Archive for the ‘Emotion’ Category

This is a question which can instantly evoke a sense of dread in the game design fraternity. This is largely due to the assumption that any designer worth his/her salt should immediately know the answer and regale the inquisitor with definitive pearls of wisdom on the subject. But the truth is, there is something quite slippery about game design and no clear answer for the question above. In fact trying to do so could be compared to attempting to nail jelly to a wall. So understandably game designers can suddenly look a bit broken when asked the question. This is largely because it involves summoning every ounce of every experience they’ve ever had and distilling it down into a few choice words on how they try to make things fun for people. In other words it’s a bit of an impossible ask, but hey, I like a challenge so my very own distillations on what makes a good game are below:

Engagement – Players should care about everything that is happening during play. Great games demand attentiveness to the clear and subtle shifts in game-play to achieve success:

“I have to pay attention or I’ll lose”.

Meaningful Choices – The decisions that players make during play should affect the outcome of the game. The more this impact registers with the player/s, the greater the sense of attachment they’ll have to it. People tend to care more for things they’ve had a greater influence on.

“Everything that I and other players do, matters”.

Purpose – Everyone likes to feel they have a purpose and games are no different, players will ask questions like; why am I doing what I’m doing? Why is it important? Any confusion in this area will detract from the game experience. The best games have clear goals. People don’t like to feel that they’re having their time or effort wasted, having a clear and meaningful purpose alleviates this.

“I know what I have to do and it’s important”.

Depth – There should always be something more for players to learn, either about the game or themselves or indeed other players. Mastery of ones actions is a compelling proposition for people because it reveals a refined view of things that can give us advantage over others. Great games have plenty of depth that allow for players to demonstrate this.

“Playing this game gives me a sense of empowerment”.

Accessibility – Players should never feel overwhelmed. An accessible game will always make the player/s feel in control whether a beginner or an expert. The best games reveal complexity with mastery rather than front-loading a player from the start.

“I feel like an expert at this game”.

Bounceability – This denotes the positive feeling players get at the end of a game where they strongly feel they can do much better next time they play. This is often combined with immediately wanting to play again and is tied very closely with the qualities of addictiveness. Evoking this from a player is a very strong sign of an awesome game. Not only does the player feel like they’ve learned from the experience but critically they also feel it is instantly actionable.

“Next time will be different, I’ve got this sussed”.

Player Expression – Everyone is inherently unique, games that allow players to demonstrate individual expression, talent or flair tap into an innate human disposition to show societal value. People enjoy games that allow this to be demonstrated in an obvious way.

“That chess-master clearly has an incredibly logical mind”.

Flexibility – Fantastic games can accommodate multiple approaches and still deliver. Well balanced mechanics form a self regulating system that always give a fun experience that feels unique to the player/s.

“I always have a fun game”.

Value – The best games give players multiple returns on their investment and I don’t mean financially, I mean in time and effort. This can be tangible, but more often it’s intangible; either way players always feel like they’ve got something out of the game. They feel rewarded for playing.

“I’ve got so much use out of this game”.

That final point is where I’ll end because it is one of the most crucial. What has value to people is that which is useful to them. This sounds cold, but actually, what is useful to people comes in many guises as well as games. Great music, art, films, poetry, people, theatre, books, TV alongside many other mediums found across our collective cultures are all useful because they help people find meaning to their own lives. They refine and distill messages, stories, emotions and lessons, they allow people to frame their own life experience in a meaningful way. Ultimately, this is all that people are searching for. The joy of each medium is the way in which it does it. The question we have to ask ourselves as game developers is how do our games fulfill this function? How are they useful to people? I hope this article has gone a small way to explaining how the best ones do.

Alice tumbling down the rabbit hole

Game development can become an increasingly tricky proposition as it progresses and losing objectivity is often the culprit. It is a hazard of the job that dogs us all. As with any labour of love we get tangled up in detail and can lose sight of the bigger picture. Retaining objectivity is important because it helps keep your game steered in the right direction.

One of the functions of a game director, or whoever is in overall creative control of the project, is to retain objectivity. The best achieve this by avoiding getting bogged down in detail and effectively delegating. The very best, in addition, have a handle of every detail but only with a view to how it contributes to the bigger picture. They have an ability to zoom in and out without getting stuck.

Whatever your breadth of influence on the project having a handle on how the details of your specific contribution add up is crucial to keeping objectivity. This is why being given a clear brief is effective because it help you ask the right questions in the context of the overall project. Part of remaining objective is the ability to ask questions of what you’re doing.

