Guest Columnist: Behind the Curtain

Nick Halme | 3 Mar 2009 21:00
Op-Ed - RSS 2.0

Those of you that are somewhat code savvy can think of it like a program - a good program needs to fail well, not crash, when something goes wrong. While games that provide a great user experience are fun rides, they're not very flexible, and when they are flexed they often snap and break. Game designers like to refer to the effect of being immersed in a game as being "in the magic circle." When a game breaks it's because the player has found a way out of the magic circle, and the experience is broken.

An example of a game that breaks well is Rainbow Six Vegas 2. Because of its transparently RPG-like weapon unlock system you can actually have more fun playing the game incorrectly. Rather than notice the hoops and jump through them begrudgingly, you can jump through the hoops the way you want to and get some loot while you're at it. For example, I managed to find one small area of the game, a parking garage with a hostage situation just beyond it, which I exploited for two hours to unlock every weapon in the game. It sounds like tedious grinding, but it involved the formation of a plan of action and very quick reflexes.

I would run out of a door, leaving my teammates behind, and head towards the garage. Every shot was rehearsed and I never stopped moving, throwing grenades into just the right spot, with just the right timing - throwing grenades one after the other; first blowing open a door then blowing up the enemies that spawned behind it. Then when I was done I would run into the hostage room, kill the first enemy I saw, and let the others kill me -- then I would gladly respawn and do it all over again.

Instead of playing the slow-paced tactical shooter Ubisoft wanted me to play, I was engineering a very quick Groundhog Day scenario, playing the same little shooting puzzle over again every two minutes. It was so fun that I kept doing it after I'd unlocked all the weapons, which was my original intention.

It's a precarious balance, to be sure. Rainbow Six Vegas 2 is flexible enough to break well when the player goes against the grain (you could say it allows you to create your own, smaller magic circle to play within), but it doesn't come close to the narrative guidance allowed by a heavily scripted game like Call of Duty 4. Just to nail the point home, you should know that the last boss in Vegas 2, a tactical cover-based shooter, is a helicopter you fight by yourself. You can't have your cake and eat it too, as they say.

Maybe one day game developers will have enough time and money to create a game system that doesn't rely on heavy scripting to be cinematic and guiding, and videogames won't have to have a transparent set of rules if they want to deal with players who want to go against the grain. But in the meantime there are games like Grand Theft Auto 4 that just skirt the problem entirely by designing the game to be broken all the time. Failing a mission and driving a car off the highway during a police chase is hardly the wrong thing to do in GTA.

But if we want that sort of flexibility in games then the game players have to be proactive about it. Game developers are obsessed with demographics; hitting a stereotypical target audience. If you don't tell them what you want they'll never give it to you in your lifetime. So stir up trouble, find exploits and show the world how fun doing the 'wrong' thing can be. It worked for Tribes - the ability to ski, or skim, along hilly terrain after falling from the sky was originally a bug. Soon enough it was "working as intended" and became a defining feature for the Tribes franchise. Question everything, break everything, and you'll be helping to find the fun. Because who is some game developer to tell you how to play your game?

Nick Halme is a freelance (out of work) designer who enjoys writing too much, and stays up late enough to qualify for vampire taxes. He'll die a happy man when games are more art than business.

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