Experimenting with new interaction is important. Without it, we would never fully explore new interfaces. And yet, new ways of controlling games often feel forced.
The developer reinvents how to jump by tying it to the release of a button rather than pressing it. She crafts a system for issuing orders to units through complicated gestures rather than selection and clicking. Weird controls turn perfectly natural actions into arcane ones, forcing players to re-learn skills for no good reason.
Developers (particularly indies) seem to assume that clever interaction is the key to making great games. Sometimes it is. Mostly it's the opposite. Standardised interfaces form over time for a reason, and running counter to them is usually bad game design.
A typically hilarious segment on Top Gear traced the history of car controls, starting with the earliest horseless carriages. The first cars were controlled using bizarre arrangements of gears and levers until 1916 when the Cadillac Type 53 was invented. It proved the inspiration around which all modern cars now follow, and to this day there is little variation on that template. Why? Why stick with an imperfect design from 90 years ago rather than reimagining it?
When a device is brand new there is significant delight in learning how to use it, both for developers and users. After a while, however, users form a template understanding of what it is and does and they dislike changing that understanding without good reason.
When an interface becomes good enough to provide robust interaction with few major downsides, expert users consider it a waste of their time and a test of their patience to re-learn a skill that they have already mastered. A driver does not want to re-learn how to drive every time he buys a new car. A chef does not want a new way to activate a hob when the one he knows works well enough. An office worker does not want to have to learn how to use Microsoft Word all over again.
With games it’s similar. There is a difference between the mind-set of the novice and the expert, and you mistake them at your peril.
Old Rope is Still Old Rope
When a player picks up a Guitar Hero controller and figures out the basics, this interaction feels delightful. It’s a brand new skill, and mastering game dynamics (a.k.a. fun) based on new skills is often exhilarating. One of the defining features of founderworks, in fact, is that they teach a brand new skill.
Tetrist developers (especially tetrist indie developers) often consider their games to be founderworks (when they are not) and over-estimate the value of the physical skill that their game teaches. They assume that the audience will approach their work with the mind-set of the novice, but this is generally not the case.
Some developers have even taken to messaging the player at the start of the game asking them to play without preconception (such as Amnesia begging players not to play game to win). Players can’t really be expected to do that. They bring all the games that they have maximally mastered with them when they play a new one, and indie audiences in particular tend to have played many more games than the average muggle.
Muggles buying a Kinect might approach it as novices, but players who buy the new Battlefield or Call of Duty don’t approach a new game set in that perspective with fresh eyes. They immediately sense when the controls are weird and the feel is wrong and they judge it there and then. Some players (particularly self-conscious types like bloggers, other developers, reviewers or students) will push through that feeling, but many won’t.
Experts want the skill that they already have to be enhanced, to gain new mastery in dynamics with which they are already familiar, and to enjoy the experience on a higher level. They have expectations.
Redesigning controls that don't need redesigning often seems like money for old rope. Once the expert player has had a chance to familiarise himself with your unique controls, he realises that the underlying skill is actually very ordinary. The game is not imaginative, and instead the developer is covering the lack of imagination in pretence.
That sensation is why many fans often respect, but don’t really get excited by, indie games. They see through the disguise.
If in Doubt, Standardise
Does your game need to teach a new physical skill? I mean a really new one, not an old one done in a different way? Is it appearing on a platform whose conventions are not yet locked down? If not, if you are making a game to work on a standard platform like a console or PC, then standards are your friend.
Stop and think about why you would want to annoy players rather than enable them to have fun. Your players have already played a game or three in their time and an interested fan is a valuable customer over the long term, so work with fan expectations before you confound them. That’s how you win their love.
Teach them a whole new way to suck eggs, however, and they will not be so kind. Good enough is often better than perfect because it’s what players already know, and that gives them confidence.
Isn’t that a good thing?