games

Table Top Game Marketing: The Paid Review Problem

When promoting a table top game, there is this expected check list of actions. One of these actions is paid review: sending the game to board game blogs and paying to have the games discussed in special columns or channels, dedicated to paid review of new games. I chose not to tic this particular box Continue reading →

Posted by Samuel Miller in games, 0 comments

Games As a Marketing Tactic

It’s not hard to gather why Accenture started developing mobile games. I mean, it is not exactly Accenture’s core business, but what exactly is its core business? Accenture is possibly the biggest consulting firm in the world, with revenues of almost $30B last year.

As a super successful company, it is successfully innovative in marketing: the game Sky Journey is designed to tell potential customers what exactly they can achieve with the company’s services, and how to use them. On top of that, the game also showcases Accenture’s own development capabilities, as the company owns a gigantic software division.

The Guardian’s Stuart Dredge recently reported about a marketing trend of mobile games developed for big companies. Among these, he tells of a Unilever game, offering mobile device players to experience a bleach substitute without getting their hands wet. This is a rather new trend, but it is no surprise: content marketing is the fastest growing marketing domain in latest years, and marketers are getting more and more creative in the battle over the consumers’ time and attention.

Accenture's Sky Journey

Games as a marketing tactic are an efficient method to convey a complex message, and even to tackle potential resistance to messages which are not necessarily acceptable to everyone: Early on this year, the game Music Inc. was launched. This is also a management game, where players try to run a music label, to “nurture” recording artists and to fight pirate-distributors of music. This game was developed for UK Music, the British music industry’s policing body. This organization, as similar organizations in the western world, discovered in recent years that it is being vilified and increasingly perceived as one to exploit musicians rather than contributing to culture. Such organizations use marketing games to paint a different world image, where they are the good guys.

Music Inc.

These two games are much alike: both are management games, both marketing mobile games and  both developed for big business representatives. Choosing to allow their customers the experience which represents their own point of view, these two marketers probably chose the simplest means to garner brand-identification by their audiences. But there are some differences as well: the first game is intended to simplify an experiential message, whereas the second game is intended to deliver a political message, not necessarily acceptable to the target audience. The first game was developed by the company which it represents, out of a a deep perception of strategic vision, whereas the second game was developed by a new media agency to solve an image problem.

Marketing games are nothing new. In the previous decade, various brands developed Alternative Reality Games, which were game events,usually circling a new product launch (a new Doritos flavour, for instance, brought  The Quest). But this kind of content marketing is an expensive,  one time event with usually no follow up and ultimately lacking the impact that regular advertising campaign might have brought.

New generation marketing games allow marketers to grab the customers’attention for longer periods as opposed to traditional advertising campaigns. It allows the to provide their audiences experiential reward, which brings the players as close as possible to the brands’ values. In short: this is powerful content marketing

 

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games, 0 comments

The Roulette Interview Part II – Fraud and Regulation

Among the many questions that Antonio sent me for the Roulette Interview, were scattered many questions which reflected gamblers’ mistrust. I got the feeling that Antonio wanted to relieve that mistrust and persuade the gamblers that they are safe and protected, as long as they play in legitimate licensed and regulated gambling sites.

But there is an innate problem with this thesis: gambling sites are established to relieve gamblers from their money. The trade, arguably, is entertainment for cash. Also, the role of the regulator, any government regulator, is to tax companies and individuals for using whatever may be considered national property. There is no inherent motivation for either gambling site or regulator to protect the gambler. Of course it is better that the governments will tax and regulate gambling sites, than allowing unregulated casinos and bookies to rob the punters blind, but this does not make it a moral choice.

So I tried to provide the best answers I could to these questions, without debating any ethics. I think it is up to the players to decide how to spend their money.

As for fraud against the house: this is a risk that any business carries, some more, some less.

Fraud and Regulation

Q: Can a real, physical roulette in a casino be rigged?

A:  Absolutely. There are many ways that you can rig any machine to provide you an “edge”. If you will be creative, you can come up with new ideas yourself.

