Ensuring your project has depth: the Triple Threat test

Last weekend I saw Iron Man 3, and was oddly disappointed. The movie was fun despite a few flaws, and was really quite entertaining. It took me a couple of days, but I think I’ve figured out why I was underwhelmed by it: because I’m (some might say finally) getting sick of media that’s satisfied with just being entertaining.

The problem is that in the last few years, we’ve had an influx of movies that were incredibly good at just being entertaining (Transformers, Star Trek* and pretty much any Marvel movie comes to mind). The quality bar was raised, and that, for a while, was enough. It’s fine to have movies like that every so often (I still really enjoy them), but now that there’s so many of them, it’s starting to grow stale.

*This article by Rohan Harris describes a similar problem from a very different angle in regards to Star Trek in particular. It’s well worth a read.

Unfortunately, the same trends are true of games. In some ways, our industry is more problematic than film. The mobile sector is completely obsessed with the idea of simply capturing attention for the sake of doing so, and there’s an insidious and pervasive notion amongst developers that if your first goal isn’t ‘fun’ (whatever the hell that means), then you’re automatically a bad developer and your game is going to suck. What results is shallow games, whose existence is fine, but whose sheer numbers are really quite demoralising.

So today I’m going to talk a bit about ambition and depth: specifically, a quick test I’ll make for any project to make sure that it’s going to be interesting.

When I was at university, I spent the better part of 4 years writing and directing sketch comedy for the Sydney University Science Revue. When you do this for 4 years you both see and write a lot of sketches, and you develop theories on what makes a good sketch. For me, the biggest thing that delineated a good, but forgettable sketch from a truly amazing one was what I’m going to call the ‘Triple Threat’ test. It’s a pretty simple test, but it’s really quite powerful and easily translates to other media.

The Triple Threat test is simple. To pass the test, the thing that’s being tested must very simply do 3 distinct things well in an integrated way. Being funny is one thing. If you can do more than 3 things, all the better.

This is a pretty vague definition, but that’s by design. By being vague, it allows you to be creative about what a ‘thing’ is. It also allows you to measure how well something passes by just how distinct the things are (generally, the more distinct, the better). Generally, if you’re not sure if two things are different enough, they probably aren’t.

Here are a few examples from my time in Science Revue:

  • One of the most successful sketches I wrote was a matrix parody, had video->stage interaction, had some great physicality (through a feng-shui fight scene) and involved a pre-recorded parody of the song “Kung-fu Fighting”. Oh, and it was funny. While it wasn’t really well directed or produced (this was in everyone’s first year), it’s a sketch that people remembered for a long time afterwards.
  • One of my favourite sketches was of a group of Titanic survivors, speaking seriously about their harrowing experiences. It completely changed the mood of the theatre, was moving, tense and shocking (when the drop finally came), topical and funny.
  • Climate change, topical, song parody, boy band dance, funny and the freaking CSIRO

When applied to games, the Triple Threat test pretty much remains unchanged (except I’d probably change “being funny” to “being fun”, before banning the word fun and changing it to something more useful like ‘engaging’, ‘challenging’ or pretty much any other word).

In terms of our games, we have the following:

  • Flatland: Fallen Angle had an unusual mechanic, was an adaptation of a novel, created a sense of danger, had an engaging story and created an interesting 2 dimensional world
  • Unstoppabot is a mash-up of two genres, is a challenging game and is funny.
  • Particulars creates a unique feeling of partial control, is frustrating in a good way, teaches you something about particle physics, has a wry sense of humour and has a personal story about co-dependence

I think it’s important to point out that passing the Triple Threat test isn’t a guarantee of success, or that your game is actually good. It generally means that, assuming decent execution, your game will be somewhat interesting and memorable. Flatland: Fallen Angle was too short, and Unstoppabot was too hard for the mobile market. Flatland was also much more memorable than Unstoppabot, simply because it did more things and was better integrated.

Which brings us to integration. It’s very possible to make a sketch, movie or game that does a lot of things, but simply falls apart because they don’t fit together. Particulars could do everything we’re talking about as a flight simulator which randomly spouted off physics facts, but that wouldn’t work quite so well. My main complaint with Bioshock Infinite so far (I haven’t finished it yet, and have thankfully avoided spoilers – yes, I’m quite late to the party) is that Irrational Games (or possibly their publishers) have decided that ‘fun’ means ‘shooter’, but haven’t truly integrated the shooter parts of the game into all the other awesome stuff they’re doing (they’re done a pretty good job, but against the excellence of everything else it really sticks out).

And with that, we finish. The Triple Threat test is pretty simple, and to be honest, it’s pretty easy to pass (3 is a pretty low bar – the best stuff generally gets to 5 or more). I hope that it’s something that more people start using to think about their media, just so that we get more interesting things.

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