www.halley.cc[ ed halley ]

Game Theory

Defining Game Theory for Fun

game (gām) - noun
1. An activity providing entertainment or amusement; a pastime: party games; word games.
2. a. A competitive activity or sport in which players contend with each other according to a set of rules: the game of basketball; the game of gin rummy. b. A single instance of such an activity: We lost the first game.
game theory - noun
A mathematical method of decision-making in which a competitive situation is analyzed to determine the optimal course of action for an interested party, often used in political, economic, and military planning. Also called theory of games.

The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Third Edition
Copyright © 1992 by Houghton Mifflin Company.
All rights reserved.

My personal definition of "game theory" is a bit wider than that of the American Heritage dictionary. I tend to consider not only the models of winning and losing a competition, but the various design factors which make an entertainment-oriented game more or less fulfilling for the participants. There is more than just being fair, after all, in building up a successful game. The point is to be fun.

Roleplay in Games

Nearly all games between individuals can be said to have some element of roleplay. As the game gets simpler, the roles being played may become lost in the simple mechanics of the game rules. Some games, such as the popular Dungeons and Dragons are designed to maximize roleplay. Others, such as the ancient chess, are designed more for the strategy or chance aspects of the game.

Chess may not seem like a roleplay game at first. However, each player is acting out a dramatic, albeit mechanical, simulation of a war between two kingdoms. Each King commands their own military forces in order to trap the other King into capture or immobility. People can become so engaged in the playing of their roles as Kings and Queens and Rooks and Knights in chess that it is no wonder that the phrase "feeling like a pawn" has become so common in everyday life. It has even become a household phrase for those who don't play chess.

There are many reasons to play out a role, and games that develop rich roleplay can have a positive effect on a person's behavior outside the game. For example, the military strongly encourages battle simulations to foster leadership and tactical awareness in their future commanders. Also, drawing and creative roleplay can be used by social workers to help understand the troubles a young child may be having, even if the child isn't willing or able to explain their difficulties clearly. Some people wish to escape their reality with some roleplay, while others wish to see the reality around them through new eyes.

Roleplay in Computer Games

Many games that are built for the computer are aimed at a "roleplaying" audience. These games vary in their theme and their treatments quite a lot, but many fall into one of these basic categories.

The meaning of "roleplaying" in each of these categories is quite different. I'll focus on the "fantasy adventure" and "multi-user dimension" categories, which is where I think the most promise is.

Role-Play versus Roll-Play

Everyone in the fantasy genre has been throwing around the term "role play" for a dozen years, and I haven't seen many examples that live up to the concept yet. Ultima Online fails where Meridian 59 succeeds, and vice versa, but both have plenty of room for improvement.

In acting, there are three components that all share the same costume onstage or onscreen. There is the actor (let's say, Christopher Reeve). There is the character (let's say Clark Kent). And there is the role. The role is created by the union of the other two. Christopher Reeve is a strong-willed actor who has a really nice grin and a visual sense of forthrightness and honesty he can bring to his job. Clark Kent is a character that many comic artists and screenwriters have created and maintained in their own heads. And the role of Superman is what you find when you bring those two things together. The movies don't draw attention to the actor, and they don't draw attention to the fictitious nature of the character. They focus on what Reeve does onscreen with the fiction, which is a unique and personal experience for the actor in each film. This is where Superman is created. Superman is the role.

So far, very few games that call themselves "role playing games" (RPGs) allow a role to be established. Sure, you are the actor and the booklet or situations describes the character, but there isn't any way you can really express your own self into the character they have provided. You can't budge from their script to be unique. You are on a one-track roller-coaster ride through preconceived situations in single-player games. I use the phrase "roll playing games" when the dice mechanics are more important to the game than are the actors and fiction.

Ultima has long been a "roll playing game." They hand you the costume of the Avatar, and tell you your virtues, and point at the nearest dragon. The only choices and personal investment you have in the game are, "do I stop here, or do I solve the next puzzle?" Because honor is one of the most important Britannia virtues, I made a point of stealing every object I could get away with in Ultima 6. It let me finish the game, but still, it was a boring diversion and I didn't feel like I expressed something unique in their character fiction.

Now that games are online, you might expect that "role playing" was more possible, and a surety in every offering. So far, not true. While Meridian 59 gives a lot of communication abilities and has many features aimed at conflict and cooperation, it is still a hack-and-slash "roll playing game" to many of its fans. In Meridian 59, conversation with anyone on the server is free-flowing and whispering dramatic secrets to your allies is very possible. My largest complaint is that there are not enough actions for non-verbal communication, and that there are not enough short-term quests that involve multiple people.

It far surpasses Ultima Online, however. Ultima Online's range of expression is limited to the following actions: move this there, attack this, open this, use this on that, and make a line of text appear over your head. (There are two bonus gestures for "role playing": take a bow, and make a salute. You should be honored.) Text in Ultima Online is painful, and following a simple thread of conversation requires absolute rapture attention to the screen.

The Story Telling Model (a brief history)

Computer game software began with very small and simple games. They resembled the classic board games such as chess and gomoku. Soon, new games that depended on the computer's processing power were developed, such as wumpus or lunar lander.

