Sunday, 3 October 2010

Short list of conflicts in modern games

Invisible Walls

Presentation says these is not a wall here, you can pass
Interactions say you cannot pass here

Hidden gameplay mechanics

Mechanics say there is some rule here –you lose gun accuracy when you land from a jump, or this punching animation can be cancelled if you block in this precise frame window, or running makes you invulnerable for a split second

Presentation gives no feedback for that rule, even tries to hide it

Balance Issues

Overpowered feature
Dynamics – you can use all these different guns
Mechanics – but actually none of them matter, you shouldn’t use them, use only this

Underpowered feature
Dynamics – you can use all these different guns
Mechanics – except this one, it is useless

Useless or isolated features, gimmicks

Fable example:
-         You can marry every woman in the world
-         But there is no reason to do so, the girl just moves to your house and that is the only change

Assassins Creed:
-         You can play sim city by building different structures in your mansion to generate income and other benefits
-         But there is no reason to do so, the generated money are used primarily for the mansion itself, and the game world is not influenced by it, it is almost ISOLATED mini-game

Any game object that has presentation model but no mechanical / dynamical model
Example: creature appearance in Spore doesn’t affect gameplay

Any game that rewards players with skins
Presentation: new appearance for character or weapon or feature
Mechanics/Dynamics: NO actual change in system behavior, the reward has no meaning
Rule – whenever you use skins, apply at least minimal value to them. For example slight change in AI interactions, not necessarily beneficial all the time.

Lack of interactivity or wrong interactivity

Presentation: This looks like a chair, so it must be a chair
Dynamics: You cannot sit on it, so it is not a chair.
Dynamics: You can pick it up and throw it at enemies, so it must be actually a weapon that only looks like a chair

Breaking the fourth wall

Presentation: we are doing our best to create believable immersive world
Presentation: but we deliberately remind you that this is still a game

Perceived Danger Only

Presentation: This ship is sinking, or this factory is about to explode any minute. All is shaking, flames everywhere, distant explosions are heard. Danger!
Mechanics: All is safe actually, go drink some water, watch a movie, return in an hour and all will be the same.

Enemy Placement

Presentation: You are fighting a human enemy, just like you. He is placed at the window of a nearby building.
Dynamics: No, you cannot go there, it is not accessible for humans, employers only

Level Design for a forest environment. Where are the trees placed:
-         where they are most likely to grow in the real world, maximally exposed to sunlight but minimally exposed to strong winds ?
-         or where the tree placement will contribute maximally to gameplay
In games it is only the second.

Presentation: I look like a tree
Mechanics: But I do not act like a tree, so I am definitely not a tree

End Level motivation

The level design clearly indicates the direction of the goal, but the player avoids. He knows that once the goal is reached, the rest of the level will be inaccessible along with all the benefits in it.

Presentation: The goal is this way
Mechanics: Pursuing your goal denies you rewards and knowledge. The goal is something to be avoided for now.

Possible solution – tweak affordable risk and available time

“Games nowadays are all about pretty graphics” syndrome
Advancement of graphics is actually a good thing. There is a problem elsewhere:

Presentation: I progressed fast to photorealism
Mechanics (simulations): I progress too, but slower - variety of possible things to interact with in different ways, body animations, destructible solid surfaces and dynamic environments, physics of liquids and gases and soft materials, economics, advanced AI– all that is far from realistic

There is a growing gap between different aspects of a game. Graphics progress is relatively easy – we have good math explaining how light works and how we see things. Same with audio tech. All other kinds of simulation are not so easy, especially believable AI. The reason is lack of knowledge and work and research, not lack of hardware. So presentation just need to keep at the level of the rest – more abstract, simple, stylized, specific and distinct for the game, not photorealistic. And the simulations need to catch up.

But still this gap continues to widen and I tend to blame the audience for it.
Bully is a game with great reactive AI, still it is far from financially successful. Penumbra is the only game where you can arrange a messy room. Presentation of Limbo is consistent with its core. What about the interactions and animations in ICO or Shadow of the Colossus? But no, let’s pirate those and give our money for Call of Duty SEVEN, so we can play multi.

