I watched a streamer play Late Shift a few days ago, and thought that it will redefine the interactive video experience. Late shift is a movie, choice-based adventure game. It’s similar to the Telltale games in terms of mechanics, but its choice of using directed live action videos instead of animated game graphics brings it closer towards a movie-type experience.
Next Generation Home Movies
Late Shift made me wonder about the possibility of an interactive movie experience in small group settings, where the audience decides the course of action to take and how the ending unfolds. Watching such a movie in a home setting promotes interaction between the audience and allows them to have a part in how the content unfolds. Having different story developments promotes replayability and allows the group to replay the content. Currently, these experiences are mostly single-player, but I believe that a movie-style choose your own adventure type of game like Late Shift can work well for a group setting because of its similarity to a movie.
Implementation and discussion
With phone applications being used as television remote controls, they can certainly be adapted as a choice selection mechanism. Certainly, seeing the decisions of others can be a point for further discussion and sharing of viewpoints. This encourages discussion and also allows for an enlightening experience that shows and deals with social issues.
Choose-your-own-adventure games grants the audience control over the cinematic experience. This empowers the audience and creates an interactive experience that involves the audience. This allows memorable moments to be created by the audience themselves in addition to the viewing experience.
I played many games when I was young. Feeling different levels of frustration was not uncommon. One game, however, took frustration to a whole new level — DotA. Player vs. player (PVP) games by nature have a tendency to draw out frustration from players, which often manifests in the form of toxicity. Several factors play a part in this.
When I came across DotA, I was about fourteen years old. As a highly competitive teenager, I took my game sessions seriously. Winning is akin to life and death — it defines my competency and place amongst my peers. For games such as League of Legends, Dota 2 and Overwatch, many of the players fall within the teenage or young adults age group. Although games are designed for fun experiences, PVP games can get pretty serious for players of this age group.
In a game of League of Legends, it is common to invest about 30-60 minutes per session. The longer a game goes, the more the investment from the player. Believe me, losing after investing 60 minutes in the game never feels good. Being denied something that you worked hard for is just devastating. Games with lower average play sessions are less frustrating in this sense as the investment required from the player is lower.
Competency level amongst the player’s friends is perhaps the key factor that drives frustration. In a social setting where all your friends are talking about the game and playing together, performing well is correlated to your social status and popularity.
How it all explodes — Losing and toxicity
All of the above factors culminate together when we start to lose in a game. Upon losing, we begin to rationalize why and we often blame our teammates instead ourselves because it is way easier to do so. Whether or not our teammates underperformed usually isn’t the issue. It’s often the losing part that triggers this. As a result, we are inclined to say harsh words in impulse because we’re so emotionally charged — toxic words. Hopefully, understanding this will help us control our emotions better in the future and ensure that our friends are no hurt when playing together. After all, games are supposed to promote fun interactions between friends.
Back when I first had my very own PS2 at around age 13, Shadow Hearts: From the New World (SH) was one of the games that I bought along with it. Having experienced a few popular and fun RPGs (Final Fantasy, Dynasty Warriors), I had several preconceived notions of how they’re like. When I first played Shadow Hearts, I was introduced to one of their main game mechanics: the Judgement Ring. I hated it, mainly because I kept missing all the time and after hours of sheer frustration, I stopped playing the game.
A few years later, I loaded the game up and tried it again. This time, however, I absolutely loved it. The game was impressionable in many other aspects such as story, character design, etc, but the highlight of the game was the Judgement Ring mechanic.
The Judgement Ring
A detailed explanation of the judgement ring can be found here. Whenever a character attacks, a circular disk will appear with a meter that begins rotating around the center. Some parts of the disk will be highlighted and the player has to push a button when the meter is on the highlighted area to perform a successful attack. Here’s a video link illustrating the system.
The judgement ring is highly flexible in design. Hence, it is easy to change its components depending on what it is used for.
The main usage of the judgement ring is for character attacks of all kinds. For physical attacks, the number of hit areas reflects the personality of the character. To illustrate this, one of the game characters, Natan, wields two pistols. When he attacks, the judgement ring displays two hit areas that are close to each other. The positioning and number of hit areas mirror his attack style: two quick successive shots. Missing either or both of the hit areas respectively translates to Natan missing the first, second or both shots.
