State change as the key to emergent play

Here's something that I'd only recently considered concretely (or that I'd probably heard in one of Clint's talks years ago and forgotten), which is elementary yet worth restating:

The key to fostering emergent play is the introduction of meaningful state change into a game's sytems.

Consider a game with little emergent play in its combat encounters: your verbs are bullets and grenades, and so are the enemies'; battle lines are clear and enemies are aggressive toward the player; you attack the enemies until they're dead and move on.

Alternately, consider a game with highly emergent outcomes to combat encounters-- unsurprisingly, I'll use BioShock as my example. Your verbs are bullets and explosions, as well as abilities that can freeze, burn, or turn enemies against one another, or be deployed as traps; the spaces are open-ended and enemies roam around freely; environments contain hazards that the player can affect the states of such as pools of water and flammable oil spills.

Say the player encounters a neutral Houdini Splicer (a teleporter that throws fireballs) and a Leadhead Splicer (standard firearm enemy.) They might just shoot the Splicers on sight. But they might instead Enrage the Houdini, who starts throwing fireballs at the Leadhead, igniting a nearby oil puddle which spreads fire to an explosive barrel, which then explodes and kills them both at once. Well that was unexpected.

This outcome emerges from the range of possible state changes applicable to the pawns in the scene: the Houdini can be neutral or aggressive, and made aggressive toward other enemies by the player's Enrage ability; the Houdini's fireballs have imperfect accuracy and carry a fire stimulus, which can change the state of the oil puddle to "burning"; the fire from the oil puddle can spread to the explosive barrel, causing damage to all pawns in the area.

Emergent outcomes are arrived at when the player brings those outcomes about indirectly; the method that allows the player to cause indirect outcomes is state change, and furthermore state change that can propagate through the world. By introducing a single meaningful state change into the world, the player kicks off an unpredictable chain of causality from which a final outcome emerges.

A matrix of the different pawns in the world (bots, turrets, Splicers, Big Daddies, oil spills, water, etc.) their potential states (neutral, friendly, aggressive, burning, frozen, shocked, ragdolled,) and how they can be changed (hacking, Enrage, Incinerate!, Winter Blast, Cyclone Trap, electric tripwires, rocket spears) defines the map of potential emergent outcomes in the game's systems. Simply having a high number of verbs that do damage to enemies does not change the end result; fostering meaningful state change of pawns both by the player and propagated through the world enables the indirect inputs that result in emergent play.

The payoff is for the player to be surprised (Enrage -> ??? -> "Ha! Both of those guys blew up!") Surprise is valuable in all entertainment: plot twists, novel settings, shocking spectacle, dramatic turns of phrase-- all are meant to present us with something unexpected, something different from our normal experience that we couldn't have predicted if we'd tried. The key to humor is surprise-- if you expected the punchline of a joke, it wouldn't be funny; it's the key to drama-- if you saw the ending coming, you wouldn't be satisfied. Fostering emergent play encourages the player to be surprised when your mechanics crash into each other, and better, gives them the tools to surprise themselves.




I wanted to write a response to Jesse Schell's DICE talk, but David Sirlin said everything I wanted to say, better and more concisely than I would have. If you've watched or heard about the Schell talk on the future of game design, do read Sirlin's response. To picture the best game designers of the coming generation throwing their talents away on building false reward structures to manipulate people's behavior, as Schell encourages, makes me cringe, and Sirlin rightly voices why.



BioShock 2... seeeeeeecrets

I'm going to start with a little self-congratulatory bullshit, so brace for that or skip ahead.

Four years ago last month, I started this blog. At the time I was a temporary certification tester at Sony in San Mateo. In my off hours, I was just beginning to build my first amateur level in the F.E.A.R. editor-- this blog was originally intended as a progress journal, to keep me on track in building my level design portfolio. Between progress updates, I included some light commentary about games and game design. If you go back to the beginning, you can still see my F.E.A.R. grayboxes.

In the intervening four years, I've gone from a temp tester at Sony, to a full-time tester at a local game studio (the now-defunct Perpetual Entertainment,) to a rookie level designer on a standalone expansion pack (F.E.A.R.: Perseus Mandate by TimeGate Studios,) to a designer on one of the biggest game releases of 2010, BioShock 2. It's been a hell of a ride. I couldn't have imagined things working out this way if I'd tried. I feel incredibly proud of what the teams I've worked with have accomplished, incredibly fortunate to have been given the opportunities I have by the gracious people who have employed and mentored me, and incredibly grateful to all the commenters and fellow bloggers for helping me think differently about game design.

So anyway, BioShock 2 is now upon us, and it includes a bunch of silly-ass secret crap and references by yours truly! Here they are!

