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Games and Permanent Marks

Elizabeth Technology April 13, 2022

Should games be messing with file registries?

Before you read this, there are game-behavior spoilers for games from 2017 and back.

Games like being creative. They especially like doing interesting things to punish you for making poor choices or mistakes, although how the game defines ‘punishment’ is completely up to the developers. For example – sometimes, punishment for taking on an enemy you weren’t prepared for is simply dying a frustrating death, but you still get to keep your stuff and levels (like the Halo games). Sometimes, punishment means losing some levels, some of your stuff, and any consumables you used in the fight, because dying to the boss doesn’t mean going back to a checkpoint, it means going back to a spawn point (like Dark Souls).

Some games go even a step further than that – they write your failures or poor choices somewhere besides the game, so you can’t escape your failures unless you find those files.

It’s not a new phenomenon, although it has gotten a little more popular as of late. An old RPG by the name of Zork! would curse you if you tampered with a corpse, and you’d never be able to pick up treasure again. It would keep the curse stored in the Windows Registry, so not even reinstalling could help you. Fun!

The Famous Undertale “Genocide Route”

Undertale is a cute game with many twists, the first one being that you don’t actually have to kill any of the enemies – you can, and you’ll still beat the game, but you don’t have to. You may not realize this upon first playthrough, though, so when you beat the game, look up discussions or lore, and realize oh man I killed some guys you can go back through and play it pacifistically to get the ‘true’ ending. No penalties, you made an uninformed mistake and can fix it now that you know better.

However, this doesn’t apply if you decided to start maliciously slaying everything in and out of your way (the way other RPGs expect you to grind for experience points)! It really doesn’t feel good, not just because the characters are cute, but because the game is designed for random encounters, so actually finding every killable enemy in an area takes much longer than playing the game normally – even as your damage increases. At that point, you get a different final boss fight that’s even harder than the original Flowey fight (which isn’t spoilers), and you carry the mark of what you just did with you forever (intentionally vague). And the game really does mean forever. Even if you complete the total pacifist run afterwards, at the very last second, the game shows that it still knows what you did. Even at reinstall.

The game’s check that you killed everyone is in a folder that is separate from the game’s main ones. While it isn’t hard to find if you know it’s there, it was unsettling to the people who’d played the genocide route, uninstalled, reinstalled, and then discovered the game still remembered their crimes.

Anti-Pirating Techniques

In-game DRM, most popular in games from the late nineties up to the mid-2000s, prevents the game from functioning as intended. Some prevent the game from starting at all, others actively shame you for  downloading an illegitimate copy, but most sit somewhere in between. In the Spiro games, for example, you can still play… but you’ll never get to finish the game if it thinks you have an illegally made copy. The game becomes increasingly difficult to play, and when you get to the end, the game crashes and wipes your save. In Alan Wake, the game just slaps an eye patch on your character and guilts you without actually touching any playable aspect of the game. Restarting doesn’t make either of these things go away, but reinstalling might… if the legit copy was just faulty, or if you actually did replace your… faulty… copy with a legitimate copy of the game.

The DRM is part of the game, so it’s not technically a permanent mark on the computer, but a permanent mark on the game itself. Don’t pirate indie games!

Doki Doki Literature Club

If you’ve been online in the game-sphere in the past 7 or so years, you’ve probably seen the Japanese-Dating-Sim-inspired DDLC (or Doki Doki Literature Club) mentioned at least once. If you haven’t, this section will contain some vague spoilers. DDLC is infamous in the indie game scene for jerking very hard to the left, and executing that turn so well that it permanently shaped the way that flavor of indie game was made. The game actually pulls from the Windows or Mac directory to get your real name, but that’s not all. It actually invites you into the game’s files at the finale, and it organizes itself so neatly that removing a character is as simple as removing a folder with her name on it. It’s not quite that simple if you were to actually look inside the files (the game is actually doing a check to see if you’ve removed that file, and if you have, it removes the relevant character, because actually sorting character information like that is practically begging for bugs) but it is a very interesting way to handle the last scenes of the game.

Games That Uninstall Themselves

Some games actually refuse to leave any trace at all, insisting that you don’t replay them without at least a little bit of introspection in between runs.

