Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Two Core Concepts of Deckbuilding Games

I've made a deckbuilding game, Shadowrun: Crossfire, which will become available for purchase sometime in 2013 (sorry, no official date yet). In doing so, I was reading up on deckbuilding games in general, and I found this lovely blog article.

In that blog, the author begins to discuss the basics of deckbuilding games. Naturally this includes commenting on starting the game with a hand of 5 or 6 cards. They note that there is little variety from these numbers, and briefly wonder why. I'll tell you why.

Sometimes numbers in games are just right. The reason almost all deckbuilding games give you 5 or 6 cards is that more or less makes for a less fun game. Sure, maybe all the designers of those games are just lazy, and went with the "industry standard" number of cards, but if the rest of their game is any good it's more likely they investigated the hand size, tried various numbers, and concluded for themselves that 5-ish was the right number.

Fewer cards would mean fewer choices of what to do each turn.

More cards would mean analysis paralysis in how to play your hand, increased variance in hand power levels, and hands that are too powerful for the desired pace of the game. You'd need bigger starting decks to compensate, and at that point you might as well just divide by two and be back at 5 or 6.

Later on in the same blog, the author goes on to question why cards are purchased. It's great to question such things, but pretty weak to just ask why and not think about it even a single step further. Why purchase cards instead of  letting the players choose any one card at the end of their turn? Well, I tried that early in my design of Shadowrun: Crossfire, and I can tell you why it didn't work out.

First, there were some good things about "one free card per turn." For one, you are more guaranteed that players' decks are always making progress; their decks are improving turn over turn, and they never have a "dead" turn (they always at least gain a new card). Also, if players gain a free card each turn, the main abilities of those cards can be focused on something other than purchasing the next card. This will make for a very different feeling game, and open the doors to more options for you as a designer.

The drawbacks to "one free card per turn" are quite large. First, a parallel to one of the positives: you've got to think of something for the cards to do besides help acquire more cards. You're forcing yourself into new design space, and cutting out a major category of card functions. We managed to do this in Shadowrun: Crossfire by putting money somewhere else. Your cards don't make money, but you use your cards to defeat things, and those things are full of money.

But why money at all? Without money, all of your cards have the same cost. This is the second drawback to "one free card per turn." Turns out this situation is awful. Or at least, awfully hard to design around. If all cards have the same cost, they must have the same power level. (Or else, if they have different power levels, players will all buy the best one first, and all players will end up with the same deck - or at least all the players who know what they are doing will.) Let's say you solve that - you could have a centralized, randomized market of some number of cards (again, the math says 6 is pretty good), like Ascension, Legendary, and Shadowrun: Crossfire all use. This would mean players can only choose the best card of the market, so that would fix it, right? Nope! This dramatically increases the luck factor in your game. The players on whose turn the best card appears in the market will have a tremendous advantage. The player who goes first will see the most "new" cards to choose from and then be very likely to be the most advantaged. They'll get a powerful card, that is randomly replaced by (chances are) a weaker card. Now the next player takes the next best card. The two or three weakest cards in the market will never get taken, and your market, over the course of the game, naturally reduces down to just 1 card slot. In my attempt at this, I tried to fix that by clearing the market every time. An early prototype had players flipping 5 cards at the end of their turn, taking one, and then the other players drafted the rest. With 4 players there was always 1 left over, so you had some choice but... It was so-so-so-soooo random. You couldn't have any kind of strategy in what you were doing, and you still always took the most powerful card. You had no real choice and thus the lack of player autonomy was severe.

Without a cost system, the weaker cards always look far worse than the stronger cards. (Don't get me started on why you can't make all the cards "equally powerful" - it's a natural fact of reality. If you can't understand that, try making the assumption that it IS true, and try to figure out WHY it is true.)

The cost system helps fix this for you. You can make weaker cards cheaper, and now players are evaluating them not just on their abilities, but their costs. (Yes, there will still be a "most powerful" card at each cost, but you open up a lot of design space for yourself this way. The other axis, not discussed here, is situational power, which, of course, you are also trying to achieve with narrow cards, but in a deckbuilding game narrow cards naturally aren't useful in every game, so they only partly solve the problem.)

