Modeling real life: A common mistake

I don’t want to shock and awe all of you by just blurting this out on your unsuspecting minds but I must share my sudden revelation:

I had an idea.

A videogame idea.

And it was terrible.

But as it turns out, it was terrible in a terribly interesting way.

It all started with me thinking about this whole free to play model and within that model the possible incentives for payment. I then started to relate it to the humble bundle and kickstarter style of transaction and then the idea blossomed: An MMO or any other social network where the user chooses how much to pay and then received benefits corresponding to the amount of money spent. Basically, it’s a system that divided users into different categories.

Aaaaaand then it immediately dawned on me that this would be a horrible idea.

I mean, think about it: A system where people interact with each other but the treatment each one gets is mostly based on their economic status. Suddenly there’s hostility towards other players above you and disdain for the players below you. Attaching a numerical value or a category to each individual is a very bad idea and it becomes far worse the more important that distinction is. You could argue that this mirrors real life, that that makes it fair, but that would be a very weak excuse. Unless the game is about simulating real life, then taking aspects of it and applying them without thinking of the consequences is really bad design.

For instance, take how old MMOs handled monster looting: Every monster drops items upon death and anybody can pick them up. The problem comes when a team of players kills the final boss and it drops only one dagger of extreme awesomeness. Who keeps it? It’s a “fair” system that models real life logic but it systematically creates hostility between players. Modern MMOs have learned from this mistake and now the dead enemies drop items for everybody, each player only having access to their share of the loot. It keeps everyone happy and it even encourages cooperation: Before, if a group of guys was killing a giant monster you’d gain absolutely nothing if you came to help and now the situation is completely reversed. The result is that everybody helps everybody else. The optimal path is that of kindness and sharing instead of selfish hoarding.

My idea in and off itself isn’t doomed to failure though. As always, the details can make or break a system. For instance, making the benefits vary in type instead of power is a good start. Making the paying customers impact the community in beneficial ways is also a good idea (For example, a particular tier of paying users can force a discount on a type of item).

More on free to play, considering alternatives

Watch video, read my words later:

Done? Good! Because that video sums up my thoughts on the whole free to play thing.

Ok, ok, not all of my thoughts. Here’s the rest of them:

Designing a game to be irritating in very specific ways in order to maximize revenue is almost a disturbing game design philosophy. It’s basically charging money to take mechanics OUT of the game so that it becomes less annoying. Like making certain sequences go faster (grinding!) or making the hard limitations more reasonable (actions per day!). Where in any other game these types of “features” are actually a sign of bad design, here they are very calculated systems.

In essence, I find this business model of annoying the f*ck out of people in the hopes that they’ll give you cash if you stop poking them with your d*ck, to be repulsive, offensive and an insult to the player’s intelligence.

It feels like these companies are scamming people out of their money and they are getting away with it.

But then again, this model wouldn’t be so popular if it didn’t have an interesting concept in it. There needs to be something that explains why such obvious bad design doesn’t drive people away fast enough (as I said before, it does drive people away in the long run). So let’s throw some grey matter at the problem. In other words, I’ll bestow upon you my knowledge (that may or may not have been pulled out of my rear).

This may sound obvious to all of you but it deserves to be stated: These games get away with being jackasses because they are free. People are willing to put up with this sh*t because they feel like it’s fair, after all, it’s free, isn’t it? They have to make money SOMEHOW, don’t they? As long as players can get access to every piece of content without paying a single cent they’ll be happy. Even if some of the content requires you to share stuff on facebook, even if it requires stupid amounts of time to get access to a premium item. If it’s possible then it doesn’t sound unreasonable.

To be fair, these are all perfectly good excuses. I wouldn’t be surprised to see more arguments in favor of free to play games, and I think that’s great believe it or not. The thing is, having the ability to get away with something doesn’t mean you should do it (sage advice that applies to everything: building sex robots with sharp genitals! government spying on everyone for the sake of security! cloning human beings with no free will to do our work for us! etc, etc, etc).

In a few words: Being free inherently creates good will in a good chunk of society. If there is no gate up front then my expectations aren’t that high and once inside if I’m enjoying myself I’m willing to put up with some annoyances.

I think free to play games won’t survive as they are now. I believe they’ll have to change and adopt new monetization strategies. Strategies that  will magically transform that good will into money without pestering players or insulting them.

