Splitting your Attention between Malta and Hydorah

I want to talk about Attention Splitting and Hydorah and Malta and Clutter. But I can’t pay attention to that many things at once! Inevitably I’ll fail to give one enough time and I’ll have to try again later hoping I’ve learned from my mistakes. Such is the essence of Attention Splitting and the essence of Hydorah. Hydorah is a shooter written by Locomalito with tightly-knit music by Gryzor87. I played Hydorah last winter when we were exploring the festivals and medieval cities of Malta.

In Malta I was working on a game called Clutter (which I shelved in Honduras months later). We lived in Rabat, just outside the medieval walled city of Mdina. I used to walk the silent streets of Mdina in the mornings to think out game design problems. Malta had a lot to offer; fireworks, good wine, ancient forts and festivals but it was hot and hard to get around without a car so we ended up at home gettin’ work done a lot of the time. Well, I was gettin’ work done until Hydorah came along. It’s a great retro-hard game and I played it through to 100% completion. A big part of why Hydorah works is Attention Splitting. Not so much in splitting my attention away from work but in splitting my attention between dodging bullets and shooting targets.

In Hydorah there are guys who fly at you from the right, shoot some bullets at you, and then fly off to the left. There is variation in bullets and flight patterns but mostly that’s how Hydorah and all shooters work. So why is such a simple formula so successful? Well, like other successful games, it lets you practice something your brain likes to practice. In this case it’s paying attention to more than one thing at the same time.

In Hydorah you have to watch for and aim at enemies but you also have to dodge bullets coming at you. You have to pay attention to these two major catagories as well as several individual items in those categories. I talk about how this challenges the visual centre of the brain in Of Rods, Cones, Meat and Monnaco. Only a small part of your eye is capable of seeing much detail (called the fovea). To keep track of so many important things you have to constantly scan back and forth between them while attempting to store their positions and velocities in your head. The better you are at storing predicting, and updating the state of the game the better you are at Hydorah. This also makes you better at a lot of other things like Starcraft, Rails Shooters, playing hockey, being a fighter pilot, lots of stuff. Attention Splitting is so critical to Starcraft play that Attention is called the “third resource” and gosu players attempt to steal attention from their opponents with raids and harassment.

Since Attention Splitting is so useful to so many activities it’s not surprising that your brain wants to practice it all the time. And since your brain wants to practice it all the time it’s not surprising that it’s so fun. Like traveling, video games are fun because you are learning. In Malta we learned what that a medieval festival with cloth banners and gilt relics parading the streets behind a brass-band can be just as amazing as a parade filled with floats and lights. In Hydorah you learn to take it all in and not lose track.

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