Gamecraft

This blog is all about the craft of making games, and in particular, computer games. Gamecraft involves a broad range of topics, including design, development, quality control, packaging, marketing, management, and life experience.

Name: Gregg Seelhoff
Location: East Lansing, Michigan, United States

Saturday, December 29, 2007

Where are Wii?

Another season of artificial shortages comes to an end.

For the second year in a row, Nintendo has managed to create completely artificial shortages of their Wii console to increase demand. There were questions in 2006, within the first few months of the Wii release, about whether this was a legitimate production issue, but more than a year later, it is fairly obvious that Nintendo is manufacturing scarcity alongside the hardware.

As far as the actual process of building the consoles is concerned, it is not as if they should be experiencing any delays due to, say, protecting the environment. Recently, Nintendo got the very first zero rating given to any company by Greenpeace in their Guide to Greener Electronics. That is quite an accomplishment; as the actual report on Nintendo [PDF] states, "The company scores zero on all criteria, allowing infinite room for future improvement."

Nevertheless, whether by stumbling into the problem last year and then merely replicating it in 2007 or by marketing design from the outset, this "Cabbage Patch Console" approach appears to be working. Dozens of adults lined up at our local Best Buy at 8:00am last Sunday morning, in winter advisory conditions including wind gusts up to 50 MPH, to get tickets to allow them to purchase one of the 120 units available. These ticketholders then waited in line again, some for hours, waiting for the opportunity to actually make the purchase. All of this just yards from where the technically superior XBox 360 and Playstation 3 consoles sat in piles as if stuck on the Island of Misfit Toys.

Fortunately, Santa Claus managed to bring a Nintendo Wii for our family this Christmas season without standing in any such ridiculous lines, but his method remains a closely kept secret. For my part, I find that the Wii controllers are well designed for certain types of games (Wii Sports Bowling in particular), but for other games they seem an awkward fit (think shoehorn). The fact that most games require players to stand, rather than sit down, to play has both positive and negative aspects.

On my first attempt, my Wii Fitness Age matched my actual chronological age exactly; I will have to work on that.

Thursday, December 27, 2007

Podcast: Detroit Creative Talent

I was interviewed for a podcast that has now been posted.

About a week ago, Rich Elswick (of Moya Entertainment) interviewed me for Detroit Creative Talent, which (as the name suggests) promotes creative talent in and around the Detroit area. Michigan boasts a strong pool of such talent in areas such as game development, multimedia production, film and broadcast media, and this site works to highlight some of the individuals creating product here.

The podcast of my interview is now available from the Detroit Creative Talent web site. [MP3 size: 55.4M, Running time: 1:00:30.]

Friday, December 21, 2007

Solution: Climb Mode

Here is our solution to online statistics manipulation.

As mentioned in my previous post, Problem: Statistics Manipulation, we have some players who manipulate their online statistics for solitaire games using a variety of methods. Equally, we have players complaining in the Goodsol Solitaire Forum about this practice and asking for something to be done. Worse, some players have stopped participating and reporting statistics due to the unreliability.

In an attempt to address this issue, and generally make our games more fun for our customers, we designed a new mode of gameplay called (for now) Climb Mode.

In Climb Mode, a user plays the deals for a particular game in strictly numerical order, starting with deal #1. This eliminates the ability to cherry-pick or replay deals to inflate victory percentages. At the same time, it assures that all players are compared on results from exactly the same deals. (This mode actually removes several features, such as Select Game, Previous Game, and New [random] Game.) Further, the game options are always fixed, so easier (or harder) variants are not available.

To address the question of which types of gameplay is preferred, we created a cumulative scoring system, where the score on a certain game is the total of all scores for deals played. This allows players (like me) to play for the maximum number of victories, hence scoring the most points per deal, to compete fairly with other players who play as many games as possible, rather than replaying each trying for a victory. Once one moves on from a game (by either winning or using Next Game), one cannot go back.

All games are timed in Climb Mode, and average time per deal is reported along with the total score. Ties in score are decided in favor of the player with the lower average time. Unlike in standard mode, the timer does not reset when restarting a deal, so one can replay as often as desired, but the extra attempts are reflected in the overall game time. (I have several deals in Free Klondike where I eventually won, but only after the timer maxed out at 99:59.9.)

