Archive for November, 2009

Is the goal of our participation in any economy to maximize our utility? Something very much like that guides my actions, so that seems a reasonable assumption. When running game economies then, what could be better than to maximize utility for players?

In a post on the Bay12Games forums, Servant Corps writes in response to my post on Cost and Utility in game economies:

If the goal of a SP game is to produce the most utility (and it does not have to have such a goal, granted), then cost is counterproductive. Cost reduce the amount of utility that can be acquired. Sure, you got the +5 Sword of Slashing, but you spent an hour of your time getting that item. An hour that would never be gotten back.

Thus, why would one have the Player pay any Cost whatsoever? Give the player all the Items he wants. The player gets all the Utility from the Items, and do not have to pay any Cost.

To answer this, I think it’s important to step back and address why we are putting these items in the game in the first place. Let’s say that our purpose, in creating a game, is to maximize the utility that game has to the player. We do this by making the game extremely fun, and by giving it replayability and longevity. Key to maximizing the value the game has to players, then, is to address how to make the game fun.

There is a concept of the flow channel that carries a lot of water with game developers, based on the work of Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi in Flow: The Psychology of Optimal Experience. The basic idea is that people are in a state of “flow” when they have clear goals and challenges that approximately match their skills, leaving them neither anxious nor bored. As applied to games, it means that the challenges must increase as the player’s abilities increase:

Flow Channel

When we design games, we do try to make sure that the player chews up plenty of time playing our game, but it’s not just throwing up a treadmill. We want players to move through the flow channel, neither overwhelmed nor bored, moving up and to the right on that graph over time. Players complaining of grinding and treadmills aren’t in the flow channel, they’re in the boredom section — their skills exceed the challenges. This is failure on the part of the designer. But to consume time isn’t in itself bad; after all, the whole point of games is to provide fun and recreation. The longer we can do that with a game, the better we’re fulfilling that purpose. In other words, providing utility to the player means keeping them challenged for an extended period of time.

Players work hard to beat the challenge because that’s what the game is about. In an RPG, they’ll grab the best equipment they can buy, and minmax their stats. Players are exercising their skills to demonstrate mastery over the game. If the game ever beats the player by making a dungeon so hard they can’t progress, the player will give up and play something else. If the game ever surrenders to the player by not having another dungeon, or having each challenge so easy it’s not worth the player’s time, the player will get bored and play something else. Either way, we failed to entertain, and the utility of the game is decreased.

Taking this into account, there are two reasons we don’t just give the player the +10 sword of devastation at no cost. The first reason is because it breaks the balance, the PC dominates all enemies, and the game drops into boredom. The second reason is because, even if the sword is appropriately balanced against the enemies the player is fighting now, managing money and equipment is part of the challenge of the game. The cost of that sword is actually part of the flow equation, and removing it drops the challenge a few points closer to boredom.

Ultimately, the reason simulated economies like weapon shops exist in games is because it’s more fun to have them than to just give the player that power directly. Many people love to browse through, pine for some sword they can’t afford, save up for it, and then laugh gleefully as their power increases substantially due to your shrewd decision to save up for it. Taking away the costs here is like using cheat codes — it’s fun for awhile, but it drops you out of the flow channel, and in the end you’ll get bored and move on to another game.

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I’m very lazy.

There’s a bit of a qualification in order here, however — I say I’m lazy because I hate work and love play, and spend a fair amount of energy avoiding or procrastinating work in order to play more. In fact, my love of play, and desire to share this with others, is part of what drives me to make things that others can play with. But I’m also perfectionist. That means I tend to avoid starting new projects, but while I’m working on something, I work hard to make it good. Then, if nobody is lighting a fire under my ass, I tend to get bored and wander away leaving it half-finished. I’m sure I’m not the only one who does things like this, because questions about this sort of behavior pattern is all over personality tests.

Recently, Mike Pondsmith, the instructor teaching our game mechanics class, assigned us to play Cafe World on Facebook for five days. Now, I avoid games like this. I avoid persistent online games in general because they are work-ish to me, requiring an ongoing commitment. But like reading books, having someone order me to do it is a fairly decent way of getting me to make that commitment. So I played Cafe World. And I made a nice, pretty cafe, and built a spreadsheet analyzing the economy of the game and determining optimal strategies, and downloaded apps to help me schedule my time, and ended up with the highest score in the class. Because even though I wouldn’t normally play a game like that — and I quit playing immediately after the next class — once I got into it, I was in it to win it and my perfectionism kicked in.

In another example, I recently started a Let’s Play and Tutorial video series to teach new players how to play Liberal Crime Squad, an open source game by the guys behind Dwarf Fortress that I serve as the de facto maintainer for. Now, once I committed to doing that, I went the whole nine yards, getting the right software, multiple test runs, experimenting to find the best file format to maximize picture quality without clogging my hard drive, prewriting to plan out what I wanted to cover, and so on. For the first ten minute video, I spent a good five or six hours getting everything right. Feedback was strongly positive, and I’ve made fifty minutes of video total. But the playthrough isn’t finished, there’s more to cover, and I haven’t worked on it in weeks. Do I have time? Sure! I’m just lazy about it.

I worry about this. One way to describe my version of laziness is a lack of initiative. I do what is expected of me, and I do it as well as I possibly can, because I take pride in my work, but beyond that, I do very little. I don’t usually attend conventions, I avoid the unknown, I don’t network proactively, and I dread applying for things (colleges, scholarships, internships, jobs) for no other reason than because self-promotion is a LOT of unsatisfying work. Unfortunately, those are the types of things I’m afraid I have to do if I’m going to end up where I want to be. I’m not incredibly ambitious, but I do want to spend my life doing what I love while surrounded by brilliant people, and to do that I have to attend conventions, embrace new experiences, network, and apply aggressively.

The interesting counterpoint to this is that when left without obligations of a creative nature, I become discontent. I feel like I’m wasting my time, wasting my life, wasting my abilities. I become driven to do productive things. I become proactive because nobody is pushing me do things. This is how I worked through homeschooling, this is how I got into developing Liberal Crime Squad, and this is how I started this blog — I abhor work, but I am driven to do things, and to do them extremely well if at all possible.

I’m sure there’s plenty of people like me in the industry. I just worry I’ll have trouble getting a job at a studio that will satisfy my perfectionism and surround me with brilliant people.

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