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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 2

Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) continues his Gamasutra series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry, looking at accessibility and games as a teaching tool.

[Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) continues his series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry, taking on accessibility and games as a teaching tool in this installment. The previous article in the series can be read here.]

In this second chapter of my series on the megatrends of game design I shall address two new trends: the search for accessibility, and the use of gaming as an educational tool. Enjoy.

Megatrend IV - The Search for Immediate Accessibility

Games are increasingly easy to grasp. This is one of the trends which has most affected game design in recent years... and it's not stopping. Remember those games without tutorials and with documentation as thick as a phonebook, or those first levels where you could barely understand what you had to do, let alone how to do it?

The progress made in this area in recent years is impressive: The progressive introduction of features, the simplification of interfaces, and the inclusion of levels created for the discovery of the game itself are the most obvious examples.

Even so, this exemplary effort probably won't stop here, as new needs for immediate accessibility are emerging.

New needs in terms of accessibility:

1. Market growth and the increasing numbers of casual players. Video gaming has long lost its status as a hobby for a small number of addicts and is gradually joining the other mainstream media. The loss of influence of the core PC market is a good illustration of this trend.

This arrival of gaming into the mainstream should be seen as a good thing. Small, niche markets cannot attract massive financing. However, it also means that traditional gamers no longer constitute the majority of games users.

We must therefore simplify the accessibility of a game for users, if we want to support the current growth of the number of games players.

2. The development of multiplayer modes. Multiplayer gaming generates particular accessibility problems. In a single player game, the player learns to face challenges progressively.

With difficulties introduced one at a time, giving time for the player to master them at his own pace. In a multiplayer game, however, the player is directly confronted with the most formidable of all challenges: other players.

Even if the player has had the opportunity to master the single-player game through the single player levels, he will inevitably run into those players who have dozens of hours of practice and who possess much more cunning than mere bots.

Thus we have a rude awakening for the player, who will have to accept the humiliation of accumulating multiple defeats in order to learn effective strategies for this game mode.

The problem of accessibility is thus no longer merely an issue of mastering the controls or knowing the game, but understanding all the aspects of the game at once.

The development of multiplayer gaming will create new accessibility challenges, as we will have to accommodate for a growing number of novice players.

3. New habits of gaming. In parallel to the growing number of casual gamers, there is an increase in those "traditional gamers" that now find themselves with a family or a full time job and therefore have to cut back on the gaming.

This category of player with less leisure time will demand games offering immediate playability and that are playable in smaller gaming sessions.

This need to develop games that are accessible, yet not lacking in depth, largely explains the near-disappearance of flight simulators -- despite the doubtlessly large number of fans that they have accumulated.


4. The arrival of fast-gaming and free games relying on micro-transactions. By its very nature, fast-gaming (see my previous chronicle) demands great simplicity, as much for the intuitiveness of the controls as for the initial difficulty setting and ease of understanding of the game.

The prospective development of games that are free, yet financed by micro-transactions, makes this need of accessibility all the more essential. Once a player pays for a game, he is, presumably, ready to devote time and energy to it.

But it is the opposite in the case of a free game; there is no real investment from him. As such, if the game disappoints him by being too complex to handle, he is likely to abandon it immediately.

What are the consequences on the design of games?

Let us now list the major directions that game design is likely to take.

1. Instinctive grasp. The simplification of the control interface is not always an applicable solution to this challenge; some games simply demand a complex interface to show their full potential. Thus, there is a need to look elsewhere for solutions.

One possibility lies in not activating all of the commands and features right at the beginning of the game. Level design will therefore have to take this into account, and this approach must be supported by a prior analysis of the difficulties typically encountered by average gamers.

Another interesting take on the issue involves on-screen reminders of the controls. We have grown accustomed to this highly efficient system in games from the Zelda series.


Nintendo's The Legend of Zelda: The Wind Waker

Another solution was applied by the now-defunct studio Looking Glass Studios. In their title Terra Nova, a precursor to squad-based shooters, the player's screen had all of the necessary icons for allowing him to control his team and/or his own equipment.

