Thoughts on Alphabear

I love me some Spry Fox.  Dan Cook, David Edery, what’s not to love?  These are brilliant, ethical, exploratory artists working at the cutting edge of the interactive medium.  For me, it has the same sort of brand loyalty as Blizzard: I’m going to purchase what they make at full price and with no regrets.  Alphabear is no exception.  It’s quick to learn, hard to master, and provides a remarkably deep engagement for the simplicity of its interface.  If you’ve ever enjoyed word-making games like Scrabble or Boggle, download it now; it’s free and you’ll love it.  $5 gets you unlimited play time.

My wife continues to be delighted by the game and plays every day, but I’ve stopped.  When I realized that the bear bonuses continue to increase semi-exponentially, it broke a fundamental tension for me.  At that point, the difference between skilled play (being able to put together longer, more complex words) and long-term play (the meta-game of unlocking and upgrading bears) tilted inexorably in favor of the latter.  I’m sure that this evens out eventually, that at the end of the progression, the difference in scores is determined more by skill than time investment, but I’m not really interested in grinding to get to that point, as much as I enjoy the process of playing the game.

It’s a personal bias, no doubt, but I’ve always felt that the tension between what you can achieve currently and the promise of being able to achieve more – in a meaningful fashion – is at the heart of gameplay.  As flawed a dichotomy as it is, this is part of how I separate games from toys.  Games have a skill progression; toys don’t.  I’m not going to spend a lot of time justifying that, as it’s fairly arbitrary, and there are all sorts of overlap points where skill with toys can be meaningfully differentiated from non-skilled play.  But for me, at the point that I realized spending time grinding out matches was more important to my progress than my score in those matches – that I fundamentally could not progress without spending match after match inevitably falling short of the goal due to predetermined design math – Alphabear fell into the classification of “time-waster” rather than “game”.

It’s not that I’m opposed to grind in itself.  Hell, I played more hours grinding WoW than I did following quests or learning new skills.  But, the grind was subservient to mastery – it was necessary to the end-game, but not determinative of success.  I think that this dynamic is also a component of why I find the Elder Scrolls model of RPG progression less than satisfying.  Yes, there is something intuitive about getting better at things the more you do them, but I’m not looking for a game experience where I need to spend hours upon hours jumping – without any sense of purpose – to become superhuman.  There’s a point where the skill progression curve gets overtaken by the time investment curve, and for whatever reason, that invalidates the skill progression for me.

As a game designer/developer, establishing and maintaining this tension – keeping players involved over the long-term because there is skill reward as well as stat reward – is a key component.  In the free-to-play world this often gets mistaken for monetizing effectively – maintaining the tension between what you can do and what you want to do within the limits of your monetization tolerance.  However, that is a bastardization of the core dynamic.  It’s one of the reasons why hard-core gamers continue to resist free-to-play, games-as-a-service, and microtransactions, because too often they have tried to buy butter and been handed margarine.

Clearly, Spry Fox is not one of those companies playing bait-and-switch with gamers’ expectations.  Probably to their corporate detriment, the monetization approaches in their games are extremely loose.  It is not in any way required to monetize to get the best out of their games, and I would bet that they make less money as a result.  So, I look forward to their next release avidly, and I fully intend to pay money for it – even though that is not going to be required – but for now, at least, Alphabear goes into the back folders of already-played games, even though I never got to play the last word.

Reaping the Benefits of Procedural Content

When Chris Winters tells me I need to play something, I pay attention.  Now, you may not know Chris; he’s an excellent art director,but, he’s also an avid, passionate gamer, and when he really likes something, that’s worth looking into.  The topic of Chris’ latest recommendation was to go back into Diablo 3 after the 2.0 patch and expansion release, and it was definitely worth it.

I’m not nearly as much of a gaming fanboy as I used to be.  I don’t generally pay attention to release dates, for example, because my backlog is so large that getting a new game just puts it into a long queue behind other excellent games.  The Diablo franchise, though, has a special place in my heart, so my wife and I both got copies of D3 the week it was released, and I dove into it wholeheartedly.  Like most Blizzard products, this was a fairly safe bet, and we got our money’s worth, but the endgame just couldn’t hold me.  I think I was on the third difficulty setting, and the grind was both long and painful, and gradually, I just stopped firing up the game.

