Sunday, 9 June 2013

Xbox One Thoughts

Microsoft's Xbox division have been sliding over the last few years from their late 2000s image as the prime movers in the console business into something more like classic corporate Microsoft. This transition has hit a new peak in the last month with the reveal of the Xbox One, and the associated furore around DRM, privacy concerns, and apparent sidelining of the core gaming audience. On the last point, my opinion is that I'm giving them the benefit of the doubt; Microsoft representatives all but said that the reveal three weeks ago was to get all of the information that gamers hate being talked about at E3 out of the way (TV, TV, TV, sports) so that the focus at E3 could be on games. As for the rest of it, I have opinions that I don't think are easily captured in a tweet, or an image with some snarky text on it. So here it is in long form.

Enraging The Internet

I haven't been surprised by many of the announcements Microsoft have made mostly because of the amount of information that leaked out in the months leading up to their reveal event. What has surprised me is the terrible PR work Microsoft has been doing. Not having prepared answers to questions about always online requirements and used game sales for the interviews directly following the reveal is astonishing. Waiting two weeks before putting out statements on the specifics while rumours solidified into assumed facts is stupid. A five minute meeting before the big day in which someone said "If you're asked about DRM or always online say we're not talking about that at this time." would have put them in line with Sony's poker faced response to such questions. The "Sony is games" versus "Xbox is TV" narrative would still exist, but the Sony-as-benevolent-consumer-advocate image would not have grown. I don't care about who "wins" beyond wanting some decent competition, and thinking the Xbox controllers are comprehensively better than DualShocks, but watching a company that big screw up PR that hard is mind boggling.

The Key Fact

Microsoft have made the decision that owning a disc no longer serves as proof that the owner has the right to play the game. The new interpretation is that buying a disc confers a licence to play the game and a convenient copy of the data required to do so. Although this has technically always been the case, as a practical matter it has been disc equals game. It is worth noting that consumers have for a long time expected paying for a game to mean more than simply being able to play the game on the disc: Things like rebalancing for multiplayer games and bug-fix patches have significant cost which gamers expect to receive for free. The downsides of the new interpretation to consumers are myriad, including no or limited ability to resell or lend games, and are causing a lot of anger.

Changing the definition of game ownership so that having a disc doesn't mean owning the game is the root cause of most subsequent DRM decisions Microsoft has made, and most of the anger that has come from consumers.

Microsoft Don't Care About Consumers

Lots of people have referred to the Xbox One's DRM measures as anti-consumer. Mostly people are not clear on the definition but it seems to roughly mean "it is more difficult to consume the media I have legally purchased". This is true and as such it sucks. Then again, a consumer is of no inherent value to Microsoft. What Microsoft wants is profitable customers. There are several ways in which, thinking only of games, a consumer can be a profitable customer:

  • Buy a new game on disc. The store, the publisher and Microsoft all get money.
  • Buy a new game digitally. The publisher and Microsoft both get money.
  • Pay for a Live Gold subscription. Microsoft makes money.
  • Buy DLC. The publisher and Microsoft make money.

Ways in which a consumer is non-profitable customer

  • Buy an Xbox One. Historically, for the first couple of years of a generation manufacturers sell consoles at a loss. Buying a console actually costs Microsoft money.
  • Use a Live Silver account. While I'm sure the cost of running Xbox Live on a per user basis is quite low, it is non-zero. Silver accounts are free and as such if a person uses an Xbox One, for which they must have a Live account, their continued use of the service costs Microsoft money

I would assume by now that the Live Silver costs are offset by advertising revenue, so I suppose a Silver account might be profitable over time. Finally, there are ways in which a consumer is not a customer at all

  • Borrow a game from a friend. Nobody gets money.
  • Buy a used game. The store gets money.

This last list is the critical one. It is absolutely true that inhibiting lending/reselling game discs is an erosion of consumer choice (whether or not it's an erosion of consumer rights is a trickier one, given the above redefinition of what a game disc signifies) and that the Xbox One is worse for consumers than the Xbox 360 was. The reason is straightforward though: Microsoft is a company trying to make money, and consumers who aren't customers are at best not making Microsoft any money and, at worst, costing it money.

Does this strategy mean that it will become more expensive to be a console gamer if you choose to buy an Xbox One? Overall, yes. For me it probably won't because I don't buy used games, and I've borrowed maybe half a dozen games over the course of the entire previous generation, half of which were on PS3 anyway (I'd still prefer if I could lend/borrow games of course). For people who trade in a reasonable proportion of the games they buy and use that money to purchase more games, it will be either more expensive, or they will play less games.

