Thursday, November 02, 2006

Rule Sets Again...

Outdated, go here.

Last post I got a good comment. I'm going to try to defend myself. First, I need to say that I specified "rule sets" rather than "gameplay" for a reason:

"Gameplay" has a bad connotation. "Gameplay" means "sitting in front of the TV twiddling your controller" or "rolling dice". A rule set can give you that kind of game play, but it doesn't have to. With that in mind, we'll continue:

"Name pretty much any good Japanese RPG, and you'll find a boring, repetitive mess of gameplay which wouldn't be fun for five minutes if it didn't have a good story justifying its existence. It's gameplay is only worth anything in that it allows the story to be there."

That's patently not true. You may not like that style of gameplay (not knowing you, I can't say either way), but the fact remains that the gameplay is extremely dense. It lets you micromanage statistics and weigh variables and buy efficiently... this is especially true in JRPGs, where there is the added gameplay of synergizing your party.

The reason people like to rag on JRPG play is because it hasn't really changed in the past decade. That's doesn't mean it's bad or shallow. Actually, it means the opposite. It means it's deep enough to still appeal ten years after it plateaued.

"I've already mentioned Mario Party, which I have had a lot of fun with. But if you look only at the gameplay itself, it's not exactly impressive. A bunch of shallow minigames, separated by a primitive board game in which you spend a quarter of the time hitting dice blocks and the other three quarters watching other players hit dice blocks. The gameplay is good because it allows you to arrange a fun party around it. The gameplay, without the social context, is worthless."

Ahhhh, this is a really good counter-example, because it covers what I was going to post on next.

Social gameplay is still gameplay, and is definitely caused and fostered by the rule set. The way the game is designed in tiny, silly chunks is ideal for making people enjoy themselves en masse.

I've designed lots of games like that. It's not that they have "poor" gameplay or "shallow" gameplay, it's that their rule set is designed to make most of the gameplay meta, or more accurately, tangentally meta.

"The majority of Riven (and in my opinion, the part of the game most worth playing) is walking and looking. Deep."

Gonna hit that at the end of the essay.

"I'm not saying these are bad play mechanics- they're good because they serve the more important stuff well. What that important part is depends on what the game is trying to achieve: it could be story, or socializing, or world design. But the play mechanics in these cases are not the most important parts of the game."

I think you're shortchanging play mechanics. You seem to be saying that play mechanics cannot be based around story, socializing, or world design. That would be an unfortunate shock, since literally all my play mechanics are based around those. It's extremely rare that my gameplay is actually about playing the game itself.

But that doesn't change the fact that the rule set is what enables that kind of fun in that kind of way. Simply saying "it's the socializing that's fun" is ignoring the fact that the socializing is caused by the rule set.

"In fact, you could have a good time without any gameplay at all. The story of an RPG could be detached from its gameplay and still be enjoyable; socializing can certainly be fun without minigames; Myst's worlds could be appreciate in some sort of real-world 3D model."

Ah, but they wouldn't have the same appeal. There are no popular RPGs whose story/characters/pacing would make a movie that would still be popular five years from now. Socializing without the minigames doesn't have the same stability or reliable enjoyment (hence drinking games). Riven wouldn't be enjoyable to wander around because it wouldn't be couched in "solve to proceed".

The rule set for all of these games - and every other game - manipulates how the character moves through the game. It makes the character stop and look at the coolest parts of Riven. It makes the party revolve at a fun and moderated rate. It gives the RPG plots and characters their value by associating them with gameplay changes and time expenditure. All of these things grow out of the rule set.

I hope this expains my position: rule sets are the primary factor in a game.


Patrick said...

Are you suggesting that rule-sets compose units of focused play that can exist at different degrees of granularity and relationality to each other? If so, then there has to be a context for that relationality.
The context, the fiction, is the part thats left to the player's imagination, and that is just as important as the rules themselves. Balanced gameplay is an interestingly paced dance between the user's rules of cognition and the computer's.

Mory said...

Books have rulesets of a sort. Your eyes have to pass over the words. As you do so, you must internalize the words and string them together in your mind to create meaning, which is the reward for your effort. When you reach the end of a page, you must turn it. Not very sophisticated, but it is a good ruleset because it serves its purpose: the story can exist within as long as that framework is there.

The line of reasoning you are going down might lead you to believe that the important part of reading is that technical little ruleset. That is simply not true- the act of reading, in itself, gets boring instantly unless there is good meaning in the story. The story is what is important in the writing process, not the ruleset (which indeed is copied from work to work unchanged).

Now then, let's address your points. First, you imply that I dislike JRPGs "because it hasn't really changed in the past decade". Not true. The Fire Emblem series has barely changed at all in sixteen years, and I still eagerly gobble up any new Fire Emblem stories I can get my hands on. (Mainly because the FE stories are always exceptional.) And while JRPGs are not my favorite type of game, I do play and enjoy one from time to time. Right now, I'm playing Xenogears. Its rules are not only familiar (which in itself I have no problem with), but bad and shallow. And I like the game.

Let's say we took a standard JRPG (like Xenogears) and took out the story. What would happen? The player would be annoyed at the aimless wandering, because the character isn't given any motivation for moving. The player would be bored by the repetitive random battles with their simplistic turn-based strategy, because he's not given any reason to care so much about the character's journey of self-improvement that levelling up seems like a big deal. The player would be unengaged by the simulation side which you claim is "deep", firstly because they usually only start getting important around ten hours into an RPG, and secondly because why should the player waste his time picking out armor and weaponry for characters which he has no attachment to?

