Thursday, April 26, 2007

And Now For Something Completely Different

...Ok, maybe this won't be very different after all...But I'm going to invoke the British for the first time, so why not drag Monty Python into it somehow?
Check out this research from the British Board of Film Classification into some of the causes and effects of playing video games. The immediate focus seems to be on whether or not video games cause violent behavior, but they actually get to some *interesting* things as well:

gamers appear to forget they are playing games less readily than film goers forget they are watching a film because they have to participate in the game for it to proceed. They appear to non-games players to be engrossed in what they are doing, but, they are concentrating on making progress, and are unlikely to be emotionally involved

My own take on this is that because there are goals and rewards in games, the analytical part of your brain is active - trying to optimize behavior and accomplish tasks. In non-interactive media, you are free to simply experience...Which means 100% of your brain activity can be the artsy, passionate side, meaning you'll have more of an emotional investment in the story & characters. If you are playing a game, you may have some investment in the story & characters, but most of your emotional response will tie directly to your performance as it relates to the goals and rewards in the game...

gamers claim that playing games is mentally stimulating

Despite the fact that it looks like Junior is a vegetable plugged into his Nintendo, due to the presence of goals and rewards in games and the need to optimize behavior (because there is always a cost to sub-optimal play, even if it is simply the wasting of some time), his mind is actively assessing and prioritizing actions while his body performs the same.

non-games playing parents are concerned about the amount of time their children, particularly boys, spend playing games and would prefer that they were outside in the fresh air

While I've spent an awful lot of my own life playing games, I do think it's important to have balance in all things. My little girl is giving me plenty of outdoor exercise these days to complement the time I spend working on games.

female games players tend to prefer ‘strategic life simulation’ games like The Sims and puzzle games and spend less time playing than their male counterparts;
male players favour first ‘person shooter’ and sports games and are much more likely to become deeply absorbed in the play.

Hooooboy, time to open up Pandora's XBox!! (Even though this conclusion shouldn't surprise anybody who has thought about games beyond "I like Monopoly.")
Women are physiologically wired to nurture and raise families, which is an ongoing process, a life-long experience. Men are wired to kill animals and bring them home for supper, which is a goal-oriented, win/lose scenario. Games are models for real-life, so is it any wonder that players are drawn to the games which model their own life? And men play longer because part of their model is winning, and the best way to win is to practice, and that takes more time than simply "experiencing".

Note that as human beings, we are self-aware. This means that any one of us can identify and change our thinking and behavior; doing so then changes the set of games that model your life. So a woman who likes playing Halo has adapted her thinking and worldview such that it is no longer the same if she had been sitting around a cookfire 10000 years ago; a guy that likes the Sims may not have an outlook on life that is quite the same as if he were responsible for bringing meat to that same campfire 10000 years ago...

Going back to the first point, the big win from the BBFC report (which, surprisingly, comes right from the Director of the Board!!!) is:
We were particularly interested to see that this research suggests that, far from having a potentially negative impact on the reaction of the player, the very fact that they have to interact with the game seems to keep them more firmly rooted in reality. People who do not play games raise concerns about their engrossing nature, assuming that players are also emotionally engrossed. This research suggests the opposite; a range of factors seems to make them less emotionally involving than film or television

The only point I want to quibble with here is that gamers can have tremendous emotional investment in their game - but it is tied to their personal investment and performance (and not the fates of characters as it would be in a movie...)

Friday, April 20, 2007

Can games be art?

Can games be art? Yes! But like any other medium, not every game is art.

There are 3 parts to any communication:
the sender’s intended message → the medium → the receiver’s interpretation.

For a mere transfer of information to become art, there is a conditional attached to each link in this chain:
Intent: Does the sender want to generate an emotional response(s) in the receiver?
Medium: Is the message well-delivered (is the finished product indicative of skill, talent, and dedication)?
Interpretation: Does the audience experience the intended emotional response(s) when participating in the art?

If the answer to any of these questions is “No”, then it’s not art.
But the reason art is subjective is because of one extra question: does the audience believe that the work satisfied these 3 conditions?

Poker isn’t art, because nobody put a meaning in it for us to experience. That doesn’t mean you can’t get an emotional response from Poker…but it isn’t art. Same with a beautiful sunset. A piece of tragic news from a neutral third party isn’t art, even though it has meaning and causes an emotional response, because the implementation is mundane. There is nothing to say, “It took skill to craft this product, and to cause you to feel what I wanted you to feel.”

