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December 07, 2009

Frustration in Games

The following ideas are based on an innocent article I read years ago, but which has been stuck in my head ever since. I will be talking about games, and when I say "game", I'm referring to word as it is used in common speech. It can be solitary or involving several players; it can be a board game, a video game, a verbal game, and so on; but it must be something we play for fun, not for personal profit.

What makes a game a good game? Which aspect do all fun games have in common? What force drives our attention to the game, and keeps us motivated, addicted? I am not trying to give explanations as to why we have personal preferences, rather I want to make a conjecture about why the popular games have become so, and why many other potential ideas for games, while technically "games", would never be considered fun. So, in general, why do we like the games we play?

The answer, when you think about it, is less obvious than it would seem. Let's review some possibilities. Is it the chance that we might win, that motivates us? Partly, but consider a game where you win with absolute certainty. Surely such a game presents no interest whatsoever! The possibility of winning is naturally a crucial element in any good game, but the ability to win is, in itself, not what makes a good game. Is it the social aspect, then, the fact that it is a peaceful and relaxing way of interacting with other people? That, again, is a common trait in many games, but games like Sudoku, Crosswords or Minesweeper are also found amusing by many, and those games involve no human contact. The simple observation that it makes us forget the worries associated to our daily lives? This may very well explain why we play games in the first place, but not why certain games are generally found fun, while others have never seen the day of light.

My claim is that what keeps us attracted to certain games, is the element of frustration.

It may sound contradictory at first, but think about it. In almost every game, there is a rule which restricts you moves, blocks your play, or limits your abilities in some other way. Consider for example chess -- I will use chess as a recurring example throughout the post. Already, most of your pieces cannot move in any way they like, and to complicate things further, your most powerful pieces are initially stuck behind a row of slowly-moving pawns. The same kind of restrictive rules seem to apply to most other games I can think of: in Risk you lose men quickly, but regain them very slowly; in SET, the cards have to match in a very specific way; in Minesweeper you are only given partial information about the grid; in the well-known online Helicopter Game, green blocks constantly obstruct your way. All this contributes to the element of frustration, the feeling the game will not allow you to have things your way. And this might well be the secret little ingredient that will make you come back for more.

Now, some may argue that such restrictions are necessary, in order to make it non-trivial to win the game. But while this is true to some extent for single-player games, it does not hold when two or more people are playing against each other. Imagine a hypothetical variant of chess, in which most (if not every) piece would be allowed to move and capture like a queen. This is an "improvement" from standard chess, a removal of restrictions, but both players should still find it difficult to win, as both players will be following the new rules and thus none of the the two should have an advantage over the other. Likewise, in any other multi-player game, removal of restrictive rules should not necessarily facilitate a win. But still, what we see is that all but every multi-player game has rules that cause frustration of some kind. Not just irritation at the other players' behaviour, but also annoyance at the difficult position in which the rules themselves have put you. Who hasn't been frustrated because they were stuck in a puzzle game, or moaned at the lack of cards in your hand during a card game, or cursed at the sharp turns of a high-speed racing game -- and yet, kept playing? Regardless of what your favourite game is, chances are it has frequently caused you to feel angered, or at least slightly annoyed.

For every game there is, it is possibly to think of a less frustrating version of the same game. And still, the final product turned out to be what it is. For some reason, this unforgiving aspect of the rules makes a game more interesting, and the games with innocent and non-irritating rules, like War or Rock-Paper-Scissors, bore us quickly. There must, of course be a reason for this, and although I'm no psychologist, I think it;s safe to say that it is linked to the pleasure gained from overcoming a problem. If the game is harsh on you, you may feel a certain sense of achievement after winning, whereas if the game doesn't In a game involving multiple players there will of course always be the pleasure of having beaten the others, but an extra reward is offered for enduring, and beating, the game itself.

A final note: I'm not saying here that the more frustrating a game is, the better it is. What I mean to say, in a nutshell, is that every good game needs a certain degree of frustration incorporated in the rules. The art of making games, is finding this correct balance.

