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Designing Games for the Wage Slave

By Stuart Walpole | Published Jul 12 2004 07:04 AM in Game Design

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Introduction
"I can afford to buy any game I like; but I rarely have the opportunity to play them."

This sentence embodies the sad reality that has hamstringed my gaming hobby since becoming an unwilling maze-dweller in the rat race of full-time employment. Four years ago, when not otherwise distracted by the mundanities of dodging college work or chores, I could (and did) devote countless hours to the challenges and pleasures of digital worlds. My funding was limited, but I took pride in completing every game, every cover disk demo that I purchased. I reveled in replayability, gloried in gameplay depth, marveled at multiplayer. Life was good.

"So why should I care, you nostalgic cretin?" I hear you ask. Why? Because my cubicle-dwelling cogs and I represent a substantial slice of potential software sales.

We balance on the knife's edge between our glorious time-squandered youth, and the commitments of inevitable middle age. However, the needs of independence (and dependents) have forced us to adapt our playing style to meet our circumstances. Most gamers in this range still game whenever they can, but lack the time to maintain their previous commitment, especially when wives, children, and other such distractions enter the mix. If games can adapt to the needs of the working gamer, they can find a lucrative niche. If not, we will have no choice but to leave our childhood behind and surrender to mundane reality. And when we do, we will take our regular monthly salaries with us.

Here's a few suggestions to better accommodate the time-deprived; many of these ideas could also create a more enjoyable gaming experience for all:


Don't Waste My Time
Make every moment count. I don't play games to punish myself. I play them to be entertained, rewarded, and challenged. I have better things to do than:

  • Attempt the same mis-timed jump again and again: Why oh why have jumping "puzzles" not died the death they richly deserve? There's nothing that quite kills pacing like reloading the same quicksave (or better yet, being returned to your last save point) until you beat a tedious activity through sheer trial and error.

    What, exactly, is my incentive for continuing to waste my precious time in this situation?
  • Replay parts of the game I've already finished: Let me save anywhere, any time, or better yet, do it for me. I might only be able to manage minutes of gameplay at a time. Make them count.
  • Stumble blindly in the dark: Being lost is *not* fun. Pixel hunting is *not* fun. Wandering around a level looking for an obscurely hidden key is *not* fun. Not even knowing what they key *looks* like is *not* fun. Keep me aware of my objectives, and provide a decent method of pointing me towards them. The glowing aura in "Bloodrayne" and three-dimensional pointers in "Grand Theft Auto III", while contrived, certainly kept the player heading in the right direction.
  • Endure obvious filler: My time is precious. I don't want to spend that time enduring mediocre, mundane, or tedious padding that only serve to meet the promise of gameplay hours on the back of the game box.. Make it short if you have to, but make it an adrenaline-pumping, high quality wild ride (nod to "Max Payne") that's worthy of my time.
When placing a sequence in a level, ask yourself: "Am I challenging the player and giving him a compelling experience, or just trying to slow him down?" If the answer is the latter, cut it out like the cancer it is.


Let Me In!
I recently moved into a new apartment. This has literally left me with only a few minutes of gaming per day, while I spend my time hassling with utility companies and debating the merits of beige over magnolia. Some games, it seems, delight in squandering those minutes. By the time I've:

a) sat through three unskippable splash screens (and let me take this opportunity to scream "I know who you are! I bought a game from you! Now leave me alone and let me play it!");

b) navigated several tiers of shell interface to load my last save, and;

c) endured an interminably long loading screen *smoker's cough* "Command & Conquer: Generals" *smoker's cough*;

...play time is over!

Examples of games that got it right include "Max Payne" and "Grim Fandango" both of which provided a very welcome Quick-Load-from-Menu feature.


Curiousity Killed the Cat; Not This Cat, Jack
Leading on from the last rant, nothing destroys suspension of disbelief like constantly being sent back to the "Game Over" screen.

Keep the player in the game as often as possible. He didn't buy this game to regularly watch a "Loading ..." progress bar.

Constant death was a necessity in the days of video arcades; it kept the baseball-cap-wearing laboratory rodents filling the change slot for an 8-bit feeding pellet. Now, in the comfort of our lounges or offices, what reason is there to keep dumping us out of the game we bought with our hard earned cash?

