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Steam Trading Cards: Confessions

Having acknowledged the problems with the Steam Trading Card system, I do my best to avoid them. Shortly after taking notice of the things last year, I adopted a few rules:

  • No idling. Obviously. Sitting in a matchmaking lobby for a multiplayer-only game that no one plays any more is permitted, as long as I do it in good faith and play a match if one appears.
  • No trading cards for money, or money for cards. “Not even once”, as they say. The Marketplace is a slippery slope, and besides, it strikes me as “easy mode”. Trading cards for cards seems like a better game.
  • No buying games just for the cards. Although if a game I was thinking of buying anyway just happens to have cards, well…

Even with those limitations, I’ve managed to reach level 57 — not the big leagues, but higher than anyone on my Friends list. My journey to this point essentially has three stages.

First, I just did a little occasional trading with Friends, if we could come up with a trade that gave us both something we wanted. Indeed, at first, your Friends were the only people you could propose trades to; if you wanted to trade with anyone else, you had to Friend them first. And then, to execute the trade, you had to be online at the same time as them. Trading took place in an interface similar to the ones for player-to-player trades in World of Warcraft and other MMOs, both players dragging offers from their inventory and then hitting an “Okay” button, which would become automatically unpressed if the other player modified the trade on their end.

I suppose Valve was unsatisfied with the amount of trading and badge-making that such an inconvenient system produced, because they soon added ways to make yourself available for trade offers from non-Friends, as well as the ability to do trading asynchronously, sending offers that people could accept or reject on their own time, which made the new game-specific Trading Forums much more useful. Just how useful varies a lot from game to game, even today. The useful forum posts, from my point of view, are the ones with subject like “[H] Gravity Well [W] Force Shield 1:1″. (“[H]” and “[W]” quickly emerged as accepted notation for “have” and “want”, “1:1″ means one-for-one, and “Gravity Well” and “Force Shield” are the names of two cards for Defy Gravity.) But a lot of the game-specific forums became clogged with spam along the lines of “1000+ cards 1:2″, without even any mention of whether those 1000+ cards included any for the game whose forum it was posted in.

My second phase began with the 2013 Winter Sale, when the reappearance of sale event cards provided additional impetus to complete badges. I had accumulated over 300 cards by then, simply by playing a lot of games and not making a lot of badges. Boosters, by the way, have never been a great source of cards. During the entirety of the Winter 2013 sale, when badge-crafting and therefore booster-dropping was at a peak, I got a total of two boosters. In the recent Summer sale, during which I reached level 50 and thus doubled my booster drop rate, I got three. But I keep on getting more card-bearing games — often without meaning to, through bundles. Even when I don’t buy any games, games that I already own suddenly get cards. At the time of the 2013 winter sale, the number of card-bearing games I owned and hadn’t got all the drops from yet was sort of perpetually hovering around 20-ish, despite my best efforts at milking them dry. So not only did I have what then seemed like a lot of cards, I had a seemingly inexhaustible source of more. So I tried my hand at being a card baron and posting general offers.

I didn’t spam the game-specific forums, mind you. I only posted to the forum of the official Steam Trading Cards group, the largest group on Steam. My terms were simple and, relative to the other card barons, fairly generous. I’d accept any 1:1 trade within a set, and any 1:2 or 2:3 trade across sets, regardless of whether I wanted the cards I received or not. My goal was simply to get more cards. And it worked for that purpose, for what it’s worth. I did quite a lot of trading for as long as I kept bumping my post to keep it on the forum’s front page, and made enough profit to keep my card count in the neighborhood of 300 even as I kept spending them on badges. I even managed to make a badge for a game I didn’t even own (Rising Storm/Red Orchestra 2 Multiplayer), which, at the time, seemed amusingly novel.

But at the same time, it was clear that most of my trading partners were taking advantage of me, securing my most valuable cards with greater quantities of what they considered trash. I wasn’t much concerned about market values, but the least valuable cards tended to be the ones from 15-card or 13-card sets. Consider cards as fractions of badges — for example, a card from a ten-card set is 1/10 of a badge. If you give me two cards from a 15-card set for one of my cards from a 5-card set, I wind up with more cards, but less badge. So I let my ad leave the front page and more or less stopped trading for a while, unless a Friend wanted something.

Phase 3 started when I learned about the third-party Steam Card Exchange trading bot. This completely changed trading for me. In particular, it let me follow the letter of the “no Marketplace” rule without following its spirit. The Card Exchange bot is a Steam user that you offer trades to like any other, but instead of a human being accepting or rejecting them, there’s a computer program, which usually means you get a reply just a few second later (unless it’s overloaded, as happened daily during the Summer Sale trading-frenzy). The bot assigns each card a value in “credits”, the value being determined by its price in the Marketplace, except that it assigns the same value to every card in a set, and values are not allowed to exceed 100 credits, to help prevent abuse. The bot will accept any trade where it’s getting at least as many credits-worth of cards as it’s giving, and if there are credits left over, it keeps track of them and applies them to future trades with the same person. It does have some limitations that the Marketplace doesn’t. If you want the last of a card it has in stock, you pay 50% more — presumably this is a big part of how it increases its stock. It won’t stock more than 8 of a card, so if it already has 8 of a card you’re offering it, your offer will be rejected. It won’t let your stored credits exceed 100.