October 18, 2009

Minesweeper Tutorial

Hello, and welcome to Virgin Media. So that we can help you faster, please enter your phone number, including the area code.

We’re having trouble with our Internet at the moment. It was finally set up on Tuesday, but no later than Wednesday evening did it stop working. We had already had trouble before the setup, so I’ve spent a painful amount of time on the phone with them. Or rather, waiting for them to pick up. I made the mistake of entering a mobile phone number instead of the newly installed landline, causing me to wait for at least quarter of an hour every time I had an inquiry. So I’ve had my fair share of repetitive pop songs they play for you to “ease the pain of waiting”. As if it wasn’t bad enough.

The question is, what do you do when you have an indefinite amount of time to kill, and you only have one hand available? I think we can all agree that sitting down and staring into space while waiting, is not a good option. Some people I know would set the phone on Hands-free, put it down, and start doing something else that they were going to do anyway. I personally find that I can’t properly get started with any other the task if I have to be constantly aware of any changes to the sound coming from the phone, knowing that at any time I may have to drop everything I have in my hands, get quickly back to the phone and start talking. I need something that doesn’t require a lot of commitment, and that I can do while holding the phone close to my ear.

Which is where Minesweeper comes into play.

Quick recap for those who have forgotten what Minesweeper is, or – God forbid – have never heard of or played it. Minesweeper originally appeared on Windows 95, and has to my knowledge been on all Windows operating systems ever since (just like MS-Paint). The rules are straightforward: a certain number of mines are hidden at random on a grid; if you click on a mine the game is over; if you click on a square that’s not a mine, a number will appear on that square, telling you how many mines in total are in the 8 surrounding squares. The goal is to clear the grid of mines by locating all mines. It is possible to guess your way through a grid, but the beauty of Minesweeper is that a grid can almost always be solved through logical reasoning alone (except of course for the very first click(s)). There is no time limit, but a clock in the upper right corner keeps track of long the grid is taking you to solve, for record purposes.

The game satisfies 3 criteria that I like about a game:

  • The rules and controls are simple. The above paragraph should be enough to make anyone understand how the game works, and even without being informed of the rules one can easily deduce them by trial and error. The game is technically a one-button game, since it enough to left-click on all the non-mines to complete a grid.
  • The game itself is very complex. The number of different grids possible is mind-boggling, so the chances of getting the same grid twice is, for all intents and purposes, zero (Mathematically it isn’t, but it’s damn close). Even for experienced players, a certain amount of brain-power is required, as the positions of the mines are not always obvious from the numbers displayed on the grid. Also, the player may regularly discover new tricks and patterns to increase his/her speed, so it’s a game that can take years to fully master.
  • It’s fun and addictive. Once you get the hang of it, solving a grid provides you with both entertainment and a sense of accomplishment. It takes no more than a second to start a new game, so if you hit a mine, there’s nothing to stop you from trying again (I think this aspect is partly what made the Thopter game so popular). Likewise when you have completed a grid, it’s often tempting to start a new one because you feel you’re on a roll. Furthermore, the record times stored on the computer are taunting, daring you to prove that it is possible to complete a grid even faster.

Another positive aspect of Minesweeper is that it is playable with a single hand and can be stopped at any time, making it the ideal game for those moments spent waiting on the phone.

What I don’t understand, however, is how little credit the game has been given. It seems to me that more people are playing Solitaire than Minesweeper, for example. Everyone knows Minesweeper, but very few actually play it. You may say that this is because it is a puzzle game, and people want something less abstract and more skill/reflex based. I will give a one-word answer: Sudoku. Sudoku has had a massive success even though it is an abstract, solitary puzzle game involving numbers. It has simple rules but complex dynamics. There is absolutely no reason Minesweeper should be branded “inherently unpopular”, when a game like Sudoku can achieve mainstream popularity. All that would be needed is that people give a try. Incidentally I also think that, just like Sudoku and crosswords, Minesweeper could help prevent age-related syndromes, such as Alzheimer’s or Dementia.

So, as an introduction to the this neat little game, here’s a step-by-step breakdown of a beginner’s grid being solved. (NB: If you’re using Vista, the layout will look different. I’m using Minesweeper X, a freely downloadable version which preserves the graphics I’m used to, and which doesn’t interrupt you at the end of each game, like Vista does.)

