Monday, April 8, 2013

How much game automation is too much?

I was just formatting some matlab code and waiting for a virtual machine to bring my machine to its knees (again...) and played a little sudoku on the phone.

One of the nice bits about MS sudoku is the helpful way that the game automatically eliminates some possibilities from your pencil work when you enter a number in pen. This removes one of the tedious bits of the game, but also "helps" you by removing one of the areas where human error increase the "challenge".

This got me to thinking; how much "automation" can help or wreck a game.

Scenario 1  Aim-bot in an FPS.

In an FPS, the human error that the player is trying to manage is mostly in two areas,  shooting and moving.  If the game automated either of these elements, the difficulty of the game would be seriously reduced. (This assumes that the games does not involve any resource constraints that require decision making.. I.e it has a single gun type with unlimited ammo)
This would reduce the game to an exercise of moving around.  Kind of like being the driver in a tank, where the gunner takes care of all the shooting bit and you just drive.  

This is no bad thing if the movement is interesting and challenging.  However, if the movement aspect is not "fun" then the automation has wrecked the game.  It has reduced the complexity, the chance of human error and the consequence of that error (learning).

What if the opposite was done.  The movement aspect was automated. The game now becomes more like the gunner in the tank.  The tank moves and you do your best to fire with no control or coordination with the driver.  (Like playing a team shooter when you jump in a jeep and take the mounted gun while a teenager with no headset takes the driver position. Enjoy! Might work out, might not.)

Does this help the game, break the game or turn it into a new and different game of different but similar complexity?

One application of this tech would be making games like FPS's accessible to differently able-ed people.  Someone who has issues with the fine motor control required to use a keyboard may still be able to play by taking the gunners position and managing aim and fire with a headset and switch. 

This kind of automation is both interesting and complex.  Getting it to work effectivly means having some means of coordination with the human player. Cooperate and in some instances "undo" something the bot may have done but the human player wants to back out of. In real-time games this may mean that the bot needs to be quite a quick and clever planner.

The second aspect I find interesting is what this though exercise tells me about the essence of a "game".  What can you take away and still have a "game".  I think the essential list is something like the following:

  • Control
  • Decision making
  • Human Error
  • Learning
  • Complexity

Automating Control 

You can automate control simply by using macro's and other "helpers".  More complex automation would be cause and effect "triggers".  In some respects these would "improve" the game becasue they quickly become part of the players sense of self.  However, the frustration would come with complexity.  If the player needs to deal with a very complex environment, then they may end up with many fine grained triggers to deal with the subtle combinations or only a few "blunt-instrument" triggers that deal with the environment in a very simple fashion.  Both of these would generate a very different gameing experience.

 Extreem automation of the players controlwould turn the game into a movie. Unless the "game" is a meta-game in which the object is to construct a bot or AI that plays a mini-game... but thats a bit different.

Automating Decision Making

The automation of decision making could be done by trying to eliminate "bad" choices and "tedious" or "repetitious" activities.  Those with programmed decision making and little novelty.  By removing these from the game, or allowing the player to set "default" responses, the game gets faster and may get more "concentrated".  This is probably a good design choice when player "eyeball time" is an issue.  Frustrating your players is important at some points, but not when the payoff is minimal.

At its extreem, removing decision making from the game turns it into a "spectator" experience.  Kind of like playing Myst without being able to play with the switches.  Its just an environment where stuff happens.  There is no investment by the player in their own experience.

Automating Human Error

Automation to eliminate human error is probably the most desired but the issue with the fastest route to failure.  Human error is the thing that people are trying to "beat".  Its the thing that players bring to the game that makes it different for everyone.  Automation that tries to mitigate or "help" users not make errors is probably essential in some industries and things like "self-drive" cars, but would be disasterous in a game. The game would then become a kind of "min-max" monster, where the player can rely on the "helper" bot to always make good choices.  This kind of "training wheels" design is essential for "training" and "practice" areas in complex games, because it helps the players to get high enough up the learning curve that they don't give up and quit.  But like all training wheels, they need to come off asap.

Games with high levels of complexity like SimCity need some sort of "advisor" or helper function simply to make some of the complexity managable for players of different skill and ability. The question is how "helpful" this advice is and how it's delivered.  Also, how accurate it is.  The thing with advice is that with humans it always reflects their "point of view" and intrinsically comes from a limited amount of information that the advice giver has.  In a RTS or Simulator, the "game" potentially has acurate and timely knowedge of every aspect of the game, so there is much less "uncertainty"... I say, potentially as the game designer can obviously engineer this uncertainty in.
The other issue would be "comprehensiveness", if you have a group of advisors who all give you advice on different aspects of the city, you as the player still have to bring all that advice together and make sense of it.  But it could certainly help with managing high levels of complexity or a complex interface.

