Golden Snitch Caught

I am planning on attending an Ingress Interitus anomaly (gathering/event) this weekend, but I am no longer sure why. It is kind of like playing out the games of a “best of seven” series when one team has already won four. You can still play for the battle, but the war has already been won.

I don’t know if it was true in previous event series, but the event details include the note, “Research suggests the the [sic] outcome of the Interitus Anomalies will be dependent on total Values accrued by the Factions across the entire Interitus series of Anomalies.” One of the cities in the previous anomaly, Kansas City, was so lopsided that the blue team won by 1500 points. Outside Kansas City, the score for the entire anomaly was about 1500 for each side. That metaphor about running up points on an empty field? At least in “best of seven” that would count as just one game.

Funny thing is, Kansas City was an outlier but only as a matter of degree. Most of the anomaly events seem to be blowouts for one team or the other, with 5:1 scores not uncommon. If the game is not intentionally designed for this to happen, balance went astray a long time ago and has not been seen often since.

: Zubon

Internecine Tourism

Today has been “Be A Tourist In Your Own Town” day. The passport includes admittance to the local zoo. The local zoo has about a dozen Ingress portals. While you might not pay the normal zoo fee just to capture some imaginary portals (although it looks like some local players have annual passes), for part of a package that costs $1, you might go.

The local Ingress communications channel has been filled with players capturing zoo portals, linking them up, re-taking them from the other team, and generally making an imaginary warzone of the place. The only thing the normal zoo visitors would notice is that a few people are staring at their phones instead of the animals (more than usual) and may be very particular about where they are standing.

: Zubon

Try visiting something like the Ingress intel map and looking at Lake Buena Vista, FL (Disneyworld): theme parks all over Orlando and the surrounding area, with every ride, attraction, and statue marked. Some people are having a very different experience in the Magic Kingdom.

Risk Calculations

The meatspace risks of online gaming are minimal. It is so rare as to be newsworthy when an online gaming confrontation leads to physical violence. The few incidents I recall were all in east Asia, so I estimate my own risk even lower.

In Ingress, face-to-face encounters with the opposing team are common, although few I would describe as “confrontations.” (Is it a bad sign that it is already “few” in less than two months?) Interfacing through our phones, the character of interactions is somewhere between online gaming and what you might reasonably expect from face-to-face encounters, modified by differing norms in assorted virtual and meatspace communities, particularly as people travel and those interact.

Online, you get a very low number when you multiply the odds that someone would want to do you harm times the odds that they could find you times the odds they would find it worthwhile to travel, risk prosecution, risk harm to themselves, etc. Unless you are in the same gaming cafe, your aggressor faces greater safety risks in traveling than you would from even the most blatant trolling.

If you are actively playing Ingress, your location can be pinpointed within 100 meters, along with a timestamp and a predictable direction of travel based on recent activity. The players may not be marked on the map, but you don’t need to be a genius to follow a line or approximate the center of a circle. And if you are blowing up portals, there is a very good chance someone within reasonable driving distance set them up. And as I have mentioned, some people take the game very seriously, have quick reaction times, and and will bring friends and/or cars. While the vast majority of people are decent and/or scared of repercussions (I am not aware of any Ingress-related violence), your odds on “can find you” and “reasonably close” are vastly higher in an augmented reality game than online.

Recently, any time I have been out playing (attacking, linking, etc.) rather than just hacking as I go for a walk, someone has driven up. Yesterday, I took a low-level player out to gain some levels, and the counterattack SUV was on-scene before we had walked 100 meters. That put her personal risk calculation too high (versus the value of capturing imaginary portals), and she decided to do something else with her day. And given the unhappy reaction from the man who immediately knew that cheating was going on when the lower-level account conveniently disappeared as he arrived, I must say her calculations were probably better than mine.