Needing The Internet For DRM

In addition to the negative consequences intrinsic to the disc no longer being the game, there are also negative side effects. If a game can be installed from the disc and played without the disc in the drive then piracy on consoles goes from being quite difficult to being so trivial that many consumers probably wouldn't even recognise it as piracy. As a result in order for games to function the Xbox One needs to connect to the internet for verification at least once every 24 hours. This window constricts to once every hour if the game is being played on a console that isn't the personal console of the game owner. Microsoft don't have to lock down easy copying of course, it is still possible to copy like this with a music CD and the music industry isn't dead, but it was always going to lock it down.

I can't speak to how big an issue the 24 hour check is going to be for people. My internet is reliable enough that I can't remember the last time I went 24 hours without service and even the one hour version would surprise me if I was impacted by it. That said, I have no idea how flaky or unreliable internet connections can get in places I don't live, but I defer to people who are in this situation as to how bad it might be (One thing that does frustrate me reading the complaints about the online requirements, mostly made by gaming press living in San Francisco or New York, is their condescending assumption that major American cities are the only place in the world with reliable internet. It's OK, you guys, we have the internet elsewhere in the world, and in cities with populations under a million, don't worry about us). Also worth remembering is that for those people who will use their Xbox One primarily for multiplayer gaming (never mind Netflix and that other non-gaming stuff), these online checks mean nothing at all. Their console is already checking in multiple times per second, so once every 24 hours shouldn't be a problem.

There are a raft of legitimate reasons someone might not be able to connect their Xbox One to the internet for in a 24 hour period: moving house and waiting for internet to be connected, weekend away in non-internet capable area, running a fighting game tournament, deployed to a military base. The first two cases are a straightforward business decision: the customer is always right but Microsoft are going to insist on proof that the user is a customer, and make the call that a very rare occurrence is not going to be enough to drive the customer away completely. The second two are interesting cases from a PR standpoint, and I'm intrigued to see if Microsoft do anything to deal with them.

Some people have argued that the online restriction would be acceptable if it was 72 hours, or maybe 7 days. 72 hours is borderline because it gives someone a weekend to play a game without ever being verified, which is enough time to comfortably play through a game in a lot of cases. 7 days is the point at which the check might as well be removed; the protection it provides Microsoft is so negligible that the positive PR spin of not having online checks at all would be worth more.

As with restricting used game sales, does the online check make it harder for people to play games? Yes. It makes it slightly harder for paying customers, and much harder for non-paying consumers. Microsoft have clearly weighed the numbers (how well remains to be seen) and decided that it's worth it. Being treated as an income stream rather than a beautiful snowflake is fair cause to get angry, as is being told how and when to consume media, but it's hardly a feeling that should be new to anybody who interacts with the modern world.

Just Like Steam, Or Not

This argument is being used quite a lot, and for good reason. The Xbox One policies on ownership of disc based games are very similar to Valve's Steam service. Most people are familiar with Steam as a purely digital service, but it has been and still is possible to go into a store and buy a boxed copy of a PC game that uses Steam. That boxed copy will provide a key and a disc with the game content. Once the key is entered into Steam, the disc might as well be a coaster for all the consumer rights it confers.

The major difference is that there is no serious used game market for PCs. There are a number of reasons for this but chief among them is the heavy DRM imposed on PC users by companies like Valve (Steam), EA (Origin), and Blizzard ( Consumers don't expect to be able to trade in PC games because they haven't been able to for the better part of ten years. Console owners feel aggrieved because they are losing the ability to do something, which is fair enough.

As an aside, if there's something the Xbox One systems is more similar to than Steam it's the existing Xbox 360 digital marketplace. The disc-based policy of the Xbox One One can be summarised as being a slightly more flexible policy of the rules that govern existing Xbox One digital content.

Valve have, both through action and good PR, generated a massive amount of goodwill in the gaming community. Their service is reliable, customer support has a good history of helping people out with troubleshooting and refunds. Games often have their price dropped over time to reflect a realistic market value, and Steam runs sales which heavily discount games on a regular basis, to the point where the most common complaint people have about Steam is that they have bought more games than they can possibly play. The last important difference is that the PC isn't only publisher sandboxes; when it comes to indie games at least there are a wide variety of DRM and restriction free outlets which help to keep some of the worst practices publishers could engage in under control.

