Games of the Year

Computer game: Slay the Spire. There is nothing I have played or enjoyed more. It is a great rogue-like deckbuilder at an indie price, with lots of variation and replayability. It has a very high skill ceiling, and you can also dial up the randomness if you prefer that.

Board game: Spirit Island. It is a deep strategy cooperative game with variable powers and strong theming. It places you in the opposite of the usual game role, driving off the settlers. This can also be played in modes that are almost purely predictable or with increasing randomness. It also plays excellently as a solo game. I have played Spirit Island every two days since I learned the game. It is great, although difficult to introduce to large groups.

What are your top games this year?

: Zubon

Necessary But Not Sufficient

Honestly the thing that makes me saddest about the AAA Video Game Clusterfuck du Jour is knowing that there are probably a ton of people who spend shitloads of crunch time lovingly working on the one tiny part of the game they had control over only for it to be hopelessly fucked up at the executive level I don’t have the interest to get involved in the latest kerfuffle, and by the time you read this it could be an entirely different kerfuffle, but this remains the same.

Ravious and I had the chance to see WildStar pre-release. There were some great people making great systems, props, etc. The game as a whole had a feeling of “let’s throw everything into the mix and hope for emergent gameplay.” And it just shut down permanently. People worked for years, and you know how hard folks work in the game development industry. And at this point, the best I can say is, “I hope it was fun while it lasted.” It wasn’t a lot of fun when I tried it.

A recurring thought I have at work is that it is necessary but not sufficient for our office to do a great job. That, for the system as a whole to succeed, we must succeed, but our success is not enough to carry the rest of the system. We can do great things that immediately get trashed by the next step in the process.

So it goes.

: Zubon

Slay the Spire: The Final Act

The actual ending of Slay the Spire is now available, an unlockable 4th act. It is not much of a 4th act, but it gives you a final boss fight for the game. I don’t think it adds much except for a sense of finality. Except that you can immediately start another run, so final isn’t final.

Slay the Spire has clearly been my game of the year, providing me with more playtime than most MMOs I have tried. It’s great, worth buying even without a sale. It feels a little anticlimactic that adding the final boss seems less significant than some of the regular weekly updates. The baseline for the game sets the bar pretty high.

: Zubon

Great Moments in Trolling

NGU Idle is a relatively entertaining idle game. Its developer also explicitly trolls players in-game. There is a “troll challenge” where random annoying things happen, from losing progress to spamming pop-ups to a slowly moving picture of a cat. But for my money, the best one is having a “did not drop” message for a particular rare drop item. It says that you see the ring, but it crumbles to dust before you can pick it up. Better luck next time!

I am imagining WoW raids, where a boss’s death animation includes visibly dropping a legendary item for your class … which an NPC zips in and swipes before you can do anything. That would be the most hated NPC in the game, and players would buy an expansion solely for the chance to kill it.

: Zubon

Randomization and Undermining Your Own Control

Don’t you ever get tired of fights you know you’re going to win?
— Spike, “Fool for Love,” Buffy the Vampire Slayer season 5 episode 7

You see an interest in randomization at the top end of the skill curve as well as at the bottom. If the optimal level for fun and learning requires a balance of the predictable and the unpredictable, you run into problems when mastery means a lack of uncertainty. You know exactly what is going to happen, you know you are going to win. As much fun as winning is, people get bored of “too easy” games and move on. Dunking on noobs is bully behavior.

Sometimes the purpose of randomization is to lower the skill ceiling. This helps avoid the near-certainty that the best player will win. Most people other than the best player like that, but the best player can also enjoy the lowered certainty. Even if it is not more of a challenge, because there is nothing you can do to be better against a lowered skill ceiling, it at least is not a trivially obvious win. There are better and worse ways of doing this, but sometimes throwing in a bit of chaos “makes it interesting” again.

Sometimes we want a bit of variation in the game not so much to lower the skill ceiling as to change the starting state and prevent the boredom of a “solved” game. That is, maybe the game is still solved, but with a variable starting state, you need to know a much larger and more complex algorithm to solve it, and with sufficient variation few people can keep that much in their heads. So you vary the starting position of pieces, vary the goals, vary some intermediate steps. You can still play a strategic game with perfect information but have lots of things that might play out differently. Games like Dominion and Kingdom Builder have fixed rules but variable components and goals, so you need to adapt each game to the goals, map, etc. A fixed game has fixed strategies, and the most experienced player already knows them all. A variable game lowers that advantage in a way that is fun for the veteran, without creating problems for new players for whom all configurations are still new.

Sometimes that variation is there to create a question in how you win, rather than whether you will win. This is an appeal in rogue-likes. The ideal is still that every game is winnable (some designs fail this), but you might need to vary your approach dramatically based on how things go this game. Even if you know you have a very good chance of winning, it feels uncertain when you do not know how. This can combine with true randomness, giving you things to react to along the way that were not predictable.

