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  • Writer's pictureNingshan Ouyang

How close to the reality should the cooking simulation be in video games?

Updated: Feb 17, 2021

As a huge fan of simulation games, I'm always thrilled to see another simulator game coming out. In some simulators, the developers try to follow every step in reality and recreate the exact procedure in game. But in my opinion, having every step is more like "work" rather than a fun "game". Cooking is a very interesting example. In real life, cooking is sometimes time-consuming and frustrating if I am bad at cooking, and I do not always enjoy spending the time. I feel cooking is like "work" - something I have to do to make me not starving. However, I almost enjoy every cooking game I played and even I'm asked to serve the virtual customer food, I don't feel I'm forced to do so. Thus I'm really curious about how this design magic transfers the "work" experience to a joyful one. I believe the secret lies in how the designers simplify the cooking into representative steps. So my question is: How close to the reality should the cooking simulation be in video games?

Cooking in The Legend of Zelda: Breath of the Wild is a very simple gameplay component. First, Link selects up to five ingredients in the inventory, holds them, walks close to the pot, and presses 'A' to cook.

So one could argue the cooking is way too simple and boring compared to other components in this amazing game. But I don't see making an extra cooking mini-game in Zelda will make the gameplay more interesting. Mini-game of cooking will usually need another scene for the "zoom-in" experience on cooking pot/table, and in the game, these "zoom-in" moments seem to ruin the open-world experience. Although I would enjoy cooking more in Zelda if there are more actions, the cooking action requires the exact amount of effort for now.

In games where cooking is a more important feature, the interactions are simulated. One of my favorite survival simulation games on DS is Lost in Blue. In this game, the player will survive on a deserted island and explore the missing memory. To survive, collecting food and cooking the raw ingredients are critical gameplays.

Cooking in Lost in Blue is presented as a mini-game when interacting with a table at base camp. Depending on the ingredients, there'll be three cooking interactions for each type of ingredient. For food that can be eaten raw like fruits and mushrooms (?), the action is slicing the food into pieces. For barbecue, flipping the ingredients on the touch screen is the action. If water is added, then the cooking action would be stirring the soup. In Lost in Blue, many simulations are featured as a mini-game on the touch screen. Cooking is not particularly the most fun in this game but contributes a lot to the whole survival simulation experience.

In the last semester, for BVW Round 4 my team designed a cooking simulation mini-game in our VR storytelling experience, Nian. Cooking and eating are especially fulfilling in VR games and in this game, we teach the player to make dumplings using grandma's narrative.

Making dumplings requires lots of skills and time, so not many people can master it in real life. For a one-minute experience, we were facing the challenge of simplifying this complicated process into a few steps that are understandable for naive guests. And using VR, the guest will hold controllers in hand, which adding more physical limitations. The most intuitive interaction in VR is grabbing so in the first two steps we used grabbing the rolling pin and spoon. And we chose a not very common interaction, pinching, using thumb and index fingers as the last step. It turns out that the pinching is a bit confusing for most of the guests and needs extra instructions. We struggled on creating the meaningful tutorial and these actions definitely need more polishment. But from the feedback, VR cooking has been a fulfilling experience for our guests playing our game.

Cooking is the main gameplay in many fun games. In the mobile game, Good Pizza, Great Pizza, the player takes the order from customers, flattens the dough, puts sauce and ingredients on the dough, goes over the oven, and finally cuts the pizza into pieces. Some customers have a special requirement and the player will need to fulfill them. This game almost simulates all the steps of making a pizza, and I still do not feel like "working" because there's also a puzzle component in the customer's order. I do not feel every step is redundant since each action is a different finger movement: rotating, tapping, and dragging.

So, to answer the question: How close to the reality should the cooking simulation be in video games? First, it depends on what's the role of the cooking simulation in this game. In games like Sims and Zelda, cooking is not the main gameplay. So it's reasonable that the cooking process might be simplified as one or two simple clicks so that the cooking system won't steal the spotlight of other interesting components in these games. The choices of ingredients may or may not matters, but providing some recipes seems to add more fun.

On the other hand, for games that have a mini-game of cooking and with other amazing gameplay besides the cooking game, I would recommend using magic number THREE. One way is to break the cooking process and simplify it into three steps. Here's my design process:

  • Get to know the cooking process in real life

  • Make a list of all the action verbs using in the process

  • Consider your platform; Does your platform need a controller? What interactions are implementable?

  • Divide the list of actions into roughly THREE blocks

  • Pick THREE actions from each block and make sure if missing any one of them then the process does not make sense

  • Polish the actions and think about how to implement them

For games that cooking is the main gameplay (like running a pizza shop, and overcooked), it would be interesting to add more ingredient options. And introducing the "order" concept seems like a very common and crucial way of engaging players. Order usually adds replay value to the game even the gameplay does not update very frequently.

I'm always wondering how to design a simulation game that can concentrate the most fun moments into the gameplay. Cooking simulation is the most significant one but the design principles may not apply to other games. I'll explore further on this topic in the near future perhaps in another blog post.

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