Masters of your universe.

I remember a time where holding up a plastic sword and yelling “By the power of Greyskull” was enough to inspire wonder into the hearts of a group of people playing pretend. The days of He-man might be long gone, they certainly are for me, now a days most of my play experiences are gatekept by the limits of programming, and not of my mind. Still, the immersion often feels the same.

In Staffan Björk and Jussi Holopainen’s book Patterns In Game Design, they break immersion down into 6 categories: Sensory-motoric, cognitive, emotional, spatial, psychological, and sensory.

Moving forward in game design, given the new technologies that are on the horizon, I think that the sensory-motoric barrier to immersion will cease to be as much as an issue in designing for the new playing field that is coming.

What do I mean by new playing field? Well, video games have always been operated on a simple duality. The screen/controller. The user has an input device: I prefer the exactitude of the keyboard/mouse, others the pseudo-ergonomy of the game system controller, and we both stare at screens be they a tv or a monitor. On the old playing field each game system, and almost every game have a different control model, reinforcing this sensory-motoric barrier. On the new playing field that barrier will be reduced from a wall to a speedbump.

Once we really “get into” a game, once it gets it’s immersive hooks into us, we are able to get past that controller/screen split and into the deeper experiencing of a game. The biggest obstacle in trying to get a user past that split and into the immersion is often learning the game’s controls. Take the example of jumping into a new fps for the first time. The challenge of going from a jungle environment to a space station, or from hunting enemy combatants to escaping Zombies is nothing compared to dealing with a game that doesn’t map sprint to the left shift key. The lack of story of an Unreal Tournament when compared with the epic space opera of a Mass Effect is not nearly as likely to break immersion as is having to check the manual to find which key your health packs are bound to.

Sprint being bound to left shift is a great example of this. I worked QA on a game that had sprint mapped to L-Ctrl and crouch mapped to Shift – something felt wrong when playing it. Why ask the user to re-wire their brain when we could just re-program the key binds? I did a quick bit of research and was able to show that be that Sprint on L-Shift was as expected as having movement mapped to WASD and we made the change.

Currently the best way to deal with this is to allow the user to map their controls as they wish (ie. I’m a proponent of putting crouch on Mouse 2, in fact I think this should be the default!). However in the new gaming world people will have games running concurrently on their smart-phones, lapbook/ipad variants, televisions with unified operational tools and eventually -thanks to some kind of implants- we’ll control our virtual selves through our brains/optical nerves direcly. These control biases will no longer be an obstacle to immersion.**

Why is that? Well, because people out there demand simplicity in their technology. Apple hit this on the head with their iPod control wheel. One big button that you can spin and hit the edges of to get differing effects. For new technology to excel, it will have to be intuitive to the user allowing a unified control scheme should emerge. Your email system will have a different skin, and different code underneath that skin, but the hot-keys to send or hyperlink will be consistant across all makes/models. Why not apply that kind of sensible thinking to game design.

In a world where we can now actually wield a plastic sword not only for make-believe, but also to make Link swing his sword on our screens, I look forward to a day when UI design is the closest a game designer has to get to worrying about controls. And then we’ll be able to get rid of the user’s stumbling block of learning how to navigate our universe, and instead get right into mastering it.

**Paul S. Otellini, the CEO of intel, spoke at some length about a universal control scheme in this recent interview with Charlie Rose.

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