Electron Dance
31Aug/1919

Discussion: Into the Green

Welcome to the August newsletter (sign up if you want to read it):

But not every day could be spent exploring the City of London, so some days were spent meandering through local parks. However, our new companions had not been trained in the art of walking-fu and needed a concrete goal for any adventure. Fortunately, they had already solved this problem and brought it with them on the plane.

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  1. Ha, okay that “hitherto” should have been “henceforth”.

  2. re: your twete

    I had the same NOOOOO reaction when I saw Cold Gate but once I got rolling I found it not so bad. YMMV of course.

  3. When I was looking through these cold levels first time, I had no instinct. I think I might have done one possibly two of them? I shuffled through the levels one after another, had a little go, and got nowhere. Then I saw Cold Gate and I was like, Fuck That For A Game Of Soldiers.

    During the current run, I seem to have a much deeper appreciation of the mechanics and can also stop and stare out the levels. So I’m expecting Cold Gate to submit to my thinky-brain soon enough!

  4. Hi, first off, I’m so sorry about The Symptom. It sucks that it’s happening to you, and it sucks that the NHS isn’t better equipped to deal with it in a timely fashion. It’s impressive that you’ve been able to figure out some ways to live with it.

    So this made me question a lot of geocaching stuff. There are two other problems with collectibles that I can see:
    1) Finding them is usually elementary. When you get close to the collectible, the icon hovers directly over the object to be collected. There is no challenge or thought that goes into actually *finding* it once you get close to it, you’re directed to it.
    2) Collectibles are boring. They just add a number to the “collected” count.

    Geocaches seem to solve those two problems:
    1) I imagine geocache location data is not 100% accurate to the centimeter. That means there must be an element of searching for the geocache once you reach its location, which means there is a process of excitedly looking around and studying everything, hence the “finding treasure” comparison you made.
    2) Although some geocaches contain lollipops (bleh) or notes from people who took the loot (boring), many contain trinkets, which is kind of magical. “I wonder where this thing came from! Who owned this chess piece?” You have a trophy to remind you that you went on this adventure.

    Perhaps if game designers leaned into these aspects they could make collectibles better? (Not “perfect”, I’m sure they can always cause players to collectible-hunt in a boring way, but at least an improvement.) I always found the treasure chests in Assassin’s Creed: Black Flag fun to hunt down, because you had to actually look at a rough sketch of an area and try to figure out what it was telling you. Much more engaging than just following a marker and pressing X at the end.

  5. Thanks James. The difficulty is being able to figure out how much of what you’re dealing with is actually mental – stress and worry – and excerbating it. Having lived with it for a while, it’s getting easier to manage the worry thus it becomes more bearable. It’s the anxiety which is exhausting; reducing the anxiety means I’m able to do more. We were able to shoot Side by Side despite it harassing me throughout the filming.

    Geocaches! You’re right that geocache locations only really give you an approximate location and part of the fun is trying to find them given limited directions. You can usually dip into hints if you’re really stuck but ideally you’re literally meant to hunt for it.

    But, yeah, the geocache is anything but a simple collectible. You can see NMS trying to do something with players dropping message balloons everywhere, giving remote locations some meaning through player interaction. Perhaps game designers can reverse the process and think about where geocaches have an edge over cooker cutter collectibles.

    However, to be irritatingly realistic about it… collectibles are a relatively cheap addition to games, although some do make them the target of mini-quests. So, bearing in mind some games have hundreds of collectibles, I fear that anything that makes them more costly may be a non-starter. I’m not against it on principle – although, again, the danger of weaponising exploration against explorers remains present. I like your Black Flag example, sounds fun! I’ve never played an Ass Creed in me ‘ol life.

  6. One of the few things I didn’t love about Neon Struct was that the collectibles were called Geocaches while being exactly like collectibles and not at all like Geocaches. No approximate guide to the location, no detailed hunt once you were nearby and above all no sense (as you describe) of being initiated into a world-behind-the-world. Other things in the game did have that sense, but the ‘Geocaches’ not so.

