Skill Monkey Like Cheatos

I won’t defend the reference in the title, but it exists and I used it. So there.

A friend posted this tweet with what I thought was an interesting topic for discussion and it’s one we did cover in part on Fox’s Squaretable. Even still there is always a lot of debate about player behavior with regards to meta-gaming, min-maxing, power-gaming or any number of other table disrupting approaches.

The question we were asked on the Squaretable was how we felt about players multi-classing into abilities that “stepped on the toes” of other players at the table. Part of the way that characters feel unique and useful in the game is determined by their skills, of which there are 18 on the character sheet as well as their class abilities and archetype.

  • Acrobatics
  • Animal Handling
  • Arcana
  • Athletics
  • Deception
  • History
  • Insight
  • Intimidation
  • Investigation
  • Medicine
  • Nature
  • Perception
  • Performance
  • Persuasion
  • Religion
  • Sleight of Hand
  • Stealth
  • Survival

While there can, and has, been some debate over how useful or important any of these particular skills can be it is the job of the DM to allow players the opportunity to explore them within the game. Not every skill needs to be useful in every situation but ideally they should come into play at some appropriate juncture. Its also important to remember that as DMs we should be open to players attempting to use these skills in unorthodox ways in order to solve problems. That doesn’t mean that we need to completely ignore reasonable limitations on what the skills cover but players can often make compelling arguments for their out of the box thinking, which should be rewarded if it has merit.

At any rate!

Touching briefly on what we talked about during the Squaretable, the argument I made is that I have no problem with characters multi-classing even if it steps into a domain already covered by another character. The caveat however is that I prefer there to be a solid character reason for doing so other than just the player thinking, “I want to do that too.”. The reason can be as simple as your character emulating or learning from a party member that they look up to, something that is born out of an experience buried in their backstory or even brought about from a recent experience.  As with nearly everything that comes with giving advice on running and playing in TTRPGs this is very table and group dependent. If you’re running a group with five flavors of Barbarian then there probably wont be a great deal of ability diversity, which is more than fine if it works for that group and their DM. The same really goes for skills as oftentimes it is probably a boon to have more than one person in the group who is proficient in a skill. This also leads us into a brief detour when talking about these checks.

Who gets to do them and how often?

Like nearly everything else there are multiple schools of thought about how to handle skill and ability checks in games like D&D. There is technically no rule that places a time or chance limit on attempting skill or ability checks as it is up to the DM to impose those limits on a case by case basis.

For instance-someone you are trying to convince into a specific course of action will only listen to your arguments for a limited amount of time before becoming angry, walking away or outright hostile to the people badgering them.

Repeated attempts to pick a lock will eventually result in a broken lock, broken picks or simply being discovered by someone patrolling the area.

You can sit and puzzle over a piece of historical, religious or arcane knowledge until your pry it from your brain but a reasonable argument can be made that you simply don’t know the answer no matter how much you think about it. A lot of times the reason I hear given by DMs, including myself, is, “You simply can’t recall the answer.” when I think what they should say on a failed roll is, “You simply don’t know the answer.” Unless of course the bit of lore somehow intersects with a piece of their backstory or life that would make sense for them to know it then it could be a matter of forgetfulness.

I’ve heard, and honestly have to agree with, DMs which have stated that the only people they allow to make rolls for skill checks are characters who have proficiency in that skill in an effort to maintain a bit of unique utility for each player character. The reason that I don’t necessarily implement this at my table is that oftentimes it can lead to a group being stalled because of failed rolls so I tend to be a little more permissive about characters making checks they aren’t proficient in. Granted this should be solved largely by making sure there are always alternate solutions to a given barrier but even with that it still feels bad to fail as an individual or a group. A sort of middle ground I’ve toyed with implementing is the requirement that your character have some bonus in a given skill to be able to roll for the check, while a zero bonus disqualifies you completely. If that feels too permissive to DMs you can always set a disadvantage or a -5 penalty to the roll due to not being proficient in the skill. As always you should experiment or talk with your group to find something everyone can agree on.

