Archive for August, 2016

A Softer Place

August 21, 2016

Lira was born on a planet called Volcan IX, a harsh world, of magma and roiling lava. Rock turned to lava, then geysers of superheated water would wash over and return it to stone. Everything was always moving, always changing on Volcan IX. Lira was a pokemon, and a fire pokemon at that, so the environment was tolerable for her at least, but the steam was still dangerous, and the other larger pokemon were always to be feared. At all times Lira had to be alert for Charizard or Magmar, two of the most fierce and dangerous pokemon on the planet. While she had many siblings, she was never very close to any of them, for you never knew when they might get eaten, or killed by geysers, or disappeared by the strange black ships and their strange suited passengers. Early in her life, Lira’s twin, her brother who had hatched at the same time as her was snatched away by a swooping Charizard. Lira could never again bring herself to care for any of her other siblings.

Lira did what she could, mostly focusing on survival over all other concerns. She was a hearty pokemon, given to surviving what would destroy others. While others tried to win through superior power, Lira did her best to survive, to endure. It kept her alive, still moving when others might have been destroyed. Day to day, Lira ate, she hid, she trained, and she slept. There was nothing else for her, the will to live being her only driving force. Into this world stepped Kevin.

When Lira first met Kevin, she did not know his name. Nor did she know what a human was or really anything about them. She had known of the black ships that took pokemon away, but they were rare, a thing of legends and stories. When she was creeping across a lava pond and suddenly one of those same black ships crashed into the stone ground on the other side, she was stunned. She did not know how to react. She tried to hide, to avoid being seen, but out of the ship came several strange shapes, like yellow blobs with one great black eye and four limbs. One of the blobs pointed her way, and she knew she had been seen. She prepared herself, thinking that they would attack. Instead, they fired a strange cannon at her, and the thing that struck her didn’t even sting. A moment later however, everything changed. Her body, that which she had forged into a living wall seemed to vanish, transforming into red light. The world too disappeared, everything being consumed by this blue and white sphere that had stuck her. She was pulled inside, her shape reforming in a strange void. She tried to escape, ramming her body this way and that, but the void absorbed this force, and everything was too strange. She imagined that this was like what her brother had experienced, consumed by a Charizard. She accepted it, giving up. It was too hard to do otherwise. A crack of light, one that led to the outside world closed, and their was darkness in the void. Lira cried, and then she slept.

When Lira awoke, she was no longer in the void. She was in a place unlike anything she had every experienced, a soft place. Their was soft food in front of her, soft cushions upon which to sit or lay, even the floor itself had a bit of give to it. She still appeared to be trapped, but the place was nice, kind in a way that Lira had never experienced. She ate the food, and rested on the cushions, and moved across the ground. For the first time in her life, Lira relaxed, if only for a moment. Into this place of peace and tranquility stepped Kevin.

It was hard at first, trusting Kevin. He came in, a big guy, a human, which was something that Lira had never seen, only heard of as the enemy. When first he came, Lira attacked, burning him. He left. Then he came back and she hit him with some rocks. He was injured, bleeding, but he did not retreat this time. Neither did he attack however. He stood there, arms out wide, a look of serenity on his face. His face was bleeding from the rock attack. Lira shot some fire, and he grimaced, but he did not run, and he did not break his kind smile. Lira stopped attacking, and Kevin gave her some food. He put it down in front of her, then sat down against the wall, and just watched her as she ate it. She eyed him cautiously, but day after day Kevin was always kind, always there for her, giving her food, never attacking, never showing fear.

After some time she allowed Kevin to approach her, and the young man petted her bumpy head. It felt nice. His had was burned and red when he drew it away, but it didn’t keep him from breaking into a big smile, happy that Lira had trusted him enough to let him get this close.

Now it was not in this single moment that Lira began to love and respect Kevin. It was a slow process, with a hundred little moments just like that. Kevin started taking her out, showing her around. He would show off his new uniforms to her, teach her about his organization. Eventually he even showed her the pokeball he had used to capture her, teaching her not to fear the void, but always careful to stress that they were comrades now, and that he would never force her inside unless it was truly important. She was going to be his friend and help him fight evil, help bring the food and the soft places and the quite orderliness of this place she had come to call home to the cosmos.

Perhaps there would have to be violence at first, just like her capture on Volcan IX, but in the end it had been for the best. She and Kevin would be instruments of that violence, violence for the purposes of peace, forcing people and pokemon who did not know better to fall in line and become part of the imperium that they might be thus improved. There was never a moment where Lira decided this was her dream, but as time passed and she and Kevin became closer, she adopted it, coming to see the beauty and power of this place that Kevin worked for.

