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GDC 09: Fault tolerance

2:39 PM on 03.25.2009 // Anthony Burch

Despite its myriad flaws, I found Far Cry 2 quite an enjoyable game. When I found that the game's creative director, Clint Hocking, would be doing a talk on player failure in the first not-independent-game-related, I thought it'd be fun.

It was called “Fault tolerance: from intentionality to improvisation.” And it was, indeed, pretty fun, if delivered so quickly that I (sadly) couldn't write down all of Hocking's jokes.

Hit the jump for my summary.

Hocking really knew his audience; he opened by admitting he was about to make a bunch of Cthulhu jokes and go really fast, so anyone still feeling sleepy should go get some coffee. This talk was a sequel to one of Hocking's earlier talks, “designing to promote intentional play,” which can be read on his blog at This full lecture will also be available there after GDC is over, which I'd highly suggest checking out considering how much material Hocking got through that I couldn't write down.

What's intentionality? The ability of the player to define his own meaningful goals through his understanding of the game dynamics and to formulate meaningful plans to achieve them within the game rules. To illustrate this, Hocking showed a clip o fa player in Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory (which he also worked on) using his fiber optic camera and surveillance equipment to track the position of a soldier before planting some C4 on a door and luring the soldier to it before blowing him away.

I think the player's intent in this video is very clear,” he wants to blow away the soldier with a wall mine by tracking him with cameras he'd placed. The ability to do this required knowledge of at least nine different game mechanics and how they interact with each other in at least thirty-six different ways with millions of possible permutations. Emergent gameplay, then, comes out of setting up clear rule sets where the mechanics interact with each other and allow players to do cool shit. In Deus Ex 2, in example, you can open a locked door without a key by dominating a Spiderbot, having him time out in front of the door, shooting him, and using the explosion to open the door.

There are two phases to play: composition, where the player figures out what he wants to do, and execution, where he does it. Ideally, this feels like a river when both composition and execution are equal, but it can also feel like a car ride if the execution is too prioritized, or a plane ride “where you sit on your ass and watch Cheaper by the Dozen 2” after weeks of bureaucratic planning if the composition part is too stressed.

Then he made a Cthulhu joke.

Strategy is a part of intentionality – the part that is exclusively concerned with winning – but intentionality is not necessarily focused on winning so much as just play. Games can thus be a medium for the creative expression of players, not just designers. Hocking adds to the definition of intentionality: it's a superset of strategy concerned with expression beyond the limited domain of winning a game.

How does the player maintain a continuity of intent through messy, backstage systems like the physics in GTA or Half-Life 2? He doesn't. Hocking predicted these “messy” systems like physics, crowd behavior, and fire propagation would be more popular after his previous GDC talk, and it turned out he was right (supported by slides of Crayon Physics, Dead Rising, and Far Cry 2). Hocking wanted to harness the messy energy of fire for Far Cry 2 to create a “highly intentional combat sandbox.” After a pause, Hocking simply said, “We failed.”

The intentional sandbox of Far Cry 2 had nine essential systems: the map system, which allows the player to scout a location for information before entering it, weapon load-outs, which were constrained (you can only carry one type of each weapon at a time) in an attempt to ask the player to define a specific set of abilities, a safe house, allowing the player to rest and formulate a plan of attack or choose the time of day they wanted to attack, the fire system, which was meant to leave a quick area of dead ground where hot messy death radiated outward from, the combat AI, which Hocking admitted he wouldn't really be talking about, the HMR (health, morale, reliability) system for each of the two factions in the game, where different weapons would have different effects on the different HMR systems (sniping removes morale, for instance), the infamy system, which gave positive feedback to the player for enacting disturbing behavior like shooting medics, mission structure, which specifically requires the player to strike directly at the rival faction's HMR attributes – destroy a weapons outpost and the rival faction's weapons will jam up more often, kill one of their leaders and they're lose morale, etc.

Explaining a typical mission from Far Cry 2, Hocking revealed that the buddy missions were designed to allow the player to hit a second HMR attribute in addition to the initial, single attribute that would be effected just by executing the original mission asked by your bosses. He went into great detail, outlining an ideal situation for the player to use his intentionality to plan and execute a bunch of very deliberate and elaborate things.

Which didn't really happen in actuality.

You know those maps that change the size of countries to show statistical comparisons between countries? What if you did that with a map of the nine systems of Far Cry 2? As it turns out, mission structure, infamy, and HRM get really small, while the map system, weapon loadout, and more immediately obvious stuff gets really big.

HMR turned into “just plain H” which meant the missions directed at attacking more than just health ended up being pointless, which made the infamy system also suck even as Hocking refused to cut it.

In reality, the beautifully theorized mission Hocking referenced earlier actually turned out to be simplistic and boring: all you get is cash and plot progression because the HMR doesn't really exist, your buddy side-mission doesn't mean anything, when you begin to scout and try to plan an attack, you'll get a malaria attack and be spotted and then panic and throw molotovs insanely and have to heal yourself and eventually find yourself trapped on all sides by enemies and right as the tide began to turn, your gun would jam and get killed. Your other buddy would pick you back up and help you, but you'd get separated, and you'd eventually find your other buddy mortally wounded. This is sort of interesting in its own way, but nowhere near the initial idea, turning more into a “ride-like structure” Hocking mentioned earlier where the composition part of intentionality takes a distant backseat to execution.

