Can it be less immersive?

The MMO Albion Online uses the new-style “economics and player-vs-player” format, and is also free-to-play. It’s a fine game, I guess, if you like that sort of thing, but two things jumps out. One is the sneaky way it incentivizes the monthly subscription. The other is the almost mathematical design, like it’s a board game.

Free-to-play MMO’s have a few options to make money. A common fair-seeming one is a free trial. Often it’s unlimited time, but content-limited — you can’t go past level X, or can’t play the latest expansion. The other way is using the cash shop to demonstrate how free players are lowly peasants — you can try the non-fun version to get a feel, then buy and subscribe to play the real game. Albion runs between these in a clever way. Buying the subscription gets you a personal chunk of land (an “island”, but not really). and triples your “crafting bonus points”. That doesn’t seem like anything to a new player. Only later do you realize the value, but then you still don’t really need it.

You can build crafting stations on your island, but cities already have them. Islands seem pointless. Later you realize the looms and smithies in cities have an extra tax which can be enough to make crafting unprofitable. But by then you’re using the crafting stations in your guild. Moving on, those “bonus crafting points” only give a small bonus — subscribing to get more seems pointless. But then you realize how the margins work. Your normal crafting can turn $100 of elm into $105 of elm lumber. With the bonus that becomes $120. It quadrupled your profit. Those daily bonus crafting bonus points are a big source of income. But even knowing that, you don’t have to craft. You can gather or fight. But then you find out you can farm on your island, which is very profitable if you use bonus crafting points.

Net, new players don’t feel any pressure to subscribe, but they might want a cool island. End-game players are still perfectly fine playing for free, unless they want to get into crafting. It’s a very clever fair-seeming system.

Onto players always fighting. 15 years ago Eve OnLine discovered the formula for meaningful player murdering. You make the game about the economy. Everything is made by other players, including the best weapons. They’re made from stuff other people made, down the line, with the bottom being miners and lumberjacks. They go into the wilderness, making longer trips for the more valuable stuff. Players fight to mug them, or protect them, or guilds fight to control areas with the best stuff to harvest. It turns out those games work — they attract a good mix of players who want to pirate, or fight pirates, or avoid pirates.

Most games in this style try to set this up in a realistic-seeming world. Albion Online ignores realism. They want a mathematically perfect design. The world is a perfect hexagon, made of smaller hexagons. Six perfectly-spaced cities are around it, with the big one in the middle. Player-vs-player restrictions are in perfect concentric rings. Resources are laid out with mathematical precision in pie-shaped wedges — all of the wood is in a 30-degree wedge, exactly opposite the one city with a crafting bonus to wood. The designers don’t pretend to understand why you’d want the world to feel natural.

Older games have semi-realistic crafting. You make brass from copper and tin, since that’s how you make actual brass. Albion doesn’t understand that. Every type of material uses the same formula, for example, crafting a Tier-5 refined material requires 3 Tier-5 raw materials and a Tier-4 refined material. Huh? That’s how they say that a cedar plank is made from 3 cedar logs and a pine plank. To clarify, in this game you create a cedar plank by improving a birch plank (Tier2) into a chestnut one (Tier3), into a pine plank, then finally into the cedar. That works for the game economy — everything will always be in demand — and Albion proudly doesn’t care how ridiculous it is.

Normal game worlds work hard for suspension of disbelief and a sense of wonder. Albion says to forget that stuff — it’s been done to death. What people want now is a world laid out with almost mathematical precision, without a lot of confusing dressing-up with how things work “for real”.

I’m a little worried I made it sound good, so a warning: it uses click-to-move with a top-down camera. There. Now you’re either scared off, or just have to play it.

Mercy Thompson series; Iron Kissed

Amazingly, this one is almost literary. First the details. “Iron Kissed” is the third book in the “Mercy Thompson” series, by Patricia Briggs. The cover is off-putting: a woman bent over with low-cut jeans and high-cut top showing off her tramp-stamp lower back tatoo. The other covers in the series highlight her breasts. I’m not sure if that means anything.

The backstory is a bit blah, but also new. We’ve got mostly peaceful werewolves, dark fairies and a few vampires, plus a reference to a sorcerer in a previous book. They’ve been public knowledge for a medium amount of time — pro-human/anti-monster groups are forming, laws are about to be passed, and so on. The supernatural creatures would probably be on the losing end of an all-out war, so tread lightly. The fairies are actually on a reservation, but one where not-all-is-as-it-seems.

Our heroine is a unique coyote-shifter. She’s not a werecreature, but she was raised by them. Due to her mysterious native American ancestry she can turn into a coyote at will (she’s naked when she turns back. She’s naked a lot in this book, but not in a sexy way). Her coyote powers are hiding and a really, really good sense of smell, letting her tell who was in a house and so on. Oddly for this sort of book, she has zero body issues. Men seem to fall for her, but we never get a description and she never thinks about her inadequate looks. She’s also the first female urban fantasy detective who can keep from mouthing off to every single authority figure she meets, which is refreshing.

