This week, the Curious Games Lab gang talked about heuristics and best practice, and how they’ve evolved from efficiency models in the workspace. Here’s an article that takes a tour of these heuristics and recommendations and analyzes some games in terms of them:
Sweetser, P., Johnson, D., Wyeth, P. and Ozdowska, A. (2012) “GameFlow heuristics for designing and evaluating real-time strategy games”. In Proceedings of The 8th Australasian Conference on Interactive Entertainment: Playing the System (IE ‘12). ACM, New York, NY, USA.
Sweetser et al. provide a set of guidelines for making games that have already been made. While there is a great deal of sense in not totally reinventing the wheel and finding a completely different way to deal with every one of these heuristic elements, keeping each of these the same across games removes the incentive to innovate.
I think that it makes more sense to start from a game concept, mechanic, or idea that the developer finds interesting and to work from there and decide what will be best for that game than it does to start with best practices. Best practices are probably useful for conventional aspects of the game that the developer is not trying to highlight – making them the same as most other games in a genre is a good way of effacing them. So, if something is not an important aspect of the game, there’s no sense in reinventing the wheel… or is there?
We discussed the possibility of creating a series of games that basically takes these heuristics and deliberately breaks every single one of them, one by one. I think that’s the kind of exploration that makes best use of these “best practices.”
In my own attitude towards playing games, I think that I’m trained to expect the “best practice” kind of experience (to the point where, when starting Unfinished Swan and being faced with a completely blank screen with just a dot in the middle, I thought that I must need a move controller to play it, but as it turns out I could have just checked the controls to know that I could sling paint with the trigger buttons – which are, in most games that I play, not usually the primary controls, and that I didn’t even think of pressing. Since the screen was blank, I couldn’t judge my progress when moving the joysticks either, so I didn’t know what was going on.) but I don’t want to be trained to expect it (I laughed very hard about the Unfinished Swan thing). I like games that turn my expectations on their ears.
Similarly, while sometimes it’s good to give the player some sign posts, I resent the recommendations in the Sweetser article that recommend a whole lot of hand-holding and that recommend that games should be playable by people of all skill-levels. Some games should just be really hard – not everyone should be able to easily finish them. It’s the same with books, and it’s the same with nearly every other medium. Not everyone appreciates the same experience in the same way.
Games that break the rules tend to be the most memorable and replayable. Katamari Damacy in particular comes to mind: the goal is to roll up the level, and at larger scales the player can literally roll up entire islands and eventually continents. It breaks most of the recommendations for Concentration in the Sweetser article, depending on how you interpret them. Actually, all of these are largely dependent on how you define them for a specific game. Some of them even seem to contradict each other: what is stimuli that is “worth attending to?” and is that stimuli a “distraction from tasks that [players] want or need to concentrate on?”
As a game designer, I have not yet discovered exactly what kinds of games I’m making, having only made three so far (one as part of a GGJ team this year, one for Pixelles, and the one that I’m making for the Curious Games Studio), but I do recognize that what I am doing is trying to make games that I haven’t seen before.
Oh, and because I will recommend this every chance I get and have mentioned Katamari in this post, here’s an in-browser version of Katamari Damacy: http://kathack.com/