Give me cheese and ballpit figures

Posted by admin on June 19th, 2011 filed in Games

What’s your first thought when you see a seemingly nonsensical sentence in a business presentation? I generally go for sports metaphor. I learned that the hard way when someone asked me what a “ballpark figure” was. I said, a metaphor for an estimate that stays within a plausible interval, just like balls stay in the ballpark at McDonald’s. … Right? … Not? … Well. Turns out the playpen at MacDonald’s is called ballpit, not ballpark. A ballpark figure is about baseballs that stay, or don’t stay, inside a baseball field. Whatever. I like the image of a “Ballpit figure” better. :-P

Similarly, a manager recently used the line “The cheese moved again” as a heading in a presentation. None of us had a clue what that meant, until now: One brave colleague was not satisfied assuming it was a sports metaphor! She is now passing around a booklet called “Who moved my cheese” at the office. The heading alluded to this modern fable.

If you don’t know the story, it’s basically about mice with different personalities facing a maze. When they find their first cheese, each mouse reacts differently: Some stay put in this corner of the maze, while others keep the habit of daily foraging. When the cheese is finished, some desparately cling to the corner waiting for new cheese to fall from the sky. Others shrug, move on, and find new cheese elsewhere in the maze. So, when “the cheese moved”, some mice were prepared for change, while others were stuck in their old ways (and starved, subsequently). Of course the fable is speaking about responding to business changes and adopting new technologies. (The author also added a line that he doesn’t mean to jump after every shiny thing.)

When I read the book I didn’t think about business, it reminded me of video games. (OK, maybe, everything I read makes me think of game development recently, but hey, is that BAD??) When I get bored of a game (I’m thinking RPGs here) it’s always for the same reason: I have reached an intermediate level and am familar with the interface; and I have tried out most quest types that the game offers. Now, to advance further, the game expects me to specialize as one player class, and apply one skill at 100%, repeatedly, for the next… ten months or so… :-|

This kind of gameplay is like the mouse in the story that expects to be rewarded for running every day into the same corner of the maze, where it got cheese the first time. I guess that’s the kind of entertainment people want in their spare time, since the most popular games are like that. Arcade and shooter games award you a highscore for basically learning the map by heart and speedrunning through it again and again, until blind muscle memory takes over. Some rooms in shooters can practically only be cleared if the players know ahead that the enemy attacks here. Players remember that’s where they “died” last time, and the best winning strategy is to respawn, go back, and shoot before they even see the enemy. In RPG multi-player games, every one is so specialized that they trigger the same skills again and again –dealing damage, healing, or buffing– against yet another over-the-top monster. Beating an action game is a long-trained skill that not everyone has, it just happens to be a skill that bores me to tears, so I just shrug and stop playing at that point.

What would games be like that encourage gameplay the way the “change expecting” mice do? It would mean “punishing” players for using the same tactics over and over: Some games do that by awarding less points or not dropping any loot the second time. It would also mean rewarding players for using a broader variety of (80%) skills. This could be done by allowing enemies to inform one another of the player’s last successful strategy, so the NPCs in the next encounter would be prepared (and spend their budget on the right type of armour, etc), forcing the player not to use the same strategy twice in a row.

Another interesting element would be procedurally generated game levels, so nobody would be tempted to stupidly learn them by heart. (E.g., when you replay Diablo, it’s the same story, but at least the dungeons are different.) Admittedly, “shuffling the tiles” doesn’t work for every game type, but at least there should be various spawn points so you can’t know where you, the weapons, the first aid kits, or the enemy will pop up next time.

A fixed-map game could also have what I would call “seasons” – it’s the same map, but what was a good sniper lookout in “summer” is too slippery to reach in “winter”; what was a good sewer pipe to climb through in “autumn” is flooded in “spring”, etc. These changes should affect players as well as NPCs.

Usually, the goal of RPGs is to put effort into advancing (until skill levels become outright implausible). What about, instead of reaching 200%…300%…, you have to put effort into not forgetting your skills? Players who slack off, or don’t play well, would grow weaker. Forgetting skills could, at the same time, also free up capacity in the characters’ “brains” to train new skills.

I never played a game like this and have no idea whether it would be any fun, just brainstorming here.

Comments are closed.