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Physics in Games: A New Gameplay Frontier
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Physics in Games: A New Gameplay Frontier

December 4, 2007 Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

Providing the gamer with a powerful learning mechanism

Playing is not an activity reserved to mankind. It is a mechanism of discovery and learning that had been developed by nature well before Homo Sapiens descended from their trees. Playing is learning. Of course this mechanism applies to our own games. The gamers learn in a FPS to anticipate their opponents' reactions and to evaluate the power of a weapon, for instance.

How do they do it? By exploring their game environment and by testing it, for example by using the available weapons and evaluating the results. It is thus possible to teach the gamers how to use tools they do not know. But this mechanism becomes much less efficient when the cause-effect relationship is not obvious. You've seen this in certain puzzles that do not respond to our logic but rather to that of the game designer that created them.

Physics is especially suitable for this kind of self-learning mechanism, since we know how it works in the real world. Thus, we instinctively know how the forces of gravity and fluid physics will influence a spilled liquid. Providing the gamers with gameplay that relies on physics enables them to find their own solutions to complex problems.

Think this is just hazy theory? Let's look at a few applications. In Half-Life 2 several moving puzzles lie on a well-known mechanism: buoyancy -- or its absence -- of certain objects. The gamer thus uses the positive buoyancy of barrels to make a heavy object float or, on the contrary, takes advantage of the mass of the metal pieces to make a floating object sink.

In the PC version of GRAW 2 developed by the Swedish studio Grin, gamers can get rid of opponents entrenched in a tower by causing its fall. Finally, let's consider the example of Switchball. In this puzzle game, some of the puzzles are solved by using balls of different densities. A player quickly discovers that too light a ball does not have enough energy to make its way through some obstacles.

A physical game environment would allow the player to use his or her initiative and spirit. The player can find solutions by using his or her own real-life experience.

Let's project ourselves ahead into the future and figure out what a level designer with a physical game environment available could accomplish. Imagine that a gamer is blocked by a group of opponents solidly entrenched behind a barricade. What solutions could he or she come up with to pass?

The falling of a tree or a building could crush opponents, a large cylindrical object could be moved by the player who would then be able to push it to make a mobile rampart, a vehicle could be freed along a slope in order to be used as a ram, a vehicle could explode so that the smoke column mask the player's movements. All these solutions derive from the simple observation of the environment and from our innate understanding of what is possible in the real world.

Letting players build their own tools

Physics enables the distortion of objects such as plates, hoses or beams. It is therefore imaginable to allow the gamer to shape them according to his or her needs. Thus, by distorting metal sheets, a player can build watercourses or ball paths. A skillfully cut canvas could act as roofing or veil within a survival simulation. The frailness of certain materials such as branches enables the building of traps by covering a hole with the respective materials. The flexibility features of a steel blade or board enable the building of a primitive catapult.

Such applications of physics would probably be limited to certain kinds of games such as puzzles or survival games. In fact, the interface would have to be adapted. But the fun potential of the game could be huge. Imagine a building game where each brick is designed with physical features. The gamer could build a totally unique game environment.


Physics is extremely demanding in terms of resources and some of the ideas that I have developed here are not currently achievable -- but the advances in the tools and technologies are foreseeable, giving us the power in the future. From now on, gameplay can be improved with uses that are not just cosmetic. The development of dynamic game environments that the player can change on the fly is already a trend in today's level design. Physics makes this evolution possible.

Near future technologies will astonish us and provide us with the power increase. The ball will then be in the court of the game and level designers who will then have to take this advantage we need to bring new experiences to the gamer.


I would like to thank the following persons for their contribution:

David Black

Hervé Vazeilles

James Dolan

Jean-Pierre Bordes

Majdi Kraiem

Monier Maher

Philippe Geldard

Article Start Previous Page 4 of 4

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