Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Pay 2 Win in PvE - Good for Retention?

Is allowing players to pay small amounts of real money to advance in a Players vs. Environment game, a good thing for player retention?
In Festinger and Carlsmith's classic 1959 experiment, students were asked to spend an hour on boring and tedious tasks (e.g., turning pegs a quarter turn, over and over again). The tasks were designed to generate a strong, negative attitude. Once the subjects had done this, the experimenters asked some of them to do a simple favor. They were asked to talk to another subject (actually an actor) and persuade the impostor that the tasks were interesting and engaging. Some participants were paid $20 (inflation adjusted to 2010, this equates to $150) for this favor, another group was paid $1 (or $7.50 in "2010 dollars"), and a control group was not asked to perform the favor.
This is called the Induced Compliance Paradigm.
Can we apply similar conditions to various Pay to Achieve, Pay to Win and Pay to Advance Scenarios?

The outcome of that experiment is as follows:
When asked to rate the boring tasks at the conclusion of the study (not in the presence of the other "subject"), those in the $1 group rated them more positively than those in the $20 and control groups. This was explained by Festinger and Carlsmith as evidence for cognitive dissonance. The researchers theorized that people experienced dissonance between the conflicting cognitions, "I told someone that the task was interesting", and "I actually found it boring." When paid only $1, students were forced to internalize the attitude they were induced to express, because they had no other justification. Those in the $20 condition, however, had an obvious external justification for their behavior, and thus experienced less dissonance.
It goes without saying that the feeling of achievement is stronger when, you know, you actually achieve something, instead of buying your way to a new level, to new characters or weapons.
But, if applied to various Free 2 Play games, does this Paradigm still hold true? And what does it mean if it does?

Since I don't actually have access to various F2P game statistics - namely those with various leveling options that involve real money (even games like SimCity Social - where you can pay money to buy in game Diamonds and more Energy), I'll try to answer the second question.
In subsequent experiments, an alternative method of inducing dissonance has become common. In this research, experimenters use counter-attitudinal essay-writing, in which people are paid varying amounts of money (e.g. $1 or $10) for writing essays expressing opinions contrary to their own. People paid only a small amount of money have less external justification for their inconsistency and must produce internal justification in order to reduce the high degree of dissonance that they are experiencing.

Unlike in F&Cs original experiment, the players, presumably, start out enjoying the task - their newly downloaded or registered game. However, various missions and tasks in the game present them the option of either paying small amounts of real cash to unlock higher tier items or level up faster, skipping various conditions, or invest actual play hours, actual work, into the game to reach those levels, without skipping any conditions and needed items.

In this case, players who invested the "work" have a lot of internal justification to continue playing, having invested much time and energy into achieving goals and tasks, and building up their character/city/army. Players who, on the other hand, have only invested small amounts of cash [note: I'm taking the socio-economic placement of these paying players out of the equation for this debate], seemingly insignificant amounts of money, have less internal justification to continue playing.
Thus, maybe, reaching boredom faster? Dropping the game faster that those who don't pay?

And let's face it, the major selling point most of these micro transaction games is the fact that you don't pay 60$, but only small amounts, insignificant amounts, for stuff you pick. In essence, psychologically speaking, the starting point here is off, emphasizing the micro in the transaction.


On the other hand, maybe, big content filled DLC - maybe episodic content, maybe new really worthwhile characters and weapons to play with - that cost significant money (10$ and upward) - may just work towards that player dissonance, in favor of playing through and buying more.


I'd love to see actual statistics on player retention.
To see the co-variance between how much players pay and how long they continue playing.

Monday, January 31, 2011

All Work and No Play, Make RTS a Dull Genre..

