What Makes a Game?

As marketing people start to think more about making games and gamifying things, it’s probably a good idea to understand what makes something a game and what doesn’t.

Simulators (Examples: Flight Simulator, Sim City, Dwarf Fortress) — A simulator is a type of interactive system whose primary responsibility it is to simulatesomething.

In the end, one of the interesting differences between a simulator and a game is that it’s not a valid complaint to say that a simulator isn’t fun. Simulators really have no inherent requirement to be fun — they only need to simulate something.

To be more precise, the real difference between a simulator and a game is that a simulator is not a type of contest, and a game is. Of course, I suppose you could have a “contest simulator”, but the fact remains that competition is not an inherent part of simulation.

Contests (Examples: a weightlifting contest, Guitar Hero, Simon) — All games are contests, but not all contests are games. The issue is that while contests are competitive, they do not require meaningful decisions. They are often a pure measurement of ability — a simple question of “how much weight can you lift”, or for the example of Guitar Hero or Simon, “how well have you memorized this sequence”. It can be a bit hazy in some situations, but generally I think most of us have a pretty good innate sense of what the difference is between a game and a contest.

Puzzles (Examples: a Portal level, a jigsaw puzzle, a math problem) — A puzzle is another word for “a problem”. A puzzle has a single correct answer — a “solution”.

Some games can also be solved (“complete information” games, such as chess, where all the information about the game state is known to the player), however if it is common for people to be able to solve a game, it’s considered a knock against that game (Tic-Tac-Toe is solved easily by most people other than very young children, and therefore it is not considered a good game for adults). Puzzles, on the other hand, do not get a knock for having a solution; that’s what puzzles for adults are all about.

So do puzzles have “decision-making”? I argue that they do not — at least, certainly not at all in the same way that games do. Puzzles are not games, because while some puzzles allow players to make decisions, this is actually rather irrelevant to the outcome. All that matters for a puzzle is whether or not the player gave the correct answer.

If all of that is confusing, here’s a helpful chart:


(Via www.gamasutra.com)

Gaming is no longer a competition

Gamasutra ran a really great article (post?) on what makes a game. One of the key observations is that the length of games has eliminated meaningful decision making:

Story-Based Structure. Never before video games was there this idea that games get “completed”. Instead, games were played in “a match”. Now, all games are expected to have a long campaign, capped off by a credits reel. This completion-based mindset has dire effects on our friend, the Meaningful Decision.

Firstly, most story-based games are quite long, with regards to games from throughout history. While most games historically have taken between ten minutes and a couple hours to finish a match, modern video games aren’t considered “finished” in any sense of the word for twenty or more hours.

This on its own isn’t a problem, but it also means that it becomes a bit cruel and harsh to actually ever give a player a meaningful “loss” condition. So, that means all that they can do is win — therefore the meaningfulness of their decisions is destroyed. All they can do is beat the game slower or faster; it’s no longer a competition.

Interesting in that it almost turns long games into form of interactive storytelling since there’s no threat of “permadeath.” It also places an incredible amount of importance on storyline and using cinematic tricks to make players feel something. It’s an interesting design challenge: if they can’t lose, how do you make it interesting?

(Via www.gamasutra.com)

Simple and Obvious vs. Obvious and Simple

John Gruber makes some interesting observations about the differences between Apple UI and third party developers.

Exquisitely well-done new drawing app. Note the complete lack of persistent on-screen UI chrome — there is a fork in this regard between Apple and third-party iOS developers. Cf. Clear for another recent example.

The tension is between simplicity and obviousness. Eliminating on-screen chrome is simpler, more elegant and beautiful. But Apple’s use of minimal but persistent on-screen chrome makes things more obvious. Big differences can result from a slight shift in priorities: simple and obvious vs. obvious and simple.

(Via Daring Fireball)

A new generation shaped by the financial crisis

If this is true, and I suspect it might be, get ready for an interesting dynamic when these kids start pouring into a workplace filled with entitled millenials:

Being 11 to 13 in 2008, meant you were born in 1995-1997. That, I suspect, was the switch point — the cut off for Generation Y and the beginning of the new generation, one that I call the Re-Generation.

This new Re-Generation is shaped by the Recession, steeped in Reality, well-aware of the need for Restraint and Responsibility, and challenged throughout their lives to Rethink, Renew, and Regenerate.

(Via HBR.org)

They Might Be Giants tribute album made out of Interactive Fiction

A bunch of interactive fiction enthusiasts in Boston have created a “tribute album” of IF games for the 20th anniversary of the They Might Be Giants album, Apollo 18:

We’re proud to be hosting Apollo 18+20: The IF Tribute Album. This is a collaboration of various members of the interactive fiction community (including a good number from the People’s Republic of IF) to create a tribute in honor of the 20th anniversary of the release of the They Might Be Giants album Apollo 18. For each track on the album, there is a corresponding short interactive fiction game. The “Fingertips” tracks from the album, each a few seconds long, are represented by one-move games.

This idea is SO awesome on SO many levels that there’s probably not enough room on the Internet to list them out … so we’ll just have to stand back and admire that this tribute to the music of the ultimate nerd band is made out of the purest extract of nerdism that exists in the world: amateur-made text-based games. I may be alone in this, but it gives me a taste of that lazy, under-skilled and unimaginative feeling that I first experienced after seeing The Social Network.

(Via pr-if.org)