Monday, February 26, 2024
Moving house in Nightingale
I followed the tutorial and main story in Nightingale, as it gives you a sense of purpose. So at one point you have to choose between a forest, desert, or swamp "abeyance" realm. Abeyance basically being the lowest difficulty level, having the lowest resource tier, and this is thus designated as the realm where you build your base in. You actually can't build a respite (home teleport) point anywhere but in an abeyance realm. So I built my base, and continued with the story, unlocking the next level of realms, the antiquarian ones. There I found the fae tower, where I got the item that allowed me to build my own realm portals.
With my own portal in my base, I started to experiment with realms and portals. You can make paper out of wood easily, and ink out of berries or mushrooms. So creating cards for realms is cheap. Now normally, every combination of two realm cards exists only once. If you made a forest antiquarian realm and then use another portal with the same forest antiquarian combination, you end up in the same place. Everything you built there will be there, and everything you collected there will be gone. However, you can specify that instead of reopening a portal to that forest antiquarian realm, you want to create a fresh one. That erases the previous version, including everything you built there, but gives you a fresh slate for exploring and looting points of interest again.
At this point in the game, you need a lot of T1 essences to upgrade your gear. And I had noticed that the fae tower gives a good amount of essences, plus the item you need to build a portal. So I decided to farm T1 essences by farming fae towers: From my home base and portal I reset the forest antiquarian realm, went to the fae tower in the fresh realm, looted everything there, teleported back home, and then started the same process over. So now I have hundreds of T1 essences, and materials to build half a dozen portals.
Then I became dissatisfied with my home base. The forest abeyance realm in which I had built it had the points of interest far from each other. And I had built too far from anything, and in a location that wasn't all that great. Demolishing everything and moving a few hundred meters away seemed a lot of work, until I realized that I could use my learnings from resetting realms. It was easier to make a fresh forest abeyance realm than to move in the one I already had.
The process still took some time: I created a nice forest antiquarian realm and built a bunch of storage crates right next to the portal there. Then I moves all my materials from my home base to that temporary storage. I demolished all my crafting stations and the house, and moved those materials as well. Then, from the forest antiquarian realm I used the portal to reset the forest abeyance realm, erasing my old home realm in the process. In the new forest abeyance realm I found a nice location close to the portal and built a new house there, now a lot bigger and with a slated roof. Then I built storage crates in the house, and moved all the materials from the temporary storage in the forest antiquarian base there using fast travel. Now I have a nice new home base in a better location and am well set up to continue exploring this game.
Sunday, February 25, 2024
Solium Infernum is Latin for "the throne of hell", and that is exactly what you are fighting for in this game. Solium Infernum is a 4X game that just released for $40 (-15% discount now) on Steam. You play as a devil, an archfiend, on a relatively small hex map in a relatively short game, with "relatively" being in comparison to other 4X games like Civilization. The main reason this is so, is that you are limited each turn to just a small number of orders, only 2 at the start of the game, and later potentially going up to 6. With tons of possible options, selecting the best orders for this turn is quite a challenge, and completely fulfills Sid Meier's condition that good games are a series of interesting decisions.
Things work differently in hell, you can't just attack your neighbor when you want to. Instead you need to start with a diplomatic play, like sending him a demand for tribute. If he pays up, good for you! If he doesn't pay up, even better, as that now gives you the opportunity to attack him. But even then wars are limited, you set a goal for limited objectives, and the war automatically ends if you fulfill those. Because the overall goal of Solium Infernum is gaining the most prestige, with prestige wagers on wars just being one of many possible ways to gain it.
Solium Infernum is great fun, as there is a lot of treachery and backstabbing going on, and other players can play events that completely mess up your careful plans. It actually works a lot better in multiplayer than the typical 4X game, because there is a lot more player interaction, and players can take their turns simultaneously, with all of them then being resolved at the same time. It reminds me a bit of the board game Diplomacy.
The one downside of that is that if you play this game solo, the AI is only mediocre. It can make good moves, but lacks the ability to plan ahead and coordinate several actions into a greater whole. There also is only one level of AI, and once you understood the game mechanics completely, you should be able to reliably beat the AI in a standard game. To help out with that problem, there is a series of scenarios, which get you to play all the different archfiends, getting increasingly harder due to unfavorable starting conditions. Like in the very first scenario your one legion starts with only a single hit point, giving the other players time to conquer stuff while you heal up.
