Of Videogames and Visualisations

Friday, November 30, 2007

Talking That Talk

Smashing the game design atom by Dan Cook touches upon the fact that a lot of the current game design talk is just talk, and that the next step is to make the ideas practical and tangible. I really think this requires a designer/programmer because it's a situation requiring that kind of jump.
Essentially what's being proposed is test-driven development, but without explicitly saying so. To actually apply this practice to the "craft" of game design would require something less "crafty". On that note, I now have hard deadlines for my PhD and so it's time to stop talking the talk and start walking the walk as only a designer/programmer can. Shout-out to Chamillionaire for the post title.

Sunday, October 21, 2007

Formal grammar

I had a brief skim through my old Honours thesis today. It was to do with using graphs to represent strings of DNA, and finding common paths through the genetic information of Neisseria meningitidis, with the aim of classification and the subsequent development of chemical tests by biologists. It involved a bit of formal grammar -- a concept since bastardised by game designers, especially Raph Koster. Now I realise I'm harping on Koster's misuse of the terminology, but he's at it again over at Gamasutra. Claims that you can't use a grammar to define games like poker are false. It's been done, with one example being Jon Orwant's EGGG. Koster also makes reference to other people's work, like Stéphane Bura or Dan Cook for example, and then either implies that a) he thought of their ideas first or b) their ideas aren't as good as his ideas. It's shameful self-promotion that I wish was more transparent to many aspiring game designers out there who follow his work -- he's just trying to sell his books and isn't offering anything of utility to game design whatsoever. His latest project, Metaplace, is a super-hyped Web2.0 vaporware joint with ads and subscription -- should be totally awesome if the doodles in his books are anything to go by.

Sunday, October 07, 2007

Game genomics

Ben Cousins was right when he mused:
I would argue that almost every piece of writing, serious and non-serious, academic and anti- academic, on the subject of videogames, is simply the result of people 'strolling through the zoo, noting this and that, and marveling at the curiosities'.
In keeping with the biological/zoological theme, we need to go further than merely classifying the various species of games into taxonomies. Too much attention is paid to the phenotype of a game rather than its genotype. It makes more sense to explore the genome of a game. Atoms are ubiquitous things and too low-level to really help define the essence of a game. The study of game DNA -- game genomics -- is a better analogy.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Koster's grammar considered harmful

Some say Raph Koster is an idiot. I would say he's a qualified writer with a penchant for misappropriation of some words. For example, the words "fun" and "grammar" -- see Yehuda's review and StGabe's comments.
Because these two words are central to Koster's publications, A Theory of Fun and A Grammar of Gameplay, I fear that misunderstanding and misuse of these words will propagate throughout discussion of game design.

I'm back

I haven't posted in a long time. I went on leave-of-absence from my PhD and started working. I've now got a job where I get a day off per week to do my research, and so I'm getting back into the swing of things.

Saturday, February 18, 2006

Multi-level Gameplay

Wahey! My letter to the editor of Gamasutra about Ernest Adams' article, Multi-level Gameplay, was published! Here it is (just in case the link is broken or it mysteriously vanishes):

On 'Multi-level Gameplay'

Ernest Adams' recent article, 'Multi-level Gameplay', was a good read. As someone who played the game Archon as a child I found myself nodding in agreement with his insight about its major drawback being that tactical play overshadowed any strategic play.

I haven't yet played the Infinite Space games mentioned, however, whilst reading the article I thought that perhaps Will Wright's Spore was a prime example of multi-level gameplay -- you begin as a microscopic organism, improving your physical structure with various add-ons via evolution, much like Infinite Space's ship-building. Eventually you move from controlling a single organism to managing a tribe of creatures, and then onwards to a city, and the world, and multiple planets and so on. I'd offer Spore as a counter-example to Mr. Adams' closing argument that "gigantic" multi-level games are "too hard".

Also, the article reminded me somewhat of game designer Ben Cousins' work regarding hierarchy in games -- it's very much to do with breaking a game down, however it has more of a focus on drilling down to the level of "atoms", or player actions, and measuring the various levels of multi-level gameplay in terms of "density" (frequency) of player actions. Such measuring can be of help when trying to identify/design gameplay "sweet spots".

I just thought I'd mention the above two items that came to mind in case they're of interest to other readers or Mr. Adams himself, who has once again written a thought-provoking article.

Friday, February 17, 2006

Off With Their HUDs!

Greg Wilson's article Off With Their HUDs!: Rethinking the Heads-Up Display in Console Game Design is on the money. It's very much in line with my ideas about videogame graphics being split into game-world and HUD.

Greg talks about reducing the obtrusiveness of HUDs for 3 reasons: avoiding HDTV burn-in, improving gameplay immersiveness, and simplifying the UI of videogames for "casual gamers". I don't think HDTV burn-in is as important a reason as improving immersiveness is, and as for "casual gamers", I hate that term and its implication -- it's as if people who only occasionally play videogames are simpletons and need special guidance. It's akin to melodrama or having constant asides during your favourite television show where a narrator explains the facial expressions of the actors: "Jack is scared. Note the wide-eyed stare and the slightly ajar mouth." -- a solid user interface is beneficial for new and experienced player alike.

The best of the three reasons above is improving immersiveness of gameplay. A HUD isn't necessary in a game, and Wilson provides examples of showing players information via other means such as read-outs on in-game items like weapons, or sound effects, or making the screen flash red, etc. The article discusses how designers should decide what and what not to display to players in terms of information, but does not really touch upon how limiting/increasing information available to players alters the gameplay. This is where my ideas come into play, so to speak.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

The Guerrilla Guide to Game Code

I knew MVC was the shizzle. Jorrit Rouwé has an article at Gamasutra about the implementation of Shellshock: Nam ‘67 using a Model-View-Controller framework.

Monday, December 05, 2005


I have a couple of papers in my references collection to do with using the Model-View-Controller paradigm to design videogames, but I haven't mentioned them previously, which might be an idea seeing as they're relevant to my thesis:

The Art of Computer Game Design

I've added a section to my disseration draft about Chris Crawford's book, The Art of Computer Game Design, along with sections for the recent posts to do with the State of the Art. Needs a lot of work -- I'm not happy with the structure. Also some new stuff in the Introduction and Thesis chapters. Should hopefully definitely finish soon.

Saturday, November 26, 2005

Game Design Patterns

There are a few publications by the Game Design Patterns Project that are related to the work of Bernd Kreimeier, and he's noted as one of the group's associates. The works are more about the mechanics of gameplay than software.

Saturday, November 19, 2005

Raph Koster

So I spent yesterday afternoon, and some of the evening, arguing engaged in lively debate with Raph Koster. Basically I agreed with some of his ideas, and suggested some of my own, he said my ideas sucked, more or less -- he actually said my thinking was a mistake (three times!) and flawed, and even said I was just plain wrong about one thing in particular -- and so it was on, on like Donkey Kong.

