Monday, September 17, 2012

Bones to pick with Planet Baen

So, at the recommendation of Slagdar the Ineffable, I'm trying out planet Baen. Yeah, pros and cons. And naturally I'm gonna be talking more about the cons than the other way around.

So, I'm actually not that dismayed by the game's progress quest like nature. It's all about making your numbers go up, but there are ways to fiddle that, and make the numbers go up faster. I like seeing numbers go up, and I like seeing it happen even faster, so that part of the game doesn't really bother me much. And there are constraints on design.

It's an open ended game on the internet. You want your players to play for as long as possible. Given that the cost to play is "free" the budget for making this game isn't through the roof. There's only so much you can do to keep them playing; games like World of Warcraft are constantly writing the next patch, the new dungeon so there's more stuff to keep their current player base going. If you're bribing your players to play you don't have the same money for software development.

So they try other ways to keep the players from getting bored; they limit the time players can play; after a certain amount of interacting with the game you have to wait until a period of time has passed until you can play again. It works; As I'm writing this I'm waiting for the daily rollover at Kingdom of Loathing. So, in Planet Baen you get a series of decisions that take perhaps 20 minutes a day. (Or would, if I wasn't also the type to obsessively check this stuff) and then you're done. Works.

I have my problems with the specifics of the decisions being made.

When they designed the game, they wanted some sort of a politics simulator. From that linked story there was some sort of arguing about politics that went down, and they're right, a lot of science fiction uses the laboratories of the stars to demonstrate the consequences of politics. Or at least to argue their points. To take a classic example, Heinlein's Stranger in a Strange Land expresses his ideas about sex, religion and human nature, and his Starship Troopers discusses his ideas of foreign policy. (To wit; there are always going to be wars, so it's best to always be prepared to fight and win them).

This is a dangerous road to go down. To begin with, politics simulators never really work. Whatever you actually think about politics bleeds through in the assumptions you program in. If you think that free markets are heartless and cruel, your game is inevitably going to reflect that and penalize players for going down that path. In principle you can compensate for that by knowing your biases and reflecting that in your equations, but that doesn't work. Because then your simulator will give you results that you know aren't right, because such and such a variable was left out.

Whatever conclusions you get, they always won't be correct because you've left variables out. The only system complicated enough to accurately simulate something as messy as politics is reality itself. Anything less is an approximation, and you can't really say how close it gets. This is my problem with simulations in general (err... not Sim City, but people simulating the climate or stock market to make real world predictions.) So when I play the game, I choose to join the Hayek league because the free market is inherently the moral choice, and if it doesn't earn me in game stats as quickly as the others I get annoyed at the game.

There's another problem with making these things. Even if you could make the simulation accurate, that wouldn't make a good game. Real life isn't balanced. If you take a stat in reality and you try to min max it (money, for example) hey, maybe you end up like Bill Gates. Or maybe you lose out and go broke. So how does someone who went broke catch up with someone who's a multi-billionaire? They don't. In a game, it's always more fun when the outcome is still in doubt, so we put in catch up mechanics to prevent people from taking a commanding lead early on and just winning. If the free market is really as superior to command economies as history tends to show, then it makes for a lousy game mechanic. You either choose correctly and win or you don't and you lose. So when you put that into your game simulation you cannot make it accurate and still have a game worth playing.

And finally, when you mix your politics with your business, you offend people and you lose customers. See that bit above there where I said that the free market is inherently the moral choice? Goodbye, half our potential customers. We both know that you'd never translate into actual customers unless you got jobs. Hippies.

There are other problems with the game; the design is somewhat clunky, and they make some incorrect choices, like making me read white text on a yellow-green background. And some of their mechanics choices are counterintuitive, and furthermore penalize successively for not intuiting them correctly. While I like the idea of using a game as a next generation advertising tool to sell science fiction books, I think they'll need to put some more work into their game.

On the other hand, free books!

Sunday, September 2, 2012

On Gamification

So I'm looking at the trusty calendar of blog posts around here, and it seems it's been about five months since I personally have written anything. To be fair, I've had something to write about for a couple months now, not including the Axis and Allies Global contests where the Axis actually won. You'd think that would be something that should have come up, especially since I was the one who pulled it (actually it was twice) off, but I'm lazy. And as it turns out, the topic I am going to write about isn't the one that's getting written about. Suckers!, you shut up.