- Discussion on boundaries of various kinds
- Brief discussion of ontologies
- An exploration of rhythm-action games in the context of exploring whether one must enjoy the basic verbs to enjoy a game.
- Further discussion on the middle ground
- Link to a catalogue of play specifications from this symposium
- Concluding remarks
Discussion (1): Boundaries
Jack is exploring the issue of crediting to a game or game designer versus the contribution of the audience:
It seems wrong to credit the game or game designer with something they
didn't come up with. Yes, it's surely a positive that the game can be
played in a wildly different style than originally conceived, but is
that a proper credit to the design itself?
I can see where you're coming from on this; I confess I hadn't thought of the play specification as affording credit to anyone or anything, per se (although I can see how this might happen). I tend to think of games existing in the head of the player - c.f. paidia games, which are invented by the player.
Take, for instance, the mildly popular sport of Warthog launching in Halo. I don't know much about this 'game', but it seems to consist of contriving explosions to fire the vehicle up into the air as high as possible. This to me is a game - and could be specced. But of course, this is in no way the play spec for Halo: Combat Evolved. Rather, it is the play spec for "Warthog launching".
What this comes down to, perhaps, is how one chooses to read a play specification. I read the play specification as a transcript of a player's experience of play. It's connection to the maker of the game is tangential in this role. But of course, the play spec can also be seen (and produced) as a transcript of the game design - in which case the implications are different.
Perhaps, if the tendency is for people to push past the core verbs
designed by a game's creator, a different label for the project might
resolve the issue? 'Play Specification' seemingly puts the emphasis on
the play, not on the design. That would tend to put people in the "when
I play this game I..." seat, which results in the inclusion of tactical
For me, I want the emphasis on the play and not the design, hence I am happy with play specification as a term, and how the system is working out. I have no problem with people adding additional verbs if that describes how they play and think about that play, if you see what I mean.
But an ambiguity is introduced by the possibility of creating a play spec as part of the design process, of course - as this is in no way a transcript of play. In this case, perhaps what we are producing is an intended play specification.
I find describing a play specification as a 'transcript of play' resolves these problems in my own head; no idea if this effect will work for other people, of course!
One of my guiding design principles is to try and create solid verbs
without dictating HOW (or in what situations) the player will have to
use them. It's difficult at times to strip that expectation out of the
design and I found working on the Thief spec really helped me find some
clearer paths through the process. You know, it also just helped me figure out why I don't care for the
Hitman games. They designed this great core set of verbs and then
structured the game so that you're forced to use them the way THEY
intended. Slippery bastards.
Indeed, isn't this one of the more disappointing experiences: when a game has a great set of verbs at its disposal, but affords no capacity for the player to decide how to employ them? I'm sure certain players are happy with play of this kind: working out what the game design team expected you to do; other players will be frustrated by this.
It shows what happens when the intended play specification enforces itself too tightly, which is almost the opposite side of the coin that Jack was polishing.
And lastly on the topic of boundaries, Matt raises the following point:
...one of your commenters raised the point about games that have
built in the idea of, for example, the player being able to create
ambushes and games which are just open enough that players can create
this kind of tactic for themselves.
I wondered whether this could be subcategorized into games which
were deliberately open ended (and hence made it easier for players to
invent new tactics and modes of play) and game where this happens
accidentally and whether there is any useful difference between them
(or even examples).
I'm just theorizing because I have little practical experience to
offer but I did wonder about the real boundaries that must (since every
game I have come across is finite) exist around that openness, where
those boundaries get drawn, and the impact this has.
Open and closed are terms that crop up often in the context of games, and game narratives, and as such are probably badly overloaded (i.e. a different term might be a better choice). Putting aside the terminological issue, though, I do think there is a marked difference between a game with an open play spec - which is inviting the player to experiment with the application of its verbs - and one with a closed play spec - one which is requiring the player to behave in a particular way.
The trouble is, it's going to be very hard to pry these two states apart in anything other than a subjective manner. Take the game Corvus mentioned above, Hitman. I share Corvus' frustration with this game, but I am prepared to believe there are players out there who thrive on having a more solid framework to work through; players who would consider the Hitman game as being really rather open in its play.