So, back to the question that brought us here, how do I feel about players who try to do everything? Like I pointed out with the question we were asked on the Squaretable for me it boils down to a difference between player motivation for their character build vs the characters motivation for living their life that way. A player who builds specifically around the concept that their character should be the best at everything, all the time to me speaks to a player who will not deal with inevitable failure very well. It’s not to say this guarantees future problems but I feel the odds go up significantly in situations like this. Effectively it’s putting the mechanics before the narrative to an extreme level especially as this is something the game already does regardless of the character. The mechanics of the game are already built to nearly ensure that every character by default is good at a small variety of things. This “skill monkey” build to me is one that I would like to see a thoughtful explanation or backstory so as a DM I know what drove them to be this kind of person and that the player is doing it for, lacking a better phrase, the right reasons.

Why?

These sorts of atypical characters will draw a higher than average amount of roleplaying and story interactions, or the spotlight, just by virtue of their wider range of utility and exposure by simply being able to do more than everyone else.  For other people at the table who are limited to their specialties this can quickly diminish their feel of uniqueness in the group. I can see a lot of avenues for how a character like this could be roleplayed in a way that doesn’t overshadow other players but it is a tough needle to thread even for the experienced. Unfortunately for these types of characters hanging back and allowing for others to excel in their specialties has the reverse effect by diminishing their effective role in the group, so in the end, who is going to volunteer to lose out? The best answer is that no one should and the most likely answer is that in the end it will fall to the DM to try and fix this problem through narrative and combat design on top of already having to run the rest of the game. One way or another in this situation the burden of re-balancing the game falls somewhere instead of on the rules where it, for the most part, should stay.

It can’t be stated enough that nothing in these games should be ruled out unilaterally as not belonging, bad form or otherwise undesirable at a given table without some thorough discussion. That being said I don’t think there is anything inherently wrong with stating that there are things in these games that are more or less difficult to pull off as a player or DM. In a co-operative environment like D&D what you bring to the table is almost as important for other peoples enjoyment as it is for yours so be cognizant of those you’re embarking on a journey with.

Then get down to business and roll some dice!

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Cliffy Bomb! Part 2

Hello again, folks!

Lets pick up where we left off with our friendly neighborhood game development rock-star, Cliffy B. Last time around we talked a bit about Cliff’s history in the industry and how he got to have the reputation he did prior to his pseudo-retirement and re-entry into the industry. This time I’d like to pick up with the venture following up the unfortunate failure that was Lawbreakers.

Around the time of Lawbreaker’s release there was some discussion about whether or not the demographic for that type of shooter even existed anymore or at least if it existed in sustainable numbers. In an attempt to perhaps be a little more in line with the current trends Boss Key decided to to release a new game…

Radical-Heights-Battle-Royale-release-date-943970

Radical Heights was released in an “Early Access” state which has essentially become the industry standard for, “Hey gamers, we need some money so here is something we’re working on that you can play early if you pony up some dough.”. As you can see I’m probably a little jaded when it comes to this style of pre-sale but for context I will say that I have purchased, played and, very much enjoyed games in early access. Off the top of my head I can’t think of any which have ended up incomplete or abandoned so I’ve been lucky but there are numerous early access horror stories which offer important counter examples. Watching this trailer it’s easy to see why the game is in early access as the character models look like lower res versions of OG Borderlands and the guns remind me of glossier versions of Counter Strike 1.6. At the very least the bikes look roughly equivalent to GTA… Vice City.