After a long time of working and training again, Lira was asked if she wanted to commit to this life, to be a member of the Imperium and help Kevin and his comrades as an official soldier. Thinking of all that Kevin had done from her, thinking of the horrible place she had managed to leave, all thanks to Kevin, she accepted. She would be his shield, a knight that would lead the people to peace and safety, even if she had to drag them a bit.

On their first mission together they attacked a mixed world of pokemon and humans. The battles were intense and quick, Kevin in the thick of things. They were in the first wave of attackers and many around them began to fall before the defenders electric attacks and strange weapons of light. It was in this carnage that Lira evolved, adding a rocky exterior to her fiery exterior, becoming even more a defender of justice. She and Kevin made it through, and as they left the planet, all of the pokemon and humans defeated being led away to the holding cells, she thought about all the good she had done. She saw the same fear and resignation in the defeated as she herself had had, but she knew what there future held, she knew of the soft places that these prisoners would be taken to. She was proud. After this mission, she and Kevin were promoted. Their defensive abilities had been recognized on the battlefield, so they were assigned to be guards, defending the criminals and miscreants of a great new battleship on another mission of liberation.

It was certainly less exciting on guard duty, but Lira was happy all the same. She listened to the reports stream in of them successfully overpowering the enemies only real space vessel, sending down waves of landing pods. Suddenly however, something crazy happened. There was a strange message telling everyone to head to an escape pod, something that Kevin considered, but ultimately rejected due to his duty. Then a bit later it was discovered that that had been enemy propaganda, that some suicidal hostiles had decided to attack the capitol ship itself, apparently in miniscule numbers. Somehow they were enough of a threat that the whole ship was on high alert however. Lira imagined how terrifyingly powerful these foes must be if just a handful was keeping the whole ship on alert. She imagined Charizards, and other terrifying pokemon she had seen later in her life, like Salamence or Tyranitar. The folks on the other half of the ship must be dealing with true titans.

Interrupting this reverie another alarm sounded. There were attackers close by. Either the intruders had managed to traverse the whole ship unnoticed, which seemed unlikely, or their were multiple groups. Perhaps there was a whole bunch of little ships filled with terrifying trainers and pokemon. She imagined them destroying the soft room, returning the ship to magma and steam, a state of chaos. A fierce anger built in Lira, and she almost hoped she would get a chance to do battle with these bringers of chaos. She got her wish.

She had been resting in her pokeball, Kevin on duty, doing some kinda work on his terminal, when suddenly she was in the thick of things. She saw a fiery burning creature striking at Kevin. There too was a twisted creature that seemed half human and half machine. Seeing the wounds inflicted on her trainer, the rage built within her, and she began hurling rocks at the fiery creature. It was a frantic battle. Kevin fell under the blows and burns of the enemy. The enemy called in reinforcements. Another human, this one not machine, but seeming to tall and thin to be normal appeared, as well as a great bat. In addition a ghost of purple came along as well.

All of them together battled Lira, and Lira held. Attack after attack was launched, but again and again the damage was avoided or the attack dodged. The bat launched noises that confused her, distorting reality. In this state the fire creature struck again and again, and the ghost seemed to be doing something truly terrifying, something that cut through all of her well honed defenses. Through it all Lira endured. She struck again and again, hurling stone after stone from within her body out at her attackers, but they too seemed never to fall. The cyborg creature was doing something with Kevin. It was moving him around, lying against his body and manipulating his limbs. It was trying to use the pokeball, the symbol of Lira and Kevin’s bond against her, trying to prevent her from protecting Kevin. Even in all the confusion, even as she struck herself, and could not tell up from down, she resisted. For Kevin she would survive. She had more than herself to live for. She would not fall. Suddenly the ghost was there. Its eyes were huge. She could feel herself drifting to sleep. She tried to resist, tried to fight the feeling of slumber. She couldn’t. Her eyes closed. She had failed Kevin. He was going to be eaten, just like her brother.

In her dreams she saw the Charizard coming for Kevin. She saw it extend its claws, reaching out for him. This time however, she would not let it happen. She opened her eyes. She awoke. She felt Kevin around her. She saw he was OK. She saw the enemy down the corridor, along with another bizzare twisted sort of human thing meeting up with them. She had held the door, she had kept up the guard, and Kevin lived. She charged the fleeing foes. Alive, filled with joy of Kevin’s life, she charged.

“Magcargo!”

