The adventure genre is one of several genres on the PC that have been declining over the years. The days of Myst and the Lucas Arts era of developing games are behind us. Telltale Games met success with the Sam and Max revival and a lot of gamers were hoping that they would help revive the genre. However, while last year they had a hit, this year saw a downward turn with negative reviews of both games based off of Back To The Future and Jurassic Park.

Reading reviews of BttF, one common complaint I kept seeing was about the puzzles. Having played both the Sam and Max seasons and BttF, I tried to remember if the same puzzle design was featured in both and why one was praised and the other scorn. As I thought about it, it seems like puzzle design is one of those elements that has not grown as much compared to other genres.

Looking at the concept of a traditional puzzle in a video game, the components of a puzzle can be represented simply as a locked door. The door represents the goal, the lock represents the obstacle, and the key represents what has to be done. Disregarding story and writing as player hooks as another reason to play adventure games, there are several aspects of puzzle design that we can examine.

1. Trial and Error: To me, one of the defining elements of bad puzzle design is trial and error. Trial and error can occur from two situations, first is by design. Personally, I think this is where a lot of people’s complaints about Telltale’s games come into play. A lot of their puzzles are based around going through dialogue options to find the one that will set up the solution, or trying to figure out how something works by playing around with switches or buttons, which is a throwback to classic adventure design. The second situation is when you have no clue of how to solve the puzzle, and your only option is the brute force method. Raise your hand if you ever had a number-pad puzzle that you just sat there for a few minutes trying every combination imaginable.

The problem that I have with it goes back to my favorite puzzles to do. As a brief tangent, I love doing Picross and Sudoku puzzles, but for the life of me I can’t do cryptograms while my mom is the exact opposite. The reason I like them is that the solution is right there, you just have to decipher it and there is a feeling of accomplishment for solving it.

Puzzles built around trial and error design do not rely on thinking or player skill to finish and can feel more like busy work. Compared to a puzzle where the player has to solve the puzzle using their own thought process, there is less satisfaction with a trial and error type puzzle.

2. Puzzle Environment: Puzzles fitting into the game-space have also hit a snag in terms of growth. In the old days, the size of a puzzle section took up multiple screens with puzzles placed around. The player would not know where to use certain items, or even what puzzles to do in what order without spending a lot of time wandering around. Sometimes an item would be picked up, that won’t be used until further in, leaving the player to guess what it is supposed to do.

Recently with adventure games like Amnesia and the Penumbra series, the game space has become more hub based. How it works is that when the player enters an area, there is one main problem stopping the player from moving forward. In order to fix it, the player will have to go through several areas that are specified to find items, or activate devices that will open up the way forward. The difference between this design and past adventure game design is that each area is closed off from each other in terms of items: if the player is in area A, they will not need to find any items to help them with area B.

The advantage of this design is that it removes some of the trial and error nature of adventure games. You know when you enter an area that everything you need is right there and you don’t have to worry about missing an item that will come back to bite you later on. The disadvantage is that you lose some immersion to the world and exploring in the process. The player knows that whenever they enter a new area, that there will be at least 3 doors leading to puzzle areas.

3. Esoteric influence: Another throwback to the adventure games of yesteryear, are puzzles with unrealistic solutions. While giving the player the ability to feel like MacGyver is cool, bending the rules of reality to do that is not. This issue also feeds back into the trial and error problem, as players will have to go through their inventory item by item to find the one that works.

One other part of this is using real world knowledge or skills that everyone may not know, for example, having a puzzle based on chemistry or understanding Norse Mythology. Whenever you want to include real world information in your puzzles, it helps to leave notes or clues that explain what you expect the player to understand. For instance, in the Penumbra series there is a puzzle that requires the player to create an explosive and right next to the chemistry set is a note detailing what exactly that entails so that even if you are not familiar with chemistry, you can still figure it out. Physics based puzzles have become very popular as everyone understands how gravity and weight works, leaving the player to figure out how to use them to solve the puzzle.

4. One Way: Designing amazing puzzles is a great feeling, however the more unique the puzzle is the less freedom there usually is in solving them. There probably is another game design debate here on the subject of adventure games as interactive stories or games. One of the major pulls that designers use to get people to play adventure games is the story; it’s one of the reasons why so many people jumped at the latest Sam and Max games. What this means is that once you played the game once, there is very little reason to replay it other than coming back to watch the story again.

