Category Archives: Philosophy

Voting with Your Wallet

Tomorrow is election day over here in the States, so I wanted to talk about a tangentially related topic:

“Stop complaining and just vote with your wallet.”

Sometimes I wonder whether people understand how voting works. Even if we assume that not voting (i.e. not buying a game) counts as a No vote in any meaningful sense, a single vote in isolation is functionally irrelevant. Beyond that, your No vote is indistinguishable from the same No vote from someone who simply can’t buy the game until the next payday. Or the person who never realized the game was coming out. In other words, your No is actually a Potential Yes. There is no “other person” you can vote for instead, no other means of actually expressing why you voted in the manner you did other than actually talking about it.

All of this is besides the extremely relevant fact that if I spend time on a soapbox complaining about something, and I convince other people to (also) not buy that something, the size of the wallet I am voting with has increased exponentially. Not voting is meaningless; conversely, removing Yes votes is priceless. Your opinions, positive or negative, have currency only when you voice them. So get out there and get dirty.

Anyone telling you to be quiet and simply vote with your wallet is actually getting you to vote with theirs.

Cardboard Throne

Much as with the base game before it, I believe I’m done with Beyond Earth for now.

This is not to suggest that I believe Beyond Earth to be a bad Civ game. There are quite a few issues – some imbalances, some questionable design philosophies, etc – as pointed out in various Reddit threads dedicated to the game. However, it absolutely captures that whole addictive “I pressed End Turn for six hours in a row” part of the Civ experience. Even now, I’m getting the urge to boot it back up.

What is stopping me is the realization that what I like about the game and what the game actually does are two separate things.

It's all downhill from here.

It’s all downhill from here.

My favorite part of a Civ match is the beginning, when your strategy is largely formless, reactive, as you cast your eyes about an unknown and hostile world. “Okay, let’s scout out that island.” “Ooo, a city here would capture three strategic resources!” This feeling lasts maybe the first 100 turns, beyond which everything becomes a formality, a known, an inevitability. Yes, perhaps disaster strikes, perhaps you lose a city, perhaps an enemy Civ suddenly wins with a surprise victory condition. Nevertheless, you still know what you have to or should be doing at that point – it all just becomes the mechanical action of carrying it out.

All for what? The personal satisfaction of grinding the patience of a machine to dust? If Firaxis changed the Retire button to a No Longer Delay the Inevitable button, I would win the same amount of times with at least some in-game acknowledgment of the hours poured into the equivalent of a roguelike. Do I really need to conquer those last two capitals before the game is officially over? The game was arguably decided hours ago when I stopped exploring and building cities.

This sort of reminds me of when I used to be really into RTS games like Command & Conquer and Starcraft, up until I understood the concept of Actions Per Minute. Suddenly, the game I was hitherto playing was no longer. I could not unlearn how horribly inefficient my “build six Protoss Carriers” strategies were, nor how much better I could have been playing. The three aspects of gameplay were (still) entertaining – building bases, ordering units around, micromanaging one unit’s abilities specifically – but I both understood that I was incapable of engaging in more than one of them at a time, and not particularly motivated to try to get better. If you had time to turtle up to spam endgame units, you probably had time to win much earlier. Which means I was doing… what, exactly?

There is nothing necessarily wrong with enjoying a game outside of its intended purpose, but if the box brings more joy to the cat than the toy it contained, maybe you should just have bought a box instead. Or go find a better toy.

Like I said though, if Civ and Beyond Earth is your type of game, more power to you. I used to think it was mine. But now that I see myself sitting upon a virtual throne of cardboard boxes, I am not quite sure what to think. Other than maybe I should go play something else.

More Than Fun

Some people play videogames just to have fun. I am not one of them.

Have you ever listened to a mindless comedy sketch or watched a show like America’s Funniest Home Videos (or equivalent)? Or realized that you somehow sat through the national average of 5+ hours of television a day? I always feel empty inside afterwards – I had “fun” in the moment, but then the moment is over and the fun evaporates as if it never existed. Because arguably it never did.

To me, having fun isn’t enough. I am not in search for some meaningless amusement to while the time away until oblivion; if that is all you’re looking for, I might recommend heroin or masturbation. I am looking for fun + X, where X is something I am going to remember more than five seconds into the refractory period. It doesn’t always have to be a profound, life-changing epiphany. It just has to be something.

