Card Games and Confirmation Bias

Yesterday on stream I played Hearthstone, a game I’ve been spending a lot of time with off stream in the last few months. It’s deceptively simple – it even comes across as simplistic – and as I’ve improved at the game I’ve come to see that it requires a great deal of knowledge and skill to play well.

Interestingly, this is not the impression you get if you read the official forums of the game. The game is, according to the average forum goer – who is, of course, often upset over a loss perceived as unfair – a game of luck where buying more packs leads to success, and where certain classes and card combos are absurdly overpowered. To some extent, of course, this is true: luck plays a role in any card game and better cards do matter. Some combos are really powerful, but setting them up is not just a matter of having the cards in your deck. What’s more, expensive cards are not always better (some of the best cards in the game are common or even basic, like Chillwind Yeti).

What’s interesting to me about Hearthstone is that it faces a fundamental problem of competitive card games, a problem perhaps even stickier than balance: confirmation bias. You see, most gamers believe they are above-average or even great at the games they play. The truth is, most are not. Hearthstone is simple to play, which fuels the player’s sense that he knows what he’s doing. But Hearthstone is not simple to play well, and even an experienced card game player will have to learn the nuances of deck design and turn-by-turn play that go into successful Hearthstone matches.

Of course, confirmation bias gets in the way of improvement, because it tells us that we were unlucky, not bad. When an opponent hits a big combo before you can hit yours it’s a lot easier to attribute it to luck than skill. When a player “topdecks” the perfect card late in the game, it’s easier to call it luck than deck design.

Luck is a part of the equation, of course, but not as much as it seems. Card games, by their very nature, tend to make luck apparent while concealing skill. Which is especially problematic when the game is played against other humans online, because the game world is hyper-competitive and the game actively evaluates you. It’s tough to create, as a designer, a game world which is both friendly and competitive regardless of genre. I think the inherent tendency towards reinforcing player views of luck and skill makes that problem almost untenable in card games.

Does Conflict Make Games Fun?

Distant Worlds is a 4X game, meaning that it generally progresses in stages from exploration to expansion to exploitation to extermination. That is, in its essence, it’s an empire building and conquest game. But unlike many 4X games, Distant Worlds easily turns into a sandbox where conquest is unnecessary and objectives are self-defined. Among the many options that a player has upon starting the game, a certain set of selections – removing victory conditions, starting with a pre-warp empire, and disabling all automation – makes the game very much a micromanagerial and non-confrontational experience. This is how we’re playing the game on stream, and it’s interesting to me how engrossing I find the experience.

I think a certain gaming perspective argues that games are built on conflict. Certainly many of the prominent game genres are, at their heart, war games of one kind or another (whether that war is experienced from the first-person perspective of a soldier or from the state-level perspective of an emperor). Distant Worlds, on the surface, is no different. All 4X games tend to turn into war games. But is the war the part that makes the game fun? Sometimes, but I don’t think it is in the case of Distant Worlds. Much like Crusader Kings 2, Distant Worlds actual battles are fairly limited – throw armies or fleets at each other until one side wins – and the game is at its richest when you’re doing the in-between war things. Researching technologies – even if they’re largely weapons and defenses – designing new ships, building new mining bases on valuable resources, negotiating trade agreements… All of this is where Distant Worlds shines.

Indeed, in our first six hours of the game we’re done little but design ships, explore nearby systems, and research the early game technologies. Even this, however, feels deeply rewarding in the Distant Worlds universe. I don’t think the sense of progression or the feeling of preparing for future conflict fully explains the satisfaction of playing the game, though. I think there’s a sense of discovery, too, and a sense of creativity. Decisions are frequent and meaningful, problems to solve are numerous, and strategy – including the meta-strategy of what pieces of the interface to use when – is essential and continuous. The game absorbs you without ever needing you to fire a shot (indeed, we have not yet built a ship with weapons).

As essential as conflict, or the promise of conflict, is to the 4X genre, I think games that understand that conflict alone is not what makes a strategy game fun tend to be richer experiences than those which are purely built around fighting. As fun as the Total War series is, for example, its predictably bloodthirsty core mechanics only allow a player so much leeway. Many traditional RTS games like Starcraft suffer from the same problem: eventually they become formulaic. Distant Worlds, even when formulaic – that is, when building an optimal design for a ship – is engrossing, mysterious, and wide-open.

