Saturday, October 13, 2012

Save-scumming is Perverse Optimization

XCOM uses a technique that Firaxis also used in Civilization games since Civilization III to prevent save-scumming: the seed used to generate psuedo-random numbers is saved along with your scenario, so when you reload and do the same actions again, the exact same results will occur.

It seems like a strange thing to do, and directly against a meta-game tactic that players may use to achieve desired results in a game. It merits an examination of save-scumming as a result of game design; when does it happen and why? How can we avoid it--and should we even try?

The practical definition of save-scumming is somewhat controversial. I think the safest way to describe it is "using a save-game feature to manipulate the outcome of events by repeating the same passage of play until you get the results you want." (If you think I'm missing a key part of the concept, please let me know in the comments.)

In order to predict save-scumming behavior in a given game, we must come to an understanding of why a player would even want to save-scum. Save-scumming isn't a particularly fun thing to do in a game: it consists of the administrative tasks of managing saves and, in many games, repeatedly sitting at loading screens, and repeatedly doing basically the same few actions in the same context. This is the kind of repetition that I think most gamers would say games should dispense with all together, yet gamers find themselves obliged to do it.

So why would anyone save-scum?

When the consequences of failure in a game are significant and may snowball into large amounts of player-time loss, save-scumming becomes a common behavior if the saving mechanics permit it. This is a natural defense mechanism, and actually fits the original purpose of saving your game, which is to prevent the time-loss caused by having to replay the game from the beginning every time you boot it up.

I argue that save-scumming is a reaction to poor game design. Game designers are responsible for the level of fun optimal play allows their players. If optimal play involves save-scumming, I believe the player experience is usually compromised by optimal play--I don't find the administrative juggling of save-games to be fun. The best games benefit from forcing the player to accept failure and work within the confines it may impose. This isn't easy to do in game design, though, and most mainstream games have no interest in even trying because it's just too potentially dangerous to marketability and accessibility. The Demons' Souls and Dark Souls have had partial but notable success in this area, which may begin to turn the tide.

Players will save-scum when they feel that is the only way to play optimally and prevent what they feel may be excessive time-loss. I would not fault players for this behavior, because it could be made impractical or avoided entirely by alterations in game design. Games should only allow save-scumming when it's designed into the content and systems. Failure can be an enriching experience that does a great job of contextualizing success, though, so I would not advocate designing save-scummy games just because it's easier.

Games that force you to save and reload frequently can seem save-scummy, but frequent saving and loading may be an important design feature in certain kinds of games. Some games are intense tests of the players' ability to execute maneuvers with a low margin of error. Super Meat Boy or I Wanna Be The Guy allow you to keep trying the newer-to-you parts of the game without having to ceaselessly replay hard parts that you've already struggled with and overcome. A save point can be a reward in such a case, and I hesitate to claim that the constant dance of failure and automatic reloading is save-scumming. It seems to fit the design of those games well, and, as such, shouldn't have a negative connotation attached to it.

Limited player agency may also push players to desire save-scumming. If you get a series of bad dice rolls in an RPG that causes some serious consequences, it's understandable to be upset and feel that the game is being unfair. When I play Madden games, I often have a strong desire to quit the game because some ridiculous event occurs during play that is so unrealistic and unpredictable to me that I feel it has compromised the representation of football. Sometimes it's just an emotional reaction to throwing a dumb interception, but most of the time it's from terrible dice rolls or omniscient linebackers who behave as if they can see out of the backs of their helmets. When a game disenfranchises me as a player, I don't have any qualms about reloading a save and trying again. If a game is well-designed, you shouldn't feel the need to reload in this fashion.

But what if you want players to accept the results of randomness and incorporate the variable nature of results into their strategizing? You can build in re-roll mechanics so that players can even take some agency in randomness and don't feel like they have absolutely no recourse against results that are obviously out of their control. You can also place a barrier to save-scumming by doing what XCOM did: store your random number generator seeds with the save-games to make it impossible to scum on that scale. A little push in the right direction can break the spell of save-scumming and let players have fun playing the game as it was intended.

Saving mechanisms in games provide a way to mitigate time-loss, but also let the player do some repetitive result-selection outside of the game mechanics that can lead to optimal play being boring. With careful design, I think we can remove save-scumming from the games we make, and continue to use saving for its intended purpose and not as a perverse optimization tool.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Games From the Ground Up: Primordial Play

In order to understand game design, you must first understand play.

