Posted tagged ‘game design’

Systems, game systems, and systemic games

May 18, 2015

Systems are a big deal — they’re much more pervasive and important than games. But, for reasons I’ll get to later, I believe that games, and game design in particular, are a uniquely effective avenue for understanding what systems are and why they’re important.

A full discussion of what systems are is beyond the scope of one blog post. But I want to lay out some basics as the foundation for some later posts. This may be a bit abstract at first, but I’ll bring it back to games in a way that I believe illuminates important parts of game design.

All systems have a few things in common: a system is made of parts that interact to form a purposeful whole. There’s a lot packed in there, so let’s take that bit by bit.

Each ‘part’ in a system can be thought of an object in software terms, with its own state (defined by attributes) and behavior. Importantly, this definition is recursive: each part is itself a whole, a sub-system, with its own internal workings: a part’s attributes are themselves objects with their own states, attributes, and behaviors. This recursive nature is vital to understand and can also be a little dizzying. We often want to cling to (or design to!) a single level of interactions without any additional structure. This leads to a poor understanding of systems and how the world works, and to shallow, lackluster gameplay. In terms of thinking about systems, just remember that whenever you’re looking at a system, there are parts within it to be unpacked — and the system is itself just a part of a larger system.

The behavior of an object in a system may change its own state, and it may communicate with other objects, potentially changing their state and behavior. This communication is the interaction between parts mentioned above. While objects interact, not all objects in a system interact equally often. As is often seen in any network, there are dense interactions between some objects, and far fewer between others. This has the effect of forming hierarchies: dense connections of interactions between one set of objects creates, implicitly or explicitly, a boundary that defines a super-object at the next level up in the hierarchy.

The result of this is that two or more sub-systems (with their own internal sub-systems) interact in ways that create a holistic system and drive the whole system forward with purposeful behavior. “Forward” might be a bacterium traveling along a sugar gradient, a football team traveling down-field, a school of fish evading a predator, or a game player working toward domination of a game world. In each of those, the “system” is a complex whole made up of parts acting together: the bacterium, the football team, the school of fish, and the combination of game and player.

That last example brings up an important point: while we often talk about combat systems, skill systems, etc., in games, we have to remember that the overall system that creates the experience of playing a game involves at least two important sub-systems: the game, and the player (or players!). Each is a complex sub-system with its own internal objects, states, and behaviors; and each interacts with the other to create the overall system of “the game being played.” The game systems are sub-systems within the game that interact together and with the player as the game is played.

This brings us to the last part of the definition I gave above, that of “a purposeful whole.” Systems are often spoken of as having a purpose or teleology: fish avoiding a predator, a football team moving the ball downfield, etc. In a similar way, games are designed to create a particular kind of experience through the use of their internal sub-systems, but it is the system overall, the combination of game and player, that bring that experience to life. That experience is the purpose, the meaning, of any game.

So what is a game system? And how does this relate to what we might call systemic games?

Here I’m going to turn to the MDA framework (or alternatively, its closely parallel cousin the Function-Behavior-Structure ontological framework) as scaffolding for talking about game systems.

In these terms, the mechanics (or structure) of a game system are its objects and their attributes. These are, for example, the pieces on the chessboard or the weapons in an RPG and, just as important, their current state (location on the board, amount of durability) and their behavior (how each chess piece moves, or how a rapier, longbow, or broadsword attack).

The dynamics or behavior of a game system are the events and actions that emerge as the result of game-based objects interacting (though remember that dynamics at one level create the mechanics of the aggregated parts at the next system-level up). As one example, “dribbling” was not found in the original rules of basketball, and didn’t appear as an acknowledged part of the game until several years after its introduction. Players could pass the ball to others to move it down court, and they eventually discovered they could also pass the ball to themselves by bouncing it on the floor as they advanced, passing it back to their own hand. Dribbling is a dynamic behavior that emerges from the mechanics in the stated rules of the game. Creating similar dynamics, as by combining the roles of tank, DPS, and healer characters in many MMOs, is an important part of game systems design. If the game objects don’t create any new, significant combined effects — if each object works pretty much on its own with little value gained by interacting with others — then the game system (if it’s a system at all!) is not likely to engage players for long.

