My name is Christoph, and when I'm not playing my brains out I'm a part-time student of communication studies at the University of Vienna. I am 24 years old and have been playing video games my whole life. They are not only favorite pastime, but also my primary object of study: I have written several papers on various issues concerning video games, video game culture, video game effects and design. Momentarily, i am writing my master thesis on the connections between the video game business and war.
Please bear in mind that english is not my primary language; I WILL make mistakes, for which I want to apologize in advance.
On Zork, Pong, Black Ops and the ingenuity of Achievements.
When we think about games, and video games in particular, we have to think about how the game presents its challenges. What this comes down to, in essence, is the dualism of progression and emergence. I will briefly talk about those two terms individually before considering games that make use of both techniques (as most modern video games do).
Games of Progression:
Awesome graphics, man!
Games of Progression present their challenges consecutively: You have to complete one challenge to attempt the next. The whole game is nothing more than a series of challenges that may or may not get progressively harder. The perfect example are classic adventure games, both in their strictly text-based and in their graphically enhanced forms. The rules behind the game are hidden in games of progression; in fact, uncovering the rules is essentially what the game is about. If you knew beforehand how each object in the game reacts to your touch in games like Monkey Island, there wouldn't be much of a reason to play the game. Another very typical feature of this type of games is that it is possible to draft a walkthrough. Or more specifically, a comprehensive walkthrough that includes every single step you have to take to complete the game.Those walkthrough are most of the time surprisingly short: The "solution" for the classic text-adventure Zork, for example, is only about one printed page long. Walkthroughs are also an important means of overcoming to biggest challenge in Games of Progression: Being stuck. If you can't figure out what you are supposed to do, it's probably the game's fault. Games of Progression are often criticized if the solution to the challenges they present the player ("puzzles") are too arbitrary. If you think you found a logical solution to the riddle and the game doesn't allow it, anxiety may quickly arise. Note that Games of Progression are an invention of the computer age: There is no equivalent in the non-digital world (I can think of). The only thing coming close to a game of progression are Choose-Your-Own-Adventure books; the huge differences should be obvious.
To summarize, Games of Progression are linear, sequential games with complicated rules that are hidden from the player the present their challenges in a very direct way. They are also a comparably new concept of play.
Games of Emergence:
The visual pleasures continue.
Games of Emergence on the other hand present their challenges indirectly and are contingent on the rules behind the game and, most importantly, their interaction. The rules are much more simple than in games of progression, but that doesn't necessarily mean that the resultant gameplay is simplistic. Take, for example, Pong. There are not many rules behind that game, but there is still a plethora of potential sources of the game and outcomes. Games of Emergence are also the older form of games: Almost every card and board game is centered around the concept of a small(ish) number of simple rules, interacting to create compelling gameplay. When you take our former example of the walkthrough, the difference to games of progression becomes even more apparent: It's pretty much impossible to write a walkthrough for all the single steps you have to take to win a game of Pong, Chess or Poker. You can, however, write a game guide or FAQ, detailing many of the possible tactics and strategies you might use, something that doesn't make any sense at all in games of progression. The rules governing the gameplay may or may not be hidden from the player, but it doesn't make much of a difference gameplay-wise anyway.
To summarize, games of emergence are non-linear games with simple rules that through their interaction create gameplay.
Let me state the obvious: Most modern video games do not fall in one of those two extremes, but are hybrid form of game with emergent and progressive elements. Take, for example, a game like Grand Theft Auto IV: There are many linear, progressive elements like the way a mission plays out and the overarching storyline, but there are also many elements of emergent gameplay. For example, the player may choose not to follow the storyline at all and not complete any mission, but still enjoy the game because of all the other things the rules of games make possible. Or take the single player campaign of a modern military shooter like Call of Duty: Black Ops; while the game itself may be decidedly linear, there are still ample ways for emergent gameplay: You can try to rush through the whole level without firing a single shot, for example, or you may try to complete the whole level only using one specific weapon. The game doesn't tell you to do any of those things and you will not get any kind of tangible reward at the end of the level, but because the rules of the game interact the way they do, emergent gameplay may arise. One may also turn our attention to the competitive online-multiplayer aspect of the same game. Here we have gameplay that is quite obviously more emergent than progressive: There is no overarching storyline binding together the separate battles and through the interaction of rather simple rules, the gameplay arises. There may still be some pseudo-progressive objectives in certain game modes (Search and Destroy or Demolition, for example), but overall, the gameplay is shaped by emergence. But like many other modern competitive shooters, Black Ops also includes a progression-based meta game: By competing in matches of Black Ops, one gains experience points that lead to level-ups.
I would argue that by introducing elements of progression in games of emergence and vice versa, the resultant gameplay becomes more appealing to a wider variety of different types of players (I will probably go into the issue of player types at a later point in time). A player may not be particularly good at the online-aspect of Call of Duty and he might not enjoy the experience of constantly being killed in a match very much - but once you sees that ever-so alluring bar inching closer to his next prestige, you may not even care.
