When do Themes Collide?

Greg Aleknevicus, at The Games Journal - a web publication concerned with the art and design of the boardgame, poses an interesting cross-over question.  In "German Games are Fradulent" he claims that there should be a thematic <-> mechanical connection to good (board) game design.   Is there an equivalent principle for MMOGs: a thematic <-> simulation connection?

Greg states the advantage, for board games,  in this way:

Look back to the games that Avalon Hill produced in the 1970's and 1980's and you'll find that they're much more closely tied to their themes. Merchant of Venus may have some rather odd bits of thematic colour but there's no mistaking that you're a merchant trying to make a profit. In New World, you really do feel that you're exploiting the Americas. Most of the mechanics in Dune are quite abstract but it all adds up to a game that feels remarkably faithful to the book.

He  goes on to suggest to us a methodology of appraisal:

Consider playing a version of either game that has had all thematic accoutrements removed. (i.e. No artwork or descriptive text on the cards, the pawns are generic and the board is plain.) There's nothing in the gameplay of Ivanhoe to suggest that it's concerned with battling knights, it has as much theme as Hearts or Bridge. Clearly you could fit a theme to the mechanics but they do not suggest one of their own accord. A "de-themed" Duell, on the other hand, would be instantly recognizable as a fencing match to anyone who plays a few hands. The mechanics not only suggest the theme, they practically demand it.

A 'Dances with Elves Bard Fest' in an MMOG should not feel like Kung Fu Kombat, right?

Beyond the narrow considerations of the human-machine interface, are there more process-oriented links between game themes and game mechanics that need to be carried through in the the MMOG space?   Should a Healer-Tanker-Nuker group pattern in a fantasy MMORPG be translated differently into a Sci-Fi Dune setting, should it *feel* different there?


Comments on When do Themes Collide?:

Jeff Freeman says:

Should a Healer-Tanker-Nuker group pattern in a fantasy MMORPG be translated differently into a Sci-Fi Dune setting, etc.? Or are themes and play patterns trully independent?

On the one hand, I think the mechanics should fit the theme.

On the other hand - and It's Healer-Tanker-Nuker-Mezzer, now, - I think we're going to be stuck with that model for pretty much everything, and for a long, long time.

Posted Aug 10, 2004 1:05:43 PM | link

Brian Yeung says:

"beyond the narrow considerations of the human-machine interface"

In any software, you typically want to leverage existing conventions. But in games, you want to avoid the feeling that it's the same thing, repackaged.

Posted Aug 10, 2004 2:54:35 PM | link

Greg says:

How very like an old A-H fan.

Most of A-H's designs grew out of a simulationist impulse, largely because many were designed by people who cut their teeth on board wargames, which are simulationist by nature. In this regard, they were quite unlike the prevailing 'mass market' boardgames published by companies like Parker, Milton Bradley, and Kenner, which mostly slapped marketable themes on top of proven mechanics (the track game, pachisi variants, peg solitaire, etc.). This is, in fact, part of the reason we liked the hobby boardgame style; it seemed more intellectual, more engaged with something real.

However, to use this fact to attack the common paradigm of modern German boardgames is mind-bogglingly silly. The German boardgame (or more broadly 'Eurogame') tradition rises out of the mass-market boardgame tradition. In the US, the mass market boardgame has become a notably uncreative and rather dull field largely, I believe, because monopoly has eliminated any need to attempt to innovate (Hasbro essentially owns the boardgame market here). In Germany, by contrast, a half-dozen or so strong game publishers compete vigorously, and as a result, the traditional mass-market boardgame has mutated over time, and the audience for such has come to appreciate systems innovation. And indeed, virtually every Eurogame has a different core mechanic (games in a series, e.g., the Catan titles, being an obvious and understandable exception).

In short, Eurogame designers are not designing from a simulationist impulse; they design largely by looking for interesting and novel core mechanics. This is, to my mind, an entirely justifiable and reasonable approach to game design, albeit my own impulse is generally to reach for some simulationist hook to hang a game on. Aleknevicus ends by calling for some sort of synthesis of the two design traditions--he wants games with the creative mechanics of Eurogames and the simulationist approach of US hobby boardgames--and while that might be interesting, I don't think it's at all reasonable to claim that one tradition is superior to the other.

Posted Aug 10, 2004 4:41:11 PM | link

Wondersaurus says:

First: I do not agree with the usage of theme here. The implication is that the theme of a game is defined through the audio, visual and backstory of the game. This is analogous to defining the theme of a book through the author's statements regarding the theme and the style the author writes in, not the content. It is not necessarily wrong, but it does ignore the meat of where those judgements can arise from.

Second: I agree that a cohesion is needed, but it should be between the expressed theme (what is referred to previously as themes) and the actual theme (adding gameplay into one's judgment of theme). That bunch of fantasy heroes should not be transferable to Dune. There's just no room for them on Arrakis. It would break the expressed theme implied by the use of Dune.