So to sum up: many times numbers are established in games and used in many games of that genre because they are the naturally "best" numbers for their application. This can also be true for entire mechanics. However! It doesn't mean you shouldn't try to do something different. Just be aware of how you are spending your time. You can only afford so many wild goose chases during design before you need to settle down and worry about finishing the product. Chase the right goose.

Oh, and be sure to buy Shadowrun: Crossfire when it comes out in the next, um, sometime this year. We got a lot of new and interesting mechanics into it because most of our goose chases ended with a golden goose.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Lifelink in League of Legends


A coworker of mine, one Jonathan Loucks, and I were discussing the function of lifesteal / lifelink in the MOBA game League of Legends.

JL: I often think LoL would be better with less lifelink. Like, I hate when the impact of a fight is completely wiped out in a matter of seconds. I lose a fight to the AD in the late game, they're at 25% health, and then a partial creep wave later and they're at 100% again
they should have to go back to heal!

Me: Yeah, I've had that feeling too, lifelink is kinda lame.

JL: It's frustrating to just literally not be able to outrace their lifelink 1v1, even if it's three 1v1s in a row. I think I would make it one special item that's not something you ALWAYS buy, like Tiamat's kind of thing.

Me: It's hard to get it at a "fair" level where it still does something, but doesn't cause the carry to be dominating in 1v1s.

JL: Where sure, if you care enough you can spend the gold to get this item that gives you lifelink, but it would be a sometimes thing, not every game.

Me: The % based lifelink seems unfair. It lets you double-down on AD too much, which makes it hard or impossible to balance for in the late game. An on-hit flat rate life regain mechanic might be better.

JL: That's interesting.

Me: You could build a lot of attack speed, and that is something you already do on many AD carries, but that's okay. I'd be fine with life gain proportional your max Hp, just not based on % of your attack damage.

JL: Yeah, i like that. you could even make it more of a goal-and-reward thing, not so incremental, with like "every 3rd hit gains you a sizable chunk of life back"

Me: Oh, I like what you are saying. There are a lot of "on 3rd hit" stuff in the game already, so I believe Riot has determined 3rd-hit effects are a proven winner.

JL: Another possibility: an active on an item that grants lifelink for X seconds. You can beat the first guy because of it, but then the next guy that fights you, you wont have that. And you can't immediately heal after a fight by using the next creep wave, or at least not every time.

Me: A good one.

JL: Sounds like we're in agreement. I feel like it's a lame part of the core game that should be a bonus item thing instead, but I wonder if it's too core to how AD's work and we just don't understand. Like Force of Will in legacy.
Lifesteal does create a lot of tension and close fights where the guy with it looks basically dead but pulls it out maintaining a sliver of health. Which is goodbad.

Me: Lol at "goodbad." You been reading 1984 recently?
When two melee bruisers fight, it usually feels good / exciting because the lifesteal gives one of them the chance to take 1 more basic attack, but if an ability comes off cooldown at the end of the fight then it's all over - the abilities still dominate the lifesteal. Or so it appears to me when I encounter this.
Maybe for AD carries, the abilities aren't the focus, it's the basic attacks that make them who they are. So as you say, it might be fundamental to the game.

Epilogue
I noticed we used lifelink at the start of this conversation, and then switched to lifesteal at the end. Lifelink is a term for Magic: the Gathering, but lifesteal is the word used in League of Legends. For this conversation they are the same thing.

A couple of days later I still agree with what we said in that conversation. Lifesteal based on % of attack damage dealt very highly favors AD carries, especially in the late game, where they can already dominate anyway. If lifesteal was changed to be an flat amount gained (or a flat amount based on your level so that it scaled a little into late game) on each hit, it might be more "fair" feeling. Basing it on the champion's max HP would certainly not favor AD carries, but might be extremely strong on tanks. I'd love to see it, in an experiment kind of way, but I wouldn't be surprised if Riot had tried that internally and decided it was bad for the game. They do base regeneration items off of % of total HP. I just love the thought of building attack speed on a tank to get benefit from that kind of lifesteal - so perhaps just one item would be enough to create a new build for some champions?

