Games

Moving Pixels Plays Telephone Part 1: Considering “Ganking” the System in Video Games

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.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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