Monday, January 28, 2008

The Nature of Rules

Ivory Tower Alert!

I've been thinking about rules.

I don't think games should be made up of rules.

Think about the games you played as a kid. Most of the games didn't have mandatory rules - you played with tons of house rules, whatever made the game fun. Free Parking in Monopoly being the most common example, but it's also common to change the rules to various games to give specific inept players an advantage.

This lets the game be fun for the inept players and keeps it from being terribly boring for the ept ones.

You'll see this kind of thing even in deathmatch computer games: if your friend is pretty bad, you're likely to go easy on him, or refuse to use the rocket launcher, etc.

There's an innate compulsion among gamers to make games always somewhat challenging: to tweak the rules so that it's never boring. Frequently, this involves giving advantages to the weak players, but just as often it simply involves setting unlikely goals for yourself. How fast can you beat the level, how far can you toss his corpse...

Obviously, there's something more than simple rules to a game. The experience of a game is almost independent from the rules, in that a lot of people will change the rules to try to keep the experience intact.

Take poker. At it's heart, poker has only a few simple rules that define a game of skill, chance, and psychology. However, to preserve that game, more rules are made, usually ones of fairness. No tabletalk, no missing or marked cards, no this, no that. These rules aren't really poker rules, they're rules protecting poker.

Similarly, in a complex RPG, there are a thousand little rules and limits - how you gain gold, what you can spend it on, how powerful that spell is, what the chances of an enemy encounter are. These rules (which border on "content" in many cases) are not there to define the game. They're around to keep the experience of the game sailing true. With a broken system, the way the game is played changes, usually for the worse.

The aesthetics of a game are the same: the game's aesthetics aren't the game proper, they're a way to frame the experience and keep it in the right zone.

This can be taken to extremes. For an extreme version of this, every rule and aesthetic exist to either protect or teach the experience of the game. The actual feel of the game isn't something that is contained in the rules or in the aesthetics, although it is a result of them (along with some other things like social context).

Now, we can easily describe aesthetics. We can say "oh, steampunky" or "make sure it's rated G" or "this is a castle in the clouds, waterfalls pouring off the sides."

We can describe rules as well, less easily but more clearly. "Roll 2d6 for damage", "move 3 spaces", "start to the right of the dealer and go counterclockwise..."

But we really don't have any language for talking about the dynamics of a game, the actual play experience. Every time we want to describe it, we say things like "oh, make it like Grand Theft Auto, but a MMORPG!"

This seems a bit lopsided, since the dynamics are really the important part. I mean, we describe mechanics and aesthetics in these same ways, but only if we're giving a ridiculously wide overview. When we actually talk in more detail, we don't stick to describing them in terms of what other games they're like. We describe them using well-anchored words that other people in the industry can turn into a working product. Sometimes we're very specific, sometimes we're vague and leave the specifics up to them.

Why can't we describe dynamics in that way?

Why can't we say, "this game is ticky-wicky, with an undercurrent of pressure pelting" the same way we say "the game is turn-based, and has a lot of gore"?

No, "ticky-wicky" and "pressure pelting" don't actually mean anything. But they sound like they could, I think. They sound almost like they describe a specific kind of play experience, although what it might be is kind of vague.

"Grinding", "griefing" and a few others are sort of a beginning, but their focus is kind of off. After all, there are a lot of different kinds of grinding, and they feel very different. Not every rule set that involves repeating similar situations over and over has the same feeling.


Even now, I think in terms of the play experience rather than the rules or the aesthetic. I think this is the case for most game designers. There's sort of a feeling that the equation is a+b=c, and we can solve for whichever we really want to solve for.

Think back to Star Wars, before it died. Before the new movies, before KotOR. Back to the old movies and the fan books and when knowing what a bantha was meant you were a terrible, terrible geek.

If you were asked to make a Star Wars game, what would you make? "Can't be a space shooter" says George. "Too many of those on my conscience. Make it anything else."

What do you go with?

The aesthetics are pre-made, although you do get to choose a scale. You know Star Wars aesthetics inside and out, since you're a terrible, terrible geek.

But the actual game? You could argue it in any direction. The universe... is it ripe for an RPG? Sure! It's also a really great universe for an RTS! And an FPS sure wouldn't be out of line, would it?

Okay, forget that crap. Seriously, forget it.

Instead of thinking rules, think dynamic. Sure, genre is kind of a mixed bag of rules and dynamic, but forget about it!

What do you want to experience? What part of the Star Wars universe makes you want to play? What's the feeling you're going for?

I'm eager to hear your ideas for a game revolving around a dynamic.

As a fun contrast, think about a Star Trek game using the same methodology. Which dynamic would you pursue in the Trek universe? What kind of game would it build?


Patrick said...

I agree the emphasis should be on dynamics, that we need more of a vocab for that, and that there's no one optimization (perfect Pepsis, but with a spreadsheet instead of chemistry).

A decent example is the King's Quest series, which I've happened to be playing recently. They all have the same mechanics and similar aesthetics, but KQIII deviated from the "go around and collect stuff" dynamic just a bit by tying you to a time schedule. You're a slave to a wizard, and the wizard goes out or naps for periods of time. All the stuff you gather has to be stowed away before he comes back, and you have to cover your tracks. This dynamic shift, however subtle, created a sensibility that was distinct. And thats just one little paddlethworp in the wave bend.

Ryan said...

I still feel a little vague about your definitions of rules and dynamics after reading this. Could be just how my mind works but I think there's a difference between 'games' and 'play' and one of the main differences is that 'games' have rules (be they explicit or implicit) the key is that the rules provide the framework for the game. House rules and general parameters of the game can be changed. But generally these need to be agreed upon by all players. Your Free Parking example is generally agreed upon by the players and as such becomes mandatory - for that game. Play tends to be more open ended and more about exploring the world - and I could be off the mark here - but I think play is more likely to become a game when more than one person is involved. 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.

But then maybe I'm just getting wrapped up in semantics. Rules can be tricky to define and I find it hard sometimes to differentiate between rules and general parameters or environment. For example the no talking at the table during poker thing is more of a parameter or environmental variable than a poker rule. It doesn't define how you win or lose it just defines the participation requirements (like having an XBox to play Halo, or wearing your teams uniform when you play a team sport). Like I said though - I'm uncertain about your definition.

In terms of tweaking the rules and people setting their own goals within a game - I'm all for it. 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.

With dynamic, I'm just not sure. The word basically is tied to motion and movement you say something is dynamic if it moves or changes. I get real fuzzy when its used to describe a game element. And how do you design for it. 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.

With Star Trek I always felt they missed the mark on the whole premise when it came to the games. The start of the series uses phrases like 'boldly go where no man has gone before'. To me that evoked exploration and wonder. The discovery of new things, investigation and the reliance on oneself to meet the challenges along the way. Mind you the series barely ever got it right either *ducks and runs for cover*

Craig Perko said...

Patrick: exactly!

Ryan: I'll post a reply.

Peter Bessman said...

Uh... gee... would you take a thought experiment based on Die Hard?

Craig Perko said...


Funny thing, some movies make better games than movies. Look at Riddick: Escape from Butcher Bay.

Some movies seem to want to give the feeling that some games give, kind of in a reverse of how we normally think about things.