Sunday, April 13, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Sam & Max Season Two

This week I tackled something very different than the last few games I've played: point-and-click adventure games, episodic style. I played through the entirety of Sam & Max Season Two this week, and remembered why I loved adventure games growing up and why the genre is so small now. I used to play the old Sierra and LucasArts adventure games all the time as a kid, and while I rarely got through them without some help, I always loved them. Playing adventure games now, however, shows how different of a gamer I am today than I used to be. I am far less patient and this is all too apparent when playing adventure games.

Developer Telltale Games is, for my money, the only company delivering true episodic content (Sorry Valve) right now. The first season of Sam & Max saw six episodes delivered, one per month. This time, Telltale has delivered five episodes (they are longer than the episodes last year) in the same time frame. What this does is give the player frequent, but small morsels of adventure content regularly, instead of one large twenty hour game. After trying to play all five episodes in one week, I'm convinced that this is the smart way to go about selling new adventure games. I'm also convinced it helps alleviate some of the flaws of adventure games in today's world of gaming.

Design Lesson: Consistent progress, including feedback, is necessary to avoid frustrating a player.

So here is the primary problem that I've realized with traditional adventure games in today's gaming world. If you are making consistent progress, then the game is too easy. You figure out all the puzzles very fast, you solve them, move to the next set, repeat, and then the game is over. This has a low barrier of challenge. Since most adventure gamers are more cerebral than the average Halo player, this is a bad thing for the market.

However, most adventure games are linear and puzzles are full progression blockers. So, for the game not to be too easy, it has to stop your progression as you think through a puzzle. The problem becomes that we are trained to get feedback on our progression in-game. When you play an action game and you get stuck at a boss, usually there is a boss health bar telling you how close you got to success. You may fail 10 times in a row, but if you are making better and better progression through taking down the bosses health, you are not nearly as frustrated.

Puzzles in traditional adventure games, however, are solved in your mind. There is no way for the game to understand how close you are to having figured out the puzzle. Since you cannot skip the puzzle, you are stuck. This is a binary situation. You are either stuck (too hard) or you are making progress (too easy). The majority of games today, especially challenge-based games that make up a large segment of the enthusiast market, live in-between those two states. Adventure games need to get you to jump between being stuck and making progress fairly quickly. Portal is a great example of this. There were times in Portal that I felt completely stuck, but I would usually resolve the situation within five minutes, making me feel like a genius. It's hard to consistently deliver puzzles on this level, unfortunately. There is a good reason Portal is such a short game.

There is the rub with adventure games, and Sam & Max Season Two. The first season was far too easy for me, and I finished the episodes in two to three hours each. I enjoyed the hilarious situations and dialog but wanted more challenge. Well, Telltale Games delivered more challenge and length this season, and now at times I felt over-challenged. There were a handful of times where I was hopelessly stuck. Being stubborn and refusing to resort to walkthroughs or even the in-game hints, I just kept thinking and trying things until I'd figure out the next step. This was frustrating, and there was a number of times where I just turned off the game for an hour. Had I not been trying to beat all the episodes within a week, the game would have been off for more than an hour. I was, without a doubt, frustrated. This was only exasperated by the fact that I was trying to finish the games in a short time period.

I'm not sure how exactly you give consistent progress in an adventure game without making it too easy. Non-linear puzzle solving may be the solution, and Sam & Max has some of that. There are times where three puzzles need to be solved and you can do them in any order. Those are the times the game shined the most from a game design perspective. You get to stop thinking about a specific puzzle, and try a different one instead. Another advantage from this is that sometimes you use an inventory item up solving the other puzzle, giving you one less thing to worry about for the puzzle that you are stuck on. Straight up linear puzzles can become a deterrent, since there is nowhere to go when you get stuck. The fact the game utilizes in-game hints is a good way to help people along, but you get plenty of people like myself, who just really feel like hints are cheating.

To me, this is part of the reason adventure games died off. All these other games started giving players these measures of progress, but adventure games didn't catch up. Another reason is that some of the best moments are the dialog's and cinematics - in other words, the mostly non-interactive parts of the game.

If we continue to give players in-game ways to tell how much they are progressing, they are less likely to get frustrated. These metrics can be on the macro level (How far are you done with the game) or the micro level (how far done are you with a specific enemy).

