Itchy Thumbs

Completing games then reviewing them

Archive for the ‘Analysis’ Category

Things I hate in computer games

Posted by D on October 11, 2007

It struck me whilst playing the first of the secret Yoshi’s Island DS levels (Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower) over and over and over and over and over and over that I really, truly and completely hate “probability grinding”. “But what is probability grinding?” I hear you ask. Ok, I don’t actually hear you ask that because that would mean that I was either mad or omnipresent and the last time I looked I was neither. Probability Grinding is a the feature of many games where the completion of a task is based on a randomly generated in-game event. Two good examples are the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level in Yoshi’s Island DS and the “Facility” level time trial in Golden Eye on the N64. Probability grinding is also a common feature of many MMORPGs (i.e. drop rates).

In Yoshi’s Island to get a perfect score in each level you need to collect 30 stars. In the “Welcome to Yoshi’s Tower” level the 20 stars you need (you start with 10) are hidden in 4 clouds. When you burst a cloud the stars scatter in random directions and often 1 or 2 will fall off the edge of the level. This means that you have to repeatedly attempt the whole level, because the final 3 clouds are right at the end, and hope that the stars scatter in just the right way for you to pick them up. Unlike all the other levels in the game there are no middle restart points so the entire level has to be done over and over if the stars don’t scatter in the right way. It doesn’t help that this level is one of the hardest in the game.

In the “Facility” level of Golden Eye the time trial must be done on the hardest level of difficulty and the time required is very short indeed. This challenge is already incredibly difficult but one of the objectives is to rendezvous with a scientist NPC. Unfortunately the scientist is randomly placed in one of three (four? I forget) locations but only one of these locations provides a path through the level which would beat the time required. If he’s not in the right location you just have to start again.

The greatest problem with probability grinds is that the game is no longer about skill, it’s about whether or not the planets have moved into a favourable alignment. It’s especially annoying in games which were previously all about skill (Golden Eye, Yoshi’s Island) as it completely changes the basis on which you succeed. In contrast the “Super hard acrobatics” level on Yoshi’s Island took me a while because it was difficult and required a lot of practice. Games such as Guitar Hero or Mario Kart (snaking is allowed – L2P nubhats) purely reward skills based play. Attempting to get through those games with blind luck won’t really get you anywhere. In the end of the day probability grinding is a totally artificial way to make a game “hard” or in the case of MMORPGs to make the game take longer.

But there is one thing that could be done to alleviate the problem: reduce the amount of time it takes to complete each fresh attempt at the “hard” portion. Both the Yoshi’s Island and Golden Eye cases compound the frustration by having the random event happen at a late stage in the level. This means that each attempt takes a long time. In the case of the Golden Eye Facility level the scientist could have always been placed at the same at the same location, or the level could have been reworked so you met him at an earlier point. For the Yoshi’s Island level the four star clouds could have been near the start. This would have reduced the turn around time for each fresh attempt at the level and would have changed the task to one of “can you keep hold of all the stars throughout the whole level”. Or a middle restart point could have been added meaning that you only had to probability grind the latter half of the level, again reducing the turn around time. I’m not really sure what you could do to save many MMORPGs, it’s hardwired into their very fabric that they are time sinks rather than skills based.

Now excuse me while I go and slog away at Yoshi’s Island some more and possibly even throw it on the ground and smash it in frustration.


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Posted by D on May 18, 2007

We are getting a Wii. I have mixed feelings, I am vexed.

On the one hand the controller is a genius idea and nintendo make a lot of great games. Nintendo are easily my favourite developer and I have a deep seated desire to play both Paper Mario and Super Mario Galaxy.

On the other hand few of the games I’ve played on it so far are not at all well realised and mature. Frankly, the boxing on Wii sports is fucking pathetic. Also I fear that whole novel control thing may end up as a gimmick that few developers have the patience or desire to develop for.

Watch this space.

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Holy crap!

Posted by D on March 2, 2007

Like the veil being lifted from before my eyes I am struct with an epiphany, a desperate truism that should haunt us all. Computer games aren’t created by people who know how to make games. Why is it that such moments of clarity occur only after 2am? Was Einstein an insomniac? Picaso? Gaudi? Enough of this.

What about my reality shattering assertion? It’s true, have a look at a computer games company and ask yourself how many people there have any formal training or background in the theory of gaming. How many can actually define what a games is and why certain rule sets do or don’t work. If you look closely you’ll notice 99% of the employees are either cash herding suits or the kind of spotty nerd who, through computers, finds the validation he never achieved at school. Even the term “game design” has been largely co-opted to describe the process by which games are assembled (idea-implement-test-refactor) which is essentially a software development or business process.

