Intentional Gaming

Upon reflection, I cannot help but come to the conclusion that much of my gaming time has been time spent poorly. The question driving this is, “Am I really enjoying this or just looking for something to do?” I find that much of my gaming time has been driven by habit, increasing numbers on a screen because that is what you do in this game, and working on arbitrary checklists. Like the epiphany about social media games, this is a realization of just how strongly our primate brains can provide a drive to continue without much in the way of value or enjoyment.

The metaphor that immediately comes to mind is sitting down in front of the television so see what is on. This is how you lose an entire evening without having the sense that you did or even watched much; there is always something on, or at least about to come on or just about done or hey let’s see if this is any good… It is similarly easy to sit down in front of the computer after work and check Facebook, your RSS feeds, follow a few links, check in on a few games, watch some YouTube videos, look through Amazon’s new recommendations for you…

I was considering limiting myself to X hours of gaming per week, but I have settled on a different metaphor: only eat when you are hungry. Don’t eat out of habit or boredom or just open the fridge to see what looks good; only open the fridge when you are hungry. Therefore: only sit down at the computer when you have something in mind to do. And then stand up and walk away from the computer, rather than doing the equivalent of flipping through channels. If I see something that looks like fun while I’m there, great, but if I am just looking for something to do, I can draw an experience point bar on a whiteboard and give myself points for housework. “1000 dishes washed: achievement!” And I’m going to watch Dr. Who. I hear good things.

I’ll let you know how this goes. I may be posting more or less; some of my most prolific posting sprees came from times when I was not gaming much, but that might have been because I was sitting at the computer and looking for something to do.

: Zubon

I could use more happiness and intention in my career, too. I don’t suppose any of you work on the business side of Disney Parks or Resorts? I’m thinking of jumping industries but my professional network is in my current industry.

[TT] Asymmetric PvP

Let’s take a break from the Dominion-centric Tabletop Tuesday. People who are interested are probably already reading Dominion-specific sites. Dominion is on one extreme of a continuum in that every player starts with exactly the same resources and options. Some games like Risk or StarCraft give everyone the same option pool to start but then provide different starting points, or different victory conditions like Illuminati.

At the opposite extreme you have games that offer asymmetric options: vastly different starting resources, methods of playing, rules, and/or victory conditions. Balance here is difficult to do well, especially since a playstyle that works well for one side may not work at all for another, but a successful asymmetric game is a really great experience with multiple experiences built in.
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Accessibility and Excellence

Popularity is not a guarantee that something is either good or lowest common denominator crap, but it sure is profitable.

Pop music is heartbreaking cuz I’ll write a lovely visual poetic piece and then have to tear it apart and dumb it down. Writing for the masses is a bitch sometimes.
Bonnie McKee

Bonnie McKee’s first album was surprisingly sophisticated and had almost no commercial success. It remains one of my favorites. She then went on to write pop hits for Katy Perry and others, with sales four or more orders of magnitude higher than her own. Ms. McKee learned something that Blizzard did: accessibility drives sales.
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Manipulation Through Conspicuous Non-Manipulation

I was watching Once Upon a Time recently, and it was just not selling a death scene. It should have been a significant death, but I never much liked the character, writers frequently kill characters who have completed their plot arcs, and there was another character on-screen who was recently resurrected. How does the show deal with the lack of emotional resonance? Cue the sad music.

The music tells you how you are supposed to feel about the scene. Continue reading

Casual Incentives

Most games have learned that players respond better to incentives than penalties, even when they are mathematically equivalent. Instead of having a hunger debuff, food provides a buff, and all the content is balanced with the assumption that you are using food buffs. One World of Warcraft design included a bonus to XP when you started playing, decaying to neutral and then a penalty over time; this was changed to a Well Rested buff that does exactly the same thing, where playing without the buff means earning XP at the old penalty rate.

