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Uncertainty in Games

I’ve recently finished Uncertainty in Games, a short but excellent book by Greg Costikyan. Towards the end of the book, Costikyan presented one idea I found particularly insightful (emphasis mine):

Typically, when designers think about tuning gameplay, they think about tuning the difficulty of existing systems […]

What designers rarely do is introduce a new and different form of uncertainty, because this is not an immediately obvious way to handle the problem. And yet, doing this can be quite powerful and lead to highly original work […]

Combining different sources of uncertainty, or injecting a novel source of uncertainty into an otherwise well-understood genre, can create highly original games and should be one of the tools in any intelligent designer’s toolbox.

Of course there are examples. Triple Town would’ve been a dull match-three without the randomness of bears; Portal would’ve been another puzzle game if it didn’t let players jump to places in the information-deprived first-person perspective…

In short, games are games because they contain uncertainty. A healthy and clever mix of different kinds of uncertainty, each tuned to the right amount, makes a great game.

The 11 Kinds of Uncertainty

In the book, Costikyan summarised there are 11 kinds of uncertainty:

  1. Performative uncertainty: whether the player can jump at the right time, land at the correct position, or dodge deadly missiles.

  2. Solver’s uncertainty: whether the player can solve a puzzle.

  3. Player unpredictability: when other players may affect your decision making.

  4. Randomness: essentially dice rolling; luck.

  5. Analytic complexity: the difficulty for a player to make optimal decisions.

  6. Hidden information. Think of war fog in Starcraft, or the shadowed areas in Civilization. This essentially drives player to explore what’s unknown.

  7. Narrative anticipation, such as a twist in story plot.

  8. Development anticipation: players can do more things as they level or progress; game developers provide more content over time.

  9. Schedule uncertainty: players return to the game and may be surprised at what they may have gained during their absence.

  10. Uncertainty of perception: whether the player can make of what they see or hear, and obtain useful information.

  11. Semiotic uncertainty. Games may design against norms to create surprises. For example, when you jump off a cliff you may get a secret weapon instead of dying.

Score Cards for Mobile & Desktop Games

Game Title 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Total
Severed X     X     X X   X   5
Factorio X   X X X X   X   X   7
Cosmic Express   X     X             2
Cuphead X X   X       X       4
Splasher X             X       2
Overwatch X   X   X X       X   5
Downwell X X   X               3
Alto’s Odyssey X     X       X   X   4
Triple Town   X   X       X X     4
Traveling Frog1       X X X X X X     6

Of all the games I love, only Splasher and Cosmic Express scored two.2 Great games are designed to be an organic combination of 4, 5, or even more kinds of uncertainty. They are designed to be full of surprises. After all, they are games.

Uncertainty in Crypto Games

Now, we’ve all seen the crypto games out there. Crypto Kitties is the first famous crypto game and it took off with the concept of digital collectibles. There is some randomness in the genome of a kitty you breed, and you cannot be sure how the market (other players) will price your kitties. As the game development progresses, different kitty traits are added or unlocked, and there’s always a sense of being unfinished with the game… Crypto Kitties may have made their name by being the first serious crypto game, but they are certainly still among the best in terms of playability.

Ether Goo, a crypto idle game made by one-man shop, is also a good example of incorporating uncertainty. You never know when you will be able to afford with the goo you’ve accrued during your absence. Without diving into the source code, you cannot figure out how the “attacking” and “stealing” actually works in Ether Goo so there’s a lot of experimenting. Then there’s cliché player unpredictability, because it’s a multiplayer game after all.

Many other games, however, are terrible examples of games. Crypto Countries, Crypto Celebs, and all those whats-its-name hot potato games have one thing in common: delicate uncertainty design was never part of the game mechanism. Yes, Kitties and Goo are both, in a sense, hot potato games; the values of the collectibles rely entirely on how other players price them. But the games themselves are fun to look at, since there’s always new stuff to experience; they provide value beyond a prospect of winning more money than you spend.

Let’s look at how they stack on the score card:

Game Title 1 2 3 4 5 6 7 8 9 10 11 Total
Crypto Kitties     X X X     X       4
Ether Goo     X         X X     3
Ether Online       X       X       2
Crypto Countries     X                 1
Generic Hot Potato     X                 1

Note that the “Generic Hot Potato” is probably 20-50 crypto games out there, using some plagiarsed code.

The problem with those games is, they are only designed to be crypto apps. You can design a crypto version of roulette, but you would end up with an app that serves predictably; you do not arrive at a game.

My Two Cents

Taking a step back, I think the benefit of using blockchain concept as a promotional leverage is (thankfully) fading fast. It will be more serious business as more money flows in, and as the audience matures over time.

When designing crypto games, I think it’s important to remember we are designing games. Games are something delightful, something of surprise. Blockchain is a new technology that enables us to do things we couldn’t have done before. It doesn’t mean we have to do all of them.

  1. Also known as 旅かえる 

  2. Splasher won my heart because of its flawless execution; Cosmic Express (as well as its spiritual predecessor A Good Snowman Is Hard To Build) is a delight with mathematical beauty. 

我很好啊,妈

最近流行养青蛙。小青蛙绕世界旅行,偶尔回家给你带点东西回来或者是寄回几张明信片。不得不说养起来有一种似曾相识的感觉。

因为最近碰巧读了一本书叫《我很好啊,妈》。这本书大都是作者乌云装扮者除外旅行时所见所闻所感,用书信体的形式写给他的妈妈。没什么特别新鲜的,有的写起来甚至矫情,但偶尔还是能有那么几次说到我在国外时不曾想到的事情的,也能稍稍满足一些人对氤氲的欧洲生活的想象和对周游世界生活方式的向往(一些人比如我)。

亚马逊有售。(当时以为没有电子版。装订那叫一个差,早知道等俩月买电子版了)

中国特色的译文读者

这俩礼拜(又)搬家,收拾东西之余在看这本短篇小说合集,《中国特色的译文读者》。

书里的同名短篇放到了最后,也是最像作者本人自传的一篇。大概讲述了一个 multilingual 在异国和多元文化背景中是如何挣扎和认识自己的身份地位的。讲中文和讲英语有不同的性格和处事角度,面对的也是不同的群体。你可以讲着虽然带口音却十分流利的英语和人工作、学习、讨论内容,甚至可以做一个 valedictorian,但是总会有一些事情从边边角角渗透进来,提醒你自己并不来自这里。

不过从我粗浅的阅读理解来看,似乎作者觉得如何决定自己的身份认同是件无所谓的事情。英语说得再好,再常用英语做梦、自语和思考,你也不用把自己看作一个本地人,也没有人把你当做本地人看待。但是大家依然和你做 project、和你共事工作娱乐玩耍。这个鸡汤一样的结论似乎也没什么用,整篇小说只是揭起来你作为一个 bilingual 最难以发现、有意无意忽略的话题,然后告诉你这无关紧要。

而你呢?虽然能够天天说英语、从早说到晚,却依然想在一天之后回到自己的家里说说中文。不过人脑总是习惯用阻力最小的表达方式,所以中英夹杂的表达变得愈发常见。有时候总要强迫自己不在交流中带出英语,但后来想想,这样的坚持似乎也没什么意思。

除此之外,这本书里的其它短篇从时间和空间两个维度上涉猎话题之广令人惊叹,还挺好玩的,推荐一下。