Easy Mode: Disappointment with @AppStoreGames' First Week

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Given that it's more or less assured that Apple's going to release an Apple TV with some sort of gaming capabilities, it was surprising but not shocking to see Apple start up a Twitter account focusing on games in the App Store this week. The App Store opened in 2008 and Twitter has existed for several years before that, so seven years seems like a fairly long time to wait to make this move, but better late than never.

That said, given how Apple is using their new Twitter account, it's an open question as to who this account is actually for.

As of the time of this post, @AppStoreGames has 57 tweets since its launch on September 3rd. In addition to the obligatory "Hello, World" tweets and five tweets thanking people like Justin Bieber for following them, they featured twelve games: Ridiculous Fishing, I Am Bread, Power Ping Pong, Hearthstone, Alto's Adventure, Transistor, Walking Dead: Road to Survival, Lara Croft Go, Game of War, Monument Valley, Device 6, and Leo's Fortune. None of these are games that anyone who looks at the main page of the App Store even casually will be unfamiliar with (aside from I Am Bread, a new release already known in the indie game space, and Power Ping Pong, published by Chillingo/EA).

Many of these games already have multimillion dollar advertising budgets. Hearthstone has run a series of commercials on television, including during the NBA and NHL finals. Game of War has run over 9,000 ads, including during the Super Bowl; there was a period of time where those ads felt inescapable. One could argue that few, if any, of these games need additional promotion. At a minimum, someone looking to follow this account on Twitter looking for recommendations beyond the front page of the App Store will be extremely disappointed.

Further, of those games featured, Walking Dead: Road to Survival was afforded a series of 14 tweets in a Twitter chat with the game's producer (because it really is 2008 and Twitter chats are a thing again, apparently), and Transistor was given a ten tweet Spotlight feature on Saturday. Not to belabor the point, but the new Walking Dead game gets regular advertisement on a cable television show called The Walking Dead that is apparently fairly popular, not to mention a campaign with YouTube megastar PewDiePie, and Transistor has been featured regularly on the front page of the store since its release in June, and sits at #81 on the top grossing chart as of this writing. [Big thanks to Anna Tarkov of Unconsoleable for finding some of these articles.]

So what's the problem? Why shouldn't Apple promote games that are popular on its platform? Well, simply, because for every one of those games, there are hundreds which are struggling to get enough downloads to allow their creators to keep making games for a living. Presumably, many people who are following Apple's Twitter account for games have already seen what there is to see on the front page of the App Store and are looking for different recommendations. Even picking one of the games from the second page of the featured list and writing 100 characters explaining why that game is worth a player's time could make the difference between a smaller developer being able to afford to make their next game or not.

That's not to say that Apple shouldn't feature blockbusters or big new releases, of course. Is it possible someone who has never heard of Transistor will find out about it from that Spotlight feature? Of course. But it's much more likely that spotlighting that game to that Twitter account is tweeting to the choir, and the fact that they seem to be featuring well known entities exclusively is what's disappointing. The difference between @AppStoreGames and, say, the Official PlayStation Blog, is that the latter does most of what @AppStoreGames is doing, but it also devotes space for a number of indie games, sometimes weeks or months prior to release. I make a point to read that blog closely because I end up discovering a number of games that I might not have heard about from anywhere else. That's a new opportunity that Apple has with @AppStoreGames but isn't yet taking advantage of.

One of the things that made the App Store great in the early days was that everyone was on equal ground. In an environment where publishing on nearly any other platform required a publisher, a smaller developer could put a good game up on the store and have a legitimate chance to find an audience. That's how we got games like Monument Valley, Swords and Sworcery, and Ridiculous Fishing in the first place. Now, though, the sheer volume of apps submitted, combined with the gargantuan budgets of publishers like King, EA, and even Blizzard, makes it nearly impossible to surface good games from smaller developers. The best many devs can hope for is that their icon will show up on the second or third page of New and Noteworthy and that enough people will click on it and ultimately make a purchase. This Twitter account provides Apple an opportunity not just to surface some games that would benefit from some extra attention, but also prove to prospective Apple TV buyers (who may themselves be looking at the device to fill a gaming need) that the meme that Apple doesn't understand or care about gaming is no longer true.

It's sad that @AppStoreGames accomplishes neither of those things. Instead, we get the same recommendations that we've always gotten. Meet the new discovery, same as the old discovery. And everyone loses in the end.

Fresh Out of Tokens #6: We Had a @WickedGood Time With Steve Lubitz

One of the best things about getting back into podcasting last year is that I've been able to meet a ton of really awesome people and get to know them better. Tanya DePass is one of those awesome people, and I was incredibly honored when she asked me to be on her new podcast that she hosts with David Reeves, Fresh Out of Tokens. We had a really great conversation about what it's like to do Isometric, gaming with my kids, and my thoughts about Wolfenstein, six months later.

