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Should You Ever Explain Your Game's Design?

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... in game or out of game? And no, I don't mean tutorials... I've been interested in the whole mini-controversy over whether or not Tim Shafer's Brutal Legend is an RTS game and how the developer chose to respond to criticism of the game's design. For those who maybe haven't heard, in some quarters critics have been arguing that the game has fundamental RTS characteristics yet is poorly designed because it doesn't have many of the features or modes of play traditional RTS games have had. The designer, on the other hand, has met the criticism by telling people that the game isn't an RTS game and if they try to play it like one they will lose. What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed. What about the idea of embedding explanation of controversial features in the game itself? For instance, in the options menu, as text or a popup. If, for instance, you had permadeath you might explain the philosophy of why there wasn't a save option, maybe by showing the option disabled. But, then again, like a comedian who has to explain a joke the problem may have more to do with the delivery than the audience: If they don't get it, explaining likely won't help and even if it does you then fall into the trap of implying that your audience isn't smart enough or sophisticated enough to "get it." Thoughts?

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This is sort of like the writing concept of the "contract with the reader". The idea is that the book needs to truthfully communicate its basic nature through its packaging and first chapter so readers can tell if it's the sort of journey they want to sign on for. But, if you're making something that isn't bog-standard, there are always going to be people who don't understand it. I think a designer has a right to explain their goals and choices, and that dialogue between designer and players can really contribute to the game's community feeling. An explanation of why a design choice was made can even reduce player anger at what they feel to be unfairness or design stupidity. I don't see how an explanation could hurt, unless it includes spoilers. It won't change how the game plays though, which is always going to be the true reason players do or don't 'get' a game.

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You don't explain the things that aren't there, like a save function in a permadeath game. You explain (or demonstrate, or let the player discover) the features that the game does have. If you worry about the possibility of the permadeath mechanic surprising a player who has put hours into their character, go ahead and show the player a seductive hazard close to the beginning of the game, and let them die to it once. Voila, guaranteed understanding of the mechanic. If that or other demonstrations are out of the question, I guess you could give them an introductory screen, like the ones which say "Your pistol holds eight rounds. To swap to your pistol, press A.", except this one would say "Death is final. If you die, you will have to create another character and start from the beginning."

Not just once, but several times at a restaurant a chef or a waiter has explained me how to eat a particular dish. Good thing they did, because the food usually tasted better when eaten in the suggested way. If (a part of) the audience doesn't get it, then it can hardly hurt the state of affairs if someone informs them. In a perfect world, creators would not have to bother, as critics would do it for them. It's unfortunate that the mass gaming media seems packed with dull and/or incompetent reviewers, and the critics are nowhere to be seen.

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Original post by Stroppy Katamari
Not just once, but several times at a restaurant a chef or a waiter has explained me how to eat a particular dish. Good thing they did, because the food usually tasted better when eaten in the suggested way. If (a part of) the audience doesn't get it, then it can hardly hurt the state of affairs if someone informs them. In a perfect world, creators would not have to bother, as critics would do it for them. It's unfortunate that the mass gaming media seems packed with dull and/or incompetent reviewers, and the critics are nowhere to be seen.


Hey, I've been reviewing games for 8 years and I resent that ;)

But that is so true. I once got a wargame to review. Being a casual wargamer, I went on to play that game. However, the guy who made the game was a hardcore wargamer. The design was made for hardcore wargamers in mind. Firing an artillery required an actual artillery manual because you could choose between ammunitions represented as 7 letter acronyms and a bunch of other parameters that meant absolutely nothing from me. It was the same for the rest, it assumed you knew what a wargame was about. The game got a very bad score, which resulted in the developer sending me a hate mail.

His argument was that I was not a true wargamer if I didn't know what these 7 letter acronyms meant. While it was a fine argument, mine was that we were reviewing for a mainstream audience and if I didn't knew what to do with it, then chances are my readers wouldn't know either. In his eyes, the game was great, but for an uninitiated, it was a pile of random letters without meaning. A simple in-game tutorial or detailed descriptions would have gone a long way to bridge the gap between hardcore and casual and the game may have seen a few more sales.

If you have a mechanic that is so different than everything else, then you should warn the player beforehand of its impacts, else he will assume it's like everything he played before and will stop playing as soon as his usual strategies stop working because he doesn't understand the mechanic.

[Edited by - Tiblanc on December 2, 2009 7:54:47 AM]

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You should check out Fahrenheit (or "Indigo Prophecy" is it was called in the American release).

When you start a new game, you'll find yourself in a stage with many of the game's elements (a police car, a door frame, cardboard walls) together with the Game's charismatic designer, who tells you about the game's concept and also how the game's controls work.

What made this one of the best introductions was simply the atmosphere. The Designer was fully motion-captured, what he said was interesting and well-spoken and the entire setting transmitted the feeling of being about to open the first page of a book you've been longing to read.

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It's a false problem caused by narrow-minded reviewers and fans. Games won't get taken seriously until it's accepted by both groups that they don't exist merely to fit into pre-existing categories (although they certainly can choose to do so) but are individual creations to be judged as such. There's nothing wrong with genres as descriptive labels, as they carry a lot of useful semantics. What's wrong is when they move from being descriptive to prescriptive.

