It’s intangible, below the surface, on the tips of fingers and the tips of tongues. It’s been with us since the beginning, since Pong, Spacewar!, and what came before.
The tactile sensation of manipulating a digital agent. The thing that makes your mom lean in her chair as she plays Rad Racer. Proxied embodiment. Game feel.
However you describe it, it’s hard to deny that the sensation of controlling a digital object is one of the most powerful -- and overlooked -- phenomena ever to emerge from the intersection of people and computers.
There are lots reasons for this, but the main one is that game feel is slippery. It’s mostly subconscious, a combination of sights, sounds, and instant response to action. It’s one of those ‘know it when you feel it’ kinds of things. If it’s off by just a little bit, a game’s goose is cooked. If it’s “responsive”, “tight”, and “deep”, it can be magical.
As a canonical example, consider Super Mario 64. The feel of steering Mario around in Super Mario 64 fills me, to this day, with thoughtless joy. Especially in Bomb-Omb Battlefield where there’s very little pressure or structure, I love to just run and bounce and spin, experiencing the sheer kinetic joy of controlling Mario. Control, intent, and instructions flow from me into the game as quickly as I can think.
Feedback returns just as quickly, letting me adjust and fine-tune my instructions. When a game feels like this I’m hooked, ready to spend endless hours discovering every nook and cranny. Considering the near-universal reverence for Mario 64 among both players and creators of video games -- to say nothing of the millions of copies it sold -- I think it’s safe to say I’m not alone in enjoying the feel of Mario 64. As a developer, though, I have to wonder: wherein lies the magic? What’s behind the curtain? A huge part of it is the feel.
After all, what you spend most of your time doing while playing Mario 64?
• 20-something hours: completing the game, defeating Bowser, getting all 120
• Every hour or two: completing a ‘boss’ battle
• Every half an hour: getting access to a new area or painting
• Every 5 minutes or so: completing an objective, getting a star
• Moment to Moment: steering around, running, jumping, performing acrobatic maneuvers
Breaking the game down by “granules” this way, it seems that Mario 64 is a game about feel. The thing you spend most of your time doing is moving Mario around, interacting through the controller at a tactile, kinesthetic level. It’s the fundamental activity of Super Mario 64 and it feels great. It has its quirks and input ambiguities, but this sensation is the foundation the rest of the game sits on.
“Before any of the levels had been created Mr. Miyamoto had Mario running around and picking up objects in a small ‘garden’ which he uses in all his games to test gameplay elements. “A lot of the animation was actually in there before any of the game” explains Goddard. “The Mario that he had running around basically looked the same as he did in the final version. Mario’s movement is based on good physics, but you have bits on top that you plug in so you can do things you shouldn’t be able to do. They spent a lot of time working on the swimming, it’s harder than running to get the feeling right, they didn’t want you to avoid the water, the wanted to make it an advantage and fun to dive in.”
- Giles Goddard, via Miyamoto Shrine
Sweet! So, if I understand this correctly, the steps go like this:
Smarm aside, you could certainly do worse than to emulate the approach of Shigeru Miyamoto. Clearly, creating brilliant game feel is extremely, exquisitely, maddeningly difficult. It's clear because there’d be a hell of a lot more great games if it weren't -- or, at least, great-feeling games. Something happens along the way, in the game development process, which causes games to take their eye off the prize, to lose focus on their primary interface with the player. Feel becomes an afterthought, especially in games which take three, four, or five years to make.
It’s easy to think “oh, hey, well, we’ll get to do a bunch of polishing at the end” and leave it at that. The problem with this thinking is that the feel of a game -- the thing the player will spend the most time experiencing -- is given a backseat in the production of the game. If your player is going to spend most of her time steering and controlling the avatar, experiencing a sense physicality and control, shouldn’t the amount of time you spend on that feeling be commensurate? From the beginning of preproduction until the final game ships, design should include game feel. Game feel needs prototyping too, a test that approximates the final, polished feel of interacting with the game, with all the trimmings. Here’s one stab at breaking it down a little further, at how to prototype for game feel.
As an approach, creating an experimental garden or playground in which to test a developing mechanic and game feel is an arresting notion. The trick is not to allow the problems of game feel to become intertwined with the problems of the design as a whole. Here is one possible way to separate the pieces of game feel to make them a bit more manageable: