Sunday, March 14, 2010

Short, Replayable Games

Think of chess. A game of chess is relatively short. A casual game lasts no more than an hour, usually. Serious games can take longer—three-hour-game tournaments are common. Notice that when you play a game of chess, you’ve processed a few dozen board positions and seen some tactics you haven’t before encountered. You can’t hope to get the entire experience of playing chess from playing one game. Chess isn’t “over” when you’re done playing one game.

Too many videogames are considered “over” and exhausted once you’ve finished your first play-through. Experience-oriented games tend to reach a point where they are clearly “over” and “beaten”. Themepark MMORPGs are unique among experience-oriented games because they do not have a decided end-point, but instead have an open end onto which developers tack more and more content until the game no longer is worth the investment.

Experience-oriented games work better with longer play sessions, because they rely on the player holding information about characters and stories in their heads throughout the playthrough in order for the game to have its full effect. Experience-oriented games are designed almost as interactive movies. Their stories are almost always static—created by game designers and writers and consumed as they are intended to be consumed, in whole and unaltered. Designers paste gameplay into gaps between story exposition. The gameplay does nothing to alter the story, though different pieces of the story may be shown at different times because of gameplay.

I prefer short, replayable games because they tend to be designed in a way that avoids several aspects of many games that I dislike.

  • I don’t want to play games that demand so much of my time just to experience a story which will doubtless be less interesting than the stories in the great works of fiction that I could easily sit down and read instead of playing the game.
  • I don’t want to play games where playing the game is a small part of the experience. I play games to play games. If a community grows around the game and they help to give it meaning, I enjoy that aspect—but if the game isn’t good as a game, and if, when I play the game as a game, I can’t have fun, I won’t play the game.
  • I don’t want to play games that rely heavily on rewarding the player at every turn for the mere investment of time. Games that do this are not good games, they are reward engines that push people to perform actions they’d otherwise find boring. Games should not need to rely on extrinsic rewards to keep their players playing—this reliance is a design flaw. (It may make the game more money, though. I’m not concerned with how much money a game makes; I only care if I have fun playing it.)

I love the rapid replayability of a game like chess. I enjoy building my knowledge and skill over multiple plays of a skill-based game. I want more games like this. Especially games that don’t require great reflexes or great eyesight. Strategy games get to the heart of gaming as an intellectual pursuit—turn-based games cut out the physical skill element. I wish more people would make turn-based strategy games meant to be competitively played. I will try to make them myself in the meantime.


pedro said...

You make some strong points here. You made me feel a great nostalgy about my former hundreds homm3 four hour games; damn, even my carcassone hunters & gatherers playing at brettspielwelt, later on. All these games have their own flaws, of course, and chess or go will stay there for good, but I would love to see some diversity in this kind of game. What are you thinking of doing?

Tesh said...

I've been doing some board and card game design the last year or so. They are almost all strategic, competitive turn based games. There are many more from people more experienced than I. I enjoy that sort of game, and I really enjoy designing them. I find that learning the nuts and bolts of why these games work tends to be enjoyable mental exercise, and it tends to make me better when I jump in and compete.

There are such games in the video game world, as well, but they don't earn the big bucks. Still, they are there.

Kenny said...

@Tesh: take a good look at Decipher's Star Wars CCG (discontinued in 2001, thank you Lucasfilm, you bastards!). I, and many others believe that game to be the crown achievement of card games. It has so many layers that are so unique, and work together really well - it's just beyond ingenious.

@evi: that's a very gamist view of the world and something all devs should not focus on when designing an MMO. I think MMOs should really move over to being pieces of narrativist clothes that tie together players with some loose mechanics and that's it. Also I'm really not sure how can you have a meaningful persistent world which mainly relies on competitive gaming, and I mean gaming, not screwing around in the markets and such.

Void said...

The entire time I was reading this article all I could think of was StarCraft. It is packaged in short replayable games with a variety of strategies and counters to learn (I'm talking about multiplayer). If you have never played it you should give it a look.

I have also thought of StarCraft as complex virtual chess... I can't wait for StarCraft 2 to come out!

twixter said...

Twixt is a very tactical board game which is often finished in 20 minutes. It also lends itself to study in depth for turn-based play. A row handicapping system can accommodate players of different abilities.