Wednesday, May 4, 2011

What Does It Mean to be Meaningful?

This sounds like a weird philosophical digression, and perhaps it is. I am not above getting distracted. But, if the ultimate goal of a video game is to be meaningful, then we need to decide what we mean by meaningful. I am going to work into this via analogies from other media. Do books and films have to be meaningful? And if they are, what does that mean?

I should mention, if it isn't already obvious, that I am thinking this think through as I go along. So, what I decide further down the line may look very different from my initial impressions. At the same time, my conclusions may look very much like my initial impressions. I just don't know at this stage.

First, I think there are varying degrees of meaningfulness. A thing is minimally meaningful if it adjusts your in some way so that you are better prepared to cope with your life. A thing is maximally meaningful if it helps you to make sense out of your life and your experiences, or if it brings your life and experiences into perspective. I am flirting with a connection with the transcendental here but am not going to go quite that far.

That's not too bad for a start. We will see where it goes. Next, I will apply the definition to books and films. I will see if tha exercise helps me to refine or solidify the definition. Then I will apply it to video games. This is not, I should hasten to mention, just a quixotic philosophical pursuit. If I am right about what I am thinking here the ultimate design goal for a video game should be that it be meaningful. We'll see how it goes.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

Does a Video Game Have to be Meaningful?

Asking whether or not a video game should be meaningful sounds like a silly question. But it is a very serious question that I plan to explore. The short answer is - no. A video game does not have to be meaningful. Just being fun is enough. However, if a goal of the game is to be memorable and enduring, then, I would argue, it does have to be meaningful. One might say "the goal of a game is make money"", and there is some truth to that. But few game designers, as creative artistic people, are satisfied with just making money. They want their work to have larger meaning. And few players are satisfied, in the end, investing endless hours in a game unless they feel it has some larger significance. So, in order for a game to be memorable, significant and worthwhile, it must be meaningful.

This has only become a problem recently as experts in media studies have offered up the claim that video games should be studied as cultural artifacts just as films and novels are studied as cultural artifacts.  Asking if a video game has to be meaningful is like asking if a novel or a film has to be meaningful. Certainly, there are lots and lots of junk novels and junk films. So not every one has to be meaningful. But, it is the goal of writer's or film maker's craft to produce meaningful work even though it is a rare occurrence. Similarly, it is the goal of the game designer's craft to produce meaningful work. Hence, we need to figure out what we mean by 'meaningful'.

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Lusory Goals

A game should be designed to satisfy a set of lusory goals. This may be done within a set of non-lusory goals such as the: game should be profitable; the game should work on several platforms; the game should be scalable, easy to maintain, or easy to enhance.  These later items are valid technical goals but not lusory goals.

I have been pondering valid lusory goals and have stumbled a bit trying to get a net over all of them. So rather than have a complete list, I thought I would start by just blurting what I am thinking at the moment. I can refine or enhance the list later.

Following some of the ideas presented much earlier in this blog, it seems to me that lusory goals should all be focused on enhancing skills that have some value to the player. For example, a game might improve a player's physical or mental skills. Physical skills might include things like hand eye coordination, reflexes, or even fitness as in the case of Wii games. Mental skills cover a much wider variety of options and include things like strategy, problem solving, resource management, social skills, or leadership. This is far from a complete list but I wanted to start.

The top level of the game design should articulate the lusory goals and the skills the game is intended to develop and coherent structure within which they can be developed. Quests, then, should be the means of implementing the lusory goals.

I am going to toss out a few initial impression of quest design. Each quest should contribute to the lusory goals in a coherent way. Each quest should make sense within the logic of the game. Each quest should pay off proportionately to its difficulty. The pay off can come in many forms including improvement factors in the game such as loot, experience, or progression of some kind. Of it can contribute knowledge of the game which may be useful later. Quests should not be arbitrary unless learning how to deal with arbitrariness is on the skills identified in the lusory goals.

