RSS

Category Archives: Indepth Articles

How the Gamer got their Spots: A brief history of the public perception of gaming.

This weekend I attended PAX, which was mindblowing in many ways. While there I attended several panels, one of which inspired me to write this. It’s something I’ve been aware of and thought about for some time, but never really had the space to talk about. Now I do. So here we go.

 ________________________________________________________________________

This is something I heard at PAX a lot: ‘what will it take for gamers to get out of being a niche culture and be accepted into the mainstream socially and politically like, say, film or music are?’. It was the overarching question and theme on a panel hosted by various industry and journalist luminaries. To me it sounds odd. On one level I identify with the sentiment deeply. I love videogames, tabletop games, card games, roleplay, pretty much anything ludic. Another common comment was on how gamers made being a minority part of their identity, a way of separating themselves and putting themselves above the legions of fashionistas and sports-ball players in highschool. As such, talking about gaming was not something you did unless you were pretty sure you were amongst other members of the lodge, having traded secret handshakes, awkward grins and rare magic cards. I shared that attitude for some time. Now, though, I talk about games with everyone. Often at length. I remember talking to an old lady I walked past on the way home from work for something like two and a half hours one afternoon. Sometimes, it becomes very hard to stop me. I’ve missed planes. I’m not shy about being a gamer, because for me that no longer makes any sense. This is not really due to my maturing and understanding that my hobbies aren’t something unclean and to be stigmatised. It’s due to something a little deeper.

  ________________________________________________________________________

I studied games at uni and during that time I read a lot of old books from the mid 20th century and earlier. I studied the history of games which, by the way, is really long. Like, seven or eight thousand years long just for ‘modern’ games. Kind of puts Pong into perspective. Another large part of my degree was media studies, which involved some indepth introductions to the history of electronic media. This, plus a poignant example brought up by one of my lecturers, made me reconsider the light in which I saw all modern gaming. Everything boils down to this: gaming is perceived as something new, an arising phenomenon that deviates from the normal pastimes of society. This is false. Historically, beyond the history of the 20th century at any rate, gaming is the norm. Not just children’s games either- card games, boardgames, party games, even single player games- solitaire is not a 20th century invention. Adults played games constantly and enthusiastically. Why then are the ‘new games’ -video, tabletop, card or other- seen as an oddity and attached to ideas of childishness and immaturity?

  ________________________________________________________________________

The answer, strangely enough, is technology. Not of games, but of everything else. The leisure of the 20th century west has been singularly defined by what media nerds (eg. me) call the ‘one to many’ media paradigm. First it was the radio, popular music and literature. Then cinema and television. The ability to minimize distribution costs of content allowed single instances of content to be universally (or at least very widely) disseminated. As a result more could be invested in polishing each instance, leading to more centralised and tuned media production while still increasing audiences. As a society, we ate it up and consequently shifted most of our leisure time from the traditional social pursuits of playing various games with those around us to reading, listening to or watching whatever was in vogue at the time. Perhaps the most ironic element of this shift was that it resulted in the professional athlete and the acceptance of the idea that we spend more time watching a chosen few play games than playing them ourselves. Broadcast media (and mass market printing) was a revolution in that it brought pursuits previously restricted to the uppermost social classes to the everyman. Literature culture, previously the domain of the wealthy, became a universally accessible. When public radio arose it allowed the populace to be more aware of their world than ever before and experience things previously limited to those who could afford to attend limited attendance events- concerts, speeches and demonstrations. Television brought sights from places few could ever hope to dream of seeing on a worker’s wage. Games, on the other hand, were seen as commonplace. There was status to be had in the broadcast media, buying into the intellectual leveling of society, being a part of something ‘big’. Games were left by the wayside as the preferred method of diversion, at least in part.

  ________________________________________________________________________

There was one thing that the broadcast media couldn’t do, however, right there in the word itself. Broadcast. Everyone got the same thing. Everyone read the same books, watched the same shows, listened to the same songs. That was good, in many ways, since it generated a more powerful sense of cultural identity than ever before, leading the way for reforms that ultimately led to modern social democracy and freedoms. Yet gamers will no doubt see the point I’m getting to: unlike games, you couldn’t touch the broadcasts. You couldn’t own them. They were not intimately personal in the way games gracefully and effortlessly manage to be. This was a limit of the new technologies. The same tools that allowed the mass dissemination of media meant that what was being disseminated had to be centralized. It was many decades before anything but token interactivity arose in electronic media. In that time the idea of games as a childish activity cemented itself, contrasted with the socially mature activities of imbibing the high culture composed by broadcasters, be they the latest musical phenomena, social discussions or elite sporting events. Only games with an aristocratic past continued to be acceptable pastimes, buying into the status free-for-all that permeated 20th century culture. Luckily for us gamers, it takes more than broad cultural reformation to take the gamer out of our collective soul. Everything I’ve studied supports the idea that games are fundamental to culture and, in a sense, humanity. We cannot help but create them, share them and play them. They shape our minds, our psyche and our interactions with others. It is an addiction we all share, so even when gaming was socially marginalized, in places it flourished. The sophistication and diversity of childhood games- still considered acceptable- skyrocketed. Creative types continued to innovate and sowed the seeds of the modern RPG, CCG and of course videogames. As broadcast media became less prohibitively restrictive over the years, interactivity began to seep back into our culture. The internet kicked off a new age not just for communication but for play.

  ________________________________________________________________________

Now we stand on the wheel, close to coming full circle. No longer is one-to-many media the accepted norm. It is challenged at every turn by constant interactivity, the natural state of play. The stigmas established by the mass media revolution are slowly wearing down as we acknowledge the value in many old cultural institutions and become ever more aware of the weaknesses of impersonal broadcasts. It may not be too long before the leisure norms of the 20th century are viewed as an aberration, a relic of primitive technology and social upheaval. So I have no reason to consider myself an oddity or a part of a minority. I am an average man, so long as I extend the sampling a few hundred years, rather than just the past fifty or so. The people who spend only a minority of their leisure in active play- those are the odd ones out to me. I don’t consider my gamer identity with a kind of oppressed pride, as a membership of a secret group. It does not make me special, or unhealthy. I’ve learned that all humans are gamers, openly or not. We all play. Some of us play quietly, not admitting that we need to but clinging to our little vices with fierce passion. Others accept it and embrace it even while those around them do not. The greatest number of all play and let play, sharing in that common delight of discovering patterns, enduring tension and delighting in triumph that all games create. though the methods change, we continue to play as we always have. To distinguish oneself by the fact one plays games is akin to feeling special because you are a man or a woman. Entirely natural, as it is something important to your identity, but neither particularly justified nor constructive.

  ________________________________________________________________________

So ends the tale of how the gamers got their spots. What can we learn from it? Another comment that came up a lot at PAX was that being a gamer gave us our identity, our pride. We’re a little afraid of it becoming universally accepted because we may just lose that. When what we consider gaming becomes something everyone partakes of, do we blend silently back into the mass of humanity, our passions diluted into the commonplace? Perhaps, but here’s a thought. The idea that play and games are childish took root most strongly within the 20th century. It has always existed to a point, but the 20th marked the lowest point of the acceptance of adult play. Consequently most of our modern games come from roots in games aimed at children which have since evolved, but even more strongly carry the 20th century stigma of adults playing children’s games. These games evolved because they carried inside them qualities that were so powerful that even under the pressures of society, we could not let them go. Positive qualities that are at the root of why we identify as gamers. For me it is my ability to approach challenges, to endure failure, to imagine vividly and to sit down across a table with any other gamer and share in a common passion. Every genre has its own unique qualities, from the speculative economies of TCGs to the handicrafts involved in LARPs and the exploratory accomplishments of speedrunners and glitchers.

 ________________________________________________________________________

It’s time, I think, to identify those qualities, the deeper things that make us love and venerate our games as meaningful and important to us. These- not the games themselves- are the root of our identity, and so long as we remain on the forefront of promoting and developing these qualities our identities will remain intact. Games are only a tool through which those values can be expressed. In doing so we can help shed the stigma of childishness that still clings to modern gaming and, more importantly, we can bring games back to their ancient position as the premiere contributors to the happiness and welfare of individuals and communities across the world. In a sense, gamers have a chance to open the eyes of society to a world it has forgotten. It’s not something to be entitled about, simply something to draw confidence from and take joy in succeeding at if you have the chance. That quest, of course, is in large part what this blog is about.

 

Serving Girls- Meaningful Characters in Games.

Sometimes people say the most hilarious things. Case in point.

Citizen Kane moment? Really? REALLY? Ok, ladies, gentlemen. Let’s get down to business. This is something that’s been brewing for a while. It’s something I wanted to talk about after Bioshock, but in that specific case other people did it better. Now with TLOU, I think I have a more general case to make in this regard. Bear in mind if the whole gender/sexism debate in games pisses you off this is going to make you both annoyed and probably uncomfortable, though it’s used just to make a broader point. I also realise the above is developer hype, but it fits with many opinions I’ve read or seen online in formal journalism, informal journalism and casual opinion.

When people talk about these games and praise them as narrative art, I find myself grinding my teeth a bit. I mean, all games are art, the discussion is about quality not absolute properties. These games get held up as comparable to other works of fiction of high notoriety- in this case Citizen Kane, when that is just simply not warranted. The reason this is done is because they are comparatively good when compared against other games. When the other games are as well written as call of duty or gears of war, this is like saying twilight is high art because it isn’t my immortal. If the industry is going to get anywhere, it has to hold itself to absolute or true comparative standards, not simply ones relative to other, less well polished produce from the same field.

That means we have to look at the ‘characters’ of these supposed narrative masterpieces in the context of other literature and evaluate them as such. I hate to break it to you, but they don’t stand up that well. We can (and do) blame that on the medium with excuses like

you cannot be held responsible for the actions of a character you cannot control.”

I’m sorry, but what? Art imitates life, and in life you are constantly responsible for the actions of people you don’t control. Sure, if we’re playing wish fulfillment fantasy then we want to make things different to reality. But isn’t the point of these games that they’re something beyond slaughter-porn-and-titties? Of course that sort of thing can be incredibly frustrating, but if you wanted to achieve literary significance your goal wouldn’t be to just kind of ignore or avoid it completely, but to address it in a meaningful way. I mean, forgive me if I’m wrong, but isn’t the whole subtext of TLOU about parenthood and isn’t parenthood at least a little about ‘being held responsible for the actions of a character you can’t control’. Seems like a missed opportunity, at the very least.

