Tobold's Blog
Monday, July 25, 2016
Dealing with the disaffected

An economy is a system to create value. Some of that value creation is direct from individuals, the builder who builds, the inventor who invents, the service provider who provides a service. Other created value can't be traced back individually to a person as a source, but rather comes from synergistic effects that makes the whole economy create more value than the sum of its parts. Trade creates value, but it is hard to see where exactly that value is created, which is why trade is sometimes so controversial. And because not all created value has a direct source, since the beginning of time people have fought over how to distribute the overall created value amongst the people in that economy. Not just among those who contributed, but also among those valued for previous contributions (pensions for the elderly), for their future contributions (education for the children), or those who can't help but consume without contributing at all (the severly handicapped for example).

From all the economic systems that humanity has tried, the free market economy with capitalism, globalisation and democracy has proven to create the most overall value. But on the question of how to distribute the created value the system has been shown to be far from perfect. Typical example for that would be bankers, who are overpaid while often failing to fulfill their economic role of getting capital to the place where it would be most productive. Other professions are probably underpaid, for example nurses. In general the current system tends to favour a well-educated elite to an extent where  the top one percent earn and own orders of magnitude more than the average citizen. Such inequality tends to upset people and make them disaffected with the system. That is a problem when the disaffected become the majority, because in a democracy a disaffected majority can vote for extremists, in an authoritarian regime they can start a revolution, and in an anarchy they can just string the rich bastards up on the next tree and loot their mansions.

The ancient Romans dealt with the problem by organizing games in which the disaffected would kill each other for the entertainment of their peers and the elite. The elite of the late 19th / early 20th century occupied the disaffected by evoking national pride and going to war. Of course that somewhat backfired, because the resulting two world wars were of such destructive power that even most of the elite lost much or everything. After the Second World War a period of much greater equality evolved, fueled by benefits for war veterans (G.I. Bill) and generosity towards the victims of war, even those on the losing side (Marshall Plan). But starting from the 80's inequality was back in fashion, and it appears the elite don't have much of a plan on how to deal with the disaffected this time.

Of course one thing that worked since the Romans is to have the disaffected fight each other. In what the New York Times calls tribal politics in a post-fact era, there is a very clear attempt to have the disaffected "tribes" fight each other by blaming all problems on foreigners and people of different religion. But just like people learned in 8 years of Obama that no, the can't, they would learn in 8 years of a possible President Trump that he didn't make America great again, didn't build that wall, and probably barely managed to get a question on the I-94 entry form to ask visitors whether they are Islamists. That isn't a question of left or right, as both parties are led by members of the elite and apart from Bernie Sanders the left doesn't stand for more equality any more. Liberal intellectuals appear to be more worried about political correctness in speech than about economic equality, which is only logical because the current system favors them more than equality would.

When I read news about some young man of a religious or racial minority having run amok or strapping a bomb to his chest, I don't just see an act of terrorism; I also see a suicide, an act of desperation from somebody disaffected with the system and life. While far more extreme, ultimately him and the person voting for a populist both end up with a bad solution to a shared problem. And as long as the root cause of inequality isn't addressed, those bad decisions will only become more frequent and things will go from bad to worse. Maybe the politicians who are of the elite and have run things in favour of the elite should consider whether everybody including them wouldn't be better off if the distribution of the created value wasn't a bit more even. Not equal, but like it was 50 years ago, where the median income was still a living wage. It is better to be rich and secure than richer and under threat of a systemic collapse. It ended badly a hundred years ago, and it will end badly this time one way or another if a solution for inequality and disaffection isn't found.

Sunday, July 24, 2016
Is Magic Duels too generous?

Magic Duels released a new expansion, Eldritch Moon. Due to the special system of Magic Duels in which you never find a card you can't use in a booster, you only need to open 64 boosters to get every possible card. At 150 gold per booster that's 9,600 gold. And I had a bit over 11,000 gold saved up by playing since the last expansion. So I got all the cards for free. Although I am perfectly willing to pay for Magic cards, the game basically doesn't let me. Isn't that a bit too generous?

