Sunday, August 27, 2006

Decision Making, Rewards, and Elements

The maker of the game SimCity, Will Wright, once endevoured to define games as a sequence of interesting decisions. While I don't fully agree with this definition, as I find it rather limitting along certain design dimensions, it does raise an important point in game design: making decisions.

Videogames are interactive; that's what separates them from other game media. As such, it is a vital component of videogame design to study and understand the player-to-game interaction.

In essence, it's really simple: the player makes a decision, communicates it to the game, and the game produces some result.

Let us call the first stage, the player making a decision, what it is: Decision Making. The second state we will call “Action.” The final stage we will call “Rewards.” So we can respecify the above as the player making a decision, acting on that decision, and receiving a reward.

Where this becomes really useful will be in my next article on the different modes of thought that go into these decisions and rewards. However, until then, there are a few minor points on this matter that need discussion.

The decision-action-reward (DAR) dynamic is a vital component of game design. Enjoyment of a game can come from any of the parts, or a combination or all of them: enjoyment of making the decision, enjoyment of carrying it out, or enjoyment of the rewards granted by it.

For example, if you're playing a puzzle game (not a Tetris-style puzzler, but a static puzzle game), figuring out the solution is part of the decision making process. Acting on that decision is often very simplistic, requiring little to no skill in doing so. The rewards of actually solving that puzzle is merely getting to solve another one that is, perhaps, more difficult or more interesting, though sometimes you are rewarded by learning more about the game system that will be tested in later puzzles. Most of such a game's enjoyment comes from solving the puzzle.

By contrast, a Tetris-style puzzle game provides some depth and enjoyment from action as well as decision making. The rewards are to continue the game and a metric for determining your level of skill compared to others or prior iterations from yourself.

Game design is, in effect, about creating a pleasing decision-action-reward loop that is self-reinforcing. That is, the enjoyment derived from executing one iteration of the loop makes the player want to execute another iteration. There are many tools in a game designer's toolkit to create the links between separate DAR elements, but we'll get to those later.

Let us define another piece of terminology: element. An element is a discreet DAR section of a game that involves a significant decision by the player and provides a significant, specific reward by the game.

An entire game is a single element, but so are sub-sections of a game. In a 2D Mario platformer, a level is an element, but so is a particular piece of a level that involves significant player decision making, acting, and provides a reward.

Looking at sections of a game's content [1] below a level of significance is ultimately futile; unless a basic motion of the character carries a particular significance in one of these ways, it is just not important. In a platformer, navigating a flat section with no enemies in it is not a significant piece of content.

So elements can be composed of other elements in a hierarchical relationship. Several elements are combined to make up other elements, and those elements are combined further to make up others, until at the last, all the elements are contained by the element defining the actual game itself.

The purpose of game design is, therefore, to come up with a sequence of elements that will reinforce one another, so as to keep the player entertained and keep the player playing. This sequence can be encountered in any order, whether pre-defined, player-defined, or some combination thereof. Indeed, deciding on how the combination of elements goes together is a vital part of game design.

1: I've been avoiding the term “gameplay,” and with very specific reasons. I'm attempting to take a holistic look at videogame design, one that does not seek to separate game design from graphics or create other dimensions of effort. A well-made game can use graphics as a reward (it is interaction, after all), just as it can use non-vocal sound to communicate real information.

I believe that the predilection among some of the “elite” or intellectuals in game design who attempt to speak of separating gameplay from other facets of videogame design are incorrect. That this separation is preventing them from using facets of non-“gameplay” as viable rewards as well as information feedback in decision making.

Saturday, August 26, 2006

Why Genreless?

In my introduction, I said that I would be discussing a genreless theory of design. Why genreless? Why is genre so bad?

Genre is a fine thing. In fact, genre, more than anything, informs game design. Each genre carries with it certain specific game design ideals that define that genre, and members of a genre are free to implement game design within this specific context.

There are two problems with genre. From an analyst perspective, genre is useless information. If you're analysing a game design, the dictates of its genre must be part of that analysis in order for it to be considered complete.

The other problem is that genre is fundamentally limitting to game designer freedom. Let's look at arcade game design pre-Donkey Kong.

You had a number of genres. Shooters (Defender, Galaga, etc), Pong-a-likes, and a few others.

