Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Critical Combat Systems in Competitive Gaming

In this article, retired Dungeon Master Derrick B. Smith delves into the history of Critical Combat Systems and explains why such systems may not be the best choice for competitive games.

Computer game players are finding more games with Critical Combat Systems for entertainment. The inclusion of a random critical system in a non-competitive game can bring a level of excitement. The inclusion in any competitive gaming environment is a mistake. It turns a competitive game from being fair and balanced to one of random dumb luck. Imagine tossing a 6-sided die to decide how many points a touchdown was worth in an American Football game.

The starting point for Critical System being introduced to gaming dates back to the beginning of the RPG genre. Typically seen as “House Rules,” many groups adopted the concept. Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and similar RPG games have simplified combat systems that lend themselves to the addition of a “Critical Strike”. Many groups would later go on to add a “Critical Fail” mechanic to their existing gameplay.
Photo taken by Davi Silva.

The D&D combat system used a 20-sided die (d20) roll for combat resolution. In its easiest form, any natural d20 roll of a 20 would allow for a “Critical Hit”. This allowed the attacker to double the damage the target suffers. There were many ways to resolve this double damage. Most groups’ double the full damage including any modifiers the player’s character was entitled to utilize. Other groups adopted a doubling of only the weapons base damage die than adding any modifiers unchanged. The main difference in the two systems was the maximum damage. The second reduced the potential significantly.

Other gaming systems added complex “Critical Strike” charts typically broken down into weapon groups and creature body type/armor. Though it allowed for more diversity in the results, they also slowed gameplay down. A talented Dungeon Master could story line the results without relying on any complex charts to add flavor to the game.

The Critical Fail system allowed for comical or tragic failures. The failure was rarely automatic and very dependent on the situation at the time of the failure. This shows why a true RPG requires a Human Game Master. Though computers are great for doing calculations and simplifying some tasks, they are not able to adapt to a changing story line based on game events and player decisions. The fumbling player would in many cases be required to make additional die rolls to reduce the negative result. An example would be to prevent breaking a weapon or hitting an ally or themselves.

As computer-based games developed, it was natural to see RPG-styled games created. A “Critical Strike” component added to non-competitive games can be more exciting than harmful. Within a Player vs Computer game, the effect of this random element does not add a noticeable negative aspect to the game. This is not true when you have games designed to be competitive or built with a Player vs Player (PVP) aspect. The random element that a “Critical Strike” adds could be compared to flipping a coin to determine who goes first in each round of a Chess Match. This random factor removes the development of tactical skills from many games. Players will still develop strategies for gameplay but there will be many who only try to score that Critical to win.

There are games designed to be competitive and the random luck “Critical Strikes” add diminishes the inherent skill component some games contain. Instead of an evolution of attacks and defenses strategies being developed, players migrate to getting lucky and falsely believe that luck is similar to true skills. Though a Critical Strike system brings uncertainty and a sense of suspense, the thrill does not last long and an enduring game fails to evolve.

Derrick B. Smith is a retired Dungeon Master. He started playing D&D and similar games before it was called 1st edition. He is still waiting for the first real RPG computer game to be developed. Also, Biker, Trucker, Gamer, Seamstress.

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

On Critical Systems and Fairness

In this article, educator Molly Thunderbreeze gives her thoughts on critical systems and how they impact the player's view of fairness in the game.

The introduction of a critical system into the gameplay aspects of a game has both quantitative and qualitative disadvantages in both the PVP and PVE areas of any game. Fairness should be strictly monitored and maintained in order that not only the PVE but PVP remains fair for all players through quantitative analysis of any proposed changes. At first glance, a critical system is quite exhilarating (i.e., fun!) resulting in shorter boss fights, or shorter PVP matches. However, eventually everyone will be on the receiving end, and this has long term affects on a user's attitudes towards the game.

You do not want your players screaming, “THAT'S NOT FAIR!” ripping them out of their immersion experience. A primary concern for game makers should be creating a sense of fairness in their game. A game does not have to be 'fair,' but it must have the appearance of being fair most of the time.

Typically, the implementation of these critical systems could never quantitatively maintain fairness (killing a player on the first or second round in a turn based game, or within the first three minutes in a real time strategy game will never be considered fair or fun for very long), and for this reason serious consideration of these overpowering critical systems should be abandoned.

