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May 07, 2008

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His new new one is a little crazy, he spends three quarters of the article dropping ideas for games. In some sort of attempt to widen the horizons and expectations of gamers.

I do enjoy reading his column. It often makes me wonder if occasionally what he writes has any bearing on the LMNO Spielberg project he's working on. I sure hope so.

As with most things, I think the answer lies in moderation. Would a game with true character altering consequences be interesting? To some players, I am sure it would. Should ALL games be like this? No, of course not. I don't really see this as a problem to be solved but a demographic to serve.

From what I have read of Fallout 3 it sounds like they are doing some smart choice/consequence systems. You don't lose playtime or character abilities, you just lose play options. Although for these lost options, new ones open up. This is a good accessible way to execute choices and consequences.

Many games with "dire consequences" that come up in conversation are PC games. These game 99% of the time have multiple-file save anywhere capability which players use excessively so these consequences are usually not reaped by players. They are seen and then the player loads an earlier save avoiding the undesired outcome of their actions.

I am older than I used to be and I primarily play games to relax and spend time with my friends. Having a major consequence (like my character dying, or not being able to use a weapon anymore, etc.) is just not what I want from my games anymore.

On a side note, I have really enjoyed your talks at GDC over the past couple of years.

"How can we make a game about something personal and organic, like human relationships, if we insist on goals and scores? What kind of relationships would we portray?"

Like any sane person I love Randy Smith, but saying that a game with goals and scores could never portray something personal and organic is baffling to me. It's like saying a game with rules and movement could never portray something organic, or a game with outcomes and shooting, or a game with interactivity and resource-management, or a game with players and dialogue, or actions and shopping.

The first term is, arguably, part of the *definition* of games. Regardless of whether goal-free interactive experiences should be called "games", I think we can agree that the things we're playing, and making, and interested in playing and making, have goals in them, and that Ultima had goals in it as an essential aspect of what made it Ultima. This point has lots of subtleties and nuances, but can't we agree, in broad strokes, that saying we can't do X until we stop insisting on goals, is tantamount to saying we can't do X until we stop making games and start making some other type of interactive software? There are people, like Michaël Samyn, who do say this, but I don't think Randy is one of them.

The second term, "scores", is just one arbitrary ingredient out of many that can be used in a game or not. I'm not sure how scores are any more or less indicative of the easy-to-play fun-dispenser school of baby gaming that Randy is (righteously) critiquing.

Maybe the idea is that the only games that can address these big human relationship issues are ones in which the player determines their own goals and evaluates their own performance according to criteria they create themselves. It's not clear at all why that would be the case, and my experience as a player doesn't bear it out. Does yours?

Tables are made out of atoms, not tiny tables. Games are about making intensely personal and organic experiences out of things that are neither. That's their miraculous, alchemical magic.

I was happy to hear you talk about FC2 recently in a way that made it clear you weren't about to fall into the mechanics VS. meaning trap. I'm looking foward to seeing how you build organics OUT OF mechanics (and setting fire to zebras).

Frank:

I'll let Randy defend his own position if he happens to swing by, but since I often say very similar things, well, here's what I think:

I think the idea that we can't make games with goals and scores be about human relationships is obviously false, however, I think there CAN be games without (explicit) goals and (certainly without) scores that are about human relationships (with characters or agents in the game - not only with other other players) - but we have scarcely any of these. Furthermore, I believe people want such games, and they want them badly. I also believe a lot of people (maybe not you) want to make such games... and they likewise want to make them badly. Some of us are even trying.

Most importantly, however, I think even the discussion is incredibly complex. You and I both know we could have (and indeed have had) this discussion for hours without doing much more than covering the basic territory... defining the 'board' for our specific stances in the argument. JUST THAT is hours - days potentially - of challenging discussion. Ultimately I think Randy (or myself when I make similar statements) are shortcutting to a stance in order to make a point in a few words, an article, a post or a lecture. We're obviously open for attack when we do so, because getting from 'one thing I would like games to do better in the future' all the way back to first principles is not possible. We could split hairs about the choices of words like 'game', 'toy', 'goal', 'score', forever... but it's not going to make for very good reading in Edge.

So while I think what's needed (and what we always end up having) is more discussion and debate and more design that challenges the borders of this problem (successful or otherwise), I also think it is important for there to be statements of position - which I think is what Randy's article offers.

