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21st Century Game Design Printed

According to Jenifer at Charles River Media, the book has finally been printed - and she says it looks really nice! Hopefully the merger with Delmar won't delay us getting our copies for too long.

Richard and I are off to London this week for Games Market Europe (the post apocalyptic version of ECTS)... our mission: to tempt publishers into publishing our "verb games" by offering them a business model they can't refuse. It's an interesting situation: can we make simple, fun and unique games with an artistic bent in a commercial context simply by playing the game of business well?

Also on the agenda, more IGDA events than you can shake a stick at (and I am quite an advanced stick-shaker) including a Chapter Co-ordinator's lunch, another Game Writers SIG gathering and a members only party when it's all over.

No idea if I'll be blogging while away, so enjoy the silence!

DGD2: How Do You Play Games?

The principle of demographic game design is to improve the chances of games in development meeting the play needs of players by studying and understanding how and why people play games. This improvement will also serve to stabilise the business side of games, making the financial success of a game less of a coin toss. Both seem like worthy goals.

I had seriously expected our DGD1 audience model (see our book for details), which describes the play styles of video game players in psychological terms according to a statistical model, to last only about a year or so before being replaced by the DGD2. 'DGD', incidentally, stands for 'demographic game design'. The thing with audience models is they don't reflect big-t Truth, but rather capture a snapshot of statistical patterns. In principle, at least, there could be any number of them - each revealing a different aspect of how and why people play games. What a tremendous boon to game design it would be if there were! Sadly, apart from us at International Hobo, Nicole Lazarro, and the MOG community such as Bartle and co. at Terra Nova, no-one else seems to care.

However, we are working towards DGD2. At the moment, I am looking at Temperament theory as the basis for DGD2 (DGD1 being based primarily around Myers-Briggs typology). We used surveys for DGD1 - not very accurate, in my opinion, but since the data model is statistical, you have to trust that some of the irregularities smooth out once you have enough data; we may have to use case studies alone for this next model. Applying Temperament theory in case studies has been very illuminating, and it may be that the DGD2 research will have to be entirely by case study. That being so, we might need more allies to make it happen, as I doubt we have the resources to gather enough in situ data on our own.

A brief discussion of Temperament theory may be required. In short, this is an attempt to provide descriptive patterns of emotional response and activity. There are many such models, for the same reason there can be many audience models in the game industry. I've followed in the Kiersey school, even though I was underwhelmed with Kiersey's early work (well, with Please Understand Me), but I have connected better with his former student, Linda Berens. The Temperaments in this set are Guardian, Artisan, Rational and Idealist. I'm going to steal from here:

The Guardian
(Logistical Skill Set)

The Guardian's core needs are for group membership and responsibility. Guardians need to know they are doing the responsible thing. They value stability, security and a sense of community. They trust hierarchy and authority and may be surprised when others go against these social structures. Guardians know how things have always been done, and so they anticipate where things can go wrong. They have a knack for attending to rules, procedures, and protocol.

The Artisan
(Tactical Skill Set)

The Artisan's core needs are to have the freedom to act without hindrance and to see a marked result from action. Artisans highly value aesthetics, whether in nature or art. Their energies are focused on skillful performance, variety, and stimulation. Artisans tend to be gifted at employing the available means to accomplish an end. Their creativity is revealed by the variety of solutions they come up with. They are talented at using tools, whether the tool be language, theories, a paint brush, or a computer.

The Rational
(Strategic Skill Set)

The Rational's core needs are for mastery of concepts, knowledge, and competence. Rationals want to understand the operating principles of the universe and to learn or even develop theories for everything. They value expertise, logical consistency, concepts and ideas, and seek progress. They abstractly analyze a situation and consider previously un-thought-of possibilities. Research, analysis, searching for patterns, and developing hypotheses are quite likely to be their natural modus operandi.

The Idealist
(Diplomatic Skill Set)

The Idealist's core needs are for the meaning and significance that come from having a sense of purpose and working toward some greater good. Idealists need to have a sense of unique identity. They value unity, self-actualization, and authenticity. Idealists prefer cooperative interactions with a focus on ethics and morality. Idealists tend to be gifted at unifying diverse peoples and helping individuals realize their potential. They build bridges between people through empathy and clarification of deeper issues.

Now it is worth mentioning at this point that the four patterns above exist to differing degrees in all people. So if I happen to talk about someone "being a Guardian", what I really mean is that person's primary temperament pattern corresponds to Guardian. Indeed, in general it seems that most people display three of the patterns to varying degrees, and a general absence of one pattern, but this is an informal observation.

In terms of applying Temperament Theory to games design, it is the skill sets associated with each of the temperaments above which are of particular interest. So, without further ado, let me summarise where I'm at right now - with the disclaimer that this is not me attempting to publish our research (which is ongoing), but rather it is me writing up informally the notes I currently have, based on the case studies and observations of the last six months or so. I'm working towards the hypothesis which will guide the next round of research right now - that is my current focus - although it may be that I just end up reporting on the case studies.

I'll now go through the four skill sets, and what we've observed in players who use these skill sets when playing games.

The Logistical Player

The logistical player has the most patience for carrying out the same activity over and over again. However, this tolerance presupposes that the problem will be identical (or nearly identical) each time, so the player can gradually optimise towards a solution. Making or implementing a plan of action is appealing, provided such a plan is about getting the right things to the right places at the right time i.e. a logistical plan. There also may be some draw to trading and shops.

Players preferring this style tend to be cautious - they do not throw themselves into the action often, preferring to take small steps and see what happens. They also tend to be meticulous, with a good attention to detail. They are willing to jump through the hoops the game sets up for them, as long as the game is meeting their other needs, showing a greater tolerence for the rules and procedures of games than other players.

In summary:

  • Drawn to optimisation, planning, trading
  • Behaves with caution, meticulousness
  • Tolerant of repitition, rules, procedures

The Tactical Player

The Tactical player is not generally drawn to making a plan, but instead prefers to be given a single character and thrown into a (possibly complex) situation where there options are clear. They like to think on the spot, improvise with what is on hand, and excel at machine control (such as driving). As a group, they have the greatest skill with machine operation (although a Logistical player can learn much through repitition, especially in terms of learning racing tracks, for instance).

Naturally competent, the Tactical player has little patience for being arbitrarily constrained. Because of their natural ability, they enjoy taking (sometimes unnecessary) risks, enjoy rushing around at high speeds, and are good at filtering out signal from noise. Indeed, most machine operation games are about filtering signal from noise, and the Tactical player is perhaps the most tolerant with noise in this context.

  • Drawn to improvisation, operation, controlling single characters, thinking on the spot
  • Behaves with impulsiveness, competence
  • Tolerant of risk, speed, noise (in the 'signal to noise' sense)

The Strategic Player

The strategic player is a natural problem solver. Give them a puzzle, they will solve it. Give them a problem, they will devise solutions. They excel at thinking ahead - they may lack the Tactical player's competence on the spot, but they can compensate by anticipating and neutralising problems through the development and implementation of clever plans. These strategic plans are not like the mechanical plans of the Logistical player, but more like schemes that attempt to take into account multiple contingencies.

