Game talkWritingMore reviews

 Posted by (Visited 5398 times)  Game talk, Writing
Jan 312005

More reviews and commentary have popped up!

Michael Feldstein has some very positive things to say:

…one of the best work-related books I’ve read in quite some time. It is also one of the strangest. Written in a simple, plain-spoken style with relatively few words on a page and an illustration on every facing page, printed in a shape that is wider than it is tall, the book feels very much like a children’s book. But don’t be fooled. The level of sophistication, both in the narrative construction and in the content itself, is impressive. The result is that you can plow through this book very quickly and yet absorb some very rich and subtle concepts.

The forums at IndieGamer have also been discussing it, though as do many other sites, they veer into talking about Star Wars Galaxies instead… *sigh*

Over at Wallo World, a blogger uses the book to poke at the recent case where a school decided not to sponsor a Halo 2 tournament. He’s also got a more detailed review of the book up:

This entertaining and innovative book is ostensibly for game designers. Personally, I think it is more than that: it’s a primer for anyone interested in games, both for how they work and what we think of them. Written by Raph Koster, the chief creative officer for Sony Online Entertainment, it isn’t an artificial or inflated study in how to build a particular kind of game. Instead, it is a wide-ranging intellectual foray into what games mean, both to individuals and society, and how they operate on a host of different levels…

Koster clearly wants to reach a point where games are recognized as a form of artistic expression, and he is trying to articulate a worthwhile conceptual framework to explore what games really mean, both to us as individuals and to society as a whole. Some portions of the book are more clearly directed to game designers than others, but on the whole I’d say that there is much in A Theory of Fun for Game Design to interest even those who would rather play games than design them.

Even the Nonprofit Online News gets into the act:

Raph Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is an important book. On one level, it’s a manifesto for social responsibility and artistry in game design. On another level, it’s an insightful exploration of human motivation and learning with extensive application to the worlds of grassroots education and activism. One example: Games will turn people off if they are too difficult, as well as if they are too easy. There is a sweet spot where people are in a zone of greatest learning and effectiveness. I think the same holds true for social change work.

Looks like GameDev.Net has a review ready as well, but the link doesn’t quite work yet. [link fixed now] And a while back I forgot to mention that CliffyB declared the book “fascinating.”

Game talkWritingDiscussions on GTxA, elsewhere

 Posted by (Visited 7833 times)  Game talk, Writing
Jan 302005

Reviews and commentary are starting to pop up all over the place. An interesting one is Nick Montfort’s review over at Grand Text Auto. Generally speaking, I think arguing with reviews is a waste of time. But posing questions and me answering them does seem fair game! 🙂

Koster describes at the beginning of a paragraph on page 38 that we don’t think we can drive a car just because we know the rules of the road and what the controls do. (Of course, driving a car is not low-stakes, so it isn’t a game, but let’s continue.) Board games, on the other hand, “have fairly few variables, and so you can often extrapolate out from the known rule set.” He goes on to offer what he calls an important insight for game designers: “the more formally constructed your game is, the more limited it will be.” (Emphasis in original.) This is a claim, offered without real argument or even an explanation of what it means, that just seems immediately either wrong or meaningless. Chess is just about completely formalized, yet it has provided centuries of not-very-limited novelty and play. Salen and Zimmerman’s lucid and thoroughly argued concept of games is that their formal systems provide the only possibilities that are there in the game at all. And, what does it even mean to have one game be more formally constructed than another? Should such a game have more rules? That wouldn’t make it more formal, of course, that would just make it more intricate. To make a game less formal, we’d have to somehow have “informal rules.”

