Making Money

I have been quiet on the blogging front, so I should appreciate Tobold picking up the “business of games” beat I have favored. He has recent posts explaining that someone has to pay for games and more money attracts more investment. While you personally might prefer to get more game for less money, the MMO gaming niche only gets increased resources when investors see money to be made there. For-profit games need to show a profit.

We have previously discussed the business model Tobold discusses under “Keeping the Lights On.” Players (and consumers generally) are more sensitive to changes in price than in quality or quantity, so over time you get less game in your game and more add-ons, and wow was the Elder Scrolls IV horse armor imbroglio nine years ago already? I actively dislike the nickel-and-dime model and avoid rewarding it, but I have more money now than when I started gaming and I understand why it happens on both the supply and demand sides.

I want good value. I want to reward it. Sometime, we need to sit down and work out how to make sure we are assigning more of our time and money to their best valued uses. I liked Orcs Must Die! more than Dungeon Defenders, but I spent more time on the latter due to the game structures and internal incentives. My Settlers of Catan board was a much better investment than my LotRO lifetime account.

: Zubon

Good Decisions, Good Outcomes

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

Usually, the best 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 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

Playing with Probability

I have occasional discourses on probability. Here is Professor Munger having one upon the recent event that the Michigan Daily 4 lottery drew the same number two drawings in a row. The odds of that happening, of course, are exactly the same odds of your winning or of any given number being drawn once: 1/10,000. (If your intuition tells you it should be 1/100,000,000, remember that there are 10,000 ways it could happen.)

I haven’t checked his math on the all-year, many-states extension, but that’s the next piece on which to train your intuition: 1/10,000 events that have a chance to happen many times per day should happen pretty frequently. If you want the extended version of that, the post links to a piece adapted from a book subtitled, “Why Coincidences, Miracles, and Rare Events Happen Every Day.” Because in a world of seven billion people, one-in-a-million events happen seven thousand times a day.

Big, foundational ideas in probability theory were based on analysis of lottery and dice games like this. It is perhaps no wonder that we have trouble with designed more complicated games if our intuition has trouble with something as simple as drawing numbers from a hat.

: Zubon

[TT] Talisman

I mentioned Talisman: Prologue over the weekend. So, what about Talisman itself? It’s a random number generator overlaid with a fantasy game skin.

The flavor of Talisman is right: fantasy adventure, many classes and options, slaying monsters, gaining treasure and followers. In practice, you’re getting a random walk through all of that, where the importance of any decisions you make is vastly dwarfed by the randomness of deck and dice. You might get killed by the strongest creatures in the deck in your first turns, find half the weakest monsters an hour into the game, or perfectly replicate the hero’s journey. You’re basically along for the ride, without the opportunity to play through a story like Betrayal at House on the Hill. The ride can be fun at times, but it is pretty clearly a ride; you are not driving. You roll a die, and then the most important decision you make most turns is, “Do I move right or left?”

Potentially good for younger players or people who enjoy long games but not strategy or decision-making, something you can talk around, hoot and holler when the dice go your way, and blame the dice when they don’t. I find it time-consuming and unsatisfying, something I can neither play with serious gamers (who tend to care if their decisions matter) nor casual gamers (who tend not to play multi-hour games that require dozens of pieces). Board Game Geek lists this as a 90-minute game, and maybe it is with two experienced players; I usually see it cited around 4 hours. Talisman is remarkably newbie-friendly, what with the lack of decisions to make. You can teach someone to play in less than 5 minutes, less than 30 seconds if you want to explain four stats and set them loose.

: Zubon

I really want to like Talisman, but my reaction is more, “This?! This is a foundational work of fantasy and board gaming?”

Quick Review: Spoiler Alert

A conceptually amusing platformer with mixed execution. Playing part of the first world is worth the time; probably not worth buying or playing through the whole thing. I played around 45 minutes to get 100% completion.

You start at the end, defeating the end boss and running away with the princess. Then you go in reverse, from right to left, bouncing off enemies’ heads to wake them back up, returning coins, and catching fireballs. That’s the “conceptually amusing,” a reversed platformer. Not all the coins were collected nor all the enemies stomped on the run through the game you are unwinding, so the challenge is frequently to collect particular coins and avoid bouncing off certain enemies.

