Wednesday, 28 January 2015

Foreshadowing Right

I was up at an ungodly hour this morning but managed to get a half hour of Bastion in. I did an area that reminded me a lot of Diablo 3.

Now that might sound like a good or a bad thing, but if I clarify that it reminded me of the plot of Diablo 3, you'll probably think it's a very bad thing. Really, though, it showed how to do something right that Diablo 3 did terribly wrong.

What makes the story of Diablo 3 awful is that the bosses keep showing up as illusions or just disembodied voices to taunt you. That's stupid as hell. Basically it makes them seem completely ineffectual and pointless. At every turn they know where you are and what you are doing and they are powerless to stop you. Diablo himself is basically running scared of you, trying desperately to get to the crystal arch to seize it's power and sending his most powerful minions to be speed bumps.

Something Bastion has that Diablo 3 does not have, though, is a narrator. The narrator doesn't show up to make this one scene work, he's there through the whole game. After choosing my weapons he said, "A bow isn't much good at close range, but a musket is." After falling off the side of the world he said, "You need sure footing to survive in the wilds." He narrates lots of little events as well as the overall story.

So this morning when I was doing an area where the narrator told me about the boss I encountered it made sense. The boss showed up to devour a random enemy whole and the narrator talked about its species is mostly extinct but this one has survived. The boss surprised me and hit me for half my life, sending me flying into the air, before disappearing and the narrator told me about how it lurks in the tall grass. When I got to a section of all tall grass the narrator talked about how I would just have to move fast, and I ran top speed with the boss chomping behind me.

Supposedly the point of having the bosses talk to you in Diablo 3 was to build enmity, but it just fell flat. My human protagonist was just straight up better at fighting than the lords of hell, and she knew it too. The protagonist was not once scared of any of them or impressed by their power, and the idea that they perpetually knew where I was and didn't come get me was dumb.

In Bastion I wasn't exactly scared of that beast when I got to it. After all, the narrator is waiting for me back and home base and he wouldn't even know this story unless I won the fight in the end. But the way it was presented gave me respect the boss. It never taunted me, it just tried to eat me, and did a reasonable job of trying.

So if you want to build up tension before a boss fight, it's fine to introduce the boss in earlier segments. But those segments should be harrowing or dangerous. They should give the player the idea that the boss is honestly putting in an effort to kill them. And they really shouldn't involve long distance illusion based communication - that's just dumb.

And if you are going to do this, it sure helps to have a narrator.

Monday, 26 January 2015

Better Lucky than Good

Having finished all the boss rushes, I'm working on beating ??? and the Lamb with all the characters. I'm done both on about half the characters and done one on the rest.

My Eden run to the Lamb was going pretty well for a while. I had picked up a blank card and a credit card and had bought out a couple of devil rooms before deciding to drop the blank card for the nail. I considered keeping the blank card and hoping to find the Sun to go with my Habit but I was running out of floors, only had three red hearts anyway, and I needed something to provide more health, which the nail would do in the form of soul hearts.

But I wasn't playing great and I was getting hit more than once every five rooms, so my health was dwindling over time. I was thinking that I was just going to lose to bad play. I got to the Dark Room with one and a half of my three red hearts and two soul hearts.

Right away I got the room with two Cages, which is probably my worst room in the entire game. I think on average I get hit more in this room than I do fighting any of the end bosses. I managed to make it out alive taking only three hits, leaving me with half a red heart, but also with my nail recharged and a soul heart drop. So I went into the next fight with a half heart and two soul hearts. The next fight was two Adversaries, which is probably my next most-hated room just because depending on their positions there is really nothing you can do to avoid their homing blood laser attack. Anyway, they hit me twice, leaving me back at a hit from dead. This was not looking good. The next room was something easy I don't remember and dropped a Wheel of Fortune card. I had 44 coins so there was a good chance this would at least heal me to full, and maybe supply some hearts to come back to if I could keep things going. Still I wasn't liking my odds.

But when I used the card I got a fortune machine instead of a slot machine. 42 coins later I had spawned 5 soul hearts the crystal ball from the destroyed machine, Cancer (the trinket), and several cards which included the Joker and the Hierophant. The Joker took me to the devil who was selling the Pact for two hearts and the Whore of Babylon for one. You'll recall that I have three heart containers which currently hold half a heart, so trading them away for these is a huge damage increase and a health increase.

I crack a couple more rooms, taking a couple of hits, and find a chest that contains Cancer, the passive item. So now I have 10 soul hearts - one from a nail activation in the middle of all of that - and the nail is charged again. The next room I go into is adjacent to the boss room and contains only some trash enemies that are dispatched easily.

So walk into the Lamb doing as much damage as I'd ever done with damage and tear increase items alone - I think I had +7.5 damage, +2.4 tears - and being able to withstand 20 hits. A nice easy win. I think I only got hit twice.

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Supergiant Games

Supergiant Games has two games, and what games they are.

It's tough for me to play their games because in both cases the audio is very important and I have very limited time to play games, even less to play games with audio. As a result I've only played about half of their second game, Transistor, and have only played their first game, Bastion for about an hour. I'd really like to take a week off of my life and play through both completely, probably more than once.

Superficially the games are very similar - you play a character with a mysterious background who is one of the last ones alive in a world undergoing some kind of catastrophe. Both have a kind of narrator who hints at the story while you play, but is also a character in the game that your protagonist interacts with. Both are isometric action RPGs.

