Wednesday, February 16, 2011

My apologies

Sorry for being so inactive this week -- I've been ridiculously busy with class work (3 papers, two of which due tomorrow, the third on Friday.) and preparing to go to Grand Prix Denver this weekend (gigantic Magic: The Gathering tournament spanning several days and various formats).

Things should pick up again after this next Sunday, expect to read a lot of shit about GPDenver.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

For those interested

For anyone who's interested in Magic: The Gathering and possibly becoming more competitive in the game (or any game where decision making is more important than reflexes), here's an article. It discusses some high level theorycraft (as it's known in the Real Time Strategy world) that applies to MTG while keeping itself within reach of the laymen.

Fascinating read for anyone interested in the subject matter.

Saturday, February 12, 2011

A belated congratulations

To Egypt. Congratulations on being a shining example of how when things aren't right with your government, you can change it without violence (or, y'know, with as little violence as possible).

Learn from the past and don't let this turn ugly, Egypt. You've only just begun.

Thursday, February 10, 2011

A short one

I've got 3 exams to study for this evening, and I don't have time for an obnoxiously long post like usual. So keeping with the theme of taking the piss out of Fox News, I'll leave you with this lovely tidbit I found last night.

Mars has two moons, Mr. O'Reilly.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Fox News and alarmist media.

Oh, Fox News. You so crazy.

Yesterday, Fox News posted an article discussing a game that I personally am very excited about: Bulletstorm. Bulletstorm is vulgarity and violence incarnate. It takes everything to an extreme, in a self-parodying way. It knows it's ridiculous, and it makes no attempts to hide it, embracing the fact at every turn. I want to preface this by saying that yes, I understand why some people might be offended by this sort of thing. That's not the issue here. The issue is that Fox News takes their moral opposition to this game to an extreme, by misrepresenting facts, and even blatantly making shit up to cause a ruckus over the game.

"If a younger kid experiences Bulletstorm's explicit language and violence, the damage could be significant," said Dr. Jerry Weichman of the Hoag Neurosciences Institute in Southern California. "Violent videogames like Bulletstorm have the potential to send the message that violence and insults with sexual innuendos are the way to handle disputes and problems."

Well, this is and isn't true. While it's true that explicit content and violence has been shown to cause similar behavior in young children (read: NOT THE TARGET AUDIENCE), it's not exactly true in the way that they describe here. Anyone who's taken a first year psychology class can tell you that it's a case of mimicry of the aggression, rather than cognitively file the process of shoving your gun in someone's rectal cavity and pulling the trigger under “Problem Solving”.

Misrepresentation of facts in the news isn't such an awful thing, though it is pretty fucking obnoxious. What's awful is that this isn't the limit of Fox News' bullshit. They go so far as to straight up lie to prove their point. Fox News brings in Carol Lieberman, a psychologist and author to hide behind while she lies through her teeth. "The increase in rapes can be attributed in large part to the playing out of [sexual] scenes in videogames," she informs them. Well, there's a pretty moronic series of lies here. First, FBI statistics show that the rate of almost all violent crimes, forcible rape included, have decreased over the last two decades. Second, there are exactly zero games in my tremendous mental library where you actually play through sex scenes, and of the ones that even have sexual scenarios, almost all of them pan away from the action after a simple, brief, nude embrace at the most.

More important, defenders argue that games with excessive violence and sexual content simply don't sell well.
Games without sufficient quality of gameplay -- games that include highly objectionable violent or sexual content -- often pump up the level of this kind of content to gain media attention. This tactic typically fails, as can be seen in the poor sales performance of titles such as BMX XXX and Postal,”

I'm going to make my response to this point brief, those games sold poorly because they were AWFUL. Period. Correlation is not causation, motherfuckers. Moving on.

"The marketing is clearly aimed at children and young adolescents," said Professor Melanie Killen of the University of Maryland. She claims that the ESRB is a failed system, specifically citing that there is no enforcement of ratings, while praising the way that FCC monitors television broadcasts and fines those who violate decency regulations, and explicitly stating that there are “no penalties” for marketing to children. Well, actually, the ESRB can fine companies that fuck with their ratings process up to one million dollars. And FTC studies have shown that videogame ratings have a consistently higher rate of compliance than any other entertainment medium.

In fact, Fox News has done this shit before, though not being quite so blatant about their alarmist nonsense, over a game called Six Days in Fallujah, the blowback of which actually shut down the production of the game and sunk the company. But that's another post for another time.

Careful when you make shit up to sell a story, media. You're fucking with real people's real jobs. 

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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

On game design, game balance, and metagames

As a video game enthusiast, one of the things that appeals most to me is the idea of designing my own game. I'm certain I'm not alone in this desire, otherwise new games would cease to be produced. As one might assume from my previous post, my favorite games are multiplayer games that support highly competitive gameplay. Few things are more exciting than seeing the giblets of your decimated opponents being sprayed across the battlefield. So for the sake of this posting, I'm going to be talking specifically about multiplayer games.

We all want to be the very best (like no one ever was). It feels good to win. We all know this. So when game developers go to make their game, it should be (and in most cases is) the foremost thought in their minds. "How do we make the most amount of people have the most amount of fun?" the lead developer rhetorically asks his team, knowing they all know the answer.
"By making them win!" the annoying suck up that nobody likes shouts from his isolated corner.

But winning isn't as satisfying when it can be done in the player's sleep. And in multiplayer games, it can only be achieved by 50% of the players involved in any one game. And nobody just wants to randomly win half of the time, at that point you're just flipping coins. So the question then becomes one of how to make it a challenge. Well, you could certainly give one team an advantage in numbers, skills, guns, resources, etc. But that makes the game easier for the other team. So what most games do is introduce archetypes into their game.

