Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Rock Band Thinks I’m Awesome, So Why Do I Hate My Voice?

One of the most elusive qualities of pretty much any endeavor in the arts is that of quality itself. What defines quality? What gives art that meaning, that oomph? I can’t answer that question, because it’s pretty damn subjective. One person’s art is another person’s waste of time. Clearly not everyone likes the same music, and what makes a video game fun is different from person to person. Oh, you can certainly try to quantify how great something is by how many people rate it positively, for example, but that still doesn’t get to the root of what makes it great.

Top 2% and Top 3% of Vocal Leaderboards. Breaking the Habit was a sight-read, no less. Not terribly difficult songs, mind you.
A fantastic example of this in action in my personal life is my vocal skills (or middling lack thereof). Rock Band says I’m awesome. Heck, it even quantifies it for me and puts me up on a leaderboard. As seen in the screenshots, I can hit the top 2% - 3% of the leaderboards for some songs (my average is about top 10%). Besides being a great opportunity for a brag post on my fancy blog, this doesn’t mean a whole lot, because of what Rock Band is measuring. It’s measuring timing, and pitch, and nothing else. So I am technically excellent, I have the basics rock solid, so what?

I love going to Karaoke. I can hold my own against most other vocalists, but I can always tell when someone who’s actually awesome and potentially musically trained walks up and takes the limelight. They have a fullness of voice, a timbre I don’t. They have power, but also control. They can evoke an emotional response from the audience.

#1. Technical Excellence indeed. What this doesn't show is that approximately 10% of vocal players are all tied for #1 on this song...

The point being is that just because something is technically excellent, be it polished, well-executed, or by-the-book, but it doesn’t mean it’s awesome or fun. I find the two to be pretty orthogonal concepts. You can have something that is fun, but not polished, or it can be both (or none). I think when those of us in the consumer space judge or critique games (or videos, or music, or any other art medium) we sometimes conflate technical quality with awesomeness. Quite possibly because technical excellence is far easier to objectively quantify.

For the record, I don’t really hate my voice. Not anymore than most people do, anyhow. Some of my friends have told me I have a lovely voice (thank you), and perhaps I do. A lovely voice on its own isn’t enough to be awesome. I still have fun with it, though, so who really cares?

Bringing it to the video game space, when I look at a game like Rift, it was quite excellent from a technical standard. The game was polished, fulfilled the MMORPG checklist extremely well, had a story and extensive skill trees, and I found it dull. It didn’t hit the fun button for me. Yet clearly others enjoyed it. Diablo III and Final Fantasy XIII might be even better examples of games that were extremely well-balanced, highly designed slogs.

On the other hand, you have a game like FTL, a critically acclaimed indie game which is very simple, but pulls off that simple in a very concentrated form. The graphics and sound are definitely indie-levels of quality (stylized 8-bit, which I enjoy, but quickly get over), but the gameplay is straightforward and engaging, with danger around every turn. Another good example is Magic: The Gathering circa ten years ago. Awesome artwork but unbalanced as all get out--go look at the lists of banned cards from some of the really old expansions--and yet MTG had a massive following (myself included).

Sometimes I wonder if the search for quantifiable, technical excellence is overwhelming a more pure form of fun. In the developer’s search for the perfect game-balance, are they sacrificing everything that makes a game unique? Some of the most fun games I’ve played were games that I could break. Final Fantasy VI, VII, and VIII all could easily be completely broken with careful power levelling and the right combinations of items. Diablo II was far from balanced, but it’s still hailed as a masterpiece game.

On the other hand, all of these games that I could break were also primarily single-player games. In a world where most games are either partially or completely online and the amount of data available to show that a class or mechanic is OP leads to player dissatisfaction. Anybody raiding in WoW can attest to the large amount of complaining on forums about even 5% (or smaller!) disparities in damage or healing output. Players demand balance, demand technical excellence, perhaps even at the expense of their own fun.

If you're to look at something as a competitive match, like PvP, world-first races to finish content, racing or fighting games, for just a few examples, balance is extremely important and without that balance that aspect is no longer fun.

So what’s a developer to do? Us armchair designers may want to design our way into a corner inadvertently, but can a large developer really afford to ignore the vocal demanding balance and polish? Or perhaps true balance, technical excellence, and fun may not have to be necessarily at odds. But even if they aren’t at odds, are developers wasting effort on the technical when they could be and should be working on the fun? Where do those boundaries even lie? And perhaps those boundaries are subjective, just like fun itself.

Or maybe I’m totally way off base and this entire concept is crazy. I certainly don’t know, but it’s an interesting set of questions.

Sunday, October 27, 2013

Cloning, Splicing, and Cross-Breeding. Pokémon Geneticist!

So I may have made a huge mistake.

