Call for Feature Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

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Wednesday, Oct 7, 2009
This week our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. Leading off with some observations about considering whether or not the idea of “ganking” can be applied to single player experiences, L.B. Jeffries began a discussion that has considered what rules mean to players. G. Christopher Williams is now continuing this discussion by considering the differences between what we mean by playing and gaming and how those ideas relate to rules and the freedom of violating them. Nick Dinicola will conclude our series on Friday, so please do stop by for the discussion's conclusion.

In yesterday’s Moving Pixels Column, L.B. Jeffries considered the concept of “ganking”, a term commonly applied to multiplayer gaming experiences and how the problematic concept of players finding loopholes to circumvent rules in a game might additionally apply to single player experiences.  Jeffries began his essay with a kind of real life example of how a system might be “ganked”, which I guess is a good enough place as any to respond to some of his intriguing thoughts on the issue of how rules and the violation of rules might boil down to a desire on the part of players to simply have the freedom to merely “play”.


Jeffries’s initial real life example considered the decision to enact a law to ban highway signs along certain stretches of roadway in order to beautify them. When the owners of the billboards brought suit against the government for essentially seizing their property, courts upheld the law but required that the owners pay the billboard owners in order to cover their losses.  Since the government couldn’t pay, the owners maintained their billboards.  The intended rules still exist in this scenario, but they have also have been effectively circumvented.  Thus, the system allows for violating the rules despite the rules continued existence—something akin to ganking.


Jeffries goes on to offer some quite compelling examples of how players then might want or need to be able to violate some rules in order to better enjoy the “system” within a game.  While I hesitate to propose a counter argument to this in a political sense (I consider myself a staunch libertarian and thus desire to align myself against rules on general principle and promote freedom) nevertheless, as I have considered Jeffries ideas, it occurred to me that one problem that I have with this notion of encouraging player “freedom” might be an idea that I was troubled by that is embedded in his real life scenario.  Sometimes laws and rules aren’t good to begin with.  It may not be that we need to abolish law but that we need better law.  The “ganking” that occurred as a result of these rules becoming problematic in practice may indicate that the weakness of the design of a rules system (indicated by the potential collapse or lack of necessity for a rule altogether) may indicate that the rules themselves are weak ones and needed to be reconsidered altogether.


To return for the moment to questions of system ganking that apply to multi-player games for instance, I am reminded of the problem that exists for many co-operative MMORPGs concerning power leveling.  Since characters in a role playing game gain power by gaining experience (usually through combat) in a role playing system, the obvious temptation to circumvent the standard rules of gaining experience at a controlled rate by killing monsters exists.  Often players do so by piggybacking on the greater powers and leach additional experience from other higher level characters by teaming with them in order to kill monsters that lower level players should be unable to kill.  Since much of the challenge of the game is predicated on a rules system that suggests how quickly a character may be developed, nevertheless, players do not often want to go through this “grind” and often for good reason.  If your pals play City of Heroes every night for 4-6 hours at a time, and you would like to join them but you are burdened with real life responsibilities like a spouse and a job, taking the time to level up alongside them might become difficult for you.  Since you can’t stay up until 3AM every night, you are going to quickly fall behind your friends and find that you can’t play at their level: the “rules” are prohibitive when it comes to low level characters challenging mid to high level content.


This indicates a conflict of the needs of the player and the designer in generating rules for playing. Perhaps, then, a compromise or reconsideration of the rules might resolve this problem.  Interestingly, City of Heroes implemented rules to deal with power leveling and to address the needs of the casual gamer.  A “sidekick” system was put into place that allowed a lower level player to become a sidekick to an upper level player, effectively increasing the low level player to the level of the high level player (thus, allowing low level players to participate temporarily in higher level content areas with their friends).  However, experience gains were adjusted so that the low level character did not gain access to high level experience.  An inverted version of this system (the name of which escapes me) was also implemented allowing high level characters to essentially “sidekick down” to low level content and again adjustments were made for experience point gains.  While these rules still contained some problems, they were a better “law” than the one currently in place as they allowed for what players wanted to do without violating the intentions of the system.  Additionally, such solutions indicate that the answer to resolving system ganking might not always be met by “nerfing” or by simply letting rules become purposeless (as in Jeffries’s example).  Sometimes adjustments can be made to make a law better and suit the needs of the player’s interests and the designer’s intentions, a balancing of needs.


