Monthly Archives: January 2011

Zuma Blitz and the Kukui Cup

I’ve been playing a fair amount of Zuma Blitz on Facebook. Zuma Blitz is a Flash game from Popcap, makers of many popular Flash games, including the original Zuma. While playing, I have been thinking (occasionally) about what we can learn from “normal” games like Zuma Blitz.

Zuma Blitz mechanics

Zuma Blitz involves a frog that you control in the center of a game board. You can rotate the frog in any direction, and clicking the left mouse button causes it to fire a ball of a particular color (chosen randomly). The game board has tracks on it, and balls of 4 colors are released onto the board at varying rates. The balls follow the tracks, and if the balls reach the end of each track, then the game is over. When the frog fires a ball at the balls on the tracks, if a match of 3 balls in a row of the same color is made, those balls are removed from the board. In addition to the normal balls, there are special balls such as multiplier balls, time balls, etc. Matching these balls affects game play in some positive way. This might sound very complicated, but after about 20 seconds of game play you will see how it works.

Each game lasts for 1 minute, so game play is highly frenetic. There is no time for strategy, balls must be fired very quickly for good scores. The game records 3 different values for each player: score, mojo, and experience points. Score is recorded for each game played, and the highest score for each player for each weekly tournament is displayed in-between games. A histogram of scores (in 50K increments) is recorded, with each bin associated with a different “spirit animal”, and as additional scores are accumulated in each bin, the player achieves different “levels” of spirit animal. This provides a little additional interest for the player, and also shows a historical record of the player’s scores.

Mojo and experience points (abbreviated XP) are accumulated at the end of each level, based on how many balls were matched (which is different but correlated with the score achieved on a game). Mojo can be used by the player to buy powers that can be used to make game play easier, but the cost is recurring for each game they are used in. Powers generally cost more mojo than the player can earn each game, so powers must be used sparingly.

As XP is earned the player reaches different levels. Upon reaching a level, something new is awarded to the player (a new power, a new spirit animal, etc. See this list of levels for more details). Since XP is awarded after each game, no matter how low the score, less skilled but persistent players can improve their scores by achieving higher levels. Zuma Blitz also has idols that are awarded for reaching an XP level, and the idols can be used to buy things in the store (extra lives, mojo, etc). For impatient players, idols can be purchased using Facebook credits (bought using real currency), this is presumably one revenue stream for Zuma Blitz.

When starting Zuma Blitz, the player is given 5 lives, and each 1 minute game takes one life. These lives regenerate based on real world time (starting at 8 minutes). This prevents the user from playing more than a certain number of games in a row, as the lives have to regenerate. Higher levels award the player more lives and reduce the length of the regeneration timer.


Zuma Blitz parallels and lessons

Surprisingly, Zuma Blitz (ZB from here on) has several parallels with the Kukui Cup (KC from here on). Among the ones I have noticed:

  • Players cannot play ZB continuously due to the lives and regen timer. This requires them to come back later to play. Many KC activities require a human administrator to verify that the activity was completed properly, requiring players to return later to see if they got their points. We have worried that this delayed gratification might be off-putting to KC participants, but ZB has deliberately picked this approach (though this is for continuation of the game, rather than the awarding of points).
  • ZB has 3 different metrics being collected (score, mojo, XP) that are interrelated but different. KC has both points and lounge energy usage, which are different and we hope are interrelated. We have been concerned about the complexity of having 2 metrics, but clearly popular games can be similarly complicated.
  • ZB is also based on weekly tournaments, the way KC has weekly rounds. The layout of the ZB game screen (where the tracks are, background image) changes each week.
  • ZB has a store and idols, which is similar in some ways to our raffle and raffle tickets that are earned through points.

