GD Column 11: Theme is Not Meaning (Part I)

The following was published in the February 2010 issue of Game Developer magazine…

Who decides what a game is about?

At first glance, the popular board game Ticket to Ride seems to be another link in the great chain of rail baron games, such as Age of SteamEurorails and the 1830 series. During the game, the player draws unique route challenges, to connect certain pairs of cities – New York to San Francisco, Miami to Chicago, and so on.

To complete them, she must claim a series of tracks that connect adjacent cities while also trying to block her opponents from finishing their own challenges. There are sub goals too, such as having the longest contiguous rail line and completing one’s network first, which ends the game for everyone.

Thus, most players would describe Ticket to Ride as a game about building the best rail service, by grabbing choice routes and cutting off the competition. However, the introduction in the rules tells a different story:

On a blustery autumn evening five old friends met in the backroom of one of the city’s oldest and most private clubs. Each had traveled a long distance – from all corners of the world – to meet on this very specific day… October 2, 1900 – 28 years to the day that the London eccentric, Phileas Fogg, accepted and then won a £20,000 bet that he could travel Around the World in 80 Days.

Each succeeding year, they met to celebrate the anniversary and pay tribute to Fogg. And each year a new expedition (always more difficult) was proposed. Now at the dawn of the century it was time for a new impossible journey. The stakes: $1 Million in a winner-takes-all competition. The objective: to see which of them could travel by rail to the most cities in North America – in just 7 days.

The official story comes as a surprise to many players, even veterans of the game, because the theme simply does not match the gameplay. For example, how can a player “claim” a route just by riding on it? Do the trains shut down, preventing anyone else from using that line? On the other hand, claiming routes matches perfectly the fiction of ruthless rail barons trying to control the best connections.

Furthermore, routes can be claimed in any order – there is no sense that the player actually exists in the world as a traveler with real, physical limitation. Instead, claiming routes feels a lot more like buying them rather than traveling on them.

Mechanics Give Meaning

This disconnect leads to some interesting questions. Does a game’s designer have the right to say what a game is about if it doesn’t match what’s going on inside the players’ heads? And if the designer doesn’t have this right, then does a game’s official “story” ever matter at all because it can be invalidated so easily? Isn’t a game about what one actually does during play and how that feels to the player?

Ultimately, designers need to recognize that a game’s theme does not determine its meaning. Instead, meaning emerges from a game’s mechanics – the set of decisions and consequences unique to each one. What does a game ask of the player? What does it punish, and what does it reward? What strategies and styles does the game encourage? Answering these questions reveals what a game is actually about.

Furthermore, while people buy games for the promise of the theme (“I want to be a space marine!”), the fun comes from the mechanics themselves (actually shooting the aliens). When there is a severe dissonance between the two, players can feel cheated, as if the designers executed a bait-and-switch.

The reception of Spore, a game sold with an evolutionary theme, provides a recent example. In the October 2008 issue of Science magazine, John Bohannon wrote the following about how the game delivered on the theme’s promise:

I’ve been playing Spore with a team of scientists, grading the game on each of its scientific themes. When it comes to biology, and particularly evolution, Spore failed miserably. According to the scientists, the problem isn’t just that Spore dumbs down the science or gets a few things wrong–it’s meant to be a game, after all–but rather, it gets most of biology badly, needlessly, and often bizarrely wrong.

The source of this dissonance is that, even though it was sold as such, Spore is not really a game about evolution. Spore is actually a game about creativity – the reason to play the game was to behold the wonder of other players’ imaginations as they used (and misused) the editors to create objects not imagined by the game’s designers – from musical instruments to fantastical creatures to dramatic scenes.

However, even though Spore is not about evolution, the scientists should keep looking because one of the most popular games actually is about evolution – World of Warcraft. The game may have a swords-and-sorcery theme, but the mechanics encourage the players to conduct their own form of natural selection when deciding how to develop their characters.

