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The Designer's Notebook: The Act - Emotion Control with Single-Knob Gameplay

April 1, 2005

Two weeks ago I was privileged to watch a new kind of gameplay being born... or perhaps a very old one being reborn. No, I'm not talking about Will Wright's bombshell announcement at the Game Developers' Conference. This is something simpler, and very different. But first, a little backstory.

Omar Khudari is one of those game industry people you don't hear much about. He's a successful entrepreneur who used his business acumen (and wise choice of partners) to build a multi-million dollar company, sold it, and quietly disappeared into obscurity for a while. The company was Papyrus Design Group, which for many years created the most realistic hardcore racing simulations on the market. Omar's partner, Dave Kaemmer, supplied the passion for racing, and Omar the commercial know-how and managerial skill.

I first met Omar when we were at college together, and I had one of my most important gaming experiences while playing a computer game with him. He was actually with me the night I got spooked playing the original text-based Adventure, as described in my earlier column "How to be Weird." This was the first time I had ever experienced an emotion (other than triumph or dejection) while playing a computer game. Adventure was simple and crude by modern standards, but if you have a vivid imagination and you play it very late at night in a vast silent building, it can still scare you.

Enter Edgar the window-washer.

Although he was required by circumstances to be an executive, Omar has always been a game designer at heart. Ever since that night at the computer center, and all through the Papyrus days, he has wanted to explore the issue of emotion in computer games - and above all, to explore it in a simple, accessible way. Now he's getting his chance.

Omar's new company is called Cecropia (pronounced "se-KRO-pia"). They're making a coin-op game about emotion, controlled by the earliest of videogame input devices, a single knob. They call their game a "filmgame." It's an animated cartoon built by highly experienced ex-Disney animators, still working with pencil and paper in the traditional manner. The characters aren't gawky mo-capped 3D models whose polygons are showing; they're beautifully drawn 2D people whose feelings and state of mind are visible in every frame - true personality animation. They're charming, tough, sexy, aggressive, sweet, goofy, and just plain fun to watch.

The game is called The Act, a reference to its dramatic nature and the fact that the player "gets into the act." Here's how it works. Edgar, a window-washer several stories up on the outside of a hospital, sees Sylvia, a beautiful nurse, through a window he's cleaning. He starts to fantasize about meeting Sylvia in a Casablanca-style nightclub. After some introductory footage, the game becomes interactive. The object of the first level is to help Edgar to get Sylvia's attention and persuade her to dance with him in the nightclub. By turning the knob, you control how direct Edgar's approach is. Go too far, and Edgar will pounce on Sylvia, causing her to walk off in disgust. Be too timid, and Sylvia gets bored and leaves. Use a delicate touch, and she responds well. Since time keeps moving forward, it requires a good sense of control and timing - classic precision-oriented gameplay with a completely new objective.

The Act isn't all about flirting, though. After the first act, Edgar returns to his window-washing and goes through a wacky series of adventures, each requiring the player to control Edgar's responses to emotionally tricky situations. At one point he has to successfully impersonate a doctor without getting caught; at another he's trying to calm Sylvia down when she's about ready to clobber him.

Pre-rendered animation has been done before in coin-op games, but this is no Dragon's Lair. In Dragon's Lair you had to make split-second yes-or-no decisions with few clues about which was right. The wrong decision meant instant death. In The Act, you're not making binary decisions but trying to control a situation with skill and finesse. The control mechanic has more in common with a driving game than a shooter, but the theme is unrelated to either. If you blow it, you lose a life and the game rewinds to the beginning of the scene for you to try again. Since this is a coin-op game, you get the traditional three chances. If you make it through all eight acts, you've won the game. Cecropia's business model depends on supplying new stories for the machines at regular intervals to keep people coming back.

Single-knob gameplay goes all the way back to Pong, of course, but what Cecropia is doing with it is like nothing else I've ever seen. The characters have dozens of animations, any of which can be triggered by the right combination of circumstances in the drama - and of course they have to merge seamlessly together. Among the tools Cecropia has created to help them build the game is an animation database called Flow. Flow documents the relationships among the sequences, and also tracks the progress of drawing, scanning, coloring, and formal sign-off on each sequence. At any point, Omar can log into the database, watch the sequences that have been created so far, and make sure the transitions are seamless.

