What Could be Simpler

The simplest games can generate complex experiences. So goes the rhetoric behind Halo: ‘find a play mechanic that is enjoyable and then provide a context in which the player has reason to experience this multiple times’. However, long before Halo’s release in 2002, two little dinosaurs were proving the validity of this concept in the fixed screen platform game Bubble Bobble.

The main experience currency of the game was bob and bub’s bubble play. Their main interaction with the game world was by blowing, nundging, jumping on and finally poping bubbles. This simple mechanic enabled them to capture and kill enemies, ride air currents, climb walls and trigger chain reactions. Once understood this made even most basic levels offered interesting space to play and experiment with these moves.

The purity of this dynamic was always repsected even when offering enhancements to these abilities. A limited set of power-ups, much like the restricted weapon set in better modern games, altered the play without breaking it. A yellow sweet meant you could blow more bubbles, a purple sweet mean you could blow them further across the screen and a blue sweet increased their velocity. All the time the focus remained on the action of player and bubble.

The scoring system again focused the action back on the player and bubble. Points were awareded for careful popping of multiple enemy bubbles, for jumping on bubbles, for popping bubbles. This meant that even the time between levels became playable, as the players would use different techniques to rack up a few extar points.

The clean levels, viewed in one screen, quickly became familiar. So much so that strategies could be planned when away from the game ready for the next session. Repeated play also revealed another aspect of these environments, the air currents that could carry your bubbles around. This opened up new possibilities for quick completion by craftly postioned chain of bubbles.

In addition to all this, there was then the causal system of collectable items. Your action of dealing with bubbles and enemies triggers a string of power-ups. The realisation that you affect the game on this again makes the detail of how you perform your basic moves all the more important.

The play experience of these two little dinasaurs turns out to be no accident. The joy of a chain reaction, or the perfect bubble jump, or wall climb, or multiplier kill has all been intended from the outset. Evrything that may inhibit this experience has been cleared from its path, while features to enhance and focus the play have been carefully introduced.

Inverse Look

‘Wait wait, my controls aren’t inverted, where’s the options’, a refrain commonly heard amongst gamers. The invert check box has become pretty much statutory for any first person shooter of the last five years. This little incongruous setting enables you to press down to look up or vi ca versa.

We can imagine the day that the feature was first discovered by users, possibly in SNES Starfox, and a whole section of the gaming public suddenly raised their game. Once discovered there was no going back for these gamers, it became so engrained in their playing psyche that any game without it became almost unplayable.

Now the debate rages as to which makes more sense “up is down, down is up” or “up is up, down is down”. While much of the rhetoric of these discussions is based on which makes more sense instinctively, we suggest that this is more a question of consciousness and interaction.

The question is where does the player put their consciousness in relation to the controller. What part of their body is the joypad controlling, their arm, their head; and how is this control translated to that body part.

headinvert.gifBehind: If the player feels they are controlling movement from behind their head with joypad , they are likely to find an inverted control scheme works best for them. Pulling back on their stick therefore tilts their head up and should move the play field up.

headregular.gifIn front: If the player feels they are controlling movement in front of their head, they are likely to find a non-inverted control scheme works best for them. Pulling back on their stick therefore pulls their head down from the front and should move the play field down.

There are many things that can affect where the player subconsciously locates themselves. It could be that an extroverted player is used to interacting in an open and forthright manner may feel they were controlling the game world from in front of themselves. Similarly an introverted player who is more reserved and withdrawn may feel they were controlling the game from a safe distance behind themselves. It could also be that those used to scientific work were used to manipulating theories in their heads and therefore controlling environments from behind themselves. Similarly, those used to artistic work may be more used to working with material in front of themselves.

These hypotheses are now becoming muddied, or maybe just more complex, by the introduction of different control schemes. Interactions now involve more than a simple thumb movement. Touch and gesture are being introduced to provide players with more imersive experiences. This inevitably affects where the player positions themselves in relation to the action on screen.

Although these control schemes are still in their youthful exuberant stage and will take some time to mature, they seem to have the general affect of pulling the players consciousness forward, into the game. If this is true, we would expect to see a trend away from inverted control schemes as the player increasingly considers themselves as part of what is going on in the game environment.

