Tag Archives: game design

Narrative and free agency in game design


World of WarcraftAs a former World of Warcraft player, I can attest to how compelling it is to play an immersive, massive, 3D role-playing game. Acting out scenarios in a fantasy world is more involving than merely reading a fantasy novel. You get addicted to being part of the narrative, to swinging the sword instead of just reading about it.

Just as when you’re reading a good novel and can’t stop turning the pages, you keep playing to see how the next chapter/adventure/scenario plays out, especially when you don’t always have to follow the script.

It’s not so much about the gameplay, as much as it is being part of the story. Well-designed games compel you to continue playing through a combination of action, puzzle solving, rewards and group activities.

WOW is an MMO – massive multiplayer online game – set in a fantasy world that draws much of its substance from Tolkein and other fantasy writers. Many of the role-playing games (RPGs) follow the pseudo-Tolkein model, but most follow paths laid out in fantasy literature (i.e. characters and novels by Robert Howard, Edgar Rice Burroughs, H.P. Lovecraft or more modern writers).

WOW is, of course, not the only game that offers that sort of setting, but at eight years old, with about 12 million subscribers, it’s both the largest and longest-lasting of them. It thus becomes the yardstick for measuring any other game in the genre. None of its competitors – Rift, Guild Wars, Lord of the Rings,Star Wars, etc. – have a fraction of the players.

RPGs owe their ancestry to a small box set of rules published in 1976, called Dungeons and Dragons. Written by Gary Gygax and Dave Arneson (whose name subsequently disappears from the list of authors in later printings), it essentially created the standards for fantasy role playing that are still in use today.

This is documented in great detail in Jon Peterson’s 700-page tome, Playing at the World (his blog is here). It was reading this book that got me thinking about game design again (and to dig through what few old wargames and rules books I have in the basement…).

In his introduction, Peterson identifies “freedom of agency” as one of the key components, “as much a necessary condition for inclusion in the genre of role-playing games as is role assumption.” The ability to make choices of action, of goal, and behaviour are central to a compelling game. In the Wired interview, linked above, Peterson defends gaming,

“…not as fads or disposable products of pop culture, but instead as a legitimate part of intellectual history, heirs to a tradition that stretches back centuries and involves many great thinkers and innovators.”

Which is similar to what I’ve been writing about for a few decades.* Gaming, at least in the simulation-style games, is not merely a pointless pastime, but rather an intellectual exercise.

Computer games have both redefined entertainment and set the bar for hardware and software development. Games are incredibly demanding of computer resources compared to, say, a spreadsheet. Consider the processing required to keep track of dozens, even hundreds of players who are interacting in 3D space in realtime, plus all of the geography, terrain, in-game trades and purchases, combat, weather and environmental effects. And to keep everyone in the game fully informed of all the events, locations and activities of their characters, pets, party members, resources, movement paths, mail… it’s a stunning amount of work.

Beyond the coding, there are some basic components any game needs to be successful:

  • Clearly defined purpose and goals;
  • Challenge;
  • Identifiable opponents to overcome;
  • Reward for accomplishing goals or overcoming challenges;
  • An understandable and accessible board geography where the game is played;
  • Clear and concise rules.

RPGs add other elements to create that immersive experience, including:

  • Connecting story/narrative;
  • Character choice, advancement and development;
  • Consequences of actions or behaviour;
  • Alternate races (orcs, elves, dwarves, etc.);
  • Role assumption (taking on the persona of a character in the story);
  • Free agency (the ability to move and act independent of the script);
  • Believable fantasy, alternate or futuristic world environment;
  • Clear sides with which the races align and which have competing goals.

Computer games have additional components:

  • Good graphics and visual appeal;
  • Good AI (artificial intelligence) and NPCs (non-player characters);
  • Believable environmental interactions, simulated physics and effects;
  • Appropriate sound (and sometimes music);
  • Interactivity with NPCs, environment;
  • Social activity (in MMOs).