Or, they realize they’re already on track to be uninstalled, and simply do it themselves. Meme games, meme horror games, and art games sometimes fit this description, but it’s honestly pretty rare. It makes it tough to get back into the game, because reinstalling games is annoying, so the games that do this either understand they’re special or understand they’re annoying. DDLC did this too, and so do a handful of Japanese games. One of the big ones is Nier Automata – if you don’t let characters delete themselves, you don’t get the ‘true’ ending.

If you like spoilers, or you just like seeing how games handle the concept, TVTropes actually has a whole page of games that self destruct, delete your data, or otherwise tamper with themselves as a game mechanism: https://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/DeletionAsPunishment

Games That Install Things That Aren’t Really Part of the Game

The My Little Pony fangame Luna Game was sort of famous for this, if famous is the right word – within the incredibly niche community of MLP Horror fans, there existed this platformer that pretty much only played for long enough to serve up some jumpscares and then leave, granting you one final jumpscare with an edited creepypasta-style .jpeg that opened right after the game quit itself out. Later editions would open up the notepad and tell you something ominous.

Eventually, horror games realized this was associated with the sort of games that were easy to make and scariest for 12-year-olds who weren’t allowed to play scary games yet, but were afraid of breaking the family computer by downloading ‘a virus’ and getting caught.  As such, notepad txt files and simple jpegs aren’t really used this way anymore. When games want to show off their monsters, they put a gallery with still images of it in the game itself!

And, once again, DDLC did something higher with this concept – after the game deletes itself, it leaves a note for you, one that’s actually sincerely tied into the game and not a jumpscare or warning. While there’s a lot of room for creativity, there’s also a lot of room for things to go wrong. Some antiviruses, for instance, don’t take kindly to the ‘wrong’ kind of file opening while a game is playing. Other computers just don’t let the game put the files in the way it wants them to, meaning it can’t pull them back out the way it will need to at the end of the game.

Overall, there are many ways to add to a game within a game, so maybe twists and turns from fiddling with source files isn’t the only way to add scares or intrigue to the game!

Sources:

https://classicreload.com/zork-i.html

New World, New Disaster

Elizabeth Technology March 18, 2022

The Beta

Beta releases for games are usually either free but closed, or priced low with open access. The purpose of a beta is to give the reigns to potential players to test the game on a large scale with the end goal of refining the game, working out what doesn’t work, and fixing bugs. New World went for a closed beta – it’s a server-based MMORPG, and they didn’t want to overload the servers they had active with too many players.

The Beta went great. Players and streamers alike seemed to enjoy the game! There were some balancing issues (streamers have fans, and those fans want to play the game on the streamer’s side, overwhelming enemy forces) but nothing that was impossible to fix. The unique PVP style of the game meant noobs could get into fights with high-ranking players and get destroyed, or they could work as a team, take them on, and maybe win. You could build armies to take over in-game real estate. You couldn’t opt out. That last part in particular was super unique for MMORPGs – to say that PVP combat was almost guaranteed in the game was also saying that climbing the ladder of leveling, item collection, etc. was going to be difficult. Better players or players with better loot would be given a large advantage over the noobs just getting in the game. But, the team had balancing plans on the way, so this shouldn’t be a problem. Right?

The Release Date Loomed

Turns out solving that problem was a lot harder than it seemed. Streamers had the advantage when it came to building armies, and casual players found it hard to get into the game after a sort of critical mass of other high-level players had been reached – they’d get in, become an easy, unarmored target, and then get ganged up on for easy loot and cheap XP points. While small, organized groups could overwhelm larger, unorganized ones, that advantage starts to break down when the larger army is so large it’s slowing down the server – and citing that as a sort of natural balancing is assuming the larger group is unorganized, which it may not be if there’s a Discord server or other outside communication involved.

 In the myth of Sisyphus, he’s under no illusion that he’s ever actually going to be done rolling the boulder up the hill, but the new players are working under the assumption that if they just keep going, then one attempt is going to result in a build that will allow them to survive. Every time that doesn’t happen is then more frustrating than the last.  

Seeing this in the beta, the game devs then decided to introduce a different balancing system. A level fifty player doesn’t get to smack level ones right off the bat, anymore – they’ll still be in trouble, but the odds are no longer guaranteed. For higher level players, that was annoying, but those high level players were going to be vastly outnumbered by noobs anyway, so from a % of complaints standpoint, this made sense. After all, if PVP can’t be turned off, you’d like to have a chance against a tyrannical level fifty, right? It was going to be an adjustment from the way most other games worked, but it made sense in a vacuum. More experience means you can do more stuff, not that you’re exponentially stronger than the other people out in the world, sort of like it is IRL.  

