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Tension Maps: A Process for Identifying Low-Risk Design Opportunities
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Tension Maps: A Process for Identifying Low-Risk Design Opportunities

January 11, 2012 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[In this article taken from Game Developer magazine, subtitled "A Process for Identifying Low-Risk Design Opportunities", game designer Simon Strange introduces a method for increasing or decreasing player tension in games without altering their fundamental design elements -- a way to tweak a game in order to profoundly change its function.]

All systems are fundamentally in one of three states: growth, decay, or equilibrium.

For a video game, which can be viewed as a system of systems, growth and decay both happen during development. As systems are added, removed, and adjusted, the game more and more resembles its final shape. By the time you ship, your game is (hopefully!) at equilibrium.

Of course, designers cannot simply tweak and tune game systems on a whim. The target equilibrium point (the final state of the game's systems) needs to be identified fairly early on, so that individual systems (and their supporting assets) can be locked down during development. This is a very practical way to reduce risk and manage a project.

Unfortunately, this tends to create an antagonistic relationship between a designer's ability to effect change and the amount of development time left. This reduces the designer's ability to work on game systems during the latter half of the project, which can be very frustrating.

Over the last few years, I've developed a system for identifying and defining low-risk design changes. My goal is to allow design changes during the majority of a project instead of being forced to lock down design elements early on.

By identifying low-risk options in a systematic way, using charts and visual aids (which I discuss in parts 2 and 3), I have been able to describe to producers and publishers in advance exactly why certain changes pose little to no risk to the project's long-term stability. This has afforded me almost twice as much time for fine-tuning our game's core systems, which has resulted in better, and more balanced, more polished products.

Part 1: Defining Tension

The key concept is "equilibrium tension." A system in equilibrium feels the effect of many sub-systems, but each "pull" is balanced by an inverse "pull" of equal magnitude. In the simplest cases, this means two sub-systems opposing one another's effects, but in most cases a combination of sub-systems must be considered. This is exactly analogous to the force diagrams you might have drawn in physics classes.

Imagine a brick resting on a table. The gravitational force on the brick is exactly opposed by the table, so the brick remains in motionless equilibrium. (See Figure 1.) Now imagine your left hand on the left side of the brick. If you press on the brick, the brick will slide to the right. (See Figure 2.) If you use both hands, one on either side, and apply an equal amount of force, you can re-establish equilibrium. (See Figure 3.) The point is that the brick can remain in equilibrium with any magnitude or combination of forces, so long as each force is counteracted by other forces.

This does not mean that all equilibrium states are the same! The "squeezed" brick can absolutely feel the tension from your two hands. In the same way, you can make significantly different experiences within a video game by changing the "tension" on that game's equilibrium state.

Imagine our brick as a playable character in a simple 2D platform game. A player could move the brick left or right, jumping over small obstacles to progress through the world. If the player puts the controller down to take a break, nothing would happen to disturb the brick, just as you might have removed your hands from the physical brick and left it lying on the table.

Now let's add a sub-system, and start throwing fireballs from the right side of the screen every three seconds. The fireballs are a new force which, if unbalanced, would "push" the brick out of equilibrium. To balance this force, the player must simply "push" back by jumping over the fireballs as they appear. So long as the player jumps properly, the game remains in the same equilibrium as before. The difference is that the player is now actively working to balance the game's equilibrium. The more we demand of the player, the more tension we place on our equilibrium state.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Joe Houston
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Interesting perception shift for game design. I'd imagine that after doing this a few times it would add to the instinctive overall awareness of the project even without actually making the diagrams.

I've worked with designers that made intricate flow chart diagrams for combat state machines. Ultimately I think we reaped the same kind of rewards, namely that the design team had a much better awareness of the consequence of change. This "tension" idea is nice though in that it's less formal and therefore more likely to cross system boundaries. It's also very clearly a high level design tool, as opposed to the state machine charts which bled too often into micro managing engineering's implementation details.

Nice article.

Louis Png
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I agree with you, Joe. This diagram certainly helps us to create a map that includes all factors in an organized manner.

I use mindmaps in helping me design, but I realised that after a while it tends to get messy, and you can overlook things you placed wrongly. But the most valueble use is to be able to see what assets we need, and know what to work for from there, and I will recommend using this diagram side-by-side with a scrum board.

Simon Strange
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I had no idea they were going to reprint this here. Wish they'd included a link to my Design Blog...

Oh look, here it is!

Majd Abdulqadir
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Great article, I'll be sure to test this on some of my projects. Trying to chart "everything" a game has usually ends up in a total mess of diagrams and scribbles with me, but this looks like a simpler cleaner way to look at things.

Just a little thing about Figure 5, I think "Visibility" can have "Level of Lighting" pulling at it from the left. I remember some of the rooms in Doom had dark areas with enemies hiding inside.

Dustin Chertoff
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If you look at Doom 3, you can see how they completely changed the tension surrounding lighting - consistently dark rooms with limited flash light use, and the added mechanic of swapping between your flash light and weapon. That made for some fairly tense moments in early game levels. In fact, you could say there was too much tension pulling down visibility, as one of the major complaints about that system was why you couldn't duct tape the flash light to your rifle...

Anna Tito
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Interesting, I really like the notion of tension diagrams. I have actually been writing an analysis on a survival horror game, I think mapping out the in game tension in this sort of diagram would be very useful, thank you.

I also wanted to add an interesting side notion into the mix, the notion of player skill and control complexity in heightening tension. For instance if a player is very skilled at survival horror games much of the tension can be removed because they're very aware of the style of mechanics and how to manage them, however a novice will find the management of resources and controls much more tense. Game difficulty settings help smooth out this tension arc, hence the changes in games like the RB series. I'd be interested to see how the tension diagrams for different difficulty levels differ as well as how you would utilize a broader tension diagram to shape the difficulty levels themselves.

Kenneth Blaney
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Interesting point which isn't made until later is the idea that tension is not always good. Early in the article, you state that tension can in increased in Megaman by adding a timer, however I feel this might actually hurt an otherwise tight game. Generally, the point in Megaman is slowing down and observing patterns, a point which would be lost with a timer.

An even more interesting point is that you note that "Player Health" is the system in highest tension in Doom 2. As a result, changes in the way the player gains or loses health will have dramatic effects on the progression of the game. It is no wonder, then, that a game like Halo was able to reinvent the FPS genre by adding regenerative health.

Finally, there is a major thing to be said about how this could help people integrate story progression into the gameplay. That is, if developers allow for story progression AND story regression, they could add more tension surrounding the story and motivate the player to become more invested in it.