Re: 7 Video Game Commandments

Over at Cracked.com, they’ve got an article from last year called The 7 Commandments All Video Games Should Obey. It’s a decent read, and I’ve seen it before, but I came across it again recently, and thought I’d comment on their Commandments.

#7. Thou shalt let us play your game with real-life friends
Local multiplayer. Many gamers have now grown up with consoles that provided a focus on multiplayer experience, at least to some degree — many games even as far back as the NES era had 2 player support, even if it was essentially taking turns. There were the occasional 4-player games, like Gauntlet, too. As years went by, many of the most popular games have been popular because of their multiplayer modes; both Goldeneye and Halo quickly come to mind.

But as high-speed Internet connections become more common, we’ve seen an increase in games that focus on (sometimes to the exclusion of all else) on-line multiplayer. The complaint being issued in this commandment is that local multiplayer will always be a specialty that consoles do well, and that failing to include that option in your console game is a bad idea. And I agree.

As an example — just last week I had a large group of people by to entertain. I’ve got the Wii all hooked up, and we played Bomberman Blast for over three hours. As Bomberman games go, it’s kind of a mediocre edition — no single-player, only a few modes. None of the crazier mechanics Hudson’s included in the series over the last two decades. It has a few new ideas, like Shake items, but one feature stood out — 8 simultaneous player support. And that makes it great. Smash Bros Brawl does a good job with larger groups too, via rotation, but it’s still only 4 players at a time. I know Bomberman is going to come out again quickly at the next gathering.

Even still, the author of this article is happy to endorse things like asymmetrical multiplayer like in Mario Galaxy, and states (accurately) that the Wii is doing a much better job of offering local multiplayer this generation — and he attributes at least some of the Wii’s success to it. Frankly, I can’t quite disagree, though I won’t say it’s the only factor.

There is one aspect that’s worth noting additionally, and that’s in terms of adding superfluous multiplayer — I agree with the author that any game with on-line multiplayer should probably have a local option as well, via splitscreen or some such (especially with increasingly larger, clearer televisions). But I’ve also seen a number of titles now where the game did not lend itself to a multiplayer experience at all, but included a rushed, poorly conceived multiplayer mode. And that’s no good — that’s a waste of developer dollars.

#6. Thou shalt not pad the length of your games
This is really two points in one sentence: Game’s don’t have to be long, and don’t add extraneous elements. I agree it’s a problem, but not on every point the author does.

Putting Huge Stretches of land between objectives: This isn’t always bad. I had a blast wandering the wastes in Fallout 3, stumbling over strange little areas that aren’t big enough or important enough to be actual locations. I enjoyed the occasion (very) random encounters, even if they weren’t perfect. But in the Zelda series — Twilight Princess and the Wind Waker, specifically — it gets rather tedious. It’s easy to tell what the difference is; in the Zelda games, there’s essentially nothing to see, and nothing interesting to discover. While travelling in Fallout was sometimes an idle activity (something to do), in the Zelda games, it’s a space between activity, and thus drags on the experience of actually interacting with the game.

Adding pointless, mandatory fetch quests: How about adding pointless, mandatory anything? Fetch quests are specifically annoying, but I don’t like doing anything pointless. It’s just obnoxious to be forced to do something that doesn’t matter.

#5. Thou shalt not force repetition on the player
I will admit here that this is the problem that kept me from enjoying God of War — the constant, pointless slog through uninteresting enemies. I realize some people like that, but I didn’t find it all that gratifying. And that’s really the point they’ve made here — people only enjoy repetition they put upon themselves. As soon as you’re required to do it, it’s no longer fun. And that’s a fairly true rule to follow — ultimately, if your players don’t like the greater repetition of their game, they’ll stop (even just for a break), but you’ll really frustrate them by making them complete a kind of task they are bored with to get to a task they like.

Now, only of the things the author dislikes here is repetition due to a lack of save points — dying and repeating things because you couldn’t save. This I don’t think applies universally — some of my favorite games are big sticklers on saving, but it’s not being able to save that is the problem — it’s the ability to reload your game that’s troubling. A lot of games have seen a complete breakdown in difficulty because of the nature of their save systems — not a problem if you just want your players to finish the game and have an experience (which is the essential goal of almost all major publishers) but often, being able to repeated reload a game is not a good thing.

When it comes to repetition to save points; I agree we should be able to stop a game whenever we want and resume it. But I’m not sold that most games benefit by letting the player reload infinitely — in a lot of games it leads to sloppy design, sloppy difficulty curves and an unrealistic experience. It’s a feature born of convenience and is often given very little thought in to it’s overall effect. Roguelike games, like Dungeon Crawl and Nethack take advantage of a no-reload save system, encouraging the player to play cautiously. Why do we see no mainstream games that do the same?

