Category Archives: Philosophy

Purposeful Obtuseness

The topic of purposeful obtuseness in game design is tricky. Limitations can actually spark creativity, whereas definitive answers typically cannot. But sometimes I think game designers try to be more “clever” than they should.

The most recent example I have experienced is in playing Factorio. There are Conveyor Belts, which move items along them. Each Conveyor Belt tile actually has two tracks: Left and Right. There are robotic arms which can transfer items from wherever and place them on the Conveyor Belt. These same robotic arms can pull items off the Conveyor Belt from either track. However, the robotic arm will only set items onto the Conveyor Belt on the far side. 

My question: why? No, seriously, why the fuck can’t we choose which side to set things on?

There are convoluted “solutions” out there for methods on how to move all items from, say, the Left track to the Right track. There are also solutions on how to construct paths such that a multi-track line is then later split off. None of these solutions involve, you know, telling robotic arms to place items on specific tracks. Maybe there is some huge programming reason why each robotic arm cannot be told to place on one track versus another. But you could certainly add a “near-side robotic arm” machine to the game and call it a day. 

Or perhaps the devs are being obtuse on purpose.

Oxygen Not Included is not immune to shenanigans. There is a Tepidizer in the game that you can use to heat up water. There is an limit to how hot it can get the water though, presumably because it would be too easy to create Steam systems otherwise. So the solution is to create an Aquatuner – a machine that cools down liquid and heats up itself – and then have the extremely hot Aquatuner boil water into Steam, which then will cool down the Aquatuner in the process. It’s “clever” and involves more steps/physics than simply heating up water via Tepidizer but it’s arbitrary as hell.

Drawing that line would be difficult indeed. But I do think there is a noticeable line somewhere. People have done some ludicrous, literal programming in Minecraft using the Redstone switches and such. That programming would be a lot easier with blocks that automatically did X or whatever. The difference, I think, is that the Redstone system is “simple.” It has the basest of building blocks. In Oxygen Not Included you already have the Tepidizer. In Factorio you already have robotic arms that place items on the far side of Conveyor Belts but are capable of grabbing items from both sides. No one can say Notch or whomever didn’t add something to the Redstone system to limit it on purpose.

Incidentally, other examples of purposeful obtuseness is when a game will feature crosshairs for everything other than weapons in which it would be OP. For example, the bow in Kingdom Come: Deliverance. An arrow to the face pretty much kills anyone but the balancing mechanism is apparently taking away the crosshair so you have to learn the trajectory by muscle memory. Or download a mod. Or dangle a piece of string down your computer monitor. Balanced!

So maybe the line is artificial limitations. I’m willing to accept no bow crosshairs if there were no crosshairs for anything else in the game. Similarly, I’d accept no easy Steam generators if the Tepidizer (or Aquatuner) didn’t exist. And finally, I’d accept lack of granularity with robotic arms and Conveyor Belts in Factorio if robotic arms could only retrieve items from the far side of the belt. 

But they don’t, so I don’t.

Rent to Never Own

It has been a long time coming, but I have fully surrendered into post-ownership mindset.

The transition is largely semantic. Nobody “owns” a Steam game in their library and never have – just a non-transferable, revocable license… unless you lucked out and live in a sane country that allows resellable digital goods. Nevertheless, a game library was a thing that had value and meaning, you know? It was exciting seeing Steam sales and bargain hunting so you could accumulate stuff.

At least that is what it felt like.

The final, frictionless step was seeing Final Fantasy XV appearing on the Xbox Game Pass. I was already a bit crestfallen seeing how Kingdom Come: Deliverance was on the Epic Store free-game docket, but FF15 just flipped the metaphysical lights off. It’s not that I felt like a chump for spending $12 on the Humble Bundle that included Kingdom Come or, well, however the hell I acquired FF15. It just became increasingly obvious that I don’t need to do anything anymore. Games just happen.

I beat The Outer Worlds on the Game Pass, and I will never play that game again. I also beat Children of Morta, and I will never play that game again either. I just started on Metro: Exodus, and it’s possible I don’t even bother getting through the tutorial. Why force myself to? The game cost nothing other than download time. Compare that to Outward, the first game I purchased in the Epic Store, and how getting my $5.99 refund request denied made me very salty (bought during the Winter sale and first played much later than 14 day limit).

