Tuesday, August 23, 2005


I have two
minor design, er, guidelines (not rules in any way) that I'm going to discuss. They form a neat little feedback loop that sits nicely with my ingrained desire for symmetry.

The first idea is that repeated failure on the part of the player yields results (in the form of objects or alterations to the gameplay) most likely to help the player to succeed along with a commensurate decrease in difficulty.

The second idea, the other side of the coin, is that phenomenal success yields goodies unattainable by those having gone through the trouble, but also results in a commensurate increase in difficulty.

In other words, there's no reason that achievement and earning can't flow both directions along the power curve.

If we were to chart gamer characteristics with the truly hardcore/skilled on one side and the casual/unskilled on the other, we might get something resembling a bell curve, with the majority somewhere in the middle.

Games seem to do a good job of targeting specific sections of this spectrum. It seems much harder to cover it from end to end.

These two guidelines are not meant to function solely as a dichotomy, some kind of carrot/stick yin and yang. Instead I envision a fuzzy continuum feeding back to the player from different gradations.

By way of illustration I refer to The Simpsons: Hit and Run. I was delighted when this game offered, after five or six failures of the same mission, the opportunity to move on to the next mission anyway. In other words, the game kept track of my ineptitude and tried to minimize frustration by letting me get on with playing the damn game.

I might have been happier, however, if the game also offered to ramp down certain portions of the mission rather than simply skipping it. If the mission involved following another vehicle, maybe lower that vehicle's top speed. If I was told to destroy other vehicles, lower their hit points, or make them cluster together, or follow more constrained routes. And with every handicap given the player, restrict something on the back end. Make this restriction invisible, so that the player might not get the feeling of being denied the full game - and also so that if/when they do go back to those earlier levels and tackle them at the higher difficulties they are delighted to find extra rewards waiting.

How exactly these two guidelines might work depends very much on the specific game. If your aim is a multiplayer RTS, the goal is figuring out how to adjust to individual playstyles so that less-skilled players are given a handicap (but not too large of one) and more experienced players are given goodies that don't increase their advantage (perhaps grant them a unit which is difficult to deploy correctly, requiring a lot of coordination, but confers an advantage on the battlefield).

I really like it when a game rewards, not just an uber-player, but any player. This might be why I gravitate toward platformers, which liberally scatter random goodies throughout worlds but don't demand that all of them must be gathered in order to advance. Even those, at times, can vary wildly in their difficulty from player to player. Jak 2 varied, for me, between light and enjoyable to teeth-grindingly hard; I'm pretty sure I replayed this one particular section at least 30 times in a row.

It would have seemed pretty great if that game had recognized my clumsy-ass fingers and thrown me a friggin' bone.


Corvus said...

I think that's a very impressive idea. I'd have something more substantive to add, I suspect, if I had more than half a mug of coffee in my system.

Anonymous said...

I have to diverge with you on this point. I think what you talk about is fine in some games but would not be realistic and infact can impact the "art" that you've recently tried to appropriate to video games. Sometimes the difficulty is the game, if everyone can complete something just by trying there is less merit in completing something. Ninja Gaiden is hard...but you can beat it if you dedicate yourself to it. I think this is best done with easy, medium, hard difficulties, not a scaling system because it detracts from those who are into games to overcome hard difficulties. If you die 40 times on a mission, when you beat it, you do feel some satisfaction at it as well as disgust. If the game auto adjusted then your accomplishment means less. Sure people who aren't as skilled at a game can progress farther, but just have them play it on easy in the first place.

Johnny Pi said...

Well, Anonymous, first, thanks for writing.

You weren't really diverging from my idea. I wasn't trying to say that those guidelines would work for every game or even the same way in every game (that's why they're just guidelines, and only possible ones at that).

And the point of them is not to create some egalitarian system - sure, everybody could actually play and beat the game, but the idea is that those who enjoy more challenge reap different rewards, and those rewards are slated to make them feel better for being so damn hardcore. Conversely, giving aid to players that are struggling can make them more appreciative.

I guess I'm just not a fan of the idea of making something deliberately inaccessible to certain people, just because they lack "dedication".

After my mentioned Jak 2 experience, I did not feel satisfaction. It was, in fact, a prime reason why I stopped playing, because the next time I reached a challenge that took me many, many tries, I stopped playing. I picked up Jak 3 only after I heard the difficulty had been ratcheted down - of course, there the problem was that some sections were far too easy (which I don't feel could have been solved by a simple Easy, Medium and Hard switch).

The problem I see with Easy, Medium and Hard, or a general Difficulty slider, is simply that I don't know what the fuck those terms mean. Gamers have very, very different strengths and weaknesses. Sometimes players might only want certain aspects scaled back, not the whole thing.

As I become an older gamer, I find I simply don't have the time for games. That is, when I do get ahold of a game, I want to play it, not get stymied for hours and hours. Usually this means I have to seek out games specifically targeted for "casual" gamers - but there are "hardcore" games I want to play, too, dammit!

Resident Evil 4 is a good example of what was, for me, an exceptionally difficult game. It was actually said to have a dynamic difficulty level that adjusted to your play, but I didn't notice it. I did notice that the very first boss took lots of failed attempts. So, yeah, all the hardcore say, "You are teh suck!" BFD. I liked the game, a lot. I wanted to play it to completion because I was not just enjoying the gameplay but the story as well.

Some would say that just means I get more play time out of games, since it would take me longer to complete them. More value! So I reiterate: Fighting the same boss twenty times gives me an empty pit in my stomach and puts another check mark in the "Incomplete" section of my gamer's mental report card.

