Feedback Loop

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Previously on Spectre Collie, I snapped my tether and responded to a critique of games I worked on. The claim was that adventure games are bad at giving feedback to the player, partly because it’s impossible for the game to know what the player’s thinking. I agreed that adventure games are usually lousy at giving feedback, but disagree that it’s a problem unique to adventure games. It’s a problem for any game that requires the player to make deductions more sophisticated than “put the red key in the red door.”

And, I claim, it’s not because videogame puzzles are inherently cerebral, but because we all like to believe that they are. We emphasize the “a-ha!” moments, where the player suddenly figures out the solution to a problem and all the remaining pieces fall into place, at the expense of all the “but what if…?” moments that build up to that. That leaves developers trying to second-guess what’s going to make sense to the player, and leaves the players trying to second-guess what the developers were thinking when they set up this puzzle. And to me, that’s not a fundamental game design problem, but a communication breakdown.

After I posted that, a friend in the comments interpreted the post as saying “games should have in-game hints.” And for some reason, another blog interpreted it as talking about the Strong Bad games instead of Sam & Max. Those are unintended but convenient examples of what can happen when there’s a communication breakdown. It’s also a convenient excuse to give more concrete examples of what I’m talking about, explain why Half-Life 2: Episode 2 is the most frustrating game in recent memory, curse Minority Report for repeatedly insulting my intelligence, and say that difficulty levels in videogames are bad.

Myth 10: Player-selected difficulty levels are the best way to ensure a videogame is accessible to the widest possible audience.

First, a reminder: so far, every one of these “videogame myths” is an actual thing I’ve read somewhere on the internet. In this case, it was an argument on a message board I used to read, where one side claimed that including difficulty levels was developer laziness, and the other side claiming that not including them is developer arrogance. Yet another reminder that I need to get a hobby outside of work.

The author of that Design Lessons post made a complaint that was fairly common about the Sam & Max games: the first season was too easy, and the second season got too hard. When the games were first released, they got the most attention from fans of the LucasArts game, people who’d been playing adventure games for years. And now that the first season has been released on the Wii (and the second season is coming soon!) you can see a pretty clear shift in the response: more people complaining about “frustration” and “needing patience.”

What’s interesting to me about all of those is how adamant the reviewers are. You’d rarely if ever hear that the game was too easy or too hard “for me,” but that it was clearly, insultingly easy, and what were the developers thinking? (And, it should be mentioned, every single episode of Sam & Max has had people on the forums asking for hints). Or on the other end, it’s not “I got stuck,” but “the genre is broken and deserved to die.” The OMG INTERNET BIAS!!! implications of this are legion, but that’s a topic better left to irate forum-goers. What’s interesting to anybody working on ostensibly “thinking” games is the realization that there simply is no such thing as a universal standard of difficulty.

And if you cater too much to one group, you’re inevitably going to alienate another. The worst thing you could do would be to shoot for some idea of the “lowest common denominator,” which games are starting to do to an increasingly alarming degree, and which movies have been doing for years.

Thought crimes against your intelligence

Case in point: Minority Report. After all the complaints about “the aliens” at the end of AI, I can understand Steven Spielberg’s wanting to make sure that absolutely everyone in the audience understood what happened at the end of his precog murder mystery movie. But I was able to piece together the story as we were shown the clues the first time through. And then I had to watch as the story was explained again, then again, and then a fourth time. Seriously, the last 30 minutes of this movie is all recap.

I’m not claiming to be any type of film savant — just the opposite. There have been movies that I can figure out completely the first time through, but more often I’m taken completely by surprise by whatever they decide to throw at me, no matter how predictable. I’m reminded of David Chase’s quote about seeing The Planet of the Apes for the first time: “When it was over, I said, ‘Wow… so they had a Statue of Liberty, too.'” Even the “smartest” person in the audience is going to process a movie at his own rate, and it varies not only from person to person but movie to movie.

It almost makes you wish for some type of “interactive storytelling,” where the story doesn’t proceed until the audience has understood everything that’s happened so far and can predict what’s going to happen next, because it’s the audience who’s putting the story elements together.

