Farewell to Streaming

I did one more stream, this time playing Desktop Dungeons from the beginning. Why the switch? Partly because I figured the few people who watched were probably getting bored with Gearheads, but mainly because I wanted to see if the same problems would manifest. They did. My software reported that in excess of 98% of frames were being dropped.

So I’m thinking I’m giving up streaming, at least for a while. It’s not that the problems are unsolvable. It’s that they’re unsolvable without buying additional hardware, and that’s more than I’m willing to do on a lark. All the streams I’ve done so far have been from a 2015 Macbook Air, over wifi. “You fool,” shouts every streaming advice article on the ‘net, “you should never stream over wifi!” And I was all ready to hook the machine up to my router via ethernet, and was even pleased to discover that I had an ethernet cable long enough to reach from the router to my good streaming spot, but then I realized that a 2015 Macbook Air doesn’t have an ethernet port. Ethernet-to-USB adapters exist for this purpose, but that falls under “buying additional hardware”.

OK, so maybe I could stream from my desktop PC instead? I could stream a game, certainly, but this machine doesn’t have a camera, and it seems like watching the player’s face as they gurn and overemote is an essential part of the experience. I could buy a webcam, but again, that would be buying additional hardware. At this point I start getting clever and thinking: What if I hook up the laptop’s video output to the desktop machine? I’m pretty sure I have a video out adapter for the Macbook somewhere. That way I could use the laptop’s camera. I could even play the game entirely on the laptop but use the desktop machine for streaming — which sounds more efficient anyway, because that way the game and the streaming software aren’t competing for cycles. But you’ve probably already spotted the flaw in this plan: my PC has no video input.

Even if I fixed my hardware problems, my chief limitation is probably just the upload speed from my ISP. So I’m giving up, but I imagine I’ll have the means to do proper streaming at some point in the future. I mean, I didn’t get as close as I did on purpose. Laptops just happen to come with cameras now. Open-source streaming software exists. It’s kind of amazing how easy it’s gotten to do video broadcasts over the internet that fall just short of adequate.

As for Desktop Dungeons, I may get back into playing it. I still haven’t beaten the final dungeon.

Desktop Dungeons contrasted to other Tower of the Sorcerer-likes

Really, Tower of the Sorcerer spawned a mini-genre. In addition to DROD RPG and Desktop Dungeons, there’s DungeonUp, which I haven’t mentioned before — I got it from some bundle a while back and played it blind, and found it a delightful little variation on the now-familiar theme.

I imagine there are other examples of TotS-like out there that I haven’t discovered, and if anyone reading this knows of any, I’d like to hear about them. The defining characteristics of the mini-genre are, to my mind, passive monsters that stay still, possibly blocking passageways, until killed or otherwise acted on, and deterministic combat based on the formula “damage = attack – defense” or something similarly simple.

Beyond that, there are some notable similarities between TotS, DROD RPG, and DungeonUp that Desktop Dungeons is notable for rejecting. All three of what we might call the synoptic TotS-likes feature: Unlimited hit points, with healing potions simply adding to your current total like in Ultima 1; machines that let you purchase upgrades to attack, defense, or health for gold; multiple dungeon levels, with the benefits of health potions and upgrade machines increasing by level; locked doors in multiple colors, with corresponding keys. There’s no notion of experience or character levels, since their purpose is absorbed by health potions and upgrade machines. DROD RPG adds mechanics derived from DROD, including diagonal movement and facing rules. DungeonUp adds randomized dungeon layouts and adventure-gamish “Aha!” puzzles. But there’s so much shared foundation here that the games have fundamentally the same feel and tactics.

Desktop Dungeons, meanwhile, takes just the barest basics of TotS and runs off in its own direction with them. Some of what it does is adding back familiar RPG-isms like character classes and experience levels, but it doesn’t do this in a cowardly clinging to the familiar. It does it because of what they can add to the puzzle. For example, as in a lot of CRPGs, leveling up instantly restores your health and mana to maximum. This can be exploited! One of the game’s most basic tricks is hitting a tough monster a few times, then slaughtering something weaker to level up and get your health back, then resuming your previous fight. You can’t do that in the other TotS-likes, not just because they have no notion of leveling up, but because they don’t let you break away from combat. Once you start hitting something, you just keep on hitting it until one of you dies. There’s no reason for them to let you break away; the rules of those games provide no benefit for killing something halfway. DD provides so many reasons to do it, from healing to renewing your buffs to “I don’t actually want to kill it yet, I just attacked it because my weapon has a knockback effect that pushes it into a wall, and destroying walls pleases my god, and that gives me just enough piety for this boon I’ve been after”.

