Tobold's Blog
Saturday, November 05, 2011
Incomplete information as a game mechanic

I must say that Raph Koster is one of the persons where I have difficulties to make my mind up what to think about the guy. On the one side I love his theoretical work, his book about the theory of fun, his talks at various game conferences, much of which is very brilliant. On the other hand he doesn't appear to have a knack for turning that theory of fun into games which actually are fun. I found Star Wars Galaxies flawed in many aspects, and not just technical ones. And Metaplace was so boring, I wouldn't even call it a game. So, lets rather talk about his theoretical stuff.

At the Games Developer's Conference GDC 2011, Raph gave a very good (if long) talk. And I especially liked the part where he talked about incomplete information as a game mechanic (the "Strategy guides" bookmark at the link above). He makes fun about the people who say that reading a strategy guide, for example for a World of Warcraft raid, "isn't really cheating. Because it doesn't really tell me how to play the game. I still have to tap the button in my synchronized swimming exercise at the right time." He then points out that incomplete information is an important game mechanic of many games, like Poker or Stratego. Or even Scrabble, where he cites the LA Times about an online Scrabble Cheat-o-Matic site which gets 120,000 page views a day since you can play Scrabble on Facebook.

Having all the possible information at your fingertips through the power of the internet ruins any game which is built around incomplete information which isn't randomized. Bilbo sitting in a dark cave with Gollum and playing the riddle game today would have whipped out his trusty iPhone and been able to look up all the answers to every possible riddle on Google with it. Which is pretty much why riddles, which used to be an important part of role-playing games, have nowadays disappeared from the genre. Adventure games, which are all about riddles, were popular in the 90's, but are extremely niche now.

I would like very much if "figuring out stuff" would make a return to MMORPGs. But for that to happen, the game developers have to figure out a way to make the situations which need figuring out not static. If the problem is always the same, the first person to solve it puts the information on the internet, and the riddle is gone. What we would need is more randomness, less scripting. Unfortunately I don't see anybody even trying that for MMORPGs. The most random online RPG on the horizon is Diablo 3, and even that uses mostly scripted sequences, even if they are put on tiles which are randomly put together.

Bilbo wouldn't have been able to get a signal in that cave. People can't even get a signal in the basement of our bookshop.

I'm of completely the opposite opinion. I can't stand puzzles. In my kind of rpg gameplay they exist purely as artificial barriers. I played a lot of text adventures and then point-and-click adventures before I came to MMOs and for a short while when I first played Everquest, which then used a system for NPC quests which was identical to a text adventure interface, I would try to solve all the quests myself.

Fortunately within a matter of weeks I discovered Allakhazam, Caster's Realm and EQAtlas, where I could read up all this stuff. My enjoyment of Everquest skyrocketed as I was able to get on with the important elements of playing my character - roleplay, character-building, exploring, acquiring and so on - without being stymied at every turn by pointless guessing games.

When I play the action parts of MMOs I am not the Actor. I'm the Director. I tell my character where to go and what to do and then I watch how well he performs. That's the fun. I only become the Actor-Director in a roleplay situation. As the Director, I expect to have the full script.

The fewer puzzles we get in future, the better. Randomness is fine in terms of environmental conditions, but would not be welcome in any kind of questing or plot. Not to me, anyway.
Personally, I'm glad I can find the information.

So I'm playing an adventure game and suddenly I'm stuck. If I'm stuck for twenty minutes, I'd rather just look up the solution for this problem and continue playing. I remember the days of pre-internet where that meant I would be stuck for hours or even days.
"What we would need is more randomness, less scripting."

This sentence is the one that motivated me to comment today. :)

You probably already know this, but for those who don't, there is no such thing (not yet, anyway) as true randomness in computers. Even virtually random behavior (however that's defined) has some algorithm behind it where, if given the same seed, will produce the same results every time.

With number generation we've made some advancements, but more complex randomization and the abstractions of that (e.g., A.I.)  are fields that are being researched.

I think the day will come. But I see the bottle neck at the R&D level (universities) and not at the game design level. But one day, we will have games that incorporate some really dynamic content that responds and is centered around the player.

Exciting. :)
@Bhagpuss: I see what you mean. It depends what the game is to you. Tobold wrote about it the other day. Games feel more like interactive movies/stories these days. I see some of that in your description of the things you find enjoyment in. Nothing wrong with that, just an observation. In contrast, I bought StarCraft II not for the single player mission, but for the PvP matches. Other players provide that randomization that I personally love. Room enough in the world for both types of games (and gamers).
I don't think it is as clear cut as cheating or not cheating.

