Friday, June 30, 2017

Who's selling broken games?

Last weekend, during the Steam sale, I got two very different games from two very different studios, but what they had in common was that they were broken and I got refunds. If it weren't for Steam's refund policy, I would have been burned. Products that plain don't work are being sold on that marketplace.

Assassin's Creed: Unity is a major entry in Ubisoft's flagship series, made by a huge number of people. It had an infamously buggy launch, but that was almost three years ago. I figured it would be patched by now — who'd have bought Syndicate if they hadn't? By delaying my purchase of Arkham Knight, I was able to play it on PC just fine, and I expected the same here.

It wasn't to be. Less than two hours in, I'd seen two crashes to desktop and one glitchy cutscene where an important character disappeared. (And no, I don't think it was intentional "the Animus" bullshit.) The last straw was when I ran into an apparent showstopper in a mandatory quest. A character I was supposed to follow wound up in an unreachable position. I don't have any QA background, but it looked like his "stop and wait for player proximity" node didn't have the correct height coordinate. I retried the mission and it happened again, exactly the same way.

Ubisoft's a big company, with a lot of money and a lot of resources, but maybe leviathans move slowly and overlook many details. I still had a weekend to spend with a new game, so I got Democracy 3: Africa instead. Democracy 3 is the main game, and it has several DLCs, but Africa is a standalone product, and I was interested in how the game was reimagined for present-day African governments.

The Democracy games are made by Positech, which I think is just Cliff Harris (@cliffski) and some occasional subcontracting for assets. He's said negative things about Gamergate, but lately I've been thinking about the potential of an Operation Rainfall for antis, letting them know that we like their games and we're not what they've been told we are. I figured Africa would be a good test case: I'd play it, form an opinion, and write him an open letter.

I suspected the principal issues I'd have would be around the game's assumptions. I played Democracy 2 (long enough ago that I bought it directly, not on Steam) and noticed that, for example, it assumed legalizing drugs would increase crime, which I don't think has always been the case in the real world. However, coming to grips with the game, I discovered that it had a more major problem.

I picked Nigeria to start with. I know just a little about its politics, and it seems like it would have an interesting mix of problems. Sure enough, the game presents the player with a lot of crises in Nigeria, particularly poverty, disease, religious tensions, and violence. In my first attempt, I saw violence as the foremost problem and made ending it my priority. I didn't think the economy could recover without more stability. Result: in a two-party election, I got 0% of the vote after my first term.

I tried again. This time I overhauled the economy, throwing out unpopular taxes. It seemed to me like it was going reasonably well, but my support was almost pinned at 0%, briefly fluttering to numbers less than 2%. I was assassinated before the election.

I tried a third time, pandering to the religious with a program of school prayer and theocracy. Once again, 0% popularity, assassinated.

This made no sense. The game's elections are two-party, and in a two-party election in general I wouldn't expect to see 0% except in the case of obvious sham elections. Moreover, I didn't think someone whose government improved the economy, reduced crime, and ended the AIDS epidemic would have no supporters at all. And I certainly doubted that a theocrat could hit zero support in Nigeria. They've got megachurches!

Turns out there's a long-standing bug that breaks electoral support, introduced in the Electioneering expansion for the main game, baked into the Africa standalone. As I understand it, all voters get classified into the opposition party and become much, much harder to persuade than they should be. The threads where I learned about this were six months old.

There are many games in which "the elections are broken" is only a footnote. A game about electoral democracy is not one of them. I was dismayed to be reminded that small devs can sell games just as broken as big ones. It was time for another refund.

My weekend was not lost — I picked up Stardew Valley and Subnautica and I've been enjoying those. I think I'll also hang onto Ark, although I am a little concerned to hear that its default balance favors multi. But my experience so far this sale has been hit or miss, and it's because there are games for sale that simply do not work. Is there no pressure to fix them or take them down?
Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Mod vs. Mod

Mods are great. I'm talking about game modifications, the incredible user-driven field where commercial games can be altered by the people who play them. Some mods are simple, like one that puts a flashlight on your gun in Doom 3 so you can see in the dark while you aim. Some mods are complex, like one that turns Crysis into Mechwarrior. They're great because they free games from the constraints of the marketplace. A modder doesn't have to worry about what will sell, or what will pay for itself. Mods can do things for their own sake.

