Eric Jome

Hello and welcome to another installment of the Game Lab!  Last time we talked about 3 different ways you can interpret the interaction games, giving a way you could recognize games with a lot of great, different ways to play.  This time, let’s break it down along another line and see what sort of gems emerge when we shine some lights on some other facets. 

Lately, I’ve been thinking about how video games have such a hard time cutting it compared to tabletops… see, video games have become rabidly obsessed for years with just one tiny aspect – looking good.  Graphics.  To be fair it’s a new field of gaming.  It’s hard to expect the refined polish of first class game play when your artists have barely walked a mile in the medium.  So, we’ve capped out at low end puzzlers and who can click the mouse button faster… what they need to do from this point on is take a page from the tabletop interactivity book.  Consider what we could get out these mechanics, all first in their class for great game action;

Trading: I’ll give you 2 stone for 1 wheat and 1 brick!  That’s Settlers of Catan knocking.  When players have a game resource, they need a way to share that, good old fashioned market economics style.  Not some mediated artificial currency system arbitrated by mechanical market masters, but really players trading with players, directly and in real time.  You see this in some MMOs, but an auction house lacks the dynamic core reality of trading, negotiating in the moment.  Haggling.  Cajoling.  Wheedling.  That’s the soul of a great trade – the deal.

Auctions: Did I just mention MMOs and call what they’ve got going on an “auction”?  Because that’s the weak-as-water sauce.  There’s no real auction in a pale imitation of eBay, where goods go on a clock to the last second clicker.  More Sotheby’s please!  A real auction has people present in real time to bid on goods as they are held up for sale.  It’s the most ideal market mechanic – the seller gets the best price possible and so does the buyer.  No single bidding, no silent anonymous scribbling… shout it out, loud and proud and stare down the ones who think they’ll outbid you.  Need a good example?  Pick up a copy of Princes of Florence sometime.

Betting: This is one you just don’t see that often anywhere.  Maybe we’re all too shy of being called out for gambling instead of the purer faith, gaming.  But it doesn’t have to be real money on a roulette wheel to place a wager on how you think it’s going to turn out.  Computer games have the hardest time here, troubled by true randomness as they are, but in reality we don’t bet on randomness with passion either – horses, dogs, sports teams.  Something with stats and probability you can bite into.  There’s a great game out there where you aren’t pressing X + Y + L1 to do a little touchdown dance – instead you’re trying to beat the odds and get ahead on the game.  It’s that time of year again; fantasy football is, I’m sure, a passion for many.  But try out something like Winner’s Circle, a great board game of chasing the hot ticket at the horse track.

Drafting: We probably all know this one too from professional sports, but there’s no end of gaming goodness in selecting in turn from a set of choices.  Can I take this now or can I wait?  Will it come around again?  Can I play others off against one another by sending mixed messages?  And just what do these others at the table think I think they think?  This excellent mechanic is replete in the best of the best board games, like Puerto Rico, but you’ve not really gamed until you’ve drafted Magic: The Gathering, a fantastic selection challenge.

Skill checks: Let’s not forget our role playing brethren in the litany of the best game play.  From the first time you pick up the d20 after your DM says “Ooo… poison needle!  Save… OR DIE!” you can feel the instant adrenaline rush of luck in a desperate battle for the outcome.  It’s often best when players are pitted against one another, but there’s also the cold dread of facing the soulless vagaries of an uncaring universe.  Sometimes we’re pitted against one another in simulated combat, generals of a field of small soldiers, but it’s still a game of playing the odds and hoping for the best results.  And nothing soothes the savage loss like the immortal cry of “You only got me because I rolled like crap!  Let’s play again!”  It’s true that video games have long employed randomness, but these days it’s all hidden far behind a wall of impenetrable math.  Bring it back front and center with a great push our luck tabletop like Can’t Stop!

