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Between Realism and Abstraction - The Boundaries of Playability

An excessive focus on detail and faithful representation of reality can lead to complications that not only affect gameplay fluidity and overall enjoyment but also pose legal and socio-cultural challenges.

Mateusz Hyla, Blogger

June 26, 2024

16 Min Read
Images via Jujubee.

In the world of computer games, developers constantly balance between striving for realism and maintaining playability. Realism in computer games is a powerful tool that can enhance immersion and player engagement. However, an excessive focus on detail and faithful representation of reality can lead to complications that not only affect gameplay fluidity and overall enjoyment but also pose legal and socio-cultural challenges.

In this article, I would like to examine how, during my nearly seven years of employment at Jujubee, we faced these challenges, what compromises we had to make, and how they influenced the final reception of our games by the gaming community. I will also explore the lessons that can be learned from these experiences and how they might impact the future of developing computer games that aspire to be realistic.

Jujubee’s approach to Realism

Jujubee is a Polish studio that has been active in the computer game market for over a decade. Several years ago, the studio decided to create socially responsible games that address real-world issues. Wanting to develop games with a message, Jujubee consolidated these efforts under the brand Games Beyond, which focuses on games that not only provide entertainment but also have strong reflections of reality.


The first production by Jujubee under the Games Beyond brand was the documentary game "KURSK." This game focused on recreating real events from the recent past—the Russian naval maneuvers and the catastrophic sinking of the eponymous submarine Kursk during those exercises. The developers, aside from the historical backdrop, decided to realistically depict the interior of the submarine and other locations. To achieve this, they relied on the few available photographs taken on sister submarines. The situation was complicated by the fact that most of the materials were available exclusively in Russian, making access to sources significantly more difficult. At this stage, one can identify the first problem of creating realistic games—the insufficiency of materials, sources, and information.


The true causes of the disaster and its sequence of events are also unknown, so this gap had to be filled with an abstract scenario. In a situation where a significant portion of individuals who experienced the event, either directly or indirectly, are still alive, crafting an interpretation of reality poses several challenges. The first is the possibility of new information emerging that may reveal inconsistencies or illogical aspects between the presented scenario and the actual events. The second challenge is the risk of offending individuals emotionally involved in the event, which was very apparent during the production of "KURSK."

The third observed problem is the right to use specific materials. Access to military documents of the submarine's crew was possible—in a realistic approach, the ideal solution would have been to create characters with the same names and appropriately modeled appearances. However, licensing issues, the right to likeness, and the feelings of the families of those who perished on the submarine stand in the way.


The fourth, more obvious aspect is finding a balance between depicting the truth and what will be interesting for the player. Game design has its own rules; players have become accustomed to certain patterns and solutions and have specific expectations regarding the tasks presented to them. Reality usually appears much simpler and duller—there is no point in engaging the player in several days of observing maneuvers from the submarine's perspective before the disaster occurs. In a realistic approach, they would spend most of the game standing next to the captain, listening to orders being given and received communications, only to later experience a brief episode with the disaster.

The fifth encountered problem is, of course, the budget. Faithfully recreating realism is associated with significantly higher costs—primarily, there is no possibility of using ready-made assets, or this possibility is very limited. More time needs to be devoted to gathering source material, verifying facts, and adjusting mechanics and storyline to them. Often, it will be necessary to purchase additional licenses, such as music from a given period or the rights to use trademarks or specific models.


Truck Simulation 19

Continuing the discussion on licensing rights, it is worth looking at another game from the studio—Truck Simulation 19. The idea behind this production was to create a mobile truck simulator. To maximize realism, it was necessary to obtain licenses to use real truck models in the game. Besides the obvious financial considerations, it is important to remember that such licenses can come with additional requirements. For example, all trucks must have the same parameters to avoid presenting players with better and worse options. Only customization offered by the manufacturers is allowed—meaning all additional stickers, paint jobs, or super-tuning are excluded. Trucks cannot be shown in a negative light, which means forgoing damage systems or vehicle dirt. Moreover, using the vehicles for illegal purposes, such as street racing or transporting prohibited cargo, may also be disallowed. Licensing issues can thus force the abandonment of certain gameplay ideas but can also block some realistic aspects in games.