When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We work for food because
we are slaves to our bellies. We work to pay the rent because we are slaves to our safety and comfort. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn money to care for our families, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because “we feel like it. ” The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.
~Excerpt from Art of Game Design - A Book of Lenses, by Jesse Schell
Now, let's apply this quote to something near and dear to our hearts.
When we work, we do it because we are obligated to. We harvest resources because we are slaves to our factories. We work to build up our bases because we are slaves to our safety and... well, unit producing factories, again. Some of this servitude is willing servitude, such as willingness to earn credits to care for our armies, but it is servitude nonetheless. We are doing it because we have to, not because "we feel like it." The more obligated you are to do something, the more it feels like work.
Anyone else get that feeling when playing any of the recent mainstream RTS games? It was novel at first. But now, it is work. When you are playing anything but "no rush 5 minutes, n00b game"s, be it single player missions or multi player matches, you are building the base because you have to. Because it is your only way to build up an army. And, for the most part, you do it in a time constraint, fearing the coming onslaught of Red Helmeted Fanatic Zerglings under strict orders from Saruman to wipe you off the face of Middle Tib Sara.
It's a chore on your way to the fight. Some might even go as far as calling it a hindrance.

Some games have attempted to change that, by getting rid of that whole part of the game. A move met with hostility, anger and outcry. In his book, Art of Game Design, Jesse Schell gives the story of Rico Medellin who turned his job into a game:
The task he has to perform on each unit that passes in front of his station should take forty-three seconds to perform — the same exact operation almost six hundred times in a working day. Most people would grow tired of such work very soon. But Rico has been at this job for over five years, and he still enjoys it. The reason is that he approaches his task in the same way an Olympic athlete approaches his event: How can I beat my record?
So, basically, by restating the goal of the chore, Rico turned his mundane, repetitive and otherwise stagnating task into a game. Now, anyone who just said to himself "Achievements", in an overly excited outburst, go outside and... hit yourself with some heavy and maybe even spiky object. Whatever you choose, please make sure the pain will last long.

We can't solve this with Achievements. Turning the resource and building part of an RTS into CityVille will just distract and detract from the Action and core of the game. And, in the end, we'll just end up with the same problem.
That said, permit to contradict myself, at least partly. Maybe such an approach can work - if two conditions are met:
  1. As with the story of Rico, these Achievements are properly defined and described. Not just a mere "Build two factories, a condo, brick walls with Obelisks and a brown and blue eyed Siberian Husky to guard the gate" type of achievement, but something more endogenous. Something that has meaning in the context of the fight we are fighting - specifically the current goal and mission.
  2. Perhaps more important than the above - certainly complemented by the above - is the issue of persistence. If you have a mission that only takes 20 minutes, or even 2 hours - if you cram to many of those Achievements it'll bog down on the core game, if you don't, you've achieved nothing new anyway.
    No, what needs to be considered are larger missions - or arenas of play. An approach in which the built up base can be revisited and added to over time. Instead of just building a base for the purposes of unit production, we build it first for a foot hold, then a presence and ultimately a permanent staging area.
    Allow the narrative to support this need, by revisiting the area and, of course, providing the player with the same built up base he left there. Make the player care for that base, or even for several interacting bases.
In the original Red Alert there was an Allied mission to quickly establish a foot hold and destroy a near by Soviet base so that a convoy could pass. Later, you had to return to that base in a following mission, expand it, build up an army and destroy a larger Soviet base to the north. Obviously the technology at the time did not allow for the Allied base in the second mission to be exactly as it was built up by the player in the first... but imagine the possibilities.
Once you provide such small persistence, you have open before you many other options - options you can provide the player with. For example; without revealing future missions, provide the player with intelligence regarding Enemy movement in the north, allow him to recon there and allow him the freedom to expand his base where he wishes. Later, when that future mission is reached, the player is either under attack already (base being large and expansive), or under siege, with a tiny, purpose specific stronghold.
The difference in this impromptu example is situational and well within the scope of current technology. There is no need for branching morality, dialog and decision trees. The difference comes down to the "EVA/Adjutant" informing you of either an enemy spotted or a base under attack. The player will decide for himself whether to panic.

This reminds me of an anti-rant post on the Mass Effect 2 forums by a guy called Omnicrat:
...Your choices in one have a HUGE impact on the story in two! In fact, the stories are vastly different! What IS simmilar/identical alot is the specific dialogue. Example: you say pretty much the same things to Wrex/Wreave minus the bit about how Wrex is enacting his plan. Yes, the dialog is similar, but the story is compleatly different! Wrex is the de facto leader of Tuchanka in one story and Wreave can't beat that green clan in a fight in the other! These are vastly different stories.
What I'm trying to say here is that while the basic missions and objectives may be the same, the narrative as perceived by the player can vary -and maybe, if done right, vastly so.