But, Chris is persuasive, so I picked up the expansion, installed it, and have now been playing it for about a month.  Like previous expansions, it added a new act and a new class; what really grabbed me, though, was the endgame overhaul.  Obviously, there were already a lot of great materials to work with – excellent art, a world rich with lore, diverse and complex character options – and the expansion pack team made the most of this through going back to one of the core gameplay philosophies of the franchise: procedural variation.

Content is expensive.  For designers and producers alike, getting the most out of a limited budget is a continual problem.  The Diablo franchise has always gotten around this by playing mix-and-match in various forms.  The equipment system, for example, generates random collections of attributes (and random stats for those attributes) by mixing packages tied to the affix system with additional modifiers.  So, you could get hundreds of versions of “Ascended Broadsword of Madness”, and they would all look the same on the character, but they could be of various levels with various stat packages and differing usefulness to different character builds.  Similarly, levels are built out of a palette of blocks and set-pieces which have a consistent visual style; after a while, you start to recognize the pieces, but the combination is never fully predictable.  This not only provides a lot of play time for the player, it also sustains that feeling of exploration and possibility that are so critical to RPG’s.

All of this was present in D3, but Reaper of Souls took this even farther.  In the Nephalem Rifts, the art sets are not consistent; you can segue from a hell-scape to a woodland by going through a portal; in fact, in some maps, they transition art sets while in one space (which would be crazy expensive to do with downloads but works because all the art assets are locally stashed on the PC).  Yes, you’re seeing the same pieces and fighting the same monsters, but the context is continually shifting, so it feels less repetitive.

The rifts are powerful in a second way, as well.  Because they have better drop rates for top-end equipment, it incentivizes players to earn the tokens necessary to go into the rifts.  Earning the tokens comes from going out into the gameworld and doing pieces of the existing campaign, and, of course, you’re earning XP, gold, and loot drops of equipment while doing that.  This indirection is a key tool for making a grind seem less grind-y.  Zynga used this to great effect in games like Farmville and Castleville; instead of telling the player to gather 256 mcguffins, they would give you a quest to combine 2 of X with 3 of Y, but of course each X requires 4 A and each Y requires 3 B and 2 C, and before you know it, you’re gathering 256 things, but it doesn’t feel that way; World of Warcraft uses similar structures, but largely by manipulating drop rates, and going in a different direction, given the crossover of WoW and D3 players, was probably a good thing.  By dividing the Adventure mode into relatively short “bounty” missions that lead up to a larger “rift” experience, the process of grinding the old content is no longer an end in itself.

Make no mistake: the endgame is a grind.  It always has been.  It is, after all, for that hardest of hardcore audiences that wants to continue to play the same game for almost endless hours.  You can run bounty missions all day to get rift tokens, run all of your rifts, and then reset the game and run the bounties all over again.  But, for players who are slightly less hardcore (like myself), it is also possible to run one act’s worth of bounties, get enough tokens to run a rift, and feel like you’ve made progress, even when you haven’t made any meaningful difference in your character’s in-game performance.  For me, at least, this is a key difference.  The content is largely the same, but the re-organization of it into smaller chunks, with the interlocking layers, gives the grind an illusion of structure, purpose, and direction.

In the meantime, if you want to just run through the campaign again and again, you can do that too.  While I was originally skeptical, the auto-leveling of enemies and the displacement of difficulty onto an explicit risk/reward slider actually gives players more valid choices for how to spend their time.  I’m still a fan of the progress/difficulty structure in Diablo and Diablo 2 that had its own self-balancing dynamic (the faster a player moved through spaces, the faster the game got harder, allowing your more skilled players to get to harder content faster, while slower players would end up resetting content between sessions, slowing down the difficulty progression), but the slider is great for advanced players.  You can pick your own comfort zone, and the carrot is still dangling out there to move up the tiers.

It’s a case of having your cake and getting to eat it, too.  The Reaper of Souls team expanded player options, while preserving the existing content and structures as a subset of the overall experience.  That’s quite a feat for an expansion pack of any game, much less one with such a rabid fanbase.  I’m not entirely surprised, of course.  One of the key players in the x-pack team was (and is) Josh Mosquiera (@joshmosq).  Again, you may not know Josh by name, but he is truly one of the best designers working today.  While I was at THQ, his team made a little game called Company of Heroes at Relic, and while Josh would be the last person to seek out the spotlight, you should pay attention.  When Chris Winters recommends a game, I take notice; when Josh Mosquiera makes a game, similarly, it’s worth looking into.