Wednesday, March 30, 2016

It's All in the Technique

In this article, aspiring game designer Barret Gaylor argues that game critics often miss the point behind certain systems and condemn them due to personal tastes.

I am kind of amazed how much some game commentators don't understand that people have different taste. It should be an obvious concept, but it seem like the people who say that they understand this are the people who don't follow through. Obviously, I don't think that they are doing it on purpose; I think there is just a flaw in the way a lot of people criticize game design techniques that cause people to fall into this trap. Many critics get into the habit of saying a game design technique is bad, as opposed to understanding that they might not be a fan of the technique.

To be honest with you all, I began thinking about writing this after I watched a YouTube video about the recent Thief remake called Thief vs. AAA Gaming.

I apologize to the person who made this video, but I just could not watch this video in its entirety. The creator of the video argues that the navigation in the original Thief game is better than the navigation systems in all modern triple A games today. He even says the phrase "Waypoints are the laziest kind of design" as if he was trying to make his opinion more myopic than it already is. In my opinion, it falls into all of the traps that I am talking about. My biggest problem is that the creator does not seen to even understand why the navigation system in the original Thief worked. The navigation system in Thief is meant to be a puzzle. The game gives the player a basic layout of the environment without even telling them where they are in that environment and ask them to find landmarks and figure out how to get from one place to another. This type of immersive navigation puzzle is really cool, but not all gamers want their navigation system to be a puzzle. This is where we start to understand how different taste can cause the Thief system to be bad for some gamers because the system is meant to create an element of challenge for the player, but not all gamers want to be challenged by their navigation systems. Some gamers just want their navigation system to be a functional tool, which is why a waypoint system is sometimes the best solution to the problem. In games like Skyrim and Fallout where the world map is huge, a player might just see a place on the map and want to go there, and they might want to do it is the least challenging way possible. Some might ask why someone would want their game to be less challenging, but I would ask them why they thought exploration had to be challenging? I mean, shouldn't exploration be engaging in of itself, without the need for challenge? The engagement that someone gets from exploration is the feeling one gets when they discover something new. Now, I am not saying that the new Thief game is good or bad, I am saying that dismissing waypoint system entirely just because you don't like them might be a little shortsighted.

You might think that this is a mistake that is only done be lesser known critics like the one above, but you see it everywhere, even by very well known critics. If you have ever watched Zero Punctuation by Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw, then you might have also read his article on regenerating health. Yahtzee uses the length of the article to explain why he thinks that regenerating health in shooters is fundamentally flawed. Again, this is an example of another critic not recognizing the upsides of a technique. Regenerating Health can be a useful tool in a game designers tool kit and it can do a lot of things for a shooter. For example, regenerating health can allow a designer to tune an encounter more tightly since they will always know how much health a player will have when they enter the encounter space, which is something you don't all ways have in a game without regenerating health. Regenerating health can also give the player better feedback to whether or not they are playing the game well. Whenever you die, the game basically tells you that you were in a situation where you were being shot too many times in too short a point of time. Regenerating health can really help get rid of a lot of variables that can cause a game to become too frustrating, but you will never understand this if you have already decided that the technique is bad.

I don't think people who make these kinds of argument understand how pretentious they can sound by doing this. When a critic says that a technique is bad, they are basically saying that everyone who likes the technique is somehow wrong, but this in in of itself is wrong. There is no such thing as someone's personal taste being wrong, and I think the reason this happens is because the way the gaming community goes about game criticism might actually be the thing that is flawed. Game criticism seems to always be about trying to convince your audience how you think games should be made as opposed to just telling your audience how a game made you feel as an individual. On, during one of their ANNCast podcast about criticism, Zac Bertschy, Executive Editor on the site, expressed that, to him, criticism is an expression of how a piece of art made you feel as a person. I agree with this statement a lot and I feel like critics would be doing the gaming community of favor if they started writing with this mentality in mind. Criticism should be about empathizing with another persons experience and using your understanding of their taste to figure out whether or not you will like a game or using their experience to start and interesting discussion.

If you have already decided that a technique is incorrect, then you have destroyed the ability for an interesting discussion to take place because you have already decided that all the points that the other side might have must obviously be incorrect. If critics and gamers continue to talk about games along these lines, we will continue to have problems understanding the different tastes and viewpoints that we should all know exist in our community.

[This article was originally posted on Barret Gaylor's personal blog, Barret Game Design.]

Barret Gaylor is an aspiring game designer who recently received a degree in game design from the University of Advancing Technology. He is working on several game-related projects.


Diego Sheish said...

Ok, so you're saying a game that allows you to shut off the quest markers should still be designed around the quest markers, making it feel unrewarding for people that appreciate player agency?

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