Ultimately, the important thing to remember is that for most people, knowing how to do everything through finding the information is still FUN for them. That is what is being ignored here.

It's an interesting issue, because obviously there is a large group of people that would much, much rather be spoonfed all the information. People will still play adventure games WITH STRATEGY GUIDES. As in, the entire point of the game being completely subverted, supposedly the only enjoyment being designed around figuring things out yourself.

Is that...wrong? Are people wrong for having fun doing something that takes no effort?
One problem is that many people want puzzles and challenges that are just hard enough to be fun but not so hard as to be frustrating. In practice, some puzzles will be too easy and some will be too hard. The too hard ones can derail your game play. I remember back in the 80s and early 90s when hitting a "too hard" could mean quitting the game and never returning to it (because of other games coming along, RL, whatever, not that the game was *that* frustrating).

Having access to the internet and/or cheat books means you can get past these points. If you have self-control you don't use them for the stuff that is just challenging enough because you still want to have fun with that. But if you use the hints for everything, you have nobody to blame but yourself.

In practice, games don't seem to put in anything difficult these days.
I think people are mixing two separate meanings of incomplete information.

Poker requires me to have incomplete player information. Yet I have complete rule information. If my opponent has the two cards I assume they have, then I can compute their chances of winning are exactly 9 of 42 and can compute to the dollar how big the pot needs to be to profitably call their bet.

I guess I don't particularly see the appeal of developers requiring someone to do 5000 attacks so as to compute the DPS of my gun is 573. Either make the stuff so numerous/random that it can't realistically be computed or tell us the numbers make sense. Pretending ElitistJerks does not exist does not make sense to me.

There is a difference in:

telling the players that Mob17 Attack 2 does 18000 damage instead of having the players compute it.

having Mob17 always do Attack2 on the closest player when its health reaches 80% versus doing a random attack on a random player. Or some AI where the mob uses the random attack on the most vulnerable person to that attack.
Synchronized swimming, that's brilliant! :D Pretty much spot on describes WoW raiding.
Yet I have complete rule information.

The way an opponent moves in a battle is not "rule" information. If that raid boss was controlled by a player, who could move and fire off special abilities at will, you would still have complete rule information, but raiding would be a lot harder. It is only because you KNOW where the boss will move and what ability he will use when that you can beat him. That is like having a mirror installed behind your poker opponent.
Daniel Silva, randomness is not the problem. What is important is unpredictability. Randomness is just the cheapest (and arguably worst) realization of unpredictability.
@Nils: How do you achieve unpredictability (especially these days) without some element of randomness?
@Daniel Silva

1) by playing with/against other people.
2) by using rulesets that are too complicated to be predicted. Chess.

But the point is that it is the unpredictability that is important for game design. Even if RNGs worked with quantum fluctuations (and were thus presumably perfectly random), it wouldn't matter. As long as the player cannot predict an event, it doesn't matter to him whether he could have predicted it, theoretically.

This is not the question of whether god throws dice. It's simply the question whether a player can predict an event.
If that raid boss was controlled by a player...

Seriously, wouldn't that be quite interesting? Implement a "Dungeon Keeper" mode in your MMO and you get both a nice twist to the game and random-like boss battles.

I don't know that it's been done before (but I'm sure I'll be advised very quickly if it has!), but either way it ought to be possible to get it to work just as well as PvP – i.e. give the raid boss players the right incentives not to trade wins or simply lie down and die etc. And even with 10-man raids only a small minority of the players would need to sign up for boss duty to get the thing to work.

I'd play end boss Tobold™!
Daniel, you get unpredictability without randomness by using math. A PRNG takes a big number, hashes it then tranforms that hash into the type of random number you needed. It the hashes the previous hash etc. This creates a series of numbers that is perfectly predictable if you know the seed and the algorithm, but to a human for all intents and purposes is a perfectly good random number especially for games.

Additionally it is easy to get true random numbers. All you need is access to some type of random physical system (like line noise on a wire, or nuclear decay, or rolling dice or countless other things). There is currently true RNG hardware available. It doesn't matter though because for games PRNGs are perfectly good.
@Daniel Silva

Complexity. Make a system complex or chaotic enough and it becomes unpredictable even without using randomness, because the players don't have fine enough control of the inputs to determine the outputs. Once you do that, gameplay becomes about being able to react to and handle whatever gets thrown at you, instead of following the set script.

