February 25, 2008

Who Is The Player?

Some meandering speculation:

I've written before about the conflict between "role-playing" and "powergaming", and I cast this tension as one between the demands of the game mechanics (do whatever it takes to win most effectively) and the story (do what is appropriate for the fictional context of the game).

A question raised in Andrew Glassner's Interactive Storytelling, however, makes me think that the dilemma about what actions are appropriate in a game is even more complicated than I thought. Even if we just look within role-playing, it's not at all clear what role is supposed to be played. (I should note here that when I use words like "appropriate" and "supposed", I'm not so much talking about a player's duty as a designer's concerns about what works best to achieve her creative vision.)

Glassner examined this purely in the context of storytelling, and presented the problem as one of identity. Should the player try to act as he thinks the character would act, try to act as he would act in the character's situation, or try to act in whatever way maximized fun?

In practice, it seems obvious that players will try to have fun. In a lot of games, this manifests as the games-based equivalent to making a blooper reel; the player sometimes gives nonsensical dialogue, picks the craziest conversation choices, or runs around throwing bottles at people. As long as games offer a safe experimentation space (read: infinite replays), we can expect this to continue, and it's not much of a problem. Still, the designer surely wants to make the "real" story fun as well, and so it deserves to be looked at too.

So in these "serious" story spaces, who is the player? Himself or the character?

Very few games try to impose a developed character upon the player to match up with, and those that do (see Indigo Prophecy) tend to suffer for it. Carefully architected gaming situations are fine with me, but architected main characters are for movies. At least give the character an ambiguous backstory or one that's player-chosen (see Mass Effect).

Most games encourage the player to "create" a character that may or may not match up to his real self (here I'm thinking of KOTOR, in which I and other gamers played once as pure light side and once as pure dark). Even games that allow total freedom permit players to create characters outside of the self. Again, we can expect this to continue as long as games are a free experimentation space.

But this freedom to create an outside character to play seems like a problem to me. Or, if not a bona fide problem, a loss of potential. Interactivity's contribution to art is that it can allow firsthand experiences of choice. In no other medium can you make someone feel guilt or responsibility or the pain of a difficult choice in a fictional context. But eliciting such emotions require that the player identify with his character. Rather than "playing" an imaginary character, the player would have to inhabit the mind of the character.

Is that even possible in a fictional space? Should the goal of some games, then, be to immerse the player utterly?

Or perhaps there's an easier alternative: just make the player care. If they player enjoys the presence of a character, the death of that character is a negative event, even if the player doesn't actually grieve. Maybe by making the goals of the player's character align with the goals of the player we can achieve the same results.

More on this later...

February 21, 2008

DotA Game Mechanical Analysis: Part 2

Part 1

As previously stated, there are three lanes between the two sides' bases. All have an identical three towers and standard creep generation. They are, however, asymmetric. The top and bottom lanes are longer than the middle lane. Either the top or bottom lane (depending on which team) is uniquely far away from an important "secret shop" that is necessary to purchase high-level items; this lane is therefore less convenient. The middle lane can be ambushed from both sides, and is thereby more dangerous than the others.

What if certain lanes had more or fewer creeps or towers, amplifying the asymmetry? What if players received a stat boost in certain lanes based on how long they had spent in that lane?

Let's zoom in to the level of a standard battle involving Heroes and creeps. If a Hero attacks another Hero near creeps, the creeps will all attack the attacking Hero. This serves to dissuade players from targeting enemy Heroes when creeps are nearby, as is usually the case when both characters attack at melee range. When one Hero's attack is ranged and the other's is not, the melee Hero must be very careful to avoid attacks, sometimes disengaging from the battle. When both Heroes have ranged attacks, they can rarely attack each other during a creep battle.

What if players could order nearby creeps to attack nearby enemy Heroes? What if Heroes were strengthened or weakened due to proximity to creeps? What if Heroes gained greater attack range when closer to creeps?

When a Hero kills a creep (i.e. strikes the final blow), it gains gold. Whenever an enemy creep dies near the Hero, the Hero gains experience points. The only exception is when a creep is "denied", i.e. it is killed by a Hero on its own side. By denying nearly-dead creeps, players prevent their opponents from gaining experience.

What if denying actually reduced an opponent's experience? What if it gave the denying Hero a stat boost? What if players could only deny creeps at full health?

When a player kills an enemy Hero, that player gains a large amount of experience and gold, while the killed Hero loses gold. This produces a strong positive feedback loop; early kills tend to make later kills easier.

What if we turned this into negative feedback through, for example, giving an experience bonus to the killed player, giving a passive stat penalty to high-scoring players, or giving a temporary stackable stat penalty to all nearby Heroes allied with the killing player (thereby ensuring that most multi-Hero showdowns would end with a similar number of casualties)?