Expansions in Magic Duels follow more or less the release date of the real cards, so they can't get those expansions out any faster. The last expansion came out in April. And they fixed the bug where you wouldn't get a daily quest every day. As you can replace quests you don't want once per day. I was pretty much able to get a quest that pays 120 gold every day. That usually involves winning two games, which at high difficulty is another 30 gold earned per day. So in 3 months I can easily earn the gold for a full expansion without doing more than the daily quests.

In Magic Online there was an expression "going infinite" to describe the process of being able to play for free by earning all the cards you needed from playing. But in Magic Online going infinite was hard, while in Magic Duels I find it rather easy. In World of Warcraft, which I will start again in August, I also found it easy to go infinite. And my economics knowledge tells me that "free to play" games aren't supposed to be really free, especially not for the intensive users who might be most willing to pony up.

Friday, July 22, 2016
Pokemon No Go

It is rare that general media report about a new game coming out. But Pokemon Go made a big splash, bringing Nintendo's Pokemon brand to mobile phones and in a game with newsworthy features like augmented reality, which can provide funny screenshots that even non-gamers can laugh about. Add some stories about people having accidents due to walking while watching their screen, getting into trouble trespassing to catch a rare Pokemon, or moving from virtual gym battles to real world fisticuffs, and you got enough to fill a newspaper during the dull summer period. The game getting to nearly 10 million players in a few days helps too. But is it actually a good game?

Personally I don't think it is. First of all the game has some serious technical problems. If you consider it as some sort of MMO you'll probably not be surprised that there are server problems at launch. But even if the game runs you'll quickly find out that Pokemon Go is pushing the envelope of what a smart phone is capable of. The battery drain is enourmous, and it is also consuming quite a lot of data. I am currently on holiday, and while a game that requires you to walk around and visit real world landmarks sounds like a perfect fit for a holiday, it isn't if you consider expensive data roaming charges.

But what about the game? Well, there isn't actually much game here. You walk around and find Pokemon, which you catch by flicking a virtual ball at them. You get those balls and eggs by walking to real world landmarks marked on your map. You can also get Pokemon from those eggs, which you incubate by walking around. And then you can exchange your lowel Pokemon for "candy", which you use to level up your higher level Pokemon of the same type. Finally you can walk to a gym and beat up other players' Pokemon to capture that gym in a system that gives a whole new meaning to the term "open world PvP".

I would imagine this focus on running around a lot has health benefits, unless you walk in front of a bus while catching a Pokemon. But as gameplay goes it isn't terribly interesting. Catching Pokemon with the augmented realit camera on looks cool, but the actual gameplay is trivial enough. And the PvP is of the absolutely worst kind, with a strong impact on the combat power (kind of level) of your Pokemon and new players pretty much unable to capture gyms from hardcore players several hundred levels above them.

After playing for a few days, enough to form an educated opinion, I uninstalled Pokemon Go. Unless you are a huge Pokemon fan, I can't really recommend the game. However you might want to try it a bit for free to see for yourself what all the fuzz is about.

Sunday, July 17, 2016
Star Trek - Wrath of Gems

I am so old that the Star Trek I watched as a child was the original series with Captain James T. Kirk; and I'm fan enough to know what the "T." stands for. :) Many of the early Star Trek computer games were very bad, and then the brand wasn't used that much any more. So I was happy to discover Star Trek - Wrath of Gems on iOS / Android. This is a Puzzle Quest type of game, and in fact copies a lot of game mechanics from Marvel Puzzle Quest. I like match-3 games in general, and the added story adventures of the original series and the next generation were an added draw.

Unfortunately I then discovered that Star Trek - Wrath of Gems is one of the more exploitative Free2Play games. Basically the problem is that the enemies become stronger faster than you do if you don't spend money. And you can't very well farm the lower level content either, because after 4 wins a scenario only gives out very minor rewards. You can do PvP or special events, but you can't win anything with a weak starting team there either, the other players are already too advanced. Plus whenever your star ship or characters get hit, you need to wait some real time for them to heal before trying again, if you don't want to start with a disadvantage.

So you need more slots for ships and characters, and those cost coins you mostly get for real money. The same coins also buy you the booster packs in which you find those ships and characters (you can buy very basic boosters for dilithium crystals which you can either buy or get from playing). And you don't need to find those ships and characters just once, but need either several copies to upgrade them or spend coins for the upgrade. An upgrade then raises the level limit, but you still need a lot of dilithium crystals to actually level up.

