So I've been reading Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans' Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design, and I want to share a little tidbit in the book regarding level design that I’ve found helpful, particularly in structuring design goals and evaluating design decisions.
Adams and Dormans propose that there are two different perspectives when designing a level-that of challenges or of layout. In the challenges approach, the designer focuses on building a hierarchy with groups of short-duration challenges combining to form larger challenges (229). The idea is for the designer to define the tasks that the player must accomplish within the scope of the level. According to the authors, this perspective makes it “easier to think about pacing and difficulty curves” (229). Creating higher pace would mean allowing the player to complete a succession of tasks in a short amount of time, and ramping the difficulty curve could translate to having a more complex hierarchy made up of nested tasks.
The layout approach focuses on defining the architecture of the level itself (229). This goes beyond simply the aesthetics and includes considerations for how the player may traverse the space. The authors suggest that this perspective makes it easier to think about the storytelling and atmosphere (229-230). How the player should feel and their emotional journey become a priority over the level’s mission. For example, when designing a level for a horror game, it is critical to examine how the level builds and releases tension, an integral part of the horror experience.
Creating a “perfect” level requires tight collaboration between both sides. If the focus remains purely on the challenges, the space can become extremely linear and uninteresting or even unrealistic. The same can be said for focusing purely on the layout as having a lack of objectives strips out the interactivity of the game. What works best is when the two sides can reinforce one another, like in Metroid or The Legend of Zelda. One way to do this is to create the level space first then layer the objectives on top (layout -> challenges). The other way to do this would then be to create the tasks first, and then map them to a space (challenges -> layout). The important lesson here is to prioritize the perspective that is more vital to the game and, more specifically, to the game’s genre.
Having the due diligence to deeply weigh and implement both perspectives will require a good deal of creative energy but will result in great levels. And just like how a great film is really just a collage of great scenes, a great game is a collage of great levels.
Recommended look: Chapter 10 of Ernest Adams and Joris Dormans' Game Mechanics: Advanced Game Design.
Sometimes, it isn't enough to help players help themselves (read the last entry!). Sometimes, it's a more fundamental fault with the game mechanic itself. In this entry, I want to look at a way to evaluate and reason about the complexity of a game mechanic, namely through cognitive load theory.
Cognitive load theory, proposed by John Sweller, offers us guidelines that can help encourage and optimize player learning through the way information is presented. It's actually much in the same vein as Nielsen's recovery-from-error heuristic, but this theory will help us examine the intrinsic difficulty of a mechanic rather than error recovery. You can think of it as a way lower the chances player errors will occur in the first place.
The theory is based around a simple framework that posits three types of cognitive load: intrinsic, extraneous, and germane. Let's start with the first one.
Intrinsic cognitive load is the execution difficulty of a mechanic. For a real world example, using chopsticks is harder than using a fork. Therefore, using chopsticks has a larger intrinsic load than using a fork.
For a video game example, in Street Fighter, doing a hadouken, a motion special move, requires a directional motion down-forward and a button press. This is more difficult than executing a normal move which requires only a button press. This equates to a special move having a larger intrinsic load than a normal move, and results in the complexity of special moves going up. This type of cognitive load can be lessened on part of the developers by making the mechanic easier to execute and on part of the players through practice. For the player to overcome intrinsic load is for the mechanic to become muscle memory. The question intrinsic cognitive load asks is how much will the player need to execute the mechanic, so they don't have to think about it to do it?
Extraneous cognitive load is generated by the manner in which information is presented to the players and is under the control of the designers (Wikipedia). For a real world example, I really like the one on Wikipedia: let's say we want to describe a square to someone who has no idea what one is. We could try to describe a square as (courtesy of Google definitions) a plane figure with four equal straight sides and four right angles. Or we can just draw one. The verbal description is far less efficient than the visual and generates extraneous load.
