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Book Excerpt: Designing Games Meant for Sharing

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The following excerpt is from Designing Games Meant for Sharing, by Ioana-Iulia Cazacu. The book will be published July 11, 2024 by CRC Press, a division of Taylor & Francis, a sister company of Game Developer and Informa Tech and is now available for pre-order. Use our discount code GDTF20 at checkout on Routledge.com to receive a 20% discount on your purchase. Offer is valid through October 1, 2024.

Imagine this: it’s 2500 BCE and you are a merchant at one of the many markets in Ancient Mesopotamia. In a quiet spell of the market, you and other merchants might decide to start playing a game while also discussing the state of commerce. All manner of people have been known to enjoy this kind of pastime and you are of course no different; after all, the Royal Game of Ur (known to you most likely by a different name) has really spread far and wide and enjoys popularity even beyond the borders of this region. Something occurs to you as you arrange the pieces on the board ready for play: although you have played this game hundreds of times it never feels like you are playing the same game over and over again. As you face off against your opponent and start to play, you both interlace your conversation about current topics with little remarks about the game strategy and then it hits you: the game itself is just a conduit for social interaction. Sure you could have the same conversation without playing the game, but the simple act of playing gives you both an activity to bond over, and the conversations seem to flow differently. The same game played in complete silence would not be as entertaining.

Looking at today’s society we are not much different from the people in Ancient Mesopotamia playing the Royal Game of Ur. Our means of connecting have changed a lot and so have our games, but the basic desire to connect with others has stayed the same. Human desires and needs are pretty much universal and have remained more or less unchanged throughout history. Learning from the past is of course crucial when it comes to any kind of innovation, but how we approach this can radically change the results we end up with.

Virality

When we examine history and try to learn from it, it’s easy to overlook the details that don’t translate one to one into our current lived experience. Many terms have emerged in game design in the past decades that describe phenomenons as we see them in relation to video games, but sometimes these phenomenons have existed long before video games and definitely before we had words to describe them.

For example, the pieces and boards for the Royal Game of Ur or similar-looking games have been found throughout the Middle East and India (Tam, 2008). This means that the game resonated with people so much that they took it with them on their travels and taught others how to play. In modern game design language, the term for this phenomenon is “virality”.

Virality is essential for multiplayer and social games, be they physical board games or video games; this is because they are limited to being played with other people. Apart from being a great method for the game to gain popularity, growing through virality has a host of other benefits: players will feel more attached to a game they play with friends, they will have fond memories of it and they are more likely to associate said game to social interaction, meaning they will in turn recommend it to others. And this is of course not a thing exclusive to this digital era. If we go back to the example of people playing the Royal Game of Ur, we would probably see a similar story written with a different pen. If your merchant friend showed you the game and taught you how to play, you would be more likely to try to get your own copy than if you just heard about it around the market. Similarly, today a recommendation from your favourite Twitch streamer weighs a lot more than a targeted ad because you trust the influencer and respect their expertise. A recommendation from a friend is even more valuable because it’s curated to your specific tastes in games. Even in circumstances where you might be a little sceptical about the game recommendation itself, the relationship between you and the person recommending the game is more likely to lead to you at least giving the game a proper try before you dismiss it. This means that a lot of people who would not otherwise be drawn to the game for its intrinsic value might end up playing anyway for the social value.

Our means of sharing our favourite games with the people we like has changed a lot from ancient times; we can communicate across the world in seconds and video games are ready-made and easy to purchase online. But the desire that drives one person to convince another to play with them a game they enjoy has remained unchanged.

Social and multiplayer games rely on the agreement between the involved parties to uphold a certain kind of closed group social contract. The term “social contract” (Shand 2015) is derived from political discourse and it refers to an implicit agreement to cooperate as part of a group in order to receive certain benefits in return. However, in this case, we use this term to refer to the tacit agreement between parties to follow a specific set of softly enforced rules, that while they might not be the letter of the law, they affect our adherence to the group. The way this contract is enforced is through social obligation, which is here used to refer to the way people may feel the need to act in specific ways in order to please others they consider friends. The term “obligation” here is not used to suggest the person responding is in one way or another reticent to doing these things, and it does not equate to terms like “peer pressure”, instead it’s about the intrinsic need we humans feel to please those we like through our actions.

