Thursday, October 18, 2012

Game Design Aesthetics Part 3...

In previous posts we described the overlying theme vs. mechanics aesthetic, and then we looked at two specific mechanical elements and described them from an aesthetic perspective as well. For the final three elements in our dissection of Game Design Aesthetics, we will look at the role of human interaction in games, what might be described as the Aesthetics of Player Agency.

Again, I'm about to make some very subjective statements about specific games here, but, again,  they are being made to illustrate the more substantial, theoretical arguments put forth in this series.
Though fourth on this list, this is, perhaps, the most important criteria of all: how much do the players interact with each other during the game and how does that interaction affect game-play.  After all, gaming is largely a social activity and it is rare to find solo games that are as satisfying to play as the equivalent competitive game.

Diplomacy is a war-game the fully embraces player interaction as the main mechanic.  All the pieces are the same and their deployment and maneuver is important, but it is the making and breaking of alliances with other players that makes or breaks the game. Indeed, the only way to actually make any headway is through interaction with others. There is no other option, as there are no dice to determine the results of conflict, only a cooperative system of attack and support that demands negotiating with others and, eventually, betraying them.

Runebound, on the other hand is almost a solo game that happens to tangentially involve other people. You go about your turn, encountering spaces and gaining in power, but nothing the other players do can affect your path to glory. You live or die by your dice and a few simple decisions. The other players don't even get to roll the dice for the monsters you fight, as they would in Talisman (a more player interactive game that Runebound seems to take its cues from), as everything in your turn is determined by your dice rolls. Other players basically sit around and wait for their turn to come along and the only true interaction comes when someone wins and everyone helps clear the game away.

It should be noted that not all games with heavy player interaction are necessarily competitive in nature, and there is a subset of 'cooperative' games.' Not merely games where teams are formed to cooperate against other teams, but where all the players team up against the game itself. These, by their nature, require a high degree of player interaction as cooperation is paramount to the success of the group as a whole. Arkham Horror, The Lord of the Rings and Shadows Over Camelot (although that particular game includes a traitor mechanic that introduces a small amount of competitive play back in) are the looking glass equivalents of a game like Runebound, in that they are, in fact, solo games, but with multiple players all working towards the same goal.

I enjoy games like Diplomacy, but the pure player interaction has a couple of downsides: constant scheming and intense negotiations can be tiring (although immensely satisfying); and it tends to fall apart if the other players choose to freeze you out due to fear of your gamesmanship, which makes the game pointless to play. I find games with no player interaction highly unsatisfying, however, and see little point in solo gaming, as it is the competitive nature of gaming that I enjoy the most.

So, I tend to enjoy games with a high level of interaction, but enough wiggle room that it can be fun and possible (if challenging) to take the solo path towards victory (which is essential when you play with people who tend to team up on you due to your reputation, regardless of the truth of the matter of how it affects their own personal chances of winning).

While all games are interactive in the sense that you play them, there is a wide variation in that interactivity. Games in which you are entirely free to go anywhere and do anything and in which your actions ripple throughout the environment, are known as ‘sandbox’ games. A game which leads you along with options that have very little effect on the ultimate endgame, is known in gaming terms as a railroad.

D&D as it was originally presented and designed is a sandbox game. The characters have a great deal of choice and self-determination. Their actions will determine how their world evolves and the game is very much an exercise in ‘co-writing.’ Table-Top RPGs are, by nature, sandboxes, although many modern RPGs are more linearly inclined.

The current edition of D&D is more about set piece battles, where the players have many options during combat, but the next set piece is already waiting for them regardless of the level of their victory. They have little control over the outcome of the story, and the only way their actions truly affect it is through surviving to move on to the next set-piece. Computer games by their nature (especially computer RPGS) are largely linear affairs.

A variation on the Railroad is the ‘false choice.’ In this type of game, the player is given multiple options to select from, but there is clearly one good option and multiple substandard or even stupid ones. In this way, the player is funneled towards the correct ending. You will find this in many of the ‘Choose Your Own Adventure books’ of the early eighties.

