Games have become increasingly flashy and cluttered with special effects, numerous enemies, bombastic sound, and poor representation of these elements in the overall balance of the gaming experience. It is obvious that games don't have to be this way, and, if you trace the history of gaming from before we had controllers and computer processors, you'll find that games thrive on simplicity, straightforwardness, and elements that clearly communicate their function and rules. Such values I privilege in my assessments of videogames. After all, at the end of the day, if you have two equally fun, challenging, and deep games but one has a high learning curve that involves hours of play before the player can begin to train their eyes to sift through the gallimaufry of graphics, and the other is so cleanly presented that even those who aren't into gaming at all can watch you play and not only understand what's going on but offer helpful comments and/or advise, then it is clear that the latter game is better than the other.
In this post, I'll take a moment to point out some of the trends I have found that most easily lead to creating cluttered gameplay experiences.
simultaneously moving and shooting
- Certainly some games handle this ability better than others. In general, the functions of moving and shooting work to deconstruct each other. In an FPS, if you try and shoot at an enemy, they'll probably move out of the way. As they're moving, they'll probably shoot at you. To keep yourself alive, you have to move as well while continuing to fire. Unfortunately, both character's movements shift the targets and thus the aim. This awkward shuffling dance is something I like to call the FPShuffle. At its worst, both players can't hit each other and dance around madly about until a lucky shot is delivered or some outside factor intervenes.
- In non FPS games, moving and shooting generally increases the negative space of a given battle field. Take Geometry Wars for example. Once the game picks up, as you move away from you enemies and thus from danger, you can shoot in the opposite direction. The enemies in this case don't have any projectiles to fight back with, so they must mindlessly pursue you through your trail of hot death. Relatively, when you continually move back and shoot as the enemies continually move forward and die, you're practically standing still. Think of it like running around on an endless plain of nothingness. No matter how far you go, you're really always at the same place: right where you are. Of course, the sides of the stages in Geometry Wars provide boundaries, but these boundaries do little to reduce the expansion of the negative space into an endless plain.
- Of course, when looking at cases of moving and shooting, you have to look at what extent each option is strategically important. In Super Smash Brothers Melee, the characters in the game have a lot of movement and dodging options. When players grab the super scope, fire flower, or ray gun, they have to fire it from a stationary position. Because these projectiles fire straight, they're relatively easy to predict and out maneuver. Before you say that the shooting function in this case is clearly secondary to the opponent's ability to dodge, it's important to note that the projectile wielding player still has access to their ability to maneuver, dodge, and most of their fighting moves as long as they're not firing. So the balance comes from using one's normal moves while switching strategically to the projectile. It's also interesting to note that Super Smash Brothers Brawl adding the ability for players to fire such weapons while moving. The ability to dodge multiple times in the air was added as well. It is clear that with the increase in air maneuverability and control comes an increase in to ability to shoot thus keeping both elements in check and balanced.
over powered player ability
- If the player has too much control and power over their environment and enemies, then the developers have to do increasing more to ramp up the difficulty in a game. Take Geometry Wars again. Because the player can shot a dazzling spray of bullets, the enemies are simply no match. To keep the player interested and challenged, the game eventually fills the whole screen with different kinds of enemies the majority of which can be destroyed with a single shot. Doing this not only significantly adds to the amount of base level information that must be processed for the player, but it eats up game resources as well. Geometry Wars Galaxies for the Wii features a two player offline multiplayer mode. Even on a system as powerful as the PS3, online play for this game would be impossible. The speed at which the games moves and the amount of enemies on the screen is too much information for our current internet speeds.
- Ultimately, the challenge in a game comes from the balance between the player ability to destroy the enemies and visa versa. Keeping the levels lower keeps the game manageable for the player and the technology.
speed of character/enemy movement
- In the same way that the player's power is only relative to their enemies, speed is also relative to the enemies and environment. If the enemy bullets in a game travel blazingly fast, and there is no cover/defensive system, the player has to be able to out maneuver these bullets by moving even faster.
