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Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Effective feedback is something I think we don't notice in a game until it's missing, and even then sometimes we don't recognize it as the source of our dissatisfaction. With any game, though, we want to feel like our actions have reasonable consequences. On some level, that's about ensuring that the game makes logical sense and doesn't have too many elements of randomness to be completely out of the player's hands. But at a much more basic level, we want to feel when we press the B button like Link is swinging a sharp sword. We want the camera to rock and the sound to fade to ringing when a grenade goes off next to us. Good feedback tightens the connection between the player and the game across the controls. Bad feedback (as well as bad controls) makes you feel muddied in the interface, and keeps you out of the experience.

Two big things feedback can do are 1) tell the player that the action they're taking is appropriate (that is, accounted for by the game and potentially helpful to the player) and 2) immerse the player in the world they're exploring. Number 1 can come in a few forms. Say you're playing a game where you pieces of equipment, each mapped to a button, and some are available only in certain locations - say you can only draw/use your sword outside. When you're outside, you want to be able to draw and swing that sword merrily by pressing the button it's attached to - the feedback is simple enough, we see the sword swinging and possibly enemies dying. When you're inside, if the sword is disabled, it's easy enough for the dev just to not let you draw it. However, it's helpful to have some indication that the button still works even it doesn't let you draw; flashing a little warning or playing a noise (like a low buzzer) can let you know that your message was received, your interface is working, and the game says no. Another good example are the places in Closure where you can't drop objects; when you press the drop button, the wall lights up behind you and an angry buzzer plays. If a button is supposed to be used in the game, it's nice to know that it's working even if it doesn't do what you want it to right now. Feedback can also be used to tell the player they're doing something correctly. In the Pokemon games, you may use an attack on the enemy that is more or less effective against that enemy than normal. When a not-very-effective attack lands, the sound is duller and lower-pitched than a regularly-effective attack. When a super-effective attack lands, the sound is higher-pitched and lasts longer. The attacks are even punctuated differently, with the phrases "It's not very effective..." and "It's super effective!" reflecting the excitement of the moment.

For a certain generation of gamers, this phrase is an adequate substitute for paternal affirmation.
Using feedback in this way reinforces player successes - it helps them learn how to play the game well, and it comes to be a small, but perceptible, reward for doing so.

The immersion factor of feedback can't be overstated, and it's important in every way your character/player can interact with the world. Going back to Zelda again (it just does this so well!), pick any game in the franchise and think of what happens when you hit an enemy with your sword. For 2d games, a little sound will play, and the enemy will flash different colors and sometimes shrink back or bounce away, giving you the impression of combat and simulating damage - after all, in real life enemies DO change color when you hit them with a sword. In more recent entries, there's sometimes a rumble (tactile feedback) and a flash of light/enemy changing color or flinching (visual), and sometimes there's even a brief slowdown at the moment of impact that emphasizes it. The sound has a big effect too: Link's sword usually makes a swishing sound as it passes through empty air, but when it hits an enemy it makes a shearing sound like it's passing through something, and sometimes a triumphant note plays in the music.
Aesthetic feedback doesn't even need to be this overt. Little things - dust clouds under the characters' feet, the ice crystals that form on Samus' gun arm when she uses her Ice Beam, or Myst IV's delightful ability to tap objects and hear a sound - can be used to make the game feel like it's reacting to the player. Of course little artistic flourishes of any kind can help make a game memorable, but in the next game you play try to focus on what feedback is a specific result of your actions. Pay attention to what behavior is encouraged and what behavior is discouraged, and how, and why. I've heard it said of table-top role-playing games that the goal of the person leading the game to get the players to do what he wants them to while thinking it was their idea. The same concept applies in video games: we want players to think they've figured something out on their own, to be proud of their accomplishment - but we want to guide that learning, sometimes quite subtly. Feedback is one of the best tools developers have for that.


  1. Paternal affirmation is a powerful thing. Coincidentally, when my history essay was due, I asked my dad if he thought I was persuasive with my arguments concerning the future of armed warfare after the Battle of Hastings. "It's super effective!". I'm pretty sure he had no idea what I was talking about.

    The grapefrukt guys gave a decent talk on "juicy" games being inherently more fun. They are proponents of going overboard on feedback in order to catch attention and generate excitement while playing - two effective ingredients for making a fun game.

    Here's the talk:

    And the game:

  2. I like thinking about the flipside of this as well. Are there times when it pays to cut out the feedback? In movies, the sound often cuts out happens after grenades or munitions hit close to the main character. If we want players to be unsettled, should we cut the feedback sounds? What if they go into space?