Some people just view videogames as entertainment. Games are certainly that. But they don’t have to be just that however, and I would say that they shouldn’t be just that. If something can be more, it should be more.

I want games that set fire to my imagination, that grip me emotionally, that change the way I look at the world, that make me want to be a better person. I will also settle for games that break new ground or do familiar things in clever ways. The world has plenty enough slot machines and similar wirehead simulators; we don’t need more Loot Caves, we need more Plato Caves.

Are there better avenues than videogames to sate these desires? Maybe. Books have been changing peoples’ lives for thousands of years, for sure. At the same time, I don’t see a particularly compelling argument that we need sequester life-affirming experiences to one particular medium or another. As we have seen, games can be accessible in ways that Tolkien (etc) may not be. A substitute, even a poor one, is often better than nothing.

If you say such games do not exist, I will disagree. I have played them. Chances are you have played them too. They will be the ones at the top of your “most favorite games” list. They will be the titles you still think about and talk about decades after you stopped playing them.

There is a time and a place for the Flappy Birds and Candy Crush Saga games of the world, don’t get me wrong. But just like this compilation video of guys getting hit in the balls, you’re going to turn it off and feel nothing. Except, perhaps, remorse.

Peril of Subjectivity

As noted in the sidebar, I have been reading the Art of Game design. One part of an early paragraph sort of jumped out at me, and is kinda relevant to the topic of the usefulness of game reviews:

This peril is the peril of subjectivity, and a place where many designers fall into a trap: “I like playing this game, therefore it must be good.” And sometimes, this is right. But other times, this is very, very wrong. [Art of Game Design, pg 16]

Now, on the one hand, this is pretty straight-forward advice for a game designer. Just because you like the game you are creating doesn’t necessarily mean other people will. But it seems to me that there is a hidden edge to that sentiment, an implication that a well-designed game is one that most players enjoy.

Duh, right?

Well… doesn’t that mean Candy Crush Saga is one of the best games of all time? As of March of this year, 143 million people were playing it every day; the company’s revenue went from $164 million in 2012 to $1.9 billion in 2013 almost entirely on the back of a single game. While the game’s popularity is declining (as is King’s stock price), the takeaway should be that perhaps the quality of a game’s design is not necessarily a function of it’s popularity. Good games can languish in obscurity and bad games can sell beyond all reason.

Which, really, should not come to a surprise to anyone who has ever turned on a television, read a book, or seen a movie.

Here is the Wikipedia link of the best-selling books of all time (minus religious/political works), for example. The top looks pretty good: A Tale of Two Cities, The Lord of the Rings, and so on. Then you hit The Da Vinci Code and your eye might twitch. It’s only when you scroll down to the book series section when you realize that 50 Shades of Grey sold more than 100 million copies. I wasn’t able to find how many each individual book in the series sold, but if we assume 33 million apiece that means the original 50 Shades of Grey is “better” than To Kill a Mockingbird or Gone with the Wind. Or Nineteen Eighty-Four. Or a whole swath of cultural brilliance.

You probably don’t even need to look at the highest-grossing movies listing to know it’s even worse. There is a Transformers movie at #7 and #11, for the record. And the one at #11 was released, oh, a week four months ago. As in literally seven days ago as of the time of this posting [Edit: I misinterpreted the Wikipedia note; the movie is still in theaters though] . I mean, it should really have been bad enough that Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull is at #48, ahead of all its infinitely better predecessors.

I suppose my point is that, going back to Tobold’s post, it does not surprise me in the least that Destiny received a 76 Metacritic score and yet has 3.2 million daily players. Just as it shouldn’t be surprising to see how little overlap there is between RottenTomatos’ Top 100 movie list and highest-grossing movie one. I mean, Transformers: Dark of the Moon got a 36% score, and is #7 highest-grossing of all time with over $1.1 billion worldwide. That’s more than LotR: Return of the King (94% fresh) which clocks in at #8.

So, basically, no – game reviewers are no more irrelevant than reviewers of any kind of medium. I mean, unless you think movie reviewers are there for some other reason than to direct you towards movies worth watching… in which case they should have just said “Transformers,” apparently.

