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Posts Tagged ‘musing’

These are just some questions and thoughts I’ve had rattling around in my head since my Sell By, Use By, Bye Bye article, spurred by Syp’s No Game Lives Forever… not all questions are dichotomous, and “right” answers are personal.  I’m just in a musing mood lately.

“Needing is one thing, getting’s another”

Do we play something because we want to play it, or because we want to have played it?

Do we explore to see new sights or to take screenshots of them?

What do you do when the world changes beneath you, or when you change… or both?

Why do we want stuff that we can’t take with us, whether it’s “real life” stuff we can’t take with us when we die, or stuff in games that we can’t keep when the games die?

Why do we value “virtual goods”?  (I really want a grey dragon familiar, for example… but its utility and permanence is very narrow and potentially fleeting.)

Is that stuff important for the connected memories, or for future bragging rights?

Why do we care about what other people say, and why they say it?

Why do we help others?

Why do we play?

I recently sold a handful of my SNES, GBA and DS games to finance the repair of my computer, the purchase of Guild Wars 2 and some Christmas gifts for my children.  Once upon a time, I had hoped to share those games with my kids, since they are classics, but they were less than impressed.  Instead, I’ve sold those games and their ability to make more memories for tools for my children to make their own memories, somewhat cheered by the idea that those games will hopefully entertain someone else who valued their potential to do so enough to buy them.

Life goes on, and sometimes memories are all we get to keep.

In the end, that might be all we get to keep.

…and I’m OK with that.

…today

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No, this NBI thing is something Syp over at Bio Break pointed out to me.  It’s the New(bie) Blogger Initiative, and there’s even a sweet banner for it, and some forums for reference and rumination:

NBI

…yeah, I’m a sucker for dragons.  Might have to do with being one, according to the Chinese Zodiac (a Fire Dragon, no less).  Incidentally, quite contrary to the purported Fire Dragon personality types and such, I’m not a morning person, I don’t like Spring or Summer, I’d rather live in the cold North than the warm South (though I guess the extreme South is nice and cold), and I’m more like a sleeping dragon than a constantly raging one.  As in, I’m pretty calm and careful the vast majority of the time.  Then again, I’m fiercely independent, so there’s that.  Herds are for eating, not following.

Anywho, Syp emailed me and asked if I might chip in on this NBI thing.  I’m far from a mainstream blogger, and I just kind of do my own thing here, so I’m pretty sure I won’t be the most relevant voice in the auditorium.  Still, sitting apart from the chorus as I do, maybe that’s exactly the voice that someone needs to hear.  If my writing here can be useful and uplifting somewhere, hey, why not take part?

So, I’ll blather a bit about blogging here and there this month, as this is an all-month shindig.  Maybe it’ll flirt with navel-gazing, but I do that once in a while.  Introspection can be a valuable thing.

In the meantime, Zomblobs! is still under construction, albeit a bit slowly of late thanks to real life priorities.  As much as I’d like Zomblobs! to be a money-maker someday, I’m pretty sure it’s not the path to vast dragon hoards of wealth, so I need to work at my real job and spend as much time with my family as possible.  Priorities, y’know.  And then there’s the redacted project that I’ll move to after Zomblobs!… that one will be fun, too.

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It seems to me that games are built on choices.  I wrote at length about making mistakes a while back (still one of my favorite articles), and how that affects game design, but I wanted to run another tangent today.

Candyland is billed as a game, but the only choice you have is whether or not to play (barring metagame choices, of course).  Once that deck of movement cards is shuffled, the game is set in stone.  There are no choices to make in the actual gameplay.

So, what if we make some?

How about a simple one to start with?

Instead of taking the top movement card and obeying its prescription, you take the top two and choose which one to use, and the other is ignored and discarded.  (Alternate:  put the unused card on the top of the deck to add a layer of memory.)

This is still pretty rudimentary, but it does give the chance for players to look ahead and make an informed choice.  It’s a meaningful choice as game designers sometimes ask for, because you can only choose one of multiple options, and the choice is irrevocable, but it’s an informed choice.

So, how about removing some information?

Draw two cards and choose one without looking at either.  Move accordingly, then discard both cards.

