Sunday, September 30, 2012

Pick a Number, Any Number... So Long As It's Four

Just for the fun of it, today I went back and played Tepiiku, a dice game I reviewed way back when for JIG. It's an interesting game for three players (you and two AI) where the player with the lowest-scoring hand has the obligation to either pay the highest-scoring player a forfeit, or attempt to increase their hand's value at the risk of paying double the forfeit for failing. There's a major flaw in how the wagering plays out, since the game will not allow you to attempt to reroll if you can't pay the potential double forfeit; sometimes your opponents will boost the stake between them, and by the time it passes to you, you're forced to pay up without ever getting to play. Sure, it could result in interesting tactics if you could find a way to work it to your advantage, but more often than not, it's just frustrating.

That was a flaw I pointed out in my review, and it was echoed by many of the commenters. Later on, the creator of the game stopped by to acknowledge the flaw and explain his reasoning for it. Which is awesome. I love it when the developer stops by to discuss the development of their game.

But that's not what this post is about. This post was sparked by what was the very first comment left to the game, by an ever-so-popular visitor named Anonymous.

"Mmm-hmmm. Just like I thought. Just like every other dice and card game in existence, apparently, once you get out of the practice round, it's absolutely nothing but consistent crap for you, and perfect hands/rolls for all AI players, every single hand. No thanks. How about at least faking some random fairness for once, developers? Maybe?"

The developer addressed this comment by assuring Mr. 'mous that the dice rolls are "fair and random" and that there were no shenanigans at hand. Streaks of bad luck, perhaps, but no foul play. That didn't stop 'mous from insisting that the game was clearly still rigged, and even going so far as to accuse the developer of ignoring him and the "evidence" that the game is rigged.

This, for reasons I don't understand, is a trend in a lot of dice games I review or see reviewed; the game is cuh-learly rigged because the player doesn't win once or twice. It happened with Tepiiku. It happened with Pigalator 2k5; the developer also addressed complaints about randomness there (but they still continued). It happened with Zilch, and the developer not only addressed the griefers but also released the code for the random number generator. Is it so hard to accept that streaks of bad luck happen, and that hopefully you'll hit a good streak if you keep playing? Or, heaven forbid, could you just not be good at the game?


Bear with me on this sudden change of topic: Last week, I started working my way through Codecademy, a website that takes you through the basics of coding in HTML, JavaScript, Python, and other programming languages. I'm obviously not a coding genius, but if my experiences with this website and SpaceChem are anything to go by, I might be a bit of a programming addict. I'm about a third of the way through the JavaScript Fundamentals track, which, if I am to take the authors' interpretations of "next week we'll talk about..." literally, is supposed to be a 26-week course... Whoops.

I'm obviously not a coding genius, and I don't know how much JavaScript goes into programming Flash games, but I've picked up a few things from the course. In the lessons I've had so far, I've learned the basics for simple random events, such as rolling a die or picking a card. In fact, here's what rolling a die looks like:

var roll = Math.floor(Math.random()*6+1);

To break that down:
  • Starting inside the parentheses, Math.random() generates a random number between 0 and 1. I don't know how specific the number is, but in the printouts I've tried, it's generally extended out to something like twelve decimal places, like 0.728027699732 (and yes, I did pull that number from
  • Since there are six sides on our die, we multiply that random value by six. That will give us something between 0.000000000006 and 5.999999999994. Our random value is now 4.368166198392.
  • Dice are usually labelled with the numbers 1-6, not 0-5, so we add one to our result. Now we've got 5.368166198392.
  • But what sort of die gives us a decimal as a roll? Math.floor() rounds down the value to the highest whole number below our value, which is 5. So there you have it, I just rolled a 5.

It's a long explanation, but that one line of code is all it takes to roll a six-sided die. (Well, you'd also add console.log(roll); to print out the number.) But can you imagine the coding it would take to rig a die so it rolls one number more frequently than another, for example, more low numbers than high? Walk with me through this idea.

