Pokémon GO: A Case of Game Design Mistake

Pokémon GO was a massive success. Really massive that even the server overwhelmed by the sheer number of enthusiasts. Youngsters downloaded the app, through legal means or even unofficially released APK, even some willingly to change their Apple ID region just to download Pokémon GO.

Fast forward 1 month and a half. The number of player is still staggeringly high, BUT it’s already peaking. The number is slowly declining, as many players become weary of playing the game. Well, the case of mobile games are retention rate of 20% even after a week of playtime is considered exceptional. Pokémon GO is still exceptional. Recently, more and more articles talk about the decline of Pokémon GO Daily Active Users (DAU).

Many factors contribute to the decline, like many cheaters, cheating engine, not so clear goals, repetitive, and so on. What I want to talk here is how Pokémon GO game design itself contribute to its decline.

DISCLAIMER: This post is just a not-so-professional opinion of mine, as a former Pokémon GO trainer, and also as a fellow game designer/programmer. I have no relationship with any Niantic employees nor the development process of Pokémon GO. This post means no offense towards the game, I just want to explain some of Pokémon GO’s weak links.

It’s Full of Grinding

Leveling is an important short-term goal in a game. Without short-term goals, player will find the game “aimless”. Pokémon GO provides players with 4 consistent ways to gain XP: visit PokéStops, catch a Pokémon, evolve existing Pokémon, or hatch the eggs. Gym battle is not considered as a consistent way to gain XP. At the beginning of the game, it is quite easy to level up by catching Pokémon. It is normal, it is the norm, and it is the standard of gameplay. Things beginning to unfold for better or worse at higher level. At level 20 above, leveling becomes a chore. Why? The problem is 2 folds:

  1. XP requirement is increasing. It is normal, at a glance, but the problem lies here: every Pokémon you catch worth the same amount of XP: base 100 XP. The game doesn’t care whether you catch Dragonite (rare) CP 2000 or Zubat (very common) CP 70, if you’ve added them to Pokédex once, they only worth 100 XP for every catch. For a case of evolve to gain XP, in Pokémon GO, to evolve the Pokémon, instead of fighting like the main game franchise, you need to catch the same Pokémon in one evolution line, over and over. So, to make a Gyarados out of Magikarp, players need to catch Magikarp 133 times, roughly. To level up a trainer from lvl 19 to 20, player needs to accumulate 50k worth of XP, which roughly translate to catching 500 Pokémon.
  2. To rub salt to the wound, the higher level Trainer, the higher chance of failure capturing a Pokémon. The number of Pokéballs spent usually much higher than the number of Pokéballs gained from 1 PokéStop. To gain XP, players need to catch Pokémon, but Niantic purposefully scale the game harder, in an annoying way. Niantic has solution: buy the Pokéballs from the in-app store. That’s a valid monetization strategy, of course.

To sum up this section: the grinding itself is not fun. It is a chore.

Solution: adjust the XP gains for high level trainer and rare Pokémon encounter.

A Cub in the Lions’ Den

What does it mean? This is one of the most interesting part. To simply put, the beginners are put in the same pool with the veteran. It’s important to remember that as Pokémon GO use this whole world as the playground, new players will automatically thrown into a world populated (and unfortunately, dominated) by high-level players, already. Beginners with Charmander CP 25 walk through the city full of Dragonite CP 1500. It is intimidating for new players who have recently join the fray to face other players who have played them game since launch day.

For a long standing popular game like Clash of Clans, for example, low level player will be pitted against another low level player, and veteran vice versa. I liked how Destiny PvP matchmaking was (not again, due to some player backlash): players will enter the matchmaking with other players with “similar” skill. Bungie didn’t mention what the deciding factors were, but it could be safe to say that the Kill/Death Ratio and personal score in a match contribute to the matchmaking calculation. Pokémon GO has no matchmaking system, so players are given the freedom whom to face and whom to avoid. But, in this world already dominated by high-level players, legit or cheaters, the decision is harder to make.

