Suppose there was a game that didn’t ever react to player input, but instead always displayed whatever it was pre-programmed to display. This non-responsive “game” would act the same every time you played it, severely limiting its replay value. All you can do with such a “game” is observe. And once you’ve seen it and/or heard it, well, you’re done. I think it’s fair to stop calling it a game then, and classify it instead as a movie, a painting, a book, a song or something else depending on the form of output (when I say output I’m of course talking about any information the game “gives off” through a visual or audio (or something else?) form).

Interaction between the game system and the player(s), then, is essential to the very definition of a game. It’s what makes games different from other forms of media, and it opens up the possibility for players to:

  • Guide the flow of the game
  • Test their skills and overcome challenges
  • Interact with other people through gameplay

These are important strengths for games. Depending on how they’re designed, games have the possibility to offer limitless replay value, provide engaging challenges and even facilitate socializing.

While it’s important to realize that games are interactive, there’s more to the story. A microwave reacts when you press a button, but it’s obviously not a game. Computers are interactive, but they are games only some of the time. The vital ingredient is the type of interaction that games must have: challenges. At the core, games are a series of related challenges for the player(s). Fun comes from the path you take when striving to complete those challenges.

The nature of any challenge is such that a system must be defined to react to varying player input. Because games, unlike movies or any other form of entertainment, are based on defined systems, procedurally generated gameplay comes naturally. Not every game dynamically generates gameplay, but it is an important strength that other media don’t have and is in my opinion severely undervalued.

Often, complex systems can be altered in small ways to create a fresh set of challenges for the player. Rules and states within systems can be manipulated to produce meaningful challenges, but, more importantly, the changes to the game don’t have to be done in an intelligent manner to provide these new challenges. Randomizing the starting state of a game is quick and easy; the resulting challenge created for the player, though, can be complicated and difficult. Here’s an analogy: it’s easy to think of questions to ask like “Why is the sky blue?” but to answer them correctly it takes a lot more thinking. A similar situation is possible in games, where the game generates a challenge according to a simple system, but for the player to achieve a good solution it requires more thought (or skill if the challenge is to kill as many enemies with your gun as you can in 30 seconds). Thus, the possibility of procedurally generating entertainment is an unexpected benefit for games due to the fact that they are based on challenges.

Other types of media, however, including movies, books, etc., are not able to randomly generate entertainment anywhere near as well as games can. The reason being that it’s simply too complex to make intriguing content which is not a type of challenge. Generating a novel would require natural language processing far beyond our capabilities. Developing characters and creating an intelligent plot line is a very complicated activity – humans just excel at it. Every aspect of books and movies must be hand crafted by humans if there is any hope of creating an entertaining product.

So, a form of entertainment which is contained within a single static time line is limited because, as I suggested in the first paragraph, it can only entertain you once. And, a second limitation is that all the content must be produced by hand because we currently know of no other way to procedurally generate fun and meaning without interactive challenges.

Thus, the ratio of energy spent creating a product to the quantity of entertainment provided tends to be worse in books and movies than in games. If your goal is to entertain, you’d be hard pressed to find a better medium than an interactive, challenge-generating game.

Progress in Game Design

June 30, 2009

(Whoops. It’s been more than 8 months since my first post, but I’m really going to start blogging now, I promise.)

As technology has progressed, new tools have been created to aid game development and previous limits on game design have disappeared. Back before computers and the information age, people played on average simpler games that usually required physical parts like dice, cards, game boards, etc. Games that required many calculations were impractical because they all had to be done by hand.

But not anymore, because the invention and continued improvement of the computer has greatly expanded the possibilities for a game designer. A round of combat in an RPG can now involve stats for strength, defense, agility, wisdom, etc, plus weapon and armor stats,  and a virtual dice roll which will all be computed nearly instantaneously. More than ever, the main limit on game design has become our ability to comprehend the systems and rules, not on how to represent and simulate them. Designers are free to develop more intricate systems than ever before.

You might also think that designing a commercial game is more challenging than it has  been since there are far more factors to consider in any one game. I think there is some truth in that, however, while the relative complexity of games has doubled and tripled, the difficulty of designing a game hasn’t increased nearly as much. The reason for this is that technology hasn’t been the only thing to evolve: game design has grown and changed as well.

As I tend to point out on many subjects, evolution is intimately involved. Game designers “naturally select” better game mechanics to add into their games, thereby reproducing the more successful ideas. For example, the compelling RPG levels system has spread far and wide because designers find it is a useful system to help their games survive in the wild. Boring, unfun games die off quickly so that only traits of successful games are reused. A common mistake among game designers is to assume that if a game failed, then, therefore, no idea is worth copying from it. This is not true at all, because a game could fail because one particular part of the game is completely flawed, but that does not necessarily mean that every innovative feature included is also bad. Being able to take apart a game and analyze what went well with it and what didn’t is one of the most important skills for a game designer to have. Because, really, games aren’t evolving slowly based on random mutations. Rather, they are evolving at a break-neck pace based on intelligent design! Since a game designer can intelligently pick out the successful pieces of previous games and combine them in new innovative ways they can do what random mutation would take years to do.

Going back to why games are not as hard to design given their increased complexity: it’s simply because we can copy (yeah, that‘s right, copy) other ideas and build off them adding intelligent variations all the time. I suspect that games have gotten a great deal more addictive (or compelling as Psychochild would say) because game design has had years to evolve. Take a look at some of the top MMORPGs and you’ll see what I mean. Never before in the history of humanity have so many people spent some much of their time playing a game so remote from reality (I‘m looking at you World of Warcrack!).

All this is a testament to how far games have come and the power game designers have now. The future will only strengthen their role in society as the workforce is slowly replaced by robots, and the only thing that will be left to do is… well, play a game (or design one).