Thursday, December 30, 2010

Just some quick housekeeping

I'd just like to report that this blog will be on a brief hiatus until about January 11th, due to matters in my personal life that I'm attending to.  I should return to my attempted weekly updates afterwards!  I appreciate anyone who's followed me so far, and I hope you all have a wonderful holiday season!

Sunday, December 19, 2010

What is “the experience”?

There’s a whole lot of jargon that accompanies talk of games, whether it’s simple slang used for marketing purposes and quickly communicating what a game is about (“action-packed”), descriptors and indicators of extremely complex, interdependent systems (role-playing games), or design terms.  One of these words I’d like to examine today is one which I myself use with nearly reckless abandon, and that is “experience”.

To clarify, by experience, I mean “the” experience that players have when playing a game, and not improved skill and ability that comes with longer play-time, although it’s interesting to examine how those two intermingle with one another.  But exactly what is it that defines “the experience”?  I use the word all the time, and yet when it comes down to making a clear definition of it, I’m left a little bit at a loss.  It’s a piece of my vocabulary that I’m well familiar with, but have no concrete means of expressing what it precisely is.  Continuing on from that, even if I know what constitutes the experience of playing, how am I to know how a game designer might use that understanding to make a better game?  In this article, I hope to answer these questions.

Defining the experience

There’s little doubt as to the vague, general meaning of “experience” within gaming lingo; that definition is more or less the same across any form of media, or even beyond media itself and extended to everyday life.  Broadly, we can call an experience something along the lines of “an event witnessed by an individual or group”.  Of course, this sort of definition is pretty boring and general, because then, just about everything constitutes an experience – the squeak of my chair as I write this, the gentle hum of the heater, the itching on the right side of my lip, my lingering worry about getting to bed on time instead of staying up to unlawful hours writing about videogames.  But even here, we’ve got a lot to talk about.

The first thing of note in even this extremely simple example is that it encompasses a variety of senses and feelings.  Even though this situation is, at least compared to what I could be undergoing, wholly boring and mundane, I am able to identify a number of discrete elements which encompass that which I call experience.  These are sights, sounds, feelings, emotions, thoughts, and so on, and they are all things which are fundamental to my understanding of the world; our brains do a good job of filtering these out (ever hurt yourself only to not realise it until you glimpse your injury?), but they can be broken down into things which we can describe – and, most importantly for a game designer, manipulate.

Game design, at its core, is manipulation.  Everything communicated by a game to its player, and in return from its player back to the game, is a manipulation.  Where some forms of manipulation can be described as offensive, malicious, and so on, though, this process of manipulation is integral to the gaming experience.  To manipulate is to craft the experience that players have, and the feedback received by the game from the player recursively affects the experience.

Game designers, however, are by and large limited by a number of things that life, as well as other forms of media, are not.  Games, of course, may only manipulate a few different senses: sight, sound, and touch (force feedback), and while these are important, being deprived of two other whole senses forces designers to rely upon all sorts of compensations – lights have to be brighter, sounds have to be more distinct and identifiable, and so on.  Manipulation isn’t just over senses, of course – through writing, game mechanics, scenario design, level design, and so forth, it’s possible to communicate a hell of a lot to the player without having to, at least theoretically, leverage any senses at all; this stuff all operates on a purely cognitive level, consisting of thoughts and emotions.  In order to effectively take advantage of these aspects, a designer has to be fully aware and in touch with him or herself as a human being.  There’s no value in crafting an experience if one is utterly detached from these sorts of faculties; the outcome would be purely accidental.

Putting it together

Being able to talk about all of these things as isolated events is well and good, of course, because when building a game it’s necessary to have an astute awareness of the precise effects of every manipulation performed.  But despite that importance, it’s not as important of understanding how all of these individual elements combine to form the experience the player has with a game.  It’s a fairly simple idea to be mindful of, but it’s something that can get lost in the shuffle when one spends too much time focusing on every little bit and piece.  Everything from music, to audio design and sound effects, to visual theme and consistency, to the technical character and feel of a game, to the script, voice acting, controls, gameplay mechanics and scenarios, menu design and flow, etc. can have an impact upon the experience the player has with a game; it’s not these individual elements that matter on their own so much as it is their cumulative, lasting impression.