It’s rote to say Netflix obliterated any desire of mine to own physical movie DVDs. And not even really all that accurate – it was Netflix and Hulu and HBO Go and Disney+ that obliterated all desire. Your favorite movie might have fallen off one service, but likely landed on another. Or perhaps the sheer number of choices, which would keep you busier than any free time you had available, simply made the concept of “favorite” meaningless. Who is rewatching movies anyway?

I will, of course, still be purchasing games on occasion. Probably. Final Fantasy 7 Remake isn’t going to just show up Day 1 on PS+ or wherever. Probably. But what I’m getting at is that if my Steam library just up and vanished – which is entirely possible, and unable to be appealed – I don’t know if I would be mad. Or even really notice. The last time I played something on Steam was December 8th. And damn near everything I would play is already on the Game Pass.

ApoligiCon

So how ’bout that BlizzCon?

Let me dedicate some space to the The Apology. Or, rather, “apology.” A lot of my fellow bloggers seemed surprised that one was offered right in the opening ceremony, but it seems unthinkable that Blizzard would have tried to not address the one thing that threatened to overshadow their whole trade show. Can you imagine the headlines all weekend if Brack said nothing?

Which is amusing to think about, because he did say nothing:

Before we start the opening ceremony, I want to say a few words. Y’know uh Blizzard had the opportunity to bring the world together in a tough Hearthstone Esports moment about a month ago and we did not. We moved too quickly in our decision making and then to make matters worse, we were too slow to talk with all of you. When I think about what I’m most unhappy about, there’s really two things. The first one is we didn’t live up to the high standards that we really set for ourselves and the second is that we failed at our purpose. And for that I’m sorry and I accept accountability.

I’m going to pause here, as it is a bit of a pet peeve of mine whenever someone says “I accept accountability” when there aren’t any consequences to account for. Imagine a parent saying that to the store manager when their child knocks over a display case, but then just leaving without, you know, paying for the shit that got broke. Brack “accepts accountability” and that means… what? Nothing. Is he going to take a pay cut? Resign? Maybe this will be filed in his Permanent Record?

[…] We will do better going forward. But, our actions are going to matter more than any of these words as we walk around this weekend. I hope it is clear how committed we are to everyone’s right to express themselves in all kinds of ways and all kinds of places. I’ve actually seen and heard many of you expressing yourselves this morning.

This is likely a reference to the protesters outside, the people wearing Hong Kong tshirts, and possibly the person walking around in a Winnie the Pooh costume. Which SynCaine sees as a huge deal, for Blizzard allowing someone to do. Because allowing them through the door is surely more potentially damaging than ejecting someone for an obscure reference to China’s president.

Give me a break.

What this apology did was give enough cover for those that were only reluctantly boycotting Blizzard to go back playing games guilt-free. As Brack clarifies in this PCGamer interview, the 6-month ban on Blitzchung (and the casters!) is staying. Would people have boycotted at all if this was the initial punishment? I don’t know – you tell me. The prize money confiscation was especially egregious in my mind, but the whole thing kind of reeks. At the same time, having no policy at all regarding non-Hearthstone speech during a Hearthstone victory interview seems untenable as well.

But, whatever. If an apology with nothing behind it is good enough to allow you to have fun playing videogames again, then have at it. I never joined the boycott myself, because half the items in my house come from China so it all seemed kind of hypocritical. Yes, Blizzard said the quiet part out loud. But if you think the makers of your George Foreman grill would not have also done the same thing in a hypothetical grilling tournament scenario, you are naive to the extreme. Same with the people flocking to Final Fantasy 14 after the controversy, as if Square Enix made some kind of heroic stand against China. You know, what with their partnership with Tencent and all.

I have nothing against principles. I love’em, in fact. But they only ever mean anything when you actually stick with them. If what Brack said at BlizzCon was enough to move your needle, well… maybe you were better off in the peanut gallery with the rest of us.

Internalization

To recap: Blizzard banned blitzchung on Tuesday for 1 year and took away his prize money.

