After hearing about friends visiting relatives in congested Asian cities and then coming back to all the jaywalking that happens on a college campus, I’ve been thinking lately about Frogger. “Real life Frogger” (Thankfully, I have yet to witness anyone suffer the same fate as the unfortunate pixelated frogs that were left in my care.) It’s one of those games that everyone my age or older has at least heard about or seen. Developed by Konami and published in 1981, the game is considered a classic.
Even young kids these days are likely to encounter references to Frogger in pop culture, such as in a Teen Titans Go! episode, thanks to older content creators who pay tribute to nostalgic memories. Journalists and dank meme creators alike are quick to point out instances of “real life Frogger”.
Once these kids are old enough to drink, functioning Frogger arcade cabinets will likely still exist in several arcade bars. If not, plenty of fans have created tribute Frogger clone games for people to play for free online.
The game of Frogger is easy to understand and just “makes sense.” I think the simplicity of the game is what makes it so well-loved. There is no introductory cut scene to explain what is going on. No written instructions or tutorial showing you how to play. A simple design translates to anyone trying out the game for a few minutes and subsequently understanding how to play through trial-and-error.
Anyhow, back to the game design. There is a high degree of perceptual salience that Frogger’s pixelated objects and environment offer the player.
Visual clues and cues to our prior knowledge of similar objects and environments allow us to naturally understand the rules of the game. Moving cars can run you over. Movement is predictable. Stay away from a crocodile’s snapping jaws. Frogs eat bugs. Snakes eat frogs. Crossbones mean death.
Audio cues also gives us some indication of whether something is good or bad. Short higher-pitched sounds or celebratory high-pitched melodies play when you get a frog to its home. Escorting a lady frog triggers an ascending sound effect. Flat, longer, low-pitched sounds play when your frog dies.
Many people play their first round of Frogger assuming that the game’s mechanics stay pretty consistent after making their way past the cars and trucks and into the purple midpoint “rest area” with no obstacles. Keep calm and carry on hopping on the black pavement.
… I died?
Oh wait, floating logs and turtles are found in water, aren’t they?
In this way, this seemingly simple game defies our expectations and forces us to think. Although the black game environment does not visually change, the surrounding objects hint towards black pixels representing water instead of road now.
Admittedly, it took me a while to get my frogs to the top of the screen without dying. “Since water = death, let’s get the frog to the land at the top of the screen. Look – it even has these cute red flowers! … RIP.” Lilypads in the intended “home spaces,” as seen in frogger.net’s unofficial game clone, would have been a helpful hint. Parking my frog in an unnatural square pool of doom never quite made sense to me as a kid; it still doesn’t now. Perhaps this is another context switch, where now I should go back to the “cars on a road” metaphor and think of “parking” my frog into designated parking spaces.
There’s an element of challenge in Frogger. The ever-moving nature of objects in the game contributes to a short timeframe to act within.
The game acknowledges your efforts by incorporating a rest space at the midpoint (which also serves double duty as a representational divider and clue for the context switch). You can’t stay here for too long though, as the ominously dwindling green “Time” bar will remind you.
Like most games, the game gradually gets more difficult as the players successfully advances. Game designers understand that players are looking for a certain level of challenge – not too easy so as to become bored but also not too difficult so as to seem virtually impossible.
This is presented in the form of:
- Fast-moving cars that make whirring noises when they zoom onto the screen
- Crocodiles that cleverly blend in with the logs in their corresponding lanes (and that can be used similarly as platforms if their snapping jaws are avoided)
- Slithering snakes
Ultimately, Frogger is a great example of effective design. Across the world, anyone can easily pick up on how to play the game despite being thrown headfirst into the experience. Frogger also shows us that game elements can be flexible, since players are observant and learn quickly from experience. That is in essence the nature of gameplay: observe, play, learn, fail, adapt, learn, and repeat. This brings us to some food for thought: Are we addicted to learning, challenge, or something else? What makes games so fun? I don’t have a good answer to this question yet, but I’d love to hear your thoughts.