To me, the white elephant in the [digital] game design room is that of dynamic content. Maybe it’s an invisible white elephant, because not many other people seem to be talking about it.
I am not necessarily talking about player-generated content, or games like Second Life. I’m talking about game structures that are designed to be malleable by the players; rulesets built from the ground up to change and develop as players behave and act within the boundaries of the game.
There is certainly a reason this is not done: it is hard. It’s hard to define and it’s hard to build games (or any software) that are flexible enough to support that kind of malleability. However, I’d venture to say that very few have even tried.
A limited set of flexible design trees – emphasis on “limited,” especially at this juncture – coupled with ongoing developer attention to existing content could easily provide a level of player interaction not present in many/any games today.
This is especially true given the current rise of social games; social networks could be fantastic mechanisms by which to explore both individual and collaborative player efforts expressed upon malleable frameworks.
The reason to examine this premise further, in my opinion, is self-evident: it ought to make games better. The sandbox model doesn’t stand up, it turns out (not surprisingly, frankly), but there are some existing examples of player will being exerted on games. Players like to make stuff, for example. The audience for The Sims 2 & 3 is often less technically adept than the audience for many other games, yet an army of people – many of whom had played few other games, if any – worked hard to understand a complex toolset and set of procedures that would allow them to import player-generated content into their games.
Economies and politics in online multiplayer environments are another example, especially the former. Things like Real Money Trading and farming are examples of players exerting their will on the games and forcing a certain (albeit fairly minor) level of malleability to be expressed within an otherwise rigid framework.
There are also some interesting real-world models to turn to; institutional evolutionary theory is one – behavioral economics and the like. Economic theory can be incredibly helpful in this area because it is so heavily codified and so full of experimental examples.
So much study has gone into defining how people play, social aspects of play, and figuring out what kinds of people play games, but little has been done in terms of defining mechanisms – including very simple ones – by which creativity can be expressed. I’ve worked with a lot of very large corporations, as an example, and in many cases the people who work in those corporations are doing work that is dull, repetitive, and sometimes coupled with onerous people. Even the people whose jobs are otherwise exciting or creative usually have to perform some level of chore-like tasks.
When you look at the peripheral aspects of the office lives of those workers, including those whose jobs are close to drudgery, you start to see a landscape that looks a lot like a gaming landscape. People exert aesthetic creativity where they can (font choice, physical environment), however limited that outlet may be – and they also tend to fulfill some of the more typical roles within their task sets. People develop creative strategies and patterns for accomplishing their goals. People develop internal reward systems for personal accomplishments of speed or acumen. Some people strive to be the most knowledgeable person within a specific domain of information or responsibility.
The difference when one looks at institutions and organizations is that the sum of those entities is comprised of the actions of the individuals. While it is certainly true that large corporations tend to stabilize into a kind of sluggish, torpid equilibrium, if you start looking more closely at the individual nodes within the organization, you start to see choices that have affected the organization as a whole that have been made by individuals or small groups thereof.
While this is not news, it does represent what could be a rich vein of both inspiration and data – and only one; there are many – for developing games that enable certain player decisions and expressions to take place that could change the overall direction of the playing field.
Certainly games that are more economic, political, or creative (although I actually think that last one is more of a minefield than might be anticipated) seem more amenable to this kind of flexibility than one that is primarily battle/conflict-oriented.
It is also likely that the post-launch model would have to differ from the existing model; rather than having teams of developers releasing new content on some kind of schedule (expansions), games with this kind of malleability would have to have a certain degree of developer malleability as well; that ongoing development effort would probably be better spent tracking the players’ actions and adjusting the game accordingly.
I’m hoping to put together some specific examples of how this kind of malleability could be expressed in a game; for the time being this should be considered a bit of a buckshot introduction.