Thursday, April 7, 2011

Zen Card Gaming and Computer Holy Wars, or How I've Come to Love the Mac

(In the interest of full disclosure, I've never read/watched either Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, or Dr Strangelove.  There's probably an etiquette rule against that.)

I just started playing Magic the Gathering.  (Yes, yes, I know.)

I have to give it credit: It has introduced me to a completely new way of thinking.

When designing a deck, size matters.  It's not just that it's harder to shuffle - which is true - it's also that every card you put in reduces your odds of pulling that card you really want to pull.

So when I put a card in my deck, the question is not - is this card any good?  All cards are good, on that basis I'd have a million-card deck.

I could ask myself if this card, taken in the context of my deck, at least as good as every other card?  But that question, similarly, leads to a bloated deck.

And I could ask myself "Does the value of drawing this card offset the chance of not drawing another card?"  And I could probably get somewhere close to a reasonable deck on that question.

But those are all questions I'm used to asking myself, and even with the last one, my decks would get unwieldy very quickly.

So I added a question.

Does taking this card out of the deck harm the deck's purpose?  Is my deck any worse at what it seeks to do without this card?

This question represents a fundamental divergence from my usual "Add something else" strategy of solving problems.  My ideal weapon in any RPG has maximum attack power, and causes sleep, silence, poison, slow, vorpal, or, more broadly speaking, relies on the strategy of "Throwing the book at it".  Before I could ever have come to peace with Magic, I actually had to come to peace with the idea that losing is a part of the game; Dwarf Fortress helped me along considerably on this front, and indeed taught me that losing can, indeed, be quite fun - because any deck which seeks to do something -particular- is going to lose, and lose badly, against a deck designed to counter that something particular.

So I reached this point, and suddenly I'm tearing my old decks apart, deciding on a particular goal for those decks - "I want to control what the enemy does each turn"/"I want to have a massive army by the fifth turn" - blatantly disregarding previous notions that the best way to play a game is to spent five times as long in the game building up an unstoppable force and seeing if anything can stop it.  I was looking to build -smaller- decks, because what they didn't include was, in fact, just as important as what they did.

A few weeks later, somebody on my blogroll recently linked to this article (I don't remember who, my apologies) on Steve Jobs' design strategies, and in one of those curious coincidences, I had just started upon the same concepts myself, and so it made an immediate and intuitive sense to me, where Apple never had before.

I'm not an Apple fan, in fact I despise the company and its products, but they do at least make sense to me now.  I understand where they are coming from, and more, I suddenly see where the computer holy wars come from.

I think there are actually four philosophies here, not two.

You have the Everything-to-Everybody crowd, who are always going to prefer Windows; these are people who think every piece of software should do everything in its domain possible.  "Feature Creep" is the domain of this philosophy, and products like Apple - which just don't provide the features - or Linux - which expect you to provide your own features - are in fundamental opposition to how they move and think.  If you were to buy a house built on this philosophy, it would come with so much furniture you have trouble walking around, and you'll spend days just dragging crap out to the curb.

Then you have the minimalist ma of Jobs, who designs products not only for what they are, but for what they aren't.  His products will -never- appeal to everybody, because they don't do what everyone wants.  On the flip side, his minimal designs actually -create new markets-, because they simplify products to a particular purpose for which multifunctional products simply aren't as well suited.  (And then rapidly loses marketshare to those willing to turn the new product into a multifunctional product.)  For those whose needs are met by his products, his products are among the best.  (And among the worst if you want a single additional feature, the Windows fanboy in me must point out.)  A house built on this philosophy has doors too narrow to admit furniture, and is naught but a single room; everything is built into the walls and ceilings.  You can flip a switch and a bed descends from a hiding place in the ceiling; flip a different switch and a kitchen slides out of the walls.  It has everything it thinks you need.

The third philosophy is another variant of ma, of empty space - it is the philosophy of Linux and many Windows users, and why they are in more frequent alliance than either with Mac.  It provides naught but the absolute essentials, but provides ample space and means to easily put in your own features.  It is epitomized by the plugin.  As a house, it is what we would typically imagine; an empty house with many empty rooms, all white, without any character save that you impart upon it yourself.

The fourth philosophy is that of Google, and simultaneously the most ancient and the most modern of the philosophies (ancient because this is how things have been done anyways, modern because it's making a comeback as a "formal process"); it is the philosophy of "Good enough," and focuses, not on getting a perfectly designed product out the door on the first try, but of rapid subsequent releases, correcting the issues of the previous release.  It doesn't necessarily contradict any of the other three philosophies, but does stand on its own, as it neither depends on them.  As a house, the idea would be a house where walls are easily put up and knocked down; perhaps a studio apartment with folding wooden walls, like an office building with cubicles.

None of these is necessarily -wrong-.  I'm personally partial to the plugin approach; minimal for users who want minimal, feature-bloated for those who want that.  But it's never going to be the -best- at either minimalism or feature density, as it either has useless hooks for components never used, or a management system that just slows down the features installed.  It's simply the most multifunctional for the least developer effort.

So I understand something of where Apple, and Apple products, come from now, and am now at peace with their feature-bare products.

Now I need to wander off and start deciding what I want my Myr/metalcraft deck to actually -do-, as at present, it's a collection of tactics without any strategy.

No comments:

Post a Comment