There’s a particular issue I want to address here, and that’s the use of a particular character archetype in this kind of game. That being ‘young, pretty and somewhat assertive/hopeful woman/girl’. As a onetime writer and occasional character designer, let me tell you something about those properties in combination: they trigger the empathy instinct in about the broadest segment of mankind you can reasonably sample. It is no accident that when game companies set out to have a character you can empathise with and bond with (for a degree of bonding, we’ll get to that in a bit), we get characters like Alyx, Elizabeth and Ellie. Everyone wants to see the underdog come through, and nothing says underdog like plucky young lass in a tough ol’ world. It’s one of the deepest most earnest desires we have as a species. To see the vulnerable and meek- who are simply stand-ins for ourselves at some level- triumph. Your gender, ethnicity or age is immaterial in this regard.

The problem is, they aren’t actually characters, in the traditional literary sense. Their entire existence revolves around you. Without you they are lost. Anything they could do to even mildly offend the most touchy of players has been neatly circumcised to make them pliant, docile attendants to your every need and fantasy. This is not an idle metaphor. In Semitic cultures anyway, circumcision symbolizes submission to God’s will. Here, all that might be independent is cut away to fulfill the unwavering dedication to the validation of the player as the ultimate agent.

So, not only are these ‘characters’ forged from the most emotionally manipulative of character archetypes, but even that wasn’t enough to ensure you like them. They must constantly provide you with unconditional encouragement, succor, moral justification, material assistance (though only enough to ensure you can keep soldiering on, never so much that you truly depend on them) and, of course, beating it into your head that you’re helping poor little them in their time of trial. It’s the equivalent of having a puppy follow you around woofing and occasionally giving you candy bars made out of pure dopamine. A puppy that never, ever poops. They are tools that exist to make you happy, not to make a point. Which, I remind you, is what characters are all about. The tradition of literature is about characters you like because they are meaningful, not characters who are meaningful because you happen to like them.

The only reason you adore these characters is because they are basically the most compliant form of slave ever invented. To own another living creature’s loyalty and dependence so completely is why we buy dogs. So it is completely valid, in this case, to call these creations your bitches. I feel that stating this is not degrading towards women because none of these characters in any way resemble actual women. To portray these caricatures as wholesome, meaningful characters and your relationship with them as something positive and human, THAT is demeaning to women.

Any woman, hell any person, as intelligent and capable as they are superficially made out to be would get the fuck away from your homicidal ass as soon as possible. If you think differently… I’m sorry, but go actually meet some smart girls. They’re kind of cool, and they tend to be able to solve their own problems. Crazy, I know, but that’s the way things actually are. If they were portrayed as some kind of abused, demeaned, broken wrecks, their servility might be in character. They are not. It is not.

The point of this rant isn’t about the representation of women. I’m just stressing, as hard as possible, that these characters are neither deep nor the connection you feel with them somehow a literary achievement. They’re well crafted to achieve their goal, of course, but to be of literary significance a character needs to achieve more than that. Something like this, perhaps:

When I say literary significance, I’m speaking here about real significance, a character that connects with something widespread and primal, that makes you sit back and breathe out slowly because you’re not quite sure what to think. When you call out Citizen Kane moment, you’d better be fucking ready to defend that assertion on equal grounds. Do these deuteragonist characters match up to say, Y.T, Clare Abshire, Lyra Belaqua, Elizabeth Bennet, Hermione Granger or Ellen Ripley? No they do not, and those are only in the ‘pretty high up there’ range for their mediums, not ‘greatest ever’. I’m happy to debate this. Please try. Please. No, really. Do. It will be so fun.

The most common response to this I hear is woah, man, back the fuck up, games aren’t books or movies, you can’t have characters like that. Well, from the same sources, apparently games are meaningful and their narratives powerful. Unless we want to cede that they are in reality simply manipulative and their narratives trite, which I sure as hell don’t, we have to take a step back and say, ok, yes, these were good. Better than normal for the medium at any rate. We achieved empathy, but we had to try SO hard. And better than normal doesn’t mean good compared to other things that have been around for a century or more longer and had time to develop themselves to the point of overcoming the problems games still have.

The next step is to achieve that level of companionship with a character archetype which isn’t quite as universally d’awww inducing. Say, an old lady or a teenaged guy. They can still be sweet and helpful, but if we can’t manage to at least avoid damsel syndrome then we’re pretty much boned.

Once that’s done, we can work on supporting characters that are… well, characters. They do stuff because they believe in it, not because it helps you. They don’t see you as the centre of the universe, and so on. When a game- specifically an 3PS/FPS- manages to have a supporting Stanislaus Katczinsky, an Ellis Redding, a Doc Daneeka, a Captain Nemo, then I think we can say we’ve hit a Citizen Kane moment. A character who is not inherently attractive, desirable, worthy of protection and adoration etc. A character who disagrees with you from time to time. A character whose respect you must win and who you come to respect as well, despite the fact they don’t always do what you want. That will be truly a moment for momentous celebration, but we’ve a long way to go yet.

And treating games like TLOU as the pinnacle of narrative potential isn’t helping us get there.

I want to stress that here I am talking about the FPS/3PS action genre. I think, by and large, RPGs and narrative centric games like Allan Wake are further along the track, though I think this is more largely due to their ability to throw loads of characters at you and hope you find one that sticks. That model has worked ever since Baldur’s Gate (I still have fond memories of Jaheira and Viconia shit-talking each other). Creating and implementing a single character who is universally meaningful- a Holden Caulfield or an Atticus Finch- without the crutches used right now, that is a real challenge.

_______________________________

It’s difficult to throw down punches like this because I actually quite liked all three of the games under consideration here. I’m also aiming these blows mostly at fellow consumers and critics, not the developers themselves. It feels awkward jumping at people simply for enjoying things and expressing how much they enjoyed it. This is my justification, and you can take it or leave it.

I care about games. I think the medium is amazing and important in far more ways than are generally understood. At the very least, gaming represents a revolution in the truest sense, full circle back to when our leisure activities largely involved play and social interaction rather than passive consumption of media. That means that, if history is any indication, the capability and importance of videogames is only going to grow and the extent to which we interact with them as a society is as well. I want the industry to find its way to a point where videogames can truly match more established forms of media in terms of the scope of what they can talk about effectively. Where a public who plays more and reads less will not lose out on the insights I have derived from other literature. Where games exist that are as powerful and meaningful as they are entertaining. I want to hear from a schoolchild that a game, not a book, taught them why science is important or how to cope with depression or deal with puberty or maybe just made them feel just that little bit better about being human. I want to be able to, when my kids ask me about war or unfairness or love or the mysterious beauty of the universe, reach up to the shelf and hand them a jewel case instead of a novel, knowing that is the best choice. My imagination predates the digital storage revolution, just FYI.

That is not a goal that will simply occur in time. It must be sought. There will always be a slight pressure towards it from those people who desire to make such meaningful games, but without the stronger pressure of consumers, the market will stymie progress. If there is no serious demand for a higher standard, there need be no serious attempt at supply. When you give something a 10/10, you’re saying it could not be improved in any way. It’s a tricky thing, because improving on what’s already ahead of the game is never intuitive, unless you happen to be competing with someone. If it happens, however, the world becomes a better, or at least a more interesting, place. I think that’s worth at least talking about.

 

On toxicity

The word ‘toxic’ appears to have gone viral, at least in the competitive games community. It’s unsurprising, really, as it provides a lovely, pithy way of describing a certain kind of player or even person, to their backs at any rate.

As far as I can tell, Riot coined the term for PR purposes, as a way of defining the typical player who is not… socially considerate when talking to their community. In that role, it’s a fantastic tool, highly expressive and intuitive as to what it means. Of course, so are the words ‘fun’ and ‘game’ and don’t we all know the trouble that’s got us into, eh?

As much as I love Riot, this is one thing I can find serious issue with in their MO. It appears the company has collectively drunk the koolaid of believing that this PR jargon they made up is an actual thing, not just a neat way of describing a stupidly complex phenomenon. What’s made worse is that every definition of toxicity I’ve seen from them is different but for one fact: they all have a negative impact on consumer retention. We can fluff that up and call it damaging game experience and so on, but when it boils down to it, this is not about game design any more. It’s about audience selection and making wads of cash money. This isn’t inherently evil, of course, but it’s certainly not unambiguously good either.

_________________________________________________

So let’s get this straight. There is no such thing as a ‘toxic player’, at least not in the sense of actual flesh and blood players. It’s alright to use the term in pure hypotheticals and label a certain kind of action group toxic and consequently a hypothetical player who embodies that group a toxic player, but that’s not how the real world works, folks.

The worst outcome of this misuse is that people, actual people, are diagnosing themselves as toxic in fits of hypochondriac glee. Unsurprising given the peculiarly western tendency to syndromise any kind of problem, but distressing none the less. Personally, I am terrified of this development. There is no kind of psychological treatment in which repressing and punishing antisocial urges has anything but a styming effect on personal development and enjoyment for the individual being targeted.

Now I hear toxic being bandied around on unrelated podcasts, in design articles, interviews with devs, even potential research briefs. It’s a catchy, catchall meme. It’s also a delicious label to stick to someone you don’t like, a perfect tool to brand ‘the other’. It’s one of those inconspicuous little words that can worm its way into the consciousness of a populace and create divisions, excuses for unethical behavior and justifications for the unjustifiable. The sort of word that is one of many engraved in each paving stone on the road to hell.

Toxic, put simply, is toxic.

 _________________________________________________

I stress that I’m certainly not saying that there’s no such thing as a player whose play is detrimental to the fun of other players, nor that a developer shouldn’t talk about this or even design things to prevent or mitigate that. Riot, for the most part, is doing the right thing- implementing systems in their game which gently encourage players to play in a way that is tolerable to other players. The problem is mostly in the discussion and the misappropriation of the term.

The most dangerous result of this is the idea that a certain kind of play is inherently ‘wrong’. This is… it’s just plain disturbing. Play, at its core, is a process of experimentation and discovery. Play exists to push boundaries and explore what is normally not acceptable in ‘real life’. It also serves to train and develop, to instill contentment or joy and create wonder. Fundamentally, though, human beings, in fact all animals which play, play in order to do what would otherwise not be possible. To enforce a moral rhetoric upon this is almost always damaging to the player, because that concept is antithetical to the core purpose of play.

