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The Short Memory of Game Design 123

Gamasutra has another piece in Ernest Adams' ongoing series Bad Game Designer, No Twinkie! This week he looks at the terrible long-term memory the game industry suffers from. Because of fast turnover within company ranks, games released by a single studio can consistently make the same bad design decisions over and over again. From the article: "Which is worse: A game that introduces its features sparsely but regularly, or one that gives them all to you at once and then never gives you another one? I would much rather play the former. Obviously this will vary somewhat by genre, but offering up a new twist every now and then will certainly help to keep the player's interest. Too many games turn into a boring grind in the last third or so, and the player has to slog through it if he wants to see the ending. We didn't get into this business to make boring grinds."
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The Short Memory of Game Design

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  • by kthejoker ( 931838 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @03:03PM (#15692954)
    What every MMORPG needs is a handicapping system. You go into settings, you set your handicap, and you get to ascend accordingly.So you could have Level 1, the Casual Gamer, who levels up quickly but doesn't get access to all of the quests or best weaponry or any of the fancier materia vs Level 10 the Ubergame, whose grinding takes twice as long as normal, but has exclusive access to the +70 Vorpal Sword of Fantasticness and SideQuests A, B, and C.

    Again, this goes back to the whole "What Suit Are You?" style of RPG gameplay. Some people are completists, some people like community, some people just like the theatricality and fun of playing a game, and some people are stat freaks, and most people are shades of all 4. MMORPGs needs to acclimate for that better - want to be a completist? you have to grind more. A stats freak? We'll boost you up, but it'll cost you. In it for the community? Level up faster if you're playing with a friend. And these are just ideas off the top of my head, but they strike at the heart of what's dumb about grinding: it's not for everyone.

    The parent poster complains about 6 hour grinds - if there were 2 hour grinds (in the midst of a fun sidequest, or with a clear "save this countryside" campaign behind it), nobody would complain. So what's the difference between 2 hours and 6 hours? The very arbitrary nature of these kinds of numbers prove that the problem is not the time, but the very concept itself, and the fact that no game designer seems to want to cater towards allowing more flexible leveling and participating options for gamers (and yes, non-gamers) into their world.

    That's a pity, and I hope that in the next 5-10 years, some more adventurous game companies figure out that with episodic content, different methods of entry for newer players, different schemes of success and advancement, and a better sense of handicapping, they could easily hook 5, 10, or 20 times the number of players they do now.

    (I say all this as a huge fan of single-player RPGs (Final Fantasy in particular) who couldn't stand the grinding of Diablo II or EverQuest and never tried to get back on the bandwagon.)
  • Re:Water levels (Score:2, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 10, 2006 @03:14PM (#15693018)
    And there are games where I don't care. If the setup of a water level in Super Mario Ultra is physically impossible, I don't really care at all. The fact that Mario can jump 10 times his own height, and drastically change his direction while in the air is already impossible enough that I don't expect realism in the game.
  • by Jerf ( 17166 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @03:28PM (#15693127) Journal
    For similar reasons, I noticed I'm losing the ability to play console RPGs.

    I recently picked up Star Ocean 3 on the cheap (I'm a bottom feeder, what can I say?) and I'm not sure I'm going to be able to finish it. I'm still in the first sixth of the game and already there was a dungeon I barely could get to the next save point before I had to stop anyhow. I'm nervous that this game, which I otherwise enjoy so far, is going to throw a required three+ hours to the save point at me, and that's going to require me like blocking out weekend time... if I bother. (At least this doesn't have random battles making the backtrack time to a save point indeterminate, and the enemies do chase you down but they didn't do the cheap shit with them unavoidably jumping at you; look, if you're not doing random encounters, roll with it, don't try to sneak them in the back door!)

    I'm also getting tired of "stomping on rats" just to get to the point where I have a decent selection of abilities. That is, I'd like to start at the moral equivalent of level 10-15. Will it really break the game for my spellcaster to start out with basic heal, basic fire, basic water, basic group attack, etc., and my fighter to already know a couple of techniques?

    To its credit, Star Ocean 3 does have a decent "event skipping" system, although IMHO the designers were forced into adding it against their will and it feels like they're a bit snotty about it when you select that function. (Too bad for them; it works OK.) And it doesn't have the God-awful "Your Time Is Worthless To Us" Sphere system from FFX, turning all but the simplest level ups into multi-minute sphere-popping extravaganzas, for which much can be forgiven...
  • by jizziknight ( 976750 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @03:31PM (#15693146)
    I wholeheartedly agree. One thing I especially like about the Metroid Prime games is the "loss" of features. Both start you out with many of the basic features/abilities, and some event causes you to lose all or some of them. Sort of like a preview of what the game will be like before you get into the thick of it. The first bit of the first one had me going "Damn, I wish I could get that morph ball back." I also like the differences of features between the two.

