Cheap Talk - Econ and game theory from Jeff Ely and Sandeep Baliga
November 18, 2009 4:33 PM   Subscribe

On pinball's downfall; draft Scrabble; strategies for choosing a seat; visiting our old friend, swoopo.com; and meatball theory: various and sundry economical, game theoretical, and miscellaneous morsels from the folks at Cheap Talk.
posted by cortex (53 comments total) 27 users marked this as a favorite

 
That draft Scrabble thing sounds pretty neat. I wonder how it would work with more skilled players, specifically relating to the value of blocking a bingo.
posted by box at 4:41 PM on November 18, 2009


You know, I always feel like I ought to enjoy Scrabble. But then, I always feel like I ought to enjoy Spades too, so maybe adding bidding to the game isn't the right way to hold my interest.

Cool blog, though.
posted by nebulawindphone at 5:04 PM on November 18, 2009


Whoah. Some excellent synchronicity there with the downfall of pinball. Something I've been thinking a lot about the last couple of days. Many thanks.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 5:06 PM on November 18, 2009


That Swedish meatballs post reads like every argument on MetaFilter. Ever.
posted by rokusan at 5:15 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


OK, I enjoyed that meatball post a lot.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


On non-preview: heh.
posted by languagehat at 5:17 PM on November 18, 2009


They underthought that plate of meatballs. Meatballs in Sweeden are smaller because a smaller meatball absorbs heat better and cooks faster. It's more efficient, something a borderline welfare state respects.

Meanwhile, Italian Americans need to attract people into their restaurants, so they need to compete with American businesses and other American Italian restaurants. Restaurants typically compete on portion size, as food is relatively cheap, especially for meatballs, which can be up to 50% bread. As many small meatballs look awkward on a plate of spaghetti, they need to increase the size of the meatballs.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:21 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


MetaFilter: think ABBA with pork
posted by idiopath at 5:21 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


Also, the tax rate affecting the cost of labor theory has it 100% backwards. It's faster to make a big ball of meat than to make many identical, small balls of meat. Anyone who has done route kitchen work knows this. Assuming you aren't paying multiple employees to run the oven, it doesn't matter that a big meatball needs to cook longer, so long as you plan ahead. Of course, a big meatball will use more fuel and more time, so it uses up tangible resources that a country with a big government would be worried about.
posted by mccarty.tim at 5:25 PM on November 18, 2009


There must be some hidden rule that enforces a cost mechanism that works against blogs with some good posts from maintaining a minimum quality below which none of the other posts will descend, because there are two kinds of people in this world, and New England is not really in England.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:40 PM on November 18, 2009


This is fascinating, the Scrabble post especially. I wonder how much experience the authors have at playing Scrabble, since the results they came up with are pretty remarkably consistent with the conclusions I've come to after playing competitive Scrabble for a few years now: blanks and S's are the best tiles to get, U's and V's are awful to have in your hand, QZXJK, etc. are pretty neutral. But it took me a long time, without ever having explicitly thought about it, to get a feel for this: like now, if I draw a U or a V, it has an automatic (slight) negative effect on my mood, where the reverse is true for drawing an S.

I wonder how this captures the value of having certain tile combinations, especially common prefixes and suffixes. If I already have an I and and N, I'll pay a lot more for a G than I would otherwise, for instance.

Also, some combinations are worse than the sum of their parts: having multiple I's, for instance, or an I and U, or a G and a C... G's and C's are both only slightly 'rare' in English words, but words with both are actually quite rare. At least that's my hypothesis, and it doesn't come from having studied the dictionary, but just from playing a lot of Scrabble to the point where I instinctively shy away from that combination, much like a chess player may say, "you're in a weak position" without really being able to say exactly why.

Anyways, thanks for the fascinating link!
posted by notswedish at 5:41 PM on November 18, 2009


I believe lingonberries are accurately rated.
posted by Wolfdog at 5:42 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


ground kontrol has a bunch of pinball machines, post 1992, that kick ass.
posted by rainperimeter at 5:54 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


I wonder how this captures the value of having certain tile combinations, especially common prefixes and suffixes. If I already have an I and and N, I'll pay a lot more for a G than I would otherwise, for instance.

Oh man. Imagine a variant using bidding lots. Package them in threes and twos maybe.

Some more random Scrabblery, just for the hell of it:

- IPA Scrabble
- WSJ Scrabble score/stats roundup
- The Dark Side Of Scrabble
posted by cortex at 6:00 PM on November 18, 2009


I always thought the Swedes made such tiny meatballs so that you could transport the food into your own mouth and assemble it there.
posted by Dumsnill at 6:20 PM on November 18, 2009 [5 favorites]


ground kontrol has a bunch of pinball machines, post 1992, that kick ass.

Ground Kontrol fucking rocks. They've got Mappy and Burger Time, and a old version of Tron with the little metal wheel controller.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 6:29 PM on November 18, 2009


OHGOD GET SWOOPO AWAY FROM ME ARGH SO TEMPTING
posted by Potomac Avenue at 6:39 PM on November 18, 2009


Later designs would allow the threshold to rise quickly to combat the wizard-goes-to-the-cinema problem. The WGTTC problem is where a machine has adjusted down to a low replay score because it is mostly played by novices. Then anytime an above average player gets on the machine, he’s getting free games all day long.

Some of the most pleasant days of my life were the ones when I went to the Addams Family machine they used to have at GSU and I got to be that guy. My record was 12 free games in a row, and my top score was nearly half a billion.

Pinball rules.
posted by JHarris at 6:40 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


That pinball article confirmed so much of what I suspected about pinball: That it began to suck in the mid-80s, by design but not by intention. And that at some point they stopped even pretending that the match number was random.
posted by ardgedee at 6:43 PM on November 18, 2009


Oh, and:

You will never match if you won a free game by high score.

I suggest that this is not true; in the free game streak I mention above, a couple of them were from matches. I suppose, however, that it is possible that the article author is somewhat confused, since most pinball machines award randomly ("match"), meeting a target, reflexing score ("replay"), achieving one of the vanity-board high scores ("high score" and "grand champion" -- the latter is usually two credits) and for achieving some difficult or rare goal (usually, "special"). The article only says "high score," so it could be the latter; some of the free games I won were from high scores and some from replays.

Different companies likely have sob had different match algorithms. The percent match odds are operator adjustable, and on later Williams machines defaulted at around 7%. If you've never played around with Visual Pinmame, I suggest an interested person could install it and then just mess around with the machine's adjustments. Nearly every rule of a modern machine can be adjusted in some way, from extra ball frequency to obscure awards. Many Williams machines even calculate how often each award is earned (which can be viewed by the operator in a special menu, useful for quickly determining if part of the machine is broken), and will reflex one of the available extra balls to be earned in a target percentage of games.
posted by JHarris at 6:51 PM on November 18, 2009


First I ever heard about Swoopo. That's sketchy as hell. There seems to be no smart way to bid on it, so it strikes me as a scam, as it's not really providing anything of worth but still making a profit. Granted, lotteries and gambling work by similar systems, but they're equally scammy, and only exist because the government likes the revenue.

If Swoopo gets declared illegal, I predict that we'll eventually see it move offshore like online gambling, and we'll see state governments start providing Swoopo-style auctions on things like gift cards to raise funds.
posted by mccarty.tim at 6:57 PM on November 18, 2009


Okay, JUST one more comment:
Pinball attracted a different crowd than video games like Defender (my new pal designed Defender and Stargate too,)

Eugene Jarvis designed those games, but he is not a pinball designer. I think, however, that Steve Ritchie also worked on those games. Steve Ritchie is SUPER AWESOME. On Usenet he has been called the "master of flow," of taking the player from one objective to another. His tables tend to be fairly wide-open and fast, light on gimmicks and heavy on basic play.

The blessing is that pinball players were a captive market. The curse was that to keep the pinball players interested the games had to get more and more intricate and challenging.

I am not sure of this; I was a new pinball player by the time I started playing Addams Family, and fell in love with pinball from this era and after. I can rarely get interested in pre-AF games, but post-AF games tend to keep me going for over an hour. Twilight Zone, Pat Lawlor's next game after Addams Family, is the most wonderful pinball machine I've ever seen. It is so amazing that I can even forgive its horrible outlanes!
posted by JHarris at 7:00 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


JHarris, read Pete Ashdown's comment on the blog. (Unrelated, but yes, apparently that pete ashdown. He's quite a arcade game aficionado.)
posted by blenderfish at 7:07 PM on November 18, 2009


That pinball article confirmed so much of what I suspected about pinball: That it began to suck in the mid-80s, by design but not by intention. And that at some point they stopped even pretending that the match number was random.

It was random but on an operator-set frequency.

