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Systemic Consistency and the Law of Conservation
by Brent Gulanowski on 08/10/12 09:14:00 am   Featured Blogs

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.


My first experience with a computer game was nearly thirty years ago, with a Commodore Pet. (It was also my first exposure to computer programming.) I was enthralled. My enthusiasm for games, as a medium, has not diminished over the last thirty years. As a medium, I am fond of many of its superlative examples. But I am mostly still enthusiastic about its potential.

But in the last decade or more, what has changed is my frustration with the industry of games, and the many bad games that are made, and are being made, and will be made. It wouldn't be so bad if bad games were a minority, or even a basic majority. But when nearly all games are bad, it's a cause for dismay, even despair.

OK, so calling almost all games "bad" is probably not going to win me any friends around here, but I might as well be honest. I think games, as a medium, have failed miserably to realize their potential, even as that potential continues to grow with the power of computers, the Internet, and the sophistication of developers and gamers.

But it's even worse than that. Not only are games not living up to my expectations as games, they are failing to live up to my expectations as creative expressions of how their creators see, understand and interpret the world.

And not just how they fail to present reality. Most games today don't even succeed in presenting the fantasy worlds that they work so hard to envision.

Most games today are stupid. Not only are they nonsensical—which is frequently forgivable, and even, in rare cases, honourable—but they simply fail to make it clear what they are about. They fail to say anything even remotely coherent about either the world we live in, or about any ideas of any kind. What they do say is inevitably inconsistent and contradictory. Not just with reality, but with the different parts of the games themselves.

Granted, I have this complaint about a lot of artistic media. Too many artists seem to have a woeful ignorance of science: a lack of awareness that we, as a society, have a deep, vast understanding of how much of the universe works.

I am well aware of the danger of scientific hubris. I'm also familiar with the supposed dangers of monoculture, which a science-only point of view seems to be (it isn't). But the evidence is overwhelming that science is the most powerful and resilient worldview ever invented by human beings. It has given us the most reliable and useful body of knowledge of the world, both factual and practical, and enabled virtually all of the good things that we enjoy in our lives (beyond those built into our bodies, which we enjoy regardless of any worldview). Anyone who believes that science is just one of many possible, equivalent ways of understanding the world is living in a delusion. Science has won, and it is the only worldview that can reasonably explain why (evolution, duh).

The essence of science, however, is astoundingly missing from most games. Games, like many cultural artifacts, are filled with technology of one kind or another. And certainly, the people who make (program) games inevitably know at least a little of the science that underlies the technology. But there is a lot more to the world, and to science, than binary logic. Not that the content of most games depicts the nature or use of computers especially accurately. And if games can't represent computers properly, how badly are they representing the laws of physics, thermodynamics, economics, psychology, biology and all of the other scientific realms? Abysmally.

I'm not trying to argue that it's the role of games to teach players science (let alone to teach them to be scientists). I'm arguing that it's bad for games to be contradicting what we know about the world based on science.

I'm also not arguing that games set in fantasy worlds are bad. Magic is not intrinsically bad. What's bad is the refusal of most games to pay even the slightest heed to the fundamental law which underlies all other laws in all parts of the universe: the law of conservation.

This law is a fundamental to the laws of thermodynamics, mechanics (both Newtonian and relativistic), the distribution of capital in economics, information theory, Turing's Law, chemistry and all other true sciences.

If you haven't already guess, the reason for this is tied intimately with the queen of all the sciences: mathematics. The reason that mathematics works is because of the law of conservation. The reason that the scientific understanding of the universe is possible, and why mathematics is used in all real science, is the same thing: conservation. The material universe is quantitatively conservative. (Please don't see this as a political statement. Most political viewpoints, "conservative" or otherwise, are completely non-conservative in all ways except in the miserly way they use their intellects.)

But, you might argue, games are not required to be set in the actual material universe, or some close approximation of it. And you would be right. But the law of conservation does not apply only in our universe. It applies in all possible universes. It certainly applies in all game universes, if you pay even the slightest heed to the idea that games exist to help players learn.

OK, lets say you don't believe that. I'm not saying that games must be tools for learning. But certainly, the history of games is one of learning. The nature of classic games is that of the distilled rules of systems found in reality, and using those rules in simulations that are designed to teach us something about those systems. Even if games have expanded far beyond those simple beginnings, have they dispensed with their original nature completely? Have they overwhelmingly abandoned it in favour of something else? Escapism? Delusion? Indulgent and narcissistic fun? Are contemporary games little more than yet another opiate of the masses?

Many, if not most, modern games have an overriding concern: the invention and presentation of fantasy worlds. High fantasy, low fantasy, techno-fantasy, war fantasy: most games feature imaginary worlds that offer up many and varied contrasts with the real world. Once again, I do not have a problem with fantasy worlds. In all honesty, I get great enjoyment from them. If I cared only for reality, I wouldn't spend so much time experiencing and thinking about games and other art.

Different fantasy worlds contrast with reality in a variety of ways. Greater and more radical contrasts excite our imaginations and engage our sense of wonder, which is so easily lost after too much time spent in the everyday world. (Other authors have successfully argued the value of fantasy worlds, so I don't need to.) Fantasy is itself a good thing.

But to me, some fantasy worlds are better than others. The quality of a fantasy world depends in a large part on its originality. But it also depends upon how easily I, as the audience, can suspend my disbelief. It's not that difficult to suspend my judgement, to open my mind to the strange and alien. In fact, I live for it. I can accept almost any premise, almost any deviation from reality, except for one: a lack of internal consistency, which in turn comes down to one fundamental law: conservation.

The adherence—or not—to the law of conservation sets one class of fantasy world apart form another.

OK, so why pick on games in particular? Every creative medium indulges in fantasy. What's it about games that they deserve special criticism?

Partly it's that I consider myself a game developer, even after years of doing other things and never having released a single game. Partly, and more importantly, it's that I'm a gamer. I want to play good games. I can hardly consider a game good if I don't like it. Even if I can recognize other good qualities in a game, or that other people like it, it doesn't mean it's good to me. I'm not a solipsist, but I am free to judge any artwork by my own standards and preferences. I wouldn't be writing this difficult essay, however, if I didn't think that some other people might agree with at least some of what I'm saying.

The problem, for me, is that I'm too smart for almost all the games out there. I'm a smart guy. I'm a bit egotistical, but I have sound reasons to think so. I read a lot. I learn a lot. I know a lot. I have a sophisticated understanding of the world. I can admit that much of my knowledge is that of a lay-person, a non-specialist, but even so, the vast majority of computer games are dramatically dumber than I am. And playing dumb games is, generally, not enjoyable.

Games are dumb for lots of reasons. Dumb writing, dumb characters, dumb user interfaces, dumb controls, dumb mechanics: it goes on and on. Games are hard to make. Nevertheless, a lot of unqualified people try to make them. So a lot of games are, consequently, not very good. Just like a lot of movies, books, comics and other art are not very good for the same reason.

But the knowledge and skill required to make good games may very well exceed that of any other creative work.

At this point, I can present an alternative hypothesis: game developers aren't dumb, so much as they are overreaching. The challenge to make smart games simply exceeds what is reasonable. And the problem is not that developers aren't smart, or even smart in enough ways, but that, at the end of the day, they are simply trying to achieve contradictory goals, and it's obvious. Games want to be about sophisticated, mature and complicated subjects, but they also just want to be about shoot stab punch, sneak run jump, loot buy sell equip.