Still, what other options are there to make the Base Building and Resource Gathering aspects of RTS not being chores?
Perhaps another approach is the Meaningful Achievement.
In the original Mass Effect, for example, only the Soldier class was a born Sniper. Meaning, that only characters of that class could start off and use the Sniper rifle(s) to their full potential... Unless, as a different class, you've completed the Head Hunter achievement - basically, get an X amount of Head Shots. What this did, beyond the Head Hunter medal in the otherwise useless medal list, was allow the non-Soldier classed character to gain all the advantages of the Sniper Rifle(s). Finally, actually having focused cross-hairs, instead of the screen wide circle, and the uncanny ability to use the Sniper Rifle's zoom feature!

Can something similar be done for Base Building and Expansion? For Resource Gathering?

The Terrans in StarCraft 2 have this Automated Miner thingy which, for a limited time, comes down from Orbit and auto mines Minerals. What if mining an X amount of Mineras, in a limited T amount of time (maybe spread out, for a X / lim T per Mission kind or ratio), allows you to have that Auto Miner, for free, at the start of each mission after the achievement is reached?
Easily doable in Single Player. Might require some more tweaking if considered for balanced Multiplayer matches.

What about Objective based Achievements?

A mission that requires you to fortify your base from coming attacks, but an underlying achievement may be of creating a base strong enough to withstand the attacks without the use of offensive units? Kill all the incoming forces using base defenses and the Engineers to repair them! The Design a Death Trap achievement.
Gives you stronger base defenses? Less power consuming or cheaper ones?

The two activities - base construction and resource gathering - complement each other. Rather, the latter is a requisite of the former. As such, the resource gathering is in itself endogenous. So, maybe the focus should be given more to the base construction aspect, as the heavier element of this Pareto duo.

I'd love to read and discuss more ideas on making that aspect of the RTS formula, preferably as an integral part of the action of the game, less a Must Chore and more a Fun Play.

Saturday, January 22, 2011

If you put a Video Game on the top 100 of all time...

If you put a Video Game on the top 100 of all time...
At the very least, make sure you put it there for attributes that make it a worthy Video Game.

Here's a copy of a short Facebook discussion I started with a status update:

PCGamer Feb 2011 - Top 100 Of All Time List:
#9: "It's one of the few games here you can be a fan of without playing it much. My StarCraft2 time isn't usually spent playing the game - it's watching the commented Korean tournament matches that reach us via GomTV. When I play, I dabble. When I watch, I'm consumed."

To me, that's one of the WORST arguments for the quality of a GAME one is supposed to enjoy playing.
    • RS: Don't forget: EA tried trumping up the same feature/concept with C&C3.
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      It's not about the feature. I'm fine with the feature. It's a neat feature.

      I'm not fine with ranking a game high, when you prefer watching it instead of playing it.
      Hell, I'd rather go out and play ball instead of watching the Lakers.

      When you've created a game that more "players" prefer watching than actually playing, well... Here's Kotaku's completely unrelated to SC2 quote: "For a video game to truly exist, it needs players. Otherwise, it simply stands still. Role-playing game Final Fantasy Versus XIII doesn't have players, it has viewers."

      What I'm saying, is if you have more viewers than players, you've got a problem.
    • RS: Oh you're hitting on the nature of the review. In which case I fully agree.
    • JK:
      ‎"I'd rather go out and play ball instead of watching the Lakers."
      Totally lame :)
      Startcraft is a sport indeed. So if you hate watching sport, you're part of a minority on earth, and that's not a problem related to video games: it's just you being lame :)
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Hey, if it's a sport, why bother creating a single player campaign?
      A lame single player campaign at that.

      As I told you in person - yeah, as a sport it's great. As a sport it did the perfect thing - it did the same as it's predecessor (though, at this point, Brood Wars is far better balanced than SC2 - which is understandable, as it takes time to balance).
      That's my problem with SC2. It's on par.

      It is not Awesome. By definition, since it reiterates on the same thing consciously staying away from change (being a sport), and we've seen [most of] it all before, it is not Awe inspiring.