I’m not talking about something that’s nice and fluffy here. As much as the activity of play can be about exploring love and trust it is also about exploring betrayal and anger. It’s a careful balancing act, but one that is fundamentally necessary for human mental health and self development. In the end all those people calling you a noob faggot have a largely positive outcome on you as a human being, hard to believe as that may be at the time. What it doesn’t help is the developer’s profits, because you’ll probably drop the first few games where you’re exposed to that sort of antagonistic play. When these two collide we arrive at the problematic concept of toxicity. The utopian idea that all players can live in harmony and sing around the campfire at night. Like all utopian concepts it is enticing, dangerous and utterly wrong.

  _________________________________________________

If I hold this to be true, I also have to hold that it is reasonable to create exclusive communities of play, where entry requires certain rules to be accepted and adhered to by all players, that is after all the essence of a game. The important distinction between a ‘toxic’ player and one who infiltrates such a community and then breaks the rules is that the latter is simply a rulebreaker, and can be expelled as such. A toxic player, on the other hand, implies someone whose play, while acceptable within the rules, is filthy and unclean. There is a double standard there- you’re welcome to come and play however you like, but good players only play like this. If you don’t, you’re a bad player and everyone is allowed to judge you.

That’s a far cry from a simple, professional: These are the rules, to maintain the game as it is intended to be played, the rules must be adhered to. If you don’t, you’ll be removed from the game. No hard feelings, that’s just how it has to work. If it’s in the rules, the players are free to exploit it however they so choose. The responsible party for toxic outcomes is not the player, it is the designer.

So I simply ask that we should be careful with the word. It’s not entirely without merit, but it’s powerful and dangerous. It shouldn’t be thrown around to label everyone and their kid brother. Nor should it be used in formal discussion unless clearly and meticulously defined and justified.

  _________________________________________________

As a kind of postscript, I will say that Riot seems these days to have shifted their attention from toxic players to toxic environments. Unfortunately, the earlier discussions have created the implicit assumption that the former creates the latter, where Lyte’s recent analysis at the GDC shows that is clearly not the case. I applaud them for bringing that salient little fact to our collective notice. Notice it.

 

Indepth: economies of time

This week I’m going to have a look at time economies, which is to say the way players allocate their time during games. Economies are a pretty basic part of game design, any time you have a limited resource it generates an economy for that resource. Since the advent of the videogame, time has become an important one of those resources, but even in games that are technically not time-constrained, time is often modeled through limiting actions per turn or some other similar mechanical resource. This article will look at both designing a real-time ‘attention budget’ and and interesting example of a simulated time economy, specifically in Android: Netrunner.

 ___________________________

Time is one of the most fundamental resources available for a game designer to manipulate. In videogames you’ll usually find it taken into account either in terms of player attention- providing a greater amount of time spending activities than the player has time to perform in order to force them to make choices about where to focus their attention, or in terms of commitment- going to the store takes 30 seconds, going to the healer takes 30 seconds, and overall time is limited in a very similar manner to a cash-resource system- you only get 30 seconds before the next wave of baddies, so you have to pick one and stick to the decision.

Precisely because it is so fundamental it is easy to overlook as a subject of design and analysis, but examining how time is handled in a game can often be incredibly fruitful in problem solving and generating new ideas.

A particularly valuable exercise, and the one I’ll focus on here, is plotting out how much time you intend players to spend on particular aspects of your game, either overall or focused in on a particular area.

Lets say I’m designing an RPG. How much time do I want my player to spend exploring? Fighting? Reading/watching narrative stuff? Browsing their customization menus?

In a fight, how much time should be spent making actions and controlling characters? How much spent planning and strategising? How much watching the action unfurl?

 ___________________________

If my focus as a designer is on the the narrative immersion of the player, I might want weight the player’s time economy on talking to characters, exploring the environment and engaging with the stuff I spread through the game. If my focus is on a particularly elegant combat mechanic set I’d come up with, I’d want to push a player to invest more of their time exploring that to get as much out of it as possible and so on.

So in this way you can start building up a fairly complex ‘spending plan’ for time, something like this:

early game 

  • 40% exploration/familiarisation with setting
  • 40% experimentation/learning mechanics
  • 15% combat/achievement
  • 5% character customisation

midgame

  • 20% exploration
  • 30% experimentation
  • 40% combat/achievement
  • 10% character customisation

endgame

  • 5% exploration
  • 5% experimentation
  • 70% combat/achievement
  • 20% character customisation

This one is just off the top of my head, but you should be able to get the general gist of it. In the early stages of the game I want to invest the player in the setting, get them comfortable and encourage them to spend time messing around and getting a feel for the mechanics and what does what. Combat and character customization are light and more intended to add flavor and points from which to build learning than challenge

In the main section of the game, I want the player to move their time balance out a bit. Still spend a lot of it figuring out the mechanics, as this is one of the key components of engagement in almost all RPGs, but now they’ve got a model of what’s going on to work with, I want them to spend more time mucking around tweaking their character than digging into the background material.

In the last stages of the game, the world has largely been explored and the plot established. I want the player to have figured out how all the various mechanics of the game interact and so not need to spend time mucking around- they should know how they can approach the challenges the game throws up. So we turn that up to 11 and give them a flood of such challenges to reward the knowledge they’ve built up. As with most RPGs, the last stage will also be accompanied by a fair bit more fine-tuning and tweaking of characters to overcome the challenges thrown up.

___________________________

By going through the process of establishing a ‘time economy’ you do a very important thing: you give yourself clear targets and goals in your design. You can look at the way your prototypes are developing and say- ‘man, people are just not getting into this setting enough, I need to give them more things to spend time on there’, or ‘people are just fighting all the time, I have to give them incentives to slow down a bit and look at the scenery’

I should be clear that this time economy is the one you think best expresses what your game has to offer. Individual players will always have preferences and will lean towards one or another kind of time spending, so you want to give them room to do so- nothing sucks more than a game that rails you into spending exactly the amount of time the designer prescribes on something, no more, no less. Your designs upon the player’s time should be guidelines, not hard and fast rules (unless you’re using time itself as an acknowledged resource for the player to spend, of course).

This isn’t just a useful tool for videogame designers though- I recently played Eclipse, one of many 4X boardgame attempts. Though it’s apparently one of the more elegant products of its type, I found it incredibly clunky. I did a kind of time budget in my head as I played and for the small scale, three player game mode we were using (which is apparently the fastest and most intense), the time budget for players seemed to be something like

  • 30% setting up the game and putting it away
  • 20% figuring out what you want to do
  • 5% doing it
  • 35% waiting for your turn with nothing to do

This is even accounting for the fact I was a first time player, having to figure out all the mechanics on the fly and that there were only 3 players of a potential 6. Any designer worth their salt should be able to look at that outline and immediately see that there’s some seriously frustrating games waiting to happen. People might be willing to tolerate it because, admittedly, the actual gameplay is pretty solid. Tolerance, though, is not a pretty word.

___________________________

Another note is that I’m using very general stuff for my time economy profiling here. If I was designing half-life, for example, I might budget for things like ‘physics puzzles’, ‘travel’ and ‘recuperation’. Again, by making you put your thoughts down on paper, doing this sort of analysis will help you identify these categories of behaviour and action

One last thing the time economy does is really force you to pin down what you want your game to be about. You only have one hundred %’s to play with. Your player can’t be gazing at your amazing backgrounds 80% of the time and fighting desperately for their life 80% of the time. So planning out a time economy isn’t often a fun task for the designer. Just as much as the player, you want All The Things, but you know as a designer that is rarely a good choice in design. Figuring out your game’s time budget forces you to put, in paper, where you want your player to invest their time and, consequently, where you should invest yours.

___________________________

The second part of today’s discussion is perhaps a bit more palatable for the more math and statistic oriented crowd. If you don’t like bouncing numbers off each other, however, this next bit might not be for you.

As part of working on the League LCG, I’ve been studying up on the market. In particular i’ve begun to play Netrunner with friends and watch a lot of content there to get a feel for how FFG are managing their LCG model. It turns out Netrunner is a really good game as well and one that has some really nice mechanic/dynamic outcomes that revolve around time as a resource.

Netrunner is somewhere between Magic and chess. Where in Magic you can do whatever you want in a turn so long as you do it at the right time and you have the resources and in chess you can do one thing once per turn, in Netrunner you have a limited amount of actions per turn, but those actions are pretty versatile. Most important for us here are three- you can spend an action (you have 3 or 4 per turn) to draw a card, earn 1 unit of currency (bit) or play a card.

First up, this instantly tells us that these three actions are of equivalent worth. Drawing a card is worth 1 unit of currency, as is playing a card, and so on around in a circle.

So, for example we have a card called Diesel.

It seems pretty amazing (if you’re a magic player anyway). No cost, draw 3 cards. holy moly. But in Netrunner, playing this card costs an action, which you could use to draw a card anyway. So you’re only really up 2 cards. Not only that, but it doesn’t actually do anything for you but give you more cards, when Netrunner puts a premium on getting a lot out of your cards. So that’s really another card down. All in all, you’re up 1 card over just spending an action to draw.

Then there’s a card called Quality Time that costs 3 bits to draw 5 cards. So the card cost is 1 action to play and 3 actions to earn 3 bits to pay for it. Four actions total. In magic, it would be utterly broken, but the time limitations in Netrunner make it, at least without considering synergy, worse than Diesel.

Netrunner, however, is a subtle beast. In general, a card on its own only gets you ahead of your basic actions very slightly- with increasing power based on how hard it is to play. For example, there’s a card that costs nothing to play and gives you 3 bits, for a net bonus of 2. There’s another card that costs 5 to play, but gives you 9 bits, for a net bonus of 3. Because as a condition of play you need to have 5 bits lying around, it’s a little bit more efficient- but only a little bit. Other cards are even more efficient but have trade-offs.

Pad campaign gives you money every turn, but it costs money to play, so you need to keep it alive for 3 turns to break even (1 to pay for the action spent playing it and 2 for the actual cost) . Once you do, however, it’s a gold mine. Because it gives you 1 bit WITHOUT costing you an action, you’re effectively getting an extra action per turn- going from 3 to 4, an increase of a whopping 25% in efficiency from one card. So if your deck can keep it alive, it’s amazing.