There’s also not much of a hint about what Koster means by “limited” by the middle of the paragraph, but the following sentences provides a clue about that term and also about “formally constructed”: “To make games more long-lasting, they need to integrate more variables (and less predictable ones) such as human psychology, physics, and so on. These are elements that arise from outside the game’s rules…” So a less limited game would be one that is longer-lasting, and less predictable. A few problems, though: (1) Creating such a game involves things that come from outside the game’s rules – these are exactly the things that the game designer doesn’t control. (2) Well, wait: actually, physics is “designed in” to computer sports games, and Jesper Juul, in his dissertation, makes a strong case that real-world physics should be considered part of the rule set of real-world sports, albeit an inflexible part. This means physics isn’t really outside the rules, it’s just something we chose to include by designing a sport instead of, for instance, some verbal game. (3) What does it mean to “incorporate human psychology?” How can any game played by a human not do this? How does a board game such as Risk not incorporate human psychology? Or is Koster referring to some other sort of board game, even though the rules of Risk are simple and one might be able to extrapolate Australia strategies and such from them?

My response:

Nick’s on the right track when he cites Jesper’s treatment of physics. Many games do NOT design physics into their ruleset. (In fact, most sports games will design in only a fraction of actual physics). You can have also games that simulate a broad array of physical activities without simulating physics.

Physics has a lot of rules. We might like to conveniently label all of them under one word, but the fact is that physics is complex, really. It also permits all sorts of interesting behaviors, if fully implemented. Were sports games to REALLY include phsyics, you could set fire to other players. But they don’t, and you can’t.

We can think of physics as being an “included ruleset” similar to an included file in programming. (That is exactly how commercial physics engines work in games, after all). They provide a wide array of behaviors in a “blackbox” fashion–we only know the API, the interface to reach the behaviors. I consider them “outside the game rules” because they are never explicitly codified.

From a game design point of view, a game which makes actual use of physics is “including” a vast array of rules into its game without explicitly defining them. There is an assumption that a common frame of reference is shared, and that therefore everyone will know what’s up.

Physics is just one example of the sort of “imported ruleset” that games frequently use. All head-to-head games import human psychology as an additional ruleset defining how opponents make decisions. If you can communicate with the other player in any way (such as by seeing their face), a whole host of new and poorly defined game rules come into play. These generally complexify the game experience, without really complicating it since we are used to dealing with things like facial expressions.

An example of this at work would be bluffing in poker. The difference between a bluff done by a computer based on an algorithm and a bluff done by a human you cannot see, versus a bluff done by a human you cannot see and a human you can, is quite impressive. Poker played against humans (versus poker played against a computer) is a far richer game.

In the book I reference game design atoms briefly. In the list of core elements of a game mechanic I cite “a challenge to overcome.” Formally constructed games tend to have defined all the challenges in advance. Less formally constructed games have more variables. Games which import rulesets which are full of ambiguity have a lot of highly unpredictable variables.

The easiest way to do this is to make another person the source of the challenges. The way to limit the ambiguity is to formally limit the possible challenges they can offer; to expand it, reduce the formal strictures on the challenges presented.

Hence the statements in the book.

I am beginning to think that I either needed to write a simpler book or a considerably more in-depth one. 🙂 Certainly most of the reviewers seem to be asking for more in-depth.

Nick also gets the second No-Prize for spotting an error, correctly pointing out that Deathrace the game was based on the movie, and not the other way around. I could swear that’s what I wrote, but the printed copy says otherwise. Ah well.

Also appearing today is a review of sorts on Terra Nova. This one seizes on yet another individual sentence from the book and builds a mini-essay’s worth of contemplation out of it:

…Its hard to disagree outright [that “The best test of a game’s fun in the strict sense will therefore be playing the game with no graphics, no music, no sound, no story, no nothing”], there are simply too many examples. However, in its generality, to me, it feels like a cookie-cutter with acute corners. Perhaps, it goes back to a process view of fun that I perceive to be less forgiving of the aesthetic weight of the “game world nouns” themselves. Is exploration in virtual worlds fun because of the process of search or because of the delight of discoveries? In Raph’s words on page 95 “people often take DELIGHT in things that are not challenges.” Yet if “(d)elight, unfortunately, doesn’t last (94).” does that necessarily mean, that its only process that can hold it all together? Just questions.

