Friday, November 27, 2009

The Melancholy of Lost Civilizations in RPGs

Gamasutra recently reported on a presentation by veteran RPG designer Ken Rolston, in which he noted that world-building often means creating objects and settings from days gone by:

Often, that melancholy comes when exploring the remains of long-dead civilizations, seemingly something of a preoccupation of Rolston, and one that frequently makes its way into his games by way of in-game artifacts.

"Melancholy, I think, is the underlying tone in most of the role-playing games I've done," Rolston said, adding, "I know games are all about fun, but there's an underlying tone I'm always trying to speak to."
That aspect of RPGs never struck me before... but how appropriate that a sense of melancholy is consciously integrated into the design of most RPGs!

By its nature, the typical RPG conventionally contains several things, among which are a relatively well-developed world and characters roaming that world killing each other. Well, what does it say about these worlds that it's considered normal for people to go around killing each other without being clapped in irons immediately as a danger to society?

As worlds in which the player character can run around killing people, that naturally suggests some kind of breakdown of order. This makes it almost inevitable that the created history of the world of a computer-based roleplaying game must include lost civilizations, in which a Golden Age of the past was more civilized than the Hobbesian present.

It's virtually commonplace to see cultural and architectural fragments of former civilizations in a fantasy milieu. Michael Moorcock's Elric, last emperor of languid Melniboné, is regularly described as melancholic. In computer RPGs, there were the Ayleid Empire of The Elder Scrolls and the Tevinter Imperium of BioWare's new Dragon Age. But a more aesthetically advanced past is almost always part of other well-developed RPG settings as well -- the mythically idyllic pre-invasion past of the Fallout series, for example, or the Republic before Palpatine corrupted it, or the pre-catastrophe world before The Computer took over Alpha Complex in Paranoia (another game Ken Rolston worked on).

In such worlds, where you can't swing a sword or fire a bullet without hitting some burnt-out ruin, any character capable of thinking beyond moment-to-moment survival must feel some sense of melancholy for a life that might have been. It's a natural way of lending some emotional depth to what otherwise could have been a simple action-oriented killfest.

Consider the choices and placement of objects in Bethesda's Fallout 3. The use of artifacts in Fallout 3 are a graduate-level course in how the objects placed in a gameworld can define the narrative of that world.

Fallout 3 was filled with what might be called "microstories." Open a door to a bathroom and see a skeleton in a bathtub, surrounded by empty bottles of booze and a pistol. Look into a small bedroom and find an array of children's toys, seemingly abandoned in the moment of play. Peer into a closet in a tunnel and discover a rat's-nest of useful items guarded by a lone teddy bear. (And let's not forget the "plunger room" or the Rube Goldberg-style trapped grocery store....)

In every place where people lived, there are artifacts posed in ways that tell a small story of the moments just before The Big One... or the grim and hopeless days after. I can't imagine even the most hardcore gamer, who cares only for how many Super Mutants he can kill, being insensitive to the pathos of the little stories and the overall sense of lives meaninglessly snuffed out that they tell.

Is that "fun" in and of itself? I suppose not. "Experience feelings of loss!" will probably never be part of the advertising materials for a game. But did the care that went into telling those sad microstories make Fallout 3 more memorable -- more fun -- for me?

Absolutely yes. More generally, I would say they contributed to making Fallout 3 a more satisfying game for many gamers.

But should that sense of melancholy be a part of every RPG with aspirations of worldiness?

The question for RPG designers is, do they want to continue to create worlds in which emotional heft is supplied by an elegiac regret over the remnants of lost civilizations?

Or is it possible to build a deep RPG world that includes all the lethal conflict that gamers seem to want, but that takes its emotional depth from some place other than comparison to "a more civilized age?"

Thursday, November 19, 2009

What Kind of Team Player Are You?

As a software project manager, I frequently have to interact with people filling different roles in the development process.

Over the years I've often been in the position of needing to work with these people to accomplish some goal. Usually they possess information I have to have in order to determine whether something can be done, or what specific steps need to be taken in order to get the job done right.

A few people have been helpful. Most are... less so.

In fact, I was eventually able to categorize the kinds of answers I can expect to get when I ask a "can I do X?" kind of question:

  • "Yes."
    Translation: "You can do whatever you want, but you'll have to figure it out yourself; I'm clearly too busy/important to help you. Oh, and don't get it wrong, or else."
  • "No."
    Translation: "I am a human roadblock. You will follow my required process. I will not tell you what that process is. If you ask, I will assume the attitude that it's something you should (somehow) already know."
  • "Yes, but."
    Translation: "Progress is dangerous. Do you not realize just how many things might go wrong? It's my job to object continuously to every little thing you will ever propose, and to write emails to your manager disclaiming all responsibility if anything bad ever happens."
  • "No, but."
    Translation: "No, that won't work, but here's some information that might help you find another way to accomplish your goal."

I love the "no, but" people. The "no, but" people understand that we all play for the same team, and that by taking a few extra seconds to help me be productive, they help themselves, too.

The only bad thing about the "no, but" people is that there aren't nearly enough of them.

Which kind are you?

Saturday, November 7, 2009

Casually Hardcore

Two terms that consistently show up when talking about playstyles are "Hardcore" and "Casual." But what do these words mean?

Lewis Pulsipher, in a blog post on Gamasutra, provided a list of examples of how Hardcore gameplay (and gamers) differ from a Casual style. Many of these examples are frequently cited when this Hardcore/Casual split is discussed. "Plays a long time" versus "prefers quick play sessions" is often mentioned, as is preferring challenging (Hardcore) over easy (Casual) games.

Chris Bateman has proposed some interesting definitions as well. For example, Hardcore = "gamer hobbyists" while Casual = "mass market," or Hardcore = "prefers a 'punishing' game" while Casual = "prefers a 'forgiving' game."

For my part, the one word I keep finding myself using in discussing Hardcore/Casual is "investment." The typical Hardcore player (as I see it) invests personally in the gameworld, while the classic Casual player is mostly or fully divested.

The Hardcore gamer is willing and able to talk about the gameworld as though it matters, and doesn't mind being seen as caring about the characters and places and internal rules of the gameworld. By contrast, it's almost always a Casual gamer who declares "it's just a game" and prefers to be perceived as holding it at (emotional) arms-length.

I suspect this notion of "investment" is one of the fundamental motivations that drive the actual behaviors of play that we see. It would explain why different gamers spend more or less playing time per session, and why they prefer deeper and more challenging games or simpler and easier-to-put-down games.

Sunday, November 1, 2009

The Very Model of a Good Game Designer

So what makes someone a good game designer?

Is it innate? Or can it be taught? What makes one game designer more effective than another? What the heck is "game design," anyway? What distinguishes it from, say, simulation design or bridge design or graphic design?

Here's my one-line definition of game design: game design is high-level systems design in an entertainment context.

To put it another way, a good game designer is someone who's good at creating core designs for systems intended to entertain people. And if that's true, then by implication the way to become a better game designer is to become better at high-level systems design.

A systems designer surrounds himself with knowledge about systems -- how they work, and how they fail to work. Because people love to create systems, that means studying human systems: economics, philosophy, history, politics, psychology. What enables a government to function, and under what conditions will it cease to function? What are the fundamental motivators of human behavior? Why do we call the notion of supply and demand a "law?" Are there patterns to the emergence, growth, and extinction of civilizations? Unlike most people, the systems designer never gets bored studying these things because all of them help to explain how systems satisfy their intended purpose(s) and how they fail to do so.

The good systems designer also studies science in order to understand the greatest of all creators of systems: nature.

Look at the head of a sunflower, and consider: why do the number of spirals of pips correspond specifically to numbers on the Fibonacci sequence? How do ecosystems maintain equilibrium? How do the strong nuclear force and gravity produce stable dynamic systems in a chaotic universe? I think what relates all these and other natural phenomena is simple to express: when you've got millions and billions of years to experiment, and you're not emotionally attached to any solution, eventually the systems you wind up with are going to be extremely efficient at satisfying their purpose because all the less efficient solutions were discarded.

The good systems designer is thus a student of natural science because nature is all about highly functional systems. They also study human organizational systems precisely because they are far less functional most of the time than natural systems -- human-designed systems provide powerful lessons on what doesn't work.

That's most of what a good game designer needs, I think. But the entertainment context matters, too. So I'd specify that a good game designer is a good systems designer who's played enough different kinds of games to understand "play" at a systemic level.

A couple of the best resources I've encountered on practical systems design are The Design of Everyday Things by Don Norman and Systemantics by John Gall. Again, the true game designer, as a systems designer, studies all systems. They'll have read hundreds of books to try to glean practical rules of effective systems design. But anyone who thoroughly groks these two works in particular and has played enough games to perceive most of the patterns within the "game" context is probably as ready to be a successful game designer as anyone can be.

Ultimately, then, to find a good game designer, first find someone who understands systems at a deep level and who's familiar with game design patterns.

And then give that person a clear high-level vision document that says "what" but not "how," a list of resource constraints, and all the caffeinated beverages they can drink, and say to that person, "Yeah, I don't know, all the experts say it can't be done...."