      If the US did another Shock and Awe campaign over Iraq, no one there is going to be Shocked or Awed, they will just go "Oh, those bastards again... just leave us alone, would you?".
      SC2 only Awed people because of the wait. And I'm betting that the Zerg and Protoss expansions/games, will suffer from that "Oh, that again" mentality - not in the Sport niche, but the SP one. Unless, of course, they do radically different or, better yet, radically interesting things with those campaigns.

      And no - a completely Naked Kerrigan based Zerg campaign will not do.
      I do have a great idea they could try, and actually Dustin Browder already did the basis of it in one of his previous games, where he led the Design....
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Also, I'm not arguing it's not a spectator's sport. To each his own.
      Hell, even Golf has Spectators, and while I completely agree that Golf is a challenging and even rewarding Sport on it's own, I don't feel or think it's a Spectator's Sport.
      Unlike Basketball or Soccer (not for me, the last one) or Football etc'.

      My argument is more of a question - should a video game really strive to be a Spectator's Sport at all? Or should it strive to reach as many audiences as possible?

      Or, to take the Ebert argument, is a game a piece of Art when all it is is a Sport?
      I'll restate that - should games strive to be Art or Sports?
      Cause, dammit, if you distill it to a Clicks/Actions per Minute based sport, it ain't Art no more.
    • JK:
      What it "should be" or what it "shouldn't be" is not the point. There is no morality issue here, it's about the nature of people... we love watching interesting competitive events. When a sport is a great platform to host someone's talents, when it has the right rules and the right balance between luck and skill + room for creativity... then it's a great sport to watch and to enjoy. You may not be receptive, it's OK - it's one of parameter that is defining a geek :) Once more, this is unrelated to video games.
    • Mark Kotlyar: Okay, then you agree that while as a sport, SC2 is great. Superb even.
      But as a video game, it lacks. A lot.

      Good. ;)
    • JK:
      Absolutely! I didn't even bother with the solo campaign, I just played in multiplayer. Starcraft 2 is standing out. Starcraft 2 has a purpose, it answers a need, a desperate need of a real competitive game that was invented by the first Starcraft, and was never equaled by any other RTS. When C&C4 and DoW2 will last 1 year, Starcraft 2 will remain THE reference of the genre for the next decade. That's Blizzard choice. They took video games to another level. You cannot change football rules, and you cannot change Starcraft balance: this is a perfect game.
    • Mark Kotlyar:
      Jeremie my man, a bit of the fanboyism (really, no offense) is audible from your text (ha!). Perfect it is not. Superb it is (at least the Terran faction...).

      But, my whole point here was that they put SC2 in #9, because it's great to watch. Not great to play, but great to watch! WTF?
      And, considering that currently SC2, balance wise - i.e. Sport Rules wise - is worse off than Brood Wars - it boggles the minds that they put the original StarCraft, a game superior in Single Player, a game superior as a Game, as a piece of Art and Experience, and, again, currently with better balance, at #86! While 2 is at #9.

      Again, given the reasons that it's great to watch!
      Ipso facto, they gave it #9 because of the great Battle Cast feature... ????
      Because of the awesome streaming, broadcasting, commenting and marking capabilities (all of which, BTW, they more or less copied from EA's C&C3 Battlecast feature - but that's not the point)???
Just a note regarding the Art thing.
I can definitely consider, in certain cases, Athletes as Artists. Kobe Bryant pulls off many feats that are definitely Poetry in Motion - no question about it. And I'd love to see a Cyber Athlete do the same. Which, in that case, make the move or action as the Art.

Anyway, discuss, if you wish.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

A Grande Finale

The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy is a wholly remarkable book - perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most successful, book ever to come out of the great publishing corporations of Ursa Minor. The H2G2 tells the story of a man who is the last surviving specimen of his species (or so he thinks, until he meets an old would-be flame - Tricia). In that story, we quickly discover that the whole of Earth was - before being blown up to make way for a hyperspace bypass - a giant organic computer, built specificly to give the ultimate question for the ultimate answer of Life, the Universe and Everything. Which, as we all know, is 42.

