As anyone who has put their game through usability testing will tell you, one of the worst feelings in game development can be when you watch someone else play your game for the first time. It can be excruciating watching players struggle with rules, concepts and layout that are painfully obvious to the team.
There are many factors that lead to that special feeling of dred. But often, root-cause of problems lay in communication and comprehension. Countless hours are spent in the studio planning, discussing, debating, and executing the vision. However, how much essential knowledge remains locked within the studio? This information isn’t absent because the team is lazy or lacking a particular talent. The issue is that it’s hard to take a step back and analyse what the team knows and compare that with what is/isn’t being communicated to the player. The deeper a team gets into development, the more likely they will no longer see issues as they already have insider knowledge of how they work or have become numb to them.
“Once I understood what to do and how the game wanted me to play, it was fun!” is a phrase often heard in UR feedback sessions. In other words, the game failed to provide adequate information on what is and isn’t possible within the world. It’s not a question of quality, but one of the game communicating and the player understanding.
To use the classic board game Monopoly as an example, how many players would know how to play it if the instructions weren’t included or there wasn’t another player to teach them as they went along? While players may be able to get a grasp of rolling the dice and moving the pieces around the board, the finer points of the game will likely be missed. Players may not even be able to understand what makes the game strategic and fun.
It’s a well known fact that once players aren’t enjoying a game they quickly switch to another that is fun.
What is Interactive Language?
Often when players are lost, confused, or frustrated it is because a game has poor ‘interactive language’. There are a great many things that fall under this umbrella term. But, for the purpose of this article, interactive language is defined as,
A collection of different visual, audible and other feedback systems that relate key information to the player about what they can and can’t do within the world.
Examples of issues that fall under this definition,
- Gameplay objects that look as if they’re a static part of the environment.
- Conversely, environmental objects that appear as though they are interactive, but aren’t.
- Non-traversable parts of the environment that appear traversable.
- Situations suggesting interactions are possible when none can be performed
- Providing no positive/negative feedback when a button is pressed.
- Not conveying whether an attack on an enemy is successful and damaging.
Over time the development community has begun to create unofficial standards, conventions and best practices that help players to understand how their games work. This is usually based upon something being very intuitive and becoming adopted across several successful titles. So, it becomes familiar to players, as they’ve seen it before.
Some examples of interactive language solutions being,
- Adding an animating ‘sheen’ to interactive objects.
- Displaying button prompts (and sometimes labels) to confirm an interaction is possible.
- Changing the state of an object when the player is within interaction range.
- Adjusting the reticle/cursor state based upon what its overlapping with.
- Visual and audible feedback of an attack landing and it’s impact type - both positive and negative.
- Creating environmental metrics that clearly differentiate traversable from non-traversable.
- Altering the pose of the player character based upon what they can do in the world or how its inhabitants are feeling about them.
- Adding motion to collectibles.
Getting it Right
When a game has good interactive language, it can feel completely intuitive and frictionless. A lot of developers worry about providing additional information to the player because it can result in the game feeling being ‘too gamey’. However, the key is in correctly theming and presenting information so that it feels like a grounded part of the world, and not an abstract layer that is overlaid. This means getting three things right,
- Player character interactions are appropriate to the world.
- Gameplay objects that the player character interacts with are correctly themed so that they belong.
- The game delivers positive or negative feedback (both visual and audible) on the outcome of an attempted interaction.
This can not only result in more confident and natural player behavior, it can make the world itself seem much more alive and coherent than if everything was static and overly real.
Luckily for us, there are a lot of great examples already available in some exceptional games.
Consider Horizon Zero Dawn. It’s a wonderful game that will hopefully be remembered as one of the best of this generation. The player constantly feels empowered and spends their time discovering the world and performing heroic deeds, rather than trying to figure out how everything works. One could spend all day discussing how brilliant Aloy is (and many have,) as the world itself feels like it’s her playground. It’s a beautiful, awe-inspiring showroom that makes it easy to do incredible things. That starts with the player knowing how everything works in isolation and recognizing opportunity, before spending their time on sequencing interactions together, with amazing outcomes.
