Tobold's Blog
Wednesday, November 26, 2014
 
Only 5% of my neighbors are convicted criminals

Would you boast about only 5% of your neighbors being convicted criminals? Probably not. In fact such a rate of criminal behavior in your community would probably be enough to lower house prices and see many people packing. So I agree with Tremayne that it is somewhat curious that League of Legends is proud that 95% of their players haven't received official disciplinary action last year. Not only is 5% of people that are behaving so badly that they get various forms of bans far too much, but it also is indicative of a far greater number of jerks who simply aren't caught, or who behave badly but just under the degree that gets banned.

When the UK last month announced a new law giving 2 years of prison to internet trolls, people joked that their jails would be full after half an hour of League of Legends. LoL has become the poster child of games with a toxic community. And I wonder why that is so. I don't believe that it is related to the genre. Regardless of whether Blizzard's new Heroes of the Storm brings anything new to the genre, the one thing you can be sure about is that the community will be better policed and less toxic.

So why do you think League of Legends stands out for bad online behavior? And what could be done about it?

Tuesday, November 25, 2014
 
Dungeons & Dragons edition 4.5

Disclaimer: The title is a joke and a deliberate exaggeration.

My current 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons campaign is scheduled to end soon, after running for 3 years. I am planning on a big, new campaign which will also be basically 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons, with some modifications from 5th edition, which is why I call it my 4.5E campaign. But maybe we might first run a few session of the 5E starter box, just to give everybody the chance of an informed view of which edition is most suitable for our group.

A real D&D 4.5 taking a 50-50 mix of the best of the two editions in my opinion isn't possible. 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons and 5th edition Dungeons & Dragons are largely incompatible where combat and stats are concerned. 4th edition has more levels, and your various numbers (e.g. attack and defense stats) go up by a lot. From level 1 to max level in 4E your attack goes up by AT LEAST +15, which is the "half your level" bonus, and not counting stat increases and the assumption that you'll wield magic weapons. The equivalent increase in attack for 5E is only +6; That is deliberate, a concept called "bounded accuracy", and makes it easier to use for example monsters over a wider range of levels. An orc in 5E doesn't become trivial just because you gained 3 levels. So 4E and 5E have an incompatibility based on very simple math, and you can't easily use combat rules or monsters or magic items from one system in the other. There is no such thing as a compromise, a real 4.5 edition which would be somewhere half way between the two. The math just doesn't allow it. Given this incompatibility, I believe that my group much prefers the more tactical combat of 4th edition over the somewhat more random combat of 5E, and so if I have to choose one combat system of the two, I believe that 4th edition for this specific group is the better choice.

That doesn't make 5E a bad system, and in fact it probably is a better system for new players. But one of the disadvantages of 4E is that it is hard to learn (and consequently slow if you haven't learned it well), and my group is already past that stage, so this isn't much of a problem for us any more. That brings me to another disadvantage of 4th edition, which is on the role-playing side. 4E rules are very focused on what your character does in tactical combat, and aren' all that explicit on the role-playing aspects between encounters. That is most visible in character creation, where a 4E character is a basically just a bunch of stats and powers, while a 5E character is far more fleshed out from the personality side.

Fortunately role-playing isn't based on math. Which makes the 5E personality creation system compatible with 4th edition. What I jokingly call D&D 4.5 thus is 4E with characters created using a modified 5E personality traits system. And I'm throwing in a bit of 13th Age in for good measure.

In 5th edition a character has personality traits, bonds, ideals, and flaws. For my system I'm taking the bonds, ideals, and flaws, and replace the generic 5E personality traits by 13th Age's "one unique thing". I am also using a system of backgrounds which will be a mix of 4E "themes" and 5E "backgrounds". And finally I am going to use the inspiration rules from 5E, giving players a bonus roll reward for good role-playing of their personality.

