Game Research Feed

Game Design Lineages

catacomb-3dLast year, I published my first paper with José Zagal, entitled Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory. This is the finest academic games work I’ve been involved in, or (as I remarked to José) “the game studies paper I want to be buried with”. But what is a game design lineage and what does it have to do with game design? This piece explains my interest in the lineages of games and how it has informed, in some small but significant way, my professional work as a game designer and writer who will hit fifty published games this year.

Since at least 2011, I have been interested in improving historical research into game design – motivated by my own desire to continuously improve my game design skills, and also to contribute to the academic discussion that has grown up around games. Game studies, the field that engages with games as something worthy of research, has suffered from a number of problems in this regard including a widespread ignorance of the importance of history for understanding games as a creative form, and long standing prejudices that favour videogames over other forms of game. Indeed, until recently ‘game studies’ was a term that has primarily meant videogame studies. As a field, it tends to suffer from a widely held (but rarely spoken) conviction that it ought to be engaged in scientific research, and therefore history is a second class citizen in the academic games world. Yet no media studies field is a science, the methods of the sciences generally produce lacklustre results when applied to games, and historically-grounded discourse about games is arguably the pinnacle of scholarship in game studies right now – whether its focus is aesthetics, tracing relationships between games, or examining hardware constraints.

The earliest piece of mine to voice these views was The Constraint Histories of Digital Games, back in October 2011. It makes the following still-relevant observation about a key issue in historical research for games:

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

In the six years since I wrote this, I can now strengthen this claim: Zaxxon belongs within the various arcade lineages of the late twentieth century that have tremendous influence upon games but that are radically distinct from the lineages that descend from tabletop role-playing games, which proliferated in the wake of 1974’s Dungeons & Dragons. Surprisingly, DOOM is a descendant of this latter lineage and not any of the arcade lineages, since it comes about from modifying the early dungeon crawler form typified by 1987’s seminal Dungeon Master, a form that inspired John Carmack to make Catacomb 3D (pictured above) and from this, mostly by raising the pace of play and switching fantasy weapons for guns, creating the FPS form as we now understand it.

In August 2016, I produced my most complete piece of historical work on games to date, a historical investigation of game inventories – the first part of which touches upon the roots of the FPS in the early dungeon crawlers that converted the dungeon adventures D&D had invented into digital forms. Last year, I worked with my good and excellent academic friend José Zagal to adapt this material into a paper, which we presented at DiGRA UK, just a short distance up the road from me at MediaCity in Salford. The paper contracts some of the historical detail in my original blog serial, but with José’s assistance the general method I was pursuing became more robust and clearly stated. The resulting paper, Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory, is not yet included in DiGRA’s digital library but I have made it available in ResearchGate in the meantime (it is also headed to DiGRA’s Transactions journal at some point in the near future). This term ‘game design lineages’ is José’s suggested description for my general method. Here’s an explanation of the term from the paper:

In the context of game studies and game design we feel that little work has been done to explore how best to provide rich and deep insight such that game design knowledge can be understood, communicated, and possibly used, without losing the essential relationships required to make sense of the games in question. We offer the notion of the game design lineage as a means to partially address this challenge by contextualizing game systems within the player practices that provided both the environment that guided their implementation, and the background of understanding against which the game was encountered by its original players.

A game design lineage is rich description of the networks of connections between common designed elements… that is situated within an understanding of the context that conditioned the original design decisions that led to them, understood in terms of player practices. This perspective is important not only in terms of more accurately investigating the historical connectivity of games and their designs, but also because insights from the past remain useful in the future, and can explain problems that are currently misunderstood or taken for granted.

The paper focuses on three specific contexts by which lineages can be traced. Firstly, player practices, which as I have been uncovering through patient investigation (and more than a touch of philosophical influence) are the bedrock of the game design process and the origin of the interrelations between games that give us the genre terms that are themselves too vague to build historical accounts from (as discussed above). Player practices, and not rules as such, are fundamental to games, as I argue in Are Videogames Made of Rules?, since rules are better understood as a means of capturing such practices in words and specifying them more precisely. Material constraints include the kind of hardware issues that Ian Bogost and Nick Monfort engaged with in with Racing the Beam, as well as significant commercial considerations that I discuss often as a consultant but which the academic community around games has largely ignored. Finally, creator vision marks the ways that game designers and development teams subvert player practices and adapt to material constraints in new and innovative ways while still remaining embedded within the conservation of player practices. 