Certainty can be as un-fun as undifferentiated chaos.

: Zubon

[TT] Spirit Island

The game of the weekend was Spirit Island, which I liked. Spirit Island is a cooperative game with some similarities to Pandemic, only the plague you are fighting is European colonization. You play as spirits of the land, protecting your natives and driving away the invaders who are spreading quickly and ravaging the land. Each spirit has its own powers and progression, and you can customize the difficulty with a variety of modifiers.

The theme is fun. It is basically the opposite of most things you play. Someone was recruiting players by describing it as Catan, where you play the island and hate the Settlers. The invader minis are white plastic, so you are trying to wipe out the white people. They spread faster than you can imagine, but then you are an ancient spirit of the land, slow to rouse to anger. The spirits are distinct both in fluff and crunch: Vital Strength of the Earth is your simple earth elemental, slow and defensive, while Lightning’s Swift Strike is pure offense and River Surges in Sunlight is a control-based water spirit with flooding that grows over time.

The game is both very complex and less complex than it seems. Continue reading [TT] Spirit Island

Randomization and Locus of Control

In personality psychology, locus of control is the degree to which people believe that they have control over the outcome of events in their lives, as opposed to external forces beyond their control.
Wikipedia

If “a good game is a series of meaningful choices” (Sid Meier), I am clearly in the camp that your choices should be the primary determinant of your outcomes. The more tenuous the connection between your choices and your outcomes, the less meaningful your choices are. Games of pure chance are, from this view, barely even games. You do not so much play a slot machine or Candyland as take action to watch it play out. You cannot affect the outcome, and you have no meaningful decisions to make.

At the lower level of skill for many games, players can view their games this way because they cannot see the connections between their decisions and their outcomes. Indeed, many people in life are surprised by the predictable consequences of their decisions. For them, as for small children, their lives and games are nearly undifferentiated chaos, where they take actions and are repeatedly astonished by the outcomes. It is fate, it is random, it is outside their control.

Sometimes they are right and external forces dominate. Sometimes they are wrong and their are reaping as they have sown. Some people have trouble telling the difference between those.

People with a low locus of control will favor greater randomization. It has a lower opportunity cost for them and a higher potential payoff. That is, if you already see little connection between your actions and outcomes, making sure there is little connection cannot reduce your expected value. As far as you know, it was already a roll of the dice, so let’s roll more and bigger dice. The potential payoff is greater because people with a low locus of control generally do rather badly in circumstances where their decisions really do affect the outcome. If you are deciding randomly in an area where skill matters, you generally lose, because there are far more ways to be wrong than right. If you were already going to do badly, re-rolling the dice or reducing the importance of your decisions gives you more chances to win. In a game of skill, it nullifies the advantage of the highly skilled player.

When you are losing and falling further behind, chaos helps you and takes away their advantages. In a later post, I will talk about how randomization and variation affect people who are skilled in an existing environment, but let’s stick to the perspective of someone who is not in control of their environment, due to random chance, malign opposition, or poor decisions. Why not wipe the slate clean? If the system is stacked against you, burn it to the ground and start over.

To take an example from a different area, I saw some people support Ron Paul, Bernie Sanders, and Donald Trump. If you are thinking of ideology, that does not make much sense. But if your plan is “voting for the craziest son of a bitch in the race,” yeah, those are candidates who would do a lot to upend the existing order. Younger voters tend to be more passionate about this. They have little to lose and are facing opponents who control the levers of power. Of course, outside games, there are real consequences to losing, and degrees of winning and losing matter a lot more. In a game, 2nd and last place are both losses — go big or go home.

As a child, I loved the random tables in Dungeons and Dragons. I could spend hours rolling up characters, generating loot hoards, whatever. And I could cheerfully ignore all the uninteresting rolls, “counting” only the ones I liked. It was just as random and real a roll as any other when I got the 18/00 strength or got the wildest result on a Wand of Wonder. I saw more power in the roll of the dice than my own self efficacy. Lately I hear about children watching absurdist videos on YouTube, procedurally generated chaos with only the faintest semblance of coherence, animated fever dreams. And I get it, when life is chaos outside your control, choosing to turn up the chaos is the most control you have.

But when you learn that random outcomes are just noise, it stops being interesting. It can still be surprising, but it is not meaningful.

: Zubon

[TT] Back on the 7th Continent

Coming back around to the 7th Continent (previously), I think I’m landing on “I don’t like it.” I think it does what it sets out to do, I’m just not having much fun playing it. There are three entwined negatives for me: survival gameplay, punishing exploration, and static replayability.

