Tobold's Blog
Tuesday, January 24, 2012
A model of games

I do agree with Raph Koster's recent statement that narrative is not a game mechanic. But that is not why you should read that post. The reason why you should read that post is that Raph presents this brilliant model of games, in which every game is a sequence of problems, black boxes in which the input of the player is processed, and feedback.

That model explains so much better some of things I don't like in modern games, for example how raiding is just like Raph's "racing game" example: The cognitive problem of what to do is small, and the interface problem of doing is correctly is large. Or some things I do like, but recognize as a problem, namely games that are full of story and thus have lousy replayability.

Thus I consider Raph's post a must read for anybody discussing games. Check it out!
I disagree with his whole premise. Namely:

"The bar that designers should strike for should include a rich set of systemic problems precisely because that is what the medium of games brings to the table."

Games bring interaction into the storytelling - at no point in any movie or book are you going to closer to feeling like Batman (etc) than when you play a Batman videogame. Books and movies are simply passive vehicles for immersion whereas games engender active immersion.

Oh, wait, this was the same guy that said immersion is dead, right?

I agree that it is a problem that narrative can be consumed, and thus potentially leave a bad, replayable experience. However, Richard Bartle pretty much deconstructed that notion too: if you enjoy the place well enough, you will keep coming back. And I don't see how you can come to enjoy a place, how a place can even be a place, without gripping narrative.
Reading his post I could not stop thinking of recent Final Fantasy games. FFX had a simple interface with an interesting problem and decent feedback. FF12 had a complicated interface with an easy problem and large feedback. FF13 had a stupidly simple interface (just press A), a simple problem and huge feedback.

When everything is special, nothing is special.
It is true that having too much story without variation will make replayability worse.

On the other hand, some of the best games I've played have been story based games, my prime example being Planescape Torment. The Assassin's Creed series is another good one.

I don't think that having story based MMO games is necesserily bad. It's just that you have to release content quite frequent then. Or have some decent activity otherwise.
Azuriel, many many sorts of games don't try to do any authorial storytelling at all. So saying "they bring interaction into the storytelling" feels backwards to me. Instead, I would say "storytelling *can be* layered onto games."

Games with places and no authorial story... how about stuff like the old Cabela hunting games?

Remember, we're not talking here about emergent story that players construct from their experiences...
Azuriel, I've argued before that the most important stories are those that the players tell about *their* interaction with the world. This does not require dev narrative at all, merely ways for players to tell stories. Arguably, that's the direction that the Storybricks design is coming from.

So yes, "narrative" helps to establish a sense of place, but it need not be a dev-written railroad. It *can* be, but it need not be, and I do think that MMOs in particular benefit more from player stories, not dev stories.

Beyond that though is Koster's point: narrative itself isn't a game mechanic. It might be part of selling a game's setting, but it's not a *game mechanic* that can be played.
What a great post. It was pleasant to read and very informative. I've never thought of games at that level of abstraction. I found a lot I could relate to when I consider my own response to games I've played. It's the first time I read Raph's stuff. I've become a subscriber.

OK, so... I don't think I agree with his conclusion that narrative makes for poor feedback.

The argument he lays down is that it's too difficult to produce rich, large feedback at a fast enough clip to keep players engaged. And this is why, in the long run, narrative fails as a feedback mechanic.

On the surface, it's true: it's much easier to consume than it is to create. For example, a movie may take months to produce but only a few hours to consume.

But something makes a game like World of Warcraft, and I predict SWTOR (though I haven't played), work. Something keeps the player engaged long after the content is consumed, long enough for the next round of feedback nirvana.

That "something" is the avatar itself.

Through the avatar, the player has something that could only be accomplished with time played. The gear. The talents. The capablities. The achivements. The friends. The memories. This counts for something. Raph doesn't address this at all, at least not in that post.

Narrative can work as a mechanic if the game can give the player an avatar that has some value to the player. Yes, this part of it is the most expensive to produce and arguably the fastest to exhaust. But if the player is left with something in the end that is literally greater than the sum of its parts, then the players will stick around. They'll create new avatars. They'll explore new narratives. And when things truly exhaust themselves, they'll quit... but they don't delete their avatar, now do they?

