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.