The "one unique thing" is a concept where you ask each player to come up with something which is more or less unique to them. That can range from classical fantasy "I'm the lost heir to the throne of XXX" to weird stuff like "I have a clockwork heart". The player can propose pretty much anything, but it is up to the DM to translate that into rules. For example if a player tried "I am invincible" as his unique thing, I would rule that he *believes* himself to be invincible, without actually having any immunity to damage. The one unique thing should add a lot of flavor to a character, but not really change his power level. I like this one unique thing concept more than I like the more generic personality traits of 5E (example from the starter set: "My flattery makes those I talk to feel wonderful and important. Also, I don't like to get dirty, and I won't be caught dead in unsuitable accommodations.").

For bonds I am slightly expanding the concept from what is described in the 5E rulebooks. It remains a description of what organization the character has a bond to, for example like the "houses" in Game of Thrones, or a location like a home town. But in the campaign I want to play there will also be moments where the players have to talk to connections, people they know, people who owe them a favor or whom their owe a favor. So I'm adding those connections to the bonds category, and that is something that can grow over the campaign.

The ideals and flaws concept I'm taking straight from the 5E rules. What does the character believe in? Where is he vulnerable or at least not perfect. The flaws are the one personality aspect which is the most likely to be rewarded with an inspiration bonus if role-played, because it doesn't come easy to everybody to play a flawed character. The inspiration rule is also straight from 5E: You can only have one inspiration bonus, and can't gain another until you used the one you have. Using the bonus means *in advance* of an important dice roll saying that you want to use your inspiration, and then roll two dice instead of one and take the better roll.

My planned "4.5E" campaign will be one with a big campaign story. That necessitates a certain amount of willingness by the players to follow the given story. But obviously I don't want to turn that into some sort of cinema in which the players are spectators. By encouraging them to freely choose different aspects of the personality of their characters I hope to get lots of interesting personal side stories, as well as adventure hooks. At least that's the theory, I'll have to see how that eventually works out.

Monday, November 24, 2014
 
Innovation through core-shell design

I have in the past repeatedly talked about my general model for modern games: A core gameplay that is frequently repeated (e.g. combat), with a shell of other activities (e.g. quests, story) binding those core gameplay elements together. One of the interesting things of this model is that if you look at many different games, you'll notice that the core and the shell are not very strongly connected; you can switch out just one of them to get to a new game, while keeping the other identical. One example would be MMORPGs which generally work like World of Warcraft, but which substituted the WoW core combat by some sort of action combat.

That can lead to quite innovative games if you look far beyond typical game elements for a specific genre, and substitute either the core or the shell of a game by something from a very different genre. This weekend I played Rollers of the Realm, a game with a traditional fantasy shell in which the core combat gameplay has been replaced by a pinball game: Your characters are pinballs of different sizes and attributes. Your healer heals the flippers by bumping into mana, your knight damages enemies by bumping into them, your rogue deals more damage if he bumps into the enemy from behind, and so on. It is not a very huge game, I've completed it in 10 hours, but as it only costs 8 Euros ($10?) that is quite okay. At least it was a very new and unique gameplay experience, and we don't get very many of those any more these days.

Usually it is easier to take a game and replace the core gameplay. But some combinations of core and shell have become so traditional that switching to a different shell can also work. Another game I played this weekend is the somewhat mediocre Battle of Littledom, a fantasy game with core combat gameplay similar to the Final Fantasy series. But instead of a more traditional questing and character management shell, the devs used the shell gameplay from games like Puzzle & Dragons, where you collect characters, fuse them together to gain more levels, and evolve them into stronger characters. Puzzle & Dragons uses this shell with a core match-3 gameplay, but there are games that use the same shell for a trading card game (Elemental Kingdoms) core, or even a carnival coin dozer core (Dragon Coins).

I think there could be more innovative games with unusual combinations of already existing core and shell game elements. I'm still waiting for somebody to make my 10-year old Shandalar project come true, a MMORPG using trading cards for combat.

