Monday, September 29, 2014

"Less is More" in Experience Design

This past week, I took my family to DisneyLand.  It was interesting to do this on the heels of starting development on an "experience and exploration" based game, because, well, that's what the Disney parks are all about.

Everyone loves the Pirates of the Caribbean ride.  What's not to like?  Great atmosphere.  Interesting experiences.  Catchy pirate shanties.  Log flume drops.  Dogs of both the cute and scurvy varieties.

When you first leave the Louisiana bayou and ride your little boat down a waterfall, you find yourself in a cavern.  It's gray, and rocky, with pools and a few waterfalls around.  Not a single pirate to be seen, and none of the set pieces that flesh out the rest of the ride.  You turn a corner, and then go down another waterfall before you start seeing anything related to pirates.  On paper, it seems boring.

Pirates of the Caribbean
Photo of "Pirates of the Caribbean" ride by Joe_B@flickr
But it's not.  It's one of the most compelling parts of the ride, and it deftly conveys one of the feelings I want to be able to evoke in games - this sense of "I'm going someplace new."  Its primary purpose is to build anticipation.  This watery cavern, with its breath of cool mist that feels like heaven after sweating all day in the sunny California heat, with its tall, rocky, and strange formations lit up in hesitant blues, violets, and cyans, and with the churning roar of the waterfalls, has nothing to see that is intended to be the focal point of what you observe.  But everywhere you look, there's the story of a sea-blasted grotto, where every young boy and girl imagines dastardly pirates hauling treasure chests or pirate curses to be uttered.  Disney doesn't have to show these sorts of things in this room, because it's setting the stage.  The mind is filled with possibility, of potential, and it fills in the scenes which aren't shown.  Later, when we start seeing the desiccated remains of murdered pirates, or the grisly corpses of pirates who died with their hoards, we are free to focus on those details, because the setting has already been set.

How do we translate these sorts of things to a game?  It's a difficult balance to strike - too little stage-setting, and there's not enough to have that effect.  Too much, and it feels like there's not enough content.   And how to strike that balance in a procedural context, too - that's even harder.

In Lone Spelunker, I'm hoping that much of this will emerge naturally by imposing some sparseness on the frequency with which "troves" of interesting details are doled out.  One might be tempted to fill every room with something of interest, but that would make those "troves" meaningless.  On the other end of the spectrum, one might be tempted to only have one trove in each cave, thus drawing out the replayability of the game, but that has the potential to make the game feel "grindy", artificially forcing players to go through rote activities to "get to the good stuff".

I'm shooting for having several troves emerge during play.  Unless you generate a truly immense cave system, not all troves will appear in any given cave.  You'll have to work for most of the troves, but there will be several in each cave, and some will come easily to lead you along.  Tweaking the frequencies of these troves is going to be one of the "balancing" acts of designing this game - every game has them - and hopefully, I'll get that balance right to make gameplay exciting and rewarding.

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