Player Two

Ludology from a developer

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Games and Art

Are games art? This is a seriously loaded question and there are a ridiculous number of ways to approach the topic.

For example:

  • What defines art?
  • Can we even define art?
  • How can we exhibition games in a gallery?
  • Does art have to be passive?
  • Where is the art in games?
  • Are non digital games art?
  • What defines a game?
  • Can both games and the playing of games be art?
  • If games are art what does that say for sport?
  • does the “slippery slope” argument hold any water?

And that’s all of the top of my head. Now, according to Gaut’s conditions for Cluster Art, games (especially digital games) pass with flying colours yet digital games are not widely considered art. why?

Is it that games are financed by sales driven companies? Is it the endless supply of low brow shovelware? Is it because the loudest members of the digital games audience are petty children? Is it because half the digital games industry don’t want it to be? Is it because that blowhard Ebert says so?

It’s all of these reasons and more! Hilary Goldstein of VentureBeat writes that games do not need to be art because art is high-society snooty nonsense and games are fun and for everyone and we don’t need to it to justify it to anyone thankyouverymuch. Goldstein seems to have gotten the completely wrong impression of art, that it only exists as pointless pretensious posturing, pandering to pompous and pretentious people. Art is so much more than that, artistic products are art whether they need to be or not. Art is what elicits emotion and thought for no reason other than to get people to feel and think. Art is pure distilled emotion, thought and beauty. Games have made me think and feel in totally new ways. Games are art, whether they need to be or not.

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Game Rules

Games are almost totally defined by their rules. Games need rules; rules define how a player interacts with the game system and if there are no rules, there’s no interaction. If there’s no interaction, there’s no game.

The majority of rules in games are restrictions, for example in card games, most rules revolve around when you are allowed to perform an action with your cards. Imagine if in the game “Lives,” where the win condition is to have no cards in your hand, there were no rules other than the win condition; the game would devolve to every player dropping the cards they are dealt as quickly as possible and then arguing over who managed to drop theirs first! This kind of chaos is what rules try to prevent.

The less random a game is between two players, the more even the competition between them and the more that the challenge is about outplaying the opponent and not random chance. This is why, i think, that chess is such Random chance, certainly has its place in games but I’m not going to discuss that here.
The rules also act as a contract of sorts between players. Each player agrees to abide by them which ensures fair competition; if either player attempts to ignore the rules in favour of gaining an advantage, it is considered cheating. However, if a player merely bends the rules or circumvents them in order to get an advantage and that player is technically not cheating, it can be considered either dishonourable or good tactics. Usually, the deciding factor to the individual, is their own biased opinion of the player.

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War in Games

Right, this post is a discussion of wars in games, wars as games and basically just how close they can be to each other.

People use media-  books, TV, games, etc. – to experience drama. Drama is the whole reason we engage with fictional characters, settings and stories. And at the core of drama is conflict. That’s what war is, war is conflict, very violent conflict. It only makes sense that media uses war so much to create compelling drama. Why games though? Plenty of media manage to make good drama without war as a theme, so why do so many games depend on war? Well the obvious answer is that war is conflict with a lot of action and engagement but I think there’s a deeper reason.

The reason games and war are so interconnected, is that they share a common theme of conflict. The most entertaining games(and possibly the overall majority of games) are those with a conflict that the player resolves. The whole point of games is the interaction with the game system by the player. However, a game is uninteresting if the player is allowed unrestricted actions or if their actions are inconsequential.

So of course, wars fit in so well with games. The player has restrictions on their actions, they are not all-powerful(They can be shot and killed). Their actions have consequence(less enemy soldiers) and overall, the game challenges them. It can challenge their skills, whether they be reactions or tactics.!/img/httpImage/image.jpg

The other side of the coin however, is that developers have made plenty of engaging games without war or similar conflict too.
Just look at Heavy Rain. There is plenty of conflict, drama and engagement without any “war.” Sure there are fist-fights but they’re padding, inconsequential to the story. If Quantic Dream could make an engaging story without resorting to using violence as a creative crutch, the rest of us developers can too!

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Games and Learning

Games help us learn. It’s that simple.

Many people deny this fact. Very few of those people know anything about games.

