Touchy Feely

Gamasutra have an article up discussing ‘game feel’. It’s one of the the aspects of gaming that we writer types have the most trouble in describing comprehensibly. The intro to Steve Swink’s article captures some of the reason for that difficulty, and the nebulousness of the concept:

Proxied embodiment. Game feel. However you describe it, it’s hard to deny that the sensation of controlling a digital object is one of the most powerful — and overlooked — phenomena ever to emerge from the intersection of people and computers.

There are lots reasons for this, but the main one is that game feel is slippery. It’s mostly subconscious, a combination of sights, sounds, and instant response to action. It’s one of those ‘know it when you feel it’ kinds of things. If it’s off by just a little bit, a game’s goose is cooked. If it’s “responsive”, “tight”, and “deep”, it can be magical.

The article goes on to look at various elements of what makes feel good in certain games, and not others. It’s a developer-focused article, giving some idea about how developers might create a ‘garden’ testbed for getting feel right in their game. More on this subject after the hop.

I’ve been thinking a great deal about ‘feel’ and wondering how best to talk about it. The problem, I think, is that discussion of this stuff ends up getting quite complex, even academic, and that’s just bothersome for a casual readership and the writer. I’ve been bashing out a book over the past few months and it’s impossible not to touch on the subject in a few places. I realise now, with the blasted thing almost at the printer, that I’ve failed to deal with it in any suitable fashion…

Anyway, one of the quotes I dug up during the book writing seems relevant here. It’s from an essay by RPS chum Matt Jones, in which he talks about the relationship between play and design: ““Whether thrilling or relaxing, one thing that games designers can teach those wrestling with other more general forms of interaction design is a mastery of ‘flow’. Identified by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, flow in human experience “is a mental state of operation in which the person is fully immersed in what he or she is doing, characterized by a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and success in the process of the activity” (to use the Wikipedia definition). Flow and play are inextricable – Csikszentmihalyi refers to the “playground” environment necessary to attain a flow state, and the balance of challenge and ability that governs the flow state is essential to the sustenance of good play.”

I can’t help thinking that what people are talking about when they refer to the ‘feel’ of a game is its capacity to get us into a flow state. We reject games with a poor feel because we aren’t able to get into that state. It’s somehow analogous to listening to music: we’re just able to enter the pattern completion of certain types of music, while our tastes seem to reject others. Games with bad feel can still be played, but they irk us, like dancing to music we don’t enjoy.

The issue of game feel arises because of the organic, tactile nature of most videogames. It’s particularly acute when there’s a continuous feedback loop between the player and the game, as in action games like the Mario games cited by the article. That loop – information on the screen that we respond to, which then changes thanks to our response, which then causes us to respond, ad infinitum – is why “feel” needs to be carefully measured and considered by game designers. I’ve been playing various games all weekend that could have done with a little more fine tuning with the feel business. Universe At War’s camera is too slow and too closely cropped, and delivers a mildly claustrophobic experience, for example. In a completely different way, Unreal Tournament 3’s ‘damage-feel’ doesn’t quite have the right visual and kinetic effect on your experience for your to understand where pain is coming from, and how intense it is. And that’s a bound up with the spectacular effects the team employed:

Then again, feel almost always ends up being ludicrously subjective, as every discussion of the climbing/jumping aspects of Assassin’s Creed seem to reveal. (I think that’s the best part of the game, while John is appalled at the weird demotion of the jump button.)

So perhaps what best characterises “feel” is the extent to which game controls and game feedback allow the inertia of your playing the game to develop, and how regularly it cuts it off. If the game seems to flow physically and experientially, we’re happy and comfortable with it. The beginning of Assassin’s Creed stop starts and doesn’t really allow us to just get on and evolve the experience at our own pace. The later game – the city sections – are far smoother and allow us to get into the zone a little more deeply.

When a game stop-starts and makes us feel clumsy, our sense of flow is lost. I think this ties into the reason why we become rapidly bored of some games, while others balloon into whatever time we can give them. The better the feel, the more involved the flow, the less we seem to be aware of the passing of time.

Of course “good feel” is only ever going to emerge from an averaging of player tastes and expectations. It seems that that’s only going to be possible via obsessive playtesting and educated responses to the findings of those playtesters. There’s a reason why Blizzard games have captured so many spare hours, so readily: we’re almost never bumped out of enjoying them by the way they feel. That, I think, can only come out of making a game that everyone finds easy to play.

29 Comments

  1. Andrew Mayer says:

    Wow. I think you’ve really expanded on Gamasutra’s ideas in an interesting way here. Getting the player into a flow state is vitally important whether it’s a platformer or an RTS.

