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March 2014

The Rules of Game Worlds

An open letter to Danc at Lost Garden as part of the Republic of Bloggers. Other replies welcome!

Lego Dinosaur Dear Dan,

Last year one of my firestarters on fiction denial (one of my ‘four questions’ posts entitled Is Fiction Just a Wrapper for Games?) provoked a heated but seriously productive exchange between us. Sadly, at that point Shadows: Heretic Kingdoms landed in my lap and I was suddenly too busy to respond – but I haven’t lost my desire to do so! This is my attempt to continue our discussion – and to ask: when we are ‘baking’ games, what must a game designer understand about fiction and representation? Or to put this another way: what are the ‘rules’ for making game worlds?

A brief summary of where we got to: I suggested that a problem with the view that games are ‘really’ just crunchy mechanics and that the player ultimately discards the fictional world is that the contents of the game mechanics tightly constrain the ‘theme’ that can be attached. You simply can’t treat the functional elements of a design as something that could be transplanted wily-nily without utterly mauling the process of game design.  I prefer to say ‘fiction’ to theme, since ‘theme’ has a very different, specific meaning to me as a writer (i.e. the themes the story is exploring, not the setting to the story). Let’s use setting to refer to the fiction/theme of a game world that can be built upon game mechanics (in the bottom-up way you design) or the starting point that can be supported or developed by game mechanics (in the top-down alternative). How does setting function in the practices of game design?

Your approach has always been built on productive reductionist principles – split games into their components, i.e. bottom-up design. I use this kind of technique often in boardgame design and occasionally in videogames, and it’s a sound approach. What you have to be careful with is the problems the game designer introduces by being the conduit for the final design and world – a problem you, like almost all great game designers, solve by iteration. We sit players down with the game and learn about how they come to play it, using this to adjust the game’s content (both mechanically and in terms of setting).

In your last comment you identified three problems in the relationship between settings and mechanics that really intrigue me, since this is precisely the conversation that is covered up when game designers or scholars pretend the fictional content is at best an enticement to play and at worst entirely irrelevant (my bugbear) – and by academics who treat the narratives emerging from play as strangely isolated from the mechanics (which might more offend your sensibilities!).

Riffing off your comment, here are three rules (or at least, guidelines) for designing game worlds.

1. Avoid Incongruous Settings
The first problem case you identify is when the setting encourages players to understand the play of the game in a way that is contrary to how the mechanics function. You say the setting “activates schema in the player that fail to ease understanding of the system dynamics”. I'll translate this as the First Rule of Game Worlds: Setting and mechanics must accord. The only exception to this rule is if the game is intended to discombobulate the player, as for instance Eternal Darkness’ insanity cut-aways were trying to do. But usually, the game designer wants the player to learn to play easily according to the mantra for commercial success “easy to learn, hard to master”.

This word ‘schema’ is one you get from psychology (Piaget etc.) although it comes from philosophy prior to the divorce between the two fields, and was coined by Immanuel Kant. The idea is that we have in our minds certain ways of understanding certain situations – schema, or I might say mythologies – and these come into play associatively (since our memories are associative, via the hippocampi). So it’s (usually) bad practice to have player’s prior associations disrupt their understanding of a game’s systems, that is, the game mechanics. Players might eventually overcome this and learn the way the game works, but my sense is that incongruous settings remain unsettling even after the game is learned. You give a great example of the problem in reference to your fantastic game Triple Town:

In Triple Town, we initially made the bears into children. Mechanically, the bears were obstacles that you wanted to remove. When they were children, many players activated the schema that they should be protected. Expectations did not match mechanics. Confusion, irritation and uneasiness results.

Part of my purpose in writing Imaginary Games was to stress that when we talk about the aesthetics of play, it matters whether setting and mechanics (fiction and function) align. To be aesthetically satisfying to a player, it is vital to allow for this since (as you note) the player’s experience is always filtered through the setting. An odd consequence of this is that the player's prior experiences become as much a part of their play with any game as the game itself – and there is a style of play (and a set of design approaches that correspond to it) that makes the dominant setting not that of the fiction but of the mechanics. Which brings us to rule number two...

