Since this blog isn’t being put to much use, I’ve decided to use it to publish some game design brainstorming posts I’ve been working on. They’re not really polished by any stretch of the imagination–this is really more just kind of like wanking in public, honestly. Maybe someday someone will read these and want to make a game with me! (Hey, it worked for Tim.)
Anyway, I started reading The Hunger Games series, finished the first book, and giggled a little bit when I realized that, basically, it’s a story about a bunch of tyrannical game designers. Which is kind of fun. (Spoiler alert, by the way–I am probably going to reveal some critical plot points.) So then I thought about how I’d make it into a video game, if I could.
To start with: The dynamic between the Gamemasters and the tributes is not wholly unlike that of a D&D dungeon master and his players, except that in a tabletop RPG, the goal (presumably) of all parties is to play a game that is fun for everyone involved (which doesn’t mean “absent of challenge”, mind you), and in The Hunger Games, the Gamemasters are running a game meant to entertain the spectators and keep the Districts subjugated. (To-may-to, to-mah-to.)
If we were going to turn The Hunger Games (the first book, anyway, haven’t finished the rest) into a Triple-A title, we’d probably start with the Mass Effect treatment; an action RPG that spends half the time talking (that is, making decisions that affect how your character is seen by other tributes, the Gamemasters, and the spectators of the Games) and the other half running around killing/trying not to get killed/etc. You could do the main combat loop in a large open map, break each day/night cycle into different “chapters”, and run most of the conversation segments, like the protagonist’s back-story and the tribute training process, as flashbacks that occur in-between chapters, for example.
From there, we could take a few things the book does and turn them into some particularly interesting game mechanics.
Interesting thing #1: Crowd participation/the metagame layer.
The “actual” Hunger Games part–the fighting and killing part–is, from a design perspective, the least interesting part. It’s not that dissimilar from a free-for-all in Quake or Starcraft 2. It’s the metagame layer that makes things interesting–and really, that’s the part that Katniss spends most of her time worrying about. The metagame layer is the presence of the crowd, and the Gamemasters’ obligation to keep the game entertaining for them. It’s the only game where the crowd is meant to have influence over the outcome, and this is probably as relevant, if not more relevant, than the tributes’ actual combat and survival skills.
Our hypothetical The Hunger Games would log the decisions you made in those conversation segments along with some sort of calculus about how you’re playing the combat segments (How do you appear to the audience? Are you aggressive? Cunning? Vulnerable? Sympathetic?) to determine whether sponsors give items to you or your opponents, or determine which players offer alliances, etc. This would, in turn, set up the second interesting game mechanic: Playing to win.
Interesting thing #2: Playing to win (isn’t always what it seems).
Both The Hunger Games and Battle Royale had an element of coercion involved; the players didn’t want to be playing the game (with a few notable exceptions, anyway). Players inevitably sorted themselves out on a continuum, with one end being Playing to Win (that is, playing to eventually kill everyone) and Playing to Beat the Rules. Cato plays the Hunger Games to win, Katniss and Peeta end up playing to beat the rules.
The thing is, playing to beat the rules doesn’t really have any clear-cut steps. The protagonists in both stories are compelled to resist the game–and in doing so, resist their baser urges–but they’re never told exactly how they can do this, and in the end, both victories end up being kind of a fluke.
I imagine we could take our hypothetical Hunger Games video game and have it subtly encourage the player to question the parameters of the game itself (TURN THE CONSOLE OFF NOW). From the tutorial sequence onward, our game would be designed to encourage you to play the best, most ruthless game possible–to kill without mercy, exploit your teammates, discourage alliances (or backstab your allies at your most perfect opportunity), and win over the crowd–but simultaneously make you feel like an absolutely disgusting person for doing so (think Shadow of the Colossus’s big plot twist, if you will).
Castlevania: Symphony of the Night was really good at this–leading you to believe you were beating the game, giving you a crappy ending, and leaving a few subtle hints that maybe you had missed something in your haste.