Of course that's all just a shell. There's a lot of detail that makes these games great. First of all, the narrator characters are both great and add a huge amount to the game. I think the basic gameplay of both games is good enough to play them without the narration, but I feel like I'd be missing out on a lot if I wasn't listening to it. This may not seem like a really big deal, but I would say the number of games where I really care about the sound is vanishingly small. They've done something really special with the voices in these games. The art is also something I really appreciate on both counts.

Next, the gameplay is fantastic. In both I feel like I am really responsible for the actions that my character takes. That's not always an easy thing to do in an action RPG, and a lot fail at it, leaving you feeling like the game is all about getting the right stats or mashing the potion button rather than the actual play. Based on my limited experience, I'm pretty sure you could go very far and maybe even win either game with your starting stats if you were extremely proficient because you could just refuse to get hit.

But you don't stick with your base stats, both games have great power-up systems. In Bastion you find a variety of weapons and skills that you can equip. You also find parts you can use to improve your weapons, where each improvement means choosing one of two options. You also choose passive abilities in the way of liquor. You can always go back and rearrange these choices, and the number of ways to build a character is probably in the hundreds of thousands. In Transistor you find different skills, but each skill can be equipped either as an action a skill on your skill bar, as a passive skill or as a modifier for one of the skills on your bar. With four skill slots, four passive slots and two modifier slots for each skill slot, I think the number of different ways to set up a character are on the order of a quadrillion with no exaggeration. There are also passive non-kill upgrades to choose from and limiters to unlock that make the game harder but give more experience.

I don't usually pay a lot of attention to game companies, I'm more interested in games as individual things and I don't assume that because a company has made on thing I like that I'll like anything else they do. These guys, though, I would easily buy their next game just based on the strength of these two, even though I know I might not really get to play it until my children leave for university.

Tuesday, 20 January 2015

Binding of Isaac Boss Rushes

I've been working on unlocking things in Binding of Isaac. Specifically, I've been trying to beat the boss rush with all the characters.

For most of the characters this isn't very hard. The boss rush drops so many hearts that as long as you have a few heart containers and do reasonable damage you can make a lot of mistakes and still win. Of course it helps if you do obscene damage instead of reasonable damage.

One my winning Cain run I picked up increased damage items from the bosses on the first two floors as well as a Magic Mushroom from the first treasure room, which is among the best damage increases. Things looked pretty good. Then I picked up Ipecac nearly invalidating that earlier stuff but making things look even better. Then on the fourth floor I got 20/20.

At this point everything was a cakewalk. My damage was obscene, enemies barely got a chance to attack me.

Because I had secured good damage items and was confident in my damage to beat the boss rush, I had been working on getting defensive items, so I had bombed my way through the angel statue on the third floor in the hopes of getting more angel rooms thanks to the half-key. Well, having picked up 20/20, I figured that if I was ever going to take on Mega Satan, this was the time.

After easily defeating the Boss Rush I started working on heart containers, and thanks to several Temperance and Judgement cards I managed to get up to ten. I went into Mega Satan with 10 full red hearts, two soul hearts, a bad trip pill, and Cancer, the zodiac sign. I'd never done the fight before, so I didn't know how much of a stretch it would be, but it turns out I think I would have won if I'd never dodged a thing and just stood and fired.

So I got my first Mega Satan kill to go with my Boss Rush. If I had been sensible maybe I should have killed ??? instead because that gets you an unlock and Mega Satan doesn't, but Mega Satan does change your save screen image, so maybe that's a bigger deal.

I'm also pleased to report that I beat the boss rush with ??? who is probably the hardest to boss rush on account of not being able to pick up all those red hearts in the room. I also won with Eve, Samson and Azazel, and Samson also went on to take out ??? with 20/20, many tears increases, Cancer, the trinket, and Mom's Contact. That Azazel game is still going, I expect to take out ???. It turns out that having the Relic and Tammy's Head on Azazel is insanely powerful.

Monday, 19 January 2015

Childhood Trauma

This post is dedicated to someone. I know that someone who will read it will know who that someone is.

A lot of mental illness is linked back to childhood trauma in the literature about it. I believe myself to be well classified by Borderline Personality Disorder, which is strongly associated with trauma. The question is, did I have childhood trauma?

What is trauma? I was not abused as a child. I didn't live in a war zone. I had one near-death experience when I was four or five but it isn't the least bit painful to remember or talk about, it's just a thing that happened to me. I would say that I did not experience trauma as a child.

On the other hand I clearly experienced the world as a terrible and hostile place. Recently I was thinking about people "wanting the best for their kids" in terms of getting them into good schools and so forth. My reaction is, "What difference does it make, school is an awful, wasteful experience and no school could really be better than any other." My default assumption is that everything will be rotten and there is no point in trying to make things better. Hoping for "the best" might as well be hoping for "the worst" because they aren't really different.

Well, I have to check that against reality a bit. It would be a foolish position to try to take seriously.

If trauma exists in your emotional reaction to your circumstances, rather than in the experience, then maybe school was traumatizing for me. But I guess I want to try to walk away from the word "trauma" because it is a hard label for me to take on myself. Like I said, I wasn't abused and I wasn't in a war zone. How can I take that word from people who have truly awful experiences and apply it to my own pretty benign experiences?

I've brought up my "legs-don't-work" model of mental illness before, but I don't think I ever do an adequate job of explaining it because people I talk to don't seem to understand it. Suppose you were born with non-functional legs. You have spent your whole life using mobility devices, mostly wheelchairs when in public.