Logical and efficient, the Strategic player can be something of a perfectionist, often wanting to either master or complete the games they play. Some Strategic players want to know they have mastered the strategic skills of the game; some are satisfied with gaining complete knowledge. More than any other play style in this model, the Strategic player can handle high degrees of complexity.

Most game designers tend to display Strategic skills, and indeed the skills used in playing games in this way are almost certainly an asset when building game designs, which are effectively strategic plans for implementation.

  • Drawn to problem solving, hypothesising, controlling multiple units, thinking ahead
  • Behaves with logic, perfectionism
  • Tolerant of complexity

The Diplomatic Player

The skills of the Diplomatic player tend to be interpersonal, and as such most games (not counting MOG games) do not provide a chance for those skills to be employed. However, the Diplomatic player has a gift for abstracting problems, and as such can be a skilled problem solver - albeit in a somewhat different manner to the Strategic player. Intuitions rather than strict logic may guide their decisions. They seem to enjoy harmonising an environment; bringing accord out of discord.

The Diplomatic player appears to have a gift for letting their imagination lead them - few situations are so strange that the Diplomatic player cannot connect with them. Although they have little tolerance for poorly written game characters, as they tend to behave with empathy and morality, and want to interact with characters with whom they can empathise. They want to co-operate - either with other players, or with game characters that they empathise with. 

Although story-driven games are a particular appeal, especially those with a very unique identity, the Diplomatic player's desire to experience the new and unique lends them a capacity to enjoy quite abstract games. This tolerance of impressionism allows them to play and enjoy games that the Logistical or Tactical player would find too strange or too abstract.

  • Drawn to harmonising, imagining, co-operation
  • Behaves with empathy, morality (their personal morality)
  • Tolerant of impressionism

And that's about all I have right now. These patterns are not fully refined - I need more case studies in order to see how everything fits together. And it's doubtful that any kind of survey will gather any data applicable to the DGD2 model; it's probably going to be case studies all the way. We are thinking, however, we might be able to build or collect a small set of Flash games, and record how the player plays them as the basis of a DGD2 test, which is an exciting prospect.

We could potentially express DGD2 play styles in terms of the sequence of preferences, to create four letter codes e.g. Logistical-Tactical-Strategic-Diplomatic = LTSD. The fourth letter is implied, of course, so LTS might suffice. There would be 4x3x2 = 24 different patterns overall, if this approach proves viable.

Do you recognise yourself in one or more of the patterns I've described above? I would be particularly interested in comments describing how these patterns do or do not describe how you play games (although I'd also love guidance from anyone fluent in Temperament Theory as to the theoretical side of this new model).

For myself, I am primarily a Strategic player, with good access to Logistical skills, and some of the motivations of a Diplomatic player. What I lack is Tactical competence. I can play vehicle games, because I can learn the tracks or courses (Logistically), but I do not have the capacity to act on the spot spontaneously. I need time to think. This is probably why I don't do very well with multiplayer FPS games, although I can enjoy playing them with people I know - and especially in co-op modes (akin with the Diplomatic style).  I have fast reactions, though, so I can implement a plan efficiently, which allows me to play many different games. Although I have the Logistical skills, I often don't enjoy Logistical play... it's something I can put up with in order to make progress. I am often driven by the Strategic desire for completeness, and sometimes find myself doing repetitive (but easy) actions in order to meet this goal. My entire gaming life can probably be described as a gradual shift in emphasis from Strategic play to Diplomatic play. Perhaps this is the influence of my wife, who is primarily a Diplomatic player with Tactical skills (and who seems to wholly lack Logistical skills).

I'd currently describe my play as Strategic-Diplomatic-Logistical-Tactical (SDLT or SDL).

So much for my skills. What about you?

Disclaimer: the above does not necessarily represent the DGD2, but rather the current state of the research that will eventually result in the DGD2.

Grey Market Blues

We, the people who pay for games software, should be able to buy our game media from any region of the world (as we can with the handheld Nintendo systems) and play those games at less total cost than that of purchasing a second (or even a third) console which is essentially identical to the one we already own.

Yesterday, my PS2 died. It just stopped powering up, and its little red power light gave out a weak repeating blink… I immediately went out and bought a new snazzy slimline silver PS2, which is so small and cute it makes the GameCube I own look like a titan, and the Xbox I don’t own look like Galactus.

The death of my PS2 was especially sad as this was a chipped PS2. Yes, I owned a PS2 with a modchip despite the fact that these are illegal in the UK. What is more, I intend to purchase another one – if I can find a way to do so. But I am not a pirate, nor do I have any interest in piracy. By way of explanation, here is the full text of a rant entitled ‘Free the Grey Market’ that used to be on the ihobo website several years ago.

Free the Grey Market

The grey market... broadly speaking it consists of die hard gamers getting modchips for their consoles in order to play imported games. But the modchips also allow them to play pirated games, which is something the console manufacturers are keen to stamp out.

As I write, a landmark court case in Australia sees the ACCC (the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission) going to war against Sony. Sony wants to prevent consumers playing Playstation 2 games they have bought abroad - the ACCC claims there has been a violation of various consumer rights and Australian cartel laws.

Although I would broadly agree with the argument that the regional encoding of games is against the best interests of the consumer, and also concur with the ACCC's assessment that the legality of regionalisation may be suspect, there are issues beyond the consumer's freedom of choice that are worth considering.

In particular, one must bear in mind the plight of consumers from countries where English is not the first language (which covers almost the whole of Europe, with a few obvious exceptions). The cost of localisation into other languages is non-trivial, and indeed forms part of the reason that the large publishers end up delivering content to Europe last.

Without a framework for regionalisation, there is a risk that Europe would become flooded with product from the US territory (since many European gamers speak fluent English) making it unlikely that publishers would then choose to invest in converting to other European languages because the market would be undercut with imports. This is detrimental to both the publishers and the casual market across Europe as a whole.

None of this excuses the publishing world's attitude to the grey market, which largely consists of loyal, hardcore gamers with a willingness to play great (and obscure!) games regardless of which language they are presented in. Nintendo should be careful about engaging iconic hardcore gamer havens like London's Computer Exchange in legal battles over imported consoles. Why impede early adopters acquiring your console as soon as they can? These people are the emissaries for new console formats who collectively can add more to the positive public perception of a console format than any ad campaign, albeit in a behind-the-scenes and largely immeasurable way.

All of these issues would be resolved by simultaneous releases across all territories, which would largely remove the need for regional encoding. But of course, this is an expensive business. There were good reasons that the cinema industry chose to test the water in one region before another, principally aimed at saving the cost of releasing a film expected to bomb after it has failed in one territory. The games industry has simply followed suit.

Another solution might be to separate the encoding functionality into a copy protection element and a regional element. This would remove the publishers complaints that modchips are aimed at piracy and allow for a chip that only overcomes regionalisation. Such a chip would be far less contentious, but could only result from a dramatic change of attitude to the grey market and this seems extremely unlikely at the current time.

