Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Skip It Good

The other day, Kotaku linked to a BBC program called Gameswipe that did a feature describing the history of games and where things are at now, and commended them for presenting a rather good view of the state of games. I haven't finished watching it myself, but I've enjoyed what I've seen thus far. One part in particular stood out to me, where comedian Dara O' Briain rags on games for barring content from unskilled players:

Play How You Want
This is a topic near and dear to my heart, as those who know me from work may attest. On previous games, I've tossed out the idea that from the beginning of the game, the player could go to any part of the game and start playing from there, not unlike picking a chapter in a DVD and hitting play. I always enjoyed sharing the idea, partly because the most common initial reaction was so negative. And not because we would have to figure out under the hood how to equip players with items they may not have otherwise earned, and how we handle optional rewards as players jump through the world (though this turned out to be a somewhat simple design challenge, at least for a narrative game). But rather because of concerns that we would ruin the player's sense of accomplishment or skip past our work.

Ruining Accomplishment
This is a noble but I think misguided concern because I believe that if the player has the ability to excise only the part of the game that limits or frustrates him, he won't choose the option to skip past everything. In Candyland, I could move my piece to the end of the board and say, "I win," but that's not why I play Candyland. But if I land on a chute, and landing on a chute makes me want to quit the game, then making an ad hoc rule to be able to stay on chutes lets me enjoy the game instead of stop playing it. That's a good thing.

At the heart of this is "let the player play how they want." That was a very freeing thought presented to me at a GDC, where the speaker (I wish I remember whom) described a concern the designers had about a cheat code being put into the game, and there was a point where he had to ask himself, "why do I care how they have fun with my game?" He just wanted them to have fun with his game. If they were having fun, then great!

That thought has helped me out of many design traps. A lot of design progress can be solved just by thinking about what's fun for players instead of what seems fun for the designer. I think an example of this exists in the move from coin-ops to consoles. Common wisdom was that death and limited continues were good, and it was a bit mind-busting to imagine that someone could just continue limitlessly and just get through the entire game. But coin-ops were made to get you to feed quarters in it, not let you have free experience with their games. Take out that premise with a $50 game you already bought, and you should be operating on a different paradigm. I feel like not giving the players the ability to get past frustrating content is a relic. If a player is faced with the option of quitting your game forever or skipping that content... good god, give them a way through it.

And to be fair, the thought can go awry. Clearly part of this is in presentation. If he has a "skip gun" that he can fire at any obstacle in a shooter to instantly kill it, selectable like any other weapon, he might keep choosing it and decide the game is boring, since "skipping content" was integrated into the game itself. The key part in all this is that players are always able to have fun.

The other idea that bore out of this line of thinking was to keep players in their seats by offering them a way not only to skip a section that gave them excruciating trouble, but also giving them help along the way. A lot of times a game makes us willing to get up, walk to our computer, look up an FAQ, print it out (or memorize what you need), go back and execute. And it seemed nice to instead just offer them a video relevant to whatever section they're playing, where they can watch a perfect playthrough and just go back to the game and duplicate it.

Interestingly, run all of this past non-game developers got positive feedback. A good friend took the idea back to his dinner table and asked his family how they felt about it and found that they all had a different reason for liking it. His oldest boy, the hardcore completionist, just asked whether he could still play through it normally and collect everything in order. He was content as long as he could. The middle boy, the aspiring gamer, asked if it meant he could get past that part he normally has to ask (swallow his pride and) his brother to help him through, and he was pleased to learn that he could, in fact, do that. The youngest boy, who plays games for the "cool parts," like funny movies, asked if he could just go to those parts over and over and just do the stuff he likes. He was happy to learn he could. Finally, his wife asked if that meant she could kind of browse the game and see what kind of content was in it her kids were playing. Yup. Good stuff.

