Of Linearity and Wind Waker HD for Wii U

Ok Nintendo, I like where you are going with this. I mean, yeah, you’ve completely won me over with Wind Waker in HD, but to hear the director of the series say that they are going to try to shy away from linearity … it’s as if someone over there read this post and then this other one.

So, taking advantage of my new power over a giant corporation, let me ask you something Nintendo: Have you played Dark Souls? There’s a very special idea that I want you to steal and implement in the next Zelda. It’s basically an interconnected world with very few hard gates (also called plot doors) but with a LOT of soft gates. Soft gates are situations where the player could go through a path, but he is discouraged from doing so at the start of the game and only later will that path’s difficulty lessen (generally, by leveling up or aquiring certain items). Soft gates are, for example, ghosts that require a certain condition to be killed but don’t actually block a path. Soft gates can also be really strong enemies. Soft gates let the player choose their own difficulty and make their own challenges. Soft gates let experienced players go through your game in new and novel ways that can even “break” the game (I’d go as far as to say that it’s even better if the game’s implicit rules are broken). Soft gates don’t insult the player’s intelligence. Soft gates rely on them being smart enough to tell that maybe going through this path is going to be harder than the others.

And because of that last reason, soft gates are a problem for you. You want to make it obvious where to go, you want to make sure that nobody is lost, that nobody misinterprets a soft gate for the only path forward. Those things happen, true, but at what cost? Soft gates have so many beneficial consequences that it’s almost impossible to ignore. I say “almost” because that’s exactly what you’ve been doing with every single Pokemon game and the last few Zeldas.

In a way, I view this video as recognizing that you’ve been insulting player’s intelligences lately. You are trying to correct that and I’m happy that you are trying, but please, do it well. Steal the right ideas from the right games and you’ll have gold on your hands.

If you take my advice I’ll be a gentleman and only take 20% of all your income for the next 100 years. Remember, I’m here to help!

This should be an option not a requirement

That’s what I find myself saying over and over again as I play more and more games. Though this issue isn’t exclusive to the games of today, of course not, it just so happens to be that I now have a more complete understanding of what I want from games, and I suspect that many other people are in the same page as me.

“This should be an option not a requirement” is a design snafu that always rears it’s head when the designer suddenly decided to make things harder for the player. For example, imagine a game where you have to kill your enemies. Hard to imagine, isn’t it? Well, it’s going to get harder: Now imagine that you have a standard way of killing them (say, filling them with your space bullets until they die) and then another way that involves some extra resource, has some random aspect to it and deals a lot more damage if done right (otherwise it does nothing, so it’s always a gamble). Good? Well, now please raise your hands all of you who detest it when the designer suddenly throws at you an enemy that can only be damaged with this secondary, more difficult to pull off, attack.

Oh, but wait, this secondary attack doesn’t have to be random in order to be a pain in the backside, of course not, in fact, all it has to do to get under our skin is take far too much time to pull off.

Mmmhhh, but isn’t figuring out how to kill a certain enemy part of the fun? You know, mixing things up is one of those things all designers must do to entertain the player. Fair enough, that’s a reasonable statement although a little bit too generalized, but I’ll roll with it. Let me just list a few of the things that can go wrong with it if the designer doesn’t know what she’s doing:

  1. The player is completely disoriented because something that used to work now doesn’t and there weren’t any warnings prior to encountering this particular new enemy.
  2. It’s a process of trial and error in which the player will be wasting her time until she finally bumps into the right solution.
  3. If there’s only one solution to the battle, there’s no decision making, there’s nothing fun about changing attacks if the difference is purely cosmetic. It’s just a game of “guess what the designer is thinking”.
  4. If all of the above is true, it can get worse: the battle can also take a lot more time than usual.

So, worst case scenario, it’s a battle that takes the player by surprise at first and then once the solution is found, it turns into a normal battle that just takes longer to end. There’s nothing interesting about it, just a change of pace for the worse: everything slows to a crawl.

Now, how can we take this concept of having enemies resistant to certain types of attacks and make them better (or, heaven forbid, “fun”)? Here’s what I think can fix this issue:

  1. There’s a clear correlation between the type of enemy and the resistance to attacks. A perfect example of this is Pokemon: Certain types of attacks are good against certain enemies and bad against others, and what determines this is the type of the pokemon and the type of attacks, that’s all the information you need. Of course, the Pokemon way is only one of the many ways to do it, but it’s the most well-known example I can come up with.
  2. Everything has a weakness and a resitance, no exceptions. No, not even boss battles. Again: Pokemon.
  3. Knowing your oponnent’s weaknesses doesn’t translate into an instant win, otherwise the battles are already decided before they even begin, and that’s not very interesting. Another consequence is that of spamming the same attack over and over. Pokemon… isn’t the perfect example of this, due to the limited amount of attacks, but it gets close. Ultimately, this one is a balancing issue.
  4. The enemies don’t have a strategic advantage over the player due to the abusive use of resistances. I’m freaking tired of not being able to use blind, confuse, slow, sleep, petrify, etc, on bosses, but them doing one attacks, ONE ATTACK and inflicting all my party members with every ailment on this face of the earth. Geez guys, don’t you think that’s a little unfair? Way to respet your players!

It might seem that I’m referring to only shooters and RPGs here, and that’s because I am doing exactly that, but I think this design snafu can become a lot more generalized…. I just don’t know how. Oh well, maybe the inspiration will strike later.

Aaaaaand that’s about it for today.

