Like many long time gamers, I have a special place in my heart for the FPS. I remember playing half-life back when I was still freaked out by hair starting to grow in weird places. I went to basement lans where puttering old machines were balanced on plyboard and milk crates to play unreal tournament and Tribes. As the years went past I played almost all the notable shooters, and I still enjoy sitting down and burning through the latest Callofhonourface* for a bit of mindless clickporn. Like many others in my generation it’s ceased to be something I look forward to particularly, but I still owe a debt to the shooter in the form of a way of going about structuring designs for linear games.
I call it beadstring logic. It’s not a difficult metaphor to follow. Classic shooters are like chains of beads on a string- isolated, open potential spaces joined by one or two-dimensional gates. For more complex games sometimes you need nested beadstrings to get a good conceptual model, but the metaphor is quite robust when working with digital spaces.
It gives you a good view of what a rail shooter actually does for a player. It creates a series of self-contained challenges which are more often than not clearly marked as such through various means. I think Halo is perhaps the most elegant in doing so: Open, often almost circular, challenge spaces gated by narrow passes or doors. The challenge is signaled upon entry- a circling dropship, enemies flooding in through an opposite pass, a good vantage point, all the usual tricks- and agency generating resource choices are provided within easy reach- to your left there is a crash with ammunition and medpacks, to your right a knoll with ideal sniping cover. It’s fashionable to sniff at this sort of thing these days and look elsewhere for game design to praise, but it can’t be understated just how elegant and delightful these self-contained, high agency challenges are when well executed. We praise games like Braid and Bastion because they are novel and beautiful. This shouldn’t blind us to fact that the shooter has been perhaps the single most influential genre in the history of videogames. Beyond the violence porn, beyond the wish-fulfillment, beyond all those fashionably blasé criticisms, shooters have had a monumental impact because the beadstring is a deeply, deeply powerful way of organizing interactive experience and shooters are the genre that most successfully exploit it. Deep down, the rail shooter is an amazing gametype. We shouldn’t forget it.
It’s clear that many modern shooters seem to lack some of that elan vital that their ancestors possessed. I think there are many reasons for this and the beadstring helps illustrate at least one of them. To begin, there is power in simplicity. Many of these highly regarded ‘classic’ shooters are not particularly deep. Their weapons are simple, minimalistic but well tuned. Resources are either apparent or cleverly placed to make hunting them out interesting and enemies are challenging but clearly presented. The beadstring formula works best when the player is at least somewhat aware of the structure, as in Halo. Modern shooters are often characterized by incredibly chaotic, fast paced level design that doesn’t give the player any time to establish the scene and the challenge, or pins them in to a very specific way of dealing with it.
The particular strength of the beadstring metaphor is as a graphic model. I’ve found it’s a really great way of rapidly plotting out various interactive sequences. Think of it like an interactivity storyboard. Storyboards are there to rough out camera angles, sequences and transitions. Beadstring diagrams rough out challenge levels, space and time allocations, resources and suchlike. Here are some examples.
This is a very simple beadstring showing the basic components of the diagram. The game flow consists of ‘beads’ (potential spaces) and string (gates or non-interactive sequences). Each bead can contain a description, rough diagram or anything you like describing its contents. You can use the length of the string components to show the sort of flow you’d like- short strings for simple gates like doors, longer strings for periods of low interactivity to rest or prepare your player. You can colour code the beads for intended challenge, size them for intended scope and so on, which leads to beadstring diagrams like these
An exploration/ wide-railed early game progression sequence with narrower challenge areas and wider, easier exploration areas
A horror style progression- a hard fight to leave the player weakened, followed by a sharp drop in difficulty and subsequent slow ramp up in tension through space control and difficulty until replenishment, shortly before the next crippling fight.
A more complex example of the beadchain applied to a nonlinear game flow. While beadchains work really well with linear design, they can be used to plot out multi-path games pretty well so long as things don’t get too hectic.
So there you have it, a quick and dirty prototyping and communication tool for the early stages of nutting out a linear game. It’s been pretty useful for me, so I thought I’d share.
*It was a standing gag amongst my friends and I at Uni that any hypothetical game we came up with during discussions was somehow based around ‘face’, as a vague parody of the awful lack of imagination amongst game titlers. So Face Wars or Face Dancing: Extreme for example. These occasionally got more than a little silly, including the notable imaginary bestseller Reign of Face IV: The Facening. I couldn’t quite believe when Crytek announced Warface. It was too good to be true.