There's also no doubt in my mind that it's harder to develop an open game than a closed game, because one must focus on creating subsystems with the capacity to interrelate in unexpected ways. That doesn't mean it's not worth pursuing, of course!
Discussion (2): Ontologies
On the ongoing discussion of relating ontologies to play specifications, zenBen has this to add:
I originally conceived of using ontologies to define game structure
because ontologies can be parsed and automated by pre-existing plugin
software. Didn't actually do it yet, and I'm undecided as to whether
ontologies are the right tool. But I do think that starting with a
solid game spec would be wiser than implementing player-centred
techniques with an ad-hoc idea of what is happening in terms of play
mechanics. This, I confess, is my major interest in play specs.
I have to agree that in terms of game development, starting with a solid intended play specification is a good way to start. It provides focus. But I don't think we need any formal mechanisms for transitioning from a play spec to a working game. In fact, I doubt that such methods exist - although I would be delighted to be proved wrong!
Each of the basic verbs in a play spec represents a subsystem of varying complexity, and there is probably no way to work from the verbs to subsystems... The only exception to this I can think of would be if someone built a 'gameplay framework' (i.e. a game engine) which allowed the player to rapidly prototype by pulling together a collection of verbs and attaching them to the interface. The trouble with these kinds of idealised systems is usually that they take so long to make that by the time one has completed such a system, the technology is usually out of date! :)
Discussion (3): Dancing
Earlier, I said:
I contend: if you enjoy the basic verbs of an FPS, then the
complexities in the middle ground become your entertainment and hence
To which Jose replies:
I think this varies from person to person, as well as from game to
game. I don't think you have to necessarily enjoy the "basic verbs" in
order to have fun. I wouldn't say that the basic button-pushing of
games like Dance Dance Revolution and Parappa are instrisically
entertaining... (ok, here's a side note, what would a play spec for
these games look like? Would they be remarkably similar?)
What an interesting challenge! Not only do you throw subjectivity back to me, but you give an interesting test case to explore it with.
So what would the play specification of a rhythm-action game look like? Well, I would like to suggest that these games are akin to playing a musical instrument. A notation is displayed on screen (in an animated form, but chiefly only to have a basis for timing response), and a set of responses are expected from the player. In a musical instrument, and in a rhythm-action game related to an instrument (Guitar Hero, Frequency) the different responses produce sounds, but in a dancing game, they produce nothing. (Rather, avoidance of the failure states - i.e. remaining 'in the zone' is the goal).
This is a case in which the individual buttons do not map onto verbs. But that doesn't stop us from having a play spec. Here's one suggestion, based on observation of my wife (who loves these games):
Arbitrary Dancing Game Specification
Specified by Chris
Hit-Beat (face buttons)
Compare this play specification for a wind instrument:
Arbitrary Wind Instrument Specification
Specified by Chris
It's the same, more or less. The enjoyment comes from getting into the zone (entering a flow state) - if one can do this with these games, one can enjoy these games. If not, one can never enjoy these games.
But is this the same as saying that one must enjoy the basic verb of a dancing game to enjoy a dancing game? I'm not convinced by my own argument here. Playing a note on a flute is not by itself fun (well, perhaps the first time - it's hard to get a note out of a flute!) it is being able to play a whole tune that is fun. This is a mid-level experience to my mind.
Similarly, although it is possible to enjoy the basic verbs of a strategy game, most strategy game players are perhaps neutral to the basic verbs but enjoy the play in the middle ground.
Let me therefore revise my earlier statement: the player must either inherently enjoy or at least be neutral to the basic verbs to enjoy the mid-level play. If they find the the basic verbs unpleasant, they cannot enjoy the game.
It's only a slight change from what I said before, but it's significant.
Discussion (4): The Middle Ground Revisisted
For his next trick, Jose goes onto explore the middle ground again:
I'd like to revisit the mid-level verbs we've been discussing and propose another possible term: subjective verbs. I think that we've pretty much agreed that basic verbs arise from
the allowances of the interface (coupled with their interpretation by
the game code). However, mid-level verbs are subjective in that they
depend on human interpretation (plus context) in order to be
understood. They aren't really designed per se.
