15 December 2014

The search bar of Firefox 34

When I use my web browser, I am usually doing a search. I am rarely typing a URL from memory. Also, I try doing everything through my keyboard. Using my mouse means thousands of back-and-forths with my right hand every day, which cost me time and energy. And sometimes I have to look at the mouse to grab it, which makes me lose my focus on the things I was doing on the screen. For what I do, all-keyboard is better.

Up to Firefox 33, my typical web-search steps were: 1) alt-tab to web browser, 2) ctrl-K to focus on the search bar, 3) ctrl-down to select the appropriate search engine, 4) type query and enter. Step 3) is a power user step. Its goal is to save time by not using the mouse and skipping a web page load. For example, I want to know who Seth Green is. I could run the search through Google or DuckDuckGo, and then click the Wikipedia link (usually in the top 3 results). But if I select Wikipedia as my search engine, I directly land on the page for Seth Green. So ctrl-down saves me a page load and a mouse click. Some users even have more than 30 engines!

In their new search interface, called Find it Faster, FF34 basically replaced ctrl-down by a mouse click on tiny buttons. FiF saves me a page load, but it's at the cost of a mouse click. Below is a GIF demonstrating the new search feature.

Average users do not switch search engines - they always use the default one. So FiF is a feature targeted to power users, and yet it apparently forces them to use their mouse. Obviously, the feature has annoyed many users, including me.

There are two solutions. A first solution is rejecting the change: go to about:config, and switch browser.search.showOneOffButtons to false. Another solution is learning the change: the search steps used to be 3) ctrl-down, then 4) type query and enter. Now the steps are 3) type query, then 4) press tab to switch search engines, and enter. This new process is not as good as the old one: switching search engine after having typed, rather than before, loses the benefit from autocomplete/search suggestions anymore. Anyway, Mozilla should emphasize on their FiF release page that tab replaces ctrl-down.

Edit 3/17/2015: to disable it, go to about:config, and turn

to false.

16 November 2014

Diablo's randomness: competition vs variety

In Diablo 3, randomness is everywhere: in item rolls, maps, monster types, critical hit chance, and more. This randomness bothers competitive players. Greater Rifts (GR) are the platform where competition takes place. GR are random in several ways: their maps are generated randomly, their monsters picked randomly, and the monster density also happens to be random. Therefore, ranking high on the leaderboards is mostly a matter of luck, not skill.

Blizzard probably launched the first season as a sort of test drive. They figured players would still find some exploits during season 1. I think Blizzard learned many lessons from season 1. I thought one of them was that they should level out, or even remove, the sources of randomness in GR. For example, I really expected that they would remove pylons from GR. Others expected the same. But Blizzard has decided to keep pylons inside GR for season 2. I was bewildered: why keep a luck-based mechanic in a competitive setting? I can now see at least two reasons.

One reason is that Diablo 3 is not about player skill, but about grinding. I think looting a full set of decently-rolled gear takes around 50 hours. Then the game is all about looting better-rolled gear and acquiring decently-rolled ultra-rare gear such as Tasker and Theo or Wand of Woh (both below 0.2% chance from Kadala). Crafting a good Hellfire Amulet, another end-game yet crucial piece of equipment, can take months. The hardcore players who compete on the leaderboards have acquired all this gear. While they may object to the contrary, they love grinding, or they would never have obtained such great gear. Thus re-rolling GR for slow and benign Risen Deads instead of fast and dangerous Winged Assassins may be less boring to them than it is to me.

Another reason for keeping randomness in a competitive setting is variety. The developers admit that they use randomness in Diablo III to increase the replayability, Greater Rifts included. Pylons can be a hell of a lot of fun to encounter in game, and that’s one of the big reasons we added them to Greater Rifts. The great majority of players do not compete seriously for the leaderboards, so they actually really enjoy the occasional Conduit Pylon in GR. Moreover, even competitive players may become bored if the GR were completely standardized: they would always know where to go, which monsters to avoid, and so on.

In short, Blizzard is probably right to keep pylons inside GR, but they should definitely look at 1) leveling out monster density across GR, and 2) leaderboards that measure player skill by their ability to deal with randomness.

15 October 2014

Network Algorithmics by Varghese

I skimmed Network Algorithmics by George Varghese (2005). This book presents common tricks used at the OS, hardware, and architecture levels to prevent network bottlenecks. Here are 15 principles listed on the first page.

