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Sunday, July 29, 2012

Digital Drama - More Lessons from the Tabletop

After a bit of a hiatus, I am back with more updates and glenalysis for your reading pleasure. Today I'm once again looking at lessons from the tabletop for some insights into how to make compelling player-on-player drama.

The Multiplayer Experience
      I'm a big fan of competitive, online multiplayer games. The thrill of a competition of wits and reflexes against another human being has a great visceral appeal, and makes the experience fresh and interesting every time. Yet in the interest of diversity, I have found other multiplayer experiences just as engaging, and perhaps more so, in the realm of tabletop gaming. While lacking the twitch-based gameplay of an electronic game, they compensate in other ways by offering a deeper gameplay experience that creates not just competition, but drama, among the players, something I have rarely really seen explored in electronic game design.

      The appeal of these "drama" board games goes beyond the creature comfort of live people gathered around a table. The mechanics they employ actually force interesting conflicts and dilemmas among the players, ones that requires as much skill in diplomacy as they do in strategy, and forge stronger, more memorable connections between players.
      Consider Game of Thrones, an excellent example of compelling drama. The interplay between characters, the unexpected betrayals, the struggle for power, all of these make for a memorable and engrossing experience for the audience. Is it possible to create a multiplayer game that could create this kind of drama?

Tales of the Tabletop
      While perhaps not quite on the scale of the war for the Iron Throne, there are several board games out there with some interesting design decisions that can create compelling conflicts among the players, beyond a simple struggle for the highest score. Moreover, some of these choices seem to fly in the face of conventional electronic game design, yet nonetheless work brilliantly. Perhaps in analyzing these ideas we may yet discover a way to translate their magic into the digital realm.
  • Cosmic Encounter - The Rise and Fall of Power
          Traditionally in online multiplayer games, the goal of a game designer is to make sure that every race, class, or equivalent choice is kept in balance with one another. No one should have an overwhelming advantage over the other, allowing the game to be focused on skill rather than luck. This concept goes back as far as even the rules of most sports, where everyone plays by the same rules and fairness is the main tenet of those rules.

          A game like Cosmic Encounter challenges this notion by deliberately making some races more powerful than others. When I first came across the Virus in an earlier edition of the game, I was convinced this game wasn't properly playtested and that this race was blatantly imbalanced. Yet my opinion changed in the newer Fantasy Flight edition of the game, where they started labeling races on how difficult they were to play, from green for easiest to red for hardest.

          Strangely, the races with the most powerful abilities end up being the hardest ones to play. This is because regardless of how strong your alien power may be, creating alliances and striking deals with other players is essential for your success. Being able to dominate in armed conflicts does you little good if every other player in the game has ganged up against you. This "imbalance" also creates interesting scenarios where players playing one of the "weaker" races can have some fulfilling underdog moments, conquering their more powerful rivals.

          Beyond alien powers are a variety of cards with the ability to dramatically turn the tables if used at the right time. Cards like "Card Zap" which can temporarily disable an opponent's alien power, or "Mobeus Tubes" which can make everyone get their lost ships back can quickly derail someone's plans and force them to have to rethink their strategy. It is this volatility that makes for dramatic turnarounds and can level the playing field between competitive and casual players.
  • Battlestar Galactica - Trust and Secrets
          Cooperative games can be a great way to bring people together and to have a good time, especially if its among friends. The sense of shared triumph is a powerful drive for both electronic and tabletop games alike. But what if there was a saboteur in your midst, secretly plotting the destruction of the rest of the team?

          This is the conflict that Battlestar Galactica brings to the table. Among your crew of human survivors is a Cylon, a humanoid robot secretly plotting the demise of humanity. While the humans are trying to stop Crises from decimating their precious resources, Cylons are actively trying to make it happen, making a major part of the human's success hinging on figuring out who is a Cylon.

          This element is built upon two mechanics. The first is loyalty cards. Each player is given a secret loyalty card at the start of the game to determine if they are a human or Cylon. So long as a Cylon remains unrevealed, they are able to act and perform the same actions as any other human. If they choose to reveal, they can utilize a special action on their loyalty card (such as locking someone in the brig), and then begin to send even more dangers at the humans. That said, a hidden Cylon can do far more harm than a Cylon in the open.

          This mechanic works alongside the mechanic of Crisis Checks. At the end of every player's turn, a Crisis card is revealed, often requiring a crisis check to determine its success or failure. To win a crisis check, players must contribute enough cards so that the total sum of the value of those cards meets or exceeds the difficulty of the crisis. Each Crisis has a list of valid colors that count in favor of the check, with all other colors counting against.

          Each player has their own hand of cards, and draws cards of particular colors/types each turn based on their character. Galen, for instance, draws 1 Politics, 2 Leadership, and 2 Engineering each turn. When a player contributes cards to the Crisis check, they do so in secret, and cannot reveal how much they are contributing. After each player has submitted cards or abstained, two cards are added from the destiny deck, a randomized deck containing two of each card type. All of the crisis check cards are then shuffled, and the cards counting for or against are tallied up to see if the Crisis is averted.

          The trick comes down to figuring out who is the most likely person to have thrown in the wrong cards for the check. Knowing what kind of cards each character can get gives you a hint of who it might be, but with the randomess of the destiny deck one can never be certain. Thus much of the drama of the game is in carefully scrutinizing everyone's actions and determining who might be the Cylon (or Cylons).

          Thus comes the second major element of the game - information. While most of the time you will be trying to deduce whether the other players are Cylons or not, there are a few ways players are able to gain access to information no one else have. The "Launch Scout" card, for instance, allows a player to peak at the next Crisis or Destination card and decide whether to put it on the bottom of the deck or keep it on top. Other abilities allow you to see other people's loyalty cards. When combined with the drama of trust the game evokes, it creates a compelling tension toward working with a character that has access to secret information, while still being suspicious of them.

  • Twilight Imperium - Uneasy Alliances
          Twilight Imperium adds a bit more nuance to the drama of trust BSG goes for. The goal of every game is to reach 10 victory points, which are earned by completing various objectives. Players select these objectives from objective cards, with some being public for all other players to see, and others are hidden from all but the player that took them. These objectives can vary from producing a certain number of ships, controlling specific planets, obtaining a certain number of trade goods, or many others. Thus often it is less about players contending over a single, zero-sum objective, but are pursuing many various paths that may or may not be in direct conflict with one another.

          This creates an interesting dynamic where not only is the line between friend and foe blurred, but players are given only partial information to make decisions on their would-be friends or foes. Thus the game becomes about taking risks and examining many parallel victory paths in order to succeed at your own while thwarting others.

The Power of People
      At the heart of each of these game's dramatic mechanics is tension between competing elements, working like a tug-of-war against each other. For Cosmic Encounter, this is in-game power of a player versus their skill with diplomacy. For Battlestar Galactica, it is trusting your team versus being suspicious. For Twilight Imperium it is knowledge versus the unknown. Each of these elements of tension create a constant sense of suspense for players, and puts the players themselves in the spotlight, rather than the game itself.

      But to have true player-driven drama, it is not enough just to have elements of tension. Most any game has them, from RTSes where you must manage how many workers versus fighting units to build, to survival horror games where you must ration your bullets and health items. To make the players the heroes and villains of your drama, very specific elements must be considered.