I think that the subjective verbs are what REALLY provide the richness
and depth to a gameplaying experience. Most FPS games are identical at
the basic verb level, and differ only in the affordances provided by
the gameworld in tandem with the basic verbs.
Let me start by saying that I can't bring myself to refer to these verbs as subjective as it then implies that the specification of the basic verbs is objective in some sense. I don't believe they are; there are many different play specs for any given game, for instance. Choosing different verbs will produce different tones to the play spec. (What fun we've had for the terminology in this middle ground - it seems that I can't persuade you with my suggestions, and you can't persuade me with your suggestions!)
Okay, terminology aside... I'm going to run with personal verbs as my phrase de jour. This should be taken as meaning exactly the same as the tactical verbs, maneuvres, techniques, compound verbs, synthetic verbs, emergent verbs and subjective verbs previously mentioned. :)
We agree that these personal verbs aren't part of the design per se (although the design does facilitate them). You contend that they provide the richness and depth of the gameplaying experience.
I have to pause and think at this point.
On the one hand, the answer is that this is not guaranteed to be the case. In the example of the rhythm-action game we discussed earlier, there is no personal expression, no personal verbs at all; the enjoyment of play comes from the flow state which emerges from the basic process. Many games are like this, but it is not often as clear as it is for these.
On the other hand, it is undoubtedly the case that in both games of mimicry and games of agon there is a satisfaction to be gained from creating new behaviours and activities within the framework provided.
Let me look further afield...
Thinking about Shadow of the Colossus, I find nothing in my play of this game that I need assign a personal verb for. The play of the game is nearly encapsulated in the basic verbs, and the structural specification. It's a very experiential game. Of course, you can counter that I did indeed use personal verbs - I dodged the fist of a colossus, perhaps, or I derived a path to climb. But I didn't get any enjoyment from these things. My personal enjoyment of the game emerged directly from the basic verbs. Another player may well have had a different experience.
Can I find an example of a game that I have enjoyed through the personal verbs of play? Yes. You note that Pac-man has as its basic verb Move (although I would be inclined to identify Move and Eat as two verbs in this game, with Eat being context-sensitive), but I still enjoy this game. I enjoy the "mind games" of trying to outwit the ghosts, although in point of fact there are dominant strategies which avoid this play. (Seems pointless to play without the mind games, though). This is one of the few games which I do have this experience with, although Joust is another, and no doubt there are more I'm overlooking.
I'd be tempted to say that this applies only to games of agon, but I'm certain that if one is attempting to play act in a game that the personal verbs will be at issue, and that would be a mimicry experience. Indeed, the use of an emote command in a MUD is exactly this. And it's certainly the case in tabletop RPGs that the personal verbs are the most valuable part of the play.
Perhaps it is rather the case that in games of intense interpersonal agon, like FPS games and perhaps chess, the personal verbs become more important because everyone shares the basic verbs as a toolkit and it is what the players do with them that becomes important.
As far as I can see, this varies from game to game, and quite possibly from player to player as well (as you said previously). My conclusion, therefore, would be a considerably weaker case than the one you propose - namely that one cannot assume from a simple set of basic verbs that the game is a simple game, as one must also take into account any additional play that occurs in personal verbs. But, conversely, it is perfectly possible for a game to be enjoyable within its basic verbs, or for the enjoyment to occur as a flow state entirely independent of the verbs!
It seems that both of our attempts to express enjoyment of play in terms of a simple statement have failed; all hail the endless variety of play! :)
Play Specification Catalogue
And as a fitting close to this symposium, Jose has generously decided to catalogue the play specifications collected thus far in a corner of the Game Ontology website. You can see the result here.
I want to thank everyone for participating in this symposium. This has been an excellent chance to air out the idea of a play specification in a larger context, and to explore the consequences therein. I have personally found it extremely interesting and engaging, especially since different people have been pulled in different directions as a result of the same content.
I'm taking away a lot of things to watch for in the future, including the distinction between the personal verbs players create for themselves versus the basic verbs provided by the game, possible extensions for play specifications such as 'Enemy specs', and issues relating to how nouns are grouped and what this means to the player.
Best wishes to you all, and of course, feel free to continue the discussions in the comments.