Tales of the Rampant Coyote

Adventures in Indie Gaming!

Should You Have To Earn the Fun?

Posted by Rampant Coyote on July 30, 2012

It’s pretty classic game design, because it works: As you play, you unlock abilities, which adds to the fun. In a tower defense game, maybe you get new towers to experiment with. Or in an RTS – of which Tower Defense is a subgenre – you unlock new units and buildings as you progress. In a single-player FPS, you get access to newer and cooler weapons. In an RPG – well, okay, in an RPG, it’s everything, as you get the cool spells and abilities later on. In a casual game, you may get access to new moves or tools that must be mastered to move on to the next part of the game.

It’s classic game design because it works. First of all, it gradually exposes the player to gameplay, allowing them to learn their full options a piece at a time, rather than demanding mastery of a bewildering array of choices and skills all at once. And as a player, the promise of new abilities / items / unlocked whatevers can be pretty compelling – particularly for those of us addicted to RPGs. That’s like the basic story of RPGs – get cooler and more powerful as you play.

The problem is that while these new options add more fun to the game as they get doled out, by definition that would make the earlier stages of the game less fun without them, wouldn’t it? Agreed, as a newbie player learning a system I may have my hands full mastering the basic systems, and you could argue that I can’t handle the fun. Or maybe I have a fun threshold caps my fun at a certain level no matter how much additional stuff you drop in my lap – and so it makes sense to dole these goodies out only after my fun begins to wane from mastering the basics.

Fine. That all works. Those all make sense. But there’s still a problem – especially in RPGs (and my own RPG, Frayed Knights: The Skull of S’makh-Daon, is not really an exception). Maybe it’s because I’m too veteran of a gamer and have covered the basics far too many times in the past, but it seems that those introductory levels don’t come very close to pegging that theoretical “fun threshold” anymore, and I find myself slogging far too long before getting to the “good stuff.” In some cases, this has caused me to give up on a game early – maybe a half-hour or an hour in. When have I done enough time to earn the fun?

I don’t know the solution to this one, really.  It’s not that I start a game knowing all of the controls and nuances. It’s not that I start somewhere mid-way up the learning curve for a game… it’s just that veteran gamers tend to move along the learning curve a bit faster than inexperienced gamers, but the games don’t necessarily keep up. They have their own pace.

Beginning gamers are the lifeblood of the industry – I get that. I understand why they are being catered to. I agree. But it seems that game developers answer the needs of the experienced gamers by simply making the games more difficult. That’s not what I want, personally. Getting my butt kicked in the bunny-slope levels is not the answer. I simply want the game to let me go through the learning curve more quickly. Not that I pretend that’s an easy thing to do, but maybe it’s an approach that game developers should think about.

As a possible example: Rather than simply unlocking new abilities at the same rate as the game introduces them, allow veteran players to take advantage of figuring these things out on their own to speed up the conclusion of a level.  Maybe give them the ability to double-jump to a shortcut halfway through the level, or if they figure out how to make a tank before its been officially introduced, they can go ahead and let it demolish the enemy more quickly and move on to the next battle.

Just something to think about. Don’t get me wrong: I love earning new options and unlocking new gameplay. And I need to master the basics of any new game the same as anyone else.  And for some genres – like platform-action titles – I probably need the remedial learning period. But for some of my favorite genres, the beginner’s class goes far too slow for it to stay fun.

Filed Under: Design - Comments: 8 Comments to Read

  • Barry B said,

    Well, consider some of the RPG classics. The entry levels in Ultima VI and VII or, say, Morrowind were riveting because they made you explore environments that were basically sui generis–so it was as if you were dumped onto new planets without familiar frames of reference. And they kept dribbling new bits and pieces at you, to keep you involved.

    Then once the midgame has arrived, you’re given new goals and abilities, the whole “earn the fun” you mentioned, above. So in Ultima VI you discover a new civilization that you thought were just unreasoning enemies. In Ultima VII, you go around righting wrongs, and exploring the world as you seek a pair of killers. In Morrowind, you discover levitation spells, etc. In all three, you gain access to new places, new weapons, new people, new abilities and concepts.