Typically, your opponent has to spend 1 action and pay 4 bits to ‘kill’ it, so it costs them 5 overall to get rid of it. If they do that right away, you end up 2 bits ahead, but some cards let them kill it cheaper or give them free money to do it with, so you start getting this incredibly complex time-economy where players are trying to end up coming out ahead by 1 action worth of a resource- be it a card, a bit or something in play. Over the course of the game, a couple of good action ‘trades’ like this can give you a lead to let you do something that would be impossible if both of you were on even footing and thus win the game.

___________________________

Coming back to our original cards, Diesel is a great card if your deck has, for example, a lot of low cost cards, so each card draw action is worth comparatively more than if your deck was full of high-cost cards that put a premium on taking actions which earn money. If you have a lot of synergy that allows you to efficiently generate bits, then quality time becomes a better card than Diesel, since that 3 bit cost may only convert to one action, not three.

In this way, Netrunner creates a complex dynamic of time management in a non-realtime setting. A player feels incredibly constrained by their few actions, so tools which give them more ability to act feel liberating and powerful. Because pretty much every economy card gives you one or two actions worth of resources overall (excepting some which give you more but as a drip feed like pad campaign), how you fuel your economy is entirely dependent on card synergies and the structure of your deck. Time is expressed as a resource extremely successfully and good, efficient Netrunner decks are all about time management- creating efficiencies that give the player the time to execute the strategies necessary for victory.

___________________________

So there you have it. Time is something that you can explore as both mechanic and dynamics. As an overall design tool you can plan out how time will be spent playing your game to focus and clarify your design and give you signposts to use during your testing and iteration. You can also use time in a more focused way as a resource in games which aren’t formally time-constrained in order create an aesthetic of intense action without forcing real-time constraints on the player.

 

Indepth: Tutorial & training design for competitive games

This week’s indepth article is brought to you by recent developments in the Moba scene with Dota creating a new tutorial system and League revamping theirs. As LoLCG might suggest, I’m quite interested in that style of game, but I’ve also followed competitive gaming of all sorts for quite some time. These games are pushing the conception of videogames as a legitimate arena for competition forward and, as Esports begins to find traction, it’s time to question assumptions videogame designers have made for decades about how to go about that.

In this article I’m going to go over a particular method competitive games use to foster and develop their player communities. I’ll look at how game designers can learn and improve upon these models to create competitive games that foster even more passionate players and fans than they do already. Then I’m going to look at four paragons of the genres of competitive game. League of Legends, Streetfighter, Tribes and Starcraft. I’ll look at the positives and negatives of how these games have approached training their players and the impact those decisions may have had on the games overall. Finally, I’ll bring it together and propose a set of guidelines for designing successful training and tutorial elements for such games, which can be summarised in these goals:

they must be rewarding in their own right

they must clearly communicate context

they must provide a safe environment

they must isolate and identify particular skills

they must support perpetual skill development

__________________________________________

Introduction: Something or other about Tennis.

Amongst my library of design proverbs, I’ve found one coming up more than most recently. ‘You don’t learn to play tennis by playing tennis’. I hope I don’t need to draw you a diagram. It’s one of the most lauded properties of videogames that they decrease the need for dedicated training and development. One learns by playing, seamlessly, without even realizing it. As I discussed in my analysis of Portal 2, this capability can be intoxicating for designers, so much so that they miss exactly what it is they’re doing.

Analogue games- more specifically, real-time analogue games with a high mechanical skill component- don’t successfully induct new players or fans by getting them to play even a limited version of the full game. Instead, players are more often introduced by participating in drills or mini-games which isolate and clarify particular mechanical components of the whole. These aspects are then given context and brought together in parts and finally in full, but more limited exercises remain a constant part of training.

I remember, when I was a kid, going to tennis camp. First you got to play with a racquet, then you got to mess around hitting balls against a wall. Over several days you’d move to trying to hit the ball into the other side of a court underhand, trying to hit it back when someone else hit it across (or rallying balls from a ball machine), playing volley games, little best of three rallies and finally moving onto serving and replying to serving, all the time drilling positioning, how to hold your racquet and so on. Just like in videogames, rewards provided a carrot to keep you interested, though unlike videogames these prizes usually went only to the top performers.

There are two important things to learn from here. First is that tennis camp had no illusions about what it was. When you went to tennis camp, you didn’t play tennis (well, much) you LEARNED to play tennis. This doesn’t mean you didn’t play games, they just weren’t tennis, and you knew the purpose of these games were to teach you skills to help you play tennis, which acted as another level of reward for success. Second, the formal reward mechanism used (prizes for the top performers) is antithetical to the best aspects of videogame design- all players deserve rewards for challenging themselves and overcoming their limits. It’s true that in these camp games everyone got a reward- they learned to be better tennis players- but that wasn’t much consolation when Timmy McBuffwrists was scoffing down half a bucket of M&Ms. This is something videogames have shown they CAN do better. In non-competitive games, the reward is most often advancement of the narrative or player capabilities, but in competitive games this often isn’t a great thing to offer. Players want to be become better at the full game, show them they are and that is going to be reward enough for many.

Tennis camp, I’d argue, is a tutorial on how to play tennis. Because of the skills tennis requires, the tutorial can’t just teach you the concepts and allow you to apply them at your own pace (which you can do with a mechanical skill and time insensitive game like Chess). It must actively develop the skills to a minimum level suitable for playing the game itself. To do so, it must isolate and train these skills to a level where their value to the game can be demonstrated to the player in a hands-on way. It’s all well and good telling a player when to apply a smash, but they’re never going to get it until they can actually smash and get a feel for when it’s practical.

Videogame tutorials, on the other hand, remain as kind of interactive rulebooks or introductions to concepts, without really giving players this hands on training. A token gate will often be provided (You shoot things with your left mouse button. Do you know where your left mouse button is? Oh good, proceed), but it’s rarely designed carefully enough to actually test whether a player has grasped a concept (ok, so I got out of that stupid tutorial thing, I’m not exactly sure how…) and this is often most pronounced for the intricate mechanical challenges of competitive videogames. So much so, in fact, that historically videogame designers have left tutoring to their communities, rather than trying to make good tutorials or training aids, they pay them lip-service and hope desperately that some internet personality will go viral with a series of learn to play videos or guides or develop some mods to help others train. Sometimes they get so fed up with the whole paradigm of minimalist tutorials they produce something like this (skip to around 5 mins):

Which, while hilarious, is even more intended for people who are already educated consumers. The problem with this approach is it relies on a very, very slow trickle of players joining, because the normal channels through which people are introduced to new, fun videogame experiences (the games media, forums etc) won’t work- you can’t just drop into the game cold and get the intended experience. It’s a sort of a catch 22 thing. You only get introduced to learning how to play the game if you’re already a member of the community of people who already play, or at least on the fringes of it. This phenomenon is particularly pronounced in the fighting game community and, up until a huge community effort over 2011-12, the Starcraft community.

This is a serious problem for developers, who want to get as many people playing as possible. That problem is doubled for developers aiming for an Esport presence, as not only do you need a vibrant player community, but an even larger spectator community as well. Player count and fresh blood matter and without a good way of reaching out to them and helping them into the community, competitive games stagnate and slowly become ever more inaccessible.

In order to reach out to truly new players and introduce them to the joy of competition, competitive videogames need to embrace the lessons that can be learned from sport camps. Provide the tools for your players to break down the game and train efficiently. Reward them for that training. Help them understand the game in the same way the best players do, so a conversation can exist between them. These are the objectives of tutorials and training for competitive games, so let’s see how it’s been done so far.

Game analysis

1: Streetfighter (Streetfighter IV)

Introduction:

Street fighter IV features no formal tutorial (the basic controls and goals are covered in the manual), only two modes aimed at helping players develop their skills. Challenge mode gates players through a series of increasingly complex combos, with the goal of showing them the particular capabilities of a given character. Training mode drops players in a sandbox fight where they can adjust the properties of their opponent to test their own skills and devise their own challenges.

What it does well:

Unlike many competitive games, Street Fighter IV recognizes the need for a space in which players can train at their own pace and isolate specific aspects to train formally. The training level’s grid gives players the tools to practice footsies and spacing. The challenge levels attempt to introduce players to the particular capabilities of each character. It even has a rudimentary reward mechanism through unlocking stages a completion meter.

What it does badly:

Pretty much everything else. The training and challenge levels are more intended for players who are already committed to learning the game to a high level and have studied how to do so through online guides accessible, more or less, only to people already deep into the fighting game community. The game makes no attempt to explain necessary skills or help new players reach the point where they are competent at them, other than providing the sandbox area mentioned so they can practice in an undirected way without having Zangief constantly trying to piledrive them. It doesn’t explain where various skills might be valuable, nor what they’re called by the player community (oh, of course that un-named combination of twenty motions ten deep in challenge mode is referred to as an Ultra-FADC. How silly of me not to know that)

There’s no attempt to reward players for engaging in learning activities and training their skills (other than being able to go from ‘helpless cripple’ difficulty to ‘clumsy infant’ difficulty, a tremendous boost to their self esteem). There’s no attempt to teach players concepts that get flung around like misogynist jokes in the FGC. Want to learn how to cancel your dragon punch into a mixup tech bait? Don’t ask here… The game doesn’t even tell you how to block.

The result:

The amount of independent effort required to even learn how to throw a fireball unless you’re already familiar with fighting games is staggering. Given how much more complex real PVP Street Fighter is, it’s no wonder that the game remains a cult phenomenon, mostly spread by people being individually tutored by their friends. Some might argue that mashing buttons is perfectly cool and enjoyable, which is true, but it’s also an example of terrible design. If 95% of your audience is going to just fondle their controller like an awkward teen virgin, why on earth bother spending huge amounts of time and money creating a level of balance and pixel perfect execution that is perhaps the most demanding of all the Esport genres? Would it not be worth the comparatively minimal effort of designing some good in-game introductions to these capabilities that would show novice players the delight that comes from exploiting all this work you’ve been putting in. I certainly think so. Apparently Capcom disagrees.

