Finding of the week #248

Individual and Creative Virtual Holiday Celebrations

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how a high degree of freedom and creativity can greatly enhance a player’s experience of a virtual holiday celebration.

Seasonal events implemented in a computer game simulate specific real world holidays by turning major traditions into gameplay elements or simply changing the environment by adding event-specific decorations. That way, the seasonal events not only reduce the distance between the real and the virtual world, but also allow players to celebrate the holidays directly inside of the virtual environments. This convergence between the virtual environments and reality also contributes to the overall holiday spirit as it avoids breaking the ongoing celebrations surrounding a player in the real world.

Feast of the Winter Veil

World of Warcraft: Feast of the Winter Veil

These special events are directly implemented by the developers of a game and are only active during a defined time frame. Outside of this time, the event is disabled and can not be accessed by players. While this is a very effective approach as it avoids implementing additional game mechanics allowing for player-specific ways to celebrate a particular holiday, it also shows the limitations of this concept. Players merely are passive spectators that, despite being able to complete event-specific challenges, can not directly influence the virtual celebrations.

A Christmas Tree in Minecraft

However, open world building games like Minecraft represent an exception as they allow players to freely change and decorate their virtual worlds. As a result, players can decorate their long-term projects inside of the games according to their personal interpretations of a particular event. Moreover, players are also in control of an event’s duration and hence can define how an event ends. This especially is important when these create games are played in multiplayer mode as this allows all players to collaboratively achieve a very individual and unique holiday celebration.

In the end, all virtual versions of a specific holiday can bring players closer together and achieve a convergence of the virtual environments and the real world. However, as holidays are also a unique and individual occasion, giving more control into the hands of the players can result in an even higher acceptance and interest in the events. Also, being able to experience unique and magical moments that result in great memories is essence of life.

Finding of the week #247

Believable Status Indication

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how a player’s status can be displayed in a virtual environment in a believable way.

The indication of a player’s status is a critical design element of many computer games as the information needs to be provided in a clear and easy way without visually irritating the player. Often, this is done using a 2D User Interface (UI) overlay over the actual 3D gameplay that contains bars or numbers expressing a player’s state. This non-diegetic technique, however, negatively affects the overall believability of the simulation as it adds an element to the gameplay that normally would not exist in reality.

In contrast, diegetic UIs embed the information directly into the virtual world thus making it to a part of it and increasing the overall believability. This approach is easy when the computer game simulates a real world activity, such as driving a car, flying an airplane, or operating other machines, that automatically provides a diegetic UI like a cockpit or other control interfaces. In such a case, the status information can be displayed in the same way as in the real world by utilizing the simulated indicators.

However, more creative and sometimes even magic approaches are needed when the game concentrates on the players themselves and lets them experience the virtual world from a first-person perspective. Normally, we have no indication of our current states in the real world aside from our senses. We know how we feel when we are hungry, cold, wet, injured, or happy. Encoding and conveying these feelings in a virtual environment, however, is not straightforward.

Therefore, due to technical limitations, metaphors need to be found that provide us with feedback about the states of our virtual bodies and inform us when we are affected by something. For instance, Stranded Deep indicates a player’s status on a virtual wristwatch the player is wearing. By simply pressing a button, the player’s avatar raises the left arm thus allowing the user to check their health and hunger. Take On Mars puts the players into a spacesuit that displays relevant health information directly into the players helmet like a Heads-Up Display.

This especially is important in the case of a Virtual Reality (VR) simulation that visually immerses the user by utilizing a Head-Mounted Display. In VR, using a diegetic UI is very important as regular 2D overlay UI can cause a high degree of distraction as it would always be in the player’s field of view independent from the player’s gaze.

Finding of the week #246

Complexity of Game Design

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the steep learning curve new (non-programming) game designers face when trying to implement their first ideas using one of the prominent game design frameworks.

Despite the existence of powerful game design frameworks, such as Unity and Unreal, the difficulty of developing even simple games still is relatively high. The reason for this is twofold: (1) a developer needs to posses a broad variety of skills while (2) the game engines must avoid to restrict the developers in their freedom.

During the development process, a game designer is required to come up with a good audiovisual presentation, to achieve a good usability and to technically implement game mechanics using one of the supported programming languages. Thus, new game developers face a huge learning curve at the start of their first project as they not only need to invent a good overall design, but also are required to combine creative design with technical engineering skills.

Game engines, on the other hand, need to provide a good support for various visualization as well as engineering approaches to avoid restricting the designs. Therefore, game frameworks must support powerful programming languages and 2D as well as 3D graphical assets. Ultimately, this approach creates the high skill demand as developers, in order to realize their game design ideas, need to create all individual elements themselves. Furthermore, developers are challenged to understand the complex game frameworks themselves before they can start to implement the first feature which creates an additional entry barrier.