Take for example its stealth mechanic, a cornerstone of stalking and analysing enemies. It would have been very easy for HZD to feature the all-too-common problem of the player never knowing what offered protection and when they’re safe. In a photorealistic world it would be very difficult to identify areas of safety. Everything would be green and there would be plenty of false positives littered around. This would result in frustrating outcomes for the player, leading to less trust in the world and a diminished belief in the talents of Aloy.
Guerrilla Games avoided this pitfall by making a reuseable gameplay device that was instantly recognizable to the player. The ‘stealth grass’ could be any shape and size, but it would always be tall enough to almost cover a crouching Aloy, without obscuring her from the camera. The real masterstroke here being the use of colour. Stealth grass is the only red grass in the world. A brave decision that not too many Art Directors would take. One that requires the team be disciplined so as to not break the rule and dilute the result. The outcome was that it worked perfectly in HDZ’s ‘hyper-realism’ art style. Finally, as the red grass was harder to make out in the dark, fireflies were added at night to ensure that the player could still operate with the same level of certainty, even when the color information was compromised.
The game also features a visibility UI component, but the player almost need never refer to it. It becomes a backup system that is mostly useful when determining if Aloy is visible or not when on the very edge of an area of stealth grass.
Another common problem is found in games that feature buildings with exterior and interior spaces. For the environment to feel believable there is need for there to be many more entrances/exits than there are actual interior spaces. This can lead to players running into every door in the world trying to separate out those that are useful vs. those that are a part of the environment.
In Dishonored, a series that is pretty meticulous in being architecturally correct, it would really break the atmosphere and immersion should players exhibit this poor play pattern. So, Arkane developed visual language that allowed players to quickly discount doors that weren’t operable. Doors that can be interacted with feature visual interest, highlights, button prompts and interaction labels, describing what the player can do with them. Those that can’t have a variety of themed obstructions that fit perfectly with the fiction of the world being under martial law and a dealing with a blood fly infestation.
The most basic version of these obstacles being a bland set of shutters that offer no visual interest and instantly deterred further inspection. The most interesting barriers being those that do a little environmental storytelling. Clamps and braces fitted to the frames would prevent doors from being opened, so as not to spread the infestation.
Good interactive language can also help games to form positive feedback loops. In a Ratchet and Clank game players run around the world, breaking stacks of crates for bolts (currency). Crates are easily identified by the player from a distance, and behave in a consistent manner when attacked. But, the real gold that Insomniac struck here was with the feedback when the player performs this interaction.
The crates break in a satisfying manner and attractive, glowing bolts erupt out. The bolts swirl around as they’re being vacuumed into Ratchet, playing a signature sound as they’re collected. Between the crunchy smashing and the casino machine-esque collection tinkle there’s an additive loop that the player instantly wants to do again and again. Great positive reinforcement!
A Process for Self Examination
As we have explored, when games employ good interactive language they are much more natural experiences. Good visual and audible cues and feedback can result in a player that spends less time trying to comprehend the game and more time enjoying the core experience as it was intended. Good play patterns are formed and less frustration generated from false positives.
Every game developed has its own unique set of challenges. They can be related to any number of reasons such as genre, team culture or subject matter. Therefore, there is no one-size-fits-all solution.
However, there is a process of self examination that we can follow that ensures more critical knowledge is passed along to the player in ways that fit naturally into the product. It involves asking ourselves the following questions on a regular basis,
- How do I know what to do or how this particular thing works?
- Does the player need to know about it?
- What technique(s) is the game employing to communicate how it works?
- Is there already a standard, convention or best practice that can be followed?
- How can the solution be applied in the most intuitive and thematically correct way?
Armed with this process, it should be possible for all of us to provide our players with increasingly frictionless experiences.
Hope you enjoyed reading,