Posted by: Junahu | October 1, 2012

Junahu “teaches” Game Design #2

Howdy hoes! Here we go again with the self congratulating articles in which I claim to be smarter than everyone else, and talk about things wholly unrelated to Super Smash Bros.

Unlike my previous article on Screen Real Estate, I was unable to find the official terminology for this, and was forced to coin my own.

Initial Credit

Tightly designed games, such as Arcade games, have a simple mission; to coax as many coins out of the player as possible. In order to do so means making the player feel like they’re enjoying themselves, making progress, and working towards a solid goal. Note that I said “feel like”. Games are frequently not designed in such a way that they actually ARE enjoyable, but the illusion of it being entertaining is strong enough to grab the player’s money.

In general, Arcade games are designed so that the designers can plan exactly when and where players will die and have to fork over more cash. These bites of gameplay start off large, and sharply become much  smaller as the game continues and the player becomes more invested. In this article, I will be referring to these bites as “credit-zones”, and places the player is expected to die as “credit-gates”.

Credit-zones do not corrolate to a games ‘levels’ (i.e. you don’t complete one level per credit and then die when the next level starts). They never have, and for good reason; getting the player to keep playing means having them die right when they’re about to achieve something (“I’m THIS close to beating Stage 3!”). Bosses are generally obvious places to have Credit-gates, since it goads players into paying up so that they can defeat them.

But, what does this have to do with modern games? Death is a great teaching aid, no way is better at telling the player what to avoid doing. But it’s also greatly offputting, for obvious reasons. So designing to better control when players are likely to die is an important facet of game design. Using the player’s deaths to educate the player as well as motivate them to finish what they started.

And no Credit-zone is more important, than the Initial (first) Credit. You’ve gotta make the right impression on your player, and make them think they’re good at this game in particular. This element of arcade design is extremely relevant to console games too, which is why many games bundle their neccessary tutorials in as an ‘action tutorial’, a section of game designed to give you practical experience with the controls, in a situation that looks (but isn’t) dangerous and active.

So, what elements make up a good Initial Credit experience?

Teach the Player without them noticing

Arcade games have the advantage of attract-mode and physical intructions on the arcade machine itself. It costs nothing to just look at a machine. Ideally you want a potential player to notice the machine because someone else is playing it. That way they can watch a real gameplay session and note how that player controls the game and handles the various obstacles in the game.

Naturally, that scenario is relatively rare, so most Arcade machines “simulate” someone playing them, via an Attract-Mode. This mode can double as a tutorial, displaying prompts to indicate what actions cause which results. It’s a “lead by example” type of teaching, and it fuels a potential player’s competitive instincts (“I can do better than this AI chump”). In particular, many Attract Modes take place on the first level, and the AI playing it deliberately makes mistakes, teaching the player specifically what NOT to do in a situation that they will find themselves in if they start playing.

So, Arcade games have the benefit of being able to show the player what kind of game it is and how to progress through its early stages, before the player has even decided whether to actually play it or not. Console games do not have this benefit. They do tend to have attract-modes on occasion, but by the time you’re at the title screen, you’ve already committed yourself to playing the game, so watching an AI play seems a bit pointless.

Still, the problem remains, you still have to teach your player how to play, and many players won’t appreciate having a fat, textual tutorial as their first experience of the game. Piss off the player before they even get to properly play the game, and it’ll foul up their whole play experience. Potentially, it can even make the player sell the game 2nd hand, which obviously hurts the developer’s bottom line.

To help ease players into the game, console games frequently use something known as an Action Tutorial, or a Context Tutorial. You place the player in ordinary gameplay, but structure the level in such a way that they learn whilst still performing an active role. An easy example would be any one of the thousands of FPS shooters. They start you with a team in the middle of a mission. You follow that team as they run along and brief you on the plot. You then encounter minor, isolated obstacles that require jumping, sprinting or crawling to bypass, followed by several easily ambushed enemies. And so on. It’s all tightly controlled, but framed in a way that keeps it consistant with what the player WANTS to do. They WANT to vault over that knee high fence. They WANT to snap that enemy’s neck by sneaking up behind them. There are literally thousands of individual psychological tricks that can be used to dictate a player’s actions. But this article isn’t about those. The important lesson you need to take from this, is that if you make the player WANT to do the things you’re teaching them to do, you’ll find that they need far less prodding or prompting to learn/remember how those things are done.