Some potential lessons from ZB:

  • The special balls that appear on the board disappear after a certain period of time. If you manage to match them a couple seconds after they have disappeared, you still receive the special value for the ball. In essence, there is a grace period. As a player, this kind of generosity is greatly appreciated, something frustrating (missing a special ball by 1 second) becomes enjoyable. KC already has this generosity in some ways, for example all lounge residents receive points when the lounge makes their energy goal, even if they did not participate in any way. We should continue to look for ways to make KC “generous”.
  • When you first play ZB, it shows all your Facebook friends that have also played the game, their highest score this round, and their stats. It would be good if KC could scan participants’ Facebook friends to see if there are any matches among the residents of the participating dorms. If there are matches, the participant could be given the chance to message them on Facebook to encourage them to participate. You could even get points for doing this, perhaps (or will that just encourage spamming?)
  • Unlike the plan in KC, ZB does not post things automatically to the player’s Facebook wall. Instead, for every interesting event (new high score, winning weekly tournament, new spirit animal), there is a button that says “Share” (or “Gloat” if you win the tournament), and that prompts for text to go along with a post to your wall. We had briefly considered and rejected this technique in KC (I believe I rejected it out of hand by saying something like “are we going to have a Share button in every dialog box??”), but if ZB is doing it then perhaps they know what they are doing. One difference is that ZB is runs in perpetuity, while KC is focused on a 3 week period. A compromise might be a single daily automatic post from KC, and then share buttons provided for noteworthy events.
  • ZB’s changing weekly game layout is another way that ZB encourages players to return frequently. Perhaps we could have a different color scheme or background image for each round. Perhaps the rounds could have names/themes?

That’s all I can think of so far. It might be interesting to look at other Facebook games to see how they make use of the functionality of Facebook, as well as their own game design.

Thoughts on HICSS 44 (2011)

I just got back from the Hawaii International Conference on System Sciences, aka HICSS. This conference has been running for 44 years. General information about this year’s HICSS can be found here, and the proceedings will eventually be here.

This was my first HICSS, which is kinda strange seeing how long I have been in Hawai`i. It was held this year at the Grand Hyatt Kauai, which is pretty luxurious. I guess the idea is to hold it at resort that will be a draw for participants, and provide enough amenities that attendees don’t feel the need to wander off.

The first thing that struck me about HICSS is the incredible diversity of sessions going on. The conference is organized in as a bunch of tracks (high-level topics), which are then broken into about 60 minitracks. The minitracks can last a whole day (4 sessions) or be as short as a single session.

The result is a huge smorgasbord of papers. Each day, there are 15 parallel tracks, ranging all over the place: education, social networks, cyber security, location-based marketing, power systems, and many more. This can be good if you want to check out a diverse set of presentations, but to me it makes HICSS feel more like a conference of mini-conferences than a unified whole. This is quite different from a conference like Ubicomp, which is vociferously single-track so that every attendee can attend every session if they want to. Naturally, Ubicomp accepts far fewer papers than HICSS.

The minitrack I was attending (Information Systems and Decision Technologies for Sustainable Development) didn’t start until the second day, so on the first day I just went to sessions that looked interesting. Just deciding which sessions to attend is quite a task: 15 rooms * 4 sessions a day = 60 paper titles to look at!

I started with the Future Electric Power Systems (smart grid, more or less) minitrack. This minitrack was located in a standalone building at the Hyatt that is used as a nightclub. So the attendee chairs were set up in a sunken dance floor, and the presentation slides were shown on one large TV embedded in the wall, as well as 16 smaller TVs distributed around the ceiling (like one might find in a sports bar). This was kinda bizarre, but amusing.

The power systems minitrack has been running for 15 years, so the attendees seemed quite familiar with each other, and had their conference process down pat. The papers I saw were interesting, though more traditionally smart-grid-oriented compared to our Kukui Cup work. Unfortunately, the proceedings (which will be freely available) are not yet online, so I cannot link directly to papers.