I cannot really comment on Destiny’s actual merits for two reasons: A) it wasn’t released on the PC, and B) I’ve been playing PlanetSide 2 for an hour or more each day despite actively hating the game at least 60% of the time. I do not consider the latter indicative of Ps2’s game design brilliance so much as a personal deficiency.

Cooperation Requires Incentives

Both Tobold and Rohan were musing about a similar issue last week: why isn’t there more cooperation in survival MMOs? Or more PvE-only survival MMOs in the first place?

Let me turn the question around: why would you cooperate? Tobold is thankful that our real-life ancestors were not as blood-thirsty as the average DayZ player, but I am not even sure whether or not that is true. Recorded history is filled with the conquest of the weaker, and who knows what happened in the darkness of the forest millennia before that?

The problem in gaming, as is often the case, comes down to incentives. Specifically, if there are no extrinsic bonuses for assisting someone in any game, I generally only do so if I happen to be in the mood and it’s easy. For example, I have no problem playing Medic classes in PlanetSide 2 or Battlefield 4 because reviving teammates A) gives me as much XP as a normal kill, and B) the revived character is likely to get me closer to the goal of winning the match/flag/etc (i.e. more XP). Guild Wars 2 also did a pretty good job in incentivising reviving other players along similar lines. Obviously 5-man dungeons and such offer similar carrots.

In the absence of the extrinsic carrot though, a game designer cedes control to the player’s own nebulous intrinsic motivations to govern behavior. Unless you are a particularly extroverted individual looking to make more internet friends, there is really no reason you would ever cooperate without the carrot. If it’s a free-for-all scenario, not killing another player on sight is a huge risk. And even if you are willing to take that gamble and it succeeds, the “reward” is generally limited to what you can accomplish within that play session… unless you go out of your way to befriend them.

What if you don’t want more friends?

For a PvE survival MMO to work, I think constructing the proper incentives for cooperation would be Priority #1, and they would need to be extrinsic incentives. I am not a huge fan of the permadeath ideas Rohan was tossing around, but imagine if permadeath were a possibility, and killing other players (without cause) increased that chance? Let’s say the odds of permadeath were 10% baseline and increased by 25% for each player you killed. Meanwhile, if you healed, revived, traded/interacted with, or perhaps simply were in X radius around another player on your friends list, the baseline permadeath chance dropped to 0%. The “stain” of unjust PvP would not diminish – unless as a result of some penance or whatever – and yet it would give both groups the relevant incentive to do stuff with others.

I do not necessarily think it is wrong for game designers to rely on players to want to make friends to enjoy their game properly, but that ship has long sailed for me. I got my ex-WoW buddies, some IRL friends, and this blog if I want to talk shop with someone; I’m not entirely in the mood for the arduous vetting process and necessary synchronized timing necessary to make new friends. Needing to join a guild or Outfit or whatever to get the “full experience” simply means I won’t ever be getting the full experience in your game.

And if your game offers nothing else, then I won’t be playing it.

Unlikely Encounters

There are a lot of tropes in RPGs that go largely unexamined, but I experienced one in Dragon Age 2 recently that seemed especially egregious: the impossibly unlikely encounter.

Now, you know how it is, you are walking around town and just so happen to stumble across a conversation between a woman looking for her son and guards clearly not interested in searching for him. What were the odds you would be walking by that one-minute exchange in the middle of a sprawling city? It’s a trope, but I can forgive that out of necessity; how else could you really set up such a quest organically, right? I’m not talking about those sort of encounters.

No, I’m talking about the part in Dragon Age 2 when I run across a band of Elvish assassins confronting a human along a desolate path on the Wounded Coast. The human is apparently a former werewolf who inadvertently killed the mother of the main Elf assassin, but the Warden from the first game has cured his lycanthropy. You get the choice here between letting the assassin finish the job, defending the man, or trying to shame the Elves into leaving. I did the latter, got paid 50 silver by the grateful man, and both parties left.

Err… what?

