Wednesday, April 26, 2006

Infrequently Answered Questions

[Computer Gaming] [Game Design]

It's a Wednesday night. I'm sitting down for a session of The Legend of Zelda: A Link To The Past on my DS. I've just completed Blind's Hideout in the Dark World, and have emerged armed with the mighty Titan Mitts, which will allow me to lift those pesky darker-covered boulders and therefore access a whole bunch of new places in the overworld.

I do a quick reconnoiter of some conspicuous areas I've seen earlier in the game which may now yield their secrets to my mighty new powers. A visit to the Dark World's blacksmith rewards me with an upgraded sword; another possibility in the desert turns out to be a dead end. I'm pretty sure I saw another place up on Mount Hera that looked promising, but from where I am to the top of the mountain can be a ten-minute journey, even if I get the Cuckoo to carry me to a closer location, and it may eventually prove to be a complete waste of time.

Sighing, I boot up my computer and make my way to GameFAQs.

Sorry, what? Use an FAQ? Surely that's the wussy way out. Ten minutes is nothing to a hardcore gamer like me; I've spent much longer grinding mobs for purely cosmetic enhancements in any number of RPGs, right? Well, yeah, I suppose. But I've been up Mount Hera three or four times already; if I can save myself another pointless trip, I'll do it. And I'll use an FAQ to get there. And that's just the start - after all, I'm mostly playing this game for nostalgia and for the fun of hitting things with a sword; I really don't have the time to track down every last heart piece all by myself.

When Link to the Past was created it wasn't intended that the game would require an FAQ to solve it. Heck, it's almost the perfect model of a game that can be completed perfectly well without the slightest reference to an outside source. But not all games fare so well.

Modern RPGs follow a fairly simple quest cycle (particularly MMOGs):
1) Find a quest giver to give you a quest.
2) Gather information on where you have to go, what you have to kill, what the best way to survive the quest is, and whether it's worth your time to do.
3) Complete the quest.
4) Return to the quest giver and obtain your reward.

Stage 1 is well catered for - I can't walk ten paces in World of Warcraft or Morrowind without impaling myself on someone who wants me to kill ten rats. Stage 3 and 4 generally work fairly well, too, unless the game bugs out. It's stage 2 where we run into trouble.

I've tried avoiding stage 2. It annoys me. It's tacked on as a mechanic designed to make you care about the game's generic and poorly written lore, or at the very least to cause you to have to "interact" with the game's other human denizens (who often have communication and social skills comparable with the ebola virus). But you can't get around it. Even the best-designed questgiver will shortchange you on information, especially in worlds with over a thousand quests. Their poor directions, wrapped in their charming but confusing dialogue, will leave you wandering looking for "the cave to the north" for hours when what they really meant was "the sewer on a completely different continent". They'll inadequately describe the success objectives, telling you to kill "white rats" when what they really mean is you should kill Snow Rats, rather than the confusingly named White Rodents nearby. And then when you do it all, they'll give you nothing more rewarding than a pat on the back.

So you need to gather information. Where do you turn? Sometimes the NPCs are good at helping you along; the Elder Scrolls series does better than most in providing meaningful context-sensitive directions. But that's a rare exception. More often NPCs will just regurgitate back the quest text, or refer you to another NPC without telling you where to find them (and doubling the number of things you need to search for in the process).

Some MMOGs actively encourage you to ask other players for advice. That has its attractions, in terms of providing a basis for meaningful chat with people you've never met, but any long term player of World of Warcraft (at least on the Horde side) will doubtless be sick of telling newbies where to find Mankrik's Wife or who exactly is interested in talking about their Empty Keg. Co-opting other players into endlessly regurgitating answers that would be insultingly repetitive even for an NPC seems a little cheeky, to say the least. Plus you run the risk every time you access this "living database" of subjecting yourself to random abuse, and as much fun as that is, I think I could live without it.

Failing either of the above, you have FAQs. You load up your favourite hints website (or, if you're still living in the past, buy a printed game guide) and read everything there is to know about the aspect of the game you're dealing with.

Don't feel guilty, it's expected of you. No, really, it is.

Please, feel free to put your hand up if you found all 100 packages in any GTA game without any advice from someone who'd played the game before. Let me know if you picked up every last Pokemon entirely from your own explorations. Tell me if you unlocked every one of the hundreds of bonus extras in Soul Calibur III just by repeatedly playing the game.

Sure, some of you will have. Go, you hardcore gamers, you. But you're in the minority. Game designers are deliberately locking away loads of content with the expectation that people will find it with the use of external help. The FAQ is being co-opted into becoming an extension of the official game content. And it seems to me that this is bad design.

Every element necessary to play the game should be contained in the game, as far as humanly possible. To put it another way, if a player may reasonably have need of an FAQ to play the game, the FAQ should be included in the game. As, I don't know, a help system or something.

Did anyone ever play Under A Killing Moon? (Or its inferior sequel The Pandora Directive?) These excellent point-and-click adventure games came with a complete in-game walkthrough attached to the user interface The walkthrough included step-by-step instructions on how to complete every challenge in the game, obscured under a "hint layer" system (so for each problem you could get either a general hint or explicit directions), but docked you "points" from your game score for accessing them. (The points were wholly cosmetic, and in any case abuse of the save/restore system made this fairly meaningless.)

This kind of system is where games should be going. GTA should come with an optional map-overlay and directions of how to get to its secrets - but using it comes with a marking on your saved game that you used hints, with the result only that the words "with hints" appear on your end of game score card.

Fighting games have (partly) learned this lesson already. In the past, the inputs required to pull off certain moves were complex and "secret", requiring experimentation to discover. Now that philosophy is recognised as just an access barrier to casual players, and you can usually access a full list of moves from the menu.

If you expect a user to need to engage in a lot of "search grind" to complete an objective, and they will in any case be able to circumvent that grind by going outside your game, and there is a strong chance that a large amount of your player base will do that because they do not enjoy the "grind" portion of the game, then not providing for that eventuality in-game is just kneecapping your own design.

It's all about user choice - if what a user enjoys is searching for the hidden, let them do it, and reward them for it (in a very minor cosmetic fashion). But if what the user really enjoys is finding the hidden, then there should be a mechanism to keep the search to a bare minimum.

Now, if you'll excuse me, I need to find out how to upgrade my boomerang.

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