Server Slowdown

However, other balancing tactics weren’t to balance play, they were to balance the servers. A teleportation system would occasionally yoink players and then slap them down in a different town mid-battle because the server couldn’t handle so many people in one place at one time. While funny, that was annoying – and only a stopgap solution, not something you could do sustainably as player counts increase. It also felt unfair even in the beta! Imagine the colonel of one of your ‘battalions’ is just yoinked over to Pottersville! Did you lose because you were ill-equipped to win, or did you lose because your colonel was gone? When you lose in a game, you’re supposed to be able to point to something you did that made you lose. ‘I didn’t bring enough health potions’, or ‘I took on an enemy that was at too high a level’ – not ‘the game pulled a critical member of my party and then put him down too far away to come over and participate again before the enemy overwhelmed us’.

This didn’t even scratch other server problems, which included long wait times and a lot of slowdown in busy servers, which is the MMORPG’s bread and butter. For New Worlds especially, the game was better when you could cram more people into it, so lacking the infrastructure to do so felt really disappointing to a lot of the players who were promised full-scale wars and sieges of enemy territory.

The Streaming Issue

When you have streamers promote a game, those streamers are going to color the experience of the game. To use a comparison, look at Youtubers playing a new game in a popular series, Five Nights at Freddy’s. Watching Markiplier’s experience with Five Nights at Freddy’s: Security Breach, where he was an enthusiastic fan of the series and was willing to overlook small bugs (and was still pretty forgiving of larger ones, like the ending of the game triggering almost on luck because of bugs) is very different from watching someone like Scott Falco playing, who didn’t have a history with the game and therefore wasn’t sentimentally attached to it enough to downplay the bugs. Money wasn’t a factor in either playthrough of the game, and the vibes were still totally different on both because Mark was predisposed to like the game, and Scott wasn’t.

Meanwhile, New World had sent people free copies and even paid some streamers to promote the game. It should go without saying that paying people to review something is going to lead to a slightly different review experience than if they’d come across the game themselves, bought it for themselves, and then played it blindly for an hour of their own volition. Most people are taught not to complain about gifts in front of the giver!

However, the result of making that the primary form of advertising is that the people on the ground floor go in expecting the streamer’s experience only to discover that, as a new player, collaboration and leveling aren’t nearly as easy as those streamers made it look, hence all of the balancing changes going on. The game may look roughly the same, but it feels totally different.

The Style Of Gaming

The average person doesn’t play Dark Souls. Some just don’t find it rewarding, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Let’s say the company discovers this in beta testing because a % of players complain. There’s nothing glitchy or broken with the game, they just find it too tough – for some reason or another, they can’t get their flask refilled or their equipment upgraded before they die an untimely death to some ghouly on the way to the boss. Other players are also finding it tough, but they’re satisfied at the end of the level because it was tough. The company has a decision to make: do they listen to the first set, or the second? Do they water their game down, and try to fix it for the most common denominator, or do they listen to the second set, and continue polishing what they already have, maybe making it too niche a product to recover what they put into it while developing? Remember, by the time a company gets to beta testing, most of the framework is already built – trying to re-shape it is not quick or easy. New Worlds was designed, intentionally or not, as a grind for new players, and trying to balance that has made the game harder for high-levels who feel they’ve earned their spot. This is a fundamental problem within MMORPGs as a whole, so who do you listen to? And what do you do to fix it for the other side?

Sources:

Can Gameplay Balancing Ever Do It Right?

Elizabeth Technology March 7, 2022

Gameplay Balancing has become a feature in many of the online competitive FPS games available today. You’ve probably encountered it if you’ve ever played OverWatch or BattleField online, for example.

The goal is clear – keep newbies from getting utterly destroyed, and don’t set up experienced players to get bored with players under their skill level. The most obvious balancing bases off of tiers, or ranks, where bronze players only go against other bronze players until they get promoted up to silver. Forms of this have always existed! Chess, for example, uses a couple of ranking systems with ‘points’ (usually the Elo system in America), and the higher that score is, the better you’re likely to play against others. A high score of 2000 is almost always going to wipe the floor with a score below 1200. Many sports do this as well. Gameplay balancing can be exclusionary, or it can let people into the game without crushing their spirit. It can be used as a weapon, or as a tool. Complaints of the systems in place for video games boil down largely to a lack of consideration for the smaller group of higher-level members and an inability to play the game as desired for any level due to wacky balancing AI.

