Jaron's Realm

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The Ten Commandments of Game Design – Part 3

Posted by Eric on 14.04.11

…So Let It Be Done

I’ve ( hopefully ) saved the best for last.  This will likely be longer than the previous two sections, but I think every gamer in the world will agree these three Commandments are the most important.  Other elements of a game may be lacking, but if the story is good or if the problems aren’t too bad, most gamers will stick it out to finish the game.  But if you ever make the player feel cheated, don’t expect them to hang onto the game disc for much longer.

#8: Thou Shalt Not Make the Player Feel Helpless

Because “Thou Shalt Not Incite the Player to Say, ‘Oh, Come On!!!!'” is too long a title.  These are the moments of sheer frustration when you’re helpless to do anything but die/fail in the game.  Be warned, this has NOTHING to do with the gamer’s shortcomings.  Caveat #1 states that death and/or failure due to a genuine player screwup is perfectly acceptable, and though we all want to claim otherwise, I think we’ve all been on that side at least a few dozen times.  While the majority of violations to this Commandment are noticed in game combat, it can actually apply to many other game mechanics.  Admittedly it can be a slippery slope where to draw the line between wrist-slap and fatal failure.  Let’s consider four of the most common offenses:

Invisible Barriers

This isn’t a grievous transgression in game design, but it is an annoying one.  The worst part about it is that the player is once again reminded it’s only a game.  Why shouldn’t I be able to scramble over that pile of rocks?  Why can’t I hop down from this ledge?  And I don’t care if that plant is poison oak, I should be able to step over it.

Regrettably there really isn’t a proper solution to this oft-used mechanic.  To put reasonable barriers all over the map, like solid rock or steel walls, can make the game world feel restrictive.  And if I’m always standing at the top of a sheer cliff, I have to wonder if the entire kingdom is on an inaccessible plateau.  Strangely enough, the best solution I’ve seen is when a chat bubble or subtitle appears saying there’s no need to go that way.  Understandably, others may hate that method.

I get the idea of story continuity and restricting the player’s path to ensure plot elements are encountered in proper chronological order can be very helpful.  But I beg game designers to use this with discretion.

I’ve Fallen and I Can’t Get Up

Most game combat now allows characters to get knocked down.  Personally, I hate it.  I’m not saying it’s unrealistic to get knocked off your feet, I just don’t like how it’s usually implemented.  If you’re taking enemy fire, you don’t just lie there for a few seconds and then slowly, casually pick yourself up and dust yourself off.  Consider Force Unleashed.  I’ve never seen any Jedi or Sith with slower ground reactions than the Apprentice.  Mass Effect is similar.  Sheppard is supposed to be N7, meaning elite special forces training, but getting off the floor in combat is slower than rolling out of bed in the morning.  I suppose the Smackdown vs RAW titles have some exception to this as it’s what you see on the TV, but can I get some type of meter than gives me an indication of how long my wrestler has to act injured on the canvas?

Again, I get the idea about being knocked down in a game.  But is there some way to recover a bit faster?  Maybe let me roll away to safety?  Maybe let me fight from the ground?  Now if I’m too close to an explosion or get Force thrown across the room, then sure, I’ll be dazed and unable to quickly recover.  Caveat #1 is also in play here.  You saw the Big Boss winding up for their unblockable attack and you didn’t get out of the way?  Your fault.

(Un)Friendly AI

Is it too much to ask for my AI teammates to NOT shoot me in the back?  This alone can make an otherwise great game not just frustrating, but downright unplayable.  I refused to finish Descent: Freespace for just this reason because my wingman would constantly try to shoot through me to get the enemy.   Even with friendly fire disabled, the AI was essentially useless if he’s not actually damaging the bad guy ( once again I cite Mass Effect. )  It’s not a whole lot better when they unload guns at the wall the baddie is hiding behind.  I know that good AI is the hardest thing to program, but if the game can tell if an enemy snipes me from across the map, can you at least have the friendly AI check what will get hit before they fire?  And on a side note, can I get party companions that will get out of my way instead of acting the part of the roadblock?

Useless Abilities

Anyone remember the RUB spell from Final Fantasy I?  To those that don’t, it was a spell that was supposed to instantly kill an enemy.  Except it had two problems.  First, even when cast against something that wasn’t immune to instant death, it didn’t always work.   Second, by the time you had the stats and money to get it, most enemies you faced could be handled just as easily in more mundane ways.  And the tough foes that you wanted to use it on were almost always immune.

The other side of this coin are the spells/abilities that always work for the computer but rarely for the player.  Did anyone else feel this way about about the Stasis Force power in KotOR?  Toward the end of the game it was fine for the generic enemy, but I swear I failed every will save against it for the first 15 hours.

