Wednesday, June 10, 2009

Why Don't Video Games Tell You the Rules?

An interesting thing about video games: many don't tell you all the rules.

I noticed this curiosity when a web game developer asked me to preview his online "board game". The game is played on a limited grid. The player gets five actions each turn to play, heal, or attack with his pieces. Between player turns, the enemy grows, does various things, and attacks back. The object is total annihilation: you or the enemy.

I've already told you more than I knew when starting the game.

There is a introduction screen with a start button and some theme, the usual fantasy elements, magic, etc. There is an options menu you can access from within the game that lists the controls and very simple ideas of what you can do: click to place this object. Click to attack with this object any enemy target within range. Click to heal your objects.

And that was it.

Anyone steeped in video game culture probably finds nothing wrong with this. OK, you say, I'll figure it out as I play. Let's just blast things already.

I had a different reaction. How many rounds in a typical game? How much damage does each item do, exactly? If it's random, what is the random factor? What's the range of each item? What rules govern how the enemy will play!?

In other words: I wanted to play a strategy board game. It looked like a strategy board game. But it played like a video game.

Video Games Don't Tell You the Rules

Video games think nothing of throwing you into the thick of the game. Just look at The Path which I played last week. The entire point of the game is to discover not just the items, not just the nature of how things work, but the very goals of the game. You don't know how fast you walk, you don't know what it means if it gets dark or if you run, or if you pick something up. Even after something happens, you don't know for sure that it will happen again. In essence, the point of the game is to discover the rules.

And once you discover the rules, there is little point left in playing the game.

Reason 1: Johnny Can't Read

I asked the web game developer why so little of the rules is given before starting the game. He said that video game players expect to just start the game and figure it out. No one wants to read a page of rules before playing a game.

I've heard that about board games. Publishers try to minimize the rules to make getting into the game as easy as possible. But even five minutes of rules explanation (enough to play Checkers, for instance) seems to be too much for today's video game player.

A lack of information doesn't leave room for deep strategy, only for educated guesswork.

After playing the game, I still didn't know exactly how many spaces I could shoot, nor how much damage I would do; I only knew that "this" item allowed me to to shoot "more", and "this other" item did "better" damage against "that" thing than against "the other" thing.

Reason 2: The Enemy is Us

In board games, players do all the management. I don't know for sure what card will be flipped up for the diseases in Pandemic, but I know how many cards there are, what the possibilities are, and exactly what happens when they do. Video games want to protect you from this information, so it seems.

On the one hand, that makes some military sense: you don't always know what your opponent is capable of in the middle of a war. Fog of war and all that. On the other hand, that's the only type of game it makes sense for: war games. If I can't evaluate what resources I get, how much the settlements cost, or what the victory conditions are, my game of Settlers of Catan may as well be a crap shoot. Forget any long term strategic planning or counting out exactly how many resources you need to build that city.

Reason 3: We Don't Need No Stinkin' Rules

I also think: many video game players don't care what the rules are, not really. They want to blast things.

There is no point in playing out a board game where the ending is a foregone conclusion. Any polite player will resign if the situation is hopeless. In well-designed games, the situation is never exactly hopeless until the game ends - at a set number of rounds or a set number of points.

I don't have too much experience with video game players, but the ones I know don't end the game when they've established that the game is a foregone conclusion. They keep blasting and cheering to the very end. The ones I know - admittedly teenage boys - purposely make themselves invincible with cheat codes so that the necessity of strategy and survival doesn't distract from the ultimate point of destruction.

Victory in this online board game was pretty much a foregone conclusion at mid-game. There was rally no need to mop up the remaining forces; nor mop up mine if I was losing, as I surely would have been on a more difficult setting. I get the fact that you can't easily program a video game to concede. But it didn't even occur to the designer to leave that part of the game out. Better and more thoughtful play isn't the point: total victory is.

Are there thoughtful video games, with explicit rules and goals, where the game is played, round by round, to calculated victory?
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