Why some adverts work, and why most don’t…

Yeah, sorry, this isn’t really related to gaming. Sorry for the length, too. Something that turned up in the New York Times today just caught my attention.

It’s no doubt come to your attention that many people are using AdBlock Plus. You probably use it. I certainly use it; the majority of advertisements served by any site are of zero relevance to me, either being for goods and services I’m not interested in, or being for something I am interested in, but prefer to rely on word-of-mouth, trusted recommendations or detailed reviews for when deciding whether or not I want to purchase it.
If a site cares enough to ask the audience not to use AdBlock Plus because the revenue for adverts helps defray the cost of running said site, they probably also care enough to make sure adverts are very specifically targeted to their audience; so I turn AdBlock off if a site cares to ask. I want the site to stay up and they deserve not to have to pay through the nose to do that.

Anyway, this start-up, AdKeeper, thinks that people will accept their product as an alternative for AdBlock Plus. They think that, in some circumstances, viewers will accept advertisements. I don’t disagree with them on this.
Sometimes a person really needs, say, double-glazing installed. In which case they look in the local Yellow Pages equivalent, or Google for a solution. Yellow Pages/Google listings are advertisements, as much as they’re directories of contact information.
So, not exactly what AdKeeper’s Mr. Kurnit is hoping for. The reason banner adverts get so little click-through is two-fold; first, the audience for advertisements like that is extremely limited, as you need to catch the right member of the audience at exactly the right time and right place, when they have a reason to be interested and haven’t already found what they’re looking for. If I urgently need a roofing specialist as the summer storms have once again caused my ceiling to start crying, I’m not going to be browsing the LP Archive, which is one reason they don’t run adverts relating to roofing. I don’t want a car, I don’t want fifty free emoticons, I don’t want a dubious offer for a free iPod if I just sign up for some scheme, and I don’t want- actually, I am interested in adverts for MMORPGS, so long as they’re not marketed like Evony was.

Second – and this is something I picked up from A-Level Communication Studies, or even GCSE English, it’s that elemental and basic – it needs to be engaging. Every single advertisement in any form needs to be engaging. It needs to catch the audience’s eye, and be memorable. This is the backup idea in some of the utter dross out there, and the primary concept for some of the best advertisements I’ve ever seen. If your actual audience doesn’t want double-glazing or a car right now, you want them to remember the advert and hence your product when they do want a car or something to occupy their time or… why do those free iPod scams even get advertising? Are they that popular?
Well, I suppose the lottery is popular.
Most advertisements out there are dross. Some are entirely dross and others are dross to the wrong audience. Some of them with a good idea of how people work try to make the advert funny in some way. People remember the good, entertaining advertisements, even if they forget all the facts. Especially if there weren’t any facts beyond the name of the product. Even if they weren’t the intended audience for the advertisement. Then they suddenly need a car and think ‘what was that advert I saw last month? The one with all the pieces?’, visit Google or Youtube, and find this again. Or this. Or even this. Two of these use car pieces in ways I’m certain were never initially intended. One only has a very tenuous link to cars, involving lots of things going down a road. I’m reasonably sure anyone reading this post can make a good guess at all three of those advertisements just from those descriptions. I’m absolutely sure that I consider the first two of those three advertisements to be the best advertisements I’ve ever seen for anything; they’re wonderful to watch and think about what was achieved with what was never intended to do things like that, and they don’t bore me with car facts. (Note: I watch Top Gear. That doesn’t bore me with car facts, either.) Most importantly, and impressively, even someone vehemently opposed to learning to drive because she’ll probably drive into some[one/thing] with her horrible reflexes and coordination, and hence absolutely not in the intended audience for any of those advertisements, finds these things incredibly memorable.

Car advertisements seem to do things like this better than most. Possibly because you can’t actually throw out any facts at all and have it still appeal to the not-immediate-audience of people-who-want-a-new-car. Or even the immediate audience, as some care about fuel economy, some care about speed, some care about appearance…
Top Gear tried to make a car advertisement, once. I liked some of the ideas that got shot down by the Alan Sugars. They sounded memorable and entertaining. Just like… Top Gear.

You can’t do that with a banner advertisement. Not positively. Evony (probably) tried and got mocked relentlessly for it; I remember it, despite not being terribly interested in browser-based things like that. It’s that much more difficult to make a still image at that size amusing and/or engaging in the same way that a two- or three-minute commercial can be. It’s very easy to make it as dull as the average TV advertisement and hence just as easy to ignore and forget.
There’s one single still advertisement that I remember, outside of the Evony fiasco. It’s for a game I already played at the time I saw it. Here.

