Thursday, December 3, 2009

How My Grandfather Won The War: Designing for One

Movies =/= Games
You can spend your whole life enjoying something made by others, but it's not until you try to make one yourself that you realize how much effort needs to go into it. This goes for any craft, job, or project. My main focus here will be on games, though all forms of entertainment are within acceptable bounds for my thoughts. I mean, it would be so cool to only have movie directors write reviews of their peers' works, but then they'd be talking about aspects that we, as an audience, wouldn't really appreciate/understand. That's why I will accept Rotten Tomatoes and my local newspaper for what they have to say, since they represent the common movie-goer. Though as with anyone's opinion, it's just an opinion.

There are a lot of factors that go into enjoying a movie or not. The experience of movie-watching has enough to do with the surrounding environment, people, and events leading up to that 2-hour moment as the movie itself. Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the Super Mario Bros. movie each and every time I see it, despite the horrible reviews from critics and Bob Hoskins himself. I was a kid and anything magical that had to do with my Nintendo was a winner in my book.

But that's movies. One needs only a comfy seat and attentiveness to let the magic happen. At the very least, every person that watches a given movie is (more or less) watching the exact same thing (there are matters of screen size and audio fidelity, though insignificant at best). Such is not the case for games. Games are designed to follow a certain guideline of events and plots and adrenaline moments, but no two players are going to have identical experiences (or rather see the same series of events). That is precisely why a review of a game is more like one account of an experience out of many. I suppose you could count the different experiences that individuals would get out of a single movie, but at least they all watched the same thing. A novice to racing sims who constantly crashes into walls will dislike the game for entirely different reasons than a veteran who looks down upon the lack of tune-up features and varying strengths of snow tires.

The Competition
Thus we have finally arrived at what you came here to read: a brief peek into my mind when creating my recent entry for's CGDC6, How My Grandfather Won The War. I had been meaning to enter the prior competitions but had too much schoolwork on my lap to convince me I could complete whatever I designed. This time, school was summed up into a diploma on my wall, and my 9-5 job had yet to show its menacing cubicle-shaped face. The time was now (i.e. then).

The steps toward creating the game out of thin air were a matter of balancing two factors: the theme of the competition and what I could actually make. The theme was "explore" and I was in the mood to make a shmup (shocker, I know). I figured that the idea for scrolling across a plane wouldn't cut it for exploration, and an arena shooter would firmly leave the player in one area, so I decided to create a mechanic that would reveal an alternate vision of the world through which the player would travel. To simplify that thought: The player shoots something that opens up paths to survive. In essence, the player would both be exploring how to get past each obstacle, and would be uncovering some visual piece of information to make sense of the world.

I wanted this mechanic to not only be in the spotlight, but to also be one of the few things to even worry about. That's why I chose to not have the player be able to move horizontally, so that more brain power could be used to focus on shooting. I also removed many of the standard conventions of shmups, including bombs, scores, and upgrades. The only HUD in the game is a single bar that decreases as the player rapidly shoots. Otherwise, the gameplay itself is the star of the show. In essence, this shmup was more of a dodge-em-up, in that you cannot destroy obstacles directly with your shots. You can only evade.

This made for some very fun brainstorming. Each of the obstacles in the game were specifically designed to cater to a different type of necessity of avoidance: the spikes are static and only appear at the edges, the flames create a vertical wall, the swinging tentacles create sudden and immediate danger to their left and right, etc.

Stream of Consciousness
The story itself was loosely based after the emotions I felt as a kid when hearing stories from my grandfather. They were outlandish, unpredictable, and quite enjoyable. The build-up of the story was so fun that it oftentimes made the ending lackluster in comparison, perhaps because I knew it was over at that point. This retelling of my childhood emotions through stream-of-consciousness is why nothing in the game really belongs together: orange spiky bursts followed by ambiguous tentacles, followed by a wave of shurikens. It's also why I chose to go with a cardboard theme, to solidify the child-like feeling of the game, and to hopefully endorse an exploration. That, and I tried the style before and really enjoyed it.

There was just one problem: the game was really hard. And even worse, I had designed it exactly as I had envisioned, leaving me at those dreaded crossroads of changing the gameplay to find something of equal merit that would satisfy a more acceptable difficulty. Now, this type of dilemma is no stranger to me, as I spent 18 months revising my Computer Animation thesis at Ringling until enough people were satisfied with it (basically, just the faculty, as friends always "loved" it and my partner and I were concerned enough with meeting deadlines while making changes and maintaining our original pitch as much as possible). The point is, change is good, and it's especially good when you have more and more people test out your game before it gets sent out to the masses for rapid-fire rating and [dis]approval. My game most certainly succumbed to a lack of playtesting before submission, resulting in me taking the easier, less effective route: build around the difficulty and cater to the skilled.

