D-28: Or, Looking Forward to Hearts of Iron IV

With absolutely nothing else of interest going on at Paradox Development Studio today, we can calculate that at this very moment here on 9 May 2016, Hearts of Iron IV will be upon us in exactly 27.84 days. Paradox took a week-long hiatus from their “World War Wednesday” Twitch streams last week in order to, I can only assume, convene into the company’s war room to develop last minute designs for the game and to advance, with what will certainly be, a bombastic digital marketing campaign that will rely on the primacy of the game’s setting and not, say, cheap and flimsy SWAG.

We, the ranks of HoI4 recruits – We, too, have much to prepare. While other Paradox players on this day are otherwise occupied by lesser things, we must steel ourselves, sharpen our focus. We must unroll our terrain maps, the corners weighed down by our miniature Panzer models and artillery shells. We must crack open the tomes of military operations. We must study this original history. And as intelligence is added upon we can therefore ask ourselves, ‘what if…’ Thereby, the spirit of HoI4 can be made manifest.

Yes!

This is more than just expansion and extermination of the enemy. This is not some half-assed broadstroke over a massive interstellar expanse. This is about digging deep, of taking the initiative to color history, to become a sort of reflective historian. To this end, German philosopher G.W.F. Hegel explains: “Here the main thing is the elaboration of the historical material, which the historian approaches with his spirit… Especially important are the principles the author sets up for himself, based in part on the content and goals of the actions and events [of history], and in part on the way he constructs history.”

What a marvelous opportunity HoI4 will give us: To give us this orb of history, of this specific conflict and allow us to interact with it on so many different fronts. The game’s setting is recent enough that we can impart our own principles, as Hegel states, in how we go about playing. How big are the ripples we can create. How altered our modern world can become. How twisted or righteous will the geopolitical landscape turn out to be? How engaging can we make our end game screenshots!

… We have but 28 days to find out.

HoiSoon

Sifting the Chaff: Paradox and the Next Generation

Paradox Development Studio is coming at us on two fronts. They’re flanking us!

The most immediate approach is Stellaris, their intergalactic grand strategy game – due out May 9 and is now available for pre-order. I’ve been skimming the dev diaries and youtube videos, and am generating marginal-to-lukewarm interest. Paradox will be implementing some very interesting ideas about the structure of every playthrough, but overall what I am seeing doesn’t really blow my skirt up. (In fact, if to the stars we must go, I’m actually leaning towards taking the Distant Worlds:Universe route.)

However, I will be following very closely the game’s reception upon release. Scrutinizing, even. (There is an overarching purpose for this course of action which I shall explain later.) What I will be looking for is this: How complete is Stellaris? By saying ‘complete’, I do not speak of game-stopping bugs or graphical spasms. I want to know how fulfilling is the gameplay? Does it seem like there are voids that future DLCs will gladly and conveniently fill? How will the UI – admittedly not Paradox’s strongpoint – withstand the use and abuse of a broader gaming populace? In other words: How sound will Stellaris be and how badly will players bounce off of it?

The future of the company requires that Stellaris be rock solid. Not only is the hype through the frigging roof, but now that Stellaris is available for pre-purchase, if there is anything less than smooth-sailing the backlash will be severe and demoralizing. Bitter nay-sayers will pistolwhip Paradox, citing the company’s history of ugly new releases and will identify the mountains – and hundreds of dollars worth – of DLCs that are available for Europa Universalis 4 and Crusader Kings 2, claiming (somewhat erroneously, though not completely) that each expansion is just another patch job that gamers should not have had to pay for. The peasant rabble will swell and be foolish to ignore.

But let us have hope. The company has grown and matured these last few years. And, at least in respect to the condition of newly-released games, matters have improved since the days of yore. EU4 and CK2 were, for the most part, able to stand on their own two feet. Let us hope that Paradox has learned from history as they plan to move forward…

Indeed. The time has come for the company to pass the torch. Stellaris is one of the newcomers. It is garnering tremendous attention. Message board and comment sections are buzzing.The hype train is real. Paradox seems to be capitalizing on the fact that this game breaks the traditional Paradoxian mold. The marketing has been tasteful… and fun! Space aliens and pew-pews have a broader acceptance compared to hard historical settings. And now, in this, the new generation, it looks like Paradox will have both.