"Schindler’s List" is art, because the creator wanted us to be devastated by the message, skillfully delivered it, and caused the intended emotional response.
“Showgirls” is not art, because nobody believes that the creator's intent was to say “look at how skillfully I can make a movie appear to be unintentionally hilarious!”

Sometimes there is a greater focus on the technical execution of the art than on the information content of the message. The drawback is that the less expertise an audience-member has with an artistic medium, the less he can appreciate the skill involved in its creation. Conversely, an expert experiences more from a piece of art than the layperson; I don't get anything out of Bach, but I love a great game design - my father is the opposite.
(Here comes a tangent, but I'll return to the previous point at the conclusion.)

Can a slam dunk in basketball be art? Yes: when Michael Jordan could very easily put the ball in the net with a lay-up, but instead chooses to perform an acrobatic and difficult dunk, then he is saying, “Look at how skillfully I can do this,” intending to cause awe in the audience, and succeeding. However, when Michael Jordan routinely hits a shot during warm-ups, there's no message, and nobody believes it is art.

I think that people commonly believe that games aren’t art because the sender's message isn't fully formed when it is placed into the medium - that there's nothing without the receiver's participation. Nonsense. Art doesn't exist until the audience experiences the sender's message and believes that it achieved its purpose:
Books: read
Music: listen
Movies: watch
Games: play

From this perspective, the only thing that separates a painting from a performance from a game is the degree to which the final form of the media (which itself is only one-third of the equation) is determined by the artist.

Now, given the above, which is more impressive: a book with an emotional impact (where the sender had total control over the medium), or a game with the same?

Remember when I said I would return to the following point?
the less expertise an audience-member has with an artistic medium, the less he can appreciate the skill involved in its creation.

If you don't think games are art, let me ask you this: how much expertise do you have as a game designer?
Circular logic, perhaps, but if you were able to detect it, than you agreed with me long before now, didn't you? :)

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Thanks, Coach

Here's two cents more about the development of rookie players:

In traditional games and sports - say Basketball - the concept of a coach has always existed because the games themselves can't educate the players. In the absence of feedback from the system, developing players need outside eyes to shine a light on their shortcomings.

But video games don't need to suffer from this limitation. They can show the player how they messed up; how another player beat them; and even help them shed the "scrub" mindset that David Sirlin talks about. I heard that EA (I think?) is going to start pushing the online presentation of games - the internet version of Starcraft on TV in South Korea (not sure that it will attract the groupies, though...) People who don't own game X will be able to download a free client to watch X being played, and even take the role of commentators using voice-overs and telestrators to talk about the games...

Feedback loops like this are a fantastic development for games. In the same way that today's FPS players would thrash the guys who were good at Wolfenstein, by 2017 the hardcore players are going to be so much more than they are now. Standing on the shoulders of giants, they'll have much stronger skillsets; their society will have had games in the mainstream from childhood; and communication/evaluation among players and analysts will be so streamlined.

So have you spent much time thinking about how your games can facilitate - even coach - the transition from prey to predator?

Nothing beats Rock (aka the obligatory RPS post)

Every game design book out there seems to spend some time talking about using RPS as a foundation for conflict. And this was fascinating the first (and best) time I came across it in Game Design Theory & Architecture. But it's been an awful lot of repetition since then.

Enter some random article on Digg about strategy for RPS. These are usually full of tripe, but this one had an incredibly cool - and obvious, in retrospect - nugget:
Inexperienced (or flustered) players will often subconsciously deliver the throw that beat their last one. Therefore, if your opponent played Paper last time, they will very often play Scissors next.

"That Zergling rush kicked my ass, it's so unfair. I've got to learn how to do it!"
"Constant Hadoukens are so unfair, I've got to learn how to do them like that - I'll be unstoppable!"
"Frickin' AWP, this is why CounterStrike sucks...Guess I better learn how to snipe..."