I'm not going to imagine that I know what that would be like day to day personally. What I do know that it means you are living in a world with a broken interface. I probably live in one of the more accessible places in the world for people with mobility disabilities, but no amount of accessibility is going to get rid of the fact that the default setting for everything is wrong. Counters and shelves are too high, there are too many unnecessary changes in elevation, things aren't placed sensibly. You have to go way out of your way to get from one place to another on so many different occasions. A huge time and money tax are applied to your life.

It's a world in which you don't quite fit right. The new way of thinking about disabilities is that there is nothing wrong with the person with the disability, but rather there is something wrong with inaccessible environments. That's a great shift but it can never overcome the abled-by-default setting. That counter has to be one height or another.

What is your experience of that world as a person who cannot walk? Well, hopefully it isn't traumatic. Hopefully you don't feel systemically abused and left out. And for a person growing up in Toronto today I think that's a rational hope. But in many places and at practically all times in the past anywhere you went there were tremendous barriers that locked people with disabilities out of all kinds of participation in society. It was and is probably natural to become a loner and an outsider for many people with mobility issues. Imagine being unable to go to 99% of the stores in the city you live, or not being able to take a course in your high school because it is on the second floor, or not being able to go to school with the other kids at all. Whether you curse your legs or curse the stairs it doesn't really help. Depending on your personality, that could lead to all kinds of mental health problems for you as well, particularly depression.

So what about mental differences? People who are neurotypical are the people with the functioning legs. People on the autism spectrum are significantly more likely to be depressed. Just like the legs issue, I don't really know what it's like to be on the autism spectrum, but it seems pretty apparent that people on the autism spectrum also live in a world where the "counters are too high". It's probably invisible to most of us how much we rely on something simple like reading emotions in other people's faces and having our own faces read, but I'd wager it's critically important to the way we go about our lives. That's just one kind of stairs for those on the autism spectrum, and the stairs are everywhere.

And then on top of that, unlike the person in the wheelchair, no one around you can understand what the problem is. When a person in a wheelchair comes to a flight of stairs, at least someone who is paying attention can see that the person has no access to whatever lies at the top. With the autism spectrum, if you are high functioning, probably even your own parents don't see the barriers you encounter every day. Instead of support you get frustration and condemnation. If you do develop depression then even access to mental health services is "up the stairs" - mental health diagnoses are behavioural, and people on the autism spectrum display abnormal behaviours. A person may be suffering in exactly the same way a neurotypical person is, but not receive the same - or any - diagnosis because their behaviour doesn't match the criteria.

I don't want to characterize depression as a symptom of a problem, rather I want to characterize depression as a method of interfacing with the world. When the world doesn't work for you, you have to find a different way of dealing with the world that does work for you. Depression might not sound like something that works for anyone, but I think it's the best people can do under some circumstances. Commando crawling up a flight of stairs is a pretty lousy interface with the world for getting to the second floor, but I promise you that at some point a person has felt that was their only option.

Which brings me back to Borderline Personality Disorder and trauma. I don't think that I need to use the world "trauma" to describe my experience with the world. I think the counters not being my height is a much better way to describe it. If that doesn't sound severe enough to warrant a major mental illness, then perhaps crawling up the stairs on your elbows is a better metaphor.

We like to call people crazy, but these alternate interfaces are not crazy. The world is actually a really awful place in a lot of ways:
  • People are senselessly cruel to one another in day-to-day interaction
  • Living until tomorrow is governed hugely by randomness
  • Our society has deeply embedded unfairness that seems impossible to dig out

There's lots more. To me, taking how rotten things are in stride is what doesn't make sense. When I look at our world, it seems to me like people *without* serious mental illnesses are crazy.

So I'm going to save the word trauma to talk about acute traumatic experiences. Using my "interface" model of mental illness, it's easy to see how trauma results in mental illnesses. When children are abused they develop a world-interface that prominently incorporates being abused because that is a predominant feature of their world. That world-interface isn't going to be ideal for dealing with most of the world, and it doesn't magically right itself if the abuse one day ends.

But that isn't the only way to develop an atypical or problematic world-interface. We all need to either climb the stairs or give up on the stairs as a lost cause. Neither option is crazy.

Friday, 16 January 2015

Bind of Isaac "Challenges"

I've been running through the challenges to unlock things. It's interesting to ask whether this is actually a good idea. Presumably the goal of the game is to do everything, so eventually you will want to do them all if you are going for utter victory, but many of them unlock cards that dilute the card pool. The worst offender is challenge eleven while unlocks the Rules Card which I'm pretty sure does nothing. Once you've done challenge eleven, every card you find has a chance to be a blank.

But anyway, the "challenges" themselves are mostly not so much challenges as easier versions of the game. Many of them only go to Mom, so once you're used to getting to ??? and the Lamb, even with a mild handicap a run to Mom is probably thought of as a given rather than a challenge.

And those handicaps generally are pretty mild. Some of them are probably even advantageous. Basically challenges start you with a small number of interestingly synergistic items, but don't give treasure rooms on the floors. For example, in challenge 16, "Computer Savvy" you begin with Technology, Technology 2 and Spoon Bender which collectively have you piercing homing lasers. This is a complete cakewalk to Mom. Challenge 15, "The Slow Roll" starts you with Polyphemus and Cupid's Arrow giving you massive piercing shots that do huge damage. You also start with My Reflection which makes your shots boomerang, limiting your range, but that's not a big problem.