_________________________________________

2: Tribes (Tribes Ascend)

Introduction:

Much like Street Fighter, Tribes has a cultish, ultra-high skilled community and markets itself as a highly competitive, spectacular game. Ascend features a very limited tutorial set which introduces players to the two most basic principles in the game- skiing (how to go faster) and inheritance (why you never, ever hit anything, you noob). There’s a free-roam mode where you can spawn into an empty map and access all weapons, even ones you haven’t bought, but like SF, no attempt is made to explain their use and functionalities to the player. Finally, post release some basic target practice modes were added, but in a very tacked on style.

(Skip to 18 mins)

What it does well:

Tribes sells itself as a high skill, high complexity game. It certainly takes balls to advertise yourself as ‘the hardest game’. While this is debatable, the rhetoric is clear: this is a competitive game, no questions asked. I actually had the pleasure of interviewing the project lead on the game and, when I asked him about easing in newer players with some fun sub-games that might help them master skiing, his response was in the vein of ‘we want people to play a shooter, not a racing game. Interesting idea, but we probably won’t do it any time soon’. I can respect that… sort of. Ascend does use community language throughout the game in such a way that it’s usually easy to interpret, lessening the conceptual burden for spectators or novices trying it out for the first time, but these occurrences are achieved more through luck and referential humor than deliberate design. The addition of some basic training maps post release has given players somewhere to go, but they’re incredibly rudimentary, lacking in direction and give the player no rewards, so the only incentive to try them is getting your ass handed to you against other people.

What it does badly:

Unfortunately, what Tribes: Ascend wants to be is a game that is amazing once you spend maybe 30 hours learning to walk and shoot at the same time. You can play Tribes like a regular shooter, running around on the ground, but it will feel terrible. The whole game is balanced around the assumption that players have mastered some fairly impressive technical skills.

Like Street Fighter, no concession is made to the rookie. If you want to become a Tribes player, you’ll do it sweating blood and tears. For people who enjoy that, or have enough shooter experience to be able to get the feel of it intuitively, great. So, like 10% of your potential audience. Whoopie.

In particular, being able to even achieve lasting damage in the game is somewhat dependent on mastering the aim of some particularly finicky weapons. You have a low ammo count, so amongst newer players it’s not uncommon for two people to run each other entirely out of ammo because neither can actually hit the other reliably enough to stop their halo-style health regeneration kicking in. This is possibly the most frustrating thing I’ve ever experienced in any shooter game and the fact that, at least originally, there was no place you could go and practice against moving targets that mimicked the target profile of another player at all was more than a little awful. Due to negative feedback, the target practice mode was added , if only to save both you and some other guy the anguish that is trying to bite someone strolling across the map with your flag to death because you spent enough ammunition to level a small city block trying to hit his buddy wearing the scifi equivalent of a loincloth and rollerskates. Yet the tacked on style and lack of direction mean that such a training mode is once again only really suited to advanced players, not the ones who really need to train.

This is further exacerbated by the fact that Tribes in its standard format is a teamwork heavy game. Players have serious roles to play that involve things other than shooting at the closest bad guy. There’s no attempt made to explain these necessities and how they’re handled to players, which leads to Moba-level raging when new players do what is completely natural and fly around shooting at people while veterans rip their hair out in frustration. There are tools to communicate what to do, but without the context provided by training, they fall flat for new players. So the typical competitive-rookie divide grows sharper and players are turned away.

The result:

Tribes: Ascend is pretty clearly a failed experiment. It’s not an unsalvagable one and if HiRez persist for a few more years, I think it will resurrect once the level of archived content reaches a critical level that lets people buy into the game without needing the developer’s assistance. But will the servers still be up by then? Who knows.

I think it’s no exaggeration to say that Tribes Ascend has performed poorly specifically because the developers neglected providing sufficient well designed training and tutorial content in the game. Tribes is perhaps one of the most innovative and engaging shooter genres, one that remains more or less unique in terms of its core mechanical concept (high speed player movement combined with low speed weapon projectiles). Like many games, it spiked high on launch, but without the ability to train and grow in a structured environment, the player-base quickly waned and now we’re left with a community similar to the one that tribes has had traditionally. Small, closed, high skilled and insular.

_________________________________________

3) League of Legends:

League of Legends has made inroads into improving player experience and play quality, but has it achieved anything in that regard when it comes to helping players learn the game? Perhaps. Perhaps not. The game has yet another very rudimentary, if well executed, tutorial that covers the basic control system and objectives of the game. Like many popular games, the developers seem content to leave players to manage their own training through custom games and other ad-hoc solutions however. League does provide a very well integrated VS-AI mode that gives players legitimate rewards comparable to playing against other people (for a limited time) and so is more enticing than similar play in Street Fighter or Tribes.

What it does well:

League of Legends goes out of its way to be welcoming to new players and reward them for engaging with the game. For new players, playing vs AI is weighted similarly to playing against humans, which helps reduce ladder anxiety for players unfamiliar with competitive gaming. Champion rotations and the F2P economy stagger the weight of information a player has to take on and social mechanics designed to encourage players to be welcoming and supportive help mitigate some of tensions and apprehensions of diving into an unstructured learning environment.

What it does badly:

Despite my good feeling towards Riot, however, in terms of content explicitly designed to help players develop competency and/or mastery, League is still just as flawed in terms of design as Street Fighter or Tribes. If I’m going to point at those games as having terrible implementations, League must be tarred with the same brush. No matter how much you try and paint cute happy faces on it, learning to become a competent League of Legends player on one’s own, or even in most company, is still like toileting with sandpaper.

Given the tremendous weight of community knowledge that players must absorb, a new player to a Moba is orders of magnitude below the capabilities of even a sub-50% hack like me. Mobas take for granted a control scheme that many people have serious difficulty adapting to (inverted keyboard-mouse control where the mouse controls movement and the keyboard controls actions and interactions, whereas in almost every genre but RTS and its mechanical variants the opposite is the case- RTS being one of the most niche genres of videogame in terms of raw player count). Alongside this a player must juggle incredibly complex contextual decisions and situational awareness while performing mechanical operations that can be tricky for even veteran keyboard jockeys.

Like many other competitive games, League gives nowhere for the player to isolate and refine these skills, let alone somewhere which is catered to with League’s otherwise industry-leading player engagement strategies. The result is that, despite its intense popularity, League is still beyond the reach of many who might otherwise be fans if their introduction to the genre was better structured.

The result:

League’s huge playerbase, vibrant and creative community and intense dedication to communication and involvement masks a lot of the flaws the game holds. The sheer weight of external guides and information as well as Riot’s policy of adopting player jargon to give new entrants a handhold to pull themselves into the scene means players are more often able to get the things they need to learn down and, more importantly, why they need to learn them. Where it falls down is providing them the space to do so.

So I have still borne witness to far more people flaming out on League than getting hooked. It was particularly strange to see the infographic proudly claiming, among other epic statistics, that over 90% of league players were male. This despite the fact that, overall, the videogaming market is half female(Pg3) and a majority of those women play on PC. While I imagine those statistics come as a surprise to some, to those it doesn’t this infographic was something like saying ‘hey look at how successfully we’ve failed to reach the majority demographic in this market space!’.

While there might be other reasons, I think that the average western woman is more inclined to learn a game at her own pace without the pressure of competition and with the ability to structure and control the experience. Honestly, I think the average guy is too, but men tend to be more willing to adapt to and pressured into a PVP grinding mindset in the presence of their peers, or take out their frustrations through mindless soloqueing. Perhaps if League introduced content to help new players learn the game at their own pace without someone looking over their shoulder telling them what to do (while frequently being wrong) there might be more ladies willing to take the plunge.

For all its strengths, League still has a lot to learn

_________________________________________

4: Starcraft (Starcraft II)

Starcraft is an interesting beast. In some senses it demonstrates best practice for competitive game tutorial/training design. Any way you look at it, the single player campaign is clearly aimed at steadily introducing players to new units and their intended purpose bit by bit. Starcraft also features a challenge mode which trains players on core concepts like multitasking, base building and so on.

Yet, despite the claims of developers that a greater percentage of people are cutting their teeth than ever before, Starcraft still remains a game where only a tiny percentage of buyers are willing to engage in the competitive play that turned a well-received but otherwise unremarkable RTS into one of the most important videogames of the millenium.

What it does well:

Of all the games explored here, Starcraft tries the hardest to introduce players to the concepts and techniques required to play the game in isolated, carefully constructed settings with their own ludic value. The design is still ambiguous in the sense that while learning a particular skill or capability is emphasised, you can usually get by without it: there’s no gating to ensure players have picked up the desired concepts. Starcraft is also the only game of the four to provide a true, focused training mode that isolates core gameplay dynamics, gives them a space for practice and identifies them formally to the player.

What it does badly:

Unfortunately these designs, while commendable, are still not particularly effective. Blizzard’s need to make a singleplayer that is open and enjoyable for freeform play detracts from its value as training for competition, not to mention the fact that units in the singleplayer are often significantly different from their multiplayer incarnations.

The challenge modes aren’t really integrated into the whole game experience that well. They’re not signposted, beyond achievements there’s no real reward for doing them and more importantly the concepts expressed have undergone ‘Blizzardation’. Blizzard seems to shy away from using the same terminology as their community. So ‘defending a rush strat’ becomes ‘defending an early attack’. I mean, who’s ever gone up against a ‘zerg early attack’? This may seem like pedantry, but it creates a cognitive dissonance between players training in the official challenges and the competitive community. Rather than being introduced and involved with the community directly from the game, players must undergo the same linguistic trials as if they were entering the fighting game community. As we talked about in the tennis analogy, it’s important players understand that training is training FOR something. That doesn’t mean it can’t be fun, and it does mean that the skills developed are more likely to be successfully transferred.

Secondly, the challenges cap out very low. Not only can you fudge them by quicksave abuse to just get the achievements, but even not doing so getting the highest tier of the challenge isn’t particularly difficult even for a novice RTS player. An important property of analogue training is that there’s a lot more potential for skill development- since some level of competition is usually involved (often indirect a-la videogame high scores), the ‘top tier’ of the challenge is constantly rising as the skills of the training group increase. Blizzards challenges help players train to a basic level, but don’t help them really push each skill beyond their limits again and again and again in isolation, which has proven the best way of developing a player’s competitive potential for time immemorial.