2. Mathematics Imply Settings
The second problem you identify is presented as an opportunity: “self contained systems of value” provide opportunities for “a wider variety” of settings. In fact, you note that such games (puzzle games, strategy games, numbers-heavy combat, to use my previously offered examples) are playable without setting. This leads you to the point that something like Chess, which is mathematical (topological) at base, is easier to transpose between settings than a game that depends on contextual content.

Now my take on this is related to yours but steps from a different angle: mathematics are already a representation, so mathematical games already have a ‘setting’ of a certain kind. It’s what we sometimes call ‘abstract’, although this can be misleading. What this implies is that when a new fictional setting is applied to, say, Chess, we aren’t so much adding a setting that wasn’t there, we’re actually merging its mathematically-implied ‘abstract’ base-setting into a fictional one. The Chess mechanics are a little mechanical sub-world, with its own representational implications that are not negotiable in the same way that any fictional content merged with it might be. Even if you changed the names of the pieces to X1, X2, X3 etc. the rules of Chess would still feel like a power struggle because that's what they mechanically represent.

From this follows the Second Rule of Game Worlds: Any and all mechanical sub-worlds must merge with the game world. What made the wrapping paper fallacy appealing was the recognition of two utterly distinct worlds – the abstract world of the mechanics, and the representational game world. But the former can only be removed from the latter if in itself it successfully supplies a sufficient base-setting. Chess does – it’s a spatial contest, and anything that supports that metaphor will merge with it, even contexts outside of battle like The Simpsons (in part because metaphors of conflict are transposable into any human or animal relations). But you can’t strip (say) bingo or a point-and-click adventure down to a plausible base-setting because the core play isn’t forming a self-contained system in the same way. Bingo relies upon its community for its experience (more on this below!) and adventures rely upon their fictional content in a way that is effectively case-by-case rather than a defined and reusable system (even though the lock-and-key puzzle approach does form such a system, and does recur in many kinds of game).

Now, isn’t this second rule the same as the first? Not quite, because not all mechanics give us base-settings, only those that form your “self contained systems of value” or something like it. And you can merge any number of such systems provided they accord with the fictional world. Indeed, playground worlds often add games-within-games because they can easily be merged this way (the 90’s style arcade games in 90’s-set San Andreas, for instance, or gambling in Red Dead Redemption). Merging is also possible in more aesthetically satisfying ways – the circuitry-based influence game in robot-massacre classic Paradroid, for instance, which makes the game so memorable because the ‘mini-game’ in itself gives the paradigm of the entire play experience of possessing and discarding droids (a style of play that went on to influence the first Grand Theft Auto).

The second rule also gives lie to the whole ‘two distinct worlds’ conceit of ‘rules vs. fiction’ in that many games are one coherent fictional world and many congruent mathematical/mechanical worlds that have been merged with it, and often (but not always) with each other. Games that allow you to build or tinker with devices as well as deploying them for racing or combat also show this merging, from tabletop games like Car Wars and BattleTech in the 80's to Forza and Kerbal Space Program now. It is misleading to think the mechanical world could be built and only then ‘wrapped’ in cars, mechs, or spacecraft. No, at all stages the fictional world and the mechanical worlds must merge congruently, and often it is the fictional setting that informs the design of the mechanical sub-worlds. Nonetheless, each base-setting for each mathematical sub-world is also reusable, just as character archetypes and plot tropes are reusable in narrative fiction. This ability to reuse patterns, however, does not and cannot make the base-settings more fundamental than the fictional worlds, although they can certainly be more important to a subset of players.

3. Play as a Practice
The last of the problems you identify is one that particularly interests me. I gave the example of a sporting game as antithetical to the wrapping paper fallacy because the mechanics – while necessary to their play – aren’t the locus of the player’s enjoyment. You summarize this issue nicely:

You can retheme/reskin a sport and it loses the vast majority of its value. The culture and the community around the game has turned into an intricate, many layered game of its own. The chants, the commentators, the game night scheduling, the tribal associations are the real game. To copy out the core mechanics and give them a new game is like copying out raw DNA and thinking you have a complete ecosystem of living and breathing organisms.

