Short-Term Luck and Long-Term Skill

Having finally found my way back onto my own website (a surprisingly challenging task these past few days), I present a blog entry in two parts. The first shorter part will discuss the current status of URR (short version: development resuming in under a month!) and the second will be a more theoretical bit of rambling about games, luck and skill, “investing” time/effort into a game, and similar (short version: roguelikes are sort of like poker. In a way. Kind of).

I’ve been thinking about what I want the next release to entail. Roughly speaking, I had several major objectives for this release: ziggurats, ziggurat puzzles & artwork, history and civilization generation, and the encyclopedia. I’ve now decided that I want to prioritize the gameplay aspects of the first two of that list over everything else for this release. I would estimate one/two months ZG2work remaining in ziggurats, and development will be resuming towards the end of May. Despite the progress made on flag, religious icon, creation myth and history generation, I’ve decided to leave these for 0.4. I want to get some gameplay out. I want people to see what I’ve been working on in URR, get some feedback, and actually try to release two versions a year. Lastly, I realize that the flag/ religion/ history/ myth gen aspect is (like everything…) larger than anticipated, and really merits a release in itself. So that’s what it’s going to get. This means 0.3 will have a lot of small changes/improvements, but will be primarily focused on ziggurats, exploring them, solving the puzzles within them (which get harder with each floor), and last – but not least – finding a particular kind of item atop the ziggurats that will tell you a little bit about the future of the game. I’m not going to say anything more about that – you’ll have to master a ziggurat to find out.

Now onto this post’s scheduled dose of video game pondering. I’ve long thought there was a strong corollary between roguelikes and the various games of poker, so I’m going to discuss a few of the strong simiZG2larities I think they have and how they relate to roguelike game design. Some time in the past now, I played poker semi-professionally in order to supplement my income for about two years. In that time I believe I logged something around a million and a half hands online, though I do no longer have the datamining files any more so it could probably be +/- 200k or so. Regardless, there are three central ways I’ve always thought roguelikes scratched the same itch as poker, and I’d be keen to hear what people think about these comparisons. The first is in relation to luck and skill, the second is in relation to “investment”, be it time, money, effort, or whatever else, and the third is in relation to the skills they demand.

Poker has a very high short term luck aspect. Every single hand dealt is completely random. What this means is that if you put the world’s best player in a room with the world’s worst and have them play a single hand, the world’s best would win more than 50% of the time, but it would be far from 100% because so much of that single hand depends on that particular deal. This is why poker players, particularly online ones, don’t count results from single hands, or even generally from single sessions, but across months, or hundreds of thousands of hands, etc. Over that kind of time span, the number of strong and weak hands anyone is dealt, the number of times a player is in a particular position, the number of times the player is at a table with strong players or weak players, and every other factor that affects a given hand will even themselves out pretty quickly. With such a large sample size the stronger players will pull into the lead in the long run whilst the weaker players will fall behind. Of course the weaker player will sometimes win and the stronger player sometimes lose, but in the long term the stronger player will lose less from losing hands and win more from winning hands than the weaker player. Indeed, many say this is a crucial part of the game’s appeal, and something purely mechanistic games don’t have – weaker players remain keen to play and risk their money because they will win sometimes, and this is why “professional poker players”, as a demographic, are vastly much more numerous than, say, professional chess players. There’s simply so much more money around.

I would suggest that a single hand in poker is roughly equal to, perhaps, a single floor in a classical roguelike, or a single room in the Binding of Isaac, or a single ship engagement in FTL. The elements of that floor are broadly random (though obviously within predefined parameters), and you never know when entering a single floor whether you’re going to be particularly lucky, unlucky, or neutrally lucky (were there such a term) on that floor. Equally, rooms on Isaac range from the trivial to the painfully difficult once you reach the Chest, and ship fights within a given sector of FTL have a reasonable amount of variation – though they are not labelled as such, you will encounter particularly challenging ships now and then, equivalent to unique foes in classic roguelikes or miniboss rooms in Isaac. In the short term there is a big element here, and sometimes it may overcome the player (though it reassures me that people can get 20+ game streaks in games like Crawl, thereby demonstrating the mastery a skilled player than possess), but over time the stronger player will survive that room the more often (perhaps reaching 100% in some games). What you will face in each room or floor or battle is luck, but completing a given playthrough comes down entirely to skill.


