complete version of Neverwinter for 20 dollars, I would have no complaints about it. It's easily a solid second-tier game, better than The Last Remnant, but not quite as good as Kingdoms of Amalur. However, I doubt I will ever again be so hard up for entertainment that I'd be willing to pay out that 20 dollars piecemeal, just to unlock those chests the game keeps dangling in front of me, unbidden and unwanted.

I guess Neverwinter had taught me where I draw the line on free-to-play business models. I'm fine with the cash shop as long as its trivial stuff that doesn't make a difference to gameplay, like that five dollar hat I bought for Path of Exile or the 35 dollar unicorns you can buy in this game. However, once mechanical weight is attached to the purchases - if paying real money makes the game easier or less frustratingly random or even just notably different, then I start to lose interest. I want all the widgets up front or I don't want them all.

This isn't a moral stance. I'm not objecting to the companies setting up their games that way. It's mostly an aesthetic issue. I've bought DLC in the past. In fact, it's often been my favorite part of the associated game (I've got one question for you - EXPLOSIONS?), and functionally that's not too different from cash-gated content in a F2P game. It's really just a matter of presentation. Regular games are presented as complete-in-themselves. Even without the DLC Fallout 3 is still Fallout 3, an amazing action-rpg epic. The DLCs, then, are presented as a sort of demi-sequel. "You know that thing you loved, well here's more of it." Whereas with an MMO, you never get that sense of completeness. It all boils down to a single question "how much money do I have to pay to not miss out on anything?" and for most regular games the answer is a finite number that may, in my opinion, sometimes be too high and for most F2P games the answer is "how much you got?" And there's no situation in which I prefer the second answer to the first (it also doesn't hurt that even many of the more expensive "finite" games eventually go on deep discount as they age and a greater portion of their income comes from the long tail, which, almost by definition, F2P games can't rely on).

Okay, long post, but here's the takeaway - I like Neverwinter, I look forward to playing it for another five hours, but its revenue model keeps me at arm's length and I don't think that's a distance I'll ever be able (or perhaps, more accurately, willing) to bridge.