Affordances in game systems design

Image Uncharted 4: A Thief’s End, Naughty Dog


Have you ever played a game where you instinctively know what to do as soon as you pick up the controller? All the elements of the games are easy to understand and players can relatively quickly pick up on elements of functionality without them needing to be explained. That relation between the user, objects, and possible actions in the game is referred to as an affordance. Affordances make it easy for players to understand the possible interactions with the game’s elements.

This article is all about game system design and the concept of affordances. It explains how they work in games, what makes them powerful, and offers some examples of using them effectively in-game systems to create play experiences that seem effortless for players but require careful planning from designers.

What Exactly Is Affordance?

Game system design is an integral part of game development which deals with how games work: what happens when you press ‘A’, whether bullets hit or miss their targets, etc. It’s about making sure that all parts of a game are working together in harmony rather than at odds with each other. This includes mechanics (the systems themselves), rules (how those mechanics function), interface/HUD elements, and even audio/visual feedback from actions within the game world (“If I shoot this person they will die. I will be rewarded with game points”).

The term affordance is used to describe the possibility that an element of the game allows. For example, a ladder (in any game where you can climb ladders) affords climbing up and down it; if placed in front of another platform that isn’t reachable via jumping or climbing then it allows access to that platform. An open window would also allow players to jump through it but due to its size (or lack thereof), a larger character or a larger enemy following the character might not be able to make it through.

Affordances can be game mechanics, game objects, or game spaces. For example, the jump mechanic in Mario games is very easy to understand but also allows for lots of possibilities due to its simplicity. If you see an overhang far away and you want to get there, players will quickly figure out they need to time their jumps just right so that they grab it at the peak of their arc. The game objects affordances are mostly about what actions a player can perform with them: a rock might allow both throwing and smashing, while a box might only have one action, throwing. Game space affordances mainly consist of information on how much freedom is given when exploring the environment. For instance, a game with fog of war usually has more “close” affordances than one without it.

Basic examples of affordances can include:

  1. A range of actions that can be taken (actions like movement, activating objects, or non-player characters (NPCs)).
  2. A range of positive results those actions produce (such as increasing player health, acquiring items, etc).
  3. Any limitations on these actions due to game rules or other constraints.

Affordance examples include doors that open when walked into, buttons that activate once stepped on, weapons that provide a satisfying response after being used correctly, etc. When game elements are designed with affordances in mind, the game feels more intuitive to players.

A more complex example of an affordance might be how a new gun is introduced in a first-person shooter (FPS). As a general rule, the starting weapon in an FPS is the weakest gun in the game and other powerful weapons cannot be accessed right away. This creates a game system that is based around the challenge of having to find stronger guns in order to overcome the game’s challenges, which also gives players something else to look for when exploring levels.

Finding a new gun wouldn’t be half as fun if you needed a technical manual to know how to use it. This is why, when you find a new gun, the game often shows a short animation of the player character (often only a set of arms) showing off the gun. Stopping to fully explain how the gun works would slow the game down too much, so game designers make sure the game shows you how it works instead. When you pick up a shotgun, the PC racks the pump-action (we know its a pump) puts new shells in the tube (we know it needs ammo) the ammo count appears on an LED readout on the back (we know how many shots we have) and, when the gun is fired, it produces a loud deep noise and plenty of controller feedback (so we know it’s powerful.) This makes sense for games that are already fast-paced like Doom because there is no time to stop and examine your gun when demons are coming at you from all angles.

For another example, if you’re picking an RPG character from a selection screen, the terms Shadowblade, Warlock, and Knight errant might not give much in the way of insight into playstyles. However, we all know that the robed figure with the staff is a caster, the hooded one with the daggers is sneaky and the muscle-bound dude with the huge sword is probably good in a melee. These affordances allow information to be communicated without artificially complicating the game or slowing it down.

Why Do We Need Affordances?

The game designer must be careful not to make game actions too obvious or easy; this can lead to shallow gameplay where most actions produce similar results and there is little challenge for the player (such as feeling like they’re mostly on autopilot when playing). On the other hand, game actions should also feel rewarding enough that it’s engaging; simple mechanics without any depth will quickly bore gamers who play games primarily for entertainment purposes.

It takes artful design choices to strike a balance between difficulty and ease of use while still allowing users an enjoyable experience. Affordances are a key part of these artful design choices as they allow the designers to transmit information without bogging the players down in text, overcomplicated systems, or the universally hated tutorial level. It makes sense for players to understand the kind of actions they can take and it also makes sense that it’s not fun to have to explain that to them through 20 minutes of narration. They are also hugely important for ensuring the creative design is aligned with the system design. Well-placed affordances are a way of reducing ludonarrative dissonance or the conflict between a video game’s narrative told through the story and the narrative told through the gameplay.

For example, there is an element of ludonarrative dissonance in Resident Evil Village, which is ostensibly a horror survival game, but one in which you gain relatively quick access to an assault rifle and the protagonist can fend off werewolf claws with only his raised forearms. Whereas, Dead Space is often held up as a good example of ludonarrative consistency because there is very little difference between one’s aesthetic experience and one’s gameplay experience. Issac is exceptionally fragile and, while he does get access to powerful weapons, they are mostly repurposed industrial equipment and are needed to overcome the challenges of increasingly difficult enemies. He never transitions from a horror protagonist into the Doom marine. 

