Xbox Live Thumbs Up: Worth a Taste

One of the underrated parts about online-connected consoles with easy demo access are the 10-15 minute tastes of games that wouldn’t be otherwise worth the purchase.  Sure, it might miss out on a few of the weapons or last bosses, but most B-movie action games just don’t justify the $60 entry fee.  Here are a bunch of games with fun demos.

Outrun Online Arcade (Arcade)

Like putting a few quarters into an arcade cabinet, this demo has some fun racing and cool stuff to see.  Great frame rate, good controls, nice visuals.  If you get suckered in, you might find yourself dropping the $10 for the full game.  Definitely feels like a perfect arcade throwback with the music, menus, and sound effects.  I like the “girlfriend” character that rides along in the car, her dialog makes the game feel so retro.

Wheelman (Retail)

Vin Diesel stars in this great GTA-style mission demo.  I’m sure the rest of the game doesn’t have this much polish, but this tutorial-as-epic-getaway is packed with awesome action and corny lines.  Get VD on your Xbox!

Space Invaders Extreme (Arcade)

Another one of those retro remakes biting off a piece of the Geometry Wars style.  Takes the (now somewhat dull) classic SI gameplay and makes you many times more powerful and encourages combos, while also keeping up the heat for dodging bullets and watching where you move.  Definitely worth playing a few times and possibly worth the cash.

Wolverine (Retail)

We had fun watching Wolverine get ripped up and then regenerate his flesh in combat.  He’s finally as deadly as he should be after so many games where his slashes were slaps.  The Lunge power is also fun to use.  Demo quits just before the magma boss or else this would be a perfect cheesy demo!

Afro Samurai (Retail)

Like Wolverine, but with Afro Samurai!

Crystal Defenders (Arcade)

Final Fantasy Tower Defense.  Anyone with a soft spot for Square characters should enjoy this cutesy demo.  It’s hard to believe that this game is worth the money, given the handheld-looking graphics and price point twice what it was for iPod, but the taste of gameplay here is nice!

Red Faction (Retail)

Some mediocre 3rd person shooting and then OMG I AM IN A MECH AND I AM THRASHING WHOLE BUILDINGS WITH MY ROBOT ARMS OF DESTRUCTION!  Then I’m shooting a gun from the back of a truck.  Well, for 30 seconds this is one of the most awesomely destructive game I’ve ever played.  I wish it wasn’t padded with 10 minutes of poo!

Xbox Live Thumbs Down: Out of Control

Any game released today has some redeeming value.  Even the worst franchise cash-in titles can pass the time, even though there might be twenty other games more fun than it.  What, then, makes a game a thumbs down?  Generally, the difference-maker is the controls.  If the controls don’t feel right, they distract from every other part of the game.

Halo Wars (Retail)

I’m a big fan of the recent attempts at bringing RTS games to consoles.  The gameplay isn’t quite there, but each release brings one or two innovations towards the goal.  Halo Wars’ trick is the Y button, which quickly uses that unit’s special abilities such as throwing grenades or using special weapons.  Quick and definitely console-like.  Not fully thought out, though, as the game gets very confused once you’ve selected a whole army.  The Y button ends up using everyone’s special at once!  This oversight makes it hard to break out of the “round up the army and throw them all at the enemy” mold of other mediocre RTS games.

Exit 2 (Arcade)

Classic games like Lemmings, Lost Vikings, old Prince of Persia, are generally too creaky and unplayable to be fun these days.  This is what xbox arcade is for: bringing back old, simple gameplay except revamped and modernized.  Punishing, time-limit-based gameplay can be thrilling and fun, but when it turns into frustration just in the span of a demo, something is wrong.  The wonderful art style and tricky levels of this puzzle game are, like the first Exit, once again completely wasted on terrible controls.  Simply jumping, moving up and down, ordering around the people you need to rescue are all sluggish and slow.  It doesn’t make me feel like the crafty, agile Mr. ESC.

Ninja Blade (Retail)

Ninjas are rabid creatures with incredible powers.  Make me feel like a powerful ninja!  The setup cutscene involves jumping out of a helicopter and you must quicktime hit buttons or repeat the scene!  After killing 6 enemies mid-fall with one slash in the cutscene, the demo begins with loads of grunt mutants that take 12 katana slashes to kill.  How does a katana travel through a body without maiming it?  The controls might not be so bad, but it feels so tedious to fight helpless enemies that never die.

