A slightly different entry this week, as I’m very proud to announce that I’ve just signed the contract (the “Secret Project” mentioned recently) for my very first academic monograph! It’s a 100k-word scholarly work currently entitled “The Unpredictability of Gameplay”, and is going to be published by Bloomsbury Academic in a couple of years as part of their growing game studies collection. I’m not going to post the entire proposal, but here’s a quick synopsis (with added hyperlinks where relevant) of the goals of the project, the theoretical orientation, a rough outline of what the book will cover, some detail of what I hope to result from the work, and how it relates to URR and my work more generally! This is paraphrased from the formal proposal I wrote – hence the change in tone from my normally rather more conversational blog entries to something much more academic – but I think you’ll get the idea. Let me know what you think! I’m also working on securing future discounts or various other options for you, my wonderful blog readers, but more on this as we get closer to release. My goal is to have this released (or at the very least have it “in press”) before I conclude the third year of the current postdoctoral fellowship I’m on, and that’s definitely achievable, so you’ll be hearing more about it before too long.
v Synopsis v
This book explores the many forms of unpredictability in games and proposes the first ever theoretical framework for understanding and categorizing non-deterministic game mechanics. Rather than viewing all game mechanics with unpredictable outcomes as a single concept – whether map generators, randomized loot or the outcome of a die roll – this work develops a three-part typology for such mechanics. It proposes the use of randomness to define the unpredictability of pre-game conditions from the shuffling of a deck or generation of a dungeon level; chance as the unpredictability of in-game systems like randomized loot or unpredictable AI decisions; and luck as the extent to which player action cannot control the outcome of a given game. It also proposes a second axis, that of stability and instability, for defining the extent to which a game contains glitches, exploits, and unexpected unintended moments of gameplay, and where these factors intersect with the primary typology. The book then explores a range of game genres and concepts using these frameworks: procedural generation, skill and mastery in gameplay, replay value and grinding, and player-made practices designed to reduce the level of luck in non-deterministic games, such as exchanging random-number generator seeds between players. It demonstrates the importance of looking more deeply at unpredictability in games and game design, the wide range of ways in which unpredictability manifests across genres, and will offer an invaluable tool for both game scholars examining games with non-deterministic play and its impacts, and game designers seeking to integrate randomness, luck, chance or uncertainty into their work.
As the field of game studies currently stands, “skill” – whether in strategic/tactical decision-making, reflex/execution ability, the embodied experience of play, or competitive and high-level play – is far more studied than “luck”. Equally, by simply using the term “luck” for all non-deterministic outcomes and mechanics within games, we implicitly state that the map generation in a Civilization game, the drop rates in an MMORPG, and the win/lose outcomes in slot machines, are all “the same sort of thing” – they are all simply “luck”. Since these clearly yield very different gameplay mechanics, experiences and outcomes, a far more detailed framework is necessary for locating and defining these different forms of gameplay unpredictability. The book will therefore: 1) demonstrate that unpredictability in games is a significantly broader and more varied field than previously appreciated, and develop an innovative theoretical framework for considering games with non-deterministic characteristics (i.e. the overwhelming majority of games); 2) assist game developers in understanding what type of unpredictability they want their games to features – randomness, chance, luck, or uncertainty – and the impacts these each have on player experience; 3) assist game studies scholars in studying games with unpredictable or non-deterministic mechanics to a far greater depth than previously possible; 4) move the scholarly discussion around unpredictability mechanics away from the literature on gambling or simply being dismissed as coin-flips which are not integral to gameplay (drop rates in RPGs, for example) and towards a more detailed and theoretically complex understanding of the topic; and 5), lastly, form the foundation for a body of work on unpredictability in games to stand alongside the growing body of work around skill, mastery, high-level competition, etc.
Theoretically, the book will acknowledge prior foundational work by Roger Caillois (Man, Play and Games, 1961) into the understanding of non-deterministic gameplay and other authors who have explored the topic (and the assessment of unpredictable mechanics in fields including mathematics, game theory and gambling studies), and Greg Costikyan’s work (Uncertainty in Games, 2013, MIT Press), but will draw primarily upon Gilles Deleuze’s Difference and Repetition (1968). Utilizing his concepts of repetition, difference and generality will form a highly original and incisive groundwork for developing our understanding of randomness, chance, luck, and instability. In terms of dissemination, I envisage this book as having a broad readership across a range of games-related disciplines, academics, designers and players. For academics, it will offer the first detailed critical framework for understanding unpredictability in games (a significant part of an immense range of games) and examining the effect of these systems on gameplay experiences and player practices which have emerged around that gameplay – I hope for the book to become a fundamental text to begin developing the study of unpredictability to stand alongside the ongoing developing study of skill, mastery and competitive gaming. It also examines genre from a fresh angle, considering how a single concept – unpredictability – has been codified, reflected upon and developed in a range of different genres, in many cases these forms of unpredictability becoming synonymous with the genres in question. Equally, the designers of video games and non-electronic games, such as board and card games, will be able to use the book to assess critically and closely the role(s) they want unpredictability to play in their own work. A significant number of game players and journalists interested in the fields of roguelikes and procedural generation more generally will also be interested in the book, including fans of my own game design work. Lastly, given its strong engagement with Deleuze and wider debates around identity, difference and related philosophical questions, I hope for a lesser but potentially broader humanities and/or critical theory readership alongside the core game studies, game design and game playing audiences.
^ Synopsis ^
So there we have it. If the philosophical hyperlinks above seem daunting – don’t worry, one of the core goals of the work is to combine the densest game-relevant philosophy with the most practical and pragmatic of game design writing, and produce something new at that (in my opinion) extremely rich intersection. I’ll give more updates as things progress, but I’ve already drafted out twenty thousand words in very loose form and I’m extremely happy with how the work is coming together, even at this early stage. It’s very exciting to be finally contributing in a substantial way to game studies as an academic field and to be working with a publisher as substantial and respected as Bloomsbury. This is especially true since no book on this topic really exists at the moment, and I’m sure everyone can see how it will link closely in to my work as a game designer. Meanwhile, next week’s update will be 2015 in review! I have two other entries I could post this week and next – finishing NPC scheduling/pathfinding and the final major bug fix – but I’ve decided to save those for the start of 2016 instead (although the work on both is either in progress, or finished) and post this, and the 2015 review, in their place. So I’ll see you next week for a summary of the year in URR and the various other game-related pursuits I find myself involved in!