Archive for the ‘game design’ Category

Game Design for Space Exploration

Posted on February 7th, 2013 in game design | No Comments »

The longing for the infinite must always be a longing
–Friedrich Shlegel

When the Kickstarter campaign for Elite: Dangerous was announced, it not only inspired me to write these recent posts on exploration in video games, it made me think back to the hours I spent playing its predecessor, Frontier: Elite II.

Frontier was a magnificent achievement. In 1993 there was no game that could offer similar scale or freeform gameplay. The elegant graphics were also something of an accomplishment since the Amiga and Atari ST were not natural 3d machines.

Despite this, I always felt that Frontier never capitalised on the exploration potential of its vast universe.

There was little incentive to leave the inhabited systems and head out into the unknown. You could mine planets, and extract hydrogen from gas giants to fuel your explorations, but these were difficult operations, restricting exploration to very experienced players.

In spite of the rumoured existence of an alien warship hidden in deep space, there simply wasn’t enough mystery out there to entice explorers. The procedural planetary systems of 1993 lacked detail and variety and you could see most of what the game had to offer without going very far at all. None of this really detracted from a game that offered so much, but those of us who longed for the unmarked places on the map were left nursing our imaginations.

So what kind of space exploration game could we make in 2013 with what we now know about procedural world generation? There hasn’t been much information yet on what the procedural worlds of Elite: Dangerous will be like, but we can get an idea of the contemporary state of the art by looking at Space Engine, a procedural universe simulation created by Vladimir Romanyuk.

Space Engine was originally inspired by Noctis, the cult freeform space exploration game that I wrote about in my previous post. At the moment it doesn’t really contain any gameplay besides the ability to move around and take screenshots of its graphically impressive universe, but there are plans to create a full game out of it, hopefully remaining faithful to Noctis’ vision of a “dreamable space simulator”.

As you can see from the Space Engine galleries, it is capable of generating varied and detailed landscapes, with plains, craters, mountains, lakes and oceans. Different atmospheric compositions alter the appearance of each alien world. The planetary orbits are physically realistic, and it appears likely that physics that effects the player such as gravity and atmospheric drag are in the pipeline.

All of this procedural detail combines to create a web of systems that can provide gameplay, if they can be given as being of concern for the player.

And because we don’t know exactly what the procedural generators will create, but we do know *what* they create we can set goals for exploration that provide meaningful feedback while remaining open ended.

We can challenge the player to find the tallest mountain, the deepest ocean, the richest ore field, the largest planet that is the closest to its sun. All these goals are specific enough to be put into achievement systems, and yet they remain open. A taller mountain may be discovered tomorrow. Achievements then become, literally, world records.

It’s gonna be a rough landing! A Space Engine landscape from the EDGE Review

The technical challenge in this is in creating tools that can scan and interpret the procedural world in order to recognise mountains, ore fields etc. This is the price you have to pay for meaningful feedback; the computer must be made to understand what you mean. The challenge for game designers is to make these knowledge extraction tools fun and interesting for the player to use.

If I were Vladimir Romanyuk, or I had access to his source repository, this is the game I would make with Space Engine.

Imagine an advanced race of spacefarers. War and material gain are irrelevant concepts for them, what they care about is knowledge. When they come of age they set out in lonely ships to traverse the universe. (If you wanted to give the game an end condition you could make it so they were allowed to return home once they had gained enough knowledge. [Perhaps you could even throw them Proteus style into the world with very little contextual knowledge, and make players figure that out by themselves?])

Their ships are equipped with different types of scanning equipment and the means to mine and extract chemicals from planets and asteroids etc. This equipment takes skill to use; for example scanning a mountain formation might involve landing probes in the area surrounding it, in a certain configuration.

The gravity of the planet, the atmospheric composition and the layout of the terrain all effect how easy this is to do. Some planets may be extremely difficult to scan or land on. All this creates gameplay and the potential for informal competition and legendry amongst players.

Perhaps the player flies a living ship, a bit like Moya from Farscape. This living ship grows and develops in response to the knowledge the player can attain from the universe. “knowledge” here is given a more mystical and active significance here than the ordinary intelligibility of human life.

The ship can develop its capabilities using material from the universe in conjunction with knowledge, enabling the player to travel further and do more things.

This creates an economy of progression without requiring any shops or civilisations (less work for the indie developer!) and is in keeping with the wholly alien atmosphere we are trying to evoke.

So there you have it. We’ve now created a basic outline of an exploration game with progression and well defined goals which remains open ended and mysterious. I’d really like to know what you think about these ideas and the thinking behind them. If I had a bit more time and money I’d take a shot at developing it. Maybe in the future.

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The Gameplay of Exploration

Posted on January 25th, 2013 in game design | No Comments »

Palomar II (2002)

One of the things I love most about video games is their potential for exploration. Like immersion, exploration in games is as much about mood and feeling as it is about the logic of game mechanics. It imparts a watchful, meditative air, a constant openness to emerging possibility that serves as a nice contrast to the intensity and solidity of ordinary gameplay.