After doing some reading, apparently getting into competitive Pokémon battling is easier than ever with a few changes GameFreak has made to breeding, and thus I decided that this generation was going to be the one that I actually made a battle-ready team. Also partly because I’m tired of getting my butt handed to me in random online matches.

From there it was a steep, slippery slope to having hatched 90+ rejected Eevees.

Eevee are interesting because they have a lot of different evolutions.
In Pokémon, normally you play the happy-go-lucky role of the ten-year-old trainer who gallivants around the countryside, defeating children and the elderly alike and taking their lunch money. But once you’ve beaten the game and want to get into the competitive battle scene, you’re suddenly the biologist--cloning Pokémon, or cross-breeding them to get better genetics--and still beating the NPCs for their lunch money.

At its core, Pokémon is actually the most complicated game of Rock-Paper-Scissors you’ve ever seen. With eighteen types (from rock, fire, electric, and ice to psychic, dark, dragon, and fairy, for a few examples) rather than just rock, paper, and scissors, and the fact that at most each critter can only have four attacks of literally hundreds available, you have the underpinnings of an incredibly vibrant and complex metagame.

So why breed more Pokémon? What does it even get you? First of all, you can breed across some species, which allows you to get moves that a given Pokémon wouldn’t normally learn levelling up. While not all moves are capable of crossing that species divide, the increase in available move pool keeps people guessing. Secondly, Pokémon have different base stats, called IVs, or Individual Values. These are what a lot of people call a Pokémon’s “genes” (more accurately they’d be like the 2% of genes not shared by every member of that species, but close enough).

Conveniently, all Pokémon hatch from eggs. So stock up on eggs and run around to wait for them to hatch.
Now, when you do end up getting two critters to breed, you also end up getting Abilities, which are separate from attacks--each Pokémon can have only one Ability out of two or three available--and Nature, which is a sort of personality trait which further affects your stats. So every time you breed a Pokémon, you have to take into account what moves you’re passing down, ability, stats, and nature. That’s a lot of customization!

The hardest and most tedious part out of all this is definitely breeding for IVs. Each Pokémon has six stats (HP, Attack, Defense, Special Attack, Special Defense, Speed), and each stat has an IV value from 0 through 31. At maximum level, 31 in an IV means 31 extra points in that stat, which can be the difference between surviving that next attack, or defeating the other player in two attacks instead of three.

When you capture a Pokémon, these values are all random, unless you capture one from the new Friend Safari in Pokémon X and Y. These special critters start with a random two IVs maxed out at 31, with the rest randomized. Capturing a Pokémon with two 31’s is a 1 in 1024 chance, so starting out with that is a major time saver. I got my Eevee empire started out by getting lucky and capturing one from the wild with four IVs maxed. 1 in 1024 chance, which was amazingly lucky.

When you breed two Pokémon, like a true genetic algorithm of sorts, you end up get three IVs from random from the parents, and the other three are randomly generated. So choose three stats (say, Attack, Defense, and Speed), then for each stat, pick a parent at random. That IV is the one used for the child. Clearly the more maxed out IVs you have on both parents, the higher the chance you’ll get maxed out IVs on the child. And if you’re really lucky, the child will have some of both parents’ maxed out IVs (or get lucky and roll a natural 31).

Unless you use a Destiny Knot. You can make your Pokémon who you’re trying to breed hold items, and these items can affect the outcome of the child. An Everstone, for example, gives the child a 50% chance of inheriting the nature of the Pokémon holding the Everstone. The Destiny Knot causes five IVs to be selected from the parents instead of three! This makes the entire breeding process a lot less insane random.

I spend an awful lot of time circling this screen to hatch eggs... but it rotates so I just hold left and read a novel.
Still, in practice it can be pretty frustrating. I’ve got both parents with five perfect IVs right now, and still only about one in eight children come with five IVs itself. Lots of four IVs. Anything with less than four is junk to me. This all ends up leading to the slightly creepy destination of having a box filled with Eevee all named things like Sassy (4) and Jolly (5), delineating nature and how many perfect IVs they have. Certainly not cuddly friends anymore, but test subjects in my grand breeding program.

Jolly (5) was an excellent child. With only its Defense not being perfect, it may be a candidate for my team.

While the process is much, much easier than in previous generations, I think I’ve spent about six hours breeding these ninety Eevee, with pretty well seventy of them less than four IVs, so therefore away they go. Thankfully, the Wonder Trade feature has been an awesome siphon for excess critters. And I even got lucky a couple times and got other people’s breeding rejects, when I want to start in on other species. Even starting with three perfect IVs rather than two could save me a couple hours.