Take Off Flight Simulator

The second simulator released for mobile devices is the flight simulator Take Off. In this game, the player takes on the role of a pilot building their airline company in the Hawaiian Islands. In this case, budget considerations led to the decision to forgo accurate representation of real aircraft, and instead, planes were created solely inspired by real models.

Originally, the game's idea was to enable the most faithful feeling of controlling an aircraft, with accurate physics and the behavior of the machine during winds, weather changes, and altitude differences, considering the size and type of the aircraft and its parameters. The problem encountered here was the computational power of mobile devices. Developing a game for mobile devices involves significantly less computational power than for PCs, so it was necessary to greatly simplify the physics and abandon realism in favor of accessibility on a larger number of devices.

Another realistic element that had to be abandoned was the realistic number of parameters that the pilot must control and the handling of individual mechanisms in the aircraft. Creating a true-to-life simulator that faithfully reproduces a pilot's work would significantly reduce the player base—few possess the skills that would allow them to enjoy such a game.


Deep Diving Adventures

Deep Diving Simulator, also known as Deep Diving Adventures, is a deep-sea diving simulator. A significant emphasis in this game was placed on realistically portraying the ocean floor with its flora and fauna, realistic aspects, problems and dangers of diving, and environmental conservation.


The first reason for deviating from realism here was age-related requirements and associated restrictions. In many markets, there are varied requirements for games aimed at children, making it impossible to include real weapons in the game—which were intended for fighting predators or removing obstacles. It was necessary to create a sound gun that only scared away aggressive fish with ultrasound and disintegrated obstacles with a laser without any shots.

The lack of weapons also ties into social issues and expectations for this type of game—we have all heard about the problems Assassin’s Creed faced related to hunting endangered fish species. Society is more accepting of killing monsters and humans in games, but when it comes to animals, especially rare ones, there is an outcry. Social expectations for environmental care are very high, and in the case of realistic games, there are expectations to align with this narrative.

The third aspect that had to be considered when deciding on the level of realism in this game was player knowledge. People entirely unfamiliar with diving will not understand why rapid changes in depth cause a decrease in health points, why the player automatically receives cold damage at lower levels, or that some marine creatures, though seemingly harmless, can be dangerous. It was necessary to decide what the player would be able to grasp or how to explain it effectively and quickly.


Covid the Outbreak

Covid the Outbreak, or Virus the Outbreak, is a strategy game that was created as an artistic and social manifesto by the developers confined to their homes. The very short production period allowed for the release of a game created during the pandemic, about the pandemic, and for the pandemic. In this game, the player assumes the role of the director of the Global Health Organization, who can persuade all countries around the world to take specific actions in the fight against the virus. The game's goal was to show why governments make certain decisions and what impacts they will have—how to balance social, economic, tourism, and cultural issues in the face of combating the disease.


This type of game faced significant resistance due to its subject matter—once again highlighting the prevailing belief in society that games should not touch on important topics and are considered a lesser, less responsible medium.

Another problem encountered during this production was emotions—the aversion to the pandemic and the negative feelings associated with it carried over to the game's reception. The game caused a great stir—for example, the thread dedicated to it on the GOG store became one of the most popular topics, surpassing the biggest releases in terms of the number of comments.

The third problem related to this production was differing opinions. The developers tried to take a neutral approach—explaining the arguments of both sides, such as stating, “Lockdown is necessary to limit the spread of the virus, but the longer it lasts, the greater the socio-economic problems it may cause.” Extremist supporters did not appreciate this centrist approach.

