Posted by Ross

Information – How much is too much?

Hi everyone.  I hope you have been enjoying the increased focus on opinion pieces on our blog.  I must admit I’ve quite enjoying writing them.  This week I’d like to talk about an element of game design that we’ve been talking about quite a lot here recently.  How to provide information to players and how much they should be told.

This is something that is very important to get right. Provide too much information and the player may feel like they’re being treated like an idiot, provide too little and the player ends up getting confused as to what they must do to progress or what their abilities are. Of course, the more subtly you present the instructions, the more you can get away with.

Back in the early days of gaming games gave the player far less information than tends to be the case now, a good example being the first Prince of Persia game, where the player learnt both the limits of their abilities and a path through the game through trial and error, as opposed to the series’ Sands of Time entry onwards, all of which use a variety of methods to show you where you need to go and how to get there in explicit detail (and the last of which didn’t even allow you to die!)

While in some ways I miss the olden days’ rougher-round-the-edges style of gameplay, trial and error and the fun of discovery can still remain fun in shorter, sharper games. I must admit, I no longer have quite the same level of patience for these things as I did when I was younger. For example, one of my first ever PC games was the original Championship Manager. I had one slight problem with it; I couldn’t work out how to pick a team.  I spent days just going through the pre-season until I got to the first match and then quitting out and starting again before I worked out how to actually pick a team and play matches. If that happened now and I couldn’t find a rapid solution on the internet I’d probably give up and play something else. 

Why have I changed? Well, some of it is to do with time; when you’re younger you have far more time to play games and as such trying to work out even the most basic things was not such a sacrifice. The other aspect is that the price of games - even the big games - has come down since then.

Back when I started out as a gamer (with my trusty NES) I would get two games a year: one for my birthday and one for Christmas.  So you’d spend the time to learn a game and it would take a truly rubbish game to make you give up, as you wouldn’t get a new game for months.  Now I tend to have so many games I could play, that if I don’t enjoy one within a few hours I may well switch to something else.

These and a variety of other factors (including consumer expectation) mean that games often feel the need to be much more accessible than they used to be and unless the developer is very careful it can make the game feel slight and over-polished.

Of course, I am happy to say that not all games have gone in that direction. Recent years have seen a resurgence of the harder old-school trial & error gaming experience with the likes of Super Meat Boy, Spelunky, Trials HD/Evolution, and our own Ace Armstrong vs. the Alien Scumbags using digital distribution to bring this type of gameplay back.  At retail smash hits such as Dark Souls (and its parent Demons’ Souls) and Dragon’s Dogma have brought back this more punishing but oh-so-rewarding structure to the action RPG genre and all have gone on to become cult classics at retail. Dragon’s Dogma in particular has been Capcom’s biggest selling original IP in a VERY long time.

In the strategy genre, while the Total War & Civilization series have always provided a very slick experience, in many ways the grand strategy genre has been getting more complex.  The Paradox games in particular tend to dump you in the middle of the game world and let you work out your own goals and how best to achieve them.

These not-necessarily-opposing ideologies (let’s call them ‘guide-by-the-hand’ and ‘joy-of-discovery’) methodologies are being thought about pretty seriously here at LJ towers with regard to ‘Mystery Game X’. We have a system where players will be able to take different build types into each level and we’re thinking about how many hints we should give players about the content of the levels so they can decide what setup to use. Should we spell it out, give nothing at all and let the player try and see if they can find their own best routes through?

 The most obvious options are either to provide no information at all, which runs the risk of players going into a level with completely the wrong set of powers and restarting as they realise this immediately, or to provide a list of what each level features in advance.  However this will probably take out a lot of the fun of experimentation out of things and would diminish the value found in players being allowed to customise their character’s setup.

As such we’re currently looking into ways of presenting information more subtly to give players an idea of what they might expect, while not telling them too much. Another way of reducing our risk here is, of course, to ensure we create levels that leave room for player experimentation without closing off any one build in particular (easier said than done!)

So, what do you guys think? How would you like to see us approach players in terms of game information provided? Why not tell us your favourite games from either end of the spectrum? Or, have any games left you particularly cold with how they’ve approached (or ignored!) the player? Let us know in the comments section! :)

That’s all for now.  I’ll be back next week with more from Laughing Jackal.  But until then, why not on join us on our Facebook, Twitter, Youtube and Google+  pages?

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flamez says:

As long as the controls are similar to other games within the genre then the player shouldn't need too much guidance. Perhaps a couple tutorial levels and that's it. Does all kind of depend on the game itself though, RPG is going to be very different to a Racer compared to a platformer. If the game is designed well and the controls work as expected then the player should be fine. On a side note your captcha box thing is very hard to read and I have to refresh many times.
Nick Marshall says:

This is a great post Ross and I just had to give my view. In my opinion information should be kept to a minimum unless the player is not succeeding or is missing out on mechanics that enhance the gameplay. Some players will go through a game and experiment and have fun and will not even read the manual or tutorial. Others may get frustrated either because they're losing or because they're finding the game repetitive. The latter is a design problem, but the former is easy to solve. You offer the player advice either in context - from an NPC ally, or straight up tell them - for instance in Call of Duty if a car explodes and you die, the game reminds you that exploding cars can kill you. Here's an interesting thought. Two games at opposite ends of the spectrum. Paradox strategy games (Crusader Kings, Hearts of Iron, etc) work almost entirely on verbal and text feedback. LEGO games (Star Wars, Harry Potter) use just visual feedback and minimal text/voice. These kinds of games prove difficult for fans used to one or the other. As a gamer who plays hardcore strategy titles I find the LEGO games surprisingly frustrating as information is presented in a medium I'm not used to and the same applies vice versa. In short - you need to meet this halfway. Show don't tell, and if it turns out the player is an idiot then you spell it out.
[LJ] Ross says:

@Nick Marshall I love the Paradox games but the amount of time it takes me to get started on them is crazy. I spend the first hour or so of any new one utterly lost until I work out what to do and how to do it.
Pepsi_Biofusion says:

I have a very simple rule on this matter, the better the game the more punishment I'll take but I think any game that is punishing should have multiple ways to tackle its problems like Deus Ex:Human Revolution so if you fail you don't have to rip you're hair out doing it all over again, plus in Deus Ex:Human Revolution you literally save every split second if you want to. Ofcourse linear games can't get away with this, so to put it plainly their core mechanic must be damn good so failure is you're own doing not some cheap AI, which Ninja Gaiden Sigma 2 largely succeeds at, Lost Planet 2 does not. This is actually the reason I hate most puzzle games, they often are more brutal than fun and have no world to invest in, Cubixx HD and Arkedo 2 Swap are as good as it gets and (as my Cubixx HD trophies show) I haven't made a substantial time investment, heres hoping Mystery game X is just that bit more forgiving :)

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