I got sucked into that and feeling generous towards myself I spent more money on this "free" game than what I would have spent on a full price PC game. I did that consciously, and it enabled me to get to a point where my team was strong enough to win and earn the rewards I need to play on. But I really can't recommend a game like that. Even if you can afford it, it leaves a bad aftertaste of having been exploited.

Friday, July 15, 2016
Zombie Castaways

For me there are basically two kinds of games on the iPad: Those that concentrate on the short-term minute-to-minute gameplay, whether that is Magic Duels or Angry Birds, and those that concentrate on the long-term game, like building a city or empire over weeks or months. One variation of the latter is the exploration game genre: You still need to build a city, but you start out with very little habitable space and spend most of your time removing rocks and trees and other obstacles to clear the way. Usually there is some sort of fog of war over the areas you haven't cleared yet, and so in addition to the fun of building a city with a working economy you get the fun of exploring.

One such game is Zombie Castaways, a game that doesn't take itself too seriously. While castaways on an unexplored island are a typical theme for exploration games, in Zombie Castaways your citizens and workers are all zombies, and there is a general theme of humorous "horror". Interestingly there are different island in the game which have different modes of gameplay. On the first you gather three different types of tools to use to remove stones, trees, and bushes by clicking on them. On the second you have zombie workers that you need to supply with brains, and they'll do the clearing for you. There  are treasures to be found, containing a multitude of items that form collections, which can be handed in for various resources.

The fundamental limitation of exploration games is that you can't play them forever: There is a large but limited number of objects to clear and areas to explore. But apparently Zombie Castaways gets around that problem by having temporary islands pop up, which disappear after two weeks or so. The exploration gives you experience points which give you levels, and those unlock increasing numbers of crops to plant, buildings to construct and resources to gather and craft. Overall quite a nice variety of different gameplay elements and activities.

Zombie Castaways is Free2Play and is relatively nice about it: It doesn't constantly nag you for money or push you into paywalls. I tend to spend some money on the Free2Play games I play if I like them, and then I check how much bang you get for your bucks. In Zombie Castaways a moderate amount like $20 gets you quite a lot of comfort functions like "brainy" zombies you don't need to feed with brains to make them work or supertools you can use on any obstacle. As I had some other games recently where $20 got you nowhere, that was a nice change. Still you can play the game for free quite reasonably as well. I probably won't play this for very long, it is the kind of game I play for a few weeks and then move on. But right now I am having fun! Recommended!

Friday, July 08, 2016
Politics could learn from game design

I've been discussing earlier this month how game designers can make punishing players for certain things more acceptable by framing that game mechanic rather as a reward for the opposite behavior. Very frequently you can express the same thing in either a negative statement (e.g. "we don't have the full solution") or turn it around and express it as a positive thing (e.g. "we already have part of the solution").

If I look at US politics, which are even more than European politics a game of negative advertising, I think that politicians are missing an opportunity here. For example Clinton has that problem with the private e-mail server she used, and the Republicans are milking that for negative advertising as much as they can, and are pushing for more and more "investigations" into the matter for publicity reasons after the initial investigations didn't come up with the result the Republicans wanted. And Clinton is just relatively silent on the issue and is sitting it out. Huge lost opportunity there: Clinton should advertise things like: "Would you trust the government with all your secrets? Me neither!". Using a private service rather than a government one is something the Republican core voter can understand. Paint the Republican party leadership as people who are pushing for total control by the state on this issue, and they'll quickly shut up about those e-mail servers.

Of course the Brexit referendum is another great example where both sides engaged in negative advertising, trying to get voters to react out of fear of some (often imaginary) negative consequence of the other side rather than explaining the positive points of their side. The Russian revolutionary Nikolai Bukharin said that democracy is the preferred form of government of the bourgeoisie when they are fearless, but fascism is the preference when they are afraid. If politics become a game of scaremongering, right-wing populists will win that game. 

