Under a Grey Sky on a Grey Sea

The next hour was to be the edgiest of my life, as the Hood screamed into battle. There was little for me to do in the build-up to action, and I became a somewhat frightened observer. Dawn had been at 0200, and now I could see great patches of cloud that threatened rain, if not more snow and sleet. There was a heavy swell from the north-east, which slapped the great ship and produced a haze of water that showered over the bows on to the long forecastle and beat against the side of A and B turrets. Under a grey sky on a grey sea we charged towards an enemy who threatened the lifelines to Britain. Even a technicolor film of this morning would not have brought out a brighter hue.

Ted Briggs, Flagship Hood, The Fate of Britains Mightiest Warship

I spent most of the weekend playing Civilization V, as Elizabeth of England, King difficulty, archipelago map. Last night I completed a science victory, my first win at this difficulty. This morning, in my RSS reader, Brad DeLong posted a first-person account of the sinking of HMS Hood by the KMSS Bismark, taken from Ted Brigg’s memoir. Synchronicity abounds!

The link to DeLong has just the relevant bits. It’s long, but gripping, and fits nicely in the “I Came Here to be Podkilled” vein. The Hood was sunk on 19 May, 1941, a few days over 70 years ago.

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I played the game with England on an archipelago map because I love ships, and want them to be relevant. A bit of strangeness happened last night. About 10 turns away from winning, Genghis Khan, whose Mongol Horde had been my friend for the entire game, realized that if he didn’t do something, I would win. So he invaded me. But the invasion went nowhere, because the Civ AI does not understand how to fight with sea power. It does a creditable job with landlocked battles, but doesn’t do so well at invasions.

One of the critical mechanics changes in Civ V from Civ IV is that all land units can embark, having sea transport built in to them, once the required tech is researched. However, unless you are Songhia (the kingdom of river pirates), any fighting vessel may eliminate an embarked land unit by simply sailing on to its square. The killer can even continue sailing, if there is movement left, but the murder counts as the unit’s attack for the turn.

For me, managing a sea invasion works in three phases.

  1. Establish control of the appropriate body of water. This means eliminating all hostile seaborne fighting units.
  2. Use bombardment to eliminate non-garrisoned land units along the coast. Take advantage of the fact that most of them can’t shoot back, especially during the early phases of the game.
  3. Only then can you bring your embarked land units into the game. Take cities by first reducing them with naval bombardment, then a single land unit can finish them off.

However, the AI will just skip step one, form a combined fleet, and sail them all over, hoping for the best. This is probably because we don’t understand how to make AI’s execute multi-stage plans very well. So I beat off Genghis, losing maybe one ship in the process. He was feeling vindictive, so he dropped a nuke on St. Petersburg (I took it from Russia, but that’s another tale). This did a lot of damage, but was irrelevant. I was just a few turns from winning, and even a complete loss of St. Pete would not have made any difference.

After beating off Genghis, I noticed Caesar had a fleet in the water heading for me. That’s the fleet in the shot above.

I’m the ships with the red icons. The white line with a red fringe is my territorial border. London is to the southwest, maybe 8-10 hexes. My last spaceship part was built on a different island directly to the west and northwest, and is in the water, on its way to London for the win.

I’ve just blown up two submarines. One was in the hex I’ve marked “SS”, while the other was in the hex that my destroyer is now occupying. Rome’s two destroyers, marked “DD”, have been hit by cruise missiles from my missile frigate which is barely visible far to the west. The rest of the Roman units (with purple icons) are embarked land units. I have a couple of battleships just offscreen to the west, as is a carrier. The submarines were very dangerous to them, one of those subs can easily one-shot a battleship. But that threat is eliminated, the Roman fleet is all going to die. They can’t run fast enough to get away, but the AI probably doesn’t even realize that it needs to. It can’t see my other units.

A funny thing happened as I took this screenshot. I guess my finger must have slipped and hit another function key because the game, at that moment, without going through any intervening menus, launched me into a different game, one that Darkwater Daughter Number One had been playing as China. I had turned to look at something on the TV and when I turned back, the beautiful slaughter-in-waiting was gone.

I was able to restore to an autosave position, but the position was one prior to the Khan’s declaration of war against me. So I replayed the defense, and this time he declined to nuke me. When Caesar, showing friendship, asked for open borders, I refused him, and his fleet never came. Really, a much more boring path, but the result was the same.

Fabulous Failure Fun

Today seems to be the day for lots of people to complain about the lack of failure in MMORPG’s. Except they didn’t really say it that way.

First up, Psychochild links to Tobold who links to an article by Doctor Professor titled “Addicted to Fake Acheivement”. Doctor Professor describes the difference between a performance orientation and a mastery orientation:

It turns out there are two different ways people respond to challenges. Some people see them as opportunities to perform – to demonstrate their talent or intellect. Others see them as opportunities to master – to improve their skill or knowledge.

Say you take a person with a performance orientation (“Paul”) and a person with a mastery orientation (“Matt”). Give them each an easy puzzle, and they will both do well. Paul will complete it quickly and smile proudly at how well he performed. Matt will complete it quickly and be satisfied that he has mastered the skill involved.

Now give them each a difficult puzzle. Paul will jump in gamely, but it will soon become clear he cannot overcome it as impressively as he did the last one. The opportunity to show off has disappeared, and Paul will lose interest and give up. Matt, on the other hand, when stymied, will push harder. His early failure means there’s still something to be learned here, and he will persevere until he does so and solves the puzzle.