The game will not be fun if the game runs onesidedly. Unfair game lacks of challenge is not fun to play. It is both boring and frustrating.

Solution: Make the Pokémon GO tiered/layered. Beginners will start in the low-tiered world with more common Pokémon to catch, while veteran will play in their own high-tiered world with more chance to encounter rarer Pokémon, or even Legendaries. Low-tiered player can undergo a tier-promotion, through level up or even promotion exam.

Limited Exploration

Pokémon GO thrive on one Pokémon motto: Gotta Catch’em All. The widely popular meme is “I wanna be the very best, like no one ever was”.

The main premise of Pokémon GO is to explore and find all Pokémon you can find. The problem is, the exploration is limited, geographically. PokéStops are not everywhere. Rural area has limited PokéStops and that hampering the number of occurence of encountering Pokémon. If encountering common Pokémon is already hard, what about finding rare Pokémon? Limited PokéStops also make it harder to collect Pokéballs and gain XP via getting eggs or visiting PokéStops.

For people who live in mountain with lack of access to visible body of water in the map, it is very hard to find aquatic Pokémon. How can they make Gyarados out of Magikarp if Magikarp themselves are hard to find?

What about players who works full-time, 8-to-5, or busy with their own real-world business? Well, they can collect any Pokémon they found along the way home, while planning where to go during weekends. Some place have particular Pokémon, so let’s say you wanna make Ninetales out of Vulpix, but you can only find Vulpix in a place you usually don’t visit (for extreme example: cemetery), you can either stay at that place long enough to collect more Vulpix, or just give it up and go on with the live. For some people, perhaps it is the time to give up the game.

Solution: No particular solution. Geographically-distributed Pokémon is already make sense though it makes harder to catch’em all.

So?

Well, Pokémon GO is still at its earliest stage and I believe Niantic has unannounced plans to implements for Pokémon GO. I believe that Pokémon GO will undergo transformation just like how Destiny, once an overhyped mediocre FPS, finally shaped into a decent, satisfying, and addicting game after 1 year. Feedback will certainly make Pokémon GO better experience. But that’s it, for now, I am retiring from Pokémon GO and still have no plan to go back for a while.

Remember, there is no overnight success.

I welcome any constructive comments or discussion, if any.

— 2016, Rido Ramadan, a.k.a EdgarDrake

IaaS: iPhone as a Service

During Apple announcement at Sept 9th 2015, there is one kind of controversial announcement related to iPhone 6S and iPhone 6S Plus. In USA, it is considered as normal for people to have 2-years contract with their own carrier which include the iPhone itself. Due to the circumstances, Apple announced the iPhone Upgrade Program, a subscription program with $32/month or $37/month in which you can always have “the latest, up-to-date, unlocked (SIM-free) iPhone” as long as you subscribe directly to Apple.

IaaS

I know Microsoft made their Microsoft Office from a standalone license program to a subscription license. It is their move to cope with SaaS, Software as a Service. But this, iPhone Upgrade Program? It is basically a device as a service, or should be called IaaS: iPhone as a Service. Many journalistic websites claims it really is a bargain. But, is it?

P for Photos, C for Creation, and F for Face Grouping

Google Photos, Google latest attempt on fixing what is wrong with their previous photo gallery — Google+ Photos.

Get real: how much space do pictures in your phone has taken? Mine, 1.5 years, 12 GB. My phone storage, 64 GB, available for use 56 GB, and 12 GB has already taken by camera roll. Not good. Looking at some of friends phones with 16 GB flash storage, my case must be a problem for them.

To free up space, people use cloud service to back up the pictures. It is more convenient to use cloud rather than external HDD, because you know that as long as the service is up and running, your photos are always available anywhere. Thus, I tried Carousel by Dropbox, and suddenly my Dropbox storage usage jumped to 97%. Not good.

Here comes Google Photos, and it has become my gallery-saver since June 2015.

The Competition

In a world where cloud storage become main competition, Google Photos provide an intriguing approach: Free, unlimited storage for those who is willing to use Google’s propietary compression method.

