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Debunking prejudices against infinite games.
by Anton Temba on 04/30/13 11:15:00 am

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.

 

Infinite game, redefined.

A previous article of mine about infinite games, which I had posted in multiple game developer-centric sites, had gathered some interesting replies that showed some deep prejudices and single-minded views about what an infinite game is or can be.

I will try to address the points that came up and attempt to make it clear that ultimately, any faults you may think or have seen associated with infinite games, is just a matter of design. I will do this by listing the opposing argument, pointing out the possible causes for that particular reaction and explaining what went wrong.

Another thing to mention is that the infinite games I’m proposing are not something that have been done before to the full extent, so it may appear new and it is something that challenges a lot of deep-rooted traditions in the games industry.

Additionally, some of the prejudices listed below come from existing games that have defined themselves as infinite, but have had severe underlying drawbacks in their design, causing people to believe that this is what infinite games truly are and what they ever will be. Similar to the way people believed the world was flat and not round long ago.

Also keep in mind that video games are a very new and very rapidly evolving form of media, despite being around for a few decades already. Games are not easy to create and the technology we have now is on a completely different level than what it was just a few years ago. This is among one of the many reasons why this has not been done before.

Video games have come a long way since the last couple years.

Video games have come a long way since the last few decades.

Chris Roberts and his upcoming game Star Citizen is an example of this, with him saying the technology just wasn’t powerful enough back then, explaining the reason for abandoning PC space-simulation games for about a decade before returning with his new title. Besides that, even a simple history trip to look at older video games and the technology available back then reveals how far we’ve come over the past years.

Finally, infinite games are among the slowest projects to create due to their inherent requirement for a robust and flexible framework. They require a crystal clear vision of the final experience and all of its details that make it whole. This means the design phase, along with any testing and prototyping needed to achieve the clarity mentioned, can take a significant amount of time, before real production will begin. Basically, you make an infinite game only when you know exactly what you want, make it be the best and last forever.

With all that said, it is not suprising why infinite games are not so common in the past or even right now either. Infinite games are long term projects, but they also have the capacity to last forever, which is what makes them so worth creating in the first place. Not to mention the gameplay experience they can offer is better and more powerful than any throwaway project could ever hope to achieve.

 

”Infinite games are impossible to create”
“You need Matrix-like simulations for an infinite game to work”
“Infinite games are too complex to make”

I get it, saying that infinite games are like virtual realities with a persistent, living universe that mimic a lot of logic inspired by real life and then saying they are the slowest project to make due to their requirement for a solid foundation does sound very scary and daunting at face value.

Don’t overcomplicate it. At the end of the day, you’re making a video game which means two things, you have a limited amount of computing resources to work with and humans can only handle so much complexity before it becomes frustrating and confusing for something they are looking to simply have fun with.

Computers have limited resources. While technology has indeed evolved and progressed, it doesn’t mean we have infinite computing power. This means you need to be smart and only simulate what really matters to achieve the experience you’re trying to deliver with the game.

"Everything should be made as simple as possible, but not simpler." - Albert Einstein

Simplify processes and effects that otherwise serve no physically interactive purpose, like rain, where instead of simulating every water droplet, use smoke and mirrors to make it convincing with a more simple solution, like simply putting a semi-transparent animated filter image in front of the player. The solutions will differ greatly for every project, but the point is to only simulate what is absolutely necessary and omit the rest.

Humans are limited too. Not stupid, just limited in terms of how much information they can handle or care about at once, so don’t get me wrong on that one, the last thing I want to see is more dumbing down of games.

Anyway, it varies from one person to another, but generally people can only handle so much information before becoming bored, frustrated or confused, meaning you don’t actually have to simulate everything to every detail, because if it’s not a major part of the gameplay experience, no one will ever care. So, just remove unnecessary features that don’t focus on what is important, which is delivering a certain experience or emotion you’re supposed to get when you play the game.

