Monday, February 4, 2013

Gameplay Verbs and Ratios

This past holiday season, I decided to pick up a few games on the cheap. Courtesy of the Steam and GOG holiday sales, I picked up a handful of excellent games, two of which are Morrowind and Planetside 2.

That last one wasn't strictly on sale, since it's free-to-play. However, it's the one that got me thinking a lot about gameplay verbs recently.

Gameplay Verbs

I think I was first introduced to the idea of gameplay verbs in Jesse Schell's "The Art of Game Design: A Series of Lenses." The idea's been around since long before that book, of course, but that book formalized it quite a bit for me.

In short, a gameplay verb is one of any available actions the player can take in a game. Schell uses checkers as an example, citing its three available verbs: move checker forward, jump an opponent's checker, and move checker backward (kings only).

Schell goes on to describe what he calls "resultant actions" (as opposed to the "operative actions" listed above). These resultant actions include such things as protecting another checker by moving a checker behind it, or sacrificing a checker to trick one's opponent. They are perhaps more akin to strategies, or verbs with intent.

Verbs themselves can be entertaining, such as driving a sports car in a racing game. However, most of the staying power for games comes from the strategies; the emergent gameplay. Emergent gameplay includes such activities as trying to beat other drivers to a destination, or trying to jump the furthest off of a cliff. In essence, using simple gameplay verbs in meaningful and creative ways.

Verbs and Planetside 2

As mentioned above, I recently started thinking about this topic while playing Planetside 2. For those unfamiliar to the game, Planetside 2 (Ps2) is a massively multiplayer online first person shooter. In a given match, players on each of three teams are trying to gain control of the whole map via armed combat and capturing control points. It shares some similarities with games like the Battlefield series and it's conquest mode.

Players in Ps2 have a wide range of verbs available to them right from the start. They have the usual walking/running movements, jumping, primary and secondary weapons. And all have a special tool associated with their role. A sniper has a cloaking device, an engineer has a repair tool, etc.

Furthermore, as one plays the game and accumulates points, they can spend those points on upgrades for their character. These upgrades can include new tools, enhancements like higher ammo capacity and faster running speed, and even metagame enhancements, like shorter waiting times for vehicle respawns.

It didn't take me long to discover that I favored playing the light assault trooper role. They start out fairly out-gunned, having only a short range carbine and pistol, and out-armored, having the least armor of any class. However, they're faster than any other class, and have one thing which, in my mind, is a game-changer: jet packs.

In a game where all other soldiers are earthbound, I cannot emphasize enough how exciting it is to be able to use the third dimension as a tool against one's opponents. It opens up avenues of approach, evasive maneuvers, hiding places, and generally lets one go where no one else can.

High Resultant Action Ratios

In Schell's terms, this is a verb with a high ratio of resultant actions to objective actions. It's one action (limited vertical movement) that opens up a raft of new strategies.

However, it wasn't jet packs that got me thinking about verbs (although it did prolong my interest in the game considerably). I started thinking about verbs when it came time to upgrade my character.

Faced with a seemingly endless array of upgrades, my first inclination was to simply reinforce the thing that attracted me to the class: upgrade the jet pack to fly further. I was encountering some obstacles that I still couldn't surmount with my pack, so I figured I could bump it up a notch or two.

As upgrades progressed, though, I quickly reached a point where the pack was "good enough." Additional upgrades just didn't seem very worthwhile, nor exciting. Beyond clearing major obstacles, the pack upgrades were a case of diminishing returns.

Instead, what I found was that I started gravitating to upgrades that let me do new things. One of my first upgrades was the C4 explosive charge. Suddenly, my plucky gnat of a soldier packed some punch, and made me a threat to armored opponents. To my arsenal of disruptive strategies, I could now add dropping onto vehicles from above, and planting charges. Or, I could set the charges in a choke point, and detonate them as a trap. I could even set them someplace far away from my objective, and use them as a diversion. C4 was a high ratio upgrade.

What I didn't opt for, however, were upgrades with low ratios.

Low Resultant Action Ratios

Quite a few of the upgrades in Ps2 are little more than incremental changes to existing verbs. These upgrades include more armor, faster shield recharging, or extended ammo supply. Compared with what I experienced after unlocking C4, these seemed downright boring. Sure, they allow one to last longer in a toe-to-toe fight, or generally out on the field, but that's not really offering me a new strategy. It's more like a higher chance at success with existing strategies.

As I write this, it occurs to me that this may be one of the reasons I lost interest in Dungeon Siege II so quickly. It had many of the elements I enjoy in an RPG: fantastic worlds to explore, character creation and customization, party-based combat, and room for strategy.

