Ah, the Rollercoaster game. The most controversial and most popular of all the game genres, and yet also the least played. So much to discuss.
But first, I should be clear that Rollercoaster game is a bit of a misnomer. It’s not that the game itself is a Rollercoaster, it’s that the design heavily encourages players to stay in Rollercoaster mode. Rollercoaster mode, to refresh your memory, is the play stage where players are asking “Who am I? What should I do? What happens next?”. It is the initial state of learning. If you’ve ever tried to teach someone a board game, you’re intimately familiar with this stage. It’s the first step of the process. Rollercoaster games are about repeatedly asking and engaging this question. Rollercoaster games most often do this by, well, making where you are seem shallow, and creating expectations of new things just ahead. What else are you going to do but push ahead to the next room?
For a time, Rollercoaster games were what people thought of when they thought of video games. Games that were driven by story, that had plots, that took you on fantasy adventures. Zork was a Rollercoaster game. So was Mario and Final Fantasy. A Rollercoaster game is a journey. They are “And then…” games. Rollercoaster games guide you through play, giving you limited gameplay in any one space, but presenting lots of spaces, often sequentially. They also tends to use a narrative to tie the spaces together. For many players, this narrative is even the primary incentive to play, which is one of the reasons Rollercoaster games are the closest games to movies.
That said, Rollercoaster games are great games too. Let there be no doubt. Many of our greatest hits have been Rollercoaster games. Zelda, Ico, Braid. Doom, Halo, Call of Duty. King’s Quest, Day of the Tentacle, and Uncharted. The Rollercoaster games have been amazing. They have driven forward real-time graphics, built mind-bending puzzles, and created fantastic worlds and characters. They invite interpretation, and inspire classic storytelling emotions.
Rollercoaster games are also unique because they are first in the REMA learning chain. All learning starts in Rollercoaster mode. This makes the Rollercoaster mode the easiest to insert into games, such as in the missions in Grand Theft Auto. Because they are the starting point of learning engagement, they are also the easiest to create, and thus have both the highest quality and the most diversity of games, in terms of dollars spent. There are lots of Rollercoaster games.
The nature of the Rollercoaster journey has evolved them over the last 3 decades towards certain traits:
- One Time Through: Rollercoaster games tend to be beaten only once. Wow, that’s unusual. Historically unheard of. But, once you’ve beaten a Rollercoaster game, the questions “What should I do?” and the Rollercoaster follow-up “Guess what happens next?” have been answered, and so players move on.
- Long: Since they’re played only once, to justify their cost Rollercoaster games take substantially longer to complete then other games.
- High Clarity: The enemy of “What should I do?” is player’s getting stuck. If a player can’t figure out what to do next in Rollercoaster mode, they stop playing. So Rollercoaster games have adopted high clarity tools – help and hint systems, tutorials, and simple 1-step mechanic tests are all used to help guide the player forward.
- Low Challenge: For the same reason, Rollercoaster games also have a conspicuous lack of challenge. Since the experience is so short, and getting stuck is so high risk, every player should be able to succeed. Everyone should be able to receive the complete experience, that so much hard work has gone into. This has been one of the most obvious evolutions in Rollercoaster games over the past 3 decades. Where once completing an Infocom game was nigh impossible, today every player is expected to be able to beat a Rollercoaster game or the designers have failed.
- No Punishment: The other enemy of “What should I do?” is players getting frustrated. Thus, more then other modes, Rollercoaster games have driven punishment out of their systems. For example, minor death penalties have become the norm, and in some games (such as Bioshock) players never even lose progress. A low challenge bar and lack of punishment along with external motivating incentives is a prominent sign of a modern successful Rollercoaster game.
- No Randomness: Because Rollercoaster games are played once, and have short, one-time play experiences, Rollercoaster games don’t use large-scale randomness. Any randomness is minimized to limited variations in “room-sized” situations.
- Scripted: Also, because each set of interactions is only beaten once, Rollercoaster games can be heavily scripted and controlled. This is both cheaper and often results in a higher clarity Rollercoaster experience. Rollercoaster games are often defined by how well they shape the player’s experience.
- Multi-media: This level of artistic control makes Rollercoaster games the easiest to incorporate other media into, especially sound, graphics, animation, and narrative. It is no accident that Rollercoaster games have set the bar for games in these areas.
- Direction: Rollercoaster games have a path. They travel. That’s kind of weird, if you think about it. A game where you travel is a historical anarchism. Before computers, games never traveled. Again, it’s a consequence of repeatedly asking the “What should I do?” and “What happens next?” questions. Because they have direction, Rollercoaster games end up sharing a lot with linear media like books and movies which tell “And then…” over and over.