Desktop Dungeons: Race

I’ve seen the use of cliché and even stereotype defended on the basis of efficiency. The idea is that it’s an expositional shortcut, a way of exploiting shared culture to lessen the heavy lifting required of both the author trying to convey ideas and the audience trying to understand them. Genre in games fills a similar function where it’s even more needed. When we choose to play games with wizards and dragons in them, it’s not typically because we’re in love with the idea of wizards and dragons. It’s because wizards and dragons don’t require a lot of explanation. Even when the familiar elements deviate from expectation, the very fact that there is an expectation helps us to grasp that deviation.

Desktop Dungeons exploits this a lot, thank goodness. It’s got so many unfamiliar mechanics that we really need familiar pigeonholes for them. I think the most intriguing example is its treatment of race. You’ve got the standard assortment of dwarves and elves and so forth, albeit with their places in society all mixed up and humorized: elves live in the slums and and are regarded as disreputable, orcs have opulent mansions and talk posh, dwarves have frat houses. It’s in the dungeons, though, that it gets interesting.

In the dungeons, your inventory space is limited, and you can’t drop items or sell them to shops. If you need to free up some room to pick up something new, you have to destroy something — or rather, “convert” it. Converting items adds points to a pool, and every time that pool fills up, you get a boost of some sort. Exactly what that boost is depends on your race. This is the only difference between the player races. If you want racial bonuses, you have to earn them by trashing stuff. It’s weird and it’s subtle and, just like everything else in the game, you have to learn how to use it effectively if you want to beat the Hard dungeons.

Races are unlocked one by one as they join your kingdom in gratitude for rescuing them from dungeons. At the start of the game, all you have is humans. The human conversion reward is a permanent increase to your attack bonus. Then you find elves, which get an increase to their maximum mana as their reward, and dwarves, which get increased health. Attack power, mana, health: these are the three primary stats your character has. They’re the three things that you can find stat boosters for scattered in the dungeon. And they’re assigned to a fairly archetypal set of races — basically, normal, gracile, and robust people. So once you’ve gotten over the weirdness of the conversion system, this arrangement feels fairly elegant, natural, and even necessary.

And then you find the halflings.

The conversion reward for halflings is a healing potion. You’ve become used to the idea of sacrificing objects for enhancements to your intangible characteristics, but now you’re turning objects into other objects. Next come the gnomes, which get mana potions, and at this point maybe it starts to seem systematic again. Health and mana potions, like stat booster objects, are scattered loose in every dungeon, in consistent quantities. It’s just giving you one race for each thing you can consistently find.

But then you get the monster races. Orcs get additional base damage as their reward. How is this different from humans? That’s a little technical. Your base damage is, by default, five times your experience level; your attack bonus is a percentage increase on top of that. So if you have items or spells greatly increase your attack bonus, you can get more out of it by increasing your base attack. Finally, after that, you get goblins, which get experience points from conversion, enabling them to level up quickly without fighting anything. And with that, any sense of pattern is broken. Conversion rewards can be anything the designer thinks up. The whole sequence, from humans to goblins, is like a little story about a weird system that becomes weirder every time you get used to it.

Desktop Dungeons Contrasted with its Past Self

So, I haven’t been posting a lot lately. What have I been playing? Mostly I’ve gotten on a Desktop Dungeons kick. This is something that’s happened every several months for the past several years. Each time, I start over from the beginning, and each time, I make a little more progress than the last time. This time I’ve actually managed to unlock the final boss’s dungeon, although I don’t yet feel confident in assaulting it.

