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Raph Koster on 'play' - the possibility space for games

Raph Koster on 'play' - the possibility space for games

November 5, 2013 | By Christian Nutt

Raph Koster cares very much about improving his understanding of games, the systems that underpin them, and the space of expression that he can work with.

This has gotten him into hot water over the course of 2013. To say what makes a game is by definition also to say what is not a game.

"Games are a rich and complicated system," Koster says, in a succinct explanation of his perspective on the issue. "I'm trying to look at things this way to pick up my tools from my workbench and do better."

At GDC Next, Koster dropped the word "game" and attempted, instead, to focus on the word "play."

Across all types of games, there is play. And Koster expanded on this word -- challenging how we should even think about it. Yes, it means the activities you do in a game. But using it also implies a possibility space. Think of the usage "this rope has a lot of play" -- looseness, in other words.

"Games are meant to wiggle; they're like machines. You poke and prod at them to see what comes out the other end. That is the overall scope of play of the system," Koster says. "Play is the wiggle room. It is space. It is explorable areas."

What is important, he says, is to deliver via games a set of both mechanics and meaningful symbols that are neither too much nor too little for the human brain to hold. In essence, if something is too simple, it bores us; if something is too complicated or abstract, it is no longer interesting.

"The interesting area for play is what is interpretable," says Koster. "What isn't just one or two ways, but also isn't every possible way. In stories, that's signs and symbols that have more than one meaning. In games, we do the same thing by having consequential choice of input, of agency -- by letting the player do different things, by choosing different verbs."

A complicated system engages the mind, says Koster, and teases the brains of players, and works best when it lies in the middle space between the two extremes of simplicity and complexity.

"Those are the things we find most fun. Things that we tell ourselves, 'I think I can wrap my head around it' but in practice you can't wrap your head around -- there are too many variables, or the system is lying to you," Koster says. If the player believes she can more or less understand a system -- not literally fully grasp it, but effectively create a heuristic to deal with it, in other words -- she will be engaged by it.

(Some of) Koster's Tools for Engagement

Koster also quickly ran down techniques developers can use to get players interested in their games. His primary piece of advice is to first understand the game you're making: the space it operates in, what it's trying to do. That helps you not just identify tools, but also helps you connect to the right audience.

Repetition is a highly useful tool. Koster pointed to Porpentine's Howling Dogs as an example of a game that forces the player to repeat actions -- " you must relive the same situation over and over and over and over again" -- and that this is one way it communicates its meaning.

But action games, like Super Mario Bros. also teach by repetition, by making players repeat the same actions until they understand them. "If you want a message to get across, be it systemic or thematic, you force people do the same thing over and over again," Koster says.

Framing is a way of communicating ideas by very specifically choosing how to communicate them -- "BioShock is a good example of framing," says Koster, in that it "brings up the opposing viewpoint just to rip it to pieces."

And humans relate to those who are like them. This creates problems, but it also creates opportunities: to make a protagonist that "feels like they're the same as the player in a lot of important ways."

He noted that Gone Home does this for those who grew up in the 1990s -- the cultural references (music, TV shows) are just right. And then it effectively twists the knife once you're along for the ride. "It has a message it wants to get across to you... Once we are there, in that mindset, we're more willing to swallow the parts that are not like us, and it is very persuasive."

He also noted that some games use false choices -- most modern FPSes, a tactic he sas was pioneered by Deus Ex -- in which you have many gameplay activity choices until you hit a "narrative choke point" that forces players down a specific road. The play space can be broad, but the story less so.

And Koster spoke about the importance of "importing" existing rule sets: the system of real-world physics of our universe is the system that underpins the rule set of the game of American football. On top of that game, people have built another one: fantasy football, in which they simulate the game itself.

Another "imported ruleset" is psychology: "The relationships between individuals," important to Koster as an MMO developer.

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