Wednesday, December 12, 2018

Tactics Versus Strategy

Many people think that strategy is merely tactics on a larger scale. It is immensely frustrating to discuss because no matter how many times you describe the qualitative differences they recognize only quantitative differences. People conflate tactics with large numbers with strategy and ignore the different kinds of thinking at work. It's almost like people think that strategy is the smart word for tactics, similar to people who always use "whom" for "who" because it sounds smarter. Let's agree the world needs both tacticians and strategists, but conflating them is counterproductive.

This is particularly relevant to game design because much of what we call strategy is really tactics. We rarely ask whether a game models a process or the thinking one uses when engaging with a process. Therefore any game involving armies is called strategic even if they are nothing but hit point containers. Let's take this to the most absurd limit. Maybe you've designed a game of immense scale: galaxies fighting galaxies. Each galaxy has a number of civilizations in it, and every time you deal damage to an enemy galaxy it loses a few civilizations, but every few turns (called eons) each galaxy regenerates a few civilizations. Furthermore, within certain constraints you can control how your galaxy expands, contracts, or revolves - how it moves - through the universe, so you have some choice which neighboring galaxies you can attack. Maybe the board on which the combat takes place expands for the first half of the game and contracts for the second half, and whoever controls the last remaining galaxy before the next Big Bang wins. We could even add some push/pull mechanics so attacks affect the expansion / contraction of the universe.

Great, but is anyone going to argue that this 4th edition D&D miniatures game (but I repeat myself) is strategic? You laugh, but if I included a little more detail (each civilization contains a number of societies, and a civilization is destroyed when its society points reach zero!) people would claim this is a strategy game. Maybe more detail, like a rock-paper-scissors game? When a galaxy fights, it uses tech, culture, or politics. Politics beats tech, tech beats culture, and culture beats politics. Wow, so deep, so complex, so strategic! - and yet all we've done is mask the underlying mechanics of a basic tactics game.

On the other hand, maybe in real life you have a basic policy of being honest, and not pretending to be someone you're not. Because you have a few quirks, you rub some people the wrong way, but over time you surround yourself with honest people who appreciate you. In any given situation you're not too concerned if someone likes you, so much as being yourself. You're certainly not calibrating your persona to match the environment like some kind of calculating, social chameleon. You've seen that backfire more times than you can count.

Can we call this strategic thinking? (Could it be that nerds are worse at strategy than cheerleaders?) You're not concerned with maximizing each individual encounter. You looked at a situation and picked a basic course of action with a tendency to move you in the right direction.

Scale alone isn't the key factor. You can have a tactical galaxy game and a strategic interpersonal situation.

So here's my attempt at working out the difference. I doubt my definition is complete. I hope the comment section improves it - so long as people don't conflate the Galaxy Game, tactics with big numbers, with strategy.

Tactical thinking is calculating odds, risk, reward, and taking measures that maximize gain / loss. Strategic thinking sidesteps the issue of odds entirely and develops outcome independent systems of analysis / action. Those systems are designed to produce situations mappable within themselves and (ideally) not mappable within your opponent's, sort of like a conceptual OODA loop. Tactical thinking is here's how my guy beats up your guy. Strategic thinking is let's focus on controlling the camera. (When my guy wins he's strong and your guy deserved it. When my guy loses, he's the underdog and your guy is a bully.)

I think it's the outcome independent aspect that defines strategy. The mappable part is simply saying you've thought far enough ahead that every situation is a win-win, as opposed to pushing circumstances into an area you're not prepared to analyze or take action in. Mappable also means, all things being equal, you prefer action that gives you more information about your environment / opponent, again, so you can engineer win-win situations. For instance, if you're a freelancer, you learn more about the market if you charge too high than too low. Or, you set boundaries with people to reduce conflict.

How does this help game design? It will help you ask better questions. With accurate definitions you can see if your game offers competing strategies, or if the fundamental level offers only one proper way to play.

What do you think?

Personally I'm not completely sold on the definition. I'll need time to mull it over. There are some things to look for, however. A proper distinction between strategy and tactics needs to take into account:
  • You can lose on a lower level and win on a higher level
  • Strategy is such that although you create the conditions for victory, you rarely predict exact circumstances
  • Tactics has more to do with discreet cause and effect
  • At the strategic level cause-and-effect is harder to sort out; a situation can't be understood without taking action; consequently, certain types of action preclude certain types of knowledge; alternatively, there is less of a distinction between observation and action
  • Tactics tend to shift from situation to situation, as circumstances arise
  • Often a strategy will recommend one basic action, often one that creates its own luck

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Mark Kern on Business Patterns

Mark had a great thread on business patterns today. I'll leave it to his own words.