I’ve written about Desktop Dungeons before, but that was about the alpha version. The long-anticipated release version is quite significantly changed. Oh, it keeps the basics: self-contained randomly-generated dungeons that take about a half an hour to play, Tower of the Sorcerer-like deterministic combat against stationary monsters, healing and mana regeneration resulting from exploring new territory. But it’s got a campaign now. It’s the story of a new kingdom using the proceeds from dungeon expeditions to fund buildings that unlock new classes or provide other benefits. This kingdom is ringed with various territories containing dungeons with different tilesets, monster types, and other properties — for example, the lands to the south are jungles, which largely replace the dungeon walls with hostile plants that you can hack through if you’re willing to suffer the consequences.

Within the dungeons, the main change is how much more rich and complex the mechanics have become. For example, I mentioned before that if you find the appropriate altar in the dungeon, you can pledge yourself to the god of magic, greatly increasing spell damage in exchange for binding yourself to never making melee attacks. That kind of absolutism is out the window. Instead, there’s a system of “piety”, a resource that increases and decreases as you do things your god likes or doesn’t like. Accumulate enough piety and you can spend it on boons, the details of which vary by the god. But sometimes violating your god’s commandments in pursuit of your goals can be worth it.

Or consider spells. Many spells have side effects now. Casting the spell that destroys a wall tile also gives you a layer of “stoneskin”, a temporary defensive bonus — I imagine this as the result of all the rock particles from the demolition settling on you. Sometimes you destroy walls just for the stoneskin. The spell that gives you First Strike also grants a stacking dodge bonus — giving you a motivation to cast it even when First Strike is irrelevant. Even the fireball spell, the simplest and most direct of combat spells, has subtleties now. In addition to doing damage, it gives its target a stacking effect called “burning”. When you do your next melee attack, every layer of burning pops off and does a point of damage. If you track the burn carefully, sometimes you can kill a monster by attacking something else, exposing yourself to one less counterattack in total. But also, burning monsters heal slowly. So if you’re going to do strike-and-retreat style play, whittling a monster down by repeatedly attacking it and then exploring to heal, it’s vitally important to do your fireball after your melee attack, not before.

You can ignore these details at first, mind. I remember some comment thread complaint about how the game was basically trivial because all you have to do is look for monsters and kill them in order from weakest to strongest. That works for the Easy dungeons, and maybe for the Medium-rated ones if you’re playing as a Fighter. But for anything else, the inevitable result is that you eventually reach a point where the weakest monsters remaining are too strong for you. In order to keep pace, you need to pursue XP bonuses, and the easiest XP bonus to get is the one that comes from killing a monster that’s higher-level than you — the greater the level difference, the greater the bonus. Pulling this off means exploiting tricks, and the more of the fiddly points about the rules you’ve mastered, the easier it is to think of a trick you can exploit.

And that is the fundamental character of the game. It’s all about mastering all the tricks. The greatest satisfaction it affords is when you think you’re not going to be able to beat the dungeon boss, and you’re about to give up, but then you think of something clever and just barely pull it off.

Desktop Dungeons

I’m several days late now at posting about my initial experiences with the next game on the Stack. I do in fact have experiences to post about, but that’s not what I’m talking about today. Instead, an interlude. 1Literally, something played between I’ve been spending a lot of time this week on Desktop Dungeons, and have a few things to get off my chest before moving on.

DD seems to be most commonly described as a “ten-minute Nethack“, but I disagree on both counts. First of all, I find that my typical session takes about a half an hour. At first I thought that I was taking so long because I was unfamiliar with the game mechanics. But honestly, that’s going to be the case in most sessions here, at least if you play it like I do. Completing a session successfully tends to change the game enough that I have to relearn it, whether by unleashing new monsters or map types that require new tactics, or by unlocking new character classes that also require new tactics. And some of those unlockable classes defy anticipation. Yes, you start off with the D&D-standard four choices (fighter, thief, priest, wizard), but then you get a class that specializes in destroying walls, or one that regains health from the bloodsplots left behind when you kill a monster (something that had been purely cosmetic up to that point). It reminds me a lot of the Final Fantasy V “Jobs” system, in that I’m constantly trying out new character abilities without any sense of prolonged commitment. I find there’s not much point in revisiting a class/map combination that I’ve already completed successfully, so I’m pretty much always playing from a new angle.