The ARPG Grind

I love Titan Quest. It’s probably my favorite Action RPG, because of its atmosphere, its sleek mechanics and class systems, its wonderful music, and its impressive – especially for its time – visual effects. That said, it is plagued by a problem that plagues many ARPGs (and RPGs of all kinds): it can become something of a grind. The game is long, and there are times where I can’t help but wonder if it is long for the sake of being long, and not because its length adds value.

This problem is most apparent when fighting against your 12th trivially easy monster camp in a row. Titan Quest, like Torchlight, Path of Exile, and of course the myriad Diablos, is composed largely of trivial monster camps punctuated by occasional towns – where you sell loot – and actually challenging pre-set boss fights or random encounters with unique enemies. I would argue that these games are not meant to be challenging, really, and that the “grind” here is part of the fun. Why have powerful spells and amazing items if you don’t get to use them to blow up weaker enemies sometimes? But I wonder, from a design perspective, how much grind is too much.

Transistor Review: Don’t Hold My Hand

Transistor does not hold your hand. The story is opaque, there is no tutorial to speak of, and the game systems are relatively complicated for a six hour long action RPG. Nevertheless, I found the game as rewarding as any I’ve played in quite a while. It’s become status quo for games – especially those with complicated mechanics – to tutorialize the opening sequences of the game. While this is sometimes appreciated, in many games it’s largely unnecessary. Perhaps for some players Transistor is their first ARPG and they need to be told how to move and use abilities… but I doubt it. Instead the game immerses you from the start, all the while forcing you to figure out what’s going on and how to survive the masses of computerized (robot or software?) enemies that are swarming after you. Yes, it gives you a few tips, but by and large it’s up to you to piece together the mechanics.

I, for one, loved this hands-off approach. Transistor was an ARPG in name only. In practice, it was a deeply tactical, strategic, and intelligent game. It challenged me to solve a meaningful puzzle in each instance of combat, and it rewarded me for experimenting with a variety of different skill builds thanks to its deep and customizable-on-a-whim skill system. Approaches that worked for large groups of enemies did not work for tankier single targets. Combinations of abilities which seemed overpowered in unpaused combat became useless when using the tactical pause system. Overall, for a relatively short game there was a stunning amount of variety and tactical depth. And that’s a good thing. Too many ARPGs are filled with fluff – those dozens of monster camps that pose no real challenge and are just there to add to the game’s length – that the sleek and efficient experience of Transistor was refreshing.

Much as I loved the skill system – which was reminiscent of, but deeper than, the one in Bastion – The tactical pause system was, to me, the game’s best innovation. Pausing and mapping out your next move appealed to the turn-based combat fan in me, of course, but I don’t think it made the game any less of an action game. Since your ability to pause the game goes on cooldown each time you use it, you’re forced to play in real time for several seconds after each “turn.” That means you can’t just map out your actions, you have to have a plan for what you’re going to do afterwards. Given that most attacks and other abilities also go on cooldown after a paused turn, it’s important to think about positioning, escapability, and durability. All of this makes for an extremely rich combat experience; perhaps the best I’ve experienced in an ARPG.

Transistor‘s story is perhaps not as remarkable or as remarkably told as Bastion‘s, but I actually appreciated that it was not forced on me. Leaving some mystery as to who I was, and who or what this sword-cum-microchip I was lugging around was, made me want to progress further in the game to try to piece together the story. As it was, the story was minimal, but the atmosphere more than made up for the narrative minimalism. The entire game seethes with style, from the fascinating set of enemies to the witty access terminals to the beautifully rendered backgrounds. Combined with Supergiant’s famous sound design, the game’s visual atmosphere more than compensated for any narrative shortcomings. And again, I’m not sure they were shortcomings. A more robust story might well have taken away from the player’s sense of agency in the world, from the visual and auditory splendor of the game, and from the game’s real core: it’s wonderful battles.