You can influence the wheel using a magnet, or you can use a specially designed wheel with a hidden control to direct the ball to or away from a certain hole. You can use a specially designed wheel with a hidden button that will get the ball to a specific number. You can read about it here and here.

I honestly don’t know of any case in history where the casino actually deceived the players, but I know one story: Leonard Kleinrock and Larry Roberts, two of the fathers of the Internet back in the 1960s, had an “experiment” in a casino in Vegas, where they came with recording equipment, hidden in the jacket and under a cast around the arm, to win against the roulette. What they did was to analyse the Doppler effect of the spin to predict roughly where the ball will land. This is documented in the PBS documentary and book Nerds 2.0.1, by Robert X. Cringely.

Q: Some casino players say that regulators take bribes from casino operators for keeping a blind eye to misconduct. Can you explain what controls are used to keep the games fair?

A:  OK… As far as I know, they can all be working for the Mafia… What do you think?

Seriously, the whole idea of regulation authorities around the world is to take the money that was once used for illegal activity, and channel it to tax payment following a set of rules and regulations. Casinos are paying a lot of money: they are paying the testing companies, they pay for filing the request for license, they pay legal consultants who are experts in regulation and they are paying for the actual licence and the gambling taxes.

A casino usually takes ~3% from the total transaction done. The total expenditure, including the licensing and taxation, is taken from that 3%. Now, why would you pay bribes for something that the law already allows you to do?

So, do they pay bribes? It definitely could be the case. I am not a detective. I simply don’t see a reason for a respectable company to act this way.
 

Q:  There is a famous rumour in the online casino forums, saying that the games are rigged to make the players win at the beginning of their game, to induce higher stakes. Later, when the players are already hooked, the games will make them lose.

A: There is a common supposition among players that the “fun” mode games, before you join the casino to play for real money, are designed to be more “sympathetic” to the player, so that the players will be tempted to convert into real money playing. I cannot tell you anything intelligent about this practice, but I believe it is a false promotion and I also believe that several regulations such as Alderney and AAMS are forbidding this practice.  However, what I am discussing is real money gambling and there is no “progressive behaviour” programmed into these games. By progressive I mean that the games in some way are learning the preferences and the history of the players’ play and are adapting to give a result which will be causing the players to lose over many games and that the house will win. There is no such programming, as the advantage of the house is intrinsic to the game. If you step into a casino to play games of chance, you have a better chance to lose than to win…

Q: Surfing the internet today, can a player come across fraudulent casino software?

A: Of course you can find fraudulent casinos. I will divide these into two kinds:

1. Online scams, where there is a casino that basically steals money from potential gamblers and cheats them out of their money.

This type of casinos and other types of gambling (sports betting, bingo and poker) were more widespread in the early days, but they cannot stay active for a long time, because people are always testing the house and are more inclined to trust the jurisdictions that issue the license than the casino itself. If there is a casino that takes money and provides a “rigged” game to the players, it will be discovered pretty soon.

2. Illegal Websites

These are websites of criminal organisations, which run “under the radar” and allow people connected to these organisations to gamble. Sometimes, the money circulating in these websites is not transferred online: in Israel, the police caught last year a big operation that ran for 5 years. The money was delivered cash via messengers and taxi drivers. This sort of thing happens all over the world and the money is unreported and untaxed.

 

Q: Is it technically possible to create a fraudulent casino?

 A: It is technically possible to create almost anything.

I saw some fraudulent casino games, which were coded so that if the random number generator (RNG) returned a result, and the game server found that one player has a really big win (like 77777 in slots), the game server will immediately request a new result. This was many years ago when we received gaming software from a bankrupt company and wanted to see if we can use it. In this case, the correction was simple: delete the conditional in the code and make sure that the game behaves according to the rules of fair-play.

 

 

Every new game requires a testing and authorization by the regulator. This checks not only the code, but also the help and rules pages, the graphic design of the game and the proper financial transactions during and after the game.

