Friday, May 29, 2009

Game Origins

This originally appeared on GameCareerGuide, 9 Dec 08. For the diagram refer to the original (click on the title of this post).

Even in literature and art, no man who bothers about originality will ever be original: whereas if you simply try to tell the truth (without caring twopence how often it has been told before) you will, nine times out of ten, become original without ever having noticed it. —C. S. Lewis

Game-related ideas come from many sources and can be in many shapes and forms. At some point, ideas coalesce into something that can become a game. Usually there is some immediate stimulus, some spark, involved.

I want to discuss the kinds of sparks that are common to new games, that is, where and how do games originate?

Ideas for new games usually come from one or a combination of several aspects of games. These are:

theme (story, title, image)


a particular game, a game system, or a genre

components (mostly, non-electronic games)


The occult-looking lines in the diagram are meant to indicate that a game may have more than one kind of origin.

Let’s describe each in turn. In most cases, only the designer will know the origin of a game, so our examples will be limited.

Theme: Story, Title, Image

The theme is some set of circumstances, usually a story, that can affect the game’s mechanics, appearance, and gameplay. It may be as simple as a title or an image, in the imagination or in a tangible form, of some event or activity.

Most Star Wars games have a theme deriving from the original Star Wars films (1977-1983), Civilization has a theme of the rise and development of civilization. Age of Empires is a more consistently military approach to the same idea. Britannia is a board game where the theme is a thousand years of British history (after all, “story” is integral to “history”).

In general, any history, real or imagined, as the Star Wars history is imagined, is a theme. There are many board games based on (that is, borrowing the theme of) video games, and vice versa. For example, Civilization the computer game, though not directly derived from Civilization the board game, is certainly related to it, while Starcraft: the Boardgame is clearly derived from the computer game.

Sometimes the story is very simple, as in the board game Dragon Rage: attacks by monsters, sometimes dragons, on a city. The title alone helps characterize the game. At least one game’s theme comes from a story that was written to support a set of commercial miniature figures (Valley of the Four Winds).

Many European-style board games have tacked-on themes that don’t affect gameplay or mechanics at all, though they affect the appearance of the game. Despite the name, the gameplay in the board game Ming Dynasty has exactly nothing to do with China, though the artwork is vaguely Chinese. Some stories are merely excuses to blow things up, as in many shooters. In these cases the game probably originated somewhere other than through the theme.

Many AAA video games aim at “dream-fulfillment”, a subcategory of theme/story that some might list as a separate kind of origin. What kind of hero, or “star”, or expert, or even god, do you want the player to “become” through your game?


The non-electronic version of Dungeons and Dragons can be seen as a game originating in mechanics. There were many fantasy games, but the role-playing mechanic, which more or less began the role-playing game genre, is the defining characteristic of the game.

Dance Dance Revolution and Guitar Hero can be thought of as games that likely originated in mechanics. In a postmortem of the latter game published in Game Developer magazine (February 2006), two of the developers from Harmonix, Greg LoPiccolo and Daniel Sussman, said Guitar Hero was really designed around letting the player feel like a rock star, rather than a game designed around a new controller. The peripheral device came about as a result of giving this rock star feel to the player.

In both Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution, we have an unusual mechanic, the flow of directions that the players follow to make certain physical moves.

A Particular Game, a Game System, or Genre

A “system” is a case where a set of mechanics has become so well-known that games are made using most or all of the set. Many historical board games begin with a system, such as “block games” (Hammer of the Scots), “card-driven games” (We the People), Risk-like games (Risk Godstorm), Britannia-like games (Italia, China: The Middle Kingdom), and “committed intent” games. Video games, apart from obvious sequels, very often adapt a system, and video game genres themselves tend to involve challenges to players that are common to most games of the genre.

Many video games originate with a genre. “We want to make a real-time strategy game,” or “let’s make a shooter.” There are genres in non-electronic gaming, but they tend to be broader (RPGs, collectible card games, war games). The genres in video games are quite specific, tending sometimes to straightjacket the designers’ efforts.

Often the genre goes hand-in-hand with a theme or system. Battle for Middle Earth is a Lord of the Rings themed RTS. LOTR Trilogy Risk is a “Lord of the Rings” themed Risk-like game.

In the end, many games derive directly from specific other games. In the video game world, the “safe” way to go is to design a game that is much like an existing successful game, but just enough different to be unique and to be perceived as an improvement. While derivation from another game is probably the most common method of origin, it is also probably the least successful, because too many resulting games suffer badly from being “too derivative.”

Components (primarily non-electronic games)

On the non-electronic side, components can be at the origin of a game. In my own experience, Law & Chaos originated because I wanted to make a game using the “jewel-like” glass beads that have become popular for plant displays, and another game originated in a desire to use stackable plastic pieces from an educational supply house.

A component could be a special controller, such as one allowing the video game player to “drive a car” in a natural way. It’s possible that Dance Dance Revolution was derived from components. I don’t know whether the mechanic or the component came first -- or maybe they came together.


I’m going to discuss constraints at some length, as this is where the greatest variety and the greatest limitations can come from.

Are you a person who works better when faced with a deadline? I believe that many people do better work when faced with constraints, whether deadlines or something else. This is particularly true in art, but likely true in most walks of life.

In effect, everything a designer does is considered working within constraints. The answer to the question “Who is the audience” provides constraints. If your audience is preschool children, you can’t design a game that requires a lot of math (or reading). If you know your game will be a first-person shooter, your design choices have been heavily circumscribed.

When you playtest your game, the constraints are more specific. “Is this enjoyable” for my target audience? Is that too complex, or too simple? Does this element contribute to gameplay, or shall we “lose it?” Instead of that, what I’m talking about in this “origin” are additional constraints on the kind of game you want to make, imposed as part of the process of conception. I think that a good choice of constraints -- choosing more limited goals than “let’s make a shooter” -- will lead to a better game.

Let me generalize. In many fields of art, periods of fairly clear “rules” for how to create art (for example, the sonata form in music or the three-movement form of a concerto) are followed by periods when there are no rules, until new rules are established. The greatest art comes from the periods when there are established rules. My example is primarily from music.

In the Rococo period following the Baroque, Johann Sebastian Bach’s sons and others made good music, but not the great music we saw before and in the succeeding Classical era as defined by Hayden and Mozart. In the current era of “modern art” (painting) there are no rules. Not everyone thinks modern art is rubbish, but I think it won’t get much respect in the future.

Yes, great artists often break some of the rules -- Beethoven comes to mind -- yet even they follow most of the “rules.” When all the rules are swept aside, people grasp for new sets of rules (Schoenberg’s 12-tone music?), but for a time the chaos results in little that is later recognized as great art.