In the end of the second book - The Restaurant at the End of the Universe - we find our heroes stranded on a planet, after reaching it on the Golgafrincham Ark Fleet Ship B - captained by a man in love with his bath tub - which crash landed on an unremarkable and mostly harmless green blue planet. They ultimately find out, after exploring and seeing Fjords, that they are on pre-historic Earth and that the Golgafrinchams are the real ancestors of current day Humanity.

Battlestar Galactica is a wholly remarkable TV show - perhaps the most remarkable, certainly the most widely audience bridging and genre transcending, show ever to come out of the Sci-Fi (SyFy???) channel and genre. And the grande finale that aired on March 20, 2009 was no exception.

I've seen many conflicted opinions about the way the show ended. Having watched The Last Frakkin' Special, I've had my own doubts. In the special, Ron D. Moore tells of the hardship in writing the finale - the conclusion - to the grande arch that's been created with the twists and turns of the show from day one. And, evidently, he didn't reach some divine inspiration about the plot ending, but he did come to a conclusion - "It's about the characters, stupid!", as he wrote on the whiteboard of the writers' room.
That's where I thought "But what about all the questions? You must answer them."

Now that I've watched the finale, I've not been left wanting. Well, almost.
Battlestar Galactica could not have ended any other way. It was a story about characters, and the characters have all come full circle.
  • A woman driven to extremes by losing everyone she loved, has finally found rest and peace.
    A man trapped by his own self image, his self created myth, rose above and beyond the legend, and came out victorious in spite all odds.

  • The Romeo and Juliet love story between Helo and Athena - and the entire Prophecy of the Opera House is perfectly wrapped up in the daring rescue of Hera Agathon. Everything put perfectly in place; recreating the entire Opera House dream on board the Galactica.
    An allusion to the Space Opera that is Battlestar Galactica.
    A more perfect description in the body of the show itself could not have happened.

  • Even humanity itself, as one character, has grown. As Lee Adama put it, Humanity is no longer just the Thirty Eight Thousand plus people in the Colonial Fleet. It has found a way to evolve elsewhere. This new "Earth", as the new arrivals named it. Humanity itself is no longer in danger of extinction.

Or is it?
I personally loved the Restaurant at the End of the Universe ending.
It is really something that's been on the blogosphere before, in one form or another. There were theories that when the fleet would finally arrive on Earth, they would discover our Earth, in our modern time.
They do, finally, arrive on our Earth - 150,000 years in our past. Creating allusions to the Greek Gods as embodied in the call signs and names of the Battlestar Galactica personel.
They even had their own Captain in a Bath, as Anders is left with one final instruction, to take the entire Colonial Fleet into the Sun.
And, perhaps, just like with the Fjords of Norway that lead to Arthur Dent and Ford Prefect's realization of being on Old Earth, the journey Chief Galen Tyrol undertakes to go to an island in the north, devoid of humans, is a cue to us - the spectators - to further enhance the realization that this is indeed our Earth.

As Ronald D. Moore himself makes an appearance reading a current day newspaper, listening to today's news about advances in Robotics, we see the two Head Jobs - standing right behind the show's creator - talking about how "All this has happened before, and it will happen again.". Harking back to the slogan already repeated several times throughout the last two seasons.
Bringing back the true meaning of Science Fiction and it's place, role and responsibility in our own society as modern philosophy, commentary and watchdog for morality and what just might be.

Battlestar Galactica - We will miss you.
So say we all!

Don't forget, there's still BSG: The Plan - a TV movie retelling the story of Caprica's final days from the Cylon perspective.

The unanswered;
Who are the Head Jobs? Who is this "God" who, according to Six, doesn't like to be called that?
What and Where is Kara Thrace, really?

How will Caprica fit into all this? Will it stay true to the established or create it's own lore completely? I'm hoping for the former.

It would seem there's a Command & Conquer fan on staff of the Battlestar Galactica production. Perhaps apart from both Grace Park and Tricia Helfer who played major roles in Command & Conquer 3: Tiberium Wars!
An homage back to us, C&C fans? It seems so.

A Quick Dollhouse Shoutout

Joss Whedon's Dollhouse began on a very slow and seemingly limp pace. But the last three episodes - which makes it half the show so far - have been great. In this latest episode, Man on the Street, we really get a better look at the other purposes that the idea of Dollhouse may serve to it's clients.