Solium Infernum is not an early access game, but a full release, based on a previous game from 2009 with the same name. The current version is a lot prettier, and somewhat improved in other ways as well. There are still a few bugs left, but hotfixes are already incoming, and there seems to be a plan for continued support. It might be something of a sleeper hit, as there was very little marketing for this game, and as a result the game is a lot better than the player numbers would suggest. Solium Infernum is a lot more solid and balanced than Millenia, but Millenia had the huge marketing of publisher Paradox behind it, while Solium Infernum is self-published. As we are still in the oversupply phase of the video games pork cycle, Solium Infernum risks being overlooked in the flood of new game releases. Which would be a pity, because it sure has a lot of interesting concepts and fun to offer.
Friday, February 23, 2024
In September 2021 I backed the Agemonia board game on Kickstarter. At the time, the estimated delivery date was December 2022. Today, in February 2024, the game actually arrived, "only" 14 months late. In that post of 2021 I listed 8 games I had crowdfunded; I now received 6 of these, and am still waiting on Arydia and 7th Citadel. I got a shipping notification for 7th Citadel, while Arydia (also originally estimated delivery in December 2022) is now not expected before "Fall 2024". Yeah, 2 years late can happen in crowdfunding of board games. But I still didn't have a single game that didn't eventually deliver.
On the positive side, I paid €99 for Agemonia back in 2021, while today the game on the website of the developers is €179. Somewhere in that parcel is a microcosmos of everything that happened in the last 3 years. :)
What wasn't immediately obvious from the crowdfunding page at the time is how huge the box is. It weighs 12 kg, and is bigger in every dimension than the already huge box of Gloomhaven. On the one side that is good, it feels as if I got my money's worth in game materials. On the other hand I have now started more often to play outside my home, for example at the weekly board game night of my friendly local games store, or at friends. This is far too heavy to lug around for such an occasion.
I have started to buy and crowdfund smaller and shorter board games than before. At the board game night in the games shop, you need to be able to set up the game, explain it, and play it within a time window of three-and-a-half hours. That eliminates a lot of the large campaign games like Agemonia, weight aside. There is no way around it, I need to adjust my board game preferences to the other people I need to play them with.
Labels: Board Games
Thursday, February 22, 2024
Some comments on Nightingale
How's your internet? It turns out that this might substantially influence your enjoyment of Nightingale. I am lucky, and I have 1 Gbps fiber internet. That turns out to not only be good for big downloads, but also for ping and latency. In Nightingale I get below 40 ms of ping consistently, which means that I don't run into some of the problems that other people are complaining about. So, since the servers came back up yesterday afternoon, I was able to play for a while and didn't encounter any technical problems other than long loading times at the start of the game and when using a portal, presumably server-side slowness.
Having said that, Nightingale is visibly still an early access game, with some of the quality of life features still missing, and some of the user interface still a bit rough. But it definitely has potential. Judging from what I could see up to now from the number of different crafting stations and recipes, the tech tree is pretty deep and involved. I like that, although I have seen reviews from people who particularly disliked that aspect. I also like that at the lowest difficulty setting, combat isn't hard at all, I even killed the first boss mob at the end of the first non-tutorial realm without difficulty.
Although that might have been a bit easier for me due to Twitch drops. Twitch drops are in-game items you can get for some games after watching streams about that game for a number of hours. And curiously the gear you get from Twitch drops has gear level 58. Which is substantial in a game where you start the tutorial with gear level 6, and the first boss mob requires gear level 20. Okay, the Twitch drops are only for some of the armor slots and don't include weapons, but I was at gear level 20 due to following the quest, and the Twitch drops increased that to an overall average gear score of 30. I don't mind, and the Twitch gear is sure a lot prettier than the crude gear you can craft at the start. But from a progression point of view I find this a bit weird.
Compared to Palworld, I am building better houses in Nightingale. Well, in Palworld the houses only got you into trouble with pal pathfinding, and you really only needed one foundation, one wall, one roof, and a bed under it. In Nightingale I have a wooden house with four walls, roof, windows and a door. And there is a system in place where I get bonuses for my crafting stations for them being on a solid foundation, sheltered from the elements, warm, and well-lit. Still, I mainly build for gameplay reasons, so the possibility to build in different styles doesn't really excite me. I could have built a stone house instead of a wooden house, but as far as I know there wouldn't have been a gameplay difference, only visuals. Wood was easier to construct, so I stuck with that.
