August 27, 2015

Magic Duels


I recently stopped playing Magic: The Gathering in person. After a brief spurt of activity, I quickly slowed down to just playing the occasional pre-release or other sealed tournaments, as much for the social event as the game. However, over time my impression of the game has only diminished. It takes too much time to play. Firstly there is the time taken to reach the game store, then the time waiting for players to be ready to start. If I get a return of one minute playing for two minutes waiting then I’m doing well – often it is much worse!

Then there is the problem that many of the actual matches are just not enjoyable. MtG relies on the concept of mana cards to act as a cost for playing other cards. Unfortunately sometimes a player ends up with too many or too few such cards (it is the luck of the draw) and as a result might as well not be playing. In the “limited” games I tend to play (“limited” format games do not reward paying extra for better cards, as all the cards that can be played are provided to competitors at the start) being “mana screwed” occurs to at least one of the players in game roughly about 25% of the time. So around one in four of the games are no fun (as I’m playing for the intellectual challenge, not to just win).

So with increasingly little spare time, I decided to just stop playing. But wait, what is this? A free-to-play version of the game is now available online! Maybe this will solve my issues.


Magic Duels (the online version of Magic) is a bit of a mess. I am quite unimpressed. Some parts are as expected. The games are always standard format (but with a small subset of the tabletop cards), so it could only be expected that the game would try to sell you the extra cards. Magic is probably the original pay-to-win game. The more one pays, the better cards they will have and thus better chances of winning their matches. This is carried over into Magic Duels – fair enough. It would have been nice if there were some limited format games as well, but maybe they will come later. At least they provide a mechanism to get the extra cards without paying, but just playing a great deal over time. Still the need to pay to be decently competitive rankles – and I won’t pay, so am always playing from a position of weakness.

Being able to choose your cards has not helped the “mana screwing” problem either. In fact in this game it seems to be even worse – at least at the initial stages when a player does not have many cards. The issue is amplified by the computer opponents having the most incredible luck imaginable. They never seem to have mana problems and often draw just the card they need right when they need it. Urgh. Of course it is possible this is just good luck and normal variance, but if so I’m way off into the land of many standard deviations beyond average. More likely the developer has fixed it and gone a little too far. I wouldn’t be surprised considering the numerous other issues with the game. It is slow: my PC can run some of the latest 3D games smoothly, but it takes 20 seconds to start a 2D card game from the menu? Something is not right there. The UI seems to be built for mobile devices – it would make much more sense if I had a thumb sitting in the bottom right corner, but I don’t. This means that the time given to play instants is barely enough to realise what is happening and drag you mouse across the screen. Magic is not supposed to be a test of reflexes! As a competitive game, it uses an online connection to maintain state and when this connection can’t be established the game can’t be played. And the connection has been down often. There have also been numerous bugs, missing quests and other annoyances.

Annoying is a good term too describe this game. The mana issues and problems have just reminded me of the flaws inherent in the game’s design. I get the feeling that it just doesn’t respect its player’s time. I can’t imagine playing Magic live again, and after this I probably won’t bother with the computer version either. Maybe its time to give Hearthstone a try.

July 30, 2015



Just a quick post to apologise. Not for missing an update (work on Concealed Intent is still consuming nearly all my waking hours). Instead, my apology is for the new “we use cookies” warning for EU visitors (and hopefully only EU visitors). Recently an EU law was passed to require all websites located within the EU to warn and obtain EU visitor’s permission to use cookies. My warning should appear at the bottom of the page, and disappear, never to return, if you click “Got It!” For reference 3 parts of this website use cookies. There are the ads that appear on the right from Google Adsense; the comment system from Disqus; and, I use Google Analytics to see who visits the site. I’m using Silktide’s CookieConsent system, which claims to be the most popular way to comply with the law, it is very easy to set up and run.

July 18, 2015


Tags: ,

Work, work, work. Over the last few months, I have been working hard to complete Concealed Intent to a saleable standard. It is already the longest (2.5 years), largest (>30K LOC) project I’ve ever undertaken, and getting better all the time. It is even available for download here at the moment (warning: in a alpha testing state). That link will continue to host the current version until the game goes on sale as part of Steam Early Access.

How long until Early Access? I’ve tried to derive a plan over at my work blog. Early September is my target. The final run in is:

  • 31st July – v0.9.11: Rework some parts of GUI, like the stats panel and loadout screens.
  • 14th August – v0.9.12: 1v1 online play and supporting screens.
  • 28th August – v0.9.13: Steam integration, 3 extra missions and some AI rework.
  • ?? September – Profit! (or at least, Steam Early Access!)

Please take a look at the alpha version if you can, and please leave feedback too (click ‘J’ at anytime in the game).

If you’d like to follow the game further, check out the links below.

Concealed Intent Contact Details:

July 7, 2015

Her Story


Finally success! For quite some time I have been trying to find a computer game that my girlfriend will like. To The Moon and The Walking Dead Season 1 only held her attention for a matter of minutes. She completed Thomas Was Alone, but claimed not to enjoy the experience. Easy to believe considering her tense shoulders and sweating while playing. But now there is a game that she both finished and displayed happy entertainment during the game. The next day I was even asked if there was another episode or sequel to play next! What was the title that reached such lofty heights? Her Story.