Which brings us to the discussion of the second – more important – newcomer: Hearts of Iron 4.

Where Stellaris looks to the stars and is dictated by scope, campaign structure and a dash of RNG, Hearts of Iron is very much grounded, very much logistically detailed, and very much akin to the mold of a Paradox game.

The Hearts of Iron series – three titles in all, each with varying number of expansions – is known for being notoriously complex, dense, and difficult for newcomers to take on. Despite this, the framework for the games is interesting. They operate in the narrow window of time that leads up to and plays out through World War 2. Conquest isn’t always the goal. Because the time frame is so short and the details are so concise, objectives can take on a more ahistorical flavor. Knowing that a world war will break out, the player can build a campaign around this determination.

Hearts of Iron 4 looks to intend to follow this same formula but with a greater emphasis in streamlining the in-game logistics. I’d say ‘simplify’ but that would send tremors down the spines of veteran players. But it kind of looks like this is what Paradox is doing: Cutting the crap and interconnecting many of the mechanics. The process has been a slow and deliberate one. HoI4 doesn’t have the luxury that Stellaris currently has; It can’t get too wieldy with (re)defining itself.

And come June 6, the game will have all sorts of players shoring up, with many others reconnoitering from perhaps their empires in Stellaris.

That’s the rub: How do you gently onboard new players to this game with a reputation without turning your back to the veteran players of the franchise?

There has already been talk of streamlining and creating, essentially, mutually exclusive military profiles. This method seeks to focus the player’s attention to certain aspect of the game and not just throwing a wall-of-game at him. Another way to onboard new players has been put in effect already. Paradox sponsored a 3-part video series at the Extra Credits youtube channel. This series gives an overview of the economic and industrial factors behind WW2. It is a great attempt to, at the very least, orient new players to the historical goings-on that are at the foundation of Hearts of Iron 4.

But to veterans of the HoI series, the historical goings-on of WW2 is old news. They’ve been there. They’ve done that. Because of this, there’s a good chance that many of them will chafe against all this talk of streamlining, favoring the wall-of-game of previous HoI iterations. So, to ease the low-level player rumble, Paradox, sticking to a proven game design model, is basically coding the game to easily facilitate modding. Paradox is leaving the game wide open and is practically daring modders to have at it. Nary a ten minutes will pass in the preview/gameplay Twitch VODs when a commentator will make an observation or answer a question from chat and respond with, “I’m sure someone will mod that in”.

Whoever that ‘someone’ is could be someone who has followed the Hearts of Iron series from the very beginning or it could be someone who is new to the Paradox fold, perhaps even drawn in by Stellaris. And that is exactly what has me so excited: To see just what can materialize when this motley crew of players coalesces upon Hearts of Iron…

And that is exactly why the initial release of Stellaris needs to be a smooth one. The next phase of Paradox is hinged on this. It’ll be interesting to see how many of the newcomers from Stellaris also make the leap into HoI4. Even more so, how many of these actually stick around. Hearts of Iron 4 has the potential of not only being a great game with a diverse player set who may or may not mod the shit out of it, but it also provides many philosophical and theoretical platforms to explore – And that, in and of itself, is reason enough to stick around.

Paradox is taking a rather aggressive stance with flanking us with two strategy games that are nearly polar opposite. But I see it as quite an adroit maneuver: reap a huge audience with Stellaris and let Hearts of Iron 4 sift out the chaff, so that a new player base, tempered by wisdom yet eager to move forward, may carry the company into this next generation.

