The moral mysteries of chance and combat as game design elements

One fine coffee,  a games designer told me gambling  was utterly immoral.  And shooter games were not.  In the face of his complete certainty there was nowhere to go.  So nowhere was went.   But the exchange left me with a lingering sense of amusement about how differently people see the world, and a curiosity about the fundamental issues.

Clearly, if you look at preferences for skill vs chance as continuum on a single dimension, my coffee guy scored high on skill and vanishingly low on chance.  He valued a game environment that enabled and challenged the exercise of his team combat skills.  If there were bloodstains on the wrappers these skills were packaged up in, they were not meant to be taken literally, as a feeder path to actual aggression, or as an ersatz substitute for it.  Instead, the game was a thing in itself, an enjoyable recreational activity, like a sport.

But physical sports are different in important ways.  In physical sport, the action is real.   So an important function of rules in physical sport is to reduce the prospect of real bodily harm to the player.  Rules restrict and abstract behavioural possibilities away from pure violence.   Also, another function of rules in physical sport rules is to provide unnatural constraints which provide extra challenge, and serve to channel the player’s energy and creativity.   Unless you are goalie, you are only able to use your feet to move the ball, in football.   Who thought that up?  Were they trying to make it difficult?   (Yes, probably.)

Shooters do have much in common with sport, but by representing actual battle, even if ritually sanitised and exaggerated, they venture closer to human’s propensity to violence and conflict.   This is not an accidental quality of such games, but a fundamental part of their attraction.   A hugely important part of the abstraction from actual violence is that the action is not physically real, but is calculated and represented to the player.  All kinds of things are ‘possible’ – virtually – without actual physical harm. Another facet of the abstraction is that allowable actions and  consequences are highly constrained and rule-based.  In this it is similar to physical sports.

Consuming – and producing – representations of an activity is clearly related to   performing the activity itself.   But the nature of that relationship is unclear. Just as kittens chase string, and cats chase rodents,  both sports and shooters can be seen as a preparation for more deadly pursuits.   Alternatively – or additionally – they can be seen as a sublimation or an evolution of the instincts which result in physical aggression.   As far as I can see, which function they actually serve, and how this function originated,  is impossible to determine.   Though that shouldn’t stop us from thinking about it.

I’m not a shooter person.   Or at least not that I’ve yet disovered.  But it isn’t morally wrong to me, that people get satisfaction out of engaging in ritualised, rule-based conflict – either in sports or in video games.   But neither is it unflinchingly innocent.   What it is, is interesting.   And ambiguous.

Neither do I see the excitement of chance in a game as necessarily morally wrong.    Unlike coffee guy.     But neither it is inflinchingly innocent.

Many respected theorist-practitioners view chance as an important design ingredient, rather than as something nasty in the woodshed.  For example, Greg Costikyan’s 2012 GDC talk  tests the flavour of a very broad variety of types of uncertainty in games, treating the uncertainty of chance outcomes as part of a much broader palette of possibilities.  Jesse Schell – with Lens 34, in his Game Design: A Book of Lenses talks not only about chance, but also about the need to adjust the balance of skill and luck to the needs of particular audiences.

As it turns out, coffee guy isn’t alone.  Both Costikyan and Schell observe that people who adore games of skill and combat tend to dislike the use chance, if it plays anything like a leading role.  Mind you, as a bit of spice added to a loot drop it seems to be tolerated pretty well.

Although skill and luck can be construed as opposing ends of a design/experience continuum, they are not mutually exclusive.  Something which has neither skill nor chance components in it is very unlikely to be a game at all.   However it is possible for a game to have high (or at least medium high) elements of both skill and chance.  A classic example is poker.   It is more informative to say that such a game has strong elements of both qualities, than to say it  is neutral.