Bonus Lesson: Episodic gaming is good for games that don't have consistant feedback.

Since Sam & Max Season Two is unable to give the player consistent feedback, you'd think the game would suck or be frustrating. However, the short play time (About four hours per episode) helps mitigate this by quite a bit and makes for a very enjoyable game. The reason is that you see the progression to the end of the episode far more clearly than you would in a 20 hour game. This gives you some sense of feedback on how far through the game you are. Part of the problem for me, specifically, was that I beat all the episodes in a week. This forced me to go back and keep playing, due to a time constraint, that wouldn't have existed had I played the games purely for leisure. The fact that the episodes come out once a month helps that fact. Really, I should be playing the episodes as they come out, instead of in one big gulp. Had all five episodes been one giant game (ignore the fact that each episode's story/theme are very different), I think the game would be far less successful. So, Telltale Games made a great choice when they went episodic with this series.

Bonus Lesson #2: Pixel hunts are the jumping puzzles of the adventure world.

I remember playing a number of adventure games as a kid that put me on pixel hunts. There would be one obscure item that I hadn't found yet, and I would click all over the screens of the game to find it. Luckily, Sam & Max doesn't do this and that's another reason that the game works better. The funny side-effect of this is that when I couldn't figure something out before I felt like the developers were screwing me by hiding something I have yet to find. In Sam & Max, when I was stuck, I just felt like I was stupid. I usually felt even stupider when I figured out the solution. I'm not sure which is better, to be honest.

Did someone say birthday?


  1. That's interesting, because the hint system in Season Two is designed to do exactly what you describe.

    You say "there is no way for the game to understand how close you are to figuring out the solution to a puzzle." While it's true that the game can't read the player's mind, there are definitely indications when a player is stuck. When the hint system has detected a certain number (user-settable) of these indicators, it has one of the characters offer a hint in the form of additional dialogue.

    Having a boss health meter is artificial and "gamey;" ideally, you'd be able to sense how much progress you've made against a boss through visual cues like animation and wound effects, and audio cues like his taunts or breathing patterns. But if I turned off the in-game HUD because I thought it was "cheating," it wouldn't be kosher to say that an inherent problem with boss-fights is that you have no idea of how well you're doing against the boss.

    This post makes me think that what you see as an inherent problem with adventure games, is really a psychological one: players automatically equate hints with "cheating," even if they're subtle and presented within the fiction of the world.

  2. I do agree this is what the hint system is designed to do. However, I feel that it's a band-aid to the real problem. The problem here is the linear, full-progression stop that exists in the game. The reason this exists is usually one of narrative. Many pure puzzle games allow you to choose any puzzle you want anytime, or at least a large number from the start. Sam & Max even does it at times, but not enough honestly.

    Boss health doesn't have to be in meter form. In-fact, with the fidelity of games today, it shouldn't be. As long as you have a way of determining progress in some fashion, that's all that matters. It doesn't have to be exact progress... but knowing you got the boss to stage 2 of the fight tells you a lot, if you were stuck on stage 1 the last 20 minutes. That's still knowing progress, even if it isn't exact progress (The same way you don't need to know exact health, but rather just if you are low or not)

  3. Then it sounds like I disagree entirely, instead of only partly like I thought at first.

    There's nothing more linear and arbitrarily "gamey" than a boss fight. So if you're saying it's linear narrative that's the problem, then using a boss fight as a counter-example doesn't work.

    But if you're saying that the problem is the binary nature of adventure game puzzles -- that you've either solved the puzzle, or you're completely stuck -- then having a dynamic hint system isn't a "band-aid." It's a step towards making the process of solving a puzzle one of gradual discovery, instead of just a full stop.

  4. I should get you to talk to one of my coworkers :) When I said something similar to him at work this week, he brought up the exact same points as you. I (currently) disagree... but I think I have to think about it more and come to a better conclusion on hints in general. I think the original point of giving progression to the players still holds true. The debate, becomes, whether or not in-game hints are a valid way to help give progression (or stop progression blockers)

    I fully admit that I am stubborn on the HINT issue and that there is some psychology behind this. But, I am willing to bet I'm not the only one. If the psychology exists in the gamer, we need to start finding ways to either avoid doing things that way or training them to change the way they approach things. This is obviously a difficult issue, but something we should certainly strive for.

