Copyright © 2003 Andy Krouwel, All rights reserved
Article originally appeared as 'Player Power' in Issue 27 of Develop magazine, in April 2003
Oddly, I actually got to put some ideas from here into practice in the most unlikely seeming of games, Thomas the Tank Engine and Friends : Hero of the Rails.
This was a bit of a rescue job we stepped in to salvage at Fuse. The existing game was very tutorial and progress heavy and I successfully lobbied for several decent changes.
Firstly, and unusually, any idea of progression went out of the window. You could play any level at any time. No need to unlock, or go through any of that rubbish. This was based on my observation of my kids watching DVDs, where they just watch the fun bits over and over and skip the rest. Handily, it also meant the DS cartridge didn't need any save ROM, which also saved a few quid.
Secondly, you could play the whole thing through end-to-end in about half an hour. That rather goes against game design wisdom on the cash-per-hour scale, but it's how very small children relate to most media. Short chunks, repeated endlessly (and mind-numbingly for nearby adults).
Thirdly, you could blow the whistle on whichever engine you were currently controlling at any time, just because. Didn't have any in-game effect, but why wouldn't you want to just blow the whistle when you felt like it? My only regret was Thomas' sample ended up as a single press giving a double-whistle (I forget why, might have been licencing reasons), when it would hve been more satisfying to do both 'toot's manually.
The game itself is terrible by any standards other than that of a five-year-old Thomas the Tank Engine fan, but then again that's who we were aiming at.
I also wrote the script for this, which was quite satisfying at the time as the father of two small Thomas the Tank Engine fans.It makes very little sense, which I think accurately captures the essence of the film it was based on.
Do you read the last page of a novel first?
Ever skipped a track on a CD?
Ever played the last level of a game first?
As game designers we know all about players. They get our title and play it from beginning to end, unlocking levels and features as they go. On completion they play through again with some bonus items or variations. What could be simpler?
Unfortunately, this isn’t the whole picture.
What about the player that wants to show off the cool set piece? Or who feels like shooting rather than driving today? What if they are reloading a familiar favourite for a quick blast? Or want to admire the scenery? Or continue from where their hard drive crashed? Doing any of these things is not easy. We try so hard to design an ideal experience for an ideal player, but often prevent the game working any other way.
Computers have this power to force the designer’s view onto the player. Want a go on level 12? Not until you’ve cleared your plate of level 11. We talk about non-linearity in levels, but viewed as a whole experience our games are held in a linear straightjacket. The player WILL start at the defined points, overcome the obstacles in set order and finish with the end sequence. There might be different events or paths for each play, but there’s still that linear sequence. A brand new game isn’t a wonderful playground full of discovery and possibility, it’s a tutorial, or in Half Life’s case a commute.
Compare this with the flexibility of other media. You wouldn’t put up with a DVD without fast-forward or rewind, or a book where you only got the next page by handing back the previous one, yet this is exactly what we do with games. Traditional media rely far more on linearity to make narrative sense than games, and yet the ‘player’ has the freedom to ignore the designer’s planned path if they wish. You can just watch the action scene, or look at the pictures.
Doesn’t the strength of computer games lie in making progress, in the urge to see around the next corner or defeat the next boss? Yes, reward comes from overcoming challenges, but we often make the mistake of seeing it as overcoming obstacles. A challenge is something only the player can really know, based on their skills, experience and mood. Challenges are neither boringly trivial nor frustratingly impossible, and might be as simple as figuring out how to successfully use the controls. The designer can try and make challenges, but will only ever be pitching for the 'ideal' player. All too often we’re wrong and a game is either too hard or too easy.
We should be able to let the player have more control over their experience, and let them find challenges. Sometimes you just want to blow the crap out of the aliens without them fighting back, and sometimes you want to push your skills. Accommodate both.
Most games have a skill level you can choose at the start, but this doesn’t go nearly far enough, Rez for example has extensive customisation. Choose your weapon, your starting form or even play without being shot at. FPSes have many player-empowering features, including full level and equipment selection, removal of time limits and invulnerability, but they’re hidden. Most players may never find the console command, or the cheat code that will let them modify the game to their taste. Options like this should be there on the front menu.
The point is, it’s the player’s game. They’ve paid for it and should be able to experience it in any way they want. Why not let them skip parts they don’t like, or want to come back to? How many give up when they get stuck and never see the levels beyond? Let them see all the hard work and effort you’ve put in. It's not surprising people complain about prices if they only see a fraction of a game before getting stuck.
Unlock your games, let them be free!
Make every area available from the start. Don’t encrypt player save files, supply an editor. Let them be invincible if they want. Make your intended path obvious, but don’t block the others. Trust your players. The more choices available in your game, the less likely it is to become a coaster.
The designer does not outrank the player.
Andy Krouwel's diverse career includes spacecraft AI, ragdoll physics at MathEngine and lead programming for Kar2ouche at Immersive Education. He is currently a designer at Sockmonsters. Andy founded a computer magazine at primary school largely in order to bad-mouth the Spectrum. He now admits it wasn't all bad.