The great wealth of controls was thus made easily and immediately available to all players, independent of prior knowledge of the game's interface.

A final possibility lies in the implementation of a game "assistant", to be triggered by, and offer advice on, complex events that the player may encounter.

2. Counter early frustration by avoiding failure early in the game. While there are many possible sources of frustration at the beginning of a game, chief among them is probably the player's potential inability to overcome the early challenges.

The golden rule is to make sure that the player manages to "win" at the beginning of the game, and that he avoids getting lost. It is a complex topic, deserving of its own article; for our purposes here, however, let us cite three cases illustrating the issues and their solutions.

In adventure games, the problematic element is often the player's inability to work out where to go next, or how to solve a puzzle. Solutions to these problems reside primarily in level design.

I have already elaborated on this aspect of design in detail in a previous publication on Gamasutra where I describe help features to "troubleshoot" a struggling player.

Action and strategy games require other solutions. Here, the challenge of design lies in progressively introducing the richness of the game (possible actions by the player, types of opponents, etc.), thereby firmly controlling the learning curve.


3. Improving multiplayer modes. Multiplayer game modes pose a tougher problem, and definite answers have yet to be discovered. I look to four different types of solution:

  • Simplification of the game concept. The more features there are to master, the harder it will be for the player to be on equal footing with his opponents. It was this method that was chosen by Ubisoft for the development of the multiplayer mode in Splinter Cell: Double Agent.

    As a reminder, the multiplayer mode in the Splinter Cell series was introduced in its second release, Pandora Tomorrow, and was improved in the third title, Chaos Theory.

    This multiplayer mode, developed by the talented Ubisoft studio in Annecy, Southern France, was hailed by the industry as particularly innovative and compelling. Tellingly, Chaos Theory's multiplayer mode is still played on Xbox Live (the game is Xbox 360 compatible) to this day.

    This extraordinarily rich mode nonetheless has a cost: its complexity. Having worked as lead level designer and play testing coordinator on the multiplayer modes of these two games, I am well-positioned to testify on the problem.

    While hardcore gamers appreciated the diversity and the sophistication of the tactics that they could develop, beginners struggled to simply understand where to go, and why. The problem was partially solved in Chaos Theory, but the game remained difficult to master. For Double Agent, Ubisoft gambled on simplifying the controls, the game objectives and the features. The game's spirit remains intact but it is easier to grasp.
  • The progressive introduction of game features and complexity. Gamers discovering a multiplayer mode could unveil new features, increasingly complex maps and more aggressive game modes as they pass thresholds (such as the number of enemies killed).

    This mechanism guarantees that a player will not be overwhelmed by a game's complexity, while retaining its richness. It also helps to get the player to play with gamers of an equal level. If implementing this solution, just make sure that that it can be easily overridden as a seasoned player might want to invite a friend to his session, no matter what his level is.
  • A ranking system grouping players of similar levels. This mechanism could allow gamers to play in a context better adapted to their level of skill.

    All multiplayer games feature ranking systems, but their effectiveness is often questionable when it comes to matching players of similar strength. The Microsoft TrueSkill ranking system could bring a valuable solution to this issue.
  • Game concepts focusing on cooperative action. Playing alongside highly skilled players is easier and certainly less intimidating than playing against them. Even if the players are grouped in several teams pitted against each other, cooperative gameplay within his team will help the player discover the game progressively.

    He could be helped by his more seasoned team mates, he could simply follow them or he could follow less exposed tactics like manning a fixed gun, driving a vehicle or simply defending a position.

3. Games to be played "where I want, how I want". Two aspects of design are involved in this concept: learning curve and density.

  • Learning curve. A common solution is to add a tutorial separate from the game itself, but as this has the effect of pushing back the moment the player reaches the heart of the game, games increasingly avoid this method.

    There are other solutions, however. In the Warcraft series, the numerous facets of the game are progressively introduced through the duration of the campaigns. A similar mechanism is used in episodes 2 and 3 of Metal Gear Solid, where radio messages conveniently explain new aspects of the interface.
  • Game density and separation. Demand for products that are playable in short bursts necessitates the building of shorter, denser levels. It also requires features such as auto-saving or resuming.

