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August 2005

The Caterpillar Jihad

Yesterday, I argued that "story is conflict" was a false proposition. Actually, I roped in Orson Scott Card to do it for me. Today I'm going to take a different tack, and explain why it could be dangerous to conflate these terms, especially for games. The reason for this, I'm pleased to say, is that I received my first ever Trackback, from Man Bytes Blog, which was really satisfying. I've been blogging for a month now, and it's good to know I'm not just barking at my back fence.

Firstly, a dip into philosophy. We all employ words differently. I'm not arguing that there aren't people for whom the proposition "story is conflict" will hold true, but I am arguing that it isn't a universal, and more importantly, that it might be dangerous to think of it in this way. Similarly, I was stunned to hear Corvus suggest (even potentially in jest) that "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" wasn't really a story, as I (in common with many lexicographers) consider a story to be any account of a sequence of events. I apply it as the broadest of terms, and so do most dictionaries, but that doesn't make my definition big-t True. After all, definitions shift in time, and even dictionaries only agree with each other 95% of the time. Language is constantly in flux. Perhaps a discussion for another time...

As ever, I side with Wittgenstein that the meaning of a word is how it is used (regular readers, if I have any, will become very bored of me saying this). And I believe that when a child asks to be read a bedtime story, "The Very Hungry Caterpillar" will more than meet this request. In this particular language game at the very least, the term 'story' can be applied to this particular picture book. Corvus gives an interpretation of how the caterpillar's story can be seen as conflict - but does the child reading the book interpret it as conflict? I do not believe so. I don't believe the child has the capacity to understand that the Caterpillar might die if it doesn't eat... They are swept away in the texture of the narrative, and the wonder of its resolution.

The problem with starting at the premise that "story is conflict" (but not, as Corvus shrewdly observes, that "conflict is story" which is a very different claim) is the subtle effect this has on the storyteller's reasoning process. If you presuppose "story is conflict", you run the risk in the sphere of games that you may conflate story with agon (competition) which is a vastly dangerous move. We're already hideously addicted to agon in the games industry, such that other forms of play are often overlooked - I personally do not like the idea of writers contributing to this by spotting the obvious avenues for conflict, and missing the potential subtleties.

And this is my point... When you examine individual stories, you can find a way to make the proposition "story is conflict" fit - as Peterb and Corvus do with "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". But in terms of what stories can be about, it is a potentially restrictive approach - it could narrow how you think about stories, and that's not a good thing.

When a writer records a travelogue, I consider this well within the scope of the blanket term 'story', but the travelogue really need not contain conflict. It may become a more engaging story if it happens to contain conflict, but that's a very different claim to the statement that conflict is a necessary condition for story.

Similarly, when one reads about a spiritual journey or similar inner conflict, as in, say, the book of Job, one can view this as a conflict - obviously the phrase "inner conflict" gives one an open door for this. My argument is that if one thinks of story as conflict, one is more likely to be channeled to the obvious (agonistic) conflicts, and away from the more interesting inner conflicts. Similarly, a Muslim who interprets "jihad" as physical war is trapped in a narrow way of thinking, because most Islamic scholars and holy people agree that this is a tiny aspect of jihad, which is more properly interpreted as an internal, self-rectifying struggle.

Yes, one can probably find ways to identify conflict in most (possibly with a great stretch all) stories, but stories of survival, mysteries both secular and spiritual, and crises of personal, social and philosophical nature are all fascinating and engaging in their own right. That you can stretch the fabric of the word 'conflict' to reach them is not in debate - only that it might not be healthy to do so. The most lauded novels and films tend to reach beyond the obvious, and it would be great if games could do so as well.

What I propose instead of thinking that "story is conflict" is that writers consider that a good story should engage, and that conflict is a powerful way to engage the reader. But so is intrigue. And so is crisis. And so is discovery. And so (in the scope of games) is choice. Conflict, intrigue, crisis, discovery and choice, but the greatest of these is choice. At least, it would be nice if this were so. (Disclaimer: I don't propose that these five cases are exhaustive, nor that they are completely distinct).

Let's not say that "story is conflict" for the same reason that we should not say that "jihad is war" - namely that saying these things may lead us to think in a limited fashion about topics which deserve to be thought about in an unlimited fashion.

Religious Games

I really appreciated this article about religious games at Water Cooler Games. I do not personally see why a Christian or Islamic game which fights against what is conceptualised as evil in that frame of reference is any better or worse than an amoral game that fights for the sake of fighting (as many video games do). I would draw the line at incitement to violence in the real world, but Ummah Defense I is clearly an escapist fantasy from an Islamic perspective, and quite harmless. Most video games seem to be coming from a Zoroastrian perspective, anyway, what with their quaint notions of 'good' and 'evil'.

Of course, it would be great if we could get some religious games which were not violent. I guess it's because we're addicted to agon and by extension violence as an easy form of play to implement.

I think about religious games quite often, actually. The Mahabharata could make a great game, as could the story of Joshua - although I'm not sure that such a game would be in synch with the feelings and beliefs of modern Christians. Surely, any Christian must oppose war unless they choose to place Jesus' teachings at a lesser importance? This is why I do not like it one iota when Emperor Bush places his warmongering in a Christian context. I believe Jesus would have picketed the White House were he around in physical form today.

For some time, though, I've considered how I would go about making a game based upon the life of Jesus, or of the early Christian church, and that would certainly not include violence... although it could. Judea was rife with terrorism in the time of Jesus - resistance against the Roman invaders. But it wouldn't be fair to Jesus' message to do so. I believe an interesting game could be made from the early Christian church's struggle to practice their religion against the oppression of the Roman regime. I guess it would fundamentally be a stealth-escape game.