Once you learn how to build a base, you can always quickly fast travel to there from anywhere. But that is a one-way thing. Fortunately I just got to the point where I can build by own portal in my base, which means at least I don't have to run from my base to the local portal all the time anymore. I should have built my first base closer to the portal, but I was trying to find a larger flat area, which turned out to be not wholly necessary.
I am playing Nightingale in third-person view. That, plus turning camera shaking and motion blur off, and increasing the field of view (FOV), results in me not having any problems with video game motion sickness. Although the third-person view is labeled as "experimental" in the settings, it works well enough, except for some minor targeting problems when skinning animals.
Overall I don't regret having paid $30 for Nightingale. The game is fun enough, I do like the graphical style, and the card-based realm / portal system is original and fun enough. Each created realm is relatively small, about the size of one landing zone in Starfield, but considerably prettier and with more stuff to find and explore. I don't think I will stick around for much longer than I did in Palworld, but I can see the potential of the game in adding more different biomes and cards in the future. Having said that, Palworld a month after release still has 10 times more players than Nightingale. There is a bit of a glut of survival crafting games right now.
Wednesday, February 21, 2024
I spent the release day of Nightingale yesterday watching Twitch streams to get a better idea of the game. My main concern was the combat system, as I would hate to be stuck somewhere because I am too slow to vanquish some boss mob gating the content behind. But it turns out that you can play the game at different difficulty levels, and the easiest one seems very doable. Many people actually complain about combat being too easy, mostly because the AI of the mobs isn't great. So today I bought the game, and started the tutorial. So far, so good.
I am not playing right now, because the servers are down, which results in an "error getting shards for client" error message. One of the main problems people have with the game is the design decision to run Nightingale on centralized servers, which leads to all the well-known problems we had with MMORPGs for decades: Servers being down, servers being overloaded at peak hours, slow ping, rubber-banding in game, etc., etc.
While that sort of server architecture is necessary for MMORPGs, it seems somewhat unnecessary for a game with a maximum of 6 players on one shard, and many players playing solo. And I am surprised that after decades of experience, game companies still can't manage to get servers stable on release.
Tuesday, February 20, 2024
A change in game-buying strategy
I have been on Steam for 16 years, since 2008. And I have frequently bought games that had not been released recently. It seemed like a no-brainer: Wait some time, and you get the same game for cheaper in a Steam sale or Humble Bundle. You save money, and chances are that the game has already gotten a few patches and is actually in a better state than on release. Last year, I began more and more to deviate from that pattern and bought more games on release. And yes, I probably paid a bit more, and had more problems with bugs or unfinished content. But I did realize that buying on release has other advantages.
Buying games later, for example at a Steam sale, dissociates the act of buying a game from the moment where I actually want to play the game. A game has been on my wishlist for a while, I buy it because it is 50% off, but plan to play it "sometimes", because right now I am playing something else, or am not in the mood for that particular game or genre. My large library of unplayed Steam games shows the fundamental flaw of that plan: If I don't want to play that game *now*, then maybe I never will.
I used to work a 50+ hours per week job, *and* write a blog, *and* play games, including real time-eaters like World of Warcraft. The more obvious consequence of early retirement is that I have a lot more time now than before. But any plans I had to use that time to tackle the unplayed games in my Steam library didn't really work out. I'm still not spending much more time actually playing games than before. Instead I spend the additional time in game-related activities, like watching Twitch streams or YouTube videos about games. And of course those content creators are frequently playing the latest games. Which is great, because watching a game played is the best kind of review you can get. But of course it leads to "oh, I want to play this" moments, and by that I mean I want to play the game *now*, not in half a year at a discount. Plus I have the impression that Steam sales discounts are less generous than they used to be, it is hard to get more than 30% off the original price these days.