Minesweeper - 1

People have a general tendency to start in the corners. But there’s really no point in wasting time finding and clicking on all four corners. Go for some random points in the middle and stop when you hit something good. If you hit a mine, there’s no shame in starting again.

We hit a blank space! Blank spaces are equivalent to 0’s, and when you click them the game automatically clears the surrounding squares for you. These in turn may be blank spaces, so their surroundings are also cleared, and we get a “chain reaction” as above.


It is clear that there must be a mine in the hole on the left. Also, the ‘1’ with the red circle in the first diagram has only one available space left, so its mine must be there. The same thing applies to the circled ‘1’s in the second diagram. (A red circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares must be mines)

Minesweeper 3

Left diagram: The ‘1’ with the green circle already has 1 mine in its surroundings, so we can safely click where the arrow is pointing. Likewise, the ‘2’ at the bottom already has 2 mines, so the two remaining squares in its surroundings are also “safe”. (A green circle will signal that all the remaining surrounding squares are safe)

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already has a mine at it left, so we can click on the square to its right. We get a blank space and several new numbers appear. The top-green-circle-1 also has a mine, so the three squares on its right side are all safe. We now have a ‘1’ (red circle) with only 1 space left for a mine, so we can mark that one. Finally, we also see that there must be a mine in the top left corner.

Minesweeper 4

Left diagram: The red-circle-3 has three spaces left, so those must be the locations of its mines. The green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so the square to its right is safe.

Right diagram: The bottom-green-circle-1 already touches a mine, so we can click the square above it. We get another ‘1’, so we do the same thing.

Minesweeper 5

Left diagram: The red-circle-2 allows us to place a second mine above it. Thanks to this, the green-circle-2 now has 2 mines, so we find another safe square.

Right diagram: The green-circle 2 cannot have any more mines in its surroundings, so we click above it… And voila! Grid completed!

Go ahead, try one for yourself. Don’t worry if it takes you a lot of time in the beginning, you will find that you quickly improve. If you are frustrated by Windows Vista's strange sking and its constant interruptions when you just want to start a new game, I recommend downloading Minesweeper X. For the ones too lazy to do any work by themselves, click here for a video of me completing a grid on Intermediate.

June 16, 2009

Review: WipeOut Pulse

Game front cover
Wipeout Pulse (PSP)
Not rated

Exams are over, and I'm back again. And this time, I'll attempt to write about WipeOut Pulse for the PSP - my second review on this blog and my first game review ever. The reason I've chosen WipeOut Pulse is because I have had so much fun with it that I thought I'd share my enthusiasm for this game. This post may end up containing a lot more praise than criticism, but I'll try to be as objective as possible.

WipeOut Pulse is a futuristic racing game, similar to the F-Zero and Extreme-G series. It is the 8th game in the WipeOut series. The player pilots some kind of hovering vehicle that can attain speeds above 1000 km/h, and whose instantaneous acceleration would in theory crush the bones of any human pilot. Courses are filled with turbo pads which boost your speed, and pads which give you an item at random (boost, shield, missile, mines, etc.), Maro Kart style. These can either be used on the opponents, or absorbed to partly refill your energy. The goal is then (usually) to come in first without destroying your ship.

Most of the game takes place in the Race Campaign, which consists of a total of 16 grids (most of them locked), each containing between 8 and 16 "challenges". To every challenge corresponds one of the 24 tracks, one of the four speed classes (which determine speed and number of laps), and one racing mode. I shall briefly describe each of these modes.

* Single Race:

Normal race against 7 opponents, get in first without destroying your ship. In the higher speed classes, part of the challenge is simply to manage to complete all the laps without destroying your ship by continously crashing into the sides. Gold medal for 1st, silver for 2nd, bronze for 3rd.

* Time trial:

No opponents, just yourself trying to beat the time set by the game. No item pads, but one booster granted every lap. Good way to get to know the course.