Status effects affect the judgement ring as well. Party members can be afflicted with statuses such as a fast ring or the blind ring. These status effects make it more difficult to strike the hit areas. Blind ring, for example, means that all hit areas are hidden and the player has to guess where they are. In the case of a blind ring, a player who memorized the position of the attack areas can still strike the hit areas even if they’re invisible. Contrary to many games where debuffs absolutely negate the player’s strength, the player is given the opportunity to overcome them in Shadow Hearts and feel satisfied.
At the start, seeing this mechanic can be odd as it is an interface most players are not used to, myself included. After getting used to it, however, I was able to appreciate how one single interface can echo and reinforce the game not only in terms of combat but also, the story, gameplay and the characters themselves.
The judgement ring by itself already has many exciting elements. Spinning the judgement ring resembles gambling at the roulette table. The player is initially rewarded by a variable ratio schedule. The unskilled player is unsure if he will succeed.
As the player becomes more skillful and accurate at hitting the larger orange areas, narrow red strike areas at the end of each orange area provide an additional challenge. Hitting the red areas provides additional rewards such as critical hits and thus provides substantial motivation for veteran players. Due to its position at small width, attempting to strike at red areas increases the risk of missing the attack completely. This high-risk factor adds further excitement to these moments.
There are rare items that cause the meter to spin up to unlimited times with increasing speed as long as the player does not miss a hit area. These rare moments generally cause a spike in excitement level as the character’s attacks hits are directly dependent on how successful the player is on consecutive hits in the ring. From my personal experience, performing these attacks puts me in a trance. The gradual increase in rotational speed of the meter makes it more challenging and exciting the longer this maneuver goes on. Seeing how I enabled the character to unleash a flurry of attacks is also hugely satisfying.
The judgement ring is able to create manageable goals that players of different skill levels can focus on by offering the hard-to-hit red strike areas on top the orange ones. Since their performance directly relates to in-game results, players obtain immediate feedback on their performance and can easily learn how to time their presses better. Furthermore, varying the parameters of the judgement ring mechanic via items or debuffs is a clever way of implementing new challenges that prevent the mechanic from being too repetitive.
Shadow Hearts offers multiple judgement ring modes. For players frustrated with the default judgement ring, there is the auto mode that automatically strikes the hit areas. For players who prefer a riskier style, there’s the gamble mode that aggregates all the hit areas to a small one. Having these modes grants accessibility to more player types. Players who absolutely hate having to strike the judgement ring each attack can still enjoy the game without having to do so.
Shadow Hearts showed me how a single well-designed interface can enrich the game in multiple areas. I certainly appreciate its elegance and will definitely consider this element when designing future games.
When I play a game, I expect my experience to be a rewarding one. When a player feels rewarded, dopamine level increases in his/her brain and consequently creates a pleasurable feeling. This in turn positively reinforces the player’s behavior and keeps the player glued to the screen. This is true for everyone, but what makes an experience rewarding, exactly? Psychologists would break rewards down into these four types:
Variable Ratio Schedule
Fixed Ratio Schedule
Variable Interval Schedule
Fixed Interval Schedule
When designing a game, it is crucial to employ the right combination of reward systems that align with the gameplay. A mismatched reward system can misguide the player and easily result in a different experience regardless of the designer’s intention. For instance, if critical hits happen on a fixed timer, players will be less inclined to make more frequent attacks and wait for the timer. This creates a less action-oriented combat system.
Variable Ratio Schedule
We’re all so happy when we’re gambling.
A variable ratio reward system is powerful. It capitalizes on human behavior so well that us players are sometimes slaves to its will. In summary, a variable ratio system has an element of randomness and rewards a player after he/she performs an unpredictable number of actions. It’s the reason why casinos and gambling addictions exist. What makes variable ratio rewards so tantalizing? Turns out, dopamine levels also rise when one anticipates a reward. Being unable to predict its occurrence causes us to anticipate it on every action, keeping us on a heightened state of arousal. If we do happen to get it, the rise in dopamine level would also be higher compared to say, a fixed ratio schedule, because our brains did not expect it. The human brain is wired to be more sensitive to unexpected stimulus — this is the basis of our fight-or-flight system — it keeps us alive. The promise of a sudden, unpredictable surge of pleasurable stimulus exploits this to keep us engaged.
