Finding of the week #309

Energetic Physical Activities

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 problems of simulating physically energetic moments in computer games.

Recently, as I was exercising on a running machine, I experienced an interesting phenomenon of actually feeling my own performance. Normally, one can experience a feeling of satisfaction when a new level of performance is reached, e.g., achieving a new record time. This time, however, I was not only experiencing a new level of performance, but also noticing how I was affecting the environment. In particular, I noticed how the running machine was slightly shaking as I was running on it at a fast pace. It was like a super energetic moment to me.

This reminded me of a visualization style for delivering particularly strong blows during the gameplay of action games. Here, game designers let the view of the player shake for a short amount of time. This suggests that the player’s attack affected the entire virtual environment. When this frequently occurs during the gameplay, players might perceive the game as highly energetic.

However, in contrast to my running experience, the gameplay only provides visual feedback and lacks a directly physical involvement of the player in the actions. Naturally, due to the game immersion, players perceive it as a real event, but the actions remain artificial. In this way, the gameplay lacks a whole-body involvement which might result in an overall improved experience.

This would be different when targeting immersive Virtual Reality. By using tracked game controllers and a tracked Head-Mounted Display, a player’s physical action can easier be used to trigger actions inside of the virtual environments. Unfortunately, fitting haptic feedback is not yet possible. As a result, game designers would need to stick to visual cues. These cues need to be carefully implemented to avoid evoking cybersickness in the player.

In conclusion, although computer games might be capable of generating visually appealing simulations of physical activities, the lack of true physical involvement and haptic feedback potentially reduces the overall satisfaction in comparison to the real world activity. True virtual sport unfortunately needs some more time …

Finding of the week #308

Breaking Games and Exploring Limits

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 desire to explore the virtual environment

Computer games consist of several game mechanics. Game mechanics represent a game’s rules as they encode the underlying principles and overall game knowledge. Game mechanics not only create the virtual environment, but also allow for an interaction with it. This interaction ultimately creates a game’s gameplay.

In this way, a computer game is based on strict rules that are executed and checked by the game. Depending on the design, these game rules can be quite complex, thus providing players with a broad variety of different interaction possibilities. As a result, new players of a particular game learn by exploration and observation. They try out different ideas and interactions with the virtual environments and learn from the feedback provided.

For instance, when playing Minecraft, players might discover TNT blocks that explode and destroy a part of the environment when ignited. Being aware of this game mechanic might initiate a series of experiments to find out how capable TNT is and what can be done with it. By observing the results of the interactions, players learn the game’s rules.

However, the desire to discover new knowledge might not end at this point, but initiate further research to determine the limits of the virtual environments. In the aforementioned example, this could mean to find out what happens if a huge number of TNT blocks explode at the same time. Similarly, when playing Astroneer, players are able to dig into the ground. Thus, some started an experiment to find out what happens when they reach the core of a planet.

In general, testing for the limits of the virtual environments is a common goal, when only a fixed environment is provided. What happens when the end of the world is reached? What happens if previously determined limits are broken? Finding answers to those questions sometimes reveals funny glitches or even breaks the game.

While this gameplay might not be intended by the game developers, it represents another form of enjoying a computer game. It satisfies the desire to explore the virtual environment and to learn all about its underlying principles. This insight can also be valuable for game designers as it indicates that providing a lot of different interaction possibilities and hidden secrets can increase a game’s overall entertaining aspects.

In conclusion, exploring virtual environments not only is directed towards the environment itself but also towards its limits and all underlying principles.

Finding of the week #307

Observed Computer Game Immersion

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 computer game immersion and how it can dominate a player’s attention and awareness.

Immersion in a computer game means that a player is completely absorbed by the gameplay and forgets about the surrounding environment as well as the fact that a game is played. The attention is completely directed towards the gameplay and the player feels as if they are part of the virtual environment or at least that they have full control over it. When immersed in a computer game, all virtual events feel real and can evoke deep emotions. These emotions are even carried over into the real world and combine the real life with the virtual life.

