Exploits and Rules: Min-maxing in Guild Wars and Apple

One phenomenon of rule exploitation often seen in video games, especially class-based fighting massive multiplayer online role-playing games, is the concept of min-maxing. This is a method of exploiting the game’s rules in a way that allows the player to maximize some abilities of their in-game character at the expense of nearly everything else, leaving them exceptionally powerful in specific circumstances. This method is often used for “farming” or collecting many of the drops of specific monsters, usually for the purpose of resale on in the game’s player market. While this is sometimes seen as unfair to other players who do not min-max their characters, it is not usually considered cheating as the min-maxing player is not directly harming any other player, and min-maxing is inherently allowed by the game’s rules as it is maximizing some of the affordances granted by the rules while simultaneously minimizing the constraints of the same rules for a specific purpose.

 

One game that I have used this method in is Guild Wars. Guild Wars has a few different character classes that have the capability of min-maxing themselves into being nearly indestructible solo farmers against some extremely powerful enemies. The class I had most experience with is the Elementalist, which is essentially a wizard that uses elemental magic to attack his enemies. The “build” or setup of skills and equipment that my character or “toon” needed was very specific, and is known by others as the geomancer, as it uses mostly earth elemental powers for defense. By using the mathematical advantages that these powers gave, such as reducing monster hits by a fixed percentage, a damage-reflection spell that redirected the hydras’ attacks back to them, and life-regeneration auras, my toon would become near invincible to specific types of enemy monsters. Using this specific build, I was able to hunt the enemy monsters known as Hydras, but nearly any other monster would be able to easily destroy me. Fortunately, there was a particular area just outside of a town, Augury Rock,  that mostly spawns Hydras and few other types of monsters. While I used an Elementalist, other classes could do likewise, such as the video included below of a specific build of a Monk class toon doing the same Hydra farming that I did with my Elementalist.

 

 

Guild Wars has a roaming collector in the game known as “Nicholas the Traveler”, who every week appears in a different location on the map of Guild Wars to collect different items, for which he gives player presents. Since these presents have a chance of being quite valuable high-end gear, Nick has become quite popular with players, but some players do not have access to all of the areas that are required to travel to in order to collect the items that Nick is collecting that week, while others simply are not that good at defeating three headed fire-breathing dinosaurs like Hydras to collect a large number of their drops. This is where my min-maxed Elementalist came in.

 

When Nick’s weekly collection included the Dessicated Hydra Claws, I would outfit my Elementalist for farming mode and spend a few hours killing Hydras, ending up with many of their drops, which I would then sell to players looking to trade them to Nick. Using this method, I was able to collect the funds for my own guild hall, high end armour and weapons, and basically made enough in-game gold to never have to worry about in-game finances again.

 

While the actions of the item farmers did not directly affect other players, there were indirect effects. Nick changed locations on Mondays at 11 AM eastern time, and at his new location he would have a new list of items that he was collecting for that day. At around 11:30 or so, whatever items that Nick was collecting would have skyrocketed in price on the player market due to the increased demand. This would entice the farmers to go to work collecting the same items. At around 1 pm, the farmers would be making their wares available on the market, where the increased supply would have made the prices bottom out again. This pricing flux would continue for the rest of the week as supply and demand varied, until Nick finally would move on from the spot and have a new list of collectibles the following week.

 

While market fluctuation in an online game is hardly a danger to other players, no doubt that some players grew frustrated that the actions of the item farmers caused such massive fluctuation in market prices on some items. One way in which farming was seen as unfair is that not all players can be farmers. Farming requires access to a variety of skills and equipment that are often only available after hundreds of hours have been put into a character, and thus not available to many casual players. But while in real life almost everyone is affected by an unstable marketplace, in an online game where the market is tangential and completely optional to the game’s primary focus of players killing monsters, utilization of such exploits does not directly affect other players. Nevertheless, farming was seen as an irritant to many casual players.

