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Why DriveThruRPG? It’s the largest tabletop RPG download store and you’ll probably end up buying much more than just your copy of Ludotronics. Which would benefit all game designers!
Why not Amazon? Ludotronics isn’t well-suited for the Kindle format. And at €14.99, Amazon’s cut amounts to €9.75. Well, no.
Level Three: Plurimediality
The element from our interactive playing experience model that is associated with this territory is “compelling aesthetics.” Aesthetics, in a game, comprises a lot. Not only graphics, texture, sound, music, writing, voice acting, or look-and-feel in general, to name a few, but also usability in its many forms including player controls. That’s because aesthetics and usability are two sides of the same coin, united by function. Every aesthetic element must serve a function and every function must be an integral part of the game’s aesthetic experience. That’s what the Plurimediality territory, as the intersection of Ludology and Cinematology, is about. It integrates design thinking from the perspective of functional aesthetics (the Ludology part) and the perspective of aesthetic experience (the Cinematology part). One can’t be great without the other. Every element must connect with the theme in turn, and they all have to work together for a holistic user experience that is consistent and compelling.
There exists some overlap between this territory and the Narrativity territory with respect to a number of aesthetic elements. Function and purpose, though, are very different. In a nutshell:
Like emotion or motivation, aesthetics is a multi-dimensional universe all by itself. It comprises thousands of years of varying perceptions of beauty (sociologically), the creation of beautiful objects (artistically), the inevitable and necessary commodification of these perceptions and objects (economically), numerous theories about beauty and what it consists of (philosophically), and the individual, subjective experience and appreciation of beauty (psychologically). Clearly, this would be overkill in the context of designing games. (But it is useful and necessary for reviewing and analyzing video game aesthetics.) Thus, once again, we’ll have to make do with a few simple aspects that we can immediately apply to game design. Those simple, applicable aspects will be skill, style, and subject matter.
An amazing number of games display at least partial incompetence; leave a largely generic impression; or consist of elements that seem to have been assembled by throwing stones on the floor (an ancient divination technique). That’s because skill, style, and subject matter have impressive enemies: complacency, conformity, and clutter. Complacency is when it’s just good enough to be not offensively bad. Conformity is when it lacks differentiation. Clutter is when it lacks focus.
To forge compelling aesthetics, you have to overcome these enemies not once, but all the time. It doesn’t mean, though, that everything has to be “perfect” in obsessive-compulsive fashion—perfectionism has fractal properties and will never terminate. Instead, you should aim for “good,” for “very good,” and for “excellent” in justifiable proportions. Why not only “excellent”? Because not every nook and cranny in your game can be excellent; that’s just another way of falling into the perfectionism trap. At some point, ever-increasing efforts will yield ever-decreasing returns, that’s one thing. But it’s also unsustainable and detrimental to a healthy work-life balance for you and your team during the development cycle.
Nevertheless, in order to create an outstanding game, everything has at least to be good. Moreover, substantial portions of that need to be very good, and some well-chosen areas must excel.
Regrettably, it’s far too easy to drop the ball on skill, style, and subject matter. The primary reason for that is a psychological mechanism that is well-known but counter-intuitive. To illustrate this mechanism, let’s make up an example from a completely different field and pretend you’re applying for a job. Your three major skills are C++, linear algebra, and AI Programming. You have also a very limited command of French. While you wouldn’t necessarily map your proficiency to a scale, certifications and professional expertise make your three major skills correspond to 8, 8, and 7 on a scale from 1 to 10, which adds up to 23. Now you’re tempted to add another 3 by including some basic knowledge of French for a sum total of 26. In other words, you add everything up. After all, it can’t hurt! More is more! And maybe, just maybe, something comes up and your prospective employer sends you, and not someone else, to Paris or Montreal!
That’s the fatal mechanism. It’s fatal because the people who will evaluate your skill set tend to build averages in their heads—i.e., the arithmetic mean. And suddenly, what would have been a perceived value of 7.6 without French becomes a 6.5 with French thrown in. You just lost more than 10 percent of your perceived skill value! (HR people know this, of course, but humans do not always act on their knowledge. Even if they think they do.)
You’ve certainly recognized this mechanism already, and how it is rehearsed over and over during game development. The more half-baked design elements (or “features”) are added by way of this reasoning, often aggravated by publisher pressure, the more your game’s ratings will suffer—rated by critics who build averages in their heads. Indeed, a half-baked design element behaves precisely like the basic knowledge of French from our example: it’s not professional enough (skill), it doesn’t contribute anything really worthwhile (style), and it certainly doesn’t integrate with anything else (subject matter).
You can’t have compelling aesthetics when you implement elements that violate the rules of skill, style, and subject matter. Money will be wasted. The game experience will suffer. Ratings will slide.
Without the consistent and recognizable presence of these three elements, there will be no beauty. Without beauty, motivation will drop. Beauty motivates us. Humans are strongly motivated by beauty. Whether we see it in another human being or in a kitchen appliance, in a sports car or in a jail cell, in a work of art, in a virtual environment, or in a graceful diving catch. And whatever the prevailing concept of beauty happens to be, which can change dramatically over time and across cultures, or whatever lies in the eye of the beholder at a specific moment in time: skill, style, and subject matter are your best tools and your best bet to assemble something beautiful that will motivate and inspire.
But, as mentioned, beauty is also embedded into culture. It’s a social experience that advances and encourages relatedness and the building of communities, so the relatedness/community element from our player motivation model is involved. Then, elements that both function well and fit together support the mastery/performance element from our player motivation model as well. They make it easier for the player to learn and become proficient. Clunky controls, convoluted menus, inscrutable or ambiguous objects, insufferable writing, or unintelligible voice acting are not the kind of playful, unnecessary obstacles that motivate players to overcome them through determination and effort.
This phase’s reading order is fixed for the Introduction, Level One and Level Six.
Level Two through Five are non-linear: you can tackle them in any order you like.