Theory: Don’t Get Captured by Game Feel

There’s an interesting difference in decisions in video games versus those in tabletop games—one with huge implications for designers. Choices on the tabletop are usually discrete; we can quickly identify the exact point where the choice is made, and so it’s relatively easy to ask whether that decision was complex, deep, etc.* By contrast, we emphasize the “feel” of video games because that’s a sensible way to evaluate the many little decisions that go into playing most digital titles. One of the challenges in designing video games is zooming out, locating the decisions that really matter and making sure that they’re as rich as those of a good board game.

We tend not to ask whether video game decisions are difficult or interesting. That’s not surprising, because most of the choices one makes when playing most video games aren’t. I want Mario to go left; to achieve that, I hold down the left button (or hold the joystick to the left, etc.). A huge number of decisions go into that movement, since I am constantly making a binary choice between holding or letting go, and it’s not always easy to be sure which decisions among the infinity of little ones are really impacting the player’s success.

Tabletop board games work differently. The moment-to-moment is abstracted away. Every decision the player makes is weighty. Choices are limited in number, and their import is clear.

Unfortunately, the challenge involved in figuring out just where the big, meaningful decisions are in video games sometimes means that we don’t ever get around to locating them. As a result, we never check on their quality. We get caught up in polishing the infinite tiny choices—an important thing to do, given how many there are!—and fail to ask which ones are the most meaningful, or how meaningful they really are.

I ran into this issue personally with my most recent thesis prototype. Many hours in, having carefully picked out suitable 3D models and hooked up animations and tuned the movement speeds, I realized that the game wasn’t any fun. Early on the player made one choice, and then spent a long time executing that choice through a bunch of movements that had great feel but weren’t significantly changing the game state. If the player’s single important choice had been made correctly, she was rewarded with a power-up which effectively reset the game. To put it directly: the player got to do one meaningful thing, and if she did it well, she was rewarded by having it invalidated!

Several playtests later, I think the problem is (mostly, hopefully) resolved. Alas, I could’ve been here sooner had I begun by considering, not game feel, but the number and quality of interesting decisions I wanted the player to make. Emphasize sifting out and evaluating the truly meaningful decisions in your video games; they’ll be better for it.


* Answering that question might, of course, be very hard!

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