Of course, the implementation of Climb Mode does not completely remove the possibility of cheating, as somebody who is truly determined could still potentially manipulate the results. However, we operate from the philosophy that anybody who goes through that much trouble to cheat in a friendly competition has bigger issues. In practice, since only paying customers are allowed to submit online scores, this has never been a problem, and the situation is certainly better than before.

Note that we decided to first implement the above changes in Pretty Good MahJongg rather than Pretty Good Solitaire. Now that the system has proven itself over the last few years in Pretty Good MahJongg, will Climb Mode be implemented in the next version of PGS? As the Magic 8 Ball says, "Signs point to yes."

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Problem: Statistics Manipulation

One solitaire game problem can be online statistics manipulation.

[Editor's note: This blog post was written more than a year ago, but only posted now.]

One of the common complaints on the Goodsol support forum is that the online statistics are skewed in some way. To be sure, there are some exploits that can be used in the flagship product, Pretty Good Solitaire, to manipulate the statistics in ones favor. In particular, one can select any deal (of 2147483647 available deals per game), so selecting known wins helps. Also, the starting position can be examined and, if no moves are made, abandoned without adversely affecting ones victory percentage. For the truly vain, unswayed by monotony, one can even play the same game repeatedly to boost their score.

Game secret: Due to the shuffling algorithm used, by design, the very last deal (i.e., game #2147483647) produces an unshuffled deck, which sometimes makes a victory easier. Veteran players who are really desperate to win a particular Solitaire game sometimes use this deal number in an attempt to get above 0%.

In addition to manipulating statistics via cherry-picking deals, there are a few other complaints. Some of the games have rules that make winning easier (or harder), so the statistics do not always compare like with like. Similarly, some players attempt to get high victory percentages, restarting a game repeatedly until it can be won (if possible), while others value the number of victories and play many more games to do that. Which is better: 100 straight victories in 100 games (100%), or 200 victories in 1000 games (20%)? That is a philosophical question.

We decided to seek a better approach for the online statistics to address some of the expressed concerns. My next blog post will discuss our solution to this issue.

Tuesday, December 11, 2007

Goodbye, CompUSA!

A major computer retailer ceases operations.

Last Friday, it was announced that computer retailer CompUSA will close all of its 103 stores, which includes a store just down the road (about a mile) from here. This decision comes on the heels of our Director of Operations declaring that she will no longer purchase anything for our company from there due to systematic failure of customer service at these stores.

In analyzing the situation, I think that the only surprise in this announcement is that CompUSA managed to stay in business (here, anyway) as long as they did. There are three fundamental errors that this business made to lose our business:
  1. First, the service to customers in the retail stores was reliably "last rate". On our final visit there, we had four red shirts standing around debating nothing of substance, and not dealing with customers, while the one cashier on a lane went to the back of the store to find something, leaving a line of customers, credit cards in hand, waiting indefinitely. This was not merely a regular occurrence, but the usual situation.
  2. Second, most of the advertised "deals" involved mail-in rebates, unnecessarily. Frankly, rebates are a scam, especially when instant savings offered elsewhere ostensibly give the same end result. We had a policy in place not to consider rebates when calculating costs, which resulted in far fewer purchases there.
  3. Third, CompUSA is a spammer, using (fraudulent) third-party mailing lists. I know this because they regularly mail one of our honeypot email addresses that has never been added to any mailing list (and, in fact, never even existed until spammers started pummeling it with UCE). It was certainly not double opt-in.

After doing my basic analysis, the first web news article I found about this, CompUSA To Close Up Shop, has comments which show that others had similar experiences, tending to indicate that the failures were truly corporate, not merely bad management at our local store. Although it is generally better to have more choice, I say "Good riddance to CompUSA!"

For local purchase of hardware, we strongly recommend Digilink Computers. They are always helpful when we have to buy computer components, usually in an emergency situation. (Yes, this includes the new server on which this blog is hosted.) My only complaint is that they are no longer open on Sundays, which sometimes requires us to go elsewhere.

The second choice in this area is Best Buy, which is much larger, but is oriented toward general consumers, so individual components (e.g., processors, fans, or empty cases) are either not available at all or only in severely limited selection. (Digilink has a sales case with various motherboards on display; do not look for that at Best Buy.)

Let me end this post with an open invitation to Fry's Electronics to open a store in this area. The closest Fry's to our location is almost 250 miles down I-69 to Indianapolis, not exactly convenient. However, I know of a perfect computer retail location nearby that will be available and vacant within a month or so...