Footnote: I'd included my last reply to Koster here whilst awaiting moderation, but it has since been published, see the above link.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

Bernd Kreimeier

The Case For Game Design Patterns

Bernd Kreimeier's Game Design Patterns are inspired by the work of Christopher Alexander and Gamma et al, about patterns in architecture and object-oriented software respectively. While recognising more specific applications of patterns to game design such as the work of Simpson, Kreiemier has opted to take a less software-specific approach and instead apply the design pattern methodology to gameplay of videogames instead of the code.

The pattern approach involves identifying a problem, and then coming up with, or recognising existing, solutions for that problem, discussing them, and giving them names. The main crux of patterns is giving a name to a commonly appearing concept so that designers can more efficiently communicate about it instead of having to repeatedly explain it. Patterns are named problem-solution pairs aimed at forming the basis of a design discourse for a given domain.

Kreiemier's game pattern template involves the following elements: name, problem, solution, consequences, examples and references. His work has attempted to translate the work of others, such as Crawford, Adams & Rollings, Barwood & Falstein and Church, into the pattern format. For example, in his "Paper-Rock-Scissors" pattern, he borrows Crawford's concept of "triangularity" and uses Adams & Rollings' warrior-barbarian-archer example to explain how the problem of avoiding a dominant strategy is solved by introducing non-transitive relationships. The name of the pattern is derived from the popular game of the same name in which Rock beats Scissors, Scissors beats Paper, and yet Paper beats Rock -- each strategy is equal, or at least no one strategy beats all others. Once game designers are aware of this pattern, such a structure within the design of a gameplay can thus be referred to by the name Scissor-Paper-Rock without having to be explained in detail as above.

Wednesday, November 16, 2005

TeXToWebPublishing (ttwp)

I've found this great program called TeXToWebPublishing (ttwp) that converts LATEX to html/image pages. So I've started to create a draft of my thesis dissertation with various bits and pieces from this blog.

Friday, November 11, 2005

Zack Booth Simpson

Game Programming Patterns OR Design Pattern for Computer Games

Simpson thinks "an industry-wide shared vocabulary would be a very good thing". As such, he has taken the work of Gamma et. al., to do with Object-Oriented Software Design Patterns, and applied the idea to game programming. Inspired by Smalltalk's Model-View-Controller pattern (which corresponds to Gamma et. al's Observer pattern and combinations with Composite, Factory Method and Strategy patterns), Simspson has created 3 categories of patterns (or classes):
  • Model
    • Model Database
    • Spatial Index
    • Gateway
    • Type Database
  • View
    • Render Delegation
    • Appearance Map
  • Controller
    • Mini-kernel
    • Double Buffered State
    • Trigger
    • Controller State Machine
    • Usecode
This list is very much programming-specific. It is not meant to be complete or apply to all types of games, but instead has a bias in favour of fixed-point-of-view real-time-strategy/adventure games due to the author's experience with them.

The three fundamental patterns, Model, View and Controller have the following properties:
  • Model
    • maintains state of game world
    • read-only by Views
    • read-write by Controllers
  • View
    • knows how to render Models
    • invisible to Models
    • invisible to Controllers
  • Controller
    • process, changes state of Models
    • created by Models
    • (yet) invisible to Models
    • invisible to Views
The format of this catalogue also borrows from the original, with sections:
  • Also Known As -- other names for the pattern
  • Intent -- what the pattern does
  • Motivation -- why the pattern is needed
  • Implementation -- issues to do with coding
  • Related Patterns -- similar patterns and suggested combinations
  • Thanks to -- acknowledging expert advice
Some of the patterns defined by Simpson are possibly unrecognised combinations (or redefinitions) of patterns by Gamma et. al., however the listing for each new pattern at least references existing patterns it is related to. The collection of game programming patterns is, as the title suggests, specific to programming and is not necessarily applicable to design at the level of gameplay. Nonetheless they give valuable insight into the structure of a game from a game-as-code perspective.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

Ben Cousins

Low Level Game Design: Atoms, Measurement and Hierarchies

Ben Cousins suggests some approaches to augment current game design:
  • low-level game design
  • an atomic model
  • measurement techniques
  • hierarchies
A game involves an input and output loop. Players provide input and the game responds with output. This loop can be viewed at different resolutions. A high level example might define the input as simply "save the princess" while the output is the collection of all the game's enemies, levels or encounters. A medium level example might have "get to the end of level 1" as the input and the level design and enemy placement as the output. A low level example of input might be "shoot gun" with the output being gun fires, bullet hits, enemy dies -- each of which correspond to actual sounds and animations, game physics and changes in game state. Lower levels of design are nested within higher levels, with the lowest level involving the direct mapping of player input via a controller to game output via graphics and sound (and touch if using a vibrating controller).

Cousins suggests that the lowest level of design, corresponding to player input at the level of gameplay action, could serve as the basis for an "atomic model". This atomic model could be useful for analysis of games in terms of measuring. Cousins is very big on using measurement techniques when designing a game, and argues that "sweet spots" for various games can be found for the following:
  • time, e.g. jumping time (of an avatar)
  • distance, e.g. distance to a "choke point" in a map
  • density, e.g. "atoms" or events "per primary element"
  • area, e.g. 2D screen space (of an avatar's animation)
Lastly, instead of a bundle of gameplay concepts, e.g. running, missions, story, etc., Cousins believes in creating a hierarchy for a game's design. For example, running is part of missions and a sequence of missions makes a story.

The four main points of Cousins' work -- low-level game design, an atomic model, measurement techniques and hierarchies -- can be thought of as a single approach. The environment of a game and its associated gameplay, along with the representation of these, can all be viewed as composite structures, with low-level components being suitable for measurement and possible adjustment in order to improve the overall design of the game.

Monday, November 07, 2005

State of the Art relevance

The Art of Computer Game Design - Chris Crawford
Game Theory: Interaction, Conflict and Safety.
Visualisation: Representation.
Patterns: Not really.

Low Level Game Design - Ben Cousins
Game Theory: Gameplay "atoms" are analogous to "moves" in Game Theory.
Visualisation: Spatial design of levels, positioning of avatars, etc.
Patterns: Composite?

Game Programming Patterns & Idioms - Chris Hecker & Zack Booth Simpson
Game Theory: Not really.
Visualisation: Model-View-Controller, and some graphics-specific patterns.
Patterns: Very much so, but perhaps too specific.

Game Design Patterns - Bernd Kreimeier et al
Game Theory: Sort of -- Scissor-Paper-Rock to avoid dominant strategy.
Visualisation: Not sure.
Patterns: Very much so, but perhaps too abstract.

The Designer’s Notebook - Ernest Adams
Game Theory: Explicitly mentions the field several times and explains concepts like dominant strategies. Often mentions "internal economy" of a game.
Visualisation: Cites the works of Edward Tufte, and has a good representation/visualisation article, "Cartographic Cartwheels".
Patterns: Sort of -- "internal economy" of the game is a kind of pattern.

Will Wright and Sid Meier
Game Theory: Not sure about Wright, but Meier's famous quote is "a game is a series of interesting choices".
Visualisation: Wright likes to wrap his "possibility space" in metaphors -- thematic visualisation? -- so that players develop a "mental map".
Patterns: Wright's "possibility space" a pattern?

