A few weeks ago, I wrote an article called Videogames are Broken Toys. Its general thrust was that most videogames are fundamentally toys with a goal sorta slapped on. This both limits the “toy” aspect dramatically and leaves users instead with a thin, weak, unsupported goal.
In that article, I focused on the “preserving the toy” aspect, which I think developers really need to do for a lot of single-player adventure-y/sandbox-y types of things, like perhaps Grand Theft Auto or The Legend of Zelda. On the other hand, though, there are some videogames which are almost always played competitively: things like Counter-Strike, League of Legends, Outwitters, or fighting games.
The problem is that even these competitive videogames, all of which do qualify as “games” by my prescriptive definitions, are still operating on a mostly-toy foundation. They are loose, still footed too deeply in fantasy simulation, and allow for too much “play” overall. This results in a number of problems, but the most visibly apparent one is the problem of turtling.Continue reading “Turtling”
“Whoops, I have the antidote for the Kragle, how did that happen?”
– Lord Business
At best, my design theory work tends to get mixed reviews. It’s my belief that if any creative work fails to connect with people, it’s the fault of the communicator. As a writer, you’re setting out to connect with people, so if you fail to do that – regardless of your reasons/explanations – it’s your fault. For the past few years, one of the most significant factors in this disconnect I’ve experienced has – to some extent, at least consciously – eluded me.
I’ve always known that many videogames are primarily toys (obvious examples being Minecraft or Grand Theft Auto), but what I failed to realize is that nearly every videogame ever made is essentially functioning at the “toy level” (which I’ll explain in a moment). I failed to realize that even supposed “strategy games” like Starcraft, Civilization, X-Com or Street Fighter are all primarily toys, despite the fact that they have many markedly game-like features and even market themselves as strategy games.
This caused me to raise concerns that failed to connect with people, because I was looking at them as games, whereas everyone else was looking at them as something much more like toys.
In addition, my criticism was actually backwards. I was complaining about the elements that damaged the game, when I should have been complaining about the elements that damaged the toy.
(In case you’re confused, here’s a quick primer on my four prescriptive interactive forms (read more here): the base interactive system with no goals is a “toy“. Add an objective/solution and you get a puzzle. Add measurement and you get a contest. Obfuscate game information (allowing for decisions to exist), and you get a game (a contest of decision-making).)
A huge point of contention has been my position on traditional videogame-style asymmetry. In 2013 I wrote an article called Debunking Asymmetry, which explained the problems I have with asymmetrical forces in games (i.e. selectable races, characters, classes, etc).
The article got a lot of attention from some well-known designers like Jon Schafer, Greg Costikyan, Raph Koster, and David Sirlin (who wrote a dismissive and mean-spirited comment which got upvoted like crazy, despite the fact that it didn’t really address my article’s points).
Overall, though, the consensus seemed to be more or less something along the lines of “you can’t say anything is good or bad”, something that I hear all the time and always found really irritating, and attributed to people being perhaps “anti-progress”. This comment from Shay Peirce somewhat embodies the sentiment as well. Here are a couple of excerpts from his comment:
“There’s no such thing as “correct” or “ideal” game design; there’s just rules of thumb, which may or may not apply to solving the problems of the specific game you’re designing, i.e. the specific experience you’re trying to give people.”
“Finally I’d like to say that your dismissal of the value of self-expression through gameplay style is, to me, breathtaking in its audacity and obtuseness.”
When I read these comments, I was really kind of confused. One of my concerns I raised in the article was what I called “playing designer”. Since the objective in, say, Street Fighter, is to win the fight, then I should choose the best character (or at least, the character I am best with) every single time. In either case, the actual “choice” of who to pick is therefore non-existent/solved.
Only if you decide to sort of step back and ask, “well, would it maybe be more fun for me to choose a character other than the best / that I am best with?” do any of the other choices become viable. In that situation, you are making a design choice – what are optimal rules for this coming match in terms of my experience, which is markedly different from strategic choice in a game, which is always about finding more optimal moves.
I brought this up, but it didn’t connect. Why not? Well, because everyone else was already assuming that of course we all make design choices. We make design choices all of the time in videogames – we’ve grown up making design choices. Early popular videogames like Super Mario Bros., The Legend of Zelda and Final Fantasy all trained us to constantly make design choices – to make sub-optimal strategic choices for the sake of keeping ourselves entertained. We’re used to making sub-par moves for the sake of “fun”. Sometimes we refer to this as “going for style points”.
