March 15, 2014
Why Do We Play? Game Researcher Challenges Reward Systems

With achievements and trophies in games, the concept of gamification has come full circle. One researcher in game design calls for a counter trend.

Would you play on a pinball machine if it didn’t score your points? How about WoW without the achievements? We can usually tell a game from other media by its inclusion of conventional game elements. A point score, a health counter, achievable trophies, and so on. In other words, elements which function as clear indicators for your progress in the game. 

But what happens to the game experience, if the game is stripped of these conventions? 

Refocusing the Lens of Game Design

Chris DeLeon, who is a PhD student in Digital Media at Georgia Tech and a game developer himself, studies - among other things - the occasional disparity between game consumers and developers. DeLeon, who grew up with arcade and early console games, drew upon a pinball analogy. 

“The average player doesn’t necessarily notice how many points they score, but they notice when the pinball machine freaks out,” DeLeon said.

“When the lights are going off, when the bells are ringing, when they are getting multiple balls, the players can tell, I did something good. They got a satisfying response.”

Developers are often relying on tangible rewards in their game design, but DeLeon wants to strike a blow for what he calls the “degamification” of video games. It is not a crusade against certain types of game designs, but rather a challenge to developers to rethink how they design.

DeLeon compared degamification to classic game breaking, for instance playing with activated cheats in classic games like Doom and Command & Conquer.

“Frankly, I had more fun running around with all the weapons against all the enemies, playing out scenarios in my mind,” DeLeon said in a recent video blog entry, “than I did from the challenge that was set in front of me of trying to prove that I was good enough to make it to the next level or whatever the reward was.” 

The logic behind conventional reward elements, such as achievements and trophies, is that they are supposed to work as an incentive for people to play - and keep playing - the game. Perhaps if it takes a reward system to make players play the game developers intend them to, there is a possibility that the game is not that well designed in the first place.

Further, there are lessons to be learned from observing how players actually play a game when, for instance, restricted access to levels or other game content is lifted.

Emergent Gameplay Becomes Convention

 Today there’s an entire genre, called sandbox games, which to a large extent are degamified. However, gamers have been inventing sandbox phenomenas for years, even in games that are very directed and linear. 

For example, Max Payne players would spend hours recreating the famous lobby scene from The Matrix. Rather than worrying about the game’s intended progression, players would do it over and over again in order to nail the reenactment.

“They were not trying to do it as fast as possible,” DeLeon said. “The game didn’t care, it didn’t measure how cool they were doing it.” 

As another example, DeLeon mentioned how he and his friends used to activate the Thirty Lives Code in the NES game Contra

“We didn’t really care about, you know, getting better and better at the game for a sense of mastery,” DeLeon said, “we liked running through the jungle shooting machine guns at aliens, and having thirty lives helped us do that”. 

In these kind of instances, players not only play the game, they play with it. The Contra example emphasizes the social aspect of gaming as well. Rather than relying on externally defined tasks, players set objectives for each other. “It’s like calling the shots in pool,” DeLeon said.

Game developers are well aware of the potential of players’ creativity, and it is common to use players’ so-called “emergent gameplay” as input in the development process. The alpha testing of DayZ is an obvious example. 

By learning how a group of creative players use the game, designers will then in the ensuing development set up structures that allows other players to do the same thing. For example, the concept of combo moves in competitive fighting games was the result of accidental design in Street Fighter II.

Players figured out that certain moves could be combined in a certain sequence to perform a lethal move to the opponent. The designers knew it was possible, but they did not think that players would be able to get the timing right to perform the combos. Aa a result, the designers did not expect this element to become a significant part of the game. Today, 
combos are a staple in the head-to-head fighting genre

Improvised behavior emerges when the player is not forced to follow preset paths of progression, and DeLeon wanted to highlight the value of letting players play the game however he or she wants. However, having worked with and studied games for several years, DeLeon has also learned that sometimes players want directions. 

Life Is Sufficiently Confusing

“When I first got involved in making games,” DeLeon said, “I always assumed that everyone wanted as much creative freedom as they could have. It turns out, there are people who prefer clarity of tasks, at least in this context. The real world is sufficiently complicated. I can wake up and do anything, and that’s sort of paralyzing. Then I get in front of a game, and there’s zombies coming at me. I have to shoot them before they get to me. There’s a clarity of objective there, that I can feel like I’m improving at.” 

There are different ways to make the player feel this sense of accomplishment: It can be reaching the end screen, unlocking the final cut scene or finally getting the best car. 

“I think, for a lot of people, it bears value to their experience that things have been withheld from them and that they’ve earned it. They’ve proven to themselves that they are good at the game or at least persistent.”

DeLeon’s line of thought really boils down to the discussion of intrinsic versus extrinsic motivation. What drives somebody to play a game? 

With degamification, the focus is on intrinsic - or inner, motivation. The player defines his own challenges, and plays the game in ways that he or she finds entertaining. The opposite design, extrinsic motivation, relies on external rewards to keep the player engaged. This game mechanic comes in a multitude of forms: Beating a record, collecting all the oysters, and looting epic gear, to name a few. 