Sadly, the games market's current interests are focused elsewhere.

Free Your Mind and Your Narratives Will Follow

Story is conflict, John Sutherland announces in his excellent but somewhat misleading article "What Every Game Developer Needs to Know about Story". He is completely wrong. I had to think about it for a second, and of all the things that initially came into my head, my first thought was "The Very Hungry Caterpillar". I challenge anyone to find the conflict in this story (but I also challenge them not to tell me about it!) Okay, so this is a children's story. But the one thing I can say in total confidence about stories is that all stories are stories.

The point I want to make is made more convincingly by Orson Scott Card:

When is conflict good? This is a question that is rarely asked, because many, many teachers of writing or literature act as if conflict were the most essential element of every story. Though this is outrageously false, the fact that it is widely believed means that the question "When is conflict good in storytelling" is almost never asked.

I  recommend taking the time to read Orson's comments about this. (Ignore the question that brought about this point and scroll down to 'OSC Replies').

I recognise, incidentally, that one can stretch the meaning of conflict to shoehorn in all kinds of other situations, but I don't recommend ever putting the cart before the horse like this. Your prior beliefs will lead you to all sorts of conclusions - if you don't recognise them as a priori beliefs. Every model breaks down eventually, and this is as it should be, as models are not reality - the map is not the territory as Eric Bell & Alford Korzybski wisely stated.

There is an inherent problem with game writing at the moment, that we have yet to fully discover (or define) the language of game narrative. John's article is keen to make a point of this, and I'm behind him completely on this:

The first attempts to make movies into real stories failed. They failed because they were conceived as filmed plays... It didn't work... Generally speaking, they hadn't discovered what this particular story form was good at. And frankly, neither have we in games.

With this in mind, I'd like to take a moment to suggest that applying the three act structure, the seven act structure or the Heroes Journey to games blindly is a mistake. A forty hour game (for instance) will not automatically support a story hung upon a structure which works best in other media. This reminds me, incidentally, that I must write about Campbell's Heroic Monomyth at some point - because too many game writers are following Christopher Vogler who reduces Campbell's insight to formula. There's much more to Campbell than this, and I believe its worth studying.

John goes on to say:

The old adage for writers in every previous form of story has been: Show, don't tell. Now there's a new rule: Do, don't show.

Here again we are in accord. Cut scenes have a role in game development, but its so much better to give the player control of the actions that drive forward the narrative.

With Ghost Master, we created an unusual approach to game narrative, one which has been largely overlooked - perhaps because we were too clever for our own good. We succeeded in our goal, but in such a subtle fashion it was difficult to recognise. You see, the story in Ghost Master is carried forward by the player actions in the individual hauntings in connection with the mortals that are being haunted (who recur, and become recognisable to the player). Bruce Elm is arguably the central character in this story, and the player essentially drives him mad through their actions throughout the game - and then uses him to complete their final goal. The key events occur in the game because they are required goals for the player - but how they happen is up to the player to choreograph. We are in charge of the plot, but the player is in control of the narrative. This is how it should be, I suspect.

It's something I want to take forward in future projects, and Heretic Kingdoms: Reluctant Hero should offer us an opportunity to explore what happens when we put the player in charge of the development of the narrative, if all goes well. The plot will not be in the players control (although it should contain dynamic elements), but the narrative could be. It's still too early to talk about this in detail; there is much work still to be done, and many unanswered questions. But the question being explored is clear: can we get some dynamic narrative into the players hands by building it around a playground world?

What disappoints me about the stories in the Grand Theft Auto games is that the player is given such wonderful freedom of expression and action in the playground world, but is given no freedom of expression or action in the narrative. I think the reason I am stalled on San Andreas is because my CJ is a multi-millionaire who lives in an expensive mansion and in his spare time is an eccentric aviator. He has come to terms with the death of his mother, and looks back upon his time in a gang as a growth experience. He's a relentless womaniser (and a bit of sexist, frankly), and dating five women at once. My CJ no longer has any drive to continue in the (static) story of the game. The game story wants me to be carrying out small thefts or acts of extortion for money, but my CJ doesn't need money any more. He's moved on.

One final thing John says that I have to agree with:

If the writer's job is not just about pasted-on dialog, but also the deep construction of the story, that means the writer needs to be involved with the beginning of the project.

Developers and publishers take note: if you want a good story in your game, you need to have someone who understands storytelling involved in the creation of the overall structure of the game. We still have a long way to go before this happens as often as it should.

I'd like to thank John for the article - the fact that I disagree with him so vociferously on some points does not detract from the service he is performing in bringing attention to the very important role of the game writer.

Game Writers United

Yesterday was the monthly online committee meeting of the IGDA's Game Writers' Special Interest Group. The SIG was founded a year ago by myself and Raphael Van Lierop, who sadly has stepped down because of family commitments. The SIG itself is still going strong, thanks to the involvement of writers like Rich Dansky, academics like Stephen Jacobs, and a raft of talented and dedicated volunteers like Wendy Despain (who I have come to depend upon), Rhianna Pratchett, Sande Chen, Mary DeMarle and Ed Kuehnel, as well as keen newcomers such as Ben Serviss and Coray Seifert. Okay, I sound like I'm just name checking all and sundry... it's only because I'm really proud of the group. I'm also impressed at the gender balance - it's almost a 50-50 split, unlike the industry as a whole.