<3 digital cards.
In the realm of the increasingly popular “free to play with microtransactions” paradigm, variable ratio asset rewards are abused to the core. Take Hearthstone, Clash Royale and Dota 2, for example, card packs and chests give out random rewards. We know we’ll get the legendary card or epic card if we keep opening packs, but we can never predict when. So what happens next? – We keep buying and opening packs. To show how immensely effective such a model is, Hearthstone’s revenue is a sheer $24 million per month. “Oh boy a legendary!”
Variable ratio rewards are also heavily used in gameplay mechanics and have withstood the test of time. Critical hits, card drawing, and dice rolling provide players with small pleasurable moments throughout the game. With critical hits, for example, players anticipate these moments every attack. This results in a more dynamic combat experience. In Fire Emblem, I distinctly recall looking forward to the occurrence critical hits the most in combat, simply because of how it was designed — a special animation followed by four times the damage. See the animations for yourselves! It’s indescribably satisfying.
Fixed Ratio Schedule
100 coins for shrooms? I’ll take one, please.
With all the praise I’ve been giving to variable ratio rewards, surely there’s some merit for our other pals — fixed ratio rewards. Fixed ratio schedules reward players after a known, fixed number of actions. It’s basically a transaction. As explained previously, the pleasure we derive from such types of rewards is not as great compared to variable ratio rewards. However, fixed ratio systems do have an important role to play as well.
Fixed ratio reward systems form the foundational experience for many games. It provides the base level of satisfaction and rewards to players, thereby promoting a consistent and predictable player behavior. A category of quests does precisely this: “Kill X boars; obtain 5 watermelons; win three games…” Take Heroes of the Storm, for instance. There are daily quests that reward us with gold for completing certain tasks a number of times, such as winning a game 3 times. If the parameters of the daily quests are unknown and the rewards are relatively small in proportion to the amount of effort invested, players are certainly not going to invest in them. Why not randomize and increase the range of rewards then variable ratio style? Well, it’s because simply inflating randomized game rewards in exchange for player commitment can cause inconsistency in terms of the basal player experience. Some players get huge rewards on a daily basis and some don’t. This unfair distribution of daily resources creates needless disadvantages for certain players.
I give up.
The allure of variable ratio reward systems can also fade rapidly, especially if players are allowed to repeatedly try for it. For an initially motivated but unlucky player, he/she can easily get tired and give up. I remember giving up Brave Frontier because it was tiring to constantly gamble for the latest units.
Variable Interval Schedules
Similar to variable ratio systems, variable interval schedule systems does a pretty good job of eliciting a slow, steady response rate from players. Variable interval schedule systems reward players repeatedly after an unpredictable period of time. This system is usually employed to motivate players to perform activities over a period of time rather than after an explicit, tangible user action. It is thus generally difficult to pinpoint these systems in games.
Finally a bite.
Treasure goblins and power shrines in Diablo 3 are examples of this. The spacing of these two elements is designed so that the player encounters them after spending an uncertain amount of time exploring uncharted areas. The player’s interest level spikes when encountering these treasures, reinforcing his behavior of exploring the map. Variable interval schedules are often used to reinforce the user’s activity within game loops in single-player focused activities. Rare encounters/respawn rates (WoW, Pokemon), air drops (for other players in H1Z1), and fishing (Stardew Valley) are instances of variable interval schedules in games.
Fixed Interval Schedules
Rewarding players after a known, predictable time period is the role of a fixed interval schedule. Unlike variable interval schedules, we know exactly when the reward will come. Since it is predictable over a fixed time period, we are usually responsive and interested when it’s close to reward time, and our interests wane sharply afterward. Furthermore, it’s not as stimulating as a surprise reward from its variable counterparts. Why would anyone use this then?
Yes. Examinations are fixed interval systems.
