Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Simulation vs. Playability: The Background Discussion for a Blog Series



Over the course of the next few weeks, I will be discussing how some games balance their desire to simulate a certain activity with the need for a game to be playable. Most of the posts will be dealing with role playing games, but I might wander into wargame territory from time to time.

Let us take as a given for the purposes of our discussion that, with the exception of purely abstract games, most games are a simulation of some central conceit.

For example, both Chess and Men of Iron are to one degree or another simulations of medieval warfare. Men of Iron has what Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera (2012) would describe as higher "intensity" of the medieval warfare conceit than Chess, but both do share that central conceit. On the Elias, Garfield, and Gutschera "Scale of Intensity for Conceits," Chess is rated a 3 (Very Light Conceit) while Men of Iron would likely be rated around an 8 (Simulation, but with many sacrifices to gameplay).  As a further illustration Tic-Tac-Toe rates a 1 (Purely Abstract) and Squad Leader ranks a 10 (Full-on Simulation).  This might make one wonder where Advanced Squad Leader would rank, but I digress.

I understand that there are those who may disagree with the initial premise that "all non-abstract games are a simulation" either as a mere tautology, and others who completely disagree with the premise as an a priori. I believe it will prove useful for the series of discussions I hope to have about role playing games as simulations of the various subjects they address.

The framing of games, and in particular role playing games, as simulations should not be confused with Ron Edwards' GNS (Gamist, Narrativist, and Simulationist) system of game play analysis. As I interpret GNS Theory as a theory of play that can inform design and not a theory of system deconstruction and design. As Ron states in the above linked essay, "These terms, or modes, describe three distinct types of people's decisions and goals during play." These are player goals toward which games may be designed, but in my opinion a "Simulation" is not the same as a "Simulationist" game. 

To illustrate, the excellent Narrativist game The Extraordinary Adventures of Baron Munchausen is a simulation of storytelling as the good Baron himself might engage in it. It is not a simulation of the Baron's adventures, though James Wallis considered making a game where players could enact those adventures, it is instead a simulation of storytelling in a particular style. Another example of a game that is a simulation of storytelling is Tales of the Arabian Nights. Both Baron and Arabian Nights simulate the activity of storytelling within their conceits differently, but in the end the game play of both are best described by the stories created within the rules of the game. There is a reason that Wallis calls these kinds of games "Story-Making" games. So it's possible to have simulations of storytelling that results in story-making which in the end results in storytelling when the results with game play are shared.

Okay, enough of the metaphysics of games being simulations. Let's move forward please -- ed.

Games are also about fun, and to be fun games must be playable. This is as true of role playing games as it is for any other kind of game. As Robin Laws says in his masterwork Robin's Laws of Good Game Mastering, "Roleplaying games are entertainment; your goal as GM is to make your games as entertaining as possible for all participants." 

The key part of that statement is "as possible for all participants." Because players come to a gaming table with different "ideas of fun" as highlighted in Edwards' GNS theory, roleplaying game design must make decisions between the level of depth of simulation and the playability of the system. Some players find granular verisimilitude and accuracy of representation entertaining. For these players reading Chapter H of the Advanced Squad Leader rulebook is as much fun as actual game play. Other players might enjoy quick systems or systems that foster the creation of narratives.

Historically, one of the conflicts that has resulted from the attempt to design "good" games is a tension between "realism" and "playability." In Issue 8 of MOVES magazine (1973), Victor Madeja argued that "Commercial wargames fail to accurately represent modern war. Although no game will ever recreate the confusion, horror and destruction of war, we should at least expect a wargame to partly simulate the decision-making process involved in actual battle. Instead we have chess-like caricatures of reality. What semblance of realism we were led to expect is sacrificed on the altar of playability" (Emphasis mine). For Victor, there was a clear distinction between realism and playability and he thought that games at the time leaned too much toward playability and not enough toward actual simulation .

You can purchase access to the first 60 issues of MOVES magazine for the very reasonable price of $19.95 at Strategy and Tactics Press.

