Do not adjust your screens. This is still TheSixthAxis and we’ll get back to the normal opinionated jibes and peurile humour soon enough. We couldn’t pass up the opportunity to publish this wonderful article written by one of the very clever people at Futurlab, the developer behind Coconut Dodge. In this piece we’re shown how they made Coconut Dodge work on us psychologically. It’s an extremely rare insight into the things that (the smarter) developers think about when they embark on the game design process. I wish they gave classes, to be honest.
Before making Coconut Dodge and the high end Flash games that brought us the attention of Sony, our core creative team were Fine Art students. Whilst at University we learned how to analyse creative work to its core essence, attempting to understand how and why certain pieces of art exert the power they do. Of course, our Fine Art degree didn’t cover games, although it should have, because games and interactive media represent the great creative movement of this generation.
We still have the same Fine Art curiosities driving us now, and since Coconut Dodge has been a real success for us, I thought it would be cool to give it the same Fine Art analysis treatment, and share with you how and why the game is addictive; exposing all the little tricks that add up to making the game fun.
When you boil it down, there are just two things that make Coconut Dodge fun; the balance of random and predictable elements, and the use of rhythm absolutely everywhere.
I’ve talked about the balance of random and predictable elements elsewhere, so I won’t go into detail about them here. I’ll instead describe in detail about how we used rhythm throughout the game to make the game feel ‘right’.
The first thing you may or may not notice about the mazes is that there is a rhythm to the way they are constructed. The gold trails that guide a player in and out of the coconuts provide a steady timing of sound as you pick them up, and this steady timing is emphasised rhythmically by picking up the diamonds. This pattern is repeated over and over, swapping sides so that the player can lock into the ‘groove’ of the maze. The tapping of buttons, moving left and right and the sounds you get from collecting treasure all work together rhythmically, and when you get it right, you can repeat it over and over again. This sounds like it would be tiresome or boring, but the whole process takes skill, attention and concentration to get it right, and then it’s like driving a car – after a while you can do it every time without thinking.
When there is a life to lose by doing it wrong, managing to do it perfectly every time makes a player feel really good.
If it were just the mazes to master, things would get boring, but the random coconuts keep things interesting, and the beach balls add to the challenge too, but the real secret to these things all working together is rhythm. They are timed to happen at specific intervals that help to build up a sense of pace for the player.
You may not notice at first, but many of the levels play the Level Up Bonus sound effect just at the right time to fit in with the background music as it changes direction. This gives the player a strong sense of progression and association with the music – and since the music is so enjoyable to listen to on its own anyway, the player feels even more part of the experience.
It’s this approach to using rhythm that makes the game hypnotic to play.
What happens when you’re playing along with your favourite game of the moment, and you’re ‘in the zone’, (scientifically referred to as the flow state), and something happens to pull you out?
It pisses you off, and you want to get back into the zone again as quickly as possible.
We emphasised this break of the flow state by making the dead sound effect extremely abrasive and annoying, and we also cut the music off dead.
What was a hypnotic ride of rhythmical pleasure only a moment ago is now over – it’s jarring and annoying, and only serves to increase the feeling you have to restart it immediately – with no loading times at all.
We worked very hard to get all of the game assets loading into memory right at the beginning of the game, so a player never has to wait once they’re in.
All of these little things that aren’t very significant by themselves all add up to create a gameplay experience that is really hard not to enjoy. Coconut Dodge may be extremely simple, but it’s using some of the most engaging game design tricks available to achieve a core essence of fun.
Whether Coconut Dodge can be considered as a piece of art though, is not for us to say.