However, the absorbtion rarely is total. Often, players are only partly immersed and split their attention between the real world and the virtual world. For instance, when two players play in multiplayer mode in front of the same screen using a gaming console, they continue to interact with each other or do have a conversation. The degree to which a player’s attention is directed towards the computer game depends on the player’s mental and physical involvement into the gameplay.

This shared attention also allows for the creation of Let’s Play videos (LPs). These videos cover a player’s gameplay and are enhanced by the player’s commentary which provides a second story arch in parallel to the game’s narrative. Personally, I enjoy creating LPs as this is a completely different approach to playing computer games. It is not only about enjoying the narrative or the gameplay, but also about using games to create something new. Thus, creating LPs is a very creative process that provides an entertaining aspect in itself.

Recently, I noticed the above-mentioned phenomenon of the shared attention and how it scales with the personal involvement of the player. Normally, I play Minecraft just as a background activity while discussing various things, such as spaceflight news, scientific results and personal experiences.

However, as I discovered some new game mechanics that have been added to the game with the last content update, I noticed how my personal involvement and hence the immersion increased. While exploring and discovering the new game mechanics, my ability to discuss topics declined and I frequently got distracted while talking.

Based on this subjective experience, I validated my own understanding of computer game immersion. 1) The degree of immersion quickly scales back up and down with the degree to which a player is involved in the gameplay. 2) A high degree of immersion dominates a player’s attention and immediately scales back other processes taking place outside of the virtual world, e.g., talking to other people.

In conclusion, computer game immersion is a powerful experience that not only evokes deep emotions, but also dominates a player’s attention and awareness. Simultaneously, immersion directly scales up or down based on player’s personal involvement in the gameplay.

Finding of the week #306

The Need for Natural Input Devices

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 natural input devices to enhance the immersive effects of virtual environments.

Recently, I enjoyed playing X-Plane 11 in Virtual Reality (VR) mode. Being visually immersed in a detailed and accurate cockpit of an airplane was an unprecedented experience to me. It was one of the most realistic flight experiences in a simulation thus far.

This week, we gave Assetto Corsa a try in VR mode. The experience was quite similar, as it allowed me to accurately steer the virtual racing cars by allowing me to look to the sides without any issues. Also, the natural perspective made it much easier to find the correct braking points.

Ferrari LaFerrari in Assetto Corsa
Ferrari LaFerrari in Assetto Corsa

However, these two very positive VR experiences were affected by some overall comfort issues with the HTC Vive’s head-mounted display (HMD) as well as the control devices. The HMD is designed to almost completely reduce visual information from the real environment and to replace these information with computer generated ones. For this purpose, the HMD has to sit tight over a user’s eyes.

While this might work well for people who do not need to wear glasses, it is a constant struggle for me. Frequently, my glasses get caught by the cushions as well as pressed on my nose. This works for short exposure times, but becomes quite uncomfortable when using the HMD over a longer period of time. This issue is even enhanced when using the Oculus which is even smaller.

A more general issue comes from the control devices used. The controllers often feel like a combination of a TV remote and a gamepad. They of course allow for an interaction with the virtual environments in an efficient way, but also feel not very natural. Instead, their bulkiness often reduces my perception of the virtual environment and the feeling of being a part of it. Although others might disagree, this feeling is even enhanced when using gamepads. Here, every interaction feels highly artificial. Thus far, only highly specialized input devices like racing wheels provide a decent natural feeling.

In conclusion, while I still see the importance of developing better devices for visualizing the simulations, improving the comfort and designing new input devices should be focussed first. By developing devices that provide a more natural feeling, e.g., gloves, the immersive effect of VR as well as desktop simulations could be improved.

Finding of the week #305

Pathfinding Computer Games

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 lack of good pathfinding games that challenge players with difficult terrain.

One of my favorite hobbies is hiking. The more wild and untouched the nature around me is, the more happy I am. Wild nature not only looks beautiful, but it also is more challenging and adventurous to get through it. Finding new paths and ways to overcome obstacles provides me personally with a great experience as I feel more connected to nature and the world around me.

