08 July 2011

Longevity and the infinite game.

Making a game last long is a challenge. How to achieve replayability? How to extend the game? How to make people coming back to it for more? How to do all this, but still keep the game fun and worth playing?

Well, how about making the game last forever and have endless fun gameplay? It is possible, althought it does require good specific design and certain features to make it work. I'm going to tell you how to do it and what is needed to make it happen.

What is an infinite game?

It is a game with enough complexity, fun gameplay and that its content is constantly growing, either by the developer, the community, or both. These games are often more than just games, they're best described as alternative realities or virtual worlds.

An infinite game is what I consider the ultimate game. These games are not small and they are not simple or focus just on a few mechanics/gimmicks either, and they do not always have a clearly defined end, so not all types of games might have the potential to become something as grand as an infinite game. Most commonly, infinite games are simulations of an alternative reality, a consistent world, which possibly shares loose or strong similarities with the real life in terms of that they have environments, elements, characters and objects rather than something completely abstract.

They usually allow for the player to create and control a custom character, an avatar, that will exist in a world of some sort and the player could interact with it freely like you would in real life. You would use objects, explore, fight, create, do stuff or just live in it. This is just a rough example of what kind of aspects you would expect to see in an infinite game.

In short, infinite games are like a portal to another world where people can go inside and live in it, be whatever they want and do anything.

To create a game of this caliber, it will need some advanced features besides the basic game to make it live forever. In addition to that, certain third party social applications and sharing extensions may also be used, depending on the game and its system.

For those games that do not aim for this goal and have more limited design, will not have the same potential as infinite games, but nonetheless, they can last very long by using the features below and some other methods to keep it alive for more than one playthrough.

Features and extension for infinite games.

Infinite Goal. A game cannot be infinite if it has a finite goal, as the case is with most story driven games that follow a preset plot and a set of events that ultimately lead to an ending, where the game terminates, leaving the player with no further point to play it as you've already exhausted everything there was to explore in the game. Even if you add multiple choices that effect the outcome, it will still eventually end as it would without them. This is not the case with games that have an infinite goal. You make the story and you decide when it ends on your part.

An infinite goal is an on-going reason for a player to play the game. There might be some backstory to the world you play in, but generally speaking, you have sort of come to live in an alternate dimension that you can explore, interact with and leave your mark on it. There may be a beginning, but there is no clearly defined end or ultimate goal that you work towards and that when finally achieve it, it would mean that you are done with the game and its over. Instead, you come to live in the world and what ever you do in that world will be your story and when and how it ends is up to you. Pretty much like real-life works.

The goal never ends and as you play, there should be a way to notice that your actions do have an impact on the world you're playing in. As an example, you might be fighting an evil empire across the galaxy on various planets. As you defeat the enemies and drive them off planets, the planet becomes a safe place to explore and live on, thus leaving a mark of your victory in the galaxy. And the amount of planets you can fight to liberate is pretty much endless and thus, the game has an infinite goal.

That's just a quick example, but I hope you get the point what I mean by a meaningful infinite goal that is essential for an infinite game. Just remember to ensure that the on-going goal is meaningful to the player and that the players can leave his mark by playing the game and achieving things within it.

Multiplayer. Humans are unpredictable, social, live beings. Put two or more humans to do something together and soon you'll have drama and hilarity fueled by the activity they're doing. Doing something with a stranger or a close friend makes things much more exciting because there is live interaction going on between you, the game and the other person(s). This makes things interesting and possibly even fun, depending on the company you play with.

There are two main types of multiplayer; competetive and co-operative. The main difference between them, is that in competetive games there must be a loser and a winner, whereas in a co-operative game, everyone is a winner or not a winner, but no-one is ever a loser in a co-operative game.

On bit semi-related note, I recommend checking this little article out to get some food for thought on this subject of competetive and co-operative models on thinking. I wont go into specifics of that since it warrants a whole post of its own, but you can read that article I provided the link to for now.


Point is, no matter what type of multiplayer, it will instantly boost the unpredicability of your game, making each play session feel fresh, granted the game isn't too strict and allows for emergent gameplay where the human factor has an edge over the machine and artificial intelligence to make fun things happen that would be otherwise impossible or predictable.

However, with multiplayer comes great responsibility. This is especially the case with competetive games and as such, they are more tricky to design. The main goal for any mutliplayer game is that everyone is equal and every player feels that the game is fair.

Competetive games have a problem of being self-destructive due to their nature. Losing isn't fun, so some people might even go as far as do anything in their power to gain the edge over their competition, often harming the game itself and its other players.

