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Game Design in Motion

Motion games offer many new challenges for game designers. Some thoughts on surviving (and thriving) in a controller-less world.

When I started doing game design work for motion games a year and a half ago I quickly realized that I was in no man's land. Things I knew should work turned out to be complete disasters when motion was introduced. Things I thought would be easy for people to do ended up giving them awful cramps. Mass hysteria, dogs and cats living together, etc.

Now, I've always been something of a formalist when it comes to game design. So I looked for analytical tools that would help me deal with the new technology. Which lead me back (like many things do) to Marc Leblanc's MDA framework. Feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you know it.

MDA stands for Mechanics Dynamics and Aesthetics and the big idea is that you work backwards from an aesthetic goal. What do you want the players to feel? You then figure out what kind of behaviors you want to encourage in the players so that they'll feel the way you want them to. And finally, you build mechanics that encourage those behaviors.

Say you want to create a game that will make the player feel panic and fear. You'll want to make the player run away instead of stand up and fight. How do you do that through the game mechanics? For instance, you can make the enemies incredibly powerful, the player character frail and firepower scarce or non existent. If you want an example of how easy it is to destroy the feeling of fear, think about what would happen if you'd introduce a rocket launcher with unlimited ammo into a Silent Hill game.

MDA is a great tool for creating emotional experiences through psychological means. What I needed were similar tools that will help me craft physical experiences. Say I want to make a player feel powerful through motion. What kinds of moves should I make him do? What if I want to make him feel fast? Weak? Heavy? Motion games demand new ways of thinking about game design that utilize our knowledge of the body and what it can do.

But the problem is that us game developers might be the worst people on earth to answer those questions. Gaming is a sedentary activity. Think of the last time you played a game. You were probably slouched back on the couch or leaning forward in your chair, staring at the monitor. Your body seemed to disappear completely as you focused on your on-screen goals. And you know what's even more sedentary than gaming? Game development! We spend twelve and fourteen-hour days staring bleary-eyed and motionless at our computer screens. Any physical activity we get is sadly done outside of the realm of our beloved hobby and work.

Luckily, there are people out there who've been analyzing motions for decades and decades. Dancers and choreographers. Take a look at the Laban movement analysis system for instance. It's a system that categorizes body movements into categories like Strong/Light and Quick/Sustained. Very useful for what we do. And it's not just dancers. Martial artists. Yoga instructors. Athletes. Anyone who works with their body all day can offer us knowledge derived from a lifetime of experience. When we worked on a music game at Side-Kick we got help from a choreographer. On our boxing game we had an MMA champion on call. We have a physical therapist we consult with. If you design motion games, these people will make you better at what you do.

Let's take a look at a couple of sample gestures. In this case, an attack gesture and a defensive gesture from our latest game AIR TIME, a motion based plaftormer.

The game's basic attack is a shockwave unleashed by clapping your hands. In my book, that's about as perfect as an attack gesture can get. Think about how many things it does. First of all it gives you force feedback. Unlike most gestures, it has a real world stopping point. Your other hand. It also gives you an audio prompt. A clap. It's fast. It's powerful. Try it. Stretch your arms to both sides and then clap them fast. Now imagine shockwaves bursting forth from your hands and making your enemies blow up and you really got something.

Next, let’s look at our defensive move. It's a boxing style block. The player holds his hands in front of his face, close to his chest, protecting his upper body. That's a closed movement. Static. It tenses you up. It puts you on the defense.

It's a long process to find just the right gesture for each action. Not to mention the pesky business of getting all gestures to work together without clashing and making sure they are not too subtle or too fast for motion cameras to detect. But it's all worth it because when everything works right and the player gets the physical experience you want them to get, it really does feels like magic.

So, the takeaway:

-Read and learn as much as you can about human movement. Dance writing. Physical therapy textbooks. Talk to people who move for a living. It will all help.

-Youtube is your friend. Watch as many videos of people in motion as you can. Even though ninety percent of games are focused on hitting stuff don't limit yourself to just that. For instance, compare the violent, broken movements of Krumping to the slow, fluid movements of Tai Chi to see two extremes of human movement.

-And finally: Know what you want to achieve. Know how you want your players to feel and design the gestures in your game to make them feel that way. This is your way to control the player's experience in a controller-less, keyboard-less world and it will add a completely new level of immersion to the way players experience your games.

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