Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Save This!

Because my Xbox 360 finally died I decided to play some older games that have been waiting for me in a stack for some time. One of these games is Killzone (the original not the PS3 sequel). An average shooter, the game convinced me to stop playing it after about 20 minutes. Not because of the sloppy controls or the combat. No, it convinced me to not play it because I died.

Not because the game killed me in a cheap manner. My death was entirely my fault. Rather, it's where the game restarted me. About 8 minutes earlier in the game, at the beginning of the level in fact. I had gone through three major events since then and the game hadn't saved the game a single time in there.

What the bloody hell?

I absolutely don't understand why checkpoints are far apart from each other like this in some games. I remember Resistance: Fall of Man frustrating me endlessly as I replayed huge sections of the game every time I died. The recent Ninja Gaiden games make you go through multiple boss fights without saving sometimes. This is an absolutely punishing, horrible way to treat players. Furthermore, it's hurting our ability to grow the audience and get more people into gaming.

Why? Because a player's time is precious. We are all busy people in this world. We have lives, jobs, families, and responsibilities. The amount of time we can game isn't huge. Every time you make the player replay large sections of your game because you want to artificially make the game more difficult, you give them an out to quit your game and go be entertained by something else. Maybe they'll go watch TV. Maybe they'll play Guitar Hero. Or maybe they'll write an angry blog post talking about how this design is piss-poor.

Forcing players to replay large sections of your game after death is a barrier to entry for many players and a clean, easy place to opt out for most. Ask yourself this. What's more important? That the player get through 10 minutes of gameplay without dying or that the player keep playing your game? I would guess that the vast majority of the time the goal is for the latter to occur. That gets people playing and enjoying more of your game. It gets them to tell their friends or have other people try the game. If you really want to punish players for dying, why not make it only on your hardest difficulties for those players who want that sort of challenge?

We're getting better at this as an industry but still have a long way to go. The answer isn't, in my mind, let the player save anywhere. It's almost 2010. Save state should be invisible to the player. The player should never worry about if the game is saved and how to reload and which reload to use. The game should automatically do the right thing. I'm not saying we need to go the Bioshock or Prey model and remove any punishment from death. I'm saying a light slap on the wrist is sufficient. Don't kick me in the scrotum.

There are, as always, exceptions. Survival horror games would lose much of the horror if there wasn't a significant negative consequence for death. Games who's appeal is purely based around extreme challenge would also fit in as an exception. Most games, however, implement checkpoints poorly due to them being low on the rung of important things to do during development of the game. Sometimes they are the last thing to get put in. Other times, no one is checking them to make sure they aren't too far apart.

This isn't a good reason. We need to break the mold that punishes the players for playing and trying, and instead let players embrace failure not fear it. Let's start treating our players with some amount of decency and maybe they'll actually finish our games. The best part is, this is an easy to solve problem that just takes some forethought and common sense and testing to make sure you got it right.

We can do so much better. Let's start.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Life is a Series of Down Endings

Lately I've been thinking a lot about game endings and how they aren't living up to expectations. I'm the type of gamer who goes out of his way to beat a game if I start it. I want to know how the story goes, no matter how insipid it is. However, I find myself being more and more frustrated with video game endings. Most of them end predictably. Or they end with a horrible cliffhanger that has no closure, all in the name of the all-mighty sequel.

Why don't we see more ambiguous or downer endings in games? These sorts of endings are prevalent in film and novels. Blade Runner spawned the debate on whether Deckard was a replicant or not for many years. 2001: A Space Odyssey's surreal ending has confused generations of people. 12 Monkeys and Se7en have two of my favorite endings in film history, both with protagonist "losing" in the end.

So why not games? Does player agency mean that players are unwilling to accept that their actions could still not save the day? Or are we, as an industry, too immature to know how to pull off a sad ending? Or do we just lack a set of balls?

We need to explore concepts further such as sacrifice, symbolism, tragedy, fate, inevitability, and failure in our games. We should be willing to do something outlandish that will cause players to talk about the game and consider the ramifications of what they just experienced. We shouldn't be scared to incite outcry in players, just to sell sequels. We don't do these things to anger and piss off players, but rather to push players to new levels of understanding. Life, after all, is a series of down endings if you believe Dante from Clerks.

Of course downer endings can also backfire. Just ask Jerry Seinfeld.