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Ballroom Dancing and Video Games

What does this...

...have to do with this?

Quite a bit, I believe. Let me explain.

I don't really know anything about ballroom dancing specifically, but I have taken many lessons in partnered swing dancing and some salsa lessons. All of these partnered dance styles have (at least) one thing in common: the dichotomy of the leader and the follower. The leader is "in charge" of the what happens broadly through out the dance (that usually lasts for one song). The follower is meant to, well, follow what the leader wants to do. If the leader does a good job, he (yes, I'm stereotyping for convenience) will execute an interesting sequence of moves that is full of variety and that goes along well with the music. He will also - and this is extremely important - give the proper cues at the proper times to the follower so that the follower can properly respond to his leads. Such cues involve subtle physical motions, such as a gentle but firm push on the waist to indicate that he wants her to spin a certain way. The follower's job is to know these cues and respond to them in a timely manner. When both leader and follower do a good job, both people have a good time, and that's how babies are made. All of this, of course, requires experience. The leader must be experienced in giving cues, and the follower must be experienced in responding to cues. This is what lessons and practice are for.

In video games, it is the designer's job to create a sequence of experiences for the player in a way that is well-paced and well-communicated. The designer may have some great ideas, such as "Oh it would be awesome if the player could take this pumpkin, smash this guy with it, and then kick the other dude in the face and say 'Halloween came early this year, punk!'". But how can we make the player have that awesome experience? You could put it in a cut scene, but that would completely nullify the experience. It would be the difference between watching other people dance versus actually dancing yourself. What you really need to do is to give the player enough cues at the proper times so they know to perform those actions and thus have an awesome little experience. Of course, you also need to train the player ahead of time to perform each of those actions in the right way with the corresponding cues, just as a follower needs to know how to actually do the basic moves (such as spins, steps, etc.) and what the cues are for those. But if you have all those ingredients, you can have the player doing some awesome stuff just by giving hints and nudges here and there. You can then design some awesome sequences, synchronized with music and graphics and what not, that the player will go through with high probability (some followers just suck - can't do much about that).

I think most great games do this to a large extent. One of my favorite moments in gaming was in Shadow of the Colossus: I was fighting the big flying worm thing with wings, and I wasn't quite sure how to get on it. But after a bit of thought, it clicked with me: I needed to get on my horse, chase it down, ride up to its wings, and then jump off my horse. The game never had me doing this before, but I had done all the pieces of it. Then with some subtle hints, such as the low position of the wings, the sequence of actions suddenly clicked with me. This sequence of actions is usually the stuff of cut scenes, but here I was actually doing it. It was thrilling, to say the least. Moments like that are why I love video games.

This is nothing new here - good game designers know that you need to train the player and then use that training in the future. But I think it's an interesting way of looking at it that offers some interesting insights (to me at least). For example, a lot of good dancers don't consciously think about cues. I'm not very good at swing dancing, and I had a girl tell me once, "I'm not sure what you need to do, but you're not doing it and I don't know that you want me to spin here." So there's almost a perceived psychic connection between two good dancers, and as a game designer if you can establish that with your players, that's pretty damn cool.
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About stevesanone of us since 11:25 PM on 02.22.2008