That would be fine and good, except that all those things were exhausted in the last century. And if that's all games are really about, then the industry might as well admit that all it's got left going for it is the strategy of remaking old games with new technology. And once the improvements to the technology are exhausted (because the players can no longer tell the difference), then there won't be anything new to add, and the industry will just have to give up. Or switch to gambling. Ahem.

I, for one, will not be taking that strategy in my own game development, even if it means that the market for my games is small and exclusively made up of people of more or less similar taste and intelligence as myself. If no one else wants to make games for me and people like me, then I'll just have to step up. But I'd like to think I'm not alone even amongst developers.

Lest I'm ostracized for being nothing but a snob, let me try to assure you that this isn't so. I am a snob, but I'm not wholly a snob. I like a good load of dumb entertainment. I like explosions. I like superheroes. I look a good bit of run and jump and shoot and stab. I can even overlook internal contradictions and stupid game worlds if there is a fair bit of creative art direction, interesting characters, engaging storytelling, witty dialogue, fun gear and gadgets, and cool level design. I like to feel like the country mouse come to the city once in a while, just overwhelmed with jaw-dropping amazement. I like to remember what it feels like to be young and naive.

But that stuff doesn't have a long shelf life. Technology kills it. Familiarity kills it. Experience kills it. Maturity kills it. It's decoration. It gets old and stale. It's good. It's valuable. But it's not the meat. It's not the blood and guts. And it's disappointing and irritating when it makes a promise that the core of the experience fails to deliver on.

So let me go back to the historic ideal of a game. (Look, I'm no game historian. I'm not an authority with credentials. I'm just generalizing based on my necessarily limited personal experience.)

There is a common idea that games are meant to be simplifications of some aspect of real life. A game distills some part of reality into an idealized form. In that form, it can be studied and practised independently of other factors that, from the perspective of the system, amount only to noise. We lose a small amount of fidelity and gain a tremendous amount of clarity.

At the heart of this idea is that systems follow consistent, conservative rules. By extracting the rules and working within them, exploring different outcomes that arise from the rules, we can gain a deep, even intuitive understanding of the original system. The rules create an abstraction, but they are meant to be a consistent abstraction. Outcomes in the constructed system will jive with outcomes in the real system, or, at least, be internally and reliably consistent with one another.

If I were to speculate a bit on why people make games without paying attention to internal consistency, it would be that it's easier to design inconsistent worlds than consistent ones. But why do people play games lacking internal consistency? Because, I think, they aren't playing games in order to learn about real systems. Quite the opposite. They're playing games specifically to avoid learning more about the world.

The world is complex and more than a little intimidating. Learning how the world works is also a burden: it forces you to accept a certain responsibility for your actions. When you learn that your actions have consequences—especially when they are predictable—you have to take responsibility for those consequences. Not necessarily moral responsibility—you may be a nihilist—but nevertheless, you have to accept the fact of your role in the outcomes that arise from your own actions.

Those of us who acknowledge the law of conservation, and accept the consequences of our own actions, may be a minority, and probably always have been. It is my wish to find others who share this point of view, and to make games with and for them. I don't want to make dumb games for irresponsible people who don't care about how the world really works, and have no interest in the essential laws which govern the universe.

And don't waste time arguing with me about all the "realistic" combat games on the market, whether it be shooters or strategy games or whatever. Yes, those games, and most multiplayer competitive games, rely on well-balanced and consistent rules. The world is over-saturated with combat games, and I have absolutely no interest in playing them. I want games for intellectual players who want to consider intellectual problems, ideally coupled with immersive, first-person, character-driven gameplay. I want worlds that simulate more than just ballistic physics and weapon reloading.

I want to play—and make—games that recognize these truths: that life is dominated by cause and effect, and that choices have real consequences. More than that, I want games that find their real power in these truths. I want games that empower players by respecting and adhering to these truths. I want games where the rules make sense, and where, by learning them, we become more enlightened, and better able to understand the universe, and our place in it, and to make our way in it, with self-determinism, not being dragged down corridors on an invisible leash.

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Philip Fortier
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Do you have any examples of games that lack of internal consistency?

Brent Gulanowski
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The problem with that is that most (computer) games do not go so far as to make a rule-based system that carries through the whole game. Or there are so many conditional obstacles. Or the world is so static that it wouldn't achieve anything. You can have a kind of degenerate consistency whereby every single interaction between the player and the game is fully isolated from every other interaction, or at best the only common interaction is damage or direct modification effects due to combat mechanics and attacks.

If we try to look at World of Warcraft with this approach, the results would be very discouraging. The world of World of Warcraft virtually has no internally consistent rules. But a very common example is the lack of friendly fire. Or the level and class constraints on gear. Or the way some gear binds to the player.

These are only a few examples of an entire class of violations of consistency. They all have ostensibly valid reasons for existing, but they erode the ability to learn lessons from the game within the game itself. Everything in the game requires memorization; nothing is discoverable and applicable to other aspects of the game. (It's obviously not worthwhile to even start considering the ways that the game rules violate the law of conservation. I'd be amazed if a single facet of the game adheres to conservation law.) Another pet peeve is "elite" NPCs with 10x the hit points, just because. And the only way to know is to use the game's UI - it's not evident from the world that these are special characters.

So, it's not a useful example, I guess, because it's so far away in the other direction from where I'm interested in going.

Another common problem in many games is the way that inventories are controlled. I love Fallout 3 for a lot of reasons, but the ability to carry over 300 units of mass worth of equipment is a bit outrageous. I suppose it's nevertheless internally consistent within the game (and the others based on the same engine) that containers, whether people or boxes, have no sane limit on the quantity or size of objects that can be stored within them. So, how about the random way in which the contents of containers get reset? There is no way to learn the behaviour of all containers by interacting with a few examples. There are some containers that reset, and some that don't, and you have to test every single one individually (or probe the game resources) to figure out which.

Nick Harris
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Halo 3 multiplayer lacks internal consistency. However, its 'faults' can be remedied by the creation of a Custom Game. First of all, the main break from the principle of "conservation" is respawning. Not only do weapons, equipment, scenery and vehicle magically reappear so the players continue to have something to fight with in a 15 minute game, but the players come back again and again from the dead. Corpses disappear along with the burning wrecks of destroyed vehicles, unless those wrecks are scenic elements present in the underlying level in which case they cannot be damaged - such as the crashed Pelican dropship on the "Valhalla" map. Bullet casings peel away from gatling guns and then roll away down grassy slopes, but eventually vanish. Bullet holes and burns from plasma weapons are kept as 'texture decals' until the game runs out of short-term memory and is forced to recycle earlier coordinates, allowing you to only write a single letter of your name. Same applies to footprints in the snow. Vehicles never run out of fuel and the indigenous birds and butterflies you encounter are in no apparent danger of extinction as you take a break from your team's goal to shoot their wings off.

However, this can be easily remedied by making an 'Elimination" game type in which players are only given one life. This would make for a much shorter experience were it not possible to have several 5 minute rounds in one overall match. Even though players are coming back from the dead they aren't magically reappearing infront of each other, breaking all sense of authenticity.

Weapons, equipment, scenery and vehicles can be made to spawn once at the start and then never again. This works well with Forged maps that have clearly identified bases that can hold each team's armory, which is frankly more realistic than stumbling across a discarded Sniper Rifle as you navigate a map. While you are at it you may want to boost the damage the weapons do to players so that a Sniper Rifle to an unshielded opponent's chest is a one-hit kill. Lowering the player's health a little in combination with stronger weapons usually does the trick.