Play is experimentation. The concept of playing with your food and the concept of eating food are distinct because playing with food involves using it not for its primary purpose, but experimenting with alternate purposes. Building a tower out of mashed potatoes is an experiment that shows you the structural properties of mashed potatoes; rolling carrots around on your plate shows you how their conic shape leads to a unique rolling pattern, and how their irregularities in form lead to them rolling at different speeds and bumping around in different ways. Once you establish the physical properties of the carrots and mashed potatoes through experimentation, you can continue your play by further experimenting with extremes: how high can my mashed potato tower get? Can I get my carrots to roll to this specific spot on my plate? Experimentation is fun, and we have to be stopped from doing it by force--either by force of the displeasure of your parents, or by physical restraint--or complete (enough) understanding.

Play is a natural behavior exhibited in mammalian species. There are myriad reasons why those who tend to play would not have been evolutionarily weeded out of the gene pool. Compare the fitness of two primordial people: one of them lazes around when not hunting; the other spends a portion of his non-hunting time throwing spears at a circle he has carved into a distant tree. Who will be more socially prepared and well-adjusted: children who play at being mothers and fathers and mime responsibilities they'll have in adulthood, or children who spend that time eating or sleeping or sitting quietly? Play prepared our ancestors for the rigors of life, both social and physical. Play seems to fill the role of simulating future experiences so that those who perform well in play will perform better than average on those activities when they must be done for real.

Children will enjoy playing solo when they're learning about their environment and capabilities. They will play to test their abilities and mimic the behaviors of those they look up to. Play is often free-form and solo, but can involve cooperation, even at a very young age. Usually the play of children is not obviously confined by any rules but those of the physical universe. Rules become apparent and emerge naturally when play becomes a social activity. Children arrive at rules while playing in order to express their will and establish conventions so that the play of other children can interact with shared resources amenably. Rules are social conventions. Rules mentally communicate the imaginary "laws of the universe" that the child tacitly invents for his toys. Now, of course, the child won't necessarily keep these rules constant within a play session, but clearly the child's decision of who can and does do what action isn't entirely arbitrary. In play there seems usually to be a sense of world-modeling: the child represents in his play world ideas and processes he's been exposed to, often recombining those ideas in novel ways instead of merely repeating them as practice.

Social cooperation leads playing children to attempt to establish rules, but these rules aren't all we need to arrive at what we would today call games. In order to solidify the experience of play within a system of rules, those rules need to be institutionalized and recognized by players--not merely ad hoc created to resolve social conflicts as they arise during play. In my next post, I will address this process of institutionalizing play, and discuss how an individual game is born.

Saturday, July 28, 2012

Stagnant MMOs

This is a response for a discussion in the comments on Spinks' post Bring on the clones.

I find that both the ways in which players interact and the game systems (not necessarily just Combat) of the MMO space have been mostly stagnant for the last 8 years. There have been minor attempts to mix it up (e.g. AoC's melee combat, Aion's jet packs, Public Quests, Dungeon Finder), but the developers still copy "the same black and white, two-faction faux war with safe and 'contested' zones; the same action combat with the same pace, hotbars, and skills; the same solo quest grind with the occasional dungeon run; the same poo-pooed crafting system that has little consequence to players; the same 'hyrbid' classes which really aren't hybrids at all, but rather 3 min-maxed role specializations that are the Holy Trinity through and through" (link).

I play very few games. I find one that has enough complexity and depth (often requires multiplayer in order to uncover that depth) such that I stick with it for years until I've exhausted its playability. I love First-Person Shooters, but I only really love 3 of them: Goldeneye/Perfect Dark, Counter-Strike, and Team Fortress 2. These are all vastly different games. They all play differently; they have distinct strategies, resources, tactical considerations, objectives, moods, etc. To highlight a variation, Counter-Strike is about concealment and weapon accuracy/bullet spread; TF2 is about evasion, keeping or closing distance, and reloading. Never mind that a shotgun in both games is the same; the situations and tactics for using it are very different (and must be learned).

