Let's talk a little about game design. As a researcher and teacher, I sometimes find it difficult to express in words exactly what it is that game design is, or what I hope to teach to outsiders--even to gamers themselves sometimes. Capturing exactly what the difference is between design decisions and development process is difficult, since "good" design often fades into the background because it just works. As a player, one rarely notices all the individual rules and decisions that have been made, the experience occupies the conscious mind.
Discussing game design is difficult because it is a second-order task. A designer constructs the rules, environment, etc. but always in hopes that the player will experience something that is greater than the sum of those parts. When set in motion, the player(s), rules, environment and fiction all combine and create something that is not obviously discernible from a list of the game's rules. Further, since it is the player whom we as designers are trying to affect somehow, their perception and personal interpretation of what is happening is more important than what the game design document says should be the result. (Not that players can't be wrong or ignorant, but we still have to deal with their perception of our work.)
Finally, discussing the design of the kinds of games I like is very difficult, because there is very little opportunity for experimentation to verify any hypotheses about the way the game works. That is, I'm not often able to change one rule and see how it plays out. The games are sealed and finished, I can't tamper with them myself very often. Even in franchise games such as Assassin's Creed or Mass Effect, which are largely similar, many changes have been made between iterations, so it becomes difficult to nail down exactly what cause has led to which effect.
Everyone has been playing this game, from my parents to the most dedicated videogame critic I know—Draw Something. Though it may in the end turn out to be a flash in the pan, Zynga see some potential there, and have bought out the developer, OMGPOP. The thing that stands out to me about Draw Something, though, is just how un-Zynga-like it is at the moment. In fact, this is probably the least “gamified” casual, super-popular iPhone type game I’ve played.
OK, least gamified game is a pretty horrible turn of phrase, I realise this. But I’m talking about all the additional stuff that frames the gameplay loop in games like FarmVille or TinyTower: the gathering of currency, the limited number of moves or actions you can perform in a set time, the dozens of ways you can display your accomplishments to your friends, and the social pressure that comes with all that. With Draw Something, the only Facebook integration is the handy method for finding people to play the game with. That’s it. There’s no badges to earn, there’s nothing to buy with real cash, none of that. All the game wants you to do is draw and guess.
I remember the moment with crystalline clarity, both emotionally and critically. As it unfolded, it confirmed for me something I'd long suspected about open world games. There I was, en route to a mission, following the orders of an NPC. His initials were in gold letters, so I knew his requests were the most important thing I could be doing at the time. But as I was nearing my destination, something caught my eye. On the corner, three Nazis were posed with their rifles shouldered. I slowed down, thinking perhaps it was another bug. It was not. I coasted up close enough to see the two civilian women cowering before them. I heard the dialog:
"Please, you don't have to do this," one said. A fraction of a second later, the Nazis fired and the two women fell dead.
This is a few days late, but in the interests of keeping a reasonable record of what I’ve written and posted around the net, I am making an entry for my latest piece on Kotaku’s AU website. Anyone familiar with my writing and thinking on games will undoubtedly recognise these ideas, but once again its a thought piece which intends to generate some critical discussion among the public, non-academic readers of Kotaku. Thanks again to Mark Serrels for his support with this project, and thanks for the by-line this time! I exist for reals now!
Kaiden or Ashley? Rescue or Harvest? How do you make decisions in video games? Video games were described by Sid Meier as ‘a series of interesting choices.’ Indeed, many good video games today involve choices that go beyond which gun to use or how fast to run through a room. Many involve decisions between two general strategies, or like the above examples between two characters or responses that affect the rest of the game. The question here is, how do those choices matter?
I want to suggest that there are two different types of choices available in video games, and wish that there was a third. The first I will call a ‘mechanical choice.’ These are the kind that may not even seem like choices to experienced gamers, as they are built into the mechanics of the game. These are the ‘choice’ to grab a Mushroom in Mario, or to pick up a sniper rifle in Call of Duty while standing on a rooftop. Do you upgrade your sword and armour or not? Of course you do these things, because they help you to beat the game. Mechanical choices are economic: they make the player-character (or his allies) more powerful.
The second kind of choice is a ‘narrative choice.’ These are the kinds of decisions that affect the fiction/story of the game, but not the relative power of the player-character. By rescuing either Kaiden Alenko or Ashley Williams in Mass Effect, the strength of the overall party isn’t affected, since the two characters are more or less interchangeable given the right balance of the other party members. We do not have the option to rescue both, so a loss is inevitable. The only difference is which personality you lose. Playing as a good or evil Cole in inFamous is a general strategy (like any other good/bad split we see so often these days), but doesn’t affect the strength of the hero either way. Each power is balanced against its opposite, so in the end, a Cole of either alignment has equivalent firepower.