A good game design needs to be as clear as possible, to the point of obtuse, so that a player can understand it. She needs to know what actions she can take, what effect they will have, and what kind of responses she is likely to receive. This is what game designers mean when they talk about the player’s agency.
The opposite of clarity when the game is hidden. The player is unsure of what actions she can take, what their effects might be and what kinds of response she is likely to receive. This is what I label opacity and the primary cause of opacity is arcane actions.
Game mechanics are fuzzy. Nobody quite agrees what they are, everybody has their own interpretation of what they mean and they are rarely specific. They are a design-side view of a game, and talk more about the interplay of elements and guessed-at understanding of why the game might be fun.
I prefer to look at everything from the point of view of the player, and in the player’s eyes all games boil down to actions.
An action is a press of a button (or a sequence of buttons, wave of a controller, click of a mouse etc) that causes a single and visible effect in the game world. Pulling a trigger, pushing a control stick, selecting a unit with your mouse, equipping a spell and twisting a tetromino are all kinds of actions.
Actions come from the player and are always within the frame of the game world and deliberate. Loading and saving, for example, are not actions. Events within the game that happen apparently of their own accord are also not actions.
When the player moves from room to room in Portal there are often pyrotechnics triggered by her arrival. That kind of trigger is not an action, however, because it’s not deliberate. It’s a condition for which the game is quietly monitoring. Actually pushing a button as a part of a puzzle to make something happen? That’s an action.
Actions are the foundation of all games, the fundamental design particle around which everything else is built. Without the capacity for taking action, your game is not a game at all: It's a non-interactive digital sculpture.
Confusing the Clever with the Arcane
Every designer wants to be Jonathan Blow or Shigeru Miyamoto. She wants to create something as clever as Portal 2, Ico, Braid or any of the Mario games. She wants to make environments that really push the player and encourage him to experiment and solve. This is great design.
But looking at those games from the perspective of actions, you should notice that they have an elegant simplicity. In Portal 2, you can only move, jump, open doors, pick up cubes and fire two different kinds of portal. Each of these actions is 100% replicable throughout the game, and it uses the environment to create ever-more intricate tests for the player to solve using only those actions.
Developers often try to innovate new actions, as Portal did, but this is very tricky. An innovative action such as controlling time, changing colour (so all black objects affect the player when he’s black, and all white when he’s white) runs the risks of a lack of extensibility, a lack of audience expertise or a confusing implementation.
So it has to be crystal clear how the player is supposed to use the action, and preferably the control method should be as close as possible to actions with which they would already be familiar. Portal uses the first person convention of a gun metaphor, for example, so anyone who has played one of those kinds of games before can tap into previous expertise.
An innovative action also needs to be robust, with the designer cleverly figuring out ways to make the game world more interesting while leaving the basic actions simple. In a previous post, I called this extending through environment, and it’s important. Games whose actions do not extend in some way (environment is one example) become quickly boring. If your game is going to bet the farm on a new kind of action then it really needs to be all about that action all of the time.
Finally, an innovative action needs to explore one kind of test in various ways to achieve an appropriate level of dimensionality. Portal 2, for example, introduces fluids which allow for bouncy or speedy behaviours, adding more dimensions to the basic puzzles. This is excellent design.
Designers often end up creating arcane actions, however, by not paying attention to these issues. The actions they create are unnatural, brittle and require a leap of perception on the part of the player that is unreasonable. Rather than achieving dimensionality through extending from basic principles, they try and pose multiple types of test at the same time, or unfair tests that are not clear.
There is a difference between the mind-bending challenges of trying to figure out where to place your portal versus how to complete the action to place it. One provides all of the information and it is up to the player to perceive how to do it.
On the other hand the test in Street Fighter 4 is all about timing and muscle memory, and so is taught through learned patterns. The closed arena environment constrains the rest of the game to remove all other distractions, and so the player can master a doll. Take that arena constraint away and place the game in a more open environment (God of War for example) and the same complexity of fighting engine has to be toned down because there are other types of test to consider.
The point is that in trying to be clever, the designer actually ends up creating something that doesn’t work very well or requires the player to be educated before they can understand how it’s supposed to work. Either way, the designer has failed.
Some actions are arcane for one audience but not another.
Street Fighter 4 is comfortable for many gamers – but put your stereotypical non-gamer in control and he has no idea what he’s doing. Similarly there are many players for whom the concept of the first person shooter is as hard to grasp as that of learning to drive.
The lack of player expertise can often be surprising. There are millions of PC owners who never right-click anything because they don’t realise that they can, and don’t feel comfortable taking the risk that they might screw something up. There are hundreds of millions of smartphone users who never use multi-touch gestures because they don’t know they can.
Studios often become overly familiar with the game interface that they have created, and they can easily develop blind spots based on their own expertise of seeing the same game day-in day-out.
A seemingly trivial issue that designers and testers unconsciously overcome can be a major roadblock for ordinary players. In extreme cases that leads to the unfortunate situation where a game is based on an arcane action that nobody in the outside world will ever take the time to understand, and that can mean your whole game is actually a well-polished hunk of junk.
Therefore games that want to appeal to any market have to take its average expertise level into account. Expertise is why you should always sanity check your game against members of the target market (friends, family, fans, etc) at regular intervals. Just be mindful that your players are not you, and what seems barn-door clear to you might well be thoroughly opaque for them.
(Today’s image comes from Weird Universe.)