How do games help us learn?

There are many ways humans learn; every single thing around us registers to our senses and is filtered by our brain, it’s only natural that some of it sticks.
Now of course, when there are many ways to learn, there are many approaches to teaching. When it comes to teaching with regards to games, there are a couple of approaches.

One, the most obvious one is with educational games. Educational games are games whose sole goal is to teach the player. This is also the reason why they fail. Many educational games ignore the whole point of teaching through games. Games induce flow, which is when people are most receptive to learning. Almost every traditional educational game attempts to simply tell the player the information after distracting them with a mini game and in my experience, makes no attempts to engage the player. I consider these kinds of games on the same level as Educational Rap.

Next up is the game development teaching tools. the most famous one of these is Scratch which is a basic drag and drop program that teaches you the basics of programming. Now, unlike the previous section, I think this tactic actually works. It allows the student the express themselves through their work, which of course will induce flow and then facilitate learning. Other examples include Greenfoot and Microsoft kudo. This form of teaching is less about throwing information at students and more about getting them to express themselves. Inevitably, students that take to it will want to do something different and will go teach themselves how.

Finally, there’s Gamification. Gamification is the process of taking mundane tasks and applying Game Design techniques and arbitrary rewards to them to make them more appealing. Gamification is not exclusive to education but when it comes to education it works really well. It uses all the old tricks of games:  instant positive feedback, promoting competition, rewarding small actions. It takes all of these and uses them to provide loads of incentives for students to increase their motivation to learn, to compete with other students.

So there you have it, the three main ways games are used as a form of teaching and learning. Guess which one I think is a failure!

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Ludology versus Narratology

First off, a bit of background. What is Ludology and what is Narratology?

According to Wiktionary, ludology “is the study of games and other forms of play” and narratology is “the study of narrative structure.” While both these definitions are right they don’t explain what we mean when we talk about ludology and narratology within the study of games. Games themselves haven’t really had a huge amount of study. Initially, game studies existed only to historians and anthropologists, studying ancient games to gain an insight into dead societies. With the birth of video games in the 1980s, study of games has branched out to several other fields of study. Study of games has always overlapped into other fields of study such as sociology, psychology, philosophy, arts and humanities etc.

Anyway, there are two major approaches to ludology: games as narratives(Narratology) and games as mechanics(Ludology). I think it comes down to “what makes a game?” If you strip a game down, one aspect at a time, how far do you get before it is no longer a game?
Let’s take a game with a lot of going on: Mass Effect.
Mass effect has:

  • Art
  • Sound
  • Music
  • Moral Choices
  • Tactical combat
  • Narrative
    • Story/context
  • Interactivity
  • Mechanics/rules

For this example, take one scene out of Mass Effect. Commander Shepard is talking to a Krogan bounty hunter on the planet Illium. The hunter is going to kill Shepard if he doesn’t do it first. And let’s assume there’s a moral choice in there somewhere.

If you take the colour, the textures and art out, are you left with a game? Sure, plenty of games don’t have art in them. Look at ZORK, nothing but text yet it’s still a game. What about the sound? No more gun fire from the Krogan’s Striker Assault Rifle.  Do you still have a game? You do, plenty of games are silent. Look at most Windows 3 games. Take out the music? You still have a game. Now, lets take out those moral choices that affect the narrative, those choices that made Mass Effect famous; Now, the narrative has only two options, either Shepard beats the Krogan or vice versa. We still have a game. There are still hundreds of games without a moral choice system. Remove the tactical combat, reduce it to either the Krogan guns down Shepard or vice versa; you still have a game. Now let’s take a look at what we have. We have an interactive game with narrative and rules.

First, let’s take out the narrative. You no longer have Commander Shepard, you have the player’s avatar. And it isn’t having a shootout with a pissed off Krogan, it’s killing an enemy. In fact it’s technically not even killing, as killing would imply the enemy is a living being; it could be a living being but without the narrative to tell us that, it isn’t. Now, between the player avatar and the enemy, the mechanics and rules state that one is going to stay and one will disappear(or die/be destroyed), and it’s up to the player’s skill to decide which of the two parties that is. We still have a game but it’s not a very interesting one; whether the game is interesting is irrelevant right now though. Now you might think “we have a game here, with mechanics and interactivity but not story, therefore, games are not defined by narrative.” But is the game really without narrative? The absolute basic definition of a narrative is “a sequence of events” and here we have a sequence of events. You start of with one state, two parties, and then you change to a new state, one party. Whichever party that is is up to the interaction of the player. Even if we take the story and context out of the narrative, we still have narrative because a narrative is inherently born from interaction.