Finally, the aesthetics or function of a system refer to the system’s purpose, or in game terms, the desired experience for the players: the game may engender feelings of achievement, fast-paced action, of hypnotic flow, terror, love, companionship, loss, wonder, etc. This experience requires the interactions of multiple game sub-system and the game and player as sub-systems within an overall system of the game experience.

In these terms then, a game system has well-defined objects with their own (typically recursively defined) attributes, state, and behaviors. Those objects have to interact in ways sufficient to create new aggregate behaviors (the dynamics) that support the creation of a particular game experience. The object interactions aren’t random; they’re carefully constructed to create dependencies between the objects in ways that evoke meaningful dynamics in their combined use. If an object isn’t used in combination with others; or if a mechanic doesn’t support some larger-scope game behavior; or if the in-game behaviors don’t create a cohesive experience for the player — then your system is failing. It lacks purpose (aka teleology, function, aesthetic), and you need to work on the pieces that make it up and how they interact.

It’s worth noting that it can be incredibly difficult to keep this all in your head (or even in your design docs!) at the same time — being able to go from “we have these mechanics to create these dynamics in support of this player experience” taxes the abilities of almost any designer. In my experience, different designers gravitate toward one part of that — usually mechanics or aesthetics — at the expense of others. Some designers are all about the “nouns and verbs” of a design, but don’t really have a solid, intuitive feeling for what kind of game experience the nouns and verbs will create. Others know exactly the feeling, the experience, they want to devise, but are fuzzy on exactly what that means in terms of the specific underlying mechanics that will get them there.

The necessity of being a game designer who can span this range was summed up nicely by Paul Stephanouk (@gamegeek) who said that a systems designer should be able “to turn a game into a spreadsheet and a spreadsheet into a game.”

Okay, given all that, what about systemic games? These are games that depend on their internal sub-systems to generate repeatable, engaging gameplay for the player(s). The most common of these currently are those often called “roguelikes” due to the fact that they procedurally re-generate the game world each time, providing at least some amount of novelty and engagement.

Compare that with other games (often high-end AAA console games) that depend on carefully crafted, often beautiful, and generally expensive set piece levels, characters, cut-scenes, and/or scnearios to create gameplay. These present the same gameplay the to the player each time, with at most minor variations in play. There may be a “combat system” for example, but this often isn’t really much of a system: there’s one sniper rifle that beats the others, one shotgun to use close, a machine gun that does lots of damage, etc. In many role-playing games, players quickly gravitate toward the one best “character build” for making the most effective tank, DPS, healer, etc. And in many strategy games there are at most two or three well-honed ways of playing to win, and all others are doomed to failure. In games designed like this there are game objects but few interactions that support different and effective strategies for playing the game. There are choices for the player, but they quickly separate into “effective” and “ineffective,” with the latter leaving the player frustrated (why have a choice in the game if it only leads to sub-optimal gameplay?). Or there might be endless combinations of objects (as in Borderlands’ or Diablo’s weapons), but these only sometimes create interesting (game-relevant) dynamics, as the interactions between random weapons-parts are too broad and not systemically deep.

Another example that I think sometimes trips up game designers are designer-systems that don’t result in game-systems. For example, World of Warcraft has a complicated and effective quest-creation system — if you’re one of the designers. If you’re a player, the result is much like the set pieces described above: the same quests always contain to the same obstacles and rewards, and lead to the same follow-on quests. As a player these are great for awhile, until you realize that at level 90 you’re still doing essentially the same thing you did at level 1, but the rats you have to fight to bring back ten of their tails are just bigger and meaner. There is a system in there for the designers that helps them create a complicated (but not complex) network of quests. For the players, there are no quest dynamics, as the interactions are all frozen at design time. There are pre-defined quest lines, but no interactive quest system.

