Why the Hell Does Depth Matter?

Depth is my primary metric of quality for a game. I believe depth is a good metric because it is “simple” and “generic”. Unfortunately it’s not simple in the way of being simple and relatable to understand. It’s simple like GDP is simple. It’s one final number that represents a whole ton of things going on under the hood. Depth is the emergent result of a lot of different things coming together in a game. Depth, like GDP, is a generic metric in that it doesn’t care what’s being invested in, it could be medical, military, education; puzzle game, RTS, RPG, FPS, or fighting game, it only matters what the final outcome is. Depth doesn’t encompass everything about a game, the same way GDP doesn’t encompass everything about an economy, but both are fairly important metrics regardless. Unlike GDP, there are less ways to fake depth and end up with a cheap result.

I define Depth as the number of states that are differentiated from one another, balanced against each other, and currently known about/preferred by the playerbase. State is the current condition something is in at a specific time. A state with regards to games is the current condition of everything present in a game at a moment in time. Depth is the sum of these states after passing through 2 filters: redundancy, and relevancy.

We start with Possibility Space, which is every single state possible. We filter those into Absolute Depth first by removing all states that are redundant, that are just copies of one another, such as rotations or mirror images of the game board in Tic Tac Toe or Go, or more powerful but functionally identical weapons in RPGs. Then we filter Absolute Depth into Relevant Depth by removing all states that are underpowered and therefore not commonly used in play, or the ones that are unknown to the player community at a given time, such as those that use undeveloped techniques or unknown mechanics. The final result is a measure of the effective complexity of the game.

depth venn

Okay, so, why the hell would the effective complexity of a game matter? What does it matter if a game is more complicated? For this, lets go back to Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun. The gist of his theory of fun is that fun is derived from winning at something inconsistently, like a coin flip. Fun is also derived from improving your consistency over time. Something you can win at effortlessly is boring, and something you never win at is frustrating (this is backed up by Flow theory too). Random things can trick the brain, which is why gambling can be fun, but most people eventually catch on and stop playing, unless they delve into superstitions about luck.

However there’s also a bit of a contradiction there, if you improve your consistency over time, then won’t something that’s fun now eventually become boring when you’re 100% consistent? That’s true. Depth gives players many different measures of consistency, so while you may be consistent at one thing, now you have something else to get consistent at.

Raph Koster’s Theory of Fun posits that fun is the joy of learning (probably because learning things makes us better at surviving, so we adapted to reward learning neurologically). A deep game has a lot to learn about. Therefore a deep game is a fun game.

On top of that, the experience of playing a deep game is different from playing a shallower one. Deep games typically have more choices, and more possible consequences for those choices, requiring more complex thought about each choice. Many board games with less board states are easily solved (connect 4, checkers), where more complex ones require more arcane heuristics in order to perform well at (Go). Simpler games are more about doing 1 thing right, where deeper games are about thinking about future consequences more. Deeper games involve more interesting decisions, as per the Sid Meier definition.

Smash Bros Melee might have less buttons and less attacks than a traditional fighting game, but you can get more results from each move than you can in a fighting game, because Smash Bros is highly responsive to the relative positions of each character, and the timing with which attacks are hit. This isn’t to say that Smash Bros is necessarily better than a Fighting Game though, because both a few nuanced moves, and many differentiated moves are equally prioritized under depth theory, as long as they shake out to the same number of relevant states.

Later Smash Bros games did a lot of work to remove a lot of the nuance in Smash Bros Melee moves, by making them less responsive to differences in timing and spacing (less sweet/sour spots, reverse hits no longer work), by reducing the effect of defensive mechanics during combos, and removing options outright. These games are comparable in their options, but have less depth. This makes progress less clear, since there are no longer an array of clear techniques and strategies to master, and requires players to work harder to get smaller rewards for their effort.

Riddles, Puzzles, and Games

Something I’ve mentioned but not really explored is that I think puzzles aren’t actually games. I’m fine with the moniker, “Puzzle Game” as a misnomer referring to a collection of puzzles and I think “Action Puzzle” games like Tetris aren’t actually puzzles (except in B-mode)

Riddles puzzles games.png

Basically, there’s a spectrum of Riddles, Puzzles and Games, which each play on a similar root desire of, “Try to make the thing happen,” but with different emphasis. Puzzles and Riddles are subject to the spoiler effect. Once you know the solution, it’s not a question of whether you can beat it or not, you can always just produce the solution, unless you forget it. This also means that someone can tell you the answer and there’s no challenge anymore. Continue reading

“Fun,” The Deepest Buzzword?

