New Year, New Habits

Kithia Verdon:

Ah, January. Lots of folks reject the tradition of “New Year’s Resolutions,” and for good reason: they rarely work. You need to get good at changing up your behavior and forming new habits, to make such things stick. There’s nothing magical about the first of the year on that count!

Being a self-improvement nut, though, I love the practice. Here are things on my mind to shoot for this year.

Big life things:

Live slower. Be more focused, less distracted.
Reduce my debts.
Write more.

Small life things:

Get to bed earlier and wake up earlier, preferably with a net gain of sleepytime between.
Meditate more.
Reduce my backlog of unfinished/unplayed games.
Find some ways to throw out old crap and simplify my environment.

Notably not included:

Lose weight. My low-carb eating habits, though not by any means perfect or rigorous, have fixed this just fine. Since last March when I started, I’ve lost some 15-20 pounds and have kept it off. It even drew comment on my last visit to my doctor!
Exercise more. Would do me some good, I’m sure, but it’s not a priority for me right now.

The temptation I need to stave off is trying too much at once. A more successful strategy would be to focus on one, relatively small change at a time, and really get into it. Luddite Saturdays for my distraction one are a good example. (Progress report on that one: I haven’t done it every Saturday; disruptions to my routine have tended to make me lapse or forget. But I’m enjoying it when I do it, and think it’s doing me some good.) Maybe I’ll try a tiny 15-30 minute nudge of sleep schedule first. If it works out like I hope, it might lead to more writing/meditation/slow-living as a natural effect without much special additional effort on my part!

Unbalanced, Part 3: System Matters

Next in the series of posts about my wacky extreme opinions: is it true that the particular tabletop RPG you’re playing, its rules and setting–the “system”–doesn’t matter with respect to the fun had at the table? There are some who would say indeed not, it’s all about the players, or specifically the person running or teaching the game. This may not be so gonzo as low-carb or no-copyright, but it does get some folks’ backs up, so it fits.

Adulath Caracai:

The Radical Notion

System always matters. Good players or bad, skilled GM or unskilled, the choice of what rules to use shapes the experience of play and has a major effect on the quality of that experience.

Details, and the Usual Objections

People argue over what constitutes a “game,” but this much is true of games if not definitional: they provide a context for understanding words and actions that differs from ordinary life. A hand wave might normally have practical purpose, to draw attention to yourself or something near you, or social purpose, to greet someone. But in the context of a game, that same wave might indicate a catch completed, a point scored, or a penalty incurred. In ordinary conversation, “essence” means a thing’s intangible basic nature, or perhaps a concentrated extract of something. In Exalted or In Nomine, it refers to a sort of energy or fuel for supernatural powers. Rolling a die or drawing cards is meaningless without a game to say that the random result means a critical hit, a bust, or a flush. The game’s rules and objectives (the system, in other words) encourage players to undertake all manner of actions and say different things that would not ordinarily happen, or would happen with different frequency and meaning, in life outside the game.

Games themselves have purposes, too. A sport is undertaken to entertain a crowd, to make money for a league or franchise, and to promote athleticism, tactics, and teamwork via competition. There are games intended to teach skills, promote good habits, or motivate fitness. Among tabletop RPGs, typical purposes include “fun”–the engagement and satisfaction of the players–and the creation of a story with a particular style, feel, or genre.

Put these two concepts together and it’s clear what’s meant to say that a game is well or poorly designed, and from there that system matters to play experience. A game shapes and redefines behavior via its system; a game has purposes; however the game’s system succeeds in achieving its purpose tells us how well designed it is. Exalted, for instance, tends to fail in that its stated purpose of telling stories of mighty heroes and fast-paced action does not match the rules, which tend to instantly kill characters for brief tactical mistakes, and can take tens or scores of minutes to resolve a single character’s combat maneuvers.

As an aside, it’s also been my experience that focused games tend to succeed at their narrow purposes more often than universal or kitchen-sink games succeed at their broad purposes. GURPS tries to represent all genres, and ends up doing disservice to many of them. Meanwhile, Dogs in the Vineyard is built to the narrow story structure of unraveling social ills and pronouncing judgment on their perpetrators, and does that surpassingly well. It’s not exactly a corollary of the above, nor is it universally true, but does go hand in hand with these discussions. It’s an important part of my beliefs on the topic.

At this juncture, the system-doesn’t-matter advocates might say, “That’s all well and good, but it misses what I’m saying. Of course you can have crappily designed games and well designed ones. But the point is that a great GM or players can make even a crappy game work and be fun, and no awesome game design will ever transform a crappy GM or players into awesome ones.”

I concede the above. It’s not necessary to my position that the game system’s design be the only factor in the quality of a session or campaign of it. Rather, it’s that the design always counts for something; it makes a difference for all players, both good and bad. It’s more work for a strong GM to bash out the kinks in a flawed system to get it to her high standards than it would be to run a well designed game purposed to those standards in the first place. And assuming our “crappy” players at least try to follow the rules of their chosen game, they’ll end up with a less crappy experience if they’re using a solid system than if they’re flailing about with a disorganized mess of a design.

