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Archive for August, 2010

So… there’s a bit of kerfluffle recently about Tycho going all Corporate or something on us, the Gamers.  The nerve.

Andrew, MBP, PvD, GBN and Syp (edit:  and Cap’n John) have good posts on it (with links to other good ones), so I won’t reiterate much… I’ll just point to what I’ve already written about this, almost two years ago.

Sell and Resell

…so does that make me a pirate blogger?  I mean, reusing an old post is about the same as just stealing, right?  Never mind that I wrote it and that I’m not charging for these things, we’re talking ideals and morals here, people!

So, henceforth, anyone (including myself) who links to any of my previous blog posts must pay me the full price originally charged for the post.  There are no discounts and no sales; I’m not running a charity here.  Each link will incur the full price, so if you link twice, I’ll expect you to pay twice.  Anyone quoting any part of my posts will likewise be expected to pay.  Anyone quoting a comment from any of my posts will also be expected to pay, though I will be sending the lion’s share* of that fee to the commenter in question.

We’ll run this on an honor system for a while, until I can buy my own legislator to enforce matters.  Until then, my rabid internet wombats will be watching via my Big Brother WombatCam.  Do not steal.  They will find you.  You will not like it.

FREEDOM IS SLAVERY!

*”Lion’s share” is here defined as a number not less than 51% and not more than 55% of the original fee, calculated at the moment of the transaction according to whim and solely at my discretion as the blog administrator.

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The tabletop version of Warhammer, that is.  It’s the same reason I don’t play WarMachine.

Have you seen those models?  Or this sort of thing?  Or the multiple rule books?  (At least WarMachine is all in one book…)  Or what some players do with the models?

That’s just… way too expensive and getting everything ready is way too time consuming.  That said, I could, of course, drop all of my other gaming and goofing off, choosing instead to focus on one of these.  That might work.  Of course, it could be hard to find someone to play against, but I could drive for a while to a game shop and make do.  (I still think there’s money to be made doing an online version of the “real” Warhammer, like MTG Online… but way better.)

Still, the real, deep down reason I don’t play?  I’d want to make my own miniatures and terrain, all the way from sculpting to painting… and probably devise my own rules… especially if I were to really dig into the Steampunky WarMachine. I’m an artist; it’s an occupational hazard.  I’d get so lost in the game and doing it my way that I’d not have time to do the other things I want to.  Like sleep.  Though, if I could make a living at it, say, by selling my miniatures through these guys, it might be a viable option…

…so yeah, they look like pretty awesome games, from what research I’ve done.  I’d probably get sucked into them like I almost got sucked into BattleTech years ago.  I’m happy the games exist, I just… don’t have enough time in this life to do everything.  Alas.

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If I ever get a custom license plate, I think that’s what it would have on it.  42A113 is vague enough that it reads a bit like a “real” license plate, but for someone with an eye to detail and some geek knowledge, it’s a couple of fun references.  Mixing the two shows my druthers as a reader and animation nerd, and might even suggest some interesting similarities between them.

I tend to believe that good stories function in similar ways.  If there are layers of detail to be plumbed, especially if there are subtle interconnections between details, a story can reward those with better memory, larger vocabulary and greater experience.  Allusions to other works can be valuable as well, though pushing in the direction of “pop culture” like WoW does at times can be a bit… distracting.  Still, a passing reference to Plato in a sci-fi novel makes me smile.  It also suggests that a story is part of a greater whole of the human experience, rather than a universe in a bottle.  (Which, to be fair, isn’t always the point, so these elements must be carefully used… or guarded against.)

It’s all about connections.  I believe that education is best when it teaches students to connect disparate bits of data and find reasons for why things are the way they are.  It’s a foundation of critical thinking (you need to have the facts and see how they interact) and creativity (mashing ideas up in new ways is the backbone of creativity).  There’s a physiological basis for this notion as well; neurons in the human brain build connections to other neurons, and it’s that vast web of interconnections that makes the brain so powerful.  The more we learn and connect, the more we are capable of learning.