A new form of game emerged, which set up an environment and let the player explore its challenges. These are now known as adventure games, with Zork and Rogue being two very different examples of the genre. The game Myst is a more recent (and more commercially successful) adventure game, but literally thousands of different adventure games have run on computers in the past fifty years.

In Rogue (or Moria or Hack), a map was displayed of a dungeon, and you could manipulate a main character on the screen. You could fight monsters and gather treasures you found in the dungeon. As long as you could survive the dangers of the dungeon, you could continue to seek the ultimate prize in the depths of the dungeon.

In Zork, by contrast, no diagrams or pictures were ever produced: the environment was described in artistic prose. This created a world built only in the imagination of the player, much as a reader of a book imagines the world in which the characters live. Just as with Rogue, you controlled one of the characters, and could keep playing until you found a challenge you couldn't survive or solve.

An adventure game is built on the story-telling model. It describes not only a world, but a very specific story. As the player tries each challenge, it adds to the story which is being created in the player's mind.

As a player begins an adventure game, they start their role as the main character in a certain position. They see the imaginary world of the adventure game from that starting location, and can choose what they want to do from there. It would seem that there is no plot or story to such a game, because the player is always in full control of what they are able to do in any situation. Yet the adventure game is still a story-teller.

The creators of an adventure game will use several factors to build the story. For example, they will control the order of some of the challenges based on where the player starts their adventure. In Rogue's earlier dungeon levels, the monsters are easy to defeat; later, the player must be crafty and quick indeed to defeat or escape from much more powerful foes. In Zork's first few moments, the challenge will be to learn the text commands that allow you to control your character; this gives way to learning the mechanisms of very complex physical puzzles given only their textual descriptions. Alternatively, they can set up dependencies in the game. One puzzle's solution may grant a tool or key to another puzzle; the second cannot be solved until the first has been solved. Such dependencies may be layered again and again.

These factors can be used to weave an alternate story in the mind. Myst uses these dependencies to pace the story, not only of the main character's exploration of the world, but also of the story behind the world. This is known as progressive disclosure; the player only learns a little of the story at a time. Myst's fantasy world was as rich and detailed as any. As the player solves the puzzles and explores the world, a more complete understanding of the world is shaped in the player's mind.

Story Telling vs Story Hosting

Generally, adventure games set a stage, and the player takes on the role of the main character. Until the advent of networking adventure games (like Ultima Online and Meridian 59), there was only one main character which could be controlled. This allowed the makers of the game to set up the conditions of the whole universe very carefully. Every object in the world started in a very specific context, and that context was the same every time a player started the game from the beginning.

There are a lot of professional adventure game writers who are trying their best to make the ultimate online story-telling adventure. With all that adventure game experience, it should be a snap. Just hook multiple players into a world, and take care of all the communication issues so every player can interact with every other player.

Unfortunately, several things are lost when more than one player collaborates on an adventure.

One wrinkle that a game creator might find in making a multiplayer game is that puzzles built for one player will not work in a multiplayer environment. While Myst and Zork made elaborate mechanisms that could take an uninitiated person ten hours or more to solve, such puzzles would be a waste of energy in a multiplayer world. If it takes one player ten hours, it will take two players under an hour, and ten players can solve it together in seconds. The geometrical collaboration is staggering. Then, once solved, any experienced player can just "give" the solution to any new player who shows up. New forms of puzzles need to be created: puzzles which don't depend on an unvarying trick or secret, puzzles which require multiple players to collaborate, puzzles which appear different every time someone encounters it, and so on.

Another wrinkle is that of goals. While every player has the general goal of "finishing" a single-player adventure game's story, most online adventure games have no "finish." The challenge to a creator is to set a stage which seems dynamic and ever-growing, yet doesn't have a plotline that will require an end to the story. If nothing changes, a player will become bored with the world because they will feel like they've seen it all. If the plotline has a clear ending point, then every player must stop their story, even if they feel some aspects of the story are unresolved.

Character identification is a major wrinkle, too. Hundreds or thousands of players could pick up any Ultima chapter, and start playing the role of the Avatar in that fictional world. While each player would make different decisions, it's still the same role, and appears the same on every player's screen. In an online world, where everyone sees the same story from their own point of view, being able to identify with the player's character is very important. There needs to be a range of different characters, and the wider the better. This can include the complexions, physiques, and wardrobes. This also includes the range of emotive gestures and other expressions a player can use to develop a style of persona: one player's character may be giggly while another is a tough customer. Each of these lends to the ability of a player to identify with their own character, and not feel like a clone among thousands of identical characters.

Instead of story-telling, where a single story exists and is told to each player, the online roleplaying universes are built on story-hosting. The world may have its own story, but that takes a back seat to the thousands of stories that players develop for themselves.

It takes a lot of planning to be a successful host to the stories of players. It's not the same kind of planning which needs to happen to be a succesful story teller. The world should be intricate enough to provide anchors for the player's stories, and yet be open enough to let the players diverge from the original universe model in any number of ways. There should be a lot of things a player can do to occupy time, both to further their story actively and to pass reflective time when the player is feeling less inspired. The ability to socialize will help people meet each other, to combine their stories in ways that are meaningful to each of the players.

A good story host is one which makes the player's story more important than the world's story.

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Contact Ed Halley by email at ed@halley.cc.
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