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Functional Overlap and Game Design

25 Dec 2017

One of my top 5 favorite spots on earth is fictional. I mean the location itself exists, and it represents an approximation of reality, but in the end it is a lie.

The Mexico pavilion at Disney’s Epcot Center.

There are several dozen things this pavilion does right, in terms of creating a convincing atmosphere. The lighting is precisely tuned to be an evocative -if stylized- outdoor environment, the architecture is authentically Mesoamerican (to my highly American eyes) and in standard Disney fashion all of the details are polished.
But the other pavilions do this too. The UK has beautifully architected city streets that look as if they were transported from directly across the pond. Norway’s pavilion has a stunningly rendered fishing village at the exit of their boat ride, which should feel every bit as lifelike and authentic as Mexico’s, if not more so.
 But they don’t stand up.

I firmly believe Mexico stands alone because of its overlapping use of the given area, creating an atmosphere where patrons of each separate experience inhabit the same space as guests in the others.

Canada’s pavilion is well themed, and the entrance to the Circlevision 360 movie is an idyllic approximation of the Northern wilds, full of roaring water and Northern flora. But diners in its restaurant have no relation to guests in line for the movie, or in the gift shop out front. All three experiences are separate and distinct. Norway’s pavilion is probably the best to parallel with Mexico’s, given that its main feature is was also a semi-historical boat ride. When presented with the requirements of fitting in a restaurant, gift shop, and an attraction, 9/10 designers would take the Norway approach. A large central plaza area to create your exterior facade, with separate doorways leading into the banquet hall, ride entrance, and souvenirs. (Likely designing the ride exit to also funnel into the store. ) As an ardent Planet Coaster fan, I do exactly the same. It’s the standard layout for any themed area - because it’s simple, quick, and allows for 3 separate designers to work on 3 separate projects. It’s what allows a royal banquet hall -ostensibly part of a castle- to butt directly against an adventure that embarks with a 19th century romanticized viking crew, against a gift shop with modern Scandinavian fare. With detailed enough theming in the corridors between areas, visitors can pass from concept to concept “seamlessly”. (In Norway’s case, the ride itself functions as this time machine; though guests on foot don’t get this part of the narrative) This essentially is just a smaller fractal of Walt’s hub and spokes design for Disneyland as a whole park.

But while that separation of concerns is ideal for individually themed lands - it only serves to dissect areas that should likely be more uniform in their theming. In an alternative vein, Mexico’s pavilion follows a rule of aesthetic uniformity. The Cantina, shops, and boat dock are all integrated into one tightly woven location. Rather than designing three separate themes around various eras of Mexican history, one narrative was decided. All historical necessity is experienced during the course of the boat ride, safely away from the central area. The plaza is left ambiguously drifting in time, with a natural landscape and timeless Central American architectural elements that could be found in any year since the distant stepped pyramids were first erected by the Mayans.

This uniform aesthetic narrative allows for the most powerful part of the pavilion- the functional overlap. The integration of theme doesn’t just maintain one design, but it allows those designs to butt up against each other and play off the individual experiences. The “outdoor” plaza shopping center is separated from the dining area only by a low plaster wall, which looks an entirely natural division between the areas. The effect is that of a real-world environment, where space has been used to the fullest extent and street vendors have set up to the very limits of the square. The pavilion’s main attraction, El Rio Del Tiempo (alternatively, “Gran Fiesta Tour Starring The Three Caballeros“) , departs from a dock nestled just left of the dining area. It’s as if visitors are merely walking down to the water’s edge for an evening boat ride, much the same as any riverfront city. The boats then depart and make full use of the environment space, drifting lazily around the peninsula and by the restaurant, only feet from the actual diners eating at a riverfront cantina somewhere in Central America and tourists strolling between scattered stalls of shop trinkets and colorful woven blankets.


Test test.


Every piece of the pavilion plays into, and accentuates the others. The sum is far greater than that of the individual parts, and the variety of people doing a variety of things gives the atmosphere actual life, rather than the forlorn feeling of walking through a set piece.

The literal translation of this into videogame design would be that of a common social space. Few games take this approach, due to both the very specific application cases (Only available to massively multiplayer games, with player-controlled avatars and gameplay based around dimensional space) and the overhead of implementing a system that performs well with so many entities in one location. Interestingly enough, Ubisoft’s Steep is one of my favorite examples of doing this well. The gameplay itself is average. The world looks stunning and the act of snowboarding or wing suit flying is fun enough - but would likely wear out quickly if not for the game’s central conceit: the world is wide open; in that you can explore anywhere you want to go (if you can see that mountain, you can go climb it and ride back down) and it is full of other players taking their own routes down the slopes. This overlap of player activity makes the world vibrant and full of activity and actual human interaction. It’s amazing how much that simple design choice takes the game from commonplace to one worth experiencing. Snowboarding down a vast arctic expanse is much more entertaining when other players are hang-gliding and skiing past you at the same time.

So how does this apply to my game?

…Well- it doesn’t.

But it can.

The gameplay of Wordabeasts doesn’t inherently enable any sort of this overlap. We only have the one game mode with 3-8 players at a time, with all players in the same group. I’m convinced that a key aspect of what makes this overlap concept so inherently entertaining is the variety of activities occurring. So while a Disney boat ride looping back around on itself to let you pass another vehicle is still a fun interaction - the combination of different activities such as dining or shopping layering together into a multi-modal combination is what allows for the heightened sense of atmosphere. The entertainment in Wordabeasts is driven by interaction between people in the same real-life physical room as you. Submitting a clever or funny clue is punctuated by the actual reactions of those around you, and supports most of what makes the game enjoyable. This isn’t a negative point, but it doesn’t lend itself to the type of interaction overlap I’m discussing here.

But just because that’s the cornerstone of the gameplay doesn’t mean we can’t integrate functional overlap in other aspects. If we ever (against all odds) had the player base to justify the development effort, I would love to integrate a spectator system for other expeditions in progress. Jackbox does this halfway in their Party Packs by providing the ability to spectate games if you know the proper room code. This has improved with every pack, but still lacks the in-game browser. (This is potentially to avoid more adult content leaking into otherwise family-friendly rooms and threatening their ESRB rating). Ideally though, I think that an in-game system that gave insight to other games as they began would fit well. Integration into the game’s theme would be crucial, à la the Mexico Pavilion. In keeping with the Wordabeasts jungle safari aesthetic, this would probably take the form of moving the main menu to a more common-area tent, acting as an expedition HQ room where you could see other vehicles driving away in the background as you load supplies onto your own. CRT televisions stacked on a nearby table could show other games as they progress, with live views of players submitting clues and guessing. Even if it were just background “noise” on the main menu, the game would feel far more alive with that experience overlap. It likely won’t ever happen for this game, but it’s a concept I would love to explore more in the future.


When all is said and done, there’s almost certainly a degree of overanalyzing here. The Mexico pavilion can be my favorite simply because of some intangible resonation with me, that isn’t at all due to the logistical design and is far more likely just because I like the shade of red lighting up the pyramids and I happen to be at Epcot. But I’m certain that the overlap holds at least some percentage of responsibility in the effectiveness of the area as a whole, and I plan on continuing to strive for that ideal intersection in my own creative work.



pyramid


Also stay tuned for a Wordabeasts post-mortem sometime in the next month or two. Tentatively titled “How to sell 18 copies of your game and worry entirely too much about esoteric design decisions as they apply to Disney World”

         

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