Tuesday, February 15, 2011

Where Video Games Excel

The discussion of games and video games is going to be a bit of a theme this week as I finish up Reality is Broken. Today, I want to talk about three things video games handle very well, even better than tabletop game: providing clear goals, creating a constant feedback cycle and allowing robust failure.

Clear goals are tied into yesterday's discussion, since they're a big part of why it tends to be easy to move directly into play. Exactly how the goals may be communicated varies from game to game (a shooter may present you with enemies while an MMO may have quest text. It's worth noting that while video games don't always do this well (and can, in fact, drop the ball spectacularly), when the do it right they make the play experience seamless.

A big part of this hinges on the fact that games can more easily put goals directly into the context of play. Yes, some may have dialog or text, but many other games can present the goals (and the possible path to the goal) as implicit in the situation. This might be as crude as a boss monster showing up or as broad as a fading flashlight in a dark lair. Where tabletop play may require stepping back to explain the goal, means and consequences, the ability to present all that as ambient information is a fantastic trick.

A Constant feedback cycle is important to distinguish from feedback in general. Tabletop games can provide feedback in a number of ways, but it tends to do so in very broad strokes (either reaction in play, or through systems like advancement). This can be powerful and compelling, but there are practical limits on how fine a grain it can be. Video Games have no such limitations. They can track all manner of minutae, and potentially turn nearly anything into feedback. Gain a little sword skill every time you swing the sword. Track how many head shots you've performed to award you a prize. Build a win/loss ratio.

Constant feedback can be pretty compelling in a lot of ways, but the most potent is probably the most mundane - it's the simple "Do something, something happens" dynamic. Consider the kind of repetitive action that makes up a game of World of Warcraft or Bejeweled - it's soothing and enjoyable in a way it would not be if you were to describe the actions over and over again. The computer is willing to give you feedback indefinitely, while a human GM or player will get bored pretty quickly.

This is not to say that crunching numbers and pressing buttons are the end-all-be-all of gaming, but sometimes that's what a player wants, and video games are the best tool for the job.

The last, robust failure, is probably one of the single greatest advantages video games have over tabletop. One of the reasons people are wiling to pound away at video games is that they greatly lower the price of failure. If failure actually hurt or cost us something, we'd be far more hesitant in our play, but the fact that is has little sting makes us willing to take risks and more fully engage in the game. The only price of failure is to play again, and since we can presume that we enjoy playing, that's a price we're happy to pay.

This is, by and large, a hard idea to transport to tabletop play. The very idea of a persistent, reliable, imaginary world that forms a foundation for so much play makes consequences a necessity for maintaining that sense of verisimilitude. This means that things like save points and respawns are cumbersome ideas at best. Yet despite this, there's a lot to be said for getting the kind of engagement out of players that comes of not being paralyzed by consequences and risk. Even if RPGs can't fully capture this mojo, they can learn from it. Whether that means introducing setting elements like immortal PCs of (god forbid) respawns, or if it's just a mechanical trick, like making failure interesting or even useful, then you have taken steps towards makign failure a bit more robust.

(Notice that none of these are 'graphics'? Good reason for that. Graphics are tangential to gameplay, and mostly come into play through the lens of level design, which _is_ important, but is not something I'd say is a great strength of video games - it's more of an ugly necessity)

Ok. Deep breath. Got those out of the way. Which means, tomorrow, we look at things that RPGs do well but Video games kind of blow at.


  1. Hollowpoint, a game still in production by VSCA (makers of Diaspora) offers an intriguing example of robust failure in a tabletop rpg. The rules state that PCs never die or are totally taken out until the player chooses to let them. But the incentive is that players get to then introduce a new character of higher rank. Also the rules state that a player wins when her PC Moves On with a complication. That means the player wins when a PC death, or defection to the enemy would make for a vivid narrative.

    This seems to be very close to video games' robust failure. PCs can respawn indefinitely, but what's more, the game even offers its greatest rewards for failure.

    I'm curious to see how this works out in actual play.

  2. @atminn Of all things, I thing Gamma World offers some insight into that. Since chargen is fast and fun in its own right, dying is no big deal _provided_ the player can quickly get back into the action, since the next character will be just as much fun. This is a big part of why we sped up the death saving throw process in our game.

  3. I think graphics are an important aspect, and they do more than just present level design.

    Graphics open the door to a number of methods of interaction that just isn't there, or is easily lost, with table top RPGs. You can use visuals, colors, body language, and size differences a lot better with graphics.

    You can instantly convey the full range of what is going on with a location with visuals. You can suck the player in to the world, and show them how it all works.

    You can do these as a GM to, yes, but the graphics make it a lot more immediate, and with less chance of the person getting lost inside what is going on. It also saves on time the GM would have to spend describing everything too.

    Not to mention, visual flair can be engaging and fun in its own right. Jumping across a chasm when you can see the chasm is a lot more impressive, than being told you did it and knowing you rolled an 18 on that D20.

  4. "....One of the reasons people are wiling to pound away at video games is that they greatly lower the price of failure."

    The video game has propagated the most hated rpg action of them all.... The retcon.

  5. (a) Clear goals and constant feedback as you explain them come along with a major difference I see between multi-sensory media and language-based media. If you have a medium where the audience (and/or participants) can take in information from many senses, such as comics or movies or video games, you can throw in details more easily and make more of them irrelevant. If you have a medium where language is the means of communication, such as novels or TRPGs, you automatically make things salient by even mentioning them. It's a narrow-bandwidth channel, so everything you say matters.

    This touches on what A.L. says; basically, graphics (and audio, etc) can fit in more information that people will filter out unless they really want to be looking for detail, so you can slip more sneaky stuff in there, and get it past people's conscious minds.

    (b) Robust failure interests me. What you've described seems not like robust failure to me so much as no failure. That is, the resulting story includes no significant failure. This really doesn't interest me, but I've been trained through many media to try things in games with vigor whether I expect failure or not, figuring that awesome success and awful explodey failure are both about as interesting. So I may not be the target audience of that idea.

  6. @A.L. graphics are important for an array of secondary effects (the most important being ambient information) but by and large that is a function of design rather than the graphics themselves, or more precisely, it's not a function of graphics quality.

    But in fairness, I'm not going to give tabletop any points for infinite vistas of imagination either. Both approaches do these things, but they're just things they do.

    @kit It's definitely a different approach to failure, and I'm very sensitive to it as a big proponent of interesting (and weighty) failure as necessary for drama. This may actually be an essential difference - video games benefit from feather light failure because the purpose is to get you back into the action. Tabletop benefits from heavy failure because it reinforces the game. It's an interesting friction.


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