This wasn’t even a quest. It was just a goddamn throwaway encounter miles from any sort of civilization and/or rational explanation for how the two people could have met one another just in time for me to waltz by. It wasn’t like this dude was trying to assuage his guilt by watching the beach. As far as I can possibly determine, there was no reason for him to be there at all; he was not a trader, nor hermit, nor on the run. I would have been infinitely more sympathetic with my suspension of disbelief if this occurred in the city. Or in a cave he was hiding in. Or as part of a plot-line or rumor which suggested someone was looking for a former werewolf.  Instead, this scenario gets more and more ludicrous the longer I think about it.

I mean, sure, most of the quests that I have seen in Dragon Age 2 so far seem rather unlikely. Who exactly is going to trust a complete stranger who was conveniently eavesdropping on your conversation in the first place? Actually, it might be fun for there to be an RPG in which all of these sort of tropes are subverted; some sort of deranged, manic dude cavorting into the middle of groups of people and “completing their quests” based on random snippets of dialog. But, man, that Wounded Coast encounter is on an impossibly absurd level of its own.

Metagaming RPGs

It is becoming increasingly apparent that I am ruining RPGs for myself.

In the past two weeks or so, I have been playing Shadowrun Returns and, most recently, Dragon Age 2. In Shadowrun Returns, you can choose one of the six preset classes to play, or mix and match your own. Now, in some games of this type, I am more than fine with choosing something that simply sounds cool to play. For example, in Mass Effect the combo of a teleporting Shepard with a shotgun focus sounded fun. In WoW, I picked paladin because paladins.

With Shadowrun Returns though, none of the classes particularly jumped out at me. I was inclined to pick Decker (aka Matrix hacker) because that is sort of the whole schtick of the game, but it sounded rather boring to play in the case that there wasn’t a Matrix portal to hack into. And that is sort of where everything fell into place. The game clearly would not make hacking required, else they would force your character to be a Decker. And since the rest of your party are basically generic NPCs with no dialog that you pick from a vendor, you can safely cross out any class that is unlikely to get access to the best stuff. So… Mage it is.

And that worked. Perhaps too well. It reminded me a lot of my time with Fallout Tactics – or really any game where you can construct your own party – in that you can relegate certain party members to be experts in a niche specialty that you would never force your main character to do. There is no sense being a Rigger or Shaman, for example, because all that means is that your character’s purpose is to buff the nameless NPCs you take with you. This caused problem when I tried playing the subsequent Dragonfall “expansion” though, as I didn’t feel like playing a Mage again, but every other option felt bad. So I didn’t play it.

I am finding my metagaming even applies to more traditional RPGs though. In Dragon Age 2, your class choice is limited to warrior, mage, or rogue. Being a Bioware title, much of the draw of the game is going to be your interaction with your fellow party members, whom have classes of their own. Not all party members are created equally however, especially in terms of how interesting their dialog is, so you sort of have to tailor your class choice around what the more interesting party members bring to the table. For example, given how the existence of rogues at all signify there will be traps and locked chests, choosing to play as a rogue yourself allows you to replace the two rogue party member options in the event that neither are all that compelling to you. This logic does not apply to mages though, as  A) every class has an AoE spell, and B) healing spells can largely be replaced via potion use. In other words, precisely because there is no replacement for Lockpicking, playing a rogue makes for the optimal choice.

Unless, of course, you end up liking both rogue characters. In which case you are sort of screwed.

To be honest, I am not sure what it would take to defeat this circuitous thinking, beyond blunt force trauma. I suppose in both cases, there is an element of specialty that, if removed, would allow me to make the decision of which party members to bring based on how I liked them. Indeed, that was largely my experience in the Mass Effect trilogy – the special abilities weren’t all that special, and so pick who you like. Or I suppose I could simply forgo whatever goodies might be locked into the various in-game chests and simply lean upon the logic that none of the traps I encounter will one-shot my characters (because otherwise the designers would have forced you to bring a rogue). Hmm.

I don’t remember doing this throughout the Baldur’s Gate series. In fact, I was a monk throughout those games, which was about as close to useless as you can get. But since I loved having the rogue (Imoen), warrior (Minsc), and cleric (Jaheira) in my party all the time anyway, I didn’t feel deficient. Now that I think about it, weren’t those basically the only Good companions you could have anyway?

