Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Elo and Trickle-Up Economies

Preface: I realized after writing it that this post is pretty long and could use an abstract. It's an overview of the two scoring systems used in Warlocks viewed as economies. The objective is simply to note what kind of properties will emerge from having an economy with these particular constraints. What does emerge is that the resources in both systems are only acquired from other players, not independently generated, which results in a pyramid of sorts, where a large number of players lower down in the hierarchy provide a source of points for the higher ranked players. Larger economies will result in a higher peak, but otherwise do not effect the average player in these systems.


As I've mentioned before, I'm an avid player of the game Warlocks, based on Waving Hands. This game uses two different ranking systems for competitive players, and they have some interesting differences between them.

The first, and simpler ranking system is ladder points, and they work as follows: every time a player wins a ladder match, they gain one ladder point; every time a player loses a ladder match, they lose one ladder point; every time a player dies during a ladder match, their ladder points reduce to zero (note that in this game, most matches end with one player surrendering, not dying). Every player starts with a ladder score of zero, and you cannot have negative ladder points. This means that every time a player with no ladder points loses a match, a ladder point is created from the ether, and every time a player with ladder points loses a match, their point is effectively transferred to the winner. There's one more feature of ladder matches that's worth mentioning, and that is that you cannot challenge a player to a ladder match if your relative ladder scores are more than 5 points apart.

The result of these features is that ladder scores rarely get very high. Since your ladder score will get reduced to zero by a single death it takes a lot of skill (or luck) in order to continually grow your score. Moreover, since you cannot challenge an opponent who is more than 5 points apart from you, the high possible ladder score for any player is 7 points higher than the second-highest score (assuming they began 5 points apart and that the higher-ranked player won). This means that in order for me to have a ladder score higher than 20, there need to be other players with a ladder score of at least 15 I can challenge. This means that the upper limit of ladder scores depends on the presence of a population of successful ladder players who collaboratively create ladder point (by playing those with 0 ladder points) and then transferring them up the ladder to the best players.

We'll see a similar dynamic with the second ranking system: elo. Like in chess rankings, elo is a system in which the change in a player's score is weighted depending on their expected likelihood of winning (which is, in turn, based on the competing players' relative elo scores). Each player who registers begins with an elo score of 1500, which defines that score as the expected skill level of an average new player. Each match results in one player gaining a number of points and the other losing an equal number of points - in other words, once again, matches effectively cause a "transfer" of points from one player to another. If a player with a lower score beats a player with a higher score, they earn more points from the win, and if a player with a higher score wins, they earn fewer points. The difference in points earned corresponds to a player's expected likelihood of winning - meaning that if I'm expected to have a 75% chance of defeating an opponent, I will earn 1/3 as many point for winning as he will if he wins, so that over the course of many games, elo scores will stabilize if players tend to win as often as they are expected to given their elo score. Since all starting players start with 1500 points, they begin ranked as equals even though some may be stronger players than others. However, the differences in skill level will fairly rapidly be reflected in their score once they begin playing ranked games.

Let's look at an example. I register a new account and start with 1500 elo. If I play and beat another new player, I will gain 12 points, to have a score of 1512, and their score will go down to 1488. Now the difference in our scores is 24, so if I play that same player again and win, I will gain slightly fewer points than I did the first time. Once the elo difference is over 100 points, I will gain 8 points from a win and my opponent will gain 16 points if he wins - as long as I win approximately twice as often as I lose, the elo difference will remain stable, but if I win more often, it will continue to go up, and if I lose more often, it will go down.

Notably, if the winning player is ahead by enough elo, they effectively gain no points from victory, so many high-ranked players will simply refuse to play ranked matches with much lower-ranked players (since they have nothing to gain and much to lose if they make a mistake). In practice, the maximum effective difference between players who can fairly compete in ranked matches is a little over 200 points. Any more of a difference and fluke wins by inexperienced players will unduly throw off the scores of high-ranked players.