If you’ve lived under an active volcano for the last year or more you may have missed the rapid and somewhat stunning rise of Battle Royal games like PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds and Fortnite which probably deserve posts of their own. Their absolutely insane amount of success has caught pretty much the entire industry off-guard so naturally they are playing catch up. Treyarch announced that their next Black Ops game will completely eschew their single player in favor of this new trend. This type of trend chasing isn’t really surprising as anyone with a little spare cash and a board will try to ride the wave while its high. What tends to be the worst outcome is when companies and developers gut existing popular franchises in an effort to shove their player-bases onto the bandwagon.

Radical Heights was a similar effort to this although I’m sure Cliff and Boss Key were pushed into that position by the failure of Lawbreakers, making it was their last effort to keep the company afloat. Unfortunately such a hasty attempt to slap together something to ride the Battle Royale wave, which has already been cruising for the better part of a year, it would be too little, too late. In a genre which is going to quickly become over saturated the biggest requirement is to have something significantly mechanical or aesthetic to set you apart. So how do these three competitors set themselves apart?

PlayerUnknown’s Battleground

  • Character customization.
  • Realistic Weapons, Gear and Level Design.
  • Vehicles.
  • Battle Area That Constricts Over Time
  • Lootboxes
  • Price $29.99

Fortnite

  • Character Customization.
  • Fun Cartoonish Aesthetic.
  • Structure Building & Destruction.
  • Vehicles (In Other Game Modes. Battle Royale Has a Hoverboard.).
  • Large Play Area.
  • Content Development is Very Fast.
  • Interesting Media Crossovers.
  • Lootboxes.
  • Co-Op Game Mode.
  • Cost
    • Battle Royale: Free
    • Standard Edition: $39.99
    • Deluxe Edition: $59.99

Radical Heights

  • Early Access/Free to Play.
  • 80s Gameshow Aesthetic.
  • Dynamic “Game Show Moments”. (I’ve done my best to figure out what these are, I honestly can’t tell you besides knowing that sometimes you can spin a wheel for random prizes or effects.)
  • Bikes With Pegs So You Can Have a Second Rider.
  • No Confirmation of Lootboxes. (Probable If It Ever Exits Early Access).
  • Cost
    • Free to Play.
    • Founders Packs.

I wont deny that Radical Heights the idea certainly had potential but being rushed out the door so soon undercut its ability to garner any sort of long-term support that they desperately needed. I can’t comment factually on the financial state of the company or their ability to possibly secure outside funding in order to continue operations. I have to imagine that based on the name heading the studio and the success of Battle Royale games that it wouldn’t have been completely out of the question. The unfortunate reality of Radical Heights development is also echoed by Cliffy himself in a post on Twitter which I will give him credit for being that open and honest with the community.

All of this finally brings us to what I find most disappointing about this entire ordeal, beyond Cliffy’s general attitude through these releases, the marketing, the poor execution and ultimately the closure of the studio.

The ideas that really, truly could have been his next billion dollar franchises. After the announcement of Boss Key’s closure Cliffy took to Twitter and began posting artwork for game ideas that may have been in the studios future.

Donuts

Rover/DogWalkers

And finally, DragonFlies

If there is a universal truth in entertainment mediums it’s that new IP’s are incredibly difficult and risky to introduce due to them being large investments just to get off the ground. It’s hard to fault developers for not wanting to take on longshot ideas as their first outings before establishing a solid financial base but Cliff and his studio were in a unique spot. He had the resources to put together a studio with talent capable of turning out a Triple A quality game and possible a second within four years. Far more than what most can do at the outset.

So what was the product of their first four years as a studio?

One game in a genre that hasn’t seen widespread popularity in almost a decade and an attempt to catch a fad with two titanic entries already completely dominating the scene.

All the while in the bullpen sat new ideas that may have actually had the potential to make a splash in the industry and established Boss Key as the new developer to watch. That might fly in the face of what I said above about new IPs being risky, which is true, and while hindsight is 20/20 the reality still remains that their shot at a “Sure thing” was still wide by a mile. Taking on Fortnite and PUBG may be difficult but no moreso than trying to revive a niche community into the mainstream and in many ways I think it would have been much easier. The myriad criticisms of both games are fresh and ripe to be taken advantage of by a new motivated studio looking to establish themselves, especially considering the crop of streamers who would be looking to get in on the ground floor of a promising new entry.

