Wednesday, December 7, 2011

New-School Operation

This past weekend, a friend had a birthday out at a local bar. We pulled up some tables, had drinks and socialized, and also played a few games: including Jenga and Operation -- the latter, of course, being a Milton Bradley game (now owned by Hasbro) that originally dates from 1965. But the current version was revised in 2008 and is marketed as the "Operation Silly Skill Game".

Observation One: The new game is much easier (or: much harder to fail at). The slots for the pieces that you try to remove seem to be significantly larger than they used to be. We played a few rounds -- in a bar, with dim lighting, with most everyone having a few drinks in them -- and no one ever set off the buzzer. If that weren't enough, there's a switch for an "easy/hard" version of the game (the former delays any buzzing until you've made contact for an extended period of time). We know the game was turned on, because it regularly plays sound effects for what piece to take next (and we tested it a few times, too).

Observation Two: The old version had pieces based on actual physiology or at least common slang or punning references (Adam's Apple, Broken Heart, Spare Ribs, etc.). The new version seems to have changed most of this stuff to just arbitrary nonsense (a Clock, Smiley Face, Cell-Phone, etc.)

Also: In recent years they've released a bunch of branded versions of the game (Hulk, Spider-Man, Disney/Pixar Cars 2, etc.)

Why do games apparently always have to evolve like this? Namely: (a) easier to succeed at (or harder to fail at), and (b) becoming purely abstract and self-referential (when originally they modeled or referred to something externally)?

Operation at Hasbro.


  1. This is a hypothetical question, I hope, that I am none-the-less going to answer.

    It is not just games evolving like this, it is society as a whole. The whole, "none-shall-fail", monicker has been cast.

    You are entitled to be the king of Operation, and everyone is a winner.

    And, the game was not designed for kids anymore IMHO, as they wouldn't play it (read: it is not some high graphics, high octane, seizure inducing, lunacy). It is designed for an age that may have shakey hands, eye sight is failing, and might have had one-or-two drinks.

    Take your pick on either of those explinations. I think both may be valid...

    That is all, good day.

  2. I'm going to go with Bane's first answer.

    You see this in the kid's soccer programs where *everyone* gets a medal and where the absolute worst, most boneheaded plays elicit screams of, "Good Job!" You see this in the political rhetoric that is driven primarily by righteous indignation at any economic process that creates winners and losers.

    In this cultural context... if you're taking a mixmatched group of adventurers through their first session with Moldvay Basic, they are headed for an awesome epiphany when their first contact with monsters results in half the party getting killed.

    Of course, they will learn to adapt quickly-- just wait for the first survivor to realize that they can loot their friends' bodies while their buds roll up new characters.

  3. Thanks for the comments -- it's good to think about and I generally agree. One detail:

    "And, the game was not designed for kids anymore IMHO, as they wouldn't play it... It is designed for an age that may have shakey hands, eye sight is failing, and might have had one-or-two drinks."

    One thing I noticed in the instructions Saturday night is that the "easy" game setting was specifically intended for kids: "those whose dexterity hasn't developed" or something like that.

  4. One other thing: You may be interested in clicking the blog link to the Hasbro Operation site, and then "Play Demo" -- witness all of the UI elements labelled "undefined". Lots of thought and care taken. :-)

  5. Games don’t have to evolve like this. There are still a number of games that haven’t.

    Why do they when they do? Somebody decides that it isn’t selling as well as it should. Note that it may be making good profits, but there’s this stupidity that’s infested business that says profitable is not enough.† So then they think up some silly change with some silly argument that it will solve the “problem”. Usually based on an analogy with a completely different product that convinces other people who don’t really think about it too much to sign-off on it.

    Well, that’s what I suspect based on my experience in businesses that aren’t too far removed.

    (But then, I think “illegal defense” and the shot clock in basketball are stupid.)

    †This is actually based on some solid ideas but misapplied.

  6. Robert -- Excellent example: I am such a HUGE fan of zone defense in basketball!

  7. I think we need more people in game-making to recognize the fun in overcoming high difficulty.

    Praising losers also exacerbates the problem of low skill correlating to poor ability to assess skill in that field. Example: if you're bad at math and score poorly on the test, you overestimate your own score. If you scored well, you tend to estimate your score more closely. In this case we have kids of low quality who grow up thinking they're of high quality, resulting in some bad decisions and resulting costs that could have been avoided if they had a more accurate self-appraisal.

  8. My earliest game experiences:

    * Playing in an AD&D game and seeing someone kill themselves in the Green Devil Face from Tomb of Horrors. The GM was ticked that this dude he loaned a character to had gotten him killed. That was my first rpg session, too.
    * Playing Zork III and Ultima II and just wandering around for the sheer joy of it all the while convinced that "winning" was impossible without being a genius or cheating. Solving the simplest puzzles in Zork made me feel like a hero.