Affordances also emphasize the verbs of the game. The bright yellow swing bars, open arena-style levels, huge noisy guns, and the fact the enemies can be popped open like a health and ammo pinata all emphasize that this is a game about running, gunning, jumping, and cartoonish levels of violence. They do this without VEGA having to sit the Doom Guy down and run him through the ops manual.

Are There Different Types of Affordances?

Affordances are primarily based on user goals, past experiences, and context. Which is to say, if you see a padlock on a door, and you want to get through it, your past experience of video games (and real-life doors) tells you that you’ll either need to pick it, find a key, shoot it off, or bash the door in. This combination of factors leads to there being five primary types of affordances, cultural, inferred, false, hidden, and systemic affordances.

Cultural Affordances

Cultural affordances are some of the most common affordances in video games, but can also be the most tricky for game designers to effectively implement. This is because what resonates culturally with one audience, and will make a potential action obvious, will fall flat with another. Western players in a vampire-themed game will be on the lookout for crosses, garlic, and holy water, whereas Chinese audiences will be confused by the lack of glutinous rice, mirrors, and Jujube seeds to take the Jiangshi menace. While using cultural affordances can be a super-easy way to communicate certain information to certain player demographics, overusing them can cut down on the potential reach of the game.

Hidden Affordances

In video game development, hidden affordances are those which aren’t readily apparent at first glance, but once discovered give the player new ways to interact with aspects of a game or system. One common example would be “developer Easter eggs” in which designers include secrets for players who take the time to look beyond what’s immediately visible on screen. Another could be unique interactions between characters within a game world, such as the ability to press ‘E’ in order to get a few extra lines of dialogue from NPCs in Half-Life.

Hidden affordances are typically discovered by game players through trial and error. A game designer can choose to make hidden affordance information more readily available, but the nature of these elements is that they’re often considered “bonus content” or subtle nods to dedicated fans who take the time to look beyond what’s directly in front of them.

False Affordances

False affordances are suggestions of potential actions or interactions that better the player and an object, environment, or characters that don’t actually have an attached mechanic.

In a best-case scenario, this gives game designers the opportunity to create unique puzzles or areas that are hidden in plain sight. The game will lead players along a certain path, but then let them discover something new when they stray from their expected routine.

 False affordances can be used deliberately to provide “Easter eggs” for dedicated players who explore every nook and cranny of an environment, or it could simply give the player the sense that there is more happening in an area than what’s actually occurring. If someone takes the time to look under a table, perhaps only because they’ve noticed how dirty it is, why not reward them with some additional content?

However, they can also be frustrating. Doors that won’t open, inevitable walls, weapons you can’t pick up, padlocks you can’t pick or shoot are all pain points for the player.

Inferred Affordances

Inferred affordances are those which you have to assume are there, but aren’t directly seen.

In game design, inferred affordances can be a powerful tool for creating the illusion of depth and immersion in a game world.

For example: If the player sees an opening that looks like it might be a vent or air duct hatch into another room, then someone in the game design team may have gone through the effort of making that space functional. If that space is not available now then perhaps it will become so later on, especially in Metroidvania-style games. The player is left wondering what happened over here before they got to this point; were there enemies at one time? What was this area used for? Was it simply passed by as part of normal game progression? All of these questions and more are created because of affordances. If there is a possibility that an area could be accessed, such as the case with game systems design, then it creates this illusion for players to wonder about.

Systemic Affordances

Systemic affordances help players to pick up on game systems, game mechanics, and game rules.

These are best shown in games with a heavy focus on player freedom when it comes to exploration or sandbox-style gameplay.

For example, consider Minecraft which has players digging into the ground in order to find various materials for crafting new items. This is an affordance because there’s nothing preventing you from breaking down any wall that might be in your way; all these bricks can be broken or mined so long as you have enough time and resources dedicated to doing so. There are no walls stopping the player but they still feel constrained by what is possible within their own play space because of previous game progression design choices made throughout the game world!

While this concept may seem simple at first glance, it can be used in very complicated settings. Even the most in-depth real-time strategy (RTS) games like Starcraft II make use of game systems to constrain the game’s world in order to create affordances for players. For example, by having units with specific movement speeds be unable to traverse mountainous terrain, certain areas become harder for some races than others because their units are slower on steep slopes

Age of Empires gave us the traditional RTS triangle. That triangle speaks to game systems. For instance, cavalry is very strong against archers but weak against infantry because of game system affordances.

Additionally, game systems do not need to be limited to just the game’s ruleset and can extend into game mechanics themselves. Starcraft II has an upgrade system that gives players new tools at their disposal every few minutes of playtime in order for players’ actions to have more meaning over time rather than all at once.

How Do Affordances Improve Player Experience?

Affordances are a crucial part of how games work as they allow developers/designers to create worlds with specific structures without having them be too constraining or overwhelming for players. This improves the player experience by streamlining the learning curve needed to access the meat of the game. If every game was as complicated to play as they are to design, then no one would play them. By implementing affordances, game designers are able to create a game that is easy to play without sacrificing the depth of gameplay.