Number Principle Example
1 Avoid obvious waste Zero-copy interfaces
2 Shift computation in time
2a Precompute Application device channels
2b Evaluate lazily Copy-on-write
2c Share expenses, batch Integrated layer processing
3 Relax system requirements
3a Trade certainty for time Stochastic fair queuing
3b Trade accuracy for time Switch load balancing
3c Shift computation in space IPv6 fragmentation
4 Leverage off system components
4a Exploit locality Locality-driven receiver
4b Trade memory for speed Processing, Lulea IP lookups
4c Exploit existing hardware Fast TCP checksum
5 Add hardware
5a Use memory interleaving and pipelining Pipelined IP lookups
5b Use wide word parallelism Shared memory switches
5c Combine DRAM and SRAM effectively Maintaining counters
6 Create efficient specialized routines UDP checksums
7 Avoid unnecessary generality Fbufs
8 Do not be tied to reference implementation Upcalls
9 Pass hints in layer interfaces Packet filters
10 Pass hints in protocol headers Tag switching
11 Optimize the expected case Header prediction
11a Use caches Fbufs
12 Add state for speed Active virtual circuit list
12a Compute incrementally Recomputing CRCs
13 Optimize degrees of freedom IP trie lookups
14 Use bucket sorting, bitmaps Timing wheels
15 Create efficient data structures Level-4 switching

14 October 2014

Diablo 3 - item sets

Modern item games like Diablo 3 (D3) use a mechanic called sets: when used together, certain items unlock particular bonuses. For example in D3, Litany of the Undaunted increases attack speed, The Wailing Host increases crit chance, and used together they give 15% extra gold from monsters. Item sets is an old mechanic - the Diablo 2 expansion already had some in 2001.

Sets in D3 are a great mechanic for at least two reasons. First, sets let developers encourage the use of certain skills. Since the bonuses from set items nearly always provide more damage than regular non-set items, players use them. For example, the Marauder set for Demon Hunters requires the use of sentries, a skill that would not be used otherwise because its AI for picking a target is unpredictable. Second, set items are a great mechanic also because they give players a goal. When I dropped my first set item and saw the set bonuses, I immediately wanted other items in the set.

Sudden increase in power

End-game starts after reaching level 70. Reaching level 70 by yourself takes roughly 15 hours. Difficulty from then on can be measured by the Greater Rift (GR) level your character can reach. Set bonuses are so powerful that they make your character jump multiple GR levels at once. For example, going from 5 set items to 6 can double your character's effective damage or toughness, and make you reach 5 or 6 GR levels higher. This explains why the Ring of Royal Grandeur, which reduces the number of items needed for set bonuses by 1, pretty much a wild-card for all your sets, is such a game-changer. These sudden increases in power sometimes surprise players, but I think each bump makes them suddenly feel very powerful. Interestingly, back in 2013, sets used to be as good as non-set legendary items.

Vague descriptions or hidden mechanics?

The descriptions of D3 set bonuses are often vague, and require the player to check the forums and Youtube videos for details. Here are two examples.

Marauder set

This is a Demon Hunter set. The 2-piece bonus is straightforward: it gives 500 dexterity (on top of the approximately 500 dexterity already contributed by each set piece).

The 4-piece bonus makes the Companion skill call all possible companions (instead of only one). Do passive effects from the Companion skill (e.g. the boar increases life regeneration) apply as well? And do all active effects trigger when I use the skill? The answers are not written in the description, but people figure it out quickly by trying.

The 6-piece bonus reads: Sentries cast your equipped Hatred spenders. After trying it out, I realized that sentries have a different rate of fire for each spender: Cluster Arrow (massive area damage) seems to happen only every 5 shots, whereas Elemental Arrow (small multi-target damage) the rest of the time. Looking at high-level Demon Hunters, most wear Tasker and Theo, which increases the attack speed of your pets by 40-50%. Are sentries pets? (Yes!) And how can I make my sentries use Cluster Arrow more often? (You can't!) Theorycrafters figured it all out by analyzing game frames one by one and sharing their findings. But is the average player supposed to read the forum to improve their character?

Zunimassa set

This is a Witch Doctor set. The 2-piece bonus gives 250 intelligence and grants 30 Mana per Kill. Is it only when my character performs the killing blow on a monster? Does it also work when it's one of my pets? Does it also work when it's another player?

The 4-piece bonus reads: Your Fetish Army (FA) lasts until they die. This is straightforward, and it made me think about the passive skill Fetish Sycophants (FS). FS seems to combo well with FA: When you hit enemies with your spells, you have up to a 10% chance to summon a dagger-wielding Fetish to fight by your side for 60 seconds. There are several problems with this apparent FA-FS synergy.

First, why the up to? What makes the rate be less than 10%? That is where theorycraft comes to the rescue. The community found out that one can have at most 15 active FS at the same time. So the rate of FS trigger is 10% until 15, at which point it becomes 0%. The description of FS should also mention this cap of 15.

A second problem is the easy confusion between the two types of fetishes. 1) Witch Doctors can have many pets: a Gargantuan, zombie dogs, FA fetishes, FS fetishes, and mimics. FA and FS are both fetishes, so intuitively, they must benefit from the same bonuses. 2) Why excluding FS from the 4-piece bonus when the effect from the Carnevil helm applies to both FA and FS? 3) The distinction between FA and FS is not for game balance: in practice, it's very easy to maintain 15 FS active all the time by speeding through monsters.

Why so vague?