I Have No Words & I Must Design - Greg Costikyan (extends Crawford)
Game Theory: Sort of -- similar to Crawford with definition of what a game is.
Visualisation: talks about things like Tokens and Colour, somewhat related.
Patterns: Not really.

A Grammar of Gameplay - Raph Koster (attempts to extend Cousins?)
Game Theory: again, like Cousins, the "atoms" or "ludemes" are "moves" in Game Theory.
Visualisation: There is a bit about visual representation of gameplay movement, but the visualisation in Koster's work is more about that of the game design rather than the graphics within the game.
Patterns: His attempted notation is a kind of pattern language.

MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics - Marc LeBlanc (oft-mentioned)
Game Theory: Not really, but does talk about feedback (a la thermostat).
Visualisation: Not really.
Patterns: Each of the 3 levels, Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics could be a pattern?

FADTs: Formal Abstract Design Tools - Doug Church (like patterns but not)
Game Theory: Not really, though some FADTs could qualify perhaps.
Visualisation: Not really, though some FADTs mention things like needing clear communication with the player.
Patterns: Like Game Design Patterns but not problem/solution pairs, just vocabulary.

The 400 Project - Hal Barwood & Noah Falstein (like patterns but really not)
Game Theory: Not really, though some rules could qualify perhaps (as with FADTs).
Visualisation: Not really, though some rules mention things like needing clear communication with the player (as with FADTs).
Patterns: Like Game Design Patterns but not problem/solution pairs, just laws.

Sunday, November 06, 2005

State of the Art: Reloaded

I've reshuffled my State of the Art after some more reading.

These are the most relevant to my work:
These are somewhat relevant but either redundant due to the above or here only because they're often referenced by others (which I suppose doesn't lend any credibility per se, but let's just go with mob-rule for now):
I promoted Kreimeier's Game Design Patterns and demoted Koster's Grammar of Gameplay. The reasons are that Kreimeier's work, while a bit too abstract, is at least somewhat more formal than the "Formal" Abstract Design Tools or the 400 Project, and serves as a good contrast to Simpson's Game Programming Patterns. I'm trying to fit somewhere between Kreimeier and Simpson with regard to abstraction and application of design patterns. Koster's work is good, but it basically repeats Cousins' idea of atoms and breaking down gameplay to base elements or moves, and his notation is a bit unweildy. Notation for concepts such as state transitions and other things Koster mentions already exists, however he has attempted to invent a new kind of diagram. Adapting existing graphical notations to the domain of games might have been less bold and less prone to failure, as Koster concedes his attempt was unsuccessful.

Anyway that's that.

Saturday, November 05, 2005

State of the Art notes

The Art of Computer Game Design - Chris Crawford
Chris Crawford says that all games have four main properties, namely: Representation, Interaction, Conflict and Safety. Representation means that a game is merely a representation of some kind of situation. Interaction means that the game involves input by players, and this input is reflected by output of the game, or other players involved in the game. Conflict doesn't mean violence, but means that the players of a game must have conflicting objectives and players must either win or lose. Safety means that a game is just a game, and the actions within a game do not spill out into the "real world" and have consequences beyond the bounds of the "game world".

Game Programming Patterns & Idioms - Chris Hecker & Zack Booth Simpson
Zack Booth Simpson and Chris Hecker co-authored a column for Game Developer magazine in which they identified patterns in game development. These patterns existed in both the process of game design, and the game design as artifact. The part that is relevant to my research is the patterns identified in a game's design. Simpson has attempted to create a set of patterns applicable to the domain of game design in terms of object-oriented software-engineering, a la Gamma et al. However, instead of creating a framework by adapting the existing object-oriented design patterns, Simpson has created a collection of his own game-specific patterns with the only exception being his use of the Model-View-Controller paradigm (exemplified by the Observer pattern, however this is not explicitly noted) as a foundation for his work. I liken some of the patterns to inventing a "four-point turn" when a "three-point turn" already exists, and while his attempt is worthy, it misses the mark with regards to the formulation of a framework which would ultimately rely on the existing patterns of Gamma et al.

The Designer’s Notebook - Ernest Adams
Adams is one of the few game designers who explicitly mentions mathematical game theory, and perhaps the only game designer to explicitly cite the information visualisation works of Edward Tufte. The topics of his many articles are varied, but one of the highlights is his talk about game design fundamentals in which he explains the "internal economy" of games. For example, a first-person-shooter involves resources such as ammo and health, and both of these have sources and sinks. Ammo has ammo pick-ups as a source, and shooting of weapons as a sink. Health has health pick-ups as a source, and being shot by weapons as a sink.

A Grammar of Gameplay - Raph Koster
Raph Koster's work is to do with creating a notation with which you can show gameplay. Akin to musical notation, his idea firstly involves identifying the base elements of gameplay, or "ludemes" (a term I believe he credits to Ben Cousins), and then creating a graphical representation of these. This is nothing to do with computer graphics, or the graphical display of game elements per se, however there does seem to be room in his possible notation for defining some kind of spatial or graphical elements of a game's design.

Low Level Game Design - Ben Cousins
Ben Cousins believes in designing games using a bottom-up approach. He likes to concentrate on what he calls game "atoms", as well as the measurements and hierarchies that exist within games. The atoms that Cousins refers to are the lowest-resolution elements of gameplay, such as jumping or firing a weapon. His idea of atoms is most likely very much like the idea of "moves" in mathematical game theory, however he doesn't explicitly say as much. His idea of hierarchies is related to his idea of atoms. Basically he takes a game, breaks that down into levels, then breaks those down into smaller sub-tasks, and then keeps breaking things down until he reaches the level of his game atom. As for measurements, Cousins believes that there is merit in recording both timing and spatial attributes of game design. For example, the size of a level and how long it takes a player to navigate to a particular location, or the amount of screenspace an avatar takes up, or even the amount of time a jump should take (he believes 0.7 seconds is the sweet spot, and suggested to Barwooed and Falstein that this should become one of their rules, however it was rejected as being too specific.

Will Wright and Sid Meier
Will Wright is very good at analogy and borrowing ideas not only from other entertainment media (such as CareBear cartoons) and traditional games (such as Go) but also from seemingly unrelated fields of knowledge (such as cellular automata and robotics). His games are, by his own admission, not games as such, but toys. He creates these artifacts and worlds and defines rules for their use, and thus he defines what inputs they can take, and what the resulting behaviours and outputs will be, but he doesn't explicitly define winning and losing states. Instead, he lets the player decide what they want to make as goals, and lets the toys accommodate these. One of the main ideas he has is that a game is just a bunch of numbers (think code) inside a computer, and to make this interesting to players he wraps this in a (graphical) metaphor. With regards to visualisation, he talks about the picture or structure of ideas that people have in their heads, and states that one of the main causes of conflict between people is that their mental pictures of what's going on differs from one another. What he emphasises is the externalising of this mental picture, as a model (which is actually predominantly visual, however the form of something is just the "wrapping" of the model).