Critical systems are an interesting concept, but are often implemented without reviewing overall ramifications. Many game makers create updates on a 'release and see' basis, testing only non-crashability of the game. Prepublication beta testing is where likability is typically tested, and then further testing in this area is abandoned with later updates, a sort of "well they are hooked so why bother?" mentality. I believe that the issue regarding balance (in both PVE and PVP) outweigh all other 'advantages' to adding a critical system. Once a critical system has been introduced, the issue of player expectancy comes into play (e.g., disappointments over not getting the critical boosting in either a PVP or PVE setting, the critical system used against the user themselves, etc.), and should be considered before incorporating any critical system into a game. Most critical systems overpower the user in both the PVP and PVE settings

For a PVE environment, we have frustration over a slower game experience when it is not 'working' for the user, and/or frustration if the monsters are successful in critical hits against the user. In the PVP environment, if any part of the arena is luck-based (turn-based games are notorious for this issue), then the addition of a critical system just stretches credulity for the arena being 'fair' in most users' minds.

SIDE NOTE: If a critical was not a 'doubling' but rather a smaller percentage boosting of the hit, it might be a viable addition to a game. However, mathematical analysis for fairness would need to be done on the overall system to see if such a system was feasible. Simply increasing all players by a flat percentage with each leveling will almost ensure skewing fairness for all users of the game at some upper level, and it gets more uncontrollable with a critical system in place. Quantitative analysis must be done with each level change to ensure a 'fair game' is experienced by all.

Wizard101 Example: Wizard101 made the mistake of doing two things with their Celestia update: adding a critical system, and doubling the stats for all users from level 50 to level 60. It resulted in users being overpowered for not only PVE, but especially PVP. The arena matching system that was broken became even more of a problem (a simple level 60 = 2*level 50 would not have sufficed as a fix). To add to the problem, there was the issues of employee turnover rates (not enough employees in the command chain that knew the game), too many short term consultants, and no prior quantitative analysis on the proposed changes. While bumping stats by 50% is a good starting point for beta testing a new level, it is not something that should have gone live without testing and analysis. The leveling of users was not a gradual consistent climb and thus, any arena matching routine that considered only level would be useless.

Molly Thunderbreeze taught both mathematics and education at the university level. Her educational background is in applied mathematics and education.  She is currently attempting to create a game that is both fun and educational in the area of mathematics in an MMO game environment.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

How GDC 2014 Changed My Life

The following article was written for the IGDA Newsletter.  

“What is IGDA?”, “What can it do for me?”, “How can I join?”, “What is this card game?” I soon join the throng to the open bar, if only to escape the endless questions and playing the soon-to-be-heavily-redesigned card game over and over. My lack of identification as a volunteer of any kind allows me to mingle freely while the line inches forward and many a fellow developer holds what is presumably their first drink of the night. Being one laden with social anxiety of a nearly dysfunctional order, I went back for several more until I was able to rattle off appropriate replies and corresponding facial movements without hesitation. Looking around, it was tough to believe it was only the first day.

Then Wednesday came. The first day of the Expo Floor. By this point, I knew my fellow volunteers well, and we all had worked out any logistical wrinkles that arose, so it was supposed to be quite smooth, albeit more populated. My social experience up to this point was limited to passing by a few hundred people at most, and I figured this would be no problem. Never had I miscalculated quite so severely.

I fought quite successfully to keep it together, until I decided to go visit the very reason the population tripled: the Expo Floor. I nonchalantly descended the escalator as I had done many times in the previous few days, only to be confronted with a wall of humanity. Being my usual headstrong self, I decided to ignore the small heart attack and press on toward the booth near the door with the familiar Project Anarchy logo. The woman at the counter was busy, so I wandered the area, slowly delving deeper and deeper into the monstrous crowds until I found myself completely surrounded. No familiar logos, friendly faces, or exit signs in sight, I felt a surge of tears which were quickly fought with a more powerful surge of adrenaline. Despite being wide-eyed and sweating bullets, I was determined to appear at least somewhat casual as I attempted to find my way out. I couldn’t ask as my voice would betray me, so I wandered toward a wall with big windows on the second level. I found myself faced with a hallway and more people, and though I didn’t see them, the escalators that would have led me back to the safety of the IGDA booth. Instead, I blindly pressed on, my iron will quickly rusting away. My breath quickened and tears stung my eyes as I followed the hallway past another escalator that would lead to the registration area (which I would later backtrack to, after encountering the GDC Play area).

