A single button and the sky is the limit

We tend to watch video game trailers and the like during tea time lately. I know it’s kind of pathetic to work on games all day and to look at other people’s work on games for leisure. But anyway. One thing struck me when we were watching bits of the Fable 2 Dev Diary on Eurogamer TV. Something Joss Moore, Senior Combat Programmer (they all seem to have funny titles like that at Lionhead), said about the “One Button Combat” in their game.

For Fable 1, we had loads of different ideas about how we wanted to move forward with the combat. And we always would come up with a new thing and there’d always be the standard problem of how we work this into the controls. It was so limiting thinking “Well, we’ve run out of buttons for that. How will the player actually make this happen?” By stripping back to just using one button it seems the sky is the limit all of a sudden. Anything we can think of based on the context that it’s appropriate, we can do. Just with a single button press.

Sounded very similar to our own rejection of even the “single button press” for The Path.

I believe that this is more than a matter of restrictions stimulating creativity, though. Oddly, video game designers often seem to forget that they are working with computers and that computers can do a lot of things for you. Games often seem to be programmed as complete systems in which the player is asked to perform a function. So, in essense, when playing, we are working for the game, helping it to become complete.

But weren’t computers invented to work for us? Let the computer do the hard work! Even in games. Not only does that free us up to enjoy the art and the story better. This way, the computer can also become an active and creative element in the experience. The computer can become your ally, your friend, while together you explore this strange new virtual world.

12 thoughts on “A single button and the sky is the limit”

  1. I think one of the actual draws of games is the fact that the computer does it all for you, but gives the illusion that you are the one really doing the action.

    Example: after extensively playing Fight Night round 2 I almost was sure that i know how to be a successful boxer. Thank goodness I’m not a hot headed person, or I’d probably have gotten SOMEthing handed to me in a fight. But in some way, that’s what made the game so great, in truth it was doing all the work for me but in the end i definitely felt like I was really some kind of professional boxer.

  2. I think a couple of ideas are at odds here. Making video games less mechanically demanding could be a positive thing in general, but a game like Fable is not the place for it. Sword combat in a video game is familiar to us; it’s engaging because it’s mechanically demanding: I must choose my tactics, time my strikes, block, parry, dodge, and so forth to be successful. Doing all this in a complex way is rewarding; repeatedly pressing one button in different contexts is not. Like Jonathan Blow has said, we shouldn’t be exploring alternate approaches to design by simply diluting familiar genres, but by coming up with entirely new types of games. Saying “let’s take a video game we’re familiar with and reduce it down to mashing one button” is just simplistic and misguided.

  3. I agree that coming up with new types of games is quite noble. But trying to design the existing ones better is not entirely without merit, in my opinion. Especially given how horribly bad most games are designed in terms of interaction.

    You talk about sword combat as if there is only one way to enjoy games: the hardcore gamer’s way. But only a very small percentage of humans falls in that category. I’m not saying that Fable has what it takes to appeal outside of that category. But I do know for a fact that simple combat can be extremely enjoyable by non-hardcore players. Devil May Cry’s easy mode was a lot of fun to us, e.g.

    Also, a game that features sword combat does not have to be about sword combat. Which would be another motivation to reduce the complexity of interaction. I love flying in games, for instance, but in a real flight simulator game I can’t even get the plane off of the ground. So I have zero fun with that.

    I think you and Jonathan may have a very pure gameplay mechanics focus. While other developers think of their games as entertainment in broader terms. The raw gameplay may be secondary to some of the more simple joys that people can get out of an interactive experience. And those need to be designed well too.

    In fact those need to be designed a lot better since bad design often offers greater challenge. And hardcore gamers love that.

  4. Steve: check Ninja Academy here to see how context one-button action can work. One button not equals simple controls, and you still may have to time your strikes and parries or whatever.

