Sunday, June 26, 2005

Confessions of a horrible game player

I'm a bad game player and I'm hoping that I'm not alone. I was just playing Kirby Cursed Canvas. The DS is one of the few hot spots of innovation in core game play mechanics, so I've been dabbling in various titles to keep myself educated on what is out there.

Kirby has some sweet gameplay ideas. The use of a touch pad to control a platform game is both enjoyable and intuitive. The reward system is solid and the use of tiered objectives lets casual gamers enjoy the title just as much as the experts. I played for a full five minutes before I turned off the DS in a fit of irritation. @#$%@# piece of...

Why I suck
This isn't Kirby's fault. It is a great game from what I've seen. I simply have some limitations as a gamer that prevents me from ever being hardcore. In an effort to present myself in the worst light possible, I will list them:

  • Poor reflexes: I couldn't Left, Right, Left, Right, Up, Down, Up, Down, A, B, Start my way out of a paper bag if my life depended on it. Complex sequences of carefully timed actions turn into gibberish when I get my club-like paws on a controller.
  • Irritated by repetition: I play games for enjoyment, not mastery. The first thing I do when I start a game is put the damn thing on "easy." The last thing I want to do is replay some section because I didn't circle strafe with pico-second timing.
  • Absent minded: I forget things. I may play a game for twenty minutes and then pick it up again two months later. If there were any skills that I had learned, there's a 80% chance I'll have forgotten them. The game typical responds with a gleeful "Gotcha! Instant death!"
  • Willingness to walk away: If a game gets too frustrating, I drop it like a rock. When I played Starfox Adventures, I had a blast noodling around with the exploration section. Then the evil designers tossed in a racing mini game. I played that thing about 15 times and got no where. At perhaps 30 minutes into the game, I put it back in the box and never touched it again.
I'd like to add impatience to this list, but I've put hundreds (sometimes thousands) of hours into games I enjoy. I could probably add basic stupidity, but somehow I managed to earn the cash necessary to purchase games. That gives me some say, despite my short bus status.

Horrible gamers unite!
Imagine that there are other non-traditional gamers like me. There are women. There are older men. There are young girls. There are even grandmothers. In a generous (and no doubt misguided) attempt to speak for all of the casual gamers in the world, here are some rules of thumb for designers out there if you want to appeal to the horrible gamers of the world:

Never kill me
Ever. Don't even think about it. Put me in second place. Tell me I could do better. Give me a smaller reward for trying as hard as I did.

There's a rationale behind this. If you look at play patterns, people tend to stop playing when they die. Very few people quit when they are doing well. If one of our goals is to encourage playing, then ending every session with a big dose of negative reinforcement is generally a bad idea. This encourage extended play only in masochists who get amped by pain and failure. Everyone else leaves the building.

Luckily, little boys tend to be masochists and so we've built an industry around them. Now we have to come to grips with the fact that in order to grow our industry, we need game play mechanics that appeal to normal folks, not just the masochists.

Never force me to repeat a section
I know you are proud of your lovely level design. I know I screwed up by getting too close to those spikes. But I was happy to have killed those first five monsters and the maneuver I did to get past the swirly dude was very impressive. Now I have to do it all over again?

When a player is thrown back at the start of the level you've tossed away all his hardwork and told him it was meaningless. This is the equivalent of telling a school child to write a report. Then when they miss a period at the end of the last sentence, you rip the entire report up and tell them to write it over again.

Always maintain my progress even if it makes the game shorter. Kirby would be an even more appealing game if I could just meander around through the levels in a sandbox mode. Keep the objectives, certainly. Most of the game can remain the same. At the end of the level, tell me how I've done. Couch it in terms of progress, not in terms of abject failure. "Hey, there's some cool stuff you could get if you wanted to try the level again." Many racing games where you race against time do this with great success.

Who knows, if the first time was fun enough, I might give it another go. The psychology of such a reward system is very different than a traditional console title.

Reward me for deigning to play your game again.
If I do pick up your game again after two months, let me know you care. Track the time I was away. It isn't hard with most modern machines. Welcome me back and give me the option for a refresher course if I need it. If I'm in the middle of a big fight and seem to be a bit clunky, go easy on me. Double my bonuses and make me feel like I'm the best damned player ever. Make me want to play.

Don't leave me with the feeling "Huh, I guess I suck at this game more than I remember." I don't have time to build up my skills again. And chances are that if the design forces me to reinvest in maintaining my skills, I'm just going to walk away.

In the world of casual games and MMOG, players give you money after they play the game. The demographics are different. The expectations are different. The underlying psychology of a reward is different. If, as designers, we don't understand these differences, if we don't question the traditional game mechanics that designers have relied upon for decades, then we will fail to capture the non-traditional gamer's dollars.

More importantly, I want more fun games to play. I'm selfish like that. :-)

take care


  1. You are going to *love* Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory.

  2. I always loved the Lucas Arts Adventure games, (Day of the Tentacle, Sam&Max hit the road), because they won't ever actually let you lose the game. You have to roam around exploring and trying to figure out the next step, but it won't ever let you die, or use/destroy an item that you're going to need.