And, that, I think, is the problem with much current game design (not just WoW raiding, although that has to be the most egregious example). Encounters are designed with One True Strategy for beating them, and then engineered so only that approach will work. If players somehow find a new and innovative tactic, it's usually fixed in the next patch. Having the One True Strategy as incomplete information is never going to work, because once somebody beats the encounter they WILL put the answer out there on the internet. So unless you're part of a 'world first' guild then you are always going to go into each encounter know exactly what should be done, and that there's no point trying anything else.
I agree that if you introduce random input and a sandbox with less governance, you will get unpredictability. Complexity makes it more difficult to reverse engineer, but thanks to the crowd sourcing not impossible.

But there is still randomness going on. It's just that the input is dynamic. In PvP this is easiest to see. It's why I Iove StarCraft. The players are the dynamic input. The result is unpredictable because people are truly random.

In PvE though, while "E" is a computer program, unpredictability is much more challenging. The problem will get easier as we learn more in this field. Games will improve.
Try incomplete information as a rapidly fading LIFE mechanic.

In my line of work these days it's unusual NOT to have someone whipping out an iPhone/SmartPhone fact checking in real time any technical talk I make anymore.

Frankly I am astonished by the implications of finger tip facts being always available. I liken it to the initial resistance to cheap handheld calculators... There was the old stand by teachers who insisted that "learn to do rote math because you may not have a calculator handy".

Of course we know how this story goes... not only did calculator's and their big brothers computers become ever more available but they basically took over Accounting and Mathematics. NOW we teach calculus classes at the University level using graphing calculators as an integral tool.

I find myself wondering how future primary school teachers will react to a 7 year old student telling them that their lesson data is wrong and then PROVING this error with correct up to the second data...

The implications of on demand information everywhere is truly mind blowing.
This is really a good topic Tobold.

Cheating vs. Non-cheating

Am I cheating in life where I use an electronic calculator to solve a math problem?

In school maybe... In work probably not.

One of the things I absolutely love about modern gaming is that there is so much information available. Using external data to a game is much like having a good coach or teacher show you how to play a game well.

Yes you "could" try all the permutations yourself "BUT Why?".

I could solve a 10x10 matrix multiplication problem myself with paper and pencil BUT I choose to use a tool. I choose to use external resources to be more efficient and therefore experience more during my finite available time span.

If it is cheating to utilize external game data then. Cheating is merely arguing against efficiency.

And we know how arguments against efficiency go.

And are the L33T skills crew just the John Henry's of our digital age?
The Internet has just made it easier to cheat. Back in the 1980s computer game magazines were full of guides and cheat-modes for 8-bit computer games.

Personally I wish games had more of the 'old school' puzzles in even if they were kept as side-line non essential content. The drive to research everything before experiencing it means there are no surprises. My guild have always enjoyed first runs in dungeons with no spoilers.

This mentality of 'watch the video first' spoiled my enjoyment of DDO. It's a rare MMO with puzzles, traps and other content beyond endless combat, BUT if you don't know the dungeons you'll be left behind by the PUG zerg that runs through everything breakneck speed...
Tobold, what you want is an extremely inaccessible HC game. What about the people who are too "casual" to figure out things for themselves?

You're mistakenly equating "casual" with "does not enjoy puzzles". In my experience, there exist casual players that enjoy puzzles.
I agree. The internet and the "power(leveling)" mind-frame of getting everything as fast as possible, has dumbed down games. Or more so, ruined the whole experience, to an extent.

Nobody wants to find out the "hard way" or the way the developers intended.

- Jamin
"What about the people who are too "casual" to figure out things for themselves?"

Yeah spoken in the spirit of a true John Henry.

Read the story Gev... chances are your present Engineering Skills will be replaced by a shell script in the future... a very small shell script.

But to put it more bluntly... what happens when the Bot makers get really inventive and TAKE OVER your nice virtual economy? Would the days of Greedy Goblindom be over?

Can't happen you say?

That's what quite a few real life Goblins thought until this happened.

What happens to an economy when you don't need to be a genius to trade commerce like a genius? A super fast milli-second genius.

And what happens when all those previously "Professional" jobs like Large Power System Engineering Design... get's automated by the son of High Frequency?

What happens when engineering design goes the way of the typist when MS Word came out?

Yeah I know John Henry... No steam drill ever gonna do a better job than a human.
In my experience, there exist casual players that enjoy puzzles.

Yes, puzzle games like Gardens of Time have tens of millions of users on Facebook.
I don't mind dealing with incomplete information if I can solve the problem in a reasonable amount of time.

In terms of randomness, that's why I enjoy PvP. Other players are much harder to predict.
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