Wednesday, October 27, 2010

GDS2 Multiple Choice Test

The GDS2 multiple choice test has several questions that I believe deserve a second opinion. It's a bit hard to claim this has wider application, so I won't. I'm only going to talk about a few of the questions for which I believe there is room for debate around the answer WotC has claimed is correct. I haven't read all of the debate about them, so I don't know exactly what's been said elsewhere.
5) If Design wanted to change this card's rules text but keep it a hybrid card, which of the following options would not work?
a) flash; shroud
b) double strike
c) 2 Mana: Switch Deflecting Mage's power and toughness until end of turn. 
d) Tap: Target player gains 2 life. 
e) Tap: Target player discards a card. Activate this ability only any time you could cast a sorcery.– CORRECT

Number 5 I don't have a big problem with, but I wanted to point out an easy mistake you could make in thinking about it. They want a hybrid card, not a gold card. A black 1/4? yuck. But a black / white 1/4 that makes you discard... well it's acceptable, at least. Meanwhile a flash shroud 1/4, or a doubestrike 1/4, those are both too monocolored to be gold. Same can go for c or d. They are all really monocolored cards as 1/4s. (blue, white, blue, white, respectively). So while I can't argue strongly that e is wrong, the question overall seems pretty weak to me, as it's too easy to consider a, b, c, and d as monocolored cards. Hybrid treads a thin line between monocolored and gold, so they're some of the hardest cards to design.

6) Design often makes creatures that have flash and "enters the battlefield" triggered abilities like Deflecting Mage. Which of the following abilities would we least likely pair with flash?
a) Counter target spell.
b) The next time target instant or sorcery spell would deal damage, it deals double that damage instead.   
c) CARDNAME deals 2 damage to target attacking or blocking creature. 
d) Prevent all combat damage that would be dealt this turn. 
e) Target creature gets +3/+3 until end of turn. – CORRECT

The claim WotC makes here is that "e) is the only "enter the battlefield" effect you would ever see of the above on a creature that didn't have flash" and therefore the least likely to be paired with flash. I don't think that's accurate at all. Exhibit A: Briarhorn - the likelyhood of e+flash = 100%. It was done, and not in ancient history, but recently, in a block I would consider part of modern design. Answers a and d are seen often enough, both as recent or more recently than e in one form or another. This leaves b and c. Neither has been done yet, though Bogarden Hellkite is a superset of c. Clearly they cannot be done without flash, but that doesn't mean any design team should hand them off to development. Their "likelihood" seems pretty low to me. I could see b as a cool new uncommon or rare cheap red creature. If I wanted to design c I would be much more likely to design a white creature with flash, 2 power, and that either has first-strike or gives itself first-strike when it enters the battlefield.

Overall I can see the argument for b or c, but not e. Also b and c are so close for me that I wouldn't put them together in this question.

19 and 20 use this card:

Take It and Suffer
Enchantment – Aura
Enchant creature
When Take It and Suffer enters the battlefield, destroy enchanted creature. Take It and Suffer deals damage to target player equal to that creature's toughness.
19) If this card is black, which change is Design most likely to make to this card?
a) Add "nonblack" to the enchant ability
b) Change the damage so it is equal to the creature's power rather than its toughness.
c) Change the destruction to a sacrifice effect.
d) Change the damage to loss of life.
e) Make the card an instant or sorcery. – CORRECT 
My disagreement here comes from an insider view. It's quite interesting: Submitting it as an enchantment is so ridiculous that there must already be an established reason for it. Clearly overthinking, but there would never be anyone on a design team that would submit this as an enchantment unless that was a prerequisite. Design doesn't take card ideas from the outside, so there must be an important reason to keep it an enchantment. Perhaps it's for an enchantment themed block. With e out of the way, d is the next most likely change, followed by a. Don't try this at home kids.

