An E3 Teachable Moment

Erin and I went guerrilla this E3. We had no badges, no space to show our games. We drove the 6 hours from Phoenix to LA, strolled in to the unbadged middle hall, moved tables we weren’t supposed to move, and started emailing journalists to come check out Scale and Gravity Ghost.

We had a blast, saw lots of friends, and got lots of great press coverage. Only one incident in our trip stands out as negative, but I think it adds a little bit to a discussion we finally seem to be ready for.

After the show was over each day, we hit whichever parties we could find, including a Steampunk todo at a fancy club. The music wasn’t really my taste and, as always, was too loud for casual conversation. We made our way to a middle room where things were chill and quiet. Soon enough we had laptops out and were demoing our games for the new people we had met. Fun times. I was demoing Scale to new friend Penny. Erin was next to me demoing Gravity Ghost to some other interested folks. As we were chatting design and wrapping up, we were interrupted by a loud, slurred voice.

“WHAT IS THISH GAY SHIT! Why are you looking at that gay indie shit?”

A drunk bro blundered into Penny’s personal space, his breath reeking of booze and loneliness. Let’s call him Dudebro. Penny – who is awesome – was having none of Dudebro’s shit.

“Hey! This is my boy Steve and his game is awesome! What games do you work on?”

“I work on REAL GAMES like *multi-billion dollar shooter franchise*.”

“Yeah, you look like you work on *multi-billion dollar shooter franchise*.”

I had to surpress a laugh. Was this guy for real? Anyway, she sassed him good. All he could muster was “Awww come on…you’re so mean…”

Penny then made him apologize to me for talking shit about my game, which was hilarious and great. I packed up my computer and started to move off. Dudebro was still trying to hit on Penny but she could clearly hold her own so I didn’t intervene. Eventually, she extricated herself, and we carried on chatting with friends.

Unfortunately, Erin was the next closest female in the doucheradius. Within seconds she tapped me on the shoulder. Dudebro had his hand wrapped around her hip and was leering over her. NOPE NOPE NOPE. No longer funny. I saw red. Then I put myself between him and her as quickly as possible, right up in his face. Not touching him – that’s assault – but in a way that made him visibly uncomfortable. Guess it’s not that awesome having a large, imposing person leering over you. I decided against saying ‘hey, that’s my girlfriend’ and instead went with a shouted “YOU DO NOT TOUCH A WOMAN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION.” I figured that was a more valuable long-term lesson.

He tried to weasel out of it, “What, touch her glasses?”

“I SAW YOU WITH YOUR HAND ON HER HIP, YOU DO NOT TOUCH A WOMAN WITHOUT HER PERMISSION.”

He had no interest in continuing to deny that he’d touched Erin or in continuing this very uncomfortable face-to-face conversation with a large, angry, completely sober man. So, off he went, tail between his legs, slinking through the crowd. Hopefully there was at least a moment of reflection there.

From my perspective, I’m glad I was there to intervene when it was necessary. I have no hesitation in doing so because I’m lucky enough to be a fairly large dude. From Erin’s perspective, this encounter looks a lot different, a lot creepier, and a lot scarier:

I’ve had my share of creepy experiences at conferences. I’ve never discussed them publicly, but I decided to write this after reading about similar experiences from other women at E3. I can only speak for myself, but to me it seems there’s a pattern to these accounts: the aggressors get away with it way more often than they should. We’re an industry of problem solvers and system designers. I think we can improve this.

I was showing my game Gravity Ghost at a bar at a WIGI (Women in Games International) event at E3. Things were going great. Tons of people were gathered around asking questions, asking to play, loving the game. I was having a wonderful time.

People had been playing the game all night. Since it was a bar, it was crowded and people were jostling around. At one point I felt someone standing very close behind me. I tried to move away but somehow he bumped into me again. I turned and said something like, “Sorry, I’m clumsy. I haven’t even had anything to drink.” The man’s response was to wrap his arm around my waist and say, “It’s all right, we’re all drunk here.” The way he had moved into my personal space made my stomach turn. He pulled his face in very close to mine. His beer breath was overwhelming.

Still very close to my face he said, “Let me see your glasses.” I got angry and said, “Why?” And he said, “Because I think I need glasses and I want to try – ”

I said, “No, you’ll break them. No, no, NO -” but he used his other hand to reach towards my face anyway.

At this point I turned and tapped my boyfriend on the shoulder. Steve saw the hand on my waist and put himself between me and this guy and just laid into him.

The whole thing was over in seconds. The drunk guy was gone into the crowd before either of us had a chance to really think. Because I felt that at least he wouldn’t bother me again, it didn’t ruin my night and I kept running demos. I tell myself that next time, the drunk guy might think twice about behaving that way.

I was very happy Steve was there since the drunk guy was 1) physically much larger than me, and had a hand on me that made it difficult to move 2) would literally not take “NO” for an answer, and 3) and seemed very intent on taking my glasses (which are in fact prone to falling apart).

I could have yelled, of course, but that option isn’t as straightforward as it sounds. A common element in the E3 stories in the link above is that these situations are paralyzing. Say you’re a PR rep for a large developer. Would you risk your shouting for help (or shouting “GET YOUR HANDS OFF ME”) in a room full of clients and peers when there’s no evidence that you’re in ‘real’ danger? Trying to physically escape is also a roll of the dice, depending on how badly someone is prepared to treat you. They might laugh, they might follow you, or they might just grab you tighter and physically escalate, blocking your escape.

There is no easy solution to the powerlessness we feel when somebody decides to mistreat us. In all honesty, if the drunk guy had decided to grab my ass instead of my waist, I probably wouldn’t have written this because of the shame and the victim-blaming that comes with the territory. If someone wrote, “This never would’ve happened if you hadn’t been wearing glasses,” we’d all know they were kidding. I look forward to a day when any victim-blaming sentiments will seem just as absurd.

Powerlessness Paralysis

The subject of this article is people who harass, intimidate, and grope women at industry events. Thankfully, this is a very small subset of the game development community. These assholes make things worse for everyone, and it’s about time we admit it and get serious about changing the status quo. Luckily, there are a bunch of straightforward ways to stop them from getting away with it!

Kotaku’s article entitled “The Creepy Side of E3” includes a story from a female journalist who had a looming security guard “wrap his hands around her shoulders” in such a way that “he could easily have moved her.” To an observer these situations often appear friendly. The journalist then backed up, and he followed her. She backed up again, told him “Don’t do that,” and he followed her again. If you saw this, would you know it was unwelcome? Would you take a second look, or would you keep walking?

Plenty of women attend industry events. Even when they have their guard up as high as it could possibly be, people behave badly (I almost wrote “these things happen.” See how easy it is to minimize who is actually responsible?) Unfortunately there is no way of knowing who will behave badly will be until it happens. At industry events, it’s likely to be someone with authority: an executive, a security guard, a journalist, a respected indie developer, or a drunk AAA developer with lady issues.

The pressure for women to stay silent in these situations is enormous. From talking to female colleagues, I know it can be tempting to let these infractions slide. The potential consequences for confronting a creep can seem much worse in the moment. “What if he’s somebody important?” is a real concern, especially if you’re just getting started as a developer. I’m grateful to the woman who reported the creepy security guard, and I’m glad the involved parties took her seriously. This is not always the case, but it’s been my personal experience that conferences (and the police) are good about listening and acting accordingly. They’d much rather have you let them know than let things get out of hand.

Clearing up Misconceptions

1) For those who will suggest that the drunk guy was being socially awkward, that’s bullshit. It’s bullshit because the ‘socially awkward’ defense is a contorted way of shifting blame away from the perpetrator. Your actions are your own, regardless motivations or internal state. It’s also bullshit because this guy wasn’t socially awkward. I know socially awkward; we can smell our own. This guy was a creep through and through. He knew what he was doing and it seemed to me (unfortunately) that it had worked in the past. I suspect his calculated, ongoing attempts at “physical escalation” align with some of the worst, most rape-y advice given out by some of the most misguided people in the Pick Up Artist community. Awkward dudes: I’m here to tell you that pickup artist bullshit is NOT the answer. It only makes you creepier and less likely to experience real intimacy with another human being, which should be your actual goal. Take that energy and work at making yourself the kind of person someone would want to be with instead. Anyway, I tend to empathize with people so I have to think that a super drunk guy stumbling through a bar with no friends to stop him from being a complete tool doesn’t have such a good life going. Or things aren’t going well for him at the moment. But, hey, being sad doesn’t give you the right to touch people without their permission. That’s kind of why laws exist.

2) The flipside of the socially awkward argument is the ‘you are being too sensitive’ argument. “The guy was drunk, give him a break, he probably didn’t mean anything by it.” Even if that’s true, touching someone in a hostile or sexual way (or both) is illegal. If the harassment is verbal, that can be grounds for a restraining order. Conferences take these incidents very seriously, as do the police, as do lawyers.

3) If you think this is about a desire to be rescued, you are missing the point. The woman who reported on the creepy security guard did so on her own just fine. The point is this: those situations are always frightening, and having someone else step in and say, “Hey, this isn’t right” can be a real lifeline. With Dudebro, Erin would probably have been fine, as it was a public environment with friends nearby. Probably. But it was still incredibly hostile, and she shouldn’t have to put up with that kind of nonsense while she’s trying to demo her game.

I could write a few sentences here about how we should care about hostility towards ladies at game industry events because it promotes diversity. To create a welcoming environment so more women will join the game industry, why diverse viewpoints are good for the medium, and so on. That’s a nice side effect, but the actual reason we should care is because it’s right thing to do. No person deserves to be treated like garbage, regardless their gender identity, race, physical features, or sexual orientation.

Steps in the right direction

Rather than focusing on the particulars of this story, I think it’s important to see it as part of a bigger picture. We can’t stop all bad behavior, but harassment policies at conferences are a good start. Someone’s name is relatively easy to find out if they’re wearing it around their neck. They can and should be held accountable for their actions. If your event doesn’t have such a policy, there are some excellent free templates here. And here’s a great first-person walkthrough of how to report harassment at a conference.

So far Erin has convinced two large conferences to publicly display a harassment policy. We found out later that without that policy, conference attendees would have missed out on a fantastic lecture by a renowned speaker. The speaker’s first question after being invited to speak was “what’s your harassment policy?” It’s a change that has helped already!

Industry events spill beyond conference halls to bars, clubs, and restaurants. The incident I described happened at a bar/club thing. If the folks putting on the event posted a well-publicized phone number to call to report harassment outside the event, that would be excellent. It’d be easy to do, cost nothing, and make women feel more welcome and safe, and that their concerns will be listened to and taken seriously. These are simple, policy-based answers to complex social problems. A patch, if you will.

A Cultural Shift

Early in the anti-drunk driving movement, campaigns focused on victims. The tragedies caused by drunk drivers, the stories of ruined lives. To their surprise, they found that sad stories weren’t fixing the problem. The powerful idea that turned the tide was “Friends don’t let friends drive drunk.” Take your friend’s keys away, call them a cab, appoint a designated driver at the start of the night. Take responsibility. These things were about changing the culture that abetted drunk driving, and making the observers – not the drunk drivers – the key to the solution.

When it comes to harassment, it’s tempting to avoid responsibility. That’s bullshit. Whether or not we realize it, we are all in the position of power. There are more good people in games than creeps. The tide has turned. We’re in a position of power regardless of our gender, or the genders of those involved. No matter who you are, when you see something that doesn’t look right, you can act.

You can approach and ask, “Is everything okay?” or “Can I offer any help here?” If you don’t want to do it alone, bring a friend or even say to a stranger, “Hey this doesn’t look right, I’m going to ask her if everything’s okay. Can you keep an eye on us?” If you’re wrong, it could be a bit momentary embarrassment for you. But if you’re right, you could salvage a person’s night or their whole conference experience.

If you’re certain that what’s happening is unwanted, and you feel safe in doing so, you can step up and say, “What you’re doing is wrong and you need to stop right now.” This is riskier, as it makes you part of the conflict. But, hey, remember that one of the other people involved didn’t choose to be. You can let the aggressor know that their behavior is not okay, is not harmless, and will result in you continuing to focus attention on them. Unwanted physical contact from aggressive men happens all the time to my female colleagues. The last thing these creepy dudebro types want is for their actions to be scrutinized.

If you feel unsafe or uncertain about approaching a conflict, call the police. Or conference security. Or club security. That’s what they’re for. You don’t need to put yourself in harm’s way. Just be aware that these incidents are common and that you can do something about them. If we’re all aware and willing to act it’ll be the harassers and the creeps who are made to feel unwelcome. It’s time.

