Degrees of Separation

One of my first get-out-of-the-cubicle-and-see-the-Industry events was E3 2006. I was sitting in the hotel lobby (the expensive hotel of which EA shareholders were gloriously paying for me to inhabit) and I was waiting for a friend to come down to walk to the show. This was a kinder, simpler time when people didn’t fill every spare second looking at their iPhones and ignoring their surroundings. I was absent-mindedly perusing the free E3 newsletter thing that was dropped off at every hotel room when Will Wright sat down on the chair across from me, clearly waiting for someone too. I glanced up long enough to make visual recognition and then focused intently on my paper. I didn’t want to be that guy that was all like OhmygoditsWillWrightSimAntfreakingchangedmeasapersonandmademewanttobeadesignerheycanigetapictureandanautographandahairsample? So I just played it cool and a few seconds later, his colleague appeared and they walked off.

Now that I actually know people in the industry and am a bit less green, my Facebook “People You May Know” keeps suggesting all these legends that are two degrees away from me. It’s a bit surreal, and I doubt that I would ever Add As Friend unless I knew them.

It’s one of the neat side effects of the socially-connected decade we are in. In 2006, I felt that Will Wright was this inaccessible celebrity. In 2011, I’m invited to contact him. How strange.

Parking Wars Bricks

I’m in the closed beta for Parking Wars 2 and it’s all the Parking Wars you know and love plus some bits. I thought the original was one of the most dynamically interesting social games ever created (and three years later, it still is). The new one has this item called, simply enough, the Brick:

Using the brick allows you to zero out the value of any car anywhere, parked legally or no.

But I’m kind of at odds to the purpose of the dynamic behind the brick. You can use it to hurt a friend, but why would you? It doesn’t move the car, it doesn’t give you anything and it doesn’t help you in any way. As far as I know, you don’t get the accrued money when you brick a car. The only way you would want to use a brick is if you were in a money race with someone. But in that case, since you can brick anyone anywhere, as long as you have mutual friends where you park, there’s no way to defend against the brick.

The Green Car is Bricked

When I was designing a Facebook game last year (unreleased), we had a similar mechanic where you could “steal” a neglected resource from a friend. But I added a bluff feature where you could tag a resource as bait and if a friend tried to steal it, they would get caught. That manages the friend dynamic in an insightful way, as would some sort of brick defense. There is currently no risk to using the brick and no reward besides schadenfruede.

For a game that’s largely about social engineering where success depends on being lucky and insightful (knowing when a friend won’t be on to move their cars or something), it seems like a cruel bludgeon.

Ideas for the Brick:

  • It would be interesting if the Brick could only be used to “ticket” illegally parked cars on streets that aren’t your own.
  • Or if there was a “Security System” you could buy for your cars that prevents against bricking and punishes brick-hurlers. In that case, there would have to be some reward for being a brick-hurler, perhaps that you collect the lost value.
  • I’ll stop here because I could easily come up with about 200 ideas for mechanics for PW2.

Worth

I had an interesting conversation here at work yesterday. We were discussing the merits of Farmville et al and I brought up (of course) Cow Clicker. One of the participants mentioned that because there are people that play Cow Clicker non-ironically that it failed. Additionally, this person said that Cow Clicker is in fact a good game because this person would enjoy it because of the “moo” sound effect.

Now, my response was/is: something that is enjoyable and purports to be a game does not equate to that thing being a) a game and b) a good or worthwhile game. Smoking a cigarette is an enjoyable activity to many but is not a game and not a healthy activity. The response to this was that it doesn’t matter. A game does not need to be “healthy” or what I called “nutritious” in order to have worth. It doesn’t need my “permission” to be worthwhile to be.

I find the argument interesting. I can see the logic. It would be easy to use my line of reasoning to pooh-pooh Dragon Lair back in the day, even though it helped lead to much more mature games in the future. So 1) is something that creates enjoyment inherently worthwhile? 2) is it okay that millions waste their lives (IMO) on –villes in the hopes that this some day it inspires something deeper that ends up being successful despite the sort of strip-mining design process?