Is “fun” just a buzzword?

I don’t treat fun as a buzzword, but of course I have a more specific definition of fun than other people.

The big deal is, Fun is a conclusion. Fun isn’t a reason or justification. You need to say why something is fun, not just that it is fun.

I go on about Depth a lot, but if I just said, “This game is deep” then I wouldn’t be saying much of anything. Same for “This game is balanced” or “This game is hard.”

It makes sense to have words for these conclusions, they’re not buzzwords, but the trouble is in assuming that the conclusion alone is self-evident. It’s useful to be able to say a game is fun, hard, deep, or balanced, but we shouldn’t take these conclusions to be self-evident.

This is in reference to your answer to that “is fun a buzzword” question from a couple months back. What is depth’s relation to how fun a game is? Does a game’s amount of fun differ based on the person playing it?

There’s no relation between fun and depth, I just like depth a lot, so I try to make people think there is!

Alright, I’m kidding. So if fun is the base human drive to make something inconsistent produce the results you want, then depth is practical in the pursuit of fun, because it gives people many different outlets for this phenomenon. If you have a deep game, then you can fail and succeed at many more things to many more degrees than in a shallow game, so you are constantly going through that loop of what constitutes fun.

Arguably, this is a component in the success of penny slot machines. Penny Slots have a lot of different ways to win, so even if you’re losing overall, you’re getting a win of some kind every time you pull the crank (or push the button when you get tired of pulling the crank), and this is a big part in why they’re so successful at draining people’s wallets compared to traditional slots. As for whether penny slots are truly deep or not is debatable, but there is a confluence here.

Depth affords a number of positive design ramifications. It means that if you’re having trouble doing something one way, you can try other ways and those may work, resulting in people not getting stuck as easily. It also means that the game can be played in different ways on repeat playthroughs, preventing it from getting boring after a single completion. It means that even when repeating sections, things are likely to go differently than the previous time. These help keep the game fresh over an extended period of time, both for new and old players.

Depth also means that as players improve, becoming more consistent at easy things, harder things move in to fill the place of the easy things the player has mastered. The saying, “easy to learn, difficult to master” is an allusion to the principle of depth, and has been taken as the mark of a good game.

As for whether the fun of a game differs depending on the player, that’s a matter of perspective. Different people will be of different skill sets, and so will find games more or less fun based on how much of the depth of the game they can access. Street Fighter doesn’t get fun until you get over a certain threshold, so for a beginner, the game might not be fun at all. However if we’re going to address how fun a game is in general, I think it’s reasonable to consider it in the context of a skilled player. If you want to plan for success, then you need to consider it at all skill levels though, like Smash Bros Melee or DBFZ does.

I’ve heard people say Tekken is really fun for people who don’t know what they’re doing, because they can mash buttons and get a ton of different strings and all this crazy shit happens, but trying to learn the game on a low level is really frustrating, then it gets fun again when you get it, and then it gets really frustrating again once you have to learn how to defend and punish every move in the game, and fun again when you get over that hurdle.

What’s a “Mechanic”?

What’s the most common way you use the term “mechanic” used inappropriately? In other words, what are things most people refer to as mechanics when they are not?

Honestly, the word mechanic itself isn’t very well defined. I don’t have a good definition for it, and I haven’t seen anyone else who does either. It’s a hard word to define, much like “game” or “art”.

Like, ostensibly “mechanic” is supposed to be the smallest unit of “game” possible. The elementary (small, unsplittable) rules that games are made out of. It’s worth noting that the word predates video games, and was used in board games, primarily to refer to use of dice, cards, etc. However the trouble is, what’s the smallest unit that comprises a mechanic?

If you’ve ever coded before, it should be fairly obvious how complex this question is. Is jumping as a whole a mechanic? Or is gravity a mechanic? Is the means via which jumping is modulated (holding the button down to jump higher) a mechanic? Is every line of code that assigns a variable a mechanic? Or are these supposed to be summed together into a whole mechanic (jumping) that has various properties (its gravity, initial jump speed, terminal velocity, jump modulation)? What’s the line you draw? It’s kind of a Sorites paradox kind of problem. (how many grains of sand do you need before your pile is a heap?)