  7. The thing for me with collectibles, they’re either something to tempt me into trying to get somewhere, like the trinkets in VVVVVV, or something unique that perhaps comes with a narrative nugget (A Hat In Time or Psychonauts), concept artwork or 3D model unlocks (Mario + Rabbids, Doom (2016)), or some other intriguing or surprising thing, like the musical collectibles in Samorost 3. I’ve time for either of those things, but when they’re just the same item to nudge a percentage up or x out of x, and they’re not even interesting to reach or find, it doesn’t make me want to try.

    I don’t think this falls into collectible territory but your newsletter reminded me of it: Sea of Thieves has you chasing treasure chests, boxes of spices and tea leaves, magical skulls, pigs, chickens, snakes and other valuable objects but they’re just there as things to trade in for coin to pimp your pirate and your boat. You don’t ever open the chests. The clever thing with Sea of Thieves though is there’s riddles and visual clues and X’s on maps marking the spots and messages in bottles washed up on beaches but very little in the way of UI clutter telling you what to do and where to go. It’s very hands-off and requires you and your crew to work stuff out. There’s this constant tension though between trying to make your next trip to port as lucrative as possible and the dread of being assailed by other pirates (and other stuff) and having your spoils stolen. The game is the treasure, which in turn is the pirate bait that fuels all the game’s drama. It’s a really simple but fascinating core concept.

    However, folding that back into one of your newsletter thoughts: Sea of Thieves’ world had (has? I don’t know, it’s been a long time since I’ve played it and there have been a lot of updates since!) a lot of spaces that felt like they were home to secrets and other exciting stuff but were just empty. This was disappointing but the moments leading up to it were thrilling. “Where does this cave go?!” “I wonder what’s down here!” Sometimes you’d get a nice little environmental detail but rarely much more.

    Next time you’re over for Side by Side, I should try and take you to my old childhood stomping grounds and see if we can find what my grandad used to call ‘The Bogey Hole’. I was never able to find it without him but I’m sure we could now, as adults, right? I kind of don’t even want to hint at what it is or think what state it’s in now or whether it’s even accessible any more.

  8. Phlebas!

    I’ve played exactly one level of Neon Struct so I can’t really comment from a position of knowledge. But it does sound like a little bit of a crime to turn “geocaches” into an arbitrary collectible!

    Gregg!

    My experiences in ye olde games were very much like that. You always felt hidden places had to have a reason, a secret, a something, that gave the place a point. It’s only in recent times that I’ve managed to get away from that Pavlovian response. Although in a game that’s typically full of stuff it is very difficult to enjoy the mere existence of an empty space.

    You do make me want to play Sea of Thieves though, although as you know I find it incredibly difficult to find the time to play with Online Buddies I know the Little Harbour Master loves Sea of Thieves (he played at a friend’s house). Who knows, maybe we’ll get our own band together…

  9. I’m also frightened to ask about what the hell The Bogey Hole is.

    There isn’t a murderous clown in it, right?

  10. Neon Struct’s geocaches are objects hidden throughout the level with no hints of where they are (so very different to, say, Assassin’s Creed’s collectibles), so you have to explore the level thoroughly to discover them all. (Here the “3/5 found” acts to tell you whether or not you’ve found all of them, ie. if your exploration has been thorough enough). I never like exhausting a level like that, though, so I never got round to finding even half of them.

    If they’d had approximate locations, like real geocaches, then I might have been tempted. Especially if they had weird trinkets inside.

  11. So Eurogamer turned 20 this week, which considering this is the internet era is some feat. They’ve been posting some retrospective stuff and an excellent old article on cheevos by John Teti caught my eye. This excerpt seems to jive pretty strongly with your thoughts on collectibles, and I think really gets to the bone on what all this behavioural psychology reward-pellet stuff was going to do, and subsequently did, to the medium:

    “According to Hecker, the research shows that when you offer people a reward for completing an “interesting” task – a wonk-ish term for something a person might want to do anyway – their motivation tends to goes down.

    For instance, studies showed that when kids were offered free pizza for reading books, they actually ended up reading less, not more. One theory is that when there’s a reward, our brains perceive all the pleasure as coming from that big bonus at the end, so whatever we’re doing to get there seems less enjoyable as a result.

    The flip side of the research is that rewards motivate people pretty well for “dull” tasks – rote stuff like data entry. Hecker’s fear is that as developers engineer games with more effective Achievement systems, they’re actually building duller games.”

    He does mention later ways in which achievements can be a force for good – signposting ways of playing that might not occur to the player, growing the sum of experiences that the game can offer, rather than simply showering a dampening praise on the player for something they were going to do anyway. I guess geocaching is a bit like that, maybe?

    https://eurogamer-20.netlify.com/2010/index.html

  12. CA

    Did you just throw down the gauntlet of a “survive for twenty years” achievement on this site? Well, next year Electron Dance will be halfway there…

    When I wrote the original Into the Black, I discovered the research about the “overjustification effect” after posting, thus it gets a hastily added “addendum”. I made this the centrepiece of the argument when it came to making the film version.

    But I am fully on board with positive achievements (like many of Hoplite’s). VVVVVV is another good go-to example because each one of the collectible shiny trickets are setups for difficult challenges like Veni Vidi Vici.

  13. “The flip side of the research is that rewards motivate people pretty well for “dull” tasks – rote stuff like Borderlands, Destiny and Torchlight. Hecker’s fear is that as developers engineer games with more effective Achievement systems, they’re actually building duller games.”

    Fixed that.

    If he ever climbs aboard, Captain Grogbeard would be happy to join your band :-D

  14. Into the black was an interesting read, confirming my suspicion that when it comes to thinking about games I’m about 5 years behind ED and all the other clever people :)

    RE: exploration for its own sake. I understand the impulse and often feel its tug – who hasn’t pressed themselves into the dark of a dead end hoping to find a secret escape from the level? – but I have to confess I like it when I stray from the beaten path and find something waiting for me. I think it’s part of my half-baked theory that level design is a conversation between developer and player – by straying from the path I’m interrogating the game’s design – putting a question to the developer. The chest or power-up in the secret location serves as a reply (‘oh yes, I thought of that too..’).

    Now let’s say my question(/exploration) was answered(/rewarded) with the relative ‘silence’ of a vista, a cool thing to look at, as with a conversation I could interpret that silence as meaningful. But unsubtle and dull as I am, I prefer a response from my interlocutor. Why do I need the chest to serve as my reply, rather than the secret location itself? I think its because in my head, ‘location’ is backdrop – the space on which the meaningful act of play can take place. I’m prejudiced against the notion of game spaces being inherently meaningful. This could be something to do with me – or as I think you’ve been getting at – a question of very important consequences game designers’ decisions can have in providing the context of playing.

    Another way of phrasing this would be, exactly how important is it that escaping onto the ceiling of the level in Super Mario Bros. 1-2 takes you to a warp zone? Is(n’t) it enough that you can just get up there?

    This is all distinct from collectibles, mind you, which I think are maybe an inversion of the exploration/reward dynamic and which I often resent.

    The last thing I want to mention is Breath of the Wild. As you travel the landscape you will often find small puzzles and dexterity challenges which, completed, grant you a korok seed. The seed isn’t a reward for exploring but for completing the task, while the task can only be found by exploring. Does this one step of remove make it not an extrinsic reward, in terms of the classic over-justification effect? Was that a deliberate decision on Nintendo’s part? If so I’m not sure it was a total success: the korok seeds are often the most common complaint about a game which provokes few others. Mind you, the complainants generally tended to want better, more unique rewards rather than no reward at all.

  15. Joel, I’m mostly stopping in to also express sympathy regarding The Symptom, and commiserate that your neurologist appointment is four months away. That’s appalling, but what can one do in the teeth of austerity? I’m glad that you are able to partially manage the problem.

