Monday, 10 January 2011

The Quest for Quests: Part Nine (Interlude)

You may want to start this series with part one, two, three, four, five, six, seven or eight.

I'm going to take another brief pause in this somewhat interrupted article series to point out a dark tower on the horizon, wreathed in storm clouds, through which wretched things take wing. That is our ultimate destination: the tower of the end game. Before it, we must pass through two great lands: the first, a pile of haphazardly placed blocks of rock and earth, through which water and lava and sand spill, fall and lap; the second, the rolling hills and forests and villages filled with warring medieval kingdoms. You know these places as Dwarf Fortress (or perhaps Minecraft), and Mount & Blade, and both have 'solved' many of the problems of quests that I have highlighted so far.

(The perceptive of you may notice the glint of recent flash of steel, from a hardy duo trapped somewhere in the wilderness before you).

Within a few minutes of playing Mount & Blade, I could feel the tingle in my fingertips of a game that does everything right that I've been writing towards with this series. Trading system instead of fetch quests. Check. Constantly changing world governed by an underlying set of rules that changes the environment while you play. Check. A faction system instead of quest givers. Check. Metagame (conquer the kingdom) which sits above the primary game (Pirates! plus first person sword fighting). Emergent complexity, whatever that means. Check.

So should I lay down my quill and let this quest rest?

Luckily not, because as one apt Rock Paper Shotgun so evocatively writes:

Regardless you do need some fixed content, otherwise everything ends up like the repetitive and dull wandering of Mount and Blade’s mid game.
That is because Minecraft, and Dwarf Fortress and Mount & Blade are all missing that one essential landmark of any great game: that dark tower of the endgame which you can see in the distance. I use the tower as a metaphor, but one of the greatest games, Half-Life 2, makes it literal, a beacon that you can see from almost anywhere inside and out City 17. Your endgame must cut through the moment like a dark stained blade, poisoning every decision the player makes with the final flaw 'what are the consequences'?

For many games, the path to the endgame is easy: Angband has stairs which lead only up to retreat, or down to advance, Mario is always moving to the right. The fight before the finish must be the crescendo. Games with fixed quest content end almost fitfully, because you have consumed all that they can deliver. Dwarf Fortress at least has that dull blade of finality 'Your dwarves have dug too deep.' that mercifully finishes off a fortress that groans with the fat of success, as opposed to the glorious bright eyed failures fallen before it.

The end game ironically is for the most part a given. The pieces you have moved into place, the choices and sacrifices that have built up to it usually come down to a single decision point or few and the best designed puzzle games leave resolution of success or failure to the last possible moment with all sides (in a multiplayer game) in contention as long as possible. Where the end game shines is not in the stalemate avoiding final dance, but in how its shadow is cast on mid game.

The mid game is where you are forced to implement your plans of how to win. In game where you are not faced by the infinite lego set of Minecraft, not everything is possible. There are time constraints, resource constraints, skill constraints, mutually exclusive decisions which force you to take a but not b, a battery of tests which wear down what resources you have available, wastage where your toil amounts to nothing, a slippery slope towards inevitability, set backs outside of your control, gateways through which you can pass one way only, entropy, a rising tide that pulls you in one direction, checkpoints which require minimum standards of you, irreversible decisions, stalemates, fatigue, failure states which trap you into restarting, or worse: mulligans, treadmills, grinds, false economies, exploits which encourage bad behaviour, fool's gold, mudflation, Garfield cards, bad designer prisons and gear reversals.

(To avoid linking to TV tropes and losing you, I'm forced to invent my own private lingo to lose you instead. A Garfield card is something that has the same cost as a clearly more useful item - therefore essentially useless. Reference is Magic: the Gathering's designer Richard Garfield who uses this technique. While I have disparaged it previously, I suspect, like many hill climbing algorithms, sometimes you need to move through low value points represented by Garfield cards to get to higher peaks. A bad designer prison is a part of the game where the rules are suddenly and artificially limited. Think of bosses who are immune to abilities you have used previously, for no good reason. A gear reversal is that point in the game where you are stripped of all equipment.)

