Steven Reiss: Who Am I (***)
I'm finally back for some blogging...
The last few months have been difficult for me. My wife Carole and I lost our baby on October 20th. Working and thinking of GDC talks isn't easy in those circumstances so the blog came last. Olivier Morin was 38 weeks old when Carole realized overnight he wasn't moving anymore. Once at the hospital, a series of test were made and they announced us Olivier was dead. We now knew Carole would have to give “birth” to our lifeless fourth child. Carole always said it must be the worst thing in the world for women to give birth to a dead baby and now she had to experience it. That was without a doubt the most intense, complex and weird moment of my entire life.
Losing a baby in 2009 sounds surreal, it is a one in a million case. For this reason, not only us but the entire hospital staff was shocked. When Carole was pushing, it felt like everything at once for me. It was a terrible tragedy and I was scared of how Olivier would look like and if I would be able to handle it when he shows up. At the same time, I was sad and anxious about how Carole was really doing inside. She looked so strong on the surface, she always do, that is how amazing she is. She was listening to the staff’s instructions in some kind of dark place I cannot even begin to imagine. But I also found the moment beautiful and filled with compassion. In a weird way, it was like everyone was respecting Olivier through his silence. When he showed up soundless, everybody had the same reaction: “he is so beautiful”. I never saw so much respect in a single room, it was amazing and strong enough for us to survive the moment and for that I thank everyone remotely involved.
Carole and I talked a lot at the hospital, we always manage to discuss our way through events like these and it’s a big reason why our couple is so strong. During Far Cry 2, we learned Raphael was autistic and I had to go in ambulance with Nicolas in my arms with an oxygen mask while he was six months old. At his beautiful marriage, Clint Hocking ask me how the hell I was able to go through such moments without having it affect my work. That is what Clint is all about, not everybody knows it, but this guy is a phenomenal human being and he do care about others a lot. Well the answer to his question is Carole, she is just the most amazing women there is and I hate the fact she had to go through this terrible event.
The most intense moment surrounding Olivier’s death for me was holding him in my arms. We discussed Carole and I how we couldn’t understand the idea of parents taking pictures of their dead baby and stuff in the past. It was creepy to our eyes. Now we understand, it was important for us to talk to him and it helped us heal the wounds. We saw this moment very differently since it was happening to our baby. I saw a lot of different emotions in suspension while Carole was giving birth to Olivier’s Body. Clint wasn’t sure to understand how I could go through hardcore events in my family while working on Far Cry 2. These are strong examples of how human deal with various contexts. A given event triggers very different meaning to each of us based on our own perspective towards it. Yes as weird as it feels, I am using those events to talk about game design. Design Cave is a design blog so it was the best way to talk about it...
Context in Sport Games:
Just like any other moments in life, a game experience triggers different meanings depending on how we perceive them. Sport games are filled with magical events supporting this fact. For example, January 14th the Montreal Canadians played against the Dallas Stars. It was not a good day for George Laraque to play hockey since he still had no news of his family back in Haiti. With the earthquake, he spent the entire day wondering if he wouldn’t be more useful back there. Being the goon of his team and with all the injuries he had, it was also difficult to justify his presence since he didn’t even produce a single shot to the net this season. Still he signed a contract and therefore was on the ice that night. He scored a goal at his first shot of the season and that was the end of the world for him. It was the little glimpse of hope he needed and it was a sign that he was indeed there for a reason. You just have to see his face on the video to understand the meaning behind this event for him. The goal in itself isn’t special but the context behind it makes it so.
And what about the 83-yard touchdown Ray Rice did against the Patriots January 10th. While that was happening Jamie Costello was in the press box, screaming like his underwear was on fire. He hadn't told anybody that his teenage son was the new brains behind the Ravens' offense, so every single person gives him the stink eye: “There's no cheering in the press box, dude.” Unless you're cheering for a kid who's trying to survive... That’s right, Jamie’s son Matthew Costello is 14th years old and he has cancer. He was visited by Cam Cameron, the offensive coordinator for the Ravens which is Matthew’s favourite NFL team. Cameron was in fact impressed by his football knowledge and decided to ask him what he should play for his next game. Once he tried Matthew’s play and saw the immense success it had, he started calling the kid for plays more and just like that this young genius became the Ravens secret weapon. A 14th years old kid was behind the master play Ray Rice executed that day. For Ravens fans it was an awesome play, but for Matthew Costello and his family, it was to an all new level of meaning.
