Category Archives: General


Gaming the Gamification of Games

Content delivery systems have gamified games by building their own level and achievement systems. Kongregate and Steam are two that I use. Kongregate flash games may have levels, points, and achievements, and then Kongregate itself has badges, points, and levels, and now pets that may appear in games. Steam games have had achievements for a long time, and now Steam itself has a trading card mechanic that leads to crafting, badges, and levels.

Steam has started tying its seasonal sales to those. In past years, you received the seasonal achievement for gaining achievements, voting, shopping, and otherwise using Steam. Those are now mediated through trading cards (and those trading cards now incinerate at the end of the event, rather than sticking around for latter day trading, which I think was uncalled for). And crafting completed sets of trading cards during the seasonal events awards seasonal event trading cards.

I am sitting on five sets of cards and waiting for the next seasonal sale event, because it will be worth marginally more to cash them in then than now. I am gaming the gamification of games, and the absurdity alternately amuses and irritates me.

: Zubon

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.

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

Multiple Unlock Options

Hunting for traits in the wild sounds disturbingly like New Content, while being able to buy our way out of playing through parts of the game that we don’t care for seems like a sound compromise.

I find this an enormously wise decision, both for players and the developer.

On the player side, part of the draw of GW2 was “play how you like,” meaning visit whatever zones and repeat whatever events you like, WVW to level 80 if you like, and get your exotic equipment from the open world, dungeons, crafting, WvW, or jumping puzzles. I don’t know how everyone felt about it in GW1, but I don’t think the GW2 crowd would be entirely happy with being required to hit specific dungeons or bosses to get traits. I don’t think the hardcore WvW crowd will be entirely happy with diverting gold from rams to trait books; maybe they will (soon/someday?) allow those to be bought with Badges of Honor or currencies other than cash.

I stepped away from Reus due to its unlocks, and I have yet to get back to it. To unlock iron, which seems like a pretty basic resource, you need to make a fairly prosperous town with no animals. Recall that Reus has animals, plants, and minerals, so you are giving up a third of the game for this attempt, and many plants and minerals depend on animals for bonuses. I made a short game, set up a few towns with no animals on the map so I had a few chances, and proceeded to have almost every special project appear with animal-related bonuses or requirements. I am reasonably certain that I could tough it out, finish that map, and finish my unlock, but doing this just raises the specter of future unlocks that will require similar annoyances. Annoyance is not what I want in my gaming time.

As a developer: gold sink, ho! Players can buy gems and sell them for gold, so new ways to spend large quantities of gold prop up the price of gems and make purchases more appealing. Players are paying to skip the game? Normally, that would sound like a design issue, but $$$.

: Zubon

Offline Games: Also Bugged

I think I am somewhere around the middle of the story mode of Batman: Arkham Origins, although it is tough to tell without looking up something spoiler-tastic. The Arkham games really are some of the best around. I am, however, becoming rather frustrated by the poorer quality control at WB Montreal (makers of this game) versus Rocksteady (makers of the first two).
Continue reading

Everyone Wins?

Asynchronous PvP creates the unusual possibility of having something called “PvP” that never brings you into direct conflict with another player, where everyone playing wins, and the computer takes the losses on behalf of the players. Reward-seeking players will often create nigh-asynchronous PvP situations.

Given the chance to pick the fight, most people pick fights they know they will win. Given three potential targets to attack, with equal rewards for each, most players will pick the weakest target. Or the weakest (for them) — if you play Scissors, you will choose to attack Paper while you are online, then your offline team will be attacked by Rock.

It can be frustrating to have offline losses you cannot do anything about, particularly if those are scored for competitive rewards, but if PvP must come out to 50% wins on average, everyone seems happier when the computer takes almost all of the 50% losses.

Most of my links there cite examples from Marvel Puzzle Quest, where indeed you almost always win any fight you choose to participate in and lose most of the offline fights. Reference also Guild Wars 2, where karma trains are 90+% PvE content under the name WvW, where everyone gets more reward from trading captures on undefended towers. Look back to the less extreme case of early LotRO PvMP, where most people won most of the time because each team flocked to the battlefield where it was winning.

I can’t say it is much/any worse than the regular PvE grind, apart from the design time half-wasted on PvP content that will not be used for PvP. Maybe I should be pleased for the species that self-interest makes cooperation a favored path even with an explicitly defined competitor. But it seems hollow.

: Zubon