Game Feel: The Secret Ingredient That Brings Games To Life

What does it mean when someone says that a game feels good? You’ve probably heard a jump described as being ‘floaty’, or too ‘sticky,’ but these phrases sound nebulous. They do not refer to an actual tactile sensation necessarily, but something more ethereal: Game feel.

Game designer, Steve Swink, popularized the term in his book of the same name. It refers to the satisfaction that accompanies simply hitting the buttons in a game. That sense of satisfaction comes down to a whole galaxy of visual and audio cues painstakingly engineered into the DNA of a video game and it is relevant to every individual interaction you have with a game, no matter how fleeting.

Nicolae Berbece gave a talk at GDC Europe in 2015 on game feel and pointed out that the feeling that the term describes is not uniquely applicable to games. He gave the example that texting on a smart phone provides feedback to the user, and this feedback features some hallmarks of what we know as game feel. For example, the letters pop out as your finger taps them, your phone plays a subtle noise when you type a letter, and the phone also vibrates slightly. All of these bits of feedback make the experience of texting more enjoyable and more functional for the user by immediately conveying that the input has correctly registered. Still, game feel is the term that has endured and that we’re stuck with to describe all of the bits of feedback built into games that aim to foster and enhance the perception of control over the games we play.

Good game feel allows us to enjoy simply pressing the buttons absent of any greater goals. Just controlling a character can be rewarding in and of itself if the game feel is good. Playing as Lady in Devil May Cry 4, I can amuse myself by just rocket jumping around a level because it feels satisfying in its own right, and that’s not by accident. The punchy sound effect, the split second mid-air freeze right before the second jump comes out, and my favorite flourish – the shockwave that ripples out from the spot where you initiate the double jump – all of these factors enhance the satisfaction of simply pressing the button.

Bad game feel, on the other hand, pulls you out of the experience and highlights the disconnect between your hands tapping away on a keyboard or controller and the actions your character is performing. It leaves the action seeming flat. In Deadly Premonition, when you fire the gun at an enemy the only feedback that the game provides you is a small spurt of blood. There is no screen shake to convey the kick of discharging your weapon, there is no noticeable recoil, and the sounds that the guns make are puny. This leaves Deadly Premonition’s shooting segments feeling limp and lifeless.

Developers often put enormous amounts of time and thought into making each facet of their game satisfying. Shigeru Miyamoto was famous for designing games in what he called a garden. He would start with just a character and what amounted to a box, and would implement animations for that character before anything else. Miyamoto spent months tweaking and fine tuning every aspect of his characters’ basic actions before actually designing the rest of the game the character was going to fit into. For Mario 64, for instance, he spent months tweaking every facet of Mario’s jump states, his wall kicks, and the inertia of his run cycle before any other work on Mario 64 began. The feel of the game had to be just right from the onset of development.

Steve Swink has attempted to quantify game feel by laying out 6 pillars which are as follows:

  1. “Input — How the player can express their intent to the system.
  2. Response — How the system processes, modifies, and responds to player input in real time.
  3. Context — How constraints give spatial meaning to motion.
  4. Polish — The interactive impression of physicality created by the harmony of animation, sounds, and effects with input-driven motion.
  5. Metaphor — The ingredient that lends emotional meaning to motion and provides familiarity to mitigate learning frustration.
  6. Rules — Application and tweaking of arbitrary variables that give additional challenge and higher-level meaning to motion and control.”

Input simply refers to the input device; the controller or mouse and keyboard. We all have controller preferences, things that feel best to us. A non-trivial part of why I prefer arcade sticks for fighting games, and a mechanical keyboard for PC games is the tactile nature of these devices.

Response is as straightforward as it sounds: It is how the character or object you seek to control responds to an input. An example that Swink gives is in a comparison between Mario Bros. and the original Donkey Kong. Mario is controlled via simple digital button presses, but there is a tremendous amount of freedom in how Mario is able to respond to these inputs. For instance, holding the jump button for longer amounts of time can increase his jump height, whereas he will only do a short hop if you tap the button. Donkey Kong, on the other hand, uses an analogue joystick, but that game’s Mario is much less responsive to player inputs.

Context is, “how constraints give spatial meaning to motion.” In other words, it’s how the environment informs your mechanics or rule sets. In lethal league you have a simple square environment to play in. The context this cubic arena lends to your mechanics is that you have surfaces to bounce the ball off of. You aren’t just aiming in a line at your opponent, you’re angling it up and down, and maybe trying to bounce it around off the wall behind your opponent to hit them with it.

Polish is a word that many people use without understanding what it really means. It might be a case that we know something that’s polished when we see it even if we can’t necessarily define it. Polish is the bells and whistles, the flourishes in animation, visual effects, and sound effects that aren’t strictly necessary for a game to play, but add to the experience in an often understated way.

My favorite example of polish comes from a Platinum Games blog post on the development of the original Bayonetta. This is what Bayonetta looks like in motion in all of its polished glory:

And this is what Bayonetta looks like with so many of its added effects turned off:

The second example is dull and lifeless. All of the attacks lack impact. Polish does more than make a game look pretty; it makes a game feel more alive

Our understanding of real world analogues or stereotypes informs our expectations of how things should handle in game. This is the basis of Swink’s fifth pillar of game feel, metaphor. Even if you have never fired a gun, you h

ave a schema cobbled together from other media of how a gunshot is supposed to sound, and you know there is supposed to be recoil. So you have an expectation for how firing a gun in a game should feel. A sports car should handle a certain way versus how a tank should handle, and it’s easy to grasp the differences even if you have never driven either of the two. A sports car being slow and lumbering would feel unacceptable, even though a tank having those same characteristics would be appropriate.

Finally, rules are less about the immediate feel or feedback a game provides and more about how higher order challenges inform the game feel. If a game’s dash feels really good in moment-to-moment gameplay, such as is the case in Mega Man X – that’s great, but you’ll spend the whole game dashing, so it also has to up mechanically to more complex challenges. That immediately satisfying mechanic should be able to provide a solid foundation for the rest of the game.

Others have a less systematic approach to game feel, but understand the importance of it nonetheless. To go back to Nicolae Berbece’s GDC talk titled, “Game Feel: Why Your Death Animation Sucks,” Berbece layered all of the disparate elements of game feel for the death animations in his game, “Move or Die”, and he did so in a live environment starting from scratch.

At the beginning of the demo accompanying his talk, characters would poof out of existence in an instant when they died. He then added a fade out animation, movement sound effects, and a combination of multiple sound effects that play on death. Later he added ‘death paint’ which splatters on the ground at the point of death along with splashy particle effects. Berbece finished up by adding a slight screen shake, some chromatic aberration, a shockwave ripple, and a line of code to tell the controller to rumble when the corresponding character dies. Those are all of the disparate elements that went into one single aspect of, “Move Or Die’s” death animations feeling, ironically, alive.

So whenever someone says, “This game just doesn’t feel very good,” or when someone praises a game as “feeling great,” you should at least now have some understanding of what exactly that means in a medium where there is very limited actual tactile feeling. Game feel is what makes the buttons you are pressing and the characters you are controlling come alive.

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