Meaning in Video Games:
In November 2009, Chris Hecker expressed something fundamental in a keynote addressed at the IGDA Leadership Forum in San Francisco. He believes games will be the preeminent art and entertainment form of the 21st century, if we don't screw it up… He proposed four metrics to measure popular entertainment forms in approximate order of increasing importance: revenue, units sold, cultural impact and diversity of content. He says we do great only at the first one and that we can’t be totally blamed since there are certain types of gameplay that are well understood and easily accomplished in game while others still elude us. That would, to a large extent, have locked in many design ideas in the service of financial safety. He advises designers to explore the “Why” like in why we are doing games? If we do not find a way to deliver an experience we want to convey through interactivity, he believes we could really screw it up.
During his talk, he recounted a recent experience playing Valve's Left 4 Dead, a game he greatly enjoys. "But it's vacuous," he said. "It's cool, but there's not really any 'there' there." I was not there so I cannot precisely describe what Hecker said about Left 4 Dead but I remember a discussion I had with Pierre-Yves Savard (PY) the Level Design Director on our current project. He mentioned various meaning he experienced through different L4D sessions. While playing with friends he felt the importance of friendship and team work. But when he played with an unknown beginner, it was more about responsibility and mentorship. These are two different meaning coming from different contexts. I think this is the strength behind interactivity and while Hecker’s overall message sounds very accurate to me, I feel L4D conveys more meaning than he seems to think or maybe he already think that way himself since I didn’t see his talk. The point I am making through all this is that meaning ALWAYS come from the one who experience an event, not from those generating it. Meaning is a personal thing and it’s open to interpretation.
One of the beauties of game design is that it’s all about inspiring ourselves from everything. It is about extracting from life to help the design cause. But just like any other medium, our thoughts provide experiences that transcend their origin through the eyes of others. The player’s role is to find their meaning through them. So it’s crucial for us to provide the right tone and leave room for thoughts. When Chris Hecker says we should know “Why” we are making games, he misses the point that players also have a “Why” they are playing it or at least that is what I perceive out of a few recap of his talk. Through moments like Olivier’s death, life has changed me over the years. I play and design games differently now and it’s a beautiful thing. Hopefully designers can embrace this and se games as a way for players to find meaning for all sorts of subjects. This is where Hecker is so bang on. We will need to provide different subjects to explore for players to see games as a culturally meaningful medium. If we fail to do so, we will indeed screw it up. Maybe one day it will be possible for me to make a game about Olivier. I surely hope so...
There’s always interesting stories behind competition which makes us learn something valuable. One of those epic battles as to be Coke vs. Pepsi. Maybe epic sounds like a stretch, but some crazy business moves were made behind the scene of this rivalry and “epic” is definitely suitable here.
It is known that Coke as always been ahead of Pepsi and that even in the darkest days of Coke. This fact often is surprising for anybody who is unaware of the details and lives in Quebec because we happen to be the only place in the world where Pepsi kicks Coke’s ass. But that is another story and for those curious people who wonder why, simply look at the following video. This guy is Claude Meunier, he made Pepsi adds in Quebec for years and he was extremely popular as a comic back then. He is now responsible for quite a few cultural classics in Quebec. I would pay to see the face of Pepsi executives when they came here wondering what the hell they did so well and saw the publicities. They must think we are a bunch of crazy aliens...
Ok let’s get to the point now because I was seriously side tracking. In the 80s, Pepsi manage to scare the shit out of Coca-Cola by doing blind test on the Pepsi taste which revealed that most people preferred their taste over Coca-Cola. They started a campaign on that and Coke didn’t find it funny so they did their own test and were shock to realize it was all true. They were devastated since their entire philosophy was and still is base on their classic formula. After much research for a new taste they manage to win the blind test and replace the old formula with a new one under the name of “New Coke”. The executive who launch the all thing said it was the surest move he ever did. But in the end people hated it, especially the dedicated Coca-Cola fans. Pepsi was catching even more terrain and Coke was completely lost in there.