If you aren't wanting a super-tactical SWAT style game, then you had better keep the Mjolner shields as they are, but they need not regenerate as fast or at all - the latter option making them more akin to conventional body armor. This gives you initial confidence to explore an unknown map and build up your situational awareness, rather than cowering in a corner hoping someone will blunder past you for a sweet melee ambush paralysing the pace of the game.

With or without shields, the player can't move around as sluggishly as they currently do. To have a fighting chance of moving from cover-to-cover and actually avoid enemy fire (although, you should get your team to use Assault Rifles to "suppress" enemy positions so other members of your team can leave the safety of cover in order to perform a "bounding overwatch" manoeuvre), it would help if your Spartan was a little more sprightly and if not actually Sprint per se get their arse in gear and not dawdle their way across the open areas. Luckily the movement speed can be adjusted, so this isn't a problem.

Skydivers can reasonably expect to change their landing position by angling their limbs as they fall, but that is because they are travelling a terminal velocity and the resistive force of the air they pass through "effectively" becomes so "dense" that they can "swim" about in it. Okay, the science here may not be perfect, but you get the gist... however, Halo lets its Spartans choose where they land after they jump. Now, they jump unnaturally high (because they are Cyborgs), but they are by no means Skydiving. So, you should just increase the gravity to rid the game of this "floaty jump" behaviour if you find you can't tolerate it - although, you will no longer be able to mantle rocks and leap over Warthog Jeeps intent on splattering you on their grills. The Forge should be used to tweak levels to ensure areas can be climbed upon - note: that their is a well known bug that lets you force scenic objects, like rocks to merge with each other and the "floor" of the map, although it is a lot of work compared to "Phased" mode in Halo: Reach.

Powerups are best avoided although the delayed spawning of an Overshield at a place deemed likely to generate one architecturally (such as under the bridge in "Citadel"), could draw injured players sans shields out of hiding on a risk-reward basis later in the round. Invisibility should either be completely avoided or be of the poor camouflage variety in order to avoid cries of "cheating!" from those concerned.

Do you strictly need the motion detector to be on? If you feel you cannot scientifically justify its inclusion, or feel that a paranoid observation of it detracts from immersive play then feel free to turn it off. You may want to retain waypoints for your team as being informed that they are in combat, or just died can stop the remainder of your team rushing blindly to their deaths.

Betrayal booting may seem inconsistent at first as it seems that you are being killed by a ghost who no longer participates in your causal reality, but pretending that all Spartans have a suicide chip implanted in their brain to ensure their loyalty which the Cortana AI can choose to activate if they engage in treacherous team-killing behaviour could excuse its inclusion if you really want it.

Choosing Multi-team with, say 3 teams of 5 players should keep the dominance of one team over another in flux over the rounds especially if combined with an Objective like Flag Rally - basically a Conquest gametype.

The point of this point isn't to talk about how wonderful Halo 3 is, but to point out its breaking of the laws of conservation and inconsistencies, along with how they can be remedied.

Brent Gulanowski
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@Nick Harris:

Thanks for that deep example. Since Philip asked, I've been trying to think of examples, and respawning was one I thought of. The regeneration/respawn mechanic is ubiquitous in games now. In some games, especially PvP, it's essential, in some form or other. I know when I was a Quake III player, trying to play Counterstrike was really tough because of the lack of instant respawn. But it makes for a totally different gameplay experience.

I had no problem with respawn in arena combat games. Their "world" is honestly artificial, even if it's set in a semi-real looking setting (although I prefer the honesty of Quake III's completely synthetic arenas). The environment is not meant to be self-sustaining, independently alive or persistent. It's just an arena. "Death" in Quake isn't death, it's being fragged: you suffer a penalty and then continue. The spawning items are not real things; they are power ups. A sub-game of that and other arena games is the competition to acquire and co-trol such assets.

Halo multiplayer is not Halo, but there is certainly a bit of dissonance. Are you supposed to be able to suspend your disbelief, and imagine that Halo PvP represents a "real" example of combat between human and Covenant? I don't think so. Even if you were, after the second play, it's even less likely. But maybe with the changes you suggest, it would be possible.

My least favourite thing in this regard is health/mana regeneration. But it's become a de facto standard, despite being completely ridiculous. Again, I'm not worried about "realism" in the slightest. If you invent a world where health and mana regenerate, so be it. But enemies better regenerate in a comparable way, or have a good reason for being different.

A more annoying kind of regeneration for me, seen in Bethesda games, is daily money reset for vendors. They haven't sold all the stuff you sold to them last time, but somehow they have a bigger budget. One explanation is that the money you see is not the money they have, but it's basically their transaction limit with you. But is there any way to justify a hard dollar-value transaction limit? It's more likely that people wouldn't buy things that they have too much inventory of, or wouldn't sell you things they didn't trust you to have. Or that they'd demand big discounts on volume or glut items.

Most of my problems with consistency and conservation arise in games which try to present a world that is supposed to exist to some extent without the player. Any game which has a setting with some semblance of society and/or characters is open to this type of criticism. But not just them.

Many games have abstract worlds which while not filled with people as we know them, nevertheless suggest some kind of persistence beyond the player's experience. Your avatar may not be human, or even alive, but if it's more than just a cypher in a puzzle game, there's room to evaluate the significance of the law of conservation as it applies to how resources in the game can cycled through the game's system(s).

Darren Tomlyn
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Whether you realise it or not - you're banging your head against the same problems I am - you're just not recognising them in a fully consistent manner.

The biggest problem we have, that underpins EVERYTHING to do with games, is that we simply do not fully recognise and understand - know - what they are - what it is that the word game represents.

Unfortunately, your own perspective, according to what you have written, is part of the reason for that:

Viewing games purely as works of art.

EVERYTHING we create, can be seen as a work of art, but only those whose function is consistent with art itself, can be DEFINED as such.

Your main problem, is that you're trying to do this for games, even though their function is completely separate from art itself - just like anything else we create that has a different function, from furniture, to consumer electronics to cars etc.. You may have the best looking television in the world, but if it never has a good or consistent picture, then it's a **** t.v..

Unfortunately, people at this time do NOT know, consistently, what the function of games truly is, and are therefore having problems creating them consistently and to their full potential. Many, like yourself, are simply viewing them as works of art to be created, that happen to be used to fulfil some other behaviour - (though exactly what they're not too sure, or arn't perceiving in a consistent manner) - even though the art is merely a condition of the medium, and has nothing to do with it being a game at all - it's what they're used to enable that matters.

Now, some of what you're complaining about - the lack of consistency in their rules - does indeed have a part of play in the lack of games reaching their full potential, but any discussion of such a matter can ONLY exist, and take place, within a framework defined by a consistent definition of the word game itself, which your post has not done, and is why it isn't very meaningful.

But again, your last few paragraphs make clear, that because people do not know what games are, they do not understand how to make them to their full potential, though some of what you want may not only be found in games...

Since people do not have such a definition, at present, however, all such discussions of games, including those on this site, generally have large problems.

Which is what my blog is for, but I'm re-writing it (again), since it obviously still isn't clear enough for people to understand the nature (and then the specifics) of the problems we have - which is nothing more than a matter of linguistics, that everyone has currently failed to address in a fully consistent manner:

Brent Gulanowski
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I don't think we're talking about the same thing at all. And I didn't make a case that games are or aren't art; that's a completely different (and pointless) discussion.

