The Coefficient of Clean pt.3
Tuesday, February 8, 2011 at 6:42PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Clean Design

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Gameplay is made up of player actions sometimes several thousand a minute. Through whatever controlling method, gamers interact with the virtual worlds or computational systems. The entire experience is half-real; the code/rules/complexities being the virtual part and the player being real. To build this bridge, games use feedback to keep the player informed. Visuals are the main avenue, which makes sense because our sense of sight makes up about 80% of our total sensory impression. Sound and force feedback are typically designed to complement the visual feedback. So for games that are very complex (many particular game rules) and games that are very emergent (rules mixed and matched to created countless scenarios), it's easy to see why feedback is so important.

Let's assume that you're designing an action/fighting type game called 4EveryAction. So far, all of the visuals and hitboxes strictly follow form-fits-function. What you see is what you get. Animations and objects that look dangerous are dangerous. Everything else reacts accordingly. Good job. So far, the game is very clean. Unfortunately, the cleanest mechanics design can still produce cluttered gameplay. 

Feedback is a critical part of the action-reaction pair that drives the video game medium. If you can't tell exactly or mostly what happens when you swing a sword at an enemy target, then there's a serious communication problem. So imagine in 4EveryAction that the cool player character executes the smoothest Ninja sword techniques to fight off a group of robot enemies. Yes, the attacks look cool, but you can't tell if you're doing damage to any particular robot target. All you see is a flurry of blade motions and every now and then a robot enemy explodes. You might wonder which attacks are the strongest. You might wonder how exactly the enemies are getting hurt. You may even for a brief second doubt that you're even playing the game at all. When gameplay is so cluttered that the feedback becomes obscured or unintelligible, the very core interactive relationship between the game and the player breaks down. 

In the old days, feedback was pretty simple. If you hit an enemy, it'll blink, glow red (or some other color), or die in one hit. Or if you shoot a weak spot you'll hear a different sound effect. With simpler games (fewer complexities) the range of feedback was smaller. Now, because games can be quite complex featuring a variety of mechanics and interactions, the need for more sophisticated feedback has increased. I've written about highly communiative visual elements here, so much of the following will touch on new examples and recap the old. The following is a list of feedback features.


Hit Pause

Hit pause is the distinct pause in the game or localized action due to some kind of interaction of game elements. It's largely used with melee attacks to visually communicate the impact of two bodies of mass. Super Mario Bros. provides a classic example. If you get hit as Super/Fire Mario, the entire game pauses while Mario shrinks down in size. The whole effect lasts less than a second. In the pause players get a moment to analyze what went wrong. The newer Zelda games also feature this hit pause. In Wind Waker, Link's killing blows on enemies have a slight pause that is greatly emphasized when killing multiple enemies in one strike (see here). In Super Smash Brothers (Melee/Brawl) stronger hits have greater pauses. And let's not forget the dramatic pause/slow down from getting hit by a fireball in Super Street Fighter II turbo/HD Remix (see here). 


Hit Spark 


This feature helps players see exactly where two hitboxes meet. Collisions can occur in the blink of the eye, so sparks mark the point of collision and linger briefly. In Super Mario Bros., when a fire ball hits an enemy or a wall, there's a small round fire spark. The beam sword projectile in Zelda NES has a very distinct spark animation as well. The sparks in more complicated games like Street Fighter or Smash are very important. Depending on the attack and whether it hits a block/shield sparks vary in size and color. 


Unique Animations

If every interaction in a game was followed by a distinct, unique, or appropriate reaction animation, the feedback communication would be greatly strengthened. For some games doing this can be very costly. So I'll take as much as I can get. Super Smash Brothers Brawl has unique animations depending on the elemental type of attack. Attacks burn, electrify, imbue with dark smoke, or plant players into the ground. From tripping, slipping, to tumbling off platforms, this game is filled with unique animations.

Another great example is StarCraft 2. More so than in SC1 upgrades are visibly apparent in unit animations and models. Zerglings grow little wings. Marines hold shields. Etc. Animations that differentiate a destroy building versus a canceled building is very important providing crucial information to players and commentators. Furthermore the new death animations from burning, slashing, and acid attacks in addition to the remains of each unit are great visual feedback for getting a quick snap shot of the battle state (see here).


HUD / Notifications


In terms of feedback, it's common for games to use abstract visual elements. When you get a kill in Call of Duty multiplayer or in a Halo firefight, the little number that pops up can be the clearest piece of feedback. Because these numbers are a piece of HUD (heads up display) that doesn't exist in the game world, the numbers stand out.

Likewise, lifebars are used extensively across many genres. Lifebars are great for gauging how much damage attacks do over time. The text in the Street Fighter games provide critical pieces of feedback that would be difficult to communicate otherwise. "First attack," "reversal," "counter hit," "hit combo," and "technical" are phrases that are discretely displayed to help players understand frame tight interactions.


