Guest Post: Colin Munson – “Challenging Challenges for Thinking People”

My friend and fellow designer Colin Munson asked if he could write a guest post for my blog, and my answer was “HELLS YEAH!” Colin and I worked together for 5 years at Insomniac, and he’s one of my favorite Game Designers in the industry. I found the following editorial fascinating, and I’m proud to post it here. I hope you enjoy it as much as I did!

The Adventure game for the 21st century
why we get stupid while playing modern video games
Challenging challenges for thinking people

By Colin Munson:

This article began as an attempt at a design doc intended to capture the joy of an adventure game but update the mechanic to be palatable to the average gamer. In short, design an old school adventure game for the 21st century.

There were 4 things I wanted to accomplish with the design:

1)     Players must interact with the world in a similar way to old-school adventure games

  • very simple, easily accessible interface (basically, point and click)

2)     The adventure elements needed to work well with a full 3d environment

  • this was an added challenge to see if it could be done

3)     Include an action-game element that work seamlessly with adventure game elements

  • this is a conceit on my part. I had a hunch that traditional adventure games were far too slow paced for modern gamers.

And most importantly:

4)    Make players think

  • Why? Because, while playing a modern action game, players do not read, listen, or express the linear rational thought that we’ve all worked so hard to evolve and refine over the last billion years of evolution. We’ll talk about this phenomenon a little later.

I began by identifying what I loved about adventure games. This would be the basis for my design and help me begin to form a picture of what the final game design might look like. The list was quite interesting :

Adventure game pros:

Complex story, charming characters, possibility for humor (my own taste, not at all required), good puzzles that made me think, a wide variety of unique interactive objects, a huge variety in locales, and an equally huge variety of challenges.

And then I came up with the list of features that I didn’t like about adventure games:

Adventure game cons:

Frequent ambiguous puzzles with only one solution; Slow paced; Often a complete absence of understanding of the game rules -like what is interactive and what isn’t; extremely limited game world (usually a 2d world); fundamental lack of creative problem solving for the player (see item 1).

So, I’ll use the Pros list as a simple jumping off point for my design, and I’ll try to solve all of the problems in the Cons list that are inherent in adventure games. Easy, right? But how do I solve all of these problems? As a designer I thought these lists were pretty interesting, because, if I was to identify what I loved about modern action games (say, a first person shooter), it would look like this:

FPS pros:

High action (fast paced), clear goals (simple “story”), sense of power and success (basically, non-intellectual rewards), sense of mastery over the world and over my game tools like guns and grenades and level layout (intuitive game mechanics; simple, reusable rules), challenging scenarios that tested my reflexes, challenged my ability to parse friend from foe, and my ability to choose the right tool for the job (multiple, creative solutions to challenges).

Basically, the opposite of an adventure game… “Is that right?” I asked myself.  Was it really the opposite, or just the other half of what games can offer? Are they exclusive? Can they be combined?

As I tried to identify the similarities between the two genres, I kept coming back to the same single problem that effected both genres in different ways. This fundamental design flaw in both genres was so deep that I couldn’t really picture a video game without it, yet it blocked my ability to blend these two beloved genres.  This problem wasn’t an easy one to solve, because if it were solved, then video game challenges would have to take on a totally new form, so, like any respectable designer, I ignored it, and continued on my merry way.

So, now I had my 4 goals for the design, the fundamental problem that plagued the video game industry had been properly ignored, I had my list of challenges to solve (Adventure game cons list) and examples of the solutions (FPS pros list). I was ready to begin.

So, I began designing. It was magic. I was writing documents, creating metrics, ignoring problems, and creating new genres. Life was good -blissful, in fact. However, when it came down to folding the adventure game elements in with the action elements… Godamnit! Who would have guessed I would have run into fundamental design problems! I was ignoring those, damnit! How dare they come back and bite me?!

Here’s the problem I tried so hard to ignore:

Most games make a seemingly  easy, mundane task…

…brutally difficult

FPSs, 3PSs, and adventure games, in particular, make extremely simple activities like looking up and down, pointing a gun, turning around to respond to a noise or sound, or (from an adventure game) picking up a fish – hard, sometimes extremely hard.

Here’s what I mean…

If any of you, out there in the internet, have ever turned your head in response to someone calling your name, you have encountered the problem that I am talking about. The simple action of turning your head in response to outside stimuli is so automatic and effortless that it does not even register on your conscious awareness. In fact, in the 0.53 seconds it took to turn your head, you have likely already identified the speaker based on their voice, you have narrowed down a very short mental list of things that they are likely to want to talk with you about. You may even have responses queued up for each item on the list. You would then be free, for the remaining 0.11 seconds of your heads journey to the right, to begin to think about what you are going to have for lunch that day.