Prototyping for Game Feel (v.2)

It’s intangible, below the surface, on the tips of fingers and the tips of tongues. It’s been with us since the beginning, since Pong, Spacewar, and what came before.

The tactile sensation of manipulating a digital agent. The thing that makes your mom lean in her chair as she plays Rad Racer. Proxied embodiment. Game feel.

However you describe it, it’s hard to deny that the sensation of controlling a digital object is one of the most powerful – and overlooked – phenomena ever to emerge from the intersection of people and computers.

There are lots reasons for this, but the main one is that game feel is slippery. It’s mostly subconscious, a combination of sights, sounds, and instant response to action. It’s one of those ‘know it when you feel it’ kinds of things. If it’s off by just a little bit, a game’s goose is cooked. If it’s “responsive”, “tight”, and “deep”, it can be magical.

As a canonical example, consider Super Mario 64. The feel of steering Mario around in Super Mario 64 fills me, to this day, with thoughtless joy. Especially in Bomb-Omb Battlefield where there’s very little pressure or structure, I love to just run and bounce and spin, experiencing the sheer kinetic joy of controlling Mario. Control, intent, and instructions flow from me into the game as quickly as I can think. Feedback returns just as quickly, letting me adjust and fine-tune my instructions. When a game feels like this I’m hooked, ready to spend endless hours discovering every nook and cranny. Considering the near-universal reverence for Mario 64 among both players and creators of video games – to say nothing of the millions of copies it sold – I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone in enjoying the feel of Mario 64. As a developer, though, I have to wonder: wherein lies the magic? What’s behind the curtain? A huge part of it is the feel.

After all, what you spend most of your time doing while playing Mario 64?

• 20-something hours: completing the game, defeating Bowser, getting all 120 stars
• Every hour or two: completing a ‘boss’ battle
• Every half an hour: getting access to a new area or painting
• Every 5 minutes or so: completing an objective, getting a star
• Moment to Moment: steering around, running, jumping, performing acrobatic maneuvers.

Breaking the game down by “granules” this way, it seems that Mario 64 is a game about feel. The thing you spend most of your time doing is moving Mario around, interacting through the controller at a tactile, kinesthetic level. It’s the fundamental activity of Super Mario 64 and it feels great. It has its quirks and input ambiguities, but this sensation is the foundation the rest of the game sits on.

“Before any of the levels had been created Mr. Miyamoto had Mario running around and picking up objects in a small ‘garden’ which he uses in all his games to test gameplay elements. “Alot of the animation was actually in there before any of the game” explains Goddard. “The Mario that he had running around basically looked the same as he did in the final version. Mario’s movement is based on good physics, but you have bits on top that you plug in so you can do things you shouldn’t be able to do. They spent a lot of time working on the swimming, it’s harder than running to get the feeling right, they didn’t want you to avoid the water, the wanted to make it an advantage and fun to dive in.”

-Giles Goddard, via Miyamoto Shrine

Sweet! So, if I understand this correctly, the steps go like this:

1. Create a gameplay garden for experimenting with mechanics, objects, and game feel
2. Fiddle around for a few months
3. Be Shigeru Miyamoto
4. Out pops a masterpiece

Smarm aside, you could certainly do worse than to emulate the approach of Shigeru Miyamoto. Clearly, creating brilliant game feel is extremely, exquisitely, maddeningly difficult. Clearly or there’d be a hell of a lot more great games. At least, great-feeling games. Something happens along the way, in the game development process, which causes games to take their eye off the prize, to lose focus on their primary interface with the player. Feel becomes an afterthought, especially in games which take three, four, or five years to make. It’s easy to think “oh, hey, well, we’ll get to do a bunch of polishing at the end” and leave it at that. The problem with this thinking is that the feel of a game – the thing the player will spend the most time experiencing – is given a backseat in the production of the game. If your player is going to spend most of her time steering and controlling the avatar, experiencing a sense physicality and control, shouldn’t the amount of time you spend on that feeling be commensurate? From the beginning of preproduction until the final game ships, design should include game feel. Game feel needs prototyping too, a test that approximates the final, polished feel of interacting with the game, with all the trimmings. Here’s one stab at breaking it down a little further, at how to prototype for game feel.

The Garden’s Ecosystem

As an approach, creating an experimental garden or playground in which to test a developing mechanic and game feel is an arresting notion. The trick is not to allow the problems of game feel to become intertwined with the problems of the design as a whole. Here is one possible way to separate the pieces of game feel to make them a bit more manageable:

1. Input – How the player can express their intent to the system.
2. Response – How the system processes, modifies, and responds to player input in real time.
3. Context – How constraints give spatial meaning to motion.
4. Polish – The interactive impression of physicality created by the harmony of animation, sounds, and effects with input-driven motion.
5. Metaphor – The ingredient that lends emotional meaning to motion and provides familiarity to mitigate learning frustration.
6. Rules – Application and tweaking of arbitrary variables that give additional challenge and higher-level meaning to motion and control.

1. Input

Input is the player’s organ of expression in the game world, the only way a player can speak to the game. This is an overlooked aspect of game feel: the tactile feel of the input device. Games played with a good-feeling controller feel better. The Xbox 360 controller feels good to hold; it’s solid, has the proper weight, and is pleasingly smooth to the touch. By contrast, the PS3 controller has been lamented as being light and “cheap [feeling], like one of those third party knockoffs.” http://www.joystiq.com/2006/05/09/joystiq-hands-on-new-ps3-controller/ This difference in tactile feel of the input device has implications for the feel of a given game. When I prototype something – platformer, racing game, whatever – it will feel noticeably better if I hook up the inputs to my wired Xbox360 controller than to simple keyboard inputs. You can’t always control the input device your player is going to use to interface with your game so you should be aware of, and compensate for, how different input devices feel. One way to lean into a given input device is through natural mappings.

A natural mapping is a clear, intuitive relationship between possible actions and their effect on the system. Consider three possible configurations of burners and dials on a stove:
Natural mapping of a stove

Imagine trying to use each of them. Which one requires no thought to operate? Clearly, figure C is a natural mapping: the layout of the dials correspond clearly and obviously to the burners they activate. There is a clean, physical metaphor connecting the input device and the way it can alter the system. A good example from a modern game is Geometry Wars for Xbox 360. Look at Geometry Wars relative to the Xbox360 controller. Notice the way that the joystick is formed, and how that transposes almost exactly to the motion in Geometry Wars. It’s almost one for one: the joystick sits in a circular plastic housing that constrains its motion in a circular way. Pushing the control stick against the edge of the plastic rim that contains it and rolling it back and forth creates little circles, which is almost exactly the analogous motion produced on screen by Geometry Wars in response to input. This is what Donald Norman’s would refer to as a “natural mapping.” There’s no explanation or instruction needed because the position and motion of the input device correlates exactly to the position and motion of the thing being controlled in the game. The controls of Mario 64 also have this property; the rotation of the thumbstick correlates very closely to the rotation of Mario as he turns, twists, and abruptly changes direction.
Natural Mapping in Geometry Wars

Another way input device affects game feel is through the inherent sensitivity of the input device. Consider the difference between a button and a computer mouse. A typical button has two states, on or off. It can be in one of two positions. As an input device, it has very little sensitivity. By contrast, a typical computer mouse has complete freedom of movement along two axes. It is unbounded; you can move it as far as the surface underneath allows, giving it a huge number of possible states. A mouse is an extremely sensitive input device. So an input device can have an inherent amount of sensitivity, falling somewhere between a mouse (near-complete freedom in two axes) and a button (only two states, on or off.) This is what I call input sensitivity; a rough measure of the amount of expressiveness inherent in a particular input device.

The implication for game feel prototyping is to consider the sensitivity of your input device relative to how fluid and expressive you want your game to be. In most cases, this is a decision about complexity – as a general rule, additional sensitivity means greater complexity. This is not a value judgment per se; greater sensitivity has both benefits and drawbacks depending on the goals of the design and how the mechanic fits into that design. What’s important to realize is the implications your choice of input device has for the sensitivity of the game. Of course, the input device is only half the picture. The other place to define sensitivity is in reaction: how does the game process – and respond to – the input it receives from the input device.

2. Response

Consider two following games: Zuma and Strange Attractors:
Zuma
Strange Attractors: a one-button game
In Zuma, there is a reduction in the inherent sensitivity of the mouse as an input device. Instead of freedom of movement in two axes, the object being controlled is stationary. The frog character rotates in place, always looking at the cursor, clamping the mouse’s sensitivity down to something more manageable. By contrast, Strange Attractors is a game which uses only one button as input. The position of your ship in space is always fluid, always changing very subtly, and you can manipulate it only by activating or deactivating the various gravity wells around the level. Both Strange Attractors and Zuma have fairly sensitive, nuanced reactions to input. This is reaction sensitivity: sensitivity created by mapping user input to game reaction to produce more (or less) sensitivity in the overall system. It is in this space – between player and game – where the core of game feel is defined.

Consider just how simple the original NES controller was relative to the expressive feel of Super Mario Brothers. The NES controller was just a collection of on/off buttons, but Mario had great sensitivity across time, across combinations of buttons, and across states. Across time, Mario sped up gradually from rest to his maximum speed, and slowed gradually back down again, his motion dampened to simulate friction and inertia in crude way. In addition, holding down the jump button longer meant a higher jump, another kind of sensitivity: across time. Holding down the jump and left directional pad buttons simultaneously resulted in a jump that flowed to the left, providing greater sensitivity by allowing combinations of buttons to have different meanings from the pressing of those buttons individually. Finally, Mario had different states. That is, pressing left while “on the ground” has a different meaning than pressing left while “in the air.” These are contrived distinctions which are designed into the game but which lend greater sensitivity to the system as a whole so long as the player can correctly interpret when the state switch has occurred and respond accordingly.

The result of all these kinds of nuanced reactions to input was a highly fluid motion, especially as compared to a game such as Donkey Kong, in which there was no such sensitivity:

Donkey Kong: Low Sensitivity

Super Mario: High Sensitivity

This comparison, between Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, shows very clearly just how much more expressive and fluid Mario’s controls are. The interesting thing to note is that Donkey Kong used a joystick, a much more sensitive input than the NES controller. No matter how simple the input, the reaction from a system can always be highly sensitive. No matter how sensitive the input, the reaction from a system can always be reduced or muted. Of course, there isn’t some magic formula for the right amount of sensitivity in the system. Look for happy accidents, though. Do you surprise yourself with what you can express or accomplish with your controls? Does the act of playing create something aesthetically pleasing? Do you find yourself wasting time noodling around instead of continuing to tweak and tune? Does it feel like you’re building a meaningful skill? If the answer to these questions is yes, it’s time to give this motion some spatial meaning.

3. Context

Returning to Mario 64, imagine Mario standing in a field of blank whiteness, with no objects around him. With nothing but a field of blankness, does it matter that Mario can do a long jump, a triple jump, or a wall kick? Context is the soil of your garden; it’s necessary for the mechanic to grow and bloom.

Super Mario 64 gotsa lotsa moves-a

If Mario has nothing to interact with, the fact that he has these acrobatic abilities is meaningless. Without a wall, there can be no wall kick. At the most pragmatic level, the placement of objects in the world is just another set of variables against which to balance movement speed, jump height, and all the other parameters that define motion. In game feel terms, constraints define sensation. If objects are packed in, spaced tightly relative to the avatar’s motion, the game will feel clumsy and oppressive, causing anxiety and frustration. As objects get spaced further apart, the feel becomes increasingly trivialized, making tuning unimportant and numbing thoughtless joy into thoughtless boredom (most Massively Multiplayer Online games suffer from this phenomenon to some degree.) For this reason, it’s a good idea to build some kind of test environment as you create the system of variables you’ll eventually tune into good game feel. This is the Magic Garden of game feel: if you can make it exceedingly pleasurable to interact with the game at this most basic level you’ve got a superb foundation for enjoyable gameplay. So you should be putting in some kind of platforms, enemies, some kind of topology that will give the motion meaning. If Mario is running along with an endless field of blank whiteness beneath him, it will be very difficult to judge how high he should be able jump. So you need to start putting things in there to get a sense of what it will be like to traverse a populated level. In many cases, the goal is to find the standard unit from which the game’s levels should be constructed. In a 2d game, this could be the number of tiles high and wide for a good-feeling standard jump. In a racing game, this could be the width of the road and the angle of various curves (with an eye for how difficult they are to navigate successfully.)

