Game Design Preferences
Back in 2006 I put some of my game design preferences into words on a now defunct site and this page presents an updated version for 2014. In some sort of semblance of humility I've used the word "preferences", but under that veneer lurks feelings of "if you disagree you have like the worst taste ever and you're also Wrong"... and I can't help feeling so. To explain my point of view I'll have to rewind a bit.
My contact with video games in the mid 80's forever altered my spirit because it's such an interesting medium for a creative person. Games were of course different back then, placing heavy restrictions on the developer. Sometimes the manual was a vital complement to the game (if you had one, *cough*) with much needed instructions, immersive story bits and art. Regardless, the player's imagination, drive and engagement was a sort of glue which the game designer often had to rely on.
The game designer (likely the programmer) was often experimenting or pushing the complexity of the game beyond the limits of the hardware. I'm not sure how to explain it, but I could really feel the creative passion, mercilessly contained by hardware boundaries. Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I could go back in time with a modern computer and hand it over to the Brataccas team. "Hey! You have 8 gigs of ram and a 3500*4 Mhz CPU, go nuts!" Maybe the game would just end up terrible*, haha!
(* But terribly interesting!)
I knew of course that hardware was rapidly improving so it seemed to me that many promises and wet dreams could soon be realized. But, what awaited was instead the frustration of seeing games not growing in complexity with me as an aging gamer. It didn't occur to me that there were other types of gamers who wanted accessible games and to whom the idea of jumping around and shooting is quite enough because it is indeed completely fresh to them.
That said, things are different now than in 2006 when I wrote the core of this document (though it had been fermenting in my mind since the early 90's). Indie developers in particular have have begun to doodle on the peripheral canvases which have remained almost untouched for so long...
I quite like RTS games, or rather the idea behind an RTS game (and a TBS like X-COM) with two sides clashing together or doing things in their respective bases. Perhaps this is the reason why I also like richer CTF games like Tribes, and some FPS or lone-character games where I stumble on enemy forces shooting each other or engaged in meaningful logistic activity.
The fascination goes back to the classic (literal) sandbox activity where you place a lot of figures in a structure and imagine... "What if these were REALLY ALIVE and doing things, how awesome wouldn't that be?"
Here's a short and not very complete list of qualities which I'd like to see in a game. It's not really relevant to arcade games like, say Robotron 2084, though my own Robotron project was of course feature-creeped to include most of these things.
- Persistence, eco systems
- I'd like to play a Zelda game where Ganon actually has to worry about logistics, troop recruiting and maintenance, economics and various feedback systems, as if he's managing an army. This would mean that Link could manipulate various balances, and that I as a player is influentially meaningful in the game world.
When the corpses disappear and enemies perpetually respawn, I feel like a Sisyphus (and when a completed fetch quest reveals a hollow reward, I'm Tantalus). Persistent corpses can serve many purposes, giving the player a sense of achievement, emergent landmarks to navigate by (breadcrumbs), various interesting scavenger and looting mechanics, and it can raise moral questions (which may or may not be desirable).
- Emergent complexity
- I suppose Go and Chess are good examples of this quality. A simple set of rules result in very complex gameplay. Go especially is very hard for a computer to 'solve' (our AI's are bad, and it's not feasible to dumbly test all move combinations), maybe that's what's so appealing, the amount of discussion that can be made around which move is the best one?
- Emergent depth and scalability
- I just made up this term and it's a bit hard to put into words. Games with emergent depth have additional layers of content that the player can slowly discover as s/he moves from beginner to intermediate to hardcore, keeping the game fresh throughout the years. If I were to conjure up an example, it would be... playing some kind of Quake adventure game in the pre-www days, finally discovering rocket jump (which is just emergent complexity), using it to gain access to a previously ignored area where a new optional realm with new items and weapons is discovered (affecting both old and new levels). It is the feeling of renewal.
If done right, emergent depth can exist without cluttering up the first accessibility layer. I imagine it as DLC which was there all along, gradually seeping in, though regular DLC and mods might qualify as well I suppose.
