Stoneshard, an Early Access review. (Notes to the devs)

Stoneshard, the early days

Intro

My (recent) review of Stoneshard on Steam was less than complimentary and suggested that – at least in early beta – it was not worth buying. I thought about it a bit longer and why I think that is and decided the game is ‘working as intended‘ and may never be worth buying for some people because, it seems to me, that the things I clearly see as fundamental flaws, they see as worthy features. Still, I put my thought into the developer’s Steam community and they will take note, or not.

I’m not against the game, within its genre, it has some amazing features (more on this in a bit), but they are over-ridden by unnecessary levels of frustration that have nothing to do with game difficulty and combat balance and everything to do with the lead developer’s apparent intractability! We shall see, in time.

My present misgivings are the map system, that aside, it is an early access beta. The developers have said that major updates can and probably will affect the save system/ In effect, you get new areas to explore, but your save is for the old version of the game, so you have to start over. I’m OK with that, myself, but I know a lot of people will understandably be reticent and wait for the finished version. That would be around 2023. Add it to your wishlist!


Further thoughts on Stoneshard

It has some 16,500 positive reviews, so clearly, the game has a lot going for it, but it’s also clear from comments that a lot of people are just walking away from it and, in all honestly, I can’t recommend it to anyone in the state it’s in either!

That is not to say it’s buggy, as it’s remarkably stable.

True, a lot of the feature and connection are undeveloped, but as that’s something to look ahead for, I don’t see that are a reason to be bothered either. I get that it is an early beta, that a lot needs adding, that the balance is off at times, those are all to be expected. But it’s been a year and they still haven’t got the map to work. Nor do they seem to want to. I see that as a problem.

I’m old school, I played Colossal Cave on an IBM XT in the early 80s, Rogue and Nethack after it. I think I still have the original C source code to Nethack on an old disk; it was the game that drew me into programming. I understand. I want this game to be great. But, indirectly, I died because it was too much trouble for them to add water in a bandit camp. Chests, barrels, a fire, a camp bed, but no water. See, I have issues with that.

I also got lost, a lot. I don’t have a problem with wasting time ambling around a game, but wasting time because I am lost, dying because I’m lost, because the developers cannot or rather will not implement a simple ‘you are HERE’ feature into the map, that does not sit well with me.

Like all games, if you re-play it enough times, these tasks start to become easy, tedious even. In this day and age though, when people will abandon a website if a page takes three seconds to load, do you really want to spend hours on end mastering the quirks of the starter area of a game?

To put things into better perspective, at the time of writing this, I am 56 hours into the game. That’s about 4 hours a day, every day, for over two weeks, and I’m still in the starter area, have barely managed to get to the next town on the map and – because I keep dying and having to redo things – am still too low to survive half of the starter area ‘dungeons’. The game is that brutal. Which I am fine with. But to intentionally make the game harder on top of this … Why would you?

I will be writing an early beta guide as well, as the game does have potential – provided, that is, that you can push past the (many) problems it contains. At the time of writing the reviews are ‘mostly positive’ and indicative of a strong fanbase. (16,493 reviews, 79% positive for all time, 72% positive for last 30 days)

{ Reviews can give a look at how people see the game }

Notes for developers to ‘fix’ in the game as a priority

1. Map location:

Sort the map location. It’s annoying. Beyond annoying.
I am constantly getting lost, and while you can print maps, count tiles, etc, things like running away from grizzly bears, or logging out and returning to the game a few days later and having no idea which camp you are in…

I’ve seen a few people (trolls, basically) saying to people to ‘man up’ and how it’s ‘realistic’ and to suck it up. That’s rubbish. IRL, going back thousands of years, there were road markers. Carved stone markers, signposts, distant landmarks, etc. Their argument seems to be you can use the map to see a bird-eye view of the entire terrain and – if you find a road – maybe guess where you are. Apparently, that is reasonable and ‘realistic’ – but a rock or signpost isn’t? The other argument is to use a pen and paper to draw a map – for a computer game with a map.

Game-wise, the grid already clearly has a cell feature, shown as the white surround and content-box on mouse-over. They already know your grid location, obviously. How hard can it be to code it so that if the adventurer is in ‘this’ field, draw a solid white box around that location? Not much to ask for!

Stoneshard map
{ The map tells you what each area holds – but not where you are! }

 

2. Water:

Sort the water shortage, it’s ridiculous. At the very least, add water barrels to the bandits’ camps!
The barrels exist in the game, in castle ruin kitchens; there’s even a waterfall in the prelude. It’s a few minutes work for the programmers to place the objects into the camps.
I was REALLY annoyed when I died due to a thirst debuff because the nearest water was halfway across the map!
(To clarify, I didn’t of thirst, but because hunger and thirst add debuffs, weakening you, making you more vulnerable).
How is it that bands of bandits can survive indefinitely without water, but you can’t cross a few tiles before your kidneys starting to pack up?