Now let’s take out the interactivity. We no longer have a player avatar, instead it is merely party “A” and now party A is nothing more than the enemy to the enemy. So now, “enemy” is a bit of a misnomer so instead we’ll call it party “B”. So now we have nothing  but rules and a stripped narrative. B will destroy A unless A destroys B first. A has no way to destroy B(no interference on the player’s part) so B destroys A. Would you consider that a game? I wouldn’t, it’s more like a simulation of the exact same variables over and over again.

So let’s go back a bit to our basic narrative with rules and interactivity. Let’s try taking out the rules. The enemy will no longer destroy the player if the player doesn’t beat them to it. So if we have interactivity, we have a narrative by default because the player’s actions create a narrative. But much like the stripped down narrative, I don’t think we can realistically remove the rules; there are always rules, laws and limits. If there is interactivity, there has to be rules on how the interactivity works.

So we’ve established that in a game, the narrative(in its absolute basic form, no story or context etc.) comes about from the interaction of the player because if there is no interaction it is a simulation, not a game. So in terms of games, narrative is dependant on interactivity. We also established that interactivity is naturally on rules and mechanics; therefore, the narrative of games in its most basic form is dependant on the games rules and mechanics. So to put it in layman’s terms: “what happens in a game depends on that game’s rules and mechanics.”

If this is the conclusion I have come to, then I guess I’m a Ludologist.

However, I’m not satisfied. Look at what we’ve been left with after stripping it all away. We do still have a game but do we still have Mass Effect? I say: absolutely not. When did it stop being Mass Effect? When did it change from one game to another? Let’s work backwards from where we are. We start with a game which has interactivity, a basic narrative (that is, a sequence of actions), and rules and mechanics to govern them. Let’s start by adding the story and context back to the narrative; do we have Mass Effect? We have Commander Shepard, the Krogan bounty hunter and Illium but is that Mass Effect? Some would say yes, we have the story and the story is what gives Mass Effect its identity; I disagree, I don’t think we’ve gotten there yet. So let’s add on the tactical combat now; once again, there are a multitude of ways for Shepard to kill the Krogan. I still don’t think we have Mass Effect. So let’s add the moral choices back in; maybe now Shepard can talk his way out of it. Now, a lot of people will say that we have Mass Effect; the choices that made Mass Effect famous are what makes it Mass Effect. I disagree, we still don’t have it. So let’s add the music back in; once again, the player can feel the tension of the situation, they are more engrossed. I want to keep going, so we’ll add the sound effects back in and I still don’t think this game that we have is Mass Effect. So I’ll add the last piece back, the art. Fully rendered 3d models, coloured textures, the whole thing.  I think we are finally left with Mass Effect again. So does this mean the art makes the game? No, that’s not what I think; if I took the sound first, nothing would have changed that drastically.

I think that what makes a game unique, what makes this game be this exact game is the narrative. Here I’m talking about the full narrative, not the stripped down one that we worked with for so long. Now if that’s how I feel, why was I not satisfied when I gave it back the story and context? Because that’s not all there is to narrative. The art and sound is part of the narrative and the narrative should be shown through the gameplay and bleed frrm every art asset and sound; the colour of Shepard’s armour,  the sound of his rifle are all part of the narrative they give this game its identity.

So here’s what I’ve come up with: the mechanics and rules are what makes a game or simulation, the interactivity is what makes it a game and the narrative is what makes it special, what makes it unique.

It looks like I’m a ludologist but I do not deny the value of narratology. Mechanics are what give us the game, narrative is what gives it meaning.

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The Wii U and Transgaming

I’m going to do a much larger topic on this later, about games which give you multiple styles of play within the same multiplayer game.

