"Game design" is a broad concept, and there are as many definitions of it out there as there are game designers. This year's GDC certainly attempted to cover a lot of ground on the topic. There were round tables and tutorials covering puzzle design, 3D fantasy world design, community design for large-scale online worlds, and more. There were numerous lectures to choose from in the GDC's Game Design track, including ones on level design, character design, console game design, dramatic writing, online casino game design, metagames, designing design tools, and more. Added to these were design-related sessions in other tracks -- like the tutorial on artifical life, and the "Visual Storytelling through Lighting" presentation in the Visual Arts track. Hal Barwood's primer for aspiring writers attracted a room full of people interested in virtual storytelling, and half a dozen lectures featured the word "story" in one form or another.
All in all, this was a good deal more than a mere mortal could hope to digest, even if fully dedicated to the task. Having worked as a writer, physicist, and coder (but not as a game designer), and with my curiosity subject to the harsh realities of GDC parallel class scheduling, I decided from the outset to focus on what, to me, seems to be the most interesting and promising approach to game design: the attempt to remove the notion of "storytelling" from games, or at least redefine it for this medium. The most vocal people exploring alternatives to classic game design included speakers Doug Church, Marc LeBlanc, Zach Simpson and Warren Spector.
Doug Church's presentation, "Abdicating Authorship," probably aimed the closest to the heart of the storytelling issue, especially when he stated:
"Our desire to create traditional narrative and exercise authorial control over the gaming world often inhibits the player's ability to involve themselves in the game world."
Church is trying to determine what games can accomplish through the features presumed to be unique to this new medium called "interactive gaming". He reviewed examples of old and new media that clearly distinguish between the author presenting a more-or-less static work, and the "out of the loop" recipient that perceives and interprets the author's work. Church concluded that "revelation of the [game] designer's intent is not interactivity".
Dismissing multimedia authoring approaches that simply extend text to hypertext, Church said that he expects these efforts to yield little beyond the rediscovery of multiform narrative (that is, multiple points of view). In his presentation, he reviewed computer games by genre, showing one or two games as examples of each genre. He pointed out that most adventure games and RPGs have, between puzzle solving and player movement, driven the replay of story elements and rarely empowered the player with true choice. Action games (e.g. sports and racing games) offer an experience dominated by ability, which requires an "in the loop" player. Being entirely driven by player actions and player skill, it is very difficult provide any kind of dramatic structure in these games.
Church referenced to Marc LeBlanc's 1999 GDC discussion of feedback loops, which said that designers could "keep the race close" for players by implementing a feedback loop. In all honesty, I feel this has little to do with traditional dramatic structure, which is based on modulating tension for the audience, not by assuring a constant level of it. As an alternative to external intervention (where the game is designed to quietly cheat to keep the game tense for the player, thus invalidating player decisions), an in-game feedback loop is certainly a good example of implementing the desired dynamics within the game simulation. For a racing game, this could be some kind of forward-pointing device that could be used to knock racers ahead of the player off the track (but that would naturally be useless if the player was leading in the race).
Of course, there are also the deathmatch/FPS action games -- a la Quake. In the past, John Carmack has described his view of game design as creating a virtual "amusement park". (Don Carson's analogy between games and theme parks is similiar in this respect -- see Part 1 and Part 2 of his environmental storytelling articles here on Gamasutra.) Church admitted that the shooters have, so far, spearheaded interactivity, but he also observed that little progress has been made to date beyond bare contests of reflex and resource management, which allow for little more than killing. He voiced the fear that maybe this is already the limit of interactivity possible with current technology.
Here, as in many other discussions, it seemed to me that game designers may not have looked closely enough at the reasons for the comparative success of shooter games, be it early shooting gallery movies or state-of-the-art first- and third-person shooters. The possibility of conflict and violence being the heart of, and cheapest way to, dramatic action has been made before. But somehow I suspect that a good deal of credit or blame has to be put on how these games make use of player hardware. The mouse and keyboard are narrow-bandwidth user interfaces, offering as a means of real-time expression only 2D aiming and button pushing. This inevitably limits the amount of meaningful interaction, at least for games that focus on player immersion. It remains to be seen whether voice recognition and voice-over-network technology will extend the man-machine interface sufficiently to open new venues, or whether better immersion will require new controllers and devices. Certainly no fancy hardware is needed for us to question whether today's emphasis on point-and-click interaction inhibits metaphors beyond "shoot this". (As a sidenote, one presentation on "armed games" tried to make a case for empowering the player with a virtual (empty) hand, trading the ability to grasp, carry, and place objects for a weapon glued to our palms.)
