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Wednesday
May212014

Packaged Excitement For One Low Price!

Blindfolded man

On blind buys and how we've managed to get people playing slot machines without anyone being the wiser.

Blind buys are manipulative transactions plagued by obscurity and a reliance on cheap thrills. I don't like them but I enjoy them and that is precisely the problem.

What Are Blind Buys?

A blind buy is a transaction in which at least one of the parties doesn't have a clear idea of the nature or value of what they're getting.

Sometimes, blind buys occur when a purchase is made on a whim. Other times they exist as a format that supports a business model.

Random content packs are an example of the latter. A classic sight on collectible card games, the use of random content packs has been adapted to videogames through the use of micro transactions.

Nowadays, it's easy to get your randomized fix. You can buy random character skins on League of Legends and DOTA 2, fashion galore in Team Fortress 2 and a wealth of pets, mounts and consumables in your average MMO game.

Problematic By Design

Mystery skins in League of Legends

I don't like blind buys and I certainly don't like random content packs. It's a format designed to create pleasurable feelings based on the form of the exchange rather than to provide value through the goods changing hands.

My principal concern is that the mechanics of the transaction as well as the randomization are obscured.

While it's easy enough to grasp the idea of randomization, it's not as simple to figure out the chances of obtaining an item you actually want. This makes it diffcult to figure out if the money spent is worth it.

If you want to figure out whether the value to cost ratio of a random content pack makes sense to you, there are two questions you need ask:

  1. For how many of the results of the randomization is the price I'm asked to pay worth it for me?
  2. What is the relationship between results that are worth it for meand results that aren't?

The information required is either obscured or non-existant. Collectors, those most versed in this random numbers game, have been drafting their own figures for ages now.

My secondary concern is that random content packs are exciting by design.

Well designed random content packs give you the thrills of pleasant surprises. We've spent time and money to make you walk that exciting measure between predictability and absolute chaos and find the minimum rate of high value stuff vs. low value fluff that will keep you buying.

Purchase Completely Optional?

Let's stop the conspiracy bandwagon for a moment.

Is pleasure not valuable? Are random content packs so terrible because some – or even most – of their value is derived from their form?

Of course not. These packs are a perfectly reasonable purchase as long as you're making an informed decision. However, obscurity of design ill fits clarity of thought and the pleasure of opening a pack is all too present. On this terms a thoughtful analysis of the value of what you're buying usually seems but a flight of fancy.

All of the business models that rely on random content packs I've seen so far have been as honest and straightforward as slot machines. Which is to say, not at all.

These money makers are built on artificial scarcity, running a machine of thrills to give everyone willing to pay the fee a fleeting hope of hitting the jackpot. This is what they're selling, regardless of what they're telling.

The Bottom Line

Even if we disregard folks who are particularly suceptible to spending excessive amounts on these shady deals, random content packs are still designed to run a con on our lizard brains.

Whether they succeed or not, I can't support their current format on the premise some – or most – of us can resist their mermaid song.

Thursday
May082014

The Mythical Tale Of The Teaching Game

Teacher pointing at a chalkboard

On the complexities of teaching the player and the trap of mistaking the tree for the forest.

There is a difference between teaching and letting someone learn, between taking part on a dynamic process towards aiding someone become more able and merely crafting an environment where he can learn by himself, albeit more efficiently.

Few games teach. A lot of them explain and some even manage to craft great environments for players to better learn on their own. Making a game that teaches is different – and radically more complex – than creating a level that provides a great challenge progression and has good rhythm.

The latter is most certainly an achievement, one required – but not sufficient – to make a game that teaches.

Friday
May022014

A Red Letter Bore

Half Life 2's Gordon Freeman

On Half Life 2's confusing start and the need for coherence between the expectations a game sets and the gameplay it offers.

The beginning section of Half Life 2 sends mixed signals about the kind of interactions players can expect. From point insertion until crowbar brawling lies a big stretch of game filled with wandering and waiting and wondering.

The result is a confusing experience that risks alienating players from the fiction.

Opposites Clash

The culprit of this messy beginning is the inclusion of adjacent sections with antithetical gameplay.

On the one hand, players are given the ability to interact with the minutiae of its surroundings, to rearrange the world, to leave a mark and annoy one or two security guards in the process. The game gives mechanical dominance to these interaction, it makes them meaningful by showing how they create a new state of the world.

On the other hand, players are made to sit through lengthy spells as the supporting cast monologues the plot forward. You maintain control, but your abilites don't extend past the object manipulation established beforehand. The interactions that afforded weight to your presence before now prove meaningless in the context of dealing with people.

4th Wall Armour Penetrating Gameplay

Half Life 2's sets expectations about how involved and tactile the player's relationship with the setting is. The long monologue scenes, however, are a confession that this depth was circumscribed to a very narrow domain, a rude awakening to the distance between Freeman as an FPS avatar and other characters as supporting casts on a story.

Desperation is given room to grow as players navigate a confusing space in which it isn't clear whether they're meant to play, observe or even care about precedings which are so far removed from the sphere they, through Freeman, can move in.

It is the spectacle of a messianic mute shifting around, throwing around little cans in an effort to prove his existance is as meaningful as the parade of characters exposing the all important narrative.