You suggest that building a new game bottom-up is especially challenging because it’s like “terraforming a barren world” where you must “build up culture and community from scratch”, and this as you say is terribly difficult. Absolutely – from a bottom-up perspective. But from a top-down perspective the problem is radically different. You still need to build up your own culture and community, but you begin with ‘neighbouring’ fictional world cultures to provide your ‘settlers’. It’s something that marketing departments recognise, although generally fail to know how to productively influence. People like certain kinds of fictional worlds, and seek their entertainment within those media that deliver those specific kinds or anything like them.

The reason generic fantasy and urban horror novels sell well in the market for books is that they already have their collective culture and community. Genre fiction forms superset fictional worlds – what I call (after Charles Segal’s observations on the interconnectedness of Greek mythological stories) a megatext. Whatever the nuances of an individual book series, it's mythology is rooted in a wider frame of reference, one that spans many other books and series that at first glance are entirely isolated. Mash-up movies like Shrek – and mash-up fighting games like SoulCalibur and Super Smash Bros. – show that they aren’t as isolated as they may first seem – they are ‘close enough’ that other worlds can be made out of collisions between their otherwise isolated content. What’s more, there is a connection between otherwise isolated fictional worlds via the people who are interested in them: both the readers and the writers of genre fiction are participating in the practice that sustains that genre.

Videogames are no different, but as well as participating in the practices of setting (fantasy, science fiction, crime) players participate in the practices of mechanical genres too. The First Person Shooter is not defined by its perspective but by the practices of those players who participate in the FPS culture. The games certainly do affect this – Halo: Combat Evolved significantly altered the practices of the FPS (dropping the inventory for two weapons, adding vehicles), as did Call of Duty: Modern Warfare (putting RPG-like advancement mechanics into multiplayer). But changes to mechanics only become changes to practices when the players actually like what has changed and then seek more of the same. And some changes fork the practices into two different cultures – as Battlefield 1942 has effectively done. The words used to form the genre terms don't reflect the practices very well, because we’re trained to see games in boxes like ‘FPS’ that seem to pick out the important feature, but only describe how that practice split from its predecessors. The reason for the name ‘First Person Shooter’ is that most shooters in the 1980s were rendered in 2D, and so the 3D first person perspective was a step in a new direction.

The Third Rule of Game Worlds is thus: No-one plays alone. Even the most dedicated solo player is embedded in design, genre, fiction, and play practices that are sustained by a community. Even a designer who makes a game that only they will ever play relies upon many others to facilitate the making of that game (especially on an industrially manufactured device like a computer!) as well as the communities that nourished the games that taught them the practices of play they riff off. No-one plays alone, because to learn to participate in the practices of play - whether narrative, mechanical, or both – requires you to have been part of a wider culture. Indeed, Miguel Sicart suggests that to be a virtuous player, you need to recognise your relationship with other players, a point I also raised in Is the Interface the Game?

This rule seems odd, because it does not seem to be about the relationship between rules and fiction, mechanics and setting. But that’s because contemporary views of our world have mislead us into thinking everything is explicable in isolation. It’s a hangover from the Victorian sciences and their mythology of the universe as a giant mechanism. This viewpoint, while often useful, can sometimes obscure the vital connectivity between things. Terms like ‘emergent’ actually try to hold onto this older perspective by ignoring complex networks and treating them as still a single thing – ‘superorganisms’ and the like i.e. as still isolated provided we change the scale that we look at them. There’s a place for that point of view, but there’s also a place for exploring the network connections themselves, and we are currently at a time where we need the latter perhaps more than the former.

New game designers often seek to amaze the world with their utterly original design – which then inevitably flops. This is primarily because playing games is not simply about isolated artefacts (‘the game’) that are played by individual players. When seemingly original game concepts take flight it’s because existing communities of players pick them up – one games journalist, for good or ill, is always talking to a community of players who must share some commonality of practice with that writer or they would not read them. This can be a common games platform (even in the 80's, games magazines succeeded primarily by being about one kind of microcomputer), or shared aesthetic values for play, or just shared values for talking about the practices of play.