The fascination of exploring the wilderness also plays a major role for me when playing computer games. I enjoyed playing The Long Dark and Spintires. The Long Dark is a survival game that takes place in the Canadian wilderness. Players need to seek shelter from the cold outside temperatures, hunt for food and deal with strong snow storms that quickly can become a dangerous threat. Despite just being a game, being exposed to the virtual elements and finding ways to survive under these harsh conditions provides me with a good substitute for times when I cannot explore the real world.

Spintires challenges players with the goal to drive heavy trucks through very muddy and difficult terrain. Trucks can easily get stuck in this kind of terrain, thus requiring players to find other ways to overcome the obstacles, e.g., using the winch. As a result, Spintires provides me with the aspect of actually being challenged to find a way through wild nature.

Unfortunately, there are not many other games that feature such a focus on exploration and pathfinding. Of course, other games approach the idea of pathfinding, but they mostly create challenges by requiring a certain timing. For instance, the Tomb Raider games require players to find a way through difficult terrain. However, from a pure game mechanic perspective, solving challenges mainly requires jumping or pressing other interaction keys at the right moment.

A potential explanation for this is the problem of finding good game mechanics that provide an exciting amount of choices and a huge degree of variety during the gameplay. This is due to the fact that computer games need to be playable with common control devices. For instance, most games implement the WASD keys for general travel. These four keys however cannot allow for a gameplay that mirrors the challenge of crossing a stream via slippery rocks. Here, one needs to use the entire body to avoid falling into the water which would need a tracking of a players entire body.

Thus, these challenges are reduced to more simple interactions like pressing a button in the right moment to initiate a sequence of events. While this might result in a very polished visualization of the events, it does not provide me with the same rewarding experience as actually being required to deal with the environment directly.

In conclusion, pathfinding games might provide an exciting gameplay, but they require also complex input game mechanics. This, however, would result in a very artificial gameplay as players need to remember a large amount of keybindings. Hopefully, the continuous advancements in computer technology, such as better tracking systems, will finally allow pathfinding games that go beyond the usual jump and run approach.

Finding of the week #304

Flying in VR

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 experiences I made during my first flight using VR technology.

Despite being involved in Virtual Reality (VR) research for several years by now, I rarely came across VR applications that really kept me interested and motivated for a longer time. Often, I explored and tried out my own capabilities inside a particular virtual environment, but quickly stopped using it after having experienced most of the game mechanics. The reason for this is the lack of content that keeps me motivated beyond the initial curiosity.

This changed as a friend invited me to an X Plane 11 VR session. X Plane 11 presents a highly realistic flight simulation. It provides many realistic airplanes and allows users to practice flight procedures. Personally, I spent many hours playing flight simulations so I was immediately excited to give it a try in VR.

The most exciting moment was as I put on the head-mounted display and suddenly found myself inside a virtual Cessna 172. The realistic 3D cockpit gave me the feeling of actually being in a real airplane. All elements and instruments were at their correct position. Also, all control elements could be grabbed and manipulated using the game controllers. In this way, it was possible to use the yoke with one controller while adjusting the throttle with the second one.

This unprecendented flight experience was enhanced by the possibility to freely move my head and to change my perspective. Thus far, I was used to fixed views when playing flight simulations. This not only allowed me to better determine my position in respect to the runway, but also to have an overall improved overview over the instruments. It never was that easy to land a virtual airplane!

As a result, I was completely amazed by this VR flight experience. However, like most other simulations, things start to feel a bit unrealistic when haptic feedback is missing. While this is still ok for flicking switches or turning knobs, it becomes very difficult for using the yoke as well as the throttle. Of course, visual feedback helped me to keep the plane under control, but having no real control device in my hand reduced the overall immersive effect.

As a result of this, X Plane 11 VR might not necessarily allow for a direct training transfer in respect to actually flying an airplane. However, the realistic 3D cockpit models and accurate positions of relevant controls allow for a very effective and realistic training for procedures and check lists.

