DESIGN PRECEPTS FOR COMPUTER GAMES
Precept #1: GO WITH THE GRAIN
Precept # 2: DONíT TRANSPLANT
Precept #3: DESIGN AROUND THE I/O
Precept #4: KEEP IT CLEAN
Precept #5: STORE LESS AND PROCESS MORE
Precept #6: MAINTAIN UNITY OF DESIGN EFFORT
Every art form is expressed through a physical medium. The control and manipulation of this physical medium is a technical problem that the artist must master before she can express herself through it. Thus, the sculptor must thoroughly understand the limitations of marble, brass, or whatever medium she uses. The painter must fully understand the technology of paint and the behavior of light. The musician must be deeply skilled in the technology of sound creation. So too must the computer game designer thoroughly understand the medium with which she works. The computer offers special possibilities and imposes special constraints on the designer. In this chapter I will discuss the nature of these possibilities and constraints. A few examples of a game technology operating at a simpler level may help establish basic principles.
Cards are one such simpler game technology. We have here a very simple set of physical equipment---52 pieces of cardboard, imprinted on one side with a uniform pattern, and on the other side with distinct symbols. The key traits of this equipment can be summarized as follows:
1) There are many cards.
2) Each card is unique.
3) Each card possesses a numeric value.
4) Each card possesses a suit, a two-bit value.
5) The identity of a card can be selectively revealed.
6) Each card is easily assignable to an owner.
These six characteristics are the fundamental properties of the card, technology that constrain the design of all card games. Each characteristic carries implications for game design with cards. Some things are easy to do with this technology and some things are hard to do with it. For example, games of probability are easily implemented with this technology, for the two characteristics (numeric value and suit) can be combined into many, many sets according to laws of probability. The limitations on information created by the cards can be used to create games of guesswork and intuition. Indeed, one of the most intriguing of card games, poker, is based not so much on cold probability assessments as on the deceptions made possible by the limited information employed in the game.
Like every other technology, cards also have their weaknesses. For example, it would be very tricky to design a card game for more than 52 players, because there are only 52 cards in one deck. It would also be very difficult to design a good skill-and-action game using cards as a technology. Another tough design challenge would be a good athletic game using cards. Games meeting these conditions could be implemented with cards, but they probably would not be very good games.
This doesnít mean that cards are a bad game technology. Some things can be done well with cards, and other things canít. Another game technology, that of the boardgame, is somewhat more flexible than cards. This technology is so much more flexible than cards that I cannot devise a list of defining characteristics as I could with cards. Boardgames can be described but not rigorously defined. They use a large surface of paper or cardboard on which are printed various images, normally taking the form of a stylized map. Frequently the area represented on the map is divided into discrete regions by either a regular geometric pattern (rectgrid or hexgrid), a segmented path to be traversed, an irregular division of regions, or a network of points connected by paths. The map itself remains the same throughout the game; players designate changes in the situation with a set of markers that can be moved about on the map. Sometimes a randomizing machine is used to determine outcomes of random processes; a spinner or dice are most frequently used for this purpose. Sometimes cards from a special set are drawn to provide this randomizing function.
This technology has proven to be very successful for game designers. It easily accommodates groups of players, and with appropriate game design can address a very wide range of gaming situations. Chess is certainly the all-time classic boardgame. MONOPOLY (trademark of Parker Brothers), a successful early boardgame, concerns real estate transactions. Other boardgames have addressed such topics as life goals, solving a murder, and race relations. The most ambitious modern boardgames are the wargames. Among these are games with boards of some 25 square feet, several thousand movable pieces, and a rules manual 50 pages long. A small industry has sprung up around these designs, complete with historical research, star designers, and its own jargon.
Boardgames provide a flexible and powerful technology for game designers. In recent years, however, we have seen a stagnation in designs with the board technology. Many new boardgames look like cheap copies of MONOPOLY. Wargames, after showing a burst of creative energy in the 60ís and 70ís, have started to stagnate. Few fundamentally new ideas are being introduced in this arena. It may be that we have mined this vein to the limits of its productive capacity.