I also disagree with you that we don't have a good definition of what a game is. There are plenty of good definitions, depending on the context. You will never arrive at a perfect definition of "game", because the word "game" is a very common word used in many contexts. It's not a technical term. If you want to make technical definitions, it's better to make new words that won't be so easily confused with everyday words and their various meanings.

Darren Tomlyn
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Then you don't understand the true nature of what you're talking about - which is a far bigger (and unfortunately common) problem when it comes to games, for both their definition and application, aswell as many other, similar activities - (such as puzzles and competitions etc.).

The last thing any reply on a site such as this should have to do is quote people's posts back to them to provide evidence for why the reply was necessary and written.

If you do not understand why your description and perspective of games as a 'medium' naturally involves perceiving games as works of art, (as what they're a medium for), given the nature and context of the OP, then you can never understand and recognise games for what they are - which is distinct from art, even if they can be seen in such a manner.

"There are plenty of good definitions, depending on the context."

WRONG. The basic use and definition of the word game is NOT currently recognised and understood in a consistent manner at all, and nearly ALL of the other uses of the word game ALL stem from this single use and definition, without which, we ARE having problems.

The basic use and definition of the word game is to represent an activity/event/application of behaviour (things that happen), (and therefore used as a noun). The other main uses - as a thing (noun), or behaviour (verb), are both derived from the main use itself - as a thing (or collection of things) that can be used to enable a game (activity) to exist, or behaviour derived from an older, now obsolete, use of the word, meaning to gamble.

(Game != gambling since ~ late 19C)

There are other, minor uses, that are also derived from its main use, but generally more subjective or even inconsistent, being based on such problematic perceptions and definitions of the main word itself - (such as using the word game as meaning an application of play (it's all a game to him/her etc.)).

But game != play (noun) - (because games are, (and always have been, based on their current definition), often played (verb) for work (noun), and if you need evidence for that, I give you the Olympics currently taking part in London, which, yes, does involve all of the basic games, (aswell as competitions, too)).

The main reason we have problems with the word game, is that people constantly try and treat it as though it exists in isolation, which is never true - either on behalf of what it represents, or on behalf of its relationship with the rest of the language - and that is nothing more than a simple failure of linguistics - which leads people to recognise, perceive and therefore DEFINE it, as and by its application - which breaks the most basic rule of the language itself, without which it cannot exist.

All of the arguments about the word game that merely dismiss the matter as being normal subjective use of the language, are guilty of the latter - of not obeying and recognising the rules of the language itself, essentially denying its very existence.

This is also why we're having problems with similar words, such as art, puzzle, competition, and even play itself, especially in relation to the word game, and that they've all become subjective to a certain degree in a manner that is inconsistent with each other - (some are perceived by the media used (game/puzzle) - by their effects (art) - by limited application (competition) - or why they exist (art/play)) - should give us a very good clue as to what is going wrong...

We're not obeying, (because we're not recognising and applying) the rules of the language in relation to this group or type of word, that governs what they represent in relation TO the rest of the language, that then dictates how they are used.

Whether you realise it or not, your post both demonstrates symptoms of this, whilst complaining about symptoms of this from others.

Brent Gulanowski
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Wow, you're not blunt at all. I "don't understand what I'm talking about"? You lack diplomacy skills.

You seem to be trying to push some agenda. I'm not sure why you think it's of tantamount importance relating to what I've written. You may think you've explained how it does relate, but you haven't. All you've done is clumsily drag in a completely different topic, and then stated emphatically that it is not only related, but more important, despite not having demonstrated any connection at all.

You've as much as claimed that the only way I could possibly have anything worth saying about games is if I read your blog post and admit that you're right. Well, your style is definitely discouraging me from wanting to do that.

The fact is, you completely ignored the content of my post, ostensibly because they are somehow irrelevant in light of my astounding ignorance. Well, that's fine, but exactly why you're here stating completely unrelated points is still unclear to me.

Just because I call games a "medium" doesn't mean that I think it's an "art" (or otherwise). Of course, "art" is another word that no-one, however well intentioned, can simply re-define however they wish. Like "game", it's not a technical word, and it doesn't have a singular technical definition. It's a general-purpose word, used by regular people to mean lots of different things. Denying that is a good way to sound as though you have lost touch with reality. It's observable: people use the word in different ways in different contexts. It's just a fact, whether you like it or not.

Your obsession with defining "game" (and "art" or other words) makes you sound like a crank. I think you need to come up with a new approach. And you need to do it without hijacking other peoples' discussions.

Toby Grierson
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"You seem to be trying to push some agenda"

It's "please read my blog".

Darren Tomlyn
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Obviously the problem is far too fundamental for you to fully recognise what is happening, along with how and why.

When someone is wrong - I will NOT tell them otherwise. According to the basic rules governing the English language - game != art. Unfortunately, you do not seem to understand that, as according to what you have written, this is how you are perceiving them.

You think I've ignored what you've written, but only because you're so focused on a particular perspective and applications of the word game, (in a manner that is confused with the word art), that you fail to recognise and understand why trying to treat such a matter in isolation, is simply impossible, and is causing all the problems in the first place - both those which you yourself have made, and those you are complaining about.

Your replies also demonstrate that you do not understand the full relationship between the general use of the English language, and its study and teaching - (linguistics).

Unfortunately, the latter is where the underlying problems lie, of which your post, (and many many others, including EVERY English dictionary/encyclopedia/textbook etc.), demonstrates symptoms. If you think ANY word in ANY language, is incapable of being deciphered, described and taught in a consistent manner, then you betray the very functionality, and therefore existence of language itself, along with everyone who uses, studies and teaches it.

Unfortunately, this is the true nature of the problems we have at this time, given the perception and understanding people have, and then demonstrate, for this matter as a whole. Your posts and replies are merely symptoms of this.

Unfortunately, the underlying problems mean that trying to deal with any aspect of games at this time is also problematic - so much so, that a single post will never be enough to cover all the information that is needed - (which is what my blog is for).

Consistency in rules should be a good thing - but the questions are WHY, and also why not? Without understanding and knowing what the word game represents, however, neither can be answered in a fully consistent manner.

Sean Hayden
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While I agree with your overall point (internal consistency is essential for believable and "smart" worlds) I have to pick apart a few of your statements.

First, and this is kind of tangential to the subject at hand, but it still bugs me: science is not a "worldview". A worldview can either acknowledge or ignore science and scientific discoveries, but it's not a dichotomy -- you don't have to choose between science and other unrelated beliefs. You can be a < insert religion or philosophy here > scientist just fine.

Anyway, more on topic, I disagree that the law of conservation is essential. Plenty of good stories have been told that involve gods, godlike powers, or other forces that violate the law of conservation. Naturally the more scientific laws you ignore the worse your story may look if you don't give proper explanation, but exceptions can be made even for the law of conservation. If it's a pet peeve of yours, that's fine for you to be bothered by it, but I don't think the feeling is universal.

Brent Gulanowski
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I'm not sure whether you're arguing that people can maintain two contradictory beliefs at the same time (which I believe they can), or that science and world views are strictly orthogonal. I don't accept the latter.

I admit that the strict definition of "science" has a couple of meanings. First, it is a process for disproving statements based on empirical evidence. Second, it is the body of knowledge acquired through the process.

But what I mean to say (and perhaps didn't articulate successfully) is that science does have pre-requisite beliefs that are themselves part of a world view. To accept that science works and that knowledge acquired through science is valuable, requires one to accept various fundamental precepts, including the law of conservation, the tenet of disprovability, and the (limited) reliability of sensory awareness, amongst other things.