Posted Aug 10, 2004 4:54:57 PM | link

Nathan Combs says:

Wondersaurus>

The implication is that the theme of a game is defined through the audio, visual and backstory of the game. This is analogous to defining the theme of a book through the author's statements

The cited elements at least help convey the theme of the game.

My variant question is how much meaning is actually defined through the interface and mechanics? Harkening to an earlier raised by greglas:

VWs are not merely semiotic conventions for conveying information about reality (like language), but, like art, they are information in and about themselves. The signifiers in VWs are the signified...

(from this TN thread)


Posted Aug 10, 2004 8:47:45 PM | link

Tobold says:

The mechanical aspects of a game are often determined by playability, not by thematic, and that is good. A prime example is combat, which is highly unrealistic, but very playable, in all MMORPG games. If you are heavily wounded by a sword, bullet, or laser, you SHOULD be flat on your back, unable to fight, slowly bleeding to death. But that wouldn't be much fun, so the game lets you continue to fight at full strength, until you actually drop to zero hitpoints.

Nevertheless there are some MMORPG where the mechanics match well with the theme. City of Heroes makes you feel like a super-hero, by its combat mechanics of fighting relatively large groups of enemies. In comparison most fantasy based MMORPG combat is about single-pulling enemies out of a group, which is skillful, but not very heroic. Star Wars Galaxies does a good job of making crafting feel as if you actually created something unique, in most other games its just a click-feast.

Posted Aug 11, 2004 2:49:13 AM | link

Alfred Norris says:

Several ideas come to mind after reading this.

a) I think we will see a convergence of "themes" (i.e. game genres like FPS, RTS and RPG) because we are evolving towards mimicing all of the processes (fighting, making money, building) available in the realworld.

b) A recent 2d MMORPG called Socialotron is attempting to add more realistic behavioral impulses for characters at the cost of losing control of your character for periods of time. I think this is another example of how players are looking for a more visceral interaction with their silicon.

Posted Aug 11, 2004 12:31:06 PM | link

Jesper Juul says:

"there should be a thematic <-> mechanical connection to good (board) game design. Is there an equivalent principle for MMOGs: a thematic <-> simulation connection?"

I think that what you call simulation is the same as mechanical in the article?

It's always my gripe with the term "simulation" - that it describes the mechanics of a game as well as its theme, which makes it very hard to discuss these issues...

But the mechanics/theme issue (that I prefer to call rules/fiction) is present in all game forms.

Posted Aug 12, 2004 5:29:40 AM | link

Nathan Combs says:


It's always my gripe with the term "simulation" - that it describes the mechanics of a game as well as its theme, which makes it very hard to discuss these issues...

Simulation implies also game-world behaviors. The mechanics of a Star Craft permit you (or the AI) to do a great deal more than the 2 or 3 (optimal) strategies exhibited during most play.

Knowing only the mechanics (rules) of a game-world is under-constraining wrt NPC (e.g.) behavior.

Posted Aug 12, 2004 8:05:06 AM | link

greglas says:

Nate, your (borrowed, I guess) term "themes" sounds a bit like the wargaming term "chrome" to me -- all the flashy detail stuff that adds interest and fleshes things out but isn't really essential to rules and gameplay.

I have never really bought that distinction. It's out there -- Dave Myers tries to do it in his book by sorting computer games into genre groups, and Orwant's game generator system seems to adopt it as well by trying to abstract gameplay based on rules, but can you really separate Mario from his bounce? Is it really irrelevant that the ghosts in Pac-Man are ghosts? While those may be irrelevant in terms of win/lose strategy for play, they aren't in terms of how you understand the games as texts. They're also not irrelevant to the game appeal or to game popularity.

So my position is no, themes aren't independent aspects of games any more than word choice is an independent aspect of the sonnet.

Re the article, I've got to agree with Greg Costikyan 100% -- cross-mapping rules structures into non-native contexts is what I call being creative as a games designer.

Posted Aug 14, 2004 4:40:57 PM | link

John Prevost says:

In my experience, the key feature here is "verisimilitude"--the illusion of truth.

When a game mechanic is obviously divorced from any kind of reality, there can be a lot of fun there. And, I think, there are benefits to making that choice. This kind of setup can have both levels of simplicity and levels of complexity that are lacking in simulation-style game mechanics. In short, it gives you a game world in which the physics of the world are just *different*. In that sort of world, learning the physics of the world can be fun. In addition, the more restricted physics of the world makes the game easier to balance. And finally, because the physics of the world can be quite simple, learning their interactions so that you can actually play the game isn't an onerous task.

On the other side of the picture, when a game mechanic is based on a simulation of reality, there's a more direct feeling that you're involved in something "real". Here, there's more potential for a sense that there are always levels of greater understanding of how the world works that will improve your strategies. Potentially, it's also easy for players to understand the system because it has a basis in reality. But there can be drawbacks. In a board game, the closer a simulation is to reality, the more complicated the rules become, and the harder it is to maintain the fiction. In a computer game the players do not have to maintain the rules themselves, but real-world rules can be very unforgiving, leading to difficulty balancing things. And players can get... upset when the world doesn't work the way they think it does.