Features Google Photos Carousel by Dropbox OneDrive iCloud Photo Library
Storage *initial: Unlimited Dropbox storage
(initial: 2 + 3GB)
OneDrive storage
(initial: 15 GB)
iCloud
(initial: 5GB)
Pricing *Free | 100 GB $2/month 1 TB
$10/month
100 GB
$2/month
20 GB
$1/month
Compression Propietary Uncompressed Uncompressed Uncompressed

*Unlimited only if you would use Google compression, which preserve images up to 16 MP, 1080p videos. If you would like use original resolution (no matter how low-res), you will use the Google Drive quota. Those cloud backup mentioned in the tables preserve pictures in a “private” mode rather than sharing it to the whole world.

Picture management like Flickr or Picasa now getting less and less popular, while mostly now people use Instagram and Facebook timeline to store their lifetime gallery. Things to note, however, Instagram is more social media than picture gallery, while Facebook is a social media. Facebook is well know for their notorious compression, degrading the image quality to some low resolution image, only good to see without zooming in the details. But Facebook still hold the throne for image sharing because of the user tagging technology.

Face Grouping

Google Photos comes with Face Grouping technology. With this technology, Google will automatically grouped similar faces to one “profile”. Google does not know whose name is this face (they claim), but Google might know these face models belong to him/her. No name is ever associated to each person. Only face, and collection of photos, all anonymous.

It is like Facebook auto-tag suggestion, but this technology work exclusively in background, without the need of user labelling. Facebook has auto-tag whereas similar faces grouped as one as given the label of one of your friend. It means that Facebook uses user feedback to determine “which face” belongs to “which person (name)”. Let’s say that Facebook use both supervised learning (user manual labelling) & unsupervised learning (done in background, without user consent)

Google Photos doesn’t use user labelling for classification. Not at all. Google Photos use purely unsupervised learning to group similar faces, all the times in background. All that user can do is remove incorrectly classified pictures from the group of correctly classified. In other words: giving mark of false positive.

For example, these are some people, according to Google Photos, that lurk in my pictures.

Gallery

How they are sorted, or how they are grouped, I don’t know. All I know that Google Photos use some kind of Convolutional Neural Network with 21 layers to define who and what are things inside the picture.

The grouping is not instant, per se. In my case, it takes 2 hours after about 800 pictures uploaded to Google server before the face grouping appear. Also, the first result mostly buggy, as some of my friends are considered as one person. Need a little tweaking, but 2-3 days later, my “face collection” changing, some mistakes bit by bit becoming better, adding new person, and of course, new incorrectly classified images also appear.

By Google Photos design, I can remove wrong pictures from the album, but I can’t add new pictures to established album. Damn.

Let’s see. This is one of my friends, whom from the first day until now has been incorrectly classified as two different person.

Face A'
Face A

And these are two people that in the first week are considered as one person, but in reality, two different people.

Person B
Person B'

Well, well. Flawless, it is not, but defect, it is not, either. In reality, Face Grouping really shine to group and show each person timeline. What amazes me is that Google Photos can correctly classified people in a very small picture.

A little, not-so-important, note: Face Grouping is disabled by default in Google Photos. The only way to enable it is by uninstalling and reinstalling Google Photos (Android: clear app data) then initialize the Google Photos account in USA VPN.

Search

Google is not Google if not for their (in)famous search engine. Google I/O 2015 showed how Google Photos can handle search specific item inside pictures. How does it detect object? Ask the neural network, ask what’s contained in their 21 layers of neural network. I tried some queries to test whether Google Photos can recognize objects. Not every object can be returned, but here are some queries that give reasonable result:

Gundam Wedding Sakura
gundam wedding sakura

I am satisfied with current condition, but I believe this can be improved better and better. Animal, however, need better object detection algorithm. Most of my cat pictures are considered as dogs. Want to hear one of the worst scandal? here.

Creation

Creation, by far for me is the most interesting feature. Google Photos has integrated photo assistant which has a very simple task: give you notification each time a new creation is created. Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait a bit, what is creation?