One big problem is one of vocabulary.  If you don’t know the basic building blocks of an idea, it won’t make much sense.  Much has been made of the supposed Cambridge experiment where readers manage to understand words even if the internal letters are scrambled.  This writer thinks it’s poppycock, and I agree. (Fun bonus article from a Cambridge researcher.)  Even if it were a legitimate study, however, I submit that people can only read those words well because they already know what those words are supposed to look like.  If you didn’t know what supercilious meant, or that it was even a word in the first place, scrambling it even simply like this would just throw you off completely:

His superlicious gaze made her uncomfortable

I can just imagine the internal reaction:  “Wait, what?  Is that supposed to be ‘superluscious’?  What a stupid portmanteau.  This writer is worse than Stephanie Meyer.

Readers need to know what the words they are reading are in their proper form and what they mean before they can see them “through” scrambling or incompetent typos.  I saw this on Facebook, for example:

“I don’t loose things. I place them somewhere safe which later alludes me.”

Grurgle.  Not only do we have the trendy-but-idiotic misuse of the word “loose”, but “allude” is very different from “elude”.  I can read it just fine and know what is meant because I know the real words, but it comes across as an incompetent stab at fortune cookie wisdom.  Don’t use fancy words if you don’t know how to spell them.

On another hand, jargon can be terribly opaque.  My wife and sister have occasionally read my walls of text here at the TTT repository of blather, and more than once, they have told me afterward that they liked the parts they understood, but that they just didn’t understand some of the terms or phrases I use.  They are both intelligent.  My wife has read a lot of books, and my sister is an English major who reads almost as much as I did growing up.  (Hint:  WAY more than the average nerd.)  Both of them are familiar with my gamer… ness, and my somewhat expansive vocabulary.  They have learned to understand me in most settings, but here, where discussion so often meanders into game design territory, they lose bits and pieces of the logic.  They just haven’t learned the gamer vocabulary, and they don’t have the experience with games that I have.

Similarly, I’ve written up game design proposals that tend to cobble together ideas from various inspirations.  In a sort of metatextual shorthand, I’ll often cite those other games in the proposal, in lieu of writing out a paragraph of explanation, counting on fellow gamers to understand.  A quick referral to “4X gaming” makes a lot of sense to an old school Master of Magic fan, but to someone outside the industry and outside that particular niche of “old school strategy gamer”, that can come across as “something even dirtier and contemptible than hardcore pornography”.  Communication can be very difficult without the proper framework and fundamental elements of discussion.

Oft times, this sort of shorthand is very useful, cutting down on unnecessary repetition, pedantry and blather, but it can also be a real barrier to clearly expressing ideas.  The sort of  “quick pitch” five second summary of ideas that makes some game pitches function out of the gates simply won’t work if your audience doesn’t understand the references.   (That’s a great article on pitching games, by the way.  Know your audience!)

Inside jokes and clever allusions are great if you can tuck them away in an otherwise superficial narrative, but if you don’t have at least some common ground, the allusions themselves aren’t going to carry the conversation very well.  It’s possible to communicate largely with allusion and jargon, or so Captain Picard would have us believe, but it’s not simple, and it’s rife with potential for miscommunication.

So, as I am wont to do, I want to take this into game design.  Sure, literary tools are important for writing and reading, but the principles of good design that lead to those tools being used properly carries over to proper tool usage in game design, both when we’re using words as tools in games and also when we’re using game mechanics.

Game terminology can be difficult to explain, especially if you’re trying to write for a non-gamer audience.  Not only do we have weird terms like “frag” and “gank”, but we also have acronymitis, with things like DPS, FTW, MMO, FPS, RPG, BFG and so on.  A simple phrase like “DPS, watch your threat so you don’t steal aggro!” can be utterly incomprehensible.  Sometimes context helps, but I do feel bad for my wife sometimes, muddling through my denser articles here.  It would only be worse to spring a game design proposal or technical art article on her.

Then again, something like this bit of scientific fluff is nigh impenetrable to someone in, say, marketing (and a real scientific paper would be even more troublesome).  Marketers, in return, have all sorts of weaselspeak at their command.  They might employ it to different ends, to be sure… but if communication is the goal (not always the case in marketing), sometimes it’s easy to get lost without really meaning to.

As for game design itself, one of the biggest things that we as designers need to do is teach the player the “verbs” in the vocabulary of our game.  “Verbs” in this context are those actions that the players can use in the game world.  Naturally, then, “nouns” are those things that players can act on and influence.  Until players know what they can do and what things they can do it to, the game can be frustrating.  Clear communication about how to use the tools in the game sandbox is vital to making a game work.  There is certainly a balance to be struck between playing Galactic Civilizations without a manual or help file, and this sort of overcompensation… but players really need to understand what the game does, especially if the game vocabulary changes over time.  (Say, by adding a double jump or picking up a new weapon.)