Bionic Commando Multiplayer Demo (Retail)

Gone are the tough but simple controls that made the Bionic Commando Rearmed remake so fun.  Instead, aim your cursor all around the screen and hope there’s something to lock on to!  Without good controls, BC is useless.  A terrible misstep.

Skate 2 (Retail)

What do Skate players want in their open-world, free-flowing skate game?  Cutscenes with jackasses talking about your time in prison.  The demo for Skate 1 was perfect: pure gameplay, lots of time to try things out, easy but deep controls, and more.  Skate 2 adds really janky walking and pushing-stuff-around controls and the aforementioned cutscene.  Even a few playthroughs haven’t made the new gameplay familiar enough to be fun.

Virtual-On Oratoria Tangram (Arcade)

One of the games from old Sega assumed to be a classic, modern players probably won’t be able to enjoy this game at all.  Without the arcade sticks, this game is a terrible third person arena shooter.  Turning is so sluggish, and thus suicidal,  that it’s easier to try to move around and face the opponent without turning.

Star Trek DAC (Arcade)

Take or leave the Star Trek license on this game, my focus is the top-down deathmatch gameplay.  The camera is so tight that ships appear on-screen less than a second before it’s “ramming speed”, leading to terrible close range combat.  Hard to aim or do anything intentionally.  One of those games that fizzle out after about two minutes of demo play.

Windy Work

Today’s update on Invade the Ruins is about the Skyknight.  The SK has long been the “control group” for hero design, having several really basic spells: a direct target heal and a direct target damage.  The trickiness with him is in designing his third spell.  Let’s look at his full spellbook:

  • Lightning Flash: Shocks three targets with lightning.  Efficient damage, great for taking down key targets, scales well.  A really consistent spell that may be simple, but it works.
  • Refreshing Breeze: Heals a friendly target for a large amount.  Can not heal himself.  All of the other heals in the game are group heals, making this heal unique in its ability to pinpoint allies that need saving.
  • Form of Wind: Damages and banishes a group of enemies.  Spreads damage out more than his other spell, but also banishes the targets.  Banished enemies in WC3 take double damage from spells, so there’s a lot of combo potential for this spell.
  • Wind Gate: Teleports the Skyknight a long distance.  As one of only two heroes with a “blink”-style ability, he’s got a lot of mobility and can search out secrets.
  • Maelstrom: Deals heavy damage to an area over 7 seconds.  Ultimate spell, huge damage.

Except for some numbers tweaks, Lightning Flash, Refreshing Breeze, and Wind Gate have stayed the same since his initial design.  Maelstrom has barely changed as well.  The problem child for the Skyknight has always been Form of Wind.  Initially “just” a cheap, fast-castable Banish, it proved to be an unpopular spell, and still wasn’t popular when I made it an area Banish.  Such a spell would be amazingly good in regular WC3, but it just didn’t get any takers in my map.  I improved it to also deal damage, making it deal roughly equal total damage to Lightning Flash, but it is still his least popular spell.

In many ways, Form of Wind is a superior spell to Lightning Flash, yet it’s less popular.  There aren’t enough skill points to invest heavily in both, and players pick Lightning Flash.  It has taught me that balancing numbers isn’t the key factor in making appealing spells.  I want to use some of the techniques I’ve learned since the initial designs to create a new ability.  The revamp of Sarcomancy and its synergies gave me ideas for an active version of that skill.  Also, the name “Form of Wind” made me think about a shape-shift which changes how his spells work.

My first draft of this new Form of Wind is a spell which, when clicked, gives the Skyknight an attack speed boost for 15 seconds.  Additionally, if he casts any other spells during Form of Wind, Form of Wind ends and that spell gains an additional trait:

  • Lightning Flash – A second bolt of lightning, this one a chain lightning, streaks out starting at the main target.  This increases the total damage of the spell by about 60%.
  • Refreshing Breeze – Pulls the healed hero to the Skyknight.  A great way to save an ally from a swarm of enemies.
  • Wind Gate – Banishes all of the enemies near his starting point.  Replicates some of the combo-potential of the old Form of Wind by setting him up for big damage.
  • Maelstrom – Recharges the Skyknight’s health over the 7 seconds of Maelstrom’s channeling.  Lets him survive a bunch of hits as he’s blasting foes with lightning.

