Tuesday, August 02, 2005

But I Had A System!

I've been thinking
about gaming and gaming.

That second type of gaming, the one in the dire italics, is commonly called meta-gaming; It's the term used to describe formulating a game-playing strategy (or altering gameplay) based around knowledge of formalized rules beneath or outside of the presented gaming layer.

Meta-gaming has proponents and detractors, and often the specific situation determines whether someone will come out for or against.

For example, I consider the Stock Market a game (and, for me, the only smart move would be not to play). Many people get involved because of its game-like aspects: competition, risk-reward, strategy, information management, timing. And it is a system in which blatant meta-gaming, aka insider trading, is not just discouraged but illegal.

But say you're playing a game of Settlers of Catan. Because it is at its heart a strategy game, knowing the average outcome of a series of thrown dice and positioning your settlements closest to as many of those numbers as possible is a viable strategy, even though it requires knowledge outside of the game. It would, in fact, be a little ridiculous to demand that people exclude such knowledge during play.

Meta-gaming is often at odds with what we call sportsmanship. Spiking a star pitcher's morning shake with laxative might be a good way to win the game, but, unless you're particularly Machiavellian, the victory will be hollow.

Meta-gaming isn't just cheating, but most instances of cheating could probably be considered meta-gaming.

The ability to meta-game is almost unavoidable in any game design. People will find exploits, they will alter rules, they will hack your shit and they will fuck stuff up any way they can. Some people are so damned intuitive that they will suss out your complex rule-system beneath your streamlined search engine and spam it so it returns only websites featuring muskrats doing the nasty.

That kind of thing (for fairly obvious reasons) runs the gamut from annoying to system-breaking. The whole benefit of the system, managing and rating information, becomes worthless when someone stacks the results.

Meta-gaming is also, at times, a highlight of poor design in videogames.

When I got to the point in the first level of God of War where I had to push a crate up to a wall, except the crate would break if hit too many times, and archers were continually firing timed volleys of arrows at the crate . . . well, immediately thought, "This whole experience felt organic up until this moment. Now it feels like a fucking chore." I was no longer controlling an avatar through a narrative, but manipulating buttons and an analog stick through awkwardly-timed windows of inactivity.

After that point the game felt organic again. Until they threw me up against another frustrating "die many, many times until you learn, idiot" puzzle. That's one of the reasons why it didn't feel like a brilliant game, but a decent game filled with brilliant moments and mind-numbingly stupid-tough* moments.

As I said, no game design is going to be airtight (well, probably not). Much of the development process is dedicated, not to throwing a whole bunch of "isn't this cool?" type shit into a game, but removing a whole bunch of "well, it's cool but it's too exploitable" type shit from the game.

Look at, oh, Magic: The Gathering (yeah, the card game). The difficulty in a CCG (especially one of Magic's size) is maintaining its core design while also extending it but without breaking or unbalancing any essential mechanism. Not the job I'd fucking want, I tell you what.

Any kind of designed system is going to fight the ol' information war - how balanced can you make a set of rules when certain people will have more knowledge with which to exploit loopholes in those rules?

This is important, not just for gaming, but for complex real-life systems like, say, politics. The current incarnation is absolutely entrenched with people that know the system so well that they game it constantly - screwing a lot of us in the meantime.

When Senator Fuckwad slips in a rider at the last second giving his state a fat military contract that will never actually be fulfilled but will end up in some CEO's back pocket, knowing that nobody has time to read the damn thing and that it's the end of the day and it's attached to an innocuous bill guaranteed to float through . . .

And that's the least offensive example of stuff that happens every day in our political process.

What we need is a large, federally-funded political-QA team. They would slog through legislation, submitting little pork bugs and wacky social-freedom-erosion to a public reporting system.

And then we, the People could, oh, I don't know, actually vote on how we want to run our country.

*Stupid-tough is my term for difficult gameplay that feels artificially conflated to appeal to hardcore gamers, or is the result of shoddy old-school game design conventions rearing their ugly heads. A good example would be, say, the entire recent version of Ninja Gaiden.


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c.robinson said...

"This whole experience felt organic up until this moment. Now it feels like a fucking chore."

how would you describe an organic gaming experience?

Johnny Pi said...

Ooh, good question.

It's tough to describe precisely what I mean by "organic" but I'll try.

One of the uses of organic pertains to things that relate to the laws of a government or organization.

Thus, an organic game modulates between scenes of that game in accordance with its own design guidelines and the rules which its particular world has set up.

I know, now it's a question of, "But the whole world has been set up, thus that's a part of it's rules."

An analog would be when actors break character, when, say, the Saturday Night Live members start laughing uncontrollably and can't do their lines. Or even more subtle than that.

The crate "puzzle" bothered me because the game (in that level) had set itself up as a vicious, fast-paced fighting game with super-fluid combat and interesting ways to dispatch foes.

Then, smack in the middle of this, my character's momentum is stymied by an annoying timing puzzle - and, in fact, the enemy rhythm only pushed me further from that mythological world and thrust me into the "okay, count, 1, 2, push . . . shit, the crate broke" realm.

And, thinking back on it, I feel that there could have been places for that crate puzzle - but it wasn't that level.

So, an organic game:
1. Remains within its own principles and themes
2. Modulates between its challenges with the intent of preserving the established character momentum
3. Attempts to prevent players from thinking of the meta-game unintentionally

Take note that this definition (hastily thrown-together, I might add) can be treated fuzzily.

In fact, this could be a good jumping off point for several posts.

Hope I've at least given a somewhat satisfactory response, c.robinson.

GregT said...

Hi there! Your legislation already has a mutilevelled QA team. I can't speak to the US too much, but in Australia there's the commissioning government department, then the Office of Parliamentary Counsel and the Office of Legislative Drafting and Publishing. If you're lucky there may be public consultation, and then of course there's each of the political parties that get to vote on it.

Admittedly, none of these groups report directly or meaningfully to the public; but then (personal political bias) I'm not sure that would be helpful anyway. The average member of the public has neither the skills to understand the intricacies of legislation nor the wide socio-cultural schooling necessary to compherend its wider impact. Direct vote by the public on individual issues (plebiscite) has had some very mixed outcomes where trialled (such as California); the difficulty in adequately informing and interesting the public is at this stage just too insurmountable for the public to render a meaningful vote and you tend to just get the opinion of the individual with the loudest mouth coming out of a reactionary non-working middle-class silent majority. (Bias freely admitted!)

Also amendments made "on the floor" (as the bill is being passed) receive far less scrutiny than the bill proper; and in any case a government holding a majority in all relevant levels of government can ignore feedback if it so chooses.

The solution (in my opinion) would be a unicameral legislative elected by mandatory vote through a Hare-Clark system so as to guarantee minority government, with a term-limited figurehead capable of assuming emergency powers for very short periods and subject to retrospective review. These limits would be firmly constitutionally enshrined.

Also constitutionally enshrined would be the primacy of access of the public to political information, and a national culture of education on socio-political analysis from an early level.

But, y'know, all that's a lot harder to do than the plebiscite thing, so go nuts. 8-)