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The Coefficient of Clean pt.4

One of my greatest accomplishments of 2010 in the gaming space was writing the An examination of Skill 19 part article series. In it I used some neuroscience research and careful thinking to articulate some of my theories and explain various phenomena. It turns out that speed is a very unintuitive concept to grasp. To quickly recap, increasing the speed of a game doesn't necessarily increase the skill ceiling of gameplay. In fact, making the game faster shifts the relative importance of individual facets of skill along the skill spectrum, generally putting more stress on knowledge skills. Along the same conceptual lines, gameplay that requires or allows rapid action can suffer the same drawbacks making for a less clean interactive experience.
Action Frequency
So many Joes! So much action. 
Previously in this article series I explained the importance of actions and their reactions. Such interactivity is the heart of gameplay. The faster the speed of a game, the less players can actively see. This is an issue of reflex and knowledge skills. The less a player can actively or consciously process (in a timely manner), the harder it is for the player to absorb and use any kind of feedback from the game. If a game lets you play (inputs and actions) at a speed that's beyond your ability to keep up, then the emergent action can create clutter that works against the gameplay. 
Cancels (discussed in part 1 of this series) can certainly increase the action frequency of a game. When there are too many poorly designed cancels in a game, the player can spend more time spamming buttons and canceling moves than seeing any action from start to finish. Many have faulted fighting games for button mashing especially when this tactic is effective against players playing "normally" (or should I say consciously). If you prefer games where players make interesting choices, then rapidly inputting tens of actions per second practically removes the volition from each action. Action frequency when too high can influence players to turn their brains off. 
Action frequency mainly applies to spamming non continuous actions. If you spin the analog stick around in a 3D Mario platformer, Mario will merely move in a circle. There's no clutter in this smooth and continuous action. This is different from rappidly inputing the same action or different actions. With continuous actions the feedback players look for is consistent and simple, which is very different from unleashing a series of attacks on a target. 
The following are a few examples of games with high action frequency (measuring the potential for rapid action not the necessity of it). 
  • Meteos (DS). In this touch based match puzzle game, there's a technique called scratching that involves the mindless scribbling of the touch screen to luck into matches. Scratching is highly effective. At my best, I could barely consistently beat a scratching player (when I played consciously of course). 
  • Marvel Vs. Capcom 2 (see video) and Super Smash Brothers Melee (see video). Using cancels these games push the action frequency way up. There's no doubt that these games have a lot of depth. But it's also clear that the players use a lot of knowledge skills (LTM) to compensate for their inability to see the game action clearly as it happens. 
  • Wii Sports Tennis: One design feature that I can't stand is that players can rapidly swing their tennis rackets at a high frequency. I don't mind designing the motion controls in this way to give people a little leeway when attempting to time a Wiimote swing with the on screen action. But on a more competitive level, the rapid action gives players many chances to hit an incoming ball. So with this technique there isn't a tough choice to make between hitting the ball early, right at your side, or a bit late to alter your shot. Furthermore, using this technique produces somewhat random results between these 3 options thus creating mindless action. 
(emergent) Behavior-Fits-Fiction
Link's curiosity and behavior has consequences.
image from
Fiction is very important in a video game. The entire concept of form-fits-function is built around how people relate to in game interactions intuitively with real world experiences. In other words, the consistency of the fictional world in the game is important for its story and gameplay. Developers work hard to create characters that act like themselves. Mario runs and jumps. Master Chief shoots and punches. All of these actions fit. On a mechanical level developers have a lot of control over this area. But once the controller is in the hands of the player, odd behaviors can emergence.
No one can stop a player from playing however he/she likes. I assume most of us play games to win most of the time. We try to get to the end of the level in Mario. We're not content with just roosting up on a ?-block and taking in the sights as the time ticks down. We see little point in playing World 1-1 and intentionally running into the first Goomba over and over. This functional drive also shapes our behavior. When moving from point A to B, we tend to look for the safest or fastest option and then look for ways to make our experience more fun. So for sake of cleanliness, designers have to be careful designing mechanics that give optional yet more efficient (safer/faster) ways to move and play.
Normally, developers focus on combat mechanics so that one move isn't too powerful creating a dominant strategy. But it seems that much less attention is put on simple movement mechanics. The following is a list of games with emergent movement techniques that warp the look and feel of the game. 
  • Castlevania: Symphony of the Night. The back slide is faster than walking. With a little dexterity you can master a near constant backwards sliding state. 
  • Shantae: Risky's Revenge. Just like in Castlevania, the continual back slide is faster than walking or jumping. 
  • Yoshi's Island 2 DS. I'm not sure if anyone else knows about this, but if you have baby DK on your back and you use his shoulder ram special ability on slopes, you can duck to cancel the ram while preserving the horizontal speed. Sure, the move is exhilarating because of the speed burst. But this bug looks completely ou to place.  
  • Counter Strike. Bunny hopping is the repeated use of moving and jumping to increase movement speed, become a harder target to hit, and possibly link into other advanced techniques. Because of these advantages, competitive players will prefer to move in this way. All of a sudden, the realistic tone of the game is hampered. 
  • Super Smash Brothers Melee. The wavedash is a controversial technique among Smashers. Using the directional air dodge players can slide along the ground instead of just sticking the landing. As great as unique, emergent ways to play are wavedashing added more than one kind of clutter to Melee. Wavedashing made it so that players don't have to commit as much to their actions. In other words, taking away more cons from characters doesn't make the game any deeper. It just pushes the metagame around in strange ways. It also adds a spamable, hyperactive, speed option to play and possibly a skill barrier. When taken to an extreme level, combat can be filled with lots of static space and spastic play.  
  • Zelda: Ocarina of Time. In this game moving forward normally isn't the fastest mode of travel. The side jump or back flip when in Z-lockon mode is noticeably faster. So instead of walking across Hyrule field, some players will turn 90 degrees to their destination and jump away. It looks odd to say the least. (see video)
  • Zelda: Majora's Mask. In this follow up to Zelda:OOT, rolling is faster than walking. Get used to rolling everywhere. Fortunately, each of the new mask transformations (Deku, Goron, Zora) are the best method of traversing air, ground, and sea respectively. Rolling is a bit spamable in Zelda: Phantom Hourglass, so in the next game, Zelda: Spirit Tracks, after 3 successive rolls Link gets dizzy. This little change is enough to discourage and "correct" player behavior. 
  • Mario Kart DS (see here) and F-Zero GX (see here). Snaking is another controversial technique. In real-life racing, to achieve maximum speed on a straight path, race cars must drive straight. Turning even slightly slows things down. But in these two games, there are techniques to increase your top speed that require racing in a serpentine motion, hence "snaking." It's somewhat unintuitive. It's odd. And it's undeniably effective. 
  • Golden Eye & Perfect Dark (see here). If you strafe with the C-buttons and move with the analog stick, you'll actually move faster than with either option. Notice in the video how the player navigates the level slightly turned most of the time.
  • Where We Remain. A lot of top down indie games program D-pad movement mechanics that create similar emergent movement quirks as Perfect Dark. If you've ever notice in a game that you can move faster diagonally than in a single cardinal direction, this is probably because the character is actually moving in two directions simultaneously to achieve the net diagonal motion. Add this to another distinct example creating that indie feel