Quick Time Events are conflicts in 2 ways at the same time

Presentation: the QTE situations fundamentally require different skill set – jumping on cars, dodging a rocket, interrupting a dialogue, disarming a bomb etc
Dynamics: the QTE has exactly the same interactivity, no matter the situation – press the flashing button within time frame. In terms of interactions the differently presented types of problems are the same problem. But slashing a boss and hacking a computer are NOT the same types of problem and the player knows that.

Dynamics: a binary tree, at each node the player either fails the challenge or continues to play. 2 possible outcomes, linear experience.

Presentation: usually a complex situation with much more than 1 possible resolution or action at any given time, and definitely not only 2 outcomes. Even if you complicate the tree, it rarely achieves the complexity of the problem presented. At the very least tasks are usually continuous (driving a car for example) and the tree is discrete.

Pre-rendered CG scenes
Different parts of the game have different visual quality. Presentation is not consistent.

Justification: This scene is more important.
Answer: Why it is not interactive like the rest of the game then, so the player can explore that importance?

Justification: It is a very rewarding reward.
Answer: True, but this reward still creates a conflict.

Gap between main character and his enemies

Presentation: Main character is presented as human. The NUMEROUS enemies are presented as humans as well. The goal is to perceive them as physical equals.
Mechanics: Player is faster, carries more weapons and survives more damage than his enemies. They are physically (numerically) NOT equal.

That perceived equality is conflicted. How to fix it?

Solution 1: use fewer and stronger enemies. Nope – production wants arcade action with numerous baddies.

Solution 2: do not present enemies as humans, use weak aliens or animals instead. Nope – the goal of the game is to explicitly perceive enemies as equal. “Call of Duty” for example.

Solution 3: make very short-signed AI with slow reaction times. Worked occasionally in Delta Force series, but generally defeating an idiot doesn’t feel like a great achievement.

Solution 4: give a special skill only to the player, like Wolverine health regeneration. Nope – he becomes explicitly NOT human and different now.

Solution 5: give to the player gadgets that are not available for the AI – a special nano-suit for example. Nope - for the same reason as above, plus the added harm in teaching players they depend more on gadgets than actual skill, to solve problems.

Solution 6: Describe the character as extremely skillful “You play as the best gunslinger in the wild west” and leave him overpowered. Nope - for the same reasons as the previous 2 solutions … and less convincing.

Solution 7: Make enemies and humans equal, but create interactions to allow defeating numerous enemies with skill - give the player the ability to use the advantages of terrain (cover, ambushes, surprises), teach him to utilize superior intellect and precision (firing in short bursts, changing position), give him tools with exponential increase in usefulness depending on circumstances (traps, that take out whole buildings, if set up correctly). Make AI dependent on resources that can be depleted (ammo, fuel, food, light, bleeding wounds). Nope – production wants an arcade (and easy to make) action.

Player and Main character

In Story-driven games, there is a gap between PLAYER (mechanics and interactions) and the MAIN CHARACTER (narrative is part of presentation) the player controls

Case 1:
“Fully developed main character” approach – he has a face, voice, emotions, reacts in his own manner, has everything that a story character has.

Examples: Uncharted 2, Legacy of Kain series

Conflict – every time the character demonstrates his personality (cutscenes, dialogues), player is a passive observer, no interactivity. During cutscenes, player does not control the character and the most important decisions are made by the character and not the player. It is the character that did those things, not the player. The latter is just a sidekick that is given temporary control for mechanical tasks when he cannot break something in the story. Player and character are 2 separate entities, but player is told they are the same.

Fun fact:
Ever wondered why “amnesia” is the most popular condition for main characters? This is the only way developers know to solve the conflict in this case and it is so overused it doesn’t work any more J

Case 2:
“Avatar” approach – character has no face or voice ingame, doesn’t do anything in cutscenes, doesn’t have any personality whatsoever. There is no actual character, as his personality is made explicitly not important for the story.

Examples: Half-Life series, F.E.A.R. series, partially HALO series

Conflict – player is in full control of his avatar, so no conflict there. A conflict surfaces when the game tries to tell the player he is important in some way for the story. No, he is not, he is a faceless featureless mute with nothing unique, without personality, nothing makes THIS player important for the story, which now suffers from extremely bad characterization, as well.

Case 3:
“Generic character” approach – The story has a character that is important in some way. It is easy for the player to identify with him, because the character is made as generic or ideal as possible. There is a character, but he is not unique or special in any way.

