Tuesday, August 11, 2009

You Deserve a Pat on the Back

Man, it's been forever. Sorry -.-

So I've been thinking about design and how it relates to good games. I've also been thinking on a very important concept:

What do you deserve when you play a game? This is entirely different depending on whether you are a novice, intermediate, or expert player. It's hard to juggle all of these things together, of course.

A novice player deserves a fun learning experience and easy to use game mechanics. I think this is very important. If novices don't grow in a game, they will put it down. For developers, that means a lot especially if their game has a subscription fee. For a community, it means the community has lost another hopeful contributor.

As experts, we sort of take the new player experience for granted. We almost always scoff at the tutorials for games once we've played through them our 2nd - 50th time through the game. Amusingly, many people who dislike the tutorial the most are the people who still haven't learned everything in it, but I digress.

I think the bare minimum for a game is that it has a fairly long (20-ish hours) and enjoyable campaign/story mode that should also serve as a tutorial for high level game concepts. There are very few examples of this. Of the examples that do exist, ALL of them are for single player games (Devil May Cry 4 is a pretty decent example even if the actual tutorial in the game is mediocre - the gameplay itself is a fairly excellent teacher of gameplay concepts). There are some good multiplayer game tutorials, such as Virtua Fighter 4/5's tutorial mode. However, these are strung together like boring lessons and aren't woven into an engaging campaign or story mode.

In fact, engaging multiplayer campaign/story modes are highly boring for the most part, and many (like WarCraft/StarCraft) actually teach you the wrong things. A decent example of a fun designed story mode might be Soul Calibur 3, and a decent example of a story mode that could have been fun is definitely Super Smash Brothers Brawl. When compared to these story modes, games like BlazBlue or Soul Calibur 4 or Street Fighter (any) just don't hold up.

Soul Calibur 2's adventure mode (called Weapon Master) was somewhat interesting as a tutorial, since it often forced you to defeat your enemy in different ways, including ring outs, juggle combos, and so on. Unfortunately, it didn't really go far enough and the result is that players didn't really learn optimal combos or setups for their character. Still, as far as multiplayer games go, it's pretty much all we've got.

You could call the entire level 1 to max level gameplay in a MMORPG the campaign/story mode, but the reality is that in most cases, players are forced into 'real gameplay' decisions long before they hit max level. In WoW for instance, the tutorial period is rightfully levels 1-10, and at level 10 they can head into WSG or the Arena and PvP for their first time, and go into their first instance shortly after that. In City of Heroes, there really is no endgame content and the 'tutorial mission' ends at level 2 (and without teaching the player much).

An ideal tutorial teaches players about as many pertinent gameplay elements as possible. Also, the gameplay needs to be structured that the mechanics are transparent and easy to grasp.

Although I've talked about simple vs. complex a million times, I'd like to illustrate why so many people play Soul Calibur. The game is easy to pick up. It is not a very good intermediate player's game, but at the beginner level it's easy to understand. Moving the stick in a direction makes you move in that direction, and it has three attack buttons and a guard button. Most of the moves a beginner would do are easy, direction + button affairs, or possibly direction + two buttons. Even at the expert level, the experts are doing these same moves, which helps transparency. Beginners don't often feel like they've been destroyed by experts, which is a big help for a good learning experience.

An intermediate player deserves an intuitive process in learning high level gameplay and positive feedback. Obviously, also, a game needs to be fun at this level.

The intermediate level is where the novice starts learning strategies and such, and the intermediate player usually thrashes novice players like rag dolls because the intermediate player can usually figure out something that beats a majority of low level button mashing. In order for the intermediate player to not get bored though, they've got to keep growing in their skills. They also need good competition, which means that in the case of online games and MMOs, intermediate players need good matchmaking.

Soul Calibur is absolutely horrid about teaching high level concepts to intermediate players. Frame traps, just frame timings on silly things (just ukemi?! what?) and extremely strict combo timing makes it hard to bridge the gap between beginner and expert. Nowhere in the tutorial does it show examples of "my turn, your turn" gameplay, mid-low-throw mixup, safe wakeups and other similar high level elements. This means that intermediate SC players often stay there and never become experts. Amusingly, this is possibly for the better, since most expert SC players claim that their game is less fun.

Other games vary. StarCraft is even harder, as is chess. In general, most competitive games are not really built for intermediate players. This means, as a new player, it's often hard to make the jump from intermediate to expert. This is why, in general, competitive communities tend to have a dearth of new expert players.

Expert players deserve a game with a wealth of viable options and lots of depth. Fun isn't as important anymore, as deep gameplay will generally create 'fun' for experts even if the core mechanics aren't all that fun.

For a look at 'wealth of viable options' I think Arcana Heart (and sequels) is probably one of the best examples to look at, with a reasonably sized cast and a lot of different magic spells to choose from. I think that the design is somewhat accidental, and the game itself is a little too hard.

I'd be a bit biased in this, but currently I think BlazBlue is one of the latest and best games to explore competitive depth. It's an expert's game to be sure, but it isn't really an intermediate or beginner's game even though it has a number of features to make it easier on those players.

The learning curve for most games is very strange, and not really representative of anything in real life.

I'm not sure how short hop is intuitive at all, Smash players.

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