There are a lot of things going on here that may not be apparent.  The first is timing.  A saavy player can use the attack buff for 10 seconds or so and then burn the buff at the end.  Someone ready for danger can put up FoW knowing that they’ll soon want to use a pull-heal or a blink-and-banish.

The next level to this spell is mana efficiency.  If you want to turn mana into damage, casting FoW before the Lightning Flash improves your efficiency.  Or, you can banish a bunch of enemies for cheap and then cast either LF or Maelstrom for double damage.

The final level is skill point efficiency.  Say your favorite spell is Lightning Flash.  You can improve your damage equally by either putting points in Lightning Flash or in Form of Wind!  The scaling of FoW enables players to keep improving their damage while also getting additional utility.  Additionally, the extra attack speed helps him get more kills and rounds out his usual weakness (low killing blow count).

I expect to work on one more hero and then release a playable alpha version for testing.    I’m glad you read my article and I hope you stay tuned for more!

Infernal Research

I worked on the Feral Diabolist today as part of working on my Warcraft 3 map, Invade the Ruins.  The Diabolist already has a few interesting things going on with his development and I felt like he could be a good next step in figuring out my vision with this new version.  He’s a melee hero that relies on spell casting to deal damage.  Let’s break down what his current spells do:

  • Rippling Sinew: Greatly increases his damage and armor and grants him spell immunity for 8 seconds.  One of his two 6 rank attack spells.  Good for making a big dent in a boss, cracking open a spawner building, or helping him escape from trouble.
  • Bloodbath: Summons and immediately explodes a demon, covering foes in acidic blood and bile.  His other 6 rank attack spell, this one is a mob killer.  It’s cheap to cast and hits a big area.
  • Sarcomancy: Alters all of his other spells, improving them in some way.  Longer duration on Rippling Sinew, lower cooldown on Bloodbath, lower mana cost for Havoc, and a special spiked carapace for Cursed Carrion.  Also a passive boost to his attack damage.  His final 6 rank spell.
  • Havoc: Drains a quarter of the health of all nearby enemies and heals him and his allies for 5% of their health for each opponent drained.  His 2-point spell and a strong one, useful in emergencies against the largest hordes of enemies.  Costs a big chunk of mana.
  • Cursed Carrion: Summons a large, powerful insect that accompanies and fights for the Diabolist.  Can also carry items.

Sarcomancy intends to enable a “jack-of-all-trades” style by providing mini-skill points to a variety of abilities.  This doesn’t quite happen as his spells are mana intensive and he isn’t an Intelligence-based hero with high mana regeneration.  His cooldowns also tend to be pretty long, making him a hot-or-not damage dealer.  By working on him, I hope to improve the synergy between his abilities and give him a more exciting playstyle.

As you might remember from the previous article, powers that have great numbers can be mistaken for powers that are fun to use.   Initially, I wanted to simply pump each bonus Sarcomancy grants so its effects were more noticeable on screen.  I ran into problems with this avenue, though, as the max ranks of Sarcomancy reach really high (or low) numbers.  Improving Sarcomancy-as-designed any further isn’t possible.  “Sarcomancy spec” isn’t viable.

While testing out various Sarcomancy settings with Rippling Sinew, I had a different idea.  Rather than trying to strengthen Sarcomancy’s direct tie to other spells, I could improve synergy between the other spells to the point that Sarcomancy would enable special combos.  The first change causes any spells cast during Rippling Sinew restore 20 mana.  This reduces the effective cost of Bloodbath from 55 to 35 while in Sinew. Also, since Sarcomancy reduces Havoc’s mana cost, Havoc can become quite inexpensive with a few points in Sarcomancy.

The real synergy here emerges when the player has invested those points in Sarcomancy.  Rippling Sinew normally lasts 8 seconds and Bloodbath has a 12 second cooldown, so you can’t cast Bloodbath twice during Rippling Sinew.  After one point, RS goes to 10 and BB 10, which is just barely too slow to get off two BBs.  Once you spend 2 or more points in Sarcomancy, it becomes possible to cast 2 or more discounted BBs in a row.  In this way, a player can heavily invest in Sarcomancy and, without many other points, can harness a flexible and potent playstyle.

