Little Blog Adventure

A gaming "sketchblog"

Monday, January 30, 2006

Throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks: Pt 2

Goodness that post was massive. Suffering from brain-drain. I'm gonna try and cycle through my other ideas fast.

Idea 2: The Great Pretenders.

This one begins with a plot: London, 1875. George B. Jensens's rich old uncle has just passed away, leaving him with a fortune of millions. It's just too bad nobody knows what old George looks like- he ran away from home to join the circus when he was just a wee lad. But never mind that- you're a civic-minded individual who won't stand to see such a vast fortune go to waste! For such an accomplished... actor as yourself, it's easy to pretend to be George and grab that money. It's just too bad that a number of other individuals have the very same idea!

Objective: You're George B. Jensen. The other players are also George B. Jensen. But only one George B. Jensen can get inherit the fortune! All of you have assembled at your old uncle's estate- your goal is to convince your uncle's lawyers that you're the REAL George and that all the others are imposters.

Gameplay: Perhaps every player (I'm thinking 2-8) can start with a number of points. Say 30. That represents the lawyers impression of each player- innocent til proven guilty, you see. Each players goal is to bump the other players points down to 0. The key question here is- how?

Perhaps play can involve 2 stages- one where players attempt to gather background information about George and his uncle and another where the players use this information to try and prove their claim. Lying, of course, is encouraged. There needs to be a somwhat rigid set of rules, though, for this idea to work. Also, there's the question of whether or not the "lawyers" are represented by another player or not. I'm leaning towards not, myself. Point allocation being a consequence of the game's systems...

Throwing stuff on the wall to see what sticks: Pt 1

Right-o. I've got a few ideas for this assignment 1. So I'm gonna just put em all down here and see whether any of em are worth developing further.

Idea 1: Card Fu!

This idea came to me after playing the FPS board during the first tutorial. I love fighting games, maybe there's a way to implement something like a fighting game in a traditional format? A card game is the obvious solution- it's eminently possible to make a fast-paced, back-and-forth using the format. Just to make things more interesting, I'm going to try and design this game using a standard deck of cards rather than a customised one.

Standard deck's got 4 suits, so we could assign 4 unique functions to each of them. Well let's work things out this way: diamonds beat spades, which beat hearts, which beat clubs, which in turn beat diamonds. So that's a loop, with each suit able to threaten another suit while being vulnerable to yet another suit in turn.

So how would gameplay work? There's only gonna be 2 players, that's for sure. Each player should draw a set number of cards from a shuffled deck- let's say, 10 for this game. Then, at the beginning of a round, players have to decide who goes first (that player becomes the attacker for that round). One way to solve this dilemma would be for each player to draw a card from the deck and compare- whoever gets the higher-valued card goes first. Once that's decided, the attacking player has to decide on a card to put down- that card would represent his first attack.

Let's assume that the defender has to put down an equal or higher-valued card of the suit that's NOT vulnerable to the attackers card in order not to lose the round. The round continues in this way until one player is unable to defend against the others attack. Now I'm going to run through a hypothetical scenario just to see what might happen: Attacker puts down a 2 of Hearts. The defender puts down a 4 of spades. The attacker puts down a 5 of diamonds. The defender doesn't have a higher card and the attacker wins the round. Now I wonder if there's a situation where a draw is possible? Perhaps not in a single round. Perhaps best to toss aside the idea of a draw for now.

The big problem right now is that the game's not very interesting. Seems like everything's basically dependant on the attacker's choice of first card. And of course, the tendancy would be for attackers who have very high cards to put them down first for an instant-win. One possible solution is to place an upper limit on the value of the first card that can be put down. But perhaps adding in one more game mechanic would make things more interesting: if a player doesn't have a high enough card to defend against an attack, he/she can sacrifice any 3 of his cards to negate the attack. This, I think, makes the game slightly more strategic.

Damn, I'll have to playtest this to see how this works. I'm pretty sure the mechanics need a lot more polishing before the game'll be fun for players, if at all.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

Designing a traditional game: Initial Thoughts

Hmmm... a traditional format game, eh? Interesting. There's certainly a lot of scope for interesting games in those formats, as one of my favourite non-electronic game studios, Cheapass Games, has shown time and time again. Some of em are even free. What I especially love about their games are the hilarious concepts they're based on- like that of their game "U.S. Patent Number 1," where everyone plays a scientist who's invented a time-travelling machine and are travelling back in time to the opening day of the US Patent Office to secure themselves the very 1st patent ever given out for their time machine!

Anyway, I guess I just love a bit of comedy with my games. So naturally I'm going to try to put that into the game I design. I'm also thinking of how to design a game where cheating is part of the game. Which presents quite a conundrum because how do you make cheating part of the rules? If it's in the rules, it's not cheating anymore! Unless I design a game with a set of rules which makes opportunities for cheating rife, though not within the rule-set of the game. The actual game being played, then, would be sort of a meta-game constructed around the game I design, where players would think of creative ways to cheat without being found out by other players. Sort of like bluffing in Poker...

