Thursday, August 26, 2010

A Look at Games - Flower

Before moving to more serious matters considering flow and user interfaces, let's take a look at a one particular flow experience. In other words a game, and more precisely, Flower. The game has received high acclaim all around, so I too had to see for myself what it's all about.

In Flower, you control a single petal, and your objective is to collect more petals by guiding yourself into flowers, at the same time bringing life back to the world. Some flowers open the way forward, allowing you to move into new areas. The basic concept might not sound very impressive but playing the game is a highly immerse experience for many reasons. First of all, audiovisual presentation of the game is really artistic and well-thought. Go on, find a game play video from YouTube and come back here. Disagree in the comments if you feel like it. Either way, for me the key point is how lifelike everything feels when you, as a stream of petals, are flying through the landscape, parting tall grass as you go.

Much like Lumines, which I discussed in my previous look at games, Flower also combines background music and sound effects as a for of composition. Guiding yourself through a line of flowers successfully creates a pleasant musical piece which further enhances the thrill from visual effects. Flower rewards success instantly - and not with points, better weapons or anything like that - but rather with a powerful feeling of satisfaction. This is a good sign that flow is happening. Of course, it's not just the feedback that makes immersion in Flower so strong. So, what is the key?

The fact I've been withholding is the way Flower is controlled. It uses just one button in combination with the PlayStation 3 controller's motion detecting capabilities. To change direction, just tilt the controller. Of course it's not a new idea, the Wii has been around for quite a long time already, but in Flower it really really works. You see, it's actually not very easy to control a flying stream of petals using motion detection, especially when they are flying quite fast. There is challenge, and the beauty here is that much of the challenge comes from the controls; the game challenges the player in a very physical way. And of course, the levels in the game do get harder.

Harder in a sense at least. I'm not sure if you can actually fail in Flower. No matter how long it takes to get that winding flower path collected, whether you get it on a single pass or twenty passes, the game itself does neither reward or penalize you. The player can set his own goals, getting better and better all the time, and there is almost always a longer path of flowers to collect on a single pass. That is, if you want to do that. It's entirely possible to just enjoy Flower as an experience, and sense of achievement can always be found. When you do a sharp turn, you can see the tail of your petal stream, in all its colorful glory, and realize that it is your creation.

Flower does a good job of inspiring flow. The challenge always fits the player's skills, as long as you're willing to set your goals (which happens almost automatically anyway). The game provides instant feedback and sense of achievement. Finally, the game allows you to marvel at what you've just created. That said, it's not without flaws. I didn't like the second half nearly as much as the first half, as it becomes more challenge-oriented. But it's not a long game, so go ahead and just play it now, if you own a PlayStation 3.

But wait! What can interface designers learn from it? Everything. If I could make a user interface as elegant and beautiful as Flower, I think I could stop my research right there.

Friday, August 13, 2010

And That's how I Flow

Guess which book I've been reading lately. I've accumulated some topics for blog posts lately, so I'll try and put them into writing in the near future. Starting with this one obviously. So the book I just finished was, if you didn't guess already, Flow - The Psychology of Optimal Experience (Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi) which is a book that gets mentioned constantly when discussing game design. There is, of course, a very good reason for that. In Flow, the fundamental guidelines to enjoyable game play are laid out, although it's not a book about games. The book in itself is not particularly lengthy, and if you just want the fundamentals, reading the first three or so chapters should do the trick (the rest is for you who want to know how to enjoy life to the fullest), but I'll go through the fundamentals very quickly.

Flow is the most enjoyable state of the mind, and flow is a very descriptive word for this state of mind as well. You remember those hours you spent solving that really hard problem at work? They did seem to go past awfully quick, right? That's flow, basically. When we are really focusing on a task that is challenging enough for our skills, that's when we reach flow. While in flow, we can forget about everything unrelated to the task at hand and avoid what is called psychic entropy, or disorder in consciousness. The activity and the person become one entity. Flow exists between boredom and frustration; if the activity becomes too easy, it's boring, and if it becomes too difficult, enter frustration. To stay in flow, the challenge of the activity needs to grow along with the person's skills.

Of course, some people can turn any activity into flow by designing their own goals within the activity while some people can't find flow even in the best circumstances. However, if the activity itself is designed with flow in mind, the state should be far easier to reach. This is why the concept of flow is extremely important for game designers. Games provide a continuous series of challenges and associated long (e.g. finish the game) and short term goals (e.g. defeat the boss). I will go over goals and goal forming in a later entry. In the optimal situation, a game can continuously provide interesting challenges to the player as her skills develop. Reality of course typically falls a bit short of the mark because player skills develop at a different pace. To compensate, difficulty regulation strategies are typically present in games.