Then there’s the second comparison which I think bears mentioning – that of “investment”, both in terms of time and effort. This is less true of “ring games” in poker, but very true of a tournament. Let us say you pay $50 to enter a tournament of 2000 people. The way poker works, the top 10%, i.e. 200 people, will get paid. The 50th place finisher will get $50, the 40th only around $100, and it will quickly ramp up to a very, very high first place prize. For 2000 people to go down to 200 people could take the best part of half a day. If you enter the tournament, play, then bust out 51st, you have just spent $50, and 6 hours, for nothing. In fact, you would have been better had you not played – you could have spent the time and money elsewhere. Compare this to a roguelike and you get the same formula, at least in terms of time – you invest a lot of time in a character, and whilst upon dying you may learn something new, it’s hard not to feel you wasted your time on that character (at least for me). The reward of eventual victory in a new and challenging RL certainly offsets this, but it’s still hard to not feel some time was wasted. Unlike games with checkpoints, or the ability to quicksave, or whatever else, I would suggest that you are taking a gamble when you invest your time in a roguelike in a way very akin to a poker tournament. You risk a lot, but the reward – the satisfaction – trumps almost any game where you can save/reload. It’s up to the player to make that risk/reward decision.

Thirdly, and finally, the kind of skill each demand. In my department at the university, there are a lot of people who play chess. Though I have played a few games, won a few and lost a few, I’ve never particularly enjoyed chess. It’s too mechanistic. “Skill” in the early game and the late game, for me, comes down toZG2 nothing more than a memorization exercise of learning good openings, weak openings, how to counter openings, etc. Where’s the skill there? Whilst I admit the midgame has a lot of room for genuinely interesting, skilled play, the early game in chess is so dependent on rote learning – and a good/bad opening sets you up well/badly for the entire game – that the game as a whole just doesn’t appeal. By contrast, games with short term luck ensure this is never the case. You are constantly kept on your toes, and constantly challenged by having to deal with something new. You can’t rote learn in poker – you have to adopt a new strategy every single hand, broadly speaking. The same goes for roguelikes – obviously you have to learn the rules and mechanics, but there is minimal rote learning of what you do with them (outside “find the vibrating square” in Nethack, “collect three Runes” in Crawl, etc). Every floor and every situation is unique, and it demands at every stage the kind of mastery over the game that, in chess, is only found in the midgame. A game which makes you respond to something new at every moment seems to me infinitely more interesting.

In case it was not clear, I think these are all good things. I like that roguelikes (for the most part) avoid getting stale, or at least get far, far less stalZG2e than non-procedural games, and I like putting my time “on the line”. Naturally when I lose a Crawl character at 14 runes (sigh) it’s infuriating, but with what I now know about the extended endgame, I’m confident I’ll get a 15-rune victory at some point before too long. Equally, whilst I won’t say a roguelike “never gets boring”, it certainly does so at a point slowly than other singleplayer games. There’s also a great level of satisfaction to be gained, I think, from that kind of mastery over the procedural elements of a game, and one generally greater than mastery of mechanistic elements. That feeling that you can defeat “whatever the game throws at you”. I discovered roguelikes about the same time as becoming good at poker (the latter became “relaxation” after the former), but the two really do work on very similar psychological levels. How does all this whatnot tie into URR? Well, I am going the permadeath route, but I want death to be a less regular happening – and one the player has a lot more control over – than in, say, DF adventure mode. Short-term luck should affect your floor or current foe, but it should never turn a great run into a dead run without your control. It’s a tricky balance to get, no doubt, but there are enough games in which it works to make me confident it’s a balance I can get right.

On Prester John

I’ve had a few questions lately about the kind of setting the game inhabits; most people have been classifying it as ‘high fantasy’, and that’s a little away from the setting I’m going for. I thought I’d take an entry to describe the inspirations behind URR’s setting and how this’ll be reflected in the game design decisions.

