Sunday, May 18, 2014

In Defense of Personal Gaming

I'm not an extrovert.

So it's fascinating to try to imagine being one -- being certain that the only right way to experience life, including playing computer games, is with other people around. That's radically different from my own appreciation for being able to concentrate deeply on system-building, which is virtually impossible to do well with other people around demanding one's attention.

This came to mind recently from seeing two very well-written blog entries at Gamasutra promoting local multiplayer on consoles: "Play As Intended: A Case For Preferring Local Multiplayer" by Sjors Houkes, and "Couch-op is the best-op" by Auston Montville.

These authors feel that games, including computer games, are by their very nature inherently social. If you're playing alone, you're playing wrong. You're failing to get the optimal experience of play. Developers who make games that can't be shared on one board or screen are failing their players.

This means that the best way to play games is together in a room with other people, with everyone sharing the same screen. For computer games, that means the correct way to play games is using some game console, with multiple controllers plugged in, and probably in split-screen mode (or at least separate screen areas, as in Rock Band). It means that developers ought to be designing their games so that this mode of play is the primary mode, or even the only mode.

This excludes linking separate PCs on a local network. It definitely excludes online multiplayer. And single-player games are right out.

In short, if you're not playing with other people in the same room looking at the same interface, then you are Doing It Wrong.

This is really two arguments:

  1. Social games are fun.
  2. Social games are inherently more fun than personal games.

I don't think many people would object in a serious way to the first of those opinions. Social games can be great fun. There's nothing like playing with other people -- in both positive and negative ways. It is a Good Thing that there are lots of such games, computer and otherwise.

It's that second assertion that's questionable -- that must be questioned. All "real" games necessarily privilege social interactions? Really?

Declaring this as though it's a self-evident fact, that any play experience designed without social interaction is defective, that the only right way to play is sitting next to other people... that's a very, very different kind of claim. An assertion that more personally-focused games are by their very nature less fun, less game-like, less worth making, than social games, is one that requires some serious supporting evidence behind it. Otherwise it risks missing the opportunity to create enjoyable entertainment experiences for many people.

The claim that "games are inherently social" is not new. It can be heard from some experienced gamers to thoughtful game developers like Raph Koster (as in his "Designing For Everywhere" presentation). For various reasons, they say games are activities that are incomplete without the participation of other people.

I disagree. I think it's completely possible and desirable to value both social and personal play. And I think that because I think I can see how each kind of play provides access to a part of expressing life as a human being that the other doesn't.

Being with other people, giving to others and receiving from them, is an important part of fully experiencing life as a human being. So is having the opportunity to think and feel deeply without interruption, to understand, to imagine, to reflect on your own personal experiences as an individual human being.

As games are reflections of human life, they would be as diminished by being purely social as they would be by being purely personal.

We experience a game as fun when it effectively rewards what we're good at and value about ourselves. Not everybody is good at personal interaction. Not everybody is good at focused introspection. Each of us is usually better at one of those than the other, and value it more in ourselves than the other. But both have value. Both are things that can be rewarded and enjoyed through play.

So why describe only one of these as though it's the Only True Way of experiencing the human condition, the only Correct Way of having fun in a game?

Encouraging the development of social games is proper. I'm for that. It can be enormously entertaining to compete against or cooperate with other players, especially if they're right there with you and everyone is looking at the same board or screen. I fully support the development of more social games, including more games that are designed to be played with other people right there in the room with you and where everyone is sharing the same window on the gameworld, even if that's usually more fun for extroverts than for introverts like me.

But it can also be fun to understand and manipulate systems, to concentrate deeply on the structure of a system in order to grasp its fundamental patterns and principles, and then to interact dynamically with such systems to see how they respond to different stimuli. That is a kind of play experience you cannot have when part of your attention must be diverted to interacting with people in real time. Focused awareness, perception, analysis, and planning are personal activities that constitute a fundamental form of human expression unlike any other. Systems-focus, like other human capabilities with real-world utility, can be enjoyed through play, even if that's usually more fun for introverts than extroverts.

Why try to exclude either of these forms of expressive play?

How does trying to deny the validity of either social or personal fun produce more games that are more satisfying to more people?

I fully endorse the creation of more computer games that get people having fun together in a room, even though I'll never be an extrovert.

Why shouldn't extroverts likewise support the development of some games designed to satisfy our equally human need to individually comprehend and creatively engage with deep dynamic systems?

Extroverts are awesome. Introverts need gaming love, too.

Saturday, February 15, 2014

Some Challenges in Designing Games with Emergent Content

I like emergent play. I enjoy games in which surprising things can happen when different aspects of complex systems bump into each other.