Good difficulty

Ah, yes, the “good difficulty” debate.  I’m making generalizations here, but saying that it’s a good kind of difficulty because you blame yourself for your faults instead of blaming the game, doesn’t exactly say much about how well done the difficulty is in this game. However, it says a whole lot about how well the game is constructed and polished, and how well disguised the string of challenges is. If the AI is not crap, then chances are it’s not their fault that you just got shot and died. If the level design is very well done,  if you just stepped on a mine, that’s your fault for not looking. If the vision of your enemies is done in a very natural and realistic way, then it’s your fault if you alerted the guards.

If you see out there a review that praises a game for having “good difficulty”, then please, take it as a compliment of polish instead of an indicator of how difficult the game is. Because it could be hard as hell, and yeah, you just died 2375826 times in a row, but hey, it was your fault, right? Or it could be the other way around and be easy as pie for you and your fingers of lightning.

But difficulty in itself is not exactly easy to measure, so yeah, let’s leave this tangent at that. For now.

On difficulty: strings of challenges

I don’t know if it’s just me, but there’s a special kind of challenge that never fails to irritate me whenever it pops it’s ugly head in whatever game I’m playing. Fortunately it doesn’t happen very often, but with enough frequency that I’ve finally become aware of the reasons why I hate it so much.

What the hell am I talking about? Well, the simplest way I can put it is like this: A string of challenges, where each one is not particularly difficult but if the player were to fail on any of these then he’d have to start all over again from the beginning. Now, that’s basically the premise of any arcade game ever released, but that doesn’t mean I hate arcade games. In fact, quite the contrary.

What gives? How is that possible? Well, it’s because the reasons why I play an arcade game are entirely different from the reasons why I play other games.

Alright, now, before I start enumerating the reasons why I hate this type of challenge in non arcade games so much, let’s try to see the good side:

  1. It makes the game in question last longer without having to actually develop more resources, or in other words: it saves the developers money.
  2. Since each challenge is not particularly difficult, the player will almost always blame herself for loosing.
  3. It makes the game hard without making it look like it’s hard. At least the first few times that is. If you lost a thousand times in a row, chances are, you are going to label this game as “difficult” to say the least.
  4. It tries to emulate the “simple to learn, difficult to master” mantra. Sure, you can learn how to do this one challenge in no time, but you are gonna have to master the hell out of it if you want to succeed at this string of consecutive challenges.
  5. It is a natural escalation of difficulty. You’ve learned how to shoot at tree leafs with your slingshot? Good, now shoot three of them in a row.

(See tangent post about good side number 2, here)

Wow, that’s an impressive list isn’t it? I’m not being sarcastic, I really think that this type of challenge has many good sides. It can be used to great effect and in the right conditions it can become almost as good as new content. And if you remember correctly, this type of mechanic costs almost nothing to the developers, so I’d say that’s a big big plus.

Apart from that, it brings a balance between new mechanics and previously learned mechanics and helps the player master them.

So … yeah, did I say I hate it? That was kind of imprecise. See, what I really, really hate is how some games implement it. I don’t hate the idea in itself. In fact, I’d say that it’s a little more complicated than what I’ve described so far, since what really bugs me is the punishment for not doing every single challenge perfectly before you reach the checkpoint.

As I’ve said, you can make a game with an arcade mentality behind it and develop it as nothing else but a string of small challenges with no checkpoints whatsoever throughout the game. If you do that, I won’t hate your game or anything, because that’s it’s nature, there’s no conflict between what I expect and what the game provides. If I want to play this, then it’s because I want to be challenged in this particular way and don’t mind being frustrated.

If you like loosing progression constantly, then I can safely recommend this game to you, you crazy person.

But punishment where it doesn’t belong is what bugs me. The best example I can think of is AWAY Shuffle Dungeon for the DS. I’ve been playing a lot of it recently and for those that do not know what this game is about, just think of a merge between diablo and a rogue-like: The whole game is just a town and a bunch of dungeons. In town you can save and shop and in the dungeons you’ve got to find the stairs on each floor to reach the bottom of the dungeon, talk to someone and then get them out of the dungeon (going from floor to floor back up to the surface).

[Here I wrote a very specific explanation of how the game works and exactly how much time I’ve actually spent doing absolutely nothing to progress through the game due to the extreme punishment for dying inside a dungeon (13 hours), but I decided to cut it since it didn’t have that much to do with the direction this post was going.]

Basically, AWAY Shuffle Dungeon asks me to go through dungeons at the pace it dictates (since I can’t explore by my own volition due to the shuffles) and practically destroys all of my progress if I happen to die at any point. The problem is, this game has very peculiar collision boxes for attacks, no matter the weapon I use, so it never is a joy in itself to go through a dungeon. It feels more like work than anything else. So, basically, I derive my enjoyment from progressing through the story of the game, getting new content and buying new items to equip my dude. And I don’t gain any of those things by going through the dungeon and dying just before I reach the last floor. Sure, I get to keep the things I found, which helps to soften the frustration but it’s not enough. The only things I gain from killing things and openning chests (the main two activities that reward you inside a dungeon) are usable items like potions and experience. I use the items all the freaking time, trying not to die, so keeping them when you die certainly helps in the next run but you don’t recover the ones you just spent in your failed attemp. You looser.

But what about the experience? HA! Yeah, the experience. All it does is make me do more damage to the enemies. That’s it. I always get hit for the same amount of damage from the same enemies every single time. I always kill every single enemy in just one hit, and let me tell you, due to the shoddy collision boxes, it still is a pain in the ass.

So, taking the example and extrapolating the conclusions I made from it, I can safely say that I absolutely hate games based around character progression that reward me only after I’ve done a huge amount of different challenges in a single run without dying.