Monday, August 21, 2006

On Vanity Points

"Vanity points" is a concept I touched on a while back. The idea is, in a typical game, and especially in online team games, you typically have scores, points, and awards which are not absolutely critical to victory: e.g. the numbers on the stats screen at the end of a game of WarCraft 3, or the number of kills in a capture-the-flag shooter. Usually these points do indeed imply contribution to the end result. They rarely, if ever guarantee it; in Counter-Strike, one man might die from gunshots that expose the locations of enemies to allies, who then get the kills. The dying man deserves little credit, to be sure, but he gains none; meanwhile all the credit is given to the killers. This is compounded by the fact that killing the enemy is not necessary to win a given round of Counter-Strike.

So, you might think I'm opposed to vanity points; nothing could be further from the truth. In fact I think they are critical to directing the attention of the players. A movie director or cinematographer will ensure that a concept is expressed to the audience by directing the attention of the audience. Example: if one half of the shot is a conversation far away, and the other half someone's face up close, one will plainly see the close-up character's feelings regarding the content of the distant conversation. The same goes for games with their vanity points. In Counter-Strike, one does not need to get kills to win, and yet this is the overwhelming strategy to attain wins. Thus are new players browsing the scoreboard instantly aware of the critical role that killing takes in the game, if they didn't know already.

If you got rid of the death count in Counter-Strike, would nothing happen? More likely, you'd see a small drop in camping, more aggressive charges from non-campers, and more of a tendency for unskilled players to stick with a server as their kills stagnated while their deaths skyrocketed. The death count gives the players a greater sense (impossible as it may seem) that dying is, in fact, bad.

Further, a community might get the wrong ideas in its head about how to accomplish something without the proper vanity points. In Battlefield 2, one gains points for healing and reviving players as a medic. If this was not the case, players using medics would no doubt be more combat-oriented. In this case, vanity points have influenced how players play the game, by telling the players that, in the opinion of the developers, healing and reviving is a critical action to benefit the team, just like killing; so critical, in fact, that it deserves vanity points. Thanks to vanity points and "most/best" rankings each round (i.e. "Most revives"), newbies self-tutorialize by running blindly for any dying persons they can see in order to resuscitate them. Those that learn to play properly eventually cease over-compensating and integrate the medic-specific aspects of play into the overarching game. Thus vanity points can influence a player to not only play differently, but learn how to play properly without any sort of explicit guide.

What to take away from this is that vanity points and awards are usually an incomplete and poorly-understood mechanic in the vast majority of games that employ them, but they can also be a powerful tool for influencing the flavor of your game by influencing how the community at large plays it.

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Tuesday, August 08, 2006


Read about Tabula Rasa's "Designer" jobs. The similarity to how I describe my appreciation of games and the things in their bios is, to be honest, a tiny bit frightening. I might have to re-think my opinions on destiny.

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Sunday, August 06, 2006

On musical games

"Musical games" are henceforth defined as games where the player's input depends on rhythm, and that input is assisted/rewarded with music. Dance Dance Revolution, Beatmania, Guitar Freaks, and Frequency are all examples of musical games.

I have long been unable to put my finger on why I find some musical games compelling (DDR, Amplitude) and others humdrum (Beatmania). Recently I played Guitar Hero which allowed me to recognize a key difference.

OK, some background. I adore Amplitude (by Harmonix), and was greatly looking forward to Guitar Hero (also by Harmonix), only for months I didn't have enough money. Well, I go over to a friend's house, and his sister happens to own it... And it was a huge letdown. This led to a greater analysis and eventually the short essay you're reading now.

The difference is the existence of "game" mechanics. DDR's input in no way resembles a popular instrument, and missing a step does not miss the note. Amplitude has a number of tracks such that playing the entire song in real life is impossible, and to boot has a number of powerups that affect more than score. Meanwhile, other games have the logical conclusion of being able to play a complex song note for note. Guitar Hero is much the same way. These don't do it for me because one has to wonder why one doesn't simply learn to play the actual instrument.

I have and still do dabble in creating music on the computer, electric piano, harmonica, and ukulele. When I can actually produce music of my own whimsy, however humble, it is far more gratifying than performing a song well in, say, Guitar Hero. Whereas Amplitude uses music as its cornerstone and then builds game elements on top, most musical games merely use the music alone and do their best to ignore the "game" portion.

So, after I worked this out, I started wondering: Why are "performing" musical games popular? It's obvious why one might pick up and play a few times; instantly the music is better than it would be on a real instrument, so there's more feedback. But what about when you start looking like this? Why not just learn to play the piano?

The answer, I decided, is inertia. Just before writing this I saw a fascinating YTMND site, whose content was nothing more than a one-edged, one-surfaced torusoid, but what made it amazing were the comments made by users. The vast majority of comments - and there were a lot of comments - was about how amazing the shape was. I was stunned; it's an interesting shape, yes, but could so many people have never really seen such a shape and examined it?

It's inertia; People tend not to be very inquisitive. They don't bother learning about topology on their own even if, when shown a strange shape, they think it amazing. They stick with their Bemani game instead of moving on to a real instrument because it's familiar. People have a great deal of inertia.

So, this is my call to everyone reading this: KILL YOUR INERTIA. Go forth and do stuff; go forth and learn stuff. If you play a lot of shooters, go take a gun safety class and rent a gun, take it for a spin, see if you like it. If you like this blog, go research game companies and the history of the industry and game theory. Explore the interests you don't know you have.

Oh, and before anyone brings up the "money" argument, most musical games are played in the arcade at a substantial "rental" price, to the tune of 15-20$ an hour; If you can afford to play the game, you can afford to save up and spend some time with the instrument. And don't forget about friends! How many people do you think have absolutely no friend with an instrument in the house? Surely, they could borrow it or just tool around on it at their friend's house.

Anyway, thanks for reading. Hopefully this sheds some light on why I think musical games I dislike are popular and why, unlike other games I dislike, I actually believe they shouldn't be popular in a more perfect world. To me, no matter the genre, it's mostly about "game" part.

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