Three Is Not Enough Party Members For A BioWare Game

Back in the golden age of BioWare, their party members set a new standard for what a party member could be in an RPG, especially a western RPG with a (more or less) customizable protagonist. Which is why it’s so infuriating that the party limit for these games is as low as three.

I’m defining the “golden age of BioWare” here as the time between Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect 2, inclusive. You can fuss with the exact boundaries of that, and I’ll freely admit that the only reason I’m not including Neverwinter Nights is because I never played it. A quick Google confirms it has a maximum party size of two, and if it’s got the character quality of Baldur’s Gate before or KotOR after, that isn’t nearly enough. But let’s stick to what I have direct experience with.

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The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood Post-Mortem

The Traveler’s Guide to the Darkwood crowdfunded from May 1st to May 16th. It got a total of 347 backers and raised $6,007. This is a 20% contraction from the average 437.2 backers I got for Harlequin, Kessler, Caspar, Ozaka, and Cora, the five books of the previous series where I’d hit a plateau and was getting fairly consistent results. We’re in a new series now, so it’s not clear how much data from the old series applies, which means we’re back in speculation mode.

It’s possible that the series is totally unsustainable, kept as high as it is only by the momentum of the previous series. If this is the case, my backer count will steadily decline until it falls below the 300 backers (ish) needed to justify the ongoing existence of the series and it shuts down halfway through.

It’s possible that I’ve immediately hit the plateau for this series, and 300-400 is the new normal. This is going to be extremely punishing on my budget, because that is enough to justify the series, but barely.

It’s possible that the new series just needs to build up momentum and get exposure effect working for it just like the old one. If this is the case, we should see at least 10% growth from each project until a plateau is reached, most likely in the same 400-500 range that the last series plateau’d. A backer count of at least 380 (roughly 10% growth) in the next project would indicate this is the case.

There’s also another variable, which is that I’ve started experimenting with buying advertising services. The idea is to buy some ad services’ fairly affordable packages and see if they’re profitable, and if so buy a more expensive package and see if it scales. Today’s candidates are Olivia and William, the “duo expert crowd funders” who send lots of Kickstarter messages to everyone who tries to crowdfund anything. That certainly suggests they’re not the most effective crowdfunding marketing that exists (when you’re the best, clients usually come to you), but I probably can’t afford whoever that is anyway, and they don’t have to be literally the best ever to be worth it. If sending a DM to every crowdfunding project on the platform works, then that means they have successfully advertised themselves and can probably do the same for me.

But the results are looking pretty grim for them. It’s impossible to say for sure how much worse the project would’ve gone without their support, and from the analytics they sent me, they did successfully get three thousand people to click through to my project. If we assume that 1% of those clicks actually pledged and the vast majority of them are being hidden in the “direct traffic no referrer information” category, then they might be responsible for as much as 30 of my backers, for an average of $520. Considering I paid $200 for a 10-day advertisement package, this most optimistic estimate suggests that they were worth it, albeit barely, and that there’s little room to scale for a project that only lasts 15 days anyway.

But that’s blindly assuming that 1% of all clicks turn into pledges. More careful examination paints a more pessimistic picture. A little over 400 of the clicks came from Twitter. Only one backer came via Twitter (backing at a fairly standard $17). If we assume a standard rate of 1 backer per 400 clicks backing at an average of $17, that’s about $127.50, which means they aren’t even making me back the money I paid them for the campaign.

This assumes both that the rate for other pledge sources (which are too vague in Bitly’s dashboard for me to draw firm conclusions about) had an identical hit rate to Twitter, masked by Kickstarter’s “direct traffic no referrer information” category, and that the one Twitter backer actually came from this advertising campaign and not from my own tweet. My Twitter presence is really bad so this is a reasonable assumption, but as a counterbalance to the very optimistic $520 scenario, there is also the very pessimistic $0 scenario where that one Twitter backer was a lucky pick-up from my own tweet and the entire advertising campaign accomplished nothing. Certainly the only tweet that ever mentioned me (and it came from an account I’ve never seen before that does nothing but tweet about crowdfunding, so I assume it’s part of Olivia and William’s campaign) got a grand total of four likes, one of which was from me, so while I put my money on the $127.50 scenario being closest to the truth, I think the $0 scenario is more likely than the $520 scenario. In fairness, I was biased that way from the beginning – my thought here was always “I should at least check if these things work” rather than “surely this is the missing ingredient to push me over 600 backers!”

So long as the budget permits, I still intend to try other advertising services to see if some are more effective. I’m worried that effective advertising has a floor cost of several thousand dollars, which my campaigns just don’t make enough to justify, but it’s possible that effective advertising that works at small scale does exist, even if it’s lost in a sea of mediocrity. For that matter, if this second series does pick up momentum over time, I might give Olivia and William a second chance. It’s possible that this first campaign was let down by a weak product rather than a weak advertising campaign.

Humble Bundle Giveaway

Fairly regularly I’ll buy a Humble Bundle that has a couple of games I want, and end up with a copy of a game I already have. So I’m listing them here, and you can leave a comment or go to my Discord or something and tell me if you want one. I’ve actually got a ton more games I’ve never heard of buried in my library, but I’m limiting myself to just games that I’ve actually heard of and expect someone might want. I’ve bolded the ones that I think are especially amazing.

