Wednesday 6 January 2010

When focusing on fun fails

Because of a past as sort-of-toys (explained nicely here and here) important features of games are: How "fun" they are, replay value and how long they last. Reviews often take this into account and in turn this makes developers focus a lot on making a game "fun", "replayable" and "long lasting". I think this kind of thinking (which I am at times guilty of myself...) can seriously hurt a game. I think designers shall focus entirely on what kind of experience they want to deliver and make that come across as effectively as possible!

I have mentioned in a previous article how making combat fun can hurt the experience in a horror game, especially if scaring the player is the main goal. Instead of trying to make the combat as frightening as possible, combat is often added with little thought on how it affects the experience and much more focus on how "fun" it is. So instead of making a scary horror game a fun shooter is created (which is not always what is intended).

I recently finished playing the second Professor Layton game and while I enjoyed it quite a lot, it also had the same kind of problem. It is quite obvious that Professor Layton has been designed to last long and that a great deal of effort has been spent on this. The game has several side quests (collecting pieces for a camera, making a hamster loose weight, etc) and none of these are really connected to the game's story. There is also many puzzles in the game (150 of them) and because of this a lot of them are just different versions of the same type or just really boring and unimaginative. I think that the game could have been a better experience without these extra bits. For instance, with fewer puzzles more focus could have been put on making the puzzles that the player do encounter more varied and exciting. Instead, many of the better puzzles are put in as extras or part of side quests and a play through focusing on the story will miss out on them. If the goal with Layton has been to give the player an experience of being a puzzle solving detective, focusing on making the game last longer has definitely made it worse.

The last example I want to give is from the horror genre and concerns Dead Space: Extraction (which Jens have been playing lately), an on-rails-shooter for the Wii. The game tries hard to immerse the player and create a frightening experience, but makes a serious error. To give the game more replay value and "fun", the player has to hunt for bonus boxes, some appearing for a very short period. This happens all of the time and has several negative effects. Cut-scenes becomes treasure hunting sections and instead fearing what might lurk behind the next corner the player focuses on catching goodies. Collecting these bonuses is of course optional, but having extra ammo has a great impact on the gameplay and bonuses also include interesting story material (in the form of audio logs). Worst of all, it makes the on-rails aspect a lot more noticeable. If the player just barely misses a bonus because of a change in view, the player will want the character to look back at the previous area. This creates a sort of struggle between player and protagonist, seriously reducing immersion! I think this a very clear example of how focusing on the wrong features creates a less compelling experience.

Of course games should not take too little time to complete or be absent of fitting replaybility. However, I think that it is very wrong when it detracts from the wanted experience. Making sure the game is fun, replayable and long lasting should not be a design goal in itself, but something that is added if possible.


  1. Dead Space should never have come to the Wii console. That being said, it was *the* most terrifying game (played on the PC) I've played since "Haunted House" on Atari's 2600.

  2. This reminds me a little of the problem I faced when I was trying to have a friend of mine play the Resident Evil remake for Gamecube. It's one of my favourite games of all time but my friend didn't really see it that way. He kept complaining about the ink ribbons (limited saves), limited ammo and health items, and general difficulty of the game. Thus, he eventually gave up on the game.

    Now mind you, I know the game has its share of gunning down enemies too, but to be honest, it really is a difficult game to get into, and I wouldn't even really consider it "fun", the first way through. But therein lies also the charm. While the game threw challenge after challenge at you, (each leaving you just at the brink of death), it also created one of the most intense experiences I've ever seen in a game. The need to plan your routes through the mansion, conserve your ammo, dodge enemies and seriously consider when to use your next ink ribbon made it something more than just a game you pick up and play. It turned into a truly immersive (and horrifying) experience.

    And that's the way I want every horror game to be. Just like you explained in this post, the devs should focus more on the overall experience and feel/atmosphere, rather than pure fun gameplay. At least when you're making a horror game where the intention is to scare. Of course, I'm not saying "make it BORING" (because it shouldn't be), but it's simply a matter of where the focus is put.