The latter is an example of the common incentive to play periodically for a moderate amount of time rather than trying to go from level 1 to the cap in one massive binge. Playing in moderation is better for your health, the game’s community, and the long term health of the game. Examples of systems that support this are daily rewards and bonuses that accumulate during offline time like the xp bonus in WoW or LotRO or the explicit “offline time” in A Tale in the Desert. The core idea here is providing a bonus the first time you do something today, which makes the first time very rewarding and creates an implicit penalty for farming.

The implementation of the Zen Garden in Plants vs. Zombies 2 is an interesting example. You have 6 to 12 flowerpots. You plant a sprout in each that gradually grows to become a boost. (“Gradually” means hours, although that can be shortened.) A boost gives that plant a large bonus for one round.

In practice, that means your first few rounds of play include at least one boosted plant. With some care, you could have a really awesome round in which every plant is boosted. You will crush that round and laugh in the zombies’ faces. And then you are back to normal. You re-plant your sprouts and either do something else or keep playing normally.

The Far Future world, introduced with the Zen Garden, seems to be balanced assuming you will be using some boosts. This both creates chances for highly skilled players to face greater challenges and provides more casual players with a boost to get past that.

: Zubon

Which is not to imply that casuals are unskilled, but we expect the hardcore to get better with all that time they spend. Being “hardcore” in Plants vs. Zombies is an atypical life decision.

Cargo Cults and Clones

Refering to something as a cargo cult means that it is repeating the external appearances but ignoring what makes it work. It is a form of magical thinking, that the ritual is what is important. The mental image you should get is someone on a Pacific island after WWII, trying to summon an airplane full of supplies by stamping out a “runway” in the dirt and wearing a “headset” made from coconuts, phonetically reciting landing orders and hoping the planes arrive. The important notion here is not copying but going through the motions and seriously expecting it to work. (See also cargo cult science, Feynman’s popularization of the meme.)

Copying works if you copy the right things. Your cheap knock-off may be missing some features or polish, but there is a market for cheap knock-offs. A taco or t-shirt is still a taco or t-shirt. In gaming, we often politely refer to them as genres, although some are still “Diablo clones.” (MOBAs recently made the transition to genre from “another DotA”.) Other games “borrow” motifs or characters, so we have fads of zombie games, brown “realism,” and a smaller number of snarky, passive-aggressive robots. “WoW with lightsabers” actually sounded like an extremely lucrative idea.

We get into gaming cargo cults when developers or producers have no idea why they are copying things. The market leader has X in the game, so put X in the game. And they seriously expect to make a lot of money, not to make a cheap knock-off. See the infamous keyring. See anytime an executive gives an interview that boils down to “you have to copy WoW to win.” (Those seem to have tapered off.)

Funny thing is, copying can lead to improvement. While there is a first mover advantage, seeing where the first mover tripped can help you get further. (This is where Blizzard has been known to excel.) Maybe the essential feature is not what the original developers thought, and the game works well in spite of, not because of, some core aspect. Are forced downtime, forced grouping, or unrestricted PvP assets or mistakes? We have games gambling on each side of that. Is the economy the heart of the game or an unfortunate distraction? How good is the gameplay when you strip it to its core? The real meta-game is seeing what works in making games.

: Zubon

Short Term, Long Term, Transitions

City of Heroes needed to implement “enhancement diversification,” a massive nerf in which marginal diversity was achieved by taking away the strongest options, for the long term health of the game. It was a good balance decision, but when the transition happened, it really hurt to log in and see your damage halved.

Guild Wars 2 is making good changes in the big April 15 update. The wardrobe is more or less exactly what I have asked for, the new traits are a good thing, the new sPvP build interface is more streamlined, unified WvW ranks make WvW much more alt-friendly, and let’s give ArenaNet the benefit of the doubt that all the other changes like runes and sigils are similarly good.

In the short term, you need to rebuild every character several times. Your PvE traits were reset, your sigils and runes may have changed, your sPvP build and traits were reset, your WvW ranks were reset, your… I was excited about learning the new options for a character then found it extremely discouraging to need to address three sets of options for each of eight classes, both new options and changes to old options, and then changes to old content.

