Saturday, November 29, 2014

Puzzles and Dragons - A History

It's impossible to talk about many mechanics present in the App Store today without talking about Puzzles and Dragons. As far as I can tell, this is the prototypical monster collection + fusion game. 

P&D launched in February 2012 and according to the developer, it drew inspiration from card games. However, there are clear influences from Puzzle Quest (2007), which took Bejeweled's gem-matching mechanic and turned it into something that fueled spellcasting according to gem color. A set of equipment and quests supplemented the core match-three gameplay of the genre. There's also a call to the Shin Megami Tensei games (1994), which have long featured the concept of collecting and fusing monsters together to increase their power. 

However, P&D couldn't be the powerhouse it is without their Free-To-Play mechanics. In order to progress, you need to gather additional monsters and these monster-gathering mechanics strongly resemble capsule machines (1). These impulse-buy vending machines might seem vaguely familiar to Americans who are used to American supermarket toy dispensers, but Japanese capsule machines are on another level entirely. 

Capsule machines are similar to collectible card packs such as Magic: The Gathering or Pok√©mon. You put in money, turn the crank, and something pops out. It might be a rare, limited edition item. It might be an overwhelmingly common item. The random reward functions like a slot machine, and there are people (2) who will camp machines, pouring money in for that One Rare Item.  

Certain mechanics may be novel to P&D, but it's difficult to tell given how widespread these mechanics are now. In particular, there is a friends mechanic where you select "helpers" (other players' avatars) to bring into battle. In some ways this is reminiscent of the Farmville model where you pull your friends into the game to get additional bonuses. P&D elevates this mechanic by creating a "friend coin" currency where using your friend's avatars gets you tokens used to summon slightly better monstersencouraging you to request a friendship with every person you come across.  

One way to measure Puzzle and Dragon's influence is by examining its UI and seeing how other games differ. For example, here's the "capsule machine" mechanic from P&D: 
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From Dragon Coins (May 2014, two years later): 
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 From Monster Strike (Oct 2014): 
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There are countless more examples, but they all share similarities, aesthetic and functional. Limited-time promotional drops, a dragon-and-egg aesthetic, even the tabs at the bottom are all nearly identical across these three games. Each game lets you spend real money to purchase additional drops, but leaks out a small, steady amount of currency to keep you playing for free.  

The similarities don't end there. The quest system rarely varies, focusing on timed and promotional content: 
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Fusing monsters together is identical: 
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All of these heavily repeated elements have some serious design flaws, though. The incessant focus on gambling-like mechanics puts this game pretty squarely in the “pay-to-win” category, where the quickest way to success is to dump money into promotional “egg” contests to get superior monsters. These superior monsters thoroughly outclass common monsters that drop via early missions.  

Unfortunately, the game isn’t interested in teaching new players this lesson. The only way to learn that using fusion on early monsters will never get you to the same level of a rare monster is by understanding that this is a genre convention. The fusion mechanics tend to be opaque, never revealing the kind of stat increases you get via levelling or evolution. As a result, you are tricked into thinking you are progressing when in reality you receive pitiful stat bonuses. 

Even the combat mechanics obfuscate how meaningful a monster’s statistics are. There’s no way to relate a +100 attack stat to the actual amount of damage you do to an enemy without carefully tracking numbers and puzzling out the algebra on your own. There are elemental bonuses where water is strong against ice, but “strong” is never defined – is it 1.5x attack? 1.1x? 2x? On top of that, when choosing a battle, you have no idea of the relative strength of the enemies versus your own team. Some missions will be labelled “hard” or “medium”, but that has no relationship to the strength of your team. It’s simply a static description that never gets updated. The only way to find out is to try and fail. Even comparing the relative levels of monsters doesn’t work because every “evolution” or step up on the power scale resets a monster’s level back to 1. This means a level 1 5-star enemy is much, much stronger than a level 5 1-star enemy.  

Remember how Puzzle Quest was an influence on Puzzle and Dragons? Here's the latest version of Puzzle Quest: 
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There are plenty of similarities. The use of a limited-time promotion, token-based withdrawal system, with an option to pay real money to get more characters. There's a quest system that's partially time-gated. There's still the levelling aspect to collectible characters. Yet the interface and underlying mechanics are distinct enough to show that being inspired by Puzzles and Dragons doesn't mean mimicking it right down to the menu layouts!  

In fact, Marvel Puzzle Quest fixes many of the problems with the traditional Puzzles and Dragons formula. While there is still an emphasis on stronger characters, even low-level characters can be useful as specific characters will get boosts for specific events. Furthermore, all characters are measured on a relative scale where a level-40 1-star character is roughly as strong as a level-40 4-star character. Levelling up your characters can only be done by collecting one of three character “covers”, where each of the three covers improves one specific ability. Events are rated “trivial” to “impossible” based on the levels of your team as compared to the enemy. For Player-Versus-Player matchups, you can see your enemy’s team, their levels, and the strength of their abilities. You can even see the exact damage done by every character for every move they can make.  

I don’t mean to come down too hard on Puzzles and Dragons. As I said, the influence it has on games even now is omnipresent and undeniable. However, many of the mechanics of Puzzles and Dragons feed into player fears about free-to-play games. They are grindy, opaque, and encourage paying real money in order to make any sort of progress. Yet even though the roots of Puzzles and Dragons do show that these fears are well-founded, games can still learn from the success of Puzzles and Dragons without necessarily falling into those same potholes. It’s important to understand these mechanics and what makes them work so that we can fix their flaws and thus make games that are not only more “fair”, but more interesting. 



