Wednesday, July 28, 2010

The "I" in games

Games are awkward and inefficient for telling stories, yet video game players are often quite story-oriented. Why? In any case, the consequence is more and more games where the player has a human-like avatar, an often-customizable "I".

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.) The heart of an interactive puzzle (many one-player video "games") is challenge, though there's more to it than that (interface, appearance, sometimes story, etc.).

A considerable part of gameplay is challenge, but the challenges tend to come from other players in games, whereas in the interactive puzzle the challenge comes from the computer (and ultimately, from the designer).

Games are not entirely linear, so it is harder to tell a fine story with a game, because the author has less control over what happens. 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 and inefficient.

Yet many people appear to play video games for the stories (consider especially Japanese RPGs, especially Final Fantasy). Yes, often the story is only what sells the game,and provides an excuse for the action, but doesn't matter in the gameplay; but there are many younger people who really care about the stories in games.

You can make an argument that stories have become much more important in games than was traditionally the case, for three reasons:

1) people just don't read books as much as they used to (statistically well-known); books are "too much like work" to many people accustomed to completely passive media like TV and movies. The acronym "tl;dr" (too long; didn't read) is a recent but oft-used invention. As books went "out" as a way to spend time, games came "in" as a way to spend time.

2) people are much less accustomed to using their imaginations than two generations ago. Instead of reading words and imagining, or seeing pictures and imagining (comic books), they are used to photo-realistic moving images (in color TV and movies and video games). And many are unable or unwilling to do it "the old way", which requires more imagination.

We could suggest further that people accustomed to using their imagination are also more capable of making up their own stories (which is what happens in rules-emergent games). Even our toys used to be simple things that often required us to make up stories; now so many toys are tied to well-known stories--films, novels, TV, and so forth--that the stories are ready-made, not ones the "user" of the toy must make up. We now expect others to make up stories for us.

Many video game critics regard the look of the game as vital to satisfaction--a lack of imagination, I'd say, but then I'm not a visually-oriented person.

3) With the rise of role-playing games, first on paper with Dungeons and Dragons, later in computer games, we see the player's avatar, the "I", become a vital part of many games. There is no "I" in checkers or go, nothing that represents the player (though the king in chess could be seen that way). There is a kind of "I" in Monopoly, but not in Scrabble or Pong. We began to have a mild form of "I" in video games such as Pac-Man and Donkey Kong. Now there is definitely a human-like "I" in modern role-playing games, shooters, and more, and players often want a great variety of customization options in order to make that "I" exactly what the player wants it to be. As games have more "I" in them, players can become more involved in the story of the game, rather than in the play of the game. Many video game designers regard photo-realism as a major goal of game-making so that the player "can feel like he's there".

Insofar as games are as games are often played for escapism, the emphasis on "I" clearly facilitates the escape.

On the other hand, you can point out that video gamers want to DO things, not merely be passive as with TV and movies (and even, to an extent, with novels). Perhaps this is a consequence of the World Wide Web's ability to allow interaction with the user. Insofar as consumerism, letting things come to us, is a feature of the modern world, something that has people *doing* something can be lauded.

Where does this get us? Well, a realization that "I" is important in games can influence designers. I design board and card games (where I have almost complete influence over the game, which is much less likely in video games). Lately I've gone more toward games where there is a king of avatar of the player, something I have rarely done in the past. This works with young people, certainly.

Otherwise, I'm not sure where it gets us. And that's a big reason why it's in this blog rather than in a formal article.

Monday, July 19, 2010

Escapism and Avatars in Games

Sometimes we see things, and express our perceptions without trying to "prove" anything. I don't offer proof for the following, and of course, nothing I could say could be proof, if you think about it. So take this as an opinion or whatever you want to call it.

Clearly, a major reason for people to play video games is escape. Kids are escaping from a monitored world, from the "prison" of K12 where they aren't allowed a second on their own, from "helicopter parents", and from the delusions in their own minds engendered by the triumphs of 21st century capitalist marketing. Adults may be escaping from some of the same, but also from bad situations at home or at work. I know that when I most played video games, I was quite unhappy with how things were going at work (and ultimately I resigned and went back to teaching, one of the best things I ever did). The entire techno-fetishist notion that games should be so immersive that you forget you're not really there, lends itself to escapism.

The broadest difference between traditional single-player video games and tabletop games is that the former are used to pass the time (or "kill time") while the latter are used to spend time with friends--socializing if you will. Tabletop games, unless played solitaire, are not nearly as good a means of escape as video games (role-playing games come closest).