The analogy I favor is that game systems are like athletic equipment: say, ice skates. Anyone can have a fun time doofing around on the ice with old, poorly sharpened, low-budget skates. But if you care at all about your speed, ability to turn, balance, and so forth, higher quality skates will help you. The casual skater will fall less and have a more pleasant experience overall; the pro athlete will be better able to reach the pinnacle of their potential. RPG designs are like that. Folks sometimes chafe at the fact that Dungeon World gives the GM lots of instructions on what to do and say in game: “I already do all that! I don’t need rules for it.” But the way it shakes out, new players learn how to run a good game much easier by having that advice, and experienced players still benefit from the reminders and the ways DW applies old best practices to the smooth operation of its own rules.

How I’m Not Really So Out There As All That

You may not be able to convince me that choice of game system doesn’t matter to enjoyment, but I’m not accusing anyone of “BadWrongFun.” At its absolute harshest (a distance I rarely take this to anymore, given my reluctance to get into heated Internet arguments), it’s a means-ends chide: if you care about good play experience/faithful genre emulation/etc., you’re crimping your own style if you choose a poor match of system to those goals. That’s all.

Furthermore, I acknowledge and can totally understand that good match of system to purpose isn’t always someone’s top priority. The classic “my group is familiar with this system, and it’d be a pain in the ass to learn a new one” is an example. Nostalgia is another motivation for choosing a system that might not, objectively speaking, provide as fun a time as something newer and tighter designed. I myself sometimes like to play games that are an unholy mess design-wise, to enjoy a quirky charm that other games don’t supply. Basically, one can set aside the typical purposes of smooth play, enjoyable tactical choices, and the like, prioritizing “the Werewolf: The Apocalypse experience” or “the energy our group has for learning new things” instead, and there’s nothing wrong with that. Just know what you’re getting into! Saying the system straight-up doesn’t matter might be blinding you to the possibility of a much better time.

A Brainstorm on Pricing in the Digital Age

I posted a thought a bit ago on Facebook and Google+, which didn’t at the time feel worthy of a blog post. I’ll reproduce it here, though, since the discussion around it has led in some interesting directions:

I think I’ve put my finger on the core error of thinking when people say it’s not reasonable to price digital media affordably. All this stuff about “blood, sweat, and tears,” “what about my sunk costs,” etc. frames the question of price in terms of what the product is worth to the seller. Of course it’s going to command top dollar in the eyes of the people whose hard work brought the art into the world. But the market doesn’t give a damn what it’s worth to you: it’s the value to the buyer that governs the optimal price. You look at your Great American Novel, and it stings to imagine someone buying it for $2.99 (the top-grossing ebook price point according to the data we have), because all those hours of writing and editing add up to so much more than that for you. And that blinds you to the clear fact that it’s better to make 10,000 sales at $2.99 than it is to make 1000 sales at $10.

Folks responded with a few objections, one of which struck me as particularly apt: the fact that it’s really difficult to gauge what the value to the buyer will be, sight unseen. Wherever you set your price, you’re always going to be left wondering, how many of my paying customers would have been willing to give more, had it been asked of them? And how many customers am I missing out on because the price is higher than they’re willing to pay? We can only set an optimal price if we’re armed with that sort of information, and such counterfactual data is extraordinarily hard to come by.

What if we structured a marketplace with the aim of getting that information to the sellers?

Pay-what-you-want pricing can succeed in the right circumstances. Humble Indie Bundles are a spectacular example, with their clever cocktail of buyer-set prices, bundled product, bonus content for greater contribution, and transparency. Viewed from a certain perspective, sporadic sales and markdowns for products on a platform like Steam end up with a pay-what-you-want feel too. A user puts a desired product on their Wishlist, and when its turn comes up to be marked down 10% or 25% or 75%, the user gets a notification–hey, look at the price now! Is now the right time, has it come down enough for you to buy?

I wonder if we could smash these ideas together somehow. Suppose we had a marketplace where for any item that goes up for sale, users can add it to a wish list, along with their suggestion of a price for it. You could start the process pre-release, even: announce that a product will be available for sale on such and so a date, encourage users to queue it up on their wish lists and say what they’d be willing to pay when it comes out. And all that data feeds back to the seller, with nice graphs: 100 out of 800 interested users say $1.99, 250 say $5, and so forth. The system could algorithmically suggest a sweet spot, which the seller could take, or choose their own price based on their own interpretation of the data.

As the service matures, more and more can be done with it. You’d get the Steam-like notifications of sales, with the additional nudge, well known to sellers of used cars, of “you said you’d be willing to buy at this price, and guess what, it’s now $1 below that!” (I’m sure it wouldn’t be phrased like that. Suffice to say I’m not in sales or marketing myself.) You’d accumulate data on the discrepancies between what people say they’ll pay vs. what they actually spend. You could even aggregate Netflix- or Amazon-like recommendation data back to sellers: “Users who bought similar products tended to pay $4.50 for them.”

I’m sure there are holes in the idea. As postulated, it’s maybe a little too much in the buyer’s best interest to game the system by lowballing, for instance; we’d need to monitor and correct for that. But with work, maybe something like this could help purveyors of digital goods narrow the gap between best-guess and optimal pricing. Hell, maybe this sort of calculation is already going on amid the gears and cogs of Steam…