But is this automating to reduce human error?  I think that if the automation is "looking over your shoulder" and prompting your or "second guessing" the players choices and providing hints before those choices are realised then it is. Then its the wrong kind of automation. It becomes a crutch that the player depends on and expects.  This is nice in the training wheels phase but destructive in the "real" game.

Automation that provides "timely" information and simplifies complexity is still very valuable, but this is really only good interface design. It still allows the player to form their own opinion and make their own choice. This could be manipulated simply by having the interface distort the information to influence the players choice... but thats just paranoid.

Automating Learning

There are all sorts of aspects within a game that foster learning.  The first is simply the experience of the game environment.  Learning the rules. Learning how big the play space is. Learning about the content of the play space.  Any attempt to "speed up" or "smooth out" this learning, can have some strange consequences.  Consider the difference between being told what to expect and being allowed to find out by experimentation.  Learning happens through experience, much less via observation. 

The opposite is interesting, automating the "evaluation" of how much the player has learned.  I build testing and measuring systems in my day job, so collecting data on performance is my bread and butter.  Building a system to evaluate the players performance or not allowing the player to progress until they have mastered something are interesting plot devices.  (They can also be sources of frustration if the threshold is set to high...) But used with sensitivity could provide a very useful mechanic for some game styles.

This is not really automated learning. Its more a way for the game designer to manage the players experience a little.  I am more concerned with automating in such a way that learning by the player is reduced.  There are probably any number of aspects of many games that players wish they did not have to learn.  Either they are tedious, not "core gameplay", not interesting for some players etc.  It would be nice to allow some people to "focus" on the bits they are interested in while being able to "ignore" the rest.  But would they be playing the same game as everyone else?  Is this simply disecting the experience? 

One example of this kind of thing is the "fast travel" mechanism in some of the RPG's.  Where once you have "discovered" an area, you can then "hop" around the map automatically.  You do not have to trudge through the area each time you want to move around.  This gives some balance between having to learn something that is novel and having to repeat something that is familiar. 

In real life, repeatedly traversing the same area reinforces our memories and familiarity with a location.  Repeatedly experiencing the same area may allow us to "see new things" each time we experience it.  However, with virtual environments not yet having the depth of detail of reality, this may be a blessing.  Having to re-experience a low fidelity environment may infact reinforce the fact that its fake!  It may be that "novelty" is one of the essential tools in the virtual world designers corner at the moment.  I know every time I have to go back in a virtual world and search an area thoughly for something, it becomes very obvious that its artificial.  This erodes my sense of immersion and reduces the pleasure in the experience of the world.   Contrast this with entering a new area, potential enemies lurk under every bush and resources lay around every corner... I think this is probably the point where I am most immersed in the experience.  Every sense is hightened and the fact that the bark on the trees is not tiling properly completely escapes my notice. 

I think using automation to reduce the exposure to stimuli in the game that facilitate learning simply means that the player does not get much of a lasting impression from the experience.  This may be an area for some research.  My feel is that a certain amount of repetition at different levels of excitation is essential for a rounded learning experience.  There is certainly a balance to be found between repetition and bordem... in some game environments, I think the shallowness of the environment and the lack of stimulus would result in a boring experience with very few repetitions.

Automating Complexity

Helping your player to manage complexity is a complex issue.  I touched on it above in the decision making item.  Obviously there is a fixed level of complexity that a player can cope with.  Depending on their mood and energy they may be able to move it up a notch, but there is still a ceiling effect somewhere.  For games that involve a high level of complexity simply by their nature, this can create an insurmountable learning curve for some players.  There is an argument that this becomes a self selecting exercise, but if a player has paid their money, it would be a poor game designer who did not reasonably wish them to have a good experience.

So, is there a case for automating some of the complexity, so that the player has a good experience, no matter what their level of capacity?  In team based games and competative games, this may violate some of the social contract that players self-create.  The concept of "cheating" and "fairness" are complex beasts.  Usually very dependant on how closly matched players feel themselves to be.  The question is, is a game fair when one of the players has limited hand function or is vision impaired? (Just examples, there are lots more out there.) What about when one player is a teenager and the other is much more experienced but may have less snappy reflexes?  (Age will get us all.. if the zombies don't)

I am not trying to make a case for automation, simply pointing out that there are many cases where the "fairness" argument fails.  Its predicated on the idea that everyone is equal and any differences are "self imposed".  We know that is patently untrue. 

Hmm... I feel like I may be wandering away from the thread a little.

So, I think the take-home is that automation is a complex subject. There is a case for automating all sorts of aspects of games; some to make the game better for all, some to make the game better for players of different capacity.  Certainly, less automation can increase the challenge for some players, while for others it may make the game unplayable.  In some cases, the addition or removal of an item of automation may make the experience "a different game". I know that the automation in sudoku for me makes it a faster and easier game that I think subtly sucks the fun out of beating a hard game.  It feels a bit too easy. 

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