Wednesday, November 17, 2010

Social Games and Such

It's getting popular to talk about social games again!

Of course, as should be clear, we're not talking about social games. We're talking about social NETWORK games. Games which leverage your existing social networks, usually through existing software. Usually through Facebook, to be precise.

I admit that I like the idea of social network games. But I don't much care for what people are actually talking about. When you actually look at a social game social network game design by one of these people, it's either completely pie-in-the-sky impossible or a standard game. It's sad when an ancient game like Parking Wars actually leverages your social network better than any modern design.

Another thing I don't like about social network games is Facebook. I'd like to pretend I can be neutral, but being Facebook-centered makes me angry. I hate Facebook too much to give a Facebook-centric game the clear look it may deserve. So, I'm biased.

I'd like to talk about what a social network game might be. I'd also like to talk about how we might make a cool social network game, but I won't have the space in this post.

A social game - no network - commonly refers to social play, such as children playing house or tag together. I think this is a fine place to start. If we want to make a social computer game (no network), we can think in those terms.

A social computer game has a fairly major flaw in that the social bandwidth is pretty restricted. Even with voice chat, you're missing out on about 90% of the depth you get from face-to-face interactions. Much of the struggle for realism seems to be the pursuit of that 90%, making the characters seem more like people standing near you and interacting socially. Of course, the characters aren't people, so they have bigger problems than low social bandwidth.

Anyhow, once we acknowledge our limited bandwidth, we can try to leverage our advantages.

One major advantage we have is virtual worlds. Using virtual worlds, we can allow players to express themselves and have shared experiences. While not as tangible and highly social as playing tag or house, they are more rigorously shared and have easier-to-see fantastical elements. IE, the world can be anything we want it to be, and the other players will all be in the same world.

Correctly constructed, the world can create shared emotional experiences. Right now, these are largely limited to big experiences, such as when someone builds a lava fountain and fires magma two hundred feet into the sky. That's an impressive shared experience, but it's not exactly a subtle one and it's somewhat limited in terms of emotional range. It's more difficult to share something like a personal story, because such things tend to develop at a particular player's speed and in his screen. From other points of view, it is very hard to see what's happening or it feels distressingly like it's on rails.

There may be many solutions for that, and one obvious solution is asynchronicity. Two players can go through the same world, but sharded such that they do not directly influence each other: each one gets their own version of that world. You don't need to completely block communication. This is a social game, and allowing the players to chat with each other can be extremely valuable, as long as it doesn't break their immersion. Which it shouldn't, if the other player is in the same world, even if it is a different version of the same world.

Actually, this is a good time to talk about "legendizing", which is a word I made up that has nothing to do with marking up a map.

A legend is a story that gets told and re-told. It's not always precisely the same. In fact, it can vary quite wildly. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about the wicked step sisters cutting off their toes to try and fit into the fur glass slipper: legends are adapted to suit whatever audience they fit.

A modern legend would be Superman, or any other old superhero. Their stories have become hopelessly complex. The idea of a "canon" storyline is the major problem. Superheroes don't have a canon storyline, they are legends. They star in whatever stories suit them and their audience. For example, we've pretty much forgotten about how much of a total dick Superman was in the beginning, coming from a culture where such actions were not really considered unusually dickish. Actually, a modern-style Superman would probably come off as a real pansy to the early 20-th century culture that spawned him.

To me, the key to making a real social game is "legendizing" our content. World 3-B always has a zombie horde and a scared child and maybe even a specific protagonist. However, each player is welcome to unfold the story as they see fit, either through play or through fiat. Sharing it with other players is a key: once the story is told, others can see it and interact with it. Over time, certain "grooves" are worn in the world, where specific storylines are the most popular and fun. This isn't one story that someone told, or one playthrough: it's fragments of dozens of people and dozens of runs, the best from each, assembled by thinking players.

Because this is a computer game rather than a freeform story, there are limits to how creative you can be. But that makes sense: if you're telling a story about Loki and a tank shows up to shoot Odin, that makes no sense and will probably be judged pretty stupid. The limited capabilities of the world are not necessarily a disadvantage, especially if you allow players to build new worlds and the seeds of new legends.

