Yahoo! Labs and zombies: We need your help

Interested in game theory, advanced mathematics, classical economics, and budget allocation problems? No?

Let’s try again. Are you interested in commanding a legion of Zombie warriors in a pitched battle against your friends and random people online?

We thought so, which is why we wanted to let you know about Shambling Hordes, a social game experiment developed at Yahoo! Labs, now available in our Sandbox. We invite all our YDN developers and friends to lend us your minds.

Yahoo! Labs game screen with player names, maps, wins/losses, and tutorialshamblinghordes

Here’s how to command your very own Zombie army:

  • Within the world of the game, the zombie apocalypse is upon us and the world is being divided and conquered by warlords, each leading their Shambling Horde of zombies.
  • Each player can move their zombie army into different territories on a fictitious island.
  • As the two armies begin to meet in those territories, skirmishes ensue.
  • Each player allocates his or her zombies into three groups during a skirmish and the winner is determined by matching the three different groups against each other.
  • It’s a best two-out-of-three contest and the winner of the skirmish is able to spawn additional zombies to continue their march.
  • The battle ends when one player’s Shambling Horde reaches the other’s command post.

Sounds fun, right? We think it is. But it’s also grounded in some classical economics and game theory that should be familiar to anyone who’s had a finite amount of anything — budget, advertising dollars, even candy — that they had to spread around in a competitive environment.

Just take a common example from the business world: say you have $1 million to spend on advertising for a new product. You know one of your competitors is getting ready to launch a very similar product around the same time. Where would you spend your advertising money?

In microeconomics, this zero-sum situation is often associated with Colonel Blotto’s problem. So even though your Zombie horde may be virtual, the decisions you make in the game and the strategies you evolve to deal with each skirmish are something with a range of real-world applications.

Why did Yahoo! Labs develop a game like Shambling Hordes? Well, first of all, because Zombies are awesome. And, second, because using technology and new experiences to look at thorny intellectual problems are a big part of the experimentation we do in Labs.

We’re hoping to understand how you — the user — play the game and interact. How quickly do people shift strategies or learn new approaches? What lessons could be applied to online advertising marketplaces? To other new interactive social games? Like most of our experiments in the Labs sandbox, Shambling Hordes is an open-ended pursuit. We don’t know exactly where it will go, but we do know we’ll learn a lot.

Also, Zombies.

Tom Gulik, Tejaswi Kasturi, Robert Messerle, John Morgan, and David Reiley of the Yahoo! Labs team collaborated on this post.