I think that the right carburettor mix of skill and luck in the delivery of game rewards can power a desire for repeat engagement, by combining delight, hope, and frustration.  I’m not sure exactly what the formula is, but I’m thinking about it.   Ivan Encinas from King.com gave an interesting presentation on describing game levels using these dimensions at the  nucl.ai data science track I curated last month. I’ll sling up a link when there’s one available.

But about the experience of pure chance, as entertainment, I’m less certain.  To be blunt, I don’t get it.

Thinking about it in the abstract, there’s potentially a case to be made that games of pure chance provide the hedonic equivalent of empty calories – a kind of basic hotwired limbic thrill, without veneer of cognition and volition (aside from the basic act of electing to engage in the game, and re-engage).

It’s not my thing.  But I know that people like all kinds of things that I don’t particularly care for.  Like pink.   Or tripe.  If it doesn’t frighten the horses or interfere with other people’s liberty I am not usually inspired to call it out on moral grounds.

But, if you look,  you will find huge vehemence against games of chance in gambling addition researchers – I recently attended a talk by very famous one said she who made all her research associates take a solemn oath never to work in the gaming industry.   If they didn’t, she wouldn’t take them on.  This struck me as melodramatic – but her sincerity and passion was unquestionable.    Like coffee guy, she believes pure chance is pure evil.

When I look at games of pure chance,  from an experiential point of view I don’t see much to enjoy,  let alone create crippling addiction.  That’s why I stuck my nose into Addiction by Design, Machine Gambling in Las Vegas, by Natasha Dow Schull (to be reviewed in my next post).   I was curious to see if she’d found and tamed the ghost in the machine.

Making, combining, experimenting and inspiring at #playful13

I lucked into this conference last year when someone I know on twitter couldn’t attend.    It’s now inked into my diary for the forseeable future.  Playful describes itself as

A sticker-book of brilliant thinking designed to make you want to Make Stuff.

And it’s not wrong.

Full marks for diversity of topics.  We had mummified deer covered with beeswax, which inspired chefs into new ways of dealing with rotten plums,  a billion or so different snakes and ladders boards generated through genetic algorithms, eye popping mind-bending graphics making complexity out of simplicity, and back again, a poignant and poetic talk about boxes,  and a story about dropping out of the rat race in a virtual world.   We had real adventure playgrounds,  virtual performance art,  bananaphones, folding wheels, not terribly practical jokes on the postal service, people at Facebook dancing a marked up two step on polished concrete that based on the rhythms of a loved up couple’s Facebook posts.  We had movies of smiling engineers drilling into hardened steel with home made EMF machines.   We took a deep dive into the physical pleasures of response curves in button pressing, and the pleasurable physics of custard-punching.

What do mummified deer, dustard punching, and bananaphones have in common?  The announced theme was “playing with form”.  What I really picked up from the talks as a unifying theme was a strong feeling of joyous experimentation, and a passionate belief in the importance of experimenting as a way of opening up creativity.

All this in peaceful, beautiful Conway Hall, a London landmark of the humanist movement.  I love Conway Hall.   And I loved the event.  All the talks were interesting.   And everyone in the audience I spoke with was too.

Conway Hall

Two different talks used the same quote,  from Mike Chrisp –

Build what it is you want to build and learn as you go.

What good advice.

Many thanks to Mudlark for curating, and to the speakers*, for blowing a big, teasing, leaf-strewn wind through my mind.

* Duncan Fitzsimmon, Ann Holiday, George Buckenham, John V Willshire, Fran Edgerly, Pippin Barr, Dani Luri,  Marie Foulston, Ben Reade, Rev Dan Catt, Stephanie Posavec,  and Rob Lowe (aka Supermundane).

The recipe for Candy Crush Saga’s success: luck, skill, and puzzles

King.com is pulling in one billion daily gameplays for its f2p games, according to Reuters. Candy Crush Saga, its top performer,  is estimated to be bringing in $840k per day in the US iOS market alone, according to ThinkGaming.com.  Since King.com dropped in-game advertising earlier this year and has only recently started to offer Candy Crush branded socks, it’s fair to guess pretty much all this revenue comes from in-app-purchases.