    Having spent a year designing an action game that was intended to generate this kind of feedback, I’ll say that one thing the article really misses out on is the importance of clear animation. Expectations need to be fed back to the player as reactions. It’s not as easy as you might think, especially since input is never quite instantaneous.

    As for Assassin’s creed, you’re right on. I had a chat with one of the designers in a forum, and it was clear that they didn’t have time to really work on the game once the gameplay elements were complete. When you look at all the problems with the game it’s pretty clear lack of polish is the common denominator.

  2. schizoslayer says:

    Flow isn’t exactly a new or recently discovered concept as it relates to games design. It’s been on the required reading list of everywhere I’ve worked (largely because I keep putting it on the lists…) and most of what makes a game feel good can actually be explained using combinations of cognitive psychology, HCI and some maths.

    Throw in proper datamining tools so you can get feedback on how people are trying to play your game and you can quite easily tailor the design to meet what people are attempting to do intuitively instead of second guessing their instincts.

    The Wii is good for this reason. The movements of the controller allow for people to do what they would do naturally when faced with certain stimuli rather than push their reactions through a translator in their brain to make it go to their thumbs (admittedly with practice the brain creates shortcuts that make this process take less time/attention but that isn’t the point).

    Understanding how people think and move and react is a huge part of designing a game that feels good to play. Unfortuantely there is still a large proportion of designers that aren’t interested in understanding the reasons somethings are good and some things are bad and would rather believe games design is made up of a magic ability you either have or haven’t got.

    To admit that the scientific process has a part in your job seems to remove the mystery from it.

    And to counter the inevitable retort of “If games can be designed by science why don’t we use it to design the perfect game” then I leave with this:

    Flow is just one small part of what makes a game great. It’s greatest effect is in the behavioural aspect of enjoyment IE the act of playing. You still need to have a great idea before you can sit down and polish it.

  3. Muzman says:

    I get the impression flow theory’s popularity is behind alot of the streamlining/ nerfing/ simplification in games today; like say Bioshock’s “death” system or lack thereof (among other things). Once I read a bit about it seemed to explain a lot of seemingly irrational (ar ar) design decisions in games lately.
    Anyway, I think this is only part of the broader topic of “Feel”, but Thief, and Dark Engine games generally, still have the best (for want of a better term) player interface I’ve ever encountered. By this I mean the way the player moves in the space, headbob, the way the player steps in general , FOV, springiness of the lean, things of that sort. It’s a tremendous factor in the immersiveness of those games and something too many games seem to ignore (whoever knew how important this was didn’t end up working on Thief: DS, even though that game was pretty good). Granted something like Thief’s ‘interface’/avatar feel isn’t always appropriate for every game, but something like, say, Deus Ex is an unpleasantly clunky beast to play and could have really benefitted from some care in that area.
    But of course its a bit of an intangible many will say doesn’t make much difference or they don’t “notice” (and then others will find Thief’s way more likely to make them want to hurl than Deus Ex). It’s an interesting area.

  4. schizoslayer says:

    I actually think the Bioshock Life Chambers came about because of the ridiculous load times suffered whenever you try to load a save.

    See also focus testing and people complaining that they lost their progress by dying.

    I actually blame the rise of WoW for the expectation that death or loss shouldn’t carry a penalty.

    Flow doesn’t mean make the game easier. On the contrary it often means making the game harder. A Game that is too easy leads to boredom as your skills aren’t challenged which breaks the flow state.

  5. Muzman says:

    I agree (and no doubt those design descisions are a combination of things), but if my suspicions are correct (and given how little they’re based on, probably not, but anyway…) there’s a bit of faddish zeal for it going on these past few years. The sort of faddish zeal where certain principles are crudely applied with little thought for the synergy with other elements. Of course it could be said that sort of thing has always been going on. There’s just been a few moments recently where it seemed like some game mechanic was lifted straight from the book like it’s a magic bullet to keep people playing (“minimal penalty for failure” is something I’ve seen bandied about in association with flow, hence why the vita chambers might have twigged me there).

  6. schizoslayer says:

    There is a trend for never punishing the player which I don’t like. This has been mutated from “never unfairly punish the player” to “Never punish the player”.

    The difference is that the player should never be punished for something they have no control over and that punishment should follow sufficient negative feedback to prepare the player and help them learn before it occurs.

    Possibility for failure has to exist in some form. The severity of punishment for that failure is scalable based on the risk involved. Rock Climbers have massive risks associated with their sport but the point of the sport is to further their skills to minimize that risk as much as they can. It’s an integral part of the experience for them.

    The risk of failing to read a word correctly the first time is very low and the punishment is mild frustration and embarrassment.