The result:

Competitive Starcraft remains a game that the average player struggles to get into. A lot of games which feature dual singleplayer and multiplayer experiences have this problem- people tend to buy the game for one or the other. If you get Starcraft for the singleplayer, you’ll generally consider your experience complete if you finish that and then do nothing else but play custom maps or get challenge achievements, which in terms of the competitive side of the game is missing the point entirely.

So there still remains a gap between multiplayer and singleplayer Starcraft. Furthermore, because the challenges are solid introductions to very basic concepts, but do not scale in such a way players can focus on developing their skills to work towards the capabilities of a multiplayer veteran, there is no safe space for players to practice such development in a directed fashion. Like many competitive games the only options are to play free-form games against AI which require the player to internally isolate skills they want to practice. This means they need to understand which particular skills need practicing and why, something the game doesn’t do a great job of conveying.

As a result, very few people who own the game play competitive Starcraft. Anxiety and a feeling of being overwhelmed from going into open play holds many back and frustration with slow progress and continually making the same mistakes creates a high dropout rate. Once again, real efforts by the developer to open up the game to new blood are far more clumsy than they should be given the care put into the rest of the game.

_________________________________________

What we can learn:

Let’s just pause to remember that we’re talking about a very specific thing here: tutorials and training players to be capable players of a competitive game. We must assume a baseline of skill to be considered capable– I’m not capable of playing tennis if I serve a game of double faults more than 50% of the time, or even if I do so around 30-40% of the time. I’m not capable of playing soccer if I can’t pass a ball accurately to an unguarded teammate. The same sorts of baseline skills can be argued for the competitive games above- executing a bread and butter combo reliably, hit a guy with enough reliability that you can actually kill them before you run out of ammo, get a few last hits per minute, macro an army that can beat an easy AI. Without these skills- which actually are quite difficult to achieve for non-gamers- a player cannot experience the intended basic flow of gameplay the designers expect them to and are consequently excluded absolutely from the intended play experience.

The absolute minimum baseline of these tutorials/training should be to reliably get a new player with no assumed knowledge or outside assistance whatsoever to this level of ‘capability’. Achieving this objective would allow a game to develop a new audience independent of the efforts of its own community. The more popular a game is and the larger its existing community, the less absolutely essential this is (as in League), but for games with tiny, insular or non-existent communities, it is crucial (as in Tribes). Even for games with large communities, such design might allow new demographics to be reached and brought into the community more successfully (as with women in League of Legends)

Here are what I would say are the crucial design goals of such an endeavour:

  1. It must be rewarding in its own right

The most important value of any videogame design is that any activity the designer desires the player to undertake must be rewarding, either through engagement or some kind of external reward. Activities which have lower engagement necessitate a larger external reward and vice versa, though that’s not to say you can’t make an activity both engaging and rewarding.

So training or tutorials must be fun in and of their own right. If they’re not, a player needs to already have the desire to be a competitive player to endure them, something we want to avoid- this training should help show people why they would enjoy competitive play, not the other way around.

  1. It must clearly communicate context

Tutorials and training must communicate their purpose in the larger scheme of things clearly and in language that is in common use amongst the existing player community. It’s no use creating a masterful minigame in which people are trained to do X perfectly if they don’t realize that X is a feature of the larger game, or they do, but can’t recognize when and when not to apply their skills. This often means stepping outside the fourth wall and talking frankly to the player, which may on the surface break immersion and engagement. What this fails to recognize is that learning a game is an immersive experience, on a level up from the narrative setup used to draw the player along. You may break their immersion in the story, but you won’t break their immersion in the game.

  1. It must provide a controlled environment

Training is something that a player must have control over. As I discussed in my article on Portal 2, the tutorial’s function is to provide a safe, contained environment for skill development away from the wild world of emergent challenges. Tutorials should emphasize a player’s development and ability to proceed at their own pace. Training should be able to be smoothly stopped, restarted, made easier or harder. Rewards provide incentive for players not normally inclined to push themselves to do so. Every attempt should be made to ensure a player has the flexibility to control their own development.

  1. It must isolate and identify particular skills

The purpose of tutorials and training is to give a player the chance to focus on understanding and developing a skill or skillset in isolation. This is a far more efficient and rewarding way of developing skills than simply participating in the full, formal game. Training and tutorial systems should carefully identify and break down skills required for gameplay and present them in such a way that their relevance to the main game is understood, but that the tutorial environment gives the player the freedom to focus on them one by one or in smaller combinations, without the pressure of being in an environment that taxes other skills as well.

  1. It must support endless development

Perhaps the most important quality of competitive training is the ability to scale with the player’s skills. Training should always be capable of raising or lowering the bar, as it were. It’s not as if this is a foreign concept to videogame design: it’s the core idea that popularised the first videogames at the dawn of the medium. A single, simple mechanical exercise that grows in difficulty until eventually the player can’t keep up. Victory is not in absolutes, but in beating a personal best. Thus, every round can provide a new victory and every player can find their own limits and test them constantly.

_________________________________________

So those are my thoughts. As with all my indepth articles, this is a springboard for future discussion and design practice. I’d like to talk about the community designed micro and macro maps in starcraft, how League might go about integrating training modes with their reward models and so on, but I think you’ve probably all had enough for one day XD.

 

Indepth: Kinaesthetics in game design

___________________________________________________________________________________________

The TLDR

Kinaesthetics is a branch of design dealing with optimising and expressing aesthetics through touch and motion. In analogue games it is a critical component of play, particularly with complex toys. In videogames it is important at the interface of player and controls and between the player’s avatars and their world. Kinaesthetics deals with a variety of subtle but powerful interactive effects that influence cultural and intuitive understandings of the media. This article first explores what falls under the umbrella of kinaesthetic design, then looks at a case study of one of my projects that had a heavy emphasis on kinaesthetics. Finally, it looks at some areas of videogame design in which paying attention to kinaesthetics may yield good results.

___________________________________________________________________________________________

WHAT ARE KINAESTHETICS?:

Kinaesthetic design is a topic very near and dear to my heart. You may not have heard of it.  This is probably because I made it up, or the terminology anyway. If you have been a regular a reader, you may have noticed a trend. Ok, so it’s not strictly true I made it up. One of my lecturers, the eccentric and forceful Damian Scott, was working on a PHD on the topic of ‘Kinaesthetic Phenomenology’ during my time as an undergrad. His interpretation of kinaesthetics in videogames was the way physical interactions were transmitted through the interface to the player. The screen shudder when you get shot or hit is a very basic example of kinaesthetics in his terms.

I’ve appropriated the term a bit more broadly to mean designing the tactile interactions between player and game interface in any sense. There are various degrees, the player interacting with the controls or pieces, the player’s avatar interacting with their environment and so on, interactions between third parties in a simulated environment etc. I tend to focus on the first, as the other two are generally quite solidly established, though I will discuss some examples of where this may not be the case later in the article.

So what’s important about kinaesthetics? To begin, our sense of touch is actually perhaps the most versatile and powerful of our senses. It tends to get overlooked given the wonders of sight, taste and smell, but in a lot of cases we feel our way through life, and our most intimate and powerful experiences involve a lot of touching and physical interactions. A ‘sensual experience’ almost always involves a large amount of touching.

I’ve noticed I’m a particularly kinaesthetically oriented individual. I constantly fiddle with things, stroke them, muddle them, shift about and so on. When I play the feeling of connection I have with the game comes through the physical interface rather than sight. I shuffle and re-arrange card hands, stack tokens, toss dice, adjust and fondle pieces, spam keys, spin the mouse around, tap my fingers on the buttons without enough force to click them etc. Yet kinaesthetics has a broad impact on our play. A particular example is the slang of M:TG players, who use terms like ‘pump’, ‘swing’ and ‘beat’ for the action of tapping a card- tilting it to its side. They also develop ritualised excessive motions, bending up the cards and snapping them back down, shoving them forwards with heavy arm motions and so on. The simple elegance of the tapping mechanic has created a kinaesthetic ritual which engages players in a deeply physical manner with an otherwise very abstract experience.

I’m obviously biased, but to me the weight and slick polish of a wooden chess piece or pewter miniature, the slickness of a deck of sleeved cards fanning in my hand, The click-clack of a good keyboard and the snap of Lego bricks coming together, all these things to me are deeply important and powerful signals that I am engaging or about to engage in play. These experiences also have a cultural value. A nice wooden Chess or Go board is a toy above and beyond its use for chess. It can sit on a table and be an object of admiration for guests, to touch or even just imagine touching.

A similarly priced plastic chess-set, identical in terms of gameplay, fails to capture the same kind of inherent kinaesthetic. I hope this ramble is sufficient to get you into what I think about when I think about this concept.

So, let’s have a look at applying kinaesthetics.

 ___________________________________________________________________________________________

CASE STUDY: DOMINEER:

domineerbanner

Domineer was my Senior year project at uni, a fairly ambitious boardgame design that centered around careful kinaesthetic design meshing with mechanical design. The overall goal of the game was to take a lot of the mechanics that make RTS and TBS videogames successful and reproduce these in a game that ideally would sit alongside a chess or go board.

Board and tiles 3d sketch

Domineer features a tooled board inset with octagonal sockets, into which tiles slot. There are several values of tile, which are hidden when the tile is face down, and revealed when it is face up. The design of the tiles is such that when face down they are flush with the board, but when face up, they are raised like little hills, the sides of which display their value. The inset values both serve to add some tactile depth to the tiles and also give a good grip so the tiles can be lifted out at the end of the game.

DBflipcombo

The tiles are also designed to align simple numeric values to make calculations easy- this is something I’ve carried across into the LOLDDCG’s card designs.

Resourcing image

The kinaesthetics of the board are interesting. When not being used it’s a simple, flat grid, but when played with terrain ‘springs up’ out of seemingly nowhere, creating a landscape over which the battle is fought. This system was designed to recreate procedural terrain generation in strategy games like civilization. The solid, 3d shape of the tiles and intricate socketing of the board makes the action of revealing a tile feel meaningful, a physical discovery as well as a mental one. When  I presented the (extremely expensive) 3d prototype at the end of year project showcase, people just spent most of my presentation messing around with the tiles, so I’m confident the design was successful in this regard.