 

While it seems counter-intuitive, min-maxing is not just a phenomenon that occurs in videogames. The main idea of min-maxing is encoded right in the name: the desire to minimize any expenditure of resources into unneeded traits or skills, in order to maximize the traits and skills that are useful for the player’s goal. A similar thing occurs in large corporations, who wish to minimize their expenditures into things they see as not helpful, such as taxes, and maximize what they find most useful to their goals, which is making profit for their shareholders.

 

Apple Inc. is often held as a great innovator of products. In spite of the fact that they did not invent the MP3 player, smartphone, or tablet, Apple’s products are often held as the first of these device archetypes that really hit home with buyers and enter the public consciousness, and as a result, Apple has become one of the most profitable companies on the planet, and the one with the highest market value (Forbes). One thing that Apple did invent, according to the New York Times, is the “accounting technique known as the ‘Double Irish With a Dutch Sandwich,’ which reduces taxes by routing profits through Irish subsidiaries and the Netherlands and then to the Caribbean” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).

 

Like the Guild Wars farmer, Apple has found a way to use established laws and rules in such a way that it can take advantage of the specifics of these laws so that it can minimize its tax costs, and thus allow more profit to be generated from its sales. Similar to Guild Wars, it could be argued that Apple is not directly harming people by doing so, but while Guild Wars players have an optional and limited dependence on the player market, the real world’s market is not quite so tangential. The New York Times estimates that if Apple paid a standard corporate tax rate, Apple “likely would have been $2.4 billion higher last year” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), and would have gone into the coffers of the US Government, and presumably spent toward the benefit of the american people.

 

Min-maxing does not involve any consideration of ethics or well-roundedness in its design. My Elementalist may be a nearly all-powerful force against the Hydra’s physical and fire attacks, but any other type of enemy spellcaster can erase my Elementalist’s advantages and destroy him easily. He is not a well-rounded character at all. Likewise, Apple and companies like it utilize this system of laws not to be more caring and well-rounded corporate citizens or to help pay for the infrastructure and areas that they exist in. Rather than aiming to be well-rounded, the concept of min-maxing is the complete antithesis of well-roundedness. Apple is extremely formidable when it comes to its own goal: making profit. In other areas, Apple’s weaknesses become much more obvious.

 

No doubt an extra few billion dollars in the tax pool would assist a government to better attend to the needs of its people, but the primary goal of corporations such as Apple is not to better support the government or to help people. The primary goal of any corporation is to make as much profit as possible for their shareholders. To that end, corporations enhance their profit-making ability while all other abilities are made much lower in priority. To this end, Apple manages all of its investments in Reno, Nevada, where the tax rate is cheaper than at Apple’s California headquarters. Apple funnels its iTunes profits from Europe, Africa, and the Middle East through its Luxembourg offices rather than pay higher taxes in other areas. These policies are in addition to the “Double Irish with Dutch Sandwich” method discussed. These methods have proven successful for Apple, and have thus been emulated by many other companies like Google, Amazon, Yahoo, and Dell (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).

 

The United States tax code is supposed to be “based on the concept that a company ‘earns’ income where value is created, rather than where products are sold” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), which in the case of Apple where most of the design, marketing, research and development, and executive command is located in the United States, which should mean that most of the value is created in the US, and therefore taxable in the US. Yet, Apple’s dream team of accountants find “legal ways to allocate about 70 percent of its profits overseas, where tax rates are often much lower” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski).

 

Apple’s own comments about the matter include stating the fact that it has “conducted all of its business with the highest of ethical standards, complying with applicable laws and accounting rules” (Duhigg and Kochieniewski), which is technically true, just as it is technically within the rules of Guild Wars for me to make an indestructible Elementalist. Also like Guild Wars, it is not just any company that can take advantage of the “high-end” rules of finance. A locally owned store likely cannot divert profits through an Irish subsidiary company, as they likely lack the financial means to procure such a subsidiary in the first place.  Just as not every Guild Wars player is advanced enough can be a farmer, not every company can be rich enough to purchase other companies in far-off areas of the globe to take advantage of these legal loopholes.

