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Thinking in Systems

Books, Video Games

Book cover of Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows

There is a certain class of books (Understanding Comics, The Design of Everyday Things) that aren’t ostensibly about video games, but have still found their way into the informal game design canon. Having recently read Thinking in Systems: A Primer by Donella Meadows, I believe it also deserves a spot on that list. The book covers a wide range of tools and methods for systems thinking, but I’d like to focus on one technique in particular and how it could apply to game design.

Stock-and-flow diagrams are used to model the interconnections between elements of a system. As the name suggests, they define systems in terms of stocks and flows. Stocks are “the elements of a system that you can see, feel, count, or measure at any given time”; they are shown as boxes.

Flows are what cause stocks to change over time. Inflows and outflows are depicted as thick grey arrows (going to or coming from a stock, respectively). The rate of a flow is represented by a faucet, because it can be adjusted higher or lower.

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If the rate of a flow changes based on the level of a stock, then this creates a feedback loop. There are two types of feedback loops. Balancing loops seek to maintain equilibrium and resist change within a system (in game design this is often called negative feedback). Reinforcing loops are the opposite; they enhance any direction of change imposed on the system (positive feedback). In stock-and-flow diagrams, feedback loops are represented by thin curved lines.

Clouds represent the boundary of the system. The boundary is an intentional choice of what is considered inside and outside the system for the purpose of analysis and conversation. In reality, “there are no separate systems. The world is a continuum.” The boundary only exists in our mental model, and thus it must occasionally be reevaluated to suit the problem at hand.

Here’s a simple real-world example as given in the book.

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In this example, the temperature in a room is a stock. Heat flows into the room from the furnace, and the rate of inflow is determined by the thermostat. It turns the flow on/off based on the difference between the temperature in the room and the goal temperature setting. Heat also flows out to the air outside. The rate of outflow is determined by the discrepancy between the indoor and outdoor temperatures. The rates of inflow and outflow are both affected by the current level of the temperature stock, which indicates that we have two feedback loops (both balancing).

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Challenges for Game Designers

Books, Video Games

Challenges for Game Designers

For the last few months I’ve enjoyed following along with Liz England’s Game Design Book Club. Though I’ve only been participating intermittently, it’s been really valuable as motivation to read books that are often cited and highly praised in game development circles. It has also pushed me to explore certain topics that I may not have chosen on my own.

September’s book club selection was Challenges for Game Designers by Brenda Romero and Ian Schreiber. It covers some common ground with other “game design 101” books aimed at a classroom environment, but it has two unique twists. Firstly, it has an emphasis on non-digital games. This affords a greater focus on “pure” mechanical considerations: chance, skill, strategy, social dynamics, etc. Secondly, as the title suggests, the reader is encouraged to explore the topic of each chapter by completing assorted design exercises; it’s equal parts textbook and workbook.

I was very impressed by the variety of exercises presented in the book. The ones that particularly interested me (and, admittedly, took the least time to complete) involved taking an existing game and modifying it to emphasize a different type of skill.

For instance, one of the exercises in chapter 5 was to “modify [Tic-Tac-Toe] by adding one or more chance-based mechanics”; the game should also be “good for adult players”. I thought this challenge was quite interesting, so I took some time to develop a small game called Catalina Tiles for it. The game is played on a nested 3×3 grid, and players use four 4-sided dice to determine which tiles they can claim on their turn.

Rules for Catalina Tiles [PDF]

Another exercise in chapter 8 involved choosing a “non-digital game with no elements of chance at all” to modify by adding fog of war: “your opponent’s pieces are hidden from you (and vice versa) except under certain conditions.” After researching existing chess variants (there are so many), I developed two unique hidden-information chess games. Luft Chess is standard chess played with invisible kings, and Reverse Schrödinger’s Chess has each player secretly deploying their opponent’s back row pieces.

Rules for “Fog of War” chess variants [PDF]

I had a lot of fun completing these exercises (also learning how to use LaTeX to make fancy rulebooks). Even as someone who works on games every day, it’s been valuable to stretch my creative muscles and make games under unfamiliar constraints.

The Game Design Book Club is online and open to everyone, so feel free to follow along if it interests you. The November selection is Shooter, “an anthology of critical essays about first-person shooters” that Clint Hocking has spoken highly of.

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The Golden Compass

Books, Movies

There have been very few mainstream film releases this year that I’ve had any interest in. I think that the last movie I actually saw in the theatres was the brilliant Hot Fuzz. There is, however, one film coming out before the end of the year that I’ve been eagerly anticipating for quite some time now.

The Golden CompassIn my last year of high school, I read Philip Pullman’s The Golden Compass, the first in the His Dark Materials trilogy. I was instantly fascinated by Lyra’s world; its strange combination of steampunk, science, magic and religion was unlike anything I had ever imagined. Her parallel universe had its own language derived in part from archaic words: Oil became Naphtha, Greenlanders became Skraelings and electricity became anbaric power. I have read the series many times since then, and Pullman’s imagination never ceases to astound me.

