Monthly Archives: October 2016

Opinion – Resolving the procedurally generated story problem

It’s the little things that count.

A few articles ago I talked about the infinity game and the difficulty in generating compelling story content using an algorithm.  Stories require elements that are difficult to render down into discrete blocks and therefore require much more care and planning to combine than procedurally generated staples like loot or maps.  In this article, I’d like to discuss an existing stepping stone that can help take the load off of story writers seeking procedurally generated content.  Specifically, I’m talking about story infused elements.

Stories develop organically in games outside of the narrative written by the developers.  Even a story barren game like chess inspires amazing tales of clever strategies and narrow defeats.  Terrible games can similarly create developer separated stories, though usually not for any reason developers want them to.  The point is that games create stories outside of the strict confines of the narrative established by the developers.  They do this by providing game elements that players may use to craft tales of interest from.  Players imbue these elements with meaning which they often share with their peers.  This is the entry point through which developers may turn their procedurally generated elements into procedurally generated story elements.  All they need to do is make it easy.

I played a round of Crusader Kings 2 as a cantankerous, militant duke who succeeded in uniting England after a series of bloody battles and rebellions.  At the end of my character’s long reign, I looked to the next generation only to discover that my next in line was a blood thirsty psychopath with zero talent and a number of failed murder attempts on her record.  Under her, the kingdom would surely fragment.  The next in line after the demon child was a brilliant, charming, and incredibly capable woman who was beloved by all.  Should I have my king murder his eldest daughter to let her sister inherit and thereby preserve the kingdom?  Should I step back from killing a child and let her develop unhindered but with the understanding that England would probably fall apart once more?  Such are the stories of Shakespeare and it was mostly generated procedurally.

One of the great things about Crusader Kings 2 is how it imbues gameplay elements with a real sense of narrative and meaning.  Much of what I described (my character’s martial ability, his daughter’s psychopathic nature, her sister’s saintly disposition, etc.) are all numerical elements of the game combined via an algorithm to produce a variety of scenarios.  Crusader Kings 2’s genius is describing these elements in such a way that they may combine to form an intricate story without the developer having to write one.  CK2 describes its procedural generation mechanics in such a way as to create a structure which the player can fill out with their own narrative.  CK2 never told me that the king in my game was contemplating murder, but it gave me all the elements upon which I could hang that tale.

The ultimate goal of procedurally generated stories is to make it possible for games to invent complex narratives without the player’s inputs.  Understanding that developers aren’t there yet, the infusion of gameplay elements with meaning brings in the player and helps reduce the load on the procedural content in crafting interesting tales.

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Opinion – Known and Unknown Puzzles

A prison without walls.  A puzzle without rules.

Broadly speaking, puzzles fall into two categories when dealing with the rules: The ones that tell you about the rules, and the ones that don’t.  Puzzles that tell you the rules provide instructions on how to manipulate the puzzle, but expect the puzzler to combine those moves to defeat the challenge.  Puzzles that don’t tell you the rules make a game of figuring out just what those rules are.  After the player figures them out, the puzzle takes on the characteristic of the known rules puzzle with the added uncertainty of the puzzler being unsure if they’ve found all the rules.  Video games often present themselves as a known puzzle, but later evolve into an unknown puzzle without telling the player.  It is here that frustration lies for the players seeking to understand their favorite games.

…but let’s not get ahead of ourselves.  To understand why the distinction matters, one must understand the differing skillsets needed to appreciate known and unknown puzzles.  For a known puzzle, the puzzle explains all of the relevant rules so that the player can focus on combining those rules to succeed.  Players may discover important rules as they play, but the foundational rules are laid out at the beginning.  For example, a crossword puzzle may say that puzzlers should place answers in the predefined grid that match the clues and the boxes available.  The puzzler later discovers that the overlapping boxes give additional clues about answers the player does not yet know.  Completing a known puzzle focuses on combining puzzle pieces in new ways.  The puzzle makes a pact with the puzzler to ensure that the rules are stable, but deep enough that simply knowing them is not sufficient for optimal play.  Many known puzzle games can, technically, be completed with just an understanding of the rules, but superior play means building on those rules.

Unknown puzzles operate differently, and so require that the play do the same.  Player energy is not only invested in applying the rules, but discovering what they are.  Unlike known puzzles, the tool belt is hidden and the player must discover it before making meaningful progress in the world.  I recently completed a metallic object puzzle where I was told the objective (take it apart and then put it back together), but not how to achieve it.  I latter figured out that I each piece had interlocking pillars that I had to disengage to separate and combine the pieces.  Unknown puzzles make the player aware of their own ignorance and, by doing so, forces them to focus on dispelling that ignorance.  There is no pact between puzzle and puzzler on having a basic set of tools because the player doesn’t start with them.  Furthermore, the ruleset is often less complete than the known counterpart.  The more complex the ruleset is, the more difficult it is for the player to discover.  Unknown puzzles will often keep the rules simple and rely hiding those rules in the wide variety of possibilities to produce the challenge.