The Pillars of Player-Driven Drama
      Thus if one was to make a player drama game, here is perhaps a few things to consider:
  • Complex Interdependence
          In order to create a compelling drama, there must be a compelling reason for players to work together and interact with each other, beyond simple chatter or as an extra body to fight a boss. To do this, you need to give players the ability to bring something unique to the table, be that information, or some special ability, or some other like element.

          In terms of tension, there must also be a reason to distrust or be wary around other players as well. This encourages players to keep an eye on each other, indirectly making players work more closely together (and perhaps grow closer as friends). It also sets up for a memorable moment when you find out your once great BFF was planning to stab you in the back the whole time.

          The trick is making the game have the right kind of pacing to allow players to attend to their own actions while still being able to scrutinize others. Tabletop games solve this by having the game be turn-based, which gives players plenty of downtime to be able to watch what other people are doing and form strategies.

          For video games, this same effect can be accomplished through appropriate pacing of the game flow. Compare the non-stop action of something like Team Fortress 2 to the more punctuated action of an RTS game like Starcraft 2. In TF2, you all but need to have voice chat on and multitask to find out what's going on and what you need to do. For SC2, though, because you have many non-confrontational actions at your disposal (expanding, teching, scouting), there is plenty of time to be able to get a read on your opponent and/or your allies.
  • A Different Kind of Balance
          One commonality between many drama-oriented board games is that while there is an element of competition, they are not heavily skill-based. While experienced player may have an edge over a novice one, randomness levels the playing field by giving the opportunity for that novice player to pull out ahead, or for the more experienced player to suffer a setback.

          Having unexpected things occur is one of the major hallmarks of dramatic storytelling, and thus adds a sense of excitement when they come up. The challenge for a designer comes in making a game that, while random, gives players just the right amount of control what happens, provide equal opportunity for success and failure for everyone, and ensure that regardless of your luck, the game is still interesting.

          It's important for players to feel like they are in control, and that they can put their well-earned power in the game to good use. This is something Cosmic Encounter does very well, as players can look at their cards and plan ahead what their next few turns might look like. While there are unexpected events in the game, the player has enough control so they know when they are making a risky move vs playing safe.

          Contrast this to a game like Talisman, which does not handle randomness nearly as well. The player has almost no control over the outcome of the game, with luck being more based on the roll of the dice than a player's cunning. Worse still is that it is very easy for advantages or disadvantages to snowball and cause massive disparities among players. While perhaps good for lighthearted entertainment, it is not the best approach when creating a dramatic game.
  • The Blank Slate
          Alongside randomization, having the games be session-based, rather than persistent, opens up a lot of doors in the dramatic realm. For one, even if a player has a terrible time one game, there is always the incentive to come back in the hopes that they're luck would turn around next time. It also allows players to reach much greater heights of power and success in the game without causing a major imbalance.

          Competitive multiplayer games have done this for years, but it is much less common for larger social and MMO games, which instead opt for persistence. While people certainly enjoy creating their own customized cities and worlds in social games, or gradually accumulating in power by gaining loot in an MMO, I feel like this undermines the dramatic element of the game.

          Games with a lot of ups and downs, where players can achieve great feats within the span of a couple hours, tend to have much more emotional richness when compared to the much slower pace of persistent games. It is the difference between having a great, memorable time and forging new friendships vs forming a pick-up group to do a routine quest with people you will likely never speak to again.

          You could make the argument that those games are designed that way to keep people hooked as long as possible, and to keep them coming back. I would argue that just as many people come back again and again in multiplayer games too, even over a decade after the game's release (like Starcraft). Perhaps it is time to re-examine the idea of persistence in these genres, if only for a little more variety.
Livening Things Up
      Some people play games to escape their stressful and busy lives. Others come to games because their lives are boring and would like to liven things up. For those in the second camp, who wouldn't want a tumultuous drama of fueding families, deception, and hidden plots? I think we are sorely lacking dramatic games in the digital world, and I think we should seek to change that.

Sunday, May 6, 2012

God of War - The Twilight Series of Gaming

      The fantasy of little girls meets the fantasy of little boys. Sure, they are widely praised for their respective media, but both have seen their share of criticism for shoddy storytelling and excessive pandering to our base emotions (ie love and... the love for violence). From a classical academic perspective, one might scoff at such entertainment as a thing for fools and brigands. But are we the fools for underestimating their power?

      Having completed GoW 3 recently, I finally took a look at the criticisms Extra Credits has of God of War 2 and 3, claiming they have no redeeming value. Seemed a bit harsh, and as I thought about it further it reminded me of the many scathing critiques of the Twilight series. Perhaps they are not so different as they appear.

      So in the interest of furthering our narrative and designing skills, and to challenge conventional wisdom, let us delve further into the many ways our entertainment media push our buttons and pick our pockets.

Guilty Pleasures
      Both series are works of fantasy in the purest sense of the word. They are all about telling a story through which the audience can vicariously experience an emotionally-charged adventure. In particular, they deal with the theme of giving in to temptation and primal urges, with stories structured around embracing and acting upon one's innermost desires.

      Each story revolves around a central object of intense emotional weight. For Twilight, it is Edward, the ultimate object of attraction for Bella and the most perfect man she could imagine. She is drawn to him so much that she is willing to give up everything and do anything to be with him. For Kratos, it was his betrayers - first Ares, and later the rest of the Olypian Gods and even the Titans. As each one used him for their own ends, his rage only grew, to the point where he ended up all but destroying the world in the pursuit of his vengeance. While Twilight didn't get quite as epic in scope, the focus on a single, intense emotion was a cornerstone of both stories.

      As powerful as this kind of story can be in stimulating audiences, often it ends up being a double edged sword. On one hand, it creates a story that lends itself to great theatrics and spectacle, as the protagonist displays extraordinary ambition driven by intense feelings. It satisfies a certain fundamental need of every person to be able to express their emotions freely, without having to hold back, without fear of judgement or consequences. At the same time, however, it also creates a sense of momentum to the work that can be to the detriment of more thoughtful moments of exposition.

      The challenge, therefore, is in weighing the merits of committing to one technique of engagement, to create a perhaps small but enthusiastic following, or balance several in the hopes of attracting a larger audience.

Dimensions of Engagement
      When it comes down to it, the real reason Twilight has so many haters is because it lacks intellectual depth. There just isn't a good enough reason given why a 100 year old vampire would fall for a plain, ordinary young girl. It is the same thing that makes people scoff at movies like Transformers, which feature amazing special effects but not such an amazing plot. These are cases of where the creators of these works have heavily committed, and perhaps over committed, to a specific dimension of engagement.

      To really understand the strengths and pitfalls of different approaches to engagement, I have come up with three basic categories, or dimensions of engagement that roughly encompass different approaches to attracting audiences, both in interactive and non-interactive media.
  • Reptilian
          The simplest and most basic form of engagement from which all others arise. It's the simple joy of watching explosions, pressing buttons, or popping bubblewrap. It is our innate reaction to intrinsically amusing things. In films and other visual media, this is typically what Plato referred to as Spectacle, or the audio-visual experience of the work.
    This guy is not fooling anybody.

