Decades of watching the games industry develop have convinced me that the single greatest shortcoming in the games industry is a failure to grasp the nature of interactivity. In September of 2009 I therefore set to work designing an all-day course addressing the nature of interactivity and its implications for game design. I have now delivered variations on that course at eleven different venues including four universities in the USA and five in the UK, one in Madrid, and one in Mumbai. I have steadily improved the course, using the questions raised afterwards as guidelines for improvements to make in the presentation. Now I have extracted the most critical material and boiled it down to a 45-minute webinar.
The webinar starts off by noting that interactivity is the essence of all computing, but is poorly understood by the software community. I define interactivity in terms of a conversation, in which the computer and the player alternately listen, think, and speak to each other. It is critical, I emphasize, that a software design pay proper attention to each of these three steps, for the quality with which each of the steps are executed determines the overall quality of the interactivity.
I then discuss each of these three steps as performed by the computer (and created by the designer). The speaking part, I emphasize, is the easiest of the three steps to execute. Here I make the most controversial point of the lecture: that the emphasis on graphics, animation, and sound in game design is misplaced. Because my position is so heretical, I provide strong evidence to support it, arguing that these elements support the interactivity, but do not constitute the entirety of the interaction, and that a competitive analysis of games with other entertainment media demonstrates that interactivity is our basis of competitive advantage.
I then turn to each of the three steps. My discussion of the speaking part of interactivity design is short: there really isn’t anything for me to add to an already overcrowded field. However, when it comes to listening, I have some useful ideas to suggest. The first of these is “Crawford’s First Law of Software Design”: Always ask, ‘What does the user DO?’ This leads directly to the concept of the “verb list”, which I consider to be the central design element of any software design. Ultimately, however, user interaction with the computer will someday be carried out by means of language, a goal that is beyond our reach at the moment but remains the Holy Grail of software design.
Next, I turn to the problem of thinking. This, I maintain, is the step that game designers have most egregiously failed to execute properly. Games are stupid! There have been, of course, numerous applications of artificial intelligence to game design, but these have been confined to the types of problems that conventional AI theory can handle; if there isn't already a ready-to-use AI technique to handle the problem, the game remains stupid. I argue that designers should be able to create their own algorithms for approximating intelligent behavior in characters and situations. We must make our games behave more realistically, rather than merely looking realistic. In order to do so, designers must learn how to translate their ideas into algorithmic form.
The next section of the webinar considers the convergently iterative nature of interactivity, how we repeatedly interact with the software until we reach our desired end state; in the case of a game, this means the achievement of a skill level that we find satisfying. Managing this convergent process is central to good design and is now formalized as what we call “level design”.
The final section of the webinar addresses the nature of the challenge that a game presents to the user. I point out that the great majority of games rely on four basic kinds of challenge: spatial reasoning, resource management, puzzle solution, and hand-eye coordination. But why, I ask, must we confine ourselves to these four dimensions of challenge? In particular, why don’t we consider social reasoning as a dimension of challenge? Even the most action-packed movies contain strong elements of social reasoning.
But games have completely failed to include social reasoning elements. This failure is understandable; social reasoning is immensely more difficult to calculate than projectile trajectories. Nevertheless, this represents the next major leap in interactive entertainment: interactive storytelling.
The webinar has 153 slides for 45 minutes of presentation time.