Loot table or fun game?

Over at Penny Arcade (http://www.penny-arcade.com), Tycho sez that WoW is "a game that is essentially a mechanism to obscure the loot table." I’ve thought about this, and I don’t agree with him.

Yes, it’s true that like many/most games created today, the WoW "reward schedule" is complex and robust, and has been very carefully polished. And, like most CRPG games, the rewards you get are 1) quest achievements, and 2) avatar upgrades (so, loot). But even laying aside the multiplayer aspects of WoW’s game experience, can we truly reduce it to nothing but an obscured loot table?

Let’s imagine…a hypothetical game, where your avatar is an Olympic high-jumper. The screen is filled with bars you can jump over, and if you succeed, your jump height is increased by a small amount. So of course you prioritize the bars, jumping over the small ones first, and working up to the large ones. You can choose to re-jump a bar, but its benefit is smaller each time.

You occasionally try a bar you know is too high, and usually you fail, and very occasionally you succeed. You keep tabs on the bars you’ve conquered, and work to make sure you’ve jumped over every bar on the screen, and to make sure your jump ability is eventually maxed out.

This is easy to imagine, ’cause it’s the structure of every CRPG (and many other game genres) ever made. And where’s the loot table? Well, the "loot", or reward, is both the increase in your avatar’s jump height, and the effect of that change (the set of bars that are suddenly within reach). Is the game obscuring this loot? No, of course not. It’s a very simple and transparent game mechanic.

What if we change some things? First, we modify the success reward (the stat boost you get for a successful jump) by a random number. Sometimes you get a double boost, sometimes you get nothing. This is just "intermittently reinforcing behavior" shown ages ago by B.F. Skinner (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Operant_conditioning).

Another change; every 2 minutes, all of the bars change by a small random number. Another; some bars secretly give no reward, while others give double. Some give rewards only during certain times of the day; others give rewards only if you jump several in a specific sequence.

After all these changes, the reward schedule isn’t so transparent, but it sounds more fun and challenging, right? You still care about maxing your (one) stat, and about jumping over all the bars. But now you have more things to care about. You see that more things seem unpredictable, and you want to figure them out. You got some bonuses, and you want to find out how to get more, so you can max your stat sooner.

Now we’re sounding more and more like WoW and similar games, right? So much complexity to figure out, just so you can maximize your stats. Is it a "mechanism to obscure the loot table"? No. It’s a bunch of tasks, some stats, and a whole lot of procedural complexity, which is there to make the game even more fun than just tasks and stats alone.

And the loot? That’s just stats. Aside from the aesthetic value of Onyx Platemail (remember, we were laying aside the multiplayer element, which includes showing off your cool armor to others), it’s just stats. We jump the bars to raise the stats (which is a reward).

In a previous blog post, I talked about Johnathan Blow and his lecture, http://braid-game.com/news/?p=129. In it, he asked the assembled game designers a simple question. If you remove the reward schedule from your game, do you have any game left? The implication was that the answer should be "yes", and that many designers would have to say "no".

I say the answer misses the point. Reward schedules or not, people play games for all kinds of different reasons. Even our high-jump game can be played to maximize stats, conquer all the bars, figure out all the underlying complexities, or just enjoy the trip. Saying that a game is just a "mechanism to obscure the loot table" says a lot more about the player, than about the game.


Turn a negative into a positive… with BALLS!

I was traveling this weekend, and while zipping down the road, I spy a billboard for Tom Raper RV Sales. I kid you not.


After further driving, stopping, and discussions with the locals, I found…that Tom Raper RVs, Homes, Trailers, and God knows what else are advertised EVERYWHERE out there, using pretty much every available billboard. He’s even got a street named after him!

Now, I know nothing about Tom Raper. But I know this. On his 18th birthday, he could have gone down to the courthouse, paid $15, and changed his name to Reaper, or Paper, or Smith. Did he?

No. Instead, he built that unfortunate name into a low-cost, high-volume sales empire, and by the looks of it he owns that town now.

Food for thought. 🙂http://www.tomraper.com/

I need a new OS

I was at a party in December, and was listening to a spirited discussion about laptops and PDAs and touchpads. There was much discussion about Windows vs. Linux, and about CPU/RAM/HD speeds. Although I didn’t share it at the time, I have my own opinion about our OS choices.

They all suck, and I wish there was another option.

