Sunday, May 26, 2019

Love Thy Fans Pt. 2

Imagine, if you aren't already, that you're a successful game developer and you have your game on the market, and you want to get some feedback from your customers because you're good at what you do and you want to make the best game you can.  When you set out to canvas your current audience, you quickly discover that their suggestions contradict each other.  What do you do?

Well first off, don't be surprised.  Remember, not everyone will enjoy your games the same way.  One person will derive their most fun from a game by setting limits on themselves and accomplishing challenges, whereas another person will get the most fun from a game by making their avatar wear the most fashionable clothing they can find.  Thus, one person suggesting changes to maximize one area, will find their suggestions either explicitly or implicitly contradicting suggestions from another.

The next thing to realize is that your game cannot be everything, to everyone.  It is impossible, and to attempt this is to water down your game so much it has lost all tastiness.  It can certainly be a lot to some, but it can't be everything.  Part of this is due to the amount of time, money and manpower you have available to develop things, but part of it has to do with simply contradictory things.  Do you make an easy mode for Sekiro, or do you not?  Attempting to split the difference on things like that makes everyone dissatisfied, so you have to pick one or the other.

So you have to be selective with what feedback to actually implement.  Who do we take more seriously?

Your actual hardcore fans.  These hardcore fans are emotionally invested in your success, and really want to see you make a great game.  Feedback from casual players can be useful, but along the lines of bug reports and how to make any tutorial make more sense.  Be very wary of taking gameplay balancing or feedback of new systems from casual players, since they often don't have as good of a grasp of the big picture.

Again, your hardcore fans won't all agree with each other since they'll like different things about your game, but immediately it's a smaller section of feedback to wade through.  Instead, you subdivide the feedback again.

The long-time developer of Defense of the Ancients and DotA 2, Icefrog kept in contact with the absolute highest skilled players of the game for balancing testing.  Since DotA is a game about competitive player versus player, the top players had a far more accurate idea of what was strong, what was weak, and what was outright broken than Icefrog knew himself.  Numerous posts on the forums about so-and-so being overpowered, Icefrog please nerf, would correctly go ignored, as after various minor tweaks to completely different systems lead to different play, and those in-game heroes or items decried as overpowered just fell out of favor.  Nothing really different about them, they were still good at what they did, but those situations in which they shined just didn't happen nearly as often if at all.

Those players on the forums were just as hardcore of fans as the top-skilled players were, but relying on them for feedback on balancing would have been a terrible idea.  Too often, they'll want something nerfed into the ground or buffed into heaven, to simply scratch an emotional itch they had regarding some dissatisfaction.  Still, they're your hardcore fans, you have to treat them well.  They can still give good feedback, just don't weigh it as heavily as the skilled players.  In many cases, these middling or poor-skilled players can give a wide panoply of suggestions that the top-skilled players didn't even think to cover which are still valuable goals.  Is there something about the UI which could honestly be improved?  The average-skilled player who puts in a lot of time can give effective advice on that.  The top-skilled player may not even remember it most of the time, when they've focused on wrangling out the rules for a competitive advantage as much as they can instead.

Something to keep in mind during all of this though, is that the vision of the game your hardcore players want probably will be a slightly different game than what you've intended.  This, we'll talk about next week.  Still, love thy fans.  Treat them well, and it'll be hard to drive them away.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Love Thy Fans

I've touched on this briefly, but now is as good a time as any to go more in depth on the subject.

Love your hardcore fans, developer, for they will see you through the rough times.  Appealing to the casual audiences may bring lots of dough, but make one misstep and you'll be having some really rough times.

What do I mean by this?

Look, it's pretty clear to anyone without a god complex that not every game you make will be a success.  When those games aren't a large enough success to recoup the amount of work that went into them, you start having financial troubles.  This is very obvious.

Sufficiently large enough games take an extraordinary amount of work to complete.  Practically every game actually worth $20 or more, has had years to percolate.  So to recover from a disastrous game puts a lot of stress on a studio, because you need a lot of time in order to release a new game that addresses what the players hated.

