Thursday, 13 May 2010

The Quad: Using It

Waffle Chart in the shape of a heart.

Before going into the practical application of The Quad, I will reiterate its four aspects:

The aspects of a game that do not form a part of the rules, and so do not directly influence the outcome. They can have an indirect effect however, if the the player chooses to let them prejudice their decisions. These aspects can include story, character, and environmental themes.

The rules of a game whose execution are governed by player decision. The probability space of the remaining game is tangibly altered by the branches of its decision tree the player chooses to navigate. That is, the chance of a player winning or losing a game perceptibly changes with their choices.

These are the parts of a game's decision tree that are traversed randomly, without player input. The probability of one decision occurring over another is either specified when the game is created, or is seeded by a dynamic source during play.

This describes the portion of a game whose outcome is influenced by the player's physical ability. The chances of winning or losing are impacted by a player's dexterity, strength, speed or stamina.

The theory is that videogames can be completely described with only these four elements, and that in doing so they can be more easily compared.

Let's consider the practical application of this model to a game that a large number of contemporary titles are based on: Quake. Quake's core gameplay requires the player to position and orientate a 3D camera, and fire a variety of projectiles along that camera's line of sight. The targets given to the player in the game comprise of either other players or enemy controlled AI. We can break down the sequence of events in a typical piece of play to see which aspects of The Quad Quake is built from.

First, the player must decide where to position their camera to best target their opposition. This decision will be affected by the player's memory of the map, and the dynamic information that's being fed to them through the display and speakers. Once a decision has been made, the player must execute the correct sequence of inputs to move the camera, and release their projectile. Their success will be determined by the appropriateness of their original decision, and the speed and accuracy of their execution. The same measure of success is applied to the player's opponents, and the winner is calculated in a straight comparison.

Decisions made in Quake can dramatically alter the result of an encounter, but do not trump a player's superior dexterity. Good decisions alone can not overcome an opponent's dominance of Physiology. This is mainly because the various guns in Quake require more than one hit to kill an opponent. Although making the superior tactical choice allows you to position yourself for the first shot in an exchange, as soon as you do so your location is revealed, and your intitial advantage gives way to who can land the most subsequent hits. Quick reactions and the accurate execution of prescribed firing patterns will dictate the result from the opening salvo. It's interesting to note that this equation is turned on its head in other games of the genre, like Counter-Strike, where the increased power of the weapons makes landing the first hit more influential.

As well as Decision and Physiology, we must consider the other two elements of The Quad: Randomness and Psychology.

Randomness governs very little in Quake. There may be a slight variation in the spread and damage of a weapon's effect, but the importance of this in a battle is superseded by Decision and Physiology. The only significantly random aspect of the game is in competitive multiplayer, where the opposition's skill level is unknown until the time of play. Although this can be frustrating if faced with an inappropriately superior foe, but the continually changing experience of these varying encounters results in longevity.

id Software employed sparse Psychology in Quake, as it had done in the Doom series that went before it. Without any notable storyline, context is given through the visualisation of your camera as a gun, and by presenting identifiably hostile targets to aim at. The lack of Psychology did not diminish Quake's popularity, but provided an opportunity for other developers to evolve the genre by bulking out this aspect in their games.

By combining all of these observations together, we can conclude that Physiology is the primary influence in Quake, followed closely by Decision. Randomness and Psychology are both present, but are proportionally diminutive.

In order to visualise our analysis we can weight each of these elements subjectively. This allows us to draw a waffle chart, whose shape represents the genre of a game. We’re able to compare this type of diagram to those for other games to determine their similarity.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Quake as classified by The Quad.

Other first person shooters would have a very similar chart. As mentioned above, most extensions of the genre concentrate on creating unique Psychology to set themselves apart. These have done very well commercially but, for me, the most valid successors to Quake innovate through their Decision mechanics. Good examples of this include Counter-Strike and Left 4 Dead. Counter-Strike rewards strategy over dexterity, diminishing the power of a talented run and gunner, and Left 4 Dead dramatically changes your foe, presenting multitudes of weaker targets who can overrun an isolated player. The difference in balance of Counter-Strike's Decision and Physiology to Quake’s can be seen when comparing their respective charts.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Counter-Strike as classified by The Quad.

