Saturday, December 31, 2011

Magic Find

A major feature of Diablo 2 was the Magic Find stat on gear.  Essentially what this did was increase your chance of finding magic items and finding higher quality items.  At launch this was very problematic because there were no diminishing returns on MF and eventually you could get enough MF to completely eliminate socketed gear from the loot tables which was a very undesirable result.  Pretty much everybody used a few standard pieces of gear to get their MF up to a reasonable level (Goldwrap and a 49% Tarnhelm!) but things really got silly in the various xpacs.  It was possible to get over 1000% MF at the end, though the diminishing returns at that point were so crippling that nobody could defend that sort of gearing as anything but silly even if you ignore that fact that a character so geared couldn't actually beat anything.  It ended up that you really wanted +200-300% MF on your gear but that more than that was usually wasteful.

Now in Diablo 3 MF is back.  There are tons of arguments on the forums about whether or not this is a good thing and in general I think it is fine but not a big deal either way.  The advantage to having MF on gear is that it really does give a completely separate dimension to figuring out gearsets.  Tweaking gear and figuring out what sort of gear would make the absolute best set was tremendous fun for me in D2 and it was always based around 3 axes of power:  MF, Survival, Power.  You need Power to kill monsters, you need Survival to live long enough to kill monsters and you need MF to make killing monsters worthwhile.  They all forward the main goal of getting stuff but based on character attibutes, player skill, style and party composition there are going to be all kinds of different decisions made on how to value each.  This situation means that there will be many different right answers for building a gearset and that there cannot be a simple spreadsheet that tells you exactly what gear to wear.  I like MF in that sense because I really enjoy working out the angles on how to maximize my gearset and I think it increases the complexity in an interesting way.

Some people have a lot of cognitive dissonance when they think about how they just look for MF gear to get more MF and aren't concerned much with Power which they see as the true end goal.  Given that gear simply isn't divided into categories like MF/Not MF but rather just has a selection of attributes I don't buy that argument.  As you get better gear you can figure out ways to either enhance MF, Power or Survival and all of them will grow in stuttering steps; the idea that you only look for better MF gear and everything else is static simply isn't reflective of reality.  I also don't see the inherent superiority of "I want more Power on my gear so I can get gear that is even more Powerful!" over "I want more MF on my gear so I can get gear that has even more MF!".

The real trouble with MF is that it can be very abusive.  In D2 you could get the person with stacked MF to get all the killing blows (or as many as possible, anyhow) to maximize loot for everyone.  In D3 currently you can join a party with a pure MF set and reap the best loot rewards while contributing almost nothing to actually beating the monsters.  Diablo is a game that is very much about collecting more powerful equipment for your character.  MF, when implemented well, is a perfectly reasonable element in such a game.  I hope Blizzard finds a good way to make sure that their system does not reward characters who hide in the back stacking MF to leech off of other players in groups and as long as they do that I think having MF in D3 is fine.

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Saboteur and party games

Over the holidays I played Saboteur with my family.  It is a pretty random card game where players are secretly put on teams and then the players either try to succeed at a goal or stop the others from succeeding depending on which team they were secretly assigned to.  It feels like a silly party game but after playing it I think it would be much better suited to being played by hard nosed strategy gamers.  I will talk about the five player version of the game but it can be played with many different numbers of players.  The strange thing about the setup is that there are six role cards which are shuffled up and dealt out to the players - two cards for Saboteur and four which are Good Guys.  This means that there teams are either 2-3 or 1-4.  Given that there are many cards in the deck which take people out of the game for somewhere between one turn and the entire game it should be clear that both versions cannot be balanced.  If the 2-3 game is reasonably winnable by either side then the 1-4 game is going to be a blowout nearly every time since as soon as the solo player is identified everyone else is going to gank them out of the game and go on to win.

Of course party games being extremely random is fine.  They aren't supposed to be particularly skill based, but the trick here is that the way the one person loses is really not much fun.  If they do things that are good for them they end up unable to play and just sit there discarding cards for much of the time.  I think that player elimination is a generally bad mechanic but I also find that player elimination without letting the player get out of the game is even worse.  In Monopoly you get knocked out of the game but at least that lets you go get a drink, join another game or read.  If you are forced to continue to play a game but lack the ability to do anything then you have the worst of both worlds - you don't get the fun of playing nor the chance to do something else.  Mechanics that put a player pretty much out of contention are fine (level of randomness permitting) as long as the player can continue to play the game and do their thing.  There is plenty of fun to be had in trying to get the best possible score given one's circumstances even if victory is out of reach.