The genre Church focused on last was simulation and strategy games. Certainly this genre has the simulation machinery required for interactive experience, and a time scale that permits the versatile use of mouse and keyboard interfaces. Between Sim City and The Sims, this is a large spectrum of games, reaching all the way to virtual pets. "The Sims" are certainly closer relatives to "Creatures", or even Tamagotchis, than Darwin's theory of evolution might suggest. As attendees pointed out, our fascination with The Sims might well be connected to our childhood attraction to toys: dolls onto which children of all ages can project their own lives, memories, and personalities.
As Doug Church also pointed out, the shortcuts, "done quick" demos and walkthroughs available on the web are a lesson in humility for every designer. The ways players exploit deficiencies in a simulation are themselves metagames, which players often undertake when they feel subjected to the external control by a game's "author". It is a natural consequence of game designs that offer exploration, but not manipulation, of the virtual environment. Exploring the rules is just a logical extension of game play.
Having been a professional storyteller for many years, I found it amazing that I had fewer problems abandoning the notion of an "author" in game design than many others. It seems that many designers are struggling to get rid of the harness that comes with the notion of narrative game play. The attempts to redefine "narrative" seem unsuccessful. Church suggested that players involved in a deathmatch might create stories by learning the levels, but I think in this case he's mistaking cognitive mapping for narrative.
To me, statements like "the designer 'authors' the rules, while the player 'authors' the real story" try to evade a simple conclusion: interactive games are about control. They are about control over the input device, the initiation of events, and the state of the environment. The player battles for control against the game designer (the designer is the opponent by proxy -- he sets the stage and defines the simulation rules). Player and designer are rarely cooperative partners; rather, they are natural enemies pitted against each other. The game designer who strives for storytelling and authorship is the "dungeon keeper" for his customers, entertaining perhaps, but still a tyrant. During the discussion of Church's presentation, someone in the audience suspected as much: the game designer is indeed a planner and a schemer, who is "plotting" against the player.
Game designers might want to consider the possibility that there might be little future for narrative in cyberspace. They are caught between deathmatches as interactivity devoid of meaning, multi-branch storytelling, and aspirations for creating a Holodeck experience. Doug Church himself saw little appeal in the possibility that the voyeurism, inertia and passivity which made TV a success will also dominate the much more powerful medium of computer games.
Formal Abstract Design Tools
In the lecture preceding Doug Church's, Marc LeBlanc sought out a different approach to game design. Under the label of Formal Abstract Design Tools (FADT), LeBlanc, Church and others are trying to establish rules, models, techniques and, most importantly, a shared vocabulary to improve the understanding of game design as a craft. The ideal FADT, according to definition, is "well-defined," "abstract" (i.e., applicable across genres), has day-to-day utility, and works in a well-understood application context. During another GDC discussion, Warren Spector pointed out the unexpected resistance game designers exhibit when facing the idea that their work and thinking could possibly be described and discussed in more formal ways, and Marc LeBlanc was quick to pre-empt concerns by assuring that FADTs are not meant to be a "Swiss Army Knife" of game design.
His presentation started with the battle cry "down with fun," which he elaborated upon as he created a taxonomy of "fun" to illustrate both the fuzziness of the concept and its limited applicability. "Fun" as applied to games covers everything from simple sensual pleasure to make-believe, from drama to the satisfaction of solving intellectual challenges, from social interaction to submission, from exploration of another person's invention to self-discovery. It is hard to find precision in such versatility.
Personally, I suspect that a good share of the FADT efforts are trying to reinvent the wheel. The problems and challenges in finding a common vocabulary for a craft have been encountered in other professions, and the recent decade has brought a variety of solutions. In my limited experience, Christopher Alexander's work on "design patterns" seems the most promising avenue (more about this in a upcoming Gamasutra article), which uses an approach that has been successfully applied to fields as diverse as architecture, workflow management, and software engineering. (You can also see Zach Simpson's collection of game programming patterns as an example.)
