Books and Blogs

Whew! Lately I’ve been putting every ounce of my thought energy into my book about Game Feel (and much of my physical energy – just got back from a bunch of interesting book-relevant interviews in LA, SJ.) This, obviously, leaves little time for the blog. But, hey, writing is writing, and if what I’ve written for the book thusfar is any indication I write better when I’m more relaxed. Blog-like style suits me much better, n’est-pas?

So as a bit of a brainstorming/creativity/productivity tool, I’m going to start brainstorming some of the things I’ve been mulling book-wise to the blog here. This should provide some nice clarification, perhaps a bit of book-usable writing, and a chance to get some feedback on ideas as they’re developing.

Spew du jour:
• Are casual games “without feel?”
• Casual games focus on having the lowest possible barrier to entry. They accomplish this by using the most widely spread interface conventions possible, mostly pointing at things and clicking on them. Browsing the Web, essentially.
• How does skill relate to casual games and game feel?
• Not about skillful translation of intent into motion
• About other things, more generalized things such as word puzzles, logic puzzles, or image puzzles
• As a casual designer you can’t assume the player has pre-existing knowledge or skills of manipulation past basic point and click skills
• But you can assume that everyone has an image processing center that will be pleasurable to utilize by doing things like sorting objects, recognizing patterns and so on. Same with words; everyone who’s online can probably read, and letters are simple, recognizable and fun to organize or rearrange. Often casual games will appeal to many of these faculties simultaneously.
• Skill grows over time, both in a single game and as a more abstract generality
• There is a general skill to manipulation of a digital avatar which is applicable to all games in which motion translation is employed
• Just as knowing how to use a mouse is applicable to all websites
• Game ‘genres’ have kind of evolved this way: if a game takes a particular kind of skill that is similar to another game, those two often get lumped together
• Assumed knowledge in the player is a game design tool: if your interface is close enough to lots of other FPS games, you can assume that players will ‘get it’ very quickly and this gives you some reassuring certainty in an otherwise highly uncertain enterprise
• This is why lots of games are so similar to one another
• This is also why it’s so damn hard to make a game that’s completely ‘original’ and employs few conventions from other games that the designer can assume the player will understand to some degree.
• But hey, we got along ok when there was no precedent, when every game you made would potentially constitute a ‘new genre.’

Casual games are very interesting to ponder in relationship to game feel because they contain no proactive motion. Here is a whole class of games that more or less ignores the core of game feel. That is, purely input-driven motion and the potential for frustration, challenge, and the soaring elation of mastery that comes with it. Often, there is no control layer, no “twitch” skill that must be mastered as part of the gameplay in a casual game. To play takes roughly the same amount of skillful manipulation as buying a pair of shoes from an online retailer. Point to what you want and left-click. The challenge in casual games tends to be more cerebral, as in word puzzles, logic puzzles, or image puzzles, with as low a barrier to entry as possible.

The thing is, a lifelong gamer can pick up and enjoy a casual game. The interface is no barrier, and the challenge can still be engaging or meditative.

Casual players do not consider themselves gamers, and might even be offended by the suggestion.

One mantra of casual game design is ‘only the mouse.’ Even right clicking is viewed as too complex for the average casual player.

Does this mean that casual players are inept? That they’re all morons? Perhaps unsurprisingly, the answer is no. We can’t swipe categorically at these folks because they’re not stupid. They simply lack the experience of years of skillful manipulation those of us who grew up with games take for granted. But they’re still intelligent people, people who want to solve crossword puzzles or play Sudoku. This speaks to the nature of skill and challenge in video games: there are limitless kinds of challenges, some of which are about mastering a motion translation, some which aren’t. By and large, casual games are about sorting things by colors and shapes, recognizing patterns in letters or numbers, logical deduction, or a combination of the three.

The processing power of the computer is used mostly for keeping score and for reactive effects such as showers of particles and blasts of colors that reward the slightest action. Perhaps this is why most game designers regard the casual player with disdain, because they see this constant stream of reward as mollycoddling and can’t comprehend the notion that a person would not have devoted countless hours of their life to mastering Ninja Gaiden.

Casual games are also about Flow. Flow in the Csikszentmihayli sense, as in “The Flow State.”

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Not exactly my best prose, I realize, but I’m brainstormin’ here. Thoughts are welcomed/appreciated.