Friday, September 9, 2011

Encourage players towards mastery

In my last post I talked about the game Darksiders and some of its shortcomings in relation to gameplay.  One area that I thought the game was quite fun for the most part was in its fighting mechanics.  As a beat-em-up game, it is mandatory that these mechanics be enjoyable.  However, there is one significant deficiency in how the combat plays out that fails to capitalise on a potential means to improve it: the game does not provide incentives for players to master of the fighting mechanics.

The immediate and knee-jerk retort to this criticism is that the incentive is "not dying", which is accurate. However, this ignores the vast potential for improvement in the form of player-defined challenge.  This is whereby players set themselves goals above and beyond what are enforced by the mechanics of the game itself. In stealth games, it may not just be to survive the level, it may be to do the entire level without being seen. Or it could to an entire level and to leave everything exactly how it was before the player entered - every door opened is shut, any light turned off is turned back on, any item (barring that which the player intends to steal) is returned to its rightful place. Other genres might see the player attempt a "no-reload" challenge, or a speedrun to finish the game in the shortest time possible, among many other possibilities.

It's possible to finish Morrowind in under four and a half minutes

These examples push the boundaries of what most players might do, and in the case of speed runs often "break" the normal mechanics of the game. However, the concept of providing players with self-governed challenge above that provided by the game is not only a great way to encourage players to replay a game, but also to improve their skill in the mechanics of the game. For an example, let's compare Batman: Arkham Asylum (B:AA) to Darksiders.  In Darksiders, upon defeating an enemy, you claim "souls", typically blue souls, which represent the currency in the game used to buy items and upgrades. In B:AA, you gain experience from defeating enemies, which allows you to level-up and "buy" items and upgrades. The core difference is that B:AA actively rewards you based on how well you have mastered its combat system. Furthermore, it directly tells you what aspects of that combat system you have mastered.

These two games (as with many beat-em-ups) feature a "combo counter", keeping track of how many hit you've strung together in a sequence without missing or taking a blow. However, B:AA rewards the player who has a high maximum combo counter, using more challenging moves, and also for using a variety of different moves throughout the fight. It shows a separate message for each of these in an unobtrusive manner to show to the player how well they did in a particular fight. Furthermore, the "combat challenges" outside of the main story campaign push this concept even further, giving the player a points score based on their success, and allowing them to create a "leaderboard" of their scores and that of their friends.

How well did you do? Arkham Asylum tells you.

Darksiders on the other hand does none of this.  There is seemingly no benefit from generating large combos, and the game provides you no feedback about how well you are doing in combat besides the life meter of your character.  It's not even clear whether "instant-kill" moves that the player can do offer any additional benefit aside from killing an enemy quicker than they otherwise might.  It does incorporate fighting challenges into the main game, which offer additional souls based on your performance, but it never makes it clear exactly how much that bonus is - the player is merely left to guess how well they may or may not have done. These feel more like "training exercises" to teach the player particular basic mechanics and strategies rather than real "challenges". While this is appropriate given they are a mandatory part of the campaign, they lack the "challenge" of those in B:AA. Furthermore, they can't be repeated as individual challenges outside of the main campaign to allow the player to practice mastering a particular fighting technique or scenario.

Do I instant-kill or not? I don't know; the game doesn't tell me!

B:AA encourages players to master its mechanics, to practice and learn to excel. This sort of encouragement results in greater player engagement, because while they can just "muddle through" with enough talent to get by, most players will want to achieve and gain the rewards that come from increased skill. The key is to tell players what they are doing right, and assign them a clear and tangible benefit from doing so. Simply saying "bonus" without saying why, or worse, invisibly rewarding the player, does not provide them with any incentive to "do well".  Additionally, also make sure that this is done in an encouraging fashion. Don't penalise players for doing something wrong, but instead reward them for doing something right.

This encouragement will keep players coming back for more, make them want to improve their skills, master the mechanics of the game, and ultimately make them more engaged with the game - and an engaged and engrossed player is a happy player.

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