Sunday, March 15, 2009

Maintaining multiple options

This is a Lean productivity trick. Mary Poppendieck describes it well in this awesome movie; - you have to watch it if you care about making good things.

When looking at game development this is done on a regular basis in some of the pipelines, most obvious when drawing art images through how the layer system operates in photoshop but also in how programmers write code with branches and classes, how storywriters use word processing software to keep dialogue and story flexible and how musicians create the music score with their software such as ProTools maintaining all the versions of the songs on the HD while edits are happening to a subset of files.

Now the question becomes how to apply this to the combined user experience which results from bringing all these pieces together. As the network theorists say something along the lines of: the whole system is the combination of the nodes and the interaction between the nodes. The game which becomes the user experience is the interaction between the nodes, the code is one node, the music is another node, the image art is a node, the interface is the tool which the user has available to navigate the network which in a good game becomes a modular agent in the network.

The game itself is a system which measure the skills of the user, these skills are deployed in context by the user to navigate the whole network. Any piece of the network which is outside the users path is roughly what lean would call "waste".

For the whole game system to maintain multiple options we'll need to expose the interaction between the nodes as readily changeable and generally transparent, human readable, data with some level of backwards compatibility. This is an utopian model, but it is not fully a pipe dream. In a not very far future we will know much more of the principles of game design. From my perspective these principles started with Chris Crawford and his model of interactivity, they have moved forward a lot with things like Raph Kosters theory of fun for game design and Daniel Cook's model of skill chains. There is a lot more stuff in this mix worth a mention, but maybe we'll go there another time.

With a better understanding of the principles for game design we will be able to identify differrent types of interactivity and thereby define the interactions between the nodes in the system with an explicit format. Music has several kinds of explicit data formats to present the patterns of sound on on various levels of abstractions, waveforms, instruments, overtones, harmonies, rythms, notes, tabulature and so on. Several of these have alternative modes, you can define a "tone" through various methods either as an "instrument (violin) playing a note (A) for an proportion of a bar timeunit" or a "fundamental frequency (440Hz) with 9 overtones (i think thats the violin if I remember it right) playing for a time in seconds". You can keep on going and define the waverofm as a function based on trigonometry if you prefer but I'll skip that example. I think the point made it through without. Note that the actual psychoacoustic representation of the violin is a lot more complex than these primitive models but on the theory side of things you go there if you want to, which is about never unless you are a bit "special". For the synthesizer manufacturer its all the way down through the trigonometry that wins the day with modulation, also trigonometry, controllers and stuff.

Game design theory is today at the stage where everyone communicate with a randomly selected spray from the whole arsenal of terminology, or rather, different people use different terminology to say the same thing and they generally don't know that there are other terminologies which define the same interactions within the system. They can barely even communicate with each other without first synchronizing the language which is a hard problem. Some very experienced designers will have a gut feeling for a lot of the principles, I myself find that I have a better grasp of some models when analysing a game play experience and some others when writing a game concept. I must admit that I also don't know the whole system, I don't think anyone does. There is no "first dan black belt" of game design and not even Sid Meyer, Will Wright, Chris Crawford or anyone else would have it if there was one.

However we can start in the pragmatic side of the equation and create a data model which best expose the whole system as nodes of data and interaction which is the transportation of other data through the system at the request of the user through the interface agent.

Now you could claim that this is already done with the programming langugage itself, and to some degree that is true. However the game systems which people play today are requiring domain experts which are not always competent programmers. (Programmers don't tend to spend most of their time doing user research as example, thats sub-otpimal to most production efforts.) Also maintaining multiple options through having several version of the whole code base is unlikely to be much help.

So what kind of data can define the interaction between nodes in the system?

If anyone wants to take a stab at it go for it, or bring up examples from various game engines. ^^ (Or I will later on and then it gets texty as usual.)

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