Many games employ the use of daily quests to incentivize us to play the game on a daily basis — a regular commitment. Fixed interval reward systems do a good job of developing player habits and commitment to a game. It is hence common to see daily quests and rewards being implemented as it encourages the development of consistent play habits and investment in a game. This is especially important in competitive multiplayer games that require a large player base. Daily rewards benefit the interested players and the developers. As players, we want that competitive edge that daily rewards give us. As developers, they want concurrent active players. As I am writing this paragraph, I was reminded that I have faithfully logged into Hearthstone daily since its launch just to not miss out on these carrots dangling in front me. Oh my god.
Another common implementation of fixed interval schedules is — leveling up. In Pokemon, the excitement when my Charmeleon is close to level 36 is immeasurable. After reaching that and evolving, the excitement dies down substantially. Across most games, leveling up is essentially a constant mini-goal that we can constantly achieve. Similar mechanics based on these mini-goal concepts include charging of ultimate abilities (Final Fantasy 10, Overwatch) and whittling down enemy HP meters. More often than not, these elements have visual elements that signify your progress bit by bit.
So which one do we use?
A combination of several layering types of reward systems seems to be the winning formula these days. Let’s use Hearthstone as an example.
We are given gold for daily quests (fixed interval) that requires us to complete certain measurable tasks such as winning a certain number of games (fixed ratio).
Opening card packs give out random rewards (variable ratio) with a possible legendary card in each pack. A pity timer is implemented to ensure that there will be at least one legendary card in 40 packs (fixed ratio).
Dust system that allows disenchanting and crafting of cards gives players a limited ability to get the cards they want after opening a large number of card packs. (fixed ratio).
Hopefully, this article provided an analysis of how your game’s rewards should be. Now, time to hand out the goodies in your game!
Hm, do you ever get the feeling that you’re being watched…?
We’ve just covered several lenses in the Game Design lectures, and I am incredibly curious to analyze a game based on some the lenses covered in Jesse Schell’s book: “The Art of Game Design“! To provide a greater depth of perspective, I will base my analysis not just from my playthrough but a friend, Chua’s as well. Without further ado, here’s the game: Don’t Starve. Let’s not forget the lenses too:
The Lens of Curiosity
The Lens of Punishment
The Lens of Visible Progress
The Lens of Curiosity
This is perhaps one of the most crucial lenses that Don’t Starve is based on. Both my friend and I had had many questions at the start which motivated us to continue playing the game. We had the overall question of: “How do we beat the game?” However, the type of intermediary questions we asked differed. I wanted to know more about the world and the rules of survival, which led me to ask, “What does this item do, exactly?”. On the other hand, Chua appreciated the game’s combat and action-oriented aspects. Hence, his question was more inclined to: “How do I become stronger?”. Both these questions were most likely somewhere in both of our minds, but it was interesting to see that we prioritize them differently based on the type of enjoyment we derive from the game.
Run Forrest run!
The game had an overall goal of survival, but the means of achieving it were designed to cater to different playstyles. The game could simply be exploration and survival against nature, but that would result in zero interest from action-seeking players such as Chua. Being able to satisfy the curiosity of different types of players is thus important when trying to appeal to a wider audience. If we are motivated to seek the answers that make the game fun for us, we will play the game.
The Lens of Punishment
The hallmark of any great game is the delicate balance between punishment and reward. However, that is tricky. Some players welcome brutal challenges, others just get pissed off. I’m the former (I played Dark Souls). Don’t Starve substantially punishes you for performing incorrect actions, either by draining one of your stats or, in some cases, certain death. It is clear that the game wants you to learn through death. Personally, dying repeatedly did not deter me from playing the game because the deaths were justified — I screwed up.
Chua, however, was not at all pleased. He felt that his deaths were unjustified and was annoyed at the game for killing him all the time. To make matters worse, Don’t Starve offers few direct clues as to why you died. Needless to say, his frustration at the game soon outgrew his satisfaction from playing it.
At least I hit 55 days.
For players who want an easy and straightforward gameplay, Don’t Starve can come across as an unforgiving and frustrating game. Simply lowering the difficulty isn’t wise as some appreciate the challenge. If we compare this game with Dark Souls, the deaths in the former game can sometimes be attributed to an unknown or misunderstood game mechanic — your screen flashes red —and you die. However, dying in Dark Souls follow after a distinct visual display of an attack. Players are thus more receptive to try again as they know what to avoid the next time. It’s just not a pleasant feeling to waste hours knowing that an unknown entity is blocking your progression.