All of this together suggests some interesting features of the elo economy - since a winning player gains as much as their opponent loses from a match, the sum elo score of the player population cannot grow except by the addition of new players, and that the existence of players with more than 1500 elo requires the existence of players with less than 1500 elo. Moreover, a player can only effectively grow their elo by playing opponents with an elo score within 200 points of their own, which suggests that growing your elo depends on a population of players with elos near your own, so the highest possible elo in the system depends on the number of successful players, which is in turn limited by the number of total players. That is, a population of new players is needed in order to support the elo growth of players with elos between 1500-1700, and a population of players with elos of at least 1700 is needed to support the elo growth of players with elos between 1700-1900.

As of this writing, there are 1577 players who have registered to play Warlocks, about 200 of which never played a ranked duel. Of the players who have played ranked games, 281 have an elo higher than 1500, and 419 players have an elo lower than 1500. The lowest elo in the system is 1298 (202 points lower than the average) and the highest elo is 2106 (606 points higher than the average). This suggests that in practice, a large population of weak players is needed to support the heightened elo scores of a relative few. There are two reasons for this: first, players who repeatedly lose will likely stop competing at some point, and players who repeatedly lose will have their elos fall to the point where they no longer effectively feed the elo growth of stronger players.

Since the value of a win is weighted by the likelihood of the win, players who perform as well as expected will have stable elos - if you are about twice as good as the average new player (meaning twice as likely to win), your elo should stabilize around elo 1600. However, once a player enters the higher echelons of play, the relative dirth of other high-ranked players makes it harder to play enough balanced games to maintain a representative elo. In a population of players with elos from 1400 to 1600, it is unlikely for me to grow my elo above 1800, no matter how good I become at the game.

So the grand result is this: The total size of the elo economy of the game is determined by the number of players in the system, and the larger the total elo economy is, the higher the elo ratings of the best players can be, but that for the vast majority of players, the size of the elo economy will have no impact on their personal elo scores. That is, as a resource, the total quantity of elo in the system will only effect the players at the top.

Now there are obvious disanalogies between the elo economy in Warlocks and market economies in the real world, but it nonetheless serves as an interesting model of a competition driven economy. This is also not meant in any way to be some kind of moral statement about how "just" the elo system is - the numbers simply represent the fact that some players win more often than others, and it is the explicit goal of the elo system to represent this. I simply believed that the unintended emergent features of the system are noteworthy, since they result from the interactions of thousands of players.

Monday, November 1, 2010

Waving Hands: Paralysis and "Broken" Mechanics

I recently had a request for another post on Waving Hands, and since we're in the midsts of the Warlocks 2010 championships (in which I'm well placed to make the finals right now, and on which Waving Hands is based), I decided to oblige.

A lot of discussion about the game by avid players revolves around a single spell, paralysis, which is considered by many, including myself, to be unbalanced, and possibly even broken. Its abusability has even led to the formation of a guild, the Paramancers, who specialize in this one spell. One of the interesting questions to arise from this discussion, however, is what exactly it means for a spell to be "broken."

When we talk about game balance, we generally assume that what we have in mind is a series of equally viable options. If one strategy is disproportionately represented or effective, then it is unbalanced. This, at first, seems like a fair criterion for a balanced game - if, in Starcraft, almost no one ever played Zerg, but 90% of players played Protoss, that would be a clera sign that something was amuck in the balance of the game. However, if we push the idea a little further, it starts to become murkier. Isn't the very idea of "strategy" supposed to be that some moves ARE better than others, and that finding the good moves is what makes the game fun? Rock, paper, scissors is a perfectly balanced game, because no move is better than any other, but for that reason it's impossible to strategize about anything other than player psychology, so the game is shallow.

In the case of Warlocks, some spells are clearly more popular than others, but this creates a self-balancing factor: the more commonly a strategy is used, the more predictable it is, and in a game that relies on predicting your opponent's moves as much as Warlocks does, that can be a fatal weakness. This means that if you use less popular spells, you can take your opponent by surprise, and in doing so may be able to make up for the features of the spell that make it less popular.