Given how much backstabbing, lying and general tomfoolery there is going on in this game I think that it is actually much better suited to hardcore game geeks than casual party gamers.  When everyone is trying to present themselves in a particular way to deliberately fool their opponents there is much more to be done even if you cannot play cards temporarily.  Hardcore gamers are also a lot more likely to backstab their partners to attempt to steal all the points for themselves which naturally balances out any team size imbalances.  I suspect with a bunch of people like my brother and myself who are happy to shout out strategy and accuse people of being saboteurs (while lying through our teeth, of course) this game would be incredibly loud and hilarious.

Thursday, December 22, 2011

Tweaking the Tile Game (Dot)

I have been playing and tweaking my tile game that I posted about last week.  The initial design had a flaw that I felt would be easy to address:  The first player to take a turn had a noticeable disadvantage.  The problem is that generally you want to get two points from placing a tile and there are very few options for the first tile to achieve that while the second tile played has significantly more choices because they can score off of the first tile.  The second player seemed to have consistently more and better options throughout the game and also won by 1-2 points most of the time.  One solution I considered was to simply give the first player a bonus 1 or 2 points to begin the game but that seemed somewhat inelegant and also left the game playing very differently for the two players which I wasn't especially happy with.  

In the previous post I talked about having the players place 3 tokens on the board before the game starts each of which was worth 1 bonus point.  The idea of that was to give player 1 more places to play and some bonus points but it ended up working out badly; player 2 had ways to play that negated the advantage and still retained the upper hand.  My latest and best solution to this problem is to place 2 bonus points on the tiles that are located diagonally from the centre tile.  There are two ways to do this:  The first is to place 2 bonus points on all 4 of the tiles that are diagonal from the centre tile and the other is to place 2 bonus points on just 2 of those tiles instead.  

These 2 options produce very different boards and strategies.  With 4 different tiles with bonus points the play is all over the board at once and the game becomes largely about maximizing your personal point return with little regard for your opponent.  There are numerous places for each player to play to get 2 points on their turn so they just pick one of them.  When only 2 tiles have bonus points the game becomes much tighter with fewer options but it allows for more defensive play.  It is feasible to play extremely defensively trying to deny the opponent good plays while scoring few points yourself because your opponent does not have very many useful things they can do.

It feels a bit like Scrabble.  The 2 bonus tile game is like expert Scrabble - you spend a lot of time denying your opponent and trying to gum up the board and balancing personal gain vs. opponent's gain is crucial.  The 4 bonus tile game is a lot more like beginner Scrabble where everybody plays big words and there are endless options for playing your own things.  I am bad at Scrabble so I can't really play the expert game at all but I really like the idea of making tradeoffs between offence and defence so I am going with the 2 bonus tile game for now.

I have been really pleased with the reactions to the game so far.  Everyone who has played it has given positive feedback and the good reactions have come from both hardcore gamers and people who aren't particularly into games.  I think I need to squeeze in a little more variety in tile powers still before the game will be done but it is feeling really positive.  This is the sort of game that is much more marketable than FMB as it is simpler to learn and doesn't have the excess of pieces and tokens that drives prices up.  My current working name for the game is Dot, though I am very much open to better suggestions!

Tuesday, December 20, 2011

A puzzle

Randall Munroe (the writer of xkcd) posed an interesting problem on G+ a short while ago I thought I would share.  Quote:

You have a rectangular chocolate bar marked into m × n squares, and you wish to break up the bar into its constituent squares. At each step, you may pick up one piece and break it along any of its marked vertical or horizontal lines. Prove that every method finishes in the same number of steps.

From the author's comments:

This ridiculously easy puzzle has been known to stump some very high-powered mathematicians for as much as a full day, until the light finally dawns amid groans and beatings of heads against walls.

I thought to myself thought I, I am a dude who knows some math, I can figure this out!