My favorite approach is to use a wide array of primitives in various sizes. Just throw stuff in there; don’t worry too much about the spacing. Tweak the spacing of the objects relative to the avatar and vice-versa until it all starts to feel really good, but then just throw in all kinds of objects of various sizes, types, shapes, and physical properties. Build a playground of interesting interactions. Put in big archways, round things, fat things, pointy things, anything you can think of. Get a bunch of shapes in there and study the way the spatial dynamics are interacting with the feel you’re creating. Plan for happy accidents and stay loose and open-minded when testing. Take note of crescendos of enjoyment as you interact with the space and lean into them with tuning and additional test terrain.

Another thing to consider about adding spatial context is that constraint is the mother of skill and challenge. Think of a football field: there are these arbitrary constraints around the sides of the football field that limit it to a certain size. If those constraints weren’t there, the game of football would have a very different skill set and would likely be less interesting to watch. If you could run as far as you want in one direction before bringing it back, where’s the challenge? The skills of football are defined the constraints that bound it. If things are going well with a prototype, I find myself creating mini goals, trying to shoot through gaps or otherwise skillfully traverse the increasingly fleshed-out spatial topology.

4. Polish

At or around the same time you’re building context, you’re going to want to start putting in a bit of polish–but only what’s essential to your prototype. Polish can include sprays or dustings of particles where things hit or interact, screen shake, view angle shifts, or the squash and stretch of objects colliding. The point is to convey the physical properties of objects through their motion and interaction. Any effect that enhances the impression that the game world has its own self consistent physics is fair game. This is opportunity to take inspiration from the film, animation, and *gasp* the world around you. Look at the way things interact. If you hit a glass table with a hammer it will shatter, complete with noise, motion, and a spray of “particles.” The more clues like that you can borrow to inform the player of the physical properties of the objects they’re interacting with the better. When prototyping, I like to list these cues out and sort them in order of importance to the physical impression that should be conveyed. As an example, consider the goal of making a game that feels squishy. This is a good place to start because to say that something is squishy implies visuals, sounds, tactile sensation. It provides a great benchmark: if something is squishy, it will deform in a certain way, like a water balloon or silly putty. As these deformations happen, certain sounds accompany them; familiar squelching and schlucking noises which are hard for me to describe but easy to recall. It’s the noise of walking through deep mud, or kneading wet dough with your hands. Separating out the various pieces of squishiness as a physical property yields something like this:

1. Motion – The thing must deform and bend when it comes into contact with other objects, especially relative to speed.
2. Tactile – You can easily deform, mold, or stretch the thing
3. Visual – To aid the impression of squishiness, the thing could look moist like a slug, translucent with tiny bubbles like Jello, or amorphous like putty or clay.
4. Sound – Any movement or deformation of the object should be accompanied by squelching noises.

These comprise the physical clues that get assembled into your brain to create the notion of squishiness. Anything you can layer on top to fake these effects will increase and improve the impression of physicality and, hence, the feel. As polish is a notorious time sink, you want to limit the amount of time you spend creating effects to those which are crucial to demonstrate the impression of physicality you’re going after. Something squishy needs to deform and to sound squishy, but it probably doesn’t need a full fluid or spring simulation. A simple squash and stretch deformation is probably enough to get the idea across.
So, yes, polish is time consuming but it’s also vital. A little screen shake or spray of particles can make all the difference in the world to a game’s feel.

5. Metaphor

Your choice of metaphor changes game feel dramatically. I like the following example: imagine Gran Turismo, Project Gotham, or whatever your favorite “simulation” style racing game happens to be. Now substitute for the car a giant, balding fat guy running as fast as he possibly can spraying sweat like a sprinkler in August. Without altering the structure of the game, the tuning of the game, or the function of the game, the feel of the game is substantially altered. All you’ve done is swap out a 3d model of a car for a 3d model of a giant fat guy running and you’ve got Run Fatty Run instead of Gran Turismo. This will change the feel of the game because you have preconceived notions about the way a car should handle. Obviously. You know how a car should feel and move and turn based on your experience driving a car and looking at cars. Oftentimes, people will play a game – horse riding gameplay is my favorite example – and they’ll say “this doesn’t feel like a horse.” And you’ll ask them well, have you ever ridden a horse before? And they’ll say “no, but this doesn’t feel like a horse.” People have these built-in, preconceived constructs, mental models about the way certain things move and, by extension, how it should feel to control them.

The implication for prototyping is this: you need to take a step back and decide how much of your metaphor to represent in the prototype to get an accurate read on the game feel you’re building. Iconic is fine, but if it’s going to be a car, it needs to read as a car. The trick is not to limit yourself to only everyday objects, but to look at how you can use preloaded conceptions to set up, and execute on, expectations for how a thing should feel and behave when controlled.

6. Rules

Rules are the final layer into of a game feel prototype. Basically, you’re looking for longer-period objectives to give additional meaning to the sensation of control and mastery. If you’ve been noodling around with a mechanic for a couple hours, this shouldn’t be too much trouble since you’re probably already making up little goals for yourself. Race from point A to point B, scale this tall mountain, rescue five wayward puppies. These kinds of higher order goals define game feel at a different level: sustainability.

This is one of the most difficult things to do. You need to build in some longer period goals to find out whether or not this motion you’ve created has depth. This will necessarily be a bit of a rough test, and there’s really not a good way to get an objective read on depth unless you watch a bunch of people play the game, but you can get a sense of whether or not your mechanic is deep. That is, whether or not you can have long-period sustained interactions that are deeper than the surface pleasure of steering the guy around the most basic context and spacing you’ve created. This is things like get to the top of the hill, get from A to B, collect X number of coins, sort all these things into colored bins, perform a certain trick at a certain location, and so on. Just about any goal implies a set of rules for achieving that goal. This sort of testing brings your fledgling game feel up against the hard hammer of game-creation reality. You’re starting to try and create challenges that could become a sustainable game. This is a bit of a grey area, as it starts down the slippery slope of game design proper, but I would encourage you to consider creating these types of throwaway goals. Don’t consider them a prototype of the complete structure of the game. Just throw a bunch of goals in there – get around things, collect coins, get to a certain place – find the coolest interactions, the coolest parts of the level. If you’ve been playing around in your level, tweaking the mechanics and spacing the objects, you have a good sense of what’s going to be fun about it. You’ve already developed a bunch of intrinsic, internalized goals: can I do a flip off this thing, can I get up there, can I do two flips before I land and so on. Just throw these in there and codify them. Interestingly, there is a big difference between inventing goals for yourself and explicitly coding those goals into the game: completing a goal means satisfying the conditions of the impartial, third-party computer. It also means some kind of reward, no matter how meager. If you can’t come up with a bunch of different goals that are enjoyably challenging, that’s trouble. It might be time to abandon or significantly alter your mechanic.

Conclusion

At this point, you’ve proven whether or not your game is going to feel good at the most basic level.
With diligence and luck, you’ve got a game that feels great. Moment to moment, it just feels good to steer around and feel out the space. The spacing of objects is in perfect harmony with the tuning of your controls and you’re quickly finding the places where the spatial context crosses over and constrains the motion, yielding the most interesting interactions. You feel yourself starting to build skills that might give rise to longer period interactions. Finally, you started adding on some rules that test whether or not this mechanic will be sustainable and may give you some interesting directions to lean into when you start designing the system dynamics that are supposed to sustain the experience across an entire game. You now have the foundation for a great-feeling game.

As a final note, consider the aesthetic beauty possible with game feel. Create something beautiful at the intersection of player and game. Remember: the first, last, and most common thing a player will experience when playing your game is its feel.

Prototyping for Game Feel

It’s intangible. It’s below the surface, on the tips of fingers and the tips of tongues. It’s been with us since the beginning, since Pong, Spacewar, and what came before.

The tactile sensation of manipulating a digital agent. The thing that makes your mom lean in her chair as she plays Rad Racer. Proxied embodiment. Game feel.

However you describe it, it’s hard to deny that the sensation of controlling a digital object is one of the most powerful – and overlooked – phenomena ever to emerge from the intersection of people and computers.

There are lots reasons for this, but the main one is that game feel is slippery. It’s mostly subconscious, a combination of sights, sounds, and instant response to action. It’s one of those know it when you feel it kinds of things. If it’s off by just a little bit, a game’s goose is cooked. If it’s “responsive”, “tight”, and “deep”, it can be magical.

As a canonical example, consider Super Mario 64. The feel of steering Mario around in Super Mario 64 fills me, to this day, with thoughtless joy. Especially in Bomb-Omb Battlefield where there’s very little pressure or structure, I love to run and bounce and spin, enjoying the sheer kinetic joy of the motion. Control, intent, and instructions flow from me into the game as quickly as I can think. Feedback returns just as quickly, letting me adjust and fine-tune my instructions. When a game feels like this I’m hooked, ready to spend endless hours discovering every nook and cranny. Considering the near-universal reverence for Mario 64 among both players and creators of video games – to say nothing of the millions of copies it sold – I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone in enjoying the feel of Mario 64. As a developer, though, I have to wonder: wherein lies the magic? What’s behind the curtain? A huge part of it, possibly the biggest part, is the feel.

Let’s start with a question: what you spend most of your time doing while playing Mario 64?

• Moment to Moment: steering around, running, jumping, performing acrobatic maneuvers.
• Every 5 minutes or so: completing an objective, getting a star
• Every half an hour: getting access to a new area or painting
• Every hour or two: completing a ‘boss’ battle
• Longer: completing the game

Breaking the game down by “granules” this way, you have to conclude that Mario 64 is a game about feel. The thing you spend most of your time doing is moving Mario around, interacting at a tactile, kinesthetic level. It’s the fundamental activity of Super Mario 64 and it feels great. It has its quirks and input ambiguities, but it’s hard to argue that this sensation is the foundation the rest of the game sits on. According to rumor, designing the feel of the game was the primary focus of Shigeru Miyamoto’s involvement with the project:

“Before any of the levels had been created Mr. Miyamoto had Mario running around and picking up objects in a small ‘garden’ which he uses in all his games to test gameplay elements. “Alot of the animation was actually in there before any of the game” explains Goddard. “The Mario that he had running around basically looked the same as he did in the final version. Mario’s movement is based on good physics, but you have bits on top that you plug in so you can do things you shouldn’t be able to do. They spent a lot of time working on the swimming, it’s harder than running to get the feeling right, they didn’t want you to avoid the water, the wanted to make it an advantage and fun to dive in.”

Sweet! So, if I understand this correctly, the steps go like this:

1. Create a gameplay garden for experimenting with mechanics, objects, and game feel
2. Fiddle around for a few months
3. Be Shigeru Miyamoto
4. Out pops a masterpiece

For inspiration when creating a game, you could certainly do worse than to emulate the approach of Shigeru Miyamoto. But, clearly, creating brilliant game feel is extremely, exquisitely, maddeningly difficult. Clearly or there’d be a hell of a lot more great games. At least, great-feeling games. Patently, there are not. Something happens along the way, in the game development process, which causes games to take their eye off the prize, to lose focus on their primary interface with the player. Feel becomes an afterthought, especially in games which take three, four, or five years to make. It’s easy to think “oh, hey, well, we’ll get to do a bunch of polishing at the end” and leave it at that. The problem with this thinking is that the feel of a game – the thing the player will spend the most time experiencing – is given the least attention. If your player is going to spend most of her time steering and controlling the avatar, experiencing a sense physicality and control, shouldn’t the amount of time you spend on that feeling be commensurate?

As an approach, creating an experimental garden or playground in which to test a developing mechanic is an arresting notion. Here’s one stab at breaking it down a little further, at how to prototype for game feel.

The Garden’s Ecosystem

The problems of game feel quickly become intertwined with the problems of the design as a whole, but it is possible to separate out the relevant components of game feel to make them a bit more manageable.

1. Input – How the player can express their intent to the system.
2. Response – How the system processes, modifies, and responds to player input in real time.
3. Context – How constraints give spatial meaning to motion.
4. Polish – The interactive impression of physicality created by the harmony of animation, sounds, and effects with input-driven motion.
5. Metaphor – The ingredient that lends emotional meaning to motion and provides familiarity to mitigate learning frustration.
6. Rules – Application and tweaking of arbitrary variables that give additional challenge and higher-level meaning to motion and control.