That was until someone at Coke figured it out. Pepsi as more sugar than the original coke and people responded better to sugar in small taste tests. But when they were drinking the entire bottle, they were getting sick of sugar. So they did test with that in mind by having people bring packs of bottle at home and testing it for real. With those, the original Coca-Cola was the big winner. Consequently Coca-Cola was reintroduced and New Coke remains to this day one of the biggest mistakes they ever did.
This is a long way to get to my point but hey I like this story and even though I know it is mentioned in the book Blink which most of you probably red, I still wanted to throw it out for anyone who did not know it. In game design, we often talk about the concept of “Simple but Deep” as an approach to low level mechanics design. I personally hate the term because too much people use it as a way to over simplify a problem. When used right, it is unquestionably true though. I get in daily debates regarding some prototypes that are quickly providing some fun but feel empty to me as an approach. It is hard to describe without saying too much so let’s just say I am a fan of designing low level mechanics with an overall philosophy where the core logic can remain in place for everything you will throw at it. In one case, pressing simple buttons was definitely providing good fun easily, but those buttons where unnecessary and I wanted to try something with analogue sticks and triggers which involved fewer inputs and more precisions for everything the player does. It took several arguments at each steps of the way because it was a bit harder to do and even more to imagine. Now more people believe in it because of the results we got and some were even surprised at certain thing they thought they would hate.
Most of what was going on in the team was related to the way they perceived “fun”. They want immediate fun and when they have it, they stop looking. They taste a single sugar shot and they are happy about it. They forget to ask themselves how much time it will take for them to be sick of it. This phenomenon is regularly experienced when we play Iphone games for example because so much of them are quick shallow games. It is rare that one of those keep you hooked for a while. It is only sugar without subtleties.
But the problem doesn’t stop there. If you’re talking about an avatar for instance, it is not only the quick vs. long term fun that will come into play. You will fight the perception peoples have over animation. Now that is the hardcore stuff. I often said that it was much harder to design and deliver a great avatar and its mechanics than it is to do it for a driving model. Yes I know about the myth of driving model design which is supposed to be super hard, but there is one thing to consider here. Physic is harder to parse than how a human being is “supposed” to behave and therefore, everybody has an opinion on how the avatar should feel. Even worst, an avatar comes with nothing while the car comes with several assumptions on how it should be controlled and everything. I am not saying driving games are easy, but when the box with wheels is replaced with a human body it gets ugly.
Whether it is driving or a human body, the problem remains the same though. People think they understand how it works and consequently carry false assumptions. This was another part of my problem regarding those low level mechanics prototypes. People always argue based on their assumptions of how the player will perceive a given animation. This is two layers of perception noise and I would say they are responsible for most of the design arguments on the PLANET. So nobody will respond the same way to an animation because they do not have the same level of understanding and often knowing more is worst in this particular case.
To add to this, consider this simple story from 7up. They once decided to change a bit the design of their can and added more yellow to it. I can’t remember if it was during customers tests or after launch but people were pissed and said the taste was different and worst. They claimed it tasted more like lemon and they were saying: “Don’t do a New Coke on me.” It was the same damn beverage inside the can. This is how wrong we can be when we are influence by an animation...
So in summary, designers are constantly confronted to reactions towards easy/quick fun as well as all the pre-conceptions the human brain can tricks us into when it is the time to evaluate low level game mechanics. There is no easy way out of this but there is one that will surely help and it is constant communication. I cannot thank enough the teammates I am working with for enduring argumentations and even better for reading the stuff I suggest. They even dig deeper afterwards which is awesome considering they are not designers but still see the importance behind this. Once each member of the low level mechanic team knows they perceive things differently and even better knows they are talking about players who will also see things differently amongst them, it gets easier to push towards quick prototyping and play-tests. Most design argumentations are similar to this one and we just have to find ways to avoid wasting time on argumentations. We have to try shit out. If Pepsi, Coke & 7Up had done that, they could have spotted what was going on more precisely. Often, nothing is what it seems and to figure it out, we must be extra careful on any assumptions we make, it is always the one we don’t know we make that kills us in the end.
So are we really aware of what we test, what affects our judgement and how we should test whit those factors in mind? I feel there is a LOT of work to be done here to get better because as much as the soft drinks industry showed how they can suck at it, they still kicks our ass...