Consequently, a designer usually benefits from additional limitations, whether imposed by a publisher or studio (“no foul language”), or by himself (“I want a one-hour trading game”). Even though a self-imposed limitation may ultimately be abandoned in the interests of making the game better, initially it focuses the designer’s efforts and is likely to provide better results. There are always self-imposed limits, because you have your own preferences. And if you work for a game studio or publisher, you might find that you have to jettison some preferences: If they say “make such-and-such a game,” you’ll do it or you’ll be out of a job.

In other words, self-imposed constraints are “rules” you use to try to help yourself create a better result, just as the “rules” for the various arts tend to yield better results.

In any case, be sure your idea origin isn’t simply based on the game being “just like I’d like to play.” You are not the audience. You are very unusual or you wouldn’t be designing games. And the game you’d like to play has likely already been designed. My favorite game for 20 years was Dungeons & Dragons, but I have never tried to design a role-playing game. I like D&D -- why would I want to design something just like it?

It’s too much time and effort to design a game just so you can play it. Game designers should design games that other people will enjoy playing. Most of the time, you’ll like to play them, too.

Let me quote Sid Meier (Civilization, Pirates) from Gameinformer 182, June 2008:

“[T]here's a danger with some of the newer designers, a tendency to design the game you like to play. That game has already been designed -- we need new games. There's a loss of a little bit of that ‘sky's the limit, anything's possible’ approach we had in the early days. We have these genres -- we have first-person shooters, we have real-time strategy. If you've played games all your life you've gotten these certain styles really beaten into you. To get people to think out of the box is a little harder these days.”

On the other hand, do not design a game you dislike to play yourself, at least not until you are very experienced. If you dislike it, why would you expect anyone else to like it? As you get more experience and understand players better, you may be able to design a game that appeals to a certain segment, even though it doesn’t appeal to you. At some point this may be worth doing, to get you “out of a rut,” to “think outside the box,” but it’s not something to be done lightly.

In any case, write down whatever you come up with. This is not naturally what younger people do, but you’ll forget many details if you don’t. The famous writer and director Stanley Kubrick (Dr. Strangelove, 2001, Eyes Wide Shut) is said to have distrusted anyone who didn't write things down. Where games are concerned, I feel the same way.

Monday, May 18, 2009

The "heart" of different media

The heart of a novel is characterization, though there's more to it than that (such as plot, dramatic tension, etc.). The heart of a game is gameplay, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.) (And I might add here, the heart of an interactive puzzle (one-player video game) is challenge, though there's more to it than that. A considerable part of gameplay is challenge, but the challenges tend to come from other players, whereas in the interactive puzzle the challenge comes from the computer (and ultimately, from the designer).

Trying to use a game primarily to tell a story is like trying to use Excel as a word processor. You can do it, but it's awkward.

Just as, if I want to learn history, I read a good book rather than play a game, if I want a good story, I read a good novel (or watch a movie) rather than play a game. Playing a game is for gameplay, not story, not history.

But I know there are people who won't read a history book (though they'll watch History Channel). There are those who won't read a novel (though they'll watch a movie). And there are those who will play a game, but not for gameplay, for story.

Camping, realism, failures of game design

I'm always amused when my game design students complain that someone is "camping" in a shooter game. (They play at the game club, not during class!) They're trying to enforce some kind of standard of "honorable" behavior through peer-pressure, it seems. Yet I always tell them, if the game allows a player to do something that is a good strategy, some players are going to do it--I would. (In the same sense, "turtling" in a boardgame might be frowned upon, but if it's the best strategy for a player, some are going to do it.)

In other words, if the game fails to make camping (or turtling) an impractical strategy, yet the result is undesirable, there's a defect in the design.

The bigger problem, in shooters, is that camping is a reminder of the real world. In the real world people don't run around like crazy hoping to get two kills before they get killed! They camp and let the other guy get killed. In other words, camping is a reminder of the real world, a breakdown of the suspension of disbelief or or what academics call the "magic circle". It reminds players how utterly ridiculous and unrealistic shooters are--because there's no fear or death.

Shooter designers try to stamp out camping by showing someone who has just died who killed him, where they are, and what they've been doing. I'd think this is even more a breakdown of the magic circle, but since it helps players reinforce by celebration that they "pwned" the just-killed character, people don't seem to mind.

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Games are made up of "building blocks"

In a sense a game is a set of building blocks (or tinkertoys or whatever) put together in various ways. Some blocks are standardized (at least, from your personal point of view, stuff you've used before). But every once in a while you come up with a new block, different color, shape, connectivity, etc., or you find a new way to connect blocks.

So an experienced designer may be putting together known blocks in different ways, and maybe (or maybe not) adding something completely new.

Think of all the things that can be made with standard blocks. Lego? Click the article title for a photo of the Space Battleship Yamato, from the anime, made out of legos...

This idea of building blocks is a common one, and some people like to try to categorize the blocks used by a particular designer.

I see games as using both building blocks and systems. I do have several systems I use (Britannia is the obvious one), and there are building blocks I use often (such as Action Cards for "committed intent", either one card at a time or 4-6 at once per round). If it works, why not use it again? There's almost nothing completely original in games, but the combinations, the execution, create the unusual game.

Friday, May 15, 2009

The Impact of Reviews on Game Development

(This was originally posted as an "Expert Blog" on Gamasutra.)

At the Triangle Game Conference April 29, Julianne Greer, editor of Escapist magazine, moderated a panel discussion titled “Teaching to the Test: The Impact of Reviews on Game Development”. To explain the title, K12 teachers tend to teach what is on end-of-grade tests to the exclusion of almost everything else. The panel considered how much game development studios and publishers create games to meet the “test” of reviews.

Panelists included Juan Benito (Creative Director, Atomic Games), Eric Peterson (CEO of Vicious Cycle), Dana Cowley (PR Manager, Epic Games), and Shaun McCabe (Production Director, Insomniac Games east coast).

Their answer to the main question was “definitely not,” though they do pay attention to what individual game fans say on forums and email. The only exceptions would be a sequel, especially if another studio did the previous game, or a licensed property, where reviews of past games for that license can give clues to what needs to be changed or added.

Benito saw fan opinion as more "pure from the heart" than the reviews, which led into a discussion of whether reviews are influenced by manufacturers. This can be overt, through junkets or other “bribes”, or through the influence of advertising money. (Consumer Reports magazine refuses to accept advertising to avoid any appearance of influence by manufacturers.) While the panelists had heard of this kind of shady dealing, only one knew of it happening (from his days at Microprose); however, Greer stated that Escapist magazine had received such influence offers (which they rejected).

Yet there’s a danger of shutting out the non-hardcore audience if you base your decisions solely on feedback from the minority who express opinions online. McCabe said listening to players is so important that some companies have changed their marketing department name to something like “community relations”.

