Wednesday, January 31, 2007

Agency is Not Enough

I've been thinking. Here I talk about how rules are essentially gluing agency to content, and it's a very powerful concept - I've started up a new game to test a system of semi-rules, see if I circumvent the normal flaws that rules have by focusing on simply gluing agency to content in every conceivable way.

But I quickly realized something in the planning stage: it's not simply content and agency, at least not the way they are normally described. Simply pushing around images and concepts doesn't have any punch to it.

It's the nature of agency, I think. Agency isn't just the capability to change things: it requires a level of emotional investment. It basically requires them to care about the universe you've given them agency in, most especially over the specific characters you've given them agency over.

How to lure players into caring about your universe is a long post - I know, because I wrote it just now. Way too long. Suffice it to say that a big part of it is using the tiniest little interests of the player and hammering them, weaving them into content and agency and expanding them into a full-grown universe.

For example, every child is delighted the first time they realize they can move the little space ship around the screen. They quickly realize that if something runs into them, they don't get to move the space ship around any more. That's all it takes: the rest is simply using those tiny little entryways into their mind and turning them into a superhighway. It doesn't have to be gameplay: the classic RPG uses appealing cultural norms in much the same way.

It's not exactly gluing agency to content: it's getting the player to value the content. And it's just as important.

Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Putting Together the Pieces

Player's brains are rather remarkable at turning crap into content. It's like magic. A good GM is also good at this, and the players and the GM can basically toss crap into a pot, stir it with their brains, and out comes a story.

If you're running a game, as a GM, you really only have two responsibilities: controlling pacing and providing new data.

Really, my specialty has always been in providing new data. Not only do I provide interesting data, I also have the ability to provide the right data to cause a cascade of players assembling data into something fun and useful. There's no better sight than to see a player's eyes bug out as he solves a piece of the mystery.

But the thing is, I think it's not actually a very important skill. First, since it really can't be automated for use in computer games, it just doesn't have the adaptability I wish it did. Second, players are so good at making structure out of crap that they really don't need such carefully considered data. Sure, higher quality ingredients make for better food, but playing is as much about enjoying the cooking as the eating.

Yes, it's possible to structure a game such that all the content you provide is structured such that players put it together in a specific way, at which point the next content you provide is simply what makes sense. This is called "telling a story". The pacing and progression of the story is so clearly defined that players simply can't accidentally wander off and require you to change your plans to fit their ideas. Most games are written like this, or in a similar way, where players will be in the right mindset when they choose to proceed (see Grand Theft Auto III).

There are about a million downsides to this, but perhaps the strongest issue is that it is almost impossible to have a multiplayer game set up with this kind of predictability. Players will start generating their own content immediately, talking with each other and doing some role playing. This will destroy not only the pacing you've got in mind, but also the story itself. The story won't connect with them strongly enough, because they've deviated from their set roles in it. (I've known several GMs who had this problem chronically - I think most GMs have it from time to time, when they grow to "love" a particular idea.)

However, when you have a group of players, they are happy to make their own content and incorporate it into the content you feed them. And, as I said, you can literally feed them random crap and use a simple feedback system to feed them more of the crap they seem to like. Eventually, a plot will develop even if none was intended. This apparently works especially well in pilot episodes of Prime Time, at least the ones I've participated in. Sure, in the end, it doesn't make a whole lot of sense and isn't very cohesive. But, damn, it was fun.

(I am going somewhere with this, as unlikely as it seems...)

Generally speaking, groups of three to five have the best success in combining content to make sense. If you have more players than that, it is generally best to split them into sections, even if they are running at the same time. Most successful LARPs do this - creating little "interest clusters" of three to five players, with one or two players who are interested in tying interest clusters together.

But the reason it works is the extremely high bandwidth of face-to-face conversation. There's a lot of data to be processed: the more pieces, the smaller they are, and the more diverse they are, the more computation it takes (average case) to find a "valid solution". Computation of this sort requires communication, and the higher the bandwidth, the more computation is allowed. Obviously, some people are better or worse at communication, some people are better or worse at computing, and people who know each other well tend to have more efficient communication than people who don't.