Oh, and Tauriq Moosa asks why I want to ban games. You know, as you do.

The Grand Tournament on 50 Gold a Day

In case you hadn't heard because you're not a total Hearthstone nerd like I am, Hearthstone's second expansion is coming out sometime in August. This is the first expansion that's come out since I started playing the game seriously, so I'm pretty excited. There is, of course, the issue of the economics of playing the game at the time that a new expansion with a lot of new cards comes out. Given that I've made the decision to play Hearthstone as a free player, having gone through a period of hyperfocus on Magic the Gathering that had me sink the majority of my after-school job in high school into booster packs, I've been thinking about how to approach acquiring cards from the new expansion quite a bit. So I was interested to see an editorial on that exact subject in Polygon today. That said, I was a bit disappointed that it was written not by someone who is playing Hearthstone as a free player, but rather by someone who has spent a non-trivial amount of money on packs of cards, and extrapolates that experience to his perception of what a free player wants from the game:

When [Gnomes vs Goblins] launched, I spent the 12,500 in-game gold I’d been saving for about eight months to buy packs. Out of 128 packs of cards, I got all the commons and rares I needed, and most of the epics, but only six different legendaries, one legendary duplicate, and enough other duplicate cards and golden cards to craft about three more legendaries using the game’s disenchanting system.

That was only about half the legendaries in the set. Arguably, this was enough; about half the legendary cards in GvG are considered “highly situational,” aka bad. There’s no particularly pressing need to keep buying packs to get cards like Mekgineer Thermaplugg, Mogor the Ogre and Flame Leviathan once you secure Dr. Boom, Sneed’s Old Shredder, Mal’Ganis, Vol’Jin and Neptulon. But I ended up buying another 60 packs for $70.

There's nothing wrong with trying to put yourself in someone else's shoes or see things from a perspective other than your own, of course. However, that also can lead to some incorrect assumptions when you try to apply your own perspective to that of someone who isn't willing or able to pay for cards beyond those they earn through in-game gold. For instance, the author puts a lot of emphasis on legendary cards, which makes sense coming from the perspective of someone who has paid for a large number of packs of cards:

Players on the ranked ladder will encounter decks stuffed with those legendaries very early in their climb; now that Hearthstone has been out for around 18 months, there are a lot of players with extensive collections.

This is absolutely true. There are certainly plenty of decks in the rank 20-15 range that have tons of legendary cards that a free player may not have access to. That said, while these may not be optional at the higher level of Ranked play, when playing as a free player there's a bit of a different attitude toward them. Obviously, one accepts some trade offs when making the decision to only buy cards at the pace that earning in-game gold allows. One is that losing to that kind of deck occasionally is inevitable, and the cost of doing business. I've had plenty of losses to decks that drop legendary after legendary, and I just shrugged and went on to the next match because there was nothing I could do about it. That said, having the legendary cards is only part of the equation; you need to determine what decks they fit into, and you need to play them correctly in matches. I've won just as many games against decks full of legendaries as I've lost, because the legendaries are more powerful, but they are also often very specialized cards that require skill to use properly. You can pay money to gain those cards and give yourself an advantage, sure, but a skilled player can still overcome that advantage with careful play. I'm generally way more intimidated by a player with a golden hero power (meaning they have won 500 games with that class) than a handful of legendary cards.

What's more, I feel like earning the cards slowly has made me a better player. I can't rely on the fact that I can just hang on long enough to drop Ragnaros the Firelord and immediately turn the tide of the match. I've had to make do with less, and that's taught me how to make the most from what I have, and appreciate the value of the cards that fit into my decks when I do acquire them. Hearthstone is ultimately about exactly just that skill: Every turn in a match and every choice made while deck building is about evaluating and maximizing value with a limited card set. Someone who drops $100 on cards right off the bat may be able to copy a deck recipe they find on the internet, but they won't necessarily know why those cards are included or in which situations to use them.

(By the way, when you do beat one of those players with a deck made of cards you've scrounged together with just the gold you've earned, that's one of the most satisfying feelings ever. Just saying.)

The author then goes on to discuss the importance of the single-player Adventures, which cost $25 or 3500 in-game gold apiece, in terms of a player's ability to be competitive in the current metagame:

That means getting those Adventures is pretty much the first step for a new player, so they’ll have to lay out $50 or collect 7,000 gold before they even start buying packs. A daily quest is only worth 50 gold on average, so that’s a pretty big hill to climb.