Microsoft have approximately none of this. Live is a reliable service, but when it comes to customer service and reasonable pricing (especially if for those in non-US regions), Microsoft is found wanting in comparison to Valve. On the positive side Microsoft have actually started to have serious sales on Xbox Live over the last eighteen months or so. Whether this has been a fire sale to try and get people back into a flagging platform, or a permanent decision that providing customer discounts is a worthwhile action remains to be seen, but the idea of competitive pricing and sales has at least gained enough traction at Microsoft that they've tried it.

These differences are important because in the new console-as-a-service world that Microsoft are trying to bring about, the lock-in is total. It is no longer possible to buy a console, never connect it to Live, and just play the games as they come on the disc. When a company asks for that level of trust from a customer, they need to prove that they deserve to get it.

On The PlayStation 4

I don't want to include much in the way of Sony comparisons here because it mostly deals with information about things Sony has yet to talk about in any detail and "Sony will probably be the same" is not a compelling argument in favour of bad behaviour. However, I do want to make a quick point about the always online aspect. The Xbox One information suggests that a 1.5Mbps connection is required for a "comfortable experience". What exactly that means remains to be seen. It could be anything from the Xbox One is constantly streaming all sorts of data at 1.5Mbps and will permanently consume at least that much of a home internet connection, to 1.5Mbps being the speed at which things like marketplace pages load responsively. Whatever the case, when Sony get around to providing such details I find it difficult to imagine that the PS4 will be providing its most talked about features (live HD streaming of gameplay, day one digital purchases, streaming playable game demos) "comfortably" with less than a 1.5Mbps connection. Both console launched have talked extensively about connectedness and that means bandwidth, and lots of it.

Privacy Invasion

I have talked elsewhere about the problem of using "listening" but I'm going to do so anyway because there's not a better verb at hand. The major privacy concern with the Xbox One is that the Kinect must be attached and that it will be listening even when the Xbox One is turned off. Specifically it will be listening for "Xbox On" so that it can turn the system on. Microsoft have explicitly stated that this feature can be turned off, and that all other Kinect sensor features can be paused. This, of course, has not been enough for some people who still have concerns over what exactly the Kinect is capturing and what it's doing with that data. I'm going to ignore the vague unease people may feel about their Xbox One "watching" them or "listening" to them, because it's not. It's an inanimate object. The more real concern about what is being done with captured data is trickier. The only real way to be sure about that is to wait for a few weeks after launch when somebody captures all the information being sent out of the Xbox One and finds out what's in there.

Personally I would be no more concerned about Kinect invading my privacy than any other device or online account I have, which is to say not more than I appreciate the provided service.

Just Like An iPhone, Or Not

The argument has been made that the Kinect is no more invasive than the GPS, camera and microphone in an iPhone. After all, the Kinect is just a camera and microphone. The counterargument is straightforward: on an iPhone the user has control over when and how those services are used, on the Kinect there is no such control.

In terms of as-advertised functionality, there is no difference. On an iPhone, the sensors are only used when the user explicitly allows them to be used. iOS has built-in controls to force a dialog asking the user if an app can use GPS data, for example. On the Kinect, despite people apparently wilfully misreading the FAQ, the user can turn off all the functionality. When turned off, the sensors are still powered but are not capturing any information.

When it comes to tinfoil-hat territory, things look a bit different. On the iPhone all of the sensors are soft controlled by iOS. It brings up a dialog asking if an app can use location data, but the user can't be sure their choice is being respected. The microphone turns on when a user answers a call, but there's no way to force it off at any other time. Siri sends a lot of the processing of commands to remote servers, maybe Apple are leaving the microphone on, capturing everything it picks up and sending it to be remotely processed by their nefarious black ops division. How can a user know that the camera is off, maybe it has a permanent FaceTime connection to the Illuminati. It's not even possible to safely turn the phone itself off because the battery is always connected.

None of this is actually the case and no normal user worries about it, because it's insane paranoid bullshit. For some reason though, people are willing to believe Microsoft will secretly leave the Kinect on in direct contradiction to user input, capture data and stream it all directly to the NSA as part of some sort of PRISM-esque Orwellian nightmare. Or worse, sell it to advertisers.