And that’s essentially what an adventure game is. You’ll frequently see the complaint that a game without a twitch component is just like an “interactive storybook,” where the story waits for you to press the A button to advance. There are certainly plenty of games like that. But the ideal is that the story is waiting for you to figure out what’s happened so far, and then understand it enough to perform the next action to make it advance.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one

But even though we’re working in an ostensibly interactive medium, we’re still stuck on the idea of videogame storytelling being a fundamentally static presentation. “Here’s our story, you figure it out. Come back to us when you’re done.” We tell the player a story, turn control back over to him to shoot some guys or jump on some platforms, and then take the story back again to show the next piece of the story. There’s a lot of action going on, but not real interaction. Or to put it another way: a lot of talking, but no listening. And when the player hits a snag, we fix it by talking some more.

For example: the end of Half-Life 2: Episode Two has you driving around a lumber yard in a converted muscle car, tracking giant strider creatures on your radar, hopping out and firing sticky bombs at them with a rocket launcher, all in an attempt to keep them from destroying the resistance headquarters. In other words, pure awesome.

At least, in theory. The reality is that I’ve seldom felt such blind rage towards a game and its developers as I did when playing that section. The problem started with the intro to that segment: your character is given an explanation of what’s happening and what you need to do to stop it. And then, as with Minority Report, you’re given another explanation, then another, then another… It all involves slides and practice areas and elaborate multimedia presentations, in a sequence so prolonged that you begin wondering whether these credits will be transferrable to a four-year college.

After your schooling in Remedial Strider Destruction, you get to hop in the car and actually try it. This begins the second phase of frustration, where everything you try to do ends in shame, death, and exploding buildings. My colleagues kept screaming stuff at me on the radio, but it was all things I already knew: that I suck at driving and am only slightly better at shooting. I kept wishing that they’d tell me some secret, like a hidden way to get to the attackers, or a particularly vulnerable part on the body. But after countless deaths, I started to realize that there just wasn’t a secret.

I suspect, although I have no way of confirming this, that the reason for all the tutorials at the start of the section was because the developers realized that that section of the game was wicked hard. But the problem wasn’t knowing what I was supposed to be doing; the problem was actually doing it. I’ve no doubt that there were players who didn’t get the idea behind the strider battle, so for them, that extra tutorial time was useful. And I’m sure that there are plenty of players who had no problem with the shooting and driving, so for them, more help “in the field” would’ve been annoying. But the game treats us all the same.

Good at Movies

We don’t have a sense of somebody’s being “good at watching movies,” but we have no problem believing that people are “good at games,” or good at certain types of games and bad at others. Of course there’s a level of skill required for the “twitch” component of any action game, and that’s the kind of thing that’s easiest to put on a sliding difficulty scale: just increase damage points or decrease hit points and keep playing until it’s balanced. That’s part of the art of level design.

But even that is unpredictable: what’s “balanced” to a level designer (and definitely to a QA guy) is going to be too difficult for somebody with my poor motor skills. And trying to account for logic and deduction is even worse: you can’t reduce it down to numbers and play through again to see if it’s any easier, so you just have to make educated guesses at what people are going to be able to figure out. (And do as much playtesting with as big an audience as you possibly can).

Adding difficulty levels that the player selects at the beginning of the game is no fix. You’ve just made three to five educated guesses instead of just one. Maybe it’ll hit a wide swath of the audience; it’s just as likely that you’ve underestimated or overestimated your “target” audience and have managed to miss every one. And it’s even more likely that your “normal” difficulty is the one that’s gotten the most attention and play balancing, and the others are either ridiculously easy or ludicrously difficult. Now, add the fact that the player has to choose his level at the very beginning of the game, knowing nothing else except whether he’s “good at shooters” or “good at strategy games.” And even that isn’t consistent from game to game: I can play as a “Noble” in Civ IV, but I’m a King in Civ IV: Revolutions.