Then, some nutball came up with the idea of a platformer, Donkey Kong, a game that looks very different from anything else in the time period. Your main character is a human (cartoon-ish though it may be). It involves maneuvering the character through a hazardous environment, often with few abilities to actually kill anything. That was heresy in those days, for the most part.

When it comes right down to it, if your first idea with a game is based on known genres, you have less of a chance to make a game that is unique.

Now, it is not a bad thing at all to follow the beaten path. Not only is it less likely to turn people off from playing it, it is more likely to actually work, because you actually know how the genre works. Also, you can make a genre entry stand out from the crowd by adding new gameplay, where it meshes well with the genre. Or you can correct flaws in other entries in the genre.

From an economic perspective (and there is nothing I hate more when dealing with game design than dealing with how well the game might sell), one needs to understand an unpleasant reality about the genre lifecycle. There's an article* on Lost Garden on the subject that gives it a decent treatment.

Even so, the basic fact is that the most innovative games tend to be seen as those of completely new genres. And it's hard to dispute that: Donkey Kong, the great grandfather of platformers, was a watershed moment in the evolution of videogames.

If you're going to profer a valid theory of design, like good scientific theories, they should actually predict something. They can't just tell you what works now; they have to tell you what will work tomorrow, and why a game to be invented 100 years from now will work.

* I don't like this article's inference that the lifecycle of a genre ends at niche/death status. I don't think there's nearly enough evidence to say this, with only ~30 years of history for videogaming. Especially since most of that history has driven the adoption of new genres by technology; it's hard to go back and play, let alone make, older-tech games, particularly when you have to compete against more advanced games. I think there's great potential for "genre mining"; that is, going back to some of those older genres, giving them an appropriate coat of paint, and making games using modern game design ideals with them. I believe that a genre can be reinvigorated after an appropriate length of time has past, much like the modern movie epic genre was reinvigorated by Braveheart.

On Game Design: What This Blog's About

Videogames* are the newest form of artistic expression. They, much like cinema, are the convergence of numerous other arts. A good movie has to deal in the art of acting, cinematography, music, sound design, art design, writing, etc. A good game can need all of these, but it also has its own unique facet: interaction.

The big problem is simple: videogames are young. Once, in the earliest days of cinema, they actually tried to make movies look like filmed theater. After all, that's all they knew. It took decades for them to slowly work out rules of cinematography. And even now, they're still creating new ideas (bullet-time, overused though it may be, is a new, useful technique of cinematography) to create new sensations in audiences.

Nowadays, we have schools that teach the results of these experiments. We have schools for acting, artists, music composition. We know how to do these things competently, and we have rules for what works and what doesn't**.

What we don't know is game design. We have no formalized concept of game design. We don't really understand why certain things in games work, and we have few tools or guidelines to use in crafting works of videogaming art.

The greats of this emerging artform are, by and large, intuitive in nature. They have some understanding of design, but more often than not, they create their best works by intuition. The so-called game design schools teach genres and what games do now; they do not teach pure game design in-depth. Imagine an art school that only taught how to free-hand draw.

The primary purpose of this blog is to deal with issues of game design and game development. I intend to help formulate a coherant, genreless theory of game design, for the expressed purpose of allowing game designers to do their job better.

I will, also, be reviewing a number of games that I have enjoyed. These reviews will not be like normal reviews; I don't review games to tell you whether you should purchase it. These will take an indepth look at the very foundation of that game's design, dissecting the games design and rendering a verdict as to how well the game does and does not work.

Lastly, I will be posting reviews and other concepts as they relate to game development. Reviews of Open Source (or closed-source) tools, where appropriate. I may also spend some time mouthing off about programming subjects (since that's my field of expertise) and so forth, but those will be few and far between.

*On this blog, whenever I speak of the term "videogame", what I am referring to is any and all computerized applications that are primarily designed for the purpose of entertainment. I will likely go into detail a bit later as to exactly what this means, but for now, assume I'm talking about any and all console, handheld, cell-phone, and PC games that you are aware of.

**I am aware that the truly exceptional works often break these hard-and-fast rules. However, the creators of those works understand the rules and usually know why they're breaking them. And when it is appropriate to do so. The rules serve the function of informing the user what to and not to do.