(I find these limitations interesting, because they introduce some extra symmetry. You don’t just have lower bounds of zero cards and zero credits, but upper bounds as well. This means you can think of a personal store of n credits as (100-n) anticredits, which you can use to buy the gaps in the bot’s inventory.)

What this all means is that I now had a trading partner who wouldn’t try to bilk me, but which I could maximally exploit in good conscience. I’ve gone so far as to write a script to report the price of a full badgeworth of cards for every game in Card Exchange credits. (The Card Exchange has a page listing badge prices in US dollars, but this is misleading if you’re only trading with the Exchange.) I give it cards for expensive badges (when it lets me), and buy as much as I can of the cheap ones. I mentioned before that my first badge for a game I don’t own was an amusing novelty; at this point, if I make a badge for a game I do own, it’s complete coincidence.

I suppose the next step is day-trading: monitoring small price fluctuations and making a profit by repeatedly buying and selling the same cards. I haven’t gone that far yet, but honestly, I’m pretty far gone. Trading is no longer connecting me to other players, and I’m no longer aiming for badges for the games I like. The Card Exchange is almost as “easy mode” as the Marketplace. But hey, at least I’m not idling, right?

I few days ago, I idled. The game was Actual Sunlight, a short and text-heavy character portrait about depression and suicide, written in RPG Maker. Not exactly the sort of work you’d expect to have cards, but there it is. I played through it, assiduously seeking out every item I could press a button at to trigger an essay about how worthless the player character feels, and when I reached the end, and I still had one card drop left. So I started to replay it from the beginning, but got discouraged and stopped. (My patience was not helped by the game’s irritating unskippable opening cutscene, which includes an alarm clock going off multiple times.) I’m pretty sure I saw everything the piece had to offer, so I idled for a half an hour or so. The honorable thing would have been to just stop playing, and maybe pick it up again some time later, when I could look at it again with fresh eyes. But that last card drop itched.

Anyway, if you’re read this far, I invite you to trade with me. I currently have about 600 cards, and am willing to do just about any 1:1 in-set trade, as well as consider cross-set trades that don’t leave me with less badge.

Steam Trading Cards: The Downside

The last post described some of the benefits of the Steam Trading Card system. Well, the players, in their pursuit of cards or their indifference towards same, have wasted no time in subverting or destroying said benefits. The system itself enables this, and indeed encourages it, largely by linking cards to money.

If you don’t want to interact with your friends, the Steam Marketplace lets you sell your cards to anonymous strangers. You can use the proceeds to buy other cards, or you can save it up to buy games — I know people who have bought games entirely with the profits from selling cards. The one thing you can’t do with this money is withdraw it to spend on food or rent or anything else outside of Steam: the Steam Marketplace uses money from your “Steam wallet”, which you can fund from your credit card, but once money enters this captive economy, it doesn’t come out. Some people call it “Steambux” to differentiate it from “real” money (whatever that means). Also, valve takes a cut of every Marketplace transaction, although, since they’ve really already taken 100% of all money put into anyone’s “wallet”, what they’re really doing there is reducing the Steambux in circulation in order to convince people to convert more dollars into Steambux.

The Marketplace turns the card system into something like the free-to-play/pay-to-win games that have drawn so much deserved hate from the gaming community, and it deserves some derision just for that, but there’s an additional aspect that makes it even worse: the positive feedback of the booster drop rate. People who buy their way to Level 100 aren’t just cheating themselves out of the experience of doing it the hard way, they’re taking boosters away from the other players.

Mind you, I can’t say for sure that anyone’s actually bought their way to Level 100. All I can say is that there are definitely people paying Steambux for cards, because I know there are people selling cards, and there are definitely people who reached the higher ranks with suspicious rapidity, and who have thousands of cards in their inventory currently. You can find them in the various Steam trading forums, leveraging their massive stock by offering hard-to-find trades at terms that favor themselves, most often including a general “one of my cards for two of yours” as a default. And honestly, if people are biting, that could be enough to explain it. Simply being ahead of the curve on card-wealth would put them at enough of a trading advantage to be self-reinforcing. And that makes the card game somewhat less appealing.

To my mind, though, the single biggest perversity of incentive in the whole system is the one that manifests as “idling”: leaving a game running without playing it, just to get cards. Like I said, Steam has to be able to deal with games of all sorts, and doesn’t really have any way of knowing if you’re interacting with them or not. All it knows is when the game app is running. (And even if it tried to figure out more, I have no doubt that people would come up with ways to fake it, like they did for TF2 hat drops.) This is card-collecting for Bitcoin enthusiasts, rewarding you with virtual possessions for wasting CPU cycles. Now, you might wonder why anyone would do this, considering that the point of having games in the first place is to play them. But there are reasons: maybe you got the game in a bundle and don’t really want it; maybe you already finished it when it didn’t have cards yet; maybe you have a large backlog of card-bearing games and want to get their cards as soon as possible; maybe you have multiple Steam accounts just for card-farming; maybe you bought the game just for the cards and were never actually interested in playing it at all.

(Does this actually happen? Maybe, sometimes. If all you want is the cards, it’s generally cheaper to buy the cards on the Marketplace — I recall an article from last year in which a developer lamented how the cards for his game were selling for more than the game itself, and how lousy that made him feel, but that seems to have been a temporary thing, when the cards were new and therefore rare, limited in a way that a game on Steam will never be. Card prices are generally measured in cents rather than dollars, and only represent an upper bound regardless; just because a card is listed in the Marketplace as available for $20 doesn’t mean anyone is actually paying that much for it. But occasionally it can happen that buying a game and selling the cards can yield more than its price. During the recent Summer Sale, a 2D physics-puzzle platformer called Defy Gravity, which normally sells for $2.99, went on sale for 90% off. Its cards were priced at about 11 or 12 cents at the time, and idling would get you three cards, so you could actually make a few cents on that. SteamCents, of course.)