I can see several reasons:

  • Practicality: the developers want to be able to modify the bonus (through hotfix or patch) without modifying the description.
  • Brevity: a precise description may require too much space in the item tooltip.
  • Practice: figuring it out by trial is more visceral than by just reading the description.
  • Theorycraft: explaining everything spoils the fun of theorycrafters.

Uselessness, sub-optimality, and combinatorics

Some sets are clearly underpowered compared to others. The Witch Doctor Invoker set and the Demon Hunter Shadow set are only useful when your character gets hit. Sadly, in D3, the best defense is offense: the goal is to kill monsters quickly enough that they don't kill you. Therefore these sets end up never being used (except the 2-piece Shadow set in hardcore mode, maybe?).

The Natalya set is not useless, but rather suboptimal. Both the 2-piece and 3-piece bonuses increase damage slightly and enhance mobility (more discipline means more Vaulting). The 4-piece bonus reduces the cooldown of Rain of Vengeance by 2 seconds for each enemy you kill. RoV has a base cooldown of 30 seconds, and does 1000% area damage for 5 seconds, so the set seems very interesting. In practice however, it is difficult to keep monsters grouped in an area for 5 seconds. So while some players use the 2- and 3-piece bonus, nobody cares about the 4-piece bonus. I wonder if the set would be more used if the cooldown was reduced by 2 seconds for every enemy hit (instead of killed).

ArcheAge boasts 120 classes, but it's only because players can pick 3 skill trees among 10, ie C(10,3) = 120 different combinations of skill trees. I don't think that all combinations are efficient, but ArcheAge achieves such diversity simply by leveraging combinatorics on 10 coherent sets of skills. In D3, a player using a Demon Hunter can pick 6 active skills among 24, so that's a total of C(24,6) = 134k different builds. Add to this that each active skill has 4-5 runes, and that there are also another 4 passive skills (5 if we count the Hellfire Amulet) to pick among 18. That's billions of combinations! Yet the only sustainable Demon Hunter builds actually played are minor variations around the same 6 skills. That is because the Marauder set forces players to pick these skills. Moreover, I really liked combining multiple 3- and 4-piece sets together, but the 6-piece Marauder took all the spots. I wish D3 had 1) more 4-piece sets and fewer 6-piece sets, and 2) combinations between sets, not just between sets and legendary items (e.g. Marauder and Tasker and Theo)

13 October 2014

Diablo 3 - the item game

In item games, the main goal of players is to continuously upgrade their gear. Diablo 3 (D3) is the perfect example: kill monsters in order to drop better gear in order to kill monsters faster. Bungie just released Destiny, an item-game FPS budgeted with half a billion dollars. Yet Destiny could learn from Diablo 3. So here are some thoughts about the item game in D3.

Prevent farming ...

In D3, like in D2, the drops are completely random: with a few exceptions, nearly any item can drop from any monster or wreckable object (e.g. jars). The odds are just higher for harder monsters, and way lower for wreckable objects. The exact drop rates are secret (except the 10% legendary drop rate from Kadala). This secrecy has led to various rumors and tinfoil hat theories about how loot can be influenced.

D3 has, or used to have, farming spots such as the Decaying Crypt, but they were mostly for XP, not for drops. In D3, farming boss monsters actually brings fewer drops than farming normal or elite monsters. This contrasts with Diablo 2, where players were grinding bosses like Baal or Diablo for XP and loot. So in a way, the grind in D3 is less boring than in D2.

... Yet allow farming

As of October 2014, there are 2 exceptions to what I just wrote: 1) bounty rewards like RoRG or Helltrapper, and 2) Hellfire Amulet.

The RoRG was introduced in February 2014. It is a mandatory item to reach the game's highest difficulty levels. Players have to camp Act-1 bounties to get one with good rolls. To farm as quickly as possible, players join co-op games to split farm: instead of spending 15-20 minutes completing the 5 bounties together, they each complete a bounty in 5 minutes. I am surprised that the developers did not see it coming: split farming is very clearly not how we want players to play the game. Yet nearly a year later, they still have not changed the bounty system.

The Hellfire Amulet is not as mandatory compared to the RoRG. But its bonus is so useful that all of the top players have it. Farming it is somewhat more fun than farming for RoRG, since it is a quest in itself: a) hunt for the 4 Keywardens on the game's largest maps to obtain 4 keys, b) combine the 4 different keys into a portal, c) kill 2 super bosses at once, a somewhat more difficult task than the Keywarden hunt, and d) combine 4 super bosses' loots to obtain a Hellfire Amulet.

The Reaper of Souls expansion

From launch in May 2012 until the retirement of the Auction House (AH) in February 2014, players were mostly buying their gear from the AH, and sometimes grind-crafting it. They nearly never dropped it themselves. Legendary weapons had 7-8 affixes. After the AH retired, Loot 2.0 arrived, and the expansion Reaper of Souls (RoS) shortly after that. Legendary weapons now have 4 primary and 2 secondary affixes. Secondary affixes do not matter much (e.g. more XP when killing a monster), so RoS drastically reduced the item entropy.

