Saturday, April 24, 2010

How Much Freedom Can You Have In A Game?

I like games. And videogames. However, I don't like the fact that vast majority of today's games are all the same. That's why I enjoy seeing something that dares to be different. Unfortunately, most game publishers don't dare to be different. Apart from some freak coincidence (like Ubisoft rather succesfully trying to re-shape RTS genre for consoles), the exceptions usually are independent developers and Japanese companies.

One of the things I am still waiting for is: When will you really have freedom in the game world and when will you be able to really shape the story? I don't say "Dragon Age: Origins" is not a great game but it's very clear, even with all the supposed "freedom", there is rather rigid "master story" that you have to stick to if you want to play the game. You are never really "in character" because you are always trying to "cheat the system", where "the system" is a computer program which can never anticipate all your intentions. For the same reason I don't like pen & paper RPG games where most of the gameplay is based on rolling dice and consulting charts (i.e. "Dungeons & Dragons"). I very much prefer things like Universalis where you have freedom to create any sort of world and characters you imagine (without knowing what exactly you are going to create in advance).

This requires, even with today's computing power and advanced AI, a live person as the "moderator", or "Dungeon Master". However, that still doesn't solve all the problems.

Even computer games like "Neverwinter Nights" (with live "moderator") don't work very well because the moderator can only do things that are prepared in advance and present in his "library" of locations, characters and actions.

I almost thought this meant that games where you can do whatever you want can only be done as pure text games (or MUDs). However, I am very glad Jason Rohmer proved me wrong.

His latest game, "Sleep is Death" is based on an ingenious twist. There is one player and one "controller" ("Moderator" or "Dungeon Master"). They exchange "turns", each of which must take less than 30 seconds. The genius is that the game provides you with an audiovisual interface which is so simple it can be used to audiovisually represent very broad scope of ideas in those 30 seconds, including modifying or creating new game assets! Have a look at these examples of play sessions and don't tell me that isn't amazing.

I very much hope this game (or rather, "interactive fiction tool") breaks into mainstream and starts a torrent of new exciting game ideas.

As a first step, I am sure with today's technology, something at least as good as "Sleep is Death" could be implemented as a purely browser-based game!

P.S: There is some interesting discussion in the comments below.


Martin said...

It's not an rpg and it doesn't provide you with free form world experience you're talking about, but have you tried Braid? Apparently new ideas still arise from time to time. And I can only agree with what has already been written about it - it's mind twisting and (not just, but especially) last level is fucking ingenious.

Unknown said...

Have you tried TES: Daggerfall? Today it is quite old but the word is that its freedom of play is still unmatched.

Anonymous said...

TES:Daggerfall has one of the biggest maps in games of all times. The player has great freedom of going anywhere to thousands of "different" places. Unfortunately after few hours of playing all towns all dungeons will feel all the same. They are (except few ones) auto-generated and that means dull.
Variety of quests is not very wide (except main quest).
Daggerfall was great game once and it offers o lot of freedom, but not the freedom, that Fuxoft is writing about.

Fuxoft said...

Sven: I did not play TES: Daggerfall so maybe I am very much mistaken, but let's say I start to play and I want to do this: I will kill some monsters to find some treasure for a few months and then want to find some smaller nice dungeon in this game and build my home in it. Decorating the walls with tapestries and nice pictures, building a fireplace and a well, securing the dungeon from outside invader with ingenious traps (and secret escapes!) and planting some fruit and vegetables outside. I would then spend beautiful days near this new home, walking around and looking at sunsets, until one day I meet a mysterious woman in the forest, who very much likes my two small mini-dogs. And this starts my biggest adventure...

I can play this story in "Universalis" or in "Sleep is Death". I very much doubt I can do this in TES: Daggerfall...???

Jaromír Möwald said...

What you described sounds like Second Life to me.

Fuxoft said...

Jaxx: That's most definitely NOT Second Life. If I'd like to do this in Second Life, I (or the "dungeon master") would have to have 3D modeling skills and invest substantial effort into this. In Universalis, this could be done in minutes. In "SiD", in hours.

Jaromír Möwald said...

Sure. it takes a lot of time and it's not easy to do, but my point is that you CAN do it in Second Life, at least I assume, never tried it myself.

Jaromír Möwald said...

