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Thoughts, and a new twist on an old game

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_Game Design Workshop_ is bloody great. It's got the excercises in it that really make sure you're absorbing what it's saying. I drifted off to sleep thinking about them last night.

Their three-bullet-point definition of a game is:

  • A closed, formal system, that
  • Engages players in structured conflict, and
  • Resolves in an unequal outcome.

The last point is problematic; it doesn't appear to account for single player games, because in order for the outcome to be unequal there have to be multiple outcomes (for different players) to be compared together. I think a better phrasing might be "Can be resolved into multiple, unequal outcomes," because that would allow for only one of those outcomes being selected - the fact that the player wins doesn't change the fact that they could win *or* lose (two unequal outcomes).

It's led me to wonder, though. A game with only one outcome isn't a game (is it? Certainly not one worth playing). And yet, there are plenty of games out there which only have a single outcome, such as Tetris: the game continues until you lose. (I think we must assume that all games are played to resolution; "the player gets bored and leaves" is not a valid outcome).

Perhaps it's necessary to redefine the outcome by accepting that the player loses the game eventually, and considering it an event rather than an outcome - so we examine the properties of the system when that event occurs, and that determines the outcome. Bingo - the player beats the top score, the player does not beat the top score. The player achieve rank #5 in the scores table. The player beats their previous best. And on and on - a massive number of outcomes to choose from, with much inequality.

So, is it possible to extend that to all play-till-you-drop games? To say that getting a "game over" isn't an outcome, but rather an event that triggers the concrete selection of an outcome? (The player can have achieved slot #5 on the high scores table at any point in the game, but that won't actually be the outcome until they get a game over). I'm thinking it is. If anyone's got any counterexamples, I'd like to hear about them.

I think it covers cooperative games as well - irritatingly I can't think of any examples of coop games where players aren't "versus the AI" - but you can just condense all cooperative players into a "team", and view that team as a single player. And then it becomes single-player reasoning.

So, all games have multiple outcomes. Consider also that an outcome which will never be reached should be discarded as an impossible outcome.

If we assume that our players are rational, we can say that given a fixed situation with fixed circumstances and fixed unequal options, the player will always pick the same option (because they evaluate the situation the same way and always pick the best option, because they're rational). The situation is deterministic - the option they select is a function of the situation and circumstances. Same situation and circumstances, same option. If we switch the word "option" for "outcome," we can quickly see that deterministic situations allow for only one outcome.

Games have multiple outcomes; therefore, games cannot be deterministic.

Discuss. [smile]

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This is perhaps one of my favorite topics. At times, it seems that no single definition can quite encompass the concept that we use the umbrella word "game" for.

My old definition:
A structured activity not generally related to survival.

It was always a little too broad in scope, naturally. Too many things thus became "games", although in some cases I had arguments against it.

Take mowing the lawn. One of the folks who didn't like my definition argued that mowing the lawn was a structured activity, and thus, by my definition, a game. Mowing the lawn is NOT, however, a structured activity in and of itself. If you involve a clock or stopwatch, suddenly it is, because you can then have races or compete against your previous best score.

A structured activity is really just an activity with success metrics(i.e. a score of some kind, or a way to compare preformances). The conflict can come from anywhere... trying to beat your own score, or someone else trying to beat your score.

Games always involve a choice of some kind, choices make the game interesting. Games that aren't interesting typically don't last long.

Also, games always have a final state, and that final state is unknown and unknowable at the outset of the game.

Going back to my lawn mowing analogy. Just mowing the lawn is not a game, but measuring how long it takes to mow the lawn is. The "end state" i refer to is NOT "the lawn is completely mowed". That's the GOAL, not the end state. The end state consists of how much time has passed when the goal has been reached, which is the whole point of the lawn mowing game.

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Yeah - trying to beat your "best time" for the entire lawn, or something. Makes sense.

The book's concept of a game is a bit deeper than I suggested - it's something along the lines of a bunch of formal elements (gameplay), plus a bunch of dramatic elements (to keep the player interested). Their formal elements:

  • Players: well, in lawn mowing, you're the player. Easy enough.
  • Objectives: mow the lawn.
  • Procedures: the actual process of mowing the lawn, I guess - moving the mower backwards and forwards across the grass.
  • Rules: I guess these would be something like "The mower can only mow X amount of grass per second," or "The mower cannot pass through the player's position." (I guess it could, but you probably couldn't be considered to have won the game afterwards).
  • Resources: This one's a little tough. They talk about resources as being scarce but valuable things, like powerups in Quake; I'm not sure there's anything that qualifies in lawn mowing.
  • Conflict: specifically, the conflict between the objective and the rules/procedures (in that the player is prohibited from achieving the objective straight off the bat). That's where our "The mower can only mow X amount of grass per second" rule comes in - otherwise you could mow the entire lawn instantaneously, and you'd win the game as soon as it started.
  • Boundaries: edges of the lawn.
  • Outcome: as dicussed, the "The player has beaten their best time," "The player has not beaten their best time."

I wonder about determinism though. If we take our rule that the mower can only mow X amount of grass per second, and then assume that you're not disabled and thus able to move the mower around at its maximum speed, then you'll always achieve the shortest possible time - you can't mow that total amount in any shorter time, and you have no desire to take a longer time. So the outcome is predetermined. Perhaps it's not a game after all.

Also, games always have a final state, and that final state is unknown and unknowable at the outset of the game.

I will agree that the state as a whole is unknowable, but you can still know *aspects* of it - for instance, I know that the final state of my Tetris game will be that I let the pieces fill up to the top, and the final state of your lawn is that it will be mowed. My score, or your time, is unknown and unknowable until the game ends. But to infer that no aspect of the final state can be known would be a mistake.

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Other obstacles exist in the lawn-mowing game: trees, stumps, bushes, flowers, the house, the garage, etc. Typically a lawn is not a simple shape, and so choice of route becomes important, to eliminate the need for backtracking.

There are also environmental conditions to consider, like being hot out, or starting to rain, etc(generally speaking, we ignore these, as they make the activity not closed and formal).

Ideally, we'd stipulate a standard(ish) temperature and light source, assume that the mower is in perfect working order, and has enough gas to complete the entire lawn.

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