I eventually found myself outside between the Moscone North and South buildings, and couldn’t hold it in anymore. I pulled off my nametag to hide my shame, and cried. I don’t know how long it was, but I eventually calmed down enough to realize people were staring at me and I should head back in. I went straight to the IGDA booth, and broke down again. Rather than stare at me, they rallied around me. I was ashamed of myself, but they were all trying to support me. A lot of them came out as feeling the same as me, so I wasn’t dealing with this alone. I cried more and drank pretty heavily that evening, but that was the day I will always remember as one where I felt like I belonged, like I was safe, like I was cared about.

The rest of the week went more smoothly, and they continued to support me while I tried my best to support them. I was among friends, and this is something I will never forget. It didn’t make the anxiety go away, and I still had some rough points. I met developers, exchanged cards, answered questions, revisited the Expo Floor with other volunteers who played it off as nothing more than what they wanted to do anyway. But on that Wednesday at GDC, I faced one of my deepest fears, and felt nothing but the warm embrace and support of friends, rather than the pain I expected. This is how GDC14 has changed my life.

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky.

Sunday, October 5, 2014

October 2014: Randomness

This month's topic, Randomness was suggested by game designer Micheal "VektorWithAK" Brown.

He writes:
One of my favorite topics regarding game design which has also sparked up some conversation in my Bachelor course is RNG (mostly critical strikes) in PVP games combat systems and how (IMO) unhealthy it is as both a concept and in balance.

Some issues:
  • competitive environments in games that can be swayed to either end of a broad spectrum of results based solely on one or multiple favorable or unfavorable internal rolls. 
  • massive lows that can come from not just the player on the receiving end but the critical striker who gets unlucky streaks. 
  • Is the overall player satisfaction/high enough to justify RNG being applied to PVP combat systems?
Additionally the highs and lows players experience on either side of the crit RNG from the following:
  • performing the critical strike 
  • receiving a critical strike 
  • getting unlucky and getting chains of non-crit strikes. 
Higher crit rates generally are countered with lower base values of damage so an unlucky chain of RNG rolls could leave a lower damage player losing multiple fights they could have won had they simply had a weapon balanced around flat damage and non-RNG reliance.

Even looking at recent games, Destiny players have been up in arms about the RNG of the loot system and Engram rewards though I think true RNG loot/rewards vs pseudo RNG loot/rewards is a completely different topic and deserves addressing on its own.

As always, submission guidelines along with submission procedure can be found on the right hand side of the blog.  Topic suggestions and articles are welcome!

Micheal"VektorWithAK" Brown is long time gaming enthusiast turned Games Designer. Hailing from Melbourne, Australia he is better known among fellow gamers for his strong opinions on game design, approaches to balance as well as being unabashedly vocal about his thoughts on crowd-funding/free-to-play being the future of the industry.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Choice For Female Characters

In this article, game writer Sande Chen reviews data from a study on female characters in media and calls on content creators in the game industry to make a choice to include more female characters in their games.

At the 2nd Global Symposium on Gender in Media in New York this week, Dr. Stacy L. Smith, an Associate Professor at the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, presented results from a study entitled, "Gender Bias Without Borders: An Investigation of Female Characters in Popular Films Across 11 Countries."  While this study did not include popular video games, Anita Sarkeesian's series on Tropes vs Women in Video Games has shed light on some of the same topics.

From the research, it's clear that gender equality inside the fictional worlds of films has not yet arrived.  Strikingly, the study indicated that very few of these popular films represented female characters in a manner truthful to global demographics or occupational data.  The films lacked "gender balanced casting," meaning females in roughly half of the speaking roles, strong female protagonists, and females in positions of power or employed in scientific fields.  Instead, female characters tended to be oversexualized.  They were twice as likely as male characters to be in sexually revealing clothing, partially or fully naked, thin, or referred to as attractive.  Furthermore, a girl age 13 was just as likely to be sexualized as a woman age 39. (To see more findings or an infographic of key results, visit

Why does this all matter?  

Research also indicates that with repeated exposure to this stereotyped content, viewers merely become further entrenched in gender stereotypes and beliefs. Female viewers bombarded by sexualized material may struggle with body shame and the worship of the thin ideal.  This is of particular concern when applied to young girls, who instead of embracing strong female role models, get the message that women are either unseen, at a permanent glass ceiling, or valued only for their appearance.