Dodging Uncertainty: Teleportation in Chaos Reborn

“The goal that led him on was not impossible, though it was clearly supernatural: He wanted to dream a man. He wanted to dream him completely, in painstaking detail, and impose him upon reality”
– Jorge Luis Borges

True to itself, Chaos assumes many different forms to many different fields of study. To science, chaos illustrates just how disorderly our universe can be. We see how randomness is the lack of decipherable patterns, of uncertain behavior, unpredictable outcomes. Chaos is used in cryptography to harness all that unpredictability in order to mask the cipher and the message’s true order. In Mythology, chaos is the abyss from which the matter of our current world was fashioned. This act of creation was accomplished by demiurges who are not quite supreme deities but nonetheless wielders of great supernatural power.

Chaos Reborn (Snapshot Games Inc., October 2015) confidently grabs hold of chaos in its variety of forms and balances it on a needlepoint.

Lords of Reformation

The lore of Chaos Reborn puts the game’s setting in a world that once was one but now is fractured. Within the center of this swirl is Limbo. “Limbo,” explains the game’s lore, “is existence waiting for something better.” It is from here that players assume the role of wizards who come from elite bloodlines and are charged with going forth out of limbo to recreate with matter that is leftover and to repopulate… to become overlords.

Using the same magic that was responsible for tearing the world apart, players compete for dominance by materializing beasts and activating offensive spells from the aether chaos. Herein is the challenge because chaos is slippery. So very slippery. Spells can and do fail. Some don’t fail, but should. Very little is certain in Chaos Reborn.

Hooman
These spells and creatures consist of the player’s hand. Each card has a designated percentage which dictate the likelihood that it will be successfully cast. There are many ways of influencing this number, of teasing it up some to increase the likelihood. But, nonetheless, the player is still uncertain of the cast’s outcome before it is complete; the beast may materialize within a glorious beam of light or break apart before it is fully formed and disperse back to the void.

To heap chaos on top of chaos: Offensive spells like magic bolts and lightning strikes, not only have a percentage to cast but, depending on specific variables, also have a percentage to successfully hit their targets. Slippery, indeed.

One of the few certainties out there in the battlefield is that of movement. Each turn allows the wizard 3 actions: Movement, spell casting, attacking. So long as the wizard or creatures are not detained by spider webs, blobs, or the stone stare of a hellhound, movement from one hexagon to the next is 100% guaranteed.

Movement across the battlefield is therefore slow and calculated.

Sidestepping Uncertainty

One way to flaunt this slow movement is by using the Teleport spell. The spell is of a neutral alignment and comes with a 90% chance of successful cast and is guaranteed to place the wizard someplace within 8 hexes of his current position. Successfully using Teleport exhausts your movement and spell actions for the turn.

Similar to the offensive spells mentioned above, Teleport can be parsed into two actions: casting and function. The uncertainty of a successful cast, though generous, maintains the idea that chaos still reigns. But the sweet certainty of landing on the hexagon of your choosing completely unaffected otherwise contradicts the laws of this universe.

This is a perversion in the face of almighty chaos. Consider what the wizard doing: He is choosing to dematerialize himself, to remove himself from this plane, mix his corporeal form back into the chaotic soup, in an attempt to re-materialize. The wizard is assuming the same chaotic state of the very creatures he has thus far attempted to bring to pass. And yet, unlike the fate of some of these creatures, after a successful teleport cast the wizard is guaranteed a successful re-entry.

The game’s lore explains that the wizards who pass through the portals of Limbo out to the fractured realms are far from all-powerful deities. While still able to wield the power of creation many have yet perfected their abilities. This frustrates the guaranteed flawless teleport re-entry all the more. If there is a chance of a wizard failing to produce a simple rat organism from chaos, there should be an even greater chance of failing the second half of a self-teleport.

Indeed. This is an advanced spell which readily transmutes chaos into complex order. Not only is it just any complex order; it is the self. And it should not be flailed around by novices the way it currently is.

