Monday, January 28, 2008

Nature of Rules, Response and Stuff

Ryan wrote a good, long reply to my last post that needs commenting. This probably won't make any sense unless you read the other post first.

I think there's a difference between 'games' and 'play' and one of the main differences is that 'games' have rules... the key is that the rules provide the framework for the game.

Critters have DNA, but that doesn't mean that a critter is DNA, or even that it should be thought of in terms of its DNA. The rules are one part of the DNA of a game: what grows from them can be delightful and complex.

Freeform play is a bit like a virii: it has no particular protection, no particular ability to reproduce without killing something, but it crops up everywhere and is definitely notable.

Like I said: rules (and the rest) exist to protect the experience of the play from the vagaries of... well, life in general. They try to keep the experience similar from "generation to generation."

I hope this is clear...

generally [house rules] need to be agreed upon by all players.

Please remember that many games are played with private or obstinate goals on the part of the player. For example, whenever I play Bang! (a card game with hidden roles), I play with the assumption that a specific other player is on my side. It's certainly not something that is agreed on, but at the same time it's a potent method of shaping the game. It definitely changes the experience - mostly for me, but also for others, indirectly.

You could say that I am playing INSIDE the game rather than GAMING, if you see what I mean.

That distinction is not a terribly smart one to trivialize: you have to take it into account in the same way that you can't write off various other-sized organisms when you're performing surgery.

This comparison implies that playing inside a game (sideplay?) is bad, like an infection, but I don't think that's the case. I think it's vital to keeping a game fresh and interesting - I think many boring games are boring largely because they don't have any of this sideplay adding new elements and spice.

Some games are almost entirely sideplay, like the Sims or Secondlife.

You start needing rules, or a social contract between the players or you end up with the "Bang! Bang! Your Dead!.... No I'm not you missed!" syndrome.

Yes, rules (and content, and aesthetic, and social context, and and and) protect the experience. They protect it from new players, players with different visions of how the experience should go, from the weathering of time, and even from the effects of other rules, content, aesthetics, etc.

I find it hard sometimes to differentiate between rules and general parameters or environment.

Anyone who is being honest should! The difference is simply one of scope or scale. That's kind of what made me go this route.

I mean, "A fireball spell costs 50 gold and causes 15 damage when cast". Sounds an awful lot like a rule to me! But it's also content, and suggests strongly an aesthetic.

So... it's obvious that it's not quite as nicely divided up as MDA suggests, in the same way that a cell isn't neatly divided up into "goo" and "DNA".

I love 'sandbox' games and emergent gameplay. I love games that let me play with all the settings and do things that aren't explicitly spelled out. But in my experience this doesn't happen until the game is played for a period with 'vanilla' rules/settings. You need to understand the game to be able to effectively tweak the rules.

Yes! Right now, it's all done by trial and error. This is a lot like having a creature's DNA handed to you. "What will this creature be like?"

Well, you can try to simulate it in your head... "AGCFCF? That's... um... feathers?" More likely, you attempt to grow it and look at what it's characteristics are when it's alive. Of course, that takes time.

Once you see what the critter looks like, you can look back over the DNA and say, "OH! It meant spines!" and try to tweak it to be more to your liking. In theory, at least.

Fortunately, games are not critters. I think it might be possible to extrapolate rules (and so forth) from a dynamic. I haven't posted about it, yet, because I haven't figured it out yet. As you say:

You can never guarantee that 2 players will feel the same way about a game given taste and how they experience it. One person might find it simple and boring the next might be challenged and find it stressful... by what you describe - what do you want to experience - its sounds more emotional and based on feeling.

That's the core problem, you see. The rules and content impose themselves without much regard to the player's preferences and mindset. If we pursue a dynamic, however, then we can pursue a... by the way, it's fuzzy because I don't have it nailed down myself... we can pursue a specific superset of interactions? We can tweak the rules and content because we know the dynamics the player should be experiencing.

With Star Trek...

Yeah, me too.

Challenge still stands: tell me about your DYNAMIC-centered Star Wars game design. No, I really don't have a clear definition of what that means.



Ryan said...

That'll learn me to go away for a couple of days :)

Great post! Thanks for taking the time to answer my questions. I still disagree on a couple of points (nature of life and opinions I guess) in particular I see freeform play as more benign than a virus. I see it as exploration and learning about your environment. Testing the environments boundaries and learning both your and its limitations. I also see freeform play spontaneously generating rules to protect a certain gameplay style or goal.

Mind you your DNA to rules analogy is spot on, and like DNA rules can be so complex as to cause conflict between players outside of the game. I'm also fascinated by the interplay between implicit and explicit rules. For example in a traditional Japanese CRPG you need to select an NPC to listen to their conversation to move the plot forward. Implicitly you learn that NPC's with a real name displayed impart important information or progress the plot while generic NPC names (like Happy Farmer, or townsperson) usually repeat bland irrelevant information. This means that as a player you end up quickly scanning through nearby NPC's, noting the ones with names and then only talking to them. The explicit and implicit end up combining to give much more limited behaviour options to the gameplayer.