In part 5, we'll look at arbitrary limitations, static-space, and excessive complexities.  

« The Coefficient of Clean pt.5 | Main | The Coefficient of Clean pt.3 »

Reader Comments (6)

Hey, love your blog..

Just one thing: I really liked the comic you used in this post, but you didn't link back to where it came from.. I'm sure you'd be pissed if someone took your - clearly extensive and well thought out - research and used it to provide commentary for a comic without giving you the credit you deserve, so it's only right you do the same, right?

Sorry that my first comment here has a negative feeling to it, but I just thought I'd bring it up nonetheless..

Keep up the sweet work - it's great to see someone really thinnking about games in the same way I thought I did until I read your blog!

February 9, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterJonic

@ Jonic

True that.

Sometimes I don't know where the pictures come from (I just do google image searches).

But for this image, I thought the website was clear enough in the bottom right. I'll go back and edit in the link so it's perfectly clear.

Thanks for keeping me on my toes.

February 9, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Thank you for another great series!

I think that pointing out the link between player state and game fiction is a keen insight. Like a lot of your work, you've described a phenomenon that not only feels correct - and almost obvious, after having been stated - but that already existed as murky, half-examined opinions and prejudices in my own thinking about games.

I also agree with your comment about how the affect of adjusting the speed of a game can be unintuitive. While this anecdote is tangential to your specific point, since it deals with player perception rather than player input, I found it interesting -

I made a shmup in which projectiles are attracted to the player's mouse, forming wild curves and swarms that were beautiful but fairly unpredictable. While prototyping, I remember being surprised at how doubling the frame rate from 30 fps to 60 fps had the effect of making the trajectory of groups of projectiles much more predictable and avoidable.

I'm not exactly sure why the increase in speed had this effect. It could just be that delivering the identical information more quickly makes it easier to predict the future behavior of the same group of projectiles. Regardless, it was an important example of how the actual information content of the game always needs to be examined in the context of where it will be processed... in the player's brain!

February 11, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterNoah

@ Noah


That SHMUP example sounds interesting. The intersection between our minds and the technical programming side of gaming is mysterious. Video games are so complicated, I'm surprised most games writers take the medium so lightly.

February 11, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

Finding small idiosyncrasies in games and taking advantage of them is an incredible guilty pleasure. And while I know that these oversights aren't conducive to the overall stability of the game, I still love them. It feels like an incredible mastery of skill and dexterity, the same sort of sensation you get from clearing batch after batch of 4 lines in Tetris.

So I agree that these emergent techniques do muddy up the gameplay, but they're so much fun that I wish more developers would maybe consider balancing them instead of rejecting them. The active reload in Gears of Wars seems to be this type of balanced incorporation. It very much feels like a repeating dexterity based glitch, it simulates that kind of esoteric mastery, but it's actually perfectly balanced and properly incorporated.

February 14, 2011 | Unregistered CommenterSlampire

@ Slampire

I love exploiting crazy things in single player games most of all. This is probably because I don't have to worry about other people using these techniques against me in multiplayer, and I don't have to worry about the balance of the gameplay as much.

Interesting comment about the active reload system in Gears of War. Like the developers took a technique like BXR from Halo 2 and said, what can we intentionally design to be like that. This also gave them a chance to balance it out and add the appropriate amount of feedback.

February 14, 2011 | Registered CommenterRichard Terrell (KirbyKid)

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