Games as Hill-climbing

Yesterday I read Brett Gilbert’s article Why Everything Not Forbidden is Compulsory and it helped me crystalise an idea I’ve had for a while.

As Brett explains, there are always a large number of ways of playing any game. The rules place some boundaries on that space but we still need some freedom to provide room for play (“play is the free movement within a more rigid structure” as Salen and Zimmerman have it). So there is a space of play-possibilities fenced off by the rules. Brett draws this as a cicle but I prefer to think of it as a countryside.

Typically that countryside is hilly. Some places (ways of playing) are higher (more fun) than others. The player usually does not come to the game knowing where the peaks are but they can experiment and explore. Starting at any one place in the country they can explore the neighbouring areas to see which way the ground is sloping and start climbing uphill to greater levels of fun.

As anyone with a background in AI or optimisation knows, there are several kinds of problems with this approach. The first is the problem of local maxima. If I am standing at the top of a hill every direction I can travel leads downwards. If I cannot see the higher hills and mountains in the distance, I will not be inclined to move from that spot. If my hill is only a low one, this may mean that I will have a mediocre experience when I could have had a great one.

A second problem is when I find myself in the middle of a flat plane. No matter which way I go, everything is at the same height, so I wander aimlessly and have an unrewarding experience. I might even walk straight past a mountain and not notice it.

A third problem is when there are competing measures of optimality. If a game has a “win” condition then this creates an alternative slope for the player to follow. Some styles of play will be more “winning” than others. Oftentimes the “win” slope will point in a different direction to the “fun” slope and players will sacrifice their enjoyment of the game in order to play more efficiently. This leads to behaviours like grinding which are effective but dull.

The answer is to design your game to always provide a slope for the player to follow and to make every slope lead to the most fun parts of the play-space.

Published in: on July 27, 2011 at 6:57 am  Leave a Comment  

Slow and Subtle: Arthur Ganson’s Machines

Thinking Chair

I’ve just been to visit the MIT Museum where there is currently an exhibition of Arthur Ganson’s kinetic sculptures. Ganson describes himself as “a cross between a mechanical engineer and a choreographer”. His sculptures are all about creating unusual qualities of movement, and he makes a point of showing off the mechanism. In some cases the mechanism is all there is.

Published in: on April 7, 2009 at 8:03 pm  Leave a Comment  
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An idle thought about: Chess

Street corner chess
The somewhat impressionist image you see above was taken at eight in the evening on the corner of Market and Ellis St in downtown San Francisco. It depicts a group of young men sitting at tables playing chess. This image blows my mind.

Published in: on March 27, 2009 at 8:35 am  Comments (1)  

My Dream CRPG

I’ve just finished playing Fallout 3 and I’ve been thinking about what did and didn’t work for me. I’m not sure if I’ll post a review since others have already covered it quite comprehensively. So I thought I’d ask a different question.

In reviews we often focus on the things that a game does wrong. I wanted to avoid that path and concentrate on the things that are right. So I ask myself the question, “If you had your dream CRPG, combining all the best bits of every game you’d played before, what would it include?” I want to stick to things that we already know can be done, rather than pie-in-the-sky “wouldn’t it be nice…” features.

Here’s a few ideas I’ve come up with so far. If you have any other suggestions, I’d like to hear them.

Published in: on December 9, 2008 at 12:34 am  Comments (4)  


I had an odd experience last night: I stayed up very late playing Fallout 3 (very fun) and as usual in such games I died an awful lot. Of course I kept reloading my save game, sometimes kicking myself for not quicksaving more regularly. At a suitable point in my game, in the wee hours of the morning, I saved everything and headed to bed, pausing only to gulp down the glass of wine that had been untouched for hours.

Now I don’t know about you but if I drink alcohol before going to sleep, especially on an empty stomach, I generally sleep for about two hours and am then wide awake staring at the ceiling for the next three or four. It’s one of those things I’ve learnt to avoid doing but there are times, like last night, that I forget. So as I drifted into alcohol-aided slumber, I caught myself regretting the merlot slowly seeping into my veins.

And then a thought occured to me… I had saved just before drinking the wine. If I just restored to that save point I could go back and make a different choice.

Published in: on November 10, 2008 at 7:11 am  Comments (2)  
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Game design lessons: Scrabble and Wordscraper

Wordscraper is the new attempt by the Agarwalla brothers to keep the Scrabulous legacy alive. I am not going to comment on the legal issues, as others have done already. Rather, I’d like to explore what the comparison between Scrabble and Wordscraper teaches us about game design.

Published in: on August 4, 2008 at 3:33 am  Comments (9)  
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