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Decision-tris

Sid Meier is often quoted regarding his stance towards an enjoyable game dynamic. For him, the play needs:

“an understandable and enjoyable stream of decisions.”

Reading a recent interview I was reminded again of the wisdom of this statement, proven not least by an impressive catalogue of well recieved games.

tetrisold.gifHowever, I am not so sure it needed to keep him within the turn-based genre typical of the majority of his games. It is possible to engage the play with decisions within a real-time interacting environment.

Back in the day, when Civilisation was a twinkling in Meier’s eye, a little game on the original Gameboy introduced a decision based puzzle game that captured the imagination of many gamers. Together with Nintendo Tennis and Super Mario Land, this formed one part of a killer trilogy in the early days of the platform.

tetris2.gifNintendo’s excellent repackaged and updated version for the DS provides a modern rendering of Meier’s gaming vision, all be it in a very different way. The ever descending blocks provide the player with a stready stream of decision-encounters. Extended play uncovers ever increasing nuances to each decision. As a game deveops each decision affects the other as the simple play mechanic takes hold.

The experience and enjoyment of the game grows as the player needs to learn how to make wiser and quicker decisions. They find themselves honing their ability on many levels to imrpove their chances of survival:

Dead brick technique: How efficiently they can deal with bricks that don’t fit anywhere. They correct decision being the spot where they will case the least dissruption, and hopfully play with the next few bricks to cancel out any detrimental affect.

Start-tris: Key in the mutli-player mode. How quickly can they set-up and trigger a four row clear (tetris), and put the other player on the back foot. This demands both a tidy and quick use of blocks.

Clean up play: How quickly can you elliminate broken lines, after missplaced or dead bricks.

Look ahead: How efficient is their brick management, considering the bricks that are flagged up in the preview tiles.

These together with the already documented, back-to-back and t-spin moves make for a dynamic play experience, that gives Meier’s decision gaming a whole new meaning.

Counter Strike

cs1.gifMaybe because it was a community sponsored mod that Counter Strike had the stones to enter the controversial terrorism arena.

The purity of the game was simple. A first person shooter with two sides: terrorists and counter-terrorists. Each side had their own tactical advantages. But more importantly each had their own particular thrilling and tantalising experience.

Let me set the scene; ! stand with five men in pre-game, our objectives clear and familiar, we choose our weapons from the available arsenal, we grab some body armour, ammo, grenades or flashbangs and we’re set.

This is no random match making but a long standing clan, We all know our purpose and we all have a role. Some hang back for covering fire, some push forward with the heavier weapons. Once we have our positions, we wait. Wait for the other team to make their move, to give away their position or blindly run past. Without headsets the preset voice commands somehow added to the tension, ‘stick together team’ “enemy spotted”.

Whether freeing hostages or diffusing bombs, the whole experience is heightened by how easy it is to die. Body armour can help but still a death in counter strike is a quick one without respawns.

The longer you survive the more of the mission falls in your lap alone. You fight on with the rest of your dead team silently egging you on. The sweetness of a miracle victory is never sweet than when you are watched by five of your fallen team mates.

These are the moments that give counter strike a soul. Pouring time into this game never felt like anything but pure value. I still look back with honour that I was part of the Counter Strike world.

Reality Gap

It is a key element of game design to define how best to imerse the player’s experience in the game world. The best interfaces dissapear as the player feels they are just interacting with the game environment. This enables the player to suspend their disbeleif and become emersed in the game.

A willing suspension of disbelief that accompanies a first-person simulation enables the person who participates to feel what it would be like to have greater personal power. – Brena Laurel

This obviously has echoes of the interface that Nintendo are trying to achieve with the wii. How often have we heard about the key turning moment in Metroid, that felt so solid and emersive.

Merely opening doors requires such a wide range of interactions it’s practically thrilling…It feels great. Exactly like opening a door!

It’s almost as if Nintendo have Laurel on staff, as their design echoes her desire to reach my hands right through the screen and do what I want to do.

dsgap1.gifThere is an interesting case we can discuss in relation to user interface in the recent Yoshi’s Island DS. A key aspect of the game is the ability to throw Yoshi’s eggs across the two screens of the DS. The designers have obviously looked at Yoshi Touch and Go on the DS which had a similar play-mechanic. However they have decided to present this interaction differnetly.

Yoshi Touch and Go - No gap.In Yoshi Touch and Go the space between the two screens on the DS did not exist in the game world. This had the benefit of eliminating any dead space that could not be seen bewteen the two screens. However it made it notoriously hard to fire an egg across the screens. You effectively needed to aim a little higher than it appeared to land the shot.

yoshi2.gifyoshi3.gifIn Yoshi’s Island DS the space between the two screens on the DS is preserved. Although this does mean there is some play area that cannot be seen by the player, you can aim an egg normally.

For me this delivers a much more imersive experience, as I am not jarred out of the game world to make my egg go where i tell it. This far outweighs the dead space between screens, as I can still see this space by looking up or down within the game. As put much more concisley by Howard Rheingold:

That part of a computer game that makes the user step outside the game world, that doesn’t help the user to participate in the pleasure of the game, but acts as a tool for talking to the program — that’s where distance comes in.

This approach has now been proven with good sales success of Yoshi’s Island DS:

We’re very pleased with the performance of Yoshi’s Island DS. DS is becoming a real showcase for great platform games.

Rainbow Racing

rainbow.gifThis is not an easy cash-in follow up, that would come later with Bubble Memories and Symphony. Rainbow Islands is a full reimagining of its forbears play mechanic with rainbows replacing bubbles.