Monday, December 5, 2011

Next Iron Chef: gaming the system

For reference: Next Iron Chef is a cooking competition reality show. This season the format for an episode goes like this: all remaining competitors battle in a cooking challenge. Their dishes are judged, and the worst two have to cook again, in an elimination battle. The judges decide between the elimination dishes and one of those two people is kicked off the show.

The Dec 4th episode included two twists that were interesting from a game design perspective. Reality shows often have gamery style twists and turns, and frequently screw up the design of those twists so that there is an obvious dominant strategy. This time they did pretty well, I think. Let's look at each of them and talk about what's going on.

Ingredient Auction
The first twist of interest was an auction of ingredients. There were five chefs left in the competition at this point, so five ingredients. All were covered, and revealed only when it was time to auction each, in turn. In reverse-auction style, the chefs bid lower and lower amounts of minutes in which they believed they could cook the ingredient. They started at 50 minutes and had to use 5-minute increments. In addition, the last chef would automatically get the last ingredient, but with a time of 5 minutes LESS than the lowest successful bid on any other ingredient. Yikes! That last rule caught me a little but by surprise at first. After thinking about it, though, I decided they actually did the right thing.

The producers (I always give "the producers" credit/blame when talking about reality TV shows, but I mean "all the people making decisions about how things are set up" - I guess they still might have writers and other staff for that, right?) had a couple of goals in setting up this auction.
  1. Want to make the chefs bid aggressively
  2. Need to make it fair / make sure nobody gets a free ride
If they had not set that -5 minutes beyond lowest bid, a couple of bad things could have happened:
  1. Four chefs bid aggressively, and the last chef has 30 minutes more than the others just for being quiet
  2. One chef bids aggressively on the first thing, then the other four collude to all have 50 minutes.
These might not be that likely, but they are a real danger. Especially when it comes down to two chefs for the last two ingredients. If the first three ingredients went to 25 minutes, the last two could easily agree to take 45 and 50, or even full 50 and 50 minutes, and put themselves totally out of reach of the other three chefs.

I might have simply set the final chef's time equal to the lowest previous bid, but the -5 really puts the screws to them to bid earlier in the process. Whatever you bid, you know that someone else will have less time than you do, so you can never completely hose yourself by bidding foolishly low. If you do, someone else gets crushed.

Now you might say... what if a chef bids 5 minutes? That would put someone else at 0, effectively eliminating them immediately. They didn't quite have this problem, because the bottom two chefs go to the elimination challenge. If you set someone else to 0, but you only have 5, you've all but guaranteed yourself into the bottom two with them. Not a good plan... Or might it have been? (As we shall see, below.)

The five ingredients chosen also have an impact on the bidding. A bad ingredient will go for more time, and  is more amusing as well. They had (in order): Wagyu Beef, Sardines, Lobster, Tuna Jerky, and Leg of Lamb. The beef was a good one to start with, I think. Clearly desirable so it would be bid on aggressively enough. It went for 30 minutes. Next was Sardines, which I might not have put second. It went for the full 50 minutes (because it's so bad) which I also think is a mistake. Sardines can be eaten straight out of the can (not that you want to), and certainly could be prepared in a very short time. This was even proven as the chef that got them made three dishes in 50 minutes. Could she have made one of those in 10? I think so. In fact, of those three she made, the one that the judges disliked took her the most time. Not to mention the numerous times the judges have scolded the chefs for cooking more dishes than they asked for. Certainly in hindsight, but also, I think the first time through, the sardines could have gone to 10 minutes. A little cute fried application like she did for one of her dishes can be done in 10 minutes, and that would pretty much instantly kill whoever was last - giving them only 5 minutes (with Leg of Lamb, no less, though they didn't know what it would be at the time of bidding on the sardines). Just FYI: the lobster went for 25, then the Tuna Jerky 25 as well (due to neither competitor wanting to be stuck with who-knows-what and 20 minutes). This showed the -5 plan working brilliantly, pushing the bids low on a bad ingredient because the previous item had gone pretty low as well.