It’s been nearly a full month since my last post. I had to go to Paris for a meeting and I got the swine on my flight back to Montreal. Nailed to my bed for four days and out from work for eight was enough to bring my brain to new levels of weirdness where old thoughts from Far Cry 2, new ones from my new project and a few others for a future talk of mine were all mixed up together. So I now have to put some of those in here in order to think clearly again.
So today I decided to talk a bit about improvisational play which is from ‘my old thoughts from Far Cry 2’ brain section. As presented by Clint Hocking at GDC 2009, improvisational play was observed in Far cry 2 as a result of our inability to provide a game structure where the composition phase is balanced with the execution phase. In short, as the game was slowly getting together we realized that during combat, players were often confronted to step out of the execution phase as a result of an unpredictable event. This forced them to readjust their direction by going immediately back to the composition phase where a new plan was required. The fact that this was happening several time during a single battle clearly demonstrated that players were often improvising on the fly instead of executing their plan as intended. They were not dominating the situation through intentional play; they had to constantly readjust to combat events.
There is no doubt improvisational play is a positive design side effect of the Far Cry 2 experience. As Clint said, we were embracing what the game was trying to be and I would say with a bit of luck it ended up being a good thing. But it was not design that way so there’s still a dark side to it.
The amount of FC2 players who actually understood what was going on when they experience improvisation is quite small in proportion. This means countless players are asked to readjust on the fly without understanding why. Clint mentioned in his talk that improvisational play can be experienced without mastery which is true but it will not be appreciated if it is not understood.
What do I mean by understanding it? I am talking about the ability to identify the cause behind an execution phase break. In FC2, improvisation can be caused by several systems which are very hard to predict. Malaria, weapon jams and wounding are those Clint used in his presentation so I will stick with them. Each of those systems requires constant attention from the player. Malaria attacks are predictable but in an unexposed way and the player can make them go away by getting more pills through side missions. Weapon jams are all about weapon management. Weapon shops and safe houses are locations where it is possible to grab new weapons in order to avoid going into a fight with rusty unreliable guns. Wounds are quite predictable but the speeds at which the health can deplete make it hard to fully anticipate. There are a few criterias here that make those systems efficient at generating improvisational play.
First of all, they are negative feedbacks that will confront the player with new challenging reality on the spot. Secondly, they can be avoided which means the player ultimately has the responsibility of his own situation. Finally, they're designed to be uncertain so players constantly fear them and feel the need to take them into account in their composition phase (planning). They are working really well together and are responsible for magical moments in Far Cry 2... If understood properly. The FC2 design team had a lot of fun playing the game because they understood the mistakes they were making and how it was forging their experience. For example, it happens to me quite a few times that my gun jammed while I was in perfect control of the situation and I often smiled while saying to myself: “Ho Shit, I knew I should have passed by the weapon shop before coming here”. It is really cool to fully understand why you are in a given situation and it is also essential to be comfortable in the improvisation mode.
Here is something from punch-out to illustrate my point a bit better. Punch-out uses simple timing variation to challenge the brain. For example, the opponent AI will crouch exactly the same way for the right and the left uppercut but the right uppercut is launched 3 times faster than the left one. Often players will react too fast to the left punch and get back in the danger zone as the punch is launched. At this very moment the player says to himself: “Ho shit I knew it was the left one why the hell did I dodge so fast?” and at this very moment he dodge a second time and barely manage to avoid the real hit. This moment is exciting because the player adapted to a situation he understood which made him feels pretty good.
Now it is easy to say that Punch-out is fully deterministic and therefore is a bad example for improvisation but that would be wrong. When our brain is asked to react at the split-second level it is pretty similar to improvisation. Also, in the punch-out example the player is not aware of what will come next and he makes a mistake but manages to fix it based on his understanding of the situation. I believe this is where the true fun of improvisational play lies. FC2 explores improvisation in much deeper ways but it also fails to teach the player properly the crucial rules. Weapon’s reliability is shown through the gun shaders, the sound and some tutorial explains the importance of it and how to keep relatively new guns at all time. So we did try but it was not fully embedded in the progression of the game. Still to this day, I regularly confirm with various FC2 players that most people don’t fully get the reliability rules. When I talk to them about the weapon jam they see it as a frustration generator more than anything else.