Newsfeeds of various kinds report the new Game Writers Conference in Austin in October. For instance, Wonderland or Next Generation. What the feeds don't tell you is how this event came into being. The most astonishing thing is, only three months ago, there was not even a whisper of this event. It didn't exist. It came about (from my perspective at least) through the actions of the Writers SIG - although explicitly through the work of Susan O'Connor. The SIG has been talking about writing conferences for several months now at the committee meeting - and we have several projects in the work. But somehow, in the midst of discussing in principle options for GDC and E3,  Susan had gone and created a new writing conference - apparently out of thin air.

The Austin Game Writers Conference is not a SIG branded event - it's totally independent. But the SIG exists to promote game writing, and this conference is a great step forward towards the SIGs goals - hopefully the first of many. Strictly, it's not the first, as we wrote a white paper together, had an article in Game Developer magazine, an event in London with the Writers Guild of Great Britain, several Group Gatherings at GDC and so forth... but the scale of this is an order a magnitude up from where we were.

Every now and then, in those brief moments where my commitments seem to have exceeded my reasonable capacities, I feel like stepping down from the SIG because, although I do write (both novels and game scripts) I feel fundamentally that the label of game designer fits me better. But then I think: its not like game designers need promotion. But game writers deserve to be given more respect, more prominence and, frankly, more influence in future game development.

I don't have any great insight to offer, I just want to say that its amazing what a group of disparate people who are only connected by the internet and a professional connection to writing can achieve - sometimes (as in this case) simply by sparking action in people with the capacity to make things happen.

Where Next With CRPGs

I once told Warren Specter I was convinced I could push forward the genre of computer role-playing games if only I could land a CRPG project to work on. It took me sometime before that actually happened, and, I attest, I did manage to push CRPGs forward - but only very slightly. I'll talk more about that later. First, the inspiration for this post.

Tea Leaves carries an interesting commentary on CRPGs; I'm going to take some extracts and comment on them:

"I don't consider anything the Japanese do to be RPGs. Those are movies with extra special boring parts put in the middle for obsessive-compulsives."

There is a distinct split between Japanese and Western CRPGs. The flaw in most Japanese CRPGs is that they are more concerned in telling their story than in giving the player freedom of expression. The flaw in most Western Japanese CRPGS is that they are more concerned in giving the player freedom of expression than avoiding being total rubbish.

My favourite CRPG thus far is still only a fraction of what I actually want from a CRPG, and that game is Skies of Arcadia. This game annoyed me constantly with its random combats which were repetitive and dull. They served one purpose: to make the game longer. Why should this matter? Because there is an expectation among players that CRPGs will deliver 40 hours of entertainment, and this is an expensive proposition. The only hope of hitting such a target inside a budget that still allows the game to be profitable is to include a repetitive activity - and this is pretty much always combat.

What did I like about Skies? The world was beautiful and fun to explore. The NPCs weren't just cardboard cutouts - in the later game, you could go back and recruit them into your crew. It amazes me that for a game I'm singling out as my favourite CRPG to date, I have so few nice things to say about it.

RPGs are the most popular genre in Japan (at least, they were in the last CESA report I saw). We increasingly suspect that the reason that the Japanese approach works so well is that they can be played in a Type 1 Conqueror or a Type 4 Participant style. This gives them a huge potential audience. Most games don't reach a Type 4 audience - part of the appeal of the Japanese RPG is that, generally speaking, anyone can complete one. Don't underestimate the value of this point - most players do not have the same skills that you (as a person reading a blog on game design) probably have.

Western RPGs usually labour under the weight of such hideously poor mechanics that they can often only be played by H1 and H2 players (i.e. the Hardcore clusters of those who prefer the Type 1 Conqueror play style, or the Type 2 Manager play style). Mostly, this is the fault of Dungeons & Dragons. Although we owe it a debt for being the first RPG, it is still a blight on Western development methodology. Because the one thing that it had going for it as a tabletop RPG was that the basic combat mechanic was very, very simple. It was just that the rest of its rules were torturously complex bespoke solutions. I've been told Tweet's new D20 version is a vast improvement. How could it not be?

Let's return to Peterb's comments:

Why do most RPGs suck?

There are basically 3(*) elements that go into making a computer RPG.

1) Plot.

2) Conversations with non-player characters.

3) Combat mechanics.

4) General interactivity with the world.

(*) I said 3 because it sounds better.

I've ordered those elements from most to least important. Designing games where each of these elements is fun requires entirely different skill sets.

This is a fascinating statement... I believe I agree in broad strokes, but I have issues. For a start, putting 'plot' first immediately betrays a bias. We find that those who prefer Type 1 and Type 2 play styles value plot over character - those who prefer Type 3 or Type 4 play style value character over plot. When I think of the many tabletop RPG campaigns I've ran or been involved in, the best have been marked out not by great plots, but by great character interactions. The first Avatar campaign (ran before the first edition was published) was a great example. The party only just held itself together, and conflicts between the characters were utterly absorbing. It helped that the strongest conflicts were between players who liked each other in real life, but whose characters could not get on... The in-fighting between patriarchal tribal assassin Baby Ice Dog and matriarchal mentally unhinged mage Sarakiel was particularly involving. But this was the product of an exceptional group of players. (Avatar is out of print, but it is now available online at the Discordia Incorporated site, which we now host at our website).

I think perhaps when we are considering the story elements of a CRPG, we should consider the narrative, rather than the plot, simply because this term is broader. But I doubt, to be honest, that we should value this above all else. Surely, the absolute top element in a CRPG should be minimising the barriers to play? A game with a dynamite story that was completely unplayable would not survive on its narrative alone.

