Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Achievements are Broken; Here's How to Fix Them

Fundamentally, an achievement is just a publicly-viewable checkmark indicating the completion of a particular action. The Xbox 360 added points gained from each achievement that accumulate into a total across all games. The PlayStation 3 followed suit, as did Apple's GameCenter. (Notably, Steam did not. Steam achievements have no point value and do not add to a cumulative total.)

In order for these points to be meaningful, there has to be some kind of equality across games. The 360 mandates that each full retail game must provide exactly 1000 points worth of achievements (it's a bit more complicated than that, but for our purposes let's keep it simple). The PS3 has a similar rule, though its numbers are obfuscated (for convenience here, I shall refer to their point value as also 1000). This prevents oneupmanship between game developers, who might otherwise put out games with ever-increasing amounts of achievement points available, which would quickly render the running total meaningless and destroy much of the marketing value of achievements.

So what happens when a game launches with bad achievements? It's become standard for games to be patched, but it's unusual for achievements to be patched, and even then it's generally just to avert controversy via a cosmetic change. Because of the need to keep a consistent point total, you can't add new achievements without removing old ones - and removing or replacing an achievement is almost certain to upset people. No matter how ludicrous the achievement, somebody out there has it - and they don't want the proof of their hard work stricken from the record. If you leave it up on their profile but make it no longer available for new players to get, then the new players may feel slighted that the opportunity to earn it has been taken away from them.

But the inability to add new achievements is severely limiting. It means you can't fix problem achievements (of which there are plenty). It also leaves out a powerful way to grow a game - just look at how Valve has kept Team Fortress 2 fresh by adding, among other things, batches of new Steam achievements. (Steam achievements don't have points, so they can freely be added without running afoul of point imbalance.)

The Xbox One has one solution - allow more achievements to be added over time, increasing the point total available from the game.

"Microsoft won't require developers to add Achievements post-release, but it sees a steady diet of additional Gamerscore as a crucial facet of the next generation Live experience - particularly, we imagine, for big-bottomed experiences like Elder Scrolls and Fallout titles. . . .

There's no formal cap, either - players might ultimately earn 'a couple of thousand Gamerscore' and up from a well-supported title. Completionists may find this troubling - what's to stop EA flooding a game with points to boost popularity ahead of a DLC release, cheating the dedicated of that coveted 100% Achievement rating? Answer: Microsoft will take action if it feels developers and publishers are abusing the system."
Edwin Evans-Thirlwell, How Microsoft's "super-charged" Xbox One Achievements - Gamerscore 2.0, Challenges, Game DVR and more

Time will tell how well this solution works, but any system that requires manual intervention to prevent abuse seems very precarious. Surely there must be a way to allow adding achievements without removing any and without upsetting the point balance between games?

Well, there is. My friend Iceman thought of it.

Allow games to have any amount of points available, but only let 1000 of those points be added to the cumulative total.

This approach presents several advantages:

  • Games can preemptively buffer against poorly-designed achievements by starting with more than 1000 points available. A couple of bad achievements aren't that big of a deal if you can go after alternatives and still get the maximum value added to your cumulative total.
  • Games can fix bad achievements by adding better-designed versions alongside them. The old version can stand as a testament to the hardcore, but poor design need not cost gamers their points.
  • Games can freely add blazingly difficult achievements that go above and beyond what could reasonably be considered normal completion. On a smaller scale, games could "stack" achievements - for example, let the player reach 1000 points with a thorough playthrough on lower difficulties, but then provide extra achievements for beating it on higher difficulties. These achievements wouldn't block anyone from saying they'd completed the game, but would still provide extra challenges and bragging rights for those capable of and interested in going after them.
  • Games can safely span genres or play modes and provide a full stack of points for everyone, even players who are completely uninterested in one of the available modes. For instance, games that have both single-player and online multi-player often have large segments of their audience who are really only interested in one or the other of these modes. Rather than splitting the achievements between what are essentially multiple games, each can have a complete set.
  • Relatedly, games can avoid much of the problems inherent in multi-player achievements (which many players do not like) simply by making sure it's possible to get 1000 points without ever setting foot online. The multi-player achievements are then still good for what they were good for in the first place - comparing directly against other people playing the same game - but players are not punished for having a bad internet connection (or none at all), lacking a paid subscription (in the case of the 360), or playing a game after its online community has waned (if it even had one in the first place) or after its servers have been shut down.
  • Games can expand their shelf life and stay fresh longer. More achievements means more things to do. They can grant extra depth to a game, and renew or generate interest long after launch.
  • Since players looking to increase their cumulative total would have no reason to keep playing after getting their 1000 points, completion beyond 1000 points is done solely based on interest in the individual game, and would thus serve as a way to show how much you like a particular game.