Friday, November 21, 2014
 
The Ubisoft formula versus the Blizzard formula

This year there has been some discussion in gaming circles about the "Ubisoft formula" for making an open world game. It is basically a recipe that is shared by various Ubisoft games, from the Assassin's Creed series to Watch Dogs, and which has become so well-known that even open world games that aren't from Ubisoft, like Shadow of Mordor, have been shown to conform to that formula. Meanwhile a lot of pundits seemed somewhat confused about what to make of Blizzard's latest announcement of a new brand, Overwatch. Why is Blizzard making a multi-player shooter? Blizzard isn't know for making multi-player shooters, or even just shooters, so why Overwatch?

I do believe that Blizzard has a formula as well. And I would say that it is a much better formula than what Ubisoft has. While the Ubisoft formula allows you to churn out a large number of largely identical games with new coats of paints, the Blizzard formula leads a collection of very different games. Blizzard's formula is taking whatever genre is currently popular and then applying great craftsmanship to that genre, basically trying to make the best possible game of that genre.

That is the secret sauce that game companies making WoW clones for a decade never understood. World of Warcraft isn't successful because it is highly original or the first of its kind or has a specific set of features. World of Warcraft is successful (and currently growing by 3 million players again) because it took a known concept from games like Everquest or Dark Age of Camelot and simply perfected it. Everything just works in a Blizzard game, notwithstanding occasional errors of judgement like the Diablo 3 real-money AH. Blizzard removes barriers to entry and makes games more accessible for a larger audience. And as larger audience means larger income, they get filthy rich in the process.

The ability to look at existing games, find out what exactly makes them tick, find out what doesn't work, and produce a better version is what makes Blizzard so successful. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in MMORPGs, and not for example SOE or Mythic. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in online trading card games, and not Wizards of the Coast. It is the reason why Blizzard is the market leader in real-time strategy games, and not Westwood Studios. And it is the reason why Riot Games should be nervous when Blizzard makes a MOBA, and Valve should be nervous when Blizzard makes a multi-player shooter. It is extremely likely that the Blizzard version of any game is better than the original, because it is SET OUT to be better than the original. Blizzard isn't making "me too" games, they are in the business of finding and polishing raw diamonds.

And who knows, maybe one day Blizzard will make an open-world game that makes Ubisoft look like amateurs.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014
 
State of the blog address

This used to be "Tobold's MMORPG Blog", but I dropped the "MMORPG" a good while ago. Nevertheless until this year I still considered myself somewhat as a MMORPG player. I don't know if it is just me or the state of the genre, but this year made me lose interest in MMORPGs in a big way. I found the Elder Scrolls Online (played beta) and Wildstar (played beta and release) hugely disappointing. Blizzard sent me 7 free days of WoW earlier this month, before WoD came out, I logged into the game, and found my guild screen saying that on a Saturday night I was the only character out of 586 guildies logged in. That killed the last bit of interest I had in maybe buying the expansion, so this will be the first WoW expansion I'm giving a miss. There is currently no MMORPG out or announced that I currently would want to play. When Wildstar today sent me 7 free days to explore their new "epic, multi-part story designed specifically for solo players", I just snickered and ignored the mail. I'm out!

Now as you might have noticed I am sometimes writing about Dungeons & Dragons. But I wouldn't consider this to be D&D or tabletop role-playing blog either. I mean, MMORPG bloggers are weird, but pen & paper RPG bloggers are a completely different league of weird. I can barely read some of those blogs, especially the so-called OSR blogs. There are endless arguments about how tabletop RPG rules should be "realistic simulations". And not just of real world things like swords and armor. No, people seriously discuss the "realism" of elven racial stats or wizard fireballs. Very few people care about things like whether the game mechanics work or are balanced. Instead most people waste endless time with pseudo-scientific arguments about why their preferred class would be much more realistic if it was a lot more powerful. Not a community I really want to engage in discussion with.