Regardless, all of these reasons strike me as bad ones, because they all come down to entitlement. The idler is saying “I do not wish to engage with this, but I want the spoils anyway”. This is a terrible way to play any game, metagames included.

But what is that to me? I’ll get into that in my next post, where I’ll describe my personal experiences with the cards, and how I reached level 50.

Steam Trading Cards: Gaming Gamified

OK, it’s been more than a month since my last post. The seasonal Steam Sale distracted me. It did this even before the sale proper began, by means of special promotional trading cards that kicked off a predictable trading frenzy which, for my part, hasn’t completely dissipated yet. Steam trading cards are essentially a metagame — a game that contains other games — and, as such, they easily take the place of the other chief metagame in my life, this blog. But since the card metagame is the chief game that’s occupying my attention lately, I guess I should blog about it a little.

Steam trading cards were introduced a little over a year ago. I, like many Steam users, didn’t pay them much attention until they were made the centerpiece of the promotion surrounding last year’s Summer Sale. Previous seasonal promotions had been more ad-hoc, involving special content in specific games — new themed levels, holiday-wrapped gift boxes dropped by monsters — and special tasks relating to this content that could earn you vanity items such as limited-edition hats for use in Team Fortress 2. I kind of miss that, but Valve seems to have regarded the cards as an improvement, because they’ve used the card system in every sale promotion since then.

Each participating game — and participation is completely optional — has its own set of virtual cards, with anywhere from 5 to 15 distinct cards in a set, featuring art provided by the game’s makers. The art varies considerably from game to game — some have concept art from the game’s development, some have screenshots, some have illustrations or cartoons inspired by the game, a few even have character stats on them like a baseball card. Obviously the art isn’t the appeal to the collectors here, though. If you just wanted to look at the pictures, they’re all easily found on the Web. No, if you’re collecting cards, it’s simply because collecting cards appeals to you. Because you’re an obsessive completist, or because you like the implicit trading game involved.

To summarize the rules of this game: Collected cards can be crafted into badges, which give you experience points, which help you get more cards, in a self-reinforcing cycle. I’ve heard people ridicule the whole system on that basis alone, asking “What’s the point?”, even as they happily play other games that are just as circular, just as pointless.

The cards initially come into the system as a result of people playing games they own on Steam. While you’re playing a game that has cards, you’ll just spontaneously receive a card once in a while. You only get a limited number of these drops, though, and the limit is equal to half the number of cards in the set, rounded up. Usually it takes a few hours to exhaust the drops (which, in some cases, may be enough to finish the game — I think of McPixel as an especially egregious example here), but once you’ve done that, you’re eligible for booster packs for that game. Boosters contain three cards, regardless of how many cards are in the set, and are just given out to random eligible users once in a while. Exactly how Valve decides when to give out boosters is unknown — all we know is that it’s linked to the rate at which players make badges, which may or may not mean that they try to keep a constant number of cards in circulation. When boosters are issued, your chance of being chosen to receive one is affected by your Steam account’s “level”, which is a concept that came in with the card system. There’s this whole system of XP, with levels taking arithmetically-increasing amounts of XP to attain. And that’s what badges are for: they’re the source of XP. A complete set of cards can be turned into a game-specific badge, or used to upgrade a badge you already have (normal badges can be upgraded four times), yielding 100 XP each time, which is enough to earn you an entire level at the lower tiers. Crafting a badge also gives you a couple of minor vanity items and a discount coupon for another game, but I consider these inconsequential — goodness knows there’s a glut of both out there. There exist badges that aren’t card-based — player profile attributes from older promotions got turned into badges so that they could also contribute XP — but cards are by far the dominant badge source. Cards can be traded between players, or bought and sold on the Steam marketplace, but badges are permanently linked to a single account.

There are a few other wrinkles, like “foil cards”, and how the system deals with free-to-play-games, but we’ll ignore those for now. I should probably say something about the promotional cards that kicked off this post. Each of the major seasonal sales (summer and winter) since Summer 2013 has had its own card set. There were several ways to earn these cards, but the most significant one for this discussion is this: starting about a week before the sale, crafting a badge for any game would give you a promotional card in the place of the coupon. (The coupons would have been pretty useless during the sale, due to not being combinable with other discounts.) The Summer 2013 cards worked pretty much like normal game cards, with a five-level badge and all, but subsequent promotions added two extra twists: there’s no limit to how many times you can upgrade the event badge, and any unbadged cards vanish when the sale is over. Thus, the sale produces a flurry of limited-opportunity card-trading and badge-making, and the limited availability of the promotional cards was enough to make a lot of users, including myself, hold off on pursuing badges while the Summer 2014 sale was approaching, so as to maximize our sale badge XP.