Some RPGs (i.e. Fable, Witcher, Fallout 3), have more complex “consequences” built into decision making within their games. Certain choices – such as attacking or stealing from non-player characters (computer-controlled NPCs) or how you answer their questions – affect the way others relate to your character. How well these mimic actual social or personal behaviour is debatable. Mostly they seem to me merely designed to add chrome to role assumption. In some cases, they don’t really affect the game or quests.

Since these are solo games, rather than MMOs, you can usually save your game before you make a choice, then replay it with a different choice if you don’t like an outcome. That tends to dissipate the suspension of belief necessary for immersion.

I don’t include “fun” in any of these lists because fun, like beauty or taste, is subjective. Players will gravitate to the games that provide the highest entertainment value for their own interests and aptitudes. I, for example, never found WOW’s battlegrounds “fun” but always enjoyed questing and exploring (solo and in parties). Others eschew the quests for the PvP combat in the battlegrounds.

Can the storyline absorb the players sufficiently, for long enough to suspend belief, deeply enough to make you care about both the characters and the action? It depends on how well the narrative is scripted. A good storyline has to be crafted as carefully as a good novel and needs to generate a similar emotional response.

Clearly, however, game narrative is very different from a storyline in a book, since choice is a key element in gaming.

Quests can also be seen as ‘micro-narratives.’ In many games, the plot or story is merely a shell that contains numerous micro-stories presented as quests. Sometimes these are dynamic, so that the nature or goals of quest B depends on how or how well you accomplished quest A. However, the shell story needs to be coherent so players don’t simply feel they’re moving from one mini-game to the next for no reason.

A lot of games fall down with thin stories, pointless quests (collect X eyeballs or Y spleens), and predictable A-to-B-to-C plots. And too many depend more on action to move them along rather than plot or participatory narrative (i.e. Diablo III).

Patrick Holleman, on the Game Design forum, writes,

“…the difference between traditional games and videogames is that videogames have a world in which everything about the game, except for controller input, takes place. This world is created, controlled, and sometimes populated by continuous and discrete artificial intelligence. The player is a guest in that world, the central participant in its mechanics. Even still, the world is usually not driven by the player; it is the designer’s world, and should be studied as such.”

Holleman also asks, “…whether or not videogames are similar enough to traditional narratives that we should study them the same way.” In response, he adds,

“To begin, it makes sense to admit that some portions of videogame narratives are exactly like books; the player reads them without interacting except to turn the ‘page’. Some narrative segments in videogames are exactly like movies; the player watches them without doing anything except pausing and unpausing. No decent videogame is entirely like movies or books. A movie creates a fictional world that one can see and hear, but viewers are locked into a guided tour that the filmmakers have scheduled for the viewer, and viewers can never deviate from that tour. In a videogame, on the other hand, the player is presented with a world that can be accessed largely at their own discretion. Videogames that are too linear—too much like the guided tours of movies—are often deprecated by critics and gamers.”

Interactivity is essential, but is not synonymous with narrative. Ernest Adams, writing in “Three Problems For Interactive Storytellers,” said,

“Interactivity is almost the opposite of narrative; narrative flows under the direction of the author, while interactivity depends on the player for motive power.”

In that same article, Henry Jenkins writes,

“You say narrative to the average gamer and what they are apt to imagine is something on the order of a choose-your-own adventure book, a form noted for its lifelessness and mechanical exposition rather than enthralling entertainment, thematic sophistication, or character complexity… Most often, when we discuss games as stories, we are referring to games that either enable players to perform or witness narrative events – for example, to grab a lightsabre and dispatch Darth Maul in the case of a Star Wars game. Narrative enters such games on two levels – in terms of broadly defined goals or conflicts and on the level of localized incidents. “

Immersiveness also depends heavily on how much free will the player has, and the ability to write ourselves into the script. In games like Diablo III, the action is very linear and with little flexibility for explore or act outside the proscribed plot and territory. These games have little immersive value (and, at least with D3, little replay value, either). Others, like Mass Effect and Dragon Age, combine limited freedom with scripted activities and plots.

