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February 17, 2014

A Lunch BIT from Uncertainty in Games by Greg Costikyan

Posted by: Susan Mai

In Uncertainty in Games, author and award-winning game designer Greg Costikyan makes the argument that uncertainty is essential component for a successful game. Sources of Uncertainty: A BIT of Uncertainty in Games contains a summary of the various types of uncertainty built into games. Here’s an excerpt from the BIT highlighting what Costikyan calls Performative Uncertainty:

I’ve restricted the term “performative uncertainty” to mean the uncertainty of physical performance. In today’s conventional videogame market, games of performative uncertainty rule: first-person shooters, action/adventure games, driving games, and the like. Indeed, many videogamers view challenges of hand-eye coordination as inseparable from the very idea of “the video-game,” though of course there are in fact many digital games for which this is not true: turn-based strategy games, adventure games, and so on.

One school of thought holds that games of performative uncertainty, or player-skill games, are inherently superior to character-skill games, or to games of analytic complexity, which are often derided as “animated spreadsheets.” The notion is that “real gamers” should develop l33t skillz, and anything else is an inferior experience.

The problem with depending on player skill, however, is that, by nature, players are not evenly matched. A new FPS player,signing onto a multiplayer server, will die over and over, at the hands of more experienced players—not a positive player experience. It’s no fun to feel as if you have no chance; any uncertainty departs.

Of course, there are ways of redressing this problem—having a scheme to match players by experience, for example. But designing any such system is tricky, and none is perfect.

Equally tricky is the problem of tuning performative challenge in a soloplay game. Almost whatever you do, some players will find the game too easy, and others too hard; those who find it too hard will abandon it, and feel that the money they paid for the game was not well spent, while those who find it too easy will be similarly dissatisfied. Moreover, developers tend to listen to their most ardent fans, who are by nature hard-core and more skilled that the general audience, and therefore tend to develop games that satisfy the hard core, at the potential expense of reaching a wider audience; indeed, over time, particular genres become harder and less newbie friendly, the phenomenon of grognard capture. Anyone could play Doom; only someone who grew up playing FPSs can master more recent titles, particularly at the highest difficulty setting.

Developers try to deal with this problem using variable difficulty settings, or dynamically adjusted difficulty, but even the “easy” setting in many games is beyond the capabilities of some players. For my part, there are bosses in, say, the Zelda games I cannot beat, my strategy typically being to hand the controller to a teenage daughter and tell her “five bucks to beat this boss.”

While it is possible to construct a player-skill game that is fairly casual in nature—Tetris (Pajitnov, 1984) and Snood (Dobson, 1996) are examples—games of physical challenge tend to be “lean forward” rather than “lean backward” in nature. That is, they typically require continuous attention from the player and excellent timing for success; they are tense, not relaxing. Lean backward games, by contrast, are less tense, do not require continuous attention, and are played more for relaxation—match-three games such as Bejeweled(Kapalka, 2001) for example. Consequently, games of performative skill are less likely to be successful in more “casual” markets.

Games of performative skill tend also to be “blue” rather than “pink”; I don’t wish to make broad assertions about what sorts of games women and men prefer, because people are different, and almost any such assertion is falsifiable. But observably, the most hard-core of player-skill games attract a largely male audience, and the sorts of games that appeal most strongly to a female demographic—casual and social games—are either devoid of performative challenge or tuned very low in terms of difficulty.

Some gamers find performative challenge to be undesirable in games, rather than essential. Abstract strategy gamers find games that rely on anything other than a clean mental contest unappealing; strategy simulation gamers are interested in simulation verisimilitude and not in mastering a set of reflex actions; casual gamers often find player-skill games frustratingly hard. Thus, as in so many things, whether or not performative challenge is appropriate and useful in a game is almost entirely a matter of aesthetics.

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