Next, I want to consider the idea that combat mechanics are an essential element of CRPGs. That's quite a claim! It suggests that you can't have a CRPG without combat, and I don't believe that for a second. True, we haven't had many (probably any) CRPGs without it, but I've run tabletop games without combat, and I therefore believe it's possible in a video game. What you need is a repeating activity (or several repeating activities) in order to provide focus to the play - but it needn't be combat. Richard and I are still talking at times about a CRPG in which the central activity is playing poker, for instance.

Peterb's closing comment is as follows:

The future of the CRPG as a genre depends on those pushing past the "show the user a spreadsheet full of numbers that slowly gets bigger over time" model of interaction. The best possible case is probably the disappearance of the genre as a separate recognized class (except among retrogaming fans), and for its best attributes to simply be absorbed by mainstream games, leaving the drudgery, such as inventory management, behind.

Yes, I have to agree - cutting out the drudgery would be a useful step. But I'm doubting that the immediate future of the CRPG consists of its best attributes being absorbed into the mass market - because the fanbase for the CRPG is rooted firmly in the Hardcore players, and it is very hard to deliver a CRPG for the mass market without first satisfying the needs of the Hardcore players.

All of which brings me to Kult: Heretic Kingdoms (Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition in the US). Why do I mention this game so often when in many ways it's relatively unimpressive when compared to the games at the top of the market? Because this was the first CRPG project I was able to work on - and it was a real challenge. 3D People are a small up-and-coming Slovakian company who heard about International Hobo when we were interviewed on Gamasutra. They wanted help on the design and story of their game, and although they didn't have the money to pay for us at normal rates, we were able to negotiate a deal.

We redesigned the game mechanics, restructured the story and wrote the entire script in three months. Surely, this is the fastest a CRPG has ever been written. We were working under heavy restrictions, such as the fact the game had to remain in a linear structure (there wasn't time for a more open structure), and the fact that the underlying game was always going to be a hack and slash. But I believe we achieved some minor advances in CRPG design in this modest project.

Firstly, we eliminated the tedious management of potions. Far too many CRPGs in my opinion have as their core activity managing the healing potions. I don't know about you, but I wouldn't play a tabletop RPG in which the main thing the players were doing was finding, buying and deciding when to use potions. So we factored it out completely in Heretic Kingdoms.

Secondly, we tried to get away from what Peterb calls "the spreadsheet full of numbers". We contracted the core numeric mechanics to next to nothing, and instead made the game mechanics focus around the Attunement system. Basically, all abilities (spells, skills etc.) are delivered by a set of abilities called Attunements, and you can have a certain number of these active at the same time. The system is relatively easy to learn, and really quite flexible. I consider it to be a success - but it must be said that you don't necessarily appreciate the system until you've been playing for a while. (And if you don't change your equipment often, you don't end up with enough Attunements to have many interesting choices).

Thirdly, we tried to get a decent, relatively mature story into the game. I think we succeeded. This review of the central character at Women Gamers is a completely fair assessment. Remember that we had to work under incredible limitations on this project. Alita, the heroine, is not a typical adolescent power fantasy... rather, she's a sarcastic, socially maladjusted bitch. But she might have a heart of gold - if the player chooses to play her that way. I wish we'd had the budget to record her voice - it would have helped the game considerably. I believe we genuinally succeeded in giving the player some game choices that were not between 'good' or 'evil' but simply moral decisions in an amoral world. For some players, this worked well.

We're still working with 3D People, and a new Heretic Kingdoms game is in the works. For this one, we're working on it from the beginning, so we are able to attempt much more. We're keeping several of the factors that worked well in the first one, such as the simplified healing system, and the Attunement system - although the latter is being improved. The new system is broken into streams of development - it gives the player greater control over how and which Attunements the player learns. In effect, it provides a bespoke class system which the player has control over.

One thing that we're taking a step backwards on is the character attributes. In the first game, we wanted to keep it as simple as possible. But one thing has become apparent from post-release feedback - the core audience (which is inevitably a Hardcore audience) for these games actually enjoy a little bit of the "spreadsheet full of numbers" - perhaps because it allows them to identify the character in an easy to understand fashion. So we're providing more of a conventional attribute system, although it will remain simple and accessible.

The next Heretic Kingdoms game will have an open world. We always wanted it for the first game, but it was always going to be too expensive. This time, we can make it happen. The linear structure has its place, but it's nice to be able to offer the player a world to explore. And similarly, we're able to give the player more choice as to their starting character. There should be a choice of gender at the very least. We're also exploring ways to make the world more dynamic... I shouldn't say too much about this, because at the moment we can't be sure which elements of this will work.

But the big breakthrough we're hoping to bring to players is the capacity to play a CRPG with or without combat. The new Attunement system supports a number of abilities that will mean the player can choose to play the game without fighting if they wish. These alternatives all allow the player to develop their character without combat. It's early days yet, so I shouldn't say too much. But I'm very excited about the possibilities for the new game.

The new game, which is entitled Heretic Kingdoms: Reluctant Hero is still a year off at least. It's a niche market game - it won't have the budget to truly impress people compared to the expensive products in the top market, but 3D People are talented developers, and we think we can achieve something special with this game. (They've been working on the new engine recently - I'm looking forward to seeing it!) I hope that there are enough CRPG fans out there who really mean it when they say that cutting edge technology isn't the most important thing. To any CRPG fans out there who read this, I hope you'll join us on a journey that - with a little luck - will take us a little bit further torwards somewhere new and involving.

Adventure Games: A Question of Scale

Ron Gilbert has a link to a detailed article about the state of adventure games on his blog, and comments about how adverse publishers are to this genre. I feel it necessary to stand up for the publishers on this one. In Ron's comments he says:

From first-hand experience, I can tell you that if you even utter the words "adventure game" in a meeting with a publisher you can just pack up your spiffy concept art and leave.  You'd get a better reaction by announcing that you have the plague.

