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December 2009

The Nuts

Twoaces In poker terminology, “the nuts” or “the nuts hand” refers to having the best possible hand at any given time. So, for instance, in a game of Texas Hold 'Em if there are two aces on the board and no possibility of a straight flush, a pair of aces in one's hand would be the nuts (since four aces would be the best possible hand in this particular round).

The experience of having the nuts is both wonderful and terrible – obviously it is magnificent to know one has won the hand, but in poker the value of the win depends more upon how much you can money you can draw out of the other players than on the overall quality of your own hand. So for instance, in the previous example, the fact that no other player can have an ace in their hand makes it very much less likely that anyone will bet heavily against you in that instance. The terrible facet of the nuts is that knowing you have the best hand it can be hard to conceal this fact from the other players, and one must make a concerted effort to conceal one's true emotions if one is to have any chance of suckering in the other players. A well-developed poker face becomes essential!

Neurobiologically, the nuts sets off a hit of dopamine just as if the player had won because holding the nuts is functionally the same as having won. However, the player can get more of the reward chemical by playing the hand well and getting more money out of the pot. Thus the nuts combines a base level experience of reward (from winning) with the potentiality for winning even more (by luring players into the pot) thus making it a very potent experience as the dopamine for the win is supplemented by yet more dopamine for the anticipation of uncertain additional reward (i.e. taking yet more money).

It's not at all clear to me that any videogame can produce an experience equivalent to the nuts, or rather, it's not at all clear to me that any current videogame does. Pragmatically, I can see no reason that a game could not “pay out” an experience like holding the nuts in poker, but it seems unlikely that videogames would currently be designed for this outcome given the general tendency for videogames to become enmired in the doctrine of challenge-oriented play i.e. that the player must only experience maximum reward if they have endured maximum hardship (or overcome a maximally difficult challenge).

How would one construct a “nuts” experience in a videogame? Let us consider one possible example. Suppose that a particular cRPG has in its random treasure tables an item – let's call it the Nuts Orb, for convenience – that when activated guarantees that one will beat any boss it is used against. However, when activated the player has a short period of time in which to fight the boss (with radically improved attributes) in order to earn additional experience, such that they also have the possibility of beating the boss via combat, rather than just having the Nuts Orb hand them the victory. This seems to meet the requirement: holding the Nuts Orb gives you the hit of knowing one has already won (you will beat the boss) but gives you the opportunity for additional reward (by giving you a chance to beat the boss with superior power and earning additional experience).

The Nuts Orb could be adapted to fit any game which features a boss, and it may be possible to adapt it to a great many other genres with some application. In a first person shooter deathmatch game, a Nuts Gun could render the player invulnerable until their next kill, after which it times out in 10 seconds if they don't get another kill (providing for the possibility of additional reward) – although I'm open to the objection that the other players would find the existence of such a weapon unbalancing (at least when they did not hold it!).

Perhaps there is already something equivalent to the nuts to be found in puzzle games. For instance, Taito's classic Bubble Bobble contained dozens of items that gave a more-or-less instant win, umbrellas that advance multiple stages, lanterns and crosses that eliminate the remaining enemies, and potions that remove all enemies and fill the screen with bonus items. The potions may be a genuine case of the nuts in videogames – collecting the potion gives you the win, and the possibility of additional reward (via collecting all the items that appear). However, in the experience of getting the potion, one tends to lose sight of the fact that one has won the level because one is focussing on completing the new challenge, so the parallel is by no means perfect. (It raises the question of whether the same problem would haunt the Nuts Orb, described above...)

Whether or not a videogame has already delivered an experience of “the nuts”, the potential is there to create this powerful and rewarding (yet slightly conflicted) experience in a videogame, and it would be an interesting design challenge to create a game that expressly focussed on the possibility of doing so.

Think you've spotted something equivalent to “the nuts” in a videogame, or even a boardgame? Please share your views in the comments.

Jigsaws vs RPGs

Die construction What, if anything, do jigsaw puzzles and computer role-playing games have in common? They both consist of a large pool of rewards.

I become increasingly interested in the parallels between different forms of games, especially between classic game styles and videogames, and the jigsaw puzzle is an interesting case. While many people reading this (being effectively addicted to videogames) have probably not played a jigsaw puzzle since childhood, my wife and I tackle a jigsaw together once or twice each year. Our approaches to the problem are complimentary, since I attack it as a giant search problem (locating pieces in respect of where the details match the picture on the box) while she views it as an experimental exercise (approximating a piece's location by colour, and then using trial and error to fit it).

While the play mechanics of jigsaws have nothing in common with a cRPG, the two forms of play are related by their reward structures. Computer role-playing games all contain a set of progress mechanics which deliver rewards e.g. levelling up to gain points to assign for advantages, acquiring new equipment to gain advantages and completing side quests which unlock further advantages. A typical cRPG will contain somewhere between 500 and 1,000 rewards (say 50 levels, 500+ items of equipment, 50+ side quests).

Jigsaws typically come in either 500 piece or 1,000 piece versions, and when solving a jigsaw puzzle each piece is a small reward. Initially, the edge pieces can be singled out allowing for rapid progress at the start (like a cRPG) after which a biting point is hit as the main body of the picture must be addressed. Progress is then slow in the second phase but accelerates towards the end of the puzzle as both the number of remaining pieces and the available slots to receive them decreases. This last observation is distinct from the end of a cRPG which invariably terminates with a boss – a super-hard finishing point – while the jigsaw finishes on an exciting rush to the finish.

Neurobiologically, the jigsaw pieces become more rewarding as the puzzle progresses because the released dopamine (the body's reward chemical) comes from effectively two sources – the small hit for the reward of fitting a piece (which can be increased if the player has been searching for a particular piece for ages), plus another small hit for the anticipation of future reward i.e. the next piece or, in the endgame, the end of the puzzle.

The cRPG also becomes more rewarding as the game progresses because the opportunity for rewards expands as the world expands, and like the jigsaw there are two sources of dopamine – achieving the rewards, and anticipating the future rewards (which may, depending on the players preferred play styles, increase as the end of the game becomes closer). The structure of the game – being both the way the game is organised and the way that rewards are delivered – is such that the player is effectively drawing from a pool of rewards (500-1000, say) until they are finished.

There may be a less clear end point than the jigsaw puzzle in terms of the available rewards, but the cRPG compensates with a boss which is intended to be the final reward. This, on the whole, may be a design error – since the boss rewards only one style of play, players who don't fit the Conqueror play style (or possibly Achiever) may suffer. Many, my player studies suggest, just give up at this point. (I can't help but wonder if it would be possible to design a cRPG which ended with the same frantic rush to finish as a jigsaw, instead of a boss, and I believe not only that it should be, but that this is how a mass market "casual" cRPG would be best structured).

Thus I conclude that there are structural parallels between the jigsaw puzzle and the cRPG – more so than between the jigsaw and other kinds of videogame. However, the two have nothing like the same play mechanics – in this regard, the jigsaw is closer in spirit to the hidden object game, which draws upon very similar skills. The RPG structure – the pool of rewards – is robust and addictive, and enjoys increasing commercial success as structural elements from RPGs appear in more and more genres with each passing year.

Do you play jigsaw puzzles? Please share your perspective on why you enjoy them in the comments.