Thursday, 25 October 2018

Design Musings – Choices

If you boil any game’s design down to its fundamentals, they’re basically about given the player choices to make.  These may be thoughtful moves made after considerable thought in a turn-based strategy to choosing a direction in a narrative game to making a split-second decision in a racing game, but it’s all the same principle – games have to force the player to make choices.  If these choices seem unnecessary, arbitrary or valueless, then you’ve lost the player.

To combat this some games now seem to be turning to having hardly any actual gameplay, but strong (and often branching) narratives – this isn’t a style I’m a particular fan of but many people are and, assuming the story, character and choices are interesting enough, it still works.  But since my tastes are towards what you might call more traditional gameplay mechanics, I want to spend a moment to consider a few classic games.

Although game design has obviously moved along considerably over the years just as processing, graphical and sound capabilities of the computers and consoles we play games on has, the games that helped create the video gaming industry in the first place are still very playable today.  Why?  Because they give the player choices to make, and those choices still engage us.

I want to consider 3 classic games – Space Invaders, Pacman and Asteroids.  All games that have been around forever and remade more times than we Liverpool fans have said “next season we’ll win the prem”.  On the face of it, all extremely simple games – perhaps some may even think of them in terms of being “primitive”.  But are they really?  If you examine the core mechanics, they are constantly forcing the player to make choices.

Space Invaders, for instance, is a simple “shoot the aliens without getting hit”.  But… do you use the shields for defence, or do you shoot through them to get a better hit rate?  Do you only take out the stragglers at the edge or take them out line by line?  Is it worth taking the risk of going into open space to get a good shot at the flying saucers at it speeds overhead?    How long dare you wait to take risks before you find the invaders are moving too fast for you to cope with?

Then dear old Pacman… ah, a game that has kept us playing for many years.  Just collect all the dots to finish the level – simple.  Except… do you take a chance to get those few close to the ghost cage now, or wait till it’s clearer?  Do  you use the power pill just to keep out of trouble, or aggressively go after the ghosts for extra points?  Is it worth taking the risk to go after the bonus fruit?  Can you get to those last few dots before the ghosts regenerate?  Do you have time to eat that ghost just before it stops flashing?

Finally, Asteroids… many games have added embellishments to the game but few have captured the perfect mix of smooth controls, tricky and compelling gameplay of the arcade original.  Scattergun approach or more careful selection of which asteroids to take out?  Start a level slowly or go hell for leather?  Move around freely trying to evade the roids or try to stick in the same position to allow concentration purely on rotation and shooting accuracy?

What we can extrapolate from these three example is that the introduction of only one or two extra elements can give a gameplay a massive amount of extra depth.  For instance imagine Pacman without the ghosts, or with the ghosts but without the power pills… it simply would be so much less of a game.  The other thing is that the core mechanics of such games allow distinct playing styles rather than forcing the player to adopt the one style that will actually work.  This makes it more than “a” game – it becomes “my” game to each player.

Obviously some types of game do lend themselves more to having varying game styles than others, but the essential idea carries over into basically every genre (as a slight caveat to that statement, in some games “solving” something effectively replaces making a choice).  I always admire games that you can win using significantly different gameplay styles (or, allows you to solve a problem / puzzle in more than one way).

Just to expand on this idea further I would like to talk about one of my own games for a bit.  I am rather proud of the core game mechanics of this game, which I feel illustrate my point well – at the same time I am well aware of a rather horrible error I made with the level design that largely negates these core mechanics!  The game I am talking about is Space Tunneler Deluxe.

It all started as a game jam entry.  While the “deluxe” version does add some nice enhancements, it doesn’t change any of the core gameplay.  Basically, what you have to do is fly your ship through some tunnels in space without, you know, crashing and burning.   It’s about as simple conceptually as you can get.  However, you also have a shield that you can use if you get in trouble.  The thing is, this shield has to recharge before you can use it again.  The faster you are travelling, the faster it will recharge – but, crucially, if you are travelling at the slowest possible speed, it will not recharge at all.  This leads to the player having to make some snappy (or, once they know the level layout, premeditated) choices as to when it is useful to use the shield, and when it might actually cause you more problems than it solves.  You see, not only is the shield recharge linked to the speed your ship is travelling at, but guess what?  Your hull repair only works when your shield is fully charged.

That’s right, I am a truly horrible masochistic and horrible person.  I did that to the player, and I’m not even sorry.

This was all well and good and, while happily playtesting the game and congratulating myself on what a good gameplay mechanic I had created, I encountered a problem.  After a while, it didn’t matter how good you were, the later levels were essentially impossible to complete.  Even with my in-depth knowledge of how the game worked, I just couldn’t do it.  Because of the way I designed the levels and time constraints of the ham I felt that redesigning the level would be impractical, so I did what any decent person would do – I added a shop.

Now this was good in one way as adding tokens to collect in the early levels gave the game a bit of extra substance – and of course being an evil vindictive type of game designer (although being evil and vindictive is pretty much a prerequisite of being a game designer anyway) I placed many of the token in such a way as to make the player have to decide whether it was worth the risk of crashing.  Also, when I came much later to making the game save your progress, these tokens caused me no end of trouble, but that’s another story. 

So, we now have a shop.   I’m actually quite pleased with the shop aspect of the game.  The downside of this is that really, some upgrades MASSIVELY outstrip the others in usefulness, and even with setting the prices in such a way as to reflect this, the player really only has very limited options as to how to use their tokens for upgrades if they want any real chance of being able to get to the very end of the game.  I also had to swap the order of a couple of levels to make it possible to get through one of them!  (Level 5 was okay without buying power ups, but level 4 was insane…  so now when you’ve got stuff at the shop, if you can get past level 4, level 5 will seem ridiculously easy…)

Anyway, at this stage I’m not going to go back and change the game again, I have new games to make.  But it is a cautionary tale I suppose that even if you get your core mechanics spot on, if your level design sucks it’s still going to mess up your game.  I think overall it ended up being a pretty decent game and since I added 5 difficulty levels the easier ones should slightly overcome the game’s inherent difficulty (whether multiple difficulty levels is proof of bad design is quite another issue!).  There are also some extra mechanics such as your speed affecting how quickly your score accumulates and infinite attempts possible but each one costing you points.  At the point of writing this I’m still waiting for someone to challenge my own high score…

I hope you’ve enjoyed reading my cogitations on this aspect of game design.  It’s not supposed to be a “this is how you should do it” type of article; rather it’s an examination of other games and my own game in terms of how player choice can be incorporated and, as the title suggests, me “musing”. 

Should you wish to boldly go where very few have gone before and mayhap even attempt to beat my high score, you can try Space Tunneler Deluxe

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