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Log: This is for the new year, read it and you will succeed as a new game designer

by Marius Holstad on 01/02/14 08:33:00 pm

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.


I'm having one of these "fuck it" moments. I'm just dumping my notes here when I originaly wanted to polish it more and remove temporary notes. But I'm letting you experience it in its whole with all its beautiful faults. Oh, this is also something that one should not do, but I'm doing it anyway: for all of those who actualy read this (if any?) please share it so that more people will read it and also contact me at [email protected] or @MariusGames on twitter if you want to have a meaningful conversation. Thank you.


I’d like to start by saying that I respect and understand why some might reject the idea of representing emotional concepts with logic and mathematics. There is no need to justify this opinion, as I can understand it completely. But I hope everyone acknowledges that music can be very emotional and still be represented in mathematical terms. It is in the execution that the emotion arises in the audience, not in the mathematical representations. Computers can only understand math and logic, so representing emotional concepts to them in a way that they can understand becomes very important and is the key to make them execute it in a way that we can emotionally feel. So there is a clear disjunction between our representation and the computer’s representation of that same emotion. As designers it is our job to understand how we can take that desired human representation and create it using the computer’s way of representing it. It is almost like the way a musician creates emotion with her composition of notes.
With that said; join me on the journey of trying to represent social-relationships with logic, and create a game-system that puts our social-inteligence to a test. This is one genre that needs a little more development compared to all the wonderful game genres that are already out there. And for the sake of clarity I will call this genre by what it really is; social-relationship games (SRGs.)
But before we proceed to define SRGs, I want you to reflect on a question. If you could do anything in a game, what would it be? It is an immensely difficult question to answer, but what I finally found and settled with was that I wanted to recognize myself and identify myself in characters, and then feel what they are feeling. This is in essence what SRGs are trying to do. This is the whole reason for SRGs' existence; to let players successfully interact with characters in various contexts to form relationships. This may be a heavy sentence, but in practice it means that what players are going to do in the game is walking around recognizing themselves in characters. This then becomes a game of social-relationships! This is where we would apply our social-intelicence to reach our goals. The challenge is how to put this into a system that is engaging and that is approachable for everyone.
Social-relationship games:
Let’s start at the beginning. A social-relationship game (or SRG), is a game in which players try to successfully interact with characters in various contexts to form relationships. The genre emphasizes interactive challenges that is related to social-reasoning and context-awareness, and it rewards players who show proficiency in social-intelligence.
As an autist once taught me about interaction; the goal of social-interaction is to form friendships, companionships or even love. This is the end-goal of SRGs and it is reached by interacting with characters. The social-interaction is also the drive in interactive storytelling, which relies so heavily on computer controlled characters that SRGs are often only designed for a single player.
Relationships are formed with mutual self-disclosure. It is a term used to describe the process of revealing oneself to another. And the quality of self-disclosure can be measured by the breath and depth of the content that is revealed. Usually as time progresses we can reveal more to a person about ourselves and in greater depth. This leaves us vulnerable, but we do this in the hope that we can learn something more about that person in return.
The challenge in SRGs comes from navigating within and between social-contexts and situations. Every interaction takes place within some context and the player needs to show situational awareness and understand what context he or she is in to master the game. The player has to present himself and behave in a way that makes him reach that goal of forming a relationship.
The social-interactions may have a high or low degree of casual-immediacy. This means that short-term interactions give immediate results, while long-term interactions bear fruits later in the game. The meaning of actions may also change depending on the context, so the timing of actions becomes very important in SRGs. The player has to wait for the right moment and context to act successfully, this means that all games of this genre are real-time. If they were turn based, they would not have been interactive or reactive enough. SRGs still requires the player to think, but strategy and plotting is bad for relationships.
(player moves? + touch) (Social relationships and "personal-space*») (The game analyzes how the player moves in the game and try to deduce his emotional state. The game also use the tonal-modifier+actions to analyze what the player is trying to say, or if the player is just trying to fuck around.)
[After re-reading this essay, I realize that after this point I shift towards a more subjective style of writing and loose some of the desired objectivity. I apologize for this, but I find it very difficult to write about these new concepts without rationalizing them. Please try to look past these deficiencies in my writing.]
Common features of social-relationship games:
The tonal-modifier:
An unifying element of SRGs is the use of a tonal-modifier. This modifier lets the player specify the "pronunciation" and meaning of her actions. A common example is a tonal-modifier with a range where 100 is positive, 0 is negative and 50 is neutral. With the right combination of simple actions and this tonal-modfier the player can express emotions such as anger, sadness, happiness, gratitude, disappointment, etc. This expressive richness is essential for having meaningful and emotional character interactions without feeling constrained by boolean(true/false) actions.
The process of communication between the player and the characters is very important for SRGs. Both the player and the characters should be able to richly express themselves. Characters have internal stats, such as how much they love, trust and fear the player, which determines how they behave towards him. The emotional state of the characters can be interpreted by their actions, body language, facial expressions, etc. Representing emotion through icons and emotion-bars is a very inefficient way of evoking emotions in the player, which is why this genre rely so heavily on animations.
Animations are an important part of SRGs because it serves as the primary communicational tool for the computer to show the characters’ emotions (which is essential that the player understands if she is going to feel what the characters are feeling.) One could arguably say that all emotion comes from these animations, but the real value is added by the feelings generated by the game-system itself. 
[Too biased]
The game-sytem gives characters the ability to make decisions, which will have an emotional impact on the player. The player should be able to reverse engineer and trace the decisions back to its origin. This is an unconscious pattern-solving process that will evoke feelings in the player. When actions and decisions can be traced back to a reason, we have reached a desired level of believability.
Believability is the key to sustaining a suspension of disbelief. Wrong behavior and reactions (or the lack of) are something that we humans pick up on instantly, and it throws us out of the experience. That is why characters in SRGs usually follow something called Laws of Life. These Laws of Life are rules in the game that clearly reflect aspects of our human condition. One could say that these rules are everyday-life boiled down to explicit concepts. This is an artistic way of describing how the world works with rules that make specific behavior seal characters’ destiny.
[/too biased]
Victory and scoring:
SRGs evaluate the player’s social-inteligence. Victory is achieved when the problem or obstacle between the player and the character(s) is resolved and a true relationship has formed. Skill points (also called trophies/achievements) are awarded to players who have skillfully maneuvered difficult contexts and shown remarkable skill in social-reasoning. But the most difficult of all is giving a score to something so highly subjective as social-interaction.
The solution is to use a voting system by combining what the characters in the game thinks of the player and the public consensus of correct behavior. This is done by registering what every player responds and counting what the majority thinks is the right one. How closely the player matches the public consensus about correct behavior determines the final score.
Many genres overlap and merge into each other, but this will be a search for its purest form. It is perfectly fine to merge this genre with others when it is understood on a fundamental level, but for the time being we should rather try to define it as clearly as possible.
@ Players play the role of a character in a fictional setting.
@ the genre emphasizes interactive challenges, including social-reasoning and context-awareness. It tests the player’s social-inteligence.
@ storytelling is driven by the interaction with other characters. Because of this intricacy these games are designed for a single player, the emphasis on storytelling makes multi-player design difficult.
- problem-solving and action are restricted to only include characters (very rarely are objects included, so much that it is not a part of the genre at all.)
@ All games of this genre are real-time, turn based games are not interactive (and reactive) enough. 
@ A unifying element of games in this genre is a pronunciation-modifier. This lets the player choose a value in a range to specify the pronunciation of his actions, the meaning of his actions (e.g. angry or friendly.) Boolean (true/false) actions are never the main focus of interaction in this genre.
- these games simulate relationships between characters.
- While it may be closely related to life-simulation games, this genre is more narrow as it requires specific focus on social-reasoning.
@ reactive actions are preferred over planning. Relationships are interactive and should not be planned or predicted. 
@ remember mutual self-disclosure, as identifying with characters is what gives this genre its emotional power.
@ also: virtual-pets vs. espionage-games
@ animation
[facial expressions]
Animations are an important part of SRGs because it serves as the primary communicational tool for the computer to show the characters’ emotions. One could arguably say that all emotion comes from these animations, but the real value is added by the feelings generated by the game-system itself… the decisions characters make. (This is too aggressive.)
[/facial expressions]
Laws of Life are —— rules in the game that reflect —— of our human condition. This is another heavy sentence that tries to…
We should start by representing fairy tail structures with humor. If you could make a character really appear and feel alive, imagine what you could emotionally do to an audience with that kind of believability. You could break their hearts to a pulp.

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