Level 1 of Candy Crush Saga

Happy times for King.com (the trading name of the game’s developer),  MidasPlayer.com (the UK registered company that trades as King.com), and MidasPlayer.com’s Maltese-registered parent (Midasplayer International Holding Company).    An  IPO is thought to be brewing.   

There are, of course, detractors.  But compared to the backlash against Zynga’s monetisation tactics, the nature of the complaints is somewhat different.  Civilian comments often centre around the complaint that the pay offers sprinkled throughout the game make it too easy to rack up spend  (e.g. this LA times review).    Rather intriguingly, some people dislike the game, but pay for it anyway,  like the gizmodo commentator who called it “a simple and blatantly unoriginal time-waster” and in the same breath said they had spent money on it – but only to to get from one episode to the next.

Under-rated but essential:  luck

Luck has been hugely important to Candy Crush Saga – in two ways.

Firstly, because they got lucky.  Not even King.com foresaw how successful the game would be.  According to an interview with King.com games guru Tommy Palm,  in ValleyGawker,  Candy Crush Saga’s success was “nothing that we anticipated originally”.  They clearly thought it was promising, based on initial play testing and monitoring of the arcade version on King.com,  but its reception in the market when released as a saga version on Facebook was even better than anticipated.

They then successfully  invested in further growth via advertising, and via continued development of additional levels and monetisation inducements in the game.  I have a mental image of teams of people at King.com kitted out in brightly coloured knitted curling team outfits,  all sweeping quickly with brooms, trying to make the Candy Crush Saga stone go further, further, further along the ice….

Secondly,  the game itself requires luck as well as skill to succeed.  This can be easily misunderstood.    One analysis of Candy Crush’s design on Gamasutra, by a professional game economist, claims that early on, when you cross your first river in the saga map, the game changes from a skill game to a “money game”, in which the dominant factor is luck, and you need to buy more and more chances in order to progress.

But CCS is not a game in which you can reliably buy your way to happiness by bribing Lady Luck.  It is unlikely you could win a game without trying your best.   And this requires skill.   But mere skill is not enough, either.  Luck is also required.

This skill/luck symbiosis is one place in Candy Crush Saga where the secret sauce really bubbles and boils.   You can, if you wish, buy more chances at beating a level.   And you can buy more tries at a game.   These pay gates will give you more shots at being lucky –  and more shots at exercising your skill.  And I suspect it will sometimes give you the desired result – but not always, or possibly even not usually.

At many levels of Candy Crush, making an optimal-within-the-limits-of-human-cognitive-processing choice of moves will usually result in failure to clear a level.   And it’s my guess – as a non-purchaser – that although a pay gate is never far away, you usually can’t buy your way out of failure.   You can try to.  But I think you can buy more unhappiness much more easily than you can buy happiness.  Very scando.   But clearly effective.

By contrast, success occasionally comes unexpectedly in extremely generous measure, in an orchestral crescendo and visual extravaganza of seemingly ever increasing and never-ending awesomeness.   Wow.  I don’t smoke cigarettes but if I did I might want one.

This mixture of very tight level gating (both skill-based and chance-based) and unpredictable super-rewards is, I think, part of the appeal of Candy Crush’s gameplay.   The recipe is no where near as simple as making life difficult for people, and then offering them an easy way out by paying.  It’s much more interesting.

Skill is hugely important

Candy Crush is a game of skill.   The specific skills required of the user are relatively straightforward in principle, but difficult to implement in practice.   At least I find them so.  Your mileage may differ.  This is a quality which the co-founder, Ricardo Zacconi, calls “easy to learn and difficult to master“.

The game’s design is also skilful.   Intentionally so – clearly.  But possibly also in ways that its designers are still developing and enriching their understanding of.