So, back to AdKeeper. Once people save an advertisement – in other words, once they’ve already shown a little interest in it already, if only by interacting with it to make it go away – the click-through rate goes up to 3.4% from 0.1%.
In other words, if they think the advertisement is in some way relevant to themselves in the first place, such that they saved it for later viewing, they still don’t click through 96.6% of the time. That article doesn’t say whether saving an advertisement replaces the one on the webpage with another, or leaves it there, or makes it vanish from the page; I think that behaviour will have more of an impact on whether people use AdKeeper than the apparent primary function of the thing, saving banner advertisements unmemorable enough that they don’t make any lasting impression.
So AdKeeper has a purpose, and does make sense, but its audience is ‘advertising agencies and networks who think they or the people using their adverts and networks can stop people from just using AdBlock Plus, or relying only on the people who will not use AdBlock Plus’.

AdKeeper and RealMedia think that most of the time people don’t want to be pulled away from the page they’re currently reading. Today, even Internet Explorer has tabs. Chrome’s had tabs all along. Firefox has had tabs far longer than Internet Explorer. A person nowadays can very easily open a link in another tab for reading once they’re done with the current tab.
I think people don’t pay any attention to advertisements because, 99.9% of the time, banners simply aren’t relevant, or interesting.

Zynga’s FarmVille and Helping Out on Farms

So I decided to check out FarmVille recently. Makes me wish I were playing Harvest Moon – I should dig up one of those games sometime. Maybe even the GameCube one.

Anyway, one of the game’s mechanics caught my attention. You can help out on the farms of your friends – scare away crows, or do some weeding. You only get suggestions to help on the farms of your friends; you don’t get anything for random strangers, unless you happened to friend someone like that.
So what does helping neighbours with their farm do for those neighbours? For the helping player, it’s a quick visit to another farm, and clicking two buttons, in return for a small amount of currency and experience. It’s also an automated notification sent to the player they ‘helped’.

For the helper:

  • A way of getting money without waiting for plants or animals to reach a harvestable stage. It’s instant and doesn’t require spending anything, but doesn’t get you much – about the profit from a single
  • A way of getting experience, similarly.
  • Tells the person you helped that you’re playing?

For the helped:

  • They now know the helper is playing, if they didn’t already. The helped player can then ‘help’ the player that helped them.
  • More notification spam.

For FarmVille:

  • Reinforces player relationships?

If it doesn’t actually do anything for the helped player aside from informing them someone plays, then the action is a little… selfish. Players aren’t helping people to genuinely aid them; they’re helping people to make a little extra cash on the side, or they’re informing their friend that, yes, they play FarmVille too.

It’d be nice if helping out on the farm lengthened the period of time crops remain harvestable, or maybe even harvested (some) ready crops for the helped player. Maybe weeds or birds trying to eat things could be actual problems for a player.
Come to think of it, are there problems to encounter in the game? I suppose something like that would have players checking too often, worrying too much, though. FarmVille is definitely on the casual, low-interactivity side.

So I’m playing Spectrobes… (1)

…which seems to be Disney’s attempt at answering and/or leeching from the success of Pokemon.

Not that Pokemon was the first or the only successful monster-training game out there; the Shin Megami Tensei series has apparently always been popular in Japan, but most of it didn’t arrive over here due to censorship-type concerns – apparently people get offended if the Judeo-Christian God is obviously the true final boss of a game. Come to think of it, what changed that they brought SMT3 over here? The success of spinoffs like Persona?
Persona’s another game that fits under a broad definition of ‘monster-training’, but that series is odd in that a character’s Persona determines a portion of a human character’s statistics, so the monster is really just a piece of equipment that can level up. Then there’s Digital Devil Saga, which completely dodged the whole issue of monster-training by making them plain ordinary characters; part of the whole ‘monster-training’ mechanic is that you potentially have a very large pool of monsters unlocked – by capturing them, or by befriending them, or… whatever system the game uses to justify more becoming available – and tailor your selection in order to deal with the enemies you encounter. For instance, putting a lot of fire-element creatures in a hypothetical party if you’re about to go somewhere flammable that you don’t really care about.

