Wednesday, October 10, 2007

Deep Thoughts

A recent resurrection of my Gunplay post has led me to thinking. Perhaps it is time to summarize.

Recently I've been talking a lot about navigating the world. In my opinion, if you base your core gameplay around simply navigating the world in fun ways, you'll have a hit on your hands.

Examples abound. Skate lets you control your body and your board in an intuitive way such that moving around and doing tricks feels exceptionally natural. Crackdown makes climbing buildings and leaping from roof to roof excessively fun. Even in some not-so-spectacular games - like the recent Hulk and Spider-man games - the reviewers note that the game was fun until it actually started. Because it was fun to move around.

And, of course, Katamari.

There are also a lot of games where moving around is just a way to get from gameplay element to gameplay element. Most games are like this. Moving is important, but it's important because it lets you get behind cover, or reach an enemy without stepping on a land mine, or lets you push colored blocks into colored holes, or whatever. That's not deep navigation: that's shallow navigation. It can give you access to a fun play element, but it isn't, in itself, a fun play element.

On the other hand, games like Crackdown, Katamari Damacy, and Skate let you establish a close working relationship with the world around you. A random ledge is not simply something to use as cover or bypass to reach a better location: a random ledge is a place to grind a sweet trick, or a loose thing to collect when you're big enough, or a great place to grab on your way to the top of the building... the ledge itself can host gameplay. Of course, what things are considered elements of the world will vary on your game: Skate has no loose debris, whereas in Katamari most of the level is loose debris of various sizes.

An easy way to determine the depth of your navigation play is to ask yourself, "if this was an empty plane with a ledge/a ravine/a signpost/litter/etc, would it be at all fun?" If your answer is "no", your navigation is transparent and not deep at all.

Which means you'll have to work extra hard on the rest of your game.

Navigation certainly isn't the ONLY kind of play in your game, after all. (Unless you're doing a casual game.)

Every sizable game has other kinds of play that merge nicely with the primary play.

In Skate, you run around getting sponsors and competing and so forth. This is a great way to push the player to try new tricks in new places, showing off just how diverse the navigation can be. It also lets you make your skater look nice.

In Crackdown, you do a lot of shooting and punching people. However, your ability to shoot and punch effectively is directly related to your ability to navigate: things are safer on rooftops and you have an easier time getting the drop on people. Crackdown also has mission play where they twiddle the combat play. Even though the mission play actually screws up the game, because it's so fun, it's forgivable.

In Spider-man 3, you do a lot of swinging from a thread. However, unlike Crackdown and Skate, the other play loops don't really show off new and interesting ways to swing from a thread. Fighting involves NOT swinging from a thread and instead just punching large numbers of people. Missions are pretty bad, too.

How can you tell whether another play style augments the first? It's actually pretty easy:

Does the second play style push the player to play the first play style in new ways?

In Spider-man 3, fighting doesn't push you to navigate in interesting ways. In fact, it basically forces you to NOT NAVIGATE AT ALL. While it's part of the franchise (Spider-man always fights villains in the comics), from a gameplay perspective it's actually worse than simply not including it at all.

In Crackdown, fighting and missions usually reward you for finding weird back entrances, climbing high spires, scaling rocks, tightroping across pipes... while fighting (ranged or melee) itself doesn't include much navigation, the way it is integrated into the levels makes it require navigation before you even start.

Of course, Skate is kind of the ultimate example, because every mission is specifically to push you to navigate in new and interesting ways...

And all these feed back, too. Being better at navigating allows you to fight new battles in Crackdown. Being better at navigating lets you accomplish missions and get new missions in Skate. Being better at webswinging in Spider-man 3 gives you... NOTHING. Absolutely nothing!


Regardless of the play you want to augment, this argument holds. If you're making an RPG and you want to augment the battle play, you make a kind of play that encourages players to battle in new and interesting ways. This could be new and interesting enemies, new and interesting battlefields, new and interesting player capabilities, or a combination thereof. Obvious examples are progressing plots, gaining levels, and buying new equipment. Similarly, battling in new ways will unlock more plot, more levels, more equipment...

I think it's a pretty simple way of looking at things.

