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
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
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
- Giles Goddard, via Miyamoto
Sweet! So, if I understand this correctly, the steps go like this:
- Create a gameplay garden for experimenting with mechanics, objects, and
- Fiddle around for a few months
- Be Shigeru
- Out pops a masterpiece
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.
The Garden’s Ecosystem
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:
- Input -- How the player can express their intent to the system.
- Response -- How the system processes, modifies, and responds to player input in
- Context -- How constraints give spatial meaning to motion.
- Polish -- The interactive impression of physicality created by the harmony of
animation, sounds, and effects with input-driven motion.
- Metaphor -- The
ingredient that lends emotional meaning to motion and provides familiarity to
mitigate learning frustration.
- Rules -- Application and tweaking of
arbitrary variables that give additional challenge and higher-level meaning to
motion and control.