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

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

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

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

User-Defined Tags

an age an content warning screen for the game Disneyland Adventures on Steam
How much do I really need to explain about what is going on here? There is not a Disneyland game with adult content, or at least not this one. How about a second image that explains much?
a list of user-defined game tags for Disneyland Adventures on Steam including family-friendly, horror, and gore

In the long run, this sorts itself out. In the short run, letting people influence the system lets people troll the system.

: Zubon

Orwell

Orwell: Keeping an Eye on You is more of a visual novel than a game. Longtime readers know that I do not like visual novels. This at least has some game elements and an interesting interface. It is a crime investigation story themed around government surveillance. On the whole, not bad. Your decision can affect the NPCs’ fates, but the story on a whole is on rails apart from the point where you pick which ending you want.

Orwell makes good use of having a game interface in that it makes you do some things rather than watching them happen completely passively. To take an example from a different genre, there is a difference between throwing open the gates of Hell and having the player open the gates. Even if the player does not have a choice (and you can hide that fact in the first playthrough), there is an impact to requiring the player’s complicity. This is difficult to do in other media; the movie Funny Games has a moment where it creates a viewer choice, as do occasional books that say something like, “stop reading here for this ending,” although it seems clear to everyone that quitting at that point is not the “real” ending. Orwell has several moments when you are the one to click events into motion.

There are only a few meaningful forks in the story, and you cannot derail the main plotline even if you actively try to fail. You can decide what happens to the NPCs as you manipulate information, but the main narrative is what it is.

In a story about trading privacy and freedom for safety and security, a game named “Orwell” is clearly going to come down on the side of freedom. The story is grayer than might be expected, with the “bad guys” pretty clearly in black hats but the “good guys” in ambiguous shades of light gray, where you expect that at least some of them are wolves in sheep’s clothing. Unusually, the freedom-security trade off is actually somewhat of a trade off here, in that you can save NPC lives. This is kinder than many real life trade offs, where one gives up freedom and convenience for the appearance of safety but without significant benefits. This is more nuanced than you would expect from “Orwell.”

Occasionally made explicit in the story but not its main focus is how much extraneous and sometimes incorrect information gets swept up in the process of finding actionable data. Some of that is innocuous, like noting someone’s favorite color on her profile. Some of that is putting in personal information that has no relation to the case (but might, so hoover up everything!). The incorrect information is notable, for example taking a joke out of context and noting that someone engage in torture, or saving baseless speculation alongside true information. Less noted is the number of others brought into the web. While you are gathering information about targets of interest, you note their family members, romantic interests, co-workers, etc. The game keeps you focused instead of letting you create dossiers on every former college classmate of the suspects, but you notice a web of secondary names floating around the people you are following, and any of them could become subjects of investigation after a call.

I cannot quite recommend it because it is about as interactive as a good walking simulator (it uses the terms “episode” and “season” appropriately, like a TV show), but for the type of game it is, this is a good one. People who like this sort of thing will like this. It runs about four hours, about double that if you want to go back and re-do decisions to see how the story can play out differently.

: Zubon

Puzzle Agent 2

I finally got back around to Puzzle Agent, completing the sequel that tells the other half of the story. Or most of it. The ending kind of happens without denouement.

As before, it is basically a cartoon that you watch, punctuated by puzzles you solve to unlock the next bit of story. There are things you click to get dialogue and such, but it is basically a visual novel with a series of puzzle subgames. It is pretty OK? I don’t regret the time playing, but it is not good enough that I would recommend it. It is short enough, a few hours.

The puzzles are a mixed bag, as happens. Some of them are pretty good. Some are trivial. Some are esoteric, completely incoherent unless you spot the connection to something in the real world, generally a numbering system. You look for an internal pattern, and it does not exist; it is an external reference. Either you spot it and know or you scratch your head.

