Game-Play Notes

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This is a list of notes about game-play including enjoyable elements of game play as well as problems that I often see in games and what could have been done to fix them.

Story Notes

Progression

Some of my favorite games have a nice progression of the story line. Things go from bad to worse, enemies resolve their differences, people fall in love, evil is vanquished by good, etc. While not all games need a story, most games are helped with the addition of a story of some sort.

Character Development

My favorite games are those where you feel a personal connection with the characters due to identifying with their plights and victories. Also, every character should have relatable qualities, even the villains. Too often villains are one-dimensional symbols of evil who are entirely unbelievable, and that hurts the story. If a character is going to do something reprehensible, they should have an equally extreme reason for why they do it. Evil for the sake of evil is just lazy. This can also fail the other way by making a character that is too perfect. All characters should have moral ambiguities just like all people in real life.

Ignore Useless Characters

Every character in the game should be fleshed out and important to the story. It's fine to add a multitude of unimportant characters, but they should be delegated to window dressing, this is true for both playable and non-playable characters. For example, the Final Fantasy VI characters Gogo and Umaro only create unnecessary busy work for the player without adding anything to the story. In fact, they harm the story by failing to explain why they would risk their lives to fight an empire that hasn't injured them in anyway. This even applies to more involved characters like Relm and Strago, though they have larger involvement, they still border on unimportant. It has become very popular in Western RPGs to give long-winded scripted conversations to every NPC (the Ultima series especially), and while this helps add an element of realism to the world, it also creates a huge amount of unnecessary dialog the player must sift through leaving the player constantly wondering, does this person have any relevant information? Borderlands takes a more traditional approach to making unimportant NPCs say a single generic line so the player understands they don't need to waste any time with them.

Linear Story-telling

While I personally have argued against this in the past, I'm slowly realizing the importance of it. Linear plots make the best stories because the creator is able to pace the game out properly ensuring that the player doesn't see too many dull points. Consider Metroid Fusion. The story is very linear, but it's also amazing. Games like Ultima VII: The Black Gate are very non-linear, but they also suffer from it by allowing the player to do things out of order when they don't make sense. Some games begin in a very linear fashion, but open up as they progress (Final Fantasy VI, Secret of Mana), but the opening tends to decrease the enjoyment of the story because the player is always wondering what to do next or determine which interactions are relevant. That being said, there is a big difference between a story that is linear and one devoid of choices. If a game doesn't have any choices, it feels like you're just going along for the ride rather than taking an active part in it.

Don't Use Twists

Twists can be done properly, but it's extremely difficult, and when it isn't done properly, it ruins the whole story (like nearly all of M. Night Shyamalan's movies). If a character who has been warm and caring suddenly becomes a psychopathic murderer, the story is unbelievable because evil people are usually quite evil, even when they're pretending to be good. If it turns out that nobody was really in danger after all, and they all killed each other for no reason, it's really depressing.

Avoid Cultural Complacency

In addition to phoning in the story lines, a lot of games are complacent in the problems with their culture, like making stereotypes of their non-white characters, sexualizing their female characters, and so forth. You don't need to use a game to combat sexism, racism, bigotry, etc., but you also don't need to follow suit. For example, you can have a strong female lead character and not make a big deal about it.

Terrifying Monsters

A monster is made terrifying by juxtaposing something that normally makes us feel safe with something that doesn't. Clowns, dolls, and babies, are usually cute and silly, but they're terrifying when they're made to be evil. Something isn't terrifying because it's big or ugly, but because it affects your psychology; it make you feel like you're actually going to be hurt by it. Obviously, the game can't hurt you, but the loss of invested time, stats, gold, etc. can give the impression of hurt.

Responsive NPC

In general, NPCs should be scripted to change their behavior and dialog as major events in the story are achieved. Nothing ruins immersion like an NPC begging you to defeat the villain when they've already been defeated.

Flowing Dialogue

A lot of games can become far too wordy and this hurts the pacing. Likewise, the wording may be too cumbersome and the player ends up having to re-read it and try to parse a meaning out of a sentence. These should be avoided.

Enjoyable Ending

Games don't necessarily need a happy ending, but they need an ending that is enjoyable. The player shouldn't spend 30 hours only to have the last thoughts of the game be a disappointment. Games can still have downer-endings, but they must be done in a way that leaves the player still happy with the result. Endings should also be elaborate accompanied with nice graphics and music as a reward for playing.