* Speed lap:

No opponents, no item pads, 7 laps in total. One booster per lap. The goal is to complete a lap as fast as possible. The better the time, the better the medal.

* Zone:

No opponents, no item pads. This one is fun. You start out quite slowly, but as you progress your speed gradually increases, and there is no way of slowing down... suddenly, turbo pads become something you want to avoid. The goal is to complete as many "zones" (about 1/5 of a lap) as possible, before your ship is destroyed. The speeds that can be attained in this challenge are breathtaking.

* Eliminator:

7 opponents, infinite laps. The goal here is to get rid of your enemies. Every time a ship is destroyed (including your own), it is almost immediately respawned, and the challenge continues. The goal is to destroy ten ships before an opponent does. This drastically changes racing behaviour, as there is no longer any incentive to being in first place. I read someone complaining that the outcome of this kind of challenge was almost uniquely determined by chance, something with which I couldn't agree less. Eliminator is the most strategic of the challenges, and with some practise and skill it is possible to ensure a win most times.

* Head to Head:

Race against one opponent, basically. The only reason this mode has been included, I believe, is so that two online players can have a match against each other. In Race Campaign, Head to Head's are ridiculously easy.

Together, these modes form the bulk of the game. If you can't find the specific challenge you're looking for in Race Campaign, you can also just start a custom race. In a way, this may sounds like a standard racing game, but then again, WipeOut Pulse doesn't claim to be anything else. What makes it nevertheless a stunning game are things like the graphics, and the general appearance of the levels. One course zig-zags through a dense Japanese metropolitan area, another one smoothly curves through a tropical island in the Carribean, and yet another is located around a communications hub in northern Finland. They are a delight to look at, and there is something relaxing about racing through them in my opinion. On top of this, the diversity of the weapons adds a lot of dimension to the game, as the timing of your shots can be crucial to your victory, and the constant dilemma of either using the weapon or absorbing it tests your ability to make quick decisions. 

WipeOut Pulse allows you to upload your own music onto the game, and listen to it while racing the tracks. I haven't, however, felt the slightest need to do this, since the default music fits the game perfectly. I'm not a big techno fan, but I've realised that when piloting a ship through the giant stadium of the Amphiseum at 700 km/h while dodging shurikens, nothing is more appropriate.

The difficulty curve is about right. I was going to complain that it was a little on the 'too easy' side, but then I saw that Gamespot had put "Very punishing difficulty at the later stages" as one of the game's bad points. Maybe if I put AI difficulty on something other than 'Easy' I'd agree, but given that you have the choice between 'Easy', 'Medium' and 'Hard' for every race, I don't believe there's an issue here.

Which brings us to one point that I do find a bit frustrating: the opponents aren't human enough. In particular, it seems impossible for them to bump into walls. Granted, they take the turns a lot slower than a human player would, but seeing an opponent activate a turbo in the middle of the most twisted passage of the entire course and still get away with it, never fails to make me wince. Likewise, there are places in the later courses where the AI inevitable gets an edge every lap, simply because it is not humanly possible to make such sharp turns without almost coming to a halt or thrashing into a wall. The 'Autopilot' item gives some insight into how the AI gets through the U-turns without stopping.

That being said, the AI is still a worthy opponent, about as difficult as an actual human player. Also, online racing against actual human players is also possible, although I haven't tried this feature yet, partly because Warwick University doesn't support WiFi, partly because I'm not much of an online gamer.

All in all, I find WipeOut Pulse to be really enjoyable, not because it's a creative masterpiece (indeed, the concept in itself is nothing new), but rather because it is an extremely immersive game with surprising grahics for a handheld console game. Additionally, it is delightfully easy to just turn on the PSP and start racing within less than a minute. It isn't a deep game, but it's a good way to have fun and to relax. Well, maybe "relax" isn't the word - I did once fling the PSP at the floor in frustration after the n-th unsuccesful attempt at finishing Platinum Rush in Phantom Speed Class without wrecking my ship - but it will do for now. Needless to say, players looking for a realistic racing game are not going to find it in WipeOut Pulse, but for PSP owners who enjoy this futuristic racing genre, this game is definitely worth it.

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