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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)
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Designer's Notebook: Breaking the Rules (Ernest Goes To The Movies)

July 6, 2000 Article Start Previous Page 2 of 3 Next

To which I say, "guilty as charged." My tolerance for scientific ignorance, at least in worlds where science matters, seems to be shrinking all the time. I'm completely livid about the Kansas State School Board's decision to exclude evolution from the public school curriculum, for example. The Matrix is a techno-thriller, so in my opinion it ought to get its technology right - at least where it affects the whole point of the movie.

That said, however, I know I'm being hypocritical. After all, Sonic is an irradiated hedgehog in red tennis shoes for God's sake. I, in the game industry, have some nerve demanding that other media uphold the laws of nature. Who cares, anyway?

Actually, who cares varies quite a lot, and as a game designer, you have to be very sensitive to what your audience will and won't put up with. There's a quality that a good game has for which I don't have a name. It's not credibility; most computer games aren't remotely credible anyway. It's more than just engendering suspension of disbelief. I can only describe it in terms of its opposite: when a game doesn't have it, its players frequently yell "Bullshit!" at the screen and throw down the controller. It's a quality of being true to its own inner laws, true to itself, and true to the player. If you cheat on the player, disappoint him, trick him, or do something that makes no sense (or worse yet, require that he do something that makes no sense), then you're lacking the magic quality.

Sonic The Headgehog

This quality is not the same from genre to genre. There are several ways to break the rules of the real world in a computer game, and the consequences of doing so aren't always the same.
First there's the underlying physics in a simulation. The guy that headed up EA's 3DO development team was a Ph.D. physicist, and he insisted that any 3DO game which simulated the real world - like John Madden Football, to take an example totally at random - must have Real Physics™. So the team worked and worked on making the physics as real as possible. This had exactly the consequences you would expect, and in the end, they took all the Real Physics™ back out again. After that it played much better.

Fudging the physics in simulations is done all the time. Whether it's the right thing to do or not depends on your motivation for doing it. If you're doing it to improve gameplay, as we were, then go to it and God bless. If you're doing it to make a game harder, by creating a situation that a player has a hard time coping with because it doesn't resemble the real world, then I think you are in effect cheating. There are more honest ways of balancing your game.

But suppose we had broken a different real-world rule - the rules of football itself. This is strictly forbidden. Mr. Madden would never have tolerated it nor would our customers. The sports genre is an area where you can't cheat. If you're going to simulate a real-world sport, you have to get the details of that sport right or the players, not to mention the reviewers, will roast you.

Military vehicle simulations are another area where you have to get it right - some of the time. Serious fans of military hardware know every detail of the gear, and they want the simulation to be accurate both in appearance and performance. However, not all the people who buy flight sims are serious fans of military hardware. Some are just people who want to fly around and blow stuff up. For them, you need to make the plane easy to fly and the stuff easy to blow up. Most importantly, you need to let your customers know which kind of a sim you're selling them: a hyper-accurate one or a light, easy one. This needs to be clear on the box and in the ad campaign. If you're ambiguous about it, you'll probably end up disappointing both camps.

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