This kind of peaceful, yet fully engaged play is something I have always looked for, yet it seems to be a hard thing to find. Too often, explorativity (is that a word? It is now) is simply a side effect of a large game world; there is nothing in the game that acknowledges that exploration takes place. There’s no feedback for anything you do, besides your own satisfaction.

Of course, this lack of feedback may be the entire point. One of the greatest space exploration games, Noctis IV, developed by Alessandro Ghignola from 1996 to 2001, simply presents you with its grainy, expressionistic universe and invites you to explore.

Writing for The Escapist, Philip Scuderi describes Noctis as having an essential “air of tragedy” and loneliness, a sense that there are “no messages to receive or send; no voices to contrast with the endless vacuum.”

Like The Sentinel, that primordial deity of computer generated worlds, the procedural universe of Noctis presents a blank and pitiless face. Without the presence of meaning within the world, this universe reveals itself to the player as a kind of grand, inhuman unfolding of geometry; a “worldless” world, as Heidegger might say.

Many of the older open-world games like Mercenary, Hunter and Midwinter II have a similar quality of rigorous bleakness which overwhelms the entire game, almost in spite of the developer’s intentions. Hunter, for example is ostensibly a Schwarzenegger-style action adventure, going by the back story and box artwork, but all that is lost in the angular silence of its fractal world.

It is interesting to compare these games with Proteus, which as of this writing, is still in public beta. Like Noctis, Proteus simply places you inside a computer generated world, a beautifully stylised island in this case, and leaves you to explore. In fact Proteus gives you even less to go on than Noctis. There is no backstory, no explanation as to what you might be able to do. You begin the game knowing how to move and sit down, and nothing else.

As your eyes open upon the world you begin to scan the environment. Trees, birds, life, weather patterns weave unnamed and mysterious systems around you. “How do they work?”, “What is my place within them?”, “Who is here?”. Exploration begins.

Proteus avoids the bleakness of other exploration games by filling the world with sound and with significant systems. Everything hums and jangles as you explore; each tree, each type of terrain lends its song to your experience. Animals hop about the forests and react to your approach, the weather changes, seasons pass. Everything seems to effect everything else and you are right in the middle of it trying to figure it all out.

And it gives so little away that you always retain the possibility of being surprised, of something new appearing that casts the whole world in a different light. It takes me back to the days when my friends and I knew so little about games that the most implausible rumours grew up around them. I wouldn’t be surprised to find Sheng Long living in that lonely house on Proteus Island.

For some time now I’ve thought that the mystification of game mechanics, the introduction of other kinds of intelligibility to the hard-edged logics of ordinary games are essential steps in moving game design forward. Proteus is an important step in that direction.

Next time, I am going to write something about space exploration in generative universes, so stay tuned.

*The image at the top of this post is not Proteus! It’s the cover of Palomar II, the 2002 album from NY indie band Palomar. I just thought it evoked the qualities I’ve been talking about in this post. Oh, and I am desperate for a copy of Palomar’s impossible to find first album, so if you can help, please let me know.

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Games and the Imagination – now on PDF

Posted on November 11th, 2012 in game design | No Comments »

I’ve added a pdf version of my 2004 article series Games and the Imagination to the writing page. I still get people asking for it in an easy to read format and I found that since their last redesign, the layout of Gamedev’s article section doesn’t do much to reflect the amount of work that goes into such writing. It looks a little like some lost blog post that got picked up by a content aggregator or something, so I made the PDF to provide a better reading experience.

In Games and the Imagination I use Jungian psychology to explore how players imaginatively engage with games. Its main idea is that gamers do not simply identify with playable characters but that the whole game can operate as a kind of dreamscape where all characters, landscapes and situations have the potential to reflect the gamer’s psychological concerns.

When it was published on Gamedev in 2004 I got a terrific response; people wanted to cite my work in their studies, I had several working psychologists respond positively, and even a few big names in the games industry wrote to me.

I come from a self-taught working class background; university wasn’t even mentioned to me when I was at school, so it was very gratifying to have students and big-shots thank me for helping them with their studies and asking to cite my work.

I left school in a bad way, depressed and angry; angry at bullying, angry that nothing in my world appeared to allow me to be the person that I felt I was, a creative thinker. The responses I got from my writing really made me feel that the years of lonely self-education that followed were finally leading to something.

The one thing I didn’t get out of it was the one thing I was desperate for: a job in the games industry. I actually wrote the series some time earlier, and was using it as part of a portfolio of code that I was sending out with job applications. I’m not sure how many of the people I sent it to actually read it. I probably didn’t push it hard enough. A part of me has always wanted someone else to come over and say, “Hey, you belong over here, come and join us”, but that never happens.

New Ideas

After I finished Games and the Imagination I got interested in the idea that there might be a single language of game design, a grammar or logical system that could be used to describe all games. I wrote a little about this in part four and linked it with ideas that went back to my first game design article from 2001.