Now, before I start tearing this system apart, I’d like to acknowledge the ways in which it’s kind of brilliant. First of all, it links getting cards to actually playing games, which is good for the players, because it gives them an extra motivation to actually try out all the extra games they got in sales or bundles, and good for the developers, because having people play their games to get the cards stimulates interest in them. What’s more, it links cards to their games in a very content-agnostic way. If I had been asked to devise a trading-card system linked to playing games, I probably would have tried to link it to progress in the game — say, one card for every level you complete or something — but any such scheme would assume a lot about the sort of game it is. You can’t even really say “You get all your cards when you reach the ending”, because not all games have endings. The existing system only assumes that games are played in distinct sessions of nonzero duration — which may not be a safe assumption about games in general, but it’s fine for the sort of games Steam supports.

Secondly, it encourages player interaction, even in games that don’t encourage it otherwise. Booster packs come rarely enough that you’re unlikely to complete many badges without trading, and the interface for viewing your progress on a badge helpfully tells you which people on your Friends list own the cards you’re missing, to facilitate deal-making. Mind you, trading away cards effectively means giving up on one badge to complete another, which can be a tough decision: it’s natural to want badges for the games you like, so consequently giving up cards for a game feels like a statement that you don’t like that game so much, even though the very fact that you have those cards in the first place means you probably do. At any rate, trading means exposing your card inventory, which communicates something about your game preferences. Engines of commerce such as Steam are always trying to get customers to endorse products by rating them or reviewing them or “liking” them, but the card system gets something of the same effect without coming off as asking for an unpaid favor.

Tomorrow, I’ll post about some things I don’t like about the system.

Asynchronous online multiplayer

Lately I’ve been playing a couple of games with a friend back east via iPhone apps. First we played a few rounds of Ascension, then a few rounds of Ticket to Ride. These are both adaptations of games designed for non-electronic play: Ascension is a card game, Ticket to Ride a board game. In their original forms, they would be played face-to-face in a single session, which is to say, in a period of time set aside just for play. As mobile games, no set-aside time is required. You can take your turn at any idle moment of your day. It’s no surprise that this transforms the experience of the game. It’s a little less obvious that it transforms it in very different ways depending on the rules of the game.

Ascension isn’t a CCG, but its design is informed by them. As in Magic: the Gathering, most cards are in some way exceptional, with special-case rules printed directly on the cards themselves. And if the central act of gameplay in a CCG is deck construction, Ascension manages to approximate it within the body of the game: the players start with small identical decks, and vie to acquire cards from a central pool, to add them to their decks and use them later in the game, most often for acquiring more cards. On every turn, you’re dealt a fresh hand of five cards from your deck, and your turn doesn’t end until you’ve played them all and your hand is empty. Importantly for the mobile adaptation, you’re dealt next turn’s hand immediately on the end of your turn, so you can contemplate what you’re going to do with it while your opponents are going.

Ticket to Ride is about trains. The board is a map of a rail network. Players compete to claim the tracks between cities and complete connections between particular distant pairs of cities assigned to them in secret. Each track can be owned by only one player, so some of the strategy is in dealing with, and exploiting, congestion: trying to foil your opponents by claiming the tracks they need while trying to plan for alternate routes in case your own efforts become blocked. Buying a track costs varying types and numbers of resources in the form of cards, which build up in your hand over the course of play. On any given turn, you can either draw two cards, or buy one track, or get additional contracts to connect cities (which is risky, because any contracts left uncompleted at the end of the game count against you).

Now, the big difference between these two games is in the length of the turns. Ticket to Ride turns are short. You do one thing, and that’s it — and if all you did was draw a couple of cards that you didn’t really need, it hardly feels like doing anything at all. Ascension turns are long, and get longer as the game advances and your deck becomes more powerful, enabling you to do more stuff. Moreover, Ticket to Ride separates the act of acquiring resources from the act of using them, and the result can be fairly excruciating: you finally get the fifth green card that you need to buy the St. Louis to Pittsburgh line and complete the connection you’re aiming for, but then you have to wait hours for your next turn before you can complete the transaction. In Ascension, your purchasing power is also tied to the cards in your hand, but it’s transient, not something that builds up from turn to turn, and so you use it the moment you get it. It’s a little strange to say this about a game that’s all about collecting things for future use, but turns in Ascension feel pretty self-contained, or at least self-sufficient. They’re like full sentences, where Ticket to Ride turns are sentence fragments, only meaningful in groups.

Another thing: Both of these games involve a struggle to get stuff before your opponents, and the possibility that a thing you really want will be taken away before you can get it. But the degree of consequence is very different. In Ascension, if I don’t get the sweet card I wanted, well, it’s just a card. There will be others. But in Ticket to Ride, if someone nabs the track I wanted, I’m devastated, and have to rework my plans. This again relates to the relative unimportance of forward plans in Ascension, which is more about seizing whatever the circumstances offer.

The end result: Ascension works more or less the way I want asynchronous multiplayer to work, with turns as satisfying nuggets of gameplay that I can take care of whenever it’s convenient. With only two players, there came times when we shuttled several turns back and forth in a short period of time, but this wasn’t a necessary part of the experience. Whereas in Ticket to Ride, the times when we made multiple moves in rapid succession were the only times that the game really felt like it was going anywhere. After submitting a move, I’d keep impatiently checking my phone for an opportunity to finish what I started. In other words, despite the asynchrony, I wanted to treat it like I was in a dedicated game session. Whereas Ascension is so well-suited to the format that I feel like it would be weird to play it face-to-face.

So, I’m speculating that this is generally applicable. Games that are well-suited to asynchronous multiplayer play will be those with long, self-sufficient turns, and without a great deal of forward planning. What does this predict for other games?