By releasing an official 'all regions' adaptor to the consumer market, console manufacturers (and retailers) could gain additional revenue for selling the privilege to accept products from all territories. The majority of consumers would be unlikely to bother with the extra expense, whilst the hardcore gamers would have freedom of market choice for a reasonable fee. This seems a vastly superior solution to the 'brush it under the carpet' approach that has currently been applied.

Prohibition scenarios never stop the activity they are targeted against, they just drive it further underground. The only way to separate black market piracy from grey market globalism is to cater for the needs of the global market in a mature and responsible fashion. It remains to be seen if this can be achieved.

In the end, the Australian courts decided that modchips were in the best interest of the Australian people – because otherwise Australians would hardly see a fraction of the games being released elsewhere in the world. I was so relieved to hear this, because in the UK modchips are now completely illegal, and those of us with a legitimate use for them have been hung out to dry by the legal system. At least one country’s courts are willing to stand up for their people.

It is not reasonable that I am expected to buy an identical piece of hardware to the one I currently own just to play media from another region. Sony already makes money when I buy an imported game (the publisher still pays a platform license fee whichever country I buy it in) – they don’t need to charge me an extra $149.99 for another PS2 when I have already paid them for that hardware.

I am willing to pay a fee for an ‘all region adaptor’. Are Sony willing to make one? Because if they aren’t, then I say – we will modchip them on the beaches, we will modchip them on the internet… we will modchip them until they stop screwing us around.

If Sony want to stamp out piracy then they must first legitimise the grey market. The ruling in the UK is unjust, and places the needs of the corporations above the needs of the people. It should be overturned. But I have no idea how to even begin to do so.

Should We Share Game Designs?

There is an issue on the fringes of the game design world which will doubtless come more tightly into focus at some point in the future. Should we share our game designs? Or should we continue to keep them to ourselves? Over at Lost Garden, Danc makes an impassioned plea towards design sharing. He argues:

  1. That game designs are merely a starting point. Which is generally accurate. Although it does depend upon the quality of the game design, and the skills of the game designer. It is certainly the case, as Danc suggests, that two people beginning at the same concept design will not end up with the same game.

  2. Unique mechanics are almost never copied. Which is partially true. It is the case, as far as I can tell, that no-one has ever copied a unique mechanic that didn't first make it into a released game.

  3. You can learn more by sharing than by hoarding. Which is true... but obscures the point.

  4. Two copy cats doesn't mean anyone is stealing. This point is not quite as well developed as Danc's other points, as the premise and conclusion differ. The conclusion that two similar games will not win or lose out in market terms based upon design issues because production values are more significant is a more key point than the fact that the zeitgeist often produces similar content. But both are valid points.

So I broadly agree with Danc... and indeed, I have suggested to other members of my team that we might consider sharing some of our concept designs with a wider audience. But why haven't I?

It's this sticky point number 3, I'm afraid. You see, Danc is right when he says:

Most people are absolutely horrible game designers. Your game design could probably be dramatically improved by talking to other skilled designers. You have dramatically more to gain by sharing than by hording.

Which is spot on. Except, let's presume I'm not an absolutely horrible game designer. I'm actually one of the best game designers in the world. Let's say I'm at number 97 in the Top 100 Game Designers in the world (and, to be honest, I'd be lucky to make it in to the bottom of the table!). Which means there are 96 better game designers out there, but what are the odds that I will get feedback from those? [Note: the assertion above should absolutely not be taken literally!]

I have had one major brush with "open design". While working for Perfect Entertainment, I tried to lead an open design project with other employees of the company for a hypothetical RPG project. This experiment was a dismal failure for the following reasons:

  1. Most of the people were absolutely horrible game designers. They were amazing artists and programmers - but they didn't know a thing about designing games.
  2. They all had different play needs, but couldn't express them. The only way they had to express their needs was to look at what they were playing and enjoying and then suggest copying random elements they enjoyed in those games, regardless of how this would fit in the proposed project.
  3. Discussions on the design slowed progress to the rate of an asthmatic ant. We couldn't agree on anything, so nothing got done. Eventually, I was forced to abandon the attempt.

Now I appreciate that this situation is not the same as posting a design to a blog or wiki and then taking comments and contributions. But as a general rule, democratic game design or any other open game design process is a slow process, one with plenty of drag, and one that does not necessarily produce better results.

I still believe the role of the game designer is to co-ordinate the development of the game design. That is to say, the development team are making the game, the game designer is a facilitator who uses their skills to manage the design process, and to anticipate and prevent as many problems as possible. The more people the designer has to co-ordinate with, the harder this process becomes. In a large project, the game designer must deal with heads of departments rather than individuals - with the lead programmer and artist, for instance, rather than all programmers and artists.

If I wanted to explore open design (and I am tempted!) I would want, as a game designer, for the open discussion to be treated as another department. I could not shoulder the time responsibilities for the discussions, so I would need a 'lead diplomat' to deal with the comments and input from outside the project. I don't know where I would find the money to employ such a person, but if I had an existing game series I was continuing to develop for, there would be a certain obligation.

Why wait until the game exists? Because most people are absolutely terrible at envisioning a game from its design documentation. In fact, so awful are people at doing this, that we don't bother showing design documents to publishers any more (until there's a demo to show as well) because there really is no point. I might as well hand them a papyrus scroll in Egyptian hieroglyphics and tell them that we had found the game design in the Temple of Akhenaton.

If I were to publish some of the designs we're working on at the moment and invite comments, I suspect I would end up spending most of my time teaching people the design philosophy and methods that we use here at International Hobo - if only to explain why certain elements of the design are the way they are. I'm sure I'd learn a lot too, but I doubt it would be commensurate to the drain on my time. I'm content instead to keep regularly visiting Universities and giving guest lectures to students of game design. I learn a lot from these, especially if I can go out drinking with the students afterwards. I think it's a better use of everyone's time.

I support open game design. I think what Danc is doing at Lost Garden is fantastic, and I support it to the hilt. But I'm not quite ready to try it myself.

Designing Rewards in Games

Assuming we have built a game with a core activity that the player enjoys, how do we keep them playing, and what makes them stop? It's all about the rewards the player experiences, and the manner in which those rewards are structured.

What sort of rewards can the player experience? Without attempting to define a taxonomy:

  • Currency rewards: the acquisition of a game resource that can be spent represents a fairly universal reward system... giving the player shops to spend currency rewards can be effective, provided there is plenty in the shops to choose from. (Note that the shop can be a 'meta-shop' - it need not be a literal shop in the game world).
  • Rank Rewards: like currency rewards, but ratcheted - the player gains benefits from acquiring points towards an eventual step up in rank. The classic example is level in a class and level RPG, although in video games, Elite's (entirely cosmetic) Rank system demonstrates that a Rank reward can motivate even without mechanical benefits. A draw for Type 1 Conqueror and Type 2 Manager players if expressed in verbal terms, but if the 'Rank up' is accompanied by sufficient fanfare its appeal can be more universal.
  • Mechanical Rewards: such as increases in stats that the player can feel the effect of. Highly motivating for many players - but the mechanical increases must maintain relevance to the play. Effective for Type 2 Manager and Type 1 Conqueror players in particular.
  • Narrative rewards: a little narrative exposition is effective for certain players as a reward. A cut scene can be a bigger reward than dialogue - when used well. But overlong or irrelevant cut scenes quickly become devalued. Effective for Type 3 Wanderer and Type 4 Participant players in particular.
  • Emotional rewards: related to the above, but applicable when the player feels they have done something for someone in the game. Animal Crossing's present giving, for instance. A draw for Type 4 Participant players.
  • New Toys: anything new that can be experimented with is a 'new toy'. Although primarily a mimicry reward, there may be mechanical benefits of well - a new weapon in an FPS is a new toy with mechanical rewards, for instance. Especially of value to Type 3 Wanderer players.
  • New Places: like new toys, new places are a mimicry reward for players driven to explore (a common drive!). Especially of value to Type 3 Wanderer and Type 1 Conqueror players.
  • Completeness: perhaps only a drive for the Type 1 Conqueror player (or the Rational player), achieving completeness (chasing 100% for instance) can be a reward in itself.
  • Victory: defeating a challenging foe (or a boss) is purely agonistic reward, especially appealing to Type 1 Conqueror players.

