Embrace The Abstraction
Friday, January 27, 2012 at 10:33PM
Richard Terrell (KirbyKid) in Abstraction, Announcements, Bangai-O Spirits, Medium, Pokemon, Star Fox, Zelda

This article was originally published in Codersky magazine. The issue is called "3D Engines in iOS Development." The magazine contains very detailed articles written for programmers. If you program or are involved in game development I suggest taking a look at this free article from the issue

Title: Embrace The Abstraction
subtitle: Gaining perspective on game design choices by examining the source of creativity and the process of communicating through a medium.  

Consider the purpose of the creative arts; to manifest or express one's creativity. Every book, film, play, painting, commercial, joke, and video game is the direct result of at least one creator. At the core of all of these mediums of expression is the idea of creation. We know that the individual parts of a creative work do not need to be unique inventions in themselves. Rather it's the bigger picture that we examine for its creativity. By taking bits and pieces from the world, creators filter their experiences and memories down to unique representations. And when we play video games, we're not actually controlling real characters and objects, but merely the creator's virtual representations. Though some games simulate real life objects and interactions with great detail, most video games fall somewhere in the middle of the extremes of the purely abstract and simulation. This middle ground is abstraction, a key concept in the foundation of game design.

Abstraction. Stylization. Simplification. These are terms that describe the act of creating a representation with some, but not all, aspects of the existing subject. Abstraction is an important part of the creative arts. How abstraction fits into game design can best be explained in a three part direction: creator, medium, and audience.

The Creator

Why do you make video games? You could be in it for the money or the fame. Working in the game industry may just be a job to you. But even if you feel this way, you should understand the motivation behind the game designers you work with. Personally, I make games because there are certain ideas and experiences I want to convey that are only possible in an interactive medium. As a writer, artist, and musician I have options. So I don’t feel pressured to create experiences in a video game that are incompatible with the medium. To understand what kinds of experiences are compatible for video games you have to understand that video games are learning systems. Using the same learning methods we've used since childhood, gamers can explore ideas in video games by interacting and observing the causes and effects of actions within the system. We can be thrown into a completely foreign environment and, one trial at a time, come to some kind of profound understanding. Video games test and engage us in more ways than any non-interactive medium can. For these reasons, video games have a unique way of communicating ideas and conveying experiences, which are intangibles worth playing and making video games for.

It's easy to think of gaming as an activity very far removed from reality. Gamers naturally draw a clear line between real life and the virtual, fantasy, and abstract game worlds of video games. When I shoot a red exploding barrel (can they be any other color?) I'm not releasing hazardous chemicals into the air. When I steal from a local shop, I'm not disrupting an actual economy. And when I clear a line in Tetris, I'm not defying the conversation of energy. On the other hand, though the game worlds are virtual, human players and creators bring a very personal and a very real element into the mix. Art, in this case video games, reflects the creator who reflects the world. The creators use their thoughts and feelings to create interactive experiences, and the player interacts with the creator’s ideas. Thinking about game creation this way, it's clear that along with the creator's thoughts and opinions comes the creator's biases. And it is because of these biases and personal views that we must embrace the abstraction within creative works like video games.

Embracing the abstraction is not about blindly agreeing with others. It's not about making compromises to what you like or what you value most in a video game. It's not necessarily about expanding the range of genres and features that you appreciate. Embracing the abstraction is a willingness to take that critical first step of opening your mind to, at the very least, consider points of view other than your own. It's about encountering something different in a creative work, something unexpected perhaps, and considering its purpose and the good that can come of it before dismissing it. We have to realize that everyone sees things differently and value things differently. Embrace the abstraction by seeing first, understanding second, and only judging if you have enough energy left.

"Lend your ears to music, open your eyes to painting, and… stop thinking! Just ask yourself whether the work has enabled you to walk about into a hitherto unknown world. If the answer is yes, what more do you want?" Wassily Kandinsky, a master of abstract painting.

Creative arts have little to do with presenting accurate to life representations or merely reminding us of things that already exist. Rather, creativity is better understood as the remixing of known elements to present the unique perspective of the creator. Video games are almost entirely fake, abstracted representations. The player is real. Player actions and consequences are real. The math that powers the system is real. But everything else is an abstraction. It's all an artifice designed to present a consistent system of familiar elements. So it makes sense for us to focus on how gamers relate to game elements rather than dwell on how realistic they are. Once you understand this fundamental level of abstraction in video games, you'll understand what it truly means to design. To design is to create a specific kind of bridge for a specific audience. Good design involves knowing what you have (the medium), what your options are (the decisions and elements you pick), and how these things will affect the end user. Now we have to consider the medium that contains our abstractions.

