A game action is simple to understand, program and implement. The more complicated part is getting your head around the idea that games work best with extendable actions. Extensibility means that the action itself may be simple, but there is scope to expand or embellish it to have many uses.
Not all actions are equally extendable, which makes finding the right ones challenging. However finding great extensions is the best way to achieve elegance in your game design. And that, in turn, leads to success.
An Example of Extension
Grand Theft Auto 4 has two game dynamics: in-car (primary) and on-foot (secondary). Both are handled by the position and movements of the player’s doll (Niko Bellic). Niko can walk and run when the player pushes the thumbstick on her joypad.
At the start of the game, the player is quickly taught how to get into a car and drive, and then the game introduces further basic actions (fighting, jumping and shooting) slowly. Each basic action uses a new button, which gets the player used to how the joypad works in this world. After some simple missions, the basic actions become natural to the player, and she is in effect ready to play the game properly. This is the point at which the game can start to extend its actions.
It introduces different weapons and vehicles like sniper rifles and boats. It creates complex, multi-step missions. It opens up a number of very small secondary dynamics, like shops that the player can visit, internet cafes and mobile phones. Once the basic actions are in place and well understood, almost all the rest of the game uses the same template. The game effectively ceases teaching the player how to play and starts challenging her to play in new and interesting ways.
What it avoids doing is introducing whole new dynamics later on into the game. Subtle variations and small elaborations are the trick to extension, so that the player always feels in control. This learning is deliberately broken into missions and tasks to avoid seeming formal, and most of the elements introduced work hard to be naturally integrated into the existing control scheme. The player is never overwhelmed with artificiality and so the experience rarely feels opaque.
Basics of Extension
Successful game dynamics tend to work best when they rely on basic actions that extend in logical patterns, so that the rest of the game flows out from that initial control scheme. Extension thus starts the player with a simple set of actions that they can perform and then elaborates on those actions in easily understood patterns.
Extension works best with natural actions. If you are controlling Niko Bellic, for example, the thumbstick naturally feels as though it should move the character. The face buttons on the joypad feel like they should trigger instant actions (like hitting or jumping), and the shoulder triggers feel like they should change modes (like going into targeting mode for a sniper rifle) because they feel like a gripping action.
With that kind of naturalism in place it is easy for the player to become immersed in the world, acting and reacting fluidly. It is harder to get comfortable with unnatural actions, and as a result it is more difficult to successfully extend them. You could in theory bind movement to the triggers and actions to the thumbsticks, but it would feel weird. It might even make the player have to look at the joypad or instructions to remember how to play. In game design that’s usually a design failure.
Extension is generally a game’s best tactic for delaying maximum mastery (and hence boredom). By introducing new weapons, vehicles, units, city buildings, or whatever constitutes the game’s core components, the player does not become bored through repetition. This gives the game longer to establish a connection with the player.
There are five types of extension. Most games tend to focus on one or two, if only because extending in all directions at once is incredibly complicated both for the developer to implement and the player to comprehend.
Extending The Player
A player extension involves adding an ability to the player’s doll, or available on-screen options, that is permanent and will work throughout the rest of the game. The player essentially has a new power, although it is a power that she deploys using pre-learned controls from basic actions (or a variation thereof). With this new power the player can approach the game in a new way, one that she previously could not do.
A simple example of this kind of extension is in the puzzle game Portal. At the beginning of the game, the player is given the portal gun and has the ability to place a portal on any surface. That portal connects to a pre-determined portal somewhere else in the level, and using the combination of the two she is able to solve the level. Then, a few levels in, the gun is upgraded and the player now has the ability to place two portals. This extends the core game action instantly and makes the game, and its puzzle complexity, much more interesting.
Another example is in CityVille. The player starts the game with a set of buildings and farms that they can place to generate resources, but the game lightly hints at the goal of becoming Mayor. If the player does this (through completing many of the game’s baked-in tasks), then the reward for achieving mayoralty is the unlocking of shipping. Shipping gives the player a permanent new way to generate goods, and so alters how her city develops.
Player extensions are usually few in number because they change the way that the game plays significantly, enough to risk damaging the core game dynamic. Sometimes games handle this by only allowing player extensions to be used in specific missions or situations (although players often dislike this because it feels like handholding), or they might disable another extension, or even offer the player a choice.
Extending Through Resources
A different kind of extension is through resources. Resources are anything that the player interacts with. It can be the car her doll gets into, the troops that she commands on the battlefield or the blocks that she swaps to achieve match-three combinations. Some resources are intended for the player to be able to use to further their game, and these are the ones that extend the player’s actions.