How much do reviews affect sales? I was surprised that no one cited any survey, as surely someone has investigated this question; panelists speculated that reviews have a strong influence on hard core players, but virtually no influence on casual (e.g., Wii) games, as those are impulse buys. Greer showed slides from research company EEDAR showing that certain categories of games (RPGs, Music & Rhythm, Sports) received consistently higher aggregate review scores than others, with some lagging far behind (Arcade, Skill & Chance, General Ent (such as Wii Fit), and Narrative). We have no way to know whether this is a bias from reviewers or an actual difference in game quality, though I’d suspect it’s because most reviewers are hardcore players.

Another interesting slide compared scores for 360 and Wii versions of the same title; the 360 scores were much higher than Wii for “hard core” game categories, much lower for “casual” titles.

Benito looks at the Wii as a "critique-proof platform". Another panelist joked that if you put the word “Party” in a Wii title, it will automatically sell at least 200,000 copies as parents want their children to be playing “party” games.

Peterson cited the Wii-exclusive game Madworld as a game that has very good reviews, but poor sales (180,000 according to VG Chartz, only 66,000 in the month of release according to Wikipedia). And his company has a children’s game with two and a half million sales but reviews in the 40s.

This was part of a discussion of the quality of reviews. Panelists clearly did not care for reviews in general, probably because they felt so many were poorly-written and often contained mistakes. One panelist specifically referred to the reviews on IGN and Gamespot as “white noise”, and all panelists clearly felt that reviews are often “subjective” rather than “objective”. Of course, “subjective” can be just as accurate (in fact, more accurate) than objective, depending on the situation, the problem is that reviewers don’t explain their biases and why they feel as they do, so readers have no basis to judge the opinions.

Moreover, with a single numeric rating, reviewers are going to go with their personal preferences, so, for example, a shooter fan reviewing a children’s game isn’t likely to give it a high rating (which is likely what happened with the children’s game Peterson mentioned).

The discussion was not intended to be a critique of reviews, but I’d make a number of observations. I used to be paid to review board- and RPG-related materials for TSR’sDragon and other magazines 25-30 years ago, but I’d not write assigned video game reviews, as a proper review requires playing through the game, a much larger time commitment for video games. Someone pointed out that film reviewers commit only two or three hours to watching a film, quite a contrast. Panelists had seen reviews where they knew the reviewer had barely played the game. In fact, this has influenced some companies to make sure the first few minutes of a game are exceptionally engaging, a good idea in general but especially good for the “snap reviewers”.

Magazine and Web site “exclusives” tend to be more favorable than reviews, as the writer knows the studio-publisher has done his company a favor by granting the exclusive. "Maybe that's why previews are so different from reviews.” This comes back to the nature of the fans, who go to the sites with the “newest news”, who want to see the latest artwork for the Zerg (in a recentPC Magazine) or see the latest screenshots. In my opinion this is a major reason why video game magazines are having a difficult time surviving: they can’t be as up-to-the-minute as the Web sites.

The “cult of the new” also tends to drive reviewers to snap decisions and sloppy behavior; if the review comes out too late, it’s no longer “news” and is ignored by many.

Some reviewers clearly don’t understand how reviews, of any medium, work. They should answer three questions:
• what were the creator(s) trying to do
• how well did they do it
• was it worth doing

To answer these questions they must explain “why”, not merely say “this is a piece of junk” or “I don’t like the graphics” or “what a dumb idea”. But this makes reviewing more difficult, more work.

If the reviewer separates these questions sufficiently, a reader can see that the children’s game was well-done, even though the reviewer thought it wasn’t worth doing because he isn’t interested in children’s games.

One panelist suggested reviewers ought to “take a step back” and watch others play the game, in order to acquire more than one point of view. They also need to put themselves in the shoes of a person who’s saved his pocket-money to buy a game, as opposed to reviewers who have piles of freebies to try out.

Reviewers who assign an actual numeric evaluation should provide several scores for different types of players, e.g., hard core, casual, RPG fans, shooter fans, whatever is appropriate to the audience.

Aggregation of reviews, and use of the aggregates in contracts, touched off a lively discussion. The personal preferences of the reviewer means a lot when he or she assigns only one number, not numbers selected for different kinds of players. Yet the numbers are now used in many contracts to govern the royalty received by a studio–the higher aggregate score leads to higher royalties. Panelists felt this was a poor way to do business, and that it was being used to take advantage of inexperienced developers to trick them out of some of the profit. Possibly it was also an excuse for a publisher to save marketing money, yet “you can't sell games without marketing” (Cowley). The panel did not officially include audience participation, but one beside-himself audience member finally asserted that the panelists were dead wrong (I can’t say his actual words!), that if the developer has confidence he should take the opportunity to make more with a high aggregate. Clearly this is a contentious issue, and with that we ran out of time.

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Law of Gaming Panel at Triangle Game Conference

(This was originally posted as an "Expert blog" on Gamasutra, not long ago.)

At the Triangle Game Conference on April 29, Alexander Macris, CEO and president of Themis Group and a graduate of Harvard Law School, moderated a panel discussion titled “The Law of Gaming: Legal Protection, Perils, Pitfalls for Game Developers.”
Panelists included Steve Chang (“the IP lawyer”), Zack Bishop (“the corporate lawyer”), and Jeff Young (“the trial lawyer”). All are involved in game-related practice.

I am not going to describe the five types of intellectual property protection, partly because I’m not a lawyer, partly because any serious game developer should already be familiar with them. Instead I’ll briefly report the answers to several of Macris’ questions.

Define important current legal issues in games:

IP lawyer: The scope of what you're allowed to patent on is changing. Business method patents used to be very broad, now the patent office is being much more cautious.

Corporate lawyer: Use of open source software (OSS) in games and the licensing consequences. Can all your proprietary code become subject to an open source license because one of your coders puts a bit of OSS into your game?

Trial lawyer: There is so much discussion via Internet (email, forums, etc.) that there are many more rocks to turn over to find that "smoking gun" bit of information that could make or break a lawsuit. You can spend hundreds of thousands of dollars or more collecting electronic material. Hence lawsuits become more expensive to pursue.

The most dangerous legal pitfall you've seen a company fall into:

Trial lawyer--lack of clarity in the contract and agreement between studio and publisher.

Corporate lawyer--Not thinking far enough ahead in case a game is a huge hit. For example, you may not think your game will ever be turned into a movie, and you’re very likely right, but occasionally it happens. If the developer has not been careful, conceivably they would have no rights to the movie and its profits. Another example, what if your game is published by a small or foreign publisher, and then one of the largest companies wants to buy the right to publish? How much of the money involved in the transfer will the developer receive?

IP lawyer--not giving yourself enough credit for the IP you developed (such as tool software). Or, say you have a philosophical objection to patenting software, recognize that you may cost yourself a lot of money by being unable to exploit a patent.

I’ve decided to use middleware to help me produce my game. Is this practical?:
Corporate lawyer--Yes with care. Is there a royalty for the software, or a flat fee? You could be paying millions in royalties in extreme cases. Think ahead.

One thing to know about the law of games:

IP lawyer--know what rights are available to you, so you can decide rationally what to do rather than stumble into something.

