Friday, August 28, 2009

Day 28: Call of Duty 4

I know, I know. The game has been out forever. But as I mentioned in a previous post, I've been saving Call of Duty 4 for a rainy day.

As expected from previous posts, it delivered an awesome user experience right from moment one. It's clear that the team spent a lot of time defining what the first 5 minutes, 30 minutes, and hour of game play would be like for players of all ability levels.

Well, all ability levels except for players who have never played a console FPS before. I talked more deeply about this issue in some of my writings about Portal. I'm left to wonder: When does it make sense for game developers to design for complete newbies to a genre. In the case of Portal, it saddened me that my wife (then fiancee) who loves puzzle games could not play the game because the intro was calibrated for folks who'd played FPS before. There were no stepping-stones tutorials for players who were unfamiliar with console controllers and who had a tough time right thumbing between camera controls and face button actions.

In some ways, as a sequel (in this case, the 3rd sequel) I guess having a "complete newbie" tutorial doesn't make much sense. Why provide additional content given that most people who can't already play console FPS are already so scared of the genre that they hadn't tried the first 3 iterations.

I guess I wish there were some in-between games that introduced FPS type game mechanics and controls to people fearful of the genre so that they could learn and practice the basics of moving, looking, moving while looking, and then performing actions while moving and looking.

All that said, I guess it's also possible that some folks simply don't like the idea or feeling of interacting via a controller in a 3d space -- and simply making them more comfortable with the controls won't make them interested in this kind of game play. But I find this somewhat hard to accept given some of the work I did on Rise of Nations in which we brought in non-gamers (folks who had never even right-clicked a mouse before) and built learn-to-play tutorials around their strenghts and weaknesses. With a lot of work we were able to get these folks up to speed and able to play and enjoy the game. Of course, we never found out whether these folks would ever *buy* a game like Rise of Nations for themselves.

Back to COD 4.

As I mentioned in my previous brief posting about the game, I felt that the learn-to-play component of the game pretty much took the bar from the original Halo experience and raised it higher. The behavioral self-assessment of difficulty level was great, the prompts were subtle and well placed, and this was all done in an entertaining manner within the fiction of the game.

One of the best things, from a user experience perspective, that this game does is recognize that in the chaos of combat it is difficult to figure out what's going on, remember what my goals are, and figure out what to do next. Accordingly, the game has a number of feedback systems designed to propel the player along through game play.
  • Feedback is given to the player via various modalities. There are briefings between missions that foreshadow what the player should expect (these are short, well paced, and skippable). Current objective text appears on the HUD. Weapon fire (by friendlies and enemies) is very noticeable and helps point the player in the right direction. Weapon fire intensity/deadliness is exaggerated so that players can quickly determine choke points. Friendly units reinforce this learning by calling out key threats "Look out for the RPG on the 2nd floor". Player deaths are treated as teaching devices: The player "sees" the enemy who shot him, or the player gets an explanation of how to detect and avoid grenades and exploding vehicles.
  • Feedback modality is governed by whether the game is in full-on chaos mode or in the middle of a break in the action. In the heat of combat there is no time to read objective text or listen to long helpful suggestions. Chatter is brief and to the point. Generally speaking chatter is also concrete and specific: There is less "beware of RPG fire, it's dangerous" and more "RPG on the second floor" followed by a streak of smoke and explosion that illustrates the point. Pauses in the action are used for more exposition and to set expectations for the upcoming action.
  • Feedback is responsive to current obstacles and player success or failure in overcoming those obstacles. Feedback is most useful when it is concrete and specific to what is currently happening in the game and how successful your current actions are (or are not). The game is determined to help the player succeed by providing constant engaging, immersive, understandable, actionable, and predictable feedback.
Worst case scenario? The "Start" button pauses the game and lists current completed and open objectives. The game recognizes that when players pause the action they're often trying to get their bearings and figure out "what next?"

There's obviously a lot more going on with COD 4 than just the quality of feedback, but really this is the element that stands out the most to me so far. Without engaging, understandable, actionable, and predictable feedback systems it would be impossible to have such a fun and immersive learn-as-you-play experience. No heavy handed prompts or text billboards are needed.

All this writing about COD 4 makes me want to put down the keyboard and resume my campaign. At least until Batman: Arkham Asylum arrives.

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