If you choose to believe in science and miracles, say, then perhaps, if you presuppose logical consistency in the universe, you could argue that the prerequisites of science as a dependable process for understanding the world has an exception, in that God can change the rules by Her own choice, then that's a kind of hybrid view that I think is outside what I'm talking about. I'm saying that to accept science is to accept that most of the time there are rules and they are consistent.

I know that many people enjoy stories about myths, magic, and other fantastic things. So, yes, I'm coming out on a rather rigid point of fact. In any case, I'm not primarily talking about stories at all, so I'm sorry if I made that impression. Games may tell stories, and that's well and good. But I'm interested in how mechanics are consistent, or how mechanics and story are mutually consistent or not. I think stories that defy the game mechanics, or vice versa, degrade the quality of a game.

Brent Gulanowski
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As far as the law of conservation being "essential", I did not mean to say that is essential to all games (or stories). It is essential to achieving a certain effect, which involves being able to learn the nature of a world and extrapolate what is or is not possible within that world.

In terms of myths and myth-like stories, they rarely feature any kind of consistency in the terms I am discussing. They may have a certain symbolic consistency, at least most myths do. But under any kind of analysis, they disintegrate readily into nonsense.

This isn't to say they might not be beautiful nonsense, or exciting nonsense, or whatever else. But they don't function beyond those brief feelings of enjoyment, at least, not in a way that is helpful when trying to navigate the modern world, or a well realized game world that allows players sufficient freedom of action.

Sean Hayden
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That's a much fairer interpretation of science and worldviews than I originally took away from the article, so thank you for clearing that up. I think I pretty much agree with your assessment now.

Regarding story, I read the article more as a critique of game worlds (which in terms of writing and verisimilitude doesn't differ much from any other story world) instead of as addressing the relationship between the game world and the mechanics, so I think that's my mistake.

I definitely agree the "mythical" approach to storytelling does not mesh well with mechanical systems the player has to learn. The rules of the game world need to be applied consistently to both plot and gameplay for the game to hold up.

The most infamous example of this is a character being killed off by the plot in spite of the player possessing potent resurrection magic. In a way it is rather lazy and "dumb" when designers present a world where death is treated seriously and gravely in spite of healing and resurrection magic being as common as dirt. I assume this is the kind of discrepancy you're speaking of.

Ara Shirinian
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The beauty of video games is that there is no good reason to adhere to something like the law of conservation, any more than there is a good reason for cartoons to adhere to it. What's really important is making your game grammar fair and consistent and readable.

Brent Gulanowski
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Well, then you obviously disagree with me, since my post was a concerted effort to explain a good reason for adhering to it. It would be nice if you had some arguments to present for why you disagree. I did not categorically deny that games that don't adhere to it have value.

It is interesting that you compare games to cartoons. I personally often compare them to comic books. And while all three can be fun while presenting absurd worlds with inconsistent and shallow mechanics, it prevents them from functioning in other ways.

I'm not arguing against fun, or good story-telling, or symbolism or metaphor or any of the other powerful techniques for communicating ideas. I'm talking about a particular use for games (and it might also apply to stories). One which involves providing a context for experimentation and learning as part of having fun, one which is undermined by not adhering to the law of conservation.

Nathan McKenzie
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I almost entirely agree with you Ara (of course)... BUT there is a good reason to adhere to the law of conservation. If your aesthetic goals are to present players with deep simulations or spaces that have a strong verisimilitude to real-life, and if you're willing to accept situations where players feel like the results of their input are functionally a bit random or impossible to reason about, then mimicking the laws of nature seem like a possible goal.

In those cases, players are mostly not going to be able to make the kinds of meaningful / predictable choices that I suspect you tend to be interested in (how long did it take humanity to produce an Isaac Newton who could actual puzzle these rules out? Answer: longer than the amount of time your player is going to play your game) - but obviously there are a lot of reasons to play games. Maybe it is impossible to make a game like Dark Souls fair enough to be invested in with the arbitrariness of closer-to-reality physics, but I could see something like, say, Heavy Rain benefiting from amping up its connection to reality as much as possible.

This all reminds me of a moment when I was playing Prince of Persia:Sands of Time, trying to solve a crate puzzle, and the crate had, I think, just enough physics simulations that I found myself having a really difficult time getting the willful thing to move to where I wanted it. It made me pine, ironically, for the days of Zelda block puzzles, where the blocks were arbitrarily constrained to large scale grid coordinates. Zelda was less realistic but far more usable in that situation. More realistic crate physics felt fun the way trying to aim in a first person shooter with a wonky / mildly broken mouse is fun.

There's a reason, I suspect, that real life sports tend to be played on rectangular, flat, featureless planes with almost platonically ideal objects like spheres - normal physical interactions (especially at high speeds) between arbitrary objects in real-time are essentially impossible to reason about or make strategy for.

Ara Shirinian
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Okay Nathan, I concede the point for simulation applications.

Brent, I think Nathan did a pretty good exposition in reply to your response, but in general, the point is that generalized physics systems often result in extremely undesirable side effects in game dynamics where you are not doing a real life simulation. You end up wanting to have a specialized physics simulation for each mechanical component to make each "feel right," and so you are left with either a physics system stretched beyond its capabilities where you have to compromise one or many mechanical things no matter what, and a nightmare of tuning where it's impossible to tune each mechanical situation without disrupting another.

Much easier to do everything the "non general physics" way where each mechanical component is simpler, modular, and independent.

Brent Gulanowski
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Ah, well I guess my post didn't sufficiently distinguish between a couple of things: real-world verisimilitude versus intra-game consistency; and various kinds of internal consistency. I didn't intend to say that games need more accurate physics simulations. In most cases, that's not necessary at all.

Games have a lot of different systems. Rigid body physics is only one, and in fact it's just one way to simulate interactions between game objects. Just as you can mess with the gravitational constant, or make gravity's direction vary, you can do these things in ways that follow an internal order, or not.

Likewise I wouldn't argue that games with money economies should try to mimic the real-world economy (of this or any other era). They should just have some intra-world consistency and conversation of money or other resources, to the point that interacting with those systems has consistent and predictable results for players.

I don't see how you can infer from my post that players need to have the abilities of Isaac Newton in order to learn the ins and outs of a game's rule system. For one, players aren't living in the seventeenth century. High school students know a lot about physics.

But again, I'm not advocating verisimilitude with real life, in general, or hyper-accurate physics, in specific. The only thing I'm looking for more of that comes from reality is conservation. If the rules of a game differ from the rules of reality, that's great, as long as I can deduce the consequences of my actions in new situations, as opposed to having to re-learn a whole new bunch of rules for every unique interaction.

Ara Shirinian
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In my experience what is internal consistency doesn't really matter (discounting data structures and organization- I'm not talking about things like that), the only thing that really matters is that the dynamics _feel_ right and consistent. Often, you have to do some rather unexpected and inconsistent things with the rules under the hood in order to achieve a consistent-feeling player experience. It's the perception and the feel that counts, not the elegance of the behind-the-scenes rules.

This is a bit like how roman columns were designed with a deliberate bulge, in order to make them look straight from the viewer's perspective.

Furthermore, I think if your end is to seek all your internal rules to be clean and elegant at all costs, you will rarely be able to achieve a truly clean and elegant experience on the level of player interaction.

Ole Berg Leren
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So, the games you want to make are essentially interactive systems that approximate real-life (or parts of it) to such a high degree that it becomes a tool for learning about the world? Ambitious goal!