You might think that designing a game around one single input device is horribly restrictive. After Pong, later machines adopted more complex controllers, permitting richer gameplay: first 8-way joysticks, then analog joysticks, and of course buttons, buttons, and more buttons. Things have gotten to the point where there are almost too many buttons on a modern controller - a fact which, I believe, tends to put newbie players off. Since The Act is a coin-op game aimed at grown-ups (it'll probably go into bars and clubs, not arcades), Omar wants it to be as obvious and accessible as possible. He treats the single input device as a design challenge - one of those limitations that tends to provoke creativity. For one thing, the knob in The Act behaves differently in different acts of the game. Sometimes you're manipulating Edgar's courage, sometimes his sense of humor, and so on. Even within a single act, the way the characters respond to turning the knob varies depending on how they're feeling at that precise moment.

And in fact an analog knob is not really as restrictive as you might think. In addition to its raw position, you can measure its speed and acceleration. You can detect whether it's moving backward or forward, and compare that to what it was doing earlier. You can perform Fourier transforms on the data you get (it is after all cyclic!) though what you might do the results I don't know. The knob itself can produce results on a linear or a logarithmic scale, or be subject to any number of other mathematical transformations.

You can even store up the input values and intentionally respond to them half a second late. This introduces a sense of inertia and produces what an old boss of mine use to call the "jelly steering wheel." A jelly steering wheel isn't really desirable most of the time - players expect instant response - but it's accurate for the behavior of certain things like small aircraft. An airplane isn't a car, with high-friction rubber on asphalt implementing the steering decisions. Instead, it uses air flowing over its control surfaces, and that takes longer to affect the motion of the plane. This isn't so noticeable at high speeds, but at low ones it's quite obvious and good flight simulators implement it accurately.

I suggested to Omar that another possible scenario for his engine is bargaining, something I have experienced but am not very good at. Taxis in Cairo, for example, are unmetered, so every trip is a negotiation. You say where you want to go; the taxi driver names a ridiculous price; you name a lower one, they name a higher one, and so on until you meet somewhere in the middle. I have discovered through painful experience that if you come back with a price less than half of what they ask, they get offended - it amounts to an accusation that they're ripping you off. Cut their price in half or a smidgeon more, and both of you are satisfied. But it's not just a question of proposing numbers; there's a whole social dance that goes it - protesting, gesticulating, pretending to walk away, and so on - all of which would make excellent animations for Omar's artists.

Edgar the Casanova strikes in the Casablanca-like sequence.

Another strong point about The Act is that it has no words, so you never get the repetitive dialog that destroys suspension of disbelief so quickly. Everything is done with images and music, and even the music is interactive, so the player gets audible as well as visual feedback. Interestingly, The Act is one of those stories in which the overall arc is linear - the sequence of acts is always the same - but the gameplay within each act is not as linear as it seems. The game is a simulation, after all. The approach you choose at the beginning of each act will affect how you have to play the rest of it.

The whole idea is a gamble, and Omar knows it. Do adults want to play coin-op games? Do they want to play coin-op games that are non-violent romantic comedies, rather than just shooters and drivers? What are the best locations to install such a game, and how much should it cost? There are a thousand variables. Even the design of the case is a tricky problem: it needs to attract neophyte players, and men and women equally, something that most coin-ops don't worry about. The game drew big crowds at the recent Amusement Showcase International show in Chicago, partly because it looked so different from every other game on the floor. Let's hope that translates into big crowds around it in the bar.

I'm impressed by the imagination, vision, and talent of the folks at Cecropia, but I'm even more impressed by their willingness to take a risk on a new idea. Cecropia isn't trying to find the ultimate answer to the question of emotion in gameplay, but they've found one answer, and a very different one from any other I've seen.


For more information on the start-up's ethos and goals, Gamasutra previously covered Cecropia in a December 2004 profile of the company.

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