I pretty sure if Randy were to write 100,000 words on this topic, you'd have a much harder time attacking his position, but for a short article in an excellent magazine, I think it's great. You won't find many articles even attempting to articulate that position in the more popular gaming press, nor will you find many of them in the mainstream media. I beleive we need more articles like this. Especially from smart dudes like Randy (we also need smart statements of the opposite stance).

Assuming, for the sake of argument, the possibility of games without goals, it seems like you are suggesting that games without goals are especially well suited to the task of expressing ideas about human relationships, big serious themes, etc. In fact, you are implying that goals are an aspect of games that actively hinders and restricts such expression.

I'm just trying to figure out what this is based on.

Let me try guessing about your point of view, and let's see how close I get:

Games contain an element of cerebral, analytical problem solving. The attempt to master a particular skill or overcome a specific challenge is a major component of a lot of games, in fact, this is a dominant aspect of modern videogames. But this cerebral, analytical, goal/challenge/win/lose aspect is in conflict with the potential of games to explore more serious issues and express more profound themes.

If you create a set of interesting overlapping dynamic systems, with rich representational hooks into real-world things like affection, honor, trust, etc; and you let players explore these systems on their own, without telling them what they should or shouldn't be doing; and you let players come up with their own ideas about what's interesting and important about these systems and try interacting with them in various ways; then you allow for a deeper, more meaningful engagement. Players in this kind of game will be encouraged to look inside themselves and use their emotional and ethical senses to set their course through such a game, and draw real meaning from it.

But once you give players an explicit goal, once you say "increasing resource X is the point of the game" or "try to make event Y happen", then the game tends to collapse down to a math problem. Players quickly turn off their emotional/ethcial/creative/aesthetic senses and instead engage with the systems as abstract equations, if-then statements, or tasks requiring a specific technical skill.

In other words, goals take players out of the head space of intuitively responding to these systems in a way that highlights and deepens the relationship between the systems and the real world, and instead makes the player focus more on the systems themselves, as systems, a frame of mind that is always going to be more analytical, mechanical, more engineering and less art.

Ok, how'd I do?

In a nutshell, you've got it. But you already knew that. What's your rebuttal?

I know, I know, it looked like I was setting up for some kind of sweet Socratic jiu-jitsu move, and honestly I think I was trying to do that. But now, having thought it about it on and off for two days, I got no rebuttal at all. I don't think there is anything "wrong" with that approach. I believe in wide and deep experimentation within game design, and a goal-less game that focuses on open-ended, player-directed exploration and avoids the traditional structure of clearly defined win and loss states actually sounds pretty interesting. So sign me up, I will play it. Whether or not such a thing is best called a game or some form of procedural theater is beside the point.

I think sometimes I get defensive when those more traditional structures are criticized as retrogressive and it's implied that winning and losing are primitive ballast holding game design back from its potential, when I see so much potential for experimentation and progressive developments and novelty and meaning within that structure.

I think also that, just as a player, I find myself confounded a bit by the glimpses I've had of this type of experience. When given the option to kill someone or not in GTA4, for example, I don't find myself contemplating what I would do in real life, I'm not pulled deeper into the story or the situation, I just find the whole thing stupid and pointless. Same thing with the Little Sisters. Same thing with Fable and Black and White and every other Molyneux swing at this pitch.

Maybe this is just a matter of taste and eveyone else truly likes this stuff, or maybe it's just been done poorly and there are ways to do it that will work beautifully. I believe you are saying the second, and I prefer to believe you.

Now that I think about it, I guess I have to admit I've had a few glimpses of the good stuff, too. Once, rooting around an abandoned barn at dawn, I was startled by another stalker and shot him to death by accident. Then his friend came around the corner and I had to kill him too. That little slide from accident to murder definitely gave me pause and hung around in my head for a long time. More embarrasingly, I was once smitten enough by the night sky of Morrowind that I almost convinced myself the constellations there had meaning and would affect the strength and quality of my spells, and I chose to almost believe this long after I knew it was not true. And when it was time to retire from World of Warcraft I knew where I needed to go, a little crevasse tucked away in the corner of a mountain, with a pool of water under a crooked tree. I had found it once while just wandering around, something I did a lot of in WoW, come to think of it. And that's where I went to die.

So I guess I'm not as immune to this particular flavor of the dream as I thought before you Tai Chi'd my Jiu Jitsu ass right back on itself (well played). And I *definitely* don't want to become fastidious in my tastes, not when the party is just starting, not when what we need is more chefs, more recipes, more music and more wine. But I will say that I think it's possible the moments described above took place, in part, because of goals and scores, and not in spite of them.