Corporate lawyer--protect your IP at all costs and expect success, look forward to big payout, make sure others can't get in the way. For example, a contract may include a "change of control provision," that you can't change who controls your company without breaching the contract. If EA buys you for $100 million, you breach that contract. Keep an eye on the fine print.

Trial lawyer--Hire people to make sure you get tight agreements to begin with so as to avoid litigation.

Some specific points came out during audience questions:

Trial lawyer–in an MMO people were conducting a funeral for someone who really died (the player, not the character); someone disrupted the funeral; they were sued for "intentional infliction of emotional distress."

NC Soft (City of Heroes) was sued for copyright violation by Marvel because people used the character generator to make the Hulk and other Marvel characters. Marvel lost the suit because they couldn’t prove NC Soft encouraged this; nor did it help that a Marvel lawyer had made one of the characters!

Who owns user generated content--be sure your agreement is clear.

Non-compete clauses (e.g. you can’t work on (such-and-such genre) games for a year after leaving out company) are very state-specific.

Trial lawyer--Every day, people with vague patents demand money from companies for alleged violation; often the company will pay the money rather than go through the time and expense of litigation. That’s the way it is.

IP lawyer--Typical cost for a utility patent application is 3-5 years, $10,000 to file, another $10,000 later. Design patents are much less.

They think EULAs (the contracts you must agree to when installing software) are becoming more enforceable in the courts over the past 10-15 years.

Trial lawyer--When will a video game company be sued for having “caused violence” in someone. This has already happened to Judas Priest and Ozzy Osborne for their music.

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Monday, May 11, 2009

What do the systems of games amount to?

What do the systems of games amount to?

The goal here is not to list what the objective or victory condition is in a game, but to say “what the game amounts to” or “what is actually happening”, “what is the player actually trying to do?”

The biggest problem with this list is whether to include the psychological or just the “physical”. Poker is about bluffing, about reading the other player, yet what the game amounts to in each hand is a form of pattern-matching plus collection (of money). I think I’ll leave the psychological out of this list, and stick to the systems.

At some point another problem is, what is a game? For example, I’d say most single-player video games are actually interactive puzzles, not games, but we call them games. Fortunately, the list below also applies to many if not all puzzles.

“Achieve a particular state” is the generalized version. Victory points are a generalized way of doing several different things at once. Sometimes the “state” is very simple, as in rock-paper-scissors where you want to make a pattern, such as paper to the opponent’s rock.

The list includes the general activity, then some of the common variations.
When we come down to it, most games are about just a few things–in no particular order:

1. Get to a particular place
Get there fastest (a race) [player interaction may be missing]
Get your any of your pieces there (Axis&Allies enemy capital)
Get a special piece there (football, hockey, many other team sports)
Get to end of the story (console RPGs)

2. Collect something (many card games, many video games)(sometimes economic)
Find something (exploration) (Easter egg hunt)
It drops in your lap (draw a card)
Take it from someone else (Monopoly, some card games especially trick-taking)
Don’t collect something (Old Maid, Hearts, etc.)

3. Wipe someone or something out (Risk, shooters, checkers, bowling!)
Wipe out one thing—chess

4. Achieve patterns in something (getting to a place could be seen as part of this!)
Patterns in piece location (this includes rock-paper-scissors, Tetris, many puzzle games)
Only your pieces (Tic-Tac-Toe), or yours plus opponent’s (rock-paper-scissors)
Patterns in relation to the “board” (Scrabble, Carcassonne)
Patterns of cards (related to sets–e.g. Canasta)

5. Improve your capabilities. This is often subsidiary, a way to achieve something else. Common in RPGs, vehicle simulations, construction/management simulation, collectible card games)

6. Survive, Especially common in arcade games (which are generally unwinnable).
I’m not sure about “engine” games, where you’re trying to make the right moves to take full advantage of an often economically-based system. In the end, you’re likely doing one of the six things above when you make a “right move”.

So what have I missed?
I’m sure other people have made such lists, but I need references to such.

Saturday, May 09, 2009

North Carolina’s Research Triangle–“the hub of East Coast video games?”

This originally appeared as an "expert blog" on Gamasutra quite recently. The conference was held 29-30 April. Someone tells me next year's conference will be April 7 and 8, 2010

North Carolina’s Research Triangle–“the hub of East Coast video games?”

This past Wednesday and Thursday saw the inaugural edition of the annual Triangle Game Conference (TGC) in Raleigh, NC. Inspired by the success of GDC Austin in positioning Austin, TX as a video game hub, TGC is noteworthy as much for what it represents as for what actually occurred.

According to Alexander Macris, CEO and President, Themis Group, Inc., and President of the Board of the Triangle Game Initiative (, the conference is another step in the growth of video games and simulations in the area. “It’s worth noting that the seeds of the game development industry in the Triangle area go all the way back to the graphics programs at NCSU and UNC in the 1960s. Those graphics programs created talent and companies that focused on computer graphics. Several of those companies, such as NDL (started at Chapel Hill) and Virtus (started at NC State), saw an opportunity in video games. They were early innovators in 3D graphics and game tools.” With more than 1,200 employees at game-related companies, the area has reached "critical mass" as the pool of workers and expertise grows, and the new conference is an expression of that growth.

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area, known as the Research Triangle, is now home to more than 30 game development companies. The Triangle is also home to the most commonly used video game engines, Unreal and Gamebryo. Recently announced company expansions and relocations include:

– Destineer Studios

– Electronic Arts

– Emergent Game Technologies

– Epic Games

– Vicious Cycle Software

– Insomniac Games

– Spark Plug Games

"The Triangle region has an ongoing supply of entry-level staff available due to the local colleges." said Macris. "What it does not have is a large surplus of highly experienced game industry vets. Experienced game developers generally become available when a game studio lets them go. That works when some studios are growing and some are shrinking. But since all of the local studios here in the Triangle are growing and none are letting people go, the area is importing talent. We’re adding about 200 jobs per year." I've found only one Triangle company that has recently laid off employees, Funcom, but that resulted from the lack of success of Age of Conan, and they are now hiring again.

Why has this growth occurred?

A couple years ago Jerry Heneghan of Virtual Heroes explained a major advantage: he can hire someone for less than they might make in California, but that person can buy a house in the Raleigh area rather than an apartment in California. Companies have been moving to the South for decades to take advantage of lower costs of living and labor costs.

Many people from the eastern US also prefer to live in the east, nearer to relatives, than in California. Consequently it’s not uncommon for west coast game developers to move to the Triangle. Further, the area is often cited as one of the best places to live, and to conduct business, in the United States. (See for Wake county's recruiting pitch and specific examples.)

And those who have tired of making "entertainment" can work on games that matter, "serious games" and simulations. Ft. Bragg, near Fayetteville and about 50 miles south of the Triangle, represents a big consumer of computer simulation capability, the US military. Heneghan's company Virtual Heroes is the major support for the well-known "America's Army" game. Fayetteville Technical Community College has established a simulation/virtual reality facilities and programs for training "simulation technicians".

