Incorporating Input Interfaces into Flow of a game

Analysing a cult classic on how the physical interface can contribute to achieving a fun flow graph

(Be sure to check out the web hosted prototype and a link to try it out yourself at the end)

Video games are essentially systems that take user input and make changes to the system states based on rules. The user input can be be a variety of objectives or needs, from simple locomotion to coordinating complex and multiple game mechanics. Since there is a physical interface layer in the form of controllers between players and their system, not only is accepting input necessary but also letting the user know that their input is acknowledged, and what an individual press of a button or series of inputs is deciphered as.

As a UX designer and a game designer, I always think about how input can be accessible so user can interact with the game without any frustration, but seldom do I think about how input itself can be fun. Input can definitely be fun, both inside the game world and outside in the physical world. The very acknowledgement of input by the game too can be fun, and this acknowledgement is a part of Signs and Feedback domain. To understand both these concepts, I have decided to analyse a Sony exclusive cult classic series — Patapon.

Patapon is a rhythm based game, where input is given by beating a series of drums in the tempo of the game’s rhythm. The user has 4 drums mapped to the standard 4 face buttons of any Sony gaming device. The premise, as far as the input system goes, is very simple — beat any of the four drums in combinations of four beats per command to the rhythm, and your troops will carry out the command. The input system then over-arches to include combos of consecutive and successful commands issued, as well as the quality of maintaining the rhythm.

Mapping the controls

The game’s Unique Selling Point is its input, which also has a very unique way of being surfaced. As mentioned before, there are 4 drums called Pata, Pon, Don, Chaka. Each of these drums is permanently mapped to the well known face buttons of the PlayStation controllers, which inherently lends itself to the shape language of these drums in-game for additional reinforcing.

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They are so tightly bound to the characteristic buttons, that all S&F related to these drums appear in exactly those zones (Pata — left side of screen, Don — bottom of screen, Pon — right side of screen, Chaka — top of screen). Each drum has a unique audio cue and Patapon 3 even goes as far as to give the drums their own voices and sounds instead of beats which exudes more personality.

Notice the placement of the visual cues

The one unique way of surfacing this input system is that the lore breaks the 4th wall. The player is not represented by an actor in game but instead is the Patapon tribe’s “Almighty”, brilliantly explained in the lore to be a person who will lead the Patapon by banging their war (or fun) drums. Personally, this creates an intimate relationship between the troops and the input the players give them as it gives the players a role of being an overseer and a responsible leader through callouts and barks, and incredibly manages to explain away the existence of the drums with clever writing.

Lets try and break down the input system by layers, simplest to most complex

Bang goes the drum to start the party

The game has a permanent master track running, which has a BPM (Beats per Minute) of 120. Which mean that players can input once every 0.5 second, and have to input 4 times in 2 seconds to issue a successful command. This sounds like a really tight margin, but the game offers many affordances in terms of timing.

​Any single input’s quality is judged on its timing, and taken as bad (completely mistimed and failed), good and perfect. This depends on the difference of time between input and the actual fall of beat. While this is easy to understand in terms of input, how is it communicated to the user?

We can observe the clever use of grading the timing by replying with an equivalent grade of audio clip, similar to how a mistimed note would sound out of place in a piece of music even if the instrument was of high quality. Without knowing which audio belongs to which grade, simply by the weight and impact a player tell the accuracy of their input.

For the sake of timing, the screen also has a border that flashes every time a beat on the master track falls. It even changes colour or line count (single lined or double lined) and even colour based on the quality of the input.

Another source of feedback to which drum is played are the actual troops. The way they dance corresponds to the drums themselves. Their motion is a great addition as most of the visual cues happen at the periphery of the screen but the troops are are always at the heart of the battle, where the eyesight of a player is focused.

Observe the movement pattern of the Patapons in response to input

Measures and commands

In music, a collection of notes played on a pre-defined set of beats is called a measure. Without getting anymore into any music theory, a measure in this game is permanently set to 4 beats, so a player must have some input on four consecutive beats to issue a command. It’s quite simple to see in action as it is the simplest measure to maintain in music (trust me, I’ve played pieces on 7/4 time signature).

1 measure of input corresponds to 1 measure of activity

We can observe that the system is all about 4 beats of user input followed by 4 beats of system responding to input. From the troops repeating the command to the change of beats in the master track, everything denotes downtime to the player. But this downtime is only in terms of input, as most of the enemies operate with the offset of a measure. What this means is that all wind ups and anticipatory moves that enemies do before an attack happen in the measure after players issue a command, giving them a chance to anticipate and plan their next command based on all the signs.