In Conclusion

I don't currently plan on buying either an Xbox One or PS4 at launch, solely because no games that interest me have been announced as console exclusive, so I can play them on my PC. The Xbox One is, depending on your definition of course, somewhat anti-consumer and it is worth considering the privacy implications if you choose to buy one. I think it is fair to say that the Xbox One is reflective of an attitude from Microsoft that is less interested in what consumers want than what consumers will accept, and that it is a product aimed to work best for those most able and willing to spend money. However I think the magnitude of the reaction is disproportionate to the what the real negative impact will be for most gamers. I'm normally wrong about these things.

Saturday, 8 December 2012

Player Agency And Narrative Engagement, or, Press X To Cry

The defining characteristic of video games compared to other media is that video games are interactive. It makes sense, therefore, that designers want to incorporate interactivity into the increasingly important, or at least heavily focused on, narrative elements of games. Although players can have a strong impact on the game world, for example by killing the population of a small country, traditionally the player has had limited ability to be involved in the more subtle elements of the narrative. Modern games enable player agency in narrative primarily through presenting the player with decisions. These decisions result in variations to the flow of the game, from world events to character relationships. Most often binary, and never more than a handful of options, these choices make up the branching narrative that most people are familiar with. It is unfortunate therefore that these interactions lack sophistication and often detract from the story more than they enhance it.

There are two major components to plot choices made in video games, namely the narrative and the ethical. The narrative refers to player making a choice based on real or projected aspects of the game world. The question being asked of the player in this case is "how would you like the story to unfold from here?" When making a narrative choice, the player might be expected to consider what they think a character would do, what will lead to the best ending, or simply what's going to be cooler. Although couched in player avatar action, the fundamental aim of such choices is a clear invitation to the player to affect how the story proceeds.

Ethical choices, by comparison, pose the question "what would you do in this situation?". There is no obvious good or bad outcome from a mechanical point of view, and the player often does not have enough information about the protagonist to be able to seriously consider what the character would do. Choices which focus on the ethical component seek to engage the player not as entertainment but rather as a more mentally intense activity.

Broadly speaking, the narrative element of a choice engages the player by highlighting the influence the player has on the world, while the ethical element increases the player's emotional engagement. No matter how ethically or emotionally complex the situation, however, the physical interaction the player has with the game in making the decision is limited by the primitive nature of the controller (discussed in previously here). Take the example of a player given the choice to leave an injured NPC behind to die rather than have them slow down the group. This is presented as an ethical choice, the player will make that choice and then press a button to indicate their decision. In this case, the designer has captured to some degree the turmoil of making the decision, but the player needs only a spit second of resolve to make it. They are not required to do anything to get through the execution of that decision, to tell the NPCs of what will happen. Should designers then not include situations where the execution of a decision cannot be well modelled? Not necessarily, but the execution of a choice should be more difficult than simply pressing a button.

The potential emotional impact of making these decisions in a game is lessened because there is no "what if?". Making a choice is difficult because in part of the knowledge that, once made, the consequences of the choice are irreversible. We may play out a thousand alternative scenarios in our head, but there is no way of verifying their accuracy, let alone ever seeing them actually play out. In a game, if a player wants to find out what would have happened had they made the other choice, they can replay the game, or just find it on YouTube. The alternative scenarios are not hypothetical, they are sitting fully realised on the disc (or more likely in the download directory) and that knowledge diminishes the emotional impact of making ethical choices. It's true that putting the player in control of the situation makes them more invested in the consequences, but the negative effects of knowing that whatever decision is made can be reconsidered and remade are greater. Unfortunately there is no current way around this problem: in order to allow for choice, developers are required to make the content to cover all possible outcomes. Further, if voice acting and performance capture are being used, the number of outcomes that can realistically be covered is very limited.

It is an admirable goal to enable players to have meaningful interactions with characters and events in a game world. However, using simplistic decision mechanics to create branching narratives is a technique which has minimal room for improvement, and one which has been exploited to its limits. Whatever the future is for player agency in video game narrative, it needs to be more than pressing X to decide who lives and dies.