One type of single player “ganking” of the system that has always bugged me is the exponential growth of economies in simulation and other types of games.  While in games like The Sims the player usually begins the game with scarce funds, eventually (and generally quite early in my experience) an efficient player will find that his own personal income will rise as a result of taking good jobs and managing resources well at a rate that far outstrips the cost of items that that cash is intended to buy.  Once you have a couple million simoleons buying whatever is necessary for your sim home becomes an invisible expense as you generally can simply buy at leisure, reducing the challenge of managing resources in a game whose rules partly (if not wholly) depend on keeping a handle on an economy.  While we could just chalk these moments up to a kind of lovely sense of freedom that this experience creates for the player (getting to experiment without effort with every item in the game), that the system can be ganked economically may just indicate that the rules of economy are badly implemented and that, for the next iteration of the game (or games like it), that better rules might be put into place that maintain the intended challenges of the game.


One such solution to the economics issue is a recognition that stop gaps need to be created on progressive economies and assigning ways of encouraging the player to starategize about managing resources better.  For instance, things like time limits might be helpful.  Generally, more traditional economic board board games like Puerto Rico, Caylus, and Agricola have recognized such problems and attempted to resolve them in this way.  All three games concern creating mechanisms to generate resources in the most efficient ways possible in order to score the most points to win the game.  Since building an economic machine that is efficient and that is unencumbered by random acts of God that might interfere with a real life economy means that eventually profits will boom wildly out of control, designers like Uwe Rosenberg and Andreas Seyfarth have placed limits like a certain amount of turns to play or game ending conditions that halt production before it becomes absurd.  As my recent review of Majesty 2 observes, such limiting factors can be put in place in the scenarios of an RTS in order to control for the hyper-production that ruins the challenge of struggling with resources rather than finding this essential element of the challenge of playing such game to be only burdensome at the game’s start.  Again, this isn’t an example of abolishing or ignoring the rules of a system but adjusting them to balance the competing needs of player and designer.


I am assuming in some sense that most players, ironically, are interested less in “play” (a term that I associate with freedom and the violation of rules), perhaps, than they are in “gaming” (a term that I associate with challenge, competition, and learning how to function well within a system of rules).  I, also, do think some questions might also be raised about the desirability of gaming (the pleasure derived from knowing that you have won a game because you played within the rules well) and the desirability of experimentation, or more simply put, “cheating” (the desire to see if you can gank the system by breaking the rules well).  But, perhaps, those are issues that Nick Dinicola will address on Friday.


This discussion began with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games and concludes with Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.


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Tuesday, Oct 6, 2009
Throughout this week, our Moving Pixels writers decided to play a game of telephone. L.B. Jeffries will be leading off our discussions with some thoughts on “system gank”. G. Christopher Williams will be continuing this discussion on Tuesday, and Nick Dinicola will conclude our series on Friday. So, please do stop by throughout the week as our discussion evolves.

One of the curious tenets of a rule or law is that people have to want it to exist. If nobody thinks a law should be obeyed or has an interest in its sustained enforcement, then it ceases to function. Need precedes Rule. Unfortunately, while this sounds nice in theory, in real life it rarely works out so neatly. Politicians will often posture and gain attention by creating poorly designed laws or without really thinking about the full ramifications of a principle, making life difficult for everyone. A modern example would be a recent state law intent on beautifying highways by banning all billboards along certain stretches. The owners of these billboards protested the government taking control of their property and took the case into Federal Court. The Feds decided that although the law was Constitutionally legitimate, they had to pay the owners of the billboards for their value. The State cannot not afford to do this, therefore it cannot enforce its own law. The billboards are still standing. The law is now effectively “ganked.”


I borrow the term gank from multiplayer games because it effectively describes a situation where a player is still operating legitimately in the confines of the game but has broken the system. In World of Warcraft it refers to a Rogue getting a stealth kill or when a high-level player kills a weaker one. The situation can legitimately occur within the game design, but it has just rendered the game unplayable for someone. The need for such conduct to be reigned in is usually gauged by the game’s developer and new rules are applied to make the majority happy. An example would be the account of the Twixt situation that occurred in City of Heroes, in which a player found a legitimate way to beat most of the opposition using a teleport attack. The essay details how Twixt was violating social norms and was often insulted for doing so, which subsequently led to the developers introducing rules that broke the teleport attack that Twixt used so effectively. You can see this idea in action in countless multiplayer games. A Halo 3 map that lets you throw grenades up an elevator to what was supposed to be a sniper nest had crates blocking the passage in a subsequent update. A weapon that gives a minority of players an effective edge will be “nerfed” so that the majority can keep playing. Game design decisions and intentions enforce player expectation.