Mods are shit. I'm talking about community moderators, who can delete or prevent your speech online. Some modding is done according to visible rules, like no mentioning Overwatch in a Battleborn community. Some modding is mysterious, like a moderator deleting thousands of comments because a personal friend privately asked them to. They're shit because they put constraints on speech. A moderator worries about whether the speech of an individual reflects the consensus of a community, or whether a user's beliefs match the moderator's own. Mods can erase what other people say.

In May 2016, a mod for Stellaris which narrowed human racial variety in the game was taken down. From its original description, still available on moddb:

Makes it so humans are only Europeans - and European names only.

It's common in science fiction settings for there to be different factions of humans, often visually as well as culturally distinct. Examples include Master of Orion: Conquer the Stars (Humans and Terrans), X (Argon, Terran, and Aldrin), Endless Space (United Empire, Horatio, Sheredyn, Pilgrims, and Vaulters), and Civilization: Beyond Earth (every playable faction). Other related mods such as Separate Human Phenotypes are still up.

Later, the banned mod returned, with some interesting claims about demands the developer, Paradox, had privately made:

So here are the 'rules' imposed by PARADOX ((UPDATED)):
1) I can't mention a certain non-offensive commonly used word
2) I can't link to my YouTube Channel - Paradox specifically slandered it. My YouTube is Progeny of Europe (don't you dare look it up!)
3) NO COMMENTS THAT ARE EVEN REMOTELY TRIGGERRING FOR SWEDES

You may be thinking "so what, it's still on moddb." That's certainly a mitigating factor, but I remained concerned about the chilling effect of publishers removing mods from Steam Workshop, or dictating how they can be described.

I'd long been curious about modding and decided this was an opportunity for me to make a small test mod, both to see if I could and to find out more about these hidden rules. I made a simple mod called "Intersectional Diversity" that narrowed human variety differently (black women only) and uploaded it to the Steam Workshop. Because it remains banned, I can't link you to the description, but I can quote a saved copy:

Deeply hurt by recent events ( http://archive.is/INlbd ), I have made a mod which removes the vestiges of racism and sexism from Stellaris. This is a vitally important act of social justice work which will move the grand strategy discourse closer to equity, but only if you download and use this socially conscious mod. Together we can make Stellaris welcoming and inclusive. Multiculturalism here!

When the mod was banned, I contacted Steam Support as directed (my words in italics):

I received this email:

"Your Steam Workshop item Intersectional Diversity has been banned because it violates the Steam Terms of Service. The item is now only visible to you.

You will be unable to publish any user generated content for 1 day(s).

If you believe your item has been banned mistakenly, please contact Steam Support."


My mod, Intersectional Diversity, was formerly available here: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=691736286


I do not know how my mod violated the Steam Terms of Service. Here are three similar mods which are not banned:

One Race Humans - Africans: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=688751838
Separate Human Phenotypes: http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=685069894
European Phenotypes and Names REBORN! (Original): http://steamcommunity.com/sharedfiles/filedetails/?id=690928807


I have seven questions:

1. What Steam Terms of Service did my mod violate?

2. Are the similar mods linked above also in violation of the Steam Terms of Service?

3. Was my mod reported by Steam users?

4. Was Paradox Interactive, developer and publisher of Stellaris, involved in my mod being banned?

5. Was my mod banned due to comments written by other users?

6. Are there forbidden words in my mod description, and if so, what are they?

7. Under what conditions could my mod be reinstated?


Thank you for your time.

Thank you for contacting Steam Support.

Steam Support does not offer technical assistance with the Steam Workshop or user made content.

