Lost Cavern

The brawl map of the week for Heroes of the Storm is Lost Cavern, HotS’s version of LoL’s ARAM. In many ways, it solves some of the problems with both HotS and ARAM.

The basic problem of HotS has always been that minigames trump laning and fights. ARAM removes any objectives except team fights in one lane.

ARAM is as random as the name suggests. Lost Cavern lets you pick from three heroes and shows you team comp while you do. Controlled randomness, rather than absolutel chaos. You can still win and lose on team comp, but not utterly and before the game starts.

: Zubon

Another Open Letter

A supplemental response to Penny Arcade’s response to Ice Weasel X’s Open Letter Parents of League of Legends Players.

Dear Ice Weasel X (and most players signing on to the open letter),

You aren’t a parent. This is pretty clear from your letter. If you are a parent, apologies, but you come across like those childless friends who seem to think they know how to parent by giving seemingly simple and reasonable solutions. The delivery is therefore akin to a pre-pubescent child in VOIP trying to tell you strats for LoL. Ask any parent the worth of a childless person’s advice.

There are events every decent parent understands called “Teachable Moments”. If you are not a teacher or don’t have children you might not recognize this idea. A dependent child overplaying his or her time on the computer when there are other responsibilities is one such Teachable Moment.

It is good that you correlate the effect on the parent’s punishment to the 9 other players. However, as a parent having faced similar Teachable Moments I would tell you that I could not care less about those 9 human beings enjoyment of a luxury (i.e., video game). My only care in that event is for my child.

I would pull the plug. I would use the moment to teach my child how they affected those 9 human beings with their poor responsibility. I would discuss potential fallout from their lack of responsibility. I would discuss how to approach the event next time it could occur.

Letting my child finish the game and then grounding him is a poor way to teach the child, which is why again I assume you are childless. If the occurrence became repetitive taking away luxuries is definitely on the table, but doing it without creating a Teaching Moment is just a waste. I find that with my children creating preemptive groundings where they can make a decision is much better than reactive groundings (e.g., “next time this happens you won’t get screen time for the weekend”).

The best thing is for a parent of a young video gamer to understand the games their child is playing, especially online games where my child can be affected by other people, and vice-versa. A parent with such knowledge would understand how to illuminate the possible pitfalls of a child’s allotted play time. I can then illustrate that my child “probably has only time for one match before dinner”, etc.

I then create an understanding between me and my child. The match might go overlong, but the deal was struck. I let my child play because I said “one match”. It works both ways in a good relationship with a child, which is why I slightly disagree with Penny Arcade’s response. My word is law in my household, but I definitely want my child to have decisions to make within it.

I will tell you, Ice Weasel X, that if a parent does not care enough about his or her child to do this much: to create Teachable Moments, to understand and learn about a child’s hobbies, to learn how a child is affected by / can affect other people in online activities… they certainly don’t give a shit about you.


Growth Mindset

Yesterday I tossed something important in as a one-liner. Let’s unpack the concept a bit and apply it to gaming.

“Growth mindset” is the idea that your abilities are not fixed. Failure is not final, just an early step in learning. It is the difference between “I can’t do that” and “I can’t do that yet.” A fixed mindset leads to conservatively sticking with what you’re good at, because “what you’re good at” is fixed. A growth mindset embraces neuroplasticity.

Most games inherently encourage growth mindset. If you fail, you try again. You get better, face greater challenges, and save the world. At its best, gaming is a system of productive optimism.

Some gaming communities are toxic. They talk about “bad players” instead of people who are still learning. People are good or bad, in a way that reminds me of the Spanish distinction between “ser” and “estar.” Some games and communities make it hard to start and implicitly drive away new players. Some games are structured with painful learning curves that punish failure or create long-term costs for common learning mistakes.

Or am I exhibiting a fixed mindset to say the communities are toxic? Are they just not good communities yet? Riot has gone to great effort to reduce LoL community toxicity. Some games and forums seem to be moving as fast as they can in the other direction.

: Zubon

Second Order Preferences

A first order preference is what you want or like. You want pie. A second order preference is your preference about your preferences. You also want to lose weight, so you do not want to want pie. You can keep going to higher orders, where you might run into ambivalence as you miss being interested in something, so you neither want nor want to want it but you kind of want to want to want. Don’t go too deep down that rabbit hole.

