Good game designer! Have a Jammie Dodger!

I have been a long-time reader of Gamasutra’s feature articles as they often, a few articles on Japan notwithstanding, present the best, more professional side of industry writing. So, as a consequence, I have read most of Ernest Adams’ mouth-frothing rants against certain game design decisions. And though I can’t help but agree with a lot of the points he makes, it does come across as a bit of an easy rant, especially as it doesn’t address the reasons game designers make certain decisions (publisher or time pressure, new producer megalomania but only occasionally outright incompetence or impoverishment of the imagination). And I know, from bitter personal experience, it’s much easier to bash than to constructively criticize. So inspired by the “Good Ideas” series of posts on the Mainly About Games blog, I decided I too will actively try and look at some of the good design decisions that I wish more companies would pick up on (read: steal).

Graphs!
This is absolutely my favourite new “game design” element that precious few titles are picking up on, but I have already discussed it at length in a previous post, so will only give it a brief mention here.

Achievement Tracking
Eden’s Xbox360 MMOCarPG “Test Drive Unlimited” not only deserves a medal for making me, a staunch hater of racing games, enjoy a racing game, but also for its excellent and detailed achievement completion tracking. Whereas most games simply say things like “win 1000 consecutive games on-line” or “play 100 hours straight without accessing the pause menu” so far I’ve only seen Test Drive offer you a detailed overview of how far you’ve actually gone towards achieving these goals, though I am sure there are some other games that do this too. I, like many others, am much more inclined to reach for that achievement if I know I only have three out of forty more races to win, or that I’ve already bought all but one of the houses. It’s such a simple idea that really makes the achievement system work that it’s fairly obvious most other games just see it as an afterthought. It works so well, in fact, that I now demand it from all my future purchases!

Full-power Replays
I am still surprised how many games don’t allow this. With any game where the player receives upgrades or levels up, usually the enemies do so too and the sense of how powerful you’ve become is totally lost. When I played through Resident Evil 4 for the second time using all my previously bought weapons and the unlimited ammo Chicago Typewriter I had as much fun as I had had struggling through the game for the very first time. This time I knew what I was doing and those zombies that had caused me such stress the first time round were easily dispatched with a few machine gun blasts to the face. It was immensely satisfying and really brought home the feeling that I had grown as a character from the very first time I started up the game. Crackdown too, in a fashion, lets me replay the game at full power, giving me the opportunity to lob pick-up trucks at the face of a boss I had previously only dispatched with a puny machine gun. Why can’t I replay Bioshock with all my powers in tact? It’d be a lot easier, but it would probably still be a lot of fun and would make hunting for those last tonics and audio diaries a much more enjoyable achievement to try and get.

Commentary
Few people set out to make a bad game, but fewer still have the talent, drive and, let’s be frank, funds to elevate their product above the rest and Valve is most assuredly one of the latter. One of the things that helped me get addicted to Valve’s more recent output was the genius inclusion of the commentary bubbles. I’m pretty sure they weren’t the first, but theirs are by far the most interesting. Unlike a DVD commentary developers don’t have to fill a set length of time with inane chatter but have the luxury to choose and pick the interesting aspects to discuss, show techniques used in real-time and allow the player to skip them. Game commentaries educate and inform the interested player, teaches other developers a few tricks, gives great replayability to a game as players like me go through it a second time just to hear them talk and gives a more personal feel to the developer player interaction. I have no idea what Mr. Miyamoto’s contact details are, but I now have Mr. Gabe Newell’s e-mail address and an open invitation to comment on the commentaries. I doubt he really cares that much, but at the moment I feel very special.
Sadly this is a feature most publishers won’t want to spend any time and money on, as they (mistakenly) believe it adds no extra value, but I wish all games could afford to include a commentary. Maybe they can spend the money usually reserved for boring “making of” featurettes and supposed but obviously orchestrated “behind the scenes” vox pops with the marketing department and instead spend it on actual developers telling the player things they might really be interested in.

Oh, and finally:

Portal
Nuff said.

5 comments:

  1. I know GRAW2 does the achievement progress thing, so you can see how close you are to getting them. I'm fairly sure I've seen it in some other games too, but I can't remember which.

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  2. The Orange Box achievements likewise have progress tracking -- quite a nifty feature indeed.

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  3. Game commentaries are not a new idea. If you pick up a copy of a typical Avalon Hill or SPI wargame, circa 1980, you will see a section called "Design Notes". That gives extensive commentary on design decisions - far more in-depth than anything you'll find in games today. In fact, in wargaming magazines published at the same time as the game, there would often be an extensive article of these notes, written by the designer. They were always very entertaining to read.

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  4. Full-power replays open endless combinations. In example, in Chrono Trigger you were able to collect more copies of limited items, or even obtain new endings by defeating Lavos faster in the time line.

    In some areas, the game may force you to grind experience to pass certain obstacles; with full-power replays, that is no longer necessary, making the game much more direct.

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  5. I completely agree on Portal...what an amazing little gem of a game. 'nuff said indeed!

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