The Triangle is home to three major research universities and 15 other post-secondary schools, and support specifically for game development is coming from local community colleges and from NC State in Raleigh. The NC State computer science and industrial design departments have "concentrations" in game-related topics, and host the Digital Games Research Center. Duke University has the Duke Immersive Virtual Environment (DiVE), the Southeast’s only fully enclosed virtual reality environment. UNC's computer graphics program is renowned. Several community colleges offer art, design, and programming instruction in a two-year "Simulation and Game Development" degree. The School of Communication Arts, a trade school for games and other media, has over 500 students enrolled.

Meetings of the Triangle IGDA chapter ( ) are usually attended by more than 200, which causes venue problems–not many company premises or schools can cope with such numbers.

This growth in games occurred despite an absence of tax incentives to game companies moving to the Triangle; a bill is in the legislature to provide such incentives, but is unlikely to pass in the current economic climate (the NC constitution requires a balanced budget).

Quality of life is an important part of the Triangle's attraction. This is a continuation of what has been happening in the Old South for decades: costs of living are lower in part because labor is less expensive (and there are almost no unions), there's lots of room for those who want to live "in the country", and the very warm climate is attractive thanks to that blessed post-WWII development, residential air conditioning. In the larger cities of North Carolina you're as likely to hear some variety of Northern/Midwestern accent as Southern accents.

When I first came to the Triangle (from Michigan) in 1973, the quality-of-life advantages were obvious, though the area population was about half the current 1.5 million. Area college basketball boasts three NCAA champions this decade alone. The NC Symphony, based in Raleigh, is one of about 50 full-time symphony orchestras in the US. As a rule-of-thumb measure of growth, since 1973 the area has acquired a AAA baseball team (the once-low-minors Durham Bulls of movie fame) and one major league sports team (2006 Stanley Cup Champion Carolina Hurricanes), with the Carolina Panthers and Charlotte Bobcats less than three hours away in Charlotte. Raleigh has also unfortunately become large enough to suffer the blight of the commuter, regular rush-hour traffic jams.

Although NC is the tenth most populous state, there is plenty of room. The ocean is three hours to the southeast, the mountains five hours to the west. It’s possible for a person who is willing to commute for an hour to the Triangle to live in a large house on several acres, on one of the many man-made lakes, for less than a quarter million dollars.

It's easy to see why area leaders believe the Triangle will continue to attract video game creators, and become the "hub of East Coast video games."

To return to the conference, TGC was preceded in recent years by NC Advanced Learning Technology Association’s ( annual conference and Walter Rotenberry/Wake Technical Community College’s annual Digital Game Expo. Macris said, "there are certainly close ties between Wake Tech, Walter Rotenberry, and TGC. Walter is a member of Triangle Game Initiative and has been one of a handful of leaders who has guided Triangle Game Conference forward . . . the show would not have happened without Walter and DGXPO."

The two-day conference included two keynotes and 40 presentations/panel discussions, with an overall theme of “Innovate or Die.” The conference temporarily outgrew its Marriot/Raleigh Convention Center facilities as the Wednesday keynote by Dr. Michael Capps of Epic was “standing room only” for perhaps 250 listeners, with more watching an external feed. We'll report on two of the panel discussions separately.

You can view a map of the area game development companies at

Why We Play Games

The original version of this appeared on GameCareerGuide. (Diagram missing for now...)

Why We Play Games

At some point designers should know why people like to play games. Yet if anyone truly knew this, he or she would become rich as a consultant.

No one can exactly describe why people like to play games, though many have tried. If an author can spend 80 pages just trying to define what a game is (Rules of Play), how likely are we to define why games are enjoyable? Entire books have been written about this subject -- in this article, I summarize the less philosophical reasons people have suggested, and add some from my own experience.

Game designers make their best judgments about why people like to play, and then design accordingly. Yet there are many examples of software entertainment that surprise most experts. Why is The Sims so enjoyable for so many people, or Katamari Damacy? In the end, a simple answer to this question is “What matters is what happens when a large and diverse set of people play test your game.”

No matter what you think about enjoyment of games, no matter whether you enjoy your game, the play test reflects the reaction of a wide variety of players. If enough of them like it, you probably have something worthwhile. If not enough of them like it, you need to change it.

Unfortunately, in the video game world it costs so much time and money to get to the point of playing the game that we really need all the help we can get while doing the preliminary design. A practical discussion of why people enjoy playing games is therefore a worthwhile endeavor.

Notice I haven’t used the word “fun” -- that’s because many people who enjoy playing games would not call them fun. Take chess as an example. It can be interesting, even fascinating, but many chess players do not describe it as fun.

“Fun” usually comes from external factors, from the attitudes of the people you play with and the environment, not from the game itself. People can laugh and shout and have a good time when playing an epic board game, even though most wouldn’t describe the game itself as fun.

There are certainly games meant to be “funny,” but not every gamer enjoys playing a funny game. Some think they’re silly and boring.

What is Enjoyable?

Some authors have made lists of the kinds of enjoyment people can have while playing games. Such lists are useful to remind us of the details of enjoyable gaming.

The most well known is from Marc LeBlanc (source

Sensation Game as sense-pleasure

Fantasy Game as make-believe

Narrative Game as unfolding story

Challenge Game as obstacle course

Fellowship Game as social framework

Discovery Game as uncharted territory

Expression Game as soap box

Submission Game as mindless pastime

At Origins Game Fair 2008, Ian Schreiber (co-author of Challenges for Game Designers) gave his version of kinds of fun (enjoyment):

• exploration

• social experience

• collection (collecting things)

• physical sensation

• puzzle solving

• advancement

• competition

Ask a group of game players to list ways that people enjoy games, and many of the above will come up in one form or another.

Raph Koster (Theory of Fun in Games) has brought to our attention research by Mihaly Csikszentmikalyi into “optimal experience.” The Chicago-based Czech researcher applies his ideas to life as a whole, in a series of books, but we can apply them to games. Csikszentmikalyi is interested in “the positive aspects of human experience -- joy, creativity, the process of total involvement with life I call flow” (Flow: the Psychology of Optimal Experience (1990), p. xi).

For game purposes it amounts to this: People have an optimal experience when they are challenged, but not challenged too much. In other words, if something is too easy, it becomes boring. If it’s too hard, it becomes frustrating and causes anxiety. The ideal game experience, then, is to challenge the player at whatever ability level he has reached, that is, keep increasing the challenges as the player becomes a better player. This keeps players “in the flow” (see the diagram).