But for now I just thought I’d hop on the E3 bandwagon for a quick bit about the Wii U and it’s relation to transgaming.
To do this, let’s look at the game Nintendoland, which, like Wii Sports on the previous console, is made specifically to show of the capabilities of their new hardware.

In the mini-game Luigi’s Ghost Mansion, 3 players are pitted against 1. The 3 players play as humans checking out a haunted mansion and are equipped with flash-lights which can kill the ghost or revive KOed team-mates. The lone player plays the ghost and can knock out his or her opponents. The Ghost player uses the Wii U’s GamePad, while the the other 3 use the standard controllers. The 3 players are not allowed know where the ghost is and so, it doesn’t show up on the main screen. The lone player however, uses the GamePad, which has a built in screen. The screen on the GamePad is accessible only to the ghost player and shows that player his or her location in the game. This allows the ghost player to think tactically about where he’s going to strike without worrying about cheaters. Imagine if this game was on the Wii, with 4-player split-screen. Screen watchers are a problem in almost any split-screen game and previously, the technology didn’t exist to deal with it. Now the game ensures a unique, fair and competitive experience for each player on each team in the game

Now, the game plays differently, presents information differently and has different goals depending on which side you are playing on, all thanks to having a unique controller.

But what about transgaming? Well imagine back again, to the 4 player split-screen days. How could you get the same experience provided above, without that new controller? You could play online, with one player receiving the ghost’s information and the other 3 receiving the human’s information. But that takes away from the experience; multiplayer games are always more fun when you’re playing in the same room. How about 3 player split-screen on the Wii, and the ghost can play with their linked up DS? It’s pretty much the exact same situation as it is with the Wii U, except the DS is a console all on it’s own instead of a special controller.

With Transgaming, it would have been possible.

P.S. You wouldn’t even have to buy a game for the DS, it could easily use the “Download Play” thing

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Moral pitfalls in Transgaming

As a design concept, Transgaming sounds great on the surface. To industry professionals, this could help us explore our creative limits. To gamers, it will help bring us closer together with other types of players; RTS players will interact with FPS players, casual players will interact with the hardcore.
But what about the publishers, the shareholders, the business executives? Well there’s a reason I grouped them together and that’s that they all share the same primary goal.
They want to make money. Now don’t get me wrong, that’s not a bad thing! It’s actually a very good thing, these people stop us having to worry about marketing and worry more about making a decent game experience. The industry wouldn’t be this big today if it wasn’t for them and they need us just as much as we need them. I think it’s important, however, to keep in mind that we want different things, we have different goals, we’ll be better off if we do.

Anyway, I’m getting off-topic,

What does this have to do with Transgaming?

Transgaming is a concept that’s picking up speed but like anything, there is the chance for abuse.
Let’s look at another development in the games industry in recent years, DLC.

The Mass Effect 3 debacle.

Basically, there was some downloadable content for Mass Effect 3 available on launch day. The long-time fans were outraged that the content wasn’t included as part of the game. The content contained some arguably major story elements; many people claimed the story was simply incomplete without it. Now, this whole debacle highlights some of the issues surrounding DLC: Player entitlement, corporate greed etc.
But let’s look at a less popular, yet much worse situation,

Asura’s Wrath

Asura’s Wrath is multi-platform action game. The game’s story and level structure is split up into “episodes”. When the first DLC was announced, it was predictably some new episodes however they were just interim bits of story with not much effect on the overall plot. The original game finished with the end of episode 18. The fans believed the story had been left open for a sequel, which is all well and good. But then the next bit of DLC was announced. What had actually happened was that the story had not completed at all, and the end of episode 18 was actually a segue to the “true ending”. Episodes 19-22, the true ending, were released as DLC and they contained the completion of the story and the actual segue to a sequel. That is the worst case scenario for DLC; the game had content removed specifically to be sold later on, the game was marketed as a completed game and was sold for full price. The content required to complete the game was sold later, for appoximately 12% of the games price. It was perfect for CapCom, the game was nowhere near as popular as Mass Effect, this transgression went straight under the radar for most gamers and yet the fans who did know mostly didn’t care.

With this in mind, what’s the worst case scenario for Transgaming in the future?