So far I've completed most of the challenges. That's not much to brag about since the ones I haven't done the ones that seems actually awfully hard:

Six - Solar System - In this challenge you can't shoot tears and you begin with four flies orbiting you: two close ones that block shots, one far one that damages enemies on contact and one mid-range one that does more damage than the farther one. You also start with flight. Basically you have to kill everything with those attack flies, and instead of just Mom, you have to make it to Mom's Heart. This, frankly, seems awfully rough, and this seems like a very genuinely hard challenge. Probably my best bet to win it is to get some alternate form of attack, like a brimstone or even an infested baby. My skill at circling around an enemy, staying close and not getting hit just isn't what it would need to be.

Eight - Cat Got Your Tongue - In this challenge you can't shoot tears and you start with Guppy's hairball which is a thing you can kind of swing around with the movement keys to whack enemies. I find this really, really hard to do. Maybe I can get the hang of it eventually, but it feels like I'm playing a different game. Again, I'll probably win this by getting a baby.

I also haven't completed:

Seven - Suicide King - In this challenge you start with Ipecac which changes your shots in a lobbed poison bomb, Mr. Mega which increases your bomb radius and damage, and My Reflection which makes your shots boomerang. Unlike in The Slow Roll, shots boomeranging is a serious issue since your shots can hit you. In this challenge you have to get all the was to Isaac. I'm sure I can win this challenge by just playing well, but I left it to get to others for now.

Seventeen - Waka Waka - In this challenge you start with Anti-Gravity and Strange Attractor. Anti-Gravity causes your tears to hover in place when fired instead of shooting across the screen. After several seconds, or when you let go of the fire button, the tears will move. Strange Attractor draws enemies and items towards your shots, often making enemies move erratically. So when you shoot your tears stay on top of you, and enemies are pulled in. This is a real mess for dealing with some very common enemies, but I don't think it's overall very hard.

Twenty - The Purist - No starting items, no treasure rooms. You have to kill Mom's Heart. I imagine I can get this in a few tries by just getting good drops. The key to this run for me will be getting damage up items either from lucky boss drops, curse rooms, and devil/angel rooms.

A couple of the challenges I have completed involved a decent run of luck and aren't readily repeatable:

Four - Darkness Falls - This one starts you with a lot of damage items and a fear item, so it seems pretty easy, but you have to get to Satan, and I'm terrible at the Satan fight. Anyway, I basically just crushed this one by getting an insane combination of items that let me get unlimited bombs, keys and heart containers, plus getting a lot of tears up items. I took every devil deal there was and still had seven heart containers at the end of the game, and I was just a killing machine with my excessive damage.

Thirteen - The Bean - This is another no tears challenge. This time you start with Pyro, the Bean, the Black Bean, the 9 Volt Battery, and Butt Bombs. This means you have 99 bombs and your bombs damage and stun everything on the screen. On the other hand, your only way of repeatably attack enemies is by using the poison gas from the Bean, and that only recharges every 15 seconds while in a fight, thanks to the 9 Volt Battery. I thought this would be easy but I kept making it to Mom without enough bombs left to win. Waiting for the bean to recharge to get more damage in against Mom is not easy. In my winning run I got the infested baby, giving me a reasonable repeatable damage source and had 70 bombs going onto the final floor. Then the Bible was in a shop there so it didn't even matter. I think to win this challenge I would usually need either a baby or the Bible. Both was silly.

I've got a run of Seventeen - Waka Waka - half complete with the lump of coal which makes tears do more damage the longer they are on screen and combos very well with anti-gravity. Hopefully that gets me a win and I'll move onto Purist, then Suicide King. After that it'll be back to clearing the boss rush with all characters. I'll leave the two hard challenges for later.

Tuesday, 13 January 2015

Socrates Knew But Two Things

Note: This post discusses sexual assault. If you've read this note and want to continue reading, go back, read the headline, and then read the next line as if it followed directly, because it's a real zinger.

That he knew nothing and that Bill Cosby is a rapist.

It's odd to see people come to Bill Cosby's defense in public forums. I can understand it to some extent when it is people who are very close to him personally - people who wrongly assume that they couldn't possibly be friends with a rapist, that they would know somehow. I've said before when discussing intimate partner abuse in relation to Jian Ghomeshi, that we all know abusers and we don't know who the abusers are. I'm fairly sure that rapists are quite a bit less common than intimate partner abusers, but they aren't down to that 1 in 10,000 level that they'd need to get to before you could start comfortably assuming that you may never have really interacted with one.

Here's a great link to what was originally a blog post on "Obsession with Regression", which seems to be a fantastic blog in general. If you want, you can also find a response to objections to the model that were raised in the comments in this post.

The short version is that if you make some reasonable assumptions about how many people commit sexual assault and how often people accuse other people of sexual assault, you can make a model that shows how likely it is that someone committed a sexual assault given that they've been accused by N people. Even when you start with assumptions that make it more likely than not that a person is innocent when N=1, the chance they are innocent drops massively at N=2, and goes to pretty much zero at N=3. The model doesn't give me an accurate value for N=30, but I'm pretty sure it's into the if-this-played-out-on-every-known-planet-in-the-universe-every-day-since-the-beginning-of-time-they-wouldn't-be-innocent-once range.

Of course when you get probabilities like that, you have to think about other things that could be influencing them. What if, for example, a rich and powerful person with an axe to grind against Cosby paid all of these women off?

I'm not going to tell you that scenario is literally, actually impossible. What I am going to say is that if you want to defend Cosby, you are totally backed into a corner and must use that scenario. I said the same thing about Ghomeshi with eight accusers. You need to posit a conspiracy. I went into the model and set the chance of a person who has not committed an assault being accused to an obscene 10% and the probability that the accused was innocent at just five accusers was already down to 20%. At 30 it was going to be back in no-chance range.

The plausibility of such a conspiracy is not something we can build a mathematical model of, but it's a pretty big stretch. Here's a worthwhile question to ponder if you are ever thinking of orchestrating such a conspiracy: Given that you found 30 people who are willing to take money in exchange for leveling false rape accusations, what do you think the odds are that all of these mercenaries are going to say infallibly loyal to you over the next weeks, months or years as this thing plays out? Because if all I know about someone is that they will take money to falsely accuse someone of rape, my confidence in them to stick to their end of a bargain is actually going to be pretty low. Another: What if you ask someone to participate and they say no? What if they tell the media that you asked them to participate as the conspiracy starts to unfold?

I've seen those who know Cosby explicitly play the conspiracy defense, but that's not the favoured defense I see on internet message boards by people who don't know Cosby. Instead what I've been seeing is the assertion that we can't condemn Cosby because we don't have facts.

So here is the best part about having a statistical model to point to: it is a reminder that thirty accusations is fact. There aren't "no facts" there is the fact that thirty women have come forward and accused Cosby of sexually assaulting them.

I think that many of us have been warned about the tendency to overvalue eye-witness evidence of crimes. Bayesian analysis shows us that we should not weight the accuracy of a witness over other probabilities in a case. What got totally lost in my Critical Thinking 101 class, though, is the other side of the coin where we actively discount the value of evidence given by witnesses and victims that are less socially powerful than the person they are giving evidence against.

If Bill Gates were to come forward to talk about being sexually assaulted by Bill Cosby, you can bet we'd all listen. It would be very hard to find anyone saying, "Enh, Bill Gates must just be making it up for attention," or "Someone must have bought him off." That sounds logical, because obviously Bill Gates has no need of attention or money - it is very hard to think of any way someone could motivate him to make that accusation falsely. But this isn't logic based. It would also be hard for someone to say that he must be confused or mistaken, though presumably being ultra-wealthy does not protect you from that.

What statistical models like this should remind us is that we cannot let our biases about people override the fact that their coming forward is evidence in itself. Let's think about people as a system. Let's think about where they would grow tendrils if they were slime mold. Would the slime mold grow that many tendrils to the false-rape-accusation-oatmeal solution?

We should listen to the story of a single woman and give it credence - as much credence as that of a man. We should listen to the story of a single poor person and given it as much credence as that of a rich person. We should do that same for people divided by color, disability, and even mental illness.

But thirty people? There is no credence involved. Thirty people saying that someone sexually assaulted them is better than DNA on a murder weapon and fingerprints on the doorknob. It's better than a video of the crime happening with a high resolution shot of the perpetrator looking right at the camera in good lighting and audio of them repeatedly talking about themselves in the third person. Thirty accusations is better proof than you have of nearly any fact you depend upon in your life.

It is possible to imagine a world in which everything I know to this date is true but Bill Cosby did not commit a sexual assault. Hey, maybe Bill Cosby never committed a sexual assault because Bill Cosby never actually existed! Maybe everything is a lie! Frankly, if you are going to suggest that Bill Cosby is innocent, I think you might as well be suggesting you are a brain in a jar or that Descartes' "demon" has falsified the whole thing for you. It's really pretty much as likely.

Monday, 12 January 2015

Decoding "Pay to Win"

I'm nearly tempted to make a new banner to dub the blog "Humbabella's Contining-from-Ziggynyery." That's probably a fridge too far, but I find myself once again expanding on an idea from a Ziggyny's Game Emporium post, this time on what it means for a game to by "pay to win." In this case Nick himself was posting because his thoughts wouldn't fit as a comment on a Tobold post on the same subject, and I'm basically just following suit.

First of all, regarding Tobold: Tobold gets his analysis wrong. He says that everyone wants someone else to pay for their game, and I just don't think that's true. Path of Exile sells cosmetic items and stash tabs for money. People like that because it means that money doesn't mess with the gameplay. But people pay them money for that stuff, and you cannot acquire that stuff without paying money. No one is playing Path of Exile as a funny hat collector because it is not a game where you can collect funny hats. People are playing Path of Exile as monster-killer-loot-takers and they are buying funny hats because they want to wear funny hats while they do it.

Tobold, probably rightly, points out that funny hat collectors would like to see epic gear in the money shop. That's not so that someone else can pay for them to play the game. It's so that they can pay to play the game. They would buy that gear to help them farm their funny hats. Basically Tobold's analysis is just plain old pants-on-head-silly.

Beyond that, it goes into nonsense-economist thinking. One of the main reasons people pay for games is because they want to pay for them. I gave Path of Exile $20, and do you know what I bought with my tokens? Nothing. I feel bad about expending a temporary resource that I can't regenerate so I decided I'd be happier just not spending them at all. Those people you see with the funny hats in Path of Exile are wearing those hats because they wanted to spend money on the game. Sure, they probably wanted the hats too, but I find the idea that the vast majority wanted $5 worth of a $5 hat a little farcical. If the money wasn't going to support the game, the majority would not have bought it.

So, what's up with "pay to win", or Pay2Win as Tobold helpfully spells it. To me, the problem with discussions of Pay2Win is that it is a pejorative term meant to deride a game, but people who argue that games are Pay2Win pretend it is a factual description so that they can import the derision after making an unrelated case.

Ziggyny's got a good, detailed explanations of how your money can mess with or not mess with his enjoyment of a game. That's really the big point. The basic question of Pay2Win isn't whether you can pay money to buy an advantage in the game or buy a win condition, it's whether you can pay money to mess with other people's game experience.