Meier's contribution is short and sweet: "a game is a series of interesting choices". This is exactly what a game is in terms of mathematical game theory.

I Have No Words & I Must Design - Greg Costikyan
Greg's work basically repeats what Crawford says, but adds a few specific bits and pieces such as tokens, etc., which seem to stem from Costikyan's history as a board game designer. Nothing new here, however the structure of his work gives the discussion of games versus toys, puzzles, etc. more emphasis (in terms of the ratio of space it takes up in the article) than Crawford. As the title suggests, Costikyan desires a common vocabulary for game design.

FADTs: Formal Abstract Design Tools - Doug Church
The name is catchy, however Church's FADTs are not very formal, perhaps overly abstract, and have limited use as tools for design. He does identify a need for a common vocabulary in game design, however his collection of "tools" are more like patterns, and there's not any real method to follow.

The 400 Project - Hal Barwood & Noah Falstein
These are more like recipes for making games, howevere they are very abstract, and perhaps not applicable to all games, but more to specific classes of games. The idea that certain rules trump other rules and the lack of a hierarchial organisation of their rules collection makes it another collection of vague game design wisdom that's not directly implementable.

Game Design Patterns - Bernd Kreimeier et al
Kreimeier starts off well enough, espousing the virtues of patterns for games, which is akin to the work of Simpson and Hecker, however his patterns diverge from the realm of software to the realm of the 400 rules and FADTs in that they're not directly implemtable as code or any kind of framework. Design patterns should relate more closely to structure albeit at an abstract level, however the Game Design Patterns are too abstract.

MDA: Mechanics, Dynamics, Aesthetics - Marc LeBlanc
MDA is an approach to "reverse engineering fun". Mechanics are the rules of the game, dynamics is the gameplay or use of the rules by players, and aesthetics is the player's emotional response. LeBlanc surmises that if you want a particular player response you can work backwards and identify the kind of dynamics that can create these aesthetics, and in term determine the required mechanics and wa-lah, there's your game. His analogy of a thermostat mechanism for how a game should give feedback, i.e. it regulates difficulty of the game based on player performance and skill, is good, but is merely an aside within this work.

Sunday, October 30, 2005

State of the Art

Long time no post. I'm finally getting down to business with my dissertation, and so here's the list of the people and publications I'll be using for my State of the Art section. I've divided them into 2 categories, primary and secondary, in terms of relevance to my work (Ben Cousins' game "atoms" are more relevant to me than Barwood & Falstein's 400 rules) and originality (i.e. I consider Costikyan's work an extension of Crawford's).


Saturday, July 02, 2005

Cheating through Graphics

I play Wolfenstein Enemy Territory a fair bit, and I hate cheats. Getting fragged by a good player is one thing, but when their shooting becomes all too accurate it's a bit suspect. That's not to say I reckon all accurate shooters are using "hax" but perhaps they've tweaked the game's cvars to the extreme so that aiming becomes easier. Punkbuster should pick up on any illegal cvar tampering but alas, I wonder if any get through.

On the topic of modifying cvars to aim better, how about cvars that change the graphics of the game. For example, getting rid of foliage off trees so that you can see players on the other side. I don't know if this is one of Punkbuster's disallowed tweaks, but it got me thinking that a fair amount of hax and tweaks for games involve the visual aspect of the game. Players who can see their victims before their victims see them are at an obvious advantage. There's plenty of other tweaks like adding highlighting for enemy players, so you're less likely to shoot your own team, etc. It would be good if Punkbuster weren't necessary, and if the games were programmed in such a way as the only information available to players was the stuff they should see, and nothing more. No extra graphics, no graphics about things you're not really supposed to see. I'm not sure about the technical side of things, and whether the current state of affairs is down to the way games and graphics are intertwined. I'll have to find out.

Monday, June 27, 2005

Graphics Patterns

Well it's been a while... anyhow, I came across a page about Graphics Patterns while checking out the Portland Pattern Repository and I'm happy. Why am I happy? Well since I last blogged, I discovered the Design Patterns book, and thought it'd be useful for my research. I'm supposed to be doing a "game graphic taxonomy" (as per request of my PhD supervisors), and the graphics patterns might help -- I'll know once I've read through them, but what little I've read so far seems the goods.

I've done some searching on game design and patterns, and I found the usual stuff (http://gamedesignpatterns.org/), but also found a thread on IGDA, to which I added my own 2 cents, and found that somebody there actually had read this blog -- hoorah!

So anyway, at the moment I'm writing a paper for the Australasian Conference on Interactive Entertainment, and I'm on the (hopefully) downhill run to finishing my thesis dissertation.

Sunday, March 20, 2005

Game Design Atoms: Can Game Designs Be Diagrammed?

Holy crap. Raph Koster (author of "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" -- see this post) is reading my mind! Ok, so he's not really, but I like how he thinks. He gave a GDC lecture entitled "Game Design Atoms: Can Game Designs Be Diagrammed?" which is about breaking down game mechanics into their smallest parts (he calls "ludemes") and creating a design diagram to replace the traditional game design document. Again, holy crap. I better write this dissertation of mine fast before ol' Raphy steals all of my thunder and limelight and riches and... Psychochild reckons Raph had the best non-keynote talk he'd seen and Cory of Terra Nova reckons code is a good enough notation for games.

Burn the House Down

Some big names in games have a good rant. Found this on Wonderland, which I don't mind either. Check out Cory's 2 cents on Terra Nova as well as a rant about the above rant. Rant-on!

Aarseth vs. Jenkins

This "debate" demonstrates how "game studies" is so much hot air. Jenkins (representing the media side of the debate) seems at least to ground his discussion of videogames in the real world and technology, but Aarseth hand-waves and talks himself in circles and loves to disagree (about anything really) without then stating any concrete counter-arguments. Jenkins talks in hand-waving as well at times, but he at least appears to regurgitate facts and figures relevant to the discussion.

Some notes:
  • Both of them see a problem with anyone having an overarching definition of what a game is.
  • I liked the fact Aarseth notes that a game isn't a game if nobody is playing it.
  • They did go on about story and narrative and game and story and narrative and... yes, they went around in circles. Haha... Aarseth said it's like a labyrinth -- yeah, of bullshit.
  • I'm glad Aarseth said he never uses the term "ludology" when the host asks him to define it -- but he did say it's studying games as objects, critique, and says to look at Gonzalo Frasca's papers for more depth *groan*.
  • Comparing Half-Life 2 and The Sims, Jenkins says The Sims is more a toolset for players to author a narrative, whereas HL2 is already pre-authored and players just make interactive choices.
  • Jenkins talks about how games are hybrids or mixtures of narrative, story, game, performance, space, spectacle, etc. to varying degrees.
  • A bit later the host invites a local game developer up on stage and asked if the academic analysis is useful to him. He said yes... the stuff to do with algorithms or social behaviour, and how to use the academic stuff in games. He wanted storytelling in a cinematic context.
  • Game dev bloke brought up genre, like "romantic comedy" and he likes the concept of genre for games. Film techniques like "foreshadowing"... he really likes the film/game/story-telling thing.
  • Jenkins mentions he notices that game designers take interest in film but film makers don't take as much interest in games, and how games are an emerging medium. Mentions we need terms to make it as well as critique it.
  • Game dev bloke agrees videogames shouldn't communicate the same way as film or boardgames, but doesn't go further really. This sort of contradicts what he said at first.
  • There's a bit of talk about the environment and labs available in Europe (as opposed to in the USA as Jenkins earlier alluded).
I watched more than half of the video, and fast-fowarded and caught a couple of sound bites at the end but it seemed the main point of the discussion -- sorry, debate -- was about defining games, as a medium, using film and other mediums, narrativity, story-telling, etc. So really not much was said at all. Or at least not much was said about actually developing games in the part of the video that I saw.