1. Input

Input is the player’s organ of expression in the game world, the only way a player can speak to the game. This is a crucial facet of game feel: the physical properties the input device. Consider the difference between a button and a computer mouse. A typical button has two states, on or off. It can be in one of two positions: viewed purely as an input device, it has very little sensitivity. By contrast, a typical computer mouse has complete freedom of movement along two axes. It is unbounded; you can move it as far as the surface underneath allows. So an input device can have an inherent amount of sensitivity, falling somewhere between a mouse (near-complete freedom in two axes) and a button (only two states, on or off.) This is what I call input sensitivity; a rough measure of the amount of expressiveness inherent a particular input device.

An input device can also provide opportunities for natural mappings. What kinds of motion are implied by the constraints, motions, and sensitivity of the input device? A good example is Geometry Wars for Xbox 360. Look at Geometry Wars relative to the Xbox360 controller. Notice the way that the joystick is formed, and how that transposes almost exactly to the motion in Geometry Wars. It’s almost one for one: the joystick sits in a circular plastic housing that constrains its motion in a circular way. Pushing the control stick against the edge of the plastic rim that contains it and rolling it back and forth creates little circles, which is almost exactly the analogous motion produced on screen by Geometry Wars in response to input. This is what Donald Norman’s would refer to as a “natural mapping.” There’s no explanation or instruction needed because the position and motion of the input device correlates exactly to the position and motion of the thing being controlled in the game.

Natural Mapping in Geometry Wars

The controls of Mario 64 also have this property; the rotation of the thumbstick correlates very closely to the rototation of Mario as he turns, twists, and abruply changes direction.

The implication for game feel prototyping is to consider the overall sensitivity of your system and add or remove sensitivity in order to get a feel that is sufficiently, but not overly, expressive. There are as many ways to approach this as there are games, but consider two examples, Strange Attractors and Zuma. In Zuma, there is a reduction in the inherent sensitivity of the mouse as an input device. Instead of being freedom of movement in two axes, only one axis is used and it is mapped to simple rotation. The frog character rotates in place, clamping the mouse’s sensitivity down to something more manageable. Strange Attractors is a game with a great deal of sensitivity, but which uses only one button as input. The position of your ship in space is always fluid, always changing very subtly, and you can manipulate it only by activating or deactivating the various gravity wells around the level. Strange Attractors is highly reaction sensitive.

2. Response

A very simple input device with very little sensitivity can, by virtue of a nuanced reaction from the game, be part of a very sensitive control system. I call this reaction sensitivity: sensitivity created by mapping user input to game reaction creatively to produce greater (or less) sensitivity. The fundamental difference here is that this sensitivity occurs only within the game’s response to input, not as a property of the input device itself. This is, from the designer’s perspective, the place where most of game feel is defined.

Consider just how simple the original NES controller was relative to the expressive feel of Super Mario Brothers. The NES controller was just a collection of on/off buttons, but Mario had great sensitivity across time, across combinations of buttons, and across states. Across time, Mario sped up gradually from rest to his maximum speed, and slowed gradually back down again, his motion dampened to simulate friction and inertia in crude way. In addition, holding down the jump button longer meant a higher jump, another kind of sensitivity: across time. Holding down the jump and left directional pad buttons simultaneously resulted in a jump that flowed to the left, providing greater sensitivity by allowing combinations of buttons to have different meanings from the pressing of those buttons individually. Finally, Mario had different states. That is, pressing left while “on the ground” has a different meaning than pressing left while “in the air.” These are contrived distinctions which are designed into the game but which lend greater sensitivity to the system as a whole so long as the player can correctly interpret when the state switch has occurred and respond accordingly.

The result of all these kinds of nuanced reactions to input was a highly fluid motion, especially as compared to a game such as Donkey Kong, in which there was no such sensitivity:

Donkey Kong: Low Sensitivity

Super Mario: High Sensitivity

This comparison, between Super Mario Brothers and Donkey Kong, shows very clearly just how much more expressive and fluid Mario’s controls are. The interesting thing to note is that Donkey Kong used a joystick, a much more sensitive input than the NES controller. No matter how simple the input, the reaction from a system can always be highly sensitive. No matter how sensitive the input, the reaction from a system can always be reduced or muted. Of course, there isn’t some magic formula for the right amount of sensitivity in the system. Look for happy accidents, though. Do you surprise yourself with what you can express or accomplish with your controls? Does the act of playing create something aesthetically pleasing? Do you find yourself wasting time noodling around instead of continuing to tweak and tune? Does it feel like you’re building a meaningful skill? At this point it’s time to give this motion some spatial meaning. If you haven’t already.

3. Context

Returning to Mario 64, imagine Mario standing in a field of blank whiteness, with no objects around him. With nothing but a field of blankness, does it matter that Mario can do a long jump, a triple jump, or a wall kick? Context is the soil of your garden.

Super Mario 64 gotsa lotsa moves-a

If Mario has nothing to interact with, the fact that he has these acrobatic abilities is meaningless. Without a wall, there can be no wall kick. At the most pragmatic level, the placement of objects in the world is just another set of variables against which to balance movement speed, jump height, and on the other parameters that define motion. In game feel terms, constraints define sensation. If objects are packed in, spaced tightly relative to the avatar’s motion, the game will feel clumsy and oppressive, causing anxiety and frustration. As objects get spaced further apart, the feel becomes increasingly trivialized, making tuning unimportant and numbing thoughtless joy into thoughtless boredom. For this reason, it’s a good idea to build some kind of test environment as you create the system of variables you’ll eventually tune into good game feel. This is the Magic Garden of game feel: if you can make it exceedingly pleasurable to interact with the game at this most basic level, you’ve got a superb foundation for enjoyable gameplay. So you should be putting in some kind of platforms, enemies, some kind of topology that will give the motion meaning. If Mario is running along with an endless field of blank whiteness beneath him, it will be very difficult to judge how high he should be able jump. So you need to start putting things in there to get a sense of what it will be like to traverse a populated level. My favorite approach is to use random primitives and shapes of various sizes. Boxes, chamfered boxes, spheres, cylinders, stars, archways, curves and flowing lines; just about any shape can yield enjoyable game feel interactions with the right spacing and system tuning. Plan for happy accidents and stay loose and open-minded when testing. Take note of crescendos of enjoyment as you interact with the space and lean into them with tuning and additional test terrain.

Constraint is also the mother of skill and challenge. Think of a football field: there are these arbitrary constraints around the sides of the football field that limit it to a certain size. If those constraints weren’t there, the game of football would have a very different skill set and would arguably be a lot less interesting because you could run as far as you want in one direction before bringing it back. The skills of football are defined the constraints that bound it.

4. Polish
At or around the same time you’re building context, you’re going to want to start putting in a bit of polish–but only what’s essential to your prototype. Polish can include sprays or dustings of particles where things hit or interact, screen shake, view angle shifts, or the squash and stretch of objects colliding. The point is to convey the physical properties of objects through their motion and interaction. Any effect that enhances the impression that the world is has its own self consistent physics is fair game. This is another opportunity to take inspiration from the real world. Look at the way things interact. If you hit a glass table with a hammer it will shatter, complete with noise, motion, and a spray of “particles.” The more clues like that you can borrow to inform the player of the physical properties of the objects they’re interacting with the better. When prototyping, I like to list some of these cues out and see which ones are most important to mock up. You obviously want to severely limit the amount of polish to those effects that demonstrate the impression of physicality you’re going after. Polish is time consuming, but vital to game feel. A little screen shake or spray of particles can make all the difference in the world, game feel wise.

As an example, consider the goal of making a game that feels squishy. This is a good place to start because to say that something is squishy implies visuals, sounds, tactile sensation. It provides a great benchmark: if something is squishy, it will deform in a certain way, like a water balloon or silly putty. As these deformations happen, certain sounds accompany them; familiar squelching and schlucking noises which are hard for me to describe but easy to recall. It’s the noise of walking through deep mud, or kneading wet dough with your hands. Separating out the various pieces of squishiness as a physical property yields something like this:

1. Motion – The thing must deform and bend when it comes into contact with other objects, especially relative to speed.
2. Tactile – You can easily deform, mold, or stretch the thing
3. Visual – To aid the impression of squishiness, the thing could look moist like a slug, translucent with tiny bubbles like Jello, or amorphous like putty or clay.
4. Sound – Any movement or deformation of the object should be accompanied by squelching noises.

These comprise the physical clues that get assembled into your brain to create the notion of squishiness. Anything you can layer on top to fake these effects will increase and improve the impression of physicality and, hence, the feel.

5. Metaphor

Your choice of metaphor changes game feel dramatically. I like the following example: imagine Gran Turismo, Project Gotham, or whatever your favorite “simulation” style racing game happens to be. Now substitute for the car a giant, balding fat guy running as fast as he possibly can spraying sweat like a sprinkler in August. Without altering the structure of the game, the tuning of the game, or the function of the game, the feel of the game is substantially altered. All you’ve done is swap out a 3d model of a car for a 3d model of a giant fat guy running and you’ve got Run Fatty Run instead of Gran Turismo. This will change the feel of the game because you have preconceived notions about the way a car should handle. You know how a car should feel and move and turn based on your experience driving a car and looking at cars. Oftentimes, people will play a game – horse riding gameplay is my favorite example – and they’ll say “this doesn’t feel like a horse.” And you’ll ask them well, have you ever ridden a horse before? And they’ll say “no, but this doesn’t feel like a horse.” People have these built-in, preconceived constructs, mental models about the way certain things move and, by extension, how it should feel to control them.

The implication for prototyping is this: you need to take a step back and decide how much of your metaphor to represent in the prototype to get an accurate read on the game feel you’re building. Iconic is fine, but if it’s going to be a car, it needs to read as a car. The trick is not to limit yourself to only everyday objects, but to look at how you can use preloaded conceptions to set up, and execute on, expectations for how a thing should feel and behave when controlled.

6. Rules

Rules are the final layer into of a game feel prototype. Basically, you’re looking for longer-period objectives to give additional meaning to the sensation of control and mastery. If you’ve been noodling around with a mechanic for a couple hours, this shouldn’t be too much trouble since you’re probably already making up little goals for yourself. Race from point A to point B, scale this tall mountain, rescue five wayward puppies. These kinds of higher order goals define game feel at a different level: sustainability.

This is one of the most difficult things to do. You need to build in some longer period goals to find out whether or not this motion you’ve created has depth. This will necessarily be a bit of a rough test, and there’s really not a good way to get an objective read on depth unless you watch a bunch of people play the game, but you can get a sense of whether or not your mechanic is deep. That is, whether or not you can have long-period sustained interactions that are deeper than the surface pleasure of steering the guy around the most basic context and spacing you’ve created. This is things like get to the top of the hill, get from A to B, collect X number of coins, sort all these things into colored bins, perform a certain trick at a certain location, and so on. Just about any goal implies a set of rules for achieving that goal. What this does is bring your fledgling game feel up against the hard hammer of game-creation reality. You’re starting to try and create challenges that could become a sustainable game. This is a bit of a grey area, as it starts to slip down the slope game design proper, but I would encourage you to consider these as throwaway goals. Don’t consider them a prototype of the complete or final structure of the game. Throw a bunch of goals in there – get around things, collect coins, get to a certain place – find the coolest interactions, the coolest parts of the level. If you’ve been playing around in your level, tweaking the mechanics and spacing of objects, you have a good sense of what’s going to be fun about it. You’ve already developed a bunch of intrinsic, internalized goals: can I do a flip off this thing, can I get up there, can I do two flips before I land and so on. Just throw these in there and codify them. Again, this is why it’s a good idea when you’re developing context for your motion to throw a bunch of random shapes and objects in there. Don’t’ worry too much about the spacing. Tweak the spacing of the objects relative to the avatar and vice-versa until it all starts to feel really good, but then just throw in all kinds of objects of various sizes, types, shapes, and physical properties. Build a playground, a magic garden of interesting interactions. Put in big archways, round things, fat things, pointy things, anything you can think of. Get a bunch of shapes in there and study the way the spatial dynamics are interacting with the feel you’re creating.

Conclusion

At this point, you’ve proven whether or not your game is going to feel good at the most basic level. You’ve proven whether or not you can construct a level that has objects spaced relative to your motion which will give rise to interesting spatial dynamics and challenge. You’ve polished up the interactions physically between these objects to lend the impression of physicality that is so crucial to game feel and which gives rise to the enjoyable intrinsic sensation provides so much engagement to players. Finally, you started adding on some rules that test whether or not this mechanic will be sustainable and may give you some interesting directions to lean into when you start designing the system dynamics that are supposed to sustain the experience across an entire game.