Without an endgame, most of these are meaningless. To take one example: Chess defines a stalemate as a series of repeated moves and clearly enforces them. A series of repeated moves in Minecraft could be you admiring the same view each morning. You can 'do-over' a building by cutting down another mountain one valley along, but in chess, your mulligans are misconduct.

To be clear: I'm valuing what you might consider a certain kind of game, a certain kind of way of playing games, and a certain kind of player (more than 800,000 of them at last count) will never take issue with Minecraft's unlimited sandbox world. But games without endgames are much more limiting in terms of the types of play they support, and much more limiting in the types of players they satisfy, for all that they promise no limits.

To see why, consider a variant of Minecraft, which has an endgame: to build the highest tower of any player anywhere in the world, and new building block type governed by more sophisticated physics system which requires the player master it to build high above the clouds. Moreover, the ingredients required to build this tower are collected and limited by interaction with a linear narrative, but where you can get enough resources for sandbox play 'readily' if not right at the start (A certain part of the narrative may consist of tutorials to highlight techniques and physics interactions you may not have considered). We'll call this variant World of Goo.

World of Goo lets you participate in sandbox play as much as you desire, as well as more narrative driven play that Minecraft lacks, and which some people express a preference for which never could be fulfilled by Minecraft. In addition, a third type of player plays competitively, min-maxing their way through the narrative and resource acquisition phases to acquire as much of this tower building resource as possible. Another type of competitive player comes up with unique tower building techniques which require less pieces, or excels in specialist league maps, which try to build the towers with the most unique properties using a fixed number of resources.

There is one key decision that this hypothetical World of Goo makes that loses some potential players who are well-served by Minecraft: it limits the total amount of goo available. But the players it loses are only noncompetitive tower builders, who want to build towers over a certain height 'easily'. You could address this by making an unlimited tower building resource available that is distinct for goo, for which players can buy, or grind over time: call this resource hats. I'm not sure if the tower of hats model is the right approach, but it clearly is a popular direction to take.

All other builder types are well catered for by the sandbox that thought experiment World of Goo makes available, because only goo for towers is limited. And competitive tower builders are under served by Minecraft. In particular, Minecraft doesn't cater at all for (for want of a better term) Chinese mother tower builders - to paraphrase the linked article, tower builders whose limits can only be reached by rising to the rigors of strict competitive environments.

My argument is that Chinese mother tower builders are the reason your games need goo and endgame, not just bl0cks and sandboxes. The designers of many games could not possible anticipate the depth to which some games could be played whether they be Chess or Starcraft, and an endless sandbox cannot alone offer compelling enough a reason for a competitive community to emerge to explore these depths. There is one caveat: if the game has a big enough an audience, all things are possible. Team Fortress 2 has surf maps, Star Craft has maps with unlimited resources and Defence of the Ancients, Civilisation IV a menagerie of mods. But all of these examples have a strong end game component, and clearly defined goals, even if they have mutated beyond the intent of the original designers.

(Magnasanti being the artistic vision of one man shredding a game with concrete depth charges).


Matt said...

You lost me around "Garfield cards", so feel free to correct me if I misread you.

I don't think a game necessarily needs constraints and goals enforced by the game to have meaning. Like life, players can choose to have their own goals and meaning. The ability to effect (affect?) lasting change over the game world does greatly help, however.

Andrew Doull said...

You're on the right track. I'm actually arguing in order for something to be a game, it needs to have an endgame. Which Minecraft lacks...

VRBones said...

Wow, that's a big, big call. What's the endgame in The Sims? What's the endgame in Elite? What's the endgame in GTA? What's the endgame in Football Manager?
What's the endgame for chess if I decide to play again and again?

I agree that without an endgame certain mechanics and playstyles are eliminated, but in my mind that doesn't detract at all from the remaining playstyles or mechanics that keep people playing. The problem exists (which you pointed out) when developers decide to artificially bolster other playstyles to retain a player base rather than letting the game take its natural course.

Imagine the same statement reflected back to the player: "If you don't reach the endgame, you're not playing a game, you're just playing."

I'd be interested in whether these scenarios would be considered games:
- Developer designed endgame that the player follows
- Developer designed endgame that the player ignores
- Player designed endgame that is encouraged by the developer
- Player designed endgame that is accepted by the developer
- Player designed endgame that was not intended by the developer