What are the limitations of this technology? First and foremost, it is very difficult to maintain privileged information in a boardgame. All players can see the board and the position of all the markers. Second, the mechanics of handling all the pieces must be managed by the players. In some cases this can become a sizable chore, as in the aforementioned monster wargame. For this reason most boardgames are long affairs, frequently filling an evening. Short boardgames playable in twenty minutes or less are quite rare. Finally, should the pieces be disturbed, a boardgame is easily ruined.
The central point of the preceding discussion is that every game utilizes some technology, and that each technology has strengths and weaknesses, things that it can do well and things that it can do poorly. The astute game designer must fully grasp the strengths and weaknesses of the technology s/he uses. Let us now examine the computer as a game technology. Top
The most striking feature of the computer in a game context is its responsiveness. Responsiveness is vital to the interactiveness that is so important to any game. The computer can respond to the human playerís wishes in a huge variety of ways. If the action in a card game or board game starts to drag, the players have no choice but to plod through it or take desperate measures. There is no reason why a computer game in similar straits could not speed up the game on demand. It could change the length of the game, or the degree of difficulty, or the rules themselves. SPACE INVADERS (trademark of Taito America) for the ATARI 2600 provides an example of such performance. The player can select one or two-player versions, visible or invisible invaders, stationary or moving shields, fast or slow bombs, and a variety of other options. In effect, the player chooses the rules under which he plays. The game is responsive to his wishes.
This responsiveness arises from the computerís plasticity. The computer is dynamic; it imposes little constancy on any element of the game. Boardgames, cardgames, and athletic games all have invariables that constrain the designer. Once you have printed up 100,000 game boards it becomes very difficult to modify the map. Try as we may, we canít have 53-card stud; the card decks arenít made that way. And should some miracle of science produce more elastic footballs that kick further, we will not be able to simply extend football stadiums without spending many millions of dollars. The computer is far less restrictive. All of the game parameters are readily changed, even during the course of the game. There is nothing stopping us from creating a football game in which the goal post recedes from the visiting team. Territories in wargames can be switched around the map of the globe more easily than we move a chair in the living room. This flexibility is of paramount importance tothe game designer. As yet, it has been put to little use.
A second feature of great value is the computerís ability to Motion as game referee. All other game technologies demand that somebody take the time to handle the administrative responsibilities of the game. Athletic games are most demanding; they require several impartial referees or umpires to administer the rules of the game and adjudicate disputes. Card games and boardgames require that the players also function as referees. This is seldom a problem with card games, but it can be a big load with boardgames, especially the more complex ones such as the wargames. Rules disputes and administrative foul-ups are part of the unavoidable dangers of boardgames. The computer can eliminate all of these problems. It can administer the game, freeing the player to concentrate on playing it. This allows one other big advantage: the computer can implement complex arithmetic and logical rules. With other technologies, game rules must be overly simple because the humans implementing them cannot be trusted to perform simple numerical computations. The computer eliminates this restriction.
For example, in the original version of EASTERN FRONT 1941, I was able to use exceptionally complex victory calculations. Most board-level wargames about the eastern front in World War II assign victory points for captured cities, and perhaps for casualties inflicted and sustained. A more complex calculation recognizing the realities of the campaign would be too tedious for human computation. Original EASTERN FRONT 1941 was able to calculate not only cities captured and casualties inflicted and sustained, but also the eastward progress of every German unit as well as the westward resistance of every Russian unit. The game is thereby able to provide a more realistic and meaningful measure of the playerís performance.
The third advantage of the computer is in real-time play. Other game technologies must have pauses and procedural delays while administrative matters are dealt with. The computer is so fast that it can handle the administrative matters faster than the humans can play the game. This makes real-time games possible. Skill-and-action games are the direct result. The speed of the computer also eliminates the need for turn-sequencing so common in card games and boardgames.
The fourth strength of computers for game design purposes is their ability to provide an intelligent opponent. All other games require a human opponent (exception: solitaire card games, but they are actually puzzles rather than games). The greatest success so far has been with chess-playing games. Programs written for microcomputers can now play a chess game well enough to challenge most non-rated players. These games represent the best we have achieved to date in game artificial intelligence. Most games are far less intelligent. Instead, they rely on overwhelming numerical advantage to make up for the superior intelligence of the human player. With the passage of time, we can expect to see more intelligent algorithms that provide more challenging play from the computer.
