Wednesday, 6 August 2008

Curse of the Impatient Gamer

I have memories of being in a computer shop in my early teens. My dad was handing over his credit card to pay for our brand new, top of the range PC with Windows 95. My eyes were wandering across the shelves of bulky game boxes when they stopped on Fallout, a enticing marvel to behold if ever I did see one. It turns out I couldn't afford the game on my measly pocket money and, for one reason or another, lost interest and stopped pursuing it. Yesterday, inspired by the recent previews of Fallout 3, I decided to finally try it out.

To be honest I'm not entirely sure what I expected but it certainly wasn't what I experienced. My first gripe was with the interface. Granted, I probably should have read the manual (you have to be prepared for this kind of thing when you dig out '90s PC games) but for the first 15 minutes I found myself awkwardly fumbling around with menus and icons and wondering why the game wouldn't just let me perform a straight-up left click. I also found the combat to be extremely jarring as it was constantly forcing me to halt my exploration and shift into a skill points/turn-based system, making me wait while enemies slowly shuffled towards me. My patience was finally tested when I accidentally clicked on my ally with the attack command (because he was standing right in front of an enemy and obscuring most of it). He proceeded to shoot me dead within 2 turns, not enough for me to escape or even try to tell him that I wasn't really out to get him, and that I just had a brief case of spaz-hand.

Fallout (1997)

So, about 30 minutes into the game and I had already admitted defeat. It had irritated me too much and I couldn't be bothered to work with it any more. The whole thing got me thinking: would I have kept trying if I had played the game 10 years ago? Back then playing a new game was a rare treat, not a weekly tradition. I didn't have the money to try all the new big titles, just the select few I could afford and I can assure you, I would squeeze every last penny's worth of enjoyment out of those games (with the exception of 7th Legion, that was just guff).

Of course there are myriad factors involved (time, money, the cynicism I have developed as I've grown older, etc.) but one of the major ones, in my opinion, is the techniques games use to introduce the player to its mechanics. These days (most) games seem to have it nailed. Half-Life 2 springs to mind as it's probably the game that first got me thinking about this concept. Whenever the game introduces a new mechanic or vital skill that the player will need to rely on, it makes sure that we have a firm understanding of how it works and how to use it (usuaully in a safe, stress-free situation) before we are thrown into the deep end. The result is an experience which never feels frustrating or cheap. There is never a moment where the player is unsure why they met their demise or failed to complete their objective.

Half-Life 2 (2004)

Compare this to games from 15+ years ago, sometimes even more recent, when the player would be laughed at for not considering to read the manual. Lists of controls would be printed - sometimes on double-page spreads - and we would be expected to learn them before popping the disk in as if the game was some sort of exam to see how well we can memorise 30 different key functions. I have the same problem with the recent surge of mobile phone games; they often give you a screen showing you the controls and then just chuck you into the action and expect you to be a master.

Nowadays people talk about the 'dumbing down' of games, made easy for the casual masses. HUDs become less obtrusive but make way for on-screen button prompts. Personally, I can't argue with this new method of player training. When I play a game I want to become totally immersed in its world, I don't want to be constantly taking my eyes off the screen to read an inch-thick instruction book. If the game needs to help me along a little bit while I'm playing, that's fine; not all of us are geniuses.

P.S. I love Fallout's setting and universe, so I still want to give it a chance. I'll probably try again soon. This comment was included so that I don't piss off any Fallout fans as apparently the game is quite good.


Anonymous said...

Ah yes..the manuals..I actually used to enjoy coming home from the shop, head buried in the manual as I went, digesting every last bit of info about a game - not just the controls but all the backstory and little notes from the developers=)

Nowadays there's not much of a manual to read or what there is isn't enough, forcing me online scratching my head as to why I can't do 'that thing'.

Heh, before my first Windows 95 computer we had an Amstrad. Back then, the games didn't even need manuals since there were only about three controls and the objectives were pretty simple - but oh the fun we had! Hunchback anyone??

Yes, Fallout is one that I let slip by too - i'm actually convinced I have Fallout 2 back in Scotland (I had to YouTube the vids to remind me) but I also didn't have the patience for it when I tried it years ago so it's gathering dust on my shelf. They both look fracking cool though so you've got me itching to play again..