While this concept certainly works in multiplayer, it gets a little bit curious when you apply the idea to a single-player game. Is it possible to gank a system in which I’m not actually being unfair to anyone else? To even apply the concept to a single player game, you would have to introduce a need that is at odds with the player. In this case, it seems that the “need” would have to be represented by the intention of the actual designer themselves and their desire for the player to play the game the designer’s way. The most likely category would be a min/max scenario where the player has way more of something than they should during a sequence. A good example would be in an RPG in which you’ve got 200 potions (or stimpacks), experience no penalty for lugging all that around, and can use them effectively during combat at any time. Combat ceases to be a struggle since you can heal yourself so much, and all the enormous complexity and design that went into the game design is now ignored as a result of that lack of challenge. The problem is that you now have what game designer Mike Darga refers to as a diminishing return game design. He writes that diminishing returns can be defined as “any efficiency, [in which] the tendency of increasing costs [tends] to be less effective at increasing rewards. Diminishing returns may only apply above a certain cost level, or they may scale over the entire range of possible costs.” The more easily and effectively a player does something, the less it should give back. Darga’s post is concerned with multiple examples of diminishing returns (like making the same game too often), but his final observations can be applied to game design.


The reason that this is an issue is that the game will usually become boring for a player that can easily gank it. Presenting a tense combat situation that the player is meant to struggle with becomes trite if they find some loophole that allows them to easily kill off their enemies. The player wants the experience to be exciting, so they accept the rule that makes combat difficult and will even impose stricter rules to enhance this experience. I don’t think anyone would contest that there is a large body of players who want these sorts of rules and designers who are very talented at making them. But can the concept go beyond that? A column over at Gamasutra by Lew Pulsipher makes an argument for Nintendo’s Demo Play feature. A player can click a button and have the game play through a difficult level for you. I’m tweaking his language, but you basically are appealing to a bunch of people who don’t have a need for strict rules over how they play a game. The entire game is effectively system ganked. What does that leave for the player to do?


Such questions have already been answered by various genres that allow system ganking to occur. In Fallout 3 the stimpack stockpile is possible because stimpacks do not weigh anything. A barter system combined with a steady supply of medics with piles of stimpacks means I’ll be carrying gallons of the stuff in no time. What does Fallout 3 offer instead? A vast world to explore, numerous items to play with, and a huge emergent plot are all given to the player. Yet none of these features are ever enforced by any specific rule. Exploration can be obviated once you visit a location through insta-travel. There are plenty of items to play with, but you can bet that you’re going to be using a combat shotgun for most of the game. The plot features thousands of spiraling lines of dialogue, but I can easily load my game if things don’t go my way. Even the difficulty is optional; it can be adjusted at any time (along with the reward for kills). Which might be the most interesting design element of the game: it does not operate with any presumptions about what the player needs from its game. It does not impose any rules, instead letting the player impose them on their own. Need precedes game design.


This discussion continues in Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 2: “Ganking” Broken Systems in Video Games and Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 3: The Right to “Gank” the System in Video Games.


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Text:AAA
Friday, Oct 2, 2009
How can games be preserved over time?

I’ve never played an MMORPG. I’ve always been fascinated with the genre, but have never felt a desire to enter one of those massive worlds and explore it myself. Until recently. When I heard what the latest expansion for World of Warcraft would do to the game world (that it would completely change it by turning deserts into forests and so on), I felt a sudden urge to play it and see these parts of the world for myself before they were gone. Unlike other games when an MMO changes, it’s changed forever. My experience starting World of Warcraft now would be very different than if I had started it years ago. This past year has seen two MMOs shut down for good, Tabula Rasa and The Matrix Online. It’s strange to think that these games are now completely lost in the past, and it begs the question: how can games be preserved over time?


This issue isn’t unique to games. There were several VHS movies that never got transferred to DVD, and there are several DVD movies that will never get transferred to Blu-Ray. The blockbusters are always preserved, so it’s usually the niche gems that suffer. Re-releasing older games is a popular trend right now what with Games On Demand, PSN, and Virtual Console, but there are inherent flaws in that process. Every game can’t be re-released, so only the chosen few that are deemed important enough will be remembered as time passes. The end result is an incomplete and arbitrary archive. 