So your terraforming metaphor only lacks the idea that a new place to live creates a new practice from roots in existing practices – the terraforming is just a means to an end, and that end is settlement (something that you clearly recognise yourself!). Understanding that your settlers are choosing between different places to settle – different games to play – helps game designers recognise that since no-one plays alone (or, if you prefer, no-one plays in a vacuum!) you are always recruiting your settlers from other game worlds. A few are novelty seekers, but most find it easier to get into a game if originality is tempered with familiarity, both in the mechanics and the setting.

There’s much more I'd like to discuss with you – about your company, your time with Microsoft, your new game project, your positivistic view of the world, and about the ‘extinction of blogs’ but this has already gone on long enough! I would just like to end by thanking you for the supportive words you gave me that GDC when we first met outside the internet, since along with Jack Monahan your encouragement helped me stick with blogging even when it was seriously depressing me. For this, you have my infinite gratitude.

From one blogging game designer to another, all the best in all your projects!


Danc informs me he has found nothing to disagree with in this letter.

Other replies:

Sunset - a new Tale of Tales

Sunset I was just bemoaning my total lack of interest (as a player) in the big releases this month, when suddenly my secret wish was granted… I’m delighted to share the announcement of a new Tale of Tales project, Sunset:

Sunset is a first­-person exploration of a single penthouse apartment in a fictional tropical republic suffering under an oppressive regime. Set in the early 1970’s, the player, a housekeeper, visits week­ by­ week and slowly discovers the role of the apartment’s eccentric occupant in the civil war — and her own role in his life — as the city erupts around them.

Check out the Sunset website!

Games Are Not Shoes

Game Shoes Earlier this week, Nicholas Lovell argued that the consequence of Steam allowing developers to set their own pricing will be the price of PC games heading for zero, as free-to-play economics effectively vanquish the opposition through market competition. His argument draws against classical economics, which he illustrates via an example with shoes. But missing from Nicholas' argument is the elephant in the room: games are not shoes.

As ever, I can't fault Nicholas' understanding of how free-to-play works or the implications of internet distribution as a disruptive technology. His latest book is built on analysis of these phenomena, and his arguments should be taken seriously. However, my latest book, Chaos Ethics, gives me a very different perspective, since my interest recently has been imagination and its implications for games, art, science, and ethics. In this particular case, looking at moral philosophy makes me very wary of thought experiments with seemingly innocent stipulations. As Allen Wood points out in the context of ethics, stipulations within thought experiments skew the conclusions in ways that are never as innocent as they first seem, leading us to conclusions that depend upon the stipulations as much as they do the thought experiment.

In this case, Nicholas' thought experiment is the 'marginal cost argument', which he constructs upon the example of pricing in the case of competing shoe factories. Once this competition begins (the thought experiment states) the price of shoes stabilise at the marginal cost, which is the cost to make each extra pair of shoes after the first. Nicholas then claims that since the marginal cost in digital distribution tends to zero (because digital copying is without significant cost), the price of digitally distributed games must also tend to zero. He notes that this "excludes the impact of marketing; it assumes that one pair of shoes is as good as another" - and this is the stipulation that actually undermines the thought experiment. Because as simple footwear, one shoe is indeed as good as another. But as entertainment, one game is never as good as another.

Before drawing this point out further I want to examine the framework that Nicholas' argument depends upon, namely that free-to-play is a new business model that is disruptive because digital distribution is a disruptive technology. The later point is spot on, but the former point is misleading. To see this, we can look at free-to-play not as a new business model but as the latest form of a very old game pricing strategy, variable pricing. The current clash between microtransaction-style variable pricing for games and retail-style fixed pricing for games is almost as old as the industry itself!

In the 1980s, the videogame market also had competition between fixed pricing - boxed games for consoles and home computers - and variable pricing - at that time, arcade coin drops. Arcade games were the original microtransaction games, making money one quarter at a time. Initially, pricing was variable simply because players didn't know how often they'd play an arcade game, but in 1985 Atari introduced the first disruptive pricing strategy for videogames with Gauntlet. Previously, one play cost you a quarter (or ten pence here in the UK) but Gauntlet let players decide how much to pay - by letting them have more health the more they paid. There were enough health pick ups in the game for one of its four players to play for free, but the others had to keep putting coins in the slot to keep up. One (nearly) free player was subsidized by up to three others pumping in coins. Today, it's more like 90% of players being subsidized by 10% ‘whales’, but the situations are still broadly analogous.