For general information regarding the Steam Workshop, please visit the following link:
https://support.steampowered.com/kb_article.php?ref=6718-JXNM-4879

For game specific information, please visit the respective link below:

Dota 2: http://www.dota2.com/workshop/
Team Fortress 2: http://www.teamfortress.com/workshop/
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: http://blog.counter-strike.net/workshop/
Portal 2: http://www.thinkwithportals.com/

Additional assistance can found in the Community Workshop Discussions:

Dota 2: http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/discussions/?appid=570
Team Fortress 2: http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/discussions/?appid=440
Counter-Strike: Global Offensive: http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/discussions/?appid=730
Portal 2: http://steamcommunity.com/workshop/discussions/?appid=620

But I was told in the email I received: "If you believe your item has been banned mistakenly, please contact Steam Support."

I have reviewed this issue and confirmed that the ban was issued correctly.

I am sorry but the ban on your mod will not be removed.

I see, but I am still unclear on why my mod was banned, and how I can avoid bans in the future. Here are my outstanding questions:

1. What Steam Terms of Service did my mod violate?

2. Are the similar mods linked above also in violation of the Steam Terms of Service?

3. Was my mod reported by Steam users?

4. Was Paradox Interactive, developer and publisher of Stellaris, involved in my mod being banned?

5. Was my mod banned due to comments written by other users?

6. Are there forbidden words in my mod description, and if so, what are they?

(7. Under what conditions could my mod be reinstated?)
(I assume the answer to this is that there are no such conditions.)

I forgot to mention an eighth question.

8. I have 421 games on Steam. Is my access to those games at risk?

The Stellaris official support team will have the best solutions since they have taken action against your item.

Please follow the link below to this game’s support page on our help site and log in to your Steam account:

Stellaris
https://help.steampowered.com/#HelpWithGame/?appid=281990

If you’re not seeing the specific problem on this page, select “Gameplay or technical issue.” From there, look below the “Official Support” heading for a link to the game’s customer support website, contact email address, or support phone number.


To see if other users have posted a solution to your problem, follow the link below and search for the game by title:

http://steamcommunity.com/discussions/#games

The story so far: I followed the directions I was given and got the runaround for a week before they told me to speak to the publisher. Only two of my questions were answered: there was no way for my mod to be unbanned, and Paradox was involved. I set the issue aside for a few months.

When I finally contacted Paradox I had a similar experience. Their support team told me to message BjornB on the forums. BjornB's job title is Community Manager and his profile says not to contact him directly like that, but I did. The Paradox forum software rejected my message for him as spam, so I had to post the body on the forum's blog feature and link it in the message.

Was unable to submit this as requested via the Paradox Forum Conversation system, got this error message:

The following error occurred:
Your content can not be submitted. This is likely because your content is spam-like or contains inappropriate elements. Please change your content or try again later. If you still have problems, please contact an administrator.

---

I have noted this [from BjornB's forum profile]: "If you need support, please submit a ticket through support.paradoxplaza.com rather than posting here. It will help you sooner. Thank you! "

But when I submitted this issue on support.paradoxplaza.com, I was specifically asked to contact BjornB instead, with a link to his forum profile.

---

I'm afraid that we here at the support team aren't involved in the moderation of mods and I can't actually give you an answer to your questions. What I would recommend is that you send a message on our forums to BjornB (https://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/index.php?members/bjornb.471407/) as he is the Community Manger for Paradox Development Studio games and is usually more knowledgeable when it comes to mods and Steam.


Kind regards,
Christian

---

Several months ago I had the following conversation with Steam support. My mod is still banned. The three similar mods I linked are still up. Because I do not know what made my mod bannable (and not these others), I hesitate to create any mod content for fear of another unexplained ban. If someone could tell me specifically what is going on here, I'd understand my situation better.

[I pasted my Steam Support conversation here]

Here is my conversation with BjornB:

Christian Arvidsson asked me to contact you about this. https://forum.paradoxplaza.com/forum/index.php?blogs/my-stellaris-mod-was-banned-without-explanation.109/

Yeah, I removed it because the description you made seemed rather trollish, and it succeeded as the comment section was a travesty.