Stoneshard bandit camp
{ Bandit camp. Warm fire, comfy bed, good hunting, but no water for miles around… }
Barrel of clean drinking water in castle ruins kitchen

{ Barrel of clean drinking water in dungeon (in castle ruins kitchen }

The same applies in dungeons, but you can at least be creative here.
A water fountain in a crypt dungeon is unrealistic, but cults would still need water (barrels). Or a naturally filling font of some description. Drink or refill as normal, but maybe apply a random effect:

i. Blessed, buff
ii. Cursed, debuff
iii. Water, no effect
iv. restorative impurities, small buff
v. stagnant, debuff, disease, nausea
v. tainted, debuff, toxic, poisoned.

 

3. Inventory and storage:

Sort the space shortage, it’s also ridiculous. This is not helped by the fact that when you have quests, (for instance to gather 3 falchions), all the quest items must be in your inventory to hand the quest in.

At the very least, add backpacks to the starter inventory with the tailor (Hold), in Osbrook.
The bags exist in the game, in Hermit hut, possibly elsewhere, it’s a few minutes work to drop them into Hold’s inventory.
Given nothing (except arrows) stacks in early beta – not coal, not iron ingots, not single-use potions – this needs sorting as a priority.

It’s not even like you’ll get rich quick selling loot. Traders don’t sell or value magic items, yet it can cost 40g to identify a rare item, to find they will only offer you 11g for it. Or, in the example below, want 10x more for a common spear than they offer for a comparable enchanted spear.

Stoneshard inventory
{ Inventory space is at a premium in Stoneshard! }
Stoneshard trader
{ You won’t get rich quick selling loot! }

Dungeon Siege had a good answer to this: a pack-mule. Maybe a later option, even a ‘DLC’ option, but it could be a thing. Similarly, in webcomics rather than games, was the excellent Nodwick (Aaron Williams). Not quite the same, or as useful, but WoW added summonable vendors.

Caravan storage is to be added in the City of Gold update, hopefully. Every little bit helps!

 

4. Identify:

Why it is so hard to get things identified?
Yes, you can buy AN identify scroll a day from the herbalist, less commonly from another merchant, or a few at a time from the next town (Mannshire), but surely it makes more sense to either have unlimited stock or to give Verren an ‘identify item’ trait/trade window. He’s supposed to be a relic expert, he should know things.
Just recode the ‘repair’ option to an ‘identify’ button and apply an appraisal charge (say 30g).
That way you have scrolls for if out and about, and Verren if you haul several items back to town at once.

 

5. Accessing skills:

Add a bookseller (to the starter town)*, or give the traders more inventory.

In fairness, you can increase the traders’ inventory by increasing your reputation in town. However, this takes you back to the problem that you ideally need the books for the skills to survive the dungeon quests.

There are ways around this, but they can be tiresome. One side quest needs a bear hide; my caster is level 7, with level 3 spells, and can’t survive against a bear, so needs 1,100g to buy a bear pelt.
(Running away from one bear and into a second one, nope! Another lost hour!)

The eye-watering cost of the books (and low sale/resale) is bad enough, but you can hardly ever find the books you need, even though most of the skills aren’t implemented. There is a ‘cheat’ to get around this, but having to use it to get around a developer’s poor implementation does not sit well with me.

I noticed this by accident, after dying (a lot). The traders’ inventory appears to be generated on ‘load’.

Not got that skill book you need to progress?
Just exit, reload. Exit, reload, exit reload… ‘cos that’s realistic.

This may be exploitable in the first (starter) town, but if you need to use reload ‘cheats’ to solve the issues, then I see that as another fundamental flaw in the game.

* As I was informed in comments on the forums, there is a bookseller in the next town.

That is, however, provided you survive long enough to reach the town. In one of my attempts, I was killed by bears, then bandits, then by a pack of wolves, and finally by a band of rogues AND a herd of angry bison. Each death takes you back to the last camp or save point – usually the Inn.

Annoying, but I’m Ok with that, but considering you are simply trying to go down the road and it can – if you are poorly geared, new to the game or just unlucky – take several hours, I imagine some people would – and are – saying, “OK, I’m done, I don’t have time for this.” I eventually got there by taking the long route; the place is a dump. It’s like Morecombe, where the cafés close for lunch!

So, bit of a catch 22 situation, unless you take a rather circuitous route, you lack the skills to fight past the encounters to get the book to get the skills to defeat the encounters…

Small detail, just a wee problem here. To access the bookseller, once you safely reach the town, and as well as needing the right dialogue to unlock the option, you first have to gain access to the commander.

Also, the reason I didn’t know there was a bookseller was the guards won’t let you into the building. Accessing the commander has a prerequisite: completing 3 dungeon quests in the starter area town, Osbrook.

To buy the books that you need to safely complete dungeons – you have to complete the dungeons!

Catch-22, again. It’s doable, of course, but you will die enough times to make you sick of the game. Sometimes it feels like this: “Bring me the head of the immortal vampire lich, Krang the bloodthirsty. Be aware, he is immune to steel and magic. Here’s your penknife. Have at him.

The bookseller’s sad story makes sense. However, making it such a chore to get to him doesn’t.

