Monday, December 17, 2007

Game + Play ≠ Gameplay

Today’s generation games are getting closer and closer to reality. Virtual reality seems just a couple of years away from 'complete' reality. Games like Bioshock and Half-Life 2 have set newer standards in the graphic technology. As everything seems to follow the graphical impressions, there exist other factors which say otherwise. ‘Gameplay’ has always been an integral part of the survivability of the game in the market. Right from casual games to hardcore games, it is gameplay that attracts the masses.

“Gameplay” in video game terminology is used to describe the overall experience of playing the game excluding the factors of graphics, sound, and the storyline. Despite this criticism, the term gameplay has gained acceptance in popular gaming nomenclature, as it succinctly indicates a domain of perceptual concepts not readily accessible by other phrases. Some gaming reviews give a specific score for gameplay, along with graphics, sound, and longevity. Many consider "gameplay" to be the most important indicator of the quality of a game. Many game critics feel that gameplay in games is analogous with narrative in fiction, and serves as the foundation to which other elements (for example, story) are added. - Wikipedia.

Latest graphic chipsets offer solutions to bring the best graphics into the game. The available graphic technologies are so fast evolving that we will very soon reach the point where Virtual Reality is a part of every game that is released.

Gameplay rules the roost, as I said before. The surveys conducted among casual gamers show just that. Casual games have never been about the technological complexity or the graphic appeal. Casual games always looked into factors like simplicity of the interface, the fun-quotient and the replay value. A casual gamer will mostly revisit games that he had already played and found to have good gameplay than graphics.

The POPCAP survey shows that the majority players among casual games where either white collar workers or elders who believed these games helped them bond with their grandchildren better. They queried almost 7,500 adult respondents in the latter half of June 2007, all of whom were apparently visitors to PopCaps' U.S. and international Web sites. Some 2,298 (31 percent) of these site visitors indicated they played casual games with their children or grandchildren under age 18. Some 79 percent of these respondents were female, and 90 percent were age 30 or over; 71 percent indicated they played casual games at least once a week, with 24 percent reporting daily play.

The important point here to be noted is that there exist a lot of elderly players and white collar workers who don’t care much about the graphical appeal. I support this statement because graphics is never given any importance in the casual gaming industry. This survey also shows that casual gaming is as big a industry as console gaming itself.

"Casual games span generations and genders in ways that traditional hardcore video games never have," said Dr. Carl Arinoldo, a psychologist (and repeat quote-provider for PopCap's gaming surveys). "This universal appeal, and the G-rated content of the games, makes them a great activity in which the whole family can participate, with each generation enjoying the games in different ways while also enjoying the interaction with other family members."

This scenario clearly shows that it is other factors that a vast majority find interesting rather than good graphics. Even after 10 years of its release, Half-Life looks as fresh as it did for me when I played it the first time.

What a game trailer can show your might leave you with a feeling of awe. What you see in the trailers might give you a view into the graphic appeal but hardly would tell you anything about the gameplay. Thus buying any game based on its trailers appeal could be a wrong choice because the gameplay may not be up to the point and the graphical extravaganza proves to be a waste. Gameplay is usually a factor that has to be felt and to do so you need to play the game, unlike graphics and sound which can be judged otherwise. While graphics can be measured using benchmark tests to give an accurate projection, it is hard to do so with gameplay. Gameplay is rated differently but different people. The difference in genre of games that people like can end up resulting in totally different scores unlike visual graphics.

The fast advancing graphics technology puts the end user at dilemma. They are left with no option other than to constantly keep their systems upgraded to deal with the latest game. Every 3 months we find the next generation graphics processor out at the market. Every 6 months we find a new game bringing in another class of graphic technology. Most of them fail in network gaming mainly because the internet audience just doesn’t match up in sheer numbers with the latest advanced gaming hardware. The change is so rapid that a high end computer with the best hardware assembled to it would find it difficult to run a high end game after one year. Advancements at a gradual pace in terms of technology and advancements at a higher pace in terms of innovation would just be the answer to the problem.

