Tuesday, November 20, 2007

Peaceful Games

I've been thinking about peaceful games, lately. I don't mean nonviolent games... I mean peaceful games. I've been thinking about the idea because I've been playing a lot of games that make me wish there was no pressure at all. It's hard to explain what I mean by this, but I'll try.

Something like Animal Crossing seems like it might be the ultimate ideal of a peaceful game, but it's really not what I'm talking about. Animal Crossing is a grind-filled casual game. There's an implicit push to do really dumb things like make shit-tons of money and buy stuff.

It's probably impossible to make a game with no implicit goals, but the idea behind a peaceful game is to make those goals very relaxing.

There are some relaxing games out there, ranging from Jaruu Tenk to Knytt and so forth. But these games are rather more shallow than I like. Jaruu Tenk allows you to spend a huge amount of time with the inhabitants of this little house, but nothing you do has any significant effect and the harder you try to do anything meaningful, the more of an outright bastard the character in question becomes.

How about this idea: Let's take Simcity Societies and mod it. In our heads, because the game doesn't support this level of modification, and even if it did, it would crash every half hour.

You don't build your city build your city build build build. Instead of spending cash on new buildings, you have to spend public will. Which means that once you run dry, you need to go amongst the people.

The people live in the buildings and on the streets you have made. There's a few interesting stories happening at any given time, ranging from thieves to summer crushes. All of the stories are built around the buildings you have put up and their situation. That boring row of houses you put up? There's a squad of ten year olds that really hate living there, man.

You get your public will by simply touching these stories, perhaps making a few of the decisions or introducing a few new elements or building something. You don't have to solve them, or do anything specific.

This is a clumsy example, but the idea is to take the focus off the building of the city and put it onto the people living in the city you're building.

Perhaps a better example is in Civ IV. Civ IV is a great game, but I keep thinking, "I don't want to play it from this angle." I'm not interested in what tile to put a city on, or even whether we have open borders with someone. However, seeing how the people live in the nation is very interesting to me. Ideally, I would be able to play the game by simply guiding stories, and the AI would expand, negotiate, and research for me around the story resolutions.

The thing is that these "character driven games" are only possible because of the complex "reality" behind them. Joe and Sue fall in love because they spend all day at that coffee shop you built so close to the fountain. The Knights of Agrigore only formed because your bandit problem was growing too serious. The trade union is only being attacked because the black hole is passing through sector 14...

While there's theoretically a strong implicit goal to maximize your empire or whatever, the fact of the matter is that such things don't matter. No matter what you do, there will be stories. The kind of world you build using them determines what kind of stories you'll have in the future.

There are a lot of different relaxing games you could build, I imagine. Raph built one about flapping your wings. But, to me, it's got to be people and long-term state changes. I don't like "games" that don't give me any control over the world, and I don't feel interested in games which don't have people/people-like-things/stories-of-people in them.


Well, just thinking. What do you think?


Olick said...

It sounds like you're talking less about a game, of which I think goals are important, and more talking about.. a simulator. A simulator that is designed to simulate stories instead of simple lives. It would be like the Sims only.. instead of explicit control, you have lots of implicit control over their actions. Because it is implicit, going on one person would probably be frustrating, since your carefully placed park may be completely bypassed by someone who's random inclination is to play a video game at the end of the day.

But, if you could modify the outcomes significantly, perhaps your goals would simply be whatever you'd like them to be. Be sadistic and ruin happy people's lives. Try to give everyone a happy ending.

Or if the game gets you significantly involved, then you may naturally root for or hate certain characters, and try to guide the story so that they meet a destiny you'd like for them.

However, it sounds like, with an implicit system in place, such fine-tuned control over one (virtual) person's life might be unrealistic to expect.

I'm still not sure if this qualifies as a game.
I enjoy having pressure and goals, it gives me something to go for, and the pressure helps victory to be that much sweeter (or exhilarating).

Patrick said...

Re: Ugh, Olick don't relegate this to the ghetto of "non-game" just because its hard to classify. Implicit goals still constitute a game, its just a more open game.

I think people who like the pressure are in the minority of the total entertianment audience (something like 2 billion people, maybe, at least 1 billion) and that people who like pressure tend to like it less as they get older.

I think this sounds great of course, but the problem is - whats the AI algorithms for these characters?