I’d suggest this video for another take on the teaching experience, by the way.  Aquaria is a sweet little game, but it has too many hidden functions.  When the narrator notes that most players will probably need a walkthrough file, to me, it sounds like an admission of failure (though it’s fair to note, as the narrator does, that it can be a design choice, for better or worse).  It’s one thing to hide a lot of nouns, feeding the Explorer and Achiever niches, but when the game has hidden verbs, it can get very frustrating or even impossible.

A game, in some ways, is a conversation between the designer and the player.  They meet somewhere in the middle to share authorship of the play experience, and it’s vital that they understand each other… even if they wind up arguing in different directions.  If there is no shared language, however, that conversation can never take place.

Something like Braid might have allusions to previous games, like Super Mario Brothers, but it also has to function on its own if someone doesn’t have that in their “gamer vocabulary”.  It’s a fine line to walk sometimes, but it’s worth the effort it takes to make the gamer/designer conversation as clear as possible.  Talking past each other just results in frustration and other assorted PR nightmares.

Once you have the basics down, you can start slipping in the clever allusions, references and in-jokes as appropriate, like spices into a fine soup.  (See?  Metaphors, similes and allegories are almost inevitable in conversation; we build from things we know into things we don’t know.  It’s perfectly natural.)  Peeling back the layers of a story and its details, or a game and its subtle interactions between verbs and nouns, can be very satisfying.  I believe that the best stories and games foster this sort of depth, and gently entice the consumer deeper, even as they continue to move forward.  Might that not be one form of “immersion”, for that matter?

That said, it’s worth remembering that immersion can also mean obliviousness.  One would hope that there’s something there worth being immersed in, something worth learning whilst having fun.  With luck and care, the game designer/player conversation can be something more than mere Ferengi acquisition covered in Klingon aggression.

Oh, and this is what the 42 is about, and this is what the A113 is about.  I should probably get a Pizza Planet truck to put the plate on.

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XCOMeOn

As in, “come on, that’s just dumb” rather than a racy bit of textspeak.  It’s not like “XCOM, SchmeXCOM” would really have sounded much better, though.

Aaaaanyway, Gamasutra (sheesh, another innuendo-laced term) has a pair of blurbish articles up from the guys making a modern iteration of the X-COM IP.  (In finest literary form, they dropped the hyphen from the original, since that’s so BOLD and EDGY!)  Apparently, it’s supposed to be a shooter/strategy hybrid.

I had about the same reaction as Shamus.  It’s not quite a Darth Vaderish “Noooooooo!”, but pretty close.

Y’see, the original X-COM is a brilliant game from the golden age of MicroProse games.  (The era that brought us Master of Magic, MoO and MoO2.)  Even stuffy “journalist” types think it’s a great game, better than Half Life 2, the media darling.  To be completely honest, I played the sequel, X-COM, Terror from the Deep first and for longer, but it’s pretty much the same game anyway.  It’s a rock solid strategy game setting the player as an intrepid disembodied commander of a band of elite cowards enlisted to save the Earth from little grey aliens and their nasty attendants and technology.  In many ways, it still hasn’t been topped (again, like MoM and MoO) by modern games, largely because the gameplay is brilliant.  (Despite the severe lack of pixel shaders and polygons.)

So, naturally, when making a sequel using the IP, what do you do?

You focus on the “emotions” of the IP, “while changing the game fundamentally“.  (Quote ripped directly from the article, my emphasis.)

Newsflash, guys:  X-COM Interceptor didn’t do to well, and that was from MicroProse.  X-COM Alliance (Looky!  A first person shooter!) got cancelled.  Fans of the original don’t want a totally new game, they want a bigger, better version of the original.  That said, the original is still playable, so topping it is a tall order… especially if you don’t know what made it tick in the first place.  Those were the days when gameplay was what made a game great, and the visuals were icing on the cake.  Things have changed a little, both in the market penetration of careful strategy games (no, StarCraft 2 doesn’t count; “Strategy” and “Real Time Strategy” are different animals) and a bit more “style over substance” in the market.