The Medium

The hardest part about being creators or game designers is getting an outside perspective on our own perspective. As much as we refine our craft, our blind spots remain out of sight. Some use theory to compensate. Others use feedback from their audience or their co-creators and adjust accordingly. Ultimately creators want to know if their ideas are coming across like they think they are. We want to know if the medium is successfully transferring their ideas. The tricky part is there is no one way or right way to to get the job done.

Embracing abstraction, the core of creativity, in video games requires understanding that there are no standards or universal feature sets that all game creators work toward. There are no standards for video games because there are no standards for people. In the same way that one designer can prefer turn-based gameplay over real-time gameplay, or shooting games over puzzle games, one can have a preference for any style or feature in a video game. Nothing is out of bounds here. Nothing is behind the times, obsolete, or antiquated.

For example, the Japanese development studio Treasure is known for creating shoot-em-ups that feature slowdown. While many consider slowdown as a unwanted relic of the hardware limitations of our past, not everyone shares this opinion. If eliminating slowdown was a standard for video games, we would never have games like Bangai-O Spirits on the Nintendo DS. This game features a sort of smart-slowdown that is contextual to the intensity of the gameplay. The more missiles, enemies, and explosions on screen the slower the game moves. Because the slowdown is always proportional to the chaos of the gameplay, players are able to keep up with massive amounts of action rather than having it all overwhelm their senses.

There may be no one way to create a video game, but many developers feel pressure from another source; technology. As a game designer you should take care to separate the aims and demands of technology from the personal expressivity and abstraction that is the creative arts. Video games are a unique medium. Never before has an art form been so closely tied to a rapidly increasing wave of development and innovation. Moore's law states the number of transistors that can be placed affordably on a circuit doubles every two years or so. This means that we don't have to wait long before there will be a newer, flashier, more powerful system to run our games on. Since the retro days of the NES, I've witnessed that colors have gotten brighter. Graphics have gotten sharper. Control devices have been upgraded with higher ranges of sensitivity. And enemies have gotten more numerous and intelligent. Any hardware limitation we face today will likely be a non issue in two years time.

The hardware limitations a game developer works with may set the technical limitations on the types of interactions, graphics, sound, and other features, but it doesn't necessarily limit the ideas and execution of the final product. Just because Super Mario Bros was made on the NES doesn't make it inferior to every Mario games released since. After studying it or years, I can confidently say that the design and execution of Super Mario Brothers is still well beyond the quality of many modern games. Regardless of the hardware that games are made on, at the end of the day great developers refine and tune their games into a high quality product. All creative arts are made under limitations of one kind or another. Time, money, people, space, and others resources are not unlimited. It is up to the creator to understand the medium including its limitations and the limitations of the current circumstances to put together a product that expresses their ideas. This is an easy concept to understand, but your reaction to the following examples may reveal your true feelings.

Random battles (also known as random encounters). In 2D and 3D role-playing games (RPGs) random battles are a feature that randomly pulls the player into a battle without warning. The Pokemon RPG series, one of the most successful long running RPG series, features random battles when players walk through tall grass, caves, and other areas. Pokemon is one of the few examples of a highly successful modern RPG with random battles. I must add that there are plenty of quality downloadable and indie titles with random battles like Serious Sam: The Random Encounter. Concerning the design feature, many have expressed that there is no reason for random battles in any modern video game. Arguments against random battles claim that no matter the platform there should be enough processing power to render enemies on the overworld so the player can engage or avoid them at will.

Put simply, technology is not a governing factor of design, merely a limiter of its technical upper boundary. For random battles, like any creative decision, there are pros and cons. The pros of random battles are its simplicity and sense of surprise. If you think about it random battles are the abstraction of a confrontation that's suddenly thrust onto the player. Random battles only focus on a few features of the enemy encounter; the surprise and the battle. In Pokemon, by whisking the player randomly off to a special battle space, the gameplay is compartmentalized, specialized, and focused all of which make the gameplay easier to develop than a large, seamless gameplay experience.

