Foundations: Feedback is Awesome!

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So in my previous article, What is Feedback?, I introduced the concept, and purpose, of feedback. Please check it out now if you haven’t yet.

In this article, I want to delve deeper. Now that we know roughly what feedback is, let’s look in detail at the varied roles feedback performs.

Feedback Is the Game Speaking

So I’ve only briefly alluded to this, but the conversation metaphor of game design would suggest that feedback is the game speaking to you. Your input is you speaking to the game. Simple enough.
Conversation
Consider these examples:
  • Your lasers are absorbed by an enemy’s shields - “Your attack did no damage”
  • You use the rope on the monkey - “That combination isn’t valid - nothing happened”
  • Your tyres screech while going through a corner - “You’re losing traction”
  • You glow blue with Quad Damage - “You do 4x damage - while this effect remains”
  • Your weapon reload animation (eg: Counter-Strike) - “You cannot fire until this action is complete”
  • Your bullet strikes an enemy - “You damaged an opponent”
  • Your bullet strikes an enemy, accompanied by a bloody effect - “You heavily damaged an opponent”
While not strictly part of the conversation metaphor, the “speaking” method for defining the message of feedback can be very helpful. By first clearly defining the intended message, you can then look at different ways to present this message to the player. Then it’s only a question of whether your playtesters will understand the message or not! :)

I’ll continue to use this method to define instances of feedback as we move forward.

Feedback can Help Teach

Every time the player performs an action where they don’t know what the outcome will be, feedback becomes very important.
It’s the first time you played Mario. You’ve decided to try and jump on a Goomba’s head - you’re eager to learn what will happen! You bounce off his now flattened body, a nice bubble-pop sound rings out AND you earn 100 points! What lovely feedback - that must have been a good thing to do.
Players are like little scientists conducting lots of experiments, asking:
  • “What happens if I push the X button?”
  • “What happens if I collect that mushroom?”
  • “What happens if I bounce on that armadillo?”
  • “Will my gun fire underwater?”
  • “What happens if I raise taxes to 99%?”
I found my lab coat! SCIENCE!!!
Science!
Like any good experimenter, they’re looking for some clear results. They’re looking for feedback.

The more clear and direct a game’s feedback, the less inferring and additional experimenting players need to do. The better the feedback, the quicker players learn from their experimentation.

Basic Messages

At its most basic, feedback can show that a player’s action was right, wrong or pointless. Right actions are usually rewarded with points and nice sounds. Wrong actions are usually punished with bad sounds and loss of health, lives or something else the player values. Pointless actions, such as attacking an armoured enemy with your puny wooden sword, are often identified to warn players that they’re wasting their time.

Quality Messages

Some games also provide feedback on the quality of your actions.

Tricks in skate, BMX and snowboarding games are usually ranked when the player successfully lands them. Crazy Taxi ranks the speediness of each passenger delivered. And depending on the number of hits in your combo in Street Fighter 4, you’ll be ranked anything from “Good” to “Wonderful!” (accompanied by the enthusiastic jabbering of the announcer, of course).

While the specifics of determining the rank may be too detailed to get into at the time, the player is usually able to discern what is required to rank higher.

A word on Level Rankings

Quality indicators are also frequently present at the end of levels to provide players an overall ranking on their performance. These can be notoriously hard to decode (what the hell is Rank S?) and determine which of your skills require improvement.

While this feedback can be good once players understand the game, it isn’t as good for teaching. The ranking is too far removed from the player’s actions. Unlike the examples above, it doesn’t feel like direct results to your experiments.

Feedback can be Delightful!

As well as conveying a useful message, feedback can be pleasant for players to experience.

Feedback as a Reward

So there’s this iPhone game, from Halfbrick, called Fruit Ninja (trailer).

In case you’ve been under a rock, Fruit Ninja has players viscerally slicing fruit with their fingers. The interaction is incredibly simple - but the feedback is phenomenally rewarding by design. In the words of Fruit the Ninja design guru;
“A simple interaction can become a real star if the feedback makes it feel cool.” - Luke Muscat
So seeing an explosion of fruit gibs is cool, but how does that gel with feedback and everything we’ve been discussing so far? Quite neatly actually!