Is it clear? Can you break your favorite games (or least favorite games) into these kinds of linked loops (or notice the fail points of their linkages)?



Tr00jg said...

Great read! It definitely gives me something to think about. Nice food for thought.

Olick said...

Being a Half Life 2 fiend, I finished the main game of Portal this morning, about.. 6 hours after it was released. I actually did this while still getting 5 hours of sleep and getting to work on time.

Anyways, Portal is a game that, essentially, relies entirely on navigation. There was a little target elimination (sentry guns), but for the most part it was getting to the proper place, sometimes with a box.

And just using the portal gun in different ways can be fun. I didn't play around as much as I could this morning, but the real core of the game is how the developers work it into a very good puzzle scheme, and using the device becomes very natural by the end of the game. Playing Episode 2, when I was stuck, I started to look around for surfaces to portal through, before remembering I didn't HAVE that ability.

Obviously, the point of the game is to make you use the Handheld Portal Device, so pushing you to get better at it is strong. However, since there is not a very strong presence of any other gameplay ability, navigation is really the only thing there is. Using the portal gun to find better vantage points, is only useful to find another place to put a portal in order to move forward. This works great for the game, but it does leave the question as to how this may be creatively applied to other obstacles.

However, I suppose most of the Half Life series, is shallow navigation. Move for cover. Move for a shooting point. Move to get the key, push the box, break the board.
The Gravity Gun isn't navigation, but I think it might apply under the same sort of simple premise.

I wish I could think of a very old example, like an old 16 bit game, but I can't think of a good example to use.

Craig Perko said...

My computer isn't strong enough to reasonably run Portal. Sob...

Because of the limitations on old games, it was hard to make a deeply responsive navigation system. I think the fact that we see so few these days is just inertia.

There were a few games that used novel navigation. Bionic Commando, Star Fox, Marble Madness, even Master Blaster... but in most cases, they couldn't get enough responsiveness out of the system, so it's just hints.

You need to be able to do a lot of computations really fast to let the player have this much control. :)

Zach said...

Hey craiggers, I was going to post and say that you should play Portal as well because it's a kickass game and it's all about one simplish (is physics simple, or a known pre-existing condition?) mechanic used over and over again.

Another game where the basic moving about the world is fun and important is Loco Roco. It's an inspired and unique movement system that helps form a great gaming experience.

And of course the original, or one of the originals where moving through the world is at its core the most fun part of the game is Sonic 2, which I think is the one where you charge up and zoom off. Brings me back.

Craig Perko said...

I've played them, of course. I haven't played Portal because my computer can't handle it. But I've played Narbacular Drop, which is the predecessor.

Patrick said...

I think you may have implicitedly passed this principle on to me while we worked together. CuttleCandy's navigation is really about knocking the candies around and how you launch the cuttlefish to that effect. Since we moved to Unity we're talking about fluid-like physics, cuttlefish'll slide off barriers, stuff like that, lots of naunce to it.

I'm trying to get the same kind of deal in Loot but with lighting instead of physics. You dash around real quick in the light, sneak softly through the dark, and you can manipulate light to cover your movements or try to get someone else caught. So you don't nessecarily need a lot of cycles to pull it off, just a clever dynamic (that said we're precomputing the majority of the lights, the static ones, because you can never be too careful with Flash - as you know.)

Kevin said...

I can agree that navigation or some entertaining fundamental helps to make a game more entertaining overall. Starsiege Tribes is the best example of this I can think of. It would have been a very poor game, but the fundamental movement (skiing and jump-jetting to locations) is inherently fun. One can be entertained by this alone if nobody is on a server, and the combat merely adds upon this. Interesting post

Craig Perko said...

I'm glad this post has gotten so many responses: it's a topic that's very interesting to me.

If anyone writes up their own post about it, make sure to post a link here, so I can read it.

David said...

Two words:
Umihara Kawase

Emulates well on ZSNES. You are a school-aged girl who must navigate the landscape by hooking onto the level geometry with your springy fishing line/hook.

Craig Perko said...

Haven't played it, I'll look into it. Thanks!

David said...

It's pretty hard though. And cheap hard sometimes : )