This Editorial from PC Gamer’s Tom Francis is the exact subject I’ve probably complained about many times on this blog. What gives it more value to me and makes it worth commenting on here though is the fact that a game developer actually responded, which opens up a whole other discussion about how mainstream games are being designed and who they’re being designed for.
Although I’m not really a fan of trying to break video games like Francis is, I completely agree with his critiques of a lot of mechanics modern games seemingly use to force players into exact experiences. This is probably the first article on a big gaming site to really dig into what I’ve been complaining about.
The part that really hit home for me was when Francis described the difference between Half-Life and its imitators: “you could always look wherever you wanted, and after the intro you were usually free to move,” he writes. “That subtlety was lost on its imitators, who’ve been progressively hobbling the player, smacking him around and locking his head in a vice more and more with each game since.”
I hate this for a completely different reason though. When I play games I like to explore every nook and cranny until I’m sure I haven’t missed anything, but I like to do that at my own pace. I like to know I’ve discovered things on my own and don’t like being directly told where absolutely everything is.
But then Bulletstorm creative director Adrian Chimelarz actually came in and explained the tech and design-related reasons that People Can Fly and many other developers do these things. Those parts in games where you’re forced into a slow walking speed in one direction? Mostly loading screens according to Chimelarz. I personally don’t know if I wouldn’t prefer loading screens (thinking back, Half-Life 2 has a ton of them) or some other method of disguise. I’m sure it’s a tough thing to think about in the design process. More importantly, Chimelarz says most of the forceful direction in mainstream games are simply for people who otherwise wouldn’t get the message. He says People Can Fly had to freeze the game or lock progress in Bulletstorm’s tutorial until players pressed precisely the right button because otherwise a lot of them wouldn’t fully understand the role of that button.
I think that brings up possibly the biggest issue in designing mainstream video games — they’re trying to be all things to all people, or at least catch the lowest common denominator user. Recognizing this is why I stopped playing a lot of mainstream games a few years ago. It’s why I stopped playing Call of Duty after Modern Warfare 3, why I stopped playing Assassin’s Creed, and likely why I care about almost none of this year’s quarter-four releases. I’m just not the target audience anymore.
But I think there’s still a discussion to be had on how to design games for different groups of people. I think a big issue is that things seem to be split between people who are hands-on learners and people who prefer to look at directions. Mainstream games seem to be built for the latter right now whereas older games were made for the former (unless you read manuals). Personally I wish more games included heavy customization of the way they relay information, and were actually designed accommodate those options.
I feel things like GPS objective indicators or forceful tutorials should be opt-in or opt-out, but games shouldn’t be designed for players to require those things. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, but why did games stop included free-roam tutorial areas where you could freely practice all the mechanics? A good example might be the practice ring in Wave Race 64 or the home base in the original Perfect Dark.
Things like this are an ongoing struggle, but I imagine sales numbers make publishers content with targeting lowest-common denominator consumers, often to the exclusion of others. I don’t like it, but I can’t really say it doesn’t make sense.
- Interesting analysis of progression in A Link to the Past: http://www.gamasutra.com/blogs/BenjaminMarshalkowski/20160513/272682/Overworld_Overload_An_Analysis_of_Link_to_the_Pasts_Light_World_Part_3.php