Series Info...#34: The Power of the Medium: Individualized Output

by Shannon Appelcline

May 17, 2001 - According to definition 5a of my OED, a medium is: "An intermediate agency, means, instrument or channel. Also, intermediation, instrumentality: in phrase by or through the medium of. spec. of newspapers, radio, television, etc., as vehicles of mass communication."

Most broadly, you could say the medium of the Skotos games is the Internet. But, there's a lot of very specific stuff in our games' medium which that definition doesn't cover. To really define our medium I'd break it down a little more. I'd say our medium is:

  • prose (text)
  • transmitted over a global network (the Internet)
  • and moderated by electronic devices (computers)

And, each one of those little bullet points gives us unique advantages over other mediums (and limitations too, clearly). I've hashed over some of this before, talking some about how our medium is different from other stuff out there. Travis Casey has too. If you'd like to read some general thoughts on the topic, I'd suggest the following:

What I really haven't talked about yet, except peripherally, is what makes our medium really cool. Clearly, we think it is, or we wouldn't be producing games for it. But why? That's a discussion that I want to initiate today. I think our medium has tons of advantages, and each one could be build into its own article. This week I'm going to start off with just one of those advantages – something I call individualized output.

I got going on this particular topic because of Gareth's last column. One of the things he said there was: "It is my opinion that successfully conveying horror in this format is close to impossible." Now, I agree with almost all of Gareth's points in his last article, and I thoroughly understand his reason to move on, but this was one statement that I could not come to terms with. You see, I actually think that our medium might be better for conveying horror than most others.

I mean, there's lots of philosophical reasons that the text part of our medium is really cool for horror. In one of my early iterations of our business plan I said something like "No polygoned graphic, no matter how beautifully rendered, could ever match the horrific images that may germinate in the human imagination." Yada, yada. Something swarmy like that.

But, that's not even my point here. You see, I think the computer moderation aspect of our medium is actually what can make horror really, really effective. And it all comes down to that one very specific power of the medium: individualized output.


Let me back up a minute to explain what I mean. Most mediums have one, specific, universal output. When you read a book, it's the same book everyone else reads (choose-your-own-adventure stories excepted). The newspaper doesn't change from household to household. Ditto for television, except in the scant cases of interactive TV trying to break into our living rooms.

Everyone sees the same thing.

But, this doesn't have to be the case. By allowing for each viewer of a medium to see output that's unique and individual for him you can allow for a much more interesting experience. This is kind of cool when you're solely using a medium to transmit information. That's what and numerous other portals are all about. But allowing individualized output for games... that's where things really get exciting.

The whole idea of individualized output for games has been around for a long time – because it's clearly a good and powerful idea. Remember Battleship, where you and your opponent each had your own board, each only showing your own ships and your guesses at the locations of your opponents? That was a simple way of individualizing output in the non-computer medium. Lots of other board and war games have tried to expand on this idea, producing what are called "blind games", where you don't know what your opponents are doing.

Unfortunately, limitations of physical games make this hard to do right. As more and more people join in a game it gets more and more difficult for a moderator (or the players) to actually integrate all of those unique and different game views.

Enter computers.

Computers have always taking great advantage of the idea of individualized output. Integrating all of those different game views is no longer a problem because the computer takes care of it. I've played numerous "blind" strategy games over the 'net where I never had complete information on what my opponents were doing. Almost any multiplayer Internet-based game has some type of individualized output, whether it be your first-person shooter view in Quake or your localized heads-up display for Diablo.

Really, though, this is all a question of adapting an old style of gameplay to a new medium. The medium suddenly offers us advantages to make that style of gameplay work better and we use them. But, as pioneers in this medium we need to figure out how to do more – how to truly use the power of the medium in innovative ways that create new and better styles of gameplay.

So, how can the idea of individualized output be expanded ten-fold? I have a few ideas ...

Practical Apps: Perception

Thus far, computer-moderated multiplayer games have mainly taken advantage of individualized output to differ perception, almost exclusively based on point-of-view. I'm at location A and you're at location B, so we see different things. It's a good start, but you can do a lot more.