That brings me to the last issue I want to talk about today: The brilliance, the sheer ingeniousness of Achievements. By introducing Achievements, Microsoft managed to include games in a whole new meta-game with progressive features. The game itself may not be all that interesting - it mainly consists of watching the number next to your gamertag grow - but it is there, it is free and it adds a new layer of gameplay. Yes, Achievements and the hunt for them may also be regarded a social phenomenon, but really, it's more than that. As with arcade-game Leaderboards before it, some players may play so that other people can see their name on top of the board, but for many others, getting up there is enough gratification in and of itself. What Achievements (and, later, Trophies) do is include a whole extra layer of progression-based meta-gameplay for all the borderline-OCD cases, the completionists, the hordes of players who enjoy to gather, to collect and to hoard. From a game design-perspective: Pure genius.
If I was a header image, this post would get thrice the clicks.
The question of difficulty in video games (and non-electronic games as well, for that matter) is closely related to the term challenge. I would argue that a game has to be challenging to be enjoyable. Note that challenge should be understood as a very broad term. Games can be intellectually challenging in many ways: They can be thought-provoking (like, for example, Sleep is Death), they can challenge the creativity of a player (f.e. Minecraft), or they may require certain knowledge (f.e. Quiz-games like the Buzz series). They may also be challenging in a more physical sense: You have to have great hand-eye coordination to play Bejeweled, while a game like Wii Sports requires motoric skills of another level. You may have noticed that none of the games I mentioned would pass as "challenging" were I to define the term in a more narrow fashion. But if one is to consider challenge as an essential part of all different kinds of gameplay, one has to consider so-called "casual" games as well.
If we consider challenge as an important part of the overall playing experience and as one of the main reasons to play in the first place, then one of the main challenges of game design has to be to maintain challenging over time. Practice makes perfect, as it were, so the game has to throw increasingly challenging tasks at the player to correlate with the player's increasing repertoire and skills. If the game fails to do so, or does so too slow, the game becomes boring. If the game does so too fast, anxiety and frustration arise. If the game strikes all the right chords, the player may enter a state of flow, of full immersion and involvement in the gameplay.
But once we consider that the player is an unknown variable for the game designer, it becomes apparent how seemingly impossible it is too get that right: With all the varying skill levels the player of the game may have, but also with the vastly differently-sloped learning curves, it appears to be a herculian task indeed to make a game stay challenging for everyone, but nevertheless playable for anyone. There are, however, a few ways in which game designer may address this problem.
1. Difficulty settings
This may be the oldest trick in the book of game design: Let the player choose his own difficulty. After all, if it's their own choice, it's also their own fault if the result is a game that is too hard/too easy, right? Well, I'd actually challenge (no pun intended) that statement. Different difficulty settings may work with some games, but they are most certainly not the be-all and end-all for the "challenge-issue". I'm sure everybody can share a story about how fucked up the difficulty settings in some games out there really are; too many games offer, for example, only three levels of difficulty, not nearly enough to address the very inhomogeneous mass that is the potential audience. Other games may offer more different difficulty settings, but still have huge differences between those, making it really hard for many players to climb up the difficulty-tree (the Civilization series is notorious for that).
2. Adaptive difficulty Why no, I do NOT want to be considered a coward, thank you very much.
Many newer games that do not rely on difficulty settings try to solve the problem by adapting the gameplay to the player's skill on the go. If the player dies again and again in a certain part of a level in Twisted Pixel's 'Splosion Man, he is offered the option to skip that part. In some newer games in the Mario series, you may even skip whole levels if you find them too challenging for your taste. But adaptive difficulty may also be used ways that are less obvious to the player, for example lowering the amount of enemies on screen if the game detects that the player's skill or repertoire is not sufficient to overcome these challenges. I would consider this a very efficient tool: Making the game playable without leaving the player feeling inadequate. But the algorithms controlling the adaption in difficulty would have to be considered a top-priority for both the game designers and the programmers; Programming this kind of adaptive difficulty into games is really challenging in and off itself and may not be as efficient as other means of tackling the issue of difficulty.
For more about adaptive difficulty, I recommend reading KingSisy's blogpost on this month's monthly musings which you can find here.
3. Specialization Are you fucking kidding me?
The game designers may also forgo trying to cater to all the different kinds of players out there and choose to make their games suitable only for a fraction of the potential player audience. This is often used by Indie developers; first and foremost because it is the most cost-efficient method, but also because many Indie games are developed with a certain target audience in mind. Super Meat Boy can get away with being crazily challenging and not offering any option to change the difficulty; Super Mario Galaxy 2 or Halo: Reach? Not so much.
