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Putting It Together

As we have discussed in this chapter, there is no single aspect of any game that we can point to and identify as the gameplay. That is because gameplay is not a singular entity. It is a combination of many elements, a synergy that emerges from the inclusion of certain factors. If all of those elements are present in the correct proportion and style, we can be fairly sure that the potential for good gameplay is there; consequently, we can presume (but not be certain) that we have a good game. The gameplay emerges from the interaction among these elements, much in the same way as complex automata emerge from the simple rules of Conway's Game of Life.

There is a particular paradox known as the Sorites Paradox or Heap Paradox. It concerns a pile of sand. An observer is asked whether sand is a pile, and the answer is yes. Then a grain of sand is taken away. The question is repeated, and the answer is still in the affirmative. This process continues, and then at some point, the observer will say that it is no longer a pile. The question then posed is to ask why one grain of sand makes a difference between a pile and a nonpile. Can the observer state a specific number of grains of sand that define a pile? It's back to the familiar "argument of the beard": Why is the observer's definition any better than another observer's definition?

The same applies to gameplay, although on a smaller and coarser-grained scale. In a gedanken experiment, we can look at a game and take away an element (or part thereof) of gameplay. (For example, we could disable Mario's ability to turn left in Mario 64.) We can then pose the question "Does it still have gameplay?" We can continue to remove elements or sub-elements and pose the same question. At some point, the game will be sufficiently crippled for the observer to say that it no longer has gameplay. This point will be different for every observer. Whose opinion is best? That's a question for the philosophers. In short, we cannot define exactly how many gameplay elements are required to make a game. We cannot even state with certainty which are required and which are superfluous. We can only state that, to have gameplay, we need some or all of these elements; to have a pile of sand, we need some or all of these grains.

Much the same way that we can expect to find elements indicating gameplay, we can expect to find opposing elements that indicate the absence of gameplay. By this, we mean that the inclusion of the particular element could be detrimental to the gameplay or, more rarely, that gameplay is not present at all. The game in question might have included all of the elements expected to indicate good gameplay, but it might have also muddied the mix by including extra unwelcome elements that detracted from the positive effects of the good. We have all played games that were almost perfect, apart from one or two annoying flaws: Maybe the difficulty level ramped too quickly, maybe the controls were unwieldy, or maybe the collision detection was slightly suspect. Whatever the cause, it has the overall effect of taking a potentially superb game and knocking it down a peg or two, reducing it to the rank of failed contender. This determines the difference between the excellent and the merely good.

It would seem fairly obvious to the game designer that she is including some suspect elements to the gameplay and, therefore, would make efforts to eliminate them from the design. This has happened. A particular case of note is Blizzard Entertainment's StarCraft. This game was continually tweaked right up until the point of release, to ensure that the gameplay and unit/unit balance was as good as possible. Even so, they didn't quite get it right, and so the expansion pack, Brood War, made further changes to the unit/unit balance—the most notable being an increase in usefulness of the Terran marine and an overhaul of the air-air and air-ground combat units.

The presence or absence of these elements of gameplay can often be inferred only by the existence of their indications or contraindications. We examine these in more detail in the genre-specific chapters.

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