    As for Zelda.... Wind Waker didn't do quite as good a job as say Ocarina Of Time. Everything you needed for a particular dungeon you already had or was in that dungeon. And then there was the whole sail-to-every-tile-twice bit in order to get every item once you had all of your abilities. Overall, though, I still enjoyed the game.
  • by Anonymous Coward on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:04PM (#15693382)
    That's why I really like the Sims 2: The game itself gives you a list of cheats. It's fun for my sister to play for weeks on end without cheating, it's fun for me to play (massively cheating) for the 2-3 hours a month I can give it. I certainly wish more games were like that.
  • by SanityInAnarchy ( 655584 ) <> on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:13PM (#15693439) Journal
    Let's try to remember how some games got it right.

    The most obvious one that comes to mind is Half-Life. The original. They do give you lots of new and interesting weapons throughout the game, but the gameplay is the same, which means you don't actually have to learn many new skills during the course of the game. My only complaint there would be Xen at the end, where the physics completely change.

    But mostly, the game interface and the gameplay itself doesn't change fundamentally. What changes is the content. An example would be going into a tunnel which leads to a cliff face -- the tunnel has the feel of the vents and such, then you hit the cliff face -- completely different. Suddenly, you have to look up and down, and you have to watch your step. Get through that, and you're in a trench, trying not to get noticed till you get to somewhere you can successfully lob a grenade from. And so on.

    And enough "plot" to keep you interested. They don't need a cutscene to keep things interesting.

    Compare that to, say, Zelda. The entire game is discovering new and cool bits of gameplay. It's rarely frustrating, because if you make it through the first level, you've got the hang of discovering and using these new bits of gameplay. And again, no cutscenes needed, although they are there.

    Or Halo 2. Gameplay is very consistent, yet you're never without a sense of place, and while there is a bit more repetition than I'd like, the story does move along, and so does the kind of situation you end up with. Sniping jackals takes a completely different kind of skill than driving a tank, or swording a bunch of Flood. Yet the learning curve is practically nil, and I don't think I ever felt cheated by suddenly being presented with a completely different game that I sucked at.

    And compare that to a game that gets it completely wrong like, say, Doom 3. Absolutely nothing new. Oh, sure, towards the end you get the SoulCube, and the final boss battle is interesting. The rest of it is completely boring. I mean, there are some relatively interesting puzzles involving machines and controls, but it's almost impossible to notice those, or any bit of plot development, amid all the insane, mind-numbing repetitiveness of the levels. The only thing that changed was the environment, and it was kind of cool the first time through, when the graphics were hot shit. Now, yawn. All the cheap thrills don't work when you know where they all are, and it just isn't a fun game anymore.

    One of my most frustrating games has got to be doing the minigames in Final Fantasy X. Thank God they aren't required. One night, my roommate and I decided we wanted Tidus' Legendary Weapon, which meant we had to beat the Chocobo training session. This required a wholly different skillset than anything else in that game, and in fact, was completely different than most other games I've played. It's a race -- on a bird that doesn't always want to go where you tell it -- where you must dodge oncoming traffic (seagulls) and also collect enough balloons to win. With very little margin for error -- not only do you have to be able to handle this game, but you must absolutely kick ass at it. Took the two of us about three or four hours of playing the exact same 40-second race over and over.

    Or the lightning dodging. Completely unlike anything else required. Fun anyway, because after I could get to 10 or 20, I started over, got to 50, and just kept going, 200 was pretty easy. But the same roommate could never do it.

    In the case of FFX, this is completely forgivable, because neither of these are required. In fact, anything actually required by the plotline was incredibly easy -- it breaks the longstanding tradition of having Omega Weapon be the most powerful enemy in the game. Omega in a pansy next to some of these (optional) Arena monsters -- roommate goes in thinking it's going to be the toughest battle ever, summons an Aeon in overdrive, unleashes the overdrive... one hit. We must've laughed for
  • by Jerf ( 17166 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:21PM (#15693504) Journal
    So wait, it was OK when GTA San Andreas had you wait til 1/3rd of the game was done before you could buy any weapons?