The fifth strength of the computer is its ability to limit the information given to the players in a purposeful way. This capability can be of great value. Limited information forces the player to use guesswork. The nature of this guesswork can be very intriguing. For example, guessing a random number between one and ten is not a very interesting challenge, but guessing your opponentís resources based on your assessment of his actions and personality is a far more interesting exercise. When the guesswork is included in the framework of a complex and only partially known system, the challenge facing the human player takes on a decidedly real-life texture.
Limited information provides another important bonus. Games are an unreal representation of a real-world problem. The player must use his imagination to make the unreal situation seem real. Limited information encourages the use of imagination. If we know all the pertinent facts, we can treat the problem as a simple problem of deduction. But if we know only a portion of the truth, our minds grope for an appropriate model on which to hang our projections. What model could be more appropriate than the reality that the game attempts to re-create? We are therefore forced by lack of information to imagine ourselves in the real-world predicament postulated by the game so that tie may deal with the problems imposed by the game. In the process, the illusion of reality is heightened. The game draws us into its fantasy world more effectively.
The sixth feature offered by computers is their ability to utilize data transfer over telephone lines for game play. The use of telecommunications for game play makes possible game structures that are out of the reach of other technologies. It allows us to create games with huge numbers of players. Until now, administrative problems have made it necessary to limit the number of players in any game. Six players is a rough upper limit for a non-refereed game; twelve players will require several referees and twenty players or more will require many referees. Obviously, games with hundreds of players will face many administrative problems. Indeed, the logistic problems of assembling all th players are themselves prohibitive. All these problems are solved by computers linked through a telecommunications network. With this technology it should be possible to design games knitting together thousands of players scattered all over the continent. Players could drift into and out of the game at their whim; with large numbers of players the coming and going of individuals will not be detrimental to the game.
Like any technology, computers have weaknesses as well as strengths. The first and most painful weakness is the limited I/O capability of most computers. The computer itself may be supremely responsive, but if the human player canít tell it what he wants, or fails to understand the computerís response, the computerís effective responsiveness is nil. In other words, the computer must communicate its responsiveness to the human; it does so through I/O. Most output is through graphics and sound; most input is through keyboard, joystick, and paddle.
Graphics are the first component of output. Good graphics are hard to come by. Even the Atari Home Computer System, boasting the best graphics in the microcomputer world, has graphics limitations that severely constrain the game designer. You simply cannot show all the graphic details that you would like to show. For example, I suspect that few boardgame boards could be duplicated on a single screen by this machine. The number of colors, the mixing of text with high-resolution graphics, and the size of the board all combine to make the task hopeless. It is possible to use a variety of tricks to produce something that is functionally similar to any given game board. We could reduce the number of colors displayed, we could dispense with text, and we could design an oversize display through which the user must scroll. EASTERN FRONT 1941 uses all of these tricks, and the result is quite usable, but the game wends a tortuous path past the graphics constraints of the computer.
Of course, the computer also boasts some graphics advantages. I have yet to see the boardgame that could show animation or change itself around the way a computer game could. These sensory features can dramatically increase the impact of any game. So the graphics picture is not all bad.
Another I/O restriction comes from the input requirements. Input to the computer must come in through the keyboard or the controllers. This can make things very difficult for the game designer. In the first place, you canít say much with a joystick or keyboard. A joystick can say only five fundamental words: "up", "down", "right", "left", and "button". A keyboard can say more, but only through a lengthy and error-prone sequence of key presses. The human who wishes to express a meaningful communication to the computer must successfully enter a long and clumsy string of simple commands. Input is made even more difficult by the indirectness of keyboards and joysticks. There is very little about such devices that directly corresponds to real-world activities. Actions that are simple and obvious with other technologies become arcane with the computer. If I give you a bat and tell you that your goal in baseball is to hit the ball, you will have few problems deciding that you should swing the bat at the ball. A computer baseball game is not so easy to figure out. Do you press H for "hit" or S for "swing" or B for "bat"? Do you press the START key or press the joystick trigger? Perhaps you should swing the joystick by its cable at the ball displayed on the television screen.
