Month: February 2014

Story games

I recently came across this article by Greg Costikyan about the fundamental incompatibility of story and game  Story vs. Game.  This is as a result of a really interesting discussion on that topic at Keith Burgan’s game design forum.  I don’t want to critique Greg’s article so much as offer a counterpoint to that line of thought based on my experience playing and designing both computer games and tabletop roleplaying games.

The main thrust of the argument against combining story and games is that good stories are pre-determined and linear, while good games are not — they require the player to  have the agency to be able to make decisions that change things up.  So the conclusion drawn is that limiting the player’s agency makes for a worse game, and conversely allowing the player to mess with the arc of the narrative makes for a worse story.  You are effectively making a frankenstein that is unsatisfactory from either perspective.

I can’t argue with most of that, but to cut directly to the chase, I think it’s missing the vital point — you don’t play a story game to produce a story, you play it to be in a story.  The objective literary value of the ‘story’ produced as a result of play is irrelevant.  To quote Lemmy, “the pleasure is to play, makes no difference what you say“.  And in fact Greg talks about the huge advantage that participation gives games  over other mediums towards the end of his article.

There are also a few assumptions that go along with the story vs. game argument.  The first is the very concept that story and game are distinct and separate things that need to be mushed together somehow.  I think this is because so many games do exactly that — tack a few cut scenes in between blowing shit up.  Most gamers be like “How quickly can I fast forward through this stuff?”  But that type of stitch job isn’t the only option available.  A story game needn’t be “story + game” any more than an arcade game would be considered “game + physical challenge” or a strategy game as “game + planning”.  A story game can be simply a game about story.  The genre of interactive fiction.

The Story vs. Games article does consider “Choose your own adventure” style of games and also touches very briefly on paper RPGs.  The problem that Greg sees with CYOA games is that they lack goals. I don’t agree.  The goal is to work in the best interests of the protagonist.  Fictional Bowser kidnapped your fictional Princess Peach?  Man, you got to fictionally get her back!!!   The real problem with CYOA games is that they are just really simple little things that won’t hold any serious gamers interest for more than a few minutes.

For me, where Greg discusses Paper RPGs is the most interesting part of the article.  That part stands out because it concedes that yes, these peeps have fun playing their style of game, and that participation is the key to appreciating any resulting ‘story’.  But then glosses over that observation to conclude that by an objective literary measure, the ‘stories’ aren’t much chop.  To that, I refer you again to Lemmy.  But I will also add that the paper RPG community has made huge strides in the genre since 2001.  There is really a whole lot of insightful designers that have spent the last 20 years doing a mountain of great work with games intended to be both great fun to play and produce satisfying narrative as a result.

The second assumption is that a story game must necessarily be inferior as a game.  It ain’t necessarily so.  In fact, the factors that are most important for engaging gameplay – consequential decisions made in the pursuit of goals – are precisely the factors that make for engaging narrative.  So putting players in the position of the protagonist and giving them the opportunity to select those goals and make those consequential decisions seems more like a match made in heaven than a fundamental incompatibility.  They are just different types of decisions and goals to arcade games or strategy games, that’s all.

Lastly I would like to touch on the possibilities that story games offer.  I’m not going anywhere near  ‘games as art’ or ‘games vs. art’.  What I will say is that all types of games offer moments.   Arcade games can offer moments of exhilaration.  Puzzle and strategy games games can offer moments of satisfaction or triumph.  Story games can offer moments of emotion and insight.  It’s by the frequency and depth of these moments that story game players derive satisfaction from the ‘narrative’ rather than some literary measure of coherency.  Ask anyone who has played  improv theatre or paper RPGs, and has experienced a point where the talking stops and everybody stares at each other like ‘Did that actually just fucking happen?‘  There is definitely something worth shooting for there that only interactive fiction can provide.

The fact that nobody has quite yet managed to successfully bring that experience to computer games (that I’m aware of) isn’t anywhere near enough reason not to keep trying.

Dungeon Bash now on KICKSTARTER!!

Im ecstatic to announce that Dungeon Bash, my squad-based tactical roguelike for IOS and Android is now on Kickstarter!  

Can you imagine leading an acid blob, an elf and a minotaur into combat?  Or perhaps a pit-viper, a zombie and a slime demon?

Dungeon Bash puts the player in control of a team of three adventurers, randomly selected from a list of over thirty radically different creatures, each with their own strengths and weaknesses.  Your task is to learn how to effectively utilize your team in every new tactical situation they find themselves in, as they delve ever deeper into a monster filled dungeon.


Rules of engagement

A recap  — in all of my posts so far I’ve been banging on about decisions and goals as a way to understand and design games.  What separates a game from other activities is consequential decision making in pursuit of a goal, whether that goal be explicit in the game itself — even just ‘survival’, or a goal imposed by the player on the game, such as high-score or the innate goal of continuous improvement.   (see Building little empires)

If an activity doesn’t offer any opportunity for the player to make significant decisions in pursuit of a goal, then it isn’t a game.  I guess it could be called a ‘toy’ or an ‘experience’ depending on the intentions of the creator.