Friday, 7 December 2012

Why I Didn't Get Past Episode 1 of The Walking Dead

Player: Hi There
NPC: Hello. How can I help you?
Player: I don't know yet, I just know I have to talk to you. I can't do anything of meaning until I've talked to everyone around here. Eventually someone will say something that triggers the next event.
NPC: But surely someone gave you a reason to talk to me? Otherwise you're what, walking around making small talk with complete strangers for no real reason?
Player: Yup. I'm sick of this.
NPC: Sick of what?
Player: These conversations. First a head shot of me which some petrified facial expression, with at most an out of focus back of your head side of frame while I talk. And then it will switch to you when you have to talk.
NPC: Oh yeah, I guess you're right.
Player: And we continue like this.
NPC: I'd never noticed before.
Player: Once you do, you'll notice it all the time.
NPC: They do this in films quite a lot, too.
Player: That's true. Although in films obviously the actors can give a lot more nuance than these models, and it's really quite difficult to do good subtle gesturing and body movement in games so we tend to stick more to the head shots. And on top of that our dialogue is often more in-keeping with the length of novel text than film. Especially the diatribes you're likely to go on shortly.
NPC: I don't feel like I'm going to go on a diatribe.
Player: Trust me, at some point I'll ask you why the flowers near here are blue or something equally trivial and you will explain the entire botanical history or the world. It will be interminable. 
NPC: I presume you want to talk to me about something in particular but this conversation is astonishingly banal. It seems like this will go like this forever.
Player: Not forever, eventually I'll get to the point.
NPC: Why wait?
Player: I'm not sure. I'm normally in some sort of high pressure situation, but neither I or anyone I talk to seems to be in any hurry. And honestly, often I don't know the point until the conversation is half over.
NPC: Have you considered staying on task better?
Player: I'd like to but I have no control over what I actually say yet. I'd like to figure out what I need to do to trip the thing that move this scene on. You may have noticed it's starting to drag.
NPC: Surely you'd like to know something about me and why I'm here?
Player: Given I've never seen you before, seem unlikely to again, and you, no offense, seem pretty easy to figure out, why would I?
NPC: Add some flavour to your experience. A little bit of insight into the world you live in.
Player: Not really. I do need to move on here, but something tells me you'll want to discuss something else first.
NPC: Funny you should mention that. I do have some things I could talk to you about before I mention anything important. I'll just sit here in a small animation loop while you pick one.

1. Tell me more about these time wasting things...
2. Please tell me intensely personal things that you wouldn't share with anyone, never mind a complete stranger
3. Please read me verbatim the wiki entry for some obscure piece of lore.
4. Fuck it. Seriously, I've had enough.

Player: Is there any chance if I ask about these things that you'll highlight the things that actually matter?
NPC: More than happy to. Even if you do miss something, don't worry I'll happily repeat this over and over again if you want.
Player: I know. You told me that last time I came over here.

1. Tell me more about these time wasting things...
2. Please tell me intensely personal things that you wouldn't share with anyone, never mind a complete stranger
3. Please read me verbatim the wiki entry for some obscure piece of lore.
4. Fuck it. Seriously, I've had enough.

Player: So, do you have any terrible personal tragedies or family grievance you'd like me to pretend to care about?
NPC: Funny you should ask. Just the other day I was thinking about my sick aunt SKIP SKIP FOR THE LOVE OF GOD SKIP 

1. Tell me more about these time wasting things..
2. Please read me verbatim the wiki entry for some obscure piece of lore.
3. Fuck it. Seriously, I've had enough.

Player: Hey, what happened to option two, I thought you'd repeat things.
NPC: Oh, I do, but only the meaningless stuff. That last one was a side quest. The pertinent information got added to your log.
Player: I didn't realise I had a log, but thanks for the heads up.
NPC: Any time. Now pick another option, I really shouldn't talk without being explicitly prompted to by you.

Player: Fuck it. Seriously, I've had enough. Who thinks this is how people converse?
NPC: Talk to you later.

New NPC: Hey, over here. Now that you've finished talking to that guy you can finally talk to me.
Player: Wait, didn't that last conversation unlock a side quest? I might go do that first.
New NPC: This is the side quest.
Player: So the side quest is to go through your conversation tree?
New NPC: Yup.
Player: Nope, I'm out. Sorry.

This is what happened in my head as I played through the first episode of The Walking Dead. Not because it had bad writing and characters, but in fact because they were very good. Good enough that I realised my dislike of conversations in games was a dislike of the mechanics themselves rather than, as I had previously assumed, the results of bad writing.

