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Tuesday, May 20, 2008

The Garden: Rule Systems

There is a set of rules, concerning what may be done and what will happen. When those rules are the dominant element of an experience, you've got a rule system game.

Okay, that's an ugly name. But this Form needs to be recognized in order to understand how a lot of its sub-Forms fit together.

Let's first take a moment to consider: This is a massive Form. Setting rules is a task uniquely suited to a programmer, and programmers do seem to control modern gamism. On a more theoretical level, there are so many different kinds of rules. Rules for moving units, rules for creating units or changing their properties, rules for betting, rules for bidding, rules for interpreting, rules for communicating.

Just about anything can be looked at as a system of rules, and indeed there are some theorists who analyze all games from that perspective. I maintain that often the rules exist only to provide stability, and not as an end unto themselves. This Form is the exception. In this post, I am referring only to games which hold the rules up as the entire point. Rather than using rules to give structure to content, these games let their content emerge naturally from the structure of rules.

What is the content of a rule? It is predictability, or the lack thereof.

If pressing a button always adds 1 to a number, you always know what the button is going to do. In the other extreme, when you pull a card out of a shuffled deck you never know what you're going to get. The predictability and unpredictability of these rules has a tiny value. Not enough value to sustain a game on its own, but if you combine enough little rules like that, some predictable and some unpredictable, you get a much more interesting experience. And the point of that experience is that the player is constantly trying to anticipate and account for what will happen next.

Notable sub-Forms
I am going to split rule systems into three categories. These sub-Forms are commonly seen as totally separate entities, but in actuality they are all part of the same spectrum, so to speak. The sub-Forms are:

Puzzle: A puzzle game is a system of rules whose results are always perfectly predictable.

Strategy: A strategy game is a system of rules whose results are mostly or vaguely predictable.

Luck: A luck game is a system of rules whose results are mostly unpredictable.

Let's start with the luck game. You've got a bunch of rules relying on randomness or unknowable variables. If the game (following those unpredictable rules) goes one way, you win. If it goes another way, you lose. There may be probabilities and statistics (or oracles and horoscopes!) which the player can consult to feel like he's in control of the situation, but he isn't. That sense of not having control, of fear mixed with hope, is exciting. And some people find it fun, apparently. Don't ask me why, I couldn't tell you.

The strategy game is more fair. You don't know everything, but you know enough to use the rules wisely. The unpredictability might be total randomness, or it might be the actions of another player. Sometimes there's an oppressive time limit, whose pressure makes otherwise predictable events harder to consider. That's strategy too. Strategy is the gray area between puzzle and luck- anything between the two extremes counts. I think there are two attractions here: First off, the player needs to stop and think about what will happen next, with the knowledge that his decision will be the difference between success and failure. This is exciting. Secondly, the predictability of the rules let you build routines, so that you can get caught up in the micro-management of the system. This is addictive.

The puzzle game is straightforward. "Here are the rules, here's where you need to get to, have fun." It's totally predictable. In a sufficiently complex puzzle game you can develop routines, but it won't hold your interest for long without surprises. So the baseline of puzzles is a worthless game. Clever gamists get over this handicap by going a level further: inadequately preparing and intentionally misleading the player. The challenge of a good puzzle is not solving a problem, it's figuring out what the problem is to begin with and what tools you have to solve it with. Once you realize that, you have an "Aha!" moment and you're satisfied. And then the rest isn't really so difficult. You feel like you've mastered the game, because you've understood the twisted mind of its creator. (Or the intricacies of its natural logic.) Or to put it another way, you're trying to find the predictability of the system.

I suppose there could be a fourth sub-Form of rule system: a game whose results are 100% unpredictable. Where you can't even imagine how it's going to go, because you know it's not conceivably going to go where you think it will. So you don't have fear or hope, just a perpetual state of confusion. I can't imagine why anyone would want to play a game like that, which is probably why this isn't an established Form. Then again, I could find this type of game in aspects of life. Let's call it the "drive-the-player-crazy game", and never speak of it again.

The borders between the sub-Forms of rule system are not only difficult to pin down, they are also different from person to person. How predictable something is (and thus what you get out of the game) depends on many factors: for instance, the intelligence and experience of the player.

For me, playing Poker would be a game of luck, because I have no way of knowing what cards everyone else will have. But someone who is a keener judge of character than I might be able to decipher what other people's hands are from their facial expressions and behavior. For him, that's a strategy game where the rules are not just the rules of Poker but also all rules of human behavior.