Systemic games, by contrast, rely on interactions between game objects, from the setting to available weapons or tools. These are generated new each time the game is played based on underlying algorithms and systemic interactions. This necessarily means the game designers can’t depend on expensive, static set pieces, and so must lean more heavily on the dynamics created by the interactions between game objects and their mechanics.  It also means the designers have to create their actual game system — the system that, via its sub-systems, creates the game-to-be-played each time — in such a way that it will provide both systemic variability and maintain a satisfying desired aesthetic each time.

As difficult as this is, when it works, it works extremely well, creating highly replayable games with great longevity. That leads us to the concept of game depth — but that will have to wait for another (hopefully shorter!) post.

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What Makes Game Design Unique?

May 1, 2015

I want to test a pair of assertions: I’ve said for a long time that there are two main things that make games different from anything else that’s “designed.”

The first is that no one has to play a game.

The second is that unlike any other device or software, games are entirely autotelic: the goal of a game is the goal set within the game (or within the player’s head). Games don’t exist to extend, assist, or support some external goal.

Those may not seem like much, but they create conditions that set games wholly apart from any other kind of human creation, and game design apart from any other kind of design. I think this leads in useful directions, but first I want to explore and test these assertions.

First, no one has to play a game. By contrast, if your company adopts new software for accounting or travel, you pretty much have to use it. If your bank changes how their ATMs work, you’re going to get used to it (or switch banks). But with a game, if you don’t like it or don’t get it, you can drop it — the game is entirely optional.

This means that game designers are constantly on the knife-edge in ways that other designers aren’t. Games have to attract a potential player’s attention. They have to draw the player in, help them build a mental model of what the game presents, and make that engaging enough that the player will stick with it and want to put in the energy needed to gain some level of mastery. This means that games are under immense pressure to evolve as fast as possible. There are always other games (now, hundreds of new ones appearing every day for mobile devices) that players can turn to, aside from anything in the player’s life that they have to do.

As a result, game designers spend a lot of time playing games designed by others to learn from them and apply their lessons to their own games. It’s no wonder that games change so rapidly and continuously, or that they consistently lead other forms of technology in the use of graphics, hardware, engagement, narrative, and interaction design.

The second point may be even more important: games are autotelic. Spreadsheets and word processors exist to support an external goal; so do paint programs, flight and process control software, etc. Even in the physical world, hammers, saws, drills, backhoes, scalpels, door handles and everything else you interact with on a daily basis that has been designed exists to further some goal that is external to the artifact themselves. Art, in the sense of paintings, literature, and sculpture, are, like games, concerned only with the goal that the artist sets for them. But unlike games they stand on their own; they are not truly interactive (a statement some will take issue with, but this is a different and longer argument). An artwork may engage someone mentally and emotionally, but it does not create a set of goals and tasks for the viewer. Since only games are both autotelic and interactive, only they enable the player to fulfill some set of goals, changing as the player changes, continually leading them to new internally defined goals.

In the realm of software in particular, only games (and toy-like games in which the player sets their own goals) escape serving some external and pre-existing set of goals and tasks. As a result, there is no “task analysis” that can yield a set of requirements for a game; part of the game designer’s job is to create the player’s tasks and goals out of thin air. Sometimes these may refer to some approximation of the real world (as in a flight simulator), but in some of the most charming examples they have only a tenuous connection to anything like our world, as in Ida’s curious journey in Monument Valley.

If these assertions are accurate, they have huge consequences for how we think about and practice game design, and for the place of game design in the overall sphere of design as practice and as a way of thinking. Games may, I believe, provide us a window into a kind of pure design, unencumbered by pre-defined external goals and tasks. If so, they also illuminate some important aspects of design and how we structure our thinking far beyond games and about the world in general. This is a point I’ll pick up later.

What do you think? Are these assertions accurate? Are there examples of non-game artifacts that are optional and autotelic? Are there other important differences between games and non-game artifacts, or between game design and other kinds of design? Or, are these statements correct as far as they go, but they miss something essential?

I look forward to hearing others’ thoughts on this.