Again, "have to" is strong language here. Are some of the cards in single player good, and used across a number of popular decks? Sure. Do you need them? If you care about reaching Legend status in Ranked mode, then probably. But, if that's your goal, you're probably invested in the game enough to spend some money on the single player Adventures. I've gotten two wings of Naxxramus and one wing of Blackrock Mountain via gold, and the cards I've earned are useful, to be sure; I've looked at the rest and I haven't reached a point where the cards are useful enough to spend more gold on them. I'd also debate whether the single player adventures are really the first step for a new player; clearing the single player Adventures typically requires building very specific decks, which a new player won't have the cards to build.

It's also worth mentioning that Arena mode, where each player drafts a deck of random cards, does exist. That's where I spent the bulk of my time early on, because it provides a mostly level playing field regardless of how many packs of cards each player has opened. It also gives a new player a chance to try out cards they may not have access to otherwise and learn how they can create synergies with other cards. Arena was crucial to my early weeks in the game and is a mode I still enjoy immensely, more so than constructed deck play, for the most part. The author does mention Arena (and Tavern Brawl, which is fun for free players for similar reasons) briefly, but I don't think it's possible to overstate how much more significant Arena play can be for a new or free player, especially considering that the reward for completing an Arena run always includes at least one pack of cards even without winning a single match.

The author does offer one suggestion for improving the Ranked experience for new players:

Blizzard could create a restricted ladder mode for Hearthstone so that newer players could jump into constructed without having to worry about collecting old expansions or old Adventures.

This is something Magic: The Gathering did in the early days to make competition more fair, but the reasons for that were very different. When Magic implemented multiple formats with different card set restrictions for competitions, that was a necessity because of the physical scarcity of a number of rare cards like Black Lotus and Mox jewels that were discontinued because they were so powerful that they were essentially broken; a player with those cards had a significant advantage over someone who lacked them, and the only way Wizards of the Coast could fix that imbalance was to stop printing those cards. The split was a way to allow players who had those cards to continue to use them without dominating over newer players. Hearthstone has no such problems, because it is an entirely digital game. In fact, some cards have already been adjusted since release to make them more balanced. As a result, if a certain card or set of cards become overpowered, Blizzard can just issue a patch and correct the issue without splitting the player base. (It's also worth mentioning that Magic has the additional complication of the secondary market for individual cards; reprinting discontinued cards could affect their prices and anger long time players by driving down the value of their collection, so they need different formats to balance that with fair competition for newer players. Since the only way to acquire cards in Hearthstone is from within the app directly, this isn't something Blizzard needs to concern itself with.)

All of this is to say that this piece brings up a lot of good points about the limitations of playing Hearthstone for free, but the fact of the matter is that those limitations are already there now, before the expansion has even released, and free players are already managing despite them. When I made the decision to pursue the completely free route, I accepted the fact that there was going to be a point beyond which I wasn't going to be able to improve without ultimately spending some money, and the choice at that point is to either accept that or to break down and buy some cards. That said, placing the majority of the value on the cards and discounting the skill of the person playing those cards misses the point of exactly why Hearthstone has been so successful as a free to play game. Hearthstone is popular precisely because it is not pay-to-win; a better player with fewer cards will still beat a poor player with every card available more often than not. In fact, the next month may actually be more interesting for a skilled free player; a skilled player with a well tuned deck will face a number of lesser skilled players trying to figure out how to use all the new cards they just paid for, and that will work to the skilled player's benefit.

Personally, while I've been tempted by the deal to pre-purchase 50 Grand Tournament packs for a discount, I'm leaning toward just continuing to approach Hearthstone as I have up to this point, earning what cards I can through in-game rewards. Ultimately, even though I could rationalize the purchase as a special one-time thing, I'm worried that it would change my relationship with the game, and given my experiences with spending money on Magic, it's better for me to not take that chance. I'll just keep playing the way I have, which means a lot of time in Arena, and accepting the rank that I can achieve with the decks I have the cards to build. Given that I'm rank 14 as of this writing, which puts me in the top 25% of ranked players, I'm perfectly content with that for now.

So I'm looking forward to the new expansion, and I'm not at all nervous about it. It may take me a while to take advantage of all the new deck types in constructed play, but I have more than enough gold saved up to be happy in Arena for a while until the constructed metagame shakes out. By then there will be plenty of recipes for cheap decks that I'll be able to use to give me a fighting chance against those scary legendary cards that all the paying players will have stockpiled. As long as none of the new legendaries has a card effect that says "You win the game!", I think I'll be just fine.

Unconsoleable #45: It's For Drunks!