Over an internet connection, there is no bandwidth. Text does not communicate quickly enough. Even phone or video chat is a pale ghost compared to actually being there. So, by necessity, there is less of this kind of shared computation. The closest thing to it today is when someone creates something cool and posts it. And that's how games work, too: the developer creates something cool and lets you walk through it.

What they are doing is a mathematical inevitability. They are assembling the chunks to be fewer, larger, and/or less diverse pieces. This allows people to take them in extremely rapidly, with a minimum of communication... and a minimum of computation.

Sure, you can create a fascinating, popular, or mysterious thing which makes people think and laugh and pass it around. But you're not playing with them. You're letting them watch you play.

In other cases, players will still create team content. For example, guilds. They create them inside the constraints they are given, because having a shared reality makes communication more efficient. Even with the extra efficiency, it typically takes weeks or months before a guild really starts to have fun together. The communication is so slow that computation is stretched thin, pieces ooze together over minutes (or, usually, hours) rather than seconds. It works, but it works so slowly.

How can this be fixed? I can see two ways:

Can you make a game with fewer, larger, easy-to-fit-together "story pieces" that players can swap around, get together with, and work together on? For example, instead of having to carefully decide exactly who they are, give them a choice of three pre-defined characters?

Can you make a game where the shared reality is carefully defined to cause the most efficient communication over the limited bandwith you have? A game which either has new methods of communication specifically geared towards putting pieces together, or a game whose reality is designed so that interacting while in that reality essentially causes pieces to fall together - like guilds going on raids and optimizing loot?

Better yet, can you do both simultaneously?

Or did this post not even make any sense?

Monday, January 22, 2007

We Like MMORPGs?

Lots of people like MMORPGs. Lots of people can't play them for long at all. The weird thing is, it's almost impossible to tell which is which. I mean, it's relatively easy to tell whether someone is likely to like RPGs, or FPS games, or sports games... but a MMORPG? It's all over the map. A lot of people who don't like any computer games like MMORPGs, whereas a lot of people who love RPGs hate them (like me).

Well, here's a new theory that I came up with today, thanks to a too-scattered conversation about MMORPGs:

In a MMORPG, there are a lot of distinct "play loops" - mining ore, or killing monsters, or trying to find gall bladders, or seeing the world, or whatever. However, each of these play loops is painfully bland. Even players who like a given play loop would find it unbearable if it was the only play loop in the game.

Fortunately for Blizzard's coffers, they aren't the only play loops in the game. There are dozens of these crappy little play loops, and sometimes even multiple copies of the same play loop at the same time.

The loops are built with a kind of loose reward structure - this has the potential to give you statistical upgrades, this has the potential to be worth money, this has the potential to give you skill points, this has the potential to let you see something cool. Each play loop feeds into one or two of these basic reward structures, and feeds out of these reward structures. Moreover, in some ways, the rewards can be transfered to one another, and therefore considered a coherent "power level".

While the loops are not actually connected to each other, they are all connected through this central reward system. Moreover, you often stay only a few minutes on any given play loop and switch opportunistically between them - mine a few things on your way to the auction house, or whatever.

Also, a lot of people tend to do metagame simultaneously. Chatting or surfing the web while grinding some boring part of the game. This is essentially the same thing: shifting between play loops keeps shallow loops from getting too boring.

I think that the reason people who like MMORPGs like them is that they have the capacity (or tendency) to intertwine these play loops manually. Part multitasking, part value abstracting, they like playing with many simple, loosely joined play loops.

This has the advantage over more rigidly defined games in that the player can choose pretty much any play loops they feel interested in at any time. However, it suffers in that any player who does not multitask or value abstract cannot play the game.

Whaddyu think?

Saturday, January 20, 2007

A Tribe Followed by a Hundred Zeroes

Recently, I've talked about lots of things, but I want to take a bit of time to glue a few theories together. The theories about gluing agency to content and the theories about player-generated content, to be specific.

Player-generated content is pretty much a holy grail: if you can get enough players generating enough content, you don't have to do anything other than upgrade the server cluster every few weeks. It's the best possible thing - nobody gets bored, you don't have to pay people to develop content, and so on.

But swamping rears its ugly head.