In any case, I am finding the trend of my agonizing on the character creation screen continuing for the foreseeable future.

Crushing Success

The final tally for Microsoft’s purchase of Minecraft is $2.5 billion. Markus Persson’s (aka Notch) personal take is reported to be $1.8 billion.

What is almost more interesting though is his thought process behind selling at all:

[…] I’ve become a symbol. I don’t want to be a symbol, responsible for something huge that I don’t understand, that I don’t want to work on, that keeps coming back to me. I’m not an entrepreneur. I’m not a CEO. I’m a nerdy computer programmer who likes to have opinions on Twitter.

As soon as this deal is finalized, I will leave Mojang and go back to doing Ludum Dares and small web experiments. If I ever accidentally make something that seems to gain traction, I’ll probably abandon it immediately.

It is almost funny, in a way. Can you separate the making of games from the business of making games? One can imagine some hobbyist painter who inadvertently crafts a masterpiece… that simply stays in the attic for decades. Or a writer who simply creates a book for themselves. The process is what they desired, not the outcome.

But games? Like information, games yearn to be free. A game without players is incomplete. So while I can understand the sentiment behind Notch’s desire, it seems somewhat futile. Being a game designer does not make one a good entrepreneur, true, but once released a game takes on a life of its own.

I will admit that my first reaction was to be a little petulant over Notch’s payout, because $1.8 billion. But looking at Minecraft itself and how it got there… who can really complain? This isn’t a game that preys on the weaknesses of the human psyche with microtransactions and cash shops (in the base game). This isn’t a game built around its business model. This is Old School purity in which a game relied on its own merits to sell more units. Sure, there is merch and movie deals these days but the core of the game remains the same.

So… good on you, Notch. This sale puts you around #1013 on Forbes’ billionaire list. Or to put it another way, Minecraft single-handedly made you equivalent to 2-3 JK Rowlings. Or about a Gabe Newell and a half.

Crazy world.

Parity as Entitlement

I wrote a post about Entitlement and the problems surrounding its (ab)use in gaming discussions back in 2012. Nothing has changed since then – I still consider anyone who uses it in a semi-serious way to essentially be Godwin’ing their own argument. What I did not expect to see two years later is “entitlement” to be even further warped as a pejorative to paint even those that desire parity in their games. Or presumably, by extension, anyone who has any desires whatsoever.

From Tobold’s blog:

Gamers have a strong sense of entitlement. In real life the answer to the question of why your neighbor is driving a nicer car than you is relatively obvious: He paid for it (or got it as part of his job contract). Most people are okay with that in real life. In a massively multiplayer online game many people are not willing to accept that somebody else has nicer stuff because he paid for it. It is one of the principal objections to the Free2Play business model that somebody else might end up with paid-for nicer stuff. And special editions are based on the same tactics of price segmentation that Free2Play games use.

The context of this quote comes from a larger discussion on the escalating price of “Founder’s Packs,” e.g. the extremely clever corporate jujitsu that resulted in people paying $150 for the “privilege” of alpha-testing even F2P games. Tobold’s larger points are that A) “too pricey” is subjective, and B) game companies are better off selling digital goods in their Collector’s Editions (as opposed to expensive physical goods) if it were not for the fact that “entitled” gamers don’t like that.

“Entitlement” clearly being a trigger word for me, I asked: “Is an expectation of parity now considered entitlement?” Tobold replied:

I have never met ANYBODY who expected or even wanted parity in a game. What people want is a system that is skewed towards their strong points. Thus the person who has more available time than money wants a game where you are King of the Hill if you spend the most time in the game. While the person who has more money than time would prefer if he could achieve things by buying them. Neither of the two wants parity.

The reason why expecting game companies to reward time more than money is entitlement thinking is because obviously the game company would much prefer your money over your time.

(That almost sounds like game companies feel entitled to my money, but nevermind.)

Now, it seems to me that he is making the accusation that people only like what games they are good at. Which… is a bad thing, I guess? There really cannot be any other possible explanation for your friends getting mad at you bringing real-world dollars into a game of Axis & Allies (or Chess, etc etc) other than taking away their advantage of more skillful play, right? Those entitled jerks… it’s all the same!