I also wanted to tie Havoc and Cursed Carrion into Sarcomancy using this kind of indirect synergy.  I felt like his carrion creature would be the sort of thing he’d sacrifice at a moment’s notice, if it suited him.  So, when the Diabolist casts Havoc with a Carrion Beast out, the Beast will be sacrificed and the power of Havoc amped up significantly.  Going from dealing 25% (of each creatures health) to 35% damage is a huge amount when multiplied by the 5-10 creatures hit by the spell.  Making the “OH SHI-” button, your emergency button, more powerful is a lot of fun.  If the player has conserved mana using Sarcomancy-related combos, this combo can be used frequently and to big effect.  By putting the “mana game” in players’ hands, the Diabolist gains a great deal of interactivity and I expect him to be a lot more fun going forward.

Stay tuned for more articles and for an alpha version of the map!

Working on Invade the Ruins

I’m jumping back into working on my Warcraft 3 mod, Invade the Ruins.  I feel this itch every once in a while and it’s always a lot of fun.  My first order of business (besides looking more at that crash bug) is reconsidering the Heroes and how I could make them more fun.  Since there was a patch since the last release, I fired up a private game to see if anything was clearly broken.  I picked the Howling Druid, and as I did that, I had some realizations about his playstyle.  I got to work right away on capturing that bolt of thought.

(If you haven’t played Invade yet, you will probably get a lot more out of this article if you try it first.)

Quickly, a rundown of his spells:

  • Song of Renewal: A “tranquility”-style healing spell where he stands still for 12 seconds and continuously heals nearby allies.  His “main” spell.
  • Battle Commands: A furious shout that increases the attack damage of all nearby allies for 30 seconds. One of his other two major (6-rank) spells.
  • Thunderous Bellow: A shout that sends a powerful shockwave out, blasting all foes in front of him.  His other major spell.
  • Words of Reassurance: Key words of insight and resolute support, improving an ally’s attack speed and defense.  His “minor” (2-rank) spell.
  • Cry of the Ancients: Terrifying howl which instantly reduces enemy attack power while healing all nearby allies.  His “ultimate” (requires level 8 ) spell.

Words of Reassurance is a spell that, I see now, is fun “in concept” but not as fun “in practice”.  I’ll explain this further in a minute.  Anyhow, for anyone familiar with WC3 mechanics, the numbers on WoR are clearly really solid (10%-20% attack speed boost and 5-10 armor) and definitely worth the skill points.  A lot of players cite it as part of why they like the Howling Druid.  He’s got a lot of good support abilities and timing his Song of Renewal is fun and takes skill.  He makes the party better.

One of my goals for the ItR update is improving choices in terms of character builds.  I want there to be more “flavors” of each hero.  The Earthtalker actually embodies some of this idea currently: he is equally strong as either as a long range caster who times his explosive inscriptions carefully or as a thunderclapping, thick-skinned basher.

In trying to bring these options to the Howling Druid, I’ve targetted Words of Reassurance as a spell that does not add enough flavor to a druid player’s playstyle.  In other words, while it may be a numerically sound buff, its additions are not perceptible: 10% faster attack speed or 15% more damage resistance does not make battles look any different.

One technique I have learned from recent World of Warcraft development is that weak/unfun spells can be “baked in” to other abilities or into the rules of the game.  Rather than having to spec for increased threat generation (something every tank would have to do), extra threat was “baked into” the threat caused by tanking abilities.  In an application of this concept, I’m replacing Words of Reassurance.  I’m “baking in” the bonuses of WoR into the druid in the following ways:

  1. Song of Renewal heals for 20% more but costs 6% more mana – With less armor, the Howling Druid’s allies will be taking more damage and thus need more healing.  So his heal is better.  Also, without having to continuously sustain WoR, he’ll have a bit more mana.
  2. Battle Commands grants slightly more attack power up front and much more attack power at high ranks – BC grants flat attack damage whereas WoR grants percent damage, meaning it takes only a little bonus to compensate at low levels but a larger bonus to compensate at high levels.
  3. Thunderous Bellow and his basic attack deal more damage – Also picking up for the loss of attack damage are his own attack abilities.  TB’s base and scaling damage is changing to make it better at high levels.  His base attack speed is increasing slightly to keep his “get a few swings in between spells” rhythm going.