Publishers are silly.

Firstly, some background. Ron Gilbert is one of the people behind the successful and influential Monkey Island adventure games, beloved by myriad gamers. (I never really liked them personally - they were very professionally made, and are hugely significant titles, but I struggled to enjoy the stories and didn't connect with the tone; simply a matter of my personal tastes. No game is made for everyone!)

Conversely, I worked with Perfect Entertainment on the Discworld games; I don't think it's an exaggeraton to say these game wouldn't exist without the success of Monkey Island. The last of these (Discworld Noir) was my first game as lead game designer and script writer. A cult hit in Europe, the game never had a US release thanks to GT Interactive going bankrupt. The game still has a following; at the moment, some fans are trying to create new free versions of the games to save them from obscurity, and some Polish fans are trying to create a version of Noir in Polish. We're lending all the support we can, since no-one else is in a position to support these games (Perfect itself died before the millennium).

Talking of publishers being silly, GT Interactive were the company which at the ECTS convention in 1998 set up their stall as a perfect recreation of their offices. Not only was this a grandly expensive gesture, but who but an employee of GT Interactive could possibly appreciate the gesture? This is an example of the silly things that some publishers do. But I do not believe that the resistance of adventure games by publishers is genuinely silly.

Publishers are very insensitive to certain issues, often those very issues that the hardcore game audience cares deeply about, but the one thing they do care about is the bottom line. Every game project should make as much or more money than it cost to create and distribute. Anyone who thinks this is wrong should not take their grievances out on publishers - which are commercial entities intended to make money - but rather on the system of capitalism, which is rife for criticism on numerous points.

The reason publishers are gunshy about adventures is that the cost of development (in the mid to upper market) has skyrocketed, and at these new scales of costs, there is currently no evidence that certain styles of games can make a profit at that scale - adventure games are one of those styles. In the late 80's and early 90's, the cutting edge of game development had budgets that were profitable with respect to their audience size. But as costs have grown, the audience hasn't. In fact, it's shrunk slightly as certain members of the hardcore have moved their support away from adventures and into other genres. This has further hurt adventure games.

But it would be wrong to say that publishers don't publish adventure games. Dreamcatcher Games are a publisher who specialise in adventure games, chiefly via their Adventure Company brand. And in the US, Legacy Interactive and other mid range publishers have made adventures from various TV licenses. What makes these publishers different? The scale of the projects they are signing. They know that to make a profit on an adventure game it needs to be made on a budget which is less than the top range of the industry.

There is an obvious consequence to this... adventure games don't get to be the most shiny and impressive games on the market. But why should this matter? What do adventure game fans actually want from their adventures?

Beiddie Rafól, whose article The Cold Hotspot is linked to from Ron's post above, suggests:

...its essence - the idea of a story and world to experience through interactivity, through a character's eyes, through exploration, obstacles that challenge the mind, and emotions that make the heart race, all combined with the most severe focus on quality, consistency, and integrity. These are the true essences of what makes an adventure, what makes a GOOD adventure, regardless of whether it uploads tradition or breaks from it.

It strikes me that the adventure game crowd shouldn't need the top budgets to deliver this.

Here at International Hobo, we've been talking for some time about adventure games, and we've had several ideas go through the process which could have been adventure games. We even worked on some projects - like Tale of Tale's imaginative modern fairy tale 8 (which sadly is in the development hinterlands and will probably never see the light of day) which were new approaches to adventures. I remain confident we will still work on more adventure games which will make it to the publisher - there's some interest in a project preliminarily entitled Echoes, which I really shouldn't talk about publicly at this time.

The thing we have remained confident about is that adventure games are part of the niche market, not part of the mass market. It may be that a particular future evolution of adventure games would hit the mass market - but we can't go there directly. Broken Sword: The Sleeping Dragon tried this. It was a valiant attempt. But it cost too much to make. (I have great respect for Charles Cecil, and I'm not criticising Revolution's attempt to bridge the market with this game - somebody had to try, and if anyone could have done it, it was probably him and his team).

I thought Ron was thinking along similar lines to us when I read his The Economics of a 2D Adventure in Today's Market but when I asked him about it, he let me know that it was a thought experiment, and not something he was personally pursuing. Given that Ron likes to work with a team in the same building, and he's in California (I think), this isn't surprising. But what he proposes strikes me as viable - if the company developing the games is in Eastern Europe, or India, where the development costs are lower. Low development costs means we can hit a smaller audience and still make a profit.

Among the ideas I'm thinking about right now includes producing a general 2D adventure game engine and getting a lot of classic adventure game writer-designers (I think I know or have at least talked to most of them now) to create adventures using common resources, and (a related concept) an adventure game sequence in the style of a TV show. A series of adventures, written by a varied team of writers, but using the same core graphics and engine. Just as a TV show has a format, these adventure games would have a common format. Each episode plays for about  2 hours. I guess we'd sell 4 episodes per disk, and/or offer them for paid download individually (with the pilot episode free), with the initial plan for an 8 episode sequence. These are niche market plans.

There is a definite issue to consider in respect of difficulty. We see the core of adventure game players as correlating with our Type 2: Manager cluster (we didn't expect this - it came out of the ?research we ran as an unexpected result). This cluster seems to enjoy challenging puzzles - they don't seem to mind how tough the challenge is, as long as the solution is logical (and it's nice if there is help to advise you when you are off-track). But the story element of adventure games could also appeal to the Type 3: Wanderer cluster. These players seem to enjoy stories, and don't care so much about challenge. So there are two clear paths - challenging adventures which appeal to Type 2 players, and story adventures which appeal primarily to Type 3 players. What we'd like to find is a middle path between the two... if this is possible.