I think I share this fascination, but from a different angle. I would love to see games like this, because they are extremely intuitive to the player (if he can set his learned assumptions from other games aside) and interact and immerse himself fully within a system of rules he already knows innately.

Did I get the gist of it?

Brent Gulanowski
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Even simple games can help you learn about some aspect of the world. It doesn't have to be unusually ambitious. It's a design approach. Monopoly can teach players something about money, even if it doesn't teach them how to be prudent stock market investors.

I'm definitely a big fan of deep immersion in rich systems. And I have to admit that I am often more interested in games that feature a lot of simulation elements. Because I think games like that require a lot of thought, and offer a lot of possibilities, for experimentation and replay. And they help you learn how to manage complexity and finite time and resources.

But that said, I'm also complaining about the opposite: games where the contradictions are so rife and obvious that the game rewards only one kind of learning: rote memorization. In each exact case, there is exactly one strategy for solving a challenge, and you can't apply what you learned in one to another.

I suppose no game is that extreme, but lots of games are full of contradictory exceptions, and undermine the ability of players to apply what they've learned in one situation in lots of other situations, or only superficially. You need a special weapon for every boss or enemy. You can't fight things outside your level. You can't go into that part of the world yet. Etc.

Using combos in multiple fights is an example of superficial application of learning a technique - it doesn't give you a better understand of the world, only the game controls. Whereas learning that skeletons are less affected by bladed weapons would be a real thing you could learn from fighting one enemy or type of enemy, and apply to fighting another type. Even better, you can draw the inference that it's the blade, because skeletons don't have flesh, so you're better to bash them with a mace.

I'm stuck on combat examples, but it also applies this to resource gathering, economic simulation, character dialogue options, and more.

In a lot of ways, this stuff is easiest to understand as a kind of economics. If you adhere to the law of conservation, it's like saying there is only so much of something in the world, and while it can be moved around, or transformed, it isn't just created out of nothing.

A major problem is found in games that have trivial money/barter economies, but yet are full of apparently valuable props that your character can't interact with, because it would unbalance the game. But there's always some other way to utterly destroy the economy in your favour, anyway. Many games (usually FPS and RPG) have brutally stupid money economies. Others have dumb ecosystems.

Most games with any kind of "effort in -> rewards out" system have trivial exploits, because instead of honour the law of conservation. They have sources of unlimited regenerating wealth, but they never have enough sinks. No matter how many bizarre restrictions and exceptions they enforce, players always get stinking rich. Granted, success in a game almost guarantees you end up "rich" in the game world; it's an inevitable result of being powerful. But the the wealth is often of almost no use--you can't buy anything useful, and spending it almost guarantees a return on investment, so you just end up with more--so what good is it?

As a genre, RTS games seem to be the ones which most closely follow these precepts. Actually, most pure PvP games have to do it. But I think it would be great if other kinds of games put them into practise.

I think the real problem is that it's quite counter to the goals of most "story-driven" games, but that's fine. I don't tend to like story-drive games, personally. This is a different design ethic from story-driven. This is an ethic of simulation-driven.

Jeff Seapulski
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I'll try to paraphrase for him. I think he wants:

A game where material is not manifested from nowhere but cycles through different levels/states. And has rational (this rationality being defined by the system) explanations for everything.

Basically: A game without "plot holes" so if he asks "why?" it isn't a simple answer such as "because pipes spawn piranha plants infinitely."

Also, I don't think he means his game needs to approximate or correspond to real-life to understand real-life better, but that the GAME WORLD has design rules that operate co-dependently so that through character free-will you could impact any system. Thus gaining an understanding, from a Character view, where you live, what function you serve or what impact you have on the GAME WORLD.

Toby Grierson
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I'm with you in spirit, I think, but I'd some examples and counterexamples would be totally nice cause it's not totally clear what you're talking about.

Kyle Serafin
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I believe I speak for everyone when I say thank you. Thank you, Brent Gulanowski, for leading us from the depths of ignorance and inconsistency into the divine light of science and logic. For truth, on the eve of August the Tenth, surely we were but aimless lambs, eagerly awaiting our shepherd to lead us to greener pastures. But lo, here it appears now that we may find such a man in you.

Admittedly this is my first post on Gamasutra, but having read the guidelines, I say this with only the most constructive of intentions: get over yourself. From what I've seen while lurking in the shadows of this site, anyone who creates an account here is as deeply invested in the creation of quality video games as you are, and I think most users also feel your same sense of disapproval for the inconsistency and baseness of most mainstream games. But you know what I haven't seen much of until today? Posts from megalomaniacal basement developers about how their intellects vastly outclass the majority of other users' because they alone know the secrets to quality game design. You said in an above response that another user lacked diplomatic skills, but yours don't look too hot when you backhandedly insult any reader who doesn't adhere to the same design philosophies you do.

Furthermore, despite having a vaguely defined premise, there doesn't appear to be much in this post beyond simple self-aggrandizement. As other users have requested, you need to provide examples for what you're talking about and elaborate upon them for those of us clearly less intelligent than you. I would also, as a word of caution, avoid spending whole paragraphs of a post on the benefits of internal consistency in game design swerving off into unnecessary elaborations and tangents. You may do well to learn the internal consistencies of writing before attempting to bring that skill to game design. Either that or learn some humility.

And this post's egocentricity really is a shame, too. There are some gems embedded in here that I personally agree with, things I wish more developers would take into consideration when working out how their games' various parts will interact and coalesce into products intended to have unified messages or aims. And while I don't necessarily value all that you value in various media, including games, or at least not in the same capacities, you discussing in actual detail why you feel internal consistency is the paragon of game design, hopefully with some examples of games with internal consistency and those without to better demonstrate your point, would have been an interesting read. But unfortunately, that's not what you gave us. You gave us an account from atop your ivory tower about the people, nay, peons below you, groveling at the feet of your genius.

I don't wish for this post to be malicious, as that's not my ultimate aim. Unfortunately, I understand that it may be difficult to be interpreted as anything but. However, I feel obliged to tell you now, as someone who is ultimately supportive of your endeavor in game design, to get over yourself. Even if you decide to stay a lone wolf, working almost entirely alone on the fringes of the industry, creating games that might not garner as much attention as the next big military shooter but are nevertheless genuine and from your heart, a little humility goes a long way, bud. And just a forewarning: if the next game you decide to make doesn't usher in the second coming of Christ, we'll all be gravely disappointed in you and your intellect.

[User Banned]
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This user violated Gamasutra’s Comment Guidelines and has been banned.

Brent Gulanowski
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I don't take your post as an attack, although the sarcasm is a bit rich. I think you're reading too much between the lines that isn't there. But I'm not surprised. I did ask for it, to some extent. Even though the ad hominem elements of your response are unfortunate, if you want to say "you started it", ok, fine, I did.

It was a bit self-important, but so what? It's an opinion, it's my opinion, and I'm not ashamed to have it. People are too thin-skinned, especially seeing as I didn't attack anyone in particular. Anybody who is offended by what I wrote has volunteered themselves to be the victim of any inferred attack in my post. So, thanks for standing up to take the punch! Now, are you just going to pout about it, or are you going to respond?

This post, by the way, was an example of criticism. It was an attempt to find what could be better in games by pointing out what I think is a common flaw. That's how criticism works. Do you expect movie critics to crank out the next Godfather? Because that's what you're suggesting from me.

Criticism comes with it the implicit statement that your opinions matter, and that you believe that they are worth sharing. Not that they are the Truth. If you don't understand that, maybe you need to take some time to understand criticism. One of the major ways that the game industry needs to grow up is the way it is so resistant to serious criticism, and gets all bent out of shape in response to it. It's a sign of immaturity. As is the hyperbole of your response.

