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Loops and Progression

An intriguing tweet from Dan Cook led me to checking out a game design report named "Applications of Cyclical Progression", which I really liked, although I have one reaction.

The doc focuses on the design trope of "linear progression": for example, many games from Candy Crush to RPGs have been structured as an ever-growing content sequence (matches, levels, story, etc). Players go through the sequence of challenges, experience the story, go through the ups and downs of the story arc - and in the process collect more wealth, build up the character, and so on, on their path to victory.

It's a good trope, but the problem is: if players like it, they will play through it, get through all the content, and then what? Assuming the developer wants to keep this going, they're faced with a content cadence problem: they need to make more content, and good content, at a pace that's fast enough to keep player happy, with a good quality so it's not boring or repetitive. But because the progression is linear, the player has already leveled up pretty far, gained a ton of wealth, stats and so on. So what can we do for a player who's super advanced and has everything? Do we have to keep escalating abilities and challenges to ridiculous proportions, like in Star Trek V where captain Kirk went to the center of the galaxy, fought with God, and won?

So that's the problem description. The report then digs deep into one particular family of solutions: converting linear progression into looping progression. For example, compare Diablo to chess. In Diablo, there is a main story line, and the game keeps changing and evolving, as the different challenges and areas push the player through the story. But in chess, after each match, the player returns back to the same game board! They play against other players, better players, different players, but the game itself doesn't change. Over time they may improve their skills, and their experience may change and get deeper, but it doesn't come from experiencing more content - rather, from experiencing the same game, over and over, but differently.

On this point, I'm very much in agreement with the authors of this doc. I'm a fan of games that you replay over and over, as you learn and get better (simulation, strategy, builders, etc), and I think this whole approach makes a lot of sense. It's a different kind of an experience, a different kind of enjoyment, when we come back to similar situations and find new depth and new challenges in them, as we ourselves get better.

However, if you'd allow me one nitpick about the report: in presenting a laundry list of challenges and cyclical solutions, I think the authors missed out on an opportunity to organize this knowledge. It doesn't take away from the report, but would make it easier for the reader to apply it.

Specifically, I think cyclical progression is sensitive to design decisions along at least two axes:

  • Is the game single-player or multiplayer? and
  • Do we want to add cycles in form of metagame loops or gameplay loops?

Here's what I mean specifically:

  • A multiplayer game is going to be inherently easier to cyclicalize. We can give two people a ball to kick around and some rules, and voila! We have a fun cyclical game. :) In this case, we don't have to do much work to make the game cyclical - but we do have to work on making it fun for players are losing and therefore aren't having fun.
  • A single-player game is more about individual achievement and building things in the game. This kind of a game is going to be harder to cyclicalize, because it means asking the player to start over, so there need to be reasons and rewards for doing that. But on the plus side, these cycles feel much more inherently interesting, because it's the player's own limitations that hold them back, and overcoming them is fun. It's like playing chess against a perfectly matched opponent.

Then the second axis is that of the type of loops:

  • Metagame is the kind of decision making that happens outside of game sessions: after you played a hand of cards or a single game of chess, you go back and get more cards and reconsider your deck, or maybe go study some openings and standard tactics, and so on. Sports (and sports spectatorship) are also full of metagame elements - what happens on the field is already gripping, and then what happens in between games is extra interesting. This is where mechanics like leaderboards, competitions, team- or deck-building, etc. can form the basis of very appealing, long-term cyclical gameplay.
  • Gameplay loops are the kind of decisions at different frequencies that people do when playing a single game session. For example, in The Sims, we have to decide every few seconds what each family member will do next; every few minutes what friends to invite over; every tens of minutes on how to redecorate the house; and maybe every hour or so whether to add new family members into the mix, and completely shake everything up. When games layer these loops together, it generates the famous "one more turn" feel, where the player wants to keep playing, because they have a ton of irons in the fire and they want to see everything through to the end, which will never come because they keep putting even more irons in.

So depending on where we land on this 2D matrix, I think the approaches could be very different:

  • Multiplayer metagame: such as boosting excitement and planning around leaderboards, matches, improving one's odds from one match to the next, and so on (e.g. via card trading and deck building in CCGs)
  • Muitiplayer gameplay: such as adding more long-term strategic elements and layering them on micro gameplay (e.g. macro strategy layering on difficult micro play in competitive RTSs)
  • Single-player gameplay: such as adding low-frequency and very-low-frequency decisions that may require the player to reconsider and rebuilt huge chunks of what they've already built (e.g. rare technologies in Civilization which open up entirely new types of military units)
  • Single-player metagame: such as boosting excitement around single-player achievements and sharing them with other players (e.g. "share your house" feature in The Sims)

I do think that, depending on whether our game is 1p or mp, and based on whether it's composed of short or long sessions, the strategies for cyclicizing a game will look very different.

But regardless of this, that report is very detailed, and very much worth checking out. And in the end, I think the focus on cyclical design is completely right on. As players, once we find something we like, we want to keep playing. And as designers, we should support this!

Saturday, January 11, 2020

Philosophy of Games

A while back I came across a fascinating summary paper on the current state of philosophy of games work. It's by C. Thi Nguyen, and a preprint can be found here: https://philarchive.org/archive/NGUPCPv2

I was really interested to read about what philosophers think of us as a discipline. And I mean that honestly - philosophy is a hugely underestimated practice (a lot of the current limitations of AI, for example, have long been predicted and worked over in philosophy). But I had no idea whether anyone cared about games of all things, and I was glad to see that, in fact, multiple anyones did. 😀

And perhaps the most interesting part was in the framing of the discussion. Nguyen looks at philosophy of games as the coming together of multiple, mostly external currents. Philosophy of games tries to understand the value of games and the meaning in what games are. But at the same time, as a discipline it's very new, just because games as such are also very new. So, unsurprisingly, the current state of the discipline is strongly anchored in other surrounding disciplines, and people trying to use existing frameworks from elsewhere to understand this curious new terrain.