However, after playing for a while, it became apparent that I wasn't getting any new verbs to play with. Most of my progression was incremental in nature, offering me progressively better chances to hit, damage rolls, and resistances. Rarely was anything introduced which made new strategies and techniques available.

In fact, I reached a similar point when playing Ps2. After unlocking most of the high ratio upgrades for my soldier, my interest started to wane. The idea of grinding for hours to get more armor just didn't have any appeal.

High Verb Count, Low Ratio

Let's take a moment to consider another arrangement: games with a large number of verbs, but introducing chance to determine success. A good example of such a game is Morrowind.

When one starts a game of Morrowind, one quickly learns to accept failure at nearly every task. Swinging a sword at a mudcrab? Miss. Casting a heal spell? Spell failed. Picking a lock? Lockpick broke. Jumping? Not over that tree stump.

Usually, several hours of gameplay are required to achieve a level of basic competence in most verbs. Instead of unlocking new verbs over time, Morrowind gives you nearly all the verbs at the start, but lets you unlock incrementally larger chances of success, and larger effects, when performing said verbs.

However, I think what we start out with in Morrowind are actually false verbs. They purport to do something, but when enacted, have little or no effect. Unskilled jumping doesn't really give me any new strategies, for example, it just has a cosmetic effect until it's leveled-up sufficiently. And the starting fireball spell doesn't really belong under the destruction school as much as illusion. It serves to get a creature's attention, but little more.

In other words, even though Morrowind starts players with a large number of objective actions, the resultant action ratio is still pretty low, in practice.

That said, the potential for a high ratio is there. Indeed, the promise of real power is one of the reasons many are willing to endure the slow start in Morrowind. Having a high acrobatics skill can be as liberating as the jet pack was in Ps2. And the upper range of destructive power in magic is nothing short of god-like. In Morrowind, a fully-formed verb is a sight to behold. For kicks, try opening Morrowind's debug console, and typing player->setacrobatics 250. Have fun :)

Improving Verbs and Ratios in Games

So what can we glean from this discussion to make our games better?

Adding more verbs seems obvious. However, as we can see in the Morrowind case, verbs alone are not always satisfying.

Most of the games we enjoy tend to have a high ratio of resultant actions to objective actions. In Super Mario Bros., the player's jump not only clears obstacles, but is a means of defeating enemies, getting power-ups out of boxes, and reaching secret areas. In Thief, the moss arrow can place a blanket of growth on the ground to mask your steps, but it can also push a button silently from a distance, or even temporarily choke NPCs for a quick getaway.

So designing games where each tool has multiple use-cases is probably more effective than simply adding more single-case verbs.

Having the high ratio verbs isn't enough, though. The player will also need occasion to use them. I feel like NEO Scavenger's biggest shortcoming right now is that the story affords too few chances to use the character's skills and items, along with the player's creativity. Ideally, there would be more opportunities for players to meaningfully use whichever skills they chose and items they found.

Introducing high ratio verbs gradually is also a useful technique in game design. The Zelda series, for example, is renowned for its gradual bestowing of new tools. The controlled rate of discovery means that new players can focus on broadening their mastery and creativity of one tool at a time, and also gives players something to look forward to.

Note that gradual doesn't necessarily mean incremental. In the case of Zelda, we get a reliable boomerang, and not a boomerang that only has a chance of stunning enemies, or retrieving objects. In Thief, the water arrow puts out fire reliably, not 25% of the time.

Morrowind's "training skills via their use" is certainly a realistic approach, and the outcome may also be realistic (i.e. unskilled alchemists might botch the potion recipe). However, long, arduous training probably isn't the element of fantasy we most want to experience. On the contrary, good storytellers usually know when to skip the long, boring parts to arrive at the scene of interesting action or dialogue: the part where the character is creative when faced with an obstacle; bold in the face of danger; or rational in the presence of escalating tempers. We want to vault over the chasm heroically, stare down the bodyguard, or negotiate the ceasefire.

And in situations where we must have a chance at failure, content creators can try to make those failures more interesting. This is definitely possible in cases where a skill check is done in dialogue, or a similar branching encounter. To do so, the designer ensures that failure cases present new opportunities for creative problem solving, or at least tell interesting stories. It's hard work for the author, to be sure, but as they say, "nothing worth doing is easy."

Ultimately, game designers are creating systems, not just stories. Stories may be told within our games, but they are not the linear stories one finds in other media. In games, players have agency, which is to say that they have verbs they can apply to objects in the game. And by virtue of their agency, they may not do what the designer intended.

Rather than curtail players' actions to keep them on a prescribed path, we should endeavor to validate and reward any path they may choose.

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