The more you study something, the more predictable it gets. If you've learned every last nuance of a computer opponent's behavioral code (and it is consistent), then a strategy game against that computer opponent is no longer a strategy game at all, but a puzzle! Never mind that it still looks like a strategy game; it's not. But most people can't understand the "artificial intelligence" to that extent, so it's a strategy game. Or maybe if someone's completely inept and unintelligent it'll be a luck game. (His odds, I'm sorry to say, aren't good.)

When you roll a die, that's a luck game. But let's say (disregarding human limitations) that you could control the tiniest wiggle of your hand and calculate exactly how the die would flip around when you threw it. Then it's not a luck game anymore, it's a puzzle. A very very tough puzzle.

Everything has rules. Every line of code in a game's program is part of a rule. On top of that are rules which come from the context a game is played in. So you can identify the three kinds of rule systems in almost every game, whether the gamist intended it or not. A movement game has occasional luck, an action game has occasional puzzles, a piece of music has occasional strategy. If you watch a particularly predictable movie, you're experiencing a strategy game -the rules being the clichés of scriptwriting. Watching other people's behavior, you're either playing a strategy game or a luck game depending on how well you know them. There the rules are that person's usual behavior patterns.

In all these cases, rule systems are subordinate elements to the actual content. And even if the rule system would be bad on its own (like a puzzle that doesn't require thought), it can work well as a subordinate element.

Many games use "mind challenge" as secondary content, which essentially makes them into puzzles. Because if you're going to be fair about challenging the mind, you're going to have to make all moves predictable. Puzzle platformers (platformers which require you to think) are in this category. So are murder mysteries!

And along those lines, you can say that a good storyteller is playing a strategy game himself, where the rules are both common sense and whatever characterizations and settings he decides on from the beginning. Everything that happens in a story needs to follow naturally and predictably from what came before, only breaking one rule if there's another which specifically allows it to. This is a strategy game. (If the storyteller doesn't follow the rules, it doesn't mean it's not a strategy game. It just means he cheated.) So when you experience a story, you're also the spectator of a strategy game, like you might watch a game of chess.

Speaking of chess, I haven't gotten into genres at all, have I? Oh dear. The genre isn't in what way a game is predictable (because there are only so many ways a game can be predictable), but what the set of rules is like.

There are physics puzzles, where the rules are (simplified versions of) the laws of physics. (The Incredible Machine, Armadillo Run, creative lines of dominoes) There are abstract number puzzles where the rules have no relationship to anything real. (Sudoku) There are transport puzzles, where the rules are that you can move around and push or carry things around. (Sokoban, sliding tile puzzles) There are… you know what, this is silly. You know what puzzles there are. And there are a heck of a lot of common genres of puzzle. All I'll say is there are some kinds of games commonly considered puzzles which I don't call puzzles: Mazes, any tests of vocabulary (crossword puzzles) or other knowledge, jigsaw puzzles (which are actually tests of perception), and probably others I'm not thinking of. If it's not a rule system, it's not a puzzle. Moving on…

There are turn-based strategy games and real-time strategy games. Both are competitive: in the former you take turns with your opponent, and in the latter you constantly move at the same time. There is simulation strategy, where the rules are modeled after a real-world system. There are even subgenres of that genre: sports simulation strategy, empire simulation strategy, world simulation strategy, farm simulation strategy. (The appeal of simulations is that even extremely complex and deep rule systems can be accessible to anyone with a minimum of real-world experience.) Moving on, there is trading strategy and abstract strategy and battle strategy (Whoo boy, is that popular.) and bluffing strategy and card-playing strategy and if you take a word at random from the dictionary, chances are you can stick the word "strategy" after it and have an idea for a game.

A luck game is a luck game. It's all the same to me. If you think there are different kinds of luck games that feel different from each other, and would like to list them, be my guest.

I suspect that even when gamism expands to interface directly with our brains, rule system games will still be around, and almost exactly the same as they are now! There will still be gambling, there will still be simulations and competitions, there will still be mind-bending puzzles. Make of that what you will.

Droplets: Rule Systems

Strategy systems are most commonly based on war and sports. No surprise there. What is a surprise is you won't find "love strategy", which makes just as much sense as the other two. Why no romance? The Sims included some simple romance, and it was a huge hit. But no one else is trying. Bring on the procedurally-generated soap operas!