Nobody complains that a film's exact genre wasn't explicitly specified before you watch it. Crossovers and variations are par for the course and often encouraged. Games should be the same. Of course it makes sense to ensure the tutorial enables people to play it 'properly' but that's not the same as explaining your design.

Tycho at Penny Arcade should really know better and I am disappointed at his attitude, wanting to classify games as This OR That and not wanting people to experiment with crossover. Imagine if we'd thought that way 15 years ago. To paraphrase him, "I love action games, but I don't want to play an action game while I'm playing an strategy game". Bye bye to the entire RTS genre then. Luckily, some people at the time noticed that although the strategy aspect did suffer a little, you gained something from the urgency of the action. And thus a new approach was born.

Quote:
What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed.

It's arguable that the tutorial doesn't educate the player adequately. But it's nobody's job to explain a game in terms of other games. That way lies a boring future bereft of creativity where games only cannibalise other games when making changes. It's even worse if you're told you're not allowed to even cannibalise from other genres for fear of polluting your binary gene pool. Ridiculous.

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What do you think about this? Should you explain your design to players? I've heard it said that if you have to externally explain to players the core of what the game is your marketing has failed and your tutorial / demo has failed.


Absolutely. Explaining to reviewers after the fact is damage control. If lots of players are complaining, something went wrong in the game design, development or marketing. You can blame one player for being dense, if two players make the same mistake, it's on you.

Quote:
What about the idea of embedding explanation of controversial features in the game itself? For instance, in the options menu, as text or a popup. If, for instance, you had permadeath you might explain the philosophy of why there wasn't a save option, maybe by showing the option disabled. But, then again, like a comedian who has to explain a joke the problem may have more to do with the delivery than the audience: If they don't get it, explaining likely won't help and even if it does you then fall into the trap of implying that your audience isn't smart enough or sophisticated enough to "get it."


I don't think most players care about your philosophy of game design. They want to have a great experience. If you've made a controversial design decision, tell (or preferably show) them why it's making the game better. For something like permadeath you probably need a heads up before dying, but don't launch into a history of roguelikes. Tell the player that this isn't a game for everymen but for heroes, where if you die, you're dead and there's no coming back. But the few who survive even an hour in the dungeon of gljksdf will be remembered in legends.

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Original post by Kylotan
Nobody complains that a film's exact genre wasn't explicitly specified before you watch it.


This is not 100% true. You certainly see designers and writers who don't respect a genre's conventions, and in doing so they may disrespect the genre's fans, especially if marketing people decide the maverick creation that doesn't fit the conventions will sell better if labeled as belonging to the genre. Romance novels is the area where I'm most familiar with this - a romance novel MUST have a happy ending where the lovers stay together. Novice authors and authors who aren't really familiar with the genre often consider this cliche and want to twist or temporize this pattern by having a tragic or bittersweet. What they don't realize is, if it doesn't have that ending it isn't a romance novel. It may be a perfectly good novel of a different genre, but it is completely unsaleable as romance, and a romance reader who was given such a manuscript and told it was going to be a romance novel would be highly dissatisfied, and rightly so.

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Reminds me of that Futurama episode where they do an episode of TV show so that aliens won't destroy Earth:

"But that's not why people watch TV. Clever things make people feel stupid, and unexpected things make them feel scared." -Fry

People want new and clever things in games, but they really just want the same thing made to look new, with maybe a small amount of actually different things.


I just played through the whole Metal Gear Solid series, and when I got to part 4, I didn't like it until sometime after the first Act because the controls were so different. The core mechanics of the game were same, but the interface was very different and it threw me off.

If the series wasn't so popular(and to be fair, it was very well done and polished so maybe not), I think it might have gotten a number of bad reviews for such a dramatic change, even though the underlying game was still largely the same.

Another example, I though Assassin's Creed was an awesome game, but it got some bad reviews because the controls were so different from similar types of games. At first I didn't get the control scheme, but after playing it for a while it didn't bother me.


The reason I think, is that people get comfortable with one way of doing a certain thing, and changing that makes them uncomfortable, and since people don't like change, they sometimes just write it off and don't bother to play it for what it is. Then, they might end up missing out on something they would otherwise like because they are stuck in one mode of thought.

So in the case of game design, Having something different than expected will probably cause player frustration, even if it's a good design. You could "warn" players in advance, but if it's too different they might lose interest.

You might solve this by saying "It's a classic RTS with a twist" or "An action-adventure with some strategy thrown it" so as to warn the player what to expect using the limited language of genre types

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I personally think that the problem with the Brutal Legend situation is the critics viewing everything through the polar "genre lenses". Everything must be a FPS, RTS, RPG, MMORPG, Racing Game, Sports Game, etc. When games get unique and mix aspects of different genres, critics who view games that way get confused. Complaining that a game such as Brutal Legend does not have specific RTS functions just seems ludicrous to me, as it was not marketed as an RTS, packaged as an RTS, and obviously is not an RTS. I had no issue figuring out how to play Brutal Legend through the in-game tutorial, so I feel that they succeeded in that regard. Having to explain the design of your game and how you believe it fits neatly into a genre is a waste of time to me.

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