A game can encourage through its structure the establishment of such a social obligation in order to establish long-term social play. Because this kind of dynamic can be overused it is important that developers use this in good faith and sparingly, so the players feel in control of how often they interact with others but can still see the clear benefits of doing so.

Let’s take, for example, Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) and how the game uses the social contract to its advantage while also being mindful of the kind of effect it has on players. Firstly, D&D requires at least two people to play, a Dungeon Master (DM) and a Player Character (PC), though realistically the game is made for larger groups. The two sides of this structure must be present for the game to take place; a DM without players cannot proceed and neither can players without their DM. If the PC party is larger than one (which in most cases it is), all players must agree to join the game before the party can proceed with the adventure. If one of the PCs can no longer join the group on a regular basis, they need to make an agreement with the DM and potentially with the other players about what happens to their character; the same goes for someone new joining a running campaign. D&D (and other similar tabletop roleplaying games [RPGs]) uses a couple of design techniques that enforce the need to uphold the social contract in the group that it is played in.

Asymmetric gameplay: In D&D each person has a class, and while one player could theoretically go through an adventure by themselves (provided the DM accommodated them), the strength of the game comes from the interplay of classes. Suddenly the issue of “John can no longer make it on Wednesday evenings” turns into “What are we going to do without a rogue?” Players are more likely to find a scheduling solution because the gameplay is more balanced and more interesting when the party is balanced. Similarly, the players are more likely to try to get others to join if they are looking for another class to join their party. The wonderful subtlety of asymmetric gameplay in Dungeons & Dragons is of course that it’s all in the hands of the DM who can make decisions and adjust the difficulty and the nature of the quest to match the active players.

Accessible format: Although D&D is one of the more in-depth RPG systems out there, it still retains an impressive level of accessibility. You could argue that the books are a significant expense for those starting out, but a single copy can be enough for an entire group and it offers as many possibilities as the DM can dream up. Aside from the obvious investment in the source material, all players really need are pens, paper, dice and an active imagination.

Leverage power players: The DMs of D&D (and really any tabletop RPG) are often the power players of the game. They know the game inside out, they are more likely to buy auxiliary material, and they are very likely to convince others to try the game. This works great for D&D for a few reasons. Firstly, it makes the game less intimidating for new players; if their DM knows a lot about the game, then they can worry less about the subtleties of the game and focus on learning the basics. Secondly, it helps with the initial financial barrier to entry; your DM likely owns all the materials the group needs to play and others can just join. Last but not least, the DM has every intention to make others enjoy the game because a campaign is as much a reflection of their performance as a DM as it is a reflection of the game itself.

D&D has lasted through the years, and even though its popularity has risen and fallen, it still remains a cultural touchstone when it comes to tabletop RPGs. This is because D&D evolves with its audience; the game you get to play today is not the same one as when it was first released in 1974, and this is not only due to the new editions of the rules. D&D encourages player intervention and player-made rules; homebrews can take any shape and may even choose to ignore certain aspects of the game to make it more interesting for the group playing. This, in addition to keeping the game fresh, allows the player to adapt the context of play to the dynamic of the group, establish the boundaries of play and what everyone wants to take out of playing. In the case of Dungeons & Dragons and other tabletop RPGs, it’s put to those involved how often they meet, what the expectations are when turning up at the gaming table and what is the amount of involvement one must have in order to be part of it. This flexibility allows the players to form a social contract, that in this case is easier for them to uphold because it’s expressly tailored to the group by the members of said group.

