Blog Archive (The Orchard)

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Something That Doesn't Taste Like Chicken: Why Newness Matters

Have you ever watched a video that was funny the first time, but got boring after a few playthroughs? I'm thinking you have. Or perhaps it wasn't a video, but a wild trick your dog performed or something like that.  Maybe you've seen something that wasn't especially funny, but was entertaining in some other way--yet after experiencing it several times, the effect wore off. How about this: have you ever watched a movie that used an old idea for a plot or looked a bit like something you've seen before? I would think that such a movie could have been more entertaining--and perhaps better accepted by you--if it would have included more originality.

The fact is, if something is new to you, or anyone else for that matter, is has a potential to be inherently interesting for that very reason: because it is new. Anything that is new, novel, or original to someone is to some degree intriguing. If nothing else, you have to take that new information and connect it to what you already know, which takes some thought. As with games and any other form of entertainment, newness matters. It may be how the controls feel. It may be the characters' endeavors. It may be the setting or story. It may even just be the sound effects. Either way, newness can really help to create an interesting game experience for the one wielding the controller.

The Different Forms of "New"

 How about we start with identifying the different forms that "newness" can take in video games. But let's make sure that you know what I mean by newness, first. Really, I just mean anything that the player has not experienced, or has not experienced  that many times--whether it is an idea, a sound, a visual effect, or a mechanic.

Anything in a game can present something new to the player. But here, I'll separate such newness into different categories. Don't worry, you'll see what I mean.

Virtual and Original

The first category is originality. This is simply any new idea that applies to any aspect of a game. One example is a new game mechanic, such as taking control of a larva and eating through fruits to get to a certain "full" level (hey that's not a bad idea...). Another example is an interesting plotline that gets you thinking. Originality can affect the presentation of a game--such as in the marketing process--and get the attention of player's and press alike. An original idea stands out and turns heads; if such ideas are unmatched (or inadequately copied by other developers), they can help to make a game unique, legendary, or even console defining. 

Some examples of video games that have been original for me in concept, feel, controls, etc., are World of Goo, Super Monkey Ball 2, Pikmin 2, and Wii Sports Resort (if you've played Wii Sports Resort, you probably know that the motion controls were something new for a lot of players. Yes, I'm a Nintendo fan). The reason I say that these games have "been original for me," is because other players may not have had the same experiences as me. However, these games consist of rarely-seen concepts in general, so they could be tagged original for all. Don't forget that by new, I mean not only completely unseen before, but also rarely seen.

Many Colors, Shapes, and Sizes

 The next category is variation. Variation is anything that changes or varies within the normal course of gameplay.It may be a randomized event or something that is brought about by a player's decisions. If this is done right, adding variables to a game can lengthen the game's life and occupy the player for greater periods of time. Have you ever played a game in the Super Smash Bros. series? No, that's not a trick question. But I'm guessing your answer is yes, you've played, or at least you have heard of and are familiar with the franchise. One thing that increases the quality of game play in Smash Bros. is indeed variation. Before each match, players have the option to choose whether they want to engage in a timed battle to get the most KO's before the timer hits 0 or duke it out in a stock battle in an effort to diminish the opponent's stock count. Along with this, the games in the franchise offer a library of items to utilize while fighting, which can be toggled "on" and "off" depending on your personal preference. Then you chose which stage to battle on. One can mix and match all these options to vary the game play experience...and as for the fighting itself? There are a lot of different things that can happen at nearly any time! In any game, variation need not come about by a player's choice, but pre-programmed random events can also--and often do--play a part (think of how the CPU driver responds on that racing game you play, how the enemies you encounter in a role playing game do not always appear in the same location, or even how your friend doesn't always have the same trick up his sleeve in your multiplayer matches).

Variation of these sorts is a key factor is what differentiates among those games that you keep playing over and over again (games that, in fact, often include multiplayer matches if you think about it) and games with sections that you only play once or a few times. Whether pre-programmed or choice based, variation affects gameplay. And choices is where we'll turn to next.

Paper or Plastic?

Now we enter the realm of choices, which can actually be thought of as a type of variation. I mentioned in the last section that variation can come about by the game's programming, or by a player's own choice (a.k.a. input). Now let's look a little more at the subject of choices apart from variation. 

Any time a player is allowed to choose among two or more options in a game, he has a choice. Depending on what he or she chooses, the game should show the effect of the choice appropriately. And here is where several games show their faults. The more effort or work a certain choice requires, generally, the more pleasing or grand the effect should be from that choice. "Effort" can mean thought, speed, or skill. This is a fact that seems obvious, but in practice it is not as easy to carry out because one player's idea of a good reward may differ from another player's idea, and an obstacle that demands much effort from one player may be all too easy for another player with greater skill. And then there's the issue of what is a "proper" response or output from the game. For example, if you use your axe to chop down an evergreen, what audio clip should be used to emphasize the tree's thud to the ground? Should any sound effect be applied? What graphical effects should be shown? Should text appear dramatically onscreen to congratulation the player? Should we make use of a particle engine to create a shower of pine needles and dust when the tree hits the dirt? These are sort of artistic or aesthetic details, but things like this make a difference in the the gaming experience.

Testing and intuition can help the game developer make these choices. There should also be a good balance in regards to the number of choices present. The player shouldn't be overwhelmed. But if the developers can include many interesting choices with interesting effects without it taking away from the game experience, the game experience will instead be enhanced, and there's a good chance that the player will play the game for longer periods of time. When the player's choices make a solid difference, the presence of an abundance of such choices helps to facilitate a good and long-lasting learning curve. More on that in a bit.