After I/O, the second weakness of the personal computer is its single-user orientation. These machines were designed for one person to use while a seated at a desk. If two people are to use it, they may be forced to exchange seats, a clumsy and distracting procedure. With joysticks or paddle controllers the problem is diminished but not eliminated. This is one reason why so many computer games are solitaire and has led to the accusation that computer games are anti-social. A boardgame invites a group of people to sit around the table. A computer game encourages one player, accepts two, and discourages more.
The final weakness of the computer to be considered here is the requirement that itís programmed. No other game technology imposes so harsh a demand on the game designer. The boardgame designer can sketch an adequate board and construct some simple playing pieces that will serve quite effectively. When the time comes to produce the game, the designerís amateur efforts can be handed to a professional who can produce a quality version of the prototypes made by the designer. For this reason the designer need not concern himself with the technical aspects of game production.
The computer game designer does not have life so easy. The design must be implemented on the computer by programming it. Programming itself is a tedious and difficult process, and it is not easily delegated, for the programming effort exerts a major influence over the design process. Implementing a design well is a major hurdle for any computer game designer. Top
How do we translate an understanding of these strengths and weaknesses of the computer into a set of guidelines for game designers? The characteristics described above imply a variety of precepts. Top
(Introducing our idiot cartoon hero. A rocket lies on its side. A wheel-less baby carriage lies nearby. Our hero is walking from the baby carriage toward the rocket, carrying some baby carriage wheels and a hammer.)
The first-precept can be summarized with the aphorism: "Work with the grain of the machine, not against it." Too many game designers set out with unrealistic goals. They attempt to force the machine to perform tasks for which it is not well-suited. In saying this, I do not excuse lazy programming. We must remember that the computer is the servant of the human; the convenience of the computer is not of interest to the designer. Our goal is to extract maximum performance from the computer, to make it work its best. We can only do this by making it perform functions which it performs well. Top
Case In Point: Hexgrids
An example of this principle might be illuminating. Board wargames are traditionally executed on maps that use a hexgrid system. This regularizes movement and defines positions.
Hexgrids are preferred over rectgrids for several reasons. First, rectgrids have diagonals; two units can be diagonally adjacent. This situation can be very messy; rules to cope with it are always burdensome and confusing. Hexgrids have no diagonals, so they eliminate the problem. Second, hexgrids allow a player a choice of six directions in which to move, while rectgrids offer only four directions. The greater range of choice allows the player to control more finely the movements and positioning of his pieces.
It therefore seems natural that designers of computer wargames would also use hexgrids for their maps. Indeed, most computer wargames do so ---but it is a terrible mistake. The hex does have advantages, but it imposes a penalty on computer wargames that does not apply to boardgames. You can print anything you desire on a piece of paper, but the graphic display of the computer is not so accommodating. The display system of the television set is fundamentally rectangular in its architecture. Horizontal lines are stacked in a vertical sequence. Such a display can very easily handle rectangular shapes; hexagonal shapes just donít work very well. To draw a hex the program must draw four diagonal lines, each one composed of a set of staggered dots. To make the hexgrid recognizable the lines must be surrounded by an exclusion zone at least one pixel wide; this consumes a large portion of the screen area if the hexes are small and dense. If they are larger, less screen area is consumed by the gridwork but fewer hexes can be shown on a single screen. Moreover, joysticks cannot be easily used with hexgrids because joysticks are set up with rectangular geometry. I do not wish to imply that hexgrids cannot be implemented on personal computer displays; on the contrary, they have already been implemented on many personal computers. The problem is that they are clumsy to display, lacking in graphic detail, and difficult to use. They just donít work smoothly. A topologically identical solution has been used in a few games: horizontally staggered rows of squares ("bricks") are used in place of hexes. This system retains the flexibility of hexes while imposing fewer display problems; it remains very difficult to use with a joystick.
