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UNabusive design, and why you WOULDN'T want to be mean to your players

Add Comment! By John Graham on July 5th, 2010

The following is a guest blog post from Wilbefast. 1 month ago, over at moddb.com:

Silverfisk: BTW I like your posts on the Wolfire Blog, you should make some more. :)
Wilbefast: I may well write again for Wolfire: John is keen at any rate, though I'm torn between saving my best posts for my own blog, and posting them somewhere where they'll get a lot of views :-P
Silverfisk: You should post them on the Wolfire Blog and then get people to your blog that way. Readers FTW! B)
Wilbefast: Ah well, who am I to disagree with a fisk? I've had something brewing for a while: I'll write to John ;-)

This one goes out to all you Swedes: stay blonde.

INTRODUCTION

At this year's GDC Jonatan Söderström, aka "Cactus" gave a talk entitled "abusing your players just for fun".

abusing the player
Here's hoping I won't be hunted down and beaten to death with allen keys

He was being a bit tongue-in-cheek with the title. The general idea was actually more that we should stop fretting so much about our audience. Cactus believes that "worrying about what your player may be feeling and if they feel comfortable can compromise your vision as a designer." He wants to encourage more people to take a stab at making their own game, which is a nice thought. The more the merrier right?

Trouble is, here at the indie-buffet we're sort of up to our necks in rough-cut games. As Chris Hecker put it (also at GDC 2010) "We need more depth and understanding, we don't need more wacky ideas and shallow games". If we're short of anything it's polished titles like "World of Goo" or "Aquaria", and part of being polished is taking your audience into consideration.

abusing the player
Wait there's a warning: 'may cause super crude, spontaneous emulations of Kyler Gabler's art style'

Take it from me: there's nothing easier than making your game frustrating because, by the time you release it, you'll be more than comfortable with whatever quirks it may have. What's difficult is gauging how well a new player will cope with what you're putting on the table, because this means seeing your work through the eyes of someone uninitiated to it.

abusing the player
I was too comfortable with Supersoldat's lack of friction an refused to change it, so testers suggested I instead change the name to something more 'appropriate'.

Cactus may get away with abusing his players just for fun, but he's well recognised enough to be invited to talk at the GDC. I for one can't afford even to momentarily bore or annoy my audience, because they'll drop me like a hot coal and move on to something else. It's not like there's any shortage of free alternatives for them to try (none of my games are on that list - ledsen). You don't get any favours when nobody's heard of you (not that any of my games actually are any good).

I don't want to be all negative though, so how about something constructive? Let's have a look at "how not to make your game abusive", so as to preserve the universal balance of... the universe? To do so we'll be exploring three problems which can contribute to making your game particularly annoying: repetition, randomness and incoherence.

REPETITION


Man was not made to perform repetitive tasks

You might think that hard games are automatically more frustrating than easy ones, but that's not necessarily the case. What's really frustrating is the repetition brought about by all the trial and error. Say you complete three challenges but are defeated by a fourth. Most likely you'll be raring to give this final challenge another try. This enthusiasm is a good thing, if it's channelled correctly, but it can quickly turn to frustration, say, if you're forced to repeat the three previous challenges before you can have another go at the fourth. The actual difficulty of the challenges is pretty irrelevant, so long as they're fair: it's a good idea to avoid cheap deaths.

abusing the player
If you stick to something for long enough, you're bound to improve

For example, in Gish, there's a tunnel with a series of half-pipes the player must accelerate down a chute to gain enough momentum to pop back up and over a barrier. Now, perhaps I just suck, but it took me a good dozen tries to make it past each one: climbing back up the tunnel, letting myself fall to gather speed, silently pleading with the game and finally swearing out loud when I (just) didn't make it. Bear in mind that I never found the secret used in the above video to skip past the beginning and to gain extra momentum.

This would all have been fine though if there hadn't been a booby-trap at the end of the tunnel, that submerges you in a horde of enemies. Back to square one, a good dozen times. What's a dozen squared? Hundra fyrtiofyra!

abusing the player
Yeah, yeah, blame the Joker...

"Escape" mechanics such as the ability to rewind in "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" or the grappling hook in "Batman: Arkham Asylum" can help avoid cheap, accidental deaths, and checkpoints and regenerating health can go a long way towards reducing unnecessary repetition. These techniques all run the risk of making the game too easy though, which in turn can make it boring (boredom is the yin to frustration's yang). Check out John's "How saving mechanics affect fun" post for more on this topic.

