Sunday, October 2, 2011

Hacking minigames: Lessons learned

In my recent post on minigames, I discussed hacking minigames within BioShock, Fallout 3, Mass Effect 2, Alpha Protocol and Deus Ex: Human Revolution. With varying strengths in style, aesthetics and gameplay, these five titles demonstrate good and bad aspects of mini-game design.  There are a few specific points on which they help demonstrate how "good" minigames can be made.

Fallout 3's hacking demonstrates why a minigame should not be logic-based. For any minigame, the problem space is going to be relatively small (hence why it's a minigame), and it will be repeated a number of times.  Given these constraints, it will not take the average player long to determine an optimal means to succeed and hence effectively remove any challenge it poses.  At this point, the minigame no longer presents a challenge, but merely occupies time - it becomes "filler content", a chore rather than enjoyment.

If players wanted to grind, they'd play an MMO

Deus Ex: Human Revolution doesn't quite present a logic puzzle, but it is a strategy based minigame. However, the strength of its strategy is weakened by the strong role played by random chance. Strategy games such as Total War do not rely so heavily on randomness (though it does exist), because a primary reliance on chance as a deciding factor only serves to aggravate the strategist player. Worse still, as the player upgrades their hacking abilities, devices with lower security ratings become trivial to defeat, while higher rated devices exacerbate the random nature rather than skill because of the rapid pace with which they will trace the player and cause them to fail the hack.

This brings us to several key elements of a mini-game:
1) A minigame should not rely on logic.
2) A minigame should not rely primarily on chance.
3) A minigame should not be trivial.

So now having identified things a minigame should not be, the question then is what should it be?  First and foremost, it must be simple. A minigame is a small mechanic, which should be simple to grasp. Secondly, it should require skill to succeed rather than luck. It must be up to the player's judgement and/or reflexes that primarily determines their success, not an invisible random number generator. I imagine there are some people that might argue that they have favourite minigames that do not follow these tenets, but for the most part, these two simple rules should suffice.

Rockstar realised that even poker should have a "skill" mechanic added

Why? Because they're the hallmark of popular web-based and mobile games; the casual gaming market. That's right, professional game designers on AAA titles have something to learn from indie, mobile and web game designers. These games have simple mechanics that are easily understandable, repeatable, and are enjoyable to boot. I'm not suggesting that I want to see Angry Birds in Mass Effect 3, but Mass Effect 2 already had a simple "turret defence" minigame that was infinitely more enjoyable than planet scanning. Tried and true "classic" gaming mechanics adapted to new settings and designs are what will make for engaging mini-games.

This might seem to suggest that I'm stifling creativity here and suggesting games not advance in style or invent new mechanics. I wouldn't advocate that for a moment. But, if you consider your game as an overall package, where do you want to push the boundaries of creativity and flair? Is it in the mini-games, or the core mechanics of the gameplay itself? If you're aiming solely for the former, then perhaps you're designing the wrong type of game. This isn't to say that minigames can't be original, and indeed, new games and minigames are created all the time; but if you're looking to create something new, these classic mechanics are where you should look for inspiration.


  1. Logic is a skill. And reflex games can mean the character that is supposed to have sublime motor skills is held back because the player doesn't.

  2. Certainly, logic could be considered a skill. The issue, as I pointed as, is with the problem space for a logic puzzle frequently being too small for the minigame to present any sort of challenge when repeated across the number of times expected during the playthrough of the game, particularly given the constraint that the rules of the minigame should be relatively simple to comprehend.

    Poker (and other well known card games) are perhaps one of the few exceptions when it comes to the simplicity of the problem space, but this is in part because of "assumed knowledge" on the part of the player. Taking the example of Red Dead Redemption, these minigames are entirely optional, but a means for the player to make some extra money should they desire. While the game does tell the player how to play, it does so only at a basic level, and furthermore potentially gives the player the ability to cheat by giving them an "extra" card in their hand. The reason this is acceptable in this case is because of the popularity of poker outside of the game, and the fact that knowledge of the mechanics of its real-world counterpart translates directly to knowledge of how to play.

    Without this knowledge, you end up with something like Pazaak from Knights of the Old Republic. Only sheer stubbornness kept me playing Pazaak and fleecing every single possible opponent. Because this was a newly invented card game, the rules had to be simpler than something like poker, but the odds were obviously and unfairly stacked against the player, arguably relied more on chance, and the problem space was still smaller than poker.

    All that said, I suppose it could be possible for a minigame to rely on logic. It would not be an easy task to ensure the necessary complexity, ease of understanding and longevity of a logic-based minigame, but if a designer does create something that meets all these criteria, then they'll likely have a great addition to their game.

  3. Interesting articles.

    Mini-games can be based upon logic or a small problem space and still be a successful inclusion within a game. However, during a point in the game, the designers should allow the player to opt-out without penalizing the player, especially when they have most likely mastered the mini-game.

    My first example where I think that this was done well is the is the space trading game Elite. (Yes it is an old game, but a revolutionary classic and one of the first games I can remember that was 3D). One of the challenging aspects in the beginning is trying to dock with one of the space stations. This was difficult because you needed to match the rotation of the spacestation and approach slowly, with any collision usually resulting in destruction of the ship. This mini-game was seamless with the overall game, however when the player gained sufficient experience it was possible to buy a ship upgrade that would perform this aspect automatically. If I recall correctly it wouldn't work if you were under attack so you would have to make a choice - dock manually under fire, or defend yourself. The choice was not always straight forward and heightened the tension.

    A counter example would be the mini-games in Alpha Protocol. The controls for the mini-games on the PC were abysmal. I found them to generally hinder the flow of the game and there was no opt-out. Actually, that is not totally true. There was an item that you could use to automatically bypass the game, but you could only carry a limited number in a level. If you chose to bypass the majority of these mini-games there was a risk that you would miss out on gaining intelligence which provided more backstory on characters and organisations within the game. This felt more like a punishment and I dreaded playing each time I had to 'hack' another terminal.

    Finally, I don't mind logic or reflex mini-games in RPGs. However inclusion of these games should not be at the expense of the role playing experience. For example, if I am role playing an illiterate fighter who cannot count the number of fingers on his hand (and the number could change depending how good a fighter he his), I shouldn't be placed in a situation where he has to solve difficult logic puzzles. Alternative paths or puzzles should be offered by the designers to allow this.