Posts Tagged ‘super mario bros.


Player Consent and Responsibility


Over four years ago (!?!?) I wrote a post concerning how games do and don’t account for ambivalence in their pacing, which boiled down to the point that sometimes the player doesn’t want to fully engage what the game has lined up next for the player, and it should give them the space to decide when to engage it.  It’s a topic that’s come back to mind as I consider how I choose to engage Dragon Age: Inquisition.  I haven’t invested enough in that game to really judge one way or the other in its specific case, but it’s led me back to a train of thought about how games are structured around player preferences to maximize engagement.

This question of how and when to engage the player is a matter of achieving player consent to engage (e.g. when to begin the final battle with Lavos in Chrono Trigger.)  While this is not something that should be employed at every turn in a game (there’s got to be some room for surprise) the experience must first begin with soliciting and confirming the user’s consent to engage in what the game has planned.  It’s easy to see how this makes sense in cases of user experience design (allow players to skip dialogue, allow them to save at critical points before proceeding, etc) but it becomes more complex when applied to the “text” of the game itself.  “Text” meaning the content of the game itself rather than how the game and player interface with one another.  The player must first choose to listen to what the game has to say before it can successfully proceed in conveying its text.  Anticipating the player’s desires and navigating their preferences would appear to be an insurmountable task.  But this is something that is worth consideration in evaluating critically successful games.

Following from consent, the game must next instill a sense of responsibility in the player to respect the game’s rules.  When the game chooses to speak, the player must understand what is being said in addition to consenting to hear it then accept responsibility for its consequences.  And only when after this process of acquiring consent and accepting responsibility can the interaction follow.  For instance, in the very beginning of Super Mario Brothers, World 1-1, we can safely assume consent is acquired being so early in the game. And responsibility is instilled by creating a coherent set of rules to determine what the game means when it speaks.  Not jumping over the goomba results in failure.  Failure results in restarting the level.  Jumping and maneuvering is required in order to navigate the spoken hazards of the level.  Thus, the game instills in the player a sense of responsibility to protect Mario against those hazards.  Failure comes at the cost of the player’s time.  This creates anticipation and tension, but if the cost is too great, then the game will lose the player’s consent even if they understand and accept responsibility for its rules.  World 1-1 mitigates this by only increasing the cost of failure by what it knows the player is capable of.  They cannot proceed to the ending of World 1-1 without demonstrating they are capable of understanding what the game has said.

How do I tie this back into Dragon Age: Inquisition? I think many times, when a game makes grand promises, I meet them with greater scrutiny.  I have less time to play them now, and I’ve played enough of them that I want early assurance that what I’m doing is novel or new.  I’m also a tad bit overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of this game in particular.  I don’t have confidence I will play it well at first and, as a result, I don’t fully invest myself in it while I learn its systems.  I’ve consented to the game, but haven’t accepted full responsibility for the meaning of its text.  And that’s because it’s got so much to say! I’m not really sure what to make of it yet or why I need to care.  So, I joke around, play with the systems and wait for all of this noise to coalesce into an experience resembling what I think the designers had in mind for me.  At that point, they’ll have my full buy-in and I’ll fully play the game “in character.”  Games like Walking Dead and Saints Row IV accomplished this for me, and Dragon Age may yet as well.  In the mean time, this will be my experience:


Weekly Links for July 17th

Bonk! Er, wait. Wrong game.


What I’ve Been Playing

Bonus Video


It’s over, Dr. Fetus. You win.

Are you ready to do whatever is necessary to compelte Super Meat Boy?
I give up.  I’m not even going to try to beat the last level anymore. I might be able to do it eventually if I put enough time into it, and if I weren’t a baby. But I’ve got other games I want to play, and I’m afraid that in trying to force myself to complete that last level, I will just grow to hate the game (see image above.)  The question has become: do I ruin my fun with a game for the sake of completion, or do I give up and say it was fun while it lasted?  But after I put it like that, the answer felt obvious.  Why should I drive the game straight into the ground if I’ve already had enough fun.

Most of the games I played (and loved) when I was younger I never actually finished, and I never particularly felt like I was missing out on something. I’ve never actually completed Super Mario Bros., but I don’t hold that against it.  I reached a point where I couldn’t progress any further in Little Nemo: Dream Master, but I still love that game to death.  And during my first go around in Final Fantasy VI (spoiler alert) I just quit after your party fails to save the world, you wake up isolate on an island, the only other inhabitant dies, and your character attempts to kill herself out of despair(End Spoilers) It was an exceptionally depressing twist after investing 20+ hours, though it was an acceptable way for the game to end in my mind, and that’s how I left it for a number of years.

I can only speculate that the compulsion to beat every game you play came about as the gaming community emerged online in the last decade.  No one wants to admit to being the gaming noob that had met his/her match, only to then have somebody else come along and gloat about their leet gaming skillz.  And now, most games cater to that mindset, leaving no gamer behind.  Flavor is sacrificed for inoffensiveness, or flexible difficulty.  I don’t want to come off sounding like every game should brutalize the audience, but I prefer Super Meat Boy’s aggressive style over a more muted, yet smooth experience.  You shouldn’t have to finish a game for it to have been worth playing at all.