It’s impossible to say whether or not any of the shelved ideas would have truly been Cliff’s next billion dollar IP, but if the choice is between chasing a year plus old trend or trying to revive a dead one, why not shoot for the stars and bring something new?

Washed up “dudebro” game developer OR legendary creative genius…depends on who you ask. – Cliff Bleszinski’s Twitter Profile

Based on this latest outing I hate to say that the answer, at least for now, seems pretty clear.

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Cliffy Bomb!

The past couple of years have been quite a ride for Cliffy B, the bad boy of game design, with the launch of Lawbreakers and it’s lukewarm reception to the attempt to chase the Battle Royale trend with Radical Heights.

So, before we get into this… for people who don’t know lets talk for a moment about who Cliff Bleszinski is. He has a relatively long history in game design going back to one of his first games released in 1994 called Jazz Jackrabbit which at the time reminded me of an emotionally broken Bubsy who went full Rambo. The biggest claims to fame on his resume are his extensive work on the Unreal and Unreal Tournament Series games which can be credited with really kicking off the Arena Shooter genre. The other jewels in his crown are the Gears of War games which were, the first two anyway, massive hits for Microsoft and the Xbox consoles. Outside of the early Unreal games my personal favorite that he was responsible for was the title Bulletstorm and, that really is going to bring us to the point of why I’m even writing this. About a year ago they released a remastered version of the game and the difference in the launch trailers from the original to the new one I think illustrates something about the mentality of the developer.

Here is the original launch trailer from seven years ago.

Here is the Full Clip Edition launch trailer from last year.

If you look at those and then say, “Well, sure, they’re playing up all the new features of the game while the original trailer had to sell it as a new IP.” You would absolutely be correct. The funny thing about that original launch trailer was just how much it ignored the real selling point of the title which was the rough edged dirty humor and over the top violence codified in their Skillshot mechanic. I actually thought, unlike a lot of people apparently, that the narrative of the game was a decent selling point but looking at Cliffy B’s most recent development efforts it clearly wasn’t what he wanted to sell about Bulletstorm. Especially apparent by the fact that one of the earliest jokes in the game includes the phrase, “Murder boner” which is a pretty accurate setup for the tone of the overall game. The comedy was something of a minor sticking point for people as many rightly viewed it as juvenile attempts to see how many different words they could hyphenate with -dick. I certainly can’t argue against that but however you felt about it that was part of the core fun of the game, ridiculous, over the top and at times beautifully nonsensical. It was a pure expression of a game that was just there to entertain whatever audience it garnered to its fullest potential, which I think is as legitimate a goal in game design as any other. A  focus on the entertainment value of a game can often avoid the pitfalls with getting bogged down in the weight of your own narrative.

Anyways, fast forward to present day where Cliffy’s most recent offerings have been a bit puzzling and with the recent announcement that his current studio, Boss Key, was shutting down it had me thinking about what led them here. A couple of years ago we got to see an E3 trailer for a new game called Lawbreakers which appeared to be positioning itself as an edgier, more hardcore version of Overwatch. Certainly their subsequent gameplay trailers like the Between Our Guns started sporting that much more explicit edge and the Skilled AF which asked if you were even good enough to play in the first place. For anyone who was a big enough video game fan in the late 90’s or early 00’s this should sound eerily familiar to John Romero’s hilarious attempt at an edgy marketing campaign for Daikatana.

Daikatana

Just in case you’re not sure, yes, it does actually say “Suck It Down” on the bottom center there next to the EIDOS logo. Thanks John, I’ll never forget you.

