Friday, June 15, 2012

Badge spotlight: GemCraft Labyrinth

Remind Me of the Babe (hard, 30 points) -- Complete the final stage of the labyrinth.

Today I'd like to talk about the length of badges. This is actually a subject I suspect I'll be revisiting a couple of times over the course of this series, but GemCraft seems like a good place to start the discussion.

I'm generally a completionist when it comes to games, and I like getting achievements (which is obviously part of what draws me to Kongregate and has kept me there). On the other hand, there are limits to my completionism; when, for instance, I looked at the achievements for Team Fortress 2 and saw the one for healing a total of one million HP as a medic, I decided I was perfectly content not getting that achievement, since I enjoyed the game, but not enough to play it several months continuously (all as a medic, even). And in general, for games on Steam or consoles, designers don't really have any incentive not to add ridiculously long achievements -- once you've sold the player the game, you might as well try go keep them playing it as long as possible. Kongregate, on the other hand, doesn't have these ridiculously long kinds of badges; it's #2 on Greg's principles of badge design, and I think it's an excellent idea. Part of this is because most Flash games don't support that kind of replayability, of course, but that's not the only reason. There's also the fact that, unlike in the Steam or console ecosystems, where achievements are created by the game developer, Kongregate creates the badges itself, and the strength of Kongregate is in its breadth, not in the depth of any single game. So it's better off encouraging people to play a wide variety of games. In addition, avoiding the super-long badges also makes it seem like all of the badges are attainable, which is a very appealing feature to a gamer like me. Overall, I think this strategy of Kongregate's is one of the best features of its badge system.

However, the flip side of the coin is easy to see. For any game with a well-defined ending (i.e., not counting games where the goal is just to get the highest score or build the biggest empire or whatever), awarding a badge for reaching the ending is pretty much a no-brainer -- the only thing really left to do is decide what difficulty it deserves. That's all well and good if we're talking about relatively short games, which the vast majority of Flash games still are, but what if a game takes a really, really long time to reach the ending? And what if a lot of that time is relatively repetitive content -- or does that matter? Does it still deserve a badge for finishing the game even in that case?

And that brings us to GemCraft. GemCraft is a wildly popular series; the first two installments both spent considerable time in the top 5 of the Kongregate rankings, and while Labyrinth comes in a little lower (currently #44 as of the time of this writing), it's still rated 4.37, which is an incredibly high rating by Kongregate standards. Plenty of people are huge fans of GemCraft, and while I've never quite been one myself (I've always preferred the free-build tower defense games to fixed-path ones), I certainly recognize that GemCraft is pretty much the pinnacle of fixed-path tower defense games. It's very solidly designed and has an extremely polished presentation; Labyrinth even borrows a few elements from juggling-based TDs, as well as eliminating the most annoying feature of earlier GemCraft installments, and it has tons and tons of depth, with a bevy of gameplay modes, additional challenges, and secret achievements all available to the GemCraft enthusiast. The game also does a good job of making a lot of different strategies available to the player, and encourages the player to develop a wide range of strategic options for dealing with different sitautions, which is another hallmark of good design.

But here's the thing: GemCraft Labyrinth is long. The aforementioned badge is for simply completing the game, and after completing the game there's plenty of additional content if you're crazy about GemCraft, but even completing the game takes a long time. There's a total of 165 normal levels, and they're not easy for an average player -- while you may get through many levels on your first try, some will take several, and this being a TD, an average level is going to take several minutes to complete, so you're looking at a pretty substantial time investment. Now, in fairness, you don't have to beat every level to reach the center -- if you follow the optimal path, in fact, you only need to beat 76 levels (but you'd have to know the optimal path by looking it up in a FAQ, since the game doesn't tell you). However, that's not necessarily going to save you time, since beating levels gains you XP, which makes your character more powerful, so if you take the optimal path, you'll be incredibly weak (relative to where you "should" be) by the time you reach the center of the labyrinth, so only a very skilled player (which of course takes a lot of time on its own) or one who has spent a lot of time grinding to gain more levels (which, of course, also takes a long time) could survive that way; I ended up playing through every level and still had a lot of difficulty in the later levels, so there's really no way to reach the end without some significant time investment. (Labyrinth also, to its credit, discourages mindless grinding; you can't just replay the same level over and over and keep gaining XP. Instead, you only gain experience by besting your previous performance, which requires either beating the level with harder difficulty modifiers, or simply playing better.) And of course 76 levels is still not exactly an afternoon's playtime.

So, is completing the game simply too long for a hard badge? This is a difficult question to answer, but my inclination is as follows. I think that the default assumption should be that any game worthy of badges should get a badge for completion, with exceptions only in the cases where the game is not very good (just above the quality threshold for badges) or completing the game is exceptionally tedious. While GemCraft Labyrinth is certainly very long, it is an excellent game, and while there is naturally some repetition involved in completing the game, the designers have done a good job of throwing a wide variety of challenges at you, so it's not horribly tedious. So in this case I think that having a badge for completion is justified. (And similarly, while it would certainly be possible, given the large number of additional achievements in the game past simply completing it, to assign a badge for further activities, I agree that not having such a badge is also for the best.)

That said, though, it's pretty much never that Kongregate doesn't add a badge for game completion to a game for which that's possible, and I do think that there are a few more cases where it would be a good idea -- it doesn't have to be many cases, but I think that more than nearly zero is quite reasonable. I don't want to go into a long list of badge-bashing, but just to provide an example, LethalRPGDestiny 2 is a game that I would have found tedious at 1/10th the length, and yet it still got a badge for game completion -- a much shorter badge I think would have not hurt anyone's experience, and of course people who still wanted to complete the game could. So perhaps a little more aggressiveness on the part of Kongregate in this field would be a welcome idea -- it would cut out some of the most unpleasant badges on Kong without really hurting anything.

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