  • In theory, while you'd be visually displaying a die with six sides, you'd probably program it as something with more than six sides, with extra sides representing more instances of the numbers you want to occur more frequently. We'll keep it simple by secretly rolling a 10-sided die, where the numbers 7-10 give more weight to outcomes of 1 or 2.
  • We could start out with a similar line of code to the one above and substitute one number: var rollStack = Math.floor(Math.random()*10+1);
  • On a regular roll of the dice, we would just return the value of roll as a result. But since we're stacking the deck, we need to add more coding. We need to add an if/else function statement that checks if our result is 7-10 and tweak it so it gives us a 1 or 2. (This was implemented in an exercise involving making a blackjack game, such that jacks, queens, and kings, with the values 11-13, still return a value of 10.) In the end, you'll end up with something like this:

var rollStack = function() {
var die = Math.floor(Math.random()*10+1);
return die;};
var die = rollStack();
var getValue = function(die) {
if(die===7 || die===8 || die===9)
{return 1;}
else if(die===10)
{return 2;}
{return die;}};

Slap a console.log(getValue(die)); on the end, and you've got yourself a stacked die that gives 1s and 2s over half of the time. I've got to confess to you though, the above coding took me about two hours to figure out, and I ended up having to go back to the blackjack exercise and lift a decent portion of the code from there. In the end, by my writing (I'm sure someone could probably reduce what I've done down by a couple lines), it takes you about a dozen lines of code to rig a die, and a slender single line to play with a fair die.


I went through all that coding hell to illustrate this point: Coding a fair die is so much easier than coding a stacked die. To think that someone would intentionally suffer through coding a stacked die to make a game unfair, rather than using a simple fair die, is just stupid. If anything, I would hope that if someone wrote a game with a stacked die, they would wear it as a badge to show you how much work they went through (like something by RRRRThats5Rs, or The Binding of Isaac). Plus, people would flock to it in greater numbers knowing that it's a deliberately unfair game against them.

Coding a cheating game isn't logical. Next time you play a game that "seems to hate you," just accept it: You suck. But you can change that! Play some more. Develop new strategies. Find out how other people beat the game. It's entirely possible that you might've had bad luck once or twice or twenty times, but automatically blaming that on the game being rigged is narcissistic lunacy. After all, if you won every time, it wouldn't be much of a game, would it?


Edit: Well, that didn't take long. As zxo points out in the comments, all it would take to change the fair die roll to a stacked die roll is to square the value of the random number, giving much greater weight to lower numbers. He suggests it could be done by adding two characters (I'd imagine ^2), but the shortest addition I can find is Math.pow(). So all of a sudden, my brick of stacked code looks like this:

var roll = Math.floor(Math.pow(Math.random(),2)*6+1);

And my entire argument has already been obliterated. Not that it was even a strong argument to begin with, I confess. But can we at least agree that people who complain about random number generators need to shut up?

Friday, September 14, 2012

Paint the Town Red... Or Yellow

Pop Quiz: What do "Legends of the Hidden Temple," "American Dad," and "de Blob 2" have in common? Dee Bradley Baker. But I digress.

de Blob 2 is a pretty-good-but-not-perfect platformer that came out last year. In it, you play as Blob, the colorful leader of the Colour Underground, who must restore the color to Prisma City by fighting the evil Comrade Black and his army of inky soldiers. The gameplay involves rolling around town and painting buildings with your body to unlock previously inaccessible areas. The game is divided into three-dimensional platforming challenges while running around in gigantic outdoor cityscapes, and two-dimensional linear-maze-ish challenges while inside buildings. Even though there is combat, it's pretty minimal, where most enemies are defeated by jumping and squashing them, plowing through them, or just getting out of their way and letting them self-destruct. As such, with all of the ultra-colorful rainbow themes and excessive glee, it would be easy to mistake de Blob 2 as a children's game. Which it might actually be, I'm not sure. (It is put out by SyFy Kids, after all.) Kid cuisine or not, de Blob 2 does some awesome things that I wish more games would follow suit on.

