The Unpredictability of Gameplay

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 repetitiondifference 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!

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21 thoughts on “The Unpredictability of Gameplay

  1. Do you think it will ever be translated in french? 🙂 Nah just kidding, except if it’s a huge academic success, which with such a synopsis I hope it will be, and even then a translation can take years…
    Yep, I’ll read it before that I think. Considering all that you wrote before, the synopsis of this book is not really surprising 🙂 I encourage every book that explore the mechanical or cultural side of videogames and yours definitely fills that curiosity.

    Overall, a good year for roguelikes. Discuss this sentence in three parts.

    • Haha, it’s got to be possible! A few decades down the line, anyway…

      Yeah, I’m very much after the mechanical/cultural intersection! I agree, a fine year for roguelikes, though (from my personal perspective) I have even higher hopes for 2016…

  2. Interesting! Some of my favorite gaming moments were unexpected/serendipitous moments, in games where such things were possible. I’d like to see more unpredictability, especially in the open-world RPGs of the future. Scripted games can tell fantastic stories, but there’s the potential for so much more.

    You mentioned Civilization; what are some other games that you’ll be discussing or using as examples in the monograph (other than URR, of course)?

    • I completely agree; unexpected moments are always tremendously interesting, whether “intended” by developers or not. Whew, I don’t think I actually have a full list of the games yet, but there will be a bunch of roguelikes, a bunch of things like Elite and Civ, a lot of card games, some RTS games, various games with particularly interesting glitches/exploits, and probably more I haven’t yet decided on. And naturally, I’m sure URR will appear at least once!

  3. Good thing, and very interested in this, too. And…good luck ! (or good chance, or good randomness, I don’t know anymore ^^)

  4. This sounds like a very good way of conceptually differentiating those kinds of randomness, particularly for designing and analyzing games. Although you are probably aware of this, discussions on probability and information in games could be useful material to draw on (e.g., the discussion on information in Salen & Zimmerman’s Rules of Play). The information available to the player may have some impact on luck (i.e., it manipulates the actions of the player).

    Are you planning to only look at single-player games, or multiplayer games as well? Would the actions of other human players be treated the same as AI players? (i.e., are actions from other other human players an example of chance?)

    • I’m glad you like the proposed framework; definitely re: information, although I do naturally want to avoid overlapping with other works that example “incomplete information” as a game mechanic. Though as you say, it’s definitely important in so far as lacking complete information will affect what the player thinks about various forms of unpredictability, so I’m more after “does the player know how the PCG system works?” than “does the player know what the other player is doing?”. Both single and multi, where appropriate, but a lot of multiplayer game uncertainty has been explored before!

      • Ok, that makes sense. While I can see the value in uncertainty from other players, I agree that your book needs to be limited in scope.

        Players also learn more about the PCG system as they continue to play the game though, so that knowledge can change over time. However, I’m sure that certain events or combinations could be sufficiently rare that they are never learned by the player.

        • > Players also learn more about the PCG system as they continue to play the game though, so that knowledge can change over time. However, I’m sure that certain events or combinations could be sufficiently rare that they are never learned by the player.

          What you just said there – I think that’s a hugely important point, and a bit part of the book will be on “how do players gain knowledge of unpredictable systems?” and the rare scenario that, as you say, some might actually never be learned by being rare enough! It’s interesting to look closely at the process by which players deduce how PCG systems and similar things actually work.

  5. Bravo! Make it so.

    Such a work is long overdue, and I’m quite excited about your initial intent and direction. This is a deep passion topic of mine, so please feel free to consider me a resource for feedback on early thoughts and sketches. Godspeed!

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  7. I would definitely like to read it! Unfortunately my English is not good enough for the moment. Anyway I just discovered you via Dwarf Fortress.
    I would like to support you, do you sell any merchandise about your game?

    Have a nice year. 🙂

    • Thanks! I don’t currently sell any kind of merchandise, but if you click the “Support” button, there’s a donation option and a “please tell people about the game” option, which are the two best ways to support me and the project. You too!

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  10. I’m sort of lazy not to dig deeper but could you update this article as to reflect the state of the project, now almost 1 year later? I’d be interested in buying your work, especially if it’s available in digital form.

    • As soon as there’s something to report on, I will update it! Right now, it’s just “in the process of being written” (close to completion). I’ll do another blog post when I submit the final version to the publisher, I expect; I’m so glad you’re interested though, I’m really really happy with how it has come together.

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