Death to the Mother Brain
Symposium (2)

Play Spec Symposium

Etbamphora Welcome to the Only a Game Play Specification Symposium!

Several thousand years ago, the Greeks held parties where people were invited to get drunk, listen to music and engage in intellectual discussion. They called them symposiums. The term has also come to mean a collection of writing on the same subject, and also a conference on a certain topic. I hope that this symposium will be closer to the friendly conviviality of the former than modern academic events bearing the name!


In order to participate, you must be familiar with the notion of a play specification, which you will find described here.

The Subject: Shooters

In order to keep this discussion focussed, I am proposing that we constrain our discussions to one particular region of the domain of games. Because of their antiquity and ubiquity, the area I am suggesting we focus upon are those games in which two of the key verbs are move and shoot (and possibly aim as well).

This should include any number of first person shooter games, run-and-gun third person shooters of all kinds, not to mention classic style shoot-em-ups going all the way back to Space Invaders (1978) and Nutting’s Computer Space (1971).

What to do

The purpose of this symposium is to explore play specifications. In particular, because this is a subjective notation, it may be interesting to see any differences in how people choose to notate certain games – but it might transpire that the common areas will be more interesting; we just don’t know yet.

To create a play specification, simply think about all the activities you pursue in any given game and then identify what you do (the verbs) and what you do it to or with (the nouns). Then, list them. Don’t worry about adjectives unless you want to; the nouns and verbs are the important component.

It shouldn't take more than 5-10 minutes to write out a play spec. If it takes longer, you are either overthinking or dealing with a particularly tricky game!

Who can take part?

Anyone! There are two ways to participate:

  • Via Blog: simply post your contribution to your own blog, then trackback and/or post a comment here to let us know.
  • Via Comments: or, if you don’t have a blog, you can just post a play specification in the comments here.

Either way, I’ll bounce them up to the top level here by some means.

When It Ends

To set a framework for this symposium, I will call it complete when we have a dozen participants, or when I give up hope that we will get the full twelve. I encourage each participant to submit as many or as few play specifications as they wish, and not worry about duplication of specific titles.

An Example

To get the ball rolling, here is my play specification for the classic arcade shooter Nemesis/Gradius:

Nemesis/Gradius (Konami, 1985)
Specified by Chris


Move (Stick)
Dodge (enemy shots)
Choose (i.e. select when to power up; Button 3)
Shoot (shots, two-way shots, laser; Button 1/missile; Button 2)


Warp Rattler/Vic Viper (avatar)
Foe (produces a Power Crystal if you destroy a complete set)
Boss (Nemesis, “Bio-nemesis”, Brain)
Power Crystal
Power Meter (the sequence of power ups)

Notes: I decided to put the controls into this play spec, but they should be considered an entirely optional component! I decided to include the verb 'dodge' in this spec, because I feel it's a central part of the play of this game. We could include 'dodge' in 'move', of course, but then something of the play might be lost.


I hope you'll be tempted to experiment with play specifications, and I look forward to reading how various games appear when seen through an assortment of different viewpoints. Thanks in advance for supporting this symposium!


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I feel like there are some things missing, other redundant, but here is my contribution:

River Raid (Activision, 1982)
Specified by Chico


Steer (avatar)
Dodge (enemies, River borders)
Shoot (enemies, bridges, Fuel Tanks)


Plane (avatar)
Jet (enemy)
Ship (enemy)
Helicopter (enemy)
Bridge (checkpoint)
Natural limits (collision map)
Fuel Tank (health)
Squad (lives)
Fuel Meter (health meter)


Acceleration (avatar and enemies)
Speed (avatar and enemies)
Refueling (avatar)
Vertical Scroll (map)

There it goes, my first play specification. I'm not sure it quite captured the experience of playing the game, though, and I guess the Adjectives section might have one or two things out of place...

Well, I've done as is my wont, and specified something thats subjectively semantically a shooter in probably no one's terms but mine.

Sorry, but doesn't seem to support trackback.
Nice work by the by - think this and structural specification could be made into an engine, perhaps an ontology (just a thought inspired in part by the GOP)?

I've done Robotron: 2084...

I also have some suggestions for the verb side of things. :-)

In particular, and this is a bit of rant I've had brewing since hearing Chris Crawford talk a few years ago, there is usually a lot of talk about how "weak" games are in terms of "verbs". I tend to agree on one level, and disagree on another.

Chris Crawford describes first-person shooter games as games where you move, aim and fire. If he's feeling generous...add jump. It's a valid critique, but I think that he misses the point with some "special" verbs.

There are many FPS games where by moving, aiming, and firing, you also: stalk, peek, sneak, tail, ambush, wait, lead, dodge, chase, flee, hide, strafe, etc.

I'm proposing that we call these: tactical verbs. Tactical verbs reflect, and attempt to describe, the intentionality from the part of the player. As such, they need to be understood in the context of what is going on in the game. (they could also be understood as an interpretation of the actions observed). They are always executed by different combinations of the basic verbs (move, shoot), but they are done as a means to a (probably) short-term goal.

I propose that many games, while similar in their basic verbs, are different in the tactical verbs they afford. It is in many ways the sum of the tactical verbs that describe the experience of playing the game.

Jose, good point. A verb without context and/or intented purpose is probably insufficient.

Take the FPS example of jump. Am I jumping over a pit of spikes (precision, direction important, may take my time) or randomly jumping during a firefight to make myself a harder target (precision, direction less important; orientation important, perhaps timing important).

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