          The equivalent in games is often the mechanics. Every game has mechanics, though the degree to which these mechanics take center stage varies from one title to the next. On one end of the spectrum you have games like Heavy Rain with only rudimentary mechanics, all the way to Farmville, where the experience is almost entirely about interacting with the mechanics, with no real narrative in the traditional sense.

          At its heart, Reptilian engagement is about the simple manipulation of expectations. For noninteractive visual media this often came in the form of subversion of those expectations, or surprises. But interactive media, or even interactive experiences, hold their own intrinsic joys. Whether you are turning a key to turn on a car, or hitting a button to attack an enemy, the core enjoyment of the experience is the same.

          Every game has Reptilian engagement at varying levels, some more than others. Those that leverage this dimension the most tend to be casual/facebook games and MMOs. People do not go to Cityville to be brought to tears, or to expand their mind, but to scratch an itch to see their dream city come to fruition. Likewise, plenty of MMO players all but ignore the narrative of their game to do quests and get increasingly better rewards. Both are motivated by very simple desires, to watch the call and response between themselves and the game, and to cherish each small magic purple cow reward they get.
    Every junkie needs their fix.
  • Cranial
          Once patterns start becoming complex, we enter into the realm of Cranial engagement. While reptilian engagement is about observing cause and effect, Cranial engagement is about going under the hood and understanding the system that governs what we observe. Whether that means picking up on subtle hints and clues in a murder mystery, lateral thinking to solve a puzzle, or predicting an opponent's intentions and crafting a clever counter-strategy, it is all about analyzing and deconstructing patterns in our mind.

          It is typically the dimension that most readily allows us to suspend disbelief and become immersed in a work of fiction. Once we understand the social, political, or perhaps even physical rules that help govern the world and circumstances of the plot, we are better able to make predictions about what might happen and what is possible. If characters act in a way that is contrary to these "rules" laid out at the outset, we are more likely to be pulled out of the experience and question it.

          In terms of gameplay, Cranial engagement is about balancing predictability with probability. It should be predictable enough so one could confidently say "my Immortals will totally wreck his Mech army" in Starcraft 2, for instance, but with just enough unpredictability (such as the choices of another human being) as to not make the predicted outcome inevitable.

          Likewise narrative is about balancing predictability with plausibility, carefully defining the rules of relationships, personalities, experiences, etc in such a way as to create a pattern, and then breaking that pattern in interesting ways that are unexpected, yet still make sense in the framework of the story.
  • Visceral
          While popping bubblewrap can be fun for an hour or two, you're unlikely to see someone write a sonnet about it. Once we move away from simple diversions into the realm of weighty, emotional experiences that leave a mark on our very souls, we enter the Visceral dimension.

          Visceral engagement seeks to elicit strong emotional responses out of its audience in one of two main ways. The first is to assume that the audience has experienced something similar to the drama that unfolds before them. When done right, this has the advantage of making a story seem more personalized, as the viewer fills in the blanks with their imagination and is reminded of similar moments in their own life. This tends to be the main draw of romances, like Twilight.

          The second is to present an entirely novel experience the viewer is unlikely to have experienced firsthand. Often times these start with the seed of a common ambition, or feeling people can relate to, then take the viewer on a journey to contextualize and lend weight to the experience. This is essentially God of War's approach, as while most have not been tricked into murdering their family, people generally understand the emotions associated with betrayal. While the first method tends to deal with more mature, complex emotional situations and feelings, this method tends to be less connected to reality, and thus has a lower barrier of entry.

          Visceral engagement is typically employed either in the tone and feel of a work, or to punctuate important moments, thus making them more memorable. Dead Space is a great example of both of these put into practice. The audio and visual style of the game world were appropriately haunting, creating a constant sense of dread and empathy with the protagonist.

          This feeling is accentuated by moments where a corpse might pop up from the ground to lunge at you, or when a giant tentacle bursts out of the wall, yanking you toward a nasty-looking maw. Those terrifying moments help to not only add to the dark atmosphere of the game, but make even calm moments feel tense in anticipation of the next big scare.

Great Expectations
      So having defined these dimensions, we can look at the whole issues with God of War and Twilight through a different light. They both reflect how often Cranial and Visceral dimensions are at odds with each other, where usually one is focused on at the expense of the other, while Reptilian doesn't tend to enter into the narrative arena outside of funky narrative gimmicks.

God of War - Stone Cold Badass, or Unhinged Sociopath?
      Returning to Extra Credits' criticism of God of War, I can see where those guys are coming from. While God of War 1 had a pretty convincing narrative that explained Kratos's murderous behavior, his wanton rampages in the 2nd and 3rd installments just seemed to be mindless killfests. However, if you look at the disappointment Kratos is left with in the first game (to dance around spoilers a bit), you can kind of see a reason why he did start going nuts and killing people.

      The problem is less the plot, and more the characterization of Kratos himself. In GoW 1, his demeanor and character was spot on for what he was going through. He was pissed off, but more or less level headed, as he was guided by a clear purpose and the promise of being freed from his pain. When that didn't work out so well, it would have made sense to transition his characterization from a cold-hearted badass, to more like a craven maniac, acting out of desperation and torment, rather than the hope that vengeance would set him free.

      In terms of the dimensions of engagement, the problem basically boils down to the fact that the developers seemed to want to continue the magic of the character of Kratos, and through his characterization remain consistent to the Visceral feel of the first game. Likewise, his attitude and demeanor had a certain Reptilian charm that made a player feel awesome as they became this powerful warrior. While it would correct the disconnect between the events of the story and Kratos's attitude from the Cranial side of things, it seems they decided to err on the side of keeping the character true to what the fans love, rather than potentially alienating people by messing with it.

Twilight - Fantasy over Fidelity
      Twilight's issue is not so easy to fix, as Bella's fixation on various vampire and wolf men beefcakes are pretty much indelibly linked to a rather immature fantasy of being loved for... really no good reason. For that reason there isn't a magic bullet answer to fixing its narrative, and having not read the books myself I am hardly someone to pick apart the minutiae of its plot for a way to fix it. I can, however, offer a contrast to its immature take on love with a film that handled love in a more nuanced way - Scenes from A Marriage.

      When I first heard about the film years ago in a Film Appreciation class, it sounded like the most boring thing ever. In its made for TV version, it is a 3 part film, 6 hours in total, focusing on the marital troubles of its two main characters. There was very little in the way of action, and even fewer supporting characters. In spite of how it sounded on paper, it turned out to be quite surprisingly awesome.

      Perhaps it is the skill of the actors to show emotion on the screen, or my own conflicted feelings about the nature of love, but I was genuinely moved by what I saw, far beyond my expectations. Dimension wise it was almost entirely Visceral - no complicated plot, no flashy explosions or even hot wimens to ogle. It was very focused and guided the audience's expectations well, and kept it all firmly in the realm of emotion.

What did you expect?
      Did it ever bother you that you couldn't blow away Koopas with a Rocket Launcher in Super Mario? Or uncover the lurid mystery of the murder of Blinky, Pinky, Inky, and Clyde in Pac-Man? Or discover what horrible socioeconomic conditions drove the Angry Birds to hurling themselves into buildings to their deaths to save their children, and if it was all an allegory for terrorism and Western imperialism*?