So what other things can you do to help prevent losing your objectivity? Here is my guide:

  • Talk to others about your work – explaining what you’re doing to another person forces you to approach it from an outside perspective and with a more conclusive eye. Another person is objectivity, so use it.
  • Leave your work and then come back to it – the further down the rabbit hole you’ve tumbled the longer you should leave it before returning.  It’s a simple and classic strategy but one of the most effective. However it takes self-awareness to recognise that you’ve lapsed and fallen into crazy-land. Taking action can sometimes just mean having a cup of tea or in more serious cases a longer break, like a vacation. The amount of times I’ve come back to my work and muttered “What was I thinking?!” is plenty. Artists; how many times have you overly tweaked detail that no one will ever notice but you? Coders; overly engineered a piece of code for its intended purpose? You get the picture.
  • Know your goals – It’s hard to look at things with an objective eye without an objective! Pretty simple, but I’m sure, like me, you’ve seen your fair share of developers, or even entire teams, getting caught up in needless details and tangents because their objectives weren’t clear.
  • How is your contribution relevant? Without a sense of purpose we can all stray. Refuse to take on work until you’re absolutely clear why what you’re doing is important and how it fits into the bigger picture. You can’t be expected to remain objective without knowing this. This ties a lot into effectively motivating your team.

  • Be passionate about your work, but leave your emotions at the door – emotional attachment prevents objectification. Any Pimp will tell you that one for free. We all need to be able to cut our losses and get rid if something isn’t fulfilling its purpose. Being sentimental, emotional and overly attached can be your biggest enemy here. So grab a flamboyant hat and a lovely big fur coat and your fellow developers will know you mean business.

  • Present your work to the team – A more extreme version of talking to just one person; this can be a really useful exercise. Fear of talking to a large group of people forces you to consider your audience and demonstrate a very clear grasp of your work. Succinctly summarising your work is impossible to do without looking at things objectively. Just simply out of respect for your audience you’re perspective has to be a wider one.

On the flip side to all of this, it shouldn’t be condemned as a wholly negative thing to lose objectivity and get lost in your work. It is the natural tendency of a curious mind to go off and explore. It should just always be tempered with an awareness of your end goal. It’s a skill to recognise when you’re straying too far and to redirect yourself. It’s a matter of self-awareness and discipline to maintain a firm grasp of the bigger picture. Good luck keeping that grip!

What other methods do you employ in keeping your objectivity? Have you any examples of how badly things have gone when objectivity was lost? I’d love to hear them.

Light filtering through trees

Teaching the player how to play your game is incredibly important. Under no circumstances should this area of game design be overlooked because getting it wrong means players may never see all the hard work you’ve put into the rest of the game. So the following is a list of what I’ve learnt about how to get it right…mostly from getting it wrong myself…but hey…that’s the best way right! So without further ado here it is:

  • Don’t teach too much too soon: No one likes to feel overwhelmed, even less so when they are playing your game to have fun. People have saturation points, throw too much at them and the information overflow will go unheard. Keep things bite-sized.
  • Don’t be remorseless: Once you have taught something new allow time for the information to set in. Remorselessly moving on from one tutorial to another will makes players feel uncomfortable and not able to cope. Learning something new is a challenge and mentally taxing, so allow players time to feel good about doing it.
  • Reinforce: Demonstrate to the player the benefits of what you’ve taught. People are fairly efficient at marginalising seemingly redundant information. Reinforcing the benefits of a new piece of knowledge or skill will raise its relevance making it much more likely to be retained.
  • Nothing is worse than teaching something when the lesson has already been learnt: So for quick learners or inquisitive players who’ve already figured out what you’re about to teach them, allow them to opt out or at the very least shut you up.
  • Self-discovery and self-realisation are worth so much more to a player than anything you have to say: Make it as easy as possible for this to happen, that’s part of the skill of being a good teacher. Designing your tutorial in a restrictive way that only allows for the game to play according to your lesson plan is dumb, don’t do it.

  • Don’t try to be a teacher: People don’t like having that psychological inferiority of having to be taught something. So the less you rub it in their faces the better. Aim to be more of companion helping to guide them and no I don’t mean a ^@#!*#% Microsoft paperclip.

  • Don’t give the answers before the questions: Sounds simple doesn’t it, but if people haven’t asked the questions then they won’t see the relevance of your answers. In other words present them with the problem before giving them the solution.

  • Finally here is my number one tip, if you go away with anything from this then let it be this, and it’ll sound obvious, but here goes…Don’t be a bastard: There you go I said it. Any hint of you revelling in the players’ lack of understanding by mocking or teasing etc is incredibly naughty and a bit silly because this more than anything else will make the player hate you and your stupid game. They are doing YOU the favour by wanting to learn how to play YOUR game, so show them some respect.

So there it is, it’s a pretty simple list but comprises everything I’ve learnt and stands me in good stead. Do you have any more tips that you can add? Have I missed something? Please do add them on the comments below. Finally good luck with tackling this part of your game, it’s a fascinating and challenging area of design, let me know how you get on.

Rhythm

Posted by pcollier under Action, Emotion, Immersion

Kodo - Japanese Drums

Rhythm is a very primal thing. Right from the very first moment of our existence it is there, our own heartbeat offset against the comforting beat of our mother’s. So to design games without considering rhythm can only be detrimental to your cause. If you want to tap into merriment of the soul then beat should be a fundamental part of player experience.