Some designers in the past have tried ways of having replay-ability or multiple solutions in their games. In Portal 1 and 2 with how physics can play a factor in the design, it is possible to find unusual solutions to many of the puzzles, and there are expert variants of the puzzles available to try.

Another game that attempted multiple solutions was Zack and Wiki on the Wii. In the game the player is graded on how they solve each puzzle in the level, with many puzzles having a “good”, “better”, and “best” solution. The best solutions usually involve getting a puzzle right on the first try, or using the tools in the most optimal way and the end of the level, score is used for unlocking bonus features.

The idea of using randomized puzzle layouts and design is an intriguing one, and it will be discuss in the next section.

5. Living Puzzles: The last point for this post has to do with the concept of integrating puzzle design into the world. One of the best examples of this is with the final section of Portal and part of the second act in Portal 2. During these sections the player is not confined into a set space with a specific goal to achieve. Instead they have to find their way around using the same tools that helped them in the puzzle chambers. The game, Limbo is another example, the game flows seamlessly from one puzzle to another and while it is technically segmented, the illusion of the world helps.

What this comes down to in my opinion is the actions the player has available in the game. For this post, the term “actions” will be defined as: the ways the player interacts with the world. For example, in Grand Theft Auto, the player’s actions involve shooting, fighting and driving vehicles. The more actions the player has access to, the more the world opens up and this idea of letting the world become a puzzle takes shape.

In the Assassin’s Creed series, the player’s main interaction with the world is through movement, just about every edge can be used to climb up and help the player get around. With so many actions available, the world becomes a living puzzle with how the player can figure out how to move around the city in the best ways possible. The only real shortcoming of the first two games (I have not played the latest two and can’t comment on them,) is that there isn’t more freedom in performing tasks, such as having missions where enemies and targets are randomized instead of being in the same place every time.

I’ve been playing around in my head with the idea for an adventure game with a randomized world. The concept is that there is a murder mystery and all you know is who died and where. As a detective you have 24 hours to figure out the rest and each time you play the details of the case are randomized. The game is played in quasi real time, every time the player performs an action time moves forward a little bit and eventually time will run out and you’ll have to present your evidence.

A few months ago there was a great piece in PC Gamer looking back at some of the more unique adventure games that came out in the late 80s and 90s, like Maniac Mansion and The Last Express. Creativity and uniqueness are not strange concepts to the genre, but the challenge is figuring out how to implement them without falling back into old patterns of design.

Josh Bycer

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I’ve been recently getting into the Anno series which is a complex economic city-builder and it got me thinking about another city-builder that I wished that it would have taken off. Tilted Mill was a company formed from former Impressions Games employees. Impressions Games made a variety of city-builders including Pharaoh and Zeus (which are their more recognizable brands) and at the time were the alternatives to the Sim City series. While Tilted Mill was around, they created several games, but none of them achieved mass success, with the game Hinterland being one of my personal favorites. However, today I want to talk about their first title: Children of the Nile and how it could have redefined the genre.

Children of the Nile take place in ancient Egypt and cast the player as the pharaoh who must build a successful city within various scenarios. CotN did several things differently from other city builders at the time. One common mechanic in the Impressions series was how vital attaching everything to a road was. People would wander through your city using the roads and if they carry products or resources, unless they walk by a building, no one in the building would get access to it. This made early city builders very inorganic and was the first big change in CotN.

Anyone in your city could go anywhere, with or without roads, but roads would speed up their movement. Another common system in most city-builders was how the player only needed to care about the macro level of their economy, meaning as long as the city is making money for the player and people were happy, everything is good. CotN changed that and was one of the few city-builders to attempt to create its own economic system.

CotN’s economic system was based off food, as there was no paper currency during the time of ancient Egypt. Harvesting food is based off of the seasons of the land, first farmers will plant their crops after the Nile recedes, then harvest them next season. Afterwards the Nile floods the farm lands to make the land fertile again and the pattern repeats. During the harvest, the food is divvied up to the different classes of people in your city.

The lower class is the farmers who live on land leased by the upper class. They keep some of the food and give the rest in the form of taxes. The middle class is split between shopkeepers and government workers and the difference is how they get food. Shopkeepers sell their wares to everyone and whatever food they earn is used to support them, while government workers receive food from the city storage thanks to their services. Lastly the upper class or nobles give a portion of their food supply to the city which becomes your source of currency, the # of nobles you have determines how many farmers you can have employed.