20) Could Design change this card into an Equipment with only minor tweaking?
a) yes
b) no – CORRECT

What?! You're kidding! Design is way more powerful than that:
When Take It and Suffer becomes attached, destroy equipped creature. Take It and Suffer deals damage to target player equal to that creature's toughness. equip:5
Super easy. Is this card a good idea? It's no worse than the original aura version. Mind you, I'd still answer b to the question because it's obvious that what they are asking is "should design make this into an equipment" not "could." It's pretty clear that nobody from the templating team looked at the questions before they went out. Also, Mark's explanation is completely wrong. It's perfectly useful for flinging your creatures at the opponent. Fling itself is in M11, so clearly design has no issue with fling effects.

45) The philosophy of four of the five colors is stated below. Which color is missing?
  • "Morality? There's no such thing as morality. It's a construct of the weak to justify their actions."
  • "What value is there in thinking about tomorrow? Who knows if we'll even be alive tomorrow?"
  • "Everybody is trying so hard to change everything that they sometimes miss that things don't need to be changed."
  • "Any problem that is understood can be solved."
And the choices where the 5 colors, of course. My issue here is with the 4th quote - the one about change. I actually believe that is a white philosophy and not a green philosophy. Green is about life, and growth, and the natural way of things. All of those are about change. Life is change, growth is change, and the natural world is constantly changing. Green loves change more than any other color! This philosophy cannot be green's, and therefore green is missing. Preventing change is somewhat white - as white likes a ruled, ordered society. Those in power stay there, rules are not broken, things do not change. I was totally shocked by the answer to this question more than any other on the test.

46) I'm not going to quote the question here. Just a cute tidbit: I got this one wrong because I designed the correct answer card and was blinded by my love for my own card. "It's so cool" does not make it Johnny. Heh.

48) One of R&D's ongoing concerns is board complexity. We've coined the term "virtual vanilla" to refer to a creature that, after the first turn it enters the battlefield, functions as a simple vanilla creature for purposes of evaluating the board state. (Avoid getting hung up on obscure combinations of cards that could make the card not function as a vanilla.)
Here are ten creatures:
  • Æther Adept
  • Ambassador Oak
  • Bog Raiders
  • Canyon Minotaur
  • Gravedigger
  • King Cheetah
  • Riptide Crab
  • Rotting Legion
  • Squadron Hawk
  • Vulshok Berserker
WotC seems to have admitted that this question was a bit of a mistake. I think it's a big mistake. It's very bad for a test when you can be graded wrong when you are right, but much worse when you can get credit when you are wrong (don't ask me to explain that). The issue here, by the way, is that "virtual vanilla" is clearly a superset of actual vanilla and therefore in any reasonable analysis there are 8 virtual vanillas here. This is a clear and simple question that turned out was a trick, and the kind of trick the GDS2 participants were promised would not appear on this multiple choice test.

There are always going to be some questions you can argue about, like number 6. However, I believe that 45 & 48 are so egregious that the tests should be regraded on those two questions. This test is taken very seriously by a lot of people desperate to get a chance as a designer. It's sad that some participants missed the cutoff because of serious errors like those made in the design of questions 45 & 48.

Monday, October 11, 2010

Social Game Design: Retention part 2

This past Saturday I was playing Magic: The Gathering (possibly the best game ever made). In one game I was getting attacked by many squirrels (bear-sized squirrels) and the only card I had that could get me back into the game cost more than I could pay. I used Jace, the Mind Sculptor to dig for a way out. I found Time Walk, buying me an extra turn (this was a vintage rotisserie draft). On that next turn I used Jace again, this time finding Channel and Frost Titan. I used Channel (taking me down to 1 life) to cast Emrakul, the Aeons Torn. In addition to a huge guy, that bought me another turn. Emrakul's attack took away half of my opponent's board. Just to be sure, I cast the Frost Titan to lock down his Gaea's Cradle. He didn't have enough guys to get through, but he did have a Banefire, which he cast for the last 1 damage to kill me.

So what does this have to do with Social Games? If you play enough Magic, you know I just told you a cool and somewhat hilarious story. The story is so interesting to me that I was willing to tell it to you even if you don't play Magic, putting in almost enough information for you to be able to understand it. Great games give players great stories to tell. I believe the lack of great stories is a problem for social games. When's the last time someone told you a thrilling tale of how they waited 15 minutes to harvest tomatoes?