Secondly, the Nethack influence is pretty slim. It’s a dungeon crawl with a randomly-generated map which starts off dark and gets filled in as you explore it. This puts it into the same general category of games as Nethack, but that’s a pretty big category — with just those criteria, we probably haven’t even narrowed it down to roguelikes. A couple of stronger influences are mentioned on the game’s download page: Tower of the Sorcer and Oasis.

From Tower of the Sorcerer, we get the stationary monsters and deterministic combat mechanics, also seen in DROD RPG. (Actually, there can be a certain amount of randomness in combat: one of the special abilities of the Rogue class is a random chance of dodging and avoiding a blow completely. But most of the time, it’s deterministic.) This scheme is done in the context of randomized maps rather than authored puzzles here, but it still has the same effect on gameplay: it lets you choose your battles carefully. Also like those other games, the UI provides you with some help: hovering the cursor over a monster gives a report of its stats and what the outcome will be if you hit it — usually “Victory”, “Death”, or “Safe” (which means that neither you nor the monster will die). This is valuable information in special conditions where the math isn’t entirely obvious — for example, when playing a Berserker, you do 30% extra damage when fighting a monster of a nominally greater experience level than your character, but it’s not obvious how that fraction gets rounded, and a single point can make the difference between victory and defeat, so it’s good that the UI confirms this. It would be nice if it went further, though: the hover text only covers the next blow, and doesn’t cover things like the fireballs you plan on throwing in beforehand (and which you don’t want to waste if they’re not going to do enough damage). So I still spent a lot of the game doing mental arithmetic.

Oasis provided some basic overall inspiration for the game: it occupies a similar niche, being the “ten-minute Civilization“. It also clearly inspired the mechanics behind exploring the dungeon. To start with, movement is instantaneous — it’s exploration that takes time. You move to a spot simply by clicking on it, and if you don’t reveal any new territory in the process, no time passes. Mind you, “time” means something different here than in Oasis. Oasis had a limit on the number of turns you could take, and repositioning yourself on the map didn’t take a turn, because it basically didn’t do anything — the whole notion that you occupied a location on the map at all was purely aesthetic, with no effect on gameplay. In DD, your location is sometimes significant: if you use the teleport spell, you can wind up with multiple explored patches, islands in the unrevealed darkness, and you can’t move directly from one such island to another until you’ve explored enough to find a route.

Now, when you add newly-revealed tiles to the map, the time spent lets you (and any wounded monsters) heal and regain mana. This is very similar in feel to the way that exploring new area harvests resources in Oasis, right down to the graphical effects that illustrate the resources floating from the revealed tile to the appropriate bins in the UI. But it’s very different strategically. In Oasis, your only motivation for leaving things unexplored is time contraints. DD has no time limit, but does limit how much health and mana you can have at any given time. You can only reap an unexplored tile’s bounty once, so if you’re already at max, exploring new territory is a waste. Darkness is a resource to be hoarded.

And that’s in tension with the player’s need to explore for upgrades and, more importantly, for information. Getting a spell glyph can be important enough to burn some darkness. On encountering a shop, you want to know if it’s worth spending all your cash immediately or if there’s a better shop somewhere, and the only way to find out is to go and look for another shop. Finding an altar can be of paramount importance, and is probably the single biggest thing behind the early push to explore. Once you find one, you can declare allegiance to its god, who then rewards you with additional power of some sort in exchange for accepting some kind of limitation. For example, there’s a god of magic that increases your mana limit, but forbids you to use melee attacks — which is not a bad tradeoff if you’re playing a primary spellcaster. Typically, the reward for worshiping a god increases with the number of monsters you fight by the god’s rules, while the limitation remains constant. Thus, you ideally want to find an altar before starting to fight monsters at all. But you can waste a lot of darkness looking for one — there are typically about three per dungeon, but they’re selected at random from a larger set, and you don’t always get an opportunity to worship the god you want.

All of which is to say that this is a game that, despite its familiar framework, has interesting rules that create varied gameplay, in which I have to keep learning and figuring things out. It’s so nice to see something like this after what I’ve been playing for the last month and a half.

1 Literally, something played between