Late in the day on Friday, Blizzard reverses course… a little bit. Basically, J. Allen Brack releases a non-apology hitting on Core Values and mission statements like it was co-authored by a guy desperately applying to the last open position in Human Resources. The brass tacks are that Blitzchung gets his prize money and he and the shoutcasters are only banned for six months.

Blizzard also very much wants you to know that while “the process wasn’t adequate, and we reacted too quickly,” that this speedy, inadequately processed response was not due to China:

The specific views expressed by blitzchung were NOT a factor in the decision we made. I want to be clear: our relationships in China had no influence on our decision.

We have these rules to keep the focus on the game and on the tournament to the benefit of a global audience, and that was the only consideration in the actions we took.

If this had been the opposing viewpoint delivered in the same divisive and deliberate way, we would have felt and acted the same.

That’s certainly in line with the Official Blizzard-China social media account of the incident back on Thursday (translated by IGN):

We express our strong indignation [or resentment] and condemnation of the events that occurred in the Hearthstone Asia Pacific competition last weekend and absolutely oppose the dissemination of personal political ideas during any events [or games]. The players involved will be banned, and the commentators involved will be immediately terminated from any official business. Also, we will protect [or safeguard] our national dignity [or honor].

Oh, wait, no it’s not.

The broader context of the drama is also instructive. Specifically, the General Manager for the Houston Rockets tweeted a pro-Hong Kong message that threatened to upend billions of dollars in NBA deals and merchandise in China. That tweet went out on October 4th, and the Chinese backlash – including banning broadcasts of Rockets’ games – started on October 6th.

The NBA sent out this tweet on October 7th:

“While Daryl has made it clear that his tweet does not represent the Rockets or the NBA, the values of the league support individuals educating themselves and sharing their views on matters important to them,” NBA said in a statement, adding: “We have great respect for the history and culture of China and hope that sports and the NBA can be used as a unifying force to bridge cultural divides and bring people together.”

Then on October 8th, after considerable domestic backlash, the NBA basically said “just kidding, we’re totes in favor of free speech.” To which China responded by immediately halting all NBA preseason broadcasts and issuing this statement:

“We express our strong dissatisfaction and opposition to Silver’s stated support of Morey’s right to free speech. We believe any remarks that challenge national sovereignty and social stability do not belong to the category of free speech,” the network said. “We will also immediately examine all other cooperation and exchanges with the NBA.”

Then, October 9th, all official Chinese partners with the NBA suspended ties.

…only to reverse course on October 10th, per the New York Times. The speculation is China started to realize how visible its hand up the asses of these puppets had become, and started to worry maybe things were becoming a bit too counter-productive. Indeed, China’s insane overreaction certainly has brought Hong Kong protests and China’s ethnic cleansing of Muslims into greater awareness, if only for a little while.

So, to summarize:

  • Oct 4th: Pro-Hong Kong tweet by Rockets’ General Manager
  • Oct 6th: Chinese backlash | blitzchung’s pro-Hong Kong interview statement
  • Oct 7th: NBA apologizes to China
  • Oct 8th: NBA takes it back, China angry | Blizzard apologizes to China, bans blitzchung
  • Oct 9th: China suspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 10th: China unsuspends relationship with NBA
  • Oct 11th: Blizzard lessens ban on blitzchung

Funny how that all works out.

In fairness to Blizzard, it is possible that everything is just a big coincidence. I doubt it was Brack himself who decided on the punishment – whomever made the call did already have a set of rules in black & white to follow, including the bit about zeroing out prize money. Beyond the bullshit, Blizzard also has a vested interest in not having the winner’s interview becoming a political podium. Imagine a parade of “Make America Great Again” and “Black Lives Matter” and “But Her Emails!” After seeing the wide-ranging backlash, it’s also entirely plausible to need a few days to properly vet a review and response.

However.

The deeper concern here is how much American companies and institutions may have internalized Chinese (government) values along the way. It is one thing for China to threaten to shut down access if a punishment is not meted out. It is a far more pernicious thing if the NBA and Blizzard preemptively overreacted on behalf of China, in anticipation of the belt. Their behavior this time has been very visible. What is less visible is when they change rules, company culture, and otherwise align themselves in subtle ways such that it becomes impossible to offend China in the first place.