The other aspect of how we design rewards is the way the delivery of the reward is structured. Psychologists call these structures contingencies or schedules. I first learned about this from John Hopson's excellent (but nervously delivered) GDC talk Behavioural Game Design, which is also available as an article at Gamasutra. Briefly, psychologists have observed a number of different reward schedules in animals (humans included):

  • Fixed Ratio Schedules: these provide rewards after a fixed number of actions. They produce a high level of activity and are easy to understand, but after the reward is achieved, there is a pause. XP in CRPGs is an example - although the gearing of XP systems is exponential, the intent is that the player is constantly moving up to tougher foes, thus keeping a constant ratio of kills to level. Hugely addictive to Type 1 Conqueror players, they can work for any play style - if the rewards are right.
  • Variable Ratio Schedules: these provide rewards after a random number of actions - like a slot machine. You keep putting in coins, because at some point it will pay out. These also produce a high rate of activity and interest, but they tend to block exploration - as the player will stick with the reward schedule until it is exhausted, or until they burn out on it. Effective with all play styles - but burnout is always a risk. They are inherently aleatory, and may appeal less to Type 1 Conqueror and Type 4 Participant players.
  • Fixed Interval Schedule: that is, a reward is provided after a set amount of time. This provides better control over the rate of reward, and comes with the same post-reward pause as a fixed ratio schedule. Indeed, pauses are inherent to fixed schedules of all kinds. An example is the new items in the shop each day in Animal Crossing - the player comes back on future days to see what's new.
  • Variable Interval Schedule: like the variable ratio schedule, this produces a steady rate of activity with no pauses - but its not as intense as the variable ratio schedule, because players quickly learn that their actions are independent of the reward. Good for encouraging a player to come back to certain places in a game, however, if a reward appears in certain places 'at random'. Again, they are aleatory and hence may not appeal to all Type 1 or Type 4 players.

In general, ratio schedules produce high rates of activity - "the more you do, the more you get". Variable schedules produce constant activity - "everything has a chance of reward". When these combine, (variable ratio schedule), the player will eventually burn out. Conversely, fixed schedules create a pause - which needn't be a negative matter. To keep a player's interest in a CRPG, the 'pause' after gaining a level frees the player up from the treadmill of leveling up to go and carry out other housekeeping activities in the game. (If the player levelled up with a variable ratio schedule, they could rapidly get burned out).

These elements - types of reward, and the schedules upon which they are delivered - form a framework which maintains a player's interest in the game they are playing. The more complex the game, the more different rewards and schedules for the delivery of those rewards are required to keep the player involved. A simple game can be built upon a single schedule.

All of this comes to a head in how and why the player stops playing. Pauses allow and encourage quitting - players are constantly evaluating the very next thing they can do in a game, and if their level of interest drops below the draw for another activity, they stop. If this happens through burnout, they may not go back - the gamble with variable ratio contingencies - but if they stopped because of the pause after achieving a sufficiently large reward in a fixed schedule, they will likely come back. In this regard, one must be careful that the rewards themselves maintain at the very least a constant (and at most an escalating) level of reward.

Of course, the best case is that just playing the game is inherently enjoyable to the player - that the core play is its own reward (when the core play is a flow state for the player). Still, even when this is so, the player is likely to stop playing when 'they have seen everything'. This is when multiplayer elements can extend the play window of a game, of course, by providing new rewards - provided the player happens to be motivated by agon (like many Type 1 and Type 2 players).

If one creates a game which is inherently fun for the player, an exponentially structured fixed ratio schedule can be sufficient framework to keep playing - such as the monuments in The New Tetris (which are wholly cosmetic, and equivalent to Rank rewards). For some reason, this structure seems to work better than other schedules for a high level framework. Interval schedules lack the connection with player action, and variable schedules only work until the rewards are exhausted. But diehard players of The New Tetris routinely reset the monuments and start over again, with little loss of interest. Perhaps it is the exponential gearing which drives the appeal, pulling the player forward by gradually increasing the jump to the next reward.

If you have ever wondered why games with poor game mechanics can still entertain players, it is perhaps because many poorly designed games are at least easy to play - and if they provide rewards according to a reliable schedule, they will entertain. As long as they keep providing rewards. Good game mechanics can aid a game by eliminating rough edges and inconsistencies, and some players (those who fit the template of our H1 and H2 clusters in particular; those with access to the Rational temperament) are actively drawn to elegant game mechanics - but it is the delivery of rewards, and not the quality of the game mechanics, which maintains a player's interest.

The Wonderful World of Genre

Certain genre terms become so widely engrained in our language that we are easily fooled into believing we know what 'genre' means - which is to say, we learn to interpret genre in a particular fashion. In fact, genres are particularly ill defined - genre terms are a class of words which define by inclusion certain instances from certain media. However, the same is broadly true for all nouns - a noun is like a genre term applied to reality. When we use the word 'tree' we refer to those things which we consider a tree - which may include, for instance, plastic trees, virtual trees, some bushes, and even logical trees.

It is no secret that my philosophy is strongly influenced by Wittgenstein. To be honest, this isn't saying much, as Wittgenstein is widely considered to be the greatest philosopher of the 20th century, so many living philosophers claim his influence. Prior to Wittgenstein, much philosophical discussion was dragged down by logical assumptions that simply weren't as universal as they felt to the individuals touting them.

I often summarise Wittgenstein's views by stating "the meaning of a word is how it is used", but this is merely a convenient aphorism. Elijah T. Beaver provides a nice summary of Wittgenstein's views in this regard:

The contention that meaning is use in Philosophical Investigations [one of Wittgenstein's books] is related to his idea of ‘family resemblance’. A family resemblance is a vague grouping of things that are together because of their similarities, but have no one thing in common. The example Wittgenstein uses is that of games; all games do not have one underlying trait in common, but are grouped together under the heading ‘games’ because... he "can think of no better expression to characterize these similarities than ‘family resemblances’." He compares this to a rope; in that there is nothing within a rope that runs throughout the entire length, yet all the tiny fibers woven together are still parts of the rope. The uses of a particular word are much like a family resemblance in this way. Not all the uses of any particular word are necessarily going to have something in common with all the other uses (excepting, of course, that they are referred to with the same word). They will, however, be related to one another in a vague sort of way. This resemblance is not by any means perfect, and so the specific meaning of the word is still dependent on its particular use and not on anything that tightly binds all the uses together under the word.