Yet, somehow, as this transformation gradually took place, the game became more and more fun to play. “What the fuck,” Hocking exasperatedly asked before admitting that most successful shooters fall under this structure. As the game's composition phase got shorter and shorter the game didn't actually become more ride-like.

At PAX, Hocking demoed Far Cry 2 which was difficult in itself because of all these emergent systems that resulted in Hocking not knowing what the hell was going to happen during his playthrough. As he listened to the band preceding his demo, he realized he wasn't just going to be demoing the game; he was going to be performing it and improvising as a band would. That's what this ever-shortening composition stage led to: more improvisation.

Another Cthulhu joke.

Hocking defines improvisation as when the player embraces unpredictability, randomness, and analog failure in a system space.

Improvisation is still highly intentional, however. How? As it turns out, as the composition stage shortened in Far Cry 2, the execution phase did as well – you'd move back and forth from composition to execution multiple times during battles. Improvisation is just intentionality compressed, with constant shifts between composition and execution. If a composition-heavy game is like riding on a boat and an execution-heavy game is like riding in a car, then Far Cry 2 is like “riding a sail-car,” which Hocking then took back before stating it was actually more like piloting the Millennium Falcon.

Which can be awesome.

All of the unpredictable battle systems – malaria, weapon misfires – prevent the player from maintaining a single continuity of intent throughout the fight and possibly support player improvisation. These are now systems that work against the player, that throw the player from the execution phase back into the composition phase. “We're kicking him out; we're not letting him jump to hyperspace.” Hocking mentioned that Elika-saves in something as execution-heavy as Prince of Persia don't allow you to plan something new, while a composition-heavy game like Chaos Theory makes it so that when a player fails it'd probably be easier just to restart and try again because execution is so small a part of it. Far Cry 2 is a middle ground between these, and becomes very improvisation-heavy; players rarely have to reload the game to improve their situation, and weapon jams or malaria constantly force the player to re-strategize.

Hocking hates bosses because they usually force the player to read the designer's mind, but he loves Big Daddy fights in BioShock because the only strategy involves doing a shitload of damage to it – so much that it's generally impossible to kill them in one session, which forces you to plan and execute and run away and make a new plan and execute again. These fights move back and forth between the composition and execution stages which makes them feel more legitimate and satisfying. Hocking calls the act of moving the player between composition and execution “initiative.” Initiative must be easy to take, easy to lose, and hard to keep. Kicking the player out of the execution place is incredibly easy, but making him fall back into the composition phase is incredibly different. There's no repetition in BioShock or Far Cry 2 when you get pushed back into composition, whereas in Call of Duty or Prince of Persia you get kicked back to a checkpoint and are forced to replay whatever you just screwed up.

A colleague of Hocking's once mentioned that he “beat” Chaos Theory, which he found odd because he never considered it in that way – you can't “beat” football. You only finish Chaos Theory, and you can't theoretically “beat” it unless you imagine that by the time you've reached the end you've learned every single possible thing the game could possibly teach you and you totally understand the difficulties it put in front of you by being successful. But you can't truly do that with Chaos Theory or Far Cry 2 because these emergent mechanics cannot possibly be totally learned. Some games like Ninja Gaiden try to dominate their players by putting this desire to “beat” the game in the forefront, but Hocking suggests we could move away from this – “look how fucking beautiful play can be,” Hocking says as he shows a picture of a boxing match.

Improvisation encompasses intentionality, which in itself encompasses regular, rote play. “If there's anything I want you to take away from this's that while intentional play is a...wondrous thing, it's still grounded in roots of play as domination.” Play as domination leads to eventual system mastery by a player, and “when we master something, we destroy it,” Hocking illustrated with an image of tic-tac-toe. You can't “master” improvisation anymore than you can master an ability to play music. Why not design a game in such a way that “we don't humiliate” players as they try to express themselves, instead trying to nurture them?

Let's invite them in, and let them play.”

Then, it was question time.

How does mastery of a system destroy it? What about Chess? Well, Splinter Cell's ceiling of possibility is so high that you can't really master it, but he doesn't want those totally destroyed, but he finds it more interesting to create games that allow players to act sort of like jazz musicians, where there's no true best method of play and can allow you to do interesting things on your own.

How do you deal with player expectations of a power fantasy – with players who don't want improvisation? Some people don't like jazz, Hocking says, and there was a lot of push-back on what Far Cry 2 asked of players, leading to incredibly varied scores. He thinks this is in fact because some players simply aren't interested by, or are intimidated by, the idea of a game that doesn't revolve around player domination of its mechanics. Perhaps designers who brag about their games being incredibly hard have unintentionally turned players into trained lions who jump through hoops just because they've been constantly forced to treat games as this thing to dominate.

Jon Blow asked if you're sitting down to design a game around improvisation, there are seemingly two ways to go about it: one way like Far Cry 2, which initially surprises you with its improvisational aspects but you eventually grow to expect weapon jams and whatnot. “Surprising things...might happen, but it's further away from the core of a game.” Conversely, there's also that threshold of being used to a game that happens much farther out as is the case with Spelunky, which is much harder to design. How would Hocking handle that balance with his next game? The talk wasn't meant to be a map for how to build an improvisational game so much as a story of screwing up an intentional game and turning out with an improvisational one. Just getting the player to cross back and forth between the two play phases is perhaps noteworthy in and of itself (and notably somewhat missing in Spelunky, with its emphasis on instant deaths), but the lecture isn't an end-all be-all of how to deal with improvisation so much as a starting point.

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