These aren't even the rejects. These all have 4+ perfect IVs. About six have 5 IVs, but not the correct natures.
We’ll see if this ends up being awesomely worth it. I have a couple teams planned, but they may take some work to get there, as noted above. Still, playing the amateur geneticist has been quite illuminating. I wonder if the metagame would hold as much allure if the cross-breeding grind was removed, however. There’s the fine line of just being given something versus building it on your own, but I’m not sure playing the random number generator via classic AI-style genetic algorithm is necessary.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

All Holy Trinities Are Not Created Equal

Syl over at MMO Gypsy touches on an interesting topic, where she compares the Holy Trinity of Tanking, Healing, and Damaging (DPSing) to time. The gist is she says that tanks create time by keeping the mobs out of the squishies’ faces; healers preserve and extend time by filling those health bars right back up; and DPS are the drivers of time, as they’re the ones progressing the fight by removing enemy health.

It’s a pretty apt comparison. Run out of health, and your time is up. But hidden at the end of her post is a rather fascinating little statement:

“And yet, ironically DPS have always been the undervalued, inflated currency of trinity MMOs.”

It’s often true that healers and tanks get a lot of accolades for pulling off super difficult feats, whereas DPS are often outside the limelight unless they really screw up (or, alternatively, they play pseudo-tank or pseudo-healer and help push past a difficult breakpoint). But on the other hand, as a normal-mode raider, I can tell you that we do value our decent DPS players quite a bit. When you have a DPS player who is incapable of getting out of the fire, or can’t put out the numbers required, it’s immediately noticeable (often by the healers, naturally).

Using Syl’s comparison of role to time, DPS can shorten the encounter length and make healing easier by having higher throughput. The shorter the fight, the less total damage taken over the length of the fight. Healers can spend more resources early on in the fight, and therefore healing is easier. So good DPS in turn can make a huge difference to whether a kill is achieved or not. The opposite is true, of course, where a good healing team can make up for a shortage of DPS, assuming you don’t hit any enrage timers.

So whereas in normal mode raiding or higher where good DPS players are just as difficult to find as good tanks or healers, in lower levels of difficulty DPS get a bum rap almost exclusively. Why is that? Syl suggests that it’s a numbers game. Basically, if you had equal number of healers as DPS, then we’d shower the DPS with huzzahs as well.

I’m not sure I really buy that argument on its own, though, because if the raid dies in LFR the first people blamed are the healers, for better or worse. The DPS might not have had enough DPS to actually complete the encounter before damage ramped up, or they stood in the fire, but nope, people died, so it’s the healers’ fault. I don’t think it’s just a matter of there being fewer people in a given role that suddenly makes them better or more heroic looking to the general audience. Honestly, I think this is just another symptom of a different problem.

(As an aside, this is why I’m actually a fan of pass/fail mechanics that result in instant death. Can’t blame the healer if the mechanic knocks you out of the arena or straight out kills you. Maybe not for everything, but once in a while I enjoy having them.)

My theory is that DPS players get the bad reputation because DPS is the default role. Everything in game really requires some amount of damage output, because how else do you kill monsters? Healers -- and tanks to a lesser extent -- are only really used in group content, so your average MMO player who trundles around the continent by themselves is going to be DPS and DPS only. Therefore when unskilled players enter group settings, the only thing they know is DPS. They’re not the healers or the tanks, so you end up with a disproportionate amount of the populace at the lower end of skill in the DPS role.

Actual distribution of roles within a 25-man raid in WoW
Maybe because they’re new, or maybe because they never had to learn or a chance to learn how to play their class, but a large chunk of them are definitely not good players, as anybody utilizing random dungeon finder modes can attest to, in either basic scenarios, LFR, or five-man dungeons in WoW.

Players who do end up tanking or healing have experience at least doing DPS, because it was the default role, so they can concentrate on learning more about their role and not the game in general. Their mistakes are also quite visible, so feedback is immediate and can be applied immediately.

I think Star Wars: The Old Republic actually attempts to solve this default role problem pretty neatly. Or at least, I like the idea, given that I haven’t played the game beyond the demo. Everybody in SWTOR gets a companion NPC to help them out. The companion NPC can be a healer, a DPS, or a tank, so therefore you’re automatically in group content all the time, and DPS is no longer the default role, though caveat there is that you’re still stuck on the tutorial planet without a companion. I almost wish I played end game content in SWTOR to see if I could compare it to WoW as far as the sociology of trinity roles goes. 

And if we could get rid of the default role issue, then there’s no reason why group content couldn’t be one tank-one healer-one dps, rather than so lopsided in terms of bringing DPS. We could also spread the love around as far as unskilled players goes, and every role could be equally as annoyed by poor player performance. At which point the next step would be educating players and making your game easier to learn, or at least give enough feedback to let players understand why their performance got them killed.