How can prop theory assist game design? One potentially illuminating application is by narrowing the gap between what the developer sees and what the player experiences by conceiving both the assets and the play in terms of toys – specific props for play. In this piece (and its companion which follows next week) I present a slightly different way of thinking about game design – one in which every game is effectively a toy chest – and encourage game designers to think about digital games more playfully.
When a medium to large digital game developer works on a project, there are sure to be 'asset lists. The term, inherited from corporate business in general, is intended to be a breakdown of all the resources that can be used – a catalogue of graphical data (e.g. poly models and textures) and animations, as well as the elements of the game engine, the various subsystems that make anything work (e.g. interface, renderer, AI). This is a very nuts and bolts way of seeing a game project.
The player, on the other hand, encounters all of this content not in the form of an asset list but in the context of the fictional world of the game. They do not see (unless they too are game developers) textures, poly models and a renderer, but they see a car, a gun, an alien, a building or what have you. They experience the game props directly, through the fictional world of the game. The assets used to generate those props are no more important to the player than the sets and props used when shooting a movie are for the audience in the theatre. They may want to see them at some other time in that context, say, when they are watching a “making of” documentary, but they aren’t interested in them in this way when they are enjoying the film.
One possible way for prop theory to feed into game design practices, then, is to present some aspect of the design paperwork – perhaps just the concept design (the high level description of how everything works), or perhaps a full game design (the detailed description of how everything interrelates) from the perspective of the props involved in the game. Or, to put it another way, rather than breaking down the asset list by the individual classes of asset, present the asset list how the player experiences its content. So, for instance, a Nazi soldier in a WWII FPS game appears in a catalogue of props as exactly that – a Nazi soldier. If the game has multiple humanoid opponents, they appear in the prop list individually – so a Zombie is a different prop to a Nazi soldier, even if they share certain common components.
For convenience, the props can be sorted by type, allowing common elements to be referenced in one place. Both the Nazi soldier and the Zombie are particular kinds of doll, in the sense I have contrasted with avatar, although they are enemy dolls (or action figures, for those who get held up on the gender implications of ‘doll’). In this sense, what I am proposing here is related to object-orientation in programming – but what is intended by pursuing the prop perspective is to take upon the object-oriented view from the player’s perspective, not from the perspective of implementation. (It is possible, of course, that narrowing the gap between these two points of view will be of benefit to the developer anyway).
Viewing play in this way reveals that certain kinds of prop dominate the play of a fictional world, such that their presence almost guarantees that the play will revolve around that kind of prop, while others strongly influence the play such that the flavour of the play is inescapably altered by their presence. These trends occur because certain kinds of activities are more intrinsically rewarding (“more fun”) than others – but for every kind of fun that might occur, there is a player who is effectively excluded when that type of play dominates.
A Toy Chest
What kinds of prop do we need to consider? There will not be a fixed and static ontology, because there are always an infinite number of different ways of interpreting ordered collections of entities. What prop theory suggests as a potentially valuable frame of reference, however, is the notion of a toy chest – that is, to catalogue the contents of game in question by way of looking at the kind of toys on offer in the fictional world of the game.
If, for simplicity, we curtail our perspective to just first and third person fully-rendered fictional worlds we find something like the schema that follows. Firstly, let us consider the way the player participates in the fictional world from the outside inwards:
- Remote Control: the interface from the player’s perspective is the equivalent of a remote control for a toy. Thinking about it in these terms helpfully discloses the issue of complexity. Few people could fly a radio controlled plane (twin sticks plus buttons), significantly more can drive a radio controlled car (one stick plus accelerator), considerably more can point a laser pointer at a target. It’s the same with a game. There are no blockbuster flight games, because the controls are too complex for most players, while the Wii appeals to a very wide audience precisely in the cases of simple controls. Whether we are talking about a gamepad, a Wii Remote, a stylus and touchpad, a mouse and keyboard or whatever else, the control device and the interface collectively can be considered the remote control.
- Dolls: what the player controls with the remote control is a doll (or, as described in the next bullet point, a model). Each doll is a humanoid character which has different inherent capabilities, and different abilities in the context of other toys. This ability to interact with the other toys meaningfully is important to the appeal of the player’s dolls, and modern games provide many different intrinsic abilities such as jumping, ducking, dodging, countering attacks and so forth. Thinking of these element of the game as a doll (or action figure) clarifies the player’s relationship with it – and also helps explain why the big videogame franchises are likely to also be selling physical versions of these toys to kids, like the Halo ODST action figure pictured above.
- Model: each model vehicle (e.g. a car, a plane, a spaceship) is principally characterised by a different mode of movement within the fictional world. Whereas dolls often have many different ways of interacting with the other toys, models usually only have one way to interact with the other models – crashing into them. This can have such a strong effect on play that having models risk dominating play – in the case of spaceships and planes, this can catastrophically restrict the appeal of the game (because of the complexity of control) unless these models are somehow made entirely peripheral. Even if they do not dominate, models always have a strong influence – the moment vehicles are permitted in a fictional world, certain other kinds of play are de-emphasised.
- Avatar: the avatar refers solely to what allows the player to take action in the fictional world of the game, and this is simply a kind of suture between the remote control and the dolls or models being controlled. The avatar is barely a prop, and what is relevant to the toy chest are the kinds of things that the avatar is allowed to ‘enter’ or ‘possess’. Part of the appeal of a game such as Grand Theft Auto is the ability to “be” either a criminal doll or a model car – for the avatar to link the remote control to multiple different toys. This flexibility is a large part of the appeal of this kind of game.
- Robots: as well as being remote controlled by the player (via the avatar), dolls and models may be possessed by computer-controlled agents – making them into ‘robots’. A Zombie is a simple kind of robot, for instance, which more or less runs towards the player or players without any more complex thought, a Nazi soldier may be a more intelligent robot, but anything that moves around the world can be understood as a robot. ‘Robot’ in this sense is the equivalent to the ‘avatar’ – the avatar bridges the remote control to the props in the world, the robot bridges the AI to the props in the world. Note that a robot need not be a warrior (like the ‘Toy Soldier’, below) – it could also be something that can be spoken to (like a Shopkeeper).
- Weapons: these are the toys that allow dolls and models to damage and ultimately eliminate certain other toys from the world. Characteristic of weapons are that the presence of weapons in the toy chest guarantees the play will entail violence. This is to say that weapons dominate the play of the world they appear in. If you want to have more interesting and unusual play, you must either restrict or exclude weapons from the toy chest.
- Toy soldiers: instead of offering weapons as individual toys, dolls may inherently function as weapons. In this case, instead of dolls (which can, in principle, do many different things) we have toy soldiers – toys that move and fight. Just as weapons dominate play, so do toy soldiers. Indeed, if the player is given a collection of toy soldiers to play with, they are essentially forced into tactics and strategic play against robot toy soldiers (narrowing the audience, since the complexity of these games requires a more cerebral player).
- Tools: just as a weapon grants a doll the ability to cause violence, a tool grants a doll an additional ability e.g. a torch is a tool that illuminates, a rope is a tool that provides the capacity to overcome certain obstacles, and a grapple is a tool that moves toys around in certain ways.
The above constitute the principal props of digital games, those elements of the toy chest which are more or less the centre of attention for players. In the other half of this discussion next week, we’ll consider those props that provide the elements of the fictional world itself, and that otherwise condition the play within that world.
Next week: A Play Set for Game Design