Further, we even have a derisive term for people who actually try to play optimally: “min-maxing“. Min-maxing refers to the act of picking the best stuff, especially in a role-playing game such as Dungeons & Dragons. D&D is inherently a role-playing toy, so if you’re “playing to win”, you’re playing wrong.
The “Toy Level”
Most game players and game designers are not thinking about “games” – even “strategy games” – the way I do. They are thinking about them fundamentally as toys, and since toys are so loose and formless, it’s much harder to make clear statements about what works or doesn’t work. I only know of one sure-fire way to fundamentally break toys, which I will get into in a moment.
Another example is randomness, and my positions on that. If you are thinking of something as a strategy game, hard output randomness isn’t desirable. But in a toy? Sure, why not! Well-known designer and theorist DanC once told me that I was (paraphrasing here) “obsessed with attributing value to tools”. His point was that randomness is a tool, asymmetry is a tool; everything is a tool and, echoing Shay Pierce’s sentiment, you might want any of these things in your system.
If you are operating on “the toy level” – which basically every designer on earth with the possible exception of some Eurogame / abstract designers – this is true.
I really enjoyedThe Lego Movie. The theme, or controlling idea of the movie was pretty powerful: that the spirit of Legos was creativity, exploration, doing things your own way. The primary force of antagonism in the film was essentially instructions, or the super-glue that holds Lego bricks in place once set. In the first act, the main character lives his life by a strict set of rules, and throughout the story he learns to embrace his creativity. Wild, loose creativity is, after all, at the core of the spirit of legos, and of toys in general.
As I said earlier, I only know one sure-fire way to break a toy. Toys are very low on the ladder of forms, very simple, and thus, very durable. Just about anything you can imagine can work in a toy, except for one thing.
Toys break when you give them a goal.
When you give a toy a goal, it technically becomes some other form – a puzzle, a contest, or a game. The problem is that the loose, scattered bits of rules everywhere that could have made for a good toy is not strong enough to support any of those other higher forms, all of which require way more systemic support to operate properly.
Things end up hobbling along and working, but only because of the efforts of the player to ignore your goal entirely (and simply play with it like a toy), or worse, partially ignore the goal, which requires a lot of mental effort.
This might be OK for the opening introduction to your toy – i.e. the instructions that come with legos – but you should quickly abandon any sense of a real goal as soon as possible.
Some systems are very obviously toys with some goals slapped onto them. Probably the most obvious examples of this would be things like Grand Theft Auto and The Legend of Zelda. In these systems, we have a great big open world with all kinds of stuff to explore and things to do, which is then flattened out into a linear, rote chore by the missions and fetch quests. In GTA, I can go off huge ramps and drive around on rooftops and explode and jump out and parachute into the water – all kinds of fun “play” activities. Nothing takes the fun out of those like a big yellow arrow telling you exactly what to do.
RPGs, too, also have this quality. I always remember being frustrated, even as a kid, that so many weird, interesting, almost tactical spells that technically existed in Final Fantasy took a direct back-seat to something like FIR2, which just nukes them with damage. I mean, the point of Final Fantasy is to get to the end, right? To “beat the game”? We certainly don’t want to die and be “set back” further from the goal, so we should just use the damn fire spell, not muck around with other stuff that might be more interesting.
At the other end of the spectrum, though, you have supposed “strategy games” like Civilization. But now I have to do a weird mental gymnastics routine where I am trying to win, but I’m not trying to win too hard. In Civilization, I should probably look up which of the six victory conditions is the most consistently easy to win and with which nationality, and then just pick that nationality every single time and do nothing else, ever.
It’s funny – that sounds like such an alien concept, doesn’t it? I’ve played thousands of hours of various Civilization games and I did nothing of the sort. I always wanted to “try out” all the different factions and “go for” all the different victory conditions to see. What I was doing was not “trying to win”. I was “exploring the edges”, as one does with a ball or with Legos.
