Archive for September, 2010

The Importance of Mastery

Posted by pcollier under Mastery


“If one is master of one thing and understands one thing well, one has at the same time, insight into an understanding of many things.” – Vincent Van Gogh

Mind, body and spirit; our heroes are masters of at least one. Our pursuit of mastery mirrors our collective will to control the big bad universe around us. We admire those who exhibit an abundance of this control. But it’s natural for us all to seek a piece of the pie ourselves. We all want to take an element of control over our lives. We all want to make our mark in the world.

In Raph Koster’s book ‘The Theory of Fun’ he states how human beings “crave predictability”. Unpredictable things threaten our survival and unsettle us. So it is in our nature to seek control over the world around us. We even place controls over our own nature through laws, order and governance. But the great dichotomy of man is that we need unpredictability to learn more about ourselves. We need a bit of chaos to stir things up, to see how far the rabbit hole goes. Only through exploring the extremities of the human condition can we expand our horizons. But exploring your extremities in society is one sure-fire way to close your horizons quite significantly. So we do so in a controlled way through science, art, literature, film and games.  That is our way of learning new things, where it is safe and where unpredictability is welcomed.

The best games (or anything for that matter) have depth that reveal further layers of complexity the more we master. Also in ‘The Theory of Fun’ Raph states: “The destiny of games is to become boring, not to be fun”. The fun part is derived from overcoming challenges and finding new lessons. It is the role of mastery to exhaust them. As limited systems ultimately all games will be wrung dry (the best ones appear inexhaustible). But the lessons learnt from mastering them further enrich us. Playing games equip us for reality. Just watch lion cub’s play-fighting to see this in action. Mastery of a game gives us advantages and insight that are very useful in the real world. By day a Producer and by night avid Starcraft II fan – Jacob Karsemeyer certainly seems to think so too.

In his book ‘OutliersMalcolm Gladwell quotes  neurologist Daniel Levitin: “The emerging picture from such studies is that ten thousand hours of practice is required to achieve the level of mastery associated with being a world-class expert – in anything. [..] It seems that it takes the brain this long to assimilate all that it needs to achieve true mastery”.

Sounds like a lot of hard work doesn’t it? Society today is mesmerised by short-term gain. The long-term is far away and neither immediate nor exciting. The problem with mastery is that it sits in the long-term. Games (and other mediums) offer a compelling wrapper for us to overcome this. They reward us with a sense of achievement and contain points systems and level structures to show our progress. Games document our path to mastery. A well structured sense of progression is critical in game design. Good games have intrinsic reward systems where the advantages to mastery of the activity are constantly reinforced.

Mastery is important because it answers the questions we ask of ourselves. Mastering a subject or skill elevates your value in society because it benefits us all. On the path to enlightenment mastery is our torch. So it’s important that scientists, game designers, directors, writers and artists keep asking new questions of us. Only through doing this will we find more answers. They’re both equally important. We, the creators of questions, have a solemn duty to uphold. As do masters, to keep pushing, to keep surprising, to keep inspiring.

Robert Hardgrave - Crevass

In researching this article I asked around a few developer buddies to get their thoughts on immersion. Turns out it’s a tricky beast and quite the pickle to work out. One friend, she described the experience of immersion as “a sensory thing, everything in unison”. Another described it as “not affected by distractions; forgetting yourself”. Losing yourself in the moment is all becoming worryingly like an Eminem lyric , but what did seem to emerge was a theme of getting out of yourself to get into something else. It’s an interesting concept, your internal thoughts overcome by external stimuli and an abandoning of the concept of self….pretty deep stuff.

My co-workers initial reactions to immersion were similar to my own in that we instantly knew what it was, but when probed further on how it’s achieved came undone a little. Another interesting thing was that the conditions for immersion also seemed to vary according to personal sensibilities. Artist friends spoke a lot about intensity of visuals, sound designers spoke about audio fidelity, one designer talked about “suspension of disbelief”. It seems in order to immerse oneself the highest barrier to entry is one’s own raison d’être. This stands to reason, if you are an expert in a specific field then in order to remain in an experience, and not be snapped back to reality, it must contain less flaws in that area.

