[TT] Random But Predictable

Randomness is rarely chaos. In games, randomness is a pick from a pool with known and computable probabilities.

Roughly 1/6 of the rolls in Settlers of Catan will be 7s that activate the robber. Roughly 5/36 of the rolls will be 6s and another 5/36 will be 8s, which is why they are the most sought numbers and why there is so much groaning when there are 5 6s in a row or when there are 0 8s for 15 minutes. Some players think that still leaves too much to chance, so you can buy dice decks, giving you the exact probability distribution over 36 turns rather than knowing it works out in the long run (but maybe not over the course of this game). Strategic play in Settlers involves both getting the best numbers possible and diversifying over numbers and tile types, to survive the swings of fortune.

Deck-building games are substantially about probability manipulation. In Dominion, you start with 10 cards, so you always know exactly what your second hand will be based on your first hand, and you can predict turns three and four based on the (usually) 12 cards you own after those first two turns. From there, the deck-building mechanic is about increasing the number of good hands you have by getting more good cards, fewer bad cards, or just more cards, or perhaps by exploiting higher averages or variability. There are strategies that depend on knowing what is left in your deck based on what you have played so far.

I have been pondering Dungeon Roll. When you roll a lot of dice, the possible extreme swings in luck are large, but you are increasingly likely to be around the center of the distribution. You may have a random pick of a dozen heroes with a random roll of seven white dice against a random roll of foes on each level of the dungeon, but that averages out to reaching level 5 safely, plus or minus one, plus or minus a dragon. You probably end a turn with 4 to 6 experience points and 2 to 4 treasures.

Because you get only three turns, conservative play is encouraged, which is an odd thing for a “push your luck” game. If you go one level deeper, you get 1 or 2 more points for succeeding and lose 4 or 5 for failing. That is a big asymmetry, and you lose the game if you lose one round unless it encourages your opponents to also push their luck a little further (by why would they with a 5-point lead in a game where 30 is a high score?). I have yet to see anyone push his/her luck and fail, because you can predict your odds (two white dice left, enemy rolls six black dice) and your potential benefits (marginal).

On the other hand, there is some variation, particularly within one turn, and that can lead to unfortunate swings you cannot do anything about. “Leveling up” is worth about 1 more point in each of your latter two turns, so if a bad roll means you do not get the 5xp to level up your first turn, you are down even further against your opponents. Sometimes the dice make your special abilities useless. In my first game, I was the knight, and who turns scrolls (low value) into champions (high value); I rolled 0 scrolls on my last two turns. You can expect to roll 0 scrolls in 28% of turns, which means that 63% of games will have at least one turn where that ability does nothing, and it will not be used at all in 2% of knights’ games. In three turns, randomness can dominate long run odds.

: Zubon

Enforced Casualness

go farm a spell I have been playing through Reignmaker, which is Tower of Elements with city-building. Because your abilities are gated by the city-building aspects, and the resource-gathering for city-building is a time-based mechanic, casual play is enforced.

Take, for example, the pictured level. Several levels recommend the sorts of spells or items you would want for them. Researching a spell takes time. Upgrading a building does not, but gathering resources for it does. If you need 1000 wood to upgrade to level 4 (plus 500 for level 3, plus…), and your (upgraded at the cost of more wood) lumber mill fills up at 90, you need to check the game 11 times to get the one upgrade. So play occasionally and check in frequently.

Being resource-starved has apparently been an issue from the beginning. Reading that thread, it has been declared a feature rather than a bug: it is now a time-management game in addition to a match-3 game. Which would be appropriate if the game were on Facebook and I needed to ask friends to come fertilize my farm.

: Zubon

Expensive Means Rare, Rare Means Powerful, Therefore P2W

Dawn of the Dragons had a rather exceptional developer post that circuitously but explicitly said they were planning to balance content by making powerful things more expensive. It has always implicit that you buy power, as in many cash shop-supported games, but the circumstances and the PR-speak involved surprised me.

DotD has always had a lottery and recently added lockboxes. Lockboxes were somewhat controversial, even if they were functionally almost identical to the existing lottery. Notably, the lockboxes contained some rather powerful equipment, as you might expect from a cash shop lottery, particularly a “premium general,” which non-DotD players can understand as “powerful pet.” Premium generals have a special place in the game’s power curve, and this one was only available through the lockbox lottery.

The developers responded to controversy. The line of argumentation was roughly my title above, although replace “P2W” with “it’s okay.” Gamers generally accept that rare = powerful, so they are going to make this powerful thing rare by making it really expensive. They originally did that by making it a 1% chance in a cash shop lottery, and soon they will make it available as a double-priced cash shop premium general.

