Tuesday, May 13, 2008

Mechanics and Abstractions part.2

Yesterday, I made a post about the different kinds of mechanics a game can feature and what kinds of effects these mechanics could have on the gameplay. Now it is time to analyze mechanics through a set of criteria consisting of the player input, the form of the mechanic, and the range of effects the mechanic has on the game world. I've simplified things into a few factors.
  • Individual: Does the input yield the same action every time? Or can the input result in a variety of different actions.
  • Intuitive: A measure of the degree to which input method matches the form of the game. If there's a green button on the screen, and a green button on your game controller, the form of the game is liked to the input of pressing the green button on the controller.
  • Direct: A measure of how the changes in the method of input are paralleled with the action in the game according to the form of the mechanic. If you quickly press the green button on your controller, does the game quickly press the button on the screen? If you hold the button on your controller, is the button on the screen held down as well?
  • Dynamic: An measure of how the game world responds to the action. According to the form of the game world and the mechanic, does the world react realistically? What is the extent of the properties of the mechanic? Are the reactions to the mechanic special cases or can the resulting actions continue to effect the game world?

Super Mario Abstraction
coming to Wii and DS Fall 08

Here is the ranked list of different gameplay mechanic types from the most concrete to the most abstract.

1) Real Motion: Wii Sports: This game is quite revolutionary. By designing the wiimote and motion controls to reflect real life sports actions, the input for this game achieves the highest level of design. Each mechanic in Wii Sports is highly intuitive and individual. Boxing, batting, and bowling all have separate and distinct motions in the game as they do in real life. Players only have to hold the controller like they would a real tennis racket or a golf club. Swing the controller half way through a swing, and the on screen character does the same. Hesitate in real life, and the character hesitates as well. It doesn't get much more intuitive or direct.

By taking data from the motion sensors in the wiimote, Wii Sports adds a high degree of variance to each action which allows for the game to make the resulting actions realistic and dynamic. In an interview with the developers of Wii Sports, it was said that players wouldn't be able to do the same Tennis Swing twice because the system was so sensitive.

Because each sport is modeled after the real life activity, realistic actions support the goal and form of the game while making it highly dynamic. Other games that have reached this level of mechanics are Wario Ware Smooth Moves/Touched/Twisted.

2) 1 Button = 1 Action: Mario's jump: By simply hitting a button Mario springs up into the air. By letting go of the button, Mario beings to fall back down to the ground. The longer the button is held, the higher Mario rises up to his maximum height. The quicker the button is tapped, the shorter the jump. Such a design makes the jumping in Super Mario Brothers direct and dynamic. By pressing the button longer/harder players feel like they can push Mario onto platforms with shear will power.

I have a friend who thought the NES controller knew when you pressed the buttons harder to get higher jumps. He didn't quite understand that pressing the button harder and holding it longer were interconnected inputs. This only speaks to the excellent design for Mario's jump. Players don't have to know how the game works technically. All they have to think is, to jump higher, put some more "umph" into it just as they would in real life. Though it's not as intuitive as Wii Sports, such design is still very intuitive.

Because jump is the primary function of the Mario platforming games, the entire game world responds to Mario's jump both going up and coming down. Bricks, question blocks, enemies and higher platforms are affected by and react differently by an upward jump versus downward one. Jumping on enemies, Mario's most dangerous and dynamic obstacles, usually results with Mario squashing the enemies and rebounding back into the air with another jump. They dynamics of gravity, momentum, and the spacing of Mario and his enemies are constantly recycled within the dynamics of their interplay. Also, the jump button for a Mario game is always jump making the mechanic individual to the input. Other games on this level are Wario Ware inc.

3) Contextual Commands: Link's "action" button: In The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time, Link can do many actions. Push. Pull. Climb. Put away. Attack. Talk. All of these actions are housed in a single mechanic; the context sensitive action button. Though all the actions are still direct, intuitive, and dynamic (like a Mario game), the individuality of the mechanic has been sacrificed. Because the game is so well designed, the accuracy of the contextual action button is very high. In other words, the game and the player rarely disagree on which context sensitive action should be active at any particular time. This allows the player to fight, explore, and puzzle solve as needed without any hassle from complicated input configurations. Though the contextual nature of the action button is a level of abstraction, its ability to adapt to the specific game state is highly intuitive.

4) Actionless Actions:
Action RPGs like Tales of Symphonia, Secret of Mana, and Final Fantasy: Crystal Chronicals have attempted to add deeper and more engaging gameplay elements to their games by adding action based mechanics to their RPG formats. Existing somewhere between true actions games and more traditional RPGs, these games usually support functions that are intuitive, direct, and individualistic as other action game. However, the range of resulting actions from each mechanic, or dynamics, is where action RPGs usually fall far short. These games typically take short cuts by failing to draw accurate hit boxes for attacks or the characters. Also, the hit stun and knock back from attacks are stunted. Instead of using the form of being pushed down, chopped down to side, or being knocked back to communicate the differences of attack strength between different attacks, action RPGs tend to repeat the same stun animations while letting the damage display show how powerful the attack was. Players quickly learn to look at the numerical damage and a primary indicator of how well they're doing in battle. Such elements tends to make the game feel floaty and disconnected.