But then there are games like Lost Kingdoms 1 and 2 on the Gamecube – your main character could temporarily summon all kinds of monsters to fight for her… which was kind of necessary due to the utter lack of a direct attack on her… but could only summon the ones in her hand, drawn randomly from a constructed deck.
But is this a monster-training game? The cards the monsters are contained in expire as they’re used – use some once, or a certain number of times, and they’ll run out. Likewise, monsters that are summoned and walk around for a time expire when their health – the ‘health’ of the card, displayed in the same way uses-left are, as the card gradually burning to ashes – falls to zero, and it drops every single moment they’re on the map. If you pick up any cards in an area, you can replace cards in your own
deck with them, even cards that are already expired due to use, but if
you run out of cards in an area, you’re still screwed, so there’s that
element of tactics; it results from a limited number of cards in the deck, a limited number of uses or length of use for each card, and only limited opportunities to refresh existing cards by either replacing them, or restoring them with another card – heavily limited in the second game since most players worked out how to have a five-card ‘infinite’ deck in the first game. Running out of cards tends to be an automatic fail on any area with a boss at the end, as you can’t do anything to enemies or bosses when that happens, and you tend to need certain cards to navigate certain areas, so… strategy, yeah. And that’s without factoring in how certain cards are better at beating certain enemies due to elemental weaknesses/strengths, the area the card effects, odd things like how fast the attack happens or whether it ignores defenses… or whether it’s one of the rare and expensive card that lets you capture enemies defeated with it…
Additionally, cards you use in battle gain experience, and with enough experience you can duplicate the cards, or turn them into more (or… less) powerful cards – essentially, breeding and evolving from the Pokemon games. But a single card does not gain strength with experience – a card cannot become more powerful as itself.
So, is this a form of ‘monster-training’ game?

Whatever you think, then what about Tecmo’s Deception/Kagero series of games? This has somewhat-similar mechanics; you have a hero or heroine who can’t physically attack by themselves, who needs to rely on something external to defend themselves from attackers. In this case, rather than monsters (…mostly), they rely on traps; things like boulders rolling down stairs, or trapdoors in the floor, or wall-fixtures that breathe fire. In most games, the player needs to trigger these themselves through a buttonpress, rather than have them automatically trigger on enemies; one or two of the four games in the series had the option to add something to the traps to add that functionality, but it was apparently rather limited through either availability, or other things you could add to the trap instead.
In these games, killing enemies through traps nets you currency; between levels, this can be used to buy new types of traps, like invisible boulders or wall-mounted lasers. Depending on the game, buying certain combinations of traps or combining certain items would produce new, otherwise-unobtainable traps.
Is this some kind of ‘monster-training’ type of game? There’s definitely strategy in there – you can only ever have three different traps active in a room, one on the floor, one on a wall, and one on the ceiling. Certain enemies are immune to certain traps or entire kinds of traps, and have different patterns of attacks, so some types of traps are going to be more or less effective at hitting them in the first place, or at dealing damage even when they connect. It doesn’t just rely on luck, as generally the same types of enemies have the same attack patterns, and the games tend to warn you ahead of time of immunities. That didn’t always make sense, but served to keep you from using the exact same combination of three traps through the entire game.
However, I don’t think individual traps ever gain in strength – once they’re made, they’re fixed at the same level of power and always will be that strong. You can make a more powerful otherwise-identical trap, and you can make a new kind of trap that, say, electrocutes the enemies in addition to picking them up, but the original cage isn’t going to do more damage, ever. You’re not ‘raising’ your traps, you’re always replacing them. They still exist when you switch to something similar but more powerful, unlike Lost Kingdoms and its cards – if you ‘evolve’ a card, the card you evolved changes into the new card, and isn’t available for use any more unless you buy another version of it. This series’ ‘pool of experience’ is essentially the currency you get from enemies ,and rather than being specific to anything, it’s used by everything. You can still focus on developing a certain type of trap over all others, if you want, but you’re a bit more screwed in this game if you spend everything on something that just won’t work on an enemy; in Lost Kingdoms, each specific card-type – like the Dark Raven, or the Hellhound – has a pool shared only with other instances of the card, and in most games, experience is specific to one instance only.
So despite having similar mechanics, I think the Lost Kingdoms games are monster-training games, and the Deception/Kagero/Trapt/whatever series isn’t; being able to improve a specific monster or creature after using it for a length of time is just as important as the collection aspect, or the strategic aspect.

I don’t think I’m playing Spectrobes any more. I’m just musing about
the nature of monster-training games. I’ve probably missed out key mechanics somewhere, and I’ve deliberately kept away from most of the traditional monster-training/raising/taming/whatever games, like Monster Rancher, the main Pokemon games,  Jade Cocoon 1 and 2, and the majority of the Digimon-themed games (Digimon World Championship (DS) is a nice… Tamagotchi), in the name of keeping this from growing to proper essay-size. It’s fairly large as-is, really, so I’m glad I didn’t go into more detail.
I’ll… write about Spectrobes in
a different post, I suppose, for neatness, since this turned into a talk about something else. I still have things to say about it.

Etrian Odyssey, and Difficulty (written 30/6, revised 04/7)

So I beat the boss of Etrian Odyssey several days ago; saw the credit sequence. I’m not going to spoil it, but the fifth stratum was beautiful, and pretty much entirely unexpected, to boot.
However, it turns out the game isn’t done with me. Etrian Odyssey 2: Heroes of Lagaard arrived today. I decided not to make the mistake I did with the first game; I ordered this one when it was released and easy to get, rather than waiting until a year later and then having to jump through hoops to find it from anyone who’d deliver it to the UK. But… I still can’t play it. See, it promises extras if you input a password the original Etrian Odyssey produces on completion, but… I haven’t beaten the game yet. Not really.