- The sense of speed in a game can be created in a variety of ways. The most obvious method of creating speed is making the elements on the screen move faster so the player has less time to react to them. However, this same feeling of speed can be simulated by distracting the player. If the player just realizes a tiny slow moving bullet is inches away from blowing him/her up, then they'll feel that the bullet swiftly sneaked up to them regardless of how fast it actually travels. Giving the player a few simple things to actively process can fill their attention so that the game feels fast because of all the mental calculations they must do.
over bearing graphics/sound/special effects (especially for death animations)
- Everyone loves cool graphics. Beyond telling us where things are by giving the objects in a game shape and form, they can simply look cool. According to the design philosophies of "form fits function," any sound or visual element should fit the function it has in the game. If I shoot an airplane out of the sky, I don't want to hear it moo like a cow. If I dodge out of the way of an energy blast on level 6, I don't want to secretly get hit by the invisible part of it because the programmers forgot to tighten up the graphics. Likewise, when I destroy a tiny insignificant enemy plane, I don't want it to explode in a dramatic lingering explosion especially if the explosion effect obscures my view of the game. Everyday Shooter features very interesting vector graphic effects that at times can get in the way of the gameplay. There are times when I lost sight of my character or incoming enemy bullets because the explosions were so dazzling.
- Devil May Cry 4 has a similar problem. I feel that the developers were so proud of the graphics and animations they made for the main characters Nero and Dante, that in battle their flashy displays can be distracting and often obscuring.
- Game designers used invincible frames back in the NES and SNES days to develop the challenge of a game without having to do too much work. In other words, such developers did what they could with their limited time, resources, and, most importantly, experience, and I appreciate the hard work they put into their games.
- Now, there is no excuse for having obvious and excessive invincible frames for characters, and especially for enemies. Granted, invincible frames are completely necessary to create balance (especially for fighters). However, there is a skill and a craft into making them as clandestine as possible. Super Smash Brothers Melee does a great job hiding these frames by appealing to the 3rd dimension. If you get up from being knocked down to the ground, you have momentary invincible frames. If a projectile is traveling right at you as you stand up, it'll pass right through as if your character stood up and to the side dodging the blast. It's the same way for all the dodges in the game. You can even pause and see that the characters shifts quickly into the foreground or background to avoid attacks. The straightforward logic in these invincible frame concealments falls in line with the principle of "form fits function." Clearly being able to see a character side stepping a vertical attack needs no additional explanation.
- Even games like Everyday Shooter and Geometry Wars concealed invincible frames nicely. If the player blows up and is spawned back into the action, they are invincible for a few moments so they can get their bearings straight. To add a form that fits these invincible functions, both games change the look of the player graphic slightly. They appear to have a small shield around them. When this shield goes away, it is obvious the invincible frames have run out.
- Games like Devil May Cry 4 do a poor job of concealing their invincible frames. Knock an enemy down to the ground in DMC4 and you're free to slash them to pieces. But when they start to stand up, you can't do any damage to it at all. Your sword appears to pass through such enemies as if they were a ghost. What makes standing up so completely untouchable? You would think with all the next gen power in the PS3 and Xbox360, developers could have found a better solution.
combos that are practically a substitute for a standard attack
- Thanks to the work of developers like those at Capcom, combos are now ingrained into our videogaming consciousness. With a little skill, timing, and know-how, a player can string together a series of moves where, if the first hit connects, the rest are guaranteed. Why settle with just one good hit when I can get in a few? This is the essence of a combo attack: fitting together moves like a jigsaw puzzle in context to an enemy and a given situation. There is a significant level of satisfaction in finding these combinations.
- When a game makes combos for the player to use that are as easy as hitting the same button over and over, or what's worse, hitting any button randomly and repeatedly, the combo loses its appeal. If any player can easily string together attacks in a combo, usually, the game boils down into a button masher and the enemies are given more health so that the players don't pile through them without any challenge. Kingdom Hearts suffered from this. In essence, the simple combos in Kingdom Hearts replaced the function of a one hit standard attack. Doing this is an easy way to drag out a game into mindless button mashing.
