Tuesday, August 05, 2008

Tech: Frustration in Game Design


I broke down and finally got a GameFly account. "Culdcept Saga," a turn-based card strategy game for the Xbox 360, was the first game they sent to me. Normally I'd write a review for the game, but to be honest, I couldn't finish it.

The basic gameplay was okay, I guess (it's like playing Monopoly, except instead of paying rent you do battle with fantasy creatures and spells), but the thing that really sent me scrambling to hit the eject button was the fact that you cannot, to my knowledge, skip the computer-controlled players' turns. When AI character #1 meets AI character #2 in battle, you have to watch the tedious card battle sequence on-screen, with no stake in the outcome whatsoever. This can happen over and over again in a single game, and it's just no fun to sit there, controller in hand, and wait for the computer to stop playing against itself.

It's a good illustration of the cardinal sin of game design - frustrating the player. There are a lot of different kinds of challenges in games, like beating a boss monster or solving a puzzle. But there should never be a time when the game designer forces you to not play the game.

Culdcept isn't the only offender. A lot of RPGs (both massively multiplayer and otherwise) have bits where you have to grind the same monsters over and over again in order to get strong enough to move the game forward. You might have your machine turned on, your fingers might be moving, but you aren't really "playing" the game in any meaningful sense - you're being told to wait to play the game.

Other games resort to things like fetch quests and backtracking, which to me are really lazy decisions on the developer's part. You may recall my review of "Devil May Cry 4," whose developers thought they could stretch a 5 hour game into a 10 hour game merely by forcing the player to backtrack through a half-dozen areas that they've already traversed. Even the acclaimed Zelda series resorted to fetch quests in "Wind Waker," with a Triforce treasure map sequence that seemed interminable (especially puzzling considering the finale of that game was so epic).

4th Edition D&D provides a great example of an explicit disavowal of the "make the players wait" strategy of design. 4E D&D emphasizes "finding the fun" - and not sacrificing the players' time or interest in the name of simulating a fantasy world. If a sequence isn't fun, skip or fast-forward through, and don't stop until your players are engaged once again. Of course, that kind of neatly-tailored game design might only be possible with a live DM at the helm...

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