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Zoo Keeper & the Luck of the Draw

August 4, 2005 By Glenn Turner

A friend of mine programmed and self-published a handheld backgammon game. Shortly after releasing it he started receiving feedback accusing his program of cheating, users complaining that 'The computer rolls doubles whenever it needs them!' along with other other dice-related shenanigans. For those unfamiliar with Backgammon, all of the movement in the game is left up to the roll of two dice. Each die allows you to move a checker once. If you happen to roll doubles then you can move four times instead of two, allowing you to execute some strategically valuable moves. If the dice rolls were programmatically favoring to the AI, well then it'd be a miserable game to play indeed. My friend responded to these complaints stating that the dice rolls were definitely random, and that they could see the code for them if they wanted to. This did little to quell the complaints, so he released a second edition of the program that allowed users to enter in a seed number, allowing them to view generated dice rolls for matches, to prove once and for all that the game's dice rolls are not circumstantially weighted for the computer player. Despite this he still received cheating complaints.

This is a rather common complaint in the world of digital Backgammon games: everyone thinks each game cheats. Now while computers and consoles can't ever have true randomness, they can produce pseudo random numbers that are 'good enough' - certainly good enough for a game of Backgammon. However, users keep remembering the bad streaks, the string of doubles the AI player would receive and conveniently forget about their winning streaks and 'lucky' rolls. It's the nature of randomness - we as humans want to make sense of what is random, and look for patterns, to the point where we see patterns where they don't exist. If only I could keep this in mind while playing Zoo Keeper perhaps I'd stop slinging profanities at my DS.

A game of Zoo Keeper* starts in what appears to be chaos. You have a board teeming with assorted animals, and it's up to you to catch as many animals by making three animals in a horizontal or vertical row. Each level has an animal capture quota which requires you to capture a specific number of each species before you can advance another level (which clears the board and gets the timer running a bit faster). As you capture the animals, additional ones slide onto the board to take their place, ensuring that the board will never be empty. However, if there are no more matches to be made on the board, the message 'No More Move' [sic] flashes on the screen, and the board resets.

Typically there are a plethora of available moves. You can play an entire 'Time Attack' game (where you try to get as high a score as possible in six minutes) and not encounter this stalemate, but during longer gameplay sessions it's inevitable. Zoo Keeper can't have dynamic pieces shifting magically around the board, so an ever present match is simply not a possibility. In fact, I often found myself wishing for 'No More Move' so I'd get a much needed opportunity to reset the board, and not have to bother hunting for matches once the triads became scarce. Otherwise I'd be stuck searching for 'just one more match', scanning for that one group of three animals buried somewhere in the jumble of species. And once I'd find that match, more animals would flood the board and guess what happens now? I'm still left with just one potential match. By now my matching rhythm is completely shot, my nerves are horribly rattled, the timer is down to almost nothing and every single animal is vibrating back and forth with the impending threat of losing the game. I'm cussing and pleading for the level to reset itself and provide some relief, but to no avail. The game is over and my zoo keeper avatar has the inevitable confrontation with his boss, who of course ridicules me with one of his thousands of half-hearted insults. "You are nothing but average," he says. I try my damnedest to remember that it's just an algorithm, that the game isn't cheating me but I just can't help but murmur a few moans of protest to myself. Another opportunity to unlock 'super-hard' difficulty thwarted by a random seed.

As stated above, this blockade doesn't occur with extreme regularity, so the realization that your carefully honed eyes are at the mercy of a seven-sided die don't often rear up. However, if you boot up 'Quest' mode you will quickly find you're not just at the mercy of randomness, but indentured to it. Quest mode puts you through ten different challenges, including capturing 20 lions (while trying not to match any other animals), getting 30 chains, and so on. Half of the challenges are reasonable, requiring a keen eye and just a dash of 'luck'. Unfortunately the other five, which include capturing all animals without capturing a species more than once, and accomplishing seven matches without chaining are so reliant on 'luck' that frequently the challenge is unsolvable - at least without being penalized upon completion.

To add insult to injury, the harsh scoring system occasionally utilizes 'relative' scoring, which means your performance on a specific challenge raises or lowers your score as a whole, depending on how quickly you performed. Do well on a puzzle and your score can be increased by say, 35%. Perform poorly on the next challenge and you can kiss those gains goodbye as your score is reduced 70%! Many a time while playing Quest mode I have to remind myself that 'luck' in a video game is a non-existent concept, but after acing eight challenges only to be thwarted by two that were nigh-impossible to complete with a positive grade, I just can't help but feel that the animals are conspiring against me.

Regardless, I return to Zoo Keeper daily. Call it the gambler's fallacy, call it the allure of a Bejeweled clone with cute animal faces, or just call me a glutton for punishment; I won't put it down. The stylus combined with the animal's expressions, movements and system's sounds make for an incredibly responsive and fulfilling experience. When the chains are coming fast & furious I'm faced with a cacophony and thrill matched only by Vegas slot machines. In fact, there's even a 'Lucky' animal for each that, if captured, rewards you with two times the points of other animals. With all of these questionable casino tactics, I probably should be second guessing the odds, perhaps wondering why I'm constantly stuck with 'just one more move'. Instead, I just think of my friend's Backgammon game, of the ridiculous emails he's received from people utterly convinced they were being cheated. I'm sure the game is fair. Why wouldn't it be?

* - For those interested in trying before buying, you can play a simpler version of Zoo Keeper online.

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#1 D. Riley Aug 4, 2005 11:02pm

This just brings back ill memories of Final Fantasy Tactics where, in my fervor over tough battles, you can be absolutely, beyond a shadow of a doubt, convinced that the computer is pulling a fast one on you. You miss two 95% chances to hit in a row while the computer manages a spectacular THREE STRAIGHT HITS at its stunning 03% chance to hit.

Woo. Random chance.