I've played very few MMOs as well: FFXI, WoW, and now Eve. I have purchased or trialed many others (EQ2, LotRO, WAR, Guild Wars, AoC, Chronicles of Spellborn, Tabula Rasa, Global Agenda, Champions Online, Ryzom, Aion, Rift, Vanguard, Dawntide, Darkfall, FF14, and The Secret World). FFXI, WoW, and Eve have drastically dissimilar game systems.
  • FFXI is about cooperation: working with players to level up, complete challenging quests, or make money. Crafting was a motivator for me to expand my character's available classes and gain more levels. It has an extremely friendly community and many group activities: slower-paced, group-oriented combat, XP groups, epically long quests, arena-style fights to earn money, raids, PvP, and group crafting.
  • Eve is deceit and information warfare. It is a struggle between knowing that you need friends to move up in the world and not knowing whom to trust. Its community has an outward appearance of borderline psychotic, but within Corporations, players are friendly to each other and willing to do activities together. Eve is a sandbox and has the most content of any MMORPG ever, and thus newer players have a monstrous time just getting their barrings. Nothing in Eve is simple, and there are many ways to enjoy the game.
  • WoW offers convenience and satisfying gameplay. It has extremely snappy and fast-paced combat, and very little in terms of a virtual world. It is about using people as briefly as possible to acquire the next achievement. WoW is two distinct games: the leveling game, and the game at level cap. Hop in for a few minutes, do a quest or two by yourself, and log out without interacting with anyone. Or if you're at level cap, you do chores by yourself, queue up for a dungeon without speaking, or maybe you have a scheduled raid where you recite a dance that has no transferable knowledge or skills (to another raid).

Most of the games I listed in parentheses above are very similar to WoW. While the classes might look different, or the spells be named something unfamiliar, or the setting be changed, they all follow the same template.
  1. A solo leveling game with a dungeon/raid-heavy "end" game produces the same community as I experienced in WoW. 
  2. Since everyone must be capable of soloing mobs, the combat abilities can't vary too wildly between classes. 
  3. If combat is fast-paced, players have enough time to launch two, maybe three attacks before moving on to the next mob; this necessitates that combat be wholly uninteresting since you only need to use 3 abilities. 
  4. Typically the mobs are not varied enough to require players to consider a different set of 3 skills, because that would be too disruptive and slow down the pace of leveling.

When developers describe a system akin to Public Quests, they are talking about an exception. I can read between the lines: combat is normally performed by yourself, but then the game has these exceptions scattered about where you work with other players. The sad part is that very little coordination is required during the PQ, and people rarely converse. Playing alone together at its finest.

If I can look at a list of game features, and envision my entire career with the game (solo quest grind, occasional dungeon, switch class, solo to max, chase after gear and reputation), then I've already played it in another form, and thus I'm not interested in playing it again.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Uncapped PvE Content and Prestige

Spinks pointed out the irony of WoW's 10-man raids: namely that the raids are too small to sustain a guild around a 10-man raid team. Raids were reduced in player count because of logistics and accessibility concerns. Now they are so small that they cause logistics and accessibility issues. /ironic

This reminded me about uncapped PvE content. WoW used to have uncapped encounters in the form of world bosses, and it will be getting some new ones in Mists. Rifts are uncapped, as well as other forms of Public Quests. PvE content in Eve has no player count limit. Many of the original raids in EQ and FFXI were also uncapped.

It's important to note that there are no "balance scaling" mechanics in these systems. Mobs don't receive extra HP with every player at the fight. Nor does more money or gear drop depending on the raid size.

There are some advantages to unrestricted PvE encounters:
  • Bring as many friends as you want. No one has to be second string or on the bench.
  • Bring as few friends as online. You don't need to cancel the raid if one player doesn't show up, because the encounter is not necessarily attuned for X number of players.
  • Risk and Reward are inherently balanced. Larger the party, the less risk involved, but fewer payouts per person.
  • Challenge is self-ordained. Make the fight as easy or hard as you want.
  • Pick-up-groups could do any content. ++Accessibility
I see four reasons that players raid:
  1. Story/Content
  2. Power (e.g. character progression, money, gear)
  3. Challenge
  4. Prestige
Players interested in fulfilling the needs of Story, Power, and Challenge will have their needs met by the uncapped system. Players can easily experience any content they wish; they simply need to bring enough bodies. They can toy with risk and reward to modify the power payouts. And they can adjust the difficulty by inviting a different number of raiders.

Those seeking Prestige, however, will not be happy with an uncapped raid. If the encounter were a signal of prestige, and because of its challenge or accessibility, predicates that the access or completion of the content is rare, then Prestige players would want as few people in that elite club as possible. The scarcer the resource, then the more valuable it is deemed. The rarer the achievement, then the more distinction it bears. 

Some times there is confusion regarding the difference between Prestige and Challenge. Prestige certainly can and often does derive from Challenge. If a task is difficult, then fewer people are capable of completing it, thus making the success rarer. But Prestige can come from a time commitment: e.g. level 99 in Diablo 2. If everyone were dedicated enough to reach level 99, it would not be prestigious (like level 85 in WoW).

The Achievements you unlock, the gear you wear, and the stories you tell are trophies that signal your prestige. The more people with those trophies, then the less special they are. But the players seeking content, money, and challenge will all be having fun.

