Saturday, January 24, 2009

The Outer Ring


So, I'm the only person on the planet who doesn't much like Spelunky. I've actually gotten requests for a post about Spelunky. Since I don't often get requests, I guess I should probably, you know, listen.

Spelunky obviously isn't a bad game. But I'm ambivalent while a huge number of my friends and game-designer-sorts like it quite a lot. So... why don't I like it? It's not that it's too hard, or outside my area of expertise, or anything like that. It's just... not compelling to me.

There are only a few games that I don't like that everyone else does. It's not a matter of genres, either. It's something else.

For example, I don't like GTA. And I don't much like Rock Band. Obviously not bad games, and I'm not bad at them for the amount of time I've spent on them. But... just in no way compelling. Playing dress-the-rock-star was the most compelling part of Rock Band to me.

I've thought about it, and I think I know what connects every single one of the games I don't like and everyone else does.


If you've been reading me for a while, you're familiar with the idea of nested gameplay loops. The idea is that the innermost loop is your control over the character, then there's a loop for your character interacting with the level, and a loop for the level interacting with the plot and so on and so forth.

It's an easy way to look at game design, especially if you want to think in terms of giving the player the most juicy agency. It's never as clear-cut as the demo makes it sound, though, because it's less of gameplay loops and more of a gameplay whirlpool: there's no clear divisions between one loop and another, and each loop drags and urges on the others in a way more like water than like a clockwork engine.

But, anyway, what's missing in the games I'm not fond of is an outermost ring. Or, rather, there is an outermost ring, but it spins freely, uninterestingly.

In GTA, doing whatever you want on the city map is clearly the main thrust of the game. Stealing cars, shooting people... hiring hookers... stealing cars... um... shooting people... it's clearly the major point of simulation.

But that outermost ring just spins. It has no texture. Stealing cars and shooting people has no long-term effect at all, and the short-term effects are painfully predictable and shallow.

Now, obviously, there are missions and a plot. And, to be honest, I might like the game if I focused on them instead of screwing around with the city. But the city is the point of densest simulation. So obviously that's where my attention falls. If the game was structured a bit differently - for example, if the city play was less open - I would probably actually like the game better because the outer ring would be the plot events rather than the city's emergent response my crime sprees.

Rock Band is the same way. The outer loop just spins. To me there is no feeling of texture in trying to get good scores on certain songs. The feeling of mastery isn't terribly important to me. Rock Band does have a "band" mode, which is a more textured outer loop than its predecessors, but the band mode is still a very limited, very boring play loop and it holds no lasting interest for me.

That doesn't make these games bad by any stretch. But I can't think of many games I like where the outer loop is so flat!

Spelunky is the same way. Everyone else is admiring the textures of the inner rings. But I can't get over the fact that there's no real point to it. The next randomly generated level offers nothing new, no kind of interesting progression, aside from the occasional introduction of a new tile set or a nastier version of an older enemy.

The outer ring basically just spins, it has no texture, no bumpiness, no interesting pattern.


This can be contrasted with games that I like and everyone else hates, by the way.

For example, I really like the Wii game "Ghost Squad". It's a rails shooter that is maybe two hours long at longest. It has only three stages.

Every time you play through it, you not only unlock new features, you also unlock new pieces of the level for next time you play through. In this case, the inner play loops are not terribly amazing (and quite short), but there is an additional outer play loop above and beyond what other games offer.


So that's my reasoning. Do you see what I mean? What are your opinions?


isaac said...

I think Spelunky does have an outer loop -- learning what killed you and how to avoid it next time. However that loop does kinda run out fairly quickly, and it probably helps if you're not that good at playing video games. The loop may stay fun for longer if it just takes you longer to understand how everything works.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, that is what I would consider a second-to-outermost loop...

To me, there should be another loop beyond it texturing and patterning the long-term gameplay.

shaktool said...

I played it for a while, and then lost interest after reaching the second world a couple times.

Then I heard about the guy who shows up in between worlds to sell you a shortcut, and you probably don't have enough money to buy it right away but you can set aside money each time you find him until you can afford the shortcut. Then it became a game where the money I collected actually mattered and I could make progress towards some goal: building a shortcut to the next world so that the next time I die, I can start off in world 2.

But why doesn't he show up EVERY time I reach world 2, or world 3....? Where's the fun in working hard to make it to the next world, only to find out that there's nobody there to trade in your loot for a shortcut, and you end up dying in the next world with nothing to show for it?

It doesn't help that it doesn't run on my Mac at home, so I have to stay late at work to play it....

Craig Perko said...