Improvisational play remains heavily intentional because players still make risk analysis unconsciously leading them to decisions that will define the probability of an eventual improvisation moment. It is crucial that each variable relating to these risk analysis are properly exposed to players so they can perceive what is going on and appreciate the level of improvisation required.
Improvisational play was always part of our reality. In a way, Clint’s observation and his appreciation of this design structure is the same as Ralph Koster conclusion in A Theory of Fun when he mention the need to provide more complex patterns to players to avoid domination on their side which leads to boredom. Whether it’s the organic pattern behind the four ghosts in Pac-man, a strong opponent in street fighter, the uncertainty behind poker probabilities or a music improvisation, it is always based on the level of understanding of its participants. So I guess all of this is a very long way to say: “There is a higher level of play in Far Cry 2 heavily driven by improvisation. Unfortunately, this level is profoundly hidden behind inaccessibility…” There are definitly players who manage to reach it and enjoy the hell out of it. Now it is our job to make sure there are more of these guys for the next games we'll ship...
For extra information on the excellent talk about improvisation by Clint Hocking, look here on his blog.
are fascinating creatures. There are so many variables to take into account to
define who someone is or what his personality is all about. The full answer to
this question goes beyond what a simple post can describe, but there’s still something
deeply essential defining who we are as individuals. Something we can describe
pretty quickly and it’s called the unconscious.
We can hide a lot of things, but the split seconds reaction we have exposes our
true self. According to many experts, each of those moments comes with physical
reactions that sometimes are so fast a video would require slow motion to make
it visible unless the observer is some kind of expert. Those experts are said to be able to read minds…
Unconscious behaviors could very much be the most basic and fundamental player’s footprint. His experience is heavily defined by it and his success is often based on his ability to react before he even thinks. So when we sell a given experience, we better make sure the lowest decisions the player makes are related to it. How can we pretend to offer a given experience if the player is not confronted to it directly? If we look at games coming out, it seems to be quite complicated to achieve. I mean, there’s barely any game that delivers such a constant vision.
It’s quite surprising in a way, we represent the most interactive medium of them all and yet, we are not delivering a consistent experience. The fantasy we sell, the experience we deliver and the game simulation required to do so are rarely in harmony. If we look at Prototype from Radical, which I have yet to finish, it seems it suffers the same problem than the hulk games they did previously. Those games are supposed to represent inner conflicts and still there is no mechanical representation of that. The choices you make are not about those conflicts, they are more about which tool you will use to destroy your enemy. To me any game pretending to be about Hulk should be heavily related to self-control and prototype definitly plays on a similar concept but still dont do a better job at it.
Mirror’s Edge is another example in which you are a delivery runner pursued by enemies who wants you to fail. But when you play your brain constantly seek red or blue paths and your number one failure condition is when you fail to follow it. It's almost never about you getting caught and you cannot even make intelligent choices on how to deal with the problem of being pursued. There is a complete disconnect between the narrative context of this game and what the game is actually about gameplay wise.
Is it that hard to make a game that focus on a core experience? When I flee people in mirror’s edge, I expect to make decisions that will help me get good at fleeing. When I play a game like prototype, I expect my body condition to impact my decisions. This is a fundamental thing we seem to forget in video games. Good board games are doing better at respecting their aesthetics than we do. This is kind of sad considering the options we have through the power of computers…
I just wish we were more sensible towards those things. I know they are quite a few that tries hard and others that would like to but always see their concept get cut in half. Still, I feel a lot of us are not even considering this and are simply throwing ‘cool stuff’ at players without really paying attention to what their game is about. In the end, this mean players are unconsciously following things that are not at all what they were expecting. They often say they like it, but deep inside they might feel a certain disconnect with the fantasy the game aspires to fulfill.
Do you guys think this kind of extra care would be perceived by players in a more meaningful way? Would you like to see more games like Bioshock or Portal that tries to connect what players experience at the cognitive level to the narrative context? Are you aspiring to get there with your next game or do you think this is not worth doing?
I certainly hope more developers would explore this...