Marc LeBlanc also looks to other disciplines for inspiration. In his GDC talk last year, he introduced feedback loops as a design concept. This year he ventured into "complex systems," which quite naturally contain feedback loops: the rules governing the state change take the current state into account. "Complex systems" (much like "fractals," "nonlinear dynamics," or "emergence") has become a popular science buzzword over the past decade, and the concept has suffered from this. Marc LeBlanc focused on the observation that the behavior of a dynamic system often cannot be easily predicted from its set of rules, even if those rules are deceptively simple. In reverse, mere observation of a sample system will not allow you to deduce of those rules.
The example commonly used to illustrate complex systems and their dynamics is that of cellular automata (for a reference I suggest Steve Wolfram's book). The most popular of the cellular automata is John H. Conway's Game of Life, which LeBlanc used to demonstrate properties "emerging" from a set of rules. He then compared this 2D cellular automaton with 2D board games like Chess or Go, where attack and defense tactics and strategy are only implied by the game's rules. He also pointed to card combos in Magic: The Gathering and emergent properties like Trains, Kiting, and Killstealing in EverQuest (the latter makes emergent properties look more like a problem than an asset).
LeBlanc tried to make a case for emergent complexity as a possible source for "fun." In his view, such emergence creates larger spaces to explore, offering the player more features to discover and more challenges to meet. He tried to distinguish systems with simple elements from those in which the constituents are quite complex . The one word he did not use was "combinatorial" – a good deal of the complexity in cellular automata is due to the fact that, while the number of possible states per cell is finite, the number of cells is quite large, and the resulting state space of the entire system is blown up beyond human comprehension by combinatorial explosion.
There is little to be learned from cellular automata that could be applied to game design, thus his presentation quickly moved on to examples such as sports simulations, which are well advised to replicate emergent properties of the real world by replicating the underlying dynamics. (Ted Zuvich's GDC lecture on physically accurate vehicle dynamics for Need For Speed was a case in point). For most games, differential equations will rule the player's world, not the discrete counting rules of transition that govern cellular automata. On another level, The Game of Life is indeed a telling metaphor with respect to game design: one detail LeBlanc did not elaborate on was that they are fully deterministic systems, ticking away like clockwork, driven solely by the laws of behavior and the initial conditions as defined by their design. If game designers ever get serious about abdicating authorship, these two devices -- initial conditions and laws of dynamics -- will be the essence of the tools left at their disposal. Random initial conditions, as contemplated by LeBlanc, will deprive the designer of even the ability to set the stage, before leaving it for good.
The lecture made the point that complexity is not accomplished by creating lots of rules. In fact, the common way to implement a game simulation is to write an expert system -- a database of rules of thumb and special cases, patched and hacked to accomodate short-term needs during game development. The properties created by rule-based simulations don't always make sense, and might even be contradictory. On the other hand, properties emerging from perfectly consistent simulations usually come as an unpleasant surprise. For instance, once players discovered rocket jumping in Quake 2 (whereby players fire the the rocket launcher at the floor and use the reactive force to propel themselves skyward), they began to use that trick to cut corners in ways the map designers had not anticipated. Warren Spector gave another example in a recent interview about his game, Deus Ex. He explained that the interplay between the game's AI and the sound caused by a single bullet casing hitting the ground exposed sniping players to such a degree that, in the interest of preserving the plot, the game simulation was hacked to accommodate this emergent property. (Caseless ammunition was seemingly not an option).
Marc LeBlanc pointed out that degenerate player strategies indicate a flaw in the simulation of resource exchange. He described game dynamics as a process of transportation or conversion (i.e., a flow defined by sources, sinks, and transducers), and he described player exploits as "energy spikes." In my physicist's eyes, this is just a way of saying that game simulations usually fail to model the conservation of energy correctly (as an example, multi-body simulations used in astrophysics perform error correction based on energy checksums). Degenerate player strategies as LeBlanc describes them are simply perpetual devices discovered by the player -- or at least a vast heat reservoir to tap into.
