15 January 2011

God As Game Designer - by Neil Sorens

      Posted 01/15/11 04:16:00 am  

There are two career tracks with surprisingly close parallels to that of the game designer: politician, and God (Judeo-Christian version).  Now, these are less similar than the politicians (and some game designers) would have us believe, but they do share some common characteristics that I find to be worth pondering. 

I'll devote this entry to God - being the alpha and omega, he moves to the front of the line.  Politicians later.

You'd think that God would be the perfect game designer, having given players free will, which is a fundamental necessity for any sort of interactivity, particularly games.  He also has the ability to predict every single action players will take as a result of that free will, allowing him to design an experience that caters to their tastes.  And finally, he designed the players themselves - what game designer wouldn't want to create their own demographic for the express purpose of playing their game?

However, my position is that I wouldn't hire God for your next AAA game, judging by the work he's got on his resume.  Allow me to explain.

The progression structure in his current magnum opus is a little out of whack, for starters.  Players generally become more powerful until about 1/3 of the way into the game, at which point their character's maximum ability levels begin to deteriorate,  reducing their ability to explore, discover, and learn as they get further into the game.  As Civilization demonstrates, if exploration, discovery, and learning are slowed or eliminated as the game progresses, players' behavior becomes repetitive, and their enjoyment of the game diminishes.  A basic game design tenet is that you want to build up to the end of the game and end on a high note, before players tire of the experience.

Another controversial aspect of God's design is the necessity of grouping.  Although forced interdependence on others can improve the social experience, for which characters have a hardcoded need, it also leaves a significant number of players who don't group unable to tackle some of the challenges they face.  They may become frustrated and give up.

Permadeath is always a hot-button topic in game design.  The general consensus is that if you do it, you should not burn your players in a lake of fire for all eternity.  Unfortunately, God disagrees and takes a more old-school approach.

One of the most glaring flaws in God's design is the reward structure.  In order to get any sort of guaranteed reward, you have to grind for approximately seventy years, at least double what you'd have to put in to become competitive in Lineage II.  And even then, it's hard to say whether it will be worth the grind, because the reward isn't revealed in advance, only teased. 

In the meantime, there is no reliable feedback to guide players' actions, leaving them unsure what behavior and actions are necessary for success.  Players appear to receive rewards and punishments at random, rather than according to a coherent design.  In my opinion, if God wanted players to focus only on the long term, he shouldn't have created them to care almost exclusively about the short term - or he should have designed a system where short-term feedback and rewards reinforce the desired behavior.

Some even believe that players are randomly selected to receive the long-term rewards (or not) before character creation - an exceptionally sadistic bit of design, if true.  Those not selected spend a lifetime of grinding only to discover there is no reward for their toils.

With the ability to design both the players and the game, God should have been able to create a paradigm full of synergy and free of buzzwords.  Instead, for many dissatisfied players, it is only hardcoded compulsion that has kept the player base intact.  In fact, many players leave for significant periods of time and turn instead to games with far smaller budgets and ambitions and far less powerful designers to find enjoyment.

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