Language learning, assumptions, and game design

On St. Patricks Day, I ran into an Irishman at a local Irish pub–Yes, there are Irish pubs in Tokyo–that I frequent who probably had a few too many drinks that day and was in quite the mood for conversation at the time. He described the difficulty he seemed to have in learning to pronounce English loan words in Japanese, many of which he admitted to not particularly paying attention to when taught in class. There was something about the intonation in Japanese that he couldn’t just quite get a hang of, and the fact that he had been drinking certainly wasn’t helping his pronunciation.

I wasn’t about to get into what I assumed was going to be a serious discussion on Japanese linguistics without ordering a drink first.

It was a festive food for the busy pub, which played on TV a live match between bitter English rivals Manchester United and Liverpool (as explained to me by British and Irish fellows there for the evening). Liverpool was dominating Manchester United, a fact the restaurant’s many foreign clientele were enjoying. With the entire establishment decorated in green for the festivities, I was immediately given a large, sparkly green bow tie to wear after sitting down next to another regular. With absolutely no hesitation, I ordered a pint of Guiness and put the bow tie around my head.

Returning to the conversation, we discussed the interesting idea that English “loanwords” are something easily skipped over by a native speaker of English learning Japanese because they assumed “familiarity” with the word, even when pronounced and used within the frame of a completely different language all together. Despite the fact that loanwords are often borrowed in isolated cases, and very rarely do they have the same range of meanings that a word may have in its origin language, the idea is that cognitively, language learners will assume they understand the word without necessarily taking into consideration the system that it has been adapted to.

This reminded me a topic that I’m quite personally vested in: the issue of introducing a game’s mechanics without an audience defaulting to preexisting assumptions regarding the content of the game. For example, if I were to explain that game A is a first person military shooter, there’s a specific idea of what the title may play like with that expression alone. ‘First person shooter’ (FPS) becomes the framework by which we gauge, for better or worse, the new concepts inside a title; someone may view original elements of a game as good relative to their image of FPS or may feel in the end the title is just a FPS with something extra.

While all of us use these frameworks for learning and acquiring new things (in this case, second language learning and consumer awareness), it’s an important step in identifying just how the connotations of key phrases used throughout the gaming community can conflict with a message we want to get out regarding the interesting points of a game. I don’t particularly have an answer to the issue of dealing with assumptions, particularly those regarding a game’s design, I think it’s important to understand that explaining a mechanic in general terms can sometimes be detrimental to a marketing strategy compared to introducing it using a slightly new terminology discussed within a new framework.

In that case, taking the first step in recognizing the pre-existing assumptions becomes the first and most important of any task.

Posted in Japan, Language, Video Games | Leave a comment

Towards a new game vocabulary

As the industry grows with an indie renaissance and we find games increasingly easier to make and distribute, let’s talk about changing the way we describe games in our everyday language. Recently, there’s been talk about how a new generation of consoles and better technology won’t be defined by amazing graphics detail, but rather the amount of world building and intelligent design we can make for our games. While this may be true, it’s still an important task for us in marketing or promotional positions to communicate these new ideas to users. For that, we may really need a new vocabulary.

We’ve started throwing around terms like “procedurally generated” for maps and creatures, or “serious” in terms of the way a game is meant to be treated as a work of art and not as entertainment. We see new genres popping up in descriptions of games that we try to sell to what seems to be an ever increasing global market. Have we reached a point where, in terms of business, we should be investing in increasing the knowledge of a typical non-core gamer’s game vocabulary?

I think so.

Let’s stop and think about the word “social” for a moment. While the rise of social games has caught the industry’s attention in more recent years, the term ‘social game’ wasn’t even considered a buzz word until the meteoric rise of rockstar smartphone apps that have come to define a new era of video game business models and distribution methods. At the same time, social games seem to have increased acceptance among a general population to the point where they’ve become a genre of their own–and this genre, despite its negative connotation among a marketing group we often to refer as core gamers, has taught millions of individuals around the world the notions of “free to play” and “connected” in games.

Can we take this one step forward as facilitators of communication between developers and customers as a publisher? The answer is: yes. Instead of shying away from terms like AI or procedural, as we often do in mass-media oriented material, let’s not assume that our average consumer who would be responsive to ours ads has no idea what a “stream” is, or that complicated words will push them away. Sure, we may be able to reach out to a wider audience by breaking down these terms, but isn’t this a slightly immature way of looking at communication?

Perhaps this issue is far more prevalent in Japan, where the ideas of “service” and “politeness” are at the forefront of customer satisfaction, but there’s a limit to how much we can avoid using increasingly interesting vocabulary to describe games. For example, let’s say we have a game that procedurally generates maps, items, and quests. Instead of using the terms “system” or “algorithm”, a promoter might decide to simply say “the game randomly makes maps, items, and quests”. But the term ‘random’ doesn’t really capture the beauty of procedural generation; the system is specifically calculating how certain aspects of a game will change according to initial input. So while the central sales point of “map change” or “each play experience is different” may be captured in the language, we aren’t really facilitating the growth of a new, more accurate vocabulary for communicating modern games.

This isn’t to deny that the main job of marketing is to get things sold, but I do think that the business side of the video game industry also has an important role in choosing the way we shape how this industry is viewed. Maybe we need to spend some extra cash introducing new terms; it’s also quite possible that we simply haven’t figured out new ways of getting the message out there to players. Either way, for the industry to grow we can’t rely on media or academia to define all the terminology for pioneering genres of games.

By creating terms and planning our communication around increasing awareness of new words, we’ll find ourselves with a larger linguistic arsenal for which to explain how a game could be entertaining, fun, or even educational to a user. And should we succeed at this, I think we’ll also find ourselves being more comfortable with inventing new terms that could even open up a more receptive audience for the products we’re interested in selling.

Posted in Language, Video Games | Leave a comment

An amateur’s response to Eric Schwarz’s “DPS and the Decline of Complexity in RPGs”

I stumbled upon a thought-provoking blog article on Gamasutra the other day focusing on the concept of DPS and its role in game design. The author, Eric Schwarz, argues that while DPS itself is a very useful tool, it has led to two crucial changes in game design that has led to a decline in the complexity of RPGs: 1) standardization of damage types and 2) standardization of character classes. Here, I’d like to discuss the notion of complexity as it pertains to RPG combat design, focusing on whether or not DPS is a viable scapegoat to place the blame of declining complexity upon. I argue that it is not DPS, but rather the design elements of other areas of games that lead strongly to the dissociation between RPGs with strong focus on online play versus those of a single player bent.

First of all, I definitely think this article is well worth the read, so if you haven’t checked it out, you should! Second, I want to mention that while I will be arguing against Schwarz’s complaints, I’m not disagreeing with his overall conclusion: there is a decline in the complexity of RPGs. I think the reasons for the decline, however, are rooted in other design elements rather than DPS.

What is DPS and how is it used?

To begin a discussion of something we first must define it. In this case, it’s the concept of DPS, otherwise known as damage-per-second. In terms mathematical terms, DPS is a function of raw damage output over time, ultimately averaging out any sudden changes in damage output that may be the result of game mechanics such as critical hits, blocks, resists, etc. It is, by itself, not a “design goal” so to speak, but rather a measurement of character performance in a game for design purposes. Only when the goal of balancing all characters in one measurement becomes necessary does DPS become what I would consider a desirable trait. This is a point that I feel is absolutely integral to separating MMORPGs from single player experiences.

Read More »

Posted in Video Games | 1 Response