Friday, November 20, 2009

Lessons of Game Design: Social Contracts and End-User Creativity

Today we have a guestblog from John Evans, please enjoy it!

For those of you who might not know me, my name is John Evans. My father is a computer programmer, and my mother a writer and former English teacher; being raised by them gave me the benefit of several different perspectives on everything. While I've exercised my creativity through both fiction writing (not seriously enough to have anything published) and software development (seriously enough to be paid for it), the one field that has truly captured my imagination is game design.

People have spent thousands of words debating "What is a game and how do you design it?", but I'll just lay out a couple simple working definitions (along with references, for those intrigued!).

A game can consist of a whole bunch of related materials; a game can consist of artwork, scenarios, levels, prose, all sorts of auxiliary assets to improve the experience. The most important aspect, however, are the rules. Rules are instructions to the player(s). In a sense they lay out a social contract; The game designer is saying to the player, "If you follow these rules, you will have a valuable experience." Even 'valuable' could mean many different things, from 'fun' to 'engaging' to 'educational' to 'tragic' to 'cathartic.'

Stepping back for a moment, this description is actually not too different from that of any medium. One could interpret Harry Potter and the Sorc—Philosopher's Stone as being an implicit social contract; J. K. Rowling is saying, "If you read this book from beginning to end, you will have a valuable experience."

The interesting point here is that a game designer does not directly design gameplay; a game designer creates rules that they hope will guide the player into an interesting experience. Think of poker for a moment. The rules define how players assemble hands and how they bet money. But nowhere in the rules is "bluffing" defined; that's an emergent property of the game. Because game designers have to work "at a remove," and for that reason it's sometimes called "second-order design."

But then again, that's not too far off from other media. Any work, like a book, has no meaning if it's not read. One could diagram the sentences and map out the plot, but the true meaning comes when someone gets to the end of the book and says "OMG I never saw that twist coming!" An author is not creating plot twists for the sake of plot twists, an author is designing the experience they wish the reader to have.

Now for another game topic; How are rules enforced? In a computer game, the software is the sole arbiter. It's impossible to fool.

Game: You need a key to get past this gate.
Player: But the fence is only waist-high. Can't I—

Games played with other players are, sometimes, slightly more flexible.

Dungeon Master: You need a key to get past this gate.
Player: But the fence is only waist-high.
Dungeon Master: The fence grows up out of the ground until it is too high to climb. And it's covered with, uh, grease.

Actually, that was a rather silly example. Here's a more serious one:

Black: Okay, I want to move my queen like a knight.
White: That's against the agreed-upon rules. You forfeit your place in this chess tournament and I get the $1000 prize.

The social contract takes on an added meaning in multiplayer games. The players assume that, by entering into the game, they all agree to follow...whatever rules have been agreed upon.

That's not to say that rules are immutable objects. How about this example:

Nought: I move in the top left square. There's only one space left for you to move, and when you do, the game is a draw.
Cross: Okay, instead of moving, I erase one of your earlier moves.
Nought: You can't do that! We didn't agree to it!
Cross: But it might be cool, huh?
Nought: Okay, let's start another game using those rules.

Aha! Two players can play tic-tac-toe with whatever rules they like, because they agree to it. There is nothing that says the rules are completely inviolable. If you break the rules of tic-tac-toe, the world doesn't end, civilization doesn't crumble. You just might have to resolve the issue with your opponent...or you might not have anyone to play with!

Now, remember when I was talking about computer games, and I said a computer is "impossible to fool"? That's a lie. A computer game is defined by a program running on a computer. The information making up that program can always be changed, creating a "modification" (or mod). Some very famous games started out as mods of other games.

Over the years of games being modified, many game developers have started building in facilities to let modders easily change the game assets or code. Modding is often encouraged, as it gives the player community something to talk about and another way to enjoy the game.

Ultimately, I believe that the creativity of the players will become more and more important in computer games. For many games, the experience of playing them is a creative act. And with mods, the players have a growing ability to pursue the type of experience they want to have. Just think of it; soon we might see a Final Fantasy game where you could skip to the end if you wanted to play through it first!

Of course, you can already do that with books.


Recommended Reading

Game Design: Theory and Practice (2nd Edition), Richard Rouse III — Practical and approachable.

Rules of Play: Game Design Fundamentals by Eric Zimmerman and Katie Salen — For when you want an exhaustive textbook with careful definitions of everything to do with games.

Chaoseed Softward — Free web-based games I designed and coded!

Zombies Need Love Too — A free (but you can pay small bits of money for advantages) Facebook game I designed and coded!

Thanks very much, John. Check out his game design blog, Chaos Garden, or follow him on twitter for more tasty thought-food.

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