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
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
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
|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!