I’m not going to pretend that I have the answer to this, but I will throw out some fun possibilities:

  • Charging money for specific content. Yes, this already exists, but It all depends on the execution. Too little content and it becomes a glorified demo. A little more content and it’s a lite version. A little more content and then why would you pay? It’s a balancing act that can be tackled in a great number of interesting ways. Maybe you charge for maps packs. Maybe you charge for types of guns in a shooter. Maybe you charge for premium items that in no way affect gameplay (hats!). Maybe you charge for access to daily challenges. Maybe you give the sequel to the ones that have spent more than $X in your previous title.
  • Charging money for access to advanced features. Again, it depends on the execution: You can’t charge for something trivial (nobody would pay), yet you can’t charge for something crucial (every freeloader is nerfed). The key here is to charge for trivial yet interesting features. Like deciding what weather will be like in a certain day. Or maybe what is displayed in the main screen of the city. Or changing the settings of the world for X amount of time.
  • A community marketplace like the one on Steam. Provide a limited number of premium items to each player, provide a way to buy with real money some of those same items through an in-game store and then offer a marketplace where people can sell each other these items in exchange for real money. Well, ingame real money that can then be spent on more items or other stuff. Absorb 15% or less of the money on each sale and then BOOYA, everybody is happy, freeloaders can make money and you still get rich in the end.

I don’t know if you noticed, but what I’m proposing is not that different from current free to play games. The devil is in the details, and sadly the core philosophy of the game design falls under those “details”.

Also, this goes without saying, but these aren’t recipes for success. Asking for money up front is not an inherently bad idea and good games with good marketing will sell well. If your crappy $60 game doesn’t sell don’t blame it on the idea of charging money up front. By the same token, if your crappy free to play game doesn’t sell … then maybe you should examine the corpse thoroughly before concluding that the business model is crap.

Free to play: Restrictions as features

Wanna play a game? Here play this. ... Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more.... or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! ...  Hey! Stop running away!
Wanna play a game? Here play this. … Having fun? Well, if you let me bury your face in this cactus I can let you play a little more or you can just pay me and there will be no face/cactus interaction, you decide! … Hey! Stop running away! You’re missing out on a great game!

Energy mechanics are “features” of free-to-play games that restrict the player’s actions so that only a few things can be accomplished in a single day. If you were to wish this feature away, you’d find yourself paying real money for the privilege of doing more of the same virtual stuff at a faster pace. They are restrictions that serve to psychologically torture people into giving up money so the pain they cause goes away. They are systematic pain inducers that punish the player in the only way a game can: by wasting time. Although this type of system is quite new, this type of punishment has always been part of games in general, we just didn’t apply the concept in such a morally corrupt way.

On the other hand, an actually new system aimed at psychological manipulation is what I call the bait and switch. Simply put, the game presents you with something you won, congratulates you and then proceeds to inject an obstacle between you and the thing you won. Probably a share button or in the worst case, a convoluted system where you end up spending money. But wait, if you already won, why do you have to do anything to get it? Well, as simple as it may sound, you don’t want to lose what you feel you already have and if the same reward was presented as “Win this item IF…” then it wouldn’t have the same negative impact and therefore convert fewer people into paying customers.

The same brain mechanism worked wonders for Farmville, by forcing players into a schedule of planting and harvesting. Once players invested in-game currency into seeds and planted them, they were forced to harvest the results before the crops went bad and the investment went kaput. This pressure was designed specifically to form a habit in the player, so that they continue to invest their time on the game and eventually spend money. The more time invested into a game the higher the pain once things go bad.

The problem with these mechanics, apart from being morally corrupt, is that not many players respond to this pain by investing further into the game. It takes a susceptible mind* with enough spare time and income to consider investing in a painful game so that it momentarily becomes less painful. After that, the handful of paying customers will receive special treatment in the form of even more intense pain because statistically, once a customer puts money on the game they are X times more likely to pay again. So you get more pain for your money … yeah, that’s f*cked up.

Of course, as you might have imagined by now, the single largest problem with this scheme is that players can get fed up. Too much pain can drive a player away. Being painful translates into money some of the time, but it creates an expiration date for the product. No matter how massive a game gets, if it’s painful it will eventually fall on its face and be completely abandoned. Once the fad goes away, almost no player will speak well of the game or their creators.

So, in a nutshell, these mechanics make money, but they drive away their userbase in the long run.