Initially I assumed that a proof by induction would be the easiest way to solve the problem.  If we assume that a mxn chocolate bar always finishes in the same number of steps then can we prove that a mx(n+1) chocolate bar does the same?  

I won't be perfectly rigorous here, rather I will just outline the proof.

The mxn bar has a series of breaks that will separate it entirely.  This series of breaks, if performed on the mx(n+1) bar, will leave m pieces that are composed of precisely two squares each.  This means that we would need m additional breaks to completely break the new bar.  If there are some breaks along the line between the new squares and the old squares then for each such break we will separate q squares where q is between 1 and m of the new squares from the original bar.  In this case the q squares can be fully separated by q-1 breaks.  Any number of these breaks can occur but the total number of squares that can be separated in this way is equal to m.  Since each q squares require q breaks to separate regardless of the order of operations then the mx(n+1) bar always breaks in (the number of breaks required for mxn) + m.

Great, so I have a proof that isn't super rigorous but certainly works.  I believe it was Barrel Plug who always told me to try a proof by induction first; you can do an end run around all kinds of tricky problems with induction.  It's like cheating!

Then I began to think about it for real and hit my 'groan and smash head' moment.

So the chocolate bar has 1 piece.  Each time we break it we add 1 to the number of pieces.  We must get m*n pieces, so no matter how we break it we must perform exactly m*n-1 breaks.  Oy.  So this is in fact a truly simple proof that relies on no mathematical training at all but which can be solved in much more complex ways if you want to.

I like this problem.  Easy solution that everyone can understand but which most people will never think of because they approach it the wrong way.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

Is it worth it to have something really hard?

Gevlon recently has been having a series of tantrums about the 'dance' element of WOW.  He talks about how Cataclysm overly emphasized the dance over performance and wants the game to get back to some vanilla ideal of requiring performance without dancing.  I think he is viewing the past with rose tinted glasses here but he may end up having a really good point about catering to the top 1%.

I recall raiding in vanilla and boy howdy was it easy compared to modern raiding.  I look at what my guild Hounds of War did back then and think that if my last ten man group copied ourselves 3 times and then walked into old dungeons like Molten Core or BWL for the first time that we would finish the entire dungeon in a couple hours.  They were so incredibly forgiving and easy that it is hard to say that they had a difficult dance or performance benchmark.  I recall watching thirty seven people die to Shazzrah one time and the only three folks alive were Wendy, myself and The Warrior.  The entire guild sighed and talked about how we would have to do it again but the three of us just played well and spent ten minutes beating Shazzrah down for the last four percent of his health on single warrior DPS.  No modern fight is that easy, not even Raid Finder facerolls - if you are down to 7% of your raid alive you LOSE.

The thing that made everything work was that the fights were easy and the players were terrible.  We could play with just about anyone (and we did!) and beat things.  Any group of people skilled enough to do modern hardmode fights when they first launch would find the entire raid scene a joke back in vanilla but I would be hard pressed to confirm that people are having more fun in general.  It is clear that there are people who want to be the best in the world and to challenge them you need ludicrously hard fights.  Should Blizzard care about what those people want since there are so few of them relatively speaking?

If WOW just had easy raids then I would be happy raiding with my buddies once or twice a week.  We wouldn't need to raid heavily and we wouldn't need to practice too hard because we could easily beat all the content before the next patch came out on an easy schedule.  There would be no pressure to get hardcore because there was nothing to get hardcore about.  I suspect that as long as WOW (or any other MMO for that matter) has hardmode fights myself and my friends would always be doing those fights as we wouldn't be particularly satisfied with not doing the hardest thing.  If the hardest thing was still pretty easy we could just invite people we liked playing with and beat stuff up at some reasonable pace; if only 9 people log in, we go with 9 and beat the fights a little bit slower.

Some people really enjoy being extremely hardcore though and they would have basically nothing to do once they beat all the fights in the first week of a patch.  Maybe that isn't such a big deal though as all the masses of mediocre players would be able to raid with a much greater variety of people and wouldn't be concerned about being behind the curve.  I suspect a lot of people like Gevlon tend to romanticize the period when they first started raiding.  They remember the excitement of first boss kills and new raids just like anyone does in their first few times doing a new activity and they forget about the terrible parts.  I remember being the raid leader, recruiter, banker and cheerleader for a forty person guild and it was *hell*.  Playing was fun though!

