Blood Bowl 2 Shows Why Developers Should Communicate More

It’s not a universal flaw. Not every developer is failing their fan base by failing to communicate. Many, in fact, are active and responsive with their players. But Blood Bowl 2 is a perfect example of precisely what can go wrong when you don’t maintain a constant dialogue.

It’s called the Living Rulebook. It’s the bible for Blood Bowl, much in the same way as the Player’s Handbook or Dungeon Master’s Guide is the sole reference point for everything in Dungeons and Dragons. If you ever have a question, it’s the reference point, the be all and end all.

It’s called the Living Rulebook because Blood Bowl has been around for virtually forever and the rules keep evolving. The tabletop game, which blends the races of Warhammer with the physicality and simplicity of American football — get the ball to the end zone — was first released in 1986.

While the core premise is simple, winning can become a surprisingly complex formula when the full range of races, player types, abilities, agility, armour and movement values are combined. Blood Bowl is as much about the management of luck as it is proper planning — even the campaign in BB2 tells players to organise their turn by actions ranked from safest to the most risky, to compensate for a potentially awry die roll.

Those rules don’t just dictate the skills for individual characters either. The cost to purchase new players, value of team re-rolls and apothecaries, minimum team sizes, handling of stunned players, what dictates a turnover, and ways to handicap teams with enormous bank accounts towards the end of a long-running league are all set out in the Living Rulebook.

Understandably, anything that goes off-script from LBR6 — the current version — would be noticed by the Blood Bowl elite. And yet no matter where you look, be it Cyanide’s official forums, the Blood Bowl sub-Reddit, the official Australian page for real world tournaments or threads on FUMBBL, there are posts and detailed lists of instances where Cyanide has tweaked things in their own vision.

Those tweaks were never communicated to the fans beforehand and neither were other adjustments — such as the lack of a grid or visual guide for tackle zones, why matchmaking is calculated on team value (as opposed to a separate rating for win/losses) or money counting towards a team’s value once it exceed 150,000 and more. And that’s not counting the fewer races, fewer single player modes and limited customisations for online leagues.

What Happened?

Matches are quite literally a different beast in Blood Bowl 2.

Strategic Simulations Inc., a publisher renowned for their extensive development of hex-oriented turn-based wargames (Panzer General, Fantasy General) and the Gold Box series of RPGs in the 1980’s (Pool of Radiance, Champions of Krynn, Gateway to the Savage Frontier, Neverwinter Nights), released the first video game based on Blood Bowl back in 1995. A British company called Tynesoft had been working on a digital conversion for the Commodore 64 well before then, but the company collapsed before the game hit store shelves.

Cyanide, the developer responsible for the most recent iterations of Blood Bowl, developed a game called Chaos League in 2004. It was so eerily similar to the Games Workshop property that the latter sued, but negotiations between both parties resulted in the lawsuit being dropped and Cyanide being granted a license to make games based on the IP.

Games Workshop hitched its wagon, all those years ago, to a team of coders in France. But despite finding what seemed like the perfect developer — a team passionate enough about the property to risk the wrath of GW’s lawyers — the Blood Bowl franchise has only ever stumbled to the finishing line.

The original release of Blood Bowl was plagued from the off. Finishing a multiplayer game required just as much luck with a six-sided die as actually winning. That’s what it seemed like for first-timers, anyway, who had little chance of understanding what was going on thanks to the poorly explained tutorial.

Even when the game wasn’t crashing or hiding information through the atrociously designed UI, bugs would rear their ugly heads — and would often ruin matches all on their own. Players were still reporting problems fielding a full team even after the release of the expanded — and largely, but not entirely fixed — Legendary and Chaos Editions.

Cyanide developed a reputation, but they never developed any goodwill. It’s shown in the take-up of the sequel — which started development in 2012 and was initially slated to release in 2014, before being delayed to the middle of 2015, and then to September. It is sequel that has garnered a stellar 71% user rating at the time of writing and just over 42,000 users, according to SteamSpy.

The Value Of Discussion

None of the official screenshots show the interface, so here’s the nicest I could make it look. It’s not half bad, from the right angle.

For better or worse, Chris Roberts and Star Citizen has become the benchmark for community engagement. It began even before the crowdfunding took off, with a post on the Roberts Space Industries page on September 11, 2012. (The Kickstarter campaign began a month later on October 19.)

“As I write this the count of fellow space gamers stands at 6,897,” Roberts wrote. “A few online searches later and some good sleuthing they stumbled across this site, when we had just happened to drop the wall to test some of the registration code. Seven fans signed up before we realized that the outside world was arriving before we were ready!”

46 posts were published before Star Citizen’s launch event on October 10, well before the studio had established the near constant line of dialogue. It hasn’t always been a positive. The delays to the Star Marine first-person module have been problematic. Chris Roberts has been forced to publicly defend his leadership and ambition, with former employees pointing to inefficiencies in his ethic that resulted in delays, confusion and wasted effort.

But from a player’s perspective — the gamers who have potentially spent hundreds, even thousands, of dollars backing Roberts’ vision — the barrage of communiqu├ęs gives Cloud Imperium Games an added resource: trust. It’s not a magical shield that deflects criticism, but it does afford the developers room to move, explain, apologise and realign where necessary.

Cyanide hasn’t earned that. Take their official Tumblr, which the developers used as a depository for lengthy announcements. The last post, dated a couple of weeks ago, talks about the Skaven and gives a very rough outline of the race and their abilities.

Yet it doesn’t go into any actual detail. A picture of the Rat Ogre is mentioned and, if you can translate the square-sized pixels, you can make out the rat’s various skills and attributes. Other races were covered in the weeks prior, but at no point did Cyanide ever give the fans what they wanted: detail.

There’s no mention of why, for instance, aging players were introduced at all. There are plenty of reasons for its inclusion — it makes lengthy leagues slightly more interesting and stops the player market from becoming saturated, but Cyanide never bothered to present this argument to the public. They simply let fans discover changes as footage and the beta rolled out.

Why were the statistics and costs of units changed from the Living Rulebook, and from what was included in previous editions of Blood Bowl? Where is the inclusion of a multiplayer lobby? Is it being patched in the future? What is Cyanide hoping to include in the future?

Nobody knows.

The Problems Ahead

In fairness, Blood Bowl 2 isn’t objectively bad. It’s not Afro Samurai 2 levels of broken, where basic features go unexplained, units fall through the floor and events happen without any rhyme or reason.

But there is much to be improved. Private multiplayer lobbies aren’t currently an option. A bug exists that allows the player with the more expensive team value in multiplayer games to purchase star players — only for that money to magically be reimbursed at the end of the match so the process can be repeated.

The Steam forum is filled with complaints about skills not working correctly and other odd quirks. Cheerleaders, for instance, should be attuned to the race of the team they’re supporting, but in Blood Bowl 2 human cheerleaders support all races equally.

Online play is rife with players quitting within the first half. The only solution is to play in a private league where administrators can police it themselves, because Cyanide’s framework doesn’t punish players for disconnecting at will. It’s a nightmarish combination that understandably has resulted in the obvious consensus: if you want to play Blood Bowl, you’re better off picking up the Chaos Edition for the original and waiting for Cyanide to patch (or re-release) the sequel.

If you’re the creator, that’s a hard pill to swallow. But when you don’t actively keep in touch with your fans, they’re not going to give you the leniency that is necessary to survive. Blood Bowl 2 could be a great game. But until that day comes, the community consensus will always be the same: don’t buy it.

All screenshots were captured using a review code of Blood Bowl 2 provided by the game’s publisher.

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