How much reality should a simulation game reflect?

When my mom video called me this Monday, I told her that recently I have been obsessed with Animal Crossing on Switch. She was curious about the game and asked me what the game was. Therefore I moved my character around to show her my island, telling her in this open-world simulation game you have an island where you can catch fish and bugs, dig fossils, plant fruit trees as well as sell these things to get money for new houses, furniture and clothes. 

Animal Crossing: New Horizons

She seemed to like this game a lot and asked more detailed questions. I was really happy to see she liked it (because she is not a gamer and most of the time she shows indifference to the games I play) and continued to show her my newly opened museum, especially the unusual fish I caught on my friends’ islands in the Southern Hemisphere. Then she said, “How can you keep these fish and bugs alive? They are from the other hemisphere. Can they adapt to the climate and environment here? Also, to sustain the ecosystem, I suggest you not fish too much.” 

The question and comment left me speechless for a while, and then I realized that for a person that has hardly played any games especially simulation games, I can’t assume that they know a simulation game is simplified for fun and doesn’t 100% reflect the reality. This difference in cognition prompts me to think how much reality a simulation game should reflect and the reasons behind simplification and adaptation of the reality.

In my opinion, the design choices made related to verisimilitude highly depend on the purpose of the game. Animal Crossing doesn’t have a definite and clear goal for players to achieve. There are quests you can take, but your game experience won’t be ruined if you don’t. The core pleasure of the game is to enjoy the freedom of living and thriving on your own island. Freedom is created through various activities I mentioned before. Given that there are so many things players can do in the game, the great breadth of player interactions comes with inevitable limits of depth of each interaction. If fishing in Animal Crossing were like real-life fishing where you have to wait for fish to appear for minutes or even hours and take the risk of the rod breaking when catching big fish, it might give you a greater sense of achievement. But how much time is left for other equally fun activities? Going too deep and real in activities that are only part of the gameplay deviates from the core pleasure and decreases the total amount of fun players can get from the game.

Another important factor that decides how real a simulation game should be is the target audience. We can divide game players roughly into two groups: “hardcore players” who treat the simulation seriously and want the real experience by playing the game, and “casual players” who only anticipate the fun and sense of achievement of doing something they are not able to do in real life. For the former, games with realistic details like Microsoft Flight Simulator may be their best choices. However, if a game like Animal Crossing is created for general audience, the gameplay should lean towards a design that keeps the fun of novel activities and removes the unpleasant/tedious part of them which may drive players away. If creatures caught on my friend’s island in the Southern Hemisphere cannot live on my island in the Northern Hemisphere because they cannot bear the different climate in real life, then suddenly I lose fun and motivation to go to my friends’ islands.

In conclusion, when deciding how realistic a simulation game should be, there is no universal answer. It depends on the shape (breadth and depth) of your game and the audience.

How to tell an ordinary story in an extraordinary way?

Spoiler Alert: The following article contains spoilers of the game Florence.

Florence, the Best Mobile Game of TGA 2018, is an interactive visual novel designed by Monument Valley designer Ken Wong. It takes less than an hour to finish the linear story. The main characters are average people struggling for their life and dream. Florence (the female main character) meets Krish (the male main character). They fall in love with each other. They encourage each other to pursue their dreams. No superpower and no drama is involved. And as a love story, it doesn’t have a desirable ending — Florence and Krish break up in the end. However, I was so touched and even cried when I was playing even though I haven’t been through similar heartbreaking experiences. The game definitely creates strong emotional resonance with its excellent storytelling. How does Florence tell its ordinary story in an extraordinary way?


USE OF AUDIOVISUAL METAPHORS

The story itself is ordinary, but the game takes full advantage of the medium and tells the story well to its audience. In the game, a lot of audiovisual metaphors are used to reinforce the emotions and messages that the designer tries to convey.

Krish and Florence’s first meeting happens when Florence falls off her bike and Krish helps her up. Pictures are distorted, layered and out of focus to simulate Florence’s double vision, and the background music is also quiet and obscure. The player has to turn the focus rings to sharpen and align images to see Krish clearly, and the music becomes clear and loud as the player turns to the right mark.