My beef was when the machines had already been set to max design angle by means of the screw out rear feet, and they started jamming things -- cardboard, bits of wood -- underneath to jack it up even higher, making the whole game a vain gravity fight against the inevitable sewer shot. Wrecked the angles on all the important shots, too.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:08 PM on November 18, 2009


Oh, and damn video mini-games. If I wanted to play a video game, I would.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 7:08 PM on November 18, 2009 [1 favorite]


A smaller meatball allows one to eat more gracefully; is fits into the mouth and allows one to chew with the mouth closed. You can draw your own conclusions about each country's relative table manners.
posted by 5_13_23_42_69_666 at 7:21 PM on November 18, 2009


Great find; great post.
posted by Optimus Chyme at 7:23 PM on November 18, 2009


If I'm reading his post about sw**p* right, it is exactly the same as a lottery(where the odds of winning are so small that functionally your odds of winning are the same whther or not you play) in that the "sunk cost" fallacy is in fact equivilent to the rational way to bid--therefore EV-wise you lose by playing. The only winners don't bid at all. Is that correct?
posted by Potomac Avenue at 7:23 PM on November 18, 2009


I'm also interested in the way that they tested bidding-Scrabble with a three-player game. I'd've gone with two, and not just because almost all high-level Scrabble is played that way. Two-player games with perfect information (Go, Chess, Quarto, etc.) are pretty much all skill, y'know? I'm a big fan of that balance between luck and skill, and I think that, in most cases, it makes for far more interesting gameplay, but the all-skill ones still fascinate me.
posted by box at 7:24 PM on November 18, 2009


The worse part of pinball machines are the magnets strategically placed under the mainboard, helping guide the ball into the gullet when you're playing too well.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 7:37 PM on November 18, 2009 [2 favorites]


I became a serious pinball fan in the middle of high school (five years of high school back then in my province) in the early 90s due to Terminator 2 Judgement Day pinball. I basically mastered the game. I'm sure the match bonus at the end reacted to the player pulling the trigger in rhythm with the randomizer tone.... I would get a free game about half the time I played using this trick. At one point my friends and I were regularly going to "Billiards" (the name of a billiards room\arcade) to play Star Wars pinball, and Francis Ford Coppola's Dracula pinball. These days there's a Starbucks and a high-end furniture store where the arcade used to be.
posted by autodidact at 8:17 PM on November 18, 2009


no, the worst part of pinball machines is the big-ass bruises you get on your hipbones from trying to nudge the damn thing around. it's tricky when you're 11 years old and like four feet tall and 80 pounds and can't get enough leverage from your upper body to muscle the Gorgar machine when it's trying to throw the goddamn ball down your throat.
posted by toodleydoodley at 8:23 PM on November 18, 2009


That Scrabble variant is great and I will definitely play it. It might even be interesting to play that version with the players' hands revealed.

Agreed that Twilight Zone is a great pinball machine.
posted by painquale at 9:16 PM on November 18, 2009


Heh. That's the top search item over at Mr. Pinball.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 9:32 PM on November 18, 2009


Tilt- the Battle to Save Pinball was an interesting look at the history of pinball, with a special focus on the death of the industry. It spends a good amount of time talking to all of the people involved, and leaves one with a very distinct urge to buy a table.

Great stuff, highly recommended.
posted by paisley henosis at 9:39 PM on November 18, 2009


thanks for that movie tip-off, paisley henosis.
posted by rainperimeter at 9:54 PM on November 18, 2009


My girlfriend and I got the Williams Pinball Hall of Fame recently, and we just love the crap out of it. It has 13 tables from the 70s through 1997. The Xbox 360 and PS3 versions are better than the Wii and PS2, because they have hi-def and three new and excellent tables.

It's interesting to see how the tables evolved through the years - the early ones' only goals are to complete banks of targets or light a series of roll-overs, but the later ones like Medieval Madness have fairly epic "campaigns" that you engage in by lighting and completing series of goals.

One thing I thought was amusing was how the pinball games are metaphors for various actions - defeating the monster Gorgar, driving a taxi, and so on. But playing a pinball game inside a video game makes it some sort of doubly-layered metaphor.
posted by Earl the Polliwog at 10:33 PM on November 18, 2009


Meatball size is obviously all about the surface area to volume ratio. That yummy swedish gravy requires a small meatball for the optimal meat/gravy taste. Italian gravy is stronger (some might say coarser) and requires a larger sphere for a smaller surface/volume ratio. I have never eaten a bulgarian meatball but By Yiminy, their gravy must be powerful stuff!
posted by phliar at 10:38 PM on November 18, 2009


thanks for that movie tip-off, paisley henosis.