Agree or disagree?

Methane

Since I linked to it the other day and since I am filling my wall with posts on it, I thought I’d draw more attention to Ian Bogost’s brilliant distillation of social games called Cow Clicker and his subsequent explanation of the inspiration for it on his blog.

In short: you click on a cow to get points. Why do you need points? Well… you can compare with your friends! And you can buy cutely named Mooney to get different cow types!

I was talking to my fiancee yesterday who is a huge user of all these social game doodads and she was distressed that her dog in Farmville had ran away because she wasn’t there to click on it or feed it or whatever you do in that game these days. Cow Clicker is very lax in that particular interpretation of the “Social” Dogma. If you don’t click your cow, nothing bad happens to you, which is one of the key psychological footholds of the genre. You don’t lose anything and you don’t let your friends down. It’s the sense of obligation, of slavery to these mindless activities that makes me find Facebook games so insidious, especially after having worked on one. Not only are your friends not human beings but resources, but conversely you are a cog in their machine. It’s surprising for me to say that Cow Clicker isn’t insidious enough. Maybe that is the point? Maybe because we expect it to be more insidious that just shows how miserable the state of affairs truly is?

Cow Clicker is more interesting satire than, say, Progress Quest simply because instead of making a statement that looks like the antecedent (as in the latter), it attempts to fully emulate its target and strip it down enough that its internals show but not so bare that it fails to emulate the same mechanics and dynamics.

Whatever this school of design is that eschews the fuck-the-users mentality, it needs a name and a little badge that I can put on my profile and level up.

Let the Sun Shine In

Power Planets is a great example of theme matching dynamics and a rare example of a Facebook game worth your time. You control a one-dimensional planet with limited resources and attempt to build up a civilization hopefully without fouling up the environment. You do this by unlocking tech in a nicely sized tech-tree and placing buildings and power plants in tactical locations.

The reason Power Planets works so well where loads of civ building games have failed is simply because it has a theme that is strong, but isn’t heavy-handed. You are free to muck up the world in the pursuit of luchre and the game makes little moral objection to the choice with the exception of animation of coughing and dying residents. It doesn’t lead you down a path of eco-righteousness – it lets you decide what that is through the mechanics.

For instance, I wanted to research to get Universities because they provide a lot of points per hour. But to do so, I needed a good chunk of money. So I built some fume-spewing Upgraded Factories powered by cheap, abundant and dirty as sin coal power. Completely within the so-called “Magic Circle”, I justified this – yeah, it is dirty and all, but it’s for the greater good. I need the Universities.

Renewable resources are hopelessly underpowered until you get the research to unlock more futuristic technologies. But the only way to unlock those technologies is to have a lot of money and the only way to have a lot of money is to essentially build a lot of polluting buildings. The parallel lessons to real situations, while neccessarily simplistic, are striking.

But the clever twist in Power Planets that makes it unlike every other building sim out there is that you hand off your planet to someone else every two days and receive a stranger’s. How many times in polluting will you look at your coal reserves, see 40 hours of coal remaining and know that it is someone else’s problem, plunging ahead not worrying about the future?

One building you can create is a Monument that houses your Facebook picture. Future caretakers of that world cannot remove or move the monument and it takes up a valuable space on the planet. Putting it on a useful resource or in a valuable power plant’s range is the ultimate in narcissism, but the game makes no value judgment on its own.

In a genre full of contrived mechanics (Why can I only click my cow every six hours? “Well, because we want you to come back” doesn’t fit any theme but manipulation), Power Planets strives as simple, fun and full of meaning.

The Sky Isn’t Falling

So players are jumping off of the “social” game bandwagon at lightning speeds and everyone is flailing around wildly asking why.