Back when I first played Bastion it took me some time to like the game. I appreciated its style and humor, but its controls always felt a little clunky to me, and its gameplay was unremarkable. It was easy to learn and easy to play, and allowed for a range of builds much like Transistor, but ultimately it lived and died on its artistic, not its mechanical, merits. Transistor, by comparison, is easy to love. There’s little I can find to criticize about its design: everything is efficient, tight, and artistic. The experience is great, and perhaps the only legitimate complaint I can see against the game for fans of the genre is its length. But while the game is short, it doesn’t feel rushed, and from a narrative perspective 6 hours definitely works. If you really want more Transistor, like I did after finishing, there’s a new game plus (“recursion”) mode, which I expect is all the more rewarding because the story is so mysterious the first time around, and because you probably didn’t unlock all of the abilities on your first play anyway. For my part, I almost never play new game plus modes, but with Transistor I think I will.

How Do You Teach Crusader Kings 2?

Complicated games like Crusader Kings 2 are not easy to learn. I endured many failures in the original Crusader Kings before I understood the mechanics, and while picking up the sequel was faster, I still learn new things about the mechanics from time to time, and still make plenty of mistakes. In a game with so many moving pieces, where you can do so many things at any given time, how do you know what to do? How do you teach a player of a game like Crusader Kings 2 not just how to do what they want to do, but even what they might want to try in the first place?

Game tutorials are always interesting to me, because they say a lot about how developers think about their own games. It’s been a long time since I looked at Crusader Kings 2‘s tutorial, but I distinctly remember it being not so helpful. There’s just too much relevant information for a player of the game to take in all at once. And the game really does throw everything at you as soon as you start (there’s no half-way mode or partial AI control as in, for example, Distant Worlds). The best way to learn the game is to simply play it, to mess up a lot, and to search for answers to mechanics questions when they arise.

So how do you design a tutorial for a game like this? I think you include the most important information about how to play – what each button in the interface does, a general outline of feudal structures simulated by the game, maybe a few tips on things you might try to accomplish – but you encourage the player to simply play and figure it out. Some players may get discouraged by the inevitable defeats that will come with misapprehended mechanics, but I would hope that the kind of player who picks up a game like Crusader Kings 2 doesn’t expect it to be easy as is willing to ascend the learning curve.

What’s remarkable to me about complicated games like Crusader Kings 2 is that so many people do learn to play them so well, despite an extremely informal set of learning tools. Sure, there are streams and forums, and the tutorial does cover some basics, but there’s not a lot of centralized this-is-how-you-play information out there (which means that people play in a lot of different ways). Perhaps the question is not how to teach Crusader Kings 2, but rather how do so many people learn it without being taught in any traditional sense?

Playing Counter to Design

Over the last two days on stream we’ve been playing around with an approach to Crusader Kings 2 that is unusual and quite counter to the game’s original design. I believe that the game is, at its heart, primarily about dynasty building, largely across generations, and the politics of succession. What we’ve done lately removes succession and dynasty building from the core experience – though not as much as it initially seems – because we’ve been jumping to a new character whenever our current one dies. More specifically, each time our character dies we find the most recent character to gain or be granted their first title, which means we’re taking over for them at the beginning of their rule.

The basic idea behind this playstyle is to experience and influence a wider swatch of the game world than usually you are able to. Even a sprawling late game empire is limited in its scope (unless you’re doing a world conquest, I suppose), and so you are necessarily limited to keeping tabs on the politics in your immediate vicinity. By swapping between characters, it’s a lot easier to keep track of what is going on across the world. Now that we’ve played 6 unique dynasties over the first roughly 100 years of game time, we have characters (heirs of the ones we played) to keep track of in many parts of the world. Some are doing well – the King of Hungary, for example – others have lost their titles and are reduced to weak claims which won’t be inherited by the next generation.

It’s fascinating to watch the game unfold this way, and provides a level of challenge that is not present in the normal game. Because I will not run my dynasty in the next generation, I have to not only ensure succession, but ensure a situation in which my descendants will be able to thrive. In a way this is a more authentic role-playing experience. No parent can count on “taking over” for their child on death, so by jumping dynasties our game experience becomes all the more mortal.

