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Hey, Google: Maybe it’s time to take a lesson from Samsung

Whew! I don’t know if you heard, but Samsung held its first super-duper-neato special event of the year on Tuesday, and the company’s got a few new phones for us all to ogle.

The devices themselves seem fine enough, in their respective ways. I’ll sum ’em up quickly for you, because what I really want to talk about is something a bit deeper. So here’s the lowdown:

  • The Galaxy S20 is Samsung’s new main 2020 flagship. It comes in three models, all with 5G in the U.S., and they’re all about as Samsung as it gets: big screens, small bezels, and All The Specs™ — loads o’ numbers that look impressive on paper (108 megapixels! 8K video! 120Hz screens! 16GB of RAM!) but ultimately mean very little when it comes to real-world impact. They’re also expensive: $1,000 on the lower end and all the way up to $1,600 for the maxed-out top-of-the-line model.
  • The Galaxy Z Flip is a new horizontally-folding foldable phone — basically a better version of the recently released Motorola Razr, from the looks of it, and an interesting technological advancement but almost certainly something no normal person should actually buy at this point.

That’s the ultra-abbreviated version, anyway. The reality is that Samsung’s bound to sell a boatload of its Galaxy S20 phones, as it generally does with its primary new flagships — and that’s the area I really wanted to explore.

First, a quick pinch of context: Aside from creating appealing devices, Samsung has worked hard over the years to build up brand awareness and loyalty. Initially, that was driven by bold, memorable, and ubiquitous marketing — but then, at least in part, it turned into a bit of a self-propagating cycle. By that, I mean that the longer someone sticks with a particular style of Android phone and the more times they upgrade from one generation of that phone to another, the more likely they are to make that same sort of upgrade the next time the need arises.

Think about it: How many people do you know who bounce between different brands within Android? In my experience, outside of a small subset of enthusiasts, most people don’t even entertain the notion. They’ve had Galaxy phones for the past few cycles, so when the time to upgrade comes around, the only question they consider is which model and style of Galaxy phone they want to get. Just as smartphone platform preference has largely become tribalized, smartphone brand preference within Android seems to have turned into a mostly static quality.

And the effects of that go even deeper: When someone who doesn’t yet have a strong brand preference within Android looks to make a buying decision — an average phone-buyer, whether for individual or company-wide purposes — what do they think about first? More often than not, it’s what brand they know and see everywhere they look, both in the hands of their colleagues or companions and in the most prominent positions on store shelves. Once that cycle starts, it’s difficult to disrupt.

Samsung knows that, and it showed us this week just how carefully it’s working to reinforce that cycle — in a way that’s almost the polar opposite of what Google does with its Pixel line of phones.

Think about these bigger-picture takeaways from this week’s Samsung event and how much of a contrast they illustrate between Samsung’s smartphone selling approach and Google’s:

1. Samsung revealed that Galaxy S owners are waiting longer than ever to upgrade their devices.

This first one’s mostly just for context, but it’s important: The average upgrade cycle among Galaxy S owners, specifically, jumped from 22.6 months in 2016 to 26.6 months in 2019 — an increase of 18%, according to Samsung. That mirrors the industry-wide pattern we’ve been hearing about for a while now, but seeing Samsung acknowledge the same trend specific to Galaxy S owners — and seeing it get stated with the flat-out assumption that those Galaxy S owners are gonna upgrade to a new Galaxy S phone and not any other brand’s offering — is pretty telling.

It also leads us directly to our next point:

2. For the first time, Samsung is going to keep producing its previous-generation phone — the Galaxy S10 — and will sell all of those models for $150 less than their original prices.

This is something Apple has long done but most Android device-makers (Google included) have yet to come around to — and by golly, it makes so much sense, it almost hurts.

Yes, Samsung’s Galaxy S20 prices may be mildly outrageous, but if you don’t want to drop a cool grand or more on a bunch of cutting-edge technology you probably don’t need, well, now you can get last year’s still-quite-impressive Galaxy S10 phone for a much more palatable $750 price. Heck, you can go as low as $600, if you want to drop down to the still-perfectly-nice S10e model.

Google did this ever so briefly with the Pixel 2 back when the Pixel 3 came out, which gave me hope that it was adopting a similarly smart strategy — one that would be especially sensible with Pixel phones, by the by, being that they’re the only Android devices to receive a full three years of guaranteed operating system updates — but it turned out the company was just selling off whatever stock it had left as opposed to continuing to produce the older model as a deliberate, ongoing strategy. Alas.

And then there’s the biggest point of all:

3. Samsung is bending over backwards to encourage current Galaxy owners to upgrade.

Sure, the Galaxy S20 might be a thousand bucks — but if you’ve got a Galaxy S10, you can trade in your old phone and get the new one for a mere $400 (unlocked and off contract). Got a Note 10? Samsung will give you a $700 trade-in credit and sell you the new model for $300.

