Good Decisions, Good Outcomes

We have discussed repeatedly over the past year that fun games let you make meaningful choices. David Henderson comments on a recent, high-profile football game and the distinction between decisions and outcomes.

Usually, the best strategic choice is the one with the highest expected value (probability of outcome times value of outcome). People frequently look at solely the outcome and then attribute it to the decision, whether or not the outcome was a likely result of that decision. Winning the lottery is a good outcome for you, but playing the lottery is almost never a good decision because the cost of a ticket is more than (odds of winning) times (value from winning); depending on how you estimate taxes, inflation, and the chance of splitting the prize, the Powerball even-odds point is around $1 billion.

I have mixed feelings about games where you make good decisions and lose. This is not the case of single-player games scripted to be perverse, where what looks like the right choice is a trap or all choices are traps. I am thinking of multiplayer games that are anything less than 100% strategy with all information known in advance. We want some unknowns, and making decisions in the face of unknowns means occasionally things come down against you. When the odds are 50-50 and you lose a coin flip, yeah, that happens all the time. When you win unless you lose 5 coin flips in a row, that still happens 3% of the time. I like to think of myself as comfortable with probability and true randomness, but having a 97% chance to win and still losing through no fault of your own is really frustrating. It is absolutely necessary that players lose 3% of 97% chances, but it is still really frustrating.

It is frustrating on another level when people celebrate those 3%s as great victories, rather than blind luck. Don’t get me wrong, if you are in a position where your only chance to win is five coin flips in a row and playing conservatively guarantees a safe loss, take that chance. High variance solutions can be your friend, and even if you lose that game (as you most likely will), it was still the right decision. But if you started with equal odds and fell into a situation where you needed five-in-a-row to win, you probably made some bad decisions along the way. And if you are that guy who immediately set up a five-in-a-row situation to win immediately or quit immediately, you are what is wrong with online gaming.

Celebrate your victories, but also celebrate good decisions, whether or not they lead to victory in that particular case.

: Zubon

It’s a different sort of unsatisfying if the game comes down to a coin flip.

Perspective

I sometimes find it helpful to make explicit the “imaginary” in front of something from a game when speaking aloud. “I’m upset because the imaginary zombie bit my imaginary warrior.” “Curses, someone else was willing to pay more imaginary gold for that imaginary sword on the imaginary auction house than I was!”

Your loved ones are sometimes worried that you forget that whole “it’s just a game” thing when the game affects you emotionally. And let’s be honest, sometimes you can use the reminder. This will reassure them that you are aware that you are reacting to an imaginary wizard’s struggles with an imaginary rock monster.

Although some people will be even more worried when you acknowledge that things are imaginary but still react to them.

: Zubon

Bandwidth

In recent months players have been submitting an average of one million questions a day to Trivia Crack’s “Question Factory,” a section within the app, says its 29-year-old founder and chief executive, Maximo Cavazzani. Since each submission must get a positive rating from at least 100 fellow players to make the cut, only about 1,500 new questions are being added to the game each day.
“Can an App Be Too Successful” by Sarah Needleman, Wall Street Journal

I played Ingress for a while last year. I am still getting responses about portals accepted or rejected, and I have at least 50 more in their queue. Back then, the Ingress web site said portals were accepted or rejected in 4-6 weeks (not months); right now it says that due to the backlog they have suspended the achievement related to submitting portals (and also quietly removed a turnaround time).

I have wondered if the time delay is an intentional strategy to reduce exploits. If the average player quits before their submitted portals go live, there is less incentive to submit dodgy “couch portals” (portal you can reach from home/work).

: Zubon

Matchmaking is Hard

At SynCaine’s suggestion, I have been playing Boom Beach. Because most of the guild started playing about the same time, most of us hit the same wall at the same point: the PvP system in the game discourages playing. It is a variant on the problem seen with Marvel Puzzle Quest.

PvP opponents are matched via “victory points.” Victory points are acquired by clearing NPC bases and by successfully attacking in PvP; victory points are lost by being unsuccessfully defending in PvP and for having uncleared NPC or PvP bases on your map. You get more bases on your map (to clear or leave uncleared) by expanding your map. PvP is used to raid other bases for resources; one successful attack, and you clear the base off your map and take some resources. Sometimes clearing an NPC base will award an extra victory point.

Your goal in gaming the system would be to be the highest level player at your victory point level. I intentionally avoided expanding my map for a while to avoid the temptation to clear more enemy bases. For a little while, I was clearing every base and advancing quickly, which is to say I was flying face-first at a wall that matched me against a PvP base 17 levels higher than me. Clearing bases is good for getting small amounts of resources, but when you start getting raided five times per day, your resource situation becomes a bit more perilous. Of course, if everyone games the system, we are back to the same problem just with fewer resources in play.

So for the past week or two, most of the Boom Beach guild has been slowing down. Leave NPC bases on your map when they pop up, avoid PvP, fail at PvP defense and watch your victory point total get knocked back down to “reasonable opponents” level. The daily reward includes an incentive to have more victory points and you want stronger opponents because they’ll have more resources, but the gain per victory point seems small and stronger opponents are only good if they are strong but not stronger than you.

And now back to gaming matchmaking systems in F2P games. It is legitimately difficult to design a good matchmaking system, particularly in an environment with free (and large scale) entry and exit.

