22 October, 2008

Press Start to Play: Risk and Reward

Press Start to Play is a series of articles cross-posted between En Tequila and Modern Magic. A series about video games as an industry, an art form, and an experience.

(Please comment on the Modern Magic blog if possible)

From a gamer's perspective, greater risk almost always leads to greater rewards.

From a developer's perspective, however, apparently hand-holding is the way to sales, no doubt due to the softness of games these days (See "Game Over" below) but I still don't understand some of the design choices developers make.

When a game takes away a big risk, such as penalties for dying, they also take away a big part of the rewarding gameplay. BioShock was the worst example of this, since whenever you die in BioShock, you almost immediately respawn in a nearby chamber, with all the regular enemies at the health you left them at, and you have all your gear. While, generally, you have a limited amount of health and power after doing this, there is no long-term punishment for dying. So once I realized that I could run up to a Big Daddy, beat him a few times with my wrench, get killed, and do it all over again until the rusty bastard is dead, it completely took away the fear of running into them. Seriously, when you come up against something that big your first instinct should be to piss your pants and run, but when you know there is no significant reason to, throwing caution to the wind is as simple as shooting at a Little Sister.

Image courtesy of Google Images
Image courtesy of Google Images

Now, its not just the player's life that should be at risk. Another big mistake that developers make regarding AI partners (Killzone, pay attention here) is that friendly units should not be immortal. Why should I run in and risk my life, when I can just order my teammates to run in there and do all the shooting for me? Sure, it's not as fun but if I'm really worried about dying, I can just step back and take a small breather while my AI buddies fall over, get back up, and enthusiastically throw themselves into the onslaught of bullets once more.

This is why I have worries about the upcoming Prince of Persia game. It's a game where, essentially, you can't die. IF you jump off a cliff, your AI teammate pulls you to safety, as well as healing you when you are "knocked out" (a state which is quickly overtaking the concept of dying in games) and even though the enemies also get a healing breather, it's not enough of a setback to balance that you're basically unbeatable.

There are certain instances in which I will concede that the lack of big-setback risks is a good thing. In some platformers, such as Uncharted: Drake's Fortune, it's nice that if I mistake some background hanging ivy art as a climbable surface and plummet to a painful, dismembered death, I can start from very close by, usually the last ledge my feet were thankful to rest upon, without having to go through a menu screen to slow down the flow of gameplay.

However, for the most part, the more risky an action, the more reward you are likely to feel for accomplishing it. In big ways, like making you immortal, and even just partway, like regenerating health bars. If you have a set amount of health at a given time, you're not likely to want to throw that health away, so you'll be careful, you'll take your time, and you'll ration any items you have. However, when you can take a few dozen bullets to the chest, hide behind a corner and wait five seconds for your health to regenerate, there's no reason not to jump back out of cover. Yes, it does speed up gameplay and that is about the only reason why I would agree that it's a good feature. However, I feel much more proud of myself when I make it through a dangerous situation with a mere sliver of health, surviving only on my wit and skill, then when I know I could have taken a few more grenades and died a few times before getting to this point.

Not only does this effect gameplay, but it can alter the feel, mood, and atmosphere of a game depending on what the consequences of your actions are. The Survival Horror genre, actually, best emulates this idea, especially when you examine its effect on the gameplay and how other games are different, but I'll discuss that further in a separate post.

Meanwhile, let's look at racing games. Again, if I can crash headlong into a semi-truck and explode in a fiery maelstrom of destruction, I should suffer more than a few seconds off my lap time. I notice that the sooner the game will let me get back on the track and race, the more reckless I am willing to be. Games that set me back, have long respawn times, or other consequences make me more careful, less willing to take a dangerous shortcut or attempt to weave heavy traffic, if I know that I'll have to make up a lot of time if I fail.

Oddly, this concept of succeed-or-fail gameplay used to see its best use in old Role-Playing Games. Some RPGs have segments where, if you fail, the story goes on but with a different outcome, while in other games (Threads of Fate being one example) there are certain plot points where, in fact, you must lose, as there is no way to defeat the enemy. In these cases, the act of failing, even if inevitable, comes with a consequence that actually carries through with the story, and RPGs have made the best use of this mechanic.

In any kind of mission-based game, there should always be risk, the possibility of failure, and an ongoing consequence for it. It deepens the experience, and ultimately provides even more rewards.

Games are about succeeding over trials and tribulations; and everyone knows that the harder you work for something, the sweeter victory tastes. It's a simple concept, if only developers would pay more attention to the act of playing games.

That's my two cents on the topic. Check back soon for more updates.

"Think Deeper"

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