Games Need More Balls

Video games need more balls. It’s no coincidence all the world’s most popular sports feature a ball, or something ball-like. We can learn a lot from their great design. Particularly for games designed for teams, and spectators where we need to understand complex, real-time relationships at a glance. Balls address these by focusing information, and making game mechanics more relatable through their trajectories.

But video games feel worlds apart from sports in the design challenges they face. Video games are so complex, and a sport like football/soccer is so simple… isn’t it? Sure, there aren’t that many rules. You can even distill them down to a few sentences for a pick up game. But the core game mechanics of football aren’t its written rules, they’re the laws of physics, and human mobility.

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Programming that without abstraction, or simplification would be a historic undertaking. Imagine that: creating all the rules of the physical world as a video game prototype. There’s no UI yet though. This is all a spreadsheet simulator. Objects aren’t even defined yet. It’s just a toy with promise. Now it’s time to pare it down into a tightly focused game premise, and a means to visually communicate it. How ****ing brilliant would you have to be to come up with the visual metaphor of a ball?

Balls Add to Your Game

Balls wouldn’t just be a clever abstraction. They are immensely practical to your players’ ability to understand, and enjoy your game. All of that complexity is still there. It’s spread out, and mostly unimportant. But a quick glance around the ball communicates all the key information spectators, and players need.

This communication cuts down on mental overhead needed to process what’s going on in your game. It’s got several key benefits:

  • A team of players that understands your game can know how to support their team in most situations without direct communication. The player in a certain position call tell from the  movement and position of the ball, and other players where he should go, and what he should do.
  • A spectator can understand this information too. They do not need to look at a hitpoint bar, or mineral count to grasp the state, and flow of the game.
  • Amateur players can easily relate to pros. In football the skills are straightforward: running, ball handling, kicking. The biggest difference between the pro, and amateur is consistency. A kid can still make a miraculous kick, it’s just far less likely. This creates hope, and understanding in new players when comparing themselves to pros. The game is relatable at all levels.

How Balls Work

There are a few key properties balls have as game mechanics. If we want to create our own, especially more abstracted, we need to understand, and include these.

Visual focal point

At any given time the ball is an indicator of the state of the game as a whole, and what area of the play space is currently important. Its own state, and context give an idea of how close a team is to achieving an objective.

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Look how much information we immediately know about the state of this football game from 1 narrow still image.

Mechanical focal point

By extension of above, the ball must also be a part of achieving all teams’ objectives. In fact the whole possibility space of mechanics narrows sharply to connect input with output at the ball, like an hourglass. A player can act on the ball with any number of complex, and varied input. In football this manifests in how players move their many muscles to position themselves, and contact the ball. Similarly the results of hitting the ball are infinitely varied. Wide possibility spaces for input, and output.

But the space that defines the ball’s interactions is really limited. Mostly to 3 rules: gravity, friction, and translating force to velocity.

Arcs

The simple rules governing the ball make its behaviour predictable. We easily understand where a ball in motion will go, and how it will behave if struck. Balls’ arced trajectories make their paths predictable but uncertain, and keep both teams’ involvement relevant to the end.

Ball arcs are predictable by linearly following momentum. But that movement also decays over time. A physical ball in the air falls. Rolling on the ground it slows. This is model embodies great game design. A single action/kick can send the ball far towards the goal, but it takes repeating that action to get it all the way there. It slows along its progress, and the other team can send it the other way with a single skilled action of their own. But importantly the ball must be pushed in the opposite direction, not teleported there. So there is always a comeback mechanic, but one that never feels unfair to the team that’s ahead. You can turn the ball around at the last second, but you still need to work it back down the field in the opposite direction.

Balls have already demonstrated these benefits in FPSs. It’s no coincidence that Counter-Strike closely parallels American football. The bomb is a ball. You can understand the state of a round through it. The same is true in any capture the flag modes. Even more so in the Tribes series where nearly everything follows arcs. These are the balls of the sub-games found in nearly every modern game. A lobbed Tribes mortar shell is the ball in the sub-game of shooting targets. The player skiing over hills is the ball in the sub-game of map traversing. This layered use of balls and arcs make Tribes surprisingly easy to understand in motion despite how fast, and high skill-cap it is.

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Stories

But arcs aren’t just about understanding, they build investment. Arcs dramatize games by creating mechanical stories. It embodies a rise and fall, anticipation and conclusion, tension and release.

After all, stories follow arcs of their own. Instead of physics, things are set in motion with context, and action. Expectations are set, and lead to closure or twists. We can integrate these dramatic tools into our games.

Sports have long recognized this, and it can be seen in the commentary of games. Excited talk builds to a crescendo as the ball sails through the air, heightening excitement as everyone waits for the predictable, but uncertain outcome. Sports have built this into every level of their industries. They tell stories layered upon stories about a pass, play, game, season, even an entire career.

Story arcs are universally how humans relate to things. And isn’t our goal as game designers to make the most compelling experiences possible? Balls have gone criminally underused given their track record in accomplishing exactly this. They’re almost exclusively relegated to sports games, or sports-inspired games. It’s a waste of a great idea. Video games need more balls.  We need to stop separating storytelling from mechanics, and let our mechanics tell the story.

Stories are what stick with players, not mechanics. We don’t remember that the player had her shoes tied tighter than her opponent, that she had 1% more muscle mass. We remember the comeback, the play, the catch.

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