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Interaction Models

Movement_3How do we want to make our games? Do we want to be challenging the player? Empowering them to explore? Providing them with toys to play with? These decisions can make a vast difference to how a game plays, and what the focus of play will be. Much depends on what proportion of the workload of control is assigned to the avatar, and how much lands at the feet of the player. How this issue is resolved determines the interaction model of the game.

Perhaps there is an unspoken assumption among the so-called Hardcore players, those for whom gaming is a lifestyle choice, that the player will shoulder the entire burden of control. This would in part explain why so many games require the player to master myriad control mechanisms, which often rival in complexity the most esoteric machines in our modern culture.

When the difficulty of acting falls on the shoulders of the player, the model of interaction might be considered the empty vessel. The avatar does little or nothing without the player expressly triggering it with the correct control combination.

There is no doubt that some players enjoy mastering the complex control systems that result from the empty vessel model. Some enjoy the payoff of fiero achieved by overcoming difficulty; some feel a sense of satisfaction from achieving mastery of systems. There is also little doubt that when taken in the context of a wider audience, these desires represent a minority viewpoint. For every player who would like to get to grips with complex controls, there are a dozen others who would prefer to be playing rather than learning controls.

The comparative success of the First Person Shooter genre (in the West, at least - the Japanese and Asian market remains comfortably resistant) creates the illusion that we can get away with complex control mechanisms in games, and to a certain extent this is fair. After all, Goldeneye (1997) and Half-Life (1998) sold some 8 million units each we're told, which is an impressive audience. However, notice that both games sold these numbers almost ten years ago - and in the case of Goldeneye, the game featured a much simpler basic control mechanism than its decendents.

FPS games are a very successful niche market. But make no mistake, they are not a mass market genre in any normal sense of the phrase, typically pulling in no more than 4 million players, and more commonly bombing completely and making a loss for their developers and publishers. The players who enjoy them take from game to game legacy skills that make each future FPS trivial to learn to play - provided the new games don't add too many bells and whistles. Put such a game in the hands of a non-gamer, however, and they usually cannot manage to turn or move at all.

Samorost2_3At the other end of the scale are genres such as point and click adventures (which survive as a much smaller niche market, with typical maximum sales closer to perhaps a million units, and more commonly under 100,000 units). In these games, the control elements are minimised - practically eliminated in some cases. The player just has to point the avatar to a particular place, and the avatar takes actions automatically. However, the point and click adventure also eliminates something else: it tends to eliminate play. Not entirely - puzzle solving and narrative play remains - but the capacity to pick up and play in a direct fashion has been lost. The mass market audience appears to be strongly engaged by games in which they can be amused by what they can make their avatar do immediately. Adventures are more like interactive novels: they require a certain commitment from the player before they pay-off; gratification is delayed.

The interaction model at work in the adventure game genre is grossly simplified, and could be considered the distant voice model. The player does not so much take control of the avatar as act as a voice in the avatar's head, guiding the next step. It is a very strategic mode of control, less concerned with the nuts and bolts of moving and acting and more concerned with high level progress. Indeed, the adventure game is largely about guiding the story forward. (Note that this interaction model applies to both text-driven adventures, and point and clicks).

Both these genres of games - FPS's and adventure games - largely avoid a problem which lies at the heart of modern games: camera control in a 3D world. The player needs to see what the avatar is doing, and this requires the camera to behave in an intelligent fashion (for interaction models approaching the distant voice) or for the player to be put in control of the camera (for models approaching the empty vessel).

This is a serious issue. To reach a mass market audience, we require simpler controls than that implied by the empty vessel model.Put the player in charge of controlling the camera, and you increase the burden of control on the player. Put the game in charge of controlling the camera, and you are likely at some point to frustrate the player with a poor view. Unless, of course, you spend a fortune creating custom camera systems from level to level, which certain (vastly expensive) games such as God of War choose as their approach. Since I do not want to see game development slow to a trickle of sequels, I'm not keen on this as a solution.

Sadly, I do not have the answers for the camera dilemma. There are many options - designing games to use views which eliminate camera problems (top down and side on views), game designs and level designs which are adapted to a specific camera system (using only cavernous interior spaces, for instance), transparency effects and cutout views to preserve the players line of sight. But it is already clear that leaving the player as the sole camera operator (as generally happens when the empty vessel model applies) is insufficient for reaching a wide audience.