Video games can be particularly good at managing the level of challenge, either through adaptive programming, via the difficulty setting, or through increasingly difficult levels in games that use levels. In non-electronic games, the level of challenge tends to change because your opponents tend to become better players just as you do, or you find better players to play against. In a non-electronic role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons, the referee (Dungeon Master) manages the challenge. Novice characters don’t meet fire giants but often encounter orcs, while very powerful characters may occasionally go up against an ancient and terrible dragon, but orcs aren’t worth bothering with. This is in some sense artificial, but it makes the game more enjoyable.

Enjoyable to Some, Yet Not to Others

While these schemes and categories are all useful ways to think about games, I think game enjoyment often involves spectra of factors, with some people at one end, others at the other end, and the majority somewhere in the middle. Many of these spectra overlap, or are different views of what may be a more fundamental factor.

Here’s a list of some of the factors (certainly not definitive) that I’ll discuss:

role-fulfillment vs. emergence (story dominant vs. rules dominant)

story/narrative vs. what happens next/emerging circumstances

classical vs. romantic

long-term planning vs. reaction/adaptation to changing circumstances

socializing vs. competition

entertainment vs. challenge

fantasy/relaxation vs. urge to excel (“gaming mastery”)

the journey vs. the destination

Role-Fulfillment vs. Emergence (Story Dominant vs. Rules Dominant)

Many people have suggested that video games are dream fulfillment: What is the player’s dream that the game designer wants to help them experience or fulfill? Yet in many games the dream, if it is there at all, is quite obscure. What is the dream fulfillment in playing chess or checkers, or any other abstract game, such as Tetris? Is there anything personal (other than a desire for immortality?) in controlling a nation for a thousand years, as in History of the World, Age of Empires, or Civilization?

Certainly many video games put the player into a position the individual is unlikely to experience in the real world, or which they wouldn’t want to experience because it’s much too dangerous. Living out fantasy is an obvious part of shooters and action games, for example.

This kind of game can also be called “story-dominant.” If there’s a dream to be fulfilled, it likely involves a story, and the game is an expression of that story, however simple (just as dreams can be simple or complex).

The other end of this spectrum is the “rules-dominant” game, which includes many traditional games such as chess and go. Gameplay emerges out of the rules, not from following a story (hence, it is sometimes called “emergent” gaming). The game has a set of rules, and the course of the game emerges from the rules in a great variety of ways, depending on the players. Board games and card games tend to be rules-dominant, while many of popular video game genres -- and role-playing games of all types -- tend to be more story-dominant.

We might further say that the rules-dominant games are often for more than two sides, whereas the role-dominant ones tend to have just two sides, the player(s) and the computer (or referee, in Dungeons & Dragons and similar games).

Video games, especially the AAA variety, are much more exercises in role-assumption than non-electronic games. The player is enabled to do something he'd like to imagine he could do, but he can feel as if he's really doing it in modern AAA games. The feeling of verisimilitude must be there. On the other hand, "casual" video games tend to be more rules-dominant, like board games and card games.

Sid Meier recently described what amounts to an "emergent" view of games:

"It's important that the player has the fun in the game," [Meier] said, noting that there is a temptation for the designer to steer the gameplay too much. "It's definitely our philosophy to keep the game designer in the background and let the story emerge from players' decisions."

The next question discusses other aspects of these two contrasting approaches.

Story vs. Emerging Circumstances

Some game players like to follow a story, while others hate to be led around by the nose. Yet they’re talking about the same experience. This is usually expressed in the contrast of “linear” games with “sandbox” games.

It is much easier to produce a powerful story through linearity (as in a book or movie), so the strongest (in terms of story, at any rate) of the story-dominant games are linear.

Sandbox games have greater replay value than linear games (other things being equal) because there is only one or a few stories in the latter. Of course, if the linear game is very long, will people miss a lack of replayability?

Sandbox video games such as Grand Theft Auto and Assassin’s Creed are a return to the older video game style, where specific narrative (linearity) is less important or non-existent.

The role-assumption game isn't necessarily strongly linear or story-dominant. The ancestor of many video games, Dungeons & Dragons (paper version), can be played either way. The dungeon master can conceive a story and set up an adventure so that players are forced to follow through the story (linear method). Or he can set up an appropriately challenging situation, not trying to predict how the players will approach it and not trying to lead them from a particular point to another, and see what happens (sandbox method). In this case the players make their own story. And each group confronted with the same adventure will contrive a different story. It’s easier to do the sandbox in a paper game than in a video game, because a good human referee is more capable than a computer of adjusting the game as it is played.

I always hated storytelling D&D as a player, because it meant the referee forced me to do things I didn’t want to do. But other people much prefer the story-driven style. Of course, there is story in the emergent style, and there is strategy and tactics in the story style. I’m talking about what’s dominant.

What seems to be certain, however, is that many players lean strongly to one side or the other, and don’t like games of the other type most of the time.

Classical vs. Romantic

Two basic game playing styles exist among those who are interested in winning a game (not all players are, of course). Harkening back to the well-known 19th century distinction in music, painting, and other arts, I call the two basic styles the classical and the romantic.

The perfect classical player tries to know each game inside-out. He wants to learn the best counter to every move an opponent (or the computer) might make. He takes nothing for granted, paying attention to details that probably won’t matter but which in certain cases could be important. The classical player does not avoid taking chances, but carefully calculates the consequences of his risks. He dislikes unnecessary risks. He prefers a slow but steady certain win to a quick but only probable win. He tries not to be overcautious, however, for fear of becoming predictable. He tries to maximize his minimum gain each turn -- as the perfect player of mathematical game theory is expected to do -- rather than make moves and attacks that could gain a lot but which might leave him worse off than when he started.

Some people call this the “minimax” style of play. I am not sure that “minimaxer” and “classical” mean quite the same thing in game contexts, but they are close. Certainly, the minimaxers are usually going to be classical types.

A cliché among football fans is that the best teams win by making fewer mistakes, letting the other team beat itself. So it is with the classical gamer, who concentrates on eliminating errors rather than discovering brilliant coups.

The romantic, on the other hand, looks for the decisive blow that will cripple his enemy, psychologically if not physically on the playing field. He wishes to convince his opponent of the inevitability of defeat; in some cases a player with a still tenable position will resign the game to his romantic opponent when he has been beaten psychologically. The romantic is willing to take a risk in order to disrupt enemy plans and throw the game into a line of play his opponent is unfamiliar with. He looks for opportunities for a big gain, rather than maximizing his minimum gain. He loves the brilliant coup, despite the risks.

Chess lends itself to classical play, poker to romantic play. But each one can be played with the opposite style.

Because so many video games let you save your position and experiment with different strategies, the romantic style may be more common among video gamers.

(Much of this section is excerpted from the much longer article “The Classical and Romantic Game Playing Styles,” originally published in Dragon Magazine #65, September 1982. A recent version is online .)