To borrow Ziggyny's pet battles example, here is why Blizzard shouldn't sell a best pet from the store, and why that would be Pay2Win: It's because everyone would feel like they had to use that pet. The money would be corrupting the game for everyone. It's not just that you feel like you have to pay, it's that there are other ways to play the game that are being shut down by the monetization scheme.

Let me tell you about why I hate Candy Crush. I've actually played a bunch of it, but part of their business model is to put in levels that are terribly designed and heavily chance dependent to get people to spend money to get past them. I'm not a master of Bejeweled by any stretch, but I am a master of analyzing simple systems, and some of those levels are transparently awful. If their monetization scheme was "Our game costs $5" or "Each package of 50 levels costs $1" then their incentive would be to design levels that were challenging and fun to play, and to shy away from levels that were frustrating and mostly futile.

But on the other hand I remember once hearing that the majority of people who had finished Candy Crush paid nothing for it. So is it really a Pay2Win game?

Suppose I Wanna Kill the Kamilia 3 sold an add-on for ten dollars that gave you three hearts instead of one-hit-and-dead. Would that be a Pay2Win game? Even though you would literally be paying to allow yourself to win the game, there would be no sense in deriding the game as Pay2Win. If you want to go race denferok and stinkycheeseone890 to the boss rush then it clearly isn't going to count if you have three hearts. If you put a video of yourself playing it on youtube then everyone will know you are playing with the add-on instead of without it. If you claim to have beaten the game then people will ask if you mean with or without and react accordingly. You literally pay to win but what would be the point in saying it was Pay2Win?

So my point is that "Pay2Win" basically doesn't relate to whether you have to pay money to win the game. At it's most simple, every game you have ever bought has been "pay to win" because you couldn't win unless you bought the game in the first place. Playing is a prerequisite of winning, so pay to play is always pay to win logically.

This is the other way in which Tobold got it wrong. He says there is no real definition of Pay2Win because there is no real definition of winning. I think there is a clear meaning to the expression, it's just that it's not literal. If you are debating about whether a game is "pay to win" and you are caught up on whether you can pay to get a screen that says "You Win" on it, then you probably also think, "Wow, the road was made of moonlight? That's a lot more interesting than all this stuff about the landlord's daughter!"

In my mind, some of the most absolute undeniable pay to win games ever are not Pay2Win at all. Is Vintage Magic a game where you have to pay an obscene sum of money to have a chance at winning? It sure is. But is it Pay2Win in the pejorative sense? Hardly. It's more like you aren't even playing if you don't have the cards - it's like a game that just costs thousands or tens of thousands of dollars to buy.

I think of Hearthstone the same way. It's a pay to play game, but one where there is an optional pay-with-time track. The game even has a matchmaking system that does a fine job of letting you play against people who you have a reasonable chance against for the latter two weeks of any given month. Where Hearthstone becomes Pay2Win is for those who would rather be paying money than time but doesn't have the money available. If the game simply cost $100 then they'd just walk away from it and never play, but because they have the time option they feel they are suffering through a monetization scheme that making their own experience of the game worse.

Basically what makes a game Pay2Win is having a two-tiered gameplay experience. The more expensive experience isn't necessarily the easier game, it is the better game. The reason this is associated with winning is that in PvP the better game is, for most people, going to be the most competitive game you can play. The single player equivalent, though, is Candy Crush, not an easier setting for Kamilia.

Pay2Win means "pay to avoid otherwise unavoidable frustration." What is wrong with it is that it encourages game designers to make games worse to get more money.

Friday, 9 January 2015

Almost Living the Dream

On my most recent run of Binding of Isaac I found a Sun card on the first floor. The Sun heals you to full, reveals the floor map and deals huge damage to all enemies on screen. Obviously I held onto that as I proceeded through the next few floors since I didn't have any occasion to use it in the early game.

On the third floor I came across the Sharp Plug in a shop, which lets you take two full hearts of damage to activate your usable item without any charge. My usable item was the Book of Sin and I thought I was planning on holding onto it so I didn't really think the Sharp Plug was a good investment. The best things that come out of the Book of Sin are grey and black hearts, and spending two for a small chance of getting one is not exactly a good deal.

Then on the fourth floor the treasure room had the Blank Card in it. The Blank Card is a usable item that takes four rooms to recharge that activates the effect of the card you are holding without using the card up.

While paying two hearts to maybe generate one heart seemed like a bad deal, paying two hearts to do 100 damage to everything on the screen and to heal to full seemed like a pretty good thing. I sure wished I had bought that plug.

I can't really blame myself. The number of activated items that I'd really want to pay two hearts to use are... well, it seems like it's just the blank card with a handful of specific cards. Generally if I could get an item that activated to give me two souls hearts I'd be over the moon, so why I would want to give up two hearts to activate an item is a bit beyond me.

Fortunately I got Brimstone, Chocolate Millk and about eight hearts that game, plus the nine-volt battery. A full heal every 3 rooms was good enough to get me my first ??? kill. Now to unlock the Lamb.

Thursday, 8 January 2015

Binding of Isaac Damage - Correction Included

So I had the wrong formula for The Inner Eye and Mutant Spider tear delay, as I suspected. I've updated the spreadsheet so you can see where they properly rank. Inner Eye is still on the weaker side, Mutant Spider is great.