Feedback can itself be shiny, enjoyable and rewarding to witness. Everyone enjoys creating pretty magic effects and meaty explosions. The important thing is that the feedback stays on message. In fact, there’s no reason you shouldn’t make all your feedback cool, aesthetically pleasing and generally awesome!
Speaking of awesome feedback, this is ingame footage of PopCap’s Peggle. It’s a pachinko-style game where your goal is to shoot a ball and hit the orange pegs. Watch this video (or better yet, play the demo) and pay attention to how many feedback cues there are! Also be sure to stick around for the impossibly satisfying level-complete sequence. Peggle is the Mona Lisa of rewarding feedback; get into it!

Make it Juicy!

“Juice” was our wet little term for constant and bountiful user feedback. A juicy game element will bounce and wiggle and squirt and make a little noise when you touch it. A juicy game feels alive and responds to everything you do – tons of cascading action and response for minimal user input. - How to Prototype a Game in Under 7 Days
This excerpt is from an excellent article by four grad students on rapidly developing games. It lays out an excellent philosophy for developing player interactions - why settle for neat, sterile feedback when you could reward and delight the player with juicy feedback at every turn?

Feedback can direct your Attention

Often the purpose of feedback is to draw your attention to something. This isn’t always the case, however, so let’s make up some terminology!
  • Active Feedback seeks to gain your attention and convey information.
  • Passive Feedback seeks to provide you with information when you want it.
Active feedback is designed to draw your attention to the fact that your crappy microwave dinner is “cooked”, that your base is under attack and that there’s a fire in your kitchen. Passive feedback is useful for things like fuel gauges, speedometers and score counters. Passive feedback doesn’t in itself suggest a course of action - it’s just information - while active feedback often alerts you to situations that require your attention and intervention.

Both passive and active feedback can be combined to make for better designs. For example, a fuel gauge (passive) could have a warning light and audio chime (active) that indicate when the car is running low on fuel. Both feedback elements convey very different messages (“You fuel tank is x% full” “You’re running low on fuel!”) but they work well together.

The best games combine both types of feedback to help players. Health bars that flash and shake show you when you’re taking damage. Money counters that bulge and glint when you’re earning money. Even the card game Uno requires players to shout “Uno!” when they’re down to one card! (active feedback)
  • If players don’t have all the information they want, consider adding passive feedback.
  • If players have the information they need, but don’t understand what affects it (for example, a slowly shifting popularity rating), consider adding active feedback to highlight when changes occur.

Conclusion

Hopefully you've got a fuller understanding of the range and implications of feedback. You're probably also becoming more aware of what you already knew about feedback. This is natural knowledge to people who play games - but by knowing the rules you can build something new, rather than just sticking with convention.

So, is Peggle really the Mona Lisa of rewarding feedback? What game do you consider to have super-rewarding feedback? What good games are marred by frustratingly bad feedback? Share!

In the next article we’ll look at implementing feedback in your designs.

Cheers
-Daz

3 comments:

Unknown said... 7 July 2011 at 00:11

When I have a negative user interface experience with a game, I'm often not quite sure whether the fault is mine for not being a power user. Take World of Goo. The control you have is simplistic - you place a node that will connect to the two nearest nodes. Sometimes I don't want it to connect to those nodes and I have to stuff around to resolve this. Is this a UI flaw or a game dynamic to master? I don't know.

Daz said... 12 July 2011 at 11:10

I believe that's a dynamic to master in World of Goo. If memory serves correctly, they show the connections that will be made ahead of time (while your mouse pointer is hovering). So you end up finessing the cursor until you get what you want - which can become tiresome.

I gave up on world of goo. :S

Unknown said... 12 July 2011 at 14:24

Without the ability to iterate through the desired links, some shapes are nearly impossible to construct, despite them being otherwise valid. Try to make a square with both diagonals linked. Is this shape 'meant' to be so difficult to construct. I doubt it. But then again, I'm sure there is a reliable strategy to do it somehow.

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