The Romance element is ultra-traditional and a bit boring (but I’m not complaining). Two werewolves love her — one is funny, musical and picked her out as a good breeder when she was 14. The other is an aggressive pack-leader and terrific kisser who believes in sex after marriage. We’re told she must choose in this book, or things will explode. So far, so good. But then she figures out that the first guy has lost interest in her. Over a few scenes where it’s established she can keep her independence, she decides to be the Alpha female of the pack with good-kisser #2. It ends with her in coyote form in the lap of her new sexy werewolf husband, petting her lovingly (but she’ll be naked when she changes back, so that’s sexy, right?)

The subplots are nice. The werewolf’s daughter was beaten up by some angry humans and our heroine has to calm down the testosterone-raging dad, support the daughter emotionally, and resolve it without bloodshed. Near the end, a guy appears to commit suicide, but it was actually mind-control magic; she nicely decides to let the brother know the true story, for closure and stuff, even though he’s one of the guys who beat up the daughter. We also learn the names and a little history of every werewolf in their small pack. And of course, we get a summary of the last book — she killed some mega-enchanced vampires or something.

The plot works in a low-key way. She’s brought in only to smell around some murder scenes. She smells-out the killer, her father figure goes to confront him, but the guy, a human, has just been murdered. The fairies want to cover it all up by letting her father-figure take the fall. Even he wants to. But she’s just too darn stubborn. After hearing her first lover play a great set at a big music festival and hearing everyone say how great he is and how any women he loved would be soooo lucky, she uses her coyote powers to sneak into the dead guy’s house and get a good sniff around. Thankfully, her powers of super-smelling aren’t used as a plot device in every scene, and she’s stumped, for now.

More super-powerful people tell her she really has to stop, but she’s too stubborn. A bad guy chases her and she leads it to the werewolve’s house, but she sort of helps fight it off. Then she’s following up on either a subplot or possibly a new love interest when, wham, it’s the killer! I can’t decide if that was a clever misdirect, or overly-manipulative writing. Her big effort here is that even though he’s mind-controlling her, she tricks him into going somewhere her werewolf pack will be. Then kills him anyway by tricking him some more. The big finale is getting the ultra-powerful creatures to compromise so everyone’s happy. So basically, she solves it in proper UFDR fashion: by being stubborn and using her head.

A really odd part, the bad guy mind-controls her into wanting to bang him. We’re vague about how far they get, but then afterwards we learn he’s definitely raped her. Then one of her boyfriend’s pals gives him a long explanation of people’s reactions to rape and how he can best support her. You don’t read that every day.

All together, the urban fantasy part is a bit bland. But there’s 12 books in the series and there are lots of loose ends in this one to use later. The character is a bit boring. Sure, she has 2 gay best friends, but they aren’t in it much. She also owns an auto-repair business but it seems tacked-on (and this is the cover with her fixing a car, tatooed butt hanging out). At the same time it’s missing lots of the schlokiness of other books like this. We don’t get pages of pointless banter, deranged arguments with anyone not completely cooperating, or long descriptions of what she and her unique pet do to relax (she doesn’t even have a pet). Her motivations and the way the story moves actually makes sense. I’m a little curious how she relates to her new werewolf pack in her new role. This series seems very readable.

Army Camp math

Some of the fun in clash-likes is how the rules use the buildings as explanations, which then influence the rules. Army Camps are a particularly neat example. Your army is really just a number for how big it can be. Since it’s not used in defense, it doesn’t need to be displayed on the base at all. But it’s so fun to have open-air army camps with the troops wandering around them. Freshly made troops walk from the troop-making building over to the camps. Donated troops walk out of the camp and off the map. That all looks just terrific. It’s even fun to look at other peoples’ bases to see what kind of army they have.

At first things align just fine. But the rules of a clash-like say you don’t just make one army camp get bigger and bigger. Instead you should get more of them. So now our building logic is telling us the army size must suddenly double at some point. Our one army camp slowly grew from 20, to 25, to 30, to 35. But then adding a second jumps our total army size to 70. That’s a big jump, but it’s fine. We can work with that since we don’t want to break our Army Camp logic. But our visual depiction of the rules is now making the rules. Neat.

An army camp, currently holding sorcerers and treants, from Castle Clash

Here’s another fun one. Suppose we have three 35-space Army Camps, 105 spaces total, and dragons cost 25. How many dragons can we have? It’s 4 since 4*25 is less than 105. But it’s also 3 since only one can fit in each camp. Hmmm… . It turns out players hate doing complex math, so we get 4 dragons. How we’re stuffing in that 4th dragon might break suspension of disbelief, but the alternative is worse. The rules win over the visuals here.

Then we come to the back-up army. To be nice, the game allows you to train 1 extra army if you have time left from training the normal one. When you open the game after a long enough time you get to attack twice in a row, with no delay between since your back-up army trained overnight. That’s nice. But where is that entire extra army kept? Nowhere. But if we can keep troops nowhere, why is our army limited by how many fit into the Camps? Best not to think too much about it.

Final score: Abstract rules: 2, Army Camp logic: 1