    The Vita Chambers are bad because they removed the need to learn or better your skills by replacing the advancement of yourself with boneheaded persistence (If that isn’t a statement that can be traced to MMORPGs then paint me pink and call me a blancmange). It ultimately doesn’t matter what you do because you can’t fail at it.

  7. schizoslayer says:

    To further my point: Halo lets you die and it doesn’t interrupt the flow state. Multiplayer games let you die and that still doesn’t interrupt flow. You integrate failure into the experience and learn from it.

    The point where failure becomes frustrating is the point where the game has thrown a challenge at you that is way off the difficulty curve. Failure is not the cause of frustration and won’t break flow it is just a symptom of a larger problem.

    Boredom and Frustration are the most likely reasons a Flow State will end (aside from the concious choice to end one) and removing failure isn’t going to remove frustration and will inevitably increase the rate at which a player becomes bored.

  8. Iain says:

    I actually blame the rise of WoW for the expectation that death or loss shouldn’t carry a penalty.

    This is precisely why I stopped playing Bioshock.

    This kind of life-death model in an FPS, having no penalty for death, defeats the entire object of the game. If you can’t die, where’s the risk? Where’s the tension and excitement? Combat becomes a matter of persistence instead of skill – especially when you’ve got enemies like the Big Daddies that can mullah you in one or two hits.

    If anything, Bioshock is worse than WoW for the whole life-death thing, because if you get killed in WoW, the mob that killed you will have healed any damage you did to it by the time you retrace your steps and retrieve your corpse. In Bioshock any damage you do is persistent, so you could take Big Daddies with the chuffing WRENCH if you wanted to be boneheaded about it. Then I realised that the game actually gave you an incentive to die: it gives you back health and EVE, so you don’t even need to use health packs and EVE syringes, as it’s “cheaper” and quicker to just die and resurrect.

    And that was the point when I put the disk back in the DVD case and didn’t take it out again.

  9. Brog says:

    This trend is an overreaction to the hideous punishments inflicted upon the player by some games.
    e.g. not being able to save anywhere even to quit the game, checkpoints that make you fight through a whole level before dying repeatedly on the boss..

    Presumably we’ll eventually swing back to the middle, and hopefully stay there.
    The ideal save system (aside from roguelikes, which is HEART so so good) is just sensibly placed automatic checkpoints.

  10. Bozzley says:

    WoW penalises you for dying in the one area you do have a finite resource – your playing time. 5 minutes of tedious running back to my corpse? No fucking thank you not very fucking much (see also: armour damage).

    Bioshock does have a shite system for dealing with player death, but you’ve neglected to mention that it doesn’t restore your ammo. This isn’t a big deal really either (as stated, the wrench can always be used effectively), but it’s surely worth a mention.

    Sorry for the swears, but I’ve only just got back into playing WoW, and I’d forgotten how much I loathe dying in that game. I really, really hate it.

  11. Iain says:

    Most deaths in WoW can be put down to player error (accidentally aggroing multiple mobs, panicking in PvP, soloing in contested areas, etc) whereas in Bioshock they’re more due to difficulty spikes. I can take the time penalty in WoW because, more often than not, it’ll be my fault that I’ve died, not a flaw in the game design.

    I get annoyed with Bioshock making me retrace my steps after death because it actually makes the game easier to play: I don’t have to use all my resources to get rid of a tough enemy – I can just die and repeat, die and repeat and wear them down with attrition, and that’s not why I play FPS games.

  12. Piratepete says:

    To be honest I had a bit of a marathon Bioshock session over the weekend, and once I became tired I realised that I was just rorting through it, dying frequently and only suffering a slight annoyance of getting back to the point where you died. Prior to this I had tried to keep myself alive, but cos I was tired I ceased to care and just ploughed onwards ever onwards. As soon as I realised this I realised the game had lost some of its sparkle for me. Shame.

    However to reiterate the point I was making in the gameplay versus graphics thread recently, it is the gameplay, flow if you will that really creates the dynamic tension in the game. I don’t think you need DX10 for that otherwise we wouldn’t have us all obsessing about games.

  13. Schadenfreude says:

    Direct link to the article:
    link to vodafone.com

  14. Thelps says:

    I believe the ultimate detracting aspect of a game to the slightly nebulous concept of ‘flow’ is overt game mechanics placed in a game by a slightly hyperactive developer (that’s a MOUTHFUL). It’s my firm belief that a game that takes place in a quasi-real setting (i.e. anything that isn’t a full on, abstract, puzzle-game, like Tetris, for example) needs to react to the player’s input in the expected way. That is to say that if I knock over a barrel, the barrel needs to fall and tumble like one. If I shoot out a car’s tires, the car needs to swerve and behave like a blown-out car. Any aspect of a game that interrupts this assumption of reality is, by relation, interrupting my suspension of disbelief and detracting from my immersion in the game. I attribute the rise of physics in games to this attitude, since, even in a game like Half-Life 2, I would argue that the presence of physics as a background effect (rather than as a direct game mechanic, as seen with the gravity-gun, physics puzzles, etc.) contribute almost as equally as their directly intended purpose (see game mechanic parentheses).