After more consideration, I have pinned down the problem I attributed to RTS games and Civilization, which I labelled ‘micro-management’.  To be more precise, I think the basic problem is a lack of engagement, which I see as the player experiencing a period in the game where they aren’t making consequential decisions in pursuit of their current goals.

I highlight current, because players goals can change during a game.  They can change in nature and they can change in scope.   For the player to stay engaged, the game has to allow them to make consequential decisions in pursuit of their currently favoured goals or they will get frustrated.  They may still keep playing if the pain of giving up is more than the pain of getting through the rough patch.  But the job of the designer is to try to keep the player engaged as much as possible.

So ‘micro-management’.  Something can only be termed micro-management if its in the context of there also being a macro.  If there isn’t also a macro to consider, then its just management 🙂   In games where the scope of play goes from small to large, as it does in any game where the goal is to make the players position larger and more influential, then the scope of the player’s goals are very likely to change from the micro to the macro as the game progresses.

Micro-management becomes unfun when it isn’t in-line with your current goals. Players want to be making decisions that are consequential to the goals that they have prioritised *right now*. When the players goals are in-line with manipulating single units, micro-management is fun, like at the start of most empire-building games, RTS games included. But if the game basically forces you to pay attention to other stuff that is not directly important to your currently prioritised goals, it feels like being asked to take out the garbage while you are watching TV.  Sure, the garbages needs to be taken out, but does it have to be done right now?  Can’t somebody else do it?  Im busy!

This is the reason that games such as these have ‘AI’ that you can delegate micro-management tasks to, but unless these are as reliable and efficient as a real player, they won’t be used.  In Dungeon Bash, it can get tedious to to guide a team of three through a cleared section, one team member at a time, so there is a ‘Leader mode’ where the rest of the team falls in line behind a designated leader as they travel automatically to a waypoint.  This is only going to be used if the player can rely on it.  So in Dungeon Bash, if any team member sees any monster at any point along the way, it instantly returns to manual control so you can’t get ambushed.

So the take-away is that the game design should facilitate the player being able to focus on whatever their currently prioritised goals are, with as little distraction as possible. Easy to say, harder to do, particularly for real-time games where the scope of the players goals necessarily must change from micro to macro as the game progresses.

Real Time Strategy games suck

I was brought up on arcade games where you went to a slightly shabby, disreputable place (kind of like how tattoo parlours used to be regarded – or anything ending with ‘parlour’ for that matter), plonked your coin on the cabinet screen, and waited for your turn to play these amazing, wonderful, mind-blowing things called computer games.

Arcade games were mostly about physical challenge.  The goals were not much more than survival and high score — (you played in front of an audience!)  The choices mainly moment-to-moment spatial and timing decisions that meant the difference between life and death.  Real lizard-brain stuff.  The self-improvement goal was real self-improvement – to get better at the game you had to develop better hand-eye coordination and reflexes.  I suppose first-person shooters are a logical evolution of those games — blurring the line between game and sport.

Physical challenge is appealing in games because the goal of self-improvement is innate to the player, and in ‘twitch’ games it encompasses both game and gamer in the most direct way.  It is also a common way to achieve flow in games — the pleasurable feeling of synchronicity and effortless accomplishment.

But if you aren’t designing a pure twitch game, it can be hard to marry physical challenge with higher-brain-function decision making.  They are somewhat incompatible.  How can you zone-out into a bullet-dodging state of conciousness and be making high-strategy decisions at the same time?  Maybe Ender Wiggins can, but what about the rest of us?

Spelunky manages to combine the two by making the physical challenge just as much about risk-assessment as reflexes.  To get good at Spelunky, you have to master certain physical challenges, but its rarely a stream of moment-to-moment decisions that are being made.  Jumping, climbing, flying and bomb-throwing all require dexterity and timing, but the game generally gives you time to consider which of those activities, if any, would be best, and if what you gain by succeeding is worth the risk of losing health if you fail.

It manages this by allowing the two concerns to be seperated.  The pace of the game is such that you have time to make high-level decisions and decide on a strategy – do I jump down here, blow up that wall, kill that frog and then use a rope to rescue the girl?  Or do I just leave that in the too-hard basket and go for the exit?  Having made the decision to rescue the girl, you can attempt to execute those physical challenges before deciding on further strategy.  In fact, a lot of the decisions you make when playing Spelunky revolve around how to arrange the situation so you have that time to seperate those two concerns.  How to buy time to plan your next move.  And what is planning but setting yourself a series of goals?