Swamping is when too many players are connected to too much content (which includes other players). Instead of feeling like they have a choice, instead they feel like choice and/or content is meaningless. Not all such situations lead to swamping: some players are more swampable than others, and swampability depends on their mood. But, generally, conditions which are swampy lead to swamptastic reactions.

That kind of reaction (we'll call it "swampalitic") will essentially destroy your content. The players will have dramatically reduced levels of immersion, emotional investment, and awe. While your "super" content may still be super, everything else becomes meaningless.

Think of it as kind of the "parent theory" to mudflation. If you want a concrete example: freaking blood elves, man. Blood elves.

Anyway, all games use barriers to prevent content swampification. Can't really do this until you're level 49142, can't wear that until you have a "beating heads" skill of 2022189. Can't communicate with the other half of the player base, can't hear people who aren't shouting, can't get in there without the Key of Faragoharigornahogard (he's from Brooklyn).

But these systems are insufficient when it comes to coping with the ultimate swampifier: player-generated content. It's like trying to hold back the ocean with nicely paved streets. Not gonna happen.

Instead, more radical approaches are required, of which there are essentially two options. I'll call one the Dutch Windmill method, and the other I'll call the Railroad Hobo method.

The Dutch Windmill method is to hold the flood at bay. Players can create content, but only a bit of it gets into the game proper, via some kind of rigorous quality control system. There are bunches of problems with this: things you approve of aren't likely to match things the players want, it costs a lot of money to check and check and check content, and players are likely to make a gray shard with looser restrictions.

The Railroad Hobo method essentially lets there be as much content as anyone cares to make, but connects it in such a way that it is unlikely a given player will encounter all of it. Instead, the player interacts with a strictly limited amount of content (including other players). Implemented poorly, nothing is more irritating - players are hitch-hiking on a set of rails leading from place to place.

The Railroad Hobo doesn't have to be so irritating, but then, neither does the Dutch Windmill. They each have intrinsic problems and payoffs which have to be carefully considered and managed.

I generally use a variant of the Railroad Hobo method I call "International Politics". That works great for 3-20 players, but falls apart when you start getting into MMORPG player counts.

It's just too many damn players. You need to build your whole game antiswampamorphically. Here's the thing: even if you don't think you allow player-generated content, you do, and you need to be careful that your swampalicious game doesn't flounder.

Of course, these swampariffic measures tend to have profound side effects on game economy, uneven treadmills, social interactions...


Wednesday, January 17, 2007

Ferns on Glass

This is even more off topic than last post. :P

This morning, I noticed that wet windows get a peculiar ice pattern when it's cold enough to freeze them. This pattern looks exactly like fern leaves. The window literally looks like someone painstakingly painted a fern on the glass, vein by vein.

Curious, I melted the ice, re-wet the glass, and watched it freeze.

As far as I can tell, the principle is extremely simple. The reason it looks like ferns is the combination of three factors. First: it's colder at the bottom of the pane than the top, so the water at the bottom freezes first whereas the warm, moist air from the shower keeps the top warm for some minutes, until it cools or radiates away.

Second: small amounts of water freeze faster than large amounts of water (duh).

Third: water trickles down water faster/easier than it trickles down ice.

The combination of these rules means that the points on the glass which are only thinly coated rapidly freeze, but wherever there is a slightly larger amount of water, it takes a bit longer. The water above tries to trickle down, but only really trickles down at the areas where it is still liquid. The more liquid trickling down, the "larger" the "vein" is when it finally freezes.

Water can only travel so far before it freezes, as a function of the size of the vein it is traveling down. This means that everywhere on the window, there are veins. Because of the math behind the forming of veins, this results in main veins which radiate smaller veins, which radiate smaller veins, etc.

The main veins (the "spines" of the "leaves") have graceful curvatures that slowly slope from being within ten degrees of vertical to being around forty-five degrees or sometimes more. I think this is because water flows down the window easier than it flows up. (Although, as far as I can tell, it must either flow up to veins above it or somehow form a vein that looks as though that is what happened...) So, essentially, as the air cools from bottom to top, the freezing process becomes more imminent for water on the same vertical level. Warmer water from above slides down the spine without freezing, but the colder water from a local level freezes, forming a channel for a spine which is more horizontal than it was. I think it's a smooth curve because of the steady flow of water: this isn't a flash freeze, or it would probably be considerably more jagged and straight, like dry window or very low-temperature frost.