Thursday, January 06, 2005

Envisioning Information

In his second of three books on graphic design, Envisioning Information, Edward Tufte says, "Credibility vanishes in clouds of chartjunk; who would trust a chart that looks like a video game?" -- I can only guess he meant that videogames contain a lot of unnecessary visual artifacts. But what is an unnecessary visual artifact in a videogame?

I thought it was interesting that in Cartographic Cartwheels Ernest Adams recommends Tufte's works to game designers, and in another article, The Role of Architecture in Videogames, makes the point that visual presentation (of architecture in this case) requires not just function, but also decoration. While videogames are visualisations of gameplay, they do contain a lot of what Tufte would term "junk", but it does have a purpose: to engage the player and not just give them, to borrow Adams' architectural reference, "bare grey concrete".

As Will Wright said in A Conversation with Will Wright, "we start wrapping graphics, sounds, scenarios an events around those numbers, and we're increasing the quality of the experience you have. It has more meaning to you. In some sense it becomes more evocative. You can start wrapping a mental model around that, as opposed to this pile of numbers". So the visual junk of videogames is actually integral to providing players with what Wright terms as a "consistent level of abstraction" without which their "mental model will start breaking down".

I would suggest that the visualisation component of a videogame should be a combination of Tufte's minimalist "data-ink" approach to graphic design with Wright's philosophy of providing players with an "overt metaphor".

Sunday, January 02, 2005

Towards a Definition of a Computer Game

The abstract of Towards a Definition of a Computer Game, by Jouni Smed and Harri Hakonen, reads:

"This paper approaches computer games from three perspectives: First, by defining the properties common to all games. Second, by fitting computer games into Model–View–Controller architectural pattern and discerning common software components. Third, by listing features that players expect from an enjoyable computer game".

I'm mostly interested in the first and second parts, as I see the third as being more subjective. Smed and Hakonen begin their definition games with a quote from Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens:

"[Play] is an activity which proceeds within certain limits of time and space, in a visible order, according to rules freely accepted, and outside the sphere of necessity or material utility. The play-mood is one of rapture and enthusiasm, and is sacred or festive in accordance with the occasion. A feeling of exaltation and tension accompanies the action, mirth and relaxation follow".

This is followed by a dictionary definition of a game, and the authors' interpretation of what a game seems to be, namely: players, rules and goals. This is illustrated on page 2 of the paper with a figure of three joined triangles (like a fan), with vertices representing player, rules, goal, opponent and representation. The edges joining the vertices show how the concepts relate, e.g. "player" relates to "rules" via an edge labelled "agreement", and each of the three triangles represent what the authors refer to as aspects of a game: challenge, conflict and play. These are described as follows:

"Challenge: Rules define the game and, consequently, the goal of the game. When players decide to participate in the game, they agree to follow the rules. The goal motivates the players and drives the game forwards.
Conflict: The opponent (which can include unpredictable humans and unpredictable random processes) obstructs the players from achieving the goal. Because the players do not have a comprehensive knowledge on the opponent, they cannot determine precisely the opponent’s effect on the game.
Play: The rules are abstract but they correspond to real-world objects. This representation concretizes the game to the players".

The paper then goes on to discern between puzzles, stories and toys, with each being components of games, but not games in and of themselves.

The part of the paper I was inspired by mostly was the introduction of the Model-View-Controller architecture/pattern for describing the software components of a videogame. The View and Model components are relevant to my mapping idea:

"The Model part includes software components which are responsible for the co-ordination role (e.g., evaluating the rules and upholding the game state). The rules and basic entity information (e.g., physical laws) form the core structures. It remains unchanged while the state instance is created and configured for each game process. The core structures need not to cover all the rules, because they can be instantiated. For example, the core structures can define the basic mechanism and properties of playing cards (e.g., suits and values) and the instance data can provide the additional structures required for a game of Poker.
The View part handles the illustration role. A proto-view provides an interface into the Model. It is used for creating a synthetic view for a synthetic player or for rendering a view to an output device. The synthetic view can be preprocessed to suit the needs of the synthetic player (e.g., board coordinates rather than an image of the pieces on a board). Although rendering is often identified with visualization, it may as well include audification and other forms of sensory feedback. The rendering can have some user-definable options (e.g., graphics resolution or sound quality)".

I don't completely agree with the above designation of sub-components, however I like the Model-View-Controller conceptualisation of a videogame, and will use it in my dissertation, as it's likely to be familiar to, or at least easily understood by, the intended audience. There is more to the paper, however what I've mentioned here are the bits I found most useful.

Thursday, December 16, 2004

The Tyranny of the Visual

The Tyranny of the Visual by Chris Crawford is about "the way in which visual thinking has come to dominate our thinking" -- not that visual communication is a bad thing, just that there are alternatives that aren't often explored, and that the visual representation of things is often too closely intertwined with their conceptualisation.

Crawford uses the example of navigating through a house with his eyes closed, using his other senses to visualise his surroundings (like Jim Blinn's definition of visualisation as understanding something and then creating a picture of it in your mind, only here "picture" is an embodiment, not necessarily visual). He then goes on to explain that our visual perception is merely perception, and not necessarily reality, or at least not a complete conceptual understanding of reality:

"When you gaze upon a scene, do you imagine that you are perceiving reality? I certainly don't. I imagine that I am perceiving a tiny fragment of reality, perceiving reality through the narrow window of the visual. I look at a tree and perceive so much more than a simple visual image. I imagine the fluids slowly creeping through its cambium, the photosynthesis taking place in its leaves, the absorption of nutrients from the soil — all these invisible processes that are central to the life of a tree. My eyes don't tell me much about the tree; there's so much more going on out of my view. Note that this perception of the tree is informed, indeed driven, by my education. Because I have read about biology and trees and physics, I bring to bear an understanding that allows me to see deeper inside the tree. My perception of the universe is an integration of my knowledge and my senses".

Crawford also makes reference to the scene in The Matrix where Neo reaches a state of enlightenment:

"It comes at the climax of the first Matrix film. Neo has returned from the dead and can now see the Matrix for what it is. He looks down the corridor at the three agents and sees not the corridor, but the code behind it. The image communicates the idea of seeing the processes behind reality rather than just the visual skin of reality. Isn't it odd that we need a visual representation of an idea that attempts to get around visual thinking?"

