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The Megatrends of Game Design, Part 2

November 5, 2008 Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

[Veteran designer Pascal Luban (Splinter Cell: Chaos Theory) continues his series on the "megatrends" of the gaming industry, taking on accessibility and games as a teaching tool in this installment. The previous article in the series can be read here.]

In this second chapter of my series on the megatrends of game design I shall address two new trends: the search for accessibility, and the use of gaming as an educational tool. Enjoy.

Megatrend IV - The Search for Immediate Accessibility

Games are increasingly easy to grasp. This is one of the trends which has most affected game design in recent years... and it's not stopping. Remember those games without tutorials and with documentation as thick as a phonebook, or those first levels where you could barely understand what you had to do, let alone how to do it?

The progress made in this area in recent years is impressive: The progressive introduction of features, the simplification of interfaces, and the inclusion of levels created for the discovery of the game itself are the most obvious examples.

Even so, this exemplary effort probably won't stop here, as new needs for immediate accessibility are emerging.

New needs in terms of accessibility:

1. Market growth and the increasing numbers of casual players. Video gaming has long lost its status as a hobby for a small number of addicts and is gradually joining the other mainstream media. The loss of influence of the core PC market is a good illustration of this trend.

This arrival of gaming into the mainstream should be seen as a good thing. Small, niche markets cannot attract massive financing. However, it also means that traditional gamers no longer constitute the majority of games users.

We must therefore simplify the accessibility of a game for users, if we want to support the current growth of the number of games players.

2. The development of multiplayer modes. Multiplayer gaming generates particular accessibility problems. In a single player game, the player learns to face challenges progressively.

With difficulties introduced one at a time, giving time for the player to master them at his own pace. In a multiplayer game, however, the player is directly confronted with the most formidable of all challenges: other players.

Even if the player has had the opportunity to master the single-player game through the single player levels, he will inevitably run into those players who have dozens of hours of practice and who possess much more cunning than mere bots.

Thus we have a rude awakening for the player, who will have to accept the humiliation of accumulating multiple defeats in order to learn effective strategies for this game mode.

The problem of accessibility is thus no longer merely an issue of mastering the controls or knowing the game, but understanding all the aspects of the game at once.

The development of multiplayer gaming will create new accessibility challenges, as we will have to accommodate for a growing number of novice players.

3. New habits of gaming. In parallel to the growing number of casual gamers, there is an increase in those "traditional gamers" that now find themselves with a family or a full time job and therefore have to cut back on the gaming.

This category of player with less leisure time will demand games offering immediate playability and that are playable in smaller gaming sessions.

This need to develop games that are accessible, yet not lacking in depth, largely explains the near-disappearance of flight simulators -- despite the doubtlessly large number of fans that they have accumulated.

Article Start Page 1 of 4 Next

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Taure Anthony
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Great Article

Dave Endresak
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Good, but I want to offer a couple comments.

Save/Load should be anywhere, anytime... always. See the MDA document that explained eight different types of aesthetic appeal for game design where "challenge" was merely one of the eight. Games do not havr to be challenging. Ideally, the choice of whether to be challenged or not should be in the player's hands, not the designer's. If a designer attempts to force me to endure challenge in her game, I will very likely not play except in the specific instance where I am searching for a challenging game experience... at which time it's much more likely that I will play a game that allows me to choose whether to be challenged or not rather than one which forces the challenge on me. Also, a challenge for one player may be simplistic for another. People have different abilities and needs, so the decision should be left with the player.

Adventure games come in two general "flavors." The English market developed their own idea of the adventure game genre where the game is about telling a linear story and the game places puzzle challenges as obstacles between locations or chapters. The Japanese adventure game is a very different product where the focus is (usually) on multiple characters and multiple story paths with multiple interactions and choices that lead to a wide variety of different, multiple endings. Events are often mutually exclusive; once you are on certain story branches, others are precluded during that playthru. Not only does this increase replay value, but it mirrors real life where choices you make can cause different results (but not always). This structure also requires the player to play through all possible events and paths in order to truly understand the overall story that is taking place as well as the various character motivations, events, etc that are experienced. The challenge is cerebral rather than any type of visual puzzle; the player must determine character responses to player actions and activities as well as how all these interactions lead to a wide variety of paths and outcomes.

Tom Newman
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Good article. I disagree with the last poster's comments however.

Save/Load anytime-anywhere cannot be applied to all genres/all games. It often makes games too easy or boring, and defeats the purpose of certain genres such as platform games.

The challenge of a game is in the developer's hands, not the players. That's what makes playing games rewarding.