With diligence and luck, at this point you’ve got a game that feels great. Moment to moment, it just feels good to steer around and feel out the space. The spacing of objects is in perfect harmony with the tuning of your controls and you’re quickly finding the places where the spatial context crosses over and constrains the motion, yielding the most interesting interactions. You feel yourself starting to build skills that might give rise to longer period interactions. Wonderful, you now have the foundation for a great-feeling game.

As a final note, consider the aesthetic beauty possible with game feel. That is, something beautiful is created at the intersection of player and game. The act of playful control can create artful synaesthesia, combining as it does sounds, visuals, and tactile sensations. Before you dive in and start coding engines, consider the overall sensitivity of the system, the affordances of the input device, and the sensitivity of the response from the game. But most of all, consider the first, last, and most common experience of your game: its feel.

On the Philosophy of Addictive Game Design

With a title that high-falutin’, it must be pompous! Oh yeah!

Last Saturday, we were having pancakes with Kellee of thatgamecompany. We were talking about – what else? – World of Warcraft. Specifically, I was wondering aloud if a designer has moral responsibility in the case of a game that has literally caused people to forget their children, ruin their marriages, and all sorts of other drug-addicted types of behavior. I teach, and I’ve seen multiple people drop out of college specifically because of WoW. An interesting point that Kellee brought up was that perhaps drug addiction isn’t as apt a metaphor for a designer’s culpability in the creation of something intended to produce a specific outcome for its players – namely, continuing to pay their monthly fee for the rest of their born and natural lives – as, say, running a fast food restaurant. Is McDonalds responsible when people overeat?

My knee-jerk reaction is an emphatic YES!!11!!One!1Exclamationpoint!!!

But there are shades of gray. For example Matthew brings up the example of Shane, the former Audio Director at Flashbang, my former roommate, and the eldest Wegner sibling. Shane was a bone fide WoW addict. Lately, he has joined the Navy and became some kind of naval cryptologist, but that is a relatively recent development. Before that there was a period of WoW abuse (during which I lived with him.) I observed some genuinely disturbing behavior.

Before WoW came out, Shane would regularly leave the house to go on hikes, hang out, play games, talk with us. After WoW came out, he stopped eating and going to the bathroom. “Hee hee!” He would say “I don’t need food, I ate in-game!” Yowch! And then he’d do things like start a pot of spaghetti on the stove, forget about it whilst on a “raid”, and burn it down to waterless noodles. He lost a bunch of weight and developed a disturbing, ashen pallor. Matthew’s interesting point was this: who are we to take the moral high ground? If I spend 12 hours on my computer working on a game, how is that different? Perhaps it’s the notion of creation that separates the two, the intent. I’m shuffling bits with the goal of self expression while playing WoW is primarily escapism. But the line gets blurry, doesn’t it? People who are geographically separate can get to together and share some kind of mutual experience through a game like that, as Kellee noted. Surely, that can’t be bad? Can it? If they feel the same kind of social satisfaction from that that someone feels from going to a dance club, or teaching a class, or playing board games with friends, how is it different? Physically, it’s sedentary, so that’s one possible answer. Exercise makes everything better. There’s just no counter-argument to that.

The crux of the question is whether or not playing WoW is more or less a waste of your life than creating original games intended to produce the same kind of enjoyment. In this age of digital property, virtual experience, how does one set of bits have value relative to another? How is it that Shane is wasting his life while I am an artist or a game designer or whatever? Why is sitting around making games and digital art different than raids on Molten Core?

All we’re really trying to do as game designers is make meaning. At the end of the day we’re just shuffling a bunch of bits around attempting to create an experience. How is that different? We are only successful when our games mean something to our players. So our currency is experience. We don’t make anything tangible or real. We try to make meaningful experiences that sit on top of layer after layer of abstraction, of a bunch of imaginary ones and zeros. And if we concede that – that what we do has no meaning without players, their feelings, and their experiences – we can only judge the intrinsic value of our work based on the experiences of our players. So we find ourselves in a unique position. We want artistic validation without anything tangible to validate. We want to be treated with respect, as film and literature are. But have we thought that desire through? Our currency is experience, same as film or literature, but a film will still run if no one’s in the theater and a book is a tangible, touchable object. Neither has meaning if no one reads or views them, but the very fact that they are exist without participation makes them seem more real.

This is where we get into trouble, because as we move forward pondering ways to ‘create emotion’ in players, we turn to film and literature because they are our only touchstones for creating enduring meaning, for creating experiences that are considered timeless art. But film and literature are more tangible and less participatory than games. So maybe the whole notion of seeking validation of the same kind is flawed.

If an act of playing creates something beautiful, we have been successful. Kellee’s games are, I think, one great example for striving towards this aim. The act of playing creates something beautiful, for both player and observer. As a counterpoint, I think that something that causes addiction, obsession cannot be beautiful. The clinical definition of addiction demarcates a specific line: as soon as a habitual or compulsive obsession begins to impact other areas of your life, it has become an addiction. That is not beauty or art, it is human tragedy. It’s not glue-sniffing in the streets of Moscow or Darfur massacre, but addictive long-term gameplay is an insidious life-leech. So is TV, I’d say. It’s the same phenomenon: when you’re no longer playing or watching to produce a state of enjoyment, for emotional nourishment, the end has come. You’re obsessed, addicted, and looking only for numbness. You’re dying slowly.

So I guess I think that yes, a designer should be responsible for the resultant behaviors their players exhibit. We’re playing with primal, fundamentally physiological processes of cognition, manipulating them for profit and gain. Should we ban MMOs? No. Should designers own up and take responsibility for the fact that people may abuse their games? Perhaps. Really, though, what do you do? This a fundamental problem in our society. We compromise – we have warning labels on cigarettes, and that seems okay. We can’t trample people’s liberty, telling them what they can and cannot do. You can’t be responsible for people’s lack of self control, but you doing nothing feels wrong too. Is McDonalds responsible for a 150lb four year old? A bit, I’d say. It’s a give and take, and you have to accept responsibility if you’re going to design a product intended specifically to addict.

Design games responsibly. Use your moral compass. If it feels wrong, it probably is.

Deconstructing “Feel” (3 of 3)

I’m just going to go ahead and post this. I’ve got some other stuff I want to write about :).

Tight and Responsive
“The controls feel tight and very responsive; there’s almost none of the “lag” that you get in some other simulation games where you need to wait for a player to finish his animation before passing or shooting.” (World Tour Soccer ’06)

“The ships have an appropriately floaty feel to them, without completely sacrificing responsiveness.” (Quantum Redshift)

Tight and responsive seem to be on the same spectrum as floaty and twitchy, possibly in the center. Both floaty and twitchy feels are generally considered negative, whereas a tight, responsive feel seems to be highly desirable. There is just the right amount of lag between input and action and the level objects are spaced in such a way that the player feels they have ample time to respond to obstacles or changes in the terrain when moving at speed. In many games, such as Grand Theft Auto, this feeling of responsiveness comes from a non-linear mapping between forward motion and turning, as described above.

Loose, Fluid, Relaxed versus Sloppy, Sluggish, Unresponsive

“…the controls feel kind of sloppy and loose at low speed, but the plane gets tight and responsive as you speed up.” (X-Plane)

“Unlike Tony’s game, which revels in its tight fluid-like controls, ESPN seems to almost fight against you with its sluggishness and unnatural feel.” (ESPN X Games Skateboarding)

“You’ll find that the controls are just a little too sluggish, making it feel as though you’re driving a run-down school bus instead of a quick and nimble jet fighter or helicopter.” (Aero Elite: Combat Academy)

This feeling comes from a delay between input and reaction, often caused by dampening or softening of motion (as described earlier – a way of attaining more reaction sensitivity.) A rough way to measure this is timing the delay between input and complete reaction. In some instances, this seems to be a good thing, such as the controls of the Warthog vehicle in Halo. In these cases, the descriptors tend towards loose, fluid, and relaxed, and are generally understood to be positive. Again, this seems to have a lot to do with context: if the obstacles and challenges presented are spaced such that the player has plenty of time to react, the feel will be good. When the challenges come too quickly or when the dampening is overdone, players tend to describe the controls as sloppy, sluggish, and unresponsive.

Stiff

“…while the gameplay is basically similar to the TH games, ESPN’s controls are tragically stiff and unresponsive.” (ESPN X Games Skateboarding)

Stiffness is the opposite of fluidity or a relaxed feel and often arises when a triggered action locks the player into a predetermined path or action for some duration, when there is little or no reaction sensitivity. As noted earlier, in the game Ghosts and Goblins Arthur always follows the same trajectory in his jumps and comes to a complete halt upon landing. This, especially when compared to the reaction sensitive Super Mario Brothers, is an extremely stiff feel. Instead of disconnecting the controls for a certain duration, consider changing to a reduced value (a state change – more below) or adding global dampening to the system (and raising the movement parameters commensurately to compensate.)

4. State Management & Transitions – Altering mapping and/or tuning in real time to afford the player more expressivity and manipulate the game’s feel.

When a state change takes place, it alters either tuning or mapping. The classic example is jumping in Super Mario Brothers. When Mario is in the air, the speed of his left and right movement (local tuning) is reduced. Functionally, we’re mapping more reactions to a single set of inputs. We still have the same input device, the controller, which still has its two buttons and directional pad, but now we have two different feels in one. Mario feels different in the air than on the ground. The change in feel brings each feel into greater relief and context. In Mario this is a harmonious juxtaposition, each complimenting the other. This shows that there can be a great beauty in switching states and experiencing different feels in rapid succession.

Another benefit of switching states is greater expressivity. Using the same set of inputs, we’ve achieved greater reaction sensitivity. Some games take this even further. For example the Tony Hawk series provides five different main states (air, ground, grind, manual, run) from which each button and each combination of buttons on the controller triggers a completely different move. Interestingly, the transitions are seamless: the player simply views it as an ability, available for use at any time.

Once again returning to our simple Asteroids game, let’s add a ‘turbo’ state. We need to modify our system design to accommodate three new parameters: turbo thruster, turbo left, and turbo right, and add another button to our mapping, the turbo button. When held down, the turbo button will change the values of rotate left, rotate right, and thruster to our modified turbo versions of those same parameters. When released, they revert. Because we’re doing the rotational dampening globally, we’ll still have the benefits of the rotation gradually speeding up to its maximum and slowing gradually back down when the button is released. Once we have this set up, we tune the new turbo numbers and test, honing in on the feel we’re going for, which is an increased sense of speed with a reduced rotational control. Perhaps we reduce the left and right rotation as we increase the forward speed. And we may need to adjust our level design to accommodate this new higher maximum speed, spacing the asteroids further apart.

Again, because these are virtual sensations, impression is the only thing which conveys feel. Switching from one feel to another aids impression by providing context for each separate feel. A feel which would otherwise be considered floaty becomes tight and snappy when juxtaposed with one which is much looser, which has less carving.

CONCLUSION
“Feel” is an aspect of games that players and designers discuss in abstract, intuitive, subjective terms. Mechanic design consists of four major disciplines that inform the feel of interactive aesthetics: system design, mapping, tuning, and state management. Feel is one of the most interesting emergent properties of human-computer interaction and the methodical categorizations of its components will assist gamers and designers alike. I would be excited to pursue a deeper, more structured study of players’ descriptions of the easily recognized but poorly articulated phenomenon of feel in digital games.

Deconstructing “Feel” (2 of 3)

3. Tuning - extensive, minute adjustments of the specific parameters governing the movement of the player-controlled avatar.

Once our system is designed and our motions mapped, we are left with a set of parameters. Ideally, these parameters can be viewed simultaneously, because what is important is to view them as a cohesive whole, to understand the relationships between them. Balancing them against one another – making small alterations, testing the results – is the primary way to arrive at a certain feel.

At this point, is useful intellectually to delineate between local and global parameters. Local parameters apply only to the specific avatar object which is being controlled. Mario’s jump, for example, is a local parameter, as is the speed of his left and right movement (which will be tuned as one parameter as it should always be the same left as right.) Generally speaking, any motion that is directly triggered by the player is a local parameter. It is in these parameters primarily we can address player feedback about feel.

A global parameter is one that affects all objects equally, such as gravity. Oftentimes, pairs of parameters work as foils to one another and must be balanced in pairs. Gravity versus jump power, for example. Less gravity means greater jump height and vice versa. Remember, though, that gravity is a constant that every object in the game uses and therefore changing it has significant ramifications for the interaction of all game objects. To return to the system design for our Asteroids example, do we want all objects in our world to be dampened? For this game, probably not. We want the asteroids to float around as if in space, and the ship to continue forwards endlessly, frictionless, until the player fires the thruster while facing the opposite direction to slow down or change course. So, all we really want is rotational dampening on the ship, a local parameter. We alter our system to accommodate this, and re-tune all our parameters to achieve a more responsive feel.

