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! :)