Oftentimes, a game that “gets it right” will have consistency between all of these things; the best games are very often the ones which are able to find some degree of harmony between all elements of the player experience.  BioShock would not be the same reflective, self-aware commentary it is if its soundtrack was replaced by punk rock, just as Civilization V would take on a completely different character if it adopted a different art style or progression mechanic.  When a game makes a mistake and “gets it wrong”, we tend to feel as if one of these things is out of sync, out of place with the fundamental experience the game is attempting to communicate; when the messages the game sends don’t fit, we don’t reciprocate and the cycle breaks down.  Most often, the games that leave a lasting negative impression on us aren’t ones that do everything wrong, but do one or two things poorly or simply differently than how we expected them to; even the worst games can be entertaining, memorable and even enjoyable in situations where we understand that they are bad going into them (the “so bad it’s good” phenomenon).

But there’s one more thing that I have neglected to mention so far, and it’s important to be mindful of as well.  No matter how much time and effort an experience is crafted and nurtured, it can all fall apart at a subjective level if the player isn’t in a position to reciprocate the relationship between him/herself and the game.  People have good days and bad days, they play games alone, with other people, on the bus, at home, at work, they have predilections on one day that may be totally different the next day.  It sounds obvious, but the player is a fundamental part of the game; without the player to experience it, the game may as well not exist.

While there’s very little control a game designer has over this sort of thing beyond the platform the game is released on, building a game with this in mind is helpful.  Flexibility and openness to player needs goes a long way towards making a game easy to pick up and play, for instance – frequent save points or checkpoint saves can help mitigate some of the tension that comes from the threat of significant progress loss, difficulty curves help to fine-tune whether an experience is stressful or pleasant, and, most importantly, creating that consistency I mentioned earlier helps to draw the player back into the world of the game each time he or she starts it up.  Playing a game can (and should?) be like coming home, or seeing an old friend – inviting and familiar, but ripe with possibility as well.  If the game makes no effort to be accommodating by refusing to communicate its intentions effectively, the response from the player is going to be confused, or even hostile.

Going with the flow

As much as all of this sounds like a bunch of philosophical rambling and decidedly esoteric nonsense, it’s actually not as difficult in practice to think with regards to the construction of the experience.  Doing what “feels right” for a game, and looking to other similar works for inspiration and guidance is often the best, or even the only way to really ensure that the experience of a game is as intended.  A game is built up of dozens, if not hundreds of individual facets of experience; manipulating them for the ideal outcome is all about understanding not just those facets, but how they all interact with one another as well.

To finish up, and get back to that definition, I’ve arrived at something which I think is at least a little more helpful in the context of game design.  To wit, the experience of playing is: the recursive, communicative process by which a game may shape a player’s thoughts, actions and emotions, and in turn how the game responds to the player to continue the process in a mutually beneficial manner.  With luck, it’s reached “getting there” in terms of comprehensiveness.

Thursday, December 9, 2010

Communicating danger

In games, one of the most fundamental tasks for designers is effectively communicating various aspects of gameplay to the player, minute-by-minute, so that it may be interpreted quickly and easily.  Doing this effectively is absolutely crucial to good game design and an enjoyable player experience; the last thing anyone wants from a game is to feel cheated or fooled into an avoidable defeat.  In action videogames, especially, the most fundamental thing that one can present to the player is the presence and severity of danger.  Although this is something the player is able to learn over the course of play, through trial and error, there are a number of visual, aural and interface shorthands that make this a much faster and more intuitive process for the player.  In this article I’d like to examine some of these shorthands, and provide a few examples in order to illustrate how to properly communicate danger.

You don’t look like a Stormtrooper

Players are going to be, at least in most action games, interacting with opponents for the majority of the gameplay.  Opponents must be a number of things to the player: they must be easily identifiable from friendly characters and the background of the game, they must be easy to differentiate from each other to allow for rapid threat assessment, and their abilities must be communicated to the player so that he or she has an understanding of their basic capabilities.

The easiest thing to start with is the most basic of physical properties: size.  In nature, we typically associate larger things with greater physical strength, as well as greater social authority and even dominance.  To put it simply, in most cases, the larger the enemy, the more imposing it is to the player, and the more dangerous a threat it represents; conversely, the smaller the enemy, the less dangerous it is.  There are exceptions to this, of course:  for example, a very small enemy may be identifiable as dangerous if it moves fast, is hard to hit, or swarms the player in great numbers, while an extremely large enemy might be perceived as slow-moving and even inert, allowing the player to run circles around it.  For most games, however, bigger = badder is a good rule to stick by.



Half-Life 2's elite soldiers are differentiated by their darker colours and yellow eyes, allowing the player to more easily pinpoint them.

Half-Life 2's elite soldiers are differentiated by their darker colours and yellow eyes,
allowing the player to more easily pinpoint them.

