BORT Digest

As you might know I participated in this Month’s Blogs of the Round Table (BORT) with my Solaris post. I also joined Corvus Elrod, Joe Tortuga and Troy Goodfellow in a podcast (BORTcast?) in which we discussed three of the entries. It is only 25 minutes and

available here.

I would also like to use this post to discuss this month’s BORT in more details:

First of all, the sheer amount of the entries is just amazing! It’s very exciting to see BORT getting so big. But not only that: The quality of the entries is astonishing as well. I tried to comment on every post and I think I missed only the very recent entries. I would like to thank you everybody for participating and I hope we will be able to keep up this spirit. BORT might develop into one of the most important places on the tubes to discuss and share game design ideas, who knows!

The final question of the BORTcast was if games will evolve past the notion of being “fun” and start creating experiences with the emotional spectrum and depth comparable to literature. My answer to this question might seem to miss the point so I would like to clarify: I do agree with my fellow BORTcasters. I also think that it will be the independent games to introduce those new experiences.

However, looking at the entries, it struck me how difficult it would be to develop most of the ideas. From the perspective of a game developer, many of them would be considered AAA projects with multi-million dollar budgets and huge teams. This is especially true if there is some Massive-Multiplayer functionality planned or when the concepts starts with “It’s Free-roaming sandbox game like GTA but…”. Even some of the (excellent!) board game ideas would be difficult to pull of, like Corvus’ Lot 49, which seems to be a collectible card game – a product reliant on a certain number of followers and therefore difficult to establish, especially on a tight budget. Sadly, my very own entry also relies on Massive-Multiplayer functionality and exhibits this quality.

What we mostly came up are not the indie games that we were talking about at the end of the podcast.

I chose Kylie Prymus’ post because it deals with yet another recurring phenomenon: the (over?)reliance multiple endings and simple decisions. As I discussed in the podcast and in comments on Kylie’s post, the novels don’t have multiple endings. Should the games have them? The intention seems to be to make the decisions in the game appear more significant or to simply deliver a more dynamic, interactive experience. I don’t think this is the way to go. Here are some things you might consider:

  • According to Barry Schwartz it is a common fallacy that more choice will improve the feeling of freedom and control. What happens instead is that choice will make the result feel less satisfying, even if it is objectively BETTER than the result in a scenario with no choice. The sheer presence of alternatives is unsettling. It is called “Paradox of Choice”. The cure could be to make the alternatives you missed easily accessible so players don’t have to give up content.
  • If the game is about choice, player would want to try out different decisions and their consequences. The game should be designed accordingly. Games rarely are. So there are 30+ hours JRPG’s with 88 different endings. If you can’t experience at least one choice and it’s consequence during one play session (ca. 3 hours max), you might just as well drop multiple endings from the game entirely. That’s why we mentioned the extremely short “The Majesty of Colors” as a GOOD example. I also liked “I wish I were the moon”.
  • Consider also information theory. If the game has 4 endings and takes 10 hours, the player will spend 10 hours for what is essentially a 2 bit decision. That’s 0.2 bits of information your game processes form the player PER HOUR. Don’t fool yourself calling this “freedom” and “interactivity”. A single message box with “The document is not saved, do you want save: yes, no, cancel” will process more information than that and message boxes are known for poor efficiency. 20 years ago, in a NES game, players used a 4-way d-pad and two buttons. That’s 6 bit of information 30 times a second. That’s 648.000 bits of information per hour. THIS is the kind of interactivity and freedom players are used to. If you want an interactive story, this should be the kind of information bandwidth you need to aim for. Again, making a very short game is one way to improve the information density. Another is to work procedurally to actually allow the 6.480.000 possible endings you should aim for in a 10 hours game.
  • Multiple endings are often used to explain the dilemmas in a book. However, we should realize that the demons that torment us when we have to decide are very different from the demons that torment us when we have to actually live with a decision. Check out Daniel Gilbert’s “Stumbling on Happiness” (or simply the video of his TED Talk) – it contains some fascinating insights on this paradox. Consider that Games are mostly more about living with decisions than struggling to decide. Players have usually little problems with making decisions in games because it is mostly reversible and has little impact on them personally – it is just a game after all.

Some ideas also seem to focus very much on the particular story from the underlying novel, closely adapting the characters and the plot. For example, the Pride and Prejudice game concept is about Elizabeth Bennet meeting Mr. Darcy instead of simulating a social network of the late 18th century with variable character constellations. I think we missed some chances to capture the systems and relationships that the novels want to express. Linear media are bad at showing systems so the “stories” they show are often just crutches – linear slivers from the pie of possibilites to give you an idea of the whole pie. We limit ourselves by copying those crutches.