Basically the point here is just to keep it simple. Streamline and leave out anything that isn’t the focus of the game. Think creatively when you run into a challenge that would be otherwise impossible if you were to simulate it realistically. You’re making a game, so take some liberties with that and keep the scale down to the level where a human player is capable of managing it enough to enjoy it.

 

"Infinite games feel empty"
“Infinite games are boring or eventually get boring”
“I’d rather play an engaging finite campaign than an infinite game.”

This one comes from player experiences from playing games that claim to have infinite gameplay or systems that are theoretically infinite. Some examples may actually even be infinite, but have other fundamental design problems or lack certain features that make players feel this way.

Now, I’m not going to list examples because there are countless of them and each of have their own story. In some cases the concept of what some players consider infinite may be blurry at times, meaning that I simply can’t address each individual game’s faults, or else this post will become larger than the internet. Instead, I’ll address the more general message behind the accusation, which is how to prevent an infinite game from feeling empty, boring or less engaging than a scripted finite adventure.

To explain this, you need to understand where real excitement comes from and why does boredom happen in video games. This has to do with two things: satisfying interactions in gameplay and more importantly, discovery of new things driven by curiosity.

Basically the gameplay and content need to be fun or interesting to play with, while the game will constantly provide something that will feel fresh or new that will either surprise the player or give him a clear goal to chase, with a reward at the end.

This reward can be new content, a discovery of something previously unknown or anything else meaningful and useful to the player for that matter.

It’s kind of like how you play scripted games for the story, excited to see what will happen next or taking on a skillful challenge to get some kind of meaningful reward for your effort, like seeing Samus Aran almost naked if you beat Super Metroid fast enough. Creativity can be applied to creating player rewards too. The rewards themselves don’t have to be extrinsic necessarily either.

And when I say being excited about a video game, I mean really excited, to the point where you go above and beyond to play the game with such a hot passion that you end up sacrificing your sleeping schedule or doing other similar silly things simply because you care about the game that much.

Everything has a source, excitement included. All you need to do is find it and harness it.

Everything has a source, excitement included. All you need to do is find it and harness it.

This overwhelming excitement is what people may have found lacking when playing a supposed infinite game and then argue that only a finite scripted game can achieve that extremely high level of excitement, although even then only on the first time they play it. Ultimately movies are not so exciting to watch again once you know the ending, same with scripted video games.

However, understanding the science behind how excitement works, why boredom strikes – which, by the way, really just boils down to running out of interesting new content to discover or having no more potential for new memorable moments to occur and experience them – and what is needed to attain that excitement, it becomes only a matter of correct game design to make it work right.

First you need to ensure that the gameplay is satisfying – be it meaty effects, high quality assets or whatever else you personally need to play the game over a long period of time enjoyably. Then make sure the new content that is added into the game has a meaningful purpose and offers new possibilities to the players, either as added new toys to play with, a new challenge to test your skill against, a new mystery to solve or a new place to discover and explore.

The sky is the limit when it comes to the new content and it can be even a very abstract thing, but the most important thing is not to compromise consistency at any cost, by adding something that breaks the rules of the game’s universe in any arbitrary way, like adding a ladder that you cannot climb, or have an enemy character with the ability to essentially cheat. If do that, the game will suffer in the long run, so be careful.

As for where the new content comes from, I’ve already touched on this subject in my previous article, but to give a refresher, you got three sources: Developer, Users and Procedural generation. The more unique assets are hand-crafted by the modders and developers on occasion, while procedural generation can produce more generic content automatically. The key is harnessing modding as an official part of the game with full support. You can read more about this in my previous article.

 

“Infinite games require infinite effort to keep them up”

This accusation comes from the part where I said an infinite game requires an infinite source of new content.

If you, the developer, want it, you can indeed keep making new content for it eternally either for a price as DLC, expansion packs or for free. Heck, it’s not even a half bad job, really. You get to constantly create new stuff to have fun within your game and keep earning money without an end.

However, you don’t have to.

