The Games I am Playing
Back in ye olden days, I used to earn a living designing and build games for hire. As a once and future game designer, I'm rather obsessed with the craft and trade. I don't play games for fun in the way a normal person plays. I play to understand the designer's thoughts and goals. I can appreciate a well design game that simply isn't fun for normal folk. Now a popular game that is well designed as well, is just over the top. Most of the games I play these days are unfinished / beta / alpha / indie, works in progress. With the exception of Starcraft 2, I can't think of a game I play regularly now that is not a beta. Here's my take on a few games I'm playing:
Let's get Godus out if the way. This game was obviously designed as a mobile, pay to advance, micropayment minis machine. As with most of Peter's games, the sheer ambition outstrips the ability of his developers to deliver. Doing some back if the napkin math, this game is a funding nightmare and it is basically a playable demo for fund raising. The kickstarter campaign and early steam release saved this game from being canned outright. But holy crap is this game well designed! You might not find it fun yet, but the design is evident from your first interactions on. You can only start the game by breaking the rocks the two potential followers are picking at with axes. You can't control the people, but you influence their perception by manipulating their world. There is no hand holding, and the game is surprisingly forgiving. You can play around a lot, and can't really destroy the world. Though you can create a hellish hellscape in which your two followers continually respawning in a meteor craer filled with water and drown a millions deaths. I love the game design, and given several million dollars more in development and a crack team this game could be brilliant.
The most broken part of the game is also incredibly well designed. The card collecting metaphor was a natural fit to enable micro payments. If you play the current beta perfectly, you can completely develop the entire available area, and have cards left over. It took me 5 play through before realizing the order of expansion that allowed for preserving cards until necessary. If the game were longer the card mechanism would work perfectly, and with the ability to buy gems in a store, this game would have made total sense as a mobile game. Pay to speed up typical actions, time for money. But you can still grind and mine to expand for free. With the kickstarter campaign the business model changed, and as such they've been forced to redesign this aspect of the game. I don't think anyone outside of the industry can really appreciate how much effort has to go into making that change to this game. I pity Peter's team.
Holy Platformers Batman, what a change of tiles. Comparing Starbound to Minecraft does Startbound a disservice. This is Loderunner with the editor turned on with the enemies still chasing you. Think of DigDug but you had a sword. Starbound then adds a touch of Metroid, and a hint of Japanese RPGS. Sure there's mining, crafting, inventory management, and the whole dress up game, but where this game really shines is the interaction between building and fighting. Where this game needs a fix is more creatures need to be able to dig, and need a more aggressive pacman AI. Right now they just bounce into your sword too often. The procedural generation, open world, and scale is wonderfully ambitious. The desk is not as good as Godus, but still way above your typical AAA title.
Prison hyphen Architect
Prison Architect is another game that demonstrates what the craft con achieve. This game is really frigging hard, until you learn how it works, and then it becomes easier. This is what a would classified as a sim game where you actually can be skillful and artistic. The sim aspect of this game is impressive. The amount of management you need to do to play well is austounding, And having an eye towards design is really key to game play. Probably my favorite aspect of this game is the design of the escape system. There are measures and counter measures, and only through judicious use of cell search, guard dogs, and metal collectors, not to mention eternal vigilance, can you hope to prevent your prison from losing value. In this game money is your score and the key resource. Managing your asset value and cash flow is an art in this game. The ambition may be smaller than Godus or Starbound, but Prison Architect actually delivers every step of the way, and the game is at about the same level of not done yet. Considering the size of the team and budget, it is the most brilliant design and implementation on my list.
And since I've mentioned all these small team big ambition projects, I figure I'll end with the small ambition, big money, money machine game. Uninspired design, rehashing older properties, showing only a few design ideas that I would classify as clever hacks, Hearthstone is going to make shitloads of money. If you like giiving Blizard more money, this is the money pit for you. Every aspect of this game has been designed to suck your wallet dry. You can grind out a basic deck in 3 hours. Want to play in the arena? First hit is free, after that it is $1.99 or approximately 15 hours of grinding if you are a top ranked player. Daily quests keep you coming back, but it is 2-3 days of quests completed (3-5 hours depending on the quests) to earn a pack of 5 cards, or just spend $0.25/card @ 200 card volumes. With these numbers in mind, grinding for decks, you can expect to make $1.25 per 4 hours of play (so you make about $0.31/hr card farming).
Probably the greatest money making design decision is the per-class legendaries, which can be crafted at the low low cost of 1600 dust each. The math here is you would need 4 unwanted legendaries, or 16 unwanted epics, or 40 unwanted rare, or 320 unwanted common cards. As your odds of getting a single legendary are about 1 in 20, it costs about $75 to craft a single legendary assuming you disenchanted about 60 decks of cards. Where these regular playing cards you could probably buy them off EBay for less, but as these are virtual, you're going to have to pay Blizzard to craft them. If you want to collect them all, plan on buying $750 worth of cards before the next expansion.
This is a brilliant game design. The more people spend money on cards, the harder it is to win games to grind for cards. As most quests involve beating real people in one-on-one competition, you'll invest so much time into the game that paying $50 seems like a good idea. Play long enough, and $200 starts to make sense. Once the first expansion comes out, you've spent more than you would have playing any MMORPG. The economics of a game like this are amazing. But unlike Magic: The a Gathering, you won't have a shoebox full of cards you can resell years later on Ebay.
I wish I had a well regarded franchise I could milk like this!