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Side Quest: Game Feel, Part 1

by Josh "Moxie" Sprague, 2008-01-23

Side Quests are short pieces intended to encourage discussion. They aren't always meant to be finished editorials, so your participation is important.


In November, casual game designer Steve Swink wrote an article for GamaSutra about game feel ( He speaks of feel as a secret ingredient of games that emerges from the combination of a game's design elements. Since reading Swink's article, I've thought a lot about games with a lot of great elements that never seem to work together well and the games that seem like they're held together with duct tape, but turn out to be a great experience.

In his article, Swink uses outlines six elements he believes make up game feel.

1. Input
2. Response
3. Context
4. Polish
5. Metaphor
6. Rules

I want to explore RPGs through each of these elements as each offers a useful perspective on why some games feel right and others don't. Each of these elements could be an article in itself, but I'd like to throw out a few examples for each and get the discussion going.

1. Input

Input refers to the players half of the game. What can I tell the game to do and how do I do that?

Before mice were common, input on PC RPGs was all over the place. In Ultima VI, for example, separate keys were required for opening doors, moving objects in the environment, and talking to NPCs. Other early RPGs required a reference sheet for spells, requiring the player to type a number or acronym to initiate the spell. The nature of RPGs pushes creators to allow the player to tell the game to do a large variety of things.

Amazingly, we've learned how to consolidate input, and nowadays, much of that input is intuitive to the experienced gamer. The mouse usually looks around and selects parts of the interface, WASD or arrow keys move the character, F-keys bring up menus or allow for quicksaves and screenshots. This makes sense as similar games allow for similar input.

However, some games try to change things up in not so good ways. Gothic comes immediately to mind. The amount of keys needed to play the game were actually very few, to the point that it could be easily translated to console controller. However, the choices for what keys did what were a bit awkward and unfamiliar. Once one was used to it, it wasn't so bad, but there were still hiccups like trading that could also be weird to figure out without a manual. None of this was helped by the fact that the player couldn't remap keys. Fortunately, the game's content was strong enough to bring in players anyway, but I wonder if a few input changes could have earned the game greater appeal.

2. Response

Response follows on the heels of input. Once I tell the game something, what does it do?

For how subtle this element can be, I think it may affect RPG feel more than any other. As we play the role of another character, the distance we have between giving a command and getting a response makes dramatic changes in the way we perceive our role. In RPGs where commands are given before a turn that plays out over time, the player may feel more akin to a general or invisible party leader than the actual protagonist shown on screen. Quick or immediate response draws the player closer into the action.

This isn't to say that turn-based or active RPGs fall cleanly along these lines. Compare Eschalon: Book I to Final Fantasy VII. Both are turn-based, but the combat of each has a much different feel. In Eschalon, my avatar swings his sword or casts a spell as quickly as I click on an enemy. The game allows me to consider my turn as long as I want, but as soon as I make a decision, it's ready. If I make my decisions quickly, the game feels much like an action game, but with some added control. In a game like Final Fantasy VII, the player gives orders to his characters, but must wait as the turns execute. The battle here becomes more of a stageplay where they player is a director offering input.

I think many RPG designers have mistakenly thought that action-based combat will automatically give a game an active feel. This was one of my frustrations with the Baldur's Gate series. The ability to pause combat and give orders didn't necessarily give me a feeling of control during battle. It felt unexpectedly like The Sims. I could tell my guy to go swing a sword, but he might decide that he wanted to go in the other room and dance to radio for a few minutes instead.

3. Context

In Swink's article, context refers to the player's available actions in relation to the space around her. Swink uses Mario 64 as an example, describing how jumping and running around only gain meaning when Mario has a world to play with. In addition, the distance between these objects, their size, all need to be fine tuned to feel just right.

Carrying this idea to RPGs, space is an immediate concern. Sprawl can be the biggest enemy of interesting and this tends to be a pitfall of MMO design. I remember a joke that redecorated the Star Wars Galaxies box with the title "Terrain Generator, Chat Client."

When thinking through RPGs, the good ones tend to get this one right, achieving a balance between constrained space and breathing room. In Morrowind, compare the city of Vivec to Balmora. Vivec's cantons are interesting in design, but can be a drag when trying to navigate through large identical structures. Balmora has a more natural flow. Guilds are close to shops and travel, the local Council seat is visible as the highest point of the city, and the town only takes moments to run from one side to the other. A lot is concentrated into one place, but it doesn't feel claustrophobic.

The idea of context should also be applied to player skills. If I create a character with thieving skills, I should have regular and meaningful chances to pick locks and sneak around. In the same way, a fighting character shouldn't be stuck with just repeatedly swinging a sword. Are there times to block, defend another character, or hammer the dents out of armor? The themes of constraint and sprawl apply to character choices as well.


Just half of these elements are enough for a lot of discussion. In Part 2, I'll discuss polish, metaphor, and rules. Of course, these aren't the hard and fast components of game feel, but they definitely create an excellent spring board for thinking through why some games just feel right and others don't.

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