Let us pretend, however, for the purposes of considering possible interaction models, that we have a perfect, reliable and inexpensive camera solution. We are now in a position to consider an interaction model which lies between the complexity of the empty vessel model, and the extreme simplicity of the distant voice model.

What if the avatar, rather than being an empty vessel, requiring every action to be initiated by the player, is quite competent. What if the avatar automatically works out what to do in any given situation? She reaches the edge of a ledge, but there is another one ahead within jumping distance, and it will definitely be possible to jump back when across: merely pushing ahead in this instance will cause her to jump to the other edge, because this is the obvious action to take when you are guiding someone to continue forward in this situation. Similarly, imagine a situation where the avatar is being fired upon by a foe; you run her towards a low wall which can provide cover. When she arrives, she automatically takes cover, because this is the sensible action to take in this situation. If you keep the stick moving, she will run along behind the cover.

This is what I have whimsically termed the blind captain interaction model. ('Captain' to imply the competence of the avatar; 'blind' to imply the player's role as the avatar's guiding eyes). Partly, this model depends upon the use of intelligently defined context-sensitive transit mechanisms, which are becoming very common in games. For example, in Grand Theft Auto: San Andreas, if you jump near a wall, the avatar will automatically grab hold of the wall. Push up, and he will climb on top. This is the essence of a context-sensitive transit mechanism. In the blind captain model, the avatar would automatically scale the wall when reaching it, though - after all, why would the avatar run on the spot standing next to a wall? This is only part of what is required for the blind captain model, however. The other side of the coin is defining responses to situations according to what would make sense for the avatar, rather than relying on the player to specify the interaction.

The essence of the blind captain model is that the avatar has a simple (rule-based) artificial intelligence which determines its behaviour, and the player is freed to guide the avatar, rather than to initiate all actions with specific control combinations. Two way communication between the avatar and the player is probably required. If the avatar can see a course of action that might not be obvious to the player, a signal (a '!' above the avatar's head would suffice) would be required to inform the player. In these situations, a (single) button would be used to initiate this avatar-spotted course of action. For instance, at a ledge with no platform to jump to, the avatar may be able to see that the ledge could be negotiated if she hangs from it. This is signalled to the player, and if the player wants to explore that option, they press the action button to do so.

What is the purpose of this model? It is to empower the player to play, rather than to challenge the player to learn to carry out complex tasks. In a game such as Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, the player is afforded an impressive number of actions, all of which are beuatifully animated - but the control skills required to complete these actions are prohibitively hard for anyone without sufficient legacy skills to master. It follows the empty vessel model. Imagine the appeal to a wider audience of a similar game which made it easy for the player to guide the avatar through such impressive feats. Just watching the animation would be engaging.

I am not proposing that the blind captain model would replace the empty vessel and distant voice models - these models already have loyal audiences, and will be with us for a long time to come in one form or another. Rather, I am suggesting that exploring the blind captain model might give us a new and wider audience. Hardcore players may be intellectually resistant to sharing control with the avatar; many would like to be given absolute control, and thanks to their legacy skills have no difficulty with complex control mechanisms. But such people are definitely a minority.

_40951368_bond_pa203bImagine, in the near future, a 007  game in which the player was actually empowered to become Bond instead of being challenged to perform at his level of competence. Failing over and over again until the player can master the challenge presented is not a game experience which resembles watching a Bond film. Bond (or any other action hero - male or female) is naturally competent. He finds ways to survive being shot. He finds ways to survive jumping of roofs and cliffs. He finds ways to survive anything that is thrown at him. (He finds a way to seduce practically every non-lesbian woman he can find). A blind captain 007 game would give the player these survival skills for free, thus empowering the player to investigate master criminal plots and battle enemies using their own skill and judgement. It would allow the player  for the first time to play at being Bond, just as a child would play in their own imagination. That's what Bond is: an adolescent power fantasy. Shouldn't Bond games deliver this same experience?

There is one thing I am confident that players in the nebulous mass market want: they want to play. The easier the control mechanism, the more likely this is to happen.

 

The opening image is Movement by Melanie Weidner, taken from the Listen for Joy art gallery. As ever, no copyright infringement is intended, and I will take the image down if asked.

Footnotes for Regular Readers

The empty vessel model supports Tactical play only when the player already has the legacy skills to be able to play without mastering a lot of additional controls. In general, it supports Logistical play - the player is required to repeat actions over and over again until they work out what to do and/or successfully implement it. Because challenge is a key focus of games favouring this interaction model, games using this model seem to appeal primarily to players who enjoy the Type 1 Conqueror play style in DGD1 or Lazzaro's "Hard Fun", i.e. players for whom fiero is a key emotional payoff.