Nick left a helpful comment explaining a few things - including that Judas' Shadow was on his list and I apparently just plain missed it? - and pointing me to a site with better information about items. This allowed me to add Ipecac, Polyphemus and Dr. Fetus to the list. It gave the numbers for Epic Fetus and Proptosis, but I couldn't meaningfully add them because I don't know how Epic Fetus works with fire rate, and Proptosis simply adds between 30% and 100% depending on range. Basically Proptosis is great and Epic Fetus is completely insane.

Ipecac is the new winner at a 314% damage boost vs. no item at all. Now, Ipecac has some very substantial scaling issues because the damage add it gives does not scale and the fire rate reduction makes all other items scale badly. Imagine you did a run where you picked up the the Pentgram, the Sad Onion, and two damage boosting boss items. Normally this would increase your damage per second by 178%. With Ipecac, the total damage would be 534%, only a 38% increase. Boo hoo!

If you have ever picked up Ipecac this shouldn't be surprise. You fire slowly, but you kill the first floor boss in four or five shots.

The Inner Eye definitely does synergize better than other damage items. It actually works poorly with tear increasing items because there is a flat add in the formula, but it's only a few percent. By contrast, it works great once you start getting a few damage items because while damage items apply through a square root sign, the times three multiplier for the inner eye does not. At +1 damage you are pretty much breaking even between the Inner Eye and another +1 damage item, any more than that and the Inner Eye starts looking very good. Since +1 damage items are good anyway - and because getting to +1 damage over the course of a whole run is pretty reliable - I agree that the Inner Eye is a good pickup.

As for Daddy Longlegs, I certainly defend my pick. It does 40 damage and stomps about every 4 seconds. That's basically doubling your initial damage when you pick it up. It doesn't scale with other items, but it's still going to rival good items in end game. Plus the damage is front-loaded, which is a big plus for normal rooms, and just keeps stomping away regardless of your position in the room, which can be a big asset for some bosses and for certain room configurations. I'd always stick with this.

Yesterday I got some good insight into how good PhD was. I didn't actually get PhD in my run, but my pill rotation included health up and luck up, as well as health down which I identified at one heart, resulting in a health up. Over the course of the run I managed to get health up 4 times which obviously crazy and luck up 6 times which resulted in insanity with my Mom's Perfume, keeping most enemies perpetually feared. PhD is a bit of a gamble because you could still get a lousy pool of pills, but then every item is a gamble because you could always just get lousy items for the rest of the game.

Damage aside, my new favourite item is the Book of Sin. I had been playing a lot with Maggie so it never seemed very appealing to trade in my Yum Heart and a heart container for an activated item. Now that I've had some experience using it, it's dramatically increasing my win rate.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Binding of Isaac Damage

Today The Great Ziggyny posted about restarting speedruns of the Binding of Isaac to get good items. I've watched some speedruns myself and saw this behaviour. It makes sense to me - starting with a good item can make a run substantially faster.

Seven character speed runs clock in at about 2 hours. That's 17 minutes per character. If you are targeting 35 of 220 items, as Ziggyny suggests, and each reset takes about 4-5 seconds, then you'd be spending an average of about 30 seconds per run to get a "good" item. The good item only has to increase the speed of your run by around 3% to make that a valuable trade. So resetting definitely seems right.

However, I was curious about how these items that increase damage work. Some items say "Damage Up" some say "All Stats Up" some do other things. I know that the base damage Isaac does with tears is 3.5. If I get a damage up item does that go to 4.5 - a nearly 30% increase?

The Rebirth wiki doesn't have a lot of good information about stats, but the wiki for the original game does. Assuming the same calculations are used in Rebirth, it turns out the answer is no, +1 damage doesn't mean going from 3.5 to 4.5. It means going from 3.5 to 5.2. That might strike you as weird and get you wondering what the damage formula is.

Well, it's 3.5 × (1 + 1.2 * Damage Bonus)0.5. Bet you weren't expecting that! The formula for increasing your shot rate is similarly bizarre. If something gives +1 tears that goes into 16 - 6 × (1 + 1.3 * Tears Bonus)0.5 to determine how many "frames" it takes to shoot. Since the original game was thirty frames per second, you can divide that into 30 to get shots per second. If tears goes negative, though, the formula changes, making negative tears even worse.

Also, when an item says "Damage Up" that sometimes but doesn't always mean +1 damage. It could mean +0.3, or +0.5. "Tears Up" seems to range from 0.16 to 0.7. Then there are items that provide a flat multiplier or otherwise modify damage or tears after that calculation is done.

With formulas, of course, we can make spreadsheets.

Taking a look at that, you'll see that not all items are created equal. The winner is Cricket's Head because, in addition to adding +1 Damage, it multiplies damage by 1.5. 20/20 literally just doubles your damage. The Magic Mushroom gives a much smaller boost to all stats than the halo but, like the Cricket's Head, has a 1.5 multiplier that makes it very good. One item on that list that was not on Ziggyny's list is the Odd Mushroom (thin). This actually reduces your damage, but it dramatically overcompensates with a massive increase to tears and comes in 6th on the overall damage increase. Four of the items on my list are curse room items rather than treasure room items, all of which rank among the more powerful damage increases.

Some of the damage increases are actually quite weak. Iron Bar, Odd Mushroom (large) and Stigmata only give 0.3 damage which only translates to a 17% damage increase. Remember that a 17% increase to damage doesn't mean a 17% faster run. You don't spend your entire game doing damage to enemies with tears. Pisces has a terrible tears increase making it add very little damage. Mutant Spider and The Inner Eye increase the delay between shots so much that the former barely adds to damage and the latter actually decreases it. I put in three lines for Money = Power to show the range of its effect - maximum, minimum and exceedingly reasonable.