Replay Value Wanted

In a degamified and well-designed, game, players would replay an end-game dungeon over and over again, because the game experience in the dungeon is an incentive in itself and not for the sake of certain achievements or loot. 

In general, DeLeon said he would like to see more focus on replay value in game design. 

“It used to be a metric in game magazines, but has completely disappeared from the discussion,” DeLeon said. “Replaying a part of a game has become a punishment. People get mad if they have to do something again, because they died or got stuck in a combat situation.”

If game design is done right, you shouldn’t really mind replaying parts of a game. 

“Playing the game is the core activity,” DeLeon said, “it’s why you there in the first place.” 

DeLeon’s objective is not to demonize games that rely on design elements like extrinsic rewards and constant progression, but he would like to see more instances of players having the choice of which game experience they want. 

Minecraft, for example, has two distinctive game modes: Survival mode relies on conventional game mechanisms, such as killing and gathering materials, while Creative mode is to a large extent a degamified game experience: Unlimited resources are available for you, and you can build whatever you want.

Rather than devaluing the game experience, Minecraft's two game modes actually emphasize that by providing the player with the freedom to choose, he or she will imbue a very conventional reward system with tremendous value. 

“In Survival mode, you have to work your butt off.” DeLeon said. “If someone has built a house in that context, it has a certain significance. It’s less trivial, it means something. Players are being rewarded for their activities.”

Besides research and teaching game development at Georgia Tech, DeLeon shares his insights on the blog HobbyGameDev. DeLeon’s iOS apps, some of which are more aesthetic, interactive experiences rather than games, have received significant attention. In 2011, DeLeon was included on Forbes’ ’30 Under 30’ list in the entertainment category

March 14, 2014
Trove Designer: Minecraft-Inspired Games Is a Growing Genre

The immensely popular Minecraft has spawned a wave of sandbox adventure games that rely on manipulable environments, said the Creative Lead of the upcoming game Trove.

Destroying and placing cubes appeals to a lot of gamers. In fact, Minecraft, the alma mater of the build-what-you-want sandbox genre, recently surpassed 100 million registered users worldwide.

Not surprisingly, developers are taking lessons from the success of Minecraft, and several studios are working on games where players can destroy, construct and otherwise manipulate the game world, whether it is made up of voxels, pixels, or tiles. 

It’s Fun to Play with Cubes

One of these upcoming titles is the MMO Trove. Developer Trion Worlds, known for Rift, described the game as an adventure and exploration game coupled with full capabilities of constructing and deconstructing the cube-based environment. 

“Cubic voxel style games like Minecraft aren’t just a game or two anymore,” said Trove’s Creative Lead Andrew Krausnick to VG247, “they’re undeniably a growing genre. Every single one of these games, including Trove, owes a debt to Minecraft for showing how much fun it could be to play with cubes.”

Among other things, Minecraft made evident how eager players are to populate game worlds with their own creations. Now, this element is being incorporated in several games.

Trove is, at least on the surface, similar to the upcoming Cube World, which combines action RPG-elements with exploration and crafting in the setting of procedurally-generated environments made of voxels, or manipulable cubes. In Starbound, an entire universe of planets can be terraformed.

In EverQuest Next Landmark, a creation tool to accompany the parallel MMO release, players can claim a lot of land which they can sculpt to their liking. With the use of micro-voxels, Landmark has taken cube graphics to the next level allowing for smoother and more detailed constructs. 

Building Upon the Founding Blocks

In order to be more than just Minecraft-clones, this bunch of games are all aiming to develop and improve the sandbox experience.

In the case of Trove, the world-building aspect is combined with cross-genre elements: The game universe consists of continually spawning, procedurally generated worlds that are ‘beatable’, and characters will have swappable classes, inspired by the job system from classic Final Fantasy games.

Furthermore, much like Landmark’s lot system, each player will have a Cornerstone; a part of the world which other players can visit, but that can only be modified by the owner. As described by Massively, these Cornerstones will work as showcases for players’ creativity and crafting skills. 

In the interview with VG247, Krausnick said that these elements and others will help Trove stand out from other games of the Minecraft school. He also emphasized that Minecraft cannot be replaced—only build upon. 

“Minecraft is a cultural phenomenon,” Krausnick said, “and even [its creator] Notch has said that he never expects to be able to replicate that level of success. We’re not going into this looking to make the ‘Minecraft-killer’.”

Trove is coming for PC and is currently in alpa. Register here

March 13, 2014
Critic: Talk Games with your Kids

For one researcher, a game of Donkey Kong worked as a basis for making his kids critical gamers.

Recently, Jordan Shapiro played a game of Donkey Kong Country Tropical Freeze with his two children. Shapiro, who studies, teaches, and writes about game-based learning, had an objective: He wanted to train his kids in thinking critically about the games they play.