- Content-Driven: Of course, the emphasis on travel and sound and art means that modern Rollercoaster games are very content driven. They tend to have large teams with lots of skills that spend most of their time making new spaces for players. When those spaces run out, the game is over.
- Content-Driven Stopping Point: Thus, strangely, Rollercoaster games have a definitive stopping point that is not based on the gameplay. Often there will be a boss or climactic gameplay moment, but the game often ends because the story ends, not because the rules have reached their conclusion. The gameplay rules rarely have a larger conclusion to begin with. That’s because…
- Varied, External Success: Success is defined externally, by the designer, and varies greatly from situation to situation. Because designers construct the path, how you move forward is up to them. For example, many Rollercoaster games will use typical combat mechanics, but the way to win is always designer-determined and often short-term (like doing X damage or surviving for X seconds), rather then part of a larger set of rules that define the game itself (like in deathmatch).
- Message-Driven: Because Rollercoaster games have the most designer control, they are often communicate a message from the designer to the player. You could argue that the whole point of a Rollercoaster game is to communicate a message, in the form of a story or experience. Often, the message is the most interesting part of a Rollercoaster game. Lots of players love receiving message-driven experiences, particularly in the form of narrative.
- Narrative: Because Rollercoaster games involve a series of situations, narrative is a natural fit. It’s so common, a Rollercoaster game without a narrative of some sort is usually just flat out ignored.
- Simple Gameplay: Rollercoaster games tend to have relatively simple, easy-to-grasp gameplay, with few nuances (the better to quickly get you into it, and convey their message without hiccup). Because of this, they are also the natural home for mini-games and puzzles (like Professor Layton).
- Contextual: Rollercoaster gameplay also tends to be very context driven (the better to incorporate story and setting). The simple initial mechanics are repeated in slightly different contexts throughout the experience, to repeatedly engage the “What should I do?” learning process in a way that engages flow while keeping interactions basic.
As we’ll see, the other modes do not share these traits. These traits are uniquely evolved for Rollercoaster games. Players of Rollercoaster games want to receive meaning. I love Sid Meier’s definition of a game (“a series of interesting choices”), but he was not thinking of Rollercoaster games when he said it. Rollercoaster designers would say “a series of interesting situations”. This is what creates the fundamental tension between the different play modes, and is why we only play in one mode at a time. Each mode has different, sometimes opposite, traits, and not knowing where you’re designing is like not knowing who your audience is – often fatal. I believe understanding these traits is a key first step for any designer to understanding how to design games. The modes are so different and so distinctive that my hope is once I’ve finished these articles you’ll slap me and say “duh!”, and be unable to look at the world of games any other way.
When working on a Rollercoaster game a designer needs a unique set of skills. Level Design is obviously useful, since Rollercoaster games are defined by travel. Writing is (nearly) the exclusive purview of Rollercoaster games. Most importantly, Rollercoaster designers craft meaning out of their many different mediums. They can incorporate sound and art and mechanics and camera and level design and pacing into an emotional whole that moves and enlightens players. The Rollercoaster designer’s strives to author meaning that is easily accessible, that the player can enjoy without taking a deep dip into the game itself.
Since they are simpler to grasp, and incorporate these other media, Rollercoaster games are the easiest to pick up and play, and thus have historically enjoyed the widest audience appeal. They also have the greatest demand in all games – for a long time Rollercoaster game traits like story and graphics were what your game was judged on, not things like gameplay or experience or competition. Paradoxically, they have the shortest lifespan of games: played only once. Rollercoaster games are thus the easiest to review (how do you review Go in 10 hours or less?) , so that has given them dominant critical presence. Most popular, least played, and yet most controversial – their reliance on other forms of medium blurs the lines between them and other games, causing players of other modes to say they aren’t games at all.
It’s important to reiterate that all these design outcomes flow from that initial player question – “What should I do?”. Rollercoaster games can be seen as one, epic, wondrously engaging tutorial, introducing you to one new thing after another. They are the best instruction manuals we’ve ever written. But they go so much further, deeply engaging our innate desire for storytelling to capture our imagination in ways that go beyond the other denser, more involved modes. “And then, And then, And then.”
Like I said before, I believe there are many interesting subgenres of Rollercoaster games. For example, Zelda is distinct from Halo. In Zelda and other classic adventure games part of the game is figuring out how to even get to the next room, whereas in Halo and other shooters the method is obvious, it’s the execution that’s the challenge. Given the core play drive (“Who am I and why am I here?”), this distinction and others in the vast Rollercoaster space deserves closer study.
Up next: Experiment games!