Even when an old game is re-released, the traditional console cycle moves so fast that even that update quickly becomes outdated. Square Enix re-released Final Fantasy VI as part of the Final Fantasy Anthology for the original PlayStation, which is now unplayable on PlayStation 3. The highly consumerist attitude within gamer culture only furthers this problem; today’s “day-one-purchase” is tomorrow’s used game sale. It seems painfully inevitable that many great games will be forgotten.


But I believe that the situation is not as doomy and gloomy as it first appears. Games usually become unplayable when a new console is released, and a new console is usually released when increased computing power enables better graphics (of course, there are other factors that go into the creation and launch of a new console, but better graphics are always the biggest selling point because the difference can be seen immediately). But the industry’s quest for better graphics has hit a wall with the latest generation of consoles: Graphics simply can’t get much better. No matter how powerful the PS4 will be, it won’t be able to make the same graphical leap that the PS3 did from the PS2.


Currently, characters in video games are a lot like characters in cartoons. They’re obviously not real, but we can look past their stylized reality and feel for them. Better graphics allow for more emotive characters, and more emotive characters are easier to get attached to. But we’re standing at the precipice of the “uncanny valley,” go any further and we’ll no longer feel empathetic towards these characters, since we’ll only notice how inhuman they are. The computing power and programmer effort required to jump the valley are not worth the investment. As a result, the push for a new console cycle has slowed. Without that push, this generation of games will last longer than previous ones and give any interested parties more time to re-release games for the current crop of consoles. It’s my hope that by now the industry has matured to a point where it doesn’t have to keep reinventing itself every five years.


Sony is actually doing a commendable job releasing original PlayStation games on PSN. I was surprised to see Intelligent Qube, Blood Omen: Legacy of Kain, and Ape Escape for sale along with games that are now sold as new for absurd prices considering their age like Xenogears, Vagrant Story, and Final Fantasy Tactics.


Of course this does nothing to save Tabula Rasa or The Matrix Online. MMOs and other multiplayer-centric games are unique in that once they lose their audience (or when their audience becomes too small to finance the upkeep of the game) the game is gone for good. A while ago, L.B. Jeffries posted a couple  MMO stories from EVE Online and Ultima Online. Reading about other people’s experiences in these worlds is fascinating, and I think recording these experiences for others is one way to keep these social games alive. Even when they’re gone, they won’t be forgotten.


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Wednesday, Sep 30, 2009
The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.

Yeah, I know.  Sex sells.


Indeed, when I teach advertising analysis as an exercise in practicing interpretation and evaluating rhetorical techniques in my freshmen composition classes, I often have students that astutely point out this phenomenon.  I do like to point out that selling a product via sex, though, can be a relatively more complex process than that two word phrase might otherwise imply.  Once we begin comparing advertisements targeted at different types of audiences (heterosexual men, heterosexual women, homosexual men, homosexual women), it generally becomes apparent that this sales technique depends on some interestingly different expectations of how those audiences want their sex served up that may reveal some differences between expectations along gender lines or that might reveal some stereotypes that we have about sexuality and gender.


Evony: The very definition of subtlety

Which brings me to the weirdly sexed up and, what appears to me to be, the overly simplistic and badly marketed Evony campaign.  I should note that a number of other folks have spilled a fair amount of virtual ink on the topic of Evony and its marketing.  I suppose that the fact that Evony has generated as much conversation about its ads as it has does indicate that at least the ads themselves have been successful in getting the game some attention and that it is probably largely related to its extremely straightforward and audacious “sex sells” mentality.  That the game has had much less virtual ink spilled about the game itself, however, may indicate the campaign’s relative lack of success at getting folks to actually play the game.  The advertising may be selling itself rather than the product.


I should mention, though, too, that a lot of this attention has drawn some charges against Evony that go beyond mere marketing issues.  In one of the rare reviews about the gameplay itself over at the Massively Multiplayer Online Gaming news site, Ark’s Ark, a columnist called Arkenor has observed that Evonycontains in game text that bears a suspicious similarity to the text of games from the Civilization series.  Additionally, Arkenor notes that a piece of software called iEvony that is downloadable from the Evony web site “just wants all your instant messenger login details so it can send messages to people on your behalf.”  He suggests that this is part of Evony‘s additional layers of less overt viral marketing.  Nic, a writer for The Big Critique web site, makes similar claims that “this game ripped off its graphics and descriptions from other games [and] includes new software that raises privacy issues.”


