The Developer Complex

17 Jul

The developer complex is something that I like to attribute to someone on the production side of videogames.  I have it, and so do many others.  In such a creative industry we keep looking for absolutes to fall back on; a process we can follow that will always be correct, the way a Hollywood writer will point to his three act structure.  There’s nothing wrong with it.  It only becomes dangerous when those absolutes aren’t tried and tested — then the theory looks fallible.

Over at Lost Garden, a design blog penned by Dan C, I came across an interesting post: “Soul Bubbles: A classic game ill treated by expert reviewers“.  First of all, I really respect Dan for all the theory he’s put forward and shared, but I can’t help but point out the bias in his post.  Not only does the article suggest that there is a process to be followed that produces classic games, it suggests that anyone who disagrees is a bad designer.  I cannot do the introduction justice, so I’ll let Dan take the reins.

“I wanted to turn your attention to a delightful little title called Soul Bubbles. I had a chance to play an early version of the game and was impressed by its lead designer, Olivier Lejade, careful attention to the difficulty level of the game.

When it finally launched, I was intrigued to see its aggregate reviewer score hovering at 77%. That is a middling score, but I expected better. Yet when I glanced at the user rating, it was pegged at an impressive 92%. From the user’s perspective, we are talking about an instant classic, with a higher aggregate user ratings than either press favorites Halo 2 (91%) or Halo 3 (89%).”

The article goes on to describe the enthusiast press, with an egregiously spiteful tone, as jaded gaming experts.

“Reviewers, specifically, are almost by definition experts. In order to multiply their meager paychecks, they train themselves to quickly plow through dozens of games. They’ve crunched through so many levels, powerups, puzzles and collectibles that they are walking encyclopedias of game design techniques.”

What better people to objectively judge the relevance and quality of a videogame than experts, right?  Not according to Dan.

“Since the act of learning is where a large amount of single player fun arises from, many expert gamers find it more and more difficult to derive pleasure from each new title. Games often reuse mechanics and the even an innovative game like Soul Bubbles starts feeling the same.”

Really?  The act of learning is the fulcrum of single-player games?  I disagree wholeheartedly, sir.  Solitaire is an exceedingly simple example of a single-player game in which players must know the rules completely to even begin to play.  According to Dan’s logic, the fun of Solitaire should be in learning its rules and not in the application of those rules.

Yes, learning the rules of a game can be fulfilling, but only in that it now allows you to play the game.  There is a correlation there, but not causation — learning to play a game is not fun because of the process, but because once the rules are learned they can be applied and the game can be played on a different level.

If the game’s rules are easy to learn, as in Soul Bubble, you have not necessarily made an easy game: Geometry Wars is ridiculously simple to play, but to get a high score is just as ridiculously difficult.  Why is that?  When the game starts it teaches the player some simple rules: move with the left stick, direct fire with the right, and stay away from enemies all the while. As time goes on it becomes increasingly more difficult to adhere to those rules, and the player’s skills are tested.  More enemies are introduced which expand the original ruleset and test the player’s accrued skills.

Soul Bubbles, on the other hand, appears to have mistaken a correlation for causation.  Learning how to play a game is fun because of difficulty; like in Geometry Wars, players enjoy learning one thing and then having to expand their knowledge of the game rules — basically, people like to overcome obstacles.  So you can say that there is a correlation between fun and learning how to play a game.  But the cause of the fun comes from having your knowledge of the rules, your skills, tested.  Therefore building a game where learning and exploring the rules is not challenging produces no obstacles to be overcome, and doesn’t test the player’s knowledge of the ruleset.

An easy game about exploring is then more accessible, but much less rewarding to play.  But the problem with this logic seems to go deeper than this misinterpretation of the correlation between learning and fun.

“Through a rigorous and iterative process that involved going to real users, they nailed the difficulty level. That is why the aggregate user ratings are up at 92%.”

Designers often feel the need to direct their game at someone; a target demographic.  Soul Bubbles certainly did target the audience that wants to play a game with a low barrier to entry and a low difficulty curve.  But at the same time they have completely alienated any other demographic, including the one that most critics fall into. The aggregate user score is high, sure.  But how many people contributed to Soul Bubble’s score, and how many contributed to Halo’s?  The fact that Halo is still rated so highly after so many scores is much more impressive.

Having participated in and conducted several playtests I would have to disagree with Dan’s idea of a “real user”.  Players with little game experience do not know what the game could be, they only know what it is currently.  Having no knowledge base they will often settle for things, or ask for things they believe will be fun.  In the same way that they won’t always know how to backwards engineer your puzzle, they don’t actually know if their idea to add more coins will be fun.

1UP reviewer Dana Jongewaard seems to describe Soul Bubble’s failing in a reasonable fashion.  Apparently the game is rather rote, and can even be frustrating because of mechanics and not a difficulty curve.