I just finished an article on David Sirlin’s blog about subtractive
design. I wanted to comment on it but the forum was seriously off topic so I
decided to share my thoughts here instead and make sure it gets to Sirlin as
In general, I agree with the concept which is based on the book Notes on the Synthesis of Form by Christopher Alexander. It consists of subtracting any elements which isn’t essential to a design. Sirlin uses excellent game references such as Ico, Braid, Portal & Team Fortress 2 as well as stuff from other fields such as the Google Chrome browser. My thoughts are mostly related to the Google example…
It is definitely crucial to understand necessity in order to avoid over-complex designs. Google chrome is so pure and simple compare to Internet Explorer. They got rid of everything that was useless and even merge certain key elements together. But there’s one thing Sirlin did not explore in his article that I feel is quite relevant. He doesn’t mention the risk to alienate consumer’s habits while streamlining features from something already embedded in people’s culture. Most people I know are not big fans of Google Chrome which I love, but I am as far as you can get from mass market concerning internet browsers.
In Art of Innovation, Tom Kelley talks about many fascinating experiences IDEO went through over the years. One of them was about a toothpaste tube designed to prevent paste to get stock into the cap. They came up with a pretty good design and one of the necessary modification was to remove entirely the necessity to twist the cap. When they did consumer tests, they noticed everybody was twisting the cap anyway and had a hard time using it. They ended up adding a very small twist step and sure enough the product became natural for consumers. Certain features are embedded in our unconscious and even if they are poorly designed, we can’t get rid of them easily even if the new design is much better. IDEO are probably the masters of subtractive design and still, they constantly consider consumer habits to make sure they improve things one step at a time to avoid alienation.
Ico is an interesting game example for this. It's a great game but it wasn’t adopted by nearly enough players. Was that related to player’s habits? On Far Cry 2, we removed prone which is a classic position in FPS. PC gamers wished they had it. Their perception of the African environment was that it screamed for a prone. They did not know our AI would have destroyed them if they were in such a position and they did not care, they simply wanted it because for them it was natural. So really, where is the line between simplification and alienation?
While it is undeniably important to reduce our designs to the essential, starting a design with something we know and then reduce its content can lead to player's alienation. It is crucial to carefully validate if the process goes too far for a single iteration. Simplicity is a big step towards accessibility, but player’s habit awareness is also part of the equation.
I am glad I decided to watch IP Man Wednesday. It must have been 10 months since I watched an Asian film which is surprising for anyone who knows my passion for Chinese and Korean cinema. It made me remember why I love them so much. Chinese films tend to be simple and pure. They follow their aesthetic without ever sidetracking. This is something occidental cinema fails too often. Video game seems to have similar issues which are often due to designer’s tendency to over-complicate things. In 1977, Saturday Night Fever came out. What most people don’t know is that one of the most famous dance scene to ever come out of Hollywood almost never made it intact. In fact, the editor called John Travolta and said he wasn’t able to fit all scenes together and parts of his performance had to be cut. John refused to accept that and drove to the studio. In the end, he forced the editor to keep the scenes he wanted to cut by using a single camera which had the entire sequence. This became a very famous scene and it was not the editor’s vision. Fewer cuts ended up being the solution and the editing is definitly one of the reasons for the scene's success... Creators often think too much and lose sight of the simplest solutions. The mistake this editor almost made in 1976-77 occurs in most films today and that is especially true in action movies where guys like Michael Bay reigns supreme with a ridiculous amount of cuts per sequence. Of course, doing cuts can be very powerful and I’m not against it when it serves a real purpose, but it sucks when it becomes the solution to patch director’s laziness. I always appreciate the way a fight is shot in Chinese films, it’s pure and simple. It’s like Saturday Night Fever but intentional. They rarely fail at this and this is why I keep going back to those films, to experience moments like the one below: Just like Hollywood, video games often lose sight of the essence. They’re obsessed with this idea to feed players with a quick fix. They lose sight of their goal resulting in a total disconnect between the mechanics and the aesthetics. Smart designers everywhere are busting their asses to try and deliver the Citizen Kane’s of our industry as Clint Hocking often says. But I am wondering if the problem isn’t in our inability to stick to the essential. After all, we can deliver such a game without necessarily falling into over-complexity. Open narrative, situational game mechanics, social mechanics and media convergence are all being heavily discussed these days. But every time I read about them, I see complexity over purity. Is it possible to find simple answers to those massive subjects? Maybe I’m stupid but I personally think we have to master simplicity and keep the complexity where it belongs, in the human brain. The hard part is to draw the line at the right place as Albert Einstein once said: 'Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler' - Albert Einstein Jonathan
I am glad I decided to watch IP Man Wednesday. It must have been 10 months since I watched an Asian film which is surprising for anyone who knows my passion for Chinese and Korean cinema. It made me remember why I love them so much. Chinese films tend to be simple and pure. They follow their aesthetic without ever sidetracking. This is something occidental cinema fails too often. Video game seems to have similar issues which are often due to designer’s tendency to over-complicate things.