I had previously been discussing lineages in terms of Foucault’s work, especially The Archaeology of Knowledge, since his method and mine substantially overlap. I wrote about this in the ‘tin anniversary’ dual serials for my blogs, Foucault’s Archaeology and Player Practices. Disappointingly, Foucault scholars have blocked my attempts to turn this into a paper, requiring me to talk about power (the late Foucault’s obsession), and forcing me to withdraw from using Foucault as a reference at all. To be clear, Foucault’s methods in The Archaeology of Knowledge and mine overlap… I thought it prudent to draw attention to that, the academic community had other ideas, and I don’t have the patience or desire to persist with such a trivial aspect of my work. Easier all around to leave Foucault to the Foucauldians.

Dan Golding has had more success drawing on this angle without being required to talk about power, perhaps by getting at Foucault’s ideas indirectly via film historian Thomas Elsaesser. Dan presented his paper Lineages: Historicising the Videogame at the joint DiGRA-FDG conference in Dundee back in 2016, the same conference that I presented No-one Plays Alone, which has also not made it into the DiGRA library yet but had appeared in their Transactions (linked here). This is the paper that begins to develop the player practices concept, within which game design lineages has been conceived. I view Dan’s work as allied to mine (although he may not), and my means of combining the two methods goes via Walton’s prop theory, which I deployed in Imaginary Games (to very little influence in game studies). At the very least, Dan and I share a perception of the importance of history in understanding games and play, and agree that films and literature are part of the network of relations that have made videogames what they are.

The game design lineages method is the most viable historical research tool I’ve yet encountered for examining games and videogames, although it is only a part of the wider research project into player practices that I have been pursuing for much of the last decade. It began with Imaginary Games, applying Walton’s concept of props that prescribe certain imaginings to games, and then asking about the key props for videogames – such as inventories, maps, and save games, all of which condition the play of videogames in highly significant ways. This also brought out how videogames were dominated by two particular props – guns and goals – leading me to suggest (back in 2011) that authentic artistic innovation in these media would have to subvert the player practices surrounding these props, as Dear Esther, Proteus, and everything by Tale of Tales does to great effect.

As a commercial game designer, I have not had the luxury to explore such artistically-motivated concerns, but my player practices work has had another key influence upon me: it has united the otherwise disparate domains of marketing and game design. When I first pursued the research into play styles that became my book with Richard Boon, 21st Century Game Design, it was because of the recognition that marketing was valued more than game design – and with good cause (despite the abysmal state of understanding in games marketing departments...) since marketing expenditure is a much better predictor of eventual sales than anything else. That was why the original pamphlet for this research, which I gave out to (amongst other people) Eiji Aonuma, was subtitled How to Make Game Design as Important as Marketing. The point here is straightforward, but easily ignored: the conditions into which every game appears are set by the games that are already being played, and when this isn’t taken into account, there is a tendency to produce games that – whatever their merits – acquire no audience because they are either too hard to learn or do not offer an imaginative fantasy players will pay for. The conservation of player practices is the dominant flow of the commercial games market, and it is the major forks in this river that become labelled with genre terms.

When I started to give talks about the history of games, I began to see how interconnected their lineages were, and how genre emerges as a symptom of the conservation of player practices, which provides the bedrock for the craft of game design. We game designers do not build games from game-mechanical Lego bricks but from player practices we have learned by playing other games, often expressed in terms of rules or systems because we nerds are trained to think in such terms. Yet when you think about design in terms of player practices, game design lineages become not just a tool for historical investigations but yet another method for creating games, one that is informed by the knowledge that no-one plays alone. It is both these projects – historical research and creative game design – that I continue to vigorously pursue.

For further reading, please check out the papers Game Design Lineages: Minecraft’s Inventory and its predecessor No-one Plays Alone.

