Saturday, May 7, 2005

Game Genre Lifecycle: Part III

How to create a new genre
We've seen how genres die. Now let's look at how they are born. There are two clear cut methods I've come across for founding new genres:

  • Innovate in terms of more potent reward mechanisms
  • Innovate in terms of more cost-effective risk mechanisms.
As we will see, innovating in terms of reward mechanism is merely a path that leads towards creating new risk mechanisms. Ultimately new genres rest upon the uniqueness of their risk mechanisms and nothing else.

Improving reward mechanisms
As I was perusing the data for graphics adventures I came across an unexpected growth period in the genre, starting in the mid-90s. Could it be that graphics adventures were experiencing renewed popularity? Such a discovery would add a serious kink to the simple generalized curve of the genre lifecycle chart.

Upon closer examination, I found that innovation wasn't dead. Clever designers in Japan had used the oldest trick in the book to invent a new genre. They added pornographic images.

Pornographic video games, though a distasteful subject, is a good test for the conceptual structure of game genres that I've been building in these essays. Fringe content is often useful in testing the flexibility of a theory.

Defining Core Game mechanics

  • Risk elements are composed of simple clicking on dialog choices.
  • Basic reward comes in the form of watching adult video clips.

Defining Metagame mechanics

  • Limited player statistics or meta-game elements.
  • A linear narrative is used to connect the series of dialog trees

Notes on the Genre Definition: Trouble 'a brewing
Again, the major apparent shift here is in the reward system. The introduction of sexual images provides a more intense reward for the player.

A major concern should arise at this point. Our original definition of genre specifically excludes contextual design layers such as plot, setting, and contextualized token. The existence of a genre that is defined by contextualized tokens (naked women) calls into question our original assumption. So we must ask: Is context fundamental to the definition of a genre?

How rewards influence risk mechanics
The answer sheds light on the importance of risk mechanics in the definition of genres.

What we've uncovered is the feedback link between strong reward systems and underlying game mechanics. In any game system risk and reward work in concert to create player addiction. When you introduce new reward mechanisms, the risk mechanics inevitably evolve as well, creating a new genre.

Historically the adoption of new reward systems has caused the rapid evolution of risk mechanics. The addition of graphics to the traditional text adventure resulted in designers developing new ways of creating visually rich puzzles that took advantage of the graphic rewards. It was the "point and click" risk mechanics of the evolved graphic adventure that ultimately defined a distinct genre in a market landscape filled with 'graphical games' such as RPGs and FPSs.

With this perspective, let us return to adult graphic adventures. In the presence of a strong reward system (pornographic content) we should observe an evolution of the game mechanics that better showcase the rewards. Games listed in Moby Games have moved strongly towards simple dialog trees and simplistic 'relationship simulators'. This is a radically different risk mechanic than you find in puzzle-oriented graphic adventures. In fact, these are "games that can be played with one hand" to quote an anonymous player.

Adult graphic adventures are a genre, not defined solely by their adult content, but by the underlying risk mechanics. A simple test can be performed. If this genre is truly context independent, we should find other examples with the same core risk mechanics and non-adult content. In fact these are easy to find. Particularly in Japan, there are a wide range of so called 'relationship simulators' that use a choose-your-own adventure form of gameplay to show case non-adult anime movies.

The historical pattern of reward escalation in genre 'speciation'
Over time, we see a clear pattern emerge. Later genres contain psychological risk / reward mechanisms that are substantially more potent than later game genres. Consider the escalating reward mechanisms for the adventure games we've covered so far

  • 80's: Text-based plot rewards
  • 90's: Generic graphical rewards
  • 00's: Sexual graphical rewards
The reward mechanisms in games have been slowly and steadily becoming more intense both in terms of graphics and psychological impact. An early game like Planetfall gained substantial emotional impact from a textual description of the droid Floid's heroic death. Modern games like God of War give the player an emotional rush by relying on visceral depictions of human sacrifice.

The driving mechanisms behind the creation of these more intense experiences are self evident. Better hardware allows to improved graphics. King-of-the-genre competition results in designers striving for bigger explosions, more violent deaths, and more glorious landscapes. If you want to differentiate your design through improved reward systems, the tools and techniques are available to even the crudest game designer. Even Pong can be made into a more impactful game by replacing the ball with a human head and the paddle with a boot.

The next step however is crucial to the development of new genres. As reward mechanism are introduced, developers evolve the critical risk mechanics to better take advantage and showcase the rewards. As risk mechanics converge on a standardized interface and set of player activities, a well-defined genre is born.

Improving risk mechanisms
Now we are getting somewhere. We've isolated the risk component of psychological risk / reward mechanics as a critical aspect of defining genres. In hindsight this is perhaps not surprising. Another, less academic way of saying the same thing is that genres are defined by the basic activities that a player must perform.

Now let us dig into a deeper understanding of which risk mechanics survive in the marketplace. There are some trends apparent here as well.