Morrowwind, Skyrim and the post-apocalyptic Fallout 3 provide a generally freely roam-able world, and in some cases, the ability to attempt quests well beyond your character’s level (some MMOs offer this, as well).**

While few solo RPG games offer such significant free agency, it is the hallmark of most MMOs. Holleman writes,

“World of Warcraft is another game heavily dependent on the depth and persuasiveness of its world; it has the benefit of being an ever-expanding world as well, with content updates and expansion packs. The first time through the game tends to be the best, from a narrative perspective. The structure of the quests (tasks with completion rewards) that guide gameplay are heavy on exploration, but often a bit short on variety, i.e. collect 10 quest items, for the millionth time. What makes these quests and dungeons compelling—at least the first time through the game—is that they are driven by a strong, interesting setting.”

Because RPGs have a character-building ladder system, the reason many players don’t explore the MMO environments more fully is usually that their characters are graded too low to survive in higher-level zones. Some sort of safe passage is sometimes offered (i.e. roads where hostile NPCs don’t patrol), or sometimes swift transportation is available (riding or flying mounts in WOW) to encourage more exploration.

Most MMOs have graduated zones for each race. These offer playable regions challenging for characters within that given range, such as levels 1-5, 6-10, 11-15, etc. You play your character in a zone until it levels up to be able to enter (and survive in) the next zone. Each zone has level-related quests to fulfill to aid your advancement.***

Completing all available quests is also part of the achievement ladder. Players are encouraged to complete all quests in all zones, regardless of their level. The problem with this system is that, in many MMOs, when your high-level character enters a low-level zone (for example, for another race), the quests are ridiculously easy but yous till want to complete them. On the other hand, quests are designed to get players to explore the entire zone while questing, which increases the sense of immersion.

Where most games have a defined end (in RPGs, usually the defeat of a final boss character), MMOs are often open-ended: they can be played after the characters have reached their highest level, accomplished all available quests and defeated all the boss characters. Usually such activities are social: group raids, battlegrounds and dungeons outside the formal narrative and questing lines (essentially making them into fantasy variants on the FPS-PvP line of gaming). It’s also possible to create new characters and start again from level one, often choosing a different race, type/class (warrior, priest, hunter, etc.,) or even alliance.

As the goal of game design, immersion is difficult to achieve: it depends on the interaction of several factors, as well as the independent activities of players outside the scripted narrative. It’s an interesting challenge that, so far, no single game has managed to meet fully, but it’s always interesting to examine the results.  ****

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* I started wargaming in the mid-1970s, bought a computer in 1977, and by around 1980 was writing a regular column on computer games for Moves magazine, as well as writing articles for contemporary programming magazines. I wrote about computers and game design for several magazines in the 1980s including Antic and ST Log, and published a column on technology in Canadian newspapers for a decade from the mid 1990s, which often looked at game developments.

** First-person shooters (FPS) like Call of Duty and Medal of Honor usually combine scripted scenarios with open or semi-open gameplay in a small environment. Very few have a fully open environment (Far Cry, however was one).

*** Level grinding is when you rush through all the available quests solely to get your characters up to a reasonable level of strength to be able to use powers or traits unlocked at higher levels, and then to engage in multiplayer activities like dungeons and raids. It’s common in WOW to see level 60-80 characters doing level 1-10 quests to complete their achievement ladders. For the lower level players, this can be frustrating as you watch a higher-level character blaze through an area, taking quest items or killing quest characters with ease, forcing you to wait for them to respawn. Guild Wars 2 has a different approach. When the player’s level is higher than the zone, that level is reduced in that zone to make repeat and collective quests competitive. A level 35 character, playing in a 1-5 zone, will play at level 3-5. Weapon and armour strengths are decreased accordingly. This is somewhat offset by the character’s accumulated buffs, unlocked skills and so on, so it is easier but still a challenge. This heightens the immersive value of GW2.