Bottom line, if the game has an ability that not only sounds cool but is hard to get or takes time and effort to upgrade, it deserves to be not only effective, but useful more than half the time.

#9: Thou Shalt Not Force the Player to Learn by Dying

This could be a sub-rule of #8, but it’s important enough to merit its own spot.  I remember reading an article in PC Gamer about 10 years ago that addressed this.  In many ways it’s improved in the last ten years, but far too many games still incorporate a few things things that a player has no preparation for and very little chance to get right on their first playthrough.

Blind Choices

I’m not saying every consequence has to be laid out to the player, but decisions with permanent effects throughout the rest of the game need to be handled delicately.  The important part here is to let the player know somehow that the upcoming decision will have drastic effects.  If they play the first few hours with nothing terribly monumental happening, why should they expect a pivotal fork without being somehow prompted or properly informed?  Imagine going through Final Fantasy VII for the first time only to find somewhere around the 60 hour mark that you can’t get the Ultima Weapon because you didn’t buy a flower from Aerith in the first 20 minutes of the game.  Games like Heavy Rain, or even Demon’s Souls to a lesser extant, are exempt because they’re designed to have the player live with every choice without the option to reload the game and try something over.

Instant Death Attacks

Silver bullets can be tricky in games.  If the player has this option, the game may not be challenging.  If only the NPCs can use them, the player might feel unreasonably disadvantaged and that the game is only difficult for the sake of being difficult.  And with all the hi-tech armor, magic, etc. in most current games, how is the mere mortal player supposed to know what actually hurts and what’s “just a flesh wound?”  Perhaps there’s no perfect solution here, but here are a few implementations that can be not only effective, but still challenging and fun.  Of course, if you’re in a big boss battle, the rules usually (understandably ) change.

Everything’s Potentially a Silver Bullet: This was utilized well in Demon’s Souls.  At any point in the game, a monster can kill you from a single attack or combo.  However, you can also kill most of the enemies with a single properly timed riposte.  Basically, the player is taught to take nothing for granted.  A run-and-gun or hack-and-slash method would get you killed in under a minute.  But through patience and proper observation, you could learn how to counter every enemy in the game.  The same can be said about the original Rainbow Six, where a single bullet could kill anyone, terrorist, hostage, or player.  Dead Space took this a bit further since you could die just by losing a limb, not necessarily losing all your health ( and Isaac couldn’t kill any necromorph in a single shot except on the easiest difficulty setting.)

No Silver Bullets: If no single thing is downright lethal, on either the player’s or the computer’s end, then the playing field is even.  That’s not to say there’s no danger or challenge in these games.  Even though a single attack isn’t fatal, what happens when they’re quickly chained together?  Street Fighter and similar games usually follow this and the skilled players are the ones that can juggle a stunned opponent while unloading insane combos.  Ratchet & Clank largely falls in this category since few enemies can kill you in one swipe.  Ratchet’s insane arsenal means he can take out most enemies in a single round, but ammo restrictions and being outnumbered 100 -1 keep it challenging.

Only Obvious Silver Bullets: Most games fall in this category, though how “obvious” the insta-kills are varies a lot.  Ideally the silver bullet should be easily recognized ( if you see a flaming weapon in Soul Calibur, you know an unblockable attack is coming. )  Likewise Uncharted is nicely balanced here.  Headshots and explosions are usually fatal on both sides ( flashing red grenades and laser sights trained on your noggin give you adequate warning to seek cover, ) while anything else will take a few rounds.

Raiders of the Lost Ark Chase Scenes

If the only reason I can dodge those pits/spikes/flaming cars is because I’ve died 38 times and now have the whole course memorized, it’s not fun.  It’s nothing but frustrating.  Though short, these sequences in Ninja Gaiden and Uncharted 2 were by far the least enjoyable to me.  Ninja Gaiden and other action games might be excused a bit from this since they’re usually based more on twitch than on wits.  But any game that’s not predicated on the speed of my trigger finger should never use a front camera that only shows me five feet in front of my character ( isn’t the point of a third-person camera to see all around you? )  At the very least, why not a top-down view that lets me plan my escape more than 3 ms at a time?

Undetectable Hazards

Imagine walking through the enemy fortress, carefully sneaking around corners, when suddenly you’re impaled by those perfectly concealed floor spikes.  You’re dead with no warning, no indication, nothing.  Or what about that lava level where the difference between alive and BBQ is half a pixel?  Traps and environmental hazards need to have some type of indicators, even if subtle.  If the fire can kill you from 15 feet away, then my character animation ought to change 20 feet out to show the heat ( shielding their face with their hands, etc. )  If the cave tunnel has a hidden guillotine, how about some bloodstains and severed body parts at that spot?  If there’s a huge ambush around the corner, how about an audio tip like some muffled breathing or metal clinking?  The observant player in these situations will be tipped off that something dangerous is close by even if they don’t know what.  The unobservant player will fall victim to Caveat #1.

