Saturday, August 22, 2009

Mysteries of Scale

My mind's been stuck with the idea of little pieces of unique, touching content. I've been stuck on this ever since the failure of Spore, an unaccountable failure, a depressing failure, an idiotic failure.

One of the things that is most touching in games is when you discover something new and interesting (I call them "tidbits"). There's a lot to be said for games with deep and interesting gameplay, but there's also a lot to be said for the moment you first see a flying city or meet a particularly weird and entertaining fellow.

Well, I'm fairly confident of the basics of gameplay, but I have always had a harder time with the basics of tidbits. I like to think I'm relatively good at them, except that all my tidbits tend to be big impressive things rather than small, personal things. But unlike rules and dynamics... well, I can tell someone how well their rules are going to perform, what kinds of dynamics will result, and what they might want to think about changing. But I can't tell them how their tidbits are going to act, and suggesting new tidbits for them is hard to do without diluting their vision (assuming they have one).

I always find it fascinating when a game comes along that seems like it will let me see tidbits from other people, to learn more about how this sort of thing works. But these games always fall through. After so many games failed, I took a step back and decided to figure out why I didn't see anything I considered a tidbit in them. Why didn't I consider, say, an interesting SecondLife vehicle a tidbit? Why don't I consider a funny-looking creature in Spore a tidbit? But a six-by-six pixel blob with one line of text in a retro adventure game can feel like a tidbit!

I think it's in the framing.

I've been thinking about this. I think that if you slow way, way down, everything becomes tidbits. Because tidbits are interesting in comparison. An interesting NPC is interesting because he's weird-looking and he's got funny dialog. If there's fifty weird-looking, funny-dialog NPCs in this region, there's nothing tidbitty about any one of them. (Although the square full of weird people could be tidbitty in itself!)

I think if Spore gave up its content a hundred times slower, I think people might feel a little of a sense of wonder at the creatures and civilizations they find. At least for the first hundred or so. But because they are common as dirt, none of them are interesting except for the ones that are programmed by the game designers to stand out (the center-of-the-galaxy guys, for example). Everyone else just blends in.

Similarly, in SecondLife, if you take it very slowly and consider each thing you find, then every other thing suddenly takes on life as a tidbit. If you look closely and slowly, everything that has been hand-crafted has some little tingle of tidbittiness.

I don't think that these are ideal tidbits in either case. I'm simply saying that you can have player content result in the same kind of emotional response you can get from developer-scripted content. It just requires a radical reworking of the game's pacing.

And the game doesn't even have to be slow. It just has to reveal different kinds of things at different times. You can be jumping across platforms, shooting at aliens, and all that... when you encounter some new NPC. The NPC will be interesting because NPCs have been made very rare.

There's all sorts of theories I have as to how to punch up the tidbitty nature of things - how to make them more interesting to the player. But I haven't tested any of them yet, so they're just smoke.

However, the speed of reveal has been tested and can easily be tested. Just play a game with large amounts of player content, such as Spore or Secondlife. Then play to restrict yourself. Don't play to win: play to see the world, but only one new object every minute.

It makes the games even more boring than they already are, but you can feel the little twinge that you get from seeing something new and interesting.

Do you know what I'm talking about? Do you have any opinions?


Michel said...

It sounds like you're describing what Roland Barthes refers to in photographs as punctum. It's a fairly complex and specific idea that wikipedia only scratches the surface of: "punctum denoting the wounding, personally touching detail which establishes a direct relationship with the object or person within it."

I highly recommend reading Camera Lucida. You might find some inspiration in Barthes' explanation of the photograph's "tidbit".

"But I can't tell them how their tidbits are going to act" This makes perfect sense because one of Barthes' criteria for punctum is it is completely accidental, and not included with intent. It is "what [you] add to the photograph and what is nonetheless already there."

I'm in the middle of writing up have a huge post on this very subject actually. I'm glad other people are thinking about tidbits and punctum too! I'm not yet sure of its value for game designers (can tidbits be planned or is it up to the player to "bring" them?), but it's an idea I think can help with criticism.

Craig Perko said...

I'll certainly look into Camera Lucida, but if it says that tidbits have to be accidental, then it is either wrong or not talking about the same thing I am. There's nothing "accidental" about the City of Zeal or any of the other examples I'm using.

They can happen by accident - or, rather, they can be caused to happen more or less frequently based on pacing and so forth - but it's clear that much of the time, at least in computer games, they're on purpose.

Adrian Lopez said...

I think there's something about the joy of discovery -- of encountering something new and interesting -- that adds essential flavor or "soul" to a creative work and helps a fantastic environment come alive.

I've gotten this feeling in the past while playing Nifflas' adventure games, and recently while reading an old SF story titled A Martian Odyssey which describes several interesting and highly original creatures.

Craig Perko said...

Yes, that's what I'm getting at, but the question is how best to frame that so that you discover it in a satisfying way.

Christopher Weeks said...

For clarification, do you think different types of players experience different events as tidbits?