Prezi: No-one Plays Alone

For those of you who have brought a suitable device to DiGRA-FDG (and for those not able to make the conference), here's my Prezi for No-one Plays Alone

The timeline in particularly has a lot to offer an errant explorer... go take a look!

Looking for research partners!

I'm always looking for people with similar research interests for possible collaboration on papers, contributions to edited volumes, or possible formation of new sub-disciplines. Please get in touch using the Contact link if your research interests are in any of the following areas:

  • Player Practices: my main Game Studies research subject right now, and I'm interested in allying with anyone who broadly agrees with the following statements, regardless of how they choose to describe their research:
    "no player can play or design a game in complete isolation from the practices of others"
    "an artefactual reading of a game is always an incomplete reading"

    "the history of games is the history of the way players engaged with them" or equivalently "emulation is at-best reincarnation"
  • Philosophy of Imagination: also interested in anyone applying Walton's make-believe theory (or another theory of representation) to any and all aspects of human life. This was the background to my 'imaginative investigations' i.e. the trilogy Imaginary Games, The Mythology of Evolution, and Chaos Ethics. If your work crosses over anywhere near mine here, I'm interested in talking to you.
  • Multiverse/Pluriverse/Ecology of Practices: related to the above, I'd love to hook up with researchers who are pursuing Stengers' ecology of practices, William James' pluriverse/multiverse, or anything similar to my adaptation of Moorcock's multiverse to ethics and politics. If you are working on ways to understand our diversity of being as a manifold of practices or an inclusive set of mythos, please get in touch.

Many thanks to everyone who came to my talk!

The Aesthetic Motives of Play

My piece The Aesthetic Motives of Play will appear later this year in Springer’s Emotion in Games: Theory and Praxis, edited by Dr Kostas Karpouzis and an old colleague of mine, Professor Georgios Yannakakis. Here’s my abstract:

Why do people enjoy playing games? The answer, in its most general form, is that there are aesthetic pleasures offered by games and other play experiences that meet powerful and profound human and animal needs. As such, we can identify specific aesthetic motives of play, and one of the clearest ways of characterizing these motives is in terms of the emotional experiences associated with them.

This was a super-easy chapter for me to write as I’m only summarising work I’ve already done, but it is an excellent précis of where I’m up to and I hope will complement the other chapters in this collection.

Yee Rides Again

Great to see Nick Yee getting back into player modelling over at Quantic Foundry. However, it seems he hasn’t looked into the similar work International Hobo was doing with BrainHex five years ago. In a recent post, Gaming Motivations Align with Personality Traits, he states:

Action-Social isn’t hinted at in any Existing Model: When we first saw the Action-Social cluster emerge, we were a little stumped. This grouping is unintuitive and hasn’t been proposed by any existing model or taxonomy.

That’s not true! In fact, if you look at the subclass distribution for BrainHex you’ll see that the third most popular is Conqueror-Socialiser (6.1% of sample), which is what maps most closely onto Yee’s Action-Social.

To be fair, I haven’t written much about BrainHex recently because my primary take away from that research effort was that this isn’t how we should be proceeding in this area if we want to get to anything like a science of player modelling. To see why, check out my 2011 DiGRA paper with Lennart Nacke and Rebecca Lowenhaupt, Player Typology in Theory and Practice.

Looking forward to seeing what else Nick turns up in his current round of research.

The Original Game Studies Scholar?

Procedural Map It occurred to me this morning that my undergraduate thesis on landscape creation through fractal noise synthesis and language generation through morpho-phoneme systems was in 1994. I would have done a game-focussed Masters degree if any member of the faculty had understood why I was working in that field, but as it was I had to teach a robot to read instead. But this publication date – 1994 – puts me into the ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars. In fact, for a brief moment I thought it made me the original game studies scholar. But let’s not get carried away.

“First wave” makes much more sense to describe game studies scholars than feminists, don't you think? It gets you all worked up about wanting to beat the final wave! But when exactly would you judge the first wave of game studies?

Taking my 1994 publication as a benchmark, let’s take on the usual contenders.

Bartle? Didn’t get a paper out until 1999. Sorry, King of MUDs, you’ll just have to settle for being the iconic co-founder of one of the most influential game formats of all time instead.

Aarseth? 1997. Too slow Espen!