The big advantage of this "buy now" strategy is that I only buy games which I then immediately play. I'm not adding to my library of unplayed games anymore. Also, by buying and playing a game right after having watched a streamer play it, I also directly get a video tutorial on how to play. I recently bought Deep Rock Galactic: Survivor, which is outside my usual zone of comfort for game genres. I never played Vampire Survivors. But after seeing the game played, it looked a lot of fun, and at $10 it is rather cheap. Even a bullet hell game turns out to have some strategy, and isn't totally mindless. Nice game for shorter gaming sessions.
I think I will buy fewer games at sales in the future. In the end, paying a bit more for a game I actually play right then is the better deal.
Saturday, February 17, 2024
Survival is cheap
Nightingale is a survival / crafting game that will be released on February 20th. It will be $29.99 on Steam, with some variations due to regional pricing. This is the third major survival game this year, in under two months (note that Enshrouded had the expected half-life of three weeks and is down to 69k players from 160k). And both Palworld and Enshrouded also cost $30. While Valheim from three years ago is even only $20. Why are survival games so much cheaper than games in for example the shooter genre?
This is especially interesting if you consider that, like in Palworld, there will be shooting in Nightingale. And in Skull and Bones you also do a bit of survival activities, like logging trees or cooking food. So what exactly justifies that Skull and Bones is twice as expensive, premium smuggler pass monthly payment not included? Obviously Ubisoft would say that their game is of higher quality, having already called it “quardruple-A”. But if we consider Palworld, Enshrouded, and Nightingale as only double-A games, then how would a triple-A survival game look like, and why aren’t there any? Given that Palworld is likely to be the best-selling game of 2024, which is an extraordinary thing to say 7 weeks into the year, it would be hard to argue that the survival / crafting / building genre is niche compared to other genres.
Thursday, February 15, 2024
Sorry, I'm not talking about the game Half-Life in this post. Rather I will be talking about the half-life *of* games. This is something that hasn't really been defined yet, which is why we get a lot of misleading headlines in game journalism. These typically look like this: "Popular game is dying - Loses 80% of players in 6 months". The game I have chosen for my example headline is an extreme case: Baldur's Gate 3; it is extreme because it *only* lost 80% of players in 6 months. Most games lose over 90% of players in under 3 months. Which is great for unimaginative video game journalists, because you can squeeze another clickbait headline out of a game that is already yesterday's news. Palworld has lost two-thirds of its players in two weeks. Starfield has lost 97% of players in under six months. You can lazily write that article for any game that has been out for some weeks or months, and Steam will happily provide you the data for that.
Now player number graphs are not a mathematically simple line. There are peaks and valleys already over a 24-hour period, with the peak usually occurring at a time which corresponds to late afternoon / early evening in Europe, which simultaneously is morning in the USA. The valleys are when Europeans are already in bed, and the Asians haven't gotten up yet. And then there are seasonal effects, like Baldur's Gate 3 player numbers having gone up visibly in the holiday period after Christmas until early January. But if you remove those daily or seasonal fluctuations, the large majority of games ends up having a curve that reminds me (as a scientist) of a radioactive decay curve. Which is to say that we could, and should, be describing that curve by the time it takes to drop to half the value, the half-life.
And the reality of the half-life value of a typical game is sobering: For most games the half-life is less than a month. Hogwarts Legacy, the best-selling game of 2023, peaked at 527k players shortly after release, but was down to 204k a month later, 59k another month later, and 27k three months after release, which calculates to a half-life of about 3 weeks. Yay, another headline, 95% down in 3 months! But apart from a very small handful of "forever games" like Counter-Strike 2, a half-life time of about 3 weeks, leading to 95% down in 3 months is actually a pretty average value. It is a value that probably tells you more about the typical attention span of the typical modern gamer, rather than anything about the game.
Of course the amount of non-repetitive content affects half-life. Baldur's Gate 3 is doing relatively well because it has an unusually high amount of content. Palworld has a shorter half-life than most games because it is an early access game with a much smaller budget and thus content running out a lot faster, and some of its players at peak were probably just there for the hype. Starfield has a pretty normal 3 week half-time, because the "1,000 planets" are not actually non-repetitive content.
That brings us to another type of games: Live-service games. A game like Destiny 2 showed a relatively good half-life of about 5 to 6 weeks. But more importantly, it got back up to nearly the same number of players in February 2023 as it had on release in October 2019. Which of course corresponds to the release date of the Lightfall expansion. Not all expansions of Destiny 2 had this sort of success, and each expansion keeps player numbers up for only a month or two. And Lightfall has "mostly negative" ratings on Steam. But it shows the link between half-life and players running out of content that a re-injection of content can get the player numbers back up. These days it is extremely rare that a game grows beyond its initial peak, even when a good expansion or DLC is released.