  • A case study on the expected impact of PHEV vehicles on electricity consumption, using a new community in South Korea (A Case Study on the Grid Impact of PHEVs to Sample Distribution Power System by Dong Joo Kang and Sunju Park)
  • An algorithm for detecting “load pockets”, which are areas on the grid that are constrained by transmission such that generation facilities could raise their prices and electricity users would have no option but to pay the higher prices (Clustering of Power System Data and its use in Load Pocket Identification by Katherine Rogers and Thomas Overbye).
  • An analysis of locational marginal carbon intensity of generation (how much additional carbon will be emitted by increasing demand by 1 kWh in a particular location at a particular time) on the eastern part of the US. The results are somewhat surprising, in that areas that are heavy coal users might actually have lower marginal carbon intensity because if they had additional demand they would import power from generation facilities with lower carbon intensity. The presenter related the marginal intensity to Renewable Portfolio Standards, which provide subsidies for production of renewable energy. Currently subsidies are independent of carbon intensity, but the authors argue that they should be higher (pay more for renewable energy) in places where the marginal carbon intensity is high, and lower where marginal intensity is low. This would encourage the buildout of renewable generation in places where it would reduce carbon emissions the most (Locational Carbon Footprint and Renewable Portfolio Policies: A Theory and its Implications for the Eastern Interconnection of the US by Aleksandr Rudkevich, Pablo A. Ruiz and Rebecca C. Carroll).
  • An investigation into what is really happening in loads, starting with hot water heaters. The presenter argued that there has been a lot of research into the dynamics of generation, but very little in the dynamics of loads, which will be critical for any type of demand response program. In the ensuing discussion, I learned a new term: demand subscription. This is the idea that rather than being metered for use, customers subscribe to a certain amount of electricity (not sure if it is measured as power, energy, or both) and then it is up to the customer to figure out how to live within that subscription. So the utility would only communicate with a smart meter, not reaching beyond the meter to smart appliances.

I also had time to attend some talks in the social networking track by members of LILT (my former research group): Dan Suthers, Kar-Hai Chu, and Devan Rosen. I was familiar with some of the outlines of the Traces work, but it was good to see it discussed in a public forum.

The minitrack I presented in was called Information Systems for Sustainable Development. I presented our paper describing the design of the Kukui Cup. It seemed well received, with most of the questions revolving around how to get students involved and how to keep them aware after the competition in order to sustain behavior changes. Eric Paulos suggested we should provide Kill-A-Watt meters to some residents in May 2012 before they move out of the first-year dorms, and then follow up with them on whether and how they used them in their next living situation.

Two other presentations in our track that I found interesting:

  • Hendrik Hilpert, a PhD student from Göttingen University presented work on computing products’ carbon footprints automatically using vehicle mass airflow data (obtained via OBD2) fused with GPS data. This combination allows one to compute how much carbon is being emitted, while the GPS data allows the carbon to be allocated to different products that might be on the same delivery vehicle as it makes a series of stops. They even cited my older literature review in their paper, würd! (Real-Time Data Collection for Product Carbon Footprints in Transportation Processes Based on OBD2 and Smartphones, by Hendrik Hilpert, Lars Thoroe and Matthias Schumann).
  • Eric Paulos, assistant professor at CMU presented work on Citizen Energy. Citizen Energy is the idea of changing people from just being energy consumers into more active participants in the generation and use of energy. They have made a bunch of cool devices, like a Seasonal Energy Lamp. The lamp is connected both to grid power and to solar and wind turbines, and it changes the color of the emitted light depending on the source (orange for solar, blue for wind, etc), making people more aware of where their energy is coming from. These design experiments seem really complementary to the Kukui Cup, possibly providing additional ways for participants to become more energy literate. (Citizen Energy: Towards Populist Interactive Micro-Energy Production by Eric Paulos and James Pierce).

Unfortunately, our minitrack had fairly low attendance (perhaps 8 attendees at peak, of whom half were presenting in the minitrack), so I don’t know how it will fare next year. All in all, it was a worthwhile experience, but was a bit of a comedown after BECC 2010.