Friday, March 19, 2010

It's all about the grind

Why do I love the Pokémon games so much? It is not that the monsters are cute or that I want to catch them all. For me its all about the grind, Pokémon offers some of the most satisfying grinding in the RPG genre. The reasons for this can be found in what sets Pokémon apart from other RPG's.

First of all your monsters evolve, when they reach a certain level they change in to a whole new form. This works as a huge payoff giving you an incentive to keep on grinding, giving you something to aim for. I want my silly looking Wartortle to turn in to a massive Blastoise.

You can only use one Pokémon at a time, in RPG speech this means that you can only level up one part member at a time. This multiplies the grinding, you have to grind with everyone of those little suckers. But since only one Pokémon gets experience at a time this also means that they level up faster, giving you constant satisfaction. You can have a weaker Pokémon climb a few levels in minutes.

No simple attack command, no MP and you are limited to four attacks. Every Pokémon is different and has a different combination of attacks, meaning you get to switch things up, its not as simple as holding down the A button hitting attack over and over again. Since your Pokémon can only handle four attacks at once you keep switching out attacks, changing the way you do battle as your Pokemon grows stronger. Also there is no universal MP, each attack has its own limited Power Points, so you can't just keep using the same attack over and over again.

No armor and no weapons, the only way to make your monsters stronger is to keep grinding. Since no stats boosts are given from things like armor the game is free to give bigger payoffs from level increases, making grinding more rewarding.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

The social optimal level of video game piracy

I have been thinking a lot about video game piracy lately, especially in terms of microeconomics. Putting the legal and moral issues aside it's interesting to consider if it's hurting or benefiting society as a whole. There is no doubt piracy is hurting the industry but it is also obviously benefiting those who get the games for free. Looking at the welfare of society as a whole it would be wrong to only consider one group, such as video game developers. It is possible that some level of piracy is needed if we want to maximize society's welfare.

The interesting thing about software is that it is a non-rival good. After creating one program we can make a copy of it at virtually no extra cost. So the optimal quantity of a video game, lets say Half Life 2 is one for every gamer since the cost of one more unit is zero. For every gamer to want the game however the price needs to also be zero. If Valve charged one dollar for the game there would still be some gamers who would consider it too expensive, they would rather spend their dollar on something else like a candy bar. Since the cost of making one more copy is zero and those candy loving kids would get some enjoyment from playing Half Life 2, society would be losing out the benefit of having those kids playing Half Life 2.

The benefit to the producers of video games, that is the developers, publishers etc is the money they get paid for their game. So the optimal price for them is that which earns them the most money, it seems that for a new game it is $60. So since the cost of making one more copy in the age of digital distribution is zero, the benefit (the producer surplus) from selling one more game for producers would be $60.

What is the benefit in dollars for a gamer in buying a game? It depends on what they are willing to pay for it. If I am willing to pay $100 for a copy of Half Life 2 and I get it for $60, the benefit to me (the consumer surplus) is $40. The added welfare to society from me buying a copy of Half Life 2 would be the $60 the producers benefit plus my $40, which adds up to $100 in added welfare.

The problem for society is that if I had only been willing to pay $20 for Half Life 2 I wouldn't have bought it. Since the cost of making a copy of the game is $0, society has just lost out on $20 worth of enjoyment I could have added to the pool of society's welfare. If I instead had pirated it, I would have created $20 worth of enjoyment at no cost. It follows from this reasoning that society is better off if consumers who would not have purchased the game pirated it.

If we go back to my first example where I valued Half Life 2 at $100, if I had then pirated the game the benefit to me would be $100, the same as the combined benefit of the producers and me if I had bought the game ($60 + $40). So as far as the welfare of society is concerned it doesn't matter if I pirate Half Life 2 or buy it, I contribute just as much to the combined welfare of society. Any harm done to developers is compensated for by an equally large welfare increase for pirates. From this reasoning we can see that the benefit to society from everyone pirating their games, assuming that developers keep making them is one way to the optimal level of welfare.

But of course that scenario is an impossibility since if everyone pirated their games, game development would be unprofitable and no one would make games. Another possible scenario to maximize the combined level of welfare is if everyone who valued the games above or at the price developers maximize their profits at buy the game and everyone else pirate it. That means everyone who value Half Life 2 at $60 or more buy it and everyone else pirate it. If piracy isn't an option for those who value Half Life 2 at less then $60, they wouldn't get to play it and society would experience a loss of combined welfare.

A third possible scenario in which society's welfare is maximized is one where developers make just enough money to keep making games, their revenue covers their costs but leave nothing over for economic profit. So in this scenario a portion of society buy their games and they are just enough to finance the development of video games. Everyone else pirate their games. It makes sense because everyone paying for the game value it over or at its price, otherwise they wouldn't buy it. The important thing is that everyone else pirate it so we don't lose out on their potential contribution to society's welfare.