  16. @CA: I find the dichotomy between “chest” (reward/answer) and “landscape” (silence) interesting. I think the reason why we respond to chests as objects and locations as just backdrop is that games have primed us to do so: that’s how they’re designed, as open spaces containing important objects.

    What if a game came along that turned that on its head – maybe a game where the goal is to paint stunning vistas? (I’ve been playing Eastshade and, while it doesn’t really investigate its core mechanic to my satisfaction, it does pose some interesting questions.) Perhaps exploring through a cave, in the dark, with the sound of dripping stalactites, then climbing upwards towards the light and suddenly finding oneself in the open air, up high on a cliff’s edge, looking down over a landscape suffused with red sunset light (perhaps the quest specifically demands a red, sunset vista painting) would be interpreted as a gift from the developer? “Here, you went through all that, have this [landscape] you’ve been looking for.” Of course, mechanically that seems similar to the chest problem and doesn’t really get away from the main issue of “why do we even need rewards?”, but I think it’s interesting to interrogate the notion of what a reward can be in the first place.

  17. Yeah, that would be super interesting. I’m aware of a few games that cast in the role of photographer or artist, but it seems to have proven quite hard to establish gameified criteria for capturing the right shot/perspective/colours or whatever. Might machine learning might one day show us the way, perhaps when Google deep dreams stop being so fucking scary?

    Landscape-as-reward is something I’m sure many many people are already finding in their games. The closest I might have gotten was Dear Esther, but it offered such a panoply of spectacular beauty that at some point I remember thinking ‘oh, this is all just scenery porn’, which is a tremendously ungenerous way to dismiss what must have been aeons of painstakingly crafted artistry, but they just over-egged the pudding in my book.

    Up to the point I went underground I was completely wrapped up in myself, which was thanks to the elements of the game – the island, the music, the monologues – combining in a wonderfully evocative manner. I paced, and brooded, and really felt as if I was *there*. But once I was a few attractions deep in the theme park of natural wonder it became a different thing.

  18. CA & James

    I am often troubled that when I want exploration to be free of rewards, that I am actually arguing I want exploration to have “my kind of reward”. This was what prompted the “Hypocrisy” newsletter back in March. As I explained, the goals we set for outdoor hikes are rather arbitrary and are merely a way of rolling the dice. Experiencing somewhere new was always the goal.

    Translating that same urge to games is… is a bit weird. Game environments do not offer the equivalent full body sensation experience. In fact, that’s one of the reasons we like game exploration, that we’re not necessarily subject to the same constraints such as physical condition, danger or even weather.

    Hiking is an effort in itself and getting anywhere is a reward for your trouble. This is why I was a fan of Miasmata. It made the act of exploration so dangerous and frustrating, that getting anywhere felt like a reward. Every tiny new etch on the map was a victory-in-miniature.

    I am 100% against mindless collectible hunting to get the player to wander around – but I am also uneasy about anything else which stands as a reward for exploration. I completely get the idea of a conversation between dev/player – this was one of my favourite topics in the early years of Electron Dance. But I am on James’ side a little more, feeling that we have been conditioned into needing concrete signs of the Developer God. We must have a chest or a plate of armour or even an audio log (hence I have a good wee all over Dear Esther in the Into the Black film). The fact that someone crafted an environment and thought about what was in it… that is somehow not enough for us.

    Rewarding players for good exploring behaviour just sounds, to me, a confession that exploring is boring as shit for the player. Which is why I am not a fan of the rather-too-crowded genre of “large environments in which you walk back and forth between distant hotspots”. Extremely dull. They sure do have some nice visuals but, I like to think of someone like Moshe Linke, whose recent works charge every moment with excitement.

    Shaun

    Thanks Shaun. Last week was bad days, this week so far is good days. I’m trying to take advantage of them! I will add the ever-present, suffocating fear of a Rapture Brexit does not help at all.


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