A central inspiration is the myth of Prester John, or rather, the way it filtered into medieval society and how it affected perceptions of the outside world. It was the idea hatched in Europe around the twelfth century that another christian emperor called Prester John existed in some undefined region east of Europe. It served as the idea that there was somewhere another ally that Europe could count upon in its conflicts, and that some parts of the far distant world were potential allies. This location varied between central Asia and eastern Africa depending on the version of the myth. Dozens of different stories existed about him and his empire, ranging from the entirely worldly to the fantastical; an assortment of mythical creatures were believed to be exist in John’s empire, and the empire itself was thought to be in a variety of places. Even more so, people came to associate Prester John with a variety of different real-world figures, ranging from Genghis Khan to Zara Yaqob, even though they all variously denied being this mythical figure. Effectively, it was a strange amalgam of facts about battles, empires, lands, geographies, histories, all put into a single narrative that was far more desirable and reassuring than the truth, and one that was a reflection of a fundamental lack of knowledge about the rest of the world, and what creatures were and weren’t just figments of legend. Similarly, it altered which distance empires were believed to exist and in what configuration, along with their rulers, important battles, etc.

This is the kind of setting I want to cultivate; that the world is fundamentally unknown, and that each civilization has different (and probably wildly inaccurate) understandings of what the rest of the world is like. The further your starting civilization is from others, the less accurate your knowledge of the far-away civilizations will be. Similarly, you might think that a particular mythological species dwells in one area, while it actually dwells in others; I’d like to get other civilizations having the same misunderstandings about other civilizations. Equally, there may be myths about species which don’t actually exist – I intend to randomize what recruit-able species are and aren’t generated in each world, but this won’t be known until you seek them out and separate the fact from the myth. Myths about all creatures will always exist, but some creatures will be real and some creatures won’t each time. Even within existing creatures, myths may give you inaccurate information at first, as I’m intending to build an amount of randomness into each species, too.

Thus, the URR world is fundamentally medieval, except for the fact that while we never discovered all those strange creatures, the player probably will. I’ll warn everyone now that next week won’t have a blog entry; I have a lot of thesis work that needs to be done. If you’re new to the blog (I see a lot of new sites that have started registering on my incoming traffic recently), I suggest you check back previous entries or the info page for the kind of thing that comes in most blog entries and to get a better idea of what the game currently looks like. See you all in a fortnight!

The strange marriage of fantasy and realism

If you haven’t checked it out yet, I’d look at the Winter Screenshot Update! I’ll try and keep screenshots coming now and then, but there are often things that don’t really look like anything until finished. For instance, at the moment, I’m working on ‘connecting’ the different map sectors so that you can move smoothly to another on the local level (like moving across the wilderness in DF). There isn’t really much to SHOW for this, but it plays nicely.

ANYWAY: in the mean time, I’ve been discussing how realistic URR is going to end up – which is to say, what factors do you and your army have to deal with, and what factors can you ignore? Having thoughts about this, I think there are three different kinds of realism people are talking about. I shall call them ‘world realism‘, ‘physical realism‘, and ‘practical realism‘.

For world realism, Tolkien is both the essential, and the cliched, example. The Middle Earth languages came first; Tolkien was originally a linguist, and one who created these remarkable fictional languages and the cultural/social backgrounds of the world in which they existed. The stories, as impressive as they are on their own, are deeply mythopoeic and serve to both further the existence of Middle Earth as a living, breathing world, and to allow a greater output for JRRT’s linguistic interests and the fully-realized fictional languages he had created. In this way, Middle Earth gains realism from the detail, the depth, the complexity of the ideas behind it; we see thousands of years of history in each of Tolkien’s books, and perhaps most importantly, there is a strong sense that the world existed before the stories in question, and will go on doing so afterwards – these are but a few chapters in its history.

