01 June 2010

Games Inc. Brainstorm

First full run semester for the Introduction to Game Design course is over, and we have the feedback. For starters, we need better data collection regarding who starts, who stays, and who goes. Success and failure stats would be nice. First though, we need to revamp the course format.

The main concept I want to see introduced to the classroom is that of the social compact because despite some of the counter arguments, Live Action Role Playing games rely upon social compacts and the classroom is a LARP between the students and the instructor(s).

Our time constraints in class are pretty significant: sixty-four workable hours broken up into four hour chunks once weekly over sixteen weeks. Ostensibly, we can rely on the students to spend three hours working out of class for every hour spent working in class. Our statistics on that are strongly in the negatory, but maybe, we're just doing it wrong. Seems we should be able to reasonably require more time of the class without too much more effort.

As part and parcel of the redesign, I plan on implementing our long standing concept of running the class as a simulation of the game industry. I'm not going to focus on the monetary aspect of things, but I am going to focus on roles and capabilities. One of the suggestions we got was that the class should hirer managers to run teams, and the teams should be under various studios. While the individual teams might go silent, the studios (representing projects with requirements) remain to be recovered by other teams at later points in time. A key concept is that of managers having the power to recruit, interview, hirer, fire, and layoff team members. Seems the employees should have powers as well: recruit, apply, and quit.

Another aspect which has become apparent, the class is an iterated public goods game with player involvement serving as the common good. We're considering implementing a variations which would allow players to penalize other players directly; though, it occurs to me now that the ability to quit, fire, or layoff a player may serve as a visceral penalty mechanism by itself. Players who could not retain employment in the class would fail the course.
I suppose this is where I would implement the social compact and honor code changes that I want to experiment with. Players would either agree to a social compact--agree to play the game--or walk away from the class. The social compact would be or would be based on the syllabus for the course and could serve as the honor code.

Another suggestion was that we implement the bootstrap at the beginning of the course and relegate the theory for later in the course. It seems reasonable. The idea is to teach the players how to kick off a project as soon as possible then introduce new ideas and tests for them to use to improve their design iteratively. We would start with the elevator pitch and the one page write up. We would encourage the players to come up with projects to sell to their fellow players. A player would need to meet a certain set of conditions before they could launch the project with the backing of the publisher (the instructor and advanced students).

We could probably solve the problem of incomplete participation outside the class by encouraging time cards for work outside of class. Players would be required to keep track of time spent working on projects and employed.

10 May 2010

Stories, A Rough Draft

When we use games to convey to our players a narrative, the game morphs into a story. It becomes the subject of literary theory and structure. Games by there nature are interactive and personal to each player; as such, games are best suited by a character-driven structure.

Lajos Egri's "The Art of Dramatic Writing" puts forward that the characters are central to the story and all else flows from the characters. He posits that a story is fundamentally made up of three major properties in various combinations: Premise, Character, and Conflict. Egri's story properties grow to include things such as setting, scenario, and system when applied to games. Thus, story games possess the properties of premise, character, conflict or challenge, medium, setting, conditions, and system. 
Egri argues that a strong character with a strong premise is required to push a story forward towards it's logical conclusion. In a static story, character and premise combine to suggest the conflict that will beset the character, but in games this dynamic changes, gameplay interacts with character and both are suggested by the premise of the character and of the game. The conflict lives.
When a player sits down to play a story game, the player necessarily embodies the character of the story, and the story necessarily embodies the premise. Players are presented with a set of tools from the system that they can use to resolve the challenges emerging from the premise, character, and scenario. Due to the inherent many to many cause and effect relationship of meaningful challenges players explore the premise and choose the conclusion through their embodiment in the character by consequence. A set of constraints are imposed by both the system and the scenario which limits the player to only the tools of the story. In many contemporary games these constraints impose the illusion of choice upon the player, burdening them with empty or tedious choices and railroading the consequence of those delusions.

Games are systems of matching challenge to choice, and consequence. Game play demands a player's active and critical attentive participation. You must be involved in play to effectively play the game.The cross pollination of media is not one-way in the synthesis; stories that become games necessarily branch from story lines to story trees, graphs, or worlds. Games which become stories necessarily surround the character of the story and give it embodiment. Those which fail this process of synthesis often shear in either or both domains.

Excellent examples of the product of this synthesis process are Planescape: Torment and Portal. In Planescape, the player is embodied in the Nameless one and traverses the many-fold path of trials leading to the eventual resolution of the Nameless one's premise: he must regain his mortality before it is too late. Planescape: Torment epitomizes a prototypical story world wherein one choice can have many many consequences making determinations of the many combinations of the game world very challenging. Portal would seem to be on the opposite side, but it's method of branching is subtle but effective due to the dovetailing of game play mechanics and story elements. The imagined interaction between the unnamed player character and GLaDOS becomes embodied in the character's interaction with the environment. Where in the trepidation of choice becomes the challenge of discovering viable decisions to thwart the obsticals presented by the environment and vicariously by GLaDOS.

Effective player orientation in a game then is equivalent to effective character orientation in stories. Strong story games present challenges through the scenario and character for the player to explore via a system of non-trivial choice and consequence leading to the resolution of the premise.

