Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Hills, Lines, and Wargames

The other day Cameron Kunzelman tweeted about a post by Simon Ferrari titled "Hills and Lines: Final Fantasy XIII" and written in March of 2010.  It really is an excellent post that examines some of the design subtleties in FF XIII that buck the trend (at least, up to that point) for how many JRPG's operate.

Specifically, Ferrari outlines what he calls the 'hills and lines' of FF XIII's design choices.  'Hills' represent the way in which FF XIII slowly ramps up the intensity of battles in order to acclimate players to the complex subsystem of 'paradigms' used in combat.  Here's Ferrari's own words:
"A level will begin, say, with an encounter of two soldiers, then it will add a third soldier. Then the player will face, say, two slimes or a larger enemy such as a behemoth. After these smaller hills have been ascended, the final battle before a checkpoint will combine those enemy types: three soldiers and two slimes, or three slimes and a behemoth, etc. By slowly adding challenges and then combining different types of challenges, the game tests the tipping point where the player has to finally change her dominant strategy and develop a new cycle of paradigm shifts."
Combined with this progressive introduction to the combat system is the fact that FF XIII contains few 'punishments' for those who just barely survive battles or lose them entirely.  Win and everyone in your party is rewarded with full health.  Lose and the game merely restarts you at the moment just before your combat encounter.  This simple design decision means that players are less likely to become obsessed with 'save points' or fear the loss of progress and earned XP just because a battle turned sour.  It creates a smoother experience, as players are not overly punished for failing to succeed.

Ferrari drives home this point by way of an intriguing graphic.  The line to the left is FF XIII, while the line to the right is 2009's Demon Souls.

"Black lines represent progress without death. Red lines indicate time spent on a failed attempt at any segment of the game. Final Fantasy XIII proves that “hard” is not “the new good.” Gentle games have just as much to offer us as brutal games do. Difficulty, like everything else about a game, serves a distinct expressive purpose. Painstakingly clawing one’s way up a mountain isn’t “better” than joyously bounding over a hill. They’re just different."
Ferrari goes on to examine how this very structured path in FF XIII gives way to a more open concept once the player transitions from the 'introductory' world of Cocoon to the more 'free-form' world of Pulse.  Again, I'm only summarizing Ferrari's argument here and I definitely encourage you to read his post in full.

What struck me about Ferrari's argument is how he establishes the link between these hills and lines and how the structure of the two are integral to how a player experiences and learns a particular game's design system.  This got me thinking- what would the hills and lines of a typical board wargame look like?  What lessons can those of us who study board games take away from Ferrari's topographical metaphor?

Here is my own version of Ferrari's line graphic, but this time from a wargamer's perspective:

Wargames represent some of the most complex game systems produced for the textual medium.  (I'm thinking here of examples such as Advanced Squad Leader or The Campaign for North Africa)  Players have to mentally assimilate dozens of rules and even more exceptions to those rules in order to operate the design as the creator intended.  Upon setting up the board and pushing counters around for the first time, many players probably perceive they are making mistakes but that their 'course corrections' mean they will arrive at the end of the game having aligned, generally, their experience with the intent of the design.

My own anecdotal experience with wargames, not to mention those experiences recounted in forum posts at BoardGameGeek or ConsimWorld, suggests that many wargame sessions are more like the graph on the right rather than the one on the left.  You start off correctly then somehow mess up several rules which, surprisingly, still allow you to continue playing.  Along this twisted path you might actually get a few rules right, yet regardless of what you get right/get wrong you still arrive at an ending that may or may not align with the designers original intent.  In both cases you achieve a full experience, but without an omniscient guide to gently correct your play you will, more often than not, mess things up and create an arc that ultimately deviates from the 'correct' experience.

Instead of a smooth arc, or even a spoke-like arc depicted in Ferrari's graphic above, wargames tend to promote an amorphous blob.  There are implications for allowing the player this sort of freedom to create their own arc, and a brief look at what this means for a player's larger game experience illustrates this point.

