When our team set out to design a game, we wanted to make something that would appeal to both gamers and non-gamers alike. The idea to create a two-player, cooperative platformer game was one that we really liked because it created the opportunity for experienced players to help teach less experienced ones how to play a familiar, simple genre of games. At the same time, I was worried that by going ahead with this game idea we would have difficulty balancing issues, possibly ending up making a game that was either too easy for experienced players or too difficult for new ones. However, during playtesting I quickly discovered that the harder the game was, the more people seemed to enjoy it. In fact, one playtester specifically asked that we make design our levels to be even more challenging than they already were (I believe he used the phrase “make them sadistically hard”). in his “What’s my Method?” essay, Lazzaro states, “Contrary to common usability conventions, games create enjoyment via by challenging the user” (Lazarro 2), and this idea that games should be challenging to be fun was one I struggled with. Though it seems obvious to me now, I discovered that I was being too narrow-minded about non-gamers in thinking that difficulty was the primary reason they didn’t play games. In fact, everyone likes a good challenge; it’s just the very specific themes and gameplay mechanics of modern games that non-gamers are turned off by. We were lucky in choosing an inherently social game mechanic from the start, since videogames are, like all games, most fun when played with others.
Though we already had a solid game mechanic to work with, we wanted to make sure that the challenges our players faced while playing our game weren’t artificial ones. It was important that players focus on devising strategies for our platforming puzzles rather than struggling with the interface and each other. Thus, our control scheme for interacting with characters had to be simple, intuitive, and unobtrusive, and its design underwent several revisions until we had something that worked well. From the beginning, we knew that if two players were going to be playing together on the same keyboard, the movement space for their hands would be limited. Thus, we needed a setup that would give them plenty of space and minimize the number of keys necessary to perform actions. For every revision, the directional keys controlled player 1’s movement while the WASD keys controlled player 2’s movement, which luckily for us kept the player’s hands from interfering with each other and also fit well-known cultural conventions for movement in games in general. However, our first layout used an additional key to control clinging to the walls and floor (Right Control for player 1, Left Shift for player 2), my reasoning for it being that players would have precise control over when they needed to cling to things and thus would be more in control of their characters. However, we quickly abandoned that idea when the setup turned out to be awkward for playtesters; many people had to use an extra finger (thumb for player 1, pinky for player 2) to pull it off, and just ended up switching to using two hands for a total of four hands on the keyboard at once. We eliminated the extra key for clinging and instead tied clinging to holding toward the wall or floor. This proved to be a much more efficient and comfortable setup.
However, as Norman states in his essay about affordances and design, both controls and actions are important in design. Specifically, a good design makes it easy for users to discover their possible set of actions. In the context of our game design, our solution for wall clinging shifted from pressing a key to holding towards the wall. This solution, while more natural-feeling for playtesters, was frustrating since many did not have the hand coordination to constantly hold down a key and press other keys, and almost everyone felt worn out from having to hold a key down for so long. Furthermore, every time players were near a wall they wanted to be clinging to it anyway. Wall-jumping was even worse, requiring the player to hold toward the wall and then tap away from it, whereas most people instead just pressed away from it and fell down, not even aware that the “walljump” existed. Keeping these considerations in mind, we altered our controls to their final form, in which players would automatically cling to walls when they were close enough and could jump away from walls by simply tapping away from them, as they originally desired. These controls were a comfortable fit for both experienced and new players alike, making playing together on the same keyboard a simple and enjoyable experience for both players. In addition, we chose to incorporate the game convention of a tutorial by adding a simple level with helpful signs, whose text served to casually instruct players about the controls.
During the latter half of game’s development, we began implementing more gaming conventions that we had observed in other platformer games we had played. Elements such as interactable objects, a cute story to give the game some personality, and a game world organized as a series of connected rooms were all implemented. However, we did not want any of these elements to detract from the core focus: platforming puzzles. Players needed to be able to quickly identify and interpret these elements without slowing down the game, especially since if either player was frustrated it would likely detract from the other’s fun as well. To remedy this, we reduced the amount of text signs contained to a minimum. Humor was helpful here since we could get away with longer text blocks if they contained some form of a joke. Humor was also used as an incentive to continue exploring levels, with signs placed near checkpoints to provide some comedic relief from some more stressful platforming puzzles. We chose to make sign text pop up automatically since walking by them was less obtrusive than pausing the game so the text could be read.
Though each of these design details are unremarkable individually, together they are quite interesting to me as they all function together to make the game much more enjoyable. My goal when this game began was to make something that people could really enjoy when playing together, and I realize now how much of an impact these small decisions have on the final outcome of a game.
Lazarro, Nicole. & Keeker, Kevin. “What’s My Method? A Game Show on Games.” In CHI 2004 Conference Proceedings, April 2004. Web. <http://www.xeodesign.com/whatsmymethod.pdf>
Norman, D.A. (2004). “Affordances and design.” http://www.jnd.org/dn.mss/affordances_and.html