Earlier this week, I posted an article on my Gamasutra expert blog about the use of Expected Value in game design. Here’s the link!
I visited LA during the break, to visit my family. Being in SoCal always generates some nostalgia, as I used to live there. I’m fascinated with early LA - 30’s to 60’s in particular. Needing some movies for the flight home, I elected to nab L.A. Confidential and Chinatown to go for a full noir plate.
I’ve seen LA Confidential before, and liked it, but I was still again surprised just how damn good of a movie it is. The characters are completely captivating. The way Bud White (Crowe), Exley (Pearce), and Vincennes (Spacey) progress through their plot arcs is just amazingly clever. You are alternately disgusted and awed by each of them at various points throughout the movie. Pearce feels like the protagonist and the hub of the story, but he’s not wholly sympathetic throughout. Crowe turn in the thug performance that helped make him famous, but his character is so much deeper than he initially appears. Finally, Spacey makes perhaps the most startling of arcs, turning from vain and lightly corrupt to redeemed through his lynch-pin final words. The weaving of the main and sub-plot are expert. James Cromwell will make you squirm (especially if you’ve seen Babe recently). DeVito and Basinger are brilliant. I can’t rave enough about the film, and am glad to have rediscovered it.
Chinatown is, of course, a piece of film history at this point. It’s hard to say much about it because it’s already hailed as a masterpiece. But certainly a nod must be given to Polanski’s creative courage, as he is reportedly responsible for the film’s ending, and that ending is what made a good film unforgettable. One of the best parts of the film, though, might just be this poster:
I’ve been scrawling some preliminary design work on a boardgame project lately. This game is about the gold rush—a theme that’s been exploited thoroughly and frequently, yet I still think there are some really interesting game mechanics left unturned.
My focus (for this game) will be on the business side - mining claims, capitalization, and speculation. I’ve been reading tons of things about gold mining in Colorado, Nevada, California, and the Klondike.
With speculation and booms and busts being central to the game, this can create a lottery-like mechanic. Make the right claim/investment, and you hit it big and win. Make the wrong one, and you bust. This is reflective of real life, but doesn’t make the best game. A game intended for the modern boardgame market, should allow players to execute strategies. Luck is important and a really interesting part of the game. But it’s critical that the game not reduce to a “pick and hope” strategy. There is a difference between “choosing” and “picking” in game design. Choosing means considering your options and selecting an action that matches your strategy. Picking means effectively grabbing randomly.
Anyway, with a gold mine mechanic, I didn’t want the game to be all about putting a stake in the ground and then hoping for the best. I’ve been struggling with what would combat this effectively. Don’t get me wrong - I like a bold risky play that sometimes works out. But in general, as a designer I want to reward players that act strategically.
When reading about the corporations that owned early mines (particularly in the Comstock), one potential answer presented itself. Owning stock in mines had a down side besides the obvious risk of the mine not panning out: assessments. Periodically, corporations could assess their shareholders to raise more capital. It was usually used to finance equipment, but could also be used for very nefarious purposes. Think about the assessment concept for a moment. Imagine if MSFT reached out to their shareholders and forced each one to pay $100 a share (or else relinquish their shares). Ouch! Fortunately that doesn’t happen these days. Instead, companies will issue additional stock, which dilutes holdings but doesn’t force existing shareholders to pony up cash.
From a game mechanic standpoint, the concept of assessments is really cool (and useful). This means money flows both ways for shareholders. Although I don’t have it all figured out, I think the solution to my speculation problem lies with this assessment concept. Essentially, overspeculating will increase the player’s risk of assessments, which will lead to cash flow problems. Players will need to speculate carefully…even strategically…to be successful repeatedly.
Last night was my company’s Christmas party. As one of the activities in the party, we were each given $500 in fake money for use in gambling on several blackjack and roulette tables. The top three earners for the night would be given prizes.