While I would love to give an advice to all the game designers out there trying to wrap their head around how to address the difficulty conundrum, I'm at a loss there. Adaptive difficulty may work in certain games, but appears awfully hard to get right. Specialization is probably not an option for most game developers aiming for a broad audience. So it seems like we're stuck with the good (bad) old difficulty settings we've all grown to love (hate) over the years.
Videogames, as we all know, are quite the success story: In only about fifty short years, they developed from a fringe phenomenon to the multi-billion dollar industry and the worldís favorite pastime it is today. Videogames tell increasingly complex stories, present us with ever more astonishing graphics and soundscapes and create game-worlds so large that one could wander for hours upon hours without crossing the same virtual river twice. But for an increasingly large number of people, myself included, this rapid development appears to bring about †something quite worrisome indeed: The death of creativity in the videogame industry.
You may be wondering what Iím talking about - after all, I just talked about how excellent some videogame stories are and how artfully creative the graphics and in some games are. Well, allow me to speak verbosely. For most scholars in videogame studies, things like stories graphics, the overall presentation of the videogame, is secondary to a much more essential aspect: gameplay. Gameplay is the single most important part of a videogame, itís the thing that makes a game enjoyable. Itís the main differentiator from other audio-visual media like movies, television or †the world wide web. Unfortunately, itís also real fucking hard to define. I might return to this issue at later point, but for now, Iím sure most everybody has a certain thing in mind when thinking about gameplay; these very subjective definitions will do for now.
For many years, gameplay was quite obviously the most important part of a videogame; when everything is presented in very crude form, with just a few white line on a black screen and maybe canny audio from an early sound chip. In short, there was just not a whole lot there to distract you from the main activity. There was also next to no reason to play the videogame if it just wasnít fun. With the advent of ever more elaborate presentational capabilities on the other hand, the distractions for the player and also the means for hiding weaknesses in the gameplay increased tremendously. Letís take a popular (and kind of controversial) example: Ubisoft's Assassin's Creed.
Both the original and its sequels have amazing graphics and provide ample opportunities for "emergent" gameplay. The core gameplay mechanics work wonderfully well, be it climbing, fighting or just running for your life from an angry horde of templars: almost everything is fluid, feels intuitive and natural. As far as control interfaces go, you canít do much better than Ubisoft Montreal did with these games. The gameís historic cities are presented in great detail and offer astonishing visuals. So, why would i still agree with most of Destructoidís Jim Sterlingís scathing criticism in his review of Assassinís Creed II? Well, because there are some serious issues with the gameplay. (Although, to be fair, I probably wouldnít give the game a 4,5. The first game? Less than that, probably.)
And thatís really the problem with many, many newer games out there. Many games create awesome worldís but the things you can do in them? The missions and quests, the activities and the rest? Boring. Unimaginative. Stale. Just plain not fun. The creativity in gameplay that for so many years dominated the videogame industry and made this great pastime ever more popular seems all but dead in many development studios. There are probably many reasons for that, but the two most important ones, in point of view, are the following.
1. Graphics fetishism
2. Economic risk-managment
3. Drive to make games more "cinematic"
I already touched the first point above, so I will concentrate mainly on the other two; As the industry grew, games production became more and more expensive. This lead to the split in game developers and game publishers. This is comparable to how things go in the film and music business. The developer presents an early form of the game to the publisher, the publisher then decides if the game is worth financing, read: if there's money in the idea. In the last few years, publishers demand ever more elaborate and advanced version of the game from the developers before deciding if they get their money after all or not - this early version has to be payed by the developers themselves (although they usually get their investment payed back once a publishers picks their project up). This unfortunately leads to the developers being ill-advised to try something off the beaten path: They might have a great, revolutionary idea, but pursuing it is much more risky than just churning out one gritty military shooter after another. Everybody knows that there's a huge market for those games, but if nobody is ever going to take chances, this is likely all we'll get.
The last great problem the game industry has is its obsession with the term "cinematic". Just go and read a few reviews of modern action games. Or read the backsides of your newest (J)RPG. Most every game promises a "cinematic experience"; and it does sound great, doesn't it? It sounds like bullets whizzing past our heads and explosions so lifelike that their shockwaves will cause our intestines to tremor. But really, what cinematic means is: Scripted gameplay with minimal freedom to explore and a heavy reliance on (mostly in-engine) non-interactive cutscenes. And really, games that work like that can be very exciting, they can still be fun and a great experience. But "cinematic-ness" suddenly becomes the most important part of video games, more or less regardless of genre, the gameplay will suffer. Movies are movies. Games are games. They don't work the same way, and they shouldn't look or feel the same way, too.
I for one implore all of you: Support developers and publishers willing to take risks. Question your own opinions on the presentation of games. Don't pirate games by Indie devs, because they are one of the last innovative forces remaining in the business. If you fell like you have to pirate something, pirate bestsellers.