    I did actually use hints in Sam & Max a couple of time (to see what kind of hints I would be given), and once I was given something unhelpful (information I already knew) and another time I was given the puzzle solution basically.

    Now, this is all subjective to the player, which is why hints are difficult. This is why puzzle games/adventure games are difficult to develop for all as a whole. Making it work for some people will inherently turn off others. It's a polarizing genre overall I would say, more so than other genres.

    Bosses are linear and is there anything worse than being stuck at a boss you can't beat (Ninja Gaiden I'm looking at you)? I wasn't trying to say bosses fix the problem. Rather, I was saying at least there is some progression given in most boss fights. You understand if you are making progress. With puzzles you don't.

    Hints are just a side-topic at that. They aren't telling you your progress. They are just ensuring you are always making progress (That could be a semantic argument... I'm not sure).

    Anyways, thanks for your thoughts.

  5. Very few designers have been able to strike that perfect balance between challenge and progression. The moment you feel like a genius after thinking hard (and perhaps failing a few times) is the very moment you know the perfect balance was struck.

    I suppose it's different for every gamer, but I think Portal got it right, and many of the LucasArts adventure games did too. Grim Fandango is terrific in this regard.

    Thanks for your excellent post. I enjoyed Season 2 of Sam and Max, partly because of the better balance, but also because it's funnier. Also a very subjective matter. :-)

  6. To me, the problem with adventure games is much more fundamental than the issues being discussed. I find it boring, bordering on offensive, to have to squash your thinking and creativity into the tiny, one-entry box that the designer has determined is the solution to the puzzle. I find Portal to be a boring game because of this. The writing is occasionally clever, but not enough to hold my interest.

    Especially in the era of open world, sandboxy sorts of games, I can see why adventure games have limited appeal. The former provide much wider scope for user creativity, for the player to craft a unique experience for himself or herself. The latter provide the exact same experience for every player, an experience that the designer determined the player had to have.

    Puzzle games that offer multiple solutions, ones that vary according to user creativity, are more appealing to me. I don't think I've seen an interesting puzzle-based game since The Incredible Machine. I'm sure there have been some, but I'm so turned off by the genre in general that I've probably missed them. Portal bores me; I keep wanting to finish it but can't make myself play more than half an hour at a time.

    The Bro in ManBro

  7. It's probably a good thing then that Portal is a 3 hour game :)

  8. Allow me to throw a belated word in here... It seems to me that perhaps the subtlest problem with Sam and Max Season 2 hints might just be the fact that they are called "hints" at all. Or perhaps the blame goes back further to the loss of Invisiclues (developer-designed hints) and the creation of a hint-selling industry, but that's another debate.

    The hint slider in SNM Season 2 is ultimately a "wordiness" slider for Sam's faithful and sometimes erratic companion Max. (Or perhaps more fittingly a "sanity" slider, exploring the world of Max's psyche between rare, nearly random non-sequitur to talkative with the occasional potentially deep insight into the problem at hand...) It's wonderfully diegetic, in that it absolutely makes sense for Max to be at least a little more involved in what Sam is in the midst of doing, rather than simply being the silent (and deadly) partner.

    Season 1 did a little bit of the same thing by having Max give you similar insights if you asked him, or you bugged him enough with the same question, but it is easy to forget to ask the constant companion. Having Max speak up with his own thoughts, and so many of the best hints in Season 2 sound exactly like the commentary you might expect from Max in the comics (or the cartoon); related to the task at hand but wonderfully skewed to lead to more dangerous or destructive paths than the actual solution to the puzzle...

    It can somewhat turn the games from being a monologue between player and designer to being a bit more of a dialogue. I absolutely think that it is a means to providing a deeper sense of feedback to a player's exploration of the story, the puzzles, and the world. I think there is a lot more to try and to experiment in terms of in-game "hint" systems that are about guiding without coddling and commenting on progress markers in diegetic and interesting ways that aren't ultimately useless non-diegetic quantifications (such as boss bars).

    It may be an interesting experiment for you to try replaying Season 2 with full hints and seeing how you think it changes the experience.

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