They presented this as “everyone wins,” and as near as I can tell, players largely accepted that. The lockboxes stayed, just as before. The expensive premium general will not be nerfed. They are taking the opportunity to let the players just pay them directly, in addition to the lottery. More options for the players, more money for the developers, and they promised to be willing to take more money like this in the future. Tell me if I’m wrong, but it seems to have reduced the controversy from the original lockbox release while keeping the lockboxes and adding cash shop revenue.

That’s a PR coup. Find out who was behind it and recruit him/her to your AAA game.

: Zubon

[GW2] Entangled Upwards

Episode 2 of Guild War 2’s Season 2 (that’s a lot of 2’s) feels like rising action, a flashback, and also foreshadowing. Episode 1 was an easily-digestible story in the desert as we figured out who sabotaged the Zephyrites. Episode 2 starts adding a bit more complexity to the story. There’s good and bad, but it’s clear (especially from the teaser for Episode 3) that the picture frame is expanding. Spoilers herein.

Scarlet’s Legacy

Entanglement starts off where Episode 1 left off: with Scarlet. Or rather, with Scarlet’s memory and effects. At the end of Episode 1 we left Taimi in Scarlet’s old holdout to catalogue and research Scarlet’s early workings. Episode 2 sends us scrambling back at the request of Braham because Mordremoth’s (the plant dragon’s) vines have overtaken the town of Prosperity killing virtually everybody off but the bartender. Drooburt couldn’t get away in time because he was overladen with “donations” (read: death weights) of the players. Continue reading

Clipping

Can any artists (or art managers) in the audience talk about your process for graphic fixes? Comments and links appreciated.

For example, clipping is a frequent issue in games. I think of City of Heroes/Villains, which had a variety of capes, robes, and flowing garments; a variety of spikes and big shoulderpads; several weapons, which might be held or sheathed; and of course a wide variety of animations that combined them all. A martial artist in spandex had few problems, but a swordswoman sliced through her cape every few seconds, and often just with the running animation.

Players would sometimes find that annoying or amusing. As an artist on the team, you probably would have found it infuriating and spent days fantasizing about fixing it. But maybe it was a limitation of the engine, and definitely there were bigger priorities, and always your manager has something else you need to work on because his manager says the new content must ship on Tuesday.

We spend a lot of time on mechanics here because that is how I think. I would like to hear about how these things happen on the art side, if anyone would like to take the microphone.

: Zubon

[TT] Interaction

Eurogames are frequently distinguished from American games by being more abstract (focused on mechanics rather than theme) with less conflict (competition is often indirect, players are rarely eliminated). Zombie Dice and Dungeon Roll are dice-based “push your luck” games with no interactivity at all. Gameplay is no different as a single-player game, and the endpoint is arbitrary.

Zombie Dice puts you as the zombie. The dice can give you brains or shotgun blasts. You want as many brains as possible, but too many blasts mean you get 0 brains this round. Keep going until you either “bank” your brains or get blasted. Other players can cheer or jeer, but they cannot shoot at you.

Dungeon Roll has more complex gameplay involving a starting pool of resources, variable and growing opposition, and accumulated resources between rounds. Still, you are entirely in competition with the opposition dice, rather than another player. Officially, another player “plays” the dungeon, rolling the black dice against your white dice, but that player makes no decisions and it makes no difference if you just roll the dungeon dice yourself.

Zombie Dice ends when one player gets 13 brains. Dungeon Roll ends after everyone has 3 turns. This is where you get a mote of interaction: you can see what the others’ score is and adjust how much you are willing to push your luck accordingly. If Alice has banked 12 brains and is going next, Bob might as well keep pushing his luck because he either wins now or almost certainly loses next turn. Similarly, if Bob’s last dungeon run left him at 21 points, Alice might as well risk being eaten by a dragon if she only has 20 points, because losing by 1 or 5 is the still losing.

How do you pick the end point, other than boredom and time consumption? For Zombie Dice, it is entirely arbitrary whether you reset the score after someone reaches 13. For Dungeon Roll, because there is some power accumulation between rounds, it makes more sense to have a fixed endpoint.

: Zubon

[LoL] Doom Bots of Doom

League of Legends has added the Doom Bots. All the champions get souped up abilities; if you can beat that, they start getting passives from other champions (or others’ abilities as passives); if you can beat that, they get more and changing passives. Tibbers bigger than a tower with AE attacks? Sure, and Annie also sets your towers on fire. Veigar’s Dark Matter meteors? How about a ring of them falling as a passive, and he can cast a ring of them, and his Q is area effect. Fear on every one of Fiddlesticks’s abilities, plus AE health drain, plus phantom Fiddlesticks ults popping out of the brush? Okay, fear on his bouncing crow was nerfed back down to silence.

Watch a full game here. The doom bots are not as terrifying as I had expected, since you can work around them and the limitations of the AI, but the video does feature continuous streams of profanity at various points.

It’s fun ridiculousness. I want players to have access at some point, just to see how those games go. ARAM URF Doom mode – go!