*And here I thought I was so clever for coming up with this myself.

      Each one of these games, like Scenes from a Marriage, was able to manage expectations in such a way as to make audiences satisfied with their entertainment, not demand something beyond what it offered. This is the real key to making a fulfilling experience, garnering fame and accolades, without all the haters.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Warcraft III - It's Not a Bug, It's a Feature!

Of Bugs and Features Obscura
      Developers often use the phrase as a joke for when some outlandishly bizarre yet hilarious bug pops up in their game. Coming from a software development lineage, bugs are often seen as bad things, and in sports any kind of exploit or funny attempt to bend the rules is generally frowned upon. I would argue games are different, and that sometimes bugs and exploits can become wonderful things.

      Perhaps my fondest memories involving exploits come from back when I was really into Warcraft III: Reign of Chaos. It was the first game I had followed since beta, and thus had a chance to watch grow and evolve over countless patches and updates. Along the way players came up with some clever and often hilarious ways to mess with the game's mechanics.

      In searching around to refresh my memory on a few of these exploits, I came to discover that it seems like they have mostly been forgotten from the internet. No videos, no articles, not even a wiki detailing these early exploits and the antics that ensued. I felt much like the last living practitioner of the ancient Sikh martial art of Shastar Vidya, and that I alone carried a forgotten secret that I am morally compelled to share with the world, that it's knowledge may live on forever. So let's get started.

The Glory Days of RoC
      While an awesome game in its own right, Warcraft III did get off to a bumpy start. Over the first few years of its life it received numerous patches, ranging from minor balance fixes to major overhauls of major systems in the game. This was all done in the name of tuning the balance of what was in many ways a very different kind of RTS.

      The game changed most dramatically upon the release of its expansion, The Frozen Throne, where the entire armor system was redone and invisibility detection for heroes was reworked (notably by replacing the passive gem of revealing for the limited duration, activated dust of appearance) among many other big changes.

      Over the course of this process of refinement, players were able to find clever ways to exploit the game to do some pretty outlandish strategies. Below are a few examples of some of the more notable ones.

Note: Sadly these mostly existed in the pre-youtube dark ages of the internet, so I've taken some liberties with visual representations.
  • Forest Walking
          Undead have a different way of gathering resources compared to other races. Whereas most races have a single builder unit that doubles as a resource gatherer, the Undead used two different units for this purpose: Acolytes, for gathering gold and summoning structures (in the same manner as the Protoss probes in Starcraft), and Ghouls, which harvest lumber and are also your tier 1 melee unit. Ghouls aren't amazingly powerful, but can be deadly in groups, especially with a Dread Lord and/or Death Knight's auras on them (the former giving life steal, the latter faster health regeneration and move speed). Think of them like the zerglings of Warcraft III.

          A noteworthy behavior to point out about resource gathering units is that while they are harvesting lumber or gold, their unit collision is turned off (ie they walk right through any other unit). Ordinarily, this is meant to prevent workers from getting in the way of your units and vice versa, but one clever Korean player (as the legend goes) discovered that you could use this to your advantage in battle.

         Say you are up against some Humans as Undead, and they are charging at you, with some trees behind them. What you could do is select your ghouls, then click on the trees behind them, commanding the ghouls to harvest from them. This would then cause your ghouls to walk toward that tree and walk right through your opponent's army. Once they have surrounded the enemy hero, you could then order them to focus fire on him, forcing them to use a pricy town portal scroll to teleport his army back to base, or stand there and die. Since losing a hero in battle can make a huge difference, this could make for an easy win for an unscrupulous Undead player.

          While this exploit was patched away, it still exists in some form in Starcraft 2. Skilled zerg players are able to command groups of zerglings, which are both small and among the fastest units in the game, to move past a cluster of enemy units, then command them to stop, which immediately causes them to attack nearby enemies, thus trapping them and in most cases sealing their fate. It can make a huge difference in how much damage your zerglings will inflict.
  • Militia Rushing
          Every race has a unique way of defending their base, particularly against early harassment. For Orcs, they have burrows, which act as bunkers for their peons to get into to throw spears at nearby enemies. Night Elves have moon wells, which heal and recover the mana of nearby units. Undead can convert their ziggurats into towers and (after Frozen Throne) could use an item from their racial shop to summon skeletons from their graveyard building. Humans could temporarily turn their peasants into militia, combat units roughly on par with Footmen, but only lasted for 30 seconds until reverting back to peasants.

          While designed to help defend bases and expansions from attacks, someone also discovered it could be used offensively as well. If you build a Town Hall near an opponent's base when they aren't looking, you could amass a large group of peasants quickly, convert them to militia, and overwhelm your opponent with sheer numbers.

          This strategy is similar to a cheesy move that can be done as Zerg in Starcraft 2. Known as the Proxy Hatch, Zerg players can theoretically build a hatchery inside an opponent's natural* and create a flood of units to overwhelm their opponent from behind their wall of defenses.

  • *Note: "Natural" refers to the valley or peninsula a player starts at, which typically has a single entrance. This is in contrast to "expansions," or other areas on the map where a base could be established to harvest resources.
  • The Cube
          In the early Warcraft III days, heroes were able to gain experience whenever a tower kills a unit. On the surface this seems sensible, but of course some players took it upon themselves to exploit this fact. Afterall, if towers can award kills, who needs units? Thus "The Cube" strategy was born.

          The Cube was created by creating a massive square (or "cube") of towers in the middle of the map and focusing only on making three heroes and almost no other units. This was typically done as the humans, as they had the most types of towers available to them. Against an unskilled player, who would just throw their units at it in a vain attempt to destroy the cube, the defending player would quickly level up and be able to crush their opponent's army.

    Just pretend these are Human towers dressed up for Halloween.

          Obviously there isn't anything quite as crazy as this in Starcraft 2, but vestiges of this strat are still viable. It is basically just tower rushing on steroids, and of course more traditional tower rushing is still around. Protoss can build pylons to construct photon cannons in or near an opponent's base, which can be a major hassle to deal with. Likewise bunker rushing as Terran is also viable, though it requires a few extra marines to get inside it. On a number of high level matches I have even seen Zerg players spread their creep across the map and place spine crawlers around the map to act as a speed bump for enemies trying to take a new expansion.

          Though as a side note, recent RTSes have generally gone out of their way to discourage "turtling" (walling yourself in with a ton of defenses to keep your opponent away while you just mass up a powerful army). Features like Protoss warp-ins, Zergling's nydus worms, or Terran drop ships are all designed as ways to pop into your opponent's base to hit them from an unexpected angle. As such, crazy defensive strategies like this have fallen out of favor in more recent iterations of RTS design.
  • Mass Ancient Protectors
          The majority of Night Elf buildings are actually giant treants, and as such have the ability to make melee attacks to nearby enemies, and uproot to walk around (kind of like how most Terran buildings lift off and fly in SC2). This includes the Night Elves' tower structure, the Ancient Protector. Initially, rooted Ancient Protectors dealt siege damage, which is meant to deal the most damage to buildings, which was an odd choice for a defensive structure.