Plumber in a Half Shell

mario1.gifThere has been much debate over the additional power ups in New Super Mario Brothers. Do they add very much to the game, and how do they compare to our favourites of old. Possibly the most maligned of the new abilities is the shell suite. Admitedly following in line of mario suites that feature in most players favourite mario moments, this little outfit has its work cut out.

However, of the reviews I have read the majority have missrepresented this power-up that provided me with a good few interesting play experiences. Leaving the actual dynamics of clading the player in a new outfit to one side, the main issue here is understanding what the turtle shell gives you.

Firstly, there is the invulnerability aspect of the suite. This has been pretty well documented elsewhere. Essentially, you are safe from most enemies once you have got up to speed and are hid inside your shell.

Secondly, and this is less widely talked about, is the ability to destruct bricks from the side. If the only available face of a brick is the left or right, the shell enables you to bash your way through it. This is used in the game to provide access to some of the harder to reach secret levels and exits.

Thirdly, is the unmentioned ability of the suite to let the player slide up slops that they could not normally walk, run or jump up. This can be used (particularly in the ghost mansion level with dissapearing stairs) to easily access areas that previously would have been awkward or impossible to get to.

Finally, there is the aforementioned dynamic of having a whole new outfit for our little plumber guy. Something that gives the player the sense that their avartar is more real, in the game world.

For my play experience, the shell is one of my favourite power-ups.

Pledge your support to the blue shell suite, below.

Zarch: A Virus in your mind

zarch_screenshot_21.pngLet me take you back. To a time when the idea of 3d graphics was still something of a novelty. Something that had mainly been used in the slower space navigation games such as elite. The fast action shooters was still the domain of 2d bitmap powered engines.

Then, almost unnoticed a title appeared on the Archimedes that quietly re-wrote those rules. Zarch provided the player with a fixed perspective window of a large 3d space. Islands and sea were rendered in light sourced three dimensions. Then into this world arrived aliens that slowly infected the place, turning the green tundra to mud and soot. Tree’s decayed, fields turned to mud, alien pods were planted.

What first trikes the player though, is not the slow unwinding of the environment, but the sheer speed at which you could fly through it. At full pelt, the engine would throw a bewildering stream of land and sea at the player. They could accelerate both horizontally and vertically at rapid speeds. The experience became one of sensing the wider space you were exploring. This is the first time I had the real feeling of another reality that I was connected to, and could play in.

And this play was possible because of another highly distinctive aspect of the game: it’s control system. The game chose freeform play and flexibility over accessibility. The first time you launched your little ship into the unknown would go fine for the first 10 seconds. Then came the point where you needed to change direction, which usually resulted in much fumbling with the mouse until the ship flipped upside-down and rammed itself into the ground. Both curious and frustrating. (So much so that the Z-Virus remake of this game felt it necessary to provide and defualt to a different control scheme.)

Hoever, for those who persevered with this, there was a gem of a play dynamic to be found. It would slowly dawn on you that moving the mouse up did different things to the ship depending on its current orientation. And slowly at first you would begin to be able to fly in the direction you wanted. Then as you clocked up your fly-time, things would start to click into place, as you were able to hang the back of the craft out on an arced turn, or quickly flip direction for rapid braking. Eventually you hit the sweet spot and the experience was much like surfing around the place with your hand resting on an imaginary wave.

The rest of the game, the levels and enemies essentially provided a framework within which you could enjoy flying the ship, performing increasingly audacious maneuvers. Because of this the replay value of the game was huge, the opportunity to catch another ‘wave’ always beckoned.

We live Moment by Moment

I recently realised, whilst reading a review of a new computer game, what I am looking for in the games I spend so much time playing. It was what the review called Moments. Those times in the run of play, that give you a sense of being a part of something significant, of an unfolding epic. Whether its the clinching goal of a game of football, or the seconds before springing a surprise attack in a battle game. In these moments, you are caught up in the unfolding story, not just as a key player but as the chief protagonist.

The game has the job of establishing a story that you can become part of. When this is done well, it is inevitable that those momentary highs of enjoyment are delivered. And you discover that the game has inadvertantly become part of your life story, there is an emotional connection.

I was reminded of this again, when reading an article in the Times which told of games companies teaching their staff about classic story telling techniques:

“in an effort to introduce plot, character development and narrative tension to games. They had realised that although their games are addictive, few are emotionally compelling. I’ve never seen a computer game that made me cry” – Professor Jenkins of MIT.