Guildwars 2 Breaks the Mold (li’l bit)

July 9, 2010

MMOs have by now evolved a canon of how to deal with combat roles, death, and getting back into play after dying (“resurrection”).  This canon has become so fixed that it’s common to hear about tank/healer/dps as the “holy trinity” of MMO combat that many games just do, well, sorta because that’s how it’s been done.   Every now and again though, some game comes along and pushes the boundaries forward a little.  It looks like Guild Wars 2 is doing that with their approach to combat, dying, and the flow of gameplay.

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Dangerous Curves and Social Games 2.0

June 18, 2010

I’ve written here a few times about the business model for social games and why I think this is a very good area to be working in.  I continue to believe this is a large market in its early stages, with more people spending more on virtual goods in the past year, and with  at least one recent study predicting incredible revenue growth over the next few years. We’ve all seen the meteoric rise in this sector in the past couple of years, both at the top end in Zynga, Playdom, and Playfish (now EA), and in the medium-size and long-tail developers.

But recently, some of the shine seems to have come off this area. This is most clearly seen in the dropping MAU and DAU in the top social games — Farmville for example has dropped from a high of about 83M MAU in March to 66M today.   66M is still a number that no one else can touch, but it’s also a huge drop in a game that had been rising steadily.

And it’s not just Farmville.  If you look at the graphs for the top games that have been around for a while, rising continually (e.g., Texas HoldEm, Cafe World, Pet Society), each shows a peak and a subsequent fall-off.   Notably, this isn’t just due to the age of the game: some more recent games like Treasure Isle and Hotel City show the same dangerous curve at around the same time, even though they haven’t been around as long.  Some like Nightclub City show a rising MAU curve — but a daily users curve that has peaked, indicating that the trailing MAU indicator will show this soon too.  Still others, despite strong PR-backed launches in what seemed like good areas, have fared much worse from the start (indicating among other things how critical repeat play is to the success of these games).

So other than the fact that simply putting out a social game isn’t a license to print money, what does this mean? (more…)

The New Social Grind: Begging as Gameplay

June 9, 2010

Zynga recently came out with its latest “social” game, Frontierville.  It features the same cartoony art style and single-player gameplay as their previous games, and reportedly combines elements of others including Farmville in a new skin.

Another thing it does is hone the concept of what I’ve called “ugly viral” — in this case, using begging as gameplay.  Not only does this game make it impossible for you to move forward without others helping you — in a way that involves no social interaction at all —  it’s very up front about this as the poor li’l teary-eyed supplicating pioneer in the illustration (from the FB feed) shows.

So what’s wrong with this?  It’s all in good fun, and it’s cute, right?  Well, maybe.

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“LOST” and the Very Long Form Story

May 24, 2010

So yes, I was among the many people avidly watching the “Lost” finale last night.  I thought it was well done: good writing, pacing, additional character development, and summing things up in a way that was satisfying narratively and emotionally.

We’ve also been watching the series from the start (DVD and Hulu) and I’ve been impressed by how much of the story was in fact present from the very beginning: seeds of characterization, theme, and even plot points were carefully included from the first episode on.  Also how layers of explanation worked to the show’s advantage: polar bears and a smoke monster on a tropical island seem equally improbable, but it turns out only the latter was actually mysterious.  As the layers peeled away with time, we gained much more understanding of the island and of the main characters (who thankfully avoided becoming caricatures).

This six-year run of Lost with its successful conclusion brings me back to how such long story arcs are missing in games.  Most games (especially online/MMO games) present static worlds or have a single arc often with an unsatisfying end.    Can we learn from the success of “very long story forms” like Lost to increase the long-term world and narrative structure in online games? (more…)

The (Psychological) Development of “Social” Games

April 1, 2010

At GDC this year I saw a slide in a talk that referenced different developmental styles of play (my notes are sadly unclear as to whose talk this was — if you know, please let me know!).  This has had me thinking about the developmental stages of social games.  Not the software development, but the evolution of the styles of gameplay we put in them as we learn more about creating them.

It should be clear to anyone watching this space that game developers are learning as fast as they can about how to create new gameplay in online (putatively) social games; we know a lot less than we still don’t know.  As such, it’s very interesting to me how closely the emergence of types of gameplay in popular social games is following the path of individual psychological development of play — and what this may tell us about the future of the design of social games.   (more…)