Some people have a more rigid definition of mechanic, they define mechanic as any action the player can deliberately initiate, such as jumping, running, sliding, etc. This is much more clear, but doesn’t fit the way people currently use the word mechanic at all. It excludes things like Regenerating Health, or Death, which are not deliberately initiated player actions. It can also exclude automatic actions that occur outside the player’s direct control, like a timer or turn counter, or the interactions of objects in the environment, like many of the interactions in the Chemistry Engine in Breath of the Wild, or units attacking in RTS games (so armor is not a mechanic, their attacks are not mechanics, only the player issuing orders like attack, hold, etc, counts as a mechanic under this definition). As said, this is much more clear and obvious what constitutes a mechanic and what doesn’t, but it doesn’t match common usage and leaves us without a word for these types of common actions that can occur in games.

So my position currently is, I don’t think the definition of mechanic matters too much. I think we can generally just use the word and understand each other and that’s more or less good enough. Oh, and interestingly, Japanese does not have a word for “mechanic”. It has no equivalent for the term.

As for silly stuff people have called mechanics. There’s occasionally been, “Think up an original mechanic” threads on /v/ and the annoying thing about these threads is, nobody thinks up mechanics, they all think up thematics. And I’ve called people on this and been told, “oh, it could be the inspiration for mechanics.” Like reading one person talk about how they imagined that sweeping up floors was clearing out alien scum, which made it more enjoyable for them. Or some person’s fantasy idea. Or someone refluffing an existing mechanic with a new theme.

Is Difficulty in Games Exclusionary?

What do you think about Skip Gameplay buttons and Difficulty being a means of excluding other people from being accepted as real gamers?

The thing I have to say on the recent “Difficulty is Exclusion” topic is, a big part of the art of games is their challenge. Challenge isn’t some arbitrary wall that exists to restrict you from experiencing the entire product you paid for; That wall is literally a part of the product you’re paying for, part of the desired experience. People pay to get walls like this set up in front of them that they can test themselves against and work to improve at and overcome. Games are a type of structured play that entertain us by allowing us to overcome challenges, a drive that’s built into us as humans. The design of these challenges is varied and artistic in its own right, not simply a gating mechanism for experiencing the other art present in the game. Having a system that is constructed to only allow access to successive challenges if you can beat prior ones is a unique type of experience that a lot of people intensely value, and they’re not wrong for desiring and valuing experiences that force them to “git gud”. This plays on a natural human instinct that is highly cathartic.

I don’t have a problem with “tourist” or “pacifist” difficulty modes that allow people to stroll through the game without resistance. I don’t have a problem with games having an easy mode, or a skip button for gameplay. However, not all games should have these things. Games should be allowed to exist and thrive for not giving the players an easy way out, for not even presenting the option. There isn’t an objectively correct way to do difficulty, and some people intensely value games that force them to put their nose to the grindstone in order to succeed, just as other people don’t value those things and intensely value the other aspects of entertainment software. Games should exist to cater to both these tastes instead of uniformly insisting that every game is hard only, or that every game allow you to skip gameplay. Games should be free to occasionally not give you a choice. This isn’t exclusionary, it is the nature of the art itself, as much as color is part of the nature of paintings. Not everything needs to be for everyone. It’s okay to cater to the individual tastes of a niche. “git gud” is another way of saying, “Try a little harder, you can do it, and you’ll see why I enjoy this game too.” It’s a way of ending toxicity from people who blame the game for their failure instead of themselves.

The concept of a skip gameplay button draws a kneejerk reaction from a lot of people, including myself, because having that in a game can feel patronizing, can allow us to cheat ourselves, and not having the option to do that brings a type of certainty and reassurance. It’s okay to let people skip things sometimes, but it’s also worth recognizing the value in being forced to achieve with no alternative. The advocation for the ability to skip any challenge is seen by many people as a sign that journalists just don’t get what so many people love about games. That they don’t get a fundamental part of the medium, from tabletop games, to sports, to video games. These people aren’t exclusionary (usually), they want other people to enjoy the same thing they enjoy, without removing or altering the thing they love most about it.

