Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Gameplay Depth versus Variety

These are two out of about a hundred screencasts in my as-yet-unpublished course "Strategic Wargame Design."  Slide text below. 

(My preview is showing a blank for the screencasts, but last time this was just a delay in Blogger.  In case the embedded videos don't show up, the URLs are:
 Gameplay Depth and Variety (Breadth) part 1
Gameplay Depth and Variety (Breadth) part 2

Here is the text of the slides; I say more in the screencasts, of course, than that.
Gameplay Depth versus Variety
Dr. Lewis Pulsipher

A Difficult Topic
Because everyone seems to mean something different when they say “depth”
And because there are several kinds of depth
My main focus here is on gameplay depth
But we’ll talk about breadth (variety), and about other kinds of depth in games.

Gameplay Depth
A matter of making good choices:
When there are several plausible choices
Only some of them viable (likely to lead to success)
Which viable one is best depends on the situation (there is no always-correct solution)
And which one you choose makes a difference in whether you succeed
Furthermore, in deep games, choices tend to lead to other decisions you may not have been aware of beforehand

A Large Number of Decisions?
Gameplay depth comes not from the NUMBER of decisions, but from the quality of the choices and their importance to the outcome of the game
If there are too many decisions, ultimately no individual decision really matters
Or if some decisions are much more important, why are the trivial ones still in the game?????
What if you Can’t Lose?
Think about this: if you can’t lose, can it be a deep game by this definition?
If decisions don’t really make a difference, what does it matter?
This is the case with many video games
Even in Rogue-likes, you can get out of the game, copy the save file, then go back
Lack of losing is also in the nature of puzzles, and most single-player video games are puzzles more than games
Yes, you can give up before you solve the puzzle
In a transparent game it’s easy to see what the right decisions are
So someone can play once or twice and know most of what he/she needs to know to play as well as just about anyone
You can’t play a deep game a few times (or for a few hours) and then have a good handle on how to win/succeed
You just haven’t seen enough of it
But most (especially tabletop) games these days are designed so that you DO have a good handle, after one play
This avoids frustration/work for the players
But often results in a game that is only played once or thrice
Decisions without Always-Correct Solutions
Games that repeatedly put players "on the horns of a dilemma", decisions that do not have always-correct solutions, are more likely to have gameplay depth.
Resource management games can put you on the horns of a dilemma as there's always more you want to do than your resources allow.  But the consequence is quite different than from, say, a wargame
And there’s often a single optimal solution
Depth in Wargames
In a wargame, if you make the wrong decision, it could result in losing a territory, or having a ship sunk, or an army destroyed.
In a RM game, it results in less-than-optimal progress
In RM you're looking for optimal moves, and there usually is a solution.
In wargames, especially multi-sided (more than two) games, there may not be an always-correct solution (almost never is in multi-sided)
Other Kinds of Depth in Games
I’ve been talking about gameplay depth, but there are other kinds of things that people call “deep”
Puzzle depth
Model depth
And even story depth
But these are not about gameplay decisions, they’re about other aspects of the game
Well, puzzle depth is about decisions; but in a never-changing, ultimately predictable, environment

Puzzle Depth
Depth here in the sense of a long sequence of choices leading to ultimate success
Where you must make the right choice
Keep in mind, puzzles have always-correct solutions
Which means always-correct choices
And an essentially static environment
Beyond formal puzzles we have “games” that are solvable, such as chess, checkers, tic-tac-toe
Beyond that we have single-player games that may not involve random elements such as “dice”
When you solve it, you “beat the game”
Any game you can “speed run” in a few minutes is essentially a puzzle with an always-correct solution
Even if there are some random elements
Good games don’t have always-correct solutions (a “dominant strategy” is bad)
Story Depth
Lots of branches to the story, lots of choices that make or break the participant(s)
The old Final Fantasy games have a lot of story, though the gameplay is quite repetitive (and shallow)
So “depth” here is related more to intricacy than to right choices
Face it, in many if not most great stories, the protagonist is very lucky in his choices (and in what happens that he cannot control)

More in Part 2

Model Depth
The question here is, is the game a good model of whatever it is depicting?
Don’t confuse looks (photo-realism) with decisions
Are the decisions you make the same kind of decisions, same kinds of choices, a person could make in that real situation?
Do the things that happen in a game correspond with things that happen in the situation depicted?
The more that decisions, choices and occurrences correspond with the actual situation, the better the “model depth”
So, for example, FPS fail dismally as models
World of Tanks has the trappings of model depth to attract “war buffs”, but what you DO deviates immensely from reality in several vital respects
Same for World of Warships
Which isn’t to say they cannot be fun, they’re just not good models of war in the most important respects

Contrast with Variety
When contemporary  gamers talk about “depth” in a game, they often mean variety
They confuse depth and variety because they haven’t played many games with real gameplay depth
There’s a lot of decisions because there’s a lot of variation
But those decisions don’t necessarily matter, both in what you choose and in how it turns out
Moreover, if there are too many decisions, individually they tend to cease to matter, even if there’s a winner and loser
Especially in single-player video games, which can quickly get quite repetitive without sufficient variety, because there’s no human opponent
Variety is Breadth, not Depth
Perhaps they don’t recognize actual depth because they play games where you can respawn and can go back to saves
Variety is providing more things to do, but the decisions and choices don’t change their character, decisions don’t lead to “deeper”, hidden decisions
Instead, some of the parameters of the decisions change
Such as, when you play a spell-caster instead of a hack’n’slasher
You do things differently, but there’s nothing deeper about it
The result is breadth rather than depth
In a loot-fest like Diablo III you don’t even have to stick with your decision, you can change when you like (skill allocations etc.)
Think how much players like customizable characters
But what they choose mostly doesn’t matter to the outcome

Too many decisions:
Too many for the player to keep track of
So many that each one, individually, doesn’t really matter even if there’s a winner and loser
This is one reason for keeping games fairly simple, if you want a deep game rather than a broad game

Ideally . . .
Ideally you have both depth and variety
But some game players don’t want to think hard, to work to find the hidden decisions
For them, variety is quite sufficient
I think this is much less true for strategic wargame players, than for gamers as a whole

Digression: Another Kind of “Depth”?
Audience suggestion that there’s another kind of depth, that requiring highly-developed physical skills
In other words, we might call it Athletic Depth
And it’s only going to apply to games requiring dexterity, eye-hand coordination, etc.
This does also involve making good decisions related to the physical needs of success
It also requires a very high standard of athleticism, so that most people just won’t be able to do some of the harder things
Like the proverbial “200 actions per minute” in Starcraft
It’s more a part of “athleticware” than of “brainware”

Just scratching the Surface
I’ve written more than 6,000 words about depth in games
And I have to revise and extend it!
These videos are 135-140 words per minute . . . 6,000 would be about 45 minutes
But this will have to do for this course
I am planning a separate advanced course just about depth in games

Party games don’t have much depth, but may have breadth.  Traditionally, hobby games had depth.  Now, they tend to have breadth – variety - or puzzle or story depth, not gameplay depth