Monday, December 8, 2008

Of Learning Curves

We’ve all seen the picture of EVE’s learning curve. It is so funny because it’s so true. The learning curve in the game of poker may not be as steep (not at first in any case) but it goes on much farther.

I was trying to figure out why this is. According to the rules, poker is a very simple game. Yet the mastery of it can take decades if it is ever achievable at all.

As far as massively multiplayer games go, EVE is one of if not the most complex in terms of diversity and variety of content. The number of mechanics and tools and possible interactions dwarfs those of some of EVE’s popular competitors.

Why, then, does it take longer to be very good at poker than it takes to be ‘very good’ at EVE?

Let’s examine what they have in common and how they differ. In terms of commonalities I would say: both are games, both focus heavily on PVP, skill at both requires strategic and tactical thought. Risk versus reward is a prime consideration in both. And economy of action is also a predominate feature. By this last I mean, “How much will taking this action cost me?”

What are their differing qualities? There are considerably fewer actions that can be taken in poker than can be performed in EVE. There are usually fewer participants in a given iteration of poker but, to some degree, EVE can be played in a more solo fashion if one chooses. A single iteration (hand, game, tournament) of poker takes less time than the open ended, ongoing duration of EVE. This last point is countered by the argument that many accomplished poker players attest that poker should be viewed as a single life-long game.

And here is my final example of a prime difference between the two: EVE is much closer to a game of perfect information than that of poker.
An example of a game of perfect information is chess. Both players know, at any given moment, all of the pertinent information about the current state of the game. The only information in chess that is unknown is what action will be taken in the future by your opponent. And given the limited number of various allowable moves, this possible future action can be more easily deduced and planned for.

In EVE there are innumerable variables. Who are my opponents, where are they, what are they flying, selling, fitting, plotting? What are their skills? Who are their allies? But all of this information is, to one degree or another, discernable. With the right intel, recon, communication and time, a great deal of information can be deduced about the opposition in EVE. Granted, the vast majority of such data is never gathered or even considered but it could be.

Poker, for all its simplicity, is a game of uncertain information. There are only 52 cards in play but most of them are hidden at any given point in a hand. Add to this the random factor that cards are shuffled in the deck and dealt out to players and the lack of firm data becomes a very considerable problem. As a matter of fact, it is poker’s relatively small number of rules and possible actions coupled with this randomness and lack of clear info that makes it such a difficult game to master.

Why? Because in EVE if you know some of the information you need (who are my enemies, where are they, what might they be in) you can extrapolate a great deal of data. You know, roughly how much damage they can do in how many seconds. You know how long it could take you to get off a gate. There is some very fine documentation about the formulas for how things work in EVE. And, most importantly there are a myriad of things at work! The sheer number of variables begins to act as a buffer of protection.
Like a lone zebra in a massive herd you just need to know the general direction of the lions…not that they’ve recently sharpened their claws or that 15 of the 100 zebra between you and them are considering running left versus right.

In poker there is a proportionately greater amount of hidden data that cannot be determined and comparatively fewer overall possible actions and outcomes. This is why, in any given hand a rank amateur can win against a consummate pro. And this also accounts for why pros suggest that poker should be viewed as a single life-long game.

A lot of people refer to the random factors in poker collectively as Luck. And they lump poker in with other games governed by randomness as gambling. But on the strata of games governed to some degree by chance, I would place poker closer to EVE than I would to many of the others.

An example of the line might look like: Coin Flipping, Slot Machines, Roulette, Ro-Sham-Bo, Black Jack, Poker, EVE, and Chess.

Where randomness versus discernable information can directly effect the outcome of the game.

In a future post I want to talk more about poker as a game of skill versus chance and how it is viewed by popular culture as well as US legislation.

For now, I feel like I’m still way way down the learning curve in both poker and EVE.


Cailais said...

Loving this blog. As a poker fan and EVE Online fan its a great mix.


Diametrix said...

Thanks for the Support, Cailais!

Everyone, please let me know your thoughts about the discussion and topics I'm posting. I'd love to hear when you disagree or other ideas.

I'm enjoying the blogging myself.

Mynxee said...

Love this blog, too! Nice comparisons between EVE and poker, also length of posts is very good.

I remember a lot of arguments were made that poker is a skill game rather than just a game of chance, back when the laws that have made it difficult/illegal to fund a real money account to play online poker were first being considered. While the cards you can see are limited and the distribution random, the skills of calculating odds to determine your next move and of reading other players have more impact on the game than anything. Same thing applies in EVE, particularly in PvP. One thing for sure: it's that subtle mix of known, unknown, and unknowable that keeps things interseting in both games.