Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Cheap Philosophical Allegories: The Game Design Atomists

As much as I now disagree with some previous comparisons I've made, I can't help seeing parallels between game design theory /studies and other knowledge branches (and I should study both more before making assumptions). Anyway, I came to the conclusion that some Game Design researchers mirror the Pre-Socratic philosophical school known as the Atomists. As the name suggests, they believed, back in 400s B.C., that everything was made of atoms, indivisible units of matter. As Bertrand Russell observed in History of Western Philosophy, “The theory of the atomists, in fact, was more nearly that of modern science than any other theory propounded in antiquity (…) the atomists asked the mechanistic question, and gave a mechanistic answer” .

There are four projects that, I think, more or less qualify for having an “atomist” approach. The most noticeable are Bernd Kreimeier’s The Case For Game Design Patterns and Staffan Bjork and Jussi Holopainen’s Patterns in Game Design. Kreimeier describes patterns as “simply conventions for describing and documenting recurring design decisions within a given context”. Later, he gives us an example:


Problem: Avoid a dominant strategy that makes player decisions a trivial choice.

Solution: Introduce nontransitive relationships within a set of alternatives, as in the game of paper-rock-scissors.

Consequence: The player is no longer able to find a single strategy that will be optimal in all situations and under all circumstances. She has to revisit her decisions, and, depending on the constraints imposed by the game, adjust to changing situations, or suffer the consequences of an earlier decision.

Examples: The example given by Andrew Rollings is the set of warrior-barbarian-archer from the Dave and Barry Murray game The Ancient Art of War (Broderbund 1984). He also describes Quake's weapon/monster relations in similar terms: Nailgun beats shambler, shambler beats rocket launcher, rocket launcher beats zombie, zombie beats nailgun [28].

References: Chris Crawford (see "Triangularity" in [15]) provided the first explicit description of the use of nontransitive relationships. Andrew Rollings' discussion of examples uses game theory including detailed payoff, as well as informal fictional designer dialogs.

Bjork and Holopainen’s focus is in “studying computer games in terms of interaction, components and design goals with the intension of creating the basis for a common language for game designers. As the basic building block for this language the project uses the concept of Design Patterns, originally developed by Christopher Alexander et al.”. A similar approach to Kreimeier’s, as it can be seen the example I reproduce here:


Description: This pattern is based on the children's game with the same name. It means that players try to outwit each other by guessing what the other ones will do, and by tricking other players to take a wrong guess on one's own action. The original game is very simple; after a count to three both players make one out of three gestures, depicting rock, paper or scissors. Rock beats scissors, scissors beat paper and paper beats rock. That there is no winning strategy is the essence of the pattern: players have to somehow figure out what choice is the best at each moment. This game pattern is well-known with the game design community (sometimes called “triangularity”, see Crawford) and is a mnemonic name for the logical concept of nontransitivity (basically, even if A beats B and B beats C, A doesn’t beat C).
Examples: Quake (relation between weapons and monsters), Drakborgen, SimWar, protogame to show non-transitivity (Dynamics for Designers, Will Wright, GDC 2003)
Consequences: Paper-Rock-Scissors patterns can either be implemented so it choices have immediate consequences (as in the game that gave the pattern its name) or longterm effects. In both cases it promotes Tension, either until the moment when the choices are revealed or until the success of the chosen strategies is evident. A paper-rock-scissor pattern introduces Randomness unless players can either gain knowledge about the other players current activities or keep record over other players behavior, as otherwise a player has no way of foreseeing what tactics is advantageous. If the game supports knowledge collection, the correct use of the strategies allows for Game Mastery.
Using the Pattern: Games with immediate consequences of choices related to Paper- Rock-Scissor usually have these kinds of choices often in the game to allow people to keep records over other player behavior. Quick Games using the pattern, such as the game which lent its name to the pattern, usually are played repeatedly so some form of Meta Game can be used to allow players to gain knowledge of their opponents’ strategies. A common way to implement the pattern for having long-term effects is through Investments to gain Asymmetrical Abilities, either through Proxies or Character Development. See Dynamics for Designers (Will Wright) for an example based on proxies. For this kind of use of the pattern, players can be given knowledge about other players through Public Information or in the case of games with Fog of War through sending Proxies. Allowing players to keep record over other players’ behavior is trivial if play commences face-toface, otherwise some form of Personalization is required.
Relations: Superior patterns are Player Balance, Tension, Secret Tactics, and Game Mastery. Subpatterns are Trump, Randomness, Asymmetrical Abilities, Public Information, Investments, Proxies, Character Development and Meta Game.
Kreimeier, B. The Case For Game Design Patterns, www.gamasutra.com/features/20020313/kreimeier_01.htm
Wright, W. Dynamics for Designers. Presentation at GDC 2003. http://www.gdconf.com/archives/2003/Wright_Will.ppt
Orthogonal Unit Differentiation, Harvey Smith. Presentation at GDC 2003. http://www.gdconf.com/archives/2003/Smith_Harvey.ppt
Chris Crawford. The Art of Computer Game Design

Another similar project is Doug Church’s Formal Abstract Design Tools. Church proposes that a Design Vocabulary should be created, one that can be used to designate design elements. Here is one example:

PERCEIVABLE CONSEQUENCE: A clear reaction from the game world to the action of the player.

Finally, there is also Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein’s The 400 Project, which attempts to “ to write up 400 rules of game design that can be used by designers to make better games. Rules are being submitted by designers from all over, but most of the existing rules were written by Hal Barwood and Noah Falstein.” One example is Provide Clear Short Term Goals, and its description goes:

” Always make it clear to the player what their short-term objectives are. This can be done explicitly by telling them directly, or implicitly by leading them towards those goals through environmental cues. This avoids the frustration of uncertainty and gives players confidence that they are making forward progress.”

All those projects attempt to break down game design into, if not indivisible, basic elements, in order to understand how they work within the bigger framework, combined together – in a similar way to the Atomists’. Kept the “modern science” link, they could provide game design equivalents to the Periodical Table.


pdugan said...

I think theres definetly something to this analogy, and I've been formulating a concept similar to atomic weight that I call "ontological numbering". I've been meaning to post robustly on this for a while, but it'll have to wait until sometime after GDC. Stay tuned.

chico queiroz said...

Thank you for posting, and I will check it out. You could end up listed here along the other follwers of Leucippus and Democritus. :)

Copyright, Chico Queiroz