Throw in children going to school to become educated, allowing them to work at specialized buildings, and the challenge of setting up mining colonies and building monuments, and CotN stands apart from other games. Out of the various city builders released, it is one of the few that tried to create its own ecosystem and getting a city running successfully is a major accomplishment. However, the price of doing something new is that you don’t have a frame of reference for any potential problems, which CotN did have.

Because of how each group relies on the other to survive, it’s very easy to start a downward spiral of losing people due to missing or unable to fix any issues in the city. With shopkeepers, you won’t know how much of their stock they have, only vague clues of: “almost out” “tons in stock” etc. Without exact numbers, it’s difficult to determine how they are meeting the needs of your townspeople and this becomes even more complicated when you have to set up colonies to mine.

Any good city-builder is about managing escalating chaos and while CotN definitely has chaos, the game makes it very difficult to manage it. Most city builders escalate needs based on the size of the city; CotN does it by game length. At random points in the game, an alert will pop up signaling some kind of event that will cause your citizens to want something else, for example, a bad harvest may want them to pray to a different god. The problems are twofold, first is that advanced buildings require educated workers and your stock of them are limited. The more prestige your pharaoh has will attract some, while the rest comes from sending children to school.

However what usually happens is that you just assigned your worker to one job, when all of a sudden an event may pop up requiring a hospital, but you don’t have any more workers right now, leaving your people unhappy. The second issue is that everything in the game takes time to be built which makes issues last longer. The process is that first the materials must be transported to the site, and then the actual construction begins. All this eats into more time that your people are unhappy, and people remember issues in your city for some time which affects their overall happiness. When a group of people become angry, they may either strike or just move out of your city, which going back to the Eco-system starts a downward spiral that is difficult to climb out of.

The randomness of city events and the lack of hard numbers when it comes to certain resources leave the game in a cluttered state. Contrast to the Anno series, where the player can see exactly how much of each resource they have along with how more challenges are introduce, makes it easier to build and understand. Blind luck is not something you want in your city-builders, especially when you are trying to learn the game.

One of the hallmarks of a player “getting it” in a city-builder is getting their city to the point of being self sufficient, or being able to run itself without any further input from the player. When you play CotN, it is very difficult to reach that point, as while you are trying to build all the necessary structures, the random events will occur to change everything up. Looking at Anno 1404 on the other hand, it is very easy to get your city to the point of being self sufficient, the challenge comes from keeping it self sufficient while balancing out income, growth and trade.

The advantage of reaching the point of being self sufficient early is that it allows the player to see very easily, how their additions and growth affects the city and learn from that. Whereas in CotN the player is required to make choices without being able to see if they will have the intended results if an event happens.

To the game’s credit, CotN did go where most city-builders don’t venture to with the concept of an eco-system. CotN reminds me of another flawed gem: Evil Genius in how the game had a lot of great ideas and hindsight along with a sequel could have done a lot to improve the mechanics.

Josh Bycer

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DC Universe Online joins the very small list of MMOs that I managed to reach the level cap and got to see the endgame. While DCUO tries to do something different beyond just going on raids all the time, it still falls into the same trap that I see happen to every MMO, that the design falls apart for me when I reach the endgame.

For those not familiar with MMOs, the end game consists of raids. A raid is a mission designed for a larger than normal group (for the regular content) of players. These missions usually involve fighting enemies of a higher caliber then the regular foes, with bosses that have pumped up stats to go toe to toe with the group. Beating the mission rewards the group with access to the best gear in the game, and for games with PvP gameplay, is usually the edge people use to win.

There are two main problems that I have with endgames in most MMOs: Progression and Gameplay. Starting with progression, one of the main hooks in any MMO is constant progression. It’s why the leveling treadmill works so well in keeping people playing and why you see so many bars used to show progress. No matter what the player does, there is always some measure of visible progress on screen showing players that they aren’t wasting their time.

However, when the player reaches the level cap they lose one of the main sources of progression: experience points. Now, progression is very black and white, either the player finds better gear after a long string of fights, or they get nothing and that time was wasted. DCUO did do one thing clever regarding this problem; they allowed players to continue improving their character’s stats past the level cap.