And you might say “nonsense, look at all these classic games”. And the answer to that utterly facile statement is “Yes, look at the hundreds of thousands of utterly shitty games which come spewing forth day in day out”. It’s like some kind of object lesson in infinite monkey theorem.

The problem with the itterative design the games industry goes in for (other than them being utterly incapable of even doing that right) is that by not understanding how games work they are left floundering around in ideas space with no real conception of why something does or doesn’t work. Testing things that needn’t have been implemented. A further problem is that if you don’t understand why games that work do work and why games that don’t work don’t then you end up selecting options you already know work. Why else do we have to endure endless streams of indetikit crappy FPSes, racing games, beat ’em ups etc. etc. etc. etc.

More on this theme later.

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Vorsprung durch technik

Posted by D on November 2, 2006

More than amply demonstrating that the games industry have in fact been busy making the same 11 games for the last 20 years.

Game Evolution

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BBC and US government in missing the point shocker

Posted by D on October 20, 2006

The BBC are running an article about the US government’s investigation into online economies. I suspect the US IRS know exactly what they are talking about and our dear reporter doesn’t have a clue. Most in game economies are at best rudimentary (despite some people’s best efforts) but perhaps there is something interesting to be gleaned about emerging economic models.

But reading that article either the US government don’t have a fucking clue or the BBC reporter is very confused and probably needs a lie down after they’ve had their coco. First of all; Second Life, why anyone would spend time using this glorified chat room is beyond me but it does posses one interesting mechanic: you can freely interchange in-game monies for real monies. The upshot of this is that you can actually earn a real world living making items (robot avatars, dresses, S&M equipment (I kid you not), etc…) for other characters to purchase in the game world. Now as I understand it any income you generate in this way (even though the point of sale transaction happens in virtual currency) is taxable. People have just been passing under the radar up until now.

The thing that’s completely batshit in that article is that it conflates the real money you can earn using Second life (because you can convert in game money in to real world money) and the in-game currency you earn in-game for selling lewt within games like WoW. It also implies that you earn money through the process of “gold farming”. You don’t, you earn money by selling the data (in-game currency) that you’ve generated through “gold farming”. However these types of transactions happen solely in the real world with real world currency. You can’t convert WoW gold into real world cash directly, Blizzard just don’t support that. And what’s more blizzard don’t even allow it. The licence that covers your WoW character leaves ownership of all data within the game world on their servers with Blizzard. You don’t own any of that data. Selling your character on ebay or selling in-game gold constitues fraud (as well as that income being liable for tax). You don’t own those things so you have no right to pass them off as your own and sell them to others. Some games are different, the licence for Eve Online allows players to trade their in-game items in the real world. Once again though, if you’re earning money from this you will liable for tax on your earnings.

The article quotes Jim Saxton suggesting that people are worried that the US IRS might tax in-game transactions. This makes no sense for WoW or Eve Online, what happens in the game has no real world impact. What happens in the game stays in the game, no real money is spent no real money is earnt. I really don’t understand who the mystery people who might be worried about this are? I suspect that they are either making this up or they (the reporter) fundamentally mis-understands people’s actual concerns. Second Life on the other hand might be a target for an in-game tax, this might make sense but it makes no sense for the point of taxation to be in game. When people convert their ingame currency into real world currency makes more sense as the correct point of taxation and there are already mechanisims in place for taxing declared earnings. That people aren’t declaring there earnings should be more of a concern to the tax office than anything else.

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Microsoft, eh?

Posted by D on October 5, 2006

Apologies for the delayed arrival of this latest entry, WoW has been getting in the way a little…

Not really very sure where I’m going with this next piece, just some unorganised ramblings so bear with me.

What on earth is going on at Redmont, Washington? Do Microsoft even have a business plan anymore? Or is it little more than “Quick! Do everything that all our competitors are doing but err… betterer… and err… cheaperer and err… Quick!”. Lately, whenever anything might be a success in the computing world then Microsoft are in there, a little after the boat sailed, telling us all about their great new version. It seems it doesn’t matter whether today’s hot new tech does or doesn’t fit with their current business portfolio either. It almost feels as though they can not bear to imagine that someone else, out there, might be making money out of computing. But can they really be all things IT to all people?

