Fenris and Isabella from Dragon Age 2, in fighting poses.

Readings: Outside the Lines

November 29, 2011 - Readings

Fenris and Isabella from Dragon Age 2, lookin' hot after a fight.

Holy crap, I’m back! And I’ve even had time to read things! Here are some of those things.

First off, Kirk Battle brings his uniquely legal perspective to explain the difference between playing Magic on a tabletop versus a computer in a Kill Screen post called In Brief: Who Rules the Rules? He makes a convincing argument that the change of medium changes the nature of the game. It’s particularly interesting to me, given my recent curiosity about adapting the Amber tabletop system.

Meanwhile, the inimitable Mattie Brice has been strapping on her reasonable female armor and taking on the patriarchy on two fronts this week. First, there’s a piece at PopMatters about the tragic lack of male sexualization in videogames. It’s a good reminder that increasing equality in pop culture really isn’t about removing types of expression (the usual PC blah blah complaint) but about opening up types of expression that aren’t currently available. Also, boners.

And over at Kotaku, Brice baits the worst of the commentariat with Why I Don’t Feel Welcome at Kotaku. They promptly prove her point by coming up with (so far) 819 ways to say, “Jeepers! If the only community I feel accepted in starts openly including people who aren’t exactly like me, how can I be sure they’ll still accept me?!” Adult society continues to not give a shit about their cry-cry faces. If you visit the comment section, do bring a copy of @fireholly99‘s Sexism in Games Bingo. Make a drinking game of it, perhaps.

Finally, there’s a really interesting exchange going on between Brendan Keogh and John Walker about Modern Warfare 3. First Walker had a negative review of MW3 that went so far as to call it an “un-game.” Keogh responded with a defense that argued Walker was approaching the game wrong, and Walker re-argued his point in Why Modern Warfare 3 Remains an Un-Game.

What’s fascinating to me is that this whole debate seems to illustrate something Dan Cox and I have discussed regarding the designer’s “ideal player.” The core of Keogh and Walker’s disagreement is that Walker thinks MW3 is paced horribly and constantly blocks him from doing what he wants to do, and Keogh thinks it is paced magnificently and responds to his every desire.   I haven’t played Modern Warfare 3, but my suspicion is that, like the Halo games, it has been play-tested within an inch of its life to get that pacing calibrated perfectly to the behavior of the average player. Keogh has the good fortune to fall comfortably within that average; Walker does not. As a result, Keogh feels like a god while playing; Walker feels like a pawn being jerked around.

The really amazing thing is that it sounds like Walker is only slightly off the average. It’s not like he wants to throw down his gun and choose pacifism, or even choose his own strategy for each mission. The things that bother him are the timing at which an event triggers or whether or not he can open a door before another character arrives. Very, very small deviations from the ideal player the game is designed for. And yet, as Adrian Forest put it in a response to Keogh on Twitter, Walker “does not seem to have played the same game you and I seem to have played.”

That’s the peril of designing for an ideal or average player: someone’s going to get left out in the cold. At the same time, it sounds like people who fit that ideal can have a pretty rapturous experience. In any case, there’s an unusual amount of connections between the posts I’m linking today. How do you deal with deviations from the norm? What do you lose and gain when you choose to design for a specific kind of behavior?

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› tags: amber / mage boners / magic: the gathering / modern warfare 3 / player variation / turbofeminism /


  1. Dan Cox says:

    I plan to get back this “ideal player” concept… at some point. In the future. I have more notes on it and some interesting new connections.

    But, yeah, as you have been saying: play-testing a game into that fine a point will, inevitably, hurt someone else who is just outside that average. I agree.

    I think these “deviations from the norm” are the most interesting aspect to many of these conversations as they, at least how I see it, help define the possibility space — something I am highly interested in — and redefine it in the process. Critical Play happens on the edges of the ‘magic circle’.

  2. Ari says:

    Does a game cater to a single ideal player, or does it accommodate players of greater or lesser skill? (Leave it to me to start a post with a question.) I’d love to see a game that appealed to more than one player type based on the player’s preferences and play style. That would be a really cool form of communication between the player and the designer.

    Also, a question for Dan to ponder: if you’re working with the paradigm of an ‘ideal player’, does that mean that there is such a thing as an ideal game?

    • Dan Cox says:

      Yes. Lesser skill than the ‘ideal’, in many games (Ikaruga comes to mind), means you visit the Game Over screen frequently. Perhaps become friends over time even.

      Isn’t the use of different classes/paths/origin stories supposed to account for differing tastes in how you play a game? I mean, I know it obviously doesn’t work that way in many cases, but isn’t that its purpose? On a more serious note, I see two solutions to this issue.

      In the first, you try, as the developer, to account for as many variations of a situation as you can — create multiple ‘ideals’ — and then use some type of system handling when those ‘ideals’ are not quite met as expected by the player. Via feedback, you push the player — to put it nicely — into one of the paths you established. (For programmers: try, catch and throw statements.)

      In the second, you don’t. You create a sandbox like The Sims or Minecraft and allow people to “play” as they want. No hard fail-states… but no real “winning” either. You make your own goals, as a player, but also judge your own success too. You can give up, change your opinion about a task or even just abandon doing something with no penalty at all.

      But I imagine you meant an on-the-fly change, right? Yeah, that is more complicated and… do you really even want that? How would you detect play-style changes or preferences? Changing difficulty, in some games, seems to have the effect you might be talking about but not actually mean. To me, it sounds hard to do.

      If you had to come up with a list of player types, what would be in it?

      An ideal game? Hmm. No, I do not think there is an ideal game. There are games I might like — for a variety of reasons including my mood and the need to annoy the people around me — at any one time. But do I think there is an ideal game, even just for me? No, probably not. If there was, it would suck all my life away and it would be the only game I ever play — not unlike as I was when I was playing WoW in the past.

      An ‘ideal player’, on the other hand, might be better thought of as a mean from which edge cases might be detect but not always determined. I’ve been expressing it as the thought of using the standard deviation from such a mean to highlight, but not define, the shape of the possibility space that exists around the player-character at any one moment in a session of play. You could start with the sentence, “The ideal player would do this” and then thinking of ways in which other players may or may not do just that.

      An alternative to that — and to fill out my quota/quest for at least one several hundred word comment per post by Line — is the “Is this cool?” approach Bethesda Softworks seems to take. According to their podcast, they approach many decisions from a play-test idea of first “Can I do X?” followed quickly by “Should I be able to do X?” If they answer yes to both, they try to include that in the game. Their ‘ideal player’ seems to be one in which every form and combination of interaction is tried at one time or another.

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