The language he uses demonstrates that Doc has a definite preference for mastery orientation, by the way.

The two kinds of players are separated by failure. Someone who is performance oriented – or who might be otherwise described as just looking for a little mindless fun – will walk away from an activity that serves them repeated failures.

Next is Pete Michaud’s article “Achievement Porn”

One salient example is our education system. Like a role playing video game, one educational challenge leads to the next, with each challenge being trivial for the people who are at the right level to undertake it. After years on a treadmill that’s too easy to fail at, players—students, in this case—are acclimated to the game of education, rather to real achievement. Their work for those years is not valuable at all, and often doesn’t even simulate what valuable work would be like: they have only managed to repeat patterns they’ve been shown back at the educators. This is the game.

An all-too-common complaint about the educational system. Just keep going and you will move through the system. There’s no real failure here. Pete says “The easy part to culling the bullshit is to ask yourself: Is this activity making a positive, tangible difference in my life or anyone else’s life?” I think this misses the point. As Psychochild points out, self-actualization is pretty important.

Finally, Syncaine complains about upcoming changes to Rift:

While the above is not yet live, and hence I have not experienced it myself, it looks like Trion is nerfing expert dungeon difficulty. That’s pretty sad, because honestly right now they are a solid challenge while not being min/max/ubergear hard (some are too long thanks to trash, but that has nothing to do with difficulty).
[...]
Casuals: Why MMO players can’t have nice things.

Syncaine has some pushback from commenters, claiming that “casuals” are necessary for the financial success of MMO’s such as Rift. He holds up EVE Online as a counterexample, but Eve Online was launched with an investment of $2 million, not $100 million. Eve is not different in this one dimension, but in many dimensions. The accomplishment of EVE Online’s design is that the game has an easy mode, and you can stay in that easy mode for a long time, or you can choose harder stuff. There is no “leveled progression”, but there are lots of invitations to do harder stuff.

Where is the failure? In comments (hat tip to Wilhelm Arcturus, who has several comments there):

At a high level, I don’t think it’s really that difficult; design content so either someone improves, or they don’t progress. The current model is basically “if you play well, you progress 2% faster. If you drool on your keyboard, it will take you a extra day to become a god-slayer”. That’s pretty terrible for long-term player education.

I think this is the same discontent – there’s no failure, as such.

I have spent the last 10 years or so learning to love failure, primarily through the vehicle of martial arts, specifically ju-jitsu. If you go to throw someone and they don’t fall down, the failure is obvious. It’s also pretty darn frustrating and embarrassing. At least, until you learn to remap the meaning of a failure. I now teach ju-jitsu to kids every week, and one of the most valuable experiences I can give them is failure. The normal social meaning of failure is “I’m a loser” – it’s shameful. We give them failure in an environment of laughter, affection and fun. I want those kids to lose their fear of simple failure. It’s ok to be afraid of getting shot or losing money, but the fear of the shame of failure itself isn’t very functional.

There’s a reason I post every single time I get podkilled in Eve. Sometimes, the stupid burns, but I want to learn from it, and celebrate it. Because that’s how I’ll get better. So, I’m kind of there about wanting failure.

I haven’t played Everquest II for nearly a year now. There are two reasons for that. The first is social. I ended up being online with pretty much nobody else I knew from my guild, and lonely. Leveling yet another alt, by myself, just stopped being interesting.

The other reason is that I too felt the game was now too easy. When the PUG you are in pulls an entire room and then burns them down in a button-mashing frenzy, then hustles off to do the same thing in the next room and then the next instance, and then…

That’s not what appealed to me about these games. I’m more puzzle/strategy/skill oriented. There were a few instances that had puzzles in them, but the groups I was in had someone who had done it before and just did the stuff with little comment in chat. I had no chance to fool with the stuff myself.

There’s nothing to keep me engaged. Keeping me engaged may not have meant only failure, but exploration and mystery. But exploration and mystery have that element of failure. This is where failure is truly necessary to enjoyment: Consider a novel or a movie. As it goes along, you form expectations about what’s going to happen next. Would the novel be interesting if all those expectations were accurate? If you were never wrong? No, it would be boring. Agatha Christie novels would lose something if she wasn’t so good at fooling you. But she is, and it feels good to be fooled. It must, or we wouldn’t read the next one, or complain about how other writer’s plots are easier to see through.

So I play Eve Online, and DDO and Civiliazation 4. I’m currently trying to win Civ on harder levels, and on different maps. I’m exploring the space, different maps, different sizes, different game speeds. Surprises are fun, but there wouldn’t be any if you were never wrong.

What I don’t agree with, though, is the idea that MMO’s take no skill. They do. I’ve been developing those skills for more than 10 years. (More than 30 if you count tabletop experience). It should not be surprising that I’m good at them. It’s often hard for people to see their own skills.

We’ve been playing DDO for about a year now. Going back to the starting dungeons on the island, we find that we blow through them now, they seem much easier than they used to be, even with minimal twinking. I think this is an unmistakable sign that we are more skilled. (When I say “we” I mean me and Mrs. Darkwater).

And yet, we keep finding new modules, new instances that can kick our butts. It’s glorious. (Vault of Night, I’m looking at you!)