First and foremost Microsoft are a software company, that’s where they made their money and it’s where they continue to make their money; yet increasingly their announcements concern flash new bits of hardware. Microsoft clearly brood jealously over all things Apple and it really couldn’t be more obvious. Apple make both the hardware and the software for their devices. You want one, you have to buy the other. If you have that kind of monopoly sewn up then all the money available in that market is yours. Poster child for this sort of marketing behaviour, the iPod, is an object lesson in this kind of business practice and clearly Microsoft want in. They are desperate to get into the hardware market; we’ve seen a wealth of peripherals, tablet PCs (failed), Xbox (4 years to turn a profit) and now we have Xune.

But does this make sense? Microsoft all but obliterated their competition with the software they developed and the monopoly they constructed around their operating system. They remain orders of magnitude more succesful and more profitable than any of their competitors and all of it was build without going anywhere near hardware manufacture. On ther other hand, Apple remain a very succesful but relatively niche hardware company, nowhere near as succesful as Microsoft and unlikely to be so any time soon. In the face of the Windows monopoly IBM and others long ago abandoned the personal computer market and moved over to building chips, servers and supercomputers. Perhaps the lesson here is that the real money isn’t in hardware? New computing hardware is always going to emerge whether Microsoft have an hand in it or not. If your software runs well on all any piece of hardware then your market share is greater that if it only runs on that one device that you also make.

Or perhaps they’ve decided that the writing is on the wall for software. Maybe it is time to jump ship. MS built their empire on the back of their Windows OS platform. But the cost of a software solution is directly related to the number of times it’s been reimplemented. Unfortunately for MS complete, fully functional Operating Systems have been reimplemented so often that they are now free. Neal Stephenson’s makes this very point in his excellent essay In The Begining was the Command Line. I can even go to the internet or a library and find out how to make an intel processor control a floppy disk drive for free. Anybody can do it! In the face of this, such code ceases to be a commodity and your company can no longer trade on the notion that they have the only viable solution.

Yet Microsoft’s marketing strategy consists of trying to persuade you against all other evidence that this isn’t the case. That it is still worth paying for something that otherwise would be free. Up until very recently they were more or less correct. If you wanted an operating system that was so simple that even your gran could use it then they were pretty much the only (affordable) place to go. Unfortunately for them completely free linux solutions are shaping up to provide all the functionality of windows and be just as user friendly. Who can compete with “free”? Maybe we will see a fundamental shift in the operating system market and maybe MS’s desire to be involved in hardware is one way to insulate themselves against such a phase change.

For the time being MS remain a software company and for the time being the killer app, at home, for Windows is gaming. You want to play games on your home computer? Then you’re going to have to have a machine that runs Windows. But how long is this going to remain the case? Microsoft jumped feet first in to the console market with the XBox several years ago and have put themselves at loggerheads with Sony and Nintendo, two companies which were previously oblivious to MS’s shenanigans. Now Sony and Nintendo have a vested interest in seeing MS fail.

In recent months both Sony and Nintendo have announced the the PS3 and Wii will be based on a linux platform. Sony even going as far as to announce that the developers kit for the PS3 will be comprised of as much Open Source material as possible. At first glance this seem like a sensible cost reduction excercise. Maintanence of development kits for consoles is expensive and time consuming and, given the maturity of programming libraries like SDL and Allegro, increasingly pointless. But there is likely another reason; if game developers are already building software for one linux platform it makes it easy to port their software across to other linux platforms. A fair in road may well be made into Window’s unassailable position as the platform for PC gaming.

In this way Sony, Nintendo and IBM (who are building Sony’s PS3 cell processor) get a stick with which to beat the whole of Microsoft. As long as the whole of Microsoft remains so incredibly profitable there is little chance of Sony or Nintendo out competing XBox alone. MS can always throw more money at the thing. Look at the opening years of XBox’s business plan, it took the best part of 4 years to turn a profit. You try starting a company that deliberately sells it’s products in such a way that it functions at a loss, in order to out compete it’s competitors, and see how long you survive before your government’s competition commission comes knocking at your door. So it’s unlikely that the PS3 can out compete XBox on market share terms alone and supporting linux might well be a good bet to financially attack Microsoft as a whole. A similar line of reasoning applies to Sun’s involvement in Open Office. They aren’t intrested in giving you this free from the goodness of their heart. As long as MS Office remains the market leader for business work then Windows is the OS you have to have for business. If Sun and IBM can provide a free office solution that is just as good or better, then the need to have Windows as your OS evaporates. Supporting linux and the Open Source movement is a direct attack on the whole MS (closed source) business model.