In 1977, Saturday Night Fever came out. What most people don’t know is that one of the most famous dance scene to ever come out of Hollywood almost never made it intact. In fact, the editor called John Travolta and said he wasn’t able to fit all scenes together and parts of his performance had to be cut. John refused to accept that and drove to the studio. In the end, he forced the editor to keep the scenes he wanted to cut by using a single camera which had the entire sequence. This became a very famous scene and it was not the editor’s vision. Fewer cuts ended up being the solution and the editing is definitly one of the reasons for the scene's success...
Creators often think too much and lose sight of the simplest solutions. The mistake this editor almost made in 1976-77 occurs in most films today and that is especially true in action movies where guys like Michael Bay reigns supreme with a ridiculous amount of cuts per sequence. Of course, doing cuts can be very powerful and I’m not against it when it serves a real purpose, but it sucks when it becomes the solution to patch director’s laziness.
I always appreciate the way a fight is shot in Chinese films, it’s pure and simple. It’s like Saturday Night Fever but intentional. They rarely fail at this and this is why I keep going back to those films, to experience moments like the one below:
Just like Hollywood, video games often lose sight of the essence. They’re obsessed with this idea to feed players with a quick fix. They lose sight of their goal resulting in a total disconnect between the mechanics and the aesthetics. Smart designers everywhere are busting their asses to try and deliver the Citizen Kane’s of our industry as Clint Hocking often says. But I am wondering if the problem isn’t in our inability to stick to the essential. After all, we can deliver such a game without necessarily falling into over-complexity.
Open narrative, situational game mechanics, social mechanics and media convergence are all being heavily discussed these days. But every time I read about them, I see complexity over purity. Is it possible to find simple answers to those massive subjects? Maybe I’m stupid but I personally think we have to master simplicity and keep the complexity where it belongs, in the human brain. The hard part is to draw the line at the right place as Albert Einstein once said:
'Make everything as simple as possible, but not simpler' - Albert Einstein
I was recently asked to make a simple conference on Game Design for people who conduct play-tests. These guys are so important, how could I possibly refuse? Also, these kinds of events are always interesting because every attempt to grasp the essence of game design brings new observations.
The presentation was covering the basics of game design and how we’re trying to create game experiences. Nothing super sophisticated but some interesting questions came out. I want to talk about two of those in particular…
The first question was: “What is game pacing?” It turned out they’ve asked this to several designers and never really felt they understood the concept accurately enough… Because of that, I decided to answer through an image. Great game pacing is like a well written book. When we’re really into it we count how many pages the next chapter has, if it’s quick and intriguing we can’t help ourselves but to read it. This urge is like a drug and often keeps us awake way too long. Writers have a lot of different tricks to provoke such a phenomenon. Some have some kind of 12 pages per chapter rule while others even tried to compose single phrase chapters.
Game pacing is the same. Designers must use every tool they have to keep player’s interest. Narrative structure, gameplay progression and sequence rhythm are only a few of those tools. It’s all about using the game design content smartly and each game needs a different recipe.
Following this answer, I got the REAL question: “How can we play-test and validate good game pacing?” Now that’s an interesting question. We cannot ask someone if he feels the pacing is right while he plays, his answer will not be reliable. But can we measure it? At that moment I remembered The Art of Innovation which I’ve read a while ago and how they were doing creative exercises to understand certain things. So I invited them to be creative and try to quantify the level of interest player’s had to the game. Of course, they wanted examples so I had to find something.
As crazy as it sounds, I suggested putting free coffee in the room and first invite players to take one. Then boot the game and evaluate how much time players would get attracted by a new coffee. Is the game doing better than the coffee machine?
