DS-2012-12: Engineering emergence: applied theory for game design

DS-2012-12: Dormans, Joris (2012) Engineering emergence: applied theory for game design. Doctoral thesis, University of Amsterdam.

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Game design theories aim to assist game developers in creating and
understanding games. Applied theory for game design supports
creativity, speeds up the design process, and increases quality of
games. This dissertation presents two theoretical frameworks for
designing games and discusses how designers can use them to refine the
game development process.

Currently there are several design theories for games. However, none
of these theories has surfaced as a widely accepted standard within
the game industry. Most existing (often academic) design theories have
a poor track record. There are two reasons for this. One: they require
a considerable investment to learn, and two:, they are more successful
as analytical tools than as actual development tools. It should come
as no surprise that this has caused considerable skepticism towards
design theory within the game industry.

With these concerns in mind, the frameworks presented in this
dissertation were designed to be practicable and applicable. The first
framework frames games as rule-based systems. It helps to identify and
understand the structure of game rules in order to facilitate
design. The second framework helps designers to create open, dynamic
worlds that to provide players with a smooth gameplay experience. The
two frameworks are not completely separate: in a good game, game
worlds and rules combine into a complex, carefully balanced whole. One
cannot do without the other.

The first framework that focuses on game rules is called Machinations
and it utilizes dynamic, interactive diagrams. These diagrams model a
game's internal economy that consists of the flow of vital, and
sometimes abstract, resources. Resources can be of many types, for
example: points, money or ammunition.

The most important structural features these diagrams capture are
feedback patterns. Feedback is generally recognized to play an
important role in emergent behavior in complex systems in general, and
games in particular. Feedback occurs when state changes in a game
element affect other elements and ultimately feed back to affect the
first element. In games, feedback often creates an upward spiral. For
example, in the classic board game Monopoly investing money in
property generates more money to invest.

The Machinations framework distinguishes many different types of
feedback: feedback can be positive or negative, constructive or
destructive, fast or slow, etcetera. For designers it is important to
understand the nature of the feedback loops that operate in their
games. What is more, from the study of several games and their
internal economy recurrent patterns emerge. These patterns codify
general solutions to commonly encountered design
challenges. Machinations diagrams are an excellent vehicle to identify
and reason about these patterns.

Game designers can create Machinations diagrams with the software
developed for this study. The main advantage of this software is that
these diagrams can be run: like the games they model, Machinations
diagrams are dynamic and interactive. This allows designers to
simulate games easily and efficiently; it allows them to balance and
tweak a game's internal economy for particular effects long before a
prototype is built.

The second framework, Mission/Space, focuses on level design and the
mechanics that control player progression through a game. Unlike
existing models of level design, the Mission/Space framework
capitalizes on the idea that in a game level two different structures
exists. Mission graphs are used to formalize the structure of the
tasks and challenges laid out for players, while space graphs are used
to formalize the geometric construction of game levels. These two
constructions are related, but they are not the same. Rather, the
different ways missions might be mapped onto a particular space play
an important role in the resulting player experience. Mechanism for
locks and keys, which are often used to prevent players from reaching
certain areas in a level too quickly, are an common tool to create
mission/space structures.

As with the Machinations framework, the Mission/Space framework was
used to develop software tools to assist designers in creating
levels. In this case, the program Ludoscope allows designers to
implement mission graphs and space graphs and simulate a player's
progress through a level. This way Ludoscope helps to identify
potential deadlock, or other flaws, in their design.

The Machinations framework focuses on structures of emergence in games
and the the Mission/Space framework focuses on structures of
progression. Combining the two frameworks provides leverage to
investigate how emergence and progression can be combined. Many games
combine elements of both. However, there also are many games where
there is a considerable mismatch between the sophistication of the
mechanics in their economy, space and physics on the one hand, and the
mechanics to control progression on the other. By combining the
Machinations framework with the Mission/Space framework, two new
strategies for integrating emergence and progression surface.

The first strategy zooms in on lock and key mechanisms that rarely
include feedback mechanisms. Machinations diagrams can be used to
explore more sophisticated and emergent mechanics to create locks and
keys, and to control player progress. In the second strategy progress
itself is modeled as a resource allowing it to become part of feedback
mechanisms that operate on the scale of the entire level or game.

The Machinations framework and the Mission/Space framework formalize
different perspectives on games. The notion of `model driven
engineering', taken from software engineering, can unify these
different perspective into one formal approach to game
development. This perspective ultimately allows us to automate certain
aspects of creating games. Using formal grammars and rewrite systems
it is possible to codify transformations that allow designers to
generate spaces from mission, mechanics from spaces, or missions from
mechanics. By dividing the development process into a series of small
transformations, flexible tools can be created that can (help to)
automatically generate entire game levels, and, to a certain extent,
entire games. Another application of these techniques is the
development of games that adapt to player performance.

To these techniques, the Ludoscope prototype was extended to allow
designers to define such grammars and rewrite systems. This creates a
potentially very powerful, generic game development tool that allows
games to be designed at a high level of abstraction.

The various tools developed as part of this research are one way to
validate the applicability of the theory developed in this
dissertation, but it is not the only one. Through various
presentations and workshop, academy peers and industry veterans were
able to comment on and influence the development of the frameworks and
tools. In addition, the frameworks, and Machinations in particular,
were used in the game development courses taught at the Hogeschool van
Amsterdam. We found that these frameworks help students to understand
games and improve their designs. Mainly because they formalize
important aspects of game design that are not immediately apparent or
tangible, and because they facilitate students to simulate and
experiment with these aspects.

In the end, designing games remains a tough challenge. The tools and
theory presented in this dissertation assist game designers by
codifying design lore, simulating games before they are built, and
even by automating certain aspects of the design, but they can never
replace the human creativity and ingenuity that goes into their
design. However, I do think that these tools and theory will assist
them and can elevate the art of game design to the next level.


Item Type: Thesis (Doctoral)
Report Nr: DS-2012-12
Series Name: ILLC Dissertation (DS) Series
Year: 2012
Depositing User: Dr Marco Vervoort
Date Deposited: 14 Jun 2022 15:17
Last Modified: 14 Jun 2022 15:17
URI: https://eprints.illc.uva.nl/id/eprint/2118

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