TGDRT #41: Paradox Games, Poker and AI

Episode #41 is live!

Jon and Dirk cover a wide variety of topics this week, notably: the problems with automation and user interface in Paradox titles like Hearts of Iron 3 and Europa Universalis 4, the psychological appeal and the (possibly too-important) role of money in poker, and the challenges of meshing tech and design in At the Gates’ AI.

Dirk and I were all over the board this week – in a good way. A lot of interesting discussion for you guys.

We’ve covered Paradox’s games in the past, but there’s always more good meat on that bone. They’ve built a large and passionate audience by melding hardcore strategy and sim, but there’s tension between those two extremes.

A good strategy game requires clarity and tough decisions, while a good sim is almost entirely about feel. Paradox has done a good job balancing the two, but their user interface has always been where things break down a bit.

We also talked at length about poker. It’s extremely simple, but that simplicity focuses attention on what is there, and results in a very psychologically interesting platform. I cover this at length in the episode, but my big complaint is that this is almost entirely driven by real-money wagering.  Playing with nothing on the line is a completely different experience, and not for the better.

– Jon


6 thoughts on “TGDRT #41: Paradox Games, Poker and AI

  1. I really like your “baseline expectation” approach for At The Gates. I think that’s exactly what it should be – a “feel-good gimmick” that’s certainly neat when you get it but it shouldn’t be decisive.

    Because if that mechanism (randomized goodies) takes over the core of your mechanics, then you’re right in the territory of gambling where hoping takes the place of serious strategy and understanding. That’s (to a smaller extent) the case with Poker (obvisouly moreso with pure gambling “games”) and certainly with World Of Warcraft.

    The reason people “grind for loot” is exactly the same reason a rat “grinds” for food pellets in a Skinner Box: Randomized, yet expectable, rewards. Now, that this also happens to be a central part of Poker’s design (randomized, yet expectable to be good SOMEtimes, cards) is by accident. Whereas Blizzard is totally aware of the powerful addiction machinery underlying WoW or Diablo (and of course their upcoming CCG Hearthstone, which as a CCG (plus it’s “free to play”) naturally makes heavy use of these methods.)

    1. Good thoughts. I really think the key is your baseline still being cool and useful. The problem with most grinding games (and straight-up gambling, especially!) is that the typical outcome is, at best, ignorable.

      I’m taking a different approach with AtG. Finding a source of wheat should be exciting. Finding a one-of-a-kind, massive iron deposit should be REALLY exciting. A normal goody hut might give you 10 Food, which is quite helpful given its scarcity. A rare goody could have a small chance of giving you a strong (but not broken) unit. This is the spectrum you want to be working in.

      – Jon

  2. “Playing with nothing on the line is a completely different experience, and not for the better.”

    There are a few corollaries in computer games that spring to mind: EVE, Grepolis and Roguelikes

    In EVE, the simmers going about the world without touching 0 space may as well be playing a completely different game to those facing off with million ISK ships. The vast majority of dramatic moments thats gives the game its edge come out of these high stakes moments.

    In Grepolis the simmers building up their cities are missing out on an engrossing war game that can put months of time invested into the game on the line. Logging in to see 20 attacks leveled at your city in the 5 hours you spent sleeping brings an immediate adrenaline hit, but also fuels the paranioa of when the next strike may occur. Similarly, combining with others to execute a coordinated strike to take someone out is more about the psychological impact on them and their team than the acquisition of additional land. Bluffs and counter-bluffs are commonplace, but devoid of meaning without the real fear of losing your shirt.

    I roguelikes there is a similar time investment on the line, but those that turtle up and attempt to safetly navigate the game before the inevitable reroll are also missing out on the real fun (IMO). Playing with a competitive edge or pushing your limits reveals many more high stakes / high focus / highly memorable moments that the game can dish out, much akin to an at-limit poker game.

    1. Great example. It comes down to the type of player. A majority of the gaming market is looking for escapism, and the stakes are unimportant.

      For others (like myself), escapism just for the sake of it isn’t appealing. We need to dig to a deeper level and really invest. We don’t play many games, but the ones we do… oh boy.

      – Jon

  3. Do you know any other sites I can find further/indepth criticism/reviews about paradox UI? I’ve skimmed a few journalist/review sites but they’re hopeless, and the forums for these game’s obviously don’t offer much criticism.

    1. I honestly don’t. Regardless of the game, UI rarely gets commented on other than “I like it” or “I hate it”, and I myself relish finding those sorts of discussions. For something so important it really isn’t talked about much.

      – Jon

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