I frequently find myself wanting to like things more than I like them. “This is my kind of thing. I should like this. Why don’t I like this?” It’s like I have some misguided loyalty to “my type,” even though I know a thousand details can make it unenjoyable. I tend to commit and stick with things, which is good when something goes through a bad patch but bad when it parks in the bad patch and starts digging a hole.

I’m past wanting to play any MMOs, but I still faintly want to want to play because I want to like them. I miss the original ideal of virtual worlds. I love the gameplay of League of Legends, but the community is still highly problematic, so I want to enjoy the game more than I actually enjoy it. Ingress is interesting in the abstract but mostly tedious when I play it more than casually.

I’m not sure of my higher order preferences. I recognize that having a disparity between first and second order is a problem, so I do not want to want to want to play, but I have a certain wistfulness and I am going to cut that thought off there because that way madness lies.

: Zubon

[LoL] Doom Bots of Doom

League of Legends has added the Doom Bots. All the champions get souped up abilities; if you can beat that, they start getting passives from other champions (or others’ abilities as passives); if you can beat that, they get more and changing passives. Tibbers bigger than a tower with AE attacks? Sure, and Annie also sets your towers on fire. Veigar’s Dark Matter meteors? How about a ring of them falling as a passive, and he can cast a ring of them, and his Q is area effect. Fear on every one of Fiddlesticks’s abilities, plus AE health drain, plus phantom Fiddlesticks ults popping out of the brush? Okay, fear on his bouncing crow was nerfed back down to silence.

Watch a full game here. The doom bots are not as terrifying as I had expected, since you can work around them and the limitations of the AI, but the video does feature continuous streams of profanity at various points.

It’s fun ridiculousness. I want players to have access at some point, just to see how those games go. ARAM URF Doom mode – go!

: Zubon


League of Legends is a game I tend to play when I am not interested in any current MMOs. I appreciate the self-contained nature of each round, versus the ridiculous accumulation over time. I usually quit for several months after the toxicity of the playerbase gets to me, but I find that less of an issue in ARAM. Instead, I find myself quitting because the servers are lousy. I must have had three games in a row where it was a 5v5 game, but I cannot recall that off-hand. I just had two 4v5s in a row, one of which was a 4v4 for the start of the game until a 9th player connected. I know I have several “leaver” marks on my record because the game crashes, I was disconnected, or whatever error causes the game to think that you installed a new firewall between games because that is a reasonable assumption rather than the game’s having connection issues yet again.

I used to make jokes about how many people blamed deaths on lag, but I’ve certainly had those times when I lost half my health while the server decided what I was doing. I used to get annoyed at players who quit or never showed up and wasted everyone’s time, but given the number of times I have been unable to connect to a game, I cannot honestly blame the player. I cannot blame their computer or connection either, because mine will work perfectly for two games then be unable to connect to a third.

This is no easy network engineering problem. You want servers that are reasonably reliable and close enough to your players to reduce latency, while also needed to be close to players who may be anywhere on the globe, a problem only worsened when you form a team with your friend from another continent. A good algorithm for which server to use for a game must be about as hard as for matching up players. But still, it is one of those problems your players reasonably expect you to have addressed when your business is online gaming. And having a 95% solution is not good enough because losing 1 of 10 players every other game is the whole problem.

: Zubon

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.

[LoL] Conditional Probability

Argument: in ARAM, if you are considering dodging, you almost certainly should, because no one on the other team has.

Assumptions: You can pick the winner of roughly 80% of ARAM games just by looking at team composition. Most people prefer being on the winning side of that than the losing side. The penalty for dodging is less than the penalty for playing a hopeless game, in the sense that you can waste 20 minutes in a game you cannot possibly win or spend a similar amount of time doing something else while waiting out your dodge penalty. And here is the critical assumption: you can tell if your team composition is bad, and you are likely to dodge if (before seeing the other team) you think your team is likely to be worse than the opposing team.

If you think your team composition is better than average, you are very unlikely to dodge. If you think your team is about average or slightly worse, you are not very likely to dodge. If your team is bad, you are somewhat likely to dodge. And if your team composition is horrible, you are very likely to dodge. But you already knew that, so what am I trying to add here?

The decision is symmetrical, with the other team facing the same decision. Given that no one on the other team has not dodged, you must find it very unlikely that their team composition is horrible and somewhat unlikely that their team composition is bad. (And remember, each of 5 people can dodge, so none of the 5 said “not worth it” and dodged.) Now re-assess your chances given that. If your team composition is bad, it is not only that your team is below average, but also that the opposing team has not signaled (by dodging) that their team is bad or worse. Five people on the opposing team think they have a good enough chance of winning with their team composition. Given that, how confident are you of your team composition?