Skipping Content
The last concern about skipping the blood, sweat, and tears we put into the product is much easier to brush aside. The concern should be about whether people are having fun with the blood, sweat, and tears, we put into it. Two other ways to illustrate how bizarre a thought this: first, do authors care that you can access the last chapter of their book? Do film makers care that you can skip to the last part of their movie? You can do either, but it's more fun to go from the start and make your way through it. If you have trouble reading a boring chapter or viewing a gory scene, you can always skip past it. If your implementation of skipping doesn't ruin the experience (re: Presentation) then you're giving the player tools to enjoy what they bought. Second, how weird is it that designers would rather have you buy their game, take the disc out of its container, and smash it on the curb than play through it the way you please?

Too Late?
A year or so after exploring these ideas, Kotaku broke a news story about a patent Miyamoto filed for essentially the same features. A cool addition, however, was the ability to jump into the "playback" of a section and re-take control. I also learned that other games -- I think Alone in the Dark (and I'm sure, others) -- had the feature to skip to any chapter you want from the beginning of the game. I guess I'm only so cool. I just hope it means more people can I enjoy the experiences we toil away to bring them.


  1. Love reading your thoughts Mr. Tew, glad to have a regular venue to do so.

    While I agree in many ways in others at times I do feel not having the option of skipping or hints/walkthroughs will often push me to overcome an obstacle much more than simply self-discipline not to use such avenues. I become very bored when there is no challenge or as you mentioned, sense of accomplishment. I agree, games are meant to be fun, but there a place for this in every game? What about games where the most fun is that challenge and sense of accomplishment?

    I don't know, in some ways almost in a parallel to a players self discipline not to use these tools it can perhaps also make for a designer without discipline to be lazy in his creations and how they are revealed to the player.

    Just random thoughts ...

  2. Thanks for the thoughts. Though my opinion is that games need a push towards including more tools for players to control and access content, this is not the case with every game. I think it has to do with where your fun is.

    For example, I think the point of some experiences -- like say, Demon Souls -- is to provide an expressly hardcore experience that gives you a sense of accomplishment due to difficulty. Tools to skip content would surely break that. It's about what you're trying to do.

    Fun is about Flow, and what you describe is the perennial challenge of it. Too easy is boring, and too hard is frustrating. Flow is in the middle. In general, I like the idea that the player has ways to tune his experience when things are out of balance. This can even be through base structure (e.g., the required path in Zelda might be easy-medium difficulty, but side content can be medium-hard to collect) but it's fine to tailor experiences towards particular skill sets.

  3. And yeah, it would suck if it led to lazy design.

  4. Kotaku recently posted an article about the "Kind Code" in the new Super Mario Brothers for the Wii, which was presumably the purpose of Nintendo's patent.


  5. The "only after dying 8 times" thing is interesting, as is the "don't show secrets" thing, since I could see them offering straight or secret playthroughs (though I guess it's more work for Nintendo). I'm curious whether the 8x Lives limitation came about through paranoia regarding the feature or focus testing.

  6. First of all, that video was awesome. But second, I think this is an awesome point and it doesn't necessarily have to negate the hardcore player experience. Just like someone who buys a book, they choose whether they care to unlock the secrets and and knowledge that comes by analyzing it to death, or whether to just flip through it, gaining absolutely nothing. Likewise, any kid can go into vs. mode in Street Fighter and beat the tar out of an unmanned opponent, but they aren't going to gain the satisfaction of accomplishment that someone who masters the combos and clears every mode in the game will feel. I like the thought of applying that same idea to a first-person shooter or platformer because the person who plays the whole game through will still experience more depth in the content than the person who flips through the chapters just to "see everything," which they probably won't anyway.

    And if anything, this policy might result in _less_ lazy game design (and better stories too), because too many games already depend on visual content as their primary fodder to motivate players to keep playing the game. Players might become less satisfied with eye candy alone and put their money toward games with richer and deeper content instead of just lots of it.

  7. Thanks Sam! An interesting thing Kotaku noted in their demo of the "Kind Code" lately is that it could actually let designers add harder challenges again because players had the option of opting out and still enjoy themselves. Interesting stuff.