By this I mean hackers, cheaters, griefing and exploits. So if you want to make a competetive multiplayer game, you must be prepared to ensure you can prevent such things from ever happening, so that the game would remain fair at all times and would never fall prey to hackers or other exploits that could potentially destroy the game and ruin the fun for others.

Modding possibilities in a competetive game can also be a two-sided thing. On the cool side, it allows for the community to expand the game to be different thought small mods or larger total convertions. On the other side, if the game is solely designed for multiplayer only, mods can potentially spread the community very thin as there will be more types of games than there are servers to play on, thus making the whole online experience very spreaded, as in, the community will become very divided and distant from each other. This can potentially damage the game and its community. Althought this does not apply to every game design that focuses on competetive multiplayer, I'm just saying this so that you would be aware that this kind of thing can happen.

Co-operative games, on the other hand, require a worthy common goal that players can agree upon and work towards it to achieve victory. Without a goal or reason worth pursuing, it will be difficult to persuade players to work towards it together, so having a good reward that every participant can enjoy is very important in such games.

There are also less common types of multiplayer that are the combination of competetive and co-operative multiplayer with many variations as well as expressive multiplayer games.

The comp-coop combo design in a game will force you to think about both aspects of competetive and co-operative gameplay, so you'll be dealing with both issues related to them, as explained above.

As for expressive multiplayer, these are games without a distinct goal, but more of a sandbox-like social spaces where players can do creative things, talk with each other and just hang around. Kind of like an internet forum, but as a game. As such, the same issues an internet forum has would apply to the game and you would need the appropriate measures to deal with them. Measures like moderation and constant attention to keep the game and its community running smooth and also enforce any rules to prevent anything harmful or offensive from appearing.

Procedural generation. It is possible to program a computer to create content automatically and along with that, it can also randomize this content in various aspects. This means your game can have a feature that will add a factor of randomness, which in turn, can make each time you play it, feel different, fresh and unpredictable.

This is called procedural generation and it has many uses, but you need to be aware where to use it and how. This is because there are certain things that you would definetely not want to randomize in a game as it would ruin consistency which is very important to maintain at all times.

I've been talking a lot about how unpredictability and freshness is a key part in infinite games, but this doesn't mean that absolutely every aspect in a game should be random. The goal of using this feature is to add element of randomness that would simulate nature's chaotic behaviour in everything organic/natural that exists in the world, figuratively speaking.

This chaos adds excitement through uncertainty, forcing a player to adapt and think differently to figure out how to deal with the challenge each time. The more complexity and variables there are in the game, the more interesting it becomes and in turn, the more long lasting it can be. With good mechanics, fun gameplay and sufficient complexity this can last virtually forever.

The most suitable use for procedural generation is for creating environments, levels, maps, starting conditions, generating variation of attributes between instances of characters/creatures/organic items/other natural elements. It is also very suitable for artificial intelligence to simulate unpredictable behaviour of NPCs to some degree. Some information and data can also be generated procedurally, such as names and other similar bits of text and numbers.

Some examples where using procedural generation is not a good idea, are randomizing non-organic objects and artificial systems. An example of this are man-made items, structures and other systems.

Because if something was man-made, an artificially created thing, it always has a purpose, a design or some idea behind it, so randomizing such things would be against logic. This is especially important for games that aim for realism.

Ability to express creativity or skill. By having a feature in a game that can potentially allow a player to create or perform something impressive that leaves a mark, is a great thing to have. This feature can be made even better by having the ability to save it, so you could later share it with other people and recieve feedback on it, thus gain experience and learn something new.
This "something" that you can perform or create, can be pretty much anything.

Some quick examples of this can be a game where you can build structures and systems freely, a game where you can create art on a canvas, where the canvas might be a anything from a piece of digital paper to a virtual world or some sort of environment, while your artistic tools can be anything from a simple brush or a manipulator of some sort that you may use to interact with the elements and objects you can find around you in the environment you're in. Or perhaps you have a game where you can demonstrate impressive skill by doing something very complex either mentally or physically, like solving a problem in a very creative way or performing a certain task with incredible finesse and efficiency.

It is very important to allow the player to save the moment or somehow leave a permanent mark that can be shared with others. This can be either a recording of audio, video or both, a screenshot or anything else you can think of that can save the moment as proof, so that it can be shared with any other person through whatever means you find most suitable for your game. This way, whatever a player creates will have a meaning, something to talk about with others outside or inside the game. This is a very good thing.