So in the case of paralysis, the fact that it is used much more often than most other spells is, in some sense, unbalanced, but that doesn't necessarily make the game worse. This is where we can draw a distinction between an unbalanced and broken spell, because a broken spell will interfere with the overall playability of the game. The problem, in this case, is that paralysis DOES interfere with the overall playability of the game. The criteria that can be used for a broken strategy might include:

1. Whether or not predicting the strategy makes it possible to "punish" the player who is predictable.
2. Whether or not there exists effective counters to the strategy.
3. Whether or not there is a good motivation for a player to use a different strategy.

As I mentioned before, there exists a guild called the Paramancers, who specialize in paralysis. In other words, just by being in this guild, they are effectively announcing to their opponents before the duel begins what strategy they will use, and yet they are still successful players. This simply wouldn't be the case with any other strategy - if I announced that every game I play, whenever possible, my right hand will constantly be casting antispell, I would lose every game I played (even though, in a given game, my right hand might end up making those gestures anyway).

Discussing counters will require a more detailed discussion of the spell itself, which requires some background knowledge of Warlocks. So if you've been reading up to now simply because you liked the idea of distinguishing "unbalanced" and "broken" mechanics, here's your chance to escape.

Paralysis - FFF

In Warlocks, you submit gestures on your left and right hands that add up, over several turns, to spells, that take effect when the gestures of that spell are completed. The gestures needed to cast the spell paralysis are FFF, and it causes one of your opponent's hands to be "paralyzed" into the same gesture on the next turn (well, except that W is paralyzed into P and S into D). The important thing is that since the gestures of paralysis are so symmetrical, gesturing another "F" on the next turn allows you to cast it again immediately (because now your last three gestures were, once again, "FFF"), resulting in "parachains" where one hand gestures "FFFFFFF..." ad infinitum. There is one restriction on parachains built into the basic rules, however - on consecutive turns, you can only paralyze the hand you already were paralyzing.

At first, this doesn't seem terribly abusive. If I use an endless parachain, I can keep one of my opponent's hands tied up, and effectively make us both play one-handed. This makes the spell useful on its own, in case you have some other advantage you want to hold onto, or force your opponent to respond to you and a summoned monster with only one hand available. It also grants a small initiative advantage, because as soon as the paralyzer decides to end his parachain, he can immediately begin casting a new spell, whereas the paralyzed player must suffer the effect of the final turn of paralysis before he can move his hand freely again, leaving him one turn behind on one hand. This is a significant advantage by itself.

However, the real problem with paralysis occurs when you start changing targets. Since it counts as a mind-affecting enchantment, it cancels with other mind-affecting enchantments, which means that you can cast paralysis on yourself to counter an opponent's interrupt, and then go back to paralyzing them on the next turn. What's more, when you stop paralyzing your opponent for one turn, and then start again, you can switch which hand you're affecting, allowing you to alternate and restrict your opponent's use of both his hands. Finally, paralysis cast on a monster stops the monster from attacking that turn, which means that a parachain can be used, on any given turn, to disrupt either of your opponent's hands, hold his monster at bay, or counter one of his interrupts on your (including his own paralysis). This versatility in a spell that can be cast every single turn is incredibly powerful.

There already exists, however, a standard variant that helps to make paralysis easier to disrupt, called "parafc". It means that when paralysis is used on an F gestures, the F is paralyzed into a C gesture. The significance of this is that it makes paralysis targeted at yourself (to counter another enchantment) into a risky move, because if your opponent was bluffing, and doesn't complete their own enchantment, you've paralyzed yourself, and either cannot continue your parachain (because now you've gestured FFFc), or must disrupt your other hand. The effect of this rule is that many situations in which a parachain could not be countered are now situations in which your opponent can generate "50/50" opportunities to disrupt you.