To me immersion evokes a sense of being surrounded, consumed or enveloped by something. The dictionary defines it as a ‘state of being deeply engaged or involved; absorption’. It’s also not a state exclusive to video games; it’s just kind of become synonymous with it, but is something equally found in sex, films, music, food, pretty much any human activity!

When I think about immersion, it’s hard not to also make the association with ‘flow’. Flow is a concept in psychology proposed by a man named Mihály Csíkszentmihályi; the Wikipedia entry describes it as follows:

“Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person in an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity.”

We’ve all experienced flow, that feeling of being in the zone. It’s an enormously powerful and positive feeling, like the world around you has slowed down or even gone entirely. It’s a sense of being at one with the moment…now I’m sounding worryingly like the Matrix .

It’s hard not to associate immersion and flow together because they so often come together. They’re inextricably linked, like close cousins and interestingly neither are things we can consciously control. Trying to make a distinction between the two is difficult, but I believe it is important to make the differentiation. I had a breakthrough in this regard when I began to think of the analogy of riding a rollercoaster. You could describe the activity as a wilful engagement with fear, you allow yourself to be controlled and absorbed, sent on a crafted experience by the designer. Its immersion, but it’s not flow, you are the receiver of that experience on that rollercoaster. Flow requires active engagement almost as if you are the one controlling the activity. With flow you achieve control, with immersion you cede control. Could you therefore describe immersion as passive and flow as active?

Now the interesting question is; what are the requirements for immersion? Well in order to cede control I think the answer lays in receptivity, which in turn, probably means we have to feel safe. Immersion is like a blanket we are happy to fall back on to. It can also of course mean different things to different people. Immersion is the experience owning you; flow is you owning the experience. Perhaps immersion and flow has become so synonymous with video games because the medium simultaneously attempts both…

Simplicity Itself

Posted by pcollier under Simplicity

Simplicity with Einstein

“Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but rather when there is nothing more to take away.”Antoine de Saint-Exupéry

The concept of simplicity is something that is becoming increasingly relevant in today’s world. As technology advances exponentially our minds are preoccupied with more and more information. So it’s increasingly imperative that when you have people’s attention, your message is clear and concise. The tolerance for mixed messaging is diminishing rapidly in our society. If you’re introducing something new to the public i.e. a new brand or franchise you better make damn sure you know what it is and what it stands for.

Understanding what simplicity means is important. MIT professor John Maeda in his book The Laws of Simplicity elaborates on this:

“Simplicity is about subtracting the obvious, and adding the meaningful. [..]The simplest way of achieving simplicity is through thoughtful reduction”.

Fully aware that I’ve thrown a lot of quotes out there I’ll say in my defence that all of them emphasise the point that when we talk about simplicity, it’s about a process. Simplicity without thoughtful process leads to the label of ‘simple’ but in the derogatory sense. It’s an important distinction to make.

In my experience of developing games nothing is more important than iteration. It’s a process of distillation much like a fine whisky. There is no room for preciousness or an unhealthy sense of clinginess to ideas and designs. As a designer you have to root yourself deep in the player’s mindset and understand their intentions when playing your game. What can you strip away to purify the experience for them? The experience is king and removing boundaries to get to what is meaningful is critical, as is deciding which to keep, to accentuate meaning. As Einstein said: “as simple as possible, but not simpler”.

Of course understanding player intent and what is meaningful to the game experience means understanding what the core function or brief of your game design is. With a strong central pillar everything can stem from that and be informed by it. Without this backbone your game will fall apart like jelly. This goes for any design not just games, the more mixed your intent, the less impact it will accomplish. The process of simplicity can help us all cut to what is meaningful….or as Triple T would say “CONDENSE the NONSENSE”.