    Just my opinion, but I think that today most RPG designers simply leave out the whole “let’s design a unique world.” They opt for the alternative that assumes a series of fantasy cliched conventions which took over the book market when the genre became big back in the 1980s–and publishers discovered there were tons of second and third rate authors who would write for next to nothing, on AD&D themes they were given. It’s rare to find a game that doesn’t have elves and dwarves, doesn’t try to follow Tolkien’s view of them, etc. What was Reckoning, except a more graphically exciting retreading of the same old track?

    What you’re doing, on the other hand, succeeds because you turn the conventions on their head. You start out with a party that inverts expectations through parody, and grows more interesting as players begin to glimpse more and more character. But that’s atypical. To grab people from the start, in general requires that drop through the floorboards of the universe into a place that screams “You’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,” or in any familiar fantasy world. Just my two cents.

  • Andy_Panthro said,

    There’s surely more room to have a bit more variety in progression. Why not start out a player with everything, then have a way to remove all of that and have them earn it again.

    Unfortunately, most of the times I’ve seen this sort of thing, it’s not handled particularly well.

  • DGM said,

    Have you played Magicka? It’s not an RPG, but it has a very complex spell system that you get full access to right after the (very short) tutorial. There’s a couple of dozen special spells with unique effects that you have to find throughout the game, but that’s the only holdout.

    Of course, the hilarity that ensues as you fumble your spells in the heat of battle is where a lot Magicka’s entertainment comes from. But it definitely throws you straight into the deep end of the pool, if you want to try out a game like that.

  • Ranneko said,

    One way that this can be dealt with (though still not ideal for RPGs) is to have more of the abilities available than you tell the player about.

    If there is a more powerful attack that requires a particular sequence or timing, that can be available to the player long before it is taught to them. The player might accidentally do it sometimes and figure it out for themselves.

  • Barry B said,

    “There’s surely more room to have a bit more variety in progression. Why not start out a player with everything, then have a way to remove all of that and have them earn it again.”

    Interestingly enough, that’s been done. (Which isn’t to say it shouldn’t be done again.) Ultima VII part 2 started with the Avatar and two of his staunchest allies visiting a new land, with tons of excellent arms, armor, and items, when a freak lightning storm teleports it all away, and leaves him almost defenseless and alone. Clever idea. Clearly, GMTA.

  • Corwin said,

    DDO does this to some extent by allowing you to get Veteran status where you can begin your new character at either level 1,4, or 7. This is a boon, especially when wanting to try a new build. While this works in an MMO, perhaps something similar could be an option for at least a replay of a game.

  • Denifia said,

    I like the idea of having shortcuts in the early levels for those who find them. and your double jump idea was a good example of this.

    In some game genres, you may be able to internally score a player on how well he is progressing (shooting accuracy, time to complete level, etc). This score could be used to increase the progression rate. For example, in the boot camp of a shooting game, if the player moves through the first course and shoots all the targets with the pistol at a decent accurace with an above average course time – give him the rocket launcher and call it a day.

    There will always be issues with pacing a game to suit everyone but we should at least be trying to improve upon the current standards.

  • Xenovore said,

    +1 to what Ranneko and Denifia said. With the right design, players can find their own pacing. More experienced players should be able to breeze past the “easy” bits if they want.

    Part of the problem is that many designers seem to have a mindset that it’s “their” game, therefore the player must always play in a certain, predetermined way, regardless of skill or experience. Borderlands (which I love, but…) is particularly egregious with its opening sequence. It forces the player to go through a cut-scene and a fairly dull, time-wasting tutorial section before actually getting to the real start of the game. And it does it every single time you start a new character/game regardless of how many times you’ve played it previously.

    By the way, I have to mention Quake, which has some cool stuff:

    1) The game difficulty isn’t determined by a menu setting, but rather by the path taken by the player in the starting area. Each path is designed to filter players based on their skill, e.g. you’re not going to get the Hard difficulty if you can’t successfully jump across some lava. And you’re definitely not going to get the Nightmare difficulty without some extra exploration…

    2) There are a lot of secrets hidden throughout the levels, providing the more experienced player (or more perceptive, but those tend to go hand-in-hand) with additional armor, power-ups, etc.