I'm actually working on a design right now that is intended to be a peaceful game, coming at it from a different angle. You paint stuff and then those things will crystallize into different objects that interact along fairly simple rule-systems, A-life style. I'm not sure if you would call this more top-down or more bottom-up. The AI focus is on the pattern recognition, taking shapes of paint and matching them to different formal parameters from a data-base, which I believe Novamente can handle. In other words, to the focus is on the patterns of creation rather than the patterns of the created, which is probably a lot more difficult to pull-off. Maybe in a couple of years.

Craig Perko said...

In the original version of this, I pointed out that "peaceful" is often a synonym for "boring". That's the thing: I find most games with their very shallow statistical goals to be boring. :P

Although it sounds like I'm talking about a game where you run people's lives, I don't think it is. You don't have that much direct effect. Instead, your presence gently shapes how things proceed.

Olick said...

Well, I guess I'll set aside any "this isn't a game" comments. Especially when I'm not going by any specific definition of what constitutes as a game.

However, you want to make a game, with little or no pressure (to act?), and nebulous goals, and a very subtle player influence on the game? It sounds like you're talking about a mostly passive game.. I guess I don't get it.

Also: Patrick. What do you define as pressure? I realize that a fps where you are scrambling to kill or be killed counts as pressure, but what about an exploration, collection-oriented platforming game?
I want to disagree, but you may have a point that people who like pressure (or high-pressure at least) games are in the minority. And these days they are simply people who don't really play many games.

Craig Perko said...

The game isn't passive, it's simply very slow. The game is anything but passive: because you permanently change the world, it is actually more active than almost any other game out there.

It's just not a matter of clicking the right thing or aiming a widget.

jojo said...

This sounds really interesting to me in terms of playing it, but in terms of creating it, I think the hurdles are vast (which is why you don't see many games like this). It's not just working out systems to do the things you're hinting at, it's also trying to nail down and maximize the parts of it that are 'fun'. How do you even define 'fun' in this case? Seems arbitrary enough that a lot of people will want different things from it (much like people want different things from life, which seems to be what you're approaching if you continue to design down that road... a life simulator of sorts). I suppose you could end up with something where the systems you've designed to model these relationships and behaviors give rise to something that's greater than the whole - see Sid Meier's comments regarding Civ in Rouse's 'Game Design Theory & Practice' - , but sometimes I wonder if that's more of a lightening strike than anything the designer was able to plan for or steer towards.

Craig Perko said...

I don't know whether it's possible yet, but I also know that sometimes it's all I want to play. I'm pretty sure even a bad, boring version of this idea would have a significant audience.


Patrick said...

Olick: yeah I think the data shows that, so we can continue to call examples of the medium games even if they don't fit our particular tastes, yeah? :)

Collecting coins is an implicit goal, so there's less pressure.

Basically there's explicit goals, which tend to be more intense, implicit goals which can go either way depending on tuning, and aesthetic goals that are purely elected and therefore not pressure-able whatsoever (with some exceptions I'm sure).

I think its a good way to go, don't be afraid to be at peace.

Mike Kich said...

I've been thinking about similar themes, which arise for me out of a frustration with the way most games simply are. For example, I've played Empire: Total War quite a bit. Both while you're playing the game and when you reach the end of the game, there isn't really a sense of having accomplished anything. You spend most of the game constructing only buildings which will directly aid your endless war effort, and you spend the rest of your money producing legion upon legion of infantry and artillery to clash in epic slaughter with oftentimes less well organized city populations. And then, by the end game, when you've accomplished what you set out to do, there's no point to it all. I think most games seem to fall under this category, of providing a means to express the human urge to expand and or dominate, but then almost none of them seem to know what to make of peace, or cultural achievements, or just building and growth. Even the Simcity games, for all their lack of violence, are sort of penetrative and aggressive in a financial sense, that everything basically comes down to building expansion and the endless quest after money. I liked the broad idea of games like Spore, before it was found out that Spore was a colossal disappointment, because it was not only freeform but was centered more around technological progress and general growth, as well as interactions with a multitude of other races. My point is, I'd very much like to find a game that 1) isn't a military simulator, 2) isn't an economic simulator (at least an economic simulator in the classical sense) and 3) doesn't suck.

Craig Perko said...

I agree. There are a few games that try - such as Knytt or Pontifex - but I don't think they are quite the sort of thing I'm thinking of.