By contrast, barely a word is said of magic in Tolkien’s works. Obviously it exists, both from Gandalf and Saruman, Galadriel, and various ‘ordinary mortals’ who are sometimes described as having some ability we would reasonably call magic. Thus, while we can see a high world realism in language and culture, the reader simply lacks enough information to make a judgement about the world realism of magic. Is it so rare and obscure that little of it is seen, or is it simply not fleshed out? For URR, therefore, I prefer the former – there are languages (not as detailed as Tolkien’s, naturally, but not insignificant either) and a long history of the world will be generated before each playthrough, along with a different pantheon of gods, alliances, and all the rest. You’ll also be able to choose an era to enter the world in, which will have an effect on who and what you encounter…

As for physical realism, by this I mean that everything obeys the laws of the universe as we know it (or, in a fictional realm, as they know it) perfectly, but something more specific than this. Obviously, anything in any fictional world has to obey the confines of that world. Even a creature described as a multi-dimensional time-warping space-churning eldritch horror is still, despite all appearences, obeying rules, even if those are rules that state the traditional physical rules of that universe can, under very rare circumstances and involving very unusual monsters, be broken. What I mean is rather something more practical, and applies much more to games than to literature or cinema.

So which is more realistic? NetHack for having things rust, which they should, albeit instantly; or Skyrim, for having things never rust, but at least they don’t rust in a heart-beat when they so much as come within fifty metres of a river? Neither of these is realistic, but both can make a reasonable claim to the greater realism. Similarly, nothing melts or boils in Skyrim, but any fire applied to any potion in NetHack causes it to instantly boil and explode. In URR, I aim to try and keep physical realism high – for instance, metal melts, but does not do instantly, and temperatures differ depending on the metal. I want to make it a part of the gameplay, but not an irreversible, hugely-important part, like in NetHack.

Lastly, practical realism. By this I mean how much the necessities of life impinge on, or affect, gameplay. It differs by games – some don’t include any, while some include some but not others, and often in a limited form. Sure, in Age of Empires you need to gather food, but the food is magically transported into the stomachs of your troops, no matter how far away from a) your food-gatherers or b) your empire, they may be. Of course, in all games where food isn’t in there, it is implied to be transported (not all games take place in a transhumanist world where food is not required!) and just doesn’t factor in. As for URR:

On the one hand, I don’t want you to be able to trek an army indefinitely with no need for food; that food has to come from somewhere, whether from raiding enemy farms, setting up a supply chain, storing it with you, getting it from allied towns along the way, or whatever. However, I obviously don’t want logistics to become the sole focus of the game. A balance needs to be found; you need to consider where your source of food is, but it should be abstracted away from the player – you direct your minions to [Gather food from Enemy Farm X], [Kill all the wild deer in Square Y], [Set up weekly supply caravan from City Z], or whatever, and then they will go and do it. I think this is a compromise between the micromanagement of exceedingly high practical reality (say, DF), and still having relevant factors matter, as they should.

So what does everyone think about this? I want a high world realism (detail, history, language, culture, etc), high physical realism, and high practical realism, BUT the practical realism affects those under the player more than the player themselves; when things are running smoothly, it will be harder to notice than when there’s an issue that needs resolving. World realism creates a believable world, physical realism ensures things melt when they should, and practical realism gives you the chance to starve enemy cities into submission. Everybody wins, right?

Coming Monday 9th: Smooth maps & sidebars!

Coming Monday 16th: Mountains, volcanoes, and the end of world generation.

Winter Screenshot Update

Here’s the Winter Screenshot Update! These should give you all an idea of how far world generation has come along, and that I’m now nearing the end of designing the world. It hopefully shouldn’t be too much more than a week until all the mountains, rivers and volcanoes are finished, and I can move back onto programming combat. Additionally, all of these have been added to the totally redone ‘About & Screenshots‘ page! Let me know what you think of the new screenshots, and the new page, and generally how things are looking. Hope everyone has a good new year!

Minimap showing the world map, and the height map.

The key to icons on the minimap.

Going down to the coast in the jungle...

The polar regions of Ultima Ratio Regum.

A fast-flowing river; an ideal place for a civilization to spring up...


Randomisation, identification, and releases

As you proceed through a dungeon, you come across a potion. The game identifies it for you as a “blue potion” – a shade of potion you’ve never come across before. Unfortunately, you haven’t a clue what it actually DOES, but you put it in your bag anyway. After all, it might come in handy. While you could use it as a last-ditch resort at some indeterminate time in the future and just hope it does something deadly against your foes, there’s no guarantee of that. The issue is working out what it is, and this can’t just be done by using it, then starting a new game – in your second game, a blue potion will do something totally different.