    Today, this system is increasingly prevalent in console productions. For instance, the positioning of automatic save points in Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, Naughty Dog's excellent action-shooter, is particularly well done.

    Save points placed too close to one another remove challenge for the player, since he no longer fears failure, knowing he can restart not very far behind his previous position.

    On the other hand, spacing them too far apart will frustrate the player who, in the event of game over, will have to consecutively start over and repeat a long section of the game.

Megatrend V - Gaming as a Teaching Tool

Educational games: a novelty in the video game industry? Academically-themed games aimed at younger kids are nothing new and are not a "megatrend". However, pedagogic multimedia products targeted at high school and college students, or even adults, will no doubt be part of a future development path for our industry. Why?

Many teachers will confirm the increasing difficulties involved in grabbing the attention of today's youth. Under constant bombardment by a torrent of stimuli, their attention span has shrunk to the point where concentrating on any one subject for any significant length of time can be a Herculean task -- particularly when a subject is daunting!

Some have had the idea to use video gaming as an academic complement. This type of media has the advantage of being at the heart of teenage leisure, and its nature is well-adapted to the best of mankind's teaching mechanisms: experimentation. Many businesses have started down this challenging road, such as the American firm pullUin.

What forms will these games take? Some academic subjects can often be easily translated into games. Let us consider a few examples:

Economic sciences. Their mechanisms are well-adapted to this exercise, since they apply to a concrete universe which we all know. Management games can be used to support or illustrate theories of international trade, interactions between supply and demand, or the disruption of competition caused by a monopoly.

Mathematics and physics. Despite their highly abstract natures, these sciences have in fact been invented to solve truly concrete problems, such as the building of aqueducts by the Romans. We can imagine interactive illustrations: the launching of a rocket into orbit, or a game with a catapult to illustrate vectors.

Biology. The mechanical characteristic of the inner workings of a cell, and therefore of any living organism, can be emulated by construction games such as the famous The Incredible Machine.


Sierra's The Incredible Machine

What game design?

Though the ultimate purpose of these interactive products is not gaming for its own sake, game design rules should still be applied with the same care exercised in designing a more traditional video game. Here are a few such rules to keep in mind:

  • A theme suitable for the targeted audience, particularly regarding age groups
  • Game objectives that are simple to understand, and that offer true fulfillment (new features)
  • The availability of tools (game features) allowing the player to reach his goal
  • The development of an environment with consistent rules and behavior
  • The progressive discovery of the use and limits of the available tools through experimentation
  • An intuitive interface inspired by standards expected by players
  • A feedback mechanism allowing the player to assess his progress
  • An appropriate handling of difficulty, pace and replay value.

However, such applications will also need to include specific features unique to their academic function:

  • A deep tutorial mechanism for explaining each feature available to the player. To avoid falling into bloated text explanations, the tutorial segments themselves should be interactive.
  • An auto-exam module allowing the student to test his acquired knowledge, comparing these results to teachers' expectations.
  • A module for exchange and communication between players/students, to allow for cooperation between themselves, as well as with the teacher.
  • An eventual link with the applications developed for the new interactive whiteboards we are starting to see in classrooms.

Perspectives

Ambitious and complex to develop, these game-based academic tools will also need to find their target market -- from teachers to parents itching to help their children -- and, consequently, suitable distribution channels.

The rapid development of distance learning in the United States -- and therefore soon in Europe -- may yet create the perfect environment for these products. The Nintendo DS has also shown its potential as a platform for teaching applications. 

The gaming approach to these academic applications may yet become a powerful commercial argument for newcomers on the education market -- one of the flagship markets of our civilization of knowledge.

Next article

I shall address only one Megatrend: multiplayer gaming and its far-reaching impact on our industry.

Previous articles

The Megatrends of Game Design, part 1

Physics in Game : A New Frontier

Multiplayer level design, part 1

Multiplayer level design, part 2

Multiplayer level design, part 3

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