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Less buttons, more immersion: Final act December 13, 2009

Posted by Cesar in thinking me.
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

human computer interaction

Finally, we go back to the first post to talk about the third pillar of game immersion: interactivity. While it is true that raw interactivity is part of play, the quality of interactivity is a different subject. And, like I said before, it is what makes games different. There’s an interesting social component to it, but I’ll leave it for another day and focus on controls. I think control strategies in games follow roughly the same rules as graphics and sound: they must be good enough for our brain to accept them and fool us into believing them. And again, we compare them with what we know, be it reality or another experience. For some games it is a breeze. Grab any d-pad and play Pacman. If feels so natural! There’s no thinking involved. No need for instructions. You press up Pacman moves up; you press left, he moves left. Easy. Now think about Rock N’ Roll Racing: I don’t know about you but on games like this I always struggle at the beginning, until I get a grasp on the clockwise/counterclockwise turning. And then it is easy. My point is that there’s a learning curve involved and practice usually makes perfect. Once you control, you are ready to get involved.

Oh, but it is not that easy. When you play chess (I’m talking actual wood board and pieces, not on the PC), control is an abstraction kill. Your big hand grasping the tower to kill the bishop has very little to do with immersion. But it is easy to do. So I would break controls in two categories: transparent and engaging. I call transparent the controls whose goal is simply to not interfere with the rest of the experience. Like moving a chess piece with your hand. You don’t have to think about it. Just do it and move on. In these games, the controls are not meant to be part of the fun. Replace it with anything else that gets the job done and no one will mind.

Engaging controls are different. They are meant to be enjoyed as part of the game. Like shooting on MW2, hitting and performing air combos in BlazBlue, or CQC in MGS4. The examples are everywhere. In these games, it is not enough to be easy. In fact being difficult is sometimes part of the fun. But they have to make sense and feel natural. If, even after you mastered the controls, they still feel wrong, the fabric of game reality is torn apart and the nuisance breaks immersion.

Now let’s look back at Project Natal. Just like the Wii controls did, it will allow for interaction to be more transparent when it has to be. That means more complex games will be played without the controls being a hassle. In other words, transparency will be increased. For engaging controls, we can’t deny it should allow for a more natural and intuitive experience. When the gap to real movement gets narrower, more intricate games become more involving. One way or another, immersion takes a leap.

So there you go. These are in my opinion the three pillars of video game immersion. But I could be wrong! If you have any thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear it.

See you space cowboys…


1. Durval - December 14, 2009

A remarkable example of engaging controls is the car. The car’s controls have become not only familiar, but iconic of the car and all it represents in our culture.

2. Cesar - December 15, 2009

I mentioned this to a friend just today. Some interfaces have become so familiar they are just as engaging and natural as moving our limbs.

Except I was talking about buttons. While the effort to make interfaces more natural is valuable, there’s no point in trying to get rid of buttons and triggers altogether. Pressing buttons and squeezing triggers are very natural interfaces to us. The meaning of the buttons and triggers are the question.

3. Pointing interaction « gaming me - March 31, 2010

[…] when I thought of that, I immediately remembered my talk about video game immersion and the division between transparent and engaging controls. Using the […]

4. Why is Tilt To Live so darn good? « gaming me - September 23, 2010

[…] dare say in Tilt To Live the controls are transparent, playing is very instinctive (take a look at this post for more on the subject). This takes Tilt To Live to a new height, because making the controls […]

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