Sunday, September 24, 2006

Realism in Games

Realism is often sought-after by game developers, reviewers, and players, yet poorly understood by many. A rather elementary principle that a budding game designer soon learns is, "realism doesn't necessarily help a game", yet the reasoning behind it is usually murky.

The key is not to look at realism as a value-adding aspect like graphic quality, sound fidelity, screen resolution, etc., but more as a carefully-balanced aspect like progression of difficulty or overall complexity; too little and too much are both undesirable.

The dangers of realism are a lack of fairness (or overabundance depending on how you look at it), and an overload of complexity:
No one wants to watch an action movie in which the hero goes up against 3 armed opponents and is lucky to inflict a single casualty before being killed. Media manipulates the acumen and luck of all parties involved to portray something fantastical; in this case realism would make the game too difficult, or, assuming the player can possibly win by taking realistic courses of action, too boring.

In Counter-Strike, we could realistically expect the Counter-Terrorists to have better munitions in more ample supply than the average Terrorist squad, as well as considerably more manpower, especially on hostage maps where the CTs have presumably had plenty of time to gather their forces and form a plan of attack. In this case, realism gets in the way of a fun competitive game by stacking the odds severely against the terrorists; after all, the goal of terrorists is to sow terror and avoid direct confrontation in order to make up for their inferior strength, and as such are almost by definition weaker than the CTs.
Imagine a game like Trauma Center with about 30 antibiotics and dozens of types of forceps. There's a reason that doctors spend years in school learning how to treat the human body, and as a result any game based on medicine needs to be simplified in order for a layperson to play it at all.

The same goes for flight; which is more popular, Star Fox (a.k.a. Lylat Wars outside U.S.) or all flight simulators combined? I don't even need to check the sales charts; my money's on McCloud. The reason is that the complexity of a realistic aircraft requires a person spend a great deal of time learning in order to get off the ground, let alone engage in heart-pumping combat.
The benefits of realism are immersion and common-sense mechanics:
Immersion is the holy grail of gaming. The reason realism is so touted, along with high-resolution 3D graphics and surround sound, is immersion. Immersion is the only thing which a mass-market game can always use more of, regardless of its nature or its genre, and so the push for realism that follows is understandable; The issue arises when more realism adds less immersion than it does unfairness and complexity.

In some rare cases, realism can reduce immersion. In a medieval game, speech from even the English would be quite difficult to make heads or tails of. Going back to counter-strike, the guns are all left-handed, even though they are used, by default, in the player's right hand. The only reason for this seems to be to show off the gun's realistic machinations, such as bullet-casing ejection - things that would go unseen if the gun were right-handed or held properly in the left hand.
Common Sense:
This point seems to be lost on many developers, and so was the inspiration for this article: realism is important to common sense. When a player first picks up a game, e is using all of eir knowledge, common sense, and perceptions to put the game into a logical context. Without this context, the game seems to make no sense, and is no fun.

Let's use Counter-Strike one last time. Let's say that for an assault rifle, the gun fails to fire every so often. Imagine two different expressions of this failure:
  • The gun makes a kazoo sound and fires confetti for a few seconds.
  • The gun jams and the cartridge is forcefully ejected by the player's avatar.
They both operate on exactly the same gameplay principles, yet the former makes little sense while the latter is perfectly understandable. When a player plays the game for the first time under the "confetti" presentation, the random failures of the gun will not make sense to the player. The player will become increasingly confused and frustrated as e attempts to explain the cause of the failures which are getting em killed so often. Unless other players in the game explain the gun's operation to the player, e will quit forever.

On the other hand, with the "jammed gun" presentation, there may be some confusion as to what causes a mechanical malfunction in the gun, but there is no confusion as to why the gun is not firing; guns do not fire confetti, they become jammed. In this case a player is far more likely to be more understanding of the situation, and is immediately closer to being fully acclimatized with the nuances of the game that need to be understood for effective and fun play.

Possible examples abound. For one, imagine a flight simulator that responds to a certain failure by instantly pointing the aircraft at the ground and teleporting it within 50 feet of the earth's surface. Even in a game emphasizing arcade-style play, such a response would only be perceived as a bug.
What to take away from this is that there are easily-understandable reasons behind why realism can be a bad thing - despite these aspects usually being acknowledged but glossed-over in much game design commentary - and that realism can help to make game rules intuitive for the player, making realism about more than immersion.

The follow-up to this post is here.

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Anonymous Antistone said...

It should be noted that there are ways to get "common sense" benefits other than realism; the goal is to draw on the player's experience, not necessarily to be consistent with reality. This aim is accomplished by being iconic, but not necessarily realistic.

For example, if you want a player to instantly comprehend that something in the game is an explosive, making it look like a realistic IED is probably not a good move. A better option would be to make it look like a bomb from a hollywood movie, with dynamite or plastic explosives connected by wires to a big red digital countdown. But for instant recognition, your best option is a black sphere with a thick, lit fuse--a cartoon bomb. Because everyone (in our culture) knows that that's what a bomb looks like...even though we also know that real bombs don't look anything like that.

Similarly, if you want someone to instantly understand something is a key, you make it look like an old-style key, with a ring grip, a long shaft, and a few big teeth. If you make it look like a modern car key, or a magnetic key card, people will probably still figure it out, but not nearly as quickly or easily.

In the same vein, everyone knows that lightning is a yellow, jagged line, narrowing to a point; that poison is green; that zombies chant "brains"; that ghosts are transparent; and so forth. A lot of people have now also learned that enemies flash when you damage them, that hearts restore your life, and that dimmed controls are currently unusable. Substituting a more realistic representation for any of these is likely to make your game less intuitive, not more.

12/07/2007 12:59 AM  
Blogger Mr. Wallet said...

An excellent point antistone! However, I'd like to explain that the focus on the article was that ealism helps to explain unfamiliar concepts to players. The concept of a "bomb" is much more likely to be a familiar concept than a "firearm jam" in a video game.

An iconic representation can help a player to identify what something is supposed to represent, but once we express to a player that a given object is indeed a bomb, it's best to have the bomb behave in roughly the same manner as a real bomb; that is, produce a hazardous explosion upon activation. An iconic representation is, I think, a topic for another article entirely. :)

12/10/2007 10:38 AM  

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