We can't blame publishers for not wanting to make adventures in the mass market, but we do need to re-energise the niche market so that we can grow the audience for adventure games. It's even possible that we could grow it into the mass market - on paper, it's a possibility. Adventure games aren't dead. Like the legend of King Arthur sleeping magically inside a hill, they are merely resting.

Settlers of Catan: The Versatility of Elegant Design

The Settlers of Catan is one of those games that never quite goes away. True, we go through phases of playing it frequently, and we equally go through phases of not playing it at all, but it's one of those board games, like Mah Jong (BMJA rules, preferably), which never goes away entirely from my life. I think we've been playing it for ten years now. What strikes me, however, is that the way that we play is probably quite different from the way other people play the game - and indeed, that part of the beauty of the game design is that it so readily lends itself to different ways of playing with just a slight tweak to the rules.

The rules as they are written, the spirit of Klaus Teuber's original game, is a highly agonistic, competitive game. Resources are short relative to the number of players (in four player games), and so there is a cut-throat competition to expand or die. This suits the playing style of a lot of different players, and with the potential to be played strategically or tactically, the game has the potential to appeal to anyone for whom Type 1 or Type 2 play is enjoyable.

However, a few trivial changes, and the game suddenly becomes a less hostile, more amiable play experience, suitable for Type 3 play (and either way, because it is a board game and therefore inherently participatory, there is potential for Type 4 play - although we find our modified form is generally more welcoming to a wider variety of players).

The key differences to the way we play are two meta-rules. The first of these is a common house rule, 'burning', which allows you to take back roads or settlements at the end of the chain for a refund of half their resource value. Thus, dead roads can be 'moved' at the cost of half of the resources. I picked this house rule off the internet near the beginning of my time playing the game, and it has stuck. It lets off some of the agonistic pressure, as you can make changes after the fact, and it eases the stress of first road placement, because you don't have to worry about 'dead' roads.

Plus, the burning rule increases the availability of resources, thus making the game play faster. Anything you can do to increase the income and circulation of resources speeds up the game pace, and the second house rule we play with is to eliminate or alter the role of the robber. In the standard game, the robber shuts down the production of the hex it is placed on - it's inherently a competitive (agonistic) element. Change this element, and you produce a friendlier "more Type 3 Wanderer" game, plus you can increase resource production thus making the game flow more easily.

The classic meta-rule we have preferred is to play with the Market, which replaces the Robber. When a 7 is rolled, the player who rolled it gets to trade one card with a pool of five known as the Market. At the start, this is one of each resource. In the early game, the wood and brick often go (depending on the layout of the map), in the later game, sheep, wheat and ore get taken. Either way, trading with the market tends to help most of the time. And because it replaces the Robber (which blocks production), resource acquisition remains evenly paced.

Last night we experimented with the placement of the robber adding one extra resource production to the hex it was placed upon, when that hex's number is rolled. This worked fine, for the most part, but it was still disappointing to roll a 7, because what you want in this game is more resources to build more things, and a 7 means no-one gets any new resources.

I think next time we'll play, we'll make it such that on a 7 you can place the Robber wherever you wish, and when a 7 is next rolled, the hex the Robber is on produces. (Then, you can move the Robber elsewhere, if you wish). Less of a bandit, more of a Migrant Worker, perhaps - when you place it, you are choosing a future payout. "Come to my country, Migrant Worker, and farm sheep for me."

It speaks highly of the elegance of the core design of this game that it is so resilient to change. That we can play it for ten years, and although the core mechanics have remained unchanged, we continue to enjoy tinkering with the meta-rules and so forth to change the way the game plays. In part, this is because the core mechanics are so perfectly abstracted - they contain only what is needed to support play, nothing more and nothing less. This is the epitome of elegant design; it is also what we call tight design - all included elements support the core concept. (It should be noted that the expansions do allow for greater variety, and we are fond of Seafarers of Catan, but the basic game is still perhaps the most elegant).

The way our group plays the game is a strange semi-co-operative, semi-competitive game. Each player is building their own independent economy, but there is some considerable interaction with the other players - both in terms of trade, trade pacts ("I'll help you build roads to that port, in return for free use of it on your turns"), agreeing amicable solutions to land disputes ("I'll build away from your coastal road if you let me settle on that mountain") - and the occasional territorial 'war' when someone decides to act against the common interest. It is not the standard highly competitive game - and I think that these days I would struggle to enjoy to play the game in that way. But the way we play works for a highly diverse set of play styles, and I have not yet found a player who hasn't been able to enjoy it this way (even if the staunchly Type 1 players would greatly prefer the outright bloodshed of the conventional rules).

It is a testament to just how good the core design for this game is that it offers such versatility. I welcome and invite comments from other Settlers of Catan players about their house rules, and the nature of the play experience with those rules - especially when those house rules have been used to 'soften' the competitiveness of the experience, thus making the game more welcoming to more diverse players.

The Joy of Ilinx

Very little has been written about the ilinx (vertigo) of video games, despite the fact it is an increasingly potent force in popular games. Ilinx is a category of play (identified by the noted sociologist Roger Caillois) associated with the momentary destruction of perception. It can be the vertigo of speed or of spinning, or it can be the intoxicating allure of petty destruction - of stomping on a sandcastle, for instance.

Caillois identified four patterns of play across all cultures, and described ilinx as follows:

Ilinx. The last kind of game includes those which are based on the pursuit of vertigo and which consist of an attempt to momentarily destroy the stability of perception and inflict a kind of voluptuous panic upon an otherwise lucid mind. In all cases, it is a question of surrendering to a kind of spasm, seizure, or shock which destroys reality with sovereign brusqueness.