DCUO’s version of achievements or “feats” are based on a variety of goals and each time the player completes a feat they earn feat points, with harder feats giving out more points. For every 100 feat points the player earns one skill point, which is used for boosting skills in the weapon and movement type categories. For each weapon type there are skills that boost the character’s attributes further, and with more skill points, make the character innately better.

While DCUO does allow progression past the level cap, it still requires a massive grind for end game gear. DCUO’s group based missions are separated into alerts (4 player missions) and raids (8 player missions.) During either type of mission, boss enemies can drop rare gear that the group can vote for who gets it; beating the mission awards “marks” which are used to buy the best gear at the player’s home base.

The problem with this system is that there are multiple types of marks, each used for a different category of endgame gear. The player only receives a few marks for completing a mission and it will take multiple runs to get enough marks to start outfitting your character. Once again this leads to a black and white progression system as the player will only gain marks for completing these tougher missions and can still end up wasting their time if they are unable to beat the mission.

Moving on, another problem with endgame content is that the designers are forced to stretch their combat system further to make it work for group encounters. Most MMOs are based on character growth and not the player, with success determined by the attributes and gear of the character.

Going back to my action game background, I prefer games where the player’s skill is the main factor for success. The problem that I have with MMO design is that it’s not really creating challenging gameplay, but just lowering the safety net for the player. Because everything is abstracted by the character’s skill level, it’s easy to just create enemies with higher stats and call it a day.

I don’t find it challenging or engaging when an enemy who is equal to me level wise, really has 15 times my attribute values and can kill me no matter what I do if I take it on solo. Boss battles in raids amount to just whacking the thing for 10 minutes straight and making sure your healer and tank are doing their job.

I find the concept of a traditional endgame in MMOs to be a contradiction of game design. The reason is that any video game inherently has a point where the player has gotten everything out of it and will stop playing. Endgame content in MMOs doesn’t add anything new to the design but just inflate what’s there to begin with. With each new expansion to an MMO, the level cap moves up ever further, which is just an excuse to pump up attributes of gear and enemies even more. The player is doing the same gameplay each time, but the attributes of everything is different.

If the content was actually different, or the game focused more on player skill, then this would be fine by me. I’m going to say it again, if someone created an MMO in the style of Demon’s Souls, I would play the hell out of it, and buy whatever expansions the designers make to try even crazier dungeons and enemies. I recently read a preview of the new Star Wars MMO and a comment that combat is focused on hotkeys was the nail in the coffin for my interest in the game. As that tells me that’s the same song and dance I’ve seen before, but replace swords with light sabers, although I’m curious about having to fight an “elite jawa.”

Josh Bycer

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Two things that are synonymous with MMOs are leveling up and an endgame. Most gamers argue that during the leveling up time, the player is in training for the main event, and the endgame is where the real game starts. Based on that philosophy, most MMOs have a high cap on their levels which also serves as a way to keep people playing for months and get them ready for the endgame.

Yet some MMOs have experimented with caps that can be reached in days; Guild Wars had a cap at level 20, and DC Universe Online was set at 30. With a low cap, it allows more of the fan base to experience “the real game”, now with that said, is one form better than the other?

Let’s start with a large cap, which has several key advantages. First is that it has a clear progression model, someone who is level 5 won’t be doing the same things as a level 70. These games are designed with a “treadmill” mentality in mind, to keep the player interested and to keep playing to reach the cap. Another way to keep the player invested is with side activities, like crafting to give the player a diversion while still rewarding them. Since the player is going to spend so much time in the world, these side activities help branch out the gameplay.

With all those levels to climb, also means that there has to be a lot of places to visit. For those looking for worlds to explore, games like World of Warcraft and Ever quest 2 can fit that bill. A huge world also helps with keeping griefers somewhat in control, as with all the different areas to go to, means they can’t focus on one area and attack low level players as easy.

Now the problems with a high cap, because most MMOs are based on character progression and not player, means that the player will usually figure out the game before hitting the cap. However, since it doesn’t matter how skilled the player is, they will still have to level up before starting the endgame, sort of like being forced to eat your vegetables before getting to dessert.

Because content is spread out across so many levels, it makes designing a variety of content difficult; if you’ve seen one fetch quest, you’ve seen them all. With so many areas to fill with content, it would take a very long time to create unique content for every single section, which for game launch; designers normally don’t have that luxury. With so much space to design content for, it can lead to two situations where gamers can quit.