I still play a lot of other games, both on the iPad and on the PC. But I don't always feel the need to write about them. Many modern games, especially the so-called triple-A variety, have perfected the game experience to something almost cinematic. And it is the same cinematic experience for everybody. Even in a purportedly "open world" game the experience that two different players have of the game is very similar. Everything is broken down into very small, easily manageable tasks. When "Le Morte d'Arthur" was written, a "quest" was something you'd expected to last most of your life. Today a quest is "walk 10 meters and click on something, then come back for your reward". In the right situation that can be enjoyable to play, but it isn't really something to write about.

I am not a paid journalist or writer with a certain number of words to write for a certain deadline. I write when I have something to say. And right now I don't have much to say. So don't be surprised if this blog isn't updated daily any more. 

Tuesday, November 18, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 6

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune were on the way to a beholder's cave with a magical spring which would turn them back into their real form, but turned back after a fight with a troglodyte patrol. So in this session they made a second attempt and actually arrived at their destination. The cave was behind a chasm, with only a small ledge giving access. So the rogue passed the ledge, and silently sneaked forward to scout. He was lucky and didn't get detected, so he was able to describe the beholder's cave and its inhabitants to the others. The beholder had in fact created the cave with his disintegrate ray to fit his purposes, and was guarded by four troglodyte champions. While creating the cave he had struck the underground water stream of the magical source, and the water was coming down like a shower on the far side of the cave.

The rogue returned over the ledge, and to help the others arranged with the fighter that each of them would hold one end of a rope, the rogue would pass the ledge, and with two people holding the rope stretched it would be easier for the others to pass the ledge. However that plan was done hastily, and the rogue never told the fighter that he'd expect him to also use the rope to keep him safe while he traversed the ledge. So promptly the rogue failed his acrobatics check and fell into the chasm for significant damage, with the rope just being held loosely at the other end. At least it was easy to climb out again from that. :)

After a better second attempt the group made it across the chasm, and lined up in the tunnel to the cave according to a battle plan they had made. And that plan worked surprisingly well: The dwarven fighter went in first, using a power to pull all troglodytes around him, plus a daily power that damaged everybody starting his turn next to him. The priest burned the thus assembled troglodytes with a column of flame. And everybody else was concentrating their fire on the troglodytes before going for the beholder.

Now on paper the beholder fight was a lot tougher than the fight against the troglodyte patrol in the previous session. But the beholder was the creature from the chaos realm that the Favorites of Selune had unleashed on the world in a previous adventure. Being chaotic the beholder never concentrated his fire, but instead used two (later three) random eye rays on random targets. That was sometimes annoying, but ultimately too dispersed to really be a grave danger. The priest used an at-will power that gave additional saving throws, making the various status effects of the eye rays much less efficient. There was one dangerous moment where a sleep ray threatened to render the priest unconscious, but he used his divine chance power for a bonus and then managed to roll exactly as high as he needed to not fall asleep.

During combat the sorceress stepped under the magic spring shower and got transformed back into her real form. Just as in the previous transformation all her belongings changed size as well, except for the tabard that they had just received from the svirvneblin, and which now looked more like a bib. As the transformation had cost the sorceress a minor action (and messed up her plans for that round), nobody else went under the transformation shower voluntarily during the fight. But the priest who at some point stood close was pushed into the shower by an eye ray power of the beholder. And the priest was among those of the group who had freed the beholder previously. So the beholder offered them a truce, like the last time, which this time the heroes refused.

Once the troglodytes were dead, the beholder fell relatively quickly. The group found his treasure of gold and a magic bandanna, and they all transformed back into their human/elf/halfling form with the help of the magic spring. At this point we ended the session.

Saturday, November 15, 2014
 
The beginning of the end for sequels?