Whether a live-service game is financially viable of course depends more on the absolute numbers than on the half-life of those numbers. Destiny 2 peaked at 316k players, Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League peaked at 13k (and had a half-life of under a week). Are Rocksteady Studios / Warner Brothers going to make an expansion for Suicide Squad: Kill the Justice League if they can only hope to gain those 13k players back? As for Skull and Bones, we will probably never know, as the game isn't on Steam. But my guess is that initial player numbers will be disappointing for Ubisoft, and I didn't see anything in the beta which would suggest that the game would have a half-life longer than the typical 3 weeks.
I actually hope that live-service games are yesterday's hype, and the live-service games we get in 2024 are just the tail of that hype, caused by delays in development. I don't think that if you went to your investors today and told them that live-service games are a great money-maker, these investors would still be listening. The fundamental truth is that players only have a limited amount of disposable time every week. The opportunity cost of playing one game every day is all the other games that you then don't have time for. The MMORPG market showed that there is space in the market for only a handful of successful life-style games, and live-service looter-shooter games have exactly the same constraint.
Want to know a safe money-making bet in today's videogame market? It's a DLC for Baldur's Gate 3. Make it the size of one existing act, price it at $30, and it's a near guaranteed $300 million for 10 million sales. As you could make that DLC for less than $50 million while retaining the same quality as the original game, the return on investment is pretty spectacular. If your game studio is making a new game, it is a lot better to concentrate on making a game that is great on release, and decide on bringing out DLCs later. Designing a game as a live-service game carries a much bigger risk of the content getting diluted by the "forever" plans, and the game thus not being as successful on release, making the whole "forever" plan collapse. Count on losing half of your players in three weeks, and 95% in three months, because nearly everybody does. It doesn't matter, as the financial result depends more on how many copies you sold than on player retention. And in our highly connected social media world, if you release a good game, word will get around.
Wednesday, February 14, 2024
Sorry for comment problems
I don't do much comment moderation on this blog. I do have a setting that any comment on a post that is older than 2 weeks has to be approved by me, but that is only because it is the older posts that are primary targets for spam comments wanting to advertise something. If you comment on an older post, and the comment is not spam, I'll generally approve that and the comment will become visible within a day. There is no problem, because I get an email, and I am the kind of person who reads his email more than once per day.
I also get an email for every comment on more recent post, but without me having to approve the comment for it to become visible. There is just one problem with that: Sometimes Blogger decides on its own that the comment is spam, and doesn't publish the comment, pushing it into a spam folder instead. But it doesn't tell me that in the email it sent me about the comment being made. And I only look at that spam folder rarely. So yesterday I checked it, and found 3 completely valid comments having been marked as spam and not published over the last 2 weeks. They all were from the same person, so maybe Google for some crazy reason erroneously thinks that person is a spammer. But with me reading comments in the emails, and not on the blog, I simply didn't notice that the comments hadn't been published.
While I think this is a bad system, and I should receive better notification when Blogger thinks I got spam, the only thing I can do is check that spam folder more often. But be assured that if you wrote a comment and it didn't appear on my blog, it probably was a mistaken spam filter rather than me trying to censor you. I didn't even censor the crazy conspiracy theorist this week.
Tuesday, February 13, 2024
Today buyers of the premium edition of Skull and Bones (€90) can start playing, while buyers of the standard edition (€60) will have to wait until Friday. While I would generally say that the subscription service Ubisoft+ is a bad deal for €18 per month (Game Pass has more games for less money), you do get access to Skull and Bones with that today as well, so if you plan to play the game for less than 5 months, it might be the cheaper option. My plan? None of the above. I played the open beta for a few hours, and decided to skip this game.