Ideally, we wouldn’t be making educated guesses, but keeping an eye on what the player’s doing and scaling the difficulty up or down accordingly. But that’s difficult. So as a result, most games put in tiers of difficulty for the stuff that’s more straightforward to gauge — the action sections — and assume the worst on the stuff that’s more changeable — the “thinking” sections. Which results in games with objectives screens telling you exactly what to do, mini-maps leading you directly to your next target, and interactivity that consists of plugging a power cable into the one empty slot on a wall and then being universally praised as the savior of humanity. (I criticize Half-Life only because I love it so much). That hasn’t made the games easier, since the obstacles between moments of empty interactivity are often maddeningly frustrating. It’s not easy to do, it just doesn’t require any real thought.

Does this bug you? How about now?

Scaling difficulty has been done before; it’s just never been done particularly well in the games I’ve played. (Or maybe it’s been done so well that I never noticed it was happening!)

Morrowind and Oblivion both have enemies that have more health and better equipment based on the player’s level. But this is pretty much the opposite of how it should be done, since it ruins the “dramatic arc” of the game. You can have a titanic battle with Bandit_A_2 that you randomly encountered in the middle of a field, followed by an anti-climactic showdown with the All-Powerful Archenemy Who’s Destroying The Universe. On the flip side, if you have static levels for all enemies, then traveling through the countryside and fighting random enemies is tedious. And the big story-based conflicts are unsatisfying, because you know that no matter what you do, the bad guy’s always just a little bit more powerful than you.

A possible fix for that — bearing in mind that I don’t work on action games, and I’m not a level designer — is keeping enemies in leader/minion groups. Send out a minion against the player, see how hard it is for him to beat, then scale the other enemies up or down accordingly. Or, since a lot of action games have linear sections anyway, just use the random enemies as a representative sample of how “good” the player is — however well or poorly the player does against the bad guys in the hallway determines the difficulty of the mini-boss at the end.

In terms of puzzle-solving, the situation’s not quite as dire as I made it sound earlier. Half-Life 2 in particular does some pretty clever things in terms of player feedback (albeit static). The places where you are confronted with a puzzle are typically self-contained, so you’re unlikely to wander off too far from the solution. And in a game where you spend most of your time alone in a world that’s intended to seem like you can go anywhere and do anything, they came up with an ingenious way to reassure the player that he’s on the right track. You can always look for a lambda symbol painted on a wall or on a sign somewhere, which not only reinforces the story of a planet-wide resistance against the aliens, but as a sign that yes, you are supposed to be here.

In adventure games, the hint system used in Telltale’s games has been universally regarded as a success, at least partly because players can choose how much or how little help they want at any time. But that’s only part of the feedback you get from an adventure game: there’s also the responses the player’s character takes when you try to do something, your conversations with NPCs, and even story events themselves. When we’re doing playtests, we don’t stand over the shoulder of someone who’s stuck and just say “Nope.” “Wrong.” “That won’t work.” every time he tries something. We try to give a clue that pushes him in the right direction without giving the puzzle away. If we can do that in person, then eventually we should be able to do that within the game. And once we’ve proven it in adventure games, then ideally that kind of thing can make its way into more action-oriented games.

And then I’ll never again have to interrupt a round of slaughtering bad guys to have a game treat me like a genius for pushing a square block on top of a square hole in the ground.

10 thoughts on “Feedback Loop”

  1. It’s not really fair for reviewers to treat adventures more harshly, but psychologically speaking, it’s pretty understandable.

    With the average challenge, you know what you’re doing, but simply failing at the task. Even with a straight puzzle game, your objective is typically crystal clear. Only in adventures are you regularly left with no clear idea of what you’re meant to be doing and how to go about it, which only makes the roadblocks more noticeable and artificial. There’s no scope for a ‘clever’ solution. When you’ve spent the last hour treading the boards, you don’t know if it’s because you suck, or because you’ve missed something, or if you’re just barking up the wrong tree entirely – trying to do a puzzle before you have everything you need, or thinking on a totally different wavelength. Any and all frustration you might be feeling gets targeted like a laser every time you get properly stuck.