If you follow PC games news you probably heard about the bad reception that the latest Assassin's Creed sequel got. And I am beginning to feel as if that is part of a trend. The latest The Sims sequel, the latest Civilization sequel, the latest Borderlands sequel, the latest Call of Duty sequel, they all didn't get very high review scores. And the list this year goes on and on. Very few sequels this year were really greeted with a lot of enthusiasm. And even the best got remarks like being just more of the same of a still popular formula. Even some new games like Shadow of Mordor got some nasty remarks about being sequel-like and not really original.

In May of this year Steam was found to have already released more games in the first 5 months of 2014 than in the whole of 2013. Steam used to be more similar to a physical games store, with mostly triple-A games most prominently displayed on the limited shelf space. But this year the long tail has really come forward, and on some days the Steam sales charts are dominated by a $10 indie game, or a $20 JRPG which is a port of a 6-year old console game.

Sequels in games are what brands are in clothing. Given the risk of buying something of bad quality, people like buying stuff that carries a familiar name, because that way they think they know what they will be getting. Of course that only works as long as the sequel actually delivers the same quality as the earlier games of the same brand. And at some point playing always the same formulaic type of gameplay gets boring and people want something completely different. Between YouTube Let's Play videos and Steam curator lists recommending some much cheaper games, buying the latest $60 sequel isn't the only option with a pseudo-guarantee of quality any more.

Botching a sequel of a triple-A game can have serious financial consequences. There will always be sequels that earn millions, but it appears as if many series hit a point where the name on the box doesn't help sales all that much any more. Players are spoiled for choice, and there is only so much money and so much time for games around. Rushing a game out in time for the holiday sales and skipping quality control is not something you can still get away with. A brand name is a form of capital that shouldn't be wasted. Game companies better rethink their strategies for sequels before they do irreparable harm to their brand names and their finances.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014
 
Rewards and consequences

I bought Valkyria Chronicles on Steam yesterday, a new PC release of an old console game. I like it, it is a good mix of tactical combat and strong storytelling. But after three or so battles I noticed something about the game mechanics that made me restart the game and play those battles again in a very different way. And I'm not sure that I am happy about that new way to play.

The problem is that in Valkyria Chronicles you get a HUGE amount of bonus xp and currency for finishing battles as quickly as possible. Not for killing all enemies or protecting your soldiers, no, for pure speed. Suicide rushes are the best possible tactic. And the rwards you get for that are a game changer. The xp bonus for finishing a mission in record time is twice the base xp, so by rushing you level up three times as fast than if you take it slow.

There are several points about this which make me think that this is bad game design. One is that by making one way to play clearly superior, you give players less options to play their way. The other is that you punish those who persist in trying to play their way. They slowly fall behind in levels until they are way behind the curve and face enemies that are too strong for them. I haven't seen any repeatable fights yet which would allow me to grind xp to catch up if I didn't do well in the earlier battles. Basically you are supposed to save your game before the battle, play it once badly and see the scripted events, then reload and play it better.

I'm all for achievements and badges that encourage you to play well in games. But in a long, linear game if instead of fluff rewards you give out rewards that make you significantly stronger for playing "well", or in a way the devs intended, you get a very perverse effect: You make the game easier for those already playing well, and you make the game harder for those who already have trouble. Shouldn't that be the other way around? Provide more challenge for the stronger players, and boost the weaker ones!

Friday, November 07, 2014
 
Exclusivity in massively multiplayer games

A new continent opened up in Archeage with lots of housing space. And presumably by hacking all the housing space was sold out within seconds. While there is a certain historical accuracy to having a large number of landless peasants and a tiny number of landed gentry, I think the concept isn't commercially viable. Imagine a player like me who has already played lots of MMORPGs full of mediocre quests, but who would be interested in trying a game like Archeage *because* of having a house and a farm. I'd first be pissed off because the subscription-free part of Archeage doesn't allow me to experience the part of the game I am interested in at all. And then I shell out money for a subscription and find that I still can't get any land? I'd be out of that game again in a heartbeat!

