Sunday, January 10, 2010

The gated game

As mentioned briefly in Versus Series 1, there are four components to every game: 1) a goal; 2) a way to achieve the goal; 3) obstacles to the goal; and, 4) a way to bypass the obstacles.  Readers of that post may have wondered which video games I felt were lacking in one or more of these areas.  At this juncture, I won't fall into the trap of calling out specific titles--instead, I'm going to go after an entire genre: "action games."

However vague their genre title, action games traditionally give us clear examples of the larger genre they are in--the "gated game."  Gated games were originally created for the arcade, and are designed to unlock rewards for achieving goals in the game.  While rewards can run the gamut from fifteen minute-long cutscenes to cold cash, many times the reward is simply the game itself.  By completing the goals given in Level 1, the player is then allowed to play Level 2.  (Action games will also use a cliff-hanging story as part of the reward, too, though most action games don't make the mistake of relying on it to keep the player playing.)

The problem with this structure is that it is based on a model that is now defunct (see Home arcades and the death of a game).  With the move into the home, the games lost their appetite for quarters, and thus, their central obstacle.  Now the gated game genre is in an awkward position: they must strike a balance between withholding their content and giving the player the content they already paid for.  This winds up resembling a staged fight, where the strongest fighter pretends to put up a formidable fight, but is ultimately defeated by their clearly inferior opponent. 

After all, the primary strength of a gated game is that it makes up the rules as it goes along.  The player has no reasonable expectation that Stage 2 will play under the same set of rules as Stage 1--in fact, quite the opposite.  Changing the rules (e.g., how many spaceships must be destroyed to pass the stage, or how many bullets it takes to bring down the level boss) is part of the convention of gated games.  Since the main opponent of the player in a gated game is the game itself, having the ability to change the rules arbitrarily gives the game an enormous--some might the ultimate--advantage against the player.  Anyone engaged in a contest between someone who has the power to change the rules of the contest at will has no hope of winning against an opponent who desires to win.

So far we've been concentrating on the obstacles in gated games, but the confusion in obstacles comes from a more foundational problem--a gated game has no goal.  Yes, the player is given goals throughout the game, but achieving these goals will not cause the player to win and, more importantly, not achieving these goals will not cause the player to lose.  At the beginning of the game, the player has no way of knowing which goal in the long list of goals she will be given will result in her besting the game.  This is because the game will arbitrarily decide which goal is the final goal.  Theoretically, the game could provide an endless amount of goals and the player will never win, even if the player never loses. 

(Some gamers wouldn't mind this, and in fact desire it.  While their desire may seem like some kind of masochistic Sisyphus complex, it is actually the truest desire anyone playing a gated game could have.  If the ultimate reward for achieving a goal in a game is to receive more goals, the only way to lose the game is to have the game end.)

So by removing one component of the gated game (the obstacle), we see that it is missing another crucial component--a goal.  As the other two components spring from the goal and the obstacle, it must be said that a gated game is a very poor game by these standards.  1) The player is presented with no goal to ultimately achieve; 2) The obstacles are arbitrarily designed by an opponent who has no desire to defeat the player; 3) The ways to achieve the goal are arbitrarily given to the player in piecemeal; and, 4) The ways to defeat the obstacles are also arbitrarily designed by an opponent who arbitrarily designed the obstacles.  Chess, this is not.


Damien said...

Your post seems interesting but I have a hard time figuring out which game match with you criticism.

Could you give some examples in order to help me having a better understanding of your thougths ?

Ferguson said...

Sure. In my mind, gated games refer to any game in which the player is not aware of the parameters that will end the game, until the game is over. This is in contrast to what we traditionally think of as games such as Monopoly or gin rummy, where we know the game will be over when x happens because the rules tell us.

Gated games these days are typically narrative heavy, so you could say that x in these games is "the end of the story," but as the story can really end at any point, we should consider the "end of the story" to be another way of saying "unknown parameter."

So for specific examples, we're talking about games like Halo and God of War primarily, but we can also include games like GTA3 that aren't quite as linear, but still don't have a known endgame upfront. Now that I've said specific examples, I do want to point out that I've purposefully chosen three of my favorite video games and in no way am attacking them as "not being fun" nor "not being well-made video games." All of these games, however, do best when you don't think of them as "games," as such, but rather as "experiences" or "outlets."

Hope that clarifies things a bit.

Damien said...

Thank you for these examples, your view is much clearer for me now.

However I'm not sure I really want to use this knowledge while making game. Is this necessary to know your doing a gated game or not in order to make a good game ?

In fact, for me, a gated game is just a game hiding some rules and build on numerous, sometimes unrelated, short goals.
So we could see it like a succession of very short "not gated" game.

For example god of war could be seen as a game made of numerous game of "how to kill my enemy".

What's your opinion ?

Ferguson said...

That's exactly right--gated games can easily be viewed as a series of games, which can either be related or unrelated.

As far as design goes, I think making this idea explicit in your own mind and to your team will allow you to use a short-hand when talking about overall game design and level design. Not only will it be easier to break the level down into its necessary components (being the gates and the obstacles in front of them), but it also gets us thinking about the proper place for gated games.

In other words, what kind of experiences do gated games lend themselves to, and using our knowledge that the game is really a series of gates, what new possibilities can we imagine within that space?

I'll likely get into this later in a proper post, but I'll point out right now that while I don't see gated games as games of themselves, I think they have the possibility of providing an excellent way to teach players complex rules in an engaging way. Building a gated game for use as a tutorial allows you to use the narrative techniques other games have employed to keep players' attention while building an organic understanding of your complex game system.

Very few games do this well, and I think turning an analytical eye to the essence of gated games is a good place to start.

Damien BERNARD said...

You teased me, I'll be waiting for your post.

Anyway I think most gated game already have very complex rules. These couldn't have existed in other type of game like board/card games due to the overly complex calculation they're asking for; killing the fun an the rhythm of the game.

Remy77077 said...

I just came back to this one on a reference and saw the latest comments. This really amused me because I tend to view almost any gated game that is attached to a multiplayer competitive mode (an 'actual' game?) exactly as a tutorial, or practice mode if you like. The trouble is, as you have alluded to, that most of these make terrible tutorials. I'm hoping Starcraft II can do something better with it's specifically crafted tutorial levels.