Ambivalent Gaming

[Check out a recent post that follows from this one!]

When thinking about interactivity, it is easy to think of verbs: things that are done. And when thinking about games, interactivity is the next concept to come to mind, as well as things you actively do in the game. Rarely does inactivity factor into the conception of interactivity. Halo, of course, isn’t remembered for the times where you’re not shooting guns.  And Super Mario Bros. isn’t remembered for that time you didn’t decide to smash a block. But are these moments being overlooked in favor of the yay button? Aren’t activity and inactivity two sides of the same coin? The oscillation between the two states is part of the idea of game pacing: when is enough action enough? When is it too boring? And when is it overwhelming? For relatively low-cost decisions (shoot, don’t shoot) determining when enough is enough is a straight forward task.

As more variables are introduced into game play though, the appropriate balance will be based more and more on personal preferences. The tendency of console games is to introduce novel twists on familiar game play, or to layer multiple game play concepts on top of one another. For instance, Mass Effect layers action with role-playing game mechanics.  It sells itself on the fact that the game play is complex in a way that requires you to imprint your preferences on it. But as game play becomes more complex, player preferences are not clear, even to the player. The result can be ambivalence. Should the player invest in one long term strategy, or another? How does he or she know when they are ready to complete a task? Most importantly: how does the designer know when the player knows these things? They can’t.

Ambivalence is something that a game needs to take into account, in addition to all of the things that can happen once a decision is reached. If the player is prodded into making a decision before they are ready, then they are less likely to invest in that decision, and the game becomes that much less meaningful to them. Discussion of interactivity is predominantly about the breadth of choice, and whether or not the player can create something that is uniquely their own. But if the player is forced to decide amongst 16 choices in the span of several minutes, those choices aren’t going to mean much, even if they are unique.

One example of ambivalence being considered well in a game is Chrono Trigger. Specifically the decision when to engage the game’s final boss, Lavos.  It can be confronted anytime after the mid-way point of the game. There’s no question about whether or not to fight Lavos in the first place. It is clearly established as the arch-enemy of the game. The question is, when does the player feel ready to engage an enemy with a seemingly infinite amount of power. There is no single prompt for the player to go and defeat it. The player fights Lavos when he or she feels genuinely ready. And for that, I feel that Chrono Trigger makes that fight more memorable to the player by leaving room for ambivalence.

For an example of where ambivalence is not taken into account, look at Silent Hill: Shattered Memories. The sequences with the Dr. border on being comedic. With little warning, the player must answer intimate questions. While I believe it was designed such that the questions are directed to the player, the game presents itself as being from Harry Mason’s perspective. In effect, these deeply personal questions are actually about Harry, and your role is to interpret what you perceive to be Harry’s answers. Without knowing Harry all that well, these questions are meaningless. And without an option to defer on questions and then answer them later, there is no weight to any decisions that are made. The psychology warning at the beginning of the game is entirely unwarranted. I was more afraid of the fact that Chrono Trigger knew I stole an old man’s lunch than Shattered Memories trying to pry at subconscious fears.

It may also be fair to say that part of success of sandbox games lies in player determined pacing, and deferment of significant decisions in favor of other types of game play. Games like Minecraft or Red Dead Redemption are rewarding in how freely you can explore the worlds being presented. You’re not being rushed into making a game changing decision or some sort of moral choice. And even if deciding to hunt buffalo or harvest wheat are less significant questions, they are more meaningful to the player than being forced to make a binary choice between good and evil.

Further reading: Why So Many People Can’t Make Decisions

No pressure


Game Complexity

Kojima would still use them all.

Every so often, the subject of gaming as a niche market comes up.  And the point that follows is that game cliches have saturated the market (e.g. space marines.)  And for that, games become stale and only cater to (and then become dependent on) the audience that embraces those cliches.  While I definitely believe that’s the case, I also believe that a significant contributing factor console/pc gaming becoming a niche market is game complexity.  Cliches can make games boring more quickly for newcomers for whom they don’t resonate with, but game complexity can deter people from playing a game in the first place.

Like trying to define interactivity in games, complexity is also tricky to pin down as a concept. A rudimentary way that I’ve looked at it is that with each successive generation of video game consoles, we see a more complex controller along with it. This allows for a game to give the player more simultaneous opportunities to act. Of course, it’s more accurate to actually look at what how many things a game actually lets you do, but none the the less, games have demanded expanded inputs over the years.

Console Number of Buttons
N64 11
Gamecube 10
Wii 6 – 10 (Nunchuk)
Game Boy 3
Game Boy Advance, SP, Micro 5
Nintendo DS 8 (Including Touch screen)
Sega Genesis 4 – 7 (3 & 6 action button controllers)
Sega Saturn 9
Sega Dreamcast 8
Playstation 9 – 13 (original and dual shock controllers)
Playstation 2 13 + (pressure sensitive buttons)
Playstation 3 14
X-Box 10
X-Box 360 13
Mouse-Only Flash Games 2

Take a game like Super Mario Bros. It makes full use of the NES pad which has three inputs (a D-pad, A, and B) and the only context you use them under is to guide Mario around the screen. Now look at Final Fantasy VII. It utilizes eight buttons on the PSOne controller. But it’s also a game that has three different contexts which you use them (in battle, in the field, on the menu screen).  Final Fantasy VII’s game complexity is 24, eight times that of Super Mario Bros with less than 15 years between their releases.