Following from this, there’s the second most fundamental property: colour.  Colour is generally the first thing they see of a character, and next to size, it is what we use to assess whether or not something may or may not be friendly in situations where we do not have prior experience.  Going back to nature, in the animal kingdom, blackness punctuated with high-contrast colours is almost always associated with danger, especially bright yellow or orange (think tigers, wasps, etc.).  We can adapt this to games very easily, by making friendly characters bright and enemy characters dark, and while it may not be appropriate to the aesthetic of all games, adhering to basic colour-coding can allow the player to make quick decisions even in the heat of battle.  Half-Life 2 provides a great example, with more elite enemy soldiers sporting darker outfits and bright, glowing eyes which mark them as more intimidating than the standard soldiers.

More distinctive physical characteristics are also able to differentiate enemies and immediately communicate to the player what their abilities are and how to deal with them.  For instance, an enemy with spikes on it can be intuitively understood as dangerous to touch, an enemy with large teeth and big claws is likely to be formidable in melee combat, and an enemy which is low to the ground, lithe and moves on all fours can be intuited as fast-moving, but also weaker physically than the towering golem that stands next to it.  Once again, the direction of a game can sometimes limit the options that are available, but even subtle characteristics, such as shiny metal plating on the armour of human opponent, or red gas canisters on the back of a flamethrower-wielding enemy, can help the player make quick decisions.

The sound of impending doom

Taking advantage of visual symbolism, of course, isn’t the only way to indicate danger, or even necessarily the most effective.  Sound plays just as big a role, if not an even greater one in some situations.  Horror game designers have known for years that sometimes the scariest thing about your game is its soundscape, and by providing a number of unique audio cues of varying nature, sound can become just as fundamental to sight in helping the player understand the game world and minute-to-minute challenges.

While we all understand that certain sounds have certain “signatures” and are able to communicate different things, it’s important to take note of why this is.  In Half-Life 2, the player is able to use a number of unique weapons, all with their own unique sound effects and characteristics.  The pistol has a loud crack to it, the shotgun lets out a loud, bass-heavy boom, the pulse rifle has a distinctive thump, while grenades have a high-pitched chirp to them before detonating.  In my mind, I can remember each and every one of these accurately, and I imagine almost all players can, but why is this exactly?
Typically, we associate bass-heavy noises with large, powerful things.  The groan of a towering, three-legged Strider enemy and the boom of that shotgun both exhibit different kinds of danger by taking advantage of the way we naturally respond to different types of noises.  The shotgun’s sound effect, even divorced from a visual representation of it, is both instantly recognisable, as well as identifiable as something with a good deal of force behind it; the pulse rifle’s low-end thumping informs the player that every shot packs a punch.  Meanwhile, the Strider’s distinct cry instils a sense of dread in the player by announcing looming, imposing death.

Typically, we associate bass-heavy noises with large, powerful things.  The groan of a towering, three-legged Strider enemy and the boom of that shotgun both exhibit different kinds of danger by taking advantage of the way we naturally respond to different types of noises.  The shotgun’s sound effect, even divorced from a visual representation of it, is both instantly recognisable, as well as identifiable as something with a good deal of force behind it; the pulse rifle’s low-end thumping informs the player that every shot packs a punch.  Meanwhile, the Strider’s distinct cry instils a sense of dread in the player by announcing looming, imposing death.

Contrary to this, high-frequency noises are associated with less danger.  As mentioned, the crack of the player’s pistol stands out from the background, indicating that while it has some stopping power behind it, it pales in comparison to an assault rifle or shotgun; the player needs not even fire it at an enemy to understand that it’s a relative pea-shooter.  Comparatively, the sub-machine gun’s fire has more of a crackle to it; while it shoots extremely quickly, based solely on its sound, we can infer that an individual bullet is less effective than a single shot from the pistol, but its damage capabilities over time and against multiple enemies are much more potent.


One final example that I’d like to highlight is in Metro 2033, which does a phenomenal job of using sound to alert the player of danger, building it into the game world itself.  Throughout the game, the player must use a gas mask with disposable filters in order to survive in hostile conditions.  Rather than represent this solely using a meter, instead 4A Games chose to communicate the player’s condition through the increasingly laboured, desperate breathing of the player character.  Not only does this get the player’s status across quickly, it also helps build tension and is responsible for much of the atmosphere in a number of parts of the game.

Heads up!

