Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Memorable Game Experiences

Fair warning, this post is kind of long and rambly.

I’ve been doing some thinking about procedurally generated content of late. There are some things about it that make me a little uneasy, things I haven’t really been able to put my finger on, but I think I figured out at least a part of it. It has to do with whether or not the game play experience is memorable.

One of the big selling points of procedurally generated games is that they give you limitless variety to play with. You can play the game dozens of times and it will play out differently every single time. There are quite a few games that do this: Tetris, Diablo, Steam Birds, Civilization, Minecraft, and my personal favorite Starfighter Eternal. Each of these games generates the content as you play the game, or before you start, giving a different experience each time.

The funny thing about these games though, is that typically I can only manage a single play through, or I’ll spend a few hours with it before losing interest, even though I think they are excellent games. Tetris and Steam Birds and Starfighter Eternal are great fun, and they play different every time, conceivable you could play these games for hundreds of hours, and enjoy every minute of it. Diablo, Civilization and Minecraft generate new maps for you, giving you new areas to explore and conquer, meaning that you never run out of places to play.

Many of these games will easily suck me in for hours if I get started, but after a while I find that I have little desire to go back. “So what?” you’re thinking, “You just get sick of the game, right?” No, I don’t think that’s it, I’ll often stay interested in games with non-procedurally generated content longer, even if they have less satisfying gameplay. That seems particularly strange to me, but the answer came to me one morning when I was trying to remember if I had already brushed my teeth.

Think about it, how much of your morning routine do you typically remember? Enough to differentiate between one day and the next? I often don’t, I’ll remember brushing my teeth, but I can’t remember if it was today, yesterday, or the day before that. The days all run together. That happens because the mind only stores new patterns. I go through the exact same motions every morning, so my brain barely bothers storing any specific information about the latest iteration of the morning routine. I believe that the same thing haunts procedural games, and is what makes me get bored of them quicker.

Do you remember each hour that you’ve sunk into Tetris? If you went and played for an hour right now, would you remember any of that hour, except that you had spent it playing Tetris? Each hour spent playing Tetris, while different enough to stay interesting, and keep you engaged, isn’t different enough for your brain to bother storing it. I see the same thing with Civilization, Steam Birds, Diablo, and all of those other games. I remember the games of Civilization 2 I played fourteen years ago better than I remember the ones I played last week. Because at that point it was still very new and different, the patterns were unique, and my mind eagerly memorized everything it could about the game. At this point, I’ve played so many games of Civilization that it’s like my morning routine, my brain sees no need to bother remembering it.
And that’s why I lose interest. I think this may be just me, but I really prefer to remember where my time went. If I’m going to spend a couple of hours with a game, I want to remember spending that time, I want to remember the game. By this point, I’ve remembered everything I’m going to remember about Civilization, so even though it’s a very compelling game, I don’t want to spend time with it. I know that I could easily lose hours to it, and enjoy the time quite a bit, but I know that come next week, I won’t remember those hours, they’ll be lumped in with all the other hours spent on Civilization.

A game that isn’t procedurally generated however, has a definite beginning, middle, and end. I may not remember every hour spent with the game, but I will remember the overall story arc the game told. Somehow I feel that that time is better spent, because twelve hours spent on, something like Dark Messiah of Might and Magic will give me a complete story to remember, but twelve more hours of Civilization, will just be another dozen hours with Civilization, indistinguishable from the other hundreds.

I’d really like to see, or even better, develop, a game that was able to produce limitless variety, and still give the type of memorable experiences that a non-procedurally generated game often does. I’ve got some ideas, but nothing beyond ideas at the moment.

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