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Formal Abstract Design Tools
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July 12, 2020
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Formal Abstract Design Tools

July 16, 1999 Article Start Previous Page 6 of 7 Next

Using Multiple Tools: Cooperation, Conflict, Confusion

Adventure games often have little intention or perceivable consequence. Players know they will have to go everywhere, pick up everything, talk to everyone, use each thing on each other thing and basically figure out what the designer intended. At the lowest level, there is intention along the lines of, "I bet this object is the one I need," and just enough consequence that players can say, "That worked — the plot is advancing." But there is little overall creation of goals and expression of desires by players. While the player is doing things, it's usually obvious that only a few possibilities (the ones the designers pre-built) work, and that all players must do one of these or fail.

But as we've also seen, this loss of some consequence and most intention comes with a major gain in story. By taking control away from the player in some spaces, the designer is much freer to craft a world full of tuned-up moments in which the designer scripts exactly what will happen. This allows moments that are very powerful for players (moments that often feel as involving as player-directed actions, if not more so). So here is a space where tools conflict, where intention and story are at odds — the more we as designers want to cause particular situations, the less control we can afford to give players.

Once again, tools must be chosen to fit the task. Being aware of what game you want to develop allows you to pick the tools you want and suggests how to use them. You cannot simply start adding more of each tool and expect the game to work.

Concrete Cases of Multiple Tool Use

An interesting variant of the intention versus story conflict is found in traditional SquareSoft console RPGs (for example, the Final Fantasy series and ChronoTrigger). These games essentially give each tool its own domain in the game. The plot is usually linear, with maybe a few inconsequential branches. However, character and combat statistics are free-form, complex systems, which have a variety of items, statistics, and combo effects that are under player control. Players must learn about these systems and then manage the items and party members to create and evolve their party.

During exploration of the game world, the plot reveals itself to the player. The designer creates cool moments which are shown to players, in the game, but are not player-driven. Despite little intention in terms of the plot, players are given some control of the pacing as they explore. While exploring, however, players find objects and characters. These discoveries impact the combat aspects of the game. Combat in the game is entirely under the players' control, as they decide what each character does, which abilities and items to use, and handle other details. Thus, players explore the story while combat contains intention and consequence.

SquareSoft games are, essentially, storybooks. But to turn the page, you have to win in combat. And to win in combat, you have to use the characters and items that come up in the story. So the consequences of the story, while completely preset and identical for all players, are presented (usually) right after a very intentional combat sequence. The plot forces you to go and fight your former ally, but you are in complete control of the fight itself.

Rather than trying to use all three tools at once, the designers use intention and consequence in the combat system, and story and consequence in the actual unfolding of the story. So, the designers get to use all the tools they want and tie the usage together in the game. However, they make sure that tools can be strongly utilized when called on. They don't try to put them in places where it would be hard to make them work effectively.

With a bit of a stretch, one can say that sports and fighting games actually mix all three of the tools into one. The story in a game of NHL 99 is the scoring, the missed checks or the penalty shot. While this story is somewhat basic, it's completely owned by the player. Each player makes his or her own decision to go for the win by pulling the goalie, or not. And, most importantly, the decision and resulting action either works or does not, driving the game to a player-driven conclusion. Unlike adventure games, there is no trying to guess what the designer had in mind, no saving and loading the game 20 times until you click on the right object. You go in, you play the game, and it ends.

Similarly, in a fighting game, every controller action is completely consistent and visually represented by the character on-screen. In Tekken, when Eddy Gordo does a cartwheel kick, you know what you're going to get. As the player learns moves, this consistency allows planning — intention — and the reliability of the world's reactions makes for perceived consequence. If I watch someone play, I can see how and why they're better than I am, but all players begin the game on equal footing. The learning curve is in figuring out the controls and actions (in that it's player-learning alone that determines skill and ability in the game). The fact that actions have complete intention and consequence allows this.

In sports games, you direct players, select an action, and watch something happen in response to that action, which gives you feedback about what you tried to do. The player does direct the action — a cross-check missed, a slap shot deflected, a pass gone wrong — but one level removed. While watching the action on screen, one sees everything that happens, but can't be sure exactly why it happened. This is because the basis of most sports games is a statistical layer, and thus the same actions with the controller can lead to different results. When you combine the different player ratings with the die-rolling going on behind the scenes, the probabilities make sense, but may not be apparent to the player. The intention is still there, but the perceived consequence is much less immediate. This removal of direct control (and the entire issue of directing action) through a statistical layer, which the player can intuit but not directly see, is often present in RPG combat. Thus, in Tekken, I can't say, "Man, bad luck, if only I'd rolled better," or "Yeah, now that I'm a tenth-level ninja, I can do that move," but in NBA Live or an RPG, I often do.

Article Start Previous Page 6 of 7 Next

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