Her Story is a Full Motion Video detective game. The basic idea is that the player is investigating a 20 year old murder by going back through seven police interview tapes. Each tape is cut up into short clips (of a few seconds through to a maximum couple of minutes) recording the response to a question that is never shown. The brilliant idea of the game is that the player can not just hit play and start watching the videos from the start, nor can they just jump to the end. Instead they can only interact with the game through a search box. Type in a word (or phrase) and if it appears in one of the clips then that clip will returned. Maybe. Only the first 5 clips in chronological order are viewable, although you can see the number of matches. So our first search, on the name of the person murdered, returned 61 clips, but we could only watch the first 5. To get the rest we had to refine our search or come at them from a different keyword (and direction). This is immensely clever, I wish I thought of it first! The user interface is simple, and intuitive to anyone who has used Google Search before (which is everyone, right?). At the same time there is still a challenge as most of the juicy stuff is in the later interviews.

It hard to say much more about the game as it is easily spoiled. Be assured that the story is good no matter what angle you eventually come at it. We certainly paid a great deal of attention to the dialogue, trying to glean every ounce of information. As we discovered more, we had to reconsider what was said earlier, as many of the clips can be interpreted in multiple ways (the benefit of not hearing the question). There are a few twists and many red herrings (I think). As time progressed we methodically worked our way through the clips following particular lines of investigation – until there it was, the solution! For us it took just under 2 hours (including a little bit of time after knowing what had happened to discover why it had happened). In the end we saw around 60% of the available clips. Looking online suggests most people take closer to 3 hours. I think we were a little lucky to finish that quickly – we were investigating a particular situation and the search term returned the final clip (as well as another with the info we actually intended). That that is the only concern I have with the game. It is possible that a player could see the crucial clips almost straight away, if they hit upon the right search terms. However, that is probably unlikely as the obvious search terms are included in many clips, so the most illuminating clips are not viewable until more refined search terms are known. I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect that the interview text is minutely planned to avoid early spoiling – it certainly seemed that way.

This is a clever game with a great story – definitely worth playing.

June 28, 2015

The Walking Dead


About 2 hours before completing The Walking Dead my opinion of the game changed, again, for the second time. At first I liked it, then I found it disappointing, but by the end I had grown an appreciation for the game. It is very enjoyable and has probably the best story in any game I’ve played. Overall, I say it is definitely in my top 10 games (since restarting gaming in 2011), but not the top 5. Still a very good game.

The Walking Dead is a Telltale game based on the comic book of the same name (which now also has a TV series based on it too). For those not familiar with Telltale’s distinctive style, it is a story game where the player is given a choice of various dialogue or action options. The game then promises that other characters will remember those responses and act appropriately (a little message often pops up like “Kenny will remember you supported him”). These interactions are interspersed with point & click puzzle scenes and quick time events. The games are told in an episodic manner, each episode rising to a crescendo and often a cliffhanger for the next. The first episode of a game is often available for free download if you just want to see what its like – The Walking Dead episode 1 download is here. Telltale games’ art style is usually comic book like (so this one fits in great with the source material).

At first I was amazed. I was making these decisions and they were affecting the story! Imagine the number of possibilities. Then by the second episode I realised that I wasn’t really changing anything. The game may tell me that people would remember, but it didn’t seem to make any significant difference. This is understandable. It would be a programming and artwork nightmare to allow a significantly branching story. Instead the game branches out for no more than a few minutes and then returns regularly to known narrative chokepoints. The main story beats (about one every 30 minutes of gameplay) are fixed. Furthermore, these moments are binary, the same two possible choices are always presented regardless of previous actions. When it became clear to me how the game was working under the hood I was greatly disappointed – it is not what I though was promised. It is definitely not a choose you own adventure. This combined with the point & click sections of the game being either very easy or devolving into annoying repetitive “hunt the pixel” puzzles and the always irritating quick time events (some of which are designed to be failed) started to put me off. However, the story was good, and its not too long (each episode being around 2.5 hours) so I thought I’d keep going.

I’m very glad I did finish it. After a few more episodes (including the obligatory and cliched cannibal encounter) I began to see the point of the game. It is not supposed to be a complex and branching story at all. That conceit exists just to get the player involved and connected to the characters. The real game is all about those binary story beats. They are actually moral conundrums. The rest of the game and its faux decisions are just trying to make the player care enough to consider them properly and weigh the possible outcomes. They are decisions like who gets food, or how much effort you make to save someone’s life in the face of personal danger. Big questions, often with no good outcomes, just equally bad, but slight different consequences. Such questions are easily dismissed within most games. People die in games (and other forms of entertainment) all the time – so what. The “trick” of The Walking Dead is to add in all the other stuff around those decisions to make the player take it seriously. And it works – largely. Most of the time I did weigh the options carefully. In the end I didn’t even mind the quick time events, they served to add some sense of jeopardy and action into the story – stay awake! I also liked that at the end of each episode the big decisions you made were highlighted and compared to other players’ decisions. On average I went with the same decision as the majority, but a few times I was in the minority. This mechanic allows the player (me, at least) to rethink their decisions when the pressure is off and consider other points of view – I stand by all of them!