This tendency to flow down also means that there is less water at the top of the window when it finally does freeze. This means a more delicate set of veins - the "tip" of the leaf.

It really does look so much like a cluster of leaves.

Anyhow, whatever the full math behind it is, it is an interesting and iterative process. It's not like watching a printer print out leaves: the start is rough and squiggly, it's only as time progresses that it refines. Large patches of what look like empty glass will develop fronds. It's very impressive.

Also, the heat and moisture totally change the type of leaf you get. While the leaf structure was a wide-frond fern when I got there, after my melting and re-icing it was a narrow-frond fern with lots more leaves.

The end result is surprisingly organic and beautiful, something that wouldn't be out of place hung on someone's wall. The rules are fairly simple - I bet they could even be simulated with relative ease.

Now, if three simple rules can create something so complex and beautiful...

Can you make a game that uses three simple rules to make something that complex and beautiful?

Tuesday, January 16, 2007


On the subject of scaling:

Think about everyone you've ever met, everyone you've ever interacted with in person. Beggars, sales clerks, every fellow student, all the baggers who have rung you up at the supermarket, everybody's who's ever honked a horn at you, every stranger you've been introduced to. Hey, throw in every media figure you've noticed, just for kicks.

There are more cities on the face of the earth than people you have met. There are around 20,000 cities in the USA alone.

So, for each person you see, each person you meet, they can be thought of as each representing everyone you've ever met, because there are more people on the face of the earth than there are people you've met squared. If everyone you met was twenty thousand people, you still wouldn't have met everyone on the planet!

Now, if everyone held hands, we could wrap around the earth blah blah blah... here's what they usually leave out. If we all held hands, we'd each have to be more than three hundred feet tall just to reach Neptune. Every person on earth, four hundred feet tall. That's as tall as a skyscraper.

That's just to Neptune. To reach the nearest star, we'd need almost ten thousand chains of that length - and that's already assuming everyone is very, very tall for some reason.

The number of people we meet is really quite small.

Now, put it in a game. :D

Monday, January 15, 2007

What's in a Game?

So, I was designing the whole game-tool-cascade thing, and I accidentally wrote another essay in the process. Here's that essay.

A game is, generally speaking, a system for manipulating content on a foundation. For example, Sim City is about placing buildings on terrain. An RPG is actually two or three games, one of which is slotting equipment/skills/spells into "character nodes". An adventure game is about activating content which has been placed on a terrain.

Obviously, games don't let you just go around willy-nilly placing buildings, slotting equipment, and activating content. Instead, they use a variety of rules to limit and direct the ways content acts and reacts. This adds a level of complexity to the game, allowing the content to remain interesting longer. If done right.

There are four kinds of systems used to create these rules. Each kind of system generally requires content to have specific attributes.

1) Global Effects

Global effects are ones which affect the world in some global way. For example, a building which requires 2500 "dollars" to build pulls that money from a global pool. Similarly, in an FPS, getting health adds to your global health pool. Also, a game where a structure can only be placed once, or with a maximum unit cap - these are also global effects.

Generally, content which interacts with rules like this needs to strike a balance between costing and providing global resources. Not that any given piece of content must be balanced, but content in general needs to be balanced. As an example, buildings cost money but provide tax revenue. Monsters cause damage to your global HP supply, but health packs restore it.

This kind of effect is used to unify and centralize content: all content can be related to its global costs and rewards.

2) Local Effects

Local effects are ones which affect the local area only. An example would be if buildings require power to work. It doesn't matter if there's plenty of power on the other side of the map: there needs to be power here. Similarly, if you have four people in your party, equipping one with a better weapon doesn't improve the others. A building might produce traffic locally, and spikes only kill you if you fall on them.

Content with local effects is generally very unbalanced rather than balanced. IE, most content will require specific things, and very few pieces of content will provide them. This unbalance keeps the content somewhat centralized, allowing players to create recognizable and straightforward infrastructures for remarkably large and convoluted systems.