You can re-upload your mod using a less flame-bating description, and if you put some effort into keeping the comment section at least somewhat decent.

Best Regards
Björn

1. I was told my mod "has been banned because it violates the Steam Terms of Service." Did my mod in fact violate any aspect(s) of the Steam Terms of Service, and can you specify the relevant clause(s) if so?

2. Are there forbidden words in my mod description, and if so, what are they?

3. Can you give mod creators any advice on what specifically makes a mod description "rather trollish" and therefore bannable?

4. As a mod creator, am I expected to delete comments, ban users (if so, what is the scope of the ban?), or both? Are there clear guidelines on when mod makers must take action against commenters to avoid you banning their mods on behalf of Paradox Interactive?

5. I have 428 games on Steam. Is my access to those games at risk?

1. I can't stipulate the reasons for the removal. I can only press a button, and Steam sends you a generic message.

2-4. I won't even bother with replying.

5. No

I see. I feel I've gathered all the information about this incident that I can.

Thank you for your time.

I was told three untrue things in the Steam phase: that I had violated Steam's ToS (I hadn't), that there was no way for my mod to return to the Workshop (BjornB said it potentially could), and that I should contact Paradox support (they referred me elsewhere). When I finally got to BjornB, things didn't get much better, as he refused to explain any rules for me to follow in order to avoid mod bans ("I won't even bother with replying").

What it all comes down to is a common problem with moderation: vague or non-existent rules leave mods free to use their power as the whim takes them. BjornB's personal, subjective opinion that my mod was "trollish" and its comments section a "travesty" were all it took to ban my mod. He could have pointed to a specific rule, like Paradox's known-to-exist banned word list, but he didn't, and he refused to answer when I asked about it. When BjornB took action, it was misrepresented as a Terms of Service issue when in fact it was his own arbitrary decision. And as Crusader Kings 2 players know, Arbitrary is the opposite of Just.

I decided never to make mods. This incident, coupled with the mysterious friction between Firaxis and the Dragonpunk mod team around the same time, signals developer/publisher interest in mod suppression. I don't want to put any significant amount of work into a mod only to see it blackballed and memory holed, and it's clear that the power and inclination to do that exist.

It's been fashionable for the industry to talk about specific games being "mod-friendly," meaning that they provide modding tools to users, or use common formats that will be convenient for modders. But part of mod-friendliness is a tolerance for the freedom that modding allows, a willingness to let the community make of your game what it will. Without that tolerance, and even moreso without honesty or consistency in its limits, anything you make can be forbidden. In which case, why make anything?
Thursday, October 6, 2016

Batman Arkham Knight: Tim, stop it

Arkham Knight has six DLCs called Arkham Episodes in which you run people other than Batman through brief adventures. By brief, I mean generally in the 30-minute range. None of them measure up to the Catwoman content in Arkham City. Before starting A Flip of the Coin, which features Robin, I was warned that it was especially annoying. That warning was true. The middle part of A Flip of the Coin is a fussy little puzzle that can only be solved one way, almost certainly with many retries.

First, you must turn around, enter a wall grate, crawl through a tunnel, pop out a floor grate, walk along a corridor, plant an explosive, walk back up the corridor, enter the floor grate, crawl back through the tunnel, grapple up to the wall grate, perch on a ledge, and detonate the explosive. Repetition makes this very dull, especially because it is always accompanied by the same voice clips.

Second, you must hack the middle sentry gun (watch out, hack only lasts 30 seconds), glide down to the alcove without being seen by the surviving guards (one is standing right in the alcove), do a multi-takedown timed to avoid the left and right sentry guns, get out of their zones of coverage, re-hack the middle gun, slowly and vulnerably dismantle the left and right guns, then operate a fuse box to finally disable the middle gun.

