Thursday, 28 June 2012

Game Balance

I wrote about different resources you can gather and how mining falls far short of the mark set by animal and tree harvesting.  Today I'm going to look at what effect this would have in a perfect market, why that is nothing like what really happens, and whether it might be better if mining weren't so far behind the other gathering options.

Mining Products
There are three categories of mining products: alchemical powders, tools and furniture.  These may require non-mining inputs as well, but all of them require you to mine.

Let's take as a given that combining materials into things is a good thing to do with your time and that all combines are relatively equal.  This assumption is factually incorrect, but I'm going to use it anyway because I don't want to go into an item-by-item analysis of which things are good to craft.  Basically this assumption allows us to believe that if we have the materials to make something and we make it then we are satisfied with that transformation.  To go a little further, I'm going to assume that we are exactly satisfied with the time we spend - that it provides us exactly the same return as our next best alternative.

So if combining materials is a perfectly good thing to be doing, then the question becomes why we would harvest materials by mining rather than by interacting with trees and animals?

If we harvest from rocks we get 10.1 currants of value per second.  If we harvest from animals we get 32.4.  That means every second we spend on rocks we are deciding not to earn 22.3 currants of value.  By the assumption that all combining is roughly the same value, we would be far better off harvesting from animals and combining their outputs.

But, on the other hand, some mining products are extremely worthwhile.  No matter how much better animals are than rocks at making us rich, we are still going to want Extremely Hallowed Shrine Powder and No-no Powder.  We are still going to want Storage Display Boxes and other furniture for our homes.

Making one Extremely Hallowed Shrine Powder requires 172 chunks of sparkly and 103 chunks of dullite.  Once we have those chunks, by our assumption, we are satisfied with the increase in value we get from combining them, so we should be happy selling our powder for the list price of 2k.   But getting those chunks takes about 220 seconds of mining to acquire.  In those 220 seconds we've lost 4906 currants of value compared to harvesting from animals.

Thus, we should actually be selling our powder for 7275 to get our profit from the combine and to make up for the lost animal harvesting time (also to account for the auction house cut).

No-no requires just over 6 sparkly and just under 7 beryl per powder, a total of 13 chunks.  That's 10.3 seconds of mining time, or almost precisely 230 currants of lost productivity.  Thus the miner should sell No-no for 348 currants at auction.

Are these items worth these prices?  They certainly are.  7275 may seem a hefty price for shrine powder, but it is only 1455 a use, which means that if you donating something with a currant value of 728 or higher you should be using it.  To put that in perspective that is two music blocks of any kind, four chicken eggs or awesome stews, or five seasoned beans to start profiting from the heinously expensive shrine powder.

A typical no-no user can easily get tens of thousands of energy out of no-no at a cost of a fraction of the value of the work being done.  No-no has sold for more than 348 in the past and if no one was posting no-no below that value it would still sell.

As for furniture, Storage Display Boxes typically sell for more than 2000 currants already, despite their list price of only 500.  This more than makes up for the mining that has to be done to build them which involves a loss of 672 currants (though the prices are driven up more by sloths than by mining, I imagine).

Tools are still sold by vendors, so they are hard to price, but if there was no way to get, for example, a Crystalmalizing Chamber other than purchasing one at auction for 6300, people would pay that price.

Why Are Auctions So Much Cheaper?
There are a lot of reasons.  The most obvious is that people who are mining don't know they could be making much more by doing other things, thus they have no reason to think they "should" be charging for their lost opportunities.  Also, it is a game and people like doing different things.  If someone likes mining and is satisfied with the return that they get from it, there is no reason for them to be unhappy that they could be getting a better return by doing something else.  There will always be those who have fun optimizing or who can't stand not optimizing, but most people don't fall into this category.

For an occasional player of the game, 10.1 currants per second (more likely 8-ish currants per second if they are mining on non-optimized streets) may be all they really feel they need to make.

And of course, prices are set by the intersection of supply and demand.  There is no room for a glitch to enter the market with 7275 currant extremely hallowed shrine powder because it would be their powder sitting at the top of the heap, never being bought.

Economists would probably suggest that pricing problems like this will eventually be fixed by the market but I truly doubt that will happen.  Unlike in real life, in Glitch there is an unlimited amount of value to be extracted from the world if people want to extract it.  Unlike in real life, in Glitch no one has basic expenses that they need to cover - we don't need food on the table or a roof over our heads.

What could eventually correct the market would be an extreme drop in what vendors will pay us for our goods.  Right now animals goods are valuable primarily as vendor fodder - you can easily collect thousands of milk in a day but you can't sell thousands of milk a day at auction.  If the vendors were not propping milk, meat and grain prices up then I think those prices would fall dramatically.

