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.

1 comment:

Alexei said...

I think in some sense, you can measure how "good" the game is via measuring the amount of AI power needed to play it well. Really interesting games involve some kind of life aspect, and to play them you need almost true AI.