It’s not a matter of you being entitled to all the content you paid for. A big part of the thing itself is the enjoyment of needing to work to see all of it, not because it’s exclusive, but because working hard and challenging ourselves is intrinsically enjoyable. It’s fun to improve and figure new things out on our own. Games are the artistic expression of different types of challenges. This art form of artistic challenges, including and especially intensely difficult ones, deserves to exist! It is as pure a reflection of human nature as any other art, and it should not be truncaded in a misguided attempt to deliver it to more people, without delivering the soul of the thing itself. Please make an attempt to understand why this is something people enjoy for its own sake, rather than assuming it’s the petty exclusionary amusement of a club of insiders. Please don’t dismiss it just because it is not to your taste and you cannot empathize with the concept of enjoying the process of learning through overcoming hardship. Games are beautiful, but this type of discussion is aimed at dividing people and turning them against one another, as members of separate tribes, rather than each taking a chance to understand and enjoy what others have enjoyed in the games they love.

Tabletop RPGs & Play Without Games

Are tabletop roleplaying games like dungeons & dragons games? How about ones that de-emphasize rules-based play & focus on the improv aspect, like ones based on apocalypse world?

Usually, yes, but not always. They’re games paired with Roleplaying, or Communal Storytelling. Depending on your group, the amount of game and amount of storytelling can vary. Some groups play tabletops as straight-up games, some of them use the systems as ways of mediating communal storytelling and generating interesting outcomes for the story. Within the framework of communal storytelling success or failure isn’t so important, it’s all about working together to make an interesting story. To this end, DMs rig outcomes, fudge die rolls, and don’t stick to strict game rules, they don’t (usually) compete with the players and the rules are set up to where most of the interactions between DMs and players are indirect, facilitated through impersonal die rolls. There’s even one tabletop RPG called Dread, focused on horror, which features no stats or dice of any kind. Instead, situations are resolved by pulling a block from a Jenga tower, and if the tower falls over, you get caught by the monster or whatever.

In the transition to digital, the meaning of role playing game changed. It stopped being about communal storytelling, with everyone making up a bit of the story, and started being about stats (which even relative to tabletop roleplaying games makes a bit of sense, since the innovation of the earliest Tabletop RPGs over the war games they were inspired by was the addition of stats tied to a character that grow over time). This is why a lot of discourse on RPGs is so confused, because people take the name of the genre literally. See all the people arguing about whether Legend of Zelda is an RPG or not. It fit right in next to the action RPGs of its original time period, but in retrospect it’s very clearly not in the same mold, and some people argue, “but it’s still a ROLE-playing game, I’m playing the ROLE of Link,” or worse, get confused and ask how any game can be a role-playing game since you play a character’s role in practically every game. Some games still try to fit the mold of communal storytelling by having branching storylines and letting players pick dialogue or characterize the character through personality scores that change over time (like fable’s good and evil points, or mass effect’s paragon and renegade points), but in my opinion you can’t meaningfully roleplay without other people, so RPGs on computer systems will always be a misnomer.

There are types of play that aren’t specifically games, like playing Doctor, or a tea party, or the role-playing exercises in improv groups. These don’t have any form of goal or objective, They’re just intended to produce interesting outcomes rather than establish winners or losers.

Tabletop roleplaying games can run the gamut here, it depends on your specific group.

Games Ontology for Academics

https://twitter.com/nothings/status/857600112217825280 https://twitter.com/smestorp/status/857605252308242432 https://twitter.com/smestorp/status/857600946184093696 https://twitter.com/andrewtraviss/status/857598230246420480 Came across this conversation about the most recent story and games thing.. (thread is hard to read whole because twitter is terrible) and I know your position, and that you have a really specific definition of game, but this emphasized to me the difficulty of arriving at a consensus when someone can interpret the press space to advance text thing to fit your definition It also seems clear that just being super reductionist sort of solves it, like, right, pressing space can be called a game, but obviously there is no artistic substance in that aspect, so it’s meaningless to include it in an analysis. How would you address it so that some consensus is reached?

Consensus probably isn’t going to be reached. There’s a lot of cultural issues here that prevent consensus. We have a broad digital entertainment field that is called “games” broadly as a field. Games collectively are a mass medium, bigger than Hollywood, revenue-wise. They’re the medium of a generation.

