Monday, 21 April 2008

Game design versus player control?

Gamasutra has an article which caught my attention today. I thought it might be useful for my MAC281 students who I will be meeting with tomorrow to discuss game design and narrative developments.

The article is by John Rose, a gameplay programmer at Nihilistic Software. He is also a contributing author to the 2004 book Software Engineering for Game Developers.

Converse to a recent lecture I gave which praised open-world games, (aka the 'sandbox' game) for their ability to allow player freedom, Rose argues that sometimes, simplicity and limited choice is better for the play aesthetic. I recently enjoyed reading Clint Hocking's thoughts on the problems of games like Bioshock in their offering the player a moral maze to navigate - one that might clash with the premise of who the lead character is actually meant to be.

Rose has claimed:
A recent trend in games is the ability of players to "play their own way." It's a design choice that includes more mechanics than any particular player will explore in a single playthrough. While superficially this seems like the Holy Grail of game design, the idea merely passes on the entertainment responsibility to the player. These games include a myriad of mechanics in the hope that the player will find some to suit him.

I argue that a few well-developed game mechanics in a strong play aesthetic will always be more enjoyable. Players ultimately want to learn and triumph over a system. But the inclusion of too many mechanics only serves to de-systemize the game.
It sounds a little like the utopian idealism of interactive fiction which Jesper Juul critiqued in his early work. Too often, the pleasure of the fiction lies in the progressive development of a coherent narrative, although it doesn't always have to be this way.

Rose goes on to suggest that Bioshock confuses players because it gives the player too much choice: choice over weapons, plasmid powers, hacking, stealth elements, etc. This is different critique to that of Hocking, which deals more with the 'Ludonarrative Dissonance' of either harvesting or saving the Little Sisters. I'm not sure I agree wholeheartedly with his assessment that Bioshock suffers from a diluted design strategy given its critical reception. I agree with most of his other claims about solid gameplay and logical gaming mechanics. I'm not sure quite what he would make of Far Cry 2...

Anyway, his article is well worth reading. You can view a counter arguement to his logic in Christopher Kline's presentation from IGDA 2007 below. It's entitled 'Saying "Yes" to the player'