Thursday, January 31, 2013

Permadeath Pokémon and Flexible Systems

Pokeball Art by BionicleGahlok via Deviant Art
My latest PopMatters article is now live: Permadeath Pokémon and Flexible Systems.

You may have recently read my Nuzlocke Challenge, Day 1 experience. The death total has increased to four since I wrote that piece, and everyone was painful. I still have my most loyal group though, so I take pleasure in knowing my pokémon skills are not complete garbage. Meanwhile, I have also been re-reading Donella Meadow's book Thinking in Systems - which is always an enriching experience. The result is this article about the design of flexible systems.

What I mean by flexibility, in this case, is the way game systems can adapt to player input when input can go so far as creating their very own rules. As I see it, if a game community is able to tweak their experience freely and create their own meaning within the system without fundamentally breaking the system in some way, then that is the sign of an incredibly healthy work.

There are a lot of ways to create a non-rigid system. The two that I think are most significant for user-created experiences are readability and fungibility. Simply put, players need to be able to understand the components of a system and be able to determine their relatively value freely. The easier is to re-appropriate game components the better. I defer to the article itself for examples.

I actually want to point you to a relevant article by Jamie Cheng and Kevin Forbes of Klei that appeared on the PA Report this week: Intrinsic vs. Extrinsic rewards in Klei’s latest game: Don’t Starve. Their now abandoned quest system had a negative affect on player behavior. Instead, they came to this conclusion:

"We could no longer simply tell people what to do, but instead, after dozens of playtests and many UI passes, created an interface which gently and neutrally showed them what they could do created an environment where players could enjoy the game exactly as they felt was correct."

This important point here is that creating the space for players to engage with the system in that way is a choice, and a difficult one. Even when players are enjoying a situation of their own design, they still bring their own rules into a thoroughly designed space. Designers can't please everyone, but they can work on making their game systems as flexible and habitable for the ingenuitive players as possible.


  1. Good article, but I'm a bit uneasy with the idea that flexible systems are an unambiguously positive ideal towards which to strive.

    Why do we start from the idea that the point of a game is to serve the interests of the player? Would we ask a book's author or film's director to make their work as malleable as possible for their audience? Isn't there value in learning the personal flexibility required to digest a piece of art on its own terms? Folks like Lawrence Lessig have argued that being able to constantly filter the media you experience (e.g., your Facebook feed, news subscriptions, RSS feeds, movie queue) leads to a narrower breadth of experience and a greater detachment from people with differing views and tastes.

    Systemic rigidity is a core component of games ranging from Braid to Super Hexagon to Portal. If designers enable players to customize their games too much, will people get stuck in familiar, comfortable habits and miss out on personal growth? Isn't accepting the fact that some people just won't like the message you're putting out braver than conceding to people's personal preferences?

    I'm not in favor of flat out designer dictatorships, but I do worry about echo chambers and systems that foster them. You can learn a lot by having to play by a different set of rules (think about a game where you were forced to play as a social minority, with all the systemic implications that comes with). Is it such a bad thing to force people to explore a path not of their own choosing? Is it so bad to accept that not all games need appeal to all people?

  2. Oh, I actually very much agree. I don't mean to say that all games should be 100% player-driven or anything like that. Rather, I think there is something special about a game that does allow that type of player involvement. It doesn't work for all games, but for those designers that do want to allow for such a response, it helps to prepare the game system accordingly.

    This is also just a reiteration of my homeostasis article from awhile back. I think it's easy to go wrong when designers act defensively based on what they imagine players might do. Dishonored's "no respec" feels like an unfortunate attempt to push meaning into decisions when I think they could have had their cake and eat it too. It's easier to make a rigid sys

  3. This is a really interesting topic... I've semi written about 3 different responses since I first read this and can't quite come up with anything I ever feel is worth actually posting... (which usually doesn't stop me, but this time did)

    What I think is most interesting in this debate is something like Don't starve's article through this link

    Where it talks about basically players feel limited if goals are too specific almost. Since in Pokemon you are kind of told you'll be a pokemon master, but that this entails not just power, but X Y and Z (especially in the media surrounding it) and the goals themselves while clear, are themselves pretty flexible.

    This isn't a 'quick, it's flashing blue now strike it with fire' kind of situation.Pokemon is actually a pretty good choice though, because it's very structured, yet flexible in terms of how you approach that structure.

    Final Fantasy 1 is actually a little similar here, you can just pick 'the best' team by whatever logic you think suits and run with that... Or you can pick 4 white mages, or 4 red mages and see how you fare with this self imposed challenge. And since the game never calls on 'MIGHTY WARRIOR SLASH' you are all good to go.

    But lets say you tried a... no magic run in skyrim... Well that's not terribly impressive or interesting really unless for some reason you wanted to do the mages guild. Because it's easy enough to avoid anything that might cause a trouble to a non magic user.

    I think high customization games are usually the best for this sort of thing because you can easily create and enforce challenges, many RPGs players try 'Level 1 challenges' or no equipment and so on.

    Probably the most interesting challenges I've heard of are actually both in final fantasy IX, one encouraged by the game, get to the end area in 12 hours, and get a unique item that you can only get by doing this, and it's clearly the best weapon in the game...

    The other one is common to RPGs, the level one challenge, is interesting in FFIX because the hard bit isn't doing it as much as it is managing to not gain the levels.