Because games are about more than headshots

Archive for July 2009

Worst thing that ever happened (This Week): Trine

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Sometimes you just get the feeling that the designers of a game never turned it on before the code went gold. Trine doesn’t give you this feeling. In Trine, the majority of the puzzles seem loving crafted and iterated upon, the only way to create a puzzle game with A.) Multiple viable solutions to each puzzle and B.) A great lack of player frustration in solving these puzzles. Every puzzle was focus tested until people could look and immediately read the solution, through the use of recurring visual hints such as the stone fists found throughout the game ( as you’re shown in a puzzle early on, these are for hitting things) or iron blocks (which signpost uses of the warrior’s ‘throw’ ability). Both of these immediately guide the players thoughts towards a puzzle solution, despite both of the aforementioned objects functioning exactly the same way in the game world. It’s an extremely deliberate technique, and having watched 3 people play through this game now I can honestly say it’s effective. I have never seen anyone get stuck in Trine, just due to the fantastic signposting in the game.  Well designed and well executed, Frozenbyte.

Which makes Trine’s accolade of ‘Worst design choice of the week’ even more tragic. It’s a superbly designed a polished game, with a huge emphasis on accessibility and pure, unadulterated fun. With a horrific last level. Where the rest of the game is a slow and light hearted romp through whimsical puzzles and respawning undead the last level is a frenzied race up a series of platforms under active opposition from what is essentially an evil version of your wizard, with instant death waiting those who can’t run fast enough. You can sort of see the logic behind the change. It’s the final level, yeah? Essentially the boss fight? Which should generally be used to test both the player’s mastery of the game’s established mechanics and probably force the players to adapt these mechanics?

Yep, sounds good. In this case the designers chose to test the player’s mastery via the use of a timing system ie. You die if you do not complete things fast enough. Which is a fair play, intellectually.  Since players have been doing this stuff for 5 hours now, why not try it under pressure? Seems fair, however the reality of it just doesn’t work out. The change is extremely abrupt, both in it’s actual appearance within the the level and it’s place within the overall pacing of Trine. Never before has the game forced you to move at a pace that is not your own. The fey visuals and calm music of the entire game led themselves to a slow exploration and experimentation mindset within the player and it’s the awkward transition from this approach to the ‘RUN OR DIE’ that breaks the feeling of the game.  It takes the slow pacing and raises it so abruptly that the player has insufficient time to properly come to grips with the change and spends the entirity of the level disoriented and frustrated with this turn of events, rather than being a zen-like state of concentration that that is required to accomplish such a task.  I’ll admit that the frantic feeling might be an empethatic one to the plight of the characters however this is also broken when players fail literally 10-20 times to complete the section (again, several people have played this through in front of me).

The lava is also too fast. This is an execution problem. It’s being fixed by a patch. Hope they get it right.

Also, compounding the sudden change of pace that the player has to live with the game also introduces another element to this final sequence, being that of the opposing ‘wizard’. It’s a good mechanic, don’t get me wrong. Forcing players to reproduce their accidents from throughout the game to defeat the final boss? Genius, with the added bonus of being pretty funny. However, there is a time and place to introduce such a mechanic and that place is not literally 10 seconds after the player’s entire perception of the game’s pacing a difficulty has been thrown into disarray. It’s too much to soon and the player cannot effectively process the information presented.  (Although it is to be noted that although the ‘Evil Wizard’ mechanic is introduced at the worst possible time, it’s done extremely well. The quick but manageable ramp up from being first opposed with simple boxes to being opposed with breaking platforms and spike balls is done well and is another example of seminal game design from the guys at Frozenbyte.)

Compounding this frustration in the player is the necessity to redo the entirety of the content, due of a complete lack of checkpoints throughout the ala the ‘Boss Fight’ mentality.

A final frustration I have with this section of the game is that it’s fundamentally unsatisfying. Trine is by and large a Physics Platforming Puzzle game and thus the pleasure really comes from solving puzzles. Why then, should the final sequence not be a puzzle? Why did it have to completely eschew everything that made the game so entertaining to play and instead focus on it’s far more average platforming elements? In most game’s it probably wouldn’t be such a black sheep, however the rest of the game is so superb that the finale really annoyed me. It smacked of a ‘Designer’s Vision’ where the game’s lead dev had an idea that worked in his head and wouldn’t take no for an answer.  Crysis also suffered under too strong of a designer, as can be seen in the pretty much any section after the game’s twist.

