The discussion of games and video games is going to be a bit of a theme this week as I finish up Reality is Broken. Today, I want to talk about three things video games handle very well, even better than tabletop game: providing clear goals, creating a constant feedback cycle and allowing robust failure.
Clear goals are tied into yesterday’s discussion, since they’re a big part of why it tends to be easy to move directly into play. Exactly how the goals may be communicated varies from game to game (a shooter may present you with enemies while an MMO may have quest text. It’s worth noting that while video games don’t always do this well (and can, in fact, drop the ball spectacularly), when the do it right they make the play experience seamless.
A big part of this hinges on the fact that games can more easily put goals directly into the context of play. Yes, some may have dialog or text, but many other games can present the goals (and the possible path to the goal) as implicit in the situation. This might be as crude as a boss monster showing up or as broad as a fading flashlight in a dark lair. Where tabletop play may require stepping back to explain the goal, means and consequences, the ability to present all that as ambient information is a fantastic trick.
A Constant feedback cycle is important to distinguish from feedback in general. Tabletop games can provide feedback in a number of ways, but it tends to do so in very broad strokes (either reaction in play, or through systems like advancement). This can be powerful and compelling, but there are practical limits on how fine a grain it can be. Video Games have no such limitations. They can track all manner of minutae, and potentially turn nearly anything into feedback. Gain a little sword skill every time you swing the sword. Track how many head shots you’ve performed to award you a prize. Build a win/loss ratio.
Constant feedback can be pretty compelling in a lot of ways, but the most potent is probably the most mundane – it’s the simple “Do something, something happens” dynamic. Consider the kind of repetitive action that makes up a game of World of Warcraft or Bejeweled – it’s soothing and enjoyable in a way it would not be if you were to describe the actions over and over again. The computer is willing to give you feedback indefinitely, while a human GM or player will get bored pretty quickly.
This is not to say that crunching numbers and pressing buttons are the end-all-be-all of gaming, but sometimes that’s what a player wants, and video games are the best tool for the job.
The last, robust failure, is probably one of the single greatest advantages video games have over tabletop. One of the reasons people are wiling to pound away at video games is that they greatly lower the price of failure. If failure actually hurt or cost us something, we’d be far more hesitant in our play, but the fact that is has little sting makes us willing to take risks and more fully engage in the game. The only price of failure is to play again, and since we can presume that we enjoy playing, that’s a price we’re happy to pay.
This is, by and large, a hard idea to transport to tabletop play. The very idea of a persistent, reliable, imaginary world that forms a foundation for so much play makes consequences a necessity for maintaining that sense of verisimilitude. This means that things like save points and respawns are cumbersome ideas at best. Yet despite this, there’s a lot to be said for getting the kind of engagement out of players that comes of not being paralyzed by consequences and risk. Even if RPGs can’t fully capture this mojo, they can learn from it. Whether that means introducing setting elements like immortal PCs of (god forbid) respawns, or if it’s just a mechanical trick, like making failure interesting or even useful, then you have taken steps towards makign failure a bit more robust.
(Notice that none of these are ‘graphics’? Good reason for that. Graphics are tangential to gameplay, and mostly come into play through the lens of level design, which _is_ important, but is not something I’d say is a great strength of video games – it’s more of an ugly necessity)
Ok. Deep breath. Got those out of the way. Which means, tomorrow, we look at things that RPGs do well but Video games kind of blow at.