In this two-part article I will examine the games that designers play against their audience when making games and how the ways those games are played effects the end user of the software. In part two I'll discuss possible ways that game designers can leverage these meta-games to deepen and improve a game with minimal additional design overhead using the model of casual games as a jumping off point to discuss the various game design choices made during this process.
As game designers and game scholars, I would assume that on some level we're all aware of the game we play in creating games. Certainly, the concept of game creation itself as a game isn't unheard of. Titles like RPG maker, Fighter Maker, and even Second Life all fall pretty squarely into the realm of game making tools marketed as games. In addition there are sandbox games such as GTA where players are mostly free to make up their own meta games within the context of the game world itself.
What all of this tells us is that games are everywhere and we are always playing them. When the office worker is playing solitaire at work, they're also playing a work avoidance game against their boss. When we ask someone out on a date, we're playing one of the oldest, yet least understood games known. If we examine the rules of gaming instead of the rules of the game we can build worlds that not only better suit the desires of the player, but also allow players to more deeply invest themselves in a world of their own design.
The industry is obviously buying into this idea. Games like Lego Universe are an excellent example of a game where user-generated content is intended to outpace in-house content over the life of the product. Shades of this can be seen as far back as Ultima Online, with the assignation of virtual property (specifically houses) to virtual entities ( i.e., guilds/individuals). As this method of content generation becomes more commonplace, it is important to remember that as the designer, we're not creating just game content, but also the game mechanics that shape the player experience within the game world.
As game designers, the game we play is against the players. Our win-state isn't to beat the player into submission, but to assist them in reaching the intended conclusion of the game. Regardless of linearity in the system, the outcome is always predetermined by the designer. It may be to elicit an emotional response, tell a story, or to challenge the player to play again to beat their previous score. The best games mix and match win-states throughout the game, but each one is a challenge presented by the designer to the player. The following games I feel are decent examples to the various approaches designers can take when "playing."
The unbeatable game certainly predates the video game era. By drawing a single line through a maze you "break" the game, however unless the player knows this beforehand, it will ultimately provide a different experience before they realize that the game cannot be beat. A more modern example of this would be the Platform game created by "mrcolossal." This game is more of an in-joke between the designer and a friend of their's (details here) but still demonstrates the point well. By making the early jumps in the game difficult, the ultimate futility of the game comes as more of a surprise and the player is kept guessing if they are doing something wrong or if it is the game that is broken.
The ultimate conclusion of the game is meant to illustrate the futility of life and I believe that it does so. You aren't going to spend more than a few minutes with this game so it is not as though you feel cheated at the end. In that respect, the game designer has successfully beat the player, while at the same time succeeding in sending their intended message.
Some games are just plain hard. This is the most traditional of the games we play against players, but it can also be one of the hardest to pull off. While everyone wants their game to be remembered, it is rare that someone wants their game to be remembered for being so hard that it wasn't fun. Difficulty can be adjusted in many ways, but the most common (and probably most familiar) is via constraint of resources. Life, ammunition, or items can all be limited in the game to increase the challenge for the player. Ammunition, life and inventory slots in games like Resident Evil, Ghosts and Goblins, and Diablo all utilize scarcity to achieve different levels of difficulty via what boils down to a very similar mechanic.
Games can also be made more difficult by adjusting the speed at which players compete. This is a classic tactic with arcade games where the pressure to "beat the player" was much higher than it is today. More play sessions led to more quarters, resulting in happy arcade operators and in turn, increased sales and opportunities. Pac-Man, Centipede, and Tetris are all arcade style games which utilize speed increases to raise the stakes for players. By changing another factor of these games, the challenge will increase exponentially.
In Ms. Pac-Man the standard, predictable maps were replaced with maps which could not be beat by following a pattern. In Centipede there are complex rules governing the appearance of the flea, so at higher levels the game becomes more about obstacle management than centipede destruction. With a game like Tetris, the two player game introduced line transposition between players.
However there are other non-standard ways to alter these games to change difficulty. Some early 3D Pac-Man iterations were increasingly difficult because you lost the top-down view of the maze. The recent flash version of First Person Tetris flips the block rotation convention on its head to an outstanding effect. Not only is Tetris technically unwinnable by default, the addition of potential motion sickness introduced in this version adds a unique twist to a familiar game.
At the other end of the spectrum are the games which are "unloseable." Traditionally these games fell to the realm of children's games or edutainment. As gaming has become more mainstream, these types of games have branched out. There are plenty of games that use a variation on this mechanic. Gears of War does to some extent with unlimited retries from checkpoints, but with a game like Gears, the impossibility of losing the game is not as apparent as in other games.
The most obvious (and current) examples of these are the LEGO properties. The Indiana Jones and Star Wars LEGO games are impossible to lose, however they still sell like hotcakes and have a very broad range of appeal. These games tend to focus not on beating the game but on combining story telling with completion based rewards. Amassing points to purchase in-game bonuses, finding hidden areas for extra points or added content, or gaining achievements based on difficulty level or completion of alternate game modes are all ways that designers can impose virtual win states on these sorts of games.
Adding win states which exist outside of game completion is important in driving the appeal of these games beyond the "E for Everyone" crowd and pulling in parents and siblings who may have an affection for the material but who are looking for a more traditional, quantifiable game.
Examining the mechanics of the games developers play against the people who play their games can give us insight into not only the game design process, but also into the ways that these non-win mechanics can be used to strengthen more traditional games. In the second part of this examination I'll discuss specific ways that non-winnable meta games can be implemented.