Wednesday, November 4, 2009

Flow and Bowser

While finishing off the final boss in the latest Mario RPG, Bowser's Inside Story, I was reminded of wondering, as a kid playing Mario, why my Mario games would get increasingly irritating the nearer I got to the end of the game. Why can't the end of the game be fun like the beginning of the game? In Mario 64 I wanted more sliding down hills, hopping around in trees, and swimming around that made me so happy, and what I got at the end it was horrible death falls into oblivion while walking on a tightrope and wrangling an awkward camera. Why not let me have more fun? It came rushing back fighting against the final boss of Bowser's Inside Story, which like every final boss in Mario RPG, was a tedious fight against an enemy HP with too much health and not enough variety in action, going through the same motions for maybe 30m+ (a guess) as my car is being burgled outside. :-P

This is nothing new in games. Designers struggle with Flow -- the battle between ease/difficulty and boredom/frustration -- in every game. It's a moving target since each user's skill and experience varies. In my earlier Bowser's post, I mentioned boredom doing the same things I'd already done (while simultaneously feeling enjoying the feedback and polish of it), resulting in something awesome-but-boring. There are many approaches to the Flow problem. In Zelda, the primary quest line goes from Easy to Medium difficulty, while side quests go from easy to hard, so there is something for everyone. In many games, users are asked to select a difficulty. Since some players regret their choice but never restart, some games let them vary difficulty on the fly. The game Flow, as I understand, was made to explore this perennial problem.

I could go on forever, but will leave this post with snippets of thoughts:
  • Is part of the problem how applicable the challenge is? In some games I don't mind extreme difficulty, but is it because I find a use for my skills? Maybe I don't feel that in Mario64 when I know I'm near the end of that applicability. In Half-Life 2, I loved how the final level was in many ways easier than the levels before it but still made use of my understanding of the gravity gun, giving me skillset application and novelty while ramping up the pace of the game, better resembling the ramping of pace towards the climax in a story.
  • In Mario64, were there ways to express my skillset and add risk without making the risk so high? E.g., make a timer to "certain destruction" go down faster when standing on "bad" blocks, encouraging tight timing and lots of pressure without insta-death? This is something that made Prince of Persia: Sands of Time so wonderful, was the preservation of pressure to succeed (death plus limited rewind) while giving immediately applicable skill-building.
  • What role does feedback play in Flow? I've played some games that could be considered boring in other wrappers. Devolve Flow and Flower into a game with typical music and presentation, and I might be wildly disinterested. Novelty shouldn't be underestimated.
Fun stuff.

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