Speaking of innovation, our upcoming post on the Creveld Engine is sure to draw some interest.

Wednesday, August 1, 2018

The Lore of Warcraft

Teleros helpfully summarizes it from the very beginning:

  1. Warcraft 1 sees the orcs ruin their homeworld through being blind to demonic interference, so they have to flee. Only by "flee" I mean "invade and conquer an innocent nation".
  2. Warcraft 2 sees the orcs, now lead by someone who has an inkling of the demonic interference, try and murder their way across the other innocent nations, who are forced to band together as the Alliance to survive. The orcs meanwhile recruit money-grubbing (((goblin))) mercenaries and cannibal trolls who are pissed the Alliance races destroyed their empire & drove them out years before. The Alliance narrowly wins & proceeds to cut off the orc homeworld to stop reinforcements + demonic magic, and very emphatically do not genocide the orcs, instead putting them in camps at heavy (ie, unrest-causing) taxpayer expense.
  3. Warcraft 3 sees the orcs try to flee to a new homeland. Under human-trained Thrall, they keep their violence to a minimum vs the Alliance, and ally together to defeat the demons. When an Alliance nation decides to try and solo the new orc homeland, the Alliance as a whole lets the Horde destroy their invasion force & kill their king in order to keep the fragile peace.
  4. WoW basically starts with a cold war in place, with minor groups from both sides squabbling over bits and pieces (see: Battlegrounds), kind of like USA/Soviet proxy wars. Whilst Sylvanas prepares for genocide.
  5. More cold war in The Burning Crusade.
  6. War breaks out in Wrath of the Lich King when rogue Forsaken gas the combined Alliance/Horde army. Alliance capture Undercity, but Jaina tries for peace so teleports them out. A Horde army ambushes an Alliance army fighting the undead, resulting in an undead victory.
  7. The Cataclysm happens. The war heats up. Alliance forces leave an opening for Tauren civilians to escape a besieged town, whilst Garrosh prefers killing civilians. Sylvanas gases more civilians and invades a neutral nation for ~reasons~.
  8. Pandas. Alliance put neutral civilians to work to establish a base, Horde prefer to capture their children and such. Garrosh continues acting like Hitler, but is defeated and put on trial by both sides for war crimes. A treaty is made which should put an end to most of the territorial disputes.
  9. Warlords of Draenor, in which we learn that the orcs were never a peaceful race before the demons came but in fact the Mongols on 'roids, and easily persuaded to go invade Azeroth for the lulz.
  10. Legion, in which the 2nd nice Horde leader dies and Sylvanas takes over. Alliance forces disobey orders to attack her, but all they really do is foil her plan to enslave the valkyries.
  11. Battle for Azeroth, in which Sylvanas decides on pre-emptive war to control the world's supply of plutonium - I mean Azerite - and starts this by firebombing Teldrassil without even the pretence of asking for a surrender. Later irradiates / gases her own troops to deny the Alliance control over her undead capital.

Tuesday, July 31, 2018

Devstream: two types of simulation

From the transcript of the Devstream:

I'm actually in the middle of developing a design for a mobile football game and so I've had to deal
with some of these issues. I'm dealing with them right now and it's a difficult question, because on the one hand, simulation for process tends to allow a more open solution. What simulation for process is, you set up a series of rules to simulate the events, so in the case of a sports game you set up the various rules for how the players are gonna play, you set up the various rules for what the different variables are going to be and how they're going to interact with each other, and then you just step back and you let it run.

Believe it or not, this is actually in some ways an easier approach, because you know you're not responsible, you know you're not trying to dictate any one result. Yeah, you just put in the ingredients, you mix them up and what happens happens. Now that's the way that you would have seen the old statistics in the Madden football games, for example. You know when you do that, when you use simulation for process, you almost always have a situation where the results are not going to be realistic. The process is complicated and it is intrinsically inaccurate. It doesn't matter whether you're talking about an AI attempt to replicate human intelligence, whether you're talking about an attempt to replicate an infantry firefight, or whether you're dealing with something like a football or soccer game, in all of those cases you're dealing with multiple layers of abstraction, and every abstraction, every assigned variable is going to be different than the real world

Even if you build a very complicated model using very accurate statistics, the small errors, the small
differences, are going to multiply so that by the time that you get to the end result, you're not going to end up with very realistic numbers.

Q&A: r/K and design

RM wonders if games are becoming more targeted to the r/selected:
Would it be correct to say videogames from the last 10+ years are generally targeted at an r-selected audience?

The first time I noticed a change in videogame mechanic and map design was when I went from playing the multiplayer mode for Modern Warfare 1 (released in 2007) to playing the multiplayer mode for Modern Warfare 2 (released in 2009).

In Modern Warfare 1, the generally larger maps meant more open spaces and sections of the map off the beaten path. The maps were large enough to sneak past the enemy team or attempt flanking maneuvers, even with two teams of 24 players. This map design discouraged running around like a headless chicken, because the snipers on the other team would take you out in seconds if you played that way, and it wasn't fun to spend all your game time doing the same 30 second run from your team's spawn. The game encouraged more investment in each life and a longer time preference. The maps in Modern Warfare 1 encouraged cooperation and thoughtfulness.

In Modern Warfare 2, the generally smaller maps had fewer open spaces and sections of the map off the beaten path. Most maps were crowded with two teams of 9 players, and the maps had pretty direct routes that funneled the teams toward each other. This map design encouraged running around like a headless chicken, because most of the battles were fought inside the 10-yard range. If you used your explosives and took a spray-and-pray approach, you'd probably take somebody out before you died yourself. When you did die, you'd respawn with a full loadout, usually close to the action. Modern Warfare 2's maps discouraged cooperation and thoughtfulness.

I'm interested to know if you think r/K selection applies to videogame design and the games' intended players.
Yes, this is almost certainly true in the broader sense. It is probably not a conscious design decision made by someone conversant with selection theory, it's probably just an attempt to make things more "accessible" and "appealing to the casual player" that reflects the larger cultural shift towards the r/selected population. But the essential effect is the same; one could even build a mathematical model demonstrating this by comparing the average number of player-lives lost in a similar time period in one game versus the other.

In the game that appeals to the r/selected, the number of lives would be higher, the average in-game lifespan would be shorter, and there would be less benefit to being patient and exhibiting longer time preferences.

Friday, July 27, 2018

Devstream: the Fortnite surrender

From the transcript of the Devstream.

Our idea was that you were going to be interacting with artificial intelligence, so you had your squad which could be AI soldiers, which could be enemy soldiers, NPCs, etc. Yeah we really went  overboard because we were bringing in synthetic speech, we were bringing in speech recognition, so there was a surprisingly sophisticated interaction with the artificial intelligences. We actually wanted to try to make it that you couldn't tell if you were interacting with a human or an artificial intelligence you know, so kind of like what you see with the bots these days, but but even more sophisticated. And remember this is back in 1996 and 1997, and the reason that the stuff sounds so advanced is because the industry went in a less sophisticated direction.

Again not a criticism. That was the right thing to do. People have sold literally billions of dollars of games that are based on the pseudo railroad.  I mean it's not actually a rail shooter - a true rail shooter would be something like the original Rebel Assault where you're literally on a rail and you can sort of swing back and forth a little bit, but from a design perspective, it's still the same function, it's still the same thing, in order to experience the story, in order to experience the the gameplay, you have to go through in a general order generally the same way.

It was interesting to see how effective that was in the early Call of Duty games before Call of Duty turned into being primarily a multiplayer game. The original missions did a very good job of giving you a pseudo-military experience, but of course it was all heavily scripted. You had to do things in exactly the right order, you knew exactly what was coming at you eventually; in some ways it was very similar to the old arcade games. In that MMOs have opened things up, you know, the FPS MMO; no one has really truly managed to design the proper one, the ultimate one, but there have been numerous attempts. Even Richard Garriot was unable to deliver on on that idea with Tabula Rasa.

But the interesting thing to me about Fortnite, and the reason why I consider Fortnite to be essentially the game designers more or less giving up, is because what we have been doing as FPS designers from the very beginning is attempting to provide meaning and structure and story and experience to the action, and unfortunately we've been fighting the tendency of a certain group of
players - who I am not at all convinced are the majority of players, but there are a lot of them - and they have a tendency to simply run around like chickens with their heads cut off. If you've played any online game starting back in the days of Doom and Heretic - yeah when we were playing with 4-player and 8-player networks - what you would see is some people would play strategically, some people would camp, other people would would team up and move cooperatively, but you always had the people who just run around like crazy, blasting away like crazy, and basically behaving in a way
that you can't even possibly consider anything that is remotely approaching anything credible or realistic.