Video games start off as known puzzles and end as unknown puzzles without acknowledging the shift they make.  When most games begin, they have a tutorial that lays out the rules of engagement and mission scenarios that walk the player through each new game mechanic.  Players often get to the end of the campaign with a feeling of mastery over the various game concepts and the sense that they understand the game they’ve just played.

…and then they hit multiplayer.

For many deep strategy games, multiplayer is the graveyard of dreams.  Players who dominated the campaign discover that they don’t actually understand anything about the game they thought they knew.  The rules are (often) the same, but players develop and refine them to such a degree that they are unrecognizable from their original form.  This shift undermines the compact that the known games make with the player.  Yes, the rules are technically the same, but they’ve advanced so much in the multiplayer arena that they feel brand new.  New players not only face learning these new rules, but also unlearning the ironclad rules they thought they knew.

The resulting shift can unmake a player’s resolve to continue with a game.  Multiplayer often acts as a freight train where new players can’t even find a purchase upon which to improve their skills.  They go from a secure environment with explicit instructions to a brutal, amorphous world with 13 year olds insulting you because they think cuss words are clever.  I suspect that one of the most common drop points on a game is when the player advances to multiplayer and discovers that they’re learning the game all over again without help from anyone.  Games that want their players to stick around should try to ease that landing and give players a purchase upon which to hoist themselves into this brave, new world.

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Opinion – Theory of gaming social value

A theory of the perception of gaming value

Video games are fake, or so we’ve been told.  Talk to a non-fan about games and you may hear that they’d rather be doing something real rather than spend their days indoors.  The thinking seems to be that video games occupy a lesser tier of activities under things like travel or meeting friends.  Whereas these activities offer inherent worth, video games don’t provide as valuable experiences and, ultimately, lack meaning.  This is silly and, for that, I blame the 80s.

The original sin of video games is that they started off as toys.  Since the release of the Magnavox Odyssey, video games and consoles were designed and sold to kids as something fun to play with.  When the Nintendo Entertainment System caught fire in both homes and the public consciousness, it became the filter through which gaming was view for both the young players and the parents who purchased it.  This vision remains powerful as many people, thirty years on, still view video games as primarily a toy for kids enjoyed by socially unaware losers.  Don’t believe me?  The popular sitcom, Big Bang Theory, relies almost entirely on the stereotypes established during this era.  The characters are the grown up losers of the video game age.  Emotionally and socially, they are still the same awkward kids who played games indoors rather than play football or hang out with their friends.  It is through the perceived contrast of experiences that the idea of the “fake” experience developed.

Notice how games were contrasted with other childhood pursuits.  Games didn’t reflect the childhood of parents who spent their time outside or socializing for want of anything else to do.  To be sure, solitary pursuits such as reading did exist, but none of them were closely tied to the amazing time waster known as TV.  Whereas kids could potentially learn something from reading, TV watching rarely imparted anything of value.  Furthermore, video games did not appear to be a medium that could ever be more than what it was at that time: a toy.  Developers clearly saw their target market as (male) children and made games for that audience.  Both parents and kids only saw content with the philosophical implications of a Saturday morning cartoon show.  For parents (and kids) of the 1970s and 80s, video games were toys (strike one), tied to the TV (strike two), that contrasted to the more physical activities of an idealized youth (strike three).

Gaming evolved greatly during the 90s as the tools, developers, and audience matured.   Every aspect of gaming increased in complexity allowing for great diversity of gameplay and storylines.  Players who continued past the NES glory days enjoyed better developed experiences as their less committed peers sought other interests.  Meanwhile, parents continued to buy games for their kids thereby introducing another generation to gaming.  Unlike the gamers of the 70s and 80s, the gamers of the 90s and aughts enjoyed a more diverse ecosystem of games that gave them offerings as they aged and provided a wider variety of experiences such as multiplayer.  Unlike the previous generation of gamers, the 90s and aughts gamers kept playing games in greater numbers and, if they left, they did so with a stronger appreciation of what gaming could do.

The end result was a bifurcation of the perception of video games.  The parents and kids of the 70s and 80s saw video games as a shallow waste of time only enjoyed by socially awkward adults who never transitioned past playing with kid’s toys.  Gamers became a subset of losers without any particularly redeeming characteristics.  By contrast, the latter generations grew to appreciate video games as a normal part of their everyday lives.  Video games join movies, books, and music as just another medium to be viewed, discussed, and enjoyed.  Ultimately, the latter generations reflect where I believe gaming is headed.  Games will become, if they haven’t already, just a normal part of the collection of ways we interaction with friends, enjoy some down time, or view the great mysteries of life.

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