Video games generally aren't a hugely profitable industry anyway, and when you have a good success of a game it's quite easy for that money to fly away.

Your fans who are hardcore supporters of you and your studio though, will forgive your inevitable missteps.  They'll buy your crappy game, and be eager to buy your next game because they have faith that the next one will be better.  In fact, it's actually hard to accidentally alienate a hardcore fan.  You have to very purposefully treat them like dirt in order to drive away the most fanatical.  Love them, because they love you.

Really, dealing with fans is just an extension of normal interpersonal relationships.  Fairweather fans are fairweather friends, and you can never rely on them.  Just appreciate them when they're there, but never make plans around them.  They're just there for the experience of it all, not because they want to actively contribute and make it their own.

This division between the fairweather and the fanatical extends even further in unexpected ways when you start conversing with your audience, which I'll write more on next week.

Sunday, May 12, 2019

More Human Than Human

Let's talk AI.

An aspect of gaming that has been there for almost as long as there's been games, Artificial Intelligence fleshes out the world in MMOs, provides training dummies for competitive PvP games, and for many single player games is the entire reason they exist.

Yet, AI in the gaming sense is not AI in the academic sense.  Let's get this perfectly clear, because that's a rather important distinction.  In games, the Artificial is clearly artificial, and the Intelligence is a misnomer, whereas the academic AI definition seeks to make Artificial Intelligence indistinguishable from regular human intelligence.  There's a good reason for that.

Remember, what is the game being made for?  One would hope it would be for the enjoyment of its audience.  If the only one enjoying themselves are the creator, that's simply a mockery, not a game.  Academic AI isn't made for the audience to enjoy themselves, even people can certainly derive that via wonder at the advancement of technology.

Game AI is for the enjoyment of the user however, and as such often means intentionally flawed AI, very often due to being direct competition for the player.  A perfect AI in an MMO would realize he has no chance winning against the player character whatsoever, and as such would run away immediately upon spotting a player.  This might be fun for awhile, until the AI realizes that the only winning move is not to play, and simply decides not to respawn.  Suddenly fun times are over.

Even not going as far as that, an AI with no intentional flaws has an absurd advantage over human players in that there is hardly any reaction time.  Gauging a threat and determining a course of action happens over the span of ~16ms, versus a human reacting blindly out of reflex taking ~160ms, ten times slower than the computer.  A machine won't mentally tire from stress or fatigue either, making random "dumb" mistakes.  So gaming AI will often have artificial limitations set on their artificial intelligence.

It could be said that part of the reason why is so that it'll be more fair.  This is a mistake of what the goal is.  Rather, the reason why gaming AI will often have artificial limitations is because it is more enjoyable to play against, not because it is fair.  Sometimes it's really fun to smack around very dumb AI, as Valve found out when they were making Left 4 Dead and discovered that mowing down hordes of mindless zombie AI was actually really fun, instead of small amounts of tactically placed enemies.  Sometimes it's really fun to challenge yourself and play against very unfair AI as it becomes a tightrope of trying to stay alive while discovering the AI's Achilles heel, and you search for the Achilles heel because you know full well it's impossible to win a straight out fight.

Put in other words, AI from an academic standpoint is meant to be like a human, whereas AI from a gaming standpoint is meant to be a puzzle for the player to try and solve.

So don't be worried if your AI isn't perfect.  The real question is, is it fun?

Sunday, May 5, 2019

Service with a Smile

Ross from Accursed Farms makes a case as to why Games as a Service is fraud.

It's interesting seeing his side of things because it's very firmly rooted in the player side of things.  And I could very easily see why players could view Games as a Service (GaaS) as something shady.  However he also only comprehends GaaS on the player end, missing exactly what it means to a developer.  And really, it's not so much that Games as a Service is fraud, but rather it's the methodology du jour of fraudsters, just as licensed shovelware and obnoxious game 'collections' like Action 52 used to be.  But licensed games, game collections, and even GaaS isn't the cause of fraud, it's just the low-hanging fruit being used.

