We probably all have a pretty good intuitive notion of what a game is. The general term “game” encompasses board games like chess and Monopoly, card games like poker and blackjack, casino games like roulette and slot machines, military war games, computer games, various kinds of play among children, and the list goes on. In academia we sometimes speak of game theory, in which multiple agents select strategies and tactics in order to maximize their gains within the framework of a well-defined set of game rules. When used in the context of console or computer-based entertainment, the word “game” usually conjures images of a three-dimensional virtual world featuring a humanoid, animal or vehicle as the main character under player control. (Or for the old geezers among us, perhaps it brings to mind images of two-dimensional classics like Pong, Pac-Man, or Donkey Kong.) In his excellent book, A Theory of Fun for Game Design, Raph Koster defines a game to be an interactive experience that provides the player with an increasingly challenging sequence of patterns which he or she learns and eventually masters. Koster’s asser-tion is that the activities of learning and mastering are at the heart of what we call “fun,” just as a joke becomes funny at the moment we “get it” by recognizing the pattern.
Video Games as Soft Real-Time Simulations
Most two- and three-dimensional video games are examples of what computer scientists would call soft real-time interactive agent-based computer simulations. Let’s break this phrase down in order to better understand what it means. In most video games, some subset of the real world -or an imaginary world- is modeled mathematically so that it can be manipulated by a computer. The model is an approximation to and a simplification of reality (even if it’s an imaginary reality), because it is clearly impractical to include every detail down to the level of atoms or quarks. Hence, the mathematical model is a simulation of the real or imagined game world. Approximation and simplification are two of the game developer’s most powerful tools. When used skillfully, even a greatly simplified model can sometimes be almost indistinguishable from reality and a lot more fun.
An agent-based simulation is one in which a number of distinct entities known as “agents” interact. This fits the description of most three-dimensional computer games very well, where the agents are vehicles, characters, fireballs, power dots and so on. Given the agent-based nature of most games, it should come as no surprise that most games nowadays are implemented in an object-oriented, or at least loosely object-based, programming language.
All interactive video games are temporal simulations, meaning that the vir- tual game world model is dynamic-the state of the game world changes over time as the game’s events and story unfold. A video game must also respond to unpredictable inputs from its human player(s)-thus interactive temporal simulations. Finally, most video games present their stories and respond to player input in real time, making them interactive real-time simulations.
One notable exception is in the category of turn-based games like computerized chess or non-real-time strategy games. But even these types of games usually provide the user with some form of real-time graphical user interface.
What Is a Game Engine?
The term “game engine” arose in the mid-1990s in reference to first-person shooter (FPS) games like the insanely popular Doom by id Software. Doom was architected with a reasonably well-defined separation between its core software components (such as the three-dimensional graphics rendering system, the collision detection system or the audio system) and the art assets, game worlds and rules of play that comprised the player’s gaming experience. The value of this separation became evident as developers began licensing games and retooling them into new products by creating new art, world layouts, weapons, characters, vehicles and game rules with only minimal changes to the “engine” software. This marked the birth of the “mod community”-a group Role-playing games are a very specialist type of game that really need a far greater attention to detail than other less immersive genres. As the computerized version of the genre took off there were a lot of money hungry companies who decided to storm into the genre without really trying to understand what the vital elements of a role-playing game are. In some cases, these companies have actually had the audacity to buy out smaller companies who did know the genre and they destroyed long-held legacies of great traditional games.
Considering that this may have an impact on the future of computerized role-playing games I have felt it to be of importance to educate these gaming giants in an effort to help them understand the only thing that matters to them. In order to sell role-playing games you need an audience willing to buy the product and if a company consistently puts out dodgy shooters in the guise of apparent role-playing games they’ll only destroy their reputation and go bankrupt. I know that the word bankrupt is a word that these money hungry companies recognises and so I emphasise one point, try to sell dodgy shooters to role-playing fans and you will go bankrupt!
Personally, I have been a role-playing gamer for about thirty years and I fell in love with only two systems that I probably can’t name because of article writing guidelines. What I can say is that very few game producing companies have come even close to the pen and paper versions of the best role-playing games on the market, you know, the ones that people actually enjoy playing. I will say that I rejoiced when role-playing games became computerized as it meant I could do my role-playing without the need to hunt for people with similar tastes and even though some games have risen to become great role-playing games, they are sadly few and far between. On that note, of the styles of role-playing games that include pen and paper, computerized games and online games, there is only one type that can meet the fully immersive needs of a role-player and I’ll reveal why later.
Okay, what are the elements of a great role-playing game then? I’ll give you one at a time but the very most important piece of advice to keep in mind during this whole discussion is immersion. To be a truly great role-playing game, it has to grab the players attention and not deliver diversions that allow the player to slip back into the reality of the real world. The player must be kept in the fictional world if they are to feel that they have experienced a great role-playing game.
One of the most vital elements of immersion is a storyline; a really believable and yet gripping storyline. A role player doesn’t want to load up the newest game and find to their dismay that storyline consists of the flimsy idea that they have to kill heaps of things to get enough experience to kill the apparent bad guy. Who wants to play a game where the bad guy is designated the bad guy without good reason? Have you played a game where you are part of one group of people and you’ve been chosen to defeat the other group of people but there’s no actual evidence that shows why the other group is bad? The worst of these are the recent thug games where one criminal organisation wants to defeat another criminal organisation and you’re the hitman. Who is really that stupid to fall for such a terrible storyline? It’s certainly not for intelligent role-players.
A good storyline can’t be a shallow excuse for a war and it has to be something you’d want to be a part of. The storyline also has to be included in the gameplay itself and delivered in a way that doesn’t interrupt the reality of the gameplay either. There’s nothing worse than a big cut-scene that drops into the middle of the game and makes you sit idle for more than a minute or two. For role-play gamers, the immersion of the game comes from being the character, not from watching the cut-scenes as if you were watching television. What’s next… advertisements?
Another part of a great game play experience is being aware that you have been a part of the fictional world since you were born. This is conveyed by knowing where things are in the world and knowing who the current leaders are, along with knowing current events. This can be done cleverly by feeding snippets of information in a natural manner during conversations with non-player characters. Some extremely vital information can be revealed in otherwise meaningless banter, just like in the world you’re immersed in right now.