Tuesday 10 March 2015

Design Lessons from Multiplayer Installations - Part 2

In my last article I talked about some of the design lessons I’ve learned from building Tap Happy Sabotage and Dash & Bash - multiplayer installation games involving arm-grabbing and running around. The article examined how to use pacing and variation of mechanics to create a shared social experience and give players stories to take home with them.

This article will look at the more practical lessons I’ve learnt from these games. By taking games outside their usual contexts and platforms, the challenges of conveying rules and information become much more difficult.

What do these design challenges tell us about the way we understand games as players?

User Interface for Unconventional Mechanics

Imagine you’re playing a brand new console game, with a gamepad. What do you do? First you wiggle the left stick. Whatever moves is probably your avatar. Then you press the face buttons. Whatever happens as a result is probably your main action.

Even if these aren’t the main controls for the game, at least you as a player have a starting point. It's usually possible to work out the basics by fiddling around.

Close-up of a button unit from the Dash & Bash room at GameCity
Installation games do not have this luxury. When the first version of Dash & Bash was at GameCity I’d often see children run up to a screen with a button, and claim it as their screen. Even when the game started you had to work really hard to encourage them to move away from it. 

Children are great for testing UI because they will do exactly what seems natural to them without hesitation. At the beginning of Dash & Bash is the log-in screen. Here the big buttons are simply used to register each player. Once registered the player is given a card. During the game that card that could appear on any of the four screens. So after that joining there is no relation between the player and any one button - their card is what they must look for.

When a player joins a game the title is replaced with their card
The player must internalise that the card represents them, rather than the button. In early builds this didn't always click with players. The card is a virtual object, seeing it as its own entity rather than pixels on a screen is a leap of logic. Compound that with another leap of logic: that the object which represents you is an object you have absolutely no control over. 

Thus internalising “this is my card” takes a bit of work, while “this is my screen” and “this is my button” come more naturally. They are physical objects and so the concept of owning them is unambiguous.

Fortunately we do have tools in our design vocabulary to help with this - tools which I bring to bear in the updated version for the National Videogame Arcade.

Gaming Vocabulary

One of the biggest differences between the two versions of Dash & Bash is that the new one uses the words “Player 1” and “Player 2” during the log-in process. Where before a logged-in player would see the words “Find your card” above their card, they now see the words “Player 1: Find your card”, with their player number as a big colourful icon.

The newer login screen for Dash & Bash
Originally I didn’t want Dash & Bash to have a “gamey” feel to it. I didn’t want people to say “I’m Player 1” - I wanted them to say “I’m the lemon” or “I’m the bee”. I wanted to spur their imagination - get them to identify themselves with a new label and sound silly when they said it - mostly to open them up socially. I didn’t want them to see the game as just another tech commodity, but as a room where the unexpected happened. 

But gaming vocabulary has its benefits. “I’m Player 1” has a functional meaning which most of us understand. We get what it means to “be Player 1” and that it implies some kind of scoring mechanism and the concept of winning. By contrast, “I’m the bee” could mean any number of things.

In reality users tend to adopt the vocabulary of Dash & Bash even with numbered players. Once the game gets started the players refer to themselves as the pictures on their cards almost immediately. This is what they see over and over again. It’s the picture that they’re looking for on the screens. They identify by their picture because it has a functional weight. It’s the identity they need to remember if they want to win. 

Gamey vocabulary is useful because it was a shortcut to getting players to understand what was going on. Players will jettison it when it's no longer necessary.

Often I feel that as designers outside core games we see gameyness as a negative concept. But why is that? Is gameyness as alienating in reality as we assume it is? In this case I benefit from the fact that most of us understand what it means to “be Player 1”. Young and old, gamers and non-gamers, we absorb what this means through osmosis, and the words carry functional value as well as cultural connotations. 

The real challenge installation games face is more to do with space and context. That is, being in a space where it’s okay to play. With all my games I see adults who will go crazy while playing with fellow adults, but when their kids are around they will clam up and act mature. “I don’t play games, but the the kids will have a go,” they explain, even as I reassure them the whole family can all play together.

Working out how to get around that is a design challenge for the next game!

Visual Vocabulary

Gaming vocabulary is not the only tool at our disposal as designers, and both Tap Happy Sabotage and Dash & Bash have inspired me to explore how we process visual information.

One of the nice things about games which challenge our ability to pick out visual information is that you don’t have to teach anyone the rules. Spotting an item in a crowd is an interesting challenge even without the interplay of logic we usually refer to as "game mechanics".

All 20 pairs of cards in the basic Tap Happy Sabotage deck
Tap Happy Sabotage has a naturally-scaling difficulty curve based on the colour of the card the player selected. Many of pictures in the deck are pink, purple and blue. The only yellow card in the deck is the lemon, often making whoever wields it the villain of the game. The only orange card is the traffic cone, which is slightly more detailed and looks deceptively similar to its evil counterpart, making its advantage come with an added risk.
All 24 cards in the symbols and shapes deck
The game also contains a deck of symbols and abstract shapes. Players found it easier to pick out pictures that they could assign a word to. Shapes that looked like letters were easier to spot than pictures that looked like combinations of lines and curves. Is this because we naturally recognise familiar symbols, or because we chant the word to themselves to help remember what we’re looking for? I don’t know, but it’s worth exploring.

A prototype for a game using coloured buttons arranged around a room
Similarly, a recent prototype I made involved combinations of symbols being associated to four different coloured buttons. The buttons are dotted around a room, and players must decipher the order in which to press them.

Originally the "codex" - showing which colour button mapped to which symbol - was laid out in a line, like a slot machine. In testing I found that the player had to think quite hard about where they needed to run to to press each one. 

I rearranged the screen so that the position of the symbols mirrored the position of the buttons in the room, as in the screenshot above. Moving around came a lot more naturally. Once players had the measure of the basics of play, rearranging the on-screen cues became a fun way to mess with players’ heads!

The relation of on-screen information to physical space is something we just don’t see explored enough in games at the moment is a big part of my next set of prototypes.

The Next Generation of Installation Games

One of the great benefits of working on these installation-based projects has been that they’ve taught me lessons about how people function. Understanding what’s going through the minds of players is useful in all games - whether we’re making games that span rooms or games that fit under our fingertips.

Seeing people moving and interacting helps us understand how people conceive space. It helps us understand how they process visual information by putting it in novel contexts. It helps us understand the vocabulary we use to describe play: a vocabulary that we can harness to teach players new skills. 
An early prototype of the portable button kit I am now working on
The most exciting benefit of installations for us as designers is to challenge our existing knowledge and understanding. When we take ourselves out of the screen-and-controller space we are forced to reconsider our axioms with fresh eyes. What techniques can we reapply all across our medium? What techniques only work because of familiarity with existing games?

This is why I’m so excited to continue making installation games. It’s why building the portable button kit has been the most fun I’ve had in years, and why I can’t wait to see what I learn as a result.