GD Column 15: Start Making Sense

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

First, read the following paragraph carefully.

“The procedure is actually quite simple. First, you arrange things into different groups. Of course, one pile may be sufficient depending on how much there is to do. If you have to go somewhere else due to lack of facilities, then that is the next step. Otherwise, you are pretty well set. It is important not to overdo things; that is, it is better to do too few things at once than too many. In the short run, this may not seem important, but complications can easily arise. A mistake can be expensive as well. At first, the whole procedure will seem complicated. Soon, however, it will just become another facet of life.”

Did the paragraph make any sense, or did it seem like a string of nonsense? Most likely, it was the latter, and the reason is that the text is completely devoid of context. Now, try reading the paragraph again, but think of this simple phrase first: “dirty laundry.”

Now, the information should read completely different and actually mean something. The text is simply a set of instruction about how to wash one’s laundry. In fact, now that context has been established, reading the paragraph again without thinking about clothes is probably impossible.

Schema Theory

This transformation is an example of schema theory, which tries to explain how our brains categorizes the world. Essentially, a schema is a mental framework centering on a specific theme, helping us process and classify new information.

For example, a schema for dogs include information about their bodies (four legs, hair, tail), their behavior (barking, drooling, cat chasing), and even their breeds (collies, spaniels, poodles). Further, the dog schema can contain traits from higher-level schemas, such as for mammals (warm-blooded, vertebrates, live births) and pets (domesticated, loyal, house-trained). Thus, when encountering a dog, our pre-existing schema brings with it a wealth of information that informs us on what to expect from the animal.

However, schemas are only useful if they are activated. The original paragraph was meaningless until the appropriate schema was triggered in the reader’s mind by the simple phrase “dirty laundry.” The text itself is useless without the schema, which is an important consideration for an author who wants to communicate effectively.

Games and Schemas

Game designers also need to communicate something effectively – a set of rules and mechanics that the player must learn and master. This education process is one of the biggest challenges game developers face, and many games with fun systems have failed simply because few players get past the learning curve. Many tools exist for solving this problem – well-paced tutorials, helpful tooltips, accessible UI – but perhaps the simplest approach is to activate one of the player’s pre-existing schemas that is well matched with the game’s underlying mechanics.

For example, the board game Agricola activates the player’s farming schema to teach a fairly complex economic engine. Players already understand the order of plowing a field, planting seeds, harvesting wheat, baking bread, and feeding one’s family, which makes the complex interactions between the resources, fields, improvements, and actions easier to learn. Thus, one of the most important jobs of a game’s theme is to help the player understand and remember the mechanics, which is another reason why a game’s theme and mechanics should be well matched.

Another good example of the power of schemas comes from the related board games Coloretto and Zooloretto. Both games use the same underlying game mechanic of set collection with penalties for acquiring too many different types of items. For example, in Coloretto players gather cards of seven different colors, but only the player’s three largest sets score positively; all other color sets score negatively.

The same mechanic is at play with Zooloretto but with herding animals of the same species into pens instead of gathering identical colors. This difference gives the game a strong theme that activates the player’s zoo schema, which actually justifies the scoring system. New Coloretto players need to be told explicitly that every color past their third will hurt them while new Zooloretto players can see clearly from the board that they only have so many pens available – extra animals will remain useless in the barn. The zoo schema matters because the players’ pre-existing knowledge about zoos – that animals of different species are placed into separate pens – makes the game easier to learn.

Furthermore, some themes will activate a player’s schemas easier than others. In particular, historical or contemporary themes have more resonant schemas than sci-fi or fantasy themes. Players can more easily guess how Age of Empire’s knights and archers function than how StarCraft’s mutalisks or dark templars do. Indeed, most fantasy-based games tend to follow very well-established tropes (elves, goblins, dwarves) with which the player is already familiar. Those games which color outside the lines – such as the Kohan series which based its fantasy world on Persian mythology – often fall flat because players cannot use their pre-existing Tolkein schema.

