Thursday, May 14, 2009

The Cloven Designer (Part II)

In Part I, scholar Altug Isigan looks at Italo Calvino's novel, The Cloven Viscount, in order to discover game design insights from drama theory. In Part II, he describes how to avoid the pitfalls of being too evil or too good.

The Art of Being Good and Bad

How to be good to your players without annoying them? It seems like the rules of exposure in writing apply in game design too:

• Only provide help or information if the player asks for it.

• Make it easy for them to access the info when they want to find it. But never put it into their way if they don’t want to see it or if they want to figure it out all by themselves.

• If the players do not ask by themselves for what you want them to take but you believe that you must give it to them in exactly that sequence of the game, then use the element of surprise when you attempt to pass the info/help over to them. This is a good way to make the players forgive you that you provided help/info despite them not having asked for it.

• Another good solution would be to present help/info during a dramatically tense moment, in which the players are so much occupied with solving a problem or observing the situation that they do not even realize that they receive help or info.

Subtlety rules!

On the flipside, how can you provide some quality evil that helps maintain respect to the game?

Like in many of the arts and entertainment branches, variety and surprise are helpful in making the “dumbest” level a still challenging experience. Three methods will be mentioned here (although you might claim that there are more):

• Scripted events or embedded cinematics with the purpose to build respect towards the game’s challenge: Many games have done it successfully and that is why it’s difficult to detect. Just seconds before the players enter their first encounter with the enemy, they see the enemies display their skills on a NPC-victim in a very stunning pre-scripted sequence or embedded cinematic. Witnessing this scene will give the players the creeps and increase their respect to the challenge ahead. They will enter the encounter with a feel of high tension. However, this method has to be applied carefully, because if the real encounter does not feel as challenging as the cinematic suggested, then the trick will be exposed and the players will feel like the game tried to cheat on them. What more can a game do to lose its players respect?

• Constructing a hierarchy of intelligent agents and confronting the players with enemies of varying intelligence simultaneously: A hierarchy of intelligent agents can be observed in many games. These present us with a mix of enemies that vary in smartness and skills. While some are quite dumb and transparent in their behavioral patterns (but have other things that we fear, like pace, accuracy or high fire rates), other enemies compensate for their comrades’ dumbness with their smart and less transparent behavioral patterns. This is a way to tell the player through variety that the challenge is a multi-faceted and by no means an easy one. The variety in intelligent agents, combined with good enemy placement, will be a strong tool to create a good challenge in even the easiest level of a game.

• Utilizing a palette of individually dumb mechanics which, when combined, make up a system with intelligent and challenging behavior: Combining various dumb mechanics as to form an intelligent system is a very interesting way to pose a challenge onto the player and it will have a very surprising effect when it’s done well. Once the players realize that the individual mechanics are easy to handle but that as a system they make up more than the sum of pieces, they will say to themselves that it isn’t as simple as it looks (which is just another way to express that they see a challenge in it). It was Will Wright who gave this beautiful example somewhere: a single ant is quite dumb and poses no threat, but a colony of ants can be very difficult to defeat, because when they combine their forces, the system that arises can behave as intelligently as a dog.

Most Common Pitfall: The Easy = Dumb Approach

Some game designers describe the easiest level of their game as the level in which the enemies will behave plain dumb. But good game designers would see no reason in having a dumb level in their games. To the opposite, they’d be aware that such a level would lack depth and meaningful challenge. To return to Hitchcock’s quote: Such a level would be the equivalent of a villain that hasn’t been given enough dimension by the writer. Hence, the credibility of the game as a whole would suffer.

Using dumb enemies to create an easy difficulty level is a bad design solution because:

It doesn’t pose a challenge onto the players and feels to them like you’re wasting their times: While playing through this “user-friendly” level, players will be hoping to face the real challenge soon... but you shouldn’t test their patience too much. If you delay the confrontation with the challenge, you risk having players walk away.

• What was designed to lower the entry barrier could turn into an eclipse of fun and cost you potential players: While the game tries to make the beginning comfortable for them, the players might not anticipate the cool things that are ahead. From their first impressions in the “user-friendly” level, they would decide that the game is boring and walk away before they come to the challenging and really fun parts of the game.

• Dumb enemies lower the experienced quality of the conflict and make us think there is nothing essential to the game that would deserve our respect: We feel that there is nothing to achieve, or, that the achievement that we have been given as our target is not worth the effort. If it’s not worth the effort, why wasting time on it?

No matter how much you are concerned about keeping low entry barriers for your game, a game’s easiest level should from the very first moment pose a somewhat serious challenge on the player and maintain the feeling that meaningful achievements lie ahead. Therefore, I define easiest level as that version of a game that can be mastered with least effort, without making us lose respect to the game’s challenge.

Conclusion: Avoid being the cloven designer

The lesson to be learned is quite clear: Don’t be too good to your players as to deprive them of some good ‘n tasty evil. On the flipside, don’t be as evil as to throw them into a sea of goodwill and leave them defenseless against it. Pure user-friendliness and pure give ‘em hell philosophies in game design are against play’s nature. Pull your halves together. Allow players to be players.

Calvino I. (2000). İkiye Bölünen Vikont [The Cloven Viscount]. Can: İstanbul.
Chion M. (1987). Bir Senaryo Yazmak [Writing a Film Script]. AFA: Istanbul.

Altug Isigan is a scholar at the Eastern Mediterranean University, Department of Radio-TV and Film, in sunny Famagusta, Cyprus, where he is writing a dissertation on narrative in games. You can read more of his work at his blog, the Ludosphere.


Anonymous said...

I was sorta hoping for clarification on what was meant by using "the element of surprise when you attempt to pass the info/help over to them."

All I can imagine is a message popping up just as you least expect it, but somehow I imagine that isn't what you meant.


Anonymous said...

My example will be from X-Com Apocalypse:

The game is built around an isometric view. You have a squad of soldier which you are giving commands. A surprise-loaded info-moment was this:

I learned that I can see the enemies only in those parts of the screen which were in the direction of the line-of-sight of my soldiers. The info was passed to me through a big surprise: A group of my soldiers that were all looking in the same direction and waiting for the enemy to appear were suddenly killed by a big explosion. When the only remaining soldier turned around, a bunch of enemies appeared on the section of the screen that was completely empty a second ago. That's when I understood that I had to cover all direction with my soldiers gazes, if I want to know what's going on around me. I had been informed in a painful way about a very important mechanic in the game.

I'll post more examples when I find them. I hope this one was explanatory enough.

Anonymous said...

I believe also that players tend to be more forgiving about being informed when info comes in the form of a reward/gain. Since this type of info directlty translates into motivation, it is perceived as an organic part of the game, and not like someone outside the game is trying to help us to perform better. We get the idea and are very clear about its use. And we are happy to have discovered this bit of useful info.

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