Buying time to plan is the major concern of RTS games.  With these games, you have to break your opponent’s ability to plan and implement a coherent strategy, whilst at the same time implementing yours.  Your goal is to remove the ‘S’ from your opponents ‘RTS’.  Once your opponent switches from planning mode to micro-managing his units in order to fight spot-fires, you are in the box seat.  It’s resource management where the resource in question is the player’s own time and focus.  RTS games tend to have three distinct phases — a build phase where the player is concentrating on pure strategy, a middle phase where they divide their time between planning and micro-management as required, and an end-game where one player is spending all of their time micro-managing as they slide inexorably to defeat.

OK, so I have to admit, RTS games don’t actually suck.  Micro-management is un-fun, for reasons I’ll cover in my next post ‘Rules of engagement’, but it seems to be a necessary evil in RTS games where the entire point of the game is to prevent your opponent from making consequential decisions.  And I have to admit that the middle phase of play where both players are pushing their opponent into spot-fire mode demands physical-challenge type of skill.  Not the type of skill that is based on timing and reflexes, but the ability to quickly identify a solution to a problem and implement it efficiently with rapid hand-eye — expending the least player focus (and other in-game resources) as possible.  I can see how this could lead to an ender Wiggin’s style state of flow for a good RTS player, although I’ve never managed it.  Probably why I think that RTS games are a bit sucky — sour grapes!

In many ways, Spelunky is a RTS game.  You plan — you decide on a series of goals — and you then you execute, performing physical challenges in order to do so.  Imagine that Spelunky didn’t allow you to arrange a little planning time.  Imagine that monsters constantly spawned in clear areas, or the ghost appeared on the level at the same time that the player did.  It wouldn’t be the same game, and in my opinion, it wouldn’t be anywhere near as good.  It inhabits the middle-ground on an axis between turn-based strategy and full real-time strategy, and it does this successfully by facilitating a steady flow of decision making, even though those decisions are different in nature.

To summarise, offering goals that are fundamentally different in nature, such as Physical challenge + Strategy is effectively asking the player to multi-task, and multi-tasking is not great for engagement and flow.  One way to combat this is to facilitate the player pursuing different types of goals sequentially rather than simultaneously.

Building little empires of out of some crazy garbage

Why does a multi-millionaire strive to make yet more money?  How could a teenager derive more satisfaction from the purchase of a second-hand jalopy than a middle-aged executive acquiring their third luxury sports car?  Because happiness and satisfaction are associated with relative improvement, not absolute achievement.  As long as you are better off today than you were yesterday, by whatever measurement floats your particular boat, you’ll feel good.

No, I haven’t decided to branch out into a self-help blog.  I was just setting up being able to use a quote – ‘In games, as in life‘.

An innate goal that players set for themselves in any game that allows it is to continually improve their situation.  Many games tap into this powerful urge by starting the player in a relatively uniform, weak or barely adequate state, and then offer opportunities for the player to make it more personalized, powerful or capable.  In Civilization, the aim of the game is to turn your little empire into a great one.  In Spelunky and Dungeon Bash, the player constantly strives to make their character or team more capable.

Look at Farmville.  A quick google, and many of the top results are articles sniffing that because its such a ‘dumb game’, it must be the ‘power of social-networking’ that is responsible for its phenomenal success.  Well sure, social-networking is a great way to promote awareness of the game and get people to give it a test-run, but the game itself must be doing something right to hold on to players for any significant time.  If you aren’t familiar with Farmville, its basically Sim City lite.  The same basic gameplay as Sim City is going on, except the game itself is less complicated and very accessible to new players.  The thing that is going on is resource management decisions in pursuit of the goal of building the player’s own little farm.  You start off with a certain amount of money, and you decide which crops to grow, and harvesting your crops gives you more money.  You can buy other stuff to personalize your farm, and tractors and things to make harvesting easier, etc…  As games go, it’s fairly shallow – the variety and depth of the decisions the player makes is limited.  As long as the player tends to their farm frequently enough, it’s existence is never threatened.  But regardless, it does allow the player to make decisions in pursuit of the goal of continual improvement and that’s enough.  Without that basic thing going on, no other amount of social-networking stuff laid on top would get anyone to play it for very long.

Minecraft is an example of this goal used in it’s purest form.  In this game you start with a pick-axe and a few other resources, and you can literally end up building the Taj Mahal.  This game has two modes: survival mode in which your resources are limited and the existence of your character is threatened by monsters and environmental hazards, and creative mode, where you have infinite resources, super powers, and nothing to worry about except what to build.  My exhaustive research (I googled it and clicked on the first three links) shows that survival mode is more popular.  Survival mode takes the improvement goal and combines it with some consequential decision making and thus makes a game of it.  Creative mode does not.

So.  The pursuit of improvement is probably the most important goal a game can facilitate.  Many successful games don’t use it, but many, many, many successful games do, and for good reason.