Some of this is because video games often involve an avatar, a "you", and often involve a story (or at least, story-context), which lend themselves to taking you somewhere else, away from your humdrum/unsatisfactory life. (Notice that RPGs also involve avatars. A lot of the characteristics of modern video games derive from Dungeons & Dragons.)

Are the games I design not so much escapist because they're not about assuming a role, about being someone different? Most of mine are either at a very grand strategic scale (as Britannia), where you have a detached, godlike view, or are abstract. I have begun designing games that have a "you" in them, usually because I'm designing them with young adults in mind (the zombie games, for example). But this is still quite the exception.

Can games without an avatar be escapist? Yes, when pursued obsessively. Chess, Tetris, you name it, like anything else it can be pursued obsessively and hence become escapist. (Which doesn't mean that every obsession is escapist, of course.)

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Simulations vs. Games

(I wrote this for the college Web site, to help prospective students and parents understand the difference between simulations and games (our program is called "Simulation and Game Development"). It may not get onto the Web there, but I can use it here.)

People who can make good video games are also likely to make good simulations. Many video game makers who tire of the highly intense competitive nature of “getting that game out on time” move on to make training applications (simulations).

While the video game market is larger than the market for films, in the long run the simulation market will be bigger than either. The video game generation is more accustomed to learning through a “game” than through reading or listening. As more and more such folks are in the work force, and as schools adopt technology solutions, more and more learning will be game/simulation based.

The techniques, especially the 3D modeling and other graphical elements, for making simulations and for video games are identical. When you learn one, you learn the other.

For a video game, the story provides a context, a reason for playing, but in most cases the story is more an excuse than the main focus. The main focus is the gameplay. In a simulation, the “story” is the message or training that the player is supposed to receive and understand, so that gameplay is secondary. But a good simulation should also be a good game, or a good puzzle. Even though people can sometimes be forced by schools or employers to use simulations, they will be more willing to use simulations that are also good games or puzzles, and will probably learn more when they’re willing than when they’re unwilling.

Many single-player video games are interactive puzzles. Many simulations are interactive puzzles. For both there is a solution, and once that solution is found, there is little reason to keep playing.

Those who try to learn to make simulations, without understanding that they must be interesting/entertaining games or puzzles, are less likely to succeed than those who know how to make good video “games.”

Friday, July 09, 2010

Games: seeing the strategic possibilities

Some people play games like others "sound bathe". Sound bathers have music playing but don't really pay attention, don't really LISTEN. They're not particularly interested in exactly what they're "listening" to, and they're not putting effort into it. Some people play games the same way, especially video games, where you're often not playing against anyone and can resort repeatedly to save games when you fail (die). In tabletop games, you often lose when you play this way, except perhaps in family/party games.

In many Euro-style tabletop games (and let's realize that this is such a large category that there are always many exceptions to any generalization), players WANT just a few choices, and then the play of the game revolves around which choice to make. The "best" choice depends on the situation, and the better players recognize which is the best choice in given circumstances, though generally there is no choice that will always work out best in a given situation.

In other games, including many "old" games and some of the new ones, there are many choices, and one of the skills is seeing all the possibly-good choices in a situation. Better players will not only see those additional choices, they may be skilled in influencing the course of the game so that those choices are available when they next have an opportunity to do something.

A sure way to spot this point of view is the gamer who plays a game once, then criticizes it for poor play balance or too few choices. While the game may indeed have those characteristics, it can also be the case that the player has assumed he's recognized all the choices, and all the balance possibilities, the first time he played.

I recall a young player at the WBC Britannia tournament (his first Brit game) who, when he finished, said he couldn't see how he could have done anything differently (no, he wasn't near winning). It was only after some expert players talked with him a while that he realized there were large choices he hadn't seen, and also, that even small choices made a difference in the long term. Perhaps he wasn't accustomed to games that did not reveal the choices immediately.

We have an essential difference:

"It's important but I haven't figured it out yet."
I haven't even realized it's important."

So the expectation in those Euros that are essentially "family games on steroids" (some are not) is that the first statement is the typical situation after one play, yet in many strategy games there will be a strong element of the second after one play.

Perhaps this is a reason (not a sufficient reason or necessary reason) why there is the emphasis on multiple ways to win in Euro games: so that the players will easily see at least one way to win at first playing.