By Issue 14 of MOVES (1974) John Hill, the eventual designer of SQUAD LEADER, addresses the conflict by stating, "One of the hardest problems facing any war game designer is the careful balancing between playability and realism. Actually, any reasonably competent wargamer could probably design a realistic 'simulation,' but to design a good game is something else. As an example, 1914 was an excellent simulation of corps level fighting of that era, but as a game it was worthless -- it couldn't be played." John Hill would eventually go on to become an advocate of what he called "abstraction." This was a controversial game design philosophy in which the designer cared less about "what actually happened" and more concerned with the "effects" of what happened and how to model those effects. So, for Hill the fact that gunfire affected morale was more important than modelling the specific physical effects of bullet trajectories. Examples of "abstraction" designs in role playing games include D&D's "hit points" and the "effects based design" of CHAMPIONS.

The tension between simulation and realism is one that has been discussed in role playing games since the origin of the hobby. In the Advanced Dungeons and Dragons DUNGEON MASTERS GUIDE, Gary Gygax writes, "Of the two approaches to hobby games today, one is best defined as the realism-simulation school and the other as the game school." -- You can see in this discussion the origins of Edwards' GNS theory. -- "AD&D is assuredly an adherent of the latter school. It does not stress any realism (in the author's opinion an absurd effort at best considering the topic!). It does little to attempt to simulate anything either. ADVANCED DUNGEONS & DRAGONS is first and foremost a game for the fun and enjoyment of those who seek to use imagination and creativity...As a realistic simulation of things from the realm of make-believe, or even as a reflection of medieval or ancient warfare or culture or society, it can be deemed only a dismal failure...Those who...generally believe games should be fun, not work, will hopefully find this system to their taste."

In his paragraph on design intent, excerpted above, Gygax clearly puts himself in the "abstraction" design camp. His discussion of Hit Points in the DMG also makes this clear, whereas those who criticize hit points or how armor "makes it harder to hit and doesn't stop damage" fall more into the simulationist camp. I would like to say that I disagree with Gygax that his game "does little to attempt to simulate anything." I would argue that it is simulating heroic fantasy, but it is doing so from an abstractionist position. It's a small distinction, but not an unnecessary one.

As an aside, most gamers or designers are a combination of abstractionist/simulationist. Ken St. Andre, the designer of one of the most abstractionist rpgs I have ever played, doesn't like armor class systems because they don't simulate what he wants. This is the case even though his TUNNELS & TROLLS combat system sacrifices specificity for playability and speed of play.

When it comes to the tension between "simulation" and "playability" there is not a procedural definition of what is right or wrong. What is right or wrong doesn't even depend on what is being simulated. What determines whether it is better to favor simulation or playability is how that decision works within the rules set and the goals of the game itself. Sometimes it is important that a game be a good simulation of what it is trying to represent. CHAMPIONS is very much an "effects based design" system in character creation, but its combat system simulates the panel to panel flow of comic books extremely well. VILLAINS & VIGILANTES has a random character creation system that favors simulation -- though it also includes GM "rulings over rules" -- over abstraction as it defines specifically what Flame Powers and Ice Powers do and how they work rather than define effects and have you decide what matches what. Both are good games.

In the coming weeks, I'll be looking at some games and how they address the Simulation/Realism vs. Playability/Abstraction conflict. I'll be starting with VILLAINS & VIGILANTES and how it emulates Force Fields and Telekinesis in its simulation of super heroic conflict. While I think that the V&V system overall is quite good, I believe that the designs of these two powers demonstrate good "simulation" on the one hand and "awkward" simulation on the other.

I'd like to leave this conversation with two quotes for Will Hindmarch and Jeff Tidball from their Things we Think About Games.


1) Theme and gameplay are two different things.
2) Balance is not the same thing as fun.

Elias, George Skaff. Garfield, Richard, and Gutschera, K. Robert (2012), Characteristics of Games. Massachusetts Institute of Technology Press.
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