Having this pointed out shows you the genius of the slo-mo replay they are putting into Halo 3 (according to the dev video that came out recently...) Now rooks can see exactly how they were pwned, and learn to do exactly the same thing to the next poor shmuck. You can make fun of the newbs and their need to do this sort of thing, but it's the core of learning and the only way to improve. Actually, I heard Bill Walton put it best during a basketball game the other day - he said that the 4 pillars of learning are
  1. Demonstration
  2. Imitation
  3. Correction
  4. Repetition
Since the Rook doesn't know what he doesn't know, he doesn't know a tactic until he sees it for himself (#1). Once he sees a better way of doing something, he has to try it for himself (#2). In competitve games, he'll screw up, get killed, and try again until he gets it right (#3). Having mastered the tactic - say, "Rock"- he'll repeat it (#4, aka "Nothing beats Rock") until somebody else comes along with a tactic that beats it ("Paper") or he gets bored.

Recognizing all of this is important as a designer, because a big barrier to entry in competitive games is the steep learning curve as soon as you go from solo play/training to versus/multiplayer. It can take weeks to make the jump from Half-life to Counterstrike, or from solo Gears of War to online multi...How many newbs simply give up out of frustration before they become serious, competitive players - and therefore evangelists - of your game? So it's time to think about what you can put into your game to help the newbs understand what's going on, and how they get beat.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Elegance is...

Elegance is...what you've achieved when people look at your design and say, "That's obvious."

It's funny how easy it is to overlook something because of how well-concieved it is. I dabbled in Street Fighter 2 at the shabby convenience store across the street from my high school, and have played it a handful of times in the 10 years (ack!) since then. I've always had a high regard for it, without being a fanatic.

All the while, though, I never really noticed the genius of their command input system. I thought it was cool, just because it was so much deeper than a button-masher, but didn't appreciate the subtleties and complexities of designing such a system.

...Until now. I'm building my own version of that system for the game I'm working on in XNA. I got the first iteration done in about 2.5 hrs one night, such that my little character was running around throwing punches and dragon punches. None of the collision detection or rules logic is there yet, just the ability to change a unit's state via specific sequence of inputs.

But as soon as I tried to expand it to handle things like "while grabbing an enemy in mid-air, press ...", it got really challenging, really fast.

I love the concept - imagine a tech tree like in Civilization or Moo2. Each node in the tree stores a fighting technique that you have learned. You start out with the ability to execute just the first few actions in the tree (ex: "Punch".) Whenever you provide input (ex: Down-Forward-Punch), the input is sent to the tech tree. Starting with the deepest nodes in the tree which you have unlocked (in this case, just "Punch"), each node adds the new input to its own little "input history" and checks to see if its special move should execute. If it executes, the tree quits processing (doesn't send the new input to any remaining nodes) and clears the input history for all nodes. If an input doesn't match the required inputs for the node's technique, that node's history is erased and you have to start over.

Suppose you only have the "Punch" node unlocked, and you press Down-Forward-Punch. The "Down" and "Forward" inputs are mismatches as far as the "Punch" node is concerned, so it clears its history as each of those inputs is received. But when the "Punch" input comes in, why, that matches the node's required input ("Punch"), so the special move is executed.

As your character progresses, you can buy upgrades (ex: "Dragon Punch") which unlock deeper nodes in the tree. When you input commands, they go to the deepest nodes first, so once you've unlocked Dragon Punch, if you press Down-Forward-Punch, what happens is:
  1. "Down" is sent to the "Dragon Punch" node. This matches the node's first required input, so the command is stored in the node's history. Some required inputs still need to be received before the technique is executed, though, so the input filters up the tree to the "Punch" node. "Punch" discovers an input mismatch and clears its history.
  2. "Forward" is sent to the "Dragon Punch" node. This matches the node's next required input, so the command is stored in the node's history. A required input still needs to be received before the technique is executed, though, so the input filters up the tree to the "Punch" node. "Punch" discovers an input mismatch and clears its history.
  3. "Punch" is sent to the "Dragon Punch" node. This matches the node's next required input, and then the node detects that it has matched all of its inputs so the technique executes ("SHORYUKEN!") This means that the "Punch" input won't be sent up the tree to any other nodes (so you don't get a punch action at the same time as your dragon punch!) and all nodes in the tree clear their histories.
And it actually works!

...To a point. When I tried to implement the aforementioned "while grabbing an enemy in mid-air, press ...", the model broke (along with my brain.) I think I've got it sorted now, but I'll need a good couple of hours to implement the change and clean up the details I haven't quite pinned down yet.

Whoa - time to turn down the talk and turn up the work. Cheers.

-Johnny Go-Time

PS: Check out David Sirlin's amazing writing, if you too have underestimated SF2 all this time...