  3. I pretty much agree entirely, a horror game should practically at no point be 'fun' to play. Don't get me wrong, it shouldn't be too frustrating either, but the player should always be left with a sense of insecurity and uncomfortability. Ideally, he/she should always be at the edge of his or her seat (with the occasional breaks ofc.) and should therefor not be distracted by meaningless or immersion-breaking activities.

    However, if I were to name two games (on the top of my head) that did have a 'fun' way of assaulting enemies, I would have to mention F.E.A.R. and Condemned. For F.E.A.R. the in-between action was a welcome addition and allowed for more than just hide and seek with Alma, while in Condemned you could smack the the crap out of pretty much anything, but you knew it wasn't going to be that easy or even optional. Especially in the later stages of the game the enemies would get considerably creepier and tougher, so whacking them in the head wasn't any more 'fun' than it was necessary to stay alive. While it was still satisfying, you were practically fighting for you life, so not much comfort there.

  4. I was going to be the big fanboi and plug yet once again Condemned, so I thank mlaar up there for doing it first =P

    Like the man says, Condemned doesn't make combat necessarily "fun", just responsive enough to help you stay alive. It is satisfyingly intense and brutal, and I guess you could say it is fun that way looking, but then you're forced to stay on your toes so much that's like you're paying dearly for every bit of fun you can get out of the game. The overall atmosphere is so damn taxing on your nerves that at any given moment should a girl scout pop up offering you a cookie, you'd most likely beat her into a bloody pulp before her words even managed to reach your ears.

    It's a very clever tradeoff, and to me it's also a clear-cut demonstration of how you can make the action in a horror game intense and demanding without resorting to cheap, lazy solutions like making ammunition scarce or limiting the number of saves. Yes, I am talking about f'ing Resident Evil here >=(

  5. Well said! This is something that has been bugging me with Silent Hill, for example. People complain how the combat sucks and it's so slow etc, but now Silent Hill: Homecoming is out and look at what they did. They made combat fast-paced, action filled, and pretty tough. To me, that removes the entire creepy atmosphere that the other Silent Hill games have. Sure, combat isn't fantastic, but the enemies are also slow and generally not very tough. A lot of the time you can run from them, and the boss battles really aren't that bad. Everything is pretty slow and mysterious, which is how it's supposed to be.

    In Homecoming suddenly the enemies are really fast, and they have even added quick-time events. The main character is fast and agile, and you don't get any feeling of helplessness. This is no longer a creepy horror game, it's action with horror elements. I will never accept Homecoming as part of the Silent Hill series.

  6. This reminds me of the case of the Ju-On: The Grudge game for the Wii.

    For that game it's the contrary that happened. The game is very short, completely "un-fun", and has very little replay value.
    Thus because of that the best score the game got from "professional" reviews was 6/10 and most of the time it just got around 2/10.

    I have played this game (actually I have yet to play the last chapter) and it was one of the scariest and most terrifying Horror game I've ever experienced.
    To me the game reached its aims and pretty much achieved what it wanted to do. There are still a few things I could complain about but overall I would probably rate it around 8/10.

    The thing is that, the game wasn't trying to be fun. It wasn't trying to be long either (it wanted to keep a movie feel) and it was hardly trying to have replay value (the only way they tried to add replay value was through that rather cheap "2 players mode").
    Reviewers just didn't get it as they rarely do with Horror games.
    The only thing they "had to right" to complain about was when they said that the game wasn't scary. Of course I also completly disagree on that, but here I'm not going into details as to why and how Horror and Terror are so well done in Ju-On. It's another topic.

    This also reminds me of a 2nd exemple, this time of a game that succeeded in being both a great scary Horror game but also a fun game with incredible replay value.
    I am talking about Resident Evil 3.