Advantage
Now for the second interesting twist. They did not reveal this until after the cooking, which was critical, as we shall see. After the cooking was done, but before the judging, the previous weeks winner (who always gets an advantage the next week) got to play their advantage. They got to judge for themselves, and choose one of their competitors to automatically go to the bottom two. The power level of this advantage is absurd, and completely out of scale with all previous advantages (some of which were as small as "5-minute head start"). Worse, it has an obvious strategy that is the complete opposite of what it claims you are supposed to do. You're supposed to put the worst person into the bottom, for elimination, right? That couldn't be further from correct, strategically. In fact, you should always put the very best person into the bottom, for several reasons.

  1. If your dish was bad, and you put the worst person into the bottom, the judges might decide you are the next worse, and force you into the bottom as well. If you put the best person into the bottom, and you are second-worst, you will escape the elimination battle entirely.
  2. If you put your biggest competition into the bottom, there's a small chance the worst person will upset them in the elimination battle and clear out one of the better competitors for the future (helping you both long-term and short-term).
  3. (*) If you are second-best, and you put the best person into elimination, you could then win this challenge, and steal the advantage the best person would have had next week, for yourself!
* As it played out, I can't be sure of this. The judges chose the winner before they revealed who was forced into the bottom two by last week's winner's choice. It was not clear if the winner had been chosen to go to the elimination battle whether they would have kept their advantage or not. I think they would have, but at the time the previous winner chose who to dump into the bottom it was totally not clear.

The previous week's winner (Anne) did seem to follow my advice. Her choice ended up in second place overall (so it may have been close between who she thought was best and who the judges picked). What made this even worse for television (and this is always the case when the producers foolishly make the competitors judge each other) is that Anne had to dis every other dish as she tasted them. She needed to have an excuse to send whoever she wanted to the bottom, so she couldn't share her honest opinion of their work... and she's probably even friends with some of them! (There is a slight out here, in that while she has to give the first one she tastes a bad review, she can then give approval to any other one that is worse than it. In effect, she only had to give a bad review to the best one, so that she would have the excuse to tank it. Still terrible from the producer perspective, though, since she's lying about how good the food is.)

You might say that you should put a medium or weak person into the elimination battle, in case you end up facing them, but that's not correct. If you think you suck at cooking, what are you even doing here? Maybe at this point you would know your own dish was bad, and after trying the others realize yours is so bad in comparison that you've already lost, but that's a rare case. Plus you do gain all that information, so only if you felt you were by far the worst should you put anyone but the best into the elimination challenge. If you were bad but someone else was too, there's a chance the judges will favor your dish and spare you.

SPOILERS below
Hilariously, to me, these two twists combined to crush Anne. She got the sardines with far too much time (50 minutes) and made three dishes, one of which was bad. If she had bid only 10 minutes, she could have made just one of those three, the one the judges seemed to like best, and crushed someone else with only 5 minutes. Even better, her bid might have made the others bid even lower on subsequent choices, practically demolishing several of them. Then she could have still put the best other person into the elimination match, and had at least one dead-on-arrival competitor drop down with them, sparing her no matter how weak her 10-minute sardine dish was. Of course, she did not know that she'd have such power, so bidding 10 minutes would have been mighty risky. As it played out, she went to the elimination challenge and lost. Still, if she had any chance of winning overall she had to be that other person eventually, and might still have gotten rid of her toughest competitor had things tipped slightly more in her favor in the elimination battle.

You might think a bid of 10 minutes would put yourself into the bottom two, but not if there are two more rounds of bidding left to go (plus the last person getting the -5 time), which there were. The three people left would all know that not getting something would mean having an impossible 5 minutes, and therefore would bid down to 15 minutes or possibly even 10. In fact, with that specter looming, the second to last item could go on a 5-minute bid, just to guarantee death for the last person.