    Even when you finally triumph, there’s frequently no particular high, either because the designer didn’t think this was a puzzle that warranted a particular reward, because missing part of the prep means that the solution seems to be from Mars, or because you brute-force pixelbitched your way to glory instead of actually ‘solving’ the puzzle. Something like the end of Episode 2 may be frustratingly stop-start-stop-start if you keep dying, but at least you’re always engaged in the experience you bought the game for.

    (Entirely randomly, I’d love to see a few more adventure games play around with concepts of perception, a bit like the old Laura Bow games or The Last Express. Partly because it amazes me that adventures constantly squander the potential of a good mystery, even if they’re nominally about detectives or whatever, but also for turning the typical treading-the-boards/external observer elements of the genre into a core part of the game. Even now, I might complain about backtracking over the same few locations, but I can still write a thousand words about how great it was to walk up and down a train for about five hours…)

    As for difficulty levels in general, Half-Life 2 always uses the same three stages for player tuition – letting the player do something without any real pressure, a second attempt to get the feel of it, and a third time in a controlled but genuine situation. I think it works pretty well for the most part. The main issue with the Strider battle for me was that it’s a complete gameplay shift from the earlier corridor pounding, and one which uses one of my least favourite mechanics in the game. I hate FPS driving. Hate it, hate it, hate it. I don’t care how well it’s done.

    My favourite difficulty system in recent years is the Achievement system, when done well. Xbox 360 games tend to waste the opportunity (“Yay! You’ve wasted enough of your life to play 1000 games!”) but Blizzard clearly has its head screwed on with some of its more advanced once. Kill Boss X? Fine. Anyone can do that. Now do it without taking a hit. You find the game too easy? Fine, try doing it naked. Or without a party. Or only using the starter weapon. Provided that the challenge is plausible, something like this is a great addition for the hardcore, with the bragging rights acting as a reward that doesn’t cut casual players out of the content. The communities being built up around the various platforms make it the perfect time for this kind of thing to come into its own.

  2. Hey, that’s pretty clever. It had never occurred to me that achievements are supplanting difficulty levels, and they’re doing a better job of it. The type of player who would get off on replaying a game at the “hardcore” level can just go for the “hardcore” achievement(s) without having to start over again from the beginning. And the rest of us can play through a well-balanced game without being told that we’re playing a gimped version. It seems obvious now, but I never grokked exactly why achievements are so compelling.

    As for the comments about adventure game difficulty: what I’m getting at in these two posts is that the stuff we assume to be true of adventure games doesn’t need to be true of them. If a game leaves you with no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, then that’s not “just how adventure games are,” it means that that part is poorly designed. The game should make it clear what you’re supposed to be doing, but leave it up to you to figure out how to do it. Frustration or tedium doesn’t need to be built in, as long as we can find out where people are getting stuck and then jumping in with ample feedback to smooth over the rough spots. It doesn’t have to be “you either get it or you’re screwed.”

    I want to dispel the notion that the frustrations people have with these games are built into the genre. Obviously, that’s partly because I want more people buying the games I work on, instead of dismissing the entire genre the first time they get stuck. But I also want to get rid of the idea that there’s no room in games for figuring out how to do something. There’s just too much satisfaction to be had from the “a-ha!” moments to see them getting dismissed as too frustrating.

    One time I had someone very patronizingly (and fruitily) explaining to me why the puzzles in “Braid” are superior to “adventure game puzzles.” The gist was the idea of having a small set of basic tools that work for a variety of solutions, as opposed to a wide set of tools that have one solution. As if that were an insightful discovery, or as if a player who was frustrated with “Braid” would suddenly say: Ah, I see! The problem has been with me all along!

    Plenty of people loved that game, and obviously their experiences shouldn’t be discredited. But mine shouldn’t either, and I thought the majority of it was just as frustrating, arbitrary and obtuse as any other game I’ve played. I’m not interested in trashing that game, but figuring out what’s common between my frustration with it and the frustration people have with adventures.