The distant voice model is chiefly a Strategic approach. Players generally require the ability to hypothesise and solve problems abstractly to enjoy this means of play. In this context, it is not suprising that games employing the distant voice model have a smaller audience than those emplying the empty vessel model (Strategic skills are assumed to be strongly expressed in about 10% of the population, whereas Logistical skills are assumed to be strongly expressed in about 50% of the population).

The blind captain model has been conceived with an eye towards favouring paidia over ludus. I believe this is a key to mass market appeal. The type of play supported by the game could match any skill approach - Tactical, Logistical, Strategic or Diplomatic - and ideally, would support multiple different approaches in order to have maximal appeal.

Comments

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I don't see the difference between the "distant voice" and "blind captain" models. It seems to me that all you are doing in your example is taking the distant voice model and applying it to types of games which traditionally follow the "empty vessel" model. I don't see how this calls for a third name.

In the distant voice model, there is no direct control. In adventures and point and click adventures, all movement is destination based, not originating from direct control. There is a level of abstraction between the player and the game - hence the term 'distant voice'.

In the blind captain model, there is direct control, but it is assisted by AI. I see it as a midpoint between distant voice and empty vessel (in the terms used above).

But there's no doubt that the terms are vague and debatable. :)

I quite like this idea in theory. Resident Evil 4 used context sensitive actions to very good effect, but I like your proposal to make obvious actions automatic. So if you're player is handles a lot of basic stuff like jumping, climbing automatically then you're saving your action button for much cooler context based actions.

Obviouslly the main drawback in practice would be the inevitable scenario where you think the player wants to do something and they don't. Say they want to walk up the edge to get away from an enemy but not jump across. No matter how well tested I could see player screaing at the TV "damn it, don't do that!".

A possibly clumsy addition that might appeal to more hardcore players is to have an advanced options screen where you can turn all or just specific context actions on/off so that you have to press the action button to do them.

Complex game control systems and confusing camera movement certainly keep away a wider audience from videogames (and the Nintendo Revolution could help to reach them - let's see how it goes).

I am all for Paidia, but I agree with Richard when he says hardcore players could want advanced options to tweak the gameplay. This, of course, in games traditionally ludus/skill-based such as the 007 series. The blind captain scheme, however, probably could work very well in conjunction with this new wave of interactive storytelling that - it seems - could become very big in the near future.

I think there is a lot to be said for providing detailed options for the Hardcore player to tweak game behaviour to their satisfaction - and providing additional controls for Hardcore players only.

I suspect a long tweaking process would be vital for a game with a 'blind captain' approach in order to minimise the sort of problems Richard alludes to above. :)

"In the land of the blind, the one eyed man is king."

Great entry, Chris, as always. I have been doing some thinking along these lines. Wind Waker, as you may be aware, auto-jumps for you, taking away what could be a very frustrating experience. The rest of the actions are up to the player, however.

I think, perhaps, having a certain amount of captaincy lay in the hands of the avatar's scripting isn't a terrible idea at all. But I think they should perhaps be more of an advisor than a captain. Combining the sort of approach you're talking about and including it with a very simple and intuitive set of controls would, hopefully, achieve the same goals.

I can see the play-style distinctions you are making. I'm a large fan of the point-and-click adventure. They range from giving you too much control (and not enough information) to basically doing everything for you. You click and the game figures out which context is appropriate. It's usually dependant on the number of verbs that have been made available to the player, and which ones can apply to a given click. Not having that control can be just as frustrating.

But the thing that is bothering me is that I'm sure that I've played at least one game with a Blind Captain interface. You can move, you can command, but in odd situations, the avatar does what is necessary to move you along. For the life of me I can't nail down what game (or games) it was. It's going to bother me all day. Damn it!

Zelda Ocarina of Time (on the 64) introduced the auto-jump feature, which took a while to get used to at first. You had to un-learn your previous Mario jumping skills (as it used the same engine and at first seemed like a platform game).

I think it was a great idea - they turned the 'A' button into a context sensitive 'Action' button, making it far simpler to get into the game (which admittedly was pretty complex, but they at least tried to simplify it so you didn't need 500 buttons to do anything).