Elijah adds:

Wittgenstein’s belief that meaning is encapsulated in the use of a word is by no means an exact or all-encompassing idea. It is merely assumed, as are many of his beliefs, to be a generalization that holds true much of the time.

What Wittgenstein says of words is particularly true for genres - which exemplify the notion of a family resemblance category, and are inherently resistent to logical definition. Nowhere is this more clear than with genre terms such as "RPG". The diversity of views as to what constitutes an RPG is vast, and attempts at logical definitions fail because the term is overloaded - it refers to both tabletop RPGs and CRPGs, for a start. But, in point of fact, what tabletop RPGs have in common (collective storytelling) is very different to what CRPGs have in common (formalised and stylised progress mechanics, as an example). Attempts to make the term cover both types of games face an uphill struggle. This is why I and others employ the term CRPG for Computer Role-playing games (or DRPG, as Corvus does, which is presumably for Digital Role-playing games).

But of course, even making this split doesn't solve the problem, as we still have within CRPGs the Western style of CRPG, the Japanese style of CRPG, not to mention Hack styles and strat-RPGs...

Many people, and I have been one of them in the past, are deceived into thinking that they can derive logical categories from what genre terms mean to them - and then apply those logical categories in discussions with other people. Now it is sometimes possible to apply logical categories to words - there are, for instance, logical definitions for measurement terms such as 'metre' and 'litre'. But some caution is advised.

If you investigate measurement terms, you will find that the definitions were originally quite arbitrary - and have only become standardised over time. For instance, the metre was at one point defined as the distance between two scratches on a bar made of a platinum-iridium alloy kept Sevres, France (near Paris). Nowerdays, we define metre in terms of the speed of light in a vaccuum, because we currently believe the speed of light in a vaccuum to be a constant (it may not be, though... we can't be certain with only a century of data).

But genre terms are not measurement terms - they resist logical categories. There is no international standard RPG held in a locked room which we can turn to in order to establish what is or is not an RPG.

Attempts to take family resemblence categories and make them into logical categories can produce quite ridiculous results. Warren Spector once told me that his team insisted that the character in Deus Ex had to have a name that the player could enter because members of his team would not accept it as an RPG otherwise. They believed that if the name of the character was fixed, it would become an action adventure, and cease to be an RPG. I have always found this somewhat ridiculous... Japanese RPG games rarely allow the player a choice of names, but are widely accepted as RPGs, and even in tabletop games the player can have a role assigned, as in the Indiana Jones RPG in which the player plays Indiana Jones.

Successful genre terms (i.e. terms whose usage has caught on), like 'survival horror' which began as a marketing phrase for 'Resident Evil', catch on because they ring true easily to a wide number of people... In some respects, one could say that 'Resident Evil' is the platinum-iridium bar of the genre term 'survival horror'. But of course, which of the game's features one chooses to denote the genre is still open to interpretation - is it a factor of mechanics, structure, or of atmosphere? The answer varies from person to person.

There is a great temptation with words that rely on family resemblence to assume that "majority rules" - that when sufficient people believe something, it becomes true. This is misguided. It would be fairer to say that once a majority definition has crystalised, it is harder to make oneself understood without playing the same language game.

In this regard, it is worth noting that language 'drifts' over time. 'Factoid' used to mean an unverified or inaccurate piece of information. However, more recently it has taken upon a different meaning, that of a brief and somewhat interesting fact. I can already deduce from what I hear on the radio that the meaning is drifting so far towards the second definition and away from the first that it is only a matter of time before the second definition - currently seen as a 'usage problem' - becomes the de facto meaning of 'factoid'. Eventually, the original definition may disappear entirely (or at least, become categorised by lexicographers as an 'archaic' meaning).

In social and behavioural sciences, the terms 'emic' and 'etic' are used to distinguish between the persepective of the individual (emic) and the perspective of the observer (etic). Robert Anton Wilson was the first person I read who was writing about 'emic reality' versus 'etic reality' - that is, one's personal reality, versus the (strictly hypothetical) reality that exists outside of our perceptions. (For shorthand, I think eMic = my reality, eTic = "True" reality). We assume etic reality is out there, but we can never know it - except through our perceptions, from which we form our own emic reality.

So many arguments occur because people assume that words (and genres) have a meaning that applies in etic reality - but words only have meaning in our personal, emic realities. It just so happens that, by chance and the channeling effect of media and culture, our emic realities are sufficiently close that we can communicate meaningfully - most of the time.

We are all free to make and use whatever definitions of words (and by extension, of genres) we wish - although the extent to which these words and genres overlap with other people's definitions will vary. No two emic realities are the same. We should feel free to invent genre terms on whatever grounds we wish - with the understanding that other people may not accept these terms, and that if they do not, we are unlikely to be able to convince them. It's all part of the rich pageant of language which is the substructure of each of our private realities.

The Neurotic Game Designer

We all have our own unique neuroses, whether blatantly apparent, or unexploded madness. Mine have always been fairly self evident, such as my obsessive tendencies, and in my role of game designer, they even serve to assist me in some respects, although I have to remain ever vigilant that I remain in control of them, because given an opening they will start a coup to gain control of me.

In terms of my job, this isn’t a problem – what client is going to worry that their game designer or writer is working too much on their project, especially given that I am always working on a fixed fee basis, not by-the-hour? In terms of my life, however, I am eternally grateful for the support of my wife, who has acquired the dubious burden of ensuring that my obsessive tendencies do not swallow me whole.

One thing that has beset me my entire life is a swing between two extremes of demeanour. On the one hand, total arrogance  – the inevitable belief that I am the greatest game designer that ever lived, that everything I do is marvellous beyond all measure, and that my brilliant research in game design is unsurpassed, and will probably make my name live beyond eternity. On the other hand, crisis of confidence – that I have no talent whatsoever, that nothing I have done is of any artistic or commercial merit, and that my research is merely the deranged outpourings of a diseased mind.

I try to steer my ship between the two shores.

In terms of game design, I generally deliver the goods. I am especially proficient at mechanical design, for which I have a natural aptitude, and it is perhaps a great shame that I have ended up in video games where mechanical design is less of a factor in a game’s success. If I’d been born twenty years earlier, I might have founded the UK version of Steve Jackson Games, and would have been perfectly happy making my board games. Sadly, I missed the boat.

Despite my game design competence, I still doubt my abilities more than is necessary. Anxiety from other areas of my life impresses a certain degree of universal doubt upon me… For instance, despite a postgraduate education, a genius IQ test score (the test that measures… your ability to complete IQ tests), a happy marriage to a beautiful wife, and a company of my own, I still have trouble doing things that most people take for granted – like falling asleep at night without some form of distraction, remembering faces, or (in one severe instance) crossing the street without being run over.