In my experience, having a greater amount of simulational complexity does, in general, improve the verisimilitude of a game. But the complexity of the system can grow difficult for the designers to manage. The choice of what to simulate reliably and what to abstract (and how) can have dramatic impacts on workable strategies in the world. And cutting corners can make entire areas of simulation unworkable.

I'll give two examples of simulating the real world and difficulties with the simulation because of constraints of the system.

In SWG, the differences between rifles and pistols were originally pretty realistic in a few ways. A pistol was able to be fired more quickly. A rifle had better accuracy at longer range. A pistol could be fired on the move, a rifle generally worked better when fired from a prone position. So what was the problem? A choice of constraints! In SWG, the longest range at which you can target something is approximately 64m. It turns out that this distance is *not* large enough to do justice to the real world potential of a rifle for long range fire compared to a pistol's accuracy at short range. As long as rifles didn't work well on targets moving at shorter ranges, they needed the potential to kill targets in one shot (insta kills), which was seen as patently unfair. And from the point of view of rifle users, if that first shot didn't kill, they were very suddenly dead, as the target they were aiming at quickly closed the distance far enough to make the rifle useless. So here, the constraint that creatures further away than 64m simply could not be targeted set up a world where the real-world distinctions between long range and short range weapons didn't work so well, and had to be tweaked significantly for balance.

My second example is very very current in the game EVE. In EVE there are currently three size-classes of fighting ships: frigates, cruises, and battleships. These different classes have somewhat realistic differences based on size: frigates can move much more quickly, but are unable to support as much firepower or defensive power as the larger ships. Battleships move much more slowly and are much more expensive, but can support very large very long range weapons, and have significant resources for defense. In the real world, this difference is moderated by the significantly larger upkeep cost of larger ships (they require more crew, more maintenance, etc.) In EVE, on the other hand, there is no distinction in terms of maintenance costs. THe larger ships cost more, but not enough to counter-balance the fact that in EVE, one player controls one ship. Because of that one player one ship rules, battleships have become very much the be-all end-all of ships. Why? Because a given corporation with n people can field at most n ships. And if they field n/2 frigates, n/4 cruisers and n/4 battleships, and the other side brings just n battleships, the side with the most firepower wins. In response to this (to add verisimilitude), the EVE developers have been making the very large weapons systems on larger ships less capable of damaging smaller ships. There *is* in fact a real world basis for this, but the division between some parts that are about mirroring the real world and some other parts that are about balancing the game has confused players. Players who don't care to understand the real-world constraints cry "It's stupid that my 100mil battleship can be killed by just a few 3mil frigates." Players who understand the real world constraints a bit better cry "Real world large ships have a mixture of large and small weapons systems--but it's certainly not 1 for 1! It's stupid that I can *either* have a single large turret or a single small turret! I should be able to fit four small turrets in the space that a single large turret takes up." In order to make sense of these balance changes, the players need to understand both the real world constraints (yes, an explosive device will cause relatively more damage (larger % of hp) to a smaller ship at the same time that it does absolutely less damage (smaller number of hp) to that smaller ship) and the goals of the developers to make the game more interesting to a larger number of players. In a nutshell, people have had the feeling all along that the game has been appealing to reality for its rules (e.g. turrets have a "tracking speed" that determines how well they can hit a target based on that target's radial velocity around you)--that it's a simulation. But what they haven't understood is what places the devs have abstracted away the real world (e.g. one player represents both the three-man crew of a frigate and the 500-man crew of the battleship)--because, after all, in any simulation you need to choose what pieces to simulate.


Anyway, there are tradeoffs for taking either choice. Abstract too much and get a game that doesn't have a feeling of being "real". Abstract too little and get a game that is too real and not enough "fun". And, of course, if you choose the same abstractions that have been passed down from earlier generations of games, be prepared to be passed off as a "clone" of those games.

Posted Aug 19, 2004 12:48:09 AM | link

Richard Bartle says:

greglas>I've got to agree with Greg Costikyan 100% -- cross-mapping rules structures into non-native contexts is what I call being creative as a games designer.

I've reskinned games myself as an exercise (the JavaScript games Spunky Princess and Dr Livingstone, I presume? are identical but for their graphics and music). It's not hard to rename objects in a game mechanic and get the same game but with a different look and feel.

I nevertheless have some sympathy with Greg Aleknevicus's point of view in that sometimes the reskinning is so thin that it breaks the fiction. I could spin chess so it looked on the face of it like a pyramid-construction game, but the mapping of the pieces to their function would be a nonsense. It's this fitting of round gameplay pegs into square marketing holes that makes the recycling of game mechanics suspect; it's not the fact that game mechanics are recycled.

Richard

Posted Aug 19, 2004 4:08:38 AM | link