Being able to give and recieve feedback is also crucial. There is no point in sharing if there is no interaction or feedback of any sort. Feedback allows people to communicate with each other, either for better or worse, and in turn, these interactions can teach something new to both the author or the viewer and help them both grow mentally thought social interaction.

Social interaction. I already got ahead of myself and talked about social interaction about doing and saving creative art or impressive display of skill as well as giving and recieving feedback using comments in the above topic, but I want to reinforce the fact that social interaction either inside or outside of the game, is very important for any infinite game to have.

Communication with other people is essential for survival for any human living in civilization. Through communication, a humans can exchange ideas with each others and learn something in the process. It can also be useful, fun and rewarding depending on the situation.

Sharing is a really fun activity and it can be a big part of a game. You might have created something within or outside the game, be it art, a moment, information or anything else worth sharing, it would be awesome to show it off to the world and see how it reacts to it.

This can be either integrated within the game as a feature, or have a third party application, like an internet forum, a gallery or a file database complete with the ability to comment so that feedback can take place. In turn, you could entertain yourself by browsing what other people have created and discuss it and maybe get insipiration or ideas from others and so on.

Social interaction is also very useful in multiplayer games obviously. During actual gameplay, players might give information to team members, taunt the opponent, talk random stuff, ask questions, give answers, make friends ect.

For this, it is important to have a good system to handle chat. The most basic form of chat is text based. You can send a limited message to either everyone, someone in person or to your team, depending on the game and its system. It is important to have a good system to enter and recieve text so that its equal to the basic features you can do in MS notepad, such as copying and pasting text, at least.

The other form of chat is audio based and there are two types of this that are voice-chat (requires a microphone) and text-to-speech system. For audio-based chat systems its important to have full control over when it is used and when it should stay off, because most of the time, chat is something you use only when needed and sometimes, you might want mute everything or someone in particular for whatever reason, so its important to have the option to do that.

Modding. For game to be truly infinite, it needs to grow constantly. By growing, I mean adding something new to the game every now and then. The more regularly it grows, the better. A "new thing" can be anything from a new feature to new content or anything else that adds a new thing for players to explore and have fun with in the game.
There are two options. The first one is that the developers commit themselves to updating the game and creating new stuff to the game as regularly as possible. The second option is that you set up the game to be modifiable and let the community expand the game on its own. This is called modding.
This is not a simple matter and it is not suitable/possible in every game. If you choose to make you game modifiable, it can potentially allow the game to live forever and as a developer, the only thing you need to do is to set up the system properly and optionally monitor any creations the community makes, in case you want to enforce rules and an etiquette that you value.
Its also great that the players will be able to improve your game on their own without having to depend on the developer in the case if the developer dies or simply has no time to create updated on his own.

So what does it take to set up a game for modding and what to keep in mind?

First of all, it needs to be accessible. Do not restrict anything and provide all the information that is needed to create high-quality content and features. If you have any tools that would be useful, be sure to provide them to modders. If you dont have any tools, but there is a demand for them and they would definetely be beneficial, then by all means make them.

Secondly, you must teach the modders. Tell them how it works and how to do things professionally. I cannot stress this enough. This is absolutely important.

It is not enough to simply throw the tools and access to people and think they'll figure it out. Sure, some people might and will figure it out eventually if the game is good enough, but you can go a long way to help anyone interested in modding by giving them a full guide, tutorials, full comprehensive documentation as well as tips and tricks and anything else you know to the modders to ensure that they will have the knowledge readily available to create the same level of content that you did officially.

You must NEVER neglect teaching the modders on how to mod of your game if you plan to make your game moddable at all.

Nothing is worse than trying to figure out stuff through trial and error, especially without any help from the developer. Its pointless, time consuming, frustrating and incompetent. By teaching the modders to use the system correctly to create good content you will also ensure that there will be less mods of bad quality to be made and released by the community when they know how the professional does it. Always teach the modder everything from the beginning to the end as much as possible and do not be arrogant towards newbies, ever.

Those are the main features that can make a game become an infinite game. It doesn't have to be all of those features in one game, even one or two can be enough, but this is what it takes to make an infinite game.

Games that are more simple or limited by design (such as story games/interactive movies) can use some of these features to extend its lifetime in some aspects, but generally, they will still remain finite, either until the story the game focused on is revealed or when the player has discovered every aspect of the game and finds nothing else exciting in gameplay since it cannot grow any further from what it was at its release.

Hopefully this post has inspired you or atleast given some food for thought that games can be infinite if they are made right.

(This is a part of the "what makes a good game" series)

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