What’s interesting to me is that this play style is almost diametrically opposed to the core design of the game that it requires us to make creative use of message settings and forces us to save and load on each character’s death… And yet it feels natural to me within the game’s engine. As I said at the beginning of this post, the game is about succession and dynasty building, and while this approach to playing the game reduces our direct control over those things, in a way it makes them more pressing, more real, more meaningful. The resulting world may not bear as strong a human-player mark (there will be no grand Caledonian empire), but I believe my own experience of that world, as a player of the game, will be richer and more involved.

Raising Questions About Genre

One of the biggest challenges when trying to make sense of games is subdividing the space meaningfully. In literature, the idea of genre serves a kind of taxonomic purpose: it lets critics, theorists, authors, and of course readers know what kinds of writing a book is likely to contain. Often genre serves a hierarchical purpose as well, as usually “fan fiction,” for example, is likely to be regarded as of significantly lesser merit and importance than, say, an epic poem.

Yet genre, however useful, is a cultural construct, and is not inherent to a book. While it is true that many writers purposefully right in a particular genre, that is only because our genres have become so well-accepted that it is often easier to gain acceptance within one than it is to forge a new one.

All of this can be said, also, of games. Genre is perhaps the single most defining feature of any game. No wonder that Steam, several months ago, introduced a tagging system which essentially allows players to let other players know the genre of various games. I don’t want to get into a debate as to whether user-generated tags are genres; some are (RPG) and some aren’t (Steam Trading Cards).* But needless to say the development of generic expectations is exactly the kind of project that the wisdom of the masses is actually good for, and so Steam’s list of tags is interesting as a repository of the most popular and common game genres (at least on PC).

* It is interesting to me, however, what gets tagged and what does not. “Female Protagonist” and “Open World” are both fairly common tags in Steam, but they categorize wildly different elements of a game’s design. Open world is, if not a genre, a pretty fundamental mechanic. The gender of the protagonist, on the other hand, may be of narrative importance, but is unlikely to significantly impact actual gameplay. Perhaps more to the point, it is interesting and perhaps a bit telling that the game community is so self-conscious about protagonist gender that the tag appears more than “Sandbox,” “RTS,” and “Retro,” in the Steam store, in part because it is applied – apparently more frequently than “choice of gender” or “character creation” or some such – to games like Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect, in which the player can choose a gender.

The current list of tags sorted by frequency on Steam shows the most commonly applied generic labels to products in their store. They are as follows:

1) Action
2) Indie
3) Strategy
4) Adventure
5) RPG
6) Simulation
7) Casual
8) Free to Play
9) Singleplayer
10) Massively Multiplayer
11) Multiplayer
12) Racing
13) FPS
14) Sports

I’ll leave the list at 14, because while non-exhaustive, it gives a good sense of what the core game genres are. Action, Strategy, Adventure, RPG, Simulation, Racing, FPS, and Sports top the list, and while those genres sometimes overlap, each contains its own mechanical generic expectations. This list also includes a handful of non-genre qualities – namely “Indie,” “Casual,” “Free to Play,” and the number of player tags – which suggests to me that some of those qualities are as important to gamers as genre. These three tags in particular seem wrought with (debatable) meaning. What makes a game “casual,” exactly? Why does it matter if a game is “indie,” from a player or purchaser’s perspective?

The question I want to raise here is not about the specifics of each genre, though certainly thinking about what makes an RPG, for example, an RPG seems like an interesting and non-trivial question to me. Rather, I want to ask what it is that makes a genre a genre in the game world. In literature this is a complex question, as genre is determined by some strange intermixture of content, style, length, and even quality. In games, I’m tempted to say that genre is purely a matter of mechanics, but I don’t think that’s quite right. Sports, for example, as a genre, can designate strategic management games like Football Manager or more action-oriented titles like FIFA. So content has something to do with genre as well, though what content means in various game genres is itself an open question.

Perhaps playstyle is another factor in defining game genres. Playstyle is tied into and enabled by core mechanics, it seems to me, but in some sense it’s also separate. For example, many games contain “strategy” on some level, but strategy as a genre denotes a particular orientation towards strategic play. The difference between a World of Warcraft and a Warcraft is, in large part, a matter of the level at which strategic decisions are made and enacted (that is, in the former they’re made at the individual character level, whereas in the latter they’re made at an empire/base wide level). Yet the former is considered an RPG and the latter an RTS.