But to do it Fairly

Let’s say we rank players with player points – the better you are, the more points you have. If you round up six average players, and they total 90 points together, that would be the same as five players who have 10 points each with a sixth player who has 40 points to himself, right? Right?? Well, actually, no. But some balancing systems behave as though that’s true, and the end result is a very frustrated 40-point player and several 10-point players who’ve been yelled at for poor performance in voice chat when they shouldn’t have even been paired with the 40-point (or put up against 20- point guys) in the first place. League of Legends, famously toxic on any chat option, often has this problem.

Or, let’s say that instead of points, we go on K/D ratio with a running average from the last five games. You, with a K/D ratio of 0.45, are put up against a new account that’s much better than you, for whatever reason. That’s okay – but it brings your K/D down to 0.25, and other players begin to accuse you of smurfing as you climb back to where you were before that truly disastrous match. For bonus points, some games weight that score on account age, based on the logic that new players shouldn’t be able to beat older players unless the older player is bad, so that one match against the new player now takes five matches with other, more experienced players to drag yourself back up.

Or, maybe, the game takes a sum total of your K/D across every match you’ve played in, combines it with rank and MVP votes in tournaments, and tries to sum all of this up into a usable, useful score with which to pit you against other players, and you’re still mad because you’re still getting stuck with two-pointers even with everything that’s supposed to be in consideration.

Measuring the Wrong Things

Automatic balancing can work – the problem is that the people in charge of designing for it are doing so with tools that aren’t properly calibrated, because they’re measuring for skill, not fun.

In the business world post Six-Sigma, there’s a growing wariness to using KPIs for everything, because what you measure, you encourage. Say you measure words typed in an email as a measure of client/vendor communication – somebody is going to cheat that system by writing five paragraphs of tough-to-read purple prose. Or, if they’re especially clever, they’ll write a bunch of text at the bottom of the email in white. The real goal, client happiness, is ignored in favor of the much easier to measure KPI, and everyone except for the top management (who thinks they’ve had a great success because the KPI is so high) is a little worse off for it.   

How you measure skill and how you measure fun are two different things. Skill, as mentioned above, can be summed up with K/D ratio, time in matches, points scored against an opponent, total damage dealt, etc. everything in a video game detects ‘skill’, because that’s all games really are. Fun, on the other hand, might require surveys, monitoring of emote usage, and other complications that aren’t already built into a system that has always measured skill.

High-Level Player Complaints

Of the complaints, the high-level players have more than new or lower ones do. Some streamers complain that they never get to have fun, because they always get put up against other high-level players and can’t win if they’re not playing at 100%, which makes the experience more like a tournament and less like the semi-casual playing that would allow them to talk to chat and play at the same time. Of course, by fighting to win, they’re not going to be going down in rank. You could go on a losing streak, but that doesn’t always solve the problem, it’s boring, and it’s an insult to a gamer’s pride – you play games to win. You shouldn’t have to lose to have fun. There’s the option of having a second account where you play more relaxed all the time, but that’s not always feasible or free to do.

The struggle, then, is finding a way to mix in more relaxed players with the sweaty ones to achieve that. You don’t want to grind down newbies by running them against high level players – if they lose badly enough, they’ll feel the game was unfair and leave. The same goes in reverse – high-level players will get bored of winning by watching newbies make beginner mistakes.

Balancing so everyone can play at 80% for most of the time is really, really difficult, because the game is thinking ‘all of these people want to climb the ranks at all times’, and it doesn’t know how to split the players who want to chill out and the ones who want to climb. You could ask the player ‘how do you want to play today’ when they sign on… executing that idea is tough, but not tougher than mind-reading or trying to guess how the player wants to experience the game, within reason.

Others complain that autobalancing expects them to keep a whole team of AFKs (away-from-keyboard players) or newbies afloat, which is also more stressful than fun – Overwatch players will regale you with stories about useless healers or defense classes, both of which are usually necessary against even a mediocre, but engaged, enemy team.

In Summary

The autobalancing works okay, but only for the mid and low players, which just by bell curve rules make up the majority of any player base. The top player’s complaints are valid, and trying to improve this system should come with some consideration of fun. Otherwise, what’s the point of the game? Speedrunners and no-hitters are trying to prove skill – everyone else is just trying to have a good time, sweaty or not, and sometimes the auto-balancing gets in the way.