I prefer games that are open to a wide variety of strategies and decision points. This is especially true of RPGs where an imposed storyline tends to restrict the ability to surprise both the players and the referee, which is an important component of the aesthetic appreciation of the game for me. There are times, however, especially when playing with younger children, when a game that has a limited, but strong, set of choices (known in many circles as ‘beer and pretzels’ games) can be very fun and relaxing.

Some games rely on the player to create strategies that lead to victory, and these choices are ultimately the final arbiter of how successful they are. In other games, the player is represented by an avatar to represent them in the game, and this avatar will have various strengths and weaknesses that limit the strategy set to a few strong choices and many lesser or even non-viable ones, essentially Railroading.

Again, we can look at the various iterations of D&D to see this in action. The original game had a sparse collection of mechanical tools to describe the player character, including 6 attributes that had very little effect on gameplay itself, and Level, Hit Points and Armor Class, which summed up everything you needed to know about the character for combat. Outside of equipment and gold, there was nothing else to define the character.

Gameplay in that first edition was still extremely varied and exciting, however, as it was the player’s decisions about how the character acted that determined their fate, in much the same manner as the Greek gods who often used mere mortals as pawns in games of their own. It didn’t matter if your character had the intelligence of a chimp or the Wisdom of Solomon, if the player played them stupidly, they would die ignominiously, and if they played them cunningly, they would live and achieve glory.

Success outside of combat (and often within) was gauged by the player’s questioning the environment, and trying to puzzle out the Dungeonmaster’s intent. A player had to say ‘I’m moving the picture on the wall’ to find out if there was a secret safe behind it, not rely on the character’s skills (especially as they had none to begin with). If you ran into a monster or group of monsters, you had to decide whether it could be negotiated with, fought or should be avoided, and there was no balancing mechanism that said any of these would necessarily work. If you were 1st level and ran into a dragon, you had to have the sense to run away. Understanding and mastering the environment is more important than mastering the rules.

Modern D&D characters, however, have a plethora of build options and these are carefully constructed to maximize their effectiveness in various areas of gameplay so that they can overcome any obstacle that falls within their area of level and expertise when used properly. These areas often overlap with other characters so that the ideal group, with a proper character mix will always have at least an even chance (assuming the Dungeonmaster uses the same rules to design encounters) of defeating whatever is set before them.  A party in 4E will almost never encounter a monster or challenge that they have no possibility of overcoming if the rules are being applied in the manner in which they are designed. Mastering the rules means you master the environment.

Most of the actions that relied on player description in the old game are now reduced to rolls and every choice made in character creation will determine the success and failure of that roll. A player wanting to find the secret safe behind the picture on the wall, for instance, uses their thief character’s skill at finding such things and, as long as they roll well, they will find it. Especially if they have an ideal attribute, skill and power mix. Character building, in effect, is a game within a game, and follows similar strategy games, like Magic the Gathering, in which the actual game is only half of the full experience.

Most Massively Multi-player Online RPGs are very much in the vein of modern D&D (and, in fact, have heavily influenced it) and your character build is more important than the skill of the player, themselves. A player simply selects their mode of action and the character build determines the results of that action. Gaining levels and equipment improves that ability and a player with a level 60 character with a good selection of items can wipe the floor with lower tier characters fairly easily, regardless of play experience. Again, the build is an important meta-game that is part and parcel of the MMORPG experience, with few exceptions.

I tend to dislike games with little player skill, especially MMORPGs, as I find them extremely boring. Having a small defined set of actions that I point and click to activate, and which only reward me when being used in a specific narrow range of activity is not aesthetically pleasing to me. I also avoid those computer games, like real-time strategy games and first person shooters, that rely heavily on 'twitch' skills that tend to favor those younger than me, who have faster reflexes and tend to have a good deal more time than I to focus on a particular game's skill set. The fact that these types of game tend to dominate the computer/console market is probably why I tend to favor table-top games over computer games.

On the other hand, the deck-building aspects of games like Magic the Gathering do appeal to me. I imagine that in this case, it is the context of an RPG vs. a straight strategy game that ultimately determines my aesthetic taste for Player vs. Character skill, and so out of all the oppositions, I could see this one varying the most from player to player, as 14 million WoW players will attest.


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