The authors of the study stress that content creators are part of the solution, that they can make a choice for gender equality.  It's simply a reflection of the real world (and real-world occupational data) to indicate that there are female doctors, lawyers, politicians, scientists, judges, executives, mathematicians, etc.  Indeed, films with female content creators, perhaps reflecting awareness, had roughly 6% more female characters.  Film executives have already reacted to previous studies by increasing the number of female characters, changing the occupation of female characters, and changing story development in their projects.  We can do the same in the game industry.  Already, we have seen a call for diversity in the workplace and in content.  Let's make a choice to include female characters and at the same time, encourage young girls to pursue careers in our industry.

Sande Chen is a writer and game designer whose work has spanned 10 years in the industry. Her credits include 1999 IGF winner Terminus, 2007 PC RPG of the Year The Witcher, and Wizard 101. She is one of the founding members of the IGDA Game Design SIG.

Monday, September 15, 2014

Microtransactions and Theft: Here We Go Again

In this article, aspiring game designer Gabby Taylor proposes some solutions to the issue of virtual good theft in MMOs.

Disclaimer: The following post does not represent the views of the IGDA, IGDA Game Design SIG, or anyone else except Gabby. Just wanted to get that out of the way.
Some of you might remember my other post about microtransactions from way back in February. It was a bit heated, but it spells out how I feel about them pretty well:  I don’t like them. I think they hurt the industry despite bringing in large amounts of money. Most people do not agree with me on this and have brought up pretty valid points. I love it when that happens. Intellectual debate is great; that’s how minds are opened and horizons are expanded. Then something happens to people like Mike Weatherley and all I can do is less-than-professionally laugh.

For those of you who are unaware, good sir Mike Weatherley has the esteemed position of being chief adviser on intellectual property to David Cameron (yes, Prime Minister of the UK David Cameron). In his off-time, he is also a gamer. Recently, he has experienced something nearly all gamers experience: someone stole his sword in World of Warcraft, one he bought with real-world money. His reaction to it? The political version of whining to his parents. I’m not going to get into how this may or may not be the morally right way to leverage his position, but instead focus on the experience itself.

Usually, microtransactions are used as a way to enhance a game experience. For example, extra lives or power-ups can be purchased in order for someone to have more fun playing while they’re waiting for the bus, rather than miserably grinding away until these advantages are natively available. This works wonders for bringing in money for the publishers and developers, so much so that it’s quite often taken a bit further than it needs to be, or even should be. The downside to this is that theft is fairly universal, and few things sour an experience than spending $5USD on a cuirass, for example, and having it be swiped from your account (along with other items that may or may not have been purchased with real world money). This is compounded when it happens in a subscription-based game, as it’s easy to view the situation as having been doubly robbed. At this point, it’s perfectly reasonable to feel upset and some people even ‘rage quit’ over the larger instances. At this point, the game experience is completely ruined. Not because of gameplay, graphics, technical problems, or really anything to do with the game itself, but rather the greed and selfishness of a group of players and the open door to them that is microtransactions.

I believe that game experiences should be enjoyable for everyone and I bet there are many who would agree with me. In order for this to happen, though, we need to fix how things are done. Mike Weatherley is of the opinion that thefts of digital goods ought to be punished in the same way that thefts of real-world good are. I believe that a proactive solution would do gamers and developers alike a bit more good than knowing someone, somewhere received a fine of some sorts (assuming, of course, they were tracked down, which would require a lot more resources than it’s really worth). My initial idea is to just nix the microtransactions altogether, but I understand publishers and developers are businesses and still need/want to make more money than the game itself will get them. With that in mind, let’s come up with a few ideas:
  • The ability to re-obtain stolen items without spending more money. In order to prevent abuse of this system, the game can keep server-side records of what the account bought, for how much, and by what means did it leave the account’s possession. I suppose this is still open to abuse, since most stolen items are stolen by someone cracking the account’s password and trading the item to the cracker’s actual account (or an alternative account).
  • All microtransaction-obtained items are bound to character or account. This would prevent anyone from cracking in and trading it off, but it does not help if someone wants to buy a gift for someone in game (though maybe a redeem code could be purchased for a gift).
  • Microtransactions can only apply to buying in-game currency, and currency is account-bound (but not character/soul bound). This way, there are no items at stake, and the player still has the flexibility to outfit any of their characters as they see fit. It’s possible this might also bring in extra money, since not everyone would necessarily be interested in an item, but everyone wants money. The downside is this opens up a whole world of ‘pay-to-win’ problems.
Mike Weatherley is not alone in his loss of an item purchased with real world money in an MMO. This is a very widespread problem that should be looked at quite hard by the developers, as it’s their years of hard work at stake here. Theft of items that require lots of time or real world currency can ruin the entire experience, so it should be addressed proactively, not retroactively by lawmakers using methods that just drain everyone of more resources. I’ve tried to come up with a few simple ways of solving the problem that make everyone happy, but I’d like to hear what you think. What ideas do you or your studio have? Do you think it’s worth it to get lawmakers involved? Why or why not?