 

While I maintain that the Guild Wars farmers do not directly harm other players of the game, and that any damage done to the market is limited to a few items, and that players are not dependant on the market in any case, it nevertheless irritates non-farmers that other players have managed to take advantage of the game rules in such a way that grants them an advantage. To appease the larger base of casual players, Guild Wars’ developers Arenanet, regularly make adjustments to the game to reduce or “nerf” the farmers’ ability to farm. From altering the ways that skills and spells work to simply reducing the number and likelihood of drops from certain monsters often targeted for farming, they have a vested interest in keeping the more numerous non-farming player base happy. In the case of Apple, however, such nerfs are not as easily forthcoming.

 

The market in the real world is not tangential: all of us are dependent on the financial market of the world to exist in some form. While most of us are not Wall Street tycoons directly profiting from the market, the market affects the price of houses and cars, personal taxes and salaries, right down to how much bread and milk cost at the local grocery store. Furthermore, where Arenanet has a vested interest in keeping the majority of its player base happy, the powers that be have less control over worldwide corporations. There is no world power than can override what large corporations do. Individual countries have a degree of control over what a corporation does within their borders, but even there the power that governments have is far from complete. There is often multiple individuals with different goals within the government, some of them no doubt making personal shareholder profit from Apple’s actions, and therefore unlikely to pursue any change that would prevent Apple from making so much profit. Large corporations also have strong lobbying powers, and can threaten to simply move most of their operations to another place, in effect threatening to put many employed individuals out of work if the government does anything to change the status quo. So while a vested interest from an entity with complete control over the situation such as Arenanet over their game-world, there is no such entity with such a vested interest in the real world. Where the damage to a comparatively unimportant sideline market is limited, damage to the real world financial market can be felt by hundreds of millions of people across the world who are affected, directly and indirectly from such actions.

 

Ultimately the reasons for min-maxing both in games and in real life is the same: the desire to reach a goal. When we think of our heroes, it is usually because of a single thing that they were particularly good at. Edison was great at business, and is remembered for being a grandmaster of innovative success, in spite of the fact that in reality he often copied designs he saw elsewhere, and merely was the first to successfully market the inventions.  For example, Edison is held as the inventor of audio recording, when in fact a recording from 28 years prior to Edison’s first known recording has been found (Rosen).

 

It is success that we measure by, and most often that is directly inferred to be financial success in the capitalist society that we live in. Well-roundedness, being a nice person or a good corporate citizen ultimately mean very little in the grand scheme of measuring success. My farmer Elementalist’s goal was financial success, just as is Apple’s. Being fair about it is of secondary importance.

 

Works Cited

ArenaNet. Guild Wars. NCsoft, 2005. PC Game.

Duhigg, Charles, and David Kocieniewski. “How Apple Sidesteps Billions in Taxes.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 28 Apr. 2012. Web. 12 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2012/04/29/business/apples-tax-strategy-aims-at-low-tax-states-and-nations.html>.

Rosen, Jody. “Researchers Play Tune Recorded Before Edison.” The New York Times. The New York Times, 26 Mar. 2008. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/27/arts/27soun.html?ex=1364356800&en=14b6cec0c2c873bf&ei=5090&partner=rssuserland&emc=rss&pagewanted=all&_r=0>.

“The World’s Biggest Public Companies.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine. Web. 13 Apr. 2015. <http://www.forbes.com/global2000/list/#page:1_sort:6_direction:desc_search:_filter:All industries_filter:All countries_filter:All states>.

 

Machinima-Craft

True to its promise of being an open world game, Minecraft’s in-game goals are quite open. While the game’s standard survival mode requires players collect resources to build shelter and find sources of food, the creative mode of the game eliminates these requirements and allows a player to freely use infinite resources without worry about being attacked by hostile mobs or needing to eat. While it would seem that the creative mode of Minecraft has no explicit goal, it does carry at least an implied goal of building as what the player should be trying to achieve. We completely ignored the explicit and implicit goals of Minecraft, instead using it as a tool to accomplish the goal of making a machinima narrative, and in doing so, found a completely new and compelling way to enjoy “playing”.