Italian regulation by AAMS are considered extremely tough, because they require transmission of system data with every game session by any player. If anything changes in the system (the critical components of the game server,) the data will not be the same and the regulating server (SOGEI) will not approve the operation.

That is it: there were many questions and very long answers, spanning over 8000 words. Reading through them all, it looks more like a technical guide for a casino’s compliance officer, than for regular people who just want to have clean fun. So here is an advice for having fun: don’t gamble.

 

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games, 0 comments

The Roulette Interview Part I – Games and Random

Antonio Lamanga, an Italian friend of mine, is writing a book about gambling. Antonio has some authority on the matter, having spent several years as a croupier.

As a matter of fact, Antonio is a TV croupier in an Italian gaming channel called WingaTV. I know him since I lead the product design and implementation of the technology solution enabling the gaming activity and also managed the compliance activity to secure the Italian gaming license.

I wasn’t surprised when I learned that Antonio is planning to write a book for the Italian audience: Gambling is an intriguing subject with lots of complexities, exaggerations, prejudices and superstitions, mathematics and design, randomness and determinism. Having spent over 7 years as a casino games and systems designer, I still don’t fully understand what drives people to stake their hard earned money on the wheel.

I have answered such questions many times before: in applying for licenses in various jurisdictions, going through due-diligence processes and pre-sale bids, writing hundreds of help pages for games and all kinds of new game proposals. This interview was the first time when the questions were asked from the player’s point of view. Now here is a little secret: gambling game designers are playing the games, even for real money on occasions, but we are not players. We take our gambling to other places, like the stock exchange, the startup scene, applying for bids where only one out of five will win, but casino games? OK, so maybe we are players after all.

Antonio conducted the Interview via email. This enabled us to take as much time as needed get the interview done, with full transcript and no unnecessary expenses. It took about a week to complete the interview with Antonio sending me a fresh batch of questions every day as a follow up from the previous email. At the end of the process, I was left with a correspondence of almost 8,000 words in my “sent items” folder, so I thought, well; why not use it for my blog? Actually, there is no indication if the interview is done, but for now, I decided to rewrite the correspondence and provide here a concise version:

Games and Random

Q:  Casino software use Random Number Generators to mimic the action of a physical casino machine. Does it have anything to do with the famous “house advantage”?

Nope. The famous house advantage is built-in to the game design rather than to the call for random number:

  • The European roulette has 37 numbers, one is green (0), 18 are red and 18 are black.
  • Let’s say you place a bet of $1 on a single number. If you win, you win, you will get $36 – your $1 bet plus the $35 win. But if the game was “fair”, you would have gotten $37, because the probability of one number winning is 1/37. This is like income tax: the house is taking 2.7% from your win, which makes the “house advantage”.
  • Now let’s say that you want to minimise your risk, by placing a bet on a colour. Let’s say Red. You stand a 50/50 chance, right? Wrong! You stand a 48.6% chance, because the number that comes out can be either red, black or green (2.7% chance of that)
  • Now say you want to make sure you get your money back – a “risk-free” bet. So you put $1 on Red and $1 on Black. Most probably (97.3% certain) you will win $2 at the end of the spin: you put 2, you got 2 back. This is great, but statistically, one every 37 spins, you will get a green, so that the $2 are lost. If you play like this, you are making sure that you lose exactly according to the prediction. Is there anyone who plays like this? Yes: bonus hustlers. These are people who get a bonus, and they know that it becomes real money only after you play 20 times the value of the bonus. If you get a $1000 bonus, you want to play it safe over a lot of spins, until you lose $540. Then you can withdraw $460 in real cash and go get an iPhone or something. This is why the casino rules usually make it difficult for such players by raising the requirements to 40 times the value of the bonus, or completely taking roulette off the gambling requirements for bonus redemption.

