Friday, July 4, 2008

Design Lesson 101 - Ratchet & Clank

ratchetandclank.jpgOnce one of the predominant genre of games, the quantity of platform games has dropped off significantly as technology has matured and moved the industry to predominantly 3D titles. As that has occurred, the propensity to create hybrid platform games has increased.

Games like Tomb Raider, Metroid Prime, and the subject of today's column, Ratchet & Clank, combine the classic platform elements with different combat and puzzle styles, to create unique game experiences.

While I enjoyed Ratchet & Clank quite a bit, the latter portion of the game began to taper off for me. The game offers the player sixteen different weapons for combat, the majority of which must be bought at vendors throughout the game.

As to be expected, the different weapons are made available slowly and have varying costs, which forces the player to make decisions. Here's where the problem, in my mind, lies with Ratchet & Clank.

Design Lesson: Ratchet & Clank fails to give the player sufficient reason and information to experiment with new weapons, which slowly causes the game to level off. This illustrates the difficulty in straddling the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information.

In the first half of the game, weapons are fairly cheap and usually when a new one is introduced the player can afford it. As a player, I bought new weapons immediately and was usually satisfied with the new toy to play with.

As the game progresses, more weapon choices are posed, while the price dramatically increases. This, in and of its own, isn't a bad thing. It encourages the player to save up bolts (the in-game currency) and buy a subset of the weapons. You probably won't get every weapon in the game, so each weapon choice becomes more important.

The issue, for me, began with some poor weapon purchases I made around the halfway point. I bought a couple of weapons that just weren't very useful. The cost of buying them was significant (at the time). Without fail, after each bad buy, a cooler weapon would be offered that I could have bought had I saved my bolts. The negative consequences for my bad decision were moderate.

Consequence in games is not a bad thing. Telling the player exactly what consequences will occur depending on their actions is not necessarily good game design. However, in the case of Ratchet & Clank, it felt like the developers wanted to encourage experimentation in the game world through the weapons. By providing so many weapons, Insomniac provides the player with many opportunities to learn about enemy weaknesses and weapon roles.

However, the moment I made my first mistake with a weapon buy I became more hesitant to make another mistake. Instead of just blindly buying the next weapon, I started to read the descriptions that scrolled by. Using this new information, I bought another weapon. Again, I made a poor choice.

The number of weapon options increased as well. Instead of having one weapon available for purchase, I had four. This made me even more hesitant to buy new weapons; I was hamstrung by the options. Partly because I didn't want to get burned, and partly because I figured something even better was just on the horizon that I should save for.

So that's exactly what I did. Just as I am about to buy a new, awesome sounding weapon, the game threw me a curveball. It upgraded my health by one for free. It then also offered me a super health upgrade for a significant number of bolts. More than I had, in fact.

I chose to save some more and buy the health, as I realized I was dying more often in the latter levels. As a result, the weapon I was saving for was now out of my reach, and I was rapidly approaching the end of the game.

Weapons are the key to Ratchet & Clank, and by somewhat forcing my hand to buy health over a weapon, I lost out on another interaction with the world that I could have experimented with.

My interactions did not increase from having more health. My frustration levels just lowered, slightly. However, the lack of new weapons in the second half of the game reduced my enjoyment. Instead of having fun learning about new enemies and how different weapons are effective against them, I was using the same old weapons that worked the same way as before.

Insomniac may have already fixed this flaw in future games in the series, but the original Ratchet & Clank shows the fine line between giving the player enough and not enough information. Not having enough information led to poor decisions on my part, which then led to hesitancy in buying new weapons, which ultimately led to me enjoyed the latter part of the game far less than the beginning.

In order to fix these problems, I would do one or more of the following. First, show the weapons in-game some how. Many games have enemies that use weapons that you later get. Second, allow the player to actually use the weapon, in a test arena, to fully understand how it works would help the player feel like he had sufficient information to make a solid decision. Third, I would have spaced out the weapons a little more and possibly even reduced the set of total weapons. Finally, the health upgrade should have been available by completing a difficult, optional mission, rather than requiring a substantial amount of bolts.

What's fascinating about Ratchet & Clank is how it's still a very good game after all these years and these problems. I certainly enjoyed my first six hours in the game more than the last six, but the game didn't go downhill; It just leveled off. The lack of new weapons changed the feeling and pacing of the game, but only because I was scared to make the wrong decision.

If the game gave sufficient reason and information before purchasing new weapons, I would have tried out some of the more expensive, crazy weapons that were available later in the game. Weapons are what Ratchet & Clank is all about, so the reduction of new weapons as the game progresses causes the new, experimental feeling of the game to subside and causes the experience to slowly level off.


  1. This is a very interesting take and lesson.

    My question is, how do you think you might have felt about the game had you chosen the "right" weapon on that first choice which you called a poor decision? Clearly there's some luck involved in picking the weapon that ends up being the one that is fun and useful, because of the lack of information, so if your luck in that choice had been different, do you think your thoughts about this would have changed?

    Also have you played the game again since, and changed up your choices to see what happens?

  2. I literally JUST played the game, so just the one time. I doubt I'll play it again - I'll check out other games in the series instead.

    The best way is to make sure all weapons are "right" is that they are all useful.

    If I had made the "right" decisions, I think the experience would have been very difference. But ALL paths should have some amount of fun and experience involved in them.

    While I don't agree with the execution necessarily, BioShock was a good game whether or not you killed the Little Sisters. So yes, I think my thoughts would have changed, but that would be because I was not exposed by the design flaw.

  3. The issue with Ratchet & Clank games (and something you notice as the game goes on) is that the weapons you get access to, even not upgraded, are much stronger than the ones you get earlier.

    So if you make the mistake of not picking the new, more powerful weapons up (since the ones you've had so far worked at first) it makes it much harder.

    The later Ratchet and Clank games make it easier to get all the weapons and upgrade them appropriately.

    David Jaffe was playing the latest Ratchet & Clank for PS3 and had issues with not upgrading to the latest weapons as well.

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