Here’s what I think it does right:

a.  it is impossible to make an illegal move – the UI simply won’t allow it – and if you don’t move within a reasonably short amount of time, the UI will twinkle an option at you

  • this makes for easy on-boarding, and quickly builds a feeling of competence (which won’t persist…. but hey ho one can always hark back to those glory days)

b.  beautiful graphics and effects – what happens on the board as a result of most moves is simple, but  looks and sounds just great

  • this makes “grinding” – playing repeatedly without winning – enjoyable in itself

c.  irregular super-reward cascades – sometimes the effects of a move are just outrageously lovely and satisfying – not only in their consequences for your progress in the game, but in themselves, as effects

  • this is one of the best deployments of the powerful operant conditioning effect of variable reward intervals that I’ve yet seen

The rockstar designer and monetisation guru Michail Katkoff puts it this way, in his Game Analytics blog post:  [the] “…graphical and audio feedback that follows these combinations is simply over the top. That massive fanfare of feedback is also particularly important for our casual gamers, as they aren’t traditionally good at playing games. With this kind of gameplay feedback we can make them feel good about themselves – we can make them feel like true masters”.   My own view is that the variability of this perceptual reward is just as important as its lovely over the top quality, in facilitating the desired outcome – lots of play.  (And with that, perhaps, lots of pay.)

d.  big variety of paygates on offer – just in case, just in time, special powers, more plays, extended games, no waiting between episodes…

  • I’ve no idea which ones are most successful – but whatever floats your boat, purchase-wise, you can probably do it

e.  saga format – visualisation of level progress via a map-based progression story given structure by division into episodes

  • this is a very simple but effective way of creating a sense of visible progress and achievement out of an activity which is basically playing more and more (and usually – but not always -more difficult) variants of the same game over and over and over again
  • it is not in itself a defensible competitive advantage – it is too easy to copy – but there are experience engineering aspects of the saga that, being less obvious, might be more possible to retain early mover advantage on

f.  social facilitation – much reference is made in reviews to the importance of the  leaderboard as a social feature Facebook-connected games – but, bizarrely, nobody seems to make much reference to the positively reinforcing social mechanisms the game uses  – my friends can be rewarded when I play, and when I succeed, and I can help them at no cost to myself when they request it.  Very potlatch.

  • rewarding friends sets up both a reminder function for re-engagement for friends, as well as offering them gameplay benefits – and it shows a good understanding of human ethnomethodology, and the importance and power, across cultures, of reciprocal gifting arrangements.

g.  luck/skill mix – neither luck nor skill will get you through the game’s levels – you need both

  • the mixture, in combination with the basically attractive nature of play, and the intermittent use of super-rewards creates powerful psychological motivations – for some people – to persist in play.   I hope to have time to talk more about this, as I think it’s fascinating and poorly understood.

h.  exquisite split-second comic timing – I laugh out loud love the mischievous way the game pauses to let me contemplate and prepare for my next move, before telling me my time is up, and offering me the chance to pay for further moves.

  • an action plan interrupted creates a tension – which can be relieved by paying

i.   habit automation exploitation – when completing successive tries at a level, you select a green button to go to the next move, but when you have run out of tries, the pay button is in the same place and looks the same – except it’s pay rather than play…

  • people can easily back out if “pay” isn’t what they want to do – but my guess that this little kick onto the first step towards payment has helped more than a few people give it a go

j.   varied level progression – in general, later levels are harder, but there are odd plateaus and even reductions in difficulty, given the accumulation of skill, where progress is rapid

  • my guess about the effect of this is a kind of psychic momentum, and build up of expectation about continued progress, which, when thwarted, induces a need to bring things back to plan

k.  demanding yet snack-able

  • playing one game gives you a good workout – and an immersive  power break – but it only takes a few minutes

l.    the use of candies as game tokens, and gravity cascades as a board configuration change movement

  • feels good

If you copy all these design features wholesale, will you easily make another Candy Crush?  Almost definitely not – for several reasons.   For one thing,  I’m sure there are many aspects of the game I haven’t noticed.   And it’s more than possible I’ve noticed stuff that isn’t actually there.  It’s not just me.  People are really good at that.

