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Wavinator

Pointlessness

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Have you ever gotten to the end of a game (or some other point) and thought, "This is a complete waste of time?" If so, what do you think causes that feeling? Is it pacing? Subject matter? Story? Disorganized mechanics? I've been trying out a lot of indie games of late to try and familiarize myself with the competition. For me the biggest common factor seems to be not the production values, but that a lot of the games lack a sense of satisfying completion. It seems to be that the roles offered aren't very interesting, and so when you fulfill them it's "I won, yeah, but so what?" I realize this may be wildly different for each of us, and it's still quite nebulous for me. I'm not sure if I'm expecting far more than is possible, but it seems personally that I'm looking not just to win or beat the game, but for some sort of context that unifies all the game's themes and ties them into an appropriate ending. (It's sort of the same when you get to the end of a movie, but I'm having trouble describing it). Anyway, what is it like for you? Is a game just a game, meaning that it's not supposed "go somewhere." Or have you experienced "pointlessness" and thought about what it's made of?

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I get that feeling with every MMO I've ever played. This is probably because I'm antisocial. When you remove the social aspect from an MMO, you are left with grinding and getting-items-for-the-sake-of-getting-better-items issues.

On the other hand, extremely simple games with no plot (N+, Schizoid, Gravitron 2) have a very simple goal (beat the level without dying) give me lots of enjoyment and don't leave me thinking "pointless!".


In conclusion, I think it boils down to simply enjoying yourself or not. If you're not enjoying yourself, what is the point of playing the game? If you're enjoying yourself, then that IS the point (whether it's game mechanics fun, social fun, graphical awe, etc).

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Original post by Nypyren
I get that feeling with every MMO I've ever played. This is probably because I'm antisocial. When you remove the social aspect from an MMO, you are left with grinding and getting-items-for-the-sake-of-getting-better-items issues.


If you play an MMO and don't group with people, chances are you won't get the full game experience anyway.
So you're already at a handicap.
Besides, if you're not paying for it, you're not going to try and get the most out of it, are you?

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Are you talking specifically about a satisfying resolution in indie games? I'm guessing that you're trialling a specific genre of games: many indie games don't really have much plot, especially the puzzle games. I'll have to think about this one to get back with you with a more in-depth answer. (I'm trialling indie games as well for the same reason, so it's something that interests me too.)

In general, when I feel a game is a waste of time it's more a matter of pacing. If nothing much has happened in an hour of game play, I'll start to strongly feel whether the payoff of playing the game is worth it. This doesn't happen in games that keep throwing challenges at me.

With indie games, generally my main problem is the main game play hook doesn't get me. Take Crayon Physics Deluxe, for example. I like the idea of the style of crayon drawings, but the puzzles I tried in the demo could be sleep walked through. If the demo puzzles were more challenging I'd be more inclined to buy, but as it is I suspect the game is too easy for me to really enjoy. That's a pity, because I think the concept is really neat.

I'll need to ponder the question a bit more to give an accurate answer as to what makes the games I really like. I suspect it's an issue of both polish and personality, but I'll need to psychoanalyse myself a bit to see if I'm just deluding myself [smile].

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Cpt & Nypyren, you both gave me a clue: I wonder if part of it is setting up expectations in advance. If you have a game that's a big movie production that ends with less than a stellar bang, I think you'll let people down. On the other hand, if it's a retro-style title with very simple visuals and mechanics, your expectations have appropriately been set.

Maybe that's one aspect.

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Original post by Wavinator
Cpt & Nypyren, you both gave me a clue: I wonder if part of it is setting up expectations in advance. If you have a game that's a big movie production that ends with less than a stellar bang, I think you'll let people down. On the other hand, if it's a retro-style title with very simple visuals and mechanics, your expectations have appropriately been set.

Maybe that's one aspect.


I was going to put that in my post but I thought that was self evident.

Setting yourself up for failure is the most common cause of hoplessness.

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Original post by Wavinator
Cpt & Nypyren, you both gave me a clue: I wonder if part of it is setting up expectations in advance. If you have a game that's a big movie production that ends with less than a stellar bang, I think you'll let people down. On the other hand, if it's a retro-style title with very simple visuals and mechanics, your expectations have appropriately been set.