Are tidbits always accomplishments? I'd assume so.

My most reliably tidbitty stuff is finding stuff that (I bet/assume) most people don't. And that happens in real life too -- I wonder how much correlation there is.

Craig Perko said...

Ah, you're getting too far from stuff I know, into stuff I only have theories on.

I don't think tidbits are accomplishments, though. They are usually just facets of the world that make you sit up and raise your eyebrows. Sometimes they're accomplishments, but I almost think that's incidental.

Adrian Lopez said...

With respect to how the tidbits are presented to the player, I expect the most important consideration is to distribute the tidbits in such a way that they act as rewards to keep the mind engaged as the player progresses through the game world rather than as something that's expected and therefore taken for granted.

It might be possible to come up with some rules of thumb for tidbit distribution, but it seems to me it's something that is best determined by playing the game.

Craig Perko said...

I'm not sure. I think maybe tidbits are a good way to control pacing, rather than as rewards...

But I don't believe that there's anything terribly mysterious about the best practices on how to use them. I think we haven't discovered them yet.

To say that it's best determined by playing the game is just not going to cut it in the long run, and I think we can do better.

Adrian Lopez said...

Considering what you said in your original post, it strikes me as backwards to say that tidbits control the pacing. Weren't you saying to alter the pacing in order to make tidbits stand out better?

The kinds of "tidbits" I'm thinking of do not set the pace of the game; they are purely aesthetic. In that case, pacing affects the enjoyment of but is not dependent on the tidbits.

I do admit that, ultimately, to say simply "play the game" is a copout, but it's still a good starting point. Some kind of understanding must inform the choices a game designer makes, and such an understanding has to come from somewhere. That somewhere is experience, and that in turn comes from "play the game".

Craig Perko said...

So, by "play the game" you mean "play a lot of other games"?

Tidbits are largely aesthetic, but I think it's a mistake to simply dismiss aesthetics. Aerith's death was simply aesthetics.

I say that tidbits are the pacing and I earlier said to control the pacing to make tidbits exist. But I don't think it's contradictory. I think that the idea of a tidbit and the idea of a pacing "chunk" or "change" are very tightly intertwined. I'm not sure how much of a difference there really is.

Adrian Lopez said...

Come to think of it, people looking at a traffic accident can end up causing a traffic jam, so I really shouldn't be surprised at an aesthetic element being able to affect how quickly the player progresses through the game world. Even so, I tend to think if something is interesting enough for the player to stop and take a long look it's probably also interesting enough for the player to want to interact with it. It is, after all, a game, and games are interactive.

As for "play the game", what I meant was to play or watch people play the very game or prototype you are in the process of designing -- to figure out how particular design choices influence player behavior. I'm sure it's possible to figure out much of this stuff just by playing other people's games with a designer's mindset, but ultimately I'm simply saying: If you, like me, don't know exactly how these tidbits work, then the best way to find out how they work is to experiment with them.

Craig Perko said...

Hmmm, I'm not really sure about where you're coming from. You seem to believe there's a dichotomy between aesthetics and rules, as if they exist separately. But they don't. Or they shouldn't.

The floating city of Zeal in Chronotrigger was an aesthetic tidbit. It obviously wasn't just background noise or a tossed-off matte painting: you were deeply involved with the city for many hours.

Similarly, an interesting NPC isn't interesting just as a background image: the NPC is interesting because of what happens when you interact with him.

Adrian Lopez said...

Take Katamari Damacy, turn the Katamari into a nondescript sphere, the tiny prince into a box, and all the objects you pick up into convex hulls of the various objects in the game. The game will look very different, but mechanically it's still the same game. Of course it's not going to feel like the same game, but the fact remains that aesthetics and mechanics can be uncoupled to a significant degree.

You could legitimately claim that form often suggests function and therefore has a significant effect on the player's interaction with a game's mechanical elements, but that's a different discussion than the one we're having.

I suspect what's happening is that we're thinking of different manifestations of the same thing. I've been thinking of "tidbits" as elements of flavor with no significant effect on gameplay -- stuff you could throw away and have the same gameplay yet end up with a less interesting game, while your own idea of tidbits is broader and may explain in part the disconnect between what each of us is saying.

Craig Perko said...

Well, I agree with your overall statement, but I still don't think you can decouple the mechanics from the aesthetic/narrative without severely damaging them both.

You could theoretically replace the aesthetics of Katamari Damacy with anything you like. Say, rolling up organic proteins. But it would not result in "the same game". Even though the rules would be "the same", the game would be extremely, extremely different.

As a matter of fact, as you might recall, at the end of one of the Damacy games you could play a 2D, oldschool vertical space shooter version of Katamari Damacy. And it felt more like Katamari Damacy than my theoretical "rolling up protein" games.

While rules and aesthetic can theoretically be separated, in practice it's sort of like talking about food. Yes, you can have a glass of apple juice, but it isn't an apple by any measurement and it can't be turned back into an apple. And it definitely can't be turned back into a PEAR.

I hope I'm being clear...