Chess and Go are big losers in this model, having both short turns and heavily planning-based gameplay. Scrabble, I suggest, is a winner — sure, you only get to do one thing per turn, but my experience is that it the turns tend to take an uncomfortably long time for face-to-face play anyway. And indeed asynchronous Scrabble-oids such as Words for Friends have been immensely popular. Settlers of Catan? Ignoring the problem of how to handle trading, it seems a pretty good candidate to me, despite sharing Ticket to Ride‘s congestion and resource-accumulation aspects: the congestion is never as individually crucial as in Ticket to Ride‘s routes, and resources can be spent as soon at they’re acquired. Magic: the Gathering might seem promising at first glance, what with its long turns, but it involves a degree of out-of-turn interactivity that’s unwieldy even for synchronous online play, let alone asynchronous. Diplomacy more or less fits the bill, and is also one of the few board games that I know to be more satisfying played via email than in its original form, but it’s also such an oddball with its all-players-move-simultaneously thing that I’m not sure it really fits into the same model as these other games at all.

Let me tell you a little more about Homestuck

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post about the gamelike attributes of Homestuck: sometimes Homestuck is difficult. Sometimes just reading it is a challenge. That’s not just because it’s a sprawling and complex work with a lot of characters to keep track of. It’s also because the text is often obfuscated in some way.

Most of the story’s text is in the form of chatlogs, and quite a few of the characters have “typing quirks” of some sort, such as leet-style letter substitutions, which somehow carry over into their speech and even sound effects. The simpler and more consistent substitutions are easy to get used to, but then you get contextually-variable ones, where the same substitution has more than one meaning. For example, one character uses “8″ for both “B” and the sound of the word “eight”, or sometimes even for just a long “A” sound, and when she’s upset she just starts sticking 8′s into words where they don’t make sense at all. Occasionally the quirks become incomprehensible enough to baffle the other characters.

There’s one character who speaks in white text — the website’s background isn’t quite the same color, but it’s still most easily read by highlighting it. The effect is sometimes that you see other people’s reactions to what he said before you see what provoked those reactions. There’s an infrequently-used alien alphabet, stolen from the Elder Scrolls games. There’s a character who’s a firefly, who’s completely mute and communicates (or tries to communicate, anyway) by blinking in morse code, transcribed for the reader in dots and dashes. There’s a brief appearance by a character who speaks solely in bad Japanese. It all becomes a sort of gesture of amiable hostility on the part of the author, who knows that anything he does to thwart his readers will be decoded in short order and posted online by the more dedicated ones. And that adds up to another bit of gamishness: even outside of the interactive sequences, people are getting to the full content by looking up hints online.

Let me tell you about Homestuck

After seeing Homestuck mentioned here and there for a few years now, I finally decided to give it a try back in January. It took me about three weeks to get all the way through the archives. During those three weeks, reading Homestuck was pretty much all I did when I was at home. In particular, it consumed the time that I would have otherwise spent playing games. It seems to me that Homestuck displaces games particularly easily. It scratches the same itch, because of the various ways it’s connected to them. I’ve never seen a work in any medium whose relation to games and gaming is so multi-faceted.

Before delving into that further, I should explain just what Homestuck is. It’s usually classed as a webcomic, but that’s misleading: much of the story is told through lengthy text passages, animation (usually simple animated gifs, but with the occasional longer Flash-based movie with musical accompaniment), and even interactive sequences, with no separation. But it’s definitely a work of serialized fiction, written by Andrew Hussie (with sporadic collaboration on art, music, and code) since 2009 and still ongoing as I write this. The story concerns a group of teenagers playing a videogame called “SBURB” that affects their reality, and which turns out to be major part of the cosmic cycle involving the end of the world and the creation of a new one. Although greatly given to rampant silliness, it’s got very good characterization and a twisty, turny plot that pitches wildly from heartwarming to slapstick to horrified “OH MY GOD” at the drop of a hat.

So, just from that description, the most obvious connection to games is in the premise: this is a story about a game. It goes further than that, though. Gamishness pervades the world of the story, and fake videogame user interfaces are just part of the way that world is presented. The characters struggle with obtuse inventory systems, have JRPG-style battles with family members, and gain experience levels before they’ve even started playing SBURB — if they can ever truly be said to be in such a state; in a sense, we later learn, they’ve been part of the game for their entire lives. (You may think it’s hinting at an obvious just-a-dream-style twist ending where the entire story and all its characters turn out to be just parts of a larger game, but honestly, that wouldn’t even be a twist at this point. The twist is the uneasy fusion of game and reality; simplifying that would be an untwist.) It’s not just videogame imagery, either: there are entire plot structures and groups of characters organized around card suits, chess, and pool (to one-up Carroll).

Secondly, there are those interactive sequences I mentioned. This flows from the game-centric plot: when you read about a game, it’s only natural to want to play it — so much so, in fact, that the fans’ craving for a Homestuck-based game resulted in one of the canonical highly successful Kickstarter projects. But even before that, Homestuck contained multiple games, or game-like things, as part of its narrative, in a sort of inversion of the usual game/cutscene relationship. Now, understand that these are still games more in presentation than in function, hinting at the presence of mechanics you can’t actually use while really just providing an alternate frame for dialogue: walking a sprite around a map and pressing a button at people to trigger canned conversations. But then, consider how many actual games try to get away with essentially the same thing, modulo annoying random encounters. In Homestuck, at least it’s completely clear from context that any interactive elements are subordinate to a linear story. Also, by virtue of its episodic format, Homestuck gets to keep experimenting with the pseudogame systems, or even completely replacing them. At one point a character explores a long-dead world, and the minigames adjust appropriately: instead of a tile-based RPG imitation, you get a short but fully-functional Myst-like.