I rather like this quote from the ExtraCurricular Forums, in the discussion thread on Transgaming

I could see some certain publishers (EA, Activision and Ubisoft, I got my eyes on you guys) who could and would use a system like this to force consumers to buy 2 or more games plus a deck of trading cards, a statuette and a pair of EA pantaloons just to make ONE or more of those games even playable. Like, to shake $300 out of you for ONE gaming experience.

Now, of course it’s a little exaggerated but I think it really hits the core danger in transgaming. With DLC, that danger was “what if I pay full price for an incomplete game? and have to pay more to complete it?”. With Transgaming, the danger is similar “What if, to complete one game, I have to buy 2 or more?”

Let’s look at some examples:
In Pokémon, there is a monster called Manaphy. To get it in the main RPG series(Pokemon Diamond/Pearl etc.) you must complete a spin off game called “Pokémon Ranger” which was an action game. In Ranger, you must complete a special mission, once this mission is complete, you must then have a second Nintendo DS system with Pokémon Diamon/Pearl/Platinum running to transfer the monster via Wi-Fi. To break this down, you need two full price DS games and 2 Nintendo DS’s. You need to complete one game and advance to certain point in the other. All of which is required to get a monster required for a 100% completion of the game. Now all of that is ignoring that, at any time, Nintendo could just give it away for free over Wi-Fi.

Fable II, had some items required for 100% completion. There were 2 ways of getting these items. You could buy an XBLA game entitled “Fable II: Pub Games” that you would play to unlock the items, or you could buy the items in-game from a special shop. However, this special shop only exists on DLC. So either way, you ended up paying extra.

In the Warhammer 40,000: Dawn of War Expansion Pack Dark Crusade, in order to play any race in multiplayer other than 2 specific ones, you required the original game to unlock 4 other races and the Expansion Pack: Winter Assault for the last race.

Transgaming has been abused before it ever became a thing. Admittedly, it’s not horribly abused, 100% completion isn’t really required in games like Fable. Confining a player to 2 of 7 options in multiplayer, in a multiplayer-heavy genre(Dawn of War is an RTS) is pretty bad though.

Money isn’t the only concern regarding Transgaming. What about the Single-Player experience? More and more as the industry grows, the Single-Player Campaign has fallen to the wayside as the Multiplayer takes over. The widespread use of high speed internet and technology is in no way unrelated to this development. Transgaming might push this further to the wayside because to get 2 games communicating with each other in a practical manner without the internet would be nigh impossible. Multiplayer dominating the trans games is inevitable. This, however, does not bother me. Allow me to show you another quote from the same forum as the one above

This concept actually terrifies me a bit… The whole concept of “what if my friend could help me in my game by playing a different game” is cool in theory, but in practice I feel like the single player experience that many people enjoy will be vastly devalued. Also, it seems that players with friends willing to help them (such as the example of playing bejewled to cast a shield around your friend) would have a decided advantage over people playing on their own.

This sums up the complaint about transgaming’s effect on the single player campaign and to me it sounds remarkably similar to complaints about the sudden rise in multiplayer based games. Despite that rise, Single player games are doing perfectly fine.

Now there are plenty of other pitfalls that will come along, but they are mostly game design issues(e.g. what if people stop playing one game but not the other?) I’ll deal with those another time but for now I think the solution to both the pitfalls outlined above and the future pitfalls during the actual design is relatively simple:

The solution

The solution is simple in theory: make sure that neither game is dependant on the other. The main concern is that Game A interacting with Game B will augment an aspect in Game A, giving a distinct advantage to the transgamers over the non-trans. I think that the key is to make the augmentation alternatively available(accidental alliteration!) inside Game A. Interacting with Game B is just one of multiple paths to acheiving the augmentation from within the game. In fact, another way to acheive this would be to not augment, only alter an aspect(e.g. Alternative costumes)

Ok, one final quote regarding the solution to this pitfalls. From Extra Credit’s Microtransactions episode

Don’t Sell Power
James Portnow

It’s really that simple, except in this case, it’s not selling, it’s requiring a player or player’s friend to play another game. Transgaming should be an alternative route that a player can take, not the only one