The expansion also reminded me of Blizzard's somewhat elegant solution to a common MMO problem. Most MMOs in the early 2000s had the same problem: players who have been playing for a year have too much of a head start compared to players who have been playing for 3 months. New players are hopeless, especially in PvP situations. World of Warcraft solved this problem with what I call expansion gating: WoW vanilla capped the character level at 60 and item level at 92. Until the first expansion came out to increase these two caps, players were gated there. The advantage of expansion gating is that it gives the same chance to old and new players. The main drawback (if any) is mudflation. Diablo 3 is no different: level-70 items have twice more DPS than level-60 items. Thus when the expansion launched, players threw away all the gear they had acquired before.

Few links to other end-game activities

Item games have a great loop, but it is not enough in itself. D3 launched in May 2012. The Auction House (AH) launched in May 2012 too, so players could play two games in one: the action RPG and the auction game. Note that you did not need to play the aRPG to play the auction game, but you did need to buy gear off the AH to play the aRPG well. Had it been the opposite, I think the game would have been much better.

In July 2012, the developers realized that the item hunt is just not enough for a long-term sustainable end-game. Since launch, the game also allowed players to hunt for achievements and start new characters (in softcore or hardcore). In August 2012, the developers added the leveling up grind through 100 Paragon levels. Every Paragon level increased the chance to drop an item and the amount of gold dropped by 3%. In February 2014, Paragon levels became infinite, and the 3% bonus was removed. Clans and communities were also added in February 2014. Since August 2014, players can compete on the greater rift leaderboards, and start new seasonal characters (in softcore or hardcore). Interestingly, the item game is completely independent of all other end-game activities (except the AH and the original 100 Paragon levels increasing magic find and gold find). In other words, the item game of Reaper of Souls could be directly copied into another game without having to also copy the other activities.

08 October 2014

Ken Lobb FDG 2014 keynote

Ken Lobb designed Golden Eye and Killer Instinct in the 90s. Here are notes from a keynote he gave at the FDG 2014 conference.

Having an extensive knowledge of games is mandatory for game designers, because they provide a common vocabulary to talk about games.

In the late 80s, teams rolled their own tools. Nowadays, AAA teams still have the not created here problem and waste a lot of time reinventing the wheel. That's why indies using Unity or Unreal can save on costs and take a bite at AAA.

The most important tool in game development is the game build, because it is how the game improves, little by little. Next comes the schedule, ie what to do next. Finally comes the spec and docs, because they change all the time. Microsoft has the process mastered. In fact, Microsoft is too good at planning: they always ship what they speced, and not exactly what they should create. The industry in general, and Microsoft in particular, sign games that cost way too much money.

Difficulty: games have shifted from lose vs win, to win vs big win vs epic win. now in call of duty, high kd ratio is winning. dying is not too bad. before in golden eye, die means restart whole 10min level. now, focus on positive reinforcement rather than punishment.

Major game design issues:

  • Tutorials are hard to build right. Should players be reminded of mechanics they may already know, or should they instead be taught from scratch? The Zelda series have great tutorial design: they simply give the player the tool, and teach by giving more and more difficult challenges that require using that tool. Achievements can also encourage a particular behavior.
  • Cheating is OK. 90% of Xbox players are also on a second device when they play. Players use Youtube, watch Twitch, and look for cheats and FAQs all the time. Procedurally-generated or randomized content can curb this practice down, but a real solution may involve the game itself showing tips or videos from the players who passed an obstacle to those who are stuck.
  • Making a game noticed on app stores/platforms is difficult. Advertising and charts do not target particular players. Word of mouth is more effective, but how does it start? Maybe app stores could recommend games to hardcore players, which would trickle them down to their friends? [This may have an answer: according to Wooga, it takes $250k to reach the first spot on the App Store]

07 October 2014

Diablo 3 - Randomized content

A lot of game content in Diablo 3 is determined randomly. Arguably, more randomness means more diverse content and therefore players less likely to become bored by repetition. But randomness also has drawbacks.


Maps are generated somewhat procedurally. Some elements like the map borders remain constant, but events and dungeon entrances are picked randomly among a pool and placed randomly in predetermined places.

Maps like The Den of the Fallen sometimes have loops, which is annoying: players kill monsters on their way, but when they realize they have been looping around, they go back on their way without any monsters to kill. It is a waste of time. A solution could involve using heuristics to prevent loops.

A Greater Rift (GR) is a dungeon in which players race against time. The higher the level of a GR, the tougher its monsters. GR is a competitive activity: leaderboards show the teams who achieved the highest GR levels. Problem: the GR map is picked randomly; sometimes it is a maze, sometimes it is linear, and sometimes it has loops. The randomness does not make for a fair competition. One solution would be to remove maze maps from the selection. Another solution would involve keeping the map and monsters constant, and make one leaderboard per map. It would be pretty much like a racing game.

