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Residual Play Artifacts

Residual play artifacts are objects, whether virtual or existing in real space, that are created by the player during the process of play.

Ian Sundstrom, Blogger

May 10, 2016

9 Min Read

In many of my recent games I’ve been tackling a particular design concept that I have not heard explicitly talked about. The term I’ve coined for these is quite lengthy, but hopefully accurate in its use of language: I call them residual play artifacts. For brevity, I often bounce back and forth between calling them “play residuals” or “play artifacts”.

Residual play artifacts are objects, whether virtual or existing in real space, that are created by the player during the process of play. In a general sense, these often occur incidentally (for example, a map of Worms Armageddon may be wrecked by explosions and make an interesting shape), but I have become fascinated by what can happen when designers consciously design around this concept. In recent years, improvements in access to computer memory and internet connections have led to a far greater number of well designed residual play artifacts in video games. Residual play artifacts are a tool with a variety of possible benefits including an opportunity for player reflection (including a chance for player learning), aesthetic pleasure, a recorded history of a player’s progress, meta play, and facilitation of social interaction outside of the game space.

Often, play residuals are designed to occur at the end of a game loop. Situated here, they can be used to add closure to a player’s experience. Play artifacts may act as a record of play, allowing players to review what has just happened and relive the game’s moments. A very direct approach to this, and perhaps the simplest use in terms of design, is the recorded playback. Racing games have featured this for years, but often these recordings are ignored by players because they tend to show the whole race which is rarely exciting in its entirety. Sports games have fared better, due to the shorter length of replay clips being more action packed. TowerFall improves on the replay clip by including only the very final moments of the game’s action (around three seconds of material), which has a stronger likelihood of making for an exciting visual due to the game’s one-hit kill mechanic. The final moments of the game round must, at the very least, include a KO of the second-to-last player. Another example of recorded replay with even more complicated design, is the replay of Super Meat Boy’s levels. Super Meat Boy records every attempted run at a level including the failures. Upon finally beating a stage, the player gets to watch every attempt they have made to conquer the level simultaneously. It is fascinating to watch all the minor differences in the different runs, and finally see the one successful copy of Meat Boy make its way to the end. What is exciting about Super Meat Boy’s replay is that it becomes transformative of the play. The history of a player’s actions is mirrored back at them, but due to the layering of all the different characters into a single montage it has become something to be appreciated in its own right.

There has been an explosion of play artifacts becoming part of game designs of recent years, largely based on the increased connectivity of the world through the internet. A network connection allows players to instantly share aspects of their games, such as screenshots, replays, or other ephemera. Developers have been spurred to include such features to encourage organic word-of-mouth advertising through social media channels.

AlphaBear screen that says "Today's weird horoscope: You loathed the painted injustice"

This bodes poorly...

AlphaBear is a particularly clever recent example of this. The popular word game ends with a unique randomized phrase that uses each of the words that the player has formed during their game. Similar to a Mad Lib, Alphabear uses a selection of the words (depending on whether they are nouns or verbs) and plugs them into a number of randomized phrases. Sometimes the phrase is amusing, sometimes nonsensical. Players are able to share the silly messages online through social media which not only helps market the game for the developers, but can give the players a sense of community. This is a clever and simple way to add a new layer of joy to the game, that is abstracted from the core of the game play itself. AlphaBear’s use of play artifacts is transformative. It takes the residue of the play from the player and turns it into something additional that furthers appreciation of the game as a whole.

Great play residuals often offer aesthetic value to the player. I first discovered my interest in play artifacts when I created Sature, a mobile board game of color. In Sature, players place hexagonal pieces on a board and mix colors with their opponent. At the end of the game the colors have blended together to create a unique palette based on the two players’ actions. If they find the board’s colors particularly beautiful they are welcome to share a screenshot of it and share it online like AlphaBear. Sature also allows players the option to see the hex codes for each of the colors created, in case they want to replicate the palette for use in design work.

Finding ways to bring physical objects into the world from video games is another way to use play artifacts. The PC version of Firewatch allows players to order posters of photos they’ve taken with an in-game camera. Bringing a piece of the game into the real world is a chance to give it the aura that physical objects have over digital. Some games remove the “video” element entirely and just play in physical space. In Threadsteading, players compete in a strategy game that is embroidered directly onto a piece of cloth they can take away with them at the end of a game. Unlike strategy board games, Threadsteading’s board is not cleared at the end of the game and packed away into a box on the shelf. It is now recorded as a play artifact. Another physical space game that uses play artifacts is The Chooseatron. The Choosatron is a choose your own adventure that plays on a receipt printer. Players input choices from a simple list while the narrative is printed on a receipt. At the end of the game, players get to rip their receipt from the printer and take it with them.

The players have made their own story, and are welcome to reread it and reflect on the choices they have made. Giving a chance for reflection at the end of a play loop is a powerful device. In Vine Runners, a jam game I made for Ludum Dare, players compete in a Snake-like joust of limited space. As the players’ vines grow they twist about each other leaving behind their stalk. At the end of a match, there is no “You Win” or “Game Over” message. Instead the winning player’s vine sprouts a flower while the rest of the vines that were created during play are left behind. The vines are visually compelling, invoking the minimalist line work of the abstract painter Brice Marden, but created by the players themselves. Beyond presenting a pleasurable aesthetic, the players are able to reflect on the history of the round due to the path of the vines acting as a record of their movements. They can point out particularly crazy maneuvers they pulled off to their opponents or laugh at accidentally ramming right into the wall in the first few seconds of play. Creating a record of play using play artifacts can help with player learning. Player’s may adjust their strategies with the extra knowledge given by the play through.

A screenshot of Vine Runners

The end of a round of Vine Runners

A replay may have a similar learning effect, but with Vine Runners the vines of the ending board state act as a separate object than the play itself. It is abstract and less literal than a replay. I believe play artifacts that are transformative are more interesting to players than simple replays. However, if play artifacts are too abstract than the designer risks losing the connection the player should feel between their play and the creation of the artifacts. Ideally the artifacts are familiar enough to players to feel a sense of connection to them as something they have created, but abstract enough to be considered beyond the core loop and part of their own compelling meta play.

Most recently I have been implementing play artifacts into my new game StacksOnStacks(OnStacks). In SoSoS, players build towers out of blocks in a series of different stages. Originally I didn’t see an opportunity to use play residuals in SoSoS, until a friend made a suggestion that I ultimately implemented. Each time the player beats a stage, a picture is saved of the tower they have built and it is loaded onto the world map. The game begins with many empty platforms marking unbeaten levels, but after the player has played all the way through the game they have filled these with a bunch of towers of their own creation. Players can remember some of the crazier towers they have pulled off by looking at the miniature versions of the world map, whether they be made from aquariums, stacks of cash, or entirely of cones. Players can also visually see how they have improved at the game, as the further they progress the taller their towers must be. As they look across the landscape of completed towers there is a clear trend towards taller and taller, more impressive towers. What’s compelling about the use of play residuals in SoSoS is that it creates a chronologically arranged library of artifacts that can be viewed all at once.

I’m excited to continue using residual play artifacts in my designs. Although I am aware that they are not a completely new phenomenon, I do believe they have become far more common within the last few years. I hope designers can think of them concretely and attempt to design towards them intentionally rather than create them incidentally. Although physical artifacts are an awesome possibility, a lot can still be accomplished in digital spaces by storing artifacts in game or exporting them to the user’s computer or social media profile. They are best implemented in a way that is transformative and adds a new lens to the content of the player’s play.

Originally posted at blog.ianandelie.com

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