Over years of experience, veterans of WoW have established a number of upgrade paths (or “builds”) for each class, depending on what role the player wants the character to fill. For example, the Paladin class has three main builds: Holy (for healing), Protection (for tanking), and Retribution (for damage-per-second). Further, underneath these main categories, sub-builds exist for player-vs-player, player-vs-environment, and mob grinding. These paths have evolved organically over the years as players tried out different combinations, depending on what the game rewarded or punished.

Seeing Past the Theme

One can look at any number of games through the lens of how the mechanics affect the user experience to find out what the game actually means. Super Mario Bros., for example, is a game about timing, certainly not about plumbing. Battlefield games are about teamwork, not World War II or modern combat. Peggle is a game about chaos theory, not unicorns or rainbows.

Indeed, games with the same theme can actually be about different things. For example, human conflict with aliens has certainly been a popular theme across video game history. Nonetheless, each alien-themed game can mean something very different depending on the rule set. Galaga is actually about pattern matching. X-Com is about decision-making with limited information. Gears of War is about using cover as a defensive weapon. StarCraft is about the challenges of asymmetrical combat.

Conversely, games with different themes but the same mechanics are actually about the same thing. Civilization and Alpha Centauri are set on completely different planets, but the mechanics are largely the same. Alpha Centauri’s mind worms, probe teams, and Secret Projects are essentially identical to Civilization’s barbarians, spies, and World Wonders. Players can easily see past the game’s chrome to see that they are still making the same decisions with the same tradeoffs.

Genre choice can also affect the meaning of a game. Players expect a theme to deliver on certain nouns and verbs. (“I am a Mage – I can cast powerful Magic!”) Unfortunately, genre conventions often put a barrier between a player and the game he imagined while holding a copy in the store. Once again, players buy games for the theme – if the mechanics and traditions of the genre are wildly unfamiliar to the player, at odds with the game in his head, he may feel cheated.

For example, two recent console games – Halo Wars and Brutal Legend – surprised players by being strategy games. With the former, many players expected a Halo game to be about reflex-based combat; with the latter, heavy-metal music is not inherently strategic. Because strategy games are often played at a considered distance, players expecting the visceral thrill promised by the games’ themes were disappointed. The designers may have built fun and interesting rule sets, but the themes sold the games to the wrong fans.

Uniting Theme and Mechanics

One interesting comparison is the board games Risk and Diplomacy, which have identical themes of world conquest. Indeed, at first glance, the two games also seem quite similar mechanically. The game board is split up into territories, which the players control with generic army or (in the case of Diplomacy) navy tokens. These territories switch hands as battles are fought, and – in turn – the victors are able to field larger militaries from their new lands.

However, a small difference in the rules makes the two games about something very different. In Risk, turns occur sequentially while, in Diplomacy, they execute simultaneously. This difference makes Risk a game about risk while Diplomacy becomes a game about diplomacy. In the former, players must decide how much they can achieve during their own turn and then hope the dice are not unkind. With Diplomacy, however, there are no dice; players can only succeed with the help of others, which can only be promised but not actually delivered during the negotiation round. Only when the secretly-written orders are revealed between turns is it clear who is a true friend and who is a backstabbing traitor.

Diplomacy, in particular, is a perfect marriage between theme and mechanics. Indeed, President John F. Kennedy considered it his favorite game. The game is about exactly what it claims to be about – the twists and turns of diplomatic negotiations. On the other hand, when a game’s theme and mechanics are sharply divorced, players can react negatively to the dissonance. Part II shall discuss examples of games which made a successful union of the two and ones which did not – and the rewards and costs of doing so.

16 thoughts on “GD Column 11: Theme is Not Meaning (Part I)

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  2. Nice read, but just to pick a nit: the E in PvE stands for Environment, not Enemy.

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  4. Interesting note about JFK, what is your source for that ?

    I wonder what other AH games he played.

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