Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Play By Web: Part II

Ok, now you have some idea what's out there. The sites are filling up with players. Lots of good games. Lots of opponents. I don't know about you, but I can have 10 or more games going at once. So how do you make the most of this? How does the site designer do the same?

Tips For Players

Game Links: Keep your game links grouped in your browser. Depending on your browser, use tabs, or a toolbar, or a submenu. This will prevent you from forgetting about one, and give you a nice picture of what you are currently playing. I use the Firefox extension "Favicon Picker" which allows me to set an icon per toolbar item even if the site doesn't have a "favicon.ico" defined.

Reset Yourself: Each time it's your turn in a game, especially if you are playing more than one of the same game, take stock of your situation. What color are you? What were you planning to do? What happened since you checked last? I've caught myself making suboptimal moves thinking I was a different color, or using the plan from one game in another.

Play Speed: Even though the games are offline in the sense that they are not real-time like BSW, be mindful of the expected play speed. I think one turn per day should be the default, but some groups may specifically want to play an entire game in a single sitting. Others may not be able to play every day.

Skype: For playing PbW games in real-time, try using some form of voice chat like Skype. You can listen to each other hem and haw over your decisions. You can get to know each other better by chatting while you play.

Slow Motion: As mentioned in Mark Johnson's podcast, it's easy when only playing one move per day to want to do more with your turn than you would face-to-face. There's a certain psychology at work making you think you need to speed up the game. Play normally as much as possible.

Local Problem?: Don't be too hasty reporting a bug. Sometimes when you are having trouble taking your turn, it might be a browser problem. Close it and all other browser windows so the process is no longer running, and try again.

Feedback: Give constructive feedback to the PbW sites. If something's not working, let them know the specific game, what you are trying to do, and your specific browser and OS (if you think it's interface-related). If something is hard to use, tell them or suggest an alternative. In my first games of Hansa and Richelieu on MaBiWeb, I made several suggestions for improvements, and they were implemented right as I was taking my next turn.

Web-Friendly Games: Many games are under development. One of the main issues in PbW is the amount of interaction required during a turn. Every time a player has to give input, the game must "halt". Consider Caylus--a virtual nightmare in the PbW format. In a 5-player game, there are potentially 30 workers being placed, although that would be rare. Some of those workers result in choices to be made when the buildings are activated. Say 20 places where the game needs input each round. 10-15 rounds per game. That's 200-300 times where the server needs to email a player to do something. If each of those happens 10 times per day (very fast play), that's still 3-4 weeks! So be aware of the pitfalls and problems in your PbW expectations.

Cheating: I mention this not because I think it is rampant. Quite the contrary. I find most gamers to be fair to the extreme. But online gaming is not without its temptations. There are two forms that I can think of: hidden but countable information, and secret communications. If you are playing a game with hidden money/score/etc., but this information is countable (eg Euprates & Tigris, St Petersburg, Reef Encounter, Wallenstein) do not get out pen and paper to track it all. If you are playing a multi-player game, do not collude against player(s) by talking outside of the game, unless that is part of the play (eg Diplomacy).

Tips For Sites

Play By Web designers can also go a long way to making the experience better for the players. This will invariably attract more players.

Game Manager: This is perhaps the most important thing to me. A game manager let's you create new games, find games looking for players, see your games waiting to start, games in progress, and even finished games. It should show you the game name, the players, the current round, and the current player. Highlight the current player. In finished games, highlight the winner.

Email: Send an email immediately when it's a new player's turn. Also, see Unification below.

Cookies: Allow players to login on the site's home page and stay logged in without having to login per game. This is a real problem with sites like Biskai and Ludagora. The latter even embeds your plaintext password in some of their URL's. Ugly.

Interface: Every game has its particular issues. You must weigh the value of keeping the actual game board graphics with the utility of play and screen space. On one extreme we have a game like Puerto Rico (BSW). While I find the interface to be unacceptable, I do know that it must be made into a table. Trying to show all the player boards, the ships, the trading post, etc. as they are in the board game would be too cumbersome. On the other extreme, we have Caylus (again BSW). They did an incredible job keeping the look of the original while keeping wasted space down to a minimum. Although I have some real issues with the interface, I still give them an A for effort.

Resolution: Who really uses 800x600? According to my blog's stat counter, only 3% of the visitors have 800x600. 50% have 1024x768, and 35% have more than that. Of course, the best result for the player is to have the web server customize the layout based on the resolution. This is the most difficult to implement. As it is right now in almost every PbW game I play, only the left half of my screen is used (1600x1200), yet I still have to scroll down to see the table of information. If this table was coded as a module (a la BGG), then it could be positioned below or to the right of the game board with a simple style change. I would have your children for this feature.

Feedback: Be willing to tweak your site and your games when users make good suggestions. This not only keeps the players happy, but also shows the site is not stagnant.

Unification: I'll throw this idea out here as a plea to some savvy web person who perhaps doesn't want to go so far as to develop games. Create a single site that can be used as a hub for all PbW gaming. I don't mean simply to have a page full of links to all the other sites. I mean that the status of all my games appears on your site in a single table. Define a standard communications interface for the information. I'm guessing that it would be popular enough that PbW sites would want to be included, and would accommodate that interface. I'll help with this if anyone wants to try.

Now where was I?...


At 1:06 PM, Blogger Jason said...

Unification would be awesome. As much as I like Mabiweb, I found myself wishing the games were over on SBW instead, so I could check them all at the same time.

At 2:08 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm not an expert, but it seems like working up an XML Microformat for this purpose should be doable by someone (maybe as Matthew Gray about it?). Then it's just a matter of selling the various sites on it and creating a front-end for it.

At 2:13 PM, Blogger ekted said...

Nothing against BGG, but I think there should be a discussion about where this functionality resides. BGG is a public site that IS appropriate, but it also has commercial interests now. That gives me just the slightest bit of pause. Not sure why.

At 8:55 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

When I mentioned Matthew, I wasn't thinking of hosting it on BGG, just that he might have the expertise needed to get it working.

I actually agree that BGG would be the wrong place to put it. It should be an independant service, whether web- or downloadable app-based.

At 9:00 PM, Blogger ekted said...

That's even more interesting! An app that each user runs that provides audio or visual cues when one of their turns is ready, with a single-click link to the game page. I could write that app for windows, and it would probably work under Linux/Wine as well.

At 6:08 PM, Blogger Mark Johnson said...

Great observations, ekted. But you know a play-by-web fanboy like me would think so. :)


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