Creation is automatically generated content composed by learning and combining pictures to create things like:

Panorama

The rarest creation in Google Photos is panorama. Once, I had multiple pictures of scenery from the 53rd floor in Star Wars Day museum in Roppongi, Tokyo. Here are the pictures:

IMG_4112
IMG_4113
IMG_4114

Then, suddenly this picture popped up in my assistant:
IMG_4112-PANO

Auto-enhanced image

Google Photos know how mine gems inside mine of rocks. What I mean with gems here are pictures that worth more than its original looks after being “automagically” post-processed by Google Photos. These effects, unfortunately, inaccessible from the dedicated Google Photos app.

Original Post-processed
 IMG_0570  IMG_0570-EFFECTS
IMG_2740 IMG_2740-EFFECTS

Story

This one is interesting. Google Photos’ assistant favorite is making stories, based on multiple pictures in several day in succession. Story can be considered as normal album, but with elements of storytelling. You can edit the arrangement of pictures, giving description, and make your own stories. Here is the example of my last trip to Tokyo.

Movie

A collection of videos can be automatically made into a short movies. It is easier to watch one rather than watch many videos at once. Here is a sample movies created from 36 videos and several pictures during the event of May the 4th be with You 2014.

GIF

Picture taken in succession like burst photos are taken in consideration to be made into GIF, like this:

IMG_2540-ANIMATION

Collage

Most instagram users collage to include many picture at once. So does Google Photos, automatically, without you picking picture-by-picture manually.

IMG_0672-COLLAGE

The Verdict

Google Photos is a cloud service that use our (Google user) images as the input for their continous research in data mining. They said our images are safe and private, while it can be said that the images are internally used for advancement of computer vision research. Google always excel in one thing: crowdsourcing (like Google Translate contribution), and this is just another chapter for them.

How useful is Google Photos? It’s recommended, especially for those who always lack of storage due to their immense size of gallery. Face grouping is somewhat a kind of novelty, but it’s novelty will wear off soon enough. I love the creation, because it makes some pictures become prettier than it should really be.

However, do note that Google is pretty powerful in automatically mining your information just from photos. If you really care about sensitive data, don’t use this service.

Separate Ways

I have been living in Bandung since mid 2009, and ever since, people come and go. Some friends stay together because of things that keep us together. This month, however, things have to change. People change and we choose our separate ways, because life must go on. We took different paths, different cities, different workplaces, different goals. However, for me it’s not a farewell. It’s just a new beginning.

Well, I said, good luck, to all my dear friends. Let’s meet up again somewhere in the future.

Planned Obsolescence

“Beauty lies in things that last for a long time”

An ironic quote, if I do say so myself. Most of the things manufactured nowadays are considered as things of beauty, however the manufacturer intentionally include the biggest flaw ever in their product. Introducing Planned Obsolescence. For those who didn’t know the coined term, planned obsolescence is a term to describe things that only last for limited time and will be rendered useless after its lifetime (Bulow, 1986).

Let me give you a simple case: watches are designed that it will last forever (well, not literally, but for a very long time). LED TVs are designed to last for 10k hours, it is an industry limitation. Li-ion batteries are designed to have around 6000 battery cycles, it is an technology limitation. Smartphones, on the other hand, are somehow designed that it will obselete for 2 years at most, not because of hardware deterioration, but because of software update.

Let’s take a look on iPhone/iPad for example. Apple did release newer iOS for older generation devices, but at the great price: sluggish performance. If you upgrade the iOS, you get sluggish performance, but still can enjoy newer version of 3rd party apps that have been enhanced to suit the newer OS. Or, decide not to upgrade the iOS, and sooner or later, the support for that older apps will be removed at all. The solution: buy newer device.

Let’s take a look on LG/Samsung/Motorola/HTC non-Nexus devices. When newer Android version released, they won’t bother to support 2 years behind devices to include newer OS. They would just released newer devices included with newer OS. The impact: your device apps are obsolete and unable to communicate with the service because the service needed your apps to be updated. But, to update the apps, you need to update the OS. The solution: buy newer device, root your phone (not recommended).

