Friday, April 24, 2009

Critical Gameplay

Critical Gameplay?

On Friday evening (April 17, 2009), I attended a fascinating exhibition of original games by a colleague in the Game Art & Design department at Illinois Institute of Art in Chicago. The exhibition, entitled Critical Gameplay, consisted of several games which challenged the typical preconceptions of electronic games. Indeed, the concept behind each game was counter to usual game play.

For example, one game was entitled Black vs. White (not to be confused with Peter Molynieux’s classic game). It consisted of a platform-style game where, contrary to the expectations in the title, all of the characters were black. Also contrary to typical platform style, not all of the characters were enemies. You couldn’t tell from originally looking at the characters on-screen which were enemies and which were not. You had to watch for changes in facial expression that suggested behavior. Then, you could pounce on them to remove the threat or drop objects on them to remove the threat. Obviously, the purpose of the game was to remove stereotypes (because of “color,” the racial stereotype comes to mind, but since all of the characters look the same, the lessons apply to gender and social stereotypes as well).

Another intriguing game was simply titled, Kill! The interface was set up as a if it were a first-person shooter. Indeed, you had the choice of shooting a variety of enemies. The twist was that every time you shot an enemy, you were “rewarded” with a multimedia presentation on that person’s life, a photo montage honoring the one you killed. Certainly, fans of the FPS genre will not appreciate having either the flow of their game experience interrupted or being reminded that actions have consequences.

While I’m mentioning breaking the expectations of FPS players, there was a fascinating game called Wait! In this game, the longer you would wait, the more detailed the scene would become. Once you moved, you would get a fogged-in view that would clarify as you would wait. Most gamers at the exhibition found that they couldn’t get over 1,000 points, but I noticed one team of women who were patient enough to score over 6,000 points. Of course, I don’t expect that a game that is so Taoist that one is not expected to act will satisfy many gamers.

Another game was a variant on Pong! The intent of this game was to “give” the “ball” to your opponent rather than to get it past her or him. If you were successful, your opponent's paddle would grow larger (empowerment?) and if you played it like Pong!, your own paddle would diminish. It was a fascinating experience to play, even if it just seemed "wrong" from a gamer's perspective. Of course, that was precisely the point. Sometimes, we simply don't think about the overall statements about ourselves and about life that we are making when we simply give in to game conventions.

It's encouraging to me to know that someone is doing this kind of thinking about computer games. Maybe, if there were more professors of Lindsay Grace's caliber, game design would start to mean something more than pushing more polygons through the art pipeline, creating bigger monsters and larger waves of enemies, and conceiving of more and more powerful weapons. I concede that there is a need for conflict in order to have interesting games, but if life were only conflict, I'm not sure life would be interesting. I thank Lindsay Grace for a provocative and thoughtful exhibition.

Thursday, April 2, 2009

Free and Easy

In teaching the theory of electronic game design, one of the basic concepts that has to be ingrained in my students is the fact that everything you see on-screen has a mathematical underpinning. Even if that mathematical underpinning is as simple as a percentage chance that something will or won't happen (what we actually call an "algorithm" in the trade), there is an equation that determines all outcomes. That equation may be a simple percentage chance based on one character's attribute (the simplest pen and paper role-playing game may use this), a chain of calculations designed to create a percentage chance (based on attributes, skills, weapons, terrain, range, defender's armor class, and lots more), a chain of percentages that use look-up tables to determine outcomes, or even complex physics calculations based on speed, materials, and cover.

To illustrate this principle, many of my math-challenged students have to learn to simulate some algorithms using a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet that calculates percentage chances and uses a look-up table to check against certain attributes or situations that they have quantified. Then, I introduce them to a free game on the web called Dragon Tavern. Dragon Tavern is a free, fantasy role-playing game with a host of character class options that is a hybrid of high fantasy and steampunk. It features a minimum of artwork and all results are strictly text-based. But, if you mouse-over various spots on the page, the algorithms used to determine your percentage chances for success are clearly delineated. In addition to the fact that I've been addicted to the game for so long that one of my two characters is in the Top 100 of its character class and the other is closing in on position #330, it is a dynamic teaching tool for basic game design. Plus, I've had students who have continued to play a half-dozen characters after discovering the site during their course work.

To be sure, the character sheets may look amazingly like those of Dungeons and Dragons, Tunnels and Trolls, and the Fantasy Trip of old, but the process is almost (though not quite) as interesting as generating characters for the old Traveller series. In the old Traveller series, one would enlist in various branches of a futuristic space navy or merchant service and develop the character's skills, attributes, and weapon sets via rolling the dice through various terms of service. Of course, Traveller had the strange anomaly that your character could die in character creation before you ever got into the game. That anomaly no longer exists in the newer (and quite beautifully done) Traveller D20 version.

In Dragon Tavern, you don't "roll" through terms of service, but you do focus on the type of character you want to be. My oldest and best-performing character is a Steam Crafter, a steampunk-type character. I chose the character class and the place from which he hailed before the program gave me my basic attributes and weapons. Naturally, I was able to select some adjectives describing my character's appearance and a catch-phrase for being triumphant, as well as one for the inevitable deaths.

Battle is far too simple for some players to enjoy. Although Dragon Tavern provides a ton of calculations in the background (available for viewing via mouse-over), it is simply one-click combat. Then, the program rolls the percentage dice as modified by that ton of calculations. with a regular "monster," you only have to roll the success percentage (or less) on one occasion to win the fight and gain the experience points and treasure. With "boss monsters," you may have to roll the success percentage up to five times (at my highest level so far). Whenever you miss the percentage roll, you take a wound.

When your wound total is equal to your wound allotment, you're dead. You aren't finished with the game. Your character is automatically resurrected and you don't lose a character level, but you incur (remember this old chestnut?) an experience point debt. So, until that experience debt is paid, you only receive half credit for the experience you're gaining within the game.

As a free game, you are allowed 25 action points per character per 24 hour period in your real life. You can purchase additional credits to perform more than 25 action points in a day and you are given bonus action points whenever you level up. I actually spend less than 10 minutes per day between my two characters, but it's something I look forward to on a daily basis. Some of my students play up to a half-dozen characters per day and, alas, there have been times that they were supposed to be working on their own game designs that I have walked by their monitors in the computer labs and seen them catching up on Dragon Tavern.

That's probably a good sign. If hardcore game design students who have grown up on the likes of Gears of War and Half-Life are interested enough to keep playing a text-based game, the designers must be doing something right. And, as I hope you'll be able to see from the "boss fight" pictured below, the designers seem to have hit something that I enjoy, as well.