Even older Galaxy models come with decent trade-in discounts. The Galaxy S9 and Note 9, for instance, give you $300 off the price of a new phone. And if you’re coming from a Pixel, the Pixel 4 will net you a $600 credit, bringing the S20’s price down to $400. The 2018 Pixel 3 will get you $300 off the S20’s starting price. And even the midrange Pixel 3a will get you $200 off the price of a shiny new S20 phone.

Google has its own trade-in program for Pixel phone purchases, too, but it pales in comparison. The company offers a maximum of $265 in credit for a Galaxy S10 — less than half of what Samsung gives for that same device. Even for its own previous-gen Pixel 3, Google provides a maximum trade-in value of $165 toward a Pixel 4, compared to Samsung’s $300 credit for that same Google-made phone.

A widely cited adage states that acquiring a new customer costs five times more than retaining an existing customer. Samsung may not provide anywhere near Google’s level of post-sales software support — and hell, it even quietly sells its users’ data! — but when it comes time to think about a new phone purchase, Samsung clearly knows the value of reinforcing its relationship with existing customers and motivating them to stick with the Galaxy brand. Google, on the other hand, seems to make little more than a token effort.

(And this isn’t just on the phone front, either, incidentally: Over on the smart speaker side of things, where Amazon is absolutely slaughtering Google despite having an objectively worse product, Amazon wisely encourages Echo owners to trade in their older devices in order to receive a store credit plus an instant 25% off any new Echo product. Google puts out plenty of new smart speaker models but does absolutely nothing to encourage that same sense of brand loyalty and repeat purchasing among owners of its aging products.)

When I think about all the stuff Samsung announced this week, the phones are certainly everything everyone hoped they would be — eye-catching, technologically impressive, and probably the precise right amount of push forward needed to maintain Samsung’s mobile-tech dominance. But the circumstances surrounding those phones seem far more significant to me, especially in that bigger-picture sense of what Samsung’s doing to support its technology and reinforce the loyalty it’s worked so hard to create.

We can talk endlessly about the ways Google could position its Pixel phones and market them to the masses, but even if it manages to win over new users, it needs to come up with a smarter strategy for maintaining its momentum and creating a self-propagating cycle of customer loyalty. And, as Samsung’s reminding us all this week, it doesn’t have to look far to find an example of exactly how that oughta be done.

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[Android Intelligence videos at Computerworld]

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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What Is RNG? A Lesson for Gamers

Have you ever felt overwhelmed by the number of acronyms in the world of gaming? From genres to technical terms, there’s a lot to keep track of. For example, what is RNG?

In this article we explain what RNG is in the context of video games. We’ll look at the meaning of RNG, study some examples, and see how it can even apply to speedrunning.

What Is RNG?

RNG stands for random number generator. This is defined as a device or algorithm that comes up with numbers by random chance. In gaming terms, then, RNG refers to events that are not the same every time you play.

While it sounds simple, computers actually have trouble generating random numbers. This is because computers are designed to follow instructions, which is the opposite of randomness. You can’t just tell a machine to “come up with a random number,” because giving instructions on how to choose something randomly is an oxymoron.

True RNG and Pseudo-RNG

Because of this, to truly generate a random number with a computer, you must use a physical device known as a hardware random number generator. This uses minute physical processes, such as electronic noise, to come up with random numbers.

As there’s no way for a person to predict or know what’s happening with these imperceptible events, they’re as truly random as possible. This type of RNG is vital in security-centric systems and thus appears in common forms of encryption. If someone was able to figure out how the system came up with “random” numbers for an encryption protocol, that would be a big problem.

However, this isn’t a concern with gaming RNG. For greater speed and easier reproduction, many programs, including games, use what’s known as pseudorandom number generation.

Pseudo-RNG uses an algorithm (think of it like a formula) that performs mathematical operations on a seed (starting) value to come up with a random number. To achieve different outputs each time, it’s important to use a seed that’s as random as possible.

A simple example would take the current number of milliseconds as a seed, then perform some operations on it, like this:

int rand = (a * milliseconds + b) % c

This is not truly random, because using the same seed will produce the same result each time. But it’s good enough for video games.

Examples of RNG in Gaming

Now that you know the technicalities of RNG, let’s take a look at some examples of RNG in games to see how it plays a part.

Loot RNG

RNG plays a big role in loot-focused games like Destiny, Borderlands, and Diablo. When you open a treasure chest or defeat an enemy, the reward it drops is not the same in every instance. The game determines it randomly each time, so you might end up lucky and get a super-rare item right away, or a low-level piece of armor over and over.