There are videogames that have a very different shape when mapped with The Quad in this way. To illustrate the visual difference between genres, I've created a waffle chart for Guitar Hero. Guitar Hero's gameplay can be described as requiring a prescribed sequence of buttons to be pushed in time with a piece of music. With minimal Decision to be made, except for discerning when to use Star Power, and no Randomness to speak of, the game would seem to be almost pure Physiology. The twist in Guitar Hero is that it offers the player extremely compelling Psychology, casting them as rock stars. From the licensed music providing the beat, to the heavily stylised visuals and plastic guitar controller, the game works very hard to abstract away from its simple gameplay. Few would argue that the combined experience is not successful. By drawing a map of Guitar Hero, we can see that it looks considerably different to that of a first person shooter.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Guitar Hero as classified by The Quad.

Although these “genre maps” are able to quickly portray the proportional influences of each part of The Quad in a game, the perceived success of each aspect is not apparent. However, this information can be conveyed by weighting each area with a score. For instance, Gears of War 2 is a highly acclaimed first person shooter in the same genre as Quake. Below is a genre map constructed in the same way as we have seen above.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Gears of War 2 as classified by The Quad.

Notice the Decision, Physiology and Randomness lobes (blue, green and yellow) are balanced similarly when compared to Quake's or Counter Strike's. Yet the scale of these elements has been considerably reduced by the notable increase in the weight of Psychology. This is due to the effort afforded to the visualisation, characterisation and depth of the world in Gears of War 2 far outstripping that made in either Quake or Counter Strike.

Working with this chart, we can then scale it by an additional “success” factor, or "score". If we glance at the Metacritic review average for Gears of War 2, it provides a rough scale factor of 93%. Applying this to each of the four elements in the chart results in the below diagram.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Gears of War 2 as classified by The Quad and Metacritic score weighting.

Now imagine that instead of using a total score to scale all of the elements, each is assessed and scaled individually. Using the vocabulary of The Quad, these charts can be used to accurately describe a game’s genre at a glance, as well as giving the analyst a method of independently rating the success of each its aspects. The granularity of the information portrayed is not suitable for delivering in-depth analysis, but it’s a considerable improvement over rating a game with a single overall score.

The Quad is a unified terminology for what we've already been communicating in our discussions about videogames. We lose nothing by using the terms Psychology, Decision, Randomness and Physiology in our analysis, as it doesn't change the subjective nature of it. The benefit is a common language from which we can build and share ideas. To illustrate this I've created my own Gears of War 2 review chart, representing my personal reaction to the game.

Waffle Chart showing the elements of Gears of War 2 as classified by The Quad and my own score weighting.

As you can probably tell, I didn't really enjoy my time on Sera. My preference is to play something innovative, and Gears of War 2 certainly was not that. These are some of the notes I made when deciding the scale factors to apply to each element:

I enjoyed the artwork and visual effects, but found the story hokey, and the stereotypical characters bland.

I was disappointed with the variety of tactics I had to apply during the game. Each arena had obviously optimal locations from which to fire obviously preferred weapons. The set pieces could be approached in a similar manner throughout, with no incentive to change tactics. Ultimately, the majority of the depth of Decision in Gears of War 2 had already been explored in the original game.

The online matchmaking was competent at grouping me with similarly skilled opponents, but was not as good as Halo 3's implementation.

The controls gave me a wide range of options to manoeuvre in-game, including an excellent cover mechanic. My own movements were accurately translated to my avatar's movements, and the reward for being more dexterous than my opponents was satisfying. I enjoyed the conflict between having to watch the arena in front of me, and switching my attention to the reload gauge positioned at the edge of the GUI.

My bias towards games that introduce interesting and varied Decision makes my chart significantly different to the Metacritic chart. We could interpret this as the average contributor to Metacritic finding a game's Psychology more important than I do, and having a reduced requirement for depth of Decision. Of course, they may have simply enjoyed what was in the game more than I did; it's difficult to tell from just a headline number.

I hope I've shown that if we start using The Quad to describe videogames, and display our analysis with more transparency, then the quality of our communication will be improved, along with our discourse.

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