          Players decided to exploit this fact by simply creating a bunch of Ancient Protectors (in lieu of units) and march them up to their opponent's base. Having fortified armor, they were quite powerful, and combined with the ability to earn experience from tower kills it meant you could realistically use an army of Ancient Protectors instead of an army (and thus not have to worry about food or upkeep costs). Sadly they have since changed the armor type of walking treants to Normal and their damage to Piercing, the least effective against buildings.

          As mentioned above, the closest equivalent to this would probably be tower rushing... though with the exception of spine crawlers (which can only "root" on creep) towers cannot move. You can, however, use the flying ability of Terran buildings to send reinforcements into the back of a player's base, for example, if you so choose.

Exploits and Emergence
      Aside from an amusing history lesson, it is also a reminder of one of the most unique qualities of our medium - emergence. Whether you are trying to limit emergence to keep a game balanced, or embracing it to allow for players to express their creativity, every game designer has to tackle it one way or another.

      The traditional role of iteration in any field has always been a way to refine some product until it performed the desired function. In the case of games, this takes the form of playtesting and tweaking, with the end goal typically being to make a game that lives up to the vision that the designers intended from the outset. But iteration has the potential for something even greater.

      Much like how games are a culmination of audio, visual, and experiential art, so too is the process of creating games a hybrid of sculpture, science, and perhaps a little archeology. You aren't just trying to pull what's in your mind into the real world, you are forming a hypothesis of what your game should be, and in the process of making it and testing it you are uncovering new and intriguing elements of your design as you go along.

      British economist Tim Harford gave a great TEDTalk about the power of iteration, and how it challenges the impulse many people fall into called "The God Complex." At around 9:08, he gives an anecdote about Unilever wanting to develop a specialized nozzle for creating laundry detergent powder. They initially attempted to get the best and the brightest engineers to help them design this nozzle, only to have them fail. It was simply too complicated.

      What they ended up doing was creating a set of randomized variations of the nozzle, testing which one worked best, then creating a ton of variations on that nozzle, finding the best one, and repeating the process. They eventually found the one nozzle design that worked perfectly, and the fascinating thing is that they could not explain why it worked.

      In other words, the problem at hand was too big for even the brightest mind to solve, and thus the only way to arrive at the solution was through iteration. After watching this I got to thinking how this could be applied into the realm of creative works, like video games, and I believe the answer lies in the phenomenon known as the Ascended Glitch.

The Power of the Ascended Glitch
      The Ascended Glitch, by definition, is an unintended feature or exploit found in a game that developers end up keeping. Sometimes these glitches are just silly, like the famous Skyrim glitch of Giant glitch. But a few times they allowed for huge leaps forward in game design.

      Street Fighter 2, for instance, was the first fighting game to have combos. Combos emerged from an exploit where players could interrupt attack animations to attack faster than they should normally be able to. This single-handedly defined the fighting genre and helped make it the great success it is today. There are countless examples of this happening for other titles as well.

      Defense of the Ancients, or DOTA, is another great example. Developed by a small group of modders, it became so popular as to take on a life of its own. Along the way many exploits were discovered, including the ability to exploit neutral creep spawning behaviors to "stack" a creep location with multiple sets of creeps, manipulating the pathing of neutral creeps to kill off your own creeps to deny experience to the enemy, or aggroing enemy minions by attacking an enemy hero when in their aggro range. Where some would see these as exploits, these came to become legitimate tactics to be used in the game, and were even ported into DOTA 2 for that reason.

      Perhaps it is time then for game developers to open their eyes to, or be reminded of, the power of iteration not only as a reductive tool to arrive at a desired solution, but also as a tool to discover new ways to enjoy games no one has even begun to imagine.

God in the Machine
      If nothing else is to be learned from the lesson of the God Complex, it is that we as human beings and developers should always be humble in our work. We should understand that sometimes the best ideas are not conceived in our own minds, but in the vast realm of possibilities beyond it.

      It need not only help us in making games better, but in mitigating conflicts easier. One guy wants to implement a mechanic as X, and the other as Y? Try both, and see what happens. Maybe the most fun solution is a hybrid of both, or some outlandish permutation of either one.

      In short, embrace unpredictability, and do not be so quick to fix a bug that might very well become your game's defining feature.

BONUS: A Post-Mortem of "The Dovakiin Switcheroo"
      I got a lot of interesting feedback on my last post, both from game developers and die-hard Skyrim apostles alike. The argument was basically over whether Skyrim was ultimately a game about exploration, or a game about accumulating "stuff" (weapons, abilities, spells, levels, etc). In the course of this discussion, it made me rethink my initial conclusions of the game.

      The problem is less about making the game dramatically changing upon reaching a certain level of power in a given specialization, but the fact that there is not enough content in the game to allow players to experience the whole game using the playstyle of their choosing. Contrast this to D&D, where the "power ceiling" is extremely high, where there are hundreds of different items and weapons to collect, and the ability to reach near-godhood by the time you reach its level cap.

      As such, I see two possibilities to fix Skyrim: either add more "stuff" to allow players to reach higher levels of power, or create more scenarios that guide players toward particular playstyles, to encourage diversification of their skills.

      If your curious or have a comment about Skyrim, please visit the link above.

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Skyrim (Part 2) - The Dovakiin Switcheroo

      In Part 1 I went into an overview of "endless" games and the different ways game work to extend their longevity. This part will jump off from that to focus on the larger question of player satisfaction and how to avoid design dissonance. Along the way I will also explore some of the ideas brought up in the comments of my last post as they relate to this topic.

A Tale of Two Skyrims
      In the beginning, Skyrim was great. Despite not being a huge fan of open-world games, I was an instant convert. I realized right away why people loved these games - the feeling of immersion as you traverse vast landscapes and slay monsters is unlike anything I had experienced before. I was able to overlook most of its tiny flaws - its combat, for instance, was a bit simplistic for me. It didn't matter, since the overall experience of the game so great. For 98 hours I was having a great time, then the experience changed dramatically.
What in Oblivion is that?

      It was around the time I hit level 35 that the game started to lose its charm for me. I had learned most of the spells, gotten through most of the story quests, explored numerous side quests, and got some pretty awesome equipment. The problem was that I was at the point where the rewards for exploring were getting less and less interesting, and I had less and less need to level up or get better stuff.

      It was around this same time that I began to lose interest aimlessly exploring the world as I had done before. For every one area that had some genuinely interesting subplot to it, there were dozens of caves, ruins, and bandit camps purely there to guard loot. Short of going on a wiki or hunting those areas down on GameFAQs, how am I to know which areas are kickass adventuring areas and which are just filler dungeon crawls? Never mind a more casual player that hardly ever uses such resources.

      This presents an interesting design problem. Essentially the core of the game experience was not clearly conveyed to me as the player. The mechanics suggested the game was about accumulating loot and getting more powerful, fighting monsters, and completing quests. But in the grand scheme of things, the game is more about adventure and discovering what the world has to offer. The mechanics the player is exposed to early on does not set the correct expectations for the rest of the game, nor does it provide compelling incentives for exploration beyond a certain point.

What does your game say to your player?
      These days, players expect to learn how to play a game from jumping in and playing it. Often this includes a tutorial, but not necessarily. Thus the primary way for a player to understand how to play the game and what their goals should be is through the mechanics. The mechanics, particularly those the player are exposed to at the beginning of the game, teach a player what the game is about, and they can be thought of as a "language" by which the designer speaks to the player.