The problem with this solution seems, to me, fairly straightforward. While it's better to have a 50% chance to disrupt a parachain than a 0% chance, if I really know, before my opponent has made a single move, what he's going to do, I should have a 100% chance of countering him. Paralysis can still be cast every turn, can restrict both of your opponent's hands, and can be used defensively - now it's simply that you have run a 50% risk of disrupting yourself when using it defensively (which is the case with every other mind-affecting enchantment, anyway). The fact remains that even playing parafc, Paramancers can play effectively even when their opponents know what strategy they are using, and this simply shouldn't be the case.

I think there are two ways to balance out paralysis as it stands, and they each essentially involve removing one of the spell's advantages - either it shouldn't be cast every turn, or it shouldn't be able to target either of an opponent's hands. I, in fact, already play with the former restriction self-imposed: I do not allow myself to cast paralysis more than three times consecutively, and this is a restriction that is public, and which my opponents know about and take advantage of. The reason I play with this restriction is simple - because playing without extended parachains makes the game more dynamic and interesting, and if I didn't have an explicit rule, I would end up using them simply because they are so advantageous. However, a fiat "do not cast paralysis more than three times" rule is not a very elegant solution, so this restriction, were it generally enforced, would best take the form of a chance in the gestures of paralysis such that it was impossible to cast every turn.

And restricting which hand can be paralyzed would also balance out the spell effectively. My preferred way of handling this would be to say that whichever hand I cast paralysis with is the hand that gets paralyzed (if I gesture "FFF" with my right hand, I can paralyze your right hand). This is significant for a reason that goes beyond the ability of a parachain to alternate hands every other turn - even though only one hand can be paralyzed, as long as the caster gets to choose which hand it is that is affected, and the choice is made after the spell is successfully cast, the target of paralysis has to restrict which gestures he makes on BOTH of his hands, in order to avoid having a gesture on either hand that will become particularly unusable once paralysis takes effect. In fact, it might be a downside of the parafc variant that any spell featuring an F can be so disastrously disrupted by paralysis (given how few spells use the C gesture). The result of this is that on a turn in which I expect to be targeted by paralysis, I will try to gesture either a W (paralyzed into WPP - counterspell) or PS (paralyzed into PSDD - charm monster) on each hand to prevent my opponent from being able to totally disrupt my spellflow. However, since my opponent can alternate the paralyzed hand every other turn, that means that in theory I have to be prepared to make one of those restricted gestures on each hand every other turn. If I knew ahead of time which hand would be paralyzed, this would not be an issue.

There's plenty more to say on the topic, but this is plenty for one post. I like to hope that some of my idealistic self-imposed restrictions gain traction in the community at large, or that at some point a further evolved version of the game will address some of these issues, but in the meantime paralysis is a legitimately broken aspect of an otherwise unbelievably well-crafted game that we must live with.

Sunday, May 16, 2010

A Bold Experiment

43:60, Year 8572, LV-Timeline:

I hate politics. It's like putting on a circus show for an audience of baboons. At this rate I'll have spent as much time as I spent growing the Mk IV getting permission to use it. I know it's a bold proposal, but since I wasn't laughed out of the council chamber, they're bound to approve it sooner or later.

If it was anyone else standing at that podium, they probably would have been laughed out of the chamber. I'm sure they're repeating that very sentence to each other right now. I'm sure that fool Tiresias is also going on about the redundancy of the whole proposal, given the accuracy of his simulations. He has no respect for real science - if he did he would be advocating for this stronger than anyone, for someone to prove his evolutionary simulations.

Why don't they see what I see - not just a model, but a complete history of an entire planet! I can trace the longterm effects of controlled environmental pressures, watch whole species emerge, adapt, and die off. What greater work of art could there be than an entire world presented in 4 dimensions? Besides, it would give us some solid data on the effects of exposing primitive creatures to LV-radiation.