What went wrong

  • Abrupt pacing change
  • Introduced too many mechanics at once
  • Went against the feel of the game

What could’ve been done

  • Introduce the concepts individually and in more mild forms, never allow difficulty to become exponential
  • Scrap the entire section to create something that was congruous with the rest of the experience

Sorry about the late update guys. Last couple of weeks have been annoying for various reasons I felt lacking in inspiration. I decided earlier on that I wouldn’t churn out content if I didn’t feel like I had anything to say, so I didn’t. I get the feeling this blog will operate in stops and starts, with occasional floods of content and then some dry spells, so definitely subscribe to the RSS instead of checking this page.  The next post will either be a ‘New games journalism’ piece centered around an experience I had in Oblivion a little while back, or another narrative post, again possibly about Oblivion seeing as I’ve been hitting that pretty hard recently.  Crysis isn’t cancelled, just post phoned. The game shares many narrative devices with Far Cry 2, so I’m going to hold off until I have time to play it again to remind myself of what it does differently.  Aon out.


Written by Aonshix

July 12, 2009 at 1:54 am

The worst thing that ever happened (This Week): Morrowind

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After a week’s hiatus the much lauded feature returns! The reason for the delay of this (last) week’s column was a pretty integral one, being that there was no design decision so awful that I felt I could slowly analyse it over a thousand or so words. There were alot of little problems I encountered, such as in Second Sight, where not 4 minutes after the player gained the ability to deal with laser fields was one used as a dead end where the players abilities were strangely useless. Indeed, I have encountered many items fo gaming joy; the aformentioned Second Sight, the ‘it came out of nowhere’ demo for Trine (even wiki knows nothing about it) and the seminal Elder Scrolls series, which I’m revisiting for an upcoming Narrative Narcissism [/foreshadowing].

Check out the demo, screenshots cannot match the majesty of Trine in motion.

Check out the demo, screenshots cannot match the majesty of Trine in motion.

An issue that has perpetually dogged Bethesda’s open world RPG’s has been that of leveling. Specifically, how you balance a world against the abilities of the player in such a way to provide both challenge and freedom to the player. The company has essentially rebooted this mechanic three times in an attempt to get it right but unfortunately, Morrowind is cursed with the worst iteration.  Now as a forewarning, I have by no means completed Morrowind and am infact only about 20 hours into it (you can all stop laughing) so all of the following will be from my specific point of view. I have no knowledge if the problems described are endemic of the entire  game or merely the time I spent with it, however I would assume that if they were to clear up, then some signs of that would show by the 20 hour mark.

With the qualifications out of the way, let’s just jump right into it. My complaint is that Morrowind, by the nature of it’s difficulty system doesn’t offer anything remotely like a difficulty curve.  You are dropped into the giant world of Morrowind and aside from the first village the player encounters, the game offers no indication of which areas/questlines are next in the logical progression for the player to increase there power level (spoiler: It does not exceed 9000). Indeed what directions the player is given are misleading, with the difficulty of the main questline quickly spiraling out of control. To back this up I’m going to share some of  my own experiences.

The Silt Striders are giant insects with bits carved out for people to sit in, and internal organs exposed as a sterring mechanism.

The Silt Striders are giant insects with bits carved out for people to sit in, and internal organs exposed as a steering mechanism.


I started my quest as a sword wielding warrior with decent enough equipment for my level. After completing the tutorial and the various quests in the starting area, I was instructed to go talk to a man in a city called Balmora and encouraged to travel by Silt-Strider, essentially teleporting there and skipping all content between the two cities. Once there, I received a quest to talk to another guy who lived up in Gnisis, which is essentially across the entire map. This time I decided to see the game a bit so instead of teleporting again my warrior took to the open road. In completely the wrong direction. Eschewing the in game map and attempting to increase my immersion by relying merely upon the occasional road sign, it was not until I saw the  Silt-Strider station which looked oddly familiar that I realised I’d walked back to the starting village. So I walked back again to Balmora. Now 2 levels higher for my mistake, so I was fairly confident.