: Zubon

Browser Versions

At IMGDC 2.0, Gordon Walton said (paraphrase) that Star Wars: The Old Republic should be the last MMO (or perhaps online game) made with a standalone client. His logic was that everyone has a web browser, and the web browser does not require a multi-GB download. As a developer, every barrier between your customer and the game costs you customers. (Back to that post from Gordon Walton: you, the self-identified “gamer,” will work hard for a bit of fun, but most paying customers will not.) As a player, I have lost interest in the time it takes to download, install, and learn how to play. As an observer, I would attribute some of the rise of flash and mobile games to the convenience of automated downloads, streamlined installation, and the business brilliance that is the modern app store.

Maybe it takes more than six years for that idea to spread, but there are definitely reasons why you might want a standalone client: the need for gigabytes of content, security controls, and (most importantly to me today) a uniform development platform. “Web browser” is not one thing. One of the drawbacks of developing for the PC (not consoles) is that PCs differ widely in terms of hardware and software, and web browsers create more levels of differences. Are you using Chrome, Firefox, Internet Explorer, Safari, or something else? Maybe still using Netscape Navigator? Which version are you using, both major and minor? There are dozens of different ways users could have that one thing configured, and your game needs to work in all of them, with every other hardware and software configuration that goes along with the browser. I can see why you might want to say, “Our client, our world, under our control.”

I spend some days playing tech support for an online system. Some users genuinely have a problem with our system. Others could not remember which password was for our system, remembered the password but had typos, forgot the password for their Windows logon, had trouble with an internet connection, had trouble with Internet Explorer, had trouble using a function that worked slightly differently in Internet Explorer and Chrome, or needed the finer points of using a mouse explained. And those are the questions I remember off-hand from one day. When you are supporting a product on the PC, you are supporting the entire PC. At a previous job, our FAQs included how to update browser settings and how to troubleshoot problems with printer settings. Their printer problems were not our fault, but they were our problem if we wanted customers to make full use of our site.

When you run a hotel, you also get to explain to people how to find your hotel. If they cannot get to your service, they cannot use your service. The construction down the road may not be your fault, but it is still a barrier between you and your customers.

: Zubon

[GW2] Entangled Thoughts

Episode 2 of Guild Wars 2′s Season 2 came out earlier this week. They at least tripled the size of the new zone, Dry Top. There are a handful of new story instances, and there are two new weapon sets. Everything once again feels very tight and polished. The world has changed in bits. The world has expanded in others. All-in-all, ArenaNet’s sophomore production is going great.

Topping Off Dry Top

I haven’t really commented on the design of the new zone Dry Top. I don’t mean the fantastic art design, which is fantastic. The canyon that I saw near the new Uplands sub-zone is amazing. It looks artistic and real at the same time. Mostly it just looks impressive, and I feel trapped in it. The canyon leads to the first hints of the Maguuma Jungle, by way of Dry Top, and then south of that it turns back to windswept desert. There is also a secret place I’ll discuss next week. No, as usual, the ArenaNet map squad has done brilliant work. Continue reading

Loss Versus Failure to Gain

Game developers manipulate player desires by presenting the same options differently. Player reactions are empiricably testable with cash shop setups.

I frequently cite the example of having a “hunger” debuff versus a “well-fed” buff. These can be designed to be numerically identical, where the character has higher base stats that are debuffed by hunger or lower base stats that are buffed by food. You balance content around the higher number in either case. Players will complain about a hunger debuff but feel like they have been given something extra with a food buff. Even if the numbers are identical, humans are unhappy if you tell them you are taking something away from them, whereas they barely notice if they fail to gain something.

Many cash shops have some sort of lottery option. You can give the developers $X for a chance at items or whatever. What you see at least as often these days, because we would predict that it works better, is giving you a lottery ticket or prize you can pay $X to unlock. In the former case, you can play the lottery by giving me $X; in the latter, this lottery ticket is now yours, but you cannot redeem it unless you give me $X. Same lottery, same prize, same $X. If you doubt which implementation yields more sales, look at where the developers are betting. Team Fortress 2? Locked crates with keys in the cash shop. Guild Wars 2? Black Lion chests with keys in the cash shop.

Developers can make this more concrete by adding time pressure: the box/ticket expires in a week or after the event. Some players might still see a locked chest or lottery ticket as a failure to gain, but if it is going to disappear in a few days, they have definitely lost something, even if only an opportunity. The perception of scarcity also plays in here; you always have access to thousands of TF2 crates and GW2 chests for a few cents, so it is harder to instill the idea that you are losing any opportunities, while other games might make those drops less common (but still give the player frequent opportunities to buy things). Hence TF2′s time-limited crates, and doesn’t GW2 have occasional seasonal Black Lion chest items?

: Zubon