    Obviously, there are some restrictions here, and the game requires a very precise script. But it works in those LucasArts games because of a few reasons I think. First off, the scripts were well written; funny and fairly random, while still maintaining the overall plot. Second, there was plenty of non-vital stuff to interact with, so there was lots of things to do besides just follow the narrower storyline. And third, doing those random things that were irrelevant to the greater story line often resulted in interesting or amusing dialog, even if it had no effect on the actual game plot. It helped define the characters, and made experimenting within the game less monotonous.

    It's fun to have a game that isn't competition. It's really cleverly disguised problem solving, using a slightly skewed set of realities, since its taking place in a game world. And I always welcome a game where I can get up and go feed the cat without having to worry about saving, or pausing, or dropping the mouse and walking away without a second thought, knowing that nothing will change while I'm gone.

  3. Your blog is awesome, and I think you should write a book (or at least a meaty PDF) about the game design concepts you use. It's enlightening to see these concepts layed out so well. Can you talk some more about risk-reward systems?

    Having said that (and hopefully showing I'm not a pissant), one of my personal pet peeves is how people use "negative reinforcement" as something bad. Like getting an electrical shock. It's actually a good thing. It means to take something away, which encourages the action to be repeated. Like pulling a thorn out of your toe. It's good, but it's taking something away, it makes you want to pull out more thorns if you find them.

    I think you're looking for "negative punishment" because they're taking away the fun, making you not want to play again.

    Great Site!

  4. I agree. Games shouldn't be a pain to play. If I think my time is being wasted on a game, I'll drop it, even if it supposedly has one of the best storylines in video game history, ever. In the two hours of play that I put in to FFVII, I didn't feel as if I was being rewarded enough to continue playing -- either from the plot, the game play, learning the battle system, learning magic systems -- none of it made me want to continue playing. It was almost a chore to play it, to be honest. I know my opinion will be a little unpopular, since everyone seems to list FFVII as among their favourite games, but popular opinion won't convince me to try it again, because popular opinion was what compelled me to play it in the first place. Will I try again? Who knows.

    Then again, I do harbour an interest in scrolling shooters, which is one of the most masochistic genres of video games ever created. Just play Ikaruga to get a taste of it. I've pretty much stopped playing it because it's so damn hard. It requires Jedi-like reflexes. The only reason I pick it up now and again is to eventually rack up enough game time to get infinite lives, though at this rate, it will never happen.

  5. First time poster here, love your site!

    As an example of rewarding players for their "nice try" efforts, I would cite the point systems used in racing games. F-Zero and Mario Kart come to mind in particular due to experience, but I'm sure many others use it. Essentially, a player's ranking among the racers is awarded a point value, so that even a subpar player who must fight for fourth place can still see the overall rankings and say, "well I beat the rest of those chumps!"

    Also, award ceremonies are often displayed at the end of a grand prix in racing games, traditionally showing off the top three racers. Of course, other genres can't comparatively give the player such an ego boost, but I just wanted to bring to light how well racers tell the gamer, "you may not get the gold this time, but will bronze do?"

    -Appreciative Reader

  6. Glad you are enjoying the site. :-)

    Racing games with ranking systems are a great example of a system that doesn't punish the player.

    I'm a huge fan of high score lists as well since you typically always do a little better each time. Utlimately, you end up competing against yourself. The concept of relative ranking or ranking relative to past performance is quite a powerful tool that is underutilized compared to typical fixed reward and punishment systems.


  7. Many of the reasons you cite above, are why I still love Pokemon games. They even track time you've been away, though they don't always reward you. There are a dozen unlockable secrets that happen only after an extended period of time with the game.

    I agree with you about platformers... I just don't have the patience for anything that requires quick reflexes... with the exception of the Mario Party games (which games should be more aptly renamed: "Destroy your game paddle, and give you carpal tunnel syndrome") ... and that's mostly because I can play it with a group, and because it's nothing but a bunch of minigames...

    Even as a kid I used to love to go to my friend Josh's house and WATCH him play games... the only game I ever really got even remotely good at with an arcade feel were the ones in which we dueled, like Doom or Star Control... (ah star control... wherefore art thou, star control?)


  8. Absolutely. Hilarious. But personally I think video games should be more about the challenge, and not about propping up my self-esteem. I think you and I just represent a different target market, honestly.

  9. Hey Danc,

    Although I don't completely agree with this post, I think you made some excellent points. I can especially relate to the "I guess I suck at this game more that I remember." For example, I got completely shut down by one of the Bosses on Metroid Prime. As a frustrated gamer, I put the game away for 2 months. When I picked it up again, I was worse off then before. Eventually, I sold the game without ever finishing it.

    Secondly, I'm currently annoyed with the level length of "Call of Duty: Big Red One." The game allows you to restart from checkpoints as you progress, but only allows you to save the game from the start of a level. I find that I sometimes only have / want a half hour of play time, and so I forgoe it completely because of (what I consider) a flaw in the design. I do not want to be forced to repeat sections that I have already played due to time constraints.