    Because I frequently found myself stuck with no idea what the solution was, stumbling around trying to brute force the answer, or resorting to a walkthrough. And none of the times I stumbled on the answer, did I get that “a-ha!” or “I should’ve known that,” even though the game’s defenders insist up and down that it’s 100% completely logical and the solution to the ills that plague other puzzle games. There is an inherent level of I Don’t Get It that’s endemic to these things, and it has nothing to do with the number of items in your inventory or the number of training levels you go through.

    I believe that for obstacles that have a single (or very small number) of solutions, it all comes down to the way you familiarize yourself with the game world, and the type and degree of feedback you get from the game when you try different things. Just about every game I’ve played treats the content as a static presentation: here is everything you might need to solve the puzzle or get to the next level or take over the world, now have at it. We need to get better at saying, “Here’s the initial problem and here’s your end goal. Try something.” And then with each thing the player tries, give an indication of what worked, or why it didn’t work and a nudge in the right direction.

    But because nobody does that, the consensus is that it’s not worth doing: that the idea of a “right direction” is an anachronism, and that games are all about enabling the player so that anything he does is “right.”

  3. “If a game leaves you with no idea what you’re supposed to be doing, then that’s not “just how adventure games are,” it means that that part is poorly designed.”

    Agreed, although with the standard models, the two things aren’t always mutually exclusive. Even the best adventures typically suffer from it to some extent, whether it’s via insufficient feedback or simple player incompetence.

    On a wider level, I think a lot of the issues come down to the great battle of problems vs. puzzles. There’s a subtle but important distinction. A problem is solved by asking ‘what can I do to solve this?’, while a puzzle is ‘what am I meant to do to solve this?’. The former makes me feel smart. The latter, increasingly annoyed and disconnected. Every nudge in the ‘right’ direction is still a nudge towards somebody else’s solution, which makes for a more artificial construct than even most puzzle games.

    In theory, Braid is exactly as locked down. In practice, I think the extra element of control you get over the character helps roll the solution in with player skill so that when you do finish something, it feels like an accomplishment.

    (Something like Facade – when it works – is probably the closest equivalent in adventures right now. One thing I think might work pretty well too in a world of online gaming and community chat is having stories with a couple of layers to peel away, and extra stuff to find – such as a second-playthrough with the knowledge you gathered on your first time round revealing that the murderer you arrested on your first game was actually innocent, or specifically setting up good talking points on things like the PC’s motivations and decisions in the course of the game. There’s so much untapped fun to be had with things like unreliable narrators…)

    As far as feedback goes, I’m often surprised by how few things people have tried over the years. For instance, plenty of games have had built in hint systems, but I don’t think I’ve ever seen one that incorporates – as just one random example off the top of my head – automatic Thief style loot glint for background items – a little shimmer to make something important pop out after the player has been stumbling long enough to be in need of a hint. I’d have killed for something like that during the Age of Pixelbitching.

    All this may well just be my perspective though – I’ve always seen adventures as a primarily narrative genre rather than a puzzle solving one. If I feel like part of the story, and involved in its world, I’m not typically bothered by the difficulty level. Easy, hard, I’m the guy with the pocket full of crap. What matters to me is the overall experience. I got into adventures in the 80s and 90s, when it was one of the most progressive genres around – where most of the coolest technologies earned their stripes, and where some of the most ambitious design took place. No other genre ever got me as excited about playing bedroom designer… or irritated with my inability to draw while playing with tools like AGS in recent years.

    Ah well…

    (P.S. I didn’t like Braid much either. I really, really wanted to, but I guess I’m more a World of Goo player…)

  4. A problem is solved by asking ‘what can I do to solve this?’, while a puzzle is ‘what am I meant to do to solve this?’. The former makes me feel smart. The latter, increasingly annoyed and disconnected. Every nudge in the ‘right’ direction is still a nudge towards somebody else’s solution, which makes for a more artificial construct than even most puzzle games.

