Tuesday, July 11, 2017

Lift Your Head; Look Around

To keep up with this subject, I'm looking into all kinds of game-making materials and lectures. Here's a quote from the 2013 GSummit SF, from Will Wright, the creator of Sim City and the Sims:
"Science is the process of taking a huge amount of data, compressing it down into a very, very simple concise set of rules. In some sense, this is what epic gamers are doing; they're looking at the data as they play the game. And it's what scientists are doing as well.  This is a scientist, Scott Diddums [see image on video] ~ he works at the Institute of Standards and Technology. Here he's actually doing experiments in quantum optical interactions and he's doing this to build a more accurate physics model of the way modern physics works.
 "This is Timmy.  He's a toddler at Carolina Day School; here he's playing with little toy magnets, looking at the way they interact.  He's doing the exact same thing, though; he's using this to build a comprehensive world model in physics.  It's an exact same process these two individuals are going through and its actually something that we're born into.  I think its a more natural mode of interaction for us than story, which is something we learn a little bit later."

 We do learn it later, and not just in life, but in the course of human history.  For a hundred and fifty thousand years, the process that Timmy and Scott are going through is substantially built into our wiring; whereas story-telling is a technology developed much later on, after the invention of speech.  And this is the point.  Speech is an invention, by us.  Investigation is a question of evolution: we developed it through mutation.  Think about that a moment and I'll continue with Wright's lecture:
"You know very, very young kids will sit there, interact with the world, start building models through play.  Games, really, in some sense as a game designer, what we're doing is we're trying to build a very concise set of rules that will create a very large set of possibilities for the player, especially the simulation games [speaking specifically of video games].  Now the player is interacting in this large simulation and in that they're trying to reverse engineer our rule set.  They're actually building a mental-model of what they think is underneath the hood of that game ... Games are really just compilers for mental models that we want to put into the player, and depending on how we design that game we can direct what kind of model they're building."

Now take note: we're not wasting our time debating the importance of rules or what a simulation is, or fundamentally the principle that Wright is explaining.  And because I have boundaries on the blog posts, we don't have to get bogged down with discussions about what "story" means or how important it is.

It is a pleasure to see the mechanics of game design described as a given and not as a subject of circular debate.  Every game we play, video or otherwise, that is advanced by rational people, has strict rules that are imposed on the gamer in order to produce a specific game experience ~ and these games sell for fantastic prices and are played for hundreds upon hundreds of hours by the users.  Every game, that is, except for role-play.  Where arguments about the necessity of "rules" have destroyed any development.  And where arguments about ill-conceived rule-notions, such as alignment, which can't be imposed properly without drastically curtailing the player agency that makes the game enjoyable, go on and on.

If you're still looking at role-playing sites for ideas or for direction on where to take your game, stop.  Just stop.  The content that you need is out there, but you have to ditch this RPG ghetto and go looking for it among people who know what they're talking about.


  1. I get tired when people say that "rules aren't important in RPGs". Of course the rules are important, the show what the game is about!

    On this actual series of posts, I think its great that there seems to be lots of useful knowledge from outside the RPG sphere that can be applied within. Thanks for bringing some of that up.

    (If this comment looks weird, I blame my phone, which ate it twice.)

  2. Some of my friends - good friends, but friends who hold radically different views on RPGs - are so insistent on the non-importance of rules to the "game" that I've considered just running long-form improv scenes for them. Or running a "storytelling game" that I found, which makes no bones about the players having limited agency (hey, it might not be my idea of fun or fulfilling gameplay, but at least it's honest about what it is).

    Thanks for writing this post, by the way; one of my players is hoping to become a video game designer, and I feel like this contains a lot of pertinent design-oriented content for both RPGs and video games.

  3. I'm afraid there's little I can say, Fuzzy.

    Hollow, Fuzzy, be sure and vote on the poll on my sidebar this week!

  4. Investigation. That is what draws me so much to all the mapping and hex generation and markets and everything. The possibility of a game space that I don't make up moment to moment, but that I, as much as my players can explore. Where they find stuff to do, and I look at the world and see what changes.

  5. "Games are really just compilers for mental models that we want to put into the player, and depending on how we design that game we can direct what kind of model they're building."

    This resonates with me as the main reason, apart from making a world that I can explore, why I DM and design instead of play. I certainly aspire to put certain mental models of the world into game rules, and then allow players to discover them.

    I don't really find it fun to be the wall, and world building is hard, but the chance to make the world I want to play in is hard to pass up.

  6. Me as well, Samuel. Me as well.

    Be sure you vote on my poll on the sidebar!

  7. A big problem and - let's face it - a big draw to the RPG crowd is that of emulation. And not just the emulation of a certain type of gameplay or stylistic genre, rather, the emulation of all-too-concrete things: I've seen people who've voiced the desire to specifically play out scenes (action or otherwise) and plots as taken wholesale from popular movie and series franchises.

    This desire to hold RPGs as little more than this shallow, derivative "now you get to relive it all in your backyard!" outlet is to me one of the most harmful and enduring to plague the medium.

  8. Drain, I cannot agree more. It's the tagline of all RPG companies, implicit if not explicit: you've seen the movie, now you can live the movie.

    On its own, I find it an acceptable marketing strategy and a worthwhile endeavor. Unfortunately, the attitude has effectively strangled the development of the game into something more.


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