**** One of the things in WOW that, for me, detracts from immersion is the cartoonish style of characters and buildings. Games like Rift and GW2 have tried to make the player feel less distanced through more realistic graphics and animation. However, none of them are up to the detail or lifelike characters we see in Call of Duty or Medal of Honor. Some licence must be allowed, of course, for fantasy races and characters.

Musings on Game Design


An odd bit of synchronicity. I picked up a few unusual board games* at the discount/remainder store downtown (in the former Shoppers’ Drug Mart building) a couple of weeks back, and was mulling over their instructions, wondering why they seemed such odd and awkward games. In fact, they seemed rather unplayable, more like intellectual exercises in game design. Yet they were beautifully made, and very attractive.

Was it the topic? The manual? The components? What makes for a good game, what makes a bad one? Why have some games lingered on and are still being played – Monopoly, Scrabble, chess, go, Risk, Trivial Pursuit for example – while others seem to come and go? Was it simply that I was no longer conversant with the nature of the board gaming world?

Then I read an article on Science Digest that week called, “The Reason We Lose at Games: Some Games Simply Too Complex for the Human Mind to Understand“. In it, the authors wrote,

“…a University of Manchester physicist has discovered that some games are simply impossible to fully learn, or too complex for the human mind to understand.”

That led me to thoughts about games and game design. I’m a game player, always have been. Ever since my father taught me to play chess, around age 7 or 8. Admittedly I don’t play as much today, and mostly on the computer, but I can still spend a few hours now and then, immersed in a game like Civ V, Tropico 4 or others.

Monster wargameBackground: In the mid-1970s, I owned a small bookstore in Toronto. Among my lines was a rather good selection of chess books. Unfortunately, I was a better chess player than business owner, and I eventually closed my store and sold my stock. The chess books went to Mr. Gameways, a game store on Bloor Street. I got along with its manager so well, that he offered me a job, and for the next couple of years I managed the board game floor. During that time, I got heavily immersed in board games, particularly war games; easily the most challenging, complicated and demanding type of game ever. Eventually I ended up writing for wargaming magazines, reviewing wargames and even playtesting a few (along with several attempts at designing).

Imagine learning a rule book with 12, 24, even 60 pages of densely-packed rules! A board with hundreds, even thousands of pieces, multiple charts and tables, and complex interactions between them. And we learned and played new games at least once a month. Sometimes every week. As the Science Digest article says,

However, when games became more complex and when there are a lot of moves, such as in chess, the board game Go or complex card games, the academics argue that players’ actions become less rational and that it is hard to find optimal strategies.

Wargaming was a small but avid culture that had its heyday in the 1980s. Much like chess, there were clubs where people came to engage in games regularly, often playing a single game against an opponent for four or more hours. Some games took months to complete – I had a small circle of like-minded friends who met weekly to play some of the larger games, usually four to six of us at a time, with maps that spread out to cover an entire dining room table. War in the East (the entire Soviet-German war from 1941-45) and Highway to the Reich (Operation Market Garden) were two of the larger, table-size games I recall. Each session lasted three-six hours; the entire game took months to play through.