The guided experience is both an advantage and disadvantage for video game design.  It is an advantage insofar that the player will always track along the experience arc intended by the design.  They may not like it, as is the case for many games, but they ultimately can do little to alter that arc without instituting their own 'house rules' that have zero enforceability within the coded structure of the game.  This consequence leads to the main disadvantage of video game design.  Many players target designers when airing their frustrations with a video game because when placed in a determinist system enforced by code it is easy to see designer error- rather than player error- when following through the experience arc.

Sample page of rules from GMT's 'Roads to Moscow'

Wargames in particular, and boardgames in general, appear to be the inverse of a video game; the player must manually assemble the rule-set, on the fly, when following through the experience arc.  Mistakes are made, some game breaking and some just simple errors of omission, yet the game will never directly tell you the experience you perceive is wrong.  You can fumble and trip but in the end you will eventually have a winner and a complete game experience.  Players are also far more likely to blame themselves, rather than the designer, when they discover their play is riddled with errors.  Foisting assembly of the experience arc, or blob as it were, to the player means that evaluation of play often centers on the player themself and not the designer.  This might mean that a player never really achieves the correct arc as determined by the designer, but is also means the player is more likely to evaluate their own play-experience rather than the systems underlying that play-experience.

In a larger sense this means that video games are exemplars of a positivist ideal.  Systems reinforce your play until you demonstrate correct behavior and are able to 'feel out' the larger experience arc as intended.  Wargames are more like exemplars of a sort of 'faux-positivism' in which the players themselves reinforce their play and must discover if they are demonstrating correct behavior or not.  Video games embrace teleology; wargames, while definitely possessing a sort of 'hidden' teleology, nonetheless leave ultimate assembly of such teleology to the player.  Video game systems embrace a Panglossian attitude towards play.  Wargame systems decidedly reinforce the original designer's Panglossian view, but it's no guarantee that the player will discover this 'best of all possible worlds' through their interpretation of the systems presented.

Now obviously a lot of this changes once a player masters a particular wargame's intricate rule-set.  Mastery allows a player to perceive the intended experience arc, refining the once blob-like interpretation into something more defined.  Having attained this perception the player can then, rightfully, critique the design instead of their interpretation of the design.  Here the video game experience and the wargame experience merge, but it is important to remember that the wargamer can reference the variety of 'blob experiences' encountered before to the actual, uncovered design arc.  Those who play video games have no such recourse, and can only make crude comparisons of systems between separate design arcs (analogous to, say, comparing the different cover mechanics amongst FPS games).

These are only some brief thoughts on the implications of design across two game mediums, but it is my belief that more serious consideration on what constitutes the tabletop vs. digital game experience needs to be discussed.  The idea of 'hills and lines' are just one method of breaching the gap.  We should be cognizant of other methods so that our larger understanding of games across all mediums achieves even deeper meaning.

1 comment:

  1. I'm glad you are posting again Jeremy.
    Poignant comments indeed about board wargame players getting critical rules wrong; if they read as carefully as I wrote them, this wouldn't happen - although people also write in questioning me on the meaning of "up to", or did I mean to put that comma there - I can't help but think they are the same people sometimes.
    Anyway, it's a given that people will rarely pay as much attention to something as you want them to, unless they are really engaged in what's going on - and that's another difference between board and video games: a video game you can just pick up and play, for the most part, and the code will enforce the rules of the game for you while you get engaged in the motions and wobbling blinkenlights. For a manual wargame it's mostly an inside-the head exercise, again, as you point out, because of the complexity of the text. What carries it forward for the manual wargamer is his interest in the topic, which existed before he started playing, and his desire to see it through to the end, which derives from his engagement in the game built up by his investment, intellectual and emotional, in the decisions he makes during play. Time spent learning the rules which delineate the framework within which he makes those decisions represent the "ante" in the game. Badly written rules or poorly designed interfaces which make extraction of information difficult get in the way during all stages of play (unless you're good at making up house rules!). And certainly the systems the designer places in the game can get in the way of imparting whatever lessons he wanted to pass on, so sabotaging himself.
    I like your continuing comparison/contrast of tabletop and video; keep at this.