This example is relevant to my idea with regards to visualisation of game elements and mechanics -- the visual representation of a game is merely a "visual skin" for the underlying attributes and processes that define the gameplay. This is also in keeping with Will Wright's and Raph Koster's ideas of wrapping simulations and game patterns in metaphor.

As Crawford says, when talking about interactive storytelling, "what is important is the function of the system" -- the (visual) presentation scheme is arbitrary. He then gives the use of stages in drama as an example where "space is composed of individual stages with no spatial relationships whatever between stages", citing literary examples such as the journey of Huckleberry Finn. This reminded me of graphs (vertices connected by edges) and state transition diagrams.

He also suggests an exaggerated screenplay involving Cary Grant to illustrate his idea that spatial considerations and details are sometimes unnecessary: "Overpowered with passion, he walked over to her, seized her in his arms, moved his head directly in front of hers, rotated his head slightly to avoid a collision of noses, then closed the gap between her lips and his and kissed her frantically". A simpler version, "Overpowered with passion, he seized her in his arms and kissed her frantically", would have sufficed and let Cary Grant's acting ability fill in the (spatial/visual) blanks.

At the end of the article, Chris expresses his dismay that some people cannot get past the visual representation of things, and that "to them, reality is WYSIWRE: What You See Is What Really Exists", and "those of us who confine their thinking to the purely visual are narrowing their vision". This is seemingly true for the current state of game design, and was alluded to by Doug Church in State of Church. I think that videogames can be better defined and designed in terms of a separation of their visual (including spatial) representation from the actual underlying game elements and processes.

Tuesday, December 14, 2004

Design Basics

Design Basics by Jim Frew is a Webmonkey article I often read aloud when teaching web design. While web design and game design are not the same thing, they are similar. The medium for both web pages and videogames is computers, both are interactive, and the visual aspects of both (should) have purpose and theme. The following section of Jim's article adresses these last two items:

"The first thing you need to do is ask yourself a few questions. What is the point of the site? What are your goals? Do you want to show the world pictures of your cat? Are you trying to sell worms through the mail? Are you promoting your new major motion picture? The answer will help you begin to focus your page. As you edit your material, you will quickly see that the picture of your cat has no business on the homepage of your new blockbuster. Next question: Who are you, and who's your audience? Are you a 12-year-old girl trying to communicate with other 12-year-old girls? The president of a start-up company trying to get some cash from an investment bank? Hint: Purple and unicorns will work really well for one of these situations".

The Role of Architecture in Videogames

The Role of Architecture in Videogames, says Ernest Adams, is the "short version" of a lecture he gave at the Ars Electronica festival of electronic and computerized art, and is one of his Designer's Notebook columns at Gamasutra. "They requested the topic, and although it sounded a bit odd at first, the more research I did, the more interesting it got".

Adams mentions that "The most popular PC game of all time, The Sims, was influenced and partly inspired by the work of an architect, Christopher Alexander's book A Pattern Language". He then lists some reasons why we construct buildings: "To protect people, goods, and animals from the weather. To organize human activity efficiently (factories, theaters, offices, sports arenas). To conceal and protect goods and animals from theft (warehouses, barns, shops, storage facilities). To offer personal privacy (toilets and private houses). To protect people from other people (fortifications, military installations, prisons). To impress, commemorate or simply decorate (civic monuments and religious buildings)".

He then explains that most of these reasons aren't applicable to architecture in games and says "a building provides a convenient metaphor for concealment and protection" and gives the Town Hall in Age of Empires and the Treasury in Dungeon Keeper as examples. The main idea of Adams' article is that there are 2 functions of architecture in games: "support the gameplay" and "inform and entertain".

"The primary function of architecture in games is to support the gameplay". Adams says the "architecture supports the gameplay by helping to define the challenges. There are four major ways in which this happens: constraint, concealment, obstacles or tests of skill, and exploration". He briefly explains each of these with examples. As for the secondary function, "If architecture were only about supporting the gameplay through constraint, concealment and so on, it could all be bare grey concrete. But architecture has a secondary, and still highly valuable role to play: to inform and entertain in its own right". Adams again lists several ways this is achieved: familiarity, allusion, new worlds require new architecture, surrealism, atmosphere, comedic effect, and architectural clichés. He again briefly explains each of these with examples. He had previously complained about surrealism in another article -- "I complained about pointless surrealism in my first "Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie!" column, but architectural surrealism does have a point if it's connected to the gameplay".

I'm glad I read this article, after initially thinking it might not have much to do with my ideas. It turns out it's exactly the kind of thing I want to point out about the visualisation in games: it consists of two parts, the functional and the aesthetic. Visualisation has to firstly communicate something, and because games are a form of entertainment, visualisation in a game must also have to appeal to audiences -- purpose and theme.

Monday, December 13, 2004


Visualization by Jim Blinn is the basis (along with the works of Edward Tufte) for my idea of what visualisation is. I've often used the following quote verbatim in presentations (to the dismay of my supervisors, and audiences no doubt):

"Visualization is good. Visualization is valuable. Let's have more visualization.
That's great, but what does visualization really mean? In the past I have always thought of visualization as primarily a mental process: you receive some knowledge (from any of various sources) and, when you understand it thoroughly, you can "create a picture of it" in your mind. Nowadays computer graphicists are trying to place this picture more directly in the mind by creating the pictures with a computer. (This, of course, has been done for some time using more conventional illustration media). The term "visualization" has come to be a proper noun referring to the actual picture or computer image itself, as in the phrase "I created a visualization of the process on the screen". Even though the visualization is on a piece of paper or a computer screen, the ultimate destination is the mind."

He then goes on to talk about "impossible visualizations", "dangerous visualizations", "designing good visualizations" and "the usefulness of visualization". The article is short and sweet, but is full of the kind of wisdom you'd expect from the author of a regular column in the IEEE Computer Graphics and Applications journal -- Jim Blinn's Corner. Another article of Blinn's, The Ancient Chinese Art of Chi-Ting ("cheating"), about graphical tricks and techniques, has an absolute gem of wisdom that has stayed with me: a "technique" is a "trick" that you use more than once.

Saturday, December 11, 2004

Reality play: threads on digital games

Troy Innocent's Reality play: threads on digital games is mostly twaddle. Apart from the vague mention of Joseph Goguen's idea of Semiotic Morphisms, possibly to give the article some "technical" status, it's about a 3D videogame in which the visual representation of the player's avatar and immediate surroundings change, e.g. tree icons change into the word "tree", or a different graphical representation of a tree, as the player collects "energy" items.

The reason I include this article here is that, while I think Innocent could have written a much shorter article to communicate the same amount of "information", it does illustrate a videogame in which the underlying game has been separated from its visualisation. The article also mentions "ontology", but rather than present a conceptual schema for the videogame itself, Innocent waffles on about "being in the game space".