    The subject of death, as discussed in this thread is probably the hardest issue to address to the player in a manner that doesn’t shatter the immersion of the game, since the game can’t, by definition, render death in an authentic way (short of deleting the game from your HD and rendering your CD-key useless). Death needs to carry a suitably heavy penalty so that the player genuinely fears it, but the consequences of death cannot frustrate the player overly, or, if they do, death has to be envisaged, by the developer, as something that will happen very rarely, and only, as mentioned by Schizoslayer, after numerous negative warnings have been issued to the player that if they continue their pattern of mistakes, they will die.

    The holy grail of death, in my opinion, is a consequence that the player fears, that penalizes them in some way, but, crucially, that DOES NOT cause them to reload a save game.

  15. Chris R says:

    I didn’t really enjoy Prey (only played maybe the first 1/3 of the game), but didn’t that game put a spin on the death system? It’s been about 2 years since I’ve played it, so my memory is a bit fuzzy, but I seem to recall going to a “spirit world” whenever I “died” and I could shoot… spirits? or something to gain my health back before coming back to the world. I remember thinking that it was pretty cool since I didn’t have to hit a reload button.

  16. Seneca says:

    Actually, I think the criticism on Bioshock vita chambers is a bit misdirected here as they are mostly a design remnant from the System Shock series. System Shock 2 had _hideous_ loading times on my old machine back then but I still dogmatically refused to use the resurrection chambers (or whatever they were called). A curious quirk was that you could only resurrect in the section you died in if you had activated the chamber there. If the chamber wasn’t activated, dying took you straight to the main screen (I always wondered why I couldn’t just resurrect in the previous section).

    An interesting version of this whole resurrection business is playing one of the original Doom games in Nightmare mode. The player has infinite lives but starts every level from the beginning with only a half-loaded pistol in hand when he dies. On the negative side, the monsters do resurrect too and stay dead for only a minute.

    As a result, the whole gameplay dynamic changes. Instead of every mowed down wave of enemies taking you closer to your goal, the carnage serves no discreet purpose. You have to pin down the focal points of a level (keycards, levers) and then blitz them. Keycards are a bitch, as they are not recovered when you die. Doors opened by pulled levers thankfully stay open. Health boosts and other bonuses do not regenerate so the levels get harder on multiple tries.

    Massive adrenaline-fuelled fun, especially on multiplayer.

  17. Kieron Gillen says:

    Iain: You don’t think WoW kills you unfairly? In a game where an enemy can just spawn beside you when you’re in a struggle, I think you’re plain wrong.

    KG

  18. Jens Arnesen says:

    In regards to dying in Bioshock, yes, it’s a bit silly that you resurrect without any penalties every time you die, but that doesn’t mean you have to exploit it. The res chamber function in Bioshock is only as bad as you make it yourself. if you try to immerse yourself in the game and actually give a damn about trying to stay alive instead of the much too common “oh-hey-it’s-a-pre-added-God-mode” attitude, you won’t be nearly as annoyed about it.

  19. Piratepete says:

    Kieron tho. Baby. Darling. Is that not a little erm how do I put this delicately. N00bish to fight where you know something is likely to spawn? If you need a hunter to show you how to pull I know a good one on Aszune :)

  20. Kieron Gillen says:

    Yes, but point being Bioshock is over by the time you’ve moved beyond Newb stage in WoW. It doesn’t matter if you learn your way around it – it’s just shit.

    KG

  21. Piratepete says:

    I’ll give you that the mechanics in Wow are very simplistic relative to most modern games, but I don’t think bioshocks Vita chambers improved ‘The Death Experience’ either. (God that sound horribley like a sales and marketing meeting.)

    “Ok people, blue sky thinking now. How can we improve ‘The Death Experience’ for our customers”
    *Draws box in air with fingers
    *faceless exec raises hand
    “Ok Roger, hit me” points a roger with other finger on nose.
    “Erm well the thing about death is that, well its eternal isn’t it”
    “Great, thats far too long a time for the busy housewife with kiddies. Make it shorter,Next!”
    Points at another faceless exec
    “Go Urquart!”
    “Am i right in saying that when you are Dead you can’t actually move”
    “Brilliant Urquart, make death a more…mobile experience. Fantastic!”

    etc etc.

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