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Monday
Feb072011

Games, Rules & Immersion

We game developers are obsessed with rules, patterns, logic and constraints. And this is a good thing because our creations run on computers, devices that operate in the realm of logic, rules and constraints.

But how do rules affect our ability to create interactive, immersive and coherent experiences? I decided to take this thought a little further and see where it leads me, so I think of this post more as food for thought and discussion.

Let’s start with us. We’re all individuals with unique personalities, agendas, social status and background, needs, wants, likes, dislikes, and so on, united by sets of rules. Some rules are more fundamental, like the rules of physics, and others try to give us a platform to coexist and operate, like rules of society or law. But our lives are also regularly affected by coincidence: situations or events that disrupt and challenge these rules: From impactful global catastrophic events to very personal experiences like the sudden inkling of an idea that can change the world and is worth pursuing. These situations come with their own set of rules, often incompatible with our personal rules, therefore creating conflict that needs resolving. But this journey through conflict to resolution is what motivates us, makes us stronger and turns us into explorers, thinkers and survivors, allows us to grow and progress.

How does this compare to video games? After all not only their development but also their execution and interaction is based on rules, parameters, constraints and logic.

With all this in mind lets take a look on how video games deal with rules, and if they give us enough opportunity for virtual growth, progress, immersion and engagement:

 
The Rules of Technical Architecture in Games:

The various engines (graphic, audio, physic, AI, etc) that drive video games operate on similar principles: Receive input & calculate output based on a set of rules and parameters. Some engines follow rules of physics (physics engine) whilst others take from rules of society (AI). And more often than not all these engines are modular: They all have individual rulebooks that are based on their own area of expertise, adapted to deal with the constraints of the given platform.

All the engines are wrapped up by the game engine, which in turn follows the rules, parameters and constrains established by the game developers on a platform that has rules, parameters and constraints.

Knowing upfront which engines play what role in the overall game design allows for a coherent integration (focus on rules that are required rather than on every single potential possibility regardless if it’s necessary or not), which in turn allows for much better immersion. For example Half-Life’s and Portal’s physic engines play an integral part to the core game mechanics (using gravity & portal gun to solve physics based puzzles.


The Rules of Play

Most video games / genres take their initial rule set from the real world for at least two reasons:

1) Most competitive rules establish a framework of fair progression and elimination.

2) These rules are based on public parameters and conditions and follow simple and deterministic rules that are comprehensible and acceptable.

The above can be found in sports, board games and pen & paper roleplaying games. Without rules that everybody can understand and agree on, there cannot be fair play. The rules are fair because they are logical: with the same information and rules, the players come to the same conclusions, which makes the rules perfect for video games.
For further comparison look at RPGs, the first RPGs pretty much copied the rule set of pen & paper roleplaying games: Numbers are used to represent status; progression within the system is based on rules and therefore logical (leveling up) and events that appear coincidentally have limited scope due to rules and conditions, leading to predicable outcomes (rolling dice).

The P&P rules were primarily not designed for fun but to establish a fair framework of operation. The engagement (fun) and immersion comes from playing games with other people and the game-master: Their actions and reactions, interpretations and behavior provide the random elements that update the parameters and progress the rules while at the same time these random elements challenge us because we cannot fully trace the reasons for their actions… but we accept them because their reasons operate within the established framework of rules. Makes it no surprise that accessible (massive) multiplayer (online role playing) video games have so many players.

I used to play P&P with a few different groups and I remember that a good game-master was able to immerse me in the world so deeply that I didn’t care or feel disconnected when I had to roll a dice or crunch numbers to determine an outcome of a fight. But when a game-master didn’t manage to immerse me then all the numbers and rules and rolling dice became a boring and often frustrating burden.

The Rules of Game Mechanics

Game Mechanics are a fundamental core behind video games. Reduce the audiovisual components of a game to a mere square of 16 one colored pixels with a “tick” as the only sound effect and one button as the input device and you should still be able to play the game as long as the game mechanics are still working. And if you have a very imaginative mind you’ll also be fine with interpreting the pixels and imagining the virtual world yourself.

Games often consist of several components that are looking after different parts of the gameplay. Again each component has its own set of parameters and rules, which determine the output based on the input.

I have a very low level acceptance of repetition and therefore get bored easily if a game boils down to repetitive numeric progression determined by rules and without scope for change. I’m also not a collector or completer. If a quest tells me to collect 1000 flowers and I realize that it will take me 10 hours to go between five locations to collect them then I won’t do it, even if it means that I won’t get the achievement or the item of total awesomeness that I need to progress through the game. I don’t even care losing if the rules, the systems and the representation are predictable and repetitive. For me this is a particular problem in MMORGS: The first few levels you have to keep doing repetitive stuff to get experience points to grow your character into something that you can use for the interesting quests and raids; not only is there a term for this, “Grinding”, but people even discuss the necessity of grinding! In this case the rules always keep me from immersing myself fully into the game world and progressing through it. 