But starting at a more advanced level doesn't mean anything to me anyway, because there's nothing particularly special about any given level.

Patrick said...

Perhaps if the procedurally generated content evolved or adapted to your play style, and perhaps more importantly your approach to certain characters, items, abilities ect. then the outer play loop would have the kind of texture you're looking for?

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, I doubt it. Usually the outermost play loop has something to say. For example, it's usually the narrative of the game.

In games like Sim City or similar, the outermost loop is built BY YOU as you play the game: your prior decisions begin to affect your current situation in a dramatic and complex way.

While a procedurally generated game could theoretically allow for that kind of outer play loop, I think it would probably be extremely difficult to do well.

Olick said...

I guess I sorta see what you mean about how Spelunky can be reptitive. I think its that most procedurally generated games are mostly random, rather than directed. Although I do notice the game goes to pretty good lengths to ensure you can actually beat the stage.

I still enjoy it because its difficult enough to make me want to master it, or at least return to see how well I do.

A big thing on roguelikes is the discovery and then mastery aspect. I have never gotten certain items, so the use of them still eludes me, and that interests me to come back. However, much like a single playthrough of Spelunky will take much less time than Nethack, the entire game just has less to do.

Christopher Weeks said...

"Usually the outermost play loop has something to say."

I don't really get your meaning with that. It implies to me that you mean some kind of meaningful statement is made. But the rest of what you're talking about seems like you really only mean it should feed back to your gameplay: style or ability or something.

"To me, there should be another loop beyond it texturing and patterning the long-term gameplay."

"In games like Sim City or similar, the outermost loop is built BY YOU as you play the game: your prior decisions begin to affect your current situation in a dramatic and complex way."

In Spelunky, my prior decisions clearly affect my situation down the line. So I'm trying get my head around what you'd like to have happen to long-term game play in this outer ring.

Within one game, using bombs early means I rely on ropes later. If I buy the climbing gloves then I can't afford the jumping boots and my whole play style changes one direction and not the other. From game to game, I learn tricks and play styles (e.g. killing to big spider instead of avoiding it so that I the sticky bombs) that go on to modify my overall play style independent of immediate situational stuff.

Maybe if you described how to mod Spelunky to build a more functionally interactive outer ring, I'd see what you mean more.

Also, I'd like to hear whether it matters if you artificially create a narrative to go with the play. I sometimes play Spelunky with my son where we assert that we must save the damsel when we see one on the level -- just for added constraint fun. Or, if I'm playing Angband, I make up pretty shallow generational stories about all my fallen family members as I create the next one -- sort of stuff that Dwarf Fortress does pretty well by itself. And tons of people do stuff like that with The Sims. Does any of that relate to the outer ring. How?

Craig Perko said...

"It implies to me that you mean some kind of meaningful statement is made. But the rest of what you're talking about seems like you really only mean it should feed back to your gameplay: style or ability or something."

The only difference from having something to say vis-a-vis plot and having something to say vis-a-vis layered creation is the manner in which you build what you are going to say.

Both of them have something to say, both of them guide the game's other layers and give a texture and pattern to the game's progression.

Sure, what they have to say may not be particularly clever or interesting, but they're still saying something. One might say "power corrupts", the other might say "you shouldn't put coal power next to a residential zone", but they both say something. They say it tangibly, by changing the dynamics of play.

I hope that's clear...

The layered creation in a normal Roguelike is very prevalent: I build a character, he's got a wide variety of specific abilities and items I chose, etc. In Spelunky, that doesn't happen to nearly such a degree: the layered creation is very limited, largely to whether you buy power-up A or power-up B.

That is the same kind of thing I'm talking about, but it's clearly less pervasive than trying to handle 8 pieces of equipment and an inventory full of 20 unique items and potions.

I don't see that I could meaningfully mod Spelunky to do this without radical redesign. And there's no reason to: it's a perfectly good game as it is. It's just not a game that appeals to me much.

"Also, I'd like to hear whether it matters if you artificially create a narrative to go with the play."

I think it does matter, but the appeal of those sorts of narratives is shaky. The appeal is extremely strong when someone else is watching you play, because their brain is looking for something to do. When I'm playing, my brain doesn't think to create my own narratives, and, frankly, if I want to create my own narratives, I'll draw myself a comic book or write myself a short story.

But that imagining... what it is, in essence, is creating a layered series of choices, just like building a city in Sim City. Only instead of being guided by the game's rule set and enforced by its memory, it is guided by YOUR judgment and enforced by YOUR memory. In essence, it allows you to create that highly textured "outer wheel" out of nothing at all.

At least, that's how I see it.