With a story, all this makes sense and holds together. The character's quest is urgent, so the player willingly runs forward. The story must show the hero growing from an ordinary guy who the player can more relate to into a world-saver, so the player accepts the random battles and levelling up as a part of the story. The characters are given depth and interesting characterizations, so the player becomes attached and tries to help them with micromanagement.

But without a story, the RPG is bad and shallow and not worth anyone's time. Without a story, the RPG has no reason to exist. Without a story, the RPG wouldn't last ten years. It wouldn't last five minutes! The player would quickly shut it off in favor of games which don't waste his time.

With Mario Party, you start talking about a "gameplay meta". You seem to agree with me that the ruleset is good only "because it allows you to arrange a fun party around it", as I put it earlier. If we take out that "meta", the game is indeed "poor" and "shallow", with (like the aforementioned RPG) no reason to exist. If the rule exists only to serve and enhance the meta, then should we not conclude that the meta, and not the ruleset, is the defining element of the game? In other words, the people you're playing with and the atmosphere that that group generates have a much greater affect on the experience than the rules do. If you were to play a completely different party game but with the same people, the experience would be largely the same.

"But that doesn't change the fact that the rule set is what enables that kind of fun in that kind of way. Simply saying 'it's the socializing that's fun' is ignoring the fact that the socializing is caused by the rule set."

Say you have an old record, and play it on a turntable. The music's playback is caused by the record player. But the music is in the record. The music, and not the specifics of how the record player works, is what's important.

"There are no popular RPGs whose story/characters/pacing would make a movie that would still be popular five years from now."

I can believe that, because RPG stories usually aren't that amazing. What makes them live a long time as RPGs is that expectations for RPG stories (given that it's a young medium) are pretty darn low. So when one comes along which comes close to the quality of a movie, everyone gasps in awe and proclaims it a classic. Someday an RPG will be made good enough to be a movie. And it won't be on the merits of the inherited ruleset- it'll be on the merits of the story.

"Socializing without the minigames doesn't have the same stability or reliable enjoyment (hence drinking games)."

Extracting music from a record with your fingernail doesn't have the same stability or reliable enjoyment as playing it on a record player.

"Riven wouldn't be enjoyable to wander around because it wouldn't be couched in 'solve to proceed'."

I specifically picked Riven because more so than the other Myst games, it is very open from the start. And wandering around without puzzles is very fun indeed, due to the strength of the world design.

But even if the rules do enhance your appreciation of the world design, so what?
Lots of things enhance the world design.
Graphics enhance the world design.
Sound enhances the world design.
A good backstory enhances the world design.
None of these things is the defining element of the game- the world design is.

What does a good rule set do? It props up what really matters, but it is not what really matters. "It makes the character stop and look at the coolest parts of Riven." But it is not what makes those parts cool. "It makes the party revolve at a fun and moderated rate." But it does not in itself make for a party. Does it give "RPG plots and characters their value by associating them with gameplay changes and time expenditure"? See the above description of an RPG without story; I think it's the other way around. The important parts of these three types of games do not "grow out of the rule set"- the rule set (if it is good) grows out of the important parts: story, socializing, and world design, respectively.

Craig Perko said...

That's one hell of a long reply.

First, yes, books do have a rule set. However, the way in which they are written and what they are about is as much part of the rule set as simply "words on page". The difference between Steven King and Stephan Hawkings.

Most of your concerns were addressed in my latest post, although you unsurprisingly interpreted my post as "changing my mind". Which I didn't.

You are simply equating rules with gameplay. That's not the case. Rules can create gameplay, but that's not all they create. They create how you progress from plot to plot, what kinds of characters are likely to appeal, and so forth. Obviously, you need content, but the content is determined by the rules more than visa-versa.

The content - whatever it may be - can be thought of as the important part. But a game designer has to look deeper, because he has to be ready to create a rule set for any occasion. If you are a good cook, you can't just think of the end result as the important part. You have to very carefully think about the freshness of your ingredients, the timing of your baking, and many other factors. These are the "rules" of your meal, and they create the end product.

A record could not exist without the turntable, and the fidelity of the song is explicitly limited by the record. The length, clarity, maximum gain, and many other things are determined by a record's physical limits.

Similarly, what kind of music the producer is willing to publish and what recording facilities are available also limits the music.

Similarly, what kind of notes we use, what kind of progressions our culture has grown accustomed to, what kind of rhythms... all of these things limit the music.

Within those limits, the song exists. The five million songs exist. The rule set is deep and flexible enough that it can allow for any number of songs to rise up and get recorded.

So, yes, the rules created the music. The music is important, but it's the rules that allow it, and every other song, good and bad.

Similarly, when we create an RPG ruleset which allows for the rise of truly incredible stories, we'll get RPGs with truly incredible stories.

Your argument is that rules support the results. My argument is exactly the opposite. Results arise from rules.

Mory said...

I'm afraid I don't understand what you mean by "rules". I thought you were talking about the way the player interacts with the game, but now you are describing it as something far more broad. I can't possibly argue with you when I don't understand the most basic term you are using, so I won't.