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January 2012

Off to the States

As usual, I’m off to the US this Spring, although not to GDC. I seem to have given up on GDC, or rather, it has given up on me - I prefer to support those conferences that support me, since I’m not short of opportunities to give talks right now. Will be mostly in Tennessee, Kentucky and Georgia, including a talk at SCAD on Tuesday February 21st.

ihobo will return in March.

Dungeon and Village

Dungeon Map What are the origins of the dungeon-and-village structure of computer role-playing games, and is there some equivalent parallel to be found somewhere in the design of contemporary first person shooters? In order to explore the concept of village and dungeon, it is useful to look at the kinds of activity players undertake in the fictional worlds of games, and how that relates to the spaces of play.

Back in 2005 when Richard Boon and I wrote 21st Century Game Design, we were just beginning to dig into the elements of videogame structure, a topic which we still believe is underserved and crucial – both to game design and narrative design. One of Richard’s contributions to the book was the dual concepts of pathfinding and housekeeping, which describe the basic activities of any player during a game. Unfortunately, the former term is overloaded since in game AI ‘pathfinding’ means the code that works out routes for game entities so for the current discussion I’m going to substitute trailblazing as a synonym for what in the book is called ‘pathfinding’.

Any activity that advances the player along the spine of the game, and therefore attains progress towards the ultimate goals or end points of the story, constitutes trailblazing. Conversely, those activities which involve poking around in corners, repeated actions, and revisiting areas constitute housekeeping. Most games are a blend of the two kinds of activity, although certain genres steer more heavily in one direction or another: the typical First Person Shooter, for instance, is almost entirely trailblazing – pushing forward, overcoming foes to enter the next area and so forth. Conversely, a social sim like Animal Crossing (Nintendo EAD, 2001) is almost entirely housekeeping (quite literally!), with the player filling their time with a variety of collection, decoration, or money-generating activities.

Looking at this model from the perspective of neurobiology, it’s striking to note that both branches of this fork are dopamine-generators. Trailblazing leads to the big hit of dopamine that is the emotional buzz of triumph (or fiero) – and games that favour trailblazing, including FPS, fighting games, and strategy games, are always focussed on the experience of triumph over adversity and the powerful payoff it leads to (eventually!). Housekeeping activities utilise B.F. Skinner’s reward structures (or schedules of reinforcement) to deliver dopamine – which for many players is far more addictive than direct challenge. In fact, it is a minority of players who have the willingness to persevere against difficult challenges (20% according to our last survey), a tendency that I have suggested may correlate with testosterone levels. (I hope in 2012 to begin investigating this further.)

What interests me currently are the representational consequences of these dual trailblazing and housekeeping activities. It is immediately striking that housekeeping activities tend towards mathematical representations (experience points, money, percentages of items collected) while trailblazing activities tend towards spatial representations (e.g. finding the way forward) and personifications (e.g. bosses). Given that mathematical competence and imaginative capacity are psychologically connected, as discussed in Imaginary Games, that could mean that trailblazing activities are more accessible than housekeeping activities in terms of appealing to a wider audience. While money is certainly an accessible representation, levels and experience points are somewhat obscure, and other housekeeping approaches become increasingly arcane. Next to this, the apparent clarity of trailblazing has a definite advantage – at least for anyone not troubled by spatial navigation (which may include a significant proportion of female players). It is possible that this factor has had a major role to play in the contemporary popularity of the FPS genre, since the challenge-focus of these games narrows rather than widens appeal.

Whereas the FPS trades on a certain lack of imagination, the most popular genre in Japan remains the computer role-playing game – a form that inherently requires greater imagination to enjoy when compared to the simplicity of the gun game. Traditional cRPGs, such as the Dragon Quest (Chunsoft et al, 1986 onwards) or Grandia series (Game Arts, 1997 onwwards), represent the dichotomy between trailblazing and housekeeping in the dual structure of the dungeon and the village. Progression through the story (particularly in the Japanese cRPG form) requires completion of dungeons, which culminate in the archetypal boss fight so central to trailblazing play. Between the dungeons, the player is offered a village, which may involve some small amount of trailblazing but is principally an opportunity for various kinds of housekeeping. This is particularly true in the case of games in which character advancement requires an establishment. In the typical Japanese cRPG, each new village also provides new weapons for the party, providing another regular housekeeping activity.