Elite affixes

Elite monsters can have up to 5 affixes. Affixes have 3 categories: crowd-control such as Vortex, defensive such as Extra health, or offensive such as Desecrator. These affixes are picked randomly, with a couple heuristics making sure that an elite can have at most one crowd-control affix and at most one defensive affix. Some affixes such as Invulnerable Minions were so annoying that they were removed from the game altogether.

Still, some combinations remain more deadly than others. For example, elites combining Molten (they burn where they walk on), Fast, and Horde (create 8-10 Molten and Fast minions) are the bane of melee characters.


In the original Diablo 3 (also known as D3v for Diablo 3 vanilla), loots were completely random. For example, a Wizard could drop a mace only Barbarians can use. Enters the Auction House (AH for short): the Wizard sells the mace on the AH and, with the money received for it, buys a better wand from the AH. Trading through the AH worked well from launch in May 2012 until August 2012 when the designers realized that the AH can short circuit the natural pace of item drops, making the game feel less rewarding for some players. Indeed, players could obtain second-best gear in only a couple days, play for a week, get bored for not progressing, and leave the game. Conclusion: completely-random loot with an AH for trading does not work.

Loot 2.0 landed in the game just before the Reaper of Souls expansion. Loot 2.0 has 3 parts: 1) little to no exchange between players (to prevent gold farming), and no AH, 2) loot is targeted to the player, ie Wizards only drop Wizard gear, and 3) the Mystic lets the player reroll an attribute on any piece of gear. Six months after the release of the expansion, this has been holding fine.

03 September 2014

Improving the end-game of social strategy games

Improving the end-game of social strategy games

I removed Clash of Clans (CoC) from my iPad on August 20, 2014. The game had just reached two years old, and I had been playing it since February 2013. I played very actively (2-3 hours per day on average) until December 2013, then considerably slowed down (1 hour per week).

No new content

I think I slowed down, and eventually stopped playing mostly because no significantly new content was introduced. New content mattered a lot to me because I had reached Town Hall 10, the very end of the game, for many months. So far, the game has received four updates in 2014.

Month Description
January Introduced Hero abilities, which are not really a new gameplay feature, but rather a design fix to encourage players to use and upgrade their heroes. Great, and perhaps even necessary, but no impact on battle strategy or base design.
April Introduced Clan Wars, a feature asked by players since the game came out. My clan was very excited, but we stopped Clan Wars after a couple weeks. We realized that the match-making algorithm alternated pairing our clan against once a much stronger clan, once a moderately weaker clan. Clan Wars require a lot of time and in-game resources, so we kept asking for enemy clans, but only attacked when we were sure to win. After a few weeks, we realized the Clan Wars rewards were not worth the frustration, so we stopped match-making.
May Mostly usability tweaks.
July Improved Hero abilities. Once again, this was more a design fix to encourage the use and upgrading of Heroes than a new feature.

Moreover, in these four updates, the Hog Rider received three nerfs, but my base still got trampled by mass-hog armies. (Yes, anti-hog base designs exist, but these designs are very vulnerable to air attacks). The Valkyrie was buffed twice, but it still was not enough to make her useful for her cost. To sum up the last 8 months, no new mechanic, be it a unit or a tower, was introduced, and I did not find the balance tweaks adequate.

Lessons for social strategy games

Troop synergies

The game was released with 10 basic units that make sense when used together. For example, the Giants are slow and target defenses so that the Healer can follow them without being hit. These synergies are expected: the team had time to iterate and polish before launch. But introducing new troops after launch is tricky: the new troops must 1) have an interesting gameplay element, 2) complement existing troops, and 3) keep existing troops useful.

The Minion is a perfect example: it is cheap and flying. This makes it a great complement for farming with Barbarians and Archers (called the BAM strategy). It is also great for high-level PvP when paired with Balloons (Balloonion strategy). And since it costs dark elixir and has low HP, it can't be used by itself.

The pricey Golem is another great example: it synergizes well with Wizards and Pekkas (GoWiWi strategy), which are necessary troops in high-level PvP. The Golem's production stats are perfect: 45 minutes to make, and a cost of 2.5 hours-worth of dark elixir, which is the same as Pekka. The Golem was clearly designed to be trained in parallel of Pekka. Plus Supercell must have made a lot of money from players gemming it!

On the other hand, the moderately expensive wall-jumping Hog Rider does not complement any other troop. Neither does the Valkyrie. Interesting ideas, but no synergy! Supercell keeps trying to fix them, so they may have realized that. Or maybe Supercell abandoned them completely, and has been working on more troops, such as the Spider, Centaur, or Yeti, which have not been released yet, but were leaked in July 2014.

More things to do in the end game

As the Town Hall levels go by, so does the average duration of building upgrades. For example, upgrades take 3-10 hours at TH3, 1-3 days at TH6, and 7-14 days at TH10. By TH10, the player should have 5 Builders, so the average time between two building upgrades is still 2-3 days. During these 2-3 days, players come back to the game only because their troops are ready for battle, not because they have something to do with their base. But by TH10, players have spent months being progressively conditioned to come back for their troops and not their base. So they still come back, but more and more reluctantly, since the rewards are less and less frequent. At some point, they unlearn the habit of coming back to play: what's the point when nothing seems to be happening? They eventually stop playing.