“The story framework is pretty dorky, but with puzzle games, plot is insignificant if the gameplay holds up. Unfortunately, Soul Bubbles gets rather repetitive as you make your way through the eight different worlds. Much of this is because the game explicitly explains how to overcome obstacles in your path, and then it beats you over the head by repeating the same challenge type through the rest of the levels in that world. And while you only have to make it to the end with one soul, the souls are tiny and clump together — so if some hazard pops their bubble, they often end up dying en masse anyway, forcing you to start over.”

Strangely enough, or perhaps not, the only 1UP user review is astoundingly positive, and is from someone in Paris with a blank account.  Odd, isn’t that where the developers are from, too?

As designers we can appreciate games for executing their vision well, or implementing mechanics successfully, even for the amount of polish put into something.  I enjoy a good many games that other people hate, but I understand why they hate them and their complaints are justified.

The videogame industry is very unique, but at the end of the day it’s like any other industry.  As a developer you put out a product and you hope people like it.  People cannot be incorrect in liking or disliking your product.  If it is the most beautiful piece of art and someone doesn’t understand it, then find someone who does, don’t insult that person by attacking their taste.

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3 Responses to “The Developer Complex”

  1. Danc July 17, 2008 at 6:24 am #

    Thanks for the comment on the post. 🙂 I hope the essay didn’t come across as overly critical of customers…it was more an attempt to explain some of the dynamics that occur when folks attempt ‘objective’ game criticism.

    I would like to dig a little further into the ‘games are learning’ piece. When I say that games are about learning, I want to be clear that I’m talking about multiple levels of learning that go beyond simply learning the rules. With a game like Go, it only takes a short while to learn the explicit rules of the game. However, much of the joy comes from figuring out the deeper emergent strategies.

    Card games like solitaire also fall into this camp. The flash of success that comes from finally laying down all your cards does something wonderful to the pattern recognition circuits in our happy little brains. That is learning, or at least perceived learning (in the case of gambling games)

    Having “your skills tested” is an active learning process. What I hear you saying is that rote learning is different than the sort of ‘fun’ we like to see in games. I’d agree with this. Rote learning, through memorization or instruction, doesn’t seem to be nearly as effective or emotionally rewarding as the sort of learning that comes from experience, putting skill into action and seeing fuzzy theories blossom into success.

    Wonderful stuff.

    Also, I recommend that you observe users, not implement their requests. The two paths are quite different as I’m sure you know. Observation is most useful when you notice people aren’t having fun. To me this is a pretty objective measurement: if a large percentage of people that you test with are having a blast playing your game and this is the audience where you’ll be spending vast amount of marketing dollar, then things are going well. If people are bored or frustrated, then perhaps it is time to roll up your sleeves and put that expert design noggin to work making the game better.

    Best wishes,
    Danc.

  2. nickhalme July 17, 2008 at 8:43 am #

    Thanks for the thoughtful reply!

    I suppose the act of learning needs some more clarification when applied to game design, as clearly you were referring to a much more subtle sensation than I. What I took away from your application of the word learning was the act of players deciphering game mechanics (gaining skills the game teaches) and then using those mechanics in challenging situations (application of those skills).

    I wholeheartedly agree that, as far as human brain chemistry is concerned, games are about learning and discovering, and some games can certainly concentrate on that quality.

    I also very much agree with what you’re saying about observing users; my problem was really with the steps provided, with the third making it seem like direct action was necessary after playtests, rinse, repeat until the game is right for the ‘real user’. I think it can be said that Nintendo generally builds games that people didn’t know they wanted, as opposed to following market trends. It makes for more original, and usually ‘better’ games on the whole — I’m sure you know this and we’re just running into a semantics wall.

    My other issue was with the blunt treatment of game critics. No, game criticism is not very far along compared with other forms of criticism, but it is coming along. Ian Bogost is making some interesting ripples with his whole Unit Operations stance, for instance.

    As experts, I think their opinions should be valued but, just as you would do with a user in a playtest, you have to take everything they say with a grain of salt. Just as developers develop better work habits and get more work done faster and better, so too do reviewers become more knowledgeable by just doing their job, and it shouldn’t be held against them for being part of that core gamer demographic.

    I think it’s a bit of a frightening trend, thinking in demographics. I strongly believe that, given the ability to access them, ‘normal’ people who are not exposed to videogames can enjoy and master any hardcore game. Who are we to think that someone who’s never tried Half Life wouldn’t get it if they tried it for a while, while we feed them more of what we think they want — so-called casual games and the like.

    Once again, thanks for the reply, and I have to say that “putting skill into action and seeing fuzzy theories blossom into success” is quite an insightful way of describing the learning process 🙂

  3. mike harris February 27, 2009 at 4:07 pm #

    I just found your blog on google. I really liked it and now I will share it with my friends.

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