Seconded - moved this to the top of my NetFlix queue. Looking forward to a day of Williams Pinball on the Wii and this documentary to conclude the day. All I need now is Loverboy and Tony Basil's "Hey Mickey" cranking in the background and I've recreated my local early 1980s arcade.
posted by porn in the woods at 10:55 PM on November 18, 2009


JHarris - a half a billion on Addam's Family is a damn fine score, and beats my best by quite a bit, but at the tournament held last weekend at the bar I work at, one of the matches on the first day lasted an hour and a half (best two out of three) and the guy racked up a 1.8 billion point score. And I don't even think he posted a GC score. Those guys were fucking phenominal.
posted by Jawn at 12:44 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Don't forget as well that The Addams Family table had Thing Flips, which was essentially a self-calibrating automatic flipper.

The in-game premise was simple: Let the ball roll down a lane towards a small flipper, which Thing will automatically hit for you if you let it. There's a scoop target (IIRC; it's not just a saucer) on the other side of the table with small targets around it. The automatic flipper will adjust its timing depending on which targets the ball hits.

Basically this means the pinball table teaches itself how to aim for a certain target. In practice, "Thing Flips" was just a cute gimmick -- Thing is invisibly moving the flipper for you! -- but underneath it all was a simple, yet really cool self-learning AI.

(And who here thought it was good luck every time the flippers "snapped" to the tune after a drain?)
posted by Spatch at 6:06 AM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


I was just looking at that, Earl the Polliwog. Looks good.
Have to settle for the PS2 version, though.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 6:37 AM on November 19, 2009


ground kontrol has a bunch of pinball machines, post 1992, that kick ass.

For even more pinball machines I'd recommend visiting the Pinball Hall of Fame in Las Vegas. They've got over 150 pinball machines from the 50's to the 90's, though the majority are from the 60's-80's. ALL the machines are playable. Admission is free and games are $.25 or $.50, with all the money going to help support the Hall of Fame, which is non-profit and run mostly by volunteers. The volunteers I've talked to are huge pinball fans and very knowledgeable about both the history and mechanics of the machines. Many of them work at restoring old machines back to working order.

They've just moved to a new larger location (which I haven't seen yet) right across from the Liberace Museum. Great place for cheap fun once you've lost big bucks at the tables.
posted by Kabanos at 7:38 AM on November 19, 2009 [2 favorites]


If you love pinball, Portland is your town! Updated by us pinball faithful regularly!
posted by Asbestos McPinto at 8:25 AM on November 19, 2009


If you like pinball and you're in Seattle, check out Shorty's. They have tournaments every now and again. They even have a rare Pac Man Jr. pinball/video game hybrid, which I hadn't seen since 1983.
posted by Blazecock Pileon at 10:52 AM on November 19, 2009


Blazecock Pileon: I only say this because i heard from someone once who thought they actually did this, so if you're kidding please forgive me. Only a small handful of pinball machines use magnets to affect the ball. I'm only aware of two, Addams Family and Twilight Zone, and in those it is very obvious when the magnet is on. (Addams Family turn a rotating under-the-playfield magnet on during the Seance and multiball, and Twilight Zone actually uses the magnets to help the player, through the Spiral and Magna-Flip features. One of the balls in the machine, the "powerball," is unaffected by them.) Sometimes, however, a pinball acts strangely due to rotation put onto the ball, and one might think a magnet is causing that. World Cup '94 has a rapidly-spinning soccer ball set into the playfield, with a soccer ball's rough surface, and I remember that causing the pinball to pick up some quite devious physics after collisions.

Earl the Polywog: I own that compilation for the Wii, and while it is not bad, I don't think it's close enough to the originals for me. The whole package has numerous sound bugs. During the leadups to multiball on Funhouse, for instance, there are supposed to be two different music pieces for each ball lock, but the game only supplies one. Rudy is a lot more obnoxious before multiball too. There are also subtle ruleset bugs among the games. And it doesn't help that they took out the machines' attract modes, special tricks and operator setting modes. (But it IS cool that they reproduced the Funhouse high score lightshow, complete with its music synchronization, even if they didn't keep Rudy's comments during it.)

