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Why do games tend to limit their form?

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Why is it that games tend to rarely vary their form? You start with a set of activities-- running, jumping, shooting-- and while they may deepen and expand, they almost never change significantly through the entirety of the experience. By (very flawed) contrast, consider how much more malleable as a medium books and movies can be: They can switch genres,  alter perspective and even change subject matter entirely. A movie like Good Morning, Vietnam, for example, starts out as a comedy but ranges into romance, drama, suspenseful action and even tragedy (Hancock, From Dusk Til Dawn, Vanilla Sky, District 9 and Click are movies that could also fit this example).

What is it about games that so limit their form? Is it the maturity of the medium? The strict genre expectations of the audience? Or is it possible that one of the medium's greatest strengths-- interactivity and the process of engaging with it, which is basically learning-- is simultaneously a weakness of sorts? I lean toward this. Maybe the process of learning and mastering mechanics sets a kind of upper limit to what a game can depict and the sum of what experiences it can convey. Card games and board games seem to share this limit-- chess does not morph into poker, for instance, and it would be hard to see it do so (I wouldn't count playing both at the same time).

Or maybe the whole question is flawed and the comparison to books and movies essentially apples to oranges. You might argue the bulk of movies & books fall into well defined genre categories, for instance, varying similar plotlines maybe much like a shooter or platform jumper or racing game varies levels.

But I can't shake the idea of how most games can't really even switch genres let alone their overall form. When you start most, you know you'll be doing basically at the end what you started at the beginning, just maybe with different permutations and contexts. Imagine the howls of going from a shooter to a match-3 game, or from an RTS to a racing game, even if it was a smooth transition. Games that have attempted this, like Spore (or the little known Gordon Alliance decades before it), often run afoul of the problem of sacrificing depth for breadth or suffering from mechanics that just don't cohere well together.

 

What do you think?

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  • Changes within a game need to be slow and simple enough for players to play effectively while they take place, without misunderstandings. On the other hand books, and to a lesser extent film, can disorient the audience until the changes are accepted and/or understood.
  • Games have a formal structure of rules, which cannot be ignored, while narrative media have much more elastic internal coherence standards. If an airplane pilot is shot down and rescued by locals, in a story it is a reasonable and realistic development of what happens of a character, while in a flight simulator game it's the end (at least until the pilot returns to service and the rules of the flight simulator game apply again).
  • Games containing multiple "forms" need to embed the respective rules in a rules superstructure (for example, trading simulations and action games can be combined meaningfully by acquiring equipment for use in the action parts and by looting trade goods in the action parts). This is far more difficult than simply making things happen in a story.
Edited by LorenzoGatti

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1 hour ago, Wavinator said:

Why is it that games tend to rarely vary their form? You start with a set of activities-- running, jumping, shooting-- and while they may deepen and expand, they almost never change significantly through the entirety of the experience.

...

What is it about games that so limit their form? Is it the maturity of the medium?

 

Quite the opposite, I'd say. Games used to vary their form significantly from one stage to the next.

Here's Ghostbusters 2: the first level sees you controlling a character in a downward scrolling thing, the next level is a side-scroller shooter, and the 3rd level is an isometric tactics game.

Ghostbusters_II_1.pngGhostbusters_II_2.png

An older - and worse - example is Beach Head 2, back in the mid 80s. First level is this thing about moving from cover to cover, the second level is to rescue prisoners by shooting the obstacles (if I remember correctly)

beach_head_ii_02.gifbeach_head_ii_04.gif

 

There were a bunch of other games like this in the 80s and 90s but the approach mostly died off.

 

1 hour ago, Wavinator said:

Or is it possible that one of the medium's greatest strengths-- interactivity and the process of engaging with it, which is basically learning-- is simultaneously a weakness of sorts?

It's a weakness if you accept that such a change is a strength. :)

There's a cost involved for the player in terms of learning a new interface at each stage. That might put people off. (The same is true of movies, which is probably why most of them do stay close to genre, with very predictable excursions.)

But the biggest issue is because it requires creating entirely new features and content that adds significant expense. I think this is where your analogy is perhaps flawed, because a film that changes from comedy to drama has arguably not changed its form, just the tone. You can shoot 30 minutes of comedy and 30 minutes of drama with exactly the same equipment and exactly the same people without incurring extra expense compared to 60 minutes of entirely comedy or entirely drama. That's not true in games. If you want to add mechanics, that's adding cost. In that sense, I don't think "genre" or "form" means the same thing across the media being compared.

