Press X to...

While I'm pretty green in Serious Games development, I can't help but think that games for entertainment are a good starting point. I'm putting my thoughts here to hopefully stir up some discussion.

Let’s assume you have played a large number of first person shooter games over the course of your gaming life. You can rest assured that the left stick will move your character, the right stick will aim your weapon, and the right trigger will shoot (if you’re a console gamer). There are other buttons for jumping, running, ducking, switching weapons, and throwing grenades. But the focus of the gameplay is shooting. Some games attempt to make the shooting more immersive or realistic. The Modern Warfare series gives you the ability to shoot from the hip or aim down the scope. Gears of War allows this as well, but added the ability to control how quickly and effectively your reload your weapon. In the end it all boils down to locating the target, aiming well, and killing it before it kills you.

As games become more and more immersive, we start seeing more interactions with the environment and NPCs. There are people to talk to, doors to open, computers to hack, and ropes to climb. I’ve seen some very clever ways for the player to accomplish these things (some of the most fun and interesting in Wii games), but far too often I see a prompt on screen that reads, “Press X to…”

A recent example is during the campaign of Modern Warfare 3 (spoiler alert), where you’re fighting off waves of enemy soldiers while Soap is receiving medical treatment behind you. When the doctor is killed, you’re called on to administer an adrenal shot to Soap. So you finish off a few more bad guys, run over to Soap, and press X to give the shot.

What’s the point of it? I wasn’t on the design team, but I can make a few guesses…

  • It breaks up the monotony of “aim, shoot, duck, aim, shoot, duck”.
  • It segues to the next area.
  • It reminds the player why they’re fighting off waves of bad guys – you’re protecting someone, you’re not storming a fortress.
  • It shows that soldiers should be capable of saving lives in addition to taking them.
  • It conveys information about the character you’re playing (Yuri, in this scene) – Yuri is knowledgeable in advanced trauma life support.
  • It adds dramatic tension – not only are you responsible for defending your position, suddenly you have the additional responsibility of performing a very specific action in order to sustain the life of the person you’ve been fighting to protect.

When Price yells, “The doctor’s been hit! Yuri, get over here and give him the shot!” there is stress on the player to stop what they’re currently doing to address an immediate need. When the player gets to the table and presses X, that stress is relieved as Yuri goes through the animation of administering the shot. The player sighs in relief and gets ready for the next firefight.

That stress, or tension, could have been sustained and even heightened if you as a player were responsible for more than just pressing X. Maybe there are multiple syringes to choose from and you need to pick the correct one. Maybe you need to aim at the spot on Soap’s chest where you want the needle to go. Maybe you have to push a button to puncture the chest, and then another button for the plunger to push the adrenaline through, and then release the first button to pull the needle out.

For Infinity Ward, pressing X is enough to accomplish the six bullet point listed above. Their audience wants to aim, shoot, and duck. An elaborate mini-game or quick-time event such as this could only prove to frustrate players, causing them to ask, “How am I supposed to know how to do this?” In MW3, you don’t need to know how to do this; you just need to know where the X button is. Press X when you’re told and you can get back to aiming, shooting, and ducking.

There was a point to this. Let’s see if I can get to it.

There is a lot of buzz about simulated learning environments, serious games, and the video game generation. Education and industry are trying to capitalize on a medium with which their audience is already familiar. The mindset seems to be, “People are already playing games. Let’s make those games both fun and educational!” The misconception is that people are familiar with playing games, and already know how to maneuver in virtual space. The truth is people are familiar with certain types of games and their respective conventions for interaction with very specific virtual worlds.

A challenge that a “serious game” developer will face is the issue of conveyance, and it’s two-fold. Not only are you teaching the user how to perform a specific task (how to administer an adrenaline shot), you’re also teaching the user how to play the game (how to make your character on screen administer an adrenaline shot). To further complicate things, the game must effectively use the controls to simulate (or emulate) the steps in whatever task is being taught. You’re not trying to teach a series of button presses or mouse clicks. The ultimate goal is to teach the task, and well enough to benefit the user in a real-world scenario.

I’m looking forward to seeing how developers will address this challenge, and excited to have an opportunity to put in my two cents. New controls schemes will be born, gameplay will become more intuitive, and video games will become more than “just games”. We’re already seeing advances in motion controls with Kinect integration and the Wii Motion Plus controllers. Next we’ll be dealing with haptic feedback devices, and maybe a power glove that actually works.

At least I hope so…

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