Crashlands, Exploration in Video Games, and Central Place Foraging

Crashlands is a recently released video game that combines the exploration and crafting element of games such as Don’t Starve with the action RPG goodness of games like Diablo or Torchlight. Although the questing, combat and crafting are all top notch, what tends to suck me in about these sorts of games is the exploration component.

As in similar games, the maps in Crashlands’ three biomes are procedurally generated and they are huge. According to the Crashlands developers, the maps in the game aren’t infinite, but it would take decades to reach a map’s edge. Although Crashlands has definite goals, it is often just as fun to spend hours wandering around the map uncovering new areas and collecting resources along the way.

In an article the developers wrote while working on the game, they do an interesting analysis of precisely why this sort of wandering can often feel so satisfying in and of itself,

The cause of exploration-boredom was how the player got to move through the space, not what was in that space.

So why is this the case? We discussed and Googled around, and in the process found something interesting: the answer could be found in studies of Spider Monkeys.

Spider Monkeys use an exploration strategy called Central Place Foraging. This term simply refers to the behavior of spiraling out from a central point to find food and then returning home via a different route. This kind of foraging maximizes the potential to discover things while maintaining a sense of “home”. It turns out that humans, by use of our villages, cities, and homes, do exactly the same thing.

According to Wikipedia, central place foraging is used by a number of species,

Central Place Foraging (CPF) theory is an evolutionary ecology model for analyzing how an organism can maximize foraging rates while traveling through a patch (a discreet resource concentration), but maintains the key distinction of a forager traveling from a home base to a distant foraging location rather than simply passing through an area or travelling at random. CPF was initially developed to explain how red-winged blackbirds might maximize energy returns when traveling to and from a nest. However, the model has been further refined and used by anthropologists studying human behavioral ecology and archaeology.

It is fascinating how systems that are so captivating in video games are call backs to ancient foraging strategies common to many species.

Bill Budge Hated Pinball and Video Games

One of the first video games I remember being completely addicted to was Bill Budge’s Pinball Construction Set on the Apple II. Released in 1983, PCS was one of the first games that relied on user-generated content.

Oddly enough, considering how good the game was for the time, Budge himself was not a fan of either pinball or videogames,

Budge does not enjoy playing video games, and described having to play pinball for months while developing Pinball Construction Set as “sheer torture.” He more enjoyed writing fast graphics libraries for game programmers. Budge said “I wasn’t that interested in playing or designing games. My real love was in writing fast graphics code. It occurred to me that creating tools for others to make games was a way for me to indulge my interest in programming without having to make games.”


Bill Budge's Pinball Construction Set

Pinball Construction Set Screenshot


Was Survival Island 3 A Victim of Lying Media?

I haven’t written much on my blog about GamerGate on this blog. In general, I tend to think that what passes for games journalism somehow manages to set a lower bar than what passes for sports journalism. However, the leaderless nature of GamerGate means the movement tends to attract a lot of people who make games journalists look like level-headed exemplars of morality.

Take this story, for example, which someone had tweeted with the #GamerGate hashtag. The headline proclaims that a cruel injustice has been committed,

Media Outlets Lie About Survival Island 3; Game Gets Pulled From iTunes, Google

That’s awful. What sort of journalist would like about Survival Island 3–a game I hadn’t heard of before stumbling across this article? Those poor developers. How did this happen?

Well, according to the article, someone started a petition on Change.Org calling for the games removal. But that petition is filled with lies!

They’re parroting a story and advocating censorship based on a petition containing misinformation about a survival title that’s a sequel to Survival Island 2: Dinosaur Hunter.

Among other things, the Change.Org petition claims,

The game shamelessly promotes the fact that you will “have to fight with aboriginals” and uses warning messages like, “Beware of Aborigines!” when Indigenous people appear on screen. The game portrays Indigenous Australian’s as violent and aggressive. As well as trying to promote the Indigenous characters as authentic representations of a diverse culture through the description phrasing, “Meet real aboriginals”.

Don’t you hate it when you spend all your time making a game only to have people invent baseless lies about it? Where did the Change.Org liars come up with the fiction that the game says “Beware of Aborigines”? Again back to our intrepid journalist,

The “Beware of Aborigines!” line is from the app store page, along with the “New Weapon” line, both of which are used on the promotional screenshots but don’t actually appear in the game.

That’s right, these lies were copied directly from promotional material supplied by the game’s developers on its app store page. How insidious of the Social Justice Warriors at Change.Org to take the developer’s promotional materials at face value. Do these people have no sense of decency?

The Placebo Effect Demonstrated With Video Games

New Scientist has an interesting summary of research that looked at whether or not the placebo effect — the tendency of a treatment to exhibit results simply because the recipient believes that it will work — could demonstrated in individuals playing video games. The study’s design was quite clever.

To test their idea, he and colleague Alena Denisova asked 21 people to play two rounds of Don’t Starve, an adventure game in which the player must collect objects using a map in order to survive.

In the first round, the researchers told the players that the map would be randomly generated. In the second, they said it would be controlled by an “adaptive AI” that could change the map based on the player’s skill level. After each round, the players filled out a survey.

In fact, neither game used AI – both versions of the game were identically random. But when players thought that they were playing with AI, they rated the game as more immersive and more entertaining. Some thought the game was harder with AI, others found it easier – but no one found it equally challenging.

. . .

A different experimental design, with 40 new subjects, confirmed the effect. This time, half of the players were put in a control group and told that the game was random, while the other half thought the game had built-in AI.

Heartstone Deck Tracker

Hearthstone Deck Tracker is a free, open source utility that runs alongside Blizzard’s online collectible card game, Hearthstone.

The software adds an overlay while you’re playing Hearthstone that shows:

  • what cards you’ve drawn from your deck, which are still left, and draw chances
  • which cards your opponent has played, deckcount and draw chances

Hearthstone Deck Tracker Overlay

When you’re not actually in-game, the software adds a Deck Manager that lets you import decks from various websites and then export those decks directly to Hearthstone. This lets users get around Hearthstone’s ridiculous 9 deck limit. The Deck Manager has a ton of options including the ability to assign custom tags to decks, add notes, create screenshots and share decks as XML.

Finally, Hearthstone Deck Tracker has a fascinating analytics component. While playing with the overlay enabled, the software can keep track of each game and then produce statistics for each deck to show a win/loss rate vs. particular classes, opponents, game modes, etc.


Hearthstone Deck Tracker - Win/Loss Stats


Finally, Hearthstone Deck Tracker allows users to replay specific games.

Hearthstone Deck Tracker - Replays