As for this impacting the "art" of video games, I don't see the relation. Picking up the annotated version of Finnegan's Wake doesn't seem to ruin that as art. Being helped might not mean weakness. Explaining the plot of, say, Usual Suspects to a friend having trouble following doesn't negate it as film.

As for the idea that if everybody can complete something then it lacks merit to complete it - well, I suppose this might be true for achievement players. They like to be the ones that say "I beat such and such and it was so fucking hard." But that isn't every gamer. And those types of gamers don't have to be alienated by this system. In fact, they could easily brag, "Well, I managed to unlock x and y, did you?" [For the record, the aforementioned RE4 does a good job of having special unlockables for the truly dedicated players - there's just no quarter given to we of teh suck].

Some developers like to think that not letting players save anywhere imports more meaning or value to their game - they may be right on certain levels. But they also make their game less accessible - and I'd like to believe that games are meant to be played (and completed, at that).

When WoW chose to make death a negligible part of their world, it didn't turn away hardcore players - it made the game more accessible for the less hardcore. It was a concession to the idea that this videogame thing doesn't have to be work - at least, not for everyone.

My guidelines shouldn't seem all that strange to people who've done at least a little pen-and-paper RPG'ing. GMs can constantly tweak a module to adjust to their players. And while they don't have to, many do. Fighter stuck with a sub-par weapon? Have him serendipitiously find a better one. Party cleaving through your supposedly level-appropriate enemies? Hit 'em with a surprise baddie. Yeah, I know, games don't yet have the capability of being as reactive as a human GM - but I think it would be interesting to work toward making them that way.

I guess part of me has just never understood the mentality behind certain unlockables.

Take, oh, Invincibility. Usually something like this takes beating the game on an impossibly tough difficulty and/or collecting every last grommet in the game. But, well, that player obviously doesn't need Invincibility - it's clear they rock the game. But poor little me with rampant-sudden-death syndrome gets shut out of things with any fucking usefulness at all.

Anonymous said...

Again though, where does this stop? If the point of mario is to jump from one chasm, over a plant-in-a-pipe and on to save ground, how does scaling it back make it better? If you take out the plant an a person keeps falling, then take out the chasm...there is no jumping. If the system does not scale fully then your still making arbitrary stopping points designed by the developer. So you're either going to beat the game by pressing right for enough time, or it'll have a breaking point that someone will still likely find too hard to accomplish. If you're telling me that annotated books and films with the plot revealed are the way the author of filmmaker intended the reader/viewer to take in that medium then I'm not following you down that road. Things can be appreciated in different ways but artists also have intentions that are just if not more important than the myriad of ways in which art is enjoyed.

Johnny Pi said...

Wow, um, okay.

It feels to me like you're taking a design proposition for exploration and considering it an all-or-nothing type of affair.

As for the answer to your question, "where does it stop?" It stops where you, as a game designer, deem it fitting to stop. Really not very different from the way it is done now - and possibly the idea is merely an elaborated spin on the current model, but, well, there you have it.

IS the point of Mario to jump the chasm? But hell, leave it in. I was not intending to suggest some kind of reductio ad absurdem in a game, turning it into a "push the button and win" affair. Though if I were a mouse, and the button was attached to an electrode which stimulated endorphin receptors in my brain . . .
A winner is me!

Or, if the player keeps falling, why not simply set them on the other side? If they fall in again, suggest they unplug the controller and find another hobby.

I'm not sure what you mean by the system scaling fully, since the suggestions don't seem to be an actual system, only two fuzzy circles with electron clouds of possible implementations. Problem with my wording?

Maybe a system would be as crude as adding fifteen gradations of difficulty 'tween easy and hard, just more arbitrary points - I'd probably be more motivated to try the game with more choice.

Artists can be arrogant pricks by demanding control over the interpretation of their art. Some encourage interpretation, some revel in it - Crying of Lot 49, for example. Or, to use a film example, Orson Welles' F for Fake. Sometimes artists may create solely to seek the interpretation - abstract art anyone?

Game designers are justified in seeking to put their interpretation on their work. I don't think I'd deny that.

And art has many instances where it is not meant to be enjoyed, but derided, hated, feared (see: Hakim Bey, Poetic Terrorism).

But many, if not most, developers seem to, in interviews I've read, feel very strongly that they want their games to be played. They wish to provide challenge without alienating. They want a broader audience. Players of the world, Unite!

Though I would like to see a game specifically designed to alienate - not slated toward the hardcore, but slated to frustrate at every step all gamers. I'd wager that many would subvert that attempt anyway and enjoy themselves. Spiteful cretins.

I'm not telling you that annotations and plot-revelations are the way that all authors or filmmakers intend their work to be enjoyed - but some surely love it. Speculation and debate can fuel artists. *Sigh* How much time I wasted discussing the feasibility of The Matrix.

If I were to be so egotistical as to assume my blog were art (and I so fucking am), then I would hazard that some of my intent is to be interpreted and debated and (how I would love this) annotated. Else why invite comments? Why respond to them?

Not the same motives for all, but, well, art is a slippery fish.

I suppose my advice would be: If you don't think those guidelines would be worth exploring, possibly formulating a system for use in a game, then don't refer to them. Ignore them.

I haven't forged any chains for you - I don't even know your size.

And they hardly fit me - I guess sometimes I like to be tied up.

That's what I get for writing up something even resembling a rule.