Sunday, November 12, 2006

A Method ... part two: Understanding the Paradigm

In this, the second of my articles on a method of game design, I talk about understanding the most basic structure of video games, that being the playing paradigm. You can read the first article here if you like before proceeding.

The reason for starting with talk of paradigms in what I billed as a results-oriented method is that it helps to frame the conversation. You may think that many of the basic ideas of game design are well understood and agreed-upon by all, but you would be mistaken. Actually, even in the basics there is a great deal of disagreement, a confusing number of terms and counter-terms. Even trying to gain a simple shared understanding of a term like game-play, which everyone uses, is almost impossible.

So that means I have to start at the start, if you like.

Starting with the basics
A fashion designer cannot design effective fashion without knowing the basics of fabric and its uses, and also how the user relates to fabric. What might be described as the paradigm of the fashion literally means understanding the basic units of clothing and also how the wearers relate to clothing. Do they see clothing as primarily functional, or as a statement, do they perceive the need for clothing to cover certain parts of the body, is their experience of clothing transformational or simply stuff they wear? How does gender play into that?

Know the paradigm and you know where the useful limits of a creative subject lie, and how to work with those limits. A fashion designer, knowing the ins and outs of clothes, knows that there is likely no point trying to design a suit that builds a narrative because that is beyond the useful limits of clothing. Clothing defines an image, not a narrative, and so the best effort is likely put into creating different images and looks. Fashion is like painting, it is a presentation with impact and subtlety that encapsulates one instant.

Video games have a paradigm just like anything else. As the paradigm of watching a film rules out substantive audience interaction, so the paradigm of video games rules out certain kinds of relationships. Video games have limits just like anything else. They are physically limited, their basic mode of operation is limited and their audience relationship to it is also limiting. These are the physical basics to be grasped:

Video games consist of two physical aspects: Input and output. The input device can vary from as little as a single button to a complicated multi-joystick affair, a motion sensor controller or a dance mat.

There are only so many buttons, and therefore only so many kinds of distinct action (either through one button press or a compound of multiple buttons held at once) which the player can perform. The input device always forms the basis of the physical constraints of the game.

Likewise, players can only really use some of their body parts for playing at any one time. A theoretical game that uses the player's full body and is also strategic and engaging all at once is a nice fantasy, but in all likelihood is simply over-complicated. Even in modern games, there are those which are very complicated in terms of input, and player fatigue is a problem in those games.

The output device is usually a screen of some kind, along with sound capability and, in some instances, controller feedback. Output devices vary in size from the screens of a DS to a 60-inch HDTV, but their function remains the same. They pass information back to the eyes and ears of the player, which in turn informs his next action using the input device.

The screen also frames the action of the game. All video games have a limited area in which to operate, a conceptual distance that separates the player from the game, and that is defined by the screen. What happens in the game must occur on the screen because that is where the player's attention lies.

As a result, all video games work in loops. Player takes action, player receives information that alters the context of his next action, player takes next action. A loop can be of any length, from fractions of a second for an action game to days or weeks for a turn-based strategy game, and the length of the loop is very important in determining whether game is strategic or tactical. A greater distance between loops creates more opportunity for a player to think.

The physical component of the paradigm also creates a strong need in games for visible cause and effect. This is the principle whereby if I take an action, it should produce a visible result. If it yields no visible reaction in the output device, then it's breaking the paradigm. Paradigm breaks are usually indicative of poor design.

Some games have experimented with the idea of invisible cause and effect, but they often flounder in the territory of players feeling frustrated, or that their actions seem to be pointless. While experimentation and discovery are desirable in a game, players have a very low tolerance for experimentation with interfaces. They like learning a beat 'em up move, provided they know that the face buttons on a joypad each do something predictable.

What they dislike is a game where an obscure interface makes it hard for them to know that their actions are actually doing anything at all. Cause and effect must be apparent in any game, and it must be consistent. Because the video game is constrained with a loop of pushing buttons and interpreting results, the player has to be able to filter information in a logical fashion. Consistent behaviour is therefore a huge part of the game because it re-enforces the player's ability to filter information. Another term for cause is 'game mechanic' and another term for effect is 'game rule'. My method separates mechanics and rules and regards them as distinct.

The video game needs to be controllable in terms of predictable contact points. A contact point is the element of the game with which the player can do something, and through which things can be done to them. The contact point is the player's presence inside the game. It may be consistent, such as a game character, or it may shift, such as the next active block in Tetris, but the principle of it is that this is the point in the contact through which game mechanic and rule are interpreted for the player.

The above physical elements serve to frame all games in terms of a logically consistent universe with which the player can interact in specified, logical patterns that allow them to perceive action and information efficiently and play with a loop. This is what we call a game world. The contact point is what we often call the character or the bat or whatever and signifies the player's presence in the game. The upshot of these elements is that the player needs to have a consistent perspective on the game, whether that be first person perspective or high isometric. Shifting perspective is generally bad design

The result of all these elements is to establish a psychological relationship between the player and the game which is fairly consistent throughout games, and that relationship is as follows:

Video games frame a player's attention and transport it, via contact points, into a game world. Because it requires efficient transmission of information to overcome the physical input and output limits of the game, all game worlds must be composed of consistent perspectives, mechanics, rules, internal logic, loop structures and respect that the player can only handle so many controls at any one time. Within these limits, the player's psychological mode places them in the game world, so we can say that the player gets into the game, and their contact point is a conduit between the two.

Players play themselves inside a video game, they do not play characters, and they are playing inside worlds, not stories.

I can't emphasise this point enough.

It is important to distinguish between the paradigm of games and context, genres and so on. The genre of a game is not a part of the paradigm of games. Game genres work within the constraints of the paradigm, but they don't define it. The paradigm is a consistent set of ground rules under which all games operate under, whereas genre is a set of stylistic conventions that limit the game along even further lines. Game genres shift, but the paradigm is consistent.

What does shift is the context of a paradigm. For example, there are several key differences between the paradigms of film and television. Both are similar, but film operates in a mostly single-serving theatrical setting, whereas television is episodic. And film is also usually paid-for entertainment whereas television is perceived as free, but with advertising breaks. These subtle differences constrain the writing and direction of both in different ways. I assume that the advent of Youtube is creating yet another new paradigm distinct from both the cinema and the TV, and we'll grow to know what that is in time.

By the same token, it is entirely possible that other paradigms will arise out of the video game paradigm. At the moment there is really only one, but some of the more interesting work in the field involves really trying to redefine the paradigm in other terms. I'm thinking of Habbo Hotel and Second Life here, which really ditch the 'game' aspect of the framed interaction of the game, and therefore may be able to ditch cause and effect for other paradigm rules.

These innovations will lead to other forms of entertainment in time. As we understand film and television to be different things, I think we will eventually stop trying to shoehorn everything into the one "video game" box, and instead accept that different paradigms can develop here. Maybe we'll call them "Video toys" instead.

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