As promised, here’s the text of my submission to Supple Interfaces. I’m experimenting with a good way to divide by pages; I’ve sunk a surprising amount of time into trying to get various WordPress plugins to do this properly, but it seems to come down to something in the Theme. If you know a good way to do this, please let me know :). For now, I’m just making seperate posts.
Part 2 = Wednesday. Enjoy!
Digital games are a new medium and, as such, include many unexplored areas. This paper examines one such area, the aesthetic properties of interactivity, more commonly known as the “feel” of controlling a game. While the descriptions used to articulate this feel are often vague and esoteric, they tend to be consistent across players and game designers. I will attempt to classify these poorly articulated descriptions in systematic terms, correlating them to four specific, practicable disciplines of interactive aesthetics.
There exists in the collective minds of video game players a deep and nuanced classification of the “feel” of the games they play and enjoy. This feel is afforded by real-time interactivity. A player is able to trigger an input – move a mouse, press a button – and the game reacts immediately. With the barriers between intent, action, and reaction thusly removed it is possible to experience a kind of “virtual sensation”, exercising kinesthetic control over a purely digital entity in the same way you would steer a bike or drive a car. Like cars, each controllable object in a game has its own feel, based on things like weight, turning radius, and suspension. The similarities continue: virtual sensation can give the same pleasurable feelings of mastery and control, challenge and reward. In many ways virtual sensation is better equipped to create pleasurable experiences than real sensation. In a virtual world, any property of any object can be changed in a heartbeat in favor of one that feels better to control. Gravity can be reduced, friction eliminated, difficulty can be adjusted, reality changed. Physical danger is removed. Feel in a digital game, then, is an evolution of the satisfying, life-enriching sensation of skillful manipulation.
Feel is not artwork, immersion, or theme. The interactive aesthetics that give rise to feel must be separated from traditional visual and aural aesthetics. The quality of the painting and drawing, musical composition, graphic design, sound design, character design, and animation; these things are traditional aesthetics, not interactive ones. There’s no question that the character design and texture painting in a modern Final Fantasy game is well executed from an artistic standpoint, but this has no effect on how it feels to control a character in the game. Also, players will invoke feel to describe the theme of the game “a cool Western feel” or the qualities of immersion (flow) they’re feeling while playing a game “You feel like you’re really there, like you’re in the game.” “The HUD It´s frickin ugly, it totally spoils the feeling of being there.” These are red herrings when discussing feel in digital games.
When players do describe the feel of exercising control over a game avatar, they do so in kinesthetic terms. The game feels “floaty”, “loose”, or “twitchy.” When players say things like “the controls feel tight and very responsive”, “the controls feel sloppy and loose”, or “that crisp feel of control”, they are responding to the interactive aesthetics that give rise to feel. Floaty, loose, twitchy, sloppy, tight, sluggish, responsive, relaxed, stiff, fluid, unnatural, smooth, clunky, touchy; these are the common, recurring descriptions players use when attempting to articulate the feel of controlling a game. As a game designer, these descriptions are frustratingly vague. If a player tells you that your game “feels too floaty”, how do you reconcile that with the abstracted variables of your system? What numbers do you change, and by how much? How do you know when you’ve got it right? How do we as designers come to terms with how players feel our games? How is feel in games created?
Disciplines of Interactive Aesthetics
Below I have outlined four practical disciplines that, in my experience, must be applied to create a good feeling game. In addition, I offer anecdotes, examples, and advice for practitioners.
1. Mechanic System Design – Creating a framework or system in which it is possible, through mapping and tuning, to produce the desired feel.
This is where the feel of a game begins. Before any tuning or tweaking of parameters can occur, we must first define what those parameters are and the relationships between them. Game Designer Chris Crawford suggests first constructing a “verb list”, defining all the actions that will be available to the player. For example, defining the verbs for a simple game like Asteroids would yield something like this:
• Rotate (Left or Right)
• Fire Thruster
• Fire Shot
Ignoring the shot, we’re left with the motion of the ship, where the feel of Asteroids primarily resides. To construct this system, we will first need an object that can be rotated left and right and moved forwards, so the object needs an obvious forward-pointing direction. A triangle fulfills these requirements nicely. Also, there are certain assumptions underlying the relationships between these parameters. For example, the speed of rotation for left and right rotation needs to be the same. When examined, it seems somewhat arbitrary, but the user will expect it because the two rotational values are presented as mirrored. So, the “simple” act of designing and setting up a system belies a series of subtle design choices: what actions will be available to the player, and what will be the relationship between them? What will the object being controlled look like does it have any special functional requirements (such as having a clearly defined front and back)? Mechanic system design, then, is the big picture; it is informed by the disciplines of mapping and tuning, but is arguably the most important. It is impossible to arrive at a desired feel through tuning if underlying system is not capable of producing it.
2. Mapping – Defining the relationship between user input and game reaction.
To return to Asteroids, we have our triangular object and it will rotate and move. How are we going to trigger these three motions (rotate left, rotate right, and thruster)? This question indicates another set of small, subtle design decisions. Assuming that the input device is a keyboard, which buttons do we choose to map to which motion? Where are they positioned relative to one another? Does the rotation of the ship start when the button is in the pressed state and stop when the button is released? Or does the button press start the ship rotating, waiting another press of the same button stop it? What happens if both rotate buttons are pressed simultaneously? This is the discipline of mapping, defining exactly what response the game will offer given a particular input. When a player says a game feels’ unnatural’, this is the culprit.
Mapping marries the physical motion afforded by the input device to some corresponding reaction in the game. This is neat because, as mentioned earlier, motion in a game is bound by nothing. Anything can be a good positional metaphor, anything can make sense, there are no physical laws binding what can and cannot happen in reaction to a given input. We can control a beetle pushing a golf ball or a star flying through the night sky. The only thing that matters is that there is a strong, intuitive, easy to understand correlation between physical manipulation of the input device and reaction from the game. In addition, it is useful to utilize accepted standards and conventions wherever possible (such as using the keyboard keys W, A, S, and D to control forward, backwards, left, and right motions respectively – a common convention.) If the mapping has gone awry users will inform you immediately and vocally. They will be frustrated and confused, asking very basic questions about how to jump, how to get around. So mapping acts as a gatekeeper: for a player to enjoy the feel of a game, the mapping of their input to game reaction must be so intuitive as to be transparent.
Another consideration when mapping is finding the right amount of expressivity. If we consider, in the most general sense, the expressivity of a mechanic to be the sum total of the physical sensitivity represented by the input device and the virtual sensitivity afforded by the reactions to that input by the game, we can get a rough estimate of the expressivity of a given mechanic. For example, a mouse is a highly sensitive input device, especially as compared to a standard two-state button. Jumping in Super Mario Brothers is highly reaction sensitive (the longer you hold the button, the higher the jump, Mario slides gradually to a halt) whereas the jumping Ghosts and Goblins has far less reaction sensitivity (Arthur always follows the same trajectory in his jumps and comes to a complete halt upon landing.) Very little reaction sensitivity results in what players describe as a stiff or unresponsive feel. The trick is to strike a balance; we want as much expressivity as we can get while keeping the simplest, most intuitive control mapping possible. The lower the barrier to entry, the more quickly they can experience the intended feel of the game and appreciate its beauty.