All of which is to say that genres are useful, but somewhat arbitrary. Which I think matters from both a design perspective and a critical/theoretical perspective. Designing a game – or trying to understand a game – purely through the lens of a particular genre is a mistake. Games may be able to be tagged and categorized into specific genres, but those genres, I think, should not be regarded as the defining features of a game. Rather, looking carefully at games means thinking about the kinds of interactions it enables or prevents, the kinds of mechanics it uses, the kinds of stories it tells, and the kinds of experiences players have (whether they are meant to or not). I suspect that, looking at enough games, our existing generic taxonomies are not sufficient to categorize and make sense of the game space.

EU4’s Ironman and Achievements

I admit to having mixed feelings about the addition of “ironman” mode and achievements to Paradox Interactive’s titles. I’m personally not much of an achievement hunter, preferring to set my own goals when playing a game. This is especially true in sandbox games like Europa Universalis 4 or Crusader Kings 2. Nevertheless, I started a new game in Europa Universalis 4 today with ironman turned on, along with AI bonuses, to see how it plays.

Besides the frequent auto-saving, my game experience is not that different. I rarely reload when playing Paradox games anyway, and never to “save scum” – that is, to recover from a bad war or an unfortunate event. Having achievements pop up is amusing, of course (I’ve just now won my first ever war!), but I don’t feel particularly compelled to seek out achievements to try to complete. I’ve always felt that the strength of Europa Universalis 4 and games like it is that I can use my imagination. Achievements don’t necessarily take away from that, but they can constrain play in particular ways if you let them. For example, if there’s an achievement particular to Korea – the nation we’re playing in the new save – I might be compelled not to follow my own path, but rather to follow the path that will lead to completing that achievement. I think that robs the game of some of its sandbox-y power.

But achievements and ironman aren’t the same thing, and it’s a particular design decision to link the two together. One could easily imagine ironman without achievements. Here the goal, from a design perspective, is to prevent player ‘cheating.’ Requiring ironman would be a no-no, but for players who don’t want to save scum, but might anyway if they have the chance to, I can see the value. It’s a kind of algorithmic enforcement of a player’s good intentions. Even so, you have to balance out what you lose in ironman: the chance to make saves along the way that you can later reference; the chance to backup your save file in case the original gets corrupted; the chance to reload not because of a mistake, but because of a bug.

Overall, I understand the appeal of ironman and achievements, but am not convinced that they actually make this genre of game better. I’m not even convinced they make it all that different, unless you choose to let them.

A 4X Conundrum: Strategy or Tactics?

Preference for strategic play or tactical play is a core design conflict in 4X games. While players often, I think, say they want both, it’s often not feasible or wise to implement deep strategic and tactical play in the same game. For all its many virtues, I think Age of Wonders 3‘s biggest weakness is that it tries to be fully both a strategy game and a tactics game. That is, it tries to make its strategic play deep while also making its tactical battles system similarly deep. Few games actively balance between the strategic layer and tactical layer as Age of Wonders 3 does, not because it’s bad to have deep systems, but because the pace of a game with two such deep systems ends up being very slow. It’s no wonder that turns in Age of Wonders 3 can take an hour or more when you have five armies who each fight significant and large battles each turn (even a simple medium-sized late game battle can take 10 minutes).

I don’t think a slow pace is necessarily a problem, but I also think that strategic level play suffers when it gets broken up by frequent tactical level play. For comparison, the Total War series has historically balanced its complex tactical battle system with a highly simplified world map (though not all editions of the game have been equally simple at the world map level, in general tactical play, not strategic play, is the point of the game). Having a complicated strategic layer alongside complicated tactical battles requires the player to organize his play. In Age of Wonders 3 I often save my battles, when I can, until the end of the turn, so that I can keep track of my decisions across my empire before I lose that flow in the very different rhythm of tactical battles. The problem here, however, is that I often have to remind myself during the next turn as to what my strategic priorities are, having just spent significant time engaged at a tactical level.