The second aspect of kinaesthetic design for the game are the playing pieces themselves. For my prototype I used lego discs, but the intended design was a more sophisticated clip together token. These act as both currency and playing pieces for the game- you make your own army and you choose the composition, mimicking the customisation and composition aspects of RTS titles. You can have a lot of weak pieces (one token) or a smaller number of bigger pieces (clip the tokens together to make them). Each piece costs its value in tokens, so you basically take the resources out of your pool and put them into play as a piece. Once again, this was carefully designed with kinaesthetics in mind. The clipping together of the tokens into regular resource stacks, literally building your own army out of your pool of money and so on all add to the kinaesthetic experience of the game.

The result is that the physical Domineer maintains the sophisticated kinaesthetics that games like chess, go, backgammon and so on have in their traditional forms (rather than versions like travel chess for example). It looks good set and ready to play on a coffee table or shelf, feels great to play with on your own and so on.

 ___________________________________________________________________________________________

If you’d like to have a go, here’s a kit with the domineer rulebook, a set of paper prototyping graphics and an asci digital implementation by none other than Captain Jack ‘I eat sparrows for breakfast’ Kelly. As befits such a prototype it takes no prisoners so you need to know the rules and expect to feel rather silly until you get the hang of it.

 ___________________________________________________________________________________________

KINAESTHETICS & VIDYAGAMES: 

Enough about these old fashioned hijinks, let’s go digital! The kinaesthetics of videogames are subtler than physical ones, no surprise there, but they do have significant effects. Here’s some examples close to my heart

  1.  Clunk

Clunk is what I call the physical presence a player’s camera has in the game world. Particularly in modern shooters, the camera is stuck to a weighty body that bounces, grunts, stumbles and impacts with things creating sticky, heavy movement. A perfect example of this is the development of Unreal Tournament through the years. In the original UT (and other contemporaneous shooters like quake, halflife and so on) movement lacked any sense of ‘clunk’, players floated like butterflies, their movements instantaneous and sharp. In UT 2004, there is a slight amount of discernable clunk, while in UT 2007 clunk is omnipresent. Compare the original to 2007 and you get a huge difference in the kinaesthetics of the game. While 2007 is more realistic and visceral, the clunk factor detracts from a player’s sense of control over their agent in the game. Even though in a pure motion sense, the games are very similar, Compared to UT, UT2k7 is like playing in a fat suit, and I feel this may be one of the reasons for the decrease in the popularity of the fast paced, duelling shooter of old.

  1. Blizzard Syndrome

I shouldn’t really call it a syndrome when it is so positive, but people who play a lot of games will know what I mean when I say that Blizzard games have a unique feel to them. I’m unable to pin it down precisely, but I think the primary reason is that Blizzard’s engines are very good at dealing with animation canceling. This makes your character/units feel responsive and active (though I must note that Warcraft 3 is a partial exception thanks to the movement design) as it feels like you’re directly touching them, moving them and acting through them. Your connection is immediate as your actions are transferred immediately, not qued up to wait until a bunch of animations or processes complete.. Be it Diablo, Starcraft or World of Warcraft, Blizzard games feel great to play in a way that few other games do. This is because of the attention to kinaesthetics the developers have paid. By ensuring there is minimal delay between you acting upon the game world and the game world responding to your touch, the link to the player is strengthened. It’s no exaggeration to say that a few dozen milliseconds of latency can kill immersion stone dead under the wrong circumstances, so consider this a similar if more subtle effect.

  1. Sense games and Sex games 

The use of rumble packs in interface devices is probably the simplest example of videogame kinaesthetics that springs to mind, but such devices have had very mixed reactions. Some people like the feedback, others find it annoying, often because it’s either constant or inconsistent. Yet sometimes the rumble pack achieves… well, interesting results. Rez and its infamous ‘trance vibrator’ perfectly illustrates a really interesting development of kinaesthetic play. Sensual and arousing experiences in games are rare, because rumble packs are almost always used to emphasize random, non patterned violence, but I think the most potential in the technology is regular patterns of vibration to lull, emphasise or arouse. Imagine feeling your character’s heartbeat thumping through the controller as you navigate the shadowy corridors in Amnesia, spiking as terrifying events occur and slowly rising into a panic as your sanity fades. Add some more subtle, programmable sense pads to the palm holds of a controller and you can convey a gentle touch, confusion, a sharp shock or many other things that would infinitely add to the immersion of a game.

I’m also vaguely surprised that this kind of sensory hardware hasn’t been used for more games like Rez, with an inherently sensual, likely sexual bent. Whether it’s prudishness amongst designers or publishers, there’s a seriously untapped market for that sort of thing. I won’t go into detail here, but it’s really not hard to come up with a variety of ideas that could bear fruit in that regard and I can think of no better way of merging digital and kinaesthetic design than creative sexual games. As a society, we love sense and sex play, but are terrible at actually going about designing for it (Ok, so Twister was a stroke of genius, but it stands alone). The videogames industry has got to grow up and get their heads around this, if only for the fact that the first person to come up with something really good will immediately become so rich Bill Gates will be their butler. Intelligent, well researched kinaesthetic design would be key to any such a project.

  1. Kinect

For all their flaws, the Kinect and Move are the biggest leaps forward in kinaesthetic videogame tech we’ve ever seen. The ability to involve the body fully in the game adds a lot of potential, but I think it remains largely untapped. Kinaesthetics is all about physical exploration and feedback, so while that’s technically what you’re doing when you wave your arms about like a mad person. To really begin to use the potential of the system you need to be able to reach out and touch something. Figuring out how to register toys and objects into the system will give designers the tools to give players a powerfully kinaesthetic experience. I can’t claim to have looked into this particular area particularly hard, so this might already exist. If you know of anything, be sure n’let me know.

 ___________________________________________________________________________________________

So there’s my introduction to Kinaesthetics. Like most of my indepths, I’ll use this as a springboard to explore smaller, more contained circumstances as they arise. I’d love to hear your thoughts and enter into a discussion about this rarely discussed aspect of games design. This article doesn’t go into many specifics, just explores general concepts and areas where kinaesthetic design is applicable. If you’ve used kinaesthetic designs in practice, or have specific challenges to overcome that you think might be solved kinaesthetically, then I’d love to talk to you and use these as ways of developing a discourse on kinaesthetic design.

There’ll no doubt be some chat both here and over on Reddit where Magot articles are posted in /gamedesign and /ludology, so start up a topic or join in as you see fit! 

 

ERI #1: The experimentation behaviours

eribanner

For basic information on the ERI framework, please read this article

______________________________________________________________

The TLDR:

Experimentation behaviours are the first of the kinds of behaviour used in ERI. They’re also perhaps the most common and useful for analysing modern game design. E behaviours are motivated by a particular form of pleasure reward, derived from pattern recognition and creation.

They manifest in various forms based on the properties of environments. Environments that have a lot of unknown features trigger open experimentation behaviours. These are characterised by lack of a focused goal and match animal and child play forms in that they appear aimless, spontaneous and compulsive. As environments become apparently well known and understood, behaviour shifts towards rigorous experimentation behaviours, which tend to be highly focused, formal and generate abitrary rules and limitations.

______________________________________________________________

1: INTRODUCTION

Experimentation behaviours really form the ‘core’ of the ERI framework. This is mostly because they’re the behaviours which modern game design revolves around triggering, so they’re the ones you’ll deal with most often when analysing videogames. They’re also the easiest to break down and isolate, so they’re the easiest to base a theoretical design around.

Raph Koster’s theory of fun does a really good job of outlining the basic premise of these behaviours  so if you’ve read that you’ll be in a good place to see why they’re important. However, as I came up with the framework before I’d read Raph’s work, the different angle I came in from helped me notice a few interesting things that Raph doesn’t talk about and I think are pretty important.

For those who haven’t had the pleasure, Raph sums things up by saying that ‘Fun is just another word for learning’. Similarly, experimentation behaviours are roughly synonymous with learning. Experimenting is, at a really basic level, actively inducing change in the environment in order to see what happens. In seeing what happens you are able to make more educated judgements about that environment. In many cases ‘playing with something’ and ‘experimenting with something’ is used interchangeably, though it’s probably unwise to do so when considering play on a broader scale as we are here.

1: THE MOTIVATOR 

The element of ‘fun’ comes in thanks to a particular biological effect that I would have liked to study in far more detail than I have been able to. There is a distinctive form of pleasure associated with recognising and understanding patterns of all kinds, be they entirely new or the recognition of similarity in two or more patterns previously thought distinct. I’ve yet to meet someone who didn’t immediately understand what I was talking about when I described it: the ‘aha!’ moment, the excitement of discovery. I call it the ‘Eureka sensation’. The important thing to understand is that while the most recognisable experiences of this sensation are quite sharp and distinctive, the same principle applies to all pattern matching, be it highly conscious and deliberate or almost unconscious and incidental. The sensation of slow, steady learning and progress is subtle and softly invigorating, like slow burning carbs to the sugar rush of the sudden, powerful discovery. They are still both a result of the same motivating factor- pleasure from learning.

It’s common to assume that the pleasure of discovery largely comes from the material benefits this may bring, but games scholars for the better part of a century have found that this is not the case. Win or lose, so long as the player’s understanding increases, they’ll feel this particular kind of pleasure. This isn’t strictly true, actually. The trigger is the player recognising their understanding is increasing. This leads to the possibility of someone getting the effect from thinking they see a pattern where none actually exists. This is a fairly common and well documented phenomenon in psychology which illustrates one of the important subtleties in the behaviour. So long as the individual thinks they’ve recognised a pattern, they receive the biological kicker. Actually being right is incidental. Remember that finding a negative- being wrong- is also discovering a pattern, and so can yield just as much, if not more, of this sensation,. This is why surprise is often so ‘fun’. There’s another rarer possibility in that someone is recognising patterns but it is subtle enough that their preconceptions override the reality of the process, leading to frustration. This is one of the more common interactions between E behaviours and R behaviours, so I’ll cover it in more detail in a later article.

It’s easier (and perhaps more accurate) to think in terms of the reward being given for independently constructing patterns- be they proved true or false- rather than just recognising existing ones. This leads to a lot of interesting phenomena to do with imagination that I’ll again not go into here for the sake of brevity.

So the motivator for experimentation is this eureka sensation, a pleasure reward mechanism for indulging in the behaviour. Similarly to sexual pleasure it is powerful and not particularly precise, which means that, just like sex, we’re inclined to do it whenever possible, even if it’s not actually fulfilling the ‘intended purpose’ biologically. This contests purely utilitarian conceptions of play and, while not particularly important to game design, it does make for interesting lines of thought that have helped me more accurately figure out where these behaviours might be influential.