Excellent post Chris. As Richard Perrin brings up, I cannot help but think immediately of RE4 as a game that is one of the closest to the Blind Captain model you suggest, because of the very, very smart attenuations that have been made to the control scheme and how the players relate to Leon: hardcore players enjoy the game as much as casual players. It's one of the few games that I've been perfectly happy to take camera control away from me. The movement/camera system simplification, and of course the pure elegance of the context sensitive action button.

When I'm playing RE4, I feel like I'm Leon and I'm a badass. Very much as you describe the Bond game, I feel like I'm enjoying Leon's level of competency automatically. Because the game presents the cues for the context-sensitive actions--hopping out a window sill, kicking down a ladder, the close-quarters roundhouse kick--I don't feel like the game is giving me hints as much as Leon's tactical awareness is kicking in, so to speak, even if the game presents the
"PRESS A!" in a very arcade-y fashion. I enjoy that jumping is a near-automatic process, and unlike most FPS games, Leon will not accidentally fall off a cliff.

There are always some interesting caveats to such a system: take for example in RE4 the fact that Leon Kennedy simply will not climb down a ladder. He will hurl himself out of the second floor window, he'll jump down the entire height of a church bell tower, but he'll suffer a mission-ending femur shattering before he climbs down a ladder. It's a hilarious side effect of what is a very smart design choice: when coming up to a ladder on the ground, Leon will climb it. But when presented with a ladder on the roof, Leon will knock it down: who needs ladders when you're Leon Kennedy? It frees the player from having to play through a slow down-ladder animation, and keeps the context sensitive actions clear--you will never climb down a ladder in RE4.


But not every game can mimic RE4's elegantly streamlined control scheme, given that the combat system is essentially built on a stop and shoot methodology which works best against zombies and similar foes. But, other lessons can certainly be learned from the game, and I really do think a very good blind captain style system could be built with RE4 as a close model. What I think will be critical to the success of such a system will be as much care spent on fashioning a believable, consistent, and most of all sympathetic and engaging character with which to help the player along. A blind captain approach would be the player's worst nightmare if it was inconsistent or if the character just didn't seem like it was on the same team as the player, but we all know that.

Anyhow, I find yet another opportunity to express my love for RE4. An engaging discussion Chris, thank you.

As usual Chris, you hit all the right points and Chico corroboratesl; Blind Captain combined with Interactive Storytelling is the way of the future.

Your Distand Voice, Empty Vessel and Blind Captian models correspond exactly with what I was talking about in terms of interactive 1st, 2nd, and 3rd person voices in that post of mine a while ago. Where the interactive 3rd person offers the player a role to inhabit. This is key to interactive storytelling.

The camera problem is also solved by IS since you have precisely defined causual junctures, formal camera positions and techniques can be implemented as part of the original scripting.

The remaining problem has to do with WHAT play dynamics you allow and how you balance these with the metaplot, which is a workable framing of the classic game vs. story debate. Stay tuned for my post to the RT, which will approach this very issue.

Duncan: number of verbs is certainly a factor that can't be overlooked... You can support a vast number of verbs provided the contexts in which those verbs apply do not overlap. If they do overlap, it can be frustrating (as you say) because you don't get to choose. The fact that if the game wanted to you use such-and-such a verb in such-and-such a context it would certainly let you is little comfort when you are feeling artificially constrained by the lack of choice.

RodeoClown: I agree with you that Ocarina of Time was probably a first step towards blind captain... It's a shame that the Zelda games require set up via the pause menus so frequently, though.

Jack: RE4 definitely took a big (and long overdue) step towards a blind captain style game. What impressed me most about the game interface to RE4 was the fact that Capcom finally cracked how to make a run and gun game work on a single stick. You make it like a shooting gallery game. :) In fact, the more I think about it, the more I think RE4 is camping on the gates of what I'm talking about. The QTEs still let it down though, in my opinion - they're too fiero focussed. :(

Patrick: I don't quite see how interactive storytelling can solve the camera problem. When you talk about precisely defined casual junctions as a means of eliminating camera issues, your talking about a subset of games at best. Presumably, interactive storytelling games follow from the point and click tradition which also had no camera issues because of their representation (which came from their story focus). That still leaves a large number of genres struggling for decent camera solutions.

Looking forward to your Round Table post!

The camera problem is actually a technical one, and has already been solved through spline pathing. You'd have known that if you went to an obscure poster session during one of your meetings on the wed. of GDC '06.

Blind Captian really is the way of the future, and I believe is tied inextricably into good UI for Wii titles. I'm going to find this out first hand very soon, I'll blog about it soon enough.

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