Friday, May 15, 2009

Coddling Players

The recent issue of Game Developer magazine has an article called “Our Cheatin' Hearts” by Soren Johnson (May 2009, p. 46). It starts by observing that the game Puzzle Quest (a player-vs-AI version of Bejeweled) suffers from the fact that sometimes a lucky drop may occur for either player. When it happens for the AI, the players routinely accuse the game of cheating against them. At the end of the article, the author comes to this conclusion:

Returning to our original example, the developers of Puzzle Quest actually should have considered cheating – but in favor of the player. The game code could ensure that fortunate drops only happen for the human and never for the AI. The ultimate balance of the game could still be maintained by tweaking the power of the AI's equipment and spells, changes that appear fair because they are explained explicitly to the player. The overall experience would thus be improved by the removal of these negative outliers that only serve to stir up suspicion.

When the question is one of fairness, the player is always right.

I say: Bullshit.

A few comments: (1) I consider this to be utterly antithetical to the old-school D&D sensibility. We say: Here are some simple, equitable rules for both sides; the DM will adjudicate them neutrally; it is up to you to figure out a way to survive/succeed, based on your playing skills. You may either win or lose. (2) Is this not similar to the requirement that all big-budget Hollywood movies have a happy (and predictable) ending? Perhaps the actual claim is that for maximal sales, play-act as though the player is always right. And perhaps as hobbyists (instead of a corporatist stance), we are more free from this restriction. (3) As I say to my colleagues and math students: “Random numbers will mess with your head”. I encourage developers of games to confront this head-on; use the game as a learning tool for dealing with randomness, and unexpected setbacks, and our built-in intuition leading us astray. Do not surrender to just feeding back to players their own advance expectations all over again. We must use games as training for the real world, not for life in the Matrix.

Halfway through the GD article, another example is brought up favorably: the technique of “rubber-banding” cars in racing games (that is, giving whoever is behind an automatic speed-boost). This strikes a resounding chord in me, because my first game-industry job out of school was as a programmer for Papyrus Racing Games in Boston (a branch of Sierra/Vivendi at the time), where we made racing sims like Nascar Racing, IndyCar Racing, and Grand Prix Legends.

The emphasis at Papyrus was on racing simulations, and I loved working there in its heyday. Many of us went to racing school for practical experience. Indeed, we routinely received complaints from players, publishers, and reviewers in the vein: “The game is too hard. The cars are too difficult to control. It's hard work to keep from spinning. If you have one collision you cannot win the race.” And we as a company would say: "Tough." That's exactly what real racing is like; the cars are powerful, easy to spin, and there is no comeback from an engine-shattering wreck. There is no save game. Sometimes the greatest challenge in racing is the concentration and endurance necessary to withstand a 2-hour race without damaging your vehicle in heavy traffic. If you want to truly learn racing, this is your game. If you want a cartoon that strokes your ego, it is not. Would we have ever implemented “rubber-banding” in a Papyrus racing sim? Hell, no.

And let me say this: In all the games that I've played heavily (D&D, Nascar Racing, Starcraft, Poker, etc.) the most interesting part – practically the only part I find of interest any more – is this: What does a player do under an enormous, unfair setback? Do they crumble and give up? Do they yell and complain after a bad beat (as in poker)? Or do they have the fortitude to gather themselves up, get creative under adversity, and fight back? Can we learn to be cool under pressure?

If we make our games coddle players – if we start cheating in favor of the players, so that they never have unfair setbacks – what we will actually cheat them of is this critical opportunity to grow and learn about ourselves through gameplay.

21 comments:

  1. Eh. If your conception of fairness gets in the way of fun, then it can make for a bad game.

    Also, I dispute your conception of the old-school D&D sensibility. It might be true in 3e, but in early editions, the sides don't play by the same rules. Depending on the DM, monsters and traps could do things via ad-hoc mechanics that PCs could never hope to accomplish.

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  2. "Depending on the DM, monsters and traps could do things via ad-hoc mechanics that PCs could never hope to accomplish."

    Yes. That's what makes beating the DM so damn interesting.

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  3. Yes. That's what makes beating the DM so damn interesting.I agree in that this more competative style of play has a definite appeal to me. It's not just the a group executing a rigid set of rules, there's usually room, conceptually and/or statutorally, to really match wits.

    The GM with his adhocs.
    vs.
    The players with their ability to collaborate against the DM.

    I'm running a game that goes into this territory from time to time and it's entertaining. Whether the PCs fall into my clever traps or do something I had not forseen, allowing them to swiftly go around it, I still get a kick out of it.

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  4. I also abhor the rubber-banding in racing games. Then again, I would want the game to restart instantly at any time I wanted, set up for another run.

    I play Wolfenstein Enemy Territory and I am constantly amazed at how quickly it starts up. Seriously, a quarter of the time that it takes comparably complex games on the same system. It's almost immediate. And in the veent of death in the game there is no reloading, you just wait 15 seconds or whatever the server is set on before respawning.