The story starts odd, dodges silly, and does not end particularly coherent. The main storyline gets resolution, but nothing else, and plot holes are left unfilled. It’s fun enough, but it does not add up to much. The puzzle interface is usually better than the first game, although still appalling in a few points.

I am basically ending on a shrug. I have not enjoyed the other Telltale games, given my lack of interest in visual novels. So I think I’m done with Telltale games, unless I feel like watching a story with some quicktime events.

: Zubon

Conventions and Adaptations

I was playing the video game version of Sentinels of the Multiverse (in the current Humble Digital Tabletop Bundle), and it reminds me of the intro to Harlan Ellison’s script for I, Robot. Specifically, the intro notes that adapting a story to a different medium often calls for changes in the story or its presentation, because what works well on the page may not work well on the screen. Whether an adaptation is good, whether it is faithful to the source material, and whether it is faithful to the spirit of the source material can all be separate questions.

Sentinels of the Multiverse opens on the villain’s turn, which is when all the setup happens. In most tabletop games, you spend a while sorting out stacks of cards, putting together a board, something like that. In Sentinels, that is the villain’s first turn. The villain deploys robots, minions, powers, whatever. Other than that, setup is pretty much just putting the decks on the table.

In a tabletop game, setting up can be part of the game. Laying out your Settlers of Catan tiles is an important ritual. Building your board is building you world, with all the opportunities and threats it brings.

In a video game, that is just a long cut scene standing between you and the game. If the computer-controlled villain is the only one acting for the first minute or two of the game, you the player are just sitting there, watching it happen. You take damage, lose cards, whatever, without any chance for input. It is not the opening ritual that it is with physical cards; it is exactly the sort of thing you expect the computer to take care of and streamline when playing on a computer.

And an additional problem is that I do not know that you can streamline it away given the other mechanics. The “one at a time” nature of how the cards stack up can matter, and just throwing it all at the player in one pre-computed lump could get incoherent. Some of the villains are straightforward, but others have multiple, interacting effects, and it would be confusing just to start the game down 15% of your health and need to figure out what happened from the message log. A Settlers of Catan board could spring forth fully formed, and that is in fact what you want from a computer version.

The beauty of board and card games that start on computers, never having a physical version, is that they take advantage of what the computer has to offer. And I imagine some of those are now making physical versions that face similar problems in reverse.

And now we are getting recursive versions, where Gloomhaven and 7th Continent are physical versions of what would otherwise be computer games, and Gloomhaven at least is getting a digital adaptation. Yomi is another of those circuits: take the feel of an arcade fighting game, adapt it to a card game version of rock-paper-scissors-lizard-Spock, and then an online version was made. I cannot speak to how well any of those re-adaptations have gone.

: Zubon

Bundled Quick Reviews

Infested Planet was surprisingly enjoyable. It is a short RTS, kind of like the StarCraft Terran campaign minus the economy. Your human exploration of an alien world goes awry when you come upon an endless stream of angry, hungry bugs, guided by an adaptive overmind that wants to incorporate your human DNA. You stomp huge streams of bugs, blow up their hives, and defend your bases. There is nothing especially special here, just a straightforward game of sending your squads out to fight. You get to customize and level them in each map. The game is not very difficult at normal difficulty, and you can 100% it in about 10 hours. It is a little repetitive within that, in that the basic gameplay does not change much over the course of the game. You get access to new upgrades, and so do the aliens. The basic unit of gameplay is fun for as long as it needs to be.

Caravan is pretty bad, as far as I played. Steam reviews suggest that the first several hours are slow, repetitive, and boring, after which it becomes slow, repetitive, and interesting. This trading game is marred by long transition animations after every action, whether those are 10-second walking animations at the start and end of every journey and random encounter or a shorter dice animation six times every round of every trade or fight. Add to that random events that have a larger impact than your decisions (someone joins your party! your donkey dies! someone ambushes you and stabs you to death, so you get to redo all those transition animations since the last checkpoint!). I gave it more time and benefit of the doubt than it deserved.

: Zubon