Wednesday, 8 June 2011

Healthy Skepticism

Health in video games is a way of gauging how close the player is to losing a fight; when it reaches zero, the player loses and has to start again. How a game handles health is an expression of how the game designers want a player to react when they start to lose a fight. Consider the following examples
  • Doom. In essence, the player has 100 health to start with, and can only increase it by picking up medikits of varying sizes, which restore a predetermined number of health points up to the original maximum of 100. The intent is for the player to play the game in a fundamentally different way once they find themselves on low health. They will have to tread carefully and search for the next available medikit before returning to the more hectic action the game thrives on.
  • Halo. The player has an almost inconsequential health bar, plus a set of shields. When the shields are low, the player can hide away from combat for a few seconds, after which the shields will quickly recharge. The intent is for the player to find somewhere to take a rest for a few moments before continuing to play in the same way they were before.
  • Diablo gives the player several options. It can be played a little like Doom, being conservative until the next healing item is found. Alternatively, if you have healing powers, mana can be turned into health, with the mana itself recharging in a very slow version of the Halo method. Thirdly, money can be turned into health via potions, so the player has to decide between permanent items (weapons, armour, etc) later and potential death or temporary items now and continued play.

Shields which recharge up to full once you hide behind cover for a short period (from here on 'hide-and-recharge') is a good mechanism both for moment to moment combat, but also for level designers. In the heat of battle it means that no matter how much of a pounding you've taken, you can always duck behind a rock briefly and return to the fight at full effectiveness. From a level design perspective, each enemy encounter can be tuned and balanced in the knowledge that players will arrive there on full health. The designers don't have to make sure there is a convenient health pickup before a large fight just in case the player ate one of his own grenades killing some minions earlier on. Halo may not have been the first game to do it, but it was certainly the landmark title for hide-and-recharge, and it has spread from there into almost all shooters, action games, and basically anything else with set piece enemy encounters. 

The odd thing about this near universal adoption of the hide-and-recharge system is that the designers are all agreeing on the same design goal when it comes to health. I don't know whether what they want a player to do when overwhelmed in combat is to retreat and try again regardless of genre, or whether during the design process they just say "hide-and-recharge works well enough, we're focusing on innovating elsewhere". Whatever the case it would be nice to see some more people mess around with how health, and its best friend death, are used to reflect the atmosphere of a game. Especially when you consider games like Uncharted (an Indiana Jones-esque action comedy romp) and Modern Warfare (a much more realistic* modern military shooter) both use the same health system, yet couldn't be much more different in tone.

*more realistic than Uncharted, not realistic on an absolute scale.

Sunday, 29 May 2011

When More is Less

Lots of popular board and card games have expansions. Financially they are a no-brainer and help keep board game designers housed and fed. Generally, however, I am not a big fan of expansions for two reasons. The first is entirely arbitrary and something I am willing to admit I'm in the minority on: I like new things. I would much rather spend time learning a new game, playing it once or twice and then moving on to the next one than playing the same game repeatedly and honing my abilities. While I like to win, I far prefer experiencing new game mechanics, trying to figure out why they work, where they could be improved and why so few games have good ones.

The second reason is that expansions make games worse. Dominion is an excellent game for what it is: simple to explain, enough depth to play repeatedly, and a short game time. Whether you like it depends on your thoughts on player interaction and car shuffling, but its fundamentals are sound (for the record, I do enjoy Dominion). So what about its expansions? Intrigue allows for up to six players and I am in full support of allowing for more than four players, so it gets a tick. The rest are, from a design point of view, bad.

One of the principles of good design, including game design, is to keep things as simple as possible. Snap is a simple card game but it's also a bad game, so let me clarify. Simple in this context means having the minimum number of additional game mechanics required to support the core game mechanic and provide enough depth that there is not a winning strategy. I'm going to assume, given how popular and critically well received Dominion is, that it meets this goal. If it didn't, somewhere on the internet would be a page which said "do this and you will always win" and nobody would be playing it any more. While there is more art that science to figuring out the balance of mechanics versus simplicity, I imagine most designers would err on the side of having one too many mechanics (more complicated than it needs to be) than one too few (degenerate game with a winning strategy).

The extension of this argument is that adding extra game mechanics actively degrades the quality of the game. If the expansion makes the game better then it suggests there was something broken with it in the first place, in which case it is more patch than expansion. If the expansion doesn't make the game better, then what is the point?

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

An Informative Day

On the weekend I got a few friends together and we had a lazy ten hour board gaming session. Alhambra, Torres, Dominion, Puerto Rico and then some Chez Geek and Zombie Dice to refresh the palate. Good times were had by all, and I got some interesting observations from the play time.