Here's a few examples of games that have turned this dilemma on its head:

  • Lucasarts Adventure Games:

    2D Graphic Adventure games were once notorious for their ability to gleefully execute the player for deviating from the script. Games such as the "Monkey Island" series, "Day of the Tentacle" and "Sam 'n Max" broke this trend simply by tightly designing the game to avoid any instance of player death, and never put the player in a "gotcha" situation where he can no longer access a crucial item that he should have picked up earlier. The result: More exploration, more interaction with the environment, and less player frustration.
  • "Planescape: Torment":

    Playing the role of a nameless amnesiac immortal, the player traveled through various planes of reality in search of the secret of his nature and a cure for his condition. Death was little more than a temporary inconvenience, and was often necessary to solve puzzles or advance the plot. Even the Nameless One's mortal companions were only a resurrection spell away from rebirth. Though in theory this should lead to inevitable hack 'n slash, "Planescape: Torment" was an extremely cerebral game, showcasing excellent storytelling and a dark and original setting, which rewarded thoughtful interaction with its inhabitants.
  • The "Legacy of Kain: Soul Reaver" series:

    The "Soul Reaver" games not only excused the player from dying, but wove this premise into the mythology of their rich setting. As Raziel, the wraith spirit of a slain vampire (a dead undead who's not quite dead yet), the player is effectively already beyond the irritance of death. Death results in the destruction of Raziel's ephemeral corporeal form, and he is returned harmlessly to his native domain, the shadow world of the Spectral Realm. Here, he can quickly renew his strength by consuming the souls of the dead, and return to the Material Realm to wreak vengeance upon his aggressors.

    Like "Planescape: Torment", it was also occasionally necessary for Raziel to deliberately "die" for gameplay purposes. He could willingly discard his material form and return to the Spectral Realm, where few enemies can follow, architecture can warp into new forms (allowing access to areas unreachable in "life"), water has no buoyancy, time has no meaning, and he can phase through gates.
  • "Grand Theft Auto III", "Grand Theft Auto: Vice City":

    These games took a very relaxed view of player failure. It simply wasn't possible to encounter a "game over". Being "wasted" or "busted" simply meant a deduction of cash (which is in plentiful supply) to cover police bribe or hospital costs, respawn at the nearest hospital or police station (getting about was easy enough), losing all carried weapons (not critical, but it did hurt), and failing any currently active mission (this hurt the most, but no big deal, the player could go right back and accept it again, no harm no foul).

    Admittedly, this mechanic was stricter than it needed to be. I still found myself reloading on occasion, particularly in the early stages, as an alternative to running around town attempting to reclaim my lost arsenal. But it's certainly a step closer to using the saved game system purely as a means of safely picking up where you left off, instead of a trial-and-error replay system.

    Incidentally, either "Grand Theft Auto" is an ideal game for the man on a time budget. If you only have a few free minutes, you can cruise the streets, pull off a few stunts, rob a convenience store. All of it will ultimately help your bank balance or status screen. Or if you have some more time, you can take a crack at one of the missions. And if you do fail a mission, you can always replay it without penalty. The great sense of non-linearity (a vast, detailed game world to explore, various linear mission trees that can be pursued at the player's discretion) contributes well to a feeling of "go where I want, do it on my time, my way" freedom.

    It's unfortunate that the player can't save and pull out of the game at any time (sometimes I'd have to keep playing even when real life beckoned so that progress was not lost), but it makes up for that by not requiring frantic save and quick-load.
  • "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time":

    Though a very attractive game, with a wide variety of acrobatic moves and sleek animation (making it a worthy homage to its predecessor), the ability to manipulate time and undo the player's mistakes took the experience to a whole new level. All the annoyances of platform gaming -- leaps of faith, save points, and so on -- still remained, but by rewinding time, a simple misstep can be removed in seconds, instead of requiring tedious and frustrating replay from the last save. Best of all, this feature encouraged the player to take risks -- dodging traps, running along walls, slickly swinging from beam to beam above ludicrous precipices -- rather than carefully inching around like a paranoid geriatric fearing death and reload.

    Intriguingly, the final stages of "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time", while certainly the most frustrating, also offered the greatest sense of elation. At this point, the Dagger of Time is taken away from the player, and he must complete the remaining scenes without the rewind ability, in traditional "Prince of Persia" style. The player has honed his skills to perfection during the course of the game, and now the training wheels are off. It's quite astonishing to realize the feats the player is pulling off, quite fearlessly.

    If "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" has one fault for the wage slave gamer, it is its use of save points. Sure, he can rewind his mistakes, and if he dies (sand -- which powers the Dagger -- and the rewind buffer aren't an unlimited resource), the player is returned to the last scene waypoint rather than his last save point.

    Unfortunately, this progress is lost if the player has to leave the game, so I was forced to continue so that my time wasn't wasted, even if it wasn't convenient.

    This seems to be the typical situation for games with a console origin (also applying to both titles above). Even worse, "Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time" invariably set a lengthy combat stage prior to granting access to the next save point, an utter inconvenience when real life is already crying for immediate attention. If I had a wife, she would have divorced me long before I finished this game.
Minimizing player death does have its disadvantages, of course. The fear of death, backed up with the right setting and atmosphere, does create suspense. I fondly recall playing through an unpatched "Aliens versus Predator", an FPS with no saved games except between levels. Even the rapidly released patch limited the player to a finite number of saves per level (drastically reducing in number with each choice of difficulty level).