I'm trying to find a new direction for game development, and I'm starting by saying what I don't like, so that I can figure out how to overcome it. I didn't at any point claim or even suggest that I'm the "next coming of Christ", even in the context of games. That's some pretty outrageous hyperbole. What next, Hitler?

Bart Stewart
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Intellectual and emotional plausibity is something I care about as well.

@Ara, I think you're not wrong that fun has to trump other considerations. But it's also true that for some people, a game whose parts all fit together in a sensible way is a crucial ingredient in the recipe for what makes a game really fun. A game that's a collection of individually enjoyable systems isn't necessarily a bad game. But it does lack -- unnecessarily, one might argue -- a unifying design that explains why the rules of the gameworld exist as they do. For some of us, that "why" matters. It makes a good game better.

Bearing in mind that the bigger games take teams of people working for months or years, it's understandable if not every system gets an explanation. I also realize that bigger games often get some feature requirements courtesy of Marketing or an "executive designer." Even so, it's always a little disappointing to me (though I understand that it's not to others) when a game with otherwise good parts seems not to have had anyone making sure that all those parts make logical and emotional sense individually and as a whole gameworld.

I guess I'm endorsing the idea that coequal with the Producer of a "worldy" game should be a strong Lead Designer, who is acknowledged to have the responsibility and the power to insure thematic consistency, and who has the design talent and experience to maintain that consistency in the face of the many technical and artistic compromises that any real-world creation demands. Without someone who understands and cares about world-plausibility, and who has the power to insure that every sub-system contributes to that strategic goal, the odds of achieving it seem pretty low.

All that said, Eric Schwarz has a very good review of the concept of "immersion" that seems pretty close to the notion of internal consistency being advocated here:
on_A_Matter_of_Scale.php .

Ara Shirinian
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Bart I think you misunderstood what I wrote. My argument is from perception. I didn't intend to imply in any way that a game's parts shouldn't appear to all fit together in a sensible way. On the other hand, that philosophy too can be taken to absurd extremes depending on what you consider to be "sensible."

Bart Stewart
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Ara, we probably need to clarify what we mean by "internal consistency."

I'm pretty sure Brent meant consistency not in the sense of the game code, but in the world of the game that's presented to the player -- the logic of the universe as the player experiences it.

When you said, "In my experience what is internal consistency doesn't really matter (discounting data structures and organization- I'm not talking about things like that), the only thing that really matters is that the dynamics _feel_ right and consistent," it seemed pretty clear that you were questioning the value of spending much time making the perceived gameworld feel more plausible to players. That's what I disagreed with partially -- I believe it does matter to a commercially meaningful number of gamers, and is thus worth a reasonable (not absurd) investment of effort to achieve that perceived unity of the world of the game as a place.

If you were only talking about internal _programming and systems design_ consistency, though, then of course gameplay should not be held hostage to that. (Although some deliberate clarity in code is pretty valuable if you ever plan to maintain or enhance that code!)

Ara Shirinian
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Bart, it's not clear to me what Brent means exactly, and probably my words in the course of the discussion deviated from whatever his thesis was intended to be about.

If I'm saying that all that matters is that the dynamics feel right and consistent to the player, I don't see how that can be at odds what what you just said.

I thought I was speaking pretty clearly, but let me try again with an example, and maybe Brent will have something to say about this if he comes back.

There are lots of facets to this but I'll do my best to keep it brief. If we have a platformer like SMB4 or what have you - you have a system of dynamics: jump dynamic, run dynamic, walk dynamic, etc. So all these pieces taken together make up a whole system, but if you try to apply a singular set of physical rules to them all, you will almost always have problems.

The first issue is that in something like SMB4 you aren't even in a dynamical domain that has any coherent map to the real world. This doesn't disqualify SMB4 world from being plausible or sensible or self-consistent.

Secondly, if you enforce internal mathematical consistency (e.g. same force of gravity applied to all things at all times in the same way), you will invariably end up with dynamics that usually aren't in fact very playable or readable or even look sensible. You frequently suffer artifacts that don't map well to your actual domain (see Nathan's example above). My point is that what "feels" right and consistent often isn't numerically consistent- and it's a mistake to value numeric consistency over perceptive consistency.

Bart Stewart
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I appreciate your patience with me on this, Ara.

To try to answer your question: "If I'm saying that all that matters is that the dynamics feel right and consistent to the player, I don't see how that can be at odds what what you just said."

My objection to this is to "the player" as though there's only one. Emphasizing dynamics that feel right and consistent to some players necessarily fails to offer what other players really enjoy.

I jumped into this thread because Brent's point reminded me of my own thoughts: that people who care about worldy games that feel logically coherent (starting but not ending with how their physics are experienced) are a different kind of gamer from the majority. But they're also gamers; their money spends the same as anyone else's. And caring that the logic of a world makes sense is also worth catering to by design, if only for some games.

I don't think I'd take it as far as Brent. But I think I know where he's coming from. Most games, as you rightly point out, don't put any kind of systemic world-consistency at the top of the to-do list. That's probably as it should be, since most gamers care more that a game has action and competition and rewards for capably following clearly-displayed rules than about whether rocks fall at the right speed. Making games with the former dynamics is just going where the money is -- nothing wrong with that.

What I'm trying to explain is that I also think there's nothing wrong with some designers making games whose dynamics emphasize the kinds of features Brent mentioned. Why not have some enjoyably worldy games by design, too, for the gamers who like them?

I'd play 'em....

Ara Shirinian
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Of course, it's subjective (re: failing to offer what other players really enjoy). But then you can say that about any given system of dynamics you come up with. You can't please everyone all the time, trying to do so I think is one of the biggest mistakes of many big budget games that usually end up selling mediocre quantities anyway. This is one thing that distinguishes a game as art/ authorial work versus toilet paper commodity.

Rob B
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'representing the laws of physics' - Why does this matter or have any relevance to the previous points?

'the law of conservation.' - No, conservation applies to quite a few areas of science but is by no means an all pervasive rule and certainly doesnt underly all other laws. E.g. neither speed or velocity are conserved and gravity can play all kinds of hell with conservation, there are plenty of other examples. It is also not an explanation for why it is bad to break it regardless.

'and relativistic)' - Stick to special relativity and you are all good but general relativity bends conservation beyond reasonable breaking point. Aspects that are concrete in Newtonian physics fall apart and a system can easily end up in a situation where things usually conserved will quite happily exist off kilter.

'The reason that mathematics works' Conservation has no relevance to maths. Maths can define things to be conserved as it does under the constraints of many physical laws. When boundless it can destroy, create or conserve anything it pleases.

'all possible universes.' Based on what?

'It certainly applies in all game universes, if you pay even the slightest heed to the idea that games exist to help players learn.' It doesnt, and I dont see any connection to learning in this unless you happen to be learning about specific physics.

'The nature of classic games' Classic games as far as reality is concerned have always been utterly bonkers. Whats more Id argue modern games have only increased in scope with the ideas they can express. We have come so much further than the rose tinted view of the past many people seem to have.

'a lack of internal consistency, which in turn comes down to one fundamental law: conservation.' Internal consistency has little to do with conservation. The number of games that demonstrate an internally consistent set of rules that massively defy any concept of conservation are literally too numerous to list. (Heres a few dozen, nearly every Mario game ever made.)