Possible solutions involve shortening upgrade times or providing more builders, but both may seem like Supercell would lose money. The game should at least give players things to do with their buildings (beyond collecting resources twice a day). The Bomb very short upgrade times have been a step in that direction. A crafting system like in Monster Legacy, or Angry Birds Epic, but applied to strengthening buildings, or increasing towers' rate of fire, may increase the game's lifespan even more.

01 September 2014

List of tower defense games

I had started to compile a list of tower defense games a couple years ago, but never managed to finish it. The goals were to 1) list the basic gameplay elements that define the tower defense genre, 2) spot original gameplay elements that have made the genre progress, and 3) track the history of the genre, much like what has been done for shmups.

Name and URL Release date Image
Players Platform
Bosses Path
Backyard Monsters early 2011
single player + Facebook friends Flash on Facebook
Champion units never die Free path
Receive and donate monsters from/to your Facebook friends. Send your troops against the base of another player to steal their resources. Half-cloned by Clash of Clans in 2012. By Casual Collective (now Kixeye).
Bubble Tank Defense 2009
Single player Flash
Has bosses Free path
Mega towers are a combination of 4 adjacent normal towers. Tower upgrade is a tree: all towers start as basic towers, then they become zone, slow, specialize against ghost, etc.
Canyon Defense 2007
Single player Flash
no Fixed path
Unlock towers by completing missions such as building 15 towers or acquiring $1000. Developed by Russian studio Iriysoft.
CreepSmash 2008
2 to 4 players Java
no Fixed path
6 tower types, each with 4 upgrade levels. Player can specify AI for each tower (eg. target creeps with fewest HP). Receive income every 15 seconds. Increase income by 10% of the price of the creeps you send to your left neighbor. Receive creeps from your right neighbor. Green creeps regen life, white are immune to slow, blue are fast, red have lots of HP. Winning strategy: sell towers to send more creeps to increase your income faster than other players. Attack-defense gameplay. 4-player games, quickly turn into 2v2. Developed by a group of German students. The community is mostly German. open source.
Cursed Treasure May 2010
single player Flash
Has bosses fixed path
3 families of towers: Demon (fire AoE or burn DoT), Orc (poison DoT or strong single-target attack), and Undead (freeze, fear, or slow). Towers gain XP and level up by attacking creeps. Tower effects change when they level up. Creeps are assassins (hide temporarily), crusaders (block damage), monks (heal other creeps), and other medieval characters. Each level completed grants the player XP used to level up to acquire and level up passive skills such as more gold at the start of the level, more gold per creep, reduced tower costs, or increased tower range or damage. Player can use 3 active skills: cut tree to place tower, temporarily double the fire rate of all towers, and splash meteor damage in an area. Developed by Russian studio Iriysoft.
DemonRift TD Sep 2011
Single player Flash
2 Bosses Fixed Path
4 types of towers (swordsman, archer attacks long-range but not short-range, knight can chase fast enemies, and golem can stun and block up to 5 enemies). Command points are generated over time and when killing enemies, and are used to buy or upgrade units. Upgrades only add more creatures to a tower.
Desktop TD release?
Single player Flash
Has bosses Free Path
Creeps go from top to bottom or from left to right. Mazing/juggling matters a lot. By Casual Collective (now Kixeye). Spawn, flying, and many other kinds of creeps.
Dungeon Defenders 2011
single-player Unreal Engine
No bosses Fixed Path
3D. Originally a showcase of the Unreal Engine. Source code available.
Flash Element TD Feb 2007
Single-player Flash
Has boss? Fixed path
Start the first level with the 3 basic towers. Kill enemies to earn a bit of money to upgrade towers. At the end of each wave, earn 10% of your current money (+5% per skill point spent in a certain research skill). Earn Wood every 8-10 waves to unlock towers (earth, fire, water, and combo of the 3), skills, or increase your life. Also known as 3d tower defense.
Garden TD release?
Single player Flash
Has bosses Fixed Path
Spitting cactus are overpowered, gnomes are useless.
Hold the holy pig release?
Single player Flash
Has bosses Fixed Path
Towers are elemental: water slows down, earth is zone damage, fire attacks fast, plant poisons, wind only attacks flying creeps.
Mini tower defense release?
Single player Flash
No boss Fixed path
Creeps are tanks, towers are lasers. Winning a level gives points that can be spent to increase tower powers.
Orcs must die Oct 2011
Single player XBLA and Windows
No Bosses Path?
The game happens in 3d like a normal FPS. Creeps are Orcs. The player controls an FPS avatar with deadly skills and places traps and archers in that 3d-FPS view.
Plants versus Zombies May 2009
Single player Flash
One final boss No path
Zombies come from the right towards your house on the left. 5-6 lines, zombies never change line (except when you use garlic). Every 5 levels, there's a mini game. Plants are cards acquired when winning levels. No shortcuts, just clicks. The money is sun, it falls from the sky and players have to click on it to collect it. Click fest at higher levels. Five worlds: backyard by day and by night, pool by day and by night, roof by day. Lots of Easter Eggs. Very easy to understand and play through.
Rat Poker 1998
Single player Windows 95 and 98
No boss Fixed path
Tower defense where creeps keep looping until you order them in series like Poker hands. The player has to organize rats in series resembling Poker series (three of a kind, six of a kind, rainbow series, etc.). Rats are walking and can be grabbed and released at specific locations.
Turett Tyranny release?
Single player Flash
No boss Fixed path
Creeps HP keep increasing wave after wave. Kill creep to get money. Unlock, place, and upgrade towers with money. Towers have a size (e.g. 1x1 or 3x3) and can only be placed where they fit. Walls constrain towers' line of sight. There is friendly fire between towers, but you can pay to protect them from friendly fire.
Vector TD release?
Single player Flash
No boss Fixed path
Usual basic TD. Graphics resemble CreepSmash. Steep learning curve.
Viking TD Release?
Single player Flash
No boss Fixed Path
Creeps are boats of Vikings, towers are catapults and others. Towers are unlocked progressively in pseudo-quests such as "build 5 catapults to unlock the tree of wisdom" or "kill 3 Big Boats at once with a spell to get the Stone Head". By Russian studio Iriysoft.
VR defender Y3K April 2007
Single Player Flash
No boss Fixed path
6 kinds of towers, such as normal, slow, and flame thrower. Tower appearances reflects its upgrade level. It's hard to figure out which strategy to use as ennemies just only keep having more HP wave after wave, cf also player feedback. Graphics resemble CreepSmash.
Wicked Defense 2007
Single Player PC
Has bosses Fixed path
Some creeps can buff other creeps. Spells can slow down or damage monsters. Weird graphics. 3D.