Since our game is tracking your playstyle to see if you appeal to the crowd, it could track that information and present it to you like a Renegade/Paragon scale, while simultaneously track (without telling you) to see whether you’re playing to win or playing to beat the rules. Depending on our ambition, this could either be the difference between a Good Ending and a Bad Ending, or a huge fork in the gameplay itself.
However, none of this by itself is radically new. It’s just setting the stage for the third interesting game mechanic: Other people.
Interesting game mechanic #3: Other people.
As I’ve been saying throughout, the action parts of The Hunger Games aren’t the interesting part. It’s the way the player navigates her relationships to other people–people in different roles.
I am going to name two games here, and you will probably see where I’m going: Journey and The Sims Online.
It would take a better designer than I to make a version of The Hunger Games that fits within a standard multiplayer game model. However, Journey has shown that by selectively restricting the ways you can communicate with other people in your game, you can dramatically change the way they play together.
Meanwhile, The Sims Online lets you play with your friends–your Facebook friends, anyway–without actually playing with them. That is, you can interact with your friend’s avatar, but your friend doesn’t actually see them. They can help you out by giving you stuff, though.
First off, let’s assume that our hypothetical Hunger Games is played with permadeath on, and the entire game could probably be finished in about 1.5-2 hours (but with a lot of variety between playthroughs, and designed so that the average gamer could probably get through the game with the bad ending on their first or second try, assuming nobody else intervened–but we’ll get there!).
Imagine that after you played through a single game, the character you completed the game with could be sent out to anyone else starting a new Hunger Games session as a Career tribute–one of the privileged tributes that is trained from birth to win the Hunger Games. As a Career, your character would have the deck stacked in his favor, and he’d basically be one of the game’s major boss fights. You wouldn’t be able to directly control the character any more, but you’d get updates on his progress. All games are single-player in the sense that there’s only one person actively playing at any given time, though each game would have maybe 3 Career tributes which would be other players’ previous characters.
So you would finish the game however you were able to, and the skills/equipment you accrued would be saved and sent out to someone else’s game session. If he killed someone else (either another person playing their own game, or another person’s Career tribute), you’ll hear about it, and he will get more skill points/money/loot/whatever that makes him an even more lethal player-killing machine. If he dies, he’s permanently dead, immortalized on a leaderboard with a list of his kills.
Now let’s take it a step further and add a Facebook/Twitter element to it; your social networks become the audience for your Hunger Games sessions, both the ones you’re playing yourself and the ones your Career tributes are playing. You can see play-by-play breakdowns of how your friends’ games are going, and use the in-game currency to place bets on the winners (which net you more in-game currency) or buy items and send them to the players you want to help out. (Which don’t have to be your friends, of course, if you want to troll the hell out of them.) Presumably, you’ll want to do both–buy items and give them to the players you’re betting on. Basically, we’re trying to reproduce the audience-tribute dynamic from the game. (It also opens itself up to some handy free-to-play business models via in-app purchases of items and currency, obviously.) The more money you get, the more money you can funnel into your own Career tributes to make them more and more dangerous.
This does a few cool things! For starters, this positions the active player, the audience/sponsors, and the Career tribute bots along different places in the continuum of privilege. As the new tribute, the active player (that is, the only person playing the session) has the least resources out of anyone involved in the game. In order to compensate for this, the active player needs to make “rich” (with in-game money, anyway) friends to sponsor them so they have a shot at winning it all.
However, let’s assume that a sponsor placing a bet on an active player to win it doesn’t make any extra money if the active player gets the Good ending instead of the Bad ending. (We could actually retract the bet altogether, which is probably what would happen in an actual sportsbook.) That would disincentivize the sponsor to bet on the active player if the sponsor thought the active player was going to go for the Good ending, since it’s harder to get (which means it’s more likely the active player will lose the game, and the sponsor will lose his money, or the bet will be voided and the sponsor will be out his money on the items he sent the active player). So the active player would have to play the game in such a way where he looks like he’s playing to win even when he’s not–similar to the sponsor-tribute dynamic in the book itself.
I’m running long here, so I’m just going to cut it off here. That’s kind of cool though, right?