With that bit of warning concerning the potentially less obvious aspects of the possible shadiness of Evony aside, though, I am frankly still just baffled by the way that Evony has been sold to gamers.  As the information that Arkenor’s article suggests, Evony is a simulation game in the tradition of Civilization, a fairly hardcore economic management and combat simulation that has no clear connection beyond a medieval theme (and that theme does not even emerge in all of its ads anyway) to the game itself.


Evony is a little less sexy in person

What I am trying to get at here is that while a lot of games try to sell themselves on sexual content, those games usually also contain some element of sexual content.  I just published a piece last week about “The Bodies of Lara Croft and Rubi Malone” that in part defended the representations of these female protagonists of the Tomb Raider series and Wet.  However, I would not ever claim that either Lara or Rubi are not highly sexualized characters in games that in part are selling themselves on that sexuality.  Indeed, as I observed in my recent review of Wet, the game is in part interested in sexuality as it emerges in the exploitation cinema stylistics that it apes. If Wet contains some sexy images, well, it is game that is in part about the topic of sex.  However, unlike Tomb Raider or Wet, Evony is a less than sexy game.  It is a sim.  And it is certainly not some sexy sim.


In that regard, I really don’t understand how the PR minds that are pushing Evony expect to maintain a player base for this game when it simply isn’t offering what it’s advertising.  Sure, it will garner attention and some hardcore sim players like sex, too (hard to believe I know), but those looking for sexual content are going to look away pretty quickly from this game, which ostensibly intends to make money on in game purchases made to enhance this otherwise freeware style of game.  When the money gets made through the play of the game, you better hope that the user is actually there for the game.


This might sort of be what the game is about

Now, the marketing of the game initially was considerably less sexually fixated.  Instead, early ads seemed to play up the medieval themes of the game with an image of a knight brandishing a sword and the like.  Frankly, if that wasn’t doing the trick for luring in players either, I can understand why.  The image is not especially eye catching (it’s a fairly generic bit of art), but this early iteration of the ad campaign shows the same slightly off target marketing of the current one.  The single image of the knight might imply an action-oriented game moreso than a simulation or strategy game to a gamer, so any player that might click on the ad might similarly be disappointed with the game that they are actually getting and might not hang on long enough to drop some virtual coin on it.  It isn’t the clearest representation of the product.  It touches on theme, but theme isn’t the only selling point for a game.


It also begs the question of where ad space is being purchased in any case for these games.  If banners for Evony are showing up on sites frequented by strategy and simulation fans, the confusion of the imagery with what kind of game is being sold might be less problematic than it is on a site with a broader gaming audience.  Gamers get signs like medieval themes and swords, they may not associate that with simulation, though.  As I understand it, Google has added features that aid advertisers (and maybe consumers) by targeting ads towards Google users’ search interests, but the Evony campaign hearkens back to the mystification of advertisers during the 1990s about how to use the web to advertise.  During that era, many advertisers seemed to think that getting any ad space on the kinds of sites with the biggest hit counts during that time period, largely sites about video games or that might feature pictures of Cindy Margolis was a good idea, even though, the 18 to 35 male, computer nerd demographic that frequented those sites might not be the best group to market your fabric softener or gardening tools to (selling Cheetos might have been a more sensible bet).  I also maintain that just because you are targeting gamers, that you might realize that there are more specific venues to target the right kinds and that if you do know that your banners will be showing up on a general gaming site that making your message about what your game is much less ambiguous helps a lot.


In other words as an advertiser, you might do well to attempt to play up the nature of your game to an audience that actually wants to play that kind of game.  I promise that there is a whole audience out there that really wants to play a good economic sim with interesting combat options and tricky decisions about resource management.  You might just want to tell them that your game contains those elements.  You could also probably throw some sex into the mix if the game contains it, but curiously enough, people feel ripped off when they don’t get what they seemed to have been promised.  In the end, the more specifically targeted audience (that doesn’t feel misled) is the most likely group to spend some money on your game and tell their friends about it.  All this might seem really obvious: be truthful about what you are advertising, sell to the right audience, etc.  But recall how “obvious” the idea that “sex sells” alone is supposed to be.


Evony: Desperate much?

