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January 30, 2009

Filed under: gaming»design

After Life

In his post on a short experience in World of Warcraft, PeterB hits on something fairly profound:

Throughout the parts of the game that I've seen, never once while in-game have I had to sit and wait for a "Loading..." screen. If you have to descend into a cave to search for loot, it flows smoothly from the outer world. Fly across the ocean to another continent, and you watch the scenery below you as your griffin beats his wings beneath you. Surely there is some sort of loading or paging going on under the hood, but the user never feels it.

I describe this achievement as 'technical', but its impact on the immersiveness of the game can't be understated. Like so many other people, I have a short attention span. "Loading" screens do more than provide entertainment while the computer gets work done, they provide a cognitive break. When I'm playing a game and a load screen appears, more often than not I will look away. Maybe I'll go get a cup of tea, or pause the game, or check my email. World of Warcraft doesn't have these cognitive breaks, except for those that the player makes for him or herself by retreating to a safe place. The end result (at least for me) is a sort of tunnel vision composed of equal parts concentration and fatigue. You eventually look up and find that several hours have passed, and you hadn't noticed.

If this sounds very familiar to you, maybe you've been playing Geometry Wars 2. I certainly have. Despite promising myself that I'd stop trying to beat a pesky leaderboard score, I wasn't able to kick the habit. The thing about GW2 is that it's really, really easy to spend a relatively long time chasing high scores in it, partly because the gameplay is very good, but additionally because restarting a level is practically instant. I can be playing Pacifism, run into an enemy, and before I've finished yelling at the game I'm already back at the start of the level. Just hammering the A button--which, helpfully, is not used for anything else in GW2--runs the user through the menu as fast as they can thumb. There's no death animation. There's no menu lag. There's nothing, in other words, to provide the "cognitive break" that Peter's discussing above. Instead, the game is constantly rewarding players with stimulation. Combined with the quick start-up of XBox Arcade titles, this means I end up playing a lot more Geometry Wars than I probably intend to do, because it's easy to get into it and surprisingly hard to get out.

You can, in fact, judge how likely I am to stick with any given game by determining how quickly and effectively it reloads after I die. I was astonished by reviewers who punished the new Prince of Persia for simply eliminating death-by-falling: that's exactly what I want! Hurl me directly back into the action, don't make me sit through a non-game sequence first! We can even take this further: the less I am punished for any failure, the more likely I'll keep playing. That doesn't mean the game is easier--feel free to make tasks difficult. But when I fail, I don't want to have to replay large chunks in order to reach that point again. I'm an adult, I understand: the failure itself is punishment enough. Anything else is just kind of rubbing it in.

Let's take this even another step, outside gaming: the less my workflow on any given task is disrupted by either failure or success, the more progress I find I can make. For example, I used to do my audio work at the Bank in Pro Tools. Unlike a lot of people, I really like Pro Tools. It has a fantastically well-designed toolkit for patching and editing audio (one day, I'll write a post about how the connection routing of audio software is possibly its most crucial feature). As a result of this incredibly flexible routing matrix, bouncing audio from multiple tracks into a single mixdown track is a joy. There's just one problem: partly as a consequence of that design, Pro Tools can only bounce in real-time. So while the user experience of mixing is very pleasant, it involves a lot of sitting around and waiting for the audio to play through the mixing bus. During that time, I tended to get distracted--or, on long projects, even leave the room to work on something else.

Nowadays I do my audio work in Cubase or Sonar, neither of which is anywhere near as graceful as Pro Tools. Bouncing a track in these apps requires 1) soloing the tracks in questions, 2) running a mixdown command to export the mix to a file, and 3) importing the newly-created file to its own track. Both Cubase and Sonar kind of apologetically include options during mixdown to automate this process, but it still feels clumsy compared to the Pro Tools mixer. The advantage they have, however, is that these packages can bounce audio as fast as the computer can process it, usually far faster than realtime. As a result, I don't enjoy my new Cubase workflow nearly as much as I enjoyed editing at the Bank, but on many projects it has made me much more productive, and not just because non-realtime bouncing is technically faster. There's no "cognitive break" during which time I would be tempted to multitask.

I think there are two interesting items of note here. The first is to note the degree to which gaming often associates punishment (including death, which barely deserves the name) with wasted time. It's the accepted method of "charging" a player for failure--either take away their time during an animation/reload/restart cycle, or force them to spend substantial time recovering lost ground, or both. This actually strikes me as particularly perverse, given that the audience has grown older, and has less spare time to spend. There are plenty of currencies that could be used punitively in design: loss of experience, equipment, or even simple mockery. And yet we return, over and over again, to design decisions (no quicksave, sparse respawn points, long menu trees) that make failure above all a lengthy and slow process.

Second, I think it's kind of funny that--even though gamers are often considered part of a "multitasking generation"--one of the most important factors in a game's addictive potential is its determination to keep the user focused on a single task for as long as possible. You'd think, if the trend were really so pronounced, that the most successful tools and entertainment would be those that work around a multitasked mindset, not one of constant obsession. It's almost like that kind of generation-gap jargon were just some kind of nonsense buzzword invented by would-be social critics.

Future - Present - Past