I believe there can also be commercial value in games whose content emerges from system-interactions. Not only is interacting with such content fun for gamers like me, it's also valuable to smaller programming teams who simply can't crank out the vast amount of content needed by a game with pre-determined events and narrative.

But having this long-standing interest in emergent-content play means that I can also see some of the potential difficulties of this kind of play. There are benefits to designing a game around emergent play. But there are risks and gotchas that need to be understood and addressed as well.

1. Emergent content is not for everyone.

Not everyone likes emergent play. A lot of people --maybe most people -- playing games today prefer well-understood rules and outcomes. They don't want to be surprised.

For example, consider the players who think of "crafting" in a MMORPG as manufacturing lots of identical widgets to compete in a sales game. If you implement crafting to have emergence, you're saying that you won't always know exactly what you're going to get... but that's pure evil to the manufacturing/sales-oriented player because it means that they're "losing" resources every time something gets made that isn't exactly what they expected.

Another example is Minecraft. Minecraft certainly has emergence -- the time my niece rode a pig into a lava stream and set both of them on fire wasn't something I ever thought I'd see. So Minecraft is great fun for people (like me) who enjoy being surprised. It's also fun for the gamers who enjoy the sensation-oriented survival challenge. What it isn't so much fun for are the gamers who prefer clearly rules-based games with clear win conditions. These are the players who, since Minecraft launched, have expressed unhappiness that "I don't know what I'm supposed to do" and wanted things like character levels and "adventure mode" rules-based play. As Minecraft's developers have added those, Minecraft has now been said to have passed WoW in terms of total revenue... but it might not have done so without understanding that emergent play alone would not be enough to satisfy the gamers who like clear rules and win conditions.

It's OK to make games with emergence. But it's important to recognize that by doing so, you're limiting the audience for your game. If you're fine with that, awesome; if you think that emergence by itself will make your game broadly popular, though, that might need a re-think.

2. Emergent content is hard to balance.

Emergence is optimal for exploratory play. It can also be good for cooperative play. It's not good for competitive play.

Competitive play demands fairness, or at least the perception of fairness. Emergence works against that because it allows one player to experience content that another player probably won't. Emergent content lets one player "get stuff" that another can't. That creates a perception of unfairness, and that snuffs out any willingness to compete.

So it's important to understand that if you're determined to make a competitive game, then you either should not try to include emergent content, or at least be extremely careful in how you include it. If the world can generate things that one player might get that another might not, unbalancing the level of challenge for different players, then the typical competitive human player will probably find that extremely annoying.

There are ways to address this; the important thing is to recognize that it's a potential issue. Then you can think carefully about how to help your players feel they're playing a fair game.

3. Emergence isn't enough.

I'm not convinced that increasing emergence is sufficient to increase player engagement.

The word I usually use for this effect is "investment." Players who stay -- and keep paying -- are those who become invested in the world of a game. It becomes a place they enjoy being in, and want to come back to, and want to see more of. I think emergence can contribute to creating that sense of place; I'm just not sure it's the primary cause of investment. The appearance and sounds of a world also matter, as does the plausibility of the AI of non-player characters.

So, as one way of increasing the "feeling of place," I could agree with a judicious enhancement to emergent play. But I would suggest looking at emergent content as just one component among several for helping the world of a game feel more dynamic in a distinctive way, and thus increasing its ability to foster investment by more players.

4. You only pay once for an emergent game.

By making an emergent game, you're choosing to put all your money-generating eggs in one basket.

You can either make multiple non-emergent games with static content, or you can make one (or a very few) emergent games with dynamic content. Making just one game that players can happily play in for years (because new content keeps emerging) means you get one shot at their money as an initial sale, versus multiple opportunities if you make a larger number of smaller, fixed-content games.

This is why I feel pretty strongly that monetizing an emergent-play game needs to be done by putting a price tag not on the base game itself but on additional developer-created system expansions (things that add more dynamic elements into the world) and on player-created content that can be purchased by other players (for which you as the developer get a cut of each transaction).

If you're just going to sell the one game -- because it has emergent content -- then you need to plan to make your money on long-term, ongoing improvements to that game, not just on initial sales of the game itself. Frankly, I'm inclined to think that the best way to monetize a game like this is to give away the base game for free (to seed it as widely as possible into the general game-playing public) and plan to earn all revenue from nominal charges to download new dynamic elements and scenarios created by you and by other players.

I hope it's clear that these comments aren't just objections to designing games to have emergent content. I like emergent content!

I do think it carries some potential gotchas, though. Those need to be considered along with the possible benefits of making a highly emergent game.