Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Game and Simulation

In the last post I argued that modern MMORPGs are mostly games, while modern first person shooters (in single player mode) are mostly simulations. In this post I will define more clearly what I mean when I say that a 'game' is a simulation.

All features of a 'game' can be judged according to how much they add to the simulation and how much they add to the game. It is unfortunate semantics that we have come to call all 'games' games. I hope you understand what I mean by looking at the context and the apostrophes.

Take for example the classic health bar. From a simulation point of view it says that your character can be differently healthy. If he is very unhealthy and takes a beating, he 'dies'. From a gameplay point of view, the health bar tells you how many health-points you have. The points can be reduced. If they reach zero, you are punished.

The simulation aspect is the interpretation of the gameplay mechanic. And what is important to understand is that every single aspect of a (non-abstract) 'game' can be judged according to gameplay and simulation. Both aspects are important.

For example, to create engaging gameplay it can make a lot of sense to allow all players to heal up after they have taken out an enemy. But for many games, like warriors in WoW, this is bad simulation. To not let players heal up to full, however, is good simulation and bad gameplay. A design dilemma that can, for example, be solved by changing what is simulated. That's why many first person shooters give you fast-reloading shields. It's perfectly good gameplay to have them reload fast. And it's also perfectly good simulation.

The problem is that good 'games' want to be a game as well as a simulation. And rightfully so. Pure simulations can be very boring and frustrating. For example, being perma-killed by a random trap you walk into is terrible gameplay. But it is perfectly good simulation. (Assuming that you want to simulate the real-life effects of walking into surprising death traps).

On the other hand, pure games have a lot of trouble appealing to new players. For example it's very hard to inspire somebody about a completely new card game, because card games are almost perfectly abstract games. They have almost no simulation aspect. Chess, on the other hand, has a weak simulation aspect residue. Thus, encouraging your kids to play chess is much easier if you first talk about the simulation of a great war, and only then explain the detailed rules.

This is the same with MMORPGs. Look at WoW's advertisement. Apart from fooling you with cognitive biases (10 mio players can't be wrong, nor can 1 billion flies..), they focus entirely on the simulation aspect. "It's not a game, it's a world". They couldn't be more straightforward.
Blizzard uses these adds, because the gameplay is impossible to be fun unless you actually play it. Nobody can be inspired to play WoW by being explained the rules. One has to experience the rules to find them fun.

With simulations it's the other way round: A simulation can seem a lot of fun without actually ever having played it. "Imagine you accompany the fellowship of the ring!"
And, in fact, a simulation that seems perfectly fun can turn out to be very unfun if you actually experience it: "An orc from behind - you're dead. - No, you couldn't do anything about him, you didn't see him coming!".

Many good games start with a strong simulation aspect and then transform more and more into abstract games. This is true for any first person shooter that added multiplayer, as it is true for MMORPGs. Once you are in the game and want to win, you usually could care less about the simulation. That's why players who raid have no problem with cluttering the entire screen with gameplay information. A new player would never touch a game that looks that terrible. But if you understand all the gameplay information, this makes for a reasonably good game.

Pure simulations miss most features of good games and vice versa. Have a look at the What Games Are blog to learn more about games. I don't need to link you to any simulation-explaining blog. You already know what a good simulation is: It is credible, consistent and takes place in a setting the player is interested in.

When you make a non-abstract 'game' (like any MMORPG), you want to make it a good simulation as well as a good game. If the simulation aspect were not important, you could replace all character models by squares and all NPCs by circles. That doesn't affect the gameplay. In fact, the better fps improves the gameplay. That's why many professional fps players scale back the graphics. Higher fps and better contrasts my look terrible, but competitive fps players don't care about the simulation. They care about winning.

The next post will be about how to combine games and simulations to be more than the sum of both parts.

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