Sunday, May 11, 2008

Elegance and Complexity

I've been tearing up prototypes as fast as I can make them, pursuing something interesting. Let me describe it.

My first attempt, what sparked my interest, was to build a prototype for a kind of free running game. It was a one-player game with a stack of index cards representing "map tiles". The goal was to use a variety of relatively simple techniques to keep moving, and it featured a few simple pools that you draw on to perform moves. It was more of a toy, less of a game, I just wanted to see whether it could be done fun.

This kind of system, it occurred to me, could be useful in a variety of "skins". To prove the point, I made a system that used the exact same dynamics (set of pools, set of moves, and a self-building randomized map) to represent social interaction.

There were two problems with both of these games. The first problem was randomness: the way the maps were generated led to very weird structures (and personalities) that never would pass muster in a real game. The second problem was a lack of growth. To me, growth or progress is critical. These toys had none. They were simply "keep running, fool!"

It occurred to me that there was a connection between these two problems, so I began to explore the idea. The connection between chaos and progress.

In my exploration, I decided the connection was connection. In order for the larger scale to be interesting, it needs to have "clumpiness" or "roads" or whatever kinds of organized structure you can come up with.

This isn't actually a surprise, if you think about. The base play has these kinds of regularities. It makes sense that higher levels of play would be fundamentally the same. But a bit more depth, because there's something more to it than that...

In a game like, say, Dungeons and Dragons, you have a complex landscape of rules. But although the rules are complex, they are very regular. Certain "clumping", certain statistical groups, always crop up. Over and over. Both on a small scale - to-hit rolls, the potency of magic - and on a large scale - difficulty of monsters, level advancement.

I'm not talking about something weird and mystical, here. I'm talking simple patterns. For example, the magician gets few hit points. This is because he's not supposed to be taking the brunt of the combat, so you damn well better stick him in the back. The warrior's armor class improves as he gets better armor, but that same armor reduces his maximum dex bonus. Magical armor bypasses this pattern of better armor = less dex, but in return magical armor is rare and expensive.

So do you prefer +2 chain mail, or ordinary full plate? Just that simple decision results from the intersection of a few simple patterns: is the magical +2 better than the unaltered bonus from plate mail? Is your dex high enough to make it matter? The situation is complex not because the rules are complex, but because the situation lies on the intersection of half a dozen simple patterns that operate at different "levels".

Dungeons and Dragons isn't particularly elegant about this, but there are many games that are very elegant. Katamari Damacy is the obvious example. The patterns in Katamari Damacy - both in terms of gameplay rules and level construction - are very clear, very simple. They interact in a way that is simple as well... but still very interesting. I suspect there's a fundamental mathematical structure to the timing and layout, although I don't really know how I could even measure it...

A first person shooter has patterns as well. The interacting patterns of movement speed, level design, monster placement, resource allocation, weapon design, and the now-unavoidable "RPG element". If you want to simplify them, you can imagine each as a curve on a graph, and the juicy gameplay takes place where the curves intersect. They can't actually be simplified to a graph, of course, but it gives the basic idea: half a dozen colored wiggles that intersect in many places.

(In reality, I don't think they could even be simplified to a 4D chart... although maybe that's due to the fact that some things (such as level design) are actually a bunch of smaller, simpler patterns interacting!)

Now, this is all pretty simple, pretty basic. This really shouldn't come as much of a surprise to anyone. But if you think about it like I'm thinking about it, then there are some practices and predictions that you can make.

First, you have to remember that a game is the sum of all of its parts. Katamari Damacy is more than just gameplay: the fact that you recognize every silly object you're sucking up, the fact that it's about a kid with a really hilariously bad father, the fact that you're always helping people, all of that rolls up into a very nice bundle. Each of those elements can be thought of as a pattern that interacts, but there is a lot of complexity because they are cultural patterns. They are pieces of extremely, excessively complex patterns from the real world.

This muddies the water up significantly. Those patterns are harder to analyze (or, at least, require different analysis tools) than the much simpler, standalone gameplay patterns. Similarly, you can get away with a lot more immediately complex gameplay patterns if you base them on pre-existing patterns from other popular games... so if you're worried about how long it takes players to learn or become comfortable with various patterns, you'll find that you need to take that into account as well.

In order to try to get a sense for interacting patterns and how players deal with them, you have to account for "primed patterns" based on patterns the players are already familiar with. Otherwise, you'll end up with results that don't add up.

