I don't know where to look

This morning, I was in the shower, and I realized to my delight that I'd made a game which involves splitting your attention to multiple different places. It's called A Bastard, and you should probably go play it a little to see how it works before moving on with this post (although it's a two player game, so go find a friend).

(You shoot automatically after each movement, the controls remap each time you press them, and the winner is the player who shoots the other player first)

There are at least three places you'll want to put your attention for play -- the 3D view, which shows whether there are barriers in front of you, the current controls for your dude, and the keyboard (to find the keys). Normally the keyboard wouldn't be a source of attention, as you know where the keys are, but when you're suddenly sharing a keyboard, then you can't let your fingers rest in the normal positions. So you need to pay attention there, and suddenly go hunt and peck again. In your head you need to keep track of what key you're about to press - it's a sensible thing to do to say it out loud as you play - "Y!", "SEVEN!", "O OR ZERO!" (I should change the font). This just puts it more easily in the phonological loop of memory, since there's a new key to recall approximately every 0.7 seconds. And then there are extra optional places to put attention -- the minimap, if your enemy isn't immediately in sight, or you just want an overview of the battle. But that doesn't show blockers, so you can't just focus there and ignore the 3D view. And then there's your opponent's 3D view, which can sometimes tell you if they've just fired, which could save you in tense spots. And then the keys they're shouting out -- it would be totally possible to pay attention to those and see what they're about to do, if you were superhuman. And of course, you need to pay attention to them shoving you, to getting their fingers out of the way of yours to press a button, to the fact that they're trying to press your button and make you lose.

So yeah, lots of places to put attention. But all of the locations you need to focus on you can attend to serially, which is what makes it a fun process rather than a terrible one. 

For contrast, take a terrible game I made, SPHERES. You've got to dodge the cubes and shoot the spheres. But when you're shooting, you're not attending to the cubes, and then one come out and whomps you and it feels unfair. Or you focus on dodging the cubes, and ignore the spheres -- and now you get a terrible score, and would be having more fun playing CUBES again. There's no easy way to attend to all the things serially, and it feels really bad.

(In CUBES you only have to attend to one thing, containing multiple things -- the optic flow of the cubes is enough for you to track their positions and velocities. Your focus is always on the center of the screen, more or less -- which is why the timer is there.)

To serially attend, you need to know where next to put your attention at all times (or most of the time). That moment of "the fuck should I be looking?" -- it's powerful confusion, and should be used very sparingly, if at all. In A Bastard, you attend : view of battle, keys bindings, keyboard, repeat, with interruptions from your opponent's elbows. Get the rhythm down to below .7 seconds, and you're killing it. In the movement phase, you have time to assess your position on the field of battle. There's a rhythm to where you attend. In SPHERES, there's no rhythm, just multiple things demanding attention at once.

10 March 2012