So – the house always wins (2.7% in roulette, 4% in slots, 25% in keno, 0.6% in blackjack and so on…) – There is no need to use the RNG for revenue control…

Q: Is it fair to say that by the built-in house advantage of the roulette, any player will eventually lose over their lifetime? Can someone actually come out a winner of the roulette over a long “career” as a player?

 

A: The answer is yes to the first question and yes to the second question as well:

Look at the casino as one entity, “the house”, and look at the entire body of players as another single entity “the punter”.

Now, the house runs each month millions and millions of spins in as many roulette games that occur. Consider these games as one type of game.

At the end of the month, after the punter has bet millions of millions of Euros on the game, the punter gets back the 97.3 Euro Cents for each 1 Euro that was placed, and the house gets the remainder 2.7 cents per Euro.

Thus, the punter has less money at the end of the month than what he had at the beginning of the month.

Now let’s breakdown the punter into individual players: at the end of the month there will possibly be many people who have not lost and not gained anything. There will be people who have won many bets and lost very little, so the overall balance will be in their favour – they are winners. But the majority of the players did loose. Some lost big, most lost very little. The house doesn’t care: the more people to come and bet, the more money spent – the house will keep the same percent earning.

Think of lottery: let’s say 10 million people buy lottery ticket. One of them will win, but the rest, 9,999,999 people, will lose the price of the ticket.

From the point of view of the house, they accepted money from 10 million tickets, and returned a certain percent of it to the players (actually, in the lottery, the calculation of the prize is done based on the number of tickets sold for the previous draw, but I am simplifying the model for the sake of the explanation).

 

Q: What is the difference between slot machines, poker rooms, blackjack, video poker and roulette software?

 

A: As explained above, the difference in terms of RNG is in the way these games are calling the RNG: in every game the range is different (keno asks for 20 random numbers from 1 to 80, Blackjack asks for a random number from a range that changes in every turn, and so is the case with poker).

Games where the RNG call is asking for a random number or array of numbers from a fixed range are called Fixed Odds games (roulette, keno, slots).

In these games, you can know that with a large number of games played (hundreds of thousands of games at least), the players will statistically lose a fixed percentage of the bet (in European roulette it will be 2.7%, which means that the player will get back 97.3 cents for every 1 Euro bet).

Games where the RNG call is asking for a random number or array of numbers from a range that changes with every turn are called Variable Odds games (Blackjack, Poker).

In these games, the players have to reconsider their action in every turn, so that the game depends on a strategy (both the dealer and the player have a strategy).

Watch this video, showing Kevin Spacey explain the Monty Hall problem.

Q: Can a player use strategy to play better? Do any of those “roulette systems” help players in securing a victory?

 

A: If you remember my previous explanation about variable odds vs. fixed odds, you would know that there is a reason to use strategy in variable odds games and not in fixed odds games.

In blackjack, for example, there are stupid strategies that are too risky, so that you may lose more than you should. But if you play a smart strategy, you will not lose so much and maybe win from time to time.

Roulette is a fixed odds game and each spin is new. Strategies are helpless against something so random, but you can minimize your risk on the table: If you place a single number bet, your chance is 1/37 to win, but if you place on Red, you stand a better chance of almost ½ (actually it is more like 1/1.973, or 48.65%). Now, if you were trapped by Machiavelli, and he would have you place a bet on the roulette: if you lose, they chop your head off but if you win you can live. What would you bet? I would go for the even odds bet rather than the straight and risky bet.

However, there is no real way to strategize over several spins. The so called “betting systems” are useless: they try to guess a condition from one spin to the next where there is no such condition. The only smart thing that you can do is if you do win some money, keep some of it and bet on the rest, so that you don’t lose everything. At least not at once…

Q: How do Random Number Generators work and in which games are they used?

 

A: Random Number Generators are software components that reside outside the game engine and the only function they fulfil is to bring a number or a series of numbers according to request.

Let’s look at European roulette:

There are 37 numbers on the wheel.

If the game is a software only game (without a real roulette machine), the game accepts bets until it is time to spin the wheel:

In standalone roulette game, the player clicks on the “spin” button and triggers the action.