To get a great story you need interesting interactions between players, or between the game and the players. Role-playing games do this best. (I have been regaled countless times with a friend's previous night's Dungeons & Dragons adventure.) Paper RPGs combine complex interactions between people with a fantasy world that has epic storytelling possibilities. Players can do anything and the results are as awesome as their combined imaginations. Video game RPGs are more limited, but the graphics and well-composed worlds give players a lot of fuel to imagine the lives of their characters. Good writing will deliver great stories, and close-fought battles give the player emotional moments they won't soon forget.

All of this is absent from social games. There are no RPGs (Mafia Wars and its myriad of clones are NOT RPGs. Don't believe anyone who tells you that*). There aren't any complex player interactions. There are no close encounters with surprising turnarounds. Social games could really use some of these things. These are the kinds of things that can dramatically increase player retention in a game. Also, if players are telling their friends what happened over lunch, you'll get some real-life viral spreading.

* Technically they are games in which you play the role of a mafia boss or similar. But there are very few games where you don't play the role of something. I guess you don't do it in party games (Pictionary, Time's Up) and word games (Boggle, Scrabble).

Friday, October 8, 2010

To wither or not to wither

In many social network games, most famously in Farmville, one of the core activities involves a mechanic that has come to be known as withering. This is actually a sub-mechanic, or one variation on an investing mechanic. In Farmville you can plant crops. These crops grow over the next 5 minutes or 2 days or almost any amount of time in between, depending on which type of crop you choose to plant. When the crop is fully grown you return to the game to harvest it. Crops cost a small amount of earned currency to plant and yield a much larger amount of earned currency when harvested. This basic investment mechanic is the major source of earned currency in Farmville.

This is a great mechanic. Players get to choose the interval of time the crop will take, based on their personal schedule. They are excited to return to the game later to reap the rewards. It provides a controlled rate of economic growth for the player that they have a hard time circumventing (so you as designer can predict accurately the maximum rate of income generation a player can achieve).

(I'll get to withering eventually, hold on.)

You might think that the longer something takes to grow, the greater the profitability it will have. Making the player wait longer for their money should mean they'll get a higher return, right? This is not how you want to design it. You want to encourage players to come back often so you make the 5-minute crop the most efficient. If players can spend all day playing your game you'll get more chances for them to spam their friends. Also, if you have an energy mechanic they will need more energy to harvest and plant so frequently - and since energy refills are a source of profit for you it will mean more potential income.

Withering occurs in some games that use crop-like mechanics. Once a crop is ready to harvest, it only remains ready for a fixed amount of time, typically twice as long as it took for it to grow. After that second inverval, the crop withers (dies) and cannot be harvested. You must click to clear it, and you lose your entire initial investment. This mechanic gets players to come back in a timely manner, making them feel guilty or like a failure if they forget. The avoidance of these negative emotions is a strong motivator.

This may be too punishing. Many players avoid these games entirely because they repeatedly lost their crops and were set back to a position worse than before they planted them. I believe that most of the effect can be gained without punishing the player as much. If, instead of dying completely, a withered crop could be revived with a short additional timer until it is ready to harvest (say another 5 or 10 minutes) players like me wouldn't leave the game.

Some games mitigate withering by allowing friends to un-wither crops for you. While getting this to work out can sometimes be awkward (like playing phone-tag), it provides a solution that uses the player's social network.

When working this sort of mechanic into a game you'll have to decide what the penalties are for players who miss the "harvesting" window. Can you make them feel they must come back on time without setting them back if they forget?

Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Loot Overload

Let's say you're making a game that has items that players accumulate when they do things in your game. Some of these items can be used to make other items (crafting) perhaps others are directly useful - equipment, for example. You might be making an MMO, or a social network game, or a boardgame.

Most designers seem to have no problem proliferating the variety of items and their uses to extreme numbers. There are some pitfalls to avoid here, and some good reasons to keep your plethora of items in check.