On the plus side, this mildly intrusive anxiety drives my obsessive attention to abstracted systems, which serves to benefit any game project for which I am involved in, especially during the tweaking stage. (My staff, however, may have a different story to tell of this…) I have become quite adept at juggling interconnections and mathematics in my head, such that I can usually intuit how to repair unbalanced mechanics. The trouble is, I don’t often know when to stop.

For instance, on Ghost Master, the mechanics were balanced to hold up over a much longer game, but the implementation of the levels took such manpower that we weren’t able to make the game that long. I was so focussed on getting the mechanics ‘right’ that I failed to spot the games’ biggest commercial problems – that the elimination of micromanagement hurt the Hardcore appeal, and consequently the fiero payoffs for the game (which lie in achieving the Triple Pumpkins) were out of reach of many of the games possible evangelists because I had removed the potential to apply logistical skills reliably. I did it intentionally too, because at the time the audience model I had didn’t see the importance of the logistical play style to the commercial success of games. I had become too obsessed with the mechanics.

How many people, for instance, care that the power set and the costs of upgrading the ghosts was balanced to within an inch of its life, when the publishers failed to market the game and the Hardcore failed to propagate the game by word of mouth. The 90% review in PC Gamer magazine (US) vindicates the game design, perhaps, but still, the game languishes in obscurity, another curious oddity in the history of games.

I have poor luck in this regard. Discworld Noir received average 90% reviews in Europe – but the publisher’s US parent company (GT Interactive) went bankrupt and we never got a US release. Still, I do run into Europeans who loved the game, which is nice. I fear it has aged badly, however, although the script still has a certain charm. It helped that I had a good editor…

However, one area that my skills with abstract systems and mechanics has served me well is in simple designs. One activity which I carry out relatively frequently is the “Three Hour Game” – in which a new table top game is created in three hours or less (sometimes with the help of other people to produce the components). It’s a great game design challenge, and I recommend it to anyone getting into the field.

When you first start making Three Hour Games, you inevitably borrow a lot of concepts, because you don’t have time to be wholly innovative. You tend to quickly give up on boards, because they are too slow to make, and can’t be changed very rapidly. It soon boils down to a core set of flexible components – I keep around more than a thousand blank Dutch ivory board cards, some large sheets of thin cardboard (in case a board is needed), a bag of dice (all different kinds – polyhedral, exponential, colour coded…) and an assortment of counters. Making Three Hour Games soon comes down to conceiving the verbs of the game, and then instantiating the nouns of the game into the components I listed above.

The oldest surviving Three Hour Game that is still played is Legends, which I believe was made five years ago in Knoxville, Tennessee, with my wife and the man who married us helping with the cards. It co-opts an auction mechanic I originally designed for a game called Star Fleet Officers, which won a game design competition (when I was in my early twenties) and was going to be made into a board game by Task Force Games. Then the UK branch of the company shut down. See what I mean about the poor luck? Still, the auction mechanic works great in Legends, and I’m happy that it has survived.

I have a vast library of board games I have made, but none that I have published because to do so requires funding, and the potential returns just don’t justify it. We got close with Discordia Incorporated (the game design Non-Profit Organisation that I ran for a while… we published three tabletop RPG systems)… Discordia was a bit like Cheap Ass Games – except they had the balls to see it through. Cheap Ass’ most famous game is probably Kill Doctor Lucky – Cluedo meets the Ladykillers (which reminds me, I really should get around to watching the Coen brother’s remake of that at some point… the original was on TV here just the other day, and remains a masterpiece).

Although it is not impossible that I will sell myself into corporate servitude at some future point (I cannot predict the effect raising a family will have on my future self), for the time being, I am not so interested in the chance to work on the expensive game projects. I’d rather work on games that are like the Three Hour Games – simple, focussed and fun.

We are looking at the moment at making what I have dubbed “Verb Games”. In a sense, this could be seen as a genre nucleated by Katamari Damacy (and originated, perhaps, with Pac-Man). These are games whose core formulation is expressed in simple verb and noun relationships. In the case of Katamari Damacy, the formulation was Roll -> Absorb -> Grow. Takahashi-san then made sure that the game didn’t drift away from that formulation by ensuring that they added no unnecessary nouns, such as power ups. My hope is that our “Verb Games” can capture some of the innovative style of Takahashi’s game, although we are going to be trying to do it on a very thin budget.

That’s the fun, though – smaller projects on cheaper budgets have more freedom to be creative, and I’m really enjoying seeing the ideas we are coming up for them. The neurosis is still there, though. On the one hand, what we are doing is sheer creative genius/insanity (delete as applicable) – but on the other, are we going to be able to persuade a publisher to sign up for that? I must continue to chart the course between the two shores… on paper, it looks profitable, thanks in part to our development team being based in India and so offering a substantial cost saving. All we need is a publisher willing to explore what could turn out to be a profitable new approach to the low market.

As Bruce Feirstein said, the distance between insanity and genius is measured only by success.

PS: I'm trying on new names for my blog. Let me know what you think.

Story, Plot & Narrative

Defining the terms story, plot and narrative in a form which reaches some form of consensus could well be a useful step towards advancing discussion about story/plot/narrative in games. Until we have commonly agreed terms, we run the risk of arguing over terminology instead of solving problems.

Corvus just posted his definitions of these terms in his blog, which I'm not going to quote here on the grounds that you are perfectly capable of following a link on your own. The moment I read his definitions, I knew I'd seen an attempt to do the same somewhere else... A little digging, and I found that it was in one of the chapters cut from 21st Century Game Design. Originally we were going to dig into game narrative, but this ambition was later scaled back, and the chapters cut from the book.

However, I still have the draft, which I've decided to publish here (with the caveat that what I'm quoting here is not my own words, but Richard's, and that this is draft material, not polished and final words):

A story may be defined as a collection of events which, when collated, provide some degree of meaning. A plot is a means by which to collate the events of a story, to allow it to make sense to its audience. Causality is of primary importance here. Characters must have motivation, events must display cause and effect, themes must arise from the elements of the story – or the story will not appeal to human beings.

It is considered assumed that without a good story and a good plot, there is no way that good storytelling will entertain the audience.

Narrative is a term which describes the act of telling a story. A given story with a given plot may still be told in many different ways.  Cinema ably demonstrates this – The Seven Samurai recreated as The Magnificent Seven or Battle Beyond the Stars, for instance. In each movie, the basic story (warriors are amassed to defend the downtrodden; they do so for their own reasons; a proportion of the warriors die whilst doing so) is the same, and the plot (naïve non-combatant seeks out and recruits the warriors in series before amassing them for the final battle) is also very similar. But the narrative (including aspects of setting, cinematography (dictating tone), character and pace) may be very different.

It can therefore be seen, by extension, that stories and plots in video games are much the same as stories and plots in other media (though certain media favour certain types of story and plot, depending on access time, senses engaged, and so forth). However, the media itself, to some degree, must affect the narrative - how the story is told. By telling a story via a video game, the story designer has already accepted narrative challenges unique to the medium.

Okay, so now we need to compare to Corvus' definition and attempt a synthesis.

Firstly, it seems that we are all agree that 'plot' is a description of the events of a story. Secondly, we seem to broadly agree on narrative, although I prefer the definition of narrative above which is about the way a story is told - Corvus' "narrative is everything else" is just a little too woolly for my tastes, although still broadly accurate.