I'll take an example from my own experience. Here's a comment I ran across about old Britannia. "Innovative, but only interesting once. After that, it's just rolling dice for 6 long hours, very boring. Green is horrible. Purple is a one shot wonder also." Here's a person who thinks he can see all possible strategies the first time he plays a game. Is that because he plays simple (shallow?) games? This player clearly didn't have a clue about many of the strategies in the game. I'm curious if he wondered what the people who've played 500 times were doing? Just rolling dice? I suppose he didn't know how intensely the game is played, how (as Tom Vasel says in his review, it "may satisfy the itch in players looking for a deeper encounter, an epic game that is all about the experience."). Rather than consider the possibility that he'd missed something, the commenter dismissed the game. (Btw, there are lots of perfectly reasonable reasons why some people do not like Britannia, e.g. the length, the dice rolling, the "scripting", the need to plan well ahead. Poor play balance is not one of them, clearly.) This is the kind of comment I'd expect from a "shallow" player, perhaps someone who plays shallow games, though maybe just someone who doesn't easily see strategic possibilities in this kind of game.

There are a great many players of this kind nowadays, which may be one reason so many games are only played a few times: either they are shallow, so there isn't much there, or the "shallow" player isn't going to play any game many times because either he gets it easily and exhausts the possibilities, or he doesn't get it at all.

Video games are very often of the first variety, where the strategies are clear pretty quickly, in fact, video game designers work hard to make such games accessible to as many players as possible. Video games are often more non-competitive entertainment than competition, and people don't want to be frustrated by their entertainment. Video games are fundamentally different in one respect: you can (usually) experiment many times to find a best strategy, because you can go back to your save game and try again. When you play a board or card game against other people, failed experiments become losses. (You can't "lose" a traditional one-player video game, can you?)

There are certainly many deeper video games as well, but they are not the norm.

I suppose you could dub this the "shallow play syndrome". It's fairly obviously related to the "cult of the new" syndrome. While it doesn't matter to me if people play that way, it's annoying when they don't recognize that that is what they are doing, they ought to adjust their reviewing accordingly.

Many tabletop game designers try to get rid of "analysis paralysis", too many choices that cause the player to think too much and take too long. Yet some players LIKE lots of choices, and they are often the people drawn to a game like Britannia and some other wargames.

At a local tabletop game club we have one player who simply doesn't like games that require a lot of decisions at the same time. So she doesn't care for typical wargames. She plays tabletop games as much for the company as for the games, and wants to limit the strain involved.. Yet in the games she does like, she's clearly a thinker and planner, definitely a person who wants to use her brain, and I have a great deal of respect for her (face it, some gamers do not like to think much). She is definitely not a "game bather" in the sense of "sound bather". She's not a Euro gamer per se, as she doesn't mind competition and doesn't mind hindering other players. She's my most valuable playtester *because* her objectives are different from most. But the point here is, she is more comfortable with the first kind of game I've been talking about. (Yes, she plays video games, but often the ones that require a lot of thinking.)

There are just a lot of ways for people to approach games.

I've talked about this before, so some of this may seem familiar to some readers.

Cards that break or change the rules

One of my projects lately is an extension of earlier games. The general subject is card games, especially card games where cards can break the rules temporarily (quite common) or change the rules semi-permanently (much less common). Collectible Card Games rely on rule-breaking within the context of a single game, though in the long run CCG are effectively about breaking the rules. New cards are produced (and old cards banned) so that the winning strategies of the game are quite significantly changed. Designers of CCG say, if you have a tournament where the same kind of deck dominates, that dominated a year ago, you have failed. The whole point is to change the game so that players must buy the new cards (and that's why I strongly dislike CCG, an extrenal factor, how much money you're willing to spend, makes the game unfair).

Event cards, present in many boardgames, are usually rule-breakers rather than rule-changers.

Fluxx is a well-known game where many of the cards change the rules of the game "semi-permanently" (until someone else plays a card that changes the rules again). The result is very chaotic.

My game Law & Chaos uses both a board with piece placement (not movement) and cards, with the cards providing some rule-breaking, but more rule-changing, as victory conditions and capture methods change over time. In my card game Kung Fu, I stuck to cards that break the rules rather than change them. In the new game, I've tried a mix of cards, combined with a board and piece movement.

So far I'm not happy with the result, as the board seems too static, too territorial (which doesn't happen with L&C). We'll see if I can get away from that.