Another metaphor I really like is the dialogue bubbles. There are no words in their dialogue but only color bubbles. The player as the female character needs to assemble jigsaw puzzle pieces into complete dialogue bubbles in order to talk to Krish. The number of puzzle pieces, the shape and the color are all indicative of the status of the relationship and their moods.
For example, on Florence and Krish’s first date, the player has to put 8 pieces together at the beginning. As they talk more, the number of pieces goes down to 6, 4, 3, 2 and finally 1. The puzzle is getting easier for the player, so you know it’s also the case that Florence feels more comfortable and easier talking to Krish.

Similarly, when Florence and Krish have their first argument, the interlocking part of the pieces change from round shapes to squares and then to triangles, indicating the argument is getting intense. 

In the last fight they have before breaking up, all bubbles are fierce red with the implication that they have passed the point of no return and the harm is irreparable. Krish’s blank for bubbles is automatically and quickly filled out, so if the player doesn’t react immediately, the picture of Florence and Krish facing each other quarreling will tilt towards Florence because of the imbalance.

Seeing Florence at a disadvantage provokes the player to fight back and win, and I guess this is what happens in a relationship in real life that the game designer wants us to realize: we don’t want to lose, thus we fight back and hurt our partner without even thinking about who is right and who is wrong. The designer successfully conveys the message through the well-designed metaphors.

 

INTERACTION BEYOND COLD TEXT BUTTONS

Usually, interactive romance novels branch their stories with different choices. You read the dialogue, watch the cutscenes, and click/tap on one of the text buttons. This kind of game attracts its players with a wonderful romance fantasy and multiple endings but often lacks variety in terms of interaction. In contrast, the Florence team wants to tell an ordinary but relatable love story. To make it equally appealing, the designer really put effort into interaction design so as to unify the explicit story and the player story and enhance the latter.

The reason why I love this game so much is that it truly immerses you in the story and creates empathetic connection between you and Florence by letting you do everything she does every day in the game. 

The first two chapters are Florence’s daily routine (such as brushing teeth, browsing social media, working and calling her mom) and her childhood. Frankly speaking, it’s just the background story that doesn’t have much to do with the core romance and can be explained with cutscenes. However, you have to drag and move the toothbrush around for several seconds, tap retweet or like button for every single post to finish each task and move on. These interactions let you immediately get a sense of  how tedious Florence’s life is. 

Later when Florence and Krish are in love, Krish moves to live with Florence. In this chapter, you need to place Krish’s personal items in Florence’s apartment. Starting from shoe organizers to kitchen and living room, you will realize that the space is full already and the only way you can put Krish’s stuff in is to put some of Florence’s stuff back in storage. 

Again, the designer’s message that a good relationship needs compromise is powerfully conveyed through the interaction. The golden rule of storytelling is “show, don’t tell”, and the golden rule of interactive storytelling that Florence teaches us is “interact, don’t tell”.

YOU HAVE A CHOICE, BUT YOU ACTUALLY DON’T

As I mentioned before, Florence is a linear story. There are some moments in the game where you have choices to make, but they don’t change the story. When answering phone calls from Florence’s mom, all the sentences are vague and repetitive answers like “I’m busy”, “Talk to you later”. It shows that Florence takes a perfunctory attitude toward her mom.

 I first thought phone call choices were redundant compared to other interactions, but later I changed my mind because I realized sometimes I would say the same thing to my mom. The seemingly useless choices recall my memory and make me reflect on my life.

My favorite chapter is “Let go”. The chapter starts with the title and Florence and Krish walking side by side. Krish walks more slowly than Florence, and as he falls behind, his image along with the chapter title starts fading out. No instruction or goals given, tapping is the most intuitive interaction. However, when you tap the screen, Florence will stop to wait for Krish and both Krish and the chapter title “Let go” become visible again. 