When I talk about rhythm in game design I’m primarily referring to the players actions. Music is an obvious provider of rhythm, but in an active not passive medium it should only really be an enhancer (unless of course it is part of the game-play! i.e. Guitar Hero). In effect player input provides a beat and the quality of the game determines its suitability as well as the sense of connection the player feels with the experience. You can start to see why relying on music alone to give a sense of rhythm is a hallmark of weak game design.

The best games have a tangible sense of ebb and flow that imitate the natural cycles present everywhere in life. We’re very adept as humans at detecting things that aren’t quite right or broken. Things that are un-tuned or disjointed upset our natural balance. So we naturally gravitate toward things that are harmonious. Especially in this modern age with all its distractions we are calmed and excited by rhythm and the recognition of patterns and beats. They are comforting and give us a sense of control. This sense of control and of tapping into the heart of the game is therefore a critical sensation that you must get the player feeling.

The ease at which player actions fit into the rhythm of a game will affect their enjoyment. It is so important that player actions are not a disruptive force. They should be in-tune and in natural harmony with the game systems. Effectively the player should be the heartbeat of the game, the source of life that makes the system work. The player should have a very tangible grasp of how their input is affecting the game. In game design terms this desirable sense of ‘oneness’ with the game is a direct result of the player feeling an integral part of the experience and certainly not passive or secondary to it.

Empowering the player with rhythm is a massively useful tool in your arsenal as a game designer. You are directly responsible for how the player engages with your game and therefore the connection they feel with it. Creating that sense of wonderment from players really feeling they are bringing life to your game is something special. Rhythm, beat, ebb and flow are universal and essential to the very essence of life. As a game designer you should be considering them with every mechanic you implement.

The Evangelist

Posted by pcollier under Action, Discovery, Emotion

Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. was a man of action. His famous “I Have a Dream” speech was delivered from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial at the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom rally on August 28, 1963.

We should be taught not to wait for inspiration to start a thing.  Action always generates inspiration.  Inspiration seldom generates action.” – Frank Tibolt

For a long time I’ve held the assumption that it is ideas that change things. I was wrong, people change things. Ideas are cheap, without action they have little value. It’s easy to romanticise the notion of ideas, but let’s get real. It’s the execution of an idea that people can then experience for themselves and make it their own that matters.

But before all of us designers start slitting our wrists and lamenting the very point of our existence let’s hold our horses. We do have a role to play. An architect of change needs to understand people. He/she needs to have emotional intelligence. To actualise an idea you need to be able to communicate, motivate and collaborate with others to take action. Designers need to be evangelists; their power is to create movement, to generate energy, to galvanize people behind their cause and to listen, not just talk.

Every form of design work is a pitch, its clarity and a declaration of purpose that sells on the worth of making whatever it is into something real. Any designer worth his/her salt has people that believe in them and their ideas. But the thing with ideas is that they never come fully formed. Being in a position to hold the belief of a team through the refinement, prototyping and testing of your design is crucial. However without belief and ultimately without trust you are dead in the water.

So let’s stop perpetuating the status quo and instead choose to change the world and innovate on whatever scale we can affect. Let’s forget mediocrity, ego and meeting after meeting. Let’s do something that has meaning, value and truth of purpose…now that feels better.

Emotional Residue

Posted by pcollier under Discovery, Emotion, Story

Bioshock 2

Evidence of our lives and personal story are all around us. Everywhere we spend any time. I like to call it emotional residue. If you look around your study or living room and pretend you’re a stranger, what could you tell about your life? Our imprint on the world is determined by how we leave things and the extent of the impact. Like a safari tracker you can tell a lot about a person by their trail.

In game design we exploit this idea with environmental story-telling. In a narrative driven game it’s very important to flesh out the entire back-story of events. Ask the question, what has happened in the world you’ve created leading up to this moment in time? In a specific room or area we can then fill in that trail. Literally inject story, journey and life into that environment.

The fascinating thing about games as a medium is that they allow for personal discovery a lot more. I’ve touched on this before. In books and to an extent in films they selectively show or describe a world to you. In games there is more freedom for personal exploration and discovery. This means more to people. As a player it is your insight not someone else’s. Or at least that is the impression we create!

We can craft an emotive experience a lot better by looking at emotional residue. Games have got very good at dealing with action. The here and now, what you role is and what you have to perform. But to miss out on filling in all previous actions and life in that environment is a big missed opportunity. What can you learn from what has already taken place to make this moment more meaningful?

People talk about a place being steeped in history and of feeling a deep spiritual connection. This is emotional residue. We are reaching out back in time and connecting emotionally with every person who has ever occupied that space. Our physical environment is a deeply emotional canvas. You are sharing a collective footprint and mark in the world. To ignore this incredible opportunity to impart emotion and story in a game where players can physically (at least through an avatar) occupy that space and leave their imprint would be a travesty. It’s a remarkable string to our bow as a medium that few others can access.

* Thanks to Ian Hall, Liam Morrey, Neil Walker and Anthony Filice for the inspiration for this article.