Tuesday, May 27, 2008

Take it Easy on Me - Difficulty in Games

In finishing up Airport Mania, one of the things that was really a struggle was the difficulty. As the designer/producer of the game, I had played it a bizillion times by the time we were ready to go to beta. I used my scores as the starting baseline of what a 'good' score was to be on a level. (if you haven't played it, every level of the game has 4 skill levels that are based on your level score and are shown to you real-time as you are playing)

After putting together my baseline, we went to beta and I started gathering back in the results of how the players did and of course (for those who have done something similar) I found that most people were scoring about 1/2 to 1/3 of what I scored on each level. The highest score on any level was 60% of my score. Unfortunately I'd set the high scores on each level at 75% of my best scores. There was a pretty big gap.

So of course I moved the score needed to 'excel' down...a lot, and I kept tweaking the score goals all through our 6 week beta. In fact, by the time we released I'd dramatically changed all 4 skill levels at least twice on every one of the game's 84 levels. In the end I thought the game was incredibly 'easy,' but then I had played it a bizillion times.

Once we released I started reading player reviews and found that while some people found the game to be easy, some still found it to be impossibly too hard. I was certainly sad that the game couldn't be all things to all people, it only underscored the difficulty in getting the difficulty level in a game right.

While in hindsight I might have liked to add a second difficulty level, I have to say that I think making the game 'easy' was the right way to err. (honestly, based on sales, I'd say we definitely went the right direction for this particular game)

The similarities between movies and games fascinates me. One great advantage that movies have over games is that they control everything. Everyone watching a movie sees the same thing and regardless of whether the audience understands things or not, the movie will end and resolve the plot (unless the movie is just horrible or trying to be artsy).

Movies don't have to worry about whether or not the people in the theater are of different abilities. The people in the audience don't have to fight to save Endor or to save the White City themselves, it's all done for them. Unless they walk out of the theatre, movie goers get the whole experience from start to end.

Most people who play video games don't go all the way through most of the games they play. I can't count the number of people I've talked who start games, proclaiming their adoration of the title, and yet haven't finished the game...nor do they have any plans of doing so. (and of course I'm a member of this club)

Why don't people finish games? Well it's a topic big enough for 2 semesters of coursework, but one of the reasons people don't finish games is the difficulty.

I was talking to a long-time gamer last week who gave up on Mario Galaxy because they just wanted to play and hated the challenge of the boss fights. My own experience with the horrific 30-minute boss fights in Metroid Prime 3 is similar. I often consult guides and gamefaqs to figure out bosses...I have zero interest in figuring it out...I just want to move on to the next piece of the game. Boss fights are often like that lull in a bad movie when you wish they could just get back to the plot.

Like when I see a movie, I want to see the whole game. I like the story and the set and the characters...there's just parts that don't thrill me. If the game was a movie, I'd wait it out, knowing that a bad scene can only last so long. But in a game, I tend to quit, and the game joins the hundreds of others on my shelf that are unfinished despite how good I thought they were. (how many GREAT unfinished games are there on your shelf?)

Of course...at 34 I'm old for a gamer (as I'm often reminded) and I'm not very good at games (though I was VERY close to cracking the Top 10 in the last Mario Kart Wii Tournament).
I also work increasingly in casual games, which are focused on making it easy for players to immediately play. So clearly I'm biased towards easy...

...but I'm also clearly not alone in my desire. A very healthy percentage of players of Half-Life 2 Episodes 1 & 2 are playing Half-Life on easy! Fairly or unfairly I label Half-Life players as a very hard core group. One that eats wild animals for breakfast and calls a 3-inch cut a mere flesh wound. They're the ninja masters of gaming. ...and nearly 20% of them like their games easy. It's like watching an army field general do ballet in front of his troops. (not that there is anything wrong with that!) It's amazing to see the ninja masters of gaming looking for their games to be easier.

With Airport Mania, I made it easy. Part of that comes from my belief that the majority of people who play casual games are looking for relaxation, not metal taxation. Part of it comes from my own experience in thinking that most games, even those made for kids are much more difficult than they should be. (THQ...seriously? what is up with the difficulty of your games...take a note from Travelers Tales...please!)

A lot of players aren't playing games through to the end. They are giving up very early on. Developers who have played the game over and over don't realize just how much harder it is for the average player to do what has become second nature to those who created the game. I think hard difficulty levels for those who are looking for the challenge and apparently have nothing to do all day but play games are great! Just be sure to include the easy difficulty level when you make your game. I want to see how it ends!

Monday, May 12, 2008

Rant: Innovation - to love, to fear

With WiiWare launching today I've been feeling like a kid again. I only got a short play session with Lost Winds, but I was just thrilled with the innovative game play. I was playing something unique and fun that continually made me smile. However, the truth is that most people won't be playing Lost Winds today or anytime soon because they'll have trouble comprehending it simply because it is so different. They complain that the wind is just a little too difficult to control or wonder why you can't just press jump like EVERY OTHER PLATFORMER for the last 25 years. The point of course is that Lost Winds isn't like all of those other games. It takes what you are used to and changes the play to something you are not used to. I hope that everyone will get a chance to play this little gem, but again, I fear most people will skip it.