 

 

In making our machinima Brickland, the goal of Minecraft became to create the scenes for our narrative, rather than any of the typical goals of the game. Using the creative mode on our own server, we explored the world, finding appropriate biomes and locations that would suit our purposes, much in the same way a movie director must scout out locations to film at.  We maintained a certain level of control over the area in the sense that the server is not publicly accessible, but many elements, such as monster spawns, remained for the most part uncontrolled, which in some cases added a level of spontaneity into the shots and sometimes added to or changed the course of the narrative. This interplay between space and narrative construction was interesting, as we had originally expected the narrative to be completed and then simply replicated in-game, but the game’s uncontrolled elements made themselves felt and became incorporated into the narrative. For example, the witch’s hut scene originally was written to only have the witch nearby. When we went to shoot this segment, we discovered that the game had spawned some pigs near her hut. Although we had not originally thought to have pigs there, having them randomly placed there by the game engine turned out to give us the idea that the witch should have pigs nearby, and gave us the idea to have our starving protagonist take one of her pigs while raiding her hut for tools. We had thought our narrative completed in a vacuum, yet when it was inserted into the game world, we felt it right that the narrative adapt organically to its environment.

 

We found ourselves thinking about the project more in terms of film creation than playing a video-game. It took time to learn to adapt movements and techniques in-game to lend themselves to the production of cinema rather than a typical play session of Minecraft. As camera operators, smooth and fluid motion was paramount, requiring mouse sensitivity adjustments that would make playing the game normally very difficult. Likewise, UI elements like the inventory hotbar normally displayed on screen that are to assist regular play were removed in order to make a more natural visual display. Often scenes were shot with two cameras in order to have alternate views of a scene to jump between, which required editing in post production to ensure that the cameraperson was kept out of the shot. This highlights how we indeed were replacing “one game structure with another” and altering our goals from “playing to win to playing to make a movie” (Lowood). Indeed, instead “of simply playing the game to win” we were pushing the boundaries of what the game could do, “using the game as a playground, laboratory, or stage” (Chien 28).

 

We soon found ourselves discussing things in more cinematographic language such locations, scenes, and dialogue, rather than the game-centric concepts of biomes, spawns, and mobs, again following what Richard Schechner implies is typical of the steps taken in the creation of performance art: “‘proto­-performance’ (training, rehearsal, etc.), ‘performance’ (warm­up through public performance and related events) and ‘aftermath’ (criticism, archives, memories)” (Schechner 191-­92). Henry Lowood’s connection between filmmaking’s process of pre-production, production, and post-production and Schechner’s process of live performance well describe the steps that we went through. Our pre-production included writing the basic narrative script and location scouting, followed by the production of on-the-fly altering of our script to better adapt to the game environment and shooting the scripted scenes, and finishing off with post-production sequencing, editing, and adding additional enhancements such as effect filters, music, and on-screen graphics. Again as typical for game-based performance according to Lowood, we proudly list the software and elements used in our creation rather than try to hide these techniques.

 

We almost exclusively use free and open source software in our work. This is in part due to the fact that we are limited in funds, thus making the free (as in gratuit) aspect of this software particularly compelling, but also the freedom (as in libre) granted by it. Due to “the nature of game-based machinima as a derivative work of the game it’s based on” almost any machinima artist “will have a story or two to tell from the legal world” (Chico 27). In spite of the fact that machinima has existed at least since Diary of a Camper was released in 1996, the artform is still mired in a confusion of rights and legalities. Recently popular YouTube game-video creator Angry Joe has proclaimed that he will no longer feature Nintendo games due to the problems in negotiating a fair compromise between the rights of the game creators over their game assets and intellectual properties, and the rights of video creators over their own creations using videogame assets (Kotaku). This argument over rights cannot be properly addressed in the scope of this article, but the fact that this confusion exists led us to actively try to avoid using any intellectual properties that we did not have clear rights to use. The music and sound elements were used under a creative commons license and properly attributed, the screen-recording and editing software are under similarly free software licenses, and Mojang’s own terms of use state that players are “free to do whatever [they] want with screenshots and videos of the Game” provided they are not for commercial purposes (EULA).