I think my answer would be that yes, it is process that holds it all together. However, I’d point out that it is the same process that holds together a great novel or a powerful film. Instant aesthetic response is not what lasts in any form of art (the more sustained process of teasing out the hows and whys of the aesthetics can last quite a while however–but that isn’t mere delight anymore, it’s actually what I call “fun” in the book).

He also says

if play must culminate in cheating once grokked… it sounds to me that play as defined is not sufficient. I wonder, and would like to know more.

I don’t assert that play culminates in cheating, but rather that play culminates in not playing. Cheating is merely a way to bypass the game. It is play at a meta-level. As designers we dislike it because games are meant to teach a certain set of things, and when you choose to solve the problem by bypassing those
lessons, you have avoided learning what we sought to teach. We’re not always conscious of it, but that’s what seems to lie at the heart of the resentment of cheating. And, as I point out in the book, the danger is that cheating, like cheating in school, may get you past that particular challenge, but then not provide you with a generically applicable tool to use when you encounter similar challenges in the real world.


Are we, all players, mercenaries, and don’t the dandelions along the way count for something?

Alas, humans in most situations seem to be bad at spotting the dandelions. That said, I do believe we can build games that teach the lesson that dandelions are worth observing, and that mercenary is not all we should be. But it’s an uphill struggle, I suspect.

Cory over at Second Life offers some brief commentary, and wonders,

I’m disappointed that he didn’t cite sources in a more academic fashion. This would have had the advantage of allowing readers to go off and learn about different ideas in more depth and also reduces the “I think” effect. Having spoken with Raph, I know that he’s read the source material to back up many of his ideas and assertions, but wihtout citations they tend to come across as opinions. This reduces both the impact and the value of the work. Perhaps this was a decision by his publisher? If so, it is one that he should have fought. Raph’s book is a quick read and worth looking at. It will leave the interested reader hungry for more and provides the casual reader some interesting discussion topics about games and their place in learning and society.

No, actually the opposite–the original version of the book had no citations or footnotes whatsoever, as it was intended as a more casual piece. The addition of endnotes came at the request of my editor Ben Sawyer. Certainly the more academic crowd seems to be asking for more material like this, though the gamers who read the book don’t tend to. I suspect there’s simply a case here of different audiences wanting different things out of the book.

OTOH, the last sentence of Cory’s there is exactly what I had hoped the book would accomplish, so it’s all good.

I hear the Slashdot review should appear this week. I look forward to maxing out my bandwidth again. 😛

Game talkWritingRequired reading

 Posted by (Visited 7870 times)  Game talk, Writing
Jan 172005

Looks like the book has landed on at least one syllabus as required reading! I spotted this today. I’m technically an adviser to the MIME program, but I’ve never actually gotten out there. 🙁

Today also saw Jamie Fristrom, he of Gamasutra columns and Spider-Man 2, write up some notes on the book. It’s an interesting take on the discussion of formal game design versus experience design. I don’t think that I quite meant what Jamie seems to be reading into what I wrote (which is probably my fault, not his!). As I wrote on the blog,

I don’t intend to come across like the dressing is unimportant, or only relevant to mass market games. Chapter 10 is all about how experience design matters, for example. I even use almost your chess example, only with go instead. I also say “The dressing is tremendously important. It’s very likely that chess would not have its long-term appeal if the pieces all represented different kinds of snot.” 😉

In the book I make the distinction between the person in charge of the formal abstract parts of games (what I called the “ludemographer”) and the person in charge of the game experience (call them the director, if you like).

The avenues of enjoyment beyond ludemography that the director taps into are well understood. They are story, they are art direction, they are music, etc. The thrill from getting the headshot, the tactile feel of real go beads on a wooden board. And even though they are well-understood, they aren’t EASY–so I think it’s perfectly valid for you to spend a lot of time thinking about those things.