The disturbance that provokes vertigo is commonly sought for its own sake.

In our study of the gaming audience, we didn't find any particular pattern to the appeal of ilinx (although in our next major study, we will be examining audience patterns in respect of all four of Caillois' categories). It seems that a little ilinx goes a long way to enhancing mimicry, but it can also contribute to heightening the tension of agon (and therefore presumably deepening a fiero payout when one achieves victory in vertiginous situations).

An example of the former occurs in any games with the illusion of speed, such as Need For Speed and 1080... Indeed, I am particularly enjoying 1080 Avalanche at the moment as a mimicry experience, and the sensation of high speed movement (which never takes away from your degree of control) really heightens my enjoyment of the game. The degree of challenge (so far) has been low, so here is a game which is primarily delivering mimicry with ilinx, with agon a secondary concern - perhaps a conscious choice to swing the other way after the disappointing Wave Race: Blue Storm, which abandoned the mimicry of the N64 version in favour of deeper agon. A shame... Wave Race 64 remains to this day one of the most beautiful examples of game environments, proving that poly counts are not the be all and end all of graphics.

The latter case - vertigo enhancing agon - is more tenuous, as most games (Space Harrier not withstanding) can only achieve vertigo through mimicry; the game must simulate moving at high speed to induce vertigo states. However, games such as F-Zero GX (which I'm also playing at the moment; Richard and I are working through it in our weekly games evening) are much more agonistic in nature than 1080 Avalanche (at least what I've seen of 1080 so far). However, the fiero payoff of winning a race in F-Zero is surely enhanced by the mad breakneck speed dash for the finish line - a few seconds of total consciousness destroying vertigo, followed by victory - the fiero experience is smoother... it's not fiero of overcoming frustration, but fiero enhanced by adrenalin (which is surely a common element of the ilinx experience).

However, this is only part of the full scope of ilinx. Returning to Caillois' description of ilinx:

In parallel fashion, there is a vertigo of moral order, a transport that suddenly seizes the individual. This vertigo is readily linked to the desire for disorder and destruction, a drive which is normally repressed... In adults, nothing is more revealing of vertigo than the strange excitement that is felt in cutting down the tall prairie flowers with a switch, or in creating an avalanche of the snow on a rooftop, or, better, the intoxication that is experienced in military barracks - for example, in noisily banging garbage cans.

It has taken me some time to fully process the consequences of this aspect of ilinx in the context of video games, and I'm disappointed that the penny did not drop until after the manuscript to 21st Century Game Design was submitted. (Still, we might make a second edition, and if we don't, there will be other books in the future). This aspect, which might be called destructive ilinx, correlates with the reckless abandon that is allowed by a game such as Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas (which I'm also playing at the moment, with friend and co-worker Neil - although not very rapidly).

It's my opinion that one of the reasons that the recent Grand Theft Auto games are so successful at tapping into this side of ilinx is that they are not wholly realistic... The tone of the games are realistic in some senses, and certainly are successfully mimetic, but there is an unreal quality. This is real, but it is also a game. That empowers the player to, for instance, go on a murderous killing rampage, and laugh as they do it. I do not believe there is anything morally wrong with it, and the unreal quality of the game assists this.

For instance, there is something pleasing about parachuting out of an airliner, touching down in front of my family home, mowing someone down with a chainsaw, and then standing there and watching the neighbours pass by and make comments about what just happened as if it was the most natural event imaginable. This doesn't strike me as an appeal to realism (a mimicry experience), but as a destructive ilinx experience - as is smashing up every piece of stone architecture in Rygar (which I'm also playing at the moment...).

Part of the success of the recent Grand Theft Auto games is that they touch all bases (a product of their not inconsiderable budget, in part, but also the sign of a team who work well together). For instance, they deliver agon, mimicry, ilinx and even alea (gambling, dynamic conditions). But the ilinx elements of the game should not be underestimated, because when a game can make a person laugh dynamically (that is, without a narrative set piece) it's tapping into something deeply human. The "game realism" (versus absolute realism) constantly tells the player "this is only a game, follow your impulses"... it allows for a guilt free release of destructive ilinx. Those who attempt to do GTA in realistic tones should think twice about their approach.

It should also be noted that you don't need to be violent to appeal to destructive ilinx. My beloved Katamari Damacy (which I'm continuing to play with my wife - we just discovered comets...) is built upon the ilinx of rolling things up - you are destroying the environment, but not in an overtly violent fashion. Some adults scream when you pick them up, but most children laugh - it's good natured chaos, not bloody carnage, and as the tiny narrative elements underline, no-one gets hurt. And again, it can make you laugh, especially when you pick up (say) your first cat, or you become big enough for people to run away from you.

I'm not against agon in games, there will always be a place for it, but the supremacy of the Type 1 Conqueror play style (which has, to some extent, taken over from the once dominant Type 2 Manager play style) means that it is often overemphasised. Games don't need agon, per se, and can survive on the slightest drop of agon, provided they deliver in other areas - such as mimicry, and as we have seen here, ilinx.

The joy of ilinx is reckless abandon... it can be the vertigo of speed, or of wanton destruction; it need not be violent, but it is always irrepressible - the temporary abolishment of conscious thought. And video games are a wonderful place to explore this category of play, since one can give in to ilinx in a game, and nobody gets hurt. Well, at the very least, nobody real. I believe we will see more and more of it over the coming years.