In so much of the rest of the game, you have freedom of approach. If one method doesn't succeed, you can try another. If you prefer not to use a particular technique, you can probably avoid it most of the time. There's no invention to this sequence, though, only execution. And sadly execution too is tricky. When gliding for the alcove, you may get hung up on the wire strung across the top of the room. Despite not technically killing you immediately, the sentry guns are effectively instant death. (Even in the main game, sentry guns are one of the more unforgiving threats.)

In a way it's an interesting case study. It demonstrates that for all Arkham Knight does right, without player choice and flexibility it would suffer badly.
Friday, September 23, 2016

Csikszentmihalyi deez

This DIGRA paper deals with somebody else's "Flow theory," specifically "in design and analysis of digital games." It isn't research-oriented; it's a paper about previous papers, and while this doesn't have to be a death sentence, it's an urgent warning to look for useful conclusions.

Flow's uses for games are dubious. Here's an introduction to Flow:
1. There are clear goals every step of the way
2. There is immediate feedback to one’s actions
3. There is a balance between challenges and skills
4. Action and awareness are merged
5. Distractions are excluded from consciousness
6. There is no worry of failure
7. Self-consciousness disappears
8. The sense of time becomes distorted
9. The activity becomes autotelic ["Autotelic" means done for its own sake.]
Some of these (45789) are straightforward consequences of having fun. So long as those conditions are satisfied, what's the importance of the others (1236)? If you're having fun without clear goals or immediate feedback, or with the worry of failure, what are you falling short of? Fun things are still fun.

A lost sense of time is a good (though not complete) test for fun ("time flies when you're having fun"), but this is real-world time ("self-consciousness disappears"); you can still be hyper-conscious of time in a game while having fun, such as when trying to beat a lap time in a racing simulator. Obviously in that case you can also worry about failure, and fail a lot, and still be absorbed. Some definitions make fail states essential to games. (The paper's own example of a Flow experience mentions a "dozen or so attempts to get past this one section" — many failures.)

"Clear goals every step of the way" is a difficult thing to reconcile with fun games. As the popular Sid Meier adage goes, a game is a series of interesting choices. Player choice and fixed goals clash. Players actually complain about "hand-holding" when games narrow their choices in the interests of moving them further along toward the game's goals. Many games are open-ended, with no victory conditions and no explicit objectives.

Feedback isn't always immediate. When you launch a torpedo in a Silent Hunter game, it can be over a minute before you find out whether it hit its target. There are things to do in that time (check sonar, launch more torpedoes, move in to follow up with the deck gun, begin escape), but the feedback isn't immediate and that's not a barrier to the fun.

It gets even trickier when you consider "immediate" more strictly. Street Fighter V has eight frames of lag; is it less Flow-y than Street Fighter IV, which had five? Perhaps "feedback" is best interpreted as merely being some relatively prompt UI indication that you pressed a button, so you know the game hasn't locked up. Crashes do take me out of a game.
challenge must not be too great (or else frustration would result) or too slight (yielding boredom)
A challenge/skill balance isn't always necessary for fun, but it can help. Balance is often the most hotly discussed topic in a game's online community.

Anyway, so far so familiar. Flow as described above is roughly half a mirror of commonplace ideas about games as entertainment, and half dubious advice on how to get them there. The DIGRA authors reach a similar conclusion ("The first three conditions of Flow are more or less heuristics for the kind of experience which might then lead to the remaining six").

With the addition of the following, it gets a lot worse.
meaningful growth promoting experiences

Some of these experiences can be enjoyable, but these episodes of Flow do not add up to a sense of satisfaction and happiness over time. Pleasure does not lead to creativity, but soon turns into addiction – the thrall of entropy.

a creative feeling

the ability (or even need) for Flow to provide meaning to the lives of those who experience it

on the one hand Csikszentmihalyi claims that Flow can provide meaning, and gives examples of socially relative positive meaning encountered in Flow, but on the other insists that Flow must be free of external motivating influence if it is to provide enjoyment.