No amount of free speech will overcome self-censorship, the Great Firewall in your mind.

…And Then Blizzard Lost It

These are interesting times we live in. And ones that seem to, on occasion, move very quickly.

The context, for posterity’s sake, is Blizzard confiscating the prize money from a recent Hearthstone event winner and banning him for a year due to a pro-Hong Kong Live interview statement. No, really. Here’s a link to the official Blizzard blog post, for however long that stays up:

Upon further review we have found the action has violated the 2019 Hearthstone Grandmasters Official Competition Rules section 6.1 (o) and is individual behavior which does not represent Blizzard or Hearthstone Esports. 6.1 (o) is found below.

2019 HEARTHSTONE® GRANDMASTERS OFFICIAL COMPETITION RULES v1.4   p.12, Section 6.1 (o)

Engaging in any act that, in Blizzard’s sole discretion, brings you into public disrepute, offends a portion or group of the public, or otherwise damages Blizzard image will result in removal from Grandmasters and reduction of the player’s prize total to $0 USD, in addition to other remedies which may be provided for under the Handbook and Blizzard’s Website Terms. 

The Hearthstone and WoW subreddits have since erupted into a roiling boil.

HS_Boil

At least two prominent bloggers on my roll have said they will be canceling their subscriptions. If posts on Reddit can be believed, there are thousands of others doing likewise. Not a particularly good bit of PR right as patch 8.3 previews are making the rounds and Blizzcon is less than a month away.

Of course, none of it is likely to matter. Blizzard made a completely rational business decision.

Tencent owning a 5% stake in Activision Blizzard is almost wholly irrelevant in the broader truth that China is an insanely large market for games. Like $31 billion and growing to $41.5 billion in five years kind of big. By 2023 there will be more PC gamers in China than the entire population of the US. The latest news is that the US pulled ahead this year in terms of market size, but that is attributed to the fact that China freezed approval of new game licenses for almost a year and put restrictions on screen time for children. Even with zero investment from Tencent, losing access to that “second place” market would be a significant setback for any gaming company.

Don’t get me wrong, I consider China to be one of the most repressive, authoritarian regimes on the planet. But… up to this point, that didn’t seem to matter to anyone. It could be that this was just a particularly egregious example that shocked people into wakefulness, similar to certain phone calls to Ukraine. And that’s fine! Whatever it takes to get people to pay attention to the fact that corporations are not your friend, and that if it were profitable, these men and women board members would have a fiduciary obligation to their shareholders to destabilize the United States and/or any other country.

Canceling your subscription and deleting Blizzard games is one way to protest. I hope you don’t close Battle.net and boot up League of Legends (100% Tencent owned), anything on the Epic Games launcher (48.4% owned), PUBG (11.5%), Path of Exile (80%), Clash of Clans/Royale (84.3%), or any of the other games on the list though. Perhaps that is unfair, as I don’t think the Path of Exiles devs have banned pro-Hong Kong players for interviews. On the other hand, I don’t think these other companies were forced to let go of the tiger’s tail just yet. Nevermind any non-Tencent companies that would be willing to walk the same road for access to hundreds of millions of Chinese customers.

Incidentally, the makers of Gods Unchained (another digital card game) came out with this statement:

.@Blizzard_Ent just banned @blitzchungHS and stripped his Hearthstone winnings because they care about money more than freedom. We will pay for ALL his lost winnings and a ticket to our $500k tournament: no player should be punished for their beliefs.

Cool, huh? I suppose it’s a bit easier to stand up to China when you build your card game around one-time printings of cards, including Mythic-rarity ones of which only four are printed per year, one of which just sold for $62,000:

GU_62k

A bargain at twice the price!

Ultimately, I do hope that Blizzard reverses course. I hope that all the negative PR and boycotting is effective enough at providing change. I hope that American companies will stop bending over backwards to appeal to oppressive regimes.

I had also hoped in the last election that people who would have literally died without Preexisting Conditions protections would not have voted for politicians expressly running to remove said protections, but here we are. This is the world in which we inhabit… until it bursts into flames.