I just hope that people start getting fed up with this kind of manipulation and start requesting content for their money instead of the removal of “features”.

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*Teenagers and older people. The latter experiencing casual games just recently and both unaccustomed to these types of psychological exploitation techniques.

Dear [REDACTED] Super Meat Boy

Dear Super Meat Boy*,

Go [insert expletive here] yourself

XOXO,

Me

——————

Super Meat Boy is a game about many things, it has many qualities that some people would find infuriating, but not me. The game in itself is pretty good actually. I’m not mad at SMB for being extremely difficult. No, the source of my anger comes from an admitedly far less interesting place.

See, this game is controlled by four keys in total: A (constantly pressed) running key, a jumping key and two directional keys. That’s it. So, please tell me dear reader which keys would you choose to use for each of these.

Done? Great! It almost doesn’t matter what you chose because I’m pretty sure that you didn’t choose SHIFT as the (constantly pressed) running key. That’s what SMB does and not only is it a pinky-destroying configuration, but the game doesn’t have a way to change any key binding**.

It doesn’t sound so terrible until you play for a few hours and your pinky starts to scream in agony.

So, SMB not only has a horrible key binding but it also doesn’t have a menu to change it. Dark Souls, one of the worst PC ports I’ve ever seen has such a menu, what’s this game’s excuse? Oh right, lazyness, sorry, I forgot about that.

(╯°□°)╯︵ ┻━┻

——————-

*Yes, I’m addressing the game directly as if it were a sentient being, because that’s how I roll.

**Upon further research, it seems that there’s a configuration file where the key bindings can be modified … that’s literally the laziest way possible to do this feature.

Microsoft backpedals on DRM: No online required … for now

Microsoft removed all that stupid DRM and region locking! Now you’ll be able to do the same things you could already do this generation!

Yeah, I didn’t believe it the first time I saw it. You mean that Microsoft, this gigantic corporation that moves at a snail’s pace when it comes to changes actually listened to their costumers? Unbelievable! Haha, yeah, of course not. They don’t care about their costumers, if they did we wouldn’t be in this situation in the first place. No, they just care about their sales and after an embarrassing show at E3 they finally understood that this whole fiasco could mean a financial disaster.

So, Microsoft backpedaling like a motherf*cker. Does that mean that the crisis was averted? As much as it pains me, most probably, yeah. Sony did a great comeback this gen, starting at last place, staying there for a long long time and then a few weeks ago beating the 360 worldwide sales by a hair. Took them almost 7 years to catch up, but they finally did it. Microsoft is capable of doing the same exact thing.

Microsoft showed that they are capable of screwing their customers over in the name of money and power. They showed that they can’t be trusted to design a system that is customer-friendly. They showed that they have their heads so far up their own ass that they never considered being wrong on such a boldly stupid move (this change in DRM policy comes too late and must be applied by a day one patch).

So, having said all of that, the lesson learned from all of this is that Microsoft can’t be trusted. They tried to screw us over and they are very capable of doing it again. The question is: When? and Where?

Sharing a PS4 game: A step by step guide

It’s official, I love the new Sony.

They showed that they’ve learned from their past mistakes and are able to carefully correct their course. PS4 updates won’t be such a hassle, you’ll be able to play a currently downloading game, the chip architecture is built for easy development, there is only one unified block of memory (PS3’s divided memory causes severe nut pain for devs) and they welcome any developer with no publisher (hooray for indies!).

All of that led to me being hopeful for Sony and the PS4. Then came the news that devs will be able to block sharing videos and screenshots of their games and I was reminded that they are human and can commit rather obvious mistakes.

Alright, now let’s see what Micros… yeah. Oh, neat conference. It’s 499 US dollars you say? That seems to be too pricey for a game machine that sh*ts all over my rights as a consumer, don’t you think?

And then comes the PS4’s E3 conference.

My god.

That is pure unadulterated trolling.

And I love it.

Damsel in Distress Part 2, where it gets good

The first installment in this series was … mostly boring. It spent 20 minutes enumerating old examples of the damsel in distress trope and then at the last 3 minutes we got to hear some actual analysis.

That’s why it’s a nice surprise to see how well the second installment is constructed. There are still countless examples being shown, some of which being questionable at best, but still her point remains unwavering through the whole thing.

THIS is what the first part should have been.

All I’m left to say is: Well done.