Much like the Royal Game of Ur, multiplayer and social games rely on other people being active participants in order for the game to offer the intended experience. This means a couple of things: firstly, if the player can’t find someone suitable to play with them, the game will not take place and, secondly, the quality of the experience is highly reliant on the quality of the relationship the player has with their gaming partner. At first glance, this model seems to have some very strong disadvantages working against it, and yet time and time again throughout history it has been proven to work. This is because the same things that seem to hurt it can end up helping it succeed.

One of my earliest memories of people playing games together is of my grandfather and his neighbour playing backgammon and chess outside in the garden during the summer months. The way they played games was a bit like a ritual: they would finish a long day of work outside caring for the animals or tending to the orchard. After that, when the air was cooler and they finished their day’s work, they would get together over a glass of plum brandy, gossip, and play. In other words, the game was there as part of a routine and the social interaction gave them an excuse to play; this is what we call social reengagement.

This type of reengagement relies on the participants making a habit out of playing the game together, and it works very well as a method of getting people back to the game. To be able to take full advantage of social reengagement, the game in question has to become part of this kind of social contract between people, which means that the parties involved have a tacit agreement that they will follow a pre-established set of rules, and in this case a pre-established routine. There is nothing to stop one player from ditching the other, but they do it out of an implied agreement, and if one party bails, the others will get upset. Becoming part of someone’s social ritual is challenging, especially in a world with so much content, but once achieved, players will return to the game organically and will remind each other to play. To understand more about how this can be used to our game’s advantage, we need to take another look at history.

Party games are exclusively social; their purpose is to engage people and entertain them during parties and gatherings. Unlike classic board games like Chess and Go where the agreement to play is between two people and the rules are very strict, party games have looser rules and they can be played with a large number of players. Take charades for example, the only immutable rule of the game is “do not speak while miming”. As long as the players keep that rule, the rest of the game can be rearranged to accommodate the group that is playing. For example:

Players can keep score or not, which lets them decide how competitive they want the game to be based on the kind of social situation they are in.

Players can be split into teams making this more of a group activity or they can play as individuals in a free-for-all style making the game a lot more focused on the individual. 8 Designing games meant for sharing

Players can use syllable and number or word conventions or not, which allows the group to tailor the game’s difficulty.

Players can choose to play with a single category of subjects or go broad, which not only affects difficulty but it also lets the players tailor their game around their specific interests.

In the case of charades, the low barrier to entry and the flexible rules that can accommodate any number of players made it easy for the game to initially establish itself as the game to play at parties in early 19th century France. The historical context in which a game becomes popular is very important; if charades did not exist already and got invented, now you might see how it would struggle to become popular, but because it is an already widely known established game people still play to this day. This is because the game has been passed down through generations as an activity suitable for gatherings, so social reengagement is very strong. Even if a group of people have not played the game together before, they are very likely to have played it with others, and the simple act of getting together reminds them of the game and so the cycle continues.

Sociocultural context

Entertainment and its value as seen by the public that consumes it has always had a strong connection with the state of society. This has many facets and it expands beyond the topic of games to other kinds of entertainment:

Appealing to current societal desires

Accessibility in the current social context

Appealing to current societal desires doesn’t always mean the game has to directly address current events but rather it has to fit in the current view society at large has. For example, Monopoly has been a popular board game for family nights for decades now, and throughout time countless reskins of the original concept have been created. But what really created such a long-lasting legacy for this game? After all, the game itself is almost entirely governed by chance; even the dominant strategies are not much to go off of in Monopoly, almost like the game is telling the player that winning in the game of fortune is ultimately determined mostly by luck and not smart investment.

The case of Monopoly is interesting. The original creator, Elisabeth Magie, created The Landlord’s Game as a piece of social commentary. She designed the game to be a representation of her views on the ill effects of monopolism and presented in it novel ideas about how the land tax was a Chapter 1: A history of games as social interaction 9 way to solve this issue. The goal of the game wasn’t initially just acquiring wealth, but when Charles Darrow agreed with Parker Brothers to publish a game “very similar” to Magie’s Landlord’s Game, the goal of the game shifted to creating a monopoly instead, hence the name. While Darrow is largely recognised as having been falsely credited as the original creator of Monopoly, it’s worth pointing out that the changes he made to the overall goal of the game might not have been entirely unrelated to the success of the game over time. Making a statement about society in a game can be powerful and gather a lot of backing from people who are of a similar mindset, but the dream of becoming incredibly rich and powerful is a desire that can be sold to a lot more people (and has been for years under the guise of the American dream).

