Monday, June 27, 2005

Riffing Patterns

Most of my entertainment theories (games, writing, even my lame comics) revolve around the idea that the audience will be attracted to the way the patterns form, change, and interact.

This can lead to a very straight-forward method of creation, in which you build (or steal) a pattern, then go and wank some jazz with it. The player, in theory, follows along, lauding you for your incredibly fun game. Hopefully while using sentences which don't run on and on like a herd of stampeding cattle who only want to get away from the hyenas trying to eat them.

This works for the games I've run, but the result is spotty. Only people who like the patterns included like the game. So, while some people rave about my games, others aren't interested in the slightest. There are things you can do to try and fix that, especially in a computer game - but that is outside the scope of this post.

Here I'm going to show you a few things you may NOT have realized were pattern manipulation. A few things you might have noticed have a very powerful affect on players.

The first is AESTHETICS. From character design to the way someone moves, aesthetics are a powerful lure. In Prince of Persia, you can run along walls. This is very cool, not just for the reasons of gameplay, but because it looks "wicked awesome". To be scientific.

This is because they take the established patterns and do a newish thing with them. Something the normal patterns don't, as a rule, do. In Prince of Persia, running along the walls is awesome. This is because nobody else does it. Not inside the game, not outside the game - it's an interesting quirk in the global and local patterns. In addition to the yummy gameplay dynamics, it also gives the prince a very tangible power - and power is attractive, automatically. So long as your audience grooves with that kind of power.

Similarly, a carefully designed character is obviously derived from a pattern, but strikes a new(ish) chord. For example, Darth Vader was hardly the first kick-ass black-helmeted supervillain to grace our collective unconscious. But at the time, they were uncommon, he struck a chord – it was a good use of pattern manipulation.

As you can see, gameplay patterns aren’t the only patterns available to be built and manipulated. You can also manipulate social patterns, cultural patterns, and anything else. However, gameplay patterns are the most robust, as you can run through iterations of different dynamics... which is quite difficult with aesthetics – once you’ve done some aesthetic change, it’s pretty much set in stone, meaning there’s no interest past the first "awesome!" spike.

But wow, the moment you see it, it’s a hook. By blending with play patterns, you can get players totally immersed. So long as the patterns you’re basing your aesthetic decisions off of are familiar enough to the players, so they can appreciate your new chord.

Now, ANOTHER interesting twist on the pattern idea is that of character creation. Most people who like those sorts of games will agree that creating a character is probably the MOST fun part of the game. Me and many other players spend hours creating various characters, often playing an hour or two of game, then starting over and creating a different character.

Why is it so much fun?

There’s a couple reasons, including the fact that it lets us ‘see’ into the game, and the fact that we’re experienced character-creators, so we like to see how the new instance of character creation functions.

But in order to see those two benefits, we have to have liked character creation in the first place. What is the source of our love? It’s not like Joe Average picks up a game and says, “Whoa, cool, I can choose from eighty skills!” He’s more likely to be overwhelmed! (Although the aesthetic patterns are more familiar, so he’ll probably feel comfortable making the visual for his character.)

We begin to get addicted to character creation when we realize that every time we see it, it has a massive pattern behind it.

Think about it like this: you get to play in the Star Wars universe in a game of unprecedented flexibility. As a Force-user. You get a light saber, you can leap hundreds of feet, you can control minds, pilot ships, assassinate ewoks. You can do all this cool shit!

Now, what kind of character will you play?

Likely, you bubble over with ideas. “I want to play a Sith lord! With Force lightning!” and “Oooh, a chance to play an upstanding Jedi!” and “I’m gonna try for neutrality, and I can’t wait to see what kind of ship-building they have!”

Each type of character takes the huge pattern and enables you to see part of it. And we, experienced gamers, know this. Because of this, we see what I’ll call an ‘anticipatory pattern’. We know there is a pattern (even though we haven't actually seen it), so we get excited by the option to manipulate that pattern.

How we could use this in other ways, I haven’t yet thought about. But it is an awfully interesting tidbit. It does seem that it is only useful for people who have established, genre-size play patterns in their mind. Hmmmmm.

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