It took no conscious effort to move your head, you did not have to worry about over/under shooting your target, you did not worry that they have moved in that fraction of a second, you did it effortlessly and unconsciously which allowed you to do vast amounts of mental activity.

In an action game, this is not the case. Trivial mundane things, like turning around, looking for the source of a sound, or seeing movement out of the corner of one’s eye, is either impossible, or very difficult. AND these actions are the core for many video game genres. So, there is no room for mental activity if your sole focus is turning the controller to the 3 o’clock position for 0.16 seconds in order to rotate your view 39 degrees to the right.

We’ve given the player an exceedingly complex input mechanism (16 button console controller) and for the most part, made it mimic human movement, instead of human action.  So, players have to relearn how to MOVE THEIR HEAD with these primitive input mechanisms.

This forces players into a semi conscious state, because simple things like mobility and motor control, once as simple as turning their head to respond to a sound, are now relatively difficult, and without surround sound and a thorough understanding of the game world,  sometimes very difficult. This is why, in focus tests for action games, people don’t read help messages, don’t turn left if the right passage is blocked off, or don’t look around a room -even if they know an enemy is near.

So, what do we do? Well, there are many ways to solve the problem, but it really takes balls. It means killing a lot of notions about what players want from games, and what we, as designers, provide for challenges. If it was as easy in real life to turn towards a sound and pull a trigger, then your challenge in the game needs to be more complex than that. On one hand that is the most exciting thing that I can imagine in the industry, on the other hand it’s the most frightening thing I’ve ever heard.

The way to solve the problem is to identify the actions that take an unnecessary amount of effort to pull off (like responding to a noise that occurred  behind the player) and make them easy.  How? Well, work it out. It’s possible, I promise, I’ve seen it happen. It raises the player’s consciousness from lizard to human, with the full range of human thought and problem solving ability. It opens up a whole new approach to game design that is both super exhilarating and totally frightening (from a development perspective). Imagine if everything in video games were either as easy or easier to do than in real life? What challenges would you give to the player?

Intentio-unconscious [in-ten-tee-o-un-kon-shuhs]
Adj. Put conscious effort into activities that would normally be unconscious

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One Comment

  1. That was very interesting, thank you. It’s got me thinking about what you said, and I hope you don’t mind if I think aloud right here. I think you’re right in that many action games make simple tasks very difficult. I think that the idea of easy/hard is more complex though. Often action games make simple things very difficult, but through a large amount of practice players learn to do these “simple” (complex) actions by reflex. That’s what marks a really good FPS player, for instance. If they find you they shoot you, so they can just concentrate on finding you. A good RTS player doesn’t worry about keeping his build queue full, he concentrates on deciding what to build. I, on the other hand, get swarmed by Zerglings. Even a good shump player isn’t trying to just avoid THAT missile. They’re trying to plan where they should be in 5 seconds.

    I think that this “simple things are hard” is one reason that people who’ve never played games are put off by so many of them. If you grew up playing “Doom”, then you might not be the best at some FPS, but you have a basic idea of what you’re doing. If you didn’t you end up walking into a wall and getting shot. You’re not even good enough that it seems possible to learn, and you just don’t play.

    I think you were right at the beginning, when you said that adventure games and action games were opposite. I disagree that simple actions are hard in adventure games. In a good adventure game actions are easy. The challenge becomes deciding WHAT to do instead of concentrating on doing it. All of the details are abstracted away, and when you think of trying something, you just do, and the result happens. You can’t do irrelevant things, because it’s too hard to make a game where anything is possible, but anything that makes sense just happens, usually when you click a relevant object. Bad adventure games, I think, primarily suffer because the actions the user wants to perform don’t match the actions the designer thought the user would want to perform (all of your adventure game cons except “too slow”, and maybe “extremely limited game world”).

    I have to say that even though I said in the last paragraph that I thought you were right and action and adventure games were fundamental opposites, that this clearly isn’t purely the case. I’m thinking, specifically, of “Another World”, which I just found sitting at my parents place and decided to play again. Wikipedia says it’s a “Cinematic Plat former” which is clearly a form of action game, but much of the game is actually about deciding what to do. Then, once you’ve figured it out you have to practice a couple times to actually do it in an action sequence. A great blend, as long as dying doesn’t ruin your suspension of disbelief.

    You may have detected in my previous paragraphs a preference for adventure games. That’s because I have one. That may make me, perhaps, a bit biased, so keep that in mind.

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