A wizard of the lore warns: “Those who exceed their positions, always face consequences.” As with all other actions a wizard makes, chaos should play a factor in the outcome of a successful teleport cast. And it should affect the makeup of the wizard himself. Perhaps a random selection of cards in the player’s hand should be shuffled back into the deck. Maybe a staff’s inherent mega-spell should change (until the end of the match if playing in Equipped). Maybe talismans should reset. Maybe talismans should change function. And maybe, just maybe, there is a chance that nothing will be altered.

And yet, what guarantee should the wizard have that he will even rematerialize at all? Perhaps there should be a greater percentage of failed reassembly based on the distance traveled from the point of origin. Likewise, maybe each opposing wizard can have vectors of passive influence; the penalty of teleporting further away from yourself is negated if you are placing yourself closer to an opponent. However the uncertainties are calculated, if the re-entry fails, the match is over.

Trumped by Chaos

Chaos is multifaceted, and Chaos Reborn knows this. Like a master wizard the game spins chaos into a wonderful tapestry of lore and gameplay. Let there be no enmity between player and the unpredictability of outcomes. Chaos is a state of nature and is without guile. But its nature conflicts with ours as we strive to have our designs realized.

Nearly every decision a player makes in Chaos Reborn must be thoroughly thought-out, executed and, if chaos so dictates, amended. Nearly every action has its chances for failure – as it should be. This is why Teleport in its current state is far too wieldy. The spell contradicts the facets of chaos which the game so adroitly uses.

I paid ten dollars for a Dota 2 cosmetic set…

… and I’m surprisingly okay with that.

I’m sure someone could pinpoint the moment when “Free to Play” got a foothold in gaming and became a thing but for the longest time, my attitude toward them was firmly on the “who cares” spectrum. Paying for cosmetics in a game I otherwise did not have to buy seemed pointless. Whereas, in other paid games, paid cosmetics was just a bonus feature that I’d just ignore. I was firmly a “I’d never pay for a cosmetic item” kind of guy. Cosmetics, ultimately, didn’t have any impact on me anyway because I didn’t play anything that was free to play anyway. Then I started playing Dota 2 in earnest a couple of years ago. (I think I gave the game a try after listening to a string of Idle Thumbs podcasts where the main topic of discussion was Dota 2. I had tried a MOBA before (League of Legends) but it didn’t grab me like Dota did.) I was now playing a free to play game wasn’t in your face with their microtransaction offerings. Just the occasional “get these cool cosmetic items! Look at this sword for your dude!” My feelings remained unchanged.

Cosmetic items have been, as far as I can tell, always been available for Dota 2 heroes even if they weren’t an option for all heroes.

This is a topic that will probably fork into another post, but somehow I ended up playing and building an affinity to the agility hero Juggernaut. I don’t know if it was because it was the most recognizable name in the list or I liked the idea of a masked, exiled samurai. Either way, Juggernaut has become “my guy”. He looks cool, has a sweet sword and his ultimate is one of the more satisfying ultimates in the game.

I don’t remember how it happened, but one day there was a cosmetic set for Juggernaut in my inventory. It was a simple set called Traveler on the High Plains. All the set items were classified as Common items, meaning they weren’t particularly rare or unique but the next time I played Jugg I equipped the items and a whole new game opened before my eyes:

I had an epiphany. This was my Juggernaut. There are many other Juggernauts like it, but this one is mine.

There are many cosmetic items for Juggernaut, possibly the most out of any of the heroes (maybe research this). Between his mask, his sword and his clothing, the possibilities and combinations of your Juggernaut are endless.

Juggernaut Mixed Items

I picked up odds and end pieces for Juggernaut but never could bring myself to pay more than a few quarters to pick something up. That was until the set “The Balance of the Blade Keeper” set became available last year. At the time, it cost $10.99 and as soon as I saw it, I hit the purchase button and haven’t looked back. Because the Blade Keeper set had such a unique look and style I picked it up without hesitation.

Juggernaut Balance of the Bladekeeper

The cosmetic items for Dota 2, to me, have been one of Valves most brilliant moves. Opening up the character models to freelance graphic artists basically increased their “workforce” to thousands of people with talent and know-how to customize the game and the personal experience of individual Dota 2 players. Valve lets these freelancers peddle their wares, all the while taking a little cut for being the middle man. This enables artists to develop a brand and a following, creating items for fans of the game.