What happened with it, obviously, is that they recreated both the tables layouts and software, when what they should have done is the gone the Visual PinMame route, running the software in emulation, feeding it the switches that the ball hits in real-time and reproducing the audio, scoreboard and light output coming out of it. Considering how many lights a pinball machine has and how time-consuming it must be to reproduce a single lightshow, I'd expect that emulating the software might even be less development work, especially if they had Williams' help in producing it. None of the machines in the compilation have a particularly powerful CPU, and none of them have a dot matrix scoreboard, so emulation shouldn't be that processor intensive.

Spatch: That 496M game I had I managed to Tour The Mansion twice, and had an excellent Multiball showing. I don't doubt that there are people out there who are much better at it than I am though, I've never really learned to nudge the machine effectively and have never executed anything like a bang-back or deathsave. (The Twilight Zone machine I played had a fairly sensitive tilt sensor, and I once accidently tilted it during Lost In The Zone. AUGH.)

About Thing Flips, it remains one of the most ingenious features ever put into a pinball machine. The operator settings contain a special menu item to be used when the machine is set up a new location, causing it to discard previously-acquired Thing Flips data. The setting was needed because of slight changes in the machine's level from location to location. In the machine I played on Thing Flips had gotten really accurate, and made its shot more than half the time.
posted by JHarris at 11:39 AM on November 19, 2009


What happened with it, obviously, is that they recreated both the tables layouts and software, when what they should have done is the gone the Visual PinMame route ... Considering how many lights a pinball machine has and how time-consuming it must be to reproduce a single lightshow, I'd expect that emulating the software might even be less development work, especially if they had Williams' help in producing it.

The modelling/code backend for VPinMAME has had custom light show support for several versions now. You can select a group of lights on the table and run various effects along them: spirals, wipes, chasers, etc. I bet that whoever made the most advanced Funhouse port for VPinMAME has recreated the light show. Haven't played the Williams collections yet. I am hoping the Wii version tries to get you to be as physical as you can while playing.

(God, I love the Visual Pinball coding backend. It's all VBscript. So, so easy to start making simple table ideas, and then mutating them into more involved games. Of course, this means that since 2001, I haven't actually finished a table...)

I never got the hang of bangbacks and after a few sore wrist days realized it just wasn't worth the effort. I actually do very little table manipulation with the exception of bouncing a ball out of a side drain.
posted by Spatch at 12:40 PM on November 19, 2009 [1 favorite]


Wow Spatch, that seems pretty intense, recreating a lightshow for a project like that and keeping them synced with the music. I was sure that the lightshots on VPMame were done through emulation only. Thanks for the info.
posted by JHarris at 6:54 PM on November 19, 2009


Only a small handful of pinball machines use magnets to affect the ball. I'm only aware of two, Addams Family and Twilight Zone, and in those it is very obvious when the magnet is on.

Lots of pinball machines of recent vintage use magnets in some form or other... Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings immediately came to mind. Indiana Jones, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Starship Troopers, World Cup '94, and NASCAR also use magnets. But most of these games just use magnet bolts as a lock rather than something that affects the trajectory of the ball, and given that you were responding to BP, maybe that's all you meant.

Guns n' Roses is another game with underfield play magnets. IJ4 launches balls in all sorts of crazy directions with a magnet.
posted by painquale at 3:05 AM on November 20, 2009


NBA has a big spinning magnet in the middle of the playfield that's always on. I actually think it's one of the better uses of magnets I've seen, causing the ball to juke and dadge much like a basketball player heading down the court.
posted by Jawn at 1:37 PM on November 21, 2009


Lots of pinball machines of recent vintage use magnets in some form or other... Spider-Man and Lord of the Rings immediately came to mind. Indiana Jones, Ripley's Believe It Or Not, Starship Troopers, World Cup '94, and NASCAR also use magnets. But most of these games just use magnet bolts as a lock rather than something that affects the trajectory of the ball, and given that you were responding to BP, maybe that's all you meant.

I have not been able to play most Stern games unfortunately. World Cup '94 doesn't have a magnet does it? It's been a long time since I played that, what I remember about it is the big grippy soccer ball imparting wild spin to the ball. I don't remember there being a playfield magnet in IJ.
posted by JHarris at 4:50 PM on November 22, 2009


Yeah, the WC94 magnet is just a magnet lock, not a playfield magnet. IJ uses a magnet to shoot balls out of the ark, I believe.
posted by painquale at 8:19 PM on November 22, 2009


Tilt- the Battle to Save Pinball was an interesting look at the history of pinball

Watched this last night. Great recommendation, thanks.
posted by Durn Bronzefist at 10:06 AM on November 25, 2009


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