It was enormously frustrating, but also immensely terrifying. I was no superhuman, immortal demigod that could always miraculously rematerialize at the press of a button. I was a single, vulnerable marine, alone, and outgunned, trying to survive long enough to escape my vastly superior alien foes..


Damnit Jim, I'm a Gamer, Not an Accountant
The days when players were expected to map their progress out on graph paper or take copious notes are long gone. Provide an electronic map, and annotate it with *all* important locations, including the player's own position.

"System Shock 2" and "Diablo" both feature excellent real-time maps that indicate not only the surrounding architecture, but important objects and people, and the player's location in the world, at any time. In the case of "Diablo", the map can also overlay the main game screen, always centered on the player. Though rather cluttered, this approach ensures that the player always knows where he is in the world.

Both lack a means to indicate where the player needs to go next, however, presumably to give him the freedom to discover that for himself. More direction in the mini-map would have been welcome. To be fair, though, "Diablo 2" used roads to guide the player towards the key areas in a map, and plentiful signs and markers were embedded into "System Shock 2"'s item-rich world.

Don't assume that I'm going to be playing this game for four months straight, and will know from one session to the next who Arthwight of Durlac is, what he looks like, where I can find him, and what he's meant to matter to me. Put a screenshot of him in the quest log so I'll know what I'm looking for. Point out his position on the mini map. Put a dirty great arrow over his head that's so huge you can see it from space. But don't expect me to interview every inhabitant of the city trying to track him down by a process of elimination. *cough* "Anachronox" *cough*

Log the tasks the player has to accomplish, and provide all the details he's going to need when he gets there.

Assume that the player might only return to your game in a month's time. Does the game provide sufficient information for him to pick up where he left off? Does he know what he needs to do next? Does he have a record of what he's done already? Is he aware of the overarching plot? Does he have a means to refresh his memory about the intricate details of your game world?


I Need Help
Paper manuals are gradually being phased out, and while I'm always the advocate of a weighty, portable tome (something to read in rush hour traffic), online help is ultimately more accessible, as it can be tailored to the context. Plus, it can be easily maintained through patches to correspond to new changes. A paper manual is typically obsolete out of the box due to scheduling restrictions.

So, make any necessary information available from within the game (within the game session, not a separate text file), from ammo damage rates to character bios, ideally in a way that gradually introduces these details to the player at relevant points during gameplay. Depending on the style of game, it might even be used as a form of player reward, unlocking character portraits and biographical information as you encounter them, details and tips about a weapon when you pick it up, and so on.

Real-time strategy games are ideal candidates for the approach of paperless instruction. "Age of Mythology", for example, not only provided ample rollover text, but each unit in the game was also a click away from an electronic manual entry that described its attributes, purpose, history, counters and bonuses, and research upgrades.


Make it Accessible
If the player can easily pick up your game and start enjoying it within five minutes, it suits the wage slave market. In fact, it suits any market.

It's equally important to make the interface intuitive and provide the player with the information they need in as meaningful and accessible a manner as possible.

That means relying on the conventions and known principles of your genre so the player doesn't have to relearn anything. It also means improving upon those conventions *if* they are widely known to be unsatisfactory.

One of the best ways to achieve this is to get a playable prototype of your game working as soon as possible, and get as many people as possible to test it out, from your veteran gamer buddies to your grandmother. Observe their reactions, and note when they seem to be lacking feedback, when the interface isn't used as expected (due to inappropriate icons, for example), and especially when they aren't having fun.


Keep It Simple
It doesn't hurt to keep it simple if it means the gamer isn't weighed down with complexities and backstory. You might have noticed that a number of examples I've used are console games. In my youth, I wouldn't have touched them with a ten-foot polearm, preferring deep, complex worlds with lots of optional assignments, long chats with in-game characters, and backstory.

Nowadays, uncomplicated, pick-up-and-put-down, linear but fun experiences (beat-'em-ups, action adventures) or five-minute skirmish matches (RTS or FPS multiplayer or skirmish) are better suited to my time-to-enjoyment ratio.


Great Wage Slave Games
To round off this article, I'd like to close with a subjective summary of a few other games that are highly conducive to my new lifestyle. I've split them into three categories I've just made up: Linears, Customisers, and Toolboxes.

Linears: Usually combat-based, with perhaps some puzzle elements. Action adventures, real-time strategy single-player campaigns, and some First Person Shooters can fall under this category. These have the most potential to be plot-driven, leading the player, largely on rails through a series of usually tightly scripted events, while providing entertaining gameplay along the way. In all cases the player can save his progress at any time, leaving and returning to the game when he wishes. Uncomplicated gameplay, good direction, little need to explore every corner of the world, and/or few secondary objectives make it easy to pick up where the player left off. There is a definable end to the game, a story -- however weak -- to be told, and goodies to be earned during the course of it, rewarding the player's time and effort.