It’s pretty obvious really. Get the player invested, make them want to learn, and they will. A splash page showing the control scheme just doesn’t cut it.

Resident Evil 6, cut that out

Give the player the freedom to choose the exact path you want them to take

This is, the Illusion of freedom, making the player feel like they can do anything yet psycologically guiding them to do the exact things you want them to do. This has a very obvious benefit of making your world feel much larger and more dynamic than it really is. Harshly railroaded games, such as Heavy Rain, depend greatly on instilling a sense of freedom in the player that genuinely isn’t there. It achieves this by making the player feel thoroughly connected to the character they are playing, and by carefully controlling its encounters and pacing so that it ‘feels real’, despite following a somewhat limited script. This sense of player characterisation is something we’ll be discussing at length in a different article, just know that if you can make the player feel the emotions of the character, then you can make the player perform actions that the character would do.

During the Initial Credit, you really want the player to feel empowered. Play into their first instincts, which will usually be of the “let’s kill that guy over there” variety. Always reward the most obvious solution in order to train the player into thinking linearly. But permit a second solution, at least during the initial credit period. The player doesn’t have to TAKE the alternate path to notice there is one. And with a well designed level, you can actually MAKE the player take the alternate path, making them feel good about ‘finding’ a secret or doing something a ‘different way’ (when in reality you knew they’d take that path). Rail shooters in particular benefit from this trick, as it can make the game feel like it has more branching paths than it really does.

The Player should win, but don’t look like you’re just giving them the victory

Not shown here is the fact that the player is in absolutely no danger right now

This is the hardest aspect of Initial Credit design, and it boils down to making the game challenging, yet fun. The player wants to feel like they’re trying, yet they hate losing. Kind of a tricky connundrum there, since you can’t balance a game to be challenging yet playable for everyone. And, especially at the start of a game, you’re dealing with people who aren’t intimately familiar with the game.

The key to solving this is the practice of using misleading difficulty. The player needs to feel like they’re in more danger than they actually are. The very easiest example I can give of this, is Time Crisis. You are constantly being shot at, but most of those shots are purely aesthetic, and are no threat to the player at all. The player themselves, not knowing this, feels like they are constantly living on the edge, like they’re just mere moments away from being hit by a bullet. This, coupled with the general set design and camera movement that causes the player to instinctively shoot at particular points on the screen (in most cases killing an enemy who happened to be there), makes the player believe they are skilled, when in reality, they are not.

Kill the Player decisively

Sucker punch lives off of players whenever we can get away with it”~ the evil plan of arcade games everywhere

A game’s Initial Credit cannot last the entire game. Never having the player die, means your tools for teaching the player are much more limited. The game has to find a way to kill the player in a manner that, upon reflection, seems fair. What this means is designing credit-gates (points where the player is expected to die) so that they’re difficult to recognise. Just throwing in a coin guzzling boss, makes the game’s intention to kill you far too obvious.

Recalling the previous example of Time Crisis, after coasting through a bunch of encounters with blue soldiers, red ones begin appearing. And unlike their blue counterparts, very few of the Red soldiers’ bullets miss. So first time players,  accustomed to only ducking to reload, are suddenly given an enemy that will hit them unless they immediately duck. The dangerous bullets are still pointed out to the player, so in hindsight, it feels like the player had every chance of dodging them. But at the time, they were pretty much guaranteed to sit there and take a bullet to the face. The player also learns something from their mistake, so they feel like they’re making progress as a player, even though they got hit.

They’ll be more likely to keep playing, if their mistakes feel like they’re learning something from the experience.

The essence of the Initial Credit, in a nut-shell, is to inflate your player’s ego, before slapping them down with their own hubris

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