Why “Skinner Box” is a useful distinction

Dinofarm Forums member "SwiftSpear" wrote up an article yesterday which caused a strong reaction in me. While I am really excited that a lot of new people have started writing about game design, I also don't agree with all, or most, of what people write. But this particular article is way wronger than average on something that's really important, so I am deciding to take some time out of my day to go through it and tell people why. Here is the opening paragraph. (more…)

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James Lantz’ Challenge to the “Information Horizon”

This will be less of a formal "article" and more of a "blog post". Tonight, following last night's podcast with Frank Lantz, game designer James Lantz (yes relation) made the following tweets:

  I thought that these were very interesting objections and I haven't heard someone object in this specific way before. Essentially, everything James is saying above is completely correct. Does my "information horizon" concept still have any utility? There are two major factors that feed into the information horizon concept:
  • Not Too Much Information: That the amount of data that players are capable of processing is carefully limited by the game designer so that we are in fact measuring decision-making ability and not just brute force calculation/look-ahead capacity
  • Not Too Much Output Randomness: We want the final outcome of the game to be as meaningful as possible, so as to give the player as much feedback as possible for his win or loss. If you've got to-hit rolls in your combat, that may be what determined a win or loss, and not your decision-making. In short, this means you have to play more games to get the same feedback you'd have to get if there weren't random swings in the resources players have access to.
The "information horizon" phrase was my attempt to say, you don't want your game to have no randomness (as in Chess or Go), but you also don't want your game to have too much randomness (as in Hearthstone or Summoner Wars). There is some "point" at which you want the randomness - the unknowable stuff - to start entering into the game.  

Just A Multiplier

James made the point that [output] randomness is "just a multiplier". So, as he puts it, "imagine on the 60th move of chess, the king had a 50% chance to transform into a king w/ queenlike movement." So let's say you're on the 59th move. By "multiplier", James means that there are now two possible Chess futures - the one where the King turned into a Queen, and the one where it didn't. I agree! That is one thing that output randomness does to games: it multiplies their possible game states in this way. But that's not all it does. Output randomness causes intense swings in the final outcome, which means that you now have to play more matches to get meaningful feedback. In other words, the game is less efficient than it otherwise would be. (And it's true that all randomness does this, by the way - input randomness does it as well, only less so, and to an extent that is worth the benefit.) Also, James is talking about a weird thing: a single use of output randomness in an otherwise deterministic system. That almost never shows up in any games. The way it really tends to show up is more like every turn or every few turns. When you keep that in mind, we're now talking about exponential kinds of multiplication of the game state over and over, which not only means that we have a massively large, but potentially calculable area - back to the original Chess problem where players will be accessing different amounts of data to process - but also we have a ton of interference on the final outcome. You need to play a lot of hands of a really random game to find out who is actually playing better. What I advocate for with the "horizon" is a point where the designer makes every effort to minimize any further calculation. So, picture fog of war, and monsters/terrain or whatever are coming through the fog, and it's just way too much stuff to possibly try and "predict", and there's really nothing to calculate, so the "calculation contest" thing is taken off the table.   Should it be called "information horizon"? To respond directly to James' third tweet, it's true that one random event does not constitute an information horizon. Maybe that's all I really needed to say in response to his tweets. But, I did think they were thought-provoking, and hopefully someone gets something out of this short article. Unless someone convinces me that one or both of those above bullet points are incorrect things to want - which is possible - I need a term for this "balance point" of where the randomness will be coming into the game. I could see an argument for it being called the "calculation horizon" perhaps, but "information horizon" also seems fine to me.

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General March Update

Today I'd like to fill people in on a few things that I've been working on in a quick blog post. Here goes!

  • The new release date for my book, Clockwork Game Design, is now May 28th.
  • I recently wrote two significant posts for dinofarmgames.com about Auro and the huge rebalancing/changes job we're doing for that game's 1.29 update, which should be coming out soon. Here's part 1, and part 2 - both definitely of interest to a reader of this site.
  • I stopped posting about them here (should I continue? Tell me in the comments), but I'm up to Episode 9 of 3 Minute Game Design now. Watch all episodes here.
  • The Patreon campaign is doing alright - it had a big spike up front but it's mostly been reducing over time. I'm looking for any possible ways to get it some more exposure and make it more appealing, so if you have ideas, let me know.
As always, thanks for reading, and let me know what you'd like to see in the future for the site, the Patreon campaign, or anything else.

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