The game allowed itself a denser and initially more awkward control scheme. Rainbows could be both walked along and broken over enemies, which meant a new player would often struggle just getting around the screen. The experience was not dissimilar to the first few outings with Gran Tourismo, spend pulling unintentional donuts around the track.

gt.gifLike the driving game, with time the simplicity and single minded design of the control mechanism wins out. The player realises that it works this way for a reason, primarily to give them a more open and flexible play experience. After a while many of the familar bubble techniques can be performed with the rainbows and the player can deftly traverse the playfield.

Once this play scheme is proven to be a success Taito have then taken a leaf out of Nintendo’s book and turned their attention to replay-ability. Unseen in the playfield are levels of interaction that, once unearthed, make repeated plays essential to obtain a truely high score.

Bonuses: In addition to bonus items awarded for each kill, the player soon discovers that each level is litterally strewn with hidden items that can be unearthed by dropping rainbows at ground level.

Power-ups: Much like bubble Bobble, there was a whole world of causal pipes delivering a complex hierarchy of power-ups.

Diamonds: The final stroke of genious, playing to the strength of their theme was the ability to collect rainbow coloured diamonds. Moreso once the player realises that the colours awarded can be controlled by a carefully placed kill, and that collecting them in order was the only way to finish the game proper.

These add up to a rich play experience, much as the levels of tuning and driving does in Gran Tourismo. And the genius of it all is that they exist in the background of the play, tempting mini-achievements that can be drawn on at will, but never intrude on the main mechanic of rotund-ex-dragon-hero and his rainbow.

On the Bubble

bubblebobble3.gifThe simplest games can generate complex experiences. So goes the rhetoric behind Halo:

‘find a play mechanic that is enjoyable and then provide a context in which the player has reason to experience this multiple times’

However, long before Halo’s release in 2002, two little dinosaurs were proving the validity of this concept in the fixed screen platform game Bubble Bobble.

The main experience currency of the game was bob and bub’s bubble play. Their main interaction with the game world was by blowing, nundging, jumping on and finally poping bubbles. This simple mechanic enabled them to capture and kill enemies, ride air currents, climb walls and trigger chain reactions. Once understood this made even most basic levels offered interesting space to play and experiment with these moves.

Power-ups: The purity of this dynamic was always repsected even when offering enhancements to these abilities. A limited set of power-ups, much like the restricted weapon set in better modern games, altered the play without breaking it. A yellow sweet meant you could blow more bubbles, a purple sweet mean you could blow them further across the screen and a blue sweet increased their velocity. All the time the focus remained on the action of player and bubble.

Scoring: The scoring system again focused the action back on the player and bubble. Points were awareded for careful popping of multiple enemy bubbles, for jumping on bubbles, for popping bubbles. This meant that even the time between levels became playable, as the players would use different techniques to rack up a few extar points.

Levels: The clean levels, viewed in one screen, quickly became familiar. So much so that strategies could be planned when away from the game ready for the next session. Repeated play also revealed another aspect of these environments, the air currents that could carry your bubbles around. This opened up new possibilities for quick completion by craftly postioned chain of bubbles.

Collectables: In addition to all this, there was then the causal system of collectable items. Your action of dealing with bubbles and enemies triggers a string of power-ups. The realisation that you affect the game on this again makes the detail of how you perform your basic moves all the more important.

halo.gifThe play experience of these two little dinasaurs turns out to be no accident. The joy of a chain reaction, or the perfect bubble jump, or wall climb, or multiplier kill has all been intended from the outset. Evrything that may inhibit this experience has been cleared from its path, while features to enhance and focus the play have been carefully introduced.

Down is Up?

‘Wait wait, my controls aren’t inverted, where’s the options’, a refrain commonly heard amongst gamers. The invert check box has become pretty much statutory for any first person shooter of the last five years. This little incongruous setting enables you to press down to look up or vi ca versa.

We can imagine the day that the feature was first discovered by users, possibly in SNES Starfox, and a whole section of the gaming public suddenly raised their game. Once discovered there was no going back for these gamers, it became so engrained in their playing psyche that any game without it became almost unplayable.

Now the debate rages as to which makes more sense “up is down, down is up” or “up is up, down is down”. While much of the rhetoric of these discussions is based on which makes more sense instinctively, we suggest that this is more a question of consciousness and interaction.

The question is where does the player put their consciousness in relation to the controller. What part of their body is the joypad controlling, their arm, their head; and how is this control translated to that body part.

inverse.gifBehind: If the player feels they are controlling movement from behind their head with joypad , they are likely to find an inverted control scheme works best for them. Pulling back on their stick therefore tilts their head up and should move the play field up.

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regular1.gifIn front: If the player feels they are controlling movement in front of their head, they are likely to find a non-inverted control scheme works best for them. Pulling back on their stick therefore pulls their head down from the front and should move the play field down.

There are many things that can affect where the player subconsciously locates themselves. It could be that an extroverted player is used to interacting in an open and forthright manner may feel they were controlling the game world from in front of themselves. Similarly an introverted player who is more reserved and withdrawn may feel they were controlling the game from a safe distance behind themselves. It could also be that those used to scientific work were used to manipulating theories in their heads and therefore controlling environments from behind themselves. Similarly, those used to artistic work may be more used to working with material in front of themselves.

headcontroller1.gifThese hypotheses are now becoming muddied, or maybe just more complex, by the introduction of different control schemes. Interactions now involve more than a simple thumb movement. Touch and gesture are being introduced to provide players with more imersive experiences. This inevitably affects where the player positions themselves in relation to the action on screen.

Although these control schemes are still in their youthful exuberant stage and will take some time to mature, they seem to have the general affect of pulling the player’s consciousness forward, into the game. If this is true, we would expect to see a trend away from inverted control schemes as the player increasingly considers themselves as part of what is going on in the game environment.