A major advantage of this structured world is that players can be at any point in the story they like. Their friends can also be whenever they like. In fact, they can be where they are and where you are, criss-crossing the story, looking from any angles they please, exploring and creating variants.

And they can be talking. "Did you ever try going through the fireplace? Try it!" "Hey, this princess is kind of a jerk..." "I beat that dragon with a fork!" "I made a version where the princess is a prince, try it..."

We can also modulate this sharing to keep our immersion and pacing strong. If our environment would suffer from another player distracting you, we might actually reduce the bandwidth even more. Perhaps to simple ghostly lights hovering near things other people have found interesting. Even then, the "social" is there, it's just included gently so it doesn't distract.

Exploring the world together, that's social. Revisiting an old story with the advice of a friend. Seeing tags left by your friends (perhaps only on repeat playthroughs), adding new content to existing worlds.

I'm talking about "stories", but that's also needlessly restrictive. Simply building and exploring a world together is enough. It's just less easy to talk about.

So, a social computer game has the problem that the social bandwidth is very low. However, it has the advantages of virtual worlds which can be viewed from any direction and explored together, manipulated together, either at the same time or asynchronously. This does require that the virtual worlds be legendary worlds.


I was going to talk about social network games next. But I think I've already gone on too long.

What do you think?

Sunday, November 07, 2010

Why I Don't Buy

I normally don't do completely me-centric posts, but I'm going to talk about my purchasing habits.

I spend a lot of money on games: I buy at least two a month, normally much more. Not all of them are full-price. For example, the 40 games I own on never cost more than $15 each. However, I'm fine buying full-price games: I recently bought Fable III and the most recent Street Fighter for both 360 and PS3.

Right now, I buy literally every western RPG I find, indie or published, and quite a few of the Japanese ones. However, I'm going to change my policy: I'm going to stop buying RPGs or tactical games that came out on a console. I won't even be buying them for the computer. It's just gotten too painfully terrible.

There are many reasons, and they've finally combined in enough force to completely kill my interest.

First: "authentication". The plague of computer games, I buy many games that have minimal authentication - perhaps they require you to enter a code or something. However, I have found that all games that are released for both the PC and a console invariably have excessive authentication in the PC version. It's an old argument, but I'd like to point out that I don't even bother stealing these games: there are plenty of games with less excessive authentication, I just play them.

Second: "distractions". For some reason, RPGs for the console have started to get excessively metagamey. This includes continuous, repetitive, and invasive fourth wall breaking of every sort. The three most common types are A) begging you to spend real money for DLC. B) Constant and obnoxious accomplishment flogging. Just giving you an accomplishment for everything is stupid enough, but it's particularly bad when they pop up messages telling you that you're a bit closer to getting a pointless accomplishment.

C) is the most distressing: ruining the game by introducing elements from your console account. For example, in Fable III, the hero promises to make things right for the villagers. Up pops a contract-like thing. It says, "I, craigp, promise to" and shows my damn account icon. WRONG. The hero promises, not the login account. This is a ROLE PLAYING game, not WiiFit. Ugh.

Authentication and distraction are just the two most minor problems.

The "social invasion" is a plague for role playing games. Whenever you play a console RPG these days, it continually reminds you how well your friends are doing (automatically picked from the list), sends your stats to them, and lets you send gifts around.

Having a multiplayer mode is one thing. But continually reminding you that the RPG world you're adventuring in is just a shallow game? What kind of idiot decided that all games, even immersive RPGs, should have Facebook-style networking?

This social invasion actually has other characteristics: the games tend to act as much like a Facebook game (or set of games) as possible. To mention Fable III again, you are not a hero or a revolutionary. You are a landlord. The main gameplay is not the combat, but the retarded color minigames. All of this play inherits largely from casual games.

Again, casual games are fine. But I want to play an RPG. As far as I can tell, there are literally no Western RPGs released for the console in the past few years that aren't primarily collections of minigames.