: Zubon

Update edit: I was wrong, I am aware of one story of Ingress-related battery and a few of minor defacement of property, but I don’t know how well sourced those are. One player says an opposing team member smashed someone’s phone, which is apparently a story well known in the area but doubted by the accused’s teammates. And then folks who put bumper stickers for Team A on Team B’s cars. I recall seeing online discussion mentions of assorted minor criminal activity between Ingress players, but again, I do not know how well sourced those are versus “my friend said his friend said…”

Shifting Priorities

I have written previously about storyline paths differing between development and live teams in MMOs. I find myself looking at recent Guild Wars 2 updates and wondering whether there was a change in development teams or the same team deciding to shift directions. One could easily look at the first year of GW2 and say, “Wow, we made that way too zergy. Let’s dial that back.” But recent content has been not just dialed back but punishing of zergs, which means either they wanted a hard break with the past or someone different took over the reins of design.

On the one hand, some content encourages zergs, other content discourages it. Yes, not everything calls for the same strategy; that’s good design. On the other hand, almost everything did, for the better part of a year, call for the same strategy, so current players feel punished for doing what they’ve been taught to do, and it is not as if a huge wave of players loving non-zerg content will sweep into GW2 because a few updates were not pure zerg. You need to upset the apple cart atop your current playerbase for a long time and hope they stick around while you right it and turn it in a new direction. On the gripping hand, as I said of “punishing,” quite a bit of content did not encourage zergs so much as require on the order of 100 people to have a reasonable chance of success. The content being rebelled against still requires dozens of people but now requires you to herd those cats in multiple groups before the tools to manage that have come into existence. To say nothing of the switch from the original “show up and do what you want” approach of GW2, where content requiring synchronized dancing was hidden in a few instances.

Also, the boss blitz is just bad.

You have certainly seen that changeover in design philosophy, usually coupled with a changeover in design teams. The original GW1 was very different from the final game after the expansions. City of Heroes under Statesman was very different from City of Heroes under Positron, and I am not sure who was helming the switch to Incarnate content around the time I stopped playing. “Trammel” and “NGE” are famous design shifts that veteran MMO players will still debate in some forums given half a chance. A Tale in the Desert saw quite a few design shifts under the same management, but Teppy was always an experimenter; I have no idea where the game is headed under its new management.

Ingress has had a shift in emphasis over time from a geocaching-like game that focused on walking to rewarding car-based play. If you can’t see why that transition could be rocky, remember that my job was analyzing traffic deaths when I started blogging.

: Zubon

Wow, we don’t even have a post category/tag for Ultima Online. Then again, we don’t bring it up enough for me to want to create it.

Time Investment

Phillip II: I can’t lose, Henry — I have time. Just look at you — great, heavy arms, but every year they get a little heavier. The sand goes pit-pat in the glass. I’m in no hurry, Henry. I’ve got time.
Henry II: Suppose I hurry things along. Suppose I say that England is at war with France.
Philip II: Then France surrenders. I don’t have to fight to win. Take all you want — this county, that one — you won’t keep it long.
The Lion in Winter

How do we feel about games whose competitive balance privilege the investment of time?

I do not mean games where you become better with experience. “Easy to learn, hard to master” is a classic design goal, and games without that learning curve often become dull quickly. Instead, I mean games where players can spend different amounts of time on the field, with points accruing to players/teams that invest more time. This includes bringing more players, playing for more time, or often both.

In contrast, think of a round of an RTS, FPS, MOBA, board game, or sporting event. The temporal bounds of the game are fixed, and the rounds are generally distinct. I can play as many games of StarCraft as I like, but I start each game fresh. If the other players are not there, I cannot keep rolling the dice in Monopoly to keep going around the board, nor can my football team show up at midnight to score unopposed while the other team is asleep.

Many computer-mediated games allow and even encourage this sort of play, especially where territorial control is involved, and the economics of the game may create this on a smaller basis if you can farm during off-hours to create an advantageous starting position. For example, your server’s score in GW2 WvW is largely driven by how many players you field over how much time, whereas GW2 sPvP at least tries to have equal players for equal time. EVE Online, Darkfall, Shadowbane, and Ingress are other games where bringing more players or continuing to play before/after the other team does allows you to win through superior time investment. You may be really good at the game, but you only have two hours per day to play, while the opposing guild might be college students who just finished finals (although you dominated during finals week).