More recently it has been collabortive multi-player experiences that have most moved me. A LAN halo 2 match, pitting three teams against each other, not only raises my adrenalin levels but also plays deeply with my emotions.

Game Experience Launches

Welcome to game experience, the place where you get to hear about every day people’s experience of the games they play. Offered as an alternative to overly technical game reviews, we are the soft voice of the gamers here.

We reflect on a wide range of games, but always want to consider the implications for todays players and games. We want to reconnect the play experience, old and new, as fresh players approach their game time in new and imaginative ways.

If you are interested in writing for our merry band and are willing to be profiled for our statistics then reply to this post. You need to be able to write coherent emotive descriptions of experiences you have had with computer games, whilst drawing on the latest developments in the industry.

Rainbow Density

rainbow1.gifAs we disucssed it was the controlled yet open play of Bubble Bobble that hooked players, slowly revealing more of it’s mechanics as they learnt the game. But what comes after one of the most accurately weighted platformers that all but defined it’s own genre?

The easy answer would be a follow up, reworking the graphics, adding levels and bonuses. But not for Taito. With a waiting crowd of gamers watching, they launched a game that again on first appearances was a rather basic, if odd little platformer. I remember having similar conversations with people as I tried to enthuse about how much more this was than it predecessor, without much luck. It seemed that rainbows and insects and platforms don’t lend themselves to parabolic rhetoric.

This rainbow3.gifwas a much denser game, even controlling the character and getting around the screen was a challenge in itself. I remember pumping an arcade machine with countless coins, still unable to make it off the first island. In fact so tricky was this experience, that it wasn’t until Rainbow Islands hit the Amiga that I really got started with it. The play dynamic took a risk, it was complex. The player moved differently depending on their context. If on the ground they could be controlled as usual, but once on a rainbow and they would always walk to the end once initiated, and jumping would crumble these fragile platforms. But givem time and the wisdom of these movements slowly embedded themselves in your head. You could start to perform similar bubble jumping tricks, just now it was rainbows that took the role of play-partner.

I was looking for what I had loved about Bubble Bobble, and not having much luck. Where were the simple fully visible levels, the sequential power-ups, the planning and chain reactions. All this seemed to be greatly lacking. But with some determination to obtain something out of this frustration a few chinks of light started to appear.

I slowly realised that the power-ups were now not only based on what else you had collected, but how you rainbowed the enemies. Knock a rainbow down on them and out popped a power-up. Hit an enemy with a rainbow and you got a point bonus item.

I rainbow2.gifremember the particular game when I noticed another pattern emerging for the diamond items. It seemed like the red ones were always on the left and the purples always on the right. Then the penny dropped. The place were the defeated enemy landed determined the colour. The screen was invisible assigned a strip of colour from the rainbow. From the left to the right the colours progressed, red, orange, yellow, green, cyan, blue, purple. The rest of my play that day was spent trying to collect the full set of diamonds, progress onto the later islands forgotten for a while. This was only intensified once I read that to really complete the game you needed to collect the diamonds in order on each island.

This kept me busy for a while, but gradually I continued the task in hand, getting to the last island and finishing the game. But not for long, as I soon started noticing another layer. Bonus fruits were hidden through the level and could be unearthed by dropping rainbows at ground level. Again the rest of that days (and weeks) play was spent re-exploring the levels trying to find all the bonuses. This had a secondary effect of turning the players attention back to the score as the challenge was now to achieve a near perfect maximum for each level rather than just racing through. Later plays on different systems reveal subtle differences, the Megadrive/Genesis version resetting the bonus fruits on each level whereas the Amiga version let the fruits continue to rise in value until the player died.

So with these things now understood, the rainbow dynamic, the power-ups, the diamond collecting and the bonus fruit. The player was ready to tackle the game proper. Here for me is the strongest aspect of the game, these various aspects could easily have detracted from the whole. Whereas in practice they meshed together, becoming a background of mini-achievements to the main aim of progressing upwards. Something modern games could do well to learn from this “less is more” approach. Game features need to be both balanced and integrated. It is important that they don’t detract from the key hook of a game, but at the same time add to the immersion.

Pro Evolution/Winning Eleven is a great example of this, where the strong football play dynamic is supplemented with well balanced and well fitted special and advanced moves. These are able to exist in the background of the play, tempting mini-achievements, that can be drawn on as the player is able, but never intrude on the run of the play.