Complex? Challenging? Difficult? Yes to all. But captivating, too. They demanded strategic thinking often well beyond the horizon that chess offers. Yet there was still a random element – the roll of the die to determine combat results – that made the games exciting, and always different. Plus there was the virtual-general aspect: commanding anywhere from dozens to hundreds of units, managing logistics, strategy, setting operation goals…

Often the battles were very unequal, which added a different level of challenge. Can you win a battle that was historically lost by your side’s army? Sometimes… that all depended on how the game was designed, and what the victory conditions were. Winning might be, in game terms, losing less horribly than was historical. It might mean holding out longer before inevitable defeat. There’s a good description of a wargame here. The author of that blog notes:

“Wargames have to manifest some degree of historical specificity to be differentiated from popular but generic conflict games like Stratego or Risk. The popular Axis and Allies franchise (Hasbro) or more recently Memoir ’44 (Days of Wonder) represent about the minimum history acceptable in this regard. Unlike many Euro games, where the nominal historical subject is nothing but a thematic skin for the underlying game engine, board wargames try to capture some salient aspect of the events they depict, be it a particular strategic dilemma, operational opportunity or challenge, or battlefield dynamic.”

Look at Dunkirk, for a real-life example. As a straightforward wargame based on armies and tanks, the Germans win every time. They had overwhelming superiority in terms of men and weapons, greater mobility and higher morale, better supply lines. But the British “won” by being rescued from an isolated beach and saving a large portion of its army. How can a game designer incorporate the political elements, the indecision, the German High Command’s failure to follow through? That’s one of those thorny game-design problems. How to create a playable game out of an unequal situation. The Science Digest article notes,

Much of traditional game theory, the basis for strategic decision-making, is based on the equilibrium point — players or workers having a deep and perfect knowledge of what they are doing and of what their opponents are doing.

Dr Galla, from the School of Physics and Astronomy, said: “Equilibrium is not always the right thing you should look for in a game.”

“In many situations, people do not play equilibrium strategies, instead what they do can look like random or chaotic for a variety of reasons, so it is not always appropriate to base predictions on the equilibrium model.”

In fact, a game doesn’t have to be balanced to be fun, interesting or challenging. Many traditional, strategic board games like chess or go are balanced. Some, from snakes & ladders to backgammon and bridge, introduce randomness to change the balance. But real life is never like that. Many wargames introduced tension and dynamics through historical situations where unequal sides clashed

Napoleon's Last BattlesAnother historical example: Waterloo. While the allies (England and the German states) had, collectively, a larger army, they were initially scattered (especially the English), had longer and more vulnerable supply lines, and were not working together as a cohesive force. The French started with a central position, internal lines, the element of surprise, the morale benefit provided by Napoleon, and more experienced leaders. Which situation offered an advantage? The French need to strike fast and hard; break each Allied army separately before they can join forces. The Allies need to delay the French long enough for the British army to collect itself, then for both to gather at a point where they can defeat the French.

Could Napoleon have won? Potentially, if had been able to defeat the Allies separately, without suffering too many casualties – and had been able to manage his rather independent and unruly generals while maintaining his lines of supply. A good designer can craft a Waterloo game to present all the challenges that were historically present, and craft it so that Napoleon has some chance of winning, without stepping too far from historicity. And make the game fun to play. In fact, replaying Waterloo has long been a popular activity for wargame and miniatures gamers because of the different challenges both sides face, and the see-saw nature of the battle.

Playability versus realism – always the teeter-totter when designing wargames. Some games were classics of good design – the Napoleon’s Last Battles quad (and many of the other quad series games), Barbarossa, and PanzerBlitz come to mind as good examples of balance in both areas. The author of this article raises some interesting points about wargames that I hadn’t considered when I was playing them:

Board wargames function as paper computers. The abstraction of combat, movement, supply, and other basic military considerations into a numerically expressed spectrum of outcomes, randomized by die rolls within the parameters of a situation, makes the genre a rich source for anyone interested in the formal and procedural representation of dynamic, often ambiguous, literally contested experience. Because wargames are embodied in cardboard and charts rather than algorithms and code, they are by their nature “open source.” That is, the quantitative model underpinning the game system is materially exposed for inspection and analysis.