Long-Term Planning vs. Adaptation to Changing Circumstances

Some people like to plan well ahead, to consider the options and choose a best course for each. Others like to react to circumstances as they occur, to adapt. Chess and checkers encourage long-term planning. Monopoly, thanks to the random move mechanic and more than two players, is more adaptive. Having more than two players introduces additional uncertainty to any game; uncertainty is at the heart of the adaptive style. Poker involves adaptation in each hand, but in the long run, the best players may be able to plan their bluffs (and non-bluffs) so as to take advantage of the characteristics and personalities of the other players. Card driven war games put an emphasis on adaptation: you can only do what your current hand allows you to do, you never know what cards you’ll get, and you don’t know what cards your opponent holds.

In general, perfect information games encourage planning, while as uncertainty increases, adaptation becomes more important than planning. For a variety of reasons, adaptation is probably the more common preference among video gamers.

Socializing vs. Competition

Party gamers are the epitome of the socializers. Many Euro-style board gamers and casual video gamers are of this type, to the point that they refuse to attack someone even when playing in a competitive game. They play games to enjoy being with and interacting with other people of similar interest, and have little interest in dominating or beating someone. I don’t think we need to discuss the competitive gamer much. We all know people whose main gaming objective is to win, to outdo everyone else.

The availability of a social experience is important. Non-electronic board games and card games are generally social experiences; electronic games are becoming more social (MMOs, Wii), but are still predominantly solitary, a player alone with his own thoughts and dreams.

Non-electronic RPGs are often social, as the games are usually cooperative rather than competitive.

Entertainment vs. Challenge

Traditional thinking about games sees them as competitions or challenges, where players play against one another. Dungeons & Dragons changed that, as players played against “the bad guys” with the Dungeon Master as neutral referee. It is a cooperative game, though there is still an unending series of challenges.

Some video games have gone further by leaving competition entirely out of it and reducing challenges. Games have become entertainments, not competitions. (Of course, many family games were played as entertainments even though they were ostensibly competitions.) Many people pay their 60 bucks (or 20 bucks, or 5 bucks) and want to be entertained, not challenged. Yet there are still competitive players and highly competitive games. Spore is reportedly "too easy" for hardcore players, yet challenging enough for the much larger market of more casual players. Evidently it is an entertainment rather than a challenging, competitive game.

In a sense, any game can be played as an entertainment or as a competition, but design will make some much more suitable as one than the other. Insofar as people often "don't want to think" when playing games, many video games substitute "physical challenges" (such as jumping in platformers, or shooting accurately) for mental challenges. The physical challenges can easily be modified to entertain or to challenge, as the player wishes.

Playing against people online tends to be challenging. Playing against people in person tends to be entertainment, perhaps because we’re more likely to know the other people involved.

Some writers on this topic speculate that socializing and entertainment tend to be more important to female players, whereas challenge and competition are more important to males.

Relaxation vs. Mastery

A variation of the above is to play a game as fantasy fulfillment, or to play the game to fulfill the urge to excel, to demonstrate gaming mastery. The latter helps the player feel important, capable, powerful, hence its great attraction to teenagers. A game can often provide both, if only through different difficulty levels.

Unfortunately, the urge for gaming mastery, when taken to extremes, results in players willing to cheat or behave in unsocial ways that can ruin everyone else's enjoyment.

Some people just don't see the point of excelling in a video game. What does it matter? A player's attitude can change over time, likely moving more toward relaxation as the player becomes older and encounters more real-world challenges and responsibilities. Mastering a game simply becomes less important.

The Journey vs. The Destination

Older generations want to enjoy the entire game they are playing, even when their main objective is to win. Young people seem to be more interested in the destination, “beating the game,” than in the journey. Obviously, it’s necessary that a game have a sufficient level of challenge that the “destination” player feels he’s accomplished something.

This can also be seen as “what happens” versus “what is the end.” Some people play games (and read novels, and watch movies) to find out what happens next. Others are only interested in the final result. They might skip ahead in a novel and just read the end, or skip ahead in a game (often with "cheats") and just play the end.

I once listened to a young man who had written two books about generational differences say that his generation (gen Y or millennials) were quite happy to get a cheat code, go to the last stage of a game, “win” the game, and be satisfied. “I beat the game, didn’t I?” I, a baby boomer, was astounded. “Why play if you’re going to cheat?” He smiled as he said, “We’re just gathering the fruits of our research.” I shook my head. To this day I cannot understand this emotionally, but I understand intellectually that many game players feel this way -- that the destination is all that matters. And a game designer must be aware of it.

The following is another observation of this phenomenon:

“The fact that there's no ending [100 levels repeat randomly], however, points out a very important difference between Atari's view on video games and the current perception. Atari saw Gauntlet as a process, a game that was played for its own sake and not to reach completion. The adventurers continue forever until their life drains out, their quest ultimately hopeless.

... in games of Gauntlet I've had with other people in the past few years … their interest tends to survive only until the point where they learn there is no ending. Times have certainly changed."

Game Design Essentials: 20 Atari Games, by John Harris,

I’d speculate from my experience with game design students that, for whatever reasons, females tend to be more interested in the journey, males more interested in the destination.

We might speculate also that MMOs with level caps (which is typical because it’s hard to design a MMO without a level cap) suit the destination folks, because there is a destination: that maximum level. Similarly, RPGs such as Final Fantasy are attractive to destination people because there is an end to the story. In older RPGs, both the original non-electronic ones and some of the older video games, the game is open-ended. There is no particular destination.

I find it instructive that the latest version of non-electronic Dungeons & Dragons (fourth edition, June 2008) has a definite end. Characters retire, one way or another, when they reach 30th level, and that level is practically reachable, as opposed to a tightly run first edition game where no human character ever got to a maximum level (and certainly not 30th!).

I’ll end with a couple of additional observations.


Dream-fulfillment is close to escapism. Like it or not, many games have a strong escapist element, and it seems strongest where dream-fulfillment is strongest. It is especially important to non-adults. Consider, say, a favorite adolescent male pastime, shooter games:

The player can be the star, “da man,” which is generally unlike the player’s real life

Players can experience thrills (even death) without risk of being hurt

There’s always a way to succeed -- trial and error can work, because it doesn’t matter if you get killed

Competition is not only permissible, but encouraged

There’s a structure to everything; most of the uncertainty of real life is not there

Young people control what happens, and attitudes can be confrontational, edgy.

For a frustrated teenage male who's been told too often what he can and cannot do, this can be a kind of nirvana. Game designers must be aware of the escapist elements of gaming, even if they’re designing a serious game that has few or none of these particular characteristics.


Game players have different kinds of personalities, just as the population at large. A fairly common taxonomy divides people into 16 personalities, as reflected in the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator ( and in the writing of David Keirsey and others (e.g., the book Please Understand Me). These are often derived from the work of Carl Jung, and even back to the Greek idea of the “four temperaments”. (A good practical Jung Typology test of personality type is at

The major point to recognize is that different personalities have different preferences, different ways of collecting information, different ways of reacting to challenges. These personalities are established in childhood and do not change. For example, some people feel better before they make a decision than after, so they tend to gather more information and delay decision-making. Others feel better after they’ve made a decision, so they react to decision-making quite differently. The former may learn to make timely decisions, but to a considerable extent it is against their nature. Similarly, some people rely heavily on logic, others on intuition. Such differences are going to strongly affect their tastes in games, or even whether they play games at all. Keirsey suggested that certain occupations tend to attract certain personality types, and we can wonder if game playing attracts only some of the 16 types.

