This article is a little random musings about game difficulty, save games and downloadable games.
Short and easy
Today there is a push for making games really long, a game that is only 12 hours is chastised for being a short game, with a sniff by people with noses up the air who of course play games that are massive (if it's not in the three digit of hours, is it really worth it?). Now I can draw analogies to the long game being perceived as better with the difficult level of games. I think finally the tide is somewhat turning, but at some point there was this unspoken (or sometimes not so) rule that an easy game was a bad game. Games should be challenging. Games should be hard. Or so the thought went. Maybe it was some misguided thing by l33t gamers (i.e. hardcore games) that you really have to work for the ending of the game, otherwise just stick to Tetris. First, you could do worse than Tetris for a game. It's a brilliant game, let's just leave it with that. Second, some of us does not relish getting stuck or banging our heads into a brick wall (hey, I get enough of that while I'm programming).
Remember the old game X-Wing? It is a classic case of how difficulty levels have changed in a couple of years. The game was crazy difficult, almost impossible. Back then I had more tolerance for hard games I guess since I must have played the medical frigate mission over 20 times and failed in all of them (and no, I didn't play on any hard level). Today I would probably put the game down after three tries. The game series wised up after that, the sequel Tie Fighter was considerably easier so that you actually could finish the thing. It also brought more enjoyment since I actually managed to play it.
What about save games?
I think you should be able to save at most instances, say for example everywhere except in big action scenes. The trick is that you should not feel compelled to save just in case. If you can pull that off, I think you are on the right track. Remember the old adventure games? Like Sierra's Kings Quest or Lucasarts' Monkey Island. Those two games differ radically in gameplay, the former you better save and the latter is more of a nah, I can make it without saving. Monkey Island even have a spoof of Sierra's save system, Guybrush falls of a cliff and the Sierra "you-are-dead-I-hope-you-saved-mohahahaha"-dialog came up. After a while Guybrush comes bouncing up again and noting that it was lucky that rubber tree was there.
The thing is that if you introduce dead puzzles you are forced to keep a multitude of save points throughout the game, just in case you messed up and didn't explore or got enough stuff before leaving an area of the game behind forever. Say for example you're at a rope bridge. As soon as you walk across it, it collapses behind you. It's a classic case of closing off areas that are finished in games. Now say after the rope bridge there is a huge door that needs a key. Only, they key is located in a bush on the other side of the collapsed rope bridge! That's is less than ideal. These are the kind of things that Q&A tries to find in gameplay sessions and it should in my opinion be flagged as a critical bug. The player that makes this mistake and has not saved in a while will be furious upon realizing this (or at least I get that way).
Save games are related to the difficulty level of a game, if you have a really easy game that is well designed without any of these dead puzzles, save games can be used as a means to protect you from power outages and when you want to turn off the console. Not as a means to protect yourself from accidentally dying due to the fact that you forgot to reload your gun before entering a fire fight.
David Sirlin [Sirlin07] recently had an article in Game Devloper's Magazine about save games, where he argues that the save game mechanism needs to be for player and not for making the game difficult.
Penalizing the player
The whole idea to penalizing the player is really not so good. I guess the phrasing is a little off the mark. The whole idea with setbacks is to encourage the player to do certain stuff. The main difference here is to make sure that the player don't get hit by this setback too often after the initial learning period. If you force the player to repeat their mistakes over and over again, this is what I consider a narrow hardcore game. Some players gets fired up by a game that they can't beat. If the consistently die at a certain spot and can't get any further they take it as a challenge (or an insult) and continue trying until they beat it. These are the gamers we call hardcore games. Myself, after dying the second or third time I quit playing. Yes, you read that right. I quit playing. I really have more fun things to do that play a level over and over again unless the game is exceptional. And guess what? If the first couple of levels are like that, I will never see how great and rewarding the game is. Never. Because I stopped playing. If this kind of thing was done in for example movies, it would be similar to forcing people to solve a random transcendental integral after the intro credits of the movie. If they fail, they're escorted out of the cinema and wait for the next showing. Would you go the next showing?
One of the classic case of penalizing the player was in old school shoot-em-up games, usually you collected powerups along the way as you killed the aliens. These made you more dangerous, and to balance that fact the game usually became increasingly difficult the further along you came. So the relative difficulty didn't really change, but there were more particles on screen. That is, until you died. One silly little pixel intersected with your ship and boom. You start out again with the basic ship, no powerup. The whole problem is that the enemies don't know this. They usually stay the same, big and bad expecting you to come in with seven drones, a mega super laser and flash bombs. Instead they get you with a popsicle gun. Later on games started to drop the powerups when you died so that you could get a chance to collect some of them again after you died, negating some of the harm of dying.