So on the one hand, I almost feel bad for these guys.  I can almost look past the cash grab in using a beloved IP.  New ideas really do tend to be less sticky, and the X-COM name still carries weight.  I can almost look past the “look, another shooter!” mentality, since everyone else is doing it.  That’s not a good reason to do something, but that rarely stops people.  I can almost sympathize with wanting to do something other than what the original did, wanting to carve out a name for themselves.  I can almost sympathize with the devs not wanting to go too far out of their own skill set, having done BioShock and BS2, games that have met with some success and critical brownie points.  (Though, does that make them one trick ponies?  Ah, the balance between playing to strengths and getting stuck in a rut.)

And yet, if you’re adopting an IP to bootstrap your development and hype engine, hijacking it and running in a different direction isn’t really the way to either honor the IP or pull in the established fan base.  It might be more fun to develop, and it might be wise if you’re chasing market trends (itself a dubious idea, but it does look less risky than “blue ocean” strategies), but it’s not always good for the IP.

(Tangentially, this is why I loathed the Tom Cruise-infested Mission Impossible movie.  It took a beloved license then proceeded to stomp it into the ground in the first act, flirt with the fans in the middle, then spit on the corpse in the finale.  It could have worked as a nifty spy movie, but specifically as a Mission Impossible movie, it was a kick to the groin of the IP.  Working with an established franchise is a dual edged sword.)

On another hand, it really can be wise sometimes to spread an IP across multiple genres and even mediums.  (See:  WoW TCG, WoW Minis and WoW board games.)  That has a way of building a cohesive universe rather than a single-shot story, which allows for inertia to build in the IP, and opens doors for more projects and monetization.  All in all, that’s a solid long-term strategy, especially if quality can be maintained across the board.

So, while I do not have any interest in actually playing this new iteration of X-COM, I am at least academically interested in what it winds up doing.  If it’s a solid game, and it may well be, it might resurrect the X-COM brand, eventually paving the way for a real sequel to the beloved classics.  (X-COM Apocalypse was passable, but also easily passed up.)  If it winds up awful, it still won’t really tarnish the original and TFTD, and I can go back and play them.

I choose, then, to view this as a Good Thing, at least until proven otherwise.  It takes some effort to do so, since my reflexive reaction is one of incredulity and annoyance… but I think I’ll give them a chance.

…at least it’s not a 4X game, I guess.  That would have overloaded the innuendo meter.

But I still want a great turn-based strategic/tactical sequel.

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Dear Kings Isle,

Thank you.

It’s nice to think that someone listened, even if it was just a coincidence.

You’ve also earned some money from at least one fan, and maybe another.  *waves at the good Cap’n*  This is effectively a lifetime sub for all current content, almost a Guild Wars sort of purchase.  I love that business model, and I really like Wizard 101.

Sincerely,

Tesh

(Scot Silverblade, Balance/Death Wizard, still enamored with Marleybone but now chasing elephant demons in MooShu)

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I happened across an interesting article from a few years ago that made me wonder again a bit about this thing that gamers call “immersion“.  Please read it, as it suggests thoughts more profound than this particular tangent I’m exploring:

Pearls Before Breakfast

Might not the commuters be considered to be “immersed” in their daily routine, but simultaneously oblivious to their surroundings?  What price do we pay for immersion?

What I found particularly saddening was the death of a homeless man… that none of the commuters noticed.  Missing out on a singularly spectacular musical experience is one thing, but missing out on possibly saving a life, that’s another.  Maybe nothing could have been done, as Bill Murray’s character so painfully and poignantly learned in Groundhog Day as he tried to save a homeless man, but it’s not always the ends that matter.  Sometimes, it’s what we learn and why we act that are important, as they build our character.  Perhaps we fight against entropy not because we will win, but because it makes us stronger, and because it makes life worth living.

As much as I wish these MMO game worlds were more interesting places (one of my earliest articles was on this, and it’s been a recurring theme), do I really want to be immersed?  No, not if it means I’m missing something more important.  The quest for progress can obfuscate things that really shouldn’t be ignored or left behind.

Even some of those nutty RPG game designers don’t want to tread the MMO path.  Yuji Horii, Dragon Quest creator, had this to say about potentially taking the DQ series into MMO territory:

What we always inspire to do with each new Dragon Quest is to not make it an all-virtual world, we try to make sure we keep the gamer connected to the real world, and not to have them disconnect completely. There is a phenomenon in Japan called ‘Haijin,’ these are people who just play the game and disconnect completely from reality, and that is something we do not want to do with the Dragon Quest series.