You can differ perception based on knowledge. Knowledge acts as the filter for everything we perceive. Where a friend sees a pretty flowers, I might see Golden Poppies. Where I see an icky and dangerous serpent, a friend might see a harmless garden snake. Scratches on a door which are meaningless to me could actually be hobo marks; a hand signal which I barely noticed could be a sign for a secret cult. And, in a computer-moderated game you can actually model this. You can specifically create knowledge skills and then individualize the output to a player based on those skills which his character knows.

You can differ perception based on mental state. Recall that I said that computer moderation offered really big advantages for horror? This is why. I believe that a lot of the best horror is psychological, where you don't know if the scary or strange things that are happening are really true or just in your head.

So imagine a game, perhaps based upon Lovecraft's stories, where insanity was an important factor in the game. There might really be beasties in this game... spawn of the Great Old Ones born beyond the stars. But, as you learn more about their secrets, it could warp your sanity and thus your perceptions. You might end up seeing beasties where there aren't any at all... seeing harmless books as Necronomicons and old beggars as shambling monstrosities. You'd never know what was actually true. (There's a flip side to this coin; perhaps as you gain knowledge in Elder lores you'll be able to see past the facade of reality, to see the truth that the uninitiated cannot.)

And, because output is individualized, other players in other states will be seeing different things. Will anyone every be able to determine which of these visions is actually the true truth? No. (Or, rather, only the computer moderator.) And that's the wonder of it, because it's suddenly just like real life.

You can differ perception based on physical state. Though not quite as interesting, you can differ perceptions based on physical matters too. Some characters could be color blind. Some might have poor night vision. Some might be blinded in the sunlight. All of these states offer more options to vary perception.

You can differ perception based on attention. Let me end my discussion of perception with something that's kind of a variant of the mental state: attention. I've on occasion been in a busy restaurant reading a book and lost almost all awareness of what was going on beyond those pages. My attention to the internal world of fiction was terrific; my attention to the outside world terrible. You can use attention like this in a computer-moderated game. A character reading a book (or flirting with a lady or talking with a friend) would be much less likely to see what's going on around him. On the other hand a person focusing on a door is very likely to see everyone who moves through it...

Practical Apps: Communication

Though most individualized output will be determined by perception within a game, there are other opportunities to take advantage of it. I want to touch upon one more this week – one which we're already using in Castle Marrach – communication.

Often in games we want to set up artificial barriers of communication – barriers which make life harder for the players but also ultimately make the game more enjoyable. Usually that means that people don't speak the same language.

A few LARPs (Live Action Role Playing games) have been run in Germany that take advantage of language barriers in fun ways. These LARPs tend to attract lots of people from both Germany and England and thus there tend to be three sets of people: those who speak German, those who speak English, and those who speak both languages. By taking advantage of these actual language barriers, the StoryTellers for these LARps have been able to create LARPs where players really can't understand each other... and used that to create cultural divisions within the game.

But, they're really the exception not the rule. If a group of roleplayers are sitting around a table, and one of them says something in a language you're not supposed to understand, it's hard to pretend that you didn't.

Enter computers (again).

You can create language barriers. As you've no doubt seen in Castle Marrach, we do have languages, and depending on your skill in a language you will understand some, none, or all of what's been said. And, you don't have to pretend. The computer moderates, then individualizes your output. You only hear what your character actually hears.

This is one of the reasons that I think Og is a really cool game to host at Skotos. That entire game is built around language and problems of communication. The cavemen have a vocabulary of only 17 words, and none of them know all the words. Unlike the tabletop game, the computer will be moderating all of this communication for the Skotos game. And so, if we have a room of twenty Og cavemen, with each understanding different words, and one of them gives a speech ("Bang smelly thing. Bang bang bang! Smelly!) then every single person in that room hears what they really should.

You can create other communication barriers. But, this isn't just about language. Communication is actually a multi-faceted thing and you can choose to filter any of it in a computer-moderated game. Take body language as another example. Usually, everyone will be able to understand everyone else's body language. But, there might be problems if characters come from totally different cultures... or maybe even totally different races.

We plan to start exploring this more in Galactic Emperor: Succession. Suppose the Grune express happiness by preening their shoulder scales. Most people would see "Joe Grune bites his shoulder." However other Gune might see "Joe Grune preens his shoulder scales, denoting happiness" or "Joe Grune is happy" or maybe even "Joe Grune smiles".


your opinion...