Applying this recursively would leave us only playing with “above average” teams, because someone would dodge unless the team composition on both sides was at least “good.” (If all the horribly composed teams dodge, that means “bad” is as bad as it gets, so all the badly composed teams dodge, which means “average” is as bad as it gets…) But what is one to expect from a game mode where randomness dominates? But then, why are you playing ARAM if you are not comfortable with the “AR”?

: Zubon

Postive Sum, Zero Sum, Negative Sum

EVE Online and meatspace violence are examples of negative sum PvP. The stakes are what people bring into the competition, some of those stakes will be destroyed in the competition, and what the winner gains is equal to or less than what the loser lost. (Meatspace political lobbying is negative sum PvP for society as a whole.)

Tournament standings and poker are examples of zero sum PvP. There is a fixed pool of stakes, and your gain is exactly equal to someone else’s loss. Most status games (explicit or not) are zero sum, with status as a relative good such that one can only rise by displacing another. (The tournament itself can be a gain for competitors, but the fixed nature of the prize pools makes the competitive elements zero-sum. For me to get the first place prize, I must prevent someone else from getting it.) (Poker with a rake is negative sum for the players.)

Games are increasingly fond of positive sum PvP. Everyone fights, everyone gets a prize, everyone comes out ahead. In League of Legends, everyone gets influence (and winners get more). In Guild Wars 2 sPvP, there are no permanent costs, and everyone gains glory, rank progress, and achievement progress (and winners get more). (Meatspace economic competition is positive sum PvP for society as a whole, where winners are decided by producing greater value for less cost rather than by political lobbying.)

In all of these cases, we tend to discount or ignore the time spent. If you enjoy the game, spending time is not much of a cost, anyway. Time spent being entertained is the benefit, not the cost, although the time spent in-game almost certainly has a higher earnings potential than the cash value of the in-game benefit you gain, although you can potentially profit by poker. (In meatspace, the time spent may be the most important thing.)

Marvel Puzzle Quest tournaments use a mix of positive and zero sum systems. When you defeat an opponent, you gain points, usually more than they lose for losing. Those points add up to benefits (positive sum). There is also a ranked tournament structure with a fixed prize pool, where advancing necessarily displaces someone else (zero sum). Because you can spend in-game resources in the tournaments, the tourney competitions can become negative sum, although given rewards per win, you would need to be burning it fast, which can happen in the fight for first place.

: Zubon

Rebalancing under F2P/P2W

I may have understated the amount of “pay to win” in Marvel Puzzle Quest, although I would think that we would now be past outrage at the notion that “free to play” games have a revenue model. I am not sure whether to be more concerned about the sanity or the honesty of someone who claims to have spent $100+ on Puzzle Quest. I must guess sanity, as there are surely whales in every F2P pool.

Let me explain the drama of the moment, which is like a microcosm of our usual MMO rebalancing drama. Last week, Ragnarok (evil cyborg Thor clone. This is a real thing in Marvel comics) was the best character in Marvel Puzzle Quest, largely because of a very inexpensive ability that did nice damage and fueled his other ability. You know how people tend to hate rogues/thieves in MMOs for having abilities that do high damage on low cooldown with almost no cost or risk? Yeah, that, only make him as tough as Thor. So they nerfed him, tripling the cost of that key ability while reducing its effect, knocking the #1 character out of the top 10. After that, they announced rebalancing, which looks like weakening the other top characters while adding value to the rarest/most expensive ones (which are currently nigh-worthless).

I can see why you would be upset if you are the guy who just spent $100 to P2W, and they took away your W the next day. That is a heck of a thing to do to players who are your revenue source, and it must hurt their revenue for a while, since that list is like a promise to nerf the characters you might pay for right now. If they fix one per week, that’s scaring off revenue for about two months, although they might get some from buffing the most expensive characters as two of the first three changes.

In most P2W games, you should expect steady mudflation as they add new tiers of “best” to buy. You do not expect major nerfing of things you already bought (although League of Legends players certainly saw some cycles of that with new champions). As with the Kingdoms CCG example, it is good for the long run health of the game, but how do you re-establish trust with paying customers after doing something like that?

: Zubon