We could imagine other possible scenarios somewhere in between scenario two and three that would maximize societies welfare, they just have to fulfill two criteria. (1) Enough people who value the game over the price producers charge buy the game so that producers can cover their costs. And (2) Everyone who value the game at less then the price suppliers charge pirate the game.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

How retail lead to the pussyfication of 20XX

By adding an in between level store to later Mega Man games Capcom have indirectly removed any challenge from the series. Or rather they have left it up to the player to decide how challenging a game they want depending on how much they choose to utilize the store. Making me wonder why they even included an easy mode in Mega Man 10?

In Mega Man 10 you will have a few hundred screws (the in game currency) in no time, the game practically showers you with money. And they must be using slave labor Mega Man land because everything is dirt cheap, probably why there are almost no humans around. An E-tank to fully replenish your health is 20 screws, a robot bird that saves you if you fall down a pit also 20 screws and an item that halves all your damage is 50 screws.

This means that you don't really have to try and dodge any boss attacks if you don't want to. If you paid a visit to the shop to stock up on E-tanks you can pretty much stand in one spot and fire at the boss since you now have upwards of 18 times the health (9 E-tanks and a 1/2 dmg) you would otherwise.

Mega Man levels are supposed to be well designed balls hard challenges that you try over and over again until you beat them, that is what makes them so much fun. By in effect making the difficulty level optional they leave it up to the player to completely ruin his own experience. Mega Man games now require a large a degree of self discipline from players. It's like climbing Mount Everest with an escalator running next to you all the time.

Monday, March 8, 2010

What'cha been playin' now on Twitter

Tired of loading up my site only to realize it hasn't been updated in a week?

Now I have added our new twitter feed to the right hand side of the blog so there should always be something fresh to read when you check in. Even if it will be under Twitters magical 140 word limit.

Saturday, March 6, 2010

Puzzle Crack

I have been playing Puzzle Quest for a few days now and I love it. I know I'm a bit late to the party here, gamers have been swooning over this one since it came out back in 2007 and now I understand why.

The rpg and puzzle elements really compliment each other very well and they solve the problem I have with both genres. My main problem with puzzle games and the reason I don't play them more is that they tend to lack a clear goal to work towards. Score chases usually don't appeal to me and playing something like Tetris on endless mode just feel like a waste of time. Surely you could argue that all video games are a waste of time but having an ending to reach gives me an unexplainable sense of having accomplished something. Puzzle Quest's ability to put it's Bejeweled like puzzles in the context of a story solves this problem. Also having the completion of yet another puzzle contribute to the leveling of my character is brilliant, having your character increase in level can make the most mundane activity seem rewarding and a worthy use of once time.

Which brings me to my problem with rpg's, few activities are more mundane then continuously pressing A while fighting the same enemy for the 100th time. Many newer rpgs have tried to remedy this by making the battle systems more complex but all to often they just end up being confusing. There is nothing confusing about Bejeweled, that game is designed to be played by our mothers and doesn't take more then a second to fully grasp. I surprised no one thought of this brilliant formula before.

Monday, March 1, 2010

Sit down kids and listen to the old man complain

A month ago or so I wrote up a list of my favorite games of the past decade. I was not alone to do so, most major gaming sites put together their own lists. One game seemed to take up the no.1 or the no.2 spot on almost all of them; Half Life 2. This convinced me to finally give it a try after planning to for years. And I unfortunately cant say that I was blown away. After finishing the first few chapters I almost have to force myself to sit down and play again.

Its not that is a bad game, it does some undeniably cool stuff but its just not all that fun. I am very well aware of the fact that Im in the minority here since this is one of those games usually receiving endless praise from gamers. Reading my "games of the decade" list, a friend of mine told me my taste in games was somewhat quirky. He is probably right, especially this past generation I feel like Im fleeting further and further away from the gaming mainstream, if I ever was anywhere near it.

In some ways Half Life 2 can be seen as the first in a series of big name, big budget blockbusters in recent years that has lead to a new dominance by the west in gaming, leaving Japan behind trying to find itself. With names like Gears of War and Modern Warfare grabbing the attention of the more "hard core" segment of the market. In a sense this, the seventh video game generation is truly the"shooter" generation. A genre in which I usually have little interest. Looking back at this generation the games I can say I have honestly enjoyed are almost all either Nintendo first party titles with their own distinct style or remakes of games from the 16 and 32bit era. I have still yet to retire my PS2, hell it gets more playtime then my 360.