Game Design: Rested Experience, Flow, Emergence

With a little suspended judgment, you can draw many awkward if interesting tangents in life, and one of them is this tangent between BYOND and Warhammer Online’s “rested experience.”

The idea behind rested experience (perhaps originally pioneered by a temporary Ultima Online change) is that by not playing constantly your character builds up a bit of a buffer in which they advance faster.  This was done to give the casual players a bit of an edge against the hardcore.

However, in terms of game design, I’m finding I’ve gained a bit of real life rested experience as well.

Miyamoto’s Advice

Shigeru Miyamoto, in case you’re unaware, is pretty much the heart and soul of Nintendo these days. He made Mario, he made Donkey Kong, he made Zelda, Star Fox, Pikamin, F-Zero, and so on.  I think it’s safe to say that he’s pretty damn close to a gaming Buddha at this point.

But, like the rest of us, Miyamoto is a mortal fellow limited in one key asset: he only has his own perspective to work with.  I’m not sure where I read it now (I’m sure Miyamoto has been tapped for advice by aspiring game designers relentlessly at every turn) but I remember reading some advice from him that went something like this:

[“If I could have one thing in life to make me a better game designer, it would be to be able to observe my games as a player completely untainted by the experiences of designing the game.”]

The concept is basically this: when you design a game, you build up an understanding of it that is completely different from a player who is encountering it for the first time.  This makes it hard to understand how well a player will enjoy your game.  The deeper reality of this is that, as human beings, our brains are always breaking down the things we see into ideas, and after awhile we stop seeing the things and only see the ideas.  It’s a bit of Walker Percy’s Loss of Creature, really.

This is where the rested experience idea comes in.  Because I’ve been away from my game for awhile, I was able to come back to it and see it with fresher eyes.  Surprisingly, I have to say that what my game radiated was actually a lot more amusing than I remembered it was.  It’s not a complete game, but this is encouraging.  I’m going to have to keep working on this, I’m onto something great.

My Project

As I detailed on my BYOND Blog earlier this week, I’ve two major goals for my 2D small-scale BYOND MMORPG, and that’s flow and emergence.

I’ve talked at length about these aspects on my Blog in the past.

When I’m complaining about a game being generally boring, I’m talking about “flow,” which is the ability to be mentally engaged by the game, and this breaks down to aspects such as challenge and being able to learn from it.

When I’m complaining about how a game (such as City of Heroes or Tabula Rasa) never seems to change, I’m talking about limitations on emergence.  The official definition is close to, “do things the developer hasn’t planned” but I think that might be going a little far: unplanned stuff tends to ruin everything.  Instead, lets just say an emergent developer’s plan encompasses a whole lot more than an developer of a game without an emergent focus.

Now that the new computer vibe has worn off and the Warhammer Online grind is beginning to wear, I’m sitting down and turning my considerable (if lazy) brain towards conquering these aspects using BYOND.  I’ve come back to my game design table, where I discovered tattered scraps that lay grim evidence to one pessimistic whole:

“A novice game designer who hopes to conquer flow and emergence on his first game is a bit like a novice electrician who hopes to conquer cold fusion and wireless energy transmission on his first generator.”

Flow and emergence are big concepts in game design that most would agree would be excellent to realize, but nobody has a proven master plan.  I’m boldly setting out on some mental trails that have not been well worn by the passage of those before me (honestly, where a weirdo like me prefers to be) and considering how to go about achieving the previously impossible.

I do not enter this safari entirely unequipped.  I possess a creative mind (as do we all, though tapping it is more habitual to some than others).  I might have an advantage over a more established developer in that I’m not set in my ways – in some ways, experience can be as much as cage as it is a ladder.  I also have a lifetime of computer game playing behind me, leading to an understanding why having flow and emergence are such good things.

However, that doesn’t necessarily mean I’ll be able to find the lost cities of Flow and Emergence on my first shot.  Far more reasonable, I think, to simply consider my first games as experiments along these lines.

My First Game: Spoilers

I’m saying this a bit early, as I’ve probably another month or two in development before something playable manifests. (Or maybe I’ll get really motivated and have it done in 2 weeks – wouldn’t that be something?)  Also, I’m sure some things will change between now and then.

In any case, I’d like to say a little about what I’m currently planning. I’m aware of the risk that somebody will copy this and make their own game from it before I do. I say: go for it.  It’d be awfully hypocritical of me to co-opt advice of Miyomoto, Chen, Koster, and countless others, and then say I’m afraid of being copied. Go ahead, stand on the shoulders of giants – just so long as you’re standing there and not sitting and spinning.

Right then, enough of that mental image.

First off, the outer layer of emergence will be established by a setting in which the players are essentially able to build settlements from scratch, and these settlements can be destroyed. Basically, you (the players) are entirely responsible for the destiny of this virtual world.

It’s going to be engineered in such a way that this loss is not irreconcilable, but rather observed as an inevitability. This is necessary because I don’t want people considering their settlements as permanent homes away from home.

These homes are not permanent, they’re going to get flattened, and I can’t prevent that if I want the game to stay emergent. It becomes the players’ goal to see how long their settlements can last.

This “losable settlement” mechanic doubles as a mechanism for flow. Much like a survivor game, the challenge steadily ramps up until flow is achieved.

There’s actually quite a few existing BYOND games that have survivor-game like mechanics, such as Space Castle and Gold Guardians.

My game will differ primarily in that it takes place from an individual character’s perspective and in a continual space where the players have a lot more influence over the environment. Sort of a Space Station 13 that never resets and has more game-like mechanics.

Second, the inner layer of flow will be established by (in addition to the aspect I just mentioned) giving the player access to a surprisingly diverse character.

I want to keep a relatively RPG-based mechanic in that the BYOND engine is well built to handle it. However, I plan to ditch the standard concepts as much as possible, and replace them with ones that have a heavy focus on mastering the interactivity.

To counter the menace seeking to undermine their settlements, the players will not be given a weapon, tool, or ability but rather a fascinating combination weapon/tool that learning the ins and outs of becomes a game within the game.

This brings us to the concept of power accumulation. I’m trying to ditch the concept of the grind as much as possible, and instead focus on allowing players to unlock additional power through simply proving themselves capable of surpassing a challenge.

Killing stuff to gain experience points leading to levels just burns time. My goal is that the players kill just enough stuff to prove they’ve mastered their level, and are instantly whisked onto a harder challenge that allows them access to the next. Hooking this up to an RPG sense of accomplishment is tricky, but I think I can do so.

Overall, the dots are on the paper, and I like the looks of them. Now, I just need to draw the connecting lines.

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