We’re nearly at the end of the year, and I am sure to write some sort of retrospective. Maybe. I’ve been in a foul mood, to put it lightly, and I’m not sure I need to open my heart about it and see what bleeds onto the page. It might not be entirely pretty or healthy.
Tonight, I’ll talk about a lovely little distraction. Backpack Battles, a free demo of a game that I think is scheduled to be out in early 2024.
It looks a bit like this:
At this point in the game, you have the choice between playing a ranger or a reaper. Both classes start with a special bag, with the ranger’s helping turn luck into critical strikes, and the reaper’s turning item activations into poison for their enemy.
This is an autobattler, with two phases. In the first phase, you enter the shop and buy items to put in your bag, including additional bag space. Items can have interesting synergies with each other, and there is a lot of tetris’ing involved, packing your backpack in such a way as to get maximum efficiency. The second phase is the battle, in which you square off with the ghost of an opponent and their bag.
As I said before, this is an autobattler, so during the combat phase, the player can’t really do anything to change the outcome of the fight. They can slow down the action, or speed it up, or pause it. They can look at the log of events, and they can hover over items in their bag or their opponent’s and see how things are going. Whichever player drops to 0 health loses. If it’s the player, they lose a heart. The player has 5 hearts and when they run out, the game is over.
That’s basically it. The game goes until the player loses their hearts, or gets 10 wins and bails, or gets 10 wins and goes on to 6 additional survival rounds.
There is ranked and unranked games. I typically just play ranked because I’m not a coward. Also, I don’t care about my rank in the game. If you’re curious, I’m roughly a mid-diamond player in both ranger and reaper.
Why am I talking about this game instead of writing? I’m getting there. As Ben on Twitch might say, “trust.”
I’ve been in a couple of light arguments with people about the nature of the game, especially with regards to luck. How much of it is skill-based? How much of it just comes down to the random number generator? Does it matter?
The game continues to evolve every week as the developer adds items and tweaks the numbers. One weak, poison ivy builds on ranger were amazing, relying heavily on stone skin potions. The next week, that build was nerfed into the ground and reaper’s chonk reigned — perhaps terrorized — every game. This week, chonk has been neutered, but Bloodthorne remains extremely strong.
This is what conversations look like in the Backpack Battles communities. If you’re not familiar with the game, that whole last paragraph looks like nonsense. If you’ve been playing, though, you’re probably nodding and agreeing with most of my assessments.
So where does luck come into play? I mentioned “builds,” which implies the player has control over how they move through the game, like deck builders. A skilled player understands the meta, and they know what to buy and what to avoid in order to produce the best backpack each round. This makes it sound like a pure strategy game.
Here’s the thing: as a player, you have no control over what appears in the shops during each buying phase. You’re presented 5 items of various rarity, depending on how many rounds have transpired. You can spend gold to restock the shop, and you can lock in items for later purchase, but whatever shows up in the shop is completely up to chance.
Gold is given to the player each round, the amount given increasing as you progress through the rounds. If you don’t spend all your gold in a round, it is carried over into the next. If a high-value item shows up one round and you can’t afford it, you can reserve it and try to purchase it in the next round, or the next after that. Sometimes, items are on sale and can be purchased for half their regular value. You can also sell back items at half their regular value, to a minimum of 1 gold.
This is where the biggest luck factor comes into play, and where the player has to gamble. If you’re knowledgeable about different strategies, you know that you need to buy certain specific items in order for your strategy to work. If the items you need aren’t presented in the list of 5, you can spend gold to restock, but every time you pull the handle to restock, you’re giving up some of your finite gold with no guarantee of finding what you need. The 5 random items that appear might include some of the same 5 random items you just passed on.
Let’s say you’re playing ranger and you want to go for a relatively straight-forward build involving Bloodthorne. In order to create a Bloodthorne, you need to get a Hungry Blade and a Thorn Whip, and those items have to be together in your bag for a round in order to combine. You also need to have some way of generating regeneration, so that your Bloodthorne can scale up, and you probably want to have some ways of speeding up your weapon.
If you’re unlucky, you can go the entire game without seeing a Hungry Blade or a Thorn Whip in the shop at all. It’s possible it is never presented as an option.
You can spend gold to restock, searching for your missing items, but with each pull, you’re reducing your spending power. A player that wisely spends 10 gold will always be stronger than another player that spends 9 gold or 8 gold with the same level of strategy.
Then there is the attack phase. Again, the player is at the whims of the random number generator. A player can make all the right choices during the buying phase, but then still be punished in battle. Their weapon my have a 95% chance of hitting, but still miss. And their opponent may only have a 5% chance to crit, but they’ll still do the excessive damage. You can have a shield which has a 35% chance of preventing damage never go off at all.
As a strategy game, I think luck plays too large a part. There is player skill involved, but the player can be denied making good choices due to bad luck in the shop, or punished even after making good choices in the battle. Players with high skill will tend to have higher ranks. That much is true. But to maintain those ranks, they’ll have to play many, many hours, slogging through losses that happen completely outside of their control.
Finally, I believe there is a balance problem with the game. Currently, there are two classes. Reapers own the early game, because their bag is immediately useful. Reapers just have to put items in their bag that can trigger the poison. They don’t even have to have a weapon in the first couple of rounds, especially if they face off against a ranger.
Rangers in the early game start off with a bag that offers very little. For every point of luck they have, they increase their chance to crit by 5%, starting from 0%. In the beginning, rangers have very few options for increasing their luck. At the same time, they have very few ways of dealing with poison, so rangers are at an obvious disadvantage, at least in the early rounds. This isn’t to say that they can’t win against early reapers. It just means that they’re at a disadvantage. They can always get lucky.
After round 7, both classes are able to get their subclass item. This is typically when rangers come online and reapers fall off, with some exceptions.
Again, I’ve been getting very detailed about this silly game, which isn’t even released yet, and I typically talk about writing. So what gives?
I see parallels between my experience as an author and playing this game.
Luck plays a huge factor. Writers may or may not find a publisher. They may get published, and they may or may not find an audience. They might write an amazing story, but things well outside their control might cause their book to tank or never see the light of day.
Really good writers tend to get book deals and get their name out there and find an audience, but luck is such a huge factor that it can overshadow talent. Like the skilled players of Backpack Battles, the wise writer understands that they need to keep trying, over and over, putting in the time and trying to overcome losses that are outside their control.
I was extremely lucky when I found my publisher. I’ve had some luck with sales, though not a ton. And the story I wanted to have out before Christmas, I’ve been exceptionally unlucky. Things happening, outside my control.
There is a lesson to be learned in all of this. I’m just not sure that it is.