Examples: GTA (generic criminal), Lara Croft games (woman ideal), Indiana Jones games (generic adventurer)

Conflict –this compromise approach has the problems of both previous cases, though in less extent.

Case 4:
“Model a character” approach – the story has a character that is unique in some way. That special thing is modeled in the game rules. For example the character in Call of Cthulhu is afraid of heights and the screen blurs when player looks in the depth below. In Indigo Prophecy the player loses “mental health” if player does something the character fears – lose a girlfriend, step in a pile of blood, etc. In “Bloodlines” player loses “humanity” points if he does something deeply immoral, and those points are very rare and difficult to recover. Player is encouraged by the rules to role-play.

Examples: Call of Cthulhu, Indigo Prophecy

Problem – this approach is very difficult most of the time (read “expensive”), very promising, but not really explored. If not done right, have a problem similar to case 1 – player is not the character but a puppeteer that takes care of the character.

Case 5:
“Create a Character” – the story has a character, but he is not specified. Instead the player interacts with the game world the way he prefers. Those player choices develop a character and the attitude of others toward him.

Examples: Deus Ex, what most RPGs try to do

Problem: truly interactive stories are difficult not to suck AND prone to numerous other conflicts. Conflict example – the number of places you can put “decision points” in a story tree is discrete but actual stories are continuous. To use a discrete tree means you fall to a degree in some of the conflicts listed here. To increase indefinitely the number of “decision points” means you are making a simulation, so you are totally losing control over the story.

Case 6:
The game is NOT story-driven. The story (if any) is used for background or mood only. No conflict

Examples: Braid, Limbo

Problem: There is a degree of perceived importance in stories, so production and consumers want a story driven game. Exploration of this case show promising results, though.

“Power fantasies” in sandbox games

Interactions: You have the full freedom to do whatever you like with the world around you

Mechanics: But nothing you do matters – any result is short term and will be forgotten asap. System regularly resets to a pre-designed state, regardless of your actions.

Example – if you kill a citizen, the system will spawn another one somewhere, instead of permanently decreasing global population.

Big problems in sandbox games like GTA, RDR, Mercenaries, Red Faction Guerilla, etc, is that there is no lasting consequences for any action, so no actual meaning in those actions and no responsibility either. You cannot change ANYTHING. What kind of “power fantasy” is that?

“Morality” bars like those in Fable, Knights of the Old Republic and Mass Effect series

Presentation: You have to make an important moral decision that will affect the lives of others and change the world in some epic way

Mechanics: The result is a change of a player statistic, no deeper of further consequences, the game world and population basically stay the same.

Nobody dies in games

Presentation: somebody dies, blood and gore, etc

Players do not die – if they fail a challenge, they respawn or reload a save. Players don’t experience consequences of errors. They instantly recover from them instead.

Enemies do not die – death is unrecoverable loss, but they lose nothing. Their only actions are opposing the player so they are perceived as inanimate obstacles only.

Why is this conflict such an important problem?

Death makes life fragile and difficult and dangerous. To protect themselves, organisms develop all sorts of reactions. For example help for the needy, sympathy for the torments of others, honor, bravery - all are such psychological reactions. There is no empathy in heaven/utopia (current games), because nobody really dies or suffers there.

They are set pieces that have little value for the core meaning of a work, but are there nonetheless to create mood and atmosphere.

Examples – bottle on a table, a piece of rubble near a broken statue, stain on a wall, etc

In literature, cinema and other linear media, we are just observers, so decorations are good.
In games we are active participants, so we can interact with the decoration, too.

Presentation: believably looking object, may be important
Interactions: nope, not interactive so not important, simply diversion, ignore it - scene ruined

Fixes for the examples above:
Bottle – I can drink it or break it or move it
Rubble near a broken statue – I can move the rubble or destroy similar statues to make similar rubble
Stain on a wall – I can make the same stain if I do something specific (shoot somebody, throw garbage at the wall, etc). Both types of stains need to have the same life span

Decorations need to be interactive. If they are not, justification is needed. Example - clouds in the sky of a FPS.