Certainly I get your point from the post and your comments, but I'm just trying to point out, that something like you described exists already. In my opinion, the technology for this to do it user-friendly and fast is still not there yet, maybe with next generation consoles, maybe sooner. The question is (from the consumer point of view) if it will be attractive to publishers to market a whole new thing and how to approach it in the first place. Of course, I would play it, you would play it, but we are not the majority.

Fuxoft said...

Jaxx: If I'd do this in Second Life (let's assume it technically CAN be done for the sake of the argument), the 3D modelling would take me (or someone else who'd have to do it for me) several orders of magnitude more time and resources than actually playing and enjoying the game. I expect the whole "building my home in the dungeon" episode to take 10 or 15 minutes of my playing session!

From my point of view, this means that this is "impossible" because it would defeat the whole point of playing the game. It's like saying that you don't have to buy "Dragon Age: Origins" becaus you can program it by yourself... Yeah, you can. But the time spent programming it would cost you much more than simply buying the game.

In "Sleep is Death", it's realistic to expect that while I am describing what I am doing ("Now I want to put a fireplace and some tapestries in this dungeon", "Now I want to plant some vegetables outside"), the skilled game moderator can reasonably create all required assets really quickly (even if he never expected me to do this thing in the game), without interrupting the "almost real time" game flow. This is why I like SiD so much - because it managed to come up with a system that allows you to create graphical assets WITHOUT INTERRUPTING THE GAME FLOW (which is intentionally set so that it's not really realtime, exactly because of this).

That's why I consider SiD innovative. Before, you could either have full interactive fiction freedom in "almost real time" (when all information is only speech, typed text or hand-drawn sketches), OR you could have nice-looking graphics, but you were screwed immediately when you wanted to do something unexpected - you then had to stop the game session and someone had to create the required assets. You could never have BOTH before. Until SiD came along. Note that this could not work so well if the author decided for SiD to have higher graphics resolution, for example!

Jaromír Möwald said...

I see where this is going and I completely understand your point. Guess we both agree, that a game like this would be impossible to make in mass-market right now (i.e. to make it look like Metal Gear Solid 4 for instance).

My example with Second Life was based purely on this argument, that it is a good looking game, which can "emulate" basically anything with a unlimited amount of time. The power of SiD is in its simplicity, as you said. Each object is not 1000s of pixels complex and possibly this is the only way (for now) to make it work AND have fun playing the game.

The whole thing with "making your own game" is much more complicated and in foreseeable future (I guess) we will see just bits of this concept used in mass-market (games such as GTA, Fable, ...) like designing your apartment from a scratch, because there always have to be "the game". While I wrote it, my mind brainstormed a lot, so I hope the meaning is understandable.

Martin said...

well, but what's the point of being able to let's say see graphically what you too (player + moderator) could exchange in some kind of chat (you: I've built a cave with cages for my dogs, moderator: a cage liking woman appeared ..)? (or even just you & your mind flow and paper & pencil)
the graphics?
if i got it right it's all about being able to construct the vision visually and in user very friendly way, right?
If so, what exactly is the GAME in it?

Unknown said...

There have been gazillions of games promising "the freedom" and, of course, none of them delivered anything that would be even close to "the freedom," yet I still think it's actually a good thing. It's on a similar page as movies--I watch them to receive some kind of a consistent experience, and I play videogames for the same reason. When playing, I usually don't want to be creating the game; so, obviously, the creators had to set up boundaries which hold your hand. Without those, the designers wouldn't be able to tell the story and administer a reasonably consistent gameplay. in Oblivion, Bethesda tried to step over this concept and it turned out ridiculous for you could be running around for 20 hours with a prince (or whoever) stuck on your ass the whole time, telling you "Oh, dear, the world is in a grave danger, we must save it!"

So, that was not a consistent game experience because it gave a player too much of freedom.

The whole concept of "Sleep is Death" sounds interesting, but I don't think it's ever going to become more than an interesting experiment for a selected few. Even I don't think I'd enjoy it in terms of a complex AAA game--it's too broad, too random, good for a 10-minute fun or as a party game. Moreover, it seems like it'd have no ending and would be lacking consistency BIG TIME which I wouldn't get along with.

Plus I don't think it'd work anyway, the computer brain just still ain't the human brain! :)

Anonymous said...

re Second Life... Actually I don't see a big difference between building the scene in SiD and in SL. There is a HUGE library of assets (see And of course there are thousands of people using SL for freeform roleplay. One major difference is that in SL everything costs money :)