When a sword attack doesn't look or feel like a sword attack, then what makes it different from a punching attack when they do the same points of damage? This in itself can bring a game down because of how the forms and mechanics don't align with their functions. Unfortunately, from what few mechanics and limited dynamics action RPGs have, developers tend to add several layers of abstractions in attempt to make their games more appealing.

5) Issuing Commands: Final Fantasy series, Dragon Quest series, Pokemon series. Traditional PRGs: Everything from character stats, inventories, leveling up, and battling are all abstractions of equations and numbers. The concept of fighting a battle has been completely stripped of all features that are intuitive, direct, dynamic, or individual. For these games, there are no concrete mechanics. Players take turns giving commands that are essentially just data inputs on a spreadsheet. Even the active time battle systems typically don't add any elements of concrete design.

Attacking is all about turns and damage points. Surviving is all about holding on to at least 1 hit point. Because players can't avoid being attacked, the gameplay quickly boils down to attack-attack-heal. What else is there to do in such a system? You can't win if you don't attack. And you can't keep attacking without healing yourself. And playing well in a RPG means optimizing the equations and data.

The battle gameplay consists of manipulating menu after menu, and any attempt for a game to add dynamic interactions into the battle commands is crushed under the shear volume of attacks, items, and options. Take Pokemon for example. There are a handful of moves in the games vast array of attacks that have special prosperities. Normally when a Pokemon is frozen solid in a block of ice, it can't attack until it naturally thaws out, or the opponent uses a fire attack on it. The exception is, if the Pokemon has an attack called Fire Wheel, it can use it while frozen to thaw itself out. Though the idea of a Pokemon using a fire attack to free itself is great, why can't other fire attacks do it as well? Because Pokemon is an RPG that isn't rooted in concrete mechanics, even cool properties like freeing oneself from ice with fire wheel just becomes a special case, or just another piece of abstract data that doesn't match the form of the game, can't be understood intuitively, and must be memorized. Instead of making a few dynamic actions that generate countless of outcomes, RPGs feature hundreds of options that are largely the same and are reduced to a simple formula: attack-attack-heal. What may be worse of all is, the form in these RPGs are typically completely removed from their functions.

6) The Invisible Trigger: Assassin's Creed's spy mechanics & open world games: It may seem inconceivable that there are mechanics that exist at a higher level of abstraction than RPGs, but it is possible to design a mechanic that goes against or even punishes players for following the intuitive paths of form fits function. Open world games communicate to the player that there is a whole world for players to engage in. Unfortunately, creating a realistic virtual world is nearly impossible for game designers. At the end of the day, even an open world will have about as many limitations as other kinds of games.

Elements in an open world can't all react uniquely and accurately to the player especially when there are human characters involved. In Assassin's Creed, bystanders are either oblivious, pugnacious, or flat out unrealistic. And the same is true for the GTA series. For many players, such glaring limitations break the illusion of an open world and expose the game for what it really is; a limited set of rules that encapsulate a limited set of outcomes.

To cover up a game's deficiencies, developers like to take short cuts when designing player mechanics. In Assassin's Creed, players are supposed to use their stealth skills to eaves drop on conversations, beat information out of targets, and make assassinations. These actions seem to allow the player to accomplish the task in a variety of ways. Because the game world looks like the real world, the form tells players they can go about solving problems like they would in real life. Not only can players not do simple actions like eaves drop however they want, but they're extremely limited in how they can do it. In fact, in Assassin's Creed players have to go to predetermined areas to essentially activate the eaves dropping cut scene. Going from point A to B and activating a cut scene is a level of dynamic interaction that can be found in any DVD menu or on Youtube. It is hardly satisfactory for a videogame especially one that holds the form of an open world. Mechanics like these are farces with no dynamics that turn the player against him/herself.

7) Strict Progression: Zack and Wiki, Crimson Room: The forms, functions, inputs, mechanics, and progressions are highly disjointed. The player must continually learn new rules and parameters through sometimes frustrating trial-and-error and then discard the parameters because the game rules and strategies are inconsistent from one part to another. There's only one or a few ways to solve each puzzle/challenge. "Figure it out!" is the cynical gameplay mechanic.

The more forms are decoupled from expectations based on those forms, the higher the level of abstraction is within the scope of a game's mechanics. Today's post is very dense, so take a day to mull it over. If you feel like a challenge take your favorite game, or the game you're currently playing, and talk about some its mechanics. Describe it using the criteria and then rank it from 1-7. Tomorrow, I'll take a look at pairs of games that have similar designs but polarize between concrete mechanics and abstractions, and I'll share my thoughts on a new game that has gone out of control with abstractions. Until then.

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