Some items do not begin with randomised names – a steel katana will be instantly recognisable as much, along with all armour and food. That is not to say all the statistics of that particular item will be instantly revealed to you upon acquiring it, but you will at least be able to identify what type of item it is. In general, you’ll be able to see the condition of that item – a “badly rusted steel katana”, say, or a “mouldy loaf of bread”, but you won’t know some of it hidden properties (many of which will be covered on Wednesday).

Other items have randomised names. Upon starting a game, the names of potions, scrolls, and other classes of items are selected from a variety of presets. One game, a potion of acid, for example, could appear to be a “green potion”, “bubbling potion”, “cyan potion” or anything else; a scroll of enchant weapon could be a “red-inked scroll”, a “dusty scroll”… and so on and so forth. A few will also be identified – the player can always spot a potion of water, a potion of oil and an empty potion bottle on account of those being blindingly obvious, but the rest are mysteries.

Unknown potions in Ultima Ratio Regum
What the hell are all these things?!

There are many ways to identify some/all of the properties of these unknown items, and therefore hopefully prevent yourself from drinking a potion of gorgon blood or summoning a fireball upon your own head. Here are some of them:

1) Use it on a foe.

Enemy approaching and you’ve got an unknown scroll? Try casting it on them. If they suddenly set on fire, you know you’re onto a winner. Again, however, there are positive effects as well as negative effects – you wouldn’t want to, for example, use a Scroll of Artifact Detection on an enemy, because if there was one on that level, your foe would almost instantly forget about you and instead go and hunt down this amazing object, the location of which you kindly gifted them. In general, potions have more offensive effects and scrolls more defensive/augmentative effects, so bear that in mind when deciding who to trial them on.

2) Read a scroll of identify.

Seems self-explanatory. These scrolls – depending on their condition – can identify an item from your inventory at random, identify an item you are able to choose, or identify whole swathes of your inventory at once. While they are a guaranteed and pain-free method of identification, they are rare, so maximising your gain each time you use one is strongly recommended.

3) Use an item clue.

Some items give you small hints about what they are. I don’t want to list these as they may give too much away, but if you pick up a sword you don’t know much about and the game notes that “This iron longsword looks particularly well-made”, then that gives you a hint towards one of its properties. Likewise, if certain environmental effects come into contact with certain items, particular messages will be produced that hint at their natures.

4) Use it on yourself. 

Got an unknown potion? Drink it! What’s the worst that can happen, eh?

Well, the worst that could happen would be that you drink a potion of Gorgon blood. I shall let everyone with even a nominal knowledge of mythology determine what happens to you if you do that. However, if you feel you’re in a sufficiently strong position with an unknown item to try it on yourself, you certainly could risk it on yourself if you’re desperate to know what it does. I mean, there is a way to avoid even impending petrification, after all…

Summoning a fireball upon yourself.
When not to self-test an unknown scroll…

5) See others use it.

This one is, of course, almost entirely chance. If your party comes across an Orc and it decides to hurl a potion at your ally, you might get a hint about the identity of the potion from how your team-mate behaves. If they start stumbling around, there’s got to be a good chance it’s confused them, blinded them, or something similar; if they seem angered, perhaps they’ve been poisoned; or, if the Orc didn’t know the identify of its own potion, it might even have thrown a potion of healing at your ally and done you a favour. Watching the results of items being used around you provides a variety of clues about what they are.

6) Do something else with it…

There’s a whole bunch of other ways to discover either the identity of the item, or some/all of its attributes, but I don’t want to list them all. There are many others, and the more you can figure out, the better your odds in the terrifying dungeons that await…

Lastly, a note on releases.

I hope to get a demo out next month. Although this will have some features fully implemented – which an ‘alpha’ build often does not – this will be a precursor to a full alpha build after that. The demo aims to show combat and AI, while the alpha build is penned to involve several cities/dwellings, and therefore the ability to properly recruit allies to your side.

Coming Monday: A first look at the AI. Flowchart included!

Coming Wednesday: The many properties of a U.R.R. item – from damage to decay, volume to weight, and material to melting point…