Did I mention that the theme for this challenge was "risk?" I would have boldly led with a 10-minute bid on those sardines. (If I was as good a chef as they are, of course; I am sadly not.) That would have been some awesome television.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

A love letter to SpaceChem

SpaceChem, how do I love thee, let me count the ways:

  1. You have just the right amount of chemistry. Enough that I recognize the compounds you give me, and can see that all the bonding is correct, but not so much that I need to use my bachelor's degree in chemistry to play.
  2. I am proud of each of my beautiful creations. Look at what I made, mom!
  3. Solving puzzles gives me a sense of triumph and accomplishment, at least until...
  4. You show me where I stand among my peers, which sometimes spurs me to find an alternate solution as good as the best of theirs.
  5. It's so easy to click next and skip over your TLDR story pages.
  6. When I make a mistake, you immediately show me exactly where the problem is.
  7. Defense mode, with its wacky attackers, lasers, and explosions.
  8. You make me feel like I'm learning something. I think it's something about programming. A friend told me it's just like assembly language (whatever that is).
  9. You give me two minions to do my work for me. Go, my minions!
  10. You inspire me as a game designer.

Friday, July 1, 2011

Empires & Allies brings out the worst in your friends.

My friends are greedy, selfish bastards, it turns out.

I learned this from Zynga's newest golden turd of a game: Empires & Allies. How did I find out? Metal. Most of the resources in this game you generate in bulk for yourself. Everyone seems to have twenty lumber mills, twenty farms, and twenty oil wells. Metal, on the other hand, comes in 5 varieties, but you can only create one of these (the lowliest, copper) for yourself. The others must be obtained from your friends. Each of your friends (determined at random, as far as I can tell) can provide a different one of these metals including the worthless copper (that's a design mistake: none of them should give you copper). When you visit that friend, you can collect that metal from them, but only if they have a mine that's finished producing it. That, however, is a big problem. You friend's mines aren't producing anything most of the time, because for them, the mine only makes worthless copper. For you, it's precious iron, uranium, gold, or aluminum, but for them, it's just copper. They need to come to your mine for uranium. See the problem? Nobody builds mines, and even fewer players activate them and keep them stocked with fresh, unharvested copper.

I do.

I figured all of this out, so I decided I would help my friends by keeping my mines running. I picked the shortest cycle of copper so that it would be ready fast, and my friends could come by and harvest the real metals that they need. And they did. I accepted their help, often from 4 friends at once, and watched their little icons hit all 5 of my mines, never bothering with anything else. Why should they? They can make all the wood and oil and coins they need. So instead of getting help from 4 friends, I'm really only getting help from one... and it's not help that I want. I get only copper.

Very few of my friends keep their mines running. I'm thankful for those that do, it's good to have friends you can count on. The rest of you, feh! I've got your number now. I know you only come visit me for the iron I provide. You take and take but none of you takers keep your own mines running. I know you know how it works, because you only hit my mines, and you hit them every time you can. Yet not one of your mines is running. Some of you don't even have any mines at all! Zynga has brought out the worst in you.


Disclaimers:
There are other ways to get the metals, but they are unpredictable and insufficient. Combat gives you some, but you lose almost as much in destroyed units as you gain. You can also buy the metals for coins, but the cost is prohibitive - I was buying what I could afford, but I needed much more.

My friends are all really nice, cool people. It just makes for a good read to claim they're jerks due to their behavior in a game. Sorry friends!

This metal mechanic isn't what caused me to quite E&A. It was a combination of general boredom and the "you must have friends gift you a metric ton of crap in order to get upgrades" mechanic they added a week or two ago. I despise that mechanic, and won't play any games that use it.

Empires & Allies is a much better, more interesting game than any of their others. Even so, it's a pretty shallow clickfest with only the thinnest layer of strategic options stretched over it. It was mildly amusing for a couple of weeks, but it's not 1/10th the game Advance Wars is. My poor friends at Zynga, trapped by all those piles of cash. Forced to make only small improvements to dull casino-addiction style games. At least they're eating well.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Oregon Trail: Good Idea, Poor Execution

One of the most common things I see in game design, is a very good idea executed poorly. I'm sure you've read the description of a game, or seen the box, or even just heard the title and been very excited about it, only to find that playing the game was a huge disappointment. Most experienced game designers have learned that good game ideas are a dime a dozen, and it's quality execution of that idea that makes a great, successful game. By execution I mean several things, including the art, programming, and most of all the finer details of the game's design and mechanics.

When I heard a few weeks ago that Oregon Trail was getting a Facebook game I laughed first, because hey, it's a classic from my childhood. My next thought was that it could be a really good idea. The core concept of the game should work well on Facebook - you travel for a long period of time, punctuated with interesting decision points along the way. I also hoped some fun minigames could be brought in to liven up part of the original game that couldn't be as fancy back in 1981 (the Apple II version).

When I started the Facebook game I was excited that it might be very good. Right off you can choose an occupation to set out on the trail with. They're all locked aside from Settler, but I could see that some are sold for paid currency, while others are unlocked when you level up. Each occupation has an advantage it gives you on the trail, and they're simple and easily understood. The choice of role will lead to strategy and personalization of your play experience. Also it helps solve the re-playability problem. You don't want your players to quit after one time through, so you have to make replaying more attractive. Each occupation equates to at least one more play through of the game with something new for the player to try out. Having all but one locked is also good design, making it simple for the player the first time, not asking them to make a decision when they don't have any way of knowing which strategy they would want to take (because they have not played the game yet). It also gives me something to look forward to when I level up.

Next up is the general store, just like preparing for the trip in the old game. You can spend money on different cart wheels, cart covering, food, medicine, weapons, clothing, and oxen (the best of which are aurochs!). The game is still in beta (short for "released before it was done because of pressure from executives who don't care about quality and want to tell their bosses that things are on schedule even though they clearly are not"), so some of the items have the same description as others (so I don't know why I would pay more for them). I had hopes that the next time through I would start with a lot more money and be able to more easily finish the trail (and with a higher score).

After buying supplies you choose you set up your family. You have 5 people, and you can set their pictures to any of 6 or 7 choices that offer good variety. Then you set a friend to each role (doesn't seem to matter, but it's always amusing to fill in your characters with friend's names). Finally it's time to set off and you get to choose what month to leave. I was pleasantly surprised to see this choice here at all. It lets you set the difficulty in exchange for bigger scores.

And we're off! There's a great animation of your wagon riding along. You have 3 main resources to deal with: energy, food, and stamina, as well as two less-transparent ones: wagon status and family health. Food and stamina go down as you travel... I can't figure out why stamina exists, and I feel like it should have been cut from the design. Stamina and energy return over time - stamina only while your wagon is stopped. Energy is used to play minigames. Your choices are search, repair, and hunt. As in the original game, hunting earns you more food, repair recovers wagon status, and search gets you a random consumable item. I've gotten beads (nearly worthless) and eggs (worth more food than hunting). This is all pretty good, though search isn't a game at all (you do nothing), and hunting is very lame. Repair is a copy of a Puzzle Pirates minigame.

After hunting you see a summary screen:

Big word telling me I did "Great" - that's cool. A big 55 lbs of meat, also good. The important info is loud and clear. What's up with the Kill Rate stat? 0.18? I hit 11/12 shots, killing 11 squirrels (yeah, squirrels). That's a 0.91 hit rate. What kind of math are they doing to get 0.18? This isn't really poor execution, just sloppiness. What's that "epic prey killed" stat? That sounds pretty cool. I went hunting several more times of course, and eventually I killed some bears and buffalo.