Ross correctly begins with trying to define exactly what GaaS is, and amusingly goes to Wikipedia before realizing that they aren't very helpful in figuring out what exactly it is.  Rather, the concept of what exactly goods and services are, come into play here.  Goods being something you own, tangible or intangible, such as a hammer, an ebook, or an intellectual property.  Services instead are... services that you pay people for, such as getting a haircut.

Games used to treated as goods, fullstop.  The developer made the game, handed it off to the publisher, and promptly forgot about it until either making a sequel or translating it for another country.  Otherwise, the code was very static, and any bugs found, <i>remained</i>.  Because that's what goods are.  You make the good, sell it, and it's no longer your problem unless you're legally liable for injury.

That started changing when the internet became more widespread, patches could realistically be made and applied to all current copies of a game, and more importantly reoccurring server costs started becoming a thing thanks to all of these popular internet-based games.  Patches mean you can push off some of the minor bug fixing until later, and even delaying certain game content until it's actually good and ready to be played, instead of rushing it out the door in a buggy mess because the publisher is knocking down your door asking firmly why it's not ready yet.

Approaching the game like this is not treating the game as goods anymore though.  Instead of a one-and-done, fire-and-forget, you have to baby the program long after it is released, feeding it, growing it, and maintaining it.  The maintenance costs man-hours, and any associated servers cost money.  Those are not free.  You're servicing the game.  It has become a service.

Ross makes an analogy in the video where he compares Games as a Service to a rest stop in a mountainous park area, and that when the state loses money and shuts down the rest stop it somehow denies complete access to the mountains and forests.  This is a stretch of an analogy.

If looking to strictly compare services, the service provided by the rest stop are strictly of maintenance of the rest area, and they have nothing to do with the mountain and forest.  And what happens when the service for the rest stop is halted?  It is the same as with a game hosted on the internet, the whole thing breaks down and you can't use it anymore.  The only difference is that the rest stop will break down over a much longer period of time than pulling the plug on a server, requiring years for nature to reclaim building and paved areas.  The rest stop is not gatekeeping you from enjoying the nature.

A more accurate analogy would be a theme park, where you have bought a lifetime pass.  An online-only game, much like a shuttered theme park, becomes completely unavailable when it closes down despite having paid upfront for a lifetime pass.

Now with all of this said, games as a whole are rather odd, and probably don't rightly belong squarely as a traditional "good" nor a traditional "service".  Often it's a bit of a weird combination of the two, and we really don't have a good word for it as far as I know.  Computers are still a relatively young concept compared to, say, a hammer and a haircut after all.

Sunday, April 28, 2019

The "Incorrect" Way to Have Fun
Between 2001 and 2004, game designers Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc, Robert Zubek gave a series of lectures discussing a formalized approach to video game design. As part of the lectures, they outlined a list of what they called “aesthetics of play.” Basically, eight broad categories that describe the reasons why people engage with games. Put simply, they outlined eight basic types of fun.
 I highly recommend the link to anyone even remotely interested in how games work.

This week I spent a couple of hours debating with someone over why he can't just outright declare, sans context, certain game designs to be objectively better or worse.  Opening up the discussion by sending him the above link, I told him that since not everyone enjoys the same thing about video games, you can't objectively state any game design is completely superior to another, and that they all can be used in different ways.  There is no game mechanic or design I'm aware of that can completely antiquate any other.

It's hard to be more concise than the conversation I had, so I'll quote it rather heavily.  My debate partner brought up random battles, specifically the mechanic in several JRPGs wherein after having moved a random number of steps, you encounter an enemy and are forced to either fight or flee.

