Hello, everyone! I present a case study on the dangers of misreading the player feedback loop.
Zilch: The name of the game and the amount of respect its developers have for the players
Recently a game made its way onto Kongregate called Zilch. Zilch is a simple dice rolling game similar to Yahtzee. Players take turns rolling 6 dice trying to find dice sets that score them points. They can then put these dice sets to the side and roll the remaining ones. As long as another scoring set can be found in those remaining dice, the player can score more points. They continue rolling less and less dice until one of two things happen. Either they score with all 6 dice, which lets them start the whole process over and rack up even more points, or they roll their remaining dice and are unable to find anything to score with. The latter case is called Zilch, and you lose all your points for the round. Strategy becomes similar to Pass the Pigs, where as you continue to roll on your turn and rack up points, it becomes more likely that you will roll a Zilch and lose all those points. The player must balance risk and reward and stop before he loses all his points.
Hopefully that was an ample description of the game. If it wasn’t, here’s a link to Zilch so that you can play yourself. This kind of game isn’t for me, because of how much luck is involved, but it may be your thing. In any case, this is all side talk. What I want to talk about today is the most common player feedback Zilch’s developer has received, and their inadequate response to it.
Dumber than a computer
Let’s me come right out and say what most players complain about in Zilch. The AI seems to be very lucky and very hard to beat. Zilch provides three AI opponents, called Reckless, Cautious, and Realist. Your first instinct will be to match these up to traditional game difficulties of easy, medium, and hard. This is a mistake. All three of these AI opponents have a sophisticated methodology to how they play Zilch, and all three of them have a better understanding of the rules and probabilities than a new player. Common player feedback is stuff like “The AI is rigged, he consistently gets over 1000 points on his turn”. Chances are this player was facing the Reckless AI, who tends to score very high a lot of the time and Zilch almost as frequently. He plays recklessly, after all.
New players tend to play flash games on easy until they get a feel for it. They expect an almost sandbox style of play, where they can try and grasp the game concept without having to suffer a humiliating defeat. It’s no surprise that people who play games really really like to win at them. Joining this notion is a Kongregate achievement centered around “winning 3 games on any difficulty”. For the achievement junkies that need to get those wins ASAP so they can move on to the next achievement, it makes sense to play the game on easy.
All of you are wrong because I’m right
The developer of Zilch, playr.co.uk, issued a response to all the players complaining. You can read that response here (response 1). In summary, they explain how the three AI’s work and that all the dice rolls in Zilch are fair from a random number generator. Clearly this wasn’t enough because later that day they made a more frantic response that you can read here (response 2). This time they used all caps and posted their Random code for players to audit. It is indeed random. You can almost imagine their inbox flooding with complaints. They’ve even made another response that you can read here (response 3), but it’s more of the same.
Finding the real problem
So what’s the problem here? Zilch’s developers are unable to get to the crux of the player complaints. They chose to instead defend their design choices and attempt to educate the player. Unfortunately they didn’t do this inside their game, but at their obscure company blog that maybe MAYBE 1% of players will actually read.
I will now try to lay out exactly what is happening. A player starts up Zilch for the first time. There’s no introduction or explanation, so when they pick a CPU opponent they choose the one that should be easy; mostly because they have no idea what they’re in for. “Reckless, well that’s never a good thing and it’s on the left… so it must be easy.” The game starts and players are educated while they take their turns. While this education gives a fairly good grasp of the game rules, it does not talk about strategy (and it shouldn’t). Unfortunately for the player, the Reckless AI has been employing a basic yet more effective strategy the entire time the player was in tutorial land. By the time the player is ready to take off auto-pilot, there’s a good chance the AI has the lead. As the game continues, players will notice a pattern in the way Reckless plays. He either scores large amounts of points on his turn, or he gets zilch. With no real understanding of the game and a more cautious playing style, the player will be taking smaller sums of points each turn and zilching more, simply because they haven’t yet figured out the game’s probabilities.
After reading what I would consider a typical first time experience with Zilch, is it hard to see why players send frustrated emails to the developer?
Actually making players happy
It turns out that the complaints about the random number generator are red herrings. Players don’t care about how the game works, all they care about is that their game expectations were incorrect and they were punished for it. What the Zilch developers need to do is stop trying to convince players that they were wrong. Not only will that not work, but the players are almost never wrong.
First, create a new difficulty and call it something recognizable like Beginner. Next, and this is the super important part, skew the dice rolls in favor of the PLAYER on the Beginner difficulty. Create an AI that purposely makes poor decisions. The goal here is to create an AI that approximates a new player who has absolutely no understanding of the rules let alone the strategy of Zilch. And then give that AI permanent bad luck. Now players will have a place to go to when one of the real AI’s hands it to them.
The next thing I would do, is create yet another difficulty, called Normal. This AI should contain the same lack of strategy that Beginner has, but the dice rolls are fair. Zilch has an interesting ‘problem’ in that the easiest AI to create turns out to be very competent. Typically, AI competency is directly proportional to its complexity, but in Zilch it will take more time to write an incompetent AI that is fair to new players.
Finally, take your three existing AI’s: Reckless, Cautious, and Realist, and put them all under a Hard difficulty heading. Depending on your strategically advanced opinions of Reckless and Cautious, you might want to revisit their AI’s to make them stronger. The idea is that these three AI’s are employing real Zilch strategies. Sure some are more simple-minded than others, but every single one of them is better than a new player. That’s your problem.