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The Rules of the Game: Yer Such a Character

Ben likes to play games. Especially today's computer games. But Ben is tired of being Duke Nukem and would like a chance to play SuperBen instead. Please take Ben's advice to heart and make him happy. A happy Ben is a SuperBen and there are more SuperBen wannabees out there than you might ever imagine.

Ben Calica, Blogger

August 21, 1998

8 Min Read

To be a super hero, or to be Batman? To be a cowboy, or John Wayne? To be a vampire, or Dracula? To be a wizard or Merlin. It makes a huge difference in a kid's life. It defines the rules and limits of the game. To play a superhero means you get to make-up whatever powers you want and be your superhero. To play Batman means to follow out a script and rules that are known and accepted by all. "You can't fly! Batman doesn't fly!! Do it right!"

These are the decisions we make all the time in designing our games, but do we really think about the impact it has on the imagination that get's invoked when our work boots up? In this week's Rules of the Game, we'll dive into the land of projection… who are we letting our players be when they stop growing up?

There are four classes of characters that are used in game development:

  • Iconic

  • Generic

  • Specific

  • User Created specific

1 - Iconic

"Alex, I'll take Symbols for 1000." "The answer is... the dog, the boot, the iron, the racecar, and the top hat."

"What are the pieces in Monopoly, Alex?"  What are these pieces really? As I'm typing now, I get the idea that the top hat was supposed to represent the big business man, the iron was the housewife, the racecar was the young jet-setter, maybe the boot was the working man, and god knows what the dog was, but the fact is that none of us cared about that as kids. We just had our favorite piece and that's who we were for that game. What deep psychological archetype does the little chomping cheese dude represent in Pac-Man. Nothing. These all have their meaning created entirely within the context of the game. We like them because we've been Pavloved to by playing and loving the games. And, because there is no hint of a real "other" in them, it is easy for them to become us. (If that last sentence didn't make sense to you, go get Scott McCloud's book, Understanding Comics. I've recommended it before. Read it. It's important. Trust me! Just go out and buy the damn thing already. Sheesh… your mother and I try and raise you to listen.)

2 - Generic

When you play Missile Command, who are you? You're the missile controller. You're not, "Lighting Bob, Missile Controller from Mars," you are just yourself in the that vocation. You're not prentending to be someone else, you're just doing something different. By necessity this was the case in many of the early games since the graphics were so simple and the overhead for extra back-story graphics was so high that the games had to be designed with simple shapes that required the players imagination to fill in the detail. Us crusty old-timers look back on those as the equivalent to radio before televison. The question is, are we being old fuddy duddies, or was there something there that was actually lost?

3 - Specific

Dragon's Lair. The game world's big shift came with the appearance of Dragon's Lair. Here was a game that was all pick-a-path, pre-rendered. (Actually, it was animated frame by frame and laid down on an interactive laserdisc.) No question who you were. You looked a specific way, you acted a specific way, you were Dirk. Actually, it may have started much earlier with the Infocom games. I don't remember if they assigned you a name and physical characteristics or not. But the on thing that stays through the haze of my fading memory is that when you were playing those games, you were seeing their world through your eyes. With Dragon's Lair, you were controlling a character that was obviously not you.

These extended on and on, almost as an outgrowth of back story. Your characters in Street Figher II had personality and their own way of fighting. Duke Nukem's "Hail to the Chief, Baby!" was all his. And Laura Croft has allowed the creators a chance to sit in on the casting sessions on their own big screen movie for god's sake. The most egregious game series in this area is the Wing Commander series, an unholy hybrid that has become more back-story then game.

4 - Self Selected Specific

When D&D first came out it was unique by being the first popular game where you created your own character. The race, profession, even psychological/moral direction was all set by the player. That character was theirs and they had a personal stake in how it grew and evolved. The earliest role-playing games on the computer allowed the same thing. You would even select the appearance from a Mr. Potato-Head approach to selecting the graphics. But as time has gone on, even the official D&D game titles have started giving just a few specific choices for characters to select from. Why is that?