"We've kind of figured out in the 25 years since FF5 that random battles aren't a very good way of doing battles anyway. Modern games that use them only do so out of either nostalgia or lack of funding."
"By what metric are you determining that random battles are bad?"
"Well, it's not a single metric. It's a combination of a lot of things. They're unpredictable, for one. The lack of ability to influence when they happen makes them feel like an interruption.[...]They're also, by their nature, inherently meaningless. Because they're random, they're guaranteed not to have any story reason for existing.[...] And the randomness interferes with good pacing as well. Having battles break up a dungeon actually helps with the flow if done right, but it's better if the designer has more control over the timing of those encounters, because there's a cycle of buildup, climax and denouement that human brains really like, and that fails if you get in a battle after 2 steps or go 8 screens without one.  Even by FF4, they'd figured that much out, which is why battles are 13-28 steps instead of 1-255 steps.
"So then is it not simply that random battles are inherently bad and a simple hearkening of nostalgia, but rather it can be implemented poorly?" 
"Well, both. They can be implemented in better or worse ways. But overall, battles in general can also be implemented in better or worse ways. And game designers as a whole have basically reached a consensus that random battles on steps are one of the worse ways, without enough pros for their massive number of cons."

Already his position changes a bit, and he appeals to authority in place of specifying the exact pros and cons.  Further down the line, he admits, "I do agree that 95% of my problem is with the implementation though."

What does this have to do with the mutability of fun perception?  He had been hammering on how random battles were just not fun.  Thus, throw the whole thing out!  It's old and busted!  And that is regardless of who still actually enjoys the style of game as it is.

It was only old and busted because he didn't enjoy it, however.

There's something I've noticed, that people who are inexperienced in a matter will very often fill their gap of understanding by filling in details with their own personal experiences and tastes, whether it's correct or not.  This holds true in video games as well.  If he didn't enjoy it, then other people aren't enjoying it either.  And those who do enjoy it are just weird and don't know any better.

Keep yourself from this mode of thought, friends.  Know what your goals are in making a game, and know what kind of game you want to make before starting.  Because not everyone experiences fun the same way, not everyone is going to like your game, so aiming to make a game that everyone would find fun is an exercise in frustration.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Snowflaking with an Idea

“But the truth is, it's not the idea, it's never the idea, it's always what you do with it."

I've been chatting off and on with a fellow who's been trying to break into video games.  Amusingly enough, he's always asking opinions about one thing or another, but the only time he accepts the opinion is if it's of a superficial nature.  He's rather stubborn that way.

A problem crops up though, where he'll often ask an opinion on something and the only correct answer is, as with most things relating to subjective matters, are "it depends".  The only way to get a sense of whether it would be better to have a character who swings a slow attack strongly or a weak attack quickly, is if you can actually quantify what's exactly strong, weak, slow, and fast.  For what purpose would the attack serve?  Is it for the player character, a faceless mob character in a sea of enemies, or the final boss?  What type of game is it anyway?

The last question is the most important and the game as a whole hinges on it, but to truly understand what exactly he's going for, I need to actually look at all of the material and plans for this marvelous game idea he has, so that it makes sense.  If this fictional character is an old decrepit man, having quick energetic attacks don't make sense.  Unless he's an assassin in disguise, in which case it does.  Unless the way he assassinates is via kidnapping his target and setting them up in a bizarre trap while he very very slowly attacks them with a powerful attack.  It just depends.

Unfortunately getting information out of this guy is pretty tough.  He'll give the bare minimum and not much besides that.  He is intrinsically afraid that someone will steal his idea.

It is a ridiculous fear.  Making a game is far more time-consuming than writing a script and drawing some art assets, so the amount of time saved for someone to do that is laughable.  Not to mention, someone stealing your idea doesn't mean that they will actually implement it well!

How many times do you remember a game with great design, a fine story, good art, but it's still somehow just not fun to play?  You could have a nice innovative design for a puzzle game, but if the levels are lackluster, the whole game is a farce.  You could have a gripping story being told through an expressive RPG, but if the game is a buggy unplayable mess, who's going to care?

If you want someone to take a look at your hot new game idea and you really want good feedback, show them everything.

Everyone has an idea.  Those ideas are never truly new.  What matters with those ideas, is what you do with them, so stop putting your ideas on a pedestal.

"What has been is what will be,
and what has been done is what will be done,
and there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there a thing of which it is said,
"See, this is new"?
It has been already
in the ages before us."
-Ecclesiastes 1:9-10

Sunday, April 21, 2019

Easter Tidings 2019

"He is risen!  He is risen, indeed."
Article will go up tomorrow.  Happy Easter.