And now for something tangentally related – Trusted computing. I can not shake off the notion that the current MS model for DRM and trusted computing is utterly insane and self defeating. MS made their fortune by enforcing a completely open hardware market. Their software would run on anything that was IBM PC compatible so hardware vendors were left to try and out compete one another. Computer costs tumbled. This is more or less the reason that the computer you’re reading this was as cheap to buy and powerful as it is. And every computer had a copy of some MS software attached. Their trusted computing model enforces a system where hardware manufacturers AND developers have to pay them a licence fee. This is a fairly risky strategy, always be careful not to bite the hands that feed you. If developers, hardware manufacturers and customers don’t want it it could all come crashing down around their head. If I spend £1000 on computer hardware I expect it to do exactly as I tell it. I don’t expect my OS vendor to have any say in what happens with my computer. Renault don’t get a say in which roads I get to drive down. Insult your customers enough and they will jump ship.

I doubt any of this adds up to Microsoft losing their position of market dominance any time soon but I suppose the moral of the story is don’t be complacent.

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This again.

Posted by D on October 5, 2006

Apparently not enough women play computer games. If I had three pounds thirty seven for every time I’ve heard this piece of insightful economic analysis I might have as much accumulated as much as ten pounds eleven pence. I appreciate the industry as a whole is virtually slavering at the prospect that they could make more money if they could work out how to tap into this attractive and pleasantly scented market but I can never shake off the feeling that their attempts to do so are little other than demeaning, pathetic and sexist. I don’t doubt that you can easily market Barbie Horse Adventures to girls younger than 11; but when you’re marketing strategy for older women consists of an analysis that is no more indepth than “Women like playing house with dolls. The Sims 2 is like playing house with dolls. Lets make more Sims games” then you’re not really thinking outside the box. In fact some might say you’re thinking inside a rather sexist and short sighted box. Apart from being mind blowing insulting to everyone’s intelligence you’re not actually expanding your market share. You’ve already captured the market that wants to play The Sims 2. I believe I have discussed this before.

And then we have things like The Frag Dolls. Do UBI think this is actually going attract women to gaming? Yes, Only pretty girls play games and everything has to be presented as though it came off the pages Seventeen. If the industry wants to attract more women to gaming then it needs to take a long hard look at how it portrays women in games. Stop pandering to adolescent boys wank fantasies and grow up a bit.

And in the meantime read a bit of this.

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Casual Gamers

Posted by D on May 3, 2006

Do you game casually? Do you only play casual games? If a casual gamer attacked you would you know how to defend yourself? How many casual gamers does it take to install windows and start playing World of WarCrack? And mostly importantly; what exactly is a casual gamer and would you be able to indentify one in a police line up?

Casual Gamers

Apparently this is the all new gaming sector that every major company should be looking to tap into. The real money lies in tapping this great unwashed resource. Seemingly there are huge swathes of people who want to barely pay attention to playing computer games. Soon we won't be able to move for such people. Who are these people and do they actually exist, is this just a marketing category and what will the term imply with regards game design?

As best as I can make out casual gamers are defined as people who like to play games, don't spend very long in aggregate per week playing and probably regard gaming as a pastime rather than a hobby. Seem reasonable? Stop me if you think I'm missing something.

But important questions remain. Does this really mean they want different game experiences? Should games be tailored to such a group? Is such a simple view of the market's requirements even helpful?

The Current Market

Time was that the word casual would have brought to mind the clientele of Laura Ashley, Pringle and House of Fraser. Today this is the growth sector for the gaming industry. It's been decided that the hardcore games hobbyist has been captured, there are no significant market gains to be had by producing games which cater for that market sector.

To a great degree this is totally correct. Few people persue one hobby at the expense of other life activities. If your product appeals to such a mentality then once they are on board you have no more market to expand into. In the case of games technology; hardware and software development both keep getting more and more costly but the market size isn't expanding in a manner that can keep up. The main consequence is that games get more and more expensive for the individual. Such high costs almost ensures that the market remains (relatively) small and only attractive to the hobbyist.

Whither Other Markets?

If we step back and take a look at the film or music industries the unit cost to the customer is about comparable (£10) and for the customer it is usually a one time cost for any given cinema visit or album. In both these cases the producing studio's cost of production (marketing etc.) is often vast. Assuming we're talking internationally released films or albums that is. Film budgets can easily range between $5million and $60million. Music production budgets initially seem smaller, $1million to $10million, but once you factor in that for every $1million spent on a profitable artist $5-10million is spent on non-profitable artists then, the dollar for dollar the cost of producing an internationally successful album becomes equivilent to the cost of producing a internationally released film.