In multiplayer roulette, there is a countdown and at the end of it, the game closes and the wheel starts to “spin” (remember, this is not a real wheel, so the spin is either an animation or video).

The game server sends a request to the RNG, saying “please send me a number between 0 to 36”. In response (milliseconds), the RNG generates a number and sends it.

In which games they are used? In almost every game. In Blackjack, the RNG gets a much more complicated request, because there might be 8 decks of cards, which means that you have 8*4 of each card (32 queens, 32, kings etcetera). Now, with every card being dealt in the game (does not matter if the card is hidden or shown), the RNG has less of that card to draw. This way, it works exactly like the real casino game.

But the change is not in the RNG: every game engine has a module that calls to the RNG with a request. The RNG is mainly stupid: ask for a number of any number range and you will get it. RNG works for slots, keno, bingo, poker, table games, card games. Almost everything.

What games do not use RNG?

  • Live roulette – meaning that the roulette is a live physical machine, like the one you have in your studio, This is a balanced piece of well designed machinery that lets the ball drop in any place at random.
  • Live card games – there is a real card shoe with shuffled decks of cards in it. The dealer takes a card at a time. usually, when the card shoe gets half empty, the shoe is replaced because the remaining cards will be known to card counters and the range for random draw will be limited.
  • Sports betting – including all event betting, such as elections, song contests and reality shows – this is determined by the real live events which are as random as can be.

 

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games, 0 comments

Again, why do games matter?

“Dealing with a trained operative is like playing chess with a master. Dealing with criminals, on the other hand, is like playing checkers with a three-year-old: they like to change the rules.”

“Michael Westin”, Burn Notice

 

My approach is that everything is Game, which is not to belittle the seriousness of it all or the fact that most of everything is not fun or for fun. Game is not about fun or the lack of seriousness to my opinion. It is a way to look at the world. Even when a game is played as game it is not necessarily fun or for fun. Again, what is fun? What is game?

Games are a way to test situations and explore possibilities. Games are a good way to waste time and a very bad way to waste time. Games are a good way to practice skills and simulate real situations which are, in their turn, games in the great war game of life. Training and combat? Games. Riddle solving in CDC’s think tank about the origins of Swine Flu? Game. Completing jigsaw puzzle in Homicide? Game. And also when maintaining the order on the streets and when disturbing the order on the streets, a game. But why go so far into the extremes? I built my house three years ago and it was the longest running and most fulfilling quest I ever played. Sometimes we don’t know the rules or even worse: play by one set of rules when the opponent is playing by a totally different set. You may think the rule is to serve the required papers, but the rule of play for the city clerks may be to invent new form every time serve another. I can say that thinking of this process as a game saved me a lot of grief.

But it is not just for the advantages of psychological detachment or the possibility to better analyse motives and anticipate moves in real life dilemmas. Games matter because they help formulate existence into an intelligible system. Even without including Everything into Game and separating Game from Real game do exactly that. By simulating life activities, societies, establishments and processes in games, games shape our vision of reality into structures.

Huizinga dedicates a part of his book to occurrences of the words “play” and “game” in various languages and in various capacities which are not necessarily game activities as such. So many words came into language and jargon through metaphor, it seems to me that “play” is the immediate replacement for “do”, “try”, “fight”, “work” and many more. Sometimes, like in music, “play” is the only verb left to describe the action of the practitioners of that discipline. Was there another one? Does this word signify that music is less serious in comparison to, say, survival?

And there still remain the questions: Do all games matter or just simulation games? Are all games essentially simulations of some sort? how to even define game and does it even need definition?

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games

Is story theory a part of Game?

In my class, I constantly compare game design to screenplay writing. There is the story at the core of everything and there is the spine of it all, the plot. Where you take this into game creation the spine is the gameplay. In essence, the game is what you do, as opposed to what you watch, read or witness.

So this is a fairly simple comparison because of the common core, where the game takes the audience one step further into the plot, allowing members of the audience not just to identify with the protagonists, but rather be the protagonists.