The player runs through a level, shooting at enemies with her pistol. She kills one and the enemy drops a shotgun. The player picks up the shotgun, and now her game has changed. Where before she was weaker than the enemies and had to duck to avoid being shot, with the shotgun she can mow them down.
Until, that is, she runs out of ammunition.
Extension through resources is similar to extending the player, but it is self regulated. The resource that extends action does not have unlimited uses, and will not be available throughout the game, and so this brings a degree of resource management into play.
Extending Through Environment
Some games, most notably platform games like the Mario series, don’t extend the player’s actions directly but instead extend the game environment so that the actions that the player can perform (like jump and double-jump) have new and interesting uses. This too is a form of extension.
In the Mario series, Nintendo often include one major extension of the doll from release to release (Super Mario Sunshine’s water jet for example) but then lock that in as the major innovation of the game. Other minor extensions (like big/small mode) or secondary dynamics (underwater swimming, or the sliding sections in Mario 64) complement the main actions, but the game rarely adds significant additions on those actions.
Instead, what the Mario series excels at is extending the actions through the environment. In all platform games the general loop is one of move, jump and avoid. Timed puzzles, swinging blades, monsters charging at you and so on are all environmental objects that are included to make the game more complicated. A simple jump in an early level is the same as a simple jump in a late level, but the difference is that the requirements for the jump in the later level are much more exact. The player needs to be able to land perfectly, jump again immediately, perform complicated run-and-jump actions, and so on.
What this kind of extension is doing is changing the reason why the player is taking certain actions and not others, which in turn changes the player’s relationship to those actions. Players find themselves realising that they need to use their actions in ways that they had never really considered before, and so the actions are effectively extended.
A brilliant game for this is Ico. The game actions are pretty straightforward (run, jump, climb, shuffle, swing sword and bring along Yorda, Ico’s companion), but what the game does is use these basic actions to create dozens of interesting puzzles all around a castle environment. On the surface the game simply seems to involve a lot of pushing and pulling of blocks, but actually the way that these elements are being used by the player over time changes how they play.
Extending Through Pressure
Many games extend through increasing their difficulty. They vary an existing factor in the environment, such opponent AI, gravity or limited time, and this gradually changes the way the player uses her actions.
Tetris is the best example of this. The game dynamic is almost completely immediately apparent from the start, but the player realises over time that the game is getting faster. This changes the psychology of how she acts in the game from the creative through the tactical, and on to the strategic. So the game at the end feels quite different to the game at the beginning. Nothing is extending except the rapidity of the game, but it is enough.
Flick Kick Football on the iPhone uses placement of footballers to create more difficult targets. There are no new footballers other than the keeper and the defenders, and the only real variables are positioning and whether any of them move. This means that the player has to learn to be better at the game’s only action (flick-kicking) and learn how to curve the ball.
Guitar Hero also primarily extends through pressure. Each song that the player chooses is simply a different arrangement of notes. Easy songs can be handled with just the player’s finger resting on each button, but more difficult songs teach her that she has to shift position. The same actions force the player into achieving ever-more complicated arrangements, at greater and greater speeds.
Extending through pressure is common in many single-player games because it keeps the challenge interesting. It is easy to implement at a basic level, but also requires a significant quantity of balancing and testing to make sure that it is right.
Extension Through Mode
Many games feature single or multiplayer modes, or modes that unlock through the course of play. Modes used in this way change some of the rules of the game in some way, effectively turning the game into a different game and offering the player a new experience.
Extension and Game Dynamics
Most game dynamics need to incorporate actions that allow for extension. In some cases, extensions are in fact the entire point of the game. While the design of roleplaying games creates many tensions (as I discussed in my recent post on game dynamics), the trade-off for that is that their game systems are amenable to many player and tool extensions.
One of the interesting aspects of single play in particular is that there is a tendency for players to drift away long before they ever see the end of a game. The reasons revolve around the player starting to feel that the game has become repetitive and the cost in time that it seems to require is more valuable spent doing something else.
This makes the choice of game actions hard for designers because there are many game concepts out there that are fun but have difficulty in staying fun, and simply aren't open to extension. The trick seems to be to keep them natural, even ordinary, and then try to think of many variations or effectors that might serve to make them extend in extraordinary ways.
There is no secret sauce for doing that, but hopefully with the right frame of mind around how to approach your dynamics, this post has given you a start.
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