Calvinball: Game or Not?

I really don't recall Calvinball having this many rules! From what I remember of the comic strip, there was only one real rule: you can't play the game the same way twice. Heh. But even if we define the "game" by the rules on the link above, can it be considered an actual game? Well, there is a very clear creation of game-space by the very first rule of the game. You wear a mask to play the game. Anyone who isn't wearing a mask, isn't part of the game. That's a magic circle right there!

I'm going to ignore the rest of the rules(since the page says that's allowed :P) except for 1.2 , which seems essential to the concept of Calvinball in my mind. Rule 1.2 states that any player may declare a new rule at any point of the game. Why, that makes Calvinball sort of a nomic (a nomic being a game where changing the rules is considered a move in the game)! Or a very chaotic variant of a nomic (where player's usually vote on whether to accept a new rule or not), anyway. What's intiguing about Calvinball (and Nomic) is that the players design the game as they play it.

Whether Calvinball can be played as a game, or whether it's pure play, really depends on the players. It's very easy to "wreck" the game. Say, if Calvin were to yell out, "New Rule: everyone not named Calvin loses!" But there's an interesting point to be made here. While it would be all-too-easy for players to make up such arbitrary rules to ensure they win immediately, the fun of Calvinball is really in keeping the game going for as long as possible, making up increasingly more bizzare rules along the way.

Looking at Calvinball from a design perspective, it's simply too chaotic to be a game. But to a kid who doesn't think that way, maybe it is. A lot of the games I played as a kid were pretty similarly pointless and devoid of any form of scoring system or a way for players to actually win or lose (nobody really loses a game of catch, it just ends when the bell rings to signal the end of recess). But somehow, the kids playing the games were different from the other kids who were just mucking about the playground or eating or whatever else. There was a sense of game there somehow. Perhaps Calvinball has this sense of being a game, even if it isn't actually one?

It would be an interesting exercise to actually try and construct a workable game around the premise.

Friday, January 20, 2006

What makes a "good" game?

Now for the big whopper of a question. What makes a "good" game? That is a question worthy of a 10-page essay. A thesis, even. But I'm gonna try and keep it short, or as short as my rambly writing style will allow. To answer this question, I'm going to look at games from another angle. Not as systems, but as cultural artifacts. Games, like other forms of entertainment, are products of the societies that have created them. A word that comes up pretty often when discussing the merits of games is "fun." Many argue that a good game is one that is fun. Well, there lies a problem. Fun is subjective. What is fun to me may not be fun to you. What was fun for 19th Century Victorian British folk may not be fun to any of us at all. And so, I would argue that the value of a game can only be argued within the context of the culture that it was created in or that it is played in. And so the value of a game, the measure of it's goodness or badness, can be considered to be a measurement of it's cultural value.

Consider the Medieval sport of jousting. It wasn't just an idle way to pass time. Jousting was a simulation of a battle- it's value could be said to have been as a training tool just as much as a spectator sport (which it also was). Like modern sports, there was glory and fortune to be made for those who took part in it. Jousting was considered a noble sport and there is even an account of a battle during the Hundred Years War that was put on hold in order that a joust could be held!

Within the context of Medieval times, what made jousting so appealing? As mentioned before, honor and glory (cultural value) and it's value as a training tool (the value of simulation) were factors. But the fact that there are still jousting tournaments held today shows another appeal of the sport- that is, competition. Any game that has a competitive element that allows players to show off their talent, skill and mastery of the game invariably becomes popular.

Effectiveness as a competitive tool is, perhaps, is one way to judge a game out of it's cultural context. That certainly goes far to explain the continuing popularity of such games as Chess and Go. The value of such competitive games as simulations must not be understated either. Both Chess and Go can be considered simulations of war. Joust was a simulation of a one-on-one battle. Many, if not all, competitive sports can be considered analogies of war. War is not the only thing that games simulate, but it is a predominant theme- even in videogames (a cursory look at store shelves will reveal a surplus of World War II-themed games).

While competitive and simulative value may suffice as meters for judging the value of non-electronic games, videogames defy such an easy judgement. For videogames (along with the related and also comparatively-recent class of game known as Role-Playing Games) can also be narratives and thus, must be judged in terms of their effectiveness as narratives. Here we reach shaky ground. There is a tendancy to judge videogames in terms of familiar, non-interactive narrative forms: novels, movies, televised dramas. But it is dangerous to try and compare a videogame, an interactive form of narrative, to a movie or a novel, both non-interactive forms of narrative. As videogames are a new medium, there isn't a set terminology or even a well-established method of criticism of games as a medium of narrative expression. Lacking these things, perhaps the best available way to judge the narrative effectiveness of a game is to consider how well it engages a player.