    Even something like Monopoly is an epic of cut throat gaming. However, playing it with all that money on Free Parking makes it so that the weakest player never goes bankrupt. (That rule is a ubiquitous "New-School" houserule that was common with my friends.) Unlike the depression era children, my generation largely had no idea it was a *trading* game and many people would flat out refuse to trade no matter what-- completely undermining the point of the game.

  9. Jeff, great point about Monopoly. Totally agreed on both issues.

  10. On the thing about Zork... there is, of course, a New School "Interactive Fiction" revival that started in the nineties when people figured out how to compile homebrew z-code.

    In those circles... there are two things that they modern i.f. authors abhor as often as not: (a) not being able to win a game without gaining valuable clues gained from character death scenes and (b) when a game can be put into an unwinable state. The reaction against these things is so strong, that they are practically considered to be game design sins.

    So with Monopoly, you have the "New School" modifications emerging at a kind of grass roots level with the original game getting lost in the shuffle. (There is a lot of AD&D houserules that are almost as universally applied-- not sure how these things happen.) With Infocom type games, you have explicitly Gygaxian and Vancian roots being consciously excised by the top authors and reviewers.

  11. The aesthetic of text adventures (“interactive fiction”) was actually set by the time Infocom was at its peak. Really, these things aren’t about making the game easier. The best games adhere to them and are still just as challenging as games that didn’t. It’s about avoiding things that generally make the game more frustrating but not more challenging.

    e.g. It is usually best to avoid unwinnable states because it is often nigh impossible to tell the difference between an unwinnable state and just being plain stuck. That doesn’t make the game more challenging, just more frustrating.

    Rather, I’d argue that many of the games that evolved from text adventures into various kinds of graphical adventures were the ones where adventure games became easier and more abstract. Not all of them, but many.

  12. @Robert,

    I'm stifling some nerd rage here, but yeah... you've got a point.

    Focusing entirely on text adventures... you have three distinct phases: the wild and wooly 70's, the height of Infocom, and the post-commercial era.

    In the 70's, you have plenty of outright unfair puzzles. In the 80's, you have less... but you still have the lotsa-death design and the unwinable state thing is still prevalent. One reason this could fly is that these games were done and over with once solved, so having it be impossible made it so that you could wonder about it as long as you liked unless you broke down and bought a hint book. (Or, if you were Robin Williams, you could call the Infocom programmers direction at home in the middle of the night.)

    The post-commercial phase has games that will lose players at the moment they get frustrating. Same with the commericial graphic adventures. So yeah... one of the things pushing the "New School" design is game supply and attention demand.

    One thing I think you're missing... if someone wrote an Infocom style game, it would probably be panned by the current critics of today. The community surrounding interactive fiction feels strongly that they have pushed the state of the art far beyond what Infocom had obtained.

    (Sorry to take over your blog here, Delta...!)

  13. Actually, I think that's a great discussion, and I'm learning stuff about current text adventure design I didn't know. Esp., I like the phrase "game supply and attention demand". Thank you guys!

  14. As far as interactive fiction, may I suggest:

  15. Imagine a pyramid of gamers. At the top are bloggers. Below them are their readers. Below them are non-blogger-aware GMs, followed by their players. Next are ex-players. Lastly are potential players. The pyramid gets bigger the lower you get, and thus is a larger potential customer base. Also, the lower you go on the pyramid, the less invested you are, and the more likely you are to ragequit if things get tough. Robert Fisher's point about things being "not profitable enough" is about appealing to the much larger base of the pyramid, with a least-common-denominator product at the expense of a labor-of-love/auteur product appealing to a much higher and smaller potential sales base. And thus you get Zak S. complaining about how published modules have never surpassed Caverns of Thracia from 1979.

    In computer games and movies, you have the phenomenon of larger budgets demanding a safer strategy, so it's harder to entrust a creative person to guide the whole thing; they might be just a weirdo instead of a genius. Instead you either have mediocrities producing or have people producing a product they they themselves hate. (The RPG examples will be obvious.)

    IMHO, the future of the best work will lie in falling costs of production, making it easier to create something of value on a low budget. The downside here will be creating with others in mind, and coordinating with others in the midst of all this choice: e.g. we're all still playing D&D.

  16. *Very* late comment on all of this, so please forgive me.

    1d30 said, "I think we need more people in game-making to recognize the fun in overcoming high difficulty."

    At least in (adventure/RPG) video game circles, this concept is finally beginning to come back into vogue: the Souls series (Demon's Souls and Dark Souls) became a recent cult classic pushing for this sort of design, and other game studios (mostly, but not exclusively, independent ones) are taking up the torch. I think game design is just like any fashion: it goes is 20- or 30-year cycles, and designers are trending back towards "retro" themes.

    I expect to see this trend continue in other types of games, as well.

    1. Interesting observation, thanks for adding it. I think I'll be a little surprised if that trend expands much outside of indie