February 1, 2008

My Game Doesn't Suck, You're Just Playing It Wrong

A game comes out after weeks of hype and excited previews. It promises a deeper story, more advanced AI, and greater immersion than ever before. The game is released, and flops. It has its few passionate defenders, but the general consensus is that the game simply, to borrow a colorful phrase, blows chunks out of a monkey's ass. The embittered lead designer lashes out in an interview, "It didn't suck. People were just playing it wrong."

I'm pretty sure that this hypothetical designer would be laughed at. A game designer's job is to make a good game, and if people don't like it, it's hardly fair to blame the audience. And this principle applies to designers of any kind: if I can't figure out how an interface works, axiom states that it's the designer's fault. The player of a game can't be at fault, right?

I'm not so sure. If some people go to a theater and talk throughout the movie, is it really the filmmaker's fault if they don't enjoy themselves? I think that this analogy is (terrifyingly) valid, and it's of major concern for game developers who are looking to do anything different.

Imagine a first-person RPG. The game has extensive and intuitive interfaces for conversation and for interacting with objects in the game world. The player is presented with a series of dramatically significant obstacles to overcome, each of which can be solved in a variety of ways, consistently including conversational means. The game is a spy thriller, and so the player always has a silenced gun hidden on him, designed to be a last resort.

The hypothetical game developers start hypothetical game tests. The testers see a first-person game and a gun in their character's hands. They talk to their first opponent, a clever enemy who is sublty working against the player. After a brief conversation, they shoot the enemy in the head. Guards rush in to stop the player, and the player kills them all.

The designer is infuriated; the player didn't even try to figure out all the wonderful and clever ways to win! Clearly, the game needs to discourage this sort of behavior.

They run another test. This time, the player shoots his enemy and vastly stronger guards rush him and kill him. He reloads, hides behind cover, shoots his enemy, and kills all of the guards. He proceeds to use this strategy on all further levels.

The designer is frustrated. This just won't do. So he limits the player's ammunition and the availability of alternative weapons to the point that it's impossible to use violence to accomplish all the goals.

Yet another test. The player shoots until he runs out of ammo, and dies. He reloads, collects all the ammo and bonuses that he can, and goes on another shooting spree. All of his preparation wasn't enough, though, and he fails again. The player then pronounces that the game sucks. In fact, he was just playing it wrong.

Obviously, this wouldn't happen with all game testers, but it would certainly happen with many hardcore FPS gamers. I've seen this sort of thing happen. I discovered that a friend of a friend had never played Half-Life 2, so I insisted that he play the opening level. It was, I told him, one of the best expository scenes in the history of gaming. He loaded up the level, ran past all the people who were talking, and spent his time throwing bottles at passerby and laughing like a hyena over my weak protests. It still hurts to remember.

There are surely ways that designers can show players how to "properly" play a game, but we players have a responsibility as well. We need to be receptive to entirely new styles of gameplay. We can't just interpret new games based on previous genres.

If we can't bring ourselves to play games with an open mind, the hypothetical game above would probably be transformed into yet another "badass shooter".

Like Bioshock.

Just saying...


Sir Cucumber said...

Doomeru always got angry at me for cranking up the gamma correction when we played Thief. But that shit was dark, yo!

Anonymous said...

I understand what you're saying, but for a developer to assume there is only one "proper" way to play a game shows nothing but arrogance on their part. Many gamers, myself included, enjoy video games for the fact that there is flexibility and the use of our own problem solving skills. If I wanted only one solution to the problems presented, I'd watch a movie instead.

Dale Culp said...

This reminds me of "Lair", and the lambasting it got over the developer's insistence on using the PS3's motion-sensitive controls over a conventional analog-stick control scheme...

After the poor reviews, Factor 5’s director, Julian Eggebrecht, actually suggested that the reviewers were "just too hard core" to play the game properly -- as though they weren't approaching it with an open mind. I wrote about it on my blog, although I mostly talked about the controls and not just the way people play games.

I think it's definitely a hard argument that there's only one way to play a game... You made a really good point, but what about a game like "Grand Theft Auto 3"? If you only played the game for its story, strictly going from mission to mission and not doing anything else, I'd say you missed out on a large portion of what made that game great -- which was the fact that you could go off and explore the world at your own pace. Obviously, the game was designed to let players explore at their own discretion, but a lot of games -- especially prior to "GTA 3" -- weren't. I think the best bet is for a developer to allow for a lot of options and ways to play. Perhaps, rather than punishing a player for choosing the most violent path, the developer could offer incentives for finding more covert approaches? Unlockables, extra points... whatever.

Good post!

Amichai said...

I think it's also important as to how the game is presented to the player. If the hypthetical game is coined as a first person shooter, then one is going to assume there is a lot of shooting needed, as shooter is in the game description. If you call it a first person mystery, you'll probably get more players looking around and asking questions, because it's a mystery, even if they do have a gun. How one names a genre or a game will have a good deal of effect on the gamer.