Another interesting article dedicated to what can and should be a worthwhile intersection in the play experience. The more I follow these nuggets that Clint is leaving, the more I want to swallow. I'm looking forward to Far Cry 2 now more than ever before.

I recently picked up one of the Metroid Prime games for the Wii and quickly found myself becoming quite tired by the didactic nature of the game. After a few hours, the game structure became incredibly repetitive and the experience of actually playing them game subsided to be replaced with a mechanical process of following predetermined objectives.

This is not a problem only associated with this one particular game - it is an issue which blights many. There appears a real tightrope in being able to offer games with significant amounts of decision-making and player freedom whilst not being overly prescriptive and rigid. I'm hoping you boys pull this off.

In the August 99 issue of Game Developer magazine Doug Church published the article "Formal Abstract Design Tools."

Church really expands on many of the notions found in the next-gen piece.

Worth looking up in archives.

I think the sensory overload typical in games (some more than others) has a bigger impact in the ability for the player to engage in meaningful reflection or exploration of themes.

Another big hurdle is that interaction (arguably the aspect that defines games compared to other arts) is hard to be made interesting AND meaningful when the other side is some kind of AI or script; its mechanical nature is very visible and quickly distracting, in the same way that it's hard to connect and be engaged with a story full of deux ex machinas and arbitrary consequences.

Goals can be comparatively low-noise and kept in the background, a guide for players not too different from the way chapters in a book provide some sense of structure and progress. When you solve the previous problems (and find someone to pay for your project), keeping or discarding goals and scores will be a trivial problem in comparison.

Thought provoking...here goes...
Games occupy an interesting place, straddling the concepts of Sport (metrics) and Adventure (dramatic).
My earliest computer game experience was a text game where the Adventure was present in much greater quantity than the metrics.
Could it be that the pixelized art of the first videogames pushed console games toward the metric based gameplay since the visuals wouldn't support the drama?
Drama/Adventure requires a much bigger palette of communication tools than sports/metrics.
It's great to challenge these inherited restrictions on games, viva la evolution.

Hey guys, it's very validating that my column was inspiring to you, and I'm honored to read this discussion.

A couple of points: I design my column to be "participatory" (which is as close as it can be to "interactive"), so I often raise questions like "What kind of relationships would we wind up portraying?" intended them to be not rhetorical but points of consideration. My personal take is that any time you introduce a goal/score motive to an interactive relationship, the player is encouraged to stop treating the relationship emotionally and start treating it with a mercenary min/max perspective (very much what you said, Frank). Some relationships in real life are an appropriate match for that sort of thing, but I certainly wouldn't want us to limit ourselves to just those relationships.

Also, I use the term "game" the same way I use the term "comics" or "movies". They are all outdated and based on some cultural or technological assumption that doesn't really apply anymore. "Interactive art" is probably a better term, but I'm personally not bothering to fight the battle for nomenclature change. So it's not important to me for categorization whether "video games" have goals or not (or more to the point: goals that the designer communicated to the player), although I agree for the more specific and broad term "games," goals are part of the definition.

Do I think goals and scores are bad or outdated? Absolutely not, but I think they are design tools that are too often used dogmatically. I think there is a cultural trend to make games more clear and require less from the player, and we're very proud of ourselves for achieving that, but we don't often enough challenge the assumption that in the process we're adding more value to people's lives. My claim is that taken too far and applied to the wrong problems, this direction can wind up making games whose contents are dishonest, and it pains me to play games like that. I'm absolutely not an advocate for hardcore games that kill the player all the time, because although that *may* be more honest about consequence, it's equally unlikely to add value to people's lives. I mean, you've got their attention: what do you want to say? Why not say something you believe in? I'm dangerously close to rambling crazily here, so I'll just say the moments you cited, Frank, sound like a case of well-applied design tools (including goals) coming together beautifully with your psychology to create something pretty magical, and those are the glimpses that give us faith that games can reach people. Also, I'll point out that the only personal interaction in your examples was accidental murder which, while compelling, is about as broad and deep as games tend to do today on that topic, which is sad. So, yeah, I think for those of us who want to make and play games where murder isn't the most poignantly expressed human interaction, then goals and scores are design tools that are good to reconsider and balance against the design tools of choice and consequence.

The link is broken, but the archive still has it:
http://web.archive.org/web/20080509005114/http://www.next-gen.biz/index.php?option=com_content&task=view&id=10016&Itemid=51

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