 

6. Time and saves:

Fix the sleep timer clock, it’s just confusing.
As far as I can tell, it appears to be a 24-hour clock with the current time at the start and you sleep for whatever. However, the image above the sleep bar is hard to make sense of. Also, the movement-based timing is – I find – bizarre.
I worked out to sleep to 9 am to sell my junk, yet walking to market (from the Inn) and back to my room took 4 game hours! What’s that all about!?

It should be noted that others do not have this problem, but I happen to be on the autistic spectrum and it took me some time to grasp the system. People with various forms of colour-blindness would also struggle here.

See what you think:

Stoneshard save menu
{ This is the game clock, sleep and save combi option. Available in camps and inns only }

 

7. Game balance:

I die ALL THE TIME.

I am OK with that, though the ranger skills are naff at low levels and ‘this‘ is rather annoying:

“Have at you, villain!”
*casts firebolt*
*Thugs dies, screaming* “Huzzah!”
*Thug drops an epic staff* “Huzzah!”
*Epic staff burns to ash in lingering flames of the scorched thug*
“Oh, for f….!”

I suppose I should be grateful your own gear doesn’t burn so easily or you’d be left wearing soot to cover your… assets.

I should note this bit was tongue-in-cheek. Half-serious, half-joking. I found it amusing rather than anything else, but at the same time noted that other skills (like a two-handed hammer or dropping a tonne of rock) are not so destructive to loot drops. Not at present at any rate. Of the plus side, while you can’t get a pelt from anything you fireball, the meat is generally cooked just right for you!

Some people do like a challenge though, and this game does give you that, for sure.

Remember, this is a game that prides itself on its permadeath option!

One monster is a huge troll that slaughtered a whole platoon. When your feisty hero points out to the commander the troll just ate his entire army and the guy wants you to kill it, alone, he replies, “Not my problem, just get it done.”

 

8. Road map:
Some kind of roadmap would be nice!

Someone kindly (if poorly) directed me to a roadmap. Someone else more rudely pointed to another. Both were out of date, including the official one on the Stoneshard Steam page.

However, while the community trolls leapt on me for not Googling such easy to access information, the official roadmaps on offer are at least a year old and haven’t been updated. They say 2021, and do indeed offer some details for 2021, 2022 projections, but half of the image (not a page) is from 2020 and already in the game. To me, that’s not a proper roadmap.

 


Footnote

It should be noted that, yes, “I’m a little OCD”. Or a lot, to be honest. Clinically, it’s called Anankastic Personality Disorder, or OCPD and relates to obsessive perfectionism. What you may see as a quirk, people with this are more likely to see as an intolerable failing, one they (I) would never allow despoiling their work. This is a problem, for me, and for developers.

As for me, I note that the Youtube channel for Stoneshard is /UC2eaJ5h3hcICZcY-XvDKwbw. They could use /stoneshard, but either don’t know (how) to, or can’t be bothered. To me, to people like me, that is unacceptably sloppy and slapdash! It’s unprofessional. (If business we can be control freaks; burn-out is common).

And for developers? Why?

Because, while estimates vary (2% to 8% of the general population), it is actually fairly common, particularly in men, and especially in gamers. You know the type, completists, the ladder and table leaders, the ones running Mythic 20 solo in WoW, the guy that completes the un-completable game – and does it naked – because. Just because. The memes of “How can you kill that which has no life?”

Guess what. Developers love us as much as they hate us, because, obsessive. That guy with every piece of armour in WoW, probably has it. The guy with every mount in WoW – including all the store mounts at £20 a pop – yep, probably him too. Just do the maths. In World of Warcraft, the store alone has £350 worth of mounts, add in trading cards, game subs, expansions, events, buying gold for mounts, tournaments… You are talking thousands of pounds.

Games companies like EA and Activision actively recruit psychologists to help monetise and exploit games mechanisms, targeting such players. And they are as ruthless as they are manipulative when they are about it. Just look at the loot box market. At the exponential rise in the number of pay-to-win games.

If you have a million players and 2% are obsessive completists, that’s a steady income, at 10%, they can be worth more than the other 90% of players put together. I can point to pay to win games where the ‘whales’ of the game are paying over £2,500 a month – a month mind you – to ‘win’.

I can point to the way they do it, the mind games they employ, exploit for profit. They have names like ‘sunk cost fallacy’ and ‘cognitive dissonance’, ‘operant and behavioural conditioning’, and they help make companies like Activision, EA, like the casinos of Vegas, billions of dollars every year.

For instance:

APA, 2012: Video game companies are increasingly tapping psychologists’ expertise to make games even more compelling, challenging and fun.
Even a decade ago, a psychologist could make $80 to $150k a year, plus perks.

MCV/Develop, 2013: Using psychology in game design.

You get the idea. IBM do it, Valve, Microsoft. They all employ psychologists. Psychologists that are gamer-programmers are in even higher demand. (I was doing to do a doctorate in it some fifteen years back. Still think about it).

 



Link

See also: Links page: Stoneshard links and other games of interest


Ack

Been playing with computers since the stone age, online since the '80s, and developing websites since the '90s.

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