Monday, July 28, 2014

Amazon Opens 3D Printing Store

So, Amazon has opened a 3D Printing Store. The selection's pretty limited, though, and you can't print arbitrary designs. It's hard to get excited about this in a world that already has shapeways, sculpteo, pinshape, etc.

I've honestly found it difficult to get excited about consumer 3D printing in general, because what I consider to be the obvious use case - printing your game characters - is incredibly underserved. You can print your World of Warcraft characters, you can print your Minecraft worlds, and that's about it. (You used to be able to print your Rock Band 2 characters, but that stopped when Rock Band 3 came out.) I would pay a lot of money for a print of my City of Heroes main, or my character from the Saints Row games. This would be great even for games where you just customize an existing character - I can get a Team Fortress 2 Medic, but I can't get him wearing the right hat.

I hope we get to that world someday. I do enjoy iconic, established characters from beloved games, but I have much more personal attachment to the characters I've actually created - they've been imbued with a piece of myself. Nobody else has one quite like them.

Relatedly, with Nintendo coming out with game-enabled figurines of their cross-game characters called "amiibos", it's a perfect time to ask again - why can't I get a print of my Mii? More than one of the amiibo-using games allows you to play as a Mii, so why not sell amiibos of actual Miis? I know it can't possibly look as nice as the other amiibos, but it would be yours in a way the others can't be. I know I'd get one.

Sunday, July 27, 2014

Sony to Lure Nintendo Gamers with a Fractured Platform

Wait, Sony's plan to win back Wii gamers is to sell them games they can already buy, but charge more for them?

"...House is keen for Sony to remaster old PlayStation games for this new audience on PS4. We're already seeing the fruits of this with The Last of Us Remastered on PS4, due out soon. Naughty Dog's game launched on PS3 in June 2013, and Sony believes there are a significant number of PS4 owners who never played it."
Wesley Yin-Poole, Sony: PS4 targeting Wii owners who skipped PS3 and Xbox 360

If the greatest hits of the PS3 are a substantial draw for the PS4, then maybe the console should have been - oh, I don't know, backwards compatible? Maybe they shouldn't have fractured the PlayStation platform to begin with, so that they wouldn't need re-releases to try to patch it back up.

I'm sure somebody thought it was a great idea to repackage these games and sell them for launch prices again. But this comes off as an argument that now is a great time to buy a PS3, not a PS4. You can get one and the same games they're using to sell the PS4 for a fraction of the cost, with a much larger library of other games available to try out next. And if you're coming from the Wii, the graphical jump from SD to HD will be plenty impressive - way bigger than the jump from PS3 to PS4.

I don't know who this is really for. If you already have the games, there's no real reason to pick them up on PS4 again. If you don't, it's still better to get them on PS3. A backwards-compatible PS4 would have been more appealing for new and existing customers alike.

"It seems like [a] crazy decision. Consoles gain value as their library grows. They also gain brand loyalty. If I have a bookshelf full of Xbox games at home when my Xbox dies, then it's a safe bet I'll just replace it with a new Xbox even if there are other, cheaper, more popular, more reliable devices out there. I'm tied to the machine by the library, and the longer I'm with the machine the bigger the library gets. It's almost like a cell phone where the penalty for cancelling the service grows over time. A lot of other businesses would LOVE to have this kind of soft, incremental lock-in.

But if the new generation isn't backwards compatible then I'm cut off from that library. The incentives tying players to the platform are gone. When you break compatibility you're setting your customers free to dabble with the competition and begin a process of gradual lock-in with them."
Shamus Young, Experienced Points: Why the PS4 Doesn't Do PS3 Games

For my part, I still have no PS4 and I still have no concrete plans to buy one.

Monday, May 13, 2013

Boobs are Not the Enemy: Videogames and the Male Gaze

Fancy CarSuppose I'm making a film about street racers. The film's characters have a great appreciation of cars, so when they first see the fancy new car that just might enable the hero to win the race, there's an establishing shot with a long, slow pan across the car while dramatic music plays. Later, there's a scene of the villain in his fancy car which the audience is seeing for the first time. There's again a slow pan and dramatic music, even though there aren't any other characters around. This time, the scene is establishing what a badass the villain is - not to any other characters, but to the audience itself. The way the camera lingers over the car's lines isn't showing a character's appreciation. It's to allow the audience to experience their own appreciation.