Juul? 1999. GG, Jesper.

But then, just as I’m flush with these easy victories, along comes James Wallis with a grenade in his quiver. Because from 1994-5 he published the incredible journal Interactive Fantasy, which as well as being an awesome publication is famous for hosting Greg Costikyan’s incredible essay “I Have No Words and I Must Design”. And he also points out that Chris Crawford was publishing the Journal of Computer Game Design from 1987-1996. Respect, Chris. I yield the hill to thee.

Of course, it all comes down to what we mean by ‘game studies’. What Juul and Aarseth can lay claim to was carving off a niche for the study of games that wasn’t the ridiculously narrow field of game theory (really: mathematics of competition). I didn’t do that. I went into industry and made commercial videogames instead. To these two, and others in this ‘first wave’ of game studies scholars, all who study games owe a debt.

Those who came before this – like Thomas Malone and Chris Crawford (and Richard Bartle too, since I conveniently overlooked his 1985 book...) – are the zeroth wave, the people studying games before there even was a game studies field. And before them, of course, the legendary sociologist Roger Callois and heroic historian Johan Huizinga. I would add to this Ernst Gombrich: if Imaginary Games achieves anything, I hope it is to show how Gombrich completes this holy trinity of the progenitors of game studies.

So, no crown for me, no victory, no honour. Except the honour of being part of this grand tradition of thinkers who claimed that games and play are worthy of study. And in this, I salute each and all who came before, or who follow after.

The opening image isn’t one of my maps from my thesis project (I can’t find any GIFs from this era of my life) but from a graph structure constraint noise synthesis project by Amit Patel that is orders of magnitude superior to my basic height map technique (even taking into account that he doesn’t have my language-module for naming settlements in a procedural language). You can learn about Amit’s fascinating project on his Red Blog Games blog.

The Player Experience Conference

GamersPleased to announce that I’m part of the team behind a new conference provisionally entitled The Player Experience: The Emotions and Worlds of Digital Games, due to launch in the Summer of 2016. An inter-disciplinary event, we are intending to sit at the intersection between Game Studies and Cyberpsychology, but will accept submissions from philosophy, narratology, neurobiology, or any other field with connections to the subject. We also welcome delegates from the games industry who’d like to give a presentation, or who’d just like to attend.

The theme for the first conference in the series is Avatars: Presence and Immersion, looking at the representation of identity in and around the fictional worlds of games, and how these lead to presence (high fidelity of experience) and immersion (deep engagement) within those imagined worlds.

The conference will be hosted at the University of Bolton in Greater Manchester UK, and we expect the Call for Participation to begin in February 2015 and close around 30 May 2015. The conference organisers are myself, Dr. Angela Tinwell, and Dr. Julie Prescott. At the moment, we are asking for Expressions of Interest consisting of an email stating that you would like to take part and your academic field and institution, or your company.

Please email px [at] ihobo [dot] com - or click this Email Robot – to let us know this event interests you. Hope to hear from you soon!

ihobo will return in January 2015.

The Constraint Histories of Digital Games

consoles How could we best recount the history of digital game design? Although genres seem to provide a framework for discussing the progression of various designs, are the categories being applied reflective of actual historical forces, or merely convenient collections of otherwise spuriously connected games?

A recurring but often unnoticed problem in game studies is the inability to discuss the historical lineage of a title, or only being able to do so by assuming the validity of often dubious genre categories. For the most part, the obsession with research that “smells like science” has reduced historical investigations to a lesser status. This is unfortunate: a culturally-situated critical discourse about games could enrich game studies immeasurably.

There are numerous complications. The direct influences on any game designer are often unknown, plus many other team members on most projects have input towards design considerations, making it impossible to unravel a chain of antecedents. Similarly, any commercially successful title is affected by and has effects on the expectations and assumptions of players (including those players who make future games) that affect which titles succeed, and this applies differently in each region of the world. The ZX Spectrum, for instance, directly influenced British games development (including the Grand Theft Auto franchise) but was not a part of the local game histories in the US or Japan.