“Games” has a really complicated ontology. Ian Bogost wrote about what a clusterfuck it is in this article: http://bogost.com/writing/videogames_are_a_mess/

When you refer to a game, like Grand Theft Auto, you refer to a bunch of layered concepts wrapped on top of each other. The word “Game” could refer to a bunch of things when you’re talking about GTA. You could mean the physical product sold in stores, you could mean the disc you store in a sleeve, you could mean the source code, you could mean the set of interactions that create challenges in the game, you could mean the contract the player enters into, using the game console as a facilitating device to act out this contract. Continue reading

What can we call Not-Games Software?

You thought of a good name for simulations of space/virtual environments yet?

Nope. I tried looking through similar types of things on wikipedia to see if there was a categorical name for them (but did not find one):

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Haunted_attraction_(simulated)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funhouse
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Obstacle_course
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventure_park
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ropes_course
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steeplechase_(athletics)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sleep_No_More_(2011_play)
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Site-specific_theatre
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Interactive_theatre
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Experiential_education
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Adventure_therapy
https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Project_Adventure

Some candidates I have are:

Video Dreams
I think this one is just cute more than anything. I don’t think it’s descriptive or crunchy enough to actually catch on.

Entertainment Software
This can include stuff like Netflix, so I’m not sure if it’s really specific enough. It’s already used a fair amount, so low bar to adoption.

Promenade Theater/Site-specific Theater/Environmental Theater/Interactive Theater
Applicable to theater productions, but no good word to bridge it to digital media. It’s the physical equivalent to what is commonly done in digital media, you set up a place that allows people to interact in a certain way and see certain things.

Digital Museum
Fairly self-explanatory. A few digital museums actually already exist. Trouble is that people might expect things that resemble real museums a bit more when the media here supports things that are more like Disney’s Animal Kingdom. The word Theme Park also isn’t really appropriate because it’s not really a park.

Digital Playground/Sim Playground/Sim Spaces
Maybe these could be the best term? They’re generic enough that it could fit nearly anything that’s currently being called a game, but more specifically referring to a space than entertainment software, thereby excluding Netflix.

Virtual/Sim Adventures
Bit more imaginative than the previous ones. Virtual/Simulated/Digital are all decent descriptors to point out that this is happening on a computer. Simulator is slightly more generic and can refer to real life simulations too, which may be desirable for a term like this, since there is an analog in medium.

The primary criteria I’d have for a term like this is that it’s short, two words maximum, it’s descriptive, and that it’s easily adoptable, not too far a jump from our existing lexicon. Ideally it would seem like a word/term we always had.

Again, if you guys have any ideas, you’re welcome to send them in. I haven’t gotten any suggestions yet. You can of course use pastebin for longer thoughts.

All those ideas are honestly terrible, lol. Video dreams? Promenade theater??? I really think walking sims and interactive environments are the best terms.

I’m not referring exclusively to walking sims here, I’m trying to come up with an encompassing term for all simulated environments, because games aren’t necessarily simulated environments and simulated environments aren’t necessarily games.

Also promenade theater is a real term.

Think I’ll go with Simulated Environments.

What’s a Game II: Second Impact

Would you consider a visual novel a game? A David Cage/Telltale game an actual game? Why or why not?

Visual novels, no, not usually. Prof Layton and Phoenix Wright are exception, but they’re puzzles, which I don’t think are really like games most of the time.

David Cage: They have QTEs, so I guess sort of. You’re not exactly pursuing success with them frequently, just different storylines, so it’s hard to really say.

TellTale: I played TWD ep 1 and the entire sam and max trilogy. TWD, nah. There’s only different storylines, it’s not about success or failure, just branching paths. Sam & Max is puzzles, which I’ve said I’m iffy on calling games. Continue reading

What’s Wrong With “Fail States”?

What’s wrong with the term fail state?

It’s attached to the definition of game for many people, and it doesn’t mean anything real, so it causes semantic fuckery when people try to argue about what constitutes a “fail state” and whether a given game has one.

So what counts as a “fail state”?

Here’s an obvious one most people will agree with, game over. Meaning you reset the whole game, do it over from the beginning. You’ve lost the entire game. It’s all over. Multiplayer games have this as well. You can see this in tetris, contra, street fighter, and a bunch of others. Kind of went the way of the dinosaur except for short games and multiplayer. Continue reading