This confidence was quickly dashed when I came across a Damsel in Distress, who lamented the loss of her prized necklace to a Terrible Bandit. Seeing as this was directly on the path I was supposed to be taking to complete the main quest, I thought I’d lend a hand and smite the ne’re-do-well! I stocked up on potions and had my armour refined in the fires of the town’s forge. I set out to the villans hideaway, committing of small genocide of ‘Cliff Racers’ on the way.  I opened the door to his hideout and immediately see a guard peering through the low light towards me. I quickly removed my iron clad boots to silence my footsteps, allowing me to sneak behind the unsuspecting goon.  After gathering my strength, I plunged my sword in to his back greeted by the welcome ‘Sneak attack  for 3x Damage’ in the top left corner. My elation quickly turned to dismay however, when I realised that this mighty strike only dented the guards health. My dismay then turned to anguish as the guard proceeded to kill me in two quick chops of his axe.

For some reason, the image of my character wont load. So you get the IGN.Com drivel instead :P

For some reason, the image of my character won't load. So you get the IGN.Com drivel instead 😛

Crestfallen, I reload my quick save and try again, instead attempting to kite him around with spells and arrows. Alas, for it was to no avail. His health was too great and his damage too high. This pattern was repeated with every other quest I found, including the one’s which progressed the game’s narrative. They all threw me up against character’s whose stats were too padded for me to have a chance in high hell to succeed. The game presented my with an dichotomy, anything outside a dungeon or quest was pitifully easy and anything within was impossibly hard. Now, maybe I was merely supposed to follow a different path as the narrative does diverge into four paths depending on which factions you align with, however there are no circumstances under which the player should be punished in such a way for a choice about which the player had no information. I had grinded for hours due to my directional difficulties so to encounter this sort of difficulty merely from following the central narrative was ridiculous. If there’s going to be a way to go about things such that the difficulty ramps up gradually then it should be signposted, however this arbitrary increase in difficulty merely led to large amounts of frustration.

Compounding this was the nature of the difficulty hike. It’s not as if I stumbled into a legion of crack troops, it was some oversized ants and some not too bright henchmen. The game increased the difficulty without any adherence to it’s own internal logic, by providing me with an instance of a foe which was identical in every respect save for having 4 times as many hit points. If the cave had contained instead four henchmen who had quickly run me out I would have easily accepted the defeat, however the instead defied it’s own conventions and thus shattered my immersion in the process. This difficulty technique is also frustrating for the player as it requires an increase in PC power as opposed to player skill and while the player may gain some join from the former, it is the achievement of the latter that creates a lasting feeling of accomplishment within the player.  Indeed this is something I have found consistently throughout Morrowind’s combat system, that it is the numbers which increase instead of the players options and ability.

Originally Greater Bonewalker was supposed to have his own concpet art, however as budgetting constraints made themselves felt, he was given the same art as his lesser brother.

The Problem

Arbitrary and uneven difficulty spikes, orchestrated in such a fashion as to break player immersion

The Solution

  • Have the main narrative guide the player through an appropriate advancement curve. This ensures players always have a way to return to achievable content while still allowing them the freedom to go out and get killed in high level zones if they wish.
  • Make the increases in difficulty more believable. Instead of having Identical Orc A and B where B has four times the health, consider making Orc B actually Dragon A, or at least Heavily Armoured Orc B.
  • Change the advancement to place a greater emphasis on player skill, by changing the ‘level up’ to provide more abilities instead of merely increasing the damage an existing one does.  Particularly a problem in melee combat.
  • Change the difficulty progression from Enemy A – Enemy A +1 to Enemy A- Enemy B, where B may merely enemy A with a new ability. Vary up the nature of the enemy attacks and force the player to adapt to new situations, rather than presenting them with the same fight a hundred times over. The game does do this to an extent. But no enough, due the the lack of variety in melee combat.

Written by Aonshix

July 1, 2009 at 9:07 pm