Gaby is probably my most experienced ItR tester.  One thing she advocates is the “Make skill training affordable!” idea.  By this she means that most players won’t hit rank 5 or 6 of their abilities, so make the effect of each rank noticible.  By removing WoR as a “required buff”, players will have more points to make important training choices.  Which leads into (the first version of) his new ability:

  • Charge Order: Greatly increase the movement speed of nearby allies for 15 seconds.

Simple, huh?  Flavor-wise, he speaks out a few wise and shrewd battlefield commands.  If you’ve played ItR, you can imagine all of the ways the druid will save his allies from trouble.  Which is exactly what a good support character does.  Though simple, I think this inspires a lot of good teamwork for the druid his teammates.  If a druid player wants to play “stand and fight” style, though, he can instead specialize in the other existing spells and have more straightforward but more powerful skills.  I’ve even got a few ideas on how to make sure this doesn’t overlap too much with the “Runes of Speed” in the game!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this article and I look forward to writing more!

Achievement Review: Fable 2, Bioshock, Lego Indiana Jones

Fable 2 – Good use of minor achievements for the social parts of the game.  Gave me a lot of ideas for how to mess with villagers.  Solid “see the content” achievements, including quick co-op and online achievements.  A game with this much breadth gets a lot of legs from good achievements.  A great example of achievements providing additional gameplay.

Bioshock –  Mostly “pokemon” achievements: you gotta catch ’em all. Upgrade all weapons, find all tonics, take every photoWeapon upgrades, tonics, photos, diaries, etc.  Encourages exploration, but a few of the achievements are faq-ish.  You’ll probably never find the diaries without a guide, and it’s quite possible to be unable to buy the last one or two tonics without knowing ahead of time what to buy.

Lego Indiana Jones – Almost all typical achievements but with a few genuinely funny secret achievements.  Some of the “Whip Swing X Times” achievements are really high numbers, requiring dull grinding.  The style of game where 1000g is well within reach and only requires spare patience and time.

Non-Interactive: Eight Busted Things About The Last Remnant

The Last Remnant is a banner example of slow pacing and low interactivity.  Here are Remnant’s uniquely bad properties.


  • The Last Remnant wants to be a strategy game but it animates like a small-party RPG. Battle rounds take a minute or two to play out after only a few seconds of choosing general commands such as “Attack with Combat Arts” or “Heal yourself”.
  • Occasionally, during the long combat animations, attacks have a “critical opportunity” to press the right button for a little extra damage.  This is so tedious that there is an option to automatically attempt to do the critical hits for you! Talk about band-aid on a broken bone.
  • Positioning seems important but isn’t. There are area attacks, but no way to move around to avoid them.  Sometimes groups intercept other groups, but it’s not clear why.  The combat map provides information not usable in the game in any way.
  • Combat animates each attack sequentially, like a small-party RPG, but just doesn’t make sense with 25 units on the screen.  Most attacks are generic and don’t need 5 seconds devoted to them. Characters also phase in and out when they aren’t the focus, which makes it hard to figure out where each character is standing.


  • The transition between exploration and combat involves inscrutable icons and multiple button presses.  Running straight for an enemy puts you at a disadvantage in combat.  To be at even ground, you must press RT, but only when they are at very close range.  Only, most enemies move so fast that they can go from out of range into combat quickly.  To counter this, you hold RB as you approach, which slows time.  Time manipulation doesn’t otherwise appear in the game.
  • Craploads of miscellaneous loot.  Enemies drop tons of bits (Raptor Femur, Raptor Skin, Raptor Tail, etc).  I had about 40 different items and none of them were what I needed to upgrade items.  The weapon upgrade system is actually pretty cool, it’s a shame it is buried under so much crap.
  • Mr. Diggs, a robot that allows collection of other materials, has several attributes that increase as he digs.  The improvements are completely linear and increase just by bashing him into a digging node continuously.  He runs out of digging ability after the first node in each dungeon until you zone in again, apparently encouraging leaving and entering each area many more times than otherwise necessary.
  • Extraneous terms and numbers such as “Chains” and “Battle Rank” that don’t seem to play directly in the combat.  Fighting many fights in a row yields slightly more loot, but does this need its own prominent term in the UI?  In a game without strict levels, what does “Battle Rank” really mean?

