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  • Good Games, Bad Design - Episode 1: What's at Stake

    - Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne
  •  [In the first part of a new GameCareerGuide series, Eric-Jon Rössel Tairne analyzes a good game that doesn't quite hit the mark in terms of its overall design -- starting with the NES classic Castlevania III.]

    There are two basic ways that video games communicate ideas -- through the actions allowed the player, and through the environment on which the player may act. The player's every action changes the player's immediate relationship with the environment, which in turn shapes the player's potential for action. Let's say you shoot an asteroid. Although the immediate obstacle is gone, now you've several smaller rocks to deal with, moving faster, in different trajectories. 

    The more you do, and the more feedback the game gives you, the more you adapt your behavior. When an action results in success or a reward, you tend to repeat it. When you get an unpleasant result, you tend to avoid repeating yourself. 

    A successful game environment does four things:

    1. it teaches about the player's relationship with the environment; 
    2. in doing so, it directs and focuses the player's behavior; 
    3. generally it obscures this manipulation from the player; and so
    4. through the invoked behavior it evokes in the player a certain mood or mindset.

    If the player doesn't know why he picks the routes and actions he does, yet in picking those routes and actions he comes to adopt the intended perspective, you have successfully communicated. Think of all the moments in Half-Life 2 where you think you're being clever under pressure, and you're actually choosing the only possible path -- or how The Legend of Zelda keeps you on-track by making the woods scary and dangerous, so that you will tend to leave them until you're stronger and more experienced. 

    Is level design everything? Only if your game has something to say. If you're retreading old ground, and you expect the audience knows the routine, then you can toss them any old nonsense. Of course then few of the player's actions will have real consequence, so the game will feel unresponsive and dull. Still, maybe if you add some flashy features or cutscenes you can distract the player for a while. If you're afraid of putting people off, you can patronize them with elaborate tutorials.

    There's no fooling the outsiders, though. If your game fails to communicate on its own merits, then no one besides the fans will bother with it. And even within that audience the conversation will narrow and turn from big, nourishing ideas to minutiae -- as if the differences between one leveling system and the next really matter in themselves. This heads-down view leads us away from meaningful representation, and toward thoughtless copying and repetition, abstracted and regimented genres, fractured markets, and eventually a whole medium that is impenetrable to outside eyes. 

    As in any human endeavor, sloppy or thoughtless design is perhaps more the rule than the exception. And that's fair enough, when that design is a part of a lousy game that no one is likely to take seriously. More worrisome are the otherwise good, solid games that a student of design may well look to for inspiration. Games don't have much of a critical history; their culture treats anything "good" as model of perfection that everything new should strive to imitate down to the pixel. It's hard to break out of that mindset, and to look at design in terms of problems and solutions.

    A solution, of course, only makes sense in context. In a game, each mechanism serves to illustrate to the player some concept, or to solve a logistical problem in the game's premise. Anything that serves neither of these purposes is extraneous -- and the key to communication is if you don't need it, cut it out. It is in this spirit that some case models may be illustrative.

    Dracula's Curse

    The first NES Castlevania is groundbreaking, rhythmic, and intricately designed. The second is a radical departure, expanded from the first game's themes but structured unlike anything before or since. Castlevania III is exactly like the first, except enormous. The game's purpose is to take up as much space as possible, so as to give the player a sense of grandeur. The trade-off is that from moment to moment there isn't much attention to detail or flow, leading the player to waste time a) maneuvering between points of interest, b) exploring false leads, and c) replaying poorly balanced sequences. 

    Unlike either of its predecessors, there is little reward for being observant and exploring, and the game lacks those little reward beats and that clear direction that builds momentum. The architecture is full of empty spaces, meaningless flourishes, and padding. Creatures are tossed around with little thought as to placement. The branching paths and multiple characters are new, but compared to the focused, driving architecture of the original Castlevania, there is little psychology to the design. So those ideas rather go to waste, as the game never clearly builds on them.

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