    Eh, San Andreas was f'ed up in a number of ways. I just can't be bothered to play it anymore, because even after I cheat to get the jetpack or helicopter it still takes too damn long to retry a mission. I'm not sure whether to respect or pity the people who actually finish that game. (Maybe they never fail a mission, I dunno.)

    It's like they took Vice City, which IIRC I 100%'ed (so it's not like I dislike the game play), and said "We want to make this twice as long", so they just expanded the world and blew out the first 10% of Vice City (you know, the most boring 10%) into I-don't-know-how-much-of- the-game-because-I-can't-finish-it, but definately "way too much".
  • by Buran ( 150348 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:24PM (#15693521)
    It's about time the issue of captioning is getting press. I'm hearing-impaired and captions are vital to me. I must have them available to understand important messages. If there's no captioning and I can't make out the dialogue without it (which is often), then the game doesn't get played. I still haven't done much with Starlancer since it had no captions even though it was developed by many of the same guys who did the well-captioned Wing Commander series (what the hell?) and the publisher knew about it but outright said it wasn't going to fix it. That's callous and uncaring and insensitive. Haven't bought anything from those guys since.

    Now, some people may say that it's less realistic to have captions, and in fact I've gotten really tired of Knights of the Old Republic periodically yelling at me about using captions in the loading screens ("turn off subtitles for a more cinematic experience" my ass, I NEED THOSE TO UNDERSTAND WHAT THE HELL YOU ARE SAYING, so shut the fuck up!). That's fine; if you don't want subtitles, don't turn them on. That's why it's called closed captioning!

    I've even had people call me a snob when I tell them that when I watch anime (and that's not often), I will only watch subtitled anime, not dubbed. (How does that make me a snob, anyway?). I asked them how they'd feel if they were in wheelchairs and it was seen as snobby to actually demand that buildings and street corners have wheelchair ramps. Oh, their expressions ... followed by my glaring at them and then wandering off to find someone else to talk to.

    Half-Life 2 even has the standard symbol for closed captions on the box (a TV with "CC" printed on the screen). Why can't other games do that, too?
  • Game duration (Score:3, Interesting)

    by BenjyD ( 316700 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:34PM (#15693604)
    The design issues thing that most annoys me about a lot of games is the cheap way they add more hours of gameplay. It's like the designers came up with the game and then thought "oh no, the reviews are all going to say it's only 10 hours long, what do we do?". If your game idea is only good enough for 10 hours play, then make the game 10 hours long. Don't:

    - add reprise levels: all the ideas from previous levels, but in a different order!
    - force backtracking: what fun, revisiting the same areas I've already completed. Paper Mario:TTYD did this and it killed the game for me
    - Fiddle with the save points so the player has to repeat more of a level after dying
  • by HTH NE1 ( 675604 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @04:41PM (#15693650)
    The most obvious one that comes to mind is Half-Life. The original. They do give you lots of new and interesting weapons throughout the game, but the gameplay is the same, which means you don't actually have to learn many new skills during the course of the game. My only complaint there would be Xen at the end, where the physics completely change.

    Indeed, I was at a loss to find a way to stop falling to my death starting that level. And it appeared from search results many people were just so exasperated with questions about it that they just berated people for not going through the tutorial when really it is just that it takes so long for some players to get that far (not playing every free hour of every day) that that one little detail on how to do those long jumps gets forgotten.

    Just like how I don't know how to do them right now.
  • by Turn-X Alphonse ( 789240 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @05:00PM (#15693788) Journal
    You're not playing the same GW I'm playing. the level cap is extremely low and you get exp really quickly, your friends could easily get you 3-4 levels in an hour or two if you were post-searing and really low level. Probably 1 an hour if mid level.

    Also theres no reason you can't hang with them if they come and run you to the area, you may not be able to do much but leech exp, but with hexs and disruption skills you can still be some use.
  • It's about time the issue of captioning is getting press. I'm hearing-impaired and captions are vital to me.

    What's tragic is that people like you should not have been suffering in the first place. Voice-only communication in games is a recent phenomenon. For most of it's history, games required sub-titles since that was all there was room for! None of this fancy-smancy voice MP3/PCM/WAV data takes all sorts of migs and megs of memories that cost mucho dinero to produce.

    I can hear just fine, but I'm now surprised that I'm apparently a minority when it comes to turning on subtitles in my games. Even heavily voice acted games like Final Fantasy X & X-2 benefit from subtitles (there's even a mechanic that depends on it) and for other games like Dark Alliance, I leave titles on so I don't have to worry about waiting for dialog to finish before I skip ahead to the next bit to text...

