A Space of Your Own

Spatial awareness in games is ubiquitous – so ubiquitous, in fact, that players often don’t realise that they automatically internalise its rules. Players are used to the rules of space in real life and understand how to move through it as well as what an obstacle is, and how to navigate around one. Fortunately for us gamers, this conveniently translates to understanding most video game worlds. Ubiquitous does not mean unimportant, however, and as Aarseth, Smedstad and Sunnanå (2003) noted: “space is a key meta-category of games. Almost all games utilize space and spatial representation in some way“. While there are many ways to think about space in games, there is one theory that I find particularly compelling: space as a way to create a sense of ownership.

Most games allow players to move through the world, but don’t always allow the player to make a mark on it. You can shoot an enemy, go from A to B, or solve a puzzle, but what about more permanent and concrete changes? Let’s look at three games that buck the trend.

badtown-relic-locations
Far Cry 3. Red alert! (Far Cry 3 Relic Location map, no date)

In-game maps are not always the most engaging UI element. They help, and can look pretty, but tend to leave the player cold. Well, not so in Far Cry: 3. By climbing radio towers throughout the map, you can “liberate” an area and defeat the bad guys’ influence on a particular region. Because the map starts red, and your actions gradually make it green, there is a real sense of progression and of changing the game world to make it your own. You can see at a glance which areas you have successfully won over, and this even translates to less enemies in the green areas. A win-win that makes the player feel very engaged with the world itself.

Fallout 4_20151103155703
Home Sweet Home! (Fallout 4)

Fallout 4, while not a pioneer in the genre, uses a very interesting technique to let the player make their mark on the world: settlement-building. After liberating an area swamped by all kinds of enemies, the player gets to chose how to make it look and has access to a Sims-like building menu, complete with structures, decorations, workshop items, and free standing walls. The player can even display trophies they have collected throughout the game in the structures they create, as well as sleep or craft new items. A barren ruin can become a bespoke settlement with a sense of investment, and suddenly the world feels a lot more personal.

 

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Bonfires: a welcome sight

Finally, what happens when you’re lost in a hostile, dark, and forbidding world? And you can’t even save your game? You find a bonfire! At least that’s what you do in Dark Souls. Space in the Dark Souls franchise is used to highlight the player’s insignificance in the world, and to threaten with danger at every corner. Typically, one area ends with the famed bonfire: the only place where the player can save the game, heal, and take a virtual breather; nowhere else is really safe. This is reflected in the bonfire’s very primal representation: once a player reaches one they kindle it and spark a camp-like fire, a powerful symbol of light, warmth and homeliness in a hostile environment. A visual and emotional way to own a little part the world.

As Schell (2008) notes, “game designers can learn a lot about creating meaningful and powerful spaces from architects“. And indeed games are very capable of using space to represent ownership, either by reflecting the player agency, allowing them to become the architect themselves, or giving them the opportunity to unlock a safe haven away from home in a dark world.


References

Aarseth, E., Smedstad, S.M. and Sunnanå, L. (2003) ‘3. A Multi-dimensional Typology Of Games’, Proceedings of the 2013 DiGRA. Available at: http://www.cogsci.rpi.edu/…/new%20topology%20of%20games%20A.%20Arsneth.pdf. (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Fallout 4 (2015) [image]. Available at: http://www.psnation.com/2015/11/09/review-fallout-4-ps4/ (Accessed 22 November 2016)

Far Cry 3 Relic Locations Map (no date) [image] Available at: http://www.realsg.com/2012/12/guide-far-cry-3-relic-locations-map.html (Accessed 22 November 2016)

 

Schell, J. (2008). The art of game design. 1st ed. Amsterdam: Elsevier/Morgan Kaufmann, p.368.

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GAA [Game Analysis Acronyms]

 

Analysing games is a fascinating past-time, and a necessary exercise for game designers. How does the game work, what does it do, why do the players enjoy it? While these are all valid questions, it can be difficult to even begin answering them. Games are a complex interactive medium, and call for a more structured way to organise thoughts and questions. Enter game analysis frameworks. In this post, I will explore the three key  frameworks used by designers and academia alike: MDA, DDE, and AGE.

