Saturday, July 15, 2017

Operational Logic

Picking up again on design with Noah Wardrip-Fruin, Associate Professor of Computational Media at the University of California.  Please note that I'm not quoting a bunch of hacks who happen to be speaking on behalf of the job they hold with the WOTC or some other game company, but with people who are studying the subject and who are forced to defend themselves to their peers, regularly.  This means that when I'm quoting a point about games, I'm quoting facts, not opinions. I know most of you get that; but it helps to emphasize the point, since before we can move forward we have to settle things in our minds.  We can't keep debating the same points, else we get nowhere.

"... and part of it [the gamer experience] is also a set of computational processes, so we can have the experience of virtual objects being able to touch when we're playing a platformer. Not just because we have a presentation of the game state, which represents meaning a lot like a movie does, but because we have an underlying computational process that supports it.  And these are 'operational logics' ~ these sort of fundamental units of meaning.  Operational logics combine a communicative goal, like virtual objects can 'touch'; with an abstract process, something like 'when two coordinate spaces overlap, do something'; and that supports an ongoing representation of a fictional or real world, or just a presentation of an abstract game space and an ongoing player experience."

 Be sure and watch the whole video, though I think this is the most important part for what I'm struggling to communicate with these posts.  If we want to talk about function, specifically what the game system/game campaign is being designed to do, we need to look at its operational logic, in the same way that a bat hits a ball in a video game.  The operational logic of a system describes how the system does what it does.  Taking the link and retooling the phrases therein for the D&D campaign, we're looking for how the world, the interface that the players, or users, will interact with, enables the player to learn the world's nature and master the world's logic, or pattern, of that world. The player has to be able to examine the world, decide how the world both enables and obfuscates the player's intentions, sorting out the one from the other, which is then followed by the player building a strategy, or a plan, towards that goal to act towards it, as kimbo described yesterday in his comment.

Understand, however, this does not only apply to the game I advocate but to all games, even games where the interface is so difficult to understand that the users interpretation is next to impossible and where practical goals are dismissed out of hand when the functionality seizes up due to poor DMing, DM fiat, DM cheating or what have you.

The immediate question, of course, is how do we do this well?  Where do we start?  This all sounds great, a lot of big, barely comprehensible words, obviously very important since people with important positions and expertise are spewing them out in a steady stream, but how in the hell do I take all this explanation and apply it to the world I am building for my players?

Ah, yes.  Well, here we have plenty of grist for the mill.

Let's take a common experience in D&D and many other role-playing games: combat.  And let's break it down a bit according to its operational logic, on the level of a game like pong.  The player hits the opponent, the opponent hits the player.  Operationally, something happens.  We can think of combat as each participant having a paddle that sends an "effect" back and forth between them.

We want to define the effect, so let's replace the paddles by a circle holding a stick; then let's replace the ball moving back and forth by the sticks waving out and striking the circles, which represent the combatants.

If the sticks hit every time, that's boring.  If they never hit, that's also boring.  We're not representing this on a computer screen, so we're not using the muscles of our hands or our physical reflexes to move the sticks (like we would in a video game), so we replace the "chance" of the stick hitting with dice.

To make it fun, taking advantage of the gambling aspect of dice, sometimes we hit and sometimes we don't.

If one hit kills, that's boring, so let's calculate that it takes multiple hits to kill an opponent.  We could designate that multiple number as "four hits," but we can add another die to the mix so that we're not certain exactly how many hits it will take to kill someone.

Now, if the circles and sticks are static and can't move, that's boring, so let's figure out a way to make them move.

If all they can use are sticks, that's boring, so let's make choices as to what sort of stick they're using.  This will mean special rules for each type of stick, so that the choosing of a specific form of stick matters in someway depending on the situation.  Some sticks are better at a distance; some are better close up.  Some swing faster and don't kill as effectively; some swing slow and are effective killers.

Having only circles to swing at seems boring.  Let's increase the variety of circles that exist so that there are lots of different targets.  And lets require different amounts of chance for killing each type of target.  And let's make some each stick good for hitting different sorts of targets.

And so on.

Operationally, we always want to start at a point of minimum contact; where we can define exactly what happens when A interacts with B.  Then, in different, imaginative ways, we want to build up a host of differently affecting variables that make the point of contact more interesting, without eliminating the point of contact.

When people talk about eliminating combat from their games, we have to ask ourselves, what have they devised that replaces this extraordinary, complex, multi-leveled sorting concept, where uncertain results are differently affected by a series of uncertain, yet measurable strategies?

By and large, the answer comes back, "We're going to replace it with player-DM interaction, supported by guarantees of reward for perceived cleverness, when detected."

This seems very fuzzy.  Where is the point of contact?  What is the principle manner in which the interface of the game works, when the DM speaks to my player character and I speak to the DM's player character?  Where is it measured?  How do we define the perameters of my strategy?  If my goal is to perform a task in the game, how does failure to perform that task occur?  What stipulates failure?  What exterior criterion applies?  Please define success for me in a manner that does not require opinion.

This is where I get lost.  I hit a button and make Mario jump.  I have to hit the button just so if I want Mario to jump at this point in the game and for the point of contact between Mario and the ledge to process within the game's interface.

How does talking Mario onto the ledge work?


  1. Man... that's an awful lot of thinking for silly elf games... {/sarcasm}

    Let's consider a valid concern: how do we apply computational processes - procedural logic, as it we're - to something like NPC interaction?

    Your sage skill rules seem like an attempt to answer this question. Does this mean that we'll never get to a point where we have ALL human interaction mapped for the DM? Makes sense, given how complex we creatures are. Since we can't get to that level of detail, what tools can we identify that will help with improvisation? Without resorting to DM fiat, of course.

  2. I'm not interested in mapping all human behaviour as a computational process. What I find interesting about Wardrip-Friun's agenda is that DM-driven RPGs have already answered his problem; unlike a computer, I don't need my game-managing responses to be pre-mapped. I can interpret and solve each situation immediately and more rationally than a program can, making the complexity of the game I can offer both accessible and adaptable. Wardrip-Fruin is waiting for the next generation to invent a proto-form artificial intelligence, while I already possess the intelligence that's needed.

    What I need someone to invent [and I've said it before] in an interface that will respond to my needs VISUALLY. Rather than having game designers figure out how to bypass me, a few of them might consider augmenting me.

  3. What things do you wish you could see visualized while running the game? And what stuff do you wish you could control with a visual interface?

  4. Maxwell,

    Obviously, the Sims. 15-year-old technology, character facial and body rendering, 360-degree pan in x, y and z axis, ability to make sets and view them in cross section, characters can be made to move without free will, etcetera. We're definitely not talking about something that can't be made.

    And as far as mechanics go, all of the above without any pre-set notions or fixed points of contact between images. We can make everything 100% flexible in terms of user personalization of the experience ~ NO requirements to use a specific combat system, no requirements to use a combat system at all, no limits as to genre of RPG, or pre-set game rule, etcetera. An interface as user friendly as microsoft excel or word.

    Why hasn't this happened? This isn't hard to do, has been done dozens of times, is completely practical in terms of game mechanics and ~ at this point ~ certainly doesn't require a huge capital investment to make real.

  5. Re-encountering this post in 2022 was a bit of a shock. I'm now at UCSC doing a master's under Wardrip-Fruin and Michael Mateas, with my thesis project being exactly the kind of program you and I discussed here, five years ago.


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