The final aspect of communicating danger to the player is the heads-up display.  While most games are pretty good about handling this sort of thing these days, there are a number of key things that designers can do to let players know not only that danger is upon them, but also what sort of danger it is, where it’s coming from, and how much more time they have left before they’re toast.  While these things are pretty easy to intuit in real life, in the game world, players are deprived of a number of senses – notably touch, taste and smell – and thus good design is necessary to compensate for what’s missing.  The simple fact is that health meters are no longer adequate as the only indication as to player and enemy status, and not because of the onset of regenerating health bars and the like.  HUD icons, for all their value, are still not the fastest and easiest way for the player to know what is going on in the game world, especially when a half-second’s delay can mean life or death.

Deus Ex provides a good example of a friend-or-foe identification system that's built into the game mythos itself.

Deus Ex provides a good example of a friend-or-foe identification system that's built into the game mythos itself.

Colour is a fantastic way to give the player a lot of information very quickly.  Red is almost universally understood by gamers as “bad”, and thus using red to highlight imminent death, to identify whether a target is an adversary, or that a skill or power is depleted is one of the simplest and most effective conventions.  While relying on colour might seem like a crutch for bad design, especially from an artistic perspective, the simple fact is that telling the player whether they’re about to die using a commonly-understood visual language is more important than whether the colour seamlessly meshes into the game’s aesthetic; players will appreciate a functional interface over a pretty one any day.
Other effects such as blur and screen shaking are optional, but generally very helpful in letting the player know that they have taken damage, are nauseated, need oxygen, etc.  Whether or not these are the right choices for a game is highly subjective; for instance, blurring the scene when the player is winded after running might help with immersion, but it may also be distracting for some players.

Other effects such as blur and screen shaking are optional, but generally very helpful in letting the player know that they have taken damage, are nauseated, need oxygen, etc.  Whether or not these are the right choices for a game is highly subjective; for instance, blurring the scene when the player is winded after running might help with immersion, but it may also be distracting for some players.

Wrapping up

Although I’ve presented all of these as discrete topics, the task of communicating danger to players is something which is multi-faceted and relies as much on sound as it does on good interface design and visual feedback.  Harmony between all of these things can be difficult to achieve depending on the creative vision for a particular game, but the end result can be more dynamic, intuitive and fun gameplay for the player.  Not paying attention to these elements can mean a game that feels disjointed, overly difficult, frustrating, and reliant on trial and error; if done right, however, they will seamlessly blend together into the core experience of playing the game.

Friday, December 3, 2010

Why the gamer isn't always right

One topic which I've been amused by recently is the difficulty game developers can have in figuring out how to balance their needs as creators with the needs of their players.  In simple terms, this conflict can be expressed as creating a game to cater to a given audience, versus creating a game which stands on its own, something innovative and free from convention, able to carve out its own place in the market.  While it's a commonly held view that "the player is always right" in much the same way as "the customer is always right" at a retail store, I'd like to take some time to defend the design side and give some examples of how simply appealing to what's popular in the industry and with players at any given moment can lead to a weaker game.

How should success inform design?

Choosing to fashion a game around what one's audience is interested in seems to be the current model that's driving the industry at the moment; one need but look at the recent cavalcade of "modern warfare" first-person shooters and dance-themed party games to see that, by and large, the "triple A" games industry is running on pandering to common tastes.  In examining the vast majority of titles, however, it's increasingly clear that this me-too attitude to game design doesn't work out - heck, it doesn't even lead to the huge sales numbers most publishers expect.  While it's true that fashioning your game after Call of Duty or Just Dance may help secure a certain level of safety, it's clear that the titles that consistently sell the most aren't the me-too games, but the originals which defined market trends in the first place.  Halo, Battlefield, Call of Duty, Madden, Gran Turismo, Super Mario, BioShock, Pokemon, and so forth are the industry leaders not because they appeal to tastes that have been established by other games in the past, but because they have been the titles to innovate the most within their given retail spaces.

Interestingly, it's worth noting that the mobile development scene backs this up almost entirely.  iPhone, iPad and Android games are sort of a Wild West frontier at the moment, with everyone experimenting with new ideas and trying to put out the next big hit at the sweetest price point.  The top games within the mobile sector all have very little in common with each other - Angry Birds, Flight Control, Fruit Ninja, Cut the Rope and so forth are all simple games, but they all have very distinct artwork, sound design and gameplay which make them stand out from one another.  The mobile scene is obviously far more volatile in many ways, due to how quickly (and cheaply) one can create and release a game, but those titles that truly stand above the rest are selling hundreds of thousands of copies and making millions of dollars.

Mobile gaming is in a Renaissance of opportunity and innovation thanks to low budgets and open distribution channels.

Mobile gaming is in a Renaissance of opportunity and innovation thanks to low budgets and open distribution channels.