The Western-style cRPG, with its emphasis on autonomy and an open world, is less explicit in terms of the dungeon-village model, but the same basic pattern can usually be found since both share common lineage through the Wizardry (Sir-Tech, 1981 onwards) and Ultima (Origin Systems, 1981 onwards) series, and ultimately from Dungeons and Dragons (TSR, 1974) itself – from which the ‘dungeon’ in its contemporary sense originates. The dungeon-village split seems in part to have been inherited from Lord of the Rings (Tolkien, 1954-55), one of the key influences on D&D, with The Fellowship of the Ring alternating between village areas (The Shire, Bree, Rivendell, Lothlorien) and dangerous interstitial areas (The Barrow Downs, Weathertop, Moria). It seems to be solely the dwarven mines of Moria – a vast underground space overrun by monstrous creatures – from which the traditional dungeon template emerges, however (although D&D also made the countryside into a dungeon via the concept of a 'wilderness'). Along with the adventure party concept, and the inn as a locus of quest origins, this has been the enduring legacy of Tolkien’s laborious masterpiece. Lord of the Rings is by no means the source of the fantasy or sword & sorcery literary form, but it is the most successful book of this form by a wide margin.

The dungeon is, in effect, the location that represents the trailblazing activity in its archetypal form – to the extent that we could call trailblazing areas (those levels designed with trailblazing as the primary activity) ‘dungeons’ without too much difficulty. Thus the FPS corridor is a form of dungeon in this terminology. Similarly, the village is the location that represents the housekeeping activity in its archetypal form – it is not coincidental that Animal Crossing, the quintessential housekeeping game, is set in a small village. Similarly, Harvest Moon (Victor Interactive et al, 1996 onwards) – the franchise from which housekeeping social games such as FarmVille directly descend – may be set on a farm, but still clearly operates on the principles of Japanese cRPGs. Calling all these kinds of location ‘villages’ is not too much of a stretch.

However, returning to the contemporary FPS, we find no sign of the ‘village’ either literally or figuratively. Historically, the genre developed with a single-minded focus on trailblazing, and all attempts to deviate from this pattern met with commercial failure, eventually leading to the challenge-soaked ‘corridors’ of the modern shooter. Despite this, the contemporary dominance of the shooter in the blockbuster market has come about about in part as a result of the inclusion (or re-introduction) of housekeeping activities. Franchises like Modern Warfare (Infinity Ward et al, 2007 onwards) offer substantial housekeeping between fights in the form of long term reward structures designed to entail considerable repeat play. These elements are borrowed directly from computer RPGs (cRPGs), which in turn acquired them from Dungeons & Dragons, the legacy of which cannot be overestimated. 

Interestingly, the housekeeping in contemporary FPS games appears outside of the fictional world of the game itself (i.e. the 3D virtual space), and inside what might be called the fictional world of the game menus. The ‘village’ disappears even though the housekeeping remains: the activity has moved out of the game world, into the meta-world of the menu systems. This is a striking inversion from the norms in cRPGs: while much of the housekeeping of a digital RPG also occurs in game menus, these menus are usually accessed while the player is already present in the fictional world of the game – they are additional aspects of that game world, represented in text and numbers, and summoned by the player on demand. The game world enfolds the housekeeping menus for the cRPG. For the new style FPS, on the other hand, the menus enfold the game world in a strange mirror image of what we are used to seeing. The stepping point for this change may have been GoldenEye 007 (Rare, 1997) which in the late 1990s was already making the external game menus part of the world of the shooter – both in terms of flavour text before each mission, and in terms of an explicit reward structure (in that case, ‘cheats’ unlocked by hitting completion times).

Because the FPS ‘village’ occurs in the meta-world of the menus, it has no abstraction, no spatial representation, and doesn’t have any of the village flavour that is so central to the housekeeping game forms – neither is it ever likely to regain this. The village as a representation entails greater imagination, and also a far deeper narrative space, neither of which fit with the quick-fire play of the shooter – and as already mentioned, the lower demands on the imagination entail a greater audience (outside of Japan, at least). This reach is still severely capped by the complexity of the controls, but the split in the market for videogames brought on by the Wii has successfully segregated the wider audience who are unwilling or incapable of mastering ‘twin stick’ controls, and left Sony and Microsoft competing over the bulk of the more dedicated gamers, as discussed earlier this month.