I know, I know, games are escapism, and escapism can be healthy.  I certainly consider it valuable in my own life.  Sometimes, though, it’s wise to poke your head out of the immersion and see what you’re missing.

Or who.

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Hat tip to sid67 on the PLEX angle:

You want risk in your game?  Something that can really kick you in the head for failure?  Play EVE and try shipping some PLEX.

I’ll pass on that one, but as sid67 notes, this seems to play right into the EVE playerbase, and may well be sound business on CCP’s part.  It hurts to fail when you’re involved in risky behavior, but some players like that.

I’ll also point out that this was something that the player chose to do, not something that the system imposed (a crucial difference).  Sure, PLEX units are now destroyable, which is dev-imposed, but choosing to risk it was something that the player did.  Also, the pirates risked the destruction of the PLEX (which ultimately occurred) with the ship’s destruction.

Player-defined risk, playing with dev-created toys.  Interesting stuff, if you’re so inclined.

Speaking of piracy, though, the Machinarium guys have a “Piracy Amnesty” sale going on for their game.  It’s available for $5 until the 12th.  Apparently, 2DBoy (World of Goo, annoyingly pirated rather extensively) isn’t the only indie developer team to have trouble with pirate scum.  So, if you’re up for a good adventure game and don’t mind tossing $5 at some guys who do good work, drop on by the Machinarium site.  Is it a perfect game?  Nah, but it’s worth it.

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I really enjoyed StarCraft.  My brother in law and I would often fire up LAN parties that were a blast, and I had a lot of fun with the single player game.  I like the Jim Raynor character and the Protoss, and it was just a lot of fun splattering a pack of Zerg with a Siege Tank or Templar lightning storm.  I didn’t like the Kerrigan story and the way that Blizzard seems to think that the Zerg are the most interesting (or at least the best race to sweep into a cliffhanger with), but I can at least understand what might make them think that way.  I enjoyed the map maker, though I never did quite get it to do what I wanted it to.

All in all, I spent probably hundreds of hours playing with StarCraft in one form or another.  It scratched my itch for game development with the editor, and my itch for some good post-WarCraft gaming.  (I really liked WarCraft and WarCraft2.)

So… why not play SC2?  First and foremost, I have other games that I’d rather play more, and I have less time to play overall.  Second, I don’t feel like spending $60 on it.  (I may yet get it on a deep sale, though.)  Third, I don’t like battle.net, have no use for online multiplayer, and detest the lack of LAN play.  (OK, OK, the company can be greedy and get rid of spawning games, but to excise LAN where everyone has their own copy?  Lame.)

In short, I have no particularly strong antipathy toward the game, just little use for it, so it’s not a priority.

Oh, and this has always bugged me:

Terran standard...ish human

Compare that to this, an iconic Terran Marine:

Tychus Findlay, the man with the tiny head

Now, if we’re to believe that the Terran Marines are just guys in suits, normal humans with some super special armor slapped on, I’m not buying it.  I can handle a RoboTech Cyclone being pitched as power armor, but not a Terran Marine.  If we were to take the seminal Vitruvian Man‘s proportions (a pretty decent standard, really) and try to map dear ol’ Tychus using his head as a baseline, we might see this as his “human” shape within the suit:

Vitruvian Findlay

The proportions are all wrong.  (Note, Iron Monger in the Iron Man film had the same problem.  Either Stane stretched his limbs, or, um… he was controlling the arms of the supersized suit from within the torso cavity.  Iron Man himself was pretty good, but the Big Bad guy… not so much.)

So either Tychus had his head shrunk to get into his gear, or his body has been painfully reconfigured to match the articulation of the suit.  Either way, that sounds rather horrific.  No wonder they don’t take the suits off.

I know, I know, some will blame Warhammer 40K for this (since obviously everything Blizzard does is a ripoff of Games Workshop), but look here, their Space Marines are closer to what I’d expect; armor on a well proportioned human that looks vaguely plausible.  Blizzard’s “shoulder envy” is in full force in both WarCraft and StarCraft, but when it means rejiggering the humans inside the suits, well… that just seems painful to me.

