Some Thoughts, Part Eight – Interactivity
Posted by BigWords on April 8, 2010
You might have seen these images appearing on products such as soft drinks, comics, posters, and DVDs, and in newspapers and magazines. They’re not an entirely new technology, being based off the same concept as barcodes, but QR Code is way better at engaging a curious audience who may not intend to interact with your company, product or ideas. And yes, before you ask, the image to the left is a real QR Code, and it does link to a specific page. To find out where it will take you, all you need to do is aim your mobile phone at it.
This, of course, is old news to anyone who has spent more than a couple of minutes online since the turn of the century, but it is necessary that I bring it up before I get to today’s Big Idea. I’m striking out into the field of games again, but this time with an eye on the more traditional version of gaming. Boardgames have come a long way in recent years, but the basic components are relatively unchanged – the cardboard base, plastic (or metal) figures to move around, cards which contain instructions to the player…
It’s all so mired in the 1930s that I can’t help but get the queasy sensation in the pit of my stomach every time I think of cracking open one of those games. This is 2010. We have a gazillion television stations to keep us entertained, more DVDs than you can shake a mongoose at, and streaming music available from so many sources that even hermits who have had no human contact since 1958 are bopping their heads to the tune of Lady Gaga’s Telephone.
Time to take a look at “family games” (and not the kind played by John Phillips).
The first thing which screams out for attention is the board itself. A basic boardgame has a set board, with each game played on it relying on the player knowing where they want to end up – so that strategies can be used to attempt a favorable outcome. That, in and of itself, is very linear. It’s a pre-digital, static solution to gameplay. It’s why I can never play Monopoly more than once or twice a year. It’s why I haven’t bought a boardgame in nearly three years. It’s something which (more than any individual aspect of the format) could be dragged into the 21st century with ease. The technology which most readily comes to mind for this is based on the Kindle.
Yup, that Kindle.
The black and white E Ink screen has the ability to bring boardgames an added level of complexity which I approve of. Unnumbered tiles showing QR Codes, codes which change upon each game being begun, would give the boardgame new challenges which, until now, have been absent. This is a massive move away from what people are trying to accomplish with outdated design, and there is the possibility that we could even see narrative begin to encroach upon this method of gameplay. If the game is intended to link to webpages, there might as well be a story constructed around the game itself.
Before I get too far ahead with that idea, I also want to point out something else which has been bugging me about the way we look at boardgames – Linearity. You go from Point A to Point C via Point B with nary a though of the options locked off due to the construction of the rules and accepted modes of travel. Boardgames, two-dimensional as they are, have much more to offer than straight lines across the board, and opening up the entirety of the board would give players much more opportunity to express themselves through their individual personalities. By removing the blank areas unused by the game, more playable area is opened, and (with this in mind) any horizontal or vertical movement of players is allowed to continue unimpeded by the board itself.
I’m throwing out all of the traditional elements, so I may as well discard counters as well. I’ve always suspected that the reason why counters are still used is a throwback to tradition, but tradition is only useful when it provides something that cannot be answered by other means. The other means, in this case specifically, would be answered by using lights to indicate where each player has ended up in relation to the rest of the game board. This answers where the player is, but using the E Ink we can also learn who each player-character is. This is all about story, remember. The blank, featureless counters which are used to mark position is so many games are an abject lesson in how not to engage players with the game, because there is no emotional connection to the thing which represents them in the game. Once you give a name, and a face, and a story to the in-game player-representation, you begin to add emotional resonance.
Modern games should always have some emotional response from players, otherwise you may as well be playing chess.
Turn-based gameplay is fine, and actually enhances the tension in many games. Indeed, turn-based gameplay is one of the crossover elements which brings boardgames and some computer games together, so an audience won’t be completely out of their depth upon seeing just how far the format has changed. I like chess as it is, and some classic games have nothing added by innovation – and really, how do you expect to better a game which has proven itself for centuries? The answer: You can’t, and by adding layers to it (as a Star Trek inspired board has done) you remove the soul of the game. The games I’m suggesting get overhauled are those in which limitations to the gameplay are limitations to the enjoyment of the game.
Here’s something else to add to the mix – dead squares. I know I made a big deal of opening the board out, but as the game progresses, certain squares can become unusable. If it adds to the gameplay, it’s something to consider.
This game actually began life as a possible handheld game, but I could never work out how to use the large chunks of backstory within a limited space. It’s massive, and only gets bigger the more I try to explain it, so I’m holding off further elaboration. I’ve had several goes at making playable versions, but the only way it would really work is if there was a randomizing factor at the beginning of each game. E Ink is the key, and the reason I don’t expect this type of game to appear anytime soon. In the meantime I’ll leave you with a rough approximation of what the board would appear as at the beginning of a new game…