Tools for having fun

ZoneTag Photo Friday 11:40 am 4/18/08 Copenhagen, Hovedstaden

One of the nicer things about GDC was the huge stack of free mag­a­zines I took home with me. Among those was an issue of Edge, the glossy games mag­a­zine designed to look good on a cof­fee table next to the likes of Vogue (or what­ev­er). I was briefly sub­scribed to Edge, but end­ed up not renew­ing because I could read reviews online and the arti­cles weren’t all that good.

The jan­u­ary 2008 issue I brought home did have some nice bits in it—in par­tic­u­lar an inter­view with Yoshi­nori Ono, the pro­duc­er of Street Fight­er IV. This lat­est incar­na­tion of the game aims to go back to what made Street Fight­er II great. What I liked about the inter­view was Ono’s clear ded­i­ca­tion to play­ers, not force feed­ing them what the design­ers think would be cool. Some­thing often lack­ing in game design.

“First of all, the most impor­tant thing about SFIV is ‘fair rules’, and by that I mean fair and clear rules that can be under­stood by every­one very eas­i­ly.” A les­son learned from the birth of mod­ern videogam­ing: ‘Avoid miss­ing ball for high score’.”

This of course is a ref­er­ence to PONG. Allan Alcorn (the design­er of the arcade coin oper­at­ed ver­sion of PONG) famous­ly refused to include instruc­tions with the game because he believed if a game need­ed writ­ten instruc­tions, it was crap.

Lat­er on in the same arti­cle, Ono says:

[…] what the game is — a tool for hav­ing fun. A tool to give the play­ers a vir­tu­al fight­ing stage — an imag­i­nary are­na, if you like.”

(Empha­sis mine.) I like the fact that he sees the game as some­thing to be used, as opposed to some­thing to be con­sumed. Admit­ted­ly, it is eas­i­er to think of a fight­ing game this way than for instance an adven­ture game—which has much more embed­ded narrative—but in any case I think it is a more pro­duc­tive view.

While we’re on the top­ic of mag­a­zines. A while back I read an enjoy­able lit­tle piece in my favorite free mag­a­zine Vice about the alleged clash between ‘hard­core’ and ‘casu­al’ gamers:

Casu­al games are tak­ing off like nev­er before, with half of today’s games being lit­tle fun quizzes or about play­ing ten­nis or golf by wav­ing your arms around. The Hard­core crowd are shit­ting them­selves that there might not be a Halo 4 if girls and old peo­ple car­ry on buy­ing sim­ple games where everyone’s a win­ner and all you have to do is wave a mag­ic wand around and press a but­ton every few times.”

Only half seri­ous, to be sure, but could it be at least part­ly true? I wouldn’t mind it to be so. I appre­ci­ate the rise of the casu­al game main­ly for the way it brings focus back to play­er cen­tred game design. Sim­i­lar to Yoshi­nori Ono’s atti­tude in redesign­ing Street Fight­er.

Learning about emergence from games

A game of Go

I’m still try­ing to get a grip on why I think games are such a good ref­er­ence point for IAs and IxDs. I’ll try to take anoth­er stab at it in this post. Pre­vi­ous­ly I wrote about how games might be a good way to ‘sell’ algo­rith­mic archi­tec­tures to your client. Even if you’re not active­ly push­ing your clients to adopt ideas such as on-the-fly cre­ation of site nav­i­ga­tion, soon­er or lat­er I’m con­vinced you’ll find your­self con­front­ed with a project where you’re not asked to devel­op a defin­i­tive infor­ma­tion archi­tec­ture. Instead you’ll be charged with the task to come up with mech­a­nisms to gen­er­ate these pro­ce­du­ral­ly. When this is this case, you’re tru­ly fac­ing a sec­ond-order design prob­lem. How can games help here?

One of the defin­ing char­ac­ter­is­tics of games are their com­plex­i­ty. A few years ago Ben Cer­ve­ny gave a bril­liant talk on play (MP3) at Reboot 7.0 and men­tioned this specif­i­cal­ly — that much of the plea­sure derived from game-play is the result of the play­er com­ing to terms with com­plex pat­terns. This com­plex­i­ty is some­thing dif­fer­ent from pure ran­dom­ness and most cer­tain­ly dif­fer­ent from a ‘mere’ state machine. In oth­er words, games show emer­gence.

There are many exam­ples of emer­gent sys­tems. The Game of Life springs to mind. This sys­tem isn’t real­ly a game but shows a remark­able rich­ness in pat­terns, despite (or maybe because of) the fact that it is based on a set of decep­tive­ly sim­ple rules (which appar­ent­ly took its cre­ator, John Con­way, over 2 years to per­fect!) The thing is though, The Game of Life is not inter­ac­tive.

A won­der­ful exam­ple of a com­plex emer­gent sys­tem that is inter­ac­tive is the real game Go. It has a set of very sim­ple rules, but play­ing it well takes a huge amount of prac­tice. The joy of play­ing Go for me (an absolute begin­ner) is large­ly due to dis­cov­er­ing the many dif­fer­ent per­mu­ta­tions play can go through.

So get­ting back to my ear­li­er remark: If you’re con­vinced you’ll need to get a bet­ter han­dle on solv­ing the sec­ond-order design prob­lems pre­sent­ed by the design of com­plex emer­gent sys­tems, games are an excel­lent place to start learn­ing. They are emer­gent first and inter­ac­tive sec­ond, the per­fect twin to the web envi­ron­ments we’ll be shap­ing in the future.