Even if the gameplay in the interactive Flash parts is driven by plot, the plot on a broader level has been to some extent driven by gameplay. Probably the most prominent game element in Homestuck is the command prompt: pages are linked, one to the next, with simulated text-adventure commands addressed to the characters. Although this is just a stylistic quirk today, for the first few chapters these commands were a form of audience participation, chosen from suggestions submitted to the website. Not that this put the audience entirely in the driver’s seat. As Hussie explains on the site, “When a story begins to get thousands of suggestions, paradoxically, it becomes much harder to call it truly ‘reader-driven’. This is simply because there is so much available, the author can cherry-pick from what’s there to suit whatever he might have in mind, whether he’s deliberately planning ahead or not.” Homestuck inherited this mechanism from the three previous projects that it shares the mspaintadventures.com website with, and those previous projects were much more reader-driven: in the first such experiment, Jailbreak, he simply picked the first suggested command at each juncture, which inevitably produced a story mostly about poo and dismemberment. In Problem Sleuth, the story immediately preceding Homestuck, Hussie was exercising choice, but also quite clearly didn’t have a lot planned out at first and used the suggested commands for ideas, kind of like in improv comedy. For example, at one point early on, a reader suggested building a fort out of the Sleuth’s broken office furniture, and Hussie immediately started spinning pseudo-game mechanics around play forts of this sort: sitting in a fort provided access to an imaginary but objectively real world, but only if your Imagination stat was high enough, although if it wasn’t, you could get a temporary Imagination boost by drinking alcohol, etc. Although much about the overall structure of Homestuck was planned out before it even began, some the details came out of this sort of give-and-take.

Now, I actually read Problem Sleuth for a little while when it was still ongoing, and only learned of its connection to Homestuck shortly before starting to read Homestuck. I gave up on PS when it was about halfway to completion, at a point when it shifted its focus from fake contrived adventure-game puzzles to extremely long fake JRPG combat sequences. (Homestuck is closer to the latter register from the get-go, but somehow it’s held my interest better. Possibly because it starts out in that register.) But at its best, it left a strong impression that the author had managed to invent an online crowd-playable version of Mentalia.

“Mentalia” is the name that some friends of mine gave to the pseudo-tabletop-RPG that they played sometimes, although I imagine other people have come up with the same idea independently. It works like this: Like in D&D, there is one GM (Mentalia uses the term “Madmaster”) and one or more players; the players control the actions of specific characters, while the GM controls the world. However, the world runs on whim. There are no outright rules other than non-contradiction. If you say your character can fly, then your character can fly, and no one can tell you otherwise. There is, however, one very strong guideline: that simple, straightforward solutions to problems should never work, and if the reason they don’t work is absurdly implausible, so much the better. (This attitude in particular is all over Problem Sleuth.) So, for example, directly attacking the fearsome beast guarding a passageway would probably just break your sword. You’d have more luck with an indirect approach like, say, getting the beast on your side by converting it to Christianity — which would doubtless require sub-quests like fetching books on theology for the beast to peruse. A really off-the-wall approach like replacing the beast with a statue, and doing it so quickly and stealthily that not even the beast itself notices, might work without further complication simply because it’s amusing in itself. A lot is up to the Madmaster. Now, I’ve been in good Mentalia sessions and bad Mentalia sessions. The worse ones are the ones where the participants just treat it as a way to show off how wacky and off-the-wall they can be individually. But at its best, Mentalia involves everyone building off each other’s ideas, collaboratively inventing not just a story but a set of assumptions that allow a story to take place. The story starts from nothing, flails about randomly for a while, and then somehow coalesces into structures and goals that you can follow towards a satisfying conclusion. And that’s what Homestuck is like.

Even in its post-collaboration phase, this is a story that keeps revealing more and more of its underlying rules. Partly this is because the author keeps on inventing new rules, but partly it’s because it’s to a large extent a story about people figuring out how their world works. For example, there are long sequences of pages devoted to showing the players experimenting with the game’s crafting system, making ridiculous weapons by fusing the essences of ordinary household objects. One player even writes up a strategy guide for GameFAQs! This sort of figuring-out is of course a big part of the gaming experience — according to some theories, the joy of learning to master a complex system is the core of what makes games fun. And yet, it strikes me that it’s something that very few works of fiction concerning games have tried to depict. Homestuck, to its credit, depicts it quite a lot. As the characters learn the ins and outs of the game, the readers learn alongside them, getting some of the game-fun for themselves. And even when the story isn’t focusing on the characters figuring stuff out, there’s stuff for the reader to figure out about the story. Major revelations come in forms that you only come to understand gradually, after noticing repeated patterns, or callbacks to things that appeared hundreds of pages ago. Or, as one reader put it, “[I]n Homestuck, answers are freely revealed while the reader has no idea that it is an answer to anything or what sort of question it could be answering… When the question is finally revealed later in the story, the reader is reminded of the answer being presented to them way back when absolutely nothing made sense, and the entire plot begins to fall into place.” In short, the story is a kind of riddle, a ludic element in itself.