Combining the rules of the real world with abstract rules is a fun recipe for puzzles. Imagine a simulation of society, where you can mess around with space and time in specific ways. Doesn't that sound fun, in an "If only I could do this in the real world" kind of way? Of course, that assumes programmers can get a simulation of society running and somewhat believable. Not much chance of that. Some day, though.

Strategy games tend to have the exact same rules from level to level. In order to keep the game from feeling totally monotonous, gamists like to tack on stories. "If the context is different, maybe the experience will feel different!" The story distracts from the rules, rather than enhancing them. So big stories ought to be the exception, not the rule. Instead the levels should shake things up more, in order to keep predictability a challenge. It's not enough that the goals change- have a few new rules added each level, and other rules taken out! That way, you constantly have to rethink how to proceed rather than settling into easy routines. Explaining the changes in context isn't at all necessary, because who needs a context? If someone tells you "Here are the rules.", you don't say "Tell me the historical and sociopolitical explanations for these rules!", you say "Okay." and start having fun.

When puzzle games have context, that context applies to the whole game. And it never adds anything. Instead, there should be stories behind individual puzzles, stories which have no connection to each other. The context for a puzzle can matter, because it tells you what sort of perspective to take as you look for a solution (and in so doing, it may be tricking you!). This also lets the gamist put in more red herrings than he could otherwise get away with. Who says puzzles have to be simple?

Real-time strategy games already tend to have different sides which are significantly different from each other in gameplay. But they could be more significant. Multiplayer strategy games don't necessarily have to be entirely fair, especially if a game has many varied strategy levels with different rule sets. It's okay in a linear game for one level to make things much harder for one player, because the next level might go in his favor. The practice of "balancing sides" doesn't seem important, or even necessarily beneficial, in that context. And once you start thinking like that, you realize that the experience one player has doesn't have to be even similar to the experience of the other player!

So why can't two players have entirely different rule sets?

Why can't a game randomly pick one of many players, say to the others: "This is who you've all got to beat!", and then give the victim a major advantage?

Why does every player even have to be playing a strategy game?

What if one player played the "god of chaos", and could insert randomness into an otherwise mostly predictable strategy game? Then everyone has to stay away from him, to keep from falling into a luck game!

What if one player were playing a real-time movement game, and the other players were taking turns trying to trap him through strategic construction?

What if some players were managing vast armies of expendable soldiers, and the other players were playing a shooter?

Imagine you're playing a strategy game (where the levels are different from each other), and you're finding one level particularly hard. You keep doing your routines over and over, getting more and more efficient at them, and every time -- you lose. Eventually you have an "Aha!" moment, and then suddenly everything in the level is entirely predictable. You beat it easily, and move onto the next level which is back to really being strategy. See, you've just played a puzzle. But it didn't tell you it was a puzzle. Why should it always be totally obvious whether something is luck, strategy, or puzzle?

You are in a cave. There is a tiny hole through which you can see light, but you can't get through it. It's a puzzle, obviously. But in order to get out, you need to explore deeper into the cave, and learn how the rules of the game work. The more you see, the more rules you can observe and figure out. And you can only get out of the cave once you've mastered many of those rules, by using them all together cleverly. What I am describing is a full-length puzzle game, but one which is one puzzle. A massive one.

A puzzle game, where some of the code that runs the game is editable (in simplified form) from the game itself, and as part of the gameplay! Imagine a large world, where you just want to get to the other side. In order to do that, you're going to have to keep flipping over the way the world works on a fundamental level.

A multiplayer strategy game, following similar principles. The rules to begin with are very clear, but during the course of the game players can pay or vote to add or take away rules, in order to make their units more valuable. The many potential rules are all programmed, and only a minimal number of them become available (randomly) in each game. Everyone is trying to keep the game unbalanced in their favor, and no two playthroughs are the same!
(One version: Several cards representing new rules are displayed, and only one or two of them will get activated at a set point. Until that point, the players pay to change the probabilities of the cards. But it's still up to luck in the end.)

A massively multiplayer strategy game, with hierarchies between players.

Context can be nice in short rule system games. The rules themselves can have an artistic message. This type of game is often pompously called "Serious Games". Well, it's no more serious than anything else, but it's got potential. Especially with multiplayer, where the different rule sets given to the different players can reflect different types of people. Making the game unbalanced can be part of the message, though making it totally impossible for one player takes away longevity.



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