Now I do believe that Assassin's Creed: Black Flag is probably the best Assassin's Creed game in the long series (I say "probably", because I haven't played all of them). But other than the ship combat, Skull and Bones is no Black Flag. Skull and Bones is a live service game, and thus ultimately resembles a game like The Division more than it resembles a single-player Assassin's Creed game. Now Ubisoft drew some ridicule by claiming Skull and Bones was a quadruple-A game, as in better than a triple-A game. But what it really is, is a quadruple Ubisoft game: If AI technology could be fed with gameplay from all Ubisoft open world and live service games, and be prompted to "create me a pirate game", the result would probably look a lot like Skull and Bones. Now if you want a live service game, and you want to sail a ship and shoot instead of running around and shoot, this might be the game for you. But I don't especially like live service games, and for me Skull and Bones doesn't have enough depth.
The basic game loop of Skull and Bones is easy to understand: You sail around with a ship, and can do a range of activities from collecting resources, doing quests, and sinking other ships. That gives you infamy, which gives you higher pirate levels, and that allows you to unlock bigger ships and cannons, which you can then pay for with the resources you collected. Beyond that, there isn't much, although a bit more is presumably added in the release version through seasons and the related monetization options, like battle passes. Sid Meier's Pirates!, from 2004, has more story than Skull and Bones. Surprisingly Pirates! also has more hand-to-hand combat than Skull and Bones, as this aspect is completely missing. You only control your character in the hubs to visit merchants or talk to quest NPCs, there is no cutlass combat. When you use the boarding function in Skull and Bones, there is no resulting combat, you immediately get to loot the boarded ship.
To me, Skull and Bones isn't really a special game in any way. It is exactly the quality and gameplay that I would expect when being told that it is a Ubisoft live service pirate game (minus the melee combat). I might have played it free to play and bought a battle pass for a month, but I'm not going to pay €60 or €90 for it. Sailing around with a ship and doing arcade-like cannon shooting combat only kept me entertained for a few hours. The more interesting encounters like ghost ships and sea monsters necessitate playing for longer to get a much bigger ship, and then playing together with other players.
Monday, February 12, 2024
Thoughts on the videogame influencer business
As I am watching a lot of streams and videos about videogames on Twitch and Youtube these days, and they certainly "influence" my buying behavior, I was thinking about the state of this business. On the one side we all heard how game companies overextended during the pandemic, and are now cutting cost and firing people. I would image that cost cutting also includes advertising budgets. The other pillar of income for a videogame influencer is direct contributions from the audience, be that via subscriptions or various forms of direct donations. Now I have absolutely no data on these, but would think that these are discretionary spending, and that a difficult economic situation and cost of living crisis would negatively affect those as well.
On the other hand, the influencer marketing market size is growing rapidly, as a consequence of other marketing channels like print media or TV shrinking rapidly. The more time we, as consumers, spend our time increasingly on social media rather than watching cable TV, the more valuable these new media become for advertisers. That is diminished somewhat by an erosion of trust: We are more aware these days that if we watch for example a young woman journaling her lifestyle on a social media platform, she is making money by talking about some eyeliner, and she isn't really just talking about a great product she found by serendipity.
But in all this, videogame influencing is somewhat different from other kinds of influencing. That starts with the platforms: Videogames have a specific platform in Twitch that is dominated by this videogame content, with "Just chatting" and "Hot tubs" being popular, but less important. And much of the "just chatting" content is also about videogames. On the other side, while there is certainly videogame content on Tiktok, the short format is more suitable for doing meme stuff in games that everyone already knows, rather than for introducing new games.
More importantly, videogame influencing is less of a bait & switch model. The person watching that lifestyle influencer is there because of the person, and doesn't even know in advance that she is going to try to push that eyeliner in that video. The Twitch stream or Youtube video of the videogame streamer is always saying what game is being played. I totally ignore even my favorite streamers when they play a game I am not at all interested in, and I discover new streamers because they play a game I am interested in. Even if I know that the streamer is being paid for playing that particular game, the whole thing appears somewhat more honest: The streamer isn't just saying that the game is great and I need to believe him, he is playing that game live, and I can see much of it for myself. And most streamers honestly say what they dislike about a game, presumably because streams often go on for several hours, and it is hard to fake enthusiasm for that long. You can't pretend that a game has great graphics, when in reality it hasn't and your audience can see that.
