Thursday, March 28, 2013

on convenience in games

Matt lent me Disaster Report, a game from the Playstation 2 era, where you play as a journalist who is trying to survive a post-earthquake metropolitan city. Conceptually it's right up my alley, although telling you why would be surprisingly difficult. It's not like I can say in broad terms that I like "earthquake games", but I guess I could just say that sometimes I like games that aren't combat-centric, and have an interesting concept. Mirror's Edge is a good example. Gaze ye, and start ye at 3:00. Arr.

It's a decent game so far. I can only say so far because I'd played roughly 20 minutes of it. My play was that brief because that's how far I got before I realized it was one of the least frustrating games I had played in a long time, and I needed to know why. Lately, I've noticed that when I play video games, I have a very short period of tolerance before I cross into that zone between bored and upset that I think most gamers have experienced. Anyone has, really. It's the feeling you get when you're not exactly bored, but the program you're watching or playing just isn't doing it for you, but you keep watching or playing anyway.

So I'd had a few hours to think about it, and I think I got it: Disaster Report is not a convenient game. In relative terms, I had to fight the controls, game logic, puzzle logic, and ... bad voice acting to get anything done. The main character was not absurdly athletic despite his plain appearance (looking at you, Nathan Drake), and my actions in the game were limited by this. In order to do something as simple as navigate from one end of a bridge to the other, I had to balance (legitimately, not using the Tony Hawk-style stick waggle thing), budget, backtrack, and strategize.

Compare that to a game I just recently bought, Metal Gear Rising: Revengeance. Very modern, and controls like butter. In moving from one end of a stage to the other, no logic is employed on your part. Clearing obstacles is achieved by holding the R1 button, and Raiden automatically hops over anything taller than him. It's very convenient, very easy, and causes navigation of the level to require practically no attention. This is not a bad thing on its own, but what happens is it makes navigation such a non-issue, that there's practically no reason for the player to even be doing it. Gameplay is an uneventful glide from one hack-n-slash arena to the next. It's Final Fantasy XIII, without the justification of it being an RPG, where you just kind of expect that.

When I was mulling this around so that it could go down on paper (or whatever), I was really tempted to say that it lacked challenge. But that's not what's lacking, because the combat in the game is pretty difficult. I don't know that there's a single word I can use, but I would say that it represents a trend in gaming that's been around for a long time but exploded recently: The game asks relatively little of the player. Game designers are always looking for ways to make their games more pleasant and fun to play, and obviously, if moving from A to B in your game world is difficult, that doesn't equal fun; contemporary game theory says that everything your game does should serve the player.

Your frags, sir
And hell, that's hard to argue with. And I'm not here to make any kind of statement about how real gamers don't need convenience, and don't need their hands held. What I will say is that the most rewarding experiences are the ones that involve give and take. Most people are at least able to agree that while being served sounds great at first, it gets unbearable if it goes on for too long. To help me demonstrate what I mean, I'll mention that I also recently started replaying the first Tomb Raider game. The old-ass PS1 version.

[Boob joke]
The original Tomb Raider was one of the first 3D adventure puzzle games, and consequently, the controls required a lot of patience. The level design was relatively small because you did a lot of backtracking, and every jump had to be precisely lined up. You would spend enough energy just manipulating Lara that it practically was the game. The game predated autosaves, and offered you a finite number of possible save points. Every time you came upon one, there was a psychological reward because it was precious, and represented a chunk of flawless (at least passable) gameplay that you had just accomplished.

I had to reload whole 5 minute chunks of gameplay, just to try "that one part" again, and I would still usually fail. I ran around in circles, wondering just where the hell I was supposed to go. On one occasion I was so lost that I had to legitimately fight the urge to use Google for the solution. I didn't let myself do that because I wanted the playthough to be as authentic as possible. If you couldn't figure it out in 1996, that was usually just too bad, and you didn't get to move on. Getting through it was a huge pain, but I finally did and eventually moved to the last level. When I jumped into the last tunnel and triggered the closing cinematic, I raised both arms, pumped a fist, and lit a cigarette. I don't even smoke.

That ... was ... amazing
Because I had to make an effort. Game design today can be so damned convenient that your brain doesn't even process a reward. Everything really feels like it's being handed to you on a platter, even if within the gameplay itself, there is challenge. Not every contemporary game has this problem, of course, but it's become more and more common through sheer refinement of the industry; there's practically no reason to deliberately make your game difficult to navigate if making it simple at this point is actually easier. From an evolutionary standpoint, it only takes one studio to get a given game convenience down, and once it's been done, everyone will have it from then on. No game had the annoying controls of Tomb Raider after Mario 64 outdated it. Which was outdated by Jak & Daxter. Then Uncharted. Then Tomb Raider 2013.

Full Circle
In the PS3-generation TR reboot, navigation and combat are an almost-carbon copy of the Uncharted series. Jumping off of a ledge into a wall of soft stone, pulling out your axe, and then climbing the wall with said axe, takes about 3 button presses. You're not pleased with yourself in the least for doing it. In Tomb Raider 1, jumping from one ledge to the other without falling is worth a pat on the back.

It's not like there's all that much to complain about if the industry is refining itself. I think what really needs to be done is address the need for a player to feel like they're earning their progress. If the game is going to get more convenient, then the reward just needs to come from somewhere else. Tomb Raider 2013 did a pretty decent job of including things like optional tombs, where the player would have to solve a dedicated puzzle away from any of the game's action. Sticking with the puzzle rewards the player with extra currency for upgrades that can be used in the main story and combat. Not a bad trade-off; the game gets more convenient because you wouldn't let yourself quit the puzzle until it is done. I can live with that.

So there you have it, developers. There are ways to balance out convenience and servicing the player, which should be done even if it seems counter-intuitive in terms of making your game enjoyable. There is a difference between service and reward; reward requires effort, and is part of a healthy gaming ecosystem as much as anything else. Please demand more of me as a player, and I promise I will still buy your game. If it's good, you won't scare me away with a few minutes of frustration.

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