WOW has strongly diverged from its initial roots.  The levelling and questing game has gone from 'impossible to fail but moderately challenging to optimize' to 'trivial' and the raiding game has gone from 'laughably easy' to 'soul crushing difficulty'.  I think it is time for some convergence.  Get some hard back into levelling and some easy back into raiding.  Hell, Blizzard even sent me a free week promo email so I can wander back into the World of World of Warcraft and give it a spin for a short time.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

I had a dream

This past Friday I had a dream about a game.  I woke up at three in the morning with a full set of rules in my head and determined that I would remember them upon waking.  As soon as I got up in the morning I began to draw on paper and make little cut outs and voila, a new game appeared.  I have never done this before as all of the games I have built have been products of long iteration and conscious design rather than simply writing down what appeared to me in a dream.

The thing that I am most pleased with is that the initial design seems to need almost no tweaking to work.  That isn't to say that no improvements can be made but rather that no improvements need to be made for the game to be exactly what I was hoping:  Extremely fast to explain (1-2 minutes), fast to play (10 minutes) and deep strategically.  Even after playing a bunch of games I was still struggling to figure out the best strategies and sort out exactly what I should do given particular choices but after getting a number of people to test the game with me it was obvious that the player with the most experience and talent won consistently.  I wanted a game that was as simple to explain as chess, played much more quickly and had the same sort of strategic depth while retaining just a little randomness.

The idea is that this is a simple 12 turn game.  On each turn you play one tile and score points for each side of your tile that has more dots on it than the adjacent tile or edge - you can only score points from enemy tiles or edges.  These comparisons are called attacks.  Tiles can have special rules which you see on the sheet in the picture.  Each player has 12 tiles which are identical but you draw 3 of them at random to start the game and then draw a new one each time you play one.  This means the games will be different each time but that each player will have the same quality of tiles over the match.  The final wrinkle is that before the match starts three tokens are placed on the board on squares.  Whoever places a tile in that square claims the token and each token is worth 1 point.  The first player places a token, then the second player, then first again.  After this they play through their 12 tiles with the first player going first again.

That's it.  Thematically of course the tiles could be all kinds of things and have all kinds of powers.  They could be fantasy monsters, foods, spaceships or whatever else fit the theme of the game (which I haven't yet settled on).  Numbers first, then set dressing!

Tuesday, December 6, 2011

A request for information - board games

I have been volunteering at Elli's school for the board games club and I need to draw on the considerable experience of my gaming community to help with new board game purchases.  I need help finding board games that are:

Fast to play
Easy to teach
Do not have too many fiddly pieces
Are playable if kids lose a piece or two
Quick to set up and put away

What suggestions do you have?  The school has a bazillion copies of Monopoly (probably the worst game possible) and a few that really work like Connect Four and Checkers.  I was thinking of Carcassone and Quoridor as good options as well as Blockus (which they already have).  What other games out there would fit my criteria and be good ones for kids ages 7-12?

Back to the drawing board

Glitch has gone back to beta.  I haven't played the game since the day I quit cold turkey (Isn't 'cold turkey' a truly outrageous expression?  How the hell does 'cold turkey' have anything to do with quitting something instantly?) but I have been telling the game to learn new skills for me every few days with the assumption that I would cap out my skills roughly by the start of January.  Maybe I will play some more, maybe I won't, but getting more powerful with so few clicks is hard to resist!

I am not especially surprised by this change because for a short while most of my friends were playing Glitch like maniacs, logging in during the night to do daily donations and putting in tremendous hours and then fairly suddenly everybody stopped.  I think many of us hit the same wall where we had most of the skills, had explored everywhere that was interesting, bought the biggest house and found that the remaining goals were really uninspiring.  There needs to be something big and creative at the end of the initial exploration phase (which for me lasted until I got all 11 Icons) and hopefully the creators of Glitch can make that happen.

