Game talkAwesome paper on games math

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Jan 272012

Giovanni Viglietta of the University of Pisa has posted up a paper called “Gaming is a hard job, but someone has to do it!”. 

In it, he not only analyzes a variety games to determine their complexity class, but he also arrives at a few metatheorems that are generically applicable for all game design. In other words, “include these features and your game gains fun.”

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Jan 262012

When I said that narrative was not a game mechanic, but rather a form of feedback, I was getting at the core point that chunks of story are generally doled out as a reward for accomplishing a particular task. And games fundamentally, are about completing tasks — reaching for goals, be they self-imposed (as in all the forms of free-form play or paideia, as Caillois put it in Man, Play and Games) or authorially imposed (or ludus). They are about problem-solving in the sense that hey are about cognitively mastering models of varying complexity.

Some replies used the word “content” to describe the role that narrative plays. But I wouldn’t use the word content to describe varying feedback.

In other words, perverse as it may sound, I wouldn’t generally call chunks of story “game content.” But I would sometimes, and I’ll even offer up a game design here that does so.

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Game talkFun vs features

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Jan 252012

You have a system. Let’s say it’s a system where you can throw darts. And you have to open your bar in one week.

Throwing darts might have a bad interface. The dartboard might be too small or too big or poorly lit. Darts may be a perfectly nice idea, but the implementation of it needs tuning.

At this point, you have a feature, but not fun. It’s gonna take you four days to make it fun.

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Game talkAn atomic theory of fun game design

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Jan 242012

This is the original essay in which I worked out the basics of my game grammar approach. It later became a GDC talk. This essay was written in 2004, and the genesis of it was working through issues with the crafting system in Everquest II with Rod Humble. This essay no longer represents my current understanding of game grammar, but it’s a decent start.

This essay has never been publicly posted (it was originally posted only to a private game developer forum, on June 26th of 2004), but I thought I should make it available both for historical interest and also for the sake of clarifying some of the things that I now take for granted when I discuss game design here on the blog. I can’t expect everyone to have read everything I have ever written, of course, and in this case it’s even worse since some of the material was only delivered at conferences. So many of the responses to the article on narrative were clearly from folks unaware of some of this work that it felt like the right time to post it up.

Since this was written, I have met fellow travelers — boy, was I pissed when Dan Cook’s “Chemistry” article came out a few years later, and had such nicer diagrams! I also found Ben Cousins’ work on “ludemes” later, a term I gladly stole. And I think this served as some inspiration to folks like Stéphane Bura and Joris Dormans who have pushed this in fresh directions I would never have pursued. There have been grammarian get-togethers, Project Horseshoe whitepapers, and more. I even have a pile of blog posts that fit under the “game grammar” tag here on this site for those who are curious about more.

* * *

Lately, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the nature of fun. I’ve reduced it down to a cognitive challenge, the notion that fun is the feeling you get when you are exercising your brain by solving a cognitive puzzle. Sometimes the puzzle is provided by a computer, sometimes by another player, but either way, your brain is basically trying to perceive a pattern; victory usually comes from identifying the pattern, then correctly executing on some action that the pattern does not account for. For further thoughts on this and its implications for game design as an art form, I refer you to my presentation “A Theory of Fun.”

This suggests that there are probably ways to break down or otherwise analyze what makes a given puzzle or challenge fun. Now, challenges or puzzles come in a very wide array of forms—spatio-temporal challenges like Tetris, and physical dexterity ones like soccer. What do all of these have in common?

Building a subgame atom
The following algorithm came about from attempting to map the basic features of MMOG combat systems onto MMOG tradeskills, which are usually regarded as not having met a sufficiently high bar of fun. Interestingly, MMO combat itself is often not regarded as having reached that bar either, and yet it succeeds in keeping players captivated for many months on end, when correctly executed.

A successful MMO probably needs to have many individual subgames (of which combat may be one) in order to be successful, and for maximum impact, each of them needs to fulfill all of the following requirements. In fact the atom needs to have certain known “system inputs” and “system outputs” so that it can be hooked together to build game “molecules” if you like.