    Well, I disagree that one approach is superior to the other; even in 2009 there’s plenty of room for both approaches. But part of the reason I started writing these things is because I’m increasingly seeing claims that open-ended systems are the natural progression for all games.

    Each approach has advantages and disadvantages: I’ve often felt clever for figuring out the solution to a puzzle, even though I’m aware that there was only one solution, and the designers figured it out before me. It’s not as important that it be “mine” as it is to feel a sense of communication with the developers. Ideally, it’s like understanding a particularly meaningful passage in a novel or scene in a film, except you’re not just getting the idea the artist wanted to convey, you’re repeating the process that he went through to get to that idea.

    On the other hand, I’ve also felt frustrated by artificial limitations in ostensibly open-ended strategy games. The solutions to problems may be mine, but it feels — for lack of a better word, and believe me, I’ve been trying to think of a better word — masturbatory. It removes that feeling of connection with the artist.

    As far as feedback goes, I’m often surprised by how few things people have tried over the years. […] automatic Thief style loot glint for background items – a little shimmer to make something important pop out after the player has been stumbling long enough to be in need of a hint.

    That’s one of the things that PopCap does extremely well, I’ve noticed. I think that part of the problem there is that games still don’t reward subtlety. It’s surprising how explicit you have to be with things — dialogue and visuals — before they register with players. (And conversely (and perversely), often throwaway comments or minor details will be interpreted as being extremely important).

  5. “Well, I disagree that one approach is superior to the other; even in 2009 there’s plenty of room for both approaches.”

    Oh, absolutely – that’s just a description of how I personally find the split between the two of them. In a similar vein, I have no interest in crosswords or puzzle books or gratuitous logic puzzles to open doors, but I absolutely love mystery shows like Jonathan Creek that let you play along with the detective at home.

    Even then, it’s by no means a sweeping statement. Day of the Tentacle is easily one of the most puzzle-focused adventures to hit the mainstream, but it’s still one of my top ten adventures. As with everything, I usually find the difference feels more pronounced the weaker the overall design becomes. I hated, hated, hated most of the puzzles in the Tex Murphy games for instance, even though The Pandora Directive is also firmly in the ol’ top ten.

    “I’ve often felt clever for figuring out the solution to a puzzle, even though I’m aware that there was only one solution, and the designers figured it out before me.”

    In many cases, I think that actually ties in with my thoughts. Within that context, the player and the developer are following the same basic thought process – albeit with different tools at their disposal. If nothing else, that’s going to work better due to being much more reliant on the world/character design than simply dropping a locked door in the way and coming up with a convoluted key.

    (And of course, that’s regardless of the way the puzzle was actually designed. Short of games upping the Director’s Commentary stakes with a little truth serum, it’s not like we can ever know for sure.)

    “That’s one of the things that PopCap does extremely well, I’ve noticed.”

    I love PopCap. They’re phenomenally good at polishing the second-by-second gameplay, especially by the time you hit Peggle. Everything from the constant reinforcement of “Yeah! You can do this!” rather than the usual “Mwah-ha-ha, you will never succeed!” to the sheer level of play that people reach without realising it, really shows off how much they know their stuff. Same goes for the incredibly subtle differences between Bejewelled and Twist – making the action so many times more complicated, while making it feel so straight forward. Can’t wait to see their zombie game

    “I think that part of the problem there is that games still don’t reward subtlety. It’s surprising how explicit you have to be with things — dialogue and visuals — before they register with players. (And conversely (and perversely), often throwaway comments or minor details will be interpreted as being extremely important).”

    True enough, and it’s definitely not helped by the fact that most players – old and new, as long as they’ve played some games – haven’t been trained to expect it in the first place.

