Bored in Las Vegas
Last night, for the first time, I walked the Las Vegas strip. It bothered me. Everything was just…a little bit off. The cigarette girls’ skimpy uniforms didn’t quite fit right. The guy singing Third Eye Blind karaoke was neither bad nor good enough to entertain. The Elvis impersonator sounded more like an unenthused Dean Martin. I was bored. I was only in Vegas because the hotels are cheap and I needed a place to stop for the night. I probably could’ve enjoyed myself playing poker or blackjack, but my tight, travel budget (exacerbated by a dead alternator in Denver) restricted me to slots.
Looking for a place to try out this gambling thing, I dropped one dollar into a penny slot machine. I was drawn by the repressed hipster in me that loves anything with a three-wolf moon on it. Fifteen seconds in, I was up twenty cents. Thirty seconds in, my money was gone. The game-designer in me wanted to slap someone. Not because my money was gone, but because I was not entertained, yet the place was full of people pumping money into these things ad nauseum–visibly bored, but still willingly parting from their money.
“Play Farmville or something, for crying out loud! At least that’s constructive,” I thought silently–briefly putting aside my disdain for “cow clickers.”
Despite my internal protest, they continued. This lady sat down at the one with cats on it, that guy at the one with Bradley Cooper and Zach Galifianakis on it. There were hundreds of themes for these things–movies, sports, animals, historical periods. Seldom did two people settle on the same theme.
At a core gameplay level, these slot machines functioned identically. Drop in money, choose what “lines” you want to check, and send it spinning, hoping for the best. So why were there so many different machines?
Stripping Away Dressing
When designing a game, it is important to think about the core mechanic, apart from the dressing that comes from art and theming. Raph Koster, in his (phenomenal) book, A Theory of Fun, talks about this abstraction. In the chapter titled “What Games Aren’t,” he says “Story, setting, and backplot are nothing more than an attempt to give a side dish to the brain while it completes its challenges–sometimes the hope is that it makes up for an otherwise unremarkable game.” (p87)
Most who have been in the game industry a while have had someone approach them with a game design idea. Usually, however, it’s not a game idea, but a theme idea. “I think you should make a game about cattle ranching!”
If I’ve got the time and the patience, I’ll resist the temptation to blow them off and attempt to encourage them think about their idea. “What power does the player have over the situation? What’s the opposing force? What would be random? What would be determined by the designer?” Many people haven’t considered what the game is about; they’ve only considered what the theme is about.
In the case of the slot machines, the answer to most of these questions is, “nothing,” except “what is random?”
Trail Blazing (Hooray! I’m Original!)