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Freya vs Arnaldo

August 8, 2016

Freya

Psychological Marketing in Free Mobile Games

August 6, 2016

This post is being written entirely too late at night, not in a small part due to the subject of itself. What I will be discussing today will be a game. I’ll be describing the game, and in particular I will be focusing on the psychological reasons why the game mechanics are the way they are, and how the game attempts to influence those playing it in a number of different ways. A lot of the game mechanics in this game are in many other very similar games, so hopefully this discussion will help you to see similar patterns in other games and media, and allow you to understand how they are trying to affect you mentally.

The game in question is called “Final Fantasy: The Record Keepers”. Its a smart-phone game, for both android and I-phone. Its basic idea is both solid and kinda interesting. Basically the premise of the game is that the player is a librarian in a great library filled with both books and portraits. These portraits are magical, and contain the stories that they depict within themselves. One day the portraits start fading, a cloud of darkness covering up the pictures. The librarian character then begins a quest to restore the paintings, by battling monsters inside the paintings. While they are doing this, they begin recruiting the various heroes from within the paintings, and those heroes join them in fighting the monsters. These portrait portals open up in a sort of sequence, so you have to clear certain portraits before you can move on to other, more difficult ones, or ones later in the time line of that story.

The thing that takes this interesting enough premise, and imbues it with a great deal of fans instantaneously is the fact that the portraits represent the events of the many Final Fantasy titles, and the recruitable heroes are the many protagonists of the different games. (As well as a few antagonists.) The fantasy that this game lets you fulfill is that of making a group of different heroes from all the different Final Fantasy games, and teaming them up, letting you fight pretty much any bad guy from any of the games, while playing as any combination of good guys. The format of this battling is a simplified and sped up version of the combat system used in a pretty good chunk of the games, which is simple enough that they are able to make hundreds of different playable characters for a free to play game, and with just enough complexity that the game can be interesting, and let each character have something that makes it feel a little bit unique.

So that’s the core structure of the game, the premise that makes the game a possibly profitable product. You could take that premise and make the game in a lot of different ways, and it would likely be successful to some extent. The way they constructed it however follows the “mobile, free to play” model, something that ends up feeling a little dubious as you look into the psychological tricks involved in its game mechanics. So lets take a look at a few of these.

First, a big component of all mobile games, is that it needs to be quick to play, having the possibility of playing and doing something in any given five minutes of time. Secondly, it needs to have a lot of content, the ability for the players to just keep playing as long as they continue to find the formula interesting. As an rpg battle game, the big thing that you are going to do which will make you feel like you have accomplished something, as well as making it pretty easy to create a lot of content, is to make your characters stronger. The general goal of everything you are doing in the game is to make your guys better at battling, so that you are then able to battle harder dudes, thus enabling you to make your guys even better. Their are at least four separate ways that one goes about getting stronger in the game, and each of them uses a different sort of psychological trick, and has a different reason for being in the game.

The first component is something that is a mainstay of most mobile, free to play, games these days. That is, the concept of stamina. Every time you do something in the game, it uses up some stamina. You get your stamina back as time passes. You can also spend one of two separate types of currencies in order to restore your stamina, and enable you to continue playing if you don’t want to wait. One of these resources is something you get for progressing in the game, something that comes at a slow and steady pace throughout the game. Its rare enough that its always a bit painful to spend, but common enough that if you are frugal, you can get away with only ever using this one. The other one you can pay really money to acquire.

Now there are a couple reasons why the stamina meter exists in these sorts of games. First, they don’t want you to just beat the game in one sitting. Free to play, mobile games make their money off of little micro-transactions within the game, and if you play through the game in a year, you are much more likely to decide to buy something at some point, as opposed to if you defeat it in a week. So the stamina meter caps how fast you can progress. The second reason it exists is to be another place the game can make money. By letting you spend real money to recharge the stamina meter, the game can make some money if someone is really into the game and just wants to keep playing, and not take a break, or do something else. Every different place they can add a potential for payment is generally a good idea in terms of making money. Let me make a brief digression to discuss the one place its not a good idea.

The only place where monetizing is not a good idea is in terms of directly increasing a characters power. If paying money makes the game easier, everyone can get behind that, but games that are “pay to win”, where paying players have access to content, or are just straight stronger than free players, are stigmatized, and a lot of people won’t play those sorts of games, leading to a smaller number of players, and thus a smaller number of paying players. One might think that people who are willing to pay to be stronger would be interested in those sorts of games, but it actually has to strike a balance, because if there are no free players, then the paying players don’t feel like their money is getting them anything, because all they see is other players also paying, and thus progressing at the same rate.