This walks hand-in-hand with a general dumbing-down of gameplay. You can actually watch each western RPG chain get dumber and dumber. Mass Effect 2's gameplay was maybe half as complex as Mass Effect 1's, which was pretty simple already. These RPGs are sacrificing complexity in favor of simplicity, and often in favor of the worst parts of MMORPG play.

The last major problem I have with console RPGs is the lack of user generated content. If an RPG is released for a console, then even the computer version won't have much customizability. Gone are the days when you could make your own missions, add your own art. Even in games which are about customization, such as the Sims III, the scope is dramatically reduced compared to what is technically possible. These limitations are imposed.

These factors have finally become too much to deal with. Buying console RPGs is just guaranteeing a failure. I'll probably try to buy more Japanese console RPGs, but they have some other flaws (such as 5,901,503,053,915,913,051,390 hours required to beat them).

Right now, I think that RPG video games in general are in a trough: there aren't very many good ones being released. There are lots of pretty ones being released, but they're so crappy.

So I'm focusing mostly on indie games these days.

How about you?

Tuesday, November 02, 2010


I've been randomly puttering around with tabletop RPG ideas (as usual), and I've run into an interesting problem.

When you're making computer games, the game can be pretty much about anything. Many famous games don't focus on any kind of human life. Even games like Sim City (which is theoretically about humans) don't actually have any humans shown up close and personal. These games work fine: a game can be about a machine, a yellow dot, space ship fleets, microbes... they may or may not have a human element to them.

However, I've yet to see a tabletop RPG that was fun to play and not focused on the human element.

I'm trying to write this short, so forgive me for skipping a bit. Basically, tabletop RPGs and LARPs are "low structure" games. Computer games and board games have a very rigid structure, and the player is only allowed to express themselves within that structure. Move to A or B, buy A or B, roll for A or B.

Low-structure games may have very intricate rules, but there are large amounts of "free time" between them. Times when the rules are very relaxed, and the players are left to express themselves in any sort of reasonable way. This is the "role play" part of the game.

Most players are human, and so most players will naturally think of their avatar in human terms. Their avatar expresses themselves in human terms, has human goals, develops human relationships. Even non-human avatars still act like humans, just some particular personality type.

The rules generally tie very strongly to this avatar and the personality it bears. Most RPGs are about fighting because that's the most direct route to being directly about the avatar. If you do badly in a fight, your avatar directly suffers. If you do well, your avatar directly benefits. It's a very tight symbiosis with the player's emotional investment in their avatar, especially since you can express your noncombat personality very clearly through your combat actions.

This also explains why "once removed" RPGs are so rare. It's very rare for an RPG's main mechanic to be starship combat, for example. Even if each avatar has a clear role to play (and dice to roll), there's no tight connection between them and the space combat. Oh, there's a connection, but it's loose. This is why most RPGs with space ships focus almost entirely on personal combat instead of vehicular combat, using the latter only for major plot points and breathers.

Similarly, hacking RPGs are rare, because there is a similarly loose connection. What is arguably the most successful hacking system is the Shadowrun system. You'll notice that it includes direct feedback: if you do badly, your avatar can take physical damage. Also, the environment of the hack is strong VR, usually featuring humanoid avatars (or, at least, things-with-human-elements). Even with this, Shadowrun games rarely have much hacking in them.

So I've been thinking about how to create games which give the human players their self-expression and knot avatars tightly with the primary play rules, but aren't actually about humans/metahumans/near-humans.

Depending on your school of game design, you may end up throwing off some ideas right away and considering it solved, but I find those ideas are generally surface solutions that don't end up being very fun.

The issue for me is that I love elegant rule sets. But the challenge here is the opposite: I need elegant lack of rule sets. I need the part of the game where the players are freestyling to be great. I need it to guide the players into expressing themselves without limiting their expression... but I also need it to remind the players that they are not necessarily human.

It's a tough problem. I tend to fall back on my Bastard Jedi scaffold, but I don't think that's elegant enough. What are your ideas?