There's more to say, but I'll stop here for now.

February 16, 2008

DotA Game-Mechanical Analysis: Part 1

As previously promised, I'm going to attempt to do a simple analysis of the game mechanics of DotA (Defense of the Ancients, a mod for Warcraft 3). The goal is to get a general sense of the forces at work in a typical game. By modifying just a few rules, we might be able to come up with very interesting modifications to the game. I'll note some of the intriguing possibilities along the way.

In most games, there are five unique Heroes on each side. Each Hero is defined by the primary statistics of Strength, Agility, and Intelligence. These in turn define the lower-level secondary statistics: maximum health, health regeneration rate, maximum mana, mana regeneration rate, armor (damage resistance), attack speed, and damage. A Hero's attack range, movement speed, and main statistic (i.e. the primary statistic that determines damage) are usually static and predetermined for each Hero.

What if players could allocated primary statistics at will upon leveling up? What if players had direct control over secondary statistics?

Heroes also have a certain amount of gold. An initial deposit of gold is given at the start of the game, and a small amount is generated as time passes, but the majority of a Hero's gold comes as a reward for killing enemies. Gold can be used to buy items, of which a Hero may hold up to six at any time. Items can be combined with each other to form better items. Any item can boost primary or secondary stats by a specific amount. Some items confer new active or passive abilities upon the Hero.

Each Hero has four natural abilities that can be learned as it levels up. These include three lower-level abilities and one "ult" ability. Abilities vary immensely in function; much of DotA's variety comes from the different abilities at play. In most cases, an ability costs a certain amount of mana and, in return, either confers a stat bonus on the player or inflicts a stat penalty on the enemy. Some abilities apply passive bonuses, some of which are activated randomly according to a specific probability.

Already we can see how changing small rules produces very different gameplay; DotA excels in this sort of experimentation. What if an ability affected a usually static statistic such as attack range (Dwarven Sniper)? What if an ability used up health instead of mana (Sacred Warrior)? What if one Hero's damage potential was based on the difference between the stats of that Hero and its target (Obsidian Destroyer)?

In order to destroy the enemy Ancient (and thereby win the game), a team must destroy all of the towers that defend any one of the three "lanes" leading to the base. The lanes are asymmetric, with the middle lane being both shorter and less safe. Also, in a full game with five players on each side, one lane for each side will be covered by a single Hero, which is more dangerous but also allows the Hero to grow powerful more quickly.

Each lane is protected by three towers, which increase slightly in strength as they appear closer to the base. Towers heal extremely slowly, so damage to them is mostly permanent. They also do a significantly large amount of damage, and are capable of destroying lower-level Heroes in one-on-one combat.

What if towers grew in strength as they killed creeps, or as the Heroes around them grew. What if a tower could be strengthened through a combined purchase by its allied team?

Periodically, a group of "creeps" (weak monsters allied with one side) are spawned and try to run down their lane, destroying everything in their path. They are usually met by the opposing creeps. One side will win this battle; the winning side, by virtue of its comparatively higher numbers, almost inevitably wins the following confrontation. This produces "creep momentum", in which a group of creeps can grow larger and larger as it moves down the lane. Creep momentum is usually stopped by a tower, but not before the tower sustains damage.

As time passes and more towers are destroyed, the number of creeps spawned each time increases. Occasionally, a "siege engine" is included with the creeps, which is especially effective against towers and other siege engines. This amplifies creep momentum.

What if creeps were made stronger when closer to their own base, thereby destroying creep momentum? What if we did the opposite, making creep momentum a major force in the game? Or what if creeps grew stronger as they dealt more damage?

More to come...

February 11, 2008

Game-Mechanical Analyses

I just finished reading Andrew Glassner's Interactive Storytelling (good book, more on it later), and he spends a significant portion of it classifying different elements of game mechanics. For instance, he lists all the different types of competition/cooperation dynamics, categorizes the amount of randomness that a game contains, and classifies the different abstract types of goals that a player can be given. I also know that Raph Koster is currently working on a book about "game grammar", in which he attempts to craft a set of language for describing what happens in games.

These sorts of attempts to formally describe games intrigue me. Games are systems, and mastering a game is about understanding these complex systems at deeper and deeper levels (and with some games, it's possible to completely solve the system). I wonder, then, if it's possible to completely describe the system that underlies a game. Extending Game Theory to actual video games, in a sense.

Some games, such as turn-based games or games with a defined, limited set of choices, seem to lend themselves to this sort of game-mechanical analysis. Consider Civilization 2. The game makes its statistics and formulas mostly transparent. For instance, terrain is semirandomly distributed at the start of the game. Different types of terrain produce different amounts of food. You can increase the amount of food produced through irrigation. Irrigation takes 5 consecutive turns by a Settler. Before that, the Settler must move to that location, which takes a certain number of turns. Before that, a settler must be built, which takes a certain number of Shields (units of production). Shields are gathered from a city's surrounding terrain.... It goes on. Each of these steps could be diagrammed and the system as a whole could be analyzed.

If we can understand how these systems function, perhaps we can understand what makes them so engaging. We can prevent games from becoming too chaotic, or too predictable, or too complex. Koster hopes that with game grammar, designers can find and excise the un-fun from their games.

I'd hope for even more. Glassner ends his book with a list of "experiments" to try out. It's essentially a series of "what-if" suggestions. He restricts the scope to stories within games, but what if we took a similar mindset and applied it to mechanics? We can take a system, fiddle with it a little bit, and produce an entirely novel experience.

Let's use DotA as an example. What if players' mana constantly drained rather than constantly recharged? We're really just "flipping a bit" in the system, but it would produce fantastic changes in the gameplay. With more tweaking, we can make it something truly fun. So mana drains, but let's make spells become more powerful as more time is spent in between charging sessions. But let's also let players transfer mana between each other, free of charge. Now there's an incentive to have one player wait for as long as possible while others bring him mana. Suddenly, we've added an entirely new game mechanic, as well as a new social angle to the game. I'd play that!

Expect a more complete game-mechanical analysis of DotA later this week.

February 7, 2008

All Games Are Puzzles

A while back I read Greg Costikyan's excellent essay "I Have No Words & I Must Design", which starts out by defining exactly what a game is not. For instance, a game is not a puzzle. Puzzles are static, while games change with the player's actions.
I was later contemplating a player's relationship with a game's rules, and I was struck by the thought that, when both the rules and the actions of an opponent are determined/deterministic, a game is essentially static. Consider a computerized game of Tic-Tac-Toe with a simple AI. Once you figure out what the AI will do, and once you've mastered the rules, winning becomes a routine matter. You've "solved" the game, and it's only a puzzle that's trivial to complete. Extrapolating from this, other games present the same situation with more complex AIs rules. All games, therefore, are puzzles!

I thought I had come upon something profound, but now that I've more thoroughly examined my theory, I have to qualify it. And by "qualify it", I pretty much mean that I was wrong.

Costikyan introduces the first objection by observing that a game like Zork, which allows the player to travel freely through its world but otherwise consists entirely of puzzle-solving, is "90% puzzle and 10% game". The mere fact that you can proceed in an undefined path suggests that there's some adaptation to the player's actions. Still, this isn't entirely convincing; one might liken it to the ability of a player to walk away from a jigsaw puzzle for a while, or even to concentrate on a different piece of it. Just because I can control the presentation of a puzzle doesn't make it any less puzzle-like.

A more intuitive and damning objection to my generality is that the random elements that are sometimes present in games destroy the stasis that is the hallmark of puzzles. In less pretentious terms, puzzles can't be random, while games can. There are a couple of rebuttals to this, aside from a sticky argument involving physical determinism. With each random step in a game, the player is presented with a new situation that uses preset rules. To me, that just sounds like you're dividing the game into further puzzles. The game can still be "solved", but rather than taking a single step to the solution, the player must navigate a new puzzle after each random event. It's possible to have randomized games in which the player is incapable of winning (which would prevent "solving" the game), but as previously discussed, that just makes your game suck all the more.

What randomness is really trying to do, by introducing all of the game's sub-puzzles, is to increase complexity. If you know the rules by which the game operates (including the choices of opponents), then a game has been "solved". If we increase the complexity of the rules enough, then a game becomes impossible for a human mind to solve. Without the possibility of solving the game, players are forced to create their own heuristics and constantly estimate probability; in short, players are forced to make interesting choices. And that's when the fun comes in!

Tic-Tac-Toe isn't fun because it's too easy to solve; generally both players have solved it, too, so you know both your correct move and what your opponent will do. Checkers is a game that is just barely simple enough for AI to solve; human Checkers masters generally are too good to produce surprising games, but novices who haven't yet mastered the game can still have fun. Chess is complex enough that nobody has solved it, and it produces an engaging experience for players of all skill levels.

One simple way to increase the complexity of a game, aside from adding extremely complicated rules, is to support multiplayer. Humans are tough to predict, and so interesting choices abound. AI, in attempting to mimic the complexity of humans, has to resort to randomized elements and/or monstrously complicated algorithms that no human mind could discern. Dice Wars is an example of a game in which the AI is just barely simple enough to solve; the fun and frustration in the game come primarily from managing the various randomized situations that can arise.