In the end, despite these limitations, it was the best flight simulation experience I ever made. Also, it was the first time, that I did not get quickly bored after having experienced most of the existing game mechanics. I am looking forward to my next virtual flight hours!

Finding of the week #303

View Dependent and Vehicle Dependent Navigation

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 two different approaches of implementing vehicle control in computer games: view dependent and vehicle dependent navigation.

Like in the real world, one can distinguish between two integral elements when it comes to navigation tasks inside a virtual environment. One has to be able to turn the gaze and to control the direction of motion.

Traditionally, computer games implement the mouse as a means to change the gaze and the keyboard as a means to control the actual locomotion. For instance, WASD commonly allows for a forward, backward and sidewards movement. Forward and backward movement depends on the gaze direction of a user.

Initially, this requires some training of hand-eye coordination and spatial orientation. Players are challenged to understand that they move towards the direction of their view when they keep the forward key pressed and away from it when the press the backward key. In this way, navigation is a combination of controlling the view direction and initiating a locomotion.

Driving virtual vehicles in Astroneer

However, this only applies to direct locomotion. In the case of navigation using vehicles, forward, backward and left/right are based on the vehicle itself. Hence, the direction of motion is independent of a player’s gaze. Similar to the real world, one can look to the side while moving into a different direction, e.g., driving forward with a car.

This technique allows for an intuitive control of vehicles. Players merely need to know in which direction the vehicle is facing to effectively navigate it through the virtual environment. However, in contrast to direct locomotion, vehicle control game mechanics also provide an alternative approach.

Here, the direction of forward and backward is dependent on the player’s view and not based on the structure of the vehicle. As a result, forward is all the time relative to a player’s perspective. While this not only is less intuitive, it also can result in a high degree of confusion when the player intends to circumnavigate an obstacle and suddenly is driving towards it

Therefore, I like to recommend to avoid view dependent controls for vehicles. These approaches cause a high degree of confusion, feel less natural and are less efficient. Before navigating, players first need to analyze which motion they want to initiate depending on their current perspective. Lastly, view dependent navigation causes a conflict with real world knowledge: a car always drives into the direction it faces independent of a player’s gaze.

Finding of the week #301

Use all the Game Mechanics

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 necessity to periodically require all available game mechanics during the gameplay to remind a player of the own capabilities and to make all game mechanics feel more relevant.

Computer games provide players with abilities inside of the virtual environments in form of game mechanics. Game mechanics encode a game’s underlying principles, hence define the game rules and a player’s capabilities. Often, computer games implement a core set of game mechanics that are frequently used during the gameplay.

For instance, being able to navigate and to interact with the virtual environment are essential tasks. However, the frequency of using advanced locomotion, such as jumping or climbing, highly depends on the overall gameplay of a computer games. As a result, players of a particular game might be less trained in using certain game mechanics when they are not a part of the regular gameplay. This can result in frustrating moments when a challenge suddenly requires a rarely used game mechanic. In such a case, players have to recall how exactly the game mechanic is defined and how they can properly use it. This might even end up in a trail and error scenario.

Things are even more difficult, when a game mechanic is introduced once at the beginning of a game and never required again until the late end-game. In such a case, players might already have forgotten that the required game mechanic exist. This leads to the player being stuck in the middle of the gameplay as they do not know how to overcome the current challenge.

For instance, in the hacking simulation Hacknet a player learns how to search for connected mobile devices in one particular mission. Since this mission, this approach is not needed again until the player reaches a specific mission in the later stages of the game. Even though the game provides a hint that might remind the player of this function, the hint does not inform the player how exactly they can scan for and unlock mobile devices. As a result, the player might get stuck and needs to search for information given at the start of the game or even use the internet to find a solution.

Therefore, it is important to either periodically require all game mechanics to avoid that a player forgets about it or to provide enough hints so that the player can proceed without being required to do tedious research. Also, the former approach would make rarely used game mechanics feel more relevant as they start to play a more integral role in the overall gameplay.

