Wednesday, 17 August 2011

The New Video Game Commandments

Do you know the worst thing about old video games? It isn’t the graphics, or the story, or even digging out a dusty PS1, but the way the games are played. Take Rock Band 1 as an example. The graphics hold up brilliantly, the gameplay is essentially timeless and of the series it has one of the best setlists. The problem is you need to unlock the songs in quickplay, hyperspeed isn’t anywhere and playing in a band, even locally, involves the evil profile/leader rubbish that ruins the experience. Mercifully today this problem has been rectified but it emphasises a video game problem; that you could write the greatest script, create fantastic graphics and dole out for all the celebrities in the world but if you don’t get the nuts and bolts interface bits done properly the quality will be hurt. Here I shall discuss the essentials in an open letter to game developers everywhere, get these bits right and even the worst game will shine.
1. Thou shalt save properly
I bloody despise Fable. It’s not because of the simple gameplay or repetition; in many ways for the target audience it is Fables biggest virtue, but an experience I had. 49/50 hidden keys in I was tasked with becoming fat. I bought meat to eat, and later to lose weight I bought carrots. Little did I know this would remove the steaks, preventing me from getting fat. Realising my mistake I exited to the dashboard to prevent me losing a small fortune unnecessarily, but I did this while the game was autosaving. I turned on the game to find everything I had done, in excess of 20 hours, gone. To make matters worse I had bought DLC that could only be accessed in later game stages. To this day Peter Molyneux still owes me £6.40
This anecdote explains two things; firstly saving is bloody important and secondly always save more than once. Therefore my first suggestion is alternate autosaves or feel my wrath when they go wrong.
Saving is a tricky ordeal however. Checkpoints ensure regular savepoints but present problems. When in the wrong place they can mean the player must watch a cutscene over and over or redo an annoying, mundane task repeatedly. This is the fine line between difficulty and controller flinging annoyance. My second recommendation then is know your checkpoints.
CoD is normally fantastic for this, nowadays however, but back in CoD2 it saved me in an infinite death circle. If you’re too liberal though you can undermine the difficulty, take the Prince of Persia reboot, which checkpointed once a second and ultimately ruined that game. So what is a good balance? Well the answer has been with us for a long time; good ol’ quicksave. This is an elegant solution because it gives the player the ability to custom pick bits to save. Max Payne will testify letting me constantly restart that room beside the open windows with loads of enemies was great fun. Leading me onto . . .
2. Thou shalt let me restart where and when I want
What the fuck Red Faction: Armageddon? Seriously? I cannot pick a level to replay after the story is over? What is this 1995? Good sections need to be reserved so I can enjoy them again. San Andreas had this problem too. That epic cross terrain chase with OJ Loc? Hope you saved before it or tough luck, that was a onetime thing. Rockstar have learnt their lesson and more developers need too.
Better yet take a leaf out of the latest Alone In The Darks book. For all that games faults it sure got the interface spot on. It played out kinda like a DVD menu, you could skip forward or go to an individual checkpoint within a story if you wanted. You don’t have to go as far, but this stuff is fantastic game design, it was a real shame about the rest of the game
3. Thou shalt let me choose
Congratulations 2K Boston, Bioshock was a master class on player interactions within a game world, amongst other things. Genuinely tricky moral decisions, the way our actions set up the plot, seemless integration of narrative with gameplay. Bravo. And Bioware, I mean where to begin, you’ve made countless great stories. Just one thing. Why did you feel the need to complete and utterly fuck all that up with stupid goddamn achievements? I mean Bioware could argue they made you maximise mileage but “Save all Little Sisters”? If you aren’t going to let me choose properly then why let me choose.
Decisionaly neutral achievements. Final
4. Thou shalt understand motivation