For another thing, even King.com hasn’t yet made another Candy Crush.  One nordically blunt teardown from Michail Katkoff of one of their newer titles, Pet Rescue Saga,  says it has “simply copied the mechanics from CCS without actually making sure that they fit the game”.   Ouch.  But, even though it isn’t a Candy Cross Saga, Pet Rescue Saga is a game many a studio would envy – it is successful by mortal standards.  It’s just not as jaw-droppingly successful as Candy Crush Saga.

The transplant of a mechanic from one game to another is not necessarily straightforward.  I think that design success is an emergent feature of all the components I’ve called out,  and more, working together in the right proportions.    Transplanting them to a new context is something that is even more difficult than transposing the key of a piece of music. You have to expect it to feel different, in a different context.    It’s more like transplanting a peony: there’s a big chance it won’t work.

Puzzles

I think  I understand some of what makes Candy Crush Saga tick.  But there are lots of things that puzzle me.

One is payment.   A biggie, eh?   I started playing Candy Crush Saga out of a desire to reverse engineer my experience into an understanding of the game’s finer points.   And I have continued to play it for fun.   But I haven’t paid.    In this I am not alone.  According to oft-quoted Tommy Palm, King.com game guru, the game was designed so that it would be possible to work through it without paying, and indeed, of those people who make it to the top-most  level,  70% do so without spending anything.  Even a penny. (Except, perhaps if they are British.)

This means, of course, that 30% of the top-achieving players have spent money.   And who knows what percentage of people who are toiling towards the top – but don’t succeed – actually try to buy their way there?  It could be more.   It could be less.

The precise  personality factors and situational triggers that work to inspire payment are a mystery to me.   But that shouldn’t stop me from having fun guessing.  Mixing  typologies with abandon, I would guess that achievers and completer/finishers would feel the pull more strongly.    Situationally, I’d guess the almost-there-but-for-one-more-move situation would be a really strong trigger for payment, in-game, and a feeling of progress across tries before expiring free plays might tip me over to wanting to top up plays before they replenish with time.  But my puzzle is that this situation arises so very very rarely in my game play.  Usually I’m either miles out when I lose, or everything comes right.    Very rarely would any of the offered powerups make a difference.   And I like the fact that one’s playtime is limited.   I lose nothing by waiting.

Another puzzle is the massive dropoff they engineer into the tougher levels.  Tommy Palm said in his ValleyWag interview that they needed to tweak difficulty of level 65 down to the point where “only” half the users dropped out at that point.  That’s one hell of a tough gate.  Worse than Beecher’s Brook at the Grand National.    It’s really puzzling that they’d think it a good thing to lose “only” half their users – when presumably they could, without straining themselves terribly, have made it easier still.  The only way this could be a good result  is if a goodly percentage of those players paid before quitting.   More so, perhaps, than would be the case if a level was almost impossible.   I can feel a graph coming on.

Another puzzle about the game for me is that I think there is some meaning to the scalloped pattern of level difficulty that I haven’t quite understood.  Tommy Palm said that last level in an episode is said to be the most difficult – but I’m not sure that’s been my experience.   Still chewing on this, and I need to think more about it.

And finally, I’m puzzled about the style of the graphics that go with the saga level map.  The game board itself is bright and shiny, hyper-real, strongly lit with occasional sparkles.    But the saga graphics and the character that lumber around it in an extravagantly 2d way are from a different mood board.   A bit clown-sinister.  A bit ironic.  But not, perhaps, quite enough.   I wonder what work that clash and tension between the two graphic styles does, in terms of affecting the feeling-tone of my experience.   If I think I’ve figured it out I’ll let you know.