Also, there is generally quite a lot of "enabler" content which allows the infrastructure to be configured more efficiently. An example is highways and power lines in Sim City: they aren't really "buildings", but they allow you to create your infrastructure more efficiently. An interesting thing is that, if given long enough, players will develop their own "enabler" strategies even if you don't include any.

Not all local effects have to be constructive: trampolines, lava, poison, anything with a continuous local effect falls into this category. Things can even move around and have local effects, such as the cats in ChuChu Rocket.

This kind of effect is generally used to create a complex but clear system for challenging players spatially. Some games use "light" local effects to create a kind of "spreadsheet" feel - various locales exist, but don't directly affect each other. This is very common in multi-character RPGs and tactical games.

3) Intermittant Effects

A lot of games use content that only "activates" in specific situations. Instead of merely being local in space, it is also also local in time. Usually, this is a combat situation: a space marine standing around doesn't have a whole lot of local or global effect, but if an alien crests the hill, he shoots it dead. Another example is a security system which activates on a timer. Or random encounters on a world map.

This isn't a one-time effect like burning down, but something which will happen repeatedly if given the chance.

These kinds of effects are used to crank up the tension level, since they generally come up with very little warning and frequently seem somewhat random.

4) Limits

Limits are simply restricting content's availability. The most obvious example is that in many games, you're "stuck" to your character: you can't wander off and interact with things far away. Character-centric games use limits to make players experience content in a specific order.

But there are a lot of different kinds of limits, many of which are indistinguishable from global effects. Generally, if it costs or provides a resource, it's a global effect rather than a limit. So, for example, it costs a certain amount of money to build a starship. That's a global effect. But if you need to have specific things researched before you can build it, that's a limit.

Limits are generally used to create "gates" and "pathways" which the players have to move through. This allows the designers to expose them to specific content at a specific pace.

Nearly all rules in games can be explained using these four systems, and it's actually a lot of fun to take a game and change the systems around. For example, what about a game where instead of concentrating on soldier's intermittant battle effect, you instead concentrate on their local effect? Mob mentalities, branch rivalries, reacting to command staff...

Anyhow, it's kind of interesting and leads into my essay on game-tools, which I'll write sometime soonish.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Gluing Agency to Content

Two posts, one day, you can tell it's the weekend.

Jeff's essay on agency has congealed a few of my own theories into more workable concepts.

One of the things I've been wrestling with is rules. Rules are pretty shabby. Games aren't rules, never have been, and I've been saying it for months. Rules are a kind of stand-in or crutch for another person: good in their place, but certainly not the central "gameness" of a game.

No, as is now very clear, rules are red tape that glues agency to content.

People can also be that glue.

Anyhow, I like that phrase so much, I'm adopting it!

Game or Tool?

This is a slowly aging question: when does a game turn into a tool? We're pretty sure that Half Life II is a game and Garry's Mod is a tool. But where do you draw the line? Is SecondLife a game? A tool? A game when you play it one way and a tool when you play it another? "Creating content" doesn't make it a tool: you're creating content in WoW when you equip a new piece of armor or make a healing potion.

There are lots of places you could draw the line. One interesting one is longevity of content: if the system creates long-term content, it's a tool. If it doesn't, it's not. In the WoW example, what armor you wear is pretty much a short term thing. Even a squad of ten dancing orcs isn't long-term, because eventually it'll break up. But if you can record ten dancing orcs, it is suddenly long-term content...

The only reason I think about these things is because the dichotomy has got to be a false one. There has got to be a method of creating content which is a game, or game which is a method of creating content.

There are tons of tools out there that try to help you create better stuff. In many ways, the march of human progress is measured in improved tools. But as tools get more advanced, they also get more complex to use. I don't mean the amount of skill you need increases, simply that the complexity of the interface increases. A piece of paper and a pencil is something that anyone can understand (although it requires great skill to do great things with). ZBrush is something that even some 3D specialists can't get the hang of - it has roughly ten million buttons and options.

I think this is the true dichotomy between "game" and "tool". Tools have been getting more and more complex interfaces, whereas games haven't. Even the most absurdly complex games aren't actually very complex to use, and games with more complex interfaces have smaller audiences.

