• The Value Promise of Subscription Games

    I had been playing World of Warcraft on and off for about 10 years, but I decided to stop playing again about a year ago. I quit because of a series of changes that were made to the game, and it motivated me to think about why I reacted that way as a paying customer.

    A series of recent changes made to WoW were designed to motivate players to play by ensuring they always gain something and grow a little every time they play. Unfortunately, a side effect of these changes was an increased pressure to spend many hours playing. This made me feel like my limited time spent in the game was less valuable, and is what ultimately led to me quitting the game.

    What makes a subscription-based game worth its price?

    All games need to convince people that what they are buying (whether it’s a complete game, an item, or another month of game time) is worth the price. I wrote previously about what mobile games do to make people want to buy extra items. Online games where players pay a fixed amount every month have a very different strategy.

    Unlike games that sell items, games with a subscription model don’t need to maximize revenue per user because everybody pays the same price. Instead, the most important metric is how many people will keep playing the following month. The total revenue per user is determined by how many months they spend playing the game.

    Traditional console games need to convince people to pay money just once. “$60 will get you more than 100 hours of fun gameplay!” On the other hand, subscription-based games need to convince people to pay money every month. One thing that helps people make a decision is whether they felt like the previous month was worth the price. So online games do their best to make sure that people are always satisfied with the time they have spent playing the game so far.

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  • How to Cook Popcorn in a Pan

    The best way to cook popcorn in a pan. The secret is to heat up the kernels evenly in hot oil first, before heating them over a flame to pop them quickly all at once.

    1. Coat the bottom of a pan with a small amount of oil and place over medium heat.
    2. Put three popcorn kernels in the pan and wait for all three to pop.
    3. Put the rest of the kernels in the pan, cover with a lid, and remove from the heat for 30 seconds.
      • This heats the kernels evenly, getting them all ready to pop together.
    4. Return the pan to the heat, where the popcorn should start popping right away.
      • It helps to keep the lid ajar and shake the pan occasionally to keep the popcorn dry.
    5. Once the popping slows to a few seconds between pops, pour the popcorn into a bowl.
    6. Add salt to taste.

    Photo by Keegan Evans from Pexels

    Photo by Keegan Evans from Pexels

  • Picular - Google, but for Colors

    Picular is a site that lets you search for words like “water” or “summer” and see a list of related colors. It seems to work by running a Google image search and extracting the primary color of that image.

    This is the kind of project I love. It’s simple and easy to understand, but fun to play with.

  • Game Idea: PvP Pac-Man

    Concept

    Play Pac-Man online against other players. 1 player plays as Pac-Man and 4 other players play as the ghosts. Pac-Man’s goal is to collect as many dots as possible, and the ghosts’ goal is to work together to catch Pac-Man. Players receive points at the end of the round based on performance, and roles are rotated for the next round.

    Gameplay

    In terms of strategy, the ghosts will need to work together in order to win. Pac-Man will move faster than the ghosts, so the ghosts’ main strategy will be to trap Pac-Man in a corner. To encourage teamwork, all ghosts will receive the same amount of points at the end of round regardless of who actually caught Pac-Man.

    The fact that the ghosts can share information makes the game much harder for Pac-Man than the original, so he needs a new advantage too. We allow Pac-Man to see the entire map, but the ghosts can only see a small radius around them. The ghosts’ vision is shared with each other, so together they can see a large portion of the map.

    The game then becomes a hide-and-seek game, where the ghosts spread out strategically to try to find Pac-Man. Pac-Man hides from them for as long as possible while collecting dots along the way. If the ghosts find an area with no dots, they will know that Pac-Man has already been there. Once Pac-Man is spotted, the ghosts converge on his position and Pac-Man must try to escape before becoming trapped.

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  • The Value of Blockchain Platforms

    I’ve been thinking a lot recently about what benefits there are to building a new product on a blockchain. Blockchains allow an app to be decentralized, and the biggest value they bring is a solid way to handle trust and consensus in an environment with no central authority. I was having a hard time thinking of products that would really benefit from being decentralized, but I came across an idea about decentralized platforms that makes a very strong case for using blockchains.