In a longer than usual episode (49 minutes instead of the usual 42), we get cuts of a documentary about this urban legend that Dollhouse has become. We hear people's opinions, pro and con. And the main client in this episode (played by Paton Oswalt) really brings it home. These aren't just blow-ups for hire, nor ad hoc super soldiers. They can do some good.
And lest we forget the first episode; Echo did choose to become one. She volunteered.

At any rate, this really was a good episode. True to Whedon's sense of something bigger.
Mellie as a doll? Yeah, I've personally seen it coming a mile away. Then again, Whedon was never scared of stating the obvious - reverse psychology and all.

Did you notice that when Topher was called by Boyd outside to talk - right after Topher prepared Echo's next imprint - that when he returned the door behind him was ajar? It was closed before. Which explains Echo's acting all mouthpiecy after kicking Ballard's ass in the alley.
Personally, I wouldn't go counting on the "Echo remembers" theory yet. She really did perform her programing to the T in this one - except, the person who left that door open, must have tampered with the imprint to make her talk. How fortunate it was that Boyd was off duty this time.
Is it Liza Lapira (Ivy, Topher's assistant) back to her old NCIS tricks, being a double agent?

Who was the replacement handler?
Something to think about.

Thursday, March 19, 2009

The Book of Shmu'el and Kings

The book of Kings, in the Prophets tome of the Bible begins with the now Old King of Israel David, and his succession by his son, King Solomon. The new NBC show Kings deals with king Silas Benjamin and his succession by someone other than his son - the young military upstart, David Shephard.

The book of Shmu'el, which precedes the book of Kings, tells the story of the Prophet Shmu'el of the Ephraim tribe and his anointing of the first Kings of Israel. First there was Sha'ul, of the Benjamin tribe, anointed to be chancellor to save Israel from the hands of the Philistines, waging war on them. In Kings we are introduced to King Silas Benjamin of Gilboa, war hero of the war with the Gath. Anointed to king hood by Reverend Ephram Samuels.

The book of Shmu'el also mentions Gath. Today's Israeli town of Kiryat Gat (the Campus of Gat) is built where the ancient Philistine city of Gat dwelled, and from which the almost 3 meters tall Philistine warrior Goliath came.
Goliath is the type of ominous tanks used by the Gat in their war against Gilboa, in Kings.

In the first episode, we learn of a Gath ambush taking prisoner one Jack Benjamin - the son of King Silas. And although orders have been issued not to attempt a rescue, private David Shephard feel compelled to mount a solo rescue mission into the Gath camp. It's worth mentioning that David did not know that one of the prisoners was Jack Benjamin.
Indeed, in the middle of the night, David sneaks past several sentries and Goliath tanks, and quickly rescues the prince and a fellow prisoner from the prince's platoon. However, during the escape from the Gath camp, the three are spotted and Goliaths are sent to eliminate. It is then that David decides to play bait, so the two rescued prisoner can escape. And in doing so, comes face to face with a Goliath tank, which explodes several second later from a grenade David threw earlier.

David is treated to hero's welcome, even by the King himself who offers him half is kingdom - and an immediate promotion to the rank of Captain. There, at the reception David meets the King's daughter - Michelle Benjamin. Again, in the book of Shmu'el, the daughter of Sha'ul, Michal, was King David's first love and first wife.

Additional correlations include the origin of the name Jack - which is a nickname to the name John, short for Johnathan. The name of Sha'ul's son and ultimately David's best friend was indeed Johnathan.
General Linus Abner, King Silas' Chief of Military Officer, is also name after Sha'ul's Chief Military Officer, Avner Ben Ner.

I'm sure all the above is not a revelation to many people, but I wanted to write this here and say that I find the idea of this show - Kings - bringing an established Biblical story to the modern time, although artificially in this case, very intriguing. I believe this drama has real potential.

Hey, the source material has endured for over 3000 years. So it's already tried and true.
Despite taking the name of the wrong Book of the Prophets Tome in the Bible, I definitely recommend this show. Although we'll see what the future holds.

Meanwhile, check out these virally related sites:

I've actually wanted to do a modernized rendition of the Ten Plagues story from Exodus. This definitely gives me some extra motivation. I'll Idea Map this... idea today.

Friday, March 13, 2009