    Same with Spelunky. You just start the thing up again if you die. Which happens Frequently.

    So I'm okay with high difficulty as a result of unfavorable conditions, or equitable but hazardous conditions, or random outcomes (heck, I roll dice don't I?). But I want to get back into the game as quickly as possible after the inevitable failure. And isn't that one mark of a good game?

    But I don't know what that has to do with D&D for me. Harkening back to your post about death spirals and stabilization rolls, I don't consider it neccessary that after my character dies I should get to continue playing immediately somehow.

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  5. "I dispute your conception... Depending on the DM, monsters and traps could do things via ad-hoc mechanics that PCs could never hope to accomplish."

    You're confusing the DM's role as a designer (which occurs before the game) with that of referee/adjudicator (which occurs during the game), which is what I was talking about in the post above.

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  6. I suppose that you could compare my abhorrence for "ensure that fortunate drops only happen for the human and never for the AI" to my similar abhorrence towards "Action/Fate Points" in an RPG (see here).

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  7. First, my kudos and thanks for working on NASCAR Racing. I used the ability to import tracks to practice for local tracks around the Chicagoland area and it was invaluable. I can attest that the damn thing is a snorting beast to negotiate a race with, and based on my experiences on the track, it was really damn good!

    I think that when we coddle the players, we cheat the players out of an experience. It's another form of railroading.

    Then again, I think the games we play reflect society at large - so go figure that nobody can get an "F" or lose a game.

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  8. My theory:

    In the old days of D&D it was no big deal to get killed. The player could laugh it off, take five minutes to roll up a new character, call him "Bob the Fighter jr." and get right back into the game.

    With recent editions, it can take hours of work to "build" a character, which leads to players taking it very personally when a character is killed.

    "Dude, I can't believe you killed off my 54th level Anime-inspired, emo-powered Dragonborn Ninja Cleric Assasin Druid with the spiky blue hair and the sword of Awesome Destiny. He was a beautiful and unique snowflake!"

    Which leads to DMs feeling like they must "take it easy" on characters or risk the wrath of a sulky player wo feels his special creation should be nurtured and protected.

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  9. I agree with you.
    Players shouldn't play a game that can kill their characters if that's not fun.
    Players shouldn't roll dice if they only consider a score of 4/6/8/10/12/20 fun. A DM of course shouldn't arbitrarily and undeservedly kill off a character because they want to - nor should they ignore fatal result of in game actions and die rolls just because they want to.

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  10. Mmm. This is a tricky issue. Part of the trick making sure that the setbacks are seen as an enjoyable component of the game as much as the successes are. (Case in point, I was in Delta's "Tomb of Horrors" game, and the bit with the self-inflicted fireball in the cramped tunned was one of the *best* gaming experiences I've ever had.)

    It's a tough middle ground to walk, being invested enough in a character to experience that immersion that is ostensibly part of the goal of this game, while being distant enough that you can derive entertainment from their grisly death.

    It takes a measure of trust and openness from both sides of the screen to pull it off.

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  11. The ad-hocness of rules for DMs might be interesting for some people, but it is hardly a set of equitable rules for both sides (as claimed). As a player it frustrates me. As a DM, it feels to me like cheating.

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  12. I've been reading Salen & Zimmerman's Rules of play, which is essentially a book on game design.

    One point of the book is that game designers design experiences. Some want the experience of realistic racing while others may want an exciting competitive experience where the outcome is always in question.

    I don't see either as better or worse than the other. Different games, different experiences.

    Same applies to the random number generators. People find it frustrating if, in spite of the skill they have shown, the dice just make them lose. (The dice giving a lucky break is not generally seen as frustrating.) If the absence of these breaks of luck is compensated for by making the enemy generally tougher, where's the problem?

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  13. Perhaps the game designers viewed the competition as a smaller chunk than we do. We look at the race and assume that from the beginning to the end is one struggle, one discrete contest where you can win or lose.

    But with the race rubberbanding, each section of track becomes a contest. You can win multiple sections and everyone remains at an equitable footing at the start of each section. Maybe each lap is a contest.

    Of course I view the race from start to checkered flag as one contest.

    I don't know how this would apply in a "click to break masses of same colored blocks" game since the cheating is different. In that it's essentially a double standard where their players can accept good fortune for themselves but view the same good fortune for the AI as a bug or cheat. That's like complaining because the other guys have guns too.

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  14. I think the essential difference here is in player trust and buy-in. When your DM whom you personally know and are sitting in front of pulls a whammy out of nowhere, your first instinct may be to complain that the monsters are cheating. But you know him, and trust him, and when he teases you (one of my group’s DMs used to always say “This is an adventure! What did you want to have happen? For the elves to come out and give you a flower?”), you get over it and get right back in the game.

    When a computer game designed by someone you’ve never met and will never meet seems to screw you out of nowhere, it’s tougher to take. Maybe you leap to the conclusion that it’s a badly designed game, because the designer isn’t sitting right there to explain it to you.