We typically refer to each atom as being “a game system” in game design, but part of the point of this essay is to show that this definition is to a degree recursive. Once you have knitted together several atoms into a molecule, the molecule as a whole must also meet all the criteria for what makes an atom fun. When looking at a piece of interactive entertainment, it is made out of at least one atom, and possibly many molecules, as in the case of MMOGs. In the end, what we refer to as “scope of a game” is really measure of how many atoms it has.

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Game talkNarrative is not a game mechanic

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Jan 202012

I love stories. My chief hobby is reading. I was formally trained as a writer, not as a game designer (there wasn’t really any formal training for game design I got started, but that’s another story). I think most game stories are not very good. And I quite enjoy games with narrative threads pulling me through them. When I find a game with a good story, I frequently prefer to the story to the actual game! So please keep that in mind as you read: I love story.

Narrative in a game is not a mechanic. It’s a form of a feedback.

This simple fact is frequently ignored, particularly in games aimed at the mass market.

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Jan 192012

I gave a few books as gifts last year. These are the three non-fiction books I most often recommended to people. I ended up giving away multiple copies of these.

The thing they have in common: they all make you revise your view of the world.

1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created

It’s sort of like Connections but for world history since that date, with a huge emphasis on the way globalization changed the world. One of the best moments is when he talks about plants… as American as apple pie (apples are from Kazakhstan); Italian food without tomatoes (they are from the Americas); the Irish and potatoes; southeast Asian cooking without chilies (from Mexico); Switzerland without chocolate (also Mexico); and rubber having basically moved from Latin America (where there’s a native endemic pest that kills the trees) to Southeast Asia (where there isn’t… but 40% of the world’s rubber comes from those trees, we’re utterly dependent on it for airplane tires, electrical wiring, and medical use; and we’re just waiting for the moment when some idiot travels from Brazil to Indonesia with some mud on their shoe and kills the entire monoculture crop in Vietnam & South China.

I can’t resist, even though it will bloat the blog post…

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Game talkReadingCommodifying culture

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Jan 172012

20120108-184004.jpgFeast your eyes on the book porn to the left.

Go ahead, click on it and get the larger picture.

Gorgeous, aren’t they? They’re the complete set of the D’Artagnan Romances by Alexandre Dumas: The Three Musketeers, Twenty Years After, and the three volumes of The Viscomte of Bragelonne,the final volume of which is generally better known as The Man in the Iron Mask.

They were published by Thomas Y. Crowell Co., no longer extant as such, in 1901. Not first editions — that would look like this — but glorious nonetheless. Gilt on the edging, inlaid on the relief covers, onionskin endpapers in front of every engraved illustration…

Nice enough that you can still buy an facsimile of this exact edition, alas without the rich red covers and with something fairly hideous on the cover instead.

They’re something to hold, to examine. Maybe not to read. Defintely something to have visible on a shelf where people can ooh and aah. They were given to me by my uncle for Christmas this year.

I have more than a few other books like that. I’ve got a hardcover American edition of the first Harry Potter, signed by Jo Rowling, made out to my daughter with a personalized message. A bunch of old books, a lot of autographed SF novels written by people I know, some of whom are pretty well known: Brin, Sterling, Doctorow.

I have a lot of the same books as epubs on my iPad. And it’s qualitatively different. The e-books are commodities, and if one get deleted, I won’t have any regrets. Whereas if my complete run of first printings of the Doonesbury compilations (even including the obscure one for the TV special!) were to get lost or damaged, I’d be quite upset.

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MiscBlog hosting upgrade

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Jan 162012

WebPageTest waterfall of page loading here

I just upgraded my hosting plan, and we’ll see if that solves issues with the site performance. In addition to everything I mentioned in my last post, I also took some additional steps to improve performance, captured here for the sake of anyone else who has issues.

  • I fired off an email to the maker of Category Icons, which seems to be one of the common slow queries. For a while today I had it disabled outright, but I seem to have more headroom on this new hosting plan, so the icons are back.
  • I found that wp-cron.php, which is what the blog uses for scheduling posts and other cleanup tasks, was generating a lot of hits — as in, a quarter million this month alone, far outweighing most of the blog traffic! This appears to be a common problem. I followed the advice found here on how to disable WordPress’ built-in cron stuff and instead use a regular cron job. We’ll see how that does and whether everything works more or less like before.

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