Even with highly competitive games like League of Legends, the reason they have so many characters and so many items is so that you can constantly “explore edges”. It only hurts a strategy game to have that much content, in that actual balance goes way out the window. Someday, when Riot stops issuing weekly balance patches (which makes solution a moving target), the community will quickly settle on the top few team builds, and soon after that, the game will die off, with some other “less-explored toy” taking its place.
When I say that videogames are broken toys, of course they aren’t so broken that they can’t be enjoyed (at least, not the popular/successful ones). Players inherently do a lot of the lifting themselves with toys, so going the extra mile or two to ignore / partially ignore goals isn’t that hard to do, and basically everyone is doing it right now and will continue doing it for some time. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t improve the situation, though.
I think it behooves us all – myself in particular – to understand that everyone else is thinking about things on the toy level, even for highly competitive games. So much of my criticism has kind of been invalid. When I complained about CCGs, or too many characters in Street Fighter, I was wrong. What I should have said was, “these things shouldn’t have goals.”
We also need to get over our anti-toy bias. Players, particularly adults, are a bit ashamed of playing with toys, and I think that needs to change. There’s nothing wrong with playing with toys.
Some might be wondering “how would you do something like Magic: The Gathering without a goal?” There’s a lot of answers to that. I believe there’s a variant of Magic: The Gathering that automates the actual “match” aspect. This might be a start; basically it’s a “deck-building toy” – you build a deck, and instantly get a number or some other feedback that allows you to explore the edges of “all Magic cards”.
The immediate response to that idea is likely, “well, that wouldn’t be fun for very long”. I agree – the problem is that Magic isn’t really that great a toy. The designers themselves weren’t entirely thinking of it as one; if they had, it’d probably have way more edges to explore. Forget completely about balance or depth or dominant strategies or any of the things that one worries about when building a strategy game.
Because toys are a primitive and simple form, it’s not hard to create a functional toy. However, creating a great toy – such as Legos – is pretty hard. Like anything else, you need some “core idea” that ties the entire thing together. Toys can – and should – be elegant, just like any other human creation.
The modern player has been raised in a world of toys. Pure strategy games, like some designer boardgames and my own Auro, can come off to today’s player as unforgiving, difficult, strange or even “feeling like work”. In time, when we have more examples of pure games, I expect this problem to diminish, but for now, I think it’s an issue.
The next thing I make with my development team, Dinofarm Games may end up being a pure, unconflicted toy. Toys are the most common language people speak these days, and part of being a good communicator is speaking to people in a language that they understand.
If we want to make toys, we need to really focus on that. Or alternatively, focus on the other forms. Portal and Professor Layton do a great job of focusing on being puzzles. Guitar Hero and Dance Dance Revolution are great, focused contests. My favorite form by far are games, so I would love it if we could start producing some unconflicted, pure strategy games as well. Outwitters is probably the closest thing to a pure, unconflicted digital game, but even it has asymmetrical forces.
I hope that in the future, developers take the point of The Lego Movie to heart. Stop spraying glue all over your toys.
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I’ve been thinking about this idea for awhile now that for adults, toys have inherently way less value than puzzles, contests and especially games do. A friend of mine made a point that fantasy simulators, a kind of toy, could have significant value for adults if they were just vastly better than they are now. This is, I think, what everyone assumes to be the case. However, I think even with massive improvements, exponential improvements, toys still could not compete with games.
This idea of “Virtual Reality” is kind of central to everything most people do and think about and imagine and create when it comes to interactive entertainment. It’s always been the be-all, end-all solution to the problem of “what would bethe most fun thing to do?”
I’ve loosely rejected that premise for years now, but I think until recently I also accepted that perhaps a super-sophisticated real-world simulator – like a real-life The Matrix kind of thing – would be probably similar in intellectual value for use by a human as chess would.
But here’s the problem: once you have your Matrix thing – what are you going to actually do? Crash a car? Run around in the woods? Shoot a bunch of people? Jump off a building?
How long is it interesting to do those things in Grand Theft Auto? Ironically, the most interesting thing I can imagine doing in a The Matrix simulator would be to… do the same things I do in real life. Have an interesting conversation. Watch a great film. Play a great game. In real life, I spend very little time doing the kinds of things that one would do in The Matrix, and not because it’s unsafe, but because it’s uninteresting.