In a way, this is a breaking point for players. If the newness excites you, this is probably the game for you, have a great time. If you look at re-learning the game as a huge slog, this might be a good time to explore 2014′s new MMO offerings. Or go outside.

: Zubon

Also, at the moment I’m kind of bitter that there are now 10 options for dailies including sPvP, rather than about a dozen plus sPvP.

[GW2] That Feature Pack

The household sounds were filled with sounds of enlightenment and confusion as Mrs. Ravious and I dug in to the Guild Wars 2 Feature Pack. Jeromai has the right of it. This feature pack shook things up. Hopefully all for the better, but time will have to tell on a lot of it. As Zubon warned us, most of our night was re-learning our characters.

Our first stop was the wardrobe. We ran through our bank and gear to fill our sticker book of skins, and I gained back about two dozen inventory slots. It was confusing at first with how some skins were working. The equipment was easier to understand because it remained an item even when the copy of the skin went into the wardrobe. Continue reading

[GW2] Login Warning

Read the patch notes and completely re-do every character you have before you do anything. Everything changed, and the mail alerting you that something has been reset can be spotty. I had to play several PvP matches and repeatedly enter the Heart of the Mists before I got any notice that my PvP stats were reset. You may or may not get notice that your WvW ranks were reset. You may or may not get notice that your runes have changed. You may or may not…

Basically, everything you know about your characters and the content may or may not have changed, so go read 10,000 words, and good luck sorting it out. If you’re like me and have characters of all 8 classes, you have a lot of studying and respecing to do.

: Zubon

[TT] Adding Value

As mentioned, the Intrigue expansion was Dominion’s first chance to vary the environment and give more potential to the less valuable cards. Remember, the benchmark is Big Money and streamlining decks, so the design space to be explored is how to make the cards that are not the best still worth seeking. Silver, Gold, and Province are good cards that everyone wants. How do we make Copper, Estate, and Duchy more valuable?

Baron makes money off Estates and gets you more Estates. That’s good. That gives you victory points in small increments while helping you buy them in larger increments. And remember, at the end, you only need to win by one point. Baron also helps you get a quick start, because your odds of drawing Baron + Estate on turns 3 or 4 are pretty good, but if you don’t hit that, your turns will be horrible because you have one turn with Baron and no Estates then a turn with Estates and no Baron.

Duke is worth more victory points when you have more Duchies. That is a straightforward way to make Duchies more appealing: synergy! Duke is kind of the opposite of Baron: Baron shoots for the extreme turn with lots of money (or misses for nothing); Duke works reliably at $5, and you just need cards to support it that let you reliably get moderate amounts of money.

Coppersmith makes Copper produce an extra coin this turn. Straightforward: Coppers are now effectively Silver. This becomes more valuable with multiple actions or cards that double or triple actions. Coppers that are worth as much as gold are not only valuable, but you did not spend the money buying gold.

But you did spend the money buying a Coppersmith or a Baron or a Duke. I do not find this expansion very successful and offsetting the base value of Silver, Gold, and Province. When Baron works, you get a nice head start, but that’s a bit of a gamble, and Baron only gets worse as either you have too few Estates to fuel Baron or too many to do much when you do not draw a Baron. In a long game, a Duke deck can beat someone playing for Provinces, but you are relying on the game running long enough for that investment to pay off without your opponents’ investments paying off sufficiently. Duke decks also get weaker as more players play them; being the only one playing for Duke is a great position to be in, but being one of two or three means the other player(s) get ahead while the dukes squabble. And Coppersmith is just a weak card in most situations. Yes, it is great if you can play two and turn your Copper into Gold, but you need one card to get you +2 Actions plus your two Coppersmiths and then how many cards do you have left for Copper? If you have that many cards and actions, there are probably better things you could be doing than playing with Copper. The opportunity cost of a Baron or Coppersmith is not buying a better card, and then your deck has more Estates and Coppers than you want except for the turn when your combo pays off big.

But future expansions will come back, try again, and in some cases make cards that combo wonderfully with these, perhaps adding enough value.

: Zubon