One final consideration for tuning is level design. The spatial context in which the movement of the avatar occurs is of paramount importance. Much as the sensation of speed in an airplane at 10,000 feet is less than a car on the freeway, the feel of a mechanic needs context to have meaning. The plane is moving much more quickly than the car, obviously, but there is no impression of speed because there’s nothing flying by the window to use as visual reference. Virtual sensation is entirely comprised of these kinds of impressions, so the design of the level, the layout of objects around the avatar, their size and so on, is the framework for processing the feel of a game. A driving mechanic may feel clunky and unresponsive if obstacles are spaced too closely relative to forward speed and turning (causing constant collisions.) If the obstacles are spaced further apart or the forward acceleration and steering parameters are adjusted, the feel becomes smooth. In this way, level design is simply another parameter to balance local and global values against.

Player classifications of feel and their meaning:
Below, I have classified the common player descriptions of feel mentioned earlier by attempting to correlate them to the parameters, global and local, which give rise to and affect them. There seem to be some redundancies and overlap, such as between “twitchy” and “touchy”, and in many cases the descriptors seem to pair off as opposite extremes (tight versus loose, stiff versus smooth and so on.) A possible next step in formalizing these descriptions of feel in game could be survey and interview-based study looking for more native categorizations and attempting to further correlate them to parameter relationships and known behavioral phenomenon.

Floaty
“…the action in the game just feels too floaty overall. There’s very little sense of speed or acceleration, either while on the powder or in the air.” (Amped 2)

When a player says a mechanic feels too floaty, they are often referring to the relationship between forward movement and rotation. Specifically, how quickly a player’s turning input causes a change in direction. If the avatar object can pivot a great deal before a change in heading occurs, as though it is sliding across ice, it will feel floaty. If instead it “carves”, seeming to grip the terrain, dig in, and cause a quick, arcing direction change, it will be perceived as being tighter-feeling. If the object being controlled is in contact with the ground, we can emulate the natural phenomenon that causes cars and other vehicles to make sharp, arcing turns, friction. It is also possible to add a dampening force proportional to the amount and/or duration of turning. For example, if a turning force is applied while a car avatar is moving forwards at 10 units per second, an arbitrary force could be applied in a direction opposite to the car’s forward movement depending on the sharpness of the turn, assuming that the input device being used has enough sensitivity to accommodate a nice range of turning. This will cause the car to appear to carve as if on dry asphalt rather than sliding sideways, as if on ice.

Twitchy or Touchy
“Unfortunately, these games are also the most unevenly re-created, with spotty and unfaithful sounds and–worst of all–twitchy controls, regardless of what input method you select…as previously mentioned, the controls for all of these games are very twitchy and overly sensitive.” (Atari: 80 Classic Games in One)

Twitchy seems to be the opposite of floaty, when the controls are too responsive and the player feels as though the slightest movement will send them veering off their desired course. In this case, we would seem to have too much sensitivity, or not enough range of sensitivity. Try making the range between the smallest and largest possible force applied (especially applicable to turning forces) larger, and mapping it non-linearly, such as with a Bezier curve. GTA Mapping

For small movements of the input device, the reaction is very slight. The stronger the input (the farther a thumbstick is pulled away from its neutral position, the faster a mouse is dragged, the longer a button is held) the stronger the turning force.

___________________________________________________________

Part 3 of 3 coming on Saturday (I teach from 8am to 10pm Fridays).

- Swink

Deconstructing “Feel” (1 of 3)

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!

ABSTRACT
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.

INTRODUCTION
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

Asteroids Clone

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.

Continued Wednesday…

Virtual Sensation and the Wii

11.19.2006 4:13am

I’m waiting in a shortish line on a cold pavement stoop outside an obscure Circuit City on the outskirts of Scottsdale, Arizona. I can’t remember the last time I was this cold, or the last time I saw the sun come up. I feel like I’m 16 again.

I’m waiting for a Wii, obviously, and my ‘getting up a 4:00am instead of staying up all night’ gambit appears to have paid off: including the empty chairs holding friends’ places, I appear to be the 15th person in line for one of the 24 Wiis the Intersweb tells me will be here.

Uneventful. The sun comes up, we get our Wiis, and we shiver our way back to a friend’s house. Apart from hoping that the thing is fun and that it will indeed deliver on its promise of gaming revolution, I’m desperate to find out what the Wiimote means for the future of virtual sensation in games. What will it feel like to control some virtual avatar or agent with the Wiimote?

The potential is, as per Nintendo’s PR, to change what it means to play a game and who does so, to tap the mythical “mass market.” People who watch TV don’t call themselves ‘TVers’, right? Why should games be different?

Honestly, I’m sold on the concept. I’ve watched dozens of self-proclaimed “non gamers” try to master a mechanic, try to master a virtual sensation the way they’ve mastered riding a bike or driving a car. They cannot or will not do so and, for the most part, end up feeling bad about it. Before they do, however, almost every one will swing the controller wildly left or right, trying to get Mario to move a bit faster or jump a bit higher. This movement seems to be as intuitive to non gamers as turning a wheel to steer a car. It had previously occurred to me, while watching this near-universal flailing phenomenon, that if one could build a controller that did respond to flailing, it would change the face of gaming forever. Nintendo, apparently, feels the same way.

So now the multi-billion dollar question: is this little white device I now hold the future of virtual sensation, the very future of gaming?

As usual, observations come in half tones: yes, as they say, and no.

For reference, here are the Principles of Virtual Sensation I outlined in a previous article:

1. Predictable Results – Allowing a sense of mastery and control by correctly interpreting player input and providing consistent, predictable results.

2. Subtlety and Freshness– There are small, subtle differences in reaction each time a specific input is triggered, making each interaction feel fresh and interesting.

3. Traction – Enabling mastery, control, and learning by rewarding player experimentation.

4. Low Skill Floor, High Skill Ceiling – Making the mechanic intuitive but deep; it takes minutes to pick up and understand but a lifetime to master.

5. Context – Giving a mechanic meaning by providing the rules and spatial context in which it operates

6. Impact and Satisfying Resolution – Defining the weight and size of objects through their interaction with each other and the environment.

7. Appealing Reaction – Producing appealing reaction regardless of context or input.

Also, peppered throughout are impressions of and observations about playing Wii by my Girlfriend, Amy, who does not consider herself a gamer (and is therefore, arguably, more the Wii’s target audience than I.) I found them illuminating :).

System and Interface

The Wii interface and system controls make a great first impression. The ability to rotate the cursor is huge. It feels intuitive and right. The subtle vibrations and noise as your cursor touches a button and the nice, jiggly reaction show the tremendous potential of the system and its controllers. It is hot, slick, and very compelling just to navigate the menu. I was surprised to find, then, that few games among the launch titles we brought home take significant advantage of this potential.

Wii Sports: Tennis

There are obvious benefits to combining a device specifically intended as a natural mapping with a sports metaphor, and Nintendo is smartly milking that potential by including Wii Sports in every box. Swing the controller, swing the racquet – that’s about as natural as it gets, right? It’s a perfect physical analogy. Swing the racquet soft for a soft shot, hard for a hard shot. Left for left, right for right. Predictable results from each input, right? Well, sort of. Let’s take a look under the hood.

Predictable Results

First, they’re doing some nice, sneaky things to mitigate the inherently squirrelly nature of the Wiimote. Chief among them, they are not using the pointer at all in Wii Sports: Tennis. This is smart –crucial, in fact – because the pointer severely inhibits predictability. On its own, the pointer is extremely effective. Essentially, you have a mouse cursor on a home console, which is fantastic because it represents hitherto unheard of levels of input sensitivity in a home console input device. The problem is this: it is extremely easy for the pointer to fall outside the Wii’s sensor bar, resulting in a temporary and unexpected disconnecting of input, one of the ultimate no-no’s in creating good virtual sensation.

Imagine driving on the freeway. You signal and prepare for a lane change, checking your blind spot. Suddenly, as you begin to steer left, the wheel goes unresponsive. Panic, frustration, and helplessness overwhelm you. These feelings are the result of a lack of predictable results from a given input. Of course, the stakes are higher on the freeway than in piloting your Monkeyball, but the sensation is analogous. This feeling is the enemy of control, of mastery over some virtual avatar or agent. Unfortunately, this input disconnect often occurs during heightened moments of gameplay, when your movement becomes boisterous or erratic. So, they’ve avoided this pitfall in Tennis by using only the gyro and accelerometers. Of course, this poses a new problem: how to achieve compelling depth – a high skill ceiling – after disabling the most sensitive input of your controller.

Low Skill Floor, High Skill Ceiling

Since the “footwork” of your tennis player is handled automatically, and the swinging motions are pre-created using LiveMove there’s little room left for expressivity. Add to this the fact that the ball springs to the character’s racquet if a swing is recognized anywhere close to the ball (watch closely, it’s a subtle effect) and you’ve got very little to build a game of compelling depth with. Still, you are able to guide your shots to various parts of the court, and to hit lobs or stingers (very hard, low, straight shots.) The lob is a separate recorded gesture it’s checking for, as is the serve, so there’s very little sensitivity there. Effectively, the lob is being mapped to a different button press, while the serve is just the same as a serve in every other tennis game: it’s simply two timed button presses, one to toss the ball, one to hit it. It does seem as though the game tries to interpret how hard you’re swinging and respond in some way but, as noted by Matt Casamassina, the gyro responds much better to a flick of the wrist than to a barreling swing. So now we’re down to it: how do you ‘aim’ your shot?

Where the shot is aimed is determined by the direction the Wiimote is moving at the moment the swing gesture is triggered:

Aiming shots in Wii Sports: Tennis

Imagine that instead of the wristy swing gesture, you simply had to press the A or B button to trigger forehand and backhand swings respectively. In order to aim with this setup, you’d simply press the button as the Wiimote was moving in the direction you wanted the ball to go. It’s that simple. Assuming you’ve got the correct swing, the only thing that changes the placement of your shot is the relative movement of your Wiimote in the time between when the gesture was accepted and when the shot completes. They’re looking at the direction and speed of the movement of the Wiimote (via the accelerometers) and checking for a triggered swing gesture (via the gyros.) The tricky part, and the part that’s actually kind of cool, is that it’s physically hard to swing forehand, from right to left, while moving the Wiimote left to right (to send a forehand shot to the back right corner.) That said, it took me a relatively long time to figure out exactly what the heck they were doing and to wrangle it into offering any kind of predictable reaction to my input. It’s easy enough to swing the racquet at the right time and in the right direction and to get the ball over the net on the serve, but to get the ball to go somewhere other than straight is a real chore. I’m still trying to figure out how to trigger the power serve consistently.

What they are assuming is that most people will be happy with swinging a controller in the right direction at the right time to get the correct swing and hit the ball. Indeed, when we played Wii with the various girlfriends, they seemed to have enough trouble with that, precluding more advanced strategies and play. Not quite the natural mapping that was promised, unfortunately. And, despite the free-floating analog nature of the controller, there’s just not enough input sensitivity to give rise to satisfying long term depth one might find in, say, Virtua Tennis.


Impact & Satisfying Resolution;
Appealing Reaction

At first glance, Wii Sports: Tennis appears aesthetically sparse. There are no particle effects or scaling (squashing and stretching) on characters, ball, or racquets – not even dust particles at the characters’ feet, a Nintendo mainstay. One might conclude, then, that the game is lacking impact and satisfying resolution between its objects and has little appealing reaction to its input. Fortunately, this is not the case. What is lacking in visual aesthetic indicators is overshadowed by the surprisingly powerful sound effects. While the sound effects in Twilight Princess sound tinny and rather cheap on the rather cheap and tinny Wiimote speaker, the various thudding sounds and racquet reverberations in Wii Sports: Tennis are spot on. The fact that they come from the individual speaker on each person’s Wiimote is a detail that simply can’t be overlooked. It’s quite powerful and goes a long way to establishing a strong feel and sense that you’re really whacking a virtual tennis ball around.

Verdict: some nice things going on; wonderful use of sound and subtle controller vibrations to enhance virtual sensation, some surprising depth to be found in serving and aiming the ball. Low skill floor, which is nice, but the skill ceiling is also low, leaving very little long term appeal. This is compounded by some difficulties in the input mapping, a significant disconnect between system image (what the user expects – that they can just swing the Wiimote the same way they would a tennis racquet and get the same result, including speed of swing and perfect position interpretation) and the reality of the underlying system (swing gestures triggered by gyros, aiming dependant on direction and speed of acceleration at the time of the swing.) In other words, the mapping presents itself as a purely positional metaphor, but is not. Wii Sports: Tennis is a good game to play with four inexperienced players who aren’t particularly serious about the outcome and who are happy with swinging the Wiimote to bat the ball around.