Yet for all this expense the unit cost remains around the $10 mark. How is this achieved? The simple answer (ignoring some bits and pieces about the music industry) is that their potential markets are massive. The markets are large for two reasons. The first is that the unit cost of any item is very low, people will buy albums on impulse or go and see films that they might not consider if it were expensive. The second is that the diversity of available films or albums is huge. There are quality products available in all styles and to suit all tastes.

Take a look at the games market in comparision. Unit cost is high, often 3 to 6 times the unit cost for seeing a film or buying an album. Diversity in the product is low, there are a small number of game genres and they are honed to appeal only to that genre's fans. Lastly the market sector is small but software development costs are equivilent to film and music production. Can you see the problem here?

Few people really persue films or music obsessively enough for it to be considered a hobby yet everyone goes to the cinema and everyone buys the odd album here and there. Until the games industry reconfigures itself to cater for a diverse market then it's market penetration won't increase. Until then you're not going to see the consumer cost fall or the games industry significantly expand. Some companies have realised this, have you seen Nintendo's release schedule or their latest Japanese ad campaigns?

The Casual Market

The games industry is starting to come round to this and they think they've found the way to bridge out of their niche hobby status; The Casual gamer. I think that the industry is mistaken in realigning it's sights to target this conceptual entity. Simply; the casual gamer, as defined by the gaming industry, doesn't exist and as such creating games that pander to them will hinder the industry's long term goal of greater market penetration. Lets have a look at who these casual gamers are, so here's two case studies:

Our first case, let call her… er… My mother makes an first ideal case study. Mid 50's, retired, with absolutely no desire to own the latest greatest computer hardware. She is partial to the odd computer game but only if it's not a test of your raw reaction speeds. So that's beat 'em ups, shoot 'em ups, sport and racing sims out. Anything more complex than a mouse is right out, no multi-button or two handed controls. On most days I doubt her computer is switched on for longer than an hour. Still, she really enjoys the computer games that are to her taste. Sounds like an ideal casual gamer candidate.

The types of games she plays are your Myst and Rivens, your Monkey Islands or Tetris. These are games that she'd gladly sit down for hours at a time playing. If you pointed her in the direction of the Sims or Puzzle Pirates I doubt you'd ever drag her away from the computer. Take note: these are games that are outside the usual canon of exploding, zooming, stabbing, screaming, flashing things.

Out second case is my friend Amy. She always owns the latest portable hardware. The games she prefers need some pace (no RTS games) but she is easily bored if games have too steep a difficulty curve. And she is quickly bored if there is too much to read or skip to get to the action. Immediacy is key. The right game will not only hold her attention but will also keep her playing for hours. I've seen her totally complete Crash Bandicoot:Warped which is involved and no easy task either.

What does this tell use about potential "casual gamers"? In case you missed them the main points are; that their gaming interests are not centred around exploding, punching, smashing things and lightening fast reactions. Instead they're attracted to the games from the broader pallette of gaming experiences. The other point is that the way they play the games they like isn't portioned up into little, bite-sized, "casual" pieces.

Hey Mister Designer Design Me A Game

The whole concept of casual gamers brings with it two innate concepts. The first is that the games should be low in substance, easily consumable – "Lite" (to use that horrible americanism) if you will. There should be nothing involved about the game that might put people off. We can see this design attitude in the rise of games for the "kiddie" market (Lego starwars anyone?). Nobody made consecessions in games for me when I was eight and today most eight year olds will kick your ass at the latest console games.

The second assumption is that the games should be in easily consumable chunks that don't take long to play or master. There is a time and a place for this, sometimes I do want a game that I can play for just 20 minutes while I take a bus ride. Games like Mario Kart DS, Luminees, Meteos or Tetris fulfil that type of role very well but it really shouldn't be a core assumption in your game design ethos. Some games won't lend themselves to such portioning and you risk alienating game players who find your games too easy or too short. Keep in mind that the market for literature sees no need in dividing up their target audience by that amount of time they spend reading.

It's not that the wider community of potential game players wants lightweight content that doesn't require much engagement (be that mentally or temporally). I would hope that my two examples illustrate that with the right content the casual gamer is happy to be engaged for hours on end. What the potential game playing market needs is greater diversity in the game playing experience. Until then there'll be no appreciable market sector growth.

Focussing on the "casual gamer" will be to the detriment of all game players regardless of how long any given person spends per day playing games. The industry should be asking itself not what "casual gamers" might want to play but what "potential gamers" might like to play.

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