Accessibility in the current social context is also incredibly important, and video games of today are simultaneously incredibly easy to access and incredibly inaccessible. On one hand, we can argue that free-to-play mobile games have changed the way that we think about consuming entertainment and that even those that invest nothing in entertainment itself have access to some form of it. On the other hand, video games are still for the privileged who can pay the initial price of owning the hardware necessary to play in the first place. When creating games that are meant to be played socially, making them as easy to access as possible is a huge deal because the preposition to play a game turns suddenly from “let’s play this game together” to “can we both afford to play this game”. There are many ways video games have dealt with lowering the financial barrier to entry, one of the more obvious examples being couch multiplayer. Fighting games, for example, have proven that this model not only has staying power with franchises like Street Fighter or Mortal Kombat being still popular 30-plus years after their original release, but they are also incredibly financially successful. The crucial part of couch co-op is that once one of the players is convinced to play the game, there is no additional barrier or cost for their friends to join them in playing. This works brilliantly because it both offers access to the game to those who would otherwise not be able to play it, but it also functions as a promotional tool, for example, if the friend enjoys the game and can afford the buy-in price they are more likely to purchase it themselves. Of course this type of co-op is limited to players being in the same place at the same time, which does not seem to be very in keeping with the kind of communication and social lives we have nowadays. This is no doubt a reason why more modern games have started to move away from this multiplayer model or include an additional online component that allows players to join each other from anywhere as long as they have access to the internet. In Chapter 3, I will talk in more detail about the advantages and disadvantages of online and offline social play and how they can be used to achieve different results.

The living ruleset

Oral transmission of rules and players’ involvement in determining what the game ultimately becomes has been a key feature of games in the past. Oftentimes players will experiment with their own house rules in order to make the experience more entertaining for the context they are in. This might be seen by some developers as damaging to the integrity of the game rules, after all, players are not designers and they have not spent all this time learning about how to create the perfect system. But in reality, players have an advantage in this scenario: they know what the audience wants best because they are the audience.

Some players will always try to push the boundaries of what is possible in a game; some of them might even resort to cheating in order to get a different experience the game considers to be not intended. The real way to make sure that players can bend the rules to their desired experience and still keep it fair for everyone else is by encouraging the upholding of the social contract during the game. For example, if we think about a homebrew rule for D&D the only people who need to agree to it and uphold it is the group playing that specific campaign. Similarly, if we are talking about a player using banned cards in a Magic: The Gathering tournament, which is something that all tournament-goers have agreed not to do, we can rely on the social contract and expect others to report the player for cheating.

Trading card games (TCGs) are an interesting example of what I like to call a “living ruleset”. A lot of physical games use revisions and reskins to update the ruleset of the game, but TCGs have a unique quality that helps them be a lot more flexible: they are built to be modular. The ruleset for such a game is comprised of multiple layers:

The basic table layout and goals

The abilities of individual cards

The banned and limited lists

The table layout and goals are the glue that binds together the rest of the game. While not immutable, this part of the rules would be the last to change in order to accommodate new play styles and cards. Take, for example, Yu-Gi-Oh. In the 20-plus years it has been available in the West, the goal of the game has not changed at all: the player must reduce their opponent’s life points to zero before their opponent has the chance to do this to them. The table layout hasn’t changed drastically either, though a couple of new card slots have been added to accommodate the new mechanics described on new cards. The speed and dynamics of the game, however, have changed entirely since the first iterations of the game. In the beginning, the game was less focused on card synergy and had a lot more back-and-forth with the players relying on buying themselves time to summon their powerful monsters. In the most current meta, however, players aim to win in as few turns as possible, linking actions in the same turn and using card synergies to get extra actions. The reason why this is possible is because a significant part of the rules for Yu-Gi-Oh are contained by the cards themselves. While the broad-stroke rules for the game are less flexible, cards have incredible flexibility. As long as the original rules are kept in mind, there is a whole world of experimentation that can be created for each card; this includes introducing new mechanics, changing number balancing and adding new lore and flavour text. And if a new card turns out to be more powerful than originally expected and starts affecting the competitive aspect of the game, the creators can ban it or limit that card’s usage.

