Friday, September 18, 2009

How. A sub-atomic structure

To begin with the effort of breaking down games into individual parts I need some rules to follow. I’ll begin with making a rule which says that the breakdown needs to have a useful purpose for making better games, or at least analyzing games for potential improvements. Since I preliminarily have the intention to make a comprehensive model for some analysis I will segment the effort and give each component its own story. I will also go for the large scope and make this breakdown for “computer games” rather than board games and I will aim it at what has value in the marketplace.

How Things Happen

Games are composed of “things”. At this point we don’t need to dig into what these things are, that is going to be covered later. What we need to concern ourselves with at this point is the matter of how.

When you create a game you have the option to determine how things happen in the game. A lot of your options are going to appear as hard wired in the technology or genre which practically is a matter of cost efficiency. Since we are not concerned with cost for this particular topic we can ignore things such as genres and technology and purify the idea of how.

How, for the purpose of this text, is a matter of matching sensory requirements of the user with events in the product. We humans have sensory systems which have been developed through a long time within an environment which honed our DNA through analogue API’s. These are often referred to as nature. Our senses are developed to detect things in nature and it appears as if things in nature come to our attention through some natural properties. A suitable example of the way nature works to catch our attention is perhaps how a branch of a tree breaks when you are climbing on it.

You are standing on a branch in a tree and feel it sway slightly beneath your feet. Suddenly you hear a crackling sound of wood fibers breaking, the branch bends swiftly and you fall. This is a simple model of a natural “how”. We can plot it over time and get a little sequence.

Swaying –> Crackling –> The Break –> Falling –> Ouch!

For the purpose of fully detailed analysis we can consider the crackling as an individual how. How does the branch crackle in nature?

The crackling is going on for a short time and begins with the first crackle, the first fiber that breaks signifies the moment when the branch starts crackling. When the branch crackles its most intsenively we definitely can tell there is some breaking going on. The last fiber that breaks signifies the moment when the branch has finished crackling. We can plot the sequence of crackling over time and get another graph. We can assume the time is short, maybe about one second.

First Crackle – Peak Crackle – Last Crackle

Us humans have developed a in a world where branches crackle as they break. The crackling is an integral part of how we learn climbing in trees, something which probably was more important to us a few million years ago but anyhow, our brain uses the crackling to learn about trees. Since games are much about learning things (which is a topic we will return to later) it is important that the way things happen in games match the criteria for how the brain organize sensory stimulation.

Something that is really rare in nature but awfully common in poorly built games is the metaphorical equivalent of branches that breaks without crackling. When things happen immediately we fail to learn what happened. We stand on the branch and suddenly the branch is broken and we are falling. This causes a sequence of sensory failures and the player often experiences a negative value in the product as a business consequence. Our ancestral monkey humans quickly learned that certain types of trees are treacherous and should not be climbed, that is the markets rejection of a poorly built “how”.

From here we can make a comparison with how things happen in a piece of music. This is a comparison for practical purposes because the structure of how has been dressed with a terminology in the music world. We can look at a note that gets played. We don’t need to care about which not or why it is played.

Someone who tweaks synthesizers will be quite familiar with the concept of envelope which sometimes is called ADSR. Envelope primarily defines how the sound signal changes over time. It is commonly connected to how the amplitude, or volume, changes over time, but can also be connected to other things such as filters, phase, pitch and everything else you might want to involve in the note. Since it is easier to understand what happens with amplitude than the other things we will use that as a reference.

When a note begins, the A in ADSR which stands for Attack is set to fits between two extremes. These extremes are instant and very slow respectively. No natural instruments really has an instant attack although some instruments which would appear to be close to instant would be a small bell, a pluck on a guitar or the pressing of a key on an electric organ. An instrument with a very slow attack is also tricky to imagine but rubbing a gong with a brush until it howls would be an example, a singer who makes a very quiet noise and slowly increase the volume until it is loud or an orchestra which slowly builds a crescendo from silence. The real point is that the shape of the attack matters a great lot to the listener of the music.

The remaining parameters of the ADSR will get a bit shorter descriptions.

The D stands for Decay. Decay defines how the note changes after the Attack has player through but while the instrument still is “alive”. For example how the note from a piano sits there while the piano key is pressed.

The S stands for Sustain and defines how the instrument behaves while it is continuously stimulated. For example how a violin sounds while the bow is acting on its string, or how the organ sounds while the key is kept pressed.

The R stands for Release and defines how the instrument behaves when it is told to stop. How the string stops making sound after you release the key and the dampener interfere with the movement of the string.

When building a game we choose how the envelopes for feedback systems are set. The shapes of the envelopes give the feedback fit within the overall experience. Chances are that a very successful game has more variation in its envelopes than less successful ones. It can be argued that feedback is a fractal concept which exists within all levels of the design and that there is an envelope on the feedback from managing a guild in an mmorpg as well.

Figuring out how your particular game should structure its envelopes is an iterative process within the development cycle. Making conscious design decisions for how each component operates from the direct to the abstract will likely help make you understand your product better.

Feedback envelopes are from the perspective of a structure or “grammar” for game design at the sub-atomic level. You can feel them, test them and evaluate them as individual contributions to the overall experience without needing to worry very much about their dependencies on the higher up structures such as skill atoms or story for a good long while. An important thing to keep in mind here is that it is a relatively hefty task to iterate feedback envelopes and you are likely to benefit from determining your level of ambition before you get started spending time on a very ambitious scope in this matter.

Example of mechanics which has an envelope you can test in some isolation.

An attack, accelerating a car, steering a boat, jumping, killing an enemy, selecting a puzzle piece, completing a puzzle, becoming a friend, using the manual, starting the game, etc. There should be no end to which things in a game has a how.

From here we can go back and look at the envelope for the full story of the breaking branch in the tree.

It begins with swaying, converts to crackling, breaks, sends the person falling, from where the next envelope takes over and defines some kind of ouch! A very big part of the learning in games comes from the envelope of the ouch. Learning in games is also something which has been well explored by many experienced designers the last few years so I won’t have to write much about it when I get there.

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