Amy’s take:

“Playing Wii Tennis was not at all what I expected. I was told ‘it’s just like real tennis, that’s how you play it’ but found it to be a poor representation of real tennis. It wasn’t like playing a video game, it was like playing a hamstrung not-as-fun version of real tennis. By contrast, we played a tennis game on Xbox a few weeks ago [Editor’s Note: the game was Top Spin 2] that was a lot more fun. That was like playing a video game, just pressing buttons to do what you wanted. The Wii tennis just made me want to play real tennis.”

Wii Sports: Bowling

Wii Sports: Bowling is actually my current favorite Wii game. In my observation, it has most effectively accomplished the stated goal of the Wii, drawing in and entertaining people who would otherwise not touch a video game. Bowling succeeds where tennis does not because it has a natural mapping, an easy to understand, everyday metaphor, and enough input sensitivity to make it compelling each time it’s played. In short, it’s a hell of a lot like actual bowling.

Again, Bowling ignores the pointer, using primarily the gyros and accelerometer. Also similar to tennis, they’re doing some rather clever things to achieve a certain system image, one in which the player feels like they’re actually throwing the ball. Interestingly, this is not strictly representative of the system’s underlying realities. This time, though, it works. The illusion is complete, and makes Wii Sports: Bowling a very compelling argument for the future of the Wii and its unique input device.

So what are they actually doing? First, the game instructs you to hold the Wiimote up in front of your chest, as you would a bowling ball. This is entirely superfluous and was done completely for effect. You can throw the ball just as effectively if you hold your hand down and press the B button to start your roll. As long as you give it some motion as you’re releasing the ball, it’ll launch that sucker down the lane quite happily. Next, your bowler moves along a predetermined path, swinging their arm with a canned animation. There is some recognition in the upstroke as the Mii swings the ball – it will try to match what’s happening with the gyro a little bit – but if you don’t move the gyro at all, it will still swing back to forwards. You can actually just hold the B button indefinitely and the bowler will stand at the end of the lane forever, waiting for the ball’s release. Ipso facto, the ‘swinging motion’ it recommends is totally unnecessary from the system’s point of view. The control has been disconnected at this point and swinging the Wiimote doesn’t do anything. In terms of the system image, however, the payoff is huge: the motion seems familiar and is easy to connect with.

Once the ball is released, the functionality is much like Wii Sports: Tennis: the only thing that has bearing on the trajectory of your ball is the motion of the Wiimote at the moment of release. The difference is that in Wii Sports: Bowling, the game adds spin the ball commensurate to the amount of rotation in the gyro at the time of release. This is not to say that actually rotating the gyro, being in the act of rotation as the ball is released, is important. You can simply hold the remote twisted at an angle as you swing back to forward, and you’ll get the same curve you would by rotating at the time of release. In fact, this is more effective at getting the curve you want; actually rotating the Wiimote is less accurate than simply holding it twisted. What’s cool here, what really makes the game worth playing multiple times, is the input sensitivity represented by being able to put spin on the ball. You could throw the ball a hundred times and not get the same angle. It’s the messy nature of reality used to great effect. Olympic shot-putters spend their entire lives trying to produce a perfect execution of the same simple motion, and can only do so a fraction of the time. This is the crux, what makes it feel enjoyably close to real bowling. You’re trying to master your own body in a very real, very precise way.

The other place we get nice input sensitivity is the ability to position and rotate your bowler before beginning your throw. The movement and turning is very fluid, allowing an infinite variety of positions to start from and directions to face. Enjoyably, you can even throw the ball off into another lane if you align your bowler properly. Combining these two highly input sensitive parameters, position and rotation, with the highly reaction sensitive ball rotation and shot power (based on the speed of the accelerometer at the time of release) creates a game of surprising depth. Huzzah!

I do have a few gripes, however, mostly in the area of aesthetics, which tend to be closely tied to impact and satisfying resolution in virtual sensation. The lack of reaction when the ball misses the pins, when it simply hits the back of the lane, is totally lame and jarring. It crosses a single black polygon, seeming to warp out of existence. This is not an issue when the ball actually hits pins, obviously, but it’s quite jarring when a shot goes awry, and it undercuts the game’s otherwise solid sense of mass.


Amy’s Take:

“I liked it. A lot better than the tennis. There was a weird problem with the bowling ball not releasing as you released the button. My brother was having trouble with it and we were all giving him advice but then I started having the problem as well even though I was following my own advice and it occasionally happened to the others too. I liked that the system let me bowl granny-style (between the legs with two hands) and behind the back, like in real bowling. Also, the bowling sounds were realistic and satisfying.”

[Editor’s Note – I believe the problem we (Wii?) were having in this regard was related to a lack of motion as the ball was released. People would either swing their arm then release the ball, or the converse (releasing the button before their arm was in motion.) Again, the game tracks speed and rotation for a few milliseconds at the moment the button is released and at no other time.]

The Legend of Zelda: Twilight Princess

Earlier I mentioned a problem with the pointer falling outside the screen or sensor bar area, effectively (and, most importantly, seemingly randomly) disconnecting the player’s input until the pointer is brought back into the sensor area. This input disconnect also happens when a game, such as Twilight Princess, switches between a state in which the Wiimote is using the accelerometers and gyroscope exclusively to one in which the pointer is featured. For example, often times you find yourself running around, swinging the sword when, suddenly, you need to pull out the bow for a precise shot (required in multiple boss fights.) Almost without fail, when I switch from running around to pointing with the bow or slingshot, I get a ‘point the remote at the screen’ message in big red letters and a darkened interface. My hands naturally drift to a neutral, relaxed position when I’m running around, so each time I need to point at something, even if I feel I’m pointing properly, it takes a while for the Wiimote to recover positional sensing. This is jarring, frustrating; an extreme flow breaker. Each time I try to point at something, I feel like I’ve done something wrong. Barf.

Control Obfuscation

One thing I greatly enjoyed about Wind Waker was the depth of the sword fighting and the amount of emphasis on mastering it in the game. There is, on the first island, a master swordsman who trains you. There are various thresholds of training, measured by how many times in a row you can hit the master in one on one sword combat without being hit yourself. As you defeat each level of challenge, you are rewarded with new sword techniques that can be used throughout the game. At the highest level, you have to hit something ridiculous like 500 times in a row without being hit yourself. I actually managed to do this, and did it very early in the game. The commensurate reward was a much deeper level of satisfaction and enjoyment throughout the rest of the game because the skills that I as a player had spent time practicing prepared me for success and allowed me to feel powerful and in control for the rest of the game. This sensation is, by virtue of the Wiimote gesture triggered controls, entirely missing from Twilight Princess. Since here’s just no precision in flailing the Wiimote around wildly, there’s nothing gained by it. It is obfuscation of player intent because it uses a highly sensitive input (high input sensitivity) to trigger a very small variety of actions, all of which are prerecorded animations (low reaction sensitivity.) In this way, they’ve effectively removed the extremely enjoyable feelings of mastery that were possible in the sword fighting mechanics in Wind Waker, which are otherwise very similar in Twilight Princess. So this is an example of Wii gone wrong: they obviously felt the need to shoehorn more Wii stuff into a game that was conceived and constructed before the Wii existed.

More on Zelda as I complete more of it (it is a ponderous game.) And, if there’s interest, I’ll work my way through the rest of the Wii launch titles I have access to including Super Monkey Ball, Excite Truck, Rayman, and the other Wii Sports titles. I also plan to continue this series with “Virtual Sensation and Next Gen”, which will delve into my experience playing Gears of War, Lost Planet, and Dead Rising, and why I snort with derision when I hear the term “Next Gen” used in seriousness. Also, I desperately need to further refine my classification of the Principles of Virtual Sensation, making them an easy to use reference tool. There’s just too much there that’s too poorly organized to be of use to anyone. Like, I’ll get right on that and stuff :). Stay tuned!

The Teaching Game (2 of 3)

In the first installment, we talked about why one would want to teach. Let’s assume you’re sold on the concept of teaching, have the requisite degrees and experience, have contacted a local school, and have been slotted into the schedule for next quarter.

Now you’re faced with a terrifying, exhilarating question:

What in the hell am I going to teach these people?

This is not an easy question to answer, especially in the two weeks you have before you find yourself standing in front of a room full of students. So what do you do? Well, you make stuff up. Huh? What? Well, yes!

The first step to creating your curriculum is a brain dump of your knowledge about the topic. This is perhaps the most difficult step because it is at this point you must distill your years of knowledge and hard won experience (things which are most likely so intuitive and engrained as to be subconscious) into some kind of external format. This is, as you might expect, a somewhat time-consuming process. Here are some strategies I’ve developed in prepping for classes over the years:

1. Create framing questions to direct your thinking. This is just good brainstorming technique – framing questions are great way to guide your thinking. If you have a clear, concise question like ‘what is the most important thing I know about level design?’, your brain will feed you some answers. The trick is keep going even when you feel you’ve found the ‘right answer’ (a notion which is flawed and will severely limit your creativity if you don’t abandon it.) If you look for twenty right answers to a question, I guarantee you’ll find some answers that are surprising, and, in the case of drawing out knowledge on a subject you know well, surprisingly insightful. Here are some framing questions I’ve had success with:

• What is the most important thing I know about _______?
• What is the first thing I do when I _______?
• What are the different kinds of _______?
• What skills make someone an expert in _______?
• What qualities make someone an expert in _______?
• What knowledge makes someone an expert in _______?
• If I could give someone starting their new job only one piece of advice about _______, what would it be?

You can pretty much just insert the title of your class into the above blanks to get a solid framing question. Level Design, Gameplay and Game Design, Programming for the Artist, and so on.


2. Mine for Metaphors.
One of the best and most common ways to explain something to someone is through metaphor. Take some of the concepts you’ve brainstormed above and look for some powerful metaphors for explaining them to the uninitiated. For example, one of my favorite metaphors for explaining the difference between single and multiplayer level design is that of “playground versus birthday party.” In planning a birthday party for one child, you buy napkins, hats, and a cake with the child’s favorite superhero or character on them. You plan all the activities around them, scheduling a clown, a bouncy castle, a trip to the arcade; their favorite things. All your effort is geared towards maximizing enjoyment for that one child, the birthday girl. In designing a single player level, the designer is creating a tailored, specific experience for one player, much like a birthday party. Multiplayer level design, however, is like designing a playground. Your primary focus is on creating a space in which the children can focus on having pleasurable interactions with one another. You’re designing a space which maximizes the children’s ability to have fun interacting. Most particularly, you must avoid elements which cause distraction from this interaction. In games this is typified by levels where players end up fighting the level more than each other – constantly having to pay attention to avoiding traps or pitfalls that are just as lethal as other players, for example.

Metaphor is extremely effective in conveying ideas and concepts. Take some time to brainstorm some effective metaphors for the concepts you’ve outlined. I often find that I metaphorical representations when thinking about these concepts anyway; all I have to do is identify and record them for later use.

3. Models of excellence. For whatever topic you’re going to teach, there are going to be some amazing examples of how to do it brilliantly out there. Quickly capture a list of your personal “masterworks” in the relevant area – pieces of work that make you step back and go oo-ooo! For example, as I was prepping for my level design class, I started by writing down a list of games that I thought had particularly excellent level design, getting as specific as possible if I could remember exactly where in the game those levels were and what they were called. Metroid Prime, Counterstrike, Super Mario Kart, Half-Life, and so on. If you’re going to be teaching a 3d modeling or art class, crack open images.google.com and start tracking down games you think are particularly beautiful or well executed, gathering a directory of ‘example’ screenshots. And, while you’re at it, write down what you think are your personal best pieces of work in the field. These, besides giving you a nice mental refresher on topical experience, will be extremely useful in establishing credibility, which I’ll get into in Part 3.

Finally, make a list of people in the field who you consider expert. Who created these pieces you’ve listed? Is it possible to get in contact with them? Is there anyone local who might be interested in guest speaking?