 

Although significantly different in subject matter, style, and scope, Rooster Teeth Productions’ Red vs Blue was a major inspiration for this production, and the way that the members of this team were introduced to machinima as an artform. Irene Chien points to how part of the absurdist humour that Red vs Blue employs depends on how it “undermines the enemy demonization and zero-hour urgency of the original game narrative” and instead of a heroic fight of humanity against alien invaders, has each team “spend most of their time malingering in the same bleak desert canyon, trading sophomoric insults, and complaining” (Chien 27). While Brickland is not primarily a comedy and has only one major character, it likewise reflects “the shared social experience of multiplayer gaming” (Chien 27) in the sense that much of Brick’s time is spent considering how to survive without other people.

 

Brick’s initial excitement at finding food in the mushroom biome is quickly replaced by the realization that it cannot be enough and he must seek out another place in order to survive. Although he states the reason is that he will run out of food, his unstated reason is that he requires a social structure to give his continued existence any meaning. He readily prepares to help the village he finally encounters by building fences to help protect the village from zombies,  in spite of the fact that he is unable to understand their language. His continued existence only has meaning if it is recognized by someone other than himself, and as he grows less hopeful of rescue he gravitates more toward a need to find a surrogate support network to replace the one he has lost. Brick also examines the world of Minecraft through the eyes of a non-player. As when Simmons observes the absurdity of guarding a base in the “middle of a box-canyon with no way in or out” in the first episode of Red vs Blue, Brick is constantly wondering why he can suddenly chop wood and dig dirt with his bare hands, why trees do not fall when they are chopped down, and why everything is made out of cubes. This view of the world of Minecraft from the eyes of a non-player is a vital part of Brick’s examination into the predicament he has fallen into, and provides the viewer a way to examine the absurdities of videogame worlds that players take for granted while being connected to Brick’s curiosity, fear, and loneliness.

 

After having spent many hours in Minecraft working on this project, we still cannot fully decide whether we were playing a videogame while doing so. The experience was extremely different from simply playing a game with the goal of simply playing a game. This article’s authors are regular gamers, and play together as often as we play apart, and yet this project brought about a completely different shared language than typical team play. Gone were the cries for assistance against newly spawned mobs, replaced by discussions of camera placement, light levels, and the direction of action according to a script. While we admit we have likely been playing Minecraft technically, the shifting of goals from “playing” to “machinima creation” made Minecraft feel much more like a tool to accomplish the goal of a cinematic presentation than a game, and just one tool of many at that. Strangely, this project has been no less fun than a videogame, and in some ways even more fulfilling. We discussed plans and techniques even when not actively working on the project, we looked into other machinima projects and have become much more attentive to musical cues and camera techniques used in television and movies to emulate these techniques where possible. The added goal of a cinematic product gave a very clear focus to this version of “playing” Minecraft that in some ways increased the enjoyment of the game for us, and in fact the process has proved so enjoyable that we are considering future projects outside of school for no other reason that it was such an enjoyable and compelling experience.

 

Discussion questions:

Does the nature of machinima made in a videogame change the nature of the narrative? (Can a dramatic narrative be just as dramatic when told through a cinematic made from a game?)

 

Who ultimately owns the video? While our team has created the narrative elements and spent the time shooting and editing, we also use the graphics and game engine that belong to Mojang. So, is the video ours, Mojang’s, some combination of the two, or none of the above?

 

Are we still “playing a videogame” when we are creating machinima? We did not aim for the explicit or implicit goals of Minecraft. We liberally used creative mode to provide what we needed, but did not really use the ability to build very much. We used survival mode when it suited our needs, but did not try to collect resources or progress toward “the End”. In using Minecraft as a tool, were we simultaneously “playing” it?

 

What should Brick do next? Although we had to stop creating episodes due to time, we are not opposed to making more in the future. What would you like to see happen? Should Brick discover that his dreams of fire and pigmen were of a real place? Should he discover his presence in the village poses some problem to them? Should he find his way back home?

