Friday, October 12, 2007

Game Friday: Open Worlds, Open Museums

First of all, thanks to all who have contributed to the Human + coLAB. We're learning a lot, and your comments and contributions are wonderful. The site will be active until Oct 16, so keep the ideas coming!

And now, back to Game Friday. Gamasutra has a feature up entitled Game Design Essentials: 20 Open World Games. In it, John Harris provides a whirlwind tour through arcades, Ataris, and Nintendos, discussing the design principles and evolution of video games described as “open world” or “exploration." John defines these as

games where generally the player is left to his own devices to explore a large world. What all of these games share is the seeking of new, interesting regions at whatever time the player deems fit. No force forces the player's motion into new areas. There's no auto-scroll, and there are no artificial level barriers.
Wandering around, exploring, collecting experiences… sounds like a museum visit to me! I read the (long) article fascinated, wondering if such a resource might exist for museum exhibitions, charting the top 10 exhibitions that use play, or storytelling, or any other core museum design tenet. So, with the caveat that I've played a grand total of one of these games, here are some real-world lessons I learned from John's commentary on this genre and its evolution.

There must be meaningful interplay between the map and the gamespace.
When you are playing over a vast landscape (say, a 100,000 sq ft science center) with no rules governing sequence of travel, the map becomes an essential counterpart to gameplay. John points to the Nintendo game Super Metroid as a pioneer of the "automap" which fills in with icons to remind you where you've been, where you've conquered, and the places left to explore. Reading this, I was struck by the extent to which players rely on and consult the map as a useful, updated source of information that helps them structure their gameplay. I know plenty of museums that hand out maps, but few that structure those maps as core parts of the visitor experience. It might be interesting to create a map that could be scanned at the entrance and exit from exhibitions to chart your progress, or, simpler, stamps available to mark the exhibitions you've visited.

The second interesting thing about maps in open world games is the design decisions that govern what is included and what concealed. Most game maps do not reveal all of the secret passages, hidden doors, potential obstacles and rewards in each area--they just offer a basic structure. In fact, game designers are constantly trying to strike a balance such that the map is a jumping off point but not a cheat sheet. How might we think about this in museums--giving people maps that give thm the information that gets them interested in an area, with the expectation that there are surprises in store?

There are surprises in store. Every one of the games covered includes easter eggs and hidden wonders, ranging from cool objects to collect to secret worlds to explore. All of these games rely on the expectation that exploration is a worthwhile and fun activity, but designers also recognize that players like to be rewarded for their travels with more than just another interesting landscape. Yes, these rewards can affect gameplay (points, powerups), but just as compelling are surprise characters, corridors, or cut scenes made special by their scarcity. Grand Theft Auto is the master of this kind of reward, so much so that many players abandon the traditional game story to pursue the myriad of colorful characters and opportunities found in random corners of the game space.

Of course, one thing that enables this kind of reward is the near-infinite availability of virtual "space" for players to explore. In a museum, we're limited by the physical. And yet, how many museums take advantage of blank walls and random corridors to reward guests with something new? I love museums that put content in the bathroom--I'm always pleasantly surprised to close the stall door and feel like I'm getting some special, personal content. Similarly, at the Spy Museum, we converted a boring mechanical room, used as a pass-through for large school groups, into a clandestine "spy lab" that looked as if someone had just been twiddling with the oscilloscope. Instead of being a transition room with no content, that room became something private and surprising for the groups that walked through it.

There are meaningful transitions between areas. When the world or museum is vast and has an open architecture, clearly defined thresholds help people understand where one area ends and another begins. John seems conflicted about whether it's better for the areas to share basic design concepts (i.e. rooms of a castle) or be highly differentiated (sewer area versus cloud area versus warehouse area). But in either situation, the transition from area to area is consistently marked by a variety of changes: in architecture, in audio, in difficulty, in gameplay. And unless it's a trip back to the map, the threshold between areas is fluid--there isn't an interstitial no man's land.

Compare this to the experience in most "exploratory" museums. In sequential narrative museums, the exhibits flow from one to the next, following the designed expectation that visitors will follow a particular path. But when there is no recommended path, museum design tends to trend towards no thresholds and no contextualized transitions. Or, if the museum is divided into many individual exhibit rooms, the rooms open out on a central hallway that is more "no man's land" than transition area. Such hallways, like main thoroughfares of malls, are disorienting and can disrupt the flow of the museum experience. In games, on the other hand, exit from one area is clearly marked, rewarded, and signals the entrance into the next. The barriers can be "hard," such as levels, or "soft," like the bridges in Dragonquest 3, which signal entering areas of differing difficulty.

Partway through the article, John comments that:
Action games are about fighting, and the maps are a setting for the fighting to happen. Exploration games are about place, with the fighting being what you do there.

It's interesting to turn this statement towards open world style museums, and think about how we are (or are not) consciously designing the place to be as interactive, feedback-providing, and engaging as the exhibits within. Happy exploring!

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