Imagine the same game with a different system: Instead of allowing hackers to grab all land and sell it for their profit, what if the game company sold the land for real money to the highest bidders? I'm pretty sure that would cause howls of outrage, even if the only thing that changes would be who received the money, the game company or the hackers. If we wouldn't be willing to accept a game in which a limited supply is sold for cash by the game company, why would we be willing to accept a game in which the same limited supply is sold for cash by hackers?

Back in the days where people trading virtual items for money was still a subject of intensive discussion on MMORPG blogs, I once pointed out that the problem is that only half of the interaction happens in the game: Player A transfers a virtual property to player B in the game. The other half of the transaction, player B gives money to player A, happens outside the game and is invisible to the game company. The game company can't know whether A gave virtual property to B for money, or because B is his girlfriend, or for some other reason. The only way to stop people from selling virtual property for real money would be to completely disallow the in-game transfer of virtual property.

I am not convinced at all that having virtual property with limited supply in the game is a good idea at all. And I am absolutely certain that if a game has such a feature, it would need to put strong limits on such ownership: Every player being allowed only one plot of land, and no way to transfer that plot of land to another player. But I think it would be even better if for example small plots of land would be available in a quantity that even free players could have one, and only large plots of land would be in somewhat more limited supply. In the end you can't honestly advertise your game as having housing and farming if in practice it is unlikely for the average player to get there without a huge financial investment.

Thursday, November 06, 2014
 
The Favorites of Selune - Skin Deep - Session 5

In the previous session the Favorites of Selune arrived in the Underdark and after a fight with some troglodytes were accepted into a clan of svirfneblin, having previously been transformed by sinister forces into svirfneblin form. In this session (which for real life reasons was a very short one) they set out from the svirfneblin clan towards a magical underground spring which they hope can transform them back. But they know that there are more troglodytes in the way, and the beholder they let loose onto the world in a previous adventure.

The strong point of 4th edition Dungeons & Dragons is tactical combat. Tactical combat is helped by interesting terrain, where the obstacles of the battlemap force players to make choices on how to place themselves. Having said that, "interesting" does not necessarily mean complicated. So what happened next to the group was an encounter in one of the simplest possible maps: A long, straight corridor. I made the passage 4 spaces wide, but included a 2x2 spaces large behemoth in the enemy group, plus 5 troglodytes of different types. So the players couldn't get past the behemoth without suffering from attacks of opportunity. And both sides were vulnerable to area attacks, as they couldn't very well disperse sideways.

Given those circumstances the group decided to concentrate fire on the behemoth. But the troglodytes had several powers that were quite powerful in confined spaces: They all had a stench aura around them making attackers suffer a -2 penalty to attacks. And the two spellcasters in the back had area attacks and a debilitating ray which caused weakness in targets already standing in a stench aura. So this turned out to be a tough fight, and the characters were forced to expend a lot of daily powers.

On the up side this fight established the Underdark as a dark and dangerous place. The downside was that with the penalty and weakness it took the players quite some time to finally beat down the troglodytes. And then they found themselves having expended many daily powers and were unwilling to face the beholder like that. So they turned around, went back to the svirfneblin, and spent another night there to recover. Of course having set out to kill a beholder and having returned a short while later because of a few troglodytes the group didn't really impress the svirfneblin, who could be heard snickering behind the adventurers back. Given the short time available this time, we ended the session there.

Monday, November 03, 2014
 
Do the players know best?

I have a mail in my inbox from Stubborn for a month to which I have trouble finding an adequate reply. I was discussing my next D&D campaign with him, and he replied among other things that "the prescriptive elements of it are definitely more your thing than mine". One the one side I know that he is right, the new campaign definitively *is* pushing my players into a style of gameplay they don't usually do. On the other side I believe that this *could* be a good thing. I'm just not 100% sure about it.