For these reasons I went back to rectgrid for EASTERN FRONT 1941. My decision was not based on laziness or unwillingness to tackle the problem of hexgrids; indeed, I had already solved the problem with another game (TACTICS) and could easily have transported the code. The experience I gained in working with the earlier code convinced me that hexgrids werenít so important. The success of EASTERN FRONT 1941 seems to indicate that the lack of hexgrids need not impose a handicap. Top
One of the most disgusting denizens of computer gamedom is the transplanted game. This is a game design originally developed on another medium that some misguided soul has seen fit to reincarnate on a computer. The high incidence of this practice does not excuse its fundamental folly. The most generous reaction I can muster is the observation that we are in the early stages of computer game design; we have no sure guidelines and must rely on existing technologies to guide us. Some day we will look back on these early transplanted games with the same derision with which we look on early aircraft designs based on flapping wings.
Why do I so vehemently denounce transplanted games? Because they are design bastards, the illegitimate children of two technologies that have nothing in common. Consider the worst example I have discovered so far, a computer craps game. The computer displays and rolls two dice for the player in a standard game of craps. The computer plays the game perfectly well, but that is not the point. The point is, why bother implementing on the computer a game that works perfectly well on another technology? A pair of dice can be had for less than a dollar. Indeed, a strong case can be made that the computer version is less successful than the original. Apparently one of the appeals of the game of craps is the right of the player to shake the dice himself. Many players share the belief that proper grip on the dice, or speaking to them, or perhaps kissing them will improve their luck. Thus, the player can maintain the illusion of control, of participation rather than observation. The computer provides none of this; the mathematics may be the same, but the fantasy and illusion arenít there.
In one way or another, every transplanted game loses something in the translation. It may also gain something, but it always loses something. This is because any game that succeeds in one technology does so because it is optimized to that technology; it takes maximum advantage of the strengths and avoids the weaknesses. The transplanted version uses the same design on a different set of strengths and weaknesses; it will almost certainly be a lesser product. Any memorable artistic expression is as much a creature of its vehicle of expression as it is an image of a thought. Shakespeare reads best in Elizabethan English; translation to modern English loses some of the verve and linguistic panache that we find so entertaining. The rhetoric of Isocrates, dull and drab in English, acquires a compelling cadence in Greek that thrills the listener. Great books that touched our souls when we read them almost always disappoint us when we see their movie adaptations. Why should computer games be immune to this law of loss on translation? Top
(Now our man is putting the final touches onto a gigantic and complex machine with pipes, valves, smokestacks, and many wires. On the front face of the machine is a sign that reads, "Make your move". Underneath it are two buttons labeled "CHOICE A" and "CHOICE B". To the right of this are a pair of illuminable signs, one reading, "YOU WIN!!!", the other reading "YOU LOSE!!!" )
As I mentioned earlier, the computerís ability to calculate is a strength, but itís I/O is a weakness. Thus, the primary limitation facing the computer game designer is not in the machineís ability to perform complex computations, but in the I/O: moving the information between the computer and the human player. The game must be designed in such a way that the information given to the player flows naturally and directly from the screen layout and sound output. I have seen far too many games with good game structures that were ruined by poor I/O structures. The user was never able to appreciate the architectural beauties of the game because they were buried in a confusing display structure. Even worse are the games that sport poor input arrangements, especially poor use of the keyboard. Most game players find keyboards difficult to use smoothly. Difficulty can in some cases create challenge, but difficulties with keyboards generate only frustration. The implementation of the game will be dominated by the limitations of I/O. What can and cannot be displayed, what can and cannot be inputted, these things must decide the shape of the same.
A comparison of two of my own games provides an excellent example of the importance of I/O structures. EASTERN FRONT 1941 and TANKTICS (trademark of Avalon-Hill) are both wargames dealing with World War II. Both provide reasonably intelligent opponents, complex detailed simulation, a rich variety of options, and thought-provoking strategic challenges. In all these respects, they are roughly equivalent. They differ primarily in their I/O. EASTERN FRONT 1941 was designed around its I/O; it provides clean, informative graphics and an intuitively obvious joystick input system. By contrast, TANKTICS was designed around its game structure; its keyboard input system is clumsy and confusing and its alphanumeric; screen display is cryptic. EASTERN FRONT 1941 has been acclaimed by the critics and has received awards; TANKTICS has been panned. The quality of a gameís I/O structure is crucial to its success. Top
(Our hero at the controls of his custom motorcycle, 20 feet long, equipped with numerous rear-view mirrors, power steering, brakes, and throttle, adjustable seats, adjustable handlebars, windshield wipers on several windshields and on each mirror, television, hamburger dispenser, etc. The artist can use imagination here.)