(1) It's hard to find an exact source for when these machines became popular in Japan. The best I can find is about 1965, but this leads to a Japanese Wikipedia page. 
(2) Source: Personal conversations with people who have lived in Japan, collaborated on Twitter. Look, I'm doing the best I can, ok? 

Saturday, November 22, 2014

business speak

I have a job at a large corporation. We do Business at my job. It's important that everyone in Business understands what Business is and why Business happens. The cause/effect of getting everyone to agree with each other on Business and move forward is called Leadership.

Leadership has its own language. i don't know how well this language varies from business spheres to activist spheres to political spheres. With that in mind, I'm not super interested in telling people what to do or how to do it. I am interested in sharing what I have learned about Leadership and organization.

Here is how I have been structuring my thoughts lately:

What is my Goal?

What Strategy will I use to achieve my goal?

What Tactics will I use when enacting my strategy?

This isn't uncommon, Business-wise. Some people append stuff like "VISION" and "MISSION" to the front, but I don't find that useful given my rank and what I can affect in my daily life.
Many times, you will come in conflict with people. When you are in conflict, it is useful to understand where the conflict lies. To pinpoint where your conflict lies, it's important to be specific about each of these stages:

A "goal" is a specific statement about the end result of what you want to achieve.  "I want peace between humans and mutants so mutants can live without fear" is a goal. Different people and organizations have different goals. Sometimes those goals go hand in hand. If my goal is "I want to stop global warming" and your goal is "I want to preserve animal species", we are not necessarily in conflict and we may share strategies and tactics. If my goal is "I want to stop global warming" and your goal is "I want to get as rich as possible in the next 20 years", we are probably in a state of significant and irreparable conflict. Ideally, goals are specific, measurable and attainable so you can come back after a time and have a solid idea if you succeeded or not.

The "strategy" is your plan for achieving that goal.  Many times, people who have compatible goals will have differing strategies. Scott Summers and Wolverine both want peace between humans and mutants, but Scott's strategy is to engage in guerilla warfare against the enemies of mutants, while Wolverine wants to create a safe space for young mutants to come into their own so they can control their powers without harming innocent bystanders. If we both want to stop global warming, my strategy might be to appeal to lawmakers to change laws, while your strategy might be to raise public awareness and have the public on your side. Disagreements about strategy usually focus on the most effective way to achieve a goal. As such, they are not always irreparable, but you will usually find a conflict where some people believe a strategy is effective and safe, where others think it is ineffective, or poses an unacceptable risk. This disagreement is often the cause of a fracture within a group, where opinions on different strategies are so polarized that the common goal they seek to achieve is no longer enough to unite people.

"Tactics" is how you implement your strategy. Scott enacts guerrilla warfare by using psychic locators of new mutants, teleporting mutants to get in and out quickly without getting tracked, and targeting Sentinels to strike back at anti-mutant forces. Global warming activists pursuing legal paths might write congressional representatives, bribeI mean, fundraise for lawmakers, and focus heavily on lobbying. Tactics to raise public awareness might use splashy demonstrations like flinging non-renewable energy at top executives, public demonstrations, or hanging banners off bridges. For the most part, if you agree on goals and strategy, any difference of opinion about tactics can just be added into the playbook. If I want to pass out fliers, and you want to put up newspaper ads, you can do both without conflict.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Runers

I'm on the record as being interested in procedural content, but like a lot of things, procedural content is hard to do well, and when it falls short, it falls very short. Runers is a top-down twin-stick shooter. It's a "roguelike", which in this context means that you get a single chance per character to navigate a randomly generated series of dungeons. Unfortunately, it falls short. 

The primary mechanic of the game is that you can craft your own "spells", which are projectile magicks used to injure and defeat enemies. Sometimes, enemies drop a "rune" of a specific element. Runes can be combined to create specific spells, but it's up to you to discover the combinations. 
  
I love the sense of discovery I get when finding new spells. My first hour with the game was just trying to uncover as many spells as possible, slowly unlocking each one's secrets and nuances. Unfortunately, to combine two runes requires a special item which drops rarely. After a while, I got frustrated with how slowly my new discoveries came. That's always my problem with a roguelike. Your fate is determined as much as by luck as it is by skill and knowledge. If you get bad luck in Runers, you won't get any runes to drop at all, or plenty of runs but no way to combine them into more powerful elements. 

The dungeon generation is an example of procedural content gone bad. There seem to be a handful of custom-made rooms which randomly get linked together. Great level design plays against the mechanics of the game, allowing you to adopt different strategies based on the layout of the level. Unfortunately, these handful of rooms alternate between: a) large, empty room full of enemies, b) large, empty room with a giant block in the middle, full of enemies, c) small room full of crates. Games like Little Raiders do a much better job by creating varied rooms with different chokepoints, barriers, and patterns that play off of enemy behavior and player instincts to keep each room feeling fresh. Runers does not. 

Speaking of enemy behavior, every enemy either chases after you, or runs away from you. The most effective strategy for every room is to run in circles while shooting nonstop, and then trying to chase after the few enemies actively running away from you. This isn't necessarily about procedural content, but even the ghost movements in PacMan were more complicated than this. There are a few enemies who do something different, like steal upgrades and run away, or give you a fake aiming cursor to confuse you, or follow walls. There are a few bosses and sub-bosses who act slightly differently. Other than that, it's not interesting and dominant tactics rarely change from room to room.  

So there you have it. Runers could have been an awesome experience for mefiguring out combinations to increasingly cool spells and running roughshod over monsters. Instead, I got burned out pretty quickly on the non-existent difference between levels, reliance on sheer luck for getting new spells, and the monotony of enemy encounters.