On the one hand, it seems like something is wrong with such a game if superior time investment does not yield results. If you are trying to simulate a war, great ways to win a war include bringing more allies, bringing more economic resources, and sacking your enemies’ cities while their troops are elsewhere. On the other hand, now that I am long past the age where I have time to kill, why would I want to engage in competition where my competitors can score while I am not even playing?

: Zubon

To say nothing of the general MMO incentive to keep grinding.

Time to Effectiveness

This is true. In any PvP game (or game with a significant PvP element), a major factor must be time to PvP effectiveness. From the time I start, how long until I can be worthwhile to have along and how long until I am at parity with long time players? This is mechanical, numerical parity; you may still be lousy because of having no strategy or practice, but how long until I can shoot a bullet that does as much damage as the next guy’s?

In most non-MMOs, that was the instant you log on. A rocket launcher is a rocket launcher, a zergling is a zergling. Now more games have character advancement, so even a FPS might make you level. The better ones use a model like Team Fortress 2: you need time/money to gain options, not power (at least in theory; the “options” might be better than what you start with, but there should be trade-offs).

MMOs are notoriously bad because you need to level. Guild Wars 2 sPvP avoids this by letting you play at full effectiveness on day one, but WvW does not because a level 1 scaled to 80 is significantly less powerful than a level 80. His bullets do not do the same damage, and they will not until after a level and equipment grind, but the scaling means you can at least contribute while taking care of that grind through WvW. In EVE, you can join your friends and meaningfully contribute on your first day. I have been playing Ingress lately, where you can start contributing around level 5 and reach full effectiveness at 8, which was spread over a month for me and is doable in 20 hours or less of (highly efficient, possibly assisted) play.

For MMOs, this is indicative of the larger problem that you need to grind to play with your friends. MMOs are bad for playing with your friends. Their character advancement systems make it difficult to find a span within which you can bring veterans, newbies, alts, etc. together, and it only gets worse over time as the power differential between day one and the level cap grows. I played a bit of World of Warcraft but it never really caught me because I spent almost my entire time in that vast, lonely wasteland between level 1 and the cap.

If I play these games to play with my friends, I want to play with my friends. If I play these games to compete with other people, I want to compete on a level playing field.

: Zubon

A Month in Ingress, by the Numbers

I have been playing for one month. Like with any new game, I binged at the start, but after witnessing the people who take Ingress really seriously, I had a powerful epiphany about what I did not want for my life. On the other hand, it is an amusing way to gamify going for a walk, and I am walking more.

After one month, my numbers are:

  • Level 8 with 1,243,694 AP
  • Hacked (visited) portals 1,992 times, covering 251 different portals
  • Captured 382 portals (126 unique), established 407 links and 215 fields worth 10,673 MU
  • Recharged 1,327,159 XM on resonators
  • Brought destruction to 1,040 resonators, 166 portals, 104 links, and 42 fields
  • Was followed by the enemy team 6 times
  • Was followed by groups of enemy players 4 times
  • Was followed by enemy players in cars 4 times
  • Was stopped by the police once
  • Walked 186 kilometers, the only number on here to have any impact on the physical world, but it is also the number I am least confident of. When the GPS is having trouble connecting, Ingress might show me jumping around a block or two at a time while I am standing still; when the app hiccoughs, it might not notice that I have been moving for several minutes and then catch up all at once. And who knows whether and what it is counting when I am in a moving vehicle.

: Zubon

Turn and Burn

One of the simplest lessons learned in my first month with an augmented reality game is the importance of sun protection on the back of your neck: long hair, sun screen, or cloth. This is because of the common pose of an Ingress player.

