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Battling Agoraphobia

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When too much game leaves you cold... I have a number of friends who gave up on Morrowind for reasons that I can only classify as agoraphobia, the fear of wide open spaces. Another quit Fallout when he claimed to get two broken arms and said that the world had too much stuff to deal with. Still another quit Civilization after saying, "I don't understand what I'm supposed to do... you can go anywhere!" Like alot of people I've come to feel constrained by the strict level-based, mission/quest-based games out there. When I get an open ended game I tend to head in one direction as far as I can until I get killed. But I have to admit that for awhile encountering some sections of Morrowind (the huge spaces of Vivec) caused me to falter a bit. What helps to combat agoraphobia? People tend not to want to read manuals or sit through tutorials. A friend suggested that the greatest fear a gamer has is getting stuck or in over her / his head. To that end he's suggested that open-ended games have some sort of sample mode, maybe in the form of teleporters or even saved games that allow you to get a taste of the wide variety of challenges and situations a game might offer. One thing I was thinking you could do is to stimulate the player's appetite for freeform gaming by enforcing linearity. At the start of the sci-fi game I'm working on, for instance, everyone would be immigrating to the new capital of the galaxy. You'd be a young serf stuck on a generation ship, and told where to go and what to do all the time even as your peers griped how you all should be free. As you went about your assigned tasks, you would hear stories and see events that reflected the universe at large, but you'd be barred from participating. To get out, you'd either have to escape or wait until the series of enforced tutorials was over. This starting mode would serve to build your character interactively and whet your appetite, theoretically. Then again, this is probably a dumb idea, as I'm not all that sure that the answer to agoraphobia is claustraphobia.

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The thing that I don't like is when the game presents a very wide range of choices to you, and then expects you to choose a specific thing. What I enjoy most is the ability to go where you want and do what you want (fishing, hunting, gambling), but also to be able to come back to continue on quests when I feel sufficiently relaxed. This way, nobody has to leave the game to relax.

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I think it's not so much agoraphobia as being overwhelmed with possibilities. In Morrowind, to continue the example, if you journeyed into the middle of nowhere, you were stuck with where to go. East? North? West? They were all the same expanse of nothingness.

So the remedy is not so much limiting choices, as making the choices have differnet weights. Maybe going west you know theres a town or dungeon, while east is uncharted, while north is a gaint volcanoe, etc. You can see the applications to any game suffering from over-expanse.

As long as the choices create immediate and different consequences, the player may proceed in a manner that fulfills either in-game or personal goals.

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I've encountered similar effects in a few games, but being an adventure gamer at heart, I set off to find out what I can do. I know that there are plenty of people out there that dislike style of game play, and become more immersed in the 'to the point' mission style games.

While the level based games require quick decisions, the world based games require more strategic thinking. Take Fallout for example.

To win this game, you need to decide where you want to go, find the clues to get an item on your map, and head over there in a hope to get to your final destination. If you miss a clue on the way through, you could end up back tracking a while to get what you want. If you kill someone off, you could make the game much harder to finish. Before you do anything, you have to decide why you are doing it, and weigh up the consequences.

Mission based games are generally much more clean cut. You will usually work your way through each level, killing everything in site, and be rewarded with a new mission at the end.

The problem here, in my mind, is that the end user doesn't know/cant be bothered trying to find out the consequences of their actions. As a result are too afraid to do something/go somewhere in case they screw up their game. Staying in the same place is no fun, so the player gets frustrated, and gives up (or downloads the walkthrough).

I think that the solution is to have a very clear direction on where the player is headed. If there is more than one place to go, let the player decide on their outcome, then be presented with a path to achieve this. I think that this is the purpose of the 'PIP Boy' (is that it's name) in Fallout.

I also think that the worst thing that you could do to combat this is to enforce linearity. Who wants to be forced to jump through hoops every time they restart the game. Perhaps a better way would be to have an initial 'quest' that the user can chose to do, but is always presented, which will lead them through learning the world.

Another thing that can be done to avoid this frustration, is to reduce the amount of game time lost by making the wrong decision. This could have unwanted side effects, like putting too little value on decision making.

Another point that I think needs to be made is that this problem is the inverse to a player becoming bored. Case in point Everquest - just try soloing all the way through the game :).

I think that the solution to this problem lies in a balance between the bordom/frustration levels of the player.

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I don't know too much about your sci-fi game, but an idea is to have some anchor throughout the game, which would keep the player onto the plot, yet give him time to explore the vast world(s). Dependant on the plot, these anchors could be dreams of the character, a well-known adversary popping up at intervals. Basically something to keep reminding the player what he is, in the end, trying to achieve. My biggest problem with games running an open plot, is that I sometime along the way lose myself, and more or less forgot where I've been, where I should go next, what I am trying to do, etc. The quest logs of these games tend to be long, littered with small side quests. Many of them are not related to the plot at all, which mostly annoys me.

I would also, if you plan to have an open solution, use "locks" frequently. With this, it could mean as simple a thing as a locked door. Basically, it is some barrier that keeps the player from advancing further at a place. It might not sound like a too good idea on paper (dont we all hate locked doors?), but it is important to sometimes be able ot say: Ok, the player is here. When he is here, I can be sure he has done this, and that.

It boils down to this. I dont think you can solve agoraphobia with claustrophobia, but you can perhaps solve it by creating an illusion of complete freedom, whereas you constantly make sure that the player knows what he is supposed to do, when the *player* sees fit to do it. Before he sees fit to do it, he/she can explore and perform side-quests.