Ultimately, I think the fact of the survival gameplay is going to turn me off to the game. Most games I enjoy have a foundation in building up: RPGs, RTSes, deckbuilders, all the sorts of games where you are putting together an engine and become stronger over time to meet greater challenges. There is a bit of that, and the goal is to keep yourself ahead of the curve, but it feels more like a constant stream of loss rather than a constant stream of gain, and the goal is to win before you run out of resources and chances. Instead of accumulating power and resources, you are in a race to win before you run out. I did not enjoy that aspect of gameplay.

Tied to that, the act of exploring punishes you by taking resources. It has some of that old adventure game feel: sometimes you get punished for putting your hand in the hole, sometimes you cannot advance unless you put your hand in the hole, and there is no way to tell in advance without putting your hand in the hole. Sometimes you profit, more often you get punched in the face for your trouble. That ties to the survival gameplay: keep trying things, find the path to advance before you get punched in the face too often. But since you do not know whether exploration will be required or punished this time, it creates a sense of learned helplessness. You try it, feel pleased if it goes well, shrug about the inevitability of death if not.

Which leads to the third point: players who like the game seem to like the fact that you learn these over time and playthroughs. The second time, you know not to bother with X because at best you break even. You know that you need to find Y and Z. Memorization is not a fun sort of learning. You are not learning how to play better, just which particular actions have better outcomes in fixed circumstances, and any “how” you learn is the metagame of how the developer thinks.

There are some neat things going on in 7th Continent, but I don’t think it is for me. My order included some to-be-delivered expansion content, so maybe that will change up the game in ways that will be appealing. But probably not. I think some of the reviews I had seen either embraced the survival gameplay, used an unlimited easy mode to turn it into a casual exploration game rather than survival, messed up (or intentionally changed) the rules to nullify the “punch in the face” dwindling resources, or were coming off the high of winning after X tries. Some people were really excited about going back to the first island knowing how everything worked, while for me that seems like eliminating the point of the game. It is not solving the riddle, just knowing the answer because you have heard that one before.

The 7th Continent is ambitious, but I found myself having more moments of “ugh, this” than “ooh, neat.” It is trying to capture the “choose your own adventure” and video game experience in a massive web of cards. Like the dog that plays backgammon, the amazing thing is that it works at all, not whether the dog plays well. I also played the computerized “choose your own adventure” of 80 Days recently, and had a similar reaction; at least that handled bookkeeping efficiently by using a computer, rather than giving you huge stacks of cards to work it out.

: Zubon

Shortened Time Horizons

Near-immediate gratification is one of the satisfactions of games. Not necessarily “instant,” but you get to see investments pay off visibly in a short time, rather than needing steady, daily effort for years. (Ha, and this used to be an MMO blog.)

For example, your retirement account generally moves in the right direction, but compound interest takes years to pay off. You make the right decisions and then wait for very gradual doublings. It’s worthwhile but very slow, even when it moves quickly in an up market. Whereas your idle game takes you from selling lemonade to making millions in hours or days.

In-game farming takes seconds, not until harvest season. Mining, cooking, smithing a sword? Same. You move directly from cause to effect, without waiting for the process in the middle. Exercise yields visible progress towards strength, dexterity, and endurance every time.

I spend a lot of my real life time setting up lengthy but rewarding processes. Being able to defer gratification is important and valuable, one of the greatest and simplest keys to long run success. But danged if that gratification isn’t really deferred.

: Zubon

Non-Pejorative “Ameritrash”

The term “Ameritrash” has some pretty clear negative connotations, although I think of it as a technical term contrasting with Eurogames. Eurogames tend towards abstract play, minimal theming, low randomization, and indirect competition. Ameritrash games tend towards very strong theming, downplayed mechanics, significant randomization, and direct competition.

As someone focused on mechanics in my games, I tend to favor Eurogames and don’t mind the negative connotations of “Ameritrash,” especially having grown up with quite a few board games that were clearly being sold as tie-ins to more popular intellectual properties, with nice theming but the quality you expect from a movie tie-in video game. The Tick: Hip Deep in Evil comes to mind as my personal awakening to horrible, horrible products being sold under the auspices of something popular. (Not that The Tick was that popular, but I liked it.)

Villainous seems to be Ameritrash done well. I have seen some of a game but have yet to play it. A friend who owns it and is also into deep strategy gaming described it as the sort of game you could maybe play once or twice as each villain, but it lacks depth and you will understand everything after a playthrough or two. Not a lot of A Theory of Fun style learning: easy to learn, easy to master. On the other hand, it clearly embraces its theming and embodies it well, with exceedingly high production quality. It may not be mechanically deep, but it does what it sets out to do. It also seems like the sort of game that could have a long stream of expansions (every Disney villain) and be a commercial hit, but I could not tell you how well it is selling. I know it is in mainstream stores like Target, not just game shops.

Do you have games you enjoy that would clearly deserve the label “Ameritrash”?

: Zubon