It’s been nearly a full month since my last post. I had to go to Paris for a meeting and I got the swine on my flight back to Montreal. Nailed to my bed for four days and out from work for eight was enough to bring my brain to new levels of weirdness where old thoughts from Far Cry 2, new ones from my new project and a few others for a future talk of mine were all mixed up together. So I now have to put some of those in here in order to think clearly again.
So today I decided to talk a bit about improvisational play which is from ‘my old thoughts from Far Cry 2’ brain section. As presented by Clint Hocking at GDC 2009, improvisational play was observed in Far cry 2 as a result of our inability to provide a game structure where the composition phase is balanced with the execution phase. In short, as the game was slowly getting together we realized that during combat, players were often confronted to step out of the execution phase as a result of an unpredictable event. This forced them to readjust their direction by going immediately back to the composition phase where a new plan was required. The fact that this was happening several time during a single battle clearly demonstrated that players were often improvising on the fly instead of executing their plan as intended. They were not dominating the situation through intentional play; they had to constantly readjust to combat events.
There is no doubt improvisational play is a positive design side effect of the Far Cry 2 experience. As Clint said, we were embracing what the game was trying to be and I would say with a bit of luck it ended up being a good thing. But it was not design that way so there’s still a dark side to it.
The amount of FC2 players who actually understood what was going on when they experience improvisation is quite small in proportion. This means countless players are asked to readjust on the fly without understanding why. Clint mentioned in his talk that improvisational play can be experienced without mastery which is true but it will not be appreciated if it is not understood.
What do I mean by understanding it? I am talking about the ability to identify the cause behind an execution phase break. In FC2, improvisation can be caused by several systems which are very hard to predict. Malaria, weapon jams and wounding are those Clint used in his presentation so I will stick with them. Each of those systems requires constant attention from the player. Malaria attacks are predictable but in an unexposed way and the player can make them go away by getting more pills through side missions. Weapon jams are all about weapon management. Weapon shops and safe houses are locations where it is possible to grab new weapons in order to avoid going into a fight with rusty unreliable guns. Wounds are quite predictable but the speeds at which the health can deplete make it hard to fully anticipate. There are a few criterias here that make those systems efficient at generating improvisational play.
First of all, they are negative feedbacks that will confront the player with new challenging reality on the spot. Secondly, they can be avoided which means the player ultimately has the responsibility of his own situation. Finally, they're designed to be uncertain so players constantly fear them and feel the need to take them into account in their composition phase (planning). They are working really well together and are responsible for magical moments in Far Cry 2... If understood properly. The FC2 design team had a lot of fun playing the game because they understood the mistakes they were making and how it was forging their experience. For example, it happens to me quite a few times that my gun jammed while I was in perfect control of the situation and I often smiled while saying to myself: “Ho Shit, I knew I should have passed by the weapon shop before coming here”. It is really cool to fully understand why you are in a given situation and it is also essential to be comfortable in the improvisation mode.
Here is something from punch-out to illustrate my point a bit better. Punch-out uses simple timing variation to challenge the brain. For example, the opponent AI will crouch exactly the same way for the right and the left uppercut but the right uppercut is launched 3 times faster than the left one. Often players will react too fast to the left punch and get back in the danger zone as the punch is launched. At this very moment the player says to himself: “Ho shit I knew it was the left one why the hell did I dodge so fast?” and at this very moment he dodge a second time and barely manage to avoid the real hit. This moment is exciting because the player adapted to a situation he understood which made him feels pretty good.
Now it is easy to say that Punch-out is fully deterministic and therefore is a bad example for improvisation but that would be wrong. When our brain is asked to react at the split-second level it is pretty similar to improvisation. Also, in the punch-out example the player is not aware of what will come next and he makes a mistake but manages to fix it based on his understanding of the situation. I believe this is where the true fun of improvisational play lies. FC2 explores improvisation in much deeper ways but it also fails to teach the player properly the crucial rules. Weapon’s reliability is shown through the gun shaders, the sound and some tutorial explains the importance of it and how to keep relatively new guns at all time. So we did try but it was not fully embedded in the progression of the game. Still to this day, I regularly confirm with various FC2 players that most people don’t fully get the reliability rules. When I talk to them about the weapon jam they see it as a frustration generator more than anything else.
Improvisational play remains heavily intentional because players still make risk analysis unconsciously leading them to decisions that will define the probability of an eventual improvisation moment. It is crucial that each variable relating to these risk analysis are properly exposed to players so they can perceive what is going on and appreciate the level of improvisation required.
Improvisational play was always part of our reality. In a way, Clint’s observation and his appreciation of this design structure is the same as Ralph Koster conclusion in A Theory of Fun when he mention the need to provide more complex patterns to players to avoid domination on their side which leads to boredom. Whether it’s the organic pattern behind the four ghosts in Pac-man, a strong opponent in street fighter, the uncertainty behind poker probabilities or a music improvisation, it is always based on the level of understanding of its participants. So I guess all of this is a very long way to say: “There is a higher level of play in Far Cry 2 heavily driven by improvisation. Unfortunately, this level is profoundly hidden behind inaccessibility…” There are definitly players who manage to reach it and enjoy the hell out of it. Now it is our job to make sure there are more of these guys for the next games we'll ship...
For extra information on the excellent talk about improvisation by Clint Hocking, look here on his blog.