Now it’s getting interesting.  It’s still a meaningful choice, but now it’s an uninformed one.  It’s still enough to make the game unpredictable because of player choice, and it gives a veneer of player autonomy… but it’s still largely random.  This isn’t much better than the core “game”, but the act of choosing at least starts to feel a bit more like the players have control.

So, maybe add a little Monty Hall flavor?

Let’s Make a Choice.  Draw three cards, reveal one, then choose one of the three cards as your move for the turn.  (Alternate:  Have the other player take Monty Hall’s position as arbiter of the cards and really play this parallel to the hilt.)

Well, well.  Now we’re digging into a classic game perception paradox, and really making choices matter.  This is a semi-informed choice, with a bit of “playing the odds” for spice.

Layering some complexity on top of the bare bones of the Candyland game gives a lot more potential for choices to be made.  Increasing the complexity doesn’t always help, of course, since giving players the choice of four or five cards with two rounds of choices is technically more complex, but in practice, it’s not really going to add much to the game.  The initial addition of choice to Candyland scheme has a much stronger effect on the game than simply pushing that implementation deeper for the sake of complexity.  The diminishing returns of that sort of increased complexity is something to be aware and beware of.

Alternatively, or in addition to any of these, one could splice in some chaos, and shuffle the deck after each turn.  This wouldn’t have a huge effect on the actual choices as individual events, but it would make the underlying game potential more chaotic.  The game state is no longer decided and set in stone at the game’s start, it’s in flux.  As far as any individual semi-informed choice is concerned, that flux is largely irrelevant (unless you start putting non-chosen cards back in the deck to be shuffled instead of discarding them), but the game on the whole has more going on “under the hood”.  That bit of churn adds ever so slightly to the game.  (Though probably not enough to justify actually taking the time and effort to shuffle that much.  The principle is more useful in digital games where “shuffling” is very low cost, relatively speaking.)

Such uncertainty imposed by randomization is a huge part of most card games, games that use dice, and even most computer games where there is a RNG under the hood fudging the predictability.  That’s usually a good thing, as randomness brings the potential for even more choices to a game, if harnessed properly.  When you have to constantly shift tactics and strategy in a game, it changes the choices you make.  Sometimes that’s desirable, sometimes it isn’t, but most games incorporate some sort of randomization.

Of course, randomness has to be bounded somewhat (another old favorite article), lest the design get completely out of hand.  Complete randomness makes choices all but useless, as a completely uninformed choice may as well not be a choice at all.  Without at least a vague sense of predictability and consequence, there’s not much to a choice, and not much to be learned.  Again, too much chaos pushes a game design into useless flailing.

Even too many choices can be paralyzing.  As useful as choice is to making a game a useful and fun tool of experimentation and learning, too many choices can paralyze or confuse players.  Too much intricacy and interconnectedness between choices can also cause trouble as players don’t really take the time to understand their own choices or don’t have sufficient feedback to understand what their choices mean.

Certainly there is room for complexity and chaos, but they must be wielded carefully.  Choice is, in my mind, a backbone of gaming, but it, too, can be used ineffectively or unhelpfully (and it may not even really be choice a lot of the time).  A little of all of these is perhaps necessary for a really great game, but finding the right mix is what makes game design an art… one that I appreciate and enjoy as both a gamer and a game designer.

It’s not an art that I’ve mastered, but I am learning to appreciate agency, psychology and creativity the more I dig into these things.  That’s part of why I believe games have a lot to offer… if they can manage to be more than exercises in foregone conclusions, railroading players or overly random gibberish.

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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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Just a quick thought, this one.  I’ve been reading up on Allods Online, seeing what others have to say.  Consistent among them is the notion that AO is “good for a free to play game“, occasionally noted as being better than a subscription game.  As if the business model inherently makes a game better or worse.

Mark me as a dreamer, but I look forward to the day when games can be judged on their own merits, rather than being “good for being a member of some arbitrarily contemptible lower class” of game, whichever side of the holy wars one subscribes to.  This reason alone is enough to champion the increasing democratization of the business model.