The idea behind an infinite game is setting up a robust and flexible framework. Once you’ve got that set, you can let it be by itself automatically. If I were to use an analogy where say, you need to supply water to a house, you could either do it manually by using bucket on a near by river, or you could be smart and build a water tap to provide you with infinite water automatically.

Be smart, plan ahead and set up your project for automation.

Work smart upfront, plan ahead and set up your project for automation.

Same concept applies here. You create a solid foundation that empowers the users to create new stuff and let them supply infinite content to the game automatically. More information on this can be found in my previous article, in the “New content and modding” part.

 

 

“You’ll get tired of infinite games anyway at some point”
“Sometimes I want to play something different than the infinite game”

No problem. Eventually, even after long time spent even with the most exciting thing ever, you will want to take a break one way or another. This happens with everything in life, no big deal.

However, what seperates the infinite game from a traditional scripted game is the fact that you can always come back to it and it will offer you something new and always be fun otherwise, virtually forever.

Unlike the scripted finite game you play once or twice and know exactly what will happen in it, the infinite game does not have this limitation, but instead goes beyond that to give you new experiences and also allow you to just enjoy yourself freely in its universe. It’s like a companion you can always return to, but are free to try other things. An infinite game is also a timeless game.

Regardless of hiatuses, an infinite game is always fun to come back to.

Regardless of hiatuses, an infinite game is always fun to come back to.

Also keep in mind that a single infinite game will only be capable of focusing on a certain ruleset and offer its own unique gameplay, so if you want something different for a change, no one is going to stop you. This also means that there is a reason to create many more infinite games that do things differently or focus on a completely new type of gameplay.

But seriously, infinite games function like a portal to a new dimension where you can have certain experiences and do something unique pertaining to each individual infinite game. You’ll hop in, have fun, get tired for a while, but you’ll always be welcome to come back to it with something new to greet you.

 

“Infinite games rob all your time and are an evil grind”

Thanks a lot Zynga. This is the last thing I needed: people considering monetization focused cow-clickers and similar evil grind-based Skinner Box schemes as infinite games, just wonderful.

For the sake of clarity, there are games out there, mostly on mobile, tablet and social media platforms that are designed around two things: addiction and monetization.

Their goal is to hook you with carefully designed game mechanics that exploit the basic subconsicious triggers of a human mind. They use this to get you severely addicted to a game and then use this very addiction as a leverage to extort money from the player.

This happens usually by purposefully limiting the player’s interactive capabilities to the extreme point where the real enjoyable parts of the game are very far and between, prompting you to spend money to experience them more often and more stronger. Even then, those “enjoyable parts” are actually just impressive or satisfying visual and audible effects sequence on a screen after doing something very monotonous.

The game itself is often not fun at all, but the so called rewards mesmerize the player into thinking they’re having real fun in the game, when in reality they just spent a huge amount of time – and possibly even money – doing the most boring task in the entire world, only to see a flashy text of how good you did obeying the game’s orders. It’s basically straight up manipulation of the human mind in very, very nasty way. I would go as far to compare it to drug addiction, since it’s rather scary how similar the pain-relief relationship is going on here.

This stuff is disgustingly immoral and is outright destructive to humans and the society. It degrades the mind to play these games, by planting certain thought patterns into a person’s head like “you cannot experience joy without pain” or using insidious time based mechanics that force the user to sit still and play the game, or otherwise he would miss out a reward or have some of the monotonous work he did become undone automatically, simply because he wasn’t around.

Such mechanics have direct impact on real life both in the mentality of a person and also being literally forced to play the game without stopping or you’ll risk loosing the game. Think about a mother with a baby and a game like this causes her to neglect her child because the game is a source of addiction and doesn’t give any regard to real-life. This is irresponsible and outright dangerous game design.

Ultimately, these games were designed primarily for making money, regardless of morals, fun or the mental or physical health of its players. Zynga, with its Ville-series of games, have been doing just that, hence my sarcastic remark in the beginning. I hope they will stop it.

These types of games are absolutely not what I’m proposing. True infinite games focus on delivering an emotion or an experience, either being somebody like a jet pilot, scuba diver, adventurer or a dinosaur or just being yourself and experiencing a new universe that you can interact with freely and hang around it, doing fun things.

Its like playing those epic adventure games like Deus Ex, Mass Effect, Fallout, Bioshock and so on, except you play as yourself, you make your own epic story with your own real choices, the world is persistent as are your choices and the content doesn’t end, unlike in the mentioned scripted and finite examples in this paragraph.

They do nothing to get you forcefully addicted, but only provide you with a rich universe you can hop in and out of at any time, never forcing you to grind mindlessly or wait when an arbitrary timer that you cannot stop ticks away. These games are designed to make you entertained and do their best at it, at all times.

They are also compatible with the real world by acknowleding that it exists and making sure they will not get in the way of it. It does this by methods of allowing you to pause whenever you want and never resorting to any sly tricks to force you to sit and become addicted by manipulating or forcing you, regardless of real life.

Real infinite games are civilized. They respect you and the world you live in.

Real infinite games are civilized. They respect you and the world you live in.

They also do not let monetization interfere or compromise the gameplay. And they certainly do not attempt to ration or control enjoyment in anyway. Money and entertainment need to be kept separate at all times. Any purchases, be it new content, subscription payments or anything else must happen outside the game to preserve immersion and consistency of the universe. Attempting to do otherwise is like having two alternetive dimensions invade each other, with their own rules of physics and nature. Both will collapse in the end and it’s never pretty.

That is not to say that infinite games are not profitable, they are actually and in the long term, even more profitable than games that try to shoe-horn forced monetization the way Zynga does.

There is no pain, grinding, arbitrary waiting or other negative mechanics involved to make the gameplay and the rewards in an infinite game enjoyable. The gameplay of a real infinite game can stand on its own without needing the above crap to compensate in any way. Real infinite games are responsible, healthy and make people happy and better, never to imprison them or milk them dry.

 

“This is not an original concept”
“I played an infinite game once and it was awful”

This is argument only limits where we can evolve from today. It has two origins: One is the thought that “this has supposedly been done before and it sucked, so therefore everything else will suck too.” The other one is that “you have to be unique just for the sake of it, or otherwise it is not worth making.”

These are only self-imposed arbitrary limits. The only thing you get from thinking this way is actually becoming less creative, because ultimately, everything ever created is always made from something existing one way or another, either in a direct sense or in a more abstract sense. There is no way around it. Every idea is inspired by something existing, be it a direct solid example in the world or an abstract concept that came from piecing together certain ideas.

4uihww.jpg

Everything is a remix. This is what originality boils down to.

Any unique idea that you’ve ever encountered came from somewhere. If you look hard enough, you’ll find an origin for it, be it live proof or a metaphysical conclusion that simply makes sense, given the environment the idea was born in.

For example, the idea of an infinite game came to me from playing and modding several games over the course of my entire life. It’s a long story and there are a lot of details involved, but I saw potential in a game called Cortex Command, which had a powerful modding platform that allowed users to add literally anything into the game and change it significantly with great ease and flexibility.

That combined with the gameplay experience of a game called Soldat, which I played for 10 years and never had a dull moment with, everything clicked and I saw a clear vision how it could all work, it made sense and it is also very feasible with the technology we have today. The infinite game is just a matter of design and I’ve spent the last few years perfecting the formula on how to properly create them with scientific precision.

As for the part that the last infinite game you played felt empty or just sucked and not believing that things can be improved and made better is very limiting. We barely even understand the world as it is, even with all the discoveries and studies science has uncovered so far. There is still so much to do and explore that we won’t be running out of new things to find any time soon.

Again, technology is fairly new and it keeps growing at a fast rate while all sort of pressures are altering it like deadlines, lack of resources or limited knowledge, so mistakes are bound to happen and they get corrected as time goes by, but improvements are made every day and this is how things evolve constantly. A negative attitude does nothing more than just impede progress of the next great thing you could benefit from.