The fourth problem was the prohibition and banning of certain words and topics. To release the game on some consoles, it was necessary to change the title to “VIRUS” and remove all references to COVID (even though the game depicted a completely different disease variant set in the future). For some sales platforms, even this change was insufficient, and they refused to publish a production concerning even an abstract pandemic—resulting in the game not being released on all devices.

The fifth problem was marketing issues and large corporations reducing the reach of certain keywords. As a result, not only did official materials and sponsored content have significantly lower reach, but gameplay videos from independent influencers were also demonetized, causing reluctance to record the game.


Realpolitiks Series

The Realpolitiks games represent the cornerstone series for the company. As a grand strategy game set in real-time and contemporary times, it fills a niche left by Paradox, which is reluctant to undertake such realistic titles.


The first problem with realism in this series lies primarily in geopolitical conflicts—not just the delineation of borders, but also the names of countries, regions, and seas. For example, Japan does not recognize the name "East China Sea." Using this term not only resulted in threats against the developers but also led to the game being massively reported to Steam.

Contemporary issues such as terrorism, wars, refugees, and political opinions evoke strong emotions, controversies, and aversion. Many publishers are hesitant to tackle such topics. A company that tries to include them in its productions, even while maintaining full neutrality, must be prepared for negative reactions from the media, influencers, and some gamer communities.

Another obstacle to realism in games is banned symbols. Contrary to appearances, this list is quite extensive and, in addition to swastikas, also includes the international red cross symbol and various local symbols. An example is the first installment of the series, where it was necessary to remove the flag of the Islamic State from the game.


The next aspect is the expectation to combat harmful attitudes, especially when it concerns contemporary times. For example, in Stellaris, a player can create a fascist state enslaving all other nations in the galaxy without negative reception. However, in a strategy set in our times, calling the Belarusian government authoritarian rather than totalitarian caused many expressions of dissatisfaction.

It is also worth noting that with realistic games, many people engage in personal crusades against a particular topic. Again, referring to the first part of the series, the inclusion of the Silesian nationality resulted in several negative reviews from opponents of this solution.

A problem with realistic games is also the changing narrative in mainstream media. What was acceptable at the beginning of production can become forbidden and unwanted after several years of developing the game. For instance, during the production of Realpolitiks 3, the perception of Palestine and Israel, as well as migration issues to Europe, changed significantly.


Punk Wars

A less problematic approach to realism can be observed in the fantastical game Punk Wars. According to the studio's philosophy, every game must reference contemporary issues, so here they decided to show the dangers that excessive faith in technology, corporatism, and continuous industrialization can bring—leading to an apocalypse and the takeover of power by fanatical corporations trying to rebuild humanity.

However, even such a large dose of speculative fiction must meet the expectations of realism among players—mainly in the form of certain patterns and beliefs already ingrained in the audience. If a faction wants to use steampunk technology, it must be consistent with the entire vision of that setting—meaning lots of clocks, gears, and specific colors. The same applies to dieselpunk, atompunk, and steelpunk. Players react negatively to breaking certain conventions derived from realism—real technological limitations or cultural sources different from those presented in the game.


Dark Moon

"Dark Moon" is an upcoming survival strategy game set in the near future, during the early stages of moon colonization. The player takes on the role of an employee of a large corporation, who is caught by a solar flare during a lunar mission, leading to the destruction of all electronics exposed to sunlight. The player must expand their mobile base and stay on the dark side of the moon, racing against time and the encroaching sunlight.

To give the catastrophe a realistic touch, the studio consulted with a satellite constructor to learn about satellite safeguards and procedures for such disasters. However, finding experts with such specialized knowledge who were willing to share it proved challenging. Several times, they faced refusals from NASA employees and academic lecturers. Thus, the problem here is the availability of experts or consultants.


