The incomparable depth of rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock…

Calculations vs. Choices

Another Penny Arcade episode that got me thinking is Choice and Conflict. What I liked about this was the way that they distinguish choices from calculations. The way PA lay it out, both are decisions, but calculations have correct, or rather, optimal answers. Choices on the other hand make you decide between incomparables – things that cannot be evaluated by a common factor.

A quick example from BioShock, one of my favourite games: When you decide whether to spend your money on snacks or medi packs, this is a calculation of how much health will be restored for a given amount of cash. Compare this to the choice you make when you get the opportunity to upgrade a weapon at a Power to the People machine. How do you compare a larger magazine size with more stopping power in the pistol? Increased range with reduced chemical consumption in the chemical thrower? You can’t. And that makes it a very interesting decision (NB my previous post on game balancing is in hindsight more about how you hide calculations, rather than create choices).

Depth from vulnerability loops

Several of the PA episodes talk about making gameplay interesting by providing multiple solutions to the same problem. This is a closely linked concept. A lot of combat strategy games create their fun by having different sorts of units with varying strengths and weaknesses. How many games have you seen where infantry are outgunned tanks, which are outgunned by airpower, itself vulnerable to infantry? The fact that you need all three types of units, and need to use tactics to make sure your units attack the right opponents makes the games interesting.

Now, to start an analogy that I’ll continue, just imagine:

  • Infantry = scissors
  • Tanks = rock
  • Aircraft = paper

You’ll see that actually the combat mechanics of most strategy games are simply games of rock, paper, scissors, but with better graphics . Ok, ok, you can also play more than one unit at a time. But still…

Where these games frequently go wrong is where they fail to complete the loop, and make infantry vulnerable to everything. Infantry are then obsolete units as soon as a player unlocks airpower. Similarly, and getting back to my original point about choices, the games that are *great*combatstrategies are the ones that are not simple three point loops. In Starcraft and Command & Conquer the units are specifically designed so that they are incomparable. This creates more of a rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock dynamic than rock, scissors, paper.

Increasing depth

If you want a balanced attack force in a simple combat game, you need each of infantry, tanks and airpower. Skipping any one point in the loop leaves you vulnerable to something else. In C&C however, there are multiple solutions to having a balanced force. To explain this in the RPSLS example, think about a situation where you have to choose 3 options from rock, scissors, paper, lizard, Spock. For example:

  • Rock, Paper, Scissors
  • Lizard, Spock, Scissors
  • Rock, Paper , Spock

Each of these combinations has an element that can beat any of the five individual options, but none of them are the same. This is an example of even deeper gameplay, generated by incomparable decisions. Lizard is not better or worse than rock or Spock, but once you choose lizard, certain options are more attractive than others to create balance. Players have a huge variety of different combinations that they can put together to be successful with, which gives the situation long lasting depth.  This becomes even clearer if you go a step further and imagine you could upgrade each option at a cost. You probably wouldn’t upgrade everything. You would choose 2 or 3 options to specialize in, and your decisions here would match your personal playing style and preference.

Invisible Attributes

Finally, before I get to the wrap up, I’d like to make it clear that this principle isn’t solely applicable to combat games or hard core RPGs with loads of different stats. SimCity was a great game because your building choices balanced a lot of different things (income, pollution, congestion, crime…). Go back to the BioShock example and the reason that choices about weapon upgrades are so great is because many of the upgrades are unquantifiable – reducing machine gun kick back or chemical consumption has no quantified metric. Because there are no figures, players never even attempt to calculate the trade-offs of different options.

Wrap Up

What I’ve hopefully communicated here is that creating choices between incomparables often goes hand in hand with giving players multiple solutions to the same problems. By thinking about the components of a game in this way, whether it’s combat stats or building attributes, you start to generate deep, hugely rewarding gameplay that each player can approach in their own way. This doesn’t mean that you need to overload players with multiple figures however – and in fact it’s best not to – some of the best choices are between attributes that cannot be quantified.

The Joy of Energy Systems

The Theory Bit

I recently watched an excellent short video on Penny Arcade about how energy systems are framed. Watch the video itself for the full 5m08s of insight, but it basically pointed out two things.

Firstly, energy systems (I included any mechanism that paces play here, from CityVille’s energy to World of Warcraft’s rest) are there for three reasons (plus one I add myself…):

  1. To make game companies money
  2. To spread out content for longer
  3. To habituate players to playing games
  4. (To distribute wealth more evenly amongst players – not something PA mention but I’ve written about it before)

Secondly, they point out that many social games don’t frame these mechanics very well, leading to player frustration and resentment.

The Good and the Bad

World of Warcraft is the exception, because instead of limiting how long players can play for, they give them a bonus for logging on after an absence. The game economy used and player behaviour resulting is identical, but the player experience is greatly improved. Players love getting a bonus, where they hated getting a penalty.

So how could we frame existing energy systems in social games to give us the benefits outlined above, but in a way that players would like?

If pacing systems can currently be divided into energy based systems (e.g. CityVille) and time based systems (e.g. War Commander), then I think the answer lies somewhere in between. How about a system where buildings, crafting and other contracts are completed over long periods (like WC), and players have a limited source of “energy” which can accelerate these and itself recharges over time (like CityVille, but inverted into a bonus)?

Reframing Social Games

The Grinns Tale currently employs something along these lines, and despite the game’s other flaws, it’s very good. In The Grinns Tale, crafting an item might take 1-2 hours for a mid-level player, and your wood and metal factories fill up ready for collection over a similar period. These contracts can be completed instantly for hard currency, but they can also be accelerated for “villager actions”.

Villager actions take 2 minutes to recharge, and accelerate contracts by 2 minutes… they are actually very similar to energy points used in other games. The number that you can have depends on the number of inhabitants your village has, but easily 30-40 for a mid-level player without using hard currency, so players have enough to complete a medium sized contract instantly, once per session.

The result is that play is paced to 1-2 hour intervals, but with each session players aren’t limited in the number of actions they can take as in CityVille. Eventually players will run out of things that they can do and be left with a time delay whilst crafting completes, factories refill etc., just as in War Commander. However, as a player you can elect to accelerate particular time delays by using your villager actions.

The resulting feeling of control gives players a satisfying rush, rather than a frustrating obstacle, and is a much more pleasant experience than either pure energy or time based pacing systems. Although as a player you are encourage into regular sessions to maximise use of your villager actions, you feel like you have a lot more control over the way that you use these to plan your production.

The Grinns Tale could probably improve this system further y adjusting the balance between the timed delays and the villager action acceleration – at the moment the former dominates and the latter feels like a bit of a bolt on. To make this system work really well the bonus needs to be significant, and I suspect that increasing the recharge rate and acceleration bonus to 5 minutes, and increasing time delays proportionately to compensate, would leave players with an even better feeling.

Wrap Up

Pacing in online games is important for a variety of different reasons:

  1. Monetization
  2. Content rationing
  3. Player habituation
  4. Distribution of virtual wealth

Framing such pacing is important to ensure that it does not adversely affect player enjoyment. This can be achieved by positioning energy as an acceleration bonus to a time based economy, rather than as a hard limit to the number of actions players can perform in a session.

Image from Monica Vidal’s Flickr stream.