Five Groups of Street Fighter 4 Characters

Must Get Inside:

Abel – Zangief – Dan – Sakura – Fei Long – Cammy

Keeps Away:

Dhalsim – Rose – Sagat – Gouken – Seth

Orbiting Overhead:

Akuma – M. Bison – Chun Li – E. Honda – Rufus

Moves Backwards As Well As Forwards:

C. Viper – El Fuerte – Vega – Blanka

Fine Right Where He Is:

Gen – Ken – Balrog – Guile – Ryu

Finally, a good match of Magic. Duel Decks: Jace Vs Chandra

Gaby and I have been getting into a lot of nerdy stuff since I moved to Portland and one of the most fun things we’ve played are the Duel Decks from Wizards.  I’ve played Magic off and on for a long time, but after I sold my cards a few years ago, I just couldn’t justify spending big money to get back into the hobby.  The Jace Vs Chandra Duel Decks fills a niche for me by being affordable without sacrificing the depth of gameplay.

Twenty bucks buys two full-featured magic decks. That amount doesn’t buy a whole lot in Magic and I was really surprised by how deep and playable the decks are.   At first I felt like many of the cards might be underpowered as you wouldn’t see some of these cards in good general-purpose decks.  As an example, I’ve never really been interested in Morph creatures or “firebreathing” style creatures.  In this matchup, though, they provide crucial guessing games on each side.  I’ve found good uses for all of the cards in the blue deck, which has been my primary deck.

Gaby liked it because it she didn’t have to worry about building a deck.  We could play it as soon as we got it.  She also liked how it was more than just a beginner’s deck.  There are many quirks and strategies to learn due to the varied card pool.  I know I was surprised by the decks’ ability to turn around a seemingly “bad” hand with some clever combinations.  Unlike a well design “4x of everything” deck”, you get a good variety here and each match is different.

If you like Magic but don’t like spending $50+ on cards for each set, pick up a Duel Deck pack.  I can definitely recommend Jace vs. Chandra, and Divine vs. Demonic comes out soon.

DTV converter trip-up

I was helping Gaby set up a converter box for her TV, and strangely, the antenna plug didn’t fit!  We ended up buying a newer antenna and that also didn’t fit.  Our converter box, by Philco, didn’t seem to fit any antennas!  Fortunately google had one good result: “Antenna Jack Won’t fit Converter Box” .  We ended up picking up this little two dollar adapter.  If anyone else has the same problem, sometimes Radio Shack is the one to help.

The good news is that the TV gets far better reception with the DTV system… Gaby’s TV went from one or two barely watchable channels to six really solid channels!

Wizards of the Coast Finds More Online Troubles

From Gleemax’s unfinished launch to its sudden closure (with bumbling apologetic explanation) to the new layoffs, Wizards has fallen flat, again, online.  A company that releases excellent (if expensive) stuff can’t find a way to make its online presence matter.  Now, Magic and D&D are good enough that any web and software products can be popular even if they’re poorly made.  Gleemax had no such help, and was a miserable failure.  The online versions of Magic and D&D are the clearest examples of Wizards’ digital efforts.

Magic: The Gathering

From its slow-loading gateway page to its seas of marketing pages, the Magic website seems pretty useless.  The serious Magic fan, though, knows that hidden under several pages of fluff is Daily MTG, a wonderful and unequalled site featuring insights from developers, tournament coverage, and game advice.  How do they know this?  It used to be the front page.  The Magic site used to be a testimonial to the excitement everyone felt about it, from the developers to the tournament players.  When the site changed, it was mentioned the site was changed to help market the game.  From content for current players to ads for potential players.  D’oh.

Magic Online, a Windows program, lets users play matches with people around the world.  In a product category where the games themselves have complicated and deep rulesets, a mediocre interface is just something to be tolerated and stepped over, no problem.  The program might be ugly, clunky, and basic, but it automates all the rules and things just work.  MTGO is functional enough to teach new players the basics and get them interested in the game… if they have friends to help.

For players that have followed the development of MTGO, though, it’s hard not to feel disappointed and exasperated by it. Almost no better than its original launch version from 2002, each new version has a few new features but also breaks other features, which take months or years to make their way back in.  IGN’s review of Magic Online 3 is a good overview.  Wizards maintained a development blog for a few months after the release of 3 and then kinda gave up.  The development of Magic Online has been failure after failure.