     Mechanics condition a player to approach a game a certain way. Whether you are a die-hard gamer, who expects to have a similar experience to similar games you've played in the past, or a new player with no expectations at all, the mechanics tell you how to play. The players level of game literacy makes no difference. They will invariably draw conclusions about the game from the mechanics that are most obviously presented to them, and herein lies the problem with Skyrim.

     Much like how action games condition players to get through the game as fast as possible, so too does Skryim put an emphasis on getting more "stuff," be it new spells, new equipment, etc. Which is hardly surprising, as it has become a staple of the genre for many years now.
Thanks, Diablo! >:(

      The problem is that once you have effectively accumulated all of the best stuff the game has to give you, Skyrim becomes a completely different game. It goes from being a stuff-oriented dungeon crawler to what is essentially an open-world adventure game, with a few combat speedbumps here and there. It's not unlike what happened with the controversial game Manhunt, which devoted the first half of the game to stealth and melee combat, then turned into a frenetic shooter later in the game.

      This kind of dissonance creates a situation where players have to choose to either fundamentally change their playstyle completely from what they were used to and had enjoyed, or walk away from the game and not bother with the remaining content of the game (which could be in the ballpark of 75% of what the game has to offer!).

      This is bad design on many levels. First, it means a good chunk of players will not bother experiencing most of your content, making it a waste of the dev's time and money. Second, it means your mechanics are basically tricking the player into thinking the game is about something it isn't. Finally, you are making an experience that ends in a fizzle rather than a bang, with players losing interest long before seeing the finish line.

Switching Gears while Keeping People On Board
      Now you could argue that there are plenty of games that switch things up on their players. If you really wanted to get nitpicky, you could say your basic RPG is like two different games: one where you are in town, and one where you are out fighting monsters. Could this not also be seen as a conflict? Not if done correctly.

      Switching gears like this can actually be a helpful tool if you consider its effect on the pacing of the game. In an RPG, for example, having the player go back to town or visit a new town helps establish a good curve of tension-to-rest, which facilitates a more enjoyable experience overall. Not only does it help create a bigger contrast between the game's highs and lows, it also gives players a chance to process the action they have experienced, and through NPC interactions understand the context of what they are doing.

      At the same time, it is important to delineate which modes of play (such as combat or visiting town) constitute the core game experience, and which play a secondary role of enhancing the core experience. For an RPG you can generally see the connection between the town and combat fairly easily - the town allows you to stock up on equipment and weapons to help you fight monsters better, and provide quests and lore to help enhance the sense of purpose behind those actions.

      Occasionally the core play experience is a matter of debate, as was the case with Guild Wars. The original concept of the game was to build it around a competitive experience, where the single player experience (PvE) acting as a prelude to competitive PvP, which the designers assumed players would graduate to once they tired of the single player experience. But that wasn't what happened.

      The playerbase instead was divided between players that loved PvP and those that loved PvE. Sure, you had people that loved both, but the vocal players were the ones at either end of the spectrum. PvP players were frustrated they had to play through the single player campaign in order to unlock the abilities and equipment they wanted, and wanted to have everything unlocked without any grind. PvE players, on the other hand, felt that would be unfair, as it would belittle the hard work they had to go through to unlock those same items from questing. So a compromise was reached where they introduced "Faction" points you could earn from PvP to spend on unlocking more stuff.
WoW developed its own suspiciously similar Arena mode some time later.

When an Object says more than a Character
      Planescape had a similar issue of dissonance. Like Skryim, it had a large number of weapons and spells you could get, as well as various items to boost your combat effectiveness, yet was ultimately about exploration and discovery. The designers cleverly used the games inanimate objects and loot to help reinforce, rather than override, the player's desire to explore the game world.

      In place of generic swords and healing potions are various blood charms, enchanted teeth, magical tattoos, talking books, detachable eyeballs, bugs that crawl in your brain to make you smarter, and many more. Every item tied itself inextricably to the lore of the game world, and functioned like a puzzle piece that fit into the larger tapestry of the game's vast and imaginative lore. Every object was imbued with a sense of purpose and mystery, reflecting the tone of the game and enticing the player to learn more about the Planescape universe.

      There is only one item in Skyrim that reminded me of what Planescape did - The Wooden Mask. The player stumbles across this mask in an ancient ruin, along with a note talking about how a man put the mask on and vanished into thin air. If the player puts on the mask, they themselves are transported into a magical room, with a series of busts resembling figures wearing similar masks. No further explanation is given, but the player over time realizes the purpose of this room. Finding that mask was by far the most enjoyable thing I did in the game.

      Items aren't the only way to make a stronger connection between the narrative and gameplay. Games like Bioshock did a brilliant job of making abilities and the environment itself tell a story, and support the "proper" narrative told by the various NPCs. Dead Space likewise took an interesting approach with its weapons, with each one being a repurposed mining tool. All of these are great examples of using objects in the game to reinforce the narrative, and perhaps even entice players to learn more about the game world.

      In short, design choices should be considered carefully as to make them all fit into place to form a cohesive whole, rather than compete against eachother and create a fragmented experience.

What am I Doing With My Life?
      Bigger still is the idea of making games feel more meaningful and worthwhile for players. This can only be accomplished by considering what the designer wants the player to get out of the game, beyond of the confines of the game itself.

      The most memorable games I have played are games where I got something meaningful out of playing them. Final Fantay VII's strong musical score added deep emotional resonance to the experience. Planescape challenged the player's preconceptions of reality and philosophy, making one think more deeply. Beating a match in Starcraft 2 gives players a great boost in confidence, and killing demons in Devil May Cry 3 to its awesome soundtrack gives you a feeling of thrilling empowerment.

      These are all games that made me feel something even after I stopped playing the game. They made me feel that my experience was rewarding and well worth the price of admission. After all, what is entertainment if not the trading of money for the chance to experience powerful emotions?

      That's not to say that every game needs to be a Shakespearean drama or a Nietzschean dissertation on the nature of reality. Sometimes some mindless violence or some lighthearted fun is just what players want. But too many games try to be like snacking on Cheetos - a delicious yet unenlightening experience, instead of aspiring to be like a mind-blowing documentary, which could change a player's life forever.

      In the grand scheme of things, every time we choose to do something, we miss out on doing something else. Playing a game is an investment of time and money that could be spent elsewhere, and as such games are competing for people's attention from movies, books, socializing with friends, or dating. Consider your game like a present you are giving to your players. Underneath the shiny wrapper of nice graphics and gameplay, what do you ultimately want the player to walk away with? More confidence? A stronger bond to their friends? A new perspective on life and the world around them?

      All too often developers seem to take the easy route, looking to make a game purely for someone to kill time on, or to stave off boredom. This may be well and good for an iPhone game, but if we hope to make the jump from whimsical diversion to enriching entertainment experience, we as developers need to go deeper and give players something that is comparable, if not better, than other activities.
Clearly an allusion to the fall of the Berlin Wall.