- I like games where... if I take a "wrong" turn, that's still okay, because it was really just a less practical turn, which quite possibly could have its own rewards. Zelda 1 is quite different from the newer Zeldas in this regard - if I'm supposed to take a certain route, it becomes possible to take an actual Wrong turn. When I say I don't want hand holding in games, what I really mean is that I don't even want it to be needed. As soon as it's needed, it's no longer me playing the game, it's the characters who are telling me what to do.
- Alternative routes
- No (or few) absolute bottlenecks. A skilled or persistently curious player should be allowed to push ahead. Again, Zelda 1 partly solved this by often allowing you to roam around and do other stuff if you were stuck somewhere, or taking the long road around.
I'd also like to see alternative solutions to puzzles and reduce the risk of players getting stuck (though there's a risk that residual puzzle items can become confusing clutter this way). Further, I don't think I'm against shenanigans like having the player's choice restrict his other choices (Helix or Dome fossil? No room for White Mage on team? Go North, West or East?) as this can make a replay more enjoyable. If the player could not find North or West passages, he's not stuck because East was found and what was not found will not be missed.
- Puzzles as sidetracks only
- I like solving puzzles if they're not forced upon me and feel more like a little thing that I found and solved, unlike all those other players who walked right past it. Yeah, they probably weren't as smart as I am. If I don't solve it, well I just didn't want to or I just missed it and I can still go on with the game without feeling stupid.
Note that an optional puzzle can still be forced on me by making itself obnoxiously visible. In some cases I'll have to revisit the puzzle later with the "key" and this I feel is bad because it's either a... for the moment impossible puzzle which wastes my time, or it becomes a simple chore of remembering to return later (a to-do item).
- Unrevealed To-Do list/map
- I don't like playing games that unload huge task lists on me. It's better not to see the path ahead. At least this keeps up the illusion of discovery. For example, in Zelda 1 there are caves hidden in the cliffs and under bushes, but you are given no visible clues like cracks. This leaves me feeling a lot less stressed when playing.
Some might argue, and I think correctly, that it becomes a big chore to bomb every cliff tile and burn every bush, but maybe there are ways around this. Zelda 1 partly solved it by making bombs finite and you had to switch screens to use the candle, and this at least kept the player on the move (to be distracted by new interesting exploration things).
Our brain is a lazy but persistent blob, so it often chooses mindlessly trying over thinking deeply. I'd probably try a solution which limits the player's ability to be dumbly persistent (without dumbly marking the spots). Clues to locations could be more subtle so I at least feel smart or fortunate for figuring it out.
- No mechanical labor
- No grinding. I prefer games where the leveling or collection requires improvisation and human input, a sort of acrobacy of control and thinking, otherwise a robot (or macro) might as well play the game. Ideally, I'd even learn something useful from playing.
- No final stop or ultimate state
- I often (re)play games with self-imposed restrictions to increase replay value, like only using Digletts or something silly for my Pokémon team. However, it still bothers me that I can get a perfect IV-EV Diglett and it puts an unpleasant pressure on me to grind for that. I like the philosophy of games like Dwarf Fortress where the notion of an objective ultimate state is almost meaningless. You can build a fun fort and things happen until you decide to stop.
In Pokémon there's nothing to do with the awesome team after some point. They are just boring containers of stats. You've done all of the battles and found all treasures. Games with definite endings can still offer endless variation by being engineered for re-playability, but as it is Pokémon is far too linear and controlled I think.
Half-losing in an early version of Dwarf Fortress. A dwarf dug into a waterfall, flooding half of the fort. Now I was left with the choice of opening the door to save the drowning fool clawing against it, or saving the other half of the fortress from the flood mess. Interesting choice isn't it? Ultimately, I somehow managed to save both the dwarf and fort, but the stockpiles and new quarters were a mess. The dwarf later went terminally insane and was buried in a crypt outside.
