Thursday, May 19, 2005

Living Worlds: The Power of Surprise

The so-called "living world" games seem to me like the next big design challenge for videogames. When I say "living world," I'm referring to games that take place within a simulated world, one that seems to live and breathe with or without the interaction of the player. The recent games in the Grand Theft Auto series (3, Vice City, and San Andreas) are perhaps the most popular examples.

The problem with living world games is the difficulty of designing entertaining experiences within the unpredicability of these (often) emergent systems. For instance, despite the fun of playing in the sandbox of San Andreas, I often find myself aimlessly wandering around, lost or unsure of exactly what to do. Especially with the advent of next-gen consoles (I started writing this post pre-Xbox 360/PS3/Revolution), this kind of game is going to become more and more prevalent as the hardware begins to support it more readily. The challenge is to figure out how to design living world games that still deliver quality experiences.

Designers will have to become masters of indirect control. When the player has all the freedom in the world, the most subtle cues will have to be used to guide them from event to event. Designers will also have to engineer systems that are flexible enough to deliver excitement no matter where the player is in the game world. Story games will have to unfold in totally unforeseeable ways, such that they are driven by the player rather than an author. Designers will have to find ways to seed their worlds with opportunities for surprise.

The real strength of a living world is its ability to surprise the player. When an NPC does something unexpected that remains coherent with the world, players will delight. When the player pushes at the world and the world pushes back, the player will be hooked. However, it's not enough to build a simulation. Building emergent systems is necessary but not sufficient. Believable AI is crucial but can not carry entertainment by itself. Living world games are not just simulations. They are also games; games that still have to be designed.


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