Thou Shalt Not Allow the AI to Cheat

I really shouldn’t have to elaborate here, but I still see it show up in current games so I guess someone still thinks it’s a good idea.

Computers need to be handicapped in games.  They can operate infinitely faster than a human, can make thousands of decisions in the time it takes a person to even realize they can make a choice.  It’s actually very easy to program an unbeatable opponent in most games.  It’s also easy to make a moronic one.  That sweet spot in the middle where the AI is good but not too good is the goal and is so very hard to hit.  That means it’s a lot easier and faster to just make adequate AI and them let them cheat to simulate a higher difficulty.  That’s a problem.  It’s not a real, legitimate challenge.  It’s fake difficulty.  So where exactly is the cheating line?  If the player has to rely just as much on luck and chance as on their own skill, the game has usually entered the cheating realm.  Playing on “insanity” difficulty level is the one and only exception to this rule.  Those game modes are meant for bragging rights alone.  If you want to play Halo on Legendary, then don’t expect it to be fair.  If you want the Brutal awards on StarCraft II, don’t expect it to be a pleasant journey.

The easiest example of AI cheating I can give is that of the Nintendo racer ( though it may well be common in other racing games. )  Basically every iteration of Mario Kart punishes the player for being a skilled driver.  If your lead ever becomes too much, every AI opponent behind is suddenly granted a PhD from the Andretti University of Racing and receives unlimited nitro mushrooms as a graduation present.  But instead of using these gifts to only get back in competitive positions, they’re not satisfied until you’re back in sixth place.  Of course then the others drivers return to their former idiotic selves.  It’s gotten to the point where it’s not only accepted in this title, but also expected.  Why?  If the AI is rewarded for being an idiot, why isn’t the player rewarded for being one?  Try it.  Let yourself fall to the very back of the pack and see if you’ll suddenly get a huge speed boost or if everyone else will slow down.  Koopa Trooper will be lapping you in no time.

The real-time strategy crowd is also notable for letting the computer cheat.  I really respect Blizzard and their commitment to game excellence.  While some complain about the inevitable delays in their game development, every single title they’ve released has been a critical and commercial success because of their commitment to not releasing a game until it’s done.  So why do I feel a little cheated about the hard difficulty on StarCraft II?  Perhaps my idea of “hard” and Blizzard’s aren’t the same.  In general I think a “normal” setting should be for the average player, a default if you will, while “hard” should be for the experienced gamer looking for a challenge, but one that is still fair.  It should mimic how it would be to play the game against a reasonably skilled human opponent.  For the purpose of an RTS, player skill is all about efficiency, how many commands they can issue in a short period of time, how well they manage resources and upgrades, etc.  We’ve already established a computer is faster and more efficient than a human brain, so wouldn’t a “hard” RTS setting just mean a “normal” AI that’s not throttled back so much?  But I can’t help but feel like they’re given extra resources, tougher units, and shorter build times too.

But then there’s my least favorite tactic, letting the computer do something my character can’t but should be able to do.  Case in point, Bionic Commando: Rearmed.  So why can’t Spencer, special forces trained commando, fire on diagonal lines but enemy soldiers, basic conscription mooks, can?  And what about the end of level battles in Force Unleashed?  Did anyone else feel it was unfair that the enemy Jedi were invulnerable to half your arsenal?  Example: you try using Force Push against the boss only to see them absorb it or ignore it completely.  You can unleash a devastating lightsaber barrage against them, but they just effortlessly block it or just ignore it while they meditate and charge up a Force Repulse.  But if they try even a single jumping lightsaber attack in return, you have no chance of guarding against it.  You’re telling me that under 20-odd years of tutelage of Darth Vader, one of the premier swordsman in the galaxy, the Apprentice never once learned some type of guard breaking lightsaber attack?

Or sometimes the computer is allowed to do something no one should be able to do, namely seeing through walls.  I have to bring up Mass Effect again.  Start a new game and head for the Eden Prime spaceport.  Right after the fight just prior to the spaceport, your teammates will continually fire at the geth hiding by the train.  Even though you can’t see any trace of geth, apparently Ashley and Kaiden can.  The same thing happens in any number of the warehouse maps with crates and boxes stacked all over.  Either the AI can see through walls or they saw that one moving pixel between all the boxes.

I have to bring up Dead Space, Demon’s Souls, and Rainbow Six again because these three games didn’t simulate fake difficulty by letting the computer cheat. They were difficult due to fair and fully explained challenges that gave an actual sense of accomplishment.  The player wasn’t left to ask, “Why can’t I do that?”


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