Flow experiences will necessarily yield a satisfyingly meaningful outcome for individuals, and ultimately 'enjoyment' on the one hand, while admitting that some experiences, while fulfilling the stated conditions of Flow, do not yield satisfaction and enjoyment, but rather mere pleasure without meaning and potentially entropy or addiction.

society has a role in teaching young people what activities they should be enjoying in order to grow personally and culturally

better if our children learned to enjoy cooperation rather than violence; reading rather than stealing; chess rather than dice; hiking rather than watching television.

the difference between Flow as a positive, meaning producing, satisfyingly enjoyable experience and Flow as a negative, addictive, entropy inducing, merely pleasurable experience, is the individual's sense of growth in normatively agreeable directions.

at least two kinds of Flow. Good, meaningful, worthwhile, personal growth promoting Flow, and the bad, addictive, meaningless, waste of time kind.

While they might find playing games to be 'pleasurable' on occasion, the deep engagement that they experienced was not ultimately enjoyable.

Ultimately, however the experience is judged by the individual to lack enjoyment or value, and does not generate a sense of long term, personal meaning.
In other words, the old demand that entertainment be didactic, which typically comes at the cost of its power to entertain. With that in mind, no one should be surprised that on the subject of games themselves, Csikszentmihalyi Eberts. (And of course chess is used as a positive contrast to games, as if chess isn't solved and chess expertise isn't a matter of rote memorization.)
Playing the stock market in order to make money is not an autotelic experience; but playing it in order to prove one’s skill at foretelling future trends is – even though the outcome in terms of dollars and cents is exactly the same.

That is, it is the individual who is autotelic (capable of acting without external drivers), rather than the activity. Csikszentmihalyi presents examples of individuals who approach every day activities with autotelic intent (Csikszentmihalyi, 1990); essentially gamifying their everyday experiences.
Now we have come full circle — fun is presented as something you should experience while doing what you have to do anyway, not something to pursue for its own sake. Who needs games? It's jobs that are fun! Applying this theory to entertainment is the abolition of entertainment.

(How should an individual become capable of finding fun in everything, then? Drugs? Csikszentmihalyi explicitly condemns drugs as "entropy," using a word with a specific meaning in the hard sciences to make his own scorn seem more scientific.)

And of course it's connected to the Jane McGonigal idea of gamification, which is similarly destructive. If you could create fun games simply by adding a point-scoring system to an existing (and often unpleasant!) activity, game design as we know it wouldn't exist.
In data collected in interviews as part of a broad ranging study of players’ relationships with games (Salisbury 2013), a significant subset of players lamented the time they had spent playing games despite (in fact in a couple of cases reinforced by) having experienced apparently Flow like engagements when they did.
This is to be expected. Fun for its own sake is valuable in the present, while toil for a future outcome is a burden in the present but has potential value in the future. Once you are in that future, past fun has only a past value, and past toil would have only a past cost, but a present value. How easy it is then to discount the cost of that toil and the lost fun it replaces, and to overestimate what would have been gained.

These people may also simply be influenced by the low social status of games.
breaking value down into three broad areas of human experience, the economic, the social, and the cultural (Bourdieu 1986)
This is just to get Bourdieu into your bibliography, isn't it? In the previous version of this paper, cultural capital is discussed in more detail, but the obvious conclusion — that fun for its own sake can be a cultural value — is not reached. This idea is not the submission of selves to the culture, but the culture's submission to selves, since different people have fun different ways. Even if you don't enjoy what someone else does, letting them enjoy it sweetens the social contract for them. This doesn't mean fun is being had for the sake of an external value — it means that the value of fun for its own sake is recognized externally, and the pursuit of fun is tolerated, perhaps even protected and encouraged.