For a video game equivalent, in League of Legends, abilities are described in a variety of ways: text, video, or player execution. Let's take a look at a simple ability: Mystic Shot. We can see it has a range of 1150 and a speed of 2000, and here's its description: "Ezreal fires a bolt of energy in a line, dealing physical damage to the first enemy hit..." (LoL Wiki). We know that Ezreal is the name of the champion, but does "a bolt of energy" mean anything in terms of gameplay? Or what about the width of this bolt? How fast is 2000? How do we aim it? The video fares a bit better at describing the ability. We can see that it will shoot in the direction of the cursor, how fast 2000 is, the width of the Mystic Shot, and that the "bolt of energy" is just a visual description. What's interesting is that we will end up learning just as much as the video as we will by executing the ability. (Of course, Mystic Shot has a larger amount of intrinsic load than say a regular attack, so it will require practice to do what the player wants.) The point is, the tooltip has a larger extraneous load than a video or player execution. What's also interesting to note is that the video and player execution may sometimes fail to give the player the full story, so it's still important to have that text description to fill in the gaps. The question extraneous cognitive load asks is how efficient and comprehensive can the game inform the player how a mechanic works?
Germane cognitive load is the processing, construction, and automation of schemas (a schema, as used here, is a mental framework that organizes and perceives information [both definitions from Wikipedia]). For a real world example, think about the first time you learned algebra. The common refrain is "what are letters doing in my numbers?" The way we've thought about math in our early years makes learning algebra more difficult because it requires a new way of understanding math. Therefore, algebra has a higher germane load than say multiplication or division.
Think of germane load as the mental model that the player has of the game as a whole, and how the mechanic fits in with what they already understand about it. The harder it is for the mechanic to fit in, the higher the germane cognitive load is. Take a look at charge moves in Street Fighter. Charge moves are executed by holding a direction like back for 2 seconds, then moving quickly to a different direction like forward before pressing a button. These special moves can be more difficult than the motion special moves for some players, even though they both have about the same amount of intrinsic load. This can be because charge special moves don't fit in with what players already understand about the game: the motion special moves. The question germane cognitive load asks is how does this mechanic fit within the big picture?
Through these different lenses, we can examine more categorically the complexities of a game mechanic. The main thing to consider is the balancing act inherent in each type. In intrinsic load, we may want to make a mechanic harder to execute to balance out its effectiveness. In extraneous load, we may want to provide a less efficient way of informing the player because they wouldn't otherwise be able to understand it. And in germane load, we may want to introduce new mechanics that vary wildly from previous ones in order to change how the player perceives the game world at hand. Regardless of what design choices we make, we should make them conscientiously and knowingly in how they will affect the complexities within each type.
Recommended Wiki: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cognitive_load
Nielsen's heuristics, some of the most-used heuristics for user interface design, are a great way to categorically examine game mechanics to explain which components either work well or work poorly. There are a total of ten of them, but I'm going to look at just one of them here: helping users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors (I'll be using HURDRE for short).
HURDRE is an important element of game mechanics in which the player can fail. In common cases like in games with a health bar or some equivalent, the player can recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors that cause them to receive damage. It can go like this: the player receives damage, the character they are controlling reacts, the health bar goes down, and then the player recovers. The error in this case is the event that damages the player. How the player can recognize, diagnose, and recover from that error is imperative to help them be successful. Let's start with recognition.
Recognition is the mechanism(s) through which the player can recognize that they have indeed made a mistake. The best way to frame this is to see what happens in the game when the player does something "wrong" or, in other words, how the game displays the error. Often times, games will have recognition mechanisms such as a decreasing health-bar visual effect, or a grunting sound effect, or a flinching visual effect, or even something as simple as a buzzing sound effect when the player makes an error. All of them play an important role in helping the player recognize and understand that they have made an error. So if the player is having trouble understanding if they did something wrong, then this is where to look. As a side note, it's preferable to keep the recognition mechanism as organic as possible in order to maintain immersion.
Diagnosis is the ability for a player to diagnose the error by correlating their error-inducing actions with the associated recognition mechanisms. Can the player figure out what they did to cause the error? If they can, then they've passed the diagnosis step; but if they can't, then there is a gap in their understanding between the recognition mechanism and their actions. This is to say that the player may understand what they're doing is wrong (recognition) but can't figure why what they're doing is wrong (diagnosis). The cause lies with the player's understanding of the game mechanic, whether of its purpose or its functionality. To address a problem with diagnosis is to address a misunderstanding with the game mechanic. In the best case, diagnosis lets the player learn from their mistakes and not make that error again.
