My love and preference for simplicity started with the Gamecube 'A' button. Then the DS touch screen and the Wiimote controller further convinced me. The intersection between controller hardware and mechanics design is only the beginning of the long process that is game design. Because video games are complicated, developers can adjust other facets of a game's design to compensate for any one lacking area. Therefore, there is no direct correlation between a game's skill, depth, or complexity and the amount of buttons a game uses.
I design all of my video games with minimalist controls philosophy. A Progress Worth Saving was designed to be played entirely with the mouse and the left click. Neo*RPG just uses the mouse (both buttons and the scroll wheel). The DKART games (see links at the top of the site) were designed with as few inputs as we could manage. And Megafied: Makoto's World was designed around NES controls.
Knowing that many key facets of gameplay aren't necessarily hampered by a minimalist controls design, I pondered how gameplay is restricted when a challenge only allows the player to make a single action to win or lose it all. No spamming inputs. No multiple chances before reaching a fail state. Just one shot to make it happen. This article will highlight a variety of games that are designed around giving the player one action (or close to one action) to succeed. Keep in mind that I consider the D-pad to be 1 button and moving it around as 1 action. Likewise, 1 tap-motion-release of a touch screen and 1 motion (however complex) of a motion controller counts as just 1 action. There is some interpretation involved with the more complex input devices. Still, I regard examples featuring just one press of a digital button as the strictest sense of a single action input.
- WarioWare games: (video 1) Not every microgame qualifies as a 1-hit-wonder in the strictest sense, but many do. With expertly designed simple controls, a single-clearly-stated goal for each microgame, and a single action required to win most of these games, WarioWare still manages to create a challenging and engaging gameplay experience. Instead of ramping up the complexities of any one micro game, WarioWare simply switches between microgames. Because each has unique graphics, rules, perspectives, sounds, and controls the difficulty comes from reacting (reflex), executing (dexterity), and switching gears (knowledge). Factor in how increasing the tempo of the game stresses adaptation skills across the skill spectrum, and the game hits all my requirements for greatness.
- Spy Party: (video) This unreleased indie game pits a spy versus a sniper. While the spy must complete a few tasks to win, if he/she is too conspicuous the sniper will shoot to kill. To spot the spy, the sniper must observe the actions and "body language" of all the participants in the scene (NPCs too). The sniper can MOVE position and adjust his/her aim to different targets. But once the sniper fires the game is over. If the spy is hit, the sniper wins. If not, the sniper loses. For the sniper the conditions are very literally "one in the chamber."
- Upend the Tea Table Game: (video) I don't know what this game is called or exactly how it works, but there seems to only be 2 mechanics; BANG and UPEND the table. Once you UPEND the table, the game/round ends.
- Kirby Quick Draw: (video) In this game, you have a split second to attack before your opponent does. Winning is all about metal focus and sharp reflexes. With one shot to progress or lose it all, every round counts. In the similar indie game I made called Drebin #1#2, players have to execute an overhead striking motion holding the Wiimote like a samurai sword. The quickest to strike does have an advantage, but the game also calculates technique. If you strike first and strike sloppy, you can easily lose to a slower, clean strike. In addition to reflex and dexterity, my design stresses some knowledge skills too.
- RPS (Rock Paper Scissors): You've got one move to make per round and you reveal the move at the same time as your opponent. The rules are simple. The gameplay is clean.
- Roulette and other Casino Games: You place one bet per round and wait for the table to stop spinning to see if you've won. With a slot machine, the interactivity is about the same.
- Boom Blox: (video) Some levels challenge players to complete the objectives in a single throw. These levels are engaging because they're puzzles. The player will initially spend time reading the block formation(s) thus engaging his/her knowledge skills. After throwing the ball, one can only sit back and watch the towers topple. Success is simply a result of how the physics play out.
- Various Puzzle Games: Many puzzle game puzzle modes feature at least one level where only one move is allowed. Chu Chu Rocket and Planet Puzzle League are just two off the top of my head. No puzzle game features more 1-hit challenges than the Professor Layton Series. Though this series has the occasional Chess, sliding block, hanoi, spot the difference, and assemble the pieces puzzles (no fail state), the vast majority of the puzzles give the player just one chance to input the right answer. If you're wrong, you feel like an idiot. The logic puzzles in the Annoki villages in both Zelda Phantom Hourglass and Spirit Tracks are practically Layton puzzles.
- Reflex and Flash Focus: These reflex testing games are a collection of mini games. Some present a specific visual challenge per round and only give the player one chance to answer correctly. Play my indie game Reflex for yourself by clicking the link.
This post was inspired by COD:BlOps' "one in the chamber" mode and SpyParty. I wanted to examine how much gameplay can fit into a game centered around 1 action. It turns out, you can't fit much gameplay into a 1 action game. This may seem contrary to the examples I listed. But the clarity comes in how we use language.
Gameplay, as defined in the Critical-Glossary from a Dictionary of Video Game Theory:
"A game’s gameplay is the degree and nature of the interactivity that the game includes, i.e., how the player is able to interact with the game-world and how that game-world reacts to the choices the player makes." (Rouse 2001, xviii) Gameplay can be seen as independent of graphics or fiction, but fiction plays a large role in helping players understand the game. (Half-Real, chapter 5.)
Based on this definition, which hasn't changed since I started writing this blog, gameplay is a term that depends on interactivity. In general the more interactivity, the more gameplay. This means, though puzzle games and other genres are highly engaging, the time you spend before making your first move isn't gameplay. All of the thinking and strategizing you do in your head is independent of the gamestate. This makes sense. While you're just sitting there, the game is simply waiting for you. It's silly to think of a non changing game state as gameplay.
Pushing our understanding further, a game's depth (interplay [back and forth counters]) is also dependent on multiple instances of interactivity. In other words, when you do something to win, the game responds to stop you, and then you respond to stop the game, the back and forth responses are only possible with continued interaction. This is why the Wario Ware games are made up of multiple rounds of micro games. This is why RPS is typically a best out of 3. This is why you don't leave a casino after your first bet, which you'll most likely lose. By increasing the rounds, the design has an opportunity to create interplay or at least increase the interactivity/gameplay.
So the mystery is over. We no longer have to wonder how much gameplay can be crammed into a game that gives the player one hit to get it right. Games with limited interactivity probably engage the player with graphics, sound, or information (level set up, story, etc.). For if a developer decides to make games with little gameplay and little to engage the player, we probably won't be seeing them top the charts.