See, Etrian Odyssey has six strata, not five. Each stratum – each floor, really, but floors in a stratum are usually variations of the same problem – has a different trick or combination of tricks, and these usually aren’t replicated as the focus of a future floor. In essence, each floor, and therefore each stratum, has a different atmosphere to it.
The first stratum introduces you to the game’s elements, and as expected of an introduction area, isn’t difficult to navigate, or more difficult than usual to beat.
The second stratum forces you to walk long distances to simply reach the stairs to the next floor; you learn your time in the labyrinth is essentially very limited to the TP of your characters, barring a well-stocked inventory or a TP-restoring skill. It also has the first major non-boss FOE that is guaranteed death to encounter, at least until you gain 30 levels, and gives you little space to dodge if you screw up.
The third stratum is packed with winding, turning paths, pits behind doors, and FOEs that seem to revel in making existing fights worse.
The fourth stratum requires a lot of searching for secret passages, and careful mapping, before presenting a boss that’s more puzzle than any one encounter.
The fifth stratum has you following a winding path across four floors before you can make your way to the last floor; the one you think is final. Oh, and it doesn’t warn you when you’re on a path that eventually reaches a dead end.

Then there’s the sixth stratum, accessible only after beating the not-quite-final-after-all boss. The sixth stratum’s theme, or atmosphere, seems to be in encouraging frustration. Assuming you survive the enemies – tougher than the fifth stratum’s, of course, and pretty much requiring skills, and thus valuable TP, to defeat even at the highest possible level – your first problem is testing teleport points until you find the one – if any, that doesn’t set you back to the beginning. Then again, with secret passages. Again. Then again, choice of three. Any wrong choice means a lot of wading back to where you were, through enemies and FOEs (also worse). That’s the first of five floors.

At the time of writing, I was confused by B29F. One floor from the end. Well, one floor, and then the 30th floor’s hell of a single, winding, long path and three locked doors at the end.
B29F required all but 1 member to be at or around level 70 to survive; B30F killed you half the time if you had that but didn’t have a good stock of items in inventory, too.
I worried that my current party build was unsuitable, and that I’d have to train up one or more members from 60 again, after reallocating skill points. It was, and I had to defeat three very tough bosses outside of the sixth stratum, to boot.
But I still had two floors to solve.

I like Etrian Odyssey, because unlike some (more popular?) RPGs, it’s difficult to simply overlevel to solve a floor’s enemies – weaknesses need to be noticed and exploited in ‘fair combat’ to survive, sometimes, and it’s difficult simply getting enough experience to gain a single level, let alone get to the point where one stratum’s enemies aren’t a problem before the last floor of the area. The different floors of the Yggdrasil Labyrinth are all puzzles, too, as are quests; solutions to either may be hinted at, if you’re lucky or observant, but for the most part the whole game just lets you discover things for yourself. The FINAL final boss is painful like that; that’s how far they take it.
Difficulty throughout the game is carefully calculated, however; it ramps gradually, such that you don’t notice except when travelling to a new stratum, and you’re always at best struggling against a stratum’s enemies until the final floor, when you’re fully equipped with what the stratum can provide. Maps grow more complex and difficult to navigate, different status elements crop up, FOEs and bosses possess more intricate and fatal combinations of attacks, skills, resistances.

I prefer a calculated challenge; I’d rather spend an hour attempting to solve B29F (and I did – much more than an hour) than fighting through encounters with ShinRa guards, mutants and robots in Midgar and watching long FMVs. La-Mulana sits in a similar spot for explorational platformers – in the end, I’ll play it rather than Cave Story, as it has a balanced, ramping difficulty, whislt Cave Story in comparison has erratic spikes of difficulty, ridiculously easy in places and insanely difficult in others. Remember that cat-tank boss? Lots of people I know complained about that one being difficult. (Personally, I hate Omega – that jumping robot in the Sand Zone. The cat-tank is easy, but I died tens of times to Omega’s feet.)
It doesn’t help that I have the plots of FF7 and Cave Story memorised. Without discovery – of story, of environment, of nuances in difficulty – to drive me on, those games have little to offer me beyond the sudden odd urge to beat them again every year or so. Knowledge, in those cases, defeats the game. However, knowing everything – or as much as I’ll ever know – of a game like La Mulana or Etrian Odyssey does not eliminate the draw of the game; the difficulty remains unchanged, though I may be better prepared.