The problem with humans is that we’re way too smart. Think about the human adult’s relationship with a ball. If one is around, we might kick it around or toss it in the air, but engaging with it doesn’t compete with almost anything else we spend our day doing. Most adults spend 0.01 to 0.001% of their free time, on average, bouncing or throwing a ball around, because there are just way better things to do. Bouncing a ball around, even throwing it back and forth with another person, is just too simple. We “get it” about how a ball works in space.
Some have a fantasy about taking one of those small rubber super-bouncy balls (the kind you can find in 25-cent vending machines) and bouncing it as hard as you can in a small room. At first, it seems like this would be pretty exciting, but actually, most of the excitement of this comes from novelty, and maybe a small remaining bit of excitement comes from danger (I might break a window, or hit myself in the eye or something). In terms of what’s actually happening, even in this very extreme version of “ball bouncing around”, nothing will really surprise us.
Let’s say, though, that we want to make this interesting – let’s litter the room with dominoes, army men, and fine china. This is, indeed, increasing the amount of complexity in the room, and so it should now be more interesting.
But it’s weird. How much more interesting is it? In a way, it takes way more time to add in that complexity than it does for us to understand what will happen when activate it. So yes, it’s more complex, but in order to make this room interesting, we’d have to put millions of agents in there or something. Humans are just way too good at understanding physics. I can’t even imagine a room with enough stuff where what would happen would surprise me. It’s all just physics at different frequencies.
Another example might be the portals in Portal. Even though we’re talking about teleportation here – a total breaking of the currently understood laws of physics, human beings totally understand it within minutes of play, and then using portals is every bit as normal to us as walking or driving or any other method of moving from A to B. Playing with Portal as a toy is fun for a similar amount of time as playing with a ball.
So why is Portal interesting, then, if the actual portal mechanism itself isn’t enough to be interesting? The reason is that the missions in Portal provide context for that complexity. Puzzles give a system a goal, and then goal then serves as an anchor which now gives relative meaning to every bit of complexity in that system. Now a spacial relationship can become interesting, because there is a goal which gives positions meaning.
Both “massively increasing the complexity of GTA” and the “the “bouncy ball in the room full of china” has the same problem of horrible inefficiency, because nothing in those systems is giving anything context. Nothing “matters”. Okay, so I broke a bunch of china. So what? What does that mean? The way china breaks isn’t actually interesting. Or for the Matrix thing – what are you going to do that’s actually going to be interesting? The best you can do is something that’s novel or spectacular – both of which are values that have extremely short half-lives.
In Portal, though, we have a goal – solve the puzzle. So now each bit of complexity we add actually means a lot. In fact, it means so much, that we have to be incredibly careful about what we add to it. In toys, you don’t have to be particularly careful about what you add, because nothing means anything. In puzzles, contests or games, every bit of complexity can have massive impacts on the system – this is what makes it extremely hard to make a great game.
In short, here’s another way to frame it: imagine a chess board sitting in that room full of china. You can grab your Queen, and throw it as hard as you can against a wall, bouncing it all over the place. The complexity that’s there is huge – tons of physics operations are happening, something might break in all kinds of different ways, etc – way more inherent complexity than could ever happen on a chessboard while playing chess. Yet, playing chess is vastly more interesting. This is because the complexity that is there for chess is both large and has meaning.
This combination of “large possibility space and has meaning” is the reason, I think, that games have the greatest potential for delivering value to adults. They can have massive emergent complexity, and yet all of that complexity can have meaning. Puzzles and contests are necessarily limited in their potential for complexity, and toys don’t have a goal.
To add one caveat – toys are sometimes also “creation tools”, and to the extent that they are, they no doubt have huge value that’s absolutely on a par with a game. However, if you think about it, when you’re using Garry’s Mod or Minecraft as a “creation tool”, you’re actually adding a goal, turning it into a puzzle of sorts.
I should also mention that for children, even understanding the basic physics of reality is profound and interesting. It takes them a long time to really get a grasp on such things – the example of the baby being amused by “Peek-a-Boo” is a good example of how much our brains really do change as we age.
For us adults – forget about virtual reality, fantasy simulation, and the like. We already have the ultimate form – games – we’re just so focused on stuff like fantasy simulation, technological spectacle and other novelty that we haven’t really been trying to dive in to find their potential.
Version 1.2 – Updated Nov 2015.
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