But how does this really affect the social component of the game? Well, at the core of a living ruleset is always the game’s community. In many ways, to be able to shift and evolve with your audience is something that requires a lot of effort, but due to the modularity of this system and the ability to easily add and subtract for it, it can help in theory to have a game that keeps the people interested engaged by catering to them with small changes. Of course there are also drawbacks to this system as in most cases; over time some of these systems become so complex that new players struggle to join, especially if they do not have someone to teach them the ropes. Ultimately, when a game desires to be long-lived it has to choose between entertaining its existing versus its new customers at times, and the living ruleset can help to independently address different parts of the demographic.

It’s fair to say that even the most commonplace experiences can be made memorable in the right company. This is because the connection between people adds social value to whatever experience we are talking about. Games benefit a lot from this added social value, which can take a couple of forms:

Playing games as a bonding activity

Using games to find like-minded people

Using games as a status symbol

A great example of a game that takes advantage of all forms of social-added value is chess. The game is played at a casual level among friends, and while the practical goal of the game is outsmarting your opponent and winning, the social goal of the game is to be a bonding activity. The players know each other and while the mechanics of chess force the two to be in opposition, the social aim for this is to become closer friends by the end of the game. At a more macro level, local tournament-goers have a stronger desire to win than those playing a friendly match; in this case, the practical goal stays the same, but the social goal changes. Players are looking for others who can match their skill level and while they might not end up winning the tournament, they are sure to make new acquaintances they will keep running into should they continue to compete in tournaments. Those competing in national or even international chess tournaments have a different social goal: they use their ability to play the game as a status symbol looking to prove to the other chess players that they are the best.

All players, from novices playing friendly games to national champions battling for the number one spot, play the same game, they abide by the same rules and they have the same practical aim to the game, but the social-added value for each of these people is completely different. The game achieves this with an easy-to-understand but hard-to-master gameplay because it allows players to have different levels of involvement with the game mechanics. The basic rules of chess are in theory very simple: each piece has a moving pattern, and each turn players can capture an opponent’s piece and eliminate it from the game. The win condition is a bit more vague but still pretty simple to understand: if a player’s king is in immediate danger of being captured by the opponent and they can’t make any valid moves to escape, the player loses the game. The wonderful thing about chess is that these simple rules create a huge possibility space for different strategies and outcomes. As a result, mastery of these mechanics comes from understanding the complex repercussions that a single move can have over the entire game, anticipating the opponent’s moves and crafting a strategy.

While player skill seems to have a direct correlation with the type of social involvement a player seeks, it is not actually that straightforward; they are instead two separate aspects of the game that drive each other. The complexity of the game makes the competitive sphere for the game more meaningful for those who are very skilled, but whether a player competes is ultimately driven by their desire for a particular type of social interaction. It’s perfectly plausible that very skilled players will never join tournaments because their goal is to use the game as a bonding activity with their friends. Inversely, a prodigy might bypass the casual play phase entirely and learn more about the game with the sole purpose of competing.

The demand for games as entertainment is now bigger than ever, and more games see social play as an attractive prospect. It’s important for us to analyse the games that came before to see what attributes made them successful. Even though the games we make today are very different from their precursors and they aim to be liked by a modern audience, the techniques they use can be adapted to the current environment. In the next chapter, I will talk more about a person’s adherence to a group, how that influences their choices and view of themselves and how this ultimately translates to in-game behaviours.

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Author : earthnews

Publish date : 2024-07-10 07:55:37

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