During the early days of City of Heroes, the designers ran out of content for the time spent playing between levels 35-40; forcing players to grind on regular enemies for 5 levels before they can do any new missions. The enjoyment factor of the game took a nosedive for that part which is a shame, as there was some interesting content after the hump.

The second scenario is when the treadmill no longer provides a hook. Spending months doing the same tasks before “the game begins”, can be as maddening as running out of content. I played World of Warcraft back during the launch year for about 6 months. During that time my highest character was only level 50 and I really stopped caring about progression around the 40s. I grew tired of the same tasks and how the content was so generalized and stopped playing.

Huge level caps also make it very hard to try new characters due to the time commitment required to level just one character (with exception to the hardcore players.) Since the first impression is important, content at the lower levels are usually more varied as it eases new players into the game and their classes. However, once the player leaves the starting area, they are usually taken to a more generalized area where everyone has access to the same pool of quests.

Moving on, let’s talk about low caps. Because of the lower cap, it allows gamers to reach the cap, and endgame, around the time that they have figured out the mechanics of the game. With less content needed to level up, it frees up the designers to create more varied content at the endgame, as they know that the majority of their audience will get to see it.

PvP is usually more focused and built around the game better, once again going back to more players being able to experience it. With Guild Wars, the game really became PvP focused once players reached the cap and could start experimenting with their skills and get into matches.

Creating different characters is also easier as the lack of a serious time commitment allows players to try out a variety of classes without having to spend months grinding them back up. Speaking about classes, one similarity between games with lower caps is that the designers try to do something different with the gameplay compared to high cap games. Guild Wars featured a collectible card game like system, of designing your skill bar from a variety of options, with rare skills obtainable from quests. While DC Universe went for a more action game like combat system and a different way of rewarding gamers for completing quests which will be the subject of another entry.

Now the problems, the main one has to do with content, but of a different subject compared to high cap games. Because more gamers are going to hit the cap and play the endgame in lower cap MMOs, it also means that the designers are going to have to design a lot more content. Since lower cap games don’t have a lot of side activities, it’s going to take a continual implementation of end game content to keep people playing, in other words like constantly feeding a coal driven locomotive engine to keep going.

The lack of content is one of the aspects that really hurt DC Universe Online right out of the gate. With everyone reaching the level cap within a week, the designers were put on the spot to live up to their promise of putting out content monthly. Unfortunately as we all found out, they weren’t able to keep up which was one of the points that led to the game going F2P.

Lack of rewards is another big deal. Being able to see your character become powerful over the course of the game is a powerful draw for high cap MMOs. By the time the player hits the cap, they’ll have a huge pool of skills to draw from and a variety of equipment. However in low cap MMOs, you don’t have that luxury in rewarding players. The problem with most endgame design is that it’s built around raids (high level content requiring larger groups of players to succeed.) The purpose then becomes, completing raids to get more gear so that you can do more raids and this repeats until the player gets bored.

DC Universe Online attempted to get around this with various solo, duo and raid content at the endgame, but it all feeds into the same process of getting gear. While I’m enjoying DCUO, after reaching the level cap, I’m still baffled as to why the designers originally thought that a subscription model would work, as I don’t see this game being worth it in terms of content. Guild Wars knew that it didn’t have enough content for a subscription model and designed it from day one with that in mind, something that DCUO would have benefited from.

That last point is interesting, the lower cap MMOs I’ve seen either start out as F2P, or transition into it and I think content is the big deal. It’s far easier to create generalized quests that can fill 70 or more levels of gameplay, as oppose to 30 levels of completely unique content.

As for me, since I’ve gone on record saying that I like F2P design in the past, my preference is for shorter level caps and having the chance to try more skill based gameplay is always a plus. When you look at both sides of the argument it comes down to where the experience lies, for high cap, it’s in the journey and for low cap it’s the ending.

Personally, regardless of level caps, I do feel like the traditional model for an endgame needs to be revised. Doing raid content for the sole purpose of getting the gear to do more doesn’t sit right with me. Endgame content should be the most diverse that the game has to offer and should give out more tangible rewards then just shinier pieces of loot. After-all as many gamers put it, it’s “where the real game begins.”

Josh Bycer

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