As to a Star Wars based dynamic design... the main scenes that jump to my mind when I'm thinking of the original movie is things like the trash compactor scene, the scene where Luke and Leia swing across the chasm narrowly avoiding blaster fire, and the final battle at the death star. These are all dramatic moments where the main characters are in a rapidly declining situations and end up succeeding or escaping by the skin of their teeth by skill, quick thinking or blind luck.

So I'd want the players to have that sense as they played the game. I'd probably lean towards something based around the space shooter style of game (only because of personal preference) where the game 'scenes' or moments are characterized by rising tension that rapidly escalate to a crescendo and where coming out on top is not a matter of shooting all the other ships out of the sky but of pulling something amazing out your hat to get the main goal achieved.

I'd want to make sure the player has moments of feeling like they are about to be overwhelmed, maybe frantically dodging incoming fire from tonnes of tie fighters that stand between them and their goal, while they know that at any moment the base is going to get its shields back online and then they notice a large drain pouring water out over a cliff - they might be able to get in that way, only they notice that the blast doors for the drain pipe has started to close... I'd want to design in an mechanic that allowed a player to do amazing things at the times of greatest 'stress' - not sure what that would look like at this point, but maybe something in the nature of having a bullet time effect that comes on once a player has built up enough tension. I wouldn't want it to be a points based thing or how much damage you do or take (so not like the rage mechanic in World of Warcraft for example) but more based on the player putting themselves into critical situations.. so diving towards the pack of tie fighters increases it, or flying into a narrow canyon rather than above it etc.

I'd also want to make sure that each scene has multiple ways of achieving the goal and building up tension. Multiple tactics that would work to give the player that feeling of pulling miracles out of chaos that I'd be going for.

Craig Perko said...

I don't think of freeform play or sideplay as a disease, but I do think of it as an independent "life form" inside the other game...

Anyhow, yeah, pretty much.

Right now there are very few computer games with a "drama" or "tension" system - none that are actually worth playing, as far as I know. It's not an easy concept to create rules for.

It's significantly more common in tabletop games, where it's actually gotten quite refined...

Ryan said...

My bad! Your description of freeform play as virii and being unable to reproduce without destroying something came across as a negative view to me, as I see it as an inherently unstable state but one from which gameplay grows.

You'll have to tell me the names of the games your thinking of as I can't recall any off the top of my head that have a specific tension system. I know that a lot of the horror genre games try to achieve a kind of tension, the only one that ever worked with me was Resident Evil 2 on the original playstation - and that was more based on cheap shock value than a true building of tension.

Even with tabletop (I assume you mean RPG's) I have squillions and not too many have a tension system that I can recall - Dogs in the Vineyard is the only one that springs to mind that I can think of recently, although arguments could be made for Call of Cthulhu's sanity system falling into that category, and I guess the basic damage counters of hit points or whatever could be viewed as similar as well. A lot have an allocate drama points system or something similar that the players use to do over the top things or turn failures into success but the main effect that has had in my games has been to reduce the overall tension as the players always think 'well I can just spend a point to get out of this situation'.

I agree that a dramatic tension system would be hard to design for but then the challenge was for a DYNAMIC centred game design - no mention of it being easy to implement ;). This is the dynamic I would want to achieve with a Star Wars game. Assuming, once again that I understand the definition of dynamic that you are going for. With this as the goal, theoretically the design of the mechanics (as aesthetics could be said to be fixed by using the SW universe) should flow from this.

It's a first step and would need to be broken down into atomic dynamic elements that could be considered individually and as part of the whole. I think you'd also want to do a lot of user testing and questioning to arrive at these. There's some quite good work being done in the area of emotional responses to games atm that I've seen floating around. And anything that allows you to attach electrodes to willing participants is a big plus in my book :)

Craig Perko said...

Ha! I think attaching electrodes to players might be a bit over-the-top for designing a game...

In computer games, I've stumbled across a few that have dramatic counters or engines, but they're almost never released because they end up shitty. I actually can't think of any off the top of my head that WERE released, although I'm sure someone could if they read this.

For tabletop games, however, there are a wide variety of drama-based systems that use a points or counter system to make things more dramatic.

Universalis, Capes, With Great Power, Octane... a few more that I can't see from my desk...

But these systems wouldn't be very useful in a computer game, because they require a lot of subjective judgments. You'd have to build a system of subjective judgment into a computer game, and that would end up being very shallow in comparison.

Ryan said...

Electrodes are not so far fetched there's a nice paper by Richard Hazlett that looks at using facial electromyography to determine immediate emotional responses to video game stimuli. His conclusions are that it provides a more 'in the moment' emotional feedback than the more standard HCI techniques.

I'll have to check those games out, I've been meaning to pick up Universalis for a while now but have been avoiding capes and with great power as I just wrapped up an extended supers campaign (heavily modified Truth & Justice rules) and am kinda worn out in the genre.

Craig Perko said...

Well, if you want to run my Bastard Jedi system, it would be interesting to see how it works in someone else's hands. :P

Ryan said...

Sounds good! It wont be for a while though I'm running 2 games at the moment and playing in a third so it'll have to wait till I finish one of them ;)