Wednesday, May 25, 2011

Gestalt Game Design

Often in the course of my college studies (particularly in the early years), I would find myself forced to analyze my favorite games in detail. 

I eventually came to realize that my favorite games all have something in common.  It’s not necessarily brilliant game design, though many are quite clever.  It’s not necessarily beautiful artwork, though many are stunning to look at.  It’s not really any one specific element of the game structure.  What seems to turn a well-made game into a game I remember forever is the way a game feels.  The design, layout, artwork, sound, and writing all come together to form a cohesive whole, and this whole generates a particular feel – an aura, ambience, or mood.  It’s something highly subjective and not entirely tangible.  Great games have a tendency to just feel right.

It’s what I like to call “Gestalt Game Design”.  The whole package is greater than the sum of its parts.  It’s about more than simply having all of the best elements in your game; it’s more about ensuring that those elements blend together naturally and seamlessly.

Imagine you could take the winners of the Game Developers’ Choice Awards in Design, Technology, Art, Writing, and Audio, extract those winning elements from each, and combine them into a single game.  Simple math would suggest that you’ve just created the Game of the Year winner.  You have a well-designed game with nice visuals that runs brilliantly, sounds great, and tells an impressive story.  Gold.

Here’s the real question, though: how well do these elements support each other?  Does the artwork complement the design and help drive the player along?  Does the story fit in with the types of mechanics being used?  Does the way the interface runs match the way it looks?  The various pieces that go into a game’s creation link together in an amazing number of ways.  Accounting for these connections wherever possible can take a game to the next level. 

The mathematically perfect game above has the potential to get some fine review scores, but it’s not automatically a great game.  Cohesion is what transforms a game with great design, programming, art, and writing into, simply, a great game.  These are the games we remember.  These are the games that spread not just by good press, but by word of mouth.

Now is the time when I would normally start listing a few examples of games that “feel right”.  However, as I mentioned earlier, this sensation is highly subjective.  It depends on the type of game you feel like playing at a given time – what kind of sensation you’re looking for.  Even listing games that often feel “right” to me isn’t quite appropriate because explaining why they feel right isn’t entirely possible.  They just…do.

Great games, of course, don’t just spring out of the ether.  Games are made by people.  A seamless game is a good indicator of a well-oiled machine at the helm – team members who are not only masters of what they do, but who also have an understanding of what those around them do.  Members of such a team see the connections between their various disciplines.  They communicate on a regular basis to ensure that everyone understands and works towards the same goals.

That’s the nature of Gestalt Game Design.  We often think of the development team as a collection of smaller groups with separate responsibilities.  While it’s obviously true that programmers have different tasks to complete than artists, they all have the responsibility of working towards generating the same game with a particular feel.  It’s not just a matter of designers creating and balancing game mechanics, artists generating visual assets, and programmers coding functionality, but about everyone – everyone – working to capture and portray that unique vibe that makes the game something all its own.

So exactly where does the image of a game’s “feel” come from?  As with the initial idea for the game’s functionality, the idea for a game’s feel originates with the designer.  Designers have a duty to provide the initial vision for how a game should feel.  Like everything else in the game, the game’s feel shifts as the circumstances of development change.  As old ideas are tossed aside and replaced with new ones, a new game emerges with its own unique style.  The key is to continually see that no matter what the change, the entire team remains on the same page.

Being in tune with the rest of the team is dependent on thinking outside the confines of your particular discipline.  Part of this thinking comes from knowledge and skills in multiple subjects.  More importantly and basically, however, it comes down to communication.  Collaboration.  That melding of parts into a whole can’t occur without team members sitting down and working through problems together.  “The design works, but does it work with the artistic style we’re using?  Let’s figure out how to do it.”

I’ll take a great game over a great design any day (but there’s no reason I can’t have both).

As a designer, I tend to focus on where a designer stands in relation to the rest of the development team.  In the coming weeks, I plan to continue the discussion on Gestalt Game Design by analyzing the process of thinking outside of one’s discipline.  I’ll be discussing the process from a design standpoint – what designers should know about their colleagues – based on past experience (or in some cases, a lack thereof).  I hope you’ll bear with me through that.

In the meantime, though, that will be all.

Keep having fun.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Obedient Player

Before beginning, I’d like to point out that this blog now coexists equally with my member blog on  My previous post, “A Case Study in Narrative Design,” has already been presented as a Featured Member Blog.  From this day forward, I will be presenting any further blog posts both here and on Gamasutra.  With that said, here is my latest entry.

A few months ago, my cousin Jeff contacted my via Facebook with an odd request.  He told me that he was writing a paper for one of his college classes, and he requested some information from me concerning video games.  The request was an odd philosophical question: what is the role of free will in video games?  I quickly thought about this question and jotted down some statements for him to consider, but it struck me as such an odd question that I found myself drawn back to it.  How much control does the player really have over the game?

The real choice that is constantly at play during a video game is very basic: do I want to continue playing this game, or not?  A successful game is one which makes the player unaware of this very basic choice.  By definition, the “player” subconsciously makes the choice, “Yes, I do want to continue playing this game,” over and over again.  The game’s mechanics respond with the statement, “Okay, if you want to continue playing this game, then this is what you’ll need to do.”  Thus, the player who chooses to continue on will do what the game demands.  In this sense, you might say that any sense of free will is lost.  As long as the player chooses to play, the game has complete control.

Game developers work from this base point to establish just what the game is going to demand that the player do.  What genre of game is it?  What obstacles are there to overcome?  What tools does the player have to work with?  As the developers map out the answers to these questions, they create a controlled series of choices for players.  A game designer creates scenarios that beg the question, “Which choice will you make in order to continue the game?”  In this way, a game designer can dictate that any choice which prevents the game from progressing is the wrong choice.

