Wednesday, January 11, 2012

Helping the player

One issue I constantly battle with in the design of The Shattered War is how much to help the player and hand-hold their experience. This struggle comes due to many of the modern conveniences of current video games and the way they make things just "that little bit easier" for the player.  While this might seem a somewhat trivial issue to ponder, the amount of help or assistance given to a player is a very important design consideration. A few simple tweaks can take a game that frustrates the player because they have no idea where to go or what to do, to one that annoys the player by telling them everything in minute detail. Striking a balance between these two extremes is very important for making an engaging game.

Firstly, we have things like that quest marker and quest helper. The exclamation mark to indicate a quest giver, and the question mark (or chevron in DAO, or equivalent symbol in other games) to indicate an objective or waypoint for a current quest. These are a great help for players and allow them to experience the game's content a lot more simply instead of having to talk to every single person with whom they can interact. Not every player wants to talk to a town's entire population, and sometimes players might have forgotten where a particular person is located in between play sessions. These markers assist the player in their journey, but for some they ruin the fun, removing the enjoyment they get from exploration and uncovering the gameworld on their own.

Skyrim encourages exploration, but Dragon Age could do so as well

In The Shattered War, I'm typically taking a middle road on this front.  Quest givers will have markers, and key individuals for quests will be marked, but I'll be leaving off assist markers in most cases for quests with an exploration or investigation focus. Admittedly in Dragon Age this still often simply means that the player just holds down the "highlight all interactive objects key" (default: tab), but this still gives a better sense of exploration than running from quest marker to quest marker.  Interactive objects typically warrant more interest than NPCs (the player might be able to loot them!), especially if the player has been instructed by an NPC/quest log to search items.  If I wanted to make things particularly difficult, it would be possible to only make the objects interactive (and thus able to be detected by tab) once the player got close enough to them, but this would be a sufficient break from the player's expectations that it would probably be unreasonable to do so from a design perspective.

The issue is making sure that the player is given sufficient information and encouragement. In the side quest "An Admirable Topsider" in Dragon Age, the player is told to search for three parts of a sword in the Deep Roads. However, once they have retrieved these items, they are simply told to return them to a grave, but are given no indication of where they should look for this grave. Furthermore, it is found in an area the player has already visited and cleared. In Dragon Age, a cleared area is typically exactly that - there is nothing new to be obtained or explored. The fact that this quest breaks that expectation as set by the majority of the rest of the game means that effectively the quest helper is required in order to provide the player the appropriate level of direction required to allow them to finish the quest. It's used as a lazy means to provide the player with direction that could have been provided in a written form, which would have encouraged the player to think and explore intelligently rather than trying to search the entire map, or just looking for the map marker. This would have provided the player with a much greater sense of involvement and enjoyment because they wouldn't just be simply running from point A to point B.

Surely we can give better directions than relying on these?

The next issue is how explicit to be in giving the player instructions, particularly via the quest log/journel.  Going back to games like Baldur's Gate and Morrowind, the player's journal was a lengthy and involved thing, including personal player character commentary, frequently with additional information. It was written more as prose rather than the modern equivalent, which tends to consist of simple and clear objectives. The modern school of thought on design is that when the player looks at their quest log, they want to see two things: what they have to do, and where they have to do it. "Meet Tolfdir at Sarthal" would be a quest log entry, as opposed to something like "Tolfdir gave me a lesson today on protective wards. In conclusion he decided that a practical test of my skills and that of the other students was necessary.  He suggested we travel to Sarthal to put our skills to the test, so I will need to travel there should I wish to continue my training." I'm tending towards the latter approach with my quest log entries, but still attempting to avoid unnecessary information. That said, often additional information may be accessible via additional informational codex entries rather than the quest log itself.

My aim is to give players a short and succinct description of what they need to do, but without explicitly hand-holding their way through the entire experience. Players are not stupid, so don't deserve to be treated as such.

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