Recovery is the ability for a player to recover from the error. It is a measure of how punishing the game is on player-made errors. For example, falling into a pit in Super Mario Bros. is an irrecoverable error because the player can't continue on and, instead, must restart from the last checkpoint. Tuning recovery is determined by the game mechanic's context within the game. Since Super Mario Bros. is defined by platforming, falling into a pit is the ultimate error; therefore, the punishment is irrecoverable. Contrast this with running into Goombas where getting hit by them (the error) only results in losing one health or death if the player was small Mario. It's not as punishing.
(Before wrapping up, I only really discussed systems in which health was one of the main factors, so I just want to re-emphasize that HURDRE is applicable to every game mechanic in which the player can fail.)
HURDRE is a feedback loop through which the player can learn through their mistakes/errors. A simple way to remember it is by asking what, (recognition), why (diagnosis), and now what (recovery). In every applicable game mechanic, the player should be able to step through this process: what? why? now what. This feedback loop is so ubiquitous and can be so integral to gameplay that, even when it isn't applicable, players still look for it, to the detriment of games like Telltale's. There are no "right choices" and, therefore, no "errors" that the player can make, so some players can get wrapped up in trying to recognize, diagnose, and recover from a perceived error that actually doesn't exist.
Recommended Look: https://www.nngroup.com/articles/ten-usability-heuristics/
When I'm just talking about point of view in video games with my friends, I usually refer to it in relation to the control scheme. Is the camera in first-person or third-person or second-person like in those creepy Kinect games that are recording you? I don't think that would be considered second-person, but I want to think about point of view in relation to the story instead.
Video games occupy an interesting space because player actions are necessary for their stories to progress. Hyrule isn't saved if I don't collect the Triforce and defeat Ganon nor is Dubai "saved" if I don't venture deep into its heart of darkness (Spec Ops: The Line). When I read Pride and Prejudice, sure there are moments where I really feel like I am in Elizabeth's psyche, but there isn't a moment where I personally feel the desire to make clever jabs at Mr. Darcy or visit my older sister in town. These are actions that are spurred by her own motivations, Jane Austen need only make them believable. On the other hand, even though Link or Walker may have the believable motivations down pat, the player must be motivated to execute on them.
Where this sort of dilemma comes to the forefront is in games where the player must make decisions for the protagonist like in Life is Strange or in The Witcher series. Deciding how to respond or which paths to take reflects not only the character's motivations but the player's motivations as well. So I'll often reach these points where I have to choose between what I believe the character would do versus what I believe I would do versus what I believe is the right thing to do. It can get all out of sorts at times, and, at those times, the path I end up taking is almost random, solely dependent on whatever mood I happen to be in. What I'm trying to say is that while these games are about Link or about Geralt or about whoever, the player is intrinsically a part of their identities as well.
Recommended Play: Spec Ops: The Line from 2K Games
I've never been one to try new things, mostly because I don't like that feeling of unease when I go beyond what is comfortable for me. It's that fear that things will go wrong or not according to plan. But when it comes to video games, I'm not as afraid to venture off the beaten path, and, in most cases, I will actually pursue that unknown to find new fun. That fear of failure isn't as persuasive to me.
For most perceivable errors, I try to learn. After all, they say you learn more from your mistakes than from your successes, and video games are no exception. The millions of time I dodged too early on huge wind-ups by Dark Souls enemies teach me the value of maintaining composure. Or the millions of times I messed up on inputs in Street Fighter V that teach me the value of practice. And even those millions of times I rammed my head into the line puzzles of The Witness teach me the value of perseverance. I learn a lot in video games through failure, and I figure it's the same for the majority of people. Failure is an integral part of the learning process in video games.