The manufacturers do this on purpose, so that newer hardwares will replace the older ones then consumers are forced to buy the newer ones. Silly? Not really. It’s business, it’s their own business, and we are the victim of their business model. But really, we always have the urge wanting new things, and those companies play their hands right.

No smartphone is built to last forever. Not even Project Ara.
P.S.: I still love my watch, it’s still working even after 7 years.

Sources:

  1. MacWorld: Why old iPhones become sluggish over time,
  2. Oxford Journal: An Economic Theory of Planned Obsolescence by Jeremy Bulow

Powerful, Long-lasting, Portable Gaming PC?

The main reason why I wrote this is because of this: Is it unreasonable to expect any laptop to simultaneously be a good gaming machine and have portability and good battery life?

Have you heard about this infamous triangle of college life? Pick 2!

Pick 2 College Life

Reality of College Student

Now, we are living in a world where gamers want to play their games anywhere (if possible). Back then, we need special device connected to TV or display monitor to play games. Now, say, you can play games in your phone, tablet, or laptop. As a PC gamer who usually spend my day outside (not in home), I need my games to be playable in anywhere when I have free time. I believe many people have the same vision with me, that’s why we have manufacturers who make gaming laptops.

However, no matter how strong gaming laptops are, they are still dwarfed by the real gaming PCs, though the margin has been decreased as the time passes by. So, let’s say that we live in world where gaming laptops are powerful enough to run most demanding games at reasonably high graphical settings (not ultra-high for videophile). So, laptop, which is a portable computer with its thin body and limited battery life, has enough performance to run games. Seems legitimate.

Now is for the interesting moment, Pick 2!

Reality of Gaming Laptop

Reality of Gaming Laptop

 

See above? At the moment, no gaming laptop is ever free from the clutch of Performance-Portability-Battery Life triangle. Why is that? Let’s get real.

What makes computer (not laptop) powerful to run games? Of course it is because of the combination of high-performance CPU, GPU, RAM, and the power it needed to run those power hungry components. CPU and GPU are power hungry components. That’s why when computer is quite idle, the clockrate is turned down and other cores are powered off. If your computer needs to render lightweight graphics, it turned off the GPU (via NVIDIA Optimus or AMD Enduro) so the power is not dissipated to the GPU and the render workload is shifted to the integrated GPU (Intel HD/Iris).

When a demanding process needs extra horsepower, your computer throttles the clockrate of CPU, and turn on the GPU if needed. To do the throttle, it needs extra voltage. Extra voltage means extra power means Power Supply Unit (PSU) must support bigger power drain.

When the throttle occurs, do you realize that your computer is noisier than when it’s idle? The noise come from the fans which needed to cool down the CPU and GPU.

Typical Cooling Fan

Typical cooling fan

 

If both components get too hot, your computer might explode or melt. The hotter the components, the faster the fans spinning, and louder the sound they emit. FYI, sometimes using fan is not enough, so here comes Water Cooling. Water dissipates heat better than air, so computer running with water cooling will substantially cooler and quieter than mere cooling fan. Here’s the catch: It needs extra space for the hose and the radiator.

A simple water cooling for PC

A simple water cooling for PC

 

“In short: ultimate powerhouse needs both power and space.”

Laptop is a portable PC, with limited battery, but needs to deliver that kind of performance. We live in a world of trade-offs. You can’t maximize every single variables, but you can still optimize the result. That’s why we know about linear programming in math. Extra power means more battery drain, which leads to shorter battery life. To achieve portability, laptop needs to be thin and very limited motherboard real-estate, it is still impossible to fit in a water cooling inside a laptop chassis.

In the end, I can only give a simple answer examples of the pick 2 solution.