The following list of items from Ziggyny's list didn't make it on my spreadsheet because I just didn't have the data to figure out what effect they have on DPS:

Chocolate Milk
Dr. Fetus
Monstro's Lung
The Ludovico Technique

I'm quite certain that almost all of these deserve to be on the list, though. Even though I find Dr. Fetus' damage increase questionable, there is no question it's a huge asset for speedrunning since it allows you to bomb past nearly every room if it suits you to do so. I'm less convinced on PhD, but I have personally found it to be a great item, and depending on your pill pool it can be obscene.

Having played with the Inner Eye I'm not totally convinced that the delay calculation I found on the wiki was correct. It would have me shooting less than once a second and I don't think it was quite that slow. On the other hand, I'm also not convinced that it is very good - the firing rate was quite low.

What about items that don't add to damage or tears but that supply good damage anyway?

I'd suggest that the following items are all probably better than Iron Bar and down from the list, if they don't rival some of the higher items:

???'s Only Friend - A drivable companion similar to the Ludovico Technique, but with a choice of whether to use that or tears, with the possibility of using both when the stars align. I don't know how much damage this actually does, though.

Daddy Longlegs - Again, no information on how much damage this does, but having played with it this would probably be my number one choice of items if I had to pick. This hits your enemies regardless of range and obstacles and will one-shot non bosses pretty much every time. When you think of this as having one or two fewer enemies in every room, you can see how it makes a run much faster and much easier. The damage to bosses also seems awfully high as well.

Guillotine - This, according to the wiki, gives +1 damage and +0.16 tears in addition to the orbital, so that would make it +58% damage and put it high on the list.

Judas' Shadow - Not for me, because I'm bad, but Judas's Shadow has a ×2 damage multiplier. So if you get this and get yourself killed, you do massive damage for the rest of the game.

Then there are items that I'm not really sure about:

Leech - Not a huge amount of damage, but I found this to be a significant damage source for most bosses, and not bad for many enemy types.

Normal Babies - How much damage do these do? I'm not sure I know. I don't think they are very good though.

Tough Love - This item makes you fire teeth instead of tears about 10% of the time. Teeth do triple damage. Now that's not very good, but apparently the chance to fire a tooth goes up by about 10% per point of luck you get, so a couple of luck ups and this item goes from not very good to very good in a hurry. Still, you can't count on luck ups, so while this is potentially powerful, I probably wouldn't keep it.

So, as a proposed revision, I would strike Iron Bar, Mutant Spider, the Inner Eye and Pisces from the list, and add ???'s Only Friend, Daddy Longlegs, Guillotine and Judas' Shadow. I'd keep the large odd mushroom and stigmata because while they are lower on damage they both also provide heart container. Also, as noted, I would only add Judas' Shadow if I was actually good enough to speed run, which I am not, but which people doing speedruns presumably are. And then again, if you aren't good enough to count on winning after intentionally killing yourself to get the damage bonus, then you can probably use the extra life.

The thing about this list is that it's not just for speedruns, though. A typical game of Isaac for me takes over half an hour and I have probably about a 15-20% chance of winning, maybe less now that I've unlocked Sheol and the Cathedral. Maybe I should think about making sure I start with good items before investing that amount of time in getting smashed on the later levels. Really, though, I'd only do that if I was working on specific unlocks. For now I should stick with lousy items and get better at the game.

Tuesday, 6 January 2015

Updated Mystery

Today I made a useful update to my mystery game in the right sidebar. It adds functionality but it will delete your save.

Why did I do that?

Monday, 5 January 2015

The Perfect Imbalance of The Binding of Isaac: Rebirth

Over the last two weeks of 2014 I was horribly ill. I also picked up the Binding of Isaac: Rebirth on the holiday steam sale. It wasn't that much of a discount, but the game isn't that expensive to begin with.

I played a little bit of Isaac before rebirth came out, but not a whole lot. I'm not a huge fan of the graphical style, and I found it kind of monotonous. I don't know how much is the redesign and how much is a change in me, but wow is Rebirth a lot more fun.

I've played 40 some hours of it, though those are erroneously counted because Steam simply counts all hours the game is open. My best win streak is 2, I haven't even unlocked the actual end bosses yet and I haven't played hard mode at all, so it's fair to say that I'm not very good at the game at all. There's a feeling you get when and enemy shoots a shot at you and you just back straight away from it and get hit by it instead of side-stepping. It's the feeling of "I have no business playing this."

But then the extreme power variance of items comes to the rescue. Some items are so powerful individually, or pairs of items are so powerful in combination, that I can parlay my lacklustre abilities into in a win. The first two times I got to Satan I just ran out of steam in his third phase, gradually succumbing to enemies spawning on top of me. The last time I got to Satan I blew through phase three in about 15 seconds thanks to bouncing, homing shots that hit him over and over every time they were fired. My lone winning fight against Isaac so far comes on the back of simply getting damage upgrades on pretty much every floor and Cancer. I blasted him.

I like that the creators weren't afraid to do wacky things even if they resulted in obscenely powerful combinations. While some items give you "plus damage" others radically change the way you play. This is exactly the kind of thing that I talk about when I say people should stop worrying about balance and make games fun. The occasional easy run makes the game more fun for everyone - those who wouldn't be able to win otherwise, and those who win almost every time and deserve a little break now and then. Plus, a person who can win with Maggie regularly might need some help to win with ???. So many settings and so many random events means everyone can find their own level and play at it.