Attempts to provide a taxonomy of game genres founder on the lack of consistent criteria, and usually have to be arbitrarily assigned. Connecting ‘shooters’ into a lineage suggests scrolling shooters were direct influences on first person shooters, for instance. But there's no evidence suggesting Zaxxon has any connection with the design of DOOM, or that Space Invaders inspired Zaxxon. As a historical tool, genre categories can provide some useful connections – DOOM certainly did influence GoldenEye 007, for example – but genre cannot be used as a unifying framework for game history because the genre lineages are narrowly valid and do not constitute a complete description of game history.

An alternative approach can begin by considering the historical constraints that acted on any given title, grouping games by common constraints into related clusters. The considerations that follow from hardware are along similar lines to what Montford and Bogost discuss in Racing the Beam, but this is not the only (nor even the most important) constraint to be identified. For many games, market, cultural or contextual factors had a greater effect on the design. We can call the former hard and the latter soft constraints on the design.

For example, 8 bit arcade games from 1980-1984 share hard constraints in terms of computing power, display technology and control devices, as well as the soft constraints of an arcade coin-op: for commercial reasons, games were required to be of short average duration to drive many coin drops per hour. Galaxians and Pac-man belong in the same cluster on this approach, despite the obvious differences in genre. Gauntlet, in 1985, marks a change in conditions, away from one coin, one play and into a many coined ‘pump and play’ cluster, fostering multiple coin drops in each game (what could be called the original microtransaction model). Gradius/Nemesis straddles the two clusters, originally one-coin but later modified with a continue to encourage multiple coin drops per game. The change in soft constraints here is more significant than the change in hard constraints, and this is frequently the case.

Throughout the nineties, the most significant shift in hard constraints resulted from the increasing focus on polygonal 3D representations. Here, the hardware development was lead by a demand for 3D graphics so there is a sense in which the hard constraints were driven by soft constraints. The 2000s were marked by a radical increase in touchscreens, first with the DS (about to become the best selling console of all time) and then with the iPhone, iPad and all the copycats since. Once again, soft constraints led hardware: a correctly perceived need to simplify the intensely complex controllers that resulted from the constraint history of the preceding decade produced the DS.

Other hard constraints have grown up more organically. Despite all the efforts at creating online entertainments in the early 2000s, the technology was not up to speed until the middle of the decade. The easing up of constraints on bandwidth moved clusters of games that had grown up in LAN play, such as the multiplayer FPS format codified in Quake, into the open internet. This brought significant new soft constraints into play, including the ongoing shift to games-as-services that has emerged from the mass market demand for easy-yet-fun games coupled with the hard constraints of browser-based, persistent content.

The rise of browser-based games also highlights the significant transformation in hard constraints in recent years: the specifics of physical hardware now matter less than ever before, since content is defined for software platforms (such as Flash) rather than specific hardware. Although some hardware-exclusive games are still made, the number of these is vanishingly small next to multi-platform or platform agnostic titles. Software is the new hardware, or at least the origin of the new hard constraints affecting game design.

This historical approach to game design offers a broader understanding of how various constraints, both technical (hard) and circumstantial (soft) have shaped the development of the contemporary digital games industry. Grouping games into clusters based on common constraints provides an alternative way to present the history of games without resorting to ad hoc genre categories. I have not found any better approach for game design history, and I am convinced that without something of this kind, game studies is lacking a vital piece of the story of games.

Player Typology in Theory and Practice

Here’s a link to the paper I presented at DiGRA this year entitled Player Typology in Theory and Practice, and the abstract:

Player satisfaction modeling depends in part upon quantitative or qualitative typologies of playing preferences,  although such approaches require scrutiny. Examination of psychometric typologies reveal that type theories have—except in rare cases—proven inadequate and have made way for alternative trait theories. This suggests any future player typology that will be sufficiently robust will need foundations in the form of a trait theory of playing preferences. This paper tracks the development of a sequence of player typologies developing from psychometric  type theory roots towards an independently validated trait theory of play, albeit one yet to be fully developed. Statistical analysis of the results of  one survey in this lineage is presented, along with a discussion of theoretical and practical ways in which the surveys and their implied typological instruments have evolved.

Thanks to everyone who attended my presentation and the boardgames panel! It was a great shame to only be able to attend one day of the conference.