Parts of a game that the player can affect without seeing the direct results
- Interactivity, the heart of the videogame medium, is essentially cause and effect; input and output. If I shoot that barrel of oil, it'll explode. If I arrange these blocks, they'll disappear. Being able to see, hear, or anticipate an event, do an action, and then experience the results is important for building the fiction of a game world and teaching the rules and intricate mechanics of a game.
- This is where camera positioning and perspective are key. If you're battling enemies in an area by shooting arrows at them, it's important to see where those arrows hit whether it's on the wall or in the enemies. But if the camera or screen is positioned in a way where you can't even see what happens to the arrows you fire, then that's a part of the cause and effect that you're missing out on. If it's important for the player to know, then why hide it off the screen?
- Geometry Wars suffers from screen positioning. Because the player is super powered with the ability to shoot wide spread bullets with unlimited ammunition, they're often killing enemies and hitting targets that are off the screen. As the game becomes increasingly more difficult, the player automatically gets a faster fire rate and more enemies to hit. More enemies and more bullets means more things that can happen off screen. To the player, it's all good because they're getting more points, and they don't even have to think about it. But that's precisely the issue at hand. The more the player can turn their brain off to the cause-effects of the game, in a sense the less interactive the experience is for that player. And because that works to deconstruct the core of the videogame medium, it can be said to increase clutter within a game.
too much HUD
- This is an easy one. HUD stands for heads up display. It simply consists of all the menus, tags, meters, maps, radars, and any other pieces of information the game designers decide to slap onto the screen. Too much HUD not only literally clutters the screen, but HUD of this nature is implemented because the designers feel that it is important for the players to have such information at easy access at all times. In other words, the designers feel that the player must have access to information that they can't otherwise or easily gather from just looking and listening to the game. When there's too much HUD, the player tends to use the game visuals less while relying more on the information in the HUD. An example of this in Halo could be something as simple as running around with your eyes on the radar instead of on the screen because the radar can tell you if there are opponents lurking around the corner.
- Valve's Team Fortress 2 designers wanted to do away with abstract and distracting HUD items. For them, if they could have everything from classes to characters be instantly distinguishable and understandable from a glance, then that would be more powerful than having to read such information from any kind of HUD. Instead of a map or radar, they designed their internal spaces to utilize shapes and light to guide the players naturally to their goals. Each class has a very distinguished design and animation that can be recognized in dim lighting or from a far. I believe it was Matt Groening, creator of the Simpsons and Futurama characters, that believed a cartoon character was good/unique when anyone could recognize them from a silhouette. Such game design decisions help to prove how powerful "form fits function" is in an interactive medium.
Theses are just a few games that I've mention that have some clutter some where in their design. Hopefully, you'll be able to come up with some more examples. Feel free to post any that you think of.
- geometry wars
- everyday shooter
- Devil May Cry
- Ninja Gaiden
As a final note, I invite you to play Neo*RPG if you haven't already. And if you have, play it again. The download for the game can be found along the right side under the "Downloads" section.
Neo*RPG is an example of a game that eliminates every single one of the types of clutter that I have previously outlined. You can't move and shoot at the same time. Your character isn't overly powerful at all. The speed of movement for the enemies and characters seems slow at first, but quickly feels fast as the levels becomes increasingly complex and the enemy design starts to layer together. The graphics are minimally designed, while at the same time were added to communicate a specific function or condition. There are no invincible frames. Combos emerge from the simple mechanics. In other words, there aren't built in combos. They all have to be set up. All the action is all on the screen. And the HUD is very minimal.
Playing Neo*RPG should give you a hyper clean gameplay experience. Though it's far from perfect, Neo*RPG is a great game to teach with and learn from, and I will be continually referring to it in the future. In the meantime, go find some clutter.