Full Sail Master's Thesis: Formal Design Theory

In which Joey discusses some of the nagging thesis issues that have been keeping him up at night and generally delaying his defense.

Hello again true believers! Joey here, starting up another mandatory blog post.

     I've been given the choice of making this second blog about either discussing current industry trends or the work I'm currently doing on my master's thesis. As you can no doubt tell be the title, I've decided to be selfish.

     So here's the thesis statement:

     Space is one of several game mechanics that each affect a variable termed "player agency," the level of which in turn determines the type of story that a game will be able to provide for its players.

     The argument that I'm presenting is essentially this: There are two basic types of stories that games are able to provide for their players as a part of the general play experience. Games can either provide progressive, designer-implemented story (think Uncharted 2) or more emergent, player-driven story (think The Sims 3). Most games actually have both in one proportion or another, but these story types are considered to be two opposite ends of a spectrum. The story type is dependent on the amount of agency that the players are able to exhibit within the game system. That is the less control the designers have over what the player can and cannot do within the game, the more the game will focus on providing an emergent experience.  Conversely, if designers cut back on player freedom and direct them along a more linear, scripted path, the more the game will lend itself toward the progressive end of the spectrum.

    Space comes into play because having more or less of it accessible to the players helps to determine how much agency the players have. All games take place within some sort of space, whether you're playing 20 questions with a friend, a game of football on a team, or one of the mayn iterations of Tetris on a handheld iOS. In 20 questions the space available to the players is limited to the minds of both of the players - there's movement involved, but there are actions that the players can and cannot take due to the space restrictions. The same thing is true of football. There's an added agency associated with physical movement, but that movement is limited by boundaries and other conditional action restrictions (offense vs. defense, ball possession, etc.). Tetris there is no player avatar to speak of (unless you consider the fall bloacks as polygonal extensions of the user, which, come to think, does have some credence) but again we see a space in which the player can perform actions and receive feedback from the game system. The best definition of space within a game is the idea of the "Magic Circle" from Johan Huizinga's Homo Ludens - games have intrinsic areas in which the rules of the rest of the world are set aside and only the rules of the game apply.

     Okay... So how does space affect player agency? Well, recall that agency is a function of game mechanics (I'll hit on those in a later post) that include actions, space, objects, attributes, states, and a few other things which all define the rules of the game system. Rules essentially exist to control player behavior within games - them what they can and cannot do - and, holding all of the other game mechanics as constant, increasing space generally allows the player more freedom of action and, therefore, more agency. Decreasing space has the opposite effect.

     But there's another dimension to this idea of space as a partial determinate of player agency. Not only are we considering the amount of relative space allotted for action, we also have to look at the way that space is organized. Progressive stories tend to take place, for example, in strictly linear or branching gameworlds that allow for relatively less freedom for player exploration. Open world games (such as Fallout 3 or the recent Elder Scrolls titles) tend to have more emergent stories simply because their game spaces are organized in such a way as to encourage player freedom and exploration. The player enters the world and they essentially have the freedom to go off and do whatever they want.

     By controlling the organization of space within a game system, designers can control how and when players gain access to gain content. More linear game worlds force players to move along a set path that is far easier for designers to control and therefore is much easier to litter with scripted narrative sequences. Open world games are, by their nature, much more difficult for designers to supervise. In fact, you could make the argument that the reason that some players prefer these types of games is that they don't want the level of designers interference in their game experience that you'd find in a more linear game. As always, it's important from a design perspective to know your audience and to design games intelligently with purpose. I'm exploring this relationship between space, agency, and story to help designers better understand how their choices affect the play experience.

     That's enough for this week, I think. For homework, go flip through a copy of The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses by Jesse Schell. I've been doing a ton of game design research lately and in my opinion The Art of Game Design is the best how-to guide on the market right now.

     I'll be back again next Friday like clockwork. I think I'll go into more detail about how agency affects the story experience, but try not to hold me too that. There's a lot of ground to cover (enough that I'm sure my thesis committee won't be done with my rough draft by the end of Full Sail's summer break holiday). Now go drink some lemonade, grill some brats, and enjoy the holiday. I, for one, will be spending the 4th curled up with a copy of Agile Estimating and Planning with Independence Day rolling in the background.



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