Build a game where you can get the player to put value in the outcome, and suddenly narrative becomes a viable way to give the player that outcome. But you have to get them to care in the first place. It's why a game like WoW will live a long life. And it's why SWTOR has a chance to also live a long life. Those first few months are the most important. The rest is gravy. (Relatively speaking.)
It's easy to say games should just add more story to extend replayability, but it reality it just doesn't work that way. Story is frequently the hardest part of a game to get right, and it's expensive to boot. You might say "Pen-and-paper dungeon masters create replayability by extending stories all the time!" but they have a powerful tool at their disposal: their players' brains. DMs only have to come up with the narrative. Interactive games need 3D models and animations for new characters, backdrops for new scenes, new spell effects, new scripts to choreograph scenes, new sound effects, new voice-overs...
On an ultimate scale of best games, I might not put interactive movie games at the top, but they can still be very entertaining. Games are just for entertainment. There are many ways to get there. I don't see anything wrong with having some interactive movie games as long as there are alternatives available.

The key thing is variety. I don't want all my games to be interactive movies, but a few of them is okay. I guess maybe the balance is shifting too much towards that, but I don't think they should go away completely.
The problem is that good stories have a start, a middle and an end. Good stories aren't just snippets of possible events unfolding; they are carefully constructed.

On Raph's post. I quite agree, but I had the feeling as if you could say the same thing with a few sentences and without fancy diagrams.
Couple of thoughts here...

From the dudes bio:
"I used to work at Sony Online Entertainment as Chief Creative Officer. My last project there as the main designer was Star Wars Galaxies,"

Can we say biased? Oh and Galaxies is such a great CV/resume enhancer.

His CV states:
" MFA, Creative Writing
University of Alabama, Tuscaloosa AL
Thesis: Housebuilding (poetry collection) "

Master of Fine Arts in Alabama?
Housebuilding... a poetry collection... Really???

So we are to take the MFA's advice on games and game design?

While the deconstruction of games into input output boxes has been done before. I don't think it adequately captures the game mechanics of todays games.

For example how would we discuss PvP in Wow. It's input of class mechanics but within a greater game of capture the flag or other objective.

Would this be modeled as a big box with little boxes in it?

Also his contention that narrative is not a game mechanic is a "well duh" conclusion. Narrative is CONTENT to extend gamer engagement. It is not a mechanic but a more easily produced (and cheaper) method of player content presentation.

This kind of navel gazing by the unemployed gaming intelligentsia always bugs me on a deep level. It reminds me of all the MBA types that tried to get Hollywood to be more predictable in producing winning movies. All the while the creative types kept telling them you can't forecast art numbskull!
While I agree with his overall ideology, I think that when a new IP is introduced, the hurdles that it must overcome in order to establish itself lends credence to the notion that developers follow certain "tried and true" principles where risk, decision making and the reward/feedback mechanics are concerned.

However, I dont see the correlation between narrative not being a game mechanic and how a game like WoW could exist without that being the case. Raiding is but one form of the (many) design elements in WoW that serves to drive the narrative experience. Would Wrath of the Lich King have been less successful or enjoyable if you never got a chance to face the Lich King himself? I think the percentages of non-raiders who never faced the Lich King would present enough proof to answer that question.

Raph's entire premise seems to hinge on the notion that he is correct when it comes to a single player making a single decision that affects ONLY THEIR success(or failure)at solving a problem, but in a world like WoW or SWTOR, where those black boxes arent so clearly defined in a group setting, that the group dynamic is often overlooked in terms of how a narrative experience can indeed be the "heart"(mechanic) that drives players to continue playing.

I say this because the narrative establishes how the "world" is developed at asset creation, not the other way around. So it has to be a mechanic from a design standpoint. It's how it(the narrative) is presented to the player that determines if it can successfully drive the gaming experience.
I agree with the first poster. He makes too many rules about the way he thinks games should be. He even says: "I also feel fairly comfortable in labelling a game with that sort of structure as “a bad game design” even if it may be a great game experience." That's simply nonsense, like saying a delicious and nourishing meal is a bad meal design because the ingredients haven't been cooked.

For a start, I see no reason why replayability should be a design goal of all games. Most books and films have limited replayability, and those who do re-read/re-watch make their peace with the fact that they already know the plot. there's no reason why the same can't be true of games.
What is replayability anyway? No one has defined what it means and I bet it means different things to different people. So basing an article on a goal of replayability without defining the term is a waste.

Just because WOW has been around 7+ years doesn't mean it has replayability. And what of a game like Skyrim where I spent 200+ hours over a few months but have reached my saturation point? Does 2 playthroughs mean replayability or is it 2 years?
"He even says: "I also feel fairly comfortable in labelling a game with that sort of structure as “a bad game design” even if it may be a great game experience." That's simply nonsense, like saying a delicious and nourishing meal is a bad meal design because the ingredients haven't been cooked."

No, it's analogous to saying a meal might be delicious but unhealthy.

"What is replayability anyway? No one has defined what it means and I bet it means different things to different people."

I covered that in Theory of Fun actually. :)
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