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Varying Variety on Game and Player
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Varying Variety

Michael Ubaldi  //  October 30, 2008


Does world-building need new tools?

M

idyear 2007, Gabe Newell imparted, to an IGN interviewer, his share of the first minutes and hours many millions of us invested on the ground floor of Doom. "What had really been exciting to me, one of the first times I played through," said Valve Corporation's managing director, "was how incredibly scared I was, and how much of an atmosphere and a world I thought was out there, and the potential the medium had."

Newell builds flowcharts and organizational pyramids with words — a visionary executive. His expounding is an indulgence of mine. I have watched his online interviews several times, although the foregoing statement is memorable because I too perceived a world beyond the condemned Phobos Base. Returning to a single moment — the moon's landscape visible to my character through a window — I remember an impression, indistinct but strong, of something much more than a backdrop, built on a suspension of disbelief.

This past week, playing Fable II and Fallout 3, two of the most expansive roleplaying games released in a couple dozen months, I have been judging the depth, breadth, color and richness of games purporting to see characters from birth to destiny in a big and malleable world, ever sui generis. I think: do developers need new tools to build these things?

Six years ago, a study conducted on activity in the prefrontal lobe when stimulated with random series revealed that at but three months old, humans recognize patterns and are capable of anticipating sequences. Repetition and limitation, signatures of artificial products, are ruses we catch on to from infancy. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion remains, for me, the right portioning of size of a world, choices for gameplay, and graphical representations of unique objects. While I haven't explored every patch of land I probably won't, and can only play the game modified with hundreds of new creatures and treasures, since even Bethesda Softworks' incredible work succumbed to sameness.

In early August, Lee Kelly published a thoughtful write-up on the lavishly cinematic, if more circumscribed, RPG Mass Effect. "I would single out," if invited to address one of the game's strongest criticisms, "the inventory management and throwaway nature of its weapons and armor. . . . There is little in my Mass Effect inventory which evokes such a personal attachment. In contrast," to, as it were, Oblivion, "the items in Mass Effect are fleeting, throwaway, impersonal and bereft of history."

As objects usually outnumber actors, I would arrange the demarcation of fantasy with four points: limits of the types of individuals in a game are exposed; then the behavior of individuals; then types of items, including their primary function and aesthetic design; and then the performance of items, from nominal to superior effectiveness. Beyond, all is commonplace and the playing experience, if it relies on discovery, goes flat.

Logistics prevent the simplest solution, volume, from being decisively applied. What about randomization that incorporates organic variety? Uniqueness could be determined, on the fly, through random, on-the-fly wireframe distortion and chromatic tints; and component modulation. Imagine every one of the twenty parts of a sword replaceable with ten alternatives — 10 times 10 times 10, and so on, and then widened or narrowed a little, maybe with a notable, flourishing patina. This wouldn't be impossible in a game world dated in an age of mass production, either — customization would be fairly substituted for craftsmanship. How could this diversify characters? What about environments?

A job for middleware? Certainly not, beyond this conjecture, for a layman like myself. But such modest alterations would attract players, endear them and retain them.





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