What about you, do you believe the games you’ve done or the one you’re currently working on would beat free coffee aside the console? I know it is weird and imprecise, but remember it was a simple example to trigger creative thinking. I still have to admit I kind of like this weird play-test idea…
I’ve been playing Prototype lately and while I’m not very far, I definitely have some issues with it. It’s weird, I feel like a lot of games out there are sloppy on their low level mechanics and I wonder why? Some could say its gameplay programming while others could say it’s time constraints, but I know Prototype had enough time to deliver the basics properly.
I was expecting the avatar to move smoothly in the environment and I was disappointed. I think the best example is their jump mechanic. It’s a “jump on release” kind of thing, which is totally fine in itself but the timing is all wrong. When standing still and pressing the button, the avatar goes down and when released, there’s a small delay before he actually jump. Even worst, nothing occurs when we run and press the jump button. The avatar doesn’t even go down a bit while running to give some feedback and when you release to jump forward, there’s a delay of almost half a second before the jump occur. This kind of stuff is happening a lot and it broke the fantasy for me.
Some see those things as details and they enjoy the game anyway, but I see them as the hidden problems most players will still perceive without knowing. Player’s perception is a fascinating thing and it is the source of serious design problems. It’s quite simple, designers are trying to create an experience and to achieve that goal they need a game simulation. A simulation in three axes:
C = Context
I = Inputs
Players react to combinations of systems, each at a particular state. They do so through the influence of the game narrative context, their in-game condition as well as their real condition outside of the game: are they tired, unhappy, sad, drunk or anything of this kind… Then they’ll make a decision by providing inputs which will affect the systems states again.
Providing a game simulation is easy and it is only the beginning. We must understand the various moments this simulation offers and how they should be realized. Each game moment is a single point in a simulation that will be perceived differently by all players. This is important because in the end, the desired game experience is the product of each player’s perception towards the various game moments and how they were interconnected.
This means experiences occur at every level which makes it ridiculously hard for designers to control what they deliver.
Every game designer understands this in one form or another but accepting it is the hard part. Deciding your avatar will jump is one thing, but to know which game moments will involve jumping is what the real job is. Understanding that is key to realize and design your jump properly. Most great games deliver each mechanics for a specific type of key moment and focus only on that to make sure they can deliver the experience they want in the end. This is what Prototype fails at doing…
To be honest, I am also a bit tired to see games delivering only one layer through their mechanics. We are always using different objectives and environments to provide variety in our low level experiences, but what about the mechanics? Would it be possible to have organic mechanics that would take into account the context just like the player perceives it while he plays? What if jumping was changing depending on narrative context or other factors, would that provide new rich experiences? Imagine mechanics taking into account what happened before a given moment, how it affected the avatar and the player. Would that provide something new and would it help us reinforce what the player might perceive?
I think it would, but I also see games failing to deliver the very basic low level requirements. Still, that doesn’t prevent anyone from pushing the boundaries a little bit. Hopefully this is making sense to some of you…
After two years doing conferences at GDC and saying to myself I should start a blog to at least post my slides, I finally did it. It is pretty sad to realize it would have taken me a few minutes to achieve that... Anyway, this blog is a beginning and we will see soon enough if I can maintain a good post rate...
So welcome on the Game Design Cave and for those who wonder where the name comes from, here's an animated short to answer that question.
I really like this animated short interpretation of Plato's Cave. The frustration generated from this inability to share thoughts based on radical differences in perception is beautifully illustrated and I think is a very accurate image of what game designers have to face every day. I feel it is essential for creators of any kind to be in peace with the fact that others perception cannot be controlled. At least, I always feel better facing a design problem when I remind myself of that.
But while player's perception can't be controlled, I like to think it can be manipulated as hinted in Dan Ariely's talk... I like to believe our job is to find ways to manipulate perception in order to make sure player's gets into a game experience they will enjoy and call their own. But we are not there to aim at a precise point that everyone will get to, we are there to provide a certain spectrum of possible experiences within a desired range. Pretending to be able to achieve perfect precision for everyone is the equivalent of lying to ourselves. I personally don't feel this is why video games are there for...
Knowing me, there will be more post on player's perception in the near future.