Up Next, Our Feature Presentation

So we've looked at originality, and we've looked at variation as well as choices. The last form of newness that we'll explore is the new feature category, which is really an obvious element in video games. It includes anything new that is experienced or discovered by the player as he or she progresses through the game, such as a new game mode unlocked, a new area to explore or another part of the story revealed. Every video game includes this form of newness; when you unlock something, find out a new bit of information, or try out a new ability, you are experiencing what I call here a new feature. 

If every game includes new features, then the presence or absence of such features alone will not determine the quality of the game. One important aspect is the frequency at which you introduce these new features. Because this form of newness is closely related to the next section, (and because this topic alone merits another rather lengthy paragraph or two, which is for another time and place) let us head on over to the following subject--the subject of compiling newness into the most efficient and enjoyable form possible: that is, the subject of the learning curve.

Not to Strong, Not to Subtle: The Learning Curve

The Learning Curve is a term that describes the player's progress through the game as he learns the ropes of how to play. I'll give you my definition: the learning curve is (ideally) an arc on a graph that represents how many new things the player learns and experiences as time passes. I say "ideally" because a curve that sort of resembles an arc is an indicator that the player has had a mostly good gaming experience, as far as learning goes. My definition is adapted from a different definition, one from a book that I read which covers game design.1 Take a look at the figure below.



This graph outlines a player's gaming experience for three different games (shown by the three different colored lines on the graph). The x-axis of the graph, or the bottom edge, stands for the time that has passed from the first time the player tried out the game to the day when he will play the game no more. The y-axis stands for the amount of new features, which means of course the new things learned or experienced. So taking from that information, one can see that the steeper parts of a line indicate that the player was learning more things in a shorter period of time. Let me tell you what I mean by "learning." In my description of the learning curve, learning is either one of two things: it's either acquiring new information (finding new information about the area, discovering how the environment acts, etc.) or it's finding out how to perform an action better (that is, becoming more adept at using your actions and abilities). Experiencing something new may be hearing a new sound effect or a new control scheme while playing a game. So, those three--experiencing, learning new information, and learning how to play better--comprise the new feature category because it's all learning something new. Got that? Okay. That may have been a lot of information to swallow, and if so, that's a prime example of the importance of the learning curve.

The three lines on the graph describe a game with a good learning curve, a game with learning curve that is too steep, and a game with a learning curve which forms an arc that settles into a nearly straight line. The green line, which is very steep, represents a poorly developed game in regards to developing the player's skill level. Apparently the game occupied the player for only four hours.That's because the player was learning too much new information in too little time (if this new information was, for example, about the story, or if the player was just exploring the area and discovering more about his surroundings, there wouldn't have been a problem. The issue was that the player was required to take on too many new abilities and was overwhelmed). This is not an uncommon incident in the opening stages of a game when the player is just learning how to play.The yellow line represents a game that got boring quickly. We see the curve starting to arch, then...well it turns into a flat line. What started out as an engaging puzzle game fizzled out to a repetitious endeavor because the player wasn't being introduced to enough new features; the player's skill level wasn't improving and there were few new puzzle types to try out. 

But the last game--the one represented by the red line--played pretty well. Starting out with a moderate slope, the line slowly forms into a curve, and then a line, and finally terminates. So the player is introduced with neither too much not too little things to learn, and enjoys learning, trying, and improving until near the end of the game (where the player experiences a slowdown as shown by the flatness of the line). This is a good curve overall, representing a game with a good sequence of feature introduction. 

Well, does the learning curve really affect all games that much? I think it has a great effect on the gaming experiencing. From my personal game time, one gem that I discovered that had an exceptional learning curve was Super Mario Galaxy for the Wii. The frequency at which one learns new abilities and information is one element that gave this product such high critic scores. Compare some of your own favorites, and I think you'll see the significance of a good learning curve in video games.

Wrapping It Up

If you were willing to consider my ideas as a reader, I think you now have more insight on how and why newness influences the quality of play. By all this I do not mean to say that familiarity and "oldness," if you will, poorly affects a game. There is certainly a right place for that, and, in fact, all games have to have some measure of familiarity--if not, to what we would compare them?

In review:

- Newness is anything that the player has not experienced, or has not experienced  that many times--whether it is an idea, a sound, a visual effect, or a mechanic.

- Originality is any new or uncommon idea that applies to any aspect of a video game.

- Variation is anything that changes or varies within the normal course of gameplay, whether it comes about by the game's program alone, or by a player's choices.

- Choices can cause variation and are the decisions that the player makes and inputs into the game via the controller, keyboard, etc. 

- New Features comprise anything new that is learned or experienced, including the developing of skills by learning how to better use the given abilities.

- The Learning Curve (ideally) resembles an arc on a graph that represents how many new things the player learns and experiences as time passes.

If there are any readers who still haven't a clue why I mentioned poultry in the post title, I'll shed some light on that right now. When anyone tries some new grub in the meat category, it seems that a popular response turns out to be, "tastes like chicken." At least where I'm from, that is. So I was drawing a relation between the common taste that people experience when trying such food items, to the possible experience that one could have when playing something too familiar.

A key is finding the right balance and giving the player something interesting to play with. Focus on the basics of game play, and use your imagination and thought to create something enjoyable. And don't forget to spice it up a bit.   -Amoeba of Light

1  The book am I referring to is the following: Habgood, and Mark Overmars. The Gamer Maker's Apprentice: Game Development for Beginners. New York: Apress, 2006. Print.