The Lens of Visible Progress
Being able to visually gauge one’s progression is tantamount for any player who invests long hours in a game. The main visual displays of progression in Don’s Starve are base structures, seasonal changes, and environmental scars. As someone who appreciates exploration and building stuff, I derive much satisfaction from watching the permanent visual impact of my actions.
In terms of combat, however, there is little indicator of progress. There is no level-up system, no progress bar for killing monsters, and corpses disappear after a while. For Chua, the game felt stagnant and repetitive due to the lack of his own definition of progression. The game isn’t designed based on combat. Killing monsters simply serve as a means to get more resources.
Great base, better beard.
The progression system and feedback show how the game should be played. They tell the players that they’re doing it right or wrong. Being able to show progression in various aspects of the game is beneficial in retaining players’ interests. Games today often have an “Achievement” or statistics section that lists information about the player’s action. Adding such a feature is trivial in proportion to the motivation that it gives to the players. To many players, getting a 100% is a huge deal. This just shows how important it is to implement visual indicators of a player’s progress not just for the main gameplay, but for the other game mechanics as well.
It is interesting to see how I can break a game down to see how they fare in each of the lenses. With just three lenses, I am able to analyze the game from different perspectives and see possible weaknesses of a game. Imagine how detailed it would be with a hundred lenses!
Standing beside the registration kiosk with my team, I am nervous and twice as excited about the whole thing. I have never been comfortable with the unfamiliar, but man is this exciting.
Having gone through Building Virtual Worlds at the Entertainment Technology Center, we are no strangers to creating games quickly in two weeks, but this is a different ball game — a mere two days.
“Will our game idea be cool enough? Can it be done? What’s a game jam like?”
Grabbing my “Jammer” pass, I muse over my thoughts and look around. At a glance, I spot about twenty to thirty people scattered around the venue. Honestly, I expected a lot more participants, but I feel strangely relieved. Fewer participants — less pressure.
Turns out, we were just early to the party.
“Will our game idea be cool enough?”
We choose a location away from the central area as our den of operations; a comfortable, carpeted box-like space partially separated from the outside by wooden beams that stack horizontally on top of one another. After receiving the theme for this year’s jam at the central area, we waste no time getting back to our pod, stopping only to grab a plate of tomato pasta along the way.
It is time to brainstorm about the possibilities of “Waves“. Taking turns, we describe the ideas we have in our heads and scribble them on the whiteboard:
Bat in a cave.
You control a bat and travel through a dark cave, using sound waves that echo back (echolocation) to figure out the location of obstacles and dodge them.
Rubber ducky in a bathtub.
Control the water level and wave formation to dodge obstacles.
As a drummer, control the crowd wave and juggle the lead singer on top of them.
Pressing buttons in different orders according to sound beats causes your character to perform different attacks. Two-player game.
Perform actions that accelerate the meteor towards planet Earth and measure the destruction caused by sea waves as points.
Attempting to improve on them, we distilled the core principles behind each idea and infused them into one another; This created “Fighting Beats Ver.2”, incorporating the waves mechanic from “Rubber ducky in a bathtub”, the dangerous obstacle from “Meteor Strike” and the juggling mechanic from “Drummer beats” as the fighting mechanic. Finalizing our decision, “Fighting Beats Ver. 2” won most of our votes, followed closely by “Meteor Strike”.
It is always useful to find the essence of the game and see if it applies to others.
Okay, I’ll be honest. “Fighting Beats Ver. 2” is not the name of the idea. I named it so because it sounds better than saying: “a two player fighting game with waves and balls”. In retrospect, I suppose concepts are like that in theory as well — an amalgamation of ideas.
The next step is to solidify our concept and incorporate a plausible basis for the game: two bears attempt to bounce a dangerous beehive towards the other by pounding on a constantly waving platform.
“Can it be done?”
