The third dimension of games

3dglassesIn discussions about video games, one often hears about the length of particular games.  About how in The Good Old Days, even action games were expected to be twenty to thirty hours long, whereas modern video games have now dropped to about six hours long (with some well-reviewed games such as Portal now as little as two hours long!)  Making longer games of a particular level of quality, of course, generally takes more time and more effort than making a shorter game of a similar quality level.

You also occasionally hear about a game’s depth.  A game which can be replayed in many different ways, with different strategies, and revealing different things about the way in which the game world works is commonly considered to be a “deep” game.  Just like with longer games, making a deeper game takes more development resources, and more design resources.  And it’s likely that many players will never see the game’s hidden depth;  they’ll stop playing before they reach the end of the game, or won’t be interested in playing it again.

So we already have length and depth.

Picture in your mind for a moment, visualise the full sweep of a game as a flat ribbon.  This ribbon extends from one position in space to another;  the “start” to the “end”.  The distance between those two positions is the game’s length;  it’s how much game a player has to play through to reach the end.  The first time a player plays through a game, by my definition, he is travelling along the top of that ribbon.  A game with depth has a thicker piece of ribbon, and may be played again on a different level within that thicker ribbon, and be enjoyed as a “fresh” experience, even though it’s the same game.  The more depth, the more levels the game may be replayed on, giving fresh insights or fresh experiences along the same length of the game.

I’d now like to add the concept of “breadth”, which describes how much latitude the player is given while playing the game and making progress toward the end of the game.  In Super Mario Brothers, the player travels exclusively to the right, and may move up and down only within the height of a single screen — there is not much latitude given to the player to deviate from the game’s prescribed path.  In later Mario Brothers games, the player was allowed to travel back to the left, and to jump (or fall) much further than the limits of a single screen’s height;  that gives a good deal more opportunity for the player to meander away from what the game intends for the player to do.  However, his progression through the game was still largely restricted to finishing a static list of levels, which all had to be completed in order.  And in practice, few of the levels actually allowed much deviation from the intended path.

I’ve been noticing recently that most modern games have been strongly focusing on depth (difficulty levels, achievements, customisable classes, various power-up strategies, etc), and are acutely aware of their length, but very few have paid much attention to their breadth.  Racing games typically constrain the player within a literal ribbon of track, RPGs maintain lists of where you must travel next and actively push you toward your next quests, platform games have you travelling through narrow canyons which usually are dressed up to not look like canyons, all of which give very little freedom to the player.  Many game genres have become quite adept at hiding how little breadth they have;  there are dozens of tricks of lighting and cameras which can be used to help funnel a player through the desired path, hopefully without noticing that he’s trapped in a tight little passageway.  And of course, if those fail, you can always lay out a trail of shiny things (rings, coins, stars, etc) for the player to follow.

It’s worth mentioning that some RPGs — particularly western RPGs — have a large number of optional “side-quests”, which certainly count as breadth.  But those often feel a bit like diversions;  not really a core part of the main game.  Certainly in Oblivion and Mass Effect and others, there are huge numbers of side quests (breadth), and relatively few mainline quests (length).  And some open-world games also let you wander freely through their world, when you’ve gotten tired of doing their linear story missions.  But in order to reach the end of these games, you have to pass through their narrow canyons, taking the actions they prescribe, usually with only minimal amounts of deviation allowed by the player.

Compare this against games like SimCity, or Dwarf Fortress, or The Sims, none of which really have any discernible “length”;  these games have no fixed end, and often don’t even have any explicitly stated goals.   This sort of undirected play has extreme breadth, but no defined length.  It’s to this latter class of games which MMORPG Tycoon belongs.  And this does scare me a bit;   these games are typically more difficult to build and often require more effort on the part of the player.  After all, the most prevalent types of games out there right now give a strong framework for the player to work inside;  they say “Press ‘A’ now!”, and when the player gets around to pressing ‘A’, the game plays a happy fanfare and then delivers its next instruction for the player to follow.  How does one build a game with breadth, which can deliver that same sort of positive reinforcement?  And how can you ensure that a broad game can automatically but unobtrusively suggest things for the player to do, when they’re not sure what to do next?

(One possible answer:  incorporate a variant of the Space Bar Game into the game design, to provide an artificial simulation of “length”.  Hey, it worked for World of Warcraft, right?)

I’m not saying that lack of breadth is bad — just that it’s interesting how little breadth there is in most modern games.  And how scary I find it to be designing a game which is almost entirely breadth.