It's unclear whether he is sure about what exactly goes into a videogame at the beginning of the article: "Digital games are hybrid media built from a mix of simulation, experience design, rule systems, multimedia, and a fair proportion of the unknown" -- the unknown?! -- but he goes on to say, "I play games. I make game art. I teach students how to make games", so I suppose I'll have to take Troy Innocent's word for it, what with him being a senior lecturer. His profile at Monash University says he's "been exploring and charting the digital realm since 1989" -- I think he's gotten lost in this article.

Cartographic Cartwheels

In one of his Designers Notebook articles on Gamasutra, Cartographic Cartwheels, Ernest Adams talks about how cartography/mapmaking has some useful things game designers/developers could learn. He mentions important ideas about maps, such as they should have a specific purpose/audience, and they needn't be accurate in scale or space as long as they communicate symbolic relationships, and cites the London Underground Map as one of the best examples "where a map is easier to read if it expresses symblic relationships rather than physical ones".

Descent is given as an example of a game in which (he thinks) the map is difficult to understand, whereas Adams believes games like Interstate '76 and text adventure games, while not having overly detailed maps, give the player a better idea of where they are and what direction they're facing, and thus where they can/have to go: "The maps in Interstate '76, for example, looked literally like pencil scribblings on the back of a paper sack, but they were enough to get you oriented and explain the mission", and "the maps made by text adventure gamers [...] were usually boxes with names of rooms inside them, plus lines from room to room, indicating which direction you go from one room to reach another. (This is called a directed graph by mathematicians.) The size of the boxes and the lengths of the lines were completely irrelevant, as long as the relationships were accurately conveyed".

Adams recommends the series of books about graphic design by Edward Tufte: The Visual Display of Quantitative Information, Envisioning Information and Visual Explanations, about designing graphics to communicate, respectively, numbers, nouns and verbs. Adams illustrates Tufte's "data-ink" idea with an example table he'd presented at a Computer Game Developers' Conference, and then transforms it from what he says Tufte would call a "data prison" into a table that is much clearer and more concise. He does this by erasing grid lines, and replacing "Y" with "X" and using whitespace instead of "N", resulting in a better "data-ink" to "non-data-ink" ratio. Adams then suggests that the warning label on cigarette packets could be improved, and shows an example.

He goes on to explain two problems he sees with the map in Descent: "Looking back on Descent, I think it made two major cartographic mistakes. First, when you popped up the map, it always appeared with you oriented the right way up, and the world oriented with respect to you. Since the orientation of the world changed every time you opened the map, the rooms were very hard to identify - they all look different when slanted at odd angles. One of the first things we learn about maps as children is that north is at the top, regardless of what direction you personally are facing. Descent's maps would have been much more usable if they had kept a standard orientation and showed which way you were facing. Secondly, all the rooms were displayed as white wireframes, making very little use of the PC's capacity to display color. As a result, they often looked alike, especially long, narrow corridors. On the computer monitor, unlike on paper, color costs you nothing and contributes greatly to readability. Nobody would buy a black-and-white globe; why should you have to put up with a black-and-white map? Obviously you don't want a tacky, eye-popping mishmash, but a sensibly-chosen palette".

His final statement, that a map is "vital part of the user interface, and deserves just as much design attention as any other part" made me think that perhaps these other parts aren't given as much design attention, in terms of "data-ink" and other visualisation concepts, as they could be.

Tuesday, December 07, 2004

A Conversation with Will Wright

In Sims, BattleBots, Cellular Automata God and Go: A Conversation with Will Wright by Celia Pearce, Celia begins by asking Will what his "philosophy of interactive design" is, and things go from there. Wright talks about his childhood interest with models and making things, and how that led to programming and creating dynamic models on the computer, and how he later got into robotics and used computers to control his robots.

He expresses his ideas about "enabling the creativity of the player" by "giving them a pretty large solution space to solve the problem within the game" where "the game represents this problem landscape". This model/simulation problem/solution landscape/space fits well with comments elsewhere that Wright's games are actually toys. Wright says he was influenced by games such as Pinball Construction Set by Bill Budge -- "he kind of emulated what would later become the Mac interface" -- and Flight Simulator by Bruce Artwick -- "this little micro-world in the computer with its own rules" -- when he was first working on SimCity.

He also talks about playing hex-grid board games with 40-page rule books, and how arguments over interpretation of the rules with friends was "kind of half the fun of it -- both of you trying to find the legal loopholes for why your guy didn't get killed". Of note is his comment, "the [game] model was far more elaborate than you could really run in your head", which I think could be likened to the concept of Imperfect Information in Game Theory, although not exactly the same thing.

Wright says, "the types of games we do are simulation based and so there is this really elaborate simulation of some aspect of reality" (which relates to Chris Crawford's idea that "a game is a closed formal system that subjectively represents a subset of reality"). Wright creates games that are "this elaborate system with thousands of variables", and communicates this to players via an "overt metaphor" so that players can "bootstrap themselves into understanding that model", and establish their own "mental model". Although the metaphors for SimCity and The Sims are cities and people, he has other metaphors/analogies: he likens SimCity to gardening -- "you're kind of tilling the soil, and fertilizing it, and then things pop up and they surprise you, and occasionally you have to go in and weed the garden, and then you maybe think about expanding it, and so on" -- and The Sims to "juggling or balancing plates" -- "you're rushing from this to that to this, and then you're able to make these time decisions. So it feels very much like juggling and if you drop a ball, then all of a sudden, the whole pile comes crashing down". However, he adds "but other people play it differently [...] and it's not as clear to me what The Sims is".

Wright says, "with current technology, there are a lot of limitiations in terms of what we can do with character simulation [...] there are certain things we just cannot simulate on a computer, but on the other hand that people are very good at simulating in their heads. So we just take that part of the simulation and offload it from the computer into the player's head". He then goes on to talk about having "a consistent level of abstraction", and how this allows players to "fill in the blanks really well. And is something that kids do quite well" -- this is followed by a discussion about the game of Go and emergent behaviour from simple rules, and about how conflict, whether between players of a game, or between people in general, comes about from disagreement over their different mental models: "the game is in fact this process of us bringing our different mental models into agreement". Wright then cites a project called Sim Health that was a simulation of the national healthcare system: "the idea was that if people could come to a shared understanding or at least agree toward the model of the world, then they would be much more in agreement about the policy we should take" -- this idea of an agreed model, independent of vocabulary, is what I hope to achieve with my idea -- here's a brief excerpt following on from the above quote that I thought was important:

"CP: So in a way, a system like that could be used to externalize mental models and create a collective model.
WW: Yes, exactly. Which I think could have value, but at the same time I like this idea that there’s this diversity of models out there.
CP: Well, I think if you have a shared model, it’s not so much like you all have the same mental model, but that you have an externalized model that everyone agrees to abide by.
WW: Yeah, which is exactly the way science works."