Each member of the team has his own predefined roles: Aaron is the game designer, Sunil is the sound designer, Kuk is the artist and I am the programmer. We are, however, not bound by our designated roles.
Prototype fast. That is what I learned from Building Virtual Worlds. I went straight ahead to program the mechanics, using simple cubes and spheres to simulate our discussed mechanics. This is the result:
The red and white bars represent the platform; the white ball is the hive. The platforms move up and down depending on the button pressed, and the goal is to bounce the white ball to the other side.
Testing it out, many things felt wrong. The ball sticks to the platforms and refuses to bounce; the platforms jerk up and down in a weird fashion. It may seem like a disaster, but the prototype shows us a glimmer of its potential to be something enjoyable. To us, that is gold. We now have a tangible starting point that grounds and guides our discussion.
Improving on the flaws of its predecessor, it is time for our second prototype:
This looks way better. We add flippers on top of each platform and use Unity’s physics to rotate them so that force is applied to the ball instead of just moving up. We try letting the flippers fly up mid-rotation but shortly removed it as it looks creepy. Below the flippers, the platforms now move in increasing frequency from left to right, generating an unintended charming effect. We are ecstatic about the dancing waves! We think it’s cool. Ah, the power of prototyping and happy accidents.
Yearning for a true jamming experience, I decide to stay overnight at the jam site in my snug sleeping bag. Kuk and Aaron chose to do the same. As I fall into deep slumber, the thought of people forsaking the comfort of their homes to create games is both slightly amusing and inspirational. Amusing because we are sacrificing our weekend to work, inspirational because we are willing to do so for our passion.
The next day, I wake up feeling energized. My sleep was surprisingly wonderful. After taking a quick breakfast of donuts and a much-needed shower at a nearby gym, I was ready for day two.
After showing prototype two to Sunil, he said, “This is awesome! Hey, I’ve got an idea. Let’s make it so that the platform moves according to sound beats as well.”
I turned to face him, “Like a visualizer?”
“Like a visualizer,” he said.
Whenever we have a new idea, we always try to prototype it first to see how it feels. No one says it’s not viable until we feel it’s not. And so we did the visualizer:
The effect is cool and it adds variation to the movement of the platforms. However, we aren’t too sure if it adds to the gameplay, so we decide to leave it there and see if it feels better later on. Sitting at a white rectangular table with our laptops beneath our fingers, we continue jamming.
“The left bar doesn’t move as much as the right bar,” Aaron said, looking at his computer screen. “See? This might not be good for game balance.” He is right. Since the bears are situated at the opposite ends of the screen, an asymmetric movement of the platforms will induce an unfairly divergent experience between each player. A discussion for a new wave mechanic ensued. After trying out several concepts, we decide on — a pulse wave:
“Wait a minute, where did the bears come from?” As we complete the implementation of the pulse wave, Aaron has already integrated Kuk’s 3D assets into the game, along with several UI updates. Playing our current prototype, we are pleased with the new mechanic and how the game is starting to look. It feels right. More importantly, it feels fun.
We proceed to playtest the game with a few friends. From the feedback, we improve the wave’s physics interaction with the hive. We playtest it again and make even more changes. Playtesters adored the cute bears, so we enlarge them. We also move the beats mechanic to a purely visual one as we feel that it interferes with the gameplay. We then playtest again, reducing the cooldown of the wave this time. We playtest again, and again, tweaking the game repeatedly based on invaluable feedback. Somewhere along the way, we gave the bears accessories that include shades and jackets to reflect the musical feel of the game. They look weirdly cool.
Sleep isn’t so good this time, but I am nevertheless excited about the final version of our game. After a morning of debugging, integrating and slight tweaking, we are proud to present: Bee Ball, winner of the best theming award at the Pittsburgh Global Game Jam.
This game exceeded my expectations on all fronts. I am thankful for my teammates: Aaron Albert, Sunil Nayak and Kuk Kim, for giving me a wonderful and memorable game jam experience.
What’s a game jam like?
A lot of hard work and passion with equal amounts of fun and satisfaction. It was gratifying to watch people enjoy your game. During the showcase, I distinctly remember seeing two boys have so much fun that they came back to play it a second time. It made me smile. I will never forget that.