Non-Cookie-Cutter Characters

Games shouldn't have a "sorcerer" or "ninja" character. While there is no problem with having a character that is clearly a ninja, they should be unique enough that they don't resemble the million other ninjas used in the past. Likewise for NPCs and monsters; yet another shop keep is boring, and yet another zombie is not an exciting monster.

Avoid Anachronisms

Having a sword-wielding character in an era of tanks and lasers is stupid. A knight who defends his castle with a machine-gun is ludicrous. If you are playing a game where a gun does less damage than a sword, there is something wrong. There is some wiggle room for mixing technology in steam-punk or time travel settings, but in general, keep technology in its own era. You may be able to compromise with something like light sabres, but don't go overboard.

Game Play Notes

Nearly Constant Interaction

Part of what makes a game enjoyable is that you actually have to do something. Very few games that are passive are also fun and it's hard to feel like you accomplished anything if you didn't interact with it. While it's okay to allow the player to take a breather when they desire, they should always be able to do something fun and meaningful in the game whenever they want. Designers should avoid walking long distances without something happening, reading lots of dialog, watching long cut-scenes or long combat sequences. Ending and introductory cut-scenes are the exception to this rule (although intro cut-scenes should always be skippable).

Limit Grinding

Grinding is very rarely entertaining, and almost always a chore. Players should be strong enough to keep moving forward with a very limited amount of grinding (preferably just enough to fight any monsters they haven't yet seen, or obtain objects they haven't yet gathered, etc.). Walking around in circles killing the same monsters, mining the same cavern, or baking the same bread is soul-crushing. If grinding is necessary, try very hard to make it different each time with various unique mini-games.

Avoid Tutorials Where Possible

Tutorials usually ruin immersion, and they're often painfully boring to the point where players might quit before the tutorial ends. The game should begin as soon as possible and educate the player along the way without ever making it feel like you're in a tutorial (consider Super Mario World or Portal). There also shouldn't be any long boring story-based introductions. The player should be given only as much information as is needed so that they can get a good feel for their environment, and additional details should unfold with the game in proper pacing with action.

No Brute Force Searching

At no point should the player be expected to, or even feel like they have to, try dozens of combinations of anything. The original The Legend of Zelda required bombing and burning nearly every tile in every screen to discover secrets, and it was a pain in the ass. The Legend of Zelda: A Link to the Past was able to contain plenty of secrets, but didn't require brute force tactics.

Limited Back-Tracking

Many games place unobtainable items early in the game that require a key found later in the game to get them. This requires a lot of back-tracking and it's usually very dull. There is a brief amount of enjoyment being able to route through enemies that were once difficult, but killing weak enemies that offer minor rewards quickly becomes a nuisance. Designers often do this to artificially pad the length of their games, but a short fun game is more enjoyable than a long dull game. Back-tracking also requires keeping detailed notes on where to first found the items for when you eventually return, which slows down game-play. Back-tracking is especially obnoxious when the payoff is minor like a small amount of currency or something you could obtain elsewhere.

If back-tracking is necessary, you can take away the boredom using a teleporter system where each time a player visits a new area, a teleported is added to a central hub, allowing them to return without having to cross the same areas over and over again (many games do this). Another way can be found in Castlevania: Circle of the Moon where old areas become populated with more powerful monsters later in the game.

Limit Side Quests

Quests that are not directly related to the main game should be used sparingly. They are good for a break in the primary action, but they also ruin the game's pacing, and too many of them lead to a pretty dull and disjointed game. Consider Borderlands which has hundreds of side-quests, most of which are uninspired and worthless. While they are more fun than grinding, they are no replacement for a longer story.

Don't Publish Secrets

Licensed strategy guides and the Internet have pretty much made it impossible to get stuck wondering where to go next in a game, but they also ruined the sense of wonder for games. They ruin any story line twists, tell you what is in every chest, and let you know when you can expect a save point or upgrade. Instead of watching the magic unfold, you're just following a script. Any secrets in the game should not be published. Sure, it won't be long before then Internet discloses the majority of the game's most intimate details, but part of what keeps a game relevant decades after it's been released is the discovery of new secrets.