 

 

Works Cited

“Big YouTuber Says He Won’t Cover Nintendo Anymore.” Kotaku. Web. 06 Apr. 2015.

Chico, Carey. “Machinima Unplugged.” Computer Graphics World 37.4 (2014): 24-28. Academic Search Complete. Web. 6 Apr. 2015.

Chien, Irene. “Deviation/Red Vs. Blue: The Blood Gulch Chronicles.” Film Quarterly 60.4 (2007): 24-29. Academic Search Complete. Web. 5 Apr. 2015.

“EULA.” Mojang AB. Web. 08 Apr. 2015.

Minecraft. Mojang AB. 2009. PC

Red vs Blue. Rooster Teeth. 2003. Web.

Schechner, Richard. Performance Studies: An Introduction. London: Routledge, 2002. Print.

“V2N1: Real-Time Performance: Machinima and Game Studies.” International Digital Media and Arts Association. Web. 15 Jan. 2015.

 

The Man Who Pushes Buttons

In The Story of the Death of a Man Named Stanley, The Stanley Parable’s narrator laments that Stanley is a poor man “pushing buttons, doing exactly as he is told” (The Stanley Parable). In a game where the “decisions aren’t supposed to mean anything” (The Stanley Parable) not only does Stanley have no agency, but the only meaningful choice the player can make to successfully “win” and leave Stanley’s world is to stop playing the game.

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Full acknowledgement of Stanley’s lack of agency is made throughout the game. The mind control facility within the game prompts the narrator to interpret Stanley’s realization that he may have been being controlled, but then Stanley apparently refuses to adhere to this perspective, preferring the slim hope that he indeed has his own agency. The irony is then it is the player that controls Stanley through to the ending, choosing whether to turn the facility’s power off or power it and try to control it. The player is aware of Stanley’s lack of agency, but if the player acts in such a way to limit his own agency and follow the narrator’s advice, he sees it given up completely, watching Stanley takes his steps to freedom while the player has no control. Even this level of freedom for Stanley is an illusion, however, as the ending plays the exact same every time, and Stanley’s image of freedom is set on very strict rails. The female narrator who speaks during the beginning of the museum ending very much speaks the truth as it is for Stanley: that he was “dead from the moment he hit start” (The Stanley Parable).

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Stanley’s lack of agency is not really a surprise to a regular gamer who would be used to controlling in-game avatars that serve as an embodiment of the player within the world. the surprising part of The Stanley Parable is the use of the fourth wall to really drive home to the player that indeed it is not only Stanley that lacks agency, but the player as well. Like Stanley, the player is enjoying sitting at their computer, pushing the buttons that he or she is being told to push. Even if the player diverges from the narrator’s suggested path, the player is limited to the choices allowed by the developers, all under the watchful gaze of the narrator who has been provided with a pre-recorded quip for every possible action the player can make. The point is brought up directly in the telephone room, where unplugging the phone results in the narrator saying that he knows these are actions directed by the player, and not Stanley himself. The scene later plays out whereby the player is separated from Stanley, becoming nothing but a disembodied view from above, watching as the narrator begs the now-mindless Stanley to chose a door to enter, to do anything, with no result but the credits rolling.

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While The Stanley Parable may not be a text adventure or one of the more typical uses of the term “interactive fiction” I would argue that the the game is well described using these terms. The complete narrative is still not fully known to me after at least 6 hours of play time and at least as many different endings. I still don’t know the story of employee 432, the only employee without a computer on his or her desk, described in game as a test case with the question of “what to do with 432” written on the whiteboard of the meeting room. These small details add to the details of Stanley’s world but are only “revealed as coherent after a person has gone through” several playthroughs and really taken the time to look around and find the clues (Montfort 2).

 

Works Cited

Galactic Cafe. The Stanley Parable. 2013. PC.

Monfort, Nick. “The Pleasure of the Text Adventure.” Twisty Little Passages. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2003. 1-36. 13 Feb. Web.