But I still play pure puzzle games like Tetris because I know that due to their open-endedness and repetitiveness, I’ll only play a short time before I’m satisfied, and sometimes I want that. And other times I want to play a game that challenges, entertains, immerses and grabs me into its world, make me lose track of time and throwing things at me that I wouldn’t have expected whilst giving me a fair chance to make it through the whole game without ending up being frustrated.
Another example is Angry Birds: It’s based on rules of physics, is unforgiving and has many frustrating moments: I’ve stopped counting how many times I’ve knocked my head against a wall screaming because my last bird was off by a pixel or two and therefore didn’t take down the last pig in a level. But a level only needs a relatively short amount of attention regardless if I fail or succeed. Also the cost of losing isn’t very high and I can try again any time I want. But what about the cost of immersion? Actually, it is very easy for me to get into Angry Birds because it has the right balance of audiovisual fidelity (it’s cartoon like look and feel) and simple rules (takes seconds to learn but years to master). That’s why it works so brilliantly, and the rules are nicely integrated and feel part of the whole game experience. Even the rule breaker is part of the game world, because should I hit real desperation I can always go and buy the “Mighty Bird” that lets me skip a level.

Integrating rules and game mechanics smoothly into the whole game experience becomes so much more important: Look at games like Bioshock where the core game mechanics of resource, skill and growth (Little Sisters, ADAM & EVE, Plasmids / Tonics & their dispensers) are so beautifully knitted into the core story and world, both metaphorically and physically. The rules of the game mechanics line up with the rules of game world, rules of the setting and rules of audiovisual representation, therefore keeping the player immersed at all times; similar with Deadspace, Half-Life, Portal, Limbo, Loom, Uncharted II, Ratchet & Clank, Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy (text adventure), Civilization IV, Chronicles of Riddick, The Darkness, etc.

The Rules of Virtual Worlds  

How do we create Virtual Worlds? Depending on the games we tend to look in at the real world for inspiration, not only for audiovisual areas like art or sound but also other things like behavior. Take AI systems for example; we’re setting rules and constraints for behavior that’s often a product of elements from reality combined with requirements of a game: For example making a virtual city for an RPG more “alive” by giving the inhabitants a daily routine, including jobs, needs and wants. But the ongoing advancements in technology constantly improve the audiovisual fidelity in our games and it starts to feel that we’re moving from adapting realism more towards copying realism. If you only have 16 colours to your disposal, your virtual world is an adaptation. But if done right, it is one with sets of rules I comprehend and any shortcomings in audiovisual representation I’ll supplement myself in my imagination, therefore allowing me to immerse in the world. But the more a game presents me with audiovisual realism, the more I’ll dial back my own interpretation in my imagination, therefore the more the onus on immersion falls on the game.

Our ambition to copy realism is doomed to failure anyway: We simply do not have the capacity. The living virtual city in our RPG example suddenly though becomes a burden because instead of giving you the feeling that it is filled by hundreds of people going on with their lives, we try to recreate the lives of every single inhabitant via the means of AI; so we figure out complex rules and parameters for these people but it never quite works. And we keep trying, hoping to eventually beat the Uncanny Valley: Our realistic virtual adaptations try to copy the real world rules to the point where our mind starts to see the faults rather than the anticipated achievements. How often have I’ve been annoyed with AI driven people in games because they either do something stupid, immersive-breaking or inconsistent BECAUSE they are trying to be real? This applies to all systems: graphic, audio, AI, etc. The harder we try to recreate reality with all its rules and constraints, the more it becomes obvious that we’re not good enough at it.

But why we are trying to do this in first place? Because we want to offer a more accessible, engaging and immersive world? And can we copy a system (reality) which has rules that we don’t even fully comprehend and understand?
But more importantly, is copying the rules of reality the best way?

Let’s take a look at the world of film & TV because there you’ll find something strange: Although they have it easier to copy reality and its rules, they are the ones purposefully cheating it for dramatic effect all the time! They fake so much it’s jaw dropping. And they do this so well that we take their created worlds for real! From the concept of mood lighting, instead of real lighting, to sound effects, to behavior (acting) -- hardly anything follows rules of realism!

I remember a conversation with a sound designer who mentioned this to me: Imagine a hero in a action film doing a cool u-turn and sliding his supercar nicely between two parked cars; then he opens the door, gets out and closes the door. Notice the really nice, cool, meaty and full sound the car door makes when it is closed? As if the cool door fits the cool action hero perfectly! But in reality the car door doesn’t sound anything like that! Now the problem is that when you see the movie and you are so taken by the coolness of the action hero and his car door that you go and buy the same supercar (lets assume you have the money); but when you open and close the door it sounds… boring, wrong and nothing like in the movie. So in order to avoid this the car manufacturer has a sound designer working with the engineers to ensure that the sound of the door closing is awesome! They are effectively cheating the rules from right to wrong because it is the wrong we believe to be right! Brilliant, isn’t it?