All these things and more are coming to the video game future, I have no doubt.  Blowing the pus out of zombies or Skyping your way around the enemy base has a lot of charm, but a real game isn’t just clicking the trigger on a rocket launcher – it’s about planning your way through great game action to come out on top ahead of the other players, a beginning, a middle, and an end of an expertly crafted strategy.  The mechanics have to be interactive, directly or indirectly, and up front where the players can see and appreciate them, not hidden under 3d engines and mediated mathematics.  I like the spray of computer generated blood as much as the next guy, but it doesn’t have the same visceral appeal of looking across the table and talking someone into giving you 3 cards for the 1 they so desperately – and mistakenly! – believe they’ll get ahead with.  Look for great interactive rules and tools in the games you play, real opportunities for strategy are the soul of great gaming, not just frame rate and ping.

Image by GamerChris

When players sit down to play a game, they are presented with goals.  Some goals are directly in the rules; some are implied by the action of the game.  

Score lots of points chomping little white dots in a maze.  Guide your miniature army to tabletop Valhalla.  Find whatever castle that princess is in – and get all the stars on the way. Construct the most efficient colonial town, making a bundle shipping goods back to the Old World.  Tell the story of your dark elf and his escape from the underworld.

What if we take these trees and start to see a forest?  That is, are there different principles that can help us understand what goals are working or why one game might be a bigger success than another?  Try this on for size.

When confronted with goals, how will the players pursue them?  There are at least three ways that are easy to recognize and different from each other.  Let’s call them cooperation, competition, and conflict.

Cooperation: We’ll work together to get there!  There’s a lot of satisfying great gaming in working with your friends against the system.  Whether you’re blowing the heads off zombies in Left 4 Dead 2, teaming up in with your guildmates for a raid in WoW, or stopping a global wave of disease in Pandemic it’s a great way to game.  You’ve got friends to help and to help you, good memories built on working together.

Sometimes, though, you’re going to want to look across the table with a mischievous look in your eye and prove to your so-called teammates you can do it better than any of them.

Competition: Push that accelerator to the floor and punch it past the finish line first!  A great framework for game experiences is competition.  Players can indirectly contest with one another to meet the goal.  Racing sims are an obvious thing here, but many, many other games use this premise.  Pegging up the board in Cribbage, shipping barrels of goods off to the Old World in Puerto Rico, or guiding your team to the highest experience level in Mutant Chronicles: Siege of the Citadels – these are all games where the goal is a friendly wager.

And when the taste of our opponents’ suffering is the only fare that satisfies?

Conflict: It is not enough that you reach the goal; others must fall along the way!  Crushing waves of zerglings under a well deployed array of siege tanks, maneuvering to 3:1 attack ratio on the CRT as your grav tanks serve that Ogre a taste of hot nuclear death, or splitting the longest road for the win in Settlers of Catan are all aggressive plays.  The most basic goal for a game is to beat the other players directly.  Instead of satisfying some victory condition first or best, players eliminate their competition or engage them directly for a score.  PVP has a lot of charm.

Just like all these methods.  Each one, specialized and concentrated on by a talented designer is going to give a great game of interesting choices that give you stories to tell in the future. But any chef will tell you it’s hard to make a meal out of only one dish. 

An Artful Blend

The best of the best games will look for each of these principles and find ways to combine them to enrich the game experience for the players.  A racing game might add power ups used to slow down other players, adding an element of conflict to a competitive premise.  An RTS game might award overall points to the player who accumulated the most resources or did the most damage, adding a competitive color to a cooperative/conflict based game.  A board game might have trading cards to build sets – a cooperative game element – as the main economic progress element for buying advances for your civilization.  Classics often fire on more than one cylinder.

When a game focuses only on a single purpose – get to the end of the level, win the best auctions, work together to stop the Great Old Ones – it can still refine and hone its delivery of that experience to a high level of fun.  But whole new vistas open up when players have opportunities to enjoy all three forms in pursuit of the goals of the game.

See you at the table, gamer.