: Zubon

Card City Nights

Card City Nights is frequently entertaining but I am not sure I would go so far as “good.” It is an interesting take on collectible card games with simple mechanics and an emphasis on strategic placement of cards. The difficulty is “trivially easy” until the beyond-Psychonauts difficulty spike for the end of the game. I played the PC version, which is an unusually good iWhatever port, a technical gem amidst the many sloppy ports.
Continue reading Card City Nights

[TT] Kayak Chaos

Kayak Chaos is a card and board game about racing down a river. The river unfolds over the course of play as kayaks reach the next segment. Cards let you move down or across the river or alter its course. A mix of strategy and randomization that seemed subject to a runaway leader effect, also with risks of kingmaker scenarios and piling on early leaders.

Gameplay is simple: play 3 of your 5 cards. Cards can provide movement, alter the river, or block altering the river (rarer). Movement is obviously valuable for getting ahead. Altering the river can make your course easier or impede your rivals. For example, you could shift the river over one space, which re-positions rocks or makes someone need to swerve to avoid the river bank, or you could flip a segment of the river to turn someone around. You can even switch two segments or river, pulling back a rival, leapfrogging ahead, or both.

Each of several boards is a short stretch of the river. Boards are revealed as a player gets past the current stretch of river, with that player picking how the new stretch is placed (from four options). This is the source of the runaway leader effect: once you are in the lead, you get free chances to arrange the rest of the board to your advantage. Of course, everyone gets those cards to rearrange the board, so if someone decides to slow you down rather than advancing themselves, an early leader might be severely punished and thrown back; my first game was a three-player game, so using your scarce turns to slow an opponent means not advancing yourself, and the third player clearly comes out ahead in that scenario. Perhaps this works out better with two or four players? With two, you capture all the benefits of slowing your opponent; with four, you can spread the costs. That dynamic is also the source of the kingmaker scenario, where a player left behind with no chance of winning can focus on making life easier or harder for other players.

Playing (or discarding) 3 of 5 cards in your hand each round means that there will be some interesting decisions but that luck drives a lot of the game. It seems somewhere around the balance between my demand for strategic play and others’ love of randomization, but it is also subject to swings like when I received one forward movement card out of ten cards, while at other times I could sweep through multiple boards in a turn due to favorable randomization. It might also fall into a middle that makes no one happy; I would need more games played to tell.

Basic rules are simple, but there are some complexities and interactions so this might be at the edge of what a casual player is willing to learn for a quick kayaking game. Also not quite as quick if a lot of people spend effort slowing down the leader, but game length can be customized by playing with a shorter river. Enjoyable with surprising depth for a game that looks so simple, but not so deep that a new player is lost or even notices much depth.

: Zubon

[TT] Pack & Stack

Pack & Stack is a game of loading trucks. Every round, you get a random assortment of boxes in different sizes, pick a truck from a random set flipped over, and try to get everything on the truck with as little empty space as possible. You lose points from an initial pool for unpacked boxes and empty space; highest score when someone counts down to 0 wins. The game makes good use of components and simultaneous play, has minimal interactivity, and is strongly subject to randomization. Potentially good for younger players or people who like luck-based games.

The components are good: boxes of five different sizes of colors, dice of corresponding colors with unusual numbers of pips per side, and solid truck boards. In many games, I go with the old idea of having a set of good components to use with many games, rather than whatever cheap pawns, money, etc. come with this box to justify its cost. (I have been using these coins for Seven Wonders, although I think I will be switching all my games’ money to Tech’s new coins.) The components here are essential to the game, well conceived, and of good quality.

Pack & Stack encourages simultaneous play, and if it had more dice, everything could be done simultaneously. You each roll to get your packages one at a time, then all flip trucks simultaneously, then all pack trucks simultaneously, and you can also score losses simultaneously if you trust everyone’s math and honesty. The only interactivity is the dash for trucks, and even then nothing is contested unless two players rolled similar stacks of boxes. Contrast games with no interaction that still officially have everyone acting in play order, or Seven Wonders with simultaneous play and some interaction.

Pack & Stack is mostly a luck-based game. Assuming that you have basic spatial relations skills and can perform single-digit arithmetic, you have all the skills needed for mastery, which you will achieve within five minutes. The one meaningful decision you make each round is which truck to pick, and unless the perfect truck is randomly available, your decision is arithmetic plus least bad choice. If you are on board with my contention that interesting decisions are the fun of gaming, this is not for you. If you like slot machines, this will be an exciting step up in your gaming; you even start with a pool of points and try to be the furthest from zero at the end, so it is like sitting next to your friends at the slots, pulling the bar to see how much you lose this time, and continuing until someone runs out of money and you leave. But you get to arrange little boxes on a truck, which is somewhat more fun than watching the game play itself.

Obviously not something I’m going to play again, but it has a few good uses of rules and could be attractive to some audiences. Its rules fit on a page, not in a book, and the game is not language-dependent, hence my thinking “good for kids?” (old enough not to try to swallow Legos).

: Zubon

Summarizing F2P

“There might be a first rush, and then the contributions wind down.”
Tobold

Starting monetization schemes has been exceedingly profitable, such as the money that flooded into Team Fortress 2 when its item shop opened, LotRO’s huge surge when it went F2P (even subscriptions went up),or many sites, games, and causes that make an initial appeal for money. If this is your first time being given the opportunity to pay for something you like and support, many people will. If it is no longer an “opportunity” but an attempt to build on ongoing revenue stream, that pent up demand reaches a much lower level quickly.

: Zubon