Then again, I think racism, “solo vs. group”, “Democrat vs. Republican” and football rivalries are dumb, too.  *shrug*

Oh, and my dad can totally beat up your dad.  Neener, neener.

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So you want permadeath in your game, hm?  OK, try this one on for size:

The Graveyard

Not only is the Granny’s death permanent, but it’s so hardcore that you have to buy the game to get the ability for her to die.  The demo just lets her linger on, alive as can be.

Or, you could always play Passage, another game where the hero will die, and his wife will die before him.

Or, if your tastes run to the Goth “life is terrible, kill me now” end of the spectrum, you could always try this little beastie that’s been making the rounds:

The Path

That one is disturbing, actually.  Your goal is to kill your characters.  In fact, if you do what you’re told and just go to Granny’s house, you are told in no unclear terms that you failed.  I guess it’s better than slitting your own wrists, but it’s certainly a new spin on the whole “The Evil We Pretend To Do” article.  It’s also interesting to me that game mechanics (“you failed!” and putting almost all of the dev work into the disobedient paths) can be used to make people try to kill these characters in rather horrible ways.  It is designed to make the player do very bad things, and to mess with your head.  (If this is what it is to be a Goth, I’ll pass, thanks.)

Call it a funhouse mirror or a “look into the Abyss” moment (which can have value, but only as warnings to illustrate what not to do), but this is exactly the sort of game that gives the industry a bad reputation.  (And movies that do the same thing, and books and so on; it’s not just games.)

Perhaps The Path is a deconstruction of the notion that games always let gamers be the hero, perhaps it’s a study on motivations, perhaps it’s a reminder that fairy tales in their original form were far from family friendly, I don’t know.  I do give it one thing, though:  The Path makes death more than just “killing monsters”, more than just a reason to restart at a checkpoint.  It does something to those who play it, by design.  Death matters, in all of its terrible implications and unfortunate connotations.  Making players be the instrument of that death (and events preceding it) illustrates the power of games as a medium.

I do think that power is abused in The Path.  Thankfully, Passage invites a more nuanced, less bleak set of musing on death.  I suspect that The Graveyard is similarly low-key.

Still, when MMO devs or “armchair designers” talk about using permadeath to make their world more interesting, or making players “respect the world”… I suspect that the nuances of death that this trio of games dig into are somewhat removed from what is being proposed.  While I have no use for The Path and the treatment of death in Passage (and maybe The Graveyard) is far too subtle for use in a sledgehammer MMO world (at least as a major mechanic), I think that far too often, the implications of “permadeath” in design lean too strongly in the direction of mechanics and trying to punish the player (to make victory sweeter or maybe just make people play more) rather than really trying to understand death itself.

I’ll turn it around, then.  Game designers, respect death more than you do, even those of you who call for permadeath in your games.  It’s not merely a punishment mechanic, it’s not something to toy with in an attempt to appear “dark and romantic”, it’s not Ozzy Osbourne killing chickens and rocking out with the Undead.  Caricaturing death does have value on occasion, but if games are to be more than vapid consumer fluff, a nuanced understanding of the implications of death will be part of it, and that will go far beyond the “wicked cool” heavy metal and demonic iconography, far beyond pithy murder and genocide simulators.

Side note:  This was written not only because of my allergic reaction to the very idea of The Path, but because some friends and family have lost loved ones lately.  Death matters.  Satirizing it and trivializing it can be a coping mechanism, but I do think that the sensitivity lost to gaming (what with all of the virtual bloodletting and dark themes glorifying negativity) is something precious that we give up too lightly.  Life isn’t all rainbows and marshmallow-pooping unicorns, but neither is it a bleak emoGoth BioShocked Fallout-radiated wasteland.  You don’t need to lose a foot in a bear trap to be grateful for being able to walk, and you don’t need to induge in a stream of darkness to appreciate the light.  Put a bit religiously, you don’t have to be the Prodigal Son to turn your eye to the good things in life.  Maybe I think too much about this sort of thing, but in an industry of vapid counterculture deconstructionist thought, it’s hard for me not to take a stand against what I consider to be troubling, and deleterious to the medium.

Oh, and get off my porch.

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