Pebbles Can Still Ruin Your Day

Pebbles are small, but if one finds its way into your shoe and you can’t get it out, it can be enough to ruin your day. Or in this case, your gaming experience.

DOS2_Hidden

Another pebble: needing to walk around with Alt held down all the time

I started playing Divinity: Original Sin 2 (DOS2) recently, and it’s been fun thus far. There are a lot of interesting new design directions this time around, and I might talk about them in a different post. In this post though, we need to talk about a pebble: inventory management.

…actually, that might not be the root of the issue. This pebble has layers.

DOS2 and the series in general makes a big deal about the autonomy and uniqueness of each character. Characters have origin stories, personal quests, unique special abilities, and their own dialog options. Talk with one distraught woman as Ifan and she shouts “stay away from me you disgusting pig!” Talk with the same woman as Sebille, and you’ll hear her story. It’s immersive… to a point. It’s also awkward, considering you are a player controlling four unique beings, one of which is supposed to be the “main” character.

The awkwardness extends out into the game proper too. Some of the “Civil Abilities” you can put points into are Persuasion and Bartering. The former will let you overcome conversation checks, while also improving your discount with a vendor; the latter improves just the latter. That’s fine, right? It’s typical for CRPGs to essentially encourage specialization, such as you have someone really good at disarming traps, someone running interference for your wizards, and so on.

DOS2_Pebble

It’s 2% now, sure, but it’ll be higher later… and not even the point

The problem is when the “main” character isn’t the one with the Persuasion skills. I had been playing for about 5 hours and wanted to offload some goods at a local vendor, only to realize that the person with the biggest discount wasn’t carrying any of the merchandise. And there was zero way to move items around except one at a time. That’s the pebble. There’s a “workaround” where you stash everything inside a backpack that you can then pass around, but that still involves manually moving one item at a time into the backpack. Why isn’t there a “move all items” option?

My characters are like level 3, and the difference between the “main” character I had been controlling and scooping up all the loot with and the guy with the highest discount is 2%. No big deal, yeah? Also, there is apparently a magic mirror in Act 2 or whatever that allows you to freely respec all your characters any number of times, so I’ll be able to solve this Persuasion situation to make my “main” character also be the primary seller.

Like I said, it’s a pebble, not some bottomless chasm.

…at the same time, this little pebble is drawing my attention to the fact I’m walking on a trail full of them. With sandals. I made Ifan a Summoner, who is apparently going to need to be the most Persuasive out of the bunch if I want to be using him to click on treasure chests and dead bodies. Or I could keep the Red Prince as the sell-bot since he’s already the best at it, but that would mean I’ll need to be using him to pick up stuff and talk to people. That would mean I’ll miss out on Ifan’s dialog options though, so I’ll need Ifan to be the sell-bot. But he’s a Summoner, not a warrior, so my carrying capacity is lower. I guess I could move crafting material around to compensate…

DOS2_Dialog

Significantly more chatty than when I clicked on her with Ifan

By the way, there’s another Civil Ability called Lucky Charm that gives you a chance of finding special loot in every container you check. Originally, this proc’d only if the character who had the skill checked the container. It’s since been patched to be party-wide, which is nice. Because that is otherwise insane. Which is what is kinda feels like for the rest of these abilities.

All of the above because I noticed a 2% discount between characters. But try walking for 80+ hours with a pebble in your shoe and tell me it doesn’t become a big deal over time. And make you question why you can’t just take off your shoe for a second and get it the hell out.

Transition Gap

Sometimes gaming progress does not happen smoothly. Instead of one thing immediately leading into another, there is a sort of gap that must be leapt across. While not insurmountable, this break in progress can become a source of resistance to continuing to play a game at all.

ONI_IronVolcano

Oh, an Iron Volcano in my Ice biome. That’s gonna be a Future-Me problem.

I am playing Oxygen Not Included (ONI) again. As I have described before, the game is deceptively easy at the start, but there are disasters looming in every detail. Some things are obvious, like your Dupes running out of Oxygen. Other things are much less so, like the fact that your Dupes just dug out a section of rock – which you told them to do – and then placed the 40°C (!!) rock in a storage container in the middle of your base, and now everything is heating up. Oops.