And at the end of the experiment, the cultures are to be wiped - it's in the proposal! I don't see how there's any risk of timeline contamination. I suppose I simply need to be patient, but patience was never a strong suit of mine.

45:30, Year 8572, LV-Timeline:

Dear diary, this is an auspicious day. The final bit of bureaucratic nonsense has been dealth with, and I now am officially approved to carry out the most ambitious ecological experiment in history. I've picked out a planet in the Syrma system which was life-sustaining in the very recent past (astronomically speaking), but is not currently known to bear life.

The plan is to create a vast time-warping field to touchdown on the planet as it was approximately 65 million years ago, bury the Mk IV some miles below the surface, and have it collect data constantly while I remain in suspension. I'll be pre-programming a series of environmental stimuli, including an influx of LV-radiation in the final 3 million years of the experiment. I don't know if that will be enough time to observe its full effects, but I'd rather play safe in this case and wake myself up before it produces an army of intelligent spiders with gatline guns. Not that gatling guns would do much good against the Mk IV. Just to play things safe, I'm equipping it with a kill-switch that will plasmatize the entire biomass of the planet's surface. Even better, I'll be able to reabsorb the plasma and may have a net energy gain through this process. I'm so brilliant.

In any case, I should be ready to begin the experiment in a few weeks. Then it'll be a quick nap for me and a return trip with 65 million years of data!

45:47, Year 8572, LV-Timeline:

Dear diary, I AM PSYCHED.

0:0, Year 0, LV'-Timeline:

This marks the start time of the experiment. I have arrived in the Syrma system and will be touching down in approximately 3 hours. Unfortunately, the time warp used even more energy than I'd expected (and I'm working on the budget of a small nation here). It's possible that the inefficiency points to a flaw in the temporal drive, but I should still have enough reserve energy for a return trip (at least, after plasmatization), and since there's no chance of field interference from other time machines on the planet, the field should be stable enough.


Wow, I don't think I'm ever going to get sick of freefall touchdowns. That impact was incredible (and yet my Mk IV is unscathed!). I'm sure there are animals on the surface that didn't fair quite so well, but sacrifices do need to be made in the name of science. I'm just glad those sacrifices don't include me, HA. Since everything seems to be in order, I'm going to set my first anchor point now, run one more system check, and activate suspension for the initial time frame. See you on the flip side!

Yours truly,
Greatest Scientist Ever

0:0, Year 50,000, LV'-Timeline:

I have strange dreams in suspension. There was this guy on my street trying to sell pretzels to people, and then when I tried to buy one he told me he only accepted payment in moons. What a fucker.

Anyway, aside from that, everything is going great! The first checkpoint has gone perfectly, although it's interesting to note that just in the first 50,000 year period, I've seen one of the planets dominant species go extinct. It seems likely that the impact of my landing was involved, since no other clear extinction events have been picked up in the history. I'll probably have to exclude this period for most of my analysis, but the surface seems to have already returned to a fairly normal state, and I think it's time for a real data-gathering session.

0:0, Year 30M, LV'-Timeline:

This is incredible! We're just under halfway through the experiment timeline and already I have enough data to spend a lifetime analyzing. And in case anyone thought it was all redundant, I have already found three genus-level inconsistencies with Tiresias' simulation. They're going to be rewriting ALL the textbooks.

0:0, Year 62M, LV'-Timeline:

It's time for the final phase of the experiment to begin, which involves the effects of LV-radiation. I'll be a litte disappointed if nothing interesting happens, but that seems unlikely. When I next wake up it should be time to clear the cultures and prepare for the return trip.

37:36, Year Y-14,142, LV'-Timeline:

I never would have believed it, but LV-radiation has even more dramatic effects than anyone predicted. I wasn't planning on waking up for another 14,000 years, but the system is on alert because of a power drain, of all things. It seems that a relatively unremarkable species that came in contact with the stimulus probe has become sentient and developed civilization in just the last 3 million years. They've even managed to build a device that can draw power from the Mk IV - I wonder if they even realize where they're getting this energy from.

