The Shazam! effect: how games ease you out of incompetence


In DC’s latest superhero movie, Shazam!, the protagonist is an adonis with abs in places you didn’t know you could have abs. He can fly through the air, shoot lightning from his hands, and lift a bus with his bare hands.

Except that’s not the whole story: the person controlling this body is Billy, a runaway teenager who suddenly transforms into Shazam every time he says the magic word. Billy has barely mastered puberty, not to mention the amazing new powers his new avatar grants him.

As metaphors go, this pretty much sums up the feeling of starting a new action game. How many times have you been told you were a super soldier, or a professional F1 driver, or Batman – but struggled to figure out how to punch a jerk rather than jump in place? This chasm, between the player’s initial ability and the power fantasy a game seeks to deliver, is a problem developers have grappled with for decades.

“Some people like to get beaten, realizing it’s going to be a tough game,” says Harvey Smith. “But yes, most people want to relax. They want flow. Me too, people.

“If you’re playing Valkyrie, from Asgard, are you really going to spend an hour killing rats in a basement? – Harvey Smith

As a game designer, Smith led the development of some of gaming’s most memorable power fantasies: in Deus Ex, you occupy the nano-augmented skin of counter-terrorist agent JC Denton, and in the Dishonored games , become the guide behind two stealthy assassins, Corvo and Empress Emily Kaldwin. For players who don’t share these skills, it takes some getting used to.

That’s why when you play Dishonored you get a relatively gentle on-ramp to your powers – to help lessen that body shock. “There’s a mapping between Corvo as a ‘normal person’, almost like an invented historical figure, that the player understands,” Smith explains. “Then Corvo gains and understands supernatural powers, as the player also learns them.”

It starts small: you direct Corvo in the prologue, playing with the basic controls as he chats with the Empress, Emily’s mother. Then, during his escape from prison, you’re encouraged to eavesdrop, sneak around, and kill guards – understanding Dishonored as a stealth and sword fighting game before gaining access to the suite of supernatural powers of The Outsiders. This acclimatization period is crucial: the developers spend many hours designing and testing to make sure they don’t lose you before you feel comfortable in your new skin.

“No gamer likes failure or feels unable to succeed in the gaming environment,” says Chris Avellone. “It’s rarely part of the power fantasy and rarely the reason they’re playing a video game in the first place.”

Avellone has been working as a designer and scriptwriter on RPGs since the mid-90s. In his genre, fantasy power is usually approached as a gradual curve – with upgrade systems that take you from incompetence to mastery. . But Smith, who started his own career in RPGs with the Ultima series, says that doesn’t necessarily bypass the Shazam! effect.

“According to the protagonist, this could damage credibility,” he points out. “If you’re playing Valkyrie, from Asgard, are you really going to spend an hour killing rats in a basement?”

“Gaining powers too slowly can sometimes be frustrating,” says Avellone.

As a result, the RPGs Avellone has worked on have been designed to quickly level up heroes within the first few hours of gameplay. If you boot up any of the Obsidian or Black Isle games the designer has been involved in, you might notice you’re joined early on by a companion who can take damage for you, or better yet, heal it. Often these developers were crippled by rulesets that promised players to throw flames and spin swords, but forced them to do so at level 1 first.

“In Icewind Dale 2, the opening town encounters were designed so that the initial waves of monsters were high, but their weapons were specifically designed to deal one or two points of damage to the heroes,” Avellone explains. “It was largely because mages are so fragile in D&D that a fluke, even from a goblin, could kill them.”

“JC Denton arrives at his new assignment, after years of training in the security services and high-tech readiness. But he can barely hit a target in front of him because of the wobble of the cursor” – Harvey Smith

Smith and the team at Ion Storm ran into similar issues with Deus Ex, which incorporated its own RPG-inspired leveling system.

“JC Denton arrives at his new assignment, after years of security services training and high-tech readiness,” Smith recalls. “But he can barely hit a target in front of him because of the cursor wobble.”

If leveling can’t help smooth your clumsy growth from zero to hero, what can? Sometimes the most effective tools are the ones you don’t even notice – like when developers map certain abilities to controller buttons you already know. Cross to jump, square to reload.

Another tip is to include a skill tree that caters specifically to new players. Avellone cites Horizon Zero Dawn’s time-slowing abilities, which give you more time to line up shots, and how the Arkham series lets you inject points into health and armor early on – so you can endure your own mistakes as you learn from them.

Smith suggests trapping the player in an easy zone that forces them to use their acquired power to get out. He also recommends restraint as a designer: “To be honest, I’m just doing a better job than I’ve done personally of limiting the amount of stuff you want to put into the game.”

But the answer doesn’t have to be mechanical – often the right kind of storytelling can make the transition to extreme power less shocking.

“In Horizon Zero Dawn, one of the best moments in power fantasy is getting access to an Oseram cannon and using it to devastate a wave of enemies,” says Avellone. “But in the context of the quest where that happens, it’s very easy to explain how you’re able to do that, why it’s limited, and how important what you’re doing is.”

In Shazam!, you finally see Billy’s frustration with his new body melt into a dizzying process of self-discovery as he tests the limits of his powers. These scenes are not only the high point of the film, but the developers of the sweet spot are fighting to achieve them.

“There’s a moment of fluidity, where the player can handle more,” Smith said. “And that feeling of engagement, when the game is now taking all of your bandwidth for perception and problem solving, and suddenly you feel greater levels of mastery? It’s a real joy.”

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