Thursday, July 07, 2016
Moral hazards of the republic

Most of my readers when asked under what form of government they live would probably reply that they live in a democracy. But in reality there is a qualifier to that, we don't live in direct democracies, but rather in representative democracies, otherwise known as republics. We don't decide on laws or govern ourselves, but we elect representatives who staff the legislative and executive branch for us. In many cases that goes even one step further: We elect representatives who then elect key persons in government, like a president, chancellor, or prime minister.

What struck me as odd since the referendum on the Brexit was that many of these key persons, key political leaders on both side of the leave and remain debate, have either stepped down or are expected to do so soon. So basically the British first voted for different parties, who chose various political leaders, who got the ball rolling for the Brexit referendum. And now that the result of that referendum is in, those political leaders step down and leave others to deal with the mess.

For me that falls in the economic definition of moral hazard, the effect that somebody might be willing to take a high risk because he is protected from the consequences. The prime minister retires with a hefty pension, why somebody who wasn't responsible for holding a referendum will have the very hard job of negotiating the exit of the UK from the EU. One thing that is certain is that nobody will be happy with the result of those negotiations, because neither the Europhiles nor the Eurosceptics will receive all they might hope for. And whoever is in government in the coming years in the UK will be blamed. Even the key political leaders of the Leave campaign like Johnson and Farage will not be held responsible for any negative consequences of the referendum, but will probably continue to snipe from the sidelines at whoever will be in charge.

That isn't unique to the UK. If you believe the latest statistics, there is a 77% probability of Donald Trump losing the US presidential elections. At which point he will probably simply go home and not involve himself much more with the Republican party. Somebody else will be left with the rather unenviable job of sorting out a deeply divided and rancorous Republican party.

The problem is well known in economics with regards to CEOs of companies. They can do extremely risky moves endangering the company they lead, and if it goes wrong they'll fly out on a golden parachute. So some measures have been proposed and some implemented where the CEO is paid in shares that can't be sold for a while, so if he causes a long-term drop in share price he is suffering some consequences himself. I wonder whether it would be possible to implement something similar for political leaders, like linking their pension to future GDP. As it is they can just cause all sorts of problems with risky actions, without having to fear the consequences.

Wednesday, July 06, 2016
When rewards become punishments

There is an old story around about how Blizzard made the World of Warcraft rested xp system more acceptable by framing it as a bonus for rest instead of a penalty for playing too much. It shows that anything you reward people for in a game could be interpreted as being a punishment for not doing something. And thus it becomes very important how you structure your rewards in order for them to not be perceived as a negative thing.

I was thinking about that in the context of various mobile games that I am currently playing, and which I am not going to list. Many of these games have a "reward" for loging on daily. But these rewards are structured in different ways, and that makes quite a difference if you look at them from a different angle: What happens if you *don't* login for one day?

There are a number of games where daily login rewards are increasing as long as you log in every day. I'm playing several games where that is a series of 5 days, you get increasing rewards for loging on every day for 5 days, and if you miss a day you have to restart that series from day 1. But I have seen longer series of 30 days and more as well in the past. That is obviously a problem: If life intervenes, maybe your internet went down for a day, or you really didn't have time for games for a day for business or family reasons, the motivation to log into that game again is diminished. The game punished me for not loging on yesterday, so why should I log on today?

Other games give out rewards every day, but it doesn't matter whether you logged on the day before or not. You are still missing out on a reward for missing a day, but at least that isn't reducing your reward for the day after.

Finally there are some games, from "idle games" to EVE Online, where a reward accumulates over time while offline. Sometimes there are upper limits to that, so you need to log on at least once every X days to collect, sometimes there are no limits at all. In the hypothetical situation of you having missed a day, obviously this system is the most motivating one. Not only did I not lose anything from missing a day, but the reward I receive looks bigger, because I get a bigger chunk of it at once.

I do think this is something that game developers should keep in mind: Rewards for daily logins are fine, but don't structure them in a way that missing a day demotivates people from playing.

