Friday, November 29, 2002

Paul's thoughts on game design
This kind of post, like a post on racism, is a post that everyone will write sooner or later, but I've just been thinking about this lately while playing Warcraft 3. Warcraft 3 is a fine game; it's stunningly beautiful, but there's nothing revolutionary about the gameplay itself. It's basicaly the same formula used as in the previous Warcrafts and Starcraft, with the occasional tweak or enhancement here and there. The enhancements are useful, but they don't make a major change in how the game works. I'm somewhat disappointed, but given the success of the franchise, and the fact that this is by no means a bad game, who cam blame them for not wanting to tinker with success?

Anyway, so here are my thoughts. Note that these are not necessarily my opinions on how to build a good game, but rather how to build a game that I like. I could be egotistical and claim the two are one and the same, but I'll save that for later.

1) No waiting! By far the quickest way to make me dislike a game is to force me to wait for a long time while nothing is happening. Most games avoid the obvious forms of this trap; the much-loathed (and rightfully so!) Star Control 3 is the only game I can think of offhand in which you do just have to spend a fair amount of time waiting. This is one of the downsides of the SimCity-type games, also, in that often you have to wait a while for your money to build up (though in some games, like SimGolf, you can do other things, like play golf, while waiting for the money to flow in). But there are more subtle forms of this, too; excessive use of video, for example, is sure to annoy me -- the occasional usage is fine, but if it becomes too prevalent, what's the point? Final Fantasy games are especially egregious in this regard; not just because of the FMV, which on its own wouldn't be really horrible, but because of the constant repetition of videos that you've already seen -- things like battle transitions, spell animations, and so forth. When you see them once, fine, but once you've seen them for the 250th time, you just want to smash your machine. I think this is the strongest reason for my disenchantment with the FF series over the years. But don't worry, I'll be picking on FF much more throughout this post.

An even more subtle problem is much more perniciously widespread -- games in which you don't have to explicitly wait, but in which the optimal strategy would involve a lot more waiting (or repetitive tasks) than the normal strategy. There are a lot of games, for example, in which you'd be better off if after every encounter, you went back to the source of health, or waited for your spell points to recharge, or whatever. No one (except for perhaps the really obsessive-compulsive type of person) actually does this, but the fact that you could be better off (and in some really close battles, it becomes necessary) if you did do this is more than a bit annoying.

The next two are closely related, so I'll put them together.
2a) Doing something you know you can do is not interesting. Doing something you didn't know if you could do is interesting.
2b) Repetition forced on you by the game is bad. Repetition forced on you by yourself is good.

That is to say, any task which you have to do not because it's challenging (and by "challenging", in this context, I mean "something you could potentially fail at"), but simply because you have to do it in order to proceed with the game, is ultimately boring. This is why (to pick on RPGs again) the task of mindless leveling up is so reviled: it's not at all difficult; pretty much anyone could do it with their eyes closed, but you have to do it in order to get through the game. Square cleverly addressed that problem by largely eliminating the need for leveling up, at the cost of making the entire game non-challenging. Whoops. This applies to tasks within the game, of course, but also to tasks outside of the game: I don't particularly enjoy games which force you to make a map or write down copious quantities of information, since, hey, I know I can make a map; the act of doing it is pure busywork. I'll make exceptions if the mapmaking is relatively interesting in and of itself, but if it's just something I need to do, why bother?

Moving into the second half of my bipartite statement, it's equally frustrating to try a task which was interesting the first time round, but which you were able to accomplish, and then have the game tell you, "That's nice. Now do it again." This probably sounds like a broader statement than I intend it to be; if, say, you have to fight three of the same monsters in succession, but the first one weakens you enough so that the second is more difficult, and thus you have to plan ahead to defeat all three, that's fine. For example, the penultimate stage of Mega Man 2 (or any other Mega Man, for that matter), where you have to fight all 8 bosses again, but in one stage, is perfectly acceptable, since now you have to not just beat them, but do a good enough job beating each one that you have enough energy left to beat the rest, too. But (hey, look, I'm picking on FF again) part of the thing that annoys me about Final Fantasy is that all the fights are pretty much the same, and (with a very few exceptions, like FF1, which is part of the reason I still enjoyed it more than any other game in the series) each fight largely doesn't affect the outcome of the next, so it's all just the same with no larger strategy required.

