…also, totally what playtesting incorrectly can teach you. Last time I tested Verba, I played with my wife. It was her first time playing Verba; she had a vague idea of how it worked from tolerating me raving about it all the time, but her knowledge wasn’t as intimate as mine. When spending a lot of time calculating probabilities and doing solo testing, you start to take things for granted. You know how far you can push mechanics, and thus tweak the numbers to reflect his rulebending. In reality, it can be a lot different.
A really interesting challenge, that I think a lot of games don’t handle well, is the idea of the expert vs the beginner. A good gateway game levels the playing field enough where the beginner can still enjoy playing against the expert, but two experts playing don’t feel like the whole game boils down to luck. This is surprisingly challenging. Things I thought would be obvious plays turned out to be not as obvious as I had hoped in practice; this led to an imbalanced game between the expert and the novice. While I want to be fair to my wife and say she played better than I expected, she also didn’t make some decisions that I thought would be clearly better choices.
Co-operative or progression based games don’t have to suffer this as much. If you’re an MMO, it is much easier to gauge the average skill level of all your level 20 players. However, card games will ideally generate buzz that makes people want to introduce their friends. Keeping the game interesting for these new players will lead to a larger player base and added sales, both of which are important for continuing to produce the games you want. Letting the novice stand a fighting chance, but not making the game frustratingly random to the expert, is a delicate balance that takes multiple playtests to achieve.
One more for the road! Wrapping up the three week series of Grab Bag Boozeday is this post on grain spirits. I’m tossing around trying to stick to one topic for Grab Bag Friday for each month, so we’ll see how that goes. So what topic will next month’s GBFs be? I guess you’ll have to wait and find out!
Spirits are a varied and complex thing, with a rich cultural history that predates the country I live in. The variety, complexity, and depth of spirits encapsulates far more than I could cover in just one post. However, thankfully, spirits can be divided along a variety of lines. Tonight I’m going to break out the grain spirits: gin, vodka, and whiskey.
The grain trifecta is made from, you guessed it, grains. The initial production of such spirits is very similar to beer; the grains are cooked and yeast is added to convert the sugars (that were once starches, but I’ll get back to that) in to alcohol. This is where the tricky part kicks in. Yeast will crap out at about 15% alcohol because the levels become too high, and thus they croak. So now you’ve got a 15% alcohol beer, essentially, and you want to make hard liquor. How do you do it? DISTILLATION! Distillation is the process that removes excess water from the spirit by heating or cooling. There is a lot of science here, and you can find it in a million places on the web. Quick and dirty is that you can evaporate your alcohol off, collected the vapors, cool them until they condense, and there you go. If you want a lot more detail, read here. So what does that matter? Well, I’ll tell you.
Covering vodka first, it is sent through a distillation and filtration process multiple times. During this process, flavoring and coloring compounds are removed. In the US and Europe, law states that vodka must be a neutral spirit, and may not contain a distinctive aroma, character, color or flavor. To achieve this, the vodka often ends up at a higher alcohol percent than the typical consumer desires, usually in the 95% – 96% range. So, water is added to dilute the spirit down to a more drinkable range.
Next we’ll hit whiskey, which is much like vodka in the early process. Also, fun fact, the oldest written record of whiskey is from 1494. Sorry, got off topic. The flavor compounds in whiskey give it unique characteristics, thus they aren’t filtered off. The filtration process isn’t nearly as extensive, and post filtration the whiskey goes in to barrels to age. It is estimated that up to 60% of the flavor of whiskey is given to it by the barrel it was aged in. The barrels are many and varied, though it is interesting to note that bourbon whiskey must be aged in new, highly charred oak barrels to truly be bourbon. Like the above, whiskey usually it diluted down to a more drinkable range from around 85% alcohol, which is where it tpyically stands after the distillation process. Major whiskey producing countries include Scotland (duh; where else would we get Scotch!?), Canada, America, Ireland, and even Japan. In fact, Japan is on the upswing in the premium whiskey market, rivaling many produced at more traditional places.
Finally, we get to gin. An often neglected spirit these days, gin has fallen a bit out of style. Starting in a fashion like the siblings listed above, gin is then flavored with various botanicals. Juniper berries are the predominant flavor associated with gin, but many others can be thrown in, created wide variety in the flavor profiles of various gins. Again, typically gin must be cut with water to bring the alcohol percent down to a more reasonable range. A whole post could be dedicated to gins, but I do not have the time, expertise, or money for that enterprise. Just understand the difference, and do your own research if you’re curious.
I’m sure I got some facts slightly off in here, so feel free to correct. Until then, please leave your favorite grain-spirit cocktail in the comments! Raise a glass today to grain spirits, and their pleasing diversity and rich heritage!
So we’ve still got a few weeks before Diablo 3 hits the selves (or, really, digital distributors) and thus anticipation has made me want to scratch that Action RPG itch. I tried going back to Diablo 2. That didn’t work so well. Then I checked out Path of Exile a bit, both solo and a friend (thanks Nathan!). Really, I should like it a lot. It has an interesting skill acquisition mechanic: passive skills are from a sphere grid style system, while active skills are from socketing skill gems found as loot. It supports easy, drop-in style co-op play. It has loads of randomly generated loot. It has a dex-based fighter class, even! (A love of mine that I see in so few games) You know what drives me crazy, though, and makes me not want to play? There is no gold.
This isn’t just a “oh but really they have zenny which is like gold, just different” sort of thing. They have an alleged barter system, though I say alleged because you don’t actually get to haggle any prices. Instead, you get these fragments which turn in to items which can be traded up or down for other items, etc, etc. This is infuriating, for some reason. I feel like I often am getting the items I don’t want, there is no clear and easy to figure out conversion system, and then buying things from merchants is a whole different problem of not having the right item. Really, it’s a huge pain in the ass.
Currency systems are important in loot-generator games like this because they give a finite, measurable amount of progress and an easy comparative scale for drops. It is easy to know that when you’ve found a bunch of swords worth 50 Dreambucks and then find a sword worth 200 Dreambucks, that’s a pretty awesome sword. The loot tables have smiled upon you, and you know it to be true. It gives a solid reinforcement of gradual progression in talent as well, and watching the amount Devildoubloons in your bank grow higher and higher is satisfying as well. Reminding your player that they’re improvement in capability helps reinforce the sense of forward motion in the game and prevent it from getting stale too quickly.
Before I wrap this all up, I want to point out that Path of Exile isn’t bad. Aside from the currency, I think the art needs a lot of work (less grungy, grainy look please), but those are really the only two issues I have. As I mentioned before, it has some unique and interesting mechanics on its side. Worth checking out now; when it releases (later this year?) it will be free to play. You can donate a lot of money to them now and get a platinum kiwi, though. What more could you ask for? Oh yeah, platinum coins.