06 July, 2010

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do

written by Blain Newport on Tuesday, 6 July, 2010

It's never fun giving up on a game. It's always a failure. And it's almost always a failure on both sides. Sure, a game may have a ridiculously obscure puzzle, or ridiculously hard stage, but at some level, any gamer that enjoys a challenge feels like they could have hung in there. The game was made to be beaten, so there must be a way.

For me the tipping point is always about whether the joy of the experience is worth the effort. I recently bailed on three games in a day, so I thought a discussion of why I bailed on them might be illuminating.

Odin Sphere was always prettier than it was fun. The combat is laggy, which is not always bad. Some games deliberately give the player windows of vulnerability to balance out more powerful moves. Odin Sphere is just plain laggy, though, with large amounts of slowdown. The slowdown can actually be helpful because when there's lots on screen, there's lots of dodging to do, but even with slow motion, it's often nigh impossible to avoid damage. Plus you're graded on damage taken and time, so regardless of whether you take hits or play conservatively, you're being punished. When the game added in wizards who can instantly summon exploding clouds of poison under your feet when they're not even visible on the mini-map, that was the end.

Bionic Commando was reviewed as a mediocre game, which it is. The swinging is good, but definitely not as good as Spider-Man 2 (2004). You have this great freedom of motion, but they mostly give you a long corridor to swing down and "radiation" on all sides to let the game look open. But the game also has serious issues with slowdown and speedup. At first it was hard to tell because the game does have some intentional slow motion to emphasize certain parts of the action, but when I'm just swinging along and can't judge my next swing because I go from slow motion to suddenly looking at the roof, the joy of movement evaporates. Also, a lot of the game is the linear environments. The few times they give you more room to play, they usually just plop down a few snipers or a couple giant robots that can't really keep up with you. When they added the multiple giant robots with the one hit kill fireballs, that was it.

Bionic Commando: Rearmed got a lot of love, from the critics. But the last stage of that game has some horrible trial and error bits that you just have to have played enough to have found the safe route through. The mechanical, gas, and electric trap sections were tolerable. But to then have a disappearing platform sequence just eat up my lives and force me to slog through the three trap sequences again (and again and again) was not.

As with all relationships, the key to the designer-player relationship is communication. As you can see, every game added challenges that were surmountable, but only through brute force and repetition. If they were challenges I'd been prepared for by learning earlier skills, or if I'd felt they were giving me tools I just hadn't learned enough about yet, I'd have stuck with them. But the designer simply put a section in front of me that required sheer stubbornness. Unless the rest of your game is so great that I have to see what's next, that's not good enough.

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