As for unskippable cutscenes — I agree. A player should never have to sit through a cutscene more than once; it’s just not entertaining. However, I do like it when cutscenes confirm to skip, as I’ve missed cutscenes in a few games because of jittery fingers.

As for Quick Time Events — these are a terrible, terrible mechanic, and we should have killed them off a decade ago. They fill a very weird niche in interactivity, where an event has a desired and undesired path determined only be reflexes, and where only one specific action will produce a desired result. They’re jarring, and deny you any real control in the game — you don’t decided how to react, you’re just told TO react. It’d be like telling a story to a little kid, then at a suspenseful moment, telling them to rub their stomach and pat their head, or the main character will fail to save the princess, or whatever. If anyone’s have fun here, it’s probably not the kid (read: player). If you want the player to be capable of dramatic action (I’m looking at you, God of War) you might want to find a way to work that in to the actual controls, instead of using QTE to try and mimic it.

#4. Thou shalt make killing fun
I agree with the author on most of the points he makes here, but not for the same reasons. He says this is about killing, but it’s about immersion.

Starting with a bad weapon: Players start most games in a vulnerable state, and that’s a good way to introduce all of the elements that they can use to protect themselves and advance the game, one by one. Weapons in FPS games work like this a lot of the time — start with the worst weapon and work your way up to something much more devastating.

Ultimately, I don’t know that this is an issue that we can solve without making all the weapons in a game equal in usefulness. What players generally miss in these situations is that while less effective weapons may be less effective, they are also more plentiful and generally easy to use. We could make that first weapon really awesome, but then to keep the game fun, the difficulty would have to be ramped up. To make the difficulty more tolerable, you’d have to advance, so you’d have to find a better weapon. The other option is to instead offer the player a number of tools that have lot’s of uses and force them to learn how to use those tools with increasing effectiveness. It’s more difficult to do, however, but some games (Portal, for example) have managed it.

I never really had an issue with Half-Life‘s crowbar, I suppose.

Small rodent enemies: I don’t really mind worlds that have lots of rats in them, or similar small animals. It helps establish a setting and atmosphere. What I can’t stand is how in most games, everything wants to kill you, and how killing everything is somehow beneficial for the player. In fact, I appreciate that the indie title Iji included a pacisism mode for going through the game killing none or virtually none of the enemies. Yes, small animals can be very dangerous, but it just seems pointless to continue to include them if they’re all out for blood.

Bullets with No Effect: This is all about experience; making the game experience match our real life expectations. This is the reason Red Faction was so exciting when it was first announced, letting players blow up anything and destroy everything — because rockets and grenades should cause some serious property damage. Now, the author complains about visible wounds, because we’ve been doing that in many games for a while, but the reality is, we’re creeping up in functional realism in all games, step by step.

We will likely reach a point where realism ceases to entice people, once it becomes easy to mimic (much like realistic paintings lost popularity after photography became prevalent) but until then, ragdoll effects, visible wounds, destructible terrain — these things will have a profound effect. Designers should avoid excluding these elements where they make sense in their games. (Barring no other limitations, of course).

(I will personally be more interested in when games let you build things realistically, rather than when they let you destroy realistically.)

I don’t think ‘Killing should be fun’ makes for a good commandment though; it fails to be universal enough. There are really two complaints here, and could be better addressed by ‘Do not arbitrarily exclude realism’ and ‘Don’t make the game experience unnecessarily trivial’.

#3. Thou shalt admit when enough is enough
Here we encounter another pair of complaints, disguised as one. And they are both, very, very valid.

The first is ‘Stop doing things that don’t work right’. When the author complains about Escort missions, computer controlled allies and first person jumping puzzles, his complaints are grounded in the fact that they aren’t ever done properly. Escort missions and CPU-team mates are the same problem — the AI we use for games is incredibly bad. We still haven’t figured out a way to make computer characters act like real people. It’s not surprising though, it’s hard to fake people. It’s not that these missions wouldn’t be fun if they worked properly, but they consistently fail to work in a way that agrees with the realism of the game they are in, and destroy the experience.

As for first person jumping puzzles; this is a problem propagated by the fact that first person games are being modeled after first person games, and not first person experiences. I’m leaning back in my chair right now; I can see both of my arms, as well as my chest, stomach and legs. I can even see my shoulders in my peripheral vision — yet why is it most first-person games neglect to let us see anything but a static, floating arm or hand?

Mirrors Edge is of course, the best example of a game that tries to tackle the exact problem at hand, first person jumping. And the critics say — it works! But it’s only a small step forward. We need to think about the other things we’ve failed to properly take in to account — we can’t keep making mistakes that were done in Wolfenstein 3D, Doom and Quake. I’m fairly certain that we won’t see and more real progress in First Person games again until we find a new way to control them, and let use virtually manipulate our hands.

