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Layering Indirect Controls to Preserve Immersion (Part Deux)

In which Joey goes into a little bit more detail on specific types of indirect controls, including (but not limited to) framing, time constraints, and eradication.

Hey everybody, Joey here. Continuing on from Part One, this week I'm going to continue my discussion on the intelligent layering of indirect controls with a little system that I threw together. It's not perfect and it won't make your games not suck, but I think that it's a good, intelligent way to think about the techniques that you, as a designer, can employ to build the experience that you want your players to have.

But first, a quick recap:

Indirect controls are soft methods of directing players through your game. They can be used in simple cases to aid player pathfinding (landmarks, traffic flow, etc.) or in more complex settings to direct player attention and to give a more authentic feeling of freedom within an otherwise rigid game environment.

Below I've included a list of player controls. Not like dual shock, or wavebird controls - ways of subliminally (and later, overtly) controlling the actions that players take within your game system. Bear in mind that these techniques only increase the probability that some players with do what you want them to. The rest will act in ways that they see fit - a risk inherent in any interactive media project.

From top to bottom, this list of control techniques moves from total player freedom (and zero immersion impingement) to zero player freedom (and high immersion impingement*). Keep in mind as you go down the list that none of these will build a memorable game experience by themselves. The real art is in taking each of these techniques and weaving them together with narrative context:

*Yes, audiences are immersed in movies. The disconnect occurs when they sit down to play a game and get a movie instead.

Indirect Control (player feels little to nothing)

  • Framing  - a classic film technique; use framing to draw attention to objects or points of interest on screen
    • example: Fallout 3 - as you walk out of the vault for the first time, the first thing you see off in the distance is the Washington Monument
  • Contrast - make something stand out in the scene; this can be as subtle as a making an important object a slightly out of place color or as overt as literally highlighting an object to grab the player's attention; it also includes eye-catching movement
    • example:inFamous - many of the key interactable objects in the game blink periodically
  • Information - it's less likely for a player to encounter something simply by stumbling upon it than it is for them to find it with a map and directions; controlling the information that you give your players can encourage them to explore (witholding information) or to fast-track their progress (give information freely)
    • example: Dragon Age: Origins - when your party arrives at the village of Lothering, Alistair initiates a conversation telling you that you can go to the Mages, Dwarves, Elves, or Humans for help
  • Urgency - coupled with information or goals, can create either the illusion of a time constraint
    • example: Dragon Age: Origins - illusion; during the conversation at Lothering, Alistair insists that it is a really good idea to go to the Humans for help first

Medium Control (player is reminded that they are in a game world)

  • Goals - explicitly tell the player where to go or what to do to achieve their objective and receive a new one; use them set the player on a path or get them to explore an area
    • example: World of Warcrft - find Mankrik's wife; before Thottbot and Wowhead, this goal encouraged players to either explore all of the Barrens or ask another player for help
  • Level Checks - placing difficult enemies or other obstacles directly into the player's path to encourage them to go elsewhere; use level checks to give the player the feeling that they're free to go anywhere they choose - as long as they don't mind frequent re-loads and/or equipment repair bills
    • example: Dragon Age: Origins - the encounter with the bounty hunters in the mountain pass on the way to the Dwarven city of Orzammar deters low-level players from seeking help from the Dwarves first
  • Time Constraints - the player is given a limited amount of game time to accomplish a task; use them to create stress and motivate quick action and decision making
    • example: Heavy Rain - once Ethan Mars picks his son Shawn up from school, the clock is almost always ticking

Hard Control (player is acutely aware of constraints placed upon them by the game system)

  • Eradication - the player's avatar is killed in grand fashion if they go somewhere they aren't supposed to; use to control player movement while maintaining the illusion that your gameworld is larger than it actually is
    • example: Borderlands - one of my personal favorites, Borderlands tells you exactly where you can't go by A.) enforcing fall damage from high cliffs and B.) lining what look like easy to reach expanses of desert with automated defense turrets that shoot on sight
  • World Geometry - sandboxes encourage exploration, hallways force players down a straight path
  • Invisible Walls - the worst kind of control; never use invisible walls unless you absolutely have to

As you can see, once we get down to the bottom of the list the controls that we're using have become extremely overt. World geometry is, in essence, a bounding box that keeps players locked inside what is effectively a theatre set - it's made to look like real life (or fantasy life, or, you know, whatever) but on the other side of that wall there's nothing but a huge, empty BSP. Maybe a skybox. As designers we are trying to maintain the illusion and certain practices - like building invisible walls that tell the player exactly where they can't go - can ruin that effort.

This list is by no means exhaustive or complete - it's just a little primer to get you thinking about how people make decisions inside the game system and how you, as a designer, can subtly (or not so subtly) push or pull them in a direction of your choosing.

Again I find myself running a little over my mark with this blog post, so I'm going to do one more next week on a couple of the uses of effectively layering indirect controls.

Stay safe and keep the faith.


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