MDA

MDA stands for Mechanics, Dynamics and Aesthetics, and was put forward by Robin Hunicke, Marc LeBlanc and Robert Zubek in 2004. Its aim is to “bridge the gap between game design and development, game criticism, and technical game research” and to “formalize the consumption of games by breaking them into their distinct components

Their relationship is illustrated as follows:
tumblr_inline_nalirn3tdz1qlivun

  •  Mechanics (or rules) can be described as the “mathematics” of the game: the nuts and bolts that form the rule set, and are effectively the “verbs” that a player enacts (run, shoot, jump, etc.). To analyse a game’s mechanics, we can ask ourselves the following questions:
    • How is the game set-up?
    • Which actions are available?
    • Effect of actions?
    • When does it end?
    • How is resolution determined?
  • Dynamics represent the system put in place by the rules and how it is interacted with by the player; these can encompass challenge, strategy, or frustration, and can be found by exploring the following questions:
    • What happens in play when the rules are in motion?
    • What are the emerging strategies?
    • How do players interact with each other?
  • Aesthetics, finally, are the emotions felt by the player when interacting with the game, with the explicit purpose of defining exactly what is “fun”, instead of using this very vague term.These can be explored by examining the following:
    • What is the effect of play on the player?
    • Is the game boring/engaging? How?
    • Is the game emotionally/intellectually engaging? How?The MDA framework offers this non-exhaustive list of potential aesthetic trends:

screenshot-2016-11-01-20-06-29

DDE

While the MDA framework opened the door to more structured and in-depth analysis, several issues were found with it:

  • The difference between the game shell and gameplay can be difficult to determine
  • The difference between dynamics and aesthetics is sometimes difficult to assess
  • The MDA framework cannot be fully applied to narrative structures

For these reasons, Wolfgang Walk developed a new framework called DDE: Design, Dynamics, and Experience (Walk, 2015). This framework set-out to address the issues found with MDA, and to focus this time on the perspective of the designer and the designing process, and on the importance of the narrative in a video game., Walk describes the process as follows:

  1. Design, the iterative start of the game design process, owned by the game designer and comprising of blueprint, specific mechanics and interface
  2. Dynamics, observing the relationship between the player and the game, the player and the player’s entity in the game, and the game and the game
  3. Experience, which is another way to describe aesthetics, this time refining the emotional, psychological and physiological aspects triggered by the game

dde

 

AGE

Finally, a third framework as put forward by Roberto Dillon in 2012, the AGE: Actions, Gameplay, Experience (Dillon, 2012). This framework seeks to solve the issue of how to get from mechanics and dynamics to aesthetics, in other words: how can we analyse the player’s reaction to the game in a more efficient way? AGE operates on the basis that emotions trigger instincts, instincts push the players to do an in-game action, and that instincts can thus easily be linked to gameplay.

AGE lists:

  • 6 basic emotions: fear, anger, pride, joy, excitement, sadness
  • 11 instincts: survival, self-identificatipon, rveenge, aggressiveness, curiosity, protection/care, greed, collecting, competition, communication, colour appreciation

Dillon provides the following illustration of his framework:

Screenshot 2016-11-01 20.28.20.png

As we can see, AGE can be a great tool to zoom in on the player experience, and break down the way the game affects the player.

In Conclusion

With the MDA framework, a new era of game thinking began, seeking to formalise the way games could be made, and analysed, to the best of the designer’s ability. MDA also sought to be a thought-provoking piece, ideally inspiring new ways to formalise the analysis – and indeed new models have been put forward since, such as AGE and DDE. Which one is best? It will probably depend on the designer’s view of their creation and on the type of game. To be continued!


References

Dillon, R. (2012). A modern approach to game analysis and design: the AGE framework. [online] Slideshare.net. Available at: http://www.slideshare.net/robertodillon/the-age-framework [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

Hunicke, R., LeBlanc, M. and Zubek, R. (2004). MDA: A Formal Approach to Game Design and Game Research. [online] Available at: http://www.cs.northwestern.edu/~hunicke/MDA.pdf [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

Walk, W. (2015). From MDA to DDE. [online] Gamasutra.com. Available at: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/WolfgangWalk/20151111/259078/From_MDA_to_DDE.php [Accessed 1 Nov. 2016].

LEGO: Another Brick in the Gameplay

A common question amongst gamers is “what’s the first video game you ever played?”. I’m going to twist this question slightly, and ask “what’s the first game you remember playing?”. Well, for me, it’s probably LEGO. But is LEGO even a game? Or just a toy I played with?

It’s interesting to look at the differences between “play” and “game”. Some languages don’t even make the difference – English does, however, and it’s a detail worth looking into to in order to answer the LEGO question.

What comes to mind for me is that play is a free, enjoyable, unrestricted activity. You can do something playfully, and have fun doing so – it doesn’t have to be part of a game. The word “game”, on the other hand, feels more formalised. A game has rules, it has parameters, and a context. You can play a game, which usually involves challenge to reach an objective.

Looking at a LEGO box, and therefore a completed set, one can imagine how the characters can be moved around, made to fight, inhabit imaginary worlds… In other words, how LEGO can be played. Playing and Gaming –
Reflections and Classifications (Kampmann Walther, 2016) observes that “Not only do we explore a world while playing. We are also driven by its potential meaning and the stories we can invent in that respect.“. This seems to be an exact description of the LEGO player’s activity: a creative undertaking based around the toy, using it as a prop to create stories and interact with it.

