Play Engineer
Language Games

Toru Iwatani's Escalator

Up_and_down_escalators_1A game should possess a clarity of purpose. If it is not clear what the player should be doing, the game has an insurmountable problem. Even games in which you are given a completely open hand only work if this freedom is successfully conveyed to the player. Even games in which the core play is devising what to do only work if the player is sufficiently confident that this is what they are supposed to be doing. Does your game have a clarity of purpose?

When I attended the talk by Pac-man's creator back at GDC 2004, I wasn't expecting the session to develop an almost mystical quality in me. Japanese is an unusual language in that it prefers implication to statement - a quality that often makes it rather hard to translate into the languages of more literal cultures. However, it also meant that Iwatani-san's presentation was not a carefully structured thesis, but a codex of personal experience centred on the design process behind a hugely popular and successful game. It was the most moving experience I've had at any GDC, but it took me some time to completely internalise it.

The image of the escalator was perhaps the most cryptic element of the talk. Iwatani-san asked the audience for their thoughts on what made the escalator a "perfect system"; this audience participation further obfuscated his purpose in choosing this icon. Indeed, at least one report (unless my memory fails me - which it does from time to time) erroneously supplies my suggestion (voiced on the day) as to the strength of the escalator: that even when broken it is still functional, as a broken escalator is a staircase. Only some time afterwards did the gentle zen like effect of the talk finally settle into my mind, and I successfully decoded Iwatani-san's intended message.

The beauty of the design of the escalator is that anyone can immediately see how to use it. No prior experience, no specialist skills, no instructions are necessary.  One can tell from looking at it what is expected. This was the same concept that motivated the design of Pac-man: clarity of purpose. Does your game have clarity of purpose?


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That's an excellent metaphor. I've long felt that game designers (I'll keep using that term for the moment) could stand to learn so much from other design disciplines.

I should perhaps clarify that I have no intention of stopping using the term 'game designer'. I was and am interested in exploring a new term (and the limits of the old term), hence the wording of the question.

On the other hand, an escalator is a strictly functional creation; it exists to take you from here to there. I don't like games which aim so low. And to tell the truth, I've never liked Pac-Man much, and am continually astonished at the level of reverence it is given. Surely we all see this as the starting point, and not the high point? I can think of many theoretical examples in which it would make more sense artistically to keep the player disoriented.

It's okay to keep the player disoriented if that's part of the nature of the play (or proceeds naturally from it). And if it is, and it's done well, the player will accept this as part of the play. If not, the player will become unduly frustrated. Avoiding undue frustration is the goal of clarity of purpose.

Avoid interpreting metaphors literally - this is a technique only useful for making music videos. :)

Pac-man came out in 1980, and remains one of the most popular coin ops ever made, reaching a wider audience that was believed possible at the time. And Toru Iwatani set out with that goal - to reach a wider audience. I find that pretty incredible that 26 years ago he was fighting the same battle I'm fighting now - except he got lucky and it paid off!

Ms. Pac-man, which is only slightly revised, is still played and enjoyed today in its original coin op form. That in itself is an astonishing achievement.

It's like you were talking about in your post on ludus; presented with a ball and a space, play evolves intuitively from the presented elements. The ideal in all game design would be to be able to present the user with elements, and have them instantly grasp how those elements can be interacted with, and for the content to support the sort of interactions that they want to have with the elements, rather than to try and guide them into the "intended interactions" and the player have to learn what you want from them.

That is a great analogy, Greg. This is precisely what I believe the metaphor of the escalator is intended to represent.

I can understand Mory's reluctance, however. If one conflates the elevator with simple linear journeys (like the ubiquitous 'tunnel FPS', which is a modern spook house) it seems to be calling for simplicity of content. But the goal is clarity of purpose, not functional paucity.

The elevator metaphor has no limit of complexity (although elevators themselves appear a simple device to the user) - even complex systems like drama games could be constructed in this way; we just have to take special care that we can comprise the worlds of readily understandable elements.

Whilst felling to sleep on the train tonight, I pondered on another advantage - that the escalator can be used at different 'levels' - the 'difficulty' can be increased to hasten the travel.

(Someone whose strength and energy exceeds their luggage can bound up the escalator, whilst someone less fortunate can stand still and yet reach the end of their journey.)

And in typing that, it occurs to me that perhaps the ensured arrival of the 'end of the journey' can be seen as a fourth beautiful trait in itself - certainly, not every game should be like this, but how many would benefit from allowing for a slower, yet near-guaranteed route to a satisfying ending?

Bezman: the nice thing about the escalator image is that it is such a well-engineered device, one can find many ways in which it can inspire positive game design practices. ;)

Best wishes!

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