I collected 4 times as much meat, but only a "Good" rating? what gives? Oh maybe it's that indecipherable kill rate - I'm down to 0.07. My score is higher though. Also, still no epic prey killed. There must be some more secret or rare creatures to kill. The bad thing here, is that I collected 210 lbs or meat, but can only carry 200. There has been no information so far about how I could carry all 210.

As you're walking along, you might spot some gold in the back ground.

This is nice, as the bonus is small so you could ignore it if you wanted to, but if you want to watch it like a hawk it gives you something to do. There are also some traveling merchants you can pass... too bad I don't have any money to spend, and don't have enough inventory slots to hold anything else. More slots unlock as I level, so maybe next time through these merchants will be meaningful.



Oh no! One of my people was bitten by a snake! This brings up the first two big problems with this game. First, hitting an event like this stops my travel. I would have thought I could go afk or close the window and my party would keep traveling. I would have made traveling the thing that takes a lot of time, asking the player to come back in an hour when they get to the next location (town or decision point) in the game. The bigger problem, is that now one of my people is poisoned. Well, I bought some anitidoes, so I can cure them right away.

Five seconds later...

Another snake bite! This is soon followed by two sicknesses and yet another snake bite. Now four of my people are losing health. The bites and illness come so often that there's no point in curing them. In fact you immediately feel that the antidotes and medicine are total rip-off items that you should clearly never buy. I should also tell you, when you get bitten or sick, you have 3 choices. Pay money (real money) to fix it, ignore it, and wait and see if it gets better. Hint: it never gets better if you wait. They are clearly just trying to milk me for real money, and there's no way I'm going to pay them every 30 seconds to cure my people of repeating bites and illnesses. So my people are losing health. So far, I have not seen any effect this has. Seems like the health system is not yet implemented in the game. Maybe they'll die suddenly, wouldn't that be fun? Look, I remember dysentery being a bit problem in the original game, but this implementation is moronic. I shouldn't feel that my people are doomed to constant health problems no matter what I do.

I passed through a couple of towns, where I couldn't really afford anything beyond more food (which I was desperate for, of course). There are saloons in these towns, but the people inside don't say anything interesting. I would guess they intend to add quests here. Good idea, no execution?

I was warned there was no water, and I chose to perform a rain dance to get some (or, of course, pay money). As with waiting for sickness...


I failed. No explanation of how I could increase my chances, or even what my chances were in the first place. With so little information and feedback I feel cheated instead of challenged. When this came up again I tried going back to find an alternate route. This costs days (I surmise that if winter comes you get crushed) but I did find water. If the chance for success in the rain dance was more clear to me, I could see this choice being interesting. (I have tried 4 more times, and not yet once succeeded in the rain dance.)

Speaking of choices, I had to ford a river, or float across it. They tell me the depth of the river, and also warn that if I try to ford a river that is too deep, I'll fail. What they don't tell me is how deep is too deep. So I guess. First time I make a 2-foot river, second time I fail a 4-foot river. I guess 4 is too much? This choice will become boring very quickly. In fact, it's already boring. I know that 4 feet is too much, so it's not interesting at all. I would guess there might be % chances to succeed at each depth, but that doesn't show through very well. The player doesn't have any way to make this decision intelligently when they first come across it.

Then I came to a more robust river-crossing minigame. You steer your floating wagon across the river (the flow of this river makes no sense at all, don't think about it) avoiding rocks and collecting coins. There are turbo pads that increase your speed so much that you can't help but crash, so instead of wanting to get a speed boost you have to avoid them. It's like they didn't actually play this after programming it. It's good that they intended to have variety in the types of things you encounter on the trail. Good idea, bad execution.

I have run out of food. I used all my energy hunting for food, and that has run out too. The three times my food suddenly spoiled (forcing me to throw away a lot of food) didn't help. What a fun idea! For no reason at all, let's make the player's food spoil, just to screw them! I mean, the constant snake bites and sickness aren't enough, right?

This game could have been a lot of fun, and they did do many things well. Several glaring mistakes in execution create frustrating or tiresome situations that prevent me from wanting to play it any further.

Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Social Game Design: Monetization part 3: Don't Sell Everything

In a free to play game with microtransactions and virtual goods, why shouldn't you sell everything? If players are willing to buy it, shouldn't you put a price on it and sell it to them? I have seen this attitude in a lot of people in the social games industry. Yet I strongly believe the answer is, no, you should not. I have had to fight to convince others that there should be desirable things in every game that cannot be bought. I will argue that having such things will actually increase your overall revenue, even though you're not selling them.

So what do I mean by things that are valuable but can't be bought? How do players get them? They earn them. Your game should have things that are earned by playing the game, preferably by playing it a lot.

How does that help? If players can buy everything the want, some of them will do exactly that... and then they will be done. They have it all, and they will shortly find that your game holds nothing more for them and they will quit. Sure, you got some money out of them - but these were your big spenders, your whales! You want them playing as long as possible so they'll keep giving you large sums of money. If they can buy everything right away, you'll lose them. You need some things they can't buy so they'll have a reason to keep playing.

Providing earned-only things also helps the non-paying player. This player needs to feel they can compete with the rich kid next door who buys everything. If there are cool things that must be earned, the non-paying player can feel good about earning them (sometimes ahead of some number of paying players). You are rewarding their loyalty and commitment to the game with a cool thing. This keeps them playing longer, and the longer they play the more time you have to convert them to a paying player. Also, if the things they can only earn are really cool, they will have increased feeling that this game is "worth it" and might change their mind about putting in money for that reason (instead of the reason of "I want X"). Do I also need to explain why you need non-paying players in your game, even if they never pay? I shouldn't need to, but here are two reasons: They tell paying players to come play, and they provide content (in any interactive game) for the paying players.

Needing earned-only things leads to the reasons why I believe two separate currencies is ideal in most free-to-play games. One currency for paid items, and the other for earned items. It is important that there is not any direct way of converting one to the other. Too many free-to-play games allow players to purchase the earned currency either directly or using the paid currency. That removes the main purpose of having separate currencies in the first place.

Dual currencies also leads to the third (and equally important) type of item for sale: the item sold for both currencies. Here's one of my favorite examples:

In League of Legends you can buy extra characters to play. The above image shows part of the store. We can see five characters for sale, each of which has two prices. The first price is in paid currency (the fist), and the second is in earned currency (swords). Obviously, your math should always work out so that the earned currency numbers are bigger, making purchasing feel efficient (compared to earning). Also note that some characters have the same paid price, but different earned prices, or vice versa (I think Garen was on sale at this time).

What does this do? Why is it so important to have two prices on these characters? It leads your players into the critical decision point of whether to spend money or not in a way that is most excellent for you. The player wants to own many, if not all of these characters (because your game design is good - a topic for another day). This player didn't plan on spending money, so they are trying to earn them all. They come to buy a character and they start calculating: "I earn 500 a day, so it takes me a week to unlock Shen, or two weeks for Malzahar. It's going to take me six months to get everyone I want... I can get there, so I don't have to pay, but if I just buy Malzahar now I'll save myself two weeks and be able to get Kennen that much faster."   In addition, there are important items in this game that must only be earned. This also enters the player's thinking: "If I save 6300 earned currency now, I'll be able to get the Runes (those earned-only items) I need that much faster. I can't buy those, so perhaps I should buy the thing I can buy."

With this system of dual currencies, items that are earned-only and items that can be obtained in both ways (and proper pricing) you can lead players into this pattern of thinking, which increases the chance they will make their first purchase. They feel they could earn it all, but they know they don't have that much time, and they realize that time is money, and decide that your game is worth the monetary investment.

If the non-paying player in my story above felt the game was "only for rich kids" because everything was sold up front, for one currency, they would not have played it long enough to reach the purchasing decision point. If there were not ways to earn the valuable goods, and if there were not some earned-only items the player might not go through as many "pros" to making the purchase in their mind when they reach the decision point. Even for players willing to pay from the first day, these calculations are interesting and knowing they will earn some items and not have to pay for everything makes them happy, and more interested in your game.