Well, there it is. Its a start. It needs work but I will just keep chipping away at it.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Reality is Broken

Jane McGonigal begins her new book Reality Is Broken : "Gamers have had enough of reality. They are abandoning it in droves." And that is all the farther I got on my first read. I was distracted, as I often am when reading, by an epiphany. Those lines pulled together a lot of things that were going on in my head making sense and giving focus to a number of disparate ideas. Let me explain.

I have been wondering for years why people would spend so much time in virtual worlds such as Second Life or MMORPGs such as World of Warcraft.  Certainly they are fun. But bowling is fun and people don't spend every waking moment in the bowling alley. People don't recount stories of their first experience bowling turning into a seven hour marathon as Tom Bissell does with his first encounter with Fallout3 in Extra Lives. Why is this?

Well, here is the epiphany that struck me. In the 18th century people were leaving all corners of the world to come to America. They were leaving their homes, their families, their traditions, and their cultures to come a new place.  Why? Because the old world was broken. It did not provide them with the opportunities they needed to live gainful, produce and satisfying lives. They left behind everything familiar in exchange for an opportunity to grow and seek satisfaction.

Today, the place we call reality, or real life, or the real world is not providing people with the opportunities they need to live fully satisfying lives. So, they are escaping to virtual worlds, game worlds and games. Instead of seeing a mass migration from the old world to the new world we are seeing a mass migration from the real world to the virtual world. It is the same phenomenon, and probably one that have been going on since our ancestors left Africa 50,000 years ago. Searching for a better life. That is the reason. And that was my epiphany.

Saturday, March 12, 2011

A Theory of Fun

I just finished reading A Theory of Fun for Game Design by Raph Koster. It is a truly astonishing piece of work. I read it as an academic who reads a lot of research. I read it as a practitioner who is interested in game design. And I read it as a video game player who is just interested in playing for fun. Amazingly, it strikes chords at all levels. It is deceptively simple to read but tackles some of the most profound philosophical and psychological questions surrounding this emerging technology. I will not try to repeat any of the many insights about games that Koster provides as anything I say will just take away from the clarity of what he has said. But, I will offer one rather profound quote: "Games are powerful tools for good - they rewire people's brains, just like books and movies and music.". I would only add that the potential of games for rewiring is even greater than that of their predecessors. That is really it in a  nutshell. Think about it.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

Flawed (aka majorly dumbass) Quests

Before I get into the game master's side of the social contract I have to get the issue of majorly dumbass quests off my chest. I've been playing WoW a lot lately; perhaps a bit too much. And when you are really into the game a majorly dumbass quest is a major turd in the punch bowl. In fact, I have held off writing this piece in an attempt to get some perspective on it. I was going to go on a rant about the World of Majorly Dumbass Quests. But, thankfully, I have managed to get some perspective on the issue.

First, I am going to refer to these quests by the more civil and descriptive name of Flawed Quests. Second, I am going to attempt to articulate just what it is that makes a quest flawed. This will vary from one quest to another. But, I suspect, that the list of potential flaws is not all that great. And, I think it is useful for game designers to understand flawed quests as well as well designed quests. And, finally, I am going to defend Blizzard for having flawed quests so that my observations on flawed quests does not appear as an unfair attack on the game designers.

There are good reasons and not quite as good reasons for the appearance for flawed quests in World of Warcraft. First the good reasons. World of Warcraft has thousands, perhaps tens of thousands of quests. Further, there is a fair amount of variety in these quests. In order to avoid flawed quests they would have to have fewer quests and less variety. While flawed quests interfere (sometimes seriously) with the player's enjoyment, this is always a short term problem.  Too much sameness would result in boredom which would be a major long term problem. Hence, erring on the side of variety instead of consistency is probably a good decision. Another good reason is that new quest types are introduced into the game and debugged through usage. If you did not allow for a period of debugging it would not be possible to introduce these new types. Most of the new types do get worked out over time and do increase the player's enjoyment. So, we have to be patient with the designers as they try out new ideas.  