A better idea is to give the player some freedom, either to complete each challenge multiple different ways, or to defer it entirely and work on something else in the meantime. In "Hitman" the option of just shooting everyone is a good way of venting your frustration and/or "cheating" your way past levels that you're finding too difficult. Meanwhile nothing's stopping hardcore player from suffering for their coveted "Silent Assassin" award. Everybody wins. Also, if the player can advance on multiple fronts as in World of Goo, they are less likely to get completely stuck and quit. Coincidently World of Goo also allows players to skip a given number of levels and come back to them later. Similarily in "Starcraft" you are advised, not forced, to complete the three factions' campaigns in a specific order. Those who've pre-ordered Overgrowth can find more on the subject in this thread.

abusing the player
With 3 wolves and a knife, there's only one way of winning

One of reasons Lugaru's fabled "three wolves level" is frustrating for so many is that there's only one way of getting past: you fight a wolf and win, then you fight another wolf and win, then you fight a third wolf and win. In other levels you can use a combination of stealth and weaponry, but wolves can't really be crept up on, and there are no spare weapons to be found. As such, there's only one solution: the most obvious one. All you can do is keep trying until you succeed.

abusing the player
If we add some different enemies and weapons, there are soon many more possibilities

Our subconscious minds are very good at working away at problems we're not actually focused on. This is why you can often perform a lot better if you take a break from what you're doing and come back to it later rather than beating your head against it for hours on end. As a designer you can use this fact to your advantage, by limiting the amount of compulsary repetition.

Of course, if you open up too many possiblities, alternate maths and strategies, then the player will get lost. So some repetition is important: aside from it enabling you to reuse assets and mechanics, and to ensure that an important skillset is acquired, it gives the game a degree of coherency which is important for making the player feel comfortable.

INCOHERENCE

Coherence, or lack thereof is all about the audience's expectations. The human mind is superb when it comes to recognizing patterns, and we expect patterns to continue. If not, the world we're experiencing seems incoherent, and our suspension of disbelief is broken.

There are many kinds of incoherence. The first, incoherence with reality, is the most common. Games that present a realistic world are more at risk here than ones that are purely abstract: the more the game looks like the real world, the more players will expect to be able to realistically interact with it. For example, in David's Aquaria design tour he mentioned being disappointed when his poisoned food did nothing to hurt a boss, even though nothing in the game had ever suggested that such a tactic might work.

Many adventure games ask the player to apply their real-world reasoning to in-game problems, and as such are plagued by this issue. Often you'll think of a solution that the designer hadn't predicted, which generally results in a very frustrating and illogical "I can't".

abusing the player
Art of Theft was great, but the Chzo Mythos is full of the sort of issues Yahtzee spends his time complaining about

The second kind of incoherence is internal incoherence. In "Aliens versus Predator" (the new one) one of the characters (the Predator) can jump unbelievable distances, but only to and from specific areas. Players are quick to accept that make-believe creatures with super-human strength can exist within a game-world, but if said creature can lift a car one minute and can't pick up trashcan the next, it will make the game a little frustrating to play because the reality you're presented isn't coherent even with itself.

Many games advertise cinematic gameplay with large amounts of quick-time events and cutscenes. This is all very well, but it's disappointing to watch your character perform amazing acrobatics and feats of strength during pre-rendered clips, only to find yourself unable to do anything much in-game. This is because the designer has created expectations they can't or won't fullfill.


This is how legendary forumite Renegade_Turner imagines I would look and sound. It really isn't.

The final kind of incoherence is less important than the other two, but still worth taking into consideration. It is incoherence with the genre. It's generally accepted that in an FPS the mouse will control the camera or that in an RTS the "shift" key will let you select multiple units or queue multiple orders. I'm not going to tell you to avoid going against these conventions, but if you do you'd better have a good reason.

To give you an example, over the years the number one criticism I've had about "Supersoldat" is that you can't control the character's movement while he's in the air. This is not a game that has any shortage of bugs, glitches or unattained ambitions, but players are adament that the main thing that I should change is the one thing that makes it different from most other platform games. Likewise several people suggested I add guns to "Zombie Run", despite the game being about running away from zombies rather than shooting them (for a change).