    My point being: even though I don't consider myself a "horrible gamer", I do wish that designers would keep in mind that not everyone wishes to be a 'hardcore' player all the time -despite whatever genre they may enjoy.

    Keep up the excellent work. I thoroughly enjoy your posts.

  10. I just started reading this website a while back, and I came upon this article. I agree very much that there should be games that cater to these needs of 'horrible gamers', and moreover that even self-titled 'awesome gamers' sometimes like to relax with this kind of game. My main disagreement is with the way you belittle people who have fun with these harsh games, like myself, as 'masochistic'. Masochism is desiring pain for its own sake, but this goes beyond that.

    In a harsh game, the kind where you have to repeat sections, where you are killed, and where you have time limits and are not free to wander as if on a Sunday stroll, I don't feel just pain when I lose.

    I feel that there is something at stake.

    Would you call professional sports players masochistic, because they enjoy a game where losing means waiting till the next year to play again? Or a guy masochistic because he takes a risk and talks to a girl he likes only to put his foot in his mouth and lose that chance forever?

    Harsh games are suitable when the game world is conducive to feeling that the stakes are high. Ninja Gaiden is a classic, recent example. I've found that even in games that allow saving whenever, I did not feel properly immersed until I went back and played through levels without saving. I didn't 'get' the game. Doom and Quake I, took on a whole new life when I played them this way. The same thing goes for the so-called 'Ironman' modes common to turn-based strategy games. In world politics and war, nobody gets to restart from last checkpoint.

    In the world of games there is room for shooting hoops with ones buddies on a weekend afternoon, and there is room for tournament basketball. Both are fun for their own reasons, but neither is masochistic.

  11. do yourself a favour and stay away from devil may cry 3, great game, very dificult

  12. Hmmm, Riviera comes to mind. That game ignores all the rules of traditional RPG design with things like destructable items and no random encounters. With only a small number of exceptions, battles can be skipped. And if you lose a battle and retry, the enemy becomes easier. You can do better or worse in a battle in various ways, so the hardcore masochist kids can replay the game over and over again until they beat every enemy with a perfect score, spend hours leveling up in practice mode, and then unlock the uber really hard to defeat boss. The people who just can't do it can run from battles, beat the tough bosses on their second try (because they got weaker), and generally succeed.

    I don't think the concept would work properly with storyline bosses winning and then letting the player progress, but this game comes pretty close to that level of ease for the player, if the player wants it. Just don't expect much in the way of score if that's how you get through the game.

  13. And the gods said: "Let there be Katamari." and the game was replayable, it had pleasant music, verbal abuse coupled with a very obvious meter of your progress, mental stress as well as relaxation, and there was much rejoicing.
    I also heard "Cubivore" was quite interesting, but I couldn't find it.
    "Chibi Robo" is another constant-reinforcement, "I'm making progress" sort of game.

  14. Just a shout into the void on this long-lapsed article: Team Fortress 2 does this beautifully. Every time a new map is loaded, it summarizes your stats, and picks something that you did remarkably well from the long laundry lists of stuff it tracks. Maybe you came close to your all-time "Most hit points healed in a single life" or "highest damage from a single shot" or "most assists with a HW Guy". Even when you've sunk tens of hours into the game, they still find something you did better that round than before. Even if your team loses, and your score puts you at the bottom of the entire server, at least your "total sentry gun kills" got better.

  15. I've just noticed something interesting.

    Fable 2 was considered a "too easy" game because you just can't die. However, like you say, people tend to stop playing when they die, and games should try to avoid getting the player killed.

    I wonder if the game designers of Fable 2 used your post as a way to improve their game.

  16. Hmm, this was written in 2005.

    I hope to god Mr. Danc you've looked around lately. Because you are getting almost exactly what you wanted.

    Challenge is dropping so hard from many of my favorite franchises, I've spent less money on gaming than I ever have. There's no incentive to play a game when you know you can't lose now that your three-step plan has been adopted.

    Further incentive to make challenging games has been squandered by reviewers across the board reducing review scores on titles because they can't be completed on the first try. What do you mean "you hope you aren't alone?" Your type has been one of the largest groups in customer complaints on the industry for the past five years.

    Now I get to go out of my way to sync up schedules with other non-douche players just to get some relevant competitive multiplayer going and live on 90s shooting games. Sad and inconvenient times.

    Thanks a lot. :(

  17. [What DJ said]

    Seriously, >:(

    The genre has been "dumbed down" to the point of not even wanting to play games anymore because of how easy they are. (PC gaming, I don't play consoles).

    I've been gaming for over a decade, and while some games are too difficult (Atari or some of the impossible NES games) most are so shallow and easy, it bores me to death. (Prime Example: Any MMORPG post 2005).

    While I believe console games of most variety SHOULD be very casual, time-friendly, and easier, I do notbelieve most PC games should be.

    We pay thousands of dollars every few years for top end hardware to play games which have now become so easy!

    3 year olds can win modern games. And no, these aren't those super-babies of the future, because that doesn't happen until 2056. These are regular 3 year olds.

    +100 Self Esteem
    -100 Challenge

    And I for one never got my self esteem from video games, so this sucks...