Bugdom Beaten

It is a truth universally acknowledged that most games go unfinished. Or at least, that’s how it used to be — I don’t know if modern trends have changed this or not. On the one hand, shorter games have come into vogue, but on the other hand, there are a lot more of them, and they’re available for cheap, and often in bundles. It’s certainly the case that more games go unstarted these days.

Anyway, I don’t have figures to back this up, but I suspect that Bugdom is one of the games more frequently left uncompleted, simply on the basis that probably most of the people who had it got it bundled with their iMacs, and that those who tried it at all probably didn’t play past the first two levels. To these people, I say: It is a better game than you think it is, with a decent variety of action. But it is probably not worth your time all the same. I’m proud to now be among the few people to have played the game to completion, but I’m also glad to have it behind me. So eager to finish was I that I did finally abandon the pursuit of collectibles for the last few levels, ending the game with only three of the game’s four gold clovers.

I might have been more patient if it weren’t for the glitches. I already mentioned one major glitch — the failure to occlude particle effects (both fire and splashing water, it turns out) — but there are more serious ones. For one thing, whenever I loaded a game started in another session, it started with my health at zero. The first part of every new level was thus a frantic search for a health item to keep me from getting killed by the merest pinprick. But there was one more glitch that the game was saving up for the endgame. It has to do with the save system.

Imagine you’re powering through level 9, the fire ant tunnels. You’ve been through most of it several times, but you keep missing your timing in the rope-swinging sections and falling into the lava. Finally, though, you get to the end with a reasonable number of lives in reserve. As usual, the game asks if you want to save. You do. Now, there are ten levels, which means that in a complete playthrough, you get nine opportunities to save. But for some reason the save screen has only eight slots. No problem, you think, I’ll just overwrite the first one. You try this. The game crashes.

It does this consistently. My first thought was to delete the file for save slot 1, but when I did this, it stopped recognizing all my saves. Well, it only let you save to the first of the empty slots, so under normal operation, there wouldn’t be any occupied slots after the first empty one. Experiment proved that it would find saves up to the first empty one, then give up. My save for level 9 was of course in the very last slot, but renaming the file was enough to shift it up to slot 1 and leave slot 8 empty. Anyway, the lack of complaints about this problem on the Internet lends weight to my guess that few people even tried to play the game to completion.

Anyway, beating the end boss was a cinch compared to that. So much for Bugdom, then, until I do the sequel, which is already on the Stack. Did you know there was a sequel? It’s even been ported to iOS, which is something they didn’t bother to do with the original.

Bugdom: Into the Dark

Those fireflies, by the way, are annoying. They pick you up and carry you to an earlier point so you have to regain ground.Well, I’ve given a good solid explore to Bugdom‘s level 8 (out of 10), a place of rocky crags and steep defiles and occasional acid pools. I anticipated my latest session also being my last, seeing how I often give an extra push towards completion when I get close enough to smell it, but level 8 defeated this aim, mainly by being so darned large. Size is kind of important to the way this game produces difficulty: by putting more stuff between you and your goals. Not necessarily harder stuff, just more of it. If you mess up and let yourself get hit by one spear-wielding ant in ten, then a hundred ants will hit you ten times, which is probably enough to kill you. It should be understood that, although most enemies are killable, you receive no benefit for killing them other than not having to deal with them any more. Killing doesn’t even score you points. So the game as a whole is tilted somewhat towards running away from things, but all the moreso on this level, where it would take so long to make a significant dent in the forces arrayed against you.

I suppose it’s all another nudge to use the curl-up-and-zoom feature, whether to zoom past enemies or to bowl into them for quick damage. Kicking enemies to death just takes too long to be practical when the enemies are clustered together in large groups. Understand that your basic spear-carrier ant has to be kicked three times before it stays down, that it’s temporarily invulnerable while it recovers from each kick, so even killing an isolated foe takes a while. In addition, the kick animation rather awkwardly locks you in place for the second or so it takes to run fully, leaving you vulnerable to any other attackers in the vicinity. It’s all part of what gives the game the sense of clumsiness I noted in my first post.

The other notable thing about level 8 is that it takes place at night. I don’t think this actually has any effect on visibility — the clipping plane is pretty close to the camera throughout the game — but it seems like you can’t see as much because the distances are greater. I mean, on the smaller levels, you can often see all the way to the far wall of whatever area you’re in, making the exact range of visibility irrelevant. As such, you can actually typically see farther in the darkness of level 8. So the darkness is mostly stylistic. As is often the case in videogames, the first level is sunny and green, and the environments get darker and more threatening as you enter the den of evil at the end.

Plus, darkness shows off the fire better. This level introduces fire-breathing enemies (they’re fire ants, get it?), and you can often see them as spots of glow on the horizon before you can make out the and behind it. Especially if you’re subject to the glitch I’ve been experiencing here. On my machine, fire can be seen through otherwise-opaque walls, which can be quite disorienting. I assume that the Mac version didn’t have this problem, but honestly I have no idea.

Bugdom: Roll-up

Amazingly enough, I managed to get through level 4 unscathed. Level 5 turns out to be the game’s first boss fight, an aerial battle on the back of a firework-spitting dragonfly in a large and very open space. The boss in this case is a beehive — stationary, large, and without defenses of its own, but with a substantial health bar, and while you’re whittling it down, you’re attacked by bees. Still, not very difficult.

