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Archive for January 19th, 2011

Mongolian BBQ

I’m not sure what sort of cultural mishmashmushing went on to bring the Mongolian BBQ style of restaurant to my neighborhood here in the U.S., but I’m grateful for it.

For those who aren’t familiar with these little dining gems, the prototypical Mongolian BBQ that I’m familiar with is a pretty loose, customer-driven sort of place.  Diners take a bowl and fill it with whatever they feel like from a food bar.  This usually means some hodgepodge of vegetables, some noodles, some thinly sliced meats and some sauces.  These are then given to a cook who drops the mess on a big round cooking surface and proceeds to stir up the goods as they make a couple of circuits around the hotplate.  It doesn’t take long, and in pretty short order, the cook hands the customer a new bowl with their neatly prepared meal.

There’s not much protocol to this experience.  Diners take what food they want and pile it as high as they like.  Most MBBQ places offer a couple of bowl sizes for differing appetites, but it’s all the same; give the customer a bowl and let them go to town.  Maybe George over there is a vegetarian, so he piles on the carrots, water chestnuts, celery and mushrooms, tops it with noodles and some sauces.  Maybe Junie over here loves chicken stir fry and collects some peppers, bean sprouts, celery and chicken slices, skipping the noodles, planning on putting it on rice instead.  Maybe Dafydd is a meat lover and just throws in noodles, pork, chicken, beef and some lemon sauce.  It’s a nice freeform menu.

The fun part is that the cooks don’t particularly care.  They do the same thing for every customer. They plop the food on the hotplate, stir it around a bit with a professional flourish, make sure the meats cook enough, and serve the goods in the same old bowls that everyone gets.  It’s a remarkably low-impact process for the providers; they prepare the food for the gathering bar and then just cook whatever people collect.

And yet, there’s a marvelous variety in possible meals.  Sure, it’s almost always going to be something at least vaguely Oriental instead of a big old T-bone steak or curry cupcakes, but even within that controlled chaos, based on a couple dozen ingredients, there’s a ton of room for customer choice.

In game design terms, then, the devs do the same thing for everyone, but the experience is largely up to the customer, because they are given a lot of control over what parts of the game engine and content they want to partake of.  This is the design space Minecraft occupies.  It sets some ground rules, gives players tools, operates by some consistent rules, and then just lets go of the reins.  DC Universe Online apparently has some significant customization options, something that makes a lot of sense in a world where everyone is a Hero.

In the dance between Order and Chaos, then, sometimes it pays off to embrace a little chaos.  If the dev process is the same for everyone (low chaos for the production team, which is nice for a budget and schedule), and the player brings their own agency to the table, crazy fun things can happen.  I think you need to set bounds, to be sure, so that you don’t wind up with complete chaos, but still, players will naturally want to do their own thing.  That’s one of the big selling points of games over movies or books.  I think that impulse should be leveraged, not suppressed.  It’s hard sometimes to let go and let players play, especially in a multiplayer venue, but then, that’s when emergent gameplay and awesome weird stuff happens.

It certainly works well for the Mongolian BBQs of the world.  Yes, some people will always want Wendy’s or TGIF, but then, there’s nothing saying you can’t have both, just for different meals.

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