Free will vs. Determinism

Given that people sometime desire to be their own superhero, why have we been drifting away from that direction?

1) Ego: Back-story overrun/Cut Scene Over

There is something very attractive about creating a character that lives in people's minds. The world is full of game designers right now that want nothing more in their lives than to create some equivalent of Laura Croft. Also, as mentioned in one of my previous columns, the art departments are loving the wonderful world of cut-scenes. These are much easier to do if the player's characters are predictable. Take Final Fantasy VII as an example. They could never have done the cut scenes they created if the player had been able to create their own character. Actually, thinking about it, that's not true, it just would have been harder, and require that cut scenes be rendered on the fly rather than at home on the SGI.

2) Laziness: Specific choices mean less graphic creation/flexibility.

Within the game itself, if there are only 3-4 possible characters, it becomes much easier to create the sprite graphics. Otherwise, a full on-the-fly composting system is required. Diablo did this well, so that when a weapon changed, it often changed the player's graphics on screen. This requires both programming and additional art asset work. It's much simpler from a development perspective to limit the player's choices.

So what do we do?

As you may have been able to tell by my tone, I have some specific feeling about this particular issue. I don't mind people making the decision to be specific about limiting the character choices, if that is what they really believe will be the most fun for the user. But the trend I've observed over the last 10 years is to make that same choice, but for all the wrong reasons. I have a very hard time now finding a D&D style game where I can really chose my own character. And I miss that, I really, really do. I love Batman, but I'm tired of playing him all the time. I want to make up my own superhero... one that can shoot things from his eyes, move really fast, do some unknown martial art s move and fly into space without a helmet. Why? Cause getting to play with my imagination is more fun than playing in yours, at least for me.

Just trying to be me (with eye laser beams).


Unemployed with a Theater Degree from Brandeis back in 1984, Ben Calica has been making a living in the computer and gaming business in various incarnations since then, Including: Founding Editor of New Media Magazine, First Toys Editor for Wired, one of the few single boys to write for Parents Magazine. Product Manager for the multimedia authoring system, SuperCard Director of Production for CyberFlix; (design credits on Lunicus, Creepy Castle, and conceptual design for Skull Cracker) Product Manger for the ill-fated modem for the Sega Genesis, the Edge, for AT&T [which, by the way, we decided stood for All Tiny Testi---maybe I'd better tell that another time]; Worked for NeXT long enough to get into real good argument with Steve Jobs; And recently was the guy behind Apple Game Sprockets...

He did a bunch of work on interactive drama (wrote script for MacWorld CD-ROM game of the year in 1993), before he decided it just didn't work. Spends a lot of free time now lecturing on multi-player/virtual world stuff. For a day job he works as Director of Product Development for ThinkFish, an artistic rendering company that recently merged with Viewpoint Datalabs. He could show you the secret desktop software he's working on, but then he'd have to kill you.

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About the Author(s)

Ben Calica


Ben Calica spends half his time writing about cool stuff and the other half building it. He’s a game industry analyst for Gamastutra, having been one of the original columnists for the site with Rules of the Game, a game design column, and The Score, a game business column. Other writing credits include being the first Toys Editor for Wired, Founding Editor of New Media Magazine, and contributing to publications including InfoWorld, Electronic Entertainment, MacWorld, NeXTWorld, Publish, Variety and Parents. Ben’s game chops include leading Apple’s Game Sprockets game technology effort, being the project lead for the Edge, the first modem-based game system for a console (the Sega Genesis) for AT&T/PF.Magic, and being Director of Production for CyberFlix, where he penned the script for the 1993 MacWorld CD-ROM Game of the Year. He has been a frequent lecturer on the game industry and game design issues, with a particular focus on multiplayer gaming. His lecture on the subject at the 1997 CGDC was the highest rated session of the conference. He also created and ran the CGDC Game Olympics, a serious competition and boatload of fun that happened at two of the CGDC events for those with long memories. He is the exceptionally proud father of one and a half year old twin boys, Jake and Griffin, who will play GTA3 over his decaying body.

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