2: THE BEHAVIOURS

So what are these behaviours I’ve been going on about? They are a spectrum of tendencies that arise from this basic mechanism, depending on the environment in which the individual finds themselves. In this case, environment means any kind of recognisably distinct entity with its own set of rules*. So while ‘everything’ is an environment, so is a melee match of Starcraft, a relationship with a friend, a piece of fiction or a Rubix Cube. It’s a fluid thing that shifts with attention.

When an individual is placed in, or restricts their awareness to, an environment in which they have no information from which to create a framework to base their behaviour upon, they will engage in open experimentation behaviour (OEB). This is the more or less random stimulation of the environment by any means possible in order to rustle up some patterns to be observed, analysed and compared to existing knowledge of cause and effect outside the environment. The classic example of this in gameplay is someone reaching a point in a puzzle where they become frustrated. This is the point where they recognise they do not understand the properties of the puzzle and that patterns they assumed were true in this environment are not. They begin to register the environment (which is currently limited to the specific puzzle they are stuck on) as having predominantly ‘unknown’ properties and this triggers OEB.

OEB matches many descriptions of uncultured playforms, from Fagen’s ‘apparently purposeless activity’ to Caillois ‘spontaneous manifestations of the play instinct’. It is characterised by performing a variety of sometimes wildly variable, sometimes strangely methodical actions without a clear ‘goal’. From an internal perspective, the behaviour is almost subconscious, occurring when puzzled or unsure. You act ‘just for the sake of doing something’, move things around, manipulate them, re-arrange them, try and get more sensory information from them- taste, touch, sound, even reaction if the subject of uncertainty seems like it might be alive. By young adulthood this process is so intuitive in most people they don’t recognise they are doing it. It is such a fundamental behaviour that much of your social training and conditioning as a human being relates to controlling and limiting your own tendencies to engage in it, a point that becomes important when we deal with the taboo-breaking capabilities of games and play.

At the other end of the spectrum is rigorous experimentation behaviour (REB). REB occurs in environments where an individual is able to successfully predict the results of simple actions based on their established understanding of patterns- if I drop an apple, I can predict it will fall. If I begin running I can predict roughly when I will get tired.

Rigorous experimentation behaviour isolates and clarifies noted ambiguities in patterns- if I run to the shops, I get tired faster than running to the park. The shops are uphill and the park is downhill, so I’m going to run somewhere else that’s also uphill the same distance away. If I get tired at the same rate, I have more evidence supporting the pattern that uphill running tires me quicker than downhill running. You may note this is very similar to the basic form of the scientific method- hypothesise, isolate, experiment, speculate based on results. This is a fairly good model of REB. The main difference between REB and formal science is that the scientific institution pays a lot closer attention to not falling into logical fallacies than an individual’s natural REB.

Beyond basic isolation and investigation, REB’s have an incredibly important place in studying games, because engaging in REB is essentially creating a game. It is creating a set of abstract limitations and rules with an end goal- testing the initial hypothesis. Everything from doing pushups to see how many you can do to testing whether your new girlfriend minds as much when you leave the dishes in the sink compared to your old one is REB and, at a basic level, a game.

REBs tend to become more and more focused and sharply defined as time goes on. In the frequent case where the REB involves the cooperation of more than one individual, this necessitates clear communication and, inevitably, formal codification of the limitations of the behaviour and goals. You can see where this is going. Caillois identified this trend as ludus, opposite to the spontaneous and apparently direction less actions of paidia– my OEBs. Ludus is the tendency towards ever more intricate and formal limitation in play. The incessant desire to create new rules, to isolate and to emphasise.

This tendency once again derives from our addiction to discovering patterns. By artificially limiting and restricting things we can create new ‘micro environments’ to analyse. I can do 20 pushups, but how many can I do on one arm? On my knuckles? On the backs of my hands? Clapping in between? Combining these restrictions? When our natural environments do not yield sufficient material to satisfy our lust for patterns, we simply make new spaces with new rules. When they are well understood, we further delimit them, again and again and again.

These sorts of behaviours also perform an interesting and powerful function in biological terms. Isolating and developing specific areas of capability in turn generally yields better results than less deliberate, unstructured experience. Once again, not particularly important for game design, but helpful in understanding how this odd proclivity may have remained in our makeup.

______________________________________________________________

Now, I describe experimentation behaviours as a spectrum. Based on what we have so far, I can define the ends of the spectrum like so:

At one end, in an environment where the individual has no understanding of cause and effect and no points of reference to other environments from which to predict, they will engage in true open experimentation behaviour- acting upon the environment with no goal other than to make something, anything, happen. This purely abstract, for it’s functionally impossible for such an environment to exist.

At the other end, an individual who thinks they know everything about an environment will immediately begin to ‘play god’ and add rules to it, changing the environment to create the opportunity for more patterns to develop and be observed. Once again, this is an abstract space, because no-one (some might say no-one sane) thinks they know everything about an environment. This is since the borders of any environment are a little porous and connected to others by common features, which are in turn connected and so on, meaning that to say you understand one environment is to say you understand them all. People implicitly understand that you can’t perfectly isolate anything from reality because… well, it would cease to be a part of it then.

All experimentation behaviours occur somewhere between these to states- absolute incomprehension to total knowledge, and it is this which determines their properties.

The closer to an environment which would spawn OEB a person is:

  • The more they will act based on no specific goal or innate assumption
  • The less likely they are to predict the outcome of an action
  • The less they will be inclined to arbitrarily limit their own actions based on abstractions
  • The lower the gap between action and observation

The closer to an environment which would spawn REB a person is:

  • the more focused and formal their explorations will be
  • the more likely they will predict the result of their action
  • the more defined and intricate this prediction, if made, will be
  • the more likely they are to artificially constrain or alter their own actions or the environment itself

______________________________________________________________

To put this in a more narrative mode. Let’s say we dump someone in an entirely unknown environment. Their thought process is likely to begin with thoughts such as:

“I wonder what will happen if I do this

Over time as they explore their environment, the shape of the question will shift towards something more like:

“hmm, I wonder if that will happen if I do this”

As a picture of cause and effect develops more strongly it will eventually shift to:

“hmm, I’m pretty sure this causes that to happen, so that means, when I do it like so, this other thing should also happen, because that’s the way it works over there.

Or even further along:

“Ok, so this does that, and this other thing also does that. If I take the ‘this’ out of this other thing, does just other thing still do that? I don’t think it will, because I’m pretty sure it’s just this that does that.

And finally the stage of artificial alteration is reached:

“well, I know this does that for sure, and it’s definitely only this that does that, not other or thing or even elephants. So let’s see what happens if I get my axe here and see if thi works just as well as this

Note in the last stage the phrasing shifts back towards that in the earlier thoughts- ‘Let’s see what happens’, not ‘I think … will happen’. By making an unnatural change to the environment, (breaking the unity of this) this hypothetical thinker creates new unknowns to be explored and observed.

Between these stages, I’ve also observed there is a gradual shift from the next stage being present near the edge of the subconscious to being the dominant conscious process, but having only my own brain, those of a few close friends and anecdotes in literature and so on to build these observations from I’m not particularly confident saying this is an actual thing.

The most important thing to keep in mind when dealing with this spectrum is that it will only ever trend one way. From a given starting point, over time behaviour will always move towards the REB end of the spectrum. In most cases this progress will be fairly smooth and one directional, though in some cases where a person makes some errant connections on entering an environment and starts with the assumption that they know more than they do, they’ll move forward, hit a wall, slide backwards for a time until they re-establish a solid grounding to work from then begin trending forwards once more. If a person isn’t making false assumptions, their understanding of the environment is genuine, they cannot slide backwards towards OEB, because you cannot ‘fake’ incomprehension. You can ‘fake’ something that looks like OEB, but picking apart thoughts reveals it to be just REB adding some limitations to the environment to give it some new, unknown properties and thus suitable for OEB once more.

4: THE EFFECTS

As you can see, the E behaviours cover a lot of stuff, and do so at a very low level. Like the law of natural selection, when exposed to reality, E behaviours are simple and powerful enough to spawn a mandala of emergent, interweaving, intricate effects that have taken me the best part of a decade to even begin to get my head around over countless instances of careful analysis and observation. So I’m not going to try and give you much beyond the examples in the article so far already do. In later articles I’ll do some case studies under the framework which will give more specific insights into the topic.

Here, I’m just going to once again summarise the most basic effects of the E behaviours and their motivating trigger:

  • People want to discover patterns. They will actively and constantly act upon their environment to provide more information with which to observe or deduce patterns.
  • The reason people want to discover patterns is it gives powerful pleasure. This means that if this pleasure is blocked biologically they will not want to perform these behaviours. If acting upon the desire is restricted, it creates agitation, tension and unease.
  • The most basic effect of this trigger is that when you put someone in an environment with unknown quantities, so long as they can act upon that environment their understanding will increase over time thanks to this desire. If they can only observe their experimentation will be limited and consequently the trend towards understanding will be slowed and reduced in scope.
  • If an individual believes they understand an environment they will tend to artificially isolate elements or expend more and more time trying to break them down to temporarily create more uncertainty.
  • This tendency will lead to an ever increasing number of increasingly sharply defined artificial limitations imposed by the individual upon the environment. These can be wholly intrinsic, formally defined but intrinsically maintained or extrinsically imposed (see this article for more on intrinsic and extrinsic limitations/rules).

______________________________________________________________

*I’ve been having some debates on this after my article on rule variance. I do not conceive of rules as hard boundaries. In reality, rules can exist in a strange space where they are both true and untrue. So while it is true that the rules of soccer say you have 11 players each team, we can play a game of soccer with 12 players a side. Game theory may state that, no, you are playing a different game which is a variant of soccer, but the way we conceptualise soccer under normal circumstances does not make this distinction. A similar construct exists in biology, the species distinction. In reality there is actually no such thing as a species, since there is no possible way to define the borders of a given species other than taking an individual animal and saying ‘any animal which can’t successfully interbreed with this animal is a different species’- not how we apply the concept mentally at all. Our brains create these sort of ‘both true and untrue’ concepts constantly.