God=War: Revenge of the Scrolling Beat 'em Up

Finally got a chance to see the much hyped God of War last night. This game generated a lot of enthusiastic chatter among the Hardcore communities, but I notice it charted (in the UK) at Number 5 in its first week, beneath Cricket 2005, Destroy All Humans, Medal of Honor: European Assault and (at number one) Juiced - all of which had been in the charts for several weeks already. This is, without a doubt, not the sales performance Sony had hoped for, but it is possible that like Need for Speed Underground 2 it will gain sales volume after release. I doubt it though.

We looked at the demo for the game... I had certain expectations for it on the game design front, but never in my wildest dreams did I suspect that what it would be is an old school scrolling beat 'em up like Golden Axe (the game which infamously introduced it's villain as "Death=Adder"). Now it's a very impressive (read: expensive) piece of work, I'll grant you, but one has to wonder at the logic that lead to its creation. Here is a game which (as far as I can tell) has only Hardcore appeal, with a maximum audience of, say, 2 million units. Sony don't need to be courting the Hardcore in the way that, say, Microsoft and Nintendo need to right now, so was this a prestige title that was never intended to be a big seller, or is it a strategical goof by Sony? It's hard to say.

What I can say is that anyone for whom Type 1 Conqueror play is tolerable (i.e. anyone who can tolerate challenge being shoehorned in at every angle and, quite likely, a lot of fail-repeat gameplay) will probably be able to really enjoy this game. It offers some Type 2 puzzles and a certain degree of Type 3 experience too (with its expensive animations), but it probably can't hit a diverse audience because it's basically a linear hack-and-slash game - it looks like you must complete everything to progress. As I say, you'd better have a lot of tolerance for Type 1 play (a great thirst for challenge and fiero) and be content with moderate "ultra violence" or you will not be able to enjoy this game.

It doesn't seem to have much (anything?) original to offer on its design front, but on the other hand, I'm arguing that AAA products like God of War should be about refinement and not innovation. And that's what it certainly does - it refines the formula of the linear scrolling beat em up into a slick and polished package. I just suspect that whatever SCEA's system for determining what their prestige titles should be is flawed...

I reckon SCEA have gathered extensive data on the gaming audience, and by the gaming audience, I mean to say that they have gathered extensive data on the vocal Hardcore. Which is to say, they have gathered extensive data on Type 1 Conqueror players (the audience currently targetted by an awful lot of games) and determined to continue to target them. Perhaps it's a strategy with a multiple pronged approach - after all, EyeToy targets another audience entirely (primarily the audience which correlates with our Type 4 Participant cluster). But God of War shows a certain cyclopean vision in respect of its potential audience.

The ancient Greek setting is a mixed bag as well... I'm sure it works for a lot of Hardcore players, but it's hard to transition that appeal to the mass market. It appeals greatly to me personally - I'm playing Rygar: The Legendary Adventure at the moment, and we had a game called Gods & Monsters based around this setting which sadly will never be made; the concept document is on our website. Gods & Monsters was primarily targeting the Hardcore, and would have been on a much lower budget than God of War, and thus had the potential to be profitable (and, hopefully, a satisfying and unusual play experience too).

Unless God of War was made to placate Hardcore fans and keep them loyal to Sony (probably a pointless exercise), I don't quite see the business sense in the game. Still, some players will be very pleased with it, and that's nice for them, and there's a good chance it will more than break even, in which case no harm done. But I have to say that in all honesty, Sony can surely do a better job of reaching out to a wider audience, if they want to.

On the plus side, HMV is giving a free DVD of the classic Ray Harryhausen stop motion monster flick Jason & The Argonauts with every purchase of God of War - I doff my hat to the retailer for that stock clearing tie in. I wonder if God of War has anything as wonderful as the skeleton fight sequence at the climax of the film?

Five Flash Games

I really am reliant on other people for finding interesting Flash games, so I'm going to try and link to all the people who helped refer me to the five I'm going to mention here at the end. Also, I make no claims to be in the forefront of discovering Flash games, so many of these have been around a while.

Ant City

This is a very short but highly entertaining piece of work, and the first Flash game I saw which I wanted to tell other people about. It made me laugh (it still does) and that's always a good sign. It's pure toyplay (sandbox play) and lacks goals of any kind, although it does have an end.

A Murder of Scarecrows

Although I find this game rather impossible to play and enjoy, it is a truly beautiful example of black and white animation, and well worth a look. (You'll have to follow the links, then select 'Play' to see the game itself). Some people have apparently been able to enjoy it as a game, so it may have appeal to some audience - for me, I enjoyed it as a work of art.

The Crimson Room

This Japanese mini-adventure has a wonderful visual style to it which I found utterly engaging. It's also an exceptionally difficult Type 2 puzzle. This strikes me as the sort of puzzle that cannot realistically be completed by most lone players - it warrants co-operation between a community of players as they discuss what they have found and work towards a solution. I got as far as the short film before I had to turn to a walkthrough in order to ascertain the final obscure steps required to complete it.

Chaos Theory

A simple Japanese Flash game in which you try to detonate a series of balls by clicking just once, and letting the chain reaction do the work. The more you try to find a logical strategy, the worse it seems you score. The best approach seems to be to attempt to percieve the whole pattern of the balls, then click at the place you intuit as the optimal trigger point. I can get in the low 140's on a good run; anything above 100 is a good result.

Himatsubushi ("A Waste of Time" or "Killing Time")

Another Japanese Flash game... It's a very simple but pleasantly diverting experience in which a grumpy sprite tries to steal your arrow cursor from you by a number of entertaining means. It's very short, but quite memorable, with pleasing animation.

I can't help but notice that 3 out of 5 are Japanese in origin...

With thanks to Tirade, collision detection, Jay Is and Jonnie Bryant at Take 2.