For the advertising agency, videogame influencer marketing has a big advantage: The viewer has much higher buying intent. The person watching the lifestyle influencer maybe doesn't want to buy an eyeliner at all. The person watching a stream of several hours about a given game probably wouldn't do that if he wasn't at least somewhat interested in the game or genre, and is thus a lot closer to a possible buying decision. This form of advertising, that is targeted better, thus ends up being a lot cheaper per view and per customer actually persuaded. I don't know how much the big streamers make in a sponsorship deal, but it is probably a lot cheaper than a TV ad. And you can in parallel also get a lot of streamers to play your game for free, if you just give them a free copy of the game, and maybe the permission to stream the game a few days before the release already. I have bought video games that I saw being played on Twitch, where the streamer bought the game himself, which is basically advertising at negative cost.
The downside for the game company and the advertising agency is the inherent honesty of advertising via actual play streams. If your game sucks, the viral word-of-mouth message that will go around is hurting your sales. However, that somewhat depends on what exactly the flaw is. Some games, let's say Suicide Squad or Skull and Bones as recent examples, look good on a stream for a few hours, because the problem is more in the long-term motivation.
A theoretical possibility, and I am not sure in how much that is actually done, is that you can use the feedback you get from the streamer and his audience when you show a game demo or early access version. Some of my favorite games, like Against the Storm, reached excellency by listening to early access player feedback. Game developers do pop up in Twitch streams or comments on Youtube videos. I would very much hope that an event like the Steam Next Fext (ending today) does not only serve to show games to the audience, but to actually improve those games based on what the streamers that played the demos were saying about them.
Saturday, February 10, 2024
General vs. specific AI
Even intelligent people rarely say intelligent things. In our day-to-day interactions with others, the level of intelligence required is extremely low. This is because we rarely debate complicated stuff in private conversations. We are more likely to do small talk, or stick to practical communications like "pass me the milk, please!". This is why we can chat with a generative chatbot like ChatGPT and come away thinking that this AI is intelligent, because it sounds much like a human that we do small talk with. We overestimate our capability of getting information over another person's intelligence by talking with him, which is why companies hire people based on interviews, and only later find out that the person they hired isn't in fact suitable for the job at all.
In a widely published case last year, a lawyer used ChatGPT to write a legal brief. The document *looked* like a legal brief, but in fact the case citations in it were simply made up by the artificial intelligence. ChatGPT is a general AI, which is good at *sounding* real. But it isn't a specific AI, and has no specific knowledge. It doesn't have a legal case citation database, or understanding what case to cite as a reference to what legal opinion. It just put together words that looked like case citations. And while 2023 was a year in which AI was much talked about, and much progress was shown, this was all about general AI. Machines sounding human, without actual knowledge behind their words.
I was reminded on how much specific AI is lagging behind by watching some video content from people who had been given a beta version of Millennia. They were allowed to play the game beyond turn 60, where the public demo stops, although still restricted to the third age. But the further beyond the 60 turns you play, the more two things become obvious: Millennia is a very interesting game, with some very interesting deep game mechanics and complex options; and the specific AI playing your opponents in the game is dumb as a brick, and doesn't even manage relatively simple tasks very well.
That has been a problem with 4X and grand strategy games for decades. These are games which take a rather large number of hours for one game, which makes them hard to set up for multiplayer. So a lot of people play a lot of games against AI opponents, and these generally aren't very good, in spite of being specifically designed for just one game. They generally get by with a mixture of plain cheating and hiding stupidity from the player through fog of war. Age of Wonders 4 got lauded for much improving their AI in a patch last year, when all that patch did was increase the priority of AI units attacking already wounded units, thus leading to some basic focus fire. Actually losing units to an AI in a pitched battle was a noticeable step up.
I really wished game developers would put more manpower into the development of the specific AI that plays the opponents. The bar is relatively low. Specific AI to play chess at grandmaster level exists, but we neither need nor want that in our AI opponents. In most 4X and strategy games I played, I would already be extremely happy if an AI opponent that declared war on me would be able to coordinate an attack against me with several separate armies. An AI that could play as well as a totally mediocre human would be a quantum leap in specific strategy game AI.
The good news for half the working population is that general AI will not be able in the foreseeable future to take your job if your job requires specific knowledge. Even a lowly paralegal would have done a better job with that legal brief than ChatGPT. There is no way ChatGPT could repair your car or fix your sink. Only if your current job consists mostly of spouting general phrases, you are much more in danger of your job being replaced by a general AI bot. Journalists, customer service representatives, and politicians, beware!