Not every game is quite as complex as that (though some are more complex.)  Console games may have needed to become more complex over time as their audience demands innovation that results in the merging of different genres (role playing, action, puzzle, etc.) We enjoy building on the ideas we’ve become familiar with, but a game with a complexity of 20+ is going to demand much more investment from the audience than a game with a complexity under five. Your working memory can only handle so many pieces of information at once and anything above and beyond that can really slow down your experience until you have gaming interfaces burned into memory.

So the console games industry ends up in a tricky situation.  Not only do publishers try to play it safe with game cliches, they also have to make them more complex as a cheap way to deepen game play.  Games become more complex to satisfy an audience that’s already skilled at complex games, but it discourages new players from joining in. Complexity also justifies costs. You rarely see budget games (sanely priced games) released where a less complex design would be justified.  Consoles are expensive machines, used almost entirely for gaming.  Releasing a game for one requires licensing fees, development kits, and experts that know how that console works. I can imagine it would be difficult trying to justify those costs for a game that releases under $60.  You’d have to release many budget games that sell well in order to recoup the investment. Instead, publishers focus on putting their eggs in a couple baskets and just trying to develop fewer games at a higher price.

These issues are made all the more clear when compared with games outside of consoles. The most successful web games are only controlled with a mouse, and cost less than $20. Many times they are free. There’s no license fee, no official quality control, and a consistent platform (be it flash, iOS, intel systems, etc.) These games have a much more broad market, while still allowing for more complex games. Compared with these, the console gaming is definitely becoming a niche market.  This is probably more of a danger to the console gaming industry than gaming cliches.


Comment: Inception

If you’ve gone to see Inception then I suggest reading (or re-reading) this internview with Satoru Iwata and Shigeru Miyamoto.

Miyamoto: Right, you run away. This gave us a real headache. We needed somehow to make sure the player understood that this was something really good. That’s why we made the mushroom approach you.

Iwata: Yes, that’s right. If you play the game for the first time with no prior knowledge, you’re going to run into the first Goomba and lose a turn.

Miyamoto: Right, which is why you have to teach the player in a natural way that they need to avoid them by jumping over them.

Iwata: Then when the player tries to jump and avoid them, there are going to be times when they get it wrong and end up stamping on the Goomba. By doing that, they learn in a natural way that by stamping on them, you can defeat them.

Miyamoto: As long as you stamp on them, you have nothing to fear from Goombas.

Iwata: But if you avoid the first Goomba and then jump and hit a block above you, a mushroom will spring out and you’ll get a shock. But then you’ll see that it’s going to the right so you’ll think: “I’m safe! Something strange appeared but I’m okay!” But of course when it goes against a pipe up ahead, the mushroom will come back! (laughs)

Miyamoto: Right! (laughs)

Iwata: At that point, even if you panic and try to jump out of the way, you’ll hit the block above you. Then just at the instant where you accept that you’re done for, Mario will suddenly shake and grow bigger! You might not really know what’s just happened, but at the very least, you’ll realize that you haven’t lost the turn.

Miyamoto: But you’ll wonder why Mario suddenly got larger.

Iwata: You’ll try jumping and see that you can jump to higher places and smash through the ceiling, so it’ll be clear that you’ve become more powerful.

Miyamoto: It’s at that moment that you first realize that the mushroom is a good item.

Iwata: That’s the reason why it’s designed so that whatever you do, you’ll get the mushroom.

Miyamoto: Of course it’s because we wanted the player to realize that this item was different from a Goomba.

Iwata: When I first realized that this had all been designed with that purpose in mind, I was really taken aback. When you tell people who weren’t aware of it that the start of Super Mario Bros. was designed with this intention, it’s rare that they won’t be impressed.

The thought that struck me while watching the movie was “Imagine a game designer with the power to architect dreams and plant ideas.”  When reading that previous interview though, it’s clear this is what they intend to accomplish.  Albeit they aren’t trying to steal your secrets, and their audience is not actually dreaming.  It’s not nearly as sexy as the movie, but the underlying, rudimentary idea is very similar.  The power of suggestion is used in anticipation of certain behaviors which ultimately induces a state of suspended disbelief in order to solicit a genuine response.

That’s the only way that a good game can unfold.  The game must always be two steps ahead of the audience and quietly direct their actions for a desired effect.  Don’t believe me? Then just go see Inception, it’s an incredible movie regardless.  But think about that idea the next time you’re playing a game, and think of how Miyamoto described how he gets you to understand that mushrooms are good.

Posts filed under…


My Twitter

  • Hi. This is Peter. Please leave your name and number after the tone. 9 months ago