So...

Drama, stories, life … they are all about breaking rules. The interesting stuff always happens when existing patterns are broken, when something unexpected happens, something that is outside normal parameters and rules of the characters involved; the rule breaking leads to conflict, conflict leads to progression and growth, which then leads to a resolution. In order to get to the resolution the main characters involved always require a certain amount of growth and progress.

This means that because rules and patterns have been broken, growth and progress was made, which is in contrast to video games where rules ensure progress and growth.

Fundamentally we want to provide video games with a safe framework of rules that are understandable, progressive, fair and logical.  But we also want games that are immersive, engaging and dramatic. Most importantly we’d like to achieve this in single-player games because multiplayer is so much easier anyways: Make the rules airtight but fair and the players do the rest.

For single-player we not only have to establish the rules of the game but also the rules of engagement, the behavior of opponents, the world and much more.  And we have to do it in a way that it is challenging but not repetitive, dramatic but fair and comprehensible but not boring and immersive but not suffocating … which is a really tough challenge.

I think in video games a lot comes down to on how the complicated network of different systems, rules, patterns and parameters are orchestrated and conducted: they all have purpose and value but ultimately they all need to blend in to serve an overall coherent experience. 

Imagine: You are the young sword master’s apprentice who is carefully and anxiously venturing through the Dark Forest of Failure. You normally don’t go there because you know that you’ll get killed. But your master has been very badly wounded and he will die unless you go there and collect the Flower of Life. The Forest of Failure looks, feels and smells of death; you can hear wolves so intensely as if they are next to you and then you see their glowing eyes between the tree branches further away appearing and disappearing; somehow you start to notice the intensity with which the wind howls through the trees; you swear that you can hear footsteps of someone following you… but every time you look back, nobody is there. The deeper you walk into the forest, the intimate, scarier and bigger the trees become, you swear that their branches move slightly towards you. Everything points to the inevitable fight… but nothing so far; this suspension makes your heart race and your hands clammy… But then you finally find the Flower of Life… illuminated by soothing light as to indicate a haven of safety. You touch it, pick it up… and then you hear the scariest roar, your heart jumps, you turn around and you stare into the eyes of the Creature of Ultimate Pain. Within the beat of a moment you draw your sword and start fighting, knowing that the odds aren’t good; in fact they are shit. You don’t have any real armor, your sword is blunt and you haven’t really fought before. This creature has eaten many of the likes of you before and gives you a fight for your life. But you don’t give up and so you fight and fight and fight and it’s a fight between life and death. You near the point when you are ready to give up because you are so weak; the monster keeps on attacking, it has the upper hand and feels so much bigger, faster and more in control…but you continue to fight, with your eyes half-closed, because you might as well die trying. And suddenly you hear another roar, this time an unmistakable cry of pain… and you open your eyes and stare at the monster… and it is dead, it looks defeated, small even. Your sword is torn apart, its handle still in your hands but its blade somehow made it through the monster’s eye socket right into its brain. Blood everywhere. You just notice how your heart is pumping, how much you are sweating and how badly you are out of breath…how alive you are, against all odds. You lucky person narrowly escaped certain death. What-did-just-happen? Oh-I-don’t-care-because-this-was-awesome!

But in addition the sound designer placed the sound effects of wolves illogically close to your ear (same with the footsteps) and changed the gain & rate of the Creature Of Ultimate Pain’s attacking sounds, the artist scaled the wolves eyes up three times to make them look scarier and he made a smaller less-frightening looking version of the Creature for when it is dead; the animator animated the tree branches subtly as if they want to reach for your neck… all these objectively illogical seeming moments to intensify the experience. Oh, and the dead monster? Well, technically you shouldn’t have had a chance to beat that monster. But a clever game designer introduced an illogical rule into the combat system: The last sword hit before a sword breaks will make 10 times the amount of damage if the player has less than 10% of health. That was enough to kill the monster. The rule is self-governing and doesn’t make sense in the global scope of rules; it has no real validity in the bigger set of game mechanic rules… but all these kinds of rules are the reason why the player keeps playing and loving the game because they only serve one master: the master of immersion.

We already cheat in some of our systems: The AI often knows where a player is because it just asks the game rather than playing by the rules. The reasons though are often down to performance and complexity issues, unwanted necessities. But within our constructions of rules, parameters and constraints to create systems that are logical and understandable, we game developers shouldn’t be afraid to change and cheat rules, parameters and odds in order to create awesome immersive and engaging experiences. It’s often the subtle changes that make it work: Too big of a change, or to obvious, and the illusion collapses with the player in disbelieve, but make it right and he’ll stay immersed, believing the wrong to be right.

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