Is that enough to make me not want to play the game?  No… but it still bugs me, just like it bugs me when I watch Iron Man.  Sure, the Terran Marines read well as bipedal, vaguely humanoid machines of war… but if I really want that, I want BattleTech.  Even their Elementals maintain better armor/pilot proportions.  (Though in the cross-section, that pilot’s shoulder does look a little disjointed.)

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Hat tip to the Rampant Coyote on this:

Torchlight 2 Announced

OK, so the once-proposed MMO is… nowhere to be seen at present.  Curious.  And yet, with the fancy new peer-to-peer matchmaking, Torchlight will have multiplayer.  Whee, right?

It strikes me that such functionality is similar to World of Warcraft’s Dungeon Finder.  The DF is effectively a way to get peers together for an instanced gaming session, it’s just that the “lobby” for the matchmaking is the WoW world at large, a shared persistent game space.

Yes, yes, technically peer-to-peer isn’t the same thing as the client-server architecture that WoW uses, but the actual player experience of dungeon crawling is similar enough.  Namely, get together with a few friends in an instanced dungeon and go kill stuff.  Take loot home and go do your own thing for a while, lather, rinse, repeat.  I find it interesting to see these two games potentially offering similar multiplayer game experience.

If the Torchlight guys are still looking to build an MMO, they seem to be doing it in pieces, layer upon layer.  Add a persistent overworld, player economy and a few more treadmills (rep grinds with NPC factions, crafting suites, etc.), and you’re set.

Well, and jumping.  You can’t have an MMO without jumping.

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Risk

exposure to the chance of injury or loss; a hazard or dangerous chance.

Challenge

difficulty in a job or undertaking that is stimulating to one engaged in it.

Reward

something given or received in return or recompense for service, merit, hardship, etc.

Punishment

a penalty inflicted for an offense, fault, etc.

(Though I think “punishment” could also be phrased as an inverse of “reward” thusly: “something taken or removed in return or recompense for failure or lack of service, merit, etc.“)

Risk and challenge are two different things.  They are used differently as tools in game design.  Challenge is concerned with what happens before a success/failure check, the difficulty of doing an activity, while risk is concerned with the chance of loss that comes with failure.  Rewards and punishments are also two different things, though they both sit on the “consequences” side of the event check, and players tend to try to maximize the former while minimizing the latter.  It’s also important to note that avoiding punishment doesn’t prompt the same behavior as seeking a reward; it tends to elicit more conservative actions, while chasing rewards alone can make for some radical or carefree (careless?) behavior.

In many ways, games are a medium of decisions, where player decisions dictate game feedback (or the actions of the other player).  Most of what we think of as “choice” in games tends to really be “problem solving”, however.  Choices and problems are two different things, as noted here, and in many cases, problems are very easily solved.  There tends to be one right answer that maximizes the potential reward (or minimizes the potential punishment) from the decision.  Players almost inevitably “min/max” their game choices, then, based on reward and punishment structures.  It’s a natural outgrowth of problem solving.

Challenge is usually controlled at least partially by the player.  There are a few ways to handle that, from difficulty settings and slider to leveling, from gear acquisition to character customization.  Sometimes this involves grind, letting time investment compensate for lack of skill or challenge tolerance, while other times, the player improves their own play skill.  Sometimes the two overlap.  There’s a wide range of possibilities here, and your game’s approach will be dictated largely by the game format and intended audience.

Whatever the approach, many games, though not all, tend to let the player mediate the level of challenge a bit through their own decisions.  I see this as healthy, since it allows players of disparate skill and challenge tolerance (also two different things) to play the same game, and even to change the difficulty during the course of the game at times.  Sometimes this change in difficulty is in discrete chunks, sometimes it’s far more of a gradient, but whatever the case, letting the player roam about freely on the challenge scale tends to be a useful thing.  It’s arguable that most players don’t want a high degree of challenge, but ultimately, the more control you give the player over the challenge setting, the happier they will tend to be, whatever their preference.  That’s the point; the challenge setting is in the hands of the player, at least partially, and you really do need to consider your players.

There’s a bit of purist thought out there that games should be challenging (and maybe eliminating challenge entirely just leads to interactive fiction), and I think that’s at least a good rule of thumb if not an absolute definition.  I certainly tend to prefer games that challenge me mentally (and tangentially, that underlines that there are different types of challenge).  That said, game designers who want a big cross section of players, say, MMO devs who need a critical mass of players, need to realize that challenge isn’t always the prime reason why people play games.  (Just as players need to realize that their opinion isn’t the One True Way, especially if they are sharing game space with other players.)