Look at the chart here and you will notice a few things:

1) Older games are generally declining faster than newer games. This tells us that users are growing tired of the same old formulas. This isn’t unique for “social” games. Look at the numbers of people still playing Project Gotham Racing 4 or some other “core” game. People just tire eventually. Remember when everyone was playing Snood? This bodes poorly for copycat games. Where once people couldn’t get enough farming, restauranteuring, etc., the platform will have to branch out to new genres (not just new themes!) to continue growing. This isn’t a shock – it is expected. Did you really think more people would be playing Farmville in 2011? 2012? 2020? At some point the genre had to peak or level off.

2) But newer games are also losing steam. Treasure Isle, for instance, is down half a million users. This could be for a number of reasons. One is that Facebook has had a lot of negative publicity lately with regards to privacy. Users could simply be not logging on or shedding the platform across the board. Some loss must be attributed to this, but there’s little forward-looking devs can do about that.

Some blame the across-the-board losses on the removed ability to spam via notifications. If these newer games are designed on the same models where one has to be reminded to play, then they will suffer the same user burnout as in (1). Since these games do have some bits that are new coats of paint, they should weather the storm for longer.

3) The gross data tells us nothing about whether the users leaving were the lookie-loo free players or the folks spending cash on virtual tchotchkes. If it is the former, is it really such a blow to Facebook developers? The data behind this will clearly be held close to the individual developers’ chests.

4) Older games that aren’t declining as much are games where you don’t have to be nagged or pressured to play them – they are generally fun in of themselves. Texas Hold’em and Bejeweled Blitz are the examples here. The novelty of “I’m playing a game with friends on Facebook” is wearing off. Now the games actually have to have some fun mechanics to stick, which sucks because it is a lot harder…

Of course, it is just easier to whine and complain that we can’t spam notifications anymore.

Better Red Than Dead

  • Looping back to the previous post on feedback loops, I am playing EA/Playfish’s FIFA Superstars Facebook game. It’s got some neat stuff in it, but I am at a point where I am absolutely suffering from the positive feedback loop I’ve seen in most every EA Sports game.I’ve lost my free coach (you only get him for a limited time), so my team’s power/rank/whatever has dropped twenty points. Yet I am forced into a league where I have to play people who still have the coach and are thus at my same level yet at the same time completely outclassing me.

    Now here’s the exacerbating problem: when you lose, you lose training power and you get significantly less money and significantly less experience – thus you are put in a position to do worse in future games and have no mechanism to escape (sans paying real money). Not only is this reinforcing, but it is through no fault of your own.

    It is easy to fall into this design when working on sports games because sports are very much based on power law distributions. There are a bunch of shlubs and a few superstars. The superstars get all the money and fame and endorsements. The problem with modeling that in games is that nobody wants to be the bench player. They all want to be LeBron James or Tom Brady or Sidney Crosby. This works fine if you have early successes (flip “heads” the first few times and gain the advantage), but for most players (the schlubs), it just won’t be very fun through no fault of their own. So my advice is to stay away from the positive loops that model real world success onto players and instead let the players themselves be the embodiment of the powers law while implementing negative reinforcement that allows the schlubs to catch up to those superstars. Does it model reality? No, but it shouldn’t have to.

    Meier commented on the fact during the last GDC that when units have stats that if it is the player’s units that they should always win when they have the higher number and that the game should roll the dice when they are the underdog. But in multiplayer games (like this one), you are more or less guaranteed to have an underdog and a champion that share this bias. If you use the stat-based method, it is very easy to fall into the power-law situation where there are a bunch of schlubs and a few superstars and the player has little control over which they will be.

  • I completed Alan Wake over the weekend and I am surprised that everyone isn’t finding it as wholly compelling as I did. It has a clever battle mechanic, fantastic presentation and gripping story, not to mention fantastic score and soundtrack.I then dug into Red Dead Redemption. Now, it is my own damn fault because I generally avoid previews but I didn’t realize that when people said it was “Grand Theft Auto” in the west that they were being literal. These are the same mechanics that you played in Grand Theft Auto 3, Bully, Grand Theft Auto 4, and so on and so on. Literally, there was a mission that had me steal a horse and then watch my minimap as deputies raced after me. I had to be outside their zone of awareness while a meter ticked down and then they forgot about me. Sigh. I was looking for my horse’s radio controls but couldn’t find them.