Like the Wikipedia explanation, gameplay serves as the foundation to which other elements (for example, story) are added. Gameplay acts as the core to all other elements which constitute a game. Any game which is an all rounder in all other faces but not gameplay can never score. When games are rated users look into gameplay as the most important factor rather than the score for graphics. When I visit IGN for a review I look into the gameplay score than any other ones. After all where is the fun in playing a game which is rated with high visual graphics but has a very low score in gameplay?

It becomes harder to defend your point when you realize there exist no particular definition for the word gameplay. The following are some of the interesting definitions that I came across in s blog that was defining gameplay. There was total ambiguity when it came to defining them. It means different things to different people. Some call it “interaction between the player and the system” where the system is the programmer or a computer. This doesn't cover the physical controls, but does cover the logical controls, or the types of actions the players can make. These interactions are the core of gameplay. If so nothing involves the gamer more that gameplay itself. This doesn't cover the physical controls, but does cover the logical controls, or the types of actions the players can make. These interactions are the core of gameplay. This definition does not just stop at computer games, it also applies to board games and other types. The system does not even need to be a physical object(s). It could even be just a mental construction (as in a set or rules that the players need to follow - like in a sport). This definition stems from a definition of game theory that I heard a long time ago: A game is where 2 or more competitors compete for set goals within the confines of a set or rules. The goals are what the players need to achieve victory (the way they can achieve them must also be in the rules), but it is the "Set of Rules" that contain the gameplay and acts as the heart of the whole system. If we consider the example of Half Life 2, there are multiple scenarios when the player needs to interact with the environment to advance in the game. There is a case when the player needs to pile up blocks of bricks in a plank to lift one of its ends and use it to jump to higher heights. I am still not sure if these kinds of interactions can be called a part of gameplay, but it sure does amplify the fun factor in the game. Moreover it brings in a lot more from the player side than simple controlling. These help the player to feel more involved and to ‘live’ the game.

Gameplay is what makes the game playable, like savepoints. They're part of the game, but if implemented wrongly it can damage gameplay. Gameplay meaning the enjoyability of progressing through the game, and not having to spend another 2 hours re doing a level because you died right in front of the save point. There have been games which previously used to have savepoints only after every level completed. But nowadays we are finding a shift to allowing saving at any point of time. These kind of small factors affect the overall fun factor about the game. Another interesting point about gameplay that I came across was:

Gameplay = Game - Representation.
With context to the above said, take a look at old-school games like Doom 1, then look at the newest versions of these games like Doom 3. Now subtract everything except for what they have in common. Remove everything that represents your game to the player, things like models, graphics, sounds, music. Whatever is left is gameplay. You should be able to completely change the representation (sprites instead of models, generic sounds, different music), and the gameplay remains constant. This point clearly emphasis on the importance of gameplay over technology.


Let us compare the games with other entertainment mediums like movies and music. We tend to enjoy a movie more if it captures us into it and we feel it as a part of ourselves, out lives. That power of the movie to do so gives it the edge over others. In games it the gameplay that gives this feel to the player. For example a player who is playing a racing game may seem shift to his left or right from his position while taking hard turns in the game. It really happens in almost all the players despite of the visual graphic feel. The factor that comes here is the gameplay and the power of the game to indulge the player on to it. This is what the real gameplay is, it makes you to feel the real essence of a game, a feel of living the game, one that of being the game.

The industry has recognized that the key to understanding, and capitalizing on, the gaming market is the ability to separate why people play from what they play. The whys and whats are of utmost importance. Many of them don’t care how much of graphical advancement (what) is there but they just play to play (why). I am not standing against pretty graphics at any point of time. The transition is always good but not at the cost of sacrifices like gameplay. I strongly believe that good gameplay and design when coupled with very good graphics brings the best of all the games. The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion is a very good example for this. Oblivion integrates an amazing storyline, gameplay, and visual graphics, an all rounder. That is what future games should aim for. Let us all hope that the marriage of these gameplay and technology happen to indulge the future gamers with utmost efficacy. All this said I can’t wait for the day when Unreal Tournament series will be a 3D environment around me and I savor the Virtual Reality with my favorite flak cannon.

Thursday, August 30, 2007

I Play... And hence I Live...

The Ugly Face Of Professional Gaming

The other day I came across an old friend while doing my weekly shopping and we decided to go for some shooters to catch up on things.