In a bold move, I'm going to put the summary first because this is a very long post. I have stayed away from concepts like strategic depth and, god forbid, fun because they are hard to define in useful terms. So in terms of easy to define properties, I think good board games tend to have:
  • fuzzy player rankings
  • limited options at each decision point
  • no medium term decisions
  • low randomness
  • no elimination
  • frequent activity
To expand:

Fuzzy Rankings
The first four games listed all have clear win conditions (get the most victory points) but at any given stage it is difficult to tell how many victory points a given player has. In Dominion for example it would be possible to track what every player's score is, but the victory point cards are scattered throughout the deck so it isn't possible to do a quick count. Alhambra uses a scoring track but scoring is sporadic enough that it indicates roughly who is in the lead but not the final outcome. The advantage of doing this is that it adds an air of excitement to the final tally at the end of the game. It also means that players can think they are in the running for victory for much longer, which means nobody sulking in a corner. Of course it does mean that the game can't have a victory point threshold as its ending condition (as is used in Settlers of Catan for example).

Limited Options
Puerto Rico is a game in which the players take a lot of decisions about a lot of different things over the course of the game (roles, trading, building, colonising, etc, etc). What the game does well is offer very few options to choose from at any given decision point. This streamlines the game and limits the damage of players who agonise over every decision they have to make. Providing the game is well designed in the interactions between the various elements, small decision sets should still be able to give players the ability to control the flow of the game.

No Medium Term Decisions
Alhambra allows the player to pick which tile/money they get short term, which will affect the structure of their Alhambra in the long term. However, the medium term decision of where to place the tile for maximum effect is deferred by the remodel phase so that it can become a short term decision. So what? Without any evidence or training, my suspicion is that in games people make short term decisions quickly because the risk/reward is clear and affected by few if any unknowns. Long term decisions are often made before the game even starts, or upon seeing the opening setup. Medium term decisions are the most difficult because you have a reasonable idea what will happen, but it is clouded by the moves available to other players between the time that decision is made and the next time you get to act. Medium term decisions are where the combinatorial explosions in options occur, and so are the ones that people take the longest to take. If you want to make decisions easy for people, make sure the outcome is obvious or so far away as to be of no concern.

Low Randomness
Games, especially board games, benefit from some randomness. It helps bring lagging players back into the game and means strategies have to be modified on the fly so that games play out a bit differently every time. On the other hand, you need to keep the amount of randomness low. Any joy gained from luck in a game on one player is visited in equal measure as frustration on another player, and if there is a high degree of randomness then luck becomes more important than ability. In Torres, each player has a deck of about a dozen special effect cards, with each player having the same cards. When drawing an action card, the player gets to draw three and then pick one. After that the discarded cards are placed on either the top or bottom of the deck, at the player's discretion. So there is a small amount of randomness, you might not get the card you want in a given turn, but you will almost always get a card you can make some use of.

No Eliminations
One of the worst things that can happen in a game is to get eliminated early (in something like Risk or Monopoly, for example). If people have got together to play some games, then you are left sitting around waiting for the game to finish. For those left in the game, they either lose a person for the next game, or there is somebody moping around until the current game ends.

Frequent Activity
One of the problems of the epic board games like Risk is that you often go anywhere up to half an hour without getting to do anything. By contrast in Dominion, you often haven't finished shuffling the deck before it's your turn again, while the phase/turn structure of Puerto Rico means that each player is acting every one or two minutes. This structure keeps the player's interest and I think tends to make for shorter games because there is less wasted time.

I don't know if you could build a game from these elements alone, but I think you could definitely take a game and improve it by introducing some of these gameplay properties.

Less Than Perfect

A while back, Jason suggested that a few of us get together and write stuff about video games on the internet. After I got over the shocking concept I um'd and aah'd for a while since I barely post here in the first place. In the end I agreed partially because I figured it meant that if I didn't post something for ages somebody else would, but mostly because I'm easily influence by peer pressure. So Jason got the domain, I whipped up the most awesome logo in the history of gaming blogs and thus was born

The three main contributors (me, Jason and Duncan) work together and waste probably too much company time talking about games we've been playing. The hope is that maybe this way we might spend some more time actually working, but given I am at work writing this it may not pan out that way.

Anyway, for the time being I'll keep stuff that is either non computer game related or more design that opinion based here, and rants and opinions over at Imperfect Pixel.