4. Research existing ideas. I’ve put this last because I’ve found it to be the most frustrating aspect of prepping to teach game classes. There simply isn’t that much out there that’s useful, especially if you’re teaching game design and related disciplines. There are lots of neat, specific, topical articles on Gamasutra, Escapist, and others, but there is most certainly a dearth of cohesive theories and practices to work from when prepping a curriculum. So, find stuff that’s out there, integrate it into what you have, and use it, but don’t just grab articles that have your topic in the title and hand them on to students: read them, figure out what they have to teach, and reconcile it with your own experience. I see far too many teachers defaulting to simple handing out articles from Gamasutra and saying ‘read it’ because they don’t know what else to teach.

Organization

So now you have your thoughts on paper. If you’ve done this correctly (and haven’t let your logical/analytical brain interfere with the brainstorming process) your thoughts should be scrawled all over the page, a jumbled mess. Now it is time to engage your logic circuits, to organize this stuff into ordered, bite-sized chunks, each of which builds on the ones before, and which culminate into some sort of complete, cohesive knowledge base.

A lot of times, this sort of ordering becomes self evident: you need to know Photoshop before you learn about UVW unwrapping, and so on. One strategy is to look over your topics and start by rating them 1-5 in terms of complexity or difficulty, then arrange them accordingly. Another way is to group ideas and concepts by “knowledge chains” – simply figure out concepts and skills that have others as prerequisites, draw out little chains between them, and then organize the chains by difficulty. Go with whatever makes the most sense to you.

In my level design class, I organize lessons according to specific games. I start by having students create levels for Excitebike, a simple, easy to understand game, and one of the first games released with a proper level editor. I lecture about iteration, which is what I’ve identified as the core skill of level design. Design, Test, Record, Revise, and Repeat – the more iterations of this cycle you can get, the better your levels will be. I introduce the basics of running a playtest (don’t talk, answer questions, or interrupt in any way, just watch and record) and get into spacing, timing, and creating flow for the player by removing pieces which consistently trip playtesters up without providing a rewarding challenge to master. Next week is Chu Chu Rocket, before which I lecture on puzzle games and the challenges involved in balancing frustration (too difficult) against boredom (too easy) to create ‘aha!’ moments in players, and make them feel clever. After that, it’s a lecture about multiplayer level design and creating Battle Mode maps for the original Super Mario Kart. And so on. As the quarter goes on, the games get increasingly complex, and the concepts layer on top of one another, eventually culminating in the creation of a level for Tony Hawk’s Underground (a game I worked on) and a special “design test” and interview in which I directly gauge the students’ designs (and writing) on the scale I would apply if I were looking to hire a level design to work on Tony Hawk. Obviously, the structure of your class will be dictated by the subject you’re teaching and your experience; just make sure you diagram out a logical, ordered map to guide your lesson planning.

Also, note that some structure is imposed by the format of your classes. As I said, at AIPX the classes are four hours long. More precisely, classes begin ten minutes after their scheduled start time (so 6:10 for a 6:00pm class), and there is a twenty minute break halfway through the class. In addition, the AIPX quarter consists of 11 weeks, and there is usually at least one week where class is not held due to school vacation. So, this means that you’re going to want to break this stuff up into about 20 chunks of learning, one for each ~ 2hr sub-period of each class.

Not unlike a good level, I try to design my class periods with a nice mix of stimulus: lectures, group activities, tool learning, and in class “work time” where the students work individually and I move around helping each in turn with their specific projects. I find that having a structured in-class goal to work towards – a peer critique of levels at 3pm, for example – is the best way to keep work time from devolving into ‘screw around online time’ (more on the ‘how’ of teaching in the next installment.)

At this point, you can break down your lessons and map them directly to specific class periods. At AIPX, you’re actually required to file this weekly plan with the school for each class, each quarter you teach. I usually print out a version of this to give to students on the first day of class. Also, I maintain a shorthand version for my own in-class use.

Weekly Plan for Level Design
“In Class” Weekly Plan for Level Design

And there you have it! Your class is locked and loaded. In the next and final installment we’ll look at the how – how exactly to keep a classroom full of eager, ADD game students, each of whom is sitting in front of a computer loaded with games, on task.

The Teaching Game (1 of 3)

I’ve had a request for an article! The reader in question writes:

I’ve been in the game industry for almost 6 years now, about the average burn-out time I believe, and my attitude towards the commercial game industry has gone pretty much on a straight slope from “amazing” and “so much to learn” territory to where I am at now, “I can’t believe I’m working on this” and “I guess it pays the bills” land. I would love to quit my job tomorrow and work on game prototypes in my garage, but alas I believe I am going to require some intermediary step to get to that goal.

I have friend who migrated from industry to teacher, and after meeting your online persona, my interests in that direction have been doubly piqued. I am born and bred from the mod community, so self teaching and helping others to learn is part of my deeper character.

What is teaching like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities? How’s the pay? Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers? What kind of qualifications are required to teach?

I would like to give teaching some serious consideration, I believe it might give me some sort of satisfaction that has been on the decline for me for years. I hope you can find the time to shine some light on the subject for me, I know you would have some resourceful and well written advice on the subject.

I empathize with this position, especially having come from a ‘yearly grind’ style development house (I was a cog in the Tony-Hawk-a-year machine at Neversoft.) I found it to be a thankless, dreary existence, lacking any definable conclusion or sense of hope (I’m ceaselessly amazed by the stamina of the guys who have been there since day one and have continued through eight iterations of the same game.) Plainly put, working at Neversoft wore me down. I was worn down physically (I gained over thirty pounds, stopped shaving or getting haircuts, wore the same tattered rags, and rarely exercised), socially (interacting with two or fewer persons per day leads to anti-social behavior and agoraphobic tendencies), and emotionally (by the end I was having erratic mood swings and pseudo-breakdowns.) Clearly, this position was no longer tenable.

So I left Neversoft, moved to Arizona, and took up off-road mountain unicycling. This was (and continues to be) the greatest decision I’ve ever made. I’m happy, well adjusted, have lost all the weight (and then some), am fitter than I’ve ever been, live with my amazing girlfriend, and, perhaps most importantly, believe in what I’m doing. Currently, I’m working as a game designer (and artist, and programmer, and bizdev dweeb, and producer) at Flashbang Studios.

The reason for relocating to AZ was to join up with my good friends, who had recently founded Flashbang. Flashbang is our realization of the common and naïve game student dream. As in ‘once we get out of college we’re going to start a game company together it-will-be-aweshome!!!11!One!!’ Well, yes and no.

What is exciting about working at a small, independent company is the sense that I’m in the driver’s seat. If I’m working on a project, it’s my dream. I’m not toiling away in a dank quarry, hauling blocks across miles of boiling sand to build someone else’s pyramid. If you’re going to grind your life away in a masochistic profession – and make no mistake, game development is unadulterated masochism – I say to you this: make it mean something. Spend your life making meaning. Create things which excite you, which get you out of bed early in the morning and keep you up late at night. Create experiences which will set minds on fire and inspire, in turn, to create experiences for others. We all have a reason for wanting to create games and, at some level, it boils down to an experience we had playing someone else’s creation, their dream. What was that game for you? Think of that experience. Now, imagine giving that experience to someone else. There’s just no excuse for hunching over a keyboard 80 hours a week, forgoing health, hygiene, socialization, and everything else a balanced life needs, to squeeze out something you don’t believe in. A paycheck is not a paycheck. Don’t drink the Koolaid. Eject!

So, Flashbang’s original plan was to create a hit casual game which would leave us bathing in cashmonies, opening our ‘tech tree’ to interesting, innovative, physics-based projects. As it turns out, this was and is much more difficult than one might suspect. We’ve done much better picking up small contract projects (we recently did a teaching game for Cisco Systems – for their internal sales staff) and cranking them out quickly than we have spending months fretting over the minutia of our casual titles. That said, up next for us is something interesting, something truly ‘indie,’ which I’m exceedingly excited about. Anyhow, I realized quickly that Flashbang was going to need some bootstrapping, so I started looking around for teaching jobs, which is how I found the Art Institute of Phoenix.

What is teaching at the art institute like? Is it satisfying? What are your responsibilities?

I must say, it’s been one of the most rewarding, fulfilling, and enjoyable experiences of my life. There is Yiddish word, naches, “pride from the accomplishment of a child or mentee” which synopsizes the feeling nicely. Many of my students have graduated and gotten awesome jobs. This fills me with a sense of satisfaction, purpose, and meaning I’ve rarely known. Two were recently hired (out of school, mind you) to work on Warhammer Online (one as character artist, no less!) There’s nothing quite like the feeling of watching them get their dream job, of having helped them on their way to that success. I think that no matter what I do or where I go, I’ll always want to be teaching.

As for the particulars, the classes at AIPX are four hours long, which means that you really need to plan well to fill the time with content and keep the energy level high. Honestly, though, once you’ve meticulously planned a class out week by week and run it a few times it takes little effort to maintain. And if you’re teaching an art centric class it tends to boil down to a lot of one-on-one time spent helping individual students. I’ve convinced them to put all three of my classes on one day, which is something they don’t normally do (3 classes * 4 hours + travel time = 16 hour day), but which I’m very happy with. This means I can work full time on Flashbang and fun prototypes while having my bills and expenses handled in one day of teaching.

As far as responsibilities, you’re required to show up for each period of each of your classes. If you cannot make it to class on a particular day, you’re responsible for finding a substitute teacher, prepping her, and informing your academic director of the change. If you cannot find a substitute, there is a list ten tiers deep of phone numbers and contact information you must go through until you can find someone to be in your classroom during your allotted teaching time. Past that it’s up to you to decide what’s important to teach and how to teach it. You must provide students with syllabi and weekly plans, create any handouts or exercises needed for your classes, and keep detailed grading records. This ‘paper trail’ is especially important as any student can, after receiving a grade in your class, “challenge” this grade, which leads to a formal inquiry. If you can’t provide substantive proof that the grades issued in your class are the result of fastidious bookkeeping, meticulous grading, and some kind of underlying scale or system, there are problems. Essentially, you can’t arbitrarily assign grades because a student makes you feel icky. This may sound a bit daunting, but the answer is to create a “rubric” for each and every assessment you give. Here are some of my rubrics:

For the Board Game final in my Game Design class
For the ChuChuRocket assignment in my Level Design class
For playtesting Soldat maps in my Advanced Level Design class

…and a weekly plan (to be thorough):

Weely Plan for Level Design

The students are, for the most part, bright, excited, and naïve; the way we all were. Occasionally you get stinkers. Sometimes you get kids who you like personally but who you have to fail because they don’t show up or have problems getting their work done. Sometimes you have to give people A’s who you simply cannot stand on a personal level because they show up and do good work. Occasionally, someone will sit there looking at filthy tentacle porn during class (the preceding sentence contains zero hyperbole, btw.) It’s the Law of Averages, really – you’ll see the gamut, from brilliant to…not so much.

It takes a little while to get used to having the sort of responsibility one has as an instructor and to feel comfortable wielding it, but it seems very natural to me now (after two and a half years teaching.)

Hows the pay?

The pay is reasonable [email if you’re interested in exact figures – sswink (at) flashbangstudios (dot) com]. Really, it’s about how little effort goes into a class once you’ve already prepped and taught it. I barely think about my classes during the week. Some occasional grading and emails – little else. It’s not like having two jobs, it’s getting paid to hang out, help people learn, and share the experience of working in the game industry for one day each week.

Are there positions for environmental art / level design teachers?

Yeah, totally. The major at all Art Institutes that carry it (there’s one in San Diego) is “Game Art and Design.” The emphasis is primarily on the art, though. Obviously, I represent the voice of design here in Phoenix, but the final output of the major is a high quality demo reel and portfolio web page, so most classes are geared towards art. I can’t speak for other AI schools, but here at AIPX we always need additional qualified instructors.

What kind of qualifications are required to teach at a place like the art institute?

Because it is required by their accrediting body, you must have a Bachelor’s or equivalent to teach at an Art Institute. This is somewhat unfortunate, honestly. Schools deny themselves the benefit of quality game instructors because of it, as many of the best and brightest simply didn’t go to college, or found it wasn’t for them. My partner at Flashbang, Matthew Wegner, an amazingly brilliant guy, dropped out of college. It simply wasn’t for him. I looked at getting him in at AI – there’s just no way to get around the accreditation thing. But, hey, you should look at the colleges in your area. They might be more open. Never know till you try. Matthew ended up teaching an online course which paid well and didn’t require he have a degree.

To sum up: I can’t recommend teaching highly enough. The extrinsic rewards, though somewhat sparse by certain standards, are far outstripped by the intrinsic rewards. Naches, ahh…

Stick around for part two: “What should I teach these people?”
..and part three: “How should I teach these people?”

Next Page »