Many game designers fail to keep the overall structure of their game close to heart as they develop the details of the game structure. As they encounter design problems, they resort to quick patches that are grafted onto the main game structure without due regard to the impact such grafts have on the overall cleanliness of the design. A game must have artistic unity if it is to have emotional impact on its audience. Artistic unity can only be achieved by sticking close to the theme and eschewing distracting details.
I refer to any factors that do not comport with the central theme of the game as "dirt." The debilitating nature of dirt is seldom recognized, because dirt also endows a game with "color", namely the texture or feel that makes the game seem real. It is true that proper use of this kind of color will indeed enhance a game. However, the game designer must realize that color is obtained at the price of a certain amount of dirt. The critical quantity then becomes the ratio of color to dirt. The designer always desires the highest possible ratio, but sometimes, to increase the absolute amount of color, s/he must accept some more dirt. In all cases, the inclusion of dirt into a game must be a conscious trade-off on the part of the game designer, not an accident springing from the desire to quickly resolve some irritating problem.
Dirt most often arises from special-case rules that are applied rarely. For example, EASTERN FRONT 1941 has a number of special-case rules that add dirt to the game. The worst is the rule forbidding Finnish units to attack. Inasmuch as there are only two Finnish units, this rule has very little significance to the game as a whole, yet the player must still be aware of it. It clutters up the game and the playerís mind without adding much. (I had to put it in to solve a design problem: whatís to stop the Finns from taking Leningrad all by themselves?)
A less dirty rule provides that Axis allies (Rumanian, Hungarian, and Italian units) fight with less determination than the Germans. There are six of these units in EASTERN FRONT 1941; thus, the rule is not quite so special a case and hence not quite so dirty.
There is a rule in EASTERN FRONT 1941 that armored units move faster than infantry units. EASTERN FRONT 1941 has many armored units; thus, this rule is not a particularly special case, because it applies to a goodly portion of all units. It is therefore not dirty.
I can generalize these observations by saying that the narrower the range of application of a rule, the dirtier it is. My precept against dirt thus requires the designer to formulate a set of rules that cover the entire game situation without recourse to special case rules. In the perfect game design, each rule is applied universally. We can never achieve the perfect design, but we can and should strive to give each rule the widest possible application. The player must consider the implications of each rule while making every decision in the game.
There is a school of game design that I derisively label the "humongous heap" school of game design. Perpetrators of this philosophy design a game by selecting a simple structure and piling onto it the largest possible jumble of special odds and ends (they call them "features"). These people design with a shovel instead of a chisel. They confuse magnitude with magnificence, intricacy with insight. Top
(Our idiot is juggling. Beside him another man is juggling five or six numbers comfortably and happily. The idiot is staring upward in stark terror, arms outstretched in a futile attempt to catch an avalanche of numbers that will simply crush him.)
The role of information storage in a computer is often misunderstood. A computer is not primarily an information storage device; it is instead an information processing device. Information storage is a necessary precondition for information processing, but it is not an end in itself. Greater amounts of stored information permit greater amounts of information processing, but if the processing capability is insufficient to realize the full potential of the storage, then that storage is wasted. The ideal program strikes the optimum balance between storage and processing. Most game programs I have seen are long on storage and short on processing. This is because data for storage facts are easier to come by than process-intensive material-program code. In taking the path of least resistance, most game designers end up going downhill.
Thus, a game that sports huge quantities of static data is not making best use of the strengths of the machine. A game that emphasizes information processing and treats information dynamically is more in tune with the machine. Relegate all static information to a rules book; paper and ink are still a better technology than personal computers for storing static information. Information that lies around and does little, that must be dusted off before using, has no place inside the microcomputer. As you look over your program listing, you should inspect each byte and ask yourself, "Am I getting my moneyís worth from this byte? Is it working hard for me, doing useful things frequently? Or is this a lazy byte that sits idle for hours and is used only rarely?" Fill your program with active bytes that do things, not lazy bytes.