    A similar situation I always find fascinating is how players react to an NPC capable of directly lying to them. It happens so rarely, it always throws people a curveball. A villain threatens us? Sure. Drops meaningful hints? No problem. Leaves out important information? Happens all the time. Turn traitor? Please, we saw it coming. But tell an actual, straight-up lie? Gasp! Evil has /limits!/

  6. Nice post, Chuck. Per your above post, did you mean, “fruitlessly?”
    Leveling in adventure game is art, not science. As you know, it can be approached as we did in Curse, by pre-solving puzzles, giving more obvious hints on easy, progressive in-dialog hinting, etc.
    I believe you’ve got to treat them as puzzle games, though Richard. That’s the genre. Take out the puzzles, it’s an interactive pop-up book and the market has whole-heartedly rejected that. There must be some challenge. Perhaps that’s just where your interest lies in the genre, so to each his own.
    But it’s art, not science and it all stems from knowing your target demo. Crazed old-time adventure game grognards will be incensed by a perceived dumbing down. New to the party Wii players will be incensed by incredibly obtuse puzzles.
    So, you pick your poison. Who’s buying your game?
    Now back in the day, we targeted people with a lot of time on their hands. In this case, it was a FEATURE to make puzzles that at first blush looked obtuse, but then gave you an “ah-ha moment.” This intermittent feedback was a high, that quickly wore off in the face of the fresh challenge after it. Challenge, that is.
    So, to make the game appeal to the casual user we broke the puzzles that were easy to break and reduced the duration of the game a lot.
    At the end of the day, the games were still too hard for most folk. Chuck how many people do you know who started curse, enjoyed it and didn’t finish? I know plenty. My parents, for instance. I think 99 percent of people never played Myst to its ending, but they enjoyed the game and liked talking about it. Myst is HARD.
    One underexamined part of the discussion is the time-fillers. Since Day of the Tentacle, we added tons of content to fill the monotony. Even if you were stuck, you could do something. In Curse, it’s jokes. In Myst, it’s exploration unencumbered by puzzles. Both are excellent ways to deliver interest without out and out telling them the answer to the puzzles. If their stuck, don’t leave them bored.
    In the age of skyrocketing production costs, this may not be practical, but it’s always been necessary to make adventure games more appealing to the masses. DOTT marks the start of the golden age of adventure games.
    I don’t think there’s a magic bullet to make everybody super happy. Just optimize your design for your best audience and try and reduce the pain for everybody else.

  7. “I believe you’ve got to treat them as puzzle games, though Richard. That’s the genre.”

    They’re games with puzzles, absolutely, but I don’t think that’s necessarily the same thing. For starters, pretty much no adventure game has ever been sold specifically on those terms – it’s invariably the story, the setting, being funny, being scary, or whatever else, and it’s those elements that people typically think back on the most fondly. There are exceptions of course, like the infamous Babel Fish in Hitch-Hikers, Le Serpent Rouge in Gabriel Knight III, or the Myst clock-tower but they’re relatively rare.

    (One of the few games I’d hold up from my own collection is Zork: Grand Inquisitor, which was almost all straight-up puzzles, but I absolutely adored. The comedy didn’t hurt, but the style they went for – things like changing Infinite Corridor to Finite Corridor using a magic spell to get rid of the letters ‘In’ – really clicked with me in a way that the Myst series never came close to)

    That said, I absolutely agree – you can’t simply strip out the puzzles and expect to have a game with what’s left. However, that still leaves a lot of untapped potential. We’ve never seen another game along the lines of Laura Bow for instance, or something that played with its setting in the same way as A Mind Forever Voyaging. For adventures to simply be puzzle games is only scratching the surface of the genre’s potential, in much the same way that thinking of FPS games as nothing more than bombing around fixed maps with rocket launchers would have robbed us of Thief. Very few genres have the same ‘this is what it should be’ vibe as adventures, which is fine for appealing to the old fans, but largely irrelevant when it comes to the mainstream who don’t know the old rules anyway.

    (BTW, just to clarify – the problem with banging out comments is that they tend to get a bit rambling and vague 😉 I don’t have a problem with puzzles per se – it’s simply that from Infocom onwards, they were never what got me excited about playing a new adventure. I gravitated towards the ones that let me do cool things. In that, the difference between solving a problem and solving a puzzle is a minor one in terms of core game mechanics. The question for me was always which one it felt like I was doing at any given moment.)