The interesting question here is can we use interface or application design to improve the chances of turning tasks into flow activities. I have actually visited this topic earlier in several blog entries, although I didn't use the term flow activity as I hadn't read the book yet. One really simple idea that has been evaluated in at least one research paper* by researchers at Nokia Research and University of Tampere is to add achievements as an additional way to track one's progress. What makes games like Tetris or pinball machines highly addictive is the ability to compare your results to previous achievements of yourself or others. Score keeping is a really powerful feedback machine. When you get more points or break your time record you immediately know that you have improved.

Unsurprisingly, proper feedback is mentioned as one requirement of a flow activity. If we take all the requirements as inputs into a design process of an application and interface, what will come out? Will the outcome make it easier for users to get into flow state when working with that application? I'm thinking these could be among my key research questions. One challenge is to find a way to integrate flow activity requirements into a design process, and another one is to evaluate the results. In this entry I have been merely scratching the surface of things like goal forming, difficulty regulation and achievements. I will delve deeper into these subjects later on and see what interesting things I can dig out. In the meanwhile, I suggest everyone to check out this book. It really is important.

* The paper I'm referring to is "Applying Game Achievement Systems to Enhance User Experience in a Photo Sharing Service" (Markus Montola, Timo Nummenmaa, Andrés Lucero, Marion Boberg, Hannu Korhonen).

Monday, August 2, 2010

A Look at Games - Lumines Supernova

I've been back from vacation for a week now, so I guess it's time to get back to this blog as well. Last weekend I finally got a router and was able to share my internet connection to the PlayStation 3, granting me access to PSN store and some games I've been wanting to play. Some of these are quite relevant to my research, so you will be most likely seeing posts like this one in the future as well. So let's get this series started with Lumines Supernova.

I took initial interest to Lumines when I was doing research about games where audio plays a bigger role than usual. Lumines is a relatively simple block dropping game, where you as the player need to form squares of blocks with the same color. The playing field is constantly swept over by a moving beat line, and full squares are eliminated only when the line passes over them. The more squares you can eliminate in a single sweep, the more points you get. Sounds simple, right? In other words, it belongs to the category of highly addictive games like Tetris and Bejeweled. But Lumines might be even more successful in this. Why?

Audio in the game is not simply just separated into background music and sound effects. Every skin (kind of a level) in the game has its own music and effects, which are in fact part of the background music. The music being played is a relatively simple loop but when things start happening on the screen, the player, through his block manipulating actions, becomes the composer. Rotating blocks creates small sounds, forming squares bring forth a little more dramatic effect, and of course the most notable sounds are generated when the beat line erases complete squares. On the paper it might not sound very impressive, but the gaming experience is from an entirely another dimension.

The game pace changes over time and the blocks start dropping faster and faster. In the beginning everything is quite relaxed, but sooner or later things start to happen so fast that complete planning becomes impossible and towards the end it's all just hectic panic. In the beginning, when the game itself is relaxing, the player can pay more attention to the complete audiovisual experience that is Lumines, enjoying the results of his actions portrayed in the background music. This occupies the player right off the bat. Of course, towards the end, the brain becomes so occupied with dropping blocks that no attention is paid to the music. For me it gets hazy after the fifth or sixth skin, and I have no recollection of what kind of music is played from that point on. Another neat thing is that when the game becomes more hectic, things start to automatically happen more quickly - because those blocks are dropping fast - and the music becomes increasingly more intense.

And now the interesting question: what can we learn from it? It would be interesting to try out something similar in user interfaces. Play background music and tie part of it to user actions. Produce small sounds when typing letters in a word processor, complete with a longer sound when a full line is written. Or a paragraph. Whatever the implementation, the key idea would be to use this kind of music generation to increase motivation. I think it would be most suitable for an application domain where user actions are relatively simple and doing them quickly is possible and desirable. In a way, something like this would make the rhythm and flow of work quite concrete.

While waiting for someone to come up with a working prototype, I recommend you to try Lumines (any version) or another game that uses the same kind of background music system such as Rez or Chime (neither of which I have been able to play yet, but will in the future as soon as I get an Xbox 360).