What do I mean by the second sentence there, "repetition forced on you by yourself is good"? Well, to me, the epitome of a good challenge is something at which you don't succeed the first time, and have to try it again a few times, slowly gaining proficiency until, finally, you're good enough to make it through. The number of repetitions...well, that depends on how long each repetition is. If it takes a couple of hours each time you fail, I'm not a big fan of this model (Panzer General, I'm looking in your direction; see also (3) below), but for a minute or two, I'm willing to put up with trying quite a few times. But the point is, if you are good enough to pass the thing the first time, you should only have to do it once, not more just because the game designers are too lazy to come up with a better way to occupy your time.

This description somewhat reminds me of my spelling and grammar courses in the 5th and 6th grades; each week began with a pretest on the stuff we were covering that week, and if you did well enough on the pretest, you could skip the rest of the work for that week. I was a big fan of this system, because I was able to pass nearly all of the pretests (I think the pronoun one was the only one I didn't make it through), and so I didn't have to do completely unnecessary work. I think the same principle applies here -- if you're good enough, you shouldn't have to do unnecessary things. Of course, if this is true for a significant proportion of players out there, it's probably a sign that something is wrong with your difficulty. Which brings me to my next point...

3) The difficulty should be right. Correctly articulating my philosophy here is going to be difficult, especially since it's often self-contradictory, but the statement in bold is pretty self-explanatory, don't you think?

Seriously, though, ideally a game should be challenging at the beginning, when you're just learning, and still challenging at the end, when you're much better. The latter is complicated by the fact that as the game goes on, not only do you get better, but in many cases, so does your character, or your car, or your empire, or whatever. This isn't always a problem (as in, say, Super Mario Bros.), but it does seem that a lot of the time, game makers don't take this factor into account, and so as the game goes onward, it gets easier, often to pathetic levels. Obviously, this problem is more severe in games which don't have adjustable difficulty, but I don't intend to say that just being able to change the difficulty solves all problems, either; one of my (few) complaints with Warcraft 3 is that the "Normal" level is too easy, and the "Hard" level too hard. This is probably just a reflection of my own skill -- I'm decent, but by no means good, at RTS games in general, so the Normal level isn't much of a challenge, but I'm not good enough to tackle Hard. But since a single mission on Hard can take quite a bit of time, I'm less inclined (as (2) above might indicate) to put in the effort to improve enough to do it, so I have to content myself with something that's too easy. A perfect example of a game that does difficulty right is F-Zero X, which, when we first got it, was quite difficult at the Beginner level. Then, we got better, got through Beginner, and it was quite difficult in the Normal level. But eventually, despite it seeming impossible, we made it through...and this process proceeded through four levels of difficulty. It was perfect, in that there was always a challenge available even though our skills improved a great deal over the course of playing the game. And, of course, it didn't take all that long to play any individual course, so we could try a lot of times, even if we only improved a bit each time, and eventually end up a lot better.

There are right ways and wrong ways to make a game more difficult, of course, and unfortunately more of the latter than the former. Time limits often fall into the latter category; there's nothing more frustrating than doing really well and knowing you would have had no problem winning, except that you run into an arbitrary time limit. I don't mean to say that all time limits are bad; indeed, often they provide just the right degree of challenge to a game. But sometimes it seems that time limits are just used as a crutch by designers to artificially add difficulty, and this can be more than a little aggravating. Computer cheating is another obvious example; to pick the most heinous example I can think of, in the old Nintendo version of Super Off-Road (my favorite game in the arcade, back in those days), there were just certain races that you could never win, because the computer would just go much faster than you could ever hope to go. A slightly less-obvious instance of bad ways to make a game difficult are "instant loss" scenarios, where you can be doing excellently overall, but if you carelessly let a certain unit get destroyed, or accidentally go into the wrong place, or whatever, you instantly are defeated. Saves can help to avoid most of the damage from these, but if you design the game so that when you instantly lose you can restore from a save, what the heck is the point of having the instant losses in the first place?!