Anyways, digressions aside, there is a third reason why the stamina meter exists, and I think this one is the most insidious, in that it affects your mentality when playing the most without you necessarily understanding this is happening unless you stop to think about it. The thing is, that stamina meters have a cap. If you stop playing, your stamina will restore, but only up to a certain number. After that, spending more time not playing leads to no rewards. Because stamina is a limited resource, restricted by time, you want to use your stamina as efficiently as possible in order to advance through the game as best you can. When you hit your stamina cap it feels like you are wasting your stamina. This means you have to start planning your time around the stamina recharge. Instead of just playing until you don’t have stamina, then putting it aside until you feel like playing it again, you feel like you have to play it again in three hours, or whatever length of time it takes your stamina to hit the max level. If you don’t play it again at that time, then you are wasting stamina. This feeling gives you a compulsion to play the game at many different points during the day, thus keeping you thinking about the game, getting you more invested in it, and making it less likely to forget about, or quit playing the game. On the down side, this makes the game that is supposedly supposed to be quick and not at all time consuming, suddenly a big part of your schedule, something you find yourself planning around and playing quite frequently.

Record Keepers also has a mechanic for increasing your stamina cap, which also ties into a mechanic that lets you restore your stamina without having to wait or pay anything. This mechanic is generally actually pretty nice, as it adds a bit of a strategy to how you spend your stamina in order to make sure you get the most out of it, as well as letting you go for longer and longer times before the cap is reached, meaning that as you progress in the game, you need to play it less frequently. I guess they are trying to reward the players that stick in their, because at the point where this starts being relevant, you have already committed enough time to the game that you are unlikely to drop out anyways. No real complaints here, though it does not quite mitigate the kinda messed up nature of the stamina system as a whole, who’s time consuming properties are something I am not entirely sure I can really support on principle.

Alright, so thats the stamina system explained, something that limits how much you can play the game, but not something that really directly influences your power in the game. The next few systems are all things that can influence how strong you are, and what your characters can defeat.

The first of these systems is the most simple. Every character you aquire has a level, that starts at one, and progresses up to fifty. You increase this level by defeating enemies, which give you experience. Harder guys give you more experience. Leveling up increases the basic statistics of the game. The higher your level, the more damage you do, the more damage you can take, the faster you are etc. Its all straight numbers. This is a baseline statistic that is always improving so long as you play the game. Its not super fancy or noticeable in a given instant, but regardless of whats happening, you can always see your level going up as you spend more time on the game, and see that your characters are doing more damage, not dying when they would have before, etc. This is very easy content to create, as any group of enemies will always give experience, which is something that can make the player feel like they are improving regardless of anything else. The level system has one more component to it however that is a bit more psychological.

When I said earlier that the level progressed from one to fifty, that was true, but the game allows you to increase your level cap by use of special items. You can use one item to make the max level 65 for a character, and a second rarer item to make it 80. In general most of these items are only given out during special events. These events last for about a week, and you have that time to defeat the various monsters in the event and collect these special items. The events can serve to make sure the player is always motivated to make their guys stronger, because if you are not strong enough to defeat an event, and then it runs out of time, then you are missing that content until the event repeats. These events are generally also themed around a specific game, and so it can also be used as advertisement, if there is a particular character you really like, you might find yourself coming back to the game to try and get the special event items for that character even if you had grown bored with the game before. Both of these level cap items not only break the max level, but also introduce yet another system for progressing in the game, but I am not even going to get into those systems since I have barely gotten to the point in the game where I have broken the first level cap, so I don’t feel familiar enough with those systems to comment, especially the second one, which I have not experienced at all.

Aside from levels, there are two other big ways to improve your characters. The first is with abilities, and the second with equipment. They both use different systems for progression, so I will break them down individually. Lets start with abilities.

