This is GDC week, which means I post all my rambling, half-baked ideas, comforted by the fact that nobody will read them. Example follows.
If we presume that the important part of a game is the experience and everything else (rules, content, advertising) is simply to guide and/or protect that experience, we can draw a few interesting conclusions.
First, although I say that they exist to guide and/or protect, that's not very accurate. It's not that there are two categories of purpose, or even that they represent opposite ends of a continuum. It's just that there's no English word for "with the intention to induce certain experiences while preventing others, especially taking into account external influences".
Strange. I mean, it's a concept that I use every day.
So, to make my life easier, let's make up a word that nobody will ever use: "guidetecting". Or, if you're the sort of snob who thinks things have to be in German or Latin to have any real scholastic value, "grokdus". "Grokdi", plural.
While there's never going to be any use for those words, defining them is important. It lets us specify a playing field. The rules, content, plot, dialog, bugs... they are all guidetectors. They all serve to embrace one kind of experience over all others - on purpose or not.
Sometimes, these are built very explicitly: the beautiful landscapes of a Squaresoft game are definitely on purpose, sharp attempts to pull the player into a specific kind of mindset, a specific kind of experience. Rules limiting the social actions of a massively multiplayer game's players are rather more rigid guides, very directed, very focused to prevent the experience from derailing on a particularly nasty spam-cliff.
Even things that aren't really part of the game are important guides. For example, I'm playing Vampire blah blah blah: Bloodlines. It's a really irritating game if you're not playing a combat whore, and I'm playing a Malkavian. Malks are the nutballs, insane to the last. Which actually makes the innumerable bugs and irritating "features" entertaining (such as the way any and every enemy can see through obfuscate, or the way that animations tend to flicker in and out of existence). Normally, these would be terrible, they would totally break the experience for me. But, since I'm playing an insane character, I can simply say, "hey, I got stuck in a door. It's what I do. I'm a Malk." It actually deepens the experience of being an insane vampire. (Also, I have to cheat because the aforementioned obfuscate never works and I'm a total wimp. This, too, actually fits the "batshit insane" experience.)
Guidetectors aren't protecting an experience, per se. A game's experience is not a single experience. Even in the simplest games, the experience has a progression and occasional pauses. These add up to a larger, more complex experience that fits a player's needs and capabilities a bit better.
Old arcade games didn't really have this very carefully. They tended to start pretty hard and slowly get harder. Only the most passing nods to pauses was made. But that was because of the situation outside the game: an arcade game is not played like a modern game. It is played for a few minutes on a few quarters, then you watch someone else play it. This method is, itself, a guidetector. You didn't build it, but it is there.
All games have these built-in foundations, these rules you cannot break. Which direction you take in abusing them generally leads to what kind of an audience you attract and what genre you consider yourself. For example, RPG fans tend to like to sit in front of their computer (or console) for six hours straight and get really immersed in a game world. The designers take advantage of this by including a lot of guidetectors that work on that premise: slower pacing, lots of ups and downs of various sorts, complicated, intertwined loops of game. Compare to the path that FPS games take, even ones with "RPG elements".
It's very difficult to imagine carefully crafting "walls" out of guidetectors starting from scratch. The human mind is an extremely complex thing, as are the external influences affecting your game. If you design "too specifically" you will probably get run over by players unwilling to share that experience in that way. Example? I've already mentioned one: I'm not interested in playing Vampire blah blah Bloodlines for combat. That's not really what Vampire is supposed to be about, so being forced to fight end boss after end boss and endless waves of bad guys that can see the invisible is just infuriating.
This is actually a case of... hrm, I need to lay more groundwork before I can just spout that off.
We can't realistically build every bit of a game consciously, always keeping track of exactly which things are useful for which experiences exactly when taking into account the various kinds of players and vagaries of their outside influences. The idea is preposterous.
Instead what we do is build a nice little ecology of content. A sidequest fetching soap is an example. In a game like Chronotrigger, a soap-fetch quest is pretty straight-up. It's an attempt to guide us into a simpler, more childlike fairy-tale mindset. The same quest in a Vampire game would be a self-aware joke, a meta-quest there to amuse us and change up the dour pacing a bit.
The same element, even expressed in almost the same way, can serve very different purposes. It is not something you build on its own: you build it in relation to its surroundings. Like an ecosystem, no element stands alone. Like an ecosystem, it can survive the vagaries of weather and natural upheaval. (Cheat codes are like cutting down the rainforest to build condos...)
We've developed quite a few ecosystems that seem to work, and we call them "genres".
Sometimes an element gets out of hand, rampages across the game, and completely destroys the play experience. There are three big reasons for this.
1) The player brings in some outside taint, such as being unusually cunning and realizing that he can reach 99th level in the tutorial mission, or being totally unwilling to fight in your mandatory fight sequences. I call this the "kudzu" effect, and it's especially bad in MMOGs.
2) The designer wants to "punch up" one element of the design, and in doing so places it such that it will crush anything else in the ecosystem. I call this the "shrew" effect rather than the "locust" effect, because I'm planning to make a "taming of the shrew" joke in a few years.
3) Lastly, a lot of games are Frankenstein's Monsters assembled from bits and pieces of vastly disparate ecologies. These ecologies sometimes work out, carefully tweaked into harmony. Often, they get out of control. But always, they are very brittle. System Shock 2 was a fun game to me, but very brittle: a lot of people are not fond of it at all. To them, certain parts of the ecology strangled the rest. I call this the "Frankenstein" effect, for very mysterious reasons I will leave completely unexplained.
As you might guess, these three problems are actually the same problem, because the "imbalance" in the ecology is always the result of a player playing the game. The rules and content and situation and so forth have no life of their own, because only the player can have an experience. All of these problems boil down to the end result that a player experiences something that is not what the designers intended.
Right now, most of our ecologies work in distinct layers. Rules here, art here, ads here, dialog here, whatever else you can think of again independent. Each of them grows into a complex ecosystem, guided by the designers. There is some relationship between them, but the relationship is usually very limited, so as to be very easy to guide. After all, while the rules of shooter A and shooter B are very similar, their dialog, art, plot, and so forth have to be very different.
But I don't think that's a necessity. I think we have a lot of experience creating ecosystems of dialog and art. So we find it easier. But unique rules are newer, not something you can easily find examples of. So we have a harder time crafting complex rule systems.
The thing is, if you think in terms of this theory - in terms of guidetectors (or grokdus) - you see that there is no difference between art and rules. They are not different categories of thing applied to games, they are simply approaching the same goal in different ways. Even ads are for the same reason, although it's rare for an ad to actually aim for the same experience the rest of the game does.
So, to me, I can't really appreciate splitting things up so carefully. I think we can create a more inclusive system. One where rules and content and so forth are all intertwined, rather than being distinct...
I think that kind of system would be less fragile than the ones we currently make. I wouldn't be angry at Vampire blah blah Bloodlines right now if the character generation hadn't made promises the level design couldn't keep.
I hope I'm making sense, but since this is GDC week, it's okay if I'm not.