I realized that eventually, the player would run out of "juice" for shooting and inevitably be forced to dodge the oncoming obstacles manually until the meter refilled enough. Since I had no way of knowing where this would occur for each player, I made sure to design the entire game so that it could be flown through without shooting once. That's where I got the idea to reward the player for beating the entire game without shooting (a feat that, one month after submission, has been achieved publicly by less than a dozen people).

The majority of players were getting stuck in the first few seconds of the game. The reason? A life system that starts at 3, cannot be replenished, and forces the player to start at the beginning of the game after 3 deaths. Couple this with a foreign shooting mechanic (new to me, too) and it was a recipe for limited progress. I at first found this "within acceptable bounds" since the game takes less than 6 minutes to play from start to finish. The community at JIG was overwhelmingly verbal about this issue, so I submitted an update that would only set players back to the latest checkpoint upon game over. On top of that, the first two deaths became freebies, as the player would continue from the point immediately after the obstacle that caused his or her death (sans the boss battles).

My Personal Bruce Willis
I immediately saw improved results from players who persistently attempted to get through it, and I appreciated their efforts that much more. I knew from the beginning that this game would not be enjoyable by all, playable by even less, beatable by less than that, and only "truly" beaten by a select few. For some reason, I liked it this way. It reminded me a bit of Mr. Glass from Unbreakable, a villain who would ceaselessly create national tragedies to find the one man who was his opposite, a man that could not be broken (oh, right... spoiler alert back there). Though I really shouldn't gloat about feeling like an antagonist, especially in a medium where people come to get away from the stresses of life. I did get hooked on the feeling. I even designed the music and sound effects to promote simple, enjoyable gameplay in order to lure in the masses until I would find my Bruce Willis.

I did eventually find my Bruce Willis, though he exists in any player who completed the game without shooting once. One JIG member even went so far as to make an entire walkthrough of the game, explaining the tricks to getting around every obstacle, by both shooting and by purely dodging. This intentional difficulty was a risky move by me, especially for a competition where you want to receive the best judgment possible, by both the community and the judges. I did end up winning 3rd place though, and almost every person was impressed with my visuals (thank you, BFA ♥), but very few could say kind words about the gameplay, which is the most important aspect of any game.

The good news is that I agree with them. One member pointed me to a fantastic post at RetroRemakes that basically says, "There is no such thing as too easy." Some games are intentionally designed to be as difficult as possible(nsfw). Others do it unwittingly. And then some games want it to be difficult, but not immediately apparent. I do know that there is a small niche of players who crave masochistic gameplay, but I probably had no business trying to find them at a casual games website.

Oh, and the bad news? It's actually good news for me, but bad for "fans" of my game (you do exist, you do exist...). I'm not going to make the necessary changes to this game, not going to make it more for the masses and ultimately enjoyable by many. It was a competition entry, it served its purpose, I finished it, and I have other games I'd like to create. The good news is that I've learned my lesson on catering to varied skill levels, and am more than happy to (and looking forward to) allow the casual player to jump in and enjoy my work as much as those few dedicated individuals who would not stop at "Try Again".

Feedback Is Everything
The positive, constructive feedback from the JIG community (and partially from ArmorGames, many of whom were from JIG anyway) has been a wonderful help in pushing me in the right direction for my future work. I've had some people applaud my efforts, many more explain why it needed much improvement, and some who are absolutely convinced that it does not follow the theme of "explore" one bit. They all have valid points, and I thank them all for voicing their meaningful opinions, but no comments have as deep an impact on my future work as the collective bunch of 13-17 year olds (I checked; a few are older) that have such helpful words to share as:
  • "3 words, I... hate it"
  • "terrible game. one of the worst I have encountered on this site"
  • "Did your grandfather program this too? 0,5/10"
  • "Sometimes 'original' doesn't mean much. Take this game for instance, sure, it's unique. A beautiful unique turd. 2/10"
  • "-99999999999999999999999999/10"
Seriously, if I can win over people like this, then I've gotten everyone else as well. Besides, If I can't look back and laugh at stuff like this, then no one will end up having enjoyed the game. ;]

Also, here's a review from JIG. Now, to work on something new.

[cross-posted on Gamasutra]