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Design of strategy or strategy of design?

I went on to do the first movie conversions, a natural extension of my design orientation in games. It was interesting that with Raiders of the Lost Ark and E.T. I wound up trying to tell stories rather than make simple action games with my happy little formula. What may be even more interesting still is the idea I proposed at a big offsite brainstorm in 1981. The idea was something I called the “video vignette.” This involved defining the characteristics and traits for a series of characters and then just let them interact and watch the results. Sound familiar?

A game is a game is a game. And a game by any other title would still play the same. . .although you might change the graphics and market it differently.

But what is a game? Many is the time my fellow game makers and I sat down to examine this question from various perspectives and states of consciousness.

Is it entertainment? Certainly. Challenge? Absolutely. Immediate gratification? Who has the patience to find out? They can be as deep as meditation or as shallow as cheap thrills?

Let’s look at one specific type of game. How about a good old fashioned one-screen actioner? You know, what we call a sub-game or mini-game today. That’s where it all started. When I sat down to create Yars Revenge I was totally focused on the interaction of two things: Feedback Loops and Broadcast Media. The Yin and Yang of game design. A feedback loop is what a video game is. Broadcast Media is what a particular video game becomes.

The feedback loop is the game’s essence. At a primal sensory level, a video game is a system that modulates audio-visual stimuli in response to input signals from the player. The player receives the sights and sounds of the game and manipulates the controller in response. The game receives the controller input and manipulates the sights and sounds in response. This generates the next player controller action and the feedback loop is closed.

When a particular video game program is released it becomes a piece of Broadcast Media, much like the “programs” on its hosting technology, Television. To me, writing a video game is a communications exercise in which I encapsulate a message and put it out to millions of people. The message is: win my game. This message is encoded in the form of gratifying audio-visual feedback in response to preferred controller input sequences. In other words, the winning strategy particular to this game.

The old single screen action games are rather one-dimensional, but then again there is no way to win games like these. The goal was to keep playing as long as possible in the face of mounting challenges. I have a name for this style of game. I call it “meditative,” for the simple reason that it is very easy to get into a meditative state while playing them and time just stands still at that point. Compare this with modern, big-scenario type games. Here there’s a role to play and increasingly complex missions to carry out. I call this style of play “socio-dramatic.” In a socio-dramatic game you aren’t just playing out a simple action scenario, you are playing out a role in a contrived drama. This is a far cry from the meditative, simple action game of yesteryear, yet the underlying principal remains the same. You still loop your time away.

As a game designer, all I do is specify two things: how I want you to use the controller (strategy) and how the game will respond (payoff). When you play the game as I want you to, you get paid off in graphics and sound. It’s a contract I make with the player. They agree to hang out for as long as they like in the loop. And I provide the feedback cycle and try to make it attractive enough to keep a player looping.

So what is a good game? A good game is one in which the successful strategy is fun to execute or the payoff is spectacular. Either one can make the whole game experience worthwhile. A great game has both. A bad game is one in which the successful strategy is tedious or pedantic and the payoff is anticlimactic. It’s just that simple but a tad abstract to be sure. How about a concrete example?

Take Yars Revenge. In designing the winning strategy for Yars I had a theme in mind, colorful symphonic motion. I forced the player to make timing shots executed during fluid motion. That is the origin of the design of the Zorlon cannon (the weapon from the left side of the screen used to kill the Qotile boss). You aim the cannon by using your position on screen, and any time you fire you know you are in the crosshairs. Move or die. To make the winning shot you must be in motion.

There is a classic Hollywood formula for interesting motion: keep the viewers attention moving up, down, right and left. Look at some of your favorite action sequences, your eye is drawn in all four directions one after the other during the scene. So I designed the big winning shot in Yars to require you to be moving either up or down and the missile is always chasing you, so you have action on a vertical axis. Then you fire the cannon which starts moving left to right and then the Qotile jumps out from right to left so now you have action on a horizontal axis. And if you hit the Qotile with the cannon. . .bada bing, you get the first full screen explosion in the history of video games. So you have a strategy that is visually compelling because it is more than just button mashing, it requires carefully orchestrated motion of several pulsing, swirling, color animated objects. This is followed closely by the biggest payoff I could work up in 4K bytes, all with a layered sound scheme that also pays off with lots of rhythm, punctuation and attenuation. It also features an ambient sound that was taken right from the laboratories of classic sci-fi films.

I believe this is what makes Yars Revenge so cool. It’s one of the first games to compile all those elements together into one cohesive message/strategy/design. And it was all done with one very specific goal in mind. . . keeping you in the loop!

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