I want to be challenged. If a developer lets me burn through an entire game on ultra-easy mode where I can save right before any challenge so I don't have to waste a second backtracking, I probably will. I'll beat the game, shelve it, and forget about it by next week.

If a game is compelling enough I will develop whatever skill it takes, and replay as many levels as necessary to achieve the goals the developer laid out. Those are the games I look for, and those are the games I remember for years.

Aj Anderson
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The notion of "progressive introduction of game features and complexity" seems to have taken a bunch of different directions in some recent multiplayer games which have tried to introduce RPG elements.

For example, MMOs (obviously) seem to do this very well, players start with only their most basic core skills and slowly accumulate more specific and complex abilities.

However, other games like Call of Duty 4 have done the exact opposite. The game gives players only the most basic perks at the start, but in other aspects, the game seems to throw new players to the wolves. Players are forced to use statistically inferior guns WITHOUT the laser sight dots. I found it incredible that new players, in the already hardcore world of PCs FPSes, were expected to compete without a true crosshair.

While acquiring these RPG-like unlocks is extremely addicting, they seem like they may be a mistake in competitive online games. Not only is it unfair, but as this article suggests, it is extremely discouraging to new players.

Rodney Brett
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the SAVE/LOAD anytime comment is interesting because it's been a topic of debate many times.

There was this controversy over the HITMAN sequels for having it, and it definitely removed a lot of the "tension" in the game. The main problem being that there were never any bad consequences to decisions the player would make on how to approach a "hit", because you always had a "quicksave" stashed away about 10 seconds earlier to quickly fix your mistake.

I think a good compromise is the "CHECKPOINT" system. It gives old long time gamers that were once hardcore, such as myself, a good balance between challenge and accessibility. I can live my normal life and work my 40+ hour a week job and choose one to two hour "nuggets" of game time to finish a title.

A good example is DEADSPACE which I am playing right now. I can put it down for 2-3 weeks during crunch periods at work, then pick right back up where I left off and not have to figure out the controls again.

Yannick Boucher
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Ah, the Incredible Machine !!! What a classic. It's great to see it mentioned again here. At the TGS Sense of Wonder night, the creator of Katamari Damacy made a presentation about a "construction game" that probably took a few cues from this.

On the save issue, I agree with checkpoints. Saving anywhere completely defeats the challenge and consequences.

Andrew Heywood
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> Save/Load should be anywhere, anytime... always.

I disagree, and strangely I'm a firm believer in having the ability to save more-or-less exactly where I am. The key here is granularity.

There are two types of 'difficulty', in the sense of the level of challenge presented by the game: the essential and the accidental. Save/load systems need to be balance to preserve the essential challenge of the game, whilst minimizing the accidental challenges (read: frustrations) caused by having to repeat a section multiple times.

In the Hitman games, the essential challenge is infiltrating, killing, and exfiltrating whilst making as few mistakes as possible. Adding a quicksave removes that essential challenge, because it lets players ensure they do everything in perfect individual units, rather than as a whole. However, not having any saves at all will add accidental challenge by forcing the player to some mundane tasks which they have no chance of failing - like finding an outfit, changing and entering the building - because they have failed a harder task later on. So the solution is either to have checkpoints, or a limited number of saves.

This is entirely different in a game like Half-Life 2, where the essential challenge is staying alive and killing (mostly) anything that moves. Quick saving in a game like that doesn't make the essential challenge any easier - you still have to deliver the same amount of ordanance to each enemy whilst receiving as little damage as possible.

As someone above mentioned, you only have to imagine being able to save anywhere at all in a platform game, like Mario Galaxy, to see that saving anytime/anywhere can completely remove the essence of a game.

It's not about choosing to be challenged. If you want to be entertained without any challenge at all, you should probably just watch a film. Saying it should be up to the player is also wrong thinking in my opinion - the player's paying money to you to be entertained. That includes you making the tough design descisions and balancing the game, not leaving them to try and figure out how to do it themselves.

Jason Danforth
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Also, pay attention to showcasing the ability potential early. If you intro the game with a super charged player and then quickly ratchet them down to zero, you give the player the flexibility of learning the game while giving a taste of power to compel them to play on. Assassin's Creed made great use of that.

Bob McIntyre
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Andrew has the right idea.

For making the player start off powerful, I'd cite Symphony of the Night, or God Of War 2. Assassin's Creed is kind of a bad example because the player only really needed one "power" throughout the entire game: The counter-attack. And that's the first power you get back, right after completing assassination number one. So really, they just made you wimpy for that one level and then they immediately gave you back your game-breaking power and let you abuse it for the entire rest of the game.