Unfortunately, there is an inverse relationship between time to content and complexity of interface. You can write down and draw every single thing that a game can do in a giant tome, like the dark god of all illustrated "choose your own adventure" books. But not only will that actually take longer than creating it with a complex-interface software tool, it also creates a more fragmented, irritating result. This is because simple tools are really only suitable for small amounts of content: you can write a beautiful story on paper, but you can't realistically write a story arc which reacts to the player's preferences using such a simple tool.

But! But!

But Red vs. Blue.

There is a path, if you can tell what I'm getting at. A path where a lot of high-quality content is already there, and a simpler interface is suitable for making it go in specific, fairly simple ways.

Ah, simple stuff, right? Machinima's old news. We already knew that.

What if we take it a step further?

What if we create a bunch of simple tools, each one of which does only a small part of the final system. You already see this to some extent, with specialized tools for 3D modeling, texturing, and animation - even specific tools for modeling people vs structures vs equipment vs clothing...

Then, each tool can access the content created in the other tools. Sort of like choosing a character and set before you start filming your machinima.

Pretty much already exists? Not really at this level, because often they simply say "go make a model in your favorite modeling software", which isn't really an "easy" tool, is it? Plus, they aren't really interactive with other tools in the same way I'm positing. But we're drifting in this direction. We might see further drift in this direction with the advent of Spore, with its three or four interactive simple tools.

But steps into the future are never really enough, because by the time you reach the future, everything is different. Abstraction is critical, or you'll end up with tools that simply can't accomplish what people want to accomplish with them, or at least not easily.

So what about a system for designing simple toolkits and specifying how they interact with each other? To take it a step further, if each of these simple toolkits was a "game" that, as you played it, created content suitable for the other toolkits?


Tuesday, January 09, 2007

Producers vs Consumers

People say that communication technology diminishes the difference between producers and consumers. It's hard to get a book published, kinda hard to write for the paper, not too hard to host a BBS, pretty easy to have a web page, darn easy to participate in a forum, and nearly impossible not to create content while playing a MMORPG. Sometimes, it seems like the next step would be to take the difference away entirely: everyone produces.

Let's take a little bit of a closer look.

Each technology seems to make it a little easier to produce - easier to publish and, usually, easier to actually create content. But the problem is that in the process of making creation easier, they also make it more limited. It's pretty much unavoidable, because in creating a framework to facilitate communication, you make specific assumptions.

For example, a book's framework is pretty open - you can write just about anything. And, at least recently, you can even include pictures without too much difficulty. But forum posts are less useful: although you can technically say anything, the forum audience isn't usually willing to read long posts about subjects the forum isn't organized around. Even worse is a MMORPG, where your content creation is largely limited to equipment, guilds, and some minor amount of RP. It's hard to, say, discuss the nature of language. It's hard enough just to tell a love story. Too much of the content is incidental rather than intentional...

Another side effect of turning people into producers is that a lot of stuff gets produced. Leaving aside the fact that the majority of it is crap, you have the problem that any given individual is going to be exposed to literally hundreds of options at any given time. I call this "swamping", and it leads to a whole host of problems such as fan disunification and a loss of scale and awe. I'll post on them some other time, but for now I'll just say that artfully restricting people's access to player-created content is not only possible, but necessary.

The question is: can you create a system of content creation which is easy, but robust enough to allow people to say unusual things in unusual ways?

I think it might be possible using a "tiered content" system. Imagine three programs which let you build or experience content.

The "bottom" level, the easiest and quickest, would be construct content using tiny fragments. For example, if it was a first-person shooter, you could toss in fragments which define weapons, enemies, level specifics, plot events, and so on. Of course, this same program would let you EXPLORE the content and even allow others to "push" fragments into your game, making it a kind of iterative, expanding, cooperative storyline.

The "middle" level would allow you to design the fragments that the bottom level uses. This would take a bit more expertise to use, although simple stuff like a new kind of weapon might not be too hard. It would also let you share and browse fragments, trade fragments, mutate them, and so on.

