Thursday, September 17, 2009

ScribbleNauts & “Learn as you play”

So, I picked up ScribbleNauts based on the hype surrounding it. I don’t often do this, but sometimes I just give in to the prevailing winds.

I hadn’t heard much about it – or seen any game play footage. I had imagined it to be some sort of DS version of Crayon Physics. But then I heard about it’s 20k+ list of supported words and I thought that maybe it was an anagram game like Scrabble.

Turns out that I was wrong on both counts.

ScribbleNauts is basically Impossible Machine or Armadillo Run except that instead of having a UI that shows you all the possible tools you can use, you need to guess which tools are available by typing in words and hoping that they are supported.

It’s kind of like Family Feud in some ways. You make a guess that “fire hose” is a piece of equipment a fireman might hold, and if a panel of American households agrees with you, a fire hose appears in the game world.

This made me think back further to some of the social psychology research that I did way back when. I was specifically examining naively held prototypes for things like “burglary”. You’d get a group of people to fill out a survey about all the things they associated with the word “burglary” (e.g., occurs at night, at someone’s house, involves a male thief, dark clothes) and what you’d find is that there were common exemplars listed by most people ("it happens at night”) followed by a medium-long tail of exemplars only listed by a few people (“my buddy Fred got busted for burglary last week”).

What we found was that when people read a fact pattern surrounding a criminal trial, they were more likely to think a defendant was guilty when the facts matched their prototype of the crime then when the facts were less prototypical (but still met the legal definition of the crime).

Apologies for the long digression… I mostly thought of this when trying to figure out the most logical way to come up with a method of building a dictionary that could be balanced for difficulty as part of a word guessing game.

Anyhow, back to ScribbleNauts.

As an initial experience, I was a little underwhelmed. I’m just now starting to get into the core game play, which I do find enjoyable. But the road to getting there wasn’t as smooth and polished as it could have been:

  • Too much frontloading of concepts. Concepts should be spaced out so that they can be learned, practiced, and mastered as part of the normal game play progression. Forcing me to learn about both core game mechanics (moving, selecting, scribbling, inspecting) and metagame concepts (puzzle vs. action modes, the “ollar” based economy) in the first 5 or so minutes of the game risks me forgetting or mislearning core concepts.
  • Somewhat related is the “too many concepts at once” problem. One particular tutorial module had me learn about “trashcan”, “budget”, and “ollars” in rapid succession. Moreover, this section was NOT interactive so I was not getting reinforcement through game play.
  • Billboard hints were too verbose and constantly interrupted the flow of the game. Particularly egregious was the example with the hammer and the wooden wall. I had just learned about picking up objects and if the wall had been made to look a little more fragile (a little dented, some loose boards, maybe some unsturdy wiggling) then the game could have just let me learn by exploring. If a player fails to proceed after a certain time then non-modal, specific, context sensitive hints could be provided. Instead, the visceral feel of smashing something was replaced with boring reading – reading that seemed insulting to me because it was obvious that the hammer was their to smash the door.
  • I failed to fly the plane correctly several times which caused me to fail ungracefully and have to restart the tutorial module. It’s unclear why the first time a new movement mechanic was introduced that it had such a difficult to complete task associated with it. Flight should have been fun, but it ended up being frustrating.

I think it’s instructive to compare this initial experience and philosophy about what tutorials should be with another recent DS game I played: Mario vs. Donkey Kong: Minis March Again. I found the first hour of game play delightful mainly because they allowed me to learn by playing – and included tutorials only as optional help hint sequences if the player felt a need to look at them.

Of course, to achieve that apparently effortless “learn as you play” experience requires a lot of attention and polish to the experience. MMA could have taken the same approach, but designed early puzzles that were confusing for first time users and left them lost and frustrated.

In my experience, what it comes down to, is really understanding deeply how the first time player sees, experiences, and interacts with your world WITHOUT much prompting. Hint text can always be added as a stop-gap, but the more elegant solution is to polish self-contained learning modules in which play concepts and mechanics are introduced via game play scenarios and not tutorial text.

  • Don’t tell me to that I need to pick up an item. Leave me in a room with an item and let me figure out how to pick it up on my own.
  • Don’t tell me to throw the object at something. Give me a conspicuous target that I want to bean with a dart/ball/axe.
  • Don’t congratulate me with long text billboards for doing something obvious. Have the conspicuous target (a rickety chest) explode into sparkly gold pieces when I throw a ball at it.

Then focus on how to turn situational cues into hints that propel the player through the experience.

A separate, but related, issue worth considering is how complex actions are usually just made up of simpler constituent actions. If you’re finding that first time players struggle to figure out how to throw a ball at a target when they’re just dropped into the game, break down the requirements into smaller pieces that can be taught and practiced beforehand.

  • Act 1: Avatar stands on left side. Cool slide that leads off screen is on the right side. Player taps stylus on right side of screen, avatar moves over, leaps on slide, slides to next Act. Player fails to tap, the slide pulses and a stylus “touch me” icon appears near the slide.
  • Act 2: Avatar is on the left side facing a raised platform on the right. Player cannot climb up to the raised platform on his own. A large box is suspended in the air. The box pulses (stylus icon). Player selects box and the ground near the raised platform glows green in a box outline. Player plunks box down – and it looks like the distance between ground, top of box, and platform are easily climbable. Player taps the platform. The avatar hops up on the box, then the platform. A new slide appears and he slides to the next level.
  • Act 3: Avatar is on the left side facing a workbench with a small hammer on it. There is a rickety door blocking access to another slide on the right. Player taps the hammer and places it on his avatar (avatar glows green; avatar’s hand reaches out to grab and hold object). And so on…

The idea is that you need to break down higher order actions into its constituent parts. Then you need to figure out how to design content, levels, and UI to support the learning of these higher order actions through discovery, practice, and mastery – all reinforced by enjoyable successes.

Punishment for failure is permitted (and often required) but failure must be GRACEFUL. By this I mean that the penalty should not be unduly harsh (don’t make the player feel bad; don’t make them go through a painful reload process) and the player should receive clear and actionable feedback so that he/she can try something different next time.

Wow. I didn’t expect such a freeform and unruly digression. It’s clear I’ve been away from the blog for far too long.

I’ll post more about ScribbleNauts as I move through the game. I’m also looking forward to a bunch more indie games that I’ve come across lately:

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