For the most part, it is generally easier to start a new game with a new map than it is to try and fix a disaster in progress. Plus, it’s fun seeing what goodies the RNG fairies might deliver to you. Cold biome nearby? Natural Gas Geyser ready to be tapped? Awesome.

Nevertheless, there is a specific transition gap that I inevitably reach and often quit playing rather than make the jump. In ONI, that gap is the Electrolyzer. This is a device that turns water into Oxygen and Hydrogen, and is pretty much the solution for breathable air for the rest of any ONI run.

It’s also a pain in the ass.

Up to this point, you make air by burning Algae, and it’s relatively straight-forward. With the Electrolyzer, you have to worry about piping the Hydrogen somewhere else, as otherwise it will clog the ceiling of whatever room you are in.

ONI_SPOM

Pictured: mythical SPOM

In ONI-land, there is the mythical SPOM, or Self-Powering Oxygen Module. This is a solved solution for creating an effectively infinite air source with no maintenance or upkeep aside from water; a Hydrogen Power station powers the Electrolyzer, which supplies the station with fuel.

Despite there being a ready-made solution to the problem, or perhaps in spite of this fact, I typically end my ONI runs here. The SPOM is not particularly intuitive, so I basically need to copy it part-by-part from a Youtube guide. Even if I don’t create the SPOM specifically, the Electrolyzer still necessitates your base to account for mixed gases. Ignore the problem long enough, and it’ll be even more a pain in the ass later.

Finally, even with a cut-and-paste SPOM, you still need a ton of water at the ready to feed the beast. Where will all that water come from? Typically, the only long-term solution is to find a Steam Geyser somewhere on the map, but that could take a while, and possibly be nowhere close to you. If you set up a functioning plumbing system, you can technically harvest some additional H20 via that route. Of course, that will also require extensive planning of your base, and how you’ll be handling the hot water that comes out of a Water Sieve.

Good times. Or, maybe not so much.

ONI_Base2019

Made the leap, not sure I’m enjoying the other side.

I have bridged the the Electrolyzer gap before. It’s not an insurmountable problem, especially considering the ubiquitous of the SPOM design in guides. It just takes a lot of mental headspace at a very specific moment in an hitherto casual colony management sim. Or rather, it is at this moment that Oxygen Not Included reveals itself to be a more complicated beast than you have imagined.

Many games have these transition gaps. The best designed among them either shorten the gap, or get you in the habit of hopping long before you reach the gap that matters. Otherwise, the devs risk players landing on their face. Or perhaps worse: practicing to make the leap, doing so, and then being bored on the other side.

Marshmallow Test

I really wish game developers would just let us eat the damn marshmallows already.

If you have never heard of the test before:

The Stanford marshmallow experiment was a series of studies on delayed gratification in the late 1960s and early 1970s led by psychologist Walter Mischel, then a professor at Stanford University.[1] In these studies, a child was offered a choice between one small reward provided immediately or two small rewards if they waited for a short period, approximately 15 minutes, during which the tester left the room and then returned. (Wiki)

I have been playing Prey lately, and noticed it does something similar. Over the course of gameplay, you accumulate a number of Neuromods, which are essentially skill points. At the beginning, you can only assign these points in “traditional” skills, such as hacking, increased weapon damage, more inventory space, and so on. A few more hours of gameplay later, you will be able to invest points in “alien” skills, like Kinetic Blast, short-term mind control, flame traps, etc. The game warns you though, that if you start gaining alien skills, the security system (e.g. turrets) in the space station will start registering you as an alien. It might also affect which ending you receive, although I have resisted looking at spoilers for that.

That is basically the marshmallow test. You can either be rewarded with fun new toys now… or you can abstain and be “rewarded” with a better ending later.

Prey is nowhere near the worst offender here. I have also been playing through the DLC of Dishonored off and on, and it’s a thousand times worse. In Dishonored, killing people (instead of knocking them out) increases the “chaos” of the city, which not only leads to a bad ending, it also makes the game harder by spawning swarms of rats that attack you on sight (and are immune to typical assassination skills). Which would be somewhat fine, if it were not for the fact that damn near 95% of the abilities and skills you unlock through gameplay revolve around killing people.

