Interaction Density: Has the Player Got Plenty to Do?

Game designer Steve Ince takes his turn to discuss the problems found in the adventure genre and in games in general. Getting the right level of what he calls "Interaction Density" is crucial when developing a game. This lack of density in the adventure genre is what's hurting it, Steve says.

by James Brightman on Tuesday, March 15, 2005

For a long time now, people have been writing off the adventure game genre as dead or dying. It's increasingly frustrating that people would feel this way -- particularly about a genre that was once one of the most popular -- until you realise that many game players feel adventure games are boring. But why would players think so when so much care and attention goes into the creation of these games?

I recently read Lisa Sikora's My Turn article, Content is Queen and my initial thought was that adventures should be pulling in the female gamer like no other genre. If it was simply down to content, this would indeed be the case. For instance, a number of adventure games contain far deeper, richer female characters than Alyx from Half Life 2. Kate from Syberia and April from The Longest Journey are two examples that immediately spring to mind.

So, if we already have the richness of content, with stories that are regularly more complex and involving than any found in even the best action game, and empathic female characters, why is it that adventures are failing to appeal to the female gamer in large numbers? What is it about them that fails to appeal to gamers in general?
A large part of the answer is, I believe, a lack of "Interaction Density." By this, I mean that there simply isn't enough for the player to do at any one time.

If you make your own soft drinks by adding fruit concentrate to water, or to carbonated water in one of those fizzy-drink-making machines, and don't follow the directions or use quality concentrate, the drink you make always disappoints. Buying cheap varieties of concentrate or eking out the expensive concentrate never gives you the flavour that you desire. The problem with eking out even the best concentrate is that the more you do so, the worse the flavour tastes, until you reach a point where plain old tap water actually tastes better than the over-diluted drink.

In the drink we call video games, Interaction Density is the fruit concentrate that gives the rich flavour we all crave. If Interaction Density is not high enough, the gameplay feels diluted and doesn't satisfy our needs for a game filled with a rich flavour of regular input.

I'm sure we've all seen comments in forums and articles which suggest that games aren't as much fun as they used to be. This is often interpreted as a nostalgia-influenced feeling, or that recent games genuinely lack the quality of gameplay their predecessors had. I believe that, although there may be an element of these things, in the main it's unlikely to be the case.

To me, the quality of the gameplay is high in the vast majority of games, but often that quality is being spread too thinly.

If we look back to the early 1990s, much of the size of a game was limited by the fact that they were published on floppy discs. This meant that every location or level in a game was made to work hard for its keep. For an adventure game, each of the labs, bars, shops, alleys, etc was filled with items to collect, characters to talk with and background objects to examine. Gaining access to a new location was always such fun in itself because the player would spend time simply interacting with the environment and everything within it. When this exploratory interaction was combined with the actual gameplay of working through the developing story, it meant there was always plenty the player could find to do at any given moment. Even when the player became stuck on a puzzle, they generally knew that the solution would be fairly close by because there were only a handful of locations you were likely able to visit.

As technology has progressed and the delivery of games now happens through the media of CDs or DVDs, the amount of game world that the player can explore has increased tremendously. On the face of it, the idea of having a large world to investigate has an immediate appeal, but the downside is that, because the amount of gameplay has not increased in proportion, the Interaction Density has reduced to a point where plain old tap water is looking pretty good.

Wandering around large, open environments quickly pales if there is nothing of interest to occupy the player's attention. How long will the player wander through snowy mountains or along desert paths before the lack of interaction opportunities makes even the best location graphics seem dull?

There are plenty of games which suggest their creators understand the problem of low Interaction Density, even if it's only on an intuitive level. However, the common solution often appears to be one of filling the game with generic, repetitive gameplay. The best games, of course, use this generic gameplay well and vary the setups and scenarios to create the variety the player craves from the generic components. Half-Life 2 is probably the current best example of this. Where I think games abuse their own generic gameplay is when the player simply has to contend with gameplay that's either been thrown together with little thought, or fight through countless random battles that can, at times, become more irritating than having nothing to do.

What, though, happens in an action game when the player has cleared the level of opponents? If they haven't obtained the one item that allows them to progress they could be stuck in a section of the world that now offers them little to interact with. The Interaction Density has suddenly dropped from very high to very low. Providing the player isn't held up for very long, this change of pace can be very welcoming, giving the player the chance for a breather, but could become frustrating if they begin to feel that all they are doing is simply wandering around aimlessly.

In the eyes of many players -- particularly those who have come to expect, unknowingly, a high level of Interaction Density -- adventure games are increasingly less appealing. Although the creators of all types of games should ensure that the Interaction Density is as high as possible, the creators of adventures have much more work to do to ensure that players have a large number of things to keep them constantly occupied. Adventures, by their traditional definition, cannot rely on the inclusion of generic action gameplay and so must either provide more gameplay within the expanded worlds or compact those worlds to increase the Interaction Density. Adventures do not have bad gameplay; it is simply spread about too sparsely, which has a negative affect on how it is perceived.

A game that provides a rich mixture of content, through a combination of strong story, compelling characters and well-balanced, intelligent gameplay should always draw people in. When all these aspects are delivered in a way that ensures there is always something to keep the player's interest alive, then the creator will have something in which the flavour of the concentrate has not been over-diluted.

Interaction Density cannot create a good game in itself, if the points of interest, the things the player can do, are not of sufficient quality. But if the quality of gameplay is great, the full flavour of high Interaction Density may just be something for which the player develops a real taste.

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