Finally, while most often understood in terms related to either gaming or simulation, board wargames can also function as powerful narrative agents. Players routinely discuss a game’s capacity for “narrative,” meaning whether the discrete die rolls and events allow them to suspend disbelief and create a believable storyworld that accords with their sense of historical plausibility. “Game fiction,” as the term has been defined by Jason Rhody, is therefore a salient feature of board wargames (a “genre of game that draws upon and uses narrative strategies to create, maintain, and lead the user through a fictional environment”).

I really understand his comment on the narrative nature of wargames.

A lot of independent game designers popped up during my wargaming days, creating sometimes remarkable games, sometimes unplayable ones. Occasionally I saw a tendency towards too much data, too many complex rules to try and capture the historical events through in-game strictures – putting realism over playability. That led to complex, difficult games where players read rule books while trying to figure out moves, and often argued over interpretations of even minor rules that could create big effects when used in play.

We also argued continually over interpretation of unit values. Was this tank model really worth two combat points more than that one? Did the designer appropriately take into account the bigger calibre gun or the wider tread? Was this cavalry regiment really better than that one, given the poor showing of its leader on the actual battlefield? Can a company of foot soldiers really travel that far in the time a turn represents? Does this general deserve that high a modifier compared to that one? We all became historians, usually with specialties in certain periods and equipment.

Of course, the way you learn about a game is by buying and playing it. At one point I had a huge collection – hundreds – of wargames. Now I have a mere handful, mostly kept for their nostalgic value. Wargaming led to buying a lot of books on military history and strategy, too, and my house was full of such books for many years. Like the games, only a dozen or so remain on the shelves.

Today, computer games rule the industry. The trend is often the other way: towards higher playability rather than realism. Popular games are too often mere entertainment. Oh, there’s a lot of “realism” in the environment – 3D landscapes, destructible objects, real-world physics with ballistics and gravity – but these define the setting, not the nature of the play. Computer games are often mechanically simple despite their visual impressiveness, especially the first-person shooters. In FPS, it’s all about fast fingers, rather than strategic planning or (just play in any multi-player FPS game online and you’ll find out how little real military tactics are used).

Even many computer simulations try to mask the inherent complexity – the realism – in a simplified interface, insulating the player from having to deal with too much data. You need both, in a reasonable balance to create an immersive experience. SimCity and Civ IV came very close to that balance. I have started to investigate computer wargames again, too – I was disappointed by them in the past, but there are new generations out worth looking at.

Gaming and game design still interests me, and every now and then invokes some almost-forgotten emotions and memories, but not with the same passion that pushed me in my wargaming days. I still believe some types of gaming are good intellectual exercises, are are good for strengthening the brain and teaching strategic thinking. However, I can’t help but look at any game – board or computer with a combination gamer’s and editor’s eyes, even today, and mentally weigh its merits and its design in terms of my own years of experience and play.

Update: the author of those blog posts responded to my email with a link to this post (and others) about what we can learn from wargames:

So what can we learn from wargames? Where Costikyan sees realism and historical fidelity and validity in simulation, I see a contemporary player and design community (both hobbyist and professional) that values attention to process in the procedural or quantitative representation of complex, often literally contested phenomena. Where Costikyan sees a focus on outcomes, I see a focus on the in-game experience, and the after the fact analysis and discussion of what happened and why.

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Principato* Principato: a city-building/trading and farming game set in the Renaissance; De Vulgari Eloquentia, a game set in the late Middle Ages about religion, commerce and language; The Golden City, a trading-maze-merchant game, and Skyline 3000, a city-building futuristic game. All were produced by Z-man games. They attracted me because of their subject matter, but, so far, I have not warmed up to any enough to play them. Despite their high build quality, their instructions make them seem opaque and difficult. That might just be the editor within me wanting to rewrite them, however, and I will look more closely at them in the future and maybe even try one or two. Some of them are well reviewed at boardgamegeek,com.

I also got a maze game based on the Dilbert cartoon characters which is much simpler, but is at least playable without much reading or preparation. And, of course, it has Dilbert in it, one of my favourite cartoon characters.