The Slavs

The last production mentioned in this article is "The Slavs," an unreleased turn-based strategy game focusing on the culture and beliefs of the Slavs compared to other ethnic groups in early medieval Europe. This game is fundamentally a cultural project, heavily based on realism, true sources, and history. Such productions enjoy great popularity in Poland and are strongly supported by the state. In this case, Jujubee received a grant to create a prototype of a strategic game about Slavic culture and history, funded by the Minister of Culture and National Heritage as part of the Creative Industry Development Center's "video game support program" under the task "creating prototypes of cultural video games" amounting to 261,678 PLN.

During the production, they encountered problems related to the scarcity of sources and studies. The topic of the Slavs is not very popular or overexploited in pop culture but has a dedicated fan base. Thus, there was a problem with satisfying two extremely different audiences—those with extensive knowledge and those with none at all.

Another problem with creating games based on such sources, which are often tales and legends rather than real chronicles written by historians, is balancing realism and gameplay with mythology. Mythological and legendary events often contradict basic historical knowledge, creating another problem in choosing the game's content.

Lastly, cognitive biases in players present a problem. Pop culture has taught us certain patterns, but in the case of realistic references, these are often incorrect patterns (e.g., Vikings wearing horned helmets). For the Slavs, the biggest culprit is the local "The Witcher" series—widely perceived as a model of Slavic culture, but in reality, it draws more from Germanic mythology. The challenge is to confront players' expectations and understanding of Slavic culture with a realistic portrayal of its elements.


Creating realistic games can take various forms. Realism does not always mean faithful representation in game mechanics but can also manifest as historical games, those based on cultural texts, or those reflecting current, real-world events. Realism can bring numerous benefits to a game, but it also entails additional challenges for developers—from the design phase, through production, to release, marketing, and product support. Often, it is only after years that it becomes clear whether the chosen approach was correct or not.

Examining 11 games designed with a high degree of realism, the following issues were identified:

  1. Shortage or excess of information and sources: Problems with the availability or excess of historical, scientific, and cultural information can affect the game's authenticity.

  2. Entrenched stereotypes: Players may have ingrained false perceptions, which influence their expectations of the game.

  3. Emotional approach to the subject: The game's theme can evoke strong emotions and controversies, affecting its reception.

  4. Common perception of games: There is a belief that games are a less ambitious and mature medium, which may limit their acceptance in society.

  5. Boundary between realism and playability: Developers must balance between realistic representation of reality and what is attractive and playable.

  6. Licensing restrictions: Licenses for real elements (like vehicles, buildings) may come with restrictions that impact game content.

  7. Budget constraints: Realism often requires higher financial outlays, which can be a challenge for developers.

  8. Difficulty in customer segmentation: Limitations arising from varying levels of players' familiarity with the game's subject matter.

  9. Cognitive biases: Players may have false perceptions of the facts presented in the game.

  10. Top-down prohibitions and mandates: Some topics may be banned or restricted by authorities, affecting the game's content.

  11. High controversy: Realistic games may provoke controversies that influence their reception.

  12. Reduced marketing reach: Problems with promoting games with controversial themes.

  13. Age requirements: Restrictions resulting from the age classification of games.

  14. Social issues: Games may be criticized for addressing sensitive social topics.

  15. Computing power: Technological limitations affecting the game's realism.

  16. Player skills: The complexity of the game must be adapted to the average player's abilities.

  17. Habits from other games: Players may expect certain patterns from other games, which may conflict with a realistic approach.

  18. Balance between truth and attractiveness: Developers must find a balance between faithfully depicting reality and what will be interesting to the player.

  19. Emergence of new information: New sources and changing narratives can impact the game's reception.

  20. Cultural differences: Cultural issues can influence how the game is perceived in different regions.

  21. Geopolitical conflicts: Contemporary conflicts and territorial disputes can affect the game's content.

  22. Availability of consultants and experts: Difficulties in finding experts willing to collaborate.

  23. Reluctance to certain topics: Some topics may be difficult for publishers and players to accept.

Thus, realism in games can bring many benefits but also comes with numerous challenges. Developers must be prepared to face many issues to achieve the desired effect and create a product that is both authentic and attractive to players.

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