And a list of games I have not broken down yet.

Name Comments
W3 mod
Colony Defense The terrain is a sphere, which gives a Populous-like view of the planet.
Sol Survivor 3D, fancy graphics, multiplayer co-op
Garden Defense
Defense Grid Matrix atmosphere, 3D, fancy-ish graphics, fixed path.
Fieldrunners Resembles Desktop TD, old-school war atmosphere, kawaii 2D god-view graphics.
TriDefense for iPhone
Besiegement for iPhone
The Horde 1994, contender for first TD game around; Its FAQ says that The Horde currently deletes all other non-horde saved games in NVRAM when you save a game
Harvest: Massive Encounter Creeps are aliens, towers are human. planet exploration atmosphere.
Protector Towers are medieval characters.
Immortal Defence
Pixel Junk Monsters
Lock's Quest DS game
Guns' n' Glory For iOS. UI is intuitive, but moving units around looks clumsy. Video.
TowerMadness iPad game, free placement, towers can be upgraded, creeps are aliens, lives are sheeps that you have to protect. 2 players can play at the same time on the same ipad, but there are no interactions between players (no co-op, no PVP).
Starship defense DSi game, slow, fixed path, rubbing/touching creeps with stilet inflicts damage. towers can be positioned on slots on the wall or on the roof. Video.
Castle-Combat Clone of Rampart, old game from 1990, possible origin of the TD genre.
Kajaani in space
Lockdown TD "lifting" system that lets you move towers temporarily and reposition them between waves
Pokemon TD So successful it has a sequel.
Ninja vs Pirates
Starland Multiplayer

And a list of lists of TD games, mostly Flash:

05 August 2014

Mobile crap - ads

This series of articles is a rant about mobile game design. It may extend to console and PC gaming, but I only talk about what I experienced through most games featured on the iPad app store in the past year or so.

A game does not need in-game ads to be profitable. Real-money transactions can do the job if the game is polished and the business model solid. See Clash of Clans for example.

But even if we ignore the games with traditional ads, there are still many with some sort of advertising. For example, Puzzle and Dragons has no in-game ads per se, but they do frequently collaborate with third-parties to advertise their games. Among these collabs, PAD introduced a dungeon themed after Angry Birds, and Angry Birds placed a banner or introduced a temporary content themed after PAD. These collaborations may have been profitable for the marketing of both PAD and Angry Birds, but 1) the theme of PAD has now become an inconsistent mess: I would much rather have new content themed after dragons or gods than dragons plus Angry Birds plus Batman plus ... 2) in a collecting game like PAD, the players who start after a collab has ended will never be able to collect the monsters from that collab, and 3) it reminds the player that if she did not pay to play, then she is the product. As a player, I dislike collabs.

There are also many Chinese, Japanese, and Korean games on the app store. One of them is Mother of Myth. In-between levels, they frequently display an in-game ad for ... their own paid content! These ads may increase the number of payers, but 1) they disrupt the play experience, 2) why use an old-fashioned ad when a well-designed game mechanic could do it? If you have to use an ad, then either your game design sucks, or you are not selling the right thing.