As a result of this, new game designers often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of the game frameworks and, in the case they have never programmed before, even incapable of achieving anything. Therefore, more intuitive approaches are needed that allow for visual programming instead of writing plain code. This, however, is not easy as the visual programming interface is also required to allow for the same freedom as a traditional programming language.

For instance, Unreal’s Blueprint Editor allows for a quick and visual implementation of new features by representing functions as configurable and connectable boxes. However, in order to successfully utilize the blueprints, a basic understanding of programming is still needed as the editor follows the same rules as a normal programming language.

In the end, while the complexity probably can not be reduced as it would otherwise also affect the freedom, more creative approaches to make game design more intuitive and easier to understand are needed.

Finding of the week #245

A Peaceful and Silent World

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how computer games can positively affect our energy and motivation during stressful and chaotic times.

Normally, we play computer games to entertain ourselves by experiencing exciting narratives or overcoming difficult challenges. In addition, depending on a game’s genre, they require us to cooperatively play together with players from all over the world thus ultimately allowing us to make new friends. Finally, computer games, as they provide us with meaningful rewards, often give us the feeling that we accomplished important things and changed the world.

That way, playing computer games and solving a continuous stream of new challenges during the gameplay is a very active process in which we can mentally immerse ourselves. However, this active process is also very physically and mentally demanding and requires a player’s full attention to solve a game’s puzzles or to exhaust the very own skill level. Thus, when a personal level of exhaustion is reached, playing computer games, like all other hobbies, starts to cease being entertaining. This phenomenon, however, is moderated by the game’s complexitiy, e.g. complex strategy games have a higher mental demand whereas first-person shooters rarely require complex decision making.

As a result, during stressful times, when a quick break and distraction is needed to regain some energy to continue working towards the completion of demanding tasks, simple and quick computer games are providing players with the highest degree of satisfaction. This is due to the fact that they save the limited amount of brainpower and still immerse a player in a completely different and entertaining activity.

Skyrim

Skyrim

Alternatively, walking simulators or open world games provide a similar distraction from stressful times as they allow players to delve into a virtual world they can freely explore and enjoy without directly being required to solve challenges. Instead, these games allow players to simply enjoy beautiful and, depending on the game’s visual presentation, even emotional or magical moments without actually playing the game.

For instance, games like Skyrim provide players with a vast and magical environment that features beautiful views and colorful sunsets. Those games can bring a player to a completely different scenery within the fraction of a second and, as a result of this, also allow them to relax during stressful times.

Personally, during the last days before the end of a paper deadline, I observed this behavior myself as I just started Minecraft to explore my virtual world without directly changing something in it. The simple act of enjoying the vista over my small little world from the top of a mountain allowed me to regain some energy and fully distract myself from a long to-do list. After a short amount time, I felt refreshed and ready to continue working.

As a conclusion, small journeys into a quiet and peaceful virtual world can have a very positive effect on the personal energy and motivation level during stressful times.

Finding of the week #244

A Difficult Game Design Challenge: Climate Change

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about some critical game design problems that arise when complex problems like the climate change are addressed in a computer game.

Some time ago, I got asked how I would design a computer game that addresses ecological problems and tries to educate players about the effects of pollution, climate change and global warming. Although I strongly believe that computer games can help us to visualize and potentially even solve these global problems, it is not that simple to come up with a design for a good computer game. The reason for this is that this ecological subject has three main requirements which are hard to combine:

  • Global scale: Pollution and emissions of greenhouse gases affect the entire planet and are not just limited to a small area. In addition, different ecosystems react differently to certain changes in the global climate. That way, the game needs to present a resulting climate change on a global scale to demonstrate and educate about the underlying principles and effects.
  • Large time scale: Although the climate change is rapidly affecting various ecosystems around the world, it is still relative slow in respect to the way how we perceive time and change. As a result of this, it is necessary that the game allows players to control the flow of time to speed up the process and thus achieve a better understanding of the underlying principles.
  • Personal attachment: For the purpose of emotionally involving players in the gameplay and the game’s narrative, a personal attachment to protagonists in the game world is important. In addition, a first person perspective can also provide a more subjective, immersive and intense experience of the effects of climate change.

This requirement analysis ultimately creates the game design challenge of finding a way to combine a very subjective and emotional view with the presentation of large scale problems. The personal view reduces the player’s distance to the global problems to a minimum thus causing the users to regard them as their personal problems they have to solve–in the virtual and in the real world. The global presentation, on the other hand, demonstrates the underlying principles and allows players to develop an in-depth understanding of them.

Hopefully, this design challenge will be solved at some point, soon, as it is more important than ever before that the awareness of climate changed is raised in an intuitive and immersive way.