Gabby Taylor is an aspiring game designer and head of GreyBox Studio. When not making design documents, she contemplates going outside, and sometimes even takes a few steps when feeling particularly frisky. 

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

On Wearing Multiple Hats

In this article, indie developer Judy Tyrer discusses the pros and cons of filling multiple roles in game development.

I prefer the term FOUNDER to CEO because founder implies “she who does everything she can’t hire someone else to do.” In the case of 3 Turn Productions, FOUNDER covers CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer and HR. That means I have to make sure we have sufficient funding while simultaneously ensuring we are using the correct technology while designing and coding the entire game and keeping my artist and community manager happy. Yes, I am crazy.

The Upside

I like talking to myself and now I have an excuse. In fact, I can even argue with myself and sometimes do. The most recent argument with myself was when the CEO got upset with the Creative Director over feature cuts. One of the features the Creative Director wanted to cut was revenue generating. They had a long argument over every other feature that could possibly go besides one that was revenue generating. The Creative Director won. She had the support of the programmer who explained that the front end could get in on schedule, it was only hooking up the backend with the payment system that we’d be postponing. And since that is work that doesn’t excite the programmer in the least, well they ganged up on the poor CEO.

But the biggest upside is the frequency with which I do not have communication issues with myself. The time saved by having all the roles thoroughly familiar with all the other roles is huge. We don’t need formal documentation. We don’t need formal process. We can just get the work done. I would estimate this is a 40% productivity gain, especially in the areas where the systems are highly complex.

I imagine that artist/designers must make very different kinds of games than programmer/designers so I can’t speak for them. But as a programmer/designer, the gameplay and the code design are tightly coupled. I believe this allows me to build systems for my game others wouldn’t think of because those systems are half gameplay and half architecture. I have the advantage of seeing the action from when the user pushes a button all the way into where the data is saved in the database and retrieved. It’s a bigger picture view that I think lends itself to riskier innovations.

The Downside

It is not possible to do five jobs well at the same time. Something is going to suffer and the challenge is choosing what that is going to be.

Had I been CEO full time, the business plan would be complete and I’d have had at least a dozen meetings with investors by now. But had I done that, the game wouldn’t have progressed as far as it has. Then again, if I’d gotten the funding I could have hired someone to do the programming, maybe even two people, and the game would have progressed even further. Of course, that assumes I would have succeeded in getting investors with all those meetings. If I hadn’t gotten the investors after all that work then we’d have no game.

Wearing too many hats means that something is always getting insufficient attention. Priority setting has taken on a much more crucial role than ever before. Wasted time going down wrong paths is infinitely more painful than when there isn’t the constant pressure of 3 jobs not being done well. The rather interesting side effect of this is that I do more experimentation of other approaches to solving problems than I have in the past, primarily because I don’t have the time to go down a rat hole so I want to make sure I’m picking the optimum choice to start.

The other challenge with wearing too many hats is getting a sense of satisfaction at the end of the day from a job well done. Instead of a job well done, it’s 3 jobs half done and 2 undone. I find that the only solution is to take off all but one hat for certain periods. This is usually 2 weeks before we release, but this time it was a full month (it was a lot of code). Just accepting that I’m not going to make progress in an area of the business this week is difficult, but I have found it essential.

So I am CEO, CTO, Creative Director, Lead Programmer, and HR Director of my company. But mostly, I’m the Lead Programmer.

Judy Tyrer began in serious games with PLATO in the late 1970s, moved into distributed operating systems and enterprise software before rejoining the game industry in 2005. She worked for Ubisoft, Sony Online Entertainment and Linden Lab before branching out to start her own studio, 3 Turn Productions LLC which is coming out with the virtual world of Jane Austen for Kickstarter this summer.