From a development and design perspective, less time needs to be allocated to meticulously balance and rebalance fights. Obviously the encounter payouts need to be in line with other content so that players have an actual choice. But there is no need for a scheduled nerfing or complex algorithms that adjust the difficulty based on the number of players. Let us decide our level of risk, reward, and challenge.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Towards Smarter Loot Systems

The typical way that I see loot working in ARPGs is simple randomization of attributes based on item type and a percentage chance. Roll a many-sided die and look up the result in the table, repeat this several times and you have your loot.

I don't think this is the best way to calculate what drops in an ARPG.

What matters is that players have interesting decisions to make with regards to gear--decisions that aren't as simple as seeing that 10% more damage is less than 15% more damage. You can generate interesting decisions here in a much more directed fashion than just dropping fully randomized but scaled-by-level loot.

When designing a loot system, we have to answer two questions:

  • How often should you be upgrading your equipment?
  • How often should you see a piece of gear that you have to consider as an upgrade?

We can think it through and exert control over it, or we can put some percentage chances in a loot table and hope that everything turns out OK. I'd prefer to design the loot system to guarantee as fun an experience as I can. That means taking more control over the kinds of modifiers that appear on items dropped for each class.

I think that if you have to consider a lot of loot and a high percentage of that loot has no value to you even before you put it in your inventory, you feel like you're wading through crap. The longer you go without interesting drops, the more bored you will become. This produces a feeling of "farming", which I don't think is a positive experience. It has negative connotations because gamers don't like doing it--farming is a reduction of the game to a tedious harvesting task that you could easily hire daylaborers to do and be better off. Tasks like that don't belong in games, they're an artifact of artificial difficulty and/or poorly or underdesigned gameplay.

The game should be aware of what would be an upgrade for you and what wouldn't. Upgrades should be dropped based on what you fight within a certain number of minutes of "challenging" combat. Don't even bother dropping trash. Only drop loot that is a sidegrade or an upgrade, and only drop loot that is equippable. Based on statistical and forum feedback the algorithm can be tweaked.

The game should be able to learn what modifiers people tend to pick on their items, and what people tend to put together. Based on these patterns for each, sidegrades can be generated that suit the kinds of builds that people actually use. In the beginning, such as system would need to be seeded with playtester-approved build information, and some noise would need to be added to the weights in the randomization of items in order to ensure that every character isn't siphoned into one of a few builds.

I think the current set of modifications and the way they work in Diablo III is well-suited towards this kind of system. If the longevity of the game is predicated on farming, as Diablo III's seems to be, my idea can still be effective, but may not be in the developers' best interest. What you really need is an end to the game--a feature that makes roguelikes great and has been lost along the development of ARPGs away from the roguelike foundation. But that's a topic for another post.

Saturday, May 19, 2012

The Specialization Trap

A trap that many ARPG designs fall into is overspecialization in the face of relatively permanent character advancement decisions. Path of Exile is a great illustration of the pitfalls of optimal play revolving around specializing your character using permanent decisions over a long span of play time.

PoE has an extremely large and intricate skill tree which allows significant specialization: down to the weapon type level--swords, axes, etc and element (fire, lightning, etc) level. You'll need to look for specific weapons and items that suit your specialization choices.

This is damaging to the ARPG model. ARPGs are a combination of various treadmills that complement one another: loot, character level, ability levels, and perhaps a few more (Din's Curse had "reputation" which would grant you a relatively viable rare weapon upon leveling up). An emphasis on specialization limits the character construction decisions (once you've picked the specialization, you jump pump points into that indefinitely) and loot decisions, cutting off significant branches of the decision tree. The more equipment-related specialization, the fewer pieces of loot a character will find that can possibly be upgrades. A character can easily go from having a 20% chance of finding a relevant piece of loot because he specializes in one-handed weapons, to a less than 5% chance because he has been forced to specialize further, perhaps into one-handed swords, in order to continue getting damage and/or accuracy bonuses from new passive skills.

ARPG players are familiar and fond of systems that involve an extreme amount of character choice permanence. Diablo II's attribute and skill points were non-refundable, and the pattern of severely punishing the uninformed by making character decisions irreversible does not enter the consideration of the majority of ARPG-players who grew up playing Diablo and Diablo II. Titan Quest and Din's Curse made a step forward in this regard by allowing point-by-point respecs at escalating prices. Torchlight, the most casual-friendly ARPG I have played, doesn't have respecs built into the game at all--the only way to respec is to use a console command to spawn a respec potion.