Even more surprisingly, there are faint readings of temporal fluctuations in what appears to be the capital building of this civilization. Is it really possible that they've managed to develop timewarping technology in this time? It seems more likely that an accidental technology of theirs is causing some kind of resonance with the Mk IV's temporal drive. In any case, this represents a nontrivial threat (much worse that spiders with gatling guns, which was my previous worst-case scenario).

I really don't want to have to engage a planet-wide culture wipe without the last 14,000 years of data (and I can only imagine how interesting this data will be). I suppose some of my colleagues would also take issue on "moral grounds" with wiping a culture of sentient creatures, but the potential threat of timeline contamination is a much worse outcome.

Nonetheless, I will need to make another anchor point here, regardless of what I decide to do.

22:04, Year Y-14,134, LV'-Timeline:

The audacity of these creatures! They actually built an underwater facility to get more direct access to their energy source - ME. I can't afford to allow my energy reserves to fall below the point needed for a surface culture wipe, so I had no choice but to destroy the facility, and all of the technology that was used to develop it. I discovered the source of the temporal fluctuations - it was coming from a piece of jewelry worn by a female of the species, which seems to be linked to the device that was draining power from the Mk IV. When it came into immediate contact with the Mk IV, it caused a series of significant temporal rifts. I destroyed the facility as quickly as possible in order to minimize potential timeline contamination. I never thought this expedition was going to prove so dangerous.

Fortunately, there are no lingering fluctuation signatures, and I'm disseminating an airborne agent that should deactivate some of the more dangerous genes in the present population. I'll have to keep an eye on the development of the situation, but hopefully the experiment can continue - and I suppose it will have to, as my energy reserves are running dangerously low. I'm going to switch into geothermal mode for the remainder of the experiment timeline and I should be able to build up enough energy for a culture wipe at the anticipated end date of the experiment.

12:53, Year Y-1,399, LV'-Timeline:

This is perhaps more bizarre than my last entry - I think I was intentionally brought out of suspension by a creature on the surface. What I don't understand is how an LV-irradiated creature with fairly sophisticated technology survived the last 12,000 years. The other members of the species seem to be working at a much lower technology level. Is it possible that he was moved to this time period by one of the temporal rifts I observed? I can only hope this process does not repeat itself. In any case, he's been dealt with, and I've set another anchor point. Maybe later I can examine this period more carefully and try to figure out where that guy came from.

39:20, Year Y-999, LV'-Timeline:

The system picked up another temporal fluctuation. It seems to have been located at some kind of celebration or carnival, but there's no remaining signatures. I'm going to be scanning for tech, but if nothing comes up I'll ignore it.

0:0, Year Y-0, LV'-Timeline:

At long last, the final day of the experiment has arrived. I've regained enough power to plasmatize the surface biomass, but after the unexpected strain the Mk IV's been put through, I'm beginning to think that it'd be safer to grow a fresh vessel for my return trip, which I should be able to do with the energy boost from plasmatization. After 65M years in suspension, what's another 300-400 years?

Anyway, I have to admit that I've come to kind of admire the tenacity of the creatures that have evolved on this planet, and it's a shame to wipe them all, but I have to return with my findings.

0:0, Year Y-0, LV''-Timeline:

The readings on my instruments suggest that an additional timeline has formed somehow! This should be impossible! Clearly this experiment has proven much more dangerous than I expected, and I need to proceed with an immediate culture wipe.


What. The. Fuck. A temporal rift has opened up and a miniature horde of LV-irradiated creatures has poured out of it. These are pretty much the mutant spiders with gatling guns I was afraid of, except one of them is wielding a sword. A SWORD. And he's actually damaging the hull of the Mk IV with it! WHAT THE HELL IS THAT SWORD MADE OUT OF?! If they penetrate the hull, I'll have to activate emergency security measures. It better not come to worst case scenarios, but if it does, the Mk IV's core module has my entire genetic code and memory bank backed up, so it can recreate me at will. These punks clearly don't know who they're messing with. In case you weren't sure, I'll remind you:


This was the last journal entry of Professor Icarius Lavos. Following are some discussion questions about the reading:

1) Professor Lavos brought up the concept of "timeline contamination" several times in his journal? Why is it that time travel, especially to the distant past, might be considered dangerous?

