Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Pandemic Legacy Disease Backstories

I was originally thinking about telling the story of each of our games of Pandemic Legacy, but I don't have the skill or the attention span to see that through. So I think this will be the only post.

Sarah and I started playing the board game Pandemic Legacy recently. It takes the game of Pandemic where you work as a team of doctors and researchers trying to cure the world of four diseases and turns it into a multi-game campaign where events that transpire in one game will affect what happens in the sebsequent game. You rip up cards, place stickers on the board, and open up secret compartments as the games go on.

One of the cool things that the game asks you to do is to take a pen and write the name of each disease on the board. After careful consideration, these were the names we picked. I also came up with a bit of backstory for each of them.

"Robo Fever" (Red)
"Robo fever" is the nickname for a new disease that has sprung up in east Asia after cybernetic implants became commonplace in the region for practical reason and fashion reasons. It is currently suspected that the bacteria feed off of the synthetic compounds in the implants but require the acidic environment of the human gut to reproduce. Technically the name "Robo Fever" is a misnomer since those affected should be classified as cyborgs at most and not as robots. While the CDC isn't particularly concerned about the effect this will have on those with vanity implants/enhancements, there is significant concern for the effect this disease will have on those with medical implants and prosthetics.

Affluenza (Blue)
It doesn't always pay to be an early adopter. Although this flu variety has since made it to the general population, it started showing up among wealthy people and tech workers in San Francisco. Investigations have tied it back to early adopters of the Ploylent Meal Substitute that went on market several months ago. It's hypothesized that someone at Ploylent's manufacturer had a mutated form of the flu and got it in the supply. The innovative packaging meant to preserve the substitute during transport also managed to keep the flu alive during transport.

Although it's different from typical flu varieties, existing flu research has greatly aided in finding a vaccine and effective treatments.

Gakarrhea (Yellow)
This disease causes frequent, diarrhea-like bowel movements. It earned its name because the consistency of those bowel movements was "slimy" and green and resembled Nickelodeon's "Gak" from the 90s. Although diarrhea is symptom and not a disease, the name Gakarrhea has stuck since it's a trademark sign of this particular disease and came about before the disease had been isolated and understood.

"Pluto Pox" (Black)
The world was rocked when a nuclear explosion detonated in Afghanistan that appeared to target a terrorist stronghold in the area. Naturally, America was blamed for the attack. America disavowed involvement in the attack and cast suspicion on Russia. After the explosion a new disease showed up in the area, which wasn't similar to anything seen in the aftermath of a previous nuclear bombing. It's marked by pockmarks that always appear in pairs, resembling Pluto and its moon Charon. Researchers believe that the radiation from the blast mutated some pre-existing disease and are currently hoping that will help them develop a cure.

Some of those afflicted with the disease believe that it has made them immune to the effects of the radiation and are attempting to settle in regions that are still considered dangerous. Research has not backed up this claim.

Monday, February 2, 2015

Pandemic: The Cure - standard deviation and probability

Initial setup
Recently we have been playing Pandemic: The Cure. The goal of the game is (loosely) to cure all the diseases. Each player has a certain number of dice that they roll on their turn (5 for most players, 7 if you're the Generalist) that give them their possible actions for the turn. One of the actions lets you use one of your die to "bottle up" a disease die and at the end of your turn you roll your bottled up disease dice and if the total amount rolled on the dice for a particular color of disease is greater than 13, then you have cured that disease.

Bottling up the diseases is great because it removes that disease die from play and helps you discover the cure, but until you discover the cure that die of yours you used to "bottle" it up is locked up and you can't use it, meaning you'll have fewer possible actions on your turn, making you less effective until the cure is discovered.

Disease Dice
Each color of disease die has different face values from the other colors'. Each one has a "Cross" face (value 0) and 5 other values. The average value of the faces on each die is 3 but since the values are different the standard deviations of the values on the dice are different. The values on the faces of the dice are as follows.

Std Dev1.6722.532.68

So in terms of trying to cure the diseases, the likelihood that the total of the values across all the dice you roll of a color will meet the required sum is different. Below is a table of probabilities of curing the disease with various numbers of a color of dice. The amount needed to cure a disease is normally 13, but sometimes can be 11.

# Dice11+13+11+P13+11+13+11+13+

You'll see that for certain numbers of dice and goal numbers to reach, the probability of curing the disease can be quite different. For example, with 3 dice and a goal of 13 the probabilities range from 7.41% to 23.15%. Most differences are <10%, but that can be a fairly significant difference.

You'll see that no die is universally easier or harder to find cures with. Getting 13+ is only really possible once you have 4 dice. A goal of 11 isn't very likely until you have at least 3 dice, and even then the odds are very bad. It's very hard for a single character other than maybe the generalist to amass 4 or more dice by themselves. After you have 3 dice bottled up you only have two dice left. So getting the 1 in 6 result of being able to bottle up on your dice when you only have two dice is fairly unlikely. The game allows you to trade your bottled up dice to another player if you're on the same square. This probability table tells me that that's a very important part of the game.