    On the first playthroughs of RE3 (and on the very first one especially) it takes time to get used to the new controls (I am talking about the dodging system for instance) and the new way to make your own ammo.
    The thing is, once you get used to those you are more likely to have fun and kill every single monster whatever way you prefer and the game looses most of its scaryness. Only Nemesis remains something you are likely to get scared of (but can we even talk about horror in this case? it's just tension, many non horror games have tough bosses).

    On the first play however that doesn't happen. You always feel out of ammo (even when you're not), you constently feel surrounded by all those hordes of zombie everywhere, and you feel chased and trapped by of Nemesis.

    But now let's think about something. Why is it that we get less scared after the first playthrough in re3, because we are now able to have fun?
    This is probably not the main reason. If you think about it, MOST horror games (that try to scare the player) don't have any kind of replay value and once you've been through the game once or maybe twice you're VERY unlikely to still get scared by it, or at least never as much as during the first playthrough.

    So I think this is why Capcom did such a fantastic work with RE3. They knew about all that, and by adding a gameplay system and controls that took some time to master (while the game also remained short), they succeeded in making a game that ended up being extremely fun, and because of the mere fact that it was fun having a lot of replay value, while still being very terrifying during the FIRST play, which is the most important as far Horror games are concerned.

    Now, I have yet to see a Horror game that finds new ways to surprise and scare the player on alter playthroughs, once they already beat it.
    I think that's something to look into for developers like yourselves.

  7. Just one last thing now, sorry I couldn't include this in my earlier post but I reached the number of characters limit (I didn't think I'd be writing so much to be honest):

    æclipse µattaru said "cheap, lazy solutions like making ammunition scarce or limiting the number of saves. Yes, I am talking about f'ing Resident Evil here >=("

    Sincerely, this is just not true. In pretty much every single Resident Evil game (not counting Outbreak), and especially for the first ones, you have enough ammo to kill each monster and if you look around you will never run out.
    In RE1 you pretty much have enough ammo to kill every single enemy twice or maybe even more.

    The thing is that you have to look for that ammo yourself instead of having it being pretty much dead given to you like in action games.

    The other thing is that the game, the manual, and everybody (your friends, the reviewers, etc) will tell you that there is not enough ammo and that you have to run.
    The player will believe that and play accordingly, even if it's not true.

  8. Ness:
    Aint the largest problem with the Ju-on game that it relies on trial-and-error gameplay and requires the player to play the same episodes over and over? From the descriptions of the game that I have read, it sounds quite annoying. Not played it myself though.

  9. I don't think Ju-On has trial&error gameplay. The only aspect of "trial&error" there could be is when you go explore some areas in which there is nothing useful and you may run out of batteries. But to be honest the good path is pretty much given to you most of the time and these "useless" areas aren't that common (the first and 3rd chapters don't even have any I think) or they are usually small (for exemple, useless rooms in the 2nd chapter taking place in a Hospital).

    As for replaying the same chapters over and over, that didn't happen much to me (but I keep in mind I have yet to play the last chapter). Not to mention that chapters are very short, so restarting once you die is like in any game. I know a lot of games in which you have to re-do a lot more when you die even.
    A continue system would be terrible, the chapters are so short it would have ruined the importance of surviving in this game, which is the main goal.
    I already hated the continue system in RE4: considering the infinite saves and the number of save points everywhere, the only reason for it to be there is because of unfair deaths such as QTEs or one- hit-kill attacks a few enemies have. Imo there shouldn't have none of all these (no QTEs, no unfair enemies and no continues), it would have made the game even more fun.

    But yeah maybe for Ju-On it depends on the players, there are probably a lot of players who had to use more tries than me to complete the chapters.

    The other main complain about Ju-On I heard is about the battery system. Some people say it's a schizophrenic gameplay since the pace of the game is very slow yet you have to hurry or you'll run out of batteries.
    To be honest I liked this battery system a lot. In most Horror games player can take their time but not here.
    Since you are forced to hurry it's harder to except or to think about what could be coming next to scare you. You remain concentrated on the path to follow and therefore can get a lot more easily scared.
    On this aspect, Ju-On feels like a modern "D" to me except scarier. (to be honest, before playing the game myself I had only seen screenshots and no gameplay video, and I thought Ju-On was a FMV game). Oh, and I love D as well.