It's always a lot of fun when Anna and Jessica invite me to come hang out on Unconsoleable, and this episode is no different. And nothing is more fun than tearing apart yet another "Apple needs to" article, and trying to figure out why Comcast thinks that anyone wants to control a streaming mobile game on their TV via a tablet when you could just play that same game on the tablet.

You can also have fun counting the number of times I talk about Hearthstone without actually talking about Hearthstone. (Spoiler: It's a large number.)

Not Here to Make Friends: How Toxicity in Heroes of the Storm Affected Me

I've been playing a lot of Heroes of the Storm lately. I'm not really sure what's drawn me to the game other than it's similar enough to Diablo that I was able to pick up the mechanics fairly quickly, and I've got enough nostalgia for Blizzard's characters from all the years of playing their games that it's appealed to me in a way that something like DOTA or League of Legends hasn't. The fact that the games are generally shorter tends to help, too; I rarely have an hour to dedicate to a multiplayer online game, but I can find 15-20 minute chunks in the evenings and weekends easily enough.

One of the things that had me nervous about playing a game like this was the toxicity that I've heard of in games of this type (MOBA, which is short for Multiplayer Online Battle Arena). You don't need to spend a lot of time searching online to find stories of people turning on their teammates when things go poorly and yelling at them for not playing well enough. And this is on top of the general nastiness that tends to happen online. I decided to try to put that aside given the positive things I'd heard about the game, especially since all the communication is done via either text or pings on the map, as opposed to voice, where a lot of the worst types of harassment tends to happen.

I've been playing the game for about two weeks now, and I've gotten at least the basics down. I know what characters I'm good with and those that I'm not, but one of the things that Heroes of the Storm strongly encourages is playing enough games with a character to get them up to level 5, where you get a bonus of in-game gold. This typically takes somewhere between five and ten matches, depending on how often you win and what bonuses are in place at the time. This incentive is usually enough to figure out how to play a character strategically, as well as whether it's a character you're interested in buying, either with in-game gold or real money. The game also encourages you to play games against other players, as opposed to against AI opponents, by offering more experience for games against human opponents, and it gives out "daily quests" to encourage you to play with specific kinds of characters.

I'm saying this all to explain that when I went into a quick match against human opponents today with Diablo, who is a character that I'm not particularly comfortable with, I did so both because I'm close to level 5 with him and there was a daily quest that could only be completed with a character from the Diablo series. Diablo is a melee character, and I hate playing melee because it's not my strong suit. I've got other characters who I'm much more comfortable with, but I wouldn't make much progress jumping into a game with them. (See how these incentives work?) So I went into quick match with random people to try to level him up as quickly as possible, so I could ultimately move on to a different character.

And then this happened.

I've been kind of waiting for this shoe to fall for a while now, but I've played so many games where nothing really toxic happened that it surprised me how much it affected me when it did. I responded that some of us are newer and there's no reason to be rude, and I was told to go back and play AI and stop wrecking the game for them. I did report the person after the game, which is why I blocked out the names in the screen shot; I'm letting the system work how it's supposed to, assuming it does work at all.

I'm surprised about how much this one encounter has completely changed my feelings about the game, though. I thought I'd be able to shake it off and go right back in, but I really don't want to right now. I've written at length about my self-esteem issues and how I usually deal with them; putting me into a situation where I'm upset enough at myself for playing poorly, compounded with other people on my team telling me to kill myself because I'm not up to their standards, is something that isn't fun for me. I thought I could deal with it when it inevitably happened. At least in the time since that match ended, it turns out I can't.

This is a big problem for MOBAs in general. They have a reputation for being terrible experiences because you can control everything in the gameplay, but you can't control players' behavior. Hearthstone manages this by reducing communication to predefined emotes, but Heroes of the Storm requires teams to coordinate, so that's not an option. League of Legends has some automated solutions to this problem, so hopefully this won't be an issue in a couple of years. In the present day, though, for as many people play these games, there are many more who either get turned away like it feels like I am, or who won't approach them in the first place for fear of this kind of experience. The time up to now where I've played the game has been great, but I honestly can't recommend it to anyone without a lot of caveats because of exactly this problem.

Will I go back in to Heroes of the Storm again? I don't know. Maybe I will, with friends or at least friends of friends who I can trust. Maybe I'll get up the courage to go in solo again. (It's worth mentioning that for every encounter like this, there have been two or three where I've apologized for making mistakes or having a bad game and my random teammates were extremely understanding, but those fade quickly.) But this single experience has completely overshadowed any enjoyment I've had with Heroes of the Storm over the past two weeks.

For now, I'm going back to Hearthstone for a while. At least there, the only person I can disappoint is myself.