- Engineered to make losing fun
- Surely(?), a game needs the risk of failure to create tension and then relief upon victory, but failure doesn't need to be a big frustration. In some games losing can be a pleasant surprise which cracks you up and you roll with it. I think the solution is to have diversity in failure expressions and perhaps an interesting aftermath.
Old Sierra adventure games and perhaps some eroge offer a simple solution by having a larger set of failure states. Physics and simulation games often rely on humor emerging from the nature of the engine. In the case of Dwarf Fortress it's hard to tell whether you are losing, winning or if just interesting things are happening.
- This is a tricky one. Hoarding is perhaps a human instinct. I like being able to collect things as long as it doesn't turn into 'To-Do' chore or 'ultimate state' exhaustion (Feeling the need to 100% the game because otherwise you're not playing it properly, and later realizing that you've turned the game into a barren wasteland). The coins in Mario games satisfy the instinct to gather up all the things, but actually owning many coins gives no joy because they are almost meaningless. I think ingredients are more satisfying because they are diverse and can be translated into who-knows-what-stuff at some later point.
Randomized items like in Diablo is an appealing solution, but it can easily turn into a grind for the perfectly rolled item, and randomized items can feel a bit lifeless and artificial when the player is made aware (through overexposure) what's going on. In Dwarf Fortress I think the randomness is tied into actual processes of the world simulation and activity of the dwarves, which makes things feel a lot more genuine. All the things in the stockpiles have actual uses too, so there's a certain dimensionality to your riches.
Catching Pokémon is much less exciting than it could be because it's so easy to ruin the game for yourself with spoilers. Also, being able to have so many Pokémon in your inbox sort of devalues them. On the other hand, the tight inventory of Diablo II is quite frustrating as well. Perhaps it has to do with the ease of which you can gain new things.
On a side note, I think things like achievements and steam cards are creatively a red herring and a 4th wall violation... certainly not suitable for such broad application.
While procedurally generated games can be full of ugly artifacts and bad level design, I think it holds some of the solutions to my concerns, more so nowadays when a game can easily be spoiled by easy answers on the internet.
On adventure/exporation games
In my opinion, the ideal adventure game (such as a metroidvania or an action RPG) has a... player-through-main-quest-progression that is restricted by:
- 10% Keys & Doors
- E.g. You absolutely need the ruby key to progress, then you must talk to the old lady or she won't open the portal, etc. If the story is really engaging with characters who I look forward talking to, then I see nothing wrong with this mechanic. Games don't need to be anything, they can be slightly interactive stories or whatever yields enjoyment, but I think the problem is that game writing is generally terrible, and NPCs mostly just stand there in their spot and do their stupid idle animation, not showing an ounce of life.
- 40% Character Skill
- The skill and equipment of the your character determines how well you do in different areas of the game. Dragon Quest 1 was very open but the monster difficulty and Character Skill restricted your movement. I've seen a Tool Assisted Speedrun where a player ran pretty much straight to the final boss by just avoiding monster encounters. There are almost no vital Key & Door items.
- 50% Player Skill
- I'm having trouble thinking of an exploration game which has pure Player Skill as a restrictor, but a puzzle game like Tetris is pure Player Skill. You can choose which level to play and you don't have a character (if you did, it'd have an item which gave you more I pieces).
Quake 1 did have a lot of linear progression, weapon and armour hunting, but one can easily imagine a Quake adventure game with 100% Player Skill. The fully stocked player is free to explore and array of connected maps, but is challenged by increasingly powerful monsters and adverse map regions.
Unfortunately most adventure games today are so heavy on Keys & Doors that Character Skill just tags along for the ride (your character level quickly rubberbands to the regional enemies), and Player Skill becomes quite irrelevant under those circumstances. Well, maybe I'm exaggerating, but I sometimes hear about this new game that's supposed to be really open, and then it's... not. That's what I get for setting Zelda 1 as a measure.
Art by Arne Niklas Jansson