previous posts in this series
If it wasn't already painfully clear, I really am not speaking from a place of authority here. I really don't know if what I'm writing is accurate, or completely ass backward. I'm exploring what I think makes a game a game. These three elements are what I've managed to come up with so far. Feel free to tell me if I'm completely out to lunch.
This is one of those words that can be used very vaguely. Like describing something as artistic, or jazzy. When someone is describing a game and they can't come up with any nuanced description of why they kept playing, they sometimes say that it is engaging. That's really it... engagement is whatever keeps someone playing. It's a catch all. Engagement can come from almost any source. It might be a genuine interest in the game mechanics. How much you like the people you play with. Neurotic compulsion. Flat out, unhealthy, addiction.
Engagement changes a series of random events into a game. This is where the rubber meets the road. Literally. In physical terms, engagement is joining two or more objects, imparting the motion of one on the other. Either object can be the instigator of motion, and they can reverse rolls, but the end effect is that engagement of two objects propels the whole forward. Or backward. The effects of engagement don't need to be positive. They only need to be continuous. If one object repels the other, they are no longer engaged. The game ends.
Engagement, when used to describe game play, means that the player is invested in the game beyond the "fun". Beyond the random. Dice roles are not engaging. Flipping over cards is not engaging. Nearly all card and board games build engagement the easiest way possible... by having you play with other people. Probably people who are your friends. You will play shit that bores you to tears, because you enjoy your friends. In the absence of other people, most video games create engagement by pretending to be other people playing against you. If there was no randomization or the randomization was not obfuscated, the player would feel like they were fighting a game system rather than invaders from... you know... space.
Sometimes that system might be enough. Solitaire is intensely engaging, but the mechanics and the randomization are outright blatant. Not obscured at all. For me the engagement in solitaire comes from the brevity of the game... one round tops out around 10-12 minutes, and the rapid fire reveal of the randomized cards. Every flipped card could change the whole game, and you are flipping one of those buggers every couple seconds. Aside from games like poker or backgammon that let the other players engage you, most types of gambling engage in the same way. Speed and repetition. The promise of money doesn't hurt either I suppose.
Space Invaders builds engagement in a couple different ways. First, there are the random events. Bomb drops mostly. People can't help but try to find pattern and intent in random events. Especially if those events are not explicitly random. We can't see past the graphics on the screen to divine if the game mechanics and systems are random or intelligent and directed. Whenever that happens, people default to intelligent and directed. That's just what we do. Exploiting that aspect of our collective psychology is a constant source of engagement for many, many games. Works for religions too... but I don't think I'll get into that.
Secondly, space invaders builds engagement in almost the exact opposite way. The movement of the invaders is plodding, predictable, and almost entirely unchanging for as long as you play the game. This absolute rigid system is easy for a player to absorb. You know exactly where every invader is going to be at any given time during the game. While the random elements provide the moment to moment, heart skipping tension, the pattern and repetition allow the player to develop a longer term strategy.
Those seem to be the key two ways the game engages the player. Of course, what works for some people, won't work for others. The main draw for some people might be the distinctive glow of the phosphors, or some specific tone in one of the sound effects. It's hard to tell what might butter a dudes bread. Certain ticks of our individual psychologies are similar enough that a persons responses can, occasionally, be predicted with some amount of accuracy.
People like patterns. People like being surprised. People like to get better at predicting, and reacting to, subsequent surprises. Predictable surprises form patterns. Loop.
This is the recipe for engagement.
It all boils down to this.
Randomization = Play
Randomization + Engagement = Game
I have one more element to cover. Asymmetry. Games don't require asymmetry, but Space Invaders does. I'm going to attempt to cover why asymmetry is the basis for modern video games, and why it's what makes video games different from most other forms of game. My post on engagement went way longer than I had hoped ( and still barely covers the topic ), so I'll save asymmetry for next time.
Most, if not all games, contain some element of randomization. I'm talking games here, all games, not just video games. Ball bounces, dice rolls, card shuffles, are all complex enough equations that, as far as the average human brain is concerned, they are effectively random. Often, as is the case with chess or checkers, the random element is provided by a second human. Maybe this is not so much "random" as it is simply the obscured or inscrutable tactics of another human player. The end result is the same. We simply don't know what will happen moment to moment, and we need to react to events as they unfold. Successfully predicting, or reacting to a random event makes people feel excitement, elation, a sense of accomplishment. Otherwise known as fun.
In a round of space invaders, while the enemies will always march back an forth across the screen and descend one step at a time until they reach the bottom, apparently crushing the feeble defenses the earth has mustered against them.