  • "American McGee's Alice": An intriguingly dark (and, some might say, natural) extension of Lewis Carroll's works, "Alice" provides intriguing atmosphere and some very imaginative settings (The City of Doors, in particular). "Alice" also features a pair of footprints that appear when Alice is about to make a jump, to indicate where she will land. The welcome relief this brings to loathed leap-of-faith jumping puzzles cannot be underestimated.
  • "Bioforge": An old classic that's still just as playable today. While some puzzles are very frustrating and the interface can be somewhat awkward, I still return to it on occasion, and usually find myself playing through the whole game in one sitting. Speaks for itself.
  • "Bloodrayne": A brainless bloodfest from beginning to end, with a heroine that became increasingly less compelling the more time I spent in her company. While far from complicated, the combat-heavy variety of gun and blade attacks, coupled with an unlimited "Bullet Time" vision mode, kept me playing. It was easy to pick up and put down. Also, one vision mode displays the next objective as a blue aura pointer, even through walls, so the player is always homing in on his next waypoint, instead of wandering around aimlessly.
  • "Half Life": The game that needs no description. Even to the wage slave, time spent playing through the well-designed set pieces of "Half Life" is time well spent.
  • "Jedi Knight"(s): While the single-player plot is largely underwhelming, the Force is definitely strong with this one. Wielding a lightsaber and flinging Stormtroopers around like frisbees has never been more fun.
Customisers: Customisers are games that provide a great deal of replayability by providing a variety of game modes out of the box. Mostly a game's multiplayer component has this capability.

Real-time strategy games are great in this respect; you can gradually play through the Linear campaigns over a long period of time, toy with creating your own content, play skirmish games against AI players, or fight head-to-head against other players. Best of all, the latter two usually have a wealth of configurable settings, allowing you to tailor the session to suit your own availability. Need a quick five-minute game? Play in Lightning mode. Don't want to waste time collecting resources? Turn on the Deathmatch option. Want to be left alone to build up your base? Turn on some initial alliances, or pick a water map. Some RTSes are also able to generate random maps, providing additional variation.

Multiplayer FPSs are typically equally scaleable, and it's even easier to get knee-deep in the dead. Nothing like a little "Unreal Tournament" action to burn off the frustration of a hard day in the cubicle farm.

Practically a category all on its own, the "Worms" games can be equally tailored to suit the amount of time one can spare, and are a lot of fun, to boot. It's also one of the few games that, in my experience, even the most ardent girlfriend game-hater will play with you. The cutesy animation and helium voices will tickle her cuddly bone, while introducing her to the competitive wonders of obliterating an army of annelids with a vast arsenal.

Toyboxes: Toyboxes are games in which I can go off the beaten path (ignore the main plot thread) whenever I wish, and for as long as I wish. Moreover, they are games where any time spent "wandering in the wilderness" is to my benefit. Every monster killed in "Diablo" is making my character stronger, providing new items, more wealth, even if it's not getting me closer to the end of the game. Similar lucrative goodie-hunting can be accomplished in the "Grand Theft Auto" games.

Randomly-generated scenes or objects are most effective in this case; there aren't particular conditions that I have to hunt down, the world layout is always a surprise, and if an area is cleared of foes and items, new ones will respawn when I return. If I make a mistake, I can always come back and try again.

These "kicking back in the game world" moments are great for wage slaves, as you can effectively play around for as many minutes as you can spare, and feel rewarded for every minute spent in the game. You still make progress in small increments, there is minimal frustration as the penalties for failure are minimal, no frantic quick-saving is required (or possible), and except when you're close to finishing a mission, you can come and go at your discretion.


Conclusions
For those with even less time than I, here's a summary of the main points of this article. Note that these transcend target audience and genre; they could probably be applied to any game.

  • Make every moment the player spends in your game time well spent.
  • Spend that time entertaining and rewarding the player for choosing your product.
  • Challenge without frustrating, and guide while still keeping the player in control.
  • Your world, your choice. If something isn't fun, don't put it in the game.
  • Keep the player in the game as often as possible.
  • But let him leave whenever he wants.
  • And remove any barriers that stop him from picking up where he left off..
  • Keep it simple, keep it accessible, and keep it fun.
  • Don't demand a huge time commitment from the player or dictate the length of his sessions; let him take it at his own pace.
  • Don't fix things that aren't broken.
  • Test with a wide spectrum of players and non-players to find out what's intuitive and well-received.
Stuart Walpole a.k.a. Acumen is the Programming Manager and Co-Lead Designer for 0 A.D.., a freeware historical RTS under development by Wildfire Games. He looks forward to your suggestions and comments, and especially applications from interested contributors. He can be reached at stuart at REMOVEMEwildfiregames dot com.





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