    The idea, introduced to me by this post by Alex Tabarrok, is that a blockchain-based platform is uniquely able to align its needs with the needs of the users. If a traditional platform wants to create economic value for itself, it often needs to do things at the expense of its users. It can’t maximize value for both the users and the platform at the same time. But a blockchain-based platform can, through its tokens, increase its value directly by increasing value for its users.

    Facebook creates value for its users by making it easy for them to communicate and keep in touch with their friends. But if Facebook and its stockholders want to create value (= money) for themselves, they need to start selling data and adding advertisements. This doesn’t add any value to its users and actually creates negative value. There is a conflict of interest because the needs of the users and the needs of the platform are not aligned, and the company needs to find a balance so that everybody involved is just happy enough.

    For a decentralized platform with tokens powering its blockchain, the value of the platform lives in the value of the token. Users of the platform give value to the token by using it and interacting with it, so a popular platform will have more valuable tokens. The best way to make a token more valuable is to increase the value that the platform provides to its users. There is no conflict of interest because there is no way to increase the value of the blockchain itself at the expense of the value it provides its users.

    Diaspora* is a decentralized version of Facebook, and Mastadon is a decentralized version of Twitter. These platforms don’t have anything like tokens, and there is no revenue involved in either of the projects. While this is refreshing, having no monetary incentive for the people involved makes it less likely for the project to grow. Blockchain might be the missing ingredient that allows a decentralized platform to really gain momentum and start a new era of user-centric services.

  • Facebook Is No Longer a Communication Platform

    When I started using Facebook in 2005, it was exclusive to college students and was by far the best way to communicate with my classmates. It was the first time I could learn what my friends were up to without asking each one individually. Everything I wanted to know about my friends was in one easily accessible place.

    All recent updates were shown as one long list, but Facebook eventually introduced the News Feed. This was an effort to filter everyone’s updates to show just the most important ones. Facebook made educated guesses about whose updates were most important to you and hid the ones you wouldn’t care about. I think they also kept an option to see all updates in chronological order if you didn’t want to miss out on anything.

    News Feed seemed fine at first, but unfortunately it’s no longer useful as a way to keep in touch with people. Instead of showing you the updates that should be most important to you, Facebook now shows you the things that you are most likely to click on. Often, this means you only see pictures or videos on the home page.

    When people posted YouTube videos or links to articles, they got more clicks than regular status updates. Facebook liked that and started showing more and more videos and links in the News Feed, and this made them get even more clicks. At some point, people started noticing that posts about themselves got almost no attention, while links to content would get lots of reactions. People stopped posting about themselves and started posting links instead.

    Facebook prioritizes this kind of content so much that my News Feed doesn’t have any information about my friends anymore. It’s filled with posts by strangers that my friends have liked or commented on at some point. Because Facebook’s criteria for a good post is now so different from what we should expect, we have tragic situations like people never noticing that their friends were dying.

    Facebook no longer has any use to me as a communication platform. It has just turned into a click-generating machine.

  • Are Video Games Still For Kids?

    I grew up in the 90s, and back then video games were made for kids. Toys were for kids, and video games were just the newest, most exciting toys around.

    But as my generation grew up, we never really stopped playing games. As we became adults, the game companies kept making games for us, and games shifted to targeting an older audience. It makes sense that these would be successful since adults have more money to spend on games than kids do. Video games became a form of entertainment just like movies, and they started using serious storylines and graphic violence in the same ways.

    While this is great for the adults, I can’t help but feel that the kids are being left behind. The young adults making exciting new things are mostly making them for people like themselves, and very few companies are still focusing on entertainment for children. So now kids play Call of Duty, sign up for Facebook, watch YouTube, and are bombarded with content that really isn’t appropriate for their age.