Realism vs. Fun

Using schemas as a tool to give players a window into a game system raises the question of realism because the rules also need to accurately mirror the assumptions the players bring with them. If a baseball game gave the player four outs instead of three, the use of the baseball schema would not just be useless but actually counter-productive because players would be constantly mixing up the exact rules.

Thus, realism matters and is an important tool for designers. However, realism has earned a bad name among game developers. For instance, fans who nitpick over small historical details that a game gets wrong are called “rivet counters.” Indeed, Sid Meier famously said that “when fun and realism clash, fun wins.”

However, in many ways, this choice is a false one. Realism that gives the player an easier learning curve makes a game more fun, not less. The danger from an over-zealous pursuit of realism comes when the designer expects the player to bring significant outside knowledge to the game, limiting the potential audience. If a WWII game contains realistic ratings for different flavors of German panzers, that’s fine, but if the game expects the player to already know these ratings by heart, without in-game help, that’s a problem.

Further, perceived reality is more important than actual reality. The most important question is how the player’s schema is pre-built before starting the game. If a common misperception is widespread enough, better to support the players’ expectations than to subvert them (unless, of course, the design itself has an educational goal).

For example, Sid Meier primarily based Pirates! not on exhaustive historical records, but on pirates movies, Hollywood’s version of the era. Therefore, every pirate has a long-lost sister held captive by an evil Spaniard, and each tavern holds a mysterious stranger who might have a key piece of a treasure map. Similarly, Will Wright based The Sims not on actual domestic life but on a stylized sit-com version of it.

Genre Schemas

Schemas do not need to exist entirely separate from the world of games itself. Gaming veterans will eventually develop their own schemas for which designers must accommodate. More specifically, players will develop schemas related to how a genre is “supposed” to work – a schema for first-person shooters, for platformers, for fighting games, and even for rogue-likes.

Just as people who encounters a new dog expect certain behaviors based on their dog schemas, players who pick up new real-time strategy game come with their own sizable RTS schemas into which they expect the game to fit. The players might expect a God-level view, control of mutliple units, a peon-based economy, base-building for military and technology, a high-level boom/turtle/rush game balance, and so on.

Game which eschew too many of these features can hopefully become critical darlings (Majesty, Sacrifice, Dragonshard) but almost never achieve commercial success. Consumers are generally conservative when dropping $60 on a new game, and the better they can understand a game before purchasing it – often by fitting it squarely into the framework of a genre schema – the more comfortable they will feel. Thus, genre schemas have a significant chilling effect on innovation within the industry.

Perhaps the best way to overcome the limitations of genre schemas is by providing the consumer a different yet stronger schema via the game’s actual theme. For example, Nintendogs did not fit well into a successful commercial genre but the game’s theme – taking care of a pet dog – activated the schemas of consumers with so many clear possibilities that the title became one of the best-selling games of all time. The game sold itself to players primarily on the basis of what they already knew about dogs.

Making Sense

A certain breed of player does exist that is unafraid to dive into unfamiliar territory, such as the early adopters of iconoclastic cult games like Dwarf Fortress and the Dominions series. Most players, however, need to understand what a game is about before they even touch a controller. A schema hook is required, either via the game’s visible theme or some well-established genre conventions.

However, while the latter can successfully sell a gaming to faithful core gamers, only the former can expand gaming to a mainstream audience. Certainly, the Nintendo Wii was the greatest example of this fact during the current console generation. Besides the accessibility of the controls, many of the best-selling games – such as Wii Fit, Mario & Sonic at the Olympic Games, Just Dance, and – yes – even the oft-derided Carnival Games – all have very clear themes that easily activate consumers’ schemas and expectations. Games about space marines and evil wizards do not have this advantage.

Still, finding a resonant theme is only half the battle; a game’s mechanics must match the theme as well. The old “fun beats realism” saw has become such dogma that designers can easily fray the connections between a game’s theme and its mechanics in the very subjective pursuit of fun. Starting a new game is always a leap of faith, and players have a right to expect their games to start making sense.

(Credit for the laundry schema example belongs to the How to Play Podcast.)

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