Urging the player on
So why do we keep insisting on killing the player? It has somewhat to do if your core gameplay mechanic is fighting enemies. It's no fun, or less fun, to fight enemies if they are toothless. Just dispatching dummies are not as perceived as much fun as dispatching evil dudes that could do you in. Of course, it's kind of frustrating or boring if they always do you in. It's basically something that forces you to engage in the basic mechanic of the game, fight. If you have an action-fighting game, and you're invincible for example, there would be no incentive to fight enemies, instead you could just walk around and explore while laughing at the enemies feeble attempt to inflict damage. At that point, the main gameplay mechanic is exploring, not fighting.
Anyhow, one of the things you can use enemies are to mark areas on the map that you want the player to visit and explore just by the virtue of "killing enemies are fun, hey there are some over there!" mentality. Leaving breadcrumbs so to speak. Another tactic is to block of certain areas with bad enough enemies that you have to become better or find better weapons to defeat him/her. A gate so to speak. But instead of the proverbial key, you just have to play the game more until you naturally find something or become better.
Killing the player is kind of tried and true as a concept. There are problems with this though, mainly that death is so ... final. At least in the real world, where it's also a possible ratings problem (ESRB). Think about it, you die and then you are resurrected later on at a specific place with possibly some of your inventory intact. Weird. Alternatives to dying would be falling down, classic platformers usually employ that you strive towards a goal high up and if you fall off a ledge you can recover by landing on a platform below (although it's limited in some cases) like in the game Rainbow Islands. The neat thing there is that you can easily see how it's bad to fall off and if the enemies push you off a platform, that should be perfectly understandable. It also have the neat thing of being kid friendly :) You don't have to blast people to pieces to have a fun game.
Other alternative could be that you need to reach a certain goal in a specific time, and if you get caught by the enemies they spin a spider web on you which you loose time breaking free of. The time limit could be something unforgiving as an airplane taking off (although a silly bonus would be that you could implement powerups like "airline company sucks and delays the flight 2 hours").
This is on everyone's lips nowadays it seems. I don't think the public is quite there yet in terms of the mental barrier for buying things online, but slowly I think more and more are converting. Think of it in this way, a beer out in the bar is about $5. $6 if you leave a standard tip. That's one drink. I usually drink a beer every 30-40 minutes when you're out if you keep a decent pace (remember, I used to compete against the Vikings). Say you are just out and talking smack with your buddies, maybe down three beers (wonder how a couple, i.e. 2, always escalates into more?) and then you call it quits. That's almost two hours, about $18 later.
Now, consider the a game on PSN. It's all between $5-$10. When you download this and if you get two hours of fun out of it, that's comparatively really great. Say you download a hot seat multiplayer game and you do the whole invite friends over for a game night. I don't know, but I think the scenario of purchasing a downloadable game online has a higher uncomfortable level than buying two beers out in at the bar. Weird but there it is. It's certainly true for me, and I'm writing this!
But in the context of a contender with going to the bar and killing two hours, I think it makes a lot of sense to consider the time of the gameplay and how many annoyances there are in the game. In that perspective, having a relatively short game, free of annoying snafus and repeated setbacks sounds like a nice way to kill a couple of hours. That is not to say that this is the only downloadable games that could be out there, the new outlets of electronic distributions doesn't preclude traditional AAA-over-the-top-100h games. I just think that for those you can go to the store and pick them up if you're going to spend that much time with them.
I enjoy the longer games every now and again, despite what I've outlined in this article. I played Final Fantasy XII for almost 20 hours and I'm around 14 hours into Kingdom Hearts II. These games I play seriously, not an hour here and there, no. It's ordering pizza and stocking up with soda and then playing for one or two solid days. No distractions. And it's great fun. But who can do this on a regular basis? Certainly not me, neither would I want to. But it's certainly fun every now and then. But most of the time I play games that are more accessible. Car games are great for this, you pick up the controller and race in a matter of minutes.
Games are supposed to be fun, not some Sisyphean task you willingly take on. If that means that the game is too easy in some eyes, please feel free to add an expert / l33t mode of the game for people so inclined. But as Nintendo is doing, going after the masses, so should you as a games developer. I know it's fun to design a game that you want to play yourself, but it's not impossible to do so and include others in the fun (ok, probably not entirely true, I can think of a couple of games that wouldn't appeal to many other than me, Elite V for example). It's frighteningly easy to exclude others though that either don't have the same sense of humor, or same cultural references.
[Sirlin07] Sirlin, David - "Saving the Day", Game Developer, September 2007 p7-11.
All the games and the screenshots are of course (c) by their respective companies.