Probably the people watching my street racing movie like fancy cars, so they will appreciate the scene with the villain's car. But now suppose I make another movie about a small-town high school teacher rallying the community for a local cause. When I first show the teacher driving to work, I use the same cinematic tricks I did in the other film - slowly panning along the car while playing dramatic music. Then the teacher gets to the school, and the story moves on.

Someone who really likes cars may still enjoy this scene, but to most people it's going to be distracting at best. The car isn't important to the story at all - why is it receiving so much attention? Why would I assume that the audience of this completely different film would be into cars? If I keep doing this, with more and more films on various subjects all treating cars in this same way, people who don't care about cars may start to get annoyed with my work. They might feel that I'm being exclusionary in my film-making, privileging part of the audience over the rest for no clear reason. Plenty of people aren't obsessed with cars - why can't they enjoy my low-budget monster movie or my railroad magnate biopic too? Why do I insist on shoving in these totally distracting segments that damage the experience for them?

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Uninformed Economic Voters

Recently, your friend and mine Cliff Bleszinski wrote an essay defending microtransactions in general and EA in specific. There are a lot of things to be said about this essay - some of which are said expertly by Jim Sterling here, and some of which touch on concepts discussed by Shamus Young writing a couple of years ago about Bobby Kotick here and here.

Cliff's main point is that game developers exist within an economic landscape, and as such they will do what makes them money and avoid what doesn't. As consumers, our job is to vote with our wallets, supporting what we like and boycotting what we don't.

In response to this, I'm going to finally post something I wrote back in October 2011. I never put it up before because I couldn't find a way to turn it into a full article. It's really just one simple idea. But as foreseen by Nathan Grayson and proved by the recent SimCity debacle, if anything it's more relevant today than it was a year and a half ago.

Here it is.

Monday, December 3, 2012

Tropes and Trolls: When the Game Is Not What You Think It Is

In games where the player character has a specific goal - save the Princess, escape the testing facility, defeat a nemesis - the player is presumed to share this goal. But even if the narrative does a good job lining up player motivations and character goals, there's still a wrinkle. The character wants to accomplish something, and the player wants to experience accomplishing that thing. This is why we bother playing games at all, rather than just watching the endings on YouTube. If the player had the exact same motivations as the character, they'd cut whatever corners they could to beat the game as quickly as possible.

The humor in this video comes from the tension between Mario's goals and the player's goals. Of course Mario would want to just warp straight to the Princess and save her immediately. But for the player that would mean skipping the entire game, which would completely defeat the purpose of playing it in the first place. As long as Mario has that warp whistle in his inventory, there's dissonance between what the player wants to do and what Mario would want to do.

So what happens when games create that dissonance on purpose?

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

The GameStop/OnLive Debacle: How I Like To Think It Happened

GameStop Underling: Huh. That's interesting.

GameStop Boss: What is?

Underling: These Deus Ex: Human Revolution games Square Enix shipped us include a voucher for a free OnLive copy of the game. I don't think they mentioned they were gonna do that.

Boss: What? OnLive? But we just bought our own digital delivery game service - Impulse! That makes OnLive our competitor!

Underling: I suppose it does.

Boss: We better open the boxes and remove the vouchers.

Underling: Wait, what?

Monday, August 8, 2011

Blizzard and the Two-Level Deception

Recently we discussed Blizzard's announcement that they are saddling Diablo III with terrible DRM, which they say isn't DRM, but which everyone knows is DRM. I mentioned that there was much to be said about the contemporaneous announcements of a real-money auction house and a ban on modding. Well, the time for that is now.

Blizzard and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad DRM

You may have heard that there's been a bit of a kerfuffle recently in response to some news about Diablo III. I'll walk you through it - but first, we need to talk about Ubisoft.

On July 28, Ubisoft reported that they consider their constant connection DRM scheme to be a "success." This despite the uproar and backlash caused by the scheme, the fact that it was immediately cracked, the clear demonstration of the system's flaws when denial of service attacks locked out paying customers and left pirates unaffected, and Ubisoft's eventual scaling back of the DRM to a once-per-run validation. Their reasoning?

Thursday, April 7, 2011

Doing My Dailies, Part Two: Doctor Professor Replies

Part One is here.

Anonymous said...
Post an update....what do you think of the replies you've got here?

March 15, 2011 2:32 PM

Okay. You're on.