In other words, the solution to many such problems might be found in modeling the economy of transactions accurately. This is a hot topic for massively multiplayer games; this year's GDC offered Zach Simpson's lecture on In-Game Economics in Ultima Online. LeBlanc himself settled for a different solution, namely dampening the system dynamics to prevent spikes. From a physicist's experience, adding friction can only slow down every process, without addressing the real problem. His advice that designers should understand and tune exchange rates is certainly to the point, as is his recommendation to prototype early and test often games that exhibit emergent behavior. He also pointed out that introducing feedback loops into the system can have undesirable consequences: positive feedback (combined with an infinite energy supply, I would add) creates extremely unstable situations, while strong negative feedback can make the system too stable. Friction that overwhelms every other force will bring any system to a grinding halt.
All in all, the discussion of game dynamics in terms of nonlinear dynamics certainly opens an intriguing area of discussion, but I would advise game designers to proceed cautiously. The majority of popular science publications on nonlinear dynamics use the jargon without comprehending the underlying concept, and even physicists have applied them in sloppy and reckless ways. Beyond metaphor, there might be little practical use for this.
LeBlanc concluded his presentation by reviewing ways that various flavors of "fun" might emerge from toying around with a complex system, and the dreaded issue of "narrative" came up again. His claim that complexity gives you the proverbial "infinite number of monkeys" does not convince me, mathematically nor as a professional storyteller. Marc LeBlanc proposes "embedded (authored) narrative" as a complement, and wants game designers to restrict themselves to the major story arcs. While I consider "emergent narrative" a meaningless concept, abdication of authorship alone will not suffice.
This uneasy marriage of simulation-driven and scripted events fell apart when Marc LeBlanc made a case for "limited non-interactive moments." Certainly letter-boxing in-game cinematics and cut scenes is a visual cue to the player that he has entered a "hands off" sequence, but this technique does not remove the tension between the designer's desire for authorship and the player's desire for control. Game play is never "largely" emergent -- good narrative inevitably has long-range correlations and convergence points that impose constraints on the results of interactivity. I visibly annoyed one game designer by pointing out that interaction that is irrelevant to the chain of events at large is shallow and meaningless. Many game designers are painfully aware of this, and the workaround commonly used is a "Paris and the Golden Apple" hack -- at the end of the game, the player gets to choose one of two or three possible outcomes. (Incidentally, this kind of choice does not have in-game consequences.) A good example is System Shock 2, and some might be generous enough to include the cheesy ending of Half-Life as well.
An example mentioned during the discussion put the conflicting forces between authorship, emergence and exploitable features in a "mini narrative" nutshell: in System Shock, the last bullet in a clip did double damage. It is easy to see how such a simulation patch could be turned on its head once the player became aware of it.
LeBlanc offered valuable practical advice based on his experiences at Looking Glass: simplify game elements but use them in conjunction with each other, focus on interaction instead of element complexity, and settle for a two-tiered system architecture with a few solid foundation systems that are expected to survive the development process unchanged. It is as difficult for the game designer to predict the outcome of a set of rules as it would be for the player, since complex systems easily outgrow the human mind's ability to control and adjust. The slides of Marc LeBlanc's GDC 1999 and 2000 presentations are available as Powerpoint files.
Game Design and Game Culture
The panel on "Game Design and Game Culture," brought together designers like Warren Spector, Marc LeBlanc and Richard Garfield, along with guests from academia like Katie Saling and Frank Lantz. Greg Costikyan, a game designer and artist, opened the panel by stating that there is no game culture, no shared critical vocabulary, no artist's recognition, and no historical perspective (primarily due to rapid changes in technology that remove older games from the market).
I see counterexamples to the alleged shortlivedness of games, in the form of emulators, open source legacies (such as DOOM and Quake) and public domain clones. It is today's rampant notion of intellectual property that incarcerates games (see the Hasbro lawsuit and its implications as an example).
The panel, from various viewpoints, touched upon the issue of turning games into sports. This discussion covered the requirements and changes needed to accommodate spectators (which could influence a design to the point of interference with the game play), and some panel members like Greg Costikyan were repulsed by the attempts to "turn shooters into sport". Citing the example of Wing Commander 3, Marc LeBlanc pointed out that spectators and players are antagonists, and that their different objectives are hard to satisfy simultaneously. Warren Spector emphasized that early single-player gaming was in fact a social event: people gathered about a box, and there were fuzzy lines between spectating and participating (I remember this well from my days playing Elite on the C64). He stated that this aspect of gaming is sadly missing even from the most massively multiplayer games today.
