Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Secrets of Game Design from 1985

Game developers recognize the value in making their games more accessible to new players. By presenting a game's challenges in a way that does not assume the user has any prior experience, a game designer greatly expands the potential audience for his or her game. Of course, taken too far this can cause a game to suffer from a lack of depth, and it won't to appeal to experienced gamers. Luckily, there's New Super Mario Bros. Wii - a beacon of hope for those who believe in Nintendo's "everyone's a gamer" philosophy, and a fantastic experience for veteran gamers. It's unfair to give all the credit to Nintendo's most recent entry in the series, however, since so much of its appeal (and content) is derived from a series nearly 30 years in the making. Today's post is not about the "New", therefore, but about the old.

It seems to me that the Martians must have deposited the Super Mario Bros. series on Earth in the 1980s as a guide for humanity to design their games by. Modern science may refute it, but the evidence is there. In 1985, Super Mario Bros. provided a fantastic experience for the casual gamer; the interface was simple, the challenges clear. Most importantly, however, it could be played as a game and as a toy - a point I'll get to later.

Point A to Point B
The interface on the Nintendo Entertainment System controller consisted of the + shaped control pad and four face buttons. Two of these buttons were "Start" and "Select" and were easy to ignore. The other two big, round, action buttons were "A" and "B". For someone completely new to gaming, even a simple control scheme like this one can be tough to manage at first, but in Mario, learning how to run and hop your way to victory is all muscle memory. A player can play the first level a few times, jumping between blocks, pits, and goombas, and they will begin to automatically hold "B" to run through the entire level just as a driver instinctively maintains speed with their foot on the gas pedal.

All interfaces have some kind of learning curve, but instead of pausing the game to explain each new move, Mario lets the player discover moves as they need them. In the first level, the player discovers that pushing the control pad in a direction (to the left or right) intuitively moves Mario in that direction. They will likely also discover that pushing up and down does nothing. Furthermore, they find that they can barely walk to the left before hitting an invisible wall; walking to the right, however, pans the camera to reveal more of the game world. The player has immediately learned the first lesson of Mario: you must get from Point A to Point B, and Point B is always some distance to the right of Point A. This means the player now has an objective! They've discovered that moving to the right reveals some interesting game world to them, and their interest is piqued as to where and how this game world ends. As they continue to the right, the world scrolls past like a tape on a reel. And he or she has discovered all of this just by pushing the control pad a few times.

A slow-moving player will pass a hill and a bush in the background, before encountering their first "foreground" elements: a floating "?" block, and a Goomba approaching them on the ground. When the Goomba inevitably collides with the player, he or she learns their second lesson: some things can touch and kill Mario! When they do, the player's progress toward their goal (reach the end of the level) is reset, and they realize they get only get a few tries. All of this is communicated to the player through actions, visuals, and sound.

The next time the player comes back, they know they need to reach the end of the world WITHOUT touching a Goomba. But how? Obviously, this is how the player learns to jump (if they haven't already tried the jump button). In doing so they're likely to accidentally hit their head on a question mark block, and within seconds the game has taught the player (almost) everything there is to know about Mario: run, jump, avoid death, get coins and power-ups, and try to reach the end of the level.

It's possible to know very little about the game and complete its first stage (try playing World 1-1 by keeping "right" pressed down on the directional pad and only using the "A" button). A novice player with only superficial knowledge of the game's interface can achieve success after a few tries. And since the game starts at this level every time (save features didn't quite exist yet), every newcomer to the game is likely to start right here, even if they're playing with a person who's reached World 8 before.

Toy Plumber
Of course, the player wouldn't keep playing to learn these goals and to master the interface needed to achieve them if it wasn't fun. The brilliance of Super Mario Bros. has always been that it is a fun toy in addition to a great game. A player could play World 1-1 dozens of times, repeatedly failing and starting over, and still enjoy themselves. Why? For one thing, Mario is a joy to control. He responds to player input exactly as the player expects, and he performs acrobatic feats cartoonishly disproportionate to his stocky figure. Furthermore, every motion Mario makes is accompanied with sound effects that almost seem to congratulate the player. Again, take the time to play World 1-1 for a few moments, and make sure the volume is up. Pay close attention to each sound effect, and think of each of them as a congratulations:
  • "Good job, you jumped!"
  • "You got a coin!"
  • "Hey, you landed on a Goomba!"
  • "You smashed a block!", etc.
Nearly every desirable action in the game has an accompanying sound effect. Just playing with the physics of the game world and discovering all that there is to do is fun as a result.
This kind of play without goals, which is fun simply because it brings us joy to test our abilities, is like playing with a really fun toy. If you think back to your first board games, you probably found the physical act of moving the pieces like toys around the board more fun than actually following the rules of the game (a fact which probably frustrated your parents). In checkers, jumping a piece can be fun just for the satisfaction of slamming your own piece down on the other side of your opponent's. The fun you once had jumping checkers may have paved the way for your appreciation of the game's rules and strategy. A player's skill and reasons for enjoying Super Mario Bros. progress the same way.

It's possible that the only thing I've convinced you of is that games are only fun when they let you jump on or over things to kill them. Whatever the case may be, I hope you'll make your thoughts heard in the comments section. Soon I'll be sharing my thoughts on how New Super Mario Bros. Wii appeals to people seeking a challenge without rejecting newcomers. I hope you'll find it interesting whether or not you've played the game.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

World, Meet Melton Hayes

Melton Hayes is only eighteen years old, and has spent the last few years of his life working in the kitchen of a small local pub. Melton's always been an unremarkable kid, mostly unnoticed by the salt-miners that frequent the pub at the end of the work day, but he cooks good food and always comes in on time. His only worthwhile education has been on-the-job, and while he's not particularly strong he's developed the charm and cunning needed to navigate the volatile social climate of the slums of Crymar, the Jewel of the Eight Cities.
 It was only recently that an intoxicated veteran general took notice of Melton's more subtle peculiarities - his handiness with a cutting knife, his intuition with flavor, and his keen understanding of differences in taste. Melton didn't quite know it himself yet, but what Riurik and his band of adventurers-for-hire recognized then was that the boy was gifted, touched by forces of nature unknown to most men, and was destined for greatness.

By the way, I'm playing Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. And the inspiration and lessons in game design that this has granted me have sent me back to Thumbstruck. Hopefully this means frequent, worthwhile posts. I hope you'll join me!

Now, it's time to go discover more about my mysterious connection to the arcane world of the Feywild.