Thursday, February 08, 2007

Conventional Settings

Howdy folks, this here's Reader Mail Day. Today's message is from Patrick. It says...

Craig said:
> I know the lengths and limitations of contemporary settings, and an
> interesting first generation drama engine cannot be made well inside them.

Patrick: I'd be interested to read a post on the limitations of
contemporary settings sometime. Why wouldn't Facade classify as n
interesting 1st gen engine? Does this mean that Crawford's Balance of
Power 2k is doomed to failure? Would a magical element to the realism
enable the dynamic?

Well, interesting question(s), Patrick! Let's just tackle it bit by bit. Unlike the king of hearts, I have a tendency to start in the middle and then spread in both directions, stopping when I hit the beginning. The mad hatter would be proud.

"Does this mean that Crawford's Balance of Power 2k is doomed to failure?"

I don't know. I was under the impression the original was a political game, is the idea for the new one to do it with social dynamics? If so, then yes, it is doomified! Doooooooomed!

"Why wouldn't Facade classify as n interesting 1st gen engine?"

Facade had two claims to fame. The first was a natural language interpreter. While impressive, it has nothing to do with social gameplay and is not exactly a breakthrough. The second was a method of creating "interesting" progressions using a weighted scene-control engine. This also has nothing to do with social play, instead having a lot to do with pacing and progression.

The engine of Facade had nothing to do with social play. The game itself had social play, yes, because they spent umpteen years painstakingly programming in every possible social progression. Even though many people were impressed, Facade's engine is NOT viable for abstraction to other social games.

Its success is an amazing study in the willingness of players to ignore irritations and bugs for even the slightest hint of real-feeling characters. In that sense, it was a breakthrough. But they accomplished real-feeling characters by writing out hundreds of lines of dialog and injecting them with tangible emotion by getting voice actors. That is not viable for abstraction. It's not even an engine.


Answers 1 and 2 were pretty much "those aren't this". Answers 3 and 4 will be "this is this". I will show my amazing highwire trapeze act and answer them both... at the same time! Dun-dun-daaaa!

"Would a magical element to the realism enable the dynamic?"
"I'd be interested to read a post on the limitations of contemporary settings sometime."

All my various theories and tests on the subject have led me to believe that the problems everyone thinks we're having with social games are simply symptoms. The difficulties in simulating a character and in having meaningful emotion are two commonly cited problems, but that's like saying that people need stronger legs to fly, because they keep breaking their legs when they jump off the freakin' building. If they learn to fly, suddenly the leg-breaking problem solves itself. Wonder of wonders!

I can't say for sure I know the root problem, but my current ridiculous theory is that in order to have a socially meaningful world, the relationship system needs to support three things. I'll skip the first two, as the third is really all you need to know:

3) Continuous feedback. The relationship has to allow for complex, high-grain feedback to respond to the player's socialization and other world events.

A feedback loop is, by its nature, a growing thing. In order for feedback to be interesting, it has to continuously be shaped by and butting up against other factors. Those factors are likely to be both the player's actions and the world. The problem becomes that in order to be interesting for long enough, the feedback system needs to have a highly varied environment to be shaped by. In order to keep from running out even then, the relationship needs to be bumped and shocked into different permutations that present new issues and challenges to the jaded player. Alternately, the player can switch to new people who cycle in new ways.

Now, imagine a likely contemporary setting. An office or a school. You can socialize with the people there. What does the feedback do? You get to be friends with someone, or nab a girlfriend, and then what? That's not a complex feedback system, it's a toggle.

In order to make it last any longer, you have to add actions for the player to take. Now you can have "tiers" in a relationship - you can hold hands, but not kiss. Or kiss, but not make out. Or whatever. Still, you're just climbing a ladder, not socializing.

You have to add complexity in the form of a world to interact with. This offers both footholds to better relationships and challenges to accomplish. Today, she's sick. Will you visit her? It's Christmas, what present do you buy - a stuffed bear, a ring, red lingerie? Today, the police are investigating her in relation to a murder - is she innocent? How do you react when she says, "would you still love me if I was guilty?"

