Tactile feedback and interfaces

I’ve been meaning to talk about this for a while now, but I keep putting it off in favor of shorter fare.  This is going to be a bit rambly since it’s actually two topics in one post.  The first topic isn’t strictly necessary for the second, but I do think it’s relevant and interesting.

The first thing I want to talk about is interfaces.  Board, card, and roleplaying games of the table-top variety have rules and mechanics.  These are really just the procedures of play: they’re the things you do to interact with the game.  Video games actually have the exact same thing: procedures you use to interact with the game.  But there’s an important difference, and it’s pretty obvious.

Video games have their interfaces hard-coded, table-top games do not.  If I’m playing a video game in which I must press the ‘A’ button to jump, well, there’s not much I can do about that because the interface is enforced by coded software.  I can’t get inside and change that software.  Further, even if I could change the interface, there would likely be cascade effects which would require further changes.

If, for instance, I made the ‘A’ button into a kick attack instead of jump, what would I do when I needed to jump later?  I’d have to change things back, or figure out some other way to handle it.

The same thing is not at all true for table-top games because the procedures are social, and as social creatures we are extremely adept at social hacking.  This, combined with the fact that you are not stuck with a fixed interface device in social interaction (such as a controller, which only allows for so many different actions), means that you can actually add new interface options pretty much at will.

Further, since we’re so good at social hacking, we can add and change interface options with ease.  This allows us to make changes without fully anticipating the cascade effects because we can always make further changes later on to deal with them as they come up.

Credit where credit is due, most of my thinking on interface has been heavily influenced by Danc of Lost Garden.  What I’m calling ‘interface options’ he calls ‘verbs’.

So there’s a fundamental difference between traditional video games and table-top games, and it lies in the ease of hacking.  Every so often we get together and play a game of Castle Risk.  I won’t explain it for those who haven’t played before other than to say that the game is like Risk except that most of your armies come not from controlling territories, but from controlling banners.  Each player starts with one banner which is kept in one of his territories.  If you take that territory from the player then you get their banner (and thus a big boost in armies per turn) and move the banner to your own banner-territory (thus making it a more tempting target for others).

Now, I don’t actually like the moving of the banners thing.  I prefer to play by a house-rule in which the banners stay where they are.  This means that each time you conquer someone you have to cover yet another critical territory, and it’s likely that your new resource base is inconveniently located to your original one.  I like this dynamic.  And it’s easy to hack in a sit-down game of Castle Risk, we just agree to do it.

I think you can see what I’m getting at here, so I’ll stop belaboring the point.   One of the important things to note is that the un-hackability of video games isn’t necessarily a bad thing.  The same inflexibility that makes it difficult for players to hack things to fit their idiosyncratic desires also makes it easy to force players into certain behaviors.  This can be a good thing, as I shall demonstrate in the discussion on tactile feedback!

One of the things I had serious plans on getting to in my abortive series of articles on props (which one day I hope to rewrite) is the fact that physical objects and motions are intimately tied to memories and can be used to call up those associated memories.

This is running long, so I’m just going to provide a quick example from my own gaming.  I encourage you to provide similar stuff, and even analyze.

I got Guitar Hero for my birthday last month.  Since the guitar controller it comes with is incredibly intuitive, I felt no need to read the manual or play through the tutorial.  I mean, it’s basically as intuitive as a DDR pad, it just makes sense.

While playing I accidentally pushed a button and discovered that the ‘select’ button activates your Star Power, which is a point-boosting thing accompanied by some pretty nifty visuals.  Timing your Star Power use to the heaviest parts of the songs is how you score big points, so it adds a bit of strategy to the game.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was feeling bored and figured I might as well play the tutorial (until you play through it, the system starts the menu selected on it, not a huge deal, but inconvenient enough for me to devote ten minutes to going through it).  And in that tutorial, I learned something important: there’s another way to activate Star Power, and it makes a huge difference.

Located deep inside the plasticy circuits of the guitar, there lies a level sensor.  It detects the angle the guitar is being held at.  While you can simply push ‘select’ to activate Star Power, the game is designed for it to be activated when the guitar is vertical (perpendicular to the floor).

It doesn’t sound like much, but since you want to activate it fast in order to avoid throwing off your rythm, the best way to activate Star Power is to swing the guitar up and lean back and then whip it back down.  When I do this, I always get a little rush of adrenaline, I feel like a rockstar.  Every.  Single.  TIme.

There’s this mental and physical association that really adds to the game.  It just wasn’t as fun or as cool when I was just pushing a button, but throwing your weight back and rockin’ out! is something else altogether.  Since the game forces you to interface with it in a specific way, it is able to call up associations with that interface.

This is one (of many) reason(s) that Shreyas needs to get off his butt and finish Torchbearer.


4 Responses to “Tactile feedback and interfaces”

  1. [...] Someone else mentioned the difference between Video and Board games and RPGs(much like Thomas Robertson does here, but it was earlier during the week, but specifically mentioned competitive games). In Video games anything you can do is wired into the game, if it’s not wired(coded) in, then you can’t do it. Board games where strategies that weren’t accounted for exist are considered ‘broken’ or require errata(can someone help me find said post?). RPGs that want to foster such a feel need to have every possibility accounted for or they’ll fail. [...]

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