22 May 2009

Excerpt from Philosophical Investigations 66

Consider for example the proceedings that we call 'games'. I mean board games, card games, ball games, Olympic games, and so on. What is common to them all? Don't say, "There must be something common, or they would not be called 'games'"--but look and see whether there is anything common to all. For if you look at them you will not see something common to all, but similarities, relationships, and a whole series of them at that. To repeat: don't think, but look! Look for example at board games, with their multifarious relationships. Now pass to card games; here you find many correspondences with the first group, but many common features drop out, and others appear. When we pass next to ball games, much that is common is retained, but much is lost. Are they all 'amusing'? Compare chess with noughts and crosses. Or is there always winning and losing, or competition between players? Think of patience. In ball games there is winning and losing; but when a child throws his ball at the wall and catches it again, this feature has disappeared. Look at the parts played by skill and luck; and at the difference between skill in chess and skill in tennis. Think now of games like ring-a-ring-a-roses; here is the element of amusement, but how many other characteristic features have disappeared! And we can go through the many, many other groups of games in the same way; can see how similarities crop up and disappear. And the result of this examination is: we see a complicated network of similarities overlapping and criss-crossing: sometimes overall similarities, sometimes similarities of detail. Wittgenstein, Philosophical Investigations 66, 1953.

31 March 2009

A Hypothetical Model of Games

In examining games, I have come to the conclusion that what is often lumped into the same field is in fact several different fields examining the same phenomena. The common classifications of games suggests this distinction: Video, board, card, tile, table top, live action; roleplaying, first person shooter, shootem up, puzzle, strategy, adventure; entertainment, serious, edutainment, literate, simulation. 

What these categorization schemes suggest to me is a set of distinct fields of study and practice. In science, physical science is distinct from biological science, physics is distinct from chemistry, but the individual fields share properties in common. The four above categorization schemes suggest to me four distinctions: media, core, system, and agent.

A game is distinctly different according to its media. Dungeons and Dragons becomes a distinctly different kind of game and experience when taken from the table top to a video game system; thus, a change of medium affects the overall shape of a game.

A game is distinctly different according to its core. Battletech has been presented in a wide variety of variations. As a mech simulator, battletech is a more personalized experience than when it is presented as a mech strategy game. "Mechwarrior 2" and "Mechwarrior 2: Mercenaries" are notably different games simply by the difference of emphasis.

A game is distinctly different according to its system. "Mage: The Ascension" becomes a different kind of game depending on what system you attempt to run it in. In its old "World of Darkness" incarnation, Mage is a highly personalized experience of introspection, exploration, and impromptu improv. In its G.U.R.P.S. incarnation, Mage retains much of it's former qualities, but the system's emphasis shifts the player towards managing the character assets and point values; even, the character's power base shifts. Mage would be drastically different if you brought it into a system like Rifts for instance.

A game is distinctly different according to its agents. Halo on single player is a different kind of game than Halo on two player co-op. Halo deathmatch is a drastically different experience from either single player or multiplayer co-op.

In summary, a game has four distinct properties independent of the shape of the game you are working with. Each of these properties contributes to and changes the overall experience playing your game will communicate to the players. 

29 March 2009

Distinctions of Game Studies

When we talk about game studies, we generally speak of game play and story with passive acknowledgement of the effects of the form and medium on the case we are studying. When I attended the Game Developers Conference of 2009, I came to realize that though it purported to be about Game Development, it actually is about video game development. Developing for a video game has a greater number of concerns than developing for a card or a board game.

When in attendance, I looked around and realized that none of my favorite game publishers or producers from the physical game industry were present. Where is Mattel or Wizards of The Coast? Why is it that White Wolf was not represented or in attendance at this conference? Simply put, they have little or no presence in the video game industry; thus, they have no place at GDC2009. While there is talk of paper prototypes and of game design, the sessions available examining the challenges inherent in developing for the traditional game mediums are non-existent. 

You'll find many sessions discussing the difficulties of working as a technical artist, of programming in various languages, of deploying for mobile or console platforms, but if you are looking for discussions about live action roleplay or trading card games, you will be dissappointed with the complete lack of coverage.

I believe this arises from a mistaken assumption about the nature of games and video games. The mistaken assumption of course leads to a divide between the different game mediums. Video games present a different set of development challenges to address than card, board, tile, tabletop, and live action games. The design challenges of any of the afforementioned mediums are largely homogenous though; hence, paper prototypes are a viable prototyping method independent of the medium you are working with. If we drop the assumption of game-medium equivalency and acknowledge the game medium to be distinct from the game form, a new vision of game studies begins to lay itself before us.

Games are made into a form such as a lesson, a story, an argument, an experiment, a community, a causality, an expression, or an enigma. Games convey themselves through a given medium such as video, card, tile, board, tabletop, live action, simulation, or sport games to the intend agent or agents. The challenge of developing games becomes a question of what properties do the elements of the intended game interact, and how do the properties affect the final shape of the project? With this, we can create designs which will map to whatever topologies we apply them to with predictable alterations to the properties according to the medium, form, and function of the game.

22 March 2009

Ludus - A game, A school.

LudusNet - an Introduction

In Latin, Ludus means either school or game. This fact perplexed even the romans in the days when they used the word. To me, the reason for school and game to share the same symbol in language is self-evident. They are one and the same. I have named this blog LudusNet to suggest it's character: a network of schools and games.

My intention in creating this blog is to work on discourse related to "Understanding Games: The Synthetic Art of Interactive Representation". Difficulty arises in the discourse of game studies which I hope to weather by critical expression. I offer this invitation to any who read this blog: engage in discussion, comment upon and critique this work, challenge the notions expressed here; we are set to play a game, so let us bring to bare the best of our abilities.

We will hedge out the rules of the game as we progress through the myriad of material which besets us. To begin, let us play with Socratic method.