So that leaves 'story'.

Corvus has:

The experiential and emotional progression of the audience while interacting with the media.

I find this both too wide and too narrow. We might relate the story of our day to a friend, in which case the only media is the universe, so terming 'story' specifically in the context of media is probably too narrow.

The definition quoted above, that a story can be seen as a collection of events which, when collated, provide some degree of meaning strikes me as defensible, but may again be too narrow a definition... It doesn't allow for meaningless stories. Should it?

I'm going to attempt to analyse the procesess to see if this sheds any new light...

If we start with a person's direct experience... They experience a series of events, which they process. This is an experience. It becomes a story if they relate it to a third party, by virtue of the narrative they relate. Similarly, if they write it down, it becomes a story by virtue of the narrative they relate. The experiences could have come from the universe, a film, a book or a game.

However, in the case of a film or most books and games, there is also a protagonist character (or characters). Here we don't have direct experience, we have vicarious experience. The person observes a series of events taking place to a protagonist, and have an experience based on the observation of or identification with the protagonist. The story now has a more objective form, in that other people can share the same events - although the individual experience will still be subjective.

From this I would conclude that we don't necessarily want the word 'story' to apply to an individual's experience, as Corvus suggests. The experience of the audience, and the story, need not be the same entity - or rather, every person experiencing the story will have a unique, personal and subjective experience which perhaps should be considered seperately from the story, rather than considering this experience to be the story.

Is this like when you crack open a fossil? You get two pieces - the mould and the cast. The mould is the impression that the fossilised animal left in the sediment. The cast is where the fossilised animal used to be - but is now replaced with minerals. The cast fossil is like the story itself (the shape of the tale) - the mould fossil is like an individual's experience of the story (shaped by the essential nature of the original fossil). The two fit together perfectly, to form one entity, "the story". Except unlike the fossil, in which there is only one mould and cast, for the story there is one "cast story" but many "mould stories" - indeed, every person has their own mould story; their own personal experience of the story.

I'm not sure I have cast any light on this matter... The more I dig into it, the more complicated it seems to become.

Plus, I've just discovered that someone has hit my car, which was sat peacefully outside, and caved in the tail light. Alas, I must stop thinking abstractly about story and start talking concretely to insurance companies...

Round Table Fallout

Wow. Suddenly, a deluge of comments! I'm not sure I have time to do them justice. This is the first time I've come to the blog and seen more new comments than would fit on the recent comments roll. There are so many, a new post seemed the most appropriate response.

Let me start by saying that I have enjoyed this round table - I wasn't expecting everybody to be arguing that innovation was largely absent from FPS games, otherwise I might have taken a different argument. After all, it's not worth an intelligent person's time to be in the majority (according to GH Hardy, at least). :) It was nice to see everyone's different focus on the subject - narrative, mods, business issues; there was a lot to cover.

Anyway, on with the comments...


I do, however, disagree that FPS will advance with new input devices. Well, it may, but only because the industry isn't willing to take the financial risk to explore the other dimensions first.

I completely agree that in principle it wouldn't take new interface devices to bring about advances in FPS games - but in practice...?


But is there really a way to solve this problem without moving back to Doom's dead-ahead camera? Now that I'm used to the mouselook, that control scheme feels just as weird to me on a console. It's a shame, because one of my goals eventually is to build a better library of console FPS games.

You hit the nail on the head here - the complexity has become ingrained, and there are probably only two ways to solve the problem - go back to a fixed camera (like Doom) - but most players wouldn't tolerate this "step backwards", or get a new interface device. I've been wondering if gyroscopic camera controls would work or not... I think I'd have to physically try it to know.


GoldenEye, I think, introduced a fine mechanic where the reticle would jump towards the enemy if you got close enough. Not so much autolock, but definately aim assist. Not a bad compromise between DooM and Quake.

I'm glad you mentioned this - I cannot believe that after Goldeneye (1997) the genre of (console) FPS games threw away one of its key elements - that of auto-aiming. EA freely admit to using Goldeneye as the template for their FPS games, and yet they omitted this crucial feature, which didn't come back until Halo (2001).


I still disagree - would you classify Super Mario Sunshine as having simple controls? You have quite a large array of moves at your disposal, and if you've never navigated a 3D world before, even a single-stick interface is daunting.

Mario Sunshine is at the most complex end of platformer controls... it still doesn't come close to the complexity of console FPS. It's not about 3D platformers having simple controls, just *simpler* controls than FPS games.

I have two points of reference for this - one is a model we call dimensionality of control, which would take too long to go into in detail (it's in the book!) but in brief, count 2 dimensional data (a stick) as 2 dimensions of control; count 1 dimensional data (an analogue trigger; two controls that modify one element, such as a throttle) as 1 DOC, count single controls as half a DOC. I hope the logic behind this is clear. The DOC of Mario Sunshine is 4 (not counting Yoshi control) - one stick, plus four atomic controls - the DOC of most FPS games is at least 8 (twin sticks = 4 DOC, weapon select = +1, 6 atomic actions = +3) and on PC it sometimes goes as high as 13 what with leaning and so forth.

The other is direct observation of players. A new player can stumble through the controls for any 3D platformer - but they often cannot even begin to control an FPS. Try it yourself (if you know anyone who doesn't currently play 3D video games!) It really is quite illuminating!

It is the case that many people struggle with jumping in 3D (I still hanker for 2D platform games...), but this is not specifically a control issue... this point isn't about being able to play well, this is about being able to control the game to any degree at all. As I say, we have found very few new players who cannot at least stumble through the controls for a 3D platformer, but we find many players who cannot even begin to operate a twin stick game.

I do heartily agree that navigating a 3D world is daunting to new players, though. Does anyone know (from player studies, or informal observation) if navigating in first person is easier for people to handle than navigating in third person? I know I find third person easier, but I am not often a good general case.

James again:

I think you missed my point - FPS games are not innovative, but neither are RPGs nor platformers nor whatever.

Well, it's a question of perspective, as ever. I personally see the innovation in the genres you mention. Innovative platform games include tranquility, the flash game N, the lovely Mischief Makers, and (to a lesser degree) Tak.  Innovative RPG games include Disgaea: Hour of Darkness (admittedly a strat-RPG), our own Heretic Kingdoms: The Inquisition (if only for the elimination of the potion economy) and even the hilariously sarcastic ProgressQuest. Well okay, maybe not ProgressQuest. :)

I would agree with you that there are many, many cookie cutter clone games in the genres you mention, but I still see some innovation in the corners. No matter how hard I look, I don't see the innovation in FPS games. As before, however, it may come down to a subjective decision as to where one chooses to place the boundary between innovation and refinement.

James once more:

Is there a reason you omitted fiero? I would think fiero is one of the main draws to multiplayer, overlapping heavily with agon.

