Experiences With Achievements

Because all of your experiences happen from your perspective, it is common to generalize and assume that others’ experiences are more or less like yours. Over time one learns that this is often not the case, from different life circumstances to different preferences to different brain configurations and chemistry. This last is the subject of one of the most interesting discussions on the internet, where some people have well known but uncommon mental experiences (synesthesia, photographic memory) and others explain their realizations that either they have experiences most people do not or (the topic of the original post) they lack experiences everyone else has, like a sense of smell. “Wait, people don’t just mean that metaphorically?”

At one point, the topics wanders to video game achievements. Commenter Doug S covers a lot of ground:

I don’t know exactly why I feel compelled to earn Achievements or Trophies when playing video games, or want to see my characters level up, or things like that, even if I don’t actually enjoy the process of doing it. Must be that “wanting” vs “liking” distinction.

Sometimes I wonder why I should bother getting every little thing in a game. This frequently leads me to wondering why I’m playing the game at all, or playing any game, or choosing to do anything at all rather than nothing. Then I suffer from depression symptoms. Having come to the conclusion that questioning these impulses reliably leads to depression symptoms, I’ve stopped doing it.

Others report similar senses of differences between compelling gameplay and enjoyable gameplay, which is somewhat of a recurring theme around here.

: Zubon

Sceptre of Goth and MMO History

Richard Bartle had a recent post about the pre-history of MMOs.

I’ve read so many histories of MMOs that are just plain wrong, that I myself always try to get it right to the best of my knowledge and understanding. This is why when people introduce me as “the man who invented online games” or whatever, I always mention that I co-invented them with Roy Trubshaw. If I’m able (which isn’t always possible in live interviews), I’ll also correct the focus (it’s just virtual worlds) and point out that plenty of other people independently invented them too: Roy and I did MUD; Kelton Flinn and John Taylor did Island of Kesmai; Randy Farmer and Chip Morningstar did Habitat; Bruce Maggs, Andrew Shapira and David Sides did Avatar; Rich Skrenta did Monster; Alan Kleitz and Bob Alberti did Sceptre of Goth.

He goes on to talk about the genealogy of games and the allocation of credit.

Worthy reading for folks who care about the world before the World of Wacraft.

: Zubon

Compelling But Not Entertaining

The flip side of intentional gaming is that many things are compelling but not entertaining. You feel driven to complete the level, get the achievement, do the thing. You do not actually like the game (anymore?), but it appeals to your brain chemistry in a way that keeps you going, keeps you coming back.

That was my experience with social media games. The gameplay is usually crap, although you can create your own interesting time management game out of juggling a half-dozen of them. During college, my wife did not really enjoy Civilization II but played many late nights of it because its “just… one… more… turn” gameplay is that compelling. You can get remarkably engrossed and engaged without stopping to think, “But do I really like this?”

I approach this from an Achiever point of view, because treadmills and achievements are often how games keeps people hooked, but it applies to all approaches. In my Explorer guise, I have frequently given games, books, and shows another few hours to “get good” even after recognizing I was not enjoying myself. There is always a steady stream of Killer content to keep you fighting for the top of the hill even after you stopped caring about that hill, and few things activate your brain’s instinctual programming like the illusion of mortal danger mixed with status competitions. Of course, since we come from a species of social primates, huge swaths of society are effectively traps for Socializers, engaging our socializing brain modules while providing no real content, emotional satisfaction, or other recompense.

Our brains evolved in a physical environment. In a digital environment, we are still executing all the adaptations that got us here, even if they no longer provide value or even make much sense.

: Zubon

Virtual Property

The original ending of Neon Genesis: Evangelion featured Shinji in a void of infinite potential. His first act was to restrict himself, because he needed ground to stand upon and a sense of “up” and “down” to orient himself.

Players enter a virtual world of infinite potential, and their first question is “how do I kill things?” The second is “how do I get stuff?” MMOs are in a feedback loop with those impulses, designing around an endless cycle of killing things to get stuff to help you kill things.

Second Life and MineCraft are more open-ended than Yet Another Fantasy Theme Park MMORPG, but people exhibit the same behavior. Given a realm of potentially infinite space, we immediately want homes, buildings, a farm. Virtual glory comes from your castle, when you could be free of all that. We have left terrestrial space but brought a hunger for the dirt with us.

Everything you own in-game is a database entry, with only the significance we assign to it. One of the most fundamental violations of the game would be to edit that database directly. It would be against the rules, immoral, a trivialization of all the work everyone has done to get their legitimate database entries.

Because virtue lies in accummulating database entries that translate into virtual property through the execution of virtual violence.

: Zubon

Avengers Tower Defense

I don’t know if anyone has made this into a game yet, but the climactic fight in Avengers: Age of Ultron is a tower defense level. Avoiding spoilers: the Avengers end up protecting a button. If one enemy gets past them to push the button, the bad guys win. Arrange the Avengers around this button (in 3D – superheroes fly!) and stop the bad guys. Uh oh, here comes Ultron — boss wave!

Spoilers are allowed in the comments, so feel free to discuss the fight, the movie, tower defense, etc. And you may not want to click through to comments if you want to be surprised at the movie.

: Zubon

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.


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

Sky Saga First [Alpha] Impressions

I would never have known about Sky Saga if it wasn’t for the rage-induced community support group that the Windborne game’s Steam forums had become. Sky Saga was suggested by one player as an ointment to the afterglow of the production-stilled Windborne. I checked out Sky Saga’s website. Someone on Twitter also mentioned to me it was guided, similar to HQM Minecraft or Windborne’s quests.

The suggestion to try Sky Saga was enough to sign up for the “alpha”, which is fairly open. The servers are open right now for a limited time, and I was able to play around over the weekend to get a feel for the game. Continue reading Sky Saga First [Alpha] Impressions

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