    Nintendo is a shining exception. The Switch is designed to be family-friendly and has many games suitable for young children. I was recently in a shopping mall that was holding an event for kids to try out the new Mario game, and they had a Mario there to greet them and take pictures.

    Nintendo’s first steps in the mobile app industry - which is notorious for promoting competition and bad spending habits - includes games like Animal Crossing that have minimal payment mechanics and have only positive interactions between players.

    Even Nintendo’s eSports efforts include a focus on kids. Splatoon has held national tournaments exclusive to Elementary School students, to find the best Splatoon-playing kids in the country.

    Cynics will say that Nintendo’s strategy is to start making life-long customers from a young age, but I just think it’s nice to see a giant game company that hasn’t forgotten about the children.

  • Google's AlphaZero Destroys Stockfish In 100-Game Match

    Google’s AlphaZero program is a machine that plays chess, and it has managed to quickly become the strongest chess AI in the world by implementing machine learning techniques. While existing chess AIs have mostly been massive dictionaries of moves that are put together by humans, AlphaZero learned chess entirely on its own with minimal human input.

    As I understand it, the hardest part of creating an AI that solves problems like chess is finding some way to calculate if you’re winning or not. If that were easy to do, the program could just look at all of its possible moves (which is not very many for a computer) and see which one would leave it winning by more. The trouble is that it’s very hard to tell if you’re winning. You might need to consider all possible outcomes many moves in advance, which quickly becomes too many to calculate.

    Successful chess AI programs, of which Stockfish is the most popular, have a giant list of common board situations and good moves to make. An opening table lists moves that can happen towards the beginning of a match, and an endgame tablebase shows possible situations at the end of a match. The middle of a match is much more complicated and has far many more possibilities, so it’s difficult to create tables like this. The strength of a chess AI boils down to how big its tables are, and how quickly it can search them within the match’s time limits. But:

    [I]t took AlphaZero only four hours to “learn” chess. Sorry humans, you had a good run.

    That’s right – the programmers of AlphaZero, housed within the DeepMind division of Google, had it use “machine learning,” which is sometimes called “reinforced learning.” Put more plainly, AlphaZero was not “taught” the game in the traditional sense. No opening book, no endgame tables, and apparently no complicated algorithms dissecting minute differences between center pawns and side pawns.

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  • Pay to Win

    Mobile games can make a crazy amount of money. Puzzles and Dragons at its peak was said to be earning $100 million per month! Why do people spend so much?

    Mobile games are generally much more simple than traditional video games, so they can’t provide the same rich experiences as traditional video games. Instead, they engage their core users by providing a satisfying experience of winning, especially against other players. Since people often play mobile games in their spare time, money is used as a shortcut to win quickly and efficiently. The entire game’s structure is built around creating an environment to support people who are willing to pay large amounts of money in order to win.

    What are you paying for?

    Compared to more traditional games, mobile games at first glance don’t seem to be as fun. The storyline, if one exists, is usually kept simple. Skill is rarely a factor, and user interaction is limited; in many games, you just need to tap the screen repeatedly to progress.

    If you buy a good video game, you are paying for an engaging experience. You become a part of the world that the game makers have created for you. You directly control what happens in that world, and through some combination of time, effort, and skill, you can eventually “win” - which feels great.

    But a lot of people can’t invest much time and effort into games. Maybe they can only play for 5 minutes every morning while they wait for their bus, but they still want to have fun. And what’s more fun than winning? So games - especially the ones on your phone - started letting people pay money to skip all that time and effort, and start winning right away. They are paying for the experience of winning because winning is fun.

    Somebody who isn’t used to this idea might think that winning won’t feel good if you spend no time and effort. As it turns out though, many people are willing to spend a lot of money to win, and they feel good doing it. I think this is because people are able to think of time, effort, and money as resources that have comparative value. Time is money, as they say, and if you have some money but no time, then you spend what you can to have a good time.

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  • Perils of Eroded Civic Knowledge Forewarned by Former Justice Souter

    This is extremely important.