Lazy bytes are often associated with dirty rules (they like to hang out together in sleazy pool halls). Dirty rules are special cases that occur rarely. If they occur rarely, the bytes associated with them are not used often, hence they are lazy bytes.
Another argument in favor of this precept arises from more fundamental considerations on the nature of game play. Interactiveness is a central element of game enjoyment. As mentioned earlier, the computerís plasticity makes it an intrinsically interactive device. Yet, the potential inherent in the computer can easily go unrealized if it is programmed poorly. A program emphasizing static data is not very dynamic. It is not plastic, hence not responsive, hence not interactive. A process-intensive program, by contrast, is dynamic, plastic, responsive, and interactive. Therefore, store less and process more.
One last argument has more to do with games than computers. (You will remember from Chapter One that a game is distinguished from a story by the network of options that a game has, as opposed to the single richly-developed thread of a story. Much of the quality of a story is derived from the richness of the information it contains. A story is thus all information and no processing. A game derives its quality from the richness of the network of options it presents. These options are only accessible through the process-intensive aspects of the game. Games that are information-rich and process-poor are closer to stories than to the ideal game. Top
(Our hero is now a pole vaulter handcuffed to a high jumper. They are attempting to leap; their attempt is obviously going to collapse in a tangle of limbs. Their facial expressions indicate that they are aware of the likely outcome.)
Games must be designed, but computers must be programmed. Both skills are rare and difficult to acquire, and their combination in one person is even more rare. For this reason many people have attempted to form design teams consisting of a nontechnical game designer and a nonartistic programmer. This system would work if either programming or game design were a straightforward process requiring little in the way of judicious trade-offs. The fact of the matter is that both programming and game design are desperately difficult activities demanding many painful choices. Teaming the two experts together is rather like handcuffing a pole vaulter to a high jumper; their resultant disastrous performance is the inevitable result of their conflicting styles.
More specifically, the designer/programmer team is bound to fail because the designer will ignorantly make unrealistic demands on the programmer while failing to recognize golden opportunities arising during the programming. For example, when I designed the game ENERGY CZAR (an energy-economics simulation game), I did not include an obviously desirable provision for recording the history of the playerís actions. During the final stages of the gameís development, virtually everyone associated with the project suggested such a feature. From technical experience, I knew that this feature would require an excessive amount of memory. A nontechnical designer would have insisted upon the feature, only to face the disaster of a program too big to fit into its allowed memory size.
Another example comes from EASTERN FRONT 1941. While writing the code for the calendar computations, I realized that a simple insertion would allow me to change color register values every month. I took advantage of this opportunity to change the color of the trees every month. The improvement in the game is small, but it cost me only 24 bytes to install, so it proved to be a very cost-effective improvement. A nontechnical game designer would never have noticed the opportunity; neither would a nonartistic programmer.
There is no easy way to produce good computer games. You must start with a good game designer, an individual with artistic flair and a feel for people. That person must then learn to program. The opposite direction of development (from programmer to designer) will not work, for programmers are made but artists are born. When eventually you get that rare individual who is both designer and programmer, then you can subordinate designers and programmers underneath her, so as to multiply her creative power. In the process, the subordinates will receive valuable training. In all cases, the creative process must be unified in a single mind. Committees are good for generating red tape, deferring decisions, and shirking responsibility, but they are useless when it comes to creative efforts. Top
In this chapter I have discussed the computer as a technology for game design. Discussions of computers and their impact on society tend to become polarized between the "gee whiz school and the cynical school. The former group sees a rosy future of countless triumphs wrought by the computer -- "Every day in every way, better and better." The latter group sees computers as a dehumanizing threat, a waste of time, or yet another vehicle for the expression of human perfidy. In this chapter, I have tried to present computers as just another technology, like hammer and nails, clay and stone, paper and ink. Like any technology, they can do some things well. Like any, technology, they do some things poorly. The artistís role is to deviously evade their weaknesses while capitalizing their strengths to greatest advantage.