I think more and more games now are getting their 'tutorial' sections right, subtly coaxing the player along rather than just giving them a load of controls to memorize or barking orders at them. HL2 deserves a lot more attention than I've given it so far but, despite the considerable gap since I last played a HL based title (HL, Blueshift, Gunman Chronicles), HL2 sucked me right in and I was too caught up in the storyline to even think about what controls I was using.

When I went to a 'Writing for Videogames' event last year, they had one of the writers involved in Overlord showing a video of their tutorial section. I haven't played the game but it looked cool - they encouraged you to smack about this Jester who taunts you, in effect teaching you the controls in a really humorous way!

There will always be players who want to jump straight into the game and just give it a go and end up failing miserably if the controls aren't 'standard', and there'll be those who do some research first. I don't know that it's possible to cater for both in all games as some games simply require the inch thick manual, but I think the better games are those that are 'aware' when the player is struggling and gives out a subtle hint or some kind of feedback to let the player know "that's not the way you do that in this game". Of course, configurable controls are always welcome=)

Yeah, the old games do tend to dish up sudden death if you get it wrong (and the ones without quicksaves were hell..). I think this has become less acceptable as games have gotten larger and longer. It's still an effective way of emotionally affecting the player, but only if they feel it was justified and could have been avoided.

I think with the introduction of saving anywhere, the 'fear' of dying is lessened in some games. I'm in two minds about that approach: it's good in the sense that I can be more strategic as I tackle a level, especially in a FPS, but it also means you risk saving right before an enemy leaps out and garotts you. Checkpoints are good so long as they're well spaced but it can lead to retracing your steps a lot.

In either case with saves, knowing you've just saved does allow the kamikaze approach. If i'm low on health I tend to sprint straight into enemy lines just to see what's to come so that I can do better on the next load with no repercussions. The early MoH on PS only allowed saves at the end of the levels I think, and that made the levels pretty tense. The AI in that game was cool - the first time I had a soldier lob a grenade back at me was a surprise!

Ah i'm rambling now. I like complexity/customisation in games like mmorpgs and rts, while I prefer arcade games/shooters to be more pick up and play, and still retain customisation options if I want them. I don't know that I have as much patience now I as I had when I was younger. Maybe it wasn't patience, just acceptance that this was how games were and despite frustrating the hell out of me, they always kept me coming back.

That Fallout vid is still going and i'm like a kid in a sweet shop. Too many games, too little time..such a hardship;-)

Habboi said...

Hehe I still read the manuals while I dry myself after a quick shower.

I usually order games online now so I receive them in the morning just before a shower which leads me into a frantic rush to play it XD

As for what Dan said, I haven't noticed a change in manuals. As far as I am aware there are still backstory sections and they still have those stupid 'notes' pages at the end for players who want to write in the manual...Waste of plastic paper or whatever they make them out of.

A good example of backstory is a game for the Wii called No More Heroes which had actual manga and was very humerous as was the game.

I haven't actually played a single Fallout game but I recognised the armour character in the game footage...

And you know Valve, they never let down us players.

I've never really had a problem with controls. I can easily jump into any game these days but the only games I have trouble with is side scrolling fighting games...

You gotta love the 'Quicksave' feature especially when you accidently press it after falling down a cliff XD

Games just aren't what they used to be :< I'm also concerned about the future and how they are going to make unique games instead of FPS after FPS...

Kyouryuu said...

At a talk Valve gave at GDC a couple years ago, they explained their approach for teaching mechanics to the player. In short, it boils down to four basic steps:

1. Demonstrate the mechanic by having someone else do it, usually an NPC.

2. Allow the player to repeat the mechanic without pressure.

3. Introduce pressure and make the player repeat the mechanic under duress.

4. Iterate on this repetition, adding layers of complexity each time.

You can see this all over Half-Life 2. Examples such as using the Combine energy orbs in the Citadel to operate machines (Ep 1) and the Magnusson Device (Ep 2).

PlanetPhillip said...

Nice topic. Do you mind if I adapt it for a future poll question on PP?