2) Professor Lavos' experiment is often blamed for rise of humans as a competitive time-traveling species. What are some steps he could have taken to insure this hadn't happened?

3) The sword Professor Lavos refers to in his last entry was made of Dreamstone, a previously unknown material which is now in wide use. What properties of Dreamstone might have made it particularly effective when used against the Mk IV?

4) If you could do any kind of time-travel enabled experiment, what would you do?

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Luck and Twitch-Skills

Perko just put up a post justifying his claim that skill (or at least twitch-skill) and luck-based challenges generally amount to the same thing from a game design perspective.

What I've come to realize is that a mechanic based on luck and a mechanic based on skill both serve the same purpose in this final framework. They both act as a "scattering" agent: they push the player in somewhat unexpected vectors, allowing them to explore the gameplay "terrain" with a quick and interesting feedback loop.

Generally, I agree with him, but his language is abstract enough that I think it could really do with some more concrete examples. Let's consider three turn-based games with units on a grid: Chess, Civilization, and Archon. In each case, if one unit attempts to move into a space occupied by an enemy unit, this creates a conflict, which needs to be resolved somehow. In Chess, a consistent rule is applied - the piece that's moving wins the encounter every time. In Civilization games, resolution depends on a combination of the units' stats and random luck (if the units are of similar strength, considering any modifiers, you've got about a 50/50 chance of winning), and in Archon when two pieces overlap it causes a dueling mini-game to start, where the pieces, controlled by the two opposing players, duke it out. The point is that in each case the overall strategy of moving pieces on the game board will be similar, but the difference between Chess and the other two, in terms of strategy, is that you can't afford to be quite as precise and pre-planned in Civilization or Archon because an enemy unit could unexpectedly break through your front line if your opponent is lucky or good at the minigame, respectively.

Avid players of pen-and-paper games might be more willing to accept the interchangeability of twitch-challenges and random chance since their games so often rely on random elements to resolve situations that theoretically rely on the character's skill. A d20 roll in D&D could be replaced by rock, paper, scissors (which is still mostly luck-based), or even by a quick game of table-tennis while retaining the overall structure of the role-playing game. Video gamers may be less likely to accept this interchangeability because they're more likely to experience the twitch-skill end of the spectrum and value the skills they've developed. But from the game designer's perspective, the range of skill-levels of the players represents a predictable curve of possible outcomes, just like the die-roll does.

This isn't to denigrate twitch-skills as being no better than luck, but simply to suggest that in any game where a the result of tactical decision isn't guaranteed, the designer can choose to add a twitch-skill element or an element of luck, and expect it to produce a similar "scattering" effect on the results. Generally speaking, the advantage of using skill is that it gives the player a greater sense of ownership over their victory, but it also makes it possible for a player skilled at the twitch-challenge to skew the results of tactical decisions more consistently then they could with a luck-challenge, whereas the luck-challenge preserves, over time, the relationship between strategy and expected success rate. Allowing a twitch-skilled player to surpass expectations may be fine in a single player game (I was really good at the lock-picking mini-game in Oblivion), because it's only that single player who's fun we need to worry about in the first place, but in a cooperative game such as D&D, a single player outshining everyone else in his party as a result of being a good table-tennis player could produce ill will, and I imagine this is part of the reason twitch-challenges are more likely to appear in video games than tabletop games (that, and the fact that twitch-challenges are easy to introduce in the medium of video games).