As part of this, he asked his kids to review the Donkey Kong game. “Good” and “cool” were their answers. As explained in a piece Shapiro wrote about the experience, he was not satisfied with these one-worded replies, so he continued to ask his kids questions that made them consider why they thought the game was “cool”. 

“We covered narrative, game mechanics, rewards, color palate, and more,” Shapiro wrote. “We discussed the user interface and even the menu pages. We compared and contrasted Donkey Kong with other platformers.”

Parents and Academia Need to Think about Games

Shapiro had several motives for making his children stop up and think about the game they were playing. He argued that this kind of critical reflection has the potential to expand his kids’ vocabulary, to make their language more precise, and to enhance their metacognitive functions - that is, the ability to think about one’s own thinking. 

It is not only parenting that could benefit from more critical thinking in regards to games, Shapiro argued. Everyone, from the individual gamer to the media studies professor, should consider video games on level with literature and cinema when it comes to critical consumption. 

Following this line of thought, video games should be subject to the same questions we raise in relation to other media of expression. Which worldview is conveyed? What rhetoric is used? How is the story told? 

To Shapiro, this approach to games needs to be established with the coming generation of gamers. 

“Don’t just play games with your kids,” Shapiro wrote. “Talk to them about the games. Teach them to be thoughtful, articulate, and critical of the games they play.”

Read Jordan Shapiro’s full post here.


March 12, 2014
For a Metal Gear Brush-Up, Turn to Reddit

Ground Zeroes is released next week, and one redditor has summarized the Metal Gear lore for you. 

The storyline of the extensive Metal Gear franchise spans from 1918 to present day and includes complex plots of global conspiracies and secret wars. In anticipation of the series’ latest title, Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes, redditor AudioRejectz has written up a summary of the main narrative to help fans catch up on the story. 

The summary includes events from all the canonical games, but in order to avoid major spoilers, events from Ground Zeroes and the previous title The Phantom Pain have been left out. 

As always, the diligent reddit community has been helpful providing AudioRejectz with feedback and corrections. To supplement the timeline, redditor CrownOfTheVirtues has provided thematic summaries for the main games, which you will find in the comment section. The Metal Gear games are known for each having a specific theme, often dealing with questions on human agency versus circumstance.

Metal Gear Solid V: Ground Zeroes will be released next week for PS3, PS4, XBox 360, and Xbox One.  

Read “Metal Gear - The complete story”.


March 5, 2014

GTA Players Reenact Skyfall Scene

 A group of players took advantage of the free-to-roam world of GTA Online and played out a famous chase scene from the latest James Bond film.

Reddit is a great tool for many things. For instance, coordinating in-game reenactments. The sub-reddit GTA Adventures is a forum where GTA V players plan meet ups and accomplish other self-defined objectives in the online, multiplayer part of the game. 

Recently, the four-man team behind the YouTube-channel Brass Ballas recreated a signature scene of the 2012 film Skyfall, in which James Bond chases a mercenary on top of a moving train. 

One of the Ballas were recording the reenactment as it was played out on screen, utilizing the wide variety of camera options that give GTA V a cinematic feel. Joining the team were some volunteering redditors who played out roles as well. 


March 3, 2014
New Horror Games Raise Expectations for the Genre

The survival horror genre has been struggling for the last decade to significantly make itself noticed, as it was during its golden age with the first releases in the Silent Hill and Resident Evil series.

Now, we are seeing a new wave of titles that seem to be bringing horror games to the next level. Are we entering a new golden age of the genre? Yes, thinks Mark Butler, author of the book Interactive Nightmares: A History of Video Game Horror.

Read more.

[Image: Endnight Games]

February 25, 2014
EVE Dogfighting Exclusive for Oculus Rift

Like at Google, the employees at CCP Games are allowed to spend a certain amount of their work time on their own projects. Couple this with the studio’s enthusiasm for virtual reality, and the result is EVE: Valkyrie, a first-person space-fighter game set in the Eve universe—the first title to be announced as an Oculus Rift PC exclusive.

Read more.

[Image: CCP Games]

February 24, 2014
VR Developer Releases Original Zelda in 3D

Octoroks will now be spitting stones right in your face. Developer Ubiquitron has released a free beta version of ​ZeldaVR, an Oculus Rift clone of The Legend of Zelda, the very first game in the Zelda series. 

Read more.

[Image: Ubiquitron]

February 20, 2014
Microsoft Is Having Trouble with Digital Sale


Following criticism of digital games being too expensive, Microsoft is experimenting with lower prices on downloadable Xbox One games.

Read more.

[Image: Microsoft Studios]

February 19, 2014
Blacksmith Crafts Sephiroth’s Sword


The weapons of self-taught blacksmith Tony Swatton have appeared as props in films such as The Matrix Reloaded and Pirates of Caribbean.  

Since 2013, Swatton has hosted the YouTube web series, Man at Arms, in which he crafts fully functional weapons from the viewers’ favorite shows and games. 

Recently, Swatton created the Masamune, the katana of choice of the Final Fantasy VII villain, Sephiroth.

Read more and watch the crafting process.

[Image: awe ME]