I know that people do buy meat from auction, but imagine you couldn't sell meat to the vendor or donate it to a shrine.  Imagine there are only a few hundred glitchen who actively run around the world harvesting animals.  In about half an hour of harvesting you can easily get over 2000 meat.  So conservatively there might be between 200k and 1 million meat to be sold each day.  I'm pretty sure meat would be at auction for one currant each and that people would only purchase it there out of convenience.  There would be piles hundreds of meat lying unattended on the ground all over Ur.

Is the Animal-Rock Gap a Problem?
I was completely ready to say that it is, but I had to check myself.  For the last month and a half or so I have been railing at game balance to anyone who will listen (not in this blog, but in my personal life).  Despite that, I was ready to say that rocks should be roughly as good as animals in the name of game balance.

Game balance is seductive.  We all want games to be fun and we all have different ways of having fun when we play games.  If some glitchen like to talk to animals and some glitchen like to mine, why should one be advantaged over the other?  Isn't that saying that one way of playing is better than the other?

The problem with this argument is that in order for it to work it has to bring in an unstated assumption that giving less currants (or imagination or mood or achievements - or in other games gold, xp, boss kills, etc.) is penalizing one style of play.  Unfortunately, this assumption negates the point of the whole exercise, which is to try to make sure people can have fun playing their own way.

I might play glitch because I like to talk to the other people who play, or because I like to craft things and see the results of my own work, or because I like to dress up in different outfits, or because I like to walk around the world and see the graphics.  I might play because I want something mind-numbingly repetitive to do to stop my mind swirling at the end of the work day.  I might play because it's fun for me to do experiments and see how things work.

To say that animals giving better per-second return than rocks is an imbalance is to say that no matter which of these reasons I play glitch, I am being disadvantaged by earning fewer currants.  It is to say that whatever I think I enjoy about the game, what I really want is to win at a particular goal that the developers have set ahead of time (in this case, to get more money).

If there is an ideal way to earn imagination you could say the same.  Sure, some things are better than others, but that is only a problem if you think that everyone is playing the game to earn imagination and that they are in competition with one another.

And what about those people who are playing video games specifically because they want to be challenged?  If we make all strategies give equivalent returns for equivalent efforts then what do those people do?

And what about those people who are playing video games because they actually like to figure out what the best way to do things is and then to do it that way?  Should we ruin their fun by making nothing the best?

And further still, there is the issue that we are making value judgments about what should and shouldn't let you get ahead.  If two people are actually competing to see who can make the most currants then if everything is "balanced" the winner will be the one who plays more.  If they play almost equally then the winner will be the one with better mechanics (i.e., optimized key presses).  The winner, however, will not be the one who works out he better strategy for earning currants because we've decided that strategies are something that should be balanced.  Why are we denigrating strategy and promoting play time as a measure of worthiness of rewards?

Game balance is giving in to the idea that everyone will know how to play a game because anyone can read about it on the internet.  It is attempting to serve a particular part of the game community - those making the following complaint: "Doing thing X is boring, but it is the only way to get ahead, so I feel like I have to do X anyway."  But in doing so it is mostly serving people who play the game the way they were told to play it on the internet, rather than playing it the way that is most fun for them.  Specifically it is "saving" those people from having to play a specific way because all ways will be equally good.

The particular issue of mining is ideal for demonstrating the problem.  The Glitch forums used to have some posts exactly like the complaint I just gave.  And the thing they were complaining about doing?  It was mining!  Even though mining was always a relatively poor way to make money, there was still a segment of the population who felt "forced" to mine despite finding it boring because they thought it was "the way" to make money.  In other words, that problem is entirely in the heads of people who are too concerned about getting ahead to do their own thing.  I'd love it if a game could be designed to help these people, but such a game would be one that leads them into trying things and seeing how fun they are, rather than a game that tries to justify their fun-has-low-priority worldview.

There really is such a thing as a game element that is so much better than others that it destabilizes the economy and messes things up for other people.  If instead of being three times as good, animal harvesting was one million times as good as mining then there would be a real problem.  Everyone, no matter what they liked to do, would generally feel that they had to spend some of their time animal harvesting (or at the very least selling things to animal harvesters) or they wouldn't be able to participate in the economy at all.  I don't think there is a case to be made that animal harvesting or mining falls into that category at the moment.  The imbalance between different ways of making money would have to be really extreme to even make the tiniest dent in the economic imbalances created by some people just playing more.

In fact, animal harvesting is the fastest way to earn money, but none of the richest glitches I know spend their time animal harvesting to get money.  Most of them make money from crafting even though it is worse than harvesting on a per second basis.

So, I am not concluding that mining should be made better to address the gap, but I do have some conclusions nonetheless

  1. Mining is a type of  gathering that has the room for improvement.  There is no worry of destabilizing the economy by giving big boosts to mining through new upgrades, skills and items (whereas there might be with animals).
  2. If you are playing to make the most money and imagination possible then mining is not for you
Down with balance, up with many ways of having fun,

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