Talking about play, Freud (1953) points out that “as people grow up, then, they cease to play, and they seem to give up the yield of pleasure which they gained from playing“, and we can make an almost direct parallel between this quote and LEGO. It’s not often that you see a 50 year old picking up a LEGO pirate crew member, invent a story about a treasure raid, and spent twenty minutes enacting the scenes. Equally, even Freud-approved players may find the activity dull, and not want to use LEGO this way. Does this mean that LEGO has reached its full, and only, potential through play?

Maybe not, thanks to another crucial component to LEGO sets: the building. In this play instance, the player will pick-up the manual, follow the (sometimes challenging) steps, to reach a particular end state, i.e. the completion of the LEGO set. A game can be defined as “goal-directed activities in which inefficient means are intentionally (or rationally) chosen” (Suits, 1967). Indeed, one might say that there is no challenge in building a LEGO set – the instructions are set and you simply follow them. However, from a game-centric perspective, I would argue that the building is in fact the key challenge and a game, because it is the inefficient path. The easy path is a pre-built LEGO (and who wants that?), the harder path is the challenge of building it yourself, frustration, fun, personal touches, missing pieces and all.

My conclusion is that, through separate forms of gameplay, LEGO is both a playing activity, and a game. And like with any game, the fun is in the eye of the beholder!


References:

Freud, S. (1953). The standard edition of the complete psychological works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogarth Press, p.149

Kampmann Walther, B. (2016). Game Studies – Playing and Gaming: Reflections and Classifications. Available at: http://www.gamestudies.org/0301/walther/#_edn4 (Accessed 1 November 2016)

Suits, B. (1967) ‘What Is a Game?’, Philosophy of Science, 34(2), pp.148-156. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/186102?seq=1#page_scan_tab_contents (Accessed 1 November 2016)

 

 

 

Post-Modernism: A Solid Snake

I believe that video games are art, and therefore always enjoy comparisons between games and more “traditional” art forms and associated trends. This would include post-modernism, a movement that can described as: “often funny, tongue-in-cheek or ludicrous; it can be confrontational and controversial, challenging the boundaries of taste; but most crucially, it reflects a self-awareness of style itself(Tate, 2006). Could we observe this trend in video  games?

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Call of Duty: MW2 “No Russian” (No Russian, no date)

Controversy, a key element of post-modernism, is something the gaming industry is familiar with. Indeed, video games have had their share of controversies around violence, sexualisation of characters, or more generally sensitive themes – see the Call of Duty: Modern Warfare 2 mission “No Russian” (‘No Russian’, no date) for an edifying example where the player has to kill civilians.

However I’m more interested in another important element of post-modernism: the self-awareness and subversion of its own tropes. Now, where have I seen these themes in a game before?

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Raiden… or yourself? (Model Raiden, no date)

Let’s examine Metal Gear Solid, a long-running stealth/action series, created by the ever-controversial game designer Hideo Kojima. What do you expect when starting its anticipated second PlayStation instalment, Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty? Everything the trailers and artwork promised: polished missions, main protagonist Solid Snake on top form, streamlined tutorials for fans of the series, and more of the same. And that’s exactly what is delivered – until the end of the first mission. As mission 1 reaches its conclusion, Solid Snake dies and you control rookie character Raiden… for the rest of the game. The game also removes several gameplay options and adds new, very detailed tutorials.

Once the player recovers from the shock, they then realise that there is more to the main character than meets the eye. It’s all in the game’s dialogue, and here are some of my favourite game design nuggets, courtesy of the MGS Wikia (‘Fourth Wall’, 2014):

 

  • [In first person view mode] If the player looks up while outside, seagull droppings may splatter on the screen
  • [In-game characters] make cryptic messages, urging the player to turn off the console, saying lines from previous games – Metal Gear, Metal Gear 2, Metal Gear Solid, VR Missions and Ghost Babel, and famously spouting gibberish. At one point, [a character] even specifically refers to Raiden’s situation as a “role-playing game.”
  • Just before Raiden throws away his dog tags at the end of the game, they display the information that the player entered at the beginning of [a chapter of the game].
kojima-main
Hideo Kojima, man of mystery (Kojima, no date)

To the attentive player, the game slowly becomes a “meta-game”: a game about the player playing a game. The game is self-aware in that Raiden / the player’s role is situated firmly outside of the game world; it also gently mocks the player for getting too involved, and sends regular reminders that this is not real.

Hideo Kojima famously resented making a follow-up to the first PlayStation Metal Gear Solid. Could we jump to the conclusion that he therefore created a self-mocking parody of the series he did not want to continue? Subversion of its own genre, confrontational and controversial decisions that will challenge the player’s loyalty (and possibly enjoyment) of the series… The jury is out on Kojima’s motivations, but we can safely say that MGS2: Sons of Liberty has all the hallmarks of a post-modernist game – players be damned!


