One of the most powerful aspects of a game is the way that it communicates in classes. Auras, team colours, arrows, uniform appearances and indicators identify enemies and helpful items without deep examination. In so doing they communicate the lay of the land to the player quickly and establish a sense of fairness.
Whatever about the realism of all barrels looking identical, it serves a purpose. If a player can’t develop an implicit understanding of how your game is supposed to behave, then your game has a big problem.
Why do games tend to have repeated examples of only a few enemies? Why do heath packs have red crosses on them? Why use arrows to point players hither and thither? Why must barrels explode? Aren’t all these just bad game design hacks which break immersion? No, they’re the opposite.
Since earliest times, games have used classes of objects to define understandable rules. All pawns in Chess behave the same way, and that is important. By grasping how the game plays in the first few attempts of playing, the player becomes confident enough to move the next level: mastering it.
This applies to both competitive and creative games. If you are playing Animal Crossing and have to collect apples, you can identify apples because they all look the same, and so you can expect them to all be the same. If you find a sniper rifle in Call of Duty, you don’t expect it to have unique qualities. You expect it to behave like all other sniper rifles. You establish implicit understanding.
A world of nothing but unique objects and one-use enemies is a world that feels random and opaque. Opacity occurs when the player has no clear idea of what they are supposed to do. She is left to wander around or survey the game, trying to figure out what everything is and does in an entirely confused manner. It feels unfocused and unfair, and no game dynamic can form.
Stood against this is the desire (usually from simulationists) to make the game world as real as possible. There are no indicators or arrows in real life, so the argument goes, and their appearance in the game breaks immersion. The simulationist ultimately wants the game to have fidelity, and to feel as real as life itself, but the play brain wants to comprehend the world quickly, to learn what it must do to win achievements or victories.
The play brain – the inner hunter or farmer in all of us – sees the world symbolically and assigns meaning quickly. Its reaction to subtlety is generally one of non-comprehension and a lack of sustained interest. All games are played to win, not to experience, and the way that the game communicates to the play brain is crucial for the player to form a strategy to win.
Realism concerns are misunderstanding the most important factors of successful world making. Games must be simpler, fairer and more empowering than life. Otherwise why play?
Talking to the Play Brain
Colours play an important role in how we perceive the world. Basic emotions like aggression, threat, reward and goodness all have colours with which we instinctively associate.
We understand that a door marked with a red light is locked, while a green light means open. Successfully overcome the condition keeping that door locked, and the light goes green. A sense of bad and good, obstacle or threat, comes through from this sort of deliberate colouring. Rewards are also often colour-coded. A gleaming gold star has positive associations. Special items with strobing auras indicate good things.
The association with these kinds of colour is one that is baked into the mind or taught early, so the game is simply accessing them quickly. Colour used in this way is what I call a flag. It is an aura or dominant element of an object’s colouring that enables simple decisions like threat/scenery or useful/useless. Players can interpret the game scenario in an instant and take action because a flag keeps things simple enough for the play brain to understand. She doesn’t need to pause and consider.
Uniformity is similarly very important.
In Halo, all basic Elites are identical and so the player can expect a certain kind of encounter that is definitively different to one against another kind of enemy. This is good design. In Farmville all corn bushels are the same, and the player knows that they all grow for a certain amount of time before they can be harvested. This is also good design.
In play, we can more easily recognise tribe and type over individual, and it helps contextualise the situation for us. Uniformity tells the player what to expect. If you see a Tank from Left 4 Dead charging at you, you know exactly what it is and go running to find shotguns or Molotov cocktails in order to deal with it. You know what to expect, and this facilitates better strategy. Uniformity tells you that the game is fair, and so you can start to comprehend how you might master it.
Uniformity and flags can produce some interesting combinations. A game might use a few types of creature, each with different forms of attack, and use colouring to denote levels of difficulty. It might seem cheap to throw red orcs, green orcs and then blue orcs at the player through the game. However what this does is tell her that the progressive types of orc are familiar, and yet different at the same time. The play brain is intrigued by this new challenge to its previous winning strategy, and so interested all over again. This is good design.
The third kind of play brain communication is an indicator.
While it may seem that arrows floating in the air or target areas on the ground don’t really belong in a virtual New York, what Rockstar realised with Grand Theft Auto was that the most important thing for the player was to know where to go and what to do. Wandering around the city looking for the right door, may sound more realistic but it is not fun.
Indicators are like traffic lights. They are a deliberately stupid form of communication for the player, to overcome the feeling of being lost. They may be explicit, such as arrows, or perhaps more implicit such as the use of lighting in Left 4 Dead, but they are vital. Game makers often hope that the player will get the complexity of the experience provided by the game, but in practise they usually need help.
Using Flags, Indicators and Uniforms Well
Immersion and realism are not the same thing. Worlds are at their best when they convey the impression of something in motion and leave the player to do as they wish within it, not when they strive for veracity. So when using flags, uniforms and indicators, consider whether they add or take away from the impression of the game world rather than its reality.
The consistency of the world in how it communicates matter. A horror game with brightly coloured bouncing balls will likely make the player’s aesthetic senses react negatively, regardless of whether the play brain is challenged or not. It is important that the flags, uniforms and indicators make some sense within context or else the game risks its storysense. Half Life with gold stars would not work because it is just too far outside the realm of what the game world is about, as would Dead Island zombies invading FarmVille.
The challenge, therefore, is to find a way to communicate to the play brain while also retaining the aesthetic mission of the game. Be not afraid of using the same barrel a million times in your levels. Just be consistent in how you use it.
If your world has only three kinds of spooky shadow creature and very blocky puzzles made of identical bricks, you have not made a bad game. You have created Ico. If your world uses several coloured classes of identikit enemies to denote level of difficulty in a consistent manner, you have not made a bad game. You have created Diablo.
If, on the other hand, you have created a world in which every orc looks different and every rifle has unique rules, you have created a bad game. You have confused a simulacrum for a simulation, and the result is just not any fun to play. Players must be able to develop an implicit understanding of what the rules of your game are if they are going to enjoy it, and if they can’t then they won’t.