Friday, January 21, 2011

The necessity of variety

In my recent post complaining about Need For Speed: Hot Pursuit, I mentioned that in much of the game, you seem to end up driving at or very close to your maximum speed for a lot of the time. My only assumption is that this was a conscious attempt by the designers to give the player a sense of great speed and excitement, and to have the emotional reaction of thinking how great it is to drive so fast.

Unfortunately, I'd argue this represents a fundamental misunderstanding of the racing genre, not to mention of games in general. Of course, I could also discuss the game's shortcomings further in how it promotes drifting around hairpin corners even in a McLaren F1, but you've already heard my view that the game has a multitude of flaws. The issue at hand for today's post is that without some variance in gameplay, the player won't receive the same heights of emotional reaction to the events with a game.

To demonstrate this point, let's take the example of games with horror elements, games that are meant to scare the player. Games like this should not be filled with enemies if the player is to be truly scared by them. Familiarity does breed contempt. This is why Dead Space failed so miserably at maintaining horror and tension throughout the game, because you got a good look at your enemies on a regular basis and often in very bright light. After a couple of hours, the horror element and the tension that it tried to build were completely lost because you had faced and dispatched so many of the necromorphs. It effectively became another generic zombie shooter. That's not to say it wasn't enjoyable, merely that it failed to deliver continued tension.

Oh look, more space zombies. How... not scary.

If you want to see horror done properly, play The Shalebridge Cradle from Thief: Deadly Shadows, or try Amnesia: The Dark Descent. The Cradle had you scurrying around without sight of any enemy for quite some time. The absence of an actual tangible enemy made the very building itself seem like a threat to you - a threat that was actually realised as part of the level and its story.  Amnesia demonstrates a similar understand of how to generate tension, as it relies heavily on what is not present to generate the feeling of grave danger when the player actually sees a real physical threat.

It's like the difference between a a psychological horror film and a schlock/gore horror film: the latter tends to have more moments that make you jump, but the former is the one that really builds the tension and when it finally gets around to delivering its "instant scare" moments, they have a lot of impact.

We can apply the same logic to speed in racing games. If you want a player to truly get a sense that they are traveling at ridiculously fast speeds, then this needs to be offset by segments where the player is not driving at the upper limits of their vehicle. The player truly feels overwhelmed and exhilarated by phenomenal speeds when they've just experienced having to travel more slowly before hitting some segments of road that allow them to travel at top speed. The principle can also be applied in reverse, but having the player reach top speed on long straights, and then force them into extremely tight and narrow corners while attempting to maintain that speed. Previous city-based outings like Most Wanted and Undercover managed this well to have the player struggling to make it around 90 degree corners at high speed.

When every car is super... none of them will be.

The take home message here is that variety is a great means to make games interesting. If the designer simply has the player doing the same thing over and over again, they are liable to become bored. It's why platform fighters introduce new combat moves and combos, it's why FPS games introduce new weapons and scenarios, it's why RPGs give you new abilities and spells. Increasing the variety of gameplay serves to make the game more fun and also gives it more depth. Does a player use new skills and abilities, or can they adapt their older skills to suit the situation?

The key point is to not make the player do the same thing over and over again. This is why many players found the Deep Roads in Dragon Age: Origins to be tedious, because it consisted of many hours of combat with little significant variation. There were a few set pieces or boss encounters to provide variety, but these were few and far between, forcing the player to hack their way through dozens of encounters until reaching something different.

More fighting. Yay.

Now this might sound like it conflicts with my previous post on Mirror's Edge regarding its gameplay, and to a certain extent, it does. Mirror's Edge would have likely been boring if it had only contained the parkour elements on the rooftops. It needed something to break up those segments, which it did to a degree. Segments requiring more precise timing and convoluted paths were contrasted with the segments where faith was being chased and needed to flee. The designers obviously knew that it needed more than one type of gameplay, it was just unforunate that the combat mechanics it used were lacking in terms of polish.

By giving variety in gameplay that supports the overall theme and experience provided by your game, you not only help providing a more interesting experience for the player, but also work towards accentuating the feeling of excitement for each individual aspect of the game, if that variance comes through simple dialogu. The player who has just unraveled the mystery masking true identity of a killer will feel much more engaged in their defeat, and the player who has spent hours conversing with their ally will feel a keen sense of loss and anger when that ally betrays them. Variety is the spice of life, and of gaming.


  1. "When every car is super... none of them will be."

    Is that an Incredibles reference? It's certainly reminding me of that movie...

    More on-topic; I agree with most of what you said. The only game from this post that I actually played is DAO, so I can't really speak for the other games. But I did give some unflattering nicknames to the Deep Roads in DAO. A great idea, but it eventually became known to me as the bane of speedruns. Even rushing on easy mode, the minions take 2-3 hours to wade through. Not very fun, and there are only like 5 conversations in the whole region (most at the end.)

  2. Well spotted! You deserve a cookie.

    It's odd when I look at DAO with a critical, objective eye. I loved the game a lot when I played through it, but taking a considered look at it, the fade and the Deep Roads really don't offer much in terms of replayability. I really liked the fade the first time around, but it can be quite dull to play again. Even playing through them the first time, I felt that there simply wasn't enough variety in the Deep Roads given the length of time you spend down there.