I suddenly understood what I should do: do nothing. Don’t tap, and just wait for Florence to go far enough that Krish disappears in the scene. Having seen how sweet and happy they used to be, this was such a reluctant choice to make that I couldn’t help myself tapping again and again, but every time I tapped, the title “Let go” showed up and reminded me of what I should do. 

Giving the player choices that don’t make a difference is really a compelling design to evoke the player’s feeling and empathy (especially when it’s a distressing story).

Ken Wong defined “traditionalist game design” as follows:

    1. game mechanics should be about challenge and skill
    2. games should be about choice and agency
    3. games should be at least a few hours long

However, from the success of Florence, we learned that a good game can be a non-traditional one. Florence is a short game with a great number of audiovisual metaphors reinforcing the emotions. It utilizes whatever simple but effective game mechanics to help tell the story. It doesn’t give you freedom to make a choice and alter the story. It goes against the traditions, but it tells the ordinary story in an extraordinary way.

How can we create positive social experiences in games?

This semester I am working on a semester-long project to create a transformational experience exploring the issue of online toxicity for Games for Change 2020. While 74% of gamers have experienced toxicity in online multiplayer games, I still found that some games succeed to build a positive and friendly community with developers’ effort. Personally I very much value social aspects of MMOs so I looked into these games and tried to find how do they create a positive social experience for their players.

7 years after Journey came out, thatgamecompany released their new game Sky: Children of the Light on iOS in 2019. Rated 4.9/5 in App Store and winning iPhone game of the year for 2019, Sky provides its players with an enchanting flying social adventure. 

Sky: Children of the Light

Friend system and interaction design

In my opinion, Sky builds good social experiences with its unique and well-designed friend system. In the game, you become a friend with another player only if you send her/him a candle (the precious currency in game) and s/he accept your candle.  Player avatars are designed by default gender neutral, and other players cannot see your name — instead, they name you when they friend you. These design choices prevent players from giving personal information out and avoid bias/stereotype towards the player as well as possible passive toxicity deriving from the player (such as insulting user names). After you become friends with another player, you can hold your friend’s hands and follow him/her. Two players moving together enable you to fly much higher and reach places you cannot reach alone. This mechanic encourages trust between players and rewards players with greater power in game. Other available interactions with your friend are shown in a tree with locked nodes. If your friend and you want to talk, you need another three candles to reach and unlock the chatting node in the tree.

A friend tree with Ariyah

The game protects its player from hostile words by raising the bar of chatting (which often costs nothing in some online games). What’s more, the design that any advancement in friendship requires candles and no payback is guaranteed ensures that interactions between players are not driven by their own interests but genuine friendliness.


ENVIRONMENT AND ATOMSPHERE

To maintain good vibes in the game, the pleasing environment created by visuals and audio elements plays an important role as well. In Sky, levels, though some are colorful and some are snowy-white, are very dream-like and resemble the fantastic fairy tale worlds. 

Disney castle like

The association between the dream world on the clouds and peaceful mind and behaviors is made subconsciously when players are flying in the game. Also, since players can hardly talk to strangers, you can interact with strangers by tapping on your own avatar to make a sound that every player in the same space can hear. Other players may tap and echo with you. The sounds are generated following the pentatonic scale, so even if a player keeps tapping again and again, sounds are different, harmonious and not annoying.

Another game in which I had a good time playing and interacting with other people and I think a heartwarming atmosphere is successfully built through good art is Kind Words.  

Kind Words

The game space is just a small cozy room where the main character (i.e. the player) writes requests and responses to other people’s requests. The whole space is painted rosy and warm purple, filled with reassuring music from the radio. What a comforting world to be in! And how would someone under such circumstances be hard-hearted and write bad words to other people?

 

Make developers an example

From my perspective, one of the most effective approaches to encourage positive social behaviors among players is to make the developer themselves a good example. When a new player starts to play Kind Words, the tutorial guides the player through all the features including the inbox. Other players’ responses to your requests will be collected in the inbox so in the beginning the inbox should be empty. However, there is one unread letter from the developers of the game saying “we don’t want your inbox to start empty so we write you this letter and we hope you can do the same to other people”.