Finally, there is an inherent problem with creating unsettling experiences in games: while linear media are consumed passively, the content of games feeds back into how they are consumed. I noticed myself that if you stray away from simple “fun” and try more ambiguous and ambivalent feedback, you will run against a wall of not being able to move users to act in your game. This is not so much about “this is not fun”, as it is about “what am I supposed to do here?”. Literature has it easier are the author leads the reader through the story. Even if you have no clue going on, even if it is emotionally difficult – continuing to read is always self-explanatory and easy. I’m not saying that every game has to be fun but we need to explore carefully how to guide and motivate the player trough those alternative game experiences.

This is why I said that games might work different than literature and that we have a lot of work to do if we want to match literature in depth and variety.

BUT I think this month’s BORT was a great step forward and I’m very excited to see what we come up with on the Feburary’s topic. Thank you and keep up the amazing work!

Krystian Majewski

Krystian Majewski was born in Warsaw and studied design at Köln International School of Design. Before, he was working on a mid-size console project for NEON Studios in Frankfurt. He helped establish a Master course in Game Design and Research at the Cologne Game Lab. Today he teaches Game Design at various institutions and develops independent games.

6 responses to “BORT Digest”

  1. Corvus

    Krystian, it was a delight to have you as a part of the BoRT’cast and I look forward to inviting you back at some point once our format and technology issues are all nailed down.

    Thanks, too, for posting some follow up thoughts!

  2. Kylie Prymus

    I’m starting to come (back?) around to the idea that people play games specifically so they don’t have to live with the consequences of their choices. Well, in video games anyhow. When I play a pen and paper RPG with a good DM/Storyteller who doesn’t have a strict linear campaign structure then I’m very cognizant as a player that my choices matter and I get no do-overs. But that a separate issue.

    The problem is that if the player approaches a game as something like literature then what’s the point of giving them choice at all? If they want to see what the author’s idea is of the consequences for each action then they might as well be reading a book with multiple endings. By including the player in the story they will have some personal investment in it and, ideally, should stop and reflect not only on the authorial intent but also their own role in the outcome.

    I agree that most games with multiple endings require far too much work for too little difference/change among endings. If you really want to engage the player with that ending and really reflect on their own role then they have to feel that they are meaningfully affecting the story at every step of the way. But I also resist the idea of letting the player save and reload just before the final choice because, while that may make it easy to get the author’s message, it doesn’t let the player in on it – they might as well read a book.

    Majesty of Color keeps coming up because it is a great example of how this is done in a short form way. All the choices matter and the experience can vary wildly as a result of them. I think the same sort of thing could happen in a longer-form game and, if done well, the player may not mind replaying a 10+ hour game because it will feel very different each time. But I’m not a designer and I’m sure the logistical problems of doing such a thing are horrendous.

  3. Corvus

    I have to confess that I believe the challenges are only horrendous because we’re going about it all wrong. I’ve written a bit on my blog about solutions I think would work, and I will likely be doing so more in depth over the next year.

  4. dhalgren2882

    This is a great post, Krystian, and I enjoyed your comments about this issue on the BoRTcast. I’ll second Corvus’ recommendation to head over to his blog, because now I actually think I understand a little bit about how he thinks games are dealing with this in the wrong way.

    It’s interesting that you broke down the impact different endings have on a player quantitatively, because I think that’s how a lot of game developer’s are trying to improve their games, by giving the players more and more options, but Corvus’ ideas seems more qualitative.

  5. Krystian Majewski

    I think the same sort of thing could happen in a longer-form game and, if done well, the player may not mind replaying a 10+ hour game because it will feel very different each time. But I’m not a designer and I’m sure the logistical problems of doing such a thing are horrendous.

    I agree with Corvus on this one. Having a longer game where your choices affect the story every step of the way would be quite challenging in the traditional way. I also think the result would be procedural or somehow emergent. That’s why I went overboard suggesting 6.480.000 possible endings. Those simple NES action games had this information density because they created the action procedurally. There were also games with embedded action and … eh, they didn’t work so well.

    It’s interesting that you broke down the impact different endings have on a player quantitatively, because I think that’s how a lot of game developer’s are trying to improve their games, by giving the players more and more options, but Corvus’ ideas seems more qualitative.

    Well, “more” is certainly a paradigm but note the way I broke it down has very different conclusion: shorter games work better with traditional multiple endings.

    A qualitative approach is an excellent idea but:

    1. Qualitative doesn’t mean it isn’t measurable. The methods change but you have to actually go ahead and use them – I think rarely anybody understands grasps the implications. If done right it certainly isn’t less scientific.

    2. Generally, there is a trend towards mixed-methods research, which I also applaud. This – of course, is even more difficult to pull off.

  6. Aandnota

    Great post, Krystian, thanks. I don’t disagree with any of the particulars. I’m just increasingly curious about the tendency to apply literary and cinema theory to video games. They are completely different media. Theatre theory is, perhaps, more appropriately adopted as a starting point in video game discussions. Yet, it seems that most, not all, of us don’t use it. Maybe it has something to do with the historical timeline of popular media? (theatre, literature, film, games) I’m not sure. I just keep noticing this trend.


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