All that said, I think that Age of Wonders 3‘s system is both weakness and strength. Consider competitors in the genre like Fallen Enchantress: Legendary Heroes. The battle system is much simpler and battles tend to be much faster than in AoW3, because the game is much more focused on the strategic level of the game. As a result the game is faster paced, but wars can often feel like a series of mini-battles, whereas AoW3‘s large battles do feel epic and meaningful. Warlock 2: The Exiled takes the Civilization route and does away with tactical battles altogether in favor of tactics playing out on the strategic map. Much as I love Warlock‘s pacing, this design decision brings with it the host of problems with AI and extremely gamey conflicts that plagues Civilization 5 (while Civilization 4 was plagued by the horribly boring “doom stack”). Perhaps the most strategy-centric game I’ve seen which still includes a semblance of tactics is Endless Space. Its innovative card-based rock-paper-scissors combat resolution system was controversial because it took away player control, but a clever way to make combat more than just number crunching (as in, for example, Dominions 4).

Most 4X games are strategy games first, with tactical brilliance useful but unnecessary for success. Age of Wonders 3 is equally tactical and strategic. It is a rare feat to pull this off well, and even pulled off well I can easily see some players preferring more strategy-first 4X titles. Regardless, it’s worth remembering that big game systems often do exist in conflict, and getting them to work together is a matter, mostly, of getting them to no stomp all over each other. On that front AoW3 does an impressive job.

The Point of Inevitable Victory

If city spam is 4X gaming’s biggest problem, player runaway is its second biggest. My tendency, in 4X games, is to play until what I call the “point of inevitable victory,” and then to quit. I find no pleasure or gaming fun in spending hours mopping up small enemy units, conquering or forcing alliances with smaller remaining empires, and, throughout it all, managing an ever growing set of units and cities. Warlock 2 boasts, I’ve argued in this space, an inelegant but effective solution to the city spam problem, but it does not have an answer for late-game slowdown. On our current map we’re undoubtedly to the point of inevitable victory. We so outclass our remaining AI opponent that I was actually casting spells to help them during today’s stream, in hopes that we might not go to war before I could return to Ardania (the other possible victory condition).

Warlock 2‘s exile mode does make some attempt at addressing the late game by providing the return-to-Ardania goal for the player. Each shard, as Ardania approaches, has increasingly difficult foes to defeat. It helps to transition one’s army from a swarm of lower-level, cheap units into a smaller force of higher powered heroes and top-flight recruits and summons. Nevertheless, managing all of that does get significantly slower as the game goes on, and while there may be some danger of losing particular battles along the way, I highly doubt that any of our non-front-line cities will ever see another significant threat if we continue the save. Perhaps that’s fine, as protecting cities in the late game can add tedium and take away from the player’s focus on leading an elite fighting force back to their homeland. On the other hand, one can’t help but feel slightly let down if there is little to no risk in the final battle.

Few strategy games have done much to address the point of inevitable victory problem, to my mind. Shogun 2‘s realm divide system, in which basically every other AI nation declared war on you once you had grown large enough, was a decent idea with often frustrating and nonsensical implementation (a game-long ally might suddenly betray you solely because of the realm divide event). While realm divide could make for some late game challenge, it also felt way too gamey, and often did little to change the actual strategic situation (you were already, in many cases, at war with every one else anyway). Paradox games, as sandbox simulations, address this late game problem by not having victory conditions at all, which does work. There’s no point of inevitable victory when there’s no victory at all. Of course, Paradox games have their own end-game problems. Still other games like Distant Worlds allow the player implement victory conditions like “control X% of territory or population,” an effort to quantify the point of inevitable victory which doesn’t solve the root problem.

What is the root problem? I think it’s a genre problem, and a scale problem. 4X games are, by generic definition, meant to imply massive growth. Yet they also support detailed micromanagement. The tension between early game control and late game slough is innate, and there’s little to prevent it. I think, in this case, the onus is on the player to know when the game isn’t fun anymore, when the slough becomes to sluggish. But I also think there’s a design opportunity to do something like what Romance of the Three Kingdoms XI tried, forcing the player to delegate control of some cities and armies after a certain point. That system was too constraining, I think, and the AI too weak to trust, but the principle is good and underexplored.