  5. To your Devil May Cry example, I wonder: would you have enjoyed Easy mode as much if it were a one-button game, or did you enjoy it because the game still featured complex and expressive combat input but was extremely forgiving vis a vis the player’s lifebar and so forth? It’s not to say that I haven’t enjoyed more-or-less one-button sword combat before– No More Heroes is a wonderful game in my opinion– but the complexity of combat in that game was derived from other sources. Which may end up being true of Fable 2 as well, so maybe I’m jumping to conclusions. And of course games like Zelda featuring swordfighting as a core mechanic without requiring complex input. But the quoted developer implies that the Fable 2 team started from the point of designing a game around a more-involved combat system and pared the core experience back from there, which worries me that they’ll end up with a flattened version of their initial design, as opposed to an engaging game built up around simple combat. Complex combat systems scale down well, while simple ones rarely scale up well to keep more-invested players engaged.

    My expectation is that they would be better off following the paradigm in your DMC4 example: to design combat around complexity of input, but offer less-hardcore players a forgiving mode where mastery (or even utilization) of most aspects of the system is not required to progress in the game. Reducing required player input from the bottom up seems like a poor choice.

    Or, better yet, to get out of the mindset of “how can we make this familiar genre of game palatable to a wider audience through simplification” and instead attempt to design more broadly-relevant core experiences altogether.

  6. I just like Devil May Cry (only the first two) because the lead character did all sorts of spectacular stuff without me doing or knowing anything special. So I could enjoy the humor and aesthetics of the game without getting frustrating by stupid game rules.

    It didn’t seem like Lionhead was trying to make its game more palatable to a wider audience. It seemed like they wanted to improve the design.

    But of course some people will always prefer doors with seven locks and 23 handles. 😉

  7. If i remember right, when i played Fable i played on a PC with my XBOX 360 controller and i remember getting annoyed with how many ridiculous functions i had to map, weapon switching caused buttons to do different things, i had to map three different action buttons… It was absurd, and made controlling the game nearly unwieldy.
    Why can’t they just have an action button that does everything instead of a million buttons that in essence do the same thing? I enjoy a hardcore game every once in a while, but when i’m done playing it a lot times i’ll wonder what i’m going to do with this useless skillset i’ve developed.
    no, that’s why I spend most of my time painting and modeling. Skills i can actually use. And when i play games, i play ones like RE 4 which had a fantastically simple control scheme but incredibly in depth system. (shooting the knees was my favorite).

  8. Ninja Academy also has a Mac OS X version, not linked to from there but downloadable from http://www.hamumu.com/game.php?sec=MAC

    The ‘A’ button actions in the Super Smash Bros. games also come to mind as an example of what can be done with a single ‘action’ button when used conjunction with directional controls. On the other hand, there’s a example of what not to with the interface of (at least the original) MOTHER – it uses a single button but is not context sensitive, requiring the player to choose whether they should ‘Talk’ or ‘Check’ something rather than listing only the actions which actually be used on the object which one is facing. Though I admit that, even to me, such an extremely outdated interface still appeals on account of its sheer retro value. It functions like the unintentional artefacts in old films or early printed books, or perhaps more accurately like the primitive narrative of something like the Epic of Gilgamesh or The Adventures of Prince Achmed, in that they remind us of the historical context in which the work was created – the aspects of something which are firmly of-its-time make the areas in which it was ahead of its time more apparent.

    And now, where this gets really interesting is when these long-outdated techniques are used in contemporary productions for artistic purposes, usually to create the uncanny effect of discovering a long-lost masterpiece from decades ago. In films it is done by Guy Maddin, and now in games the analogue is being done with Nanashi no Gêmu (The Game with No Name) by Square Enix. I suppose Cave Story and Thule Trail also fit into this category… But Nanashi no Gêmu stands out as being one of the few major- developer efforts – indeed, one of the most ‘major’ developers there is – in a genre dominated by fan-made, often freeware creations.

  9. Ilia, in an early prototype of The Path, we had buttons on the screen that the player could click to make the avatar do something (like in The Endless Forest). But this felt wrong to us. It gave the player too much control over the avatar. Which doesn’t fit with the story that we want to tell. So we removed the buttons and let the A.I. decide what the avatar would do when the player lets go of her.

  10. Michaël, does the A.I. controls the avatar only when we let her go? Will our controls be controls or just proposition of what the avatar should do, and sometimes it doesn’t listen, like what you planned for 8?

  11. The Red sisters will not be as independent as the Girl in White character in 8. They are real avatars: you will be able to control where they go directly, as in most 3rd person games. But indeed, if you let go of her, she will start doing things on her own.

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