All right, now for the self-contradictory part. I suppose this part of my philosophy can be summarized as "lose quickly, but win slowly". To me, there are few things more frustrating than spending a large amount of time going through a game, only to discover at the end that I lost, and not only that I had lost, but that there was really no point I could go back to to reverse my decline, but rather that I had pretty much been doomed from near the beginning, so that I had to go allll the way back to the beginning and start over again. Again, this ties in with the whole "don't want to repeat myself a lot if it's a lot of time" thing from above; if at the beginning, I quickly lose, that's no big deal, since then I can go back and correct what I did wrong. But if the feedback cycle is that much longer, then it's much less effective. On the other hand, a very serious problem in many Civ-type games (at least at the levels which I can handle!) is that the game is essentially decided in your favor very early on, and the large portion of the rest of the game is just spent mopping up the remnants or doing whatever tasks you have to do to ensure your victory. (Admittedly, this problem is exacerbated by my perfectionist nature, where I'm not content just conquering the world/galaxy/universe, but have to make sure I colonize each planet, or whatever. But even still, even if that weren't the case, there's often a lot of dead time after you can tell who the winner is.)

Unfortunately, these two goals are somewhat at odds; after all, if there's a certain point after which I don't want to lose, then it means that everything after that part is meaningless, since I'll win, right? Well, the trick to resolving this paradox (and you might see it, too, if I tell you that I initially phrased this part of my philosophy as "lose early, but win late", before realizing the problem in this statement) is that it's okay to lose in the late stages of the game, but it should be possible, even when you lose late, to go back not too far and still have a fighting chance at winning the thing, rather than having to start all the way over from the beginning. Not lose instantly, of course; as you might have seen above, I have a great deal of dislike for that concept, but just something that won't require that much to undo.

4) You should always know what you did wrong when you fail. This is one of the things that frustrates me about the Sim series of games -- sometimes it seems like you've built a perfect city, or planet, or golf course, or whatever, and yet people still aren't coming, and you don't know how to fix it. (Between this comment and my comment in (1), it might seem like I dislike the Sim games a lot more than I do. This is not entirely true -- I played the original SimCity into the ground -- but I'll admit that I couldn't get into SimCity 2000, pretty much exactly for this reason.) This is hardly limited to this particular instance; for example, in racing games, sometimes I'll feel like I've run the perfect race and yet I'll still lose, and it's not at all clear what I need to do in order to not lose. (This is why computer cheating, aside from the obvious reasons, is particularly wicked -- if the computer is just flat-out better than you, then sometimes it's hard to see what you can do to beat it, especially if that requires something devious or underhanded.)

To tie this back into the big picture (and mix metaphors while I'm at it), like I said, one of my favorite things is improving my skills to defeat a challenge I couldn't initially overcome. If I can't actually see how to improve my skills, then I'm at a loss, and more often than not will wander off to something else.

5) Good graphics or sound or plot will not make up for bad gameplay. But the converse is true: good gameplay can make up for a variety of sins. I know I've expounded on this at length to most people who care, so I won't bother belaboring the point, especially since it is pretty obvious, after all. But this is why I still enjoy some classic Nintendo games: sure, the graphics and sound might be terrible, but some of them are still fundamentally fun games to play. I certainly don't oppose good graphics and sound; other things being equal, I'll certainly be glad to have them, and they can elevate a game from really good to the pantheon of great games, but they alone cannot save a bad game.

I know that David will disagree with the "plot" part; he plays Final Fantasy games essentially for the story, with the game really the secondary part of the experience. I, however, can't do that (especially since who's able to follow the typical Square story anyway?).

