Foundations: What is Feedback

In this series of articles, I’ll be exploring feedback; a concept that you’re probably familiar with without realising it. Once we label it and define its purpose, we’ll begin looking at how it can improve your designs.

What is feedback?

Generally speaking, feedback is how games communicate with you. You speak to the game with input, it responds with feedback.
Dog Looking at and Listening to a Phonograph, "His Master's Voice", The Original RCA Music Puppy Dog Logo Symbol for Advertising
While technically true, this is stupidly broad. Let’s forget games for now...

Feedback in the real world

Poster on West End Traffic Light Pole - Dec 20 2006 Rally and March for Justice for Mulrunji, Queens Park to Queensland Parliament, Brisbane, Australia
Here in Australia, we have buttons at traffic lights for pedestrians who wish to cross. People often trust that someone else pressed the button - sometimes wrongly, missing their opportunity to cross. Similarly, you may receive dirty looks if you press the button while others are standing nearby - you didn't trust in their button-pressing abilities! Now consider that neither of these situations occurs in an elevator lobby. Why?

It’s all about feedback.

Let’s look at some examples of feedback in the real world:
  • The light on your toaster that tells you it’s cooking
  • The illuminated elevator button that assures you an elevator is on its way
  • The speedometer that tells you how fast you’re driving
These lights, indicators and gizmos exist to convey important information.

The power of good feedback is that it simplifies and communicates important information.

Perhaps you can see that your toast is cooking, hear the elevator coming and have an uncanny ability to judge the speed of a travelling car. That’s cool, but with good feedback, you don’t need to! More importantly, people who don’t have your amazing skills can still use toasters, elevators and cars safely - greatly expanding the accessibility of the design.

Good feedback condenses the incredibly complicated workings of modern aeroplanes, power plants and other large scale technologies down to a manageable stream of information.
Airbus A380 Cockpit
The same principles apply to game design. If good feedback means two people can fly a 747, we should be able to communicate everything needed to play a game, right? Lucky for us, lives don’t depend on our design!

Feedback in Game Design

So, we’re back to game design. As discussed above, we could consider anything the game outputs (audio, visual, rumble etc) to be feedback. Instead of getting all precious about that, let’s focus on conveying specific, gameplay relevant, information to the player.
Some examples of feedback in games:
  • The sound of collecting a 1up in Mario
  • The psychedelic colour cycling and looping music of Mariokart’s Star
  • The blood and veins that increasingly obscure your vision in most modern shooters
Hopefully you’re familiar with these examples. Bonus points if you can hum the music from the Star powerup. :)

Let’s explore these three examples, looking first at the feedback itself and what it implies:
  • 1up jingle in Mario -Your lives count has gone up by one!
    This feedback indicates that an instantaneous change has just taken place. This feedback is so distinctive it doesn’t faze players when 1ups are awarded for other tasks such as collecting 100 coins, or killing a bunch of enemies in succession.
  • Star powerup’s music and psychedelia - You’re freaking dangerous to everyone!
    This feedback indicates your state has changed. The feedback ensures you know the effect is still active (and alerts nearby suckers!) When the effects stop, you know the powerup has worn off.
  • Blood and veins all over my goggles! - You’ve sustained damage!
    This feedback indicates that an analogue value (your health) has changed significantly. The intensity of the effect indicates the severity of the damage, reinforced by its gradual disappearance as you return to “healthy.”
Hopefully you’re starting to get a sense for good feedback. But what happens when games are missing important feedback?

Missing Feedback

So, without the feedback above, how would you know you were getting 1ups, that your Star powerup was still active or that you were one shot away from death? You wouldn’t. Players quickly become confused about how to earn 1ups, why Toad knocked them off the track and whether they’ll survive another fire fight.

Missing feedback is a common pitfall for new designers, as is confusion among those who play their games. New designers tend to hand-hold friends through their games, verbally explaining what that enemy does and what that button just did - compensating for the lack of clear feedback.

With that in mind, let’s look at an example!

Example: A Button!

I’ve created this button just for you. Give it a click.
Unsatisfying, right? You may be wondering any of the following... Did that button work? Did I push it for long enough? Did my mouse button fail? Is it just a picture of a button?

All these questions are completely legitimate - especially as it’s only a picture of a button - you just clicked on a picture of a button! Okay, let’s fix it. First, let’s identify the problems our button has:
  • Players don’t know if their input was successful.
  • Players don’t know how long to hold the button for (if at all).
  • Players don’t know if the button does anything.
That’s a pretty decent list for the humble button. Let’s address these one by one.

Players don’t know if their input was successful

Try pressing now.
Now when you press the button, you see it visually depress. It makes a huge difference to know that you definitely pressed it – you saw it change! Now you’re only left wondering what it did.

For good measure, the button also makes a noise when pressed. Now you can press it with your eyes closed too. We could have implemented either audio or visual feedback, but having both is doubly reassuring.

At this point, I’d also like to draw your attention to the sound your mouse button makes when you click it. Click it a few times. Now a long click. Mmmm, clicky. It’s no coincidence that every mouse in the last 20 years has made that exact same noise. Good feedback.

Players don’t know how long to hold the button for

Let’s have the button light up as soon as it’s pressed, rather like an elevator call button. For the example, we’ll have it turn off again a second later. This illustrates that the button in instantaneous and additional hold time is pointless.
Most buttons don’t require you to hold them for any specific period of time, but we can probably build some examples...
This first example shows you just how long you need to hold it before anything meaningful will happen. You’ll notice this still doesn’t address the question of what the button does, just makes for a silly looking button. It’s also worth noticing that the player is receiving feedback that they’re input is being received, as well as feedback that they need to hold for longer.
This button shows that it’s only doing something while you have it depressed

Players don’t know if the button does anything

It’s important for players to see what buttons do. Often proximity helps (the door is right there) or an assisted line of sight where they see the result or even an adjacent security screen showing what has just been affected.

In reality, all the buttons on this page are feeding your clicks back to an evil research station where you’re blasting sad puppies with cold water. SCIENCE! Including a webcam feed of the soggy pups beside the buttons would give you more clear feedback - and a much better idea what atrocities you were committing - but my budget doesn’t allow for it. You’ll just have to take my word for it.
After the Bath


Well, we’ve only scratched the surface on feedback here, but hopefully you agree that it’s absolutely crucial to good game design. In the coming days, keep an eye out for good feedback in the games you play and in the world around you. Really look at what the feedback is, and what its message is. What feedback surprises you? Share it with us below!

Next time I’ll be going into a little more depth on feedback; looking at specifically what roles it performs.



Unknown said... 2 July 2011 at 12:34

Bioshock 2 is guilty of feedback's evil brother - 'spoon feeding'. When I took too long to find something, an arrow appeared above my head, just to make sure the quest didn't get too hard.

Daz said... 2 July 2011 at 15:16

Ah yes, spoon feeding. That will definitely have to get a mention in the feedback series! :)

Emma Leitch, a masterpiece still in progress said... 6 July 2011 at 00:10

Even I could learn the art of gaming from you Daz; great explanations. And here's my example of good feedback.. When playing Frogger, I thought the point was to jump ON the cars. But the feedback of dying every time, eventually set me straight.

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