Confirmed on Twitter

So… apparently I’m leaving Sucker Punch and someone noticed.

Breaking news on Twitter is very hip and modern, but leaves lots of room for (mis)-interpretation. It takes me dozens of slides to explain even simple design concepts; you can’t expect me to cover such a complicated topic in 140 characters. Dots were connected. Inferences were drawn. Conclusions were jumped to.

I’ve tried to set the record straighter. Not the details, of course, but at least the broad strokes.

I appreciate all the well-wishes on the news that I am leaving Sucker Punch, but please don’t take the timing as cause for concern about Second Son – it’s a great game that I am proud to have on my resume and I can’t wait for everyone to play it – or Sucker Punch – a studio on the rise with a bright future – or Sony – a great organization with some of the savviest, most pro-gamer executives in the business. And while I am honored to be mentioned in the same articles as legendary designers like Amy Hennig and Stig Asmussen, please don’t look too hard for some sinister pattern.

The truth is that any creative, vibrant industry is necessarily volatile; the only sure bet is that the next few years will not look the same as the last. Change is part of the job, but along with the upheaval and uncertainty, there’s opportunity and new challenges. It’s an exciting time to be a free agent and I’m going to go see what’s out there. Simple as that…

Of course it’s never really that simple, but that’s all you’ll get out of me.

GDC Week

I’ve been spending all my free time lately working on my GDC talk. So, if you’re at the conference, come see me play career roulette on Friday afternoon. And if you aren’t in SF this week, I should resume posting when I get back with lots of new material from the talk.

Design by Numbers: Simultaneous Perception

Perceived Simultaneity Threshold: 100 milliseconds

Let me tell you how I got my nickname, Jaime “Three Frames” Griesemer.

A hair lip?

Emily "Three Frames" Crazyhair

We were working on the melee animations for Halo 3, trying to get the timing right. There were already fast. Like, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it speed. The animators were having trouble because there wasn’t enough time to add a sense of anticipation and sell the impact properly. And for some unknown reason I wanted the damage keyframe to happen faster. “The melee animations can be as long as they need to be… as long as they’re exactly three frames.” We went back and forth about it, but eventually I traded three frame melee attacks for some extra flourish on the recovery after the hit. Everybody was happy.

Until the next day when I went back to try the new melee animations. I picked up the Assault Rifle. I pressed the B button. Three frames later, the butt of the rifle crunched into the face of a helpless alien invader. I picked up the Plasma Pistol. I pressed the B button. Three frames later, my left hook connected with a random marine that was looking at me funny. I picked up a shotgun. I pressed the B button. And for some unknown reason it didn’t feel right when I cracked open the head of a passing parasite. “Wait. That wasn’t three frames. Yeah, I’m sure, check the file. See… four frames!” (In hindsight, I’m lucky my uncompromising design demands didn’t earn me anything worse than a mocking moniker.)

What was the unknown reason? How could I tell the difference of only a single frame? Why did I insist on the speed at the expense of animation quality? The answer lies in our physiological limitations. What we experience as consciousness — as a stream of consecutive events in a clear and tidy order — is not nearly so neat. It’s a cacophony. A discordant mess. Your senses collect an incredible amount of information; they’re always on, always filling your nervous system with an unrelenting torrent of unfiltered data. It comes in at different speeds and at different times. The visual part is heavily processed, so it comes in late and is usually out-of-sync with the rest of your senses.

Change your mind?

Your brain at work

Your brain is used to this. It is, in fact, extremely good at taking all that information and combining it into a coherent experience. So good, it can take distinct events and merge them. Asynchronous events like pressing a button and seeing a melee attack. This feeling of simultaneity greatly increases the player’s connection with the action on-screen. Instead of a second-hand signal that transmits their intentions, pressing the B button becomes the act of dishing out a knuckle sandwich. But that requires your brain to blur over the delay and merge the movement of your thumb with the satisfying crunch.

Below a certain time threshold, the brain takes two events that are functionally separate — one causes the other and could not happen at the same time — and gives the impression that they were simultaneous. It turns out that threshold is around 100 milliseconds, or a little more than three frames. The reason four frames felt wrong was because the events were experienced as distinct, disassociated actions. The extra time allowed my brain to distinguish between them, in a sense inserting the controller as a step in the process and reminding me that I was not actually the one wearing metallic boxing gloves. So, for games where it is important to give the player a feeling of direct control, be careful of crossing the 100ms threshold.

Design by Numbers: Cooldowns

Maximum Cooldown Time: 6-12 seconds

Purple hippos. Green puppies. Red monkeys. Short term memory is an interesting thing. Yellow birds. Blue horses. It can only hold around seven items (give or take a few, depending on your level of concentration.) Which means for some of you “Orange lizards” is going to drive the first animal right out of your working memory. This is why most game controllers have around seven buttons — White spiders, Pink fish — and most successful action games don’t even use that many. Player’s simply can’t hold all those options in their heads at the same time.

Elephants, on the other hand, NEVER forget

Orange elephants.

But the most important aspect of short term memory isn’t how many options player’s can remember, but how long it takes for them to fade. Or how short. Neurological research indicates that we start to forget details as few as 6 seconds after being introduced to them. After 300 seconds we are only half as likely to remember a concept, and after 10 long minutes… forget about it. (Sorry.) So that means, depending on your reading speed, you’ve almost certainly forgot the first animal by now.

This has a direct application in determining the length of cooldowns for abilities in action games. (In this context, a “cooldown” is the amount of time that must elapse after an ability is used before it can be used again.) The player stores the fact that an ability was used in their short term memory, and if the cooldown doesn’t expire before they forget about it, they may never use it again! It sounds preposterous, but how many times have you seen someone go through a tutorial on how to use an ability, use it successfully once or twice and appear to understand how it works, and then get utterly baffled when required to use it again just a few minutes later? How many times has that happened to you when playing an unfamiliar game? I know it has happened to me more times than I can remember. (Sorry again.)