6) Make the burden on the player light when you're beginning (but it's certainly okay -- in fact, really necessary, if you want your game to have any degree of complexity -- to increase it as time goes on). I suppose this is just another way of saying "easy to learn, hard to master", though I had something more specific in mind. Heroes 2 is one of my favorite games -- and in my opinions, one of the best games ever -- but it does have a significant disadvantage: while it's easy enough to pick up the basics of the game, it's very important, even very early on, to be able to assess the relative strengths of armies, and this requires a great amount of detailed knowledge about the individual units. The game does considerately provide a quick reference card containing this exact information, but it's still suboptimal to have to consult this card time and again until you've reached the point where you've learned enough about the units not to have to constantly look at it.

The same applies to a lot of interface decisions, too. For example, in a typical RTS, you don't have to learn the hotkeys for each unit and building at the beginning; at the outset, you can just click on them, until you can learn the hotkeys and use them instead. This process is also generally facilitated by the fact that once you've learned the names of the buildings, the hotkeys are usually pretty intuitively obvious. (Actually, this is a gripe I have about Warcraft 3 -- it seems like they've gone to maximal effort to make everything start with the same letter. I keep wanting to build a Burrow and nearly building a Barracks instead, until I notice that it's the wrong size, and I have several times built a Barracks when I meant to build a Bestiary. But I digress.)

Fortunately, games have gotten a lot better at this over the years, in that most complicated games will gradually break you in by starting out with limited units or buildings or whatever available and gradually expanding them over time; it's been a long time since there's been a game for which I've had to read a substantial amount of the manual before beginning, and I hope I won't have to deal with such a game in the future either.

And now, if you've made it this far...
7) Use saves wisely. This is a pretty wishy-washy statement, so let me expand on it further. I've often expressed my view that the modern ability to save your game pretty much anywhere, any time, as opposed to never (in most Nintendo games) or at least only at infrequent times and places, has done a lot to make games a lot less interesting than before. On the other hand, saves are to some extent a necessary evil; after all, they're pretty much a sine qua non for any kind of extended sports game, and (as I remarked above in my "lose quickly, win slowly" comments) for an extended strategy game they're essential to be able to provide a challenge without making said challenge excessively frustrating.

The point at which I find saves problematic is when you end up saving before every single thing that you do, so that if it turns out wrong, you can just restore from the save. This is fundamentally silly, since it takes the game and completely reduces it into a series of disjointed separate challenges. How can you combat this problem? Well, you have 3 choices, as I see it: (a) Make each challenge easy, so that the player has no incentive to save. Well, this works, in a sufficiently trivial sense, but it also makes the whole game not all that challenging. This is definitely not the greatest solution, though it's one I've unfortunately seen more than once. (b) Prevent the player from saving all the time. As my words above might have implied, I think that this is generally a good thing, and definitely necessary in some cases (how would that aforementioned penultimate stage of Mega Man 2 be if you could save after each boss, for example? Extraordinarily pointless. Its challenge derives not from the difficulty of the individual tasks, but from the collective difficulty of doing them all decently well in one try.) In a game which is relatively easily divided up into individual tasks, this seems like the optimal solution -- don't allow people to save in the middle of a single task, but rather force them to master the entire task before proceeding. However, not all games easily lend themselves to this kind of division (how can you do this in Starcraft, for example?) So this brings us to: (c) Decrease the price of losing. This is actually a broader point worth making -- but I'm exhausted by this juncture, and so, probably, are you -- so I'll just say that the best way to prevent people from running back to the nearest save when they suffer a minor setback is to make sure that that minor setback isn't all that terrible. For instance, in Starcraft, if my attack force gets annihilated, I don't feel the need to immediately go back, because it's not that big a deal -- I can always build another attack force. This is one of the major things that distinguishes Civilization 1 from its successors, for example -- in Civ 1, if I'm way ahead, if I'm careless and the enemy sacks one of my cities, suddenly they can start building tanks and use them against me, so in defense I'm forced to save all the time to ensure that this doesn't happen. In Alpha Centauri, by contrast, if I lose a city, no big deal -- they can't get anything too far above their current technology level, so I can just work on getting it back without having to worry too much about the consequences.

All right. There's probably more to be said here (especially linearity and nonlinearity), but I think I'm best off saving it for another time.

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