Wednesday, June 29, 2016
The future of 3D printing

Predicting the future of technology tends is full of pitfalls. Thomas Watson, president of IBM predicted in 1943 that there was a world market for maybe 5 computers, today I own more than that (counting all mobile computers). And there have been other foolish predictions about people not needing television, or home computers. So armed with this list the proponents of 3D printing say that their product will have the same future as computers: Maybe a bit clunky and not terribly useful right now, but the next industrial revolution in the making. At the risk of looking foolish in 70 years, I disagree. 3D printing is not comparable to computing in future usefulness for humanity.

To see where I am coming from, one has to look at what computers do, and what 3D printers do. Computers process and display information. That is a huge field, because "information" is a huge field. In the end a computer allows me to communicate with people all over the world, watch movies, play games, design, model, simulate, archive, look up, and many more things. A 3D printer on the other hand can only be used to create an object. Even if in the future the complexity and the quality of the printed objects increases, physical objects are by their very nature more limited in variety than information.

Creating an object today seems like something fabulous, because it isn't something we as individuals do very often in modern life. But that is an illusion: In reality humanity has always been busy creating objects, and has become exceedingly good at it. The two basic principles we used to become so efficient at making objects are also the reason why the creation has become so much less visible: Division of labor and mass production. We don't create objects as individuals any more because we organized ourselves in a way that those who are best at creating any given object will create it for us. And we don't make those objects one by one, because it is far more efficient to make a great number of them and distribute them.

We never lost the ability to create things. You can still today start knitting a pullover, or carve a piece of wood into a toy. But division of labor means that somebody else is probably much better than we are at making pullovers or toys. And mass production means that this other person can not only make that pullover or toy better, he can also make it a lot cheaper. So instead of creating the objects we need for our daily lives, it is more efficient for us to work the job that we are specialized in, and use the money earned to buy the objects that the people specialized in their creation made. Yes, that bought pullover or toy will be less individualized than one we made ourselves. But as there are so many mass produced pullovers and toys on the market, we have sufficient choice without going for perfect individualization.

A 3D printer doesn't change these economic principles. No technological improvement can make the individual 3D printing of an object cheaper and more efficient than the mass production of the same object. Most of the object in your daily life are things that other people can use too, and so mass production is not going to go away. Having said that, mass production fails in some areas of technology, because in some special cases an object does have to be unique. And in those cases 3D printing does have a future. From making of prototypes to individual medical or dental protheses to anything "art & craft", 3 printers have a bright future. I fully expect in a few years to own a 3D printer, because the cost will have come down enough for it to have become useful enough to have one in the house. I just don't expect more than a fraction of a percent of the objects I use every day to be coming from a 3D printer. Useful technology, yes; industrial revolution of the future, no.

Tuesday, June 28, 2016
Back to the playing board

I used to play board games a lot, had a huge collection. But between Dungeons & Dragons, Magic the Gathering, and an increasing flood of video games, board games stopped to be part of my repertoire many years ago. And then an increasing number of board games got computer adaptations, especially on the iPad, and for some time the only board games I played were virtual. The best virtual board / card game this year for me is Pathfinder Adventures. Patches added more content and fixed most of the bugs, so at this point I can really only recommend it.

As Pathfinder Adventures is the sort of game my wife also likes, I started playing it with her in pass & play mode. But it turned out that this wasn't ideal. The fun of playing with somebody is the shared experience, and passing a tablet between players isn't all that great for that shared experience. And the video game automates many things like shuffling, and only shows you the relevant part of the game at the moment, so many game mechanics end up being less clear than if you have to take care of everything yourself.

So for the first time I bought a board game after already having played the video game adaption. At first just the base set, but as that was a big success I ended up buying the 6 adventures as well. That is six times as expensive in physical form than in video game form, but for us the added fun was worth it. Even the added time required for setting up the game and sorting cards back into stacks afterwards didn't deter us. We like this game, and will take the box with us on our summer holidays.

The only other tabletop game I'm playing is Dungeons & Dragons. Now pen & paper roleplaying is very, very different than any computer roleplaying game. The great freedom that a human DM gives over a computer following a script makes the experience very different. But after my experience with the Pathfinder Adventure Card Game I started to think that may that wasn't the only reason why I prefer D&D over games like World of Warcraft or Skyrim. The same factor of a better shared experience when you are sitting around the table with friends is also something that is much better than a solo game against a computer.