So far so good, after all every discipline is rooted in others - but which historical roots he identified in philosophy of games was what really surprised me.

In his analysis the author finds the strongest interplay between two "schools of thought" on how to approach analyzing games. The conclusions in the essay describe it best:

  • I’ve suggested that, in the philosophical analysis of games at least, there are at least two ruling frameworks that have been applied to games with varying degrees of success. First, from various schools of aesthetics, we have found tools to think about games as objects of appreciation. In some cases, appreciation involves interrogating a game in representational terms — looking for its story, its meaning, its social criticism. The discussion of games as artworks has yielded other useful results concerning the exact nature of the proper object of appreciation, and the relationship between artist and audience in interactive works.

  • Philosophers of sport, on the other hand, have approached games with an entirely different framework. This has lead into investigations about the normative nature of games — what guides the choice of rules, and how those rules might be applied, interpreted, or even changed. Furthermore, philosophers of sport have investigated games as social practices and as forms of life. We might say that aestheticists have given valuational accounts about the game itself, or about the experience of the game, while philosophers of sports have given valuational accounts of performance in games. It is important, for example, that the idea that it might be valuable to be skillful at a game arises very rarely in the aesthetic discourse, but constantly in the philosophy of sport.

A fascinating summary. I had come into this paper fully expecting a discussion of two things: one, the study of games as media, including the old narratology-and-ludology debate which cast such a huge Sauron-like shadow over the whole area, and two, some kind of discussion of mechanics and systems and gameplay, in the formal game design sense, which are the bread and butter of practicing designers.

But instead, the author suggests something else: that philosophy of games understands games in terms of the following currents:

  • Philosophy of aesthetics, which does have a nonzero overlap with media studies, but is more interested in larger questions around meaning, beauty, and truth, and
  • Philosophy of sports, which seems mainly interested in issues of ethics and justice, such as questions around rules, fair play, cheating, or why would someone submit themselves willfully to a series of grueling tests under artificial conditions.

Fascinating areas, both, but absolutely not what I expected. I did not expect to see these philosophical currents to be so calmly unconcerned with issues of gameplay - the very thing that players actually seek out in games, and the thing that designers work so hard to understand and then build an artifact around.

There seems to be a problem here, which is that both of these approaches have a huge blind spot. They can't understand the appeal of a game like Dwarf Fortress, or a game like SimCity, or a game like Minecraft. And these games are not singletons, they are simply the most popular, most extreme examples, but they're emblematic of an entire dimension of gameplay. There's a whole spectrum of games which are not sports-like at all (they're single-player/PvE and exploratory, rather than competitive and goal-oriented), but also not concerned with visual aesthetics in the same way as philosophy of aesthetics understands it (though they are very concerned with the aesthetics of what it feels like to participate in a rulesystem). And these kinds of games are experiences that players find great value in, but which these philosophical frameworks don't know how to value.

Which puts us, as designers, in an interesting position. How do we understand the value of the things we create? How should others value them?

Ah, but let me leave this post with a cliffhanger. I feel there's a longer response brewing.

Sunday, January 5, 2020

Introducing Mies

When getting ready to set up this blog, I looked around at blog software and sites, but didn't find one I liked. So I made my own, as one does. 😎

This site runs on Mies, a minimalist static blog engine, developed with the principle that less is more. Mies takes pages written as markdown files, and converts them into a static blog, which can be uploaded to any web host (or github or various cloud providers). No pain, no fuss.

Mies accomplishes this by standing on the shoulders of two specific giants:

  • Markdig markdown engine to convert .md files into HTML
  • RazorLight engine which lets the user embed arbitrary C# code in their HTML, so that pages can be modded and defined almost entirely via templates, without changing the executable

The result is a powerful and efficient website engine that takes input files written as markdown, and produces a complete website, which in turn can be uploaded to any kind of a web host. Mies further simplifies the job by providing a default template for making a blog, but the templating engine is powerful enough to support other kinds of static sites as well.

Besides speed, Mies is also a reaction to WordPress-style maximalism. Web UIs are great, but they carry an ongoing cost: having a WP blog requires you to run a web server running PHP, a MySQL database, and an anti-spam service subscription just as a cover fee, plus ongoing patches to all of the above - or paying someone else to do all that. And I will admit, there was a time when doing all that was new and exciting, back when Web 2.0 and database backed websites were a groovy new thing. But in the year of our lord 2020 none of this stuff is amusing anymore. There has to be a better way.

And I think there is.

Anyway - I'm going to open-source it soon. Mies is written in C# running on .NET Core 3.1, so it should be completely cross-platform, and I'm hoping others will help me test that assumption. 😁

Saturday, January 4, 2020

Hello World

This is the first post in this fancy new blog! 👋

What better time to start a new blog, than at the start of a new year and a new decade?

Here's a new blog related to things I do: game development and design, programming, maybe some gamedev inside baseball. The ups and downs of working in an aesthetic medium that is primarily expressed as code and machinery. The joys of building machines for playing with.

The reasons for doing this are multiple: a place to experiment with some ill-formed ideas, to jot down some quick concepts for future postings, or to pour out some quick reactions while they're still hot.

But most importantly, someplace where I can do that with full control over the text, without getting paywalled, monetized, or managed by algorithms, at least not any more than any other random site on the web. And none of these should be a concern to someone who just wants to put down a few thoughts in a blog, and post them on the web, but here we are. 😎

Wednesday, January 1, 2020