Finding of the week #243

Observing Limits of Cognitive Abilities

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how computer games can be used to test the limits of our own cognitive abilities.

Frequent and deliberate practice helps us to internalize knowledge and, as a result of this, the knowledge’s performance becomes more fluent and even automated. This especially is the case when we acquire and practice a particular skill such as typing, dancing or driving a car.

At first, a skill’s performance is very slow as the underlying steps and rules are followed closely. Over time, the underlying rules get internalized and, subsequently, subconsciously executed thus achieving an automatization of the knowledge. Finally, after frequent and deliberate practice as well as general performance, the skill can be mastered which results in a total automatization and quick skill performance.

However, the automatization and subconscious performance can also result in a certain degree of inflexibility which can be observed when only a small parameter of the knowledge’s rules get changed. In this case, especially when the person is not aware of the changed rules, the skill is performed in its internalized form thus resulting in unexpected outcomes and a high degree of irritation.

WRC 7

Recently, I observed this particular phenomenon myself as I tried a new racing computer game: WRC 7. Normally, I play racing games with manual transmission enabled as it provides me with a higher degree of flexibility. However, in the case of WRC 7, the gear change option was set to automatic transmission which also maps the car’s reverse gear to the brake and engages reverse when the brake is still pressed after the car has stopped. In addition to this, I am using a steering wheel and pedal setup that mirrors the functionality of a real car’s controls. Ultimately, this small but significant parameter change of the internalized rules caused a high degree of irritation on my side as the virtual car was doing the opposite of what I expected.

In the end, this experience demonstrated how computer games not only can be used to train knowledge but also to test our own cognitive abilities as well as their limits. Computer games allow for the realistic as well as immersive simulation of real world knowledge while simultaneously providing a safe testing environment where those experiments can be conducted.

Finding of the week #242

Entertainment or Chore?

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about how repetitive gameplay is perceived differently depending on the player’s type and overall personal goals.

Yesterday, I had an interesting discussion about different ways and attitudes how a computer game can be approached. In particular, we were discussing how certain repetitive tasks in World of Warcraft (WoW) can be tackled and if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a chore like washing dishes or vacuum-cleaning the house.

WoW features seasonal events that take place every year and provide players with special activities and quests. For instance, every year around Halloween, the special „Hallow’s End“ event takes place and allows players to virtually celebrate this spooky event by defeating a Headless Horseman, wearing costumes, or gathering lots of candy. In addition, players have the chance to obtain unique collectables, i.e., virtual pets and toys, during an event by completing the special activities that reward players with an event-specific currency tradable for these special items.

However, this is not a simple or quick task as the prices for these items are designed to be relatively high thus requiring players to work towards their goals for several days by repeating the same activity over and over again. As a result of this, the gameplay stops being compelling and simply becomes a chore. Interestingly, as long as players add some value to these virtual collectables, this gameplay concept fulfills the requirements for flow by providing players with a clear goal and constant feedback which results in a high motivation to continue completing the event-specific activities.

On the other hand, although players have a clear goal in mind, the gameplay still stops being real fun and often is done while watching TV or browsing the internet. This indicates that the computer game itself lost its immersive effects and can no longer attract a player’s full attention as the tasks can also be completed subconsciously. This raises the question, if the resulting gameplay is still entertainment or just a normal chore.

This question can not generally be answered as it depends on the player type and the player’s goals. For instance, while a player who seeks tough challenges or new experiences will probably feel bored after a short amount of time and cease to complete the activities, a different player seeking a relaxing activity potentially keeps on completing the quests and even derives some joy from it.

In the end, while a good computer game should normally gain the full attention of the player and completely immerse them in the gameplay, certain games like WoW can make an exception due to the overall structure of being a vast narrative that spans over several years and has to provide content for all kinds of player types.

Finding of the week #241

Overall Gameplay Balance

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the need for a good overall balance of a computer game to ensure that the targeted audience stays motivated for the entire playthrough.

Conditions for victory and defeat are depending on a game’s gameplay and overall challenge. While computer games that are designed to be unforgiving and challenging can have very strict victory conditions, other games that challenge players to take risks often need more relaxed rules or the possibility to make up for a bad performance.

The former kind of computer games often gives players plenty of time to analyze the current situation and think about their next steps to overcome a particular challenge. In such a case, constantly facing a potential defeat contributes to the game’s overall atmosphere and increases the importance of carefully planning each individual step. As a result, players feel very rewarded when they beat a challenge without experiencing strong penalties. For instance, XCOM 2 challenges players with difficult missions but avoids restricting them with time constraints thus allowing for an in-depth analysis of the current situation.