Notice how this abstraction invites a certain level of imagination or filling in the blanks on the player end. You don't know exactly what happens in the transition between the overworld and the battle scene. You're not sure why the background looks different or where the characters are. You can't say exactly where the enemy came from or where it goes after you defeat it. But you can imagine what happens, a type of engagement possible because of the lack of specificity. This invitation for interpretation can also be viewed as a con. Maybe you're the kind of player who doesn't want to use your imagination to fill in the gaps. That's fine. Just know that filling in the gaps, coming up with theories, and pondering about events is what humans do naturally to recognize patterns and bring order to their lives. And because we do this in our everyday lives, we also do it with the books, films, and video games we consume. So even if you don't like random battles don't assume that all players and developers are like you in this regard. And certainly don't think that random battles are inferior in every way to enemies that are visible on the overworld. To make this point clear, let's consider the opposite of random battles.

Visible overworld enemies are much harder to implement into an RPG development-wise than random battles. With visible overworld enemies as a designer you have to worry about enemy size, animation, vision cones, AI, model collision, and other factors. Without a doubt these additional features complicate the development. Of course, a developer doesn't have to implement all of these features into their visible overworld enemy design. In general, the more features one does add to their game to decrease the amount of abstraction, the harder it is to execute a highly polished product. If any component of visible overworld enemy design is designed poorly, the entire feature can lose its believability and its impact. If you’ve ever seen an overworld enemy walk endlessly against a wall completely unaware of what it’s doing, you know that poor AI design can make an enemy smart enough to be stupid.

If you are unfamiliar with the RPG tropes discussed above then consider this example of text based dialog versus voice acted dialog. It's not hard to find a gamer or critic who confidently believes that almost every piece of dialog in a video game should be voiced. To these gamers text is a relic of the past that we don't have to live with anymore. Why read when the game can read to us? The counter argument is simple. Because reading is unique and interesting in its own way, and there are pros and cons to every creative decision. There is no standard of features that all games are measured by.

Consider the following pros and cons of text versus voiced dialog. Text takes up little storage space and processing power. Text can easily be edited. Text can be easily entered by the player using virtual keyboards. Text leaves the experience open for the player to assign voices and their own sense of delivery to the dialog. Text lets the player experience the dialog at their own pace, which may include some rereading. Text doesn't clutter the soundscape of a game. Text can draw upon a wealth of literary techniques that have been refined for hundreds of years. Unfortunately, getting more out of text dialog or writing in general requires good writers and good reading comprehension of the players, two things which may be very difficult to come by.

Voiced speech allows the creator to deliver powerful performances to the player via voice acting. All the interesting inflections, tones, and accents of an actor can be captured in a video game voice performance. Voiced speech also frees the player's eyes so they can focus on other parts of the screen. Aside from higher production and technical costs, voiced speech takes over the pacing and delivery of lines. When playing, if a character talks too quickly for you to keep up, tough luck. If the delivery is too slow, you may be stuck with it. With voice acting it's tricky to skip ahead or slow down the verbal information. It can be difficult to understand voice performances because of accents or audio balance. I have the hardest time understanding radio chatter in shooters because the gun fire and the explosions often crowd the soundscape. And like with visible overworld enemies, there are more components of voice performances that must all work together to maintain its effectiveness. With a powerful, lively voice performance in a video game, if the story, tone, graphical style, or the character animations don't match the voice performance, the result can be somewhat dissonant.  

It's up to the game designers to figure out if a feature is a good fit for the experience they want to create. There are a lot of options out there. Knowing what options are available and how they stress a game's design requires a deep understanding of different fields, tends, and concepts. Learning what the video game medium can sustain is essential for understanding how video games work. And by “work” I mean, how the gamer fits into the equation.  

The Audience

Playing video games takes a lot of player participation because games are interactive. Interactivity stresses many skills that passive entertainment cannot. Such skill includes knowledge and adaptation skills in addition to dexterity, reflex, and timing skills for real-time gameplay. Building up one’s skills is a rich and engaging process that game designers should never underestimate. Every abstraction and idea the creator wants to convey passes through the medium before the player can experience it. From here the player must observe, analyze, and possibly memorize the concept. This takes much time and effort.