Life is full of delayed gratification. Most of us spend ~40 hours a week doing something we’d prefer not doing, in order to receive money weeks from now to finance the things we actually do want to do. Delaying our already-delayed gratification is some Inception-style nonsense.

Now, I do not necessarily have an issue with the best endings being difficult to achieve, or the existence of Achievements, or even just choice in general. What I have an issue with is a game that gives you a carrot and then beats you with a stick for eating it. The original Deus Ex made you choose between invisibility to humans and invisibility to robots. That’s a good choice! Note how the designers didn’t give you access to invisibility and then tell you there would be dire consequences to using it. That would be dumb.

Do not make your players choose between Fun and No Fun. Because some of them are dumb enough to choose No Fun, even when they hate marshmallows. Save us from ourselves.

Meaningful Experiences

I was browsing Kotaku the other day, and a paragraph struck me:

Nobody ever asks why anyone stopped playing Halo 2. No response would merit it. The game came out in 2004, and three years later, there was Halo 3. At some point, it got old. Another game came along. Friends moved on. It was just a thing you did, and then you went and did something else.

This is something I struggle with, internally. Not Halo 2, but with the general concept.

I used to play a lot of Counter-Strike back in the day. So much so that I was extremely bitter when version 1.6 came out and changed the way a lot of the guns fired (1.5 for life). I transitioned into Warcraft 3-modded Counter-Strike servers – Night Elves went invisible when they stopped moving, Undead had low-gravity and regain health when dealing damage, etc – before finally moving on entirely to Battlefield 2. I played that damn near daily for like four years. Then Magic Online for a while, then World of Warcraft for a decade.

Looking back, what can I even say about any of those decades of gaming?

“I had fun playing Counter-Strike.” Maybe someone else can say “me too,” and then commiserate about X or Y change in the intervening years. But that’s it. We can’t really share our experiences in any further detail – you had to be there in that moment, else it’s just a vague sentiment, if one tries to communicate the feeling at all. WoW is different in the sense that I eventually met my guildmates in the real world – and invited each other to our weddings – but I can’t imagine meaningfully talking with some random WoW player on the street.

Contrast that with, say, any of the Final Fantasy games. Or Silent Hill. Or really any single-player, narrative experience. If someone says their favorite game is Xenogears, I could meaningfully talk with them for hours. We could discuss our favorite team compositions, how shocked we were about X revelation, how funny the mistranlations were, and so on. That means something in a way that “This one time on de_dust…” does not. We played the same game, but had different experiences.

At the same time, I don’t want to denigrate other peoples’ experiences. I wouldn’t suggest that someone hiking in the woods or fishing is wasting their time, despite those discreet events being equally ephemeral and unrelatable. There are people who simply enjoy wandering around virtual worlds, like there are people wandering around the real world. If that’s what you like, keep doing it.

I worry about myself though. I started Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice the other day, and enjoyed the play session. After that, it’s been days and days of Slay the Spire (Ascension 12 with the Silent) and 7 Days to Die. The latter is especially egregious, considering it is in an unfinished Alpha state. Why not put it down and go back to Hellblade, which is – by all accounts – a much deeper experience? Because, in that moment, these other (potentially vapid) experiences are 5% more pleasurable.

“If you’re having fun, what does it matter?” Well… wirehead. Also, having fun, in of itself, is not relatable. Which, I suppose, belies an underlying desire of mine to be relatable or at least capable of conveying relatable experiences. Even if there were people who wanted to read “I had fun playing videogames today,” I wouldn’t want to write just that. There should be something more.

I dunno. It would be one thing if the dilemma was between playing videogames and completing some meaningful task IRL. It’s not. There is nothing more #firstworldproblems than angst surrounding which two leisure activities provides the most long-term utility. Nevertheless, the worry exists, alongside a deeper one as to whether wirehead experiences have increased my fun tolerance beyond the reach of narrative games altogether. Or perhaps I am simply playing the wrong narrative games.

Opaque RNG is Indistinguishable from Rigging

My patience with enforced 50% win rates is paper graphene-thin.

“A fair game is one in which you win half the time.” It’s hard to argue against such a notion. What is more fair than a coin flip? The problem is that players aren’t equal sides of a coin, nor are the thousands of potential actions reducible to two, easily predictive binary outcomes. Some approximation is required. Or a developer thumb on the scale.