The other challenge this downtime adds is that players are still required to hold the beat while their troops carry out their command, so they can issue the next command without a gap. Just like a real musicians, players when not issuing input are still required to be attentive to the beat.

It can be observed how the enemies anticipatory move (the frowning and the angry eyes) happen in the offset measure

Ability to maintain the beat is a superpower

Just like combos in any game, it is possible to chain inputs together in Patapon. Players need to successfully execute consecutive commands to achieve Fever mode, which grants a boost to all commands. Attack become stronger, troops start using their special moves, defense gets better, and more distance is covered. It takes multiple successful commands to reach Fever mode, and this build up is very important not only in terms of skills but to slowly bring the player into the zone.

The amp up between regular and fever mode is the joy of the experience

The Fever mode is where the S&F is kicked up a notch. The entire master track goes into a party hyperdrive mode as additional sound tracks are added on top as well as further activities are occurring on screen, diluting the visual cues’ prominence. This makes it really difficult to distinguish the master beat by the visual cues alone. It is the game’s way of telling players that maintaining a beat is no longer about matching input and visual cues, but striking the drums (the physical buttons) along the intrinsic rhythm that humans have an affinity for. This is the same problem faced by and the same method to teach music students how to hold a rhythm, as a performing group has more than one instrument. This is a strong way of getting players into the zone of being a drummer rather than engaging in what could feel like a quick time event.

The loss of focus on the visual cues is compensated by adding further layers on the auditory cues to make them stand out.

Interrupt a command, interrupt the game

The most damaging thing to a piece of music is a mistimed beat, either due to lack of focus or impatience of the musician. This is also a hugely disappointing mistake as it affects the performance of the entire group and causes everyone else to lose their sense of rhythm as well. Patapon utilises this understanding very well, as there are no explicit ways to cancel a command like most strategy games. Cancelling a command, or making a mistake, are the same thing in this game — interrupt the beat out of order. The game even manages to capture the real life frustrating reaction a musician is bound to get from their peers when such mistakes are made.

On purpose or not, mistiming is not well received by people or the Patapon

As it is hard to recover from loss of rhythm in the middle of a piece of music, it is similarly reflected by a complete loss of combo.

Legacy of the input system

The core of the input system never changed throughout the series, but the devs did tinker with the affordances as they got more and more lax till the third game. The S&F though did see a lot of changes, but never departed the core theme and DNA of the series. We can observe how more audio was used to replace visual cues in Patapon 3, as graphics in periphery were removed in favour of better audio design solutions. This lends heavily to the concept that being in the mindset of a drummer is more important than matching input to cues, which would be an important objective of a rhythm based game.

It can be observed that the core audio cues are completely changed and that allowed the visual cues in the periphery to disappear. It’s also very easy to tell which input was bad, good or perfect from the same audio.

Prototype

No mechanic can be fully discussed and analysed without trying to gain the ability to deconstruct and re-engineer it. In the same belief, I have made a prototype that will allow viewers to explore the input system. Although it’s a prototype of only 2 days of effort and lacks all manners of polish, I hope it is adequate to show any and all understanding I have gained from this analysis.

This prototype can be played with an Xbox controller or a keyboard. Triangle, Square, Cross, and Circle are mapped to Y, X, A, and B​ respectively on an Xbox controller. They are also mapped to W, A, S, D on the keyboard.

Currently only two commands are implemented, for walk and jump. They are X-X-X-B (on Xbox controller) or A-A-A-D (on Keyboard) for walk and Y-Y-X-B (on Xbox controller) or W-W-A-D (on Keyboard) for jump. Do try giving it different commands to see how it is handled by the system though.

On a personal level, the art style used in the prototype is known as Waarli which is a tribal art form from my place of birth. It helped maintain the tribal aesthetic of the originals but allowed me to add a pinch of personal taste

Click here to play the web hosted prototype

Conclusion

It’s not mandatory for only the game to be fun, the interface to interact with the game can become a meaningful tool to immerse the players too (even without proprietary hardware like a Rock Band controller). The way users interact with the physical interface can be used to elicit certain feelings or emotional. Metal Gear Solid does it during the infamous torture scene, where mashing the O button can make players resonate with the pain and struggle for survival that Snake is going through on screen. The controls can help bring achieve the effect of immersion.

Ultimately, this game is about making the players feel like someone who is a drummer, like a dragon boat drummer. It creatively uses the visuals and audio to make it feel to players like they are beating a drum and not mashing some buttons on a PSP (the original console it was released for).

​Patapon is a great example of turning button mashing into a joy in itself, especially when all it uses to achieve this effect is a tidy system of signs and feedback and a few design innovations.

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