  • Text based puzzles that often required an intimate understanding of plot to solve: From a design perspective this required large amounts of custom design work for each puzzle.
  • Graphical puzzles that were more mechanical in nature: This required less design work, but was still heavily customized.
  • Simple dialog trees: This requires very little design work and is only slightly customized.
This is a small sample set, but we can form a basic theory. Over time, the market values genres that use risk mechanism that are more modular and reusable. Early genres had the equivalent of assembly programming for their risk mechanics. Everything was custom tailored to a specific game experience. This is economically inefficient. Imagine if every time you fired a bullet in a FPS, you had to recode from scratch new mechanics for aiming and firing.

Economics make this unreasonable. Consider the trends of ever growing reward intensity. Creating a more visceral reward require substantial resources. As a genre matures, developers spend more time and effort on the reward elements of title in an attempt to maximize the 'fun' (aka positive feedback).

Risk and rewards come in pairs
Risk and rewards come in pairs. If you add more rewards, you inevitably need to add more risk activities. Unfortunately, core game mechanics have a substantial cost of implementation. Below is a simple conceptual graph that shows the increasing cost of core game mechanics compared to more reward and learning curve oriented systems.

What is a designer to do? They cheat like hell (aka innovate) and come up with activities that are still enjoyable, but can cost effectively service a wide number of reward scenarios without growing stale.

The concept of elegant risk mechanics:
We can go further and state that there are rules behind the design of 'good' risk activities.

Elegant Risk Mechanics: Small rule sets defining activities that result in long term, high levels of player addiction.

  • Low burnout: Players don't burn out even though they are performing the same basic actions thousands of times.
  • Reusable: Can be repeated throughout the game with minor modification.
  • Scalable: There are economies of scale as additional content is added.

Text adventures are a great example of an inelegant risk mechanic.

  • Not Reusable: Each time the author creates a puzzle, he cannot easily reuse the puzzle without custom programming and writing.
  • High burnout: If you do repeat a puzzle, the player becomes rapidly bored and experiences burnout. "Oh, no...not another lever puzzle."
  • No economies of scale: Adding an additional puzzle costs you just as much as adding the last puzzle. Occasionally, it will cost you more because you've run out of ideas.
Alternatively, consider a FPS. You invest substantial up front development costs in perfecting player movement, enemy AI, and shooting physics. Yet once these basics in place, it becomes trivial to set up additional activities. Drop some objects down and voila...player can fight against one monsters, player fights against two monsters. Minor risk / reward variations on the more 'elegant' risk mechanic allow the designer to economically maintain the player's addiction.

An argument for the importance of elegant risk mechanics
Is it theoretically possible to create a game that has inelegant game mechanics such as a graphics adventure that competes in terms of addictiveness of a more elegant system such as GTA? Certainly. The economics of the endeavor would be unthinkable however. Instead of the dozens of puzzles found in adventure games you would need thousands of puzzles. The effort required to imagine each unique puzzle and associate it with a meaningful plot-based rewards hurts my noggin. Adventure games died because their fundamental design simply did not scale.

Ultimately, it is risk mechanics that helps differentiate 'fun games' from their brethren. All else being equal, games that improve risk mechanics yield more fun for longer periods of time. Done correctly creating innovative elegant risk mechanics can help a developer carve out a unique sub-genre that is difficult to replicate by competitors. Elegant risk mechanics are the magic sauce that let developers do more with less and rock the gaming world in the process. Here is the beginning of my post.

take care

Read next chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part IV
Read previous chapter: Game Genre Lifecycle Part II

1 comment:

  1. Great comments on risk mechanics and I agree with you 100%. I recently left Everquest for World of Warcraft. Two BIG reasons come to mind. 1: Time: My character can rest back to full strength and mana in approximately one minute, long enough to make the purchase of "food" desirable but short enough to keep the game experience exciting. Everquest took anywhere from EIGHT to TEN minutes, so I can usually kill 40-50 WoW mobs in the same time as say, 10 EQ mobs. A much more satisfying experience. And second, to address the issue of burnout, EVERY mob you kill has a small chance of dropping one of a large selection of rare or uncommon items that are usable at your level. With EQ: it was kill mob A which has a 30% chance of dropping junk loot A and a 20% chance of dropping either loot B or C which is still only worth money and not directly useable by the character. In the case of a desirable drop, only ONE kind of item is dropped so they usually camp that mob to attempt to get such item. With WoW, Mob A has a 30% chance of dropping junk loot A and a 20% chance of dropping junk loot B and a 2% chance of dropping an uncommon loot item which can be any of 100 different styles of armor, jewels or weapons with a sub-variety of 15 or 20 different combinations of stat bonuses for each "base item". In addition it has a 1 in 1000 chance of dropping one of 10 or 20 different rare "blue" items which are more limited and only come in one "flavor", but still the very occasional pop of a surprise like this creates a big psychological reward. So you be surprised with a nicely usable item that you can get just for killing a monster solo! Goes a long way to alleviate burnout.