So, if a cooldown prevents a player from using an ability for more than 6 seconds, there is a risk that they will stop using it entirely. An onscreen indicator that a cooldown has expired helps, but habituation and change blindness limit how effective an indicator can be, especially when it changes very rarely. Repetition helps, because it transfers knowledge of the ability into more permanent memory, but even this is tricky because with a long cooldown what the player will be committing to memory is the fact that the ability is unavailable, making them even less likely to use it. The options, then, are to use very short cooldowns — between 6 and 12 seconds — or rely on a very noticeable reminder when ability is available again.

You missed a spot.

Indicators have their own problems

For an action game, where onscreen indicators are not desirable, long cooldowns lead to mechanics that are often ignored and quickly forgotten. Maroon walrus.

Year One: Uncharted Pornography

Last year I wrote about balancing multiplayer weapons, why I’ll never make a free-to-play game, the best way to exploit platform achievements, and 70+ other topics, but the ones that stirred up the most traffic were giving a 7.5 to Uncharted and “pornography games“. Well, that and when neogaf found out I had left Bungie. You can read all about the hits and misses in my yearly blog report.

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Find what you were looking for?

As you can see, I started the year out strong, largely due to my unexpected retirement, but faded when I got my new gig at Sucker Punch. Turns out starting a new job is a lot of work! But I’ve hit the six month mark (so I can start slacking off) and I’m thinking about updating the site more frequently — hopefully once a week. I’ll be making shorter posts on more narrow topics, which will probably make them more useful to the handful of game designers that read the blog, anyway. You can expect the first new content in the next few days, provided I can resist the pull of more Dark Souls.

Smile for the camera, Toothy!

Who could resist that pretty face?

Jump Kick Designer

By this I am not describing an absurdly narrow area of expertise… I am describing my aesthetic.

It is easy to become lost in the mechanics and machinations of game design. To glorify systems and metrics and equations and definitions and exceptions and minutia — to obsess over design in detail. It is a habit hardened in the same forge as our instincts, back when we first began to hone our craft. We became accustomed to looking at our feet, wary of missteps, and now we believe the road to be the prettiest scenery. But we are no longer in danger of stubbing our toes — so look up! Beyond mere mechanics lies meaning, and deeper design requires more than technique, it demands values.

One way to understand your design values is to find your ultimate game mechanic. What gameplay action most realizes your design aesthetic? What concept always feels fresh? What tool springs to mind for every problem? For some designers, the Dialog Tree is the root of their art. Others appeal to the direct, uncompromising demands of the Headshot. Some designers have hung their entire career on the Fine-Tuned Economy or the Skill Bar, and their focus has led to many fine games.

FOUR jump kicks

What's better than a jump kick?

For me, it’s all about the Jump Kick. Taken individually, both the Jump and the Kick are atomic, fundamental, with an enormous variety of possibilities. The Jump because it completely analog, a fraction lies between safety and disaster. The Kick because it rests on rhythm, the right moment to strike comes at its own pace. For both, the subtlety and skill come before the action, leaving them pure and as simple as any mechanic could be.

But their complexity lies in their combination. Like rice and broth, staples that become more flavorful when enjoyed together.  When performed in sequence, suddenly the Jump has an offensive purpose and a target — it becomes dangerous! And the Kick expands beyond timing and gains an element of range, even into the vertical! Like two horses yoked together, they become much more powerful than the sum of their strengths. The precision required to balance a Jump Kick, and the richness it yields when well-tuned — for me it the apex of design expression.

So graceful

Beautiful in every form

So find your ultimate mechanic and explore your design values. It’s important to be intentional about choosing your aesthetic, or you’ll wander into a pit. You’ll become a Turret Sequence Designer, placing spectacle over freedom. Or a Stamina Bar Designer, with no purpose beyond controlling the player. Or the despicable Time Sink Designer, wasting the player’s time and your own. Maybe it’s acceptable to use these mechanics out of desperation, but they are hardly something to be valued. We should all aim higher! Maybe try Jump Kicking!

 

As Time Goes By

Seems you can find me everywhere but here, this week!

I was the “special guest” on this month’s 343 Industries’ Sparkcast and had a great time reminiscing about the original Halo with David Ellis and Frank O’conner. Halo: Anniversary looks great, but I must admit it’s a little disconcerting, like someone found a bunch of my baby pictures and photoshopped themselves into the backgrounds. “Who is that standing behind you and Mom in all these pictures?” “That’s Uncle Avery, don’t you remember him?” “Not really…”

They were kind enough to invite me to the Halo Fest, which was stellar. A great night meeting with fans, as well as a surprising number of old friends and colleagues. I also got to play Installation 04, the new firefight map. This was a special treat for me since it is based off of the second level of Halo 1, which happened to be the very first encounter space I ever designed for Halo. It took me back and I have to admit, I had a moment there, thinking about those good old times.

Nice hat

343 knows how to party!

I was also practically the fifth seat on Weekend Confirmed. Garnett and the gang read through my post about Diablo III’s real money auction house and had a lively discussion. All in all I think they treated the topic with alacrity, and only called me “crazy” three or four times. They didn’t really get my argument for why I believe the main reason Diablo III is happening is to test a new business model for future Blizzard MMOs, but I ran into Garnett later at PAX and we had fun hashing it out.

And finally, I decided that brevity is the sole of twit-ter and changed from @tipofthesphere to @32nds.  Get it, “thirty seconds”? Like “30 seconds of fun“? Whatever, it’s 9 letters shorter, so now I can add #followme to all of my tweets. (Which reminds me, follow me on twitter!)

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