A lot of work has been done in this area in the past ten years. People like Raph Koster, Daniel Cook, Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans have done detailed analyses of game mechanisms in the hope of eventually deriving something like a grammar or set of logical axioms that designers can use to think about how games work.

My own approach is more phenomenological. After surveying the usual suspects such as semiotics and system theory, I started reading twentieth-century philosophy; Wittgenstein, Husserl, Heidegger and Deleuze, to name a few important figures. I’ve spent probably six or seven years on this study and I still don’t feel that I’m ready to write anything yet.

I *do* have concrete ideas, and they are informing everything I do when I work on my games, but I just don’t feel capable of describing them in words yet. I have a picture in my mind of a nicely illustrated book, but I’ll probably just end up with a simple pamphlet stating the obvious! The ideas I have in mind are simple, Its just that they are not made of the same stuff as ordinary concepts if you can catch my drift. They are about appearance, not representation. (Told you I wasn’t ready to write yet:) )

Another area that I got interested in was the investigation of the imagination itself. What does it mean to imagine? Why does this faculty seem to be treated so dismissively outside of a few subcultures? How does it relate to other faculties? Can a rethinking of the place of the imagination within phenomena tell us anything new about being human, or open up new horizons for us? These are some of the questions that come to mind. I plan to write some more about these questions soon.

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Notes on a Language of Game Design #2

Posted on October 15th, 2011 in game design | No Comments »

One of the things that got me thinking about the possibility of a language of game design is the feeling I often get while playing that content doesn’t matter. After I’ve been playing games for far too long, the lush scenery and the carefully rendered characters devolve into blurry signifiers, shapes that appear in configuration with other shapes, triggering wordless actions that have been scoured into my mind by hours of play. Thoughtlessly, I finish every sentence the computer starts, never letting it complete itself before I have acted and moved on.

Game content can be interpreted in any number of ways, but the game rules only allow the objects and characters to behave in a limited number of ways. Eventually, the feeling of possibility evoked by the content diminishes as the player learns the few terms by which he is allowed to use it. The characters, landscapes and even storylines become icons in a much simpler network of concepts.

The relative simplicity of this network of concepts is one of the things that convinces designers that there is such a thing as a language of game design.

I am beginning to wonder how much of this perception that there is a language of game design is down to the controller, rather than anything to do with the logical form of game entities. Imagine actually performing the action in a game rather than using a joypad.  Is there still a sense of musicality and rhythm? When imagining driving, then shooting, then playing tennis, is there the same sense of rhythmic sameness that arises during long playing sessions on different games?  The controller masks the complexity of relations between game objects and makes them feel the same.

A language of game design would be the same as the language that describes relations between entities in the real world.  Certain types of relations would be more playable than others, and this would narrow things down, but the essential form of game entities is the same as it is in reality.


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Notes on a Language of Game Design

Posted on March 25th, 2009 in game design | 2 Comments »

Over the next few months I want to write something around the idea of a language of game design. I say “around” because the subject is so tricky that it doesn’t let itself be approached directly; it must be circled carefully, with a keen eye for the subtle tracks it leaves in the gaming landscape.

Glimpses of our prey are fleeting; a movement in the long grass, the flash of an eye in the shadows. It’s a beast that none have seen clearly, yet tales of it are told wherever its hunters gather.

What do we mean when we talk about a language of game design? Over the past ten years, many designers have had the intuition that it might be possible to create a notation for describing game ideas like those that exist for music and choreography. Although the idea has been floating around for a while, it came to prominence in 2005 when Raph Koster delivered his lecture, “Game Grammar” at the GDC in San Francisco. Since then, many more game developers have started to explore the idea from a variety of perspectives, and for a variety of reasons.

But to talk of a language may ultimately mislead us. It’s important to keep in mind that we are using the word “language” as a metaphor. We might as easily say a mathematics of game design, a biology, or an architecture. Each of these designations points toward what we are looking for, but the contours of their meanings may scatter the light in other, less helpful directions, just as they reveal new and novel ones.

To create a language we first need an ontology. We need to know what fundamental entities games are composed of, and what fundamental relationships exist between them. (Actually, if we were really doing ontology, we’d have to be a bit clearer on what we mean by “entities” and “relations”.)

The search for an ontology raises some interesting questions. How are game entities similar to or different from their counterparts in the real world? How is creating a language of game design different from creating a language of surgery, of truck-driving, or of tasks and events in general? Given a real world-system of entities, a supermarket say, or a cowboy’s corral, what do I need to add or take away to make it into a game?

The central question, for me anyway, is not how I might write down my game ideas, or lay out their anatomy, but how do I see a game in what is around me or in what I feel? An artist looks upon his subject and sees form, colour, line and space. What does a game designer see? How can I teach someone to see it?

The posts in this series will be fairly loosely linked. I don’t have a grand unified theory or anything like that. I just want to share my thinking and get my ideas out there to anyone who might find them useful.

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