Formulas in Games and Why We Need to Broaden Our Scope
I discussed already in my replay value article how and why gaming has a tendency to stick to old formulas. I even discussed formula in my Flash game article. But I’ve never thought to define what a formula really is, and why, perhaps, it’s worth looking into exactly what we consider formula and broadening the scope of critiques for ‘safe’ design choice.
A formula is a lot like a troupe: while a troupe is a commonly used element in a story, a formula is a common gameplay mechanic that’s utilized in predictable ways. Chest-high walls in third-person shooters, for example. Regenerating health and cover-based combat. RPG’s with leveling mechanics and customizable appearances. MMO’s with an action bar combat system. Quests. Ironsight shooting. Morality systems… all these things, and more, are all formulas of the gaming world. They’re all things that show up again and again, either because they’ve been proven to work or because they’re easy to throw into a game.
Things that ‘break’ formula are, naturally, things that try to be more innovative with gameplay. Halo was once considered a ‘break’ in the formula of finding health and armor packs in First-person shooters. Innovations like gravity mechanics in Half-Life or Dead Space, or the jetpack combat of Dark Void, or the multiplayer aspect of Dark Souls… all things that are considered formula breaks. You’ll notice that while formulas are commonly attached to entire genres of games, these innovations are exclusively the property of a single, specific game. An entire genre cannot break formula, but the formula can change: Halo from above is a good example of a break in innovation that eventually became the new standard. Now it was considered strange when Resistance 3 re-adapted the health pickup system.
Now, a lot of you are probably skimming the above, saying to yourself “Yeah, this is all common knowledge. I don’t need to be reminded what a formula is and how it works.” And that’s fine, but then I pose to you this question: how come we, as gamers and game-over-thinkers, stop looking at ‘formula’ when it extends past specific genres and transcends the entire gaming sphere? Consider one of the most common tools of game design—the camera. We don’t consider any particular aspect of the camera a ‘formula’. There’s first person, third person, and the hybrid ‘over the shoulder’ view commonly found in Resident Evil games… despite having many things in common with the formulas discussed below, they’re not considered “Formulaic”. It’s the same thing for, say, health bars and boss fights. Why aren’t those things considered formula?
I think it’s because when formula transcends a particular genre and becomes common elements in the entirety of gaming, people stop considering them ‘choices’ and more ‘necessities’. It’s hard to imagine a game without a camera, or a health bar, or bosses, and when they stop being choices and become necessities, we can’t call them predictable—because that word doesn’t really apply to things that are innate to any given activity. You can call a friend’s tendency to shout when he throws a Frisbee predictable. You can’t call a Frisbee being “flat” predictable, and you certainly can’t fault it for that trait. It wouldn’t BE a Frisbee if it wasn’t flat.
But I’m not sure even the most broad and commonplace elements of a game deserve a break from our critical eye. There’s actually very little that’s needed to keep a game being a game—the distinction between a game and any other forms of media, after all, is simply audience participation. A painting isn’t a game, a TV show like Game of Thrones isn’t a game (ironically), a movie isn’t a game… but we do have game SHOWS, like American Idol, which depend on audience votes. So really, all these things we take for granted in games, like cameras and health systems and bosses—they’re by no means innately a part of the video game experience, and thinking like that cripples any real innovation.
That’s not to say exceptions don’t exist. For example, there is a game that doesn’t use a Camera at all: Deep Sea, A horror game where you have to kill swarming underwater monsters using only sound. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg. Imagine a game where there was no health meter, but, say, a control meter, where you had to make sure your invincible all-powerful badass of a character doesn’t lose their patience and just kill all the bad guys, even though you need them alive for questioning. While there are a few games that exist without bosses, and a few flash games where EVERY enemy is a boss, why not try something even MORE radical? Where, say, you start the game at maximum power only for you to LOSE abilities each time you fight a particular enemy—and by the end of the game you’ve only got a basic attack and maybe one extra ability, and you have to survive like that.
There should be no sacred cows in game design. So long as a person has their hands on a controller and can affect the way the game plays, I see no reason why anything should be considered ‘standard’ in the way games are designed. So instead of tiny innovations to common genre formulas, why not look for more big innovations with culture-wide formulas? It may just be the thing you’re looking for in a game.