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Fun Games vs. Realistic Games

By Goran Lalic | Published Apr 09 2001 04:39 PM in Game Design

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Introduction

For years now I have been on the lookout for games that would be based on a totally realistic set of rules and circumstances, and so far, I have been very disappointed by what hits the game market. Mostly the games (and movies and novels alike) are totally unrealistic, and even the last shards of creative realism are sacrificed so that the average player can find the game more fun. The worst part of it is that average consumers are mindlessly swallowing what ever high graphics adrenaline-pumping game the industry tosses at them, not stopping a single moment to think if there is a drop of realism and common sense in the sea of designers' "creative outbursts".

Sadly, games don't need to follow any realistic and logical settings to be widely accepted; it's more like the other way around. As if realistic and well implemented logic repel players away. By this I mean primarily of sci-fi games, since they are most vulnerable to manipulation by insufficiently educated people, but that doesn't mean that other game genres have gone any better.

Generally, there are two sorts of games: realistic ones and commercial ones. A perfect analogy can be found in the diametrical difference of two motion pictures: "2001: A Space Odyssey" - by late Stanley Kubrick and Arthur C. Clarke on one side, and "Star Wars Trilogy" (tetralogy/hexalogy?) by George Lucas. The first was a milestone of SF, that was talked about in the highest scientific circles for years, a classical film that generations after us will watch. The other had an average profit of over 300 million dollars per movie (I think) and has created millions of fans worldwide, followers of an exotic universe. So what shall it be? For most game designers/programmers, the choice is clear: I Want My Starship To Have Velocity Limitations Even If It Is In Vacuum!

Sure, your average Sixpack Joe won't tell the difference. But if you do so, you will add further to the level of miseducation that modern culture has implanted into every single individual. You think about THAT when you drive your fancy red Ferrari earned with dirty programming money! Shame on you! Youth Spoiler!

I am not saying that unreal settings are not justified by good gameplay. I think now it's perfect time to mention StarCraft, my favorite strategy game. OK, so I admit, StarCraft is a very amusing game, even though it only takes 30 seconds to build barracks. I think we'll all agree that Blizzard would very soon go bankrupt if you had to wait for 6 months of gameplay for that SCV to build a Supply Depot, right?

Examples:

I will now give a couple of examples of totally unrealistic settings, not necessarily from the game industry. This does not mean you should try to avoid such settings - unless you're going for the "smart" players population. I have included 2 examples of illogical settings : one that is justified, and the other that isn't.
  • Star Wars, Star Wars, Star Wars. Oh God, Star Wars. Not only does it incorporate an incredibly unrealistic flight physics model (in games) that even my French poodle can see through, it also has a set of indescribably illogical events (in movies/ universe in general) that it is hilarious at times. Remember when Luke landed at Degobah? And of entire planet, he landed right next to Yoda, the very person he was looking for? On a planet with 200 000 000 square miles surface (Let me guess: the force was his guide)? This was a result of uneducated writers that treat planets as small pieces of rock on which you can't miss bumping into someone, rather than huge Earth-like bodies they are. Bad setting, no excuse. Baaaaaaad.
  • Quake 1/2/3 and all their clones. OK, I admit, I was a Quake freak myself for quite some time. But let's face it: the game lacks reasonable amounts of logics. You marine goes from 0 speed to full speed in just 1 second? Have you ever wondered how much acceleration it exposes him to? Someone has calculated it is about 20g or so. And it's a no-no. Muscles get crushed at 15g. Still, it's damn good fun to be able to dodge the bullets! And how come I can jump over a 50' long cliff, and I can take 20 bullets in my face only to cure all of it by a single Power Stim, yet I can't climb over a wall that's only 4 feet tall? Yet, this is a perfect example of a VERY fun game and, as such, we forgive Id Software for redefining the laws of physics!
And now, here are some rare examples of incredibly, ~100% realistic games:
  • Microsoft Space/Flight Simulator
  • Operational Art Of War
This is beyond all comment. You HAVE to play these games to understand what I'm talking about.

And here are the best games, those that show a very in-depth implementation of realistic rules, but only to those players that want to dig deep enough. These games have it all, the simple foreground, that can win any player, yet subtle and complex background that will only be important to those players who want to meddle with it.
  • Frontier. The absolute champion of realism and simple gameplay! David Braben for president! A casual gamer (assuming he has nerves to play the game with all the annoying bugs it has) can be thrilled with simple flight control, he might trade a few types of goods between star systems, become bad-ass bounty hunter and renegade and so on. But for anyone who has even the slightest knowledge of astrophysics, the game reveals much, much more: the convincing and realistic flight model(YES, FINALLY A REALISTIC FLIGHT MODEL), the thoroughly implemented Star Map with ALL the important stars in galaxy, the various exotic goods that can be transported from system to system, and finally, the numerous subtle details that make this game a #1 all-time favorite - such as Gravitational Sling Shot and Fuel Scoops (that actually work), cold war between Empire and Federation, and Interpol that controls independent systems, and many, many more. Now THAT'S a game that both my Astronomy professor and my younger brother can play alike, each finding a part of the game that he likes. Not bad for 1993, I'll reckon.
  • I-War (also known as Independence War) - well, it's more of an arcade game, but it sure is consistent. Those guys hired a scientific adviser, that's for sure!
A Moral Dillema

OK, so it basically comes down to this: should I make a realistic game, one for smart people, and thus automatically limit the target market to 2% of player population, or should I make another brawn-and-not-brain game that will sure be fun, sell off in millions of copies, but in doing so, further corrupt the unstable and susceptible minds of consumers? Well, it's up to you to decide. There is a solution, of course, something every programmer who cares for his soul finds as his holy grail: to combine fun and realistic in games. To make the game that even the brawn of Quakers and highest brains of Ph.D. guys can handle with equal fun. So far, no one has even gotten significantly near this philosopher's stone of sorts. Can YOU do it? Are YOU the Chosen One?

Of course, I realize that 95% of players are BigMac-eating, Quake-drooling, Star Wars-admiring consume-all-Hollywood-bombards-you-with drones, so it's even preferable to deliberately make moronic games over "smart" ones; but I also realize that gaming and movie industry could have done a lot of things to prevent it. Trust me, this comes from a certified Mac-eating, Quake-drooling, SW-admiring drone.

OK, So I control ancient Egyptian tribe (Civilization: Call of Time)? Fine. Care to explain me why do I keep running the tribe even after 7000 years? Wasn't I supposed to be dead by now?


Some Real Advice

Now, it's time for some real advice on how to make a quality, realistic games - and I hope to accomplish this also by naming the most frequent mistakes. Avoid such mistakes, and you are on a good path towards becoming an objectively developed programmer.
  • Be original - There is a reason I put this one on the first place in the list. Avoid cliches, and you have already eliminated 80% of all illogical things in games. Be original, for God's sake! I'm sure there are many articles covering originality in games,so I won't be wasting your time here any more.
  • Understand the matter - most mistakes are made in the phase of planning and early design of a game. If you let people with no knowledge in astronomy design a tech tree for your space sim, it's your fault if the game crashes on the market because even the dummiest dummies know that starships are not made of iron (or do they?). Don't do that. Try to find some appropriate material, acquire at least the basics of the basics. It will be a whole lot easier that way, trust me.
  • Know Your Target Group - You must at all times be aware of the people you are making this game for. If it's for pre-school kids, you better make some colorful, large, cute pictures and not worry about the logics too much. If your goal group are certified Quakers, try not to make too complicated puzzles - and also, don't worry about logics too much. You can't go wrong there. But if you are aiming at anyone else, ask around. See what people want, and what they hate about today's games. Use your competitors' errors to bury them alive! (by the way, this is coming from a certified Quaker)
  • Think, think, think! - Oh, how many games have suffers greatly just because designers (fearing the dreaded bane called Deadline, no doubt), failed to use their overclocked brains a little harder! Think before you make each step, try to look for all possible consequences! There are gamers out there who are going to use their brains, you know! And if they spot any traces of illogical game course, they will be lost to you. This is especially important in adventure games and RPGs, that are played by people who use logics abundantly. Yes, roasting a rabbit in the woods will certainly help feed your party, but the smoke will inevitably attract those skeletons that have lost trail of you just some time before.
  • Be objective to your games - don't let sentimental memories overpower your common sense of taste. You will have beta testers, of course, but there is no beta tester as good as the programmer himself. Of course, what one man likes can often repulse other men, and you should definitely look for a second opinion. But that's exactly why you will need to be a good gamer before you can be a good game programmer - you will depend less on the opinion of others, and you will react better. Just like every gamer should know a bit of programming before he can give a valid opinion, so should every programmer taste the call of adrenaline rush before he makes a game. I myself have been a victim of a savage argument with a tester, incidentally my best friend. My friend kept insisting on specific shadows for each flying unit in an RTS game; I, however, tried to convince him that one universal type of shadow (oval one) would be quite enough. He failed to understand that adding diverse shadows would not only add further programming problems, that were minor and easily solvable, but also that it would virtually double the amount of graphics needed for this game - in terms of both work to be done and size it would eat up. To conclude: the best games aren't made by best programmers, but by best gamers. Have that in mind.
Conclusion

No, you don't need to ask quantum physics professors to unravel the mysteries of universe to you before you start making a space sim. Hell, you don't even need to know a thing about space mechanics - judging by the content of modern space games. If you are a lone wolf programmer/designer (and in case you haven't noticed, this article was written mainly for that population), no one will ask you to further tire yourself with such things as Special Theory of Relativity. But hey, if you start messing with techs, try to make'em consistent and believable. Try to read just the basic things, and try to understand for one last time why Antimatter rifles CANNOT work on planets with high atmospheric pressure. And if you own a serious programming company, well, that's easy - you can just hire a creative consultant, someone who understands the core of the matter (and yes, I have no job currently, so... :) ) that will spare you of all that boring physics work, let you do the computer work while he edits the design concepts, and, before you know it, your company will be spitting out realistic-and-fun masterpieces that game industry will remember for a looong time.

Oh, and have just one more thing in mind: While there is not a dormant genius within each computer player, there is a dormant computer player within each genius.

 
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