Level 6 takes place inside the hive, which is much larger than it looked from the outside. It’s the first enclosed space I’ve seen in the game. Not that it makes a lot of difference — the ceiling is high enough to not interfere with jumping, which is fortunate, because you jump a lot here. In addition to the environmental hazards — unswimmable pools of honey, crossed by chains of moving or sinking platforms — there are three distinct varieties off bee patrolling the place. There are biting grubs, which can only be kicked from close enough to be dangerous, but which can be squashed by jumping on them. There are big beefy soldier-types that turn around and shoot their stingers at you like cannons and then expire, but this provides enough of a warning that it’s generally easy to jump out of the way at the right moment. And there are the flying ones, just like the ones back in level 5.

And those flying ones are a problem. You don’t have a dragonfly to shoot them down with any more. They fly too high to be kicked; I don’t think it’s possible to kick them even when they dive at you. They’re difficult to run away from, too. I’ve only managed to get through this level with unacceptable loss of life, and it’s mainly due to this one type of creature.

Level 7 is another boss fight, but a fairly inscrutable one. As far as I could tell at first, I was incapable of hurting the boss bee, but it was equally incapable (or uninterested) in hurting me. It just made numerous mounds of honey on the floor of the arena, which didn’t seem to have any effect or use. By now, I’ve gone online to find out what the secret is, and I guess it’s the same secret as for defeating the fliers in the hive. You have to take advantage of one of Rollie’s basic abilities that I haven’t been using much: the ability to curl up into a ball and rocket about like Sonic the Hedgehog.

Now, it isn’t the case that I’ve never used this skill. I used it a bit back in the land of giant feet, the better to dart from one safe point to another. But it’s not something I do regularly, and there are three reasons for that. First, your ability to stay rolled is limited. There’s an energy meter for it, and that makes me want to hoard it. Second, it’s awkward to execute if you’re playing from mouse and keyboard. Bugdom puts movement on the arrow keys, far away from all the other controls, apparently in the expectation that you’ll either use two hands on the keyboard or do all your movement from the mouse. But, educated by other games, I find it much easier to move around with one hand on the mouse and one on arrow keys, which means that any action that can’t be performed easily from this position requires a moment of calm in which to reposition my hand. Thirdly, it’s dangerous. If you’re rolling at great speed, it’s all to easy to go barreling into enemies or hazards. (And if you’re not, there’s not much point to wasting your limited stay-rolled energy.)

But even as I say all this, I recognize that, by not taking advantage of this ability more, I’m probably missing the point of the game. You’re supposed to spend your time zooming around like a golf ball. That’s the fun part. It’s just not what makes for steady progress. And it’s a bit of poor design that these two things conflict as much as they do.

Bugdom: Personal Standards

My last brief session brought me through to the second segment of level 4, a largish open area where you learn to ride dragonflies, and into the third segment, where you use your new-gained skills in a sort of entomological version of the Death Star trench run. (Unlike Luke, you can dismount at any time, but the territory is dangerous enough to make this a bad idea.) If I can get through this, I’ll be into terra incognita.

Actually, I have a feeling that I managed to reach level 5 at least once back in the old days, but didn’t save my progress, because I was unsatisfied with my completion of level 4. Which leads to the question: just how perfectionist do I want to be here?

Every level has scattered collectibles. First, there are the captive ladybugs, trapped in cages made of spiderweb. The only benefit for rescuing them is bonus points at the end of the level, and I’m basically ignoring that, but nonetheless, my feeling is that leaving a ladybug unrescued is unacceptable. Not just for plot reasons, either: each ladybug represents a highly-visible optional challenge. Leaving some of them alone means failing to experience some of the game content. Furthermore, when the game counts up bonus points, it makes it very clear just how many ladybugs you left behind, so there’s a scold factor as well.

The other collectibles are all contained in abundant and identical nutshells, which you have to kick open to find out what’s inside them. Sometimes it’ll be a health item or power-up or extra life, sometimes it’ll be an enemy that attacks you if you don’t move quickly (which is particularly annoying if you’re facing forward at the time, because the avatar blocks your view of what’s happening), but usually it’s a clover, which is simply more points. Now, there are three colors of clover: green, blue, and gold. There are exactly four blue clovers on every level. There are exactly four gold clovers in the entire game. Completing these collections seems like a goal worth pursuing. But green clovers are just filler. Their number varies from level to level, and you’re not given any information about how many you missed, so clearly the game designers don’t want me worrying about it.

Lives, now. This is arguably a game that doesn’t really benefit from limiting the number of times you can die, but it does it anyway. The game lets you save your progress permanently only between levels, so whenever you save, you’re effectively declaring that you think you can pass the next level with as many lives as you have at that moment. You can have only up to three lives in reserve, so picking up more than that is a waste. Furthermore, I’d say that entering a level with the full amount is also a waste, because the levels seem to generally let you pick one up close to the beginning. Also, if you’re nearing the end of a level with full lives, and suddenly get killed by something you weren’t expecting, the absolute perfectionist would have no choice but to start the entire level over. And levels are long enough that I don’t want to have to do that. But I do want to enter each level no more than one life down, if I can.

I may well lower my standards as I get further into the game, but right now, this is what I’m shooting for. And honestly, it doesn’t seem so far like it adds much to the difficulty of the game. I want to kick most of the nuts anyway, in the hope of finding an extra life once in a while.

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