Now notice here how little marginal cost had to do with the economics of arcade games. That's because the purchase of the product (the arcade game) and the revenue generated (the coin drops) were actually disconnected by the nature of the business model. By the 1990s, the arcade boom lost ground because home consoles were able to offer better value in fixed pricing when compared to coin ops. Additionally - and crucially - the games designed to be played at home could offer entirely new game design concepts because unlike arcade games they didn't need to worry about how long the game would last, over-the-shoulder appeal, and other factors that were crucial in the design of arcade games.

The aesthetics of play that were possible on the home consoles turned out to have huge appeal, allowing for bigger, more explorable game worlds, deeper and longer narrative elements, and no requirement to queue for popular cabinets. The arcades survived by recognising what it was that they could do that home console games couldn't easily do - offer specialist hardware. Nowadays (outside of Japan, at least), arcade games are dominated by plastic guns, steering wheels, and dance pads, because arcade owners are better placed to buy these expensive pieces of kit than home players, who generally object to unnecessary extra hardware costs (such as, dare I say, Kinnect).

Despite how it might seem, similar factors still apply today because the desirability of a game is not simply a factor of price-of-entry. What a AAA fixed price game can deliver to players is (potentially, at least) a substantially deeper game experience than is possible in free-to-play, where getting a minimum viable product to market is a near-requirement, preventing the inclusion of more advanced features of the game world. If something like Grand Theft Auto IV or Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag had been financed on a free-to-play model, they would have been impossible – only the economics of fixed price premium console games justifies the astronomical development budgets. This isn’t even an exceptional case: look at cinema. Digital distribution has reduced the marginal cost in the film industry in just the same way as it has in games, but people still go to the movies and pay a fixed price to do so. This is because blockbuster movies – just like blockbuster games – are made on a high budget in order to ensure that cachet attaches to the resulting brand.

I said before that games are not shoes, in that if you just want to put something on your feet any shoe would do (the stipulation Nicholas' thought experiment crucially depends upon). But in fact, in a very real sense, games are like shoes. Despite the availability of very cheap footwear, Nike enjoys a 40% market share in the United States. Branded, well-made, well-marketed shoes do not trend towards marginal cost. In the same way, branded, well-designed, well-marketed games will not trend towards marginal cost, even on PC. It's just that such games will now face strong competition from microtransaction-funded games, in what might be called the Revenge of the Arcade.

Now in the race to not leave money on the table, the companies with a stake in console gaming could screw themselves over by making all their games offer aesthetics of play along similar lines to free-to-play games. That is a risk. But as long as publishers can maintain premium brands on console - such as Assassin's Creed, Grand Theft Auto, The Legend of Zelda,and Call of Duty - the pricing on PC will not trend towards zero, just as cinema ticket prices have not trended to zero. Rather, there will be a split between the market for variable priced games and the market for (largely) fixed priced games, with most players playing games in both styles. In this respect, what's new is only the possibility of making the lowest price of entry zero - which does follow from digital distribution, along the essential lines traced by the marginal cost argument.

One final point should be made: games are also not shoes because there is no such thing as an indie shoe. Almost all shoes are industrially produced, but some games are made by dedicated hobbyists who can risk commercial failure in the pursuit of their own aesthetic values for play. Since free-to-play - like the arcade before it – significantly affects the design of play there is substantial room in the market for games in indie niches at fixed price. Such games are not subject to classical economics because, like other artworks, their value depends in part upon their individual uniqueness. But unlike other artworks digital distribution means that when the wind is right, a small number of indie game titles can hit very big indeed. Just look at Minecraft. This kind of situation is never the case in a market that the marginal cost argument will hold for. Money affects design - it always did, as the arcades demonstrate. But not everyone is in it for the money, and those that aren’t can still hit it big when they get lucky. And that factor of luck, of the right idea at the right time, is something that classical economics has never been able to model.

Cross-posted from Gamesbrief.