Maybe that's one aspect.


I think that plays a big part. If the game is not appealing to you, you might not play it. If you don't play it, you won't be disappointed.

For instance, when I played Crysis, I was completely expecting a game that focused entirely on eye-candy. I don't care that much about graphics but I played it anyway after hearing about cool suit powers. There were interesting game mechanics, but by the end I wasn't having a good time anymore, because most of each unique game mechanic (driving the tank, flying the VTOL, using any of the suit powers other than stealth) was unfulfilling in itself.

The "features that don't really do much" is a big deal for me (programmer psychology). My bastardized analogy: "Give a man a hammer, and every problem looks like a nail. Give a man 5 hammers, and he picks a favorite and ignores the rest."

(edit: different analogy)

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
Are you talking specifically about a satisfying resolution in indie games?


Either, but like you I'm especially interested in indie titles.

I've even been thinking about this for games with high production values. Years behind the curve (and on the cheap :>) I've finished Half-Life 2 awhile back, and I thought about how appropriate the ending was given all that had come before, even Half-Life 1. (It was as ambiguous as I expected, given Gordon's lot, and had a giant machine puzzle at the very end.)

Quote:

I'm guessing that you're trialling a specific genre of games: many indie games don't really have much plot, especially the puzzle games.


I'm trying lots of strategy and RPG games at the moment. I take your point about the plot (funny how many casual indie puzzler's have one!). A friend suggested that only games with a plot can have a thematic closure that's similar to what we find so satisfying in other media, but I'm not sure I agree.

It feels more like a promise is made about your role and in our heads it comes with the background baggage of inherent expectations. If you're given the role of Godzilla, for instance, but not allowed to smash the city, maybe you feel ripped off?

Quote:

In general, when I feel a game is a waste of time it's more a matter of pacing. If nothing much has happened in an hour of game play, I'll start to strongly feel whether the payoff of playing the game is worth it. This doesn't happen in games that keep throwing challenges at me.


Pacing's a good one. Out of curiosity, did you just find it too easy or did you have a series of expectations based on the premise of the game?

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Computer games pretty much by definition need to be scorable in some way that both the software and the player can understand, which usually means defining some overall goal and subgoals which contribute to the overall one. If you're talking about a story-based game, stories structurally need to have endings and the purpose of the ending includes pronouncing some sort or moral judgment or extracting a philosophical moral from the story, as well as releasing the suspenseful and emotional tension that has kept the audience following the story until the end. MMOs are not designed to have satisfying endings because when they player feels satisfied, they stop playing, and MMOs want players to keep playing forever. But if you look at non-procedurally generated single-player games from Mario to Final Fantasy to Zelda to Myst, they generally have dramatic endings which show the player's long effort as having been of acceptable or impressive quality and having finally accomplished some important overall goal - saving the world, defeating the biggest baddest villain, rescuing the mistreated children or damsel in distress, going from rags to riches, personal transformation into something beyond human, establishing an enduring state of safety, understanding a long-bothersome mystery, finally exacting revenge, overcoming a personal trauma, etc.

The things that interfere with this sort of satisfaction and feeling of meaningfulness can be structural problems such as not having an ending, disagreement of the player with the moral presented, the player's judgment that the story as a whole is something they have seen more than enough times already or irrelevant to the player's internal concerns.

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Original post by Wavinator
Either, but like you I'm especially interested in indie titles.

I've even been thinking about this for games with high production values. Years behind the curve (and on the cheap :>) I've finished Half-Life 2 awhile back, and I thought about how appropriate the ending was given all that had come before, even Half-Life 1. (It was as ambiguous as I expected, given Gordon's lot, and had a giant machine puzzle at the very end.)

The dilemma is the indie games by necessity do not have high production costs, so they generally can only get high production value by with extremely deft development. It's hard to compete on both polish and quantity of content; most indies have to go for the former at the expense of the latter.

Quote:
I'm trying lots of strategy and RPG games at the moment. I take your point about the plot (funny how many casual indie puzzler's have one!). A friend suggested that only games with a plot can have a thematic closure that's similar to what we find so satisfying in other media, but I'm not sure I agree.