Blackjack and roulette are both games with with a clear house edge, except in the case of counting cards in Blackjack. I don’t remember the counting system off-hand, so that strategy was out. Blackjack, when played perfectly, has a pretty slim house edge—less than 1%. Roulette has a larger house edge—5.26%. But the point is, both of those are house edges. Meaning, you are destined to lose if you play long enough.
There are several other key factors to consider in the situation.
1) Fake Money
2) Over 100 participants
3) Only top 3 finishers receive anything
This means that there is absolutely no value in doing “well.” It is valueless to earn 50% on your money, or even double or triple your money. You can’t take a tidy profit off the table and leave. You really need to hit it big or go home. In other words, you’re going to have to get lucky. That is, barring employing some form of cheating (counting, magnetically attracting the roulette ball, conspiring with the dealer, etc.). Furthermore, the longer (more conservatively) you play, the more chance of busting out or reducing your stack.
I decided the optimum strategy was to place the entire $500 starting stack on one number in roulette. You have a 1/38 chance of hitting the number, with a 35 to 1 payoff. That means with a hit, my stack would be $18,000. I figured that would be enough to win without further wagering. A 1/38 chance of winning the competition is significantly better than just “trying your luck” against 100+ competitors. Effectively, it triples your odds.
Did I do it? No, not precisely. I decided there was some value (game theory: utility) in having some fun playing. So I spread some chips around a bit, although I still made relatively few concentrated bets. But you’re dang right I thought about the game theory of the situation!
And did I win? Nope!
Typically, I’m consumed with thoughts about game design and business. But I like entertainment in all forms.
Silver Linings Playbook is an unexpectedly good film that stands on the AAA performances of its top three cast: Bradley Cooper, Robert DeNiro, and last but definitely not least, Jennifer Lawrence. View the trailer HERE.
If I had to describe the film and the performances in one word, I’d say “brave.” Many of the typical tropes of romcoms are there, but it’s not your average take on the genre. Comedy isn’t even the right descriptor; laughs do exist, but I’d push the film closer to drama when you get right down to it. The braveness comes from the flaws in the characters and the film’s willingness to tackle mental illness in a way that’s neither a farce nor sappy.
You might look at the cast and expect the film to be fairly vapid, populated simply by the star power of its two sexy headliners. Anything with Jennifer Aniston and Gerard Butler together comes to mind. But the characters here are actually nuanced, and absolutely flawed. Cooper, for his part, plays a lovesick bipolar dreamer with complete commitment. He’s as far from his suave “Hangover” self as can be. His complete obsession with his ex is not only convincing, it’s pathetic in a sympathetic way. He’s not afraid to be seen as vulnerable, unsure, and comically silly all at once. If he just wanted to pump up his “Sexiest Man Alive” cred, this was not the vehicle to do it. He tackled this for the role, which is admirable.
DeNiro comes through with his usual powerful presence, a mix of power and comedy that he’s perfected since Meet the Parents. But here again lies a surprise: he’s as flawed as the main pair, and his OCD and torment comes on display at key moments, making you sympathize with him and see him as a three-dimensional character instead of just a DeNiro facade. He’s supporting cast, and absolutely vital.
The real standout of the film is Jennifer Lawrence. Sure, she’s freshly riding the fame wave thanks to The Hunger Games and the critically acclaimed Winter’s Bone. But THIS film is the first to really require full range of acting, and she rises to the challenge in triumphant manner. She’s sexy, funny, smart…and broken. While her character’s background is the most tragic of all, she is actually the most well-adjusted of the three, and that’s good writing. You might expect her purpose in the movie to be Bradley Cooper’s eye candy, but that doesn’t give Lawrence enough credit. She burns through the screen when she’s on it. I was most impressed by her convincing anger and turmoil; here is a bombshell who’s not afraid to contort her face in rage and expose what’s underneath the surface level beauty, even when it’s ugly. And when she drops in on a key scene between Cooper and DeNiro, it becomes obvious who the start of the film is. Her fame is already here, but I’d say this film is when her acting has truly arrived. Supposedly, Lawrence has no formal training. If her acting is intuitive, then it says even more about her talent. Brave! And bravo!