-Silent Ellipsis

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Dating Profile Clichés

Wow, it's been quite a while since I posted to my blog, which I'm sure I could blame on something, but I'll skip that part. Incidentally, commenting on how long it's been since one's last blog post is a high-visibility cliche, which just happens to be the topic of today's post! More specifically, I'm going to ramble about cliched phrases I continually run across in online dating profiles (yes, I'm on dating sites, see if you can use your powers of inference to guess what my username is). This has absolutely nothing to do with my usual topics, but I felt like writing about this somewhere, and it is my blog afterall.

So on to the list! These are a selection of phrases that I've run across dozens of times, when browsing profiles either on OKCupid or Plentyoffish (both free sites, so they have large populations of uncommitted users). Some of these phrases have come to seem so unoriginal to me that when I see them, I immediately stop reading the person's profile.

It is worth noting that I have read many more profiles written by women than by men, which I'm sure biases the phrases I'm running across.

1. "I don't bite (unless you're into that sort of thing)"

I don't know why this is as popular as it is. If I'd only seen this once or twice, I might have thought "Oh, heh, I get it," and moved on. As it is, this phrase is so inexplicably popular that I can feel my blood start to boil when I see it, but maybe that's a defense mechanism my body has to ward off vampires.

2. "I want someone who can sing to me/play [x] instrument"

As someone with mild musical ability, this probably shouldn't bother me, but it does. The problem I have with this phrase is that it's a clear manifestation of the profile-as-venue-for-fantasies complex. Of course you'd like to date a rock star. Everyone would. Telling us so is not the point of your profile - you should be trying to convince readers you're interesting or cue them about what your interests are. Instead, profiles that include this phrase often read like dating fanfiction.

3. "If you want to know [x], just ask me!"

In the time it took you to write that sentence, you could have simply told your reader the fascinating fact you're obscuring from us. To make matters worse, the user that includes this phrase usually doesn't respond well to you asking about it, because everyone who messages them asks about it and now they're tired of repeating the answer hundreds of times. Of course, the solution to that is to just include it in your profile to begin with.

4. "I want someone who won't lie to me/cheat on me/make me cry for a change!"

Rule number one of online profiles: never focus on negativity. When you see the above sentence in a profile, it's often part of a greater paragraph, or in some cases a manifesto, about how much they really hate it when people are mean to them. This usually makes me run away.

5. "I'm not your typical girl/boy!"

Yes, you probably are.

6. Listing "travel" as a primary hobby

This is one of those lines in a profile that seems like it would add an air of sophistication, except that traveling any significant distance costs money. So unless you're completely loaded (in which case what you say in your profile doesn't matter that much), traveling is something you only get the chance to do from time to time. In other words, this user is claiming that one of their main hobbies is something that they spend 99% of their time not doing.

More importantly, this is most likely completely irrelevant to someone you're considering dating. Unless you're going to invite them to come with you on a trip to another continent right away, it's not going to have much impact on whether or not they're going to want to grab a coffee with you next week.

Note that this is different from "I traveled to [x] place and really loved it," which suggests you have stories to tell. Instead, the cliche suggests a negative story space that sucks interesting stories out of a date (again, profile-as-venue-for-fantasizing complex).

7. "I'm preparing for the zombie apocalypse."

I can't dig on this one too much, because it clearly does tell me something about the user's personality. However, this user would, in all cases, die instantly in a zombie apocalypse. So would I, probably, but at least I didn't waste any time preparing for it.

8. (In response to "I'm Really Good At") "Everything, especially being modest."

This is the one cliche that I'm guilty of perpetrating myself (or was guilty of). There's nothing inherently wrong with the phrase, until you start to realize how unoriginal it is.

9. (In response to "The Most Private Thing I'm Willing to Admit") "I'm on a dating site."

No. Crap.

Furthermore, this carries the connotation that the user is trepid about online dating and therefore less likely to respond to messages, which doesn't usually help their case.

10. (In response to "You Should Message Me If") "You're bored."

Way to maintain your standards, there.

-Silent Ellipsis