The Real Game Begins

Note: I know, I missed Wednesday’s update. I’ll try to make it up with a supergood post today.

Okay, if you’re here, it’s because you’re interested in good game design. While I’ve talked about many games that I feel have good design, I haven’t yet started to delve into what I think good design actually is. It’s time to do so now.

Good game design, in my opinion, can be boiled down to a single maxim: Give the player interesting, meaningful choices.

Let’s break down that sentence.

Give – You are the GameMaker. You have willingly taken it upon yourself to attempt to create an enjoyable experience for your players. Take that seriously.

The Player – Lots of game designers think of the player as a passive consumers for the designer’s content. This line of thought gives us games like Metal Gear Solid 2. Know the truth: the Player is not your student, your recepticle or (God forbid, but some designers do think like this) your adversary. The Player is your partner. It is together that you make a great play experience.

Interesting, Meaningful Choices – The player must be able to make choices that alter the outcome of the game. He needs to make these choices often (or else he’s simply watching and not playing) and making those choices needs to both interest the player and have a meaningful consequence within the game.

And now for some examples. Let’s start with the bad.

Metal Gear Solid 2 – While the early parts of this game are not terribly egregious, as the game goes on the cutscenes get longer and more confusing and the actual gameplay portions get shorter and less interesting, until you’re literally ending a cutscene, running down a hall, and starting another cutscene. Metal Gear Solid 2 simply takes too many decisions away from the player in favor of presenting the story Hideo Kojima wants to tell.

Dragon Warrior – This game has the most egregious violation of the “make the choices meaningful” rule I’ve ever seen. At the end, when you rescue the princess, she asks “Dost thou love me?”. If the player answers no, she responds, “But thou must. Dost thou love me?” And she’ll continue to ask the question until the player gives the “right” answer.

Now, I’m picking on Dragon Warrior a bit here – it’s not a bad game, but this is a classic case of giving the player a choice that means nothing. Reminds me of that Animaniacs short where Yakko, Wakko and Dot are running an Italian restaurant: “Marinara or red sauce? Calamari or squid? Ham or prosciutto?” They’re all the same.

In fact, this is something console RPGs in general tend to do – you get choices, but they don’t mean much, if anything. Pick the insulting conversation choice and either the person you’re talking to will blow it off or you’ll get to try the choice again until you get it right.

Anachronox – Okay, I really liked Anachronox. I thought it was a well-done game beginning to end (or rather, beginning to Rictus’ ship, which is where I’m currently stuck). But in the game you have these rocks called Mystech that give your characters magical powers. About halfway through the game, you gain the ability to customize your Mystech by putting bugs of various colors on them (no, I’m not kidding).

There are several million bug-color combinations, and most of them don’t have any real helpful effect – they don’t make the Mystech more powerful overall. There are a few payoffs, but finding them takes a lot of effort and the game tells you up-front that while customizing your Mystech may be helpful, it’s not necessary to complete the game.

So this system gives the player many, many choices – it’s just that the system isn’t interesting enough and doesn’t have enough meaningful outcomes. It didn’t even inspire anyone enough to write an FAQ for it. (Side note: Designers, if you really want to know how popular your game is, check how many FAQs it has on GameFAQs.) Fortunately, the player is given the choice of whether or not to fiddle with this system at all, which prevents it from ruining the whole game.

Okay, now let’s move on to the good:

Grandia II – Grandia II combat is a delectible menu of choice options, each of which have immediate, visible results. The game also gives the player all the information he needs to make his choices intelligently – where each player and monster is on the action bar, how much mana and special points spells and special abilities cost, and how many hit points each monster has and what elemental effects they are vulnerable to. Note that Final Fantasy combat hides a great deal of this information from you…Final Fantasy X combat felt very stilted and procedural after Grandia II’s exciting, free-flowing melees.

System Shock 2 – I’ve got a whole article about System Shock 2’s RPG system, but what I wanted to point out again is how things perceptibly changed for me after I upgraded my character. That’s very important – a change that isn’t perceptible to the player is no real change at all.

And now, the grand mama:

Tetris – There’s a reason this game is as popular and pervasive as it is. The player has all the information he needs, his every decision is vital and changes the game board in an obvious and predictable way. Players respond to this, it gives them a feeling of control, which makes them want to play the game.

And now you know the fundamental root of my design philosophy.

Soon: More on the Player as your partner.

Revolutionary or Evolutionary?

I finally managed to track down a copy of the now-rare Quake mission pack Scourge of Armagon. I wanted it specifically so I could watch Scourge Done Slick, which is an excellent machinima that marries incredible gameplay with a great sense of fun.

Of course, once SDS was over, I started playing Scourge myself and discovered that it’s actually a damn good mission pack and does lots of things with the Quake engine I wouldn’t have thought possible. I also couldn’t help but notice how little things had really changed from a gameplay standpoint in first-person shooters.

I mentioned to my good friend Lee that I thought that Quake was revolutionary, but that since then all other FPS games have simply been evolutionary. Now, Lee’s a naturally contrary person, so he asked me why I thought this. After all, Lee said, Quake wasn’t the first true 3D polygonal game. It wasn’t the first first-person shooter. It was ugly – all browns and greys. What made it so special?

(It must be noted here that my good friend Lee is a big Marathon fan.)

There are several things Quake did that made it revolutionary. Allow me to bullet point:

It was the first 3D polygonal first-person shooter that used 3d models for almost everything – yes, there are still a few billboarded sprites in the game, but they are used only for minor things like explosion effects. This fully 3D space gave the game a coherent feeling no other game had at the time, especially when combined with…

Lighting effects. Quake was the first game to have real 3D lighting – Carmack insisted on it, even though it was an incredible challenge to do in eight-bit color and it meant having to draw every frame of the game twice. The effect of having every light source (even rocket explosions!) affect every object in the game drew the player in – and pointed the way towards the future.

QuakeC and Radiant – id’s player-friendly philosophy allowed players to use the same tools as original level designers instead of the hacked-up, reverse-engineered tools of the past.

And finally, Quake was incredibly popular, which meant that the people who did create new content had a huge audience for their work. The fact that Quake came out just as the internet was beginning to take off didn’t hurt anything either.

Quake probably wasn’t the first game to do any one of these things, but because it did all of them at once and rode the rising wave of the internet, it created a huge fanbase willing to create new content and continually breathe new life into the game. Quake didn’t create modders, but it empowered them in a way they hadn’t been before. Modding moved out of the realm of putting Barney at the end of Wolfenstein 3D and into the realm of Team Fortress. That’s why ten years after it’s release people are still making cool things for Quake like Scourge Done Slick.

And that’s a revolution.

The Swamp Squishes Between Your Toes…

One of the first games I ever played that tried to present itself as a unified experience was Legacy of the Ancients, released back in the Day (the Day in question being 1987). It had a fun and cohesive storyline, the best graphics of its time, minigames that were fun and were integrated into the main game well, music that fit the mood, and fun sound effects (the swamp squishing between your toes goes SPLAT! SPLAT! SPLAT!). Even the copy protection was integrated into the gaming experience.

Needless to say, I like that kind of stuff, and LOTA was the first game to “wow” me with the sheer level of detail it provided in an attempt to present a cohesive game world. It’s been a while since a game has knocked my socks off in a similar manner.

If you want to try Legacy of the Ancients (and you should), you can download the Commodore 64 disk images from the unofficial official site. However, the site suggests PC64 or CCS64 as the emulator to use; I disagree. VICE runs the images well without the need for a patch and is free. You can also save state right from the emulator, making it unecessary to deal with LOTA’s slow save process (those old 1541 drives didn’t do anything fast…)