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Rob Drimmie

For more on variance in games, Jamie Fristrom wrote a great pair of articles about a year ago.

Fristrom was the designer behind Spiderman 1 and 2, lead programmer for early Tony Hawk games, and is a pretty great commentor on game design issue.

His blog is at http://gamedevblog.typepad.com and the first part of the variance articles is at:



Any game that involves a speed run probably has little or no interesting variation.

Not that variation is always what you're going for. One game that has a speed run on the site you linked is Silent Hill 2. FFVII may have made me cry, but SH2 just about made me wet myself. How one would make a cinematic horror experience with that kind of variation?

David Jacobs

How one would make a cinematic horror experience with that kind of variation?

Resident Evil 4 has some pretty terrific variation, even if it's scripted (and slight) and it was pretty horrifying. Horror is nine tenths surprise, and surprise is a cousin of variance.


The reality is that most of the progress in game design in the last 10/whatever years has been on the narratology side of things, rather than the ludology side of things. And more than that, given the success of the Playstation over Nintendo's offerings, I'd say that consumers have overwhelmingly voted in favour of richly visual interactive entertainment experiences and against the whole "it's not the sugar coating" ethos.

(Don't get me wrong, ignore the stuff behind the sugar coating and you have a game no one wants, but I really think we've seen the back of the heady days of new abstract game mechanics emerging and taking people by storm.)


i think the fun of spontaneity and variation comes from not knowing what is going to happen next, or what to do next. it seems perverse that you have to drive a bus for however many hours to score one point, but it seems even more perverse that you're in the desert but you know exactly where you have to go. i didn't expect it to veer, but this is more about the familiarity of the obstacle rather than any change in purpose - you still have to drive home.

the frustration from playing open ended games isn't about not knowing what to do next, but being given a relentless purpose that you can't fulfill. in simulating events games leave no room for ambiguity, and instead make up for it by using as exotic and fantastical a setting as possible, as if the antidote to predictability is batshit crazy graphics as david notes.

might games be better served by experimenting with ambient expectations and less graphic realism? a recent game i played was the falling sand game at http://chir.ag/stuff/sand/ where each element is represented minimally, yet it is a representation that grows and changes with the player's intervention and interpretation over the course of a game.

i think what this shows is that interactivity cannot be improved by sheer complexity of choice alone, because this always presupposes a system of rules that the player must adhere to. rather the multivalency of representation in creating coherent conditions is as important as complexity (this is the sandbox vs. the multi story line MMPORG), because it permits truly open ended decision making rather than second guessing the intentions of the narrative. ie. what does this mean? vs what will this do? i thought something like rez or katamari could have gone a lot further - did rez need levels or even a purpose? the same question of representation maybe what ultimately gives pacman its "authenticity".

if instead of a namekuji, whatever that is, the falling sand game minimally represented a human figure, the interpretative millieu of the game would provide even more fertile narratives of play. the resurrection of ozymandias, getting a beer, the perils of drinking and curry etc.

christ that's a long post, good luck with that one.

David Jacobs

Great comment, C, Thanks! You had me at "multivalency."

And of course I agree with you about that it seems "perverse that you're in the desert but you know exactly where you have to go." Andy brought up the Penn & Teller example as an extreme case of Video Game pranksterism. What I found appealing in it was not the gameplay itself, but the playful spirit in which it was created.


That's one of the reasons I swear up and down on Warren Robbinett's Adventure for the Atari 2600. For the unfamiliar: not only was there a skill level that completely randomized the contents of the game (which, unfortunately, included some configurations that were unwinnable), but one of the obstacles in the game was a bat that would swipe items -- including the one you held or the hungry dragons prowling around -- and swap them around at its whim. Every session was literally an adventure because you could never be certain that you'd find something where you expected. The strength of the game was that it could account for just about any sort of player-created emergency. If an item was lost or a path blocked, there was usually an "out" available to the player.

I want to see a developer take on a project like that again. Try to make a game world where the objectives can still be completed even if the contents get jumbled around.

Also, I tend to agree that variation does wonders for a game. I still consume the latest adventure games on a pretty regular basis -- just making my way through Partners in Time on the DS right now -- but the games I keep going back to are games like Mario Party, Monopoly (GBC), Pokemon Trading Card Game (GBC), Game & Watch Gallery 4, Ultimate Card Games, Wario Ware Twisted... Board games and card games and arcadey games that mix things up every time you play them.

I think there's also something to be said for games that don't require a forty hour investment of time to see them from beginning to end, but that's another issue.

David Jacobs

Pokemon Trading Card Game (GBC)

You know, this is one of the great underrated Gameboy games. It was definitely the best of the Pokemon games. I thought there would be a DS version, but no luck yet.


Yeah, I didn't much appreciate Pokemon Trading Card Game either when I first got it. I cleared the main "quest" in about 18 hours, which left it branded as "too short" in my mind. But then I discovered the joys of deck building, the pros and cons of every card in my collection, and how Pokemon and trainer cards work together. (There's so many things a well-placed Scyther can do that it makes me giddy every time I think about it.) Now I have over six thousand virtual cards accrued through seventy hours of play. I still take a whirl through the Challenge Machine now and then; I've got a deck that can stand up to all comers on a pretty reliable basis.

Wouldn't wait for a DS version though. Pokemon may live on, but I don't think the card game has enough life in it to get a sequel.


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