Tuesday, June 21, 2011

Learning from Gears of War (Part 1)

I realise I've been quiet for a little while, but I have been busy with various things. I also haven't come across as many thought provoking discussions on game design in the past week or two as I frequently do.  If anyone has a topic that they think would be interesting, please let me know.  However, in something a little different from usual, I'm not going to discuss RPGs in this post. I've recently been playing Gears of War (yes, the original) on XBox360, both single player and co-op. While I could write a full review of the game, there are already plenty of those out on the Internet. So instead I'm going to look at some of the design negatives and positives - in today's post, let's look at the negatives.

Eliminate unskippable sequences
Please, if you're in the game industry now, or ever are involved in it, adhere to this simple rule. Make cutscenes skippable. It's that easy. Don't force the player to sit through a scene over and over again where they have limited or no control over their actions while they wait for it to end. This applies double if the game has checkpoint saves. If the player dies in a subsequent combat section, they're forced to sit through the rigmarole of the sequence again.

What if the player is replaying the game and already knows what happens in all the cutscenes? They just want to play for the action. If you (as the designer) are worried about the player accidentally skipping cutscenes, force the player to press two separate buttons in order to skip it. If all else fails and you absolutely must have an unskippable cutscene (though I'd really expect you to have a damned good reason as to why), save the game automatically afterwards.

If you ever played the Two Thrones, you probably hate the twin boss fight and its unskippable cutscene

Can we get rid of checkpoint saves already?
We're no longer scrimping and saving hard drive save, so let's do away with checkpoints and allow the player to save whenever they want. You can limit it so that the player can't save while they're in combat, and that'd be fine, but don't force the player to redo whole sections simply because that's where you wanted to break it up. There's really no need for this kind of design, as it really doesn't add anything to the game.

Combat in tight spaces and third person shooters don't mix
Third person shooters don't work in close quarters. It's pretty much that simple. You don't have the fine grained control of a first person shooter, and your screen is partially filled with your character. If you start cluttering up the space with walls, pillars and other obstacles, pretty soon the player is going to have an extremely limited field of vision which serves little purpose except to obscure and frustrate. Even worse, when you're trying to move quickly, you frequently end up sticking to cover or a wall because you get to close to it.

More colour please
There's no denying that the colour palette is largely a see of drab brown and grey. There's no vibrance in the game's appearance, and the most regular splashes of saturated colour you get are when the screen is sprayed with blood, either your own or that of your enemies as you chainsaw them to death. The visual fidelity of the graphics are good due to the Unreal Engine, but you rarely spend time gawking at the scenery because of the drab colour scheme and largely uninspiring visuals.

Marcus and Dom would like some colour saturation, please

Instant death isn't fun
Admittedly this more applies on the higher difficulty levels where players are pretty much expected to nail everything, but it's still relevant. Punishing the player with death simply because they popped their head up just as the enemy decided to fire a rocket or a torque bow arrow doesn't really add to the challenge in a meaningful fashion, but it does add to frustration. One mistake shouldn't kill the player, at least not unless it's a really stupid one.

A decent story would be nice
When I'm playing a shooter, I don't expect fantastic writing. People are playing the game for the gameplay, not the in-depth narrative. But does that really mean that the characters have to be fairly shallow stereotypes, and the plot an almost completely predictable and straightforward tale?  This criticism could be directed at so many shooters (or games in general for that matter), because narrative in games still hasn't moved past basic tropes for the most part.

Of course, Gears of War wouldn't be popular if it didn't have some good aspects... but I'll leave those for my next post.

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