Archetypes can be classes, decks, or some other way of customizing your individual gameplay style. They act as a way of playing rock-paper-scissors. A series of checks and balances within your game system. In the example of rock-paper-scissors, we have 3 archetypes. I'm going to assume we all understand why there are 3 archetypes, and how they balance each other out, as this is the most universal application possible. The rock crushes the scissors flat, no questions asked. But is that fun for the scissors player? In a longer, drawn out game, should it be futile for scissors to even try? No way! We need to take into account how to best balance those two against each other. Obviously, the rock player should have an advantage against his sharp adversary, but it shouldn't be an automatic win. There should be a struggle involved. They should be balanced. “But isn't only having 3 choices of archetype boring?” our most annoying co-worker asks, much to the chagrin of everyone involved in development.

But he's right. It limits the strategy involved. The possible number of games to be played. So what's the right number of archetypes? Let's look at a favorite game of mine as an example: Team Fortress 2. Each class provides a wildly different play style. Each class has its pros and its cons. Their strengths and weaknesses. A Scout will blow away a Medic most of the time, but it's certainly possible for a well played Medic to turn the tables on his speedy foe. There is no one “best” class. There are always situations in which one class is more desirable than any of the other eight, but in competitive play, Team Fortress 2 has two teams of six players pitted against each other. The standard team composition is two Soldiers, two Scouts, one medic and one Demoman.

There are maps and situations where this isn't optimal, but for the sake of not going off on a tangent about when it's best to use what, I'll spare the details. When both teams bring the standard composition every time, the game becomes stale. There are no curve-balls. No slight advantages for either team. So what can a team do to give themselves the edge they are no doubt looking for? They can find the best counter to the standard team. What counters scouts? What counters soldiers? Demomen? What six of our own counter their six? But what happens when the other team does the same thing? Do they both end up with the same team as counter teams? What happens when they both consider this eventuality?

This guessing game becomes what's known as a metagame. It's not actually a guessing game, but rather the development of strategy based on the knowledge of what your personal strengths are, and the opposition's weakness. Sun Tzu sums this concept up well when he wrote “know thyself, know thy enemy. A thousand battles, a thousand victories.” Game development should strive desperately to create an environment in which a metagame can flourish. If there is a clear “best” class, the game becomes extremely limiting in its meta. If each archetype is on exact equal footing as each other archetype, it comes to personal preference rather than effective strategy, which again, is not a meta worth creating.

All of these things (and more) should be considered in great detail when you're developing a multiplayer game. Otherwise you end up making a miserable troglodyte of a game like Champions Online.

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Monday, February 7, 2011

Artificial Shortages

I play Magic: The Gathering. I play Magic: The Gathering competitively. It's important to note this, so that one can understand that I'm not coming from the perspective of a casual player whining about the prices of individual cards so that their format non-specific Mono Blue Control deck can have a single Jace The Mind Sculptor in it to randomly win games for them. I play the game to win, because winning and fun have a direct relationship in my mind. And to win, one must obtain the best cards, and put them in the best combination to create the maximum amount of winning scenarios physically possible in their 75-card lists. But Wizards of the Coast has recently made doing so significantly more expensive.

Magic: The Gathering has a long history of having expensive cards. Tarmogoyf is a great example of this. Why was Tarmogoyf so expensive? Because it was phenomenal in every format. It was an automatic 4-of in every single list playing Green. There were almost 0 decks that weren't interested in playing it, even when Green wasn't a color they normally considered, even Faeries and Fish both played green specifically for 'goyf. There was a tremendous demand for Tarmogoyf. When the card was first released, he was relatively cheap (resting quietly at around $20 for a single copy) yet he still crept up to a high of over $100 for just a single copy of him. That's because he was in the last set of his block, which always gets drafted significantly less than the other two sets in the block. There was a legitimately low supply.

Wizards of the Coast is, first and foremost, a business. So when they saw this, they obviously decided to capitalize. Shortly after the end of Time Spiral Block, we were introduced to "Mythic" rarity. Before I go into what a mythic rare is, it's important to note that Wizards of the Coast introduced the community to mythic rare as something being done only for "flavor". Something to make process of opening packs more exciting by sometimes opening a rarer-than-normal card. They said almost explicitly that these mythic rares would not be tournament staples.

Bullshit. A mythic rare, as termed by wizards is "twice as rare" as a normal rare card (which appear in every booster pack. Each pack contains 10 commons, 3 uncommons and one rare or mythic rare). So to be twice as rare as something that occurs 1 out of every 1 pack, you'd simply have to make it appear in 1 out of every 2 packs. Right? Well, Wizards of the Coast must have an unusual way of doing their math, since they appear in approximately 1 out of every 8 packs. And that whole nonsense about not being tournament staples? Of course they are.

But not all mythics are created equal. There are mythics that are about on par with uncommon cards, and then there are the mythics that are tournament staples. Ones that are so far above the power curve that any deck that isn't using them are automatically worse than a deck that is. Ones like Jace the Mind Sculptor, who is currently resting pretty at $110 per copy. But Jace the Mind Sculptor doesn't have the demand that our friend Tarmogoyf did. He's not widely playable in anything besides Standard. He's not worth playing Blue specifically for (though he is the reason Blue is a legitimate color in Standard once again). So why is he so god damn expensive?

Because Wizards of the Coast is a business.

Artificial shortages created by companies, especially game companies, are shit.