This of course, is a subjective thing, dependant on the personality of the player. But there are elements that serve to increase the likeliness that a player will be engaged in a game. Of great importance is a well-written, well paced story that supports and is supported by the gameplay of the videogame. Now, a well-written videogame story need not be one that can be transplanted to another genre and be as effective there. That's one of the reasons why nobody has been able to make a good film adaptation of a videogame. Half-Life 2 is one of the most acclaimed games of recent years. It's story captivates players and motivates them to play through the game from beginning to end without stopping (I took only 2 breaks during my first playthrough of the game- both for meals). If made into a novel, it would hardly be Booker Prize material. Being a massive book snob myself, I wouldn't even look at it (just as I assiduously avoid Halo novels). But that hardly matters. What does matter is that the narrative supports and drives the gameplay of the game. One could say the gameplay and narrative of the game are fundamentally inextricable (a statement would no doubt cause hardcore Ludologists and Narratologists everywhere to have spasms :P).

OK, I'd better try and summarize my argument as to what makes a good videogame now. So... A videogame can have three purposes. Either competitive (like Counter-Strike), simulative (Falcon 4.0, Gran Turismo) or narrative (like Half-Life 2). Of course, games can combine two of those or even all three, but ah, I'm just going to close one eye and ignore those games before this post collapses under it's own weight. A competitive game can be judged by it's effectiveness as a competition. A simulative game is judged by it's effectiveness as a simulation- how close is it to a real experience and how well does it translate that experience into gameplay?

A narrative game is judged by it's effectiveness as an interactive narrative. The factors that creates effective competition and simulation are somewhat intuitive and well-documented. The factors that create an effective interactive narrative are less intuitive and not so well-documented. I feel that it is our duty as 'gamers' to document this changing medium and come up with a body of knowledge regarding. I, for one, am going to have great fun doing so. ;-)

What is a game?

So, what is a game? It's a hard question to answer, for any definition of "game" would have to be applicable to all things that are called "games." Hmmm... I'll take a stab at this. A game, in it's essence, is a system. The elements of this system are the player(s), the rules that govern the system, the tools used by the players and the 'field' on which the game is played. This system's rules must define a winning condition. Without the possibility of winning and losing, there is no game- there is just aimless play (not that there's anything wrong with that!).

To illustrate this definition, I'll use an example of a game- the simplest that I can think of. A coin-toss game. Now, a coin-toss, in and of itself, is not a game. It's just a probability event. Now, if we consider the person tossing the coin the player and add a rule: the player wins if the coin lands heads-up, then we've got a game (the coin being the player's tool and the field of play being the area in which the toin coss takes place- the ground, perhaps?). It's not a very interesting game, but it's a game.

Now, let's test this definition with a videogame. Say, Grand Theft Auto: Vice City (my personal favourite of the lot- excepting the original). You've got a player- the guy with the controller in front of the TV. The tools are the controller and well, the PS2 (or XBox or PC) that the player's playing the game on. The gameworld where the player runs and drives around in is the playing field. What about a winning condition? Now here's where it gets tricky. The open-ended nature of the game allows a player to muck around in the gameworld without ever needing to actually play through the game's storyline, which comprises of missions with goals that can be achieved or failed and leads to an ending (arguably the final winning condition of the game). But many players do indeed just muck around, exploring the gameworld in pointless yet enjoyable reverie. So what to make of this, then?

Here's my hypothesis- though Grand Theft Auto: Vice City is a videogame, players only play it as a game when they're goal-driven- either completing the core story missions of the game or engaging in the many side-goals that the game provides. When players engage in goal-less play, they're using the game as a "sandbox"- as the game has been called.

Whew! I think that's all I have to say on that topic.

Thursday, January 19, 2006


Hello! This cheery little blog exists to act as a sketchbook (or sketchblog, as I've bastardized the term) for the module NM3216- Gaming Culture I. Before I get on with the topic of the week, let me indulge myself in a little introduction. After all, what's a blog without some rambling, semi-coherent material?

I belong to a generation that's grown up playing videogames. Videogames have become so pervasive that the very word 'games,' normally a broad term that encompasses a wide range of activities- be they physical or intellectual- is now commonly understood by my generation to refer to videogames. Or computer games. Or "interactive entertainment." Whatever you like to call them. Videogames inform the lives of us 'gamers' much in the same way as music and movies informed the lives of previous generations. They've certainly done a number on me. I couldn't imagine living in a world without 'em. Somewhere along the way I decided I wanted to create 'em. Which brings me here, to this module and to this blog. I do hope my postings here will be of some interest.

A brief note about the title of this blog. It's a rather horrible pun that refers to one of my very favourite videogames- a sadly little-known 1995 French classic called Little Big Adventure (published in America under the more rugged title of Relentless: Twinsen's Adventure). The brainchild of designer Frederick Raynal (who's most famous work is Alone in the Dark), Little Big Adventure is arguably a masterpiece of game design. The game was driven by it's compelling and well-paced narrative, featured a novel and innovative control system and was set in one of the most unique and intriguing game-worlds ever created. But the real reason I love this game is because of it's ability to draw real emotion from me and make me FEEL for the characters- something that few games have done.

Well then! That's enough introductory material for one post.