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Layering Indirect Controls to Preserve Immersion (Part One)
by Joey Gibbs on 08/21/11 12:14:00 am   Featured Blogs

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.


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.

Another example.

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.


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Christoph Kryspin
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Interesting. Want moar!

Martain Chandler
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I haven't played DAO. Is it obvious to new players that the hunter encounter is tough or do they figure it out after they get their ass kicked? If it's the latter, then I would suggest it is a bad example of indirect controls.

Joey Gibbs
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It's just a medium check - a strong nudge in the other direction. If I recall correctly, I bashed my face against the keyboard until I managed to beat the encounter and just kept going. But that's the point of using indirect controls - if they really wanted to keep me going in one direction over another, they could have made the encounter impossible at a low level, or else put a wall there.

Nick Witsel
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Interesting. An example I always found quite nicely done was the Red Mountain region in TES III: Morrowind (also made by bethesda). Right from the start, the villagers and lore do nothing but warn you of red mountain's dangerous theats, and how the temple went through the trouble of creating an entire forcefield around the region, just so nothing could get in or out without going through a heavily guarded gate. Even the quests that have you visit the area, insist you get out there as soon as possible once you get there. It doesn't help that the area is roaming with nasty critters that could kill your level 5 adventurer with a simple sneeze. Now, what makes all of this so interesting, is that at the heart of Red Mountain lies the game's main end boss, and if succesfully killed will end the game's main quest prematurely. There are actually videos of this being done on the web, but to get back on track: I think Bethesda Softworks did a great job at indirectly guiding the player on their journey, yet still giving us a sense of freedom and control over our actions.

Joey Gibbs
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Yup. Hence 7.5 minutes Morrowind runs:

In Morrowind you really only have that one critical narrative path goal - kill the end boss and the game's over. Everything else is really just auxiliary content. But the game makes you THINK you have to do everything else...

Mattie Brice
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I apparently didn't take the hint in DA:O. I went to Redcliffe first, but then did Haven and Orgrimmar. I just assumed I need to be extremely careful with my tactics with those funneling battles, and I was able to get past them. In hindsight, I should have thought "Hmm, maybe I shouldn't be here..." but took it as a challenge instead. While I imagine indirect controls are necessary, I find that their use in games that proclaim to be about choice and freedom to be a bit of a conflict. The issue lies more in the buzz-words of 'choice' and 'freedom' and how the industry has used that to attract and appease players more than indirect controls, so it might be getting to an advertising stage where there's no need to 'trick' the player anymore.

Joey Gibbs
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My favorite part about that whole "choice" and "freedom" thing in DAO is the "Wide Open World" option on the map. The world map functions essentially like the star chart in ME and ME2 - pick point and *poof* you're there. Not exactly what I would call "wide open."

Not that I'm knocking DAO. I love that game like a fat kid loves cake. It's just a good example.

Jonathan Lawn
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I've only just picked up FO3 and, perhaps because I play more FPSs than RPGs, I thought the road looked like a horribly exposed position. I therefore skirted right, and then got side-tracked by the opportunities (and enemies) in a school. It took a while before I came across Megaton. Maybe I'm not typical, but perhaps that's an example of the difference between designing for people used to your genre and for a wider audience, and why you really need to get a wide range of testers in!