Juggernaut Arms of the Gwimyeon Warrior

Juggernaut Bladesrunner

I have amassed, officially, over 1,000 hours of playtime over the past three years playing Dota 2. Steam tells me I’ve spent over 150$ on the game over that period of time. If there was some formula to determine “value” and if that formula were to be, say, dollars divided by hours, Dota would have delivered on 10 cents an hour, which I would say is a pretty dang good value, considering 1) it’s free and 2) most AAA games are luck to deliver 1.50$ an hour.

Juggernaut Gifts of the Vanished Isle

I don’t know how much longer I’ll play Dota 2 but they’ve turned me into a Free to Play believer and I’ve most certainly got my money’s worth.

The MOBA effect

Recently, I’ve only been playing MOBAs. I haven’t had the desire to branch out very much, especially into a time intensive genre like MMOs.

I honestly think it’s because of the game progression… or the lack thereof. By ‘progression’ I mean that you aren’t leveling up a character like in an MMO, which would take a lot of time to get that character to the maximum level. That kind of progression definitely has its merits and satisfactions but in my current state of life it hasn’t been as enjoyable with the limited playing time I do have.

I’ve had discussions about this with a good friend from high school (I’m 31 now) and he tends to feel the same. Granted we are both in a similar position – we are both married and have little one(s) that we happily give up time for – but it just doesn’t feel like we have the time or the drive to devote to an MMO. Oh how we’ve tried! From going back to the nostalgic (Everquest) to trying a few of the new kids on the block such as Rift, Neverwinter Online, Guild Wars 2 (debatable). None of them are able to keep me coming back.

MOBAs, however, operate on a different kind of progression. One that, contrary to MMOs, does compel me to log in night after night.

Dota 2 has been my MOBA of choice for a while, a decent run with Smite, a little stint with League of Legends, and a few smatterings of Infinite Crisis but, Dota 2 is my choice. steamworkshop_webupload_previewfile_181979094_preview

Smite has kept me playing the second longest out of the bunch. Whether this was because my friend played it pretty much non-stop and my desire to play with a friend kept me going or the change in pace it provided with its different game modes (which could end in a 15 minute match), Smite had me for a while.

League of Legends was along the lines of a standard MOBA but, it felt slower than Dota, the champions didn’t seem to move as fast to me. The movement speed may have been a factor but, the time it took to unlock a champion that seemed interesting was demoralizing. Don’t get me wrong though, my brother and I saved up for characters who were also brothers, which cost a ton to get, and we wrecked face! It was glorious… still, it wasn’t enough.

Infinite Crisis was an interesting occurrence for me. I was able to get into the beta for this game with a friend. Needless to say the game is totally different from what it was back then (for the better). One thing I’m thankful for was that it helped me determine that I don’t want to play games while they are in beta. In this instance the UI was horrid, the game felt buggy, and it was not enjoyable until you were actually in the game and even then it wasn’t the smoothest. HOWEVER, playing as the Flash or Green Lantern was definitely worth it. They recently had a huge patch/improvements and I have been meaning to check it out one more time.

Some of the things that drew me in to MOBAs were the semi-short game length which can be anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour or more in rare cases, no need to grind anything if you don’t want to, and you can still get the sense of accomplishment from getting items or even more so from improving your play.

Dota 2 had all that I needed. My friends were playing it, the fun was there, the amount of hero choices was staggering (and continues to grow), it looked great (see League of Legends or Infinite Crisis), and it was Valves baby (I dumped a lot of time into Team Fortress 2 so, I enjoyed the Steam network/Valve’s quality of work).

With a MOBA I feel like I am working on me, on my skill as a player, on my ability to fulfill a role on a team, and it was rewarding. I always thought that I would need progression that didn’t go away for a character in order to enjoy a game (i.e. leveling an MMO character) but, that isn’t the case. I’m don’t feel like I’m falling behind anyone if I can’t devote time to the game like I felt when I played MMOs and my friends would spend more time in-game than me. In essence the effect of a MOBA engages the player more as an individual than the MMO genre which mostly requires your time.