Advanced discussion:
In the above two tables, I ordered the dice colors by their standard deviations, lower on the left and higher on the right. One thing you might notice is that for 3 dice, the higher variance dice (aka higher standard deviation) have a higher probability of success. You'll notice that for higher numbers of dice, the colors with a lower standard deviation tend to have a higher chance of success.

When you have 3 dice, the average value of the sum is 9 (because the average for any given die is 3). Nine is insufficient for either goal so results near the average are bad. So you want a result that's far from the average, meaning you want a higher standard deviation. When you're at 5+ dice, the average result, 15, is above the goal so lower standard deviations are better.

When average is bad and you want that extreme result, you'll do better with a higher standard deviation. When the average is good and you don't need an extreme result, you'll do better with a lower standard deviation.

Player Dice, showing all faces
Epidemic Roll Change
Another place where probability plays a big role (roll?) is with epidemics. Each character die has one face which, when rolled, will advance the epidemic track. The generalist, with their seven dice instead of the normal 5, stands a much greater chance of rolling these values on their turn. To balance this, the generalist is allowed to ignore the effect of the first epidemic they roll each turn. This has a huge effect, and it makes the generalist have an overall lower change of advancing the epidemic track than other characters. Below is a table of probabilities for how far each character will advance the epidemic track on their initial roll of dice (with full dice i.e. no dice locked up from bottling up diseases).


The other advantage of being the generalist is that when you have no epidemics on your initial roll (28% of the time w/ 7 dice, higher w/ fewer) you can freely reroll dice to try and get a better result w/ no fear of the consequences of rolling an epidemic.

Wednesday, January 7, 2015

The Core Loop vs The Revenue Funnel

Here are some thoughts I had the other day about F2P game design as "loops" versus the common analytical tool of a "funnel" and how the design goals of these games collide against the business decision of being F2P. For more ideas of what a "core loop" is, a Google Image search will give you lots of examples.

Mike Sacco coined a nice term for this combination

Sunday, January 4, 2015

I kinda work in the games industry

This post is sort of a combination of a lot of things that have been bouncing around in my head for a while.

I kinda work in the games industry. It's weird. The company I work for definitely makes games. We released several this year. But we make F2P/social games so I feel completely disconnected from the types of games that I like to play. A lot of my coworkers aren't really gamers. We don't really talk about games at lunch or when we talk about our weekends.

I don't know if working at other F2P/social game developers feels like this.

Gaming news sites don't write about our types of games, except for the rare one that penetrates into the public eye: Candy Crash, Clash of Clans, Kim Kardashian: Hollywood, Farmville, Words with Friends.

I play all of our games, at least to try them out. I've really enjoyed several of them. I'm even spent money in a couple of them with no regrets. These are definitely games, but they're different. They're not a subtype of "traditional" but more like a newly discovered relative. 

When G****gate flared up, nobody wanted us to take a stand. Nobody at work even talked about it. Only one person who I talked to about it had even heard of it.

Granted, we aren't really part of gaming culture. We're part of startup/tech culture. That's where we're located; that's who we recruit from; it's where people leave us to go. Our products live on the same platforms. We do the same analyses. By the same token the core group that influence the direction our games go, product managers (not designers), tend to come not from game design backgrounds, but business and finance. They come up with the features that go into the game and define how they should work. But they've never designed games before, never studied it at all.

We make games, but we aren't much of a gaming company.

Businesses include "goodwill" on their balance sheet sometimes. This reflects that there's more to a business than just their asset. That a brand has value. That's because a brand name can be exploited for monetary gains. Designing F2P games feels like managing "goodwill" at a personal level. Endear the player to the game enough that when the moment of pinch occurs (when the player's assets are not enough to overcome whatever challenge they face) that they will be sufficiently invested in the game to justify spending money on the game. Nobody likes spending money at these moments but, if you play it right, they will.

It's psychological manipulation as a business model. These aren't objects of art, dealing out enriching experiences. They can be fun but they aren't what I want to make.

When GDC rolls around, despite it being nearby I feel no compulsion to go. The talks there aren't for our games. They particularly aren't for me. My job isn't really one that exists in traditional gaming. I'm a data analyst. I don't design or code. I pull data from our databases to make sure the game is performing well and to investigate our user behavior. There's little need for my job when game development means putting a game out there and then mostly moving onto the next one. Our games live for a long time, we need to know how they're doing so we can make changes to make them better. To get more installs. To get more money from our players. I do good work. I'm always trying to figure out how to write better SQL, how to make better, more informative reports, how to make more productive insights. I'm proud of my work.

I've been thinking a lot about the upcoming year and I don't want to live in the Bay Area anymore. I like working where I do. I love working with the people I do. I love doing my work. If I could do my job but live anywhere I wanted to, I would in a heartbeat. I don't know where I would choose to move though. The Bay Area is just too big for our tastes, and it just doesn't work. We have to live too far away from where we work and still end up paying too much in rent to be able to save enough money to buy a house someday. And rent prices seems to be going up too fast for raises/promotions to make much of a difference.

But the one big goal for 2015 is to get the heck out of here. Whatever that takes. It's not somewhere practical to live the for a long time so we may as well get out of here now.