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?


Jonathan said...

Tetris starts with an empty well where 4 block pieces drop from the sky. Since you have a game controller, you can safely assume (and easily verify) that you can influence where the blocks fall.

Once you figure out the basics, it comes down to beating your own skill... by getting the most points possible.

The other type of single-player video game is the story based video game (equivalent to a heavily themed board game) where the point is to "beat the game" and gain the reward. (The reward can be as little as the satisfaction of winning, or as big as an effect on further play, or even furtherance of any plot involved in the game).

Then you have multiplayer, in which the goal is to beat your opponents using the rules you discovered (or were taught in the tutorial).

The rules in video games are usually demonstrated (show vs. tell) gradually to the player. Once the player knows the rules a well designed game then ups the challenge level to allow the player to discover the nuances of operating in that rules system.

Highly themed video games aren't (in general) too much fun to play through repeatedly, but a lot of lightly themed games ARE! Especially when you're competing against your own past performance.

Poet said...

To answer your question, yes, there are.
But a game where the end is a calculated victory is not a game, its a puzzle.
Sokoban is a good example of this. And many games such as Safe Cracker feature mini games where the opponent has a very specific algorithm by which it plays and you simply need to figure out how to beat it.
In pandemic, the random factor is the deck of cards. In video games it is plenty of unknown variables, such as how your opponent chooses his actions.

Count Zero said...

, a large number of computer games will have a tutorial section, or the first level will teach you how to play the game.

I long for this in some board games. A simple flash program that runs through how to play AOS or Caylus would do wonders.

Addicting Games said...

Maybe because they want you to think or perhaps it's the fun part of a video games ^^

Yehuda said...

Poet, AG: Maybe.

Reflecting, I think I overlooked the positive aspects of not having the rules. Or maybe I'm just asking the wrong questions.


Matt said...

I've never understood the attraction of this either (having to learn the rules as you go). I like knowing the conditions of the game up front, like in a strategy board game, and then making decisions out of that knowledge. I like learning what works and what doesn't within the context of those conditions and rules.

A good example is the Civilization line of games, which I played a bit when it first came out. That is obviously a strategy video game, but the exact odds and implementations of any particular thing in there is not shown to the player. (Obviously part of that is because it can be more complex than something you could keep track of by hand, I understand that.)

But that type of game, that type of discovery, is not enjoyable to me. Nor is it enjoyable to have someone tell you, "oh, don't build those things, you should only build this, and then that other thing. Then you'll win."

That seems to be the point of most computer/video games -- figure out what sequence of steps will guarantee the biggest victory possible. And I don't find that enjoyable because it lacks what I like about board games, which is having to deal with and react to other people. You may find a good strategy, but someone else will find a way to counter that strategy.

Different strokes for different folks! Glad we have so many choices.

Roberta Taylor said...

Matt said "That seems to be the point of most computer/video games -- figure out what sequence of steps will guarantee the biggest victory possible. And I don't find that enjoyable because it lacks what I like about board games, which is having to deal with and react to other people."

I think that this is the inherent difference between computer and board games. Most computer games are played against an AI, and it can't behave like people. It would be very difficult to program an AI that had moods, tried to experiment, and learned from what you were doing in the same way a human opponent would.

I think that's also why a lot of computer games aren't very replayable- once you've bested the AI, it's not very interesting any more. Even a boardgame I know very well will remain enjoyable if I enjoy the people I am playing with.

Mason Louie said...

I feel there are several main reasons for not telling. I agree with Jonathan on the showing-not-telling (trying to figure out Race for the Galaxy from the the rule book was too much for me in spite of knowing Puerto Rico well).

But there are others, like often, the rules in video games are wildly complex and mundane. There might be 100 variables in play. 100 variables is way beyond a human being to make sense of let alone 60 - 30 - 10 times a second, let alone the relationship rules between these variables. Board games require there to be fewer variables that update slower because it's us puny human doing the accounting. I personally hate playing board games which I have to manage over 5 variables. But maybe that's an artifact of having the luxury of telling a super computer (my dusty old desktop) to figure it out on my behalf...

Another reason I can think of is that video game designers don't put much attention in longer term goal design, thus there's no complex strategies and decisions, because it's a) difficult to merge the in-the-moment / shoot-from-the-hip decisions which are the hall marks of video games with the pensive stratagems offered by board games b) just plain difficult to program a computer because beyond human communication and compatibility issues there are computer communication and compatibility issues. Good software is inherently invisible. To make even the cursor in this textbox blink took an astonishing amount of code. If the "rules" for the bigger strategy (often it's just either move the story along or speed things up) were directly revealed, you'd find most games are more interactive TV than actual games. Game type X on rails.

Yehuda said...

Roberta: human to human interaction is definitely a key.

That's why, if I were to be interested in video games, it would be MMOs or other human to human interaction - or really good AI.

Mason: You're talking real-time complicated games. Nearly every real-time game devolves into hand/mind eye coordination and pixel intersection; you have to get this to intersect with that quickly. The standard paradigm for that is bullet and enemy.

But even if you take turn-based games, with board game feel, the programmer will often simply not tell you how it all works. Definitely not all games: I think you can find complete rules for Bejeweled and DisX and some other games. But less often for the ones that enhance their board game play with fancy graphics and reactions.

In the case of the game I was playing, it was simply a matter of adding N power for each of the items I placed and then factoring in the state of my target. It then did X damage to the target, and X/something to all adjacent targets. It's really not too much to ask what N and X are, unless you deliberately want to obscure this information, or unless it changes randomly each round (and even then, it would b nice to know the range).

A board game would NEVER do that. It would always tell you exactly what N is and what X is, and if you have to calculate a little, so be it. But, armed with that information, I can then plan my attacks strategically, and not simply wail away on my opponent as best I can hoping to win.

But yeah: video games shine in real-time reaction games of complex systems.

And then we come to the "game end" part. Why do so many of the best games end with a calculation to see who won, but a video game ends with several minutes of prolonged mop up of the enemy forces?

Can you imagine if Settlers were first done by a video game designer? You'd never know why you were getting some resources some rounds and not others. You'd be able to trade, but not know what you need to build things until after you'd played the game several times. Your resources would automatically convert at a harbor whether you wanted them to or not. You'd never know when the game ended. And the game wouldn't end with the first to get to 10 points, but the first to destroy his opponent's cities and settlements.

And, every time the machine was waiting for you to take your turn, you'd hear garish and repetitive music and see dancing animation of wheat blowing in the wind and smoke coming out of the cities, which would make it "cool".

Duncan said...

A rebuttal:

Adelaide Gamer said...

You mention "...the ultimate point of destruction."

Which made me think of an add I noticed (on the side of a bus) for a new console platform game. In two foot high letters over about a twenty five meter surface it said that "game [x] was adjudged the "best video destruction action ever !!!" by [y] gaming magazine.

Seems to be the point of impact for the marketing...

meowsqueak said...

I think you're over-generalising. Although you mention a "boardgame-like" strategy game, you seem to be talking mainly about video games like "first person shooters" and perhaps arcade games that involve destruction.

There are far more types of video games that have rules and some even do an excellent job of explaining them. Sometimes part of the fun is learning new rules (admittedly by trial and error usually).

You should take a look at Civilisation IV. An excellent game in every respect. A good physical rule-book (in-game too), random but predictable battles, and a time-tested resource model.

Take a look at World of Goo, too, if you like clever physics/puzzle games where luck plays a minimal role.

Chris said...

The issue of disclosing videogame rules came up in my recent dialogue with Miguel Sicart, published at You get mentioned by name. :)

Best wishes!