      Board games, for instance, have done a great job of blending a light, fun game experience with social bonding. In fact, some games have taken this a step further, featuring interesting player conflicts that can spark conversation, friendships, and be a vehicle by which other players can get to know each other. A board game like Battlestar Galactica is a great example of this, as it toys with the idea of trust and creates a situation where players really need to analyze each other and discern their motives in order to be successful. It creates an environment where players are asked to express their personality, which gives players a stronger emotional bond with the game and those they play with.

Rewards vs Rewarding Experience
      In discussing why Skyrim isn't as satisfying as it could be on my last post, an interesting idea was brought up. Perhaps the problem with Skyrim, and indeed many games, is that they rely on artificial rewards in place of making the act of playing the game being its own reward. Perhaps the over-reliance on these artificial measures of reward are what's holding these games back.

      I think this is a good point, especially when it comes to games like MMOs. Most MMOs task player with some sort of menial quest, with the promise of some gold and perhaps a new weapon for completing them. Now when you think about it, what kind of game experience is that? You are telling the player to go work on something boring and then get rewarded with what amounts to nothing more than a gold star. Sure, you could use that gold to get better equipment... to do more boring quests... to get more equipment...

      Compare this to the Assasin's Tombs found in Assasin's Creed II. These are areas where the player has a chance to relive the glory days of Prince of Persia, acrobatically climbing and leaping across various platforms in the environment. It makes for a nice diversion from all the neck stabbing, and as a reward gives you a seal you can use to unlock Altair's armor from the first game. This I think is a great example of how this should be done: make the end reward be icing on the cake, not a consolation for forcing your player to put up with your lack of imagination.

      Turning back to Skryim, one could make the case that because Skryim ostensibly makes getting loot and better stuff appealing, that those things detract from the game's more substantive content, and in some cases is even used in place of interesting encounters. This is the wrong way to go, and I think it is time we focus more on the experience of games being their own reward, rather than handing out trophies for putting up with tedious activity.

      "Get your designer hands out of my play experience!"
      "Get Big Designer off our backs!"
      "Let the Free Gamer decide rather than Big Designer picking winners and losers!"

      Like their political counterparts, there are some people out there that don't want to be told what to do. They don't want an authority figure dictating how they should play their games, and desire as much freedom as possible in their play experience. Some even go so far as to say that making games built around expression and freedom are the future of gaming, and there is certainly merit to that argument.

      You could certainly make the argument that giving players more freedom to play games as they please is not only the best way to go, but the ultimate future of the game medium. After all, who is a designer to say how the player should have fun in their game? Some players decide to play Skryim like they were an NPC. Others may play racing games and drive backwards just to see cars crash into each other (like myself). For many designers this kind of behavior is not only welcomed, but encouraged.

      From my perspective, however, I don't think this is a one-size-fits-all approach, as there are some games there giving the player more "freedom" can actually hurt the experience. It is not unlike the dichotomy positive and negative freedom in political theory. The former is meant to ensure freedom of one's choices in life through protective safety nets, while the other subscribes to the notion that people are most free when left alone by authority figures.

      In terms of games, one could likewise see how more designer-authored games are designed around inspiring players by introducing something new into the mind of the player, enabling engagement, yet potentially feeling overly constricting. Conversely, player-authored design revolves around a more hands-off approach where players can express themselves and create the experience they want to have themselves, yet can also feel less compelling from a lack of focus.

      Giving players the ability to determine the direction and even playstyle they want to engage in certainly has its advantages. On a purely business side, it means the difference between making 5 games targeting different audiences and making one game that can appeal to them all. Likewise it also means that if a player gets bored of one type of playstyle or just wants an extra challenge, they can try it out without having to pop in another game.

      Deus Ex: Human Revolution worked because you could approach the game through stealth, combat, social interaction, hacking, or any combination of those and the game still felt like a cohesive experience. By contrast, if you were to be a real adventurer and wander around Skyrim, you would have to go against the grain of accumulating more stuff in order to enjoy yourself.

      Perhaps the key is to create an ever-illusive game that both allows for freedom of expression yet feels directed enough to produce an interesting experience.

The Next Frontier
      As games shift more toward player-authored experiences, I believe it is important not to forget the strengths of designer-authored games. These two paradigms need not be in opposition to each other, but can be used together to great effect. Consider The Witcher 2, which divided its game world into chapters (or levels, if you will) which acted as a hybrid between an open-world play experience and a tightly directed narrative experience.

      Consider also how every mechanic works together, and what those mechanics communicate to the player. If Skyrim had, for example, added more interesting ways to navigate and interact with the vast environment as a game like Journey does, perhaps it would feel like a more coherent experience. When all of the game's elements are reinforcing each other, rather than fighting each other, then you have a much more enjoyable game experience.

     I will be taking a brief hiatus from posting for about a week or so to focus on other projects. Stay tuned for future posts!

Friday, March 2, 2012

Skyrim - This is Going to Take a While

Battling for the Fate of Skyrim... until it gets Old
      I've never really been into open-ended sandboxy games. For me I just felt like they have far too much content for me to care about. Sure, they might have an interesting main storyline to follow along with, but I just feel like these games always seem to outstay their welcome for me. When I put a game like Skryim down, the experience doesn't end on a high note, but a low one. The game just fizzles out into obscurity to gather dust in my gaming library.

      I had played Fallout 3 a few years ago, and was initially intrigued by the exploration and the immersive nature of the game. That is, until I reached the level cap, and felt so powerful that the game really lost any sense of challenge or tension. I had barely explored a quarter of the map and I was already bored with the game. I had plenty of powerful weapons, with little need for better ones, and the story just wasn't interesting enough for me to want to see more of it.
Bah! This is just Fallout 3 with Elves!

      When Skyrim first came out, I looked at it with similar suspicion. Sure, it was the fifth entry in the popular Elder Scrolls series, and I had heard many people rave about how much they love it. But I was still skeptical... until I saw it on a Steam sale on Christmas for $40. A $20 savings within a month of release for a major game! I had never seen such a thing, so I thought "screw it, why not?".
On a side note, if you ever see Alpha Protocol for $5, go for it. Best $5 I've spent in a long time.

      Granted, I clocked in 98 hours into the game, which is nothing to sneeze at. I genuinely got pulled into the thrill of exploring the game world like I never had before, and I was eager to discover what was around the next corner as I explored its vast landscape. But around the time I achieved 80 points in Destruction magic and about 60+ in Conjuration, I could easily summon Dremora Lords and hurl Incineration spells practically at will. Combat suddenly became boring and mindless. Sure, there were stronger enemies, but they were more damage sponges that a major threat, and fighting tougher foes like Dragon Priests came down to more luck than skill, as they could easily one-shot me if I wasn't careful.

      I ended up just setting the game down to easy mode to fight Alduin and beat the main story quest... then I was just done with the game. I hadn't seen the Stormcloak/Empire conflict to its conclusion, nor killed all of the Dragon Priests, or learned all the Dragon shouts, but I didn't really care. The game just got stale for me and I ended up moving on to other games.
And by moving on I mean going back to playing Starcraft 2.

      When it comes to games, I prefer my games tighter and more focused, with just the right amount of content and good direction to create a game that comes together into a satisfying whole, where completing it gives me a feeling of triumph and enrichment. "Endless" games just don't seem to do it for me.