But recently I played Life is Strange, and it's made me realize that failure takes on a different role when it is applied to the story in the game rather than the gameplay. Stories in video games often stray away from a common storytelling template wherein the protagonist will undergo various try-fail cycles, because the gameplay in and of itself will often BE the try-fail cycle. It's essentially already baked in, so the writer is priced into rewarding the player with some amount of success, or rather the feeling of success, or they risk losing the player to apathy or frustration. Take a look at some common criticisms for Telltale Games' games for instance.
A lot of the flak that their games get stems from their story's formulaic design and the feeling that the player's choices don't matter. They feel that their fate has already been predetermined, destined to either fail or succeed based on the needs of the story. And I feel like this is because, unlike most games, the try-fail cycle is actually tied to the story rather than the gameplay. The player, like the conductor of a doomed train, can't really do anything but press colorful buttons and pray that something meaningful will change. But somehow, this all feels different in Life is Strange.
Life is Strange does something unique in that they have maneuvered the try-fail cycle from the story back into the gameplay. With the power to rewind time and choose different dialogue choices, the player is allowed the ability to try and fail. I can try telling the principal that a student has a gun, or I can try keeping it a secret. Either way, I have the opportunity to fail at picking the option that will be the more perceptibly beneficial or true to myself. As an added bonus, it gives me a better illusion of control over my fate than the alternative like in Telltale Games games.
I find that Life is Strange's system works fairly well, partly because the mechanic is written into and as a part of the story. Without that, the try-fail cycles would feel less cohesive with the story, and the story would suffer. On the other hand, their system is so inseparable from the story and convenient for the plot and gameplay that I feel that it isn't exactly adaptable or viable for wide use. But the idea to push the try-fail cycle from the story into the gameplay is.
Recommended Listen: "Why Should My Characters Fail Spectacularly" by Writing Excuses
What is cinematography? Not many people talk about it in video games, but cinematography is the art of making motion pictures. Good cinematography is able to present not only what is necessary but also what is necessary with meaning, purpose, and direction. Like user interfaces, good cinematography can be so easily missed and generally is.
In games where only the player controls the camera, the player is the one to decide what is on-screen. As a result, their attention must be directed by the environment. One technique is to utilize anything that requires immediate attention, like enemies. Another technique is to light things that are important or of interest, as seen with the Half-life series. Most cameras during gameplay are like this, functional but unimpressive. League of Legends, Half-life, Assassin's Creed, the list goes on. The cameras do what they need to do but not much more than that; though by the nature of the games' genres, the cameras will inevitably end up like this (see FPS and multiplayer games).
Looking on the flipside where the player cannot control the camera, the developers must manage it. In 2D, the camera can be as simple as following the same motions as the player. But if we dig deeper, we find that even in 2D the camera can be very nuanced. Take for instance the Super Mario series, the earliest camera is pretty straightforward: if the player moves right past a certain threshold, the camera moves right. This is taken one step further in later incarnations by incorporating the player's speed into the mix to give a sense of momentum. (I definitely suggest checking out the recommended watch and source of this entry shown at the bottom if this interests you.)
The most impressive cameras are those where the games are able to manipulate them to give the shots meaning, purpose, and direction. Take Shadow of the Colossus for instance. When the player rides horseback, the game will often maneuver the camera to zoom out and pan to encompass the enormity of the world and how small the player is in respect to it. And then when the player wants to look somewhere else, the camera is still responsive enough to allow the player to do so. As an example of a game in which the player has no real control over the camera, there is Silent Hill 2. The weird camera angles and shots accentuate the unsettling nature of its world, never allowing the player to relax from cut to cut.
Cinematography adds so much depth and beauty to video games because we as humans perceive so much through our eyes. To be able to take full advantage of it gives visual media vitality in the same way that grammar does for writing, color does for art, and inflections do for speaking. These important things that are often times unnoticed by us should always have a chance to be recognized and appreciated. What are some of your favorites?
Recommended watch and source: "Scroll Back: The Theory and Practice of Cameras in Side-Scrollers" by Itay Keren from a GDC http://www.gdcvault.com/play/1022243/Scroll-Back-The-Theory-and