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Press X to...
by Joe McIntosh on 02/15/12 01:41:00 pm

The following blog post, unless otherwise noted, was written by a member of Gamasutra’s community.
The thoughts and opinions expressed are those of the writer and not Gamasutra or its parent company.


Let’s assume you have played a large number of first person shooter games over the course of your gaming life. You can rest assured that the left stick will move your character, the right stick will aim your weapon, and the right trigger will shoot (if you’re a console gamer). There are other buttons for jumping, running, ducking, switching weapons, and throwing grenades. But the focus of the gameplay is shooting. Some games attempt to make the shooting more immersive or realistic. The Modern Warfare series gives you the ability to shoot from the hip or aim down the scope. Gears of War allows this as well, but added the ability to control how quickly and effectively your reload your weapon. In the end it all boils down to locating the target, aiming well, and killing it before it kills you.

As games become more and more immersive, we start seeing more interactions with the environment and NPCs. There are people to talk to, doors to open, computers to hack, and ropes to climb. I’ve seen some very clever ways for the player to accomplish these things (some of the most fun and interesting in Wii games), but far too often I see a prompt on screen that reads, “Press X to…”

A recent example is during the campaign of Modern Warfare 3 (spoiler alert), where you’re fighting off waves of enemy soldiers while Soap is receiving medical treatment behind you. When the doctor is killed, you’re called on to administer an adrenal shot to Soap. So you finish off a few more bad guys, run over to Soap, and press X to give the shot.

What’s the point of it? I wasn’t on the design team, but I can make a few guesses…

  • It breaks up the monotony of “aim, shoot, duck, aim, shoot, duck”.
  • It segues to the next area.
  • It reminds the player why they’re fighting off waves of bad guys – you’re protecting someone, you’re not storming a fortress.
  • It shows that soldiers should be capable of saving lives in addition to taking them.
  • It conveys information about the character you’re playing (Yuri, in this scene) – Yuri is knowledgeable in advanced trauma life support.
  • It adds dramatic tension – not only are you responsible for defending your position, suddenly you have the additional responsibility of performing a very specific action in order to sustain the life of the person you’ve been fighting to protect.

When Price yells, “The doctor’s been hit! Yuri, get over here and give him the shot!” there is stress on the player to stop what they’re currently doing to address an immediate need. When the player gets to the table and presses X, that stress is relieved as Yuri goes through the animation of administering the shot. The player sighs in relief and gets ready for the next firefight.

That stress, or tension, could have been sustained and even heightened if you as a player were responsible for more than just pressing X. Maybe there are multiple syringes to choose from and you need to pick the correct one. Maybe you need to aim at the spot on Soap’s chest where you want the needle to go. Maybe you have to push a button to puncture the chest, and then another button for the plunger to push the adrenaline through, and then release the first button to pull the needle out.

For Infinity Ward, pressing X is enough to accomplish the six bullet point listed above. Their audience wants to aim, shoot, and duck. An elaborate mini-game or quick-time event such as this could only prove to frustrate players, causing them to ask, “How am I supposed to know how to do this?” In MW3, you don’t need to know how to do this; you just need to know where the X button is. Press X when you’re told and you can get back to aiming, shooting, and ducking.

There was a point to this. Let’s see if I can get to it.

There is a lot of buzz about simulated learning environments, serious games, and the video game generation. Education and industry are trying to capitalize on a medium with which their audience is already familiar. The mindset seems to be, “People are already playing games. Let’s make those games both fun and educational!” The misconception is that people are familiar with playing games, and already know how to maneuver in virtual space. The truth is people are familiar with certain types of games and their respective conventions for interaction with very specific virtual worlds.

A challenge that a “serious game” developer will face is the issue of conveyance, and it’s two-fold. Not only are you teaching the user how to perform a specific task (how to administer an adrenaline shot), you’re also teaching the user how to play the game (how to make your character on screen administer an adrenaline shot). To further complicate things, the game must effectively use the controls to simulate (or emulate) the steps in whatever task is being taught. You’re not trying to teach a series of button presses or mouse clicks. The ultimate goal is to teach the task, and well enough to benefit the user in a real-world scenario.

I’m looking forward to seeing how developers will address this challenge, and excited to have an opportunity to put in my two cents. New controls schemes will be born, gameplay will become more intuitive, and video games will become more than “just games”. We’re already seeing advances in motion controls with Kinect integration and the Wii Motion Plus controllers. Next we’ll be dealing with haptic feedback devices, and maybe a power glove that actually works.

At least I hope so…

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Craig Ellsworth
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I think much of it boils down to the fact that controllers were created first to cater to one specific game in an arcade cabinet (Pong, etc.), and when home consoles came out, the controllers emulated what was in arcades. When cartridge-based consoles came out, they had to address the problem of creating a controller than could function for multiple games. Atari's solution was one button and one joystick. Many other companies had much more complex controls, with discs, number pads, switches, and all other manner of buttons. These all died out and Atari reigned supreme, because complex controllers like that were too much to handle (especially for such simple games that didn't really need them).

Now the common Sony and Microsoft controllers simply have more buttons and sticks, and only added triggers, which are really just buttons that sink in differently when pressed. They evolved from just two types of input, and almost every other incarnation of new and unique input to come out was a failure.

But Nintendo always has cared much more about experimenting with control schemes than linearly increasing processing power, so they come up with the Wii, which grew from many of their old products, from the Zapper to the Power Glove. Nintendo cares about how players interact with the game, and want to encourage new and interesting forms of interaction.

Creating new forms of interaction in turn opens up new avenues for not just minigames, but videogame genres. One reason shooters are so popular is because a controller can emulate shooting with ease. It is much harder to emulate injecting someone with a needle with a controller (although I can certainly think of more ways than "Press X").

With the popularity of Wii, Sony jumped in with the Move and Microsoft even topped that with the Kinect, so we will hopefully be seeing much more interesting interactivity in upcoming consoles. I think we've worn out pressing buttons, and we'll be seeing a massive shift in the way we interact with games in the future. I wouldn't be surprised at all if the Xbox 720 uses a Kinect-like piece of hardware as its primary form of interaction.

Joe McIntosh
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Thanks for the reply, Craig.

I definitely like the path Nintendo has taken. The wii-mote is much better at adapting to emulating different actions. One might end up with a closet full of peripheral plastic cases shaped like steering wheels, guns, tennis rackets, etc.; but the wand and nunchuk can stand alone very well playing first and third person genres.

Part of me thinks you might be right about Xbox 720 & motion sensors as the primary controller. I've seen "newbie" gamers use the Kinect motion controller with only mild hesitation, and they get the hang of it quickly. There is a lot of potential for deeper immersion into a game when you're moving more than just your thumbs and trigger finger, and this also lends itself to emulate practically any action that requires limb movement.

Another part of me is worried that motion games will become a smaller niche, since *arguably* there is an appeal to many gamers in the ability to sit lazily on a couch and play for hours on end without having to stop to catch one's breath. I realize that this is a stereotype, but it became a stereotype for a reason.

Regarding serious games and training exercises, motion controllers seem like the obvious choice for practicing hands-on tasks. It's easier to distribute learning objects on mobile devices or over the web, but I suppose another option would be to install a Kinect-like system in the classroom and make it available to students.