Overspecialization leads to minute-by-minute play being less interesting. If you need to invest a high percentage of your points into a very small number of abilities to make them effective, then you're naturally going to be filtering your ability choices by which abilities you have spent points on. Abilities available are further filtered by what loot you have available to you. In the majority of ARPGs you end up in a situation where you have at most two or three useful abilities--sometimes you'll only have one. When you have no more than two or three tools to work with, it's harder for combat to remain engaging.

Spamming a single ability and watching everything die can only remain fun for a little while unless you are specifically looking for a relaxing experience. Unfortunately, the theorycrafting involved in making an adequate character often is beyond the interests of a relaxed player, so they wouldn't get to the point where they could effectively do one ability spam. The mechanical systems thus lead to patterns of play which are not appealing to the kinds of players that have the capacity to use that style of play.

Permanent point-investment schemes also lead to perverse incentives for building characters. You really shouldn't spend points on skills beyond what you specifically need to get to that highest level skill that you want to specialize in. When optimal play is to not participate in the character advancement and be underpowered for tens of hours so that you can be somewhat above average later, the game clearly suffers.

The reasoning and evidence above would indicate that specialization-focused design is poor design.

So why do players seem to like it so much? A game like Diablo II is a complexly layered system of rewards that vary in intensity and frequency in such a way as to draw us in and addict us. Players have trouble separating the fun and not fun mechanics of a game when they are layered as they are in Diablo II. The rewards systems are strong and interleaved into all other mechanics of the game, so it's hard to separate skill tree manipulation and loot sifting from the enjoyable feeling of character progress. Those activities do contribute to character progress, but their design isn't trivial to separate from that positive feeling.

Good ARPG design is much more than simply causing the player to have the positive feeling of character progress, it's optimizing that feeling to happen in as intense and frequent a way as possible without it being diluted by overexposure. It's a difficult balancing and timing act, and different players have higher engagement at different points along the spectrum between constant rewards and rare rewards, large rewards and small rewards.

In games that feature overspecialization, you'll notice that combat tends to reduce to the repeated use of a couple of skills at most. This trivializes combat and turns it into a chore. When combat is a chore, in order to enjoy the game you must enjoy the minmaxing of character construction, which in ARPGs is done via loot sifting and planning/spending skill and attribute points. So the games' fanbases naturally require their members to enjoy that minmaxing and not mind somewhat boring combat.

ARPGs can have exciting combat and enjoyable character advancement. Diablo III is proof. I hope to discuss Diablo III's success in a future article.

Friday, May 18, 2012

"Fun", Biases, and Game Design Analysis

I prefer to analyze games as mechanical systems that can aim to produce certain kinds of experiences that fall in the group of experiences we classify as "fun."

You can also analyze games along the different--and, I believe, orthogonal--axis of artistic merit.

The focus of this blog has been the deep analysis of mechanical systems and not "higher meaning." The analysis of higher meaning can indeed be valuable and will be more valuable in the far future, but the most interesting problems I see in gaming are honing mechanics to generate fun experiences, and also honing mechanics for fun competitive and cooperative play.

Fun alone is not a particularly useful term because we all experience it and categorize it differently--sometimes so differently that one person's fun is entirely distinct and unrecognizable from another person's fun. Two people may not enjoy ANY of the same games. We need to break the vague concept of "fun" down into a few categories that can be concretely examined without running into such immense walls of subjectivity. Here are several classifications I've arrived at through lots of reading and playing:

  • Relaxing by doing something easy with nice graphics and tickling rewards.
  • Slot-machine/Skinner Box--big exponential pay-offs that keep you on edge and keen to see what happens next.
  • Spectation--see what happens because you are invested in the result and enjoy the drama of the situation.
  • Physical Mastery--become engaged with the tasks the game puts before you and learn how to do them best, fastest, etc.
  • Intellectual Curiosity--become exposed to increasingly interesting problems to ponder and solve, where planning your solution is the enjoyable experience.

There may be more than that. I welcome you to comment with additional classifications or flaws in what I've stated here.

Different people will experience these kinds of fun to different degrees in various contexts. A player's capacity to experience each type of fun depends on personality, mood, physical ability, mental ability, and social factors.

My interests primarily lie in the last three of those categorizations. My analysis is biased in their favor. You should be aware of this and keep it in mind when you read my other articles. My perspective will be most valuable to you if you are interested in the design of competitive and/or cooperative skill-oriented games.

As a pundit in the game design field (I'm hoping to actually make a game to show off, but there are always more excuses to be found) I think it's in everyone's best interest that you disclose your biases and preferences so that people can be less angry and antagonistic. If we acknowledge our biases and the ways in which we think about games, we can make progress towards avoiding talking past one another and, I bet, have productive discussions more regularly.