• "But imagine if the writer came up with a "story" before the rules.  A "pre-rules story."  At that point, you could create the rules around that story, and even if the rules seemed unconventional or unbalanced, you could be confident that they would work as long as the story works." Erm, not really; crap rules are crap rules, even if they make sense within the story. This paragraph directly contradicts his previous (accurate) paragraph, that stories must follow the rules of the game. To then say: "but we can retrofit rules onto the story if the latter was done first" just feels wrong. One more thing on my pile of "stuff about rules".

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.

  • "The voice in Dear Esther doesn't tell you where to go – it only reads, at set moments, from a random selection of letters to Esther as you wander over a deserted and increasingly disrupted Scottish island. The letters are randomised, so no playthrough is the same, and a fragmented narrative of a car crash, a grieving man and a stolen library book is glimpsed but never resolved. When I asked Pinchbeck whether this strictly constitutes a game, he said that it was a game engine, a nice distinction in both senses." Dan fills in his Wired piece on Dan Pinchbeck with some supplementary material. It is very good.