As specialist genres such as racing games are increasingly squeezed out of commercial viability on consoles by the rising cost of development, the mainstream portion of the gamer audience is facing a weird channelling of game design towards the elimination of the village – either by removing it from the game world, as in the FPS, or by integrating the village and the dungeon, as in the much-imitated Grand Theft Auto model (DMA Design et al, 1997 onwards). While the dedicated gamer hobbyist can continue to enjoy a variety of village-and-dungeon games, primarily coming out of Japan, expect the clear contrast of dungeon and village to disappear from successful commercial games originating in the West. Given the expense of the integrated world, it is perhaps only a matter of time before genres other than FPS experiment with moving the village out of the game world entirely.

No Reload Bonus

How would gameplay be altered if the player received a bonus for not reloading the game?

Although I’ve worked on more than forty published game projects, my career as a game designer has been littered with intriguing ideas that I was never quite able to get into a finished game. Many of those that were geared towards appealing to a wider market have since appeared in Nintendo games – including allowing the player to continue even if they haven’t passed an objective (I actually did manage to include this in Attack on Pearl Harbor, and Nintendo featured it in New Super Mario Bros. Wii, which pleased me greatly). One design feature in particular is one I consider to be particularly interesting, but something I don’t believe I’ll ever get into a game now. I want to share the feature here in the hope that it will inspire someone else in their projects.

The feature in question is the “No Claims Bonus” or “No Reload Bonus”, which I originally designed for a game called Seven Shades that began as a fighting game project for Perfect Entertainment, and which I continued to pursue for a while at International Hobo. I met with Eidos about this project, but they weren’t interested, and ultimately it had to be shelved. The feature in question was designed to give players reasons not to reload the game unnecessarily, that is, to make the outcome of the player’s agency more meaningful by discouraging them to reload in the case of failure or loss. Rather than making reloading impossible, the No Reload Bonus incentivised the player to maintain their in-game continuity – something I’ve only ever seen done in the stifling straight-jacket of persistent worlds, where the player has no choice in the matter at all. It was modelled after the ‘no claims bonus’ that insurance companies offer for those that do not claim on their insurance policies.

Here’s the original design documentation text from 2001. For context, the game was to be divided into Episodes, and each play through the game is called a ‘Rendition’ (since the game was supposed to be the retelling of an epic legend), while ‘Karma’ was a score of points used to unlock secrets and bonuses for the player to experiment with.


Rewrite History

This option is displayed between Episodes, and on the Pause menu, along with the description 'Return to Previous Episode, equivalent to reloading'. This takes the place of a reload option, allowing the player to return to any episode they have played in the current Rendition. The current state of game is then reconstructed from the Chronicle data, to allow the game to be played again from this point.

However, using the Rewrite History option affects the No Claims Bonus (described below); either halving it, or reducing it by a multiplier.

The player is warned before using Rewrite History exactly what effect it will have on their No Claims Bonus.


No Claims Bonus

To encourage players not to constantly "reload" (Rewrite History), the game offers a system that rewards players who can resist the urge to reload.

A "no claims bonus" is awarded to the player's Karma score, that adds to what they receive after each Episode.

This starts at 0%, and grows by 5% for each completed Episode. After a complete Rendition, this will have risen to 40-100% or so. At 100%, it changes to display x 2; at 200%, x 3, and so on. It levels out at x 5 Max (500%), and goes no higher.

When a player uses Rewrite History or Begin New Rendition, they lose half of their No Claims Bonus. If the bonus 200% or more, it decreases by 100% instead of halving.

Therefore, if a player "reloads" after 2 Episodes, it just drops from 10% to 5%; if they reload after 10, it drops from 50% to 25%, but if they reload after 46 episodes (about 4 Renditions) it drops from x 3 to x 2.

When a player starts playing a Chronicle, the Chronicle save file is modified to remove the No Claims Bonus, which is then held in memory. It is only saved back to the Chronicle if the player uses the Return Another Day (Save & Quit) option - this means that if the player starts to play and then goes back to reload and try again, they will have lost their No Claims Bonus. This effectively stops cheating.


What interests me most about the No Reload Bonus (as I am now inclined to call it) is the way it changes the player’s relationship with reloading the game, offering a middle-route between the occasionally maddening freedom to reload at will and the frequently irritating restriction of a persistent world. The player is free to change the way events unfolded by reloading (‘rewriting history’, as it was styled in the design documents), but has reasons not to want to do so. As a result, if (say) a beloved character dies the player faces an interesting decision: accept their death and keep their bonus, or repeat the gameplay to save them at the cost of the bonus. It was my hope that this would create an interesting play experience.

