Monday, October 21, 2013

The Wait And Click

There's a kind of mechanic that gets a bad rap: the "wait to click" mechanic. Largely considered to be a cheap and nasty mechanic for Facebook games, I'd like to consider it fresh. I think no mechanic is inherently bad, and there is some potential here.

The thing that made me reconsider this mechanic is KSP's new career mode, where you build science vessels. See, pacing is a huge part of Kerbal's appeal. You build for a while, then you launch, wait a bit, adjust, wait a bit, adjust, wait a bit, adjust... sometimes, the waiting can be quite long, such as if you're trying to reach Jool using a xenon engine and you just have to sit there and fire engines for fifteen minutes straight.

The waiting never feels too onerous because it's MY waiting. I designed the rocket. I picked the mission. And, sure, I'll pop off to program or sketch or browse the web during that time - but, again, the game isn't a Facebooky-abusive-scheduler game.

It's very possible to make a game that feels almost the same, but makes you angry about the wait. This is because player agency is, for once, actually important and delicate. People have talked about player agency so much that there's annoyed backlash, but put that aside for a moment: this is about allowing players to choose their wait, and adjust it.

There are a lot of games where you "choose your wait", but the wait always increases as you tackle higher-level play. That's not "choosing" your wait... that's railroading with a candy coating.

Even in KSP, it can feel that way sometimes when you're trying to do a solar orbital maneuver (say, to Juul), and even the highest time acceleration is just a crawwwwwl. I generally don't like going on missions to Juul because of that long wait, a wait that is forced on me. Of course, there are mods that could help - for starters, I could use an alarm clock mod. Let KSP run in the background while I go to work or whatever, it'll pause when it reaches the specified point. In this manner I could change the weight of time without changing the actual wait required. The less attention I have to pay, the less the wait weighs.

The reason I started to think about this so carefully is because of KSP's new career mode, as I mentioned. This has dramatically changed the pacing of KSP's missions. Now the mission's "active" points aren't the minor adjustments required to change orbit or land. Those still exist, but they're pretty mild compared to the catharsis of clicking science modules and uploading data, five times each module - click click click click, wait for the big broadcast to finish, click click click, adjust the timescale a bit so I get more sun juice...

People often dismiss that kind of gameplay - there's not any particular punishment for doing it poorly, and there's no particular expressiveness... in the end, every player will end up in exactly the same situation, performing more or less the exact same process. It doesn't even have any strong interlinking within itself - unlike a level of Super Mario Brothers, it doesn't matter if you do A then B, or B then A. There's no skill, no meaningful choice, no agency.

But there is agency in getting there in the first place. I designed the ship. I chose the mission. I placed the science components. I landed the ship.

That's meaningful. That's interesting. And the catharsis of the payoff is much stronger because I'm actually performing the payoff mechanics. The ship doesn't just automatically upload all the science: I have to do it. Even though there's no skill or meaningful choice involved, I have to take action in collecting the results of my labor.

This is similar to the old conceit of open-world games. The world missions are all static and railroady, but because you have to walk into the glowing circle and click, it is your choice to commit to the railroady mission. You don't feel railroaded because you chose to take on this situation at this time and in this manner. It's the same thing backwards: the reward is already decided by the time I reach the end of a KSP mission phase, but having to manually collect it makes it feel more real and rewarding.

I guess it might feel cheap to talk about this kind of gameplay as "gameplay", because it really isn't very good at being game or play. But it is very good at pacing the player, punching up their experience. It's a mistake to dismiss that kind of effect out of some kind of false pride. Sure, the mechanic is often used in trashy freemium games to abuse the player, but that's because it's effective. You can use that effectiveness in a decent game, too.

It's an interesting dynamic, and worth pursuing.

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