Thus far, simply put, is the basic reasoning behind my insistence on teaching the principles of story: plot structure, the types of narratives, the fabula and the sujet, dialogue and subtext. But what if I am wrong? Important as it is to learn storytelling, and bearing in mind that many game producers such as me regard themselves as “storytellers”, maybe it is not the right way to look into game creation?

When you start talking about games from the narratology approach, you get your listeners to jump out, saying “yeah? So what’s the underlying story in Tetris?”. This is a valid argument, but we philosophize about the boundaries of game: do not look for the narrative dictated by the game designer. The story of the game is created by the player, each time they play the game. Tetris is easy to explain as a personal player story and it is a different one every time. The real problem of defining the player story, is where the game is rich in narrative and invites the player to step into the creator’s world. Does it mean that the player’s experience has nothing to do with creating the story? Does it mean that all relevant elements are already there, before a single player acts?

Now there’s a possibility for another approach, taking Game for what it is and not forcing Story into it. For what is a game? It is an activity confined by the boundaries of the rules accepted by the players. We can agree to bang our heads together against walls to let the first one who cracks his scull to win the cash prize gathered from participation fees (Yes, I know the rules should not be as simple as that: the game needs at least an umpire who will decide what qualifies as a cracked scull, can I move on please?)

So a game is a system with governing rules that may or may not have a story in it. Gameplay in the domain of Game is not the equivalent of plot in the domain of Story. They may be similar at times, but are different entities with different extensions, which sometimes overlap.

I am undecided about this. Story is very important for me as I am extremely fond of story based games (even though I spend most of my waking hours playing casual games, such as Zuma or Bejeweled). Story theory is a very important part of the critical thinking I advocate and it allows me to better conceptualize even the simplest gameplays and games’ artwork. Letting Story go will be a loss in this respect, but maybe this is the best way to have a pure theory of Game?

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games

Why Do Games Matter?

Games have significance. But when you ask the question, why do games matter, the answer will be: “Dunno”. Seriously. Even though Huizinga wrote that play is the origin of social constructs, I still fail to see any explanation of why, today, games have any significance.

That is, other than being at the center of a multi-billion dollars industry. Reading Huizinga, Caillois, Zimmerman and other thinkers in the discipline of games, you will not get to fully understand why games matter.

It could be that it’s like a dog chasing its tail: it is there, but you can’t grasp it. Well, some dogs can and maybe this is why we keep swiveling about. There is a meaning and a significance to Games and to Play. We just need to figure out what it is.

This is a valid question for the entire realm of culture critique, but I am sure games are more than just an intellectual curiosity. There is real importance to them, and not just in the sense that games can be used for this and that. Every one of the game/play thinkers arguably believe that games are in the core of human culture and behaviour and not just insomuch as tools adapted by human evolution.

So again, why do games matter?

Game developers, like Zimmerman and myself (not at all of the same rank, but still am also one who mainly deals in the praxis of games), regard the game as a system of sorts: closed or open, layered and overlapping. Games are distinct domain of activity according to definite rules, explicit or unspoken. This is a very practical view of games in the sense of games being manufactured products.

Definition of what a Game is can be simplified to be a system of activity where all objects have common encounter points. This can mean things not regarded as games at all. The human society is a game according to this definition. Huizinga argues against such claim. He, as well as many other thinkers dealing in philosophy of game, wants to see game as separate from the mundane, more serious, side of life and society.

If this definition holds, then all human activity is part of Game. Everything which is human is a part of Game. To ask, then, why games matter, is to ask what is being human. For this I also don’t think I can provide a way to look for an answer.

Huizinga is saying that serious is the attribute that game lacks. His assertion is that professional sports are not games, as players of these games are making their livelihood from sports. Professional sport is serious and therefore does not qualify as game. If my definition doesn’t hold and Huizinga is right, than it is even harder to try to explain why games matter.

Posted by Samuel Miller in Blog, games