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The thing is, when you start playing a game, you probably like it because... it's that game. If you're playing a side-scrolling shooter, you don't really want to start playing a top-down strategy game instead. Unwelcome changes like this are a real turn-off.

I can think of examples I've personally experienced, even, and I'm not even that hardcore of a gamer:

  • Power Rangers S.P.D. on the GBA was normally a side-scrolling beat-em-up/platforming sort of game, but every once in a while it had a crappy Missile Command-esque stage. I dreaded those stages at the time and there was one point where I almost quit because of one of them, IIRC.
  • In Mario & Luigi Bowser's Inside Story, I was constantly annoyed by gameplay changes to the point where I just never completed it (I got stuck on one of these stupid mini-games it forces on you, turned the game off, and never turned it on again). It's like the developers couldn't decide on a gameplay experience and just shoved as much crap in there as possible.

Think of it this way: if I don't like the game enough to play it to the end, then I'm not your target audience. If I do like the game, I don't want the experience hijacked in the middle of it. So really, making drastic gameplay changes like this is just bad for everyone involved. Plus, as has already been mentioned, it's extra cost.

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Well, when I'm sitting with a tea in one hand playing a turn based strategy I would really hate if there were parts of the game where I would be forced to jump, shoot and do other arcadish activities like that :)

There used to be games like that in 80s and early 90s but fortunatelly those extincted by now. And it makes me quite happy I would say:)

 

BTW, Sword of the Samurai is one of the few of that type that sounded quite reasonable http://www.homeoftheunderdogs.net/game.php?id=1112 (at the beginning you are samurai - arcade and then a daimyo - strategy).

 

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I don't believe anybody has approached this from the development side: the added complexity of putting in what is essentially an entirely different game. That's a lot of extra development time and hassle to do it well, and if you DON'T do it well the "less limited" form of the game will be a hindrance and not a benefit. Players will look at your RTS sections as half-assed and unfun, thus pulling down the entire game if you don't pull them off.

Many games do attempt to play with genre within their particular rules. For instance, Starcraft has levels without basebuilding and with very limited resources, making them akin to some sort of dungeon crawl/adventure game. These are built to vary the games experiences without actually requiring the player to learn new skills.

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What about the one "form" in a classically styled JRPG where you're walking around talking to people, going through their houses and stealing their stuff and then transition to the "form" where you're battling critters. Does that count?

How about in X-Com, the strategic global view part and then the part where you shoot down the UFO, and then the part where you send in a landing team. Does that count? Maybe the shooting down of the UFO is more of a mini-game, but I'd say the other two are sufficiently large "forms" of gameplay that are distinct from each other.

I also remember in the one Romance of the Three Kingdoms game I played that it had two distinct forms as well. One a sort of political spreadsheet thing where you issued orders and the other was strategic combat decided rule over a territory.

There's no shortage of games that do it very, very badly. But I'll pose the suggestion that when it's done right, you don't notice it.

That said, I am also of the mind set that when I'm in the mood to play something specific, that's pretty much all I want to play and I won't likely pick something off the "shelf" that doesn't fit what I want.

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Shadow of mordor is a good example of why games don't normally do this. The whole game you spend learning how to be a great assassin then it ends the final boss battle with a quick time event. Worst final battle ever.

What I am saying is that games keep to one or few forms, so that the effort the player puts in isn't wasted. After all games unlike most other media requires effort from both the creator and the audience.

 

 

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14 hours ago, Wavinator said:

Card games and board games seem to share this limit-- chess does not morph into poker, for instance, and it would be hard to see it do so (I wouldn't count playing both at the same time).

You might find chess boxing interesting.

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Like people have said, the real reason is dev time. Extensibility generally wins out over variety. This might not be such a bad thing, though. If we look at it from a skill atom point of view, extensible systems allow us to build wider and more dense graphs of skill chains, as opposed to having a sparse graph of skill atoms.

 

Having said that, there are sometimes justifications for adding extra games within a game. The game I'm currently developing switches between text adventure and 2d action/adventure sections. The main reason for this is because different parts of the story require more or less authorial control. Though it disconnects the skill chain, it's important to the overall skill that I'm trying to teach the player, and I return to each section multiple times and allow the skill chains to continue to be built.

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