Well, sort of. I really mean “systemic game” and I am really talking only about game systems here.
So let me preface this by saying that this article’s title is hyperbolic exaggeration. It uses the term “game” in my annoyingly formal, reductionist way. But I want to say it anyway, for the sake of the provocation; framing it this way jars some preconceived notions about terms out of my head. (At some point, I’ll do a post here about finding alternate, less loaded terms. But for now, since I want to get this out, I’m running with it.)
If you take as given that a game can be analyzed in terms of its grammatical structure — the verbs, nouns, adjectives that make it up – then it leads to the natural thought that you might get the same structure with minor variations.
- This is a rose.
- This is a blue rose.
- This is a red rose with whitish leaves.
- This is a thorny rose with a strong aroma.
A rose by any other name would smell as sweet; a rose is a rose is a rose.
And an FPS is an FPS is an FPS.
(Is this reductionist? Absolutely. It discounts all the things that sit on top of the same skeleton and make them radically different player experiences. But bear with me a moment).
In a game grammar sense, the verbs are the actions the player can take: smell, pluck petals, etc. The nouns are the objects that exist with the system: the petals, the pistils, the stem, the thorns. The rules arise out of the range of possible verbs and the reactions the rose may present to your action. And the “content” – well, that is the statistical variation between roses.
Now consider the small game of RPG combat. The verbs are the actions the player can take: kick, stun, nuke, etc. The nouns are the objects that exist within the system: the sword, the armor, the loot, the orc. The rules arise out of the range of possible verbs and the reactions the orc may present to your action. And the “content” – well, that is the statistical variation between orcs.
But content does not generally affect the rules. It is the x in f(x). The algorithm remains the same, even though the experience may differ radically. We use adjectives – sorry, content – sorry, statistical variation – in order to ring changes on the “machine” that lies underneath.
This means that you can find isomorphism between games. We often identify these as systems held in common, or as “design patterns.”
But often, we can look at a whole constellation of games and say “these have a significant degree of isomorphism.” In some cases, the differences lie entirely in the content. In other cases, they lie in rule variations that are on the face of them minor. We can usually spot these because we call them “a variant.” Poker variants, for example, share 80-90% of their graph, and the often significant differences in dynamics arise because of fairly minor rule changes.
If we choose, we can even look at many of these rule changes as actually being statistical variations. For example, there is a difference in perspective that comes from saying that the number of publicly shared cards in vanilla 5 card poker is a scalar variable that happens to be set to zero. To a player who only knows vanilla poker, the addition of face up cards seems like a new rule, when in fact it’s just like showing that sometimes monsters can group in an RPG, or that gravity can change, when you have thought that in practice gravity was inalterable, or grouping did not exist.
That isn’t really an honest way of looking at it – when a Texas Hold ‘Em is developed, it’s likely that no one approached it as “let’s increment this zeroed out variable to a positive number.” But in analytical retrospect, the addition of a new statistical field could almost be thought of as retroactive to all earlier versions of Poker. And thus poker’s base definition grows to encompass “a game where there might be publicly shared cards.”
As genres develop, they complexify for a number of reasons. Players master the dynamics of the previous system, according to their ability and inclination. Players who have reached mastery demand the same system but with greater variations or better balance, and the response of designers is to add new rules. Special cases arise, like the offsides rule in soccer. Eventually, the ruleset grows rococo, the number of variables extreme, and the accessibility of the genre suffers. A given variant happens to sit at the sweet spot of complexity and accessibility, and becomes the “genre king,” to use Dan Cook’s term. In poker, that was Texas Hold ‘Em.
Then the genre often dies as it spirals off into increasingly rococo variants for an increasingly elite hobbyist audience.
There is a very real craft difference between
- Merely providing statistical changes to a ruleset. This is level design, it’s making new monsters, it’s adding twelve new guns or five classes.
- Providing a whole new statistic that effectively creates a new rule, and thus a host of new mechanics. (Technically, I’d probably only call it a new rule if there’s a new verb to go with it; otherwise, it’s just a new statistic).
- Providing new rules and mechanics altogether, that connect to the existing structure: new verbs and nouns.
- Providing a completely new system of rules: verbs, nouns, everything.
This may seem like pure intellectual wonkery, but it’s not. It’s actually a great aid in thinking about new gameplay, new markets, derivative work, and ambition and innovation, and one of my preferred things to point at when thinking of what game grammar can do in a concrete sense.
From a purely practical point of view, these four tiers serve the following market purposes:
- Providing level packs, more of the same experiences, ongoing support to a fan base for a game genre.
- Adding a minor variant to the game. Likely to retain users into the genre for a longer amount of time, but moving it further down the road to over-complexity.
- Adding a major variant that many will consider a new game altogether, because the variant is extreme enough to create a very different experience: capture the flag versus deathmatch.
- Invention of an actual new game, a new genre. In the long run, may well lead to enormous new markets… just be aware that in practice, this is the hardest thing to do, and also you as the inventor likely won’t be the one who capitalizes the most on it. It’s deeply unlikely to jump right to the genre king, though we have seen it happen (Will Wright seems to have a knack for it).
From a craft point of view, these also fall nicely into system design difficulty tiers. It is harder to do #4 than #1.
Right now, I increasingly see the major variant move, which is exciting. The way in which dimensionality was established as a new platformer variable, for example, has opened up a new fertility in that genre. And this is precisely a formalist sort of move, driving innovation. Identify a variable, see how it can be integrated into an existing superstructure, reap an IGF nomination and some really cool new gameplay.
Ah, but remember I said bear with me regarding the annoyingly reductionist nature of this? You don’t need to approach things from the formalist, mathy end. One of the easiest ways to tackle the hardest task, that of inventing a new genre, is to start with a new experience, one never represented in a game before, and attempt to construct the model for it. The game that makes you feel like a tree, the game about the death of your child, the game about theoretical debates… in other words, to me this points one way towards developing new experiences.
Sometimes, you’ll end up with something that turns out isomorphically identical to an existing game. The FPS becomes the photography game. You may have failed at inventing truly new gameplay, but you have still opened new audiences, reached new expressive potential. (In fact, how come nobody has gone back to photography games and tackled stuff like focus, depth of field, exposure time, and so on? Missed opportunity!)
The biggest thing I think this tool reveals, though, is how incredibly rare it is for new “games” to be invented. As soon as we say that really, there has only been one FPS and variants, one platformer and variants, what a change in perspective!
To me it conjures up vistas of the millions of systems and models we have yet to discover, and the amazing future that awaits us in game design.