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Thinking Virtually

#40: Consistent Lines

Two Alternative Views to The Realism Rathole

by Sam Witt
January 21, 2002


TV logo  

In the second of two Alternative Views to The Realism Rathole, I'm reprinting a pair of Sam Witt articles related to questions of reality. Sam Witt is an external developer at Skotos Tech, creating a science-fiction game called Horizon Station. At the same time, he's written a regular column called MetaStatic which looks at big game issues and how Horizon Station will specifically implement them.

Sam's articles tend to be a little shorter than some of the other pieces I run in Thinking Virtually, but they're insightful enough that I want to include them when the topic is right. So, this time I've included two of Sam's article: one specifically addressing how consistency is the best realism, and another slightly less topical piece talking about overlapping two different realities: physical and virtual. --Shannon


The Power of Consistency

by Sam Witt

Realism in games is virtually impossible to achieve. The world is simply too varied and complex to ever be adequately described in any environment other than, well, the world. Designers strive for realism; we add weather patterns to our games, complex code to handle the behavior of NPCs, even detailed economic models. In the end, however, most 'realistic' elements are merely consistent elements.

Players can be very demanding, and they want their game worlds to make sense. Consistency in design allows gamers to learn from the world, and to better understand how that world works. Because games can be so complex, this consistency is important in helping characters overcome the learning curve – if the environment reacts in a consistent way to the actions of the characters, then it's possible to extrapolate the manner in which the world functions, and use this knowledge in dealing with new situations.

Which is why players get so upset when things in the game change. The more complex a game environment is, the longer it takes for players to uncover its internal consistency and begin to understand how the artificial world works. When changes are made to that delicate system skeleton, the effects can throw off players for weeks, often resulting in 'losses' of character advancement or gear.

Just as important as mechanical consistency, however, is thematic consistency. If you tell your players that your game is a heroic fantasy, then they'll expect to be able to do things that fit into that theme. Putting in dragons to be defeated and evil wizards to be thwarted is great – tossing in cyborg terminator droids and clones probably won't sit so well with the players.

On a more subtle note, the manner in which the game is played should be consistent as well. If characters begin the game by hacking up monsters and stealing their loot, then it's reasonable that this element is going to be present throughout the life of the game. More importantly, the manner in which the character whacks monsters is something that can evolve over the life of the character, but it shouldn't radically change.

If, for example, your average goblin warrior character is able to kill monsters on his own at the start of his career, then he should still be able to do this throughout the life of the character. There's nothing wrong with more powerful challenges requiring a group of adventurers to deal with, but that goblin warrior should always be able to go out and find some monsters to work over.

Though it can be difficult, there are few elements as important to your game as internal consistency. It gives your players the tools they need to understand and interact with your world, creating a richer experience for them, and a less painful one for you. Take the time at the front-end of your game to lay out a consistent skeleton, and you'll rest much easier in the future.


Crossing the Line

by Sam Witt

A while back, I was running around a Game That Shall Remain Nameless, and ended up in the middle of a rather heated argument. A friend of mine was standing near the gates to a city handing out goodies to passersby. "Merry Christmas," he said, pressing coins or the odd item of interest onto those who looked like they could use it, "and a Happy New Year."

quot;You shouldn't say that." The person speaking was an Authority in the game, and had apparently been watching the goings-on for a while. "There isn't any Christmas or New Year in this world."

I am a roleplaying fan. I enjoy it in many forms, from tabletop gaming to online worlds to pretending like I'm paying attention during meetings that bore me to tears. I plan on encouraging roleplaying in Horizon Station, and I wish more gamers felt like I do.

But this... this bugged me. Here was a guy doing his best to spread a little cheer and fun around, and the game staff was jumping down his throat for violating their fiction. It bugged me, not because the guy was a friend of mine being hassled by the Powers That Be, but because there was an implied conceit that the game had a reality of its own, completely isolated from the rest of the experience of its players.

The problem is that trying to draw a strict line between the 'real world' and the 'game world' doesn't work, and it can hamper the game rather than helping it. Intentionally designing a game to reject many of the things that resonate strongly with the players in their everyday lives doesn't help immerse people in your world, it raises a sense of unreality and detachment that is hard to ignore. I'm no cultural anthropologist, but I'd wager that the majority of societies that we, as players, are aware of have some sort of annual festival marking the change of the year.

It's easy to tailor your game around the real world, to incorporate fantastic versions of real events in order to help synchronize the experience of the players with those of their characters. Just as importantly, by drawing on the experiences of your player base, you can expand and detail aspects of your own world quickly and easily.

Holidays are not the only example of this, but they are the simplest. But everything from professional sports to politics can find their way into your world, masked by the particulars necessary to sustain the fiction. Had Horizon Station gone live six months ago [during election year 2000], you can be sure that there would have been two competing artificial intelligences attempting to gain the confidence of the colonists, with the ultimate decision of who would run the show coinciding closely with the results of the real-world election.

Cleverly applied, the events of the real world help to foster roleplaying in your world, not hinder it. Used appropriately, these fictionalized accounts from the real world can provide dynamic content for your world, and keep things fresh. Players begin to look forward not only to the events in the world, but also the events that will coincide with them in your game.

Most importantly, the use of the world outside of your game helps your players relate to the game itself. The more strongly a player can relate to your world, the deeper her roleplaying, and at the end of the day, better roleplay makes for better games.

Now, click that link down there and tell me what a heretic I am for wanting to use the real world to make better game worlds. Go ahead, you know you want to.

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