I doubt this feature will ever appear in any game, since it involves a substantial rethinking of the player’s relationship with save games in a way that I’m no longer convinced is plausible for the gamer audience, and certainly isn’t suitable for a mass market audience. Nonetheless, I present it here as an intriguing curiosity from my game design past that may be of interest to other game designers, especially those working on indie computer role-playing games and the like where this kind of feature could generate new kinds of play experience.

Sony and Microsoft's Controller Crisis

Wii UMove and KinectNintendo has already put its cards on the table – now gamers are waiting to see how Sony and Microsoft can trump them. But what controllers will the PlayStation 4 and Xbox 720 ship with? To answer this question, we need to look at the economic challenges facing the two console manufacturers who are fighting fiercely for the loyalty of the diehard gamers.

Few gamer hobbyists are excited about the Wii U (although many will buy one) because, for the most part, the most dedicated gamers are committed to those platforms that have chosen to focus almost exclusively on their tastes in games. Actually, that’s unfair to the gamer hobbyists interested in strategy games, adventures and a whole host of other commercially borderline genres, since such players don't get any support in the upper market for games at all. The PS3 and 360 have managed to both streamline and belittle the videogame medium offering dazzlingly expensive titles for a predominantly male teen-to-adult audience with a taste for guns, violence and US-style action movies in general. By targeting the players who buy and play the most games and squeezing them for $60 a pop Sony and Microsoft have eked out a nearly profitable market space. But both are looking to do better next time around.

Let me reiterate this previous point: Sony have quite possibly made a loss on the PlayStation 3, which has sold about 58 million units, and although Microsoft are certainly pleased to have clawed up into second place in the home console market with 60 million 360s sold, neither company is doing particularly well in the digital entertainment space on any metric beyond (perhaps) customer satisfaction. Both corporations are desperate to do better next time around, but to do so they must solve a difficult – possibly impossible – problem. They need to release hardware that they aren’t going to lose too much money on that will sell to both the dedicated videogame fans they are already fighting over and the mass market for games that Nintendo and Apple have largely cornered.

But how do you do bridge the two markets for games? There is no clear answer. Nintendo’s Wii was and is a great fit to the mass market, but it lost Nintendo a lot of support from the dedicated gamers (although many still bought the hardware). Conversely, Microsoft has bent over backwards to steal gamers away from Sony, and to a great extent has succeeded – at the very least, Sony and Microsoft have split this smaller-yet-viable market between them. But both companies are trapped in an escalating arms race of graphical power and correspondingly expensive development costs that effectively reduces the number of active development teams and thus the number of major game releases at the top of the market. This has consequently destroyed the diversity of game content that gave Sony the edge in its first two machines, and led to a situation where platform exclusives are increasingly irrelevant since the big players are no longer willing to be tied to one format.

My instinct is that the gamer hobbyists are successfully hooked on the prestige titles and will continue to buy them for some time to come. Predictions of the 'death of console' seem to misunderstand the wide appeal of the console among the gamer hobbyists and the lack of desire the mid-maket has to play their videogames on a PC, although there is certainly a number of major problems with the economics of the console market that are going to become more and more acute going forward. The loyal gamers may be satisfied with their machines, but without a wider reach into the mass market, the economics of the AAA console title becomes ever more marginal in an industry that is posting gigantic profits in other areas (specifically social games and other games-as-services, such as World of Warcraft). Serious change is on the horizon, although how this will play out is at the moment anyone's guess.

The number one question concerning the commercial fortunes of the coming generation of gamer-friendly consoles is the default control schemes. Both the Wii (92 million units) and the DS (150 million units) succeeded precisely because they had the right controls for the wider market. Motion controls simplified access to videogame play to an extent that many gamers still don’t appreciate or even understand, and the touch screen on the DS (and, for that matter, on Apple’s iPhone and iPad devices) has been the single most significant transformation of control input in the history of games so far. It’s telling that the Wii U is basically a Wii plus an iPad – and this is not an ill-considered move on Nintendo’s part, especially if they continue to improve their ability to offer multi-role support for their consoles. (I know at least one gamer who uses their Wii to stream TV shows, for instance).