And then, of course, there are tons of ad-like messages that my brain ignores automatically. One such message is login through Facebook to play with your friends. PAD remains discreet about it - you can play decently without friends. But Birzzle was much heavier and splashed a bring-your-friends ad after every level.

04 August 2014

Mobile crap - poor English

This series of articles is a rant about mobile game design. It may extend to console and PC gaming, but I only talk about what I experienced through most games featured on the iPad app store in the past year or so.

Not much to say here. Among the many bad-English apps, I only mention the most recent ones. Dungeon Hearts is sometimes Engrish, sometimes poor English with typos. It's odd because its single American developer seems able to speak proper English. Maybe something to do with the publisher? Puzzle and Dragons is half Engrish, half poor English. I expected a big company like Gung Ho to hire professional translators, but apparently not. The dialogs and the story in the Korean game Mother of Myth seem to have been written by a ten year-old kid. It's just terrible.

Most of the poor-English apps I have seen come from Asia. They have great graphics and art, but lack polish on their dialogs and menus, as mentioned in player reviews. It might be a good idea to invest in a copywriter for the ads, and a professional reviewer, or at least a native speaker, for the in-game content.

03 August 2014

Mobile crap - upgrades

This series of articles is a rant about mobile game design. It may extend to console and PC gaming, but I only talk about what I experienced through most games featured on the iPad app store in the past year or so.

The upgrade mechanic is found in more and more iOS games. In Clash of Clans or Birzzle, the player spends coins to upgrade something. In Mother of Myths and Star Wars: Assault Team, the player must use a specific category of loot (e.g. spells for spells in MoM). In Plundernauts, the player must follow recipes using specific items previously looted in battle (e.g. 3 Poltergas for a Poltergas Tank). In Mutants, the player can breed two mutants of type A and B together to make a stronger mutant of type A and B. Finally, in Birzzle, owning more birds increases the play time, and the sum of the bird levels provides a score bonus. The only purpose of this mechanic is to make players buy birds with real money - not to make the game more interesting.

This kind of upgrades is not new, and not exclusive to mobile games: UO had crafting in 2000, Ragnarok Online gear could be upgraded up to ten times with materials in 2003, Diablo 3 has it nowadays with gems and enchanting, and some games in the Final Fantasy series must have had something close to it as well. It seems that iOS developers have just realized that they could use this decade-old mechanic everywhere they need players to grind - and therefore pay real money to skip the grind.

02 August 2014

Mobile crap - daily login

This series of articles is a rant about mobile game design. It may extend to console and PC gaming, but I only talk about what I experienced through most games featured on the iPad app store in the past year or so.

Designers could invent new mechanics to improve the core gameplay, and thereby improve retention metrics in the long run. But they cheat: they invent new mechanics to immediately improve retention metrics, thereby ignoring or forgetting to improve the core gameplay.

Mobile games try to maximize various metrics: their number of daily and monthly active users (DAU and MAU), the average session length, and so on. To do so, they introduce game mechanics that encourage players to come back every day or play longer. In games like Clash of Clans or Farmville, the come-back mechanic is the core game loop, so it is not a problem. Waiting and coming back is what these games are about. But in traditional fighting, racing, or match-three games, the only reason why players would come back or play longer is because they like the fighting, racing, or match-three mechanics, not because they like waiting.

More and more games have been adding come-back mechanics on top of their core gameplay. In 2004, World of Warcraft started granting a rest XP bonus to players who do not login for a long time. Blizzard designers originally implemented the rest mechanic to prevent hardcore players to level up too quickly. Beta-testers hated it, so Blizzard made it a reward for casual players instead of a punishment for hardcore players. Nothing changed mathematically, but players prefer mechanics if they are framed as a reward.

More recently in mobile games, Plundernauts has been giving out a welcome-back reward for logging in. They also give out bounties which must be completed within 24 hours - an incentive to play at least a few battles during the day, most likely in one session. 24-hour bounties are great for metrics such as the average session length, but they do not make the game more fun in the long run.

Puzzle and Dragons gives two login bonuses: 1) a consecutive login bonus, with rewards increasing every consecutive day, and reset the day the player does not login, and 2) a cumulative login bonus, increasing every day the player logs in, and never reset. Also, there are 5 exclamation marks for 7 lines of text in the login bonus message. By abusing the exclamation mark they over-emphasize my login, and it looks very amateur.

And finally, mobile games such as Birzzle or Mother of Myths show a daily login calendar when the player logs in. Some calendars focus on the week (4x7 cells), others on the month (5x6 cells). The calendar resembles an Advent Calendar, except 1) nothing happens at the end, and 2) the calendar mechanic is not properly tied to the core gameplay (receive more and more gold, or increasingly better gifts). The only point of the calendar is to keep people logging in for the rewards, not to have more fun playing the game.

A lot of mobile games have mediocre and dull core gameplay. These games are often sugarcoated in happy-shiny graphics and habit-forming mechanics. None of those improve their core gameplay. These games remain shallow.