  8. “Since Day of the Tentacle, we added tons of content to fill the monotony. Even if you were stuck, you could do something.”

    (has slightly hypocritical, but unquestionably happy flashback to the original Sam and Max, and the many pre-internet-walkthrough evenings spent playing CarBomb before realising he needed a vegetable shaped like John Muir)

    Aaaah… Now where did I put that disc?

  9. Nice post, Chuck. Per your above post, did you mean, “fruitlessly?”

    Nope, I meant that not only was I being patronized, it was being done in a very fruity way.

    I believe you’ve got to treat them as puzzle games, though Richard. That’s the genre. Take out the puzzles, it’s an interactive pop-up book and the market has whole-heartedly rejected that.

    Well, we’ve gone over this before, but I don’t think it has to be either “puzzle game” or “interactive pop-up book.” I think Richard’s distinction between “puzzles” and “problems” is a good way of looking at it (although maybe not in the way he intended). A puzzle is just an obstacle; I need to get past this, so I can get to the next part of the story. A problem implies that the story hasn’t stopped; you must accomplish something at the narrative level so that the story can continue. It’s the difference between getting past a locked door vs. winning a character over to your side or getting two characters to fall in love or deciphering the hieroglyphics that unleash the ancient evil, etc.

    One of the few games I’d hold up from my own collection is Zork: Grand Inquisitor, which was almost all straight-up puzzles, but I absolutely adored.

    Zork: Grand Inquisitor was such a great, criminally underrated game. I’ve got to dig up my copy and play through it again. (And it’s a sign that I’ve been working at Telltale for a while that my first thought hearing about the Infinite Corridor is “how would you localize that?”)

    But it’s art, not science and it all stems from knowing your target demo. Crazed old-time adventure game grognards will be incensed by a perceived dumbing down. New to the party Wii players will be incensed by incredibly obtuse puzzles.
    So, you pick your poison. Who’s buying your game?

    Both crazed old-time adventure gamers and first-timer Wii players. It has to be, to stay viable — what qualified as a “hit” in the “golden age of SCUMM” days can no longer fund game development on a professional studio level. Unless you’ve got the 2DBoy guys making your game, games are just too expensive to make.

    My point with these two posts is that “pick your poison” is the old way of thinking. This is an interactive medium, so we should be interacting with the audience instead of just making assumptions about them. Assuming that there’s a homogeneous audience type that all thinks in lockstep is a holdover from the days when genres had clear divisions between them — adventure game fans think this way, and shooter fans think this way. We’ve seen that there’s plenty of overlap.

    There are always going to be people complaining that your game has been dumbed down, or that your game is tedious and confusing — there’s no avoiding that. But I don’t believe the answer has to be choosing one or the other; it’s developing a system that can detect whether the player’s got too much or too little challenge and trying to accommodate that.

  10. “I think Richard’s distinction between “puzzles” and “problems” is a good way of looking at it (although maybe not in the way he intended).”

    Nope, that’s pretty much it in a nutshell.

    “Zork: Grand Inquisitor was such a great, criminally underrated game. I’ve got to dig up my copy and play through it again. (And it’s a sign that I’ve been working at Telltale for a while that my first thought hearing about the Infinite Corridor is “how would you localize that?”)”

    The moment I knew I loved Zork: GI was when you get the first puzzle you can only solve by cheating. The second moment was when it shoves a Myst style puzzle in your face – a complicated looking chessboard affair – and you solve it by smashing the stupid thing open with a rock. Sigh. I loved how that solution was now ‘lateral thinking’.

    (Still, as big a localisation nightmare as the Infinite Corridor must be, it’s nothing compared to Toonstruck. The whole first half is structured around collecting (IIRC) 12 items to form matching idiomatic pairs: Cloak and Dagger, Bells and Whistles, Rock and Roll etc. It still had to be translated, without changing any of the items, from a script that assumed nobody would need any clues. How the hell do you convert something like that? I have /no/ idea.)

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