911 Operator
Borderlands: Game of the Year Edition
Brothers: A Tale of Two Sons
Call of Duty: WW2
Cultist Simulator
Destiny 2
Lego Batman 3: Beyond Gotham
Lego Movie Videogame
Lord of the Rings Adventure Card Game (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Love Letter (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
Magicka
Monster Prom
My Time At Portia
Party Hard
Psychonauts
Running With Rifles
Scythe: Digital Edition
Sniper Elite 3
Sonic Mania
Soul Calibur VI
Starfinder: Pact Worlds Campaign Setting
SUPERHOT
This is the Police
Tropico 4
Tropico 5
Twilight Struggle (but instead of regular it’s a video game)
The Witness
Yooka-Laylee (x2)

Star Wars: Racer

You can probably tell that I got a bunch of Star Wars games during the May the Fourth sale. It was like thirty dollars for eight of them.

Star Wars: Racer is a podracing game released around the same time as the Phantom Menace, and I have relatively little to say about it, partially because I don’t play racing games much and partially because, at least as far as I can tell, it’s just uncomplicatedly good so there isn’t a whole lot to be said. Criticism requires explanation, but praise is pretty much limited to “it is good at the things that it is doing.” In this case, Star Wars: Racer is a racing game set on many different planets in which you pilot floating space chariots at high speed through dangerous circuits and upgrade your pod between races, and it’s mostly just unambiguously good at that.

What criticisms I have are almost entirely about the upgrade and pit droid system, which is opaque and missing some critical features even after being explained. Your pod is made up of seven different parts which control attributes like acceleration, top speed, traction, and so forth. During the career mode, you use the credits you get from winning races to upgrade. The parts also take damage (randomly?) in each race, and need to be repaired. You start out with one pit droid which repairs one damaged part after each race, and you can buy up to three more, so four out of your seven parts will always be in top condition. You don’t get to choose which four, though, and your base parts are invincible (maximally damaged upgraded parts just reduce their performance down to the base, non-upgraded level) so the optimal strategy is to only ever upgrade four out of the seven stats. Doing this means you will run out of things to buy much faster than if you played intuitively. It’s never a good sign when the optimal strategy is to have less fun.

There are three ways to fix the problem. The first is the most straightforward: Allow the player to buy seven pit droids, thus preserving all seven parts against all damage.

The second requires a bit more doing, but is more interesting in the long run: Allow the player to assign pit droids to repair specific parts, so that they can rotate some of the droids between less important parts to prevent any of them from getting too damaged while keeping their most important parts (like top speed and acceleration) perpetually in top condition. You could remove some of the busywork from this by giving the pit droids two modes, one where they automatically repair the most damaged part, whatever it is, and another where they’re locked to a specific part, always repairing that one. If you want total control, you can keep all pit droids in locked mode and lock them to specific parts between each race, but you can also just pick two or three parts to keep in top condition always and let the leftover pit droid(s) repair whatever happens to be the most damaged.

The third takes a glitch in the game and just makes it a game mechanic. You can sell a damaged part back to Watto for a percentage based on how damaged it is (100% of the price if it’s at maximum durability, 1 credit if it’s so badly damaged it no longer provides any improvement over the base part). If you swap to a different racer, you can then rebuy a fully repaired version of the part you just sold to Watto. Upgrades are shared between racers, so you can then swap back to your original racer and keep the fully repaired part. This effectively allows you to pay some credits to repair a damaged part that your own pit droids aren’t fixing, which is a perfectly fine mechanic that could just be added to the game.

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter

Star Wars: Bounty Hunter is a PS2 and Gamecube game starring Jango Fett that depicts a hunt for the leader of a dark Force cult, which Darth Tyrannus is using as a test to find the greatest bounty hunter in the galaxy for cloning. I played it as a kid, and have been replaying it lately. It’s got the foundations of being a great bounty hunter game, but it’s let down by some flaws and missed opportunities.

Flaw the first: Detective vision hadn’t been invented yet. Jango has that little scanner eyepiece dealy that sticks up from his helmet, and in this game you can activate it to scan for bounties. The problem is that it’s a weapon on its own, so you can’t bring it down mid-combat to see if the person you’re aiming at right now has a price on their head. This means the scanner is only useful between combats, either scanning enemies from outside range or scanning civilians who don’t attack you. Both of these feel really cool, but they’re a puny fraction of the game, 80% of which are close range firefights in which enemies are shooting at you from the moment you’re in the same room as them. Making the scanner a detective mode that allows you to keep moving and fighting while you use it rather than a weapon that locks you in place in first-person view (the game is otherwise a third-person shooter) would’ve greatly improved this and made the secondary objective far more manageable. This is big, because most of what makes you feel like a bounty hunter in this game is the process of marking a bounty, zooming in to capture or kill them, and then fighting your way out of their gang of heavily armed buddies.

Flaw the second: No easy target-switching. In order to get around the limitations of console shooting, the game allows you to lock onto opponents. This is good, but without any way of switching targets, it’s extremely difficult to blast away the non-bounty mooks to isolate and capture a bounty. Instead of just tapping a target-switch button to move to the next baddie, you have to fly around the battlefield until the bounty is no longer the nearest enemy. If the quarters are close enough, you can just switch to your cord and capture them immediately, but the cord has a pretty limited range (and having to zoom in close to capture a bounty alive is an important part of the bounty hunter feel), so most of the time this isn’t really an option.

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