The major point for inexperienced designers to take from this is you are not like your audience, and you need to decide which kinds of preferences and which ideas about enjoyment your games will target. No game can begin to cover all the bases because there are so many different reasons to like to play games.

Sunday, May 03, 2009

"Digital games" are most games, not just video games

Many people use the term "digital game" to represent what I call electronic or (for convenience) video games (technically, there are electronic games that have no video component, certainly not in the accepted sense of video). Sometimes "analog" is used for non-electronic games. I used "digital" for a while, but the problem is that digital means with discrete steps that have nothing in between: Yahtzee, Craps, and other dice games, Tic-Tac-Toe, all of those are digital in this broader sense, as are most "traditional" games. I sure don't like having to type "non-electronic", but that's much better than "analog" or "non-digital". And "video" works better for me than "digital", because it is closer to what I usually mean.

Saturday, May 02, 2009

The system and the psychological in games

I've come to some sort of epiphany about a fundamental difference between video games, *as they're thought of by the hardcore and by game developers*, and non-electronic games. I've only worked my way partly through this (the final version will be on Gamasutra/GameCareerGuide, I expect), but here it is so far.

There are two parts to playing mainstream board and card games. One part is figuring out the system, learning how to manipulate the game mechanics to achieve the ends you desire. In poker this is very simple, in chess very difficult. So in chess, some people become competent with the system, many fewer become experts, and there are several "levels" of expertise; in poker a great many people are experts in the system. In general, card game systems are much simpler than boardgame systems, and boardgame systems are still simple compared with many video games.

In most non-electronic games, figuring out the system is straightforward, though in more strategic games, some people never figure it out. And others quit before they figure it out. Many contemporary Euro games cater to the latter players, by ensuring that, after one play, most players have (or think they have) figured out the system fairly well.

Contrast this with chess or a game with chesslike aspects such as Britannia. Few if any people become competent with the Britannia system in one play. The rules are not complex at all, but the strategy is, and that is part of the system. Many players come to be competent with the system after a number of plays. Few truly figure out the system in Brit--become experts--so that they can look at the board, know what turn it is, look at the points, and know who is ahead and why. In this respect *I* am competent with the system but have not truly figured it out (then again, I never play it as published).

The second part to playing games is understanding how the players interact with the system, learning how to recognize what the players are trying to do, and finally figuring out how forecast and to manipulate the other players. We might call this knowing the psychology of the game, as opposed to knowing the system.

Let's go back to Poker. The system is simple; what makes someone an outstanding poker player is ability to play the other players, to be good at the psychological component of the game. People who merely understand the system of probabilities may do well at Poker, but won't be outstanding, because the bluff is what makes the game, and the bluff is all about people, not probabilities.

Minimax players, who more or less follow game theory and try to maximize their minimum gain, may not feel they need to understand the psychology, especially in two player games. I'm a minimax player, so not surprisingly, I don't care for Poker.

Even in a chesslike game such as Britannia, at the highest level, players are playing the other players, not the system.

In an interactive game, the more players, the more the psychological part of the game matters, the less the system part matters.

Yet here's the kicker: traditional one-player video games have no psychological component, only a system component. In a sense, they are puzzles more than games. Once you figure out the system, that's all there is.

This point of view was brought home recently by two articles. Leigh Alexander wrote a piece in Gamasutra ( ) reporting Warren Spector's point of view, that he is the author of a game, he provide the experiences, and a game that relies on other players to provide the experiences is "lazy".

My reaction: he's completely misunderstood what "real" games are about, because the great interest in games is *in the other people.* Interaction with a computer cannot compare to interaction with other people, especially with GOOD players. In effect, the traditional one-player video game is a kind of puzzle, with the computer providing a semblance of intelligent opposition, an entity, as opposed to a game like card Solitaire (or Tetris!) where there is no organized opposition: a puzzle, not a game.

Another article brought this home more strongly. Larry Songtag in the first IGDA Magazine writes an article titled "Challenge." He is characterizing what challenges ought to be in games, with the common and reasonable assumption that a game is about challenges. He's frustrated by challenges that can change, it seems. "Once a player gains the skill to get through a level, they can then do it every time barring a mistake on the player's part. Players become frustrated when a twist of luck causes them to fail a challenge even when they had the experience and skill to overcome it in the past."

My reaction to this was, WHAT? This isn't a game, this is a puzzle! He also believes that luck should not be part of the situation. Yet even when players of a game with no luck, such as chess, play a series of matches, every game is different; why should the video game be the same, or so effectively the same that it can be overcome every time? The author evidently likes the "game as a puzzle," not a game with intelligent opposition, ignores the effect of people as opponents!

Whether you call it a puzzle or a game, it's definitely very different from a game that has both system and psychological components.

Think about it. A person doesn't play a multi-sided game like Diplomacy or Britannia five hundred times to figure out the system. They play to enjoy the interaction of the system and the players, to learn how people think and how they can be persuaded to think in certain ways. And this may explain why so many of the traditional video games have so little replayability. Once you figure out the system, and exhaust the alternatives provided by the designer (such as optional avatars), what is there to do? *You stop playing.* I think back to when I played Tetris. There is, of course, no ultimate solution to that game, you're going to lose sooner or later. But one day I "got in the zone" and doubled my score, and thereafter I rarely played. I'd figured out the system as well as I expected I ever could, so there was really no reason to keep playing.

What's happening now in the gaming world is that video game creators are gradually figuring out that they need the psychological component in their games, they need more than one person playing--and now it has become practical technologically. At the same time, boardgame designers have gone the other way with the many multiplayer solitaire and "engine" games coming out: games where the psychological component does not exist, or barely exists, and the game only has a system component as though it was a traditional video game.

As you might guess, I find those multiplayer solitaire and engine games absolutely uninteresting. Even though I'm a minimax player, and might be expected to like the process of figuring out the system, I hate puzzles. (Maybe when I was a kid I would have liked such games, who knows?) Nowadays, when all there is is a system, I don't want any part of it. Which is probably why I prefer D&D and multi-sided board and card games, where the psychological component is strong.

Even in paper D&D there's a psychological component, both the other players and the referee, even though there's not "an opponent". You don't have to have an opponent to have a psychological component to a game, but you need people. Someday the computer will be able to pretend to be "people" enough that it can provide the psychological component, but not yet.

Edit: I added two paragraphs about Larry Songtag's article in IGDA Magazine. 3 May, morning Eastern Time.