Magic is a brilliant game that is as healthy now as it was 15 years ago.  The cards have beautiful artwork that has pushed fantasy art further than any other game.  Why can’t the technology that complements it be any good?

Dungeons & Dragons

Each new edition, every 10 years, is a way to wipe the slate clean and make a fresh game out of D&D.  Way back in 3rd Edition, the books advertised Master Tools, a suite of game-enhancing programs for D&D, starting with a Character Creator.  The whole thing was supposed to come out in 2001.  Well, it’s 2009, and we’re hearing about D&D Insider, which is a subscription-based service that promises a suite of game-enhancing programs to come out soon.  Oh, and they just released a beta Character Creator.

Like Gleemax, or Magic Online’s version updates, we’ve got yet another product launched with only 25% of its promised features ready.  Yet D&D Insider is plastered all over Wizard’s and D&D’s site.  This time around, the big business plan upgrade is to ask for money before the product’s even out. “Hey guys! Start paying $5/month now so you’ll have a license to complain in 6 months when we haven’t delivered anything we promised!”  

The new “Fourth Edition” of D&D revises the rules to limit the complexity of the game and improve the flow of adventuring.  The rules are still kinda heavy (an objective look at the character sheet makes that clear) but they’re definitely smoother, resulting in an enjoyable way to bash orcs and take their stuff.  It takes some time to ramp new players up, and patience is required.  Maybe that’s OK, though the new Character Creator is definitely not for novice players.

The D&D website reads more like a publisher’s catalog than an agent for gaming.  The upcoming releases list leads to pages that look like they’re for bookstore stock managers than players.  The content here is organized by an Editorial Calendar that is an array of snippets from upcoming, advanced-level products.  Even for players that have bought all the core books and are playing the game, this stuff isn’t useful.

The Missing Element


Let’s see where people have gone missing.  Ideally, a website for a game will:

  • introduce new players and help them learn how to play
  • make them want to buy it
  • provide content and updates to keep them buying

One could approach this in a literal, linear way:

  • Provide a link on the page that explains the rules of the game
  • Show pictures of all the cool products with descriptions
  • Release articles with product teasers and coverage of events

Wait, isn’t this exactly what the Magic and D&D websites are?  I’ve typed a recipe for mediocrity!  The missing element is human contact.  These games are social games and are only any fun with other people.  People put the time in to learning D&D or Magic because their friends play and they want to join them.

Wizards created a Facebook app called Dungeons and Dragons: Tiny Adventures.  By gaming standards, it’s pretty lame: You equip your guy and click a button to send him on an adventure.  You have a few limited options during the adventure, but mostly you wait for him to come back, which takes about an hour.  What makes it a fun little distraction is integration with Facebook friends.  A bunch of my real life friends (who live across the country now) also play the game and we can help each other and compare our progress and talk about your characters.

For the people I’ve introduced it to, Tiny Adventures is ten times better at introducing and exciting players about D&D than the website would ever be.  It’s easy, social, and cute.  Tiny Adventures can serve as a reminder of how people actually get interested in D&D or Magic: knowing someone else who plays enjoys the game and learning from him or her.

If a person reads a D&D or Magic website and is interested, they’re stuck.  You can’t play by yourself.  The hardest part about trying 4th edition is finding a game to play in.  Why doesn’t Wizards facilitate this?  Long ago, Wizards realized that organizing Magic tournaments was difficult but ultimately very profitable for the business.  Without “Organized Play”, Magic wouldn’t have so many memorable decks and players.  D&D needs a similar connector.  There are various small “find D&D campaigns in your area” sites, can’t Wizards buy one up?

Wizards also needs to put the proper number of people behind any venture they intend to pursue.  Every software project Wizards has released has been far later than promised, full of problems, and poorly supported.  They get slack from their dedicated fans, but poor quality and bad reputation can erode the playerbase over time.

Hobby gaming is an old business that sells to young customers.  Wizard’s site was pretty good in 2001 when a company that, at least, put its whole product line on its website was considered to be good.  Today, those sorts of websites are just noise.  Get us to the content, connect us with everyone else, give us Web 2.0! 