From a MSNBC article today on WiiWare:
It's whimsical. It's smart. It's different. But in the games biz, "different" isn't always a good thing.

From running GameTunnel for 5 and a half years now, I have a little experience on the topic of what people think of 'different.' Though I wish they were wrong, I think MSNBC nailed it on the head.

Innovation in games is like 2nd Life. Everyone is always talking about it, but it doesn't make enough money to be anything more than an interesting discussion piece.

That's also the definition of lip service.

Lip service and innovation have become too good of buddies over the last few years. XBLA was supposed to be the Sundance of Indie games. I work for the company that made Wik, one of the first games on the service. I've been told by many people that Wik is still the most innovative title on XBLA. That doesn't surprise me. After Geometry Wars struck it big Microsoft wanted more of the same. Big explosions, mind-number particle effects. I heard that from Microsoft myself as we were pitching our 2nd XBLA title to Microsoft, just 5 months after the 360 had been released. I don't blame MS, they did what every other other company in their place has done. They used the words like 'innovation' and 'indie' to get newspaper noteriety, and then gave the public what was selling well...more of the same games we've been playing for the last decade.

I'm not saying that there isn't any innovation in Halo 3 or COD4 or Guitar Hero 3 or Assault Heros or Undertow or Uno. There is.
But it is a different type of innovation than you get in Lost Winds or in Wik. One is trying to take the familiar and improve it, the other is taking the familiar and making it unfamiliar. Tower of Goo is a great example of this as it takes bridge-building physics and recreates it in a way that feels totally different than any construction game you've ever played with a style that just as unique.

Not lost in all of this is a third type of innovation, which core gamers find the most frightening of all. That is where you take the totally unfamiliar and present it to gamers. It's fodder for another post, but Nintendo has become masterminds at doing this. Which is more innovative WiiFit or GTA4? It's apples to oranges, but if you are looking for something that is totally unlike what you've been playing, WiiFit is what you are looking for. GTA4 is innovative in the sense of taking what you know and making it better. WiiFit gives you an experience unlike any other game yet released.

As much as we love to talk about innovation, my experience tells me core gamers are scared to death of it because it doesn't look like what they are used to. Innovation looks like WiiFit, and core gamers just don't know how to react to it other than to attack it the same way they would an alien in Halo.

Increasingly I find myself not only frustrated at companies like Microsoft who are using 'Innovation' and 'Indie' to meet their own goals without providing what I think of as innovation, but I'm also frustrated at the gamers who pass over interesting games like Wik and who instead of loving the new gameplay offered by the Wii have long lists of reasons why they hate it.

I'm hoping, as I have for many years in running GameTunnel, that gamers will give innovative WiiWare games a chance and that games like Lost Winds and Tower of Goo will sell by the bucketload. I've been doing GT long enough to make me to recognize the truth in what MSNBC said, but I hold out hope for gamers embracing the unfamiliar and innovative works of those who are setting out to truly give us a different experience. The fact that the Wii is selling better than any console in history gives me hope that maybe this time, innovation will be embraced and that everyone will be able to enjoy these uniquely fun experiences.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Does the Picture on the Box Matter?

I'm a big fan of what Nintendo is doing. I think their focus on Innovation and Fun is right on the mark. So, I rarely make any effort to note where they are missing the mark, but with WiiFit mania soon to come upon in the US, I can't help but think Nintendo has made a mistake.

The box on the right is what WiiFit looks like in Europe and Japan. I love it. It says so many things without cluttering up the box. The sense of exercise is quite strong, with a focus on silhouettes.

This box is the US Box. I think it is a disaster.


The box says toy.

I think a lot of the success that Nintendo has had in the US, which of the 3 regions appears to be where it has the most success, has been due to the Wii being purchased by many groups of people. This box tries to capitalize on that by putting many groups of people on the box. There is a problem with doing that. By putting everyone on the box, you for sure put something on the box that makes someone feel like they don't relate.

In this case I think the box makes the Wii less mainstream and more kid. It feels more like boardgame boxes from 10 years ago that had the family all around the game smiling. There is nothing wrong with that image, but it does preselect a specific group. In this case, it selects against people who want to pull the game out with their older friends. A group of all 40 year or 20 year olds doesn't want to pull out a board game at their party where on the box half of the people are kids. By putting faces to the box you've started selecting groups, which makes some people feel less inclined to be involved.

The Japan box doesn't have these issues b/c it skipped them entirely. The US box is likely to make Mom just a little more likely to refer to the Wii as a kid's toy...which is exactly the opposite of the message that Nintendo has been successfully conveying for the last 18 months.
I'm sure the US will still sell many copies of WiiFit, but I worry that if this approach continues, that the Wii will become a kid's toy in the US, which will ultimately keep it from reaching the marketshare it could otherwise reach.

The recent ads for Mario Kart Wii, only serve to make me more concerned that Nintendo of America may have lost its way when it comes to marketing their very popular console.