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malevolent design weblog

This blog is now defunct, but you can find more stuff over at my personal site

Perceiving Video Games

When playing even the simplest video games, we apply our understanding of the real world to the game world, resulting in perceptions/conventions/biases that are often overlooked or taken for granted. Although the advent of 3D first-person graphics and advanced physics engines made many of these things less obvious (hence the use of old games as examples below), as a game developer it’s still useful to consider such issues. Here are some rambling thoughts/observations.


I’ve had several conversations with fellow game creators or players about Tetris, and surprisingly few people raise the issue of gravity. It’s not just about blocks moving and fitting together, it’s about blocks falling, and even without any downward acceleration we intuitively latch onto that. We love a bit of gravity.

TetrisIf you turn Tetris upside-down, it’s less obvious but you might visualise the blocks floating in water, or as balloons in the air (I once vertically-flipped a pachinko-ish Flash game and changed it to bubbles in water). However, turn it sideways and the game is severely hampered; it’s still the same gameplay, but feels awkward and unsatisfying (perhaps showing a giant magnet and making the blocks metallic would help a little?).


In the early days of platform games, some coders made characters jump by floating up at a constant speed, then down at a constant speed, and it was always jarring. It doesn’t matter if it’s nothing more than a purple square jumping over green rectangles (some great Atari 2600 games had similarly crude graphics), we understand how basic motion works and expect to see something loosely resembling that behaviour.


Having said that, games such as Pong and Breakout merely used a ball bouncing in a basic reflection-type way, and the absence of spin/friction/gravity in early incarnations didn’t matter, we were more than happy to go along with a simplification that matched the simple graphics. If anything, it’s hard to introduce improved physics and graphics while maintaining the appeal.


In vertically-scrolling shooters you’re almost always flying up the screen, even though the game world is generally viewed from overhead and it shouldn’t make a difference. But there’s the sense of the game being an extension of ourselves (when you look at the screen your body and the controls are seen below it, so having the ship at the bottom feels more connected), the way things further away are usually further up in our field of view, and preferring the sense of flying upwards (no ground in the way; more ‘positive’ and freeing; the display usually being vertical further ‘contaminates’ the overhead view).

Match PointSensible Soccer

Similarly, playing at the back of the court in pre-split-screen tennis games was always tougher, even when it gave you a clearer, unobstructed view of the ball. The on-screen player no longer shared your view of the court, and we’re far more used to judging things flying/bouncing towards us. This also applied to overhead-view vertically-scrolling football games to a lesser extent.

I could be mistaken, but in games involving exploration there seems to be a tendency for designers to send you north and east (‘up’ and ‘right’) more often than south and west. A few times I’ve caught myself doing this and consciously tried to remove the bias.

There are some interesting ideas in this Ask MetaFilter question about side-scrollers, with respondents thinking beyond the obvious writing-direction answer.


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