    The Hollywood-ization of video gaming appears to have become a Devil's Bargain with regard to the medium's recent success...

  • by angrymilkman ( 957626 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @07:29PM (#15694654) Homepage
    but you shouldn't let the user decide for himself what his suit is. Nobody plays the game on easy, the game should just monitor automatically how long the user wants to play and adjust the difficulty to that.
  • by bishiraver ( 707931 ) on Monday July 10, 2006 @09:32PM (#15695259) Homepage
    How about you make it so that there's actually more skill involved in combat and leveling up. Do away with levels entirely. Use a skill-based system (origional ultima online, anyone?) Make it so you can get to "slightly better than average" in under a few hours, and most of the game content can be experienced at this "slightly better than average" point. Make it so equipment doesn't have so much of a bearing on how well you fight/cast magic/whatever. (A master swordsman with a stick could probably best a neophyte with a finely weighted broadsword) Make permanent death part of the game. Utilize some inheritance system, so that you don't lose EVERYTHING when you die... and allow all your characters to share the same surname. One thing this would do: allow casual gamers to quickly and easily accomplish just about everything in the game. And those people who get -good- at the game - not those who just play it endlessly - might eventually get characters that are much more skilled than other players, and actually become famous for whatever they might do. Ideally, the player power curve would be a bell curve, with very few weak characters and very few powerful characters, but a lot of average characters - and have most of the game content focused on the average players.
  • Coin-op Crapola (Score:5, Interesting)

    by rfc1394 ( 155777 ) <> on Tuesday July 11, 2006 @07:19AM (#15696813) Homepage Journal

    I have noticed for a lot of games a problem which I refer to as "coin-op crapola," stunts that should have ended when the user paid for the game all at once, and should have been dropped when they no longer had to keep making the game too hard in order to get you to drop more quarters in the video game. These include, but are not limited to:

    • Making it impossible to save except at limited points. It's inexcusable to not allow someone to save state at (almost) any time. I'll grant that it may be impossible due to too many temporary variables or state saving requirements) to allow save state in the middle of a mission or a scenario (such as with Grand Theft Auto III, but even then I'm still suspicious) but other than that, it's inexcusable misconduct amounting to negligence to say that I have to find a save icon or save location in order to save what I'm doing.
    • Making the game so difficult it's unplayable. We are not all hard-core gamers, making the game so hard that it's unplayable or unwinnable is ridiculous. I have Quake III arena. I can't play more than one or two levels because the AI on the game, at the weakest and least difficult level, is impossible to beat. This also means the rest of the game is inaccessible because until I win the levels I can't win, I can't play anything further. Which brings me to...
    • Having locked levels, or locked features. I'm paying for the damned game, let me decide if I want to play other levels or other features. If it's that significant, put it in as a "cheat mode" but let me decide; I'm the one paying for the game, not you.
    • Making "cheat mode" contaminate the game. If I want to unlock something early I should be able to do so, without causing it to make the game reduce functionality or become unworkable. The so-called "cheat mode" simply either disables some policy of the game, or adds features early; there is no reason - other than pure spite - to have it cause other features to degrade or fail.
    • Making overly complicated and basically unusable level editors. Level editors have increased in complexity with the increase in complexity of these games to the point that you can't use them. I have never been able to figure out how to use the editor for Half-Life, or Quake III Arena, or any of these. You look at the simplicity of the editor for Duke Nukem, which includes a 2D and 3D mode, and while it has a lot of options and key controls, you can still use it. These 3D wireframe editor tools are basically unusable. For most purposes, I simply want to carve out a space such as a room, a corridor or other such, and perhaps connect them. Later I may want to do some special features. Why is it so hard to make it possible to get the job done? Game editor tools are not important, nobody bothers to standardize so they're ad-hoc and recreated from scratch for every new game, and it shows in the results, with overly complicated and extremely user-hostile tools that are basically unusual for someone who simply wants to do what they have to do. Look at the object builder tools in the on-line game Second Life. They have to have easy to use tools, most people developing objects for such a game are not hard-core gamers willing to put up with crapola.

    Having done programming professionally for over 25 years (including game programming), I am aware of what it takes to write programs or to develop them. And nothing I have said is excessively hard to implement, or in most cases, even necessary. But it still continues over and over and over and...

    Paul Robinson < [mailto]>

Loose bits sink chips.