There are also a couple not quite as good (although, perhaps forgivable) reasons. First, there are superstar designers and mediocre designers. When you are designing thousands of quests, not every designer will be a superstar. And when you are on a quest created by a mediocre designer, you know it. Second, the quality assurance group should be testing every quest. Perhaps they do and it takes time to fix some of the errors. I don't know. But, I do know that, on some quests, I have the feeling that QA just dropped the ball.

Well, having gotten that off of my chest, I feel much better. Now I can continue with what I was doing.

Tuesday, March 1, 2011

The Player's Side of the Social Contract

The player's side of the social contract in a game is by far the easiest. So, I am going to address that first. The player's primary responsibility is to buy into the lusory goals. That is, they should play the game as it is supposed to be played. There may be prior economic requirements such as having to buy the game or subscribe to it. But, prior economic requirements are not part of the social contract of the game. It does bear mentioning, however, that the rewards derived from the game should justify the prior economic requirements or nobody is going to want to play it. But, that is an economic issue, not a game issue.

If the player does not fully buy into the lusory goals of the game there are three levels of penalty. The first level is that they simply do not derive satisfaction from playing the game. Imagine a person playing the outfield in a baseball game who thinks to their self "This is a silly game. Grown men hitting a ball and running around bases" It is unlikely they will enjoy the game. However, as long as their failure to buy in does not affect the other players, the penalty is limited to their lack of enjoyment. In a video game the player must attempt to learn the game and must attempt to improve at it or the satisfaction of playing the game will elude them.

Some violation of the game sphere is tolerated as long as it does not affect the enjoyment of others. In a baseball game, for example, a player may wave at an acquaintance in the stands. In a multi-person video game a player might carry on a conversation unrelated to the game in public chat.   This is tolerated to a different extent in different games.

If a failure to buy into the lusory goals does begin to affect the enjoyment of others, the second level of  penalty is social. The members of the team of the player who was waiving at friends in the stands might ask him to pay attention to the game and frown on his socializing. If a video game player misbehaves, he might be muted in chat, criticized by fellow players, or not asked to join teams for raids. The player still gets to play, but the social aspect of the game, to the extent that there are any, are diminished.

Finally, if the indiscretions of a player begin to seriously impact the enjoyment of other players they might be ejected and banned from the game. That is, they will not be allowed to play because their failure to buy into the lusory goals is so severe that is makes it difficult for other players who did buy into the lusory goals to derive the enjoyment they are seeking.

So, advice to the player is simple. Play the game as it is supposed to be played. If you do not derive enjoyment from it, then find another game. If you seek enjoyment by interfering with others who have bought into the lusory goals, you might be ejected or banned.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Elements of the Social Contract

I am going to keep this as simple as I can as I work my way down from organizing concepts to operational details. The social contract in a role playing game is between a game master and a collection of players. The game master agrees to provide rewarding opportunities for personal growth and the players agree to buy into the lusory goals. A few clarifications are in order.

First, this is a social contract, not an economic or legal contract. While there may also be economic benefits or legal restraints, the social contact, if satisfied, results in greater social status. The may be recognition, respect, goodwill, reputation, loyalty, or some other social capital. It is easy to see the distinction between economic and social gains. A game's high or low regard may well be inversely related to its profitability. A social contract differs from a legal contract in that a social contract is enforced in the court of public opinion rather than in a legal venue.

The obligation of the game master to provide rewarding opportunities for personal growth is derived from earlier comments in this blog about why people play.  Play is fun because it provides rewarding opportunities for personal growth. So, a role playing game should as well.

The responsibility of the player to buy into the lusory goals  is derived from Bernard Suit's definition of a game as a voluntary attempt to overcome unnecessary obstacles. We play games and games are fun because following the lusory goals of the game makes it so. It would not do to have a quarterback pull out a gun and shoot a rushing tackle. It is achieving the goals of the game within the constraints of the game that makes it fun and rewarding.