To significantly aid the learning process of the player most games are designed using familiar objects and actions. I call these familiar representations "forms."  So when we see Mario in the NES game Super Mario Brothers, we quickly understand that Mario is a man, which means he's a solid object capable of moving and other actions. His jump may be super human (hence the name), but it is still similar enough to real life jumping. What goes up must come down. Likewise, we can assume that Mario can't move through solid objects and gets hurt when he touches fire. Such is the power of using forms and other elements the player can recognize. Beware. While abstractions can simplify the gameplay experience for the player, they can also arbitrarily work against the player by making the familiar seem foreign.

By recognizing forms players can quickly create frameworks of intuited rules and expectations to support their learning process. In other words, we anticipate how gameplay interactions work based on how objects and actions look. Overall the goal of intuitive game design is to line up with the intuition of your target audience as much as possible. This is an extremely important goal to keep in mind. As a designer, know that if you abstract too much or alter the right combinations of features of the thing you’re representing, you can make the learning experience very difficult for the player. If you have ever played two games in the same genre that have different control schemes, you know how difficult it can be to adjust to small differences. For in general, it’s difficult to learn something, and even more difficult to unlearn what has been learned.

I think of intuitive design as a great boost to the quality of a game, but not necessarily a drawback when absent. Think about it this way. In the same way that there isn't a standard for video games, there isn't a standard of intuitive rules. To illustrate, consider the long running inverted-not-inverted debate. For first person shooters and some shoot-em-ups like Star Fox 64, it's possible to play with with the y-axis aiming controls inverted or not-inverted. For a long time people have tried to explain why one is more intuitive than the other. The non-inverted camp reason that the inverted gamers come from a background of PC flight simulators where the y-axis is inverted just like in real aircrafts. Therefore, non-inverted is the normal type of control. The inverted camp explains that to invert is to control the back of one's virtual head. But the heart of the matter is, any of these reasons can be true for any person. Some gamers actually are used to flight simulators, some gamers prefer non-inverted controls, and some gamers just adjust to the default settings which vary from game to game.

Zooming in on the issue, it's clear that your preference just depends on what you think you're controlling. If you think you're controlling the aiming reticle on the screen, you probably prefer non-inverted controls so that moving the D-pad, stick, or mouse up moves the reticle up. If a player visualizes controlling the rotation of an aircraft or the pivoting action of a gun in an FPS, then they probably prefer their controls inverted. There is no right or wrong way to visualize interfacing with a virtual system. Another reason why it's not worth critiquing a game's design on a lack of intuitiveness in most cases is even if you work hard making your gameplay as intuitive as possible to real life, other games and activities may train players to the contrary. In the end, how quickly and comfortably a player is able to learn and adapt to the particular complexities of a video game is more of an issue of difficulty design and conveyance, both of which are topics for other articles.


When you understand game design including the limitations of the medium, you can understand how the concepts of the creators are transferred to the player through interactive experiences. When you consider that nearly everything you put in a video game is a simplification or abstraction designed to focus the experience around what matters most, you’re free to design across the entire range of abstraction. When you understand how far you can abstract, you have the power to create more effective games that are easier to develop.

For my final example, consider the difference in the end result between the following two ways of modeling bullet ballistics in a shooting game. Starting on the simulation end, you can spend large amounts of time and development resources developing bullets that are affected by the wind physics, temperature, and gravity as they travel through the air. Unless you’re designing a military combat simulator, such a complex design is probably unnecessary. Most gamers do not understand ballistics to this fine of a degree to appreciate such a design. So, it’s would be good to consider a more abstract design. Hitscan is a simplification of projectile weaponry that registers a hit on targets in the cross hairs the instant the trigger is pressed. There is no travel time calculated for the bullet. So, you never have to lead your shots ahead of targets with hitscan weapons. Such a design is easier to program as well because it takes into account less variables. Some weapons in Halo: Combat Evolved and Halo Reach use hitscan design. The sniper rifle in particular registers an instant hit when fired no matter the distance between rifle and target. Hitscan ballistic design makes sense to players because it’s so simple. If the target is within aim when the player pulls the trigger, the target is hit. Because what you see is what you get, this abstraction of bullet physics may feel more accurate and realistic to players.

As designers and players we should embrace the abstraction within video games. Being open to different points of views, styles, and interpretations of systems, objects, and interactive elements will only allow us to enjoy more games and design better games. Embracing the different ways designers can communicate ideas through these relatable yet, in some ways, simplified representations is also a way to gain clarity and perspective on one's own thoughts and ideas. Be proud of video games and such abstractions.


Article originally appeared on Critical-Gaming Network (http://critical-gaming.com/).
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