Windows is the…original bloatware. Even back when it first came out it was leaning on the expectation that machines would get cheaper and more powerful over time. This meant that running lean and simple was way down on the feature list. In the 12 years since, nothing has changed. Windows, in all it’s incarnations, is still a huge pig. I’d bet that MSoft has one or more teams working on completely new OSs of the future, but so far I haven’t seen or heard of the results of such research.

I certainly admire Linux and its user base, but let’s not forget that it’s UNIX ported to the PC. It’s old, with many basic concepts held over from 30 years ago. Plus, it too gets bloated pretty fast. I remember talking to a UNIX guy in 87. He said UNIX required (at that time) 4 meg of ram, and 40 megs of storage. Today’s iPhones have more than that.

BeOS was out there for quite a while, but now it appears to be completely defunct, and I’m kicking myself for not learning more about it while it was viable.

I loved the "gloves off" approach of AmigaOS, but that ship sailed a very long time ago.

There’s new talk of a company called Device VM (http://www.technologyreview.com/Infotech/20072/?a=f) and their new software. Basically they’ve got a really simple OS (if it can be called that) that boots instantly from the BIOS, and runs an editor and a browser. It’s obviously not being touted as an alternative to Windows, but (for users that only need a thin client) it is.

As an engineer, I often feel the pull, the allure, of creating an OS from scratch. The idea that I can start with a CPU, some RAM, and a bit of IO, and boot-strap up a multitasking kernel and a slick GUI. That’s exciting, and I’m sure I’m not the only engineer to feel that way. In fact, I bet there are others already hard at work on a new 21st century OS, and if you know of them, please clue me in. Thanks!


"I felt that old, cloying grip of obsession"

N’Gai Croal wrote an article about two games he’s been addicted to lately. We say that so blithely. “Addicted”.

He goes into detail about his addictions, how they make him feel, and even sez, “I felt that old, cloying grip of obsession” overtaking him again.

There is something really important here.

I felt it in…my youth. I was consumed by the wonder of Ultima 3 & 4. I’d basically think of nothing else, from the time I woke up ’til I fell asleep at night. I played at home, and at school I was still playing in my head. It was profoundly consuming, and profoundly fun.

I experienced Wonder.

I found it again when programming the Commodore 64. Sometimes it felt like I could shake the pillars of Heaven, if only I could find the right Peek() or Poke().

And in the last decade, I’ve been having a hard time finding that wonder again. Many friends have listened patiently to me whine about this, but I don’t seek pity. Richard Bartle, in his big book, simply sez that we think too deeply about games, and thus can never be players again.

I’m sure that many will say Pshaw and Balderdash to that, but for whatever reason, I’ve only gotten echos of my wonder lately. These echos come from Systems Games (tycoon games, Civ4, etc.), and my analysis of their fun is that Systems Games are most fun when you are not building a system, but tweaking it to perform optimally. And that analysis feels like a leg.

Ever hear that old parable about blind men and an elephant? Since none of them can touch the whole thing, they all mis-identify the beast in different ways. None of them put it all together, not least because they don’t compare notes. That’s why it feels like a leg. I’m sure I’m not seeing the big picture.

Koster’s Theory of Fun For Game Design seems to be part of the whole, and Xeo Design’s whitepaper does too. I keep trying to bash all these parts together in my mind, but so far no perfect pachyderm presents itself.

Is it possible that wonder is a sub-set or super-set of learning (Koster’s thang)? Is it learning taken to the next level? Well, I’m not sure you can have wonder without mystery (can you?) And is wonder a mixture of mystery and excitement FOR that mystery? Is THIS wonder?

Or is game “addiction”, after all, just a harmful chemical addiction like any other?an article
his big book,
Theory of Fun For Game …
Xeo Design’s whitepaper

Happy New… Bleack!

What better way to ring in the new year than with a bad cold? Don’t answer with one of the million ways; it was rhetorical. Yes, despite being a good boy and getting my flu shot, I’m laid up, coughing my lungs out and mopping my nose constantly. Plus the hot eyeballs and fever dreams. Bleack!

But despite this temporary setback, I’ve still got big plans for 2008. Most of them are carry-overs from 2007, like work on the games DayDream and I have begun, and efforts to plug into the academic scene here in Ohio.

But I’ve got two new…plans; one is finding a BizDev guy I can work with. I’m talking with some now.

The other is finding fresh-faced unpaid interns to help me amp up my website and my internet sales. Basically this means reaching out to students with a specific offer of an "internship" or "apprenticeship", to both high-school and college students, and see who’s interested.