When I first heard about the film adaption of The Golden Compass, which is arriving in theatres this weekend, I was cautiously optimistic. The thought of Jordan College being filled with Hollywood actors tempered my excitement. If the movie version of my favorite book, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, has taught me anything, it’s that sometimes an adaptation ends up being nothing like the vision of the story that you had built up in your head.

That being said, after watching the first five minutes of the film courtesy of the Internet, it seems like they did a great job with the visuals. The little girl playing Lyra seemed appropriately spunky as well. However, the rapid-fire explanation of Dust, Daemons, and Panserbjørne was extremely disappointing. The best part of The Golden Compass was being gradually introduced to the strange things in Lyra’s world, and listing them off right from the start spoils the mystery. It’s also evident from the trailer that the religious tone of the books has been severely diluted. Instead of the bad guys being the alternate universe Catholic Church, they’ve created a quasi-fascist organization to pit against Lyra and her friends. I question how they’re going to deal with intercision and puberty without the religious slant.

I’m sad to say that even if the movie is junk, they’ll be taking my money anyways. Even if they do ruin it, at least I’ll always have the books!

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The Screwfly Solution

Books, Video Games

The Screwfly SolutionIn keeping with my love of excellent short stories, particularly dystopian science fiction, I highly recommend Raccoona Sheldon’s Nebula Award-winning The Screwfly Solution. The title is a reference to the sterile insect technique used to eliminate the Screwfly worm in the USA, Mexico and parts of Centreal America. The story is a shocking one, dealing with themes of sexuality, violence and femicide, and is told in a great disjointed style through a combination of several narratives, letters and newspaper articles.

Read the story first (seriously, do it!), then consider the following: wouldn’t it be great to see a video game set in the middle of an end-of-the-world scenario (not after one)? One where you start out in the near future, in a big city living a normal life. You start to hear dangerous rumours, maybe a deadly manmade pandemic, a militant religious organization, or some other Margaret Atwood storyline. From there you could have branching paths: do you petition the government? create a militia? go into hiding out in the country? Perhaps there could even be an element of randomness, where sometimes the rumours really are just rumours and you end up a paranoid conspiracy theorist!

This idea would definitely need some polishing and refinement (and I may have drawn liberal amounts of inspiration from Indigo Prophecy), but properly executed I think it could be really interesting. Leave a comment if you have any ideas on how this game could be implemented (or just call me crazy! That works too).

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Short Stories

Books
I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream - Harlan Ellison

For as long as I can remember, I’ve had a problem writing essays with an assigned word length. I like to say as much as I can with as few words as possible, because to me good writing is concise and to the point. When I’m required to artificially lengthen my work, the result is always weak and diluted.

I think that this paradigm can be applied to all media. For instance, the film Strange Days had some interesting ideas, but as a two hour long feature film they were lost in a sea of pointless action and terrible drawn-out dialogue. Done right, it could have made a great 20 minute short film. Consider the last 80 hour RPG you played: could it have been an even better 50 hour RPG by removing a tedious dungeon crawl or two?

It’s perhaps my inclination towards succinctness that makes me a fan of short stories. A novel based on an idea will usually explore every facet of this idea and all of its implications. While this works well for some concepts, there are certainly others that are perhaps too experimental and strange. These quirky ideas would likely fall apart or become lost in a novel, but they can easily become the central theme of a short story.

I’ve listed a few of my favorite short stories below. Where applicable, I’ve linked to sites I’ve found that host them; otherwise, a little Googling will usually do the trick.

  • Eight O’Clock in the Morning – Ray Nelson
    An alien race controls humanity through subliminal messages in television, advertisements and billboards.
  • A Sound of Thunder – Ray Bradbudy
    Published in 1952, it was one of the first short stories to deal with what would later be called The Butterfly Effect; the idea that one small change in the past could completely rewrite the present.
  • The Lottery – Shirley Jackson
    One of the most chilling short stories I’ve ever read, it deals with the evils that are permitted in the name of tradition and crowd mentality.
  • I Have No Mouth and I Must Scream – Harlan Ellison
    An insane omnipotent computer tortures the last five humans on Earth.
  • We Can Remember It For You Wholesale – Philip K. Dick
    The story that inspired the film Total Recall, it deals with the implications of memory replacement.
  • Little Lost Robot – Isaac Asimov
    This is my favorite short story from I, Robot. Dr. Susan Calvin must use logic to expose the one robot among an identical hundred that has had its programming altered and is now a threat to humans.
  • Harrison Bergeron – Kurt Vonnegut
    To finally achieve societal equality, the government forcefully handicaps those whose beauty, intelligence or athletic abilities give them an “unfair advantage” over everyone else.
  • How To Talk To Girls At Parties – Neil Gaiman [link]
    This story is a nominee for the 2007 Hugo Award. An awkward young man is dragged along to a party, but all is not as it seems.

I’m always on the lookout for more great short stories, so please comment with your favorites.

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