The Power of Consistency
by Sam Witt
March 21, 2001
Realism in games is virtually impossible to achieve. The world is simply to varied and complex to ever be adequately described in any environment other than, well, the world. Designers strive for realism, we add weather patterns to our games, complex code to handle the behavior of NPCs, even detailed economic models. In the end, however, most 'realistic' elements are merely consistent elements.
Players can be very demanding, and they want their game worlds to make sense. Consistency in design allows gamers to learn from the world, and to better understand how that world works. Because games can be so complex, this consistency is important in helping characters overcome the learning curve if the environment reacts in a consistent way to the actions of the characters, then it's possible to extrapolate the manner in which the world functions, and use this knowledge in dealing with new situations.
Which is why players get so upset when things in the game change. The more complex a game environment is, the longer it takes for players to uncover its internal consistency and begin to understand how the artificial world works. When changes are made to that delicate system skeleton, the effects can throw off players for weeks, often resulting in 'losses' of character advancement or gear.
Just as important as mechanical consistency, however, is thematic consistency. If you tell your players that your game is a heroic fantasy, then they'll expect to be able to do things that fit into that theme. Putting in dragons to be defeated and evil wizards to be thwarted is great tossing in cyborg terminator droids and clones probably won't sit so well with the players.
On a more subtle note, the manner in which the game is played should be consistent as well. If characters begin the game by hacking up monsters and stealing their loot, then it's reasonable that this element is going to be present throughout the life of the game. More importantly, the manner in which the character whacks monsters is something that can evolve over the life of the character, but it shouldn't radically change.
If, for example, your average goblin warrior character is able to kill monsters on his own at the start of his career, then he should still be able to do this throughout the life of the character. There's nothing wrong with more powerful challenges requiring a group of adventurers to deal with, but that goblin warrior should always be able to go out and find some monsters to work over.
Though it can be difficult, there are few elements as important to your game as internal consistency. It gives your players the tools they need to understand and interact with your world, creating a richer experience for them, and a less painful one for you. Take the time at the front-end of your game to lay out a consistent skeleton, and you'll rest much easier in the future.