The “interactivity for decorations” rule above is much more difficult that it initially seems. Let’s investigate a popular phenomenon - decorative door in adventure game

Environment is urban, for authenticity we need:
-         some real interactive doors that lead to actual houses with gameplay
-         some doors that are temporary locked (interaction: feedback player on locked status), but can be unlocked with progress
-         many more decorative doors that will never be opened
-         all doors look similar (to teach player what is a door and what is not)
What interaction should the decorative doors have so no conflicts occur?

Case 1:
Remove all decorative doors altogether
Nope – urban environment mood is killed

Case 2:
Do not use urban environment
Nope – another game element requires that environment

Case 3:
Use some content generation algorithm to create generic rooms behind those doors
Nope – generic content creates routines, they are evil

Case 4:
Make the fake doors not interactive.
Nope – conflict, player easily identifies them as meaningless decorations and ignores them

Case 5:
All fake doors behave like “Locked” doors. Nothing explicitly distinguishes them from real gameplay “Locked”.
Problematic – player learns that most locked doors cannot be explored, so it is very difficult to focus his attention on them. We have a similar to above conflict if “actual locked” / “fake locked” ratio is very low.

Case 6:
Give justification why the door is not interactive any more but was ok in the past. Examples:
-         broken beyond repair by some force the player cannot use himself on other doors
-         blocked by heavy debris the player cannot generally lift, but can see through the door window
-         door is on fire and harms player when he tries to interact
Problematic – not scalable solution

Case 7:
Combine with above and put a cost on attempting to interact with locked doors. Example: if you try to open a locked door, there is a chance you activate an alarm and police come to arrest you for trespassing.


Information in any creative media can be divided in 2 categories:
“Explicit knowledge” – what the media communicates to the peer
Importance – carries the actual meaning of the media

“Assumed knowledge” – what the media assumes is already known to the peer
Examples – cars move, fire is hot, weapons are dangerous, how babies are made, how to use a mouse or a keyboard, what is an interface button, conventions
Importance – using it (cars, weapons, fire, anything the peer is aware of) allows the author to create associations with the real world, so the “explicit knowledge” can be more familiar and useful

Balance between those two is difficult:
- explicitly telling something already known to the peer is considered boring and wasteful
- assume the peer knows something he does not and “explicit knowledge” will not be understood

Sometimes “explicit knowledge” has an idea that denies or is denied by another idea in “assumed knowledge” – they are conflicting. That can happen in all media, not only games. Many conflicts in this list originate from this very conflict.

I need to unlock a weak wooden door. I have a massive chainsaw. I know from real life what those can do. Game wants me to backtrack the level and find a rusty key.

Dialogue wheel in Mass Effect
This is an advanced example for the conflict above

Assumed Knowledge:
Events take place in a realistic world, game has scientific mood and main character is human. All of the above lead us to believe that if some universal principle is valid in our world, it is valid in the game world as well.

Actual results of my actions can differ from initial intention. You may want to be good but actually hurt the people you love, stuff like that. In life it is never only about “what I want to happen” but also “how to make it happen”.

Explicit Knowledge:
Every time I can make a choice, the dialogue wheel in the game clearly communicates to me “blue line is for good moral result and red line is for evil egoistic result” regardless of actual words used. Intention and action result are explicitly made one and the same.

Character Systems in Role Playing Games

Mechanics: you finish a tasks, gain enough experience points and level up. As a result you increase a numerical statistic (example: hit points) so you can last longer in battle. Meaning - you have learned something

Dynamics: actions you performs to finish next tasks are the same, you haven’t changed how you interact with the game world. Meaning – you didn’t learn anything, only the character changed. Learning is transformed into mechanical routine that requires no mental participation from the player.

Bad camera

Player uses interactions and controls in his disposal (including moving his character) to look at something, but the camera is locked on something else (usually specified by the designers)


Any software bug that causes inconsistent system behavior is a conflict


Looks just like a human, but behaves like a muuuuuuch simpler animal

Inaccurate random distributions

You game uses random variables to model real life events. In real life the event is close to variable distribution X while the game uses Y and X is different than Y (functions themselves are different, not only the distribution parameters)

Example – Sid Mayer talked at GDC10 about how they do this all the time for Civilization, for example a series of coin flips modeled with geometric instead of binomial distribution, so that player wins more often even if he makes the worst decisions, so the game is more fun, while teaching wrong behavior.