The reasons given for sending the game back to beta, which is a gutsy move, are that player housing and player control of the world were not working out.  I completely agree with that assessment.  The game was marketed as one in which players could design the world and the community would drastically influence how the world evolved but that wasn't remotely true.  Players could poison trees and then plant new trees to replace them but there were only 6 kinds of trees and any given tree plot could usually only take 1-3 kinds.  Being able to replace a single terrain feature with a single other, functionally identical terrain feature is not dynamic content creation.  Minecraft has certainly set a new bar for player created content and although Glitch is a lot of fun it isn't going to scratch the 'I can make the world be whatever I want!' itch that players wanted and which the company promised.

Housing was a similar disappointment.  In particular there were issues at launch that gathering enough money to buy the most expensive house was easy, the supply of houses was small and all the top end houses were identical and located in the same place.  This created a huge mess in that people who liked the look of the cheap houses (treefort house!) couldn't get the advantages of the expensive house (modern condo) and people were stockpiling cash without anything to buy.  What was needed, I think, was the ability for players to spend massive quantities of resources designing their own houses.  It doesn't have to be practical at all as there really isn't any penalty to having other players have spectacular mansions they spent bazillions of hours creating so the players need to be let loose to build furniture, create gardens and do other such things.

Of course designing frameworks where players can build their own houses, furnishings and designs is a big undertaking.  Even bigger is the challenge of letting players design the world itself, which is made far more challenging by the issue of players griefing one another for profit or pure malice.  Doing these things is going to be very hard and not at all quick so I think Glitch rightly should be back in beta where they can justify all kinds of downtime and small bugs while pounding out big changes.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

Companions and bots

Tobold talked a little bit about the companions from the new Star Wars MMO.  He believes that it would be relatively easy to create a bot that could be a better player than any player and let these bots sub in for player roles.  The idea is that although companies could easily create bots that could smash encounters in MMOs they do not because it would make players feel bad that the bots were so much better than them.  Hogwash I say.

Certainly bots have advantages over humans.  They can process data like "I am in a fire" and arrive at the conclusion "Gotta move" within .01 seconds.  They can maintain a rotation of casting spells with 100% of normal efficiency while moving and they are never distracted by their kid crying, a hiccup in connectivity or being hungry.  The problem with bots of course is that they are dumb as hell in ways that are mission critical.  When the boss is casting a gigantic attack the bot is going to die because it doesn't know that 50% of the map is a death zone.  When the group strategy is to clump up on command the bot doesn't understand that - or it takes a single tick of fire damage and wanders in the wrong direction.

The point is that if you program a simple bot to cast spells efficiently and not stand in a simple fire it can beat a terrible player quite handily.  However, if you want that same bot to react effectively to complex or innovative encounters the bot must be programmed with all the strategies ahead of time.  This would be utterly disastrous as it would mean that all the players could simply follow the bot and do exactly what it does - this has to be successful or the bot isn't functional!  There is no possible way to write a bot that can react to interesting situations in useful ways unless you think that the bot can die and then learn to play better next time.  Unfortunately this is simply not possible with the current state of technology - if you think a computer can look at an encounter and devise effective strategy alterations to deal with it then I challenge you to take the World of Logs code from any WOW raid wipe and devise a program that can analyze it and tell you effectively what went wrong with the group's strategy.  You will fail.

The reason bots are bad at playing MMOs is that in order to be effective against anything but the most simple and repetitive challenges they need to have knowledge of the encounter ahead of time.  Screwing up any part of that encounter programming would make the bot useless though and even if you were successful it would really kick immersion in the nuts; players would wonder why their bots were psychic ninjas and anticipated every boss ability on the first try.

That isn't to say that there is no place at all for bots in MMO play.  Finding groups for things can be challenging and having a bot that tries to get out of fire and follows the player around casting healing spells can be great.  Having a tanking bot that just attacks any nearby monster and fights to the death has its place.  These mechanics could make filling 5 man groups or doing quests easier and give people options when their friends are offline but they don't want to play with randoms (or can't find randoms who want to play with them!).  The idea that somehow these bots will be better at playing than the best humans is laughable though.  We can see this in Starcraft 2, where the computer playing as best it can is a suitable challenge for beginners but extremely quickly becomes easy to defeat and is a complete joke to experts even though that game is so dependent on click speed and multitasking.  These bots will only be useful for trivial tasks however as once an encounter really requires strategy or practice the bots will be useless.