I enjoy parity in games. In fact, I expect it. Arguably the hallmark of any “game” is consistent rules that apply to every player equally (assuming the game isn’t based around asymmetry). If someone beats you in a fair game by virtue of better skill or strategy, who could legitimately complain? Even if they won by virtue of simply having spent more time playing the game, how could you object? Tobold and others may point out that some people have more time than money, but I do not know anyone who has 25 hours in their day. In contrast, the dollar amount anyone could have on hand is effectively unbounded. You could have $10, you could have $1,000,000.

Perhaps this disagreement comes from differing definitions of parity. Tobold in later comments suggests no MMORPG features parity because different people have different amounts of time to spend playing the game. This is not a dilemma to me – as I mentioned previously, the both of us have the same 24 hours in a day in which to allocate our time. I have zero issue with you receiving greater rewards (etc) for having spent more time playing the game than I. In fact, it sort of boggles my mind that this is even a point of contention. Is that not how any activity should inherently work? “You spent more time reading a book and got farther into than I did… unfair!”

I might be able to see where people could get angry about someone meeting or exceeding your own skillful play by simply repeating a low-skill activity for days and days. But even then, the results of your skill is self-evident: you achieved the result more quickly with less (wasted) time.

Bringing real-world money into a game is NOT analogous to either skill nor time. The amount of money any of us have is the result of an entirely different “game,” which operates on entirely different “rules.” It is like me getting an extra Queen in a game of Chess simply because I won a game of Checkers last year. Did that giant pile of real-world money give you the freedom to spend more time playing the game than me? That is both okay and irrelevant. The uber-rich guy, the 12-year old on summer break, the dropout college student, or the oil rig worker on his two weeks off all value the time spending playing the game equally for as long as they do.

Desiring parity in the games you play is not entitlement. Desiring that fewer companies tether their business model to the rules of the games they make is not entitlement. Desiring to play games you are good at is not entitlement. Desire is not entitlement. When you use the word “entitlement” as a pejorative, all you are doing is asserting that someone has unreasonable expectations about something, without actually bothering to offer an argument or explanation as to why it is unreasonable.

 

Going in Blind

Now that enough time has past since GenCon, allow me to admit to a little secret: I don’t actually like card/board games that much. Crazy, right?

My issue with these games have nothing to do with their mechanics or pieces, so perhaps it’s a little misleading to say that I don’t like them. What I actually don’t enjoy is learning a new game in a competitive environment. I have no problem with the inherent randomness of rolling dice or drawing cards, but having to make blind decisions based on rules I’ve been introduced to moments ago? It always feels horrible to me.

One of the evenings after GenCon, the group retired to a hotel lobby to play Ladies & Gentlemen. The game itself was utterly fascinating in the way it effectively kept 9 people engaged 100% of the time without any awkward waiting for everyone else to take their turn. You pretty much have to have a minimum of 7 players for it to be fun (three teams + the Mistress), but it’s definitely a game I would recommend.

Unfortunately, I lost by two points. Not even “my partner and I lost”: me specifically. Because during one of the early turns I bought a purse (I was a Lady, of course) that was worth two points… but due to a rules misinterpretation on my part, it could not be counted as part of my “outfit score” at the end. And nearly three weeks later I am still stewing about it. Not because I lost, but because I lost for a really dumb reason.

Same deal back when I was learning to play Dominion with friends. I understood the rules for the most part, but it wasn’t until Game 3 or so that I began to understand the cadence, the rhythm behind the game. Which cards were better than others, the tension between buying more cards and diluting your own deck, the power of trashing certain cards, and so on. I went from the guy blindly spamming the A button in Super Smash Brothers to Sheik, nightmare princess. Until I get halfway down the mastery route though, I have close to zero fun playing these games, friends notwithstanding.

“Just go with it.” NO U. I’d rather flip a coin than make a blind decision, because at least with the coin we can all acknowledge that there was no actual choice involved. I will lose Risk, Texas Hold’em, and a dozen other card/board games graciously all night because I clearly made meaningful choices (or risk assessments) that did not pan out. A blind choice has no meaning to me, and a choice is blind until I fully understand the choice’s place in the full context of the game. Which, as you may imagine, is hard to do when you are playing it for the first time and have no reason to ever own it yourself.