Criticism is always fine, but to assume that after one example went sour it means that it is impossible, only limits creativity and impedes evolution in any subject.

 

“Go make this infinite game yourself”
“You speak so much about this, why not do it yourself already”

Now I know this is not a direct prejudice against the infinite game, but I got couple of these replies, so just to settle it once and for all, I’ll address this here as well.

First and foremost, I actually am. I have two projects already planned, one is a mech space combat game which is already fully designed, almost ready to be announced and is about to enter the production phase.

The second project is a space conquest game similar to 4X games in some aspects, although at a much more compact scale, but with complete direct control over your characters in realtime simulated interactive environments instead of looking at generic statistics, dice rolls and abstract representations you normally get in old traditional 4X games. Basically its like Cortex Command in space, bigger and better, but different.

However, I am just a single person and my proficiency is best at game design. Video games take a lot of time and effort to create, so before those two projects come out, might as well share my knowledge with an article than sit on it in secrecy for a couple years.

Video game development also requires other special skills that need to be learned before you can create a project properly, which is what I’m doing right now with learning advanced programming, with the occasional lesson ranging anything from art, sound, marketing, publishing, graphic design, website development, human communication, writing articles (hello there) and setting up a company, which is where I’m currently at. It takes time and I’m pretty busy.

xt0l0.jpg

If you want to do something properly, plan ahead.

Hopefully this entire article clears up any misunderstandings of what kind of infinite games I'm talking about, but if not, please throw a question in the comments and I'll try to answer it for you.


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Comments


Darren Tomlyn
profile image
Hi.

It appears that we might have wound up in a similar place, in regards to thinking about possibilities for games, though I'm not sure we're in exactly the same place, and I'm pretty sure we've not arrived there in the same way, for quite the same reasons.

What I have, is the 'big picture', of what games are, (and can be), both in isolation and in relation to many other things, (art, puzzles, competitions etc.), and the potential computers have for such a thing.

I can tell you that the main reason many/most people struggle to recognise and understand infinite games properly, is not just because of their application, currently and until now, but also as a side effect of their understanding of games in general, specifically the understanding and recognition of competition, itself, as being part of what the word game represents (as an activity).

Competition, as the most basic application of compete, is a state, not an event - (though it can be further applied as one). As a state, it can be perpetual, and is, as part of what we call life. It's as a state, that competition is part of the application of the things that happen, that the word game itself represents.

As I said, I've been approaching this from a different perspective - as a matter of linguistics - since if people understood what games are, then some of what I see as being possible becomes fairly obvious - (at least I think it should!), and since we're getting them confused for puzzles and competitions, especially, at this time, ("if it's using a computer then it must be a 'game'"), there's a lot getting in the way of realising what we can do.

Infinite games have always been technically possible, because of what the word game itself represents - it's just that the use of computers as a medium to enable such a thing, now makes infinite games 'realistically' possible - not that we're doing much more than scratching the surface of what's truly possible atm., (we've got a solid foundation, but we're not recognising it, (because of the confusion of what games are), and so we're really not building on it very well, or consistently at all).

Unfortunately, because of all this, without putting the foundations in place for people to truly understand what they should be making, the how and why will always be inconsistent.

But not knowing what a game is, is merely a symptom of a far bigger and deeper problem with our understanding and recognition of language itself, (at least), and so, again, there's so much more I need to explain and describe before I even get anywhere near to the word game itself. (Yes, the problems we have with games run very deep!)

As it happens, I'm now writing up the most fundamental problem for a friend at Cambridge University (UK), so I don't know when or how I'll get around to posting it all on my blog, here, (or should that be if?)

(My current blog is almost 18 months out of date, now, and really only describes basic symptoms, (though with a few solutions that should still work), that, at the time, I didn't fully understand to BE symptoms, and, as such, it is still inconsistent in a number of places - (you have been warned):

http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/DarrenTomlyn/20110311/6174/Content
s_NEW.php

Again, though, it's still no-where near the actual subject matter, here, yet.


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