References:

‘Fourth wall’ (2014) Metal Gear Wikia. Available at: http://metalgear.wikia.com/wiki/Fourth_wall (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Kojima (no date) [image]. Available at: http://cdn-static.denofgeek.com/sites/denofgeek/files/6/64//kojima-main.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

‘No Russian’ (no date) Call of Duty Wiki. Available at: http://callofduty.wikia.com/wiki/No_Russian (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

No Russian (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette2.wikia.nocookie.net/callofduty/images/8/82/No_Russian_menu_image_MW2.png/revision/latest?cb=20130221215405 (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Model Raiden (no date) [image]. Available at: http://vignette1.wikia.nocookie.net/metalgear/images/9/9f/Model_Raiden.jpg/revision/latest/scale-to-width-down/180?cb=20091019140715 (Accessed 17 October 2016)

Tate (2006) Postmodernism. Available at: http://www.tate.org.uk/learn/online-resources/glossary/p/postmodernism (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

Featured Image:

Metal Gear Solid 2: Sons of Liberty (no date) [image]. Available at: http://www.destructoid.com//ul/323446-/metal_gear_solid_2_sons_of_liberty-1920×1080.jpg (Accessed: 17 October 2016)

 

 

What is Games Design?

When I tell people I study games design, I usually get a positive reaction: “Oh that’s great! So… It’s about making good games, right?”. Well, is it?

Games design is one of these disciplines that most people understand, but struggle to define. “Making good games”, “coming-up with concepts”, “owning the game experience”… What’s the right way to break it down, and is there one and only way to do so?

This is a question I will be discussing in my Contextual and Theoretical Studies, a module exploring the social context and influence surrounding games, related societal issues (diversity, violence, addiction, crunch, advertising), the components that make a game, the concepts of flow and magic circle, gaming history, and last but not least: the “WHY” behind making games.

My first session this week focused on some initial questions to get us thinking. Here are my notes from the front.

List different types/kind/genres of computer games

RPGs, FPS, platformers, MOBAs, Horror, Strategy, Puzzle, Music, MMOs.

This sparked a larger discussion on the subject: how do we know the genre of the game we’re looking at? Several clues could be in:

  • Gameplay – levelling-up? Likely to be an RPG. Massively multiplayer? You’re in an MMO.
  • Visuals – platforms or guns? (or both, I guess?)
  • Sound – epic RPG strings? Or the silence of a horror game?
  • Audience – who is this game for? Is it listed in the 3+ section of an App store? Or the “Dark Souls-like” lists on Steam?

Define Games Design as a practice/act using full sentences (50 words)

Games design is a practice that involves creating interactive content for games, be it mechanics, levels, narrative scripting, or engagement strategies. Games design looks into creating a meaningful experience for the player by ensuring consistency between gameplay, art, sound, and narrative. It also involves managing a feedback loop between the development team and the player (prototypes, play-testing).

List other design disciplines with relationships to games design

Colour theory, UI, physical interface, etc.

Finally, list the 10 most important games to date

Here’s what my team came-up with – note that these are the 10 most important, not our 10 favourites!

  1. Super Mario Bros
  2. Final Fantasy VII
  3. Crash Bandicoot – we picked this as our most important as it ushered in the 3D platforming/PlayStation era. One we all remember fondly! (also, Mario was taken…)
  4. Doom
  5. Counter Strike 1.6
  6. Guitar Hero
  7. World of Warcraft
  8. Tetris
  9. Silent Hill
  10. Minecraft

Extra Thinking

The genre question is actually a little deeper and trickier than it looks. I looked back on my genres I allocated in my Steam library – then compared my list to two friends’. They list Civilization as a God-Like, I list is as Strategy. For me, Alien: Isolation is an Action/FPS. For others, it’s Horror/Survival or FPS. Are indie games Indie as a genre? Is BioShock an Action/RPG, or an FPS? Or all of it? Who is correct – or is there such a thing as a “true/correct” classification? Hard to say. There is also the consideration that games increasingly mix genres, by adding levelling-up stats to FPS, shooting to RPGs, puzzles to RTS, etc. TV tropes has an interesting entry about these sub-genres – and I have a feeling this list is far from comprehensive. Maybe genres are the new job titles – they look nice and final on paper but they don’t always show the whole truth.


Soundbites

  • “There are exceptional games but nothing exceptional about games”
  • “This subject is more about raising interesting questions than finding all the answers”
  • “Is games design the same than games development?” (this one really gave me food for thought)
  • “With games, under-promise and over-deliver” (this came after a [heated] discussion on No Man’s Sky. No comment!)