That is all you know for certain.
When will the enemies excrete their squiggly bombs. When will the mother-ship grace the screen, enticing you to chase it for some easy points, even if it means leaving protective cover. That information is completely obscured from the player. These moment to moment reactions create the tension required to make you feel like you have bested the invaders. They attacked. You out thought and out fought them. It was probably fun.
Fielding a few grounders can be fun, but you can't really call it a game. Randomization alone won't hold a players interest for long. You need a second element. Engagement. By keeping the randomization hidden from the player, it's easy for them to interpret an invaders random bomb drop as a deeply malicious and directed attack. I'll dig into that in a bit.
There is, seemingly, an alternative to the randomization = fun theory. Puzzles. Puzzles are a strictly linear problem to solve. They are, in fact, not random at all. In practice however the effect is the same. The solution to a puzzle is hidden from the player in such a way that it may as well have been random. A puzzle is like a dice roll that comes up 4 every time. Predicting or reacting to the dice roll the first time will provide the player with that feeling of fun. Once. Working through, and solving a puzzle will also provide the feeling of fun once. Puzzles by themselves are like fielding grounders. They aren't games, but string a bunch of puzzles together and you start to see the makings of a game.
So if randomization can create fun, but random events aren't, in and of themselves, games, what else is required?
just a quick aside.
Before I put up my post on randomization in video games, I thought I should make a comment on the latest build of "colour game" (working title).
The latest build of the game is up. I had previously, incrementally updated the graphics every few builds... in this build I ripped them out entirely. Every object in the game is represented by some primitive (sphere, cube, etc.).
I found that I couldn't even look at the game without wanting to change something about the visual state of that nonsense. I like working on the art side. I find modelling enjoyable, and photoshop can be downright relaxing, even under deadlines. Even thought the art wasn't even 20% of the way completed, I just couldn't stop thinking about it. It was definitely having an effect on how much thought and effort I put into the code and game play. The solution was simple. Remove art from the prototype. Any art and graphic design I do for the game is now on paper or modeled separately and not imported into the game. This also forced me to create a more clean and clear hierarchy structure for all my game assets that lets me swap out the primitives with finished models fairly trivially. Good stuff.
I'm pretty sure that this is the way I will prefer to work moving forward. When I used to do vinyl vehicle wraps and decals we always used the nastiest magenta illustrator could muster as the stand in colour. If the area was part of the design that was supposed to be cut out, or just an area where the artwork wasn't complete, it would always be that terrible magenta. The reasoning was that if whoever was running the printer at the time saw that they would know not to print the file, because no client would ever want that colour on their vehicle. Valve uses a similar approach in level design by building everything out of orange boxes. If I could find something to use more hideous than a flat lit cube as my stand in prototyping object, I would.
I also spent the last month just stripping the game down to the nuts and rebuilding most of it from scratch. It really didn't take very long, since I work on this less than an hour a day most weeks. Less on other weeks. I had learned quite a lot building everything the first few times, so it was time to toss out all the, sprawling, old broken code and write some new, tidier, marginally less broken code.
a thoroughly absorbing and delightful mess of pedantic nerdy bullshit.
That's it. I'm making space invaders. Enemy blips locked in an inevitable march toward one lone protagonist.
I think I come by it honestly. An awful lot of video games are space invaders. Think about all the video games you have ever played... now really think... how many of those are the spawn of space invaders. Galaxian and Galaga are direct descendants of space invaders, but so is tempest, albeit oriented in a ring rather than vertically. Xevious, 1942, also space invaders... but now the background scrolls. Robotron 2084 is space invaders with no constraints on axis for the player or the enemies. I think the simple reason is, space invaders only works as a video game. Sure there are video games that predate space invaders, even other shooting gallery video games, and space invaders itself has roots in the electromechanical shooting galleries popular decades before. Space invaders added a level of randomization, engagement, and asymmetry that didn't exist before then. Most video games before then were either two player affairs, or very repetitious and predictable games like breakout. While having another player definitely adds the randomization and engagement, it almost by definition requires a level of symmetry.
Randomization, engagement, and asymmetry. I have whittled it down in my brain to these three elements. These are, what I believe, the elements that make Space Invaders the starting point for the modern video game. They are also central tenets of video games that differentiate them from most other types of games (board games, sports, etc).
I was in the process of writing one epic post all about what I think makes a video game different from other forms of games. Instead I'll offer a reprieve from my long winded nerdformation. I'm gonna break this description into a bunch of parts and post them one at a time. Eventually I'll probably stumble over what this has to do with the game I'm making.
next time on games by mistake