    Anyway - sorry to have turned the comments off-topic, that wasn't my attention.

  10. Didn't Brainy Gamer (I think it was him) once say that some videogames have their roots more in written literature than movies (or in this case, toys)? If that's the case, then maybe developers need to look at their work and say, "Is this a short story (PORTAL)? Sudoku (BEJEWELED)? Or long epic (ZELDA)?"

  11. Danielle:
    Any link to that? Would be interesting to read.

  12. Very well put. Can't agree more.

  13. You have actually made examples of a very different thing - game designer laziness :)

    These filler Layton puzzles won't make game any more fun or replayable (but the overall length becomes greater, yes) and the same goes for stupid Dead Space collectables. They add nil to fun and replayability while effectively scrapping the atmosphere. But they do give those game designers the ability to say "hey, we have 100+ collectables!" or "hey, we have 15+ hours of gameplay!" in the advertising.

    Last time I saw a great example of survival horror in a game which is not really a horror game was a video walkthough of UFO: Enemy Unknown (released in USA as an X-COM). The guy that played did it badly and usually his night terror missions were the _terror_ missions with half of the 12 soldier team dead, and the rest either panicked, berserk or turned into zombies by chryssalids. He sometimes had to abort the mission just to save the ship from being lost. And when the ethereals came... it was like watching a horror movie.

    It ended appropriately badly with an ethereal battleship landing in his only base and wiping everybody out. The end was magnificent - two soldiers left, one of them is totally mind-controlled, the other hiding in some closet. And he presses the next turn button, the door opens and the soldier under alien control walks inside with glassy-eyed look and shoots his teammate in the face. You don't mess with aliens, hehe.

  14. In a word: Portal.

    It didn't have a lot of replayability, it didn't last very long, but my Lord was it an incredible game.

    As inappropriate as it may be to use the term in a good sense given this very subject, but rarely have I had so much *fun* playing a game.

    Valve really captured the concepts you describe - find something unique, create a wonderful world to throw the player into and let them associate with their character. Draw up a cool story, fantastic characters (hell, they got away with just the one and it was perfect) and above anything else make it an *experience*

    Maybe let them play through again trying to look for every camera to knock off of a wall or what have you, but don't even mention it on the first play through.
    To hell with a health bar, health kits, ammo and fighting - Portal proved you could even have enemies shooting at you without any of that and still make a good game.

    The Penumbra series managed the same, it just thought "Right, here's all the preconceptions gamers and developers have about games. Step one: toss those out the window"
    And *that* is how a truly beautiful game is made.

    I'm sure you guys must have played Portal but on the off-chance you haven't either buy it or, hell, just send Valve an email.
    Tell them: "Hey guys, we gave you Penumbra, you sold it to some people and everyone made everyone else at least a little bit of money - reckon you could see your way clear to winging us a copy of Portal for inspiration?"


  15. It is very hard to make a game like this longer. In a horror game, essentially, you must keep things fluid and continuous, any break or irritating stop at which nothing happens will just kill the immersion which is so vital for horror games. If you add padding to it it would be like putting wall-paper paste between two cookies. Any effort to make this game longer would just kill the experience which I think this game offers. Often if the player is properly immersed their own presuppositions will terrify them more than the actual planned course of events. Any effort to extend the gameplay simply to please frugal and undevoted consumers would subsequently kill the experience for seasoned horror fans.

    Long story short, anyone who considers a games length as a major upside/downside has forgotten about the old saying "Quality before quantity."

  16. I've heard a quite a few people saying the same thing. Except they were talking about the negative effect fun game-play has on a games emotive impact. Or the systematic thinking that fun game-play results in, which remove the human value of characters and plot.

    Also, a really emotional video that takes Modern Warfare 2 and removes the action game-play;


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