Of course, to keep the game balanced, loot drops are not completely random. They have systems in place to prevent you from getting the best weapon in the game from the first treasure chest you open. Each game has different ways of handling this, perhaps by limiting the equipment you receive based on your player level.

The drive to keep getting better loot is just one of the reasons video games are so addicting.

Determining Chance Percentages With RNG

Pokemon Critical Hit

Many games use RNG to figure out the percentage of a certain event happening. This is commonly seen in role-playing games (RPGs).

For example, when you attack in JRPGs like Persona 5 or Chrono Trigger, you may trigger a critical hit that does extra damage. This happens at random, though in many games you can increase your chance by using certain items. In a Pokémon game, RNG determines how often battles with wild Pokémon happen and which creatures you encounter.

Similar examples of this appear in games like Super Smash Bros. The character Mr. Game & Watch has a move called Judge that displays a number from one to nine when used. The value is determined with RNG each time you use it, with the exception that you can’t get the same number twice in a row.

Procedural Generation Through RNG

RNG is at the center of procedural generation, a popular trend in gaming. Procedural generation refers to the process of creating game content through an algorithm instead of crafting everything by hand.

Well-known games build around procedural generation include Minecraft and Spelunky. These games create unique worlds through a seed value, meaning every player gets a different experience each time they play through the game.

Like other forms of RNG, game developers add restrictions so that worlds aren’t generated completely at random. For instance, you won’t find random floating ground blocks above an ocean in Minecraft.

RNG in Speedrunning

There’s a chance you might have heard about video game RNG in the context of speedrunning. Since speedrunners aim to complete a game as fast as they can, they practice a lot in order to learn the game inside and out. Understandably, then, RNG adds an element of unpredictability to speedruns.

While it often causes issues, RNG isn’t always negative in speedruns. Having some variance between runs can make the game more appealing because it’s easier to improve your time with a bit of good luck.

Minor to Moderate Speedrun RNG

Sometimes, RNG is largely inconsequential to a run. The exact placement of where enemies spawn in a room, or whether you get a critical hit in a regular battle, won’t have a huge effect on your total time.

Other instances of RNG can cause more significant slowdowns. For example, in Super Mario Sunshine, the boss battle against King Boo involves spinning a slot machine with five possible outcomes. To damage him, you must first match three pineapple icons to spawn a variety of fruits.

After this, you have to throw a pepper at him to set his tongue on fire, followed by hitting him with any other fruit. With good RNG, the peppers will appear in a convenient location so you can quickly complete the fight. With poor luck, though, you might have to spin the roulette many times and burn some time.

Run-Breaking RNG

Some games have sections where getting unlucky with RNG can completely derail a run. One instance of this occurs in Banjo-Kazooie.

Near the end of the game, you enter a quiz show called Grunty’s Furnace Fun, which tests you with questions about your adventure. One type of square on the board asks you questions about Gruntilda, the game’s villain. If you talk to her sister Brentilda throughout the game, she’ll give you the answers to these questions.

However, the correct answers to these questions are random on every playthrough. Speedrunners don’t want to waste time talking to Brentilda, so they have to guess the answers at this point. This comes down to complete luck—if they pick the wrong answer too many times, they could die and lose a ton of time.

Having this RNG-dependent section at the end of the game is frustrating for a speedrun, because the runner can’t do much other than hope they get lucky. Despite this, speedrunners still often come up with ways to get around these roadblocks, as the video below shows.

RNG Manipulation

As we discussed, the pseudo-RNG of video games isn’t truly random, because you can reproduce results if you use the same seed. Many games use an internal timer as the seed, which can be fairly difficult to exploit. But other games are much easier to fiddle with.

Golden Sun, an RPG on the Game Boy Advance, is a great example of this. The game determines the rewards you get from completing a battle based on the actions you took during the encounter. This means that if you fight a battle against the same enemies using the exact same tactics, you’re guaranteed the same drops every time.

Speedrunners can use emulation tools to analyze a game and figure out if they can manipulate its RNG. They can then take advantage of it by guaranteeing a desired outcome or minimizing potential time wastes from RNG. But to the average player who doesn’t understand the seed, this kind of RNG is as good as random.

Now You Understand RNG’s Role in Gaming

We’ve looked at what RNG is, examples of how RNG affects games, and how it applies to speedruns. So you should now have a better understanding of RNG’s role in gaming. Now you should check out our favorite video game speedruns

7 Entertaining Speedruns Packed With Tips and Tricks

7 Entertaining Speedruns Packed With Tips and Tricks

Speedrunning lets you see incredible feats from experts. These speedruns will entertain and inspire you to become a better gamer.
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