Starting a brand new year with a rant post? Well, they do say to start as you mean to go on
I’ve been a gamer for, rather disconcertingly, just about 30 years now. The first game I really remember playing was a Midway coin-op called ‘Blue Shark’, which used to sit just off the cafeteria of a butterfly farm / mini-golf establishment near my home, where we used to go for days out sometimes. I remember it clearly, because they had a series of steps set up in front of it so that even a 5-6 year old like me could reach the harpoon gun and see the screen. The rules of gaming were being written on the fly, Space Invaders was brand new, and colour displays and Pac Man were but a pipe-dream. The possibilities seemed limitless.
So, 30 years on and gaming’s rulesets are far better defined – we still get occasional new formulas popping up, or new takes on existing styles, but there are a large number of gaming staples which fill out our entertainment ecosystem that we’ve come to accept, and even expect. As it happens though, I think some of them should have died out a number of years ago.
- Content unlocking
It’s a traditional thing – lock away a bunch of content in the game until the player proves themselves ‘worthy’ of experiencing it. The core of this mechanic came from the arcades, that you progressed linearly through the ‘waves’ or, later on, ‘levels’ of the game and you had to survive to see them. Because arcades made their money from people having to play again and again to get good enough to see this content, it made perfect sense. Now, however, we all pay up-front for a game and therefore we should be able to experience all of it, no matter what our skill level. Not to be able to access all the content just because we’re not finely honed gaming gods/goddesses is effectively stealing our money.
Now, the easy way to deal with this when it comes to the main story progression is to offer multiple difficulty levels, meaning that all players should be able to find a level they can play at. This is what most games do, and that’s fine. However, there are some games that decide to lock things away based on a fixed difficulty level, or a poorly judged difficulty curve. The 2 worst examples in recent years are Mario and Sonic At The Olympics (unable to play half the events unless you invest significant amounts of time in beating the first lot), and Guitar Hero 3 (unable to play half the songs in co-op at a difficulty level until you beat the career mode in co-op at that difficulty). But any game that hides characters, moves, levels etc behind closed doors until a user beats it at a fixed difficulty level is just plain wrong. Purists will start to whine at this point and say that there needs to be a challenge otherwise people will just skip playing the game ‘properly’. This is elitist nonsense. What they’re really saying is that, because they’re skilled gamers, they want some content all to themselves that they can gloat about because they’re so damn awesome. You have your achievements / trophies to lord it over lesser gamers if that’s your bag, you should not resent people accessing all the content they’ve paid for. IMO, all games should come with an option to ‘Unlock All’ immediately, from day 1 if the customer chooses. Forget silly cheat codes you have to find on the internet, which are just an obsfucated version of this feature. And don’t tell me that being able to instantly cheat will be too tempting and spoil the experience for weak-willed players. If they’re that way inclined, they’ll find a cheat code anyway. Let’s stop pretending that people don’t want this, and just give it to them and let them choose whether to use it or not.
- Bosses With Scripted Attacks And Limited, Timed Weak Spots
You know the drill. Enter curiously structured chamber with no exit, enjoy a little intro video where the boss makes a dramatic entrance and does the anthropomorphic equivalent of flexing his pecs at you, then run about while boss repeats a sequence of scripted actions, during which time you’re supposed to analyse his behaviour, memorise it, and then determine where his unique weak spots are, and at which arbitrary points in time you are allowed to exploit them. The only way to defeat this creature is to behave precisely as the game designer dictates – deviation is not an option. I’m sure it’s an OCD sufferers dream but I find it incredibly annoying and constricting. So many games do it – Zelda is perhaps the most obvious, and indeed was responsible for developing the approach more than most, but you can find these sequences almost everywhere; I just experienced one in Gears 2 last night in fact (water monster attacking your gunboat). The idea that there’s this creature that will perform certain actions by rote, and be curiously invincible to everything except at particular times and particular tiny spots is archaic. By all means, a creature may be more or less vulnerable at different spots on its body, but the idea that you can only attack it with particular weapons at particular times, as it follows this curious repeating puppetry is an insult to the sort of cohesive interaction games can now create. What’s crazy is that, for example in Gears 2, everywhere else the simulation of the enemies and the outcomes of your actions is first-class. Everything reacts as you would expect, and it’s entirely up to you how to address a particular situation, within the rules that have been defined. Suddenly having all this freedom of expression ripped away and being forced to follow a strict Simple Simon series of actions just because the arbitrary setpiece tells you to, and most annoyingly dying several times as you try to figure out what that arbitrary series of ‘accepted’ actions is supposed to be, is a major retrograde step. By all means have boss set-pieces. But don’t fundamentally change the rules of the game and force the player into a tiny restricted vocabulary of scripted actions that they have to perform, just because you think it makes a good atmosphere. Even assuming the player manages to get inside your head and figure out what they’re supposed to do, what you’ve done is take away all the freedom you gave them elsewhere and made the player your puppet, dutifully acting out the precise sequence you wanted them to like a good little performer. You might was well have made it a cutscene with QTEs really, given that all the freedom that is implied by allowing the character to behave as usual is entirely useless.
Instead, give bosses the same kind of adaptive behavioural characterstics as the rest of the creatures in the game. By all means define areas where they are more or less vulnerable, so long as that makes logical sense. Let the player use any weapon or object they’d normally use, and make it behave just as it normally does. Sure, there may be tactics which are better / faster than others, because of weak spots and particular kinds of timed behaviour. But don’t script it to the Nth degree and use absolutes like ‘this creature is completely invulnerable except at point A at time X, with weapon Y or scripted triggered sequence Z’, that’s just dumb.
Lives made sense when you needed an incentive to make people stuff another 50p into a machine on a regular basis. When there is no pay-per-play mechanic, they make absolutely no sense, except to artificially increase the play time by forcing the player to return to some earlier point and work their way through the same content all over again to get back to the point they had got to.
If you want to reward people for not having to continue so much, associate achievements with getting through the game without having to continue, or without dying. But forcing a player to re-play content again and again because they’re not skilled enough is likely to just make them stop playing entirely.
- Memory Games
You know the situation – you walk into either an instant-death scenario, or at least a case where your chance of survival is massively decreased unless you already know what’s going to happen. Again, this is really common – arcade games have flourished on this for generations, and many FPS’s rely on it too. Again take Gears 2, an excellent game, but it occasionally throws situations at you where unless you knew it was going to happen, you don’t have much chance of survival – mortar attacks are a key example. You could be in the middle of battle, and suddenly die because of a barrage of mortar fire. Next time, you know there’s going to be a mortar guy so you pay more attention to finding him and taking him out early, so you do much better. I don’t like this, yet many games rely on it, feeling they can make some things harder because the second time through players will be ready for it. As a counter example I’d use Left 4 Dead – because absolutely every game is different, you never know what’s coming. As such, the game design can never rely on repetition as a difficulty normaliser, it has to be possible to survive just based on the visual / audio cues the game gives, and the players wits. IMO taking the firm stance that a player should be able to glean everything he needs on the first playthrough, and not relying on memory, encourages better discipline in the challenge design.
I’m sure there are more, but that’s all I can think of right now. Any other pet hates?