Finding of the week #299

The Fascination of Computer Games

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 two main factors that make the gameplay of a computer game highly motivating.

Computer games are vivid and engaging environments. Here, I like to focus on two central factors making the gameplay highly motivating: an epic story or the chance to be creative.

Story-based computer games offer a broad variety of different narrative types. It can be a simple career mode allowing a player to work their way up to the highest tiers and ranks of the simulated content, e.g., racing games. Computer games can also tell a very atmospheric story evoking deep emotions in a player. For instance, Live is Strange challenges players with a very emotional gameplay and the option to rewind time to change decisions made thus changing the lives of others. Being in charge of the lives is also targeted by the Mass Effect games. The Mass Effect trilogy tells an epic story: the player is in charge of the fate of an entire galaxy being inhabited by different species.

By providing such an epic story, computer games challenge players with goals being bigger than theirselves. This can become a very motivating element as it makes a player’s actions highly relevant and provides rewards rarely available in the real world. Suddenly, by playing a game, players can change the lives of a larger group of people. These virtual people then thank the player for their effort and actions. As a result, a player receives emotional rewards rarely available in today’s stressed and harsh environment.

Thus, by providing an epic story, players experience a high motivation as they not only enjoy an exciting narrative but also receive emotional rewards. They contribute to big and meaningful events changing the lives of many others.

The other type of highly motivating computer games target a very creative gameplay. Here, players have nearly complete freedom inside the virtual environment and can realize large projects requiring a focus on many details to achieve perfection. Typical games that provide such a gameplay are Minecraft and Factorio.

Minecraft allows players to completely change vast landscapes by turning them into towns, temples, large castles or other creative environments. Factorio gives players complete freedom over the design of large factories requiring a high amount of planning and micro-management.

By allowing for a focus on many details while providing nearly complete freedom, a computer game can inspire players to target large-scale builds. Finishing these builds is ambitious but also highly motivating as players constantly see how much progress they made.

In the end, by providing an epic story or complete freedom, computer games can achieve a highly motivating gameplay.

Finding of the week #298

Experience-based Retention Mechanisms

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 frequent implementation of multiple experience point systems in a game. The systems individually reward the utilization of different game elements, thus aiming at increasing a player’s motivation.

Since several years, one can observe a game design trend of connecting an experience point system with a game’s core game machanics. A game mechanic defines a player’s actions inside of the virtual environment or creates the game’s challenges a player has to overcome. For instance, Minecraft allows a player to swing a sword and challenges them with dangerous enemies that spawn during the night and attack the player. This interaction between these two game mechanics creates one aspect of Minecrafts overall gameplay.

While Minecraft only implements one experience point system allowing for the performance of special actions, e.g., enchanting and repairing of items, other games also provide a weapon-based or action-based experience system. Here, players can improve the performance of certain game elements by frequently utilizing them during the gameplay.

Similar to practicing the performance of an action in the real world, this game mechanic suggests the development of a better proficiency in the performance. This experience system is enhanced by the provision of unlockable perks making the actions and weapons stronger.

As this game mechanic provides a clear goal as well as a constant feedback, it often is perceived as very motivating and can even induce the experience of flow. However, when it is applied to every individual action or weapon, it can also result in a desire to completely upgrade all game elements. As a result, players probably play the game for an extended amount of time beyond the end of the core narrative.

From a game design perspective, this is a very efficient approach. It requires only a small amount of development work, is easy to extent and effectively increases a player’s motivation. From a player’s perspective, it mostly aims at vested players. Gamers with a limited amount of time who like to play a game for short periods only might feel constrained as they cannot keep up with the performance of others.

Personally, I currently belong to the latter category. I enjoy to play complex and difficult games. However, I like to have access to the full potential of the game right from the beginning without being required to put in a lot of time to get access to all game elements. To me, the success in a game should be more based on the skill of a player and not on the time a player invests in the game.

In conclusion, nested experience systems are an effective way to increase a player’s motivation. However, they also reduce the overall enjoyment of a game when it is only played for short sessions.