I was the level designer for The Adonis Luxury Resort (the first level,) and Pauper's Drop (the fourth level.) The Drop was handed off to the talented Monte Martinez (level designer on the original Deus Ex, as well as DX2 and Thief 3) late in development so I could concentrate on the Adonis.

The Adonis

  • Gaynor Peaches can be found and snacked on throughout Rapture in BioShock 2. I didn't make this asset, or request it be made; I was surprised one day to find that our artists had included yours truly as one of the food items in the game. But I used it as a calling card to 'sign' a few scenes in the Adonis.

    I also got to write a bunch of the in-game guide entries, including all the entries describing food and drink. I used the description of Gaynor Peaches as an excuse to put words in Julie Langford's mouth (even though she doesn't appear elsewhere in the game,) specifically to make her talk about me. I always liked Langford.

  • In the sauna, you can find an audio diary by "Rachelle Jacques." This is a cheeky reference to my wonderful girlfriend of 10-plus years, Rachel Jacks. Rachelle has a husband named "Stephen" who sits around listening to radio serials while she swims laps at the Adonis; Rachel goes to the gym, I stay home and play video games. Art imitates life.

  • I was lucky enough to be the one to put the 0451 into our game. In the Looking Glass-derived "immersive sim" lineage of games, the first keycode is always 0451. System Shock, System Shock 2, Deus Ex, BioShock... and now BioShock 2. To keep things fresh, and perhaps to acknowledge the distance covered between the origins of the reference in 1994 to our game in 2010, Jordan had me reverse the order of the digits... so I had them placed on the opposite side of a glass window, re-reversing it to look like 0451.

  • Where's that Little Sister go at the end of the Big Sister introductory cutscene?? Does she just disappear?! No! If you look to your right as the fight starts, you'll find her escaping through a vent. Attention to detail, babies.

  • Cat-tleship Potemkin. If you look at the bottom of the stairs in the Big Sister fight room, you'll find an overturned baby carriage... with a cat inside. Somebody in Rapture was crazy about their cat! I dunno, I just found this funny. It's also the stupidest Battleship Potemkin reference you've ever seen.

  • The airplane tail from BioShock has come to rest on a ridge in the underwater section outside The Adonis.

Ryan Amusements

  • The first audio diary by Nina Carnegie refers to "Mrs. Englert's third grade class." Englert was a teacher I had, not for third grade, but in middle school, who also coached the Odyssey of the Mind program I participated in. My favorite teacher of my pre-collegiate schooling.

Pauper's Drop
  • The doorcode to the Fontaine Clinic in Pauper's Drop is a highly obfuscated reference to one of my favorite game series, the Hitman games. The door code is 0047 (Agent 47's code number,) and the name of the guy who recorded the audio diary pointing to the code is "Tobias Riefers"-- an alteration of "Tobias Rieper," the name that Agent 47 gives as a pseudonym in the mission "Traditions of the Trade" from the original Hitman game.

  • This audio diary contains another reference: Riefers says "they keep enough drugs in here to splice up a rhinoceros." This is a reference to the brief hoax by some clever forum-goer before much was known about the game, claiming to have gotten an advance copy of Game Informer in which BioShock 2 was revealed to contain soviet soldiers, dogs with brains that you could hack, a giant squid boss, and a spliced rhino.

  • The audio diary by Jackie Rodkins is a nod to Jake Rodkin, co-host of the Idle Thumbs podcast on which I sometimes appear.

  • The photo attached to the shotgun rack in the Fishbowl Diner is once again of my lovely girlfriend, Rachel. Immortalized!

Siren Alley
  • This is the first level where you can get the Handyman tonic; when you repair a bot with Handyman (or summon one with Security Command 2/3) it's given a random name. I input a bunch of these. Since you can control two bots at once, there are some interesting potential two-name bot combinations: Rachel & Steven, Andrew & Ryan, Tommy & Rebecca, Jordan & Thomas... And though you can't control three at once, there are Pinky, Blinky and Clyde, maintaining the BioShock tradition of working a really minor Pac-Man reference in somewhere, originally started in BioShock's Farmer's Market by our intrepid lead level designer, Jean-Paul LeBreton. (Another pair of bot names are Jean-Paul and Karla, a nod to JP and his wife. Karla made a bunch of the excellent posters and signs for BioShock 2.)

Inner Persephone
  • A number of the names of inmates that recorded audio diaries-- Mattson, Wilson, Thomas, etc.-- are from the BioShock 2 design team. I snuck those in.

  • Similarly, the mugshots found in the booking area are developers: myself, Jordan Thomas, Michael Kamper, Rinaldo Tjan, Rich Wilson, Hogarth de la Plante, and Ryan Mattson, if I remember correctly. I'm not responsible for orchestrating these, but there I am! Hi, mom!

So! There's a bunch of silly stuff you might not have noticed. Hope you like the game!