Hey there everybody, Joey here. Today I'm going to start talking a little bit about indirect controls and how we, as designers, can layer them to keep players immersed in virtual worlds.
At some point during my (multiple) forays through Dragon Age: Origins, I chanced upon a Dragon Age Wiki article that insisted that there was an "ideal" order in which to experience the content presented in DAO. As all of you fellow DAO fans out there probably noticed, trying to go to Orzammar to see what the dwarves are up to right out of Lothering is... difficult. There's a bounty hunter encounter placed in the mountain path leading to the gates of the dwarf capital that was designed intentionally to be difficult for novice players with low level parties. The idea behind placing such an encounter directly in the player's path was to "funnel" new players toward different segments of the game.
This is an excellent example of an indirect control.
The coolest thing about videogames, the thing that at the end of the day separates them from other forms of entertainment, is that they give their audiences the opportunity to actively participate in the action. Hence we play games rather than simply watching or reading them. Obvious, right? Well, the problem is that giving players a taste of this coveted self-determination, or agency, can be a huge problem when it comes to injecting narrative into games. I'm on a Bioware roll, so I'm just going to run with it. Imagine that in Mass Effect 2 you could do quite literally anything you wanted. If you wanted Mr. or Mrs. Commander Shepherd to join the Reapers and play your own sinister hand in conquering the galaxy, go right ahead.
Okay, that sounds pretty cool. Maybe not the best example.
Imagine instead that you decided that playing the hero wasn't your cup of tea and you would rather open up an intergalactic plumbing service. Re-outfit the Normandy with roto-somethings, get Seth Green a pair of green overalls, the whole deal. Sure, now the players can officially do whatever they want, but the tradeoff is that it's really hard for Bioware to maintain those carefully crafted narratives that we all love so much. Not to mention Bioware's production costs would be through the roof - the more choices you allow for the player, the more assets you have to create and the bigger your budget gets.
So we all agree that freedom of choice is what makes games so great in the first place, but we can also agree (I hope) that there are some seriously realistic downsides to trying to give the player total free rein. So what can we as designers do to strike a nice balance?
Enter indirect controls.
Skipping back over to my DAO example, Bioware tries to give the player a feeling of choice in how they progress through the game's content by making it seem as though they can go wherever they want from the get-go. Technically they can (and more experienced players do) but the first time through the game new players will find themselves running into tough encounters and deciding to come back to that area later when their parties have more experience, better gear, etc. The best part is that Bioware has gotten the player to do exactly what they wanted them to and the player thinks that the whole decision was their idea. It's almost Machiavellian in its execution.
Those of us who have been around games for a while know the kind of sneaky things that game designers will get up to in order to indirectly control players. Some people, especially those who have a deep appreciation for the open world/sandbox game don't particularly like it. After all, isn't the point of being dropped into a sandbox to do basically whatever you want? Bethesda heard the cries of their diehard sandboxers and made a special effort to remove difficult, funnelling encounters of the DAO variety from Fallout 3. When you play FO3, the first time you enter a new 'zone,' the game automatically scales the levels of the enemies that you'll be encountering there to your current level and freezes them there. That way, whichever order you enter the different zones in you'll never be funnelled by difficult encounters. Total freedom of movement. Right?
While Bethesda might have gotten rid of encounters as indirect controls, they have a tendency to do something even more nefarious and subliminal. Recall exiting the vault for the first time. What do you see? The exit of the vault is oriented so that immediately before you is a road and in the far-off distance you can see the top of the ruined Washington monument. So not only do you have a line on the ground that implicitly tells you where to go, there's also this big, interesting set piece pulling your attention along that road and straight ahead. Because we're human, the first thing that players think is something akin to "Oooh. Shiny." and we make a beeline to the big, gorgeous, vista-dominating object off in the distance. So if the vault is point A, and the Washington Monument is point C, can you FO3 vets out there guess what point B is? Located almost on a straight line between the exit of the vault and the Washington Monument is the town of Megaton, an early quest hub, and the location of some of the first story triggers in the sandbox part of the game.
Do you absolutely have to go to Megaton right away? Nope. No one's forcing you to. There's no world geometry forming a hallway between here and there. Some players, especially veterans on the second playthrough and up, will do a 180 out of the vault and take off in the other direction. But most players follow the road on the way to the Capitol Wasteland and wind up in Megaton without even realizing that some fairly rudimentary psychology is working against their freedom.
This discussion is running a little bit longer than I thought it would, so I've decided to chop this post in two. In summary, game designers commonly use indirect controls to help players move through open-world games without breaking their feeling of freedom or ruining the narrative progression. I've listed only a couple of examples above and in reality there are a ton of different ways to get the job done. The cool thing is that by combining a lot of indirect controls together you can have your players jumping through all kinds of hoops without them even realizing that the hoops are there.
In many ways, the intelligent, artful use of indirect controls is like carefully editing a movie - when it's done right, the audience doesn't notice a thing. Oftentimes it can be the difference between a good game a great one.
That's all for today, true believers. I'll continue this discussion next week with a look at light vs. hard indirect control methods and effective layering practices.
Stay safe and keep the faith.