An economy of precognition

I was intrigued by Marc’s comment on my post the other day about a game that would let you see into the future (or at least into the future of the game world). His underlying question was very reasonable – what kind of a game would that be?

It seems to me that the essence of any game is to provide a good succession of challenges. Ideally those challenges should be progressive – the game teaches its player a certain way of thinking and problem solving, and subsequent levels of the game build upon what the player has learned on earlier levels.

Any interesting challenge implies some sort of economy – I might have a certain number of fire missiles and health points to fight the marauding zombie invaders, or a certain amount of time to figure out where to shoot to create the space-connecting holes in Portal. In any “game of the future”, the economy would necessarily be about information. Yes, I can see into the future, but it’s going to cost me. And seeing farther into the future is going to cost me more.

It’s easy to design a computer game world in which the game itself contains a magic oracle that possesses knowledge as to what monster will come through the next door, which vial leading to the sacred chamber contains the potion of death, and which contains the power of healing, etc. The question is how to deploy such oracles in a way that makes for an interesting game.

I don’t think there is a single game here, but rather a genre of games that build upon the same essential deal: As a player I get the power of second sight into things that have not yet happened, but I need to pay for that power. Perhaps I’ll need to pay with health points, perhaps by giving up one of my magic scrolls. It doesn’t really matter – the important thing is that I need to learn how to choose, how to manage an economy of precognition.

Of course in a well designed game this economy is designed carefully. The player is taught to recognize certain patterns, to become sensitive to the ways that events are most likely to unfold. The seasoned player becomes good at predicting the future, and thereby becomes able to take on more subtle and sophisticated challenges.

What we’re talking about here is really meta-design: How to think about the patterns of design for such a game. And that is itself a kind of game. One that seems like fun. Anybody want to play?

One Response to “An economy of precognition”

  1. Dan Nielsen says:

    This message meanders on for quite a bit. There’s of course no obligation for you to wade through it all. :^)

    There are at least two things potentially a bit gut-wrenching about this idea: it can complicate the game mechanics, and it opens up a huge can of worms for the actual gameplay experience.

    The idea is elegant in the sense that it requires only one extension – the ability to see a brief foreshadowing of the future, given a payment from the game budget. In this it is like a Bradbury tale; it employs invariant human motivations, over constructing a universe of technologically intricate falsehoods. Actual implementation, however, seems like the difficult part of the idea, and that is the technologically intricate falsehood I’d guess Bradbury would walk away from. What can be seen? When? How is this done by the player? Etc. It sort of eschews the feeling of an inner Toynbee Convector.

    The second issue seems to be a sort of an uncanny valley of gameplay. There is just something a little unsettling about predictable game-actor behavior when that actor is controlled by a human player. If all players can see what another player is to be encountering, it seems as though the value of the information depreciates. In stride with this, a borg-ship-styled experience would arise if prediction were not an extremely limited ability. Every player is perceiving and responding to realms of potential experience that are possibly growing multiplicatively larger over time and exponentially larger with each new player. That sounds hairy – like there might need to be some kind of simulated annealing process to keep things in check.

    Being that you are more involved with game development, you may see your particular application very clearly.

    I was writing some email correspondence in January after reading Ernest Adam’s fairly old article on the “Perlin law” from a brief comment made in one of your talks, advocating an application of the Laplace principle that “the weight of evidence for an extraordinary claim must be proportioned to its strangeness”, and wherein a game player can expend a “credibility budget” to buy “weight of evidence” for weird actions. Eventually the budget will run out, so the player’s actions will be constrained to the “believable” path.

    My guess is that what you are developing here is a sort of self-regulating noise function for gameplay – a sort of constrained time ripple for information. Or perhaps you are creating a spacetime universe for gameplay: a player can choose to enter a spacelike position (resources) or a timelike one (information about the future). What is frightening is that there are so many possibilities already for disturbance of the event path with each discrete event that occurs. Alongside each game event, the potential arises for a change in at least three interdependent elements of the game experience: the setting (events possible in the scene), the perceptions of the other actors (spontaneously materializing a chicken may not even be noticed by another hypnotized actor), and the perceptions of the main player (who may consider her actor to be a magician now that she has seen the actor materialize a chicken).

    That last one is the real issue: the “believable” path changes with the perceptions of the main player. If the player materializes a chicken, her impression-formation matrix could tell her, “I must be a magician”, meaning she will expect more such events, not fewer. She has made a quantum leap on the event-path “river delta”.

    A non-regenerating believability budget we could think of as a walled gutter, or as a string connecting the main actor state to the credible path; the string can go out so far, but then must stop, or the system breaks. We could instead consider a spring analogy, where one wants the main actor’s actions to be so far off the credible path, but not too far, so that you push and pull them. That might be sort of a double-gutter, with some sort of hysteresis determining which side the player falls on (I’m thinking the “dark side or light side” kind of story). Alternatively, the story may be more like a skier going over moguls, getting kind of pushed this way or that, with the path not entirely determined until the end. Or maybe somewhere in between, like many staggered gutters.

    Given that game development requires limited resources, it just doesn’t seem efficient to complicate the time-sight factor any more than game already do with foreshadowing. But I guess it is the fantastic element of time travel that would be interesting: the player determining which path to go down, monitoring resources, and perhaps getting stuck beyond a temporal Rubicon. The thing is, a game is a fantasy to begin with.

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