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I for one found Morrowind extremeloy boring. I think it was mainly do to the fact that I never seemed to be achomplishing anything, as well that most of the game time seemed to be spent walking from place to place. On the other hand I was always a great fan of the fallout series. But what made the two so diffrent? I think the answer is being kept busy in fallout there was plenty to do in each area as well as random encouters enroute to other areas. There was also a definate sense of progress and results to the players actions. Where as in Morrowind I spent most of my time doing odd jobs for guilds none of which seemed to have much of an effect on anything, as well as that I could not progress in the story because I hadn't reached some arbitray level.

So I guess my answer is to keep the player feeling like there making progress. Exploration is fun put that exploration should always make the player feel like their making progress, beyond simplely gaining levels. If the player voyages off into the deep unknown's of space then they should recieve an approprate reward for their exploration. If they go around the inner planets killing pirates then they should be recive a diffrent reward that is approprite to that path.

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The problem is that many of these "Freedom" oriented games have horrible learning curves as the player tries to figure out what they're supposed to do entirely by trial and error. As a wage-slave, I don't have time for crap like that anymore - I gave up on Zelda: Ocarina of Time for similar reasons (made it to Hyrule field and then spent a few hours trying to figure out where to go next, then gave up).

Some games do an okay job of it (the Final Fantasy titles are pretty good at giving you freedom but also giving you clear goals) but many do not.

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Quote:
Original post by TechnoGoth
I for one found Morrowind extremeloy boring. I think it was mainly do to the fact that I never seemed to be achomplishing anything, as well that most of the game time seemed to be spent walking from place to place. On the other hand I was always a great fan of the fallout series. But what made the two so diffrent? I think the answer is being kept busy in fallout there was plenty to do in each area as well as random encouters enroute to other areas. There was also a definate sense of progress and results to the players actions. Where as in Morrowind I spent most of my time doing odd jobs for guilds none of which seemed to have much of an effect on anything, as well as that I could not progress in the story because I hadn't reached some arbitray level.


I too was very bored with morrowind. At first the game was great fun, but once I had to trek so far to get places(often by myself) it really pissed me off. I wanted to advance the story, it wanted me to walk cross-country. And the walks were boring. It wasn't that I didn't know what to do, or that there was too many possible things to do, just that doing things was too tedious and boring a process.

Not all open-ended games are like this though. Examples of open-ended games I've played that got it right are Maxis games(The Sims, SimCity, etc.), and the Civ/Alpha Centauri series. These games had some tedium, but their balance was much better than morrowind.

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I think the biggest problem with (at least some) open-ended games for some people is that you have to spend so much time in them to get anywhere. And Morrowwind had, what, five types of monsters?

One of the problems I had with Morrowwind was, that I would be doing a main/guild quest and get side tracked on another small quest that just sounded interesting. I would then get sidetracked on yet another small quest or have to break for a few days. When I finally decided to get back to the main/guild quest, I would open my trusty log, then page back...... page back...... page back, etc until I finally found where I left off.

One thing you could do to fix this, especially for a sci-fi game, is to be able to organize the log. I.e. pull up all entries based on a specific quest, when you give up on a side quest you can mark it as a lost cause, do searches, etc.

As far as the quests go, maybe give a hint (call a friend on the cellphone) button some where so if the player gets stuck.... This happened to me in Morrowwind several times. One time I was in the right cave and went through it inch by inch about 20 times gave up, came back later and search it again. Finally went to a walk through and it told me what room in the cave I should be in. I got there and still couldn't find the place...... then I looked up and smacked myself in the forehead. After that, if I had the slightest difficulty finding my objective I just went to the walkthroughs.

Another possible option is the ability to buy a map. Not a completely detailed map but something that shows the major cities. When you get to the major city then you can buy a local map with more detail, not building by building but by area. Slums here, red-light district here, list buisnesses, etc.

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I find that too many choices early in a game is most overwhelming because I have no prior experience, nothing to base my decisions on except gut instincts that can turn out wrong because I'm not on the same wavelength as the designer.

For example, should I not buy missile countermeasures early on, and spend the money on more cargo bays instead for trading? What if the first time I launch it turns out everyone is armed to the teeth with missiles?

I think a skippable, seamless in-game tutorial would work best. Morrowind had the right approach to this by giving you an initial assignment to reach the guy in Balmora, who gave you missions and taught you a bit about the state of the world. Unfortunately it was far too brief, not in depth enough, and far too isolated compared to the sheer size of the world.

I think your game world could have a similar approach. The player needs to be introduced to the various modes of travel and the random encounters they entail, exploring new areas, combat, psionics, etc. Set up a mini scenario that involves a number of these in bite size chunks, and without significant threat to the player (ie if they screw up a bit it's not going to cripple their ship or put them in the poorhouse). You can frame it like "the player is a newly commissioned military captain assigned his first mission." That mission is a bunch of script generated (instead of randomly generated) events.

You are ordered to go to such and such a system to investigate an SOS signal from a previously unknown colony. En route there's a system malfunction that drops you out of hyperspace and has to be repaired. If you don't want to break the game's immersion, "help" can come in the form of communicating with your commanding officer back at base to ask for advice on how to solve the problem. You repair the system, get going again, and arrive at your destination. The strange signal turns out to be a siren's call luring ships in for a pirate attack. You have some simple combat and destroy the pirates (if the fight is going badly the script could generate reinforcements that jump in, or you could send a message to hq asking for backup, whatever). After the battle you go on an away mission to the surface and use some skills to enter the pirate base and destroy whatever is generating the signal. Unfortunately your ship has taken damage during the fight and have to make a quantum jump back to base, and this time you encounter siegers (sp?).

I'm just going on memory from your many posts so I'm sure I got some terminology/technology wrong, but I'm sure you get the idea.

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