Each level in de Blob 2 is huge, both in length and height. You'll spend a good portion of your time unlocking each of five to seven sections of each map, one at a time. As such, each level is a pretty decent timesink; I probably spent 90 minutes or more on each level, which also includes a handful of time for completionist activites (more on that later). What amazes me is that even for all of the crazy long levels, and fairly few variations on the themes of "paint things, smash things, and collect things," the gameplay didn't feel that stale at all. Of course, it was frustrating having to go back and replay chunks of the level after dying, but somehow playing through rather similar sequences didn't feel that tedious at all. (But man, what I wouldn't do to have some sort of level map to see where everything is...)

One thing that might have helped ease the tedium was the fact that each level has its own soundtrack, some of which you create as you go along. The music in each level generally starts out quite hollow and bare, maybe the vaguest semblance of a chord structure happening. As you accomplish more tasks and paint more of the level, you hear more instruments added to the mix until it's a raucous jam session by the end. Another cool element is that as you paint your surroundings, an extra instrumental riff is added in depending on what color you are (trumpets for yellow, bass for purple, organ for green, etc., although I might have those mixed up). Even though each level's music is essentially a long loop with different bits mixed in or taken out each time you hear it, it still feels fresh by the end of the level, and that's awesome.

Another point I feel other games need to copy is the acknowledgement that you might have accomplished a certain task before you're formally asked to do so. Since each level is essentially a mini-sandbox game with new portions unlocked as you go, you have the ability to accomplish some tasks (such as painting buildings or freeing trapped citizens) before you reach their actual starting points. Often times, the game simply acknowledges that you've accomplished this and moves you right on to the next task, which is awesome. But perhaps it's worth noting that this stands out to me as a strong suit simply because I've played a number of games where this isn't the case, and you'll be asked to redo a task you've already done just because the game "needs" you to advance in a very set order in order to move on (there are some instances in the Assassin's Creed games that spring to mind with regards to this). So perhaps I only feel this is awesome because this is the first sandboxy game I've played, but it's still something that grabbed me as cool.

Alas, if there's one huge issue I have with this game, it's a huge limiting factor to de Blob 2's sandbox-ness: Each level has a time limit in which you have to accomplish all story-related portions of the level. The time limit doesn't enhance the gameplay at all, it only feels like an extra layer of difficulty stapled on because the game wasn't "tough enough" to begin with. It's frustrating to have to restart a level simply because an arbitrary time limit ran out. It's frustrating to not be allowed to explore the levels and collect all of the hidden items just because you have to get the plotline tasks done first. As a gaming completionist, the latter point deeply bothers me. Mind you, once the main plot of each level is out of the way, you're free to explore the level with no time limit, but to restrict it to the end of each level is stupid. There's only once instance where the time limit means anything significant, and that's in the final level, where you are offered several temptations to save more citizens and grab extra swag at the penalty of wasting time before the crucial countdown ends. It's entirely possible that the time limits in all of the previous levels existed just to give the player a ballpark estimate of "Oh yeah, I could get that done with the amount of time I have left" at that final stage of the game, but before that, it's just fake difficulty.

The camera and controls sometimes do wonky things, but that's not too large of an issue that I feel it's worth ranting about here.

Aside from the time issue, de Blob 2 is definitely a very solid game. Even if you're not familiar with the plotline from the first commercial de Blob game (which I'm not), the in-game storyline and cutscenes are written in such a way that it's really easy to pick up the story and even make some emotional bonds with the characters, even if everything is gibberish. The gameplay, to my surprise, contains just enough variety to make sure the game never feels too stale, and is just the right difficulty for most ages. There's a ton of game to tackle in de Blob 2, which makes it very much worth the price (shame it seems to be on the clearance racks everywhere now). Pick up a copy and experience the joy of smearing paint all over town with your body.