A Tale of the Bearded Muse
      I recently read a blog post of a friend of mine, who went into a personal story of his own shifting taste in games. He talks about how his interest has shifted from wanting to beat games as soon as possible, to savoring the experience of games and taking his time through them. Further, he dreads seeing the games he's enjoy come to an end, and has thus become more interested in games that essentially never end, like MMOs.
Craig during Freshmen year.

      His tastes sound like the complete opposite to what I thought made games fun. This intrigued me, and inspired me to delve into the core appeal of what one might call "endless" games.

A Little History
      Old-school games back in the Atari and Arcade days largely fell into two camps. The first were games that presented the completion of the game as the ultimate goal and challenge. These games were marked with a constant, forward momentum, minimal exposition, and were largely about the thrill of conquering the challenge the game had to offer. From Golden Axe to Metal Slug, these games were typically your light brawlers, shoot-em-ups, or fighting games that drove the player ever forward toward a final, climactic confrontation.

      The second were games that a player could never win, only hold out until they inevitably lose. Games like Asteroids or Centipede are good examples of this, where the player's main driving motivation was to get the highest score for bragging rights and the sense of accomplishment.
It was a simpler time.

      As games moved out of the arcades to the home, new approaches developed to increase the longevity of games. This included such things as having multiple endings, hidden content, optional challenges, multiplayer, or even tools to allow for player-authored content.

      While not every game offers a massive breadth of content, there are plenty of games looking to give players the ability to enjoy their games for as long as possible.

The Neverending Story
      A number of different trends have emerged over the years geared toward making games last longer and keeping players hooked. These trends fall roughly into a few catagories:
  • True Endless Experiences
          These are games that do not have an end state. Games like Farmville are great examples of this. Rather than setting out an ultimate goal for the player to complete, they instead give players a set of tools by which they may define and work toward their own goals. Such games lack any true terminal goals, which end the game experience upon completing, but do often use incremental goals to give players a sense of forward momentum and achievement.
    Clearly looking to go into the Pro League

          As far as actual objectives are concerned, however, these are externalized from the game itself and put into the hands of the players themselves, so they can decide for themselves what they want to achieve. Often such games also lack a definite loss state, removing an element of games that could potentially turn off players from playing further.

          Games like Farmville in particular have the appeal of being about management and control. For people that with busy, chaotic lives, these games provide a little "island" of their very own which they have full control over. By the same token, however, they can just as easily be seen as boring, as your progress does not lead you to any goal outside of what you define for yourself.
  • Faux Endless Experience
          These are games that feel like they go on forever, but in reality have a finite amount of content. Sandbox games like the Grand Theft Auto series or MMOs like World of Warcraft are some of the most famous examples of this. They provide a large amount of missions and objectives directed within the game, and that content is distributed such that players may take on different tasks at their own pace and in the order of their choosing. This gives players a greater sense of agency in the narrative of the game, as well as making their experience unique in comparison to their friends.
    Oh my, how did this get here?

          MMOs and Sandbox games diverge a bit, however, in their core appeal. For MMOs, it is the social element that keeps many players coming back, even years after the game has gone out of style. People build friendships around their guilds, trade things at auction houses, and enjoy major raids and other group content. These kinds of games leverage the sense of camaraderie among players, and in some cases can allow for rather compelling emergent social drama to emerge, energizing the playerbase by showing just what can be done in the game's possibility space.

         Sandbox games go for more of a hard-coded system of emergence, based on different permutations of the games' many interacting systems. From the behavior of civilians to physics systems, they create a space where the player can enjoy causing mayhem and delight in watching how the world will react. Perhaps the funniest thing I have heard happening comes from a story a friend of mine told me years ago about Fallout 2. He was in a city (New Reno, I believe) talking to this mafia boss type guy at a bar. He ends up pissing him off, so the Mafia guy starts shooting him.

          Now, the interesting thing about early Fallout games is that if someone is firing a ranged weapon and it misses, it has a chance of hitting someone else in the line of fire. In this case, it hit a prostitute on the other side of the bar, who immediately became hostile, pulling out a knife and attacking the mafia guy. The mafia guy kills her, which aggros the rest of the prostitutes in the city, which proceed to attack him, which aggros the rest of the mafia guys. In other words, one stray bullet started a full-on mafia vs prostitute war.

          In essence, these types of games are most often about exploration and taking in the game over the course of a long time. Often they are the ones that have the largest amount of substantive content for people to sink their teeth into. Yet such games can have their own problems, where the grind of trivial side quests and objectives can become boring, especially after main story objectives are complete.
  • Session-Based Play
          Many games today either include a multiplayer mode or are based entirely around the multiplayer experience. These games, while often having far less content than massive, sprawling games, often enjoy longevity equaling or even exceeding the playtime of even the largest sandbox games. Most of these experiences are competitive, like League of Legends, though some like Left4Dead hold the promise of having more co-op focused games in the future (though Left4Dead does have a competitive mode as well). In either case, they rely heavily on an energized player base and community to keep them active and in the spotlight for players (not unlike with MMOs).
    Tired of me bringing up how awesome League of Legends is every other post? Me neither!

         Such games overwhelmingly provide a virtually unlimited play experience, though the narrative possibilities have not been explored nearly as much. Perhaps the closest to that trend is in the upcoming game Diablo III, which will feature randomized quests, in addition to its traditional randomized loot and dungeons. Until we have more sophisticated systems of dynamic narrative, I believe our best bet at an unlimited narrative experience comes from the players themselves.

          These types of games are perhaps the most like their old arcade counterparts, with each session being a competition to reach some ultimate goal. Yet even after the goal is achieved, the game isn't over. Far from it, as the game encourages you to experience the struggle to reach that goal over and over again, with the thrill and unpredictability of human allies and adversaries providing an emergent narrative of sorts for the player to enjoy.

          As I alluded to, the biggest pitfall of session-based games is that for the most part they are competitive, or otherwise focused around overcoming a challenge, which can limit its appeal among inexperienced and casual players.
  • Community-Driven Content Creation
          With the advent of level editors and authoring tools, it has become easier than ever for players to not only play with one another, but share a piece of their creativity with the communities of their favorite games. Starting with Starcraft (if I'm not mistaken), excellent content development tools were made and, perhaps more importantly, integrated into the main game such that players could easily stumble upon mods and custom maps.

          Further, there have been games like Minecraft designed entirely around user-generated content and mods and sharing it with others (thanks to Minecraft's multiplayer mode). This kind of initiative goes beyond just providing more content for players, but actually makes that content feel more meaningful, as it is made by friends and fellow gamers that the player can relate to, perhaps motivating them to get in on the action.

          Games that feature this create a much more intimate relationship between the player and their game, as it allows them to be a part of the game they love and through it create their own mini-game experience of their very own. Of course, getting people to want to do this requires players that are interested enough in the game in the first place to take the time to make such mods, not to mention the extra development time required to make such tools, so it isn't always the best option for all games.

The Story Continues
      There is yet one other point I touched upon I have yet to cover - the idea of player satisfaction - the feeling of triumph and the validation that the time spent with a game was worth it. Alas, that is another story entirely, and rather than shoehorn it into this discussion, I will leave it for my next post. Stay tuned!