The Cattle Prod


I’ve previously talked about the Alamo standoff, a technique in which the player’s physical progress is halted, so I figured I’d take a quick look at the opposite end of the spectrum: forcing the player to move forward.

super metroid1 The Cattle Prod

The iconic escape sequence from the intro of Super Metroid.

Now there are plenty of ways to encourage the player to physically make progress in a game (collectibles, for instance), but forcing him to do so is a bit different. One approach is to simply take the player on an automated ride where his input bears little to no effect on the actual traversal, e.g., autoscrolling stages in shmups, or wholly scripted camera movement in light-gun games. Another possibility, and the one I’ll be focusing on, is what I like to call the “cattle prod.” But first, a quick definition:

game death, n.

  1. An event in which the player fails to adequately advance through a challenge, often resulting in a restart at the last checkpoint/save spot or a “gave over” scenario.

super adventure island The Cattle Prod

Super Adventure Island's cattle prod is the very intuitive hunger mechanic that requires the player to constantly pick up fruits. Not only is this concept very easy to grasp, but it also fits in with the game's setting and is supported by the extremely horizontal level design.

Game death is a pretty nebulous concept, e.g., losing a race and having to repeat it doesn’t have to actually involve anyone or anything being killed. However, it is also the ultimate consequence of not properly following the directions dictated by the cattle prod(s).

With that in mind, we can now talk about what makes a cattle prod work. Namely, diminishing resources that can bring on game death.

Cattle prods are manifested in various ways, e.g., time limits, combo meters, autoscrolling walls, currencies, decaying health, unstoppable enemies, etc. The overall feeling they tend to bring on is that of tension (and the possible satisfaction of overcoming a challenge) although that intensity varies greatly from case to case.

From what I’ve noticed, there’s three main factors that play into the stress level of a cattle prod:

1). Player Knowledge.

The more information the player possesses, the better he will be equipped to judge the situation at hand. Traversing a familiar level while being accompanied by a minimap that displays various points of interest is a lot less intimidating than being given a time limit and thrown into a hostile and unknown area.

crackdown The Cattle Prod

Although Crackdown's races were actually pretty easy, the rapid checkpoint approach definitely increased their intensity.

2). Player Power.

The stronger the player is, the lesser the impact of any possible cattle prods. For example, if an RTS match begins with the player at a fully outfitted base with a lot of units and resources to mine, he won’t be too worried (at least not immediately) about succeeding. However, remove the base, provide only a handful of starting units, severely diminish possible resources and create a massive opposing army, and the stress levels quickly increase.

3). Resource Availability/Lifespan.

The more sparse the resource and the quicker it runs out, the more intense the overall experience. If a checkpoint is fifteen minutes away in a rally-style racing game, the player tends to trust the designer to give him plenty of time to reach that goal. However, if a checkpoint can be seen just a block down the street but the player only has 10 seconds to reach it, the experience becomes much more rushed and hectic.


The dials on these 3 factors can be turned independently — something that’s particularly important when using multiple impetus mechanics at one time. In the end, though, they all represent a single concept:

cattle prod, n.

  1. A mechanic based on diminishing resources that forces the player to advance in order to avoid game death.

, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

  1. No comments yet.
(will not be published)