Beyond that, though, “challenge” is a variable that depends hugely on the player, so trying to make a game equally “challenging” to all players is a fool’s errand without flexibility in what constitutes the challenge.  To be sure, you can develop a game (or pieces of a game, like a particular dungeon in an MMO) for a certain audience with a particular invariable challenge setting, but it will naturally have a smaller potential audience as a result.  That’s neither good nor bad, just something that should be a conscious choice when designing.

It’s very similar to the argument about “play time”, and how value and entertainment use time as a variable in the evaluation.  Not everyone plays at the same pace or for the same reasons.

Risk, on the other hand, tends to be far less flexible.  It naturally hinges on the binary state of “success/failure”, but the magnitude of the rewards for success and the punishments for failure tend to be pretty narrowly defined and static.  Even “loot tables” from the rewards pinatas we have in many games tend to be fairly narrow, and just variable enough to feel interesting and keep that dopamine coming.  Similarly, death penalties tend to be pretty consistent, disconnected from what caused the death.  Maybe the “corpse run” is longer if you’re somewhere remote when you fall, but typically, a boss won’t “permakill” you when his mooks would just “normalkill” you or something similarly drastically variable.  (Yes, these terms are squishy and a bit nonsensical outside of gaming.  Occupational hazard, that.)

These rewards and punishments also tend to ignore the concept of challenge, since there’s no way to properly set challenge equally for all players.  Designers can do a simple pass/fail check for whether a feat has been performed, or a boss defeated, and base rewards and punishments on that, but such a check tells us nothing at all about the challenge (which is in the eye of the player) that led up to it.  That’s not a bad thing, either, just the nature of the beast.

It seems to me that we don’t have a lot of games that allow players to fiddle with that risk setting, though there are a few significant ones.  Puzzle Pirates allows players to make wagers on PvP minigames, thereby defining their own risk in clear, monetary terms.  PP and EVE let players set sail with hulls full of valuable goods and try to fly under the radar (or bring along hired muscle or guildmates).  Games that let players take loot from other players, say the old Ultima Online or Darkfall, also let players self-define risk by the contents of their packs.

Perhaps risk is more of a “hardcore” game mechanic, then.  Does loss aversion keeps high risk out of the mass market?  Is it possible to have high risk content in a game with low risk as a default setting, letting players self-select risk tolerance?  Yes, players will tend to min/max their gaming, but is risk in itself spicy and enticing enough to get players to play risky content when they could be slumming around on easy street?  Is exclusive loot (or other shiny rewards) the only way to get players into risky content?  Do strong rewards demand high risk… or just high challenge?  Maybe both?

Risk is about what you’re willing to lose for failure. Notably, a prime rule of thumb for EVE is “don’t fly anything you’re not prepared to lose“.  Players have control over that risk to a degree with cloning, insurance and such, completely independent of the challenge that comes with their self-directed activities that put their stuff at risk in the first place.  You can fly about in lowsec space trying to stay alive, finding perfectly adequate challenges, but introduce the risk factor of ferrying around expensive goods, and motivations and reactions change.  The challenging activity in itself hasn’t changed, but the player reaction does, because of the addition of potential loss; that’s risk.

Similarly, rock climbing in the real world can be a very challenging and risky behavior, but someone climbing El Capitan without belay ropes isn’t doing something more difficult (challenging) than someone with proper belay rigging… they are just cranking up their risk.  Someone freeclimbing the thing is cranking risk way up.  (Friends in rocket boots notwithstanding.)

Is it possible to make good game design elements that put risk control in the hands of the players?  Are wagering and open world piracy the only ways to experiment in that direction?

Is it possible to have challenge without risk?  I say yes, because challenge is about how the game is played, not about what you can lose.  That said, perhaps the coin of the realm is ultimately time anyway, and perhaps that is always at risk, so the two are indeed indelibly intertwined, at least on that level, where we’re risking time in hopes of being entertained.

Just as “choice” is different from “problem”, however, I believe it is important to note the difference between “challenge” and “risk”.  Some players actively seek one or the other (or both), while some seek to minimize them.  It seems to me that great games let players choose their own settings, and let them change their mind.  Perhaps the customer isn’t always right, but if they take their money elsewhere, does it really matter?

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