Friday, June 24, 2016

Redistribution as a term in the political dictionary has a bad reputation. People usually think it means taking their money away and giving it to somebody else in the form of welfare. But in reality *any* action a government takes is redistribution. Whether they build a road, a school, or invest in military, anything they do benefits some people more than others, while the money is taxed not in proportion to that benefit.

When the United Kingdom of Great Britain decided yesterday to leave the European Union (and now risk to end up less united and less great as Scotland and Northern Ireland are likely to leave), they didn't think of redistribution. They argued about net contribution. "Net contribution", the idea that overall you pay more than you get back, is the same idea as progressive income tax: The rich pay more than the poor, so the UK being among the top 5 richest European countries is also among the top 5 net contributors. So some people in the UK think that Brexit is like a legal way to stop paying your taxes, which seems like a clear win. In reality the matter is a lot more complicated than that.

Net contribution only ever calculated the money Britain is paying directly to the EU and the money that the EU was paying out in the UK. The other benefits of being part of the EU weren't part of the calculation, and those sums are a lot bigger. Today the financial markets of the world are in shock, and London is the epicenter. Nobody knows exactly how much the Brexit will cost London as a financial center, but everybody knows that the net effect is negative and much bigger than the EU budget, which is why the pound is tumbling today.

But to come back to the theme of redistribution, it has also to be remarked that as everywhere else the contribution of Britain to the EU budget is also an internal redistribution: The people that the EU gave money to weren't the same as those who paid the money in. Some parts of the British economy were net benefactors of the EU, for example research and agriculture. It is unlikely that the British government is going to spend the money they don't pay to the EU any more to compensate those who benefited from the EU. Ultimately the Brexit itself is an act of redistribution: Even if you don't agree with the economists who predict that the overall net effect is negative, the money sure will be in a different set of pockets than before. And as every big project by politicians there is a significant danger that the money will end up not in the most deserving pockets, but in the pockets of the powerful and special interests. Some people will profit from the Brexit, but many will be less well off.

Thursday, June 23, 2016
Boardwalk Empire and Sex

My wife and me are currently watching Boardwalk Empire on DVD. That is a TV series from HBO which is all about the prohibition, showing how the official interdiction of alcohol led to the rise of organized crime while not really having a big impact on alcohol consumption. Then I was surfing some gaming forum where somebody had linked some game-related image and the stereotypical discussion broke out whether the female characters in that image were too sexy. And I couldn't help but think that there are some parallels to the prohibition here, just with a lot less crime.

Attitudes towards how acceptable it is to show images of naked women in mainstream publications vary over the globe. An American visiting England and buying a regular newspaper like the Sun might be in for a shock when he sees the topless girl on page 3. But the globalization of media and the dominance of the USA in media markets have led to a global general trend of less and less naked flesh in films, TV shows, print publications, and yes, games.

But just like prohibition just ended alcohol consumption on the surface, the consumption of media showing naked flesh, sexualized images, or just plain porn has not diminished. People, including teenagers and children, have unprecedented easy access to porn today. The global porn industry has been estimated to be a $97 billion business, of which around $12 billion are in the "prudish" USA. An estimated one third of all internet traffic is porn-related. And attempts to filter the internet and make porn inaccessible to teenagers have just plain failed. If your teen can't find porn on the internet there is probably something wrong with him. While the effect of that is disputed, the net exposure to sex certainly has gone up: The stuff that is removed these days as being too risky from mainstream publications is pretty harmless, while internet pornography these days is a lot more obscene than your daddy's Playboy magazine.

Unlike prohibition or the war on drugs there is very little evidence of pornography leading to a strong rise in violent organized crime. And so while prohibition ended in 1933 and "legalize drugs" campaigns are clearly making progress, there is very little chance that the drive to ban sex from mainstream media is going into reverse. But while female characters in mainstream games will become increasingly dressed, the porn industry will just branch out more and more into gaming. Both by producing gaming-related porn (there is a number of World of Warcraft porn sites), and by making an increasing number of games ranging from sexy over erotic to pornographic. The demand clearly is there, and if public morals prohibit mainstream game developers from fulfilling that demand, somebody else will. Just like prohibition, I'm not sure that driving sex underground is actually helping.


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