On the "top" scale, it would be a method of creating a front end. For example, you could build a kind of web browser, or a first-person shooter, or an RPG. You're not creating content: you're creating a method to explore content which gets created. Obviously, this would be the most time-consuming level to use. It is entirely possible that a creation on this level would generate versions of the middle- and low-level programs specifically for the product.

For most users, simply using the lowest level at its most basic setting would be fine. It would be similar to simply playing a game (or browsing the internet, or whatever), except there would be the option to have weird "cooperative plot" variants and stuff.

Users that are more interested in creating can do so at whatever scale(s) they prefer.

Is it viable?

I don't know. I'm still thinking about how fragments can be defined such that they auto-generate most of the details - hopefully leaving low-level creators with little more than dialogue to fill in once they put down all the plot fragments.

Even if it was possible, would it allow people to make the statements they want to make? Can you convince people to play these games?

I don't know.

But... I am going to spend some more time thinking about it.

Sunday, January 07, 2007

I Coulda Been a Contenda

Huff, puff, trying to get back into theorizin' shape.

This here's an essay on Science Fiction. More specifically, all the fun and wacky variants! It's a list of all the facets I could think of. See if you see anything you like.

I suggest not trying to read it through. It's a bit repetitive. Instead, skip anything that bores you. I, uh, should warn you. It's pretty detailed, and definitely only a first draft.

Science Fiction facets

Monday, January 01, 2007

Hardly Hard

Jeff made a post about difficulty in games. He says that the game should always be just barely beatable. Then he says that the game's difficulty should continuously increase. I assume he assumes that the players will be getting more skilled, so the difficulty increase should be just fast enough to pace their improvement.

I disagree, however. First, it very much depends on the game what kind of difficulty I'm looking for. RPGs are typically very easy. This doesn't make me dislike them: there are a bunch of optional goals that scale in difficulty (buying the cool sword, beating the optional boss, collecting all the widgets).

RPGs wouldn't be better if they were "just barely beatable", at least, not usually. This is because different players have different levels of skill, and what is barely beatable to one person is likely to be a cakewalk to another. You can have adaptive difficulty or some kind of difficulty setting, sure, but that's usually considered an inelegant solution for an RPG. Instead, you have optional things that the players can do if they want a challenge or want to lower the challenge by leveling up. In essense, you give the player direct control over the difficulty they face.

RPGs are not alone in this. Nearly every game allows you to spend extra time to lower the difficulty of the game. Even games like Halo or Quake do this: take a few moments to grab a weapon or a shield recharge before running into the fray. Or take a lot more moments and run all the way out to the rocket launcher, because you suck too badly to do anything useful with any other weapon.

This ability for any player to beat the game in his or her own way is very important, says I. More important than making it "just barely beatable". How much challenge you want to offer within that spectrum is, of course, up to you.

However, above and beyond this idea of letting players take different routes to change the difficulty is the idea of changing the necessary skills a player has to use.

Because players grow more skilled at very different rates and typically start with massive skill differences, it's extremely hard to "scale up" the difficulty to match their skill improvement. I doubt I've improved one iota over the last four or five FPS games I've played.

Instead what games often do - and I think we should see more of this - is cycle through skill variations. This level, you have a pistol. That level, you have a rocket launcher. That level, you have a disk-thrower. Each requires you to change your tactical methodology - to use your skill in a different way. This happens in virtually every kind of modern game, and for good reason. It gives the players, good or bad, a sudden kick of something new and interesting.

It's not that any given level is going to be more hard or less hard, necessarily. There might be more enemies, or harder enemies, but you'll usually have cooler equipment to take them down with. The levels are designed to be the same difficulty, but using different techniques.

If you simply increase the difficulty, a lot of players are going to find themselves totally hosed. A good example of this is Psychonauts. I waltzed through that game. Until the last level, which had challenges roughly three times harder than the earlier levels. I barely cleared it, after many hours of dying. That wasn't too bad for me - I enjoyed most of it - but my roomate simply quit playing because the levels were too difficult to even beat.

Up until that point, Psychonauts had been simply giving you new powers and letting you use them in interesting ways. The levels were getting "harder", but you were getting meaner at the same rate. For the last level, they continued to get harder, but you didn't get any meaner. That alienates players.

So, that's my essay on why a game doesn't have to continuously increase the difficulty level.