I believe that pen & paper roleplaying games are about interactive story-telling. Yes, there is also a large part of interesting turn-based tactical combat; but I can do turn-based tactical combat in a computer game, while human players are necessary for interactive story-telling. It is the "unique selling proposition" of tabletop role-playing games. Having said that, interactive story-telling isn't actually all that obvious. I have a whole book shelf full of D&D manuals, and there is very little written in those books about interactive story-telling. It is very easy to confuse role-playing with roll playing, and concentrating on the aspects of the game which are written on your character sheet and resolves with dice rolls.

I have in the past played occasionally with great role-players. I once was in a group that sneaked into a warehouse and was caught by a guard, and another player turned that into a brilliant scene where he convinced the guard that the group was there to conduct a secret safety inspection and commended him for having "caught" the group. If you have several such players, great interactive role-playing will happen in your campaign regardless of how you run it. My problem is that in my current group I'm not really getting the degree of role-playing I would like, and the players are very much concentrated on the more mechanic parts of the game.

So the question is whether as the DM I should conform to the predispositions of my players and run a campaign which is light on role-playing and strong on rolling dice. Or should I use "prescriptive elements" in my campaign that nudge players towards more interactive story-telling?

What I have observed in years of MMORPG playing is that what players do is not necessarily a good indication of what players actually want. And what players say they want is then yet another thing. For example I can honestly not tell you with certainty whether a majority of MMORPG players enjoys playing solo more than playing in a group, or whether it is just the grouping system and the incentives in modern games which turned the majority into solo players. Back in the days of the original Everquest the idea of a solo MMORPG appeared to be somewhat ridiculous. But in EQ playing solo was harder than playing in a group, and now it is the other way around. Are players simply following the path of least resistance to maximum rewards, or are there true preferences hidden underneath all that somewhere?

If in the case of my campaign players don't really have a strong preference, and just play the game as it is presented to them, it appears perfectly possible that by starting a new campaign in which the incentives and the framework are presented differently we can arrive at a different style of gaming and actually all enjoy it more. But if the way they play is because that is what they truly want, trying to push them out of their comfort zone might go down really badly.

What do you think? Do the players know best, or are they flexible and follow the incentives?

Friday, October 31, 2014
 
Predictability of games

Azuriel is talking about Civilization: Beyond Earth and complains that after an interesting start the end game becomes a formality, where you already know you won, but still need to play for hours to actually win. Meanwhile Zubon talks about a board game where the better player always wins. And Stubborn mentions: "Okay, most recently I’ve been playing X-Com (I haven’t fully rage-quit just yet, though I was close the other night when two 90% to hit rocket attacks missed their mark followed by an 88% sniper shot missing, causing one of my people to be killed the following round, but I held it together and played on).".

What do these posts have in common? They are all about predictability of games. Games tend to start out in a state of maximum unpredictability: You usually don't know who is winning before the game has developed a bit further. At some point it becomes very clear who is winning, but unless a player concedes (and an AI player frequently isn't programmed to do so), the game goes on in a very predictable manner. And then it comes down to the amount of randomness in the game whether the game becomes totally boring, or there is still a chance for a reversal of fortunes.

Having said that, a lot of people like knowing early that they are going to win. Not everybody is playing games in a competitive manner. Most people are quite happy for example doing quests in MMORPGs for hundreds of hours, where they always "win", and only rarely encounter minor setbacks. Other players manipulate, cheat, or pay money in order to make a game more predictably a win. Even mild-mannered Stubborn can get close to rage-quitting if his 90% win chance turns into a loss.

That poses a challenge to game design. Do we really want a "No Longer Delay the Inevitable button" as suggested by Azuriel? Or do we want games where up to the very end it isn't predictable who is winning? (There are actually a number of board games with hidden scoring systems that work like that). Do we want more randomness in games, so they become less predictable, or do we prefer less randomness and more predictability?

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