Truth in Mechanics

26 March 2010

Frank Lantz on “The Truth in Game Design”:

…eventually this tiny detail, this thoughtful little adjustment of the pillow beneath the player’s head, became emblematic of something big and important at the heart of game design: Shouldn’t games be an opportunity for players to wrap their heads around counter-intuitive truths? Shouldn’t games make us smarter about how randomness works instead of reinforcing our fallacious beliefs? Shouldn’t games increase our literacy about interactive systems and non-linear possibility spaces? Isn’t contemplating the elusive truth about these things one of the most powerful cognitive benefits of a life spent gaming?

Yes, it should.

Lantz is right about Poker: there’s a surprising moment when you start to study opening hands in Texas Hold’Em, and you finally come to know – in your gut – the relative value of opening hands. Two cards never feels enough to make an informed bet, but it usually is. When you first learn the relative value of opening hands – either from experience or, more likely, a book – it doesn’t quite sit right; it doesn’t feel intuitive even when you’ve learned it.

It takes the application of that knowledge – a series of hands betting based on the numbers, not on your feelings, to learn what that list of probabilities really means. You begin to see just how some opening hands, being better than others, lead to better results at the turn and the river. And then the numbers become bound up in your gut, the system internalized, and the game becomes intuitive – until the next series of numbers and calculations need to be internalized.

It’s the same in Virtua Fighter, or Devil May Cry: games based on highly rigorous systems, punishing at first, that demand you understand the rules to understand the game. No player really bases their in-game judgment on frame advantage; they base it on their gut, on what they see on the screen and hear from the speakers. The secret is that the system – the windows for counters, the execution time of moves in frames, the incoming attacks signified by various sound effects – is in their gut.

You learn the system to forget it again, and in doing so, are presented with an entirely honest game: a game that makes its system clear and consistent, never beats you unfairly, but never makes life easy.

The best Lost Cities games I had were not the highest scoring, but those with the most entertaining narrative and best banter. The best Street Fighter IV games I’ve played weren’t the most technical, but the most entertaining. The best Left 4 Dead rounds I’ve played were the most haphazard and messy. And yet all of these games are based around rules engines of varying complexity: the rulebook, the movelist, the AI Director.

Games are clockwork, logical engines that are fun to play with. The very best are rigorous in the systems and fairness, and yet not to the point of destroying that fun. And, if we’re very lucky, offer a glimpse of the “computational heart of the universe.

Pier at Salamis

…was on this photo.

Seriously, it’s going to be hard to ever top this. I read it and re-read it, glad to share in memories, happy to have made someone else glad too.

  • "No huge surprises, except maybe that I changed to dark toolbars. No multi-column reading, no fake book-page animations, and no giant newspaper graphics." Great explanation of Instapaper on the iPad from Marco. And: I'm sure it'll be great; in the past two months, I've become a total Instapaper convert.