Finally, what advertisers might need to learn is that gamers might best be understood by what their name implies, those who like to play games.  As the legendary flop, BMX XXX succeeded in demonstrating, just slapping some pornography on top of a game about BMX tricks is not a sure fire way to get product flying off the shelves.  Gamers interested in BMX tricks might first and foremost be more interested in playing a really well designed game in the genre.  Not that gamers don’t like sex, but maybe it should make sense to include sexuality when it is appropriate and, well, sensible (bikes and strippers, wha?).  Additionally, it might even be worth considering how the audience (be they male or female, straight or gay) might respond to sexual imagery in terms of the plot, themes, and gameplay itself and not simply assume that sex is the sole reason that anything can or will ever be sold to the public.  Quite honestly when I look at the ads for Evony, they look more like a satire on sex in advertising than anything else.  Frankly, a game that satirized advertising sounds more interesting to me and might justify an advertising campaign this absurd.


Maybe I’m wrong, though, and Evony‘s marketing campaign has led to its publishers and developers making money hand over fist.  If so, though, why do they look so desperate to me?


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Text:AAA
Tuesday, Sep 29, 2009
A breakdown of Jesper Juul's classic text on rule structures and game design.

Back during the first tentative steps of video game academia there was an unpleasant clash over how important the story in a video game really is. It’s hard to really establish a definitive stance on the argument because every game has a unique relationship with its narrative elements. Sometimes there are lucrative goals and engaging plot decisions for the player, sometimes story just adds context to an otherwise purely skill based game. Jesper Juul’s book half-real is a very large discussion about rules and the kinds of games they produce. Linear rules, open rules, how these can be grouped or organized to produce certain types of behavior, and how they can be grouped to produce certain kinds of stories. Using a neat division between emergent and progressive gameplay, Juul outlines the relationship a player has with either system and how narrative is intertwined with each. Considering the nature of his work with Popcap games such as the Bejeweled series, it goes without saying that the majority of the text is discussing emergent rule systems.


From <i>You Have to Burn the Rope</i>”></div><p class=From You Have to Burn the Rope


It’s a sort of weird tradition with game academics to throw out an elaborate definition of what a game is when they’re doing a book like this. As the indie and experimental scene continues to grind apart any attempts to concretely hammer down the concept, accepting the definition in an article has more to do with the sake of argument than actually expecting it to universally work. Juul defines a game as, “A game is a rule-based system with a variable and quantifiable outcome, where different outcomes are assigned different values, the player exerts effort in order to influence the outcome, the player feels emotionally attached to the outcome, and the consequences of the activity are negotiable.” (36) As Juul notes in one of many large graphs, there are now dozens of things that could be broadly defined as a game, but his definition might better be termed as the definition of an ‘emergent game’. (44)


Very early in the book Juul draws the distinction between an emergent design (a number of simple rules combining to form interesting variations) and a progressive design (separate challenges presented serially). (5) He gives a simple test to tell which one you’re playing: if the gamefaq is a walkthrough, it’s a progression system. If it’s a strategy guide, it’s an emergent system. (71) Part of the reason this schism should exist is that the term ‘game’ has already changed meaning over the years. In one section of the book he shows the earliest definition of a game from years ago and shows how it has changed into modern times. (30) The reason for this is that games, unlike film or books, are uniquely trans-media. You can play a game outside with a ball, a deck of cards, a board, dice, or on a computer. (48) It is possible to make a game where you can see and observe everything there is to know about the game (such as basketball) or you can make one where your understanding is imperfect. As a consequence it keeps changing from media to media. This is the second way Juul differentiates these two design aesthetics. In Space Invaders, you know everything about the gameplay. Aliens come down, you shoot, getting hit means you lose. There are no surprises, there is no black box hiding everything from the player. In poker, you only know what’s in your hand. There are plenty of surprises in every game. (59)


This is an ongoing argument in the gaming community. Clint Hocking’s advocates designing games where the information state is perfect for the player. He freely explains how the buddy system works in Far Cry 2 because in his game there really isn’t any such thing as a spoiler. You’re supposed to know everything that’s going on because unlike a progressive design, the player must have a fuller degree of control for an emergent experience. They should understand the consequence of their actions and what the machine is thinking. As Juul explains, “For emergence, the game is the whole of the sum of its parts.” (78)


