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The art of looting: the ideas behind Dishonored’s design

The art of looting: the ideas behind Dishonored’s design

There is nothing in game play design that happens by accident. Every interaction, every sound, and every button was placed there for a reason, and it’s important that those reasons make sense. Seth Shain, associate producer and system designer on Dishonored, took me through some of the systems and basic interactions of the game, and it was surprising how much thought and effort goes into something as simple as picking up coins.

Before we go any further, a warning: After reading this article you will never be able to play a game without noticing how you pick up items. It’s like the Wilhelm scream of design, once you know to look for it, it’s going to be everywhere.

The art of grabbing stuff

“I’ve been very passionate in talking about pick-ups lately. Games handle pick-ups very differently,” Shain said. It was at the end of an interview and I had asked if there was ever anything he wanted to talk about that no one ever asks. Apparently looting was on his mind.

“In Borderlands you hold the button and it just ‘Hoover’s up everything near you,” he explained. “In Rage they have the thing where you go to the shelf and hit X and it just picks up everything, and in Dishonored we have the tap to pick up. You have to tap once for everything. I really like how we did it in Dishonored. I find it extremely satisfying. I can go on and on about why our system, for our game, is superior.”

People don’t often talk about picking stuff up in games but, as Shain pointed out, it’s one of the more rewarding actions in this sort of game. People like to get stuff, but you have to make the act of getting that stuff feel good for the player. Dishonored is littered with coins and items to pick up. You have to tap the button for each coin, so if there are three coins, there are three clicks. You hear a satisfying sound for each coin. The process takes time. Everything about how you pick up items has been designed very deliberately. “People may say looting feels good, but most won’t realize this is one of the reasons they love a game. Good looting mechanics, good pick-up mechanics, can make or break a game,” Shain said.

“Once in a while you’ll find a pile of coins, and you’ll go over and go ‘tic tic tic’ [he pantomimed picking up coins] and it just feels good. It gives you a little endorphin rush. One of our level designers, Steve Powers, he’s a really smart guy. He worked on Deus Ex as well. He said that our pick-up mechanic, and the fact you have to pick up everything individually, actually adds game play. Not just because you have to keep pressing the button, but if there’s a big stack of coins, it becomes a time issue. If there’s a guard on patrol who is coming around the corner, you need to pick up those coins as fast as you can, or you need to stop and hide.”

I’ve played a fair amount of Dishonored at events and shows like E3, and he’s right. Sometimes you have to rush to pick up everything on a shelf before you’re discovered, and you find yourself tapping the button as fast as you can. The sound of the items being added to your inventory speeds up. It sounds and feels desperate, as if you’re in a rush. Once you start moving your finger quickly to pick everything up it becomes easier to panic. The game becomes more tense. The next time I played a level of the game I paid attention to the mechanic and it was impressive how much emotion these little details add to the experience.

I was curious about what control decisions bug Shain. He thought about it for a moment. “Any time you have to hold a button and wait for an interaction, I find it makes me not want to do that interaction.” Dishonored does have actions where you have to hold down the button, but again, they’re used in such a way that game play is added. You have to hold down the button to choke out enemies, and if you let go before they’re unconscious they will be able to fight back and get away. “That’s an example where holding feels good because you feel like you’re actively doing something, when really you’re just holding a button down,” Shain explained.

The next time you play a game, and something feels good, take a moment and figure out why. On the flipside, the next time a mechanic or interaction feels off, stop and think about what would improve it. These little things all add up to a game that is filled with fun things to do and stuff to grab, or they bring down an otherwise fun experience. If a designer can make it fun to do something as simple as picking things up, the rest of the game is likely in very good hands as well.

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