Series Info...#38: The Game Is what the Game Is

by Shannon Appelcline

June 14, 2001 - Last week, when talking about The Eternal City, I briefly mentioned one of the most important rules for game design. It's really pretty easy to explain, so I don't expect this week's column to run too long. Nonetheless, it's worth spending a week on because it's really important. The rule, stated concisely, is the title of this week's column:

The Game Is what the Game Is
Now, let me explain that a little less concisely, but more clearly.

The Less-concise Explanation

When you design a game, you're going to have ideas about what style of gameplay you want to include. The classifications I discussed in Telling Stories, Classifying Worlds are very broad examples of the styles of gameplay that you might be considering: achievement, exploration, socialization, or killing.

However, you'll be thinking about a lot more than just these four categories. Gameplay can be about anything, including: people gathering in certain locations; people logging in at certain times; people always staying in the same cliques; people constantly meeting new characters; or even people logging in for extended periods of time. You consider all of these possibilities, along with the broad classifications, to truly figure out what type of game you want to present.

Once you've made those decisions about your game's gameplay, you need to take the next step. In the abstract, that's pretty easy to do. You design a game's systems to encourage the type of gameplay that you want. Then, if you've done your job right, you just sit back and watch the players react to the game systems... and begin engaging in the type of gameplay that you expect.

I already talked last week about how TEC makes it somewhat expensive to pick up new skill sets. An inexperienced StoryBuilder might see this as a decision that only affects skills. But, in actuality, it's an important piece of social engineering. In any situation where multiple skill sets are required, players suddenly have reason for working together. After all, it's much easier to find a friend then to learn that whole new skill – and that's a great example of what I'm talking about.

With that in mind, I'd like to focus on a few specific examples: how an advertising model seems to have affected TEC and how Skotos has made specific decisions to encourage socialization.

The Eternal City & Time

Until recently The Eternal City was supported by ads. Every few minutes, a new banner would appear in the TEC client – helping the TEC staff to pay the bills. Thus, it was beneficial for TEC to encourage a specific type of gameplay: staying online for extended periods. And, if you look at The Eternal City, I think you'll agree that there are systems that do encourage this type of behavior.

Before I go on, let me again note that I don't have insights into the actual game design of The Eternal City, so I can't decidedly say that these systems were created for that sole reason...

The most obvious system related to time in TEC is the role-point system. Role-points are quite valuable because they can be used for a number of in-character benefits, from gaining new skills to getting married. Players receive these coveted points just for logging in; the base rate is one per hour. Obviously, giving a reward for being logged in encourages being logged in.

(As a brief sidebar, it's useful to note that TEC encourages a few other types of gameplay with its role-point system. You can receive bonus role-points for good roleplaying and for being online during events, and thus players want to roleplay well and attend events.)

Before I leave the question of time altogether, I'd like to briefly touch on another system in TEC: the skill system, which I already discussed in some depth. The biggest component of the system is: practice, practice, practice. Thus, the more you're online, the more skilled your character becomes. And again, staying online is encouraged by the game system.

Skotos & Socialization

As a game designer I can look at TEC and try and make some good guesses about why certain systems were implemented. However, I'm much more privy to the actual decisions regarding out Skotos games – Castle Marrach and Galactic Emperor: Succession – and thus I'm very aware that we've come up against the core idea of encouraging gameplay through game systems several times in the last year. Most frequently, it's been in regard to socialization.

We consider socialization a strong requirement at Skotos. In fact, it's one of three strong requirements for Skotos games: socialization, roleplaying, and background. As a result, we want to make sure that the majority of our systems are encouraging socialization rather than discouraging it. And, as we've discovered, it's really easy to have an accidental effect on gameplay – something that isn't expected at all.

We definitely ran into this issue in Galactic Emperor: Succession. Two early versions of the game had neat psionic systems that you haven't actually seen in the betas we've released. In one you could zap fellow archons and in another you could warp time and space to enter alternate realities where you were more powerful. The problem was that these psionic abilities were powered by a pool of "points". When you depleted them, you couldn't "zap" or "warp" any more – until your psionic pool regenerated. This took time. So, people tended to wander off on their own, sit down, and wait. Away from everyone else.

In Castle Marrach, the whole idea of socialization was the core of how we implemented our skill system. Some people are leery of having to sit around a room for thirty minutes in order to learn something. But, in light of this article, it should be a little more clear why we wrote the skill system to require that. Our skill system gets people into the same location and doesn't actually require any action – unlike a practice-based system such as TEC where you have to constantly type commands in our to gain skills. Thus players are left with nothing to do... except talk.

And finally, the question of socialization is also influencing our thoughts about free-form emotes. We definitely don't want to make free-form emotes – where you can "do" anything – publicly available, because we think it would run counter to the consensual environment we've created in the Castle. But we have considered some compromises, such as allowing free-form emotes only in private rooms. The hang-up? We think we might encourage people to hide out in their rooms, and thus discourage socialization, if we implement free-form emotes in this way. (We might do it any way.)

Psionics, skills, and emotes: they all had effects on socialization in various ways. This leads to a central and important rule of game design: Every game system has an affect on every aspect of gameplay. So, whenever you're implementing a new system you have to take a few minutes and think: what will this system do?

A Short Summary for a Short Article

Some of the game systems that I've talked about here offer fairly simple carrot and stick psychology. You reward the gameplay you're trying to achieve and punish gameplay that you're trying to discourage. However, the whole concept of "The Game Is what The Game Is" goes further than that. You need to think about the subtleties of systems that you're going to implement, and figure out what weird effects they might have on your overall game.

Nonetheless, the basic premise is still easy to lay out:

  • Figure out what type of gameplay you want to encourage.
  • Ensure that all your game systems encourage that type of gameplay.
From that basis, you should be able to create exactly the type of game that you want to.

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