Kind letter from the developers

Often we would tell or show players what rewards they could get if they achieve the intended goal (in Kind Words, the goal is to care about others). But in fact, the most powerful incentive we can give our players is to let them experience in person what it is like to be cared about by strangers. It’s much easier for them to empathize once they know how good it feels to receive care. We as game developers want a virtuous cycle of positive interactions among players, then why don’t we start the cycle by inputting kindness to our players?


It’s not easy to create positive social experiences in a game, and I have to admit that the suggestions I mentioned above are not suitable for all kinds of games. But I think if we can reflect on successful cases and find what is effective and helpful for a good community in casual games, it can shed light on the games that are more competitive and intense.

What is the magic behind match-three games?

The Treasures of Montezuma 3

I won’t call myself a “gamer” because I haven’t played many games and in general I am a three-minute passion person. However, the game I have been playing for the longest period of time both on PC or on my phone is match-three games. I started playing “The Treasure of Montezuma 2” when I was in junior high school and played the series for five years until I switched to Macbook. In terms of mobile games, though I have been obsessed with RPG games shortly several times, a match-three game is what I always have in my phone and play for quick simple fun. Realizing this fact, I start to wonder what the magic is behind match-three games that makes my love for it persist.

Low Demanding Game for Everyone

One of the biggest reasons why players come and stay is that match-three games are low demanding both intellectually and temporally. 

The core mechanics of match-three games is to swap, make 3 or more in a row, watch them disappear and score. It makes the barrier to entry low, yet this simple mechanics satisfies people’s primitive desire/need — to turn chaos into order. 

Most of match-three games are level-based, and one level usually only takes less than 5 minutes to finish. I can start a game when I have a period of free time but it’s too short or not suitable for doing something meaningful (e.g. waiting in line, sitting on a bus/shuttle), and I can stop the current level at any time without a severe penalty. In the long term, when I am busy with my work, I cannot commit as much time to games. Compared with those mobile RPG games which keep their players active with live in-game events or grinding, the cost of being AFK is much lower. I won’t miss anything and being AFK won’t ruin my future game experience.

Fancy Feedback

In one of the readings we are assigned in game design class, the theory of player acknowledgement is mentioned. That is, “the game world must acknowledge players every time they perform an action”. Match-three games do well in giving players feedback. When you make a match successfully, you will immediately get feedback from the game. Matched elements will disappear, accompanied by fancy visual effects such as glitters, explosion, the text of points you just earned (often an excessively high number, say, multiples of 100) and delightful sound. If there are combos, all the fancy effects are further intensified and you may even have to wait for seconds for them to finish. Match-three games are very generous with reward for their players. The feedback they provide to their players is much more than what the players input to the game and it gives the players a huge sense of achievement.

Match-three and …

For every plus, there is a minus. A simple mechanics set a low barrier to entry, but players also lose interest quickly if the game is all about the simple mechanics. Therefore, game developers work on improving their match-three games, hoping to build a good interest curve for their players. 

A common solution is to bring in another mechanics or systems as meta-game. For example, what I like the most about The Treasure of Montezuma is its totem power-up system. There are seven totems of different colors, each representing a kind of power-ups in game. For example, the red totem shoots fireballs to eliminate 2 tokens and the orange totem can pause the time temporarily. Players finish levels to get stars that can be used to activate and upgrade totems. Once a totem is activated, players can use it in game by making two matches of tokens in that color in a row. I like this system because it is connected with the core match-three game experience. If I make wise choices when distributing stars to different totem power-ups, I can get a positive feedback by taking advantage of the enhanced power-ups in the next game. I will also be able to improve my performance at previous levels to get more stars and unlock achievements that seemed impossible before. This type of add-in system feels organic and improves game experience in a way of 1+1 > 2.

picture credit: https://store.steampowered.com/app/320690/The_Treasures_of_Montezuma_3/