And so, with Fortnite, and I have played it, and it's a very good example of what it is the Battle Royale genre and so forth, but ultimately there is no purpose, there is no story, the action is the experience. Now that's ok, that's fine if that's if that's what you want, but you see, for years designers have been trying to hide that, they've been trying to keep that under control, and what Fortnite represents - and it's obviously not the first Battle Royale game, it's not the only one, but it is the most successful, the most symbolic of the concept - it's basically the designers throwing up their hands and saying, "you know what, you guys just want to run around like chickens with your heads cut off slaughtering each other, here you go!" And to their credit, they give you the means to do that, so that's what's different between that and Call of Duty and Battlefield and all these other FPS games. Almost all the other games were trying to limit that, they're trying to limit it through the level designs they're trying to limit it through the ammo drops, and all that sort of thing.

Sunday, July 22, 2018

Alt★Hero RPG playtest

The Alt-Hero RPG had its second playtest. The core mechanics are working smoothly. The logarithmic system is as elegant as I'd hoped and it is working well when conjoined with mechanics that can take advantage of it, such as making multiple attacks, attacking in teams, and so on.

All sorts of wonderful emergent properties became evident in this playtest. For instance, combat against large groups of enemies can be easily resolved by using the logarithmic scaling. One attacker with Agility 3 and a pistol is not scary. 16 attackers with pistols (+4 multi-attacker modifier) is Agility 7 and suddenly a threat.  We also learned that Teleport 15 is sufficient to move an enemy into near-orbit above the Earth; the quick use of the logarithmic math (Time = Distance - Speed) let us determine how many rounds the heroes had to finish off the rest of the combat before he fell to earth.

In this playtest we introduced a set of "legwork" mechanics that can be used for crime scene investigation, forensic study of evidence, interviewing crime victims, and other Detective Comics type game play. The legwork mechanics assign"clues" a logarithmic score based on their obscurity; investigators then find clues based on their Acuity stat added to the time (in logarithmic score) spent doing legwork. For instance, if "bullet casing made of strange alloy used only by Dr. Dread" has an Obscurity of 20, it will take The Brick (Acuity 4) a long time to find the clue - 20-4 = 16 units of time, or about two-and-a-half days. If Dr. Quantum (Acuity 12) is on the job, however, he will find the clue in (20 - 12) 8 units of time, or about 15 minutes.

To use the legwork mechanics in play, the Mastermind (GM) should structure multiple different locations with information, along with some sort of time pressure from either the villain's plans or natural events or both. In yesterday's session, for instance, the heroes knew that a powerful superhuman was about to manifest his powers for the first time, and it was a race against time to get the information needed to stop him.

It's still very much a work-in-progress but the framework of a great game is being put into place.


Monday, February 19, 2018

Alt★Hero RPG update

The design for the Alt★Hero RPG is proceeding well. Unlike most superhero RPGs being designed today, it takes a simulative rather than narrative approach. It is a spiritual descendant of Mayfair Game's DC Heroes RPG and TSR's Marvel Heroes RPG. The game mechanics, which I am calling the "Supermetric system", are based on logarithmic mathematics. Each point on the Supermetric scale represents a doubling in real-world measurements. This approach will be  familiar to anyone familiar with DC Heroes. Unlike Mayfair's system, however, the Supermetric system is fully logarithmic. For instance, in DC Heroes a character with a BODY 6 would be felled with six 1 point-hits, two 3-point hits, or one 6-point hits, even though one 6-point hit was worth eight 3-point hits or sixty-four 1 point-hits. Alt★Hero uses some very clever behind-the-scenes math that enables us to carry logarithmic design to its logical progression while keeping the game fast and fun. In playtesting so far, we've found the combat to be very flavorful with collateral damage, environmental interaction, and more.

At this point, the core mechanics are complete and playable so the next step is to begin to develop the character generation system and the full index of powers. One thing I am still assessing is whether to make the character generation randomized (like Marvel Heroes or Golden Heroes), point-based (like Champions or DC Heroes), or hybridized (like Heroes Unlimited). Because superhero combat tends to be so intransitive (that is, it's like scissors-paper-rock rather than high-roll-wins), I have always been skeptical of point-based systems' claims that they can achieve balance. How do you "balance" worldwide teleportation and the ability to lift a 747? On the other hand, for gamers who enjoy such things, building the uber-powerful character within the limits of points is a lot of fun. I'd love to hear what the Alt★Hero RPG community has a preference for!

Fight On,