Dota 2 is definitely something that will force you to honestly look at yourself and your capabilities. I have the perfect example!

Let me share a story with you… ready?

I was in a match playing Visage this is a hero which requires the player to control up to three other summoned units in addition to himself, other active skills, as well as any items with active abilities. The additional units Visage controls also have active abilities in order for them to do damage or stun. This juggling act required that I had to be on my A-game, and I knew it. Controlling your hero’s position, timing your attacks with your teammates, using items at the appropriate time, while watching the mini map to make sure you’re not about to get ganked, etc is hard enough. But playing Visage under these circumstances can be a hectic experience. I even thought my history of playing RTS games would help with that some but, not so much.

It was a non-stop match for me, if I wasn’t busy trying to control my units I was trying not to die/kill the other team. There were a few times that I was mixed up and thought, “Why isn’t my guy moving?” or “Oh crap, they are attacking my hero and I’m controlling my units not my hero!” but, overall I was successful and my team was victorious.

After that match I knew I could handle the hero but I wouldn’t want to do it again. Having the ability to do something doesn’t necessarily make it fun. I’m more inclined to play a hero that doesn’t rely on other units to be effective or make a contribution to the team. This made clear that as a player I don’t really appreciate having more units to control/the game is complex enough that I don’t need to ramp up the difficulty for not much in return. After realizing that about myself I steered clear of Visage and stayed with the heroes that were more my style.

My main hero is Sven – he’s a beast that can do a LOT of damage and is a pretty straight forward hero. “Get in there and smash people’s faces”, is the name of his game.Sven!! I’ve also got to the point where I want to experiment with different builds (skill order and item use). Sven is a strength hero that is normally played one way – MOAR DAMAGE!! Looking at some really old Reddit posts has lead to me to the realization that Sven used to be played as a support hero and not a tank. I’ve attempted to try a support Sven once and it didn’t work out to well. I have to admit that my decision was on the fly and I didn’t give the proper preparation or forethought before the match began. I’d like to try it out again but, I’ll probably try it against some bots instead of impairing my team.

Even though the hero is played one way by everyone doesn’t mean he can’t be played a different way and still be viable and effective. It is fun to try and tinker a hero (PUNNY!) to see what they can do and what items can change the way they play. Matching these variables up with a five man team doing the same thing yields a very, very complex interaction.
This complexity can get someone so obsessed with all of the different options, builds, timings, etc. that it can take over their “free thought” time. I felt like this a little bit during the height of my playing. I was playing every night with friends, multiple games in a row, and I would think about it throughout the day while looking towards that night’s game.

Then again, there are people who love to play the game to play the game – they just don’t worry about any of the details and enjoy a fun time with their friends. Personally, I don’t take loses to heart at all – I say, “Oh well” and try to determine where things went wrong or what I did/didn’t do to help my team and learn from it for next time.

The two best ways I improved my play in Dota 2 are – replays and spectating. Replays of your matches allow you to relive what just happened in your game and pause it at any point or even repeat a battle over and over again. This really allows you to pick apart an engagement or determine why a Laguna blade from Lina at Faceless Void just might not be the best idea.

Spectating was key for developing a foundation for any hero I wanted to play. I was able to watch a player who had experience play that hero and watch how they used their abilities, the timing of their attacks, or even, “So, that’s how I missed that gank”. The signs and little queues are what can make the difference in a game where one mistake or taking the advantage of one can turn the tide of a battle.

Coming back to the game has also changed my perspective. Instead of working on the basic mechanics of the game I am giving more thought to parts of the game at the higher level. I would tell you more but, that will have to wait for another post – this one has already become a little long in the tooth.

Hit me up if you’re interested in playing!

(My Dotabuff profile for anyone who may be interested: Semaji Thunder)