The OTHER complaint here is ‘Stop reusing ideas’. There’s really not much more to say. Video games are disgustingly over saturated right now with clones, rip-offs, and sequels. There’s a saying out there somewhere — you should change strategies only if it doesn’t work, or it’s worked for too long. We’re stagnating right now, because of the cost of making games. Producing games is expensive and labor intensive. It’s HARD. And because of that, we have two main groups — the big guys, like Nintendo, Sony and Electronic Arts, and the little guys, like Pixel, Nifflas, and Tale of Tales. One group has all the money, and the other has all the innovation. We do find a number of middle ground players, like Valve; a bigger company open to new ideas, leading to Portal and Left 4 Dead, and smaller guys with some money, like 2D Boy.

However, being in that middle ground is hard. Companies are afraid to experiment, because it can mean failure, and failure in games can mean the death of the company. We need to find a safer way to make risk in the industry — and we’re almost there. The two most likely solutions are: Smaller games — indie titles and micro games, released on downloadable platforms like Steam, WiiWare, XBox Live and the Playstation Store; games let us experiment with some new mechanics with reduced financial risk, like World of Goo and outsourced/recycled components — major engines like Unreal and Source have allowed a number of games to be made that couldn’t be done due to a lack of resources; Box2D has let a number of developers play with physics mechanics they couldn’t make on their own.

Between smaller games and reused elements, we can reduce the work and risk that goes in to producing a game, making it easier to try new things, and find new ways to improve interactivity.

#2. Thou shalt make sure your game actually works
There’s really nothing to add here. Releasing a broken product is unacceptable in most of the world, but gaming sometimes gets a pass. It’s easy to understand why — a company can’t recuperate their development costs until the game is released. But a buggy game can easily bomb, ruining that game’s chance for success. It’s a problem of short-sightedness. Rushed production schedules and overambitious design leads to these kinds of problems. Additionally, we’re still learning about interface design and effective methods of testing software; so sometimes things slip through the cracks.

The author also takes a moment to talk about load times; another interesting issue of the increasing size of games. This is why I wasn’t so keen on BluRay for the PS3 (among other reasons) — DVDs as it is are already slow. Adding increased capacity to a disc doesn’t make it read faster — in fact, quite the opposite is true. But we can’t just blame the hardware — it’s also about producing concise, intelligent software, too — I remember once seeing Finding Nemo for the GameCube (a console that had very few problems with loading quickly) and seeing the game take several minutes to load in to a cut scene, then several more minutes to load a level, and minutes AGAIN if ever you had to restart the level. It was a nightmare, and the developers are solely to blame, for shoddy code.

#1. Better graphics do not equal innovation and/or creativity
Once more, we hearken back to Commandment #3 from this list; only now with a direct aim at original ideas in a technical sense. What we’re hearing here is pretty well undeniable truth. In order to improve, we need to take risks. Making something bigger and badder isn’t really a risk. What confuses me about the corporate decisions to make the PS3 and XBox 360 in to beefier versions of their previous incarnations is –what next?

Come the next generation of consoles, Nintendo can easily just beef up the Wii — the folks who complained about it’s lack of horsepower will have it (for cheap). But the PS3 and XBox don’t really have anywhere to go; they need to innovate — they can risk something new and really try to grab the reins of the next great idea at the potential cost of failure — or they can mimic — steal the ideas that made the Wii work; or at least try, with history knowing that mimicry normally fails to capture the true success of its target. In fact, Sony has tried to mimic Nintendo’s approach with motion controls and failed, most likely because they don’t understand why it works when it does, rather than how it works.

He also talks about the idea of producing a better story, and he’s right. The stories in games are generally terrible, with better games hitting mediocre. It’s a two-fold problem; the first being that in gaming, we regularly fail to actually bring about real writers for content — hacks can only do so much. The second is that we still don’t understand how interactive media can and should be used for telling a story. So we’ve been telling stories in games like we would for books, or comics, or movies, without really recognizing that games aren’t the same as any of those media, and is in fact, more unlike any of those than any of those are unlike each other.
As articles on gaming goes; well, 7 Video Game Commandments isn’t perfect. But it’s a needed breach for the topic and only in question what does and does not work will we really begin to grasp the best ways to make games.

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One Response to “Re: 7 Video Game Commandments”

  1. D. I. Harris Says:

    I know I’m beating a dead horse here, but in terms of storytelling in a game that actually uses the gaming medium, and doesn’t tell the story as though it was a book, a movie, or anything other than a game, try Star Saga I: Beyond the Boundary.

    That game’s plot can only be told in a game. You can’t make it a movie, or a book about it without ruining the experience of the story. The game’s plot is all about discovery, pieced together from little clues. You get a piece of the puzzle here, a piece of the puzzle there–and it doesn’t matter what order you get them in. The game gives you a little goal to push you forward for the first few turns, and then sets you free to explore.

    After you’ve seen the shape of the puzzle, you can see the way to beat the game easily. You can stumble upon the ending without figuring it out, but it’s much more difficult.

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