From http://www.backyardcity.com/

From http://www.backyardcity.com/


What’s interesting about these distinctions between design aesthetics is Juul’s contention that the narrative is always interchangeable for them. That is, “games that are formally equivalent can be experienced completely differently.” Or put another way, “any game can potentially be read as an allegory of something else.” (133) He uses Tic-Tac-Toe as an example by changing the game’s depiction from X’s and O’s to a number grid. (52) The numbers are re-arranged and the player is told to pick three numbers that add up to 15. It plays the exact same way as Tic-Tac-Toe because of the number arrangement; all you have to do is get three in a row. Yet the game is now experienced completely differently because of the adding element, usually resulting in people disliking it. That’s why any argument that narrative trumps design is ultimately going to fail. As Juul notes, peel off the plot and art of any game and its skeleton, its core being, is still a mathematical series of rules. If your foundation is not solid, the rest will fall apart.


Juul then broadly defines what constitutes an algorithmic process or game design rule. It must end after a certain number of steps. Each step must be precisely defined. It can have zero or more inputs, but it must have one or more outputs. It must also be effective. A cookbook, to give an example, is not an algorithm because of the imprecise measurements and moments. Unlike an abstract concept, “an algorithm can work because it requires no understanding of the domain and because it only reacts to very selected aspects of the world – the state system.” (63) A state system is just the game’s current status based on the rules, defined by having a beginning and being altered by input from the player. The location of your pieces on a board game at any given time, for example. The point is, “a rule includes a specification of what aspects of the game and game context are relevant to the rule.


The rules of relevance are a place where rules and narrative meet in that learning a game also means learning to ignore the purely decorative aspects of plot. This is part of the process of information reduction.” (63) This is also what a game designer refers to as ‘chunking’. The more a player becomes familiar with a game, the more they tune out the visuals and just focus on interacting with the rules. Juul cites Quake III as an example of this, pointing out that most hardcore players turn the detail level as low as possible to ensure the game runs quickly. They don’t care what the game looks like or is about anymore. (139)


From Quake III

From Quake III


The narrative sections of the book mostly dismiss progressive games and instead focus on the growing genres that merge the two design aesthetics. The book was written in 2005 and as a consequence Juul must focus on Grand Theft Auto III and The Sims for many of these points. As noted above, both games create a broad series of rules and choices that the player can make. This creates a game world, one whose visuals, sound, and interactions are all communicating a sense of space to the player. (163) The most crucial role of fiction is to cue the player into understanding the rules. (189) In order to ensure that the game remains interesting, the space must have a wide variety of different rules that do not overlap. He refers to this as ‘orthogonal unit differentiation’ or put much, much more simply: every unit has a strength and weakness. The key is to make sure there are a number of different non-overlapping axes that the units can be placed along rather than just one axis such as “strength”. (108) Doing one activity in two different contexts should be possible and should produce different outcomes. For example, doing a plot mission in GTA III produces an outcome different from if the player was just driving around smashing things, even if they are in the same location. These emergent systems present a fictional world, one the player accepts because the rules create an abstract and changing process. (170)


This eventually leads to the portions of the book that focus extensively on narrative. The problem for Juul is that if you’re willing to accept that a game is always functionally just an expression of its rules then you are not going to be able to create certain kinds of stories. He notes, “The goal has to be one that the player would conceivably want to attain….Superficially, it would seem that the player is only attached to the outcome on the level of the rules, and as such, it would be irrelevant whether the goal of the game is to commit suicide or to save the universe.” (161) Technically, there are several hilarious games that present just such a goal today. As a consequence, Juul points out that it would be difficult to make a tragic game because that conflicts with a player’s sense of the win-state. You could make the rules focus on achieving a tragic conclusion, but who would want to play such a thing? Juul writes, “While a clear valorization (goal) and emotional attachment to the outcome afford the player an opportunity to succeed, they also mean that the player can fail miserably.” (199)


Reading half-real several years after its creation, it’s interesting to see the different ways people have tackled the problem he outlines at the end of the book on narrative. Having a game be about anything other than victory is hard because you have to get the player to actively want the goal themselves. Various attempts like Passage or The Path continue to push this notion but the results are usually mixed. You either confound the player or shorten the play-time so that the investment does not seem like such a waste. An AAA game like The Darkness is arguably the most successful game to present a tragedy but it does so by presenting a conflicted win-state. Other titles that have tried to present conflicted win-state ending like Fallout 3 have mostly been criticized for them. In the end, the issues that Juul pointed out several years ago are still being struggled with in video games today.


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