The answers

The answers

 

Macbook Air

(Performance -, Battery Life +, Portability +)

Thin, sleek, and lightweight, this is most people preferred laptop. Yes, the most expensive one can give you the performance needed to run Adobe Photoshop or iMovie but it doesn’t have enough horsepower to run demanding games. I know that Witcher 2 was ported for Mac, but not for this one, because it has no dGPU.

Don’t even think this can run Battlefield 4 (if one is ever made for Mac). I bet now you’re imagining it running Battlefield 4. Don’t. Even. Think. Period.

Razer Blade 2014

(Performance +, Battery Life -, Portability +)

This one is a 14′ thin laptop which can run most games at almost 4K resolution (3200 x 1800, almost 3840 x 2160). It’s quite powerful for a laptop (please don’t compare it to most gaming PC) but the main drawback is the battery only lasted 3 hours, all thanks to its high resolution display.

Thin and sleek, who knows that it holds such performance.

Thin and sleek, who knows that it holds such performance.

 

Large Pixel Collider

(Performance +, Battery Life +, Portability -)

Okay, this is not laptop at all. For the sake of ultimate performance and endless battery life (not really, just endless stream of electricity), this powerful PC needs a lot of space and A LOT of money. Cost as much as $10k, this uncomfortable power hungry PC consists of Intel Quad-core i7-4960X (X=Extreme), 4x NVIDIA GTX Titan in quad-SLI, 64 GB of RAM, water cooling, and an uncomfortable 1200W PSU. What can it do? Run Battlefield 4 in 7680 x 1440 ultra-high settings (3 monitors setup).

LPC

See how big it is?

 

To see some demo in action: Battlefield 4, Titanfall

Conclusion

At the moment, it is still impossible to maximize the three axis of Performance-Portability-Battery Life. It’s just the time has yet to come. Although, I always though this: by the time laptop can fit in water cooling and 12-core CPU, the PC would have been leapt too far.

Do you think surround headset/home theatre is worth it for gaming? Why or why not?

Answer by Max Loh:

Yes, surround is worth it for gaming, if you are that type of person which appreciates sound (and judging by the fact you are asking this question in the first place, you probably are).

Rather than surround sound headset, use emulated surround on headphones by a good algorithm/soundcard. I use X-Fi’s CMSS-3D for headphones. The algorithm is very good and sounds are very believably behind you. I remember the first time I tried it on, I looked behind me expecting there to be a speaker when there wasn’t.

Don’t do what Kevin Kappel did and use a no-name emulation algorithm that sucks balls. Don’t do what Daniel Super does and use the game’s emulation algorithm (which also sucks balls). Proof that soundcard emulation still provides industry-leading realistic/immersive 3D in headphones can be found in this Youtube video (CMSS-3D and THX are clearly superior, Dolby Headphone is good, and software rendering is so bad it sounds like vanilla stereo). USE HEADPHONES when listening:


Now keep in mind that there are a lot of complaints about Creative’s X-fi brands of cards for having horrendous customer support. But their sound is very good — if it works. I’ve been lucky enough that my card is still working without flaws after all these years. However, other brands might have sound cards that also emulate 3D on headphones very well. For example ASUS cards use “Dolby Headphone” (as in video above), which in my opinion doesn’t sound as great, and even adds room reflections for no reason, but is still decent.

Most people who have compared the two agree that the emulated 3D with a dedicated card is better than actual cumbersome surround speakers built into the headphones.

When playing a sound-heavy competitive game such as counter-strike, it is essential to have surround sound because often you hear someone coming from your left, but it could be left-front or left-behind. With emulated surround in headphones it is extremely easy to pinpoint their location. In fact it is much easier than in real life, since they don’t model reflections off of walls. There is a location in a particular map where if I stand, I can know where the whole team is headed and call out to my team “they’re going through apartments” or “they’re going through tunnels”. When I only use stereo, it is almost impossible to tell the difference between the two.

For immersion and cinematic quality, real 5.1 or more speakers is probably best, but for pinpointing location in competitive games, nothing beats headphones with emulated surround.

Do you think surround headset/home theatre is worth it for gaming? Why or why not?