Sound Effects

As great as visuals are, it's certainly possible to overload the visual presentation of a game. In terms of reflexes, humans respond more quickly to audio stimuli than visual stimuli. Also, for games of limited perspectives like FPSs, sound effects (whether mono, stereo, or surround) can inform players of a wide range of interactions happening out of view. My favorite example of being a sound ninja, as I call it, is from playing Metroid Prime Hunters on the Nintendo DS. With headphones, the game does a really good job with positional audio. At my best I could count the footsteps of my opponents as they moved around the 3D environment. I could tell what weapon they had and if they were charging it all with sound. 

Sound has a lower bandwidth in terms of information flow to the brain. It's a much different process to focus and filter out sounds than it is focusing our vision. We generally hear in 3 major pitch ranges (high, med, low). If a game's sound design packs any one area with too much sound, the entire soundscape can be cluttered.

More than any other types of sound design I can't stand radio chatter (which is popular in shooters today). I find it hard/engaging enough to simply play a game for the first time. So, usually, I can't hear a single word of radio chatter past the first utterance. This is particularly frustrating for me when new objectives are only transmitted via radio chatter. 

I tend to favor minimal sound design, which is inherently clean. Have you noticed that the sound effects for grabbing coins or rings are Mario/Sonic are much higher and shorter than the rest of the soundscape. These interactions are designed to punctuate gameplay and the soundscape. The JUMP sound effects for these games are much lower, which allows them to blend in more smoothly to the more mid-low range background music. For a more modern example of ultra minimalist sound design, Mega Man 10 gets away with very little. 

Wiimote sound design is a highly effective sub-section of sound design for Wii games. Instead of emitting sound out of the TV speakers which can blend into the overall soundscape of the game, sounds can be directed from the controller in the players hands. The Wiimote speaker/sound quality isn't impressive in itself, but using Wiimote sounds on punctuated interactions can have a powerful effect. When sounds are used to accompany Wiimote motions (like swinging a golf club in Wii Sports) unique, contextual feedback is possible. Finally, with local multiplayer games specific Wiimotes can emit sounds. This way, everyone can know who grabbed the coin/powerup/item based on their seating positions. DKCR, Super Mario Galaxy, Wii Sports, and Twilight Princess are examples of good sound design. 


Force Feedback


Like sound design, controller force feedback can provide another channel of information to the player. It may not have the same bandwidth as visuals or even sound, but when used well it works. Feeling out bomb-able areas in Zelda with force feedback alone is my favorite example of force feedback design. 


So let's say that you go back to your game, 4EveryAction, and you add every single type of feedback element described above. Does this mean that you're game has clean feedback design? Not necessary. Cleaner than it was before? It depends. The final feedback element I want to discuss is also the most important and the hardest to perfect. The biggest problem that exists across the most genres of video games is... 


Camera Design


If you think about it, I've already explained why improper camera design is so detrimental. Because sight is such a stressed sensory impression when playing most video games (making up +80% of the feedback), camera design, which controls exactly what is displayed on the screen, controls the presentation of all visual feedback. From 2D side scrolling platformers (Mario) to 3rd person action games (Ninja Gaiden) to isometric/top down puzzle games (Precipice) camera design is a big deal.

So even if you have everything else perfectly tuned, if the camera view in 4EveryAction is constantly blocked by walls or enemies the gameplay will most likely fall apart. If players must control the camera as much as he/she controls their characters, precious mental resources can be used making the game harder to play. 

Even for cases that aren't as bad as the hypothetical 4EveryAction, consider the problem Devil May Cry 4 has. The player character Nero takes up a large portion of the screen (usually the center). Because of the size ratio, when you attack targets in any direction along the ground, the action is easily obscured. If you attack forward (into the background) Nero's body obscures targets. If you attack left/right, the targets can be off screen when contact is made. And if you attack towards the camera, there's a good chance the target is either off screen or directly blocking the camera. See for yourself. The action is fast, but the interactions are unclear (click around in the video for different battles).

Obviously, the camera issue is a two part problem. 1) Where the camera points including player control over the camera. 2) What needs to be displayed to play the game effectively. Sometimes, various special visual effects, sparks, explosions, and flares actually obscure or clutter the visual presentation of a game. In these games, everything can be clear until the action starts. Then suddenly you can't see so clearly. The visual effects in Geometry Wars (not the DS version) are some of the most colorful, firework-fantastic, and cluttered effects I've ever seen. 


In part 4 we'll look how emergent behavior can clutter the fiction and form of a game. 

Let me know what you think of this article. (get it?)

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