These things are what make a social game interesting, and that's the part that Facade did well with - many of the interactions revolved around some focus that "rubbed" against the relationship feedback cycles, warping them entertainingly.



A conventional (let alone contemporary) setting will not work for games in a first generation social engine of any merit. Why?

Because you need a certain level of social complexity density to keep the feedback loops feeding back. That can mean feedback loops with complex, unique patterns, or it can mean feedback loops that exist in a complex arena, or a blend of options.

Much of the complexity will come from the slight or severe rubbing together of various feedback loops. Therefore, if you reduce the number of characters, you need to radically increase the complexity of both their personal feedback loops and the world itself. That's expensive at best, impossible at worst. So in order to reach "critical complexity", you'll probably need at least eight characters.

If you have conventional characters that blend in well with their worlds - "ordinary" people with some fun quirks - then the world has to have vastly more complexity to allow them to be put in extraordinary situations.

Imagine being set in an office. The office is full of unique characters, but none of the characters are particularly over-the-top. In order to gain the level of complexity density required to make a social game fun, you'd need to have a world that subjected them to freakishly varied conditions - suddenly, your office is involved in murder cases, interstellar wars, etc. Wow, it's not a conventional setting any more, is it? It looks more and more like the X-Files on crack.

Go the other way, and make the office full of interesting, zany characters that have weird and zany gameplay. The office environment could be pretty much standard, but the characters would be doing bizarre things. A ninja is not a typical office worker. It could be made into a zany comedy, but comedy is difficult to guarantee with a semi-automated system.

The third choice is to have relatively normal characters and environment, but carefully script in all the complexity. This is how all contemporary settings do it. The problems with this are profound and, for the most part, obvious.

You could move to more "interesting" times - a fantasy setting provides you with more interesting characters and a more highly varied setting. However, I believe the increase is illusory: I don't think these settings are inherently more complex than modern settings. In fact, it's usually the opposite: the settings are actually simpler than modern settings. They just have more oomph. Oomph isn't a factor. A social game could revolve around five year olds on a playground just as easily as adventurers trying to off the wizard of Oz.

In increasing the complexity of the settings, you need to create a freakish world where the characters are insanely varied, their play is unique and distinct, and the environment has virtually unlimited complexity to rub against.

So forget conventional.

Imagine, instead, a world like Psychonauts, where each person has a whole world in their head. Or how about a space ship with only two dozen survivors, having just crashed on an ancient and forgotten world? How about a world of gods, where all the other characters have dominion over some concept in reality? A world of ancient magic, where each of the characters is some fairy-tale character given form?

And now I've reached the beginning. :)


Patrick said...

Great post, I appreciate it. Rather entertianing to read.

I guess your answer to my magical realism question could be summarized as "yes, but only if you amp it beyond subtlety."

My friend is developing a screenplay about a mute, recovering from crack, who coughs up diamonds, does this have adequete complexity?

Have you ever read a Bret Easton Ellis novel (most famously American Psycho)? He takes a contemporary setting and depicts it with lurid insanity such that it seems to approach the levels you discuss, though maybe not quite.

If you're not trying to milk conversion sales to a hardcore audience that digs Sci-fi or fantasy, but targeting a mostly female audience of casual or non-gamers, attempting only to get them to play for free in order to generate ad-impressions, would the complexity bar be more forgiving?

Craig Perko said...

"My friend is..."

Uh, what? No. It doesn't. It's just weird, not complex.

I don't consider drug trips "contemporary settings", and I don't think anyone else does, either. It might be possible to make a game like that, but I wouldn't, and I wouldn't play it.

As for the "complexity bar", you have to decide whether you want a game which revolves around social play (IE a social play engine) or if you just want to add some social fun to a game.

If you just want to augment some other gameplay, there's no reason you have to hit any complexity bar. I'm specifically talking about a game which revolves around socialization as its primary game dynamic.