I am still playing Clash Royale despite the disastrous pivot towards blood stone squeezing, and the conceptual breakdown of all progression for long-term players. But some of their shit is driving me up a wall, and will eventually drive me from the game entirely. Specifically, Clan Wars, and even more specifically, a particular game mode with preconstructed decks.

To be sure, there are learning curves involved. Supercell basically took some “top decks” and added them to a pool, from which you are randomly assigned one for a single game. The problem is that some of these decks are just objectively terrible with no redeeming qualities, and still others are straight-up countered by some of the other matchups. For example, these two Classic Decks Battles:

clashroyal_classicdecks

Bullshit on the left, winners on the right.

In the first match (at the bottom), my Royal Hogs are immediately countered by Valkyrie, Mega Knight is immediately countered by Inferno Tower. Amusingly, Royal Hogs are also countered by Inferno Tower and Mega Knight by Valkyrie, assuming my opponent times it right. Meanwhile, while I can counter his Goblin Barrel with Arrows, they both cost 3 Elixir and thus end in a wash… with the slightest error on my part resulting in easily >30% tower damage. Meanwhile, my Zappies are basically useless, my Inferno Dragon even more useless, and I can’t use Arrows to counter his Princess or Goblin Gang because then I become vulnerable to Goblin Barrel. I also can’t hope to Fireball him out because he also has Rocket, which deals way more damage than Fireball. The ONLY way anyone could possibly win with the deck I was given was if the opponent was AFK. 1

For a WoW analogy, think Warrior (me) vs Frost Mage (opponent).

The second matchup wasn’t technically as lopsided, but still awful. Bandit is straight-up countered by pretty much every card in the opponent’s deck. Rascals + Zap took care of Minion Horde every time I threw one down, and Hog Rider/Mortar/Goblin Gang meant I could be punished immediately for dropping Elixir Collector or Three Musketeers. Which is what happened, pretty consistently. If I played better, I might have been able to distract a Mortar with my Valkyrie or Bandit in the other lane, and then split a Three Musketeers or something in the middle, followed by a split Minion Horde. Even then, if he played defensive for 20 seconds, my shit would have been countered.

Were these match-ups truly random? Or “enforced” 50% win rates? There is no direct economic incentive for Supercell to “rig” the Classic Decks Battle mode, but the RNG is opaque and it would certainly be a method to ensure that winrates do not get too lopsided.

The third clan war battle I played was Draft. In this game mode, you are given a choice of one of two cards, four times total; whatever you don’t pick goes to your opponent. I’m not sure if the card pairings are 100% random, but you can absolutely get stuck with some extremely shitty decks and/or matchups. And yet I’m fine with that. You as the player have some agency, even with imperfect information, e.g. choosing Minion Horde when opponent might have chosen Arrows. Indeed, Minion Horde in particular is a classical risky pick because of how many cards can counter it… but if your opponent doesn’t have any of those counters, it can be an overwhelming advantage.

My feelings on enforced winrates have changed over the years. Initially, it seemed fine. Necessary, even. But it is rigging, especially in the methods that many game developers go about it: pairing you with terrible teammates, matching you against strong counters, etc. The end result is that I simply cannot trust game developers with (opaque) RNG anymore. They have no incentive to be actually fair – however fairness is defined – and every incentive to produce favorable (to the devs) results. Even if they showed me the specific game code that chooses the matches, I have no reason to believe it operates in that way. This age of monetization and consumer surplus erosion has pushed me past the Cynicism Horizon, from which no trust can escape.

The only thing that game designers can do, and the thing they should be doing, is increasing player agency in the RNG elements. Drafting feels fair, even when the results are not. Maybe it is just another psychological trick to employ, giving someone the “choice” between a rock or a hard place. But it is an important one for not appearing so nakedly rigged in favor of one particular outcome.

1 If you can produce some videos of pros beating non-AFK people with the decks I was given, I’ll concede that I need to L2P. I typically end the season at 4800 trophies and can acknowledge mistakes, but on paper and in practice, those match-ups felt lopsided as hell.