Outdoor, smartphone-based games are most popular on nice days. Rain makes both “outdoor” and “smartphone” problematic. It is a nice, sunny day, and you are trying to read your smartphone through glare. What do you do about it? You move your smartphone into shadow. What shadow is most ubiquitous on your journey? Your own. You turn away from the sun, possibly holding the phone quite close to you in the short mid-day shadows, and you bow your head over it. You aim the back of your neck directly at the sun. If you are walking through your own team’s farm, you burn less because interacting is a two-click process that requires minimal accuracy: tap portal, “hack,” next. If you are capturing territory, you are looking for the exact locations of enemy resonators, finding the right distance for deploying your own, checking portals and keys as you make links and fields, and generally spending a lot of time trying to see the exact location of small objects on your screen on sunny days.

Having done most of my gaming on computers for the past decade, it had not occurred to me that one defense in an augmented reality game is physically burning your enemies as they try to capture your territory.

: Zubon

“Gamer learns the sun exists. Story at 11.”

Individual and Group Rewards

Guild Wars 2 and Ingress both have PvP systems of territorial control with individual and team points, where what earns individual advancement is aligned with but not identical to what helps the team win, leading to a disconnect in incentives similar to agency costs under the principal-agent problem.

GW2 players have WvW levels, and they earn WvW xp by capturing or defending objectives and defeating opponents. There are also rewards of normal xp, loot, cash, and karma to be won, as well as achievements. Teams are rewarded for points per tick (PPT), which come mostly from holding objectives with a few supplemental points other than “per tick.” Player rewards are higher for offense than defense, and we have often discussed the incentive this creates to “karma train” capturing objectives while worrying less about keeping them, fighting the enemy, or winning the matchup. I have had another server let us capture Stonemist Castle while they waited upstairs, because they wanted another capture credit.

Ingress players level up through action points (APs), the best source of which comes from linking portals and creating fields. Creating fields grants the mind units (MUs) by which the teams are scored. The same APs are awarded for a field or link, no matter how big the field is, so players have an incentive to farm AP and level in portal-rich areas like downtowns and historical districts. This weekend, I captured and carefully linked several square blocks of dense portals and got around 120,000 AP, in a game where the (current) level cap is at 1,200,000 AP. This was worth about 200 MU, because it covered several square blocks. It would be worth far more MU to the team, and take far less time , were I to drive to portals a few kilometers from each other and link them up. For this reason, some players are rather unhappy that a geocaching-like game where you are theoretically walking around instead produces larger (team) rewards for people willing to drive around. And if you can get 10% of the level cap in one long walk, that team reward starts to matter a lot more than your AP for linking up. (One of the backbones of the local Resistance is a player who is willing to drive for hours per day, destroying and claiming and linking.)

There are, however, emergent effects that create positive team incentives. Since players hit that level cap relatively quickly, veterans often invite lower-level players to gain all the AP when they destroy enemy portals. The higher-level player blows enemy resonators up while the lower-level player follows behind and places their team’s resonators. This weakens the enemy while increasing the number of level-capped characters on your team. Also, those densely packed portals may not be worth much in terms of MU, but they are great places to farm equipment, because you get some equipment when you hack a portal, and you get more stuff at less cost when those portals are owned by your team. There are cities in my area known as well-leveled and protected farms for each team. (The main backbone of the local Resistance is a couple who is willing to head out and protect/reclaim their team’s farms on short notice.)

: Zubon

Choosing Sides

On this holiday, I was pondering the Empire’s relationship with aliens, robots, and cyborgs. Emperor Palpatine considered non-humans, err, less than human and ran an Empire dominated by humans. He did, however, have armies of droids (especially if you admit that the prequel series was made), and the best known symbol of the Empire was more machine than man. (I still love General Grievous from the cartoons.) The villains have lots of big, menacing machines and devices. The heroes have lots of friendly aliens.

Ingress features factions with differing visions of humanity’s future development, one leading towards man-machine hybrids while the other welcoming alien influence. The Resistance is the Empire and the Enlightened are the Rebellion. Which is also more or less the state of the balance of power in the game.

: Zubon