If anything, these two brief analyses point to one thing: players are less interested pared-down versions of big-budget console titles and well-known franchises, but rather, they're concerned with things that are innovative, novel and easy to understand.  What's driving both the console game industry and the mobile industry isn't the release of big-budget shooters or motion-controlled casual games, it's fresh ideas and experiences.  The big franchises exist precisely because they were the first and the best at what they did; so successful were they, in fact, that the only other space left in the market is for games that do something different.  In short, looking to games that have been successful in the past is only going to help a game insofar as its creators can learn where to diverge from the beaten path.

Do players' ideas make for good games?

It's said that every gamer has an idea for an ideal game floating around in his or her head, but that most of them are worthless.  The hard truth is that many of the ideas that even veteran game designers have are no good - whether because they are impossible to implement, aren't any fun, or limit a game to a tiny audience - and it's simply because players don't necessarily know what makes the best game.  We live in a society where we rely upon experts, those with knowledge and ability we trust in, to do things for us that we would never trust ourselves to do.  We place our faith in doctors, journalists, chefs, and others of various professions to do things we know little about.  I'm no surgeon, and it would never occur to me to perform even the tiniest of operations on another, nor would I purport to tell an actual professional how to do his or her job.  Game developers find themselves in the same position.

Mind, this doesn't at all mean that ideas which come from non-professional sources are bad; in fact, those ideas may inspire and drive someone in an expert position to produce something wonderful.  The difference comes in terms of the level of detail and care one is able to weave into a given task, and the amount of knowledge and ability one is able to bring to the process.  Gamers may have lots of experience playing games, and consequently know what sorts of games they'd like to play, but actually crafting a quality gaming experience can often involve things that are divergent from or even contrary to what one would expect.

Oblivion's beautiful visuals sold millions, but its underlying RPG mechanics were anemic in comparison
Oblivion's beautiful visuals sold millions, but its underlying RPG mechanics were anemic in comparison.

One of the best examples to come to mind is The Elder Scrolls IV: Oblivion.  Billed as a deep, expansive role-playing game, it gave its players the opportunity to explore a rich fantasy world, begging them to "go anywhere, do anything".  During its development, fans of Bethesda cried out for a game bigger, more open-ended and expansive than even Morrowind.  Unfortunately, while Oblivion was a commercial success, primarily as it was one of the most visually impressive games on the Xbox 360 upon its release and served as a good demo for the hardware, its game systems left a lot to be desired.  The ability to go anywhere and do anything sounded like the ideal role-playing game to fans of the series, but the game ended up being heavily criticised precisely for moving too far in that direction.  In attempting to allow players to do whatever they wished, its story coherence, skill system and level scaling were all severely damaged by this desire to provide a sandbox experience.  What was one of the game's biggest selling points ended up being the single source for the majority of its problems.

Again, I'd like to reiterate that players can absolutely have positive input on a game.  Some of the best ideas in games have originally come from user-made modifications, as Team Fortress and Counter-Strike remind.  Letting focus testing groups and market trends dictate the direction a game takes, however, is something that should be wholly avoided.  Games should not be designed by a committee, just as you probably wouldn't appoint your next-door neighbour with handling your legal defence in court.  At best, it tends to lead to copycat efforts which both customers and critics will feel are lacking in ambition and originality, and at worst it can result in the unintentional sabotage of a game's best features.

Design is the answer

Building a game is difficult; building a successful one is even more so.  There are dedicated game designers in the industry precisely because the task of coming up with specific implementations for ideas is a monumental one, and just as important as programming, sound design, animation and so on in creating a quality experience for players.  Not every game is going to be successful, and minimising risk by looking too closely at what the majority of players want will produce games that aren't simply less creative, but end up being trampled by the big franchise names that already have a stranglehold on a particular demographic.  New ideas are what keep the industry moving forward; stagnation and fatigue are the only things that can come of playing it safe.

There are things which can be done to minimise risk, which, in my humble opinion, are far more effective than picking a popular gameplay theme, setting or genre.  Good game balance, for example, helps provide a more meaningful experience than what one gets in a game that's too hard or too easy.  A unique theme, aesthetic, and identity will keep a game in players' heads and provoke interest; after all, the best games are built on novelty and will continually please and surprise people, and starting out with "like Halo, but..." as the design document will lead to nothing good.  Perhaps most importantly, a consistent, coherent vision of what a game is, and communicating that vision to a development team and to the public, is what gets people to put down their money.  These are all things which designers have reign over, and while listening to players and general market trends can help shape up a game, pandering will never compensate for innovation, originality and good design sense.