1. Cost of goods: in boardgames this is more obvious,  as the cost of physically producing the parts of the game quickly limits the number of items the game can contain. In video games this comes into play in two ways. Computer memory used to be an issue, but is not really a problem for modern games. Art costs, on the other hand, are probably now more significant. Many games get around this by using the same art piece for several items, often with a different color pallet on the same picture or 3D model.

2. Player loot management: In board games, the players have to organize the little pieces, count them, and move them around during play without losing them. Intentional and unintentional miscounts can be an issue if too many pieces are exchanged too often. I find this particularly troublesome when there are several interrelated exchanges that can take place during the player's turn. Most video game players can name more than one game in which the loot management system was unfriendly. This is largely a UI problem, because the computer can do all of the calculations correctly every time. The Diablo style "loot jigsaw puzzle" is one of the most offensive and difficult to use loot UIs of all time, yet it was used in dozens of games and still persists today as an interface option for designers. Why this persists I cannot explain. The visual nature of it combined with the designer's unwillingness to give up the "realism" of items taking up different amounts of carrying capacity seem to give it staying power despite all the difficulties it causes.

3. Player comprehension: players need to be able to understand and use all the items in the game. If there are too many, it causes problems. Sometimes several items are too similar, and players can't readily keep them separate in their mental model of the game. Sometimes the uses of the items are too trivial and the player loses interest in tracking them. Crafting systems in MMOs are often guilty of this. The designers get so excited about the "depth" and "complexity" of the crafting options that they don't realize they've gone well beyond the average player's ability and willingness to keep track of it all. I would be remiss if I didn't mention Star Wars Galaxies as an example of this. Sure, a few players loved the complexity of crafting in that game, but it drove a lot of players away, or at least away from crafting.

The board game Agricola gives us an example of problems in 2 and 3 combined. Every other turn players must have enough food to feed their family. They need 2 pieces of food per family member they have, unless that family member was added on that turn, in which case they only need 1. Food is one of the items in the game. Also, all three types of animals can be converted into food. Each can be converted at different rates if you have certain other game items. There are also two crops, these too can be converted at various rates if you have certain other items. Also, converting some items is a process that can be done at any time, while others require specific player action. All of this adds up to a difficult planning operation just to make sure you have enough food every other turn. Because the player is trying to plan two turns ahead to have enough food while simultaneously planning what other resources they need to get to craft other things in the game (wood for fences, clay for ovens, and more), it is easy to come up one food short. This combines with lots of little ways to gain and lose resources in 1s, 2s, 3s, 4s, and 5s to maximize the risk of a player ending up with an amount of food that is technically not the amount they should actually have.

When designing loot systems here are some suggestions for things you should consider carefully.

  • What is the use for each item? Many video games have loot items that players always sell to vendors for game currency. They appear to have uses, but in reality they do not. World of Warcraft's "greys" are an example of this. Just give the players more currency.
  • How many layers of crafting are required to make a useful end product? Players will lose the will to craft if they must turn raw materials into refined materials, then turn those into parts, then those parts into other parts, before finally assembling the second tier of parts into a finished item. This problem can be compounded by having some parts come from different craft skills so that a player can't do everything themselves. FFXIV might suffer from this problem, or at least is on the verge of suffering from it. It's too much for me, but I fall a little on the shallow end of the crafting scale.
  • When a player gets an item, will they always know what to do with it? Your items should be easily distinguished. Your items should be evocative of what they are for. Don't get too fancy and fantastical with your item names and art. How many in-game ways are there for the player to find out what they should do with a new item?
  • Can players easily and readily access and organize all the items they have? Can you include sorting trays or baggies in your board game? The second edition of Dominion added a strip of paper with all the card names on it, making it much easier to find what you needed in the box. Very few video games include automatic sorting buttons for inventories.
  • Do your players have enough room for everything they need to collect? This is often a problem in MMOs where players get a lot of different loot from monsters. If they need to keep too much of it for crafting, and also need to carry around a lot of gear to wear, they'll quickly run out of space. Organization also becomes an issue. More often than not you should reconsider the design of all the loot and crafting rather than simply giving the player more inventory space.
There's a lot more I could say about loot systems and crafting. What do you think about it?