Transitions of Modality – Aka Minigames

Posted: February 28, 2012 in Game Design, Games

After attending today’s game design meetup, I felt inspired to post about the subject.  The topic was ‘Mini-games’ where a fellow designer Graham Jans put together a framework for understanding Mini-games.  I loved the thinking but I felt that talking just about mini-games was limiting.  I felt that when mini-games are done well, they blend into the background but when done poorly, they come into focus as an obvious mini-game.  What jumped out at me was the examples of mini-games that were successful were thought of as part of the larger game experience.  So if you consider the mini-games as part of the whole, and you then consider the meta-games are part of the whole, you are just left with transitions of modality within the larger game context.  From this vantage point, all of a sudden I felt that all modal mechanics began be candidates for these transitions and it’s more the nature of the transitions that are as important as the modalities themselves.  If I haven’t stopped reading yet, feel free to continue the theoretical romp in the full post.

I’m first going to apologize to Graham for stealing some of his examples, but they were effective examples.  Second, I’m going to apologize to you, the reader, for butchering the following definition.

Definition Game Modality – A distinct mode within the software that encapsulates distinct rules, controls and metaphor different from other modes within the larger game context.

I’ll give a few examples.  The first is Diablo 3.  The inventory system is a completely different set of controls, UI and rules than the regular play method.  You transition back and forth to it without much thought of this.  The game successfully weaves these two modalities together into a great experience.

On the left, we have the inventory experience, on the right, the world experience.  Two totally different control mechanisms and rules, yet seamlessly part of the overall experience.  Few would consider these as mini games.

Next we consider the striking example of bioshock.  The hacking experience has been commonly labeled the hacking mini-game.


Again, the ‘mini-game’ on the left and the first person experience on the right.  Here, the transition is far more obvious.  We know that the hacking takes place in some space that is related to the first person space, but it’s a very separated experience.  This is again, just a transition of modality, but both the transition and the two modalities feel less related than the Diablo 3 example.

A successful example of a transition of modality is in Halo.  Getting into vehicles in Halo is smooth.


They’ve handled the animation, camera and control transitions cleanly.  While some people deride the warthog as a driving experience, in my opinion, they’ve built a control system where the transition of modality isn’t jarring.   The two modalities are also more related than is typical in an fps with a driving experience.  In fact, even before the animation of your character getting into the car is complete, the player is given control of the vehicle.  This transition is important.  The relationship of the these two modalities is important.  As a whole, they make the Halo experience.   To think of the shooting experience as the Halo experience and the driving as an added experience is to miss the role the teach of these play in the whole.

To get even more nuanced, let’s take a look at Mario.


On the left, we have the fire flower enabled Mario, and on the right, the ‘regular’ mario experience.  While players probably think of this as a power up or an ability of Mario, this is again another example of a transition or shift in modality.  It’s a smaller shift but still a transition in modality.  The transition is expertly handled by the transition animation of mario into the fire flower version.  Mario is now visibly distinct, so when the controls change, players aren’t surprised.  This shift s temporary, and there is again, a power down transition back to the normal mario.  This is a transition of modality as the other examples are, the only difference is in the attributes of the change.

Finally, let’s take a look at X-Com, one my favourite games.  It came up in discussion at the meet up and I think it was a critical inspiration point.


On the left, we have the combat experience, the centre we have the map and shooting mini-game(not to mention the other nested experiences), on the right we have the base management game.  All of these diverse experiences add together to make the experience that is X-com.  There have been many clones of this experience, but none have come close to the original.  I’m hoping the upcoming Firaxis game lives up to the original.  But I digress.  These experiences, fully modal and separate, are unified by theme and flow through the sequencing of the experience.  The shift in controls is almost transparent as each modality presents intuitive and reasonable controls.  What is usually considered a meta-game is something that is actually core to the experience of this game.  If you remove a part or change one of these experiences, you would likely have significant impact on the overall experience.  Here, the individual modalities and their transitions are extremely well related and crafted, creating an experience that has stood the test of time and is still referenced as a seminal work.

In closing, if all this was obvious to you the reader, forgive me.  For me, it was an eye opening unification of a bunch of areas of design.  I’d love to hear other’s thoughts and ideas on the subject.


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