You may think then I am against achievements in videogames, however that big number on my gamercard testifies differently. I don’t see them as a badge of honour though, I see them like developer commentary, a little “hey, try doing this”. Achievements are responsible for me playing new games, accessing features I’d automatically ignore and checking out brilliant new ways of playing. It changes the objective from “reach the credits” to “get the maximum possible score” which is good for everyone. I think you should signpost them a little better. Everyone loves the ticker tracker like in GoW2, now in many more, but how about putting the roadmap in the game?
Let me give you an example, The Orange Box. When it wanted you to score two points with the basketball and Dog, or shoot every grub, or save every home. How about a little box came up telling you to press start to learn what challenge is available. If you are after them this is great and if you aren’t, no problem at all. All round fantastic game Banjo Kazooie kind of did this, on level loading screens it would cleverly wink and nudge “I hear BBQ-ing a cow in the volcano is a real achievement”
That’s another thing, be clever and be creative with these achievements. Portal 2 made me laugh with “This Is The Point Where He Kills You”, one more fantastic signpost to the hilarious secret plot. And who didn’t love kidnapping a girl and putting her on the train tracks in RDR? Rule 32: Enjoy the little things
Achievements do one thing, ladies and gentleman, motivate. Utilised effectively they can raise even a poor game out of the dumps. You should aim to make me enjoy as much of the game as possible, but to a limit. Another tip, 95% is enough. The point of making me shoot those birds in GTAIV was that I explored every inch of the fantastic Liberty City, so what does it matter if I missed one. I couldn’t find one/couldn’t remember where it is. Achievements are rewards, not punishments. This does kinda lead me back to the internal guide thing though, save me some time and tell me roughly where they are on a map. I could still do the treasure hunt but it would be much less annoying. Get me to do the first 100 by myself, meaning I actually look out for them naturally instead of avoiding them till I get the guide out, then point out the rest so I don’t get mad. Great solution. While we are on Rockstar
5. Thou shalt understand the limitations of animations
Played poker in RDR? It’s a lot like normal poker only placing the cards takes 4 times as long as shuffling. And walking with the Euphoria engine means being permanently drunk on a unicycle. Euphoria is still bloody amazing, but this isn’t necessary. I get it, I really do, your games are steeped in realism and you don’t want to break the illusion. The thing is this is purposely not reality, it is a fantasy world with similar elements. It’s called the suspension of disbelief and within an hour of a videogame it kicks in, you don’t ask why guns just appear in your hands or why you can carry either a thousand weapons or only two. It doesn’t matter because we are absorbed in the game. Faltering like this though makes the player mad, thus taking them out of the illusion and breaking the very thing you attempt to maintain. Stop it, please. New Vegas let you play cards, they just hovered seamlessly and that is an instantly more elegant, not to mention cheaper and easier solution.
Animations can be great too. How about the wavey floating guns in the Darkness? I don’t know, maybe that has been patented, but that kind of way you invisibly interact with the world around you can really enhance the experience, even if it did make the online play look weird as hell.
An absence of animation can be just as bad. Take Fallout, there’s this one bit where Dr. Li begs for her life, the voice actor does a stellar job but the model just stands rigidly still. I get you can’t animate every bit, well unless you’re slave driving Team Bondi, but a key emotional point was undermined pointlessly.
Finally; camera angles, effects and filters. Final Fantasy has done this forever and it’s much cheaper, just manage this and you pull more out of those robotic character models than all the facial scanning in the business. Conclusion, use animations where appropriate.
6. If it’s broke, fix it
They’re called patches, it is unacceptable for an achievement to be unobtainable and it will certainly lose atleast some custom. But why stop there.
So much Kudos to Epic with Gears 2. I think me and that studio are on roughly the same wave length. They shipped the game with a broken multiplayer. They shouldn’t have, but evidently they did. Over downloads though they top to bottom reworked the onlines fault until they had a fantastic system in place. It should have been like that out of the door but the fact they cared enough to fix this is good news.
Can you think of anymore? This is a great discussion if you want to join in too, I know I’ll sometime end up doing a follow-up to this.

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