It went along smoothly until I asked him about his job. At the mere mention of it, he shifted uneasily and his eyes scanned our surroundings. Finally, he leaned close and said in a hoarse whisper:

"I play games for a living."

It had been a known fact since my high school days that this particular friend loved playing games and often his mind were on his games rather than the opposite sex. At one point he had mentioned that his dream was to become a professional gamer, and it looked like he had achieved his dream, except for one problem:

"It's not working out," he said dejectedly. "Everything's falling apart."

Playing games... for money?

The concept of people playing and competing professionally in computer games is nothing new actually. Around the world there are quite a number of international events such as the Cyberathlete Professional League, the World Cyber Games (run by the Koreans, considered to be the 'Olympics of Cyber Gaming'), as well as the recently completed Electronic Sports World Cup held at the Futuroscope Park in Poitiers, France.

There are also tournaments that are played over the internet, as well as local ones that are usually held in cybercafes or gaming centers.

Gamers from around the world have qualifiers in their respective countries and are sponsored to attend such events. One such 'professional gamer' who was featured on MTV recently is Johnathan Wendel who goes by the name Fatal1ty in the games, has made over $100K in a year from gaming.

In the past, Russia has proclaimed computer gaming to be a national sport and based on the rumors, it is likely that China will include computer games in their 2008 Olympics as well.

Websites dedicated to E-Sports such as So Gamed and Cyberfight that cover the events and happenings in the world of E-Sports. As a casual gamer who plays these games and follow the competition scene, I found myself breathless by just looking at the pictures and following the E-Sports World Cup coverage from one of the more popular international e-sports websites, ESReality.

Gamers who compete in these events play their games at a level above the contemporary gamer. They devote their time into practicing daily to improving their skills. Fatal1ty himself claims to have practiced 8-10 hours a day, a feat which has earned him many top places in gaming tournaments for the past few years.

The Ugly

All is not fun in the world of professional gaming as my friend has revealed to me. A lot of sweat, and sometimes blood is involved. The concept of e-sports is still far from being a reality and few people can actually earn enough to support themselves and secure their futures. There are many reasons which can span several pages but I will only touch lightly on two of them.

1. Lack of a proper competitive platform

Over the years, new games keep appearing and the older ones are left on the shelf. In the world of competitive gaming, this is the exact same case, except the impact of a game being pushed aside can be disastrous for some.

In this, I am referring to the Cyberathlete Professional League's one time decision to switch from the Quake series, which they had been using since the start of their foundation, to a newer (and more popular) game at the time, the infamous Counter-Strike.

Now for most of the 'professional gamers' who have lived off their earnings from past CPL tournaments, this meant the end of their career unless they made the jump from Quake to Counter-Strike. Unfortunately, switching games is not as simple because both games have different sets of physics and gameplay; in Quake you battled one another one on one while Counter-Strike is a team-based game, the players usually in numbers of five.

Now, even more recently, the CPL has announced for their World Tour that they would be switching games once again, this time back to a duel based game. There will still be a Counter-Strike tournament during the event, but this leaves many to wonder how much more air time does Counter-Strike have before it finally gets shelved as well.

2. Games aren't made for competition play

Most game developers make their games for the casual gamers in general, and not the competitive ones who are but a minority. In the end they leave it to the mod makers in the competitive community to fix all the loose screws and modify the game to be played competitively. This alone brings up a problem, as the more modifications to the game, the more the community is divided, some preferring the 'vanilla' version of the game to the modification.

Game developers these days depend very much on their graphics to help the game's sales, while in contrast, competitive gamers have a habit of dumbing down the graphics of a game to a point where all they see are polygons for the sake of visibility and boosting their framerates. This in itself is a problem for the developers as they won't be able to promote their game should the game be used in a competition with the graphics in such a state.

Being that the majority of gamers are casual gamers while the competitive ones make up only a small niche in the market, game developers do not see catering to the competitive community as profitable as the majority.

So Where Is India?

Yet, the outlook of e-sports getting anywhere in countries like India is still bleak. Even with all the international tournaments and media coverage, professional gaming still remains a myth rather than a fact here. Most people either grow out of gaming or quit completely after realizing that there is no stable future for a competitive gamer. But it ain't true... Game On!!! :)