Will D&D Insider be yet another vaporware product?  Will Magic Online ever catch up to its potential?

Last Two Tag Videos

Thanks to everyone who followed our travel log, here are two “forgotten” episodes that I was too busy doing Portland stuff to post earlier.

Episode 14:

Episode 15:


Will be on the road on my way to Portland, Oregon, my new home!  See for text updates or for video. 🙂

Seven More Things I Like About CivRev

(Civilization Revolution is the excellent console rendition of the classic strategy series.  A great way to talk about a strategy sequel is to point out the small things. My first post talks about general subjects.  Here I talk specifically about factors related to building toward victory.)

  1. Leader bonuses kick in each era, unlocking new strategies.  When America’s triple production Factories, England’s double power naval support, or Japan’s defensive Loyalty bonus kick in, it’s business time.   Era bonuses can also mean cheap units or buildings, supporting different strategies.
  2. Successful strategies exist for both wide and tall civilizations.  Cities explode exponentially, so one enormous city can be as good as several smaller cities, which is different from Civ4.  Big, well-defended cities and cultural capitals are a reality and don’t sell out on long term growth.
  3. Unit selection tightened just right.  Each new type of unit represents a significant milestone in a close match.  The difference between archer and pikeman armies on early defense is a significant bump.  Defensive units are good for protecting siege units, but later rifleman units can kill many aggressive units.  High end units cap out relatively early in time, so tech-heavy civs don’t have an automatic combat advantage.
  4. Domination victory means a couple of hard battles instead of fifty easy ones.  The biggest cities can be hard to crack, but strong armies always have a chance.  Duking it out with huge offensive and defensive armies is so much more fun than the single-unit meatgrinders in Civ4.
  5. Technology victory gets unique bonuses from fast teching.  Each technology has a bonus for the first civ that researches it, and a lot of these bonuses are incredible.  Whichever civ is leading on technology receives bonuses to gold, military, and pretty much anything else.
  6. Economic victory packs lots of new options.  Rushing units and building is potent and flexible, just the sort of bonus that makes sense for a capitalist advantage.  While not posessing the best technology, the most cities, or the strongest culture, a civ with a lot of money can barter for science, summon an army out of nowhere, or bring a small town up to great size.  The tricks are in knowing where and when to spend that money.
  7. Cultural victory is strength through details.  Great people confer great bonuses, wonders provide unique upgrades, and a strong border offers good options.  Growing borders flip cities, which provides more sources of culture, which produces more great people.  More rapidly than any other, culture victories reward strong city building and empire expansion.
More to come!

eBay’s Magic Is Gone

CNN Money writes about eBay’s slide from a financial point-of-view.  This quote from an earnings call made me reflect on some of the things I knew:

“Buyers are increasingly buying from the highest rated sellers and buying less – in fact, they have stopped buying – from lower rated sellers,” Donahoe said Wednesday in a conference call with analysts following eBay’s third-quarter earnings release.

Donahoe cast that shift as a positive one for eBay. “We see clear evidence that the site today is safer and easier to use than it was six months ago,” he said.

This smells like spin to me.  Browsing eBay is painful these days.  I searched for “ipod mini” to see what I could get for my old ipod, and 90% of the results were for headphones, cables, adapters, and so on, all of which were spammed for multiple entries each. User-generated titles and product information makes eBay’s searches worse, not better, with so many results.  The site has always been a little tedious to navigate, and if the trend is more and more big sellers and fewer small sellers, good deals will be harder to find.

When it came to selling off my old videogames for my move, I started on eBay but moved to  eBay’s tools for listing games are worse than half’s, and half hasn’t been updated significantly in years!  Listing and re-re-re-listing items on ebay is a bigger task than list-and-forget  There are few items where it makes sense to list as an auction.  Even for powersellers, or perhaps especially for powersellers, the auction format makes little sense.

And yet eBay is still structured as an auction site, in the seller’s tools, in the time format, in the searches, and in the user-generated content.  But they’re also focusing on BuyItNow and powerseller storefronts in their business model.  The one-click option does seem natural for online shopping, but that doesnt mean that eBay is doing it well.  Compared to Amazon or Half, which show new and used products side by side for easy comparison alongside user reviews, and letting people BuyItNow just isnt measuring up.

There’s no going back for eBay, business has taken over and the fun is gone.