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

Played Recently

Nothing I have been playing is conducive to stories.

I am still playing Slay the Spire and Disney Magic Kingdoms. I could discuss the mechanics and design decisions of DMK, but it is a social media-style game where you send characters on activities and collect the rewards. Its main appeal is the theming, rather than the mechanics.

Rather than analyze the mechanics of Slay the Spire, I should just point you towards JoINrbs.

There are idle games. After getting back into Realm Grinder for a little while, I am currently poking at NGU Idle, which is a variation on Idling to Rule the Gods. It has many subsystems to play with, although I seem to be getting bored faster than I am breaking into new subsystems. The appeal really is just throwing in as many pages and subsystems as possible and seeing what happens, including the recent “IDK Let’s Just Add More Crap” update (actual name). It reminds me a bit of Anti-Idle in that way: many many subpages.

I was playing Town of Salem again, but I just uninstalled. It is frustrating to play and not know who really is that bad and who is just playing dumb while in an evil role. The Coven expansion has some advantages over the original Mafia play, but the “classic” mode that is designed for balance seems vastly less popular than the “chaos” mode that is, as the name implies, chaotic and balanced only in the sense that randomness balances out over time. It is also frustrating that the game has so little lag tolerance, and my wifi is not being the best.

I have some other game prospects, but I’m also thinking that cleaning out closets is sounding surprisingly good against gaming, which is perhaps a bad sign for either me or the games. It’s probably me. There are millions happily gaming.

: Zubon

Ephemera

The goblin you killed will respawn in 30 seconds. The dragon you killed for those boots takes two days to respawn, and you killed it 32 times to get the boots; if you go back, it is still there, still giving out boots (rarely).

You beat the game and immediately start it over. It is a song that never ends, and you sang a verse once.

You log out of the game and never log back in. Maybe you said goodbye. Maybe some players remember you for a while. Maybe someone notices in the guild log that you have not logged in for 574 days and wonders whether to /gkick you. Maybe you will be back. The guild roster is gradually becoming a graveyard. Have we forgotten the players who left, or is it the ones left behind who are forgotten?

There are memories in your head and entries in a database somewhere. You were a great hero (+500 XP). You destroyed the enemy nexus (+2 ELO). You saved the kingdom (quest available again in 19:59:59… 19:59:58…).

Your parents tell you to be careful what you post online, because the internet is forever. Maybe some of your data is archived forever, but much of it is as lasting as a fallen leaf. It grew. It changed colors. It feel beautifully and perhaps unseen. In the spring it was dust, new mulch for new growth.

: Zubon

Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization

A surprise find during the current Steam sale was Through the Ages: A New Story of Civilization (not to be confused with Through the Ages: A Story of Civilization, otherwise known as “the original version”). Through the Ages is rated #3 on Board Game Geek, and having never played, this looked attractive.

In short, Through the Ages is a streamlined version of Civilization as a card game. It is a better Civilization than most editions of Civilization. I could just stop there: if you like Civilization and are willing to trade the territorial control element for having a satisfying game in a quarter (or less) of the time, buy this.

I have not timed my solo games closely, but this does not seem far from the tabletop game’s estimate of about 1 hour per player. This seems to play more quickly than the physical car game because the computer takes care of all the bookkeeping. This is exactly what you want from a computerized version of a board game, and it goes further to have a revised ruleset intended for online play. That’s nice.

Through the Ages plays out in cards and tokens. You get so many actions per round; you can improve that with technology or changing governments. You can use those actions to increase your population; to build or upgrade your farms and mines (production); to build urban buildings that provide science, happiness, and culture; to build a military; to build wonders (like in Civ); to change leaders; and to draw cards that help you do all those things. You build a tableau through the ages, as your cards give you different types of buildings from different ages. Later age versions are better but more expensive.

That card acquisition is a drafting mechanic that is the means of indirect competition. You can spend actions to get cards. Cards become cheaper over time, just a few turns. You can spend more actions to get it now and make sure you get it before someone else does, but then you have spent your actions to do so. Maybe you are a republic that gets many actions, so that’s fine, or maybe you are toughing it out with a monarchy this game. Maybe you invested in military actions, which is another card set used for direct competition.

Through the Ages has the core Civ gameplay elements. There is a technology tree, and here you can skip around it rather than being tied into a predefined chain. There is a military race. There is bidding for colonies. The economy always feels very tight, because you always want to do more but you can only do so much given your population, actions, resources, cards, etc. You can invest to get more, but then your actions for that turn were mostly investing, while other people are cashing in on their lesser investments.

Through the Ages has a satisfying beginning, middle, and end, and you can play a solo game in a reasonable amount of time. I am led to believe that multiplayer takes much longer, as humans deliberate about decisions, but it should be quicker than either the physical version or actual Civ. And as I said, it is a better Civ than most versions of Civ.

: Zubon