Related to the idea of shared mental models is the idea of agency in The Sims, where "the pronouns change all the time". The characters are semi-autonomous, "and so at some point it's me inhabiting this little person [...] but when he starts rebelling, it's he". He makes reference to a toy called Rockenbok where players control one of several radio-controlled construction vehicles via control pads and can switch between vehicles at the press of a button. He likens the vehicles to "little avatars" and says, "it's really interesting to watch kids play with this because their identity is so fluid from truck to truck. And it's really interesting the situations they get in. They always end up pushing and fighting with these things. So, you're about to push me off the table, so I go to [truck] number 3 really quick and come up behind you, and all of a sudden, you see that I'm attacking so you turn and face me. You're very cognizant of which avatar I inhabit, even when I change. It's like The Sims in a way". I think this cognisance -- swapping of avatars, but keeping the interaction fluid -- is the players having a shared mental model.

The issue of narritive in games is raised with Pearce asking Wright what kind of god he would like to be, to which he replies, "I would try to be a God that surprised himself. I think being the all-knowing God would be, you know, hell". Pearce then mentions he's "creating a mental model of the whole [game] universe", which Wright corrects by repeating his idea about possibility space and says "I don't want to create a specific possibility that everybody's going to experience the same way. I'd much rather have a huge possibility space where every player has as unique an experience as possible". Pearce then adds, "you enjoy the unpredictable outcome. When people do things [in the game] that you didn't plan on, that seems to be something that you embrace". Wright replies, "to me, that feels like success".

In terms of a relationship between the size of the possibility space and the quality of the experience for players, and creating a metaphor for players to establish mental models, Wright says, "we can make the possibility space huge, just by giving the player a thousand numbers. [...] That's a big space. It's just not a very high quality experience. So we start wrapping graphics, sounds, scenarios an events around those numbers, and we're increasing the quality of the experience you have. It has more meaning to you. In some sense it becomes more evocative. You can start wrapping a mental model around that, as opposed to this pile of numbers". Wright is "trying to build the maximum possibility space in your head, not on the computer". He also talks about the possibility space in terms of terrain, where challenges take the form of peaks, and so a player's experience is how they navigate through that terrain. This leads to discussion about "the plausibility and believability of the [possibility] space. If the space starts becoming totally disconnected and random [...] your mental model will start breaking down", which Wright adds is "the main reason for keeping the [space/terrain] topography somewhat consistent" (see "a consistent level of abstraction" above).

Wright then discusses time. "I think that time is an interesting component because with games you can relate to time in a totally different way than in linear media. I can always back up, load my old saved game. I can pause whenever I want to, etc. You're starting to see little bits of that popping into linear media". He mentions the film Memento and Pearce mentions Run Lola Run and Wright says "I've always wanted a game that had a smooth slider where you could go forward and backward and rebranch" -- the game Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time has since implemented this with a reload/rewind facility, when the Prince (the player's avatar) dies. However, I think Wright meant the ability to do the same thing at any moment during a game. Wright's argument is that we currently have "spatial mobility": "I can click and move the screen wherever I want really fast. I should be able to do the same thing with time", and he goes on to say, "actually, we're experimenting with scales of time and space. The plan is that the time is going to be totally based on the zoom level. So your zoom level and your time slider are the same. If you want to speed the game up, you have to zoom out, if you want to slow it down you have to zoom in" -- this is very much to do with visualisation I think.

"Time and space are related scale-wise, they correlate" (is this related to the Theory of Relativity?). He closes by pondering this scaling in combination with reversing: "I'm kind of curious behaviourally what that's going to feel like. To change time I have to change scale. You know, it might be a total screw up. It might just be a total pain in the ass. But then if there was a way to go backwards, that would be cool. [...] Reversible simulations are hard in some sense, though. I mean, this gets into a whole computer science discussion. But, you either store the data or you make it reversible. It can only be made reversible if no information is destroyed. Most simulation processes, such as system dynamics or cellular automata, destroy information. [...] Yeah, so there's a real engineering issue there. But it's not insoluble", and Pearce adds "with Moore's Law, very soon, you'll be able to have enough processing to do that" -- regardless of future possibilities, Wright's ideas about time and space are worth considering in relation to what I'm doing, in terms of dynamic (over time) visualisation.

Sunday, December 05, 2004

The State of Church

In The State Of Church:Doug Church on the Death of PC Gaming and the Future of Defining Gameplay, by Justin Hall at Gamasutra, Doug Church talks about the PC versus the console in terms of experimentation, passive entertainment, and play. While the PC might allow for greater experimentation in gameplay, the console, being hooked up to a TV, is more geared as a passive entertainment device, and unfortunately, entertainment is taking over from play as the main selling-point for the majority of new games.

He went on to discuss the need for a game vocabulary, and mentioned that existing game genre terminology is the current "shorthand" for describing games. He sees the problem with this as new games are blending old genres, and the gameplay mechanics aren't properly described:

"Sometimes I think that genre is our shorthand to talk about play, and that's about as specific as we'd get, because when I show you imagery of a lot of games and the communication message, you know 'you're a powerful wizard', or 'you're going to defeat terrorists' or 'you're going to pilot planes', it doesn't really tell you anything about what you're going to actually do. Like: What are the verbs you have? What are the buttons you're going to use? What sort of mental action do you get? Why are you even there? Why isn't it just a movie?"

This illustrates my idea about gameplay being too tightly intertwined with visual presentation. You have a mental picture of what the general idea of the game is, but no explicit picture of exactly what the gameplay elements are in terms of the rules or environment you'll interact with.

Also, I think having a play vocabulary isn't as important as sharing the same mental model or concept of gameplay mechanics amongst game designers. Forget the vocabulary, the words, and concentrate on the actual things instead; "What's in a name? That which we call a rose By any other word would smell as sweet." --From Romeo and Juliet (II, ii, 1-2).

The game Katamari Damacy was mentioned as an example of "experimental play innovation". I don't think the gameplay was necessarily innovative -- you move around and collect items of increasing size -- just that the visual representation of the gameplay was innovative. Which is what my idea is all about.

What Games Aren't

In Gamasutra's cover feature, Book Excerpt: "A Theory of Fun for Game Design" - What Games Aren't, Raph Koster explains how game patterns (a.k.a. elements and mechanics) are wrapped in metaphor. "People tend to dress up game systems with some fiction", for example, in Checkers, "calling the über-checker a “king” [...] adds interesting shading to the game but the game at its core is unchanged".

According to the book's website, "It's about: What fun is, Why some games are fun and some games are boring, How different people respond to different kinds of fun, What makes a game fun or not, How games fit into the wider human culture, Whether games can be art, What degree of social responsibility game makers need to have, How games can develop. At its core, though, it is about why games matter".

The foreword of the book is by Will Wright, and on Slide 31 of the associated talk, Koster has "If I were Will Wright, I’d say that “Fun is the process of discovering areas in a possibility space.”" -- see Celia Pearce's conversation with Will Wright at Gamestudies for more about this.

Slide 41 mentions "communication" in terms of games ceasing to be craft and becoming art that is subject to interpretation. This relates to my idea, however I'm talking about visualisation as opposed to art, and I'm concentrating more on the visual representation of game elements more than defining what games are per se. The idea of fiction and metaphor are relevant to my idea insofar as they can provide visualisations (of games) with context or theme to engage an audience (players).