Friday, January 28, 2011

RPG's as a Social contract

I need an overarching theory for evaluating the design of a MMORPG video game. I have chosen the Role Playing Game as my unit of analysis. I don't think the size of the game is a major factor. Hence, I have ignore the MM or massively multi-player part. I do think that size will be a factor further down the line. But, initially I am going to ignore it. I also believe that the statements I am going to make will apply to role playing games that are not implemented on computers. The great thing about a blog is that I don't have to get it exactly right the first time. I can express my current thinking and change it later as I learn more or gain more insight.

The overarching theory will be that of the social contract. The game master enters into a social contract with the players. Usually, this contract is implied although I am going to try to make it more explicit. The game master agrees to do certain things in providing the game environment. And the player pledge certain things as well. The design of the game can then be evaluated in terms of the obligations of the game master and how well those obligations are met. At the level of the game design, a game that is way too hard or way too easy; way to simple or way  to complicated; would be a poorly designed game. But, even if the game were well designed it may be implemented poorly. On the other side of the contract, players who play merely to interfere with the enjoyment of others (commonly known as greifers) are not good players. Player who do not wish to spend the time to learn the game and constantly complain are not good players either.  Those are broad brush extremes that I will flesh out later.

Further, the contract is hierarchical. A well designed game could have a poorly design quest, for example, or vice versa. The ideal game would have all elements contributing to and consistent with the overall game design.

Well, those are my thoughts for now. I will add and/or modify as I think this through.

Sunday, January 23, 2011


I've been a little remiss in posting to this blog. All I can say is that I have been busy and I view my blogs as on going journals where I accumulate thoughts over time rather than daily postings of current events. Whew! OK, I feel much better now.

I have been focusing, almost exclusively on World of Warcraft. It is an amazing thing to study. Yeah, yeah, I know, its fun to play as well. But, I seriously doubt that it would have held my attention for this long if it were just fun.

Cataclysm came out in December and this is the third majorly successful expansion of World of Warcraft. I tried out the new characters (Worgen on the Alliance side and Gobblins on the Horde side) and I have to say that the expansion designers did a pretty good job. They also fixed a number of my pet peeves which is always good.

As I play this game, I am always reminded of when I first learned operating systems. There are many parallels. They are both wonderfully complex. I find myself amazed that somebody actually thought things through as well as they did. And the devotees seem to have way too much invested in the learning curve to acknowledge the flaws.

My highest toon is now a 77 which has two major implications. First, I heard that the game changes dramatically when you hit 80. I have heard other such claims in the past which have turned out to be way over stated. But, I will wait and see on that one. Second, Cataclysm raised the bar from 80 to 85 and I have no idea what that will mean. Will it be just more of the same. Or will it be a whole new world. I have no idea.

Most of the changes I have noticed in Cataclysm (Cata for short) are positive changes. Some very positive. It would be interesting to take them one at a time and pick them apart. I may even do that some day. But for now, I have something else in mind. As I play one of my characters and pursue quest after quest I often get a visceral reaction to the quests which ranges from "that was a really good quest" to "that was a majorly dumbass quest". In a fit of frustration, I wrote in guild chat "I am getting tired of doing quests that were designed by people who got C's in design school." One of my guildies types "Agreed".

Being a reflective person I began to wonder what differentiates a good quest from a bad quest. It there some sort of theory that would allow one to assess the quality of a quest? Is a quest good because it matches a theory of good design? Or is it good because people say they like it? This has given me much to think about. I think World of Warcraft will become an object of study in the future much like, say Moby Dick or The Brothers Karamazov. Designers studying WoW will point to its major design success and its major design failures. Next time I am pursuing a majorly dumbass quest I am going to try to curb my frustration with the knowledge that this will be a good example for designers of the future of what not to do.