So the takeaway for designers is this: don't let your game turn into a puzzle. Whether through multiplayer, randomness, or innate complexity, don't let the gameplay become so simple that it can be solved. The "correct response" should not be obvious at any level of gameplay. To ignore this is to risk losing all interesting choices in the game, which is, in turn, to risk losing all of a game's fun.

February 4, 2008

The Dimensions of a Flash Game

Flash games and I have an uneasy relationship. I like them, but I don't like that I like them. All too often, I'm sucked in by a game that I know doesn't have any innovative gameplay (casual games' supposed asset), and I'm ashamed.

A while ago I started to examine what it is that allows these games to so easily demolish my productivity. I concluded that their main advantage is the amorphous quality that has been labeled "color" by more enlightened individuals. To imagine a game without color, replace all sounds with beeps and all graphics with colored squares.

"Cursor*10" has fantastic gameplay and no color. So does "Pong".

"Winterbells" has fantastic color and poor gameplay. It's instant happiness.

But one game seems to lack both color and gameplay. I'm talking about the juvinile favorite "Kitten Cannon", whose repetitious gore provided my high school with endless fun when the teacher wasn't around.

In explaining the appeal of "Kitten Cannon", I had to turn to another facet of the game: story. That doesn't precisely mean narrative, since this game's is actually rather boring. Story represents the context and representation of events in the game. In a spy thriller, the context ("I'm a super-cool spy!") is a lot more important than the actual narrative. In this case, the context is that you're shooting a kitten out of a cannon, and the appeal lies entirely in the irreverence.

"Kitten Cannon" is our poster child for story. "Pong" does, too, as a representation of table tennis, but it's rather weak.

"Red" combines color and gameplay but no story.

So, what game has it all? I might nominate "flOw". Your suggestions?

February 1, 2008

My Game Doesn't Suck, You're Just Playing It Wrong

A game comes out after weeks of hype and excited previews. It promises a deeper story, more advanced AI, and greater immersion than ever before. The game is released, and flops. It has its few passionate defenders, but the general consensus is that the game simply, to borrow a colorful phrase, blows chunks out of a monkey's ass. The embittered lead designer lashes out in an interview, "It didn't suck. People were just playing it wrong."

I'm pretty sure that this hypothetical designer would be laughed at. A game designer's job is to make a good game, and if people don't like it, it's hardly fair to blame the audience. And this principle applies to designers of any kind: if I can't figure out how an interface works, axiom states that it's the designer's fault. The player of a game can't be at fault, right?

I'm not so sure. If some people go to a theater and talk throughout the movie, is it really the filmmaker's fault if they don't enjoy themselves? I think that this analogy is (terrifyingly) valid, and it's of major concern for game developers who are looking to do anything different.

Imagine a first-person RPG. The game has extensive and intuitive interfaces for conversation and for interacting with objects in the game world. The player is presented with a series of dramatically significant obstacles to overcome, each of which can be solved in a variety of ways, consistently including conversational means. The game is a spy thriller, and so the player always has a silenced gun hidden on him, designed to be a last resort.

The hypothetical game developers start hypothetical game tests. The testers see a first-person game and a gun in their character's hands. They talk to their first opponent, a clever enemy who is sublty working against the player. After a brief conversation, they shoot the enemy in the head. Guards rush in to stop the player, and the player kills them all.

The designer is infuriated; the player didn't even try to figure out all the wonderful and clever ways to win! Clearly, the game needs to discourage this sort of behavior.

They run another test. This time, the player shoots his enemy and vastly stronger guards rush him and kill him. He reloads, hides behind cover, shoots his enemy, and kills all of the guards. He proceeds to use this strategy on all further levels.

The designer is frustrated. This just won't do. So he limits the player's ammunition and the availability of alternative weapons to the point that it's impossible to use violence to accomplish all the goals.

Yet another test. The player shoots until he runs out of ammo, and dies. He reloads, collects all the ammo and bonuses that he can, and goes on another shooting spree. All of his preparation wasn't enough, though, and he fails again. The player then pronounces that the game sucks. In fact, he was just playing it wrong.

Obviously, this wouldn't happen with all game testers, but it would certainly happen with many hardcore FPS gamers. I've seen this sort of thing happen. I discovered that a friend of a friend had never played Half-Life 2, so I insisted that he play the opening level. It was, I told him, one of the best expository scenes in the history of gaming. He loaded up the level, ran past all the people who were talking, and spent his time throwing bottles at passerby and laughing like a hyena over my weak protests. It still hurts to remember.

There are surely ways that designers can show players how to "properly" play a game, but we players have a responsibility as well. We need to be receptive to entirely new styles of gameplay. We can't just interpret new games based on previous genres.

If we can't bring ourselves to play games with an open mind, the hypothetical game above would probably be transformed into yet another "badass shooter".

Like Bioshock.

Just saying...