I argue that the fun brought by pure ludemography is the core of gameplay and the part that is not as well understood as it should be, and that’s what the bulk of the book is about.

I’d definitely argue that 2d versus 3d brings in a whole bunch of new formal abstract qualities to a game, btw. 🙂

From a practical point of view, I’ll allege that if you have a fun game without real art, it can only get funner with better art, as Noel says. But as a corollary, if you have an unfun game, adding better art is not going to help.

Other places in the blogosphere where discussion of the book has popped up include
here, where the poster says,

Raph (Ultima Online) Koster’s A Theory of Fun for Game Design is well worth checking out if you have an interest in the how and why of game design. It’s billed as Understanding Comics for video games, though I don’t think it quite lives up to that (the brilliance of Understanding Comics is in large part that it’s a demonstration; you’d have to make a game about video games to match it). Still, Raph is very smart and knows video game design. You can also check out an early comic form of the book (4.7Mb pdf).

Alas, a videogame that explained videogame theory was beyond my budget, and I doubt that my employers would have found it a commercially rewarding project. 🙂

 Comments Off on Required reading

Game talkWritingBartle wins a No-Prize

 Posted by (Visited 5876 times)  Game talk, Writing
Jan 152005

Oh dear, over a month since the last update.

The book seems to be doing well. There’s some active discussion over at Grand Text Auto, which is an excellent blog focusing primarily on interactive storytelling and the narratological side of game studies. A lot of the discussion centers on whether the definition of fun in the book encompasses all forms of games, such as footraces.

There’s a heavy load of assumptions that goes into “fairness.” For example, competitive games of all sorts make use of leagues and handicapping in order to try to make things “fair,” and we take those for granted. In the case of athletics such as our hypothetical footrace, our hidden assumption is that training is part of the race, and training has rules that cannot be broken. And interestingly, training is a heavily cognitive task.

If training were not part of the race, then doping would be acceptable. But the magic circle clearly does not encompass only the moments between the starting gun and the finish line.

If that whets your appetite, head on over to take a look.

A special No-Prize goes to Richard Bartle, for being the first to spot an undeniable major factual error in the book. I refer, of course, to the bizarre mental slip that resulted in my conflating Ravel’s orchestration of Mussorgsky’s piano work Pictures at an Exhibition
(Ravel’s orchestration being of course the version of the piece we know best) with Ravel’s orchestration of
his own Bolero, which was NOT written by Debussy as the book states. I plead cognitive failure, my chunks were in disarray. I shall now have to pore over Richard’s book in order to find a comparable egregious error that I can hold over him.

A review of the book accompanied by more discussion has appeared at

Raph didn’t just lay out a mental snack here, but one heck of a banquet, and it’ll be quite awhile before I’m done digesting it all. What you see here is a meager sampler platter that’s a far cry from experiencing the main course. Dropping the food analogy: my summary glosses over the ideas in this book, but can not adequately cover every one within without becoming as long as the book itself. (Besides, I imagine Raph could explain these ideas better than I could.) I would recommend everybody from avid gamers to the remotely curious to grab a copy from Amazon… At $13.59 a copy, you’ll find few better bargains.

Overall, I learned a lot from The Theory of Fun in Game Design, much of it helped to bring the thoughts of this gamer into alignment with the big picture of what gaming is all about. I’ll never look at game design in quite the same way again.

The discussion is quite stimulating, with comments such as Slyfeind’s question, “If games are destined to be art, why aren’t we there already? Or…are we?” The commentary also touches on what play is. Worth reading.

I am promised a review from Slashdot, but it hasn’t appeared yet. Nor, to my knowledge, has the interview I did with the Kansas City Star resulted in anything. Sigh. I am confirmed now as doing the opening keynote at the Serious Games Summit at the Game Developers Conference however. I have added reviews to the Press page as I find them.