Abilities are the most dynamic part of the combat system. They are the magic spells and the special sword attacks that make the battle more than just a series of characters hitting each other. I think there are around a hundred fifty or so abilities in the game, and each character has access to a certain subset of these abilities. The abilities are attached to a character in order that they can use it, but if you switch out a character, you can keep the abilities you already acquired, and move them over to the next character. The system that is used to make abilities is one of orbs. There are many different kinds of orbs, lightning, earth, holy, dark, etc. There are also different levels of orbs, lesser, greater, minor, etc. Every ability in the game can be acquired by trading in a certain combination of orbs. You get orbs by defeating enemies, but its not completely random, ie a fire bad guy is more likely to drop a fire orb, and only very strong enemies will drop the more powerful kinds of orbs. Because there are so many different orbs and the abilities all require different amounts of them, the game can reward you with orbs all the time, and it always feels like it is helping you work towards something. If there is a specific ability you want to get, then maybe you focus on certain kinds of dungeons in order to acquire the orbs needed to unlock it, or if you are like me, you just open up the ability shop ever day or so and look to see if collecting random orbs has led to any new abilities being enabled. By breaking the process of making abilities into these orbs, they are able to constantly give you rewards that are worth something, while also making this a slow process so that you don’t jump through all their different abilities in a few days. The rarer orbs can also be really hard to get, and sometimes you have to develop specific strategies in order to try and acquire them. Even once you have unlocked an ability, orbs of that kind are still valuable because of a process called honing, whereby you increase the number of times an ability can be used in a given dungeon. Each time you hone an ability it gives you more uses, and each time it takes more and more orbs to hone to the next level, though always the same type and rarity of orb. Anyways, the general principle here is that they are able to dole out bits and pieces of these abilities and so they have something to give you that you always want.

The last system, equipment is the one that I think is the most likely to cause people to actually spend money, and potentially the most harmful depending on the person. Equipment comes in different levels, and generally just increases the stats of the character equipped with it. As the game progresses though, it becomes more and more apparent that 99% of the equipment in the game is basically useless, and its only the special five star equipment that you really want long term. The five star equipment gives your characters special powers, and they give you way more stats than four star equipment. The question then is how to acquire equipment, specifically five star equipment. Well, you can get equipment from defeating monsters, and as rewards for beating dungeons in the game, but almost all of this is one or two star stuff, with the occasional special four star bit thrown in their. If you want to get some five star equipment though, you gotta play the lottery. That is to say, you have to do something called an equipment draw.

You get one free draw a day, where you get a random piece of equipment, which could be any level, but its heavily weighted towards the lowest level, so its almost always only one or two stars. Instead, if you want rare equipment, you need to do what is called a rare draw. A rare draw is just like a normal one, except there is no chance of one or two star equipment, which makes the chances of getting a five star much much higher, from something like 0.1% with the normal draw, up to close to 10%. The problem of course is that you need to spend one of the two currencies in the game to get these rare draws, and its random. What this leads to is a strong incentive to pay real money to try and get the equipment you want. This is because, in order to have a good chance of getting a piece of five star equipment, you generally need to get the 11x rare draw, a deal where you spend the resources for ten draws, and get eleven at once, all of which are three star or higher. Most of the time you will get one or two five stars from this kind of a draw, but you never know if you are going to get the ones you want.

Like I said before, you can do this with one currency that you can earn in the game. Generally if you use that currency, you are able to get one of these 11x drops once a week, a little bit less. It takes about that long to earn up the resources to buy a drop. Then you click it, watch your hard earned resource vanish, and hope you get some good five star equipment. Most of the time however, while you do get something valuable, you don’t get quite what you wanted, and after a week of working towards this draw, hoping the whole time that you will get this item you have been waiting for, it can become very tempting to click the little button they put right on the screen where they show your results, and roll again, pay real world money to try and get the item that you worked so hard to get a chance to get. I almost did that one time, but the amount of money was completely outside the scale that was acceptable for me due to my current living situation. If it had been cheaper however, its likely I would have dropped money on this game out of frustration that I had not gotten the item I wanted after spending a week hoping for it.

By making the item acquiring essentially a gamble, the game taps into that drive to try again and again, as well as potentially exploiting people’s gambling problems. Its also a psychological fact that people and animals are more willing to keep doing something if they occasionally get something really good, as opposed to always getting something OK, so this sort of random drop system taps into that part of our brain and either makes us drop some money on it, or at least keep playing the game for another week in order to try again.

There are a number of other systems in the game that I have not even covered, and there are a few psychological principles it exploits that I have not even mentioned, but for now I am getting super tired, so I am going to call it a night. Perhaps I will do another article on this topic in the future. Suffice to say that games can screw with your head, especially when they are trying to get you to continue playing them, or get you to pay them money. Playing this game is usually the second to last thing I do every night, as well as the second thing I do every morning, after communication with family and friends, so obviously these techniques have affected me, even though I understand them. Anyways, its something to think about when you are playing a game.

Post Rate Drop

August 1, 2016

While it was super fun posting every day, for sleep reasons I am dropping down to two posts a week, likly on the weekends.  No particular topics, and these posts might appear on either blog.