Game feel is the first fundamental law of game design. Maybe you feel a little contempt for the term ‘game feel’. It’s understandable…

Length: 1039 words, 6-8 minute read

Subject: I discuss a fundamental game design principle and why it is so important.

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Game Feel by Steve Swink

This is the first in a series of articles I’ll be writing on game design theory that I think every designer should understand. There is currently no established syllabus of content for game design academia, which has lead to the widespread belief that there is no game design academia worth studying. And that game design is something arcane, entirely subjective and impossible to describe.

Which has lead to developers trying to reinvent the game design wheel with each new game and loosing sight of the fundamentals in the process.

You would not attempt to study a new phenomenon in physics without first understanding the basic laws and you would not attempt to build a car without knowing the process of those who did it before you. As Issac Newton once quoted – “If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.

And it is the same with game design. Success in game design will be a rarity and maximum success an impossibility unless you are guided by laws as immutable as the laws of gravity.

 

Game feel is the first fundamental law of game design

Maybe you feel a little contempt for the term ‘game feel’. It’s understandable – the concept is not always applied appropriately. The ‘feel’ part is ambiguous.

As described by Steve Swink, who literally wrote the book on game feel, it is not:

1.) A thematic feel (Western feel, contemporary feel)

or 2.) An emotive feel (I feel sad, I feel scared)

“Game feel is the tactile, kinesthetic sense of manipulating a virtual object”

Game feel is literally the way the game feels to control. It encompasses everything from input method, to the way the game responds to input and interacts with physics, to the feedback the player receives in the form of character animations, sounds and special effects.

 

Things that affect game feel

Game feel is a holistic term for a number of variables that affect the way the game feels. Swink groups these into 3 separate sub categories:

 

Real time control – “precise, continuous control over a moving avatar”.

Specifically the time between the player making an input and the computer showing the response on screen must be less than 240 milliseconds. This is the minimum amount of time it takes a person to see the change, think of an adjustment and make a new input. Any longer than that and the player will be attempting to make new inputs before the computer is ready. Images must be displayed in sequence in no less than 10 frames per second in order to maintain the illusion of motion. The computer must also be able to respond continuously to input, at a rate of 100 milliseconds or less.

Sporadic control, input lag or frame rate drops can all diminish the way a game fundamentally feels, so it’s important to get this right from the beginning. Input method should also be considered. It’s much harder to translate touch screen input to precise movements, compared to a joystick. If your game requires feedback faster than the average user can make the input, it’s going to feel too hard to control.

 

Spatial simulation – “Simulated physical interactions in virtual space, perceived actively by the player”.

This includes things like collision detection (hit box shapes and sizes), simulated physics (objects bouncing, gravity, etc) and even level design (spacing and shapes of the world objects relative to the player).

It’s important to note how each of these small variables can vastly affect the feel of a game. A simple 3d platformer game where all the platforms are raised slightly above ground level and spaced a short distance apart will feel much different to a game with platforms raised high above a white void, where the space between platforms is close to the maximum distance the player can jump. This is the case even if you leave all of the actual game mechanics as they are and change only the spacing of the platforms.

 

Polish – “Any effect that artificially enhances interaction without changing the underlying simulation.”

This includes sound effects, particles, camera shake, rumble feedback, animations.

You might find it hard to believe that a sound effect could change the way a game feels but it does. Imagine grabbing an Aku-Aku mask in Crash Bandicoot and not hearing the iconic Oogabooga! sound. Or scoring a stock in Smash with the home-run bat and not hearing that satisfying twang.

Animations too can affect the feel of a game. Without the art, Street Fighter is just a bunch of boxes moving around and changing shape when buttons are pressed.

 

Swink adds that not all games will contain all 3 aspects. A puzzle game like Bejewelled for instance, won’t have spatial simulation and physics. He differentiates between games with true game feel as being those with all 3 aspects, but I think the distinction is less important. Game feel should be improved even in games that don’t cover all 3 aspects. Afterall, what would Bejewelled be without the polish of it’s animations and effects?

 

Game feel is different to gameplay

Gameplay is a nebulous term, but tends to include parts of the game like rule sets and scoring. These things affect the game, but not the feel.

It is useful to differentiate between these terms. If someone tells you your game is just not fun, it’s much more helpful if you can figure out whether the feel is off (the rules and narrative work well but it controls badly/doesn’t feel satisfying) or whether the gameplay is off (feels fine but game is shallow/broken).

Below I’ve linked a talk from Jan Willem Nijman of Vlambeer in which he demonstrates how the game feel can be changed even without changing the gameplay, or touching the underlying game mechanics.

Skip ahead to 7m4s in for relevant content

The full story on game feel

For a more in depth look at the mechanics of game feel, check out Steve Swink’s book on the subject, which I’ve linked below.


Game Feel: A Game Designer’s Guide to Virtual Sensation (Morgan Kaufmann Game Design Books)