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"Your 'reality', sir, is lies and balderdash and I'm delighted to say that I have no grasp of it whatsoever."
— Karl Friedrich Hieronymus, Freiherr von M√ľnchhausen

Friday Free Game, One-Button Edition: The Helicopter Game

There's a philosophy of game design that says that the simpler the game is, the better. The idea is that a learning curve is something that stands between the player and fun, and so a game is more fun if it makes that learning curve as shallow as possible. Some of the most popular games around are popular by virtue of their very simplicity: tic-tac-toe, checkers, rock-paper-scissors and the like.

The trade-off, of course, is that a simple game often lacks the depth to stay engaging for very long, and the holy grail of game design is achieving great depth without increasing overall complexity. The prototypical examples of these sorts of games are Chess and Go, with a small set of rules but highly involved game play.

But what about video games? In this case, the simplicity of the rules is not nearly as important. Sure, the player should understand the flow of the game and not be confused as to what's going on, but the actual mechanics of the rules are run by the computer, not the players. In this way, video games can achieve the appearance of being very simple while actually being quite complex. But there is another factor in video games that can prove an obstacle to new players: the user interface.

Many new players are turned off to modern video games because they feature a large set of inputs. Look at any modern first-person shooter (e.g., Counterstrike or Half-Life or Doom or Halo or Ghost Recon or F.E.A.R. or any of the umpteen remakes of Wolfenstein 3D made in the past ten years), and look at how many controls there are. You have two analog sticks (one to move, one to look), often a D-pad input (for equipment selection, for example), and no fewer than eight buttons or so. The newbie often doesn't have a chance to have fun because he can figure out how to play.

Of course, not all video games are this way, and I don't think it's a coincidence that many of the most popular video games in history have the fewest controls. Look at Pac-Man, probably the game most individually responsible for the explosion in video game popularity. It's just you and a joystick gobbling dots and chasing ghosts. You essentially have a total of four inputs: up, down, left and right. Doesn't get much simpler than that, does it? Tetris has four inputs, too: left, right, down, and rotate. Simple driving games also use four (left, right, brake, accelerate). So does Asteroids (rotate left, rotate right, thrust, fire). So does Dance Dance Revolution. Space Invaders (left, right, fire), and Joust (left, right, flap) use just three inputs each. Pong and Breakout use just two (left and right).

But a few special games try to do the maximum with the minimum, using just a single input. For the next few weeks, I will spotlight some of these one-button games and talk about how they manage to provide a compelling experience with an extremely simple interface. The first featured one-button game is known only as the Helicopter Game. Click to rise and don't crash. That's all there is to it. Check it out.


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The Red Bull Diary is the personal pulpit and intellectual dumping-ground for its author, an amateur game designer, professional programmer, political centrist and incurable skeptic. The Red Bull Diary is gaming, game design, politics, development, geek culture, and other such nonsense.