• "But, I also think that in our efforts to define and legitimize our practice as a professional discipline we sometimes forget the history we inherit, the legacy of games made by communities of players, games made by amateurs, by dilettantes, by mathematicians, mothers, scientists, gym teachers, shepherds, inventors, philosophers, eccentrics and cranks.

    And in honor of this tradition I would like to suggest other verbs for us to describe where games come from, alternatives to the overconfident precision of the word “design”. Words like invent, discover, compose, write, find, grow, perform, build, support, identify, copy, re-assemble, excavate and preserve." So much good thinking in this post from Frank Lantz

  • "I would call him the greatest puzzle designer of all time, but that implies that there are lots of people who do what he does and he’s better than them, and that’s not quite right. What I mean is to say is that Raymond Smullyan is the Marcel Duchamp of puzzles, he’s the Brian Eno of puzzles. His work is singular, transformative, genre-defining, in a class by itself."
  • Bot that buys dirt-cheap goods on TradeMe and tells Twitter what it's buying/bidding on. Seems we need a Rule 38: if software is described in an XKCD comic, the chance of it being brought into reality approaches 1 as t approahces infinity.
  • "…the game of chess is much more than the set of instructions needed to move the pieces on the board: the players’ intellectual and emotional interaction during a game is also the system of chess. The media hubbub surrounding Kasparov’s loss to Deep Blue: that is chess. The southwest corner of Washington Square Park where New York City players wager, talk trash, and square off across stone tables: that is chess too." So much good stuff in this essay from Frank Lantz and Eric Zimmerman
  • In which Laura Parker looks at what "mainstream" games can learn from the type of success indie titles such as Limbo have had, with contributions from Nels Anderson, Manveer Heir, and – would you believe it – me. It's a really nice feature; I hope Laura can get more of this sort of stuff published on Gamespot, because it deserves a bigger audience than being buried on the staff blog.

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.