Microsoft’s decision is partly made for them: they consider the Kinect a success, and will want to make their next platform incorporate their nicely perfected EyeToy. Kinect has set records for peripheral sales, but as a development platform it is truly irrelevant, since no-one is going to want to produce software for an installed base of less than 20 million when all the other options have between three and eight times that audience on tap. Putting Kinect into their next console gives Microsoft great options for appealing to a wider audience – although with the buzz on the Kinect already largely spent, it isn’t going to be enough to bridge the mass market on its own by any stretch of the imagination.

The tough part of Microsoft’s decision is whether to stick with their derivative ho-hum controller as the centre of their gamer appeal, and in this respect there are a number of problems. Firstly, it’s going to make the new console a lot more expensive to produce if it has to ship with both Kinect and a standard controller. Secondly, if Microsoft announce a new console that depends upon an ordinary twin stick controller for gamer appeal they are basically counting on converting their existing installed base onto the new machine as they’ll have nothing to tip the loyalties of rival fanboys into their favour – this could be exceedingly foolish. Microsoft absolutely need selling points that can draw Sony gamers into their camp, and Kinect isn't going to do that. Lastly, what does it mean to developers if the new Microsoft console ships with two entirely distinct control schemes – twin sticks and Kinect? Must they support both? Will some titles support one and not the other? There is no easy solution to any of these problems, although tolerating a hetrogeny of control schemes might seem like the only acceptible option.

Sony’s situation is in many respects much simpler. The Move plus Navigator are basically an extremely impressive upgrade to Nintendo’s Wii Remote plus Nunchuk, in keeping with what I have called Sony’s Copycat Policy, and Sony will want these high class motion controllers to ship with their new console for a number of reasons. They know the Move has mass market appeal because they can see that Nintendo outsold them by more than 50% with the Wii, and they know that the Move is superior to both the Wii Remote and anything else Nintendo is likely to be able to make with their lesser technical resources. With a positive fanboy response to the crucial first person shooter experience when played with the Move, Sony have very strong reasons to make the Move plus Navigator the core of the PlayStation 4’s control scheme. They’ll want to include their upgraded EyeToy (sorry, PlayStation Eye) in order to be competitive with Microsoft’s Kinect, but otherwise their main control scheme is already written for them.

But therein lies a problem – because it’s by no means the case that all gamers are won over by motion control, and many are flatly hostile to it. Frankly, the truly dreadful Sixaxis play experience did not help in this regard and neither did the shoddiness of early Wii motion controls, although a certain amount of pugnacious resistance to change among gaming nerds is the real issue. As a result of anti-motion control sentiment, Sony will fear that if they put all their eggs into the Move’s basket they might lose ground to Microsoft in the smaller-but-vital gamer hobbyist market as previous Sony loyalists who hate even the idea of motion control defect to their immediate competitor. If Sony had visionary leadership, they might have faith that Move and the Navigator would win over converts simply because it is such a nice piece of engineering – but they’ve seen their copycat controller lose out in the battle for media attention to the more dynamic Kinect and may fear their device isn’t good enough. (In this respect, they needn’t be concerned: the Move by all accounts is exceptionally good at what it does – even if what it does is simply improve upon what Nintendo have already done).

So Sony face the same awful decision Microsoft face: do they ship a twin sticks controller with the PS4? If they do, they have all the problems I already listed – higher cost-per-unit and thus bigger initial loses, a potential need to support multiple control schemes that will not please developers, and so forth. But my suspicion is that Sony will be terrified of losing yet more ground to Microsoft and will feel they must support a twin stick controller with their new machine. Since the battle to convert gamers to motion controls of some kind is still a live concern, they don’t have the balls to try and force this issue through – and that could cost them. But of course, not supporting twin sticks could also cost them. That’s the crisis over future controllers that both Microsoft and Sony have to grapple with in the crucial months before GDC or E3 in 2012 where firm announcements will have to be made.

There is hardly anything interesting about the hardware that the new Sony and Microsoft machines will ship with, since we can already know that they’re both going to be upgraded to come up to par with contemporary PC gaming kit. Sony’s technology choice is the easiest yet for them, since they can simply reuse the innovative-but-awkward Cell chip from the PS3 and add more of them – at least one source has suggested a move from one Cell processor to 8 Cells, which sounds highly plausible. The interesting and vital decision that both platform manufacturers have to make is what control scheme ships as default in the new machines. Do either have the guts to wave goodbye to the twin stick controller as a relic of an older market and push forward with a motion control system that has the potential (on paper, at least) to appeal to both gamer hobbyists and the mass market? I doubt it. But I’m interested to see if they can prove me wrong.

What do you think? Share you views in the comments.