The latter kind of computer games normally creates a fast-paced gameplay that challenges the overall reaction time and game-specific sets of skills. While playing these games, players often have to decide whether they like to play it safe or give it everything thus accepting the risk to lose a game. However, playing at the own skill level only is a valid option when the game provides enough chances to make up for a potential bad performance. For example, a racing game normally implements championships that span over multiple races thus providing the chance to make up for a very bad race.

However, when the conditions for victory and defeat are not matching the gameplay, players can easily lose interest or motivation to play the game. The reason for this is that users are then either bored or frustrated as well-thought decisions are not needed or taking risks is too dangerous.

For instance, DiRT 4 challenges players with rally and circuit racing but rarely offers championships that have enough events to make it worth to take the risk and push as hard has possible. As a result, the game’s career mode fails to motivate players to be aggressive as they rarely can make up for a bad performance.

In sum, balancing also has to take into account how the overall gameplay is structured and what interests the targeted audience has.

Finding of the week #240

VR Status Quo: Huge Gap Between Awareness and Experience

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about the huge gap between people who have heard about VR and people who already have experienced it,

The terms „virtual reality“ (VR) and „augmented reality“ (AR) start to become more and more well known these days. In particular, VR applications as well as technologies are experiencing a new boom thus causing a widespread awareness for the possibility of enjoying a total visual immersion in a virtual environment. However, although many people are aware of these technologies, only a few of them have actually experienced VR and know about the feeling of suddenly standing inside of a completely different world.

For instance, this semester, we started a new course for students who study to become a teacher that focusses on AR as well as VR technologies. In this course, students can develop an interdisciplinary competence between pedagogy and computer science that not only teaches them how to implement these technologies in schools, but also enables them to analyze and design AR/VR applications. At the start of the course’s first session, we asked the students about their experience with these technologies. As expected, all of them have heard about VR before, but only a small percentage reported to have actually used it.

An explanation for this phenomenon is the lack of good applications that address a broad audience. Currently, VR is mainly used by computer game players who are, despite the strong growth of the games industry, still in a minority. In addition, only a small percentage of all computer game players owns a VR device due to the high price and the small selection of good games. Of course, there are also serious and informative applications for VR but none of them really provides mainstream content. As a result, there is no good incentive for people to invest into a still expensive technology.

Therefore, we tried to fix this problem during the first session of our course by providing all students with a first-hand AR/VR experience. This approach was more than successful as all of them were totally amazed and immediately saw the great potential of these technologies for their future as a teacher.

Finding of the week #239

Window to a different world

During my ongoing literature review I often discover interesting facts about things I’ve never thought about. Sometimes I can connect these facts with my own observations: The result is mostly a completely new idea why things are as they are. Maybe these ideas are new to you, too. Therefore I’ll share my new science based knowledge with you!

This week: This time, I think about potential reasons why virtual environments not necessarily work as permanent windows to a different world.

Normally, while playing a good computer game, I am totally immersed in the gameplay. The immersion is, in the case of a virtual environment that I really enjoy, often combined with a feeling of awe as it allows me to explore beautiful places. For instance, as I played The Long Dark, I was constantly in awe due to the beautiful virtual winterly landscape which reminded me of great days I spent outdoors during the winter time.

Animals of the forest

A typical The Long Dark scene.

Therefore, I expected a similar experience when I stay for a longer time at a certain position to just enjoy the fantastic scenery and use the computer screen as a window to a different and exciting world. Surprisingly, the immersive experience most of the time came to a quick end after I leaned back to just enjoy the beautiful view I have selected.

The reason for this phenomenon could have several reasons. The probably most likely explanation would be that, by stopping to actually play the game, the flow-inducing aspects of the gameplay ended and no longer supported the overall overwhelming experience of exploring an amazing landscape. As the excitement returned after I continued to play the game, it can be assumed that the break in flow also caused a break in the overall experience.

However, there are also other aspects that could play a moderating role for the break in the overall experience. By leaning back to just watch the scenery, I changed my personal point of view thus suddenly seeing the surrounding environment which potentially distracted me from the gameplay. If this is the case, the experience might last longer when I would use a Head-Mount Display instead of a regular computer screen as this would prevent me from suddenly being distracted from the outside world.

A third reason could be that, by stopping to actually playing the game, I was no longer completely focussed on the gameplay and, as a result of this, my mind and thoughts potentially started to drift and I no longer effectively enjoyed the virtual environment.

Finally, it could also haven been the case that I reached the point of having seen all aspects of the virtual environment as it is limited by the degree of the simulation. At some point, no new elements can be discovered as the virtual world only contains a limited amount of elements. This, in contrast, is not the case in reality, as every moment is unique and will never return.

In the end, this problem shows the current limitations of simulated virtual worlds as the technical development still has not reached the state of simulating a vivid and completely believable virtual world.