It isn't really feasible to make test games (or even prototypes) that leave out primed patterns, because every kind of play has some pre-existing example that will skew the player's reactions. Also, it is becoming obvious that the priming is a major part of player enjoyment, which makes sense, since it lets you tap into things they already enjoy and piggyback...

Although "pure" game tests are not possible, it may be possible to make a game that tests intersections without caring what the patterns are. If you have a pattern, it interacts with another pattern. By moderating that interaction (making it follow different rules), it should be able to be possible to test for optimal patterns of interaction between patterns.

It should be possible - in theory - to even replace patterns with other patterns to see the difference in optimal interaction algorithms. This would be a bit like spectrophotometry: you find out which "wavelengths" of interactions each pattern tends to produce, and from that you may be able to determine the "elemental makeup" of a complex pattern... but that's in the future. A more basic set of concerns:

There are definitely patterns that operate at different levels. For example, a fantasy game has a fantasy pattern (or, more accurately, a hundred interwoven patterns that don't separate very easily) that underlies the whole game. How does this pattern interact with, say, your combat pattern (which is also actually half a dozen interwoven patterns)? How "often" do they interact? How much "guidance" does one give the other? What kinds of interactions do they provide? Does it matter whether they operate in favor of the player, against the player, or in a more balanced role? Do those options even have meaning? Maybe accessible complexity of interaction is what matters, and not who the complexity favors.

Also, it's pretty clear that a game cannot be made out of single "threads" of pattern, because patterns tend to be imported in interwoven chunks. Does the player's familiarity with the pre-existing patterns cause them to essentially form a single pattern, or do we have to account for the internal "rubbing" of the cluster's patterns caused by our specific use of the cluster?

I've been trying to create prototypes, but none of them have been particularly good tests. Any ideas?

Hell, does anyone even know what I'm talking about?


Erik Svedäng said...

Hi, I'm not sure I understand you completely since it past midnight here and I have worked all day... I just wanted to say that I find your thoughts extremely interesting. It's rare to find such advanced and elaborate thoughts about game design anywhere else, thanks!

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure I was very clear, even though it's dinner time out here.

Thanks for your post, and I'm always glad to have someone with a cool name reading my work.

If you think of anything, or partially understand, comment again and I'll try to be more clear. It's easier to arrange thoughts when you have a sounding board.

Matthew Rundle said...

I'm going to completely ignore the questions you posed and follow on a tangent like I usually do.

I'm interested in what you think about the 'now-unavoidable rpg element' you mentioned for fps designs - I didn't know this is so common as you say, but I don't really follow shooters. But should fps designers be bothered with rpg bits? and if so, what kind of rpg bits?

Craig Perko said...

That's fine, the questions are really just to try to get a response.

These days, I guess the hump of "RPG FPS" games has passed. We've got a bunch of non-RPG FPSs like Halo, Gears of War, and so on. But for a long time I couldn't find any FPS that didn't have a skill upgrade system or similar.

But this isn't necessarily a bad thing. If you think of an FPS as a large number of patterns that interact, it has been pretty much the same patterns for so long that the players have gotten used to them. The players know how they interact.

So to get the same amount of interest, you need to add more patterns. Like, say, RPG elements.

Recently, they've been revamping the FPS patterns instead. Gears of War and Halo both tweak the customary FPS mechanics enough to shake things up.

Christopher Weeks said...

When I read stuff like this I tend to get bogged down in the minutia and miss the forest for the trees. I keep picking stuff apart -- is the combat system in WoW a pattern or is the way armor affects damage and stats? How far down do you take the analysis? (I suppose the answer is wherever you're interested.) So anyway, I'm trying to avoid that kind of bogging down now.

I think that one of the most fruitful places to take this line of thought would be to catalog and analyze discordant pattern combinations.

There is a pattern: RPGs that have a special resolution system for combat as an avenue of contest. And another pattern: RPGs purporting to favor story-telling over e.g. combat simulation. And these strike me as a common discordant pattern pairing that produces unsatisfying results.

I wonder what a catalog of "bad" pattern combos would tell us about design.

Craig Perko said...

Hmm, now that would be a really interesting exercise!

Unfortunately, I don't find many games that have those hideous clashes recently... people stopped making so many of those mistakes. You might have to rewind time, look at old games.

On the other hand, you might get the same result just by looking at old games - any old games - and finding which ones were popular then and aged poorly. What patterns that they had clash with the new patterns inside the minds of the players?