I skipped over this because it was a jump in reference. The categories I had mentioned were from from Caillois' categories of play (Agon, Alea, Ilinx and Mimicry); fiero is an emotion referenced from either Nicole Lazarro's Four Keys (linked to Hard Fun) or linked to our Type 1 Conqueror play style. I appreciate I jump around between different systems and models like Mario on amphetamines, so it's hard to keep everything straight at times. Sorry about that. :(

So yes, FPS games are heavy on the fiero (Type 1 players seem to love FPS games, according to our research) - but I was purposefully avoiding language from audience models, because it didn't seem appropriate in the round table. Even referring to Caillois was a bit of a stretch, but I felt it was at least intuitive what I meant in that context.

My thanks to Corvus for setting up this round table - I look forward to the next one!

The Stagnancy of the First Person Shooter

This post is part of the Man Bytes Blog Round Table discussion on the subject of 'Innovation in the FPS Genre', taking part on Thursday 18th August. Like all my posts, it is covered by The Universal Disclaimer.


First Person Shooters are a lot like ammonites. Ammonites are an extinct group of marine animals, related to the modern nautilus. They first appeared about 400 million years ago, and died out around 65 million years ago, along with the dinosaurs, for reasons which are still highly disputed. I used to find hundreds of ammonite fossils in the clay near to where I grew up on the Isle of Wight, and I have on my desk a fossil ammonite with the mother of pearl still intact that I bought in Santa Fe while on my pre-honeymoon with my wife. I have a great fondness for ammonites. But what exactly do First Person Shooters have in common with them?

Although there are many games prior to the 1990s which could be called early FPS games, it is widely agreed that the spread of the modern form was facilitated by the success of Wolfenstein 3D and Doom - and indeed, back in the day the genre was often referred to as 'Doom clones'. In the intervening time, the genre has been subject to some pivotal episodes of refinement, including Goldeneye, which tightened the design of the form and also first proved the tremendous commercial potential of wedding the form to a "realistic" setting, and Halo, which further refined the control mechanism of the console versions, and expanded upon those elements arguably introduced in Goldeneye such as vehicles.

The chief thing that FPS games and ammonites have in common is that despite having been around for quite some time, the overall shape and nature remain largely unchanged. In fact, rather than being a stepping point to diverse and interesting games/species, they seem to represent a comparitively stable and successful niche which for the most part seems to be entirely resistant to change. This is common in biology - it takes quite an upset to unseat a species from a successfully exploited niche, especially when the species in question is comparatively simple.

Simplicity is another thing that ammonites and FPS games have in common. Although their soft body parts generally do not survive, they seem pretty simple in their body plan - a curving spiral of a shell forms the body, and bouyancy could probably be maintained and adjusted through changing the gas distribution inside the chambers of the body. Most ammonites are in fact just a straight line that has been rolled up into a spiral. FPS games are similarly just a straight line, albiet a straight line with some dead ends added such that the player is kept busy "pathfinding".

There's a certain irony in that while FPS games are fundamentally simple in their design and construction, their control mechanisms are incredibly complicated. You probably don't even think about it - because you have likely spent several years acquiring the twin stick control mechanism over the course of playing many different games. But this is the most complex control mechanism currently at use in games, requiring multiple sticks and buttons (or a mouse and multiple clusters of keys) to operate. Only the fact that the control mechanism has remained fundamentally unchanged as the genre has been refined has countered the degree of complexity - but watch new players trying to come to terms with the controls... It's more complex than you might think it is.

FPS games tend to deliver very basic play in two general areas: they deliver agonistic (competitive) challenge, by pitting the player against a horde of generic foes to overcome, usually with very little subtelty. They may also deliver a mimicry payoff (what some would term immersion) by seeming to place the player in a trivially convincing virtual world... a whole new world within which the player may run up and down a straight line (with a few deadends for variety) and shoot things. Or blow them up. But mostly shoot them. Often in the head. The simplicity of their delivery of play is part of their strength - they appeal to a comparatively wide (but largely male) audience because they deliver a very basic, effective play experience. It's the experience of the movie action hero (which is why it sometimes sits rather uncomfortably with the WWII setting - although most players really don't seem to mind) and the linear structure and basic gameplay mean that anyone can work out what they are supposed to do. You shoot everything that moves. Often in the head.

Because the success of the games rests in the simplicity of their form, they are suprisingly resistant to innovation. In fact, it's quite hard to point out succesful innovations in the history of FPS games, unless one uses the term 'innovation' to extend to "micro-innovations", which I would prefer to consider under the banner of refinement. Refinement is not to be undervalued - in some respects, it is just as interesting and valuable as innovation. But when I think of innovation, I think of Mario 64 - a genre defining chunk of innovation, still as copied as Doom, or of innovative commercial failures such as NiGHTS: Into Dreams, or of genre-busting innovators like Animal Crossing. I just don't see anything like this in FPS games.

Perhaps the closest to innovation that the FPS genre has offered is what we might call the Spook House form of story telling, perhaps originated (or at least perfected) with Half-Life. The linear path that FPS games have come to be built upon (after the relative commercial failure of more complicated structures, such as the explorable world used in Turok 2) lends itself to the Spook House approach: the player triggers events as they move along the line. It's like the unconvincing ghost which swings along a wire as you ride the ghost train. Still, it's fun in its own way. But it strikes me as just a refinement from triggering static cut scenes at fixed places in the straight line.

Metroid Prime is worth a mention, since it isn't built upon the linear structure at all, but rather the old Metroid structure (which in fact is basically Zelda structure). I enjoyed it - apart from the tediously difficult bosses at the end - but I can't really consider it to be innovative. The structure has been seen many times before, after all, it just hadn't been used in FPS games. Similarly, Mercenaries: Playground of Destruction can hardly be considered innovative for taking the structure of GTA and wedding it to the FPS. At least Metroid Prime had a go and restructuring the control mechanism into something more interesting (and possibly easier to learn to use).

Then there's the multi-player dimension. Angela Sutherland, one of my bosses when I worked in house at Perfect Entertainment, was intrigued by the programmers' obsession with FPS games such as Quake. Having watched them play at some length (and playing herself on occassion) she concluded that the games were basically just virtual "It" (or "Tag"). And I have to say, I completely agree. The play experience of most multi-player FPS games is an almost complete analogue of the playground game of It or Tag - pure agon (competition) with very few rules or subtleties (doubtless part of the appeal). Counter-Strike may have improved the compexity of the experience by offering roles, but still, the sophistication of play is low. I'm not saying this is inherently a bad thing, mind you. But it is so simple, it's hard to be innovative.

Ammonites probably died out because the successful biological strategy which had served them so well for so long started to unravel when the environment underwent a dramatic change. We may see the same with FPS games at some point in the future. I expect we will, as one of the key draws of the genre is the illusion of "realism", but key play activities - in particular circle straffing - are highly contrived with no basis in reality, as any soldier (or paintball player) can attest. FPS games just don't do a good job of simulating firearm combat in any shape or form... they are instead a highly esoteric game style which we are fooled into believing is "realistic" by tricks of mimicry.

When the innovation comes - and it may come with new interface devices rather than with design advances - FPS games in the form we have come to know and love/tolerate/endure* (Delete as applicable) will probably go the way of the ammonite, driven to the brink of extinction - but still hanging on as a curiosity, like the nautilus, the last survivor of a once hugely successful group of animals.