Food for thought?

RANDOMNESS

To quote Sid Meier, also speaking at GDC 2010 but not a Swede: "any kind of randomness needs to be treated with a lot of care." If random numbers are entirely responsible for determing the outcome of the player's actions, the game just won't seem fair!

You might find this hard to believe if you play a lot of roleplaying games, where random numbers are king. However, in most RPGs the gameplay isn't specifically about beating a given elf with a stick or hacking a computer or picking a lock. It's about tipping the odds in your favour beforehand, choosing your battles correctly and knowing when to withdraw if things go pear-shaped. If in "Diablo" your character also chose their equipment, their confrontations and when to run at random, the game wouldn't be much fun at all. Or would it?

Little bit of (random) general knowledge here: the "random" numbers spat out by your computer aren't "truly random". Given a specific "seed", the function will always produce the same series of numbers (I generally use the date and time as a seed).

Then again "random" is a completely abstract, human concept. "Random" simply means "unpredictable", unless you're a quantum physicist (in which case: God doesn't play with dice - haven't you heard?)

As such, if your game obeys a perfectly deterministic logic that the player can't get their head around, it will be just as frustrating as if it were totally random. After all, "totally random" litterally means "obeying a perfectly deterministic logic that we just can't get our heads around". Yes, I'm talking to you, quantum-physicist-man.

abusing the player
This image has no place in this paragraph. Ironically, this makes it the perfect example of randomness. So it does have a place. Only it doesn't because it does. Ah! Run!

What this means is that procedural content, even if it uses no random numbers whatsoever, can create the illusion of random. In "Left 4 Dead" you sometimes get lucky, or get massacred, due to how the game populates levels with ammunition and enemies. The lack of repetition comes at the expense of making the game seem a little less fair. I've just released a new game called "Murder Man", featuring more neat music by Henrik R. Funny when you think about it: here I am writing a post that will probably earn me a good number of hits on my shiny new site just when I need them. What a coincidence!

Anyway, shameless self-advertising aside, this new game uses AI-driven characters, whose decisions are partly based on random numbers. As a result the score you're given at the end may not perfectly reflect your actual skill, but rather a combination of skill and luck. Perhaps this is why it hasn't done very well in it's first fortnight.

CONCLUSION

Art has always been governed by a set of norms and conventions, which might seem unnatural or restrictive to some. One of our medium's conventions states that games should be fun , and many people have a problem with this. Some rules are made to be broken, but others exist for a good reason. All I'm suggesting is that new designers follow the guidelines when they're starting out, for their own good and for that of their audience. Remember that even Pablo Picasso didn't start his career drawing (to use the technical term) "all funny". He started off following the rules. Only when he'd understood the conventions could he justify breaking them, and move on to paying the bill at restaurants by doodling on a tablecloth.

This is the saddest thing about art: how a doodle becomes a work of art simply because it's signed by the right hand. How a work of art can become a doodle when it isn't. For example, a few years ago a world famous violinist, Joshua Bell, gave busking a try for an experiment. You probably don't want to know just how badly it went for him (I'm sure in Sweden it would have been a different story). In the meantime a group of Australian comedians were litterally dumping their garabage in art galleries (see above video), just to see if anyone would bat an eyelid. Again, you don't want to know.

abusing the player
Also known as 'allen keydo'. Ikea is just a front for the Swedes' evil conspiracy. Beware!

But wait! My point isn't that Picasso, or Bell, or Cactus are being praised for doodles or garbage just because they are well-known. This I cannot stress enough. My point is simply that because they are well known they are given the benefit of the doubt. As a result, their work is not immediately discarded, and so is given the time to speak for itself. To misquote non-Swede Ben Crowshaw (aka "Yahtzee"), publishing your work on the internet "is kind of like throwing messages in bottles into a churning sea made up entirely of messages in bottles". On the off chance that somebody does actually download your game some day, you don't want to tempt fate by tossing aside too many conventions all at once. Not at least until you've earned some degree of recognition playing by the rules. There is also no point discarding norms just for the sake of it: novelty is forgotten a lot more quickly than quality.

But what do I know: Cactus probably released more quality games in the time it took me to pen this mammoth post than I will in my entire life.

Extra points for anyone who can tell me how many Swedes were harmed in the making of this post.