game-play vs context

i just saw a usenet post saying something like, ‘a few years ago i wrote a SEAL team warfare storyline for a game and now Rainbow 6 comes out…’ the person posting seemed frustrated by something. i’m not sure whether she thought that someone had ‘beaten her’ to executing a great idea or what. but the post reminded me of what i consider one of the hardest lessons i had to learn about game design.

games are first about simple interactions–player action and system response. any fictional ‘storyline’ comes second and is far less important in creating a good game.

this may sound like an odd thing for a person from a writing/rpg design background to say, since it devalues the writer with regard to the game development process. five years ago i would have argued that this was not true until i was blue in the face. now i am a firm believer.

so in the rainbow 6 example, what makes the game fun is far more centered around moving through a maze, avoiding line of sight detection with enemy ‘units,’ avoiding the fired projectiles of enemy units, shooting the enemy units before they shoot you, switching to a different avatar unit if the one you inhabit is ‘killed,’ etc. and of course, shooting and killing simply mean putting your cursor on top of a section of the enemy art and pushing the mouse button. the terms ‘shoot’ and ‘kill’ are simply more of the fictional context. and initially, until the simple game-play interactions are worked out, they are irrelevent. in fact, they seem to me to get in the way of development.

this may seem simple to some people, especially programmers, since they usually evolve as game makers by painstakingly building a series of games from the root level up. by the time a programmer is ready to get hired by a professional company, he or she has probably systematically created a number of small games. and in the process of doing so, the programmer has come to understand games at an abstract level: how does game piece A relate to piece B?

the person from a fictional background comes at the problem from the opposite side: wouldn’t it be cool to do a game about the power struggles between kingdoms?

and from the collision of fundamental game-play and fictional context, hopefully, you get something like chess. for good game-play, which is the most important aspect of any game, you have to focus on the simple interactions that actually make the game. and hopefully your fictional context is so interesting that it enhances the game experience, as it does with Rainbow 6.

the context is still very important (and as we move closer to simulations instead of classic games the context is of course getting more important). much of the modern game experience comes from the player immersing himself in the context–thinking of himself in the terms established by the game’s setting and fiction…a medieval thief, a modern special forces assassin, etc.

i hope this does not sound like preaching. and many people, especially programmers, will think it’s obvious. but it was one of those things about game design that took me a while to grasp.

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