Katie Salen, from the University of Texas at Austin, pointing to hidden audiences like the Machinima culture of Quake cinema, said we are beginning to build cultures of spectatorship, and yet we lack a vocabulary of perception and reception. Quake, with its minimal but open design, has by means of recams of Quake matches (as well as scripted performances) created a "culture of production."
Greg Costikyan must have felt deja vu as he listened to everyone revisit the issue of why games are not yet considered art/might not be art/should be considered art/should become art... and any combination thereof. He pointed out (in a different context, on the effects of violence) that these discussions repeat themselves in cycles. Little is to be gained by asking whether "game is the right word" or by "debunking immersion." (I know that science fiction writers have used the exact same words as this panel to describe the perceived disinterest and rejection by mainstream media, academia, and the general populace.)
For me, Warren Spector's reassurance that "the real world is paying attention" conjured the image of a shrink watching us with a guarded expression. Spector stated that an expressive form is most interesting only after its rules have been established; his main interest lies in reaction against the established form, the subversion of it. I suspect the time span between the pioneering and the "postmodernization" of a medium has been cut down tremendously since the early days of motion pictures, so the game industry may not have to wait as long as the film industry for subversion of the form to outpace invention of the form.
Katie Salen's question "who is the designer, and who isn't?" got to the heart of interactive games. There is hubris in statements like "the designer has to manage player contributions to ensure quality". "Educating" and "training" the player are concepts with connotations -- Gabe Newell's recent proposal to apply the lessons of behavioral science to game design can be extended all the way to Pawlow and Skinner. Personally, I much prefer Frank Lantz' reminder that "we have to acknowledge, we have to celebrate gamer experimentation".
Marc LeBlanc observed that game designers consider themselves authors that have to deliver entertainment, and pronounced this a mistake. He cautioned the audience that "deconstruction of a game is part of its creation," and moved on to list concepts overvalued by designers and gamers alike: challenge, narrative, sensational aspects, player as foe, competitiveness. He pointed out that such tunnel vision is the individual player's right and privilege, but it's far less acceptable for a designer. In contradiction to his presentation later at the GDC, LeBlanc recommended that game designers stop using the language used in other media, like movies or writing. Moderator Eric Zimmerman called this the "Matt LeBlanc Manifesto": games should simply be viewed as vehicles of self-expression.
Responding to this "manifesto," Warren Spector found himself agreeing with its requests and recommendations, but said he had not yet found a way to implement them. He felt the expressive tools available to game designers, with the exception of the pure text adventures, have been "pathetic" for the past twenty years. Spector described Deus Ex as an attempt to create an RPG with the intricate complexity of the real world, and stated that he "should have been kicked in the ass" for attempting as much. He described how players first confronted with Deus Ex perceived and played it as if it was Quake, and pointed out that the hardest challenge is to find ways of communicating to players the differences between superficially similar first-person games. Spector also described his past work at Steve Jackson Games and TSR. He cited the contrast between the former's precision and the way TSR intentionally left gaps in the rules.
LeBlanc put forth that what designers decide to omit is as important as what they include in their games. According to Greg Costykian, players find it quite possible to immerse themselves in the minimalist ASCII art of Nethack.
No game is exempt from the need for consistency, Richard Garfield said, and he used Magic: The Gathering as an example. He pointed out that sharing the design experience with the player was a natural consequence when small groups met to play, but this process requires painstaking attention when players network in larger, more organized groups. Games get "hacked" easily in local meetings and will be adapted to accomodate short term needs. I was reminded of the interactive game-master feature in Nihilistic's Vampire: The Masquerade Redemption. I can picture cubicle rows full of full-time game masters for massively multiplayer worlds, or the "artifical playwrights" predicted with an echo of 1960 AI research arrogance.
In the end, a conclusion might be just this: if games are about fun, then capturing that elusive quality seems hard work indeed. Or, as LeBlanc put it: "If we could pluck fun from the trees, we would."
Ethics in Game Design