This is entertaining for a small number of levels. There are 100 levels. Most of the levels are very short. A perfect run through the game would take about 15 minutes. That is helpful, because stomping an enemy you were not supposed to creates a “paradox,” start over. Some levels are a couple of easy jumps, and you will never see them again. Others require pixel-perfect jumping or timing that you need to memorize because you need to react to some things before they come on screen.

That is, the jump is a fixed height and width, so if you need to make three jumps in a row, you need to know exactly where to start the third one so you can start the first one at the right spot, and the third one will be off-screen. That’s bad design. Many other design decisions are good. For example, when a new enemy is introduced, you have an entire level that is nothing but dodging that attack pattern with no complications, more or less just showing you how this enemy moves.

One design decision initially annoyed me, but I decided it was a good thing. You get a perfect score on a map by beating it with no deaths or paradoxes. You cannot start over in the event of death or paradox, or perhaps you could by quitting to menu, but there was no quick restart I saw. The level restarts automatically upon paradox, and it keeps doing so until you get the whole level perfect in a single run-through. Then you get your score. If you want your perfect score, you need to do that, then start over and do it without failing. In effect, you need to be able to beat the level perfectly twice in a row. I like that. Once can be a fluke (and perfect on the first try still counts); if you just failed it 10 times in a row to get it once, you need to do it again to demonstrate that you actually know what you’re doing. It reminds me of a nice bit in Ender’s Game when Ender has his troops repeat a maneuver three times to prove to themselves that they have mastered it (but only three to avoid having it become a repetitive drill).

: Zubon

Attention to Detail

2015-01-15_00001 Fist of Jesus is a game in the latest Humble Bundle. It is a beat-em-up distinguished only by cartoonish blasphemy; none of the reviews give me hope that the gameplay improves, but if the idea of “play Double Dragon as Jesus and Judas versus Lazarus’ horde of zombies” sounds entertaining, it is currently $5+ for this and four other games (or $8+ for another two, including an actual Double Dragon).

The level of attention to detail in the game is perhaps best attested by the typo in literally the first screen once you start the game.

: Zubon

Difficulty and Creativity

Lower difficulty accommodates a broader range of playstyles and options. Higher difficulty increasingly demands optimization and can make every fight a puzzle boss.

There are more and less effective ways of accomplishing goals in games. For many people, theorycrafting and metagaming are the game, and the real fun comes from figuring out how to manipulate rules and situations for optimal effectiveness. There is a lot to be said for this approach to fun. If you enjoy strategy games, this is probably what you enjoy. Wringing the most value out of every move and option is the heart of strategy gaming.

Many care less about that. They have concepts they want to play, toys they want to use, or “I’m just here to have fun.” It does not matter if the flamethrower is 20% less effective per point than the shotgun; they just want to watch the world burn. At an extreme, there are those who love the difficulty of execution, and they will intentiontally make suboptimal choices to prove they can succeed under those conditions.

High levels of difficulty tend to restrict the range of viable options. In easy fights, like solo MMO play, a silly concept build works just fine, and a perfectly optimized build just saves a little time. As difficulty increases, the number of viable builds narrows (given constant player skill). Difficulty gets tuned this way: playing at the highest difficulty, you may need great execution and a great strategy and an optimized build. If not, the highest difficulty could be made even harder.

The Queen’s Gauntlet in Guild Wars 2 was a good example. You could sleepwalk through most of the fights with an optimized mesmer, and I’m told that warriors were also strong. Other classes needed to struggle and adapt more. Stronger classes and builds could keep their usual skills and talents; some people needed to switch up weapons and abilities to beat some bosses. More skilled players could do more with less, but the DPS check (X hit points, Y seconds to defeat it) limited that.

You can also optimize fun and silly builds to make them viable at higher difficulties or use optimized builds for casual play to compensate for unoptimized playstyles (inexperienced, lazy, drunk, limited physical capabilities). One of the joys of character optimization in Dungeons and Dragons 3.5 was seeing experts take mechanically weak ideas and make them viable characters rather than burdens that needed to be carried by the rest of the party. “We swapped some feats on your whip-wielding halfling cleric, and if you take these spells, you should be back up to par.” The car looks the same on the outside, but because it is souped up under the hood, it handles better when conditions get rough.

: Zubon