This is an important distinction here because a huge amount of this article is based on these two things being directly connected and they just arnt.

Your view of conservation with regard to games is baffling. Learning, consequence, sophisticated themes, in depth narrative, internal consistency, and intelligent games, all of it has little if anything to do with the science of conservation. Internal consistency (and knowing when to break it.) does have a lot to do with it but was by no means the core of this diatribe nor is it particularly connected to conservation. Im clearly not the only person here who is confused by this redefinition/misunderstanding of an idea in physics and why it has anything whatsoever to do with gaming. Having read some of the comments Im still not convinced many people here know what you are actually saying.

I can make a guess about a desire for more simulation, or more realism in games but frankly its lost in what is scientifically and from a design perspective largely nonsensical and ironically quite self-superior.

Brent Gulanowski
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Let me say that I am focussed primarily, maybe almost completely, and mechanical consistency. My use of science and math was used rhetorically. I did not state that game systems were required to be mathematically consistent.

Conservation has no relevance to maths? What about algebra? I never claimed to be a mathematician, but a fundamental aspect of algebra is that both sides of an equation are equal. Factoring an equation requires conservation of equality, at least as far as I understand it. For the purposes of this essay, that was the point I was trying to stress. Similarly, this applicability of conservation of equality is seen in a lot of places. It's common, to the point of being universal. Conservation appears in mathematics and physics and other sciences in many places. Feel free to explain how I'm wrong; I'm not against re-learning something if I've failed to understand it. But you've responded to my generalization with more generalizations, and deviated from the core of my point pretty severely.

I will strongly disagree that the core of the post depends on a literal linking between game systems and mathematics and science. I was trying to point out a structural similarity between the rules of mathematics and the rules of various hard sciences. I am interested in the commonalities, because I think they are more than accidental, and are probably important. I was also trying to point out that there are similarities between different sciences, and that I felt that the law of conservation was a fundamental similarity. Undoubtedly there are differences, too, otherwise there would only be one science. Likewise, there are similarities between different systems within games, and I think that conversation is also a key element of similarity, or SHOULD be.

As for learning, the learning to which I refer, and which I thought I made clear (apologies if it was obscured) was that players have to learn how to play the game. I think any game worth its salt (and here, to be abundantly clear, I'm describing games as systems, not games as entertainments), there has to be something there worth learning. Any game which doesn't require learning is a boring game. Although many games which require learning are also boring games, sadly. Mostly because they don't involve learning how to interact with a system, but just memorizing sequences of moves and inputs in order to master a very specific challenge, which the player is required to repeat over and over and over until they succeed (or to simply read a strategy guide and learn those specific moves). If that point was lost, then I admit my failure. Though I thought I make it pretty clear.

At the same time, learning about life (and at no time did I specifically say math or science or anything else in particular) is often a beneficial side effect of learning how to play a game well. But give me one good example of when learning to play a game of inconsistent mechanics, or a game of rote mechanics, leads to learning a lesson that has the remotest possibility at learning about life? Unless it's learning how to be a robotic drone and follow instructions without deviating or understanding the meaning of what you're doing.

As for the self-superiority, in the words of a well-known game designer, "suck it down!". My high horse was a rhetorical device, too. Sometimes writing involves playing a role.

Brent Gulanowski
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I spent close to a day writing the original post, and it has a history of ideas that go back quite a long time in my personal writings. But this was my first serious attempt to put it out there for people to respond to. I can see that I've struck a nerve, but it's not yet clear which one. Some people obviously think I'm totally out to lunch. Or they see my criticism as an attempt to invalidate a lot of games or even some fundamental aspect of games that they love. But I'm not trying to invalidate anything. I'm just explaining why I don't like a lot of games. If you think I'm not allowed to express my opinion on that, well then we don't have much to say to one another.

I will be the first to admit that the ideas I'm trying to present may be beyond my ability to fully articulate them—at least in fewer than five thousand words. Maybe I need to write a more in-depth serious of articles and go deep. Maybe even Gamasutra is too large a community to have started with at such an early point in my attempts to describe my thoughts and point of view. I didn't ask for my post to be featured on the front page, although I'm humbled that it was.

Whatever you might think of my supposed ego, if you take your opinion of me whole cloth from what you think you read in this post, then be assured, you are probably as wrong as you are right. It's true that I would get a more sympathetic response from a lest antagonistic approach. I sometimes like to poke the hornet's nest. It's no one's fault but mine if I get stung. Though some of the attempts to take up the gauntlet have been, frankly, laughable.

I have a history of experience in critical writing. I studied literary criticism before I studied computer science. I have a lot of practise writing, but not as much as I wish I had at writing about games, or software development. It is something I still have to learn more about.

But that doesn't mean I'm going to be shy or conciliatory about my opinions or my ideas for what I think sucks and how I think it can be improved. If you disagree, fine, say so. More to the point, feel free to explain why. If my writing sucks, feel free to say exactly how and why.

I definitely fell into a common critical trap of overgeneralizing. I will have to go back to the drawing board on some of these things. But I still stand by my fundamental ideas.

Games are interactive systems, not movies. Something that combines parts of a movie (or story or whatever) with parts of a game may still be called a "game", because the interactivity is still what sets it apart, and the general consensus is that interactivity is an essential part of games (and less so a part of other creative work, at least until we declare new categories and labels). But I'm interested in games, not interactive movies or stories. I'm interested in game worlds, which are imaginary places in which players can do things and observe the consequences, places that change, and which offer up new challenges and opportunities in response to those changes, which create feedback loops with their players, in which players create new things through their play which their designers did not explicitly intend.

There are techniques for creating possibilities. Internal consistency seems, to me, to be a core element of the work of creating such possibilities in interactive systems. And the law of conservation seems, to me, to be a key ingredient for making internal consistency work. Part of what I tried to describe in this post is why I think that the inverse is also true: less internal consistency, on the whole, works against the effort of trying to maximize the possibilities that can arise from a game system or a set of such systems.

I failed to provide specific examples, but on the other hand, the point of this post was NOT to use examples, but to argue my points systematically and structurally. But again, 2500 words was nowhere near enough space to do so. I should have written a less ambitious post which started with the stuff in this here comment, and then worked towards some kind of critical system, one piece at a time.

I still don't think anyone needs to be offended by what I wrote, and that if they are, they are being not just over-sensitive, but exposing some amount of self-consciousness or hidden guilt. Methinks the lady doth protest too much. This post was a litmus test, in that way, and seems to have expose some soreness. Just let me take a moment to apologize anyway. I do not think that people who make games that I don't like are lesser beings, or that they work is less important. I never claimed anything I liked or wanted to do was more important than anything else. It's equally important, insofar as each person is equally important, and their hopes and desires are equally important. But to each of us, what matters to us is everything.

I only know what I like, and I hope to explain what that is, and why (as well as what I don't like, since many things are inevitably mutually exclusive). And I hope to take these ideas and use them to make games. And people will or won't like those games, and that's fine, too. I'm not trying to change anyone's mind, appearances to the contrary notwithstanding. I am looking to see if anyone agrees with me or not, and if so, to what extent.

Whatever your opinion of the writing, thank you for reading it. I can only promise to try to make the next thing I write more deserving of your time and attention.

Brent Gulanowski
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Final point. If anyone on here did feel that they would like the chance to read further insult-laden and/or insult-inspiring writings I might risk putting on display, how might I go about giving them advance access in order to get some kind of yea/nay/so-so/fuck-off responses and, ideally, some sort of constructive suggestions for what to do instead? Thanks, all.