By their very nature, video games are based upon the idea of making choices.  A movie can run and progress in its entirety without any choices being made by the viewer; in fact, a movie doesn’t even require a viewer once it’s been started.  However, if a game player makes no choices at all, a game cannot progress.  Games also allow players to halt progress by MAKING a choice.  Rules and game mechanics set up the outcomes of player choices well in advance.  The player-game relationship is always illustrated as a player having control of a piece of the game – a character or set of tools – but in reality, the game has full control over the player. 

Essentially, all the player can do is ask a question: “Does this decision allow me to continue playing the game?”  The game responds with a “yes” or “no.”  As long as players accept their role, they can only do what the game approves.  Of course, the player can make a wrong choice and go back to try again, but in doing so essentially says “I understand, Master!  I apologize for my insolence!  I did not fully understand your orders!  Please give me another chance to obey!  This time I will do what you ask of me!”

Players may find themselves battling a large boss creature within an action-adventure game.  The player must battle this creature in order to survive and continue the game.  This is the choice the game presents to the player.  However, this entire choice is generated under false pretenses.  Yes, the player must battle and defeat this creature in order to survive and continue the game, but the player routinely ignores the fact that he has the option to NOT go through with the battle.  The player could take the road of pacifism, opting not to fight in the hopes that the creature will show mercy.  In certain games, making a choice of whether or not to fight may be included as a part of the game mechanic.  This is not one of those games.  That alternative has not been written into the game code.  This creature will not show mercy, and the player character will be dead very soon.

The result of this action is the development of a new association in the player’s brain.  That action didn’t work, so a new strategy is clearly required.  By not allowing the player to proceed, the game has dictated to the player that there is a choice which cannot be made.  In this sense, the game has not necessarily told the player which choice to make, but rather which choice NOT to make.

In essence, though, the player isn’t entirely powerless against the game.  What the game provides is a dictation of how the player should think by providing problems with a limited number of solutions.  The player does still have the ability to solve the problem in a variety of ways, particularly depending on skill level.  A highly-skilled player has the ability to perform strategies that aren’t necessarily the most efficient means to achieve victory.  This isn’t so much to say that players have control over how the game works, but rather that they have more room for error.  A player who understands the functionality of the game mechanics has the ability to work within the established parameters very efficiently.  This allows the freedom to occasionally experiment and take a more unorthodox approach.  If the risk fails to pay off, the player resorts back to the status quo to prepare for another attempt.

On the far end of this spectrum, however, we get into a new realm in which player choices become much more meaningful.  Sequence-breaking tactics and certain types of “cheating” stem from this deep knowledge of a game’s mechanics.  Players become so in-tune with how the game is played that they learn to anticipate the underlying structure.  Through witnessing the game from a practical standpoint, they learn about the game from a technological standpoint.  The experimentation process begins to pay off as the player finds ways of violating key game principles.  As this happens, players begin to change the very makeup of the game and play it in an entirely new way.

As a quick aside, I’d like to point out that this discussion refers to free will within the context of the game.  When we discuss sequence breaking and cheating, we aren’t referring to outside influence on the game structure.  Elements such as hacking and codes deliberately change the functionality of the game.  Sequence breaking, on the other hand, works within the confines of the existing game rules in an effort to exploit the system.  While hacking and cheat codes both represent conscious choices on the part of the player, these choices take place outside of the gameplay systems.  They hold less relevance to this discussion.

Let’s look at football as an example.  (Speaking as an American, I refer, of course, to American Football.)  Hacking would be the equivalent of rewriting the official rulebook.  You would go in and alter the very composition of the game in order to make it fit your needs.  A cheat code would be similar to injecting yourself with steroids.  Through the use of an outside influence, one which may even be allowed by the rules in some cases, you change an element of the game to give yourself an advantage.  It might also take the form of covering your uniform in spikes so that no one can tackle you.  Sequence breaking is more like creating a trick play.  You still utilize the existing game structure, but using some tremendous talent and skill, you exploit the rules to generate a new strategy that the opposing team hasn’t prepared for.  The difference with video games is that the same trick play will work every time.

Thus, in getting back to the overarching topic, we are presented with an interesting situation.  The game dictates a set of rules – a set of choices – to the player.  A player who makes the choices the game demands will do well.  Free will is thus limited to operation within these predetermined choices.  However, as players become more and more in-tune with what these correct choices are (i.e., getting better at the game), the number of options open to them increases dramatically.  Players develop the opportunity to work around the confines the game puts in place.  Consequently, the player gains a greater degree of control over the game.

To put it another way, the more fully a player submits to the control of the game, the more free will the player obtains.  That’s the strange contradictory pattern I’ve been trying to describe here.

I feel it’s worth pointing out that a discussion on free will in video games covers many of the same points that would be covered in a discussion of free will in everyday life.  All of these points about rules, exploitation, and different levels of choice affect us every day.  That’s another thing that’s nice about games, though.  Through their fantasy environments, games provide us with a microcosm of real life; they give us a chance to examine pieces of our world without any real harm to anyone.

I’d like to thank Jeff for presenting me with the opportunity to explore this topic.  It’s led to a bit of a jumble of thoughts here, but that’s true of a lot of what I write.  Much of this is quite difficult to put into words.  I didn’t delve nearly as deeply into this topic as I could have, but it would be far too easy to begin circling around the questions that have tempted philosophers for millennia.  I think it’s best to call it quits for the time being.

Thank you.  That will be all.