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  15. shimrod:"I think the essential difference here is in player trust and buy-in. When your DM whom you personally know and are sitting in front of pulls a whammy out of nowhere, your first instinct may be to complain that the monsters are cheating. But you know him, and trust him, and when he teases you (one of my group’s DMs used to always say “This is an adventure! What did you want to have happen? For the elves to come out and give you a flower?”), you get over it and get right back in the game.

    When a computer game designed by someone you’ve never met and will never meet seems to screw you out of nowhere, it’s tougher to take. Maybe you leap to the conclusion that it’s a badly designed game, because the designer isn’t sitting right there to explain it to you."

    My experience is the other way around. Most DMs that I have known who play informally have a long history with their players, and there is often a lot of personal tension. I.e. long acquaintance can undermine trust rather than develop it.

    By contrast, when playing with a DM who is a stranger, everyone seems to be on his/her best behavior, and there is IMHO a better play experience. This is why I advocate tournament RPG play; I think some great games get played when the DM is a stranger.

    Further, I trust computers vastly more than any human DM. The computer will cheat only if it's been programmed to cheat; the DM might start cheating because he's jealous of my personal life or because he doesn't like my clothes. Thus when a computer dumps a nasty shock into my game experience, I feel no malice, except perhaps a tiny bit against the game designer.

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  16. "Players shouldn't play a game that can kill their characters if that's not fun.
    Players shouldn't roll dice if they only consider a score of 4/6/8/10/12/20 fun."

    Sid Meier said that a game should be a series of interesting choices.

    I don't think games have to be about winning or losing, so long as they are interesting.

    One should not coddle students. If one has something to teach (as was the case with the NASCAR game) then don't coddle -- but understand that your game is not entertainment, it is work, and people shouldn't be expected to treat it as fun.

    The problem comes when DMs think up several death-traps and give the players a choice of dying, being maimed, or being imprisoned indefinitely. This is variety of a sort, but it's not interesting. DMs who do this kind of thing often claim to be teaching players the real way to dungeon-crawl, but very few players are interested in submitting themselves to such training.

    A big selling point of TRPGs is that they offer flexibility and opportunities for creative action. If the players thought "creative action" meant "swinging from chandeliers like Errol Flynn" and the DM thought that it meant "using lockpicks to scrape rust off the secret door mechanism" the game is probably not going to be fun.

    Moral of the story: tell the player before the game starts about what kind of failures are possible.

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  17. "The emphasis at Papyrus was on racing simulations, and I loved working there in its heyday. Many of us went to racing school for practical experience. Indeed, we routinely received complaints from players, publishers, and reviewers in the vein: “The game is too hard. The cars are too difficult to control. It's hard work to keep from spinning. If you have one collision you cannot win the race.” And we as a company would say: Tough. That's exactly what real racing is like; the cars are powerful, easy to spin, and there is no comeback from an engine-shattering wreck. There is no save game."

    I commend you for working so hard to teach a real-life skill.

    This kind of rigor is great for games that translate into real-world skills. For example, I believe the USMC uses specially modified FPS games to teach tactics.

    I applaud this whenever it applies to real-world modeling.

    However, I note that a lot of games are based on modeling nothing more substantial than the designer's fantasy of (e.g.) a dragon or a mind-flayer.

    If you are going to kill a player character over and over with a race car or a bullet, you can use the excuse that you're training the player with real-world skills. If you're going to kill the player over and over with an illithid, you don't have that excuse.

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  18. "In the old days of D&D it was no big deal to get killed. The player could laugh it off, take five minutes to roll up a new character, call him "Bob the Fighter jr." and get right back into the game."

    Yeah... some of us got tired of that. It got kind of repetitive. The characters in those games became cardboard cutouts, since there was little incentive to create anything more interesting than "Bob the Fighter X", whose lifespan might be measured in hours.

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  19. "In the old days of D&D it was no big deal to get killed... With recent editions, it can take hours of work to "build" a character, which leads to players taking it very personally when a character is killed."

    Yes, I totally agree with this. I've said it several times myself.

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  20. "If the absence of these breaks of luck is compensated for by making the enemy generally tougher, where's the problem?"

    "If one has something to teach (as was the case with the NASCAR game) then don't coddle -- but understand that your game is not entertainment, it is work, and people shouldn't be expected to treat it as fun."

    I feel that all games are always teaching something, whether intentionally or not. Several examples are in the original post. Here's the first 3 things off the top of my head for that would be problems from pulling luck out of a game:

    (1) Learning how to emotionally recover from a "bad beat";
    (2) Learning to be skeptical of our own brain's pattern-seeking behavior (i.e., inductive reasoning);
    (3) Allowing weaker players to also have an enticing taste of victory (see Game Developer Magazine November 2006 article by Richard Garfield).

    Etc.

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  21. I bought Papyrus' NASCAR Racing, and Indy Car II, when they came out. I still play them! When you can navigate Toronto for 100 laps at speed without hitting a wall, you have accomplished something!

    Thank you for your awesomeness :)

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