These trailers are also coupled with the media tour that Cliff did for the game which had him hyping up core aspects which he felt would be important to potential consumers come launch time. Going back and comparing some of the interviews even for Bulletstorm to Lawbreakers was somewhat eyeopening because of the shift in their overall tone and intent.

In an interview with Games Radar you can listen to Cliffy talk about the fun and entertaining design behind Bulletstorm and how they were trying to get away from the gritty, dour military shooters which dominated the FPS market. He also appreciates a question from the interviewer about how even in games like Gears of War there were still softer emotional moments for the characters.

Well first off I appreciate you mentioning that because a lot of people assume Gears is this big testosterone fest but we try to pace the story so it actually has some slightly softer moments… …. But with regards to Bulletstorm it’s more over the top than Gears but it has it’s moments where the characters get to know each other and it does have these great emotional peaks and valleys which we haven’t really spoiled too much of what happens but you never know who is gonna die or live in a given game campaign.

Versus quotes from his Lawbreakers media tour when you got things like

There is blood in it and people explode and they curse. Y’know, I wanna be, I wanna be the rated R version for all these rated PG shooters.

Whats funny to me about that quote is that it almost perfectly sums up the entirety of Bulletstorm and yet for the life of me I can’t remember it being sold that way during their pre-release press tours. He certainly spoke about the Skillshot mechanics and its overall irreverent take on violence that a lot of the more mainstream shooters treated with a more somber tone but the centerpiece of his talking points remained the entertainment. Lawbreakers and the consumer pitch seemed to be squarely aimed at the concept that it was only for the most hardcore of competitive shooter fans. A move which seems decidedly strange given what the competitive shooter scene looks like and has looked like for much of the last decade. Especially when you consider the place of Arena Shooters in that picture which have garnered little more than small nostalgia based communities around their current releases. Not exactly a market that is begging for a new IP branded as meant for the hardest of hardcore competitive players and of those only the ones interested in a specific game-type. This tactic seems to utterly ignore the fact that one of the largest hurdles for new IPs is appealing to a wide enough audience in order to build a sustainable community. Not to mention the additional hurdles of establishing a new multiplayer only IP that is being marketed to an already tiny sub-demographic of gamers. Additionally the poor decision was made to release the game on a date close to when their target demographic would be returning to school and within a few weeks of Destiny 2 launching. Whatever it was that led Cliff and the leaders at Boss Key to make those decisions they can’t really be ignored when discussing the eventual closing of the studio.

After a release that garnered less than 5,000 concurrent players on Steam for launch day Lawbreakers was at best a game that earned a DOA tag with flying colors. Although possibly the saddest aspect of the entire confusing road to its release was at the center the game wasn’t actually all that bad. It was a bit buggy, it wasn’t nearly as hardcore skill intensive as it was sold and it didn’t revolutionize the shooter genre upon arrival but at its base level it was a game worth the $30 asking price. That realization more than any other cemented for me just how ill advised this genre entry was and how detrimental the marketing campaign for it truly was.

A lot of the time when people write articles like this or break down decisions after the fact it always easy to undercut the arguments with sentiments like, “Hindsight is always 20/20.” which isn’t completely unfair. I think however its important to remember that while things are clearer in hindsight I do believe its pretty plain to see the very avoidable pitfalls Boss Key and Cliffy stumbled into on their way to releasing Lawbreakers. Personally looking back on Cliffy’s contributions to gaming overall I have a lot of respect for the work he has done but as it stands right now all that really does is make the current stumbles seem all the more painful from a fan perspective.

I’m going to cut this off here and pick it up tomorrow with Part 2 where I’ll discuss the second release from Boss Key, Radical Heights, the flaws with its conception and the continuing baffling decisions made by Cliff and his studio. In addition Cliff has begun releasing concept art for some other games he had been hoping to release with the now defunct studio and why I think it offers some important context in regards to the failure of Lawbreakers and Radical Heights.

For now, have a great rest of your day and happy gaming!

  • Non-Washable