    Now, I am being biased because I hate the controls, hate the reticule, hate the World’s Slowest Poker Game, hate the bugs, hate that you can’t often tell who is firing at you or where they are, hate the stupid same missions I was playing five years ago, hate the “hold A to experience mission” gameplay and so on. But since the frustrations are raw and in my face, it is hard to acknowledge that there are a lot of great things in the game. There are!

    Hold on. A comment on that last item. I have a great deal of skepticism towards open world games for one reason: much of the gameplay time by percentage tends to be taken up by traveling from gameplay event to gameplay event. In Wind Waker, you spent a lot of time sailing from point to point. In GTA, driving. In Far Cry 2, more driving. In most open world RPGs, walking. In Red Dead, you spend a lot of time simply holding down the A button to follow an NPC that will talk to you on the way to some mission. These mechanics are not substitutes for compelling gameplay.

    These are tasks that we do in order to fulfill a larger purpose. Some games get this right: Sly Cooper 2 (condensed world full of interesting decisions), Oblivion (density of discoverable points in travel along with very easy quick-travel), Silent Hill 1 (Very directed open world for the most part), Burnout Paradise (they made great pains to make the actual travel to events fun).  Red Dead puts band-aids on the wound: coach taxis, campsites, etc, but they do not really fix the problem. Had Alan Wake been “open world” (it could have been very easily!) it would have suffered from the same remarkable sameness of gameplay, paced poorly and frustratingly extended.

    Back to what works. The formula for Grand Theft Auto is to make a world and then fill it with stuff rather than to first design stuff and put it in a world that fits said stuff. To this degree, they do a great job. You can do everything from pistols at dawn to liar’s dice to cattle ropin’ and hell, you can even pick flowers. They sure get quantity right. The fact is that there are many types of players (Bartle provides one definition, but it is far more branching). It is hard to create experiences that satisfy everyone. So if you cast a wide net, you can hope that everyone can find something that they enjoy. I, for instance, find the Treasure Hunting quest line very interesting and fun. It comes at the expense of making sure that all these mechanics are usable. Some mechanics give you no chance to learn them (poker cheating) and others simply feel like they were checked off a list as “done” and forgotten (horseshoes).

    So maybe that is where the 95 Metacrtic comes from in a game full of nervous-twitch inducing issues. The production was clearly difficult, as evidenced by the EA-spouse-esque leaks. So that a game that could come out to such rapturous reviews is emblematic of a team that put their hearts, souls and bodies into creating something that people enjoy. Kudos to that. The San Diego team has my utmost respect.

*pop*

Once again, Soren Johnson reads my mind and regurgitates it much more eloquently than I could ever wish to.

I can’t even quote it as it is a collection of quotes, but I do have to comment on:

Zynga’s Mark Skaggs, formerly of EA, praised metrics as the answer to most game design problems. Much has been made about their discovery that pink was the best color for advertising Zynga’s other games, but the telling point was when Skaggs said that “if a player repeats something, it’s fun.”

I hadn’t heard that before. It’s so wrong that it is almost obvious. I ride the subway every day. It isn’t fun. I scanned every item in Metroid Prime in fear I’d miss something. It wasn’t fun. I walked A LOT in Grand Theft Auto. I drove aimlessly a lot in Far Cry 2. I scanned every planet in Mass Effect. These weren’t fun.

You know what? That explains the popup barrage you get in Farmville every time you load. A player clicked to get rid of the popup, therefore popup dismissing must be fun! So let’s give them more popups! Oh, they dismissed those too! MORE POPUPS ALL AROUND! *pop* *pop* *pop*