I wouldn't say cultural capital in the knowledge/skill sense means fun is being had for an external purpose either. The knowledge and skill acquired by having fun in games is almost entirely useful only for having more fun. I won't gain political or economic capital from my investigation of how to rebuild the German navy in Hearts of Iron. No real gunsmith has any use for my Warframe-derived knowledge that a gun can be improved by putting a blue potato in it.
10: The activity must present an opportunity for meaningful growth of the self which is valued by the individual participant.
And so the paper "solves" the problems of Flow not by discarding the theory, but by adding this clause, which is awkwardly split between personal ("valued by the individual participant") and external ("meaningful growth of the self"). The difficulties of 1236 are not addressed, nor the redundancies of 4578, nor the difference between principles of diagnosing Flow and principles of creating it (apart from a mention in passing).

It's all to easy to see how this would impact game design: a "meaningful growth" imperative disrupting the focus on fun. Set alongside "clear goals," "immediate feedback," and "no worry of failure," it's a recipe for a game that always tells you exactly what to do next, lacks long-term elements in its gameplay loops, is too easy, and promotes an ideology or has an intrusive edutainment element. (Meanwhile there are no provisions for interesting choices, different styles of play, or forward planning.)

Flow theory has nothing of value to offer gaming, and in fact agitates — especially with the new tenth condition proposed by this paper — for goals which will damage games as instruments of fun. It should be discarded. It certainly shouldn't be a research or presentation topic. Don't underestimate the existing community's knowledge of the field — gamer clichés and design proverbs are a sounder foundation to build on than commandments from academia.

In the event that I'm wrong, what advocates need to do is demonstrate the advantages of adhering to Flow theory, the more practically the better. Make a Flow mod for an existing game, bringing it closer into line with the theory (constant clear goals, immediate feedback, no worry of failure, promotes personal growth), and see how positively players react to it.

I remain skeptical. I don't play games in search of a deeper meaning. I just want to enjoy part of my life. I just want not every tick of the second hand to poke like a pin. I just want fun things to be fun.


As an aside, this is a bad idea:
Chen (2007) employs a modified sense of optimal challenge based on Flow, which calls for an approach to the design of any single-player game which will allow the player to dynamically select the difficulty of the challenge through their actions. Expert players performing identifiably expert actions make the game more difficult, while novice players who act in identifiably novice ways make the game easier.
Give us manual difficulty selection instead, or different playstyles with different levels of difficulty. Let people decide for themselves how hard they want a game to be for them. For the struggling player, having this decision taken away is a further loss of control.
Monday, September 5, 2016

The Postjournalist Manifesto

Be a postjournalist, the opposite of a journalist.

Fight lies and double standards.

Serve an audience.

Write about the topic itself, don't inject politics.

If you'd just repeat somebody else, link instead.

Invent your own formats if conventional ones aren't the best.

Be right about facts. If you make a mistake, run a correction that's more prominent than the mistake.

Talk with other postjournalists in public, not in private. Don't let groupthink think for you. If you do talk with other postjournalists in private, disclose anything relevant to your postjournalism to your audience.

If you're covering a controversy, link to at least two sides in their own words.

Try not to use confidential sources. Only do it for a good reason. If you promise someone confidentiality, you have to keep that promise, so don't do it lightly.

Don't delete unless you legally have to. If you want to retract something, leave it up with a correction.

Don't censor. Do things censors would censor if they could, so people will know you don't censor.

Don't cover your friends or other intimates, not even with disclosure.

Don't cover your past or present advertisers, not even with disclosure. Don't accept advertising deals with topics of your past stories. This applies both to individual postjournalists and entire outlets — if you're doing a piece for somebody else, don't cover their advertisers either.

Don't cover topics connected to charitable donations or gifts you have given or received, not even with disclosure. If you are given a gift connected with subjects of your past or future postjournalism, it should be refused, returned to the giver, and disclosed.

Don't let other individuals select your topics. You may put topic choice to an audience vote if you have a large enough audience, but individuals may be manipulating you into promoting things they're connected with.

Disclose any purchases made for a particular piece in that piece.

Disclose any business deals you make as a postjournalist, or that have relevance to what you're doing as a postjournalist. You may be paid for postjournalism itself by your audience. Any donation or crowdfund money should be handled transparently, and completely returned if used in ways that don't match what the donors thought they were paying for when they donated.

Make your disclosures prominent and easy to find.

Don't put some content behind a paywall but other content in front, or the incentive will be to make your public content an advertisement for your own service rather than good in its own right.

See money as a dangerous contaminant. It makes the giver your master, and then your work is tainted. You have to avoid any tainted topics, so try to advertise products unrelated to your postjournalism. Audience money is a safer toxin, but it still has to be handled carefully.

Understand that no one piece and no one person has the complete story. Whatever you do is just one part of the whole. Link other sources to round out what you do. Let the audience participate to make corrections and fill in the gaps. If you get enough responses, do a followup piece about the responses that highlights the best ideas, as well as the most popular and the most different.

If someone asks you to break these rules, don't do it, and transparently share their request with your audience.

Don't work with journalists. They won't follow these rules.
Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Concept: Herding

Herding is when a game pressures players to play together, to the disadvantage or elimination of solo play.

Some games outright require multiplayer. Shattered Horizon was an MP-only team shooter, didn't even have bots. (SP was later added in an expansion.)

Some games have modes that require multiplayer. You can solo a lot of content in World of Warcraft, but you need to join a group to raid.

Some games are more challenging, less rewarding, or less designed around single-player. To a degree additional challenge can be its own reward, but something balanced for multiplayer isn't always enjoyable or even possible by yourself. In Warframe, you'll get loot faster together, as well as having new combinations of powers available.

I imagine that developers think promoting or requiring a social aspect of the game will increase participation and longevity, but from experience I can say it's more likely players will skip the game because they can't get people to play with them, or quit when their group stops convening. It's always easier to schedule for one person than four.

Pickup groups have their own problems. They can't reliably be assembled except in the most populous games. New players are often a liability due to mechanical mismatch (like level imbalance), clashing degrees of player skill, selfishness, and simple unfamiliarity.

For me it's a plus when a game doesn't push me to group up.
Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Pokemon Go at Level 11

A user named TorD has challenged my assumptions about Pokemon Go. This post updates this one.

On player level gating available pokemon types for capture: "Well this is not true [...] It does not affect what Pokemon types you can catch." I can't remember where I saw the claim that player level determines which pokemon types can appear for the player, but it remains plausible in light of my own experience with the game. I've also heard of "pokemon nests" where certain types are more common, but this system is so untransparent as to be useless to me. Where do I go to catch a Charmander? No idea, no way to find out.

On counterpicking: "the formula for damage bonuses based on type advantage is so low (1.25x for super effective, 0.75 for not very effective)" Well shit! This is an immense nerf to type bonuses, which previously gave 2x/0.5x. It further degrades Go pokemon into being nothing but blobs of CP, and removes what I assumed would be a salutary attacker advantage at gyms. Pikachu, I choose you — but you might as well be a Squirtle, it doesn't really matter.

On gym balance: "a level 10 will have no chance against a level 20's Pokemon if both players have theirs maxed to their fullest potential. It's impossible. But Go isn't a solo game: 3 level 10's can work together to take down a gym of much higher level [...] gym battles are not for soloing." Hearing this impression almost inspired me to uninstall the game immediately. If true, this is fucking terrible. Multiplayer is a plague on gaming. In some games it's used to excuse bad AI, in others it's "optional" but you're mechanically pushed toward it, and of course there are MP-only games which I don't even consider.

On F2P: "I think PoGO is probably one of the fairest f2p games I've been into" I've seen worse, I guess, but Go isn't anywhere near the league of my personal favorite F2P game, Warframe. Fact is, Go's biggest problems aren't unique to F2P games. Any multiplayer game with a long level progression is likely to have a seniority system (why play if you'll never catch up?), any with a big launch and a shared world is likely to have a baby boom clogging content bottlenecks (e.g., World of Warcraft newb areas at launch; they would have been wiser to spread characters through the game by retaining progression from the open beta), lacking sufficient player choice and sharing too little information with the player are common flaws (datamine those damage formulas!), and over and over there are multiplayer games with a bad solo experience. Fuck.