I'm not sure how you can get thematic closure without some kind of plot. The way I see it, once you introduce a theme and closure a plot will be implicitly introduced. Do you have a counter example that could show me what you mean by a plotless game with thematic closure?

Quote:
Pacing's a good one. Out of curiosity, did you just find it too easy or did you have a series of expectations based on the premise of the game?

That might be referring to two questions: poor pacing in games in question, and Crayon Physics Deluxe specifically.

In general, poor pacing is when the difficulty and/or excitement curves are misaligned. It's a problem in freeform RPGs and poorly balanced action games in particular. In freeform RPGs, there can be long periods of grinding extra experience or travelling between points A and B. In both RPGs and action games, there can be points where the difficulty curve was not properly considered. Steep spikes of an extreme difficulty jump will present frustration and loss of enjoyment. Too long a plateau of lower difficulty leads to stagnation and boredom.

In Crayon Physics Deluxe, the gimmick was fine: drawing shapes that turn into physical objects in the world is a great concept. However the puzzles in the demo were really, really easy. I don't think I spent more than a minute solving each one, much less with most, and my first idea always worked. Hence there wasn't any challenge, and that's what is needed in a puzzler. I also felt it didn't quite have the personality spark of other indie puzzlers, like World of Goo, Deadly Rooms of Death or Professor Fizzwizzle.

(Note: I don't particularly want to pick on Crayon Physics Deluxe too much; I'm mainly using it as an example as I only tried out the demo yesterday. Unfortunately for it, I played it just after trialling the freeware somewhat rogue-like Spelunky which is packed full of fun personality).

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
I'm not sure how you can get thematic closure without some kind of plot. The way I see it, once you introduce a theme and closure a plot will be implicitly introduced. Do you have a counter example that could show me what you mean by a plotless game with thematic closure?

'Some kind of plot' can be really darn minimal though. For my example, I'd pick Tetris - the escalation of rockets from firecracker to spaceship, and the final twist where the ship stayed and the launchpad blasted off. Kind of like a wordless comic strip or picture book.

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Original post by sunandshadow
'Some kind of plot' can be really darn minimal though. For my example, I'd pick Tetris - the escalation of rockets from firecracker to spaceship, and the final twist where the ship stayed and the launchpad blasted off. Kind of like a wordless comic strip or picture book.

That's still some kind of plot though [smile]. It's very minimal, but there's a series of images in sequence.

A counter-example I've just thought of is Missile Command with the theme of the pointlessness of Mutually Assured Destruction steeped in the whole early 80s Cold War paranoia. There's nothing very plot like in that game, just gameplay, but it does very aptly present the theme of the whole pointlessness of the missile defence system. No matter how well you play, eventually all your cities will die.

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I'm filled with closure a lot more by interactive conquest than by fulfilling the designer's hardcoded objectives or story based quests. I often have a hard time enjoying plots/stories/gameplay simply because I know it was designed to happen exactly that way, for every single player of the game, regardless of their past decisions, successes, and failures.

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Original post by Trapper Zoid
I'm not sure how you can get thematic closure without some kind of plot. The way I see it, once you introduce a theme and closure a plot will be implicitly introduced. Do you have a counter example that could show me what you mean by a plotless game with thematic closure?

I've been in many situations that ended with thematic closure without being connected to any type of plot or story. A drawn-out random battle, for example, where I did something really cool at the end to cap off my long struggle against ridiculous odds. As my last enemy dies in slow motion, and my character lands back on the ground from my crazy stunt attack, I definitely feel a surge of completeness to battle.

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Original post by Wavinator
Have you ever gotten to the end of a game (or some other point) and thought, "This is a complete waste of time?" If so, what do you think causes that feeling? Is it pacing? Subject matter? Story? Disorganized mechanics?
Setting up an expectation and not meeting it. Sometimes those expectations are pre-existing within the medium or setting.

The RTS game World in Conflict is played as mechanized infantry at the company level, with brigade support available. The first act is fun. But the game then stripped away the tools of the trade, making me play what felt like tutorials. I had to play levels with only helicopers, or only engineers, or only tanks until I was gagging on contrived challenges.

I stopped playing when I was called upon to Take and Hold Seattle, but without using any actual soldiers. It was a 15-hour visit to the uncanny valley.

[Edited by - AngleWyrm on January 18, 2009 10:27:21 PM]

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Original post by Wavinator
Have you ever gotten to the end of a game (or some other point) and thought, "This is a complete waste of time?" If so, what do you think causes that feeling? Is it pacing? Subject matter? Story? Disorganized mechanics?


I guess it depends on the type of game. For games that actually have a plot, the story has to be good, just as in a book or a movie, plus that, the game has to be good at making the player get immerse into it (to make him buy it). Deus Ex (to me) was exceptionally good at this.

I recently registered in one of those online poker sites and I must say that, being such a simple game as it is, I can stay playing for ours and end up feeling that the time I spended on it was worth for the fun I got from it.

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Difficulty

I know that not everyone is the glutton for punishment i am, but an ending is more satisfying if the journey was difficult (length of journey is a different thing altogether).

The one game that comes to mind is R-Type III, probably one of the hardest games ever. When you beat the game on the hardest difficulty level, it just says something like "Congratulations - You're A Super Player" - and that's it! But beating it on any difficulty level is excruciating, so the ending is not important, only the accomplishment of having beaten something so brutally difficult.

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I agree with Tom, that if I'm having fun while playing a game, regardless of how fulfilling the ending is, it's not exactly pointless.

It's the point where the game is no longer fun (or interesting), where it would become pointless to continue playing.

Things that kill games for me are:
-Having to grind at all to get past a certain point
-Slow pacing
-Terrible story (especially with ridiculous metaphors, and trying to be too deep)

Forcing my way through these games WOULD be pointless, but I tend to give up before I force my way through a game.

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Re:

I read the thread but couldn't tell the intended scope.

"Pointlessness" is the recognition of a subjective undesirable level of opportunity cost associated with playing the game. If, at a particular moment, you have nothing better to do than playing tetris, then, this moment of entertainment is not pointless, regardless whether there was a plot, whether there was a meaning. This is the situation that Tom described, where "having fun is not pointless."

The case is different is you have other opportunities. For some people, the opportunity cost is so high that virtually any act of game playing is pointless. This could include all kinds of playing, role-play, all toys, all cartoon watching, etc. The missed opportunities simply dwarfs whatever you could gain from playing the game. We now know that certain forms of play such as role-play are very beneficial. By role-play I don't mean RPG. I meant something like "I play the doctor and you play the patient".

In this particular scope of explanation, pointlessness has less precise relation to expectation, than to the perception of one's opportunities (the perceived alternatives to spend the same time and energy). It is not about the game per se, but about the other things you could do. People who have bad retention of their self-awareness cannot tell when they are about to do something pointless among the alternatives, but they could have a vivid expectation of the activity in front of them.

A pointless game introduces a problem to a player where solving the problem benefits the player at an unacceptable level compared to the benefits gained from other opportunities. An example of such is a situation "irrelevant to the player's internal concerns." Playing a pointless game is like filling a virtual designer hole while gaining substantially less than alternate activities. This was mentioned by at least Kest, AngleWyrm. But whether a game is pointless is relative to the options the player has.

A game that is not pointless is one that is at least on par with the alternatives in quantities of whatever it is that the player is trying to get at a specific period of time. But this is not a property of the game, but a instantenous status of where the game sits in the player's set of choices.

A question that logically follows:

How do you design a game such that once a player starts playing it, it removes the player's perception of all alternatives, and convinces the player to justisfy the meaning of the game long after it is played?

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I like the concept ranking a given activity against alternatives. Sometimes I'll stop playing a game and switch to reading/posting on forums instead.

There seems to be something missing though, and that something might be the memory of other games played. I can perform a "what if" scenario where I choose between the current game, and the memory of some other game that I used to play.

Is it an unfair competition? Yes, because memory is clouded and jaded and full of emotional and situational prejudice. And subject to change without notice. Which seems to suggest that mud-slinging PR campaigns against remembered video games on the forums would work well.

Luckily I have a large collection of old games to verify/switch to. I've recently started playing Diablo II instead of Fallout 3. (Xfire time log)

[Edited by - AngleWyrm on January 19, 2009 11:03:56 PM]

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Original post by Kest
I'm filled with closure a lot more by interactive conquest than by fulfilling the designer's hardcoded objectives or story based quests. I often have a hard time enjoying plots/stories/gameplay simply because I know it was designed to happen exactly that way, for every single player of the game, regardless of their past decisions, successes, and failures.


I'm the same way, and I'm not sure if it's worse simply because I know so much about what's happening behind the scenes or if it's because I've played too many games that have the same dynamics. But when my objectives are more of a "roll your own" style, I at least have the sense of accomplishing something on my own terms.

It's all illusion, of course, but for me if there's enough flexibility then I've been able to add something of myself to the experience, as opposed to having the experience rigidly dictated to me.

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Original post by Wai
"Pointlessness" is the recognition of a subjective undesirable level of opportunity cost associated with playing the game. If, at a particular moment, you have nothing better to do than playing tetris, then, this moment of entertainment is not pointless, regardless whether there was a plot, whether there was a meaning. This is the situation that Tom described, where "having fun is not pointless."


Tom makes a good point and I think your description of opportunity cost is very well thought out. I agree that it's true to a point. However, I'm not sure that's the full picture.

I know this is highly subjective, but let me use two similarly themed games: Risk and Civilization. Both are chiefly about the same subject, world domination (and I think they both satisfy my inner megalomaniac). Playing both can engender a range of emotions and experiences, such as anticipation, anxiety, frustration and the thrill of victory. Risk gets you through these faster than Civ, but (for me) carries with it an underlying sense of purposelessness.

The game is fun, I play it repeatedly and it's great for a short break. But I have the impression that my activities don't really amount to anything. In contrast, I still remember with great fondness and can tell stories to friends about the carefully crafted empires I created in Civ.

I know that a large degree of my underlying dissatisfaction with Risk is that it's the gaming equivalent of junk food-- temporarily satisfying, but ultimately lacking. It does a good job for what it is, but what it is is so (in my mind) pointlessly small. Let me stress again that I realize this is entirely subjective, but if one perceives an experience, even a fun one, as ultimately pointless then it's not just about time, it's about an underlying expectation (which may not be realistic).

Quote:

People who have bad retention of their self-awareness cannot tell when they are about to do something pointless among the alternatives, but they could have a vivid expectation of the activity in front of them.


This might be true, but I worry a bit about this statement because it is easy to classify someone as lacking in self awareness yet hard to prove it.


Quote:

How do you design a game such that once a player starts playing it, it removes the player's perception of all alternatives, and convinces the player to justisfy the meaning of the game long after it is played?


Or maybe another way to say this would be how do you make sure that both the amount of work is worthy of the player's time and effort and the amount of reward is commensurate with their expectations. In my own experiences, maybe taking over the world in Risk is just too darn easy.

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Original post by Wavinator
Quote:
Original post by Kest
I'm filled with closure a lot more by interactive conquest than by fulfilling the designer's hardcoded objectives or story based quests. I often have a hard time enjoying plots/stories/gameplay simply because I know it was designed to happen exactly that way, for every single player of the game, regardless of their past decisions, successes, and failures.


I'm the same way, and I'm not sure if it's worse simply because I know so much about what's happening behind the scenes or if it's because I've played too many games that have the same dynamics. But when my objectives are more of a "roll your own" style, I at least have the sense of accomplishing something on my own terms.

It's all illusion, of course, but for me if there's enough flexibility then I've been able to add something of myself to the experience, as opposed to having the experience rigidly dictated to me.

A lot of simple things can